You didn't get rid of that book, did you?

Happy feet: These nymphs are almost as joyful as I am about "The Dancing Goddesses" (photo: detail from book cover) Yes, I nearly did.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber's The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance (W.W. Norton) almost escaped my home. It wasn't any fault on the book's part--on mine.

Have you done this before? I hadn't picked it up since it was published early last year, and as I went about some early spring cleaning last week, I decided to give it to the library. Since I couldn't give it the attention it deserved, I thought, maybe a library could. 

What a mistake that would have been.

A drawing peeked out from its pages — an ancient tureen inscribed with figures from Ukraine — as I was moving it to my giveaway bag, and I stopped. Before I knew it, I was deep in its pages, finding some new inspiration for my novel at just the right time.

Can't imagine what I might've lost if I hadn't noticed that image.

I'm sure that has happened to many of you, my friends.

Wayland Barber's book is a revelation. It is a survey of folk mythologies (mostly

Slavic) that's very idiosyncratic — in the way that James Frazer's Golden Bough is idiosyncratic, or Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. There's an exuberance and a tone here that's undeniably personal, even at its most authoritative moments, such as this one where she refers to the effect of certain spirits or "willies" (from vily; as in "that horror movie gives me a case of the willies"):

With a final push to the crops at Midsummer, the willies have now finished their work: the grain and hay have grown and ripened and await harvesting. All that remains is to reap what the Dancing Goddesses have created. Cohorts of young people go out all day to mow the hay, all the while chanting slow, rhythmic, antiphonal songs to time the long swings of the sharp scythes, until the movement becomes almost a dance and the sound dulls the senses of time and fatigue....

Isn't that lovely?

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 4.42.34 PMIn considering the connections between dance traditions and fertility beliefs and customs, this professor emerita from Occidental College ranges across fields in search of flowers with supernatural meanings. She looks down into the surfaces of rivers and streams to see what water sprites might be gazing back. Sometimes she sees something.

It's a marvelous book with a style that is easy and accessible, but hardly easy to imitate. And I might've lost it, and lost the inspiration. A new declaration: no more spring cleanings!

W.W. Norton has produced yet another exemplary volume that sheds light on our common, mythic heritage. Coming soon to this blog:  more offerings from Norton that are worth your while. They're definitely worth mine, too.

P.S. Wayland Barber's book also made me unexpectedly heartsick over Ukraine. The old folk tales and practices that she records reminded this reader of the region's vibrant, deep customs — enduring, one hopes, in spite of all the current troubles.

Hmmm...just curious: new in bookstores

curiosity cesare ripa Philip Ball is a writer to be envied -- he's a non-affiliated academic who ranges far and wide wherever his curiosity takes him.

In the case of his new book, curiosity holds up a mirror to itself -- and to all of Western civilization. With Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything (University of Chicago Press), Ball shows the long, difficult road that science has taken in order to be allowed to ask every and any question about the natural world.

The book balances on two questions which he asks  early in the book:

"[I]n the wider world mightn't there be something ill-disciplined, even improper, about a voracious curiosity that permits nothing to be too trivial or obscure?"

"Was there after all something in the old accusation that it is weak-willed to succumb to the wiles of curiosity?"

The answer, too, is given early: "[T]he problem of our times -- and also its great good fortune -- is that temptation is everywhere."

The remainder of the book is a delicious expansion on this point. Long before the Hubble Telescope or the Mars rovers, there were multitudes of truth-seekers who risked punishment and Pandora-like warnings in order to ask the simple question, "Why?" (Cesare Ripa's emblem for the personification of Curiosity, above, gives us an unfriendly-looking figure who's deeply in need of a comb.)

Ball's non-affiliation with any academic institution (according to his website, he did serve as an editor at Nature for many years) clearly shows, and that isn't a bad thing. He's spent enough time working to earn a living that he knows you don't serve yourself or your audience by writing something that's inaccessible.

When, for instance, he describes  a century's worth of evolving attitudes to curiosity, he manages to pull it off in a single, deftly-written sentence: "The turning point in Western attitudes to curiosity occurred in the seventeenth century, which began with an essentially medieval outlook and ended looking like the first draft of the modern age."

If that's all you learn about how the 17th century changed, it's more than enough. Hits the nail right on the head.

Ball is an exhilarating treat to read, either in this new book or in his others ("Universe of Stone," about Chartres Cathedral, is a personal favorite). Let your curiosity be your guide, and don't worry about it: As Ball reminds us, humanity's earned that right.

No one knew Custer better than Connell

Before the battle of the Little Bighorn: Custer and a four-legged friend. "Why he was esteemed as an Indian fighter is puzzling. None of his frontier campaigns demonstrated particular skill or insight. Not that they were botched, just that his strategy could not be called brilliant.... He could be likened more to an actor than to a playwright. Invariably he gives the impression of a man on stage performing as he has been instructed to perform, delivering lines composed by somebody else.  Throughout the Civil War his smashing victories were plotted by other men."

So wrote Evan S. Connell in his 1984 book, "Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn." A few days ago, Connell died, at the age of 88, in his New Mexico home, according to the Washington Post.

I don't have much to add to any obituary, except that "Son of the Morning Star" is a book that belongs on the shelf of any writer aspiring to write history. Connell breathed life and color into the world of George Armstrong Custer much like Shelby Foote did for the Civil War. He was a writer's writer.

No one lives forever, and 88 is a ripe old age, of course, but that doesn't mean he won't be missed.

'You can always see the truth': the wisdom of Jimmy Page

light-and-shade-jimmy-page-coverJimmy Page has been called elusive ... averse to media attention ... shy ... but the architect behind Led Zeppelin is hardly as quiet as a church mouse. As I'm getting settled in and ready to watch tonight's airing of The Kennedy Center Honors, which celebrates LZ along with David Letterman and Dustin Hoffman among others, I turn to a new book that gives us a talkative, insightful Page: "Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page" by Brad Tolinski (Crown).

Tolinski's book covers Page's entire career -- pre-, mid- and post-Led Zep -- but what I want to call attention to here is Page's occult interest, which is often painted by plenty of writers (I'm sure you've read some of them, too) in sinister shades of gray and black.

His avoidance of talking too much about his study of magick (yes, with a "K") is given in practical terms: "There's no point in saying more about it," he says at one point in Tolinski's book, "because the more you discuss it, the more eccentric you appear to be."

That doesn't just apply to magick -- the same advice should be followed by any 40something fan of "Star Wars."

In regards to the fantasy scenes from the movie "The Song Remains the Same" featuring the figure of a hermit on a strange journey, here's Page's candid explanation:

"My segment [of the move's fantasy sequence] was supposed to be the aspirant going to the beacon of truth, which is represented by the hermit and his journey towards it. What I was trying to say, through the transformation, was that enlightenment can be achieved at any point in time; it just depends on when you want to access it. In other words, you can always see the truth, but do you recognize it when you see it or do you have to reflect back on it later?"

Page's message -- that we are all capable of making substantial changes in our lives at any time -- couldn't come at a better time as 2012 is slipping behind us and 2013 is just ahead.

So, in the new year, let's all resolve to seek some enlightenment for ourselves ... and keep listening to Page, Plant & Company (of course).

In case you missed the Call of the Siren during Christmas week

Etc.: Leonardo's apocalypse, Hobbit style, and something Sherlockian

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: Leonardo and his era knew all about apocalypse. THE END OF THE WORLD, AGAIN: How many of your friends on Facebook posted "Well, I'm still here!" as their status update on Friday, Dec. 21? It was funny the first or second time, but the joke got old pretty quick, didn't it?

That joke would have been even less amusing to the people of 15th-century Italy. The opening of a recent book about Leonardo by Ross King, which I talked about earlier this week, begins with a passage that's incredibly apt for all the Mayan expectations this year:

"The astrologers and fortune-tellers were agreed: signs of the coming disasters were plain to see. In Puglia, down in the heel of Italy, three fiery suns rose into the sky. Farther north, in Tuscany, ghost riders on giant horses galloped through the air to the sound of drums and trumpets. In Florence, a Dominican friar named Girolamo Savonarola received visions of swords emerging from clouds and a black cross rising above Rome. All over Italy, statues sweated blood and women gave birth to monsters.

These strange and troubling events in the summer of 1494 foretold great changes..."

Every age, it seems, thinks that it's the final one.

hobbit-book-coverTOLKIEN'S METHOD: There's a moment in "The Hobbit" -- the novel, not the Peter Jackson movie -- when the band of adventurers seek shelter from a giant named Beorn. It's always struck me as being an unexpected insight into Tolkien as a storyteller of fantasy tales. The key to a tale's success, and its believability, seems contained in Gandalf's strategy for approaching Beorn and asking for his hospitality:

" 'You had better wait here,' said the wizard to the dwarves; 'and when I call or whistle begin to come after me--you will see the way I go--but only in pairs, mind, about five minutes between each pair of you. Bombur is fattest and will do for two, he had better come alone and last. Come on Mr. Baggins!' "

A large group, Gandalf thinks, will overwhelm Beorn: It is far better to introduce the group gradually, piece by piece, so that he has time to absorb and accept them.

That does seem, to me at any rate, an ideal method for introducing a world of fantasy to readers.

great-pearl-heist-coverSHERLOCKIANA: The holiday season not only inspires people to pick up their novels of Dickens; it's also a time for old-fashioned English detection. That's the impulse behind "The Great Pearl Heist: London's Greatest Thief and Scotland Yard's Hunt for the World's Most Valuable Necklace" (Berkley) by Molly Caldwell Crosby. Caldwell tells an intriguing story of a master criminal, down to the details of life in Edwardian England, and a phenomenal heist that readers will savor alongside their collections of Conan Doyle adventures.  What's even more phenomenal is that it's all true.