The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African (Olaudah Equiano) — a classic autobiography of a 18th century African who was captured and sold into slavery, managed to save enough to buy his freedom, and then had a number of adventures in the Caribbean, Mediterranean, and Arctic. It’s a real window into the time period as well as one of the oldest textual accounts of Europeans through African eyes during that period.
That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (Carlo Emilio Gadda) — a allegorical murder mystery / police investigation. The use of language is dazzling, but the plot, as such, is a bit flat. Recommended for those who like florid prose, extreme vocabulary, and political satire. In this case Gadda is mocking fascism. It may be appealing to those who liked The Master and Margarita.
Red Plenty (Francis Spufford) — a lightly fictionalized history of the moment when it looked like central planning was going to work in the Soviet Union, and how it all then fell apart (later to be buoyed by oil prices). A tremendously engaging book about a moment in history that we never hear about in the US due to our stupid jingoistic Cold War know-nothing attitude. There was also a Crooked Timber event on it, which I am going to read now.
The Girl of Fire and Thorns — an engaging fantasy set in pseudo-Iberian (or colonial South American?) land. A bit heavy on the religion aspect, but that’s the world she builds at least. Has some of the endemic race issues that much fantasy suffers from, but that might get mixed up in later books.
Re-imagining Milk (Andrea S. Wiley) — a short monograph on the history, biology, and anthropology of milk consumption. It’s full of interesting analysis and critique of how the purported health benefits of milk drinking after weaning intersect with policy. For example, why push milk consumption as a public health issue in parts of Africa when many/most people cannot process lactose? Why do we call the (normal) process in which the body stops producing lactase with the pejorative “lactose intolerance”? See also this piece by Mark Bittman on the NY Times site.
A Conspiracy of Paper (David Liss) — a mystery novel set before the South Sea Bubble and full of gritty and grimy London locales, brawling, the rampant anti-Semitism of the time, and some discussions of probability . The book grew out of dissertation research, so it’s meticulously researched, although some of the probability discussion seems ahistorical (c.f. Ian Hacking).