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“Rat stories are like ghost stories: everybody has one,” writes British author Joe Shute at the start of Stowaway: The Disreputable Exploits of the Rat. Shute’s own original rat story involves going to an alley to watch a ratcatcher and his trained dogs at work. The rats escaped down a sewer, sparing the author the carnage of a rat versus dog encounter. 

Still, it was unsettling. After all, as Shute points out, rats have long loomed as fearsome creatures in our imaginations. “We are obsessed as a society with the notion of rats mustering in the gloom and waiting to invade our lives,” he writes. That’s not surprising, given history. Although it’s now thought that the 14th-century bubonic plague was spread by lice and fleas, rats still shoulder the blame for the death of millions.  

To challenge his own biases and overcome his fears, the author purchased two dumbo rats, Molly and Ermintrude. In the early days of their relationship, Shute walked a “tightrope between disgust and fascination,” but as he continued his “rat therapy,” he was amazed by their social habits and how responsive the rats were to his touch. In fact, Shute interviewed a neuroscientist who, while exploring the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown and the loss of touch on humans, studied—wait for it—how tickling rats impacted their behavior and hormone levels. (Conclusion: Touch helps both humans and rats build resistance against stress.)

One fascinating section delves into how rats help humans in unexpected ways. Shute traveled to Tanzania to learn about Apopo, an organization that trains rats to detect landmines as well as tuberculosis. Magawa, an African giant pouched rat, was awarded a Dickin medal for sniffing out landmines in Cambodia. “Not for the first time,” writes Shute, “rats are cleaning up humanity’s mess.” And, of course, rats have been used since the 1800s in laboratories that study human diseases. That use has accelerated, in part because, as Shute points out, almost all human genes associated with disease have counterparts in the rat genome. 

Stowaway may not be an obvious choice as a gift for a family member who loves animals. But it will undoubtedly be enjoyed. Be prepared, though: You may end up with your own rat experiment. In Shute’s family, Molly and Ermintrude were joined by Aggy and Reyta, forming a rat colony. In getting to know the rat better, Shute did not find a creature with no redeeming qualities, but “empathy, cooperation, mischief, fun, loyalty and resilience.”

In the entertaining Stowaway, Joe Shute explores and exalts the resilient, cooperative, derided and, ultimately, misunderstood rat.
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Women run everywhere: up mountains, on the beach, along city roads and country paths. They run for their health, to compete, for the joy of feeling lungs, heart and legs work in harmony. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a world where women don’t run. But in Better Faster Farther: How Running Changed Everything We Know About Women, sportswriter and essayist Maggie Mertens reveals that the history of women’s running was never smooth. Instead, it was like a hurdle race, but one where the obstacles became taller and harder over time.

As Mertens reports, nearly everything conspired against women who wanted to run. It took generations of stubborn, passionate athletes simply to get to the starting line. Mertens opens the book describing the erroneous reportage on 1928’s first Olympic women’s 800-meter race, which claimed that the competitors dropped like flies at the finish line. Male-dominated sports associations barred competitions for women. Doctors declared that running would cause irreparable damage to their reproductive organs. 

If a woman wanted to run, she was deemed either dangerously masculine, seriously misguided or mentally ill. Better Faster Father profiles dozens of athletes who faced these charges. Before Bobbi Gibb snuck into the 1966 Boston Marathon and became the first woman runner to complete it, her parents had sent her to a psychiatrist to “cure” her of her passion for running. When runners like Mary Decker and Mary Cain developed osteoporosis, sports scientists blamed feminine frailty, rather than ill-informed coaches who made their protégés starve themselves.

Women ran marathons and broke track records, but, as Mertens details, new barriers kept being erected, supposedly to protect women’s opportunities, including denying participation of trans and intersex athletes. Transgender women were and are targeted, even though their performance on the track is comparable to cisgender women competitors, and the “advantage” of testosterone remains unproven. Genetic testing, invasive physical exams and testosterone tests were and are performed on women deemed too fast, too muscular, too competitive to be female. 

And yet, women run. Like Jasmin Paris, who holds the world record for the Spine Race, a grueling 268-mile ultramarathon up and down the Pennine mountains. And Paula Radcliffe, who controversially kept training up until the day she gave birth—and won the 2007 New York City Marathon nine months later. Every woman you see jogging in the park or sprinting at a track meet. All prove that women can, indeed, run. 

For centuries, women were discouraged from running. Better Faster Farther chronicles how and why they ran anyway.
Interview by

When biologist and writer Aarathi Prasad learned that a piece of fabric woven from threads produced by a Mediterranean mollusk called Pinna nobilis had been found outside Budapest in a tomb of a woman mummified in the style of the ancient Egyptians, she got on a plane.

The museum holding the remains and most of the documentation of the discovery had been destroyed in a Nazi bombing during the 1940s, but she was undeterred. “I called the museum,” says Prasad, “and asked, Is there any chance you have anything? They said, Yes, yes, come and see. . . . My daughter asked, ‘Are you some kind of spy?’ I landed in Budapest and went directly to the museum. It was closed. They let me into the basement. [The mummified woman] was wrapped in hemp, very well preserved, they said. But did you find any silk? [I asked.] They said yes, when the sarcophagus was opened there was very fine fabric covering her. But it disappeared as soon as the lid was lifted.”

The unusual, hermaphroditic Pinna nobilis mollusks anchor themselves to rocks using distinct, transparent threads that spawned a regional weaving culture likely dating back to before the Phoenicians. The mollusks themselves had been a robust part of local diets until human-induced sea warming resulted in massive die-offs and imposed harvesting limits. That’s just one example in hundreds of fascinating facts and stories Prasad relates in her illuminating Silk: A World History, a book born out of her own obsessive pursuit of knowledge. “I have heard it said that scientific study can take away a sense of wonder because science reduces a miraculous organism into mere mechanical parts,” she writes. “I have never found that to be true. Perhaps I find miracles in mechanisms.”

“Traditional science books often feel like textbooks. Human stories bring them alive.”

Prasad devotes much of the lively middle of her book to the biology, culture and elusive history of Pinna nobilis silk, seeking to resolve how long people have been weaving mollusk silk fabric. “It’s so intriguing,” she says. “Chances are this fabric was widely used around the Mediterranean. It existed. Then for a while no one knew it existed, and now we are trying to prove it existed. In the meantime, the animals these threads come from are critically endangered because of human activities. There’s a big metaphor about life somewhere in that.”

Normally Prasad’s research is not so dramatic. She is now an honorary researcher at University College London, and her current project is as a geneticist on archaeological digs in Rome and Pompeii. She raised her daughter, Tara, now in her early 20s, as a single parent while holding down academic and research jobs. Employment and parenting meant she usually worked on Silk and her two previous books, one on Indian medicine and the other on how science is altering conception, in the early mornings and late evenings. Tara has traveled with her on many research forays, to India and “into different, difficult situations,” Prasad says with a hint of pride, “so that she now tells people trying to advise her on her studies, ‘Oh, I’ve never let school get in the way of my education.’” Tara has also dismissed her mother’s experimental efforts to grow silkworms herself. “They poop a lot,” Prasad admits. “My daughter was disgusted.”

Prasad’s interest in silk arose first “through science, through the application of silk in regenerative medicine, creating new parts for the heart or applying it to rebuilding the body in a more organic, less invasive way.” Her book profiles the contemporary scientists working at the cutting edge of bioengineering animals like goats (so far unsuccessfully) to produce silk with the strength of a strand of a spider’s web, or experimenting with ways to incorporate silk into biomedicine or even as alternatives to plastics. “I was surprised in talking to these scientists to discover that they found the environmental impact more interesting than the surgical or biological applications,” Prasad says. “Because to them it’s a material that could and should be applied to planetary sustainability.”

That outlook is the almost polar opposite of the attitudes of many of the Western scientists Prasad profiles in the opening section of Silk. Curious, eccentric and sometimes obsessed, these were men (and some women) of their times: the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. As such, their interests reflected a colonizer’s point of view.

“European science has actually been quite extractive,” says Prasad. “So I fell down this rabbit hole of colonial history. I learned this from my India book [In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room] as well. Countries colonized by the British and the French had their own systems of knowledge cut off. The British asked their military men and doctors to do etymology on the side. They said, essentially, go out and find the coal, go find the trees, go find the animals and plants. That’s how they made their money. There was a lot of abusive behavior, not even mentioning slavery. And how would scientists from Europe know about plants and animals in another country? By speaking to local people. But it is impossible to know who those people were because they were never named.”

Prasad’s awareness of cultural appropriation and the dismissal of Indigenous expertise percolates through the book, adding voltage to her depiction of the pursuit of knowledge about silkworms. The most common silkworm, Bombyx mori, was at the center of global trade. “The fact that it was bred for so long in homes and factories specifically for its silken cocoons,” Prasad writes, “made this caterpillar so docile, prevalent, and immobile that it would also become the focus of intense scientific study.” As described in magnificent detail here, Bombyx mori would become one of the first insects to be analyzed in precise anatomical detail in the 17th century by Marcello Malpighi. Silkworm studies also led an early researcher to propose a germ theory of disease before Louis Pasteur’s widely known discoveries. Later researchers would discover that the patterns on silk moths and other moths absorb sound energy from predatory bats using echolocation to hunt. The moths mimic the sound waves, allowing them to create a cloak against detection.

“I was astonished to find so many women who were natural historians. Why has hardly anyone ever heard of them?”

“Traditional science books often feel like textbooks. Human stories bring them alive,” Prasad says, explaining her decision to nest the science in her early chapters within miniature biographies of the researchers and their cultures. “I grew up in the Caribbean and came to England as a teenager. I loved history but I had to choose at some point between history and science, and I chose science. In England I learned about the Normandy landings in the Second World War—not that there were Indians and Africans fighting in the war. Just the European perspective. Whereas in Trinidad, I learned about slavery and the Aztecs and all of these cultures that weren’t ours. Sometimes we have to educate ourselves because what we’re taught in schools is not necessarily going to give us the full story.”

She adds, “In writing the book, I was astonished to find so many women who were natural historians. Why has hardly anyone ever heard of them? Their work was used but rarely acknowledged.”

Prasad found one of these women, Maria Sibylla Merian, particularly captivating. A 17th-century Dutch illustrator and naturalist, her drawings were used by Linneaus to classify more than 100 species. But her observations were often dismissed by male scientists. “She got on a ship and sailed with her daughter across the Atlantic,” Prasad says. “She was the first person to go to study nature as a scientist. Other people went for other reasons. Darwin went as a doctor. She went for science and nothing else. . . . She was a single mother too, and she wanted to see with her own eyes.”

Read our starred review of ‘Silk’ by Aarathi Prasad.

Photo of Aarathi Prasad by Tara Lumley-Savile.

Driven by obsession, Prasad records what silk can teach us about medicine, culture and scientific discovery itself.

After author and sociologist Sarah Thornton had a double mastectomy, she opted for breast reconstruction covered by her insurance. But she didn’t get the B-cup “lesbian yoga boobs” she had described to her surgeon. Instead, she got D-cup “silicone aliens” that “didn’t feel female or even human.” She relates this experience with humorous flair, but the result was scholarly: “I now had an overwhelming desire to understand breasts, excavate their meanings, and map out routes to their emancipation.”

Thornton (Seven Days in the Art World) documents her research in the memorably titled Tits Up: What Sex Workers, Milk Bankers, Plastic Surgeons, Bra Designers, and Witches Tell Us About Breasts. Her firsthand insight is woven throughout the book, with chapters focused on the “hardworking tits” of sex workers, “lifesaving jugs” of breast milk donors, “treasured chests” that undergo surgery, “active apexes” of the lingerie industry and “holy mammaries” enshrined in religious mythology.

Many women aren’t satisfied with what nature has given them, or they become disenchanted with the effects of gravity, aging or nursing. Thornton goes into detail about how this view has differed throughout history and in various cultures. As she points out, in Anglo American culture, “saggy is a sin” that often leads to surgical procedures, but in Mali, “‘she whose breasts have fallen’ is a respectful term for an older woman.” 

Thornton’s research and interviews are exhaustive, entertaining and enlightening. There are heartbreaking stories, like one about a mother who lost her baby but donated her breast milk; historical links, like the 1968 bra burning phenomenon; and inside information about how the many different variations in breast sizes and shapes cause conundrums for bra and swimsuit manufacturers. In tandem, Thornton addresses a central question: How is it that we look at breasts so much but reflect on them so little? 

Backed up by research, interviews with experts and plenty of fascinating facts, Tits Up is a revelatory look at many different facets of this oh-so-vital body part. As elucidated by the founder of the “Fool’s Journey” pagan retreat Thornton attends, “Every breast has a story. Let’s work on changing the narrative.” One thing for sure, you’ll never think of boobs in the same way again. 

After reading Sarah Thornton’s revelatory Tits Up, you’ll never look at boobs the same way again.
Review by

Aarathi Prasad does not exaggerate when she subtitles her fascinating new book “A World History.” Silk says little about trade routes or the precious fabric itself, but a lot about the ancient and modern cultures that cultivated silkworms and the wonderful biology of this shape-shifting insect.

Prasad is a biologist, so it is not surprising that the first and longest section of Silk relates the extraordinary stories of some of the methodical, obsessed, passionate observers—today we would call them citizen scientists—who steadily deepened our understanding of a variety of silk-producing insects. Maria Sibylla Merian, for example, began studying and drawing insects in 1660 when she was 13, and later produced beautiful, highly sought-after etchings of the transformation of caterpillars. Her observations led her to accurate conclusions about the life cycle of moths that were at odds with the standard wisdom of many trained men of science. Merian later traveled to the Dutch colony of Surinam, probably the most brutal slave state in the Americas, to continue her observations.

Merian, like the other appealing and idiosyncratic researchers Prasad portrays, was a product of her times. She was often dismissed because she was a woman, but she also participated in her society’s ingrained racism. Prasad is alive to these frictions. For example, she underlines the researchers who relied on unacknowledged native informants, and the vain British explorers who thought it impossible, even when confronted with evidence, that ancient Asian cultures could have produced technologically sophisticated societies. These complications increase our awareness that silkworms were as culturally fraught to the economies of their times as oil is to us today.

The second section is about sea silk, the weird, easily degradable thread from a Mediterranean sea mollusk now threatened with mass extinction. Prasad also explores with equal verve the many attempts to cultivate and monetize filaments of silk produced by spiders. In her final section, she examines the promises of using silk, a sustainable, biological material, for smart technologies “promoting health and preventing the further desecration of our natural world.”

Silk is entertaining and enlightening, brimming with story and scientific detail. It reveals a surprising history well worth knowing.

 

Aarathi Prasad’s entertaining and enlightening history of silk brims with story and scientific detail, revealing a surprising history well worth knowing.
Review by

It is difficult to categorize Anna Shechtman’s The Riddles of the Sphinx: Inheriting the Feminist History of the Crossword Puzzle. In the book, Shechtman, a celebrated feminist and crossword constructor for The New Yorker, recounts her years with anorexia and her recovery. She details the history of the crossword puzzle, in particular the role women played not only in popularizing crossword puzzles, but also in developing them. Shechtman explains and explores how academic feminists create a new vocabulary for women that is free of gender stereotypes. Finally, she argues eloquently that the definition of “crossword-worthy clues” should be more diverse, allowing for a broader range of clues that a general audience stands a chance at solving. But it’s not purely a memoir, history, scholarly tract or manifesto.

Instead, The Riddles of the Sphinx resembles the best themed crosswords: paradoxical puzzles that are simultaneously rigid and relational, entertaining and educational. Themed crosswords explore the relationship between highlighted clues, and can reveal surprising links between them.

Shechtman’s book is similarly well-crafted and tightly structured. There are four themes, much like the traditional crossword has four quadrants: the links between the strict rules of crosswords and anorexia; the role of wordplay in developing a feminist language; the outsize role of white men in puzzle construction; and, finally, the crossword as the emblem of Shechtman’s development as a patient, an intellectual and a social being. The last of these gives the work its power and humanity. When her anorexia was at its worst, Shechtman constructed puzzles. Their rules reflected and affirmed the rigidity imposed on her by her illness, but also isolated her from others and herself. Shechtman’s healing only began when she was able to form relationships with other women in treatment. It is these relationships that bring healing, meaning and relevance—not only to the puzzle, but to our lives.

Celebrated feminist crossword creator Anna Shechtman explores the cultural history of the crossword puzzle in relation to her own life.
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In the past two decades, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—widely known as the Mormon church—has relaxed its iron grip on its archives, allowing some historians to conduct research in its vast library. Professor of religious history Benjamin E. Park has availed himself of this new access and of the work of other contemporary historians to write an absorbing history of the church and its culture. American Zion: A New History of Mormonism argues that Mormon history is surprisingly complex, and its evolution mirrors the struggles of American society. 

Mormons were, from the outset, outsiders. They interpreted the Constitution’s protection of freedom of religion as extending to the practice of polygamy; this belief did them no favors as they sought a home. They were dispelled from state to state as zealots, sometimes through violence—their founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered by a mob in Illinois. Escaping to the Utah desert, they were beset by the federal government, which refused to let them form a “State of the Desert” unless they renounced polygamy. Wary, they zealously guarded their records, putting their own spin on their history. In this century, they allied with the religious right and the Republican Party in culture wars and more fully entered the American mainstream, even producing a formidable presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.

American Zion presents an engaging account of the personalities that loom large in the religion, especially Smith and the church’s second president, Brigham Young. But Park also shows how events and attitudes outside the church have divided the faith. He traces its complicated history of racial bias; its misogyny and, fascinatingly, history of feminism among early Mormon women; its stance on LGBTQ+ rights; and how a church still governed largely by elderly white American men is faring as its membership grows internationally. 

Park, a Mormon himself, tells the story from the inside with neutrality; while he’s critical of the faith’s leaders, he has no ax to grind. If you’re looking for a more dramatic treatment, a la Jon Krakauer’s The Banner of Heaven and its ensuing television series, American Zion may not be for you. But if you’re a curious, measured reader, you’ll likely agree with the author that “Mormonism is a deep well.”

Benjamin E. Park’s absorbing history of Mormonism, American Zion, effectively argues that the faith’s evolution mirrors the struggle of American society.

American pop culture indicates we’re pretty obsessed with marriage, but while there are TV juggernauts about bachelors and housewives, plus countless books, films and songs that praise (or bemoan) wedded life, there’s of course a lot more to marriage than a love story. Family law professor Marcia A. Zug is ready to educate us via You’ll Do: A History of Marrying for Reasons Other Than Love, an extensively researched, engagingly cleareyed look at the history of marriage in America, for better or worse.

The author, whose debut was 2016’s Buying a Bride, was inspired to write You’ll Do by her great-aunt Rosie, one of “generations of American men and women [who] have used marriage as a loophole to circumvent unfair or discriminatory laws.” As war loomed in 1937 Nazi Germany, Rosie, a Jewish woman living in Manhattan, went to Poland to marry her best friend’s brother and bring him to safety in the U.S.

In You’ll Do’s six chapters, Zug delves into marriages similar to her relatives’ as well as those entered into for money, government benefits, status, criminal defense or parental rights. She draws upon scholarly research, court cases and newspaper articles; illustrations and photos help capture the marriage-centric zeitgeist. Zug asserts marriage is a double-edged sword: “it can be beneficial, helping to combat racial, gender, and class discrimination . . . [and] can also further such oppression.” She shares numerous outrage-inducing stories, such as when Osage Indian women were married and murdered by white men pursuing land rights in early 20th-century Oklahoma. Zug cites numerous cases of domestic violence being waved away if it occurred within a marriage, and how in 2010, a Maryland woman learned that her health insurance only covered fertility treatments for the wed.

Other fascinating tidbits: gold-digging is now associated with women, but “Early American men’s interest in marrying for money is apparent in various anti-gold-digging laws.” Benjamin Franklin greatly disdained bachelors. And at Donald Trump’s 2005 wedding, a plane flew a banner proclaiming, “Melania, You’re Hired.”

You’ll Do is an illuminating and informative read that encourages us to broaden our perspective on American marriage and the systems that support it.

Marcia A. Zug’s You’ll Do is an illuminating and informative cultural history of marriage.

Makeup is typically linked to beautification—a palette of products marketed to make us feel more confident, attractive and put-together. This includes eyeliner, often applied in tandem with eyeshadow and mascara to enhance the eyes.

But as Zahra Hankir (Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting From the Arab World) explains in her new book, Eyeliner: A Cultural History, eyeliner is so much more than just a beauty tool. Starting with her own Egyptian and Lebanese background and subsequent relationship with kohl (eyeliner made with naturally sourced materials, including ground galena or soot), she describes how women in her family have used this cosmetic for generations as a steadfast support that “protected and empowered my proud lineage,” and fostered a grounding sense of community.

This personal interest in kohl led Hankir to track down and record the historical and cultural significance of eyeliner in various formulations over time. Her research is exhaustive, touching on cultures from the Middle East and Africa to India, Latin America and Japan. Each chapter focuses on a different culture or individual(s) and their relationship to eyeliner, weaving historical and cultural facts with modern-day pop-culture references and cosmetic industry statistics.

The result is a cultural perspective that is eye-opening and surprisingly intimate. Hankir peels back layers of history to reveal how eyeliner became so ingrained in various societies over millennia. She covers its more obvious aesthetic nature, with the steadfast goal “to beautify, enhance, or enlarge the eye,” as well as its role as a form of protection from evil (as believed in ancient Egypt and in some present-day Arab, Asian and African communities), a form of sunblock (as worn throughout the Middle East), rebellion (think The Crown’s Princess Diana speaking of Prince Charles’ infidelity with dark-rimmed eyes on BBC) and expression and identity (such as the signature thick black winged eyeliner worn by late singer Amy Winehouse).

Hankir’s journalism background shines through, as she includes a comprehensive number of interviews and personal stories to back up the facts she references. And her own reflections lend weight to the close-up and personal feeling conveyed throughout. Eyeliner: A Cultural History is a thorough retrospective of a product that has endured over time and continues to play a significant role for cultures around the globe.

Zahra Hankir’s Eyeliner offers an eye-opening and surprisingly intimate cultural perspective on the titular cosmetic.

Ice

Ice might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of coveted “luxury” goods. In fact, many Americans take ice for granted as a now-ubiquitous product that is dispensed out of their refrigerators and can be purchased in bags from nearly every grocery store, convenience store and gas station.

But as Amy Brady (co-editor of The World as We Knew It) explains in her new book, Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks—a Cool History of a Hot Commodity, ice has indeed been a very “hot commodity” throughout history. Flash forward to today on our rapidly warming planet, and ice is in even higher demand. This paradox was not lost on Brady. As she writes, “The irony lay in the fact that I was driven to seek out and consume ice because of a phenomenon that’s eliminating ice on the planet.”

Amy Brady, author of ‘Ice,’ recounts the lost history of the doctor who invented the ice machine.

Brady found ice to be an untapped subject and did enormous amounts of research to fill in the gaps in its history. Divided into four parts that each focuses on an aspect of ice—obsession, food and drink, ice sports, and the future—Ice outlines how frozen water “profoundly has shaped the nation’s history and culture.” Commentary from food writers, scientists, physicians and historians are interspersed with historic resources such as newspaper articles, diaries and journals, creating unique connections between the past and present.

Historical facts and statistics help contextualize the important role ice has played in events like Prohibition, when breweries pivoted to other business ventures that would make use of their existing ice cellars. (Yuengling opened a dairy, Anheuser-Busch made infant formula and Pabst sold cheese.) Another especially interesting chapter covers ice’s use as a medical treatment for injuries, chronic ailments and even cancer. Throughout the book, Brady uses timelines to help illustrate the trajectory of ice’s journey from an amenity to an everyday item, emphasizing how quickly it became mainstream. Taken all together, Ice makes an important case for securing the future of those freezing cold cubes in a warming world.

Amy Brady uses commentary from food writers, scientists and physicians to illuminate how something as commonplace as ice came to shape America’s history and culture.
Feature by

William Alexander delivers a tasty culinary chronicle with Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World: A History. With authority, humor and an instinct for flavorful anecdotes, Alexander tracks the evolution of the tomato from its first cultivations in the Americas to its first encounter with Europe via the Spanish in the 1500s to its current widespread popularity. Along the way, he considers tomato-related innovations such as the creation of ketchup and the rise of hybrid tomato specimens. Alexander touches on themes of contemporary farming practices and food production that will provide great talking points for book clubs.

Joshua Specht’s Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America is a surprisingly dramatic account of the rise of the beef industry and how the meat came to be an American favorite. Focusing on the 19th century, Specht explores the cattle ranches of the American West and the Chicago meatpacking industry and looks at how urban expansion affected production. His shrewd analysis of meatpacking practices, factory conditions for workers and labor developments underscores the impact of beef on American business. Specht’s nuanced account sheds new light on a mealtime mainstay.

In Milk!: A 10,000-Year Food Fracas, Mark Kurlansky traces the science, history and mythology behind the life-giving liquid. Fans of the author (who has also dedicated books to salt and cod) will welcome this study of a beverage that, as Kurlansky demonstrates, transcends cultures and eras. From milk production and dairy farming to the role of milk in economics and its significance in countries across the globe, Kurlanksy presents a multifaceted look at the vital beverage. Ever attuned to the offbeat factoid, he writes with typical crispness in a book that’s sure to intrigue readers.

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast delves into the fascinating past of a controversial crop. Millions of people around the world rely on the coffee industry for their livelihoods, and Pendergrast takes stock of how the little bean has shaped international commerce and politics over the centuries. He brews up plenty of tantalizing coffee lore, assesses the dominance of Starbucks and explores the worlds of coffee snobs and fair-trade advocates. Global economics and the centrality of coffee to our daily lives make for rich discussion topics.

Psst . . . pair them with thematic snacks and/or drinks!
Behind the Book by

“Why do I love ice? Why do I prefer—nay, need—my drink to be cold?” These were the questions that ran through my head in early 2019 as I filled a cup with iced tea at a gas station in Apalachicola, Florida, a tiny town on the Gulf Coast. The day was sweltering, and the thick scent of palm trees wafted through the air, mixing with the smell of melting asphalt. At the time, I was deep into writing my book Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks—a Cool History of a Hot Commodity, about all the unexpected ways ice has shaped America’s history and culture. I’d come here to learn more about the man who made the nation’s first ice machine.

That man was John Gorrie, a 19th-century, New York-born doctor who moved to Apalachicola in the 1840s to treat yellow fever, which plagued the region every summer. Without knowing that mosquitoes transmit the virus (no one knew that yet back then), Gorrie thought that ice might be a cure. After much trial and error, he succeeded at building a working ice machine, the nation’s first, but his invention didn’t receive the response he’d hoped for. This was an era of superstition and skepticism toward science. A man who claimed he could make ice? Why, only God can make ice! Or so went the thinking of the day.

Read our review of ‘Ice’ by Amy Brady.

Gorrie was ridiculed by his peers and eventually died a penniless laughingstock in his early 50s of the very disease he was hoping to treat. A mere decade later, his rediscovered ice machine patent would serve as the blueprint to build America’s first commercial ice plants. From then on, ice became not only a luxury but a necessity across the country.

I wanted to learn more about Gorrie, but despite his extraordinary contributions to science, hardly anyone then—or now—knew who he was. Few of his personal papers were saved after his death, and many more were lost in a fire. Writing Gorrie’s story—and the ways it intersected with the larger history of ice—was going to be a challenge, but the historian in me couldn’t have been more excited to take it on.

My trip to Apalachicola brought me first to the John Gorrie Memorial Museum, where I spoke with a staff member named Peggy. I thought I’d begin by asking her about what historians already know, but even the basics, I learned, are up for debate. Gorrie’s birth records were lost to history, she said, so no one knows for sure whether he was born in Charleston, South Carolina, or on Nevis, a small island in the Caribbean Sea. Almost everyone agrees on when Gorrie moved to Apalachicola (the 1840s) and why (to treat yellow fever), but no one knows for sure how a doctor of such little means (he was broke when he arrived and even more broke when he died) treated so many patients.

“Why do I love ice? Why do I prefer—nay, need—my drink to be cold?”

We know that he married the daughter of a wealthy hotelier not long after he arrived in Florida, but no one knows for certain why. I wanted to think it was for love, of course, but it was hard not to wonder how a woman of her social stature got away with marrying a poor, blasphemous doctor of ill repute at a time when women were rarely allowed to make significant decisions without input from their families. When I looked at their relationship from Gorrie’s perspective, I thought that perhaps Gorrie saw his wife’s family as a source of wealth to fund his ice-making experiments, but circumstantial evidence suggests that the couple barely had enough to live on.

Then there was the biggest question at the heart of my research: Why did Gorrie think that ice would cure disease? What possibly could have led him to that conclusion?

With so many holes in the doctor’s story, I realized that archival research—my favorite kind!—would be most useful. Back in my hotel, I revisited what I knew. I had Gorrie’s basic timeline and at least a few names and locations. I pulled out my laptop and searched newspaper databases to find articles related to 1840s Apalachicola. An hour later, I stumbled across a notice of Gorrie’s marriage in the Apalachicola Gazette. Interestingly, the bride’s father didn’t attend the ceremony. (So the union had caused a familial stir!) Next I turned to a database of 19th-century medical journals, where I learned about the leading theories of the day surrounding the dangers of heat. As a doctor, Gorrie would have read those journals and learned that too high of a fever could damage a patient’s internal organs. That’s probably at least one reason why he sought to create ice: to cool his feverish patients.

“That’s the power of archives, I thought. They hold our stories, even if in pieces, until someone puts them back together.”

Finally, I turned to digitized records housed at the Library of Congress, where I discovered a series of articles that Gorrie wrote under a pen name about the use of ice to cure yellow fever. His argument aligned with the one in the medical journals, further confirming my suspicion that he believed ice cured yellow fever by lowering patients’ body temperatures. I also found a letter he wrote to a fellow doctor about his ice machine. The letter’s uncertain tone painted a portrait of a man in the throes of self-doubt and frustration and would serve as the emotional centerpiece for my chapter on Gorrie. At long last, the ice doctor’s story was revealing itself more fully.

On my last day in Apalachicola, I stood across the street from the museum where Gorrie was buried and thought about how his story was spread across time and space like a thousand puzzle pieces. That’s the power of archives, I thought. They hold our stories, even if in pieces, until someone puts them back together.

Headshot of Amy Brady by Cate Barry Photography.

The author of Ice: From Mixed Drinks to Skating Rinks—a Cool History of a Hot Commodity recounts the lost history of the doctor who invented the ice machine.

By the mid-20th century, Pablo Picasso’s paintings and sculptures were turning heads in France and Germany, ushering in cubism, a new artistic style that challenged older styles. At this same moment, American art was dominated by a devotion to realism and the old masters, and therefore resistant to and repulsed by the “modern art” of Picasso. In 1939, that all changed when the newly opened Museum of Modern Art in New York City held an exhibit titled “Picasso: Forty Years of His Art,” featuring pieces that two Americans, who never met, worked tirelessly to make available to the public. Hugh Eakin’s Picasso’s War tells the scintillating tale of how John Quinn, Alfred H. Barr Jr. and others brought Picasso’s work to America and changed the face of American art.

Irish American lawyer Quinn championed modernist novels and poetry and avant-garde art, introducing Americans to William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot, as well as to Marcel Duchamp’s painting “Nude Descending a Staircase.” A great collector, Quinn had a “growing aversion to what he called ‘dead art,’” Eakin writes, and wanted to promote painters and writers who could “express the values and forces of his own time.” Although he personally never understood cubism, he believed that “American art needs the shock that the work of some of these men will give.” After he met Picasso, the artist started reserving his best work for Quinn, who built a modest collection. Quinn dreamed of opening a museum devoted explicitly to modern art, since the Metropolitan Museum of Art excluded such art as “degenerate.” He never saw his wish come true, however. He died of cancer in 1924.

In 1926, Barr took up Quinn’s vision for such a museum, aided by wealthy patrons who shared Quinn’s hope. Three years later, Barr opened the Museum of Modern Art using pieces from Quinn’s collection, striving to build a collection of premier work by the most important modern artists. He worked incessantly to open a show devoted to Picasso, but he was hampered at several turns by challenges from Parisian art dealers and even by Picasso himself. By the late 1930s, though, as Adolf Hitler’s campaign against so-called degenerate art ramped up and museums and galleries in Paris began removing and hiding certain paintings, Picasso and his dealer, Paul Rosenberg, tried to get as many of the artist’s paintings as possible to America. Such forces enabled Barr to put on his 1939 Picasso exhibit and to secure a place in the American cultural world not only for Picasso but also for the Museum of Modern Art, which flourished following the Picasso exhibit.

Eakin’s rapturous storytelling makes Picasso’s War a spellbinding, page-turning read about this illuminating chapter in cultural history.

Hugh Eakin’s rapturous storytelling makes Picasso’s War a spellbinding, page-turning read about the fight to bring Picasso’s art to America.

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