Stalin’s Daughter – Rosemary Sullivan

It was as if Svetlana had two modes: abject submission and total rebellion.

The second installment in my month of reading more books by women was Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter, which had the extra virtue of being both by and about a woman. Svetlana Alliluyeva was Joseph Stalin’s daughter by his second wife and, as the title might suggest, lived her entirely life in orientation to the Soviet dictator.

In Sullivan’s telling, Svetlana was her father’s favorite in her earliest years, even while being kept at arm’s length. These two factors sheltered her from her father’s excesses, all the while ensuring that she grew up a believer in communist doctrine even after her mother committed suicide (though the fact that it was a suicide was kept from Svetlana). Svetlana’s own interests were largely smothered by the whims of her father—e.g. her first love was forbidden her not because of his many foibles but because he was Jewish; she was diverted from the study literature in favor of modern history. She simultaneously lived a privileged position and one of great restriction, as is to be expected of a Soviet princess. Nor did the situation change overmuch with Stalin’s death, when her fate, and that of her children, were largely determined by the status of the cult of personality around her family.

The turning point in Svetlana’s life, and the hook Sullivan uses in her biography, was her defection to the US in 1967 while in India to spread the ashes of her deceased Indian partner. Defection in the midst of the Cold War, however, did not change that she was Stalin’s daughter. His shadow remained long and dark as she settled in with such luminaries as George Kennan. Despite the problems Stalin continued to pose her, the only thing worse might be when people in general forget because a small number of people with the ability to make her life very difficult did not.

Svetlana was a complicated woman and, as often happens in biographies, Sullivan slips into the role of armchair psychologist. Most of her observations are at least logical. Svetlana, she believes, was deeply scarred by her parents’ relationship: Stalin was disdainful of women except as sexual objects, Nadezhda died when Svetlana was six and was a distant mother. Moreover, Svetlana had effectively no conception of money or income because of her unique position in Soviet society and a constant need to move. Most of all, Sullivan suggests, was a deep-seated longing for a stable family life that she never had and thus led to numerous assignations, four marriages and two other relationships that probably would have ended in marriage had situations not dictated otherwise. Svetlana was rarely settled, though, and had a constant need for change in home or situation that could turn on a dime—abandoning children in other countries if it came to that—with a personality that flew fickle from charming to despotic without notice.

Svetlana led an extraordinary life (she passed in 2011), but, with few exceptions, the portion of the biography leading up to her defection was stronger than her experiences in America. The latter portions tended to devolve into endless legal wrangling over publications and financial rights when Svetlana’s whims led to hardship. (Svetlana herself lived frugally, but moving frequently, exorbitant donations, and exploitation by her fourth husband, Wes Peters, at the behest of the Frank Lloyd Wright foundation depleted her savings.) Sullivan’s narrative is brisk, despite its periodic and probably unavoidable repetition, laying bare the difficulties Svetlana had holding onto the many relationships made and broken throughout her life and reproducing sections of her lively letters. I quite enjoyed Stalin’s Daughter and particularly appreciated Svetlana’s story as a different perspective on the evolution of the Soviet Union through the twentieth century.

Next up, I’m in the middle of reading Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin, the second in her Farseer Trilogy.

But What if We’re Wrong – Chuck Klosterman

In other words, we’re starting to behave as if we’ve reached the end of human knowledge. And while that notion is undoubtedly false, the sensation of certitude it generates is paralyzing.

What’s interesting is our communal willingness to assume most old stories may as well be true, based on the logic that (a) the story is already ancient, and (b) there isn’t any way to confirm an alternative version, despite the fact that we can’t categorically confirm the original version, either.

Extrapolate that phenomenon to forty years, or to four hundred years, or to four thousand years: How much of history is classified as true simply because it can’t be sufficiently proven false?

In this not-essay collection (as he asserts several times in the forward material), Chuck Klosterman tackles the topic of how we think about the past and how we think about the future, arguing that a) there are some seriously problematic thing about how we think about the former and b) we nevertheless need to think about the latter more like we think about the former. Klosterman’s operating principles are that there is too much information (and too many variables) for a person to grapple with all of them, that certainty as a way of stifling progress and inquiry, and that we are more likely to be wrong than we are to be right.

What ensues is a lengthy, frequently speculative thought experiment that runs the gamut from asking what musical artist will be passed down as the exemplar of Rock and Roll when there is only one Rock artist who is widely remembered, to asking famous scientists whether we have hit a point of diminishing returns in the field because universal constants like gravity have already been solved, to talking about historical conspiracies such as the Phantom Time Hypothesis. (This last one is the theory that certain epochs in human history are no more than agreed upon fictions, which make for fun discussion and better Onion articles. Klosterman includes lengthy quotations from conversations he had with cultural and scientific luminaries (some of whom would be counted as more expert than others), all building on the theme in question.

But What if we’re Wrong is not about answers, but rather questions, a book meant to be good to think with. In this regard, Klosterman is successful, even though the very nature of the book, combined with the conversational and journalistic tone, make some of the specifics of the argument rest lightly in my memory. I enjoyed reading the book and it has certainly influenced me in terms of how I think, but some chapters were stronger than others. I particularly liked the chapter “The World That Is Not There” that explores false certitude about historical events, while others at times wandered down rabbit holes that were relevant, but less successful.

Similarly, the cultural commentary in But What if We’re Wrong runs the risk of becoming rapidly dated, even if that ironically proves the core conceit worth considering. Perhaps the clearest example of this I noticed was the discussion of Rock and Roll that considers at length (and the dismisses) the possibility that the “true exemplar” is Bob Dylan. Nothing Klosterman writes is yet invalid, but his hypothetical future did not consider the possibility that Dylan would go down as a Nobel Laureate. Ultimately, though, this is a quirk of the topic that ought not discredit a book that deliberately avoids most polemical topics in order to make its own case that how we think about these issues ought to be considered in its own right—and Klosterman can therefore be forgiven for not necessarily following leads in a comprehensive way because to do so would simply be missing the point.

I am currently reading Thebes at War by the Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, a book that was intended to be part of a forty-part retelling of the whole of Egyptian history. Thus far I am not finding it a particularly successful novel, but what it reveals about conceptions of Egyptian nationalism is fascinating.

The Caped Crusade – Glen Weldon

So there you have Batman: a crude, four-color slumgullion of borrowed ideas and stolen art.

It was as if Winnie the Pooh had escaped the Hundred-Acre Wood and run amok on the mean streaks of New York. Where he brutally mauled Piglet. And ate Christopher Robin’s face off.

Because that would be real. That would be badass.

Surprisingly for someone whose early life was largely sheltered from T.V. my Batman is the one from Batman the Animated Series that debuted in 1992. It probably only happened in reruns on a couple of occasions, but I have distinct memories of watching it in a car dealership on the Barre-Montpelier road in Berlin, Vermont. I mostly remember being enthralled, but, then, memory can be a tricky thing.

The reason I started with my Batman is that the concept of an affinity for a particular type of Batman, whether light or dark, is one of the core conceits of Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade. Weldon traces the cultural history of Batman through its various iterations from 1939 roughly through the current version, laying out three principal claims along the way.

First, Weldon situates the evolution of the Batman character within the cultural zeitgeist. In addition to Batman mirroring cultural developments such as 1980s macho culture, Weldon argues that he goes through a three-phrase cycle from lone avenger, to father-cum-partner of Robin, to pater familias to an extended Bat-family and then back again. Within this cycle, there is also the revolving dimmer-switch on Batman’s morality, between the campy, civic-minded Batman, sometimes embracing his billionaire alter-ego, sometimes not, and a grimmer, brutal dark knight.

These two cycles feed into Weldon’s second hypothesis, that everyone has their own personal Batman. Often the personal batman is the one experienced when young, with some allowance for variation in cases of backlash. Weldon makes a compelling case for these wild swings in Batman fandom, even though it ultimately can’t be substantiated and although he does not not totally follow through with the ramifications of this idea given gradual confluence of interested in Batman between nerd culture and “normals.”

Third, much of The Caped Crusade is dedicated to trying to understand the enduring popularity of Batman, which has resulted in his appearance in ten live-action feature films since 1989. Weldon debunks the putative notion of Batman’s “relateability”—the irrepressible idea that ordinary people are more able to identify with Batman because he lacks superpowers. As Weldon points out, though, Batman is supposed to be the world’s wealthiest person, with almost no responsibilities with his company, is a peak athlete who spent years honing his martial arts skills, and, in recent iterations, is a brilliant tactician who is (almost) never wrong. But, beyond that, Batman is totally just like you and me.

Weldon makes the case that the ability for many people to relate to Batman, particularly among people who were for years not in the mainstream, stems from the oath he swears after the death of his parents that he will wage a crusade against all criminals so that no one suffers the way he suffered. This oath, and the single-minded obsession that follows from it, Weldon says, makes Batman the original nerd.

The main difference now is that, somewhere along the way, nerd culture went mainstream.

I have never been much of a comic book person, truth be told. It isn’t so much antipathy as I never made the investment of time or money to get into the stories and I was somewhat turned off by never really knowing where to start reading. As such, some of Weldon’s detailing the ins and outs of the writers and inkers did not mean much to me, but the broad sweeps of the Batman tradition in Weldon’s hands (and lively prose) aptly reflect many of the fissures in American culture for the past seventy five years. The same may well be true of other superheroes (Weldon intimates as much when he talks about larger trends in comic book publishing), but Batman’s stature as among the oldest, most popular, and, importantly, most relate-able (such that he is) heroes makes Batman an apt study for American culture writ-large.


Next up, I am currently reading Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in Mind. It is too soon to tell if I will like the story, but so far I am quite taken with both the structure and the characters.

Odessa – Charles King

Situated on the north-eastern shore of the Black Sea, the site of Odessa was a backwater Turkish fort overlooking a small fishing village. During the reign of Catherine the Great of Russia (1762-1796) the fort fell to Russian forces and Jose Pascual Domingo de Ribas y Boyons, a Neapolitan man born to a Spanish father and Italian mother, then in Catherine’s service, saw potential for the site to become Russia’s southern port. With the empress’ blessing, de Ribas laid out the new city along a European pattern.

Despite problems with sanitation and clean water (the city is not set on a river), outbreaks of plague from Ottoman ships, and intermittent crises over Ottoman control of the Bosporus, Odessa flourished. Hard by three major rivers agricultural goods from the Russian interior converged on the city, while liberal trade policies made it an attractive destination for merchants, its mild climate and European accouterments made it attractive to ex-patriots, and Russian reticence to move south led to economic privileges to Jews that were not common elsewhere in the empire. Odesssa’s newness made it exceptional compared to other cities, with fewer regulations and a wilder population that fostered creativity and crime, particularly in the years before the revolution.

According to Charles King, the popular conception of Odessa (such that one exists) is a fiction made from nostalgia and propaganda that is perpetually being redrawn. After 1918, for instance, Odessa came to be regarded as one of the original cities for the Russian revolution, but this reputation was the product of the movie Battleship Potemkin that valorized a mutiny aboard an imperial naval vessel of that name. Likewise, Odessa changed fundamentally when it was occupied by Romanian forces during World War 2, both because a limited number of episodes added it to the list of Soviet hero cities resisting occupation and because the occupation irreversibly changed the demographics of the city. The Jewish population of Odessa was gone.

There is obviously a good deal more to Odessa than the briefest sketch laid out above, and King wanders into the realm of biography to flesh out the picture of the literary and political luminaries, as well as a number of the criminals, that left their mark on Odessa or had Odessa leave its mark on them. There were time that my attention flagged—I picked Odessa out of the library stacks for no other reason than that members of my family lived there before coming to the United States, though none of them rose to the level of inclusion—but that is going to happen. From a historical perspective, King’s greatest feat and perhaps the most fascinating part of Odessa the city is the extent to which the character of a community is constructed through both stories and monuments. To give one notable example, Odessa’s most famous monument is the Potemkin Steps, a set of staircases that connect the harbor to the city atop which sits a statue of Richelieu, a French expat and early governor of the city. One might assume that the steps were named for Grigory Potemkin, whose military campaign captured the town for Russia or at least for the Battleship Potemkin mutineers, but, in fact, it was neither. Naturally, the steps were named for the movie Battleship Potemkin. King brings this type of layered memorializations to the front of his narrative time and again, building the cultural legacy of Odessa into the series of political and economic decisions that shaped the population that inhabited this comparatively young city.


I also recently finished reading Stefan Zweig’s Confusion, a psychological novel that I found simultaneously insightful and problematic, and the second book in N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, The Broken Kingdoms. Next up is going to be something non-fiction, either Glen Weldon’s The Caped Crusade or Chuck Klostermann’s What if we’re wrong.

Dream Team – Jack McCallum

There have been US Olympic basketball teams composed of NBA players since, but, according to Jack McCallum, there has only one Dream Team. That team—Larry, Michael, Magic, Scottie, Charles, Stockton, Malone, Ewing, Robinson, Mullin, Clyde the Glide, and Christian Laettner—represented the United States in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the first time that NBA players were allowed to participate. The outcome of the tournament was never in question since the average margin of victory was more than forty points and they never called time out, but how the team came together and what their legacy was were stories unto themselves.

The NBA underwent a massive growth in popularity in the 1980s. Despite some racially-motivated fears about it being “too black,” the uptick was fueled by better play and stars such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Borislav Stankovic, a former Serbian basketball player and then administrator in FIBA, wanted to tap into this newfound popularity in order to grow basketball into a global game that could challenge soccer. For this he needed NBA players in international competition, but, in order to do this, he needed to change the rules governing amateurism in FIBA. In some ways, though, this was the easy part, because he then needed to get NBA buy-in and, after that, to wrangle NBA superstars into effectively volunteering their time and likenesses for the Olympics.

In the “Dream Team,” Stankovic was more successful than he ever could have hoped. What had been originally proposed as a team with half the roster composed of college players coached by person from the college roster turned into a team with single token college player (Laettner) and coached by a man with two NBA championships. Its roster didn’t have some very good NBA players so much as all the top stars excluding only Isiah Thomas, whose exclusion despite his coach guiding the team provides a significant amount of the drama in the book.

The Dream Team took the 1992 Olympics by storm, with the most competitive game they played being an intra-squad scrimmage in Monaco, but the combination of the personalities involved and the drama of the Lithuanian basketball team that famously received financial support from the Grateful Dead, made for plenty of drama. The Dream Team, in particular, was composed of larger-than-life characters, gods of the basketball universe, but this was no mere collection of the best players in the world. It was also a uniquely mature and experienced team where Magic Johnson had already retired once because of his HIV announcement and Larry Bird had just finished playing his final NBA season.

But what of McCallum’s contention that this was the one and only Dream Team? It is hard to imagine a team with a greater level of star-power on it, though later USA basketball teams have come close without quite the same dominant results. The differences in part come from the divergent legacies of 1992. International basketball players saw the Dream Team as not just particularly athletic, but also impossibly skilled in all facets of the game and worked to emulate them, demonstrating fulfillment of Stankovic’s vision; in contrast, US basketball players saw their on-court dominance and took it to indicate American invincibility in basketball, without recognizing either the unselfishness or determination that manifested in legitimate practice and Jordan and Pippen deciding that they were going to utterly annihilate their future teammate Tony Kukoc because of an imagined slight that really had nothing to do with the Croat. The United States still had a preponderance of basketball talent, but it was not talent alone that drove the Dream Team to such dominance.

McCallum covered the NBA in the 1980s and therefore was also one of the journalists covering the team in Barcelona; Dream Team weaves these recollections together with interviews he conducted in later years and reads like an extended feature article. The book is immensely readable, though, and the NBA players come alive on the pages, so much so that I found myself going back and watching old highlights of Larry Bird while reading. This is probably not a book for someone who is not at least a causal basketball fan, but for anyone who is, Dream Team needs to be necessary reading for a glimpse at the seed for the modern, globalized NBA.


I have once again fallen behind on posts here, or, perhaps, I have had a little more time than usual for reading since, in addition to Dream Team, I have also finished Mo Yan’s strange novel The Republic of Wine and N.K. Jemisin’s excellent The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms since my last post. I haven’t decided what I am going to read next, but I am nonetheless looking forward to it.

Wicked River: the Mississippi when it last ran wild, Lee Sandlin

I was in Minneapolis for a funeral last weekend and, as a result, was visiting with extended family. One of my cousins lives a matter of blocks from one of my favorite bookstores, Magers and Quinn, so we usually end up talking books. Not for the first time, she passed a number of books off to me. The first of these I picked up is Wicked River, a history of the Mississippi river before the Civil War.

Sandlin takes the reader along with the navigators up and down the river, into the swirling currents, and among the personalities that fought, swindled, and cavorted in the region. His inspiration, in a way, seems to be the stories of Mark Twain even though he notes early on that those stories were already conjuring up a bygone world. In this sense, it is more appropriate to start with what changed. In Sandlin’s account (and I do not think there is reason to doubt it), the infrastructure of the Mississippi River changed in the years after the Civil War when the first railroad bridge crossed the river allowing trains to almost completely replace steamboats. At the same time, US military engineers undertook a massive project to smooth out the rough edges of the river and demographic changes tamed the rough population.

Wicked River is an easy, indulgent read that eagerly regales its audience with the tall tales and local legends from the Mississippi River valley. Most of the stories, Sandlin concludes, are fictions that emerged out of a kernel of truth. Wicked River is well pretty well researched and draws from both contemporary accounts and geographic surveys, but Sandlin employs the same casual, comfy tone whether describing the winter snowmelt or legends about piratical gangs, which becomes only slightly more regimented at the end when those characters lived on only in memory.

I can’t vouch for the value of Wicked River as a historical study, not because I think Sandlin is wrong in his narrative but because I don’t know the historiography on the topic and there is only a loose thesis. But this judgement should not detract from a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging read about a bygone time.


Next up, I am reading Orhan Pamuk’s Silent House.

Vanished Kingdoms – Norman Davies

My final non-fiction read of 2016 was another large book that has been on my list for quite some time. Norman Davies Vanished Kingdoms is a weighty tome that purports to investigate the rise and fall of states. In my opinion, Davies falls short of this stated objective, but the book as a whole is nevertheless worth reading.

Each chapter of Vanished Kingdoms is dedicated to a different European “kingdom” that a) came into being after the fall of the Roman Empire b) has somehow shaped the modern European landscape and c) no longer exists. The studies are arranged in rough chronological order, starting with the Visigothic kingdom of Tolosa and concluding with the Soviet Union (albeit focussed on Estonia). Each chapter is divided into three parts. First, there is a synopsis of the modern region, second is a synopsis of the titular state of the chapter, and finally there is an analysis of how that state collapsed. Some chapters are more comprehensive than others; for instance, the chapter on Byzantium is littered with comments about how this short chapter is inadequate to give anything other than a passing impression. The unevenness was usually not a major problem, except in the case of Byzantium, which seemed like a chapter that a reviewer asked to be added to the book rather than one that really fit with the rest of the text.

Davies returns to themes of language, culture, and religion over and over again, and with good reason. His approach highlights that the largely stable borders of European nation-states were deeply fragmented as little as a century and a half ago and liable to change because of elite marriages. Vanished Kingdoms does an excellent job of explaining many of the independence movements in, for instance Catalonia, without trying to be a Grand Narrative of Europe. I also particularly liked Davies’ approach to European nationalism, which is not to push national identity per se into the past, but to ascribe weight to historical developments in terms of the the development of modern nationalism—and starting this narrative in the shadow of Rome was defensible for seeking these roots.

I liked Vanished Kingdoms quite a bit, particularly enjoying the chapters on Alt Clud (northern England), Litvia, Borussia, and Aragon, but, as noted above, think that framing the book as a study of how states die is misleading. The final chapter is a historiographical epilogue that engages with the literature on how states fail, infused with observations and conclusions from the fifteen studies in the book. This chapter was fine, but I found the frame limiting, particularly in that this is a Eurocentric book. Instead, I thought the stronger parts of the book engaged with the wrinkles of European Nationalism, something that is tangentially related to how states collapse, but actually examining how states survive—not in terms of political strategy, but in terms of the formations that currently exist.

The Better Angels of Our Nature – Steven Pinker

We are surrounded by signs of the depravity of our ancestors’ way of life, but we are barely aware of them.

Whatever causes violence, it is not a perennial urge like hunger, sex, or the need to sleep

The Better Angels of Our Nature has been on my reading list basically since it came out, but I finally decided to read it in a moment of despair after the recent presidential election. My plan was actually to read it over Thanksgiving break, but I wound up doing it in spurts over about three weeks. Better Angels is an impressive book, but I came out with much of my skepticism about the premise confirmed, now with ways to articulate these thoughts.

The core argument in Better Angels is simple: we are living in the most peaceful era of human history. All the trend lines concerning xxx-cide (and Pinker includes many) slope downward, despite jagged spikes for the World Wars. We might feel like the world is more dangerous because of saturated coverage of death, but the trends are clear. According to Pinker, this is something that he is (and we should be) optimistic about.

Pinker begins Better Angels by offering an avalanche of evidence for the violence of the world of yesteryear, including rape, torture, and killing. His argument, which is not wrong per se, is that once upon a time the world was much more violent than it is today. This violence includes, according to Pinker, both violence in terms of percentages of people who die from it and the societal acceptance of and revelry in this violence. Pinker then charts what he calls the “Pacification Process,” crediting (principally) civilization, the humanitarian and rights revolutions, and a Hobbesian Leviathan for curbing the worse angels of human nature. Ironically, these revolutions saw a decrease in violence at the same time as the technological capacity to kill people more efficiently has increased. Pinker also delves into the human mind, showing with science how both violence and non-violence are natural parts of the human condition and that both of those instincts can be conditioned. From the title of the book, it is clear which side Pinker believes is winning.

I don’t disagree with the broad premise of Better Angels, even though I think the use of percentages of the population for the trends overlooks that there are so many more people alive and thus that a larger raw number of people comes across as a smaller percentage. But I have three more substantive critiques of Better Angels:

  • First, the past is a more violent place than the modern world. Full stop. However, throughout Better Angels Pinker tends to pick evidence that supports his theory and sometimes skirts studies that do not. I had a gut feeling about this in the waves of scientific studies, but I saw it clearly in his description of the past. Yes, the past was more violent, but it seemed to me that he overstated the case, particularly when it came to the battlefield, where has been suggested that death was significantly less common than is frequently assumed. Moreover, some of the same features that he credits with reducing violence in the modern world also existed in the premodern world.
  • Second, I couldn’t help but wonder about the human capacity to harm one another in ways that don’t result in death and therefore don’t necessarily show up on the charts. For instance, working poor people to death and starving third world children in slave labor factories are not things that will appear on a list of homicide, but are equally awful. Perhaps there are other charts that show optimistic trends on these fronts as well, but I wonder if the depravity has just been moved rather than curbed. Similarly, can the reduction in percentages of death in combat be attributed not to a reduction in conflict, but in advances in medical technology so battlefield wounds are not fatal?
  • Third, Better Angels was written right at the start of the Arab Spring, and Pinker is optimistic about the future of these secular uprisings in support of democracy. How does this same picture look in Syria five years later?

Pinker’s hypothesis is cultural and social rather than relying on rational actors, except in one single way. Pinker argues that the technological advances that allow for the easy killing on a wide scale were so horrible that they deterred people from actually using these weapons, particularly nuclear weapons. This aversion then led to a long peace. But the human capacity for violence is muted, not eliminated, and the aversion to violence and using nuclear weapons requires leaders to be nauseated by the consequences of using the weapons. What happens when there is a rise of militant nationalism? What happens when there is a resurgence in pseudo-scientific beliefs about a hierarchy of races? What happens when people don’t remember the spikes of violence on a mass-scale during the holocaust? What happens when leaders don’t grasp the consequences of nuclear weapons or simply don’t care? What if this long-term trend turns out to be the anomaly?

I am less optimistic than Pinker. I have some hope because I accept his core argument as valid, but there are also warning signs baked into the this trend. Some of these, such as increasingly destructive weapons leading to an aversion to their use, Pinker accepts as causal, but I am not so sure.


Since finishing Better Angels I have since finished Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. I haven’t decided what I am going to read next.

Cheese and Culture – Paul Kindstedt

A cheese scientist at the University of Vermont by trade, Kindstedt’s Cheese and Culture traces the history of cheese and its role in Western Civilization. I grimaced at “Western Civilization” in the subtitle, but was reconciled to it because, as Kindstedt argues, cheese as it is currently known is a largely western phenomenon because lactase tolerance in adults was more common in the Middle East and Europe than elsewhere in the world.

Kindstedt starts in the Fertile Crescent with the domestication of dairy animals, but convincingly shows that the inability to process dairy meant that these animals were not milked, but used for meat and hides. The change came, he argues, when at a time of ecological crisis and food shortage that saw the milking of animals to feed children and, eventually adults. Cheese and butter, which retain much of the nutritional value of milk but eliminate some or most of the lactose, followed soon after. By biblical times, fresh cheese was an appropriate gift for deities.

The strongest element of Cheese and Culture is the careful observation of changes in cheese-making techniques, which is perhaps to be expected from a scientist of the processes. For instance, Kindstedt meticulously charts types of cheese fermentation, particularly acid, heating, and rennet, the last of which he reasonably posits came about by shepherds witnessing cheese curd in the stomachs of slaughtered animals. Thus Kindstedt leads the reader through changes, including Roman agricultural manuals on farm practices, monastic cheese production, and the transition to industrial cheese production.

It is on that last issue during the 19th Century that I found most interesting. Cheddar was the king of American cheese production during the entirety of the 20th century despite Cheshire having been the most common in 1851 when the first “cheese factory” opened in upstate New York. But Cheddar was easier to develop industrial processes for, including guidebooks on measurements, cooking temperatures, and so on, as well as being a cheese that lent itself to production in large blocks. Then, with the Civil War forcing women (the usual cheesemakers) to do other work on the farm and England lowering tariffs on cheese in desperation to feed of a burgeoning population–and that London particularly loved Cheddar, industrial cheesemaking exploded. However, industrial cheesemaking also diluted quality and taste because overproduction drove prices down.

Cheese and Culture is a book that is strikingly “Vermont,” including that there are several sentences complaining about EU trade regulations about naming rights on cheese and mocking the idea that Vermont Cheddar would have been named something like “Vermont Delight.”

There is a lot to recommend Cheese and Culture, but it is not without flaws. First, although Kindstedt does a passable job covering cheese in Greece and Rome, his framework is still somewhat set along the lines of the bible since the epitaph for each of the early chapters is taken from the Bible. Second, it is possible to quibble that cheese is as central to a narrative of world history. For instance, Kindstedt has a tendency to elevate cheese in places where cheese is but one of the commodities being traded, which might suggest a manipulation to make cheese more important than it actually was. (Not that I am unsympathetic, I might add, as a loyal son of Vermont and fervent caseophile.)

Third, the scope of Cheese and Culture is so large that Kindstedt necessarily speaks in some generalities. This is particularly true in the latter stages of the book where, after describing how there came to be a diversity of cheese (largely the result of variations in geography), Kindstedt falls back on generalities about American versus European cheese and the admittedly interesting account of trade wars.The problem is not that it doesn’t work in the context of this book about “Western Civilization,” but rather that he hints at a wider story about cheese in America. For instance, there is emphasis on New England cheese, but nothing about California or Wisconsin, and only passing mention about how Cheddar (probably including American) was the dominant cheese in America until passed by Mozzarella in 2001. The cause of mozzarella’s (and presumably other cheese’s) relegation? It was considered immigrant food. Just as with the bagel, there is a wider story about the American assimilation of food. This is not Kindstedt’s core theme and I should not criticize him for what he is not doing, but I found that adding one more section about the assimilation of non-Cheddar cheeses in America and regional variation would have strengthened the latter parts of the book. Instead, there is brief summation of the US-EU trade wars about cheese and brief mention of the return of artisanal cheese that offer taste in return for more money. These are important topics, but came across as somewhat anodyne compared to the more nuanced discussion about the creation of cheese diversity.


I didn’t turn on my computer this past weekend in an effort to recharge a little bit, and so I have fallen behind on writing up my reading. I finished Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms (Dandelion Dynasty Book 2) last week and Michael Chabon’s idiosyncratic The Yiddish Policeman’s Union this morning. I am not sure what I am reading next, but on the nonfiction front it will either be Charles Mann’s 1493 or Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature; in terms of fiction, I have too many options to list and am currently pulled in several different directions.

Brunch: A History – Farha Ternikar

You don’t eat brunch. You do brunch.

I took a break from reading War and Peace to breeze through Ternikar’s slim history of Brunch from its origins in Great Britain in the late 1800s to its global phenomenon.

Although it began in Great Britain, Ternikar shows that Brunch took root in the United States. One vector, epitomized by french toast, entered through New Orleans, while another, with Eggs Benedict, came through New York. In both cases, brunch began as am meal enjoyed only by the elite because it required leisure time that few could afford. From these beginnings, though, brunch became a middle class and even working class meal, one that still went hand-in-hand with relaxation, but also that offered freedom for women because it combined two meals into one, thereby limiting the number of dishes that were used and freeing time for families. The combination of leisure and pomp associated brunch with church and weddings, as a time for people to mingle and eat, and culture manuals described how it was the perfect opportunity for single women to socialize with married friends. And, of course, day drinking features prominently.

Brunch consists of five short chapters: history, cultural importance, brunch at home, away from home, and in popular culture. Ternikar draws extensively on and quotes think pieces, culture manuals and magazines that both support and oppose the phenomenon, which frequently makes it a lively read. Themes such as luxury, relaxation, female activity, all appear clearly in these chapters. I enjoyed reading Brunch, but had some questions about the choices in putting the book together. For instance, I found the black and white images that are drawn from internet sources rather than, say, from field research to take away from overall product. I also found that the author did well to show the breadth of brunch in popular culture and around the world, but it also makes the book repetitious.