This recounting of America’s dust bowl is a vivid, filthy painting of an American environmental disaster brought about by greed, hubris, and ignorance. After demolishing the Comanche and the bison, an American government anxious to “settle” the West gave away its prairie in huge chunks. Plows sliced prairie grasses from their deep roots creating caskets of bare soil over buried sod. Homesteader wheat, mining untapped soil nutrients and decomposing grasses, produce unimaginably profitable and prolific yields. When the Great Depression struck in 1929, jobless masses in East Coast cities could not afford to pay for food and wheat piled up in the Great Plains. In terrible need of income farmers expanded production, exacerbating the problem. Then one of the periodic droughts that has always cycled through the Great Plains struck the year following the crash of the stock market and stretched nearly a decade. Crops died. Then trees and streams, horses and cattle all withered. Great roiling winds picked up tons and tons of soil hurling black blizzards of sand and grit across the plains and finally people, their lungs so full of dust they could not draw sufficient oxygen, they, too, started to die and with them the farms and towns of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas that should never have exchanged perennial grasses, bison, antelope, snakes, and hares for wheat, corn, and cotton. The soil of the Great Plains was eventually tied down by the Soil Conservation Service and new plants grown on water mined from the Ogallala Aquifer, which shortly will run dry.
Many of the essays, interviews, and reports collected here were first published in the New Yorker, but not one of them is less interesting reading a second time. The stories range from a page to more than thirty and cover such disparate topics as the most dangerous bus route in New York City, seal-spotting, the guys that invented compostable packaging made from fungi, teaching the homeless to be better writers, the origins of one of Bob Dylan’s earliest and most important songs, and how Asian Carp are spreading throughout America’s heartland. Who knew there were so many interesting things to learn about? What makes each essay so interesting, of course, is not the topic, but Frazier’s innate ability to spin simile and metaphor. Park benches have snow pulled up to their knees and a meteorite that crashed through a roof in Monmouth, New Jersey, “was dull brownish-silver and shaped sort of like a small croissant.” Reading every story back-to-back can be wearing. Better, perhaps, to treat this collection like a box of fine chocolates.
It is the middle of the fifth century, though you would have to know that on your own, as there is no indication in the book, and the Roman Empire is coming to an end. For Rome the benefit of maintaining its long-term occupation of Great Britain is no longer worth the cost and it withdraws its forces. Aquila, an 18-year-old Roman soldier, having lived his entire life in Britain deserts the Roman army only to be instantly subdued by the first invasion of Saxons. In this book, Saxons are brutish vikings, and despite the fact they are to become the forebears of the Anglo-Saxons of Great Britain, they are described as not much more than seafaring guerillas. Written ostensibly as a children’s book in 1959, and winner of many awards, now more than half a century later, The Lantern Bearers can be difficult to penetrate. It presumes mastery of mid-century British language interspersed with working knowledge of early British history. As historical fiction runs, this one is not all bad, but by today’s standards the characters are thin and the plot more than a little contrived.
The Arbat is a Moscow neighborhood; its children are the teens and twenty-somethings caught up in Stalin’s increasingly repressive communism of the 1930s. These youth are generally supportive of the socialist ideals that brought communists to power in the years when they were born, are anxious to uplift of the proletariat and at the same time enjoy the vices and virtues of cafes, restaurants, and urban nightlife. One of their own, however, Sasha Pankratov, is exiled to Siberia on charges that are unfairly enforced by a mid-level government apparatchik. Stalin is portrayed throughout as an increasingly paranoid and unstable megalomaniac. Sasha’s friends blindly feel their way into an increasingly uncertain future — the rule of law is vanishing, Germany is increasingly militaristic, government is less trustworthy — and Sasha must decide how to make meaning with what is left of his life in a world with other exiles surviving among Siberian peasants. Rybakov wrote this book while still under communist rule and released it just as perestroika was first opening the USSR. My mother’s Russian immigrant friend was a child of the Arbat and says the book is spot on accurate.
These sourdough pancakes received Sue’s highest marks so far. Generally speaking, Sue does not like sour pancakes, nor pancakes that are too heavy and these golden, crepe-like hotcakes were light and delicate. I can’t tell you exactly how I made them because as is my practice I made up the recipe. I had extra starter from another bread I was making and was in the mood for pancakes because it is peach season.
In addition to starter I added a considerable quantity of cornmeal, the remainder of our quart of buttermilk (about a cup), flaxseed meal, the spent mash from my soymilk maker (called okara), a pour of vegetable oil, more nonfat milk when the batter was still two thick, two egg yolks, and two beaten egg whites. The advantage to recipe-free cooking is the freedom to improvise and feel creative, even accomplished when dishes exceed expectations. The disadvantages are obvious. How do you recall for a later date, or pass along to a friend, a recipe that calls for a considerable quantity, about a cup, and unknown amounts of meal and mash? How, for that matter, do you know what went wrong when a combination bombs? And what does my cooking style say about my larger defiance of conformity?
And so with significant difficulty I once again followed the formula for Tartine’s country bread created by Chad Robertson. I measured ingredients to the gram, folded my dough on thirty minute intervals for three hours, refrigerated over night, and produced a loaf so exquisitely professional that another bread-baking friend said, “The bread you made put every other fantastic bread I’ve ever had to shame. Wow!!! Thanks for sharing!!!”
How does a food receive kosher approval? For some items, like the prohibition of pork, the Torah is comparatively clear. But what about a more modern food like Jell-O which contains gelatin, a substance derived from forbidden bones and hides of animals, but has been turned into a chemical that no longer has much, if any, relationship to its origin? Some rabbis would give Jell-O a kosher stamp. Now, what if the hide used to make the chemical called gelatin was a pig’s? Kosher USA if nothing else is provocative and at its best points to centuries of rabbinic debate still alive as food becomes more and more processed. Horowitz’s academic style and heavy emphasis on the political interplay of corporations and rabbis are sparsely balanced by personal anecdotes, which in many instances, are more captivating than the long passages of textbook-like replays of angry letters between generally conservative rabbis supporting modernization and orthodox rabbis insistent upon glatt kosher laws that adhere to Torah but are indifferent to animal suffering or worker rights.
Gyasi uses her own experience as a Ghanaian American to create an original tale of history. We are asked to follow the descendants of one family member captured in northern Ghana, sold to the British, imprisoned in the Cape Coast Castle and shipped to the United States as enslaved chattel. The other continues residence in Ghana under the curse of the ancestors. While the raw brutality of enslavement is on full display, the remaining lives in Ghana are not to be envied. Over the centuries, Ghanaians capture neighbors and sell them, they fight off British overlords, barely, and are trapped by superstition and custom. Alas, Gyasi, a very young writer, has bitten off more than she can regurgitate in such a short novel. Trying to cover two continents and all the generations encumbered by nearly three centuries means the recounting of too many stories that feel just a bit familiar: an aborted ride on the underground railroad, a slave whose back is scarred beyond recognition by whippings, the Middle Passage is inhumanely sickening. The stories from Ghana are of course newer for us, but their brevity makes many of them too shallow to appreciate.
Maybe the tenth in the series of mysteries for Chief Detective of the Quebec Surete, Armand Gamache. Having recently retired to Three Pines, now former chief Gamache is asked to locate artist, Peter Morrow, wife of Clara, who has been missing for a year. Author Louise Penny is returning to her roots, too, as the first in this series was also about the power of art and psychology of artists. Penny is also experimenting. There is no murder to open the story. In fact, the whole novel revolves around a missing person, which is to say, nothing really happens, and while the first half feels patient and funny, the second half is plodding and so devoid of action that it gets a little boring. Still, the main characters are warm and inviting and after a bit, I’m sure I’ll go on to subsequent mysteries.
In 1908 a Jewish immigrant named Lazarus Averbuch knocked on the door of Chicago’s police chief. After handing the Chief Shippy a letter (we never learn what it says), a frightened police force shoots Lazarus several times until he is quite dead. Aleksander Hemon writes one fictional account of Lazarus’s murder, a second of the author’s parallel immigration from Bosnia to the United States, a third about his investigation into Lazarus’s origins in Eastern Europe and life in Chicago’s tenements, and a fourth as a travelogue back to Bosnia taken by the author and a fantastical story-telling companion named Rora. Lazarus dies because deeply anti-Semitic law and order fears anarchists are destroying America and anyone with dark skin, big ears or a nose that might be Jewish is suspect. Immigration to a new country is awful, except it is not as bad as the pogroms that drive you to flee. Getting an author’s grant to take adventures through post-war Sarajevo and rural slavic countries provides good product for a novel, but ambitious, and award-winning as the novel is, the multiple story lines all remain too independent to cohere into a compelling whole.
Even if you do not recall the Oslo terrorist attack in 2011, the opening pages of this book make certain there is no surprise. Anders Breivik, a native of Norway exploded a homemade bomb in front of the Prime Minister’s residence and then drove a van to Utoya Island to murder socialist youth. He killed seventy-seven people, most of them children, nearly all with gunshots to the back of the head. Only a few pages after it opens, the story returns to the beginning of Anders Breivik’s life to uncover in page-turning detail his development as a right-wing terrorist bent upon preserving Norway’s ethnic purity from creeping left-wing government policy. Breivik emerges as a psychotic, deranged killer. Except his continued lucidity and consistent logic of self-defined clarity of purpose make him indistinguishable from any member of ISIS, the Taliban, fanatical Israeli settlers and their Hamas counterparts, the routine gun-wielding mass shooters that too routinely make our headlines, more than a few affiliate of the NRA, and several of my neighbors in northwest Pennsylvania. One of us. This book explains what runs through their minds and then asks us to define the border between idealistic soldier of freedom and the psychologically impaired.