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