In the age of Google Maps, A History of the World in 12 Maps shows how map-making has evolved from the ancient Greeks’ uneasy collision of their desire for perfection and the realization that the real world was full of uneven boundaries, through centuries of exploration, printing methods, and the requirements of politics and commerce that shaped how maps have been created, organized, and distributed. There are plenty of personal stories of mapmakers, including the famous Mercator who was persecuted as a Lutheran and also created a comprehensive, graphical chronology (was he the Edward Tufte of his times?) and the travails of the French cartographer Cassini, painstakingly traveling from village to village to survey the land from church towers amongst suspicious villagers.
The book is probably best enjoyed by those who love geography. It was a little long for my taste, but certainly stuffed with interesting information.
I very much enjoyed Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, a deceptively simple memoir of the author’s growing up in the USSR before moving to Philadelphia as a refugee — but laced with alternatively tragic and ironic references to food, whether of starvation under Lenin or forced consumption of caviar when she briefly attended a school for nomenklatura children. And she has plenty of other anecdotes, including her dad’s working at the institute that kept Lenin’s corpse presentable, the soviet’s marriage ritual that included a promise to raid children in he best traditions of Marxism and Leninism, or the dismal in Moscow during the Gorbatchev’s years. A wonderful blend of personal history and geopolitical history.
Breakfast: A History is a delightful, unpretentious compendium of stories about breakfast, breakfast foods, and breakfast references in the arts. The first two are full of fun facts. Who knew that breakfast, now hailed as the most important meal of the day, was once a sin (no thank you, Thomas Aquinas)? That what we call French toast today was once known as German toast, before WWI forced a renaming, echoing the recent Freedom fries? That the unfortunate ancient Greeks dipped their doughnuts in wine, since coffee had not yet been introduced to them? The third section of the book. about breakfast and the arts, is sadly lacking any reproduction of the pieces it discusses, frustrating the reader who may not be familiar with them. Just stop when you are no longer hungry.
Dad Is Fat is a series of short chapters reflecting on the author’s life with five young children, living in a two-bedroom New York apartments. Some of the chapters are very funny, others less so, but what I liked most about the book is the obvious love he has for this children, even when he is making fun of them or complaining about their deplorable hygiene habits (brought back some memories…) Don’t go looking for anything deeper, it’s not there!
To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care is not a happy book, it’s rather awkwardly organized, with weird repeats and meanders, and it militantly remains descriptive when this reader, at least, would love to hear solutions to the problem of foster care, but I hope you will give it a try. Written by a woman who was herself in foster care and served as a foster mother, It gives a chilling account, not only of the circumstances in which children enter foster care (being removed from one’s parents’ care is surprisingly rare, so the circumstances under which this can occur are very dire) but also of the system instead, which seems designed to treat children like widgets, shuttling them between placements with arcane rules, with little chance for them to find a stable environment and to recover from their earlier trauma. The foster parents described in the book, even the better ones, seem rather overwhelmed by their charges and the burden of having to fight the system for every little thing. It seems that some thorough reforms would be needed, starting with perhaps two simple ideas. One would be the ability to track the children throughout their childhood so as not to force them to start over because of random assignments. And the other would be to design flexible foster programs through which children and parents could get the help they need without yanking children to and fro, similar to what a good grandparent can provide. There’s much to improve…