The simple description is on the cover. J.D. Vance, a self-denominated hillbilly from Kentucky, describes what it took to grow up in a family devoid of education and reliable jobs, hounded by alcoholism and drug addiction, subjected to intransigent poverty, educated in mediocre schools, raised by a seemingly endless array of violent adults, and adjacent to families of nearly identical misery (each in their own way, of course.) Vance escaped. He joined the marines, went to college, earned a law degree at Yale, and became an excellent writer, who by the age of 32, could pen a memoir that gives insight into a culture as foreign to educated eastern liberals as any alien culture could be. Vance has been hailed by conservatives for his bootstrapping success and for his insistence upon calling out hillbilly culture for its own moral failures. He has been decried by left-wingers for failing to point to structural inequities in American society that make it so difficult for the poverty-stricken, black or white, to break free of their plight. The reason Vance won me over comes at the end of the book. When he asks himself what policies or programs need to be enacted to overcome the downward spiral of America’s white underclass, he responds with uncertainty. There is no simple solution, he argues.
After taking a couple of weeks off from baking to travel back from England it has taken me a while to regain my bread touch. (I am happy to report all my starters, including my newly acquired Russian Rye, ca. 1960, arrived home healthy and vigorous.) This was one of my first successes: A Semolina Ring. The semolina flour gave it an Italian bread taste and the sesame seeds, once they toasted in the oven, permeated the loaf with flavor.
The twentieth book in the series on detective Marcus Didius Falco, this one in Rome and Latium in the year 77 AD. In this mystery, Marcus, having just inherited an unexpected fortune from his father heads to the pestilential Pontine Marshes to hunt for a missing person and the reason one of his father’s payments was never collected. The marshes harbor malarial insects and the kind of marsh people, and their rabid dogs, you might expect in the remotest hollers of Kentucky. The mystery is typical of Davis’ previous Falco books. The emergence of Falco’s daughter, Flavius Alba, as a burgeoning detective in her own right is downright joyful. The real pleasure of the book, however, is the degree to which once again Davis brings to life ordinary Romans. Their family squabbles, frustrations with intransigent authorities and truculent neighbors, and the hassles of finding reliable childcare are concurrently hilarious, modern, and part of ancient Rome.
Rob Dunn is a microbiologist determined to make the invisible world of microscopic organisms present in our everyday lives. In this book he focuses on the human body and its evolution from wild animal to modern species. He points out, for example, that our appendix, long thought to be vestigial, actually served a purpose as an island for productive bacteria to grow. When vicious bacteria, like cholera, wipe out the productive flora in our gut, our large intestines could be repopulated with good bacteria from our appendix. In another example, Dunn points to new research suggesting that our immune systems evolved in cooperation with parasitic worms and when antibiotics and modern hygiene removed these from our digestive tracts, autoimmune disorders blossomed. Lupus, allergies, asthma, Crohn’s and similar diseases are plentiful in the world’s most developed countries and virtually nonexistent in countries where parasites persist. There is some evidence that infecting sick patients with parasitic worms can bring relief. Dunn sometimes gets so excited by new discoveries that he effervesces for pages when he could just get to the punchline.
Jane Mayer has followed the money trail from a small, quiet group of far right wing billionaires to recipients aligned with their political ambitions. Led most famously by the libertarian Koch brothers, this cabal has donated hundreds of millions over the last two decades to academics, think tanks, media outlets, and politicians. Their goal has been eliminating regulations, preserving tax loopholes for the wealthy, gerrymandering political districts to negate votes of liberals, discarding government health and education programs for low-income Americans, and forestalling any action on climate change. With the exception of Obama’s terms in office, nearly every one of their objectives has been achieved. The Supreme Court, Congress, Governerships, State Houses, and Presidency are all dominated by the political rightwing. Because Republicans at every level of government toe the line drawn by the Kochs and similar donors, Mayer suggests that realistically the United States has become an oligarchy ruled by wealthy magnates rather than by democratic process. While she can be criticized for overlooking similar tactics undertaken by liberals or missed opportunities when the left could have used similar techniques, the overall case stands. Huge sums of money strategically disbursed by extreme conservatives has radically altered America’s government and its policies.
A young British jockey is pulled from his mount by his excessively wealthy father. His new job is to assist as his father runs for a local council seat in his first political election. Someone tries to kill dad while he is campaigning. Then tries again. And again. Benedict Juliard, an amateur jockey not yet 18 years old, has exceptional sleuthing skills and then the book wanders aimlessly and pointlessly. Francis probably wrote the book in a weekend. In just a few pages about a dozen years of history fly by. Dad moves up from his local council seat to become Prime Minister of England. Benedict gets into Oxford, or Cambridge, it hardly matters, gets a job in the best horse-related company in the country and within a couple of years, and a couple of pages, moves up to a position of exceptional responsibility. Finally, the only suspect in the story shows up in parliament and at last Francis gets on with a conclusion.
It is no simple task to recount the thousand year history of the Ancient Roman empire. It isn’t even easy to determine when the empire begins or ends. Compounding the difficulty is Roman proclivity toward record keeping meaning that they have left behind an extensive written record. Moreover, Roman history has been studied and venerated by western historians for nearly two millennia. What makes SPQR stand apart is the clarity with which Mary Beard tells the tale. As a reader you sense that Beard has spent a lifetime reading original texts in Latin as well as innumerable treatises of historical analysis that followed. Rather than being muddled by what must be millions of pages of books and records, Beard has the remarkable ability to observe Ancient Rome from a drone and then zoom into examine individual artifacts. Beginning with the founding of a tiny village in the hills above the River Tiber and continuing until the wider Roman Empire made all of its inhabitants citizens near the end of the 4th century, Beard repeatedly makes clear what can be known from archaeological evidence and what must then be speculation. Readers are given the opportunity to evaluate evidence along with her, free to agree or not with her interpretation. What emerges is a living society with all its contradictions and multiple overlays of countries and cultures, rich and poor, workers and leaders, slaves and freedmen, farmers and laundrymen. It is a nice departure from the glorification and focus on late Roman emperors as if they were Rome’s entirety.
One of the amazing things about sourdough is that you can begin with the same starter, add the same ingredients and just by altering the method of kneading, raising, and baking you can produce such different products. Same batch of starter made the boule on the left and the pizza crust on the right.
Most of the action takes place away from the European trenches of World War I. Instead, Dr. Rivers uses the new field of psychoanalysis to repair the shredded psyches of young British soldiers damaged by their experience. Soldiers in his psychiatric hospital have spent months standing in freezing water, watched their friends disemboweled by exploding shells, inhaled mustard gas, and charged across barbed wire at night in hopes of knifing another young man. Many have simply stopped functioning. They stare, stammer, rock, dream while awake, and scream through the night. Dr. Rivers compassionately encourages his charges to speak of their horrors and slowly nurses them back toward health. The catch being that when he succeeds the soldiers are returned to the front and we are left to ask whether the continuation of the war is sufficiently justified that young men should be reused like cleaned-off bullets. In the case of WW I, we know a soldier’s life expectancy on the front is on average only a few weeks and that young German soldiers are suffering the same traumas, but we also know that acquiescence to German aggression has consequences.