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.
Two parallel stories. In France, a teenage girl, blind since the age of five, has her life turned upside down when the Germans invade Paris. She flees with her father to Saint Malo on the coast where she lives under German occupation in further darkness when, for her safety, she is secluded in an uncle’s house. The uncle, a veteran of WW I, suffers from PTSD and never leaves the house. Her father, as any solo parent of a blind girl would, does everything in his power to protect her. He constructs miniature wooden models of Saint Malo in case his daughter ever needs to learn to navigate its streets. Concurrently, a German orphan, also a young teen, faces a grueling life in the mines when he reaches the age of 15. Except, he is immensely adept at working radios, yet another means of communicating with the world without really seeing. His skills are so great he is drafted into the Nazi army, where he blindly follows orders, but worries that the orders are illogical, if not immoral. The book is aptly named.
This recipe is based on one published in the New York Times. It is from Tartine’s Bakery in San Francisco. Labor intensive, but well worth it.
The protagonist, he goes by several aliases, but Michel Khoury appears to be his given name, is a former Palestinian refugee from Lebanon. His parents were murdered during the Israeli-sponsored massacres in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. Stateless and without family he is fathered by a friendly Palestinian who in time teaches Michel the tradecraft of undercover work, but with a twist. The goal of these Palestinians is to undercut the piecemeal Oslo peace negotiations of the 1990s with a truly comprehensive peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis. Michel couriers secret messages around the world until he makes the one mistake no spy should ever make. He falls in love with a British girl. Khoury’s slow awakening to the entanglement of high stakes espionage he has entered, and how he has unwittingly dragged in his first real love, provides terrific suspense without ever dropping into polemic. Remarkably, this book eschews diatribe about middle eastern politics while embedding in one of the great political feuds of our time.
The war after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq consists of 500,000 broken soldiers, men and women returned to the United States suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI). Five hundred thousand with invisible wounds to their brains. Asked to fight in invisible wars that most Americans failed to track, they served two and three rotations against enemies they could not find, but whose specialization in guerilla tactics ensured that our soldiers spent many of their days searching for improvised explosive devices. They watched their closest friends blown to small pieces, or had their own heads rattled against the roof of an exploding humvee. And when they could not function any longer they were sent home. The result, in addition to an ever-increasing rate of post-combat suicide, has been a half million cases of severe depression, unrelenting insomnia, flashbacks, anger, guilt, uncontrollable rage, and anxiety. This book reduces the painful numbers to a handful of real people struggling to reassemble their lives. Their plights are heart breaking in large part because Finkel’s writing is so delicately caring and insightful.
OK, it’s a period piece Spy Novel. Think Ian Fleming. Sean Connery. In this caper, Paul Christopher works for the CIA and he speeds around the world piecing together the hidden culprits behind JFK’s assassination. Christopher’s hypothesis is Oswald was hired in retaliation for American attacks on prominent Vietnamese families. I’m not much into Kennedy conspiracies — there seem to be an bottomless well of them — but the book rings true mostly because its author was a spook himself in the CIA. The craft of 1960s Cold War spying appears realistic even if from our current vantage point it feels like it is being rendered in black and white with a cheesy saxaphone soundtrack. Vietnam, the Congo, Rome, and Paris are all atmospherically accurate — you can just about taste the Parisian drizzle and can hear the street calls in Saigon – and the characters are about as authentic as any on Mad Men. I’m not sure anyone who was born after 1980 would get this book, but if you can recall the 1960s, Tears of Autumn is a nice trot down memory lane. Tears of Autumn is the second novel in the Paul Christopher series.
Ever since returning from France and tasting all their wonderful preserves I’ve been determined to see what I can do at home. So far, and it’s just strawberry season: 16 jars of strawberry jam, 4 of strawberry syrup, 4 rhubarb jams, two pies, two strawberry-rhubarb crisps, and three pounds of frozen strawberries. Looks like cherries are next!