Friday, April 30, 2021

Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place - Can "Bad" People Write Important Books?

As evidenced by the above photo, I'm a big fan of Philip Roth's novels and nonfiction - and I have been since the late 1960s. The books shown in the picture are part of my Library of America collection, and they represent the vast majority of what Roth published during his career, but I also have some of his novels and nonfiction books in their original editions. 

Now, I have almost nothing in common with a man like Philip Roth, but that is a big part of the attraction. Roth was Jewish, he was born in New Jersey, he was a rather infamous womanizer; I am none of those things. So I turned to a writer like Philip Roth to explain that world to me, and even though I doubt that I ever came close to really understanding it, Roth got me as close to that point as any writer ever could. Philip Roth expanded my universe, and I am grateful to him for that. His personal life and habits, intriguing as they were, were his business, and I didn't think much about them.

But Philip Roth is gone now, and what promises to be his definitive biography has recently been published, and I really want to read it - and I want a copy of my own to shelve and reference. Until Monday, I had not ordered a copy, just kept putting it off because I already have so many books stacked up to be read. Then, I spotted an article in The Times of London that W.W. Norton & Company was yanking the book because Blake Bailey, its author, has been accused in New Orleans of sexual misconduct that may have occurred decades ago during his tenure there as a middle school teacher. If the charges are true, Blake Bailey deserves whatever legal punishment his actions merit. No doubt about that.

Bailey, however, was handpicked by Roth to write this biography, and that means that he was given the kind of access to Roth that future biographers can only dream about. From what I've read, the biography exposes extremely unflattering aspects of Roth's personal behavior, so it promises to be frank and, I hope, honest. Bailey was even at Roth's deathbed, from what I gather. As I've said, I want to read this book, and I want to own it.

I realize that I'm going out on a bit of a limb here, but since I review everything I read, if this book arrives today, as Amazon promises it will, I will read it, I will display it on my shelves, and I will review it. Frankly, I consider "cancel culture" to be nothing more than thinly veiled censorship, and I abhor it. Blake Bailey may very well be a despicable human being; I don't know. But if he is, that does not lessen the quality of this book - and even though it will probably be published by someone else eventually, I want it now. And if I could afford to do it, I would probably buy a couple of dozen copies to give to likeminded people because this kind of thing makes me very nervous. 

As a friend of mine says (and he probably stole it from somewhere), "Woke me when it's over."

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Killer inside Me - Jim Thompson

Original Cover of "The Killer Inside Me"

Simply put, Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me is a stunner, one of those novels that, once picked up, demand the reader to keep turning pages. Mostly during the 1930s and 1940s, Thompson wrote over thirty novels, and most of those, including The Killer Inside Me, were published as paperback originals. That’s probably why Thompson got so little critical appreciation during his lifetime. He was, however, “rediscovered” during the 1980s, and several of his novels have now been filmed or republished. The Killer Inside Me even opens the Library of America collection titled Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, a five-novel collection that includes Patricia Highsmith’s remarkable The Talented Mr. Ripley along with works from the classic noir writers Charles Willeford, David Goodis, and Chester Himes. 

“I grinned, feeling a little sorry for him. It was funny the way these people kept asking for it. Just latching onto you no matter how you tried to brush them off, and almost telling you how they wanted it done. Why’d they all have to come to me to get killed? Why couldn’t they kill themselves?”

Twenty-nine-year-old Lou Ford, narrator of The Killer Inside Me, is a cop in the small West Texas town he’s lived in his whole life. Central City, Texas, is an oil boom town that has grown from a population of 4,800 to one of more than 48,000 during Lou’s lifetime, and it is not anything like the quiet little community it had been when his father was the town’s family doctor. Lou is the cop everybody likes, the guy who doesn’t appear to be all that smart but always has the time and good advice for those who need it most. And that’s just the way Lou wants it.

The real Lou Ford, however, is nothing like the one people think he is. No, the real Lou Ford is brilliant. He reads in several languages, a feat he taught himself by reading from the extensive library his father left behind in the family home/doctor’s office after he died. He’s read his father’s medical texts — and he’s completely conversant about their contents. With his photographic memory, Lou could have easily become a doctor and taken over his father’s established practice had he wanted to do that. But most importantly, the real Lou Ford is a psychopath who is just as likely to kill you as smile at you and quote some homespun advice he’s memorized from his reading. He’s a man who, entirely for his own amusement, manipulates everyone unfortunate enough to know him. And the really scary thing is what he’s capable of doing to the people he grows tired of — or those who make the mistake of crossing him.

Lou Ford is an unforgettable narrator who, despite his mental illness, turns out to be the exact opposite of the unreliable narrator. Instead, Lou wants the reader (often addressing them directly) to know exactly what he is thinking and planning — even to telling them that he is going to kill someone long before he actually does it. He is a brutal, violent man in the midst of losing the self-control that has allowed the killer inside him to remain hidden as long as it has. But that is about to change…and the body-count is mounting.

“…the way I see it is, the writer is just too goddam lazy to do his job. And I’m not lazy, whatever else I am. I’ll tell you everything. But I want to get everything in the right order. I want you to understand how it was.”

Bottom Line: The Killer Inside Me is a surprisingly disturbing novel, but the disturbance does not necessarily come from the explicitness of Lou Ford’s murders. I was much more taken aback by the ease with which a man like Lou Ford (and his real life versions) is able to lure innocent victims into his web of murder and abuse. The horror of that ability is magnified by the pleasure that Ford takes in giving his readers such a revealing account of how easy it is for someone like him to kill — and to get away with it.

Jim Thompson

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Dry Bones - Craig Johnson

Dry Bones
(2015) is the eleventh novel in Craig Johnson’s soon-to-be-seventeen-book Sheriff Walt Longmire series. According to Johnson, Daughter of the Morning Star, that seventeenth Longmire novel is scheduled to be published on September 21, 2021, something I’m particularly happy about because as of right now I’m down to only one unread Longmire book, 2016’s An Obvious Fact.  

Dry Bones is one of the funniest — and one of the most tragic — books in the series. The humor largely comes via the comments springing from Deputy Victoria Moretti’s observations about the differences between life and policing in Absaroka County, Wyoming, and her native Philadelphia. The woman, who is also Sheriff Longmire’s love interest, calls them like she sees them no matter the audience or circumstances, and half the fun in Longmire novels comes from watching the other characters react to what she blurts out. It is no accident that most of my favorite Longmire novels are the ones in which she is given her larger roles. Unfortunately for Walt, the tragedy that plays a major role in Dry Bones strikes directly at him and his family, and its impact will be strongly felt even in subsequent books.

“Jen,” the eight-million-dollar Tyrannosaurus rex, has put Absaroka County on the map to a degree that no one could have expected — or have been prepared for. Now, potential buyers from all over the world, including every major museum in the US, want to get their hands on what is likely to be the largest and most complete T-Rex skeleton ever seen. Jen’s potential eight-million-dollar price tag does not much worry any of them except for the local High Plains Dinosaur Museum whose director wants so badly to keep Jen at home. Soon enough, “Save Jen” becomes the local rallying cry.

But after Danny Lone Elk, the man on whose property the fossil was discovered, turns up dead before his agreement with the High Plains Dinosaur Museum has been formalized, multiple parties come forward to claim Jen as their own: Danny’s family, the tribe, and even the federal government. And it doesn’t help that the comically pompous acting deputy attorney shows up in town along with the FBI to oversee the whole process. Someone wanted Danny Lone Elk dead, and now it’s up to Walt Longmire, his deputies, and his best friend Henry Standing Bear to figure out who that is.

Bottom Line: Dry Bones is a pivotal novel in the Walt Longmire series. What happens in this one will lead directly to the plots and themes of some of the books that follow after a villain from Walt’s past comes back to haunt him and his family in an unimaginable way. Even though I didn’t do it that way myself, because the Longmire series is one of those whose greatest impact comes from a chronological reading, I suggest that the books be read in order of publication as much as possible.  

Craig Johnson

Friday, April 23, 2021

In the Woods - Tana French

Tana French’s In the Woods, the first novel of her Dublin Murder Squad series, did quite well for itself when it was published in 2007, even going on to win the 2008 Edgar Award for best first novel. The series, now totaling six books, is still popular with readers of mystery and suspense fiction, but French hasn’t added to it since 2016. Rather, her last two novels, The Witch Elm (2018) and The Searcher (2020), are both standalone titles.

In the Woods focuses on the work and personal relationship of two Dublin murder investigators, Rob (the novel’s narrator) and Cassie, who have developed the kind of partnership that makes them much more effective as a team than either of them would be if they worked alone or with a different partner. They are so good at what they do together that they are allowed to partner-up despite the relative lack of experience that either of them have. But that doesn’t stop the other cops from talking about their “relationship” or their boss being nervous about having two such young cops work together. 

Rob is a cop with a past he has kept hidden from everyone other than Cassie: just over twenty years earlier, he had been one of three victims of an unsolved crime much like the ones he investigates now for the Dublin Murder Squad. As they often did, Rob and his two twelve-year-old friends, a boy and a girl, had gone into the woods to play. Hours later, Rob was found in blood-filled shoes clinging to a tree in shock; his two friends were never seen again, and the mystery of their disappearance is yet to be solved. And now, Detective Rob Ryan and his partner are investigating the murder of a twelve-year-old girl whose body has been found just a stone’s throw from the woods into which Rob’s friends disappeared all those years ago. 

Shockingly, it appears that the two cases may be linked in one of several possible ways, so  Rob knows that if he finally reveals his past he will immediately be yanked from the case, and maybe even fired by the police. Because that is the last thing that Rob wants to see happen, he decides to keep his mouth shut, and because Cassie values their friendship so highly, she plays right along with his game. The problem is that even though Rob has no memory at all of what happened to him and his friends in the woods that day, he is reluctant to interview certain witnesses who may still recognize him from those days, limiting his investigatory effectiveness.

And then, as memory fragments start to come back to Rob little by little, his emotions begin to impact his decisions so negatively that the whole investigation is placed in jeopardy.

In the Woods is a solid police procedural, but it is more about the deep Platonic relationship between Rob and Cassie and what happens to that relationship when Rob begins to crack. The emotional stress that Rob and Cassie experience as their personal loyalties are tested is what makes the novel so deservedly stand out from the crowd the way that it does. Along the way, however, Rob Ryan morphs from an entirely sympathetic character to an annoying whiner of a character who spends much of his narration making excuses for his own behavior. And, frankly, he becomes as personally annoying as the behavior he is trying to excuse. If that is what Tana French was going for, she hit a bases-loaded home run; if not, she swung and missed. 

Bottom Line: In the Woods, in the end, left me feeling frustrated by having had to spend so much time with a character as childishly irritating as Rob Ryan is. But my main complaint is that, after almost 500 pages of reading, only one of the key mysteries in the book gets solved and I’m left wondering about the other one. Thankfully - at least as far as I can tell — the next book in the Dublin Murder Squad series features Cassie, not Rob Ryan. Here’s hoping that Rob has been allowed to walk permanently into the sunset.

Tana French

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Great Courses: Mystery & Suspense Fiction (36 Lessons)

TV Screen Shot from "The Return of the Classic Detective," Lesson 10

Many library systems around the country make the online service called Kanopy available to its library card holders. With the exception of one short time-blip of a few weeks when the county decided Kanopy was just not in its budget, my library has given its patrons limited use of the service for the last 2-3 years. We are, however, limited to four movies, documentaries or series per month, so I assume that there may be different tiers on Kanopy depending on how much a library is willing to pay for the service. 

But four has always been plenty for me with the exception of the months when two or three of my movie choices turn out to be so bad that I can't finish them. Honestly, though, the real reason I keep coming back to Kanopy every month is that the service also offers quite a few educational courses from the Great Courses franchise. The good news is that each Great Course - even those that include as many as thirty-six  individual lessons - counted as only one selection against my allotted four. But Kanopy got even better after I received an email saying that my library no longer counts a Great Course as even one selection. In practical terms, that probably doesn't mean much since I have never gotten through more than one of the courses in a calendar month anyway, but it does make it possible for me now to fearlessly sample the courses without the risk of squandering my four selections in the process.

And,  that brings me to a course I'm doing there right now called "Mystery & Suspense Fiction," a thirty-six-lesson class that covers the history and evolution of both genres from their beginnings to 2016 (when the lectures were filmed). Each of the lessons are about thirty-five minutes long, and they are all presented by the same lecturer, Professor David Schmid, a man to whom I can gladly listen for all  twenty-one hours of "Mystery & Suspense Fiction." 

David Schmid is a New York Professor of English and Political Science

To this point, I've listened to eleven of the lessons, including: Murder in Cozy Spaces, African American Mysteries, Nordic Noir, The Sidekick, and The Criminal. 

The full course encompasses:

  1. Mystery Fiction's Secret Formula
  2. The Detective Is Born
  3. The Criminal
  4. The Sidekick
  5. Detecting Clues
  6. Case Closed? The Problem with Solutions
  7. The Locked Room
  8. The Dime Novel
  9. Murder in Cosy Places
  10. Return of the Classic Detective
  11. The City Tests the Detective
  12. The Private Eye Opens
  13. African American Mysteries
  14. The Femme Fatale
  15. The Private Eye Evolves
  16. Latino Detectives on the Border
  17. The Lady Detective
  18. Violence Waits in the Wings
  19. Violence Takes Center Stage
  20. Psychopaths and Mind Hunters
  21. Police as Antagonist
  22. Police as Protagonist
  23. Native American Mysteries
  24. The European Mystery Tradition
  25. Nordic Noir
  26. Japanese and Latin American Mysteries
  27. Precursors to True Crime
  28. True Crime in the 20th Century
  29. Historical Mysteries
  30. Spies, Thrillers, and Conspiracies
  31. Female-Centered Mystery and Suspense
  32. Poetic Justice
  33. Courtroom Drama
  34. Gay and Lesbian Mystery and Suspense
  35. Adapting the Multimedia Mystery
  36. Mysterious Experiments
I've already learned a lot about mysteries and how they've evolved over the centuries, and I highly recommend the class to other fans of either genre. If you are into mystery and suspense, as so many book bloggers and readers are, this one is not only great fun; it helps you appreciate the genre even more.

If any of you try this or one of the other Great Courses - or already have- I would love to hear what you think of them. 

Monday, April 19, 2021

Back Home - Dan L. Walker

Back Home is billed as Dan Walker’s “follow-up novel” to his 2016 book Secondhand Summer in which Walker first introduces the fourteen-year-old Sam Barger and his Alaskan family to readers. In Secondhand Summer, the Bargers move from a tiny Alaskan community to one of Anchorage’s poorer neighborhoods where Sam does not cope very well with the drastic lifestyle change forced upon him. Now, in Back Home, Sam is a sixteen-year-old high school sophomore living alone with his mother. Sam’s father is dead, and Joe, his brother, is doing a tour of duty in Vietnam. 

1968 was one of the most dramatic years in modern American history, but even the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy really would not have rocked Sam’s world much were it not for the pretty girl he met in the school cafeteria one day. All Sam really wants to do is get by until the next summer break arrives. That means putting the least possible effort into his studies that will allow him somehow to get passing marks; work his job at Polar Pizza; maybe get Joe’s old truck running again before his brother comes home from the war; and meet girls — especially girls like Iris, the hippy who tempts Sam into joining the peace march that ends up with his picture on the local paper’s front page.

Hippies are not real popular in 1968 Alaska, but Sam and Iris could have survived that easily enough if the battle-scarred Joe had not come home to recover from his wounds, including the ones that cause him to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, just when he did. Back Home is a coming-of-age novel complicated by the tumultuous time in which it is set. It is one in which Sam and Joe Barger, despite being the only sibling each has, find their love for each other severely tested by how differently they view the war in Vietnam.

Bottom Line: I was primarily drawn to Back Home because I lived through the period myself and was curious to see how Walker (who based both books partly on his own experiences) would handle it. My disappointment stems from my definition of the term “follow-up novel.” To me, a follow-up is simply the book that follows a predecessor-novel, even if some of the same characters are featured. A follow-up novel is not necessarily going to be the second book in a longer series of novels. A series, however, appears to be the plan here because Back Home abruptly ends before all the subplots and questions are wrapped up. That leaves me imagining that a third Sam Barger book is in the works, one that will begin with a dramatic flashback to the point where this one calls it quits because the Barger brothers are quite literally not yet out of the woods when this one goes kaput. (Otherwise, why would a 196-page novel stop where this one does?)

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Friday, April 16, 2021

The Council of Animals - Nick McDonell

Nick McDonell’s The Council of Animals is likely to be the most unusual novel I will read in 2021. Publisher Henry Holt & Company calls this one “a captivating fable for humans of all ages,” and that’s not an overstatement. Comparisons to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, numerous as they are certain to be, are also appropriate because of how in both books animals rebel against humans and try to build a better, fairer world for themselves. 

The animals in The Council of Animals, however are considering a question that goes a giant step further than the animals in Animal Farm were prepared to go; they are meeting to discuss whether or not the few humans who have survived The Calamity deserve to live. If the vote goes against the humans, they will all be killed and eaten. The council that will decide the fate of the humans consists of a bulldog, a horse, a bear, a cat, a crow, and a baboon, each of whom has been chosen to represent its species. They are gathered to cast their own votes while they wait for the arrival of the “mythical” animal that will cast the pivotal (if it comes to a 4-3 split) seventh vote. 

The debate soon becomes heated, even dangerous to its participants, and the animals, whether they want to admit it to themselves or not, soon prove that their own nature is really not very different from that of humans who have by now practically destroyed the environment. Much of the fun in The Council of Animals, in fact, comes from watching animal behavior so closely mimic all the finger-pointing and other foolishness that is all too common today: claims of cultural appropriation, stereotyping, and looking down upon what are perceived by mammals to be the inherently lesser species. When it is revealed, for instance, that dogs are often denigrated by the other animals with their own version of the N-word, I almost laughed out loud. Amusing misdirections like that one, though, make the book’s overall message and surprising ending even more memorable than they otherwise would have been. 

Bottom Line: The Council of Animals is a book I can envision being used in classrooms around the world for years to come, much like Animal Farm has been used for the last several decades. Its clever use of humor and its suspenseful plot keep the reader — no matter what age — turning pages until its deeper message seeps in. This deceptively simple novel has a lot to say about us and the world we have created. Maybe, just maybe, it will open a few eyes as to what is important — and what is not.

Steven Tabbutt's illustrations, sprinkled throughout the book, have a nostalgic feel about them, and I found myself looking forward to them. This one is typical of Tabbutt's style:

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Review Copy provided by Publisher

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

I'm in the Mood to Bring Home Some Books

Now that I've been fully vaccinated for a while, I've ventured back inside two different Barnes & Noble bookstores and one Half Price Books location. And, I've been pleased to find that the urge to buy physical books is as strong in me today as it ever was. In just the last three weeks, I've brought tree-book copies of these home with me:

I picked up a like-new hardcover of this one in Half Price Books for a whopping $4. This is book number six in Atkins's ten-book Quinn Colson series, a really good crime fiction series set in contemporary, small-town Mississippi. I started reading the series after snagging a review copy of the second series book back in 2012, but I've still only read the second, third, and fourth Quinn Colson books. Couldn't pass this one up at that price, and I'm looking forward to returning to that world soon. 

I bought this Tana French standalone after enjoying her latest book, The Searcher (which is the only other standalone French has published) so much. That one was my first exposure to French's writing, but I'm now such an enthusiastic convert to her books that I plan to snag the odd marked-down copy like this one whenever I run across them. I was happy to find a never-read copy for $10 at Half Price Books. 

About two weeks after purchasing The Witch Elm, I made another visit to Half Price Books and found a never-read copy of the second book in French's Murder Squad series. This one was published in 2008, so I was a little surprised to find a copy in such good condition for only $8. That gives me a little hope that, if my enthusiasm about the books holds up, I'll be able to put them all on my shelves at a fairly decent price...although I haven't priced the first book in the series yet, so that may not be true. 

As I've said many times, Library of America is my favorite publisher. I admire the job that this non-profit publisher is doing in printing high-quality editions of the best and/or most interesting writing this country has ever produced so much that I now have 118 of their books on my own shelves...and counting. LOA  have finally gotten around to Hemingway, and I found it on Amazon for $21.49. This is normally a $47 book, so there's no way I could have passed it up at the sale price.

At the same time as I was buying the Hemingway, I noticed that the LOA edition of Jean Stafford's novels was also on sale for $23.95. This one is a little slimmer than the Hemingway book, but it is regularly $40, so it seemed like the perfect time to add Stafford to my collection - and reading experience as well. The three novels were published between 1944 and 1952, and Stafford is one of those writers whose work is in danger of just dropping through the crack. One of LOA's mission is making sure that kind of thing doesn't happen. 

Reading Walter Mosley's fifteenth Easy Rawlins novels a few days ago made me want to read some of the earlier books in that series, and I spotted this one at one of the local Barnes & Noble's stores (the good one...more on that later). Devil in a Blue Dress is actually the first book in the series, and the edition I have is an oversized paperback that was on sale for $6 the day I was in the bookstore. 

As much as I have enjoyed each of the Easy Rawlins books I've read, I like some of Mosley's standalones even better than the Rawlins books. I found Down the River Unto the Sea on the same B&N visit I mentioned above. This one is about a New York cop who was framed and did prison time before becoming a private detective. I find it interesting that it is set on the East Coast, a country...and world...away from Easy's West Coast setting. This never-read hardcover was $7. 

The Guns of Last Light is part three of Rick Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy," the author's World War II trilogy. It's almost 850 pages long, so I'm guessing that the trilogy must be close to 2,500 pages all told. This is a quality product; it's on heavy, paper and includes some nicely reproduced black and white photos from the European battlefields. My father was in almost all of the battles chronicled in the book, and I'm hoping that the book can give me a better understanding of what he went through during the war. I doubt I'll ever read the whole thing, but it's perfect for dipping into and out of as the mood strikes.

Now, back to that comment I made earlier about the "good" Barnes & Noble store. I am near-equidistant from two B&Ns, and the two could not be any more different if they purposely worked at it. One store has almost completely eliminated its marked-down fiction section; the other seems to have expanded it. One devotes more and more floor space to toys, games, stationary, greeting cards, and calendars all the time; the other seems to be holding the line on those items. One has eliminated so many bookshelves, that browsing the store is like walking through a forest after a brushfire has killed a third of the trees. The other has rearranged the front door area display, but not messed around with the other shelving at all. One will get my business from now will not.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed - Wendy Lower

I don’t read many books about the Holocaust because they tend to leave me feeling upset and depressed about the cruelties that people are capable of inflicting upon their fellow human beings. But after reading a short blurb somewhere about Wendy Lower’s The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed, I knew I had to read this one. 

One day in 2009, author Wendy Lower was shown a photo that had only just recently arrived at this country’s Holocaust Memorial Museum. The picture shows the instant that a Jewish family is being murdered by two German officials and two collaborators from the Ukraine. The eye is immediately drawn to the woman and little boy whose hand she is holding, but the more that Lower looked at the photograph, the more she saw — including another small child partially hidden between the boy and the woman. Lower would go on to study and investigate the photograph for the next ten years, hoping to identify everyone in the picture, including the murderers, but especially the victims whose names had escaped history. The remarkable story that she tells in The Ravine is the result of her dedication to that task.

Despite the impression that most people have nowadays, just over a dozen photographs similar to this one exist. The Germans forbade them being taken, and they were generally careful to make sure that no such self-incriminating evidence was left behind. What makes this particular photograph so important is that”…the photographer testified about this event in the 1950s, stating emphatically that the local killers were Ukrainians who knew some of the victims.” 

“This book is about the potential of discovery that exists if we dare look closer. It is also about the voids that exist in the history of genocide. Its perpetrators not only kill but also seek to erase the victims from written records, and even from memory. When we find one trace, we must pursue it, to prevent the intended extinction by countering it with research, education, and memorialization.”

When she began her investigation, Wendy Lower did not know for certain which country these particular murders occurred in, but her diligence and investigatory instincts eventually led her to Miropol, a small town in the Ukraine, and what happened there on October 13, 1941. And as she puts it, “Using hundreds of testimonies of Germans, Slovakians, and Ukrainians who passed through or resided in Miropol, and of the one Jewish survivor, I was able to reconstruct events just before, during, and after the photograph was taken on October 13.” 

One of the saddest aspects of Holocaust massacres like this one is that roughly half of the victims have never been named, much less ever appear on any list of the missing. Simply put, no family members survived them, so no one was looking for them after the war. Thus, millions of people disappeared without a trace as if they never existed. But the killers in the photograph did not go missing when the war ended, and Lower reveals what happened to each of them — and whether or not they ever paid a price for what they did.

Lower realizes that photographs like the one in the book are not easy to look at and that they can be used for the wrong purposes, but she also recognizes their power:

“Atrocity images, especially the rare ones that attest to acts of genocide, the crime of all crimes, offend and shame us. When we turn away from them, we promote ignorance. When we display them in museums without captions and download them from the internet with no historical context, we denigrate the victims. And when we stop researching them, we cease to care about historical justice, the threat of genocide, and the murdered missing.”

Bottom Line: The Ravine is more than an impressive study of what one dedicated investigator is capable of revealing under even the most difficult of circumstances. It is a reminder that even though this kind of thing has happened throughout human history, and that the likelihood of it happening again — as it so often has since World War II - is always out there, we cannot close our eyes to it. It will not go away.

Wendy Lower

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Ridgeline - Michael Punke

Three summers ago, a friend with longtime family ties to Wyoming suggested that we visit Fort Phil Kearney while I was wandering around that part of the country. About the only thing that sounded remotely familiar to me at the time was the name of the Civil War general for whom the fort was named. I knew nothing about the history of the fort itself or what had happened there. Fort Phil Kearney is in such a remote location even today that it is easy to envision how scary it must have been there when the fort was constructed by military personnel in 1866, but it was only after hearing the fort’s history from an excellent Wyoming State Parks ranger that I wondered why it was still such a well-kept secret. Why were there no movies or novels about Fort Phil Kearney and the “Fetterman Fight” that happened there on December 21, 1866? After all, the Fetterman Fight, right up until the massacre of troops at the Battle of the Little Bighorn almost ten years later, was the worst defeat the US army ever suffered in battle against united tribes of American Indians. 

Well, finally, someone has written a novel about Fort Phil Kearney, and as it turns out, it was well worth the wait because Michael Punke’s Ridgeline brings it all to life for today’s readers. Punke is, of course, best known for his novel The Revenant and the successful film version that followed some years later, and this seems like a natural for the Wyoming native who as a teenager was himself a National Park Service employee at the state’s Fort Laramie National Historic Site. 

No one can know exactly what happened on that bloody day — or why it happened the way that it did — but Punke’s combination of historical fact and logical speculation is certainly plausible. The basic facts are these

  • Several Indian tribes, some of them longtime enemies, worked together to bring approximately 2,000 warriors to the battlefield.
  • Tribal chiefs, with the help of a young warrior called Crazy Horse, concocted a precisely coordinated plan to lure soldiers from the fort into an ambush from which they could not possibly escape.
  • Despite being directly ordered not to cross the ridge that placed them out of sight from fort observers, a combination of 81 calvary and infantry soldiers did exactly that. 
  • Within an hour (some say thirty minutes) of having crossed that point, all 81 soldiers were dead.

The Indians knew they were fighting for their very survival as a people. A lesser threat would not have allowed longtime mortal enemies, as some of the tribes were, to put aside their differences even long enough to defeat a common foe. The soldiers were there because of  the country’s inevitable western expansion and its hunger for gold. The troops were a mixture of Confederate and Union veterans, and not all of them were even soldiers by choice. 

The story Punke tells, because he tells it in alternating sections from the points of view of both sides, has a little of the feel of watching two runaway trains approach an unavoidable head-on collision. It has a tragic feel about it, especially because all of the key characters in Ridgeline are based upon historical figures and what historians know about them. Among the Indians, there are: Crazy Horse, his friend Lone Bear, his brother Little Hawk, and chiefs Red Cloud and High Backbone. Soldiers include: the fort’s commander Colonel Henry Carrington, Captains William Fetterman and Tenador Ten Eyck, and Lieutenant George Washington  Grummond (the wild card in this story). In addition to the troops, a few families, including children, were also inside Fort Phil Kearney, and Punke uses two of the wives, Frances Grummond and Margaret Carrington, to illustrate some of the personality conflicts and jealousies that existed in the officer ranks. Scouts Jim Bridger (who played a key role in Punke’s The Revenant) and James Beckwourth also add to the mix.  

Bottom Line: Ridgeline is the kind of historical fiction that reminds readers that those who came before us were not all that different from the people we are today. Punke does not take sides. Instead, he gives the reader a sense of how — and why — something as tragic as what ultimately happened to this country’s native peoples happened. This is a memorable account of one little known fight between two very different cultures that had a much greater impact on American history than anyone could have realized at the time.  

Michael Punke

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Friday, April 09, 2021

Convenience Store Woman - Sayaka Murata (Translated by: Ginny Tapley Takemori)

No one would ever claim that Keiko Furukura is normal — including Keiko herself. Keiko knows that’s not the case, but she studies “normal” people so intently that now she can mimic them well enough to fool most people into believing she fits right in to contemporary Japanese society. Only those closest to her, including her co-workers at the convenience store where she’s worked since she was eighteen (literally half her life), even have a clue as to whom she really is.

Keiko Furukura is, simply put, a Convenience Store Woman. She is, in fact, the perfect convenience store employee. She always comes in an hour early so that she can prepare herself for the day; she is a willing parrot of all the canned greetings that her manager requires her to give each customer who enters the store; she watches the shelves like a hawk to make sure that they are always in perfect order and that sales/promotional items get prime locations; she is willing to help out wherever the crisis of the moment pops up; she has the patience necessary to train the perpetual flow of new employees; she’s willing to work whatever shift, on whatever day, is best for the store; and she even purchases out-of-date and damaged food items for her own home meals. She is, without a doubt, the perfect employee…and everyone, including her own family, wonders why she is such a failure.

By the time a Japanese woman is as old as Keiko, she is expected to have a well-paying, full-time job or to be at home raising her children. She is not supposed still to be working “part-time” at the only job she’s ever had in her life. That is just not normal. Keiko grew up believing that she needed to be “cured” of whatever it was that made her different from everyone else. She just didn’t know exactly what that was. In the convenience store she learned, from training videos, which facial expression goes with each type of customer interaction, and she is happier there than she is anywhere else in the world. So…why can’t people just leave her alone?

One day, a young man, himself far from “normal” according to the mores of Japanese culture, explains his theory about society and how it treats people like them:

“This society hasn’t changed one bit. People who don’t fit into the village are expelled, men who don’t hunt, women who don’t give birth to children. For all the talk about modern society and individualism, anyone who doesn’t try to fit in can expect to be meddled with, coerced, and ultimately banished from the village.”

Bottom Line: The moral of Convenience Store Woman is: mind your own business. Keiko is perfectly suited to her work, she loves it, and it gives meaning to her life. Her manager, although he does not fully appreciate her, is very lucky to have her; the corporation is lucky to have her; her co-workers may be the luckiest of all to share the store floor with her; her parents and sister are lucky that she is theirs. And each and every one of them wonder what is wrong with her and how they can “cure” her. Keiko Furukura is an unforgettable character with an important message, and Sayaka Murata has packed a lot into this little book of only 163 numbered-pages.

Author Sayaka Murata

Translator Ginny Tapley Takemori

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

The World of Fiction Podcasts - Another Great Alternative

Because so many avid readers already regularly enjoy audiobooks, here's something a little different today.

Via a Times of London article of a couple of weeks ago, I discovered the world of fiction podcasting. The article mentioned several of the best productions from the last 5-6 years, and I can already vouch for one called Passenger List. According to the article - and it's certainly true for the one I'm listening to now - these are new productions that sound a little like some of the old radio dramas of yesterday...only better. 

Passenger List is about the loss of Atlantic Flight 702 which disappeared somewhere over the ocean between London and New York with 256 passengers and crew on board. One young woman, an American, refuses to believe that the plane that claimed her twin brother's life was knocked out of the sky by a flight of birds. She starts asking questions on both sides of the ocean, and not all the answers make sense, so she keeps digging. The story is pushed along by a series of recorded interviews, phone messages, and phone calls that the the skeptical woman persists in until, finally, she finds a helpful ally or two to help her pursue the truth.  The first season of Passenger List consists of eight episodes, each about thirty minutes in length. I'm listening to the seventh episode today, and starting to wonder if the mystery will be resolved in the current season, or if I'll have to wait for answers until the second season begins in a few weeks. (The photo, above, is of two of the podcast actors.)

Other fiction podcasts on my radar now include these - none of which I've more than briefly sampled at this point:

"Academy Award® winner Rami Malek stars in this apocalyptic thriller as a small-town radio DJ fighting to protect his family and community after the power grid goes down nationwide, upending modern civilization. BLACKOUT stars and is executive produced by Rami Malek."

"Limetown is a podcast fiction series created by Two-Up Productions that debuted on July 29, 2015 and became the number one US podcast on iTunes less than two months later. The show has drawn comparisons to the popular podcast Serial and the 1990s television show The X-Files. The series was written and directed by Zack Akers and produced by Skip Bronkie."

"WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE is a twice-monthly podcast in the style of community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff's Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and cultural events. Turn on your radio and hide."

"Wooden Overcoats - Drama Podcast and Sitcom Best of iTunes | British Podcast Awards Winner RUDYARD FUNN runs a funeral home on the island of piffling. It used to be the only one."

These are just the tip of the iceberg, and I'm sure that some of you have been aware of the genre for a few years but, as usual, I'm a little late to discover the latest thing. Access is available via most of the usual podcast apps, so depending on your operating system, go to one of the apps to see what you think. As for me, I'm hooked, so please let me know about any good ones you find.