• The Art Thief by Michael Finkel **** (of 4)

    The book opens by letting readers know that Stephane Breitwieser is probably the most successful art thief that has ever lived. He has been captured and some of his stolen art recovered. Because we know what has been done and who did it at the very beginning, subtler questions become the subject of the book. The first question of how he accomplished art thefts across Europe on three of every four weekends for years on end. Second is why? Breitwieser never sold anything he stole. He simply stored it in his one room flat and adored it. Art, he said, brought him unfathomable joy. Evidently, so did theft.

    But even subtler questions are on offer as this tight little book moves along. How is the value of art determined? If Breitwieser’s collection was worth upward of $2 billion, according to whom? If a private collector buys a rare masterpiece and hides it from the public in his bedroom is that so different from Breitwieser’s crimes? Most vexing of all is the definition of stolen art. Were Breitwieser’s thefts any more criminal than the British Museum’s acquisition of the Elgin Marbles or rare objects taken from Egypt’s tombs? Are millionaire collectors who fail to complete thorough investigations of an object’s provenance purchased from a dealer who might not have asked all the right questions any less culpable?

  • 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.

  • Taste: My Life Through Food *** (of 4)

    Beginning with his childhood in the 1960s suburbs of New York City and continuing through the pandemic, Tucci traces his own growth as an eater, cook, actor, and professional name-dropper. His mother, obviously an exceptional Italian cook, introduced him to the joy of eating and the power of a home cooked meal to bring people together. His book covers the same decades that Americans discovered food-ism, initiated by black & white transmissions of Julia Childs, an early influencer on the young Stanley.

    Tucci’s recounting of family conversations before, during, and after meals feels universal, and are hysterical. Take your time to savor the interaction of Tucci’s adult sister and their mother, now a grandmother, as each, tries their hardest to offer food as a proxy for love to the other. Mother and daughter are confronted by the other’s obstinate refusals to accept, even so much as a small package of cheese. “Why, should I take this?” they each retort at some point during a prolonged and testy conversation. “I have plenty of food of my own, already at home.”

    Tucci’s descriptions of his favorite foods made me want to convert to Italian on the spot, and for a while, pushed me toward becoming an unapologetic carnivore. Until, that is, his description of slaughtering and roasting a suckling pig persuaded me to stick to cannellini beans as my primary source of protein.

  • A Fever in the Heartland by Timothy Egan **** (of 4)

    Following more than 100,000 American casualties in WWI and the death of 450,000 Americans from viral influenza in 1918, most Americans roared into the 1920s with abandon. They drank, they danced to America’s indigenous musical invention – Black jazz, they smooched in the back seats of cars and in public. The backlash from Christian Nationalists was swift, brutal, and shockingly widespread across the heartland.

    By the early 20s, Indiana alone boasted more than 400,000 Klansmen, Klanswomen, and KlansKiddies. Colorado, Texas, Pennsylvania added hundreds of thousands more. The Klan grew in status and popularity under the spell of D.C. Stephenson: a fabulist with no allegiance to truth, an abuser of women, an orator who reflected the fears and desires of white Americans concerned for the purity of “their” nation, a money-hungry businessman anxious to make the next deal, a strong desire to become America’s dictator, a virulent anti-woke activist who said clearly and repeatedly that America was threatened by Jews, Catholics, foreigners, and especially Blacks, and a politician who dominated and controlled other politicians. Ultimately, Stephenson said aloud, and believed completely, that he was above the law.

    Timothy Egan never mentions any contemporary politicians with similar proclivities, but makes clear that Stephenson was as much a man of his time and place as he was a leader of it. In response to Reconstruction, the Klan and Jim Crow were born. In the 1920s, the Klan rose again. In the 1940s, as Ultra makes clear, American Nazis were more prevalent in society and in Congress than most of us realize. For those who care about the rights of racial, ethnic, sexual minorities, and others deemed unacceptable, Timothy Egan’s well-told history is a reminder that vigilance remains a necessity in America.

  • Ducks by Kate Beaton *** (of 4)

    Newly graduated from college with artistic talent, a liberal arts degree, and a mountain of college loans, 21-year-old Kate Beaton departs her economically depressed home in the Canadian maritimes in search of work and income to pay down her debts. Like many other Canadians, she emigrates to the land of big salaries, the oil sands of Alberta.

    Ducks is a coming of age story endured by many college graduates who combine wanderlust, a can-do attitude, and the immortality of being young. Not unsurprisingly she faces isolation, loneliness, and the exhaustion of trying to adapt while working as hard as she can in a new land far from home.

    But Kate is also immersed in a sea of roughnecked men in a frozen, dark wasteland bearing little semblance to a balanced society. The level of sexual aggressiveness and mistreatment directed at the few female employees is appallingly high and carefully rendered in cartoon characterizations, generally six panels per page for more than 400 pages. While the book’s title might refer to a band of migratory ducks poisoned in a waste-tailings pond, it probably also refers to the author’s position as a “sitting duck” hunted by predatory miners far from their own families, hope, or the restrictions of normal civilization.

    Separating men from women, implies the author, in mining camps, college dormitories, the army, or by religious restriction is likely to lead to sexual degradation of women, LGBTQ+, and anyone with perceived or conceived weakness.

  • Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar **** (of 4)

    The title says the book is a novel, but the voice is the author’s and the story is about his life. News events, timelines, and characters are real and it is impossible to discern when fact is being replaced by fiction which makes the story only that much more intriguing. Akhtar’s elegies, generally defined as serious poetic odes to the dead are largely long form, stand alone descriptions of his life in America: the American born, Muslim son of Pakistani immigrants.

    His father loves America, his mother not as much. The laments are for the losses of home back in Pakistan as seen through rose colored glasses of hindsight; for the breakdown of a relationship between father and son; a father’s loss of his bearings as a doctor in the United States; a mother’s loss of health offset by his parents pride and befuddlement at a son who succeeds in America as a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. Akhtar’s plays have won Pulitzers and his ability to write a scene and fill it with authentic dialog feels so realistic it is hard to imagine it was conceived by an author and not simply filmed on the spot.

    Running the full length of the book are the tribulations of being Muslim in a country in the throes of deep anti-Muslim sentiment. Akhtar’s recounting of his experience in Manhattan on 9/11, what he endures upon being pulled over by a state trooper near Wilkes Barre, PA, or how Trump gave voice to anti-Muslim attackers are horrifying.

    His conclusion about America is subtle and surprising. While he makes a decent case that our country was founded by Christians for Christians, he makes a stronger case that our true object of worship is money and that the drive to acquire monetary status at the personal, political, and corporate levels of society are insatiable and insidious.

  • Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe ** (of 4)

    Keefe is the author of a couple of other books I thought were terrific (Empire of Pain, Say Nothing), but not this one. A staff writer for the New Yorker, Rogues is a collection of his previously published, long form essays bound together. Chapter after chapter we meet bad guys – white-collar crooks, narcos, fraudsters, arms merchants, and so on. Taken alone, each malcontent is pretty interesting, but Keefe starts each story letting you know at the outset what terrible deeds have been perpetrated. That doesn’t leave a lot of mystery while you plow through scores of pages to learn more, and more, about the same detail you were made aware of in the opening paragraphs. By the time you’ve read five or six of these stories, each one of which running out of steam about three-fourths through, you might wonder to yourself how many more bad guys you need to need to meet at one time.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • The Queen by Josh Levin ** (of 4)

    In principle, the story of Linda Taylor, the woman stuck with the appellation of America’s Welfare Queen, upon whom so much political scorn has been laid is worthy of a solid retelling. She is reviled by all working class taxpayers for her rampant and rambunctious fleecing of America’s welfare systems. Ronald Reagan made her infamous as he campaigned for President, mentioning the Welfare Queen as representative of all that was wrong with government in America. Linda Taylor had amassed scores of aliases, ID cards, addresses, social security numbers, and heartbreaking sob stories in pursuit of tens of thousands of dollars and Reagan repeated that description every chance he got.

    Buried beneath Reagan’s rhetoric, but not very deeply, was the implication that People of Color were primarily, and as a group, collectively, foregoing work in favor of taking free money supplied by lower-class, hard-working, white Americans. Reagan relied upon racism in place of either research or data. It worked then and continues to work now.

    Complicating the story still further was Linda Taylor’s background story as the child of mixed-race parentage in the South where miscegenation was illegal and the product of such a relationship was to be shunned at all costs. The Supreme Court did not strike down laws forbidding Blacks and Whites to marry until 1967 and many southern states sill support the rights of businesses and churches to deny services to mixed-race couples. In some ways, becoming a con-woman was a smart business move on Taylor’s part and she succeeded to such a degree that she seems to have lost all touch with reality or the truth, shifting stories about who she was or what she was up to on the turn of a dime. As a world-class con-artist without regard for veracity she reminds me of a very recent president.

    The Queen is meticulously researched. Every crime on Taylor’s long list is evaluated in full detail and therein lies the downfall of the book. It is gruelingly detailed.