Worthwhile Books
Of the Season
Being Ten of the Best and the Brightest
Received by RALPH
During the Past Few Months

Strange Foods
Bush Meat, Bats, and Butterflies:
An Epicurean Adventure
Around the World

Jerry Hopkins
(Periplus Editions)
Besides having one of the longest titles in the history of publishing, Strange Foods also has some of the most disgusting photographs --- along with the most hilarious text. A listing of the most repulsive, vile, repulsive dishes world-wide, including
  • Fried crocodile tongue with garlic and pepper;
  • Sea-horse and wolfberry soup;
  • Mealworm salad in cucumber cups (with pictures show them crawling out of the melon cups);
  • Cricket and vegetable tempura;
  • Fried bamboo grubs;
  • Cricket stuffed baby tomatoes ("The size, shape, and crunchiness of crickets make them an ideal ingredient...garnish with thin slices of green chili;")
etc. etc. ad nauseum. Not to be read during the lunch break.

After the Ecstasy,
The Laundry
How the Heart Grows Wise
On the Spiritual Path

Jack Kornfield
Kornfield has always been one of the most clear-sighted of the "spiritual" writers. Here, he shows that even those who have gotten to the upper reaches of The Path are going to have problems with taking out the garbage, dealing with the kids, and doing "the laundry." Contains one of our favorite Master-Student stories of all times:
    "I want to join the community and work to attain enlightenment. How long will it take me?"
    "Ten years," replies the master.
    "Well, how about if I really work and double my efforts?"
    "Twenty years."
    "Hey, just a moment. That's not fair! Why did you double it?"
    "In your case," says the master, "I'm afraid it will be thirty years."

Sailing Alone
Around the World
Captain Joshua Slocum
In 1895, Slocum set off in his sloop, the Spray --- journeying alone, except for the occasional appearance of head hunters (off the coast of South America), beautiful women (on the islands of Samoa), and a ghost from Columbus' Pinta (in the middle of the Atlantic). The reason Sailing Alone is so beguiling is because Slocum reveals himself, slowly (as befits his name), as a solid, funny, retiring type --- the kind of person we would all entrust our lives with, want to travel with, around the world, on a tiny sloop.

Music of
Another World
Szymon Laks
Translated by Chester A. Kisiel
(Northwestern University Press)
Szymon Laks was sent to Auschwitz in 1942, given number 49,543 --- and survived one concentration camp or another for three years until he was liberated by the allies at the end of WWII. He was director of inmate musicians at Birkenau and was useful to the authorities because of this, and because of his ability to speak German, Polish, and French.

He survived, and this book about his experiences differs from so many of the others because Laks not only had the luck to have a talent that the Nazis (for some strange reason) wanted; but because he was able to shut off his mind to the horror around him, even, on occasion, finding a bit of humor in the grim world around him. His writing feels right --- as if we are living, with him, experiencing what one writer called "the theory and practice of hell" in the hands of an impeccably honest man.

Memoirs of a
Space Traveler
Further Reminiscences
Of Ijon Tichy

Stanislaw Lem
There just aren't that many people from Poland writing Science Fiction, and certainly few with the intellect of Lem (outside of Donald Barthelme) to have the luck to appear in the New Yorker. Some of the tales are heavy going, but the first --- "The Eighteenth Voyage" --- is worth the price of the book. The universe is to be recreated without the weaknesses of the current one:

    ...to prevent supernovas from jolting it too much; to eliminate the senseless waste of quasar and pulsar energy; to keep stars from sparking and smoking like damp candlewicks....

But of course, some meddlesome fellow workers sneak in and gum up the one-time bullet that will change everything. Making it sound, of course, just like what we have now.

The Tipping Point
How Little Things Can
Make a Big Difference

Malcolm Gladwell
(Little, Brown)
A treatise on the tiny things that changed the world. Though some of them are trivial --- Hush Puppies, advertising campaigns for skateboard shoes --- there are some ideas that have changed or will change the world. For example, an organization works at maximum efficiency when there are less than 150 employees; crime can be cut dramatically by invoking small changes (the "broken window" theory); "Sesame Street" succeeded not only because it was endlessly tested with noisy bunches of 5- and 6-year-olds, but because the creators ignored most of the theories of their child psychologist advisors.

Richard Galli
(Algonquin Books
Of Chapel Hill)
Seventeen-year-old Jeffrey Galli broke his neck on July 4, 1998. This is a description of the next ten days in critical care --- told not through his eyes, but that of his father (a journalist, and a lawyer). What sets it apart from the usual "disability literature" is that Richard Galli's vision is particularly acute: he knows what his son's life is going to be like, and he knows that it will be equally hard for the young man and his family. His insistence on "Option Two" --- pulling all life-support systems --- puts him in deep conflict with the doctors and hospital authorities. Our reviewer likened it to "a murder --- or would-be murder --- mystery."

Nathaniel's Nutmeg
Or, The True and Incredible
Adventures of the Spice Trader
Who Changed the Course of History

Giles Milton
The Spice Wars of the early 17th Century sound fun and funny --- but they were, in reality a series of brutal ambushes designed to win control of the trade in nutmeg. Once this spice had been transported from the island of Ran to England or Holland, the price rose by a factor of a thousand: the spice was considered to be a cure for Bubonic Fever (which was ravaging the cities of Europe at the time). The main battles were between the Dutch and the English. The Dutch won --- at least won monopoly rights for the Spice Islands. The English? They got a wild and unsettled spit of land across the Atlantic that would later be known as New York City.

Jacobson's Organ
And the Remarkable
Nature of Smell

Lyall Watson
Watson's thesis is that the nose has two completely different areas for sensing smell. The better known one is the sophisticated (and large) sensing area well up in the nasal passage. Then there are a tiny pair of holes in the inner nose itself which connects with the reptilian brain. When people have what they used to vulgarly call "B.O." --- it was detected by this Jacobson's Organ. It has to do with sex and lust and those primitive parts of love that we don't want to think about. The author, however, tells you more than you can imagine (or may even want to know) about stink and sweat glands and animals and people either trying to attract or repel each other.

Village of a
Million Spirits
A Novel of the
Treblinka Uprising

Ian MacMillan
You may also not want to read this one. The writing is so graphic in this novel, the reality of it so rending, that one could, perhaps, place it in the category of things "I really don't want to know about." The cattle-cars, the victims being herded into the gas chambers, their thoughts (even their shame) is so powerfully told that some may simply put down the book in dismay. Our reviewer did.

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