Transcript / LoLT: Award-Nominated Nonfiction and Two New Books — 08 September 2023

Transcript / LoLT: Award-Nominated Nonfiction and Two New Books — 08 September 2023

Friday, 8 September, 2023

This is a transcription of Award-Nominated Nonfiction and Two New Books — 08 September 2023’


[cheerful music]

Melissa: Coming up, a cookbook inspired by a special neighborhood in Rome.

David: A historical crime novel with fortune-tellers.

Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.

David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.

Melissa: I’m very excited about a new cookbook called ‘Portico: Cooking and Feasting in Rome’s Jewish Kitchen’ by Leah Koenig. She lives in Brooklyn and is a Jewish food expert who’s written seven cookbooks about Jewish cuisine. In this one, she’s focused on the recipes of the oldest Jewish community in Europe, the one found in Rome.

Melissa: She presents the idea that because the residents of Rome’s Jewish ghetto had to survive so many hardships, they developed deep resiliency and a strong sense of community, all fed by delicious, comforting food.

Melissa: Early in the book, she describes Rome’s Jewish neighborhood like this: ‘Up and down the street, restaurants and shops serve up classic dishes from Roman Jewish cuisine, including sultry beef stew spooned over rigatoni, oil-drizzled tomatoes roasted to the point of collapse, rosemary-scented lamb and potatoes, and whole artichokes deep-fried into crisp, salt-kissed blossoms.’

Melissa: Her writing is solid, so this is a book to read and to use in the kitchen. Tucked in between the 100-plus recipes, there are are personal stories, snippets of Roman-Jewish history, and helpful kitchen tips. My favorite part it at the back of the book: There are menus to help you put the recipes together for special occasions — which always makes me daydream about throwing an epic dinner party.

Melissa: I want to try just about everything in the book, but a few recipes that caught my eye include Silky Marinated Zucchini — thin ribbons of zucchini that are lightly sauteed in olive oil, basil, garlic, and mint then marinated in the seasoned cooking oil. Spinach Frittata with Raisins and Pine Nuts. Braised Beef Stew, and Lemony Almond Cake made with almond flour and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.

Melissa: The photos make the food look so good, you’ll want to jump into the pages to eat everything. There are also stunning images of Roman architecture, food markets, and real people on the streets of Rome who look like they would have the best gossip to share over a glass of wine and a little plate of something.

Melissa: If you want an armchair escape to a unique neighborhood in Italy, this book is a fun way to do it. It’s Portico: Cooking and Feasting in Rome’s Jewish Kitchen by Leah Koenig.

David: My book is ‘The Square of Sevens’ by Laura Shepherd-Robinson. Many of you will know whether this is your book with this very next sentence. The book is a historical fiction about an orphaned fortune teller named Red, set in 18th-century England.

David: The story begins when Red is a small girl. Her mother is already dead. And her father is dying. Before he goes, he leaves Red to a gentleman scholar. Her father also writes a document that explains a fortune-telling technique. It’s called “The Square of Sevens.”

David: Red grows up as a lady in Bath, England. She occasionally reads cards to amuse her friends. But pretty soon, she starts wondering about her own background. Who was her mother? And how did she die? Was mom really an aristocrat? Those questions lead her into trouble in the houses of power in gothic London.

David: There’s an author’s note at the beginning of this novel that I love. It says:

‘A complete guide to the method of fortune telling, as well as a full list of the meanings of the cards, can be found in The Square of Sevens: An Authoritative System of Cartomancy by Robert Antrobus (1740). The first edition is extremely rare, but the second edition, edited by E. Irenaeus Stevenson (1897), will meet the needs of any fledgling cartomancer.’

David: This book came out in England over the summer. The reviews there called it ‘breathtaking’ and ‘a sweeping Dickensian tour de force.’ It just came out in the States. It’s ‘The Square of Sevens’ by Laura Shepherd-Robinson.

David: And now, our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]

David: The long list for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction came out this week. This is an annual British book prize for the best non-fiction in the English language. The judging panel is a small, esteemed group of readers, and they’re looking for great, true stories that are written for a general audience.

David: There are 13 books on the long list, and I wanted to mention four to give you a sense of it.

/daDavid Grann’s ‘The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder’ is on that list. It tells a sea story from the 1700s. It’s about two crews from the same shipwreck who landed in South America a few months apart. Those two crews have competing stories about why they’d gotten shipwrecked, and what happened on the island where they all took shelter. I mentioned this book in a Library of Lost Time episode in April. I suspect there’s a German word for the pride I feel when someone else recommends a book I’ve also recommended. If you know it, let us know.

David: There’s a book on the list called ‘Time’s Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance.’ That’s by Jeremy Eichler. He’s the chief classical music critic of The Boston Globe. The book is about how music can carry meaning forward from the past. Specifically, he writes about four composers who survived World War 2, and how you can hear their hopes and fears in the music they’ve left behind. This book is a history of World War 2, a look at how societies deal with grief, and a reminder that music can say things that English struggles with. That’s ‘Time’s Echo’ by Jeremy Eichler.

David: One of the other nominees is a book called, ‘The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee. This might be the most difficult book to sell to a general reader, but let me give it a shot. Cells are the building blocks of life. They are fascinating for many reasons, but one of the reasons is that they exist for themselves, but somehow come together to make all of us and everything that lives. We are, all of us, a cooperative experiment. This book is a friendly walk into cell science and a description of what the future of that field might bring. If you know someone suffering from cancer or auto-immune diseases or Covid, this book might bring you some more understanding about what’s happening. The author, Siddhartha Mukherjee, is both an oncologist and a Pulitzer Prize winner. He knows what he’s talking about and writes about it well. That’s ‘The Song of the Cell: An Exploration of Medicine and the New Human.’

David: The last book I want to mention is ‘Ultra-Processed People: The Science Behind Food That Isn’t Food’ by Chris Van Tulleken. The author is also a doctor who’s good with a story. Van Tulleken’s day job is as an infectious diseases doctor at the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London. But this book is about the food we eat. Where ‘food’ might be in air quotes. In the last 150 years, we’ve started eating things people did not eat before. These things tend to have at least one ingredient that you don’t have in your kitchen, and come wrapped in plastic — but a complete definition is complicated. Van Tulleken calls these ‘ultra-processed foods,’ or UPF. If you live in the US or the UK and are an average eater, you get about 60% of your calories from these foods. And about a fifth of us get 80% of our calories from UPF. The data suggests that that is a bad idea. It makes us more likely to have cancer, metabolic disease, and mental illness. And the whole process jacks up our society and the world at large. This book looks at what we eat, how we eat, and what we can do about it. It’s ‘Ultra-Processed People’ by Chris Van Tulleken.

David: All of these books are the works of smart people desperately trying to bring their passion for their work to a broader audience. Then, a group of readers judged them to have done precisely that. There are seven more titles that are on the long list. We will point to the whole list in our notes. The winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize will be announced on November 16th.

Melissa: Visit for the list of Baillie Gifford prizes nominees and more on the books we discussed today. You can also use the handy links in the podcast description.

David: Thanks for joining us in the Libary of Lost Time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent book store to lose some time yourself.

Melissa: Stay curious! We’ll talk to you soon.

[cheerful music]


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