Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Closer Than You Know by Brad Parks

Hardcover, 402 pgs, Pub March 6th 2018 by Dutton Books, ISBN13: 9781101985625

Brad Parks’ compulsively readable standalone crime thriller is nearly flawless. The author takes risks by making his protagonist a woman, a young white mother married to a black man. While he might make a misstep or two in how a woman might react to rape or a first-time mother might react to being wrongly accused of several crimes and then having her child taken by social services, he has a strong enough case that we keep reading to see how he will explain it all.

Technically, the book moves smoothly between points of view, from accused, to police, to perp, to innocent victim. Our own opinions are in flux as we get pushed and pulled with every new development in the case against the mother. She is a victim several times over, and we can explain her reticence to spill her guts and tell all she knows to her attorney by first considering her foster-care background.

The whole builds up to a situation in which good people can get hurt by other well-meaning people because everyone is being manipulated by normal human perceptions and reactions. Preet Bharara, former Chief Prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, recently wrote in his memoir that one thing he learned in his time at one of the most visible courts in the land that “[a]nyone is capable of anything.”

I read this book at first because the author is the son of one of my brother’s best friends, but I am pleased to be able to report that the skill, talent, and sheer dare-devil chutzpah of the author is on full display. Brad Parks takes risks but is able to pull off the heist. Congratulations, Brad Parks!

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Dreyer's English by Benjamin Dreyer

Hardcover, 291 pgs, Pub Jan 29th 2019 by Random House, ISBN13: 9780812995701

I just love this book. When I first heard Terry Gross interviewing Dreyer on NPR’s Fresh Air, I thought he was trying too hard to make amusing something that can be utterly stultifying. However, when I had the chance to listen to Dreyer reading the book, published by Penguin Random House Audio, I was entranced and delighted. How can this be, you ask. It is counterintuitive that reading a style book on writing would be amusing.

Dreyer’s delivery is dry, dry as a bone, so-o-o dry that I would be laughing aloud, missing his next entry, as he lined up all the stupid stuff we write—the adverbs, extra adjectives, and the ‘very unique’ emphasizers. I was amazed Dreyer could read this text aloud and make sense, filled as it is with examples he needs to capitalize or spell a certain way. I could follow it! And it was interesting. He rarely read from his footnotes, which are copious and useful and also funny, one good reason to get both the book and the audio.

One can even make the case that audio is an excellent format for this material, as rules run into one another and it is complicated and time-consuming to both separate the rules and look them up. Dreyer just gives it to us conversationally, in context, without taking out the ruler.

Practically all of us are writers—indeed, publishers—now, whether we write blogs, notes to friends, or posts for social media. We need to take care our words communicate what we want them to say and not what we did not wish to say. We all must be copy editors as well, and we need Dreyer to tell us what we really mean.

Benjamin Dreyer has worn a lot of hats, all at the same company. He began as a freelance proofreader, moved to Copy Editor, then Production Editor, and finally Copy Chief at Random House, now one of the largest book publishers in the United States. In this B&N podcast interview, Dreyer describes the distinction between those jobs and how, after he moved into management, he had an opportunity to circle back and spend time highlighting discrepancies between good and bad writing. He’s awfully good at it, he’s funny, and he’s seen it all in his nearly thirty years in the business. I kept thinking how much there is to know about using language, even for native speakers, and how useful this material is to all of us. So I went and bought the hardcopy.

Dreyer admits to hating grammar, that is, he hates grammar jargon. Which is just fine because I usually just skip those parts. What the heck, I figure. If I haven’t learned it yet, what good will it do me? I am not a completist. I tried to follow his rules in this review so far as I recall them, having laughed through half of them and listened with half an ear when he hit on something I'd worried over in the past…my memories probing that sore place like a tongue in the socket of a lost tooth. How reassuring it is to me to know that the past tense of wreak is wreaked, something with which I have struggled.

There was a point on a long drive when I started laughing uncontrollably at the sometimes stupid stuff he says. In this case it was
Gory crimes are grisly.
Tough meat is gristly.
Some bears are grizzly.
Mistaken references to “grizzly crimes” (unless committed by actual bears, in which case OK) are extremely popular, although good for a chuckle, and to be avoided strenuously.
“Grizzled” refers to hair streaked with gray—and by extension, it does make a decent synonym for “old.” It does not mean, as many people seem to think it does, either unkempt or rugged.
It’s okay if you didn’t laugh at that. I’m telling you, Dreyer’s wit is cumulative. If you have ever seen those old books by Richard Lederer, I recall one was called Anguished English, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Three generations of my family sat shouting and crying with laughter at the difficulty of writing well.

People who write for a living won’t want to miss this. Journalists, novelists, public speakers, politicians, business people who write reports, social media junkies: When he actually points out our common errors, we admit with chagrin it looks, and sounds, silly.

Below is a sample of Dreyer reading from the book. You can listen to this on a commute, can't you?

Monday, March 25, 2019

Let Her Fly: A Father's Journey by Ziauddin Yousafzai with Louise Carpenter

Hardcover, 170 pgs, Pub Nov 13th 2018 by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN13: 9780316450508

This book caught my eye across a crowded library. What must it have been like to experience the phenomenon that is Malala Yousafzai and what were the earliest manifestations of her exceptionality?

Ziauddin Yousafzai was unusual himself. He and his brothers all had severe stammers growing up, but not his sisters. Of course the boys bore the brunt of family expectations. He took on a challenge to become an outstanding public speaker, delivering a speech his father helped him to craft. When he won first place in the competition, he continued his effort to overcome his speech impediment through public speaking.

Ziauddin was a feminist before the word was popular in Pakistan and when he married and moved with his wife, Toor Pekai, to Swat, his wife took advantage of his encouragement to embrace small freedoms during their life there. Their first daughter would be a much more enthusiastic reformer, willing to cover her head but not her face. Malala often sat with her father’s friends and answered questions of opinion he would put to her. She became a skilled public speaker through his influence, and she won many public speaking awards on her favorite topic: the rights and education of girls.

Malala was exceptionally bright and curious from an early age and attracted the attention of visitors to the Yousafzai household. She also broke down the resistance to change by her conservative grandfather. She attended a school run by her father and excelled, far more than her brothers who were ordinary in schoolwork. The Yousafzai school encourage all local girls to attend, and had a large number.

The campaign in which Yousafzai and his daughter Malala engaged to save girls education had been going against the Taliban’s edicts for about five years when the attack on her occurred. She was fifteen.

There is detail about Malala being flown by helicopter from one hospital to another, to gradually larger ones with more surgical expertise, until she finally is set down in Birmingham, England, where they take off any blood pressuring her brain, happily discovering there was no impingement on her cognitive function. She began a long series of reconstructive surgeries to lessen the impact of the nerve damage to her face.

Living in England turned the family dynamic 180 degrees. Malala had been a strong presence and leader in the family. While she was incapacitated, her younger brothers took on critical roles interfacing with British culture. The parents admit they resisted the power inversion at first, feeling out of their element, but gradually they were grateful for the boys' facility in the new environment and relied on them. The family grew closer in crisis because everyone came to recognize and accept their strengths and weaknesses.

Malala’s recovery was undoubtedly due to support from her family, but also grew from her own inner strength. The damage inflicted on her gave her more opportunity to develop an extraordinary resilience, and the long recovery gave her the opportunity to concentrate on her studies.
Whenever anybody has asked me how Malala became who she is, I have often used the response "Ask me not what I did but what I did not do. I did not clip her wings."
The Yousafzai family members each have a quality of gratefulness that is so attractive, allowing each one to occasionally take a supporting role to another's exceptionalism. That less-lauded role is equally difficult to perform. The entire family deserves credit for surviving with such strength of character, but that specialness may stem from the leadership of Ziauddin Yousafzai, which is why this book is about him.

Friday, March 22, 2019

An Unlikely Journey by Julián Castro

Hardcover, 288 pgs, Pub Oct 16th 2018 by Little, Brown and Company, ISBN13: 9780316252164

Memoirs are de rigueur for anyone aspiring to the presidency. And so they should be, to introduce themselves and to give us an idea from where their sense of duty emanates. Nonetheless, it is disorienting to read the memoir of someone in their forties running for president who never mentions travel abroad.

At least half this book is composed of Julián’s life before he was twenty. For those who argue that “youthful indiscretions don’t matter,” here is someone who clearly thinks one’s sense of self and others grows up with you.

While I might go along with that notion of human development, it is the time after age twenty when we have to make decisions that really show who we are. After graduating from Stanford University and Harvard Law, Castro returned to his home city of San Antonio, took a job with a law firm and promptly ran for San Antonio City Council in his home district and won.

Right out of the gate was a big conflict of interest. Castro’s law firm represented a developer who wanted to build a golf course over the city’s aquifer and get a tax break to do it. Castro quit his paying job with the law firm, ended up voting no on the proposal with the backing of 56% of San Antonio residents.

The initial project failed--not because of his vote--but another came right behind it, this time for two golf courses, but with stronger environmental protections and no tax breaks. Castro voted for the project the second time. He uses the example of this project to show the importance of local government work, but also what people can do when they have principled objections and work together.

The experience fueled Castro’s interest in higher office. He lost at his first attempt to run for mayor of San Antonio, and it looks like it was his first big public failure. He felt humiliated. But like everyone who eventually succeeds, he had to pick himself up and do it again, which he did, winning in 2009. After that, he went back and forth to Washington, as head of HUD under Obama, and then mentioned as vice-presidential pick during the run up to the 2016 election.

It takes a special personality to want the blood sport that is politics. Castro learned the power of the people from his mother, who was known for her organizing work. He has a twin brother who absorbed the same lessons and worked alongside him to set up and win elections while they were in college and after. But what makes one reach for the highest office?

We all have to find the answer to that one, and while I am not impressed with those who want to see their names in lights—or gold letters eight feet high—there are people who are at least as capable as the rest of us but who want the limelight. I’m willing to give it to them if it makes sense for the direction we need to move.

Julián Castro is not ready, to my mind, to run for the presidency. I do not get the reassurance he even knows what it is. I don't mind some learning on the job, but look at what Teresa May just went through. There is a largeness to the job that will always exceed our best attempts to put our arms around it. Do I think he would be worthy some day? Maybe.

What we are doing now in our presidential slates--going as old as we can and as young as we can--is unappealing to me. Precociousness is a real thing, and I don't want to stand in the way of talent. To me, Castro for President is premature, but I have to admit the world belongs to the young now, who are going to have to find a way to live in it.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Article 353 by Tanguy Viel, translated by William Rodarmor

Paperback, 160 pgs, Pub March 12th 2019 by Other Press (NY) (first published January 3rd 2017), Orig Title: Article 353 du code pénal, ISBN13: 9781590519332

This mystery novel by prize-winning novelist Tanguy Viel is translated from the French but suffused with French melancholy and spirit. The dark, foggy atmosphere of the northern French coast comes through strongly in the conversation between two men: one asking questions, the other explaining the death of a man everyone thought they knew. Several times we are turned about in our perceptions of what happened.

The whole book would make an excellent play, if the backdrop behind the men in conversation was a large window opening onto the view of the old château on its five acres of maintained lawn sloping down to the sea. The down-on-its-luck coastal town had riches in that view.

We smell the salt air and consider wealth. What is wealth and how do we know when we have it? How does it makes us feel and how much wealth is enough? Everyone in the town worked at a metal fabricators for naval vessels but the factory was closing and severance payments, while large, had to last a lifetime for some of the middle-aged.

Along comes a property developer who wants to build a glittering resort where the château stands. It sounds like a good idea in a town losing its primary industry. Martial Kermeur lives in the château's grounds-man’s cottage for free, though he is responsible for keeping the five acres surrounding the château cut and trimmed. His son, only ten, lives with him after the divorce.

Kermeur’s tale is told after several years; his son is now seventeen. The story is not complicated, “just a run-of-the-mill swindle.” The villain in the piece is in sight the entire time. Here is a classic tale of right and wrong, good and evil; we must consider how far the penal code extends to protecting citizens from wrongdoing.

We don’t often get the opportunity to read current French novels that have captured that nation’s imagination—a nation which supplied some of the greatest philosophers the world has yet known. The tale retains the taste of France. Finishing up at less than one-hundred-and-fifty pages, this novelette makes us look deep inside for how we view right and wrong,

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Doing Justice by Preet Bharara

Audio CD, Expected pub: March 19th 2019 by Random House Audio Publishing Group, ISBN13: 9780525595762; Hardcover, Pub March 19th 2019 by Knopf Publishing Group, ISBN13: 9780525521129

The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) tries cases that originate in New York’s financial centers, but also covers high-profile cases that have national and international resonance. Over two hundred lawyers and equally as many support staff work to administer law enforcement oversight to eight New York counties. Its resources, reach, and independence have earned it the nickname “The Sovereign Court” among members of the legal profession. SDNY attracts capable and driven prosecutors not distracted by limelight.

James Comey was once Chief Prosecutor of the SDNY for two years (2002-03) before he became Deputy Attorney General of the U.S. At the start of Donald Trump’s presidency, Preet Bharara was Chief Prosecutor of SDNY. He had taken on the role in 2009, nominated by then-President Obama, and developed a reputation as hard-charging.

Bharara was asked to resign his role by Jeff Sessions who had been appointed by the new President Donald Trump to head the Justice Department. Bharara refused. He was subsequently fired, leaving SDNY in March 2017, months into the Trump presidency. New York was Trump’s stomping ground, and the Southern District was the court most likely to prosecute crimes DJT committed, if any, before his ascension to the presidency.

Like anyone leading a group of intensely-committed, capable lawyers holding the powerful to account, Bharara had to develop a set of priorities and criterion which could direct his team to choose from among bad behaviors, determining the prosecutable. Every kind of crime has been tried in SDNY, from crimes of treason, terrorism, mob and gang violence to massive fraud and murder. Bharara reflects that “anybody can be guilty of anything.”

Divided into four sections, Bharara’s book examines first how successful prosecutors select their cases and prepare the evidence they will use in court. Certainly one consideration was whether a case was winnable or not but Comey, in his time as Chief Prosecutor for SDNY, argued that wasn’t the most important criterion: “If it’s a good case and the evidence supports it, you must bring it,” he said, even at the expense of possibly losing the case and adversely affecting one’s reputation and the reputation of the court.

Jesse Eisinger, now a reporter for ProPublica, reported extensively on high-profile cases in his book about the SDNY published in 2017 called The Chickenshit Club. He did not give the credit to Preet Bharara, who he saw as going after “easy” cases featuring insider trading rather than the rampant fraud and financial misconduct that nearly caused the world’s economy to melt down in 2007-08.

Bharara doesn’t address Eisinger’s criticisms directly but suggests getting the job done includes building cases that have the best possibility of success, and showing the public the judiciary is working on their behalf. It is hard to argue that Bharara wasn’t tough on crime. While he may not have secured convictions for the worst abuses of the biggest players responsible for the financial crisis, his offices had 85 straight convictions of insider-trading cases before losing one in 2014.

Bharara’s office also presided over a string of successes in prosecuting instances of cyber-crime, organized crime activity, art fraud, and instances of public corruption, among other things. Whether or not one thinks he was tough enough, his book is informative for what it tells us about our own justice system when it is performed in the biggest fishbowl in the land.

After first introducing the role of prosecutors and some of his cases, Bharara then moves to being effective in a court of law: looking at the importance of preparing the case as though you were arguing for the defendant, judging the judges, reading the court, and expecting unpredictable outcomes and verdicts. “Justice is not preordained.” How badly you want to win the case is often the most important ingredient in winning a case, pushing a prosecutor’s risk-aversion to the dangerous range.

Bharara reads the audio of the book himself, allowing him to tell the stories and place emphases where he wishes. The stories highlight what he was working for: providing a measure of justice to the powerless. Bharara’s job in the judiciary is a very important one in our three-legged system of government and he had a very long, uninterrupted run of it. His predecessors’ tenures could be measured in months. His observations are intrinsically interesting.

Bharara mentioned the importance of his family several times in the book, and knowing the all-encompassing nature of his job, one expects he missed many important family moments. He recounts a scene in which he proudly presents a laudatory article about himself and his work to his teenaged daughter to read. He waited impatiently while she carefully read and then slowly reread portions of the piece. Eventually she responded to his “Well?” with “You’re such a drama queen, Daddy.” Which may be the most succinct capture of a personality we are likely to enjoy.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Truth in Our Times by David E. McCraw

Hardcover, 304 pgs, Pub March 12th 2019 by All Points Books, ISBN13: 9781250184429

This book is written in spirit of an old-time newspaper man regaling cackling, amused, red-nosed patrons in a smoke-filled, dimly-lit bar with personal and singular stories of powerful forces arrayed against a humble man who plays it as though his power is negligible. David E. McCraw may be a down-home guy…as Trump says, he has a soothing, bedroom manner…but his reach is hardly negligible. Don’t be fooled.

Reading this book is every bit as fun as finding oneself under the influence…of a world-class raconteur. We get the inside story on the early days of Trump, when in 2005 Tim O’Brien, then an editor at The New York Times, published TrumpNation and got sued for it. That book is funny and as good a read as this, so get both. In hiring practice, The New York Times must adhere to the No-Asshole Rule (it’s a real thing—look it up).

McCraw goes through the thought and research processes of releasing the couple pages of Trump’s tax returns from 1995, and finding the NYT and Fox News agreeing for what seemed to be the first time in history. He discusses the bizarre beginning to the Trump presidency during which Spicer sought to limit the access of newspapers, certain reporters, and insisted on telling lies about the size of crowds at the inauguration.

When Trump declared the NYT to be “failing,” the senior management couldn’t resist bragging that Trump was doing more for their bottom line than a war. And McCraw doesn’t make any bones about the fact that he stood for press freedom no matter which party The Times was talking to. Hillary Clinton “had a hostility to openness that doesn’t befit a public officeholder…” Truer words were never spoken.

What I admired most about the tone in this book is the big-brain reasonableness of the whole thing. I mean, here we have one of the premier newspapers in the world, with all kinds of talented reporters doing important work, but McCraw recognizes each as individuals and sees the need to tamp down their rage, at times, with the lies and shenanigans happening in the White House and the reporters' impotence, in the end, to do anything but report on it.

McCraw tells the story of Stanley Dearman, a newspaper editor in Philadelphia, Mississippi when three civil rights workers went missing in 1964. For 40 years after, Dearborn kept reminding citizens in print of the unsolved case of the mens’ disappearance, ignoring those who told him to “drop it.” McCraw tells us Dearborn’s work was an example of showing the difference between serving the people and catering to them.

When a reporter wrote a story trying to explain the phenomenon of an ordinary-seeming midwest young man expressing adherence to the philosophies of Hitler, the outrage visited upon the paper led to threats against the reporter’s person and livelihood.
“Dealing with threats against journalists had become a sadly routine part of my work life, but each time a new one surfaced a feeling of discouragement about what the country had become would come over me again.”
I hear that. But perhaps the country has always been this way, that even NYT readers are quick to show their [lack of] understanding about enormously important subjects that reach to our makeup as humans.

McCraw also discusses the case of David Sanger writing a book about cyber warfare based on, it was argued in court, leaks of classified documents from high-level government insiders. This is intensely interesting stuff for those who ever wondered how reporters manage to report on closely-held high-level secrets. Probably most of us would agree with McCraw that “the real problem for America was not the unauthorized revelation but an excess of secrecy.” Later he argues "Secrecy breeds absurdity."

The whole book is a feast of huge stories reaching right into the psyche of America’s collective past, nearly twenty years now of stomach-churning days for someone in McCraw’s position. High stakes, for everyone. I will end before McCraw’s account of the Weinstein story, finishing instead with the decision to publish the 2010 Wikileaks cache and Greenwald & Poitras’ decision to bypass the NYT to have Snowden’s secrets published by The Washington Post and The Guardian.

McCraw sounds disappointed that The Times was bypassed on the Snowden story, and I remember well the criticism of them at the time.
“Maybe we should be better at inculcating all citizens—now all potential publishers—with a sense of social responsibility…I continued to believe the risks that came with freedom were worth the price…I also believe The Times had been right, in its North Korea reporting and other sensitive national security stories, to give the government a chance to responds before publication. Many readers saw that process as a surrender…

“…It was important to debate whether The Times had been timid then or at other times, but context was important: our newsroom regularly decided that the government’s objections were too abstract, not believable, insufficiently weighty, or given by officials too far down the food chain to know, and then resolved to move ahead with publishing. But it’s not a science. Editors sometimes get it wrong. National security is intrinsically the hardest of the calls they have to make…If we are ever forced to defend against a criminal charge, I wanted our legal narrative to be one of responsibility, serious deliberation, and a demonstrable concern about the public’s best interests.”
McCraw ’s book raises some thorny ethical questions and answers one newspaper’s take on many more.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Hardcover, 339 pgs, Pub Sept 18th 2018 by Knopf Publishing Group (first pub August 2nd 2018), ISBN13: 9780525521426, Lit Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee (2018), Scotiabank Giller Prize (2018), Governor General's Literary Awards / Prix littéraires du Gouverneur général Nominee for Fiction (2018), Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction (2019)

I finished Edugyan's third novel in a fog, reading the last hundred pages completely engrossed in the strange unreal world and story Edugyan had created, about a former slave, physically damaged from years in captivity but involved in the science of creating an indoor aquarium in London—something never done before.

If at first—and I have seen such criticism—the story seemed derivative of Jules Verne with wondrous and far-flung adventures, Edugyan pulled it off. There were wondrous adventures when naturalists and people of science began to turn their attention outside their own environments to the larger world. Anything they could conceive of was about to be tried…travel to the Arctic, say, or to the bottom of the ocean, or ballooning long distances. The story is an absolute feast of imagination.

Race is an important component of the story in that we have an abolitionist white scientist who chooses a young slave boy to be ballast for his balloon adventure. When the white master discovers his black ballast has exceptional drawing skills, the boy’s role changes. Though the two become close, there is always a power differential in their relationship that keeps the friendship from meaning as much to the white man as it does to the black man.

Edugyan sketches this kind of unconscious racism so clearly, and points to it, that one can hardly walk away from the book with one’s vision unchanged. We can put words to a feeling of distance or alienation we may have seen or felt before but weren’t able to express.

It turns out the history of the world’s first public aquarium is much as is described in this novel, though I was unable to discover whether a very young black man was the first to come up with the idea and design of the tanks for public display of sea creatures in the mid-nineteenth century. It seems perfectly likely, as does the fact that such a man would never be acknowledged, his history expunged as a matter of course.

Edugyan is Canadian, which is not obvious. She sets a portion of the novel in Newfoundland, but otherwise the characters travel far and wide on nearly every continent. She adds an intriguing love interest for George Washington Black, the main character and former slave from Barbados. We presume Black is originally from Dahoumey in west Africa because that place name is buried deep in his subconscious and is resurrected when his life is in danger.

Black’s love interest is a mixed-race island woman of great beauty and intelligence and a rounded sense of her own potential. Her father, also a scientist, did not encourage her to develop her physical charms. One day he allowed her to purchase a few small concessions to beauty that she craved: red lipstick, a diaphanous dress, an emerald clasp. She discovered that people noticed her more but saw her less. This lesson all women must learn and decide whether to exploit or not.

The start of the novel was not particularly convincing and had the feel of a young adult novel, but it began as it meant to go on, and by midway I was involved, suspending belief, rapt, curious. There was something about the way the role of the one-time slave was progressing that held some hope that his potential would be developed. And the history of race is not yet finished being told, since we write it every day.

It's a wonderful novel. Edugyan has written two other critically-acclaimed novels and at least two collections of stories. She has taught creative writing and has won several international awards for her work.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Hardcover, 426 pgs, Pub Nov 13th 2018 by Crown, ISBN13: 978152476313, Lit Awards: Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Memoir & Autobiography (2018)

Who would have guessed there would be two such popular and talented writers in one family as there are in the Obamas? I guess we will have to wait to see if their kids, Malia and Sasha, have inherited the gene. Michelle’s book is ravishingly interesting and so smoothly written I was happy sitting there and reading it at the neglect of less pleasurable duties.

The fairy-tale aspect of growing up “with a disabled dad in a too-small house with not much money in a starting-to-fail neighborhood” and ascending to the most admired and coveted house in the land is not emphasized until the last pages. Michelle looks back at Barack’s eight years in office, and how he was followed by a con man with a filthy mouth. The contrast between the two men is not subtle, and neither is Michelle’s distress.

Before the disappointing turnover at the end of Barack’s time in office, the story is filled with hope—hope that Americans will see change for the better in their opportunities, schooling, wages, and leadership. Michelle’s emphasis mostly stays squarely on her own hopes rather than those of her husband, and focuses on her plans to institute mentoring for teens of color, and the building of a system for providing good food for kids in schools.

Michelle made no bones about the fact that she was more a homebody than her cerebral husband who, in one anecdote, laid in bed late one night gazing at the ceiling. When asked what he was thinking about, he sheepishly answered, “income inequality.”

Michelle had come from a family that was large and loud and lived close by one another in Chicago. After claiming an undergraduate degree at Princeton, Michelle moved on to Harvard Law, taking advantage of the momentum. the opportunity, and the expectation that she would achieve what her parents did not. She may not have been timid, but she wasn’t exactly expansive in her view of herself or her life. She acknowledges Barack introduced her to a larger world with different but equally important personal and societal goals and expectations that are shared by millions.

I have seen in comments about this book that Michelle dodged important questions about Barack’s time in office that involved decisions the two of them would have made together, e.g., Reverend Wright, etc. and while her opinion may have added something to the narrative, I tend to agree with “write your own darn story” pushback. Michelle’s considered take on what it meant to her and her family when some people seemed to lay in wait to broadcast misinterpretations of her campaign stump speeches makes it clear we are lucky to get anything more. It is easy for us to forget Michelle was an actual surrogate for Barack. She had a heavy speechmaking schedule and drew such crowds that she finally scored a plane and a team of her own.

Probably the thing I am most impressed with—and what Michelle herself is most proud of—is her raising two consequential young girls in the fishbowl that is the White House. The girls survived, even thrived, in that place, and hopefully will have absorbed some of the grace and resilience of their parents. What we don’t know is what Michelle’s next act will be, for she is still a relatively young and IVy- trained lawyer. We know she doesn’t like politics, never has, but would still like to make a contribution.

Just having withstood the pressures of the White House without cracking and having takien the time to write a book that encourages others to see themselves as aspirants to national office is something to be thankful for. I am also grateful she provided the home life and support Barack needed in such a difficult job with such a difficult Congress. It wasn’t easy for either of them and in many ways it did not turn out as they had envisioned.

The Obamas could have had a more placid life without trying to handle affairs of state, so their attempt to share their strong family values was a kind of blessing. The book is a wonderfully smooth read (or audio!), and is hard-to-put-down. The audio is read by Michelle herself and therefore places the emphases where she wanted. Published by Crown and Random House Audio in North America, this book sold more copies in the U.S. than any other book in 2018 and will be published in 24 languages.

A section of color photographs is reason enough to choose the book over the audio, but the audio is interesting because Michelle herself reads it. She has chosen to discuss things we are intrinsically interested in, like choosing a college, a major, a job, and a husband, and while many of us have had similar decisions to make we would not have had Michelle’s set of choices. The book is absolutely worthwhile.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart

Hardcover, 339 pgs, Pub Sept 4th 2018 by Random House, ISBN13: 9780812997415

I listened to this novel months ago—just about the time it came out. I haven’t been able to adequately put into words how I felt about it. This was the first time I’ve partaken of a Shteyngart novel, and it is more in every way than I was expecting. There is a shadow of Pynchon’s frank absurdity there, and some bungee-cord despair—the kind that bounces back, irrepressible.

Shteyngart’s novel is overstuffed with funny, sad, true, caustic, simplistic, derogatory observations about life in America that somehow capture us in all our glory. He is not dismissive; I think he likes us. The main character in this novel, Barry Cohen, is nothing if not representative of what we have taught ourselves to be: money-mad and self-pitying, educated enough to capture our own market but too stupid to see the big picture. What introspection we have is wasted on divining the motivations of others rather than our own triggers.

Barry is a man America loves to hate. He is a successful hedge fund manager who emerged from the economic crisis in fine shape—it was only his clients who suffered. And his clients suffered because the government finally caught on to some irregularities in Barry’s operations that allowed him to win so much. While the SEC investigated, Barry left Seema, his wife and an attorney, with his son Shiva to see if he could find an old flame. Last he’d heard she was living in the South.

Right there Barry made a big mistake. One doesn’t leave an attorney for another woman. I mean, how stupid do you have to be? Barry and Seema had been doing okay marriage-wise, though it turns out Shiva is autistic. Unable to speak and often looking as though he does not even comprehend what words and comments are directed to him, Shiva is unknowable.

Barry wants to love him, but maybe wants Shiva to love Barry himself more. Seema handles most of Shiva's care which means she cannot work. More and more absorbed with nurturing her son’s growth, she recognizes and relishes small victories in understanding Shiva's internal world while her husband languishes.

Barry Cohen’s odyssey from New York by bus to various destinations in the south features a man with a skill set that serves him surprisingly well when traveling by bus on limited cash, no credit, and a roller-board of fancy watches. He can’t be shamed because he’s a bigger crook than anyone. Dragging around his collection of fancy watches turns out not to be very lucrative—who recognizes their value? But they do get him food occasionally, and a little tradable currency.

Barry spends relatively little psychic energy pondering the sources of his Wall Street wealth, but somehow recognizes it’s probably not worth as much as he was getting paid to do it. His long-story-short gives us cameos of American ‘types’: street-wise salesmen, long-suffering nannies, practical mothers, and money managers who believe their work confers some kind of godliness on their financial outcomes. Because we win, we are meant to win. Yes, this all takes place in the first year of the Trump administration.

Barry Cohen is hard to take. “See, this is the thing about America,” he tells his former employee in Atlanta, a man named Park that Barry keeps referring to as Chinese, “You can never guess who’s going to turn out to be a nice person.” 

Well. Barry is not a very nice person, really. He simply is not reflective enough. We can feel twinges at his angst, but ultimately we make our own beds, don’t we? Barry is tiresome, that’s the problem. His adventures are quite something, but we grow weary of his blind spots and slow recognition that he does, in fact, love his imperfect family. It’s all he’s got, the silly doofus, and they are worthy of his love. We’d rather spend time with them.

In an enlightening interview with The Guardian, Shteyngart acknowledges the story is about racism:
"I think racism undergirds all of this, no question. It’s a huge part of it. When we were immigrants and couldn’t speak the language, the one thing this country told us was: ‘You’re white, there’s always somebody lower than you.’"
Shteyngart thought he might add a gender dimension to the story, and was going to make his main character a woman, but the few female hedge fund managers he found were rational and didn’t take such big crazy risks that they end up blowing up the world. Right, I think. Exactly right.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Friday Black: Stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Paperback, 194 pgs, Pub Oct 23rd 2018 by Mariner Books, ISBN13: 9781328911247, Lit Awards: Dylan Thomas Prize Nominee for Longlist (2019), Aspen Words Literary Prize Nominee for Longlist (2019)

I forget where I first heard of Adjei-Brenyah, but it was about the time of publication in 2018 and the name of his debut story collection was so similar to Esi Edugyan’s much-lauded Washington Black that I wanted to read both to make sure they were separated in my mind. Now it is difficult to imagine I would ever forget the title story “Friday Black,” about a young man in a retail store setting dealing with the sales and buying mania of Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the official opening of the Christmas season. There is indeed something black in the American psyche, that would celebrate a day of such whipped-up and fruitless passion for more than we need or can effectively use.

I did not read the first story in the collection, “The Finkelstein 5,” until long into my perusal of the collection. Just as well, because it stares full-face into the racism we still see and hear all around us today. The characters who are black attempt to fit into white society, dialling up or down their overt display of “blackness” on a ten-point scale they believe the white overculture has created for them.

Adjei-Brenyah draws from the incidental murders of young girls attending Sunday school, of a young man shot as he walked down the night-darkened street of his neighborhood, of a young man so angry at the deaths of the others that he considers, for a moment, fighting back. There is a barely-disguised cameo of the talking heads on right-wing TV talk shows, with Adjei-Brenyah carefully picking out for us the most offensive and patently absurd of their comments regarding white fear of unarmed teens and children of color.

My favorite of the stories in the collection has to be “Zimmer Land.” In this significant piece, which I can imagine being chosen for Best-Of collections until Adjei-Brenyah is old and gray, a young man works at a kind of play-station where members of the community are given the opportunity to see how they would react when their fear or anger instincts are aroused.

Patrons are issued a weapon when they enter the play space set, a paint gun whose force can rupture fake blood sensors in the mecha-suit of the player. Mecha-suits sound like transformer kits, inflating to protect the torso, legs, and arms of players, and to intimidate patrons. Patrons are not told to use the weapons they are issued, but the mere convenience of the weapons is an opportunity, and the rush of shooting is like a fast-acting drug.

Isaiah is black and he is the player white patrons come to test their emotions against in a “highly curated environment.” When Isaiah complains to management that most of the patrons are repeats, coming frequently to fake-kill him and not learning anything new about the sources of their aggression, perhaps even “equating killing with justice,” his bosses tell him his heart better be in the job ‘cause there are others who’ll do the work with real aggression and commitment.

At least four of Adjei-Brenyah’s signature pieces in this collection describe the soul-destroying unreality of America’s retail space, where salespeople are rewarded for up-selling and given praise, if not bonuses, for selling the most [unnecessary] stuff to the most [psychically- or financially-vulnerable] people. We are reminded that there are several ways to make money while hoping to make a living writing, and in Adjei-Brenyah’s case it is retail sales rather than, say, restaurant work or construction. He gives us a look at what we never thought to ask as we made our way through the racks of shirts or stacks of jeans.

Highly praised by other acclaimed writers in front-page and back-cover blurbs, this collection heralds the arrival of someone we will continue to look out for. The ideas behind the work is what is impressive, besides just the writing skill. Adjei-Brenyah knows one doesn’t have to be sky-diving to make the work interesting. It’s about what you’re thinking about while sky-diving.

Late Night comedian Seth Meyers interviews Adjei-Brenyah about this collection:

Book Riot interviewed Adjei-Brenyah and one set of paragraphs stood out:
EM: Reading this collection, I could really feel a lot of non-literary influences in your writing. Like maybe a little bit of cinema and television crept in there as well.
NKAB: Yeah.
EM: Could you talk more specifically about what some of those influences were?
NKAB: Yeah, I grew up reading a lot of serial sci-fi and fantasy. I read Animorphs as a kid. I’m from the Harry Potter generation. But outside of books and stuff, I love anime, from Dragonball-Z to more cerebral stuff like Death Note or this anime called Monster. Miyazaki stuff as well. And what’s cool about that is I was made to view those things as valid for a lot of high-level thought. It’s funny because when you see parodies of anime, there will be people in the middle of fights having really philosophical debates. Anime is really big on that, and that was important to me. When there’s violence, it’s very much couched in “this is why,” and that rubbed off on me, I think.”

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Murder Casts a Shadow: A Hawai'i Mystery by Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl

Paperback, 277 pgs, Pub June 6th 2008 by University of Hawaii Press, ISBN13: 9780824832179

Can I have more than one favorite author? Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl is a playwright but she put her hand to a murder mystery after writing several successful plays. This is a true gem: multi-faceted, with rich portrayals of Pacific Island peoples and their beliefs as well as believable motivations for murder. We get the native Hawaiian perspective on why America the mainland was interested to annex the islands, and all of it so light, so fragrant, so beautiful, like Kneubuhl’s descriptions of the dawn, the surf, the flora.

The time described is the 1930’s and the characters we meet are glamorous, sophisticated, smart, and sound an awful lot as though they could be speaking today. The women--in particular one woman, Mina--is fully-realized and unafraid to reveal her doubts, her passions, her intents. Others may gossip, but she is guileless. She is beautiful and suffers from the attentions of men. She sets the parameters of a working relationship right from the start with a man she doesn’t know well, suspecting he will, as they all do, eventually fall under her spell.

Native names may be a challenge for some but I relish the added authenticity and depth to the story as it unfolds. A museum director, a white man, is murdered. The police chief, also white but married to one of twin sisters descended from island royalty, hosts a Pacific Islander playwright and sometime British spy who has come to Hawai’i to return the portrait of a Hawaiian king once misappropriated from the islands. When the portrait goes missing at the time of the murder, Mina, one of the twins and a part-time journalist, works to uncover the perpetrators.

Kneubuhl doesn’t put a foot wrong while effectively throwing red-herrings into the story at every turn. While it appears several people have a motive for murder, we never see the ending coming, though it had been spotlighted a few times earlier in the drama. Kneubuhl has a theatre artist’s skill of involving our every sense, beginning on page one when someone spills a glass of brandy over their costume at a gala. Taste, scent fill the air directly and hit the bloodstream quickly.

She does the same with her descriptions of sunrises in the outer islands, the condition of the sea, the torrential rains, the lava-rock cliffs—the physical fact of the islands are as important as anything or anyone else in this story. It is a real achievement to have highlighted the natural beauty of a place while sharing its history, all the while amusing us with a plausible murder mystery.

The cast of characters is plausible, too, from Mina’s best friend, the daughter of a Chinese immigrant who likes cooking French food more than his native cuisine to a Japanese maid, we learn later, who happens to be very knowledgable about Asian antiques.

Kuebuhl has written more than two dozen plays and three of her most celebrated plays are collected in an edition called Hawai'i Nei: Island Plays. This mystery novel has become a series with two other books featuring its main characters, including the indomitable Mina. Most important, perhaps, is Kneubuhl's celebration of island customs and placing the islands in the context of America’s sometimes bloody and racist history.
“Our stories are so worth telling…you are leaving a gift for your community.”--Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl in an interview in 2015 for PBS Hawaii.

Here is Victoria Kneubuhl being interviewed by the Hawaiian talk show host, Leslie Cox, in 2015 for PBS Hawaii:

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Truths We Hold by Kamala Harris

Audible Audio, Pub Jan 8th 2019 by Penguin Audio. Hardcover, 336 pgs, Jan 8 2019, Penguin Press, ISBN13: 9780525560715

It is difficult to critique political memoirs without seeming to be critical the high-minded ideals these writers espouse. Kamala Harris appears outside the norm for the kind of Washington politician we’ve put up with these past twenty years. Formerly Attorney General of California, she had to find solutions to big thorny problems that plagued governance of that state. If she didn’t “solve” the problems for all time, she always came down fighting for the side of individuals against corporate entities, big business, or thoughtless, inadequate government.

Early on in this memoir Senator Harris speaks with some awe of the work of Maura Healy, current Attorney General of Massachusetts, who has been firm in defending statewide consumer protections in that state unlike any other. She mentions the work now-Senator and presidential-hopeful Elizabeth Warren has done to protect consumers from predatory lending practices and investment scams of big banks, or the greed of big pharma.

Harris’ own work is strictly in this vein: criminal justice reform, racial justice, environmental protections, wage equality, regulation of banks and corporation, fair practices for consumers. For a woman who has never served in the military, no one could ever argue this woman doesn’t know what war looks like. She has investigated the heart of drug smuggling from Mexico, immigration, sex trafficking, and other rough criminal ventures that make our hair curl. She knows what government power means and when and how to use it. She’s tough. And disciplined. And principled.

After seeing how the country suffers when the presidency is filled by someone inadequate to the demands of the job, we should ever be grateful that someone of Harris’ gifts stands up to take on the brutality we’ve witnessed in Washington. Harris is winged Nemesis wielding a sword; she is implacable justice, avenger of crime. It will be bloody but it will be over when she’s done.

Until Donald Trump (and more and more I am convinced the 2016 election was not a fair demonstration of the national will), we’ve never elected someone with as little support from the major parties. Democrats now have very little patience left for what is the husk of a Republican Party, and Republicans detest what Democrats stand for. Harris will not be a cross-over candidate. She will be vengeance.

This book is an introduction to Harris and is very good for that. Kamala was born in Oakland in the sixties of a Jamaican-economist father and a Tamil Indian-endocrinologist mother who’d met at Berkeley during the civil rights movement. She and a sister, Maya, who is two years younger, were brought up by her single-parent mother after the breakup of her parents while Kamala was still a child. She married Douglas Emhoff, a lawyer, in 2014. Emhoff had two children during a previous marriage.

Harris begins her book talking about her youth and the importance of recognizing that our nation has been enriched by immigration. She is proud of her black heritage and chose Howard University for her undergraduate degree and graduated University of CA Hastings College of Law in 1989. She admits to terrible embarrassment at failing the CA bar the first time, but her employers supported her next, successful attempt.

Harris began as Deputy District Attorney in San Francisco, then won the race for District Attorney in San Francisco in 2003. By 2004 she’d begun a program called Back on Track, to help youthful nonviolent offenders to get back into the community through work. The program was considered a success though it had a low graduation rate. It was instituted in several other counties and eventually became state law.

When Harris won the election for CA State Attorney General in 2010, the race tally was so close the election results were not announced for three weeks. One of her first successes was against banks liable after the sub-prime mortgage crisis, winning $26 billion from the banks, including $12 million for homeowners. As AG, Harris initiated investigations into sex and drug trafficking, hate crimes, environmental degradation, predatory lending, school truancy and foster care, as well as prison conditions and sentencing reform.

Barbara Boxer announced she was going to retire as Senator to CA in 2016, and Harris was one of the first to announce her candidacy for Boxer’s seat. Harris is generally well-regarded at home in CA and among those who search for and vet candidates for high national office like Supreme Court and Attorney General of the U.S. There has been some grumbling that Harris defends misconduct by law enforcement, but overall these complaints have not hurt her popularity in the state. Harris won the 2016 congressional election against Loretta Sanchez with 62% of the vote, winning in all but four counties.

Since being in Washington, Senator Harris has been a hard-hitting and outspoken critic of Trump’s policies and the Democratic Party now considers her a front-runner for president. We learn that her name Kamala (COMMA-la) means lotus, a flower that blooms above the water while its roots are planted in mud. That’s quite a visual for a successful presidency.

I listened to the audio of this read by the author and produced by Penguin Audio. It is a successful sprint through the high points of a career not yet over. We get a sense of her personality, her drive, her family and friends. She is quite an opponent.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Notes on a Shipwreck by Davide Enia, translated by Antony Shugaar

Paperback, 256 pgs, Expected pub: February 19th 2019 by Other Press (NY) (first published May 18th 2017)

It is difficult to know where to start when talking about the northern migration of Africans, South Asians, and Middle Easterners to Europe. By now many of us have formed opinions based on the nature and number of migrants to Europe in the past several years. Davide Enia reawakens our sense of wonder at the existential nature, the true terror and dangerousness inherent in the refugee journey by sea. And in the process, he reawakens our compassion.

The book is a multi-year set of interviews with survivors of the mass landings of migrants on Lampedusa, an island of about eight square miles nearly midway between Italy and the coast of Africa. Approximately seventy miles from Tunisia, Lampedusa is closer than Sicily (127 miles from the African coast) and Malta (109 miles distant).

In the days following the Arab Spring, flotillas of migrants arrived daily, thousands of people, thousands more than there were islanders on Lampedusa. It was overwhelming.
“Fear and curiosity coexisted with mistrust and pity. The shutters remained fastened tight, or else they’d open to hand out sweaters and shoes, electric adapters to charge cell phones, glasses of water, a chair to sit on, and a seat at the table to break bread together. These were flesh-and-blood people, not statistics you read about in the newspapers or numbers shouted out over the television.”
This book is written by a man trying to work out his own complicated view of the migrants, from the point of view of the shell-shocked rescuers. This attempt to understand what is at stake is braided together with Enia’s relationship with his Sicilian father and dying uncle. Gradually he unveils the thoughts of those who have spent years witnessing the movement of migrants some of whom are picked up moments before their already-swamped craft sinks irretrievably.

The migrants are all ages and agonizingly aspirational. In photographs of the debris found in the refugee boats were items thought indispensable: skin creams, jars of preserved vegetables and fruit, insect repellent, chapstick, toothpaste, a can of Coca-Cola, cooking pots, lids, padlocks, keys, beach wraps, wallets, rings…the list of items took my breath away, coming as it does after learning of an invisible shipwreck in 2009. Refugees from one boat rescued in open seas remained standing on the dock on Lampedusa, staring at the horizon. A sister boat which had set sail with them the same day, holding four hundred people, never arrived.

Sometimes migrants return to Lampedusa, which they call their birthplace, their second birthday the day they arrived, alive, from the sea. One young man gives some idea of the difficulty of the crossing. Their rubber dinghy ran out of gas “almost immediately.” When the salt water drenched them again and again, their skin burned and their heads felt as though they would explode. The sun shone cruelly. They floated for eighteen days, out of all provisions, reduced to drinking urine.

A Maltese patrol boat appeared and tossed them gas, water, food, then sped off. The patrol watched from a distance as the dinghy moved into Italian waters. It was three more days until an Italian Coat Guard vessel picked them up. Of the eighty who had left Libya, seventy-five of them had died.

Enia doesn’t begin with the tragedy in October 2013 that brought Lampedusa so vividly to everyone's attention around the world, the day a boat sank within sight of the shore, the day the seas filled with bodies. But he works up to that moment, sharing with us the experiences of those who have witnessed years of landings so that the full scope and horror of the event can be understood, looked at, and borne.

The other day I saw a video clip of a landowner on the U.S. border with Mexico saying he’s a big Trump supporter, strong on national defense, and the biggest conservative around. “But,” and I’m paraphrasing him now, “I think they’re wrong on this border wall. These folks aren’t criminals or terrorists.” It sounds like this man has seen a few things. At some point we all need to imagine how we will act when faced with naked need and hardship beyond comprehension.

On Lampedusa, a warehouse was refurbished with a shower to give those who escaped under the fence of the overcrowded refugee holding facility a chance to get cleaned up.
“Little by little, even some of those who regularly inveighed against these immigrant kids started leaving bags in front of the warehouse with donations of shampoo, soap, shoes, and trousers. They’re seeing people on the street who were malnourished, barefoot, raggedy, and so they did their best to help them with their primary needs.”
This is a necessary book, beautifully and thoughtfully written, so that all our conscious and unconscious prejudices can bubble up…and float free. And we can be the people we hope to meet, were we in need.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Koala of Death (Gunn Zoo Mystery #2) by Betty Webb

Paperback, 250 pgs, Pub Aug 1st 2010 by Poisoned Pen Press (first published May 27th 2010), ISBN13: 9781590587584, Series: Gunn Zoo Mystery #2

This is the perfect book to pick up when you find yourself unable to read with concentration for any reason. Webb has such an easy, involving style, personable characters, and smart insights about animal habits that it is hard not to be curious where she is going with the central mystery. In the end she relied on more than a few stereotypes to describe TV anchors, rich technologists, and wealthy beauty queens, but the path was enjoyable and what we want from mystery series: character development and movement.

Red-haired and freckled, the aptly nicknamed Teddy is an unlikely combination of enthusiastic zookeeper and reluctant heiress. Her beauty queen mother is intent upon marrying her off to a Silicon Valley man but Teddy herself tends towards the half-European half-Latin sheriff who cares for two kids from his first marriage. A new zookeeper is found dead under suspicious circumstances, and though her former boyfriend is taken into custody, the killings do not stop.

What I liked best about this was the sunny California feel of living just inland from the seaside quay where Teddy keeps moored her live-aboard boat. The low-key zoo is placed in scented environs near a eucalyptus forest and features photogenic blue-tongued anteaters and cuddly koalas. Webb’s writing is humorous and assured even while unraveling a complicated mystery involving lots of peripheral characters and possible murderers.

I have a niece who will be zoo-keeping at San Diego Zoo this coming spring, a zoo mentioned several times in the course of this mystery, so I admit to some focused attention on the animals mentioned and animal care. While the fiction may not all be accurate, it is a refreshing, inventive angle from which to approach a mystery, and gives the author a chance to indulge some serious research.

Webb was once a journalist for a Phoenix-based newspaper and began writing fiction at the turn of the 21st century with a Desert Series featuring Scottsdale-based investigator, Lena Jones. Webb’s work on that series is said to have been based on real cases, and always addressed some pressing societal issue like sex trafficking, despoliation of the environment, welfare fraud, native rights. It is said there is a strong frontier feel to the series.

Frankly, Webb seems a natural when it comes to fiction. She understands how to tell a story and chooses her topics well. She gives readers plenty of credit for following her into the intricacies of a mystery or knowing where to put the emphasis on an important topic. Webb also teaches creative writing at Phoenix College. My guess is the class would be worthwhile, and a blast.

I read this for my new Mystery bookclub, the topic of which is "Death in a Hot Climate."

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Phi Beta Murder (Rex Gravves #3) by C.S. Challinor

Paperback, 208 pgs, Pub March 8th 2010 by Midnight Ink, ISBN13: 9780738718903

I recently moved to Pennsylvania and I anticipate attending a local bookclub in my rural area which focuses on mystery writers. The theme for this month is entitled “Deviant Detectives” which is interesting enough, but the organizers had also given a list of suggested authors, a list upon which many names were unfamiliar to me. I finally chose an author who had a couple trade paperbacks on the shelves in my small community library—C. S. Challinor.

The back copy did not introduce the author, so after skimming a page or two of the mystery which begins with the memorable line, “…the volcanic formation of Arthur’s Seat resembled a pair of buttocks,” I guessed the author to be a Scottish male. Wrong. The main character is a Scottish male barrister but the author is female, from Bloomington, Indiana. Later I would have reason to question the choice of a male protagonist by the author.

While I ended up enjoying what the author wanted to do—create a locked door mystery— the male viewpoint was not a natural fit and exposed some stereotypes the author leaned on to give depth and interest to the detective. Challinor might have done better with a strong female lead. This third in the Rex Graves series was published in 2010.

Rex Graves has a son, Campbell, attending university at a small liberal arts college in Jacksonville, Florida. On the very day Rex arrives at his son’s dorm, a student the floor below is found hanging from the ceiling fan in his room. Rex starts asking questions and notices some inconsistencies in explanations given by the student’s peers.

Perhaps because Challinor is new to me, or perhaps because her characters acting differently than I would have were I in their place, I found myself questioning the voices of the characters, rankling a little when I felt the author was putting on a Scottish man’s knowledge of Florida, even a father’s attitude towards his son.

Instead I would rather talk about what I liked about this novel and that would be Rex himself. He has a level of compassion for youthful mistakes that is reassuring and his attitude towards those who are bullied at school is supportive. If at first I was horrified about the way he spoke with Moira, his old flame who had just returned from Iraq, I later determined that Rex had a reason for his emotional distance from her that may have played out earlier in the series.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what I have come to see as unconscious racism in the novel that positively jump out at me now that I’ve spent several years trying to see my own biases. The author relies on racial stereotypes when describing the one black character in the novel, i.e., “grace of a panther” and “a smile…the dazzling whiteness of halogen bulbs.” And she describes Jacksonville black neighborhoods as the probable source of the crime found in the city. Small cuts, but they still bleed.

Aside from this, a key clue in the novel revolved around something that appears to me to be an authorial and editorial oversight: a button from a hoodie. In all my years I have never seen a hoodie with buttons. They are either pull-overs or zippered. Surprising that such a glaring offense would get through the numerous checks an author must have to curb their worst tendencies while fictionalizing.

This mystery made me question what I like about mystery series and I began to list the things I look for: an author who sees the bad in human circumstance but who still creates a lead character with a strong moral compass; motivations I recognize; lack of triviality when dealing with matters of life and death; a sense of humor; an author who is not sloppy—may misdirect but who does not obfuscate.

One of my favorite crime-solving duos would be Hap and Leonard, a series created by Joe R. Lansdale and set in Texas. The pair, a gay black war veteran and a white working-class draft dodger who have been best friends since childhood, embody all the things I love in mysteries and/or crime novels including the contradictory pairing of sincerity and a deep humor. The series was turned into a SundanceTV series (starring Michael Kenneth Williams and James Purefoy) for three seasons.

C.S. Challinor has been a successful author since at least 2008 and now has eight books in the Rex Graves series. Her publisher, Midnight Ink, a division of Llewellyn better known for New Age titles, is based in Minnesota. Llewellyn recently announced it plans to close Midnight Ink in August 2019, citing lack of sales. Three editors will lose their jobs as a result of the closing. First launched in 2005, Midnight Ink had a 15-year run.

Rex Graves did not rank as a "Deviant Detective" by his own words: the most illegal thing he'd ever done was to assist someone with a break-and-entry. I guess I would put Janet Evanovich on the list. See what you think about the other authors mentioned:
Betty Webb
Harry Kemelman
Peter Ellis
Parnell Hall
Gillian Roberts
Joanne Fluke
Aaron Elkins
Sarah Andrews