The World until Yesterday by Jared Diamond

world untilThis fascinating book compares traditional societies with modern society.  The term “traditional” refers to the societies of some relatively small groups of people in remote areas of New Guinea, Africa, and the Amazon region, to name a few.  These were also the lifestyles of our ancestors in the past.  While Diamond is an acclaimed scholar, he presents information in an accessible way.

Since Diamond spends part of each year in New Guinea and has many friends in traditional societies there, he often focuses on those experiences.  However, he also discusses cultures from Australia, North and South America, Africa, and Asia.  Topics include war, child-rearing, treatment of the elderly, dealing with danger, religion, language, and health.  His book made me more fully appreciate the advantages of modern society – regular access to an adequate food supply, modern medicine, a longer lifespan, and less violence, to name a few.  Diamond also thinks that considering other cultures’ ways of dealing with problems might help us in solving some of our society’s difficulties.

There are many amazing facts in the book.  For instance, among a group of 20 New Guinea natives, each spoke from five to fifteen languages—and this did not include dialects.  The conversation around a campfire moved easily from one language to another.  This is typical of traditional societies, where people learn a variety of languages during early childhood.

War in traditional societies is extremely deadly.  In one war in New Guinea, warriors on one side killed 5% of the enemy’s population, including men, women, and children, within one hour.  If the atomic bomb had killed 5% of the population in the Hiroshima area, there would have been four million casualties rather than 100,000!

Since the !Kung people in Africa don’t have weapons powerful enough to kill animals immediately, they must track the wounded prey for hours.  Usually, they arrive to find lions feeding on the prey and run the lions off with sticks.  As dangerous as these confrontation are, they are necessary if the !Kung are to avoid starvation.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish home cooking : Yiddish recipes revisited

indexArthur Schwartz writes the kind of cookbook that is chatty and personable.  I bought his What To Cook When You Think There’s Nothing In The House To Eat years ago with no regrets – I occasionally thumb through it when depressed, for a mood lift.

In this one, he takes the reader on a historical journey through the foodways of New York City’s Jewish community, using his own childhood memories as a benchmark.  He explains the basics of keeping kosher, discusses how ways of eating evolved within the Jewish community during the twentieth century, and bemoans the demise of some time-honored dishes.

If bagels and latkes comprise your entire knowledge of Jewish cooking, this book will certainly be an eye opener.  The author’s style helps – the text reads like a one-on-one tour through the recipes and stories that defined the eating habits of an entire community, and influenced others.  Schwartz’s tone is very conversational – he makes the reader feel like they’ve just stepped into the kitchen of an old friend.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz

dearieJulia Child was bigger than life.  Her gregarious manner, outspokenness, and towering height made her a force of nature, and a friend of millions, when she first signed on in the early 1960s with WBGH, the public television station in Boston, to do a cooking show.  The French Chef, as it was called, ran for ten years and made Julia a household name.

But long before that, she was Julia McWilliams, who grew up in a well-to-do family in Pasadena.  After finding it difficult to pin down a career, in her early thirties Julia joined the Office of Strategic Services with posts in Washington DC, Ceylon, and China.  While over in Asia during World War II, she met Paul Child, an East Coast native who had a taste for good food and conversation.  They married, and after the war, Paul maintained a government job, which got them posted to Paris – and Julia had her first epiphany with French food.  She not only loved to eat the delicacies in France, but wanted to learn how to cook them.  She took classes at Le Cordon Bleu and earned her mettle there in classrooms largely made up of American servicemen.

Julia’s approach to French dishes had its first exposure to American audiences with the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961.  Several shows and cookbooks later, she was still shouldering on, living a schedule that would put others half her age under.

Dearie gets to the core of all things Julia – her early disappointments with employment, her troubled relationship with her father, and her ultimate flowering as a media icon.  It’s an admiring biography, but the author is not averse to showing Julia’s rough edges.

Julia Child was an indefatigable personality who deserves an exhaustive biography.  She gets it here.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

I enjoy learning about psychology, and after repeatedly running across references to this quietbook, I decided to read it.  You’ll probably want to read it if you:

  • Have heard the terms “introvert” and “extrovert” and wonder exactly what they mean
  • Suspect (or know) that you are an introvert
  • Suspect (or know) that your spouse, child, or other loved one is an introvert
  • Teach, supervise, or work with introverts

Although one-third to one-half of people in the U.S. are introverts, our culture tends to applaud extroverts.  Many workplaces and schools are organized for extroverts, and some introverts feel that they can succeed only by becoming “pseudo-extroverts.”  This book can give any reader food for thought and a better understanding of himself and of other people.  There are tips for introverts and for extroverts who interact with them.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Gene Everlasting by Gene Logsdon

Despite the title, Gene Logsdon looks, not so such for immortality, but for the eternal in thegene natural world, observing the lives of plants and animals that are unfazed amidst the encroachment of suburbia and pesticides and keep coming back.  He sees this continuation as a type of everlasting life, albeit one that is in a constant state of renewal.  Logsdon also considers humans part of this circle of life.

This latest set of essays finds the author ruminating widely – on common weeds, the culture of buzzards, pig butchering, the deaths of pets and loved ones, even his own shaky bout with cancer.  Logsdon is very much an advocate of nature, but he doesn’t sugarcoat his observations, even voicing his dislike of persistent flora.  He manages it all with a kind of laconic wit, and in his own gentle way, invites us to view what’s around us (city, country, or wherever) with a different eye.

Gene Everlasting is not a book you have to finish in one sitting.  Each essay runs 5-6 pages, with a few longer.  It is a book that begs for quietness – a good porch read, preferably with bird song in the background.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Small is Possible: Life in a Local Economy by Lyle Estill

With the Shakori Hills Festival going on this week, it seems appropriate to review this small is possiblebook, a survey of the grassroots businesses of Chatham County.

The author has lived in the area since 1990.  During this time, he’s worked for an independent Internet company, created metal art, and run a biodiesel facility.  As such, he’s a big advocate for sustainable businesses and environmental issues.

Small is Possible highlights the people who make a local economy work.  They are artists, craftsmen, shop owners and other business types who have grown to trust each other and see the viability of keeping commerce within the community.

There’s lots of stumbling blocks along the way – financing is always one of the hardest.  It can be hard to talk a loan out of a banker when they consider a fledgling business questionable.  Convincing locals to shop at a food co-op instead of at a big box store is also a big hurdle.  And, there are times when idealistic ventures don’t quite work to par (read the chapter “Housing Ourselves” to find out).  Still, there’s enough success stories here, and Estill writes with an understated humor that keeps this book an engaging read.

Keep it local.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

one summerIn his latest book, Bryson describes an eventful summer.  He summarizes it in these words:  “Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs.  The Federal Reserve made the mistake that precipitated the stock market crash.  Al Capone enjoyed his last summer of eminence.  The Jazz Singer [the first popular talking movie] was filmed.  Television was created.  Radio came of age.  Sacco and Vanzetti were executed.  President Coolidge chose not to run [for another term].  Work began on Mount Rushmore.  The Mississippi flooded as it never had before….Henry Ford stopped making the Model T…And a kid from Minnesota [Charles Lindbergh] flew across an ocean and captivated the planet in a way it had never been captivated before.”

If none of these long-ago events intrigue you, I still recommend that you take a look at this book.  Bryson knows a good story when he sees it – and he found a lot of them while doing his extensive research!  I found the entire book fascinating, especially enjoyed his tales about colorful characters, and laughed out loud a number of times.

I’ve enjoyed a number of Bryson’s other books and particularly recommend In a Sunburned Country, a travel book about Australia.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)


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