Reading off the Beaten Path

I have been told that my choice of reading material is somewhat eccentric.  Patrons occasionally ask me for book recommendations because they're pretty sure I'll suggest titles they haven't heard of. Here are a few books I've enjoyed over the past ten years that were probably never Oprah's Book Club picks (although they should have been). In 1987 New York Times reporter Howard Blum was reporting on the Walker spy case when he heard the government had convened a top-secret panel to investigate UFOs. He was skeptical, but decided to look into it. To his astonishment it was true: the panel was called the UFO Working Group. Blum chronicles the Working Group and its predecessors in Out There: The Government's Secret Quest for Extraterrestrials. Since 1947the year of the Roswell Incident—the U.S. government has been investigating the possibility of extraterrestrial life, all the while denying to the public that it has been doing anything of the kind. The UFO Working Group itself was the result of the remote viewing program, an espionage program intended to use psychics to locate and identify Soviet military vessels and buildings.  One psychic was asked to identify the coordinates of a Soviet submarine. He responded that he saw something in the air above the submarine, and drew a picture of a flying saucer. This was in 1985, the first year of Reagan's second term. Reagan himself believed he had seen a UFO when he was running for governor of California. So, at the highest level of government there was support for a new panel to investigate UFOs. But enough of my summary. Read the book yourself. But I should warn you: the truth isn't out there. Just a lot of weirdness. When writer Ted Botha moved from South Africa to New York City, he got all the furniture for his new apartment off the sidewalk.  The sheer abundance of discarded but useful "trash" in NYC led him into the world of "mongo" (useful garbage) and the people who actively pursue it. In Botha's Mongo: Adventures in Trash, you'll meet teens and twenty-somethings whose meals depend on knowing when and where restaurants toss out uneaten food, a book collector whose library of first editions was acquired by going through other people's trash, and an antique hunter who digs through the former locations of outhouses (he once found Victorian jewelry worth thousands of dollars; why people were tossing away jewelry in outhouses was not explained, if I recall correctly). In the early nineties writer Burkhard Bilger was living in Cambridge and he decided he needed a coonhound.  When he located a breeder he inadvertently discovered that coonhound breeders constitute a subculture in their own right: they publish magazines about coonhounds, they write histories of the breed, they hold week-long competitions, they even maintain coonhound cemeteries. Coonhounds were everywhere when he was growing up in Oklahoma, but he had no idea this community existed. What other subcultures thrived under everyone's radar in this country? In Noodling for Flatheads, Bilger hangs out with moonshiners, finds out why nobody's ever made a go of a frog farm, gives his readers a mini-history of cockfighting, and learns the downside(s) of going fishing with nothing but your bare hands. By 2001 Bob Brier had been an Egyptologist for over twenty years, but he was troubled by how much he (and everyone else) didn't know about mummification.  He realized that sometimes the only way to learn is by doing. So Brier decided to mummify a corpse. And he tells us how he did it in Egyptian Mummies: Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art.  After an initial setback or two, such as university administration forbidding him to do this on campus, he set to work. He contacted a government institution that handles distribution of bodies donated to science. Then, using an account of a mummification by Herodotus and ancient Egyptian sources, he got his supplies. The shopping list was a little different from that of most do-it-yourself projects: palm wine, natron, frankincense, myrrh, obisidian knives.... And once he got started he had to improvise to get around some of the gaps in Herodotus' account.  Egyptian Mummies is a clear, accessible account of how a modern scholar recreated an ancient practice step by step. I learned a lot about human anatomy and ancient Egyptian culture. All utterly fascinating. But the best part? When I go the Museum of Fine Arts I'm awestruck by the talent and even genius that went into creating some of the paintings and sculptures there. Then I go into the gallery with the Egyptian mummies and I just think, "Meh. I know how to do that." Peppers (a.k.a. the fruit of the plants of the genus Capsicum). They're everywhere. Many of the world's greatest cuisines are unimaginable without them. In Peppers: A Story of Hot Pursuits, Wall Street Journal reporter and pepper aficianado Amal Naj shares what he's learned about the world of peppers. He hikes the Andeans with a botanist looking for the ur-pepper. He learns that in Mexico eating habaneros can be a cultural and political statement. He learns how different cultures used chiles for punishment and torture. He writes about the legendary "pepper high" and research on the medicinal properties of capsaicin. Naj attends a national pepper conference where he meets breeders of "designer chiles," and delves into the legal battles that rage over use of the word "Tabasco." A bit dated (it was written in 1992) but highly informative and entertaining.

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