Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review: The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic

Science was never my favorite subject in school: too many numbers, and way too many safety warnings to ever be much fun. However, I've always enjoyed reading about science... especially when it's presented in a format like this! 

The Ghost Map, by Steven Johnson, is a comprehensive look at the Broad Street cholera epidemic, one of the most intense and deadly diseases to sweep London. The story of where the epidemic originated, and how the impact of its mapping and documentation changed not just what we know now about the disease, but modern day city management, provides a complex and intensive look at how civilization puts its civilians at risk, especially for the poor and poor of hygiene of the 1800s.

If you asked me to write a sentence about the outcome of reading this book, it would be this: I now know more than I ever thought I would about mid-1800s waste disposal, epidemic mapping, and the biological effects of one of history's deadliest diseases.

The disease is already notable in the historical and medical fields - it literally decimated an entire London district during its developmental stages, killing one in ten people on the block - but also in the sociocultural sphere, as this book clearly demonstrates, as it helped revolutionize not just the ways we cope with widespread sickness, but the ways city infrastructure bolsters and protects their high populations. This outcome is only possible, due to the significant amount of data afforded by the extensive notes and documentation taken during the time period, which in itself was a remarkable achievement, and a testament to those in the field at the time a routine sickness was wrenching apart an entire neighborhood.

The deliberately story-centered narrative turned noted anesthesiologist and physician John Snow and his friend and fellow documenter, Henry Whitehead, into a sort of dynamic Holmes-and-Watson type duo. By charting their previously separate investigations, and exploring their original odds against each other - which eventually grew into a lifelong friendship - the book finds two compelling protagonists to face off against the formidable enemy disease.

The act of focusing the plot line - the spread of the disease - through the narrative design of charting the investigations by both Snow and Whitehead, not only does what is primarily a statistical account gain a sense of individuality and character, but also provides a better source of clarity for understanding the actual scope of those affected. Whereas the victims of these epidemics might be reduced to numbers and marks on a map, by displaying their relationship with Whitehead and Snow, they are shown to be fully-fleshed and complex people... a fate not granted when simply analyzing the disease for numerical data and quantifiable severity.

If I do have a primary criticism of the book, it is that the story went a little awry during the final chapter: "Broad Street Revisited," where our author discusses today's modern cities and the terrors that plague them, such as terrorist attacks and modern mutations of the flu. While I do agree it was necessary to help shape what such a disease would look like in a more contemporary setting, in terms of contextualizing what happened and centering the narrative around the importance of urbanization in the past century, the way it was constructed came off as a sort of almost fear-mongering, or a doomsday prediction.

All in all, however, The Ghost Map is one of the more interesting science non-fiction books I've ever read, and written in a style that is exceptionally engaging and keeps the plot moving along at a bright clip, explaining advanced biology, epidemiology, and even sociology in an accessible way, without ever letting it bog down the story. Though the genres are a little different, fans of Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, which also features a deadly killer in a 1800s city setting, might also enjoy this book.

Final Verdict: Accessible and interesting, while covering a complex and comprehensive host of topics, The Ghost Map is a detailed and data-backed exploration of a deadly epidemic and those who not only helped put an end to it, but successfully changed the realm of science for the better. 

What's your favorite science nonfiction read? What kind of science would you like to read more about? Let me know, in the comments below!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Tastee-Reads Cookbook Recommendations: Cravings, Real Food Real Simple, Rise & Shine

Anyone else just really love reading through cookbooks? Maybe it's from spending all my formative years getting under my mom's feet in the kitchen, but there's nothing quite as meditative and relaxing as cracking open an old cookbook, and finding something new inside.

While I don't get the chance to purchase new cookbooks often, something I really love doing is checking them out of the library. When my own culinary collection gets a little too recognizable for my liking, getting cookbooks from the library helps me break out of my rut, find new food ideas, and experiment in the kitchen. Don't get me wrong, I love Pinterest for planning out great menu ideas or paring down exactly how long carrots need to roast in the oven... but there's nothing like carefully turning the pages of a hefty cooking tome to really get you in the mind to create.

That's why I started reviewing cookbooks on the blog before, in the hopes that others like me might find a little inspiration in these choices, as well, and maybe try out a few new recipes of their own. Three cheers for the local library!

Cravings: Recipes for All the Food You Want to Eat, Chrissy Teigen

I didn't originally get the hype about Chrissy Teigen, but after following her on Twitter, I quickly realized that this model mama and wife of crooner John Legend was just as hilarious as she is gorgeous. Now, after reading this cookbook, I understand that I have to add another credit to Chrissy's name: she certainly knows how to make cooking entertaining.

Her sense of humor glows throughout this collection of her favorite snacks, treats, sweets, and more, for any time of day, and her signature candor and eye for aesthetics make sure that the unique recipes have just as much story and style as they have substance. With menus that reference a wide range of cooking styles and genres, and ingredients lists that remain accessible while still stretching outside typical culinary comfort zones, this pick is perfect for those looking to up their gourmand game, without straying too far from the box (or their bank account).

However, what you might want to mind is the belt: Chrissy is upfront about the food's sometimes not-so-healthy status... the book is called Cravings, after all, and no one has a craving for iceberg lettuce.

29939404Real Food, Real Simple: 80 Delicious Paleo-Friendly, Gluten-Free Recipes in 5 Steps or Less, Taylor Riggs, RDN

At the start of the new year, I - like many - set the intention to start eating better food in my life. That doesn't necessarily mean going vegan, but it does mean incorporating more fresh produce, and less processed food. When I saw this book was recommended by one of my favorite bloggers, I immediately placed a hold at the library.

When this book promises less steps, they mean it: the recipes included in this involve less instructions, less ingredients, and less clean-up. However, they lean so far in the direction of minimalism, they almost seem to skimp out on one of the reasons I enjoy eating food in the first place: flavor.

While I'm sure the austere edibles included in this pristine and brief selection are perfect for those of us looking to significantly reduce their meat and dairy intake, they're just not to my particular taste. However, if you're interested in an easy-start entrance to plant-based eating, this might be just the selection for you!

27876518Rise and Shine: Better Breakfasts for Easy Mornings, Katie Sutherland Morford

Breakfast is hands-down my favorite meal, but something I rarely get to take my time with on a regular basis. Rise and Shine brings together some of the favorite morning meals of cookbook author and nutritionist Morford, and her three daughters, for a unique and comprehensive take on delicious - but still quick - ways to start the day.

With chapters divided by categories like "Eggs," "Toast," "Pancakes," and more, there are plenty of offerings for whatever flavor craving you have, and whatever your choice is, they're sure to be short on ingredients, but long on flavor (as the longest lists I could find were only about nine!).

With plenty of out-of-the-box ideas, from savory morning fried rice, cottage cheese and radish toast, and even pimento and cheddar egg pie, to the sweetness of breakfast baked apples, ginger apricot granola, and applesauce molasses donuts, your morning meals are set for the week. Along with plenty of tips and tricks on what to prepare ahead of time, and how to make the best use of those precious AM hours, this collection is sure to infuse your mornings with a little more sunshine.

Do you like reading cookbooks? Which of these books would you want to check out of your local library? Let me know, in the comments below!

Monday, February 5, 2018

Review: Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life

34220606Exciting news: guess who's going to see Hamilton in Seattle this Thursday??? 

Let's just say it's put me in a political state of mind... so I'm throwing it back to review a book I originally read about a month ago, about politically-adjacent sisters who grew up in front of a nation. From playing on the carpet floors of the White House to giving the young Obama sisters a tour upon their father's election, Jenna and Barbara have spent plenty of time around some of the country's greatest influencers of  the millennium's first decade... not necessarily in "The Room Where It Happens," but still, pretty close! 

In Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life, Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush - aka, the Bush twins, daughters of President #43 and granddaughters to #41 - give their own account of what it was like, living behind the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and in front of the eyes of a nation. From their presence on election tours with their grandfather, to treading unsteady ground during their education on liberal college campuses, their reflections on everything from a childhood spent in matching outfits, to having youthful indiscretions documented on a global scale, paint a portrait of a sisterhood closely held, and a family legacy they had to grow to understand. 

When they called this book "Sisters First," they weren't kidding: even in the acknowledgements section, they clarify that this book was not necessarily a memoir, but instead, love stories they told to each other, and I believe it. Every page of this book is filled to the brim with adoration, something that's easy for me to understand, having two younger sisters (and a little brother!) of my own.

Naturally, the bond between these two is a little more important, being that their sisterhood played into the cultural history surrounding one of the most impactful positions in our national governance. As the granddaughters of George H. W. Bush, and daughters George W. Bush, their lives have reflected a unique perspective on growing up in not just the public eye, but the epicenter of national and worldwide politics, and it makes sense that they'd want to share that with others... especially when the perspectives that have been shared about them before have been less than kind.

Which, it may surprise you, I did not go into this book knowing! President Obama was elected into office when I was only in the eighth grade, which meant that my political consciousness hadn't been developed all that much during the time Jenna and Barbara's dad was in office. Hearing their tepid acknowledgements of tabloid-documented discretions of years past was a little disconcerting, when I wasn't all that familiar with what they had been doing wrong in the first place.

Still, despite the fact that their college years were less than straight-laced, it is clear that these women are intelligent and well-educated. Their story-telling is descriptive and packed with emotion, and punctuated with letters, emails, and other missives flying between members of their famous family to give it credence. I absolutely believe that these women love each other, and their family.

For the record, I am a Democrat, and a liberal, and all of those other things that don't necessarily align with the Bush family doctrine. However, that didn't stop me at all from enjoying this book. Not only did the sisters put forth their stories with apology, and without judgement, but they acknowledged the places where their lines of thinking, as they grew up, deviated from those of their parents, whether in terms of supporting gay marriage, being pro-choice, or mediating a more friendly relationship with news media. They discussed their friendship with the Obama family. They also made it clear that their support of their own family ran far deeper than any political divide, too.

While I do think the chapters had the tendency to get a little wandering and disorganized, the book's relative lack of structure made it feel very conversational, like they were just telling you these stories over a morning cup of coffee.

Final Verdict: A fun and unique installment in the various political memoirs I've been getting into in the past few years. If you liked Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Obama-era White House official Alyssa Mastromonaco, you would probably like this one, too, for their unique portraits of a presidential term, behind the scenes.

Have you read any great political memoirs recently? Do you also have the song from "My Date with the President's Daughter" stuck in your head? Let me know, in the comments below!