The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Continuing the round-up of 2016: three more non-fiction titles that were well worth my time.

Elizabeth Pisani is a multitalented woman - journalist, health-worker, linguist. If you look past the arrogance of her wanting to 'introduce' Indonesia to the world (a phrase she has repeated in her preface and several interviews) and the irritating comparison of the country to an old flame, her Indonesia etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation is a comprehensive account of the lives and times of the fourth most populous country in the world. While the general tourist will likely visit a city or two in Java and Bali, Pisani travels across the archipelago, living with subsistence farmers, fishermen, smugglers, the nouveau riche, the up and coming politicos, the religious fanatics, and the indigent. Many times, the story is ostensibly repetitious - she arrives at an island, discovers a quirk of the local society, meets the bottom and the top of local society - and after a while, every island seems to blend into every other. But the people are affectionately described, and combining sociology with a thorough exposition of modern Indonesian history and political economy, this becomes overall a fine book.

Helena Attlee runs horticultural tours in Italy, and when she's not popping in and out of some of the finest gardens in the country, she studies the citrus fruit, and she writes absolutely riveting books, such as The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit. Weaving history and botany, architecture and landscape design and scrumptious foods, the book ranges across the peninsula and explores oranges, lemons and every citrus in between. (The blood orange is my own particular favourite, and her account of the groves beneath Etna made me want to hurry over and retire there immediately.)

Finally, we have Margalit Fox's Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation, an excellent guide to the people behind the decipherment of Linear B, the ancient Minoan script. She is as good at the technical details of the decipherment as at the personages involved. In particular, she puts to the forefront the lesser-known Alice Kober who provided most of the impetus for the cracking of the code, though it was the ultimately tragic Michael Ventris, a self-taught decipherer, who managed the breakthrough. The tablets he read weren't stirring tales of kings but rather palace accounts; still, the thrill of the chase and the frustration of the dead-ends are well worth the time spent on the book.


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