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25 March 2012 @ 08:41 pm
recent reading  
I've been reading more "light" nonfiction lately. This started over the summer, when I read Street Gang (...yup; title's still funny) and Fifth Avenue, 5 AM (about the making of Breakfast at Tiffany's). This is partly due to interest, and partly--I think--due to my feeling guilty about starting fiction while I'm supposed to be working. The likelihood that I'll put down a nonfiction book after the chapter or two that I read before bed is much, much higher than the likelihood that I'll do the same with a novel I'm engaged in (which is how I wind up accidentally rereading The Demon's Lexicon at 3 AM, like a genius). Recently I've read (or started) the following:

- Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller. This book is part micro-history along the lines of Mark Kurlansky, and part expose about dodgy olive oil practices, in which poor-quality oil (sometimes even dangerous oil treated with chemicals) gets passed off as extra-virgin. From this book I learned that most of the things on the label of that supermarket bottle of oil are probably misleading or untrue (apparently most olive oil is extracted by centrifuge these days, so "cold-pressed" is mostly a leftover marketing term rather than a description of practice). So now I look at all bottles of olive oil warily. If you're curious, there's also a website:

- Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now, As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It by Craig Taylor. A collection of interviews with a variety of people who have lived in London. I particularly enjoyed the one with "the voice of the Tube" (I wouldn't--but should--have expected how much thought she put into what she'd sound like to people riding the Tube in various situations or emotional states), and the one with the manager of Transport for London's lost and found (apparently all the phone alarms go off for about an hour every morning; that never would have occurred to me, but it makes perfect sense!), but there are lots of interesting stories here.

and like basically everyone else:

- A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor. I'm still reading this, an object at a time, every now and again, but the thing I like best about it is that it doesn't just rely on historians and art historians, but on anyone who might provide an unexpected insight into the purpose of an object--Madhur Jaffrey on what the presence of a mortar and pestle suggests about the cuisine of a people, or a civil servant on Mesopotamian salary records. I've been feeling some frustration of late with the way that expertise often seems to mean only talking to other experts in one's own field, so this is a welcome series of collaborations. And I keep being taken aback by the reminders that we just seem to need art, to make things beautiful, even in precarious circumstances.