Time to catch up on a few recent non-fiction reads…
* Jonah Lehrer ended up back in the news recently, again for the wrong reasons, this time because a journalism foundation paid him their standard $20,000 honorarium to come speak at their conference about how he went from one of the brightest stars in science writing to fabricating quotes from Bob Dylan (and, it turns out, in many of his articles forWired) for his third book, Imagine, which was a great read but has been removed from publication. (I don’t understand why it couldn’t be fact-checked more thoroughly, rewritten, and re-released.) I still like the guy’s writing even if I have to read his work with a more skeptical eye, and I think How We Decide, his second book, was an even more valuable read than Imagine for its insight into how the two sides of our brain, the rational and the emotional, interact in our internal decision-making processes.
Lehrer’s premise here is that recent advances in neurology and related fields have allowed us to better understand what goes on inside our brains when we are forced to make different kinds of decisions, and whether those processes are ideal or counterproductive. He cites numerous psychological studies and, as in Imagine, makes heavy use of the results of fMRI scans of the brains of people as they’re confronted with choices or decisions to see what parts of the brain are activated by which stimuli or questions. He gives shocking examples like the pilot who saved a plane from a terrible crash by making a fast yet totally rational decision to try something that had never been tried before by a pilot and wasn’t even taught in flight school, or like John Wayne Gacy and other psychopaths whose emotional response systems are broken, usually due to childhood abuse or neglect. (Lest you think Lehrer shows sympathy for the devil in that section, his descriptions of broken brains, thoughout the book, are quite dispassionate.) Lehrer’s conceit is that between looking at people who can only use one of those two decision-making processes and looking at what kinds of images, numbers, or thoughts light up certain parts of our brains, we can better understand how we make decisions and thus better understand how to improve that decision-making – such as when it’s good to let your rational brain take over and when it’s better to let your emotional side help simplify things for you. It is a real shame that Lehrer’s name is mud right now among much of his potential audience, because his main gift as a writer was in making complicated matters of science, especially neurology, available and accessible to the lay reader. His crimes were serious, but I’d rather see him writing under much stricter controls than he had before than to have him out of the game entirely.
* My wife bought me Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey because we’re both fans of the British soap opera (although I thought season 3 was a big letdown from a writing standpoint), and I was pleasantly surprised by how well-written the book was and how much real-life drama the family that held the house, called Highclere Castle, during the time period of the show actually underwent. Written by the current Countess of Carnarvon (that is, the wife of the current Earl of Highclere, three generations removed from the Earl of the time of the show), the book focuses on Lady Almina, the illegitimate daughter of Alfred Rothschild, who grew up privileged because of her parentage and managed to land the young heir to the earldom of Highclere, after which she put her energy, force of personality, and organizing skills to work in rebuilding the family’s status and the Castle itself, eventually shifting her attention to wounded soldiers when she volunteered to turn the estate into one of the most luxurious wartime hospitals for wounded British soldiers during the Great War.
Almina’s efforts at a time when women’s rights were pretty limited led to her overshadowing her husband in the book, and, one presumes, for most of their marriage, but that table turned in 1922 when the Egyptian explorer Howard Carter, whose expeditions had long been financed by the Earl, discovered the intact tomb of King Tut, making Carter and Lord Carnarvon instant celebrities, touching off a media storm just as the Egyptian public was becoming restive under unwelcome British colonial rule. (You can see the earliest seeds of today’s political strife in the Maghreb and Middle East in the Countess’ brief descriptions of Egyptian protests.) The Countess manages to make this seem like an almost inevitable climax or conclusion to the family’s efforts and struggles during the war, in which many of the household staff gave their lives while their son served but survived. The lead-up to the war, the Castle’s conversion into a hospital, and the episode in Egypt moved a little slowly, since we’re largely getting background material, some of it feeling like the intro to a Regency romance, but once Almina gets cracking, she’s a fun and interesting character to follow, buoyed by the Countess’ clear, evocative prose.
* Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All isn’t a book to read so much as a book to own, one to keep with the cookbooks or in the liquor cabinet rather than in your library. The book contains about fifty pages of text describing the history of bitters, its definitions and types (the book focuses on the highly concentrated flavoring bitters, not potable bitters or digestifs like Campari or Fernet Branca), listing the major artisan bitters makers, most of which have begun production in the last ten years, and explaining how to make your own bitters, with numerous recipes. The back of the book lists recipes for common and obscure drinks that rely on various flavors of bitters as well as some recipes for dishes that use bitters as an ingredient. I particularly enjoyed the two-page essay on the 2010 Angostura bitters shortage, with the explanation of how it began and ended, but not before much hoarding had taken place, especially by better bartenders in New York City.