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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

A Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield

A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2005. ISBN: 0-06-052275

This is another of those topical botanical or biological books written for the lay audience, designed to both entertain and inform. Another example I blogged a few months back is William Bryant Logan's Oak: The Frame of Civilization. Or more broadly, I could clump it together with other nonfiction books written in a popular style, such as Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting, or John Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, or even perhaps Frank Kryza's The Race for Timbuktu, all of which I've blogged previously.

Red is, naturally, the color of desire. And natural is the right word, since for centuries, dyes had to be derived from natural materials. Red was one of the most difficult colors to create, until the discovery in the New World of cochineal, a tiny insect native to the Oaxacan region of Mexico. Cochineal quickly became one of the most valuable exports from the New World, far outstripping the relatively brief bursts of gold and silver initially recovered by the Conquistadors.

But what is cochineal? That question plagued the rest of Europe for decades. Is it animal, vegetable or mineral? No one really knew, except for those intimately involved in its production. Turns out it was a tiny insect which grows only on the nopal cactus.

This book tells the fascinating story of the color red, both before and after the triumphant reign of cochineal. While not quite as entertainingly written as Bryant's Oak, or Harr's Lost Painting, it is a step or two up from Kryza's Timbuktu. It is the exotic nature of the topic itself that keeps you going. How is it that we all know about Mayan gold and Incan silver, but we've never heard of cochineal? Definitely recommended.

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