A trio of Meyer Lemons about to donate some juice to my Rooibos Kombucha. They say that the kombucha SCOBY really only works on a true tea (Camellia sinensis.) My SCOBY has been so happy lately that I thought I would give it a try on rooibos, which is technically a tisane, or infusion, made from the South African Red Bush. It is not a tea and my first batch fooled my SCOBY. The second batch did not really work so well. Not much fermentation to speak of.
The summer of 1927 begins with the worst rains the United States has endured in a century or more. The Mississippi has flooded millions of acres and hundreds of thousands of people are homeless and facing starvation. President Coolidge brings in the world’s most successful savior of human life since Jesus Christ, the man who almost single handedly saved western Europe from starvation during WW I. Herbert Hoover. The floods prevent a young pilot from getting out of his airfield in St. Louis and Charles Lindbergh almost doesn’t make it to New York in time to be the first person to fly the Atlantic and become the most famous individual in the world. As Lindbergh takes off from Roosevelt field on Long Island he circles over Yankee Stadium where Babe Ruth is beginning his march toward breaking the all-time home run record for one season. And we are only in May. Bryson does a remarkable job of making us eager to awaken every morning to read the daily paper just to keep abreast of what might really be one of the most compelling four months of the twentieth century.
Billy Crystal is turning 65 years old and writing his memoir. It’s one-third stand-up (far and away the best part), one-third autobiography, and one-third Hollywood hokum. Really, every famous name he drops is his best friend and a wonderful human being. His life is interesting enough. He’s a hard worker and a nice guy. You can’t help but think he would be a really pleasant dinner guest. It is his comedy, however, that makes the book worth reading, or better still, worth listening to. Several chapters are read aloud before a live audience and his take on the trials of getting old, at least for us oldsters, is painfully accurate. We have hands that look like chicken feet, balls that hang to our knees, and urinate in morse code, and more if only we could remember what it was we were talking about. Also, if you are listening, his impersonations of Muhammad Ali, Johnny Carson, Howard Cosell and other legends of the air that our children never heard of are delicious.
It is the mid 1980s in Mississippi and Seth Hubbard, a cantankerous old buzzard, and self made millionaire hangs himself. Just before setting out for a sycamore tree with a rope and a ladder, he writes a new will cutting his immediate family out of any of his inheritance. Instead, he leaves 5% to his long-lost brother, 5% to his church, and the remaining twenty-odd million dollars to his black housekeeper of only three years, Miss Lettie Lang. Grisham is the master of the legal thriller and he does not disappoint. Lawyers, Hubbard family members, relatives Lettie Lang didn’t know she had all dive at the money like birds of prey. And while the legal maneuverings informed by greed are all fascinating, what really stands apart is how unapologetically this book faces up to issues of race. Rural Mississippi, at least in the 1980s, is defined by an undying antipathy of whites toward blacks and a history of racial discrimination so embedded it borders on toxic. Grisham tells it like it is.
To ferry supplies, munitions, and personnel to the European front in WW II required skipping across allied airfields in Canada, Greenland, and Iceland. The major impediment was the weather in Greenland makes for some of the worst flying conditions in the world: violent winds, spontaneous storms, and viciously cold weather. Frozen in Time is primarily the story of a transport plane that went down in one of those storms. A rescue plane with nine crewmen is sent out to search, but it too crashes in bad weather, destroying the plane and damaging, but not killing any of its crew. Over the course of days, then weeks, then months additional rescue attempts are launched, and a third plane disappears, yet the crew from the second plane, battling frostbite, gangrene, broken bones, and depleted spirits survives for months buried in a hand-hacked ice cave on the edge of a yawning crevasse. Zuckoff does a brilliant job of keeping us on the edge of our seats. He is a little less successful in holding the tension of his secondary story: the contemporary search for the plane and men in the third plane, now buried somewhere beneath three dozen feet of ice.
Robert Harris makes his living fictionalizing famous historical events (see Pompeii). In this case, it is the end of the nineteenth century, and the French have unjustly stripped Albert Dreyfus of his rank in the French Army and disposed of him to die locked in a tin shed beneath the blazing tropical sun of Devil’s Island. It is a moment of overt anti-Semitism in France that results in a horrible miscarriage of justice that stains France ever after, and, I have to admit, an event about which I knew precious few details. Well, this book has the details, but the first half is just that, a drudge of notecards Harris must have used to construct his text. Harris presents the Dreyfus Affair through the eyes of Col. Georges Picquart, an officer who at first, following orders, assists in Dreyfus’s conviction. In the subsequent five years, however, Picquart is given the credit, in this account, for becoming a man of conscience who recognizes that Dreyfus has been framed and the Army is involved in a massive cover-up. The book does not come alive until its second half when at last it becomes a courtroom procedural. By the end, when Dreyfus is finally recalled to France, and Picquart has become France’s leading General, you are still left wondering about the larger picture. Why was France so anti-Semitic? On what evidence did Zola, Clemenceau, and their fellow Dreyfusards base their case against the government? And why do all of the main characters in Harris’ account speak with such identical, lifeless voices?
Ghosh recounts the life of a Medieval Jewish trader, Ben Yiyu, who transported goods by ship from India to Egypt. Evidence of his trader emerge on scraps of paper from the famed Egyptian geniza, a millennial trove of sacred papers in Cairo’s synagogue. In order to fill in the gaps in Ben Yiyu’s life, Ghosh moves to a small village in Egypt, and then a second nearby village, to live among the Felaheen, farmers on the Nile’s banks. It is the early 1990s and rural Egyptians are being pulled from the timeless habits of sowing seeds and tending cows to the trappings of refrigeration, TVs, and urban colleges for able youth. So with the aid of the eyes and ears of a trained anthropologist, we find ourselves immersed in the daily rhythms of growing children, greedy landlords, temperamental imams, ambitious businessmen, and village elders serving endless rounds of mint tea. It is not lost on anyone that frequently we are observing a Hindu researcher explaining to his Muslim hosts his search for information about a Jewish trader. Because men and women in traditional Islamic culture lead such separate lives, you will need to read Guests of the Sheik, if you want to get an insider’s view of female lives.
A young girl growing up in the disintegrating country of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe escapes by moving in with her aunt in Detroit, Michigan. Her account is covered in this two-part, highly autobiographical novel of life in two cultures. Part one is the joy and hunger of growing up with your friends on the streets in Zimbabwe. Darling, the main character, and her friends play outside all day long. They steal guavas from rich people to squelch their gnawing stomachs. Their clothes are torn, dirty donations. Their elders are away in South Africa searching for income or contracting HIV. Even as children, they are not nearly so ignorant of the world as we Westerners perceive: they know how to play the aid organizations, how deceptively palliative the churches are, and with surprising accuracy what opportunities exist in the U.S. Part two in some ways is more predictable. Life in America is hard for immigrants torn from the tastes, aromas, dust, and relatives back home. Darling finds American culture confined to computers, texting, shopping malls, school exams, cars, and cable. Coming of age is hard; doing so in a foreign country is harder; forsaking your homeland, even in search of opportunity, is always wrenching. The contribution of this book is its contemporary view of the experience.