Herbalism consumes me. My idea of a vacation is to go wildcrafting in the woods or to explore the spice markets of exotic locales. Escape reading for me is luscious accounts of life enhanced by flavors and spices, biographies of curanderos, accounts of life in the jungle, the natural history of food. It doesn’t need to be fiction, an unusual locale, or a different way of life, as long as the herbs are there. If you share the passion, try these books:
1. The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Initiated in the ways of turmeric, cinnamon, fenugreek and cloves, the spice mistress Tilo finds herself an old lady in a spice store in East Oakland, tempted between immortality and romance.
2. Chocolat by Joanne Harris. Chocolate and love in the south of France. This is an extraordinarily sensual story of postwar Provence. Actually I recommend anything by Joann Harris.
3. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. The Wheatherby women of Bascom, KY had special knacks, and an apple tree that threw out apples which gave visions. Claire used her flowers and spices to create magical catering occasions but couldn’t resist love.
4. Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver’s lush descriptions of Appalachia told through the intertwined stories of a ranger protecting coyotes, an elderly organic farmer’s conflict with a cultivator of blight-resistant chestnuts, and a young widowed entomologist make for entrancing reading. Lessons learned: killing predators is worse than killing herbivores, even vegetarian food extracts blood.
5. Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris. A sensual story of food, wine and spices in Provence by the incomparable Joanne Harris. You can feel the sunlight and the blackberry juice on your fingers. Same locale as Chocolat.
6. Like Water for Chocolate by Thomas Christensen. Cooking and spices as the language of passion. Magical story of love and loss in Mexico.
7. A Breath of Snow and Ashes (Outlander) by Diana Gabaldon. Claire, a 20th century doctor has traveled to the past to marry Jaime Frasier, and they arrive in the new world where she must use local herbs and homegrown bread mold to treat the people around her. Beautifully written. See if you can find Gabaldon’s herbal blooper in an otherwise herbally accurate book!
8. Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health by Elena Avila. A luscious biography and story of curanderismo by the incomparable Elena Avila.
9. Sastun: One Woman’s Apprenticeship with a Maya Healer and Their Efforts to Save the Vani by Rosita Arvigo. The story of Rosita Arvigo’s apprenticeship with a traditional Mayan healer in central America will fill your exotica quotient and teach at the same time. Rosemary and sunlight.
10. One River by Wade Davis. Davis’s account of Richard Schultz and Richard Spruce in the Amazon, contrasted with Davis’s own journeys and the stories of cocoa and curare. Greats of the exploration of the Amazon Rain Forest. Davis is a lyrical author. I saw a collection of Schultz’s Amazonian photographs and Davis describes the locale well.
11. The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis, and Magic by Wade Davis. Ever wondered about the ethnobotany of making people into zombies? Davis, a Harvard professor, went to Haiti in search of the method and became an initiate into Vodoun. One wonders if this can still occur with all the deforestation of the island. An engrossing and exotic account. And the movie vaguely inspired by this book is nothing like this.
12. Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire by Wade Davis. A series of short accounts of traditional peoples across the globe. Davis vividly describes the biochemistry of toad venom, the Amazon jungle or the hallucinatory experience of ayahuasca.
13. Witch-Doctor’s Apprentice: Hunting for Medicinal Plants in the Amazon by Nicole Maxwell. Forget the title, the book itself is the fascinating account of Maxwell’s many years in the jungle, searching for medicinally useful plants and the people she discovered in her journeys. The way her botanical samples and information was treated by the pharmaceutical company who sponsored her trip will make you weep.
14. The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook by Alice B. Toklas. This cookbook is a cultural history, with stories of scavenging crawfish during the war, feeding Picasso, Dishes for Artists, and the famous Haschich Fudge (to be served at the meetings of the DAR.) Her lover Gertrude Stein wrote the “Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas”- this is the real thing.
15. Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris. Okay I may be going over the edge on Joanne Harris novels, but she writes with such sensuality that you can smell the peel of the oranges and the scent of grass abuzz with bees in the Provence sun. Postwar France in the town where Chocolat took place. The new proprietor of the cafe returns incognito to the town of her childhood after a scandal.
16. The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman. The natural history of potatoes, from the Americas to Europe. Poison or fruit? A social history of those who eat potatoes. Quirky and amusing.
17. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan. Pollan’s premise, that plants make us propagate them, is delightful. He follows apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes in this readable book.
18. Grandfather by Tom Brown Jr. Tom Brown’s books are among my favorites. My uncle, who studied with him, taught me many of the skills that Tom Brown had taught him. This is is elegy to Stalking Wolf, the Apache medicine man who trained Brown from childhood.
19. The Tracker by Tom Brown Jr. This is the first Tom Brown book I ever read and it changed the way I looked at nature forever.
20. The First Cadfael Omnibus by Ellis Peters. A mystery with an herbalist as the protagonist. What more could we ask for? This is the first of several omnibus collections and they make as great an escape as the films based on the books do.