Books by Philip Matyszak



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Where we come from
This month I have been looking at foundation myths. The main reason was that a friend pointed out that the USA has an extremely well-documented history, yet many Americans prefer to believe a past that is, well, not true. Some random examples include George Washington's famous admission that he chopped down his father's cherry tree ('I cannot tell a lie'), that witches were burned at the stake in Salem, that cowboys always wore Stetsons (Wyatt Earp usually wore a bowler hat) and so on.

The same is very much the case with ancient Rome. We have the legend of Aeneas which explains that the Romans were basically Trojans, the legend of Romulus and Remus that explains that the Romans were Martians (in the sense that they were sons of Mars, the war god). Horatius defending the bridge told that Romans that they were brave and self-sacrificing, and Virginia and Lucretia told Roman women that they were noble, fearless, and preferred death to a fate worse than death.

In many ways foundation legends are more realistic descriptions of a people than the actual historical events, because they create the societies they allegedly describe. For example, once books about the 'Wild West' started filtering into places like Texas real cowboys took from these imaginary stories ideas of how they were meant to act and dress and changed their conduct accordingly.
Digiti viridi?
This blog is a bit later this month, because I've been doing some intensive gardening. The basic reason for this is green salads, and particularly the e.coli that come with it. After being laid low during the winter by a bug which I strongly suspect came from a contaminated lettuce, we're set about growing our own.

The problem is that a mountain environment populated by hyperphagic bears, foraging raccoons and a yard that's six feet under snow for seven months of the year doesn't really lend itself to vegetable gardening. So we've cleared out a corner of the house, put in shelving and installed grow lamps. Currently there's kale, lettuce, spinach in the veggie section and basil, parsley and rosemary in the herbs.

Because you can't sterilize fresh greens by cooking, contaminated salad from the market is always a risk. I recall one of the letters of Cicero in which he complained that after a salad had given him the runs, at the next dinner party 'I avoided all the leafy greens but still got done in by a beetroot.' Hopefully by controlling the production process from seed to plate I can avoid such a fate in the future.

(And by the way, try beetroot with home-made yogurt and you'll see why Cicero couldn't resist it. It's good. Here's a more modern take
Whole food
At the start of this month I announced that it was time to hit the lake for some summer fun. A friend took a look at my waistline and rather snarkily pointed out that mine is not really a 'beach bod'. To which I replied that it is not my intention to lounge around on the sand in the forlorn hope of attracting admiring glances.

When I go to the lake for a swim, I swim. Unlike your average beefcake, I'm able to float rather well, and can happily spend over an hour in deep water. I once spent a peaceful afternoon crossing the 4km of Lake Okanagan. Likewise, when I go for a mountain hike, it's not to show off my muscular calves but to get up the darn slope.

Look, I unashamedly enjoy food, preparing it, cooking it and eating it. And yup, this shows on my waistline. But here's the thing – my interest in Roman cookery has made me very particular what food I put into me. Even basic research on the modern version of the stuff shows that there's a lot in modern groceries that the ancients never heard of.

Your slice of bread with cheese may contain any or all of the following – In the bread; Potassium bromate, Azodicarbonamide, sodium stearoyl lactylate, ammonium sulfate and calcium peroxide (there's lots more) while the cheese might have; Dipotassium phosphate, Disodium inosinate, diglycerides, Natamycin, Sodium polyphosphate and lots more. No-one knows how these chemical combinations interact with each other and with gut enzymes when they get there.

We make our bread and cheese right here in the kitchen with carefully selected milk and flour, and top it off with lettuce grown in our garden. Whatever I carry around my waistline is at least stuff tested by generations and proven to belong there. Those ultra-slim beach bunnies are actually guinea-pigs in an unprecedented adventure in industrial food preparation.
Up in smoke
'Paradise can, in a matter of moments, turn into hell.' Thus a TV commentator soberly described the transition of the idyllic town of Lytton into a fiery inferno that destroyed 90% of the town in a matter of hours.

That's one of the problems with living in the Pacific Northwest. The interior of British Columbia beats the rest of the world in many ways. It's uncrowded, has a wonderful combination of first-world amenities and untouched natural beauty and some of the nicest people on the planet. But it's also covered by a boreal pine forest that is just waiting for a chance to burn. Record-breaking heat and drought conditions have given it that chance, and the whole province is on edge.

One learns the local habit of 'thinking like an ember'. If you were an ember fanned by a 50mph wind, where would you go to cause the maximum damage? How blowing into about that supply of winter firewood? I've screened it off with fine wire mesh. The roof? It's galvanized iron sheets – not great for heat, but quite fireproof. The sidings of the house are heat-resistant, and the creosote soaked garden fence has fifteen feet of green lawn between it and the house. This spring we cut down the resin-soaked fir in the back yard and replaced it with a distinctly non-flammable apple tree. The city has done the same by planting a band of deciduous trees between the town and forest.

Nevertheless, should flames appear behind the nearby mountains, the strategy is the same. Grab the cats and our go bag, then run like hell.
Reading in a Time of Pandemic

A while ago I was talking with a commissioning editor who had undergone a financial audit at her publishing firm. While she had commissioned numerous books which had sold well (including one of mine, I'm pleased to say), there were also other books which had not sold so well. In future, advised the auditors in their executive summary, this editor should be instructed to only commission best-sellers.

Which is wonderful advice, if only it were practical. As it is, this is rather like telling someone that in order to become wealthy, one should only buy winning lottery tickets. The thing is, market research and post-publishing marketing can only take a book so far - it either catches the public's mood of the moment or it does not. And the problem with that 'mood of the moment' is that a commissioning editor has to guess what that mood will be up to five years in the future.

So hands up all of you who realized in 2016 that we would now be grappling with a major epidemic that has killed millions and forced major lifestyle changes on hundreds of millions more. (Okay, Bill Gates, you can put your hand down. Anyone else?) If editors had realized this forthcoming situation, what books would they commission to help people get through this catastrophe? Since people suddenly have enough gritty and depressing realism in their lives, perhaps something informative about people in distant times and places, and how they coped with their own challenges? Or something fantastical dealing with magical beasts and the supernatural?

Take a bow, editors at Thames and Hudson, for commissioning 'Lost and Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World' and 'Ancient Magic' - two of my books that are selling particularly well right now.


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