The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, by Douglas Preston
In this action-packed adventure story, thriller writer and reporter Douglas Preston joins documentary filmmaker Steve Elkins in searching for a lost city in Central America, first with lidar scans and later with archaeologists. The lidar, in which a small plane flies back and forth over the tree-tops firing laser pulses at the ground, has the team focusing on a few sites in the remote area of Mosquitia, Honduras, looking for the remains of pre-Colombian settlements. For centuries, there have been rumors of a Ciudad Blanca, or White City, although the author says that at least one earlier explorer, Theodore Morde, was panning for gold instead of searching for ruins. The site Elkin’s team travels to by helicopter is deep in the jungle, and they encounter spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and poisonous snakes before they even get to the archaeological site. Torrential rains mildew their clothes in just a few days, and they are wading through rivers and up slippery hillsides. They do find evidence of a large settlement, and hundreds of stone sculptures, possibly left when the city was abandoned. The story of the expedition makes for fascinating reading. The following chapter about the spread of disease in the early 1500s that all but wiped out many areas of Central America and the Caribbean is not such easy reading, but is followed by a contemporary medical mystery. Half of Elkin’s team come down with a hard-to-treat tropical disease, including Preston. Finally, Preston travels back to T1, where the president of Honduras is making an official visit. An incredible story that makes for exciting reading.
The Glass Universe, by Dava Sobel
An absorbing history of women in astronomy and stellar photography, for readers of Hidden Figures. I enjoyed reading about the women computers and astronomers who worked at the Harvard College Observatory from 1877 through the 1930s, examining glass photographic plates of stars, and analyzing the data, working at half the pay of men. The observatory has a library of these photographs going back more than a hundred years, which is being digitized. These photographs led to several advances in astronomy, as did photographs of stellar spectra. Annie Draper, wanting to see her late husband’s work continue, funded much of the observatory’s work for years. Edward Pickering was the director for many years, followed by Harlow Shapley, and they oversaw new telescopes, expansion of the buildings, grants for women doing graduate work in astronomy, and new mountain observatories in Peru and South Africa. Sobel, known for her witty books on the history of science, such as Longitude, used information found in letters, memoirs, diaries, and notes of astronomy conferences to bring the women, including Annie Jump Cannon and Cecilia Payne, vividly to life.
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.