book review: flavor

Bob Holmes’ Flavor is a popular science book about the sense we use that’s one of the hardest to put into words. Holmes has interviewed scientists working on taste, smell, neuropsychology, genetics, soil composition, molecular gastronomy (and more) to really get into what we mean when we talk about how things taste, because it’s far more complicated than those old four-taste tongue diagrams you might remember.

One of the big takeaways from the book is that the difference between professional tasters (like wine-experts) and amateurs is more about the attention they pay and the vocabulary they have practiced with than anything specific in their tongues. It’s written in a light humorous fashion and though I would have liked a bit more in-depth explanation on a few points (how do we know a nerve is transmitting at maximum intensity?) this definitely provided enough facts to make me a bit of an insufferable dining companion.

book review: shelf monkey

I enjoy reading books that feel like I could have written them. The books I truly love are ones I could never possibly write, but it’s fun to read a book that fits so well with your own experiences sometimes.

Corey Redekop’s Shelf Monkey is a story about a lapsed Mennonite on the run for crimes against purveyors of shitty literature. It’s set in Winnipeg and is about the people who work in libraries and bookstores and are aghast at the taste customers display in choosing things to read. The villain of the book is a caricature of supermarket self-help book pushers, and the heroes form a book-burning cult. Only terrible pieces of shit books, and everyone really gets off on it.

It’s a decent little book. I think it’s a little less relevant to the culture of the 2010s than something like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, but that’s because it still seems to be treating broadcast television as an important cultural force rather than the internet. It’s a little Palahniukish, and the opening few chapters led me to expect more fragmented experimental storytelling than it actually delivered (eventually it settled into a pretty standard epistolary novel). I definitely recommend it to the book-lovers and more importantly to those people who make sure to peel the Oprah’s Book Club stickers off their copies of Steinbeck.

book review: under the jaguar sun

I picked up a copy of Italo Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun at a used bookshop the other day when I was buying a birthday present. Evidently it was going to be a collection of stories based on the senses, but Calvino died before it could be finished.

There are only three stories in the book. The first one, the title story, is about taste and is my favourite. It’s about a trip to Mexico and talking about cannibalism and the way you can and can’t share the experience of taste with a person no matter how close you might be.

The second story was called The King Listens and is sort of interesting in how it describes the way a king lives, stuck to his throne. The third was about scent. I can’t remember its title but it was about hunting for a living being by scent, told in three ways. The second and third were more interesting in their technique than story, but the first one was just great.

I have a copy of this book back in Vancouver that I hadn’t read, so this one will be going home with Holly who will probably not be impressed by Calvino’s literary tricks in the latter stories.