Baumer's book isn't exactly my kind of history as it focuses on power politics and kings. I'd much rather hear about how Xiongnu people lived day to day (what they ate for breakfast and so forth) than about which chanyu did what, relevant as such actions undoubtedly were to life in Xiongnu communities. It's an attempt at a narrative historical synthesis for a diverse and well-documented region, so naturally the focus is on large-scale abstractions - political entities, major religions, etc - and if you're fine with that then it's a good purchase. I don't have a copy of the first volume, but I have read a little of it, and it seems to be along the same lines. The photographs in both are stunningly good.
|The cover of Remarkable Plants.|
|A gingko fossil, Eocene (c.56-34 million years ago) - h/t Wiki, User: Kevmin.|
It's missing a few things. Where's the lontar palm? Lontar (Borassus flabellifer) is incredibly important in Indonesia, exploited for everything from thatch to timber to syrup to distilled alcoholic beverage. The range of uses is extraordinary, and through its use the island of Roti provides one of the rare examples of a fairly sizeable population sustaining itself through drinking rather than eating (as J. J. Fox's landmark 1977 ethnography Harvest of the Palm explains).* It ought to have been included, as ought more obscure but nonetheless fascinating plants like the peach-palm (Bactris gasipaes).
|A peach-palm fruit. The flavour of the cooked fruit - which I cannot vouch for, having never tried it - is normally described as savoury and autumnal, like squash or sweet potato. It's supposed to be nutritious, too. h/t the US Government.|
There's something of a focus on Eurasia, although the segments on staples from the Americas are good, and there are some interesting nuggets about attitudes to the sulphur-rich alliums (onions, garlic, leeks, chives) and tomatoes (closely related to poisonous nightshades). It's especially remarkable to note how few vital crops have European origins, although the brassicas are mostly European (cauliflower from Sicily, cabbage with developed leaves and balled heads seemingly coming south from Gaul/Germania in the Roman period, etc). It all makes you wonder what people ate before the late middle ages/post-Columbian era - aloo gobi without potatoes or cauliflower? Gado-gado without peanuts?
I suppose I have two other criticisms as well: 1) the writing isn't fantastic, and 2) you may already be familiar with a lot of the stories in the book if you read the kind of things I read. With regard to 1), it's less that the writing is awful and more that it feels a bit rushed and in need of editing. And 2) is probably inevitable - there are only so many ways to tell the story of British bio-piracy in the nineteenth century. In any case, the illustrations in Remarkable Plants make it worthwhile, and it's a good starting point for anyone interested, like me, in plants, their uses, and their origins.
*It's interesting that the extensive lontar exploitation described by Fox seems to have largely disappeared. I didn't get to Roti this summer, but the guys I spoke to in Timor, and tourists who had visited Roti, described the standard Rotinese diet as basically consisting of rice and fish (like elsewhere in Indonesia).
**The relationships between the brassicas are interesting, too.