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Friday, May 20, 2011

The Mile High Book Club

It seems I am addicted to books that discuss the evolution of things. I’m not speaking in Darwinian terms (although I have been to the Galapagos Islands). Rather, I love books that explore the origins of Spam, or Twinkies, or the Yugo.

As I think back, I believe I may have discovered this gene in my reading DNA thanks to The Panama Hat Trail by one Tom Miller. More than a mere exercise in travel journalism, Miller, in my humble opinion, stages a coup d’tete (sic) in weaving the tale of the Panama Hat, which actually has its origins in Ecuador (home of the aforementioned Galapagos). While he does not discover giant tortoises sporting jaunty straw hats, he does write a captivating (ahem) yarn of Ecuador and its people…and why its indigenous bowler has been pinned with the name of another country (the chapeaus were, in the day, exported worldwide via the Isthmus of Panama).

More recently, I have taken to treatises on the origins of food products. Among the goodies I have explored in the past year are Twinkies and doughnuts (neither of which I can eat due to a gluten intolerance). I must say that Twinkie Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger was a bit dry (like a 20-year-old Twinkie), a little too scientific for my taste. Then again, considering that the Twinkie is more of a science project than a food product, maybe the tone is appropriate. Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut, by Paul R. Mullins, was also a bit professorial in tone, but more delectable to read. Sure, it's more about consumerism and soci0-economics than sugar and ice, but one chapter on doughnut history and another on the morality of downing dunkers are the frosting on the cake.

Lest you think I am a food addict, let me also mention another recent read--The Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History by Jason Vuic. I can’t say it better than Sonja Sharp of Mother Jones. “Jason Vuic, a professor of modern European history, could have easily written a straightforward takedown of the most maligned automobile since the Ford Pinto. Instead, he uses the Yugo as a vehicle for an insightful and witty look at car culture, a half-century of Balkan history, and the last decade of the Cold War.” Indeed, Vuic’s paean makes luscious lemonade out of the world's most famous lemon.

Parenthetically, it does seem as though I am addicted to books with colons in their titles. As I wander through bookstores, monographs sporting colons are the ones I tend to digest. Both The Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World and Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World sound appeeling and are next on the reading list. There’s a lengthy book called The Toothpick: Technology and Culture that never fails to capture my attention in the bookstore. But I haven't sunk my molars into that one yet. Finally, The Book of SPAM: A Most Glorious and Definitive Compendium of the World's Favorite Canned Meat looks spamalicious (to coin a phrase). That's one, though, for which I'll have to work up an appetite.

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