Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for her oral histories of Russia and the Soviet Union. Secondhand Time includes exquisitely curated accounts of members of the Former Soviet Union beginning with old-timers that can still recall Stalin. She speaks with citizens still longing for the stability Stalin’s rule ensured and intermingles enough survivors of the gulag to make clear that nothing was worth the bloodshed and destruction that accompanied Stalin’s tyranny. She continues with accounts from the post-Stalin era through the Yeltsin restoration of order and Gorbachev’s opening to capitalism. Her interviewees make abundantly clear that replacing the communist ideal of equality for all with the frenzied shark attacks of capitalism has not been a smooth nor beneficial transition. The oligarchs have profited beyond anyone’s wildest needs and the needy have been left to struggle to survive. Young people that have never known anything but capitalism, according to their elders, worship materialism over community and mutual support. Like many Russian pieces of literature, Secondhand Time is extensive and thorough, almost as if you were in kitchen after kitchen drinking Russian tea and then vodka deep into the night. The final picture is masterful, with one caveat. Alexievich never really describes her methods and there is some evidence that she has moved quotations from one speaker to another in different publications suggesting some of her books might be as much fiction as non-fiction. That changes how you read her, I’m afraid.
March: Book Three by Andrew Aydin, John Lewis, and John Noel Claude Lewis **** (of 4)
This is the final installment of the biography of Congressman John Lewis’s youthful campaign for civil rights for America’s black population. Books One and Two cover the fight for desegregation in the later 1950s and early 1960s. Book Three details what it took to force President Johnson to introduce legislation allowing the federal government of the United States to override southern states that forbid blacks from voting. For years John Lewis led the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee through peaceful demonstrations to enable Americans with dark skin to register to vote like other Americans. Repeatedly, men and women approaching courthouses hoping to register were met with police beatings, enabled posses of armed white men, obstinate white judges, and murderous Klansmen. The story is a bloody one and sprinkled throughout are references to an event that was unimaginable in 1964: John Lewis, the Congressman, attending the inauguration of Barack Obama. And yet, today, gerrymandering of voting districts mean that Republicans (with negligible support or accountability to black voters) control the Presidency (who did not win the popular vote), both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, and a majority of governorships and statehouses. Everyone should read this book. And consider kneeling during the National Anthem.
The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty ** (of 4)
It is a great idea for research that is long overdue. Michael Twitty explores the role of enslaved Africans in shaping American foodways. Think about it. Africans captured in Africa and transported for sale to American owners brought with them foods and methods of cooking they knew from home. In America they were forced to work in the kitchens of slave owners and to keep themselves from starving to death too quickly — fieldwork for Africans was no different in duration or difficulty than it was for horses and mules — they grew small household gardens when they could. In short, their influence on what we know of today as southern cooking was deep and wide. Twitty is fascinating just by himself: black, gay, Jewish, historian, and foodie. Where the book falters, unfortunately, is the confusing intertwining of food history, Twitty’s autobiography, and his search for his genetic roots. By themselves, each story is a fine thread. Together, they are a hopelessly tangled series of knots and broken leads.
In the Kingdom of Ice by Hamptom Sides **** (of 4)
At the end of the nineteenth century, because no one had ever been there, the virtual consensus among geographers was that the North Pole resided in a warm, open sea. One needed only to sail a ship through the ice surrounding it to reach the open ocean. In 1879, Captain George DeLong and a crew of 30-plus sailors set off for the North Pole. At end of the their first year, their ship, having failed to find open water, was instead frozen in place, where they remained out of communication with the rest of the world for three years. Half of their time was in near total darkness and nearly all of their days and nights were below freezing. Finally, sheets of ice crushed and sank the U.S.S. Jeannette. The crew walked and sailed for hundreds of days across ice floes and freezing oceans with hopes of reaching the coldest landmass on earth, the north coast of Siberia. The test of human physical and psychological endurance is simultaneously contemporary and otherworldly. The relationship of European and American men to the environment, native people of the Arctic, to women, and stoicism is history not to be overlooked.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance **** (of 4)
The simple description is on the cover. J.D. Vance, a self-denominated hillbilly from Kentucky, describes what it took to grow up in a family devoid of education and reliable jobs, hounded by alcoholism and drug addiction, subjected to intransigent poverty, educated in mediocre schools, raised by a seemingly endless array of violent adults, and adjacent to families of nearly identical misery (each in their own way, of course.) Vance escaped. He joined the marines, went to college, earned a law degree at Yale, and became an excellent writer, who by the age of 32, could pen a memoir that gives insight into a culture as foreign to educated eastern liberals as any alien culture could be. Vance has been hailed by conservatives for his bootstrapping success and for his insistence upon calling out hillbilly culture for its own moral failures. He has been decried by left-wingers for failing to point to structural inequities in American society that make it so difficult for the poverty-stricken, black or white, to break free of their plight. The reason Vance won me over comes at the end of the book. When he asks himself what policies or programs need to be enacted to overcome the downward spiral of America’s white underclass, he responds with uncertainty. There is no simple solution, he argues.
The Wildlife of Our Bodies by Rob Dunn *** (of 5)
Rob Dunn is a microbiologist determined to make the invisible world of microscopic organisms present in our everyday lives. In this book he focuses on the human body and its evolution from wild animal to modern species. He points out, for example, that our appendix, long thought to be vestigial, actually served a purpose as an island for productive bacteria to grow. When vicious bacteria, like cholera, wipe out the productive flora in our gut, our large intestines could be repopulated with good bacteria from our appendix. In another example, Dunn points to new research suggesting that our immune systems evolved in cooperation with parasitic worms and when antibiotics and modern hygiene removed these from our digestive tracts, autoimmune disorders blossomed. Lupus, allergies, asthma, Crohn’s and similar diseases are plentiful in the world’s most developed countries and virtually nonexistent in countries where parasites persist. There is some evidence that infecting sick patients with parasitic worms can bring relief. Dunn sometimes gets so excited by new discoveries that he effervesces for pages when he could just get to the punchline.
Dark Money by Jane Mayer *** (of 4)
Jane Mayer has followed the money trail from a small, quiet group of far right wing billionaires to recipients aligned with their political ambitions. Led most famously by the libertarian Koch brothers, this cabal has donated hundreds of millions over the last two decades to academics, think tanks, media outlets, and politicians. Their goal has been eliminating regulations, preserving tax loopholes for the wealthy, gerrymandering political districts to negate votes of liberals, discarding government health and education programs for low-income Americans, and forestalling any action on climate change. With the exception of Obama’s terms in office, nearly every one of their objectives has been achieved. The Supreme Court, Congress, Governerships, State Houses, and Presidency are all dominated by the political rightwing. Because Republicans at every level of government toe the line drawn by the Kochs and similar donors, Mayer suggests that realistically the United States has become an oligarchy ruled by wealthy magnates rather than by democratic process. While she can be criticized for overlooking similar tactics undertaken by liberals or missed opportunities when the left could have used similar techniques, the overall case stands. Huge sums of money strategically disbursed by extreme conservatives has radically altered America’s government and its policies.
SPQR by Mary Beard *** (of 4)
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.
Hero of the Empire by Candace Millard *** (of 4)
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.
The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee **** (of 4)
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.