The book: Spineless by Juli Berwald.
After a crazy two weeks of holiday festivities (and then another week of recovery from post-holiday fatigue), I finally finished reading Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone. This non-fiction book follows author Juli Berwald’s quest to answer the question: how will global warming impact jellyfish populations? The book is a neat compilation of jellyfish research, but it’s also “part memoir, part travelogue,” (to quote NPR journalist Brian Castner), and ultimately a brilliantly written call to action to do something about our warming planet.
Spineless essentially starts out as a comprehensive summary of jellyfish science. After the introduction, each of the first ten chapters focuses on a different aspect of jellyfish biology, including the jellyfish life cycle, genetics, and senses. If you get turned off by overcomplicated, jargon-filled science writing – fear not! – Juli Berwald’s writing style is concise and accessible. Each chapter on the biology of jellyfish is so clearly and gorgeously written that I constantly found myself gushing and awing over how fascinating jellyfish are.
In addition to being nicely written, Spineless is also easy to follow as a story (which is especially impressive given that it’s science non-fiction). The book is easy to follow because Juli Berwald frames the entire story from her perspective: an outsider to the world of jellyfish, on a journey to learn as much as she can about these mysterious animals. And she takes us (the readers) on that journey with her: we go on plane rides and road trips, take tours of aquaria and marine laboratories, learn how to prepare jellyfish as food, and even dive beneath the seas with her. It’s seriously compelling.
As a book about jellyfish, Spineless is fascinating. But the most impressive thing about the book is that it gradually shifts to tell a different story: that of our rapidly changing planet. It’s hard to write an interesting global warming book; many Americans are desensitized to the issue, even among those who agree that global warming is real and a major threat to our existence. But Berwald skillfully eases her readers into that big picture. By first getting us to care about jellyfish, Juli Berwald is able to slowly shift the story to one of how global warming is affecting jellyfish, and then – how it is affecting humanity.
To summarize, Spineless was amazing. It is intellectually stimulating (yet still accessible to readers of any background), narratively compelling, and it ultimately has an inspirational message. I was surprised at how much I loved this book.
The bake: jelly box cookies.
To celebrate reading Spineless, I wanted to bake something that incorporated jelly. When I was thinking about jelly desserts, hamantaschen (triangle shaped cookies with a sweet filling in the center) immediately came to mind.
For the hamantaschen dough, I followed this recipe by Tori Avey and added store-bought raspberry jelly. I found the dough incredibly sticky, and had to add at least a quarter cup of flour before it become workable. I also changed the shape of the cookies, because the triangle shaped hamantaschen are associated with the Jewish holiday of Purim (which will not occur until late March this year). Instead of triangles, I made pinwheels and squares. I thought the squares were an especially cute idea, because Berwald frequently references a type of jellyfish called “box jellies” in her book; my square shaped cookies were jelly boxes!
BUT a cute idea does not automatically translate into a good bake! From the sticky dough, to then rolling the dough evenly, to adding the right amount of jam to each cookie, to shaping the damn things – this bake was really tough. Many of the cookies ended up either: overbaked, irregularly shaped, oozing with jam, or more than one of the above. Maybe it’s because I haven’t baked in a while, or maybe this recipe is just tricky? I don’t know. Despite all of that, the cookies do taste very nice, so I’ll still count this as somewhat of a win.