• Between Genius and Genocide by Dan Charles *** (of 4)

    Fritz Haber may be the most important forgotten man in history. He is responsible for saving more lives than any other human being and, at the same time, can be blamed for some of the most concentrated killing ever perpetrated by a single person. First, the good news. Prior to Fritz Haber’s discovery of how to transform inert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia for fertilizer, the only way to nourish crop plants was with manure: from animals or people. Or by burning and plowing forests and grasslands into submission. By the beginning of the 1900s nearly all of the earth’s arable land had already succumbed to the plow and the production of manure was never going to be able to keep pace.

    When Haber created a process for making nitrogen fertilizer from air (and a ton of energy) he released humanity from a perpetual cycle of famine. Without exaggeration it is estimated that 40% of the population of the world today (more than 3 billion of us) eats on a regular basis because of nitrogen fertilizer. Of course, there are numerous downsides affiliated with nitrogen fertilizer, including the additional demands of a global population that has quadrupled since Haber’s 1913 invention.

    Haber is also infamous for the invention of chlorine gas first used by Germany’s military to slaughter French troops in World War I. The pain, terror, and death inflicted by chlorine, then phosgene, and finally mustard gas were never before experienced, and was so awful that they have been used rarely ever since.

    Dan Charles does an outstanding job of laying out the man, the science, and the context for Fritz Haber and makes us wonder if he was a genius or genocidal maniac? Was Haber inhumane for using chemical weapons first or no different in his methods of killing than the first person to kill from a distance using a bow and arrow, a bullet, a laser-guided missile, or a drone operated by a soldier half a world away?

  • Sourdough Potato Rye Garlic Scape Bread

    I’m never quite certain what I should make with garlic scapes, but this year a friend suggested adding them to bread.

    I roasted several in olive oil and then chopped them into tiny pieces about 1/4 to 1/2 inch in length. That’s strawberry jam and strawberry preserves in the background. It was a full-on cooking day.

    I boiled potatoes, mashed them, and made a sourdough rye bread with them.

    I also added some coarse cornmeal. The potato added moisture, the cornmeal gave it crunch, and the rye, sourdough, and scapes infused the loaf with flavor as solid as it sounds.

  • The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw *** (of 4)

    A series of loosely connected short stories about the inner thoughts and external actions of younger Black women whose wants and desires are not so chaste and confined as their gray-haired elders whose lives it seems have always been defined by an all-purpose white Jesus of their community church. Younger Black women have sexual desires, sometimes for men and sometimes for women. They have insecurities and therapists. Their relationships with mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunties, are simultaneously fraught with jangling rage, but also the bedrock upon which they stand and have stood generation after generation. Black Women’s Lives Matter, only prayer to Jesus is no longer sufficient as these women fight their way forward.

  • The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman *** (of 4)

    This is the second book in the series, meaning it is the second set of murders that need to be solved by the four septuagenarians of the Thursday Murder Club: Joyce, Ron, Ibrahim, and Elizabeth. It is no small feat to present old people with so much grace and humor even though you can just tell that the author periodically has to yell at his characters so they can hear him, wake them up from time to time, even when they insist they are just resting their eyes, and urge them to get to the points of their digression-filled stories.

    The mystery and suspense in Book #2 are even better than they were in the first as are the quibbles and unspoken affections on display amongst the four friends who, enjoying the fortune and suffering the misfortune of having outlived so many of their loved ones, are discovering they are one another’s newfound family. Suffice to say that gossip in the senior center’s dining hall over whether the new, young waitress, Poppy, would look better without her nose-ring is a great opening scene for a book that will involve spies, the mafia, local drug dealers, and more than a little shopping for something for my daughter, who never really tells me anything, but I’ll get this for her, anyway.

  • The Martian by Andy Wier *** (of 4)

    The Martian of this book refers to an American astronaut accidentally left stranded on Mars while his crew, thinking he had died during an intense windstorm, barely escapes the planet with their lives intact. Mark Watney, the Martian in question, is a wise-cracking botanist-engineer, and astonishingly easy-going, considering he’s left behind on a planet by himself. He can grow things, calculate how many calories he will need until a rescue mission is launched (in four years!), fix broken equipment, and assemble new contraptions from existing parts. It is man versus nature, only Watney has to manufacture all of his oxygen, food, and water himself, and he has to hope nothing catastrophic breaks. Oh yeah, and communication with NASA is a problem because the departing crew took the radio with them. The author, Andy Weir, is a proud geek so every calculation is correct from the number of liters of carbon dioxide that can be converted into oxygen to the amount of fecal material it would take to bring martian soil to life in an effort to grow potatoes that Mark the botanist could conceivably grow.

  • Three Starters, Three Sourdoughs, and a Nephew

    My nephew, Dr. Ben Pallant, is an awesome sourdough baker and did me the favor of stopping for a day on his journey from medical school graduation in Rhode Island to his residency in Denver. We used the opportunity to make three breads we had never tried before to test our skill. Part of the fun was to see if we could manage three different bakes concurrently.

    Using Maurizio Leo’s Danish Sourdough Kanelstang recipe we set up our white flour Meadville starter and carefully enriched the dough with butter before allowing for various rises and rollings.

    The interior was coated in cinnamon sugar – how can you go wrong with dough, butter, and cinnamon sugar? – and then rolled.

    The baked loaf was coated with a glaze of confectioner’s sugar and slivered almonds. When the Kanelstang came out of the oven, it practically cried out for black coffee.

    Using our more sour Cripple Creek starter, we turned to Maurizio Leo’s Focaccia Pugliese (Focaccia with Potato). This dough is impregnated with grated baked potato and we chose two different toppings.

    Focaccia Pugliese with crushed tomatoes, oregano, olive oil, and sea salt.
    Focaccia Pugliese with rosemary, extra virgin olive oil, and sea salt.

    Last up was a recipe for Sesame Spelt bread with a recipe from Andrew Janjigian. We used our Russian Rye starter. Nothing fancy about the recipe, but the outcome was exceptional. So tasty.

    The take away? If you are ever in the neighborhood, please come bake with me.

  • Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan *** (of 4)

    As the 19th century was drawing to a close, the photographer Edward Curtis took it upon himself to photo-document and record ethnographic information on every Indian tribe left in America. Pause for a minute and consider the audacity of the undertaking. At a time when the majority of white Americans still considered that only dead Indians were worth celebrating, Curtis not only took up a morally opposing perspective, but was determined to meet and speak with any indigenous tribe with enough function left to be whole and visitable.

    In what would ultimately amount to a 20-year project to produce the 20 volumes of The American Indian, Curtis took 40,000 images of more than 80 tribes.

    Photographs made during the early days of photography, while staged, remain some of the most iconic and artistic of any people in any era.

    His subjects transmit history, pathos, despair, and pride directly into the camera.

    Writing a book about the visual arts is no small feat and yet, Egan, a multiple-award winning author, succeeds in telling the life story of Curtis, the obsessed photographer, and the nadir of Indian life in America. Curtis was so obsessed with the need to document The American Indian he forfeited his marriage, his home, and his income. America, however, and its Indians owe debts of gratitude to Curtis for his fortitude and to Egan for so elegantly drawing him to our attention.

  • State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny *** (of 4)

    As the book opens a new President of the United States has just taken office, displacing a hulking, bombastic, ignorant, self-aggrandizing, bloviating, possibly crooked predecessor, now living in a tasteless mansion in Florida. The new President appoints a late middle-aged, female, opponent in the run up to the election as his Secretary of State. He wants her to fail and he wants to keep her close in his administration to prevent her from doing additional damage. A normal day in politics.

    What isn’t normal is that soon after assuming their offices a series of bus bombings in Europe succeed in killing scores of civilians. The Secretary of State and her staff must act quickly to calm fears of European allies (still reeling from former President Eric Dunn’s snubbings and ineptitude) and to figure out if another attack could land on U.S. soil. As the threat to Americans grows in likelihood and magnitude, Secretary Ellen Adams hustles around the world engaging in politics and diplomacy with world leaders in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Europe.

    While external actors have clearly targeted the United States, the wrinkle appears to be that so-called American Patriots, right-wingers intent on restoring what they perceive as the good old days of white, male, gun-carrying, sovereignty may well be in league sworn enemies of America: Russians, Al Qaeda, ISIS and so forth.

    The descriptions of political brinksmanship feel insanely accurate — Thank you, Hillary — and Louise Penny has written a page-turner: a surprisingly strong team. Periodically, I wondered if the text was taking too many liberties in imagining an insider plot to overthrow America’s legally elected government. Then I listened to the House Committee hearing on the January 6 uprising and looked at the flags flying defiantly all across my local landscape: Fuck Biden; Gun Owners for Trump; I’ll Help You Pack (as in pack up so you can leave the country, there’s an American flag above the offer); Marxist Lives Don’t Matter; Trump 2024 – I’ll Be Back!

    Maybe State of Terror doesn’t go far enough. At least all of the female characters in State of Terror are reliable, if understated, heroines.

  • The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles **** (of 4)

    Steinbeckian in scope and style, The Lincoln Highway is equal parts coming-of-age story, travelogue, American history, rumination on the inalienable properties of heroism, and inevitable flaws hidden behind the armor of heroic characters.

    The book opens as Emmett is released from a 1950s work-farm that doubles as juvenile detention center for wayward teens. At eighteen years old he heads home because his father has just died and his 8-year-old brother, Billie, is in need of a caretaker. Billie insists they take the Lincoln Highway from the middle of the U.S. to San Francisco to find their mother who left without explanation many years earlier.

    Just before heading west in Emmett’s light-blue Studebaker, two of Emmett’s roommates from the work farm appear outside his father’s foreclosed house, having taken the liberty of stowing away in the warden’s trunk on his delivery run with Emmett. Duchess, Woolie, Emmett and Billie (map of America carefully laid across Billie’s lap) head for The Lincoln Highway whereupon misadventure followed by heroic escapes send the foursome step by step eastward toward Times Square in New York City, the highway’s point of origin, rather than it’s terminus.

    Duchess, Woolie, Emmett, and Billie are as true-to-life, and as likable, as any characters confined to a page can be, and long after the book has ended, readers will be pondering right and wrong, maturity and immaturity, accident and intention, good and evil, heroism and hubris.

  • Good Eggs by Rebecca Hardiman *** (of 4)

    A lightweight, droll novel about an aging grandmother with a penchant for shoplifting, her beleaguered son who is sandwiched between gnarly teenaged children, an overachieving wife, and his mother’s continuing scrapes with law enforcement, and one teenaged daughter in particular whose rebelliousness is insatiable. Grandma’s British snarkiness carries the story along even when her exploits teeter into the unbelievable making for, as the Washington Post review described it, a pleasant story when you need an antidote to today’s daily trauma.