TLC Book Tour: Strange Contagion, Lee Daniel Kravetz

Strange Contagion coverLee Daniel Kravetz’s Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves was born out of tragedy. A series of teen suicides among students and alumni of Palo Alto’s Gunn High School suggested an epidemic was underway. Kravetz, a new father and resident of Palo Alto, was concerned about his community. What was causing these students to commit suicide? Could the epidemic be stopped? How? These questions prompted Kravetz to explore the way emotions and behaviors are communicated in a society.

Kravetz learns that emotions are not terribly different from communicable diseases. We are highly suggestible creatures, and the emotions of others are easily transmitted. We catch everything from the goals of others around us to courage or bravery or fear to the host of feelings, positive or negative, that others around us bring into the room.

In fact, we are so susceptible to the spread of viral emotions that we don’t really even need to come in contact with individuals to be influence by them. Their emotions can be communicated through others who bring them to us or even through social media. As Kravetz says, “role models are so influential that oftentimes we don’t even know whom we’re modeling—or that we’re modeling them at all. And that at once enthralls and frightens me” (118).

Given our current social and political climate, the concepts that Kravetz discusses are frightening, but they also explain a great deal about the collective mood on both sides of the political spectrum. Kravetz doesn’t have solutions because the problem is too complex. Navigating viral emotions means we need to be aware of our own feelings and what is causing them, and we also need to be aware of our susceptibility to the emotions of others. We also need to accept that others influence us. Kravetz concludes, “Beneath the surface, we are all connected” (220). This idea might not be new. After all, Emerson explored in his writing about the concept of the oversoul. But Kravetz’s psychological and sociological exploration of the way we are connected offers more explanation of how we are all connected. If social contagion is a part of the human experience, we need to learn how to live with it and fight it (when it’s negative) in the best way we can, just as we have done with communicable diseases.

This book gave me a lot to think about, especially as I teach high school students like those who go to Gunn High School. Though we do need to be on guard for negative social contagion, such as the suicides that prompted Kravetz to explore the topics in this book, we can also channel social contagion positively to spread love and care for each other. In a discussion of the communicability of bravery and courage, Kravetz writes that “the trick to passing along lasting courage is one of overwhelming the system with examples of it, flooding the environment with models of generosity, authority, demonstrations of personal responsibility, and examples of calm in the heat of battle” (114). In the end, perhaps the best way to combat negative social contagions is to be what Kravetz calls the interrupter. We can do what we can to be the model of courage, bravery, kindness, compassion, and happiness. As Stephen King says, “We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why.”

Rating: ★★★★★

From the Publisher

About Strange Contagion

• Hardcover: 288 pages
• Publisher: Harper Wave (June 27, 2017)

Picking up where The Tipping Point leaves off, respected journalist Lee Daniel Kravetz’s Strange Contagion is a provocative look at both the science and lived experience of social contagion.

In 2009, tragedy struck the town of Palo Alto: A student from the local high school had died by suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming train. Grief-stricken, the community mourned what they thought was an isolated loss. Until, a few weeks later, it happened again. And again. And again. In six months, the high school lost five students to suicide at those train tracks.

A recent transplant to the community and a new father himself, Lee Daniel Kravetz’s experience as a science journalist kicked in: what was causing this tragedy? More important, how was it possible that a suicide cluster could develop in a community of concerned, aware, hyper-vigilant adults?

The answer? Social contagion. We all know that ideas, emotions, and actions are communicable—from mirroring someone’s posture to mimicking their speech patterns, we are all driven by unconscious motivations triggered by our environment. But when just the right physiological, psychological, and social factors come together, we get what Kravetz calls a “strange contagion”: a perfect storm of highly common social viruses that, combined, form a highly volatile condition.

Strange Contagion is simultaneously a moving account of one community’s tragedy and a rigorous investigation of social phenomenon, as Kravetz draws on research and insights from experts worldwide to unlock the mystery of how ideas spread, why they take hold, and offer thoughts on our responsibility to one another as citizens of a globally and perpetually connected world.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Lee Daniel Kravetz AP Photo by Ian TuttleAbout Lee Daniel Kravetz

Lee Daniel Kravetz has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and is a graduate of the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Journalism. He has written for Psychology Today, the Huffington Post, and the New York Times, among other publications. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and children.

Find out more about Lee at his website, and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

Harper Collins provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review. You can catch the reviews of other readers on the TLC Book Tour.

Tuesday, June 27th: A Bookish Affair
Wednesday, June 28th: Book Hooked Blog
Thursday, June 29th: A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
Friday, June 30th: Books & Tea
Tuesday, July 4th: Wining Wife
Tuesday, July 4th: From the TBR Pile
Wednesday, July 5th: Based on a True Story
Thursday, July 6th: Readaholic Zone
Thursday, July 6th: she treads softly
Friday, July 7th: Much Madness is Divinest Sense
Monday, July 10th: StephTheBookworm
Tuesday, July 11th: Kahakai Kitchen
Wednesday, July 12th: Books on the Table
Thursday, July 13th: Library of Clean Reads
TBD: Sapphire Ng

Related posts:

Sherlock Holmes: The Stock-Broker’s Clerk, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Stock-Broker's Clerk

Illustration for “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

“The Stock-Broker’s Clerk” is a slight narrative concerning the strange behavior of two men who have engaged the employment of Mr. Hall Pycroft. Pycroft is mystified by his employers’ actions and demeanor, so he seeks the help of Sherlock Holmes to determine what is at the bottom of it all and what the two men might truly want. Sherlock Holmes visits Watson and asks if he would be interested in accompanying him to Birmingham to help solve the mystery. Watson, newly married and establishing a medical practice, agrees to allow his neighbor to take on his patients in his absence and sets off at once.

There isn’t a whole lot to this story, though the characterization is interesting. Pycroft is portrayed as fairly sharp, and Watson makes a point of observing that he is “Cockney” and that Cockney Londoners have contributed a great deal to English society in an interesting effort to skewer ideas about class that were prevalent at the time when Conan Doyle was writing (and, for that matter, probably still are). But there’s the tiny antisemitic reference in there, too, as Pycroft describes his employer’s nose. Basically, at its heart, this story makes use of a trope that Conan Doyle sometimes employs—the convoluted hoax. Holmes doesn’t actually do a whole lot in this one because the case is solved by the police, for a change, before he can get to the bottom of it.

I wouldn’t put this up there among my favorites; it doesn’t leave much of an impression. I believe the BBC series Sherlock makes a couple of references to this story. Watson does establish a practice after he thinks Sherlock has died, and what the viewer sees is not too different from what Watson describes in this story. I seem to recall an episode in which Sherlock visits John and makes deductions about his having been ill, but now that I’m trying to find the episode, I can’t. I may be conflating it with a similar incident I’ve already read.

Rating: ★★★☆☆
I read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is twenty-first story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”

Related posts:

Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of Silver Blaze, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Silver Blaze

Illustration for “Silver Blaze” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

“The Adventure of Silver Blaze” takes Sherlock Holmes and John Watson out to the Dartmoor countryside to investigate the case of the missing racehorse Silver Blaze and the murder of the horse’s trainer, John Straker. Watson has been following the sensational case in the newspaper and is unsurprised when Sherlock decides to become involved in the investigation. Once in King’s Pyland, Holmes discovers that a man named Fitzroy Simpson is suspected of having murdered Straker, but Sherlock Holmes is not sure at all that the police have the right man. A quick investigation of the scene where Straker’s body was found coupled with an investigatory stroll out on the moor with Watson convinces Holmes that his deductions are correct.

I really enjoyed this story. The location in Dartmoor was a refreshing change of pace for Holmes and Watson, and the mystery was compact and unfolded well. The writing was fun, too. I read this story so many years ago that I had forgotten it was the inspiration for the title of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeChristopher Boone, the protagonist of Haddon’s novel, loves Sherlock Holmes and that particular book begins with an investigation of the murder of his neighbor’s dog. In the context of this story, Holmes points out that it is odd that the dog in the stables did not bark.

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

To be honest, if I had remembered this story years ago when I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I might have figured out the mystery in that book sooner, too. This is one of the better Sherlock Holmes stories I’ve read for this reading challenge, and it’s a particularly good display of Holmes’s deductive techniques. I can’t recall seeing any elements of it in the BBC series Sherlock, but those lines between Sherlock and Detective Gregory above would have been brilliant coming from Benedict Cumberbatch and Rupert Graves or Martin Freeman. If they make more episodes, I hope they will return to this short story.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is twentieth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is “The Stock-Broker’s Clerk.”

Related posts:

I Went to a U2 Concert

U2 Cell Phone Lights

Last Sunday, I realized a dream I’ve had for a long time and went to a U2 concert with my family. They are touring in honor of the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, which is a really important album for me. I can well remember watching MTV when that album had been released and seeing the now iconic video for “With or Without You.”

But even further back, I can recall being wowed by their video for “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” as it was shot at Red Rocks. Growing up in the Denver area, I had been to Red Rocks, though not for a concert, and it impressed me to see a music video shot in a place I had actually been.

In the late 1990’s, when I was finishing up my bachelor’s degree after taking three years off when my then husband was in the Coast Guard, I listened to The Joshua Tree on repeat in the car. I think it was at that time that “Red Hill Mining Town,” a song U2 never played live until this tour, became my favorite. I have a deep affection for that song, still, even if I recognize on a more objective level that it’s not even what I would consider their best song. It just means something to me.

U2 Concert

I thought hearing “Red Hill Mining Town” would be the moment that did me in during the concert, but it wasn’t. It was actually when U2 played “Beautiful Day,” another favorite of mine, and the Edge brought out that old Gibson Explorer of his. He has had that guitar a very long time. He describes the moment when he bought it in New York in the late 1970’s in the movie It Might Get Loud.

Knowing how long he has had it and what it means and thinking of the history of that guitar just reduced me to to tears when he started playing the opening notes of “Beautiful Day.” Such an amazing song and instrument, too. I have never cried at a concert before.

Speaking of It Might Get Loud, it was that movie that turned me into a Jack White fan. I admit to not having listened to his music much until that film, and I was already a big fan of both Jimmy Page and the Edge. It bothers me that a lot of people argue Edge doesn’t deserve a place in that film. If you ask me, it’s his presence in the film that makes it because he is so different from the other two. He doesn’t bother with the affectations that Jack White puts on (the fake child version of himself that he coaches along). He brings a lot of humility and self-deprecation to the storytelling in that film that the other two don’t necessarily bring. There is an honesty to the story he tells that is certainly missing from Jack White’s story, and is obscured under so many layers in Jimmy Page’s story—Jimmy Page always seems to keep at a distance when he’s being interviewed. The only time he really seems more or less open is when he is talking with the Edge and Jack White. The film is one of my favorites, actually.

Of course, U2 is a political band, and they always have been. People complaining about their politics obviously haven’t been listening to them or it wouldn’t still be a contentious issue. They’ve been openly political since at least War—you could even argue since Boy—so I’m not sure where these people have been. What I really loved about the concert I attended is that the band didn’t shy away from being political, but they were respectful and positive in the way they presented their views. It was clear to me that the band has a great deal of love and respect for America, and I’ll go on the record as saying they get too much crap for their earnestness and their politics. I suppose some people think it’s insincere, and others think they shouldn’t hold political opinions. I disagree on both counts, but even if they are not sincere, they’ve still done a lot of good in the world.

Another thing that struck me was just how good they are. Bono’s voice is great, and it’s clear he takes good care of it. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say he avoids smoking, drinking, and bad vocal habits. The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr. are all still playing excellent music as well. We saw them at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, which is where the New England Patriots play, and it’s a huge stadium, if you’ve never seen it. We weren’t at the very top, but we were fairly far away. The sound was good, even though everyone in the stadium was singing along. It was a little hard to hear what Bono said sometimes, which other people who were at the concert also complained about. I think the sound system probably wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough.

It was really special to hear one of my favorite albums played in its entirety. Of course they didn’t play every song I wanted to hear. If they had, we might still be at the concert. I have a lot of favorites. But they played “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day,” “Bad,” (which is always awesome in concert—I actually own two live versions of that song already), “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Miss Sarajevo” (interesting choice, but it made a lot sense in the context of the show), “Elevation,” “Vertigo,” “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” (with a moving tribute to women), “One,” and a new one, “The Little Things that Give You Away,” which will be on Songs of Experience when it’s released, in addition to the entire Joshua Tree album and “Beautiful Day,” which I had previously mentioned. Not a bad setlist at all. I gather that they are doing “A Sort of Homecoming” at some of the shows on this tour.

I mentioned owning two live versions of “Bad.” The one from the Wide Awake in America EP is transcendent. I actually have quite a lot (comparatively speaking) of live U2 music, and I also frequently watch their live performances on YouTube. They are a rare band in that so much of their music sounds as good if not better live than on a recording. Frankly, a lot of great musicians are studio musicians, and there is nothing wrong with that, but their live performances disappoint. Eric Clapton, for instance, is kind of boring live (at least he was when I saw him). On the other hand, Tom Petty is awesome, and so are Counting Crows. Both of those groups surprised me with how good they were live. I would say this concert was the best one I attended, though I haven’t gone to nearly as many as I would have liked to have gone to. I hope I will be able to see them perform live again. It was an incredible experience, and all the more so because my family enjoyed it so much, too.

Several of the concert-goers put the show up on YouTube. It’s nice to have this reminder of the concert I attended. I don’t think U2 are terribly fussy about people putting their shows up. There are some really old live clips online that have been on YouTube for years. I made a playlist of some of the video others took at the concert. I only had my iPhone with me, and I wanted to concentrate on enjoying the concert instead of capturing it. Sound and video quality varies, and I put several videos of the same song(s) in the playlist in an attempt to capture the show from multiple points of view.

 

Related posts:

Sherlock Holmes: The Sign of Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Illustration for The Sign of Four from The Bristol Observer

The Sign of Four is the third novel and the nineteenth story in the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. This novel introduces Watson’s future wife, Mary Morstan and develops Sherlock Holmes’s cocaine addiction.

Mary Morstan seeks Sherlock Holmes’s help after receiving a mysterious message from a stranger. The stranger has sent her single pearls from a great treasure and promises that her wealth will be even greater if she agrees to meet with him. Holmes agrees that she should go, and he and Watson decide to accompany her. They arrive at the house of the eccentric Thaddeus Sholto, the son of Major Sholto, who served with Mary’s father in India. However, Thaddeus Sholto’s timing in contacting Mary couldn’t have been better, as his brother Bartholomew is mysteriously killed that evening, and it looks like only Sherlock Holmes can prove Thaddeus Sholto’s innocence and solve the case of their father’s missing treasure that Thaddeus promised he and his brother had found and had agreed to share with Mary. In the meantime, Holmes must deal with bungling police officers and Watson’s infatuation with their client as well as a slippery duo he believes has absconded with the treasure.

This novel was better than both A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, which I previously read for this challenge. Both of those novels suffered from Conan Doyle’s lack of understanding of America and Americans, though it’s also true that this novel suffers from his lack of understanding of India. I’m sure for his era, he might even have been progressive, but I can’t help but notice the racism when he writes about India, and it’s come up a few times in the stories so far. His depiction of Tonga, the Andaman Islands native who blows poison darts in attempts to kill (sometimes successfully) is particularly problematic, though his depiction of Jonathan Small’s confederates, the others that comprise the “Four” of the novel’s title, is not much better. It might just be me, but this kind of story seems to be one that Conan Doyle writes with some frequency: a mysterious missing treasure from an exotic locale, terrible murder, conspiracy, all bound together. For its type, this novel is a decent one, and it was a fairly quick read.

There are several references to The Sign of Four in the BBC Sherlock series. The episode “The Sign of Three” in which Mary Morstan and John Watson marry is the most obvious. Major James Sholto, a character in the episode, had been Watson’s commander in Afghanistan and had been the subject of death threats. At one point, someone does try to kill him by means of a stiletto blade, which might be meant to remind the viewer of the blow darts. In addition, the feeling that things will change between Sherlock and Watson because of his marriage is palpable at the end of both the episode and the novel. The references to A.G.R.A. turn out not to be treasure, but Mary’s true identity as an assassin, which Sherlock discovers in “His Last Vow.” She is the “R” in the initials, and she believes that the other three had been killed, which is similar to Jonathan Small’s notion that the other three members of his treasure confederacy will not be able to access it because they are imprisoned for life. Bill Wiggins is also alluded to in “His Last Vow,” though in that episode he is a drug addict rather than the leader of the Baker Street Irregulars. In the episode “The Six Thatchers,” someone is trying to track down an A.G.R.A. memory stick like Mary’s, and she discovers that one of her former colleagues did not actually die and is angry with Mary for leaving him behind.

In all, the story is probably essential for its introduction of John Watson’s love interest, but I honestly like what the BBC series has done with the story more than the actual Conan Doyle story itself. I do remember The Hound of the Baskervilles being my favorite of the Sherlock Holmes novels. I haven’t read it in years, but based on my memory and the re-reading of the other three Holmes novels, my mind hasn’t changed. I actually think Conan Doyle does better with the short story format, which explains why the bulk of the Sherlock Holmes adventures are written in that format.

Rating: ★★★½☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge

I read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is nineteenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is Silver Blaze.”

Related posts:

Review: The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, John T. Edge

John T. Edge’s book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South explores a culinary history of Southern food from the Civil Rights era to the present day. What is potlikker? According to Edge,

Like great provincial dishes around the world, potlikker is salvage food. During the antebellum era, slaveholders ate the greens from the pot, setting aside the potlikker for enslaved cooks and their families, unaware that the broth, not the greens, was nutrient rich. (6)

What Edge sets out to do in this book is explain how the cuisine we think of as Southern food emerged from black cooks. Edge also explains the ways in which Southern cuisine has changed over the years and discusses some of the major movers and shakers in the world of Southern cooking. In addition, he discusses issues related to access to food and poverty as well as movements in fast food and farm-to-table cooking and the gentrification of Southern food (and restaurants), ending with discussion of the influence of immigrants to the South on Southern cooking.

Edge is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which “documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South” (read more here). He was recently featured, as was Michael Twitty, whose book The Cooking Gene comes out later this year, on the Gastropod podcast.

I found this book fascinating from start to finish, and I enjoyed it the whole way through. I gained a lot of insight into Southern food, and I also learned quite a lot of history that I didn’t know. One really interesting story that Edge shares early in the book concerns President Johnson’s commitment to civil rights. I had always assumed that he really had to be prodded quite a lot to sign the Civil Rights Act, and probably to an extent, he did, but he as he tried to garner support for civil rights, he often told the story of his cook, Zephyr Wright, being unable to use the restroom during a stop on a cross-country trip. He varied the story to suit his audience, but like many of the people who heard the story directly from Johnson’s lips, I found it to be quite moving. As Edge explains, “The Zephyr Wright story reduced a national issue to a personal one. It moved the argument from the senate chamber to the cloakroom and then to the kitchen” (27).When Johnson signed the Act, Zephyr Wright was there, alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. He handed her one of the pens he used, saying “You deserve this more than anybody else” (28).

I think it’s hard not to see things differently when you hear someone’s personal story. It’s one of the reasons politicians bring up everyday Americans during conventions or on the floor of Congress. We are moved by stories. To a certain extent, this book stitches together the stories of Southern cooks from Georgia Gilmore, who fed Civil Rights Movement leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. in her home/restaurant to Michael Twitty, who recently attempted to engage Paula Deen in conversation after her infamous declaration that she had used the n-word. Twitty invited Deen to learn “why so many people were so upset by her comments” (278). He wanted her to know that “the unwillingness to give African American barbecue masters and other cooks an equal chance at the platform, is far more galling than you saying ‘nigger,’ in childhood ignorance or emotional rage or social whimsy” (279). As far as I understand, Twitty never received a reply from Deen. It’s a shame because it might have gone a long way to repairing the damage she caused.

Edge’s main point, I think, is captured when he says “The adjective Southern and the noun Southerner have, since the nineteenth century, referenced the white South and the Confederate South. Those limited categories failed the people of the region. The South was never monochromatic” (2). As Natasha Trethewey, poet laureate of the United States, says “Who can lay claim to the South?… I don’t want to take it away from anyone. I just want them to recognize that it’s mine, too” (309). That South included black barbecue pit masters and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Stephen Gaskin’s commune the Farm and chefs Paul Prudhomme and Nathalie Dupree. It included grits, boiled peanuts, fried chicken, okra, hoppin’ john, biscuits, cornbread, and yes, pot likker. I think anyone interested in food history would enjoy this book, but I think it will speak especially to anyone who has called the South, with all its messy contradictions, home. As Edge says, “In this modern South, the likkers at the bottoms of those vessels sustain many peoples. And they remind Americans of the vitality that drives regional foodways” (308).

Rating: ★★★★★

Related posts:

Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Greek Interpreter

Illustration for “The Greek Interpreter” by Sidney Paget for The Strand

“The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter” is perhaps most famous for its introduction of Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, whose powers of deduction Sherlock claims exceed his own. Mycroft has an interesting puzzle for Sherlock: a man named Mr. Melas, a Greek interpreter, has relayed his story of abduction and meeting with a Greek man and woman who are clearly being held captive by criminals. Determined to help them, he seeks the help of both Mycroft Holmes and the police. Knowing Sherlock will be able to do the legwork (Mycroft is what we might charitably call “lazy”), Mycroft has Melas tell his brother the story.

This story is pretty good, mainly for its characterization of Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. Sherlock and Watson do not successfully bag the criminals and save the day, though by the end of the story, the reader does discover justice has been served, after a fashion. The BBC series Sherlock doesn’t have an episode strictly based on this story, but in “The Empty Hearse,” we see Mycroft and Sherlock engage in a battle of deductive wits similar to the one we see in this story. Also, one of John Watson’s blog entries is entitled “The Geek Interpreter.” In the episode “The Abominable Bride,” which is set in Victorian London, we see Mycroft in his element in the Diogenes Club, and Mr. Melas is mentioned.

Rating: ★★★★☆

I read this story as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. It is eighteenth story in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is The Sign of Four.

Related posts:

Review: The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee, Stewart Lee Allen

The description of Stewart Lee Allen’s book The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee would have prospective readers believe that Allen was on a quest to answer two big questions: “Did the advent of coffee give birth to an enlightened western civilization?” and “Is coffee, indeed, the substance that drives history?” I’m not really sure either question was answered, but I did learn a few things about coffee, and I was entertained.

Allen begins his journey in Harar, Ethiopia, said to be the birthplace of coffee.As he claims partway through the book, “Coffee and humanity both sprang from the same area in eastern Africa.” Next Allen treks through Yemen, Turkey, Austria, France, and from there to Brazil and finally across America on Route 66, following the course of coffee-loving mystics and adventurers and the coffee plant itself. It’s a little bit like what might happen if you put Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in a blender. It wasn’t what I was expecting, which was more a straight history of coffee, and though there was some history, it was equally Allen’s memoir of his trek around the world in search of coffee’s history.

However, I did learn a few things, such as why coffee dominates in America and tea in Britain (it really has a lot to do with the American Revolution and the Opium Wars), how coffee houses have fomented revolution, and about coffee’s origins among Sufi mystics. For a self-professed coffee fanatic, Allen holds some surprising views. For instance, he doesn’t rag on Starbucks like most coffee snobs I know. Instead he says:

Sure, they’re a megacorporation destroying hundreds of mom-and-pop cafés. But that’s just something large corporations do. The important thing is that they serve fine coffee. Their baristas are generally first-rate.

 

I actually really like Starbucks, but a lot of people don’t describe their coffee as “fine.” I realize that’s partly because it’s really uncool to like anything that’s popular. Hipsters seem bent on making everyone unhappy about liking anything. I am admittedly not a real coffee aficionado, so perhaps that explains why Starbucks and Dunkin and the like taste good to me. I am also not a hipster—not even close.

This was entertaining, quick read, and most of all, it was fun to read with a nice cup of coffee in the morning, but if you’re looking for the straight history that the book’s title suggests, look elsewhere.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book as the “object you might hunt for” for the Wild Goose Chase Challenge because, not only because Allen spends a lot of the book hunting for various types of coffee and stories about coffee’s history and travels, but also because I have sure spent time on a quest for a good cup of coffee on occasion, myself.

Related posts:

Review: The Scribe of Siena, Melodie Winawer

Neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato books a flight to visit her historian older brother Ben, who raised her after the death of their mother, in Melodie Winawer’s debut novel The Scribe of Siena. Ben dies suddenly of a heart ailment before her flight, but she decides to go anyway, this time to settle Ben’s estate. He had seemed so happy in Siena; he had finally found his home. Ben’s studies involved medieval Siena during the Plague (1347-1348). He had apparently uncovered some interesting information and was preparing to publish it before his death. Beatrice feels compelled to take on his work and protect it from rival scholars. As she takes up Ben’s research, she finds herself entranced by the story of fresco artist Gabriele Accorsi. She has Accorsi’s journal from the 1340’s, and as she studies one of his frescoes, she is stunned to find her own likeness in the corner. Before she knows what is happening, she is swept into the past, to Siena in the summer of 1347… right before the Plague is about to devastate Siena. Beatrice must figure out how to avoid catching the deadly disease and return home safely, but she finds herself even more entranced by the real Gabriele Accorsi than she was by his journal, and she establishes ties in medieval Siena as she becomes a scribe in the Ospedale, today a museum called the Santa Maria della Scala.

A few of the details and mechanics involved with time travel might bother some readers (admittedly me among them), but this was a pretty good read. For one thing, Winawer is a doctor herself, and the descriptions of Beatrice’s surgeries and medical knowledge rang true. Often when I read time-travel novels, the past is romanticized to such a degree that the parts when the protagonist is in the present are irksome (Diana Gabaldon is pretty guilty of this), but I found Beatrice’s present as interesting as the past she travels to. In fact, maybe a little bit more (but not by much). Winawer argues in her book that one reason Siena has maintained its distinctive “medieval” character is that its evolution was stunted by serious losses to the Plague. Siena may have lost up to half its population, more than other comparable cities in Tuscany. Winawer comes up with an appropriately sinister explanation for why, too. If the mechanism for time travel is a little fuzzy, at least the historical details are mostly accurate (admittedly, I found one big historical error that really bothered me), and the story moves along at a nice clip. Ben’s discovery, which Beatrice must uncover, makes for a page-turning mystery. The characters are well-drawn, though one in particular is quite a lot more credulous than seems logical, and in general they feel like real people (with the possible exception of a few caricatures, and you’ll know them when you see them). A Library Journal review touted on the book’s cover proclaims that “Readers of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring will be swept away by the spell of medieval Siena.” I can’t disagree with that assessment. In many ways, the setting of this book was as much a presence as the people that inhabit it, and I just love it when books have settings with strong character.

I received this book as part of my Cozy Reader box subscription. I’m not sure it would have been on my radar this soon (and perhaps not at all), if not for that subscription.

Rating: ★★★★☆

 

Related posts:

Review: Heartless, Marissa Meyer

Marissa Meyer’s novel Heartless tells the story of how the Queen of Hearts from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland became the heartless monarch Alice encounters after falling down the rabbit hole. Meyer’s Queen of Hearts is Catherine Pinkerton, daughter of the Marquess and Marchioness of Rock Turtle Cove in the Kingdom of Hearts. More than anything, Cath wants to be a baker, and she dreams of opening a bakery with her maid, Mary Ann. Cath’s parents, however, have other plans. When the King of Hearts sets his heart on marrying Cath, she can’t figure out how to make her dream come true without disappointing her parents. Meanwhile, a court joker named Jest shows up at the palace and is employed by the King. Cath finds herself strangely drawn to Jest. The kingdom has bigger problems as a Jabberwock, a beast not seen in Hearts for centuries, returns and wreaks havoc on the kingdom. Cath’s dreams slip further and further from her grasp as she is drawn towards her inevitable fate to be the notorious villain we first meet in Alice in Wonderland.

I have to admit this book surprised me by the end. Partway through it, I was having trouble keeping going with it because I really wasn’t all that interested in Cath’s burgeoning interest in Jest. He’s your classic YA-novel charmer, and if I’m being honest, I’m bored with that guy. I assume the book’s audience (teenage girls) would find that part of the story more interesting than I did. However, after Cath bakes a pumpkin cake to enter into a baking contest with some devastating results for a new turtle friend of hers, the story grows more interesting. Cath is drawn to travel to the neighboring (and mythical) land of Chess to help Jest and Hatta (the Mad Hatter) in their quest, and she meets her fate precisely because of her heart—her inability to be heartless and put her mission before her loved ones. At that point in the story, I found it more difficult to put down and finished the book in one gulp. I admit this book was sitting on three stars for me until the last half, so my advice is if the premise intrigues you, but you are not digging it yet after 50 pages or so, maybe give this one longer.

I think I would have enjoyed the story even more had I re-read Alice in Wonderland first. Meyer brought in all the important characters and elements from that book and also explained the origins of few of those beloved characters as well. I know some of the references went over my head because it’s been too long since I’ve read Alice in Wonderland.

Meyer says this book began when she wished aloud to her agents for Gregory Maguire to “write the origin story for the Queen of Hearts.” Her foreign rights agent Cheryl Pientka replied, “Marissa, why don’t you write it” (453). I think some of the best books are born when writers wish the story existed, and because it didn’t, they decided to create it.

I haven’t read any of Meyer’s other YA books, though I understand they are popular, and she has sold film rights to the first of her Lunar Chronicles, Cinder. YA books certainly have become hot Hollywood properties lately. I am not sure if I’ll read Meyer’s other books. I might not have read this one had it not arrived in my Owl Crate box with a special edition just jacket just for Owl Crate subscribers back in November of last year. My copy is going right into my classroom library, where I know some of my students who like fantasy may enjoy it.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Because this book’s been on my backlist since it arrived in November, I’m counting it for the Beat the Backlist Challenge.

Related posts: