A World

Mark Kurlansky
Any English word with "sal" or "sol" in it probably came from salt. It also figures in the words "salary," "salami," and "salad" --- salted lettuce being a key part of the Roman diet. Over the centuries, many soldiers were paid in salt. "The Latin word sal became the French word solde, meaning pay, which is the origin of the word soldier."

Some of the world's most ancient cities were founded on or near salt deposits. Hallein (in Austria) means "saltwork" and Salzburg and Hallein mean "salt town." There is a giant buried salt bed running from upstate New York all the way out to Detroit. Salt is easy to produce from seawater --- but only at the latitudes where there is enough sunlight and not too much rain. Thus for England, Holland, Sweden, Finland, and other chilly climes, salt must be mined, or leeched from plants or the soil.

Salt could be expensive; for centuries there were a variety of salts priced according to their color (or lack of it) and their fineness --- the most desirable being fine white salt drawn from the crust of the evaporation fields or kettles.

    The Romans pumped seawater into single ponds for solar evaporation.... They mined rock salt, scraped dry lake beds like Africaan sebkhas, boiled the brine from marshes, and burned marsh plants to extract salt from the ashes.

But, explains the author, none of these techniques were novel or new. The Greeks used the same methods, as did the ancient Chinese. In fact, the Chinese were well ahead of the western world in drilling for salt, and for transporting brine. At the time that Edwin Drake drilled 69.5 feet down in a salt bed to hit oil, the Chinese had succeeded in drilling far beyond 1,000 feet for their NaCl.

The first great Roman road was the Via Salarie, Salt Road. It brought salt to the city:

    As the Romans became empire builders, they needed it to be available for the army. The Roman army required salt for its soldiers and for its horses and livestock.

§     §     §

Someone once figured out that salt had over 3,000 uses. And I figure that Kurlansky has managed to get all 3,000 into this fat book. But the big secrets are still secrets. As he points out,

    There is still not complete agreement on the formation of many of the earth's great salt deposits. But they are generally agreed to have had their origin in oceans rather than volcanoes, though there is still no set explanation for the saltiness of the sea.

With all this, there comes a time as we plow through this one that we wish the author had been a bit less prolix. There are countless variations in his tale --- the salting of fish, the production of olives, the drilling for oil, the subsidence of cities built over salt pits, the transportation of salt as ballast, the imposition of taxes on what, after all, is necessary for survival of man and beast. But our renowned Readers' Surfeit Syndrome sets in well before, say, Chapter Eighteen, which starts off with a poem for would-be chemists,

    Sir Humphry Davy
    Abominated gravy.
    He lived in odium
    Of having discovered sodium.

Digressions into "The first public meeting in India to protest salt policy took place in Orissa in February 1888" is enough to make us drift off, dreaming of salt mines and salted herring and saltpetre and salacious behavior, singing to ourselves, "O you salty dog."

--- Betty Wellcome

Roofing with
Asphalt Shingles

Mike Guerton
This is a classic noir novel, a murder mystery written in the disguise of a self-help book. Still, and however, we found it mostly over our heads.

The hero is an upstart with a bad case of shingles who finds himself at the top of the heap --- but he learns soon enough that it is a dangerous, slippery world up there above solid ground.

A sinister fellow named Studs invites him to join him in the shady part of town. He promises to show him "release strips" and "exhaust vent flashings" --- and he invites him to "shake that thing." Alas, Shingles is all too willing to throw himself into the seamier parts of life.

His biggest fall comes when he ventures into the area where one does "kickout flashings." A customer to whom he exposes himself complains about the quality of his lining: "Looks cheap to me," she exclaims. Shingles is accused of being nothing more than a low-level exposuriste.

At one point he leaks information to the "jacks" and is taken for a roll and accused of being a drain on the operation. Eventually, he lands in the gutter where a dark lady offers to show him her "skipped fasteners." Shingles is all too human, so once again he finds himself caught with his flashings exposed. Other studs jump him and he finds himself nailed once and for all.

As the author says darkly: "A nail stripper isn't what it sounds like ... you can slide them along the slot and out a spring door." Although "pneumatic equipment" is available, these lubricious items of hardware must be "used with prudence."

Some of us were hoping with the arrival of Prudence we could hope for an up-to-date Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters --- but, alas, despite a cover-up when the storms arrive, we are left with nothing but a big drip.

And whose fault is it? Right! --- Asphalt.

--- S. S. Laudau

Earth and Ashes
Atiq Rahimi
Erdag Goknar,

The village of Abqul, Afghanistan was blown up by Russian soldiers. Dastaguir lost his wife, his daughter-in-law, and one of his sons. He goes off with his grandson Yassim to find his other son, Murad who works in a far away mine to tell him of the disaster.

He reaches the gates to the mine, and waits for a truck to take him on the last part of his journey. Earth and Ashes tells of his time at the crossroads, conversations with the owner of a tiny shop --- all taking place while he waits for the truck to bring him to the mine where his son works.

Out of such a simple story --- and in remarkably few pages --- author Rahimi has woven a tale that turns a simple journey into a universal trek. In the process, he lets the reader into the heart (and the despair) of a man who has lost most of his family, his village, and his hope through an alien war imposed on his homeland.

This on his grandchild (part of the story is told in the second person):

    You grab Yassin by the shoulders and pull him to his feet. The child shouts:

    "Don't! Let me go. Why don't the stones make any noise..."

    "Will you behave!"

    To whom are you speaking? To Yassin? He can't even hear the sounds of the stones, let alone your feeble voice. Yassin's world is now another world, one of silence. He wasn't deaf. He became deaf.

The bombing has ruined the child's hearing; the old man had to watch the death of his daughter-in-law, burned alive.

    She was burned naked. She left this world naked. She burned to death before your very eyes. How will you tell all this to Murad?

It's a gradual unfolding, told in none but the simplest language. We are given the old man's words, his dreams, his waking visions, told of the few things he carries with him: his daughter-in-law's scarf, his naswar (a box of snuff), a few apples that have turned black and dusty from the trip.

His journey becomes a descent into Dante's lowest level --- the store-keeper as Virgil, the truck driver his Charon. And as he moves closer and closer to the black mine where his son works, he begins to fear what the young man will do with the news of his loss, for

    Murad isn't one to remain calm. He either burns or he causes others to burn. He either destroys or is destroyed.

As we watch the descent, we watch the old man turning strange, his journey filled with dreams and visions of his now dead daughter-in-law floating before him. Losing his family and his world has made Dastaguir lose himself.

This is rich writing. And in its straight-forwardness, it reminds one of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio --- mixed with the recurring horrors of Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird and the epic journey of Beckett's couple in All that Fall.

As it should, it makes one uneasy --- for it is a story of a part of the world that has been beset with more than enough agony for the half-century. Dastaguir's pain is the pain of an entire nation. Its gentle telling resonates in the agony of all of us.

--- Diane Wheatley

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