The narrative occasionally drags, but this multidisciplinary master class in the history, science, religion, and literature...

TASTING THE PAST

THE SCIENCE OF FLAVOR AND THE SEARCH FOR THE ORIGINS OF WINE

You don’t need to be an oenophile to enjoy this flavorful adventure about one wine nerd’s search for the perfect grape.

In 2008, when former AP correspondent Begos was in his hotel room in Amman, Jordan, he took a red wine named Cremisan out of the mini-bar. He wasn’t expecting much, but “wow. I perked up immediately. The dry red wine had a spicy flavor.” As he writes, “my hotel room wine morphed from an obsession into training wheels,” and he was off on a two-year quest to learn more. Begos traveled through the original wine routes from the Caucasus Mountains and the Holy Land and north through Europe. He soon realized that it was not the wine he was seeking but the grape or grapes from which the wine was made. There would be more wine sampling ahead and interviews with experts who would provide him with “facts instead of just colorful myths.” At the University of Pennsylvania, archaeologist Patrick McGovern, the “Indiana Jones of ancient wine and beer,” taught the author how tests using liquid chromatography have helped identify types of wines in King Tut’s tomb. At the Cremisan monastery in Jerusalem, Begos discovered that his 2008 wine was probably made in 2006, “so I’d tasted one of the last vintages made by the monks.” In a small city on the Rhone, the author learned about ampelography while visiting with Jose Vouillamoz, a “kind of John James Audubon for endangered grapes.” It was like studying “branches (or vines) twisting in all directions, each shoot representing a different variety, a new flavor.” Others taught Begos about the importance of the soil (terroir) and yeast in the fermentation process. His “biggest American winemaking surprise came from Oregon,” which “may be the epicenter of wine innovation in America, even if there’s more money in California or New York.”

The narrative occasionally drags, but this multidisciplinary master class in the history, science, religion, and literature of wines is as luscious as a full-bodied pinot noir.

Pub Date: June 12, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-61620-577-5

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: April 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2018

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A quirky wonder of a book.

WHY FISH DON'T EXIST

A STORY OF LOSS, LOVE, AND THE HIDDEN ORDER OF LIFE

A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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