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Non-fiction books read in 2007 and beyond

For the longest time I wouldn’t read non-fiction books outside of work or school. “What is this non-fiction for pleasure you speak of?” The key wasn’t to follow what’s necessarily popular, best-sellers on history, politics, or purely goal-oriented how-to books. The key was to start with my gut-level (as it were) interests: food, travel, biology. I still read more fiction, but that’s fine. At least the world of non-fiction writing has opened up and can hold my attention.

I’ll write up what I’ve read this year…around the beginning of next year. For now, here are some snippet-thoughts on the non-fiction books I’ve read over the past few years. I’ve excluded technical / computer books, and food books which are encyclopedic or primarily cookbooks, since I write about those in other entries.

Barnes, Simon. How to be a (Bad) Birdwatcher. An irreverent, amusing birdwatching memoir. Only a small hitch with the ending, which incongruously dissolves into sappiness.

Biddle, Wayne. A Field Guide to Germs (2nd edition, 2002). A wonderful summary of bacteria, viruses and protists that cause disease or simply live on or in us. It’d be great to find a more in-depth book which maintains a readable style similar to Biddle’s. (The Unfinished section exhibits my attempts.)

Bishop, Holly. Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey. The author lovingly studies the life of a professional beekeeper, in parallel to following her own apiarian journey. Bishop also provides interesting history on beekeeping and honey, along with a few recipes.

Bourdain, Anthony. Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain’s book on his life in the restaurant trade. Wicked, blunt, and a lot of fun to read.

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue. The delightful linguistic adventure that is English! Humorous and informative, with quite a few references to French, another language I enjoy learning about.

Bryson, Bill. A Walk in the Woods. A hilarious account of Bryson’s hike along the Appalachian trail, with an on again, off again companion who hankers more for candy bars than walking.

Colwin, Laurie. Home Cooking and More Home Cooking. Colwin lived only 48 years, but left a legacy of food essays collected in these two books. Cheeky yet thoughtful, and chock full of useful kitchen tips and recipes. For example, no-knead bread might be all the rage nowadays, but I first heard of it here. I might not always agree with her (I do like my pastry blender, ha!), but her writing is clear and encouraging for anyone who cooks at home.

Gates, Stefan and La Riviere-Hedrick, Max. Gastronaut: Adventures in Food for the Romantic, the Foolhardy, and the Brave. Before I heard of Nose to Tail Eating or Beyond Nose to Tail, I read this book. In spite of my picky eating habits, Gates’s lightheartedness makes this a pleasurable study in unusual foodstuffs.

Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I still don’t skim text as effectively as I’d like to —that’s not the point of Foster’s book, anyhow— but this certainly helps with picking out and understanding common metaphors in fiction. I wish I had this beneficial guide as a kid in school, since it helps a lot with reading comprehension.

Leroi, Armand. Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body. In a world filled with mind-numbing molecular biology textbooks and trashy pseudo-science reports, Leroi’s book is a refreshing alternative. Technically detailed, yet not lacking compassion for his subjects, he explores congenital defects and mutations thoroughly. This is an excellent, enlightening overlap of medicine and anthropology.

MacDonald, Sarah. Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure. Reading a travel memoir on encountering the many religious facets of India does intrigue me. Unfortunately, this book disappointed me. MacDonald’s tone rings as a bit too ditzy, giving this work a superficial and careless feel.

Murakami, Haruki. Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. A compilation of interviews conducted by Murakami (more known for his surreal novels) divided into two parts: Victims and witnesses of the sarin attack, then members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. An engrossing yet reflective set of conversations on the traumatic experience of terrorism.

Reichl, Ruth. Garlic and Sapphires. The memoirs of a former New York Times restaurant critic. I’m astonished yet captivated by Reichl’s efforts to disguise herself into anonymity for her job. A fascinating account that combines the views of a writer, food lover and restaurant customer. (Contains a few recipes, including an awesome one for New York cheesecake.)

Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. A fearless yet respectful investigation on what goes on with human bodies after death. Roach covers a wondrous range of research performed on cadavers, as well as helpfully summarizes the biological and chemical processes that occur when we die. You’ll notice similar books on death in the Unfinished section that failed to reach a similar level of skill or tone (IMHO).

Weiner, Jonathan. The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time. In science books there’s a thin line between being illumination and soporific. Darwin or the Grants’s research is certainly valuable, but Weiner’s description fell into the latter category for me. Considering how I appreciate ornithology, evolution and memoirs, I admit I approached this book with rather high expectations. (I’d like to find a good book describing New World mockingbirds, Mimidae, a family which Darwin was keen on…)


Some books I pick up, put down, then don’t pick up again.

Bondeson, Jan. A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities. Too much like a cross between a dry history textbook and a dry medical textbook.

Burdick, Alan. Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion. Research and awareness of invasive species is critical, but reading this book felt like a chore. Additional illustrations, even just one or two a chapter, would’ve helped, and including a table of contents even more so. I stopped just under halfway; maybe I’ll finish it if my endurance and patience allow.

Cheney, Annie. Body Brokers: Inside America’s Underground Trade in Human Remains. While the book covered an important issue which should not be ignored, it was too dry to read all the way through.

Hester, Elliott. Adventures of a Continental Drifter. I mistakenly thought this was a travelogue that focused on the food. It didn’t.

Roach, Mary. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. The subject matter didn’t compel me to spend time to finish the book. Reality tends to be more interesting. Unless it’s fiction.

Rossant, Colette. Memories of a Lost Egypt, also titled as Apricots on the Nile. After reading the first couple of chapters, I dropped this one due to its whiny, depressing tone. (How many times do you need to tell me you don’t like desserts?) Maybe I’ll try again another time, but I doubt it.

Sachs, Jessica Snyder. Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death. All of the deaths discussed dealt with murder. I expected (erroneously) to read about other causes of death, so this crossed over the “too morbid” line for me.

Steingarten, Jeffrey. The Man Who Ate Everything. Y’know, I tolerate rants from writers who dismiss vegetarians, lactose-intolerant folks, or just plain picky eaters (I look into the mirror daily!) —if they’re amusing, or have nifty bits to impart. Such as Bourdain. Not this book. Shrill, aggravating, dropped.

Winchester, Simon. Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883. I cannot deny that history is important to geology, especially since Krakatoa’s explosion is one of the most documented volcanic disasters. But this fell under the pall of “dull history textbook”; I wanted more focus on geology.

Zimmer, Carl. Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature’s Most Dangerous Creatures. I stopped reading this because it discussed pathogens with a historical perspective. Unfortunately, like many history books for me, it made this reader fall under the spell of boredom and disinterest. But I might give it another go later on. Perhaps it would’ve been better if it were organized either by taxon or disease, similar to Biddle’s book, but more in depth?

I wrote dry often there, hunh? And whiny memoirs. Two traits (albeit subjective ones) which dissuade me from continuing.


  1. On the topic of parasitology, I highly recommend Scott Lynch’s urban horror novel Peeps, which opens each chapter with a description of a parasite-host relationship. The novel posits a parasite that lies behind all of our vampire mythology, and which has some beneficial aspects for both the infested individual and the human species as a whole. And it’s fun and well-written–I particularly liked the line, “You mean I lost my virginity to the Apocalypse?!”

    Wednesday, 21 May 2008 at 8:14 pm | Permalink
  2. sairuh wrote:

    Hey Allison! Thanks for the rec; having those chapter intros sounds neato. 😉 I’ll add it to my reading list.

    Thursday, 22 May 2008 at 8:55 am | Permalink

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