Sunday Book Reviews – 12/6/20

Bookshelf books, photo by Alien Motives

Nose Dive by Harold McGee (2020, Penguin)

Subtitled “A field guide to the world’s smells”, this thick tome seems, at first glance, far more daunting and far less interesting than it is. The author has previously won the James Beard award – a key award in the restaurant industry – for his writing, and the book is most likely to catch the eye of those familiar with his prior work like On Food and Cooking or those who hear him on the interview circuit.

This is a bit of a shame, because the book deserves even wider distribution than is likely to be afforded by those mechanisms. It has, admittedly, a bit of a limited audience: gastronomes and science buffs. The writing is playful and informative, though, and it is the sort of book which could easily turn someone who is fairly disinterested in both food and science into a bit of a fan of both.

Any book which might reasonably stimulate a love of learning should be a prime candidate for a holiday present.

The effect of smell upon the sense of taste has been extensively documented, but McGee explains why the two are related, and how to use the pairing to accentuate the experiences of both cooking and eating. In order to do that, he breaks down the sense of smell for the reader, providing a meticulously researched guide to one of our five primary senses and one which is often disregarded.

His task is Herculean, above and beyond the comprehensive nature of the subject matter and its fairly untrod ground because, as smell is not typically a focus of people’s writing, the language of smell is considerably more restrictive than that addressing sight or touch or hearing. McGee handles this problem adroitly, no doubt aided by his prior books addressing the subject of taste.

A final point which recommends it as a gift: the book was released in October of this year. For anyone save the obsessive food or science writing fan, it is unlikely to have found its way to their shelves. My only caution is that you may want to purchase two of them simultaneously, because if you find yourself flipping through it before giving it away you’re going to want your own copy.

Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson (1967, Dial)

This short dystopian novel has aged well and should be mandatory reading by most young adult authors today. In a market filled with dark interpretations of the future and teen life, Nolan and Johnson bring us a society where people are terminated on their 21st birthday,

The book addresses Nolan’s long-held concern with the ignorance of youth; it’s a theme to which he’s often returned, not out of contempt for the young but out of a fear of loss of knowledge. With age comes experience and with experience comes wisdom. This is manifested in the novel in the tendency characters have to accept the status quo about death until such time as they are facing their own termination.

It’s not just death. While that is the point which is most memorable about the book (and the screen adaptations) the casual acceptance of life is rampant throughout the book. A sex worker complains that she’s tired of children and needs a man of fifteen; the medical table – a natural substitution for the years of study required to become a good doctor – can easily be set to murder and dismember a patient instead of simply cure them. There are elements of the abhorrent on display throughout the supposed utopia, and only as he tries to escape his fate does the main character begin to recognize them for what they are.

The book is somewhat influenced by the movement toward experimental writing which was popular in the day, but that helps the narrative by providing a sense of futurism. The action – for it is essentially an action/thriller novel – is well-considered and follows naturally from prior events. On top of everything else, there’s a bit of a mystery to the story which is revealed across the final few pages.

The authors were veterans of the original Twilight Zone series, having shared duties with Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson and Jerry Sohl to produce some of the most memorable television of the black & white era. They knew how to construct a story and present it across a short time span. This novel is a perfect demonstration of their skill. For anyone who is willing to read science fiction, it is strongly recommended.

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.