• I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara *** (of 4)

    One big difference between true crime and mystery novels is that when true crimes are committed, it’s not unusual for the perpetrator to get away. By contrast, in a TV mystery, or a book, the bad guy, by convention, is revealed. Which is why Michelle McNamara essentially joins the “club” of true crime mystery solvers. She has a chance to work on a puzzle whose outcome is so elusive, it might not be solvable; like a super-hard crossword puzzle, only the outcome, if she helps catch a criminal, might really matter.

    McNamara’s focus is one horrific rapist and murderer who through much of the 1970s and 1980s committed dozens of heinous acts. He committed so many it is virtually unimaginable that he could have escaped recognition well into the 2010s despite the dozens of searchers, professional and amateur, combing through thousands of items of evidence. And yet, The Golden State Killer was not.

    What makes “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” so compelling is McNamara’s exquisite attention to detail and writer’s panache for knowing when to use it. She lets us know, for example, the weather on the night of an attack, and the placement of the street lamps and hedgerows, but gives us only enough description for us to know the magnitude of the attack. The violence is inhumane, obsessive on the part of the killer, but not presented gratuitously.

    Complicating the narrative was the untimely death of the author who left behind enough of the manuscript and accompanying articles that ghost writers could ably finish the book. Leaving us to ponder the nature of obsession: in one case a man who preyed on California suburbanites and in the other case, a wife, mother, and author who sat up at night chasing minutiae in hopes of catching him.

  • Sammies

    My son Isaac is the King of Sandwich (he calls Sandwiches “Sammies,” as only an aficionado can). Isaac can pre-taste a combination of breads, proteins, veggies, and condiments (many he creates on the spot to serve the required purpose) to devise stackings that delight the eye as much as the stomach.

    The day after Thanksgiving, I made a coupe of rye baguettes with caraway and nigella seeds.

    Isaac made cole slaw (with fresh cranberries), a Thousand Island dressing with at least half a dozen ingredients, fried sweet potato steaks, laid out sliced turkey, several hard, soft, ripened, and flavored cheeses, and turkey and took orders from everyone in the house for personal creations.

    Ready
    Set.
    Go.

  • Dark Towers by David Enrich *** (of 4)

    In a marvelous job of explaining obscure ways of making money, David Enrich details how Deutsche Bank grew from a sleepy, domestic, German lender into the largest bank of the world. The secret mix was greed, testosterone, and a willingness to ignore irrational risks. Banks make money in one of two basic ways. They either lend you money and ask you to pay it back with interest. Or they sell you a financial product – say, a collection of mortgages or loans they’ve made to other people, asking you to share in their profits when their lend-ees repay their debts. The back and forth between customers and vendors is no different then avocados hawked in a Honduran farmer’s market or cars on a lot. The difference comes in the magnitude of the transactions. Hundreds of millions of dollars can move on each interaction (hence, the thrill enjoyed by caffeinated, macho young men) and therein lies the fundamental conundrum of loans.

    If you owe the bank $1000 that you don’t really have, the bank owns you (or at least all of your salable possessions.) But if you owe the bank $100 million that you don’t really have, and the bank in its haste to score your business (and finance your new hotel) wasn’t wise enough to tabulate whether your possessions are worth that much, in essence, you own the bank. No one played that system of promoting a deal better than Donald Trump. He borrowed, and defaulted, on hundreds of millions of dollars, going bankrupt numerous times. Nevertheless, Deutsche Bank in its headlong rush to make money grew so quickly and adored profit to such a sickening degree that it had branches of its bank overlook issues of collateral or the law.

    There is no finer example of the problem of profit over people than the saga of Deutsche Bank. No one played the game of profit over people more effectively than Donal Trump who used Deutsche Bank as a hapless piggy bank on his way to securing the highest CEO job in the world.

  • The Sourdoughs of Thanksgiving

    My hat is off to The Perfect Loaf. Maurizio Leo’s recipes are original, consistently creative, and successful.

    Just prior to Thanksgiving, Leo emailed his followers a baking schedule for the Thanksgiving holiday and with one substitution, and only one failure, I prepped his collection.

    For the night before Thanksgiving to fuel the workers, I made focaccia, and my son Isaac decorated them.

    Three days before Thanksgiving, I made a 50:50 whole wheat-white flour loaf that became some of the best mushroom, leek stuffing we ever had.

    For Thanksgiving dinner, I made a large miche from an ancient wheat called Einkhorn, which looked great.

    But proved to be my one disaster. I think I maybe over-proofed it.

    But I redeemed myself with these sourdough pumpkin buns. PLAY VIDEO.

    And to make up for my Einkhorn disaster I whipped together a couple of rye baguettes to support turkey sandwiches (a subsequent blog post.)

  • The Dry by Jane Harper *** (of 4)

    The first of Harper’s Australian mysteries in which Detective Aaron Falk is the lead investigator, and Australia’s harsh environment plays a main character. The fictional communityo of Kiawarra is suffering through its second year of devastating drought putting everyone in the small farming town on the edge of despair and rage. Day after day the unrelenting heat has parched grazing lands, dried up rivers, and brought the day of financial reckoning with destitution a little closer. Luke Hadler’s wife and son are inexplicably found shot dead in their home, until Luke is found apparently having committed suicide in the back of his truck a few miles off. Luke is the obvious suspect in a the combined murder-suicide.

    The crackling dryness of brush and tinder feel ready to explode into fire; the personalities of neighbors who have known one another and one another’s parents since pre-school spark with equal veracity. Most notably the conservative bullies and blusterers who have had their way with sheep and with the sheepish since their successful roles as taunters and bruisers in the classroom, remain frightening to any of us who have ever been pushed about. There is something about an Australian farmer in a rural community whose refusal to buckle to authority, and whose bellicosity drowns out other emotions, that feels rather close to home and rather global at the moment. The question of who really killed the Hadlers is plenty engaging, but the atmospherics are what helped put Jane Adams on the world stage as a mystery writer.

  • Talking to Strangers *** (of 4) by Malcolm Gladwell

    Vintage Gladwell as he describes a seemingly ordinary encounter or observation from which any reasonable person would draw an obvious conclusion and then takes a deep dive into social psychology to demonstrate how wrong we (all) are. Talking to Strangers opens with the recorded encounter in rural Texas between a white state trooper and a young Black woman, Sandra Bland, is pulled over for failing to signal when changing lanes. Failing to signal, that is, after a state trooper has turned on his flashing lights behind her insisting she pull over. Not surprisingly, the encounter degenerates, the cop loses his cool, Bland is handcuffed, and after three days in jail (for failing to signal a lane change?) commits suicide.

    The obvious conclusion is systemic racism and patent stereotyping by the trooper. In fact, we even think we know Sandra Bland. Now comes all the back story, carefully unpackaged to describe what happens when two people who don’t know one another meet. All people carry preconceived perceptions including what Gladwell describes as something called, “default to truth.” We believe what people tell us. There are evolutionary advantages to trust, even when we are being lied to and have been told we are being lied to. (Explanations for how and why Trumpians believed and still believe are unmissable.) There are additional lessons about how policing came to rely on a system of pull-over-and-suspect. And why access to instruments of suicide increase rates of suicide, though, quite surprisingly, Gladwell says nothing about Bland’s previous suicide attempts. This despite devoting chapters to predictors of suicide rates.

    The conclusion Gladwell draws is that when two people meet who don’t know one another well (and sometimes even when they do) they draw assumptions which can lead to terrible outcomes. Not only isn’t that a terribly new idea, but Gladwell offers almost nothing by way of a solution.

  • Lush Life by Richard Price *** (of 4)

    A nearly 15-year-old period piece that still has legs because the characters are so richly drawn and so authentically New York City. The lower east side of the city is being captured in a snapshot mid-gentrification. The neighborhood still has ghosts of its immigrant Jewish community of the early 20th century: collapsing synagogues, hidden Yiddishisms, and grandchildren returning to the neighborhood as 20-something hipsters calling on local bars deep into the dark hours. But there are also immigrant Chinese in walk-up apartments, Arab marketers, Irish cops, Blacks and LatinX living in project housing, drug dealers who seem to cross all the hidden boundaries, and clueless college students.

    In this case, there’s also a mugging that goes bad when a first-time mugger working as an assistant to a slightly older teen pulls a trigger he probably shouldn’t have. But the crime is secondary to the mish-mash of people that make up a New York City neighborhood in transition. If you have any chance to listen to this book on audio, do so. Bobby Cannavale embodies every accent to perfection.

  • Bread from Bread

    One technique for adding long-lasting moisture and richness to homemade bread is to recycle old bread. It was a technique apparently used regularly in Eastern Europe. Stale rye bread was soaked in water and then added as a mash to a new sourdough bread.

    Rye from rye

    But why not try other kinds of stale breads soaked in something other than water? The boule below includes a leftover wholewheat loaf soaked in my homemade soy and rice milk. It is leavened with my Meadville white flour starter and also has a cup of spelt flour.

    Multigrain, multibread, bread.

  • Five books

    I knew writing a book would take a while, but what I didn’t realize was how much time it would take to flog Sourdough Culture.

    I’ve been reading (and listening), but not had time to post. Here are some recent reads.

    Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe *** (of 4)

    Keefe’s takes on American addictions to painkillers by focusing on the history of the Sackler family, patent holders for oxycontin. The Sacklers made billions of dollars, maximizing publicity for their charitable donations but insisting upon total anonymity in their role in promoting oxycontin. They kept their distance even after they recognized that Oxy was not only seriously addictive, but also a gateway to heroin, fentanyl, and an epidemic of overdoses and deaths. Keefe makes a convincing case that the Sacklers knew more and earlier than they would ever admit and thereby points an accusing finger at a family drunk on money. In his justified rage at a system that knowingly pushed addictive, deadly drugs on innocent Americans, Keefe’s gives short shrift to all the other Big Pharma companies that seized profits while they were there to be had. And what does it mean that one-third of Americans suffer from long-term, untreated, chronic pain?

    Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Crosby *** (of 4)

    Beauregard “Bug” Montage loves his kids and his car, not necessarily in that order. As a Black auto mechanic in rural Virginia, business isn’t great, especially when a fancy shop, run by whites, opens up in town. Bills pile up and Beau’s temptation to return to his life as the best get away driver in the criminal history of the South overtakes him. He needs the money for his children, his ornery mom’s senior living center, and to pay the utilities, so when the chance to pull in decent cash in exchange for one perfect heist is laid at his feet, Beau feels he has no choice. The story appears to be about crime and some of the best car chase scenes ever committed to writing, but one layer down it is about the importance of being a decent Black dad struggling against nationwide systemic racism.

    The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donaghue *** (of 4)

    Like a play, nearly all the action takes place in a single room of a maternity ward in an Irish hospital during WWI. A pandemic of influenza has flooded the ward with hacking patients suffering from poverty, malnutrition, and bearing too many children. Outside the hospital a European war is raging, women are fighting for the right to vote, shell-shocked soldiers are limping home suffering from PTSD, orphans are maligned by Irish nuns, and Irish Troubles with the British persist. Inside the ward are some of the most graphic descriptions of childbirth set to print. Alas, outside-the-ward politics remain peripheral, meaning the birthing ward dramas could really be set in any location at any time.

    Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu *** (of 4)

    It’s a clever idea, clever enough to win a National Book Award. Charles Yu describes life in an anonymous Chinatown as a series of scenes cast for movies or TV. Chinese characters appear as the handful of stereotypes to which most Americans ascribe to most Asians: inscrutable, indistinguishable, accented managers in Chinese restaurants, wizened old men and women in tiny apartments, and so forth. Occasionally other characters appear in their stereotypical TV personae, notably a tough Black detective with a deep voice and an unrealistically blonde, attractive female with sensitive eyes and a kind voice. The point being that what we see on screens flattens all of us, especially Asians, according to Yu, to caricatures without depth and meaning. The point is taken, however, early enough in the book, that the absence of a coherent plot turns it into a show whose season might not be worth completing.

    Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann *** (of 4)

    In the 1920s, the Osage Indians of Oklahoma were among the wealthiest people in the U.S. An accident of history meant the displaced Osage were forced to settle atop one of the biggest oil fields in North America. The prospect of unfathomable wealth held by Native Americans was intolerable to white Americans. The Osage attracted greedy scoundrels like flies to rancid meat. To the advantage of the flies were American laws that forbade Indians from managing their own money without approval from white guardians and an American justice system that was so savagely anti-Indian that murderers and robbers of every stripe held a free-for-all at the expense of innocent Osage. It is one more horrible piece of history we privileged Americans were never taught.

  • A Bread’s Ear

    Sourdough Potato Rye

    Before dough is placed in the oven, bakers slash the top to allow room for oven-spring. The heat of a 500 degree oven causes the gases of water vapor and carbon dioxide to superheat. The gases expand rapidly, but the fine netting of gluten built by kneading the dough contains the gases, preventing most of them from escaping to the atmosphere. Some gases, including volatile organic compounds, do escape and the smell of baking bread comes from the oven in short order.

    But the gases trapped by gluten strain at their walls and the bread rises while it is baking. A well-trained baker will get the timing and placement just right so that an ear forms. A raised wing of baked bread, crispy and inviting, calls out to eaters.