• River of the Gods by Candace Millard **** (of 4)

    By the 1860s California had absorbed an influx of hundreds of thousands of gold miners, the southern states of the U.S. had seceded, and North America’s native populations were mostly subdued, and yet in those years the only parts of the African continent known to western Europeans was its long perimeter. Ninety percent of Africa’s interior was unreliably mapped by whites. River of the Gods describes British expeditions to locate the source of the Nile River.

    An expedition into Africa’s interior required a combination of hubris, fearlessness, undaunted courage, and an unquestioning belief in racial superiority that is mortifying to behold. Without ever becoming overbearing, Millard’s description of the men, British and African, who risked their lives in search of the Nile’s origins, pits innate curiosity and urge for exploration — who doesn’t want to know the headwaters of the world’s longest river? — against the sheer audacity of believing that exploration can only be achieved by khaki-clad Britishers in charge of scores of largely nameless local guides, porters, and pack animals. Sir Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke hiked for months at a time, enduring, no exaggeration, more than 20 diseases and fevers which left them periodically blind, paralyzed, unable to speak or swallow, and crazed for weeks and months on end. Yet they marched forward, sometimes born on litters, often to the complete detriment of their physical, mental, and social wellbeing.

    Richard Burton (left) and John Speke in an engraving by Emile-Antoine Bayard (1837-1891). Credit.

    River of the Gods is part adventure tale, part biography of key explorers, and a rendering of an age of recognition, that colonialism, though not yet finished, was nearing its climax. Africa’s interior was about to be overrun by European countries whose competition with one another would expand from the purchase of bonded human chattel to the exploitation of timber, minerals, and colonial boundaries. It is a marvelous book that can cover the intricacies of Richard Burton’s courtship with his wife, the swarming insects of Africa’s jungles, and the international race for hegemony.

  • 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?

  • Intimacies by Katie Kitamura ** (of 4)

    You can probably disregard my unenthusiastic review. Intimacies, after all, was loved by everyone else from the NY Times to the National Book Awards. A nameless narrator leaves New York without much explanation and comes ashore at The Hague, gaining a job as an interpreter at the World Court of Justice. Lonely — even we readers cannot close enough to her to learn her name or much of her background — she falls in like with Adriaan, a charismatic and distant good-looking man, whose wife has abruptly left him. As if dating a married man is not disquieting enough, her best female friend lives in a crime-ridden neighborhood where bad things happen to good people. And to reinforce for readers our inabilities to ever really know someone, the narrator’s day job is to translate in real time the words of genocidal dictators, their prosecutors and defense lawyers, and the crimes against humanity of which the accused is almost certainly guilty.

    The narrator imbues all of her personal interactions with an internal monologue that guesses, second guesses, and triple guesses the motives behind every statement, whether from herself, friend, lover, or criminal. The result is that we poor readers are subjected to an unending ADHD-driven monologue of doubt, worry, and concern that her doubt is not warranted, or maybe it is. But don’t trust me. While NPR’s reviewer generally agreed with me, the big shot critics called this one of the top 10 books of 2021.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith *** (of 4)

    This is the third in the Cormoran Strike series of murder mysteries written by J.K. Rowling under the Galbraith pseudonym.  In this case, a psychopath murders women, pulls apart their bodies, and as the book opens, he hand delivers a severed leg to Strike’s assistant, Robin Ellacott.  Four potential suspects immediately come to the mind of private detective Strike.  While  Strike and Ellacott investigate four bad men have a motive for wanting to ruin Strike by accosting his assistant, the British police bumble about like Keystone cops. Meanwhile, what was obvious to us in book one, now dawns on Cormoran and Robin: they are in love with one another.  Unfortunately, Robin prepares to get married to her long-time fiancee and Cormoran dallies with a sexy, but not very interesting girlfriend he has picked up on the rebound from his last relationship.  Rowling’s strength lies in her observations.  She lands her protagonists in a town, and I know now, after having been to some of the places described in this book, describes every important storefront and unusual curve in the road with delightful accuracy.  She hears every dog bark, recalls what everyone she met along the way was wearing beneath their overcoat, and reproduces accent and dialogue with impeccability.  For sense of place and character she is a fine read.  This mystery was gruesome, the budding love affair formulaic, and her lengthy descriptions were sometimes tedious.

  • In the Woods by Tana French *** (of 4)

    An Irish murder squad is called upon to investigate the cult-like death of a child in the village of Knocknaree.  Bob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are the lead detectives and we, the readers, are taken to grapple with mysteries on several levels.  The obvious question is whodunnit to the kid found atop an alter stone in the middle of an archaeological dig, but there are deeper layers.  Bob Ryan was once a child himself in Knocknaree and the only survivor when two of his friends disappeared.  That case was never solved and Ryan has no memory of the event during which his childhood mates were presumably murdered.  Can Ryan investigate a murder and his own childhood, especially if the two cases are linked, without losing his sanity?  Ryan and Maddox are best friends, so close they behave like long-term lovers, raising another mystery of why they are not.  Uncovering the perpetrator is standard fare: difficult to figure out with suitable suspects and red herrings.  Revealing the psyches of contemporary Dubliners is what moves the story from page to page.

  • 10 LB. Penalty by Dick Francis ** (of 4)

    A young British jockey is pulled from his mount by his excessively wealthy father.  His new job is to assist as his father runs for a local council seat in his first political election.  Someone tries to kill dad while he is campaigning.  Then tries again.  And again.  Benedict Juliard, an amateur jockey not yet 18 years old, has exceptional sleuthing skills and then the book wanders aimlessly and pointlessly.  Francis probably wrote the book in a weekend.  In just a few pages about a dozen years of history fly by.  Dad moves up from his local council seat to become Prime Minister of England.  Benedict gets into Oxford, or Cambridge, it hardly matters, gets a job in the best horse-related company in the country and within a couple of years, and a couple of pages, moves up to a position of exceptional responsibility.  Finally, the only suspect in the story shows up in parliament and at last Francis gets on with a conclusion.

  • SPQR by Mary Beard *** (of 4)

    It is no simple task to recount the thousand year history of the Ancient Roman empire.  It isn’t even easy to determine when the empire begins or ends.  Compounding the difficulty is Roman proclivity toward record keeping meaning that they have left behind an extensive written record.  Moreover, Roman history has been studied and venerated by western historians for nearly two millennia.  What makes SPQR stand apart is the clarity with which Mary Beard tells the tale.  As a reader you sense that Beard has spent a lifetime reading original texts in Latin as well as innumerable treatises of historical analysis that followed. Rather than being muddled by what must be millions of pages of books and records, Beard has the remarkable ability to observe Ancient Rome from a drone and then zoom into examine individual artifacts.  Beginning with the founding of a tiny village in the hills above the River Tiber and continuing until  the wider Roman Empire made all of its inhabitants citizens near the end of the 4th century, Beard repeatedly makes clear what can be known from archaeological evidence and what must then be speculation.  Readers are given the opportunity to evaluate evidence along with her, free to agree or not with her interpretation.  What emerges is a living society with all its contradictions and multiple overlays of countries and cultures, rich and poor, workers and leaders, slaves and freedmen, farmers and laundrymen.  It is a nice departure from the glorification and focus on late Roman emperors as if they were Rome’s entirety.

  • Regeneration by Pat Barker **** (of 4)

    Most of the action takes place away from the European trenches of World War I.  Instead, Dr. Rivers uses the new field of psychoanalysis to repair the shredded psyches of young British soldiers damaged by their experience.  Soldiers in his psychiatric hospital have spent months standing in freezing water, watched their friends disemboweled by exploding shells, inhaled mustard gas, and charged across barbed wire at night in hopes of knifing another young man. Many have simply stopped functioning.  They stare, stammer, rock, dream while awake, and scream through the night.  Dr. Rivers compassionately encourages his charges to speak of their horrors and slowly nurses them back toward health.  The catch being that when he succeeds the soldiers are returned to the front and we are left to ask whether the continuation of the war is sufficiently justified that young men should be reused like cleaned-off bullets.  In the case of WW I, we know a soldier’s life expectancy on the front is on average only a few weeks and that young German soldiers are suffering the same traumas, but we also know that acquiescence to German aggression has consequences.