Monday, October 22, 2007

Flic's Baker's Dozen

A non-fiction reading list

With snow on the ground, icy roads, and increasing dark, no question, winter is upon us. Time to crack out the wine, load up the woodstove and settle in for hibernation. Here then to pass time, or for those cabin dwellers lucky enough or with enough Alaska air miles to escape to warmer climes – a reading list of some of my favorite quirky and informative non-fiction books. These are listed in no particular order of preference.

1. The Mummy Congress – Science, Obsession and the Everlasting Dead; Heather Pringle
Full of fascinating factoids about mummies (Victorians consumed a huge percentage of Egypt’s archeological history when they indulged their passion for eating powdered mummies as a restorative and curative), as well as stories about mummification both successful and bungled (the spectacular failure of terrified Russians to successfully embalm Stalin), this book is a totally engrossing read about humans’ everlasting attempts to cheat decay and rot.

2. Skipping Towards Gomorrah: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Pursuit of Happiness in America; Dan Savage. Those of you who have access or interest in Seattle newspapers will know Dan Savage’s , well, savage wit. This book is no different. He takes his readers on a hilarious and intimate exploration of the seven deadlies, as seen through the eyes of some of America’s most fervent followers.

3. Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge; Eleanor Herman. Need I say more, the title says it all.

4. Ghetto Nation – A Journey into the Land of the Bling and the Home of the Shameless; Cora Daniels. If there is any doubt that people tend to ooze to the lowest common denominator – this book dispels it. A scathing and insightful look at the rise of “ghetto” which at its most fundamental devalues education, demeans women, and celebrates the worst African American stereotypes, this author, herself an African American woman who grew up in the inner city spares no punches. If you think that having to listen to cell phone conversations about someone’s Chlamydia outbreak while in line for a latte is just rude (actually its ghetto) this book is for you.

5. The 64$ Tomato – How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden; William Alexander. For both long-time and new gardeners in Alaska, this book is an amusing read. It recounts the struggles of an urbanite relocated to a small town in upstate NY to create and nurture a large kitchen garden. I found it hard to relate to the trials endured from inept landscapers, and failed installations of in-ground swimming pools, but the tales of man against woodchucks, moles, and other wildlife made this an entertaining read. Even for piss-poor cabin dwellers, there is something to relate to in this accounting of domestic v. wild.

6. Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future; Jeff Goodell. Nominally about the resurgence of coal as a major industry under the Bush Administration, this book provides a good overview of the geology of coal and its extraction, including the devastation now wrought by mountain top removal, the history of coal mining in the United States, and the politics and shenanigans of the industry itself – which includes not only the big coal mining companies, but the power companies that burn it, and the railroads that ship it. The last third of the book is devoted to examining the contributions of coal-fired power plants to global warming.

7. Reefer Madness, Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market; Eric Schlosser. An eye-opening treatise on the American government’s manipulation of and corporate America’s contributions to the mainstays of the American underground – drugs (in this book, pot), pornography and illegal immigrant labor.

8. Confederates in the Attic – Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War; Tony Horwitz. A madcap and zany journey alongside some of the South’s most ardent Civil War re-enactors. From the guy who could so convincing bloat (as in dead on the battlefield) that he has many cameo appearances in Civil War movies to his credit, to those that starved themselves to get the authentic look of a Confederate solider, this is the book for a long flight. Totally entertaining.

9. Garlic and Sapphires – The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise; Ruth Reichl. This is a very entertaining look into the life of a creative and brutal food critic for the New York Times. Not only is it amusing to read about her complex efforts at disguise (to foil restaurateurs on the look-out for her visit), but it is a boon in this cuisine-starved town to read about some of the culinary adventures she enjoyed.

10. Chasing Kangaroos- A Continent., a Scientist, and a Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Creature; Tim Flannery. A well known scientist, down under and elsewhere, Flannery combines a lot of scientific information about ‘roos with a huge amount of amusing oddities about Australia. This is 19th century naturalist writing at its finest, although with modern science and sensibilities. It fostered in this armchair traveler a strong and urgent desire to visit Australia to see not only ‘roos but the fantastic and different vegetation and geography ASAP.

11. Under the Banner of Heaven – A Story of Violent Faith; Jon Krakauer. In my view, by writing this, Krakauer just about redeems himself for that pathetic paean to Chris McCandless he wrote. I once spent a summer in the deeps of Utah in a staunchly Mormon town (including not a few fundamentalists), and after that experience I viewed fundamentalist Mormons as slightly wackier than their mainstream counterparts. Had I known their bloodthirsty and violent past, I doubt I would have been so sanguine. And for any readers who travel to the Yucatan, a visit to the Mormon cake shop in a little townlet south of Mahahual, but not yet to Chetumal is a must do – the cakes are mediocre at best, but where else can you purchase provender made by polygamists – some of those that relocated south and north of the borders when the feds really started cracking down on polygamy.

12. Captured by Aliens – the Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe; Joel Achenbach; Written just a bit before Y2K, this book is a little dated (it features some of the zanies who were prepping for the Armageddon precipitated by the flip of the millennium) but its still a good read about man’s (and woman’s) quest for extra-terrestrials....from scientists at NASA to conspiracy nut theorists who flock to Roswell. It doesn’t omit the Heaven’s Gate debacle either.

13. Random Family – Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx; Adrian Nicole LeBlanc; non-fiction that reads like a novel, this is the story of two women growing up in the Bronx – and their involvement in the real gangsta ghetto life. This isn’t the ghetto of ad agencies and record companies – although superficially it has all the bling, guns, drugs, and baby mamas that commercial ghetto pitches. But unlike Paris and Nicole, who can shed their ghetto-ness when it becomes déclassé, these women are stuck with the ugly life: prison, violent and young death, unwanted pregnancies, single parent child-rearing and a constant struggle for food, safety and a modicum of normalcy within which to raise their kids.


Ish said...

Kind of tiring to hear yet another newcomer* to the state who just happened to survive bash on McCandless. I'm one true Alaskan who has a little sympathy for the guy. Maybe you newcomers should loosen the grip on your fear and show a little too. I've seen tens of scores of you come and go, live and die. You lived, he died. That's the way it is, but you shouldn't be slammin' on him for it.

*not born here; not been here longer than me; no roots here as long as my family, in that order.

CabinDweller said...

I don't see it as an issue of how long one has lived here. The book, and now, movie, romanticize McCandless. (I had to grit my teeth watching Charlie Rose interview Sean Penn about the movie. Which is weird, because usually I like Sean Penn.) McCandless, in turn, seems to have romanticized nature, too.

It's weird, this is one of the rare, and I mean super rare instances in which I actually agree with Craig Medred. Both McCandless and our other favorite film subject, Timothy Treadwell, might have loved the land, but they didn't show it the respect it deserves.

And I have sympathy for both Treadwell and McCandless - who wouldn't for folks suffering pretty unpleasant deaths? But glorifying either one? Nope.

Anonymous said...

Hi - I am new to your blog so I'm only reading this post today and read some of it aloud to my sister over the phone because she lived very near Fairbanks. Awesome blog btw. Regarding: 1. The Mummy Congress – Science, Obsession and the Everlasting Dead; Heather Pringle; my sister said, "Ben and Jerry's newest flavor - Yummy Mummy." LOL Also, thanks to number 10 on your list I know what book to add to my wish list! Love your blog!

CabinDweller said...

Welcome! I'm pretty psyched about Flic's Baker's Dozen, too, as I have put off reading any number of cool books lately. (For example, I finally got round to reading "Cod" which was excellent.)

FlictheBic said...

But do forgo, Cabin Dweller, his next book "Salt" - which pretty much follows the same format and is just not as interesting (yes, salt goes with cod, but I think he falls flat as a flounder in carrying the mono-theme onto a mineral). Speaking of mono-themes, may I suggest "Opium" by Martin Booth, which is a fascinating look at the drug and the wars it spawned, and a far better alternative to "Salt".