Biography, Business, Criticism, Film, History, Psychology, Science, Sociology, Top Picks

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2013

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2013. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. You can see my top 5 fiction titles for the year here.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (ISBN 978-0-14-312201-2)

Cover image for The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven PinkerThis was the first book I started in 2013, and it proved to be the most difficult and rewarding read I tackled the entire year. It is not uncommon for people to believe that we are living in the most violent period in human history. The record size of our current population means that the absolute number of violent deaths recorded today are larger than the numbers of historical violent deaths. Our global media structure also means that knowledge of these events is more widespread. But as a percentage of the population, Steven Pinker shows that the number of violent deaths in the modern world is lower than it has ever been in recorded history; you are less likely to die of violent causes today than at any other time in human history. Pinker expects readers to doubt his hypothesis, and the first part of the book is spent marshaling evidence for his claim, while the second part focuses on identifying the factors that may have contributed to this decline. Although the numerous examples of historical and modern violence make for heavy emotional reading, Pinker’s optimism that we can do better, and his insights into how, are incredibly important.

Categories: Science, History, Psychology, Sociology

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (eISBN 978-0-307-95295-0)

Cover image for The Black Count by Tom ReissLiterary history records two men called Alexandre Dumas, a father, who wrote well-known novels such as The Three Musketeers, and his somewhat less famous son, the playwright. But the novelist’s father, also Alexandre Dumas, the first of that name, is formidable character in his own right, and it his life that is chronicled here by Tom Reiss. Born the illegitimate son of an itinerant French noble on the island of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Dumas became a free man upon his arrival in France. Dumas achieved power and success in the French Revolutionary Army, before the colour of his skin brought his fortunes crashing back to earth when Napoleon assumed power. His son eventually drew inspiration from his life story for many of his novels, but the real story is perhaps even more interesting. The Black Count is as much a history of revolutionary and Napoleonic France as a biography, but Reiss writes about history with an immediacy that makes his overviews extremely readable.

Categories: Biography, History 

I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies  (ISBN 978-0-307-26916-4)

Cover image for I Do and I Don't by Jeanine BasingerI Do and I Don’t articulates the important differences between romantic comedies and the genre  Jeanine Basinger defines as the marriage movie. The work is descriptive rather than analytic, assembling evidence for the existence of this new genre, and laying out the types of plots and problems most commonly dealt with in movies that are about marriages rather than courtships. Basinger’s encyclopedic knowledge of American cinema, sense of humour, and willingness to go against popular opinion make her the perfect guide. Existing in a space somewhere between academic writing and popular nonfiction, I wouldn’t recommend this book to just any reader, but if you have an interest in film studies, or cultural portrayals of marriage, I Do and I Don’t delivers.

Categories: Criticism, Film, History

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (ISBN 978-0-393-08157-2)

Cover image for Gulp by Mary RoachTake a sharp sense of humour, ruthless inquisitiveness, and the willingness to ask awkward questions, and you have the popular science oeuvre of Mary Roach, who is able to hit the mark time and time again with her humourous investigations into the grossest and most obscure areas of scientific research. Her sense of humour can carry even a squeamish reader through these topics, and her explanations and anecdotes are accessible even to those with little to no science background. In Gulp, Roach takes on the science of the digestive system, from saliva to flatulence and everything in between.

Categories: Science 

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (ISBN 978-1-4000-6980-4)

Cover image for Salt Sugar Fat by Michael MossWell known for his investigative reporting on food issues, Michael Moss takes on the processed food industry, examining the roles that salt, sugar, and fat play in making these food products edible and craveable. Flavour and taste have been extensively researched, and food companies use this knowledge to design products with precisely honed “bliss points” that make them almost irresistible. However, this book is interesting not because it retreads the well known harms associated with processed food products, but because Moss delves into the difficulties these companies face in improving the health profiles of their products in the face of killer competition, and minimal government regulation. In fact, American government food subsidies for meat and cheese may even play a role in the high fat content of the American diet.

Categories: Business, Science 


Looking for more recommended reads? Check out my top five non-fiction reads from 2012. 

Business, Non-Fiction, Science

Salt Sugar Fat

Cover image for Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Mossby Michael Moss

ISBN 978-1-4000-6980-4

Take more than a little salt, or sugar, or fat out of processed food, these experiments showed, and there is nothing left. Or, even worse, what is left are the inexorable consequences of food processing, repulsive tastes that are bitter, metallic and astringent. The industry has boxed itself in.”

Journalist Michael Moss has a long history of reporting on food issues, including E. coli contamination in peanut butter, and coining the phrase “pink slime” to describe the ammonia-treated beef being served in American school cafeterias in 2009, for which he won a Pulitzer. In Salt Sugar Fat, Moss turns his investigative reporting skills onto the key ingredients processed food companies use to make their food products edible, not to mention desirable and even craveable, with carefully calculated “bliss points.” Moss demonstrates how the three main tenets of the food industry—taste, convenience and cost—have left companies critically dependent upon these ingredients, and consumers at their mercy.

Moss draws on vast amounts of research that have gone into understanding flavour and taste. Even when these studies are funded, in whole or part, by industry giants, they gain credibility by the fact that these companies have every reason to want to understand exactly how they can make their products as desirable as possible. While the industry may tend to reveal the information selectively, trying to spin it in their favour, in Moss’s hands these reports are revealing and often damning, despite his even-handed reporting style. Moss relates the research without bogging down the reader, and frequently ties it back to concrete examples of products that fit the bill. He also interviews a variety of industry insiders about the impact of their products, though those who remain loyal to the industry were, understandably, reluctant to speak with him.

Although the book is divided into three sections, one for each key ingredient, Moss never loses sight of the relationship between them. He clearly demonstrates that consumers need to keep their eyes on all three balls at once. If fat is the villain of the hour, food companies may lower the fat content to appease the public, and make up for the loss in flavour by increasing the salt or sugar load. Marketing plays a key role in this subterfuge, which is also explored, if not as deeply as it could be. Companies can create an aura of health around a product by emphasizing whole grains or real fruit, despite jacked up levels of salt, sugar, or fat.

However, just removing salt, sugar, or fat doesn’t prove to be the answer. Though he clearly weighs in on the side of healthier eating, Moss offers a (limited) voice to both sides of the debate, visiting Kellogg laboratories to taste what the products would be like if the company would just remove the salt. Moss describes the results as “a culinary horror show” with dire implications for companies trying to improve the nutritional profile of their products. The emphasis for the industry has been on self-regulation, but this poses an incredible challenge that goes beyond figuring out how to remove salt, sugar, and fat from products. A company that reduces these flavour enhancers voluntarily is at the mercy of competitors who refuse to do the same, or who don’t reduce as much. As a result, they are under constant pressure from Wall Street to stay the course.

One of the most telling revelations is the role cheese and meat—heavily subsidized by the American government—play in sabotaging the American diet. Cheese and meat account for nearly thirty percent of the saturated fat consumed by the average American. By contrast, cookies, cakes and pastries account for a paltry six percent. Yet the surplus of dairy products created by the subsidy ensures that cheese finds its way into ever more products as an ingredient, so that the average American now consumes over thirty pounds of cheese per year. What’s worse, consumers don’t even seem to be able to detect the extra fat. The government comes off looking very bad indeed, with initiatives to improve eating habits and educate consumers receiving a fraction of the funding of the beef and dairy subsidies. Although the food companies bear the brunt of the scrutiny, Moss certainly doesn’t let the government off the hook.

Of course, not all the experience gleaned by the processed food industry is bad. The knowledge food executives have gained about marketing and appeal can also be applied to healthier foods. Jeff Dunn, formerly of Coca-Cola, moved onto selling baby carrots as a snack food, with the “Snack on That” campaign, which, at first description, sounds like a marketing strategy for potato chips or pretzels. Leveraging this knowledge is potentially powerful for shifting our eating habits back towards healthier choices. Also in the realm of good news, Moss discusses research demonstrating that our tastes for some flavours are adjustable, and can be recalibrated; reducing your sodium intake for twelve weeks can reset your taste buds so that you only need a fifth of the salt you could tolerate before.

Though it runs to four hundred pages, Salt Sugar Fat is an investigation, not a solution. Nevertheless it provides valuable insight into the practices of processed food companies that consumers should be more aware of.