• Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury by Evan Osnos **** (of 4)

    Journalism is a first attempt to record history, and Osnos makes an outstanding first pass over the period in America between September 11, 2001 and January 6, 2021. On the first date, the country was (mostly) united in its horror by an attack by a foreign intruder. Twenty years later and the U.S. is riven. Wisely, Osnos uses only three locations in America to track the transformation: a small, de-industrializing town in West Virginia, the Black south side of Chicago, and Greenwich, CT, the wealthiest community in the country.

    Osnos lays blame for the disintegration of the country on income inequality and the undue influence that super-wealthy and corporations have on the electoral process. In short, the poor have gotten poorer and the rich, richer. In West Virginia, poor, aging white Americans whose jobs in the coal mines have disappeared along with their health benefits have absorbed right wing xenophobia and cast themselves as losers in a race war. Wealthy money managers in Greenwich tolerate Trumpism because their ability to continue to live the life of ease gets only easier. And, they never interact with poor Americans. Similarly, many of the Black residents of Chicago that Osnos speaks with have never been to white Chicago. They have not seen the museums, the zoo, parks or the waterfront. They do not get there as tourists, as members of the electoral process, and definitely not as workers.

    Trump figures prominently in the final years — and it is sadly amazing how much deeply racist and hurtful policies and statements he perpetrated that I had blocked from memory — but Osnos paints Trump as a skillful opportunist in the right place at the right time. In time, historians will have a clearer picture, but Osnos has captured an era with superb readability.

  • The Children of Ash and Elm by Neil Price *** (of 4)

    Truly, everything you might ever want to know about Vikings and how they ruled with terrible violence is scrutinized. Scandinavia, Western Europe, and the British Isles from roughly 700 – 1,000 CE were all under Viking rule. What makes the book so compelling, however, is the degree to which the author explains the tools of modern archaeology. Long gone are simple descriptions of dates, rulers, eras, and material culture. In the olden days of archaeology, the past was filtered through strongly clouded lenses. Thusly, the Vikings have largely been described by Christian missionaries who were at first overwhelmed by pagan invaders and later rationalized their missionary zeal for conversion by re-imagining Viking perceptions of the world. Price puts on a pair of 21st century lenses.

    To take one example, Viking religion and belief in their gods was understood only in relation to Christianity, while Price argues rather effectively that even the concept of religion is a construct of monotheism. Price cross-references material objects found in archaeological digs, nordic sagas which mostly tell us what Vikings wanted to believe and fossilize about themselves, and a handful of written accounts left by traders, mostly Arab and a few Jewish who ventured north. The result is a description of life that does its best to describe Vikings as they saw themselves and to expand our vision of the past to include women, LGBTQIA, slaves, immigrants, emigrants, mealtime, daily work, child rearing, and so forth.

    Most remarkable is the degree to which the combination of story and artifacts make clear the extent to which even in the first millennia the Vikings were integrated into a global economy. There are Vikings and Viking things in Egypt, Iraq, India, and China. Walrus tusks, for example, and Viking swords are found along the Silk Road. Simultaneously, there are Vikings buried in silk.

  • Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips ** (of 4)

    Take my review with a grain of salt. Disappearing Earth was a National Book Award Finalist and top-10 book of the year for the New York Times. Its incomparable strength is its description of post-Soviet life on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the very far northeast of Russia. In the larger cities – the action takes place in and around Petropavlovsk – there are businesses, traffic, research centers, industry, hustle and hassle. Just beyond the outskirts lie unpaved roads, volcanoes, hot springs, reindeer herds, and indigenous villages caught between the past and present.

    In the opening scene, a pair of schoolgirls are abducted suggesting that subsequent chapters will reveal who took them and where they went. But, subsequent chapters overlap just a whisker, making the book feel more like a collection of short stories than a whodunnit. The protagonists of each chapter are women whose lives are miserable. They are sick, abandoned, abused, overworked, and lonely. I’m told the perpetrator is unveiled at the end in a village a dozen hours north of Petropavlovsk, but I was too depressed to get all the way through.

  • Oven Spring

    When a baker times his or her bake correctly, the dough will have risen to what appears to be its maximum capacity. The general instruction is that a finger gently pushed into the dough will leave an indentation, but not too much of one. It is a vague description and it takes practice (and making several mistakes) to get an eye for.

    But if done correctly, something magical happens in the oven. The dough expands once more. Bakers call it oven spring because the dough goes in one size and exits much larger.

    A boule made with Einkhorn flour accompanied by arugula-pea pesto and black bean tapenade with pomegranate molasses.

    The secret of oven spring lies in the crumb. Look at the air bubbles above. Those were smaller pockets of carbon dioxide and water vapor when they went into the oven. The heat imparted by a 500-degree oven, and a heated baking stone, expand the gases and drive them upward. You can see the bubbles aiming toward the surface. The gluten network made when the bread was kneaded keep the bubbles from escaping. Steam in the oven allows the crust to remain soft so the loaf can expand.

    BOING. Oven spring.

  • Harlem Shuffle **** (of 4) Colson Whitehead

    It is the early 1960s and Ray Carney sells contemporary furniture from a showroom on 125th Street in Harlem, New York City’s Black enclave. Harlem vibrates with the energy of strivers, both straight and crooked. Men (women are conspicuously second class characters in this book) aim to get ahead anyway they can and Carney has, in addition, to his sale of couches and dinettes, a side hustle of fenced electronics, appliances, and jewels. Carney’s cousin, Freddy, is endowed with more charm than common sense; he routinely draws Carney into a series of crimes that Carney ultimately wishes he had no part of.

    Harlem Shuffle appears to be part compelling crime novel, part family saga, and an exceedingly lively encapsulation of the language and vibe of inner city life in the early 1960s. (Listen to the audiobook, if you have the opportunity.) But most of all, the genius of the book is the feeling of racial imprisonment affected by the invisible urban borders of Harlem. Yes, the boundaries are semi-porous: Carney can ride the subway downtown to move stolen items through white middlemen – also with straight-looking storefronts – but his skin color makes him too conspicuous to linger. White cops own the streets of Manhattan from the Battery to the Bronx and cruise the blocks of Harlem beating, occasionally killing young Black men, and all around ensuring that no matter the aspirations of Harlems’ dreamers, educated or not, their station in life is preordained.

    The setting is 1959-1964. Not nearly enough has changed.

  • Sourdough Ryes

    Sourdough Rye Pumpernickel

    Rye flour, as I’ve noted before, can be tricky to work with. Rye dough is sticky. It doesn’t rise like wheat flour, but it’s flavor is distinctly sweet and rich. And like all things kitchen, practice (and a willingness to analyze flops and failures) can result in improvements.

    Pumpernickel is simply rye bread that is darkened with some kind of caramel coloring. In this loaf I used molasses and a teaspoon of instant coffee. The soaked raisins are sparsely distributed, but such a nice surprise when each one lands.

    This rye baguette was covered in cumin (not caraway) seeds and flaky sea salt.

    Definitely on the curious end of the spectrum, Susan really wanted to try this rye bread from Vilnius (below.) It had 5 teaspoons of cumin and plum jelly in the dough. The result: spicy, sweet, but otherwise pretty normal rye bead.

    My new 7-Quart Kitchen Aide is a dream. Click here to see my Kitchen Aide and grain mill work together at 6:30 AM.

  • Medicus by Ruth Downie *** (of 4)

    Gaius Petreius Ruso is a Roman physician working for Rome’s army in a remote outpost of the empire: dreary, rainy, savage countryside north of London (Londonium). Soldiers arrive in his clinic after fistfights with barmaids, staggering hangovers, heart attacks, food poisoning, being kicked by horses, and cataracts. His roommate, another doctor, is a slob, and mostly interested in self-promotion. The hours are long and the food is, well, British, not Roman. No olives, no lemons, nothing worth salivating over.

    Across the street from the Roman fort is a brothel (legal in the Roman empire) with enslaved prostitutes (also legal.) One of the prostitutes, actually, maybe two, have disappeared without explanation, and in a fit of blinded humanity Ruso purchases a young, attractive female slave in the street. Then, as if dealing the mystery of missing people, one of whom has washed up in the local river and was brought in for examination, Ruso finds himself with a rather independent slave, a busy waiting room, and a long wait until payday. Then the fort’s chief administrator arrives on site and presents himself as a bureaucrat of such maddening preciseness that a modern day IRS employee would look like Mother Teresa in comparison. Ruso has a lot to sort out.

  • 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.