Wednesday, July 31, 2019

When All Your Library Holds Arrive on the Same Day

It's no one's fault but my own, I know that, but sometimes I wonder why this happens to me so often. During my travels through Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas this last week, I received several emails from my local library telling me that another book or two were there waiting for me to pick them up.  I should have seen it coming, but by the time I was able to get there this morning, there were six books waiting for me - and five of them can only be checked out for two weeks because they are in such high demand.

The Nickel Boys is Colson Whitehead's first book since his Pulitzer Prize winning The Underground Railroad, a book that I really enjoyed. This one is about a black boy who is sentenced to a brutal juvenile reformatory in the Jim Crow South of the early sixties. Elwood is a believer in the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, but his best friend in the reformatory is the complete opposite. What the two boys endure in this madhouse environment will determine what kind of men they become.

Dragonfly is one of the longer of the six books I picked up this morning, 559 pages. This one begins in 1942 when a group of American men and women are recruited by the OSS for a secret mission inside German-occupied Paris. Their group is given the code name Dragonfly, and they have to find a way to avoid detection long enough to complete the mission they've been assigned. Things change dramatically for the team after one of them is captured and executed by firing squad. 

And that seems to be a popular theme this summer because Pam Jenoff's latest, The Lost Girls of Paris goes there, too. This one begins in 1946 when Grace Healey finds an abandoned suitcase in Grand Central Station that's filled with photographs of women  After Grace figures out that twelve of the women in the pictures were sent into Occupied Europe during the war to aid the resistance, she is determined to learn everything that she can about them, their missions - and their ultimate fate.

This is one I've been particularly looking forward to because of my fascination with everything Harper Lee. Reverend Willie Maxwell's murder trial was so unusual that Harper Lee traveled from her home in New York City to Alabama to sit in the audience. She was apparently hoping to find the makings of a book there similar to her friend Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, but even though she spent years working on The Reverend, it was never published. I hope the book offers some insight into Lee's struggle to write after the huge success of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Library of Lost and Found adds to my list of books set in libraries or bookstores. This one is the story of an introverted librarian who finds a mysterious book on her doorstep one day. When she opens it, she is startled to find a dedication written to her by her grandmother - a woman who mysteriously disappeared several years earlier. Now, having reason to believe that her grandmother may still be alive, Martha sets out to find out what really happened back then and why it happened.

I really love time-travel books and have read lots of them, but All Our Wrong Todays has a twist I've never before encountered. It seems that Tom Barren has somehow become trapped in our version of 2016. And since he he belongs in 2016, that would be no big deal if Tom had not somehow strayed into an alternative universe (ours) that is so much more technologically primitive than his version that he just can't stand it. Our 2016 is almost like a "dystopian wasteland" to Tom - until he starts to prefer its version of his family, friends, and career.

There you have it. I want to read all six books, but I know there's no way I'm going to read five of them in the next two weeks. All Our Wrong Todays will be with me for six weeks, so it goes to the bottom of the stack. But how do I prioritize the other five? Do I start with the longer books - or will that limit me to having to send three of them back unread. Or do I read the shorter books and risk not having time to read the two longer ones? And to top it off, I want to finish up Fredrik Backman's Us Against You before I start another book at all.

What's a reader to do? #notabadproblemtohave 

Monday, July 29, 2019

Stolen Things: A Novel - R.H. Herron

What’s a kid to do when her father is the police chief and her mother is a 911 dispatcher for the same department? Really, so many of the cops in the station know JoJo and consider her to be a part of their cop family that she may just as well have grown up inside the police station. That means that whatever she gets into outside the home is quickly going to get back to her parents. But the time that JoJo and her best friend Harper were caught trying to steal from a jewelry store, they were only fourteen years old so they were able to put a bad situation behind them without ruining the rest their lives. Now, however, the girls are both 16, and the trouble they are flirting with is a whole lot more dangerous than stealing something from a jewelry store.  The girls do not look like kids anymore, and the wrong kind of men have noticed.

JoJo’s mother has been a 911 operator for almost twenty years so not much surprises her anymore. But that changes on the day Laurie answers a 911-call only to recognize that the voice on the other end of the line pleading for help belongs to her own daughter. JoJo cannot move, does not know where she is, and has no idea how she got there. Even worse, JoJo cannot figure out what happened to her before or while she was unconscious, but the pain she is in indicates that she may have been raped. And then JoJo remembers that Harper was with her – but now Harper is nowhere to be found.

JoJo’s police family pulls out all the stops to figure out what happened to her and Harper and to catch the people responsible. And JoJo would expect nothing less of them. But do they really?

Author Rachel Herron
 JoJo Ahmadi is as impatient as she is smart – and she’s very smart. So, when the cops don’t seem to be making much progress, she decides to do a little investigating of her own. And what she learns from a deep dive into Harper’s social media scares her to death. Harper, it appears, was a little too cozy with some of the cops for her own good, and now JoJo and her mother don’t know whom to trust. Which cops are playing it straight, and which ones have good reason to make sure that Harper is never found?  Just what are they willing to do to keep JoJo and her mother from learning the truth?

R.H. Herron’s novel is a solid thriller that pushes all the proper socially-conscious buttons. There are gay characters, characters questioning their sexuality, racist cops, plain old bad cops, a black NFL quarterback speaking out about the way blacks are mistreated by the criminal justice system, and a group of protesters preparing to take to the streets again to protest police brutality (a group, as it turns out, that JoJo and Harper have themselves joined). Stolen Things is definitely a thriller with a social message, but that message at times can get heavy-handed enough to be a distraction to the book’s central plot. Still, this is a page-turner that crime thriller fans should take a look at.

Advance Reading Copy provided by Dutton for review purposes

America's Byways, Road Trip 2019, Part 5

July 28, 2019

Sunday was another good day, but I'm going to keep this post relatively short because my entire day was spent driving and visiting two Civil War battlegrounds in Arkansas that I was seeing for the first time - and I know that doesn't appeal to everyone. 

The Crossroads View Outside the Elkhorn Tavern
My first stop was at the Pea Ridge National Military Park in northern Arkansas to see what I could learn from a self-guided tour about the battle fought there between the North and the South on March 7-8, 1862.  Pea Ridge did not become a National Military Park until the 1950s, so it is another of those parks with few monuments or surviving structures in sight. One of the most interesting stops on the tour is the Elkhorn Tavern, a longtime rest stop for travelers on the Telegraph Road. The tavern sits on what in its day was the equivalent of an intersection of two major state highways. During the battle, the Union army used the tavern as a supply base before it was captured by the Confederates and turned into a field hospital treating the wounded of both armies. Confederate raiders returned to the tavern a year later to burn it to the ground because the Union army was using it as a telegraph office. The building pictured here is a reconstruction of the original.

The Reconstructed Elkhorn Tavern at Pea Ridge

I left the Pea Ridge battle site and took a fifty-minute drive southward to the Prairie Grove Battlefield, site of the last major campaign in northwest Arkansas. The battle was officially labeled a draw, but in reality it was a great strategic win for the North because the Confederates never really contested this part of the state again, allowing the Union to move troops and supplies to where they were more strategically important to the Union cause.

Wax Dummy Representations of the Opposing Generals
It was Confederate General Hindman's job to defend Arkansas from any attempt by the North to retake the state for the Union, and it was Union General Blunt's job to make sure that General Hindman's efforts to do so failed. That's exactly what Blunt did, even though the two armies pretty much shared equally the approximately 2700 casualties produced by the Prairie Grove fighting.  

On the Prairie Grove Battlefield
(Note: General Thomas C. Hindman was not a popular man. His behavior during the war was, in fact, so unnecessarily harsh that Hindman was hated equally by civilians and his own troops. He was relieved of duty in Arkansas in 1863, and fled to Mexico for a time after the war because he feared that the U.S. government would want to punish him because of that brutish behavior.  Apparently, the man's enemies had a long memory because he was murdered through an open window of his house only three years after the war ended. That murder was never solved.)

 I will spend the night in Mena, Arkansas, where I hope to catch up on some much anticipated reading. I've started Us Against You, Fredrik Backman's sequel to Beartown, his novel about a Swedish youth-hockey team that takes the whole town down with it after one of its members is accused of rape. I loved that book, and the sequel picks up right from where that one left off, so I have high hopes for it, too. And now, it looks like my TBR stack is taking advantage of my absence in order to multiply at a previously unheard of rate. I just checked my library hold list, only to find that they are rather suddenly holding SIX new books for me that all have to be picked up by August 5 if I want them.  I think I need to go home and read. 

Sunday, July 28, 2019

America's Byways, Road Trip 2019, Part 4

July 27, 2019

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum
I arrived at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home and Museum early this morning after a short drive from Mountain View to Mansfield, Missouri. The first stop there is a large white building that resembles a big white barn more than a museum. Tickets are sold in the entrance lobby at $14 for adults and $7 for children over five years old. The building is home to the museum itself, a gift shop, and a small video room that has a ten-minute film about the Wilders running on a loop.  Entrance to the museum is through a door inside the video room, and visitors exit the museum directly into the gift shop. The gift shop, of course, specializes in the Little House books and those written by Laura's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, but everything else you might expect to find in a museum gift shop is there, too. I was not surprised to see that Caroline Fraser's Prairie Fires is conspicuously missing from the gift shop shelves. Fraser dared to paint a less than flattering portrait of Laura and Rose, especially regarding the volatile personal relationship the two had.

The Farmhouse
The museum displays first editions of all the Little House books, clothing belonging to all three Wilders, and lots of other personal items belonging to the family. I was most intrigued (for some odd reason) by a pair of shoes Almanzo made for himself because one of his feet made it impossible for him to use store-bought shoes - and alongside the shoes were the tools he used to produce them. This is a small museum but it is crammed with items that fans of the books are certain to find interesting. My one gripe is that it is forbidden to take photos inside the museum or either of the two houses lived in by the Wilders. I can understand banning flash photography, but I've been in numerous museums housing much more valuable artifacts than these that allow pictures as long as a flash is not used to take them. I enjoy studying in detail the photos I take in places like this one, and now that won't be possible.
Side-view of the Farmhouse

As I was leaving the museum, a woman was walking up to the steps with a little girl all decked out in full Little House on the Prairie clothing. It was cute to see a child so excited about books; I'm happy that still happens. From the museum, it is just a short walk to the home Laura and Almanzo lived in for so many years.  Laura died in one of the house's two bedrooms in 1957, but no one seems sure if she died in her room or in the bedroom that Almanzo used before his own death. My group was a little too large to be led by a guide, so we were each given a brochure and allowed to wander around the little house on our own. A docent was there to answer questions about the home furnishings, what was in the roped off upstairs area, which bedroom was which, etc. This is a very small house but it was so cleverly designed that it must have been very comfortable for the Wilder family.  Its design, in fact, reminds me of some of the tricks that RV designers use to make their limited space so livable.

The Rock House
After leaving the farmhouse, I walked about half a mile on a hiking path over to the Rock House, the home that Rose built for her parents around the time of the Depression. Laura and Almanzo lived in the home for eight years, and according to Prairie Fires, that whole episode caused some hard feelings between Rose and her mother. I found myself alone with the docent for several minutes, and we discussed just how much work Rose may have done on her mother's books. That she edited them is well known, but some say that she practically rewrote them without taking any credit because she wanted to protect her mother's image. I did not want to ask that kind of question in front of anyone else for the same reason, so I was glad to get the chance to ask it. Laura has an image that deserves to be protected because of what she means to so many readers who grew up on her books.

Not too many miles down the road, I decided to stop in at a McDonald's on the highway to grab a breakfast sandwich (for lunch) and got another of those little surprises I always hope for. This is Amish country (Missouri is said to have the seventh largest Amish population in the country), and two pairs of Amish teens were waiting for their orders and ice cream cones. They had pulled up in separate black buggies, and their horses were tethered to a bright red hitching post that McDonald's placed in a corner of the parking lot for them. They were very quiet, and gave me the impression that they did not quite feel comfortable waiting around for their food in a crowd. I found myself standing next to one of the girls and she smiled when I told her good morning, so maybe it's just me projecting my own feelings onto them. 

Thirty minutes after getting back on the road I stopped off at the Wilson's Creek National Military Park. This was the site of the first Civil War battle in the state of Missouri, and it was a decisive victory for the Confederacy. The park has a very different feel from all the others I've visited over the years because there is only one monument inside the entire park. All the others I've visited are practically covered in large monuments financed by state governments or Civil War veteran groups wanting to honor their fallen comrades. Probably because Wilson's Creek did not become a National Park until 1961, the money for patriotic monuments was just not there. But that's not necessarily a bad thing because Wilson's Creek looks much more like it did during the war than the others do. It's got a very clean look to it.

The Only Surviving Building at Wison's Creek
Only one original structure still stands, the farmhouse belonging to a man who watched the beginning of the battle from his front porch before taking cover in the cellar with his family, a slave and her four children, and the local mail carrier. When the family finally emerged from the cellar, they found that the home had been turned into a battle field hospital and that it was filled with the wounded and dying from both sides. Even the grounds around the farmhouse were covered with suffering soldiers. It is said that the children spoke about that shock for the rest of their lives.

One of the House's Bedrooms
This old farmhouse was inhabited continuously from the 1850s through 1967 when the Park Service bought and restored it. It's last resident, an old woman who spent much of her life in the house, lived there without electiricty or indoor plumbing. The house was in bad shape when she finally moved out, but you would never know that today because it has been wonderfully restored using the same techniques, tools, and materials used in its original construction.

So it was a fun day - even though I stopped early to rest up for tomorrow when I head down into Arkansas to see what I can find there.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

America's Byways, Road Trip 2019, Part 3

Friday, July 26

This has been kind of a long day because I did a bit more driving than I had planned on and ended up in a relatively isolated part of Missouri where I was lucky just to get a room in this very small hotel.  Mountain View, MO, seems to be a rather popular area for fishing, hunting, and camping but its hotel space is more than a little limited, so I lucked out in being able to get a room as late in the day as I did.  And to top it off, there is even a good restaurant within 100 yards of my room that serves some of the best fried catfish fillets I've ever had.  Now if only the WiFi connection and the telephone signal were a little better, things would be just about perfect.

I started the day by backtracking to Shiloh Military Park to visit the scene of a major Civil War battle that took place on April 6-7, 1862.  This one pitted the forces of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston (who would die in the fighting) against those of Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Of the 44,699 Confederates and 66,812 Union soldiers on the field during those two days, roughly 1,700 on each side were killed and each side had another 8,000 soldiers wounded - many of whom later died of those wounds. In addition, almost 3,000 Union soldiers and 1,000 Confederate soldiers were listed as missing. The Confederates decisively won the fighting of the first bloody day of fighting, but during the night - after both exhausted armies decided to stop fighting for the day - the Union army received enough fresh reinforcements to force the Confederates to retreat to Corinth, Mississippi, the next day. 

This is one of my favorite Civil War battlegrounds because its geography and landmarks make it so easy to visualize and understand exactly what happened here and why. Very little ever changes in these military parks, but this time something I've been expecting would happen in Shiloh since I first visited the park in the early eighties finally had happened. General Johnston bled to death under a big tree after suffering what was at first thought to be just a minor wound to his lower leg. That old tree was clearly marked but it had been rotting away for years, and every time I saw it, it was smaller and more fragile looking than the time before.  Well this time around, it was completely gone - and I felt like crying when I saw it was no longer there. I really did. The spot where the tree used to stand has now been marked by this rather hokey looking painting. What a downgrade, that is.

Some of the state sponsored monuments in the park are pretty spectacular, but even the more simple presentations serve to remind the tourist that Shiloh was a bad place to be in April 1862.
I spent about three hours in the park, and during that entire time I saw less than a dozen other people.  A few years ago the battleground parks were packed with people, but these days they all seem to be pretty near empty when I'm there.  That's good for people like me who like to go slowly on the self-guided tours, but I find it sad that so few people care about the history of their country nowadays. As a country, we are so very lucky to have sites like this one available to us, and it's a shame more people don't visit them. 

After a quick lunch in Savannah, TN, it was time to head north again toward the Missouri border. And that's when I got one of those little surprises I could never have imagined.  Because I rely on my car's GPS system for navigation purposes, I seldom look at a map to get a better picture of what's ahead of me or on either side of me. I usually confine that to a quick look in the evenings, with maybe another quick peek during breakfast. That's why I didn't see this surprise coming.

The Dorena, MO - Hickman, KY Ferry
As I approached the northwestern border of Tennessee, I was surprised to see that I was entering Kentucky - but I was only in the state for what seems like about fifteen minutes before the road suddenly ended on the banks of the Mississippi River. There I learned that in order to get to Missouri from this part of Kentucky I was going to have to ride across the Mississippi on a little ferry that had the capability of carrying four vehicles at a time on the twenty-minute journey across the river.  I, though, was the only one wanting to go there, so after a ten minute wait during which no one else showed up, we were off. On the Missouri side of the river, a single red pickup truck was waiting to climb aboard the ferry for the return trip to Kentucky. See why I like to wander the roads with as little planning as possible? You just never know what you might find out there.

So tonight I see that I'm about an hour away from the Laura Ingalls Wilder home and museum, and although I've never read any of the "Little House" books, I plan to head that direction in the morning to see what's on display there. (Book nerd that I am, that's just a no-brainer.)  Too, I think that Branson is somewhere in this part of the state, and although I've always ridiculed Branson as the place that old performers go to die again and again in public performance, I might give the city a look anyway. Depends on what kind of mood I wake up in.

(Again, clicking on the photos will give you an enlarged version.)

Friday, July 26, 2019

America's Byways - Road Trip 2019, Part 2

Shirley House - Vicksburg Military Park
Yesterday (Thursday, July 25) turned out to be a lot of fun. I knew that it would begin with a visit to the Vicksburg National Military Park, but I had only a vague idea of what the day would hold after that. I've been to the Vicksburg Civil War battle site several times over the years, but this was my first stop there in at least ten years. The park, of course, was as beautiful as I remembered it (nothing ever really changes in these military parks), but I was a little disappointed that one of my favorite spots on the self-guided driving tour was undergoing a much needed bit of maintenance work. The Shirley House, the only structure in the park that actually stood during the Vicksburg siege of 1863, was being stripped of its old paint, being repainted, and having its roof repaired.  As you can see from the picture, it was looking pretty rough yesterday, but it will be as beautiful as ever when all the work is done.  

The Battle of Vicksburg was actually a siege on the city by the Union army that lasted from May 18, 1863 to July 4, 1863 in which the North tried to starve out the city and thereby force its Confederate defenders to surrender control of the Mississippi River to the Union. The battle was one of those trench warfare scenarios in which the same ground was fought over for weeks with mounting casualties on both sides.  One of my great great grandfathers was here with a Louisiana unit and was wounded during the fighting, so it feels a little bit eerie to locate and walk the same ground that his unit defended 156 years ago. Ironically enough, the Confederates surrendered here on the same day that General Lee was losing the Battle of Gettysburg up in Pennsylvania. Although the two losses taken together pretty much ended any chance that the South might win the war, the Confederacy fought on for an additional two years.
Representation of King's Creative Space

From Vicksburg, I decided to drive north along what the state has dubbed its Blues Trail.  Mississippi produced so many twentieth century blues greats that every little town in the Highway 61 region (the Mississippi Delta) has its own claim to fame.  I've explored some of the area in past wanderings, and I remember particularly enjoying the Jimmie Rodgers museum and my visit to Jimmie's gravesite in Meridian. This time I stopped in Indianola to visit the relatively new B.B. King museum and gravesite there. King died in 2015 and is buried on the grounds of a museum that contains a history of the blues, a history of the evolution of race relations in this country, and a representation of King's brilliant career.  Best of all is the comprehensive collection of personal items used by the great blues artist during his long career, a career that saw him performing to large audiences all over the world. Items on display include some of King's stage suits, the musical instruments used on tour and in the studio by King and his band,  and an impressive collection of Grammys won by King over the years. If you are a fan of the blues, this is a must-stop destination for you.
Stage Area of Ground Zero Blues Club

My next stop was in Clarksdale to take a look at actor Morgan Freeman's Ground Zero Blues Club, an authentic looking venue that prides itself on presenting live performances by today's Mississippi Delta blues bands. I was surprised and happy to find a group of twelve Austrians there who had rented large Harley Davidson motorcycles in Dallas and were touring the South together.  They had actually passed me on Highway 61 a couple of hours earlier and I wondered who they were at the time because of their matching bikes.  They seemed to be having the time of their lives and told me that they were all longtime blues fans and would be spending several days in the Delta.  As I left the club, I heard them reserving a table for that night's show, so they are off to a good start.  Meeting them reminded me again what a great ambassador of the music B.B. King was for so many years.

From Clarksdale, I decided to drive to the Shiloh Military Park to revisit a Civil War battle site that I've visited every approximately every five years for the last thirty-five or forty years.  I had to drive eleven miles past the park in order to find decent lodging, so I'll be doubling back there first thing in the morning.  This was a good day.

(Click on the images to see expanded version.)

Thursday, July 25, 2019

America's Byways - Road Trip 2019, Part 1

Exhibit of Pepper Plants Grown on the Island
Although I won’t have officially been on the road for 48 hours until two o’clock this afternoon, I’m about to start the third day of my annual road trip. I do my trip planning on the fly, so it’s time to pull out the road atlas and decide where I’ll be heading after my visit to the Vicksburg, Mississippi, National Military Park for the first time in a number of years. Vicksburg is full of Civil War history, and It’s a beautiful city, but since I’ve been here several times this will be a relatively short visit.

Factory Floor
Yesterday (Wednesday, July 24) I finally made it to Avery Island, just outside New Iberia, Louisiana, to tour the factory that produces one of my favorite foods in the world: McIlhenny tabasco sauce. The island was home to a cotton plantation until the end of the Civil War but it was converted into a tabasco pepper farm shortly after the war when the family that owned the property was desperate for a way to survive the war’s aftermath. And they have been producing the most famous tabasco sauce in the world there ever since.  

Wooden Casks Used to Age the Pepper Mash
The self-guided factory tour can be completed in about an hour, and it includes a small museum and a fantastic “Tabasco Country Store” that includes a tasting bar and the opportunity to purchase some of the company’s sauces that are sold only in the store or over the internet. I am a fan of hot sauces, so I purchased a bottle of the hottest sauce manufactured by the company. It’s called Scorpion Sauce (it’s made from the Scorpion pepper which I believe is the hottest pepper in the world), and if you ever taste it, you will know why. This is a relatively small facility, but it produces about 700,000 bottles of the sauce a day and ships it all over the world.

Books Along the Teche Bookstore
New Iberia is the setting for James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux books, books I’ve been reading since the 1980s, so it’s fun to wander around the town picking out a few of the landmarks Burke uses in his crime novels. The town is also home to a bookstore (that, of course, specializes in signed editions of Burke’s books) staffed by two of the friendliest bookstore people I’ve ever met. They serve as goodwill ambassadors for the whole town, and they have had visits from people from all over the world – including some who speak no English – who are drawn there entirely because they love the Dave Robicheaux books so much. If you are a Dave Robicheaux fan, you really do need to visit New Iberia. And the Cajun food in this area; don’t even get me started on that, because I can talk about that all day long.

Now, back to that road atlas to see what’s up the road.

(You can click on the photos for expanded views.)

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and Their Muses)

The title of The Bar Harbor Retirement Home for Famous Writers (and Their Muses) intrigued me when I ran across it in my Library’s online catalog of audible books.  I could easily picture in my mind what such a place might look like, and I could just imagine the kind of conversations that would be heard there every day.  But as it turns out, even though I was pretty much right on both counts, I still didn’t really enjoy this one very much. And that is mainly because the novel being written within Bar Harbor Retirement Homehas such a predictable romance-novel plot, that I dreaded those long sections of the book during which that story is told.

Alfonse Carducci was one of the literary giants of his day, but now he’s come home to die in the retirement home he and his male lover designed both as a retreat for themselves and as a place that famous writers, agents, editors, etc. could spend their final months and years in the company of likeminded people.  Alfonse’s life has been one of excess, and now he is paying the price for the reckless way he lived his life. However, it is his chronic writer’s block that depresses Alfonse even more than his shaky health. But things take a sudden turn for the better when Cecibel Bringer, a young orderly, comes into Alfonse’s life.

Terri-Lynne DeFino
Cecibel has emotional baggage of her own due to an accident that left her so disfigured that she never allows anyone – even her favorite author in all of the world, Alfonse Carducci - to see the ruined side of her face.  The ever-flirtatious Alphonse almost immediately begins to work his magic on Cecibel, and as the young woman falls more and more in love with the old man, she begins to lose her self-consciousness about her appearance.  At the same time, Cecibel unknowingly works her own magic on the elderly author.  Now, Alphonse has found his muse, freeing him to co-author a novel alongside two other retired “giants” of his day.

This is the origin of the “novel within a novel” that I found to be too predictable and by-the-numbers to be represented as the work of three of the supposed greatest writers ever produced by this country.  And when the fictious novel is given as much space as the actual novel, and the plots of the two began to intersect closely, I lost interest in both of them.

Bottom Line: This one disappointed me, but that is probably because I am not even remotely a fan of romance novels; fans of that genre are likely to have an entirely different take on this one.  Too, I expected a very different novel than the one I got, and the letdown resulting from my high hopes crashing to the ground may very well have amplified my level of disappointment in Bar Harbor Retirement Home.  I suspect that the author knows her target audience well - but I am not one of them.

(Written after midnight in a Eunice, Louisiana hotel room after a day of driving in which the same tire went flat two times - the second time after having been "repaired" by a Discount Tire store in Beaumont, Texas.)

Book Number 3,420

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery

I have been a fan of Bill James ever since I discovered his first annual Baseball Abstract back in the seventies. James has a way of looking at the same data that everyone else has and coming up with very different and unique conclusions. His work eventually led to a revolution of sorts in the way that baseball General Managers think, and the game has never been the same. So, when I saw that James was applying his analytical talents to a series of 100-year-old murders that had never been solved, I jumped all over The Man from the Train.

 A little over one hundred years ago, there was a series of horrific murders in which whole families in the South, Northeast, and Midwest were murdered in their sleep by an axe-wielding maniac who seems to have taken great delight in crushing their skulls – and performing perversions on the bodies of his female victims, many of them children.  Bill James is very familiar with computers and how they can be used to search “tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of small-town newspapers” looking for murders that shared certain characteristics. He had a hunch that an infamous family-slaughter that happened in Villisca, Iowa, in 1912 was not a one-time, random event. James felt that the murder was most likely “part of a series of similar events,” and he and his daughter set out to prove it. That they were actually able to name the killer, was as big a surprise to James as it was to anyone.

Murders of entire families are, thankfully, rare even in our own violent times, so James and his daughter feel confident that they identified almost all of the ones that occurred in this country from the late 1890s through about 1920.  That was their universe. Now all they had to do was research each crime to see what, if anything, they had in common. Serial murderers tend to identify their crimes by the clues they cannot keep themselves from leaving at the crime scene. And very quickly, James and his daughter identified four “markers” shared by many of the crime sites: 
1.    “The heads of the victims being covered with cloth or other items, both before and after the crime.
2.    The house being sealed up tight, with the window shades all drawn, at the conclusion of the crime.
3.    The presence of a prepubescent female, essentially nude, among the victims.
4.    The bodies being moved around the house postmortem for no obvious reason.”

Bill James
But this was just the beginning.  By the conclusion of their research, the pair had identified a total of thirty-four markers shared by these crimes, and it became relatively easy to identify the murders that were almost certainly committed by “the man from the train” as opposed to those that had obviously been committed by a different murderer.  Statistical analysis made it almost easy for them – the hard part was first locating the information they needed to analyze. Newspapers of the day were not the most reliable reporters of facts (and I’m not sure they are much better today), so James and his daughters had to read their stories about the crimes with skepticism.  

Rachel McCarthy James
Sadly, things were very different 100 years ago when it comes to catching killers. There were no state police agencies in the country and the local police were unlikely to share information with other local police departments. Investigators were unable to tell one blood type from another, and DNA analysis was still decades away.  Even distinguishing human blood from animal blood was a challenge to the investigators of the day.  And because the man from the train fled the area immediately after committing one of his mass murders, several innocent people were convicted of his crimes. Some spent decades in jail, some were executed by authorities, and several were lynched (all of them black) by neighbors of the victims. 

Personally, I was intrigued by the fact that the killer struck a Houston neighborhood at one point, and around 1910 worked his way east to west along a stretch of southwest Louisiana towns and into Beaumont, Texas, all places with which I’m very familiar.  Because Jamesspends so much time putting the slaughters into historical context, I come away from reading The Man from the Trainwith a much better appreciation for what life in this part of the country was like at the turn of the twentieth century. That may, in fact, be what ultimately sticks with me the longest from having read this one.

Bottom Line: The Man from the Train is a true crime/history combination that readers interested in criminal history are sure to appreciate. Whether or not you believe that James proves his case against the named killer is not the real point (I, for one, believes that he has). The most satisfying thing about the book is how much about the past can be recreated by someone willing to do the research, and how good Bill James still is at it.  

Book Number 3,419

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Chasing Cosby: The Downfall of America's Dad

I remember Bill Cosby from the beginning. I owned several of his comedy albums when those things were available only as vinyl LPs, and I paid good money to see him perform live when he came to my town.  I remember well his huge breakthrough to star in the weekly television series “I Spy” with Robert Culp, a huge achievement for an African American actor of that time. And, of course, I remember the “don’t-miss” series that my own children grew up on in which Cosby portrayed the perfect father and family man the whole country fell in love with. Little did any of us know that just below the surface of one of the most beloved men in America lurked one of the most despicable human beings on the planet. The real Bill Cosby.

For decades, too many powerful people, and too many weak people who depended upon Cosby for a paycheck, consciously and knowingly enabled Cosby to drug, sexually abuse, and rape dozens and dozens of women.  Cosby, after all, was a generous man who said all the right things about what was wrong in society – especially what he saw as the self-destructive way that too many African Americans raise (or don’t raise) their children. He gave millions of dollars in support of colleges and charities over his lifetime, and that bought him the benefit of the doubt for way too long.  Simply put, Cosby was a black man who achieved tremendous success and wealth, and he singlehandedly did more to change the image of the black family than anyone before him.  As such, he was sacred, and no one wanted to see him fall from grace.

Nicole Weisensee Egan
But fall, he did – with a thud heard around the world – and Nicole Weisensee Egan’s Chasing Cosby explains exactly how it all happened.  Cosby was first tried for his crimes in 2005 in a Philadelphia courtroom, but the resulting mistrial allowed him to walk away a free man.  Try as he might to buy off his accusers, though, in 2018 Cosby found himself again having to fight for his freedom. And this time, things would be different: the #MeToo movement was happening and even though the statute of limitations allowed only one of his accusers actually to bring charges against him, sixty-two other women had also gone public with their own stories of nonconsensual drugging, molesting, and rape at the hands of Bill Cosby.

None of what Egan reveals about Cosby’s crimes and how they affected his victims for the rest of their lives is easy to read. Dozens of women suffered, and Cosby, his wife, many in law enforcement, and many in Hollywood could not have cared less. Cosby, the con artist, fooled most of us – but he was protected by others who knew the truth and did nothing to stop him.  According to Tommy Lightfoot Garret, a “Hollywood insider,” it was no secret in Hollywood what Cosby was doing and what kind of man he was. Garret claims to have heard the rumors in the 1980s when he first became part of that scene, and he says that, “Everyone who was anyone in Hollywood knew.”  But no one wanted to place Cosby, their cash-cow, in danger.  How else could he have gotten away with something like this for decades?  One of the most disgusting things about Cosby’s defenders is how ready they were to claim that he was simply another victim of racism – that no white celebrity would have been charged with the same crimes under the same circumstances. What they ignored is that approximately one-third of Cosby’s accusers were themselves black women, most of whom struggled with their role in bringing down a black icon like Cosby.

But the creepiest thing pointed out in Chasing Cosby, a point that is seldom brought up, is the utter disregard that Cosby had for the lives of the women he was drugging and raping. He was not concerned that they might die from the drugs he was slipping into their drinks; he did not worry that they might have other health issues or that they might die in an accident on the way home if they managed to get away from him before passing out.  Some of these women were unaware of what was happening to them for more than 24 hours – others say they did not feel fully in control of themselves again for as long as four days. It is a miracle (and I hope it’s true) that no one died at Cosby’s hands.

In his defense, the author does point out that Cosby is a man with a mental problem. He openly displayed that by chuckling out loud at his second trial during the prosecution’s defense of the character of his accusers. But Cosby’s problem is deeper than that. He has been legally labeled a “sexually violent predator,” a person with a mental disorder that “makes him likely to repeat his crimes.” As such, he is required to participate in monthly counselling sessions for the rest of his life. He will forever be a registered sex offender.

Chasing Cosby is not an easy book to read. It will make you angry, and it will leave you wondering just who is the guiltiest in a case like this one: the convicted criminal or all those hangers-on who helped him set up his victims. 

Book Number 3,418

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Making Classic Lit Look Cool

It's not the most original idea for bookish humor, but this article from The New Yorker did manage to hit the nail on the head with its rebranding of "classic female-authored novels."  I wonder if a few high school English teachers might want to try this for some of their assigned reading when school starts back up in a few weeks.  

Here are a couple of my favorites from the piece:

"To Kill a Mockingbird
Six-year-old Scout Finch tells the story of her father, the woke AF lawyer Atticus. While her dad defends Tom Robinson, a black man who’s wrongly #MeTooed in the South, Scout discovers through her relationship with a mysterious neighbor that not all incels are bad. "

"House of Mirth
Lily Bart isn’t like other girls—she’s poor and, at twenty-nine, old as hell for a single lady! Even though she’s totally gorge and not just some basic thot, no one’s even tried to put a ring on it, not even her BFF, Lawrence Seldon, a broke-ass lawyer who works hard for the modern equivalent of what, like, maybe $70K, max? #Struggle. As Lily hobnobs with the New York élite, she’s increasingly drawn to Seldon in this classic Ross-and-Rachel romance." 

Other classics ranging from Little Women to Gone with the Wind are included in the article, so take a look to see if one or two of your favorites are there. It's fun.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Where We Come From - Oscar Cásares

Where We Come From offers a view of what is currently happening on America’s southern border through the eyes of those physically and emotionally closest to the situation.  Author Oscar Cásares grew up in Brownsville, Texas, just across the Mexican border and he himself is one of those people. The border is a dangerous place for those who live just north of it and for those who cross it every day to do jobs on its American side. But it is especially dangerous for those who cross it illegally with the hope of setting up a permanent home somewhere within the vastness of the United States for themselves and their families. 

Nina, the book’s main character, grew up in Brownsville and has never lived anywhere else.  Never married, and the only daughter in her family, Nina is now doing what is expected of her women like her by abandoning her own life in order to care for her mother for the rest of the old woman’s life.  That’s just what women like Nina do, and although she resents how readily her brothers assume that the job is hers alone, Nina has now been caring for their mother for eight years.   Although neither of them is much happy with the state of her life, Nina and her mother have more or less settled into a routine they can live with now.

Author Oscar Cásares
But all of that changes one day when Nina agrees to do a favor for someone from the Mexican side of the border, setting into play a chain of events that will forever change Nina’s life and how she sees her place in the world.  Now Nina is hiding something from everyone she knows, including her mother and the brother who very occasionally shows up to see if they need anything.  In the little pink house behind the house she and her mother live in, she is hiding a little Mexican boy named Daniel who is hoping to make it all the way to his father in Chicago.  It is hard enough to keep this secret from her mother and her brother, but when her Houston godson Orly comes to stay with her for a few days, it is only a matter of time before the boys become aware of each other’s presence. And when they do, Nina, her mother, and Daniel are in danger – Nina and her mother of being jailed or fined, and Daniel of being taken into custody until he can be deported.

Bottom Line: Oscar Cásares does a good job of humanizing the generic “illegal immigrants” so commonly seen on the daily news shows, and he reminds the reader that the fact that they are willing to risk their very lives to get here is the best indication of how desperate a life they live on their own side of the border.  They are willing to risk everything for a better life for themselves and their families.  Cásares uses some memorable characters to tell his story: Nina, who surprises herself by bonding with the little Mexican boy who depends on her to keep him safe; Orly, who was raised in a Houston white-collar neighborhood and barely speaks Spanish; Daniel, the little boy who escapes a police raid only to find himself all alone in a country he doesn’t understand; and Nina’s chauvinistic brother who will quickly turn Daniel over to the authorities if he ever figures out exactly what Nina is up to.

All of these are legitimate characters, but they tell only one side of the story.  Cásares barely addresses the drug smugglers, gang members, and serial criminals who come across the border with those seeking better lives.  And that is typical of the whole discussion about America’s border problem. Those on one side want to talk only about hardcore criminals and the fact that anyone having crossed the border without papers is here illegally; those on the other side want to ignore the cost of illegal immigration and the violent crimes being committed by serial criminals who come and go across the border almost as they please, and instead want to focus mostly on what happens in the hopelessly overcrowded government detention centers on the border. Until both sides are willing to have a serious discussion that includes all of the issues, people will continue to die, be abused by people-smugglers, and be forced to lived life in the shadows.  Where We Come From can be a conversation starter.

Book Number 3,417