Tag Archives: Third Sentence Thursday

Third Sentence Thursday: Affording to be human

Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human
by Richard Wrangham

p. 101: “For a mother with a small infant, the gymnastic challenges of making a nest would have been particularly difficult given her need to cradle while she swayed in the tree.”

What in the world is that sentence talking about? Well, most apes (except for enormous male gorillas) spend the night up in trees, sleeping in “nests” made by bending branches into a secure platform. It’s safer up there. But what did early humans do, once our ancestors had long legs and flat non-gripping feet like ours? How on earth could they have kept their balance every single night to make a nest, and if they slept on the ground, how did they keep from being eaten?

Wrangham argues that people – or not-yet-exactly-people – learned to control fire a very long time ago, going on two million years in the past. (Not all anthropologists would agree.) His argument leans on several observations. First, he collects data from a number of sources to insist that modern humans, living with primitive technology, couldn’t possibly get enough calories from a completely raw diet. (For example, he says modern raw-food eaters (who shop in supermarkets and use blenders and other advanced equipment to process their seeds and raw vegetables and fruits) are all very lean, and there’s evidence that many of the women would not be fertile. Stone-age people would have had to work much harder to provide the same diet; they probably wouldn’t have survived.) He also argues that there’s no evidence any primitive group lived without cooked food, and presents data to show that cooking makes food not just easier to chew but less work to digest – all of which means that cooked food provides more calories. That’s not what most of us want today, but for many thousands of years people lived a lot closer to the edge of survival and needed all the food energy they could get!

Then he compares human anatomy to ape anatomy. In addition to huge jaw muscles that go all the way up to the tops of their skulls, apes have enormous digestive systems – reflected in their flared rib cages. From the time of homo erectus (a human ancestor living from about 1.8 million years ago to about 800,000 years ago) onward, surviving skeletons have narrowed rib cages like ours, as well as legs and feet that wouldn’t work well in trees. Wrangham believes that this means very early humans were cooking their food and spending the night around campfires that would let them see predators and drive them off – maybe with burning sticks.

And after all that, he goes on to speculate about what cooking meant to human family life and social structures. Catching Fire is solidly packed with ideas. It’s a short book, only about two hundred pages plus another fifty pages of notes, and I can’t do justice here to all of Wrangham’s argument. Read it for yourself!

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Third Sentence Thursday again: How would YOU invent squash?

After the IceĀ  by Steven Mithen

p. 285: “Not only do their social lives seem to have been based more around sharing than competition, but it seems unlikely that a rival would have been impressed, let alone humbled, by no more than a handful of squash seeds, however large they may have been.”

Archaeologists argue a lot. This quote has to do with two theories of how people about ten thousand years ago in Oaxaca (Mexico) managed to develop corn and domesticate squash and beans.

Theory 1: Over the centuries, people spent more and more time tending wild plants, weeding out sickly ones and planting healthy ones in good locations. They did this to improve their food supply in dry years. Little by little, the plants became more nutritious and appetizing, and more dependent on humans.

Theory 2: Leaders – “big men” – directed the selective breeding of plants so they could use improved varieties to humiliate their rivals, whose crops would be less awe-inspiring. (On the whole, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Mithen prefers Theory 1.)

But what’s this book really about? The subtitle pretty much sums it up: “A Global Human History, 20,000 – 5000 B.C.” Mithen starts with the end of the latest ice age and gives us 52 short chapters, about ten pages each, describing what we know and guess about life in various parts of the world up to the beginning of civilization. To liven up the stories, he invents an invisible time traveler who visits a representative group of people in each chapter and sees how they live.

This is a book to read in chunks, a few chapters at a time. Try to read it all at once and you’ll feel like you’re being rolled head over heels in an avalanche of information. Take it in smaller bites, and it’s a fascinating story of how climate shifts and human inventiveness changed the world.

Third Sentence Thursday: Why ask for trouble?

The Chinese Gold Murders
by Robert van Gulik

p. 18: “There is still time; you could easily plead a sudden indisposition and ask for ten days’ sick leave.”

It’s the fourteenth year of Emperor Kao-tsung (663 a.d.). We’re in the capital of the vast Chinese empire listening to two young men try to persuade their good friend Dee Jen-chieh not to throw away his chance at a successful career. After all, all three of them have promising beginner-level positions in the heart of the imperial government. Why should Dee choose to become the magistrate responsible for a distant provincial town?

But Dee – Judge Dee, the hero of van Gulik’s series of mysteries – is determined to test his abilities with a post far off in Peng-Lai, doing work that actually means something instead of spending years writing memos. So his friend Secretary Hou reminds him that the previous magistrate was murdered – and nobody knows why or who the killer is. Hou urges Dee to use any excuse to back out of this idiotic plan.

Of course, Judge Dee doesn’t listen. Heroes don’t.

Third Sentence Thursday – Does anybody know where the money is??

(Third Sentence Thursday: Open the book you’re reading to any old page. Copy the third complete sentence. Write a little bit about the book.)

Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich

p. 163: “Do you have any idea how much money we’re talking about?”

What would you do if you found a murdered stranger in your boyfriend’s basement?

Well, if you’re Stephanie Plum, Trenton’s most determined incompetent bounty hunter, once the dead man has been identified you go to check out his house. (By this point, Stephanie also knows that the dead man’s a suspect in a ten-year-old bank robbery.)

Steph finds several people ransacking the house. They turn out to be the victim’s sister and his two brothers, looking for clues to lead them to the missing stolen money. She’s a bit shocked, and asks the sister “Doesn’t it bother you that Allan was probably killed over the money and you could get killed too?” And the Third Sentence above is the sister’s answer.

(How much money are we talking about? Nine million dollars. That’s “million”. $9,000,000. And nobody knows where it is, which leads to 350 pages of complications for everyone.)

Third sentence Thursday: Nothing’s simple

(What’s Third Sentence Thursday? Open the book you’re currently reading to a random page and copy the third complete sentence. Add a brief teaser about the book. There. You’ve finished another post.)

Graveyard Dust by Barbara Hambly

p. 129: “If, thought January, Olympe were not a voodoo.”

In New Orleans of 1834, voodoo matters. So do race and money and yellow fever and many other things; but voodoo is important, a source of solace and power and fear to various people.

Benjamin January – or Janvier, depending on what language he’s using – would tell you that he’s a good Catholic, who doesn’t believe in magic or in voodoo. January is also a physician, a classically trained pianist, a widower, and a free man of color, who has returned to his home city and country from Paris, after his wife died of cholera. New Orleans is more dangerous than Paris; but all the family he has left is here.

And now his sister Olympe, who supports her family partly with her earnings as a voodooienne, has been accused of murdering a young man by magic, or poison – does anyone really care which? – and January is struggling to save her from hanging. And to get her out of jail fast, before the yellow fever that’s killing prisoners – even though the city government insists it doesn’t exist – can catch up with her.

Third Sentence Thursday – The murderer who wasn’t there

The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr

p. 67 – “It’s much easier to believe that a man walked on snow without leaving a footprint than to believe he knew precisely when he would have it to walk on.”

When the threatening stranger came to visit Professor Grimaud, Grimaud’s secretary saw the professor open the door of his room and saw the visitor go in. Soon afterward, several people heard the sound of a shot from inside Grimaud’s room. When they broke down the locked door, they found the professor shot and dying – but nobody else was in the room!

The visitor couldn’t have climbed up the narrow chimney. He didn’t leave by the door, because Grimaud’s secretary was watching. He didn’t go out the window, because the sill was covered by several inches of fresh snow.

Then again, just how did he get into the house – since the front steps were also covered by unmarked snow? It must be some sort of trick, with an alibi timed to line up with the snow.

Oh. Wait a minute. It’s one thing to work out a detailed alibi and time it to the second. But how can anybody plan the timing of a snowstorm?

Third Sentence Thursday, three times

Because I’m in one of those moods when I try to read more books than I have eyes, all at the same time, more or less.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

p. 87 – “I don’t have the time or the bed space for this.”

Ships’ sick bays are small, even when they’re not coping with an outbreak of something contagious and dangerous. One little girl who bumped her head, however badly, is one more patient than the doctor can cope with. She’ll just have to go back to her own cabin and her family.

Except that she doesn’t have either of them. Who would take a child on board a ship in 1913 London and abandon her there, to make her way to Australia all alone? And why?

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers

p. 95 – “But he never comes there now.”

Why doesn’t Robert Fentiman seem interested in finding the mysterious Mr. Oliver? After all, Mr. Oliver can help prove when his grandfather, old General Fentiman, died – and with any luck, that evidence will make Robert a rich man. And yet, he’s doing everything he can to discourage people from tracing Oliver. Why?

Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler

p. 35 – “Well, is the ship plant or animal?”

Does that sound like an odd question? Yes? Then you’re luckier than Lilith Iyapo. She’s lost her whole family, and then her whole world come the nuclear war that everyone dreaded, and been kidnapped – or rescued? – by hideously grotesque aliens. After a very long time completely alone in one room, she’s met one of the aliens and is being taken on her first tour of their ship. And the ship seems to be a forest, a forest where the plants can move on their own initiative.