Snake (2020): Erica Wright

★★★

Bloomsbury Object Lessons

I’ve read several other books in the Object Lessons series and they’re always thought-provoking, quirky and inventive. Each book takes an everyday object and examines it from various perspectives – historical, social, ecological, cultural or mythological – offering unexpected angles on things that we might have taken for granted our entire lives. But the subject of this book is less ‘everyday’ than the others, at least for those of us in the UK. Erica Wright’s throwaway comment that, ‘If you’ve never killed a snake yourself, you probably know someone who has,‘ definitely isn’t true for me, but perhaps I just associate with particularly unadventurous non-snake-killing types. Wright is American and this book feels very heavily weighted towards a US perspective, whereas the other books I’ve read from this series manage to take a more universal approach. While there’s plenty to fascinate in Wright’s discourses upon all things serpentine, her book lacks the firm narrative command that some of the other writers in this series have achieved. Instead, Snake has a slightly frustrating, meandering quality that means we dart from subject to subject without really getting our teeth into the topic.  Continue reading

Bulletproof Vest (2020): Kenneth R. Rosen

★★★

Bloomsbury Object Lessons

After Coffee, I decided to try another of the Bloomsbury Object Lessons books, to see whether I’d misunderstood the gist of the series. Fortunately, Bulletproof Vest was a better fit for my expectations: a moving personal story woven around the object’s history. It’s a tale, first and foremost, of the human desire to both destroy and protect. Rosen experiences the former in a cataclysm of depression when, with his self-worth shredded and with years of self-loathing behind him, he comes within a hair’s breadth of suicide. Ironically, for what follows, his weapon of choice is a gun. Later, having clawed his way out of the depths, he channels his self-destructive instincts in a new direction, thanks to his work as a journalist. ‘Pointing the lens outward,’ he writes, ‘would allow me to heal my inner disruption‘. And so he signs up for work as a war correspondent in Iraq, a job which will bring him face to face with the innate human desire to conquer and kill, but which will also require him to take concrete, proactive steps to protect himself. Rosen buys his first bulletproof vest, and thus the story begins.

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Coffee (2020): Dinah Lenney

★★

Bloomsbury Object Lessons

The first Bloomsbury Object Lessons book I read was High Heel (I’ll post on it soon), and I can’t help feeling that it spoiled me. I’ve since been working my way through other titles in the series and, so far, nothing quite lives up to the poetic blend of history, mythology and social history which High Heel accomplished, and which set my expectations (unreasonably high?) for the rest of the books. Take Coffee, for example. If the aim of this series is to present everyday objects in a new light, informing readers about their place in economic, social or art history, or enlightening us about how they’re made, you’d have thought that coffee was an easy thing to do well. I’m not much of a coffee drinker myself, but my boyfriend is, and I was hoping to find lots of interesting pieces of coffee trivia with which to impress him. Instead, I found myself ploughing through a bizarre stream of consciousness about the author’s life and how she drinks, buys and feels about her own coffee. The few pieces of context that I did pick up were squirrelled away in footnotes, and it’s rather disappointing when the two things you take away from a book about coffee are: a) a recommendation of another book that seems to do what this one should have done; and b) an amusing Jewish joke.

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