Category Archives: Non fiction

** Franchise by Marcia Chatelain

Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America uses the well-known fast food chain to describe the much larger story of African-American entrepreneurs, civil rights, and racism in America. The author occasionally places all the blame of the racist climate onto Mc Donald’s, which seems somewhat unfair–and at the same time correctly identifies clearly racist practices in assigning franchise locations. I found the stories of African-American entrepreneurs who sought success as franchisees particularly interesting.

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* Modernist Bread (Book 2) by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco

Book 2 of Modernist Bread  moves to Ingredients and the madness of the project is exposed. Another 400+ pages, large format, heavy tome (I’m guessing 10 pounds; I’m a terrible person and did not actually weigh it, as all bakers should), which happily recycles topics and illustrations from Book 1. What’s the point of creating an encyclopedia if there are so many repeats? And the topics are all over the place, including how to steam vegetables (to be used in bread fillings, I get it, but still–why here and not with the recipes themselves?) Still, if you want to learn about how wheat is milled and how agricultural subsidies work, this is the book for you.

My favorite part (I’m not being ironic!) was learning about the different kinds of wheat and other cereals and seeing what they looked like.

(See my impression of Book 1, History and Fundamentals, here)

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*** How The Other Half Learns by Robert Pondiscio

 

If you’re interested in K-12 education, I urge you to read How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice, in which the author describes what he observed over the course of a year at one of Success Academy’s schools in New York City. Eva Moskowitz, who founded and runs the charter school system, starts with the premise that all her students, who predominantly come from low-income families, will graduate from college, and her system and staff spare no effort to get them to learn to read and do astonishingly well on standardized tests compared not only with the local public schools but also with the best-performing schools in the city.

The techniques are demanding. There is a maniacal emphasis on discipline (woe be unto the wiggly child), long school days and years, and hours and hours of test training, starting 2.5 months before the tests. Parents are also required to read to their children and check homework, with the teachers following up daily.

The main criticism of the system is that it selects only the most capable children, and systematically weeds out weaker ones. In reality, it seems that the selection is on the parents rather that the children. The rules for parents are harsh so that only the most motivated parents remain. (And perhaps it’s fair. Why should only high-income parents have choices when it comes to school?)

In any case, there are interesting lessons (haha) to take from the techniques in use. The principals are focused strictly on curriculum and have a separate individual who is solely responsible for the facilities and logistics at the individual school. Seems like a great idea, resulting in classrooms being painted each year and building issues tackled within a day. Each grade level uses a set curriculum, developed once and used by all the teachers who collaborate and swap ideas. Issues with staff are dealt with promptly and decisively, with assistant teachers redeployed when needed if a teacher leaves. The one thing that was a bit of a mystery to me was why ideas are not systematically tested. For instance, the way children sit is rigidly enforced, but there seems to be no real basis for it. Would things work just as well if legs and arms were not crossed? We don’t know. And we don’t know whether other teaching techniques or curriculum choices really work. That would be worth testing.

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** Friendship by Lydia Denworth

We all know, intuitively, that friendships are pleasurable and close to essential. And yet, scientists have long shied away from studying something so apparently squishy. Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond summarizes studies in humans and animals, starting and ending on an island off Puerto Rico populated by (imported from India 80 years ago) macaques. Macaques live in strict hierarchies so it’s not clear that all the observations with them can be generalized to humans, but many of the social behaviors are entirely recognizable.

In humans, CT scans prove that caressing babies slow down their heart rates, but only if done at a particular speed. People with strong friendships live longer (even if they smoke!) and loneliness can, literally, kill by reducing our bodies’ capacity to fight inflammation. Let’s cultivate our friends, selfishly!

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** Modernist Bread (Book 1) by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya

 

Book 1 of Modernist Bread covers History and Fundamentals. And it’s truly encyclopedic, covering archeology, art, microbiology, health and physics. For the authors, we cannot understand calories until we talk about James Joule; cannot understand yeast cells without learning about microscopes; and cannot understand the nutritive value of bread without learning about multiple studies of fat and heart disease (not sure why, since most breads have no or little fat!). It’s all a little bit exhausting, especially since they chose a puzzling method of starting with (pretty detailed) summaries, but not marked as such, followed with more details.

I did enjoy, greatly, the section on history, that shows how bread evolved over time (and also features their attempts at reproducing old-style breads, and I mean centuries-old breads).

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*** Don’t Believe a Word by David Shariatmadari

The author of Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language manages to talk about new knowledge in linguistics without drowning us in (too much) jargon and impenetrable theory. No, not having a word to say X does not mean that speakers of that language don’t understand X. Yes, etymology is fascinating but ultimately useless at divining the current meaning of a word. And no, Chomsky’s universal grammar does not hold up to the most cursory observation of a child’s use of language. Peppered with examples from many languages, including Arabic and Mandarin, the book is enjoyable and easy to read.

A nit: in a language-obsessed book,  it would be good to properly quote Champollion’s Je tiens l’affaire .

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*** The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read by Philippa Perry

It’s a little late for me to read The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read: (And Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) since it’s been many years since any child was left in the house (let alone a sleep-training baby!) And I suspect that this book may, indeed, be better appreciated after the fact, since it contains very few practical tips and leans more towards a philosophy of parenting, one that I wholly adhere to: the most important part of parenting is to cultivate a healthy relationship with the children that can help everyone grow. So the author suggests that we listen to the feelings our children express rather than move things along, that we look at child play as work (bravo!), and that we plan for who will support us so we can support our children.

The only quibble is her approach to sleep-training, which she thinks we should be very patient with. I think patience is wonderful but a well-rested parent is a better parent. Don’t you agree?

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