Eight short stories about young and old Jews in America and in Israel and every character elicits your sympathy. Antopol starts her stories in the middle of a discussion you might have just dropped in upon and within moments you are riveted by people so real, angst so visceral, and tension so necessary to resolve it is at once remarkable it is only a story that you are reading and even more exceptional that it is a short story at that. In one, a pair of brothers living in Israel must come to terms with the fact that the younger, less talented, and less capable has saved the life of the older, more handsome, and more successful-in-every-way brother. In another, a B-grade actor is released from a year in jail after getting caught up with communist actors and directors during the McCarthy era. A young Israeli, in a third story, is, forced home to live with her parents when her overseas career as a journalist burns out but falls in lust with a slightly older widower who has a troubled teenage daughter. How would you balance an unexpected love affair, fizzled career hopes, your parents, and a teenager living her despairing father and without her mother? Neither the plotlines, nor the list of protagonists does justice to this series of stories that all seem to revolve about a single aphorism. “Be careful what you wish for.” A must read of a young author’s first book — Antopol is in her early 30s.
Even the title of the book isn’t really translatable, encompassing as it does more than a language. Yiddishkeit is a people, it’s culture, and an era of history, all but obliterated by the Nazis. So all the more interesting to take on a language, a sound, and the essence of Ashkenazi Judaism in a graphic novel, that is with pictures. Yiddishkeit, the book and the culture, are a sprawling amalgam of history and storytelling, plays and text, cartoons, and serious literary analysis, and above all, opinionated. Pekar, Buhle, and their coauthors have assembled a textbook with a surprising format, but they capture the spirit and for those of us that love Yiddishkeit, we are glad that they have.
Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world comprised of more than 10,000 islands and hundreds of languages and cultures. From west to east it stretches the equivalent of Anchorage, Alaska to Washington, D.C. In Java, where more than half the population lives you can find hipsters, international businessmen, ungodly traffic, and muslim women covered from head to foot. In the east, in Papua, bushmen live in the jungles. It’s a thriving democracy and an inefficient, bureaucratic, corrupt nightmare of decentralized governance. Ethnic divisions lead to mass slaughters and average Indonesians may be the most welcoming people on earth. In most places you can find decent cell coverage, but might have to wait an interminable week before a boat arrives to take you from one island to the next. Elisabeth Pisani has lived in Indonesia off and on for decades and has done her best to travel from one side of the country to the other talking, cooking, sleeping on rattan mats in crowded huts, and waiting with locals wherever she could. She does a remarkable job of tying personal experiences of the variety of cultures who have come to be ensnared in the modern country called Indonesia to the national experience of a country rattling its way into the global marketplace of ideas and commerce. Pisani’s writing is strong and engaging, but somehow the length of her trip is as exhausting to read about as it must have been to undertake.
Prior to the outbreak of WWII, the British citizen Eddie Chapman spent his youth blowing safes and robbing banks. Passing in and out of jails, Chapman learned new techniques for thievery and when he wasn’t incarcerated, he fell in love, seriously in love, with a series of women. When war erupted, Chapman was languishing in a cell on the isle of Jersey which fell under Nazi occupation and after failing to escape a couple of times figured his best chance for freedom was to volunteer to become a Nazi spy, that is, a British citizen employed by the Nazis to spy on the British. A year or so later the Germans took him up on his offer, trained him, and air dropped him into Britain for the purpose of blowing up a British airplane factory. Chapman’s apparent success led him to become one of the most decorated Nazi spies in history, only soon after landing in England, he also because one of the most celebrated spies in the British secret service, where he acted as a double agent spying on the Nazis. Using newly released documents McIntyre uncovers a fascinating history of the spy war raging between Allied and Axis forces.
Sixteen monks live in an isolated Canadian monastery dedicated to Pure Gregorian Chant, God, and the obscure Saint Gilbert. Until there are fifteen monks because the Priar has his skull crushed. Inspector Gamache and his sidekick Jean-Guy Beauvoir are called to the northern waters and deep forests of Quebec to investigate their eighth mystery in this Louise Penny series. It is Penny’s best. Gamache and Beauvoir do waht they can to penetrate the silent, mysterious, centuries old abbey while the monks practice the same analysis on the inspectors of the Quebec Surete. The monks love chants, the chants mesmerize all who hear them, and questions arise: why are some men called to become solitary monks; others find solace in solving murderous crimes; a few succumb to their inner demons with murder; and some men turn away from music and can only find inner peace through drugs. This is a multi-layered novel that also performs what we so often want from a good mystery. Yes, we have suspense, but we also learn something. Here we are treated to the invention of music, the inner workings of a contemporary, if very remote monastery, and the simple beauty of Gregorian Chant.
Organized in Germany with submissions of breads and blogs from scores of countries around the world, it’s the ninth annual World Bread Day. You can peek at some of the scrumptious listings from around the world here.
I can’t recall how I came across this event but in the three weeks I’ve had to prepare I thought it only made sense to bake with my original sourdough. This starter comes to me from the Cripple Creek Gold Rush in Colorado in 1893. In that time no one has forgotten to nourish it, overlooked removing a cupful for later baking, poisoned it, or let it spoil. Chances are it has always been given freely from one baker to the next carrying forward a baking tradition of using sourdough leaven that dates back to the beginning of civilization. Normally, I bake with only the simplest ingredients: salt, water, sourdough, and flour. This time I had extra buttermilk so I added a little.
This batard is crisp on the outside, super chewy, very sour, and full of whole wheat goodness.
Of course I’ve heard of John Brown, the abolitionist, who tried to start an insurrection and free the slaves by himself. But, truth is, that is about all I knew of him until reading this fictionalized account of his life. The beautifully rendered narrator, who I suspect is the one truly fictional character in the book, is a young black boy nicknamed “The Onion.” Onion is freed from slavery by Brown in the 1850s and lives with John Brown’s army of abolitionist minded children, freed slaves, Indians, Jews, and spotty hangers-on. Only thing is John Brown mistakes Onion for a girl and thus Onion lives disguised as a girl for several years. It is not as strange as you think because survival for blacks under the dehumanizing burden of slavery required any possible ruse to avoid being worked to death (or worse) like a flea-infested mule. Onion portrays John Brown as a religious zealot of such ferocity as to be frighteningly fanatical. Yet, at the same time Brown was the one person in America to move beyond rhetoric regarding the savages of slavery to the very actions necessary required to undo the evil practice. While Brown’s attempts to overtake Osawatomie, Kansas and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia were folly, the Northern States were very soon to follow his example.
The plot entails a battle in city council, in Britain called Parish Council, over whether the poorer neighborhood of Yarvil should be cut free from the upper crust, up-the-hill village of Pagford. The real story, however, is about the members of the community themselves. Everyone, as is often so true in a small town, has a carefully manicured exterior and a story to hide. One wife thinks she might really be in love with another’s husband; a second is bored with her marriage and fantasizes about muscled rock stars; a lawyer is afraid to commit to a divorced girlfriend who has moved to town with her teenage daughter on his account; the high school disciplinarian is dogged by OCD; one husband abuses his wife; and a poor drug addict of a mother has more of a history than meets the eye. Captured most accurately by Rowling are the teenagers of Pagford who wrestle with love, sex, alcohol, cigarettes, acceptance, rejection, and the agony of adolescence. Like her Harry Potter series, which inevitably lingers about this book, Rowling’s insight into what we are all really thinking versus what we wish we projected is spot on. The major flaw is that she follows too many characters. I needed to draw up a scorecard to keep them straight.