Sourdough crust. Feta. Freshly picked rosemary. Meaty green olives. Olive oil from a farm in Greece that was handed to us by a friend. The olive oil was velvety, mild, and filled with overlapping flavors of spring and vanilla.
A young British jockey is pulled from his mount by his excessively wealthy father. His new job is to assist as his father runs for a local council seat in his first political election. Someone tries to kill dad while he is campaigning. Then tries again. And again. Benedict Juliard, an amateur jockey not yet 18 years old, has exceptional sleuthing skills and then the book wanders aimlessly and pointlessly. Francis probably wrote the book in a weekend. In just a few pages about a dozen years of history fly by. Dad moves up from his local council seat to become Prime Minister of England. Benedict gets into Oxford, or Cambridge, it hardly matters, gets a job in the best horse-related company in the country and within a couple of years, and a couple of pages, moves up to a position of exceptional responsibility. Finally, the only suspect in the story shows up in parliament and at last Francis gets on with a conclusion.
It is no simple task to recount the thousand year history of the Ancient Roman empire. It isn’t even easy to determine when the empire begins or ends. Compounding the difficulty is Roman proclivity toward record keeping meaning that they have left behind an extensive written record. Moreover, Roman history has been studied and venerated by western historians for nearly two millennia. What makes SPQR stand apart is the clarity with which Mary Beard tells the tale. As a reader you sense that Beard has spent a lifetime reading original texts in Latin as well as innumerable treatises of historical analysis that followed. Rather than being muddled by what must be millions of pages of books and records, Beard has the remarkable ability to observe Ancient Rome from a drone and then zoom into examine individual artifacts. Beginning with the founding of a tiny village in the hills above the River Tiber and continuing until the wider Roman Empire made all of its inhabitants citizens near the end of the 4th century, Beard repeatedly makes clear what can be known from archaeological evidence and what must then be speculation. Readers are given the opportunity to evaluate evidence along with her, free to agree or not with her interpretation. What emerges is a living society with all its contradictions and multiple overlays of countries and cultures, rich and poor, workers and leaders, slaves and freedmen, farmers and laundrymen. It is a nice departure from the glorification and focus on late Roman emperors as if they were Rome’s entirety.
One of the amazing things about sourdough is that you can begin with the same starter, add the same ingredients and just by altering the method of kneading, raising, and baking you can produce such different products. Same batch of starter made the boule on the left and the pizza crust on the right.
Most of the action takes place away from the European trenches of World War I. Instead, Dr. Rivers uses the new field of psychoanalysis to repair the shredded psyches of young British soldiers damaged by their experience. Soldiers in his psychiatric hospital have spent months standing in freezing water, watched their friends disemboweled by exploding shells, inhaled mustard gas, and charged across barbed wire at night in hopes of knifing another young man. Many have simply stopped functioning. They stare, stammer, rock, dream while awake, and scream through the night. Dr. Rivers compassionately encourages his charges to speak of their horrors and slowly nurses them back toward health. The catch being that when he succeeds the soldiers are returned to the front and we are left to ask whether the continuation of the war is sufficiently justified that young men should be reused like cleaned-off bullets. In the case of WW I, we know a soldier’s life expectancy on the front is on average only a few weeks and that young German soldiers are suffering the same traumas, but we also know that acquiescence to German aggression has consequences.
Ove awakens at the same hour every morning and sees no reason to change any part of his routine that begins with close inspection of his immediate neighborhood. He scoffs loudly enough for everyone to hear him at a younger generation raised without learning to fasten the right screw into a wall. Cars should never be permitted where signs prohibit them, snow has to be removed immediately from walkways, foreign-made cars cannot be trusted. Ove, however, is also an immovable barrier standing grumpily and mightily with his back to his friends and family facing down any and all that might cause them harm. It makes most sense to hear his stories firsthand. Go meet him and don’t be put off he growls at you.
Almost from the day he was born into privilege, Winston Churchill was ambitious. Searching for an opportunity to demonstrate his talents and value to the wider British empire, Churchill enlisted in Great Britain’s army in India, ran for parliament (and lost), and finally, still in his early twenties, shipped off to South Africa as a journalist to cover the Boer War. The Boer War was fought between two colonial powers, the white descendants of Dutch settlers and the British with obvious disregard and disrespect for the continent’s natives. During a skirmish when an English train of soldiers was ambushed by Boer fighters, Churchill-the-embedded-reporter, demonstrated extraordinary leadership and selfless heroism before being captured. Then, despite overwhelming odds, he managed a solo escape from a military prison across enemy territory and many hundreds of miles of African desert to earn his freedom. Immediately he enlisted in the army and continued to fight for England. The traits on display in his younger years reappear some three decades later when Churchill’s self-assurance and stubborn belief in the ability of England to fend off an enemy would make him the hero that stood up to Hitler’s Germany. And yet in this post-Obama era of Trump, even an historical account of excessive self-confidence scratches up against the border of narcissism that is so intolerable in a nation’s leader.
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.