Prior to the outbreak of WWII, the British citizen Eddie Chapman spent his youth blowing safes and robbing banks. Passing in and out of jails, Chapman learned new techniques for thievery and when he wasn’t incarcerated, he fell in love, seriously in love, with a series of women. When war erupted, Chapman was languishing in a cell on the isle of Jersey which fell under Nazi occupation and after failing to escape a couple of times figured his best chance for freedom was to volunteer to become a Nazi spy, that is, a British citizen employed by the Nazis to spy on the British. A year or so later the Germans took him up on his offer, trained him, and air dropped him into Britain for the purpose of blowing up a British airplane factory. Chapman’s apparent success led him to become one of the most decorated Nazi spies in history, only soon after landing in England, he also because one of the most celebrated spies in the British secret service, where he acted as a double agent spying on the Nazis. Using newly released documents McIntyre uncovers a fascinating history of the spy war raging between Allied and Axis forces.
Sixteen monks live in an isolated Canadian monastery dedicated to Pure Gregorian Chant, God, and the obscure Saint Gilbert. Until there are fifteen monks because the Priar has his skull crushed. Inspector Gamache and his sidekick Jean-Guy Beauvoir are called to the northern waters and deep forests of Quebec to investigate their eighth mystery in this Louise Penny series. It is Penny’s best. Gamache and Beauvoir do waht they can to penetrate the silent, mysterious, centuries old abbey while the monks practice the same analysis on the inspectors of the Quebec Surete. The monks love chants, the chants mesmerize all who hear them, and questions arise: why are some men called to become solitary monks; others find solace in solving murderous crimes; a few succumb to their inner demons with murder; and some men turn away from music and can only find inner peace through drugs. This is a multi-layered novel that also performs what we so often want from a good mystery. Yes, we have suspense, but we also learn something. Here we are treated to the invention of music, the inner workings of a contemporary, if very remote monastery, and the simple beauty of Gregorian Chant.
Organized in Germany with submissions of breads and blogs from scores of countries around the world, it’s the ninth annual World Bread Day.
I can’t recall how I came across this event but in the three weeks I’ve had to prepare I thought it only made sense to bake with my original sourdough. This starter comes to me from the Cripple Creek Gold Rush in Colorado in 1893. In that time no one has forgotten to nourish it, overlooked removing a cupful for later baking, poisoned it, or let it spoil. Chances are it has always been given freely from one baker to the next carrying forward a baking tradition of using sourdough leaven that dates back to the beginning of civilization. Normally, I bake with only the simplest ingredients: salt, water, sourdough, and flour. This time I had extra buttermilk so I added a little.
This batard is crisp on the outside, super chewy, very sour, and full of whole wheat goodness.
Of course I’ve heard of John Brown, the abolitionist, who tried to start an insurrection and free the slaves by himself. But, truth is, that is about all I knew of him until reading this fictionalized account of his life. The beautifully rendered narrator, who I suspect is the one truly fictional character in the book, is a young black boy nicknamed “The Onion.” Onion is freed from slavery by Brown in the 1850s and lives with John Brown’s army of abolitionist minded children, freed slaves, Indians, Jews, and spotty hangers-on. Only thing is John Brown mistakes Onion for a girl and thus Onion lives disguised as a girl for several years. It is not as strange as you think because survival for blacks under the dehumanizing burden of slavery required any possible ruse to avoid being worked to death (or worse) like a flea-infested mule. Onion portrays John Brown as a religious zealot of such ferocity as to be frighteningly fanatical. Yet, at the same time Brown was the one person in America to move beyond rhetoric regarding the savages of slavery to the very actions necessary required to undo the evil practice. While Brown’s attempts to overtake Osawatomie, Kansas and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia were folly, the Northern States were very soon to follow his example.
The plot entails a battle in city council, in Britain called Parish Council, over whether the poorer neighborhood of Yarvil should be cut free from the upper crust, up-the-hill village of Pagford. The real story, however, is about the members of the community themselves. Everyone, as is often so true in a small town, has a carefully manicured exterior and a story to hide. One wife thinks she might really be in love with another’s husband; a second is bored with her marriage and fantasizes about muscled rock stars; a lawyer is afraid to commit to a divorced girlfriend who has moved to town with her teenage daughter on his account; the high school disciplinarian is dogged by OCD; one husband abuses his wife; and a poor drug addict of a mother has more of a history than meets the eye. Captured most accurately by Rowling are the teenagers of Pagford who wrestle with love, sex, alcohol, cigarettes, acceptance, rejection, and the agony of adolescence. Like her Harry Potter series, which inevitably lingers about this book, Rowling’s insight into what we are all really thinking versus what we wish we projected is spot on. The major flaw is that she follows too many characters. I needed to draw up a scorecard to keep them straight.
Greene is supposed to be one of the great storytellers of our age, and this version read aloud by Colin Firth (pitter pat goes my heart) won two separate awards for audiobooks, but frankly, what a sleeper. Maurice Bendrix, just like the author, Graham Greene, has a torrid affair. In this version, she is disguised as Sarah Miles (though the book is dedicated to his real paramour), who is married to a British bore named Henry. The story reads like the Graham Greene’s fantasy. Anyway, back to the plot which plods along with great pain due to our protagonists insatiable jealousies. Then the book turns religious as most of the characters wrestle with their consciences, in great detail, over the existence of God. That might have been important in England in 1951 when second World War memories were still fresh and the book was recently published, but I can’t say it makes worthwhile reading today, unless you are a pro at mid-twentieth century Brit lit.
Evan Osnos has been living in China for the last eight years and reporting for the New Yorker for much of that time. Age of Ambition is his compilation of perceptions of a country undergoing transition from the third world to the first at the speed of a bullet train. For the record, China is constructing more bullet train railways, and highways, more quickly than any country ever has in the history of the earth. That rush to modernity has been accompanied by graft, kickbacks, errors, phenomenal success and total government control. Throughout this book the government’s secret management of the internet, publications, journalism, freedom of assembly, and religious thought remains omnipresent and mysterious, just like one of the large, unmarked buildings on Tiananmen Square occupied by government censors. Osnos’ focus remains on Chinese intellectuals that dance on the edge of permissible thought in China, sometimes exciting millions of followers and at other times paying for their transgressions with jail terms. It isn’t the whole story of China, the country is too large, diverse, and dynamic, but it is an interesting one. Makes you wonder what an analogous analysis of the U.S. might look like.
The premise is a standard trope of science fiction: time travel. And each time the main character, Jake Epping, closes his eyes and taps with his toe in the back of a dark closet to find the rabbit hole that will transfer him from the year 2011 to 1963 you have to be much better than me at suspending disbelief and suppressing a giggle. Nevertheless, once you’ve cross the threshold, you will find yourself fully enveloped by Stephen King’s prodigious talents as a master story teller. Epping has the chance to go back in history and uses his opportunity to undo injustices he knows will be forthcoming. He saves a friend’s friend from a crippling hunting accident and protects a work colleague from a father so abusive that in the late 1950s the drunken father murders his wife and most of his children with a sledge hammer. Then Epping takes on Lee Harvey Oswald with the aim of preventing the assassination of JFK. The reader is asked to overlook the fact that Epping’s primary means of preventing bad stuff from happening is to murder criminals before they commit their acts. Hmmm. If you get that far, then you can wrestle with what additional impacts a change in the past will have on the future and whether it makes more sense to devote yourself to the woman you love or, because there really isn’t any other option in this book, protect President Kennedy and the future of the world.