30 November 2022

Books Completed Since November 1

book icon  Lab Girl, Hope Jahren
This is the memoir of Jahren, who grew up the daughter of a scientist and always found emotional comfort in the laboratory, since her emotionally-distant family didn't show her much attention. She became a paleobotanist (like Elly Sattler in Jurassic Park) and this is the story of her career, from education to junior and then senior scientist. Suffering from bipolar disease, she's supported by an offbeat partner named Bill, who's a top-notch scientist but massively eccentric (during part of his childhood he lived in a hole in the backyard; Jahren doesn't reveal what made him do this until about halfway through the book). It's the story of road trips, building laboratories, taking students on digs (and on unauthorized excursions afterwards, like their trip to the Monkey Jungle in Florida), with Jahren's musings on plant life on Earth.

This is an oddly compelling book, although the narrative is very...odd. Jahren starts out by saying Scandinavian families are generally unemotional, which I think is very odd; I know Scandinavian families and they are usually very affectionate. Perhaps the fact that she was bipolar colored her opinion. Bill is also a very odd person, although you find out about halfway through the book that he's had acceptance problems through his life. The final part of the book addresses Jahren's marriage sketchily—it's hard to discern what she and Clint saw in each other.

The botanical parts are pretty interesting; she addresses things about plants I'd never heard of and it's interesting to read about her research.

book icon  Re-read: Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday, James W. Baker
This is a very readable history of the "all-American holiday" that works very well as a companion piece to Diana Appelbaum's Thanksgiving, but is an easier read without being simplistic. It also touches more on things like images, writings, and films portraying Thanksgiving, changes in "traditional foods" in the intervening years, how the holiday has been infantilized by the iconic use of Pilgrim and "Indian" icons, and the inclusion of parades and football games as part of the "tradition," turning Thanksgiving into the opening salvo for the Christmas season. The one thing that this book makes very clear is that the "iconic" Thanksgiving imagery of Pilgrims and Native Americans only became emphasized at the very end of the 19th century and during the early decades of the 20th, back when the United States became flooded with non-English speaking immigrants whom the schools wished to impress upon some idea of the country's heritage. Previous to that it was just a New England holiday which spread as New England residents moved westward, and involved reunions with family and friends. Even stories about Thanksgiving mostly emphasized reunions between estranged or long-parted relatives; "the first Thanksgiving" was not mentioned.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about the history of the Thanksgiving holiday and its changing face over four centuries.

book icon  Bookish and the Beast, Ashley Poston
This is actually a young adult romance book, third in a series, but I bought it because the female protagonist was a book lover and went to SF conventions, and I loved Poston's The Dead Romantics.

I have to say the teen protagonists acted a lot more adult than the last few adult rom-coms I've read!

The story: Vance Reigns, teen star of the Starfire series, has been banished to his godfather's house in a small town in North Carolina after yet another bad-boy action. There he meets Rosie Thorne, still smarting from the death of her mother a year earlier. After almost hitting Vance's dog Sansa with her car, she follows the dog, enters the house, and accidentally damages a valuable Starfire book, so Vance's godfather lets her work it off by arranging the books in the house's huge library. Vance treats her rudely and she avoids him in return, neither of them knowing that earlier in the year, in costume, they met at a convention and enjoyed each other's company.

The usual misunderstandings abound, especially since Vance, due to his growing up as a Hollywood brat, is cynical and has ceased believing that people befriend him for any other reason than to get something out of him, and there's an interesting subplot about Rosie trying to escape the clutches of an egotistical classmate who won't take "no" for an answer. But for a teen romance, the story is pretty good and not at all cringey as I got during the rom-coms I got from Kindle Unlimited!

book icon  America Eats!, Pat Willard
During the Depression, the WPA sponsored several literary and arts programs to put people back to work. One of the later projects was to be a collection of essays about the different regional foods of the United States. Unfortunately, the WPA was dismantled by the Supreme Court before the project could be completed and published.

Pat Willard found the decrepit old boxes with the material collected for the project and here in this book publishes some of the essays written back in the 1930s, then follows up by going to the individual region and seeing if the customs still exist (it's interesting to know that in some cases they have persisted, if in a minor way). The original essays are fascinating, although they do contain some ethnic and racial terms that might be problematic today. The book's contents are arranged by events rather than regions, so you'll get an account of making authentic Brunswick stew (squirrel meat is essential) next to a "booya" picnic from Minnesota, men running a barbecue at a political gathering who shoo women away because they "stop the meat from breathing" in Mississippi to chicken pilau ("perlow") and conch feasts in Florida, tales of church suppers in Georgia and in Indiana, lodge dinners, food in migrant camps, and more. If you are fond of food history, this is the book for you!

book icon  The Trouble With Hating You, Sajni Patel
Liya Thakkar's conservative Indian parents think their "wild" Americanized daughter will never get married; without telling her, they invite her to dinner to meet handsome Jay Shah and his mother, the object being marriage. When Liya, a successful biochemical engineer, discovers what dinner's all about, she flees, knocking down Jay and, by leaving, insulting his mother. Later she discovers Jay is the attorney who's been hired to help salvage her faltering employer, and she's supposed to work closely with him. Angry, she accepts a date with a guy named Mike, who doesn't want to take no for an answer and leaves her stranded. Who rescues her but Jay Shah?

This was a very enjoyable rom-com compared to some of the ones I read. Liya and Jay are sensible adults, although Liya is hiding a terrible secret, and as they get to know each other, they slowly become friends while both Liya and Jay are juggling social engagements: Liya's best friend is about to be married and Jay's sister is expecting her first child. It was enjoyable to read about traditional Indian marriage customs melding with American ones, and I was thirsting so much for the sanctimonious and evil characters in the story to get theirs (I sure hope Jay did what he said he would, because one person so deserves whatever they get!).

book icon  Gulp, Mary Roach
Since the library got rid of all the Native American books I was planning to read this year, I decided to read a couple of food books for November instead. This one is the decidedly offbeat one: Roach does science books like Packing for Mars and Stiff (about cadavers); this one is about the ingestion of nutrients, from what smell has to do with taste (a lot, as people who contracted COVID-19 discovered) to the new medical practice of injecting fecal matter into sick people's colons (after they have contracted C. diff or other diseases) to cure them. In between we investigate how pets' tastes differ from ours, the fad for Fletcherization and how it wasn't true, the importance of saliva, if you can be swallowed alive, prisoners in jail hiding things...well, you know where, farts and how they grow, dying by constipation, and more, in seventeen delightful chapters.

Roach's writing is instructive without being boring, entertaining without being offensive, and just plain interesting. If you ever wanted the skinny on eating, digesting, and eliminated, this is the book for you.

book icon  A Monmouthshire Christmas, Maria & Andrew Hubert

book icon  The Dead of Winter, Nicola Upson

book icon  The 12 Birds of Christmas, Stephen Moss