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.
Eight short stories. All of them sad. Englander pitches his stories to test the limits of love in binding marriages, ageless friendships, families, and neighbors. Two matriarchs of Israel’s settler movement are asked if they can continue to stand by one another as personal tragedies and then national tragedies overtake them. Childhood friends from yeshiva are reunited after one has become an ultra-orthodox Israeli and the other the mother of a secular son in Florida. Now both married they sit with their husbands and prod one another: for whom would they would sacrifice themselves to save another’s life? Holocaust survivors pass a lifetime in an Israeli shuk acting upon, but not speaking of the unspeakable. Englander’s stories make us think about our own boundaries and sometimes about what in the world he is up to when, for example, he places a protagonist in a peep show staring first at his Rabbi and then at his mother. The author’s directive is that relationships are untrustworthy.
Sourdough Raisin-Walnut Bread
Here’s a slice of raisin – walnut bread. I used golden and Thompson raisins that had plumped overnight in water and nearly two full teaspoons of cinnamon. The walnuts were just the right counterpoint and the loaf was pillowy soft. An egg and some buttermilk in the dough provided a creaminess in the final product that was new for me. I was expecting more sweetness and less sour, but the raisins did their trick. What a combination of flavors: sourdough, spicy cinnamon, fruity raisins, and nuttiness.
Now check out another sourdough just to see how different breads can be.
Inspired by a blog post Sue sent me I made a sourdough variation of David Lebovitz’s scallion flat breads. Using long, fresh scallions recently harvested from the college garden and a whole lot of whole wheat I let this dough rise for a good long time until it was quite sour. I chopped the scallions, kneaded them in, and let the breads rise again. I pressed each small ball of dough flat and fried them until they were just beginning to toast. Salt, sour, earthy wheatiness, scallions, oil.
By themselves they were a complete food, but wrapped around cheddar cheese, thickly sliced tomato, and a couple of leaves of lettuce and they had to be eaten with closed eyes.
In so many ways Tree of Smoke is easier to describe for what it really is not. The setting is Vietnam, and to a lesser extent the Philippines, in the 1960s, but it is not a war novel. The protagonist, Skip Sands, works for the CIA, but neither is Tree of Smoke a spy story. Rather Johnson’s award winning novel is a detailed chronicle of a number of lives over the course of the 1960s told with page-turning drive and riveting attention to detail. Every baguette served in Saigon tastes a little different from the last. The temperature of the tea is hot on your tongue. The swampy humidity makes your clothes stick to you and each character’s choices in life seem preordained. A pair of down-and-out brothers from Arizona go off to fight in Vietnam and after being discharged continue to fight enemies within and without. A Canadian missionary heals orphans when no one else will because her bible leaves her no alternative. The Colonel is larger than life and for a time bigger than the army until he isn’t. . Uncertainty, like much of life, pervades. America’s role in Southeast Asia is a perfect metaphor.
My longtime friend, Jen, has gone big-time into fermentation. She’s making ginger beer. I gave her a Kombucha scoby that she is turning into super-fizzy kombucha experiments with cherries, limes, ginger, and oranges. So to satisfy her urge to learn sourdough she drove out from Cleveland for a weekend of baking and a jar full of starter. Above, we are holding our stack of barbecued flat breads that we used to smother in baba ganoush. We roasted the eggplants on the barbecue, which is a trick I learned in the Middle East. The charred skin sends a smoky caramelized flavor to the deflated pulp even after you peel it. (You can achieve the same result under a broiler and the strong heat will make the eggplant deflate in record time.) The baba ganoush was warm and creamy when we ate it and the lightly bubbled flat breads were still lightly coated in olive oil from their grilling.
The immortal Irishman is Robert Meagher, surely the most famous and interesting person I’ve never heard of. Meagher (pronounced Mar) was an incomparably gifted nineteenth century orator and supporter of human rights. He formed part of a cadre of Irish intellectuals that fomented a failed revolution against British rule at a time when infected potatoes puddled in Irish fields, millions were starving, and British landlords exported wheat and oats form Ireland to England. In return for defying Queen Victoria and her troops, Meagher was sentenced to death, only at the last moment having his sentence commuted to lifetime banishment in Tasmania. After many years in virtually solitary exile, he escaped to America, overcame harsh anti-Catholic racism, and spoke his way into becoming a leading general of an Irish brigade in the U.S. civil war. Lincoln counted him as a confidant and following his wartime leadership of one of the most recognized battalions on either side of the conflict, Meagher became governor of the Montana territory, reluctant to fight Indians because he understood their plight as being in brotherhood with the plight of enslaved Africans and oppressed Irishmen. Egan’s account of Ireland’s subjugation is exceptionally clearheaded, and his retelling of the Civil War is as compelling as any I have ever encountered.