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in brief

‘Building a Better Teacher,’ ‘The Culinary Imagination,’ ‘Timeless’

Boston Globe

Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (And How to Teach It to Everyone)

By Elizabeth Green

Norton, 384 pp., illustrated, $27.95

Education is in the news (again). Politicians, pundits, and parents clash over students, curriculum, testing, and teachers. Lost among these arguments, according to Elizabeth Green, is a real understanding of what happens in the classroom — “that hilarious and heartbreaking theater that unfolds between children and teachers every day.” Even within academia, or among the burgeoning community of educational entrepreneurs, Green writes, teaching itself has long been ignored or papered over by “the widespread idea that teaching was a natural gift, something you either could or couldn’t do.”


Some of the book’s most compelling sections peek into real classrooms, allowing readers to observe what great teachers do and how. These moments of educational theater enliven and illuminate the history Green sketches, one that stretches from John Dewey and his “science of education” to Bill Gates and the Common Core. Along the way, Green introduces brilliant teachers and their ideas — from here and abroad (her description of math teaching in Japan is inspiring) — as well as some would-be reformers whose methods seem more reactionary than revolutionary. For the most part, she avoids the controversies that have accompanied the pendulum swings from one educational philosophy to another, focusing instead on the hope (either naïve or optimistic) that good teaching can borrow strands from different sides of the current debates.

The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity

By Sandra M. Gilbert

Norton, 432 pp., $29.95

Eating is primal, physical: one of the two actions that places human beings in the great earthly food chain (the other comes after we die, when the worms eat us). And yet, as cultural critic Sandra M. Gilbert points out, the very act of eating is richly involved with history, culture, art, and memory. “The idea of bread accompanies the physical fact of the bread itself,” Gilbert writes; we eat to sustain our bodies, but how and what we eat, and how we think, talk and make art about food, is part of what distinguishes us as human beings, as beings beyond our bodies.


Gilbert, whose previous books include “The Madwoman in the Attic” (the feminist literary criticism classic she coauthored with Susan Gubar), has an insatiable appetite for connections. Here, she links the “cross-culturally common” myths of infanticide by cannibalism from the Greeks to Shakespeare to the Brothers Grimm, and the Biblical tale of Eve’s original sin to the ultimate, “sacred supper of redemptive bread and wine” served by Jesus. The book is a banquet of ideas, from the uses of food in literature to the meanings of herbs and spices in American and so-called “ethnic” cooking, and it is deliciously, deeply satisfying.

Timeless: Love, Morgenthau, and Me

By Lucinda Franks

Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 408 pp., illustrated, $28

From its first line, this memoir announces its interest in duality. “The last thing I wanted to do was marry my husband,” writes Lucinda Franks. She doesn’t really mean it — if the book conveys any grand idea, it is undeniably how much she adores her husband, Robert Morgenthau — but on the other hand she does, for the idea of marrying a man nearly 30 years her senior, a widower with children, a member of New York’s political and legal establishment was terrifying to Franks at the time. After more than 35 years together (and counting — Morgenthau is now in his mid-90s), their marriage of opposites seems to have overcome those early doubts and obstacles.


Franks, a young journalist with an early Pulitzer and an intense affection for outsiders, met Morgenthau in 1973 while reporting on Watergate. Morgenthau, soon to be elected district attorney for New York County, was “a challenge unlike any I had encountered,” Franks writes. She sketches their intense romance, which unfolded against the backdrop of 1970s New York power parties — Jackie Onassis turns up at one. Intimate (at times blushingly so) but also thoughtful, the book chronicles not only a marriage but an era.

Whatever Happened to the Metric System? How America Kept Its Feet

By John Bemelmans Marciano

Bloomsbury, 320 pp., $26

Readers of a certain age will remember the certainty with which we expected to be launched into a metric world. Evidence was as near as the “fat blue plastic ruler that fascinated me with its thick lawn of millimeter marks,” writes author John Bemelmans Marciano, an elegant little image that immediately sparked (in this reviewer, at least) a school supply memory from 1976. So why didn’t the metric system, that rational product of the Enlightenment that conquered the world over the ensuing 200 years, ever topple our old-fashioned, irrational old inches and feet?

There is a long tradition of metric affection on our shores; Thomas Jefferson was an early advocate (although he wondered whether the average American could really understand decimals), and so was John Quincy Adams. Still, the system’s birth amid the French Revolution — and brutal enforcement under Napoleon — made it a tough sell elsewhere for decades. By the time the United States might have gotten on board with the scores of countries adopting it in the early 20th century, other obstacles arose. One opponent called the metric system “a secret weapon of Communism,” another ran an editorial proclaiming “What Real He-Men Think of the Compulsory Metric System” — not much, it turns out. Marciano narrates a surprisingly fascinating history with style and depth, concluding that America has gone just metric enough, retaining our customary measures as a kind of benign cultural inheritance — a choice that didn’t “create a nation of scientific ignoramuses,” a debatable point that rings the book’s only off note.


Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.