China, despite its rocket launch into modernity, is still a country of five thousand years of history. As Americans, a people that at best can only recall a couple of centuries, and let’s face it, have largely been a people focused on the future rather than the past, bearing that much history is hard for us to fathom. The Incarnations injects life into China’s past by introducing us to a Beijing cab driver who carries within him the reincarnated lives of earlier Chinese who have survived imperial eunuchs, sadistic monarchs, invading Mongols, and Mao’s Red Guard. Barker’s story-telling is creative, deeply researched, and luminous. She will make you think about the limitations imposed upon the bonds of love and friendship as they are tested over a millennium.
Phil Klay’s short stories about Marine Corps life in Iraq and after Iraq begin so realistically that I had to check to confirm I was reading fiction. The accumulated mosaic combines the experiences of grunts, commanders, American snipers, wounded veterans, supply men, post-war rebuilders, chaplains, and kids who found themselves fighting Hajis before they were even old enough to legally drink beer. Notably absent are women and people of color who combined probably make up the majority, or nearly so, of our army. While some stories are naturally better than others, the net effect is not so much the hackneyed maxim that war is hell, but rather this war created by George Bush and incompetently prosecuted by his post-war advisors was an ineptitude of epic proportions. No character in this book seems fully confident of who the enemy is or for what logic they are fighting. Winner of the National Book Award.
Sadly, so much of the terror that has become ISIS in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the countries of North Africa and the attacks in Europe are a consequence of America’s invasion of Iraq and depressingly inept post-war policies. The historical evolution laid bare in this highly readable, and rather suspenseful account, is an excellent introduction. In contrast to George Bush and his democracy cowboys, Jordan’s King Hussein, and especially Jordan’s secret service, the Mukhabarat, appear to be prescient, surrounded by enemies, and highly competent. It could be because Warrick likes Jordan or had access to more material from Jordan, but I do have new respect for Jordan’s plight. I also have questions about whether ISIS can be beaten militarily or whether more difficult measures like economic development, women’s empowerment, and more participatory politics are needed to stem the tide. The test case seems to be Tunisia, but for the outcome on that experiment, we will have to await someone else’s book.
In the first half of the book, Pasha, an intentionally depressive poet, because without depression there can be no decent poetry, arrives from Odessa to spend a summer month in Coney Island with his Russian Jewish family. Pasha trips on the sand at the beach, gets lost on the subway, but doesn’t seem to mind, argues with his sister, and is babied by his Mama. Every character is funny and wonderful and this young author’s style is reminiscent of her Russian forebears, Chekhov and Tolstoy, in that there is infinite amount of talking and pondering while almost nothing of consequence happens. There are even several laugh aloud moments, but by the time Part II rolls around, and the story turns to Frida, Pasha’s niece, the desire for a plot, or even anything resembling a plot, overrides lovely sentences and exquisitely rendered scenes of Russian immigrants lost between two worlds. If you are the kind that loved War and Peace this will be a delicious little morsel. On the other hand, if Russian novels feel a wee bit tedious, Panic might not be worth the effort.
(Click on photos to see full size.)
To prepare for our fermentation lab in Soil to Plate I made three jars of Meadville starter for the two groups of students that make sourdough bread. Other groups make yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and yeast bread.
Here are the students kneading.
And their loaves.
I love Sarah Vowell’s hip hop style of writing and she is hooked on an interesting fellow. The Marquis de Lafayette arrived in the American colonies at the age of nineteen as an anti-British militant on loan from France. He was useful, too, for an American army that George Washington was having a very difficult time organizing into anything more than a rabble with pitchforks and guns that don’t shoot straight. Lafayette remains a friend of the newly founded country for decades and decades. Unfortunately, and I cannot imagine why she chose to write this way, Vowell never bothered to break her monologue into chapters or sections. The whole thing is one long stream of consciousness, which periodically is rather enlightening, sometimes entertaining, and more frequently, breathlessly disorienting.
This is a tale both microscopic in scope and biblical in scale. The scene is 1920s Illinois before the age of machines and corporations when farmers depended upon themselves, their neighbors, their children, wives, an itinerant hired hand or two, and their dog. Cows were milked by hand and fields were reaped by horse, man, and sweat. Yet, while this black and white idyll of American farmsteading remains in our collective imagination, what happens when the ten commandments are violated. In this case, page by patient page we observe rippling repercussions when one man covets his neighbor’s wife, a woman not pleased to be imprisoned on a rural Illinois homestead.
Every year around Christmas time, my wife’s brother Marty, flies from Los Angeles to Meadville to cook and bake. He makes main courses of goose with all the trimmings, breakfasts of blini and lox, sides too numerous to count, Danish peppernodder, and his grandmother’s melt-in-your-mouth caramels. I do my best to bake enough breads — this year I made seven different kinds of sourdough — to keep up. Here is my attempt to describe a week of enjoying life with one of the world’s great cooks. Click here.
Hardwick was a down and out village in rural Vermont. Unemployment was high, farmers were struggling, and main street was worn out. As if almost by magic a resurgence of local food and agricultural organizations galloped into town and everyone it appears is destined to live happily ever after. For example, one agripreneur is persuading beleaguered dairy farmers to dedicate some fields to soybeans for his tofu factory. Another invested in an enormous concrete cellar so dairy farmers can supply milk for cheeses he sells at $20 a pound. The Center for an Agricultural Economy opened on Main Street and soon the town was featured in the New York Times. Hewitt argues that every small town should replicate Hardwick, but seriously? How much tofu will Americans eat? Expensive cheese is going to save rural America? And is either one of those things really selling in Hardwick? The underlying premise of the book that conventional American agriculture with its admittedly anti-environmental impacts on soil, water, and air is in fact already coughing its death rattle is passed over without question. For all its flaws, American agricultural productivity is at global and historic highs. Hewitt’s prescription for replacing American agriculture with small local farms, absent any specifics on where or how his agripreneurs cobbled together their capital, or even if they are turning a profit, could have been written by Polyanna.
There are several reasons to read murder mysteries. After all, the expectation upon opening the book is something really awful must happen before the story can really begin. To make a mystery worth reading, of course, the puzzle of figuring out who dunnit must be simultaneously complex and fair to the reader — no random murderer can suddenly appear in the final ten pages, for example. Great mysteries also teach you something about a time or location you otherwise couldn’t know about, and very few mystery writers are better than Israel’s Batya Gur. In Murder on a Kibbutz her detective Michael Ohayan is called upon to investigate the murder of a kibbutznik, which in Israel is exceptionally rare. Gur peels away the layers of the onion that make up a family-like group of 300 people who care about one another, share everything, and despise one another as only family members can. What I can say, having lived on an Israeli kibbutz, is that every page of description is microscopically accurate, the characters are almost too real to be fictional, and the mystery is hard to solve.