• 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.

  • Goodbye, Eastern Europe *** (of 4)

    It is an enormous undertaking to try and explain the people, cultures, and kaleidoscopic national identities of a region as large as Eastern Europe. Jacob Mikanowski does as good a job as one person can do in a single volume. Beginning in prehistory, Mikanowski really settles in with the establishments of the overlapping and interdigitated religions of the region: pagans, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. For centuries communities and traditions have often lived alongside one another united by common languages while empires have redefined their borders.

    The Austro-Hungarians, the Hapsburgs, the Soviets, Poles, Yugoslavians, and Prussians in various iterations and sizes have laid claim to Roma settlements, shtetls, Byzantine churchyards, and people who might speak Ukrainian, a dialect of Hungarian, Yiddish, or who think of themselves as Albanian Muslims, Montenegrans, Latvians, Croats, or Romanians, but in any given century find themselves living in a country not the same as the one their parents or grandparents knew.

    In most parts of Eastern Europe, regions and cultures have not undergone the historical nation-making impositions claimed by Western Europe that made countries like Germany, France, and Spain what they are. (That being said, tribal fractionation is still alive and divisive in Great Britain, Belgium, Catalonia, Basque country, and so on.) This history of an enormous region is at once comprehensive and necessarily superficial, focusing on geopolitical machinations and the lives of men. Women and the daily lives of peasants are largely absent, because to include them would be another book, another volume. Still, having a spotlight swept around Eastern Europe is exceptionally informative.

  • The Pigeon Tunnel by John LeCarre *** (of 4)

    Nearing the end of a long and terrifically prodigious career as a writer, Le Carre assembled here the true events that undergird his novels. He revels in his encounters with world leaders and events of the 20th century. He meets Yasser Arafat amidst heavily armed bodyguards, dines with Soviet exile Andrei Sakharov, skis with the actor Alec Guinness, takes a field trip to meet African warlords, hob knobs with KGB intelligence officials, tours the killing fields of Cambodia, interviews jailed terrorists, kvetches at length about his low-life father, and generally downplays his early days as a spy for British intelligence as being insignificant.

    Every one of his stories is compelling, and quite often humorous, for their air of authenticity and authority. Each vignette is assembled with the care and precision of a master novelist. Yet, because Le Carre has passed his entire life as a fabulist — first as a spy and then as a novelist — lingering above each tale is a question of whether every event is reconstructed with full honesty. Near the end of the book, Le Carre hints that he is not a totally trustworthy storyteller, and a posthumously published biography claims that Le Carre used his skills as a liar and deceiver to philander with multiple mistresses. But, you know what? It doesn’t matter: The Pigeon Tunnel is a great read. The audiobook is read by the author, who is a master of impersonations, bringing his counterparts to life as he meets them one by one.

  • Homegrown by Jeffrey Toobin ** (of 4)

    Toobin can be a captivating writer; he is one of the greats at uncovering the backstories of a variety of criminals and noteworthy trials: OJ Simpson, Patty Hearst, Donald Trump, the Gore vs. Bush election, Bill Clinton, and the make-up of the Supreme Court.

    Which is why it is surprising that he missed the mark with this book. No question that Timothy McVeigh was one of America’s most successful and by Toobin’s accounting, one of its first domestic terrorists. On April 19, 1995 he drove a truck bomb to the front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and blew it up, killing 168 people including 19 children in the building’s daycare facility.

    He was motivated by rightwing radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and the conspiracy theories that circulated amongst politicians. Shock jocks and their supporters pedaled lies about government overreach and suggested in rather stark terms that only patriots and other defenders of the second amendment could save the nation. Toobin draws a direct and clear line from McVeigh to the treasonous revolutionaries that stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Men and women who attacked the Capitol were also spurred forward by a new generation of right-wing conspiracists and a new generation of communication, social media, but recycled the same dogmas that led to McVeigh.

    It is an important arrow pointing at how dangerously thin the line is between election deniers, second amendment fanatics, Newtown skeptics (Alex Jones acolytes) and their proclivity toward violence.

    But Toobin makes two mistakes. The first is subtle. He implies that McVeigh was the first right-winger of his ilk, overlooking McCarthyism, Silver Shirts, American Nazis, the KKK, and White Supremacists some of whom have been around since colonists considered Native Americans subhumans. The line leading to January 6 is twisty, but continuous, and a lot longer than Toobin is willing to admit. In a single toss away line he points to the Tulsa Race massacre of 1921 as having killed as many as died in Oklahoma.

    The first half of the book is a thorough biography of Timothy McVeigh from birth to bombing with thorough detailing of the years, months, days, and minutes leading up to the bombing. Then, because he cannot resist describing courtroom proceedings, Toobin repeats everything we have already learned as it was presented by prosecuting and defending attorneys. One recounting, or half the book, would have been enough.

  • Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen Guelzo *** (of 4)

    Tens of thousands of books have been written about the Civil War, and thousands have covered one of the most significant battles of the conflict: the invasion of Gettysburg by General Lee and his confederate rebels and its defense by the Army of the Potomac. I read this book in preparation for an insider’s tour of the battlefield I was given by Dr. Carol Reardon.

    Guelzo’s take is to zoom in on the experience of less well-known officers beneath the famous Generals Lee and Meade and then to zoom in further to the experience of individual soldiers.

    General Lee’s objective was to invade the north and by so doing create enough carnage and dissent among anti-war Northeners that he could draw them to the negotiating table. Lee’s counterpart, General McClellan of the Army of the Potomac, was widely popular among soldiers and politicians, but on a field of battle so cautious that he avoided every opportunity to fight. Just three days before the face-to-face meeting at a crossroads in Pennsylvania, following McClellan’s dismissal, George Meade was appointed General of the American army.

    The three days of battle in the heat of July turned on a hundred small calculations, luck, ineptitude, and fortunate timing. The outcome was so closely contested that a single successful artillery barrage or an attack begun five minutes earlier or later could have altered the outcome.

    On the battlefield, Guelzo makes us feel the challenge of moving roughly a hundred thousand men on each side across scores of miles of countryside to take up position. Then he explains what a soldier had to endure, marching day and night without rest, proper nutrition, or kit before being dumped directly into battle. Guelzo also explains that guns were far from accurate and that compensation for an inability to aim accurately or see an enemy through a dense fog of gunsmoke was to fire a hailstorm of bullets. Trees were stripped of leaves and branches. Artillery blasted away. Men were torn to shreds in an age before the discovery of germs or antiseptics; horses were broken and discarded like so many tanks.

    Reading between the lines, the political adeptness of Lincoln is exceptional in holding together his coalition. The primary goal of the northern states was to preserve the union, not necessarily abolish slavery. Furthermore, many Americans in the north objected far more to Lincoln’s policies of warfare, were opposed to the Emancipation Proclamation, and were more interested in continuing their economic partnerships with southern producers (read slave owners) than in paying taxes to fund a war.

    Unfortunately, Guelzo clearly does not like General Meade and fails to give him credit for expertly deploying his forces to fend off General Lee’s attack.

    Above, the field across which Pickett led the famous last charge of the rebellious south at Gettysburg.

  • Properties of Thirst by Marianne Wiggins *** (of 4)

    An ambitious book that centers the Owen’s Valley in California, the valley’s desertification following rerouting all of the valley’s water to Los Angeles, and the placement of the Japanese internment camp, Manzanar, in the midst of the dusty, isolated desert. A lone holdout rancher, Rocky Rhodes, refuses to cooperate with the water boys from LA. He is joined by his twin sister, Casswell, his wife (who is already dead by the time the book opens), and his two children: Sunny and Stryker. (Get it: Rocky Roads, Sunny Roads?). The Rhodes’s come from old waspy money back east.

    Schiff, a nebish of a Jew, with a big conscience, from Chicago is charged with building a camp — really a ghetto — for 10,000 American citizens forced to abandon their jobs and homes with nothing more than what they are wearing and could carry in their hands. Sunny and Schiff have eyes for one another, Sunny is an indomitable chef in the middle of nowhere, Nature (with a capital N) in the desert and in the nearby Sierras is a character in its own right, and Japanese prisoners of war stagger through the indignities of living behind barbed wire.

    Wiggins is a master story teller and a wizard with words, but may have taken on too many themes to do sufficient justice to all of them in one book.

  • Robert E. Lee and Me by Ty Seidule *** (of 4)

    The author, Ty Seidule, is a professor of history at West Point. That gives him real cache when he says the southern states lost the Civil War but won the battle for the narrative that followed. The South, he argues, maintains a perception that the war was over “states rights,” that the north won only because of overwhelming financial resources and personnel (the north also used unfair tactics, they claim), and that the really brave and heroic military commanders were southerners, most notably, Robert E. Lee.

    Seidule was raised in the south and growing up wanted nothing more than to become an upstanding southern Christian gentleman in the mold of Lee. Gentelmanliness was another myth of the Lost Cause, that southern life before the Civil War was best depicted in Gone With the Wind: iced tea sipped quaintly on the wide porches of antebellum plantations by women in wide skirts attended by chivalrous men.

    As Seidule makes clear in his introduction, the more research he has done, the more shocked he is by the effectiveness of southern propaganda. Plantations are nothing more than enslaved labor work camps. The Civil War followed a free and fair election that displeased the south so much, they started an insurrection and fought a bloody war against the United States Army. From that perspective, no southerner deserves a statue or recognition of any kind, and yet as he digs into the records, he sees that enslaved girls and women were subjected to sexual violence at will by southern gentlemen, and for decades, onto today, black men and women face an unfair electoral and judicial system of terrifying efficiency.

    His point is made early enough in the book that reading the whole thing may not be necessary. Worse still, at the very opening, he admits that southerners wedded to Lost Cause mythology have rarely if ever been persuaded to change their perceptions when presented with facts.

  • Grandma Gatewood’s Walk *** (of 4)

    In 1955, when the Appalachian Trail (AT) was still in its infancy, Emma Gatewood walked its full length, 2050 miles from Mount Oglethorpe, Georgia to Mount Kathadin, Maine. She was 67 years old, a great grandmother, and did it solo. Her 11 adult children only found out after she was gone for several weeks and had already walked 800 miles.

    What is most striking about her walk is not her age nor intrepidity, though her courage and fortitude were boundless, but rather how simple she made it all seem. She sewed her own knapsack and filled it with less than 20 pounds of stuff. She hiked in sneakers and dungarees and slept on the ground on piles of leaves when she couldn’t find a lean-to. Almost without exception, whenever she appeared on someone’s doorstep, strangers welcomed her and fed her. Everything about her hike seemed matter-of-fact, because that was Gatewood’s attitude: put one foot in front of the other, a useful philosophy for living.

    It is hard to believe there was a time in America when hikers did not bear high-tech equipment or post selfies from every peak. It is just as hard to remember a time when a bedraggled stranger could arrive at someone’s door and expect to be offered a meal, a shower, and a bed.

  • The Poison Machine *** (of 4)

    Some authors of historical fiction (see Geraldine Brooks) are so caught up by their research that plot and characters are afterthoughts or cliches applied to hold together what really ought to be nonfiction. Robert J. Lloyd, in contrast, paints 1679 England, and in this caper, France, too, with effortless ease. Homing in on a mysterious murder of the Queen’s dwarf, the author sets Robert Hooke and his assistant Harry Hunt on the investigatory trail. They are a perfect duo, because Hooke was, in real life, one of the first scientists of modern history. He and Hunt use the scientific method and are slowly breaking the shackles of one thousand years of church indoctrination.

    Roiling in the background are deadly conflicts between Anglicans and Papists. Isaac Newton makes a guest appearance as do other scientists of the day while poor Harry, in love with Hooke’s niece, Grace, has to uncover the mystery of the murder while learning to stand on his own two feet. The plot is preposterous and believable at the same time and local color is imparted so seemlessly that the somewhat complex question of how the dwarf met his demise is not that important.