• The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto *** (of 4)

    Shorto’s hypothesis is concise and convincing. His book is long and detailed. As the ages of Enlightenment and Exploration dawned on Europe, Holland was the most wide open and accepting of all the European powers in the 1500s. It was home to the most progressive artists, scientists, and philosophers. It welcomed traders from around the globe and in sharp contrast to its European competitors–Spain and Great Britain–it opened its doors to foreigners. Spain tossed out Jews and Muslims, many of whom found safety in the Netherlands. England was fighting wars over religion leaving even fundamentalist Christians who felt England was not religious enough to find sanctuary in Leiden, Holland.

    As the oceanic powers sent “explorers” to conquer territories around the world, Holland settled New Amsterdam. Its central holdings were in Manhattan and up the Hudson River to present day Albany. Henry Hudson, a Britisher, who also claimed Hudson’s Bay and surrounding territory in Canada, was actually hired by the Dutch to be their explorer.

    Those religious fundamentalists from Great Britain left Leiden because they found Holland to be too liberal for their tastes. They became the Puritan settlers of New England. To this day, suggests Shorto, New York City, formerly New Amsterdam, has maintained its Dutch character: accepting, entrepreneurial, and a haven for all immigrants and faiths.

    Among the fine points raised by Shorto’s research is his careful assessment of relations between Dutch settlers and Native Americans. By his accounting the Indians were genetically speaking, 99.99% identical to their European counterparts. Which is to say they were smart, pleasant, calculating, jealous, envious, devious, intellectual, mechanical, curious, political, and so on. The story of the Dutch selling Manhattan to Indians for $24 proves not only laughably false, but also a fabrication contrived by English historians, who as victors in the New World, got to write the continent’s history.

  • The Secret Hours by Mick Herron *** (of 4)

    This is Herron’s prequel to his successful Slow Horses series, which is one of those rare compilations that is better on screen (Apple +) than it is to read. The spies in this book (a couple of whom will appear in previous books for which this is the recently published prequel) are working in Berlin just after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. Espionage is in chaos as old countries disintegrate, new ones are formed, and spies no longer protected by an Iron Curtain seek to settle old scores.

    MI5’s lead operative is laying a Berlin trap for a former Stasi agent who killed one of his best East German sources. Details of his operation emerge in front of a present day tribunal ordered by Great Britain’s PM. The Prime Minister has established a task force to search for historical illegalities perpetrated by MI5. It’s a publicity stunt that is accurately and hysterically recounted. Griselda Fleet and Malcolm Kyle, lifelong bureaucrats, trudge through the tedium of hearings everyone knows are never going to amount to anthill of dirt.

    The spycraft is slow, and the hearings slower, but the office dialogue and repartee among spies who feel like they are punching a clock, and occasionally punching one another, is priceless.

  • The Kingdom, The Power, and The Glory by Tim Alberta **** (of 4)

    Tim Alberta is a Christian evangelical and an accomplished journalist describing what he sees as a growing division inside America’s evangelical churches. He visits and describes events within congregations of numerous mega-churches across the country. A vocal minority (he describes them as a minority, but I’m not sure anyone is counting) of right-wing nationalists have transferred their faith from Jesus Christ to Donald Trump. They are led by like-minded Republicans and by pastors praying for their presidential protector of beleaguered and oppressed Christians in America.

    Alberta does not challenge evangelism’s core conservative principles: opposition to abortion, anti-LGBQTIA+ sentiments, Christianity’s promise of a heavenly Kingdom to come, and the necessity of bringing the word of Christ to unbelievers. But he is unstinting in his questioning of how personal conservative beliefs have become militant rallying cries that, in his words, violate the spirit of Christ.

    Yet he wonders, how have Christ’s teachings to love your enemies, to welcome the stranger, and to care for the downtrodden turned into a winner-take-all political battle? Why have evangelicals been among the country’s leaders in turning away immigrants, trolling public health advocates promoting Covid vaccines, and on the front lines of the January 6th uprising?

    Enthusiastic supporters greet Donald Trump at a rally of more than 30,000 in Mobile, Ala., in August.

    The book suggests that the problem is misguided spirituality and he does his best to quote scripture back at those he perceives to be fanatics. But he also describes a movement that is constructed to absorb what it is told on faith. So when congregants get all of their information from charismatic preachers and an endless supply of right-wing, and deeply conspiratorial news sources — Covid was created by cabals to control churches; elections are fixed by “woke” Democrats and the Deep State — there is not much congregational initiative to question.

    Alberta points an enraged finger at the Falwells, the Moral Majority, Liberty University, The Southern Baptist Convention, scores of preachers who have sexually abused their congregants, and hucksters who raised millions of dollars preaching hatred to evangelicals terrified that they are losing their God-anointed Christian country.

    Near the end of his book, he does his best to point to a resurgence of what he considers sane-minded evangelical Christians. He predicts a forthcoming split of nationalistic churches from those who are Jesus-centered. A schism is the most optimistic outcome he can point to.

  • Red Queen by Juan Gomez-Jurado ** (of 4)

    Antonia Scott is a genius at penetrating the minds of dastardly criminals. She is also a morbid recluse with no sense of smell (is this important for us to know?), gorgeous, and without social skills. John Guiterrez is assigned to be her partner by an unseen handler called MENTOR. John is overweight, or just strong, gay, a good guy, without a partner, and disgraced by the police department for a dubious infraction. And the criminals they pursue are unspeakably heinous.

    Which is to say the book (apparently well-loved around the world) is tolerable if it is read as a comic book without pictures. Antonia Scott is the smartest person in all of Europe. Mentor works for a shadowy European consortium of crime-fighters who operate outside of and above the law. Criminals slink through shadowy underground tunnels. Confrontations appear in word-panels that burst with gore and the equivalent of starburst “POWS” and “OOFS.” For the full (not so pleasant experience) listen to the audiobook. The reader has only two distinct voices: angry and angrier.

  • Two Yellow Breads with Recipes

    Sourdough lemon poppyseed cake.

    Rebecca Firsker published this recipe for a sourdough discard cake in a recent posting to The Perfect Loaf. My version of the cake was denser and chewier than what I’m used to for a lemon poppyseed cake, but it was oh, so-lemony. It lasted a day-and-a-half.

    I was making a vegan red lentil almond dal the other night. Usually, when I make dal, I also prepare some sourdough naan to go with it, but, just to change things up, I revived this old recipe from Flatbreads & Flavors by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.

    Here is a quick summary of their recipe.

    2 cups atta flour (sifted whole wheat, but I just used freshly milled whole wheat flour)

    1 cup unbleached white flour

    1 tsp black pepoper

    1 tsp ground cumin

    1/2 tsp turmeric

    1 tsp salt

    1 Tablespoon veg oil or ghee

    1 1/2 cups plain yogurt, or more as necessary

    Oil for deep frying

    1. Mix flour, spices, salt in a bowl.
    2. Sprinkle in the oil and rub in with your fingers.
    3. Add yogurt a little at a time until kneadable; should be stiff but kneadable.
    4. Knead dough on lightly floured surface 8 – 10 minutes.
    5. Return dough to lightly oiled bowl, cover, let rest 30 min – to two hours.
    6. Divide dough into 16 balls. Flatten each ball with your palms, cover with plastic, do not stack.
    7. Roll pooris to 6 inches diameter, cover, do not stack.
    8. Heat oil to 375 degrees.
    9. Lay poori on oil. It sinks. When it rises, poke it with spoon until it puffs Turn over and cook another 10 – 15 seconds.

  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell *** (of 4)

    The story’s most famous character, William Shakespeare, is never mentioned by name. History tells us that Hamnet, the son of William and Agnes (Anne Hatheway) Shakespeare, died at age 11, but little more is known. O’Farrell brings to life, and death, the 1500s in rural England. The plague comes and goes. Neighbors squabble. Relatives promote themselves and (some of) their brethren, while petty jealousies fester. For the sheer strength of O’Farrell’s characterizations, her book is Shakespearean.

    But the added benefit is the authority with which she describes muddy lanes between thatched roof homes, household gardens, glove-making shops, apothecaries, market stalls, and, on the edge of town, cow fields. When illness befalls Hamnet, medical wisdom of the era recognized the symptoms and likely deadliness of Bubonic plague, but knew little of its transmission or treatments. Hamnet’s mother is broken by her son’s illness and ensuing death. William Shakespeare, speculates O’Farrell, was, too. His play, Hamlet, is a tribute to his lost son.

  • Rough Crossings by Simon Schama *** (of 4)

    How did we not know this?

    In the 1760s, a court case in England suggested that any person of African descent living in Great Britain was a free man. Enslaved Africans in America knew about the court ruling. Moreover, they were well aware that Jefferson’s paragraph in the Declaration of Independence had been deleted. Jefferson, though a slave-owner himself, recognized that the hypocrisy of a declaration calling for freedom, equality, and the removal of the tyranny by unjust overseers could not be squared with the maintenance of American slavery. The Declaration of Independence would not be ratified by southern states so long as Jefferson’s paragraph endured and the issue of slavery was postponed until a later date.

    Nonetheless, enslaved Blacks reasoned that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. By the thousands, African Americans fled to British lines, and many Blacks fought against Americans. Perhaps as many as one-fourth of all enslaved Africans escaped plantations, only to find they had backed the losing side.

    After the war, as southerners sought to reclaim their lost “property,” Blacks did their utmost to make their way to Great Britain. Three thousand Blacks, for example, were in New York City at war’s end, under the protection of British troops.

    Thousands of Blacks moved to Nova Scotia, because it was part of Great Britain. (Check out the link, Our History-Black Migration in Nova Scotia.) They were promised land, but promises were broken. In 1792, 1,192 men, women, and children sailed out of Nova Scotia for Sierra Leone to start a free Black nation on the African shores from which many families had begun their journey. In one poignant early election in Sierra Leone, community representatives were voted on by men and women of the newfound village. Which means the first women in history to ever vote were formerly enslaved Africans.

  • Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs by Kerry Howley (*** of 4)

    Kerry Howley digs deep into the lives of American whistleblowers: John Walker Lindh, Chelsea Manning, Reality Winner, and Edward Snowden. Each was charged with violating national security laws and faced the full force of an American law enforcement system designed to shut down all security risks. Howley argues that the laws were established hastily while the dust was still smoldering at the World Trade Center. The laws have enabled waterboarding, torture, secret detention camps, Guantanamo, solitary confinement, psychological torment, and imprisonment without representation or trial. They also permit America’s spy agencies to track our phone calls. Agreements we’ve made with Facebook and Google, for example, mean we have traded away a good deal of our privacy. Online collectors gather our interests and our visitations in order to promote the next advertisement to appear in our feed: someone is making a profit by monetizing us.

    On one side of the argument the world is a dangerous place. Non-state actors and secretive emissaries of hostile governments are working around the clock to destabilize America. Only constant and unrelenting vigilance can protect us. On the other side, argues Howley, at least some of the Americans she highlights were neither malicious nor dangerous. Their treatment by the American government is very far from upholding America’s values.

  • 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.