Thumbs up for Taking the Medicine: A Short History of Medicine’s Beautiful Idea, and Our Difficulty Swallowing It by Druin Burch. History.

If the history of medicine, in the specific sense of “things we take to feel better”–from opium to thalidomide, penicillin to aspirin–sounds at all interesting to you, read this book. That won’t apply to most of you, of course.… >> Read more

Thumbs up for S.P.Q.R.: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. History.

No, I am not one of those people who reads histories of Rome so I can point at current political events and say “See, this is just like that!” Comparing, say, ~240 years of American power to ~2,000 years of Roman power shows a problematic understanding of scale.… >> Read more

Thumbs up for Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin. Sociology/Memoir.

A mishmash that works surprisingly well together: the history of women who walk in cities (flaneuses, to match the male term flaneurs); biography of some female writers like Jean Rhys, George Sand, and Martha Gellhorn; academic discussions on the social meaning of the suburb; the history of Paris; the plot of an art film; fragments of memoir from the author, which serve to keep it from being too academic.… >> Read more

Thumbs up for City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism by Jim Krane. History/travel.

Astonishingly good. I would wish that all countries had books this riveting written about them, but I don’t think it’s possible; most places just won’t make your jaw drop this often. If this were a story about oil, I wouldn’t find it very interesting. But oil came late and comparatively little.… >> Read more


Thumbs up for Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years – Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.

Curse you, Amazon, for knowing my desires before I do. I was so good, wasn’t I, when you recommended this to me, and I ordered it from the library? You just knew that after I read it I would come straight back to your electronic embrace and order a copy for myself, because oh did I need a copy for myself.… >> Read more


Neither thumbs up nor thumbs down for The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson. History/botany.

There are a couple of ways you could go here. You could talk about (1) the science behind the workings of seeds; (2) how they fit into ecosystems; (3) their importance to human culture and development; (4) their nutritive value; (5) the importance of, and methodology for, saving unusual seed varieties in viable form; or (6) their future in the face of changing agricultural patterns and genetic modification.… >> Read more


Neither thumbs up nor thumbs down for The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song by Frank M. Young, illustrated by David Lasky. Biography/music.

I met the illustrator at a dinner party. I adore his work. In fact, I have some on my wall. However, unless you are truly interested in the Carter Family (which you might be, who knows, but I am not) you can probably skip this.… >> Read more