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Category Archives: non-fiction

Sweet Tooth: The Bittersweet History of Candy

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I started Kate Hopkins’ Sweet Tooth: The Bittersweet History of Candy with lots of enthusiasm and excitement. It was my first microhistory read. Like many, I have loved candy and I am curious about its origins and place in history.

While I did learn about how the Arabs brought sugar candy to the world, first as a form of medicine, how candy went from something only available to the rich to something children could buy with their allowances or pay and how the use of chocolate developed.

While Hopkins travels to Europe, New England and, of course, Hershey, PA, were often interesting, her writing style often was wordy and she bored me with long-winded descriptions of her memories of her childhood and overly detailed descriptions of trivial observations of her travels. I wish she did a better editing and had talked to more candy experts. Most of her research was from books, which is fine, but adding more interviews with candy makers and experts would improve this book.

The book did make me see that wherever I travel internationally, I should find a local candy shop and taste sweet local specialities.

Have you read a fascinating microhistory? Let me know  of any that are must-reads below.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2019 in non-fiction

 

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Lennon: The New York Years

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If you have even a slight interest in the Beatles’, you’ll like graphic biography, Lennon: The New York Years. With simple black and white illustrations, Lennon: The New York Years tells the singer’s life as a series of therapy sessions which help John Lennon make sense of his life.

Though I’ve read other books on The Beatles this book added new details about his childhood, particularly his relationship to his father, and about his later life. I wasn’t aware of the assistant Yoko hired after she caught John being unfaithful. (True, John and Yoko both cheated on their spouses when they first met but still John’s infidelity hurt her.) The assistant May was to report in to Yoko daily and was a spy as well as an assistant. John knew that. There apparently was a tacit agreement that sleeping with May was okay. These arrangements did not lead to happiness or enlightenment or freedom. (I’m not surprised.)

The book is a quick read and the illustrations enhance the story well, conveying a past era. It’s not a book I’d recommend to a young teen because of its adult experiences and their depictions, e.g. showing Lennon using heroin. But for mature readers interested in music history or for graphic novel enthusiasts, it’s a satisfying book.

 
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Posted by on January 23, 2019 in history, non-fiction

 

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Audubon: On the Wings of the World

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I learned so much about the life of John James Audubon from the graphic biography, Audubon, Audubon: On The Wings Of The World . I knew nothing about his dedicated wife, who had to put up with her husband’s long absences as he worked on his magnum opus,  The Birds of America

This book tells the story of his life from his first foray into illustration and his courtship. His wife was incredibly patient and supportive. What Audubon was trying to do, illustrate birds so that they seemed fully alive, was unheard of in his day and he experienced great frustration because people kept comparing him to Alexander Wilson, an earlier illustrator, who inspired Audubon, but whom Audubon believed wasn’t as good as he was.

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I was shocked at the number of birds, Audubon shot in order to illustrate all the species found in American. He’d shoot many of one species and shot thousands over all. According to the book, he did not find this at odds with his love for birds or his desire to add to their conservation and our understanding of them.

On The Wings of the World, has good illustrations, though they aren’t on par with Audubon’s own work. That would be amazing — and would probably mean a much more expensive book. I feel I’ve a fuller and deeper understanding of Audubon, who’s presented warts and all. It would make a great gift and belongs in every library.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2018 in fiction, non-fiction

 

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Melting Pot or Civil War?

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Well, that’s a loaded question, isn’t it?

Actually, it’s also the title of Reihan Salam’s recent book on immigration and the full title is Melting Pot or Civil War?: A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders Many might feel the title says it all and there’s no reason to read the book. Well, if all you’re interested in is swapping opinions then, yes, you don’t have to read the book.

However, Salam offers a lot of facts and expert analysis, his own and others, that deepened my understanding of U.S. immigration trends and demographic data that I hadn’t known.

In general, I tend to prefer the golden mean and to extreme solutions. I took out this book hoping to find new solutions, and Salam provides some. He often uses his own family’s experiences in addition to research data to differentiate various kinds of immigrants and outcomes. Immigrants who’re among the first to come to a country tend to assimilate well. It makes sense as they must learn the language and customs since there aren’t many people to talk with and living out the past lifestyle is tough because small numbers don’t make running a business geared to a very tiny subculture profitable.  As the numbers from a country increase it’s easy to live in an enclave where you can speak your own language, eat your homeland’s food, etc.

Because Salam’s parents came to the US when few other Bangladeshi’s lived her, the family soon assimilated. Those who came later, arrived in a New York that had plenty of shops, social opportunities and Bangladeshi influence, that it was possible to live comfortably within an enclave. (Now I see assimilation as a personal choice, but it does have costs in terms of opportunities. For example, Americans can go to Asia and teach English and get by, but if they want more career opportunities, they need to speak the local language at a high level.)

(My own experiences bear this out. When I worked in Japan, I was the only non-Japanese person in my workplace who only spoke English. I had to learn Japanese and I did. I also adapted more to Japanese culture. In other countries there were more people who spoke English and hence my proficiency in Korean or Chinese never got to the level of my Japanese.)

Salam examines the need for low skilled labor and the economic results of various ways of getting such labor as used in the US, South Korea, Sweden and elsewhere. He also does a good job of considering how the increase of automated labor will impact low skilled workers. He explains how the influx of low skilled labor impacts the current workers who are on par with them.

What is the solution — or solutions? Salam proposes a few including the development of charter cities and new ways of supporting poor children.

Yes, Salam is a conservative, but his tone is rational and his ideas, for me were new. He sympathizes with immigrants and acknowledges people’s desire to find a solution that is kind and fair.

A good summary of with more details is here.

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2018 in book review, fiction, non-fiction

 

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On Liberty

Here’s a short video I made introducing the ideas of John Stuart Mill culled from his work “On Liberty.” Mill was a big champion of free speech.

I think more people should read this book. Project Gutenberg has it for free here.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2018 in 19th Century, British Lit, British literature, non-fiction

 

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The Radium Girls

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The Radium Girls by Kate Moore tells the story of the young women who worked in factories painting iridescent numbers on watch and clock dials. In New Jersey and Illinois after WWI, girls were hired to use paint made with radium to make the dials glow in the dark. The technique they were required to use was to lick the tip of the brush, dip it in the paint and paint the numbers. Then they were to repeat. No step to clean the brush.

At the time radium was believed to be an ultra-healthy substance. No safety precautions were taken.

These girls were proud to earn good wages and had a good lifestyle. Proud of their work, when they would go out dancing, they would take the radium dust rub it on their eyelids and skin, which made them glow.

As you can imagine, the women started to get ill. One woman had awful jaw pain, and when she went to the dentist her jaw fell out, which was the first of many ailments that inflicted her and her colleagues. One after another, the girls began to experience horrific health issues. The radium would attack their bones. Others, as you’d guess, got rare, devastating cancers.

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Statue of a Radium Girl, Ottawa, Illinois

The girls began to take legal action and the two radium companies fought them tooth and nail. The story soon turns to one of courage and tenacity as these women fight for their lives and fight for justice in the courts against two Goliath companies.

In many ways the story is hard to take, but because these women banded together and had great resilience and remained strong in spirit and clung to hope, The Radium Girls was not a depressing story. My only critique is that the author’s scope covering two factories which weren’t that connected, made the book confusing at times. Yet I understand her desire to tell the full story. I think it would have been better if Moore had focused on fewer girls and added an epilogue about the others. I highly recommend reading The Radium Girls.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2018 in non-fiction, postaweek

 

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The Secret Knowledge

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David Mamet shares his journey from liberal to conservative and offers his understanding of his past beliefs and the strengths of his more traditional views in The Secret Knowledge. The book is well written and Mamet offers insights that never occurred to me. I think it’s good practice to taken in insights from a wide variety of perspectives and with that in mind, I got a lot out of The Secret Knowledge. 

If you’ve seen or read, Mamet’s plays, you won’t be surprised by his forceful writing. He packs a punch, which is probably why he likes boxing.

Published in 2014, Mamet doesn’t comment on the Trump Presidency, but he does examine the 60s, 70s, and on up to 2012. He is well read and thoughtful.

 

 

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2018 in contemporary, essay, fiction, non-fiction, postaweek

 

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