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.
Dead Wake by Erik Larson *** (of 4)
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.
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett ** (of 4)
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.