Nat King Cole’s “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer” linger on, offering precious time for reading and musing. Today I offer some non-fiction selections.
Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard is a surprisingly powerful and disturbing book. Simard is a Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia. A hardy and sensitive woman whose family was in the logging business, as she initially was, Simard has dedicated decades of scientific research to understand the world of trees – not just as a source of lumber, but as part of an intricate symbiotic system involving multiple species of trees, mushrooms and animal life, all of which nourish each other, sharing water, carbon, nitrogen , sugar and other nutrients.
The title takes its name from the term applied to the largest, oldest tree in a forest cluster, a kind of hub tree sharing its canopy above and, below, extending its roots toward other trees and funghi, each benefiting the others, in a mutual support system. Simard’s breakthrough theories are backed up by hundreds of long-term experimental protocols she designed and implemented. Her data are peer-reviewed and published in scientific journals and magazines like “Nature.” Her ideas are consonant with Aboriginal customs, living as one with Nature over thousands of years. Western science demands statistics, and she provides those. Her chemical theorems and proofs were largely beyond my pay grade, and I often resisted her anthropomorphizing.
But, given what we now deeply know about climate change, her findings – including that our ability to save the planet depends on our relationship with nature – are compelling. How Simard weaves her own life story – her logging background, academic career, struggle against misogynistic ridicule by male loggers and forestry officials, divorce, surviving aggressive breast cancer – throughout the rigorous science makes this a riveting book.
Countdown 1945 by Chris Wallace is about the 116 days from April 12, 1945, when Vice President Harry S Truman learned that President Roosevelt had died, to the dropping of the world’s first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, August 6th and 9th. Germany was already developing such a bomb, equivalent to the destructive power of 21,000 tons of TNT. Roosevelt had left Truman in the dark about the Manhattan Project, the United States’ secret operation to split the atom, design and develop the bomb. Truman had to decide whether to use it.
Ultimately, Truman did give the go-ahead, believing that doing so would, in the end, save lives. A hundred thirty-five thousand people died from the bombs and the aftermath, including many civilians. Military experts estimated that, given the Japanese refusal to surrender even when losing, relying on a ground invasion to end the war would have cost up to a million Japanese lives, 250,00 to a million American casualties, and dragged out the war at least another year.
The atomic bomb narrative is rounded out by dives into the Potsdam and Yalta conferences, and Truman’s relationships with Churchill and Stalin. The moral and practical implications of the course taken have been debated ever since. Wallace and co-writer Mitch Weiss look at the key players in a highly readable way. Even though you know how the story ends, the book is still a page turner and reveals much about history, war, diplomacy, personalities, private agendas in public lives, the role of scientists in a political world, technology, spying and more. An excellent read.
The Last Kings of Shanghai: Two Rival Dynasties and the Creation of Modern China by Jonathan Kaufman tells the epic story of two Jewish families who immigrated to China and became powerful moguls, their families shaping the history of Shanghai for 125 years in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Kaufman is an award-winning journalist who headed the Northeastern University School of Journalism.
The Sassoons and the Kadoories came to China from Iraq with virtually nothing and rose to become billionaires, working hard, deploying their children to build and finance companies in banking, energy development, textiles, real estate, hotels and more. The Sassoons made money in the notorious opium wars and were very tied in with British colonial society, remaining aloof from the Chinese people until later generations. In the 1930’s and early ‘40’s, they helped 18,000 Jews flee from Europe to China in the buildup to WWII.
The Sassoons lost most of their properties to the Communists when Mao took over in 1949 but became an important part of China’s history. The Kadoories had diversified elsewhere, especially into Hong Kong, and, as dominant players in the energy sector, helped to grow the economy as Zhong Kong replaced Shanghai as the great commercial center of China. Both families were heavily involved in various philanthropic endeavors as well as economic development., and both knew how to maneuver with whoever was in power to preserve and grow their families’ fortunes. The Kadoories remain influential today. These intertwined family histories are an intriguing prism through which to understand the roots of 21st century China.
Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal, artist (potter) and memoir writer is another story of family success. If you liked de Waal’s first book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, you will relish reading Letters to Camondo. The Hare was about the Ephrussis, (his mother’s side of the family,) who immigrated from Odessa and built a life of wealth in Paris. De Waal structures this newest book as a series of short letters to Rue de Monceau friend and neighbor, the late Count Moise de Camondo. The Count had arrived in Paris from Constantinople in 1869. A banker, his wealth grew and grew. He became a member of high society, a collector and connoisseur of paintings, furniture, and objets d’art, reflecting a gilded 19th century lifestyle. The author had access to the archives of the Musee Nissim de Camondo, which patriarch Moise named after his son, Nissim, a soldier who died heroically in the first World War. Moise bequeathed his home to the French government on condition that the mansion and its treasures remain intact, exactly as the family left it.
Its attic archives contained a storehouse of ledgers, social calendars, personal notes, correspondence with art dealers, wine lists, instructions to gardeners, and other remnants of a life of wealth, elegance and taste. In inventorying the collection, (the book is richly illustrated), de Waal reconstructs that life. Moise de Camondo , a patron of the arts and other civic causes in Paris, considered himself an authentic Parisian. He was also Jewish, and that was how the world defined him. From the time of the Dreyfus case, he and his family bore witness to the increasing anti-Semitism in France. The count died in 1935 as anti-Semitism was sweeping much of Europe. His descendants would be stripped of their art, their wealth and, in the concentration camps, their lives.
Eventually after the war, many of their belongings were recovered by special commissions charged with returning art and other possessions to victims of Hitler. The Musee Nissim de Camondo is open to the public today, and I have had the privilege (pre-pandemic, of course) of visiting it. I hope to go back again, armed with a deeper appreciation of the family that lived there. The De Waal memoir raises profound questions about what acquisitions, however fine and valuable mean, what they tell us about their owners, and what status (if any) they confer upon their owners, who may think of themselves as authentic patriots and insiders but remain outsiders, defined by the world based only on their Jewishness.