This morning, I learned that the politically correct term for “hungry, starving, etc.” is “food insecure.” It will take weeks to get over that, if I ever do. But in any event, I shall now take time out from flinging lead at all points of the compass in the hopes of hitting something to review a pair of standout books.
“It’s Only Slow Food Until You Try to Eat It” is an odd and unclassifiable book by the odd and unclassifiable Bill Heavey. The publishers of Slow Food offered Mr. Heavey money if he would feed himself by foraging–everything from dandelion greens to persimmons that fell from a Washington, D.C. tree and had lain on the sidewalk for quite some time to things so rank and gross in nature that I cannot list them here, and then write about it.
Bill’s quest took him from Washington to San Francisco to Louisiana, and along the way he met the real subject of the book, which is not so much food as the people who forage as a way of life. No matter what Heavey writes about, he ends up with people, and if you have any literary acumen you’ll recall that this is what Bill Tarrant and Robert Ruark did as well. There is some hunting here, and some fishing, and quite a bit of information on food, and some fine-sounding recipes, but Slow Food is irresistible because it’s very funny and very sad and filled with unforgettable characters. Heavey is a strange and repellant character, but he writes like hell. Oh, and if you want to make a salad out of the stuff that grows in your lawn, watch out for dogs**t. $25, Atlantic Monthly Press.
“The Guns at Last Light” is the third volume in Rick Atkinson’s “Liberation Trilogy” on World War II (the first two are “An Army at Dawn,” which won a Pulitzer Prize, and “The Day of Battle”). I confess that I’ve just started it, but I’m recommending it on its stellar antecedents, and on the Prologue, which I have read, and which will hook you so hopelessly that you will forget to feed the dog, pay your taxes, and possibly go to the bathroom.
Atkinson sees war not so much in terms of strategy, or materiel, or politics by other means, but in terms of people, a trait which he shares with that greatest of all Civil War historians, Bruce Catton. He has a fine, sardonic sense of humor and is an excellent military analyst, but his great strength is evoking a time and the people who inhabited it. Atkinson uncovers details which I have not seen anywhere else, and I’ve been reading military history for five decades.
“Down the gangplanks they [G.I.s disembarking at British ports, for the buildup prior to the Normandy invasion] tromped, names checked from a clipboard, each soldier wearing his helmet, his field jacket, and a large celluloid button color-coded by the section of the ship to which he had been confined during the passage. Troops carried four blankets apiece to save cargo space, while deluded officers could be seen lugging folding chairs, pillow cases, and tennis rackets.”
We also learn that by 1944, the U.S. government was scraping the barrel for warm bodies to put into uniform. You could be drafted if you were toothless; the Army would make you false teeth. You could be drafted if you had syphilis, or if you stuttered, or if you had only one eye. However, if you had a malignant tumor, or leprosy, or were certifiably psychotic you were classified 4F.
Dwight Eisenhower, who was then 53, and bore a burden such as few people in history have had to shoulder, smoked 80 Camels a day and thumbed endlessly through his high school year book to help him cope. After the battle at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, after elements of the Army’s II Corps were routed by Rommel, he had expected to be relieved and reduced to his permanent grade of lieutenant colonel. Now he wore four stars and commanded the greatest military force ever assembled.
And that is just the beginning. $40, Henry Holt, publisher.