** The Taste of Empire by Lizzie Collingham

The subtitle of The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World is probably backwards, in the sense that the author mostly shows that the quest for economic domination shaped the food of Britain rather than the other way round. She builds each chapter of the book around a specific meal eaten in a particular place and time that defines some kind of new historical development, some well-known but others not so much, such as the mass importation of British indentured servants alongside African slaves into in the West Indies. And she does not ignore liquid nourishment, from rum distilleries in Massachusetts to pale ale beer in India. It’s a lot of information, spanning 400 years — and with sometimes surprising rationalizations of the greatness of the empire…

Overall, the good news is: as a group, we are eating much better than we used to!

 

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*** Spineless by Juli Berwald

If you ever thought that jellyfish was beautiful (rather than disgusting and likely to sting you), you will love Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. Did you know that jellyfish can clog desalination plants? That fishermen in Georgia send their jellyfish catch to China? That many jellyfish have a two-stage lifecycle, and some can actually return to an earlier stage? That box jellies have six eyes, each with specialized characteristics? They are amazing, and still poorly known creatures. I could have done with fewer details on the author’s personal life, but they were written endearingly.

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** Righteous by Joe Die

 Righteous opens with violence and violence continues throughout the PI hero’s adventures in Las Vegas, improbably taking on Chinese gangsters involved in human trafficking and their temporary allies, local Hispanic gangs. Non-stop action and a wonderfully complex main character paper over the improbabilities of the plot and the naivety of the PI’s love life.

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*** American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee

Even if you don’t particularly care about wolves, and even if you cannot picture the Yellowstone Park vistas that feature prominently in the book, I bet you will love American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West. It follows a female wolf named “06” so as not to anthropomorphize her, but the author quickly lapses into portraying her and her pack as very real characters, so we root for her all the way to her death, when she is shot by a hunter. The story of the pack is interspersed with stories of the legal disputes around reintroducing wolves into the park, and descriptions of the rapid changes to the environment brought about by the arrival of that keystone species, but the real story is that of the pack. There’s also a sympathetic and delightful portrait of a park employee who observed wolves for decades, every day, and shared his knowledge with visitors (and, likely, drove his supervisors crazy!)

It reminded me of another inspiring book about wolves,  A Wolf Called Romeo.

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** How We Talk by N.J. Enfield

How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation is an uber-nerdy book about language, that dissects the complex dance we enter into when we talk with others. It turns out that the amount of time that elapses between utterances is precisely calibrated — and deviations will create problems and misunderstandings, not to mention the famous um’s and uh’s that some would like to eradicate. The author also highlights how we start conversations differently if we have a short statement to make or a longer one, and how we adapt the way we pose questions or provide answers to what we think the other person wants to hear. No wonder the art of conversation is difficult!

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* Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere skillfully unrolls the story of a family in a conservative suburb that simultaneously befriends a single mother with a mysterious past and another family who adopted an also mysteriously abandoned baby — so the story is about motherhood, chosen or not, biological or not.

And it’s certainly filled with surprises and twists, both in the life stories of the characters and their personalities. But what a melodrama, and what a cliche-laden story, with unpleasant consequences for the logic of the events. Would a young college student recognize “baby hunger” in an older woman? I think not. Would the police fail to find an abandoned baby in one of the city’s fire stations a couple of weeks after the fact? Of course not.

There are some well-observed mannerisms and interactions in the book, but they could not overcome the overdone affect and underdone logic.

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* How to Get the Death You Want by John Abraham

Cheerful topic, no? But that’s not the main problem of How to Get the Death You Want: A Practical and Moral Guide, which is that it is poorly organized, and little more than a platform for the The Final Exit Network, which advocates for patient-directed death. All well and good, I think, but it does not even begin to offer a solution for the types of death we may fear the most, perhaps, death after years of mental disability that would put us at the total mercy of the medical corps, which in turn needs to obey inflexible laws.

I suppose it’s a good thing to think and talk about how we want to die. But not by reading this book.

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