nonfiction · review

The Taste of Empire, by Lizzie Collingham

It’s not unusual for me to have mixed emotions while reading a book. Some books have made me feel happy and sad, others wary and mirthful. But I can’t recall a book that made me feel outraged and hungry. That is what I felt most of the time as I read Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. Each chapter of this book begins with a meal set in a variety of places in England or their former colonies, each illustrating how exotic ingredients became British staples or how culture was shaped by the trading empire, before zoomed out to the larger economic movements and consequences of those movements. I would have loved to have tea or try curried iguana with the people mentioned in the book, but then I would grow more and more angry as I read about how the rapacious and racist actions of British colonizers wrecked havoc on traditional foodways and culture.

Collingham takes us back to the Tudor era at the beginning of Taste of Empire, when the English began to branch out to find fish to feed their navy. She takes us aboard the Mary Rose, a ship that sunk early in a battle due to a freak of weather. The artifacts found on the wreck have given us an in-depth look at so much about Tudor life, but Collingham obviously focuses on the food. The sailors ate hardtack, salt fish, and peas, mostly. They were probably not happy about it. (Dissatisfaction with military rations is a running theme.) The last meal of the Mary Rose sailors becomes a springboard to a discussion of how early English fishermen stopped sailing to shoals off Iceland and moved to the shoals off of Newfoundland—with plenty of details of how cod were preserved in massive amounts of salt so that they would be edible when they arrived back in England. In subsequent chapters, Collingham teaches us about the origins of the triangle trade and the incredible growth of Caribbean sugar, the British and American slave trade, the theft of land from indigenous people, how the British East India Company traded opium for Chinese tea, the development of a variety of food preservation techniques, the British racist obsession with “civilizing” indigenous people, and much more.

A large part of The Taste of Empire examines how cash crop agriculture repeatedly leads to cultural destruction and malnutrition. In the American colonies, it was tobacco. In the Caribbean, it was sugar. In India, it was opium. These crops were so valuable that farmers around the Empire’s colonies stopped growing food because they could make more money with the cash crops. Because these farmers weren’t growing food, they grew dependent on British food imports from Canada, Australia, and other places. If that trade were ever interrupted or prices inflated, famine could break out–as it did repeatedly in India. Collingham includes a deliberately upsetting image of victims of the 1876-1878 Madras Famine to show us the very real consequences of British trade. During the Great Famine in Ireland and the Bengal Famine of 1943, food was exported to England at the cost of exacerbating local hunger. In addition to deliberately encouraging cash crop agriculture, British colonizers also pushed people in their African and Indian colonies to grow corn (maize) instead of their traditional millet, sorghum, and other grains. While they told local that corn was more useful and civilized, they didn’t know to pass on cooking methods that would actually make corn nutritious. Without extra processing, critical vitamins in corn couldn’t be absorbed by the human body. Consequently, people grew tons of corn and became malnourished as they ate it.

A 106-year old fruitcake made by Huntley & Palmers, found in Antarctic ruins. (Image via NPR)

I have a few problems with The Taste of Empire. Collingham deliberately uses colonial terms for places in India and Africa without parenthetical notes with the modern names. I realize that Collingham is trying to recreate the colonial world, but it bothered me that the indigenous names are erased. Reading about the famines in Bengal might have been a little more bearable if those names had been there to remind me that India would become independent after World War II. The other thing that bothered me is that, because she wanted to cover so much territory (temporal and physical), a lot of things are oversimplified or omitted. In her brief discussion of the Irish Great Famine, Collingham doesn’t mention that English colonizers still exported grain and livestock to England while the Irish were left with their rotting potatoes to eat. She repeats the idea that local Irish “over relied” on potatoes without reminding us that this over reliance came from the fact that there was nothing else for them to eat. Also, in trying to be fair to British colonizers, there are several sections (especially the chapter that discusses the opium-tea trade) in The Taste of Empire where I wish Collingham had been more judgmental of the British. Collingham criticizes but not as much as I would have wished, but I suspect this was because I was furious at what I was reading.

In spite of its problems, I was fascinated throughout The Taste of Empire. About a third of the actual length of the book consists of notes and references and I deeply approve of the amount of research Collingham did for this book. I loved the scenes of meals around the world, event when they were included to show just how stubborn British colonizers were in recreating good English meals wherever they were. She even includes recipes for some of the dishes mentioned. Every chapter was eye opening and, unlike some nonfiction books I could mention with hyperbolic subtitles, Collingham absolutely proves her thesis that the British drive for food (and cash crops) definitely helped create the world we live in now.

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nonfiction · review

The Accidental Veterinarian, by Philip Schott

Philip Schott’s slight book, The Accidental Veterinarian, is a collection of posts from his blog, Vetography. The posts are alternately biographical, advice about pets, and stories about clients and their pets (the best parts). I suspect that long time readers of Dr. Schott’s blog won’t find much new here. For readers who haven’t heard of or read the blog, The Accidental Veterinarian is a fun jaunt through the life of a vet.

Schott is Canadian, with a winning sense of humor, which shines throughout the book. More than once I wished that I lived in Winnipeg*, so that I could take my boys to Dr. Schott. The early sections of the book contain Schott’s origin story. Unlike many vets, I suspect, Schott didn’t grow up in a house full of animals. He only had a pet gerbil after months of begging when he was a boy and a cat that wandered in from the cold when he was a teenager. He fell into veterinary medicine after following his father’s advice to choose a practical major in college. Thirty years on, Schott seems to have found lasting joy in his profession even though veterinarians suffer from high rates of emotional burnout.

Obligatory cat photo: Mogwai (right) and Ari

I asked to review The Accidental Veterinarian because I wanted to read stories about animals, the funnier and more heartwarming the better. I have fond memories of reading All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot, as a teenager. There weren’t as many stories as I had hoped. In fact, many of the stories here are launching points for advice about how to care for one’s pets (especially dogs) or when to call the vet. That said, there are some good stories about dogs who can’t stop eating things that are bad for them and pets who have names too innocent for their aggressive natures.

Readers who want pet stories would probably be better off reading the blog. Readers who are thinking about becoming vets, however, should pick this book up. In addition to the advice about taking care of our furry friends, Schott also has a lot of advice about how to be a good veterinarian. There are no illusions in The Accidental Veterinarian. Schott is clear that the life of a veterinarian is full of emotional highs and lows, and a lot of work. The highs, he says, make up for a lot of the lows. His best advice is that being a veterinarian is as much about the humans as it is about the pets. Veterinarians have to work with the people who are scared for their pets or who don’t understand the costs of having a pet or who just don’t know what’s involved in having a pet.

Spay and neuter your pets, folks, and don’t forget to get them vaccinated!

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.


*Also, public health care and whatnot.

nonfiction · review

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman

In the 1970s, after the end of the Laotian Civil War, tens of thousands of Hmong people fled the country. Many of them came to the United States because so many of the men had fought against communists on behalf of the CIA and U.S. Government. But, unlike so many migrant groups, the Hmong are so fiercely proud of their culture, religion, and identity and so resistant to assimilation that they have been in conflict with American culture and bureaucracy right from the beginning. In Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, we see a tragic conflict of cultures when a young Hmong girl with epilepsy is brought into the Merced Community Medical Center.

Lia Lee was born in Merced, California, in 1982 to parents who had fled from Laos only a few years prior. Three months after her birth, her parents, Foua Yang and Nao Kao Lee, rushed her to Merced Community Medical Center because she had had a seizure. At first, the doctors didn’t see Lia seizing and could only send her home. When they did see her experiencing a seizure, it set off a scramble involving several doctors, nurses, and social workers to get Lia’s seizures under control. For months, the doctors struggled to find the right combination of drugs that would control Lia’s epilepsy, while interpreters and social workers attempted to explain that drug regime to Foua and Nao Kao.

Many of the documents in Lia’s medical records, later examined by Fadiman, state that the parents understand and agree to the treatment. The problem is that neither of Lia’s parents spoke English. They were not literate in Hmong or Lao, either, so written instructions were out. Not only did they not speak English, but they did not understand what was happening or the doctors were trying to do. All the doctors saw was a couple who refused to give their daughter the medicine that would control her seizures. But from the perspective of the Lees, the doctors were failing, over and over, to help their daughter. They saw their daughter in pain from all the IVs used to give Lia sedatives to stop the seizures. They also saw doctors ignore and scorn their cultural and religious beliefs and do things that were incomprehensible to the Lees. The entire situation was a massive failure of communication.

Hmong girl in China, by Michael Mooney (Image via Wikicommons)

Lia’s story and the recent history of the Hmong are the foundation for Fadiman’s larger exploration of the need for cross-cultural education for not just doctors but everyone who works in public services. Fadiman dives deeply into the culture, language, and religion of the Hmong to explain the stark differences between Hmong people and Americans. Due to their deliberate isolation from the rest of the world right up to the 1970s, Hmong people of Foua and Nao Kao’s generation are completely unfamiliar with Western medicine. Fadiman notes at one point that the Hmong language lacks words for some internal organs because Hmong people do not practice autopsy. (There is a taboo about blood and amputation that frequently caused conflicts over surgeries.) Hmong people also suffered from soul illness that kind of but do not correlate to post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that do not translate into English; worse, some doctors didn’t take these illnesses seriously. Even when the doctors and nurses had someone who spoke Hmong to interpret, there were still problems fully translating. Only later, in the 1990s and 2000s, when staff at Merced Community and other hospitals began to collaborate with Hmong shamans and try to incorporate Hmong healing with Western medicine, did the cases like Lia’s become rare.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a fascinating and heart-breaking book about an impossible medical/ethical dilemma. Fadiman wrote a deeply empathetic and erudite book about Lia and her family, the Hmong people, and their ongoing trials in America, a country where they had hoped to find a more peaceful existence. I truly appreciated her fairness in this book. She includes interviews with both Lia’s doctors and her family. No one is really to blame in Fadiman’s account, though several doctors admit that they could have done more or that they made mistakes in Lia’s case. Above all, this is a very human book about the mistakes we make when we encounter people we just don’t understand.

nonfiction · review

All Ships Follow Me, by Mieke Eerkens

Mieke Eerken’s family is in the unique position of being caught in strangely opposing positions during World War II. Her father and his family were interned by the Imperial Japanese Army on the island of Java for almost the entire war. Her maternal grandparents were members of the National Socialist Party of the Netherlands. In All Ships Follow Me, Eerkens tells her family stories and shares her anxieties, concerns, and questions about her heritage as the child of a colonialist and the granddaughter of a collaborator.

The first third of All Ships Follow Me follows Eerkens and her father, Sjef Eerkens, on a trip to Java so that they can both see the places Sjef lived. Eerkens gives a capsule history of her father’s life up until the Japanese invasion in 1942. She then uses her father’s memories and documents from other internees to recreate the three years her father was a prisoner. Conditions were brutal; the internees were treated so badly that some of the Japanese officers at the Javanese camps were convicted later of war crimes. But even though the years from 1942-1945 were so pivotal in her father life and the lives of other Dutch settlers in what is now Indonesia, there are few remembrances of the Dutch dead.

In the middle third of the book, Eerkens shares her mother’s history. Her mother, Else, was born on the eve of World War II, so she has few memories of the war itself. Eerkens has to recreate the past by interviewing her aunts and uncles, and by taking a dive into the Dutch Archives to see her grandfather and grandmother’s trial documents. Else does remember the terrible shunning she and her family received after the war. When the war ended, there was an eruption of vengeance by those Dutch people who weren’t collaborators. Women who slept with Germans had their heads shaved. Children were taken away. Property was seized. Even now, people with collaborators in their families keep silent.

In the last third of All Ships Follow Me (the title recalls a quote famous to all Dutch people: the words of Admiral Karel Doorman, who went down with his ship during the Battle of the Java Sea), Eerkens turns to the legacy of her parents trials. Her parents are hoarders. They all have troubled relationships to food. Else still tries to keep a low profile and seeks affection. Sjef barges ahead in any situation, refusing to admit any wrong. Eerkens also touches on epigenetics, a developing science that has shown that severe trauma can be passed down to later generations. Even though World War II ended 74 years ago, it is still very much ingrained in the Eerkens clan.

It’s clear by the end of this book that Eerkens is still working her way through what all this means for herself. The last third is less focused, packed with questions about how to resolve her colonialist and collaborationist guilt, her frustration with and affection for her parents, how suffering should be memorialized, how to deal with her lack of a true home and food issues, and much more. Some readers may be frustrated by all this questioning, but I found it very human. Anyone who claimed to have answers to the kinds of questions Eerkens is asking is either a liar or very shallow.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

Women and children at Kampong Makassar camp, near Jakarta (Image via Wikicommons)
nonfiction · review

Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard

Dame Mary Beard is an academic who, curiously for a Classicist, is regularly called upon to do battle on the interwebs against trolls who doubt her authority and mock her appearance. Her experiences lead her to deliver the speeches contained in Women & Power: A Manifesto about how Western culture has sought to silence women since the days of Homer. Beard’s examples from history, literature, and art have created one of the most erudite calls to action I have ever read.

Women & Power contains two speeches, delivered in the early and mid-2010s. This brief book is really only about 90 pages of actual text, written in a highly readable style that I devoured in about an hour. I could easily hear Beard narrating in my head as she meandered through ancient and recent history to make her case that women in the West have never really been allowed to speak in the public forum. Women who do try to speak up for themselves are played for comedy (as in Lysistrata) or, more often, viewed as unnatural creatures who need to be silenced as soon as possible, such as Clytemnestra. More recent examples include the horrifically misogynist abuse hurled at Hilary Clinton, Theresa May, Angela Merkel, and even Margaret Thatcher.

A badass portrait of Clytemnestra, by John Collier (Image via Wikicommons)

Over and over, Beard connects scenes from the ancient world to the modern world. Telemachus telling his mother, Penelope, back to weaving so that the men can talk links to the way women are relegated to talking about “women’s issues” (that are really everyone’s issues). The mutilation of Lucretia easily connects to #MeToo and the way women are faced with prohibitive consequences for discussing how they were sexually assaulted. Beard even finds examples of how the voice of power and authority is always described in masculine terms and how this early cultural condition still impacts how women are frequently criticized for the tone of their voices; we are often called shrill because our voices are usually at a higher pitch.

Because Women & Power contains just two speeches, I was left wanting more. I wished for a full length treatment of the themes Beard introduces. Also, though she does have a few nods to intersectionality, this is a very white book. Still, in spite of its limitations, I found Women & Power to be a useful introduction to the silencing of women. If nothing else, it’s nice to know that we aren’t just imagining things when women are ignored, shunted to the side, and criticized simply for the natural pitches of our voices. There’s a lot of history we have to overcome. Women and trans women, let’s speak up!

nonfiction · review

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, by Edward Wilson-Lee

When I was a library school student, I recall learning about faceted classification and the complexities of organizing large amounts of information. The more information in the pile, the harder is to organize them in a way that makes it easier for others to find information. For example, if you have a group of novels, do you organize them by subject, mood, alphabetically, chronologically, by size? We learned about librarians from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who tackled these problems and gave us the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress Classification System. But, as I read Edward Wilson-Lee’s deeply erudite book The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, I learned that none other than the son of Christopher Columbus wrestled with these very questions in his quest to create a universal library in the first half of the sixteenth century.

Hernando Colón (better known in English, if not in Wilson-Lee’s book, as Ferdinand Columbus) was the illegitimate younger son of Columbus and, among other achievements, is the author of a lost biography of his father that did a lot to shape his father’s image and legacy for centuries—at least until historians and indigenous advocates reminded us of the terrible, genocidal toll* of Columbus’ actions. The beginning and the end of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books focus on Colón’s efforts to build his father’s reputation as a hero of exploration and secure the riches and titles that were promised to himself and his older, legitimate brother as a result of Columbus’ discoveries. Though Colón helped his father with the bizarre Book of Prophecies—a collection of quotations from religious and literary works that somehow proved Columbus’ divine destiny but mostly reveals Columbus’ loosening grasp on reality—he later worked to create a rigorously documented biography.

Undated portrait of Hernando Colón (Image via Wikicommons)

This may sound dry and only possessing a niche appeal for librarians, especially cataloguers. But I found it fascinating as a history of ideas. During Colón’s time, book collectors and researchers are highly selective. They tended to only collect works of theology in Latin and Greek, possibly Hebrew. Others might collect books about medicine or the natural sciences but, again, usually only books deemed canonical and orthodox. These libraries were easy to organize. Colón’s library, however, was a blizzard of paper. Because he couldn’t classify it using traditional schemas, Colón had to think of something new. Edward-Lee describes Colón’s thought process in detail as the collector wrestled with issues that we librarians are only just now starting to solve using algorithm-based search engines. Colón’s big problem was how to find a piece of information when the reader is not sure where it is or even if it exists—a question that is very familiar to librarians.

The middle part of The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books was the most interesting to me. It deals with Colón’s efforts to build a massive library that would contain as much printed matter as possible and then organize it into a system that would allow researchers to find any useful piece of information in that library. By the end of his life, Colón had acquired more than fifteen thousand books, printed images, and pamphlets. Because there were more books than anyone could remember, Colón himself and his assistants worked on summarizes and a classification system that strongly reminded me of the efforts to create a faceted classification system that I had read about in library school. Colón, we learn, was an iconoclast because he wanted to collect everything he could get his hands on. He didn’t want just the books prescribed by the great collectors and thinkers of his time. He didn’t want just want the big booksellers included. He really did want everything, especially texts printed by smaller publishers.

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books—named for a shipment of over 1,000 printed texts bought by Colón that was lost at sea—is great tour of the intellectual world of the late 1400s and early 1500s. Edward-Lee makes a few odd choices, such as constantly calling Colón Hernando instead of Ferdinand Columbus, and once calls Christopher Columbus the first European to lay eyes on the Americas**. But aside from these quibbles, I learned a great deal from this book and have so much food for thought that I know I am already going to recommend this to my cataloguing friends.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.


*New research has shown that so many indigenous people died as a result of European contact that it changed the climate.
**Vikings got to Canada centuries before Columbus hit the West Indies.

nonfiction · review

Arabian Journey, by Levison Wood

I’ve realized that I have a deep love of nonfiction accounts of amazing, slightly-crazy journeys. Levison Wood’s An Arabian Journey definitely fits the bill. Wood, a journalist and world traveler, had wanted to follow in the footsteps of Wilfred Thesiger, T.E. Lawrence, and Freya Stark—Europeans who traveled into the Arabian desert and made friendships with Bedouins, Arabs, and the other residents of the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula.

When Wood first floated his idea of walking around the Arabian Peninsula to two friends he wanted to go with him, they told him he was nuts. Not only was he nuts, they told him, but they had proof that the idea could never work. Many of the places Wood wanted to visit during the fall of 2017 were active war zones, had recently been war zones, or were shaping up to possibly war zones in the near future. It would be incredibly dangerous because of all the fighting on top of the fact that the Arabian Peninsula is one of the most hostile environments on the planet. Wood, of course, goes anyway.

An Arabian Journey is an amble of a book, fittingly enough. Wood starts in Syria and Kurdistan, planning to walk “clockwise” around the Peninsula—which of course puts him in the middle of the Syrian Civil War and the lingering fight against ISIL. In each country, Wood travels with a guide/fixer. Some of these, as his guides in Oman and Saudi Arabia, are great. Others, like his cantankerous guide in Iraq, are so awful that Wood regrets even starting out. It didn’t take me long to figure out, based on these detailed sketches of the people he works with and meets, that Wood is as interested in people as he is in the scenery of the desolate deserts and mountains of the Peninsula.

Wood is at his best when he’s talking about that scenery. He loves the empty spaces and wildness and arid danger. He marvels at the flora and fauna of the magical sounding island of Sir Bani Yas and the frankincense trees of western Oman. A lot of his journey is miserable, mostly because his luck in picking guides is dreadful about half of the time. When he has a good guide, like his guides in Oman who hooked him up with good camels, Wood can almost transport you. These passages make up for the parts when Wood is at the mercy of guides who half-ass their way through the desert or who want to scam him out of more money. Wood’s account is completely honest, for good or ill.

An Arabian Journey mostly scratched my itch to travel (via words) to remote places full of history and packed with interesting people and animals. I would never have the gumption to pack up for a long walking tour in my own country, let alone traveling to a place that is so dangerous for so many reasons as Wood did. I’m glad that I got to tag along, in a way—even if there were parts I wish Wood had glossed over. If you have a yen to visit far away places via print, I would recommend An Arabian Journey.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

An Arabian Oryx, one of the many amazing animals Wood saw while hoofing it around the Arabian Peninsula. (Image via Wikicommons)