In late Victorian England, a telegraphist discovers a watch in his flat. The watch is exquisitely expensive but does not open to tell the time for several months until an alarm sounds just minutes before a bomb planted by Irish nationalists would have killed its new owner. Our shell-shocked clerk hunts up the Japanese immigrant who built the watch and the two enter into a friendship that is cross-cultural, perhaps latently homosexual, but still wrapped beneath Victorian prudence. Unfortunate for the plot the watchmaker is clairvoyant with an almost unlimited ability to foretell the future. He can also construct mechanical beasts from clock parts that behave with anthropomorphic emotions and chemical concoctions that control the weather. Having assembled a leading character with unexplained and unlikely superpowers allows the author to create coincidences and outcomes that are beyond credulity. Combined with insufficient editing — it isn’t always clear who owns the dialogue — reading to the end becomes extremely laborious. To my shock this book has been nominated for several prizes.
Mukherjee begins with the ancient Greeks. They wondered from whom and how did children inherit characteristics that made them look like their parents. Mukherjee continues to follow the thread of investigation through the centuries to Mendel and his peas, to Watson and Crick and their double helix, on into cloning and genetic engineering. He dives headfirst into eugenics and its tragic outcome under the Nazs as they attempted to control the combination of chromosomes by eliminating undesirable characteristics and the hosts that carried them. After describing all the science of genes and chromosomes he asks us to consider the ethics of where we stand today: on the precipice of once again being able to engineer the outcome of human procreation and development.
Kim Philby joined the British spy services and the Russian KGB as a young man fresh from university. The Second World War had not yet begun and Philby was a young leftist at a time when supporting a socialist agenda for the world and opposing Nazism and Fascism by whatever means necessary made sense. By continuing to spy for the Russians for decades, however, while he climbed ever higher in MI-6, Philby became the highest ranking double agent in the west, responsible for giving away British and American secrets and for disclosing the names of hundreds of British informants and spies that ultimately met their deaths in Stalin’s dungeons. Several insider’s views of spying are laid bare. One, British spies of the 1940s through 1960s evidently consumed their body weights in liquor every week. Two, to be a successful spy requires simultaneous trust of those upon whom you are relying for information and complete suspicion of everyone about you as your opponents are working exceptionally hard to feed you misinformation. Running an organization of spies, like the CIA, MI-6, or even the KGB, when everyone must be suspected at some level of potentially working for the enemy, has to be nigh on impossible. The use of Russian and American spies to plant false information or manipulate a foreign public’s perception of its leaders is an ongoing pursuit. If done successfully, say under current conditions, by hacking into a computer network, it might just sway an election toward a friendly, incoherent, demagogue.
In the closing days of WWII, as the Allies are conquering northward up the Italian peninsula, the Germans are beginning to retreat, and their Italian allies are bumbling. Venice, though under German occupation still, is spared American bombing runs. In the lagoons beyond the city, Cenzo, an insightful, witty fisherman, finds an 18-year-old Jewish girl, Giula Silber, floating face down, but still alive. Giula and Cenzo must outwit Nazis hunting for her, black marketeers willing to trade in everything from human cargo to peace initiatives, Italian Fascists, anti-Fascist partisans, Cenzo’s dubious older brother, and his indomitable mother. The writing is spare, occasionally too lean, so that some characters and a few of their actions are veiled in a Venetian mist, and yet, in sum, the disorder imposed of a World War on the daily lives of bartenders, fishermen, backwater diplomats, and indulgent Italian mothers emerges with the piquancy of fresh polenta.
The United States was on rocky footing in the immediate decades following the civil war with the North wanting revenge and the south not yet over its stinging defeat. In the 1880s, James A. Garfield was an archetypal American politician. He grew up fatherless, impoverished, and in a homemade log cabin on an Ohio farm. He went to college, was self-effacing, and apparently had no ambition beyond working for justice and the equality of freed black men and women. His renowned oratorical skills put him in position to make a nominating speech as a young Congressman at a deadlocked Republican presidential convention. After dozens of inconclusive votes, without ever wanting to run for the office, and against his wishes, Garfield was selected to be the Republican candidate,. He was elected President without really campaigning, and would likely have been an outstanding leader had he not been shot by a lunatic and left to die because doctors at the end of the nineteenth century did not yet believe in antisepsis and Alexander Graham Bell’s feverish attempts to prepare a device that could locate the bullet lodged in his abdomen did not outrace the infections in Garfield’s body. Millard’s account is engaging, but in the end Garfield’s run as President was too short to be of real significance.
My friend Jen came over for a sticky bun bake off. I went for a sourdough, pecan sticky bun and Jen prepared a sourdough cinnamon bun with cream cheese and butter frosting. Baking these pastries involved two conflicting dramas for me. On the one hand, it meant I had to carefully follow a recipe, not one of my cooking attributes. On the other, I love pecan sticky buns, and ever since having eaten a sourdough sticky bun at Arizmendi Bakery in San Francisco that changed my life, I knew I had to give it a try.
Once the dough had risen, I rolled it flat, painted its surface with melted butter, and covered it in brown sugar and cinnamon. I rolled the dough into a tube, sliced the tube into small cylinders and laid each one on a bed of chopped pecans.Here they are in the pan, but you are looking at the bottom. They have to be flipped and then they look like THIS.
The funny thing is because I followed the recipe and cooked the buns for precisely twenty-two minutes at 400 degrees, they came out undercooked in the middle. The dough was still a little creamy. Next time I bake at 325 degrees (like a challah) for forty-five minutes and leave space between the buns so the outer crust of each one gets crisp.
Here is what Jen’s cinnamon buns looked like. Pure awesomeness.It was an excellent dessert to follow on a vegetable-infused pasta smothered in a tomato sauce that Isaac prepared with seared disks of homemade sausage, halved brussel sprouts roasted in the sausage fat, and red wine. He reduced the sauce until it was thick as a cassoulet and dark as burgundy.
Suki Kim spent six months teaching English to the sons of elite North Koreans enrolled at Pyongyang University for Science and Technology (PUST), an evangelical college in the world’s most secretive nation. Kim is neither a teacher nor a practicing Christian and yet maintained her cover despite being entrapped on the campus — there is no free travel in North Korea — and watched round the clock by North Korean minders. What strikes Kim as most frightening is the total dependence of North Koreans on their Dear Leader who provides for jobs, food, beliefs about their past, their relations to others, and their future. Free will has been utterly squashed. Until she attends a Sunday morning prayer session with the Christians who run PUST and recognizes that entreaties of administrators and missionaries are virtually the same as what is broadcast on North Korean television. She needs only to exchange the names of Kim Jong Il and Jesus. She laments the inability of her college students to access the Internet, convinced that if only they could understand how much knowledge there is in the world each one of them would be free. She wrote the book just two years before American Evangelicals, Fake News and post-truth politics cherry-picked from the Internet by his supporters led to the election of Donald Trump.
Patty Hearst was the daughter of one of the wealthiest and most influential media men in American history (think Fox News) when she was kidnapped in the early 1970s by a shadowy radical group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. During her months of captivity, Patty Hearst came to sympathize with her anti-establishment captors, going so far as to rob banks at gunpoint, and firing weapons at innocent bystanders. Toobin does a reasonable job of setting the context of the period: the Vietnam War was refusing to come to an end, African Americans were raging against oppression, women were recognizing their own restrictions, drug use was up, domestic bombings by radical groups against symbols of government and police brutality were in the thousands, and the country was divided between blue-collar supporters of law and order and youthful proponents of peace and equality. A lot like today’s red-blue divisions. Toobin’s fundamental question is whether Patty Hearst’s law-breaking escapades were the result of her kidnapping and fear for her life if she did not act in accordance with her kidnappers, or whether, as the historical record indicates, Patty voluntarily switched allegiances, moving from far right to far left, and was responsible for her own actions. The question of the extent we are responsible for our own behaviors or are swayed by larger societal forces is a great question, but unfortunately, it is buried for most of this book as the moment-by-moment details of the kidnapping ordeal are laid out.
It seems to me that even mediocre authors can write tragedies. As long as a protagonist is reasonably sympathetic and something awful occurs, the reader is left feeling sad. It is a whole lot harder to write a credible love story and yet Nina George has succeeded in assembling a novel of sublime passion about characters who love one another, lose one another and their internal compasses, and find love and themselves once again. Jean Perdu, a Parisian bookseller, has a lover that leaves him without explanation, irrevocably breaking his heart. A new, appropriately aged, attractive, female neighbor moves into an upstairs apartment, weeping copious tears over a recent divorce. Perdu prescribes books to enhance her crying. Then he leaves on a journey by boat through France’s canals and through his memories. France’s landscape and Perdu’s mind shine brightly. The production of this audio book were excellent, too, bringing the handful of characters in this tight little play lovingly to life.
There is nothing like beginning with fresh ingredients and a sourdough crust made from my Saudi Arabia starter. Those crusts always turn out chewy and full of complex flavors that can sometimes add a kind of creaminess and sourness, almost a little yogurt-like to a dough. In the case of Saudi Arabia starter, the yogurt flavors are Middle Eastern so more sour than American yogurt. We did this meal a couple of weeks ago with Isaac, the Grand Vizier of Sandwich, working with arugula pesto, sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil, hydroponically grown basil, rings of red onion, organic peppers, black olives, mozzarella, parmesan, and romano. Six pizzas later we were very happy.