• 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.

  • Eastbound by Maylis De Kerangal *** (of 4)

    A group of Russian men have just been conscripted into the Army. They are on the trans-Siberian railroad crossing more than 8 time zones toward their first training facility in the frozen East. Twenty-year-old Aliocha expects to be hazed, have his genitals burned with cigarettes, made to lick toilets, and maybe raped when he arrives at training camp. Along the fever-dream of an unending train ride he decides to desert. He makes an ally in Helene a French woman twice his age. Helene is AWOL herself, running from a Russian man she loved in France, but after joining him in his own country, realizes she is suffocating.

    Helene speaks no Russian, Aliocha speaks no French and yet they communicate and together hide from from a vicious Russian commander anxious to locate his escaping conscript. The pair are confined inside a train for hours and days until night and day blur. They are trapped inside their heads unable to make their fears and anxieties fully known because of a language barrier. Still, they work together. A novella that clicks along at 60 Km/hour, not too fast and not too slow. (A New York Times top 10 book for 2023.)

  • 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.

  • A Line in the Sand by Kevin Powers ** (of 4)

    A recently executed body shows up on a beach in Norfolk, Virginia, home to military bases and private military contractors. As the police and a local newspaper reporter investigate, both the murderee and murderer are enveloped in a secret world of caught up in black-ops and shady deals being made between politicians in D.C. and private companies to whom the U.S. government is outsourcing its 2004 nwar in Iraq. The coded language used by police and military personnel feel like they are being recorded without translation and their authenticity is appealing. Likewise, the hunt for the killers is genuinely suspenseful

    Readers tend to love or hate Kevin Powers’ writring style (Check out the entry on Powers in Wikipedia to see what reviewers thought of his first book on the Iraq War.) The New York Times review loved A Line in the Sand:

    First and foremost, “A Line in the Sand” is a stunning novel. Kevin Powers provides what any discerning reader desires the most — complex and flawed characters, precise use of language, succinct description and believable dialogue.

    I put myself in the not-so-impressed with Powers camp. His characters all have names like Tim, Sally, and John and his dialogue carries the same lack of originality, in my opinion. His characters are simple and inconsistent. Sally, the reporter, is a hopeless alcoholic mourning the loss of her brother in the Iraq war. She starts drinking when her morning alarm rings and continues on her way to work in the morning. She is prone to inconsolable crying. Once her editor gives her free reign to investigate the murder case, however, she doesn’t remember to drink a drop of alcohol for the remaining 80 percent of the book. As Dave Eggers said about Powers writing, he never misses an opportunity to insert an adjective. Characters don’t just look up in exasperation, they look up at the sky. Usually they look up at a blue sky in exasperation. I found myself doing the same.

  • Cheap Land Colorado by Tim Conover ** (of 4)

    There is a part of the dry flatlands of Colorado called the San Luis Valley where five acres of land can be purchased for a couple of thousand dollars. There is no electrical grid, sewerage, and in most places no running water. Nevertheless, the appeal of owning one’s own land acts as an outdoor lamp to moths for Americans who are poor, drug-addicted, paroled, angry, deeply religious, paranoid, anti-government conspiracists, or mentally unstable in complicated ways. Ted Conover is an immersion journalist who purchases a piece of property and a trailer and braves the ferocious dogs that seem to surround each shack or trailer and makes an effort to talk to his neighbors.

    At his best, Conover humanizes a cadre of people who have stepped outside the normal confines of civilization. We learn that there is a great deal of pain, destitution, and untreated mental disease in an otherwise prosperous country. What he does less well is research and history. He tried to explain how real estate developers came to own the land they are selling, but I still don’t get it. He has part of a chapter about murders that have happened in the area for the last 100 years, but I’m not sure why we should care. Most troubling is the absence of any real arc to his story or take away message. Conover goes back and forth from his east coast university job to his trailer in Colorado and records interviews, but there isn’t any evident beginning, middle, or end to the book.

    To his credit, Conover is bringing to light how challenging life can be in America, but the frustrations and misery of the off-gridders doesn’t seem especially unique to Colorado. His subjects can be found just as readily in Philadelphia, Sacramento, or probably within ten blocks of his job at NYU.

  • Birnham Wood by Eleanor Catton *** (of 4)

    The premise is simple enough. A guerilla environmental group in New Zealand, calling itself Birnham Wood, illegally plants gardens on vacant properties. As you would expect, the group is anti-Capitalist, barely operating on a shoestring budget, shares its produce with low income families, and is mostly run by women: visionary, competent, egalitarian, and occasionally, passively catty. Their ethics are challenged when an American billionaire looking to construct a doomsday bunker for himself in New Zealand offers to bankroll Birnham Wood on property he has just purchased on the edge of a National Park.

    Should Birnham Wood take the money and after four years of insolvency finally enjoy stability and national recognition for their good efforts? Are they just being used as a publicity screen for a screwball capitalist bully? Are the billionaire’s intentions reliable or is greenwashing the sale of New Zealand real estate to foreigners a fair tradeoff? Can a non-profit with no hierarchical structure and some strong personalities hold itself together?

    It’s a little weird that the author tells us many things that characters are thinking that they do not even know about themselves, but page after page, intentions, whether overt or handed to us by the writer turn darker and what begins as enviros versus the rich spins into something much deeper.

  • 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.