In Which I Read Stuff: Nonfiction

I had the feeling I wasn’t actually reading much nonfiction lately, but looking at the piles on my floor and the history of my library borrowings that isn’t actually true. I didn’t read any nonfiction in the first few months of this year since I was working really insane hours to do 36 projects at once and in the fifteen minutes before collapsing into bed each night I needed exceedingly fluffy fiction that offered my poor brain no challenges whatsoever, but since then the nonfiction has picked up again.

At one point recently I was simultaneously reading:

1. Bill Bryson, Home
2. Keith Richards, My Life
3. Nigel Slater, Tender (Vols I & II): A Cook and His Vegetable Patch and A Cook’s Guide to the Fruit Garden.

This caused a friend to comment:

There’s probably a mash-up to be written that involves shooting up locally grown heroin in a perfectly restored English country house.

…which I have to admit I’d probably read and enjoy, if it existed.

The Bryson is a sort of rambling history of the theory of various kinds of housing and building in Britain, in Bill Bryson’s usual style. It’s a decent overview if you haven’t much knowledge of the area already; if you do it’s a non-challenging, competent review with his usual particular attention to quirk, humour and oddity. His comment that after the Romans left, the inhabitants of Britain pretty much gave up on the whole concept of comfort and haven’t ever really regained it does, I think, ring true and certainly explains British plumbing.

The Keef is his autobiography. It isn’t exactly linear but it is great fun. Plus, pictures!

And Nigel, bless him, has provided me with more fruit and vegetable recipes than I’ll ever be likely to get through, although he does have that odd British instinct to boil things and although the recipes contain mysterious — to my North American eye — ingredients such as gammon and groundnut oil (which I’m sure are things already in my kitchen, but under different names, but do I ever remember to Google them?). His fruits and veggies have effusive personalities. His quinces simper, they’re both exotic and erotic, and don’t get him started on plums.

Other things in the “recent” pile:

Carl Safina, The View from Lazy Point. A nicely written rumination on various environmental issues. Lots of anecdote that helps bring abstract points somewhere we can touch.

Peter H. Gleick, Bottled & Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession With Bottled Water. I can never understand why people spend money buying — and oil packaging and transporting — water, so I didn’t learn much from this book but had my biases reconfirmed and added a few good anecdotes to my repertoire. Worth a read.

Ben Goldacre, Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks and Big Pharma Flacks – Covers bad science of several different stripes. This book got good reviews, but I think it was short on necessary detail and explanation. It assumed the reader knew a lot of what it was purporting to explain, to my eye. Preaching to the converted, as it were. An entertaining rant if your science is already good; possibly a bit frustrating otherwise. As it was aimed at the general reader I don’t think it quite hit the mark. Perhaps I am wrong.

James Howard Kunstler, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition. If you were just starting out reading about cities/urban development/etc. — AFTER you read Jane Jacobs’ excellent and very readable The Death and Life of Great American Cities (do not groan, it really is a good book) — this wouldn’t be a bad book to start with, so long as you don’t mind a certain amount of profanity. I love Kunstler; he’s extremely low-bullshit and his hyperbole is very expressive. Here’s a bit from his chapter on Atlanta (which, it may be obvious, he does not like):

There was, however, at the same time, a gathering recognition among the prospering classes that the development explosion of the past thirty-odd years around Atlanta had begun to produce diminishing returns, as the geeks in econ might say, tending toward a decrease in the quality of life–to use the kind of euphemistic, understated, neutral language that was commonly employed to describe the fucking mess that even hardcore suburban growth cheerleaders, in their narcotic raptures of consumerism and gourmet coffee, had begun to dimly apprehend. … Routine midday trips to the supermarket now required the kind of strategic planning used in military resupply campaigns under wartime conditions. Mothers with children were spending so many hours on chauffeuring duty that they qualified for livery licenses. Motorists were going mad, literally, behind the wheel–one berserker tired of waiting at an intersection shot out the signal light with a handgun.

Look up his TED talks if you’d like to get a sense of his style before committing to a whole book.

Niall Ferguson, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. This one is an audiobook that’s been lurking on my iPod for longer than I’d like to admit. I keep making it about four chapters in, and it’s interesting, but it needs more concentration than I can manage in audiobook circumstances. Not that it’s not good – it is! (Well, up to Chapter 4 anyway.) It’s just that I tend to listen to audiobooks when I need half my attention to be elsewhere and this book asks for more than that. I have a few long plane trips coming up; perhaps that will finally get me to Chapter 5.

Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. Vintage Lewis; he uses a half-dozen stories to help illustrate and explain the causes behind the recession. A bit sensationalistic but very readable, full of well-done explanation and not at all dull.

On my library hold list:

Seth Mnookin, The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear. The anti-vaccination thing drives me mad; it’s such a result of first-world complacency and scientific illiteracy. This book has good reviews and I’m hoping to be able to recommend it to people.

Ken Greenberg, Walking Home: the Life and Lessons of a City Builder. Apparently city issues are big with me lately. Or maybe there are lots of good books coming out (FINALLY) on this. Either way.