Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America
by Jon Mooallem
“We are living in the eye of a great storm of extinction,” writes journalist Jon Mooallem. And we will do some pretty kooky things to halt the hemorrhage: airlift drugged polar bears who have stuck around developed areas longer than they should have; employ a man whose sole responsibility—day in, day out all year long—is to whack at a particular weed so that an endangered butterfly has a hospitable place to call home; or dress up like birds to teach them to fly. Mooallem’s book examines the haphazard nature of our attempts to maintain animal diversity: In many instances, we seem to be throwing things at the wall, trying to figure out what will stick as a strategy for salvation. Victories are few and far between—and seemingly paltry even when they occur. It’s counted as a major triumph, for instance, that the whooping crane population has risen to just under 300 from a mere handful in the 1940s. And this was not without major effort. As Mooallem chronicles, an organization called Operation Migration has tried to “teach” the cranes how to migrate using ultralight planes and a cohort of camouflaged volunteers who take a vow of silence so as not to confuse the birds with human speak. Mooallem’s book is not as absurd or disheartening as all this makes it sound. Wild Ones heightens one’s awareness of the precipitous position of so many of our animal species, but it’s also filled with curiosity and hope. The men and women that Mooallem tails are dreamers, but you wind up rooting for them to keep on dreaming.
A History of Food in 100 Recipes
by William Sitwell
If you step into food impresario Heston Blumenthal’s latest venue, a swanky London restaurant straightforwardly called Dinner, you might find yourself eating something less straightforward: a dish called meat fruit—chicken liver mousse, carefully colored and molded (with the help of a little liquid nitrogen) to resemble a shiny mandarin. Blumenthal’s inspiration was not his contemporary competitors—sprinkling precious freeze-dried herbs or spreading foams infused with rare, odd essences—but the chefs who catered to the finicky Tudors. The King Henrys and their crew were not much for fresh fruit and veggies, and so Blumenthal’s 16th-century precursors outdid themselves with gustatory illusions. This is just one of many examples of how history repeats itself in the world of food; a novelty one day is forgotten the next, only to be whimsically revived by a future generation. In this collection of recipes and essays, Sitwell isn’t telling the history of the world through food, nor (despite the title) is he telling the full history of food—he skips from century to century and continent to continent. But it is a lovely, episodic story that shows some compelling, cuisine-changing twists. In 1154, as Sitwell puts it, “pasta got its first decent write-up” by a Moroccan traveler named Muhammad al-Idrisi who sampled Sicily’s delicacies and felt the need to spread the gospel. Then there is perhaps the first recipe (from 1796) for the most American of desserts, apple pie—penned by a woman whose genius, Sitwell writes, was “to marry Native American products with English culinary tradition.” This is a book that will satisfy curiosity more than hunger: While some retro concoctions sound delicious (petits soufflés à la rose from 1833), some others (the unfortunately named “fish experiment” from 1681) probably should be kept in the archives and out of the kitchen.
The Astor Orphan: A Memoir
by Alexandra Aldrich
For Alexandra Aldrich, growing up in a 43-room mansion surrounded by 450 acres was not actually all that nice. A descendant of Robert Livingston (he signed the Declaration of Independence) and John Jacob Astor (one of the richest men in American history), Aldrich claims an exalted ancestry. But by the time she inhabited the family home in New York’s Hudson Valley —a sprawling, run-down property called Rokeby—the estate hosted stray animals (a pig named Egbert, goats that had been rescued from a laboratory and a horse named Cricket), bohemian artists and other eccentric drifters more often than it welcomed glittering aristocracy. As a child, Alexandra and her immediate family lived in the third floor of the house—the servants’ quarters—where they scrambled to make ends meet and lived “off the remains of our ancestral grandeur,” as Aldrich writes. Her father worked only to maintain the upkeep of the house; born at the “tail end of the glory days,” he got an Ivy League education but never learned any professional skills that might earn him a living. Alexandra’s world was one of cobwebs and closed-off rooms, walls covered in full-length tapestries that had been “scratched and frayed by cats’ claws at [the] bottom edges”; she dreamed of escaping into a more ordered, average world. The book is a meditation on a way of life, and an examination of what happens when entitlement and refinement meet poverty and neglect. Reading this book is a bit like getting lost in a world somewhere between fantasy and nightmare, where the ghosts of a particular type of antique American greatness confront the realities of the modern world.
The Book of Woe: The Making of the DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry
by Gary Greenberg
Toward the end of his fascinating history of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM), Greenberg, a psychotherapist, states, a “disease is a form of suffering that a society devotes resources to relieving.” The concise definition comes as something of a relief: Greenberg’s aim, through much of the book, is to show just how muddled the boundaries of mental health truly are. The “line between sickness and health,” he continues, “is not biological but social and economic.” He shows how the manual originated in the 19th-century needs of the U.S. census—the government wanted to “know just how many people were ‘insane’”—and how it has undoubtedly affected diagnoses, not just by providing names and insurance codes for various afflictions, but by emphasizing certain abnormalities and backing away from others. Exclusion as well as inclusion can alter history. When homosexuality was removed from the DSM in the 1970s, it was considered a major victory for gay rights. The newest version of the manual—the DSM-5 is due out this month—will no longer define Asperger’s as a distinct diagnosis but move it into autism spectrum disorder, shuffling a whole cohort of patients into a new category. Greenberg’s retelling of the back-room scuffles over the DSM-5 can drag, but underlying even the most internecine squabbles are consequential questions about the labels we apply and lines we draw.