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Courier Article by Andrea Wannemuehler
Sunday, December 11, 2011

Several Books for Readers on Your List

In the midst of the holiday season, you probably have a few extra things on your to-do list, whether it's sending cards, decorating the tree or making time for festivities. So if the people on your gift list are leaving you befuddled, you might try one of the following books, sure to please even the most discerning reader.

Published in November, Michael Pollan's "Food Rules: An Eater's Manual" is brought to life by Maira Kalman's bright and whimsical illustrations. "Food Rules" is a collective anthology of simple guidelines to eat by, solicited from folklorists, anthropologists, doctors, nutritionists and ordinary people with ideas to share.

This foodie's compendium is divided into three sections: What Should I Eat? (Eat Food); What Kind of Food Should I Eat? (Mostly Plants); and How Should I Eat? (Not Too Much). Some of the anecdotes, such as "If It Came from a Plant, Eat It; If It Was Made In a Plant, Don't," speak for themselves.

"The Conference of the Birds," by Peter Sis

"Food Rules: An Eater's Manual," by Michael Pollan

"At Day's Close: Night in Times Past," by Roger A. Ekirch Others, like "Pay More, Eat Less," bear an explanation by Pollan. Most rules are deftly depicted by Kalman's playful but thoughtful style, illuminating the everyday to the existential. Pollan seeks to keep the guidelines simple, ultimately reminding us that food is more than the sum of its parts, and there is pleasure to be had in eating well.

With the long hours of winter upon us, a great book to curl up to is "At Day's Close: Night in Times Past," by Roger A. Ekirch. Telling the story of how pre-industrial Westerners lived during nocturnal hours, Ekirch asks you to go back in time and imagine what night looked like before electricity, and even gas lighting. This is the time when the average laborer worked from sunrise to sunset, when the settling in of night meant entering a new realm, complete with its own rituals and culture, richly described by Ekirch.

Nighttimes were often jovial times, when people met with family and friends to share stories, food and drink; however, the time also gave rise to superstitions, criminal activity and evidence of more ill health and death, as chapters such as "In the Shadow of Death" describe. "At Day's Close" is a thoughtful book that is scholarly in research and decidedly entertaining.

For those who might prefer a work of fiction, "The Conference of the Birds" is a spellbinding tale by Peter Sis. Sis, a prolific writer and illustrator of children's books, created his first book for adults with an adaptation of a 12th century Persian poem by Farid Ud-Din Attar, titled "Mantic at-Tayr," or "The Conference of the Birds."

Sis' adaptation is sparse with words, but instead carries the weight of the story with beautiful, compelling images. The story follows Attar, who dreams he is a hoopoe bird, addressing all the birds of the world at a magnificent conference. He tells the birds there is great unrest in the world, all are lost, and they must seek the King Simorgh, who knows all of the answers. After much deliberating, the birds start off on a journey to find the answers, and meet Simorgh.

Along the way, the birds must pass through seven valleys, including Understanding, Detachment and Unity. Some decide to turn back, stay or forge ahead. The story of the birds, which mimics the human journey of life, is a work of art that is a thoughtful book for any reader.