• 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Fire Weather by John Vaillant **** (of 4)

    Just as every year is now the hottest on record, so too the number and intensity of wildfires across the planet break annual records for temperature, acreage burned, and never-before-seen fire behavior. A warming climate, low atmospheric humidity, pre-dried forests, and human habitations in previously uninhabited ecosystems are all tinder waiting for an inevitable spark.

    What makes this book so insightful is its focus on fires in 2016 that demolished the city of Fort McMurry in Alberta, Canada. Fort McMurry is the home to Canada’s bitumen deposits of tar sands, the worlds least efficient and, after coal, most carbon intensive fuel. In essence, the oil extraction industry warmed the planet enough that it set itself afire.

    Further, human habitations, now interspersed in forested and tree-lined communities everywhere, are constructed with fuel for fires. House fires can be contained if a single home goes up, but are uncontrollable when a wall of intense heat flows toward a neighborhood. Homes are fabricated with kiln-dried wood and filled with wooden furniture and cabinetry. The number of household items made of oil-based synthetic products is surprising: vinyl siding, carpets, sofas, pillows, clothing, electronics. To a raging fire, it is all just fuel. Then add the propane tank for the outdoor grill, the gas tank for the SUV, and cans of sprays and paints in the basement and homes tend to explode before a fire even reaches them.

    Interspersed with the minute by minute account of the explosive growth of the Fort McMurry fire is a detailed, and unequivocal litany of warning about human induced climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The evidence and scientific proof has been around for more than 100 years, albeit in some marginal locations. Still, by the 1950s and definitely by the 1980s, there was widespread agreement that burning fossil fuels would cause the climate to change. I was explaining this in lectures already in 1987.

    What kind of evil is embodied in corporations and individuals whose internal memos acknowledge the repercussions continued fossil fuel extraction would have on the livability of our planet? Favoring profit or people, Vaillant leaves no doubt that they paid obfuscators to confuse the public and protect their profits.

    This book, a National Book Award finalist, should be required reading, but it should also be read only on the first floor. At the end when the reader jumps out the window she can live to recommend the book to someone else.

  • A Disappearance in Fiji *** (of 4)

    Sargent Akal Singh has been banished to desk duty in Fiji. The year is 1915 and Britain rules its colonies with guile, brutality, and economic mastery. Singh, the educated son of an Indian villager figures his one way out and upward is to become a policeman. Sikhs are respected by the British, and expected to fulfill that role. He is sent to Hong Kong, but after a professional misstep lands in Fiji.

    Befriended by a native Fijian on the police force and a compassionate English doctor, but overseen by a condescending British officer, Singh is sent to wrap up a case of a missing Indian “coolie” woman. Wealthy British plantation owners imported hundreds of indentured Indians to work sugarcane fields without pay. Living conditions for Indian laborers, we learn in great detail, are miserable, and British overseers mete out punishments and abuse without fear of accountability or retribution. A missing Indian woman should be meaningless, but Akal Singh, and his friends, are so conscientious and likable that we root for their success while learning about colonialism in very personal ways.

  • Free by Lea Ypi *** (of 4)

    Lea Ypi is now a distinguished professor of political theory at the London School of Economics. She wanted to describe for readers what life in her native Albania, the last “purely” communist country aside from North Korea, was like prior to its conversion to a more democratic society. Ypi (pronounced Ooopie) begins each chapter with a vignette from her childhood and finishes each with an analysis of political forces at stake. We learn the rules of queuing for rationed commodities; the artistic and status value of owning a smuggled coke can; how the tensions of career paths assigned by the state, rather than chosen, wore down her parents’ marriage; and how something called an unalterable “biography” was deterministic for navigating society.

    It is not clear why each story has to be seen through the eyes of young girl, but I think Ypi is doing more than personalizing her experience for readers. She is writing more than a memoir. What she is saying, is that when the State decides what you can do for a living, what you can purchase in a store, or where you can live it infantilizes all of its citizens.

    For much of the book, Ypi overlooks heinous actions of Albania’s secret police. That overshadowing is made up for by her critique of capitalism. Albanians were not paralyzed by too much choice, never had to face the difficulty of desiring more than they needed, so no one, she claims, ever really felt poor. Health care and education were available to all. In fact, societal divisions caused by class, sex, or race were theoretically abolished by the communist state. By comparison the inequality meted out by the dog-eat-dog competitiveness of capitalism feels hopelessly unjust. The rich get richer and the poor seem never to break free.

    In the end, Ypi’s comparison of Marxism and capitalism criticizes both systems. Under Marxism, man dominates his fellow man. Under capitalism, it’s the other way around.

  • The House is on Fire by Rachel Beanland *** (of 4)

    Historically accurate, this is a fictional recounting of an 1811 fire in Richmond, Virginia that consumed a theater and scores of patrons inside. A young nation was shocked by the size of the disaster and it was front page news from north to south. Beanland personalizes the story by tracing the paths of four primary characters, who among them bring to light the inequalities imposed by race, class, and sex. An inordinate number of women burned to death when they were pushed aside by bigger, stronger, more privileged men. The theater company, which was ultimately responsible for allowing lit candles to ignite sets of oil-painted canvas did its best to point the finger at torch-bearing enslaved Africans encircling the theater in the dark. The enslaved, they said, wanted to start an insurrection. Only there were no enslaved Africans outside the theater. Nevertheless, Richmond’s citizens and politicians — Richmond was going to be the future capital of the Confederate States of America for a reason — did not let facts prevent them from setting out posses to round up any enslaved Africans it thought necessary. Which is to say any person of color would do.

    Better than most historical fiction writers, Beanland’s ample research appears innocuously. You never feel like she found a fact that she felt she just had to include. And yet a little more than half way through the suspense regarding whether the theater troupe’s rouse will succeed sags, and like theater goers attending a play that’s a little too long, we wonder how many more acts there are still to come.

  • Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah **** (of 4)

    Gurnah won the 2022 Nobel Prize for literature and it is evident why in Afterlives, a vision of life on the ground in East Africa under German occupation. As the 19th century was drawing to a close, the eastern seaboard of the continent was carved up and ingested by Germany, Great Britain, Italy, and France. Before swallowing they chewed up natives in ground wars that rolled across towns, ports, and villages.

    Gurnah follows a family of Indian muslims and a couple of indigenous Tanzanians who we get to know on an individual basis as they go about their daily business. They get jobs, some learn to read and write, they pray in the mosque if they are religious, they have marriages (good and bad), sometimes join the Germans in their war making, and sometimes do their best to escape the dehumanization of German attacks on resistant villagers and their chiefs.

    Gurnah delivers exquisitely close attention to details: the warmth of the Indian Ocean on an evening walk, the fear of isolation when a child must sleep on a dirt floor knowing that in the morning an uncaring guardian will again demand a full day of exhausting chores, and the satisfaction of finally consummating a marriage after a painfully long delay. An era, a location, and a melange of complicated people are all painted in vivid color. A leaf doesn’t fall whose importance Gurnah fails to notice and yet he never includes like a single word more than is needed.