Age of Ambition by Edward Osnos *** (of 4)

 Asia, Book Reviews, NON FICTION, Prize Winner  Comments Off on Age of Ambition by Edward Osnos *** (of 4)
Aug 272015

age of ambitionPieced together from Osnos’s eight years of reports on China filed with the New Yorker, Age of Ambition comes together as a complete painting of modern China’s rocky transition to modernity.  Half a billion people have moved to China’s cities in pursuit of capitalism’s greatest prize: wealth.  The Chinese government is gambling that the delivery of free enterprise can be exchanged for political stability and to ensure the trade goes well the Communist party forbids freedom of speech and the freedom to organize in protest on anything larger than a municipal level.  Osnos focuses on the problems: jailed artists, tortured civil rights leaders, a rising desire for a moral compass, and unrelenting press censorship implying that beneath China’s meteoric economic ascent lies deep instability.  It is hard to know to what extent Osnos has selected stories of the elite and overlooked an even deeper satisfaction among a generation of Chinese liberated from the threat of starvation and really quite happy to forego some freedom in order to have enough money for McDonald’s and the Internet, even if key websites are blocked.  Some of the key interviewees argue rather persuasively that because nothing published in China’s media is reliable, and everyone knows that, Chinese people are much more skeptical consumers of news than Americans who all to readily believe that drinking Coke can make you happy, driving a new car can make you sexy, and whatever their politicians say must be true.

The Son by Philipp Meyer **** (of 4)

 America, Audio Book, Book Reviews, FICTION, FOUR STARS ****, History  Comments Off on The Son by Philipp Meyer **** (of 4)
Aug 272015

the sonThis history of Texas is told through the lives of four generations of the McCullough family.  Eli, the patriarch, is captured by Comanches as an adolescent in the 1840s, and lives as an Indian for three years.  Learning about Comanches as real people is as interesting as coming to understand, say, Kazahks, Bantus, or Serbs.  These Comanches are conniving, jealous, courageous, jokesters trying to stave off white settlers with thoughtfulness, wisdom, and blunder.  Eli’s son is neighbored by Mexicans, raises cattle, and begets generations who make it big in the Texas oil boom.  To list the family tree, however, makes The Son feel like a tedious long biography.  On the contrary, the stories of each generation are told concurrently with suspense and drama while the history of Texas bravado and hubris unfolds behind it.  Bison are hunted to extinction, water is used to exhaustion, Mexicans are demolished and yet return, and the question of the McCullough’s self-selected prestige hangs in the balance.  The audiobook performers are outstanding.

Some fermentation and some not

 Sourdoughs and SCOBYs  Comments Off on Some fermentation and some not
Aug 022015





From left to right are an empty pot of rooibos tea, a Japanese green-tea fermenting into kombucha, and an exceptionally delicious experiment Isaac ran.  He ground coffee and using cold filtered water (second from right) and tap water (right) let the coffee brew for twenty-four hours before filtering and refrigerating.  The result was a very smooth, espresso-like drink that has been just the ticket for hot summer afternoons.
IMG_1457Seasonal fruits simmering on the stove: fresh strawberries, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, and a few figs.  I made a couple of quarts and they are disappearing quickly over granola and ice cream.



IMG_1489Only 941 more practice loaves to make, but I’m getting there.  Purchased some King Arthur Special Bread Flour when I exhausted my usual fare of white bread flour and found it made a huge difference.  Check out the color of these baguettes.

IMG_1493Now look at this crumb.  Not as fully riotous as it ought to be, but still better than anything I’ve made previously.







IMG_1494Turkey and avocado on a fresh baguette.  Not quite France, but almost…

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews *** (of 4)

 America, Book Reviews, Europe, FICTION, Prize Winner, Suspense  Comments Off on Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews *** (of 4)
Aug 022015

redsparrowAn American CIA agent, Nathaniel Nash, is sent to Russia to manage a key asset at the same time a Russian intelligence agent, Dominika Egerova, is tasked with spying on Nate.  While each attempts to seduce the other into becoming a double agent, without, of course, giving up their real identities, they also fight not to commit the cardinal error of falling truly in love.  The author, Jason Matthews, is a former CIA operative himself so the tradecraft described in great detail rings uncannily true.  Likewise, his description of CIA personalities and Vladimir Putin’s Soviet style directives of Russian secret services feels like a peek into world that must be going on all the time without our ever knowing.  Matthews won an Edgar award for best first novel and his second book starring the same two spies, Palace of Treason, has just been published.

Summer breads

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Jul 092015

(null)I haven’t finished a lot of books lately.  Started a few, but instead of reading to the end, I have been baking.  Somehow, summertime is great for dinner sandwiches, bread and salads, and just plain warm bread dipped in olive oil.  To get a sense of what a five-plus pounder looks like, compare this loaf to the full-size dinner plate in the upper left.


They say great bakers make a thousand baguettes before they get them right.  I’m getting closer.  I got the shape, length, and slashes right on these three.  The crumb should be a riot of different size holes as gases inside the dough explode and stretch gluten in every possible direction inside the super hot oven.  My crumb was better than usual, but not yet something that’s photo worthy.  Also these are a little pale.  Tasty though.baguettes

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry *** (of 5)

 Book Reviews, FICTION  Comments Off on The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry *** (of 5)
Jun 182015

fikryA fluffy little book with likeable enough characters, a soap-opera plot, and enough references to classic book titles that prove the author not only paid attention in class, but was surely one of the kids that preferred to be reading than anything else.  A.J. Fikry, a grumpy owner of an independent bookstore on an island off Cape Cod that can only be Martha’s Vineyard, is headed for death by drinking and the general slovenly-ness that befalls men who do not have women to keep them in order when he is handed a surprise that turns his life about.  The surprise reads classic books, makes others read classic books, reignites Fikry’s passion for classic books, and former English majors reading Zevin’s text will feel smug because they will happily catch all the references to their days when they, too, should have been paying attention in class.

Jun 142015

TheBoysintheBoatOn the face of it an uplifting story of a group of eight hayseeds from Washington state who come together to become the world’s best rowing team.  They stand for all that is good in America — hard work, optimism, rags-to-riches, democracy, talent, and above all a can-do attitude — when they compete for gold in Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics.  Brown’s writing is so evocative that you can feel the cold wind on Lake Washington during a late-fall practice, endure the doubt inside the mind of every student-rower anxious about paying for an upcoming semester during the height of the great depression, crane your neck watching a tight race, and in the end, when all goes right, fly on a boat with eight oarsmen working in perfect synchrony.  You really do want these guys to beat the Nazis.

Barbecued Green Garlic Toast

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Jun 142015

(null) (1)We started with a two-day-old, no-knead light rye bread baked with millet and oat groats.  After painting each slice with olive oil, we toasted them on the grill.  Then we schmeared each toast with a compound butter with chopped, spring garlic scapes, minced chives, and grated parmesan following the recipe set by Melissa Clark in the New York Times.  We ate so many we almost couldn’t eat dinner.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis *** (of 4)

 African American Literature, America, Book Reviews, FICTION, History  Comments Off on The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis *** (of 4)
Jun 042015

hattiejpg-3519a9cd782a1f72This first novel captures the bleak experience of Hattie, the black mother of a dozen kids, who has come north as part of The Great Migration.  Escaping Jim Crow south to settle in Philadelphia and struggling to keep her head above a rising tide of poverty, poor relationships, wayward children, and a philandering husband, we read a series of loosely tied short stories about each of Hattie’s children.  The painted pictures are rich with detail and character but poor Hattie is the bible’s Job.  She is tested over and over and while she manages to maintain her pride, I was beaten down in the process.

The Nazis Next Door by Eric Lichtblau (no rating)

 Book Reviews, History, Nazis, NON FICTION  Comments Off on The Nazis Next Door by Eric Lichtblau (no rating)
Jun 042015

nazisEven before WW II came to a close the United States was already preparing to admit Nazis into the country.  The horror, of course, is that even though the practice lasted for years beyond the war’s conclusion, Jews who had survived the devastation were still isolated in concentration camps and camps for displaced persons.  Palestine, the U.K., and the U.S. forbid their entry.  Unfortunately, Lichtblau is so blinded by his outrage that he fails to paint a larger picture.  He never explains why American leaders were so obsessed by their anti-Communism that they felt it essential to employ every possible weapon at their disposal to stave off the Russians.  Those weapons included nuclear warheads, proxy wars around the globe, spies of every type, dirty tricks, and the drafting of former Nazis (before the Russians could draft the same ones) to develop even more aggressive tactics.  Rather than feeling unabated anger over American cohabitation with arch enemies, I was left wanting to know more about the anti-Communist mania that overtook the country.  It does not help that Lichtblau considers every Nazi party member to have been a mass killer.  No doubt, some were integral parts of the Nazi killing machine, but not every party member is a full supporter of every policy any more than every American who voted for Bush or paid her taxes or worked in his government, say a lifelong Republican worked in the Department of Commerce for 18 years, thought that America’s demolition of Iraq was a wise plan.