The Not-Quite States of America, by Doug Mack
This is an entertaining and informative tour of our far-flung territories and commonwealths, some nearly forgotten. Travel writer Doug Mack visits St. Thomas & St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico. While these islands are all part of the United States, their residents don’t have the same rights as residents of the fifty states, and these vary from territory to territory. Tourism and the U.S. military are major employers. From native islanders, Danes, and Japanese, Mack learns about each area’s history and listens to the debates about their futures, all while enjoying good company and some excellent food. An enjoyable and thought-provoking tour of some overlooked parts of America.
Butter: A Rich History by Elaine Khosrova
This short history of butter and butter making is a delicious read. Khosrova traveled around the world to watch butter being made and used, from sculpting butter cows in Iowa, to watching yaks being milked in Bhutan and discovering that yak butter tea made with fresh butter can be delicious. Butter has been made from the milk of camels, water buffaloes, goats, and sheep, as well as cows, for many thousands of years. Religious rituals using butter, superstitions about butter making, and a variety of churns are all described. The history of commercial butter making is included, along with butter’s possible health benefits and the mid-century battle of butter and margarine. Sadly, I grew up on margarine, but I don’t bake with it. I had no idea that butter has become trendy, tending to buy whatever brand of unsalted butter is on sale. I have recently sampled three premium butters: a sweet cream European style butter and cultured salted butters from Brittany and Wales. During a recent visit to a local chain supermarket, I found at least six more premium butters, including a two pound roll of Amish butter. A big box retailer has two selections, and a national chain of small grocery stores currently offers butter made from water buffalo milk with Himalayan sea salt. The butters I tried were all delicious, especially on bread. I will still use basic butter most of the time, but where butter is featured in a recipe, like shortbread cookies or puff pastry, I’m looking forward to using a richer tasting, lower moisture premium butter. Recipes from simple to sophisticated are included, including two methods for making your own butter. The author trained as a pastry chef, has worked as a food writer for a test kitchen, and edits a magazine about cheese. A long list of recommended butters is included. This is one of the most enjoyable microhistories I have read.
Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky
A long, leisurely read about the history of making and using paper, as well as papyrus and parchment. Wall screens, lanterns and lamp shades, kites, balloons, gun cartridges, and even clothing have been made from paper. One of the first uses of paper was to wrap food, and it’s long been used in prayer flags and to burn at religious ceremonies. The history of printing is also described, and the rise and fall of newspapers. Paper making involves a reliable supply of cold, running water, a large supply of linen or cotton rags or other plants, and skilled paper makers. With their arms constantly in cold water manipulating heavy frames, paper making was arduous work, but skilled workers could travel to another area to find work at another paper mill, or start a new mill. Over the centuries there has been a rising demand for paper, and also the plants or used cloth needed to make it. Surprisingly, paper wasn’t made from wood pulp until around 1850. The use of paper doesn’t seem to have declined in this century, and there is a renewed interest in handmade and other specialty papers for writing, painting, and drawing, and paper is still being made from a variety of materials. An interesting and informative microhistory, but not a page turner.
Microhistories: History on a Small Scale
These are a few of the recent books with a narrow focus on a single subject, event, or place. I’m reading Paper, enjoyed Consider the Fork, The End of Night, and have Butter on my list of books to read. These titles and many more are on display this month at the Woodridge Public Library. Enjoy!
Bogard, Paul. The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, 2013.
Brox, Jane. Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light, 2010.
Donovan, Tristan. Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World, 2014. Eckstut, Joann. The Secret Language of Color, 2013.
Foy, Simon. Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence, 2010.
Garfield, Simon. Just My Type: A Book about Fonts, 2011.
Hucklebridge, Dane. The United States Of Beer : A Freewheeling History Of The All-American Drink, 2016.
Kawash, Samira. Candy: A Century of Panic, 2013.
Kosrova, Elaine. Butter: A Rich History, 2016.
Kurlansky, Mark. Paper: Paging Through History, 2016.
Lukacs, Paul. Inventing Wine: A New History of One of the World’s Ancient Pleasures, 2012.
Metcalf, Allan. OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, 2011.
Roach, Mary. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, 2013.
Shaffer, Marjorie. Pepper: A History of the World’s Most Influential Spice, 2013.
Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, 2012.
Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard
A welcome new book from the author of Destiny of the Republic. Ambitious young aristocrat Winston Churchill, 24, was an journalist covering the 2nd Boer War in South Africa. He would risk anything to get to the action, gave military advice as a civilian, and defended an armored train after an ambush. As a prisoner of war, he wrote letters demanding his release and helped plan a daring escape. Bright, brave, outspoken and reckless, he became a heroic figure, just as he’d hoped. I learned more about the Boer Wars than I wanted to, but Churchill and military history fans will find this to be a fascinating, thrilling, and often past-paced read.
The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck
I thought this was a terrific book. Rinker and Nick Buck, two brothers from Maine, ages 60 and 54, buy three mules and set off to make the first unassisted crossing of the Oregon Trail by covered wagon in a century. A wagon trip with their father and siblings from New Jersey to Pennsylvania a half-century earlier is part of a parallel story about their father, who died young. Rinker, a journalist, gets fascinated by the history of the Oregon Trail, and reads over 100 books about it before they head west from Missouri to Oregon, sometimes following the original wheel ruts of some of the 400,000 pioneers of the mid-nineteenth century. Rinker originally thought of taking the trip alone, but it’s clear that would never have worked. Nick can fix anything, and is skilled at driving a team, and it really takes two people to catch and harness three mules every morning. The mules, Jake, Beck, and Bute have very distinct personalities. Wagon wheels, brakes, and axles need frequent repair, and the mules need regular care. The men, not so much. Rinker sleeps on a mattress in the wagon while Nick and his terrier, Olive Oyl, sleep on the ground or in sheds. Showers and laundry are infrequent and meals are very simple. A series of strangers greet them, help them navigate mountain and river crossings, and offer space in their corrals for the mules at night, and become their trail family. The kindness of those they encounter on their trip, with one notable exception, stunned them with their hospitality. I enjoyed the descriptions of the scenery, found the history of the trail quite interesting, and hoped the very different brothers would find a way over all the obstacles to reach the end of the trail. A very enjoyable journey, one that reminded me a bit of The Longest Road, by Philip Caputo.
John Chatterton, featured in Shadow Divers, has already teamed up with diver/treasure hunter/history buff John Mattera when they are approached by treasure hunter Tracy Bowden to find the wreck of the pirate ship The Golden Fleece. Bowden has the lease to salvage treasure in the waters off the Dominican Republic where he believes the ship lies, and offers Mattera and Chatterton information and part of the treasure. Staying in a fancy but remote villa owned by Mattera’s future father-in-law, they tow a magnetometer in a grid pattern, then dive to inspect each hit, a process both time consuming and very expensive. Bowden keeps insisting he knows where the ship is, and doesn’t want them to search elsewhere. Mattera goes on a research trip, visiting libraries in Spain and New York, and interviews older treasure hunters to piece together the story of 17th century English merchant ship captain Joseph Bannister, and what could make him turn pirate and steal his ship, The Golden Fleece, not once but twice. The treasure hunters also look for information on the final battle of The Golden Fleece with two navy frigates, the Falcon and the Drake. At only 275 pages, this real-life adventure story is a fast-paced, compelling read. Chatterton and Mattera are currently in a legal dispute with Bowden, so some things are left unsaid, and their next diving project seems to be on hold. I can’t say more about their search for The Golden Fleece without spoiling the plot, but I think readers will enjoy the adventure.
The Residence by Kate Andersen Brower
This impressively researched book about the residence staff of the White House is quite a page-turner. The White House is a home, an office, a museum, and an event site. While the first families come and go, the residence staff may remain for decades, sometimes for generations. Brower interviewed three former first ladies, six grown children of former presidents, fifty former residence staff, and more. From chief usher down to doormen and maids, 96 full-time and 250 part-time workers staff the White House. The first family pays for their own meals, toiletries, and dry cleaning, but the staff try to anticipate their every need, often working long hours. The magic of moving day would be well worth seeing; one family moves out and another moves in on Inauguration Day, complete to having their clothes unpacked and their choice of White House furniture installed, in only six hours. Some transitions, as after President Kennedy’s assassination and President Nixon’s resignation, are very abrupt, but I liked that Caroline Kennedy’s small in-house kindergarten continued for months after the Kennedys moved out. The quirks and eccentricities of the families are described, especially President Johnson’s continued demands for a custom shower, and the Clintons’ great need for privacy. While there is some gossip, the first families are described with fondness, understanding, and often sympathy by the loyal former staff.