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.
Margo Jefferson is nearing the end of a successful career as an English professor and brings all of her skill as a cultural analyst and textual critic to bear on her life as an elite African American. What emerges, beyond a lot of references to literature I haven’t read, and cultural icons of the 1950s and 1960s that I barely recall, is the grinding, irrepressible tank tread of American racism. Jefferson is buffeted on one side by the burden of having to be forever superior to low blacks, black blacks. Always, because whites are watching and evaluating, and as her parents instructed her, she must be a model for her race. And yet no amount of education, intellect, acumen, or accomplishment can erase a skin color that immediately draws suppositions, most of them discounting, some of them denigrating, from white Americans. Despite claims to the contrary that her intentions were otherwise, Jefferson’s book is agonizingly tedious, monotonous in its inability to escape the premise that race pollutes everything in America. And I think that is the point.
Somewhere near the end of Keret’s memoir covering the seven years between the birth of his son and the death of his father, Keret writes about his experience living in a narrow house in Warsaw, Poland. The invitation to live in the house comes from a Polish architect who felt compelled to construct a house for Keret that matched the building codes of Keret’s short essays. The house is tiny, only four feet wide, efficient, fitting between two existing buildings, and yet bursts out the top. It is three stories in height. And as life imitates art and vice versa Keret’s recounting of his stay in the house is at first odd and funny and finally brings you to tears when it turns out the house is constructed in the gap between the former Warsaw Ghetto and the slightly less Nazi-occupied parts of Poland. Keret’s mother, a young girl during WWII, made nightly runs, at the risk of death if she were ever caught, to collect what food she could for her family, all of whom save Keret’s mother, died. No other writer can wring so much emotion, plot, or character from only three pages. In this, Keret’s first book of nonfiction, layer upon layer of the humor and tribulations of living in contemporary Israel, a country of profound joy and horror, capture a man and his country like few others.
In 1915 the largest, fastest, and most luxurious ship on the ocean was the Lusitania. Crossing the Atlantic by ship was the only way to get from America to Europe and back only in 1915 the first World War had engulfed most of the continent from England to Russia. Britain’s incomparable navy had completely blockaded Germany (though Erik Larson never mentions this precursor) and Germany retaliated with the one technological advantage it possessed on the high seas: U-Boats. You can see where this is headed and Larson does his best to build suspense but falls short when he overplays the “If Only” card. If only the Lusitania had left New York twenty minutes earlier rather than waiting for Captain Turner to show someone around the boat; if only the ship was running four engines, rather than three; if only, the fog on the day of the attack had been thicker a little longer or a little shorter or Captain Turner had zigged instead of zagged then surely the meeting of a U-Boat torpedo and the hull of Turner’s ship could have been avoided. Larson conveniently overlooks the fact that so much of war is chance and instead tries his best to make the case that because the Lusitania was the biggest and fastest ship on the Atlantic, and the first significant loss of life for Americans, that its sinking was what dragged America into the first World War. As dastardly as it might have been for Germany to sink a passenger liner (there were probably arms hidden on board), and killing so many civilians, the U.S. did not mobilize for another two years. Another overplay on Larson’s part.
I’d be remiss if I did not post pictures of my adventures in making ginger beer. In my first attempt to launch a ginger bug, I could not get yeast to grow. Turns out that all ginger you buy in the store that is not explicitly labeled organic has been irradiated and no amount of grated ginger in a jar full of water and sugar will start to bubble. The natural yeasts on its skin (think grape yeasts used to make wine by way of analogy) have all been killed.
My second attempt to make a bug (pictured to left) using the peel and core of organic ginger, succeeded admirably. When I used the bug to infect three quarts of boiled ginger, sugar, and water, I inadvertently omitted lemon juice. Ginger beer is supposed to ferment in just a day or two and when mine failed to make any bubbles, I let it go another two days. The ginger slime I made instead, even thinking about its mouthfeel now, three weeks after the fact, makes me a little queasy.
On the third try, remembering the lemon juice this time and adding a quarter teaspoon of cream of tartar, I made ginger beer. It is supposed to be mildly alcoholic and effervescent, but I cannot honestly say that I achieved either. It was, however, quite yummy, slightly tickly, ginger lemonade.
As these things go, not too bad. Consider it everything you ever wanted to know about the hydrological cycle (there are similar books on coffee, cod, oil, and so forth). Well written and organized loosely from the most ancient rains, those that fell on a recently cooled planet, forward toward contemporary discussions of floods, droughts, dams, rivers, crops, and the livelihoods of humans at rain’s mercy. The book is remarkable for its breadth and inclusiveness, and strongest when Cynthia Barnett’s stories are longest, but the final result is like so many unending raindrops. A drowning in more facts about rain than anyone really wishes to endure.
Safekeeping is a description of common characters residing on an Israeli kibbutz in the late 1990s. At the center of the story is Adam, a drug addict from New York city, on the lam and carrying a 700-year-old brooch. He stumbles into Ulya, a sexy, ambitious Russian immigrant to Israel, who feigned a Jewish identity to escape the confines of Russia only to find herself trapped in a tiny country and inside an even tinier commune. Claudette, is a French Canadian volunteer with an unrelented case of OCD. Ancient, dying, Ziva represents the Israeli pioneers that fought for the country’s independence and social identity. There are Arab workers and young soldiers sent to keep peace on the West Bank. Everyone is indeed universal: I met a variant of each one on Kibbutz Ketura when I live there. In the end, however, despite the meticulous notes that Jessamyn Hope must have taken when she lived on her kibbutz, very few of the characters feel complex enough to fully engage our sympathy. Not even the brooch.