• The Golden Gate by Amy Chua *** (of 4)

    Detective Al Sullivan’s first big murder case erupts when former presidential candidate Walter Wilkinson (modeled on FDR’s 1940 opponent Wendell Wilkie) is shot in his room in the swanky Claremont Hotel. Wilkinson may or may not have been canoodling with one of the three desirable daughters of the wealthy Bainbridge family.

    While the Bay Area press goes wild for the story, Wilkinson digs deep into the questionable alibis of the Bainbridge sisters. On the upside of this noir, World War II era novel, are the attention to race and class as Al Sullivan (Mexican, Jewish and other ethnicities) fights his way upward through California’s stratified society. Sullivan is joined by the most interesting character in the book, his feistily independent niece, Miriam. The mystery is complicated, but aside from Al and Miriam, not all of the characters are as well developed.

  • Fatherland by Burkhard Bilger *** (of 4)

    Burkhard Bilger is a German-American, accomplished author and writer for the New Yorker, and the right age to have a grandfather who was a Nazi. His grandfather was old enough during the war not to be a soldier, so during the war Nazi officials placed him in charge of an occupied French town in Alsace. After the war, Grandpa was imprisoned for war crimes and then released after being acquitted in trial. Burkhard digs deep in hopes of learning how much of a Nazi his grandfather really was.

    What Fatherland does best is contextualize the actions of individuals. He explains why his grandfather joined the Nazi party. It was expedient, but not a requirement. The book describes the daily interactions taking place between the Nazi-emplaced Mayor (Grandpa) and citizens in an occupied French village. Business proceeds, but eyes and ears are everywhere. Negotiations can be verbal, tactical, or violent and Bilger’s Grandfather had to navigate between Nazi orders from above and an innate sense of humanity (atypical of many Nazis.)

    Without making excuses for any Nazi behaviors or policies, Burkhard Bilger asks whether there might be a dividing line between horrible Nazis and really-not-so-bad-Nazis. It is a well asked question.

  • Lessons in Chemistry *** (of 4) by Bonnie Garmus

    Elizabeth Zott is a chemist, but the early 1960s is no time to be a woman in science. Or, for that matter, to be woman with a mind. Elizabeth Zott believes in the applicability of scientific reasoning to solving life’s problems. The rest of society believes women should dedicate themselves to homemaking.

    Zott faces an unending sequence of closed doors, abusive male superiors, and unrelenting religious dogmatists. Fortunately, Elizabeth Zott is unsinkable, brilliant, and funny. The match-ups are science vs. religion, male vs. female, and an individual vs. society. Lessons in Chemistry is a delightful tower from which to observe the birth of what would become the 1960s women’s liberation movement.

  • Fire Weather by John Vaillant **** (of 4)

    Just as every year is now the hottest on record, so too the number and intensity of wildfires across the planet break annual records for temperature, acreage burned, and never-before-seen fire behavior. A warming climate, low atmospheric humidity, pre-dried forests, and human habitations in previously uninhabited ecosystems are all tinder waiting for an inevitable spark.

    What makes this book so insightful is its focus on fires in 2016 that demolished the city of Fort McMurry in Alberta, Canada. Fort McMurry is the home to Canada’s bitumen deposits of tar sands, the worlds least efficient and, after coal, most carbon intensive fuel. In essence, the oil extraction industry warmed the planet enough that it set itself afire.

    Further, human habitations, now interspersed in forested and tree-lined communities everywhere, are constructed with fuel for fires. House fires can be contained if a single home goes up, but are uncontrollable when a wall of intense heat flows toward a neighborhood. Homes are fabricated with kiln-dried wood and filled with wooden furniture and cabinetry. The number of household items made of oil-based synthetic products is surprising: vinyl siding, carpets, sofas, pillows, clothing, electronics. To a raging fire, it is all just fuel. Then add the propane tank for the outdoor grill, the gas tank for the SUV, and cans of sprays and paints in the basement and homes tend to explode before a fire even reaches them.

    Interspersed with the minute by minute account of the explosive growth of the Fort McMurry fire is a detailed, and unequivocal litany of warning about human induced climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The evidence and scientific proof has been around for more than 100 years, albeit in some marginal locations. Still, by the 1950s and definitely by the 1980s, there was widespread agreement that burning fossil fuels would cause the climate to change. I was explaining this in lectures already in 1987.

    What kind of evil is embodied in corporations and individuals whose internal memos acknowledge the repercussions continued fossil fuel extraction would have on the livability of our planet? Favoring profit or people, Vaillant leaves no doubt that they paid obfuscators to confuse the public and protect their profits.

    This book, a National Book Award finalist, should be required reading, but it should also be read only on the first floor. At the end when the reader jumps out the window she can live to recommend the book to someone else.

  • A Disappearance in Fiji *** (of 4)

    Sargent Akal Singh has been banished to desk duty in Fiji. The year is 1915 and Britain rules its colonies with guile, brutality, and economic mastery. Singh, the educated son of an Indian villager figures his one way out and upward is to become a policeman. Sikhs are respected by the British, and expected to fulfill that role. He is sent to Hong Kong, but after a professional misstep lands in Fiji.

    Befriended by a native Fijian on the police force and a compassionate English doctor, but overseen by a condescending British officer, Singh is sent to wrap up a case of a missing Indian “coolie” woman. Wealthy British plantation owners imported hundreds of indentured Indians to work sugarcane fields without pay. Living conditions for Indian laborers, we learn in great detail, are miserable, and British overseers mete out punishments and abuse without fear of accountability or retribution. A missing Indian woman should be meaningless, but Akal Singh, and his friends, are so conscientious and likable that we root for their success while learning about colonialism in very personal ways.

  • Free by Lea Ypi *** (of 4)

    Lea Ypi is now a distinguished professor of political theory at the London School of Economics. She wanted to describe for readers what life in her native Albania, the last “purely” communist country aside from North Korea, was like prior to its conversion to a more democratic society. Ypi (pronounced Ooopie) begins each chapter with a vignette from her childhood and finishes each with an analysis of political forces at stake. We learn the rules of queuing for rationed commodities; the artistic and status value of owning a smuggled coke can; how the tensions of career paths assigned by the state, rather than chosen, wore down her parents’ marriage; and how something called an unalterable “biography” was deterministic for navigating society.

    It is not clear why each story has to be seen through the eyes of young girl, but I think Ypi is doing more than personalizing her experience for readers. She is writing more than a memoir. What she is saying, is that when the State decides what you can do for a living, what you can purchase in a store, or where you can live it infantilizes all of its citizens.

    For much of the book, Ypi overlooks heinous actions of Albania’s secret police. That overshadowing is made up for by her critique of capitalism. Albanians were not paralyzed by too much choice, never had to face the difficulty of desiring more than they needed, so no one, she claims, ever really felt poor. Health care and education were available to all. In fact, societal divisions caused by class, sex, or race were theoretically abolished by the communist state. By comparison the inequality meted out by the dog-eat-dog competitiveness of capitalism feels hopelessly unjust. The rich get richer and the poor seem never to break free.

    In the end, Ypi’s comparison of Marxism and capitalism criticizes both systems. Under Marxism, man dominates his fellow man. Under capitalism, it’s the other way around.

  • The House is on Fire by Rachel Beanland *** (of 4)

    Historically accurate, this is a fictional recounting of an 1811 fire in Richmond, Virginia that consumed a theater and scores of patrons inside. A young nation was shocked by the size of the disaster and it was front page news from north to south. Beanland personalizes the story by tracing the paths of four primary characters, who among them bring to light the inequalities imposed by race, class, and sex. An inordinate number of women burned to death when they were pushed aside by bigger, stronger, more privileged men. The theater company, which was ultimately responsible for allowing lit candles to ignite sets of oil-painted canvas did its best to point the finger at torch-bearing enslaved Africans encircling the theater in the dark. The enslaved, they said, wanted to start an insurrection. Only there were no enslaved Africans outside the theater. Nevertheless, Richmond’s citizens and politicians — Richmond was going to be the future capital of the Confederate States of America for a reason — did not let facts prevent them from setting out posses to round up any enslaved Africans it thought necessary. Which is to say any person of color would do.

    Better than most historical fiction writers, Beanland’s ample research appears innocuously. You never feel like she found a fact that she felt she just had to include. And yet a little more than half way through the suspense regarding whether the theater troupe’s rouse will succeed sags, and like theater goers attending a play that’s a little too long, we wonder how many more acts there are still to come.

  • Eastbound by Maylis De Kerangal *** (of 4)

    A group of Russian men have just been conscripted into the Army. They are on the trans-Siberian railroad crossing more than 8 time zones toward their first training facility in the frozen East. Twenty-year-old Aliocha expects to be hazed, have his genitals burned with cigarettes, made to lick toilets, and maybe raped when he arrives at training camp. Along the fever-dream of an unending train ride he decides to desert. He makes an ally in Helene a French woman twice his age. Helene is AWOL herself, running from a Russian man she loved in France, but after joining him in his own country, realizes she is suffocating.

    Helene speaks no Russian, Aliocha speaks no French and yet they communicate and together hide from from a vicious Russian commander anxious to locate his escaping conscript. The pair are confined inside a train for hours and days until night and day blur. They are trapped inside their heads unable to make their fears and anxieties fully known because of a language barrier. Still, they work together. A novella that clicks along at 60 Km/hour, not too fast and not too slow. (A New York Times top 10 book for 2023.)

  • Uncle Marty Week – 2024

    Every year for as long as anyone can recall, Uncle Marty (left), Sue’s (right) brother, arrives from California. Beginning before Christmas and lasting through the New Year he prepares gourmet meals. I make breads to try to keep up.

    Homemade duck breast pastrami.

    Served on Menhir au Ble Noir, a rustic French sourdough bread made with buckwheat flour.

    One night Leah made Twisted Spinach Breads

    And another night, Marty made Burmese Coconut Curry stew with Striped Bass and Gun Gun noodles.

    As we always do we make homemade sourdough bagels to have with lox. This year: TWICE.

    I’ve mastered, and altered, Maurizio Leo’s Sourdough Scones with Khorason flour. A stick and a half of butter, how can I go wrong? Using freshly milled heirloom grains makes a world of difference, too.

    When I made them a second time, I was outshined by a delivery of fresh goodies driven in from Chicago bakeries and Arab food markets. Thank you Leah and Wisam.

    One evening Marty made a turkey dinner with all the fixings.

    So I made a Jewish Deli Rye — I’ve finally mastered that one — to have with turkey sandwiches and a Cranberry Walnut Bread.

    Which we ate with Vegan Cauliflower Soup.

    Near the end of his stay, I made Sourdough Calzones with Spinach and Mushroom fillings.

    And Marty’s visit is always closed out with Danish Rugbrod, a dense rye loaded with, in this version, whole oat groats, wheat grains grown here in Crawford County, whole Einkhorn grown in the southern tier of New York State, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, and sunflower seeds.

    Until next year, Uncle Marty.

  • Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah **** (of 4)

    Gurnah won the 2022 Nobel Prize for literature and it is evident why in Afterlives, a vision of life on the ground in East Africa under German occupation. As the 19th century was drawing to a close, the eastern seaboard of the continent was carved up and ingested by Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and France. Before swallowing they chewed up natives in ground wars that rolled across towns, ports, and villages.

    Gurnah follows a family of Indian muslims and a couple of indigenous Tanzanians who we get to know on an individual basis as they go about their daily business. They get jobs, some learn to read and write, they pray in the mosque if they are religious, they have marriages (good and bad), sometimes join the Germans in their war making, and sometimes do their best to escape the dehumanization of German attacks on resistant villagers and their chiefs.

    Gurnah delivers exquisitely close attention to details: the warmth of the Indian Ocean on an evening walk, the fear of isolation when a child must sleep on a dirt floor knowing that in the morning an uncaring guardian will again demand a full day of exhausting chores, and the satisfaction of finally consummating a marriage after a painfully long delay. An era, a location, and a melange of complicated people are all painted in vivid color. A leaf doesn’t fall whose importance Gurnah fails to notice and yet he never includes like a single word more than is needed.