Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
by Michael Pollan
For more than a decade, food writer Michael Pollan has been telling us just how much is messed up about the way most of us eat. His advice—“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”—has become a clarion call for 21st-century foodies. In his best-selling 2007 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he famously deconstructed the Chicken McNugget; here he explores the construction of something superior to the processed foods that make up too much of our diets. Cooked is a from-the-atom-on-up exploration of the ways in which ingredients are transformed—from roasting to stewing to baking to fermenting—into delicious dishes. Pollan’s dedication is admirable and palpable, although it can drift into hyperbolic reveries. “A complex drama unfolds during the bulk fermentation” of yeast in bread dough, Pollan writes. How many find leavening similarly dramatic (and want to read about it for dozens of pages)? But Pollan’s obsessions also lead him to discover some fascinating processes (how to make the “Ur–cooking liquid”—a seaweed-based broth that maximizes flavor), astonishing flavors (grilled honey and smoked cream!) and subcultures (the nuns whose daily dedications involve the alchemy of cheese curds). His underlying imperative is to get his readers to cook more for themselves, and by the end of this book he makes a convincing case that self-sufficiency in the kitchen is not only healthier, but also important for society, and genuinely empowering for the individual.
The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945
by Rick Atkinson
There are some history books that you read to get a sense of shifts in civilization: revolutions, spiritual awakenings, wide-reaching intellectual ferment. And then there are those that you read in order to find out what the president had for breakfast or what color socks the first lady wore—the earthly details that made up everyday life in the past. The Guns at Last Light is somehow both, a book that takes its readers day by day through the last year of World War II and yet also paints a broader picture of the fears and hopes of this last phase in the war. The third in a World War II trilogy that Atkinson began 14 years ago, the book is scattered with rich anecdotes sifted from the deep wells of the archives. There are the soldiers who heated soup in their helmets; a “charred crown,” Atkinson writes, “marked veteran troops as surely as a Purple Heart.” During the liberation of Paris, 500 surrendering Germans conducted negotiations with a U.S. Army photographer in Yiddish—a language that the two sides could both understand. Ernest Hemingway, meanwhile, celebrated the Allied troops’ arrival in the City of Light by rolling up to the Ritz and ordering 73 dry martinis for his entourage. Yet The Guns at Last Light is more than a feat of excavation. The details build a stunning and precise account of major movements—from Normandy to Paris, from the South of France to Grenoble—and close-up portraits of famous figures that make them living, breathing beings. The threat of sea mines prevented Winston Churchill from joining French forces as they pressed into France, and so Churchill, disgruntled, read a novel he had stumbled upon in the captain’s cabin of his ship. “This is a lot more exciting than the invasion of Southern France,” he scribbled in the margins. Atkinson’s book is not for the faint of heart: The violence and sorrow of war aside, it tracks troop movements by the day, sacrificing, it seems, almost no detail, so that the reader relives the soldiers’ slog. But the pains of the experience in no way overwhelm this extraordinary accomplishment. This is a beautifully written, moving account of one of the most bittersweet chapters in modern history.
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
by Mary Roach
In 1896, a sailor named James Bartley slipped into the ocean when an angry harpooned whale caused his boat to capsize. The rest of the crew assumed Bartley was lost and set about roping in the whale. But once they’d retrieved the animal and started to pull it apart, they noticed a strange movement in its gut. They slit open the stomach, and much to their surprise, encountered their shipmate, unconscious but alive, some 36 hours later. Could such a thing have really taken place? This is an example of the kind of mystery that Mary Roach sets out to investigate in Gulp, a witty, roving romp of a book. With a skeptical but good-natured scientific gaze, Roach circles around folklore and the more extraordinary tales of ingestion to figure out the outer bounds of the possible. (The Bartley tale, she concludes, is highly unlikely; whales “chew” their food with their mighty stomachs, so the plucky sailor would have endured 500 pounds of pressure.) Roach, who has been exploring various kinds of extremes—in previous books she’s covered death, outer space, sex—is a thoroughly unflappable, utterly intrepid investigator of the icky. In Gulp, she sticks her hand into the gut of a living, breathing cow (scientists can create a portal to the animal’s insides), munches on silicone cubes to get a sense of the grinding of her gums, and wears a special snorkel to measure the gaseous qualities of her belches. The list of Roach’s adventures could go on and on, but her writing never feels like it’s just stringing together gross-out gimmicks; a provocative question always underlies her strange experiments, and there is always a kernel of hard-earned wisdom at the end.
The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum
by Temple Grandin and Richard Panek
In 2002, autism occurred in 1 out of every 150 children; by 2008, it had risen to 1 out of every 88—a 70 percent increase in a six-year period. The Autistic Brain doesn’t provide one single explanation for that extraordinary rise, but it does offer an up-to-the-minute assessment of the features of autism and the factors that may be contributing to the disorder. Narrated primarily by Grandin—who has often spoken out about her own autism—the book is personable and accessible, but doesn’t skimp on detail. In one fascinating digression, the authors suggest that an error in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders might have been responsible for the sharp rise in diagnoses: An “or” that should have been an “and” might have led thousands of doctors to misapply the label. Elsewhere, the authors assess the exciting potential of new imaging technology that tracks brain signals far more extensively than previously possible—and they explain how tablet computers might help autistic people develop communication skills more easily than they would with regular PCs. The ostensible purpose of the book is to increase tolerance toward autism by providing incontrovertible evidence of the genetic and neurological basis, but I think it will have another effect: In showing just how far the spectrum ranges, even those with no neurological or developmental abnormalities might see shades of themselves.