Nov 162017
 

Following the end of WWII, the Atlanta Police Force reluctantly added eight African American police officers.  Their beats were restricted to Darktown, the part of Atlanta without streetlights, and it almost goes without saying, without white people.  Two recently hired war veterans, Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, stumble across an inebriated white man with a young black woman in his car.  After they see her get punched and then escape from her driver they later find her body buried among trash in a vacant lot.  Superficially, the novel is a 1940s murder mystery in the south, but the real story is the unflinching detail with which we observe Boggs and Smith endure Jim Crow.  They are forbidden from arresting criminals, only white officers can, so they must subdue adversaries, run to a telephone, and call for a squad car whose white officers may or may not arrive.  They may not question, nor even look into the eyes, of white officers, or for that matter, white men.  They may not be seen alone with, nor speak to white women without fear of subsequent lynching.  Boggs and Smith choose to uphold the law where they can while circumventing a white police force that alternately extorts, threatens, shoots, and convicts Atlanta’s blacks and despises its colored comrades.  As with most elements of Jim Crow I don’t know whether I am more offended by the inhumane behavior of America’s white racists or the fact I was never taught anything about Jim Crow at any point in my education.  The heat in this extremely well written mystery is as intense as a breezeless summer day in Atlanta.  The audio version of this book is excellent.

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith *** (of 4)

 Book Reviews, Europe, FICTION, Mystery  Comments Off on Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith *** (of 4)
Nov 142017
 

This is the third in the Cormoran Strike series of murder mysteries written by J.K. Rowling under the Galbraith pseudonym.  In this case, a psychopath murders women, pulls apart their bodies, and as the book opens, he hand delivers a severed leg to Strike’s assistant, Robin Ellacott.  Four potential suspects immediately come to the mind of private detective Strike.  While  Strike and Ellacott investigate four bad men have a motive for wanting to ruin Strike by accosting his assistant, the British police bumble about like Keystone cops. Meanwhile, what was obvious to us in book one, now dawns on Cormoran and Robin: they are in love with one another.  Unfortunately, Robin prepares to get married to her long-time fiancee and Cormoran dallies with a sexy, but not very interesting girlfriend he has picked up on the rebound from his last relationship.  Rowling’s strength lies in her observations.  She lands her protagonists in a town, and I know now, after having been to some of the places described in this book, describes every important storefront and unusual curve in the road with delightful accuracy.  She hears every dog bark, recalls what everyone she met along the way was wearing beneath their overcoat, and reproduces accent and dialogue with impeccability.  For sense of place and character she is a fine read.  This mystery was gruesome, the budding love affair formulaic, and her lengthy descriptions were sometimes tedious.

Good and Bad Bakes

 Sourdoughs and SCOBYs  Comments Off on Good and Bad Bakes
Oct 262017
 

So Sue and I purchased a new oven and the oven and I are getting to know one another.
My first bakes turned out a lot of breads that didn’t brown very well.  This everything bagel (sesame, poppy, salt, and toasted garlic) tasted great.  They were very chewy and were really authentic, but alas, a little flat and pale.

 

This fancy recipe pumpkin sourdough looked fine enough, but there was a problem.  My longtime Cripple Creek sourdough (1893) had caught an infection.  Don’t ask: little filamentous things growing on top and cheesy smell.  I tossed it and in reviving a dried sample I had in storage I failed to wait a sufficient number of days before trying to bake with it.  The result was a pumpkin bread that looked good, but didn’t rise.

 

 

And these two loaves which also looked good but never cooked in the middle.  The same insufficiently mature sourdough meant the bread didn’t really spring in the oven. I was getting closer, however, to figuring out how to get the breads to brown in the new oven.

 

 

In the interim, Isaac and Delaney made sauerkraut (left) and kimchi (right), both natural fermentations, and both very tasty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I got one bread to cook well in a cast iron pot.  Here you see it with a naturally cracked surface and a beautiful open crumb (those are all the holes you see inside the bread.)

And finally, the oven and I have begun coming to agreement.  Check out the ears on the cuts of this spelt-rye baguette.  When professional bakers score their breads they aim for a cut that peels back in the oven and toasts just a bit as it rises above the loaf.  My first success.

 

Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich *** (of 4)

 Asia, Book Reviews, History, NON FICTION, Prize Winner  Comments Off on Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich *** (of 4)
Oct 262017
 

Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for her oral histories of Russia and the Soviet Union.  Secondhand Time includes exquisitely curated accounts of members of the Former Soviet Union beginning with old-timers that can still recall Stalin.  She speaks with citizens still longing for the stability Stalin’s rule ensured and intermingles enough survivors of the gulag to make clear that nothing was worth the bloodshed and destruction that accompanied Stalin’s tyranny. She continues with accounts from the post-Stalin era through the Yeltsin restoration of order and Gorbachev’s opening to capitalism.  Her interviewees make abundantly clear that replacing the communist ideal of equality for all with the frenzied shark attacks of capitalism has not been a smooth nor beneficial transition.  The oligarchs have profited beyond anyone’s wildest needs and the needy have been left to struggle to survive.  Young people that have never known anything but capitalism, according to their elders, worship materialism over community and mutual support.  Like many Russian pieces of literature, Secondhand Time is extensive and thorough, almost as if you were in kitchen after kitchen drinking Russian tea and then vodka deep into the night.  The final picture is masterful, with one caveat.  Alexievich never really describes her methods and there is some evidence that she has moved quotations from one speaker to another in different publications suggesting some of her books might be as much fiction as non-fiction.  That changes how you read her, I’m afraid.

Sep 282017
 

This is the final installment of the biography of Congressman John Lewis’s youthful campaign for civil rights for America’s black population.  Books One and Two cover the fight for desegregation in the later 1950s and early 1960s.  Book Three details what it took to force President Johnson to introduce legislation allowing the federal government of the United States to override southern states that forbid blacks from voting.  For years John Lewis led the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee through peaceful demonstrations to enable Americans with dark skin to register to vote like other Americans.  Repeatedly, men and women approaching courthouses hoping to register were met with police beatings, enabled posses of armed white men, obstinate white judges, and murderous Klansmen.  The story is a bloody one and sprinkled throughout are references to an event that was unimaginable in 1964:  John Lewis, the Congressman, attending the inauguration of Barack Obama.  And yet, today, gerrymandering of voting districts mean that Republicans (with negligible support or accountability to black voters) control the Presidency (who did not win the popular vote), both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, and a majority of governorships and statehouses.  Everyone should read this book.  And consider kneeling during the National Anthem.

In the Woods by Tana French *** (of 4)

 Book Reviews, Europe, FICTION, Mystery, Prize Winner  Comments Off on In the Woods by Tana French *** (of 4)
Sep 282017
 

An Irish murder squad is called upon to investigate the cult-like death of a child in the village of Knocknaree.  Bob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are the lead detectives and we, the readers, are taken to grapple with mysteries on several levels.  The obvious question is whodunnit to the kid found atop an alter stone in the middle of an archaeological dig, but there are deeper layers.  Bob Ryan was once a child himself in Knocknaree and the only survivor when two of his friends disappeared.  That case was never solved and Ryan has no memory of the event during which his childhood mates were presumably murdered.  Can Ryan investigate a murder and his own childhood, especially if the two cases are linked, without losing his sanity?  Ryan and Maddox are best friends, so close they behave like long-term lovers, raising another mystery of why they are not.  Uncovering the perpetrator is standard fare: difficult to figure out with suitable suspects and red herrings.  Revealing the psyches of contemporary Dubliners is what moves the story from page to page.

The Golem and the Jinni *** (of 4) by Helene Wecker

 America, Book Reviews, FICTION, Jewish History, Psychology  Comments Off on The Golem and the Jinni *** (of 4) by Helene Wecker
Sep 072017
 

In the year 1899, in New York City, a golem and a jinni chance upon one another.  A golem is a a mythical Jewish monster made of clay; a jin is a magical desert genie with fantastic powers.  In this account, both golem and jin are bound to masters, only Chava, the golem, is female, inquisitive, thoughtful, helpful (to a fault), cautious, and actually quite lovable in spite of her terrific strength.  Ahmed, the Jin is handsome, spontaneous, creative, chivalric, and impetuous.  So, rather than being mythical and distant, in many ways, Ahmed and Chava, are too human.  They struggle to understand the limits of free will while the constrained by friends, family, and magic potions.  They chafe at being immigrants in a new city.  They are conflicted by their responsibility to others when they also need to take care of themselves.  The book is slowly paced, but Wecker’s characters and themes are provocative.

Sep 072017
 

It is a great idea for research that is long overdue.  Michael Twitty explores the role of enslaved Africans in shaping American foodways.  Think about it.  Africans captured in Africa and transported for sale to American owners brought with them foods and methods of cooking they knew from home.  In America they were forced to work in the kitchens of slave owners and to keep themselves from starving to death too quickly — fieldwork for Africans was no different in duration or difficulty than it was for horses and mules — they grew small household gardens when they could.  In short, their influence on what we know of today as southern cooking was deep and wide.  Twitty is fascinating just by himself:  black, gay, Jewish, historian, and foodie.  Where the book falters, unfortunately, is the confusing intertwining of food history, Twitty’s autobiography, and his search for his genetic roots.  By themselves, each story is a fine thread.  Together, they are a hopelessly tangled series of knots and broken leads.

Aug 202017
 

At the end of the nineteenth century, because no one had ever been there, the virtual consensus among geographers was that the North Pole resided in a warm, open sea.  One needed only to sail a ship through the ice surrounding it to reach the open ocean.  In 1879, Captain George DeLong and a crew of 30-plus sailors set off for the North Pole.  At end of the their first year, their ship, having failed to find open water, was instead frozen in place, where they remained out of communication with the rest of the world for three years. Half of their time was in near total darkness and nearly all of their days and nights were below freezing.  Finally, sheets of ice crushed and sank the U.S.S. Jeannette.  The crew walked and sailed for hundreds of days across ice floes and freezing oceans with hopes of reaching the coldest landmass on earth, the north coast of Siberia.  The  test of human physical and psychological endurance is simultaneously contemporary and otherworldly.  The relationship of European and American men to the environment, native people of the Arctic, to women, and stoicism is history not to be overlooked.

Rye

 Sourdoughs and SCOBYs  Comments Off on Rye
Aug 172017
 

One of the best souvenirs I brought back from the United Kingdom was a rye sourdough starter.  I got it from Andrew Whitley in Scotland who back in 1960 obtained a sample when he was studying production of rye bread in the former Soviet Union.  The factory he took it from was enormous: more than a million loaves of baked sourdough rye emerged every day.  In 1960 America we were changing food to fit into our machinery.  American doughs were doped with extensibility agents so they could withstand the spinning arms of huge kneading machines.  In contrast, Russian factories — just as vast as America’s — were comprised of hundreds of small bakeries.  Women in babushkas made rye breads in small ovens and placed them by the thousands on conveyor belts.  The Soviets distributed more than were needed.  Thousands of uneaten breads returned to the factory where they were soaked and boiled and returned to the production line.  Soaked rye breads were joined by fresh rye flour and rye sourdough to produce new loaves.

Making rye bread is difficult because rye does not have much gluten.  That means its dough is terribly slippery and very sticky.  It does not rise much, but I learned some rye techniques in Scotland and have been practicing for months.  The rectangular loaf in front is 95% rye flour with just a few oats and a little molasses added.  It baked in a covered square-sided pan for well over an hour to begin removing some of the moisture.  After coming out of the oven a nearly 100 percent rye must sit uneaten for at least a day while additional moisture is released from its interior.  The result is a tangy, almost zesty, rye bread that can be sliced more thinly than the piece of cheese you put on top.  Moreover, the bread stays fresh for more than a week.

The round loaf with the concentric imprint of the boule where it sat just before baking (it is behind the rye) was made with a white flour starter, rather than the rye starter.  It was supplemented with half a dozen mashed, baby potatoes and enough wholemeal rye flour to give the loaf some meatiness.

These baguettes (there were four) also began with the Russian rye starter.  I added a cup of buttermilk and then adjusted the ratio of white flour to rye until it was approximately a 50:50 mix.  The rye gave it color and taste, the white flour enough gluten for a beautiful rise, and the buttermilk mellowed the crumb to the softness of a ripe peach.