Monday, December 31, 2012

Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid

Burma: Rivers of Flavor

This astonishing compendium of Burmese country foods is a travel guide as well as a cookbook. Duguid has long experience in South Asia, and has worked hard to translate foodstuffs and measurements into something Western cooks can create in their own homes. She tells stories, too, of where she gets the recipes and how she’s seen ingredients used. She tells of places she’s visited and people she’s met—after a couple hours with this gorgeously photographed book one feels as though one had spent a week away. It is positively transporting.

Any aspiring visitor to Burma should have a look at this to get a sense of what one will encounter. Duguid makes one comfortable with local greens, and discusses how, despite Burma’s long coastline, river fish are most prized. Contrary to the expectations of many, not all dishes contain red-hot chilies—often these are condiments that one can add to one’s dish after cooking, along with a series of herbs or pastes, so that one may moderate one’s intake.

Interestingly, Duguid explains that Burma may be a vegetarian haven, for many dishes are meatless or can be modified for meatless cooking, using a fermented soybean paste dried into a cracker “tua nao” for flavoring instead of fish sauce or shrimp paste. She introduced me to “Shan Tofu,” a chickpea-flour tofu that she calls “one of the great unsung treasures of Southeast Asia.” Besan, or chickpea flour, is whisked into salted water and heated on a stove until shiny and thick, then poured into a shallow dish to cool. It resembles a cooling polenta in texture, but holds together in soups or salads, and it can be sliced or cubed, eaten plain or fried. I made a brilliant vegan Ma-Po Tofu** with it and I’m going to try it “savory baked” as well.

Another intriguing dish I’d like to try immediately is a porridge made of jasmine rice and peanuts which resembles oatmeal but which is spiced with chili oil and blanched greens, fried shallots and crushed roasted peanuts. It is a blank canvas on which to riff one’s highly flavored specialties. Duguid suggests this sauce can be amended to become a sort of white pasta sauce to serve over rice noodles…adding ingredients until one has a meal-sized mixture of food held together with a spiced rice paste. Very intriguing.

Every library should have a copy of this book. It is a beautiful, recent introduction to life in Burma and it is indispensable for a traveler.

** from Vegan Eats World by Terry Hope Romero

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Portsmouth Alarm by Terri De Mitchell

The Portsmouth Alarm: December 1774

Portsmouth, New Hampshire. December 1774. The Continental Congress of the colonies had recently proposed a boycott on British imports and New Hampshire residents were enforcing it. Committees of Inspection made sure they did. Committees on Communication carried important information between the provinces, and in mid-December 1774, Paul Revere rode to Portsmouth to tell them the cache of gunpowder for use by Massachusetts’ residents had been taken by British soldiers.

Thus begins this young adult historical novel, centering on the perspectives of three teen schoolmates at the Latin Grammar School of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. DeMitchell conveys a marvelous sense of place and time, for even today we are able to visit the buildings she speaks of and can immediately connect to the cold and windy weather. Portsmouth is remarkably preserved, as those who have visited the Strawbery Banke Museum can attest. The Town of Portsmouth was named one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2008 Dozen Distinctive Destinations.

Best of all, by using the distinct viewpoints of three boys, DeMitchell outlines confusion among the populace about allegiance to the crown or whether residents should unshackle themselves from British rule. Each of the boys must make his own decision about the events that unfold after Revere’s warning, but the historical import of the colonists’ raid of a gunpowder stash in the Newcastle fort is clear to us today. Only four months later, battles in Lexington and Concord are now regarded as the beginning of America’s Revolutionary War.

This novel is an aid for young adults (ages 10-16) to understand the complexity of the issues facing residents in pre-revolutionary America. The drama is quite close and clear to the reader, and gives one a strong sense of history. It could be a useful teaching tool in conjunction with a classroom curriculum module and I thrill to think of the fabulous field trips that can be taken in conjunction with studying this period of history. The buildings are relatively close together in Portsmouth and Newcastle (short bus rides), and the atmosphere is old New England braced by sea air.

This book is due out January 2013 by Mayhaven Publishing.

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Vegan Eats World by Terry Hope Romero

So, I am not a new vegan, nor is this my first encounter with the extraordinary skills of Ms. Romero. But this is one of the most exciting and completely Braveheart recipe collections I have ever seen. And Romero never left Queens! How is it possible?

Romero reimagines classic dishes from cuisines around the world from a vegan viewpoint, something I had almost thought impossible. But she captures the flavor, color, and sense of the original with flair and originality and for the first time I have been able to wholeheartedly enjoy the world’s diverse bounty.

I was able to enjoy Pumpkin Kibbe even though I did not have a food processor to grind the pumpkin and bulgur together. I used a 100-year-old hand-crank table-top meat grinder and the result was sublime. I especially enjoyed the Yogurt Cashew sauce, and the recommended very hot chile harissa paste that accompanied the recipe. Both added immeasurably to the authentic taste.

One thing I was familiar with in years gone by were Chinese steamed BBQ Char Siu “bao” and I was thrilled to be able to recreate the wondrous experience of eating them again. The recipe is flawless in terms of taste, though I can’t imagine any Chinese person using several pans to prepare the filling. The cornstarch in water can be stirred into the roasted seitan hot from the oven.

I get wild cravings for good Ma-Po Tofu and Romero has included a brilliant recipe that works beautifully. I sprinkle on a few toasted Sichuan peppercorns for garnish because its distinct aroma makes the dish taste and smell authentic. I used a new-to-me tofu made from besan, or chick-pea flour. The recipe can be found in Burma:Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid.

Romero's Thai dishes are superb as well. The famous Tom Yum soup does not miss it's shrimp and the Grilled Seitan Noodle Salad made me feel quite as though I had just spent the day lounging seaside in the sun. A bottle of organic lime juice does wonders in making the dishes taste authentic.

Romero reprised a few of the indipensable Latin dishes she introduced to us in Viva Vegan!: 200 Authentic and Fabulous Recipes for Latin Food Lovers but that book is filled with other wonders you won't want to miss. It is worth it's weight in gold for finding a way to make meat in Latin recipes totally irrelevant and it has recipes North Americans might find closer to home.

Romero has done aspiring vegans a huge service by providing recipes from around the world. She has added diversity and color, flavor and interest to our menu and these dishes can be served with panache and joy to those curious onlookers to a vegan lifestyle.

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Comfort and Joy by India Knight

Comfort & Joy

If you’d ever thought Christmas was a mad, mad time of the year, check out this laugh-out-loud funny story of a twice-divorced mother, Clara, who loves the Christmas spirit so much that she continues to host her two ex-husbands and her former mother-in-law every year along with her own extended family for a wild and merry day.

Christmas tradition is sacrosanct and our heroine (what else could we call her?) manages to make especial truffle treats for the vegetarians of the group while satisfying everyone else’s wish for family favorites. She spends more on the people she doesn’t like than the people she does like simply because she puts purchases off longer and doesn’t want to offend. She uses old Christmas decorations along with new, but makes each year a more beautiful and perfect version of the past.

If you are exhausted in the rush to make Christmas perfect, take a moment to savor the world created in this novel: the girlfriend secrets, the mother-daughter, mother-son, and sister-sister interactions are all priceless, to say nothing of having one’s ex-mother-in-law to one’s idea of a perfect holiday. All that can go wrong will go wrong, but for the stalwarts among us, Christmas is a state of mind.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo

Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War

This extraordinary debut by Annia Ciezadlo is memoir of her time covering wars, loving Mohamed (her husband), and trying to make a home in the Middle East since 2001. Reading this memoir is like being with a friend on a crowded New York City subway: she tells the story loudly over the clatter of wheels and we (and everyone else) are riveted to her startlingly vivid tale of love, war, revenge, and mothers-in-law. And Food—it’s as though she “has prepared a feast for us with her own hands.”

Ciezadlo makes no bones about it: she is obsessed with food. Food spells happiness, love, and generosity of spirit. Food matters. She has a distinctive voice: “dark purple figs, wrinkled and soft as a baby’s balls”; “eggplants like giant obsidian teardrops”; “tomatoes puckered into little baboon butts”; “bananas hanging like spider-bait.” Her exuberance in finding the real heart of Middle East in the kitchens there is infectious and joyous. We long for the sun, the taste of olive oil, the smell of bharaat, the clamorous markets, and the riot of colors. We wish we knew her and hope she will tell us more.

A description of her attempts to recreate recipes from basic home cooking is one I will never forget because it happened to me as well. The “simplest” dish of onion, potato and egg can be an utter mystery if one has the proportion, the heat, or the order slightly awry. Ciezadlo’s search for an apartment with a kitchen in Beirut is epic and filled with irony, pathos, and humor. I now have an infinitely better idea of what it means to live in the Middle East. A memoir like this, filled with insight (and recipes!), is a loving and important introduction to the Middle East. Buy a copy for yourselves and buy one to give one away.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Blacksad by Juan Díaz Canales, Juanjo Guarnido

This gorgeous, sumptuous collection of graphic episodes in the life of John Blacksad, Cat Cop, is involving and adult. This is graphic art at a pinnacle of sorts, where the characters are speaking animals who demonstrate both their animal and human natures. The text and the art is loaded with references to familiar cultural touchstones so the meanings are many-layered, often amusing, always fascinating.

I am curious that the authors were both born and living in Europe, and yet the stories are American-based. Perhaps the medium, born (?) and developed in the United States, carries so many references in its form that the authors wanted to keep that authentic feel. This is noir, and Canales and Guarnido excel in depicting the gritty streets.

The stories are good—always some difficult resolution to a thorny ethical issue--but the drawings are spectacular. I particularly remember a depiction of a street in the shadow of leafy trees, the clear or reflective glass of eyeglasses or skyscrapers, and two people talking in an aquarium--the angle being from inside the tank. But every pane is a miracle of sophisticated artistry that one can marvel over again and again. This is not child’s fare, but for a discriminating adult.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

When I first picked up The Dog Stars , I didn’t know anything more than the cover copy gave me: “savagely funny and achingly sad, a breathtaking story about what it means to be human.” Just my cup of tea. A woman at checkout said, “This is considered one of the best books of the year.” I waited for her to say more, to personalize her review, but she didn’t, so I thought I’d be able to tell for myself shortly.

Actually, it was definitely one of the best books of my year but it wasn’t because I learned “what it means to be human,” but because Heller told an old-fashioned story in a new way. I could have read on, far past the last pages. The writing was stellar. Tension and restraint braid the narrative and propel the story. Heller took us on a flight in a plane packed with only essentials: he jettisoned anything that didn’t add to the narrative…pronouns, prepositions, even nouns and verbs were flung aside. If less is more, we get just enough to set our imaginations free. I loved it.

The setting is post-apocalyptic times. Let me state that this is not my favorite venue. But readers who find might someone else’s vision less than fully imagined, put your reservations aside in this case. This vision is fascinating, but it is the writing that makes the experience. There is a clipped, muscular quality to this narrative that kept me rapt. Heller managed to make even his hard-bitten characters completely absorbing, flawed but generous in unexpected ways. These are characters we care about. And I suppose it is about what humans want and need to thrive. While it’s frightening at times, it is not dreary, not really. It’s a love story.

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Monday, December 3, 2012

Rosemary Verey: The Life and Lessons of a Legendary Gardener by Barbara Paul Robinson

Rosemary Verey was a British garden designer with a distinct style based on historic gardens of old. Her inventiveness was allowed full rein within the constraints of geometric patterns: the outline of the gardens was defined somewhat strictly and marked with box balls and clipped hedges, but within these boundaries a brilliant collection of perennials, shrubs, bulbs and herbs complemented one another and competed for space and gave the impression of an orderly chaos.

There was a moment in our [American] recent history when new homeowners and gardeners yearned for just such a profusion of structure, color, and character, and lionized anyone who could help them achieve it. Rosemary Verey was just such a one: a woman of strong opinions, she could teach those interested how to create memorable plant pictures suitable to specific conditions. But we learned as all artists soon do that success is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. The labor-intensiveness of her most successful schemes makes one reassess the time commitment after enjoying the fruits of one’s labors for a few years.

Fortunately most of Verey’s books were available to me when I began my flirtation with gardening. She enriched my imagination and most of all encouraged boldness and a degree of daring (but no orange). Barbara Paul Robinson, the author of this Verey biography, reminds us of Verey’s oft-repeated remonstrance: “It is a sin to be dull.” Dull Verey was not, and she could evoke strong feelings in most people who touched her life or her work.

Verey’s gardens remind me a little of jazz musicians. A great and successful jazz musician (Branford Marsalis?) once said that great art is not completely improvised: it is creating something new within the constraints of an accepted form. I like the idea of constraints, because we all have them, and some do better than others when operating inside of them. And this is so for Verey. The gardens she created will always be lovely, but they won’t have her individual spark of genius without her.

Born in 1918, she lived a traditional middle class life until her children left home, and was in her forties when she began creating gardens around the house at Barnsley in the Cotswolds that her husband had inherited as the only son of a long line of clergymen. She began with garden designs unearthed in her historical researches, and began to riff on that, adding a profusion of sometimes new and complementary plants within the formal outline.

Verey had an outspoken and outgoing personality that was much prized and admired in America, though perhaps less so in Britain. She had opinions on everything, but her real focus was gardening in a particular style. And that is perhaps why her star has waned. What she brought to us was an obsession and said “you can do it, too.” We liked to think so, but alas, we could not. We hadn’t the time, the army of gardeners, the wealth, the vision, the dogged pertinacity.

Robinson the author shows us Verey the woman: whatever her flaws, they are presented within the context of very basic human needs for companionship, closeness, intimacy. This is a fascinating portrait of a woman working within the constraints of her own nature, excelling in some things while doing less well on others. The trajectory of her life gives us material for meditation in our own gardens.

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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids

This spare, elegiac memoir about Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith has something of the Christian iconography about it: if words were installations, one can imagine an altarpiece with the Virgin Mary and perhaps a crucifix surrounded by velvet, feathers, bits of lace, and little skull beads…not kitschy, but strong, puzzling, edgy. Patti Smith is a force, though perhaps one might say she is the negative to Mapplethorpe's positive in the first part of the book: the black negative to Mapplethorpe’s clear clean photograph. In the last half of the book, Smith herself is the positive and lighter image, and entirely clear. And what an unforgettable picture it is.

Smith and Mapplethorpe were soulmates, and she accepted him unconditionally. That closeness and lack of criticism gave them both room to develop in a environment of mutual trust. Even if Smith didn’t agree with, nor completely understand, the impulses that ruled Mapplethorpe she was his first proponent. She grew into her own art even as it grew in her. She was often unsure of the work, but not of the path. By now she might be considered a swami for the equilibrium she exhibits in writing this book. Amerigo is the first song on her new album, Banga, out in 2012, and in it she says “they called us Caribe, which means men of great wisdom…” Perhaps only now can she say that, but she has earned it.

I loved reading of those moments when one change (in appearance, friends, or piece of art) made an enormous difference in how Smith or Mapplethorpe were perceived. She makes it sounds like a chemical reaction–that moment a salt solution becomes crystal.

Her sound is even better for my knowing her history. A life in the pursuit of art is something extraordinary, and this telling of it is breathtakingly lovely and clear and spare. Not the life, especially, but the telling of it. Perhaps Mapplethorpe and Smith were destined to meet, but imagine for a moment they did not. Smith was perhaps the less fragile. We can’t help but wonder at the path they took and how, necessarily influenced by externals as we all are, things would have been for them in a different constellation. Great read.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

March by Geraldine Brooks

It feels like a long time since I’ve read such an accomplished novel. Geraldine Brooks manages to catch the horror of war in a phrase: “…[men] were clinging [to the rocky bluff over the river] as a cluster of bees dangling from a hive, and slipping off in clumps, four or five together.” Her characters are so richly drawn and steeped in a historically accurate language that we feel transported, and are eager to delve into our own researches.

In this novel she recreates the environment of one of our most beloved and earliest American writers, Louisa May Alcott. But instead of walking on furrowed soil, she moves back to imagine Alcott’s father, using his own journals and those of his friends, as well as the journals of Civil War chaplains, soldiers, medics, and slaves. She chose an unusual man, but she made him gracious, sympathetic, fallible, generous, and loving. This is essential to carry us through those bitter days of the Civil War, for we need a man willing to mull over events of that time but also to guide us.

He was sincere, but must have also been painfully strict with his family:
…I had come in stages to a different belief about how one should be in this life. I now felt convinced that the greater part of a man’s duty consists in abstaining from much that he is in the habit of consuming…None in our household ate meat but now we learned to do without milk and cheese also, for why should the calf be deprived of its mother’s milk? Further, we found that by limiting our own consumption to two meals a day, we were able to set aside a basket of provisions from which the girls were able to exact a pleasure far greater than sating an animal appetite. Once a week they carried the fruits of their sacrifice as a gift to a destitute brood of German immigrants.
I laughed to read this, for the sincerity of the father must be the disappointment of the daughters.

Part I is written in the voice of Captain March, chaplain of the Union Army. Though we learn the deepest secrets buried in his heart, we never learn his first name. Part II is written in the voice of his wife, Marmee March née Day of Concord, Massachusetts. The juxtaposition of the two voices shows us once again, should we need reminding, that gestures alone between husband and wife are often miscontrued and that we should try to give careful voice to our meaning and intentions if we wish the union to succeed.

“Ragged scallop of cypress woods”, Jo's “lawless strands” [of hair], “a cold drizzle [falling] from heavily swagged clouds”: such phrases spike the book with rich flavor and bursts of color, and these are all Brooks. It is a masterpiece of historical reconstruction, but what I reveled in most was her smooth and seamless telling of the tale in backward glances and nineteenth century cadence and language, her use of metaphor, her rich imaginings, and its grounding in historical record. We can thank her for reminding us of our history and for remembering those men and women who left records of their lives and of our most uncivil war.

For those contemplating the audio version, the narration by Richard Easton is magnificent. His reading's fluency of expression and elegance of tone mirrors the beauty of the text.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Disciple of Las Vegas by Ian Hamilton

The Disciple Of Las Vegas (Ava Lee #2)

Okay, so I love this series featuring forensic accountant Ava Lee. Ava Lee lives in Toronto and collects debts for a living. This involves lots of travel, bags of stamina, and oodles of personality. But I must admit Ms. Lee shocked me with her ruthless intent on this one. She actually commanded a henchman to proceed with a gruesome threat she'd made to...a ruthless con man. That cool distance in her calculation had always made her seem scary and thrilling but when one actually witnesses her threat made real, it is far less appealing and far more lethal. Now that she has drawn blood, we find ourselves as readers firming up, standing back, calculating, cautious. No longer just lighthearted fun, this makes us ask ourselves what we would have done, or what we would have had our character do. We have to justify following her avenging course.

The impingement on our moral sense carries throughout the book, and I find myself distancing myself from her. I read this series out of order, so I still had a glib, happy-go-lucky feeling reading book #3, The The Wild Beasts of Wuhan. I would have to reasses my take on that book in light of this one.

In this, an online gambling concern manages to tweak the system so that the owners of the site can view competitors cards and win money illegally. One of the losers happens to have a rich uncle who hires Ava to get his money back. So far, all of the books in this series have more than held my interest--I am intrigued with the legal and moral complications of forensic accounting.

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Monday, October 15, 2012

Interventions: A Life in War and Peace by Kofi Annan

It is difficult to imagine someone admitting to being in the leadership of an organization that allowed, with or without intervention, the major atrocities of the last decade of the 20th century. I may be a person who would have gone home spent and embittered with the taste of iron on my tongue. But Kofi Annan did not walk away, nor did he turn his eyes from the terrible events his leadership at the helm of the United Nations was unable to prevent. He does try to explain how it happened that the world stood by while Rwanda ran with blood.

Kofi Annan became head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in the U.N. in March of 1993 and received the rank of under-secretary-general. The Battle of Mogadishu, also known to Americans as “Black Hawk Down,” took place on October 3rd and 4th, 1993.

It was in the immediate aftermath of that devastating event that Force Commander Romeo Dallaire in Kigali, Rwanda sent an urgent request in early 1994 to raid the arms cache of the ruling Hutu political party, having received intelligence that the group was considering exterminating Tutsis, including killing Belgian U.N. peacekeepers in an effort to force a pull out. No government was willing to sacrifice domestic troops to “messy entanglements in a civil war.” So Dallaire was ordered to stand down.

Kofi Annan became the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations January 1, 1997 and left that role December 31, 2006. After his election to Secretary-General in 1997, Annan began to institute a new overarching policy: The responsibility to protect and intervention as a duty of care. The NATO bombing of Serbian troops in Kosovo in 1999 began without Security Council agreement. “There are times when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace.”

This personal history is readable. There are times in our lives when we follow world events with half an eye. With the disintegration of newspaper coverage in recent years and the change in news delivery to online blurbs, radio, or TV newscasters, all using the same quotes from leaders and spinning them as they will, it is difficult to get a real grasp of how diplomacy works, or if it does at all.

Annan won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, and what a bitter irony it must have seemed to him then. At his acceptance speech in December 2001, he observed that the world had entered the third millennium “through a gate of fire.” But what I was able to understand from this book is why Annan won the Peace Prize in the first place. He outlines the changes he had proposed to the goals of the U.N. and was able to usher in those changes to a great extent, despite using an imperfect and frustrating organization with competing interests among the players. As the Nobel committee commented at the time: the U.N. redefined sovereignty as a responsibility as much as a right and that sovereignty cannot be a shield behind which member states conceal their violations.

One comes to admire Annan’s strength of purpose and purity of intent throughout his years as Secretary General, and we begin to perceive the outline of U.S. interests in dominating the stage. “One of the great ironies of [the 2003-04 U.N. reform] was the manner in which the United States—which had done more than any other country to establish the U.N.—found itself in the position of being the main obstacle to reforming it.” Annan has nothing good to say about how Israel’s leaders continually shirked their moral and political duty to deal with their occupation of disputed territory, and is equally forthright about Arab states in the region: “decades of misrule heaped on centuries of decline.”

But he tells of his successes, too: putting the individual, rather than states, at the center of the U.N. focus, developing the Millenium Development Goals, bringing to justice noted war criminals, working with businesses and governments to deal with HIV/Aids, averting escalations of aggressions in the Middle East. After leaving office, and using the skills and knowledge he learned there, Annan helped to create a leadership-sharing government in Kenya at the time of the disputed election in 2008. It may be the accomplishment he is most proud of:
My role in mediating the violent 2008 Kenyan political crisis, backed by a remarkable international and African support network, was one for which, in some ways, I had spent my entire decade-long tenure as secretary-general preparing. It was perhaps the hardest, most intensive, and enduring of all my interventions in the affairs of another country, and a deal that required me to draw on every aspect of my experience of diplomacy and energy for peacemaking—this time at the heart of my own continent.”

At the end of the book, Annan discusses the decisions which brought war to Iraq. As a diplomat, Annan felt the decision to go to war was a failure on the part of the U.S. leadership which brought only shame, death, and destruction in its wake. He addresses the Oil-for-Food Programme which became a painful reminder that greed and self-interest often parades as generosity when countries seek their own interests at the expense of another.

What we should give him credit for is that, despite the outrageous challenges an international body faces in light of bruising collisions between member states, such a man would spend his time struggling for gains that make a difference to the poorest and most disenfranchised among us.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Fear Artist by Timothy Hallinan

The Fear Artist

Hallinan has a series featuring Poke Rafferty, an Anglo-Asian male living in Bangkok. In Hallinan’s hands, Bangkok becomes an international center of intrigue focused on its restive Muslim south and juggling its overheated, overaged male spy population who had happily retired themselves only to be called back into harness. More importantly, Hallinan has created his most interesting and powerful female character yet, Ming Li.

Ming Li is the Anglo-Chinese step-sister of Poke and she aids his latest attempt to uncover a psychopath bent on destroying those who know his shadowy past. Young, (female), smart, (vulnerable), and irreverent, Ming Li blasts through accepted modes of spycraft to intuit actions of the players in advance. She does not spare her brother who, as a member of the male ruling class, had no need to learn lessons of body language and intent early on.

What I loved: 1) Poke Rafferty’s humanity. When attacked by a man with a gun, he manages to save his attacker before rushing off to save himself. Fearful as Poke might have been, he was a good man first. Rafferty is willing to believe the best of people he suspects, reserves judgment on their behalf, and stretches to preserve their basic dignity despite their iniquities—not including the really bad man who deserved everything coming to him. 2) Ming Li. Where Rafferty sees ambiguity, Ming Li cuts through the dross with a rapier mind and lays flat broad swathes of bad folk. 3) The way the author ratchets up the tension by having a long-winded Russian collaborator slow the action with pages-long detail at a critical moment when Rafferty (and readers!) just want the facts. It’s a gentle, funny way to tense us up and preserve forward momentum.

Hallinan did very well in raising the temperature of this thriller, but he didn't succeed without flaw: I disliked what I saw as the artificial character of “Treasure” when I first met her. Later, I realized how entirely possible it was to have such a character, neglected, abused, and exploited, when a psychopath is in charge. But the psychopath and the daughter felt like weak links.

And herein lie my only quibble: I would have preferred, were it at all possible, to have a bad man with more ambiguity, depth, and moral equivocation than our bad man here. He was so dark, he seemed like a caricature, and made everyone else a little like a caricature also. I believe the general outline of these characters and places are quite the real thing, with only a few of their sketch lines missing.

But you know what? It would have been a completely different book had Hallinan made it difficult for us with moral ambiguity. One could even argue the bad man wasn't as bad as he made out, since he did something uncharacteristic for his nature at the end of the book, one assumes because he was a father after all. And after the big event in the final pages, only one body was found instead of two, so one of the two that were "taken out" will be back, I fear. Which will it be?

I like Hallinan’s books very much, and when one needs a dose of the heat and flavour of Southeast Asia, or of Thailand's wonderful, complicated "anything goes" acceptance, I recommend having your moral compass realigned by reading a couple of Hallinan's books. Onward [Buddhist] soldier…and tell us more tales.

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Monday, October 1, 2012

Death of the Mantis by Michael Stanley

Death Of The Mantis (Detective Kubu, #3)

This is the best of the Stanley mysteries I have read: they just keep getting better.

Set in a Botswana that we have become familiar with through the Alexander McCall-Smith series THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY, this mystery has the same gentle feel of McCall-Smith’s. The big, lumbering detective Kubu is not a hardnose, but he gets the job done with compassion and consideration, though he nearly bites the biscuit himself in this installation.

The Kalahari landscape is desert and brutally hot--the territory belongs to the Bushmen traditionally. The Bushmen are as exploited and pushed-around as they are admired and feared. They have a central place in this mystery for their tracking skills, survival skills, and talent with poison arrows.

A man is found murdered in the desert. Some shoe-prints are found nearby. No one can think of a motive. The nearby camp of Bushmen is therefore suspected. Bushmen don't like trepassers on their traditional land. (In this they sound remarkably like the Australian Aborigine of old. We know how that turned out.)

Kudos, the Michael Stanley detective team and HarperCollins for getting the formula right for books that will attract a readership and keep the forces of evil at bay!

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Friday, September 28, 2012

Guilt by Degrees by Marcia Clark

Guilt by Degrees
I see all the rave reviews for this title and I credit Clark for being able to create creditable characters in a thoroughly authentic law environment. That is the thing Clark does best: how does a special prosecutor's office sound, what do people actually do, and how do crimes actually get prosecuted successfully? What are the snags? I wouldn’t, however, call it “gritty.”

Clark is a rare creature, and so is her creation, Rachel Knight. Knight manages to get up (late) every day in her suite at fancy L.A. hotel where she lives with its closets of designer outfits that will hide a Glock. Knight retains close friends who can also help her with cases, keeps a sexy man-friend on a short leash, and maintains her figure by fantasizing about food more than she eats it. Much of the pleasure of the book is finding out what she will be eating or drinking, where, and with whom, and hearing her intimate chit-chat with friends. She’s clever, but not so much so that we feel jealous of her. Mostly we feel jealous of her friends, who get so much of her attention. We’d like to be them, knowing we could never be Knight herself. She’s an original.

But why then did I feel as though this was a slight downslide from her first in the series? Knight herself mentions that her heart bleeds for the poor victims of crimes that she prosecutes, but she doesn’t show it. In her job, I might be worse after a couple of years, but one wants to believe the best of those that prosecute serious crimes and those that make lots of (taxpayer) money. One doesn’t want to think they are, after all, lushes with the shells of success.

But this is a series, after all, and there is always variation in the mix. Let’s say this: Clark seems exceptional at a number of things, one of which is writing bestsellers. I wish her the best.

A word about January LaVoy's reading of the novel: LaVoy gets full points for sounding feminine and enthusiastic and interested all the time. She has a voice that keeps its cool no matter what the circumstance. She can be talking about designer clothes or a gruesome autopsy. It's all cool.

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin

This second in a series about the “Complaints” department of Scottish law enforcement is big. In the process of investigating a relatively straightforward sexual harassment claim against a sergeant and his colleagues, the person who made the initial accusation ends up dead. Investigating this new mystery uncovers the scent of corruption and death that extends back decades.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by the estimable Peter Forbes, who makes the Scottish accent understandable but also gives the reading unforgettable flair and flavor.

Rankin gave himself a lot to work with in this plot and scenario, but he managed to hold it all together, and ratcheted up the tension by having one of the three-man team of investigators always pressing to do less and close the case down without the bigger story. But Malcolm Fox, the lead investigator, has blood in the game and will not stop searching. Meaty.

If you haven't read this series, you are missing something special. The audio gives this Scottish tale its nip. Start from the beginning, with The Complaints.

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

NW by Zadie Smith


Author Smith says NW is about language, and I agree. Language is central to our understanding of the characters, and language defines their lives in many ways. I had the good fortune to listen to the audio of this title, brilliantly read by Karen Bryson and Don Gilet. Having access to a paper copy at the same time, I feel confident that the spoken version is an aid to clarity and understanding, and there was true enjoyment in hearing the range of vocal virtuosity by both readers. I did end up listening to it twice.

A clear example of how language can define one is the incident of a boneheaded young man with the posh accent, Tom, selling an old MG to the young man Felix, who had made great strides towards self-realization despite the tug of his background and the brake of his language. Any observer of that scene would immediately suspect Felix of putting the fix on when objectively that would be far from the case. And Keisha, or Natalie as she began calling herself, managed to change most things about her world when she changed her language. She became a barrister and even forgot what it was like to be poor.

But this novel is also about the process of becoming. To my way of thinking, there are only two central characters in the novel, Leah and Natalie. Both resist adulthood, but the choice is not really theirs to make. They become adults despite their attempts to hold back the process, and end up making decisions that demonstrate authorial control over their own lives, stopping their ears to very loud protestations from their inner selves. Therefore they land in adulthood awkwardly, splay-legged and wrong-footed, and must find a way to right themselves again before acknowledging they are older, wiser, and already there.

Several other minor characters, e.g., Annie and Nathan, manage to avoid true adulthood altogether by burying their options beneath addictions. Felix was the one that was most consciously “becoming.” He strove daily to be a better man--for his woman, for himself, for his future family. He made himself happy doing it. He got clean, “was conscious,” and made himself and his family proud. But demons chased him down. Maybe you can’t really ever get free.

In the last third of the book, a 50-something female barrister “role model” dressed in a gold satin shirt beneath the expected blazer, and a diamante trim to de rigueur black court shoes tells Natalie: '“Turn yourself down. One notch. Two. Because this is not neutral.” She passed a hand over her neat frame from her head to her lap, like a scanner. “This is never neutral.”'

Of course I’d heard of Zadie Smith, but I’d never read her early work. She was so popular when she first came into print that I decided to wait to form my own opinion when the clamour died down. Sometimes it is so noisy out there when a new, talented author is heralded that I can’t hear myself think.

I never had the feeling while reading this novel that Smith was haphazard in her choice of images or language. The novel is constructed and in the end one looks up to see graffiti covering a wall with violent scribbles of bright color. Overlaid, a couple words traced in black paint stand out over the rest: SEX RACE CLASS

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Monday, September 10, 2012

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

For readers interested in recent Chinese and Vietnamese history and culture, this novel is an intensive course. The tale begins with a young boy born to Chinese parents in Shantou, China during a period of change (the 1930s). The story takes on epic proportions when he relocates first to Hong Kong and then to Cholon (near Saigon) in Vietnam during the tumultuous period when a series of foreign powers (the Japanese, the French, the Americans) fought wars over Vietnam’s governance and managed to turn a home-grown, bottom-up revolution into a full scale civil war.

Lam succeeds in showing us Vietnam in its blisteringly hot lush beauty, its violent history, and its complicated lines of distinction between natives and non-natives and skin colors: white, brown, yellow. The time period is recent and familiar, but the angle is unique. Events in Vietnam in the 1960s and ‘70s already familiar to readers are imagined from the point of view of residents on the ground and give us an eerie dislocation. We begin to perceive the difficult sets of choices people had for living with war and occupation.

We are also treated to remarkable insights into Chinese mores and mindset when this culture can be maddeningly difficult for Westerners to grasp. The backdrop of what we call the Vietnam War makes the story cinematic, particularly one scene when the Tet offensive hits Saigon and spills into Cholon during a celebratory and drunken banquet hosted by Chen Pie Sou, the Headmaster of the title.

There was one area, however, that I thought Lam didn’t get quite right as a novelist. Lam created a complicated and flawed main character in Chen Pie Sou, which should add to the drama of the unfolding story, and does…eventually. But I had difficulty liking Chen (or any of the characters) through Part I and felt dragged into Part II only by obligation. By Part III, I started to marvel at what Lam had managed to construct, and relished the details of Vietnamese life, and Chinese habits.

Vincent Lam is a doctor as well as a novelist, and he has written a couple of nonfiction medical-related books already, one of which is an info-book for the public on a possible flu pandemic. A nonfiction book of stories, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures: Stories, won many awards and was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover New Authors title. This is his first novel.

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Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

It hardly seems possible this was first written in 1978. It has the feel of a much older book, for Carr has entered the past and settled in there as though it were his. This belongs to that class of novels that wear their truths lightly: nearly every page describes a look, a feeling, a moment that we recognize no matter that the characters precede us by one hundred years.

Shortly after WWI, a returned soldier comes to an old church in the north of England with the intention of uncovering an old mural concealed beneath lime wash centuries before. It is slow work, and it is summer. He is not well paid. There is something to be said for penury. When one has little, one has no shield to wield off experience. When one is hungry, nearly everything tastes good.

J.L. Carr says, in his introduction that his original intention was to write a rural idyll and “I wanted its narrator to look back regretfully across forty or fifty years but, recalling a time irrecoverably lost, still feel a tug at the heart.” (Intro, xxi) The mural, the quiet, steady effort of the work, the townspeople, the vicar and the vicar’s wife, the weather: all these were “lying about in memory and employ[ed]… to suit one’s ends.”

Though slight in size (just over one hundred pages from start to finish), this novel carries with it the stories of all time. It carries it’s knowledge lightly, carelessly even, and will make this book relevant and enjoyable reading for years to come. Thank goodness for The New York Review of Books. They are saving classic literature from oblivion.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Plain and Simple: A Woman's Journey to the Amish by Sue Bender

Plain and Simple: A Journey to the Amish

This book was given to me as a gift with the proviso that I return it to the giver when finished. I read it quickly and then read it again slowly, over a period of months. It has a simple, clear style: the short paragraphs remind one of a literally simple but intellectually dense Buddhist discussion on wakefulness and being. Author Bender makes a journey that many of us might make in a lifetime: from a cluttered, busy, “what am I missing?” lifestyle to one that is far less dense. “You are missing nothing important,” a Buddhist might say.

One day many years ago, Bender the artist saw some old Amish quilts used to showcase men’s tweed clothing in an artful display in a boutique on Long Island. She went back several times to view the quilts, and realized that there was something understated and truly unique in the style:
”Odd color combinations. Deep saturated solid colors: purple, mauve, green, brown, magenta, electric blue, red. Simple geometric forms: squares, diamonds, rectangles. A patina of use emanated from them…

The basic forms were tempered by tiny, intricate black quilting stitches. The patterns—tulips, feathers, wreaths, pineapples, and stars—softened and complemented the hard lines, and the contrast of simple pattern and complex stitchery gave the flat, austere surface an added dimension.

At first the colors looked somber, but then—looking closely at a large field of brown—I discovered that it was really made of small patches of many different shades and textures of color. Greys and shiny dark and dull light brown, dancing side by side, made the flat surface come alive. Lush greens lay beside vivid reds. An electric blue appeared as if from nowhere on the border.

The relationship of the individual parts to the whole, the proportion, the way the inner and outer borders reacted with each other was a balancing act between tension and harmony…How could a quilt be calm and intense at the same time?”
Bender the artist sought, and found, a way into the community that could produce such work. She lived with different groups of Amish for periods of weeks over a period of years in Iowa and Ohio. She learned that the larger group called “Amish” has different sects which live differently, but generally it is a group which focuses on living as a community, each producing what it can so that the whole functions harmoniously.

She did work on a quilt or two, but mostly she was involved in understanding the lifestyle in which one person might produce art but whose work is as prized as someone with lesser skills. This joy in the process, rather than the product or the glory, seemed profound to Bender. She developed an attachment for the nine-patch pattern, and in one of the last chapters, pulls her experiences together in nine observations that serve to calm and direct her when life threatens to subsume her once again.

2. Patch #2 LIVING IN TIME
4. Patch #4 HOME
5. Patch #5 COMMUNITY
6. Patch #6 LIFE AS ART
9. Patch #9 CHOICE

Bender worked to eliminate the clutter from the book, so it is calming to read and has many one-liners that make good daily fare for musing and developing one’s spiritual muscle. One of my favorites: “I learned there is nothing simple about the ninepatch.”

The line drawings decorating the book are just the right touch, and the color plates chosen for the removable dust jacket also leave one looking and thinking deeper. All in all, Bender has succeeded in creating something lasting that can help us get through the bad “patches” in our own lives, and seek the serenity of being at home in our own skins. “Miracles come after a lot of hard work.” A joy, and a classic.

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Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey

Wife of the Gods: A Novel

This first in a series about Detective Darko Dawson of Accra in Ghana made me change my mind. I wanted to read this book ever since I saw it in a bookstore a couple of years ago and was thrilled to be able to dip into it when I came across the audio version this summer. When I first listened to it, I was interrupted three-quarters of the way in and had to set the book aside. I didn’t really mind because midway through the novel I found myself wondering if I should trust Darko Dawson: he turned out to be a less disciplined police officer than makes me comfortable and he used physical force in a truly unsettling way—so that I thought he was unreliable and unsympathetic.

Later, I realized I couldn’t write a review. I was unhappy with the novel, but had taken no quotes to buttress my reaction, so I reread the hardcover, paying especial attention to those areas I thought the central character out of line. Shortly after the point at which I put the book down the first time, I discovered the main character’s activities were likewise disparaged by his boss, who also happened to be “the authorities.” Darko was suspended from work, and censored. That soothed my ruffled feathers and sense of justice, and I finished the book thinking it was a prime example of intercultural learning: the author had written a western-style police procedural set in Ghana, a country with very different cultural mores and habits. I thought it a great success.

The story is as follows: A female AIDS-worker who walks between villages is found strangled in the jungle. Suspected are young men who have shown interest in her single status, AIDS carriers who deny their own status, a local herbalist who suspects she seeks to steal his secrets. Life in Ghana is different, very different, from western life-styles, but murder has the usual suspects: greed, jealousy, sex, money, and resentment or vengeance.

One thing that surprised me was the shock and dismay of a Ghanaian discovering someone was having sex in the jungle. I would have thought that would be a logical place to go if one couldn’t use one’s own home. But no:
”Intimacy in the forest was all right with the gods provided it took place under a roof of some kind.”
Consequently, four poles and a tarp kept everyone happy.

When reading mystery novels set in a country other than one’s own, the reader may enjoy many details of everyday life that bring an unfamiliar region to life. Quartey was successful in introducing us to life in Ghana, but his writing had neither the gentle philosophical guidance of an author like Alexander McCall-Smith (writing about Botswana), nor the furious pace and insistent characterizations of an author like Deon Meyer (writing about South Africa). However, the cultural detail here is fascinating and authentic-sounding and I think the author has broken new ground. When one is not merely copying someone else’s style, one may legitimately be called “an original.”

The audio version of this novel was narrated by Simon Prebble. Simon Prebble is a five-star audiobook reader and I think he did a fabulous job reading the Dick Francis novels, my first real foray into audiobooks. For a long time afterward I only wanted books he read. However, in the case of this book, I didn’t think his plummy voice suited the characters of this novel, and wished the audio publishers had made a greater effort to find someone with an appropriate accent for the region.

The second book in the series, Children of the Street, is available in paperback, or ebook now. The third book in the series is due out in 2012.

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Friday, August 31, 2012

Hanging Hill by Mo Hayder

Hanging Hill

I had never read anything by Mo Hayder before, though I had seen the name. I had always thought the author was a man. Hayder is a mystery writer who earns one-word endorsements from other mystery writers: “Stunning,” “Haunting,” “Disturbing,” “Terrifying.” All of these could apply to Hanging Hill. What struck me, however, was the size and complexity of the vision—she doesn’t implicate just one policeman, nor find just one psychopath—there are several. Evil swirls all around us, every day. And each of us has the capacity for the most heinous crimes.

This is not exactly reassuring, which is why her novels have earned description as “the most terrifying crime thrillers you will ever read.” If this latest novel represents her skills, I have to admit I found it terrifying that so many ordinary-seeming people (including government officials and law enforcement) were implicated by the end. There seems no end to the deceit and criminality.

Willing as I am to suspend disbelief when it comes to novels, however, there were many places I could point to that did not add up. But I am not going to do that here, since I believe Hayder’s books speak for themselves. People want to be scared when they open her big books. I can imagine someone buying a new book of hers along with a bottle of plonk and a bag of chips and sinking down alone on the couch for a weekend of blissful terror.

Usually I can summarize the main theme of a book in one line, but it is especially difficult with this book. Suffice it to say a beautiful young woman turns up strangled along a canal tow-path and this story seeks to find that killer but finds many others as well. We go ‘round and ‘round with suspects, and it turns out each of them is hiding something. I’d love to see what Stephen King says of Mo Hayder.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero

The Neruda Case: A Novel

Chile. The 1970s. The beloved but flawed Allende government falls to the infamously repressive Pinochet government. But just before this, Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning poet-in-residence, tasks Cayetano Brulé, Cuban exile, to find an early lover…to see if the child she bears shortly after their Mexican love affair is indeed Neruda's own. This 2012 translation of a work published in 2008 gives us an intimate, if fictional, portrait of Pablo Neruda. Author Ampuero, in an afterword to the novel, speaks of his idolization of the artist in Santiago as a child, which grew into a fascination with Neruda’s life. Ampuero wanted to show Neruda as he was—a complicated man of great contradictions.

I favor a nuanced view of great artists and leaders. Ian McEwan wrote of a fictional Nobel Prize-winning scientist in Solar, and managed the nuance mixed with much ribaldry but did not base his work on just one man.

An interview with Ampuero in the online magazine The Daily Beast states that Neruda was in fact a serial monogamist, just as he is depicted in the novel. Neruda actually had, and left, three or four wives. I think it is safe to assume that a man who can write movingly about love has experienced it in spades. Great men often have great appetites. Ampuero wanted to show the man as he was, not just as he is imagined to be.

My interest in this novel is the South American-ness of it: the point of view, the seasons, the food, the language. The literature and music spoken of in the book, for whatever reason, is generally what Europeans and North Americans were reading or listening to at the time. Occasionally Ampuero speaks of bolero and carimba, but as now when we read of detectives based in Europe or Africa, oftentimes they are listening to something America or Europe has produced.

Towards the end of this novel, my mind began to wander. I wanted things to progress faster, but I think Ampuero was intent on placing Neruda’s life in its historical context. Perhaps it is my forward American womanhood contrasting with the slow seduction of Ampuero's Latin American maleness that was slightly out of sync--able to enjoy the dance, but not fully relax. Despite my impatience with the slow unfolding of the mystery, I appreciated the fullness of the story by the end. I read elsewhere that there are five books in the Detective Cayetano Brulé series, of which this is not the first. Ampuero apparently now works out of the University of Iowa, where he attended the Iowa Workshop.

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3 to Kill by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Three to Kill

I so love this book. Originally published in 1976 and republished by City Light Books of San Francisco in 2002, it seems the blueprint for some of the best cinema of the past twenty years. It has the unmistakable tongue-in-cheek wildly casual violence of a Quentin Tarantino film like Get Shorty but does it with such savoir faire that one knows this author is a true original. I note the author died a young man in 1995, but he wrote for the cinema also and indeed many scenes in this delightfully concise crime novel seem to contain their own stage direction.

A successful, disdainful sales executive finds himself first to the scene of a car wreck, and having delivered the injured motorist to the hospital, finds himself pursued by hitmen.

It was such a relief to find myself in the hands of a master after a string of effortful new novels: slightly over 100 pages in length, it offers more delight than many do with three times the length. This is as much a classic as a Dashiell Hammett mystery and one hopes and expects Manchette is better known in France than he is abroad.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Broken Harbor by Tana French

Probably by now readers have heard of Tana French, who writes crime mysteries based in Ireland. She has a couple of psychological dramas out there already, like In the Woods and The Likeness. This novel, it seemed to me, exceeds her previous books. She has given us several crimes this time, revolving around a triple murder. There is lots of crazy…crazy that seeps up around everyone’s ankles and slowly, slowly comes up around their noses, threatening to drown the whole lot…detectives and suspects alike.

I listened to this on audio, published by Recorded Books, read by Stephen Hogan. The novel is in the voice of “Scorcher” Kennedy, who gets this major case after a long period working on smaller things. At the beginning he sounds ready, but when his family situation and the case converge and threaten to sink him, he reaches out to save himself.

Broken Harbor has been renamed “Brianstown” when, before the financial downturn, a large new housing development is created out on a strip of land so remote that people feel unmoored, even before the crash forced the builder to pull out. The few sold houses sit amid a ghost community, with unfinished foundations, rusting heavy equipment, and empty, unsold homes. The chilling truth is that this is the largest crime, the theft of lives long before a knife leaves them bloody on the kitchen floor.

Great story.

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