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.
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.
Before Colson Whitehead ever gets to the story of Cora’s attempted escape from enslavement, he sets the stage in Africa. Cora’s grandmother and mother are captured beginning a saga of human beings herded, branded, chained, transported, discarded when insufficiently healthy, and sold like so many pieces of meat. Some are consumed, others are tossed overboard or left to rot. Whitehead’s descriptions of the relationship between white slave owners and the human beings they own is a delicately painted portrait of white men using all their faculties to subdue the humanity of their black workers with rape, torture, and psychological brutality. For this portion of the book alone, the real-life portrayal of slavery in the south, The Underground Railroad should be required reading of all Americans. Whitehead’s description of plantation work for slaves also makes the idea of escape almost logical. The alternatives are equally daunting: staying on the plantation means ceaseless labor, sexual assaults, tongue extractions for speaking up, castrations for being black and male and therefore a threat to white men’s sense of superiority, and beatings so severe that infections beneath missing skin are inevitable. Leaving for the underground railroad, in contrast, means fearing owners so desperate to regain their lost property that dogs trained to shred human tissue and professional slave catchers brandishing chains and iron collars will be sent even into free states to recapture lost goods. Cora’s lifelong sprint for freedom is harrowing, accurate, and the story of an underdog for whom you can’t help but root. Her plight is also an important reminder that in the age of Charlottesville the legacy of slavery has not yet been overcome.
The year is 1870. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, veteran of three wars, now age 72, is more or less handed a ten-year-old girl to return to her German family in south Texas. The girl was kidnapped by Kiowa Indians at the age of six and has been recaptured by bounty hunters. Her parents are dead and Captain Kidd is now responsible for returning the girl, who no longer speaks English nor German, to her nearest relatives. Everything about their adventure as the old man and his young companion ride a horse drawn wagon across unsettled Texas landscapes feels authentic. Whereas a less skilled novelist might vacillate between plot, character, and showing off research, Paulette Jiles simply puts us in the driver’s seat. The Texas hills and deserts roll by in perfect clarity. Storms rage over head, the sun beats down, and sometimes it just drizzles for days. Strangers — some friendly, a few weird, and a couple who are downright dangerous — ride up alongside and we face them with whatever skills we have at our disposal. Moreover, the groups who cohabit south Texas are raised beyond typecasting. Kiowa, Spanish, soldiers, women, homesteaders, and settlers are presented as you might expect real people to be. They are complicated. You like some and dislike others. It is a deeply informative and thoughtful ride.
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 twentieth book in the series on detective Marcus Didius Falco, this one in Rome and Latium in the year 77 AD. In this mystery, Marcus, having just inherited an unexpected fortune from his father heads to the pestilential Pontine Marshes to hunt for a missing person and the reason one of his father’s payments was never collected. The marshes harbor malarial insects and the kind of marsh people, and their rabid dogs, you might expect in the remotest hollers of Kentucky. The mystery is typical of Davis’ previous Falco books. The emergence of Falco’s daughter, Flavius Alba, as a burgeoning detective in her own right is downright joyful. The real pleasure of the book, however, is the degree to which once again Davis brings to life ordinary Romans. Their family squabbles, frustrations with intransigent authorities and truculent neighbors, and the hassles of finding reliable childcare are concurrently hilarious, modern, and part of ancient Rome.
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.
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.
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.