Written by a scientist in a light, storytelling mood, The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History talks about all kinds of seeds, from cotton (to explain dispersion by sea) to castor beans (killers of spies), to nuts (predictors of large teeth, when hard), wheat (to illustrate that building dams may be motivated by the need to move grain)
The author’s adventures with fossil hunters are hilarious, but he takes advantage of them to remind us that spore plants may dominate the fossil record, but did not necessarily dominate the world. They just preserved better. There’s always some science under the stories.
Named after a very fine quality of cocaine, ZeroZeroZero features El Chapo (in the book, safely imprisoned; now at large after escaping using a large tunnel and on a motorcycle!), dozens of corpses and awful mutilations of rivals and law enforcement officers of all kinds, droves of corrupt officials, a gorgeous DEA agent and many gorgeous and doomed girlfriends of drug traffickers, revelations of ingenious secret language used by traffickers, marble blocks stuffed with cocaine, and a highly entertaining list of cocaine brands, complete with logos. And yet, it’s a remarkably soporific read, strangely jumping from journalistic to encyclopedic, to epic style from one chapter to the next — and punctuated by dull drug traffickers’ captures, usually followed by less dull escapes.
The story does contain many interesting tales, especially about the business of drug trafficking. It could be hoped that the traffickers apply their considerable skills in managing demand creation, distribution, and especially financial intrigue (it’s so hard to launder billions!) to legit businesses. They would make a killing. Wait, wrong word!
I care little about fashion, and not much about history, but I highly recommend Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, a gorgeously illustrated book about what rich and less rich French people wore, and also how they lived, at the end of the 18th century. Using invoices, paintings, and early fashion magazines, the author shows us a small fraction of the 100 (!) gowns Marie Antoinette bought each year, and the eye-popping sums she paid to her favorite fashion provider. But she also describes the complex system of trade guilds that governed the fabric and fashion industry, the Byzantine etiquette rules at the court, which, unlike Marie Antoinette, surprisingly survived the French Revolution, and the strange tradition of parading in one’s finery, in public, at the end of Lent. She also includes an entertaining chapter about fashion inspired by the American Revolution, which resulted in any amusing additions to the already ridiculously large coiffures and hats in vogue at the time
A few nits: there are some misspellings in the French text, and some of the reproductions are strangely repeated, without explanation or apparent need, in various chapters. Still, a highly enjoyable book, even for non-fashionistas.
What can you accomplish with $100 million? Very little, it seems, from the story told in The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, the story of how Mark Zuckeberg’s colossal gift to the Newark, NJ public schools was squandered and perhaps damaged rather than improve the outcomes for the students in the district.
The author dispassionately describes how an ambitious politician (Cory Booker) brilliantly fundraised for the schools, but neither he nor the donors (Mark Zuckeberg serving as exhibit A) understood the political obstacles to rerom, including but far from limited to the teachers’ and other unions involved, defined achievement criteria, or had any rational implementation strategy or oversight for the gift. The story is an indictment for this particular effort, of course, but also contains many learnings for future efforts, as well as sober reminders that school reforms may be limited by the larger context. In a kindergarten class she describes, 15 of 26 children are followed by child-welfare workers. Sure, we can teach them to read, but can we teach their parents to take care of them outside of school?
I appreciated the funny title of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time. (Have you read I Don’t Know How She Does It? Highly recommended for its chick-lit, unpretentious, and hilarious description of the life of a harried working mother). I did not, however, appreciate its content very much,
The author, a time-managment specialist, collected time logs from “successful” working mothers. Try not to cringe when she explains that the only criteria for success is to make $100,000 per year (but at least she is clear about her methodology), or that most of the diaries were obtained through highly selective method (so much for randomness!) Her main conclusion from reading the diaries is, wait for it, that women have all the time in the world to be with their children, husbands, and friends, and even to be alone. How? Well, the author has unusual ideas about time management. For instance, she does not count commuting as work time, but as personal time since, clearly, it’s a wonderful moment to listen to an audiobook or whatnot, and in any case we may “cheat” by running an errand on the way back from work. And she feels that reading books in short bursts while cooking food in a microwave is a great way to fit reading into your life. Perhaps her book can be read that way, but certainly not serious books.
She does make good points, in particular that people who claim to work over 60 hours of work per week never do (I used to work with many of them, who constantly boasted of their exhausting schedules, shooting the breeze with colleagues in the kitchen) and that planning is best done on Friday afternoons (I am a fan). Still, the general hectoring tone was a big turn-off to me, along with the author’s habit of citing her own lifestyle as the epitome of success. I see nothing wrong with doing laundry every day or shopping for groceries yourself rather than ordering online, if that’s what you want to do. I don’t see why her way is the only way.
Onward and Upward in the Garden is a delightful compilation of essays written by the fiction editor of the New Yorker starting in 1958, who also happened to be the wife of EB White, of Charlotte’s Web and The Elements of Style fame, who collected the works and writes an endearing introduction to the book.
If you are a gardener, prepare for a treat beyond the two stars to which I feel compelled to limit myself for a general audience. White starts by reviewing seed catalogs as if they were books, with highly entertaining results, although it is a relief when she switches over to garden books of all kinds since seed catalogs are quite repetitive. Since the author writes at length about her beloved garden in Maine, the book reads like fiction to this and other California readers, who have not seen a drop of water in months and very little of it during our supposed rainy winters — but no matter, we can all learn about how the lawnmower was invented (from machines used to shear carpets!) and smile about plant names influenced by technology trends (Satellite petunias and Radar calendulas, so fifties) And of course, as an editor, she comments about typefaces, spelling, and badly thought-out indices. There’s rather too much carping, in general in the essays, and not just about book mechanics, but some of the rants are idiosyncratically hilarious, as when she explains that ruffled snapdragons are just a mistake. I quite agree with her there.
The Intimate Ape: Orangutans and the Secret Life of a Vanishing Species is a strange book, quite disorganized and focusing as much on various individuals dedicated to saving orangutans as on the apes themselves. The chapters meander from one preserve to another, coming back to various characters on several occasions, and even feature, repeatedly, the author’s tween son, who came along on some trips, a bit dangerous for a child perhaps.
But among the messy presentation there appear many stories of individual orangutans who are described as having unique personalities and, in many cases, unique relationships with the humans who care, or cared, for them. It’s all very unscientific but at the same time evocative and provocative: should we really treat apes as mere “animals”?