The composition and decomposition of a sourdough culture, my latest essay, is available at The Perfect Loaf.
A Fever in the Heartland by Timothy Egan **** (of 4)
Following more than 100,000 American casualties in WWI and the death of 450,000 Americans from viral influenza in 1918, most Americans roared into the 1920s with abandon. They drank, they danced to America’s indigenous musical invention – Black jazz, they smooched in the back seats of cars and in public. The backlash from Christian Nationalists was swift, brutal, and shockingly widespread across the heartland.
By the early 20s, Indiana alone boasted more than 400,000 Klansmen, Klanswomen, and KlansKiddies. Colorado, Texas, Pennsylvania added hundreds of thousands more. The Klan grew in status and popularity under the spell of D.C. Stephenson: a fabulist with no allegiance to truth, an abuser of women, an orator who reflected the fears and desires of white Americans concerned for the purity of “their” nation, a money-hungry businessman anxious to make the next deal, a strong desire to become America’s dictator, a virulent anti-woke activist who said clearly and repeatedly that America was threatened by Jews, Catholics, foreigners, and especially Blacks, and a politician who dominated and controlled other politicians. Ultimately, Stephenson said aloud, and believed completely, that he was above the law.
Timothy Egan never mentions any contemporary politicians with similar proclivities, but makes clear that Stephenson was as much a man of his time and place as he was a leader of it. In response to Reconstruction, the Klan and Jim Crow were born. In the 1920s, the Klan rose again. In the 1940s, as Ultra makes clear, American Nazis were more prevalent in society and in Congress than most of us realize. For those who care about the rights of racial, ethnic, sexual minorities, and others deemed unacceptable, Timothy Egan’s well-told history is a reminder that vigilance remains a necessity in America.
The Perfect Loaf and Me
Maurizio Leo, one of the greatest sourdough recipe makers of our generation, and founder of The Perfect Loaf, has invited me to make regular contributions to his website.
Here is my first.
Welcome to the Zoo
The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman **** (of 4)
This is the third installation of an investigation by four elderly Brits living in Cooper’s Chase retirement community. The four are all a little stiffer, a little harder of hearing, and a trifle more likely to forget where they put down their reading glasses, but they remain just as full of verve and curiosity as ever. They are grateful, too, for their camaraderie and their weekly gatherings dedicated to investigating unsolved crimes. All of which is to say that the characters are so warmly presented and so lovable that Osman’s books would be worth reading even if his mysteries were only mediocre.
Fortunately, his mysteries are equal parts intricate and intriguing. The case under the careful scrutiny of the Thursday Murder Club is Bethany Waites’ untimely murder. Waites was a young investigative reporter closing in on the criminals running a huge money laundering scheme, when lured from her home one evening, she never returns. Her empty car is located the next day at the edge of a cliff over which her body must have been tossed, only the body never emerges from the sea, the laundered money is never located, and the Thursday Murder Club cannot let it go.
It is as rewarding for us as readers to be reuninted with Ron, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Elizabeth as it must be for them to see one another in the Cooper’s Chase dining room.
Two Wheels Good *** by Jody Rosen
Jody Rosen really does elucidate the mystery and history of the bicycle. A consistent theme is the bicycle’s lifelong conflict with motorists and pedestrians. Since the bike’s invention just under two centuries ago, bicycle riders have enjoyed a silent sensation of something akin to flight. Walkers have bristled when being overtaken by a silent accelerator. Automobilists, sitting in their protected metal boxes, insist that paved surfaces belong to them. When they were first invented, horse-drawn conveyances hated them.
Rosen makes a compelling case that bicycles democratized transportation and someday soon as climate catastrophe becomes more pronounced and the combustion engine more to blame, might again rise to the pinnacle of transport. Rosen discusses bicycles and warfare, showmanship, the liberation of women from Victorian constraints, bicycle mania (at one time a real disease), and bicycles and sex. Rosen’s vignettes trivia, historical uncoverings, and anecdotes are fascinating, but overall the book lacks narrative drive. (I’m not certain this should matter but halfway through when I figured out that Jody Rosen was a man in his fifties, not a young woman, my perspective on the stories changed.)
Sometimes Two Wheels Good feels like riding a Peleton.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman *** (of 4)
Neil Gaiman, a British author, has written an Icelandic saga about American gods. Equal parts fantasy, history, sociology, and Americana, Gaiman’s protagonist, and our guide to the gods, is called Shadow. Shadow is only recently released from prison, and about to embark on a roadtrip of epic dimensions. Sometimes traveling by Buick and sometimes upon the back of a flying Thunderbird (an eagle-like deity) through a violent thunderstorm, Shadow finds himself betwixt the old gods of North America and the new ones. The old gods were brought to North America by natives crossing the Bering Straits in the last Ice Age, by Vikings, by Irish immigrants and others arriving on the great continent.
The new gods are threatening to displace the old ones, who are being forgotten with increasing rapidity. The new gods came to the country on televisions, computers, and the internet, and they take as much devotion and as many offerings as their predecessors. As is true with all sagas, there are twists, hairpins, treachery, violence, and love. Gaiman, though he apologizes for his presumptuousness, is just the man to write about Americana. He can see us as we appear in our roadside attractions as only an outsider can.
The Devil’s Element by Dan Egan *** (of 4)
Kudos to Egan for calling out the devil’s bargain humanity has made with a single element: phosphorus. On one side of the equation, phosphorus is the plant nutrient most people haven’t thought enough about, but without which there would be no plant life. Phosphorus, along with nitrogen (worthy of a book of its own) and potassium, are the big three for plant fertilizers. Fail to fertilize plants and there isn’t enough food to support a growing population.
But on the other side of the equation, so much phosphorus has been mined and spread about the planet that it now exists in overabundance in most of the world’s waterways and coastal environments. In the wrong places, phosphorus nurtures the growth of algae in such abundance that thick mats of often toxic sludge have displaced fish, oxygen, and recreation from way too many rivers, lakes, and bays.
Maybe there isn’t another easy way to do this, but Egan’s book falls in line with most environmental treatises, foretelling doom and disaster in global proportions. By the end I was fully ready to toss myself into a toxic lagoon. To make matters worse, Egan extends speculations to the extreme, suggesting, for example, that phosphorus reserves are about to run out and by implication, global famine is imminent. Most evidence predicts that current reserves will last 400 or more years by which time our ability to extract phosphorus from less well-endowed reserves will surely have improved. Nonetheless, Egan highlights the one researcher with a projection of 30 years until we’ve exhausted out supplies, in part, it feels like because it makes for better, more alarmist, reading.
Or, saying that ISIS might take over the Moroccan government (Morocco sits on the world’s largest reserves of Phosphorus) makes for exciting reading, but it’s a little like saying that if Mexican drug cartels get their hands on America’s oil wells, the world would be facing a global energy catastrophe. You hope someone in the bowels of the U.S. State Department is writing reports about potential scenarios that might require American attention, but maybe a whole book to scare the public isn’t necessary. Egan does briefly address solutions a final chapter, but by the time he gets to answers, much of his enthusiasm has waned.
These Truths by Jill Lepore **** (of 4)
It is no small feat to write a history of the United States. Choose any event, say, for example the Presidency of George Washington, The Civil War, the long, and ongoing struggle for Civil Rights in America and you will discover that on just a single subject there are hundreds, if not thousands, of books on the subject. What Jill Lepore does so expertly in this book is summarize key events, lots and lots of them, and place them in a political continuum that is America’s history.
Lepore says at the outset that her focus is politics and beginning in 1492 when Christian Europeans planted flags on the American continent in the name of Christian conquest for Europe. At nearly the same time America became a far away home for Europeans, and then others, some of them enslaved, seeking freedom from religious and state orthodoxies. America started as a country of contradictions. A country of immigrants, wherein a very significant portion of the population today is anti-immigrant.
From the first days when Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal…” Lepore makes clear that internal inconsistencies and conflicts were going to be papered over with daub and wattle. At the time of the writing of the Constitution, a first of its kind, the notion that citizens were not inferior to noblemen was truly revolutionary. Yet, “all men” failed to include enslaved men, or women.
The title of the book is so multilayered as to become an unbreakable wire threading the entire book together. Especially interesting are the final fifty years of American politics (perhaps because I have lived them and can observe how Lepore selects and summarizes the events she highlights) when the notion of truth has become so personal that the question of whether we can hold together as a nation that believes in something unifying feels like it might be hanging in the balance. The expansion of the Internet and with it Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, 4chan, and Truth Social (Trump’s personal twitter), has allowed both the insertion of genuine Fake News (see the work of Russian troll farms during the 2016 election) and the selection of personal, unedited news selected by each and every consumer to suit her or his preconceived beliefs. The book was published before the January 6 uprising and attack on Congress, which is the predictable outcome.
These Truths is not an optimistic book, and the work of right wingers to promote hundreds of years of inequality, racism, sexism, anti-foreigner sentiment, misinformation, and objection to facts is wholly dispiriting (I suspect the right dismisses Lepore’s book precisely because it raises uncomfortable truths). The new Left’s closed-door approach to speakers and writers whose views they find dangerous to insecure minorities or their definition of an illegitimate history is scarcely more encouraging. Still, there is nothing like observing a master putting history into a clear and readily accessible context.
Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson *** (of 4)
Atkinson did her homework before reproducing the details of England in the raucous 1920s. Britons released from the devastation of WW I and the influenza epidemic of 1918 are eager to displace horrors of the past with jazz, drink, and dancing. Nellie Coker obliges Londoners with a series of marginally legal nightclubs, each decorated and catering to a different crowd. Corrupt police forces protect her investments while rival money-grubbers take aim at her properties and her riches. Nellie’s adult children and a lone, incorruptible police officer swarm about her like moths at a gas-lit lamppost. Taken together, Atkinson draws light into the shadowy recesses of an era, but there is not much suspense across its 416 pages. It’s like we are watching dancers jitterbug in a black and white clip with the sound off. At first all that motion is riveting, but the titillation isn’t sustaining.
The Word is Murder by Antony Horowitz *** (of 4)
Antony Horowitz – a prolific writer of mysteries for adults, children, and television – definitely had fun writing this one. He cast himself as one of two main characters; the other is a taciturn, deeply-intuitive, non-communicative, sharply intelligent, ex-dectective, called Hawthorne. Together, Horowitz writing himself as Dr. Watson to Hawthorne’s Sherlock Holmes, they dig about in the case of a woman who arranges her own funeral and is then found strangled to death six hours later. Horowitz’s description of himself falls in the category of auto-fiction, meaning a majority of events and relationships he uses to characterize his life are quite accurate (and the point at which he invents things about himself is unknowable). Nonetheless, Horowitz is a master of misdirection, red herrings, and reliable characterizations. Hawthorne is a terrific detective insofar as he always seems capable of seeing the larger picture, but keeps his cards so close to his chest that as readers we think we know what cards he is holding, but for the most part see nothing until he lays them on the table.