Saturday, November 4, 2017

Book Review: American Fire by Monica Hesse



American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land

Author: Monica Hesse
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Company
Date of Publication: July 11, 2017
Pages: 288


     Back in the Stone Ages when I was in medical school, MCV used to farm out third year students for a one month primary care experience.  I had the fantastic luck of spending the month of August, 1976 at the Northampton-Accomack Memorial Hospital in Nassawadox, Virginia.  There were four of us third-years there that month as well as a fourth year doing an elective.  As my first clinical rotation, this month was a genuine eye-opener.  There were no "real" doctors in the hospital from 11 P.M. until the morning, not even in the E.R.  The attendings all lived a minute or so away and one general surgeon would sleep in his R.V in the parking lot (no beepers - you just went out and pounded on the door if you needed him).  It was a unique and wonderful clinical rotation.  The internist I worked with (William Burton, M.D.) had been second in his medical school class at MCV (his wife was #1!).  I saw many things for the first time and learned a tremendous amount in one month.  I helped manage a lady with acute CHF, saw a Kaposi's sarcoma and even was sent in an ambulance to Norfolk with a variceal bleeder (one I.V. and one unit of blood, just in case she "broke loose").  We were also able to accompany a public health nurse by boat to Tangier Island to do house calls.  Just as enlightening as the medical education I received, I learned a lot of the history and lore of Virginia's Eastern Shore.  Much like current times, the economy was depressed and the locals were looking for new sources of jobs.  The young people were not returning home after college.  There was a huge influx of migrant workers every summer.  Most people ignored their health care until they were in advanced stages of their disease.  So, it is with this backdrop that you can understand that when I heard about Monica Hesse's American Fire, an account of a true story which occurred on the Eastern Shore, I ordered a copy and started reading it the minute it arrived in the mail.


     American Fire is, first and foremost, the story of Charlie Smith and Tonya Bundick.  Both of these people are Eastern Shore locals and had a colorful past.  Charlie had frequent run-ins with the law and owned an auto body shop.  Tonya was a nursing assistant and single mother who had a party-girl reputation.  They formed an unlikely couple and then proceeded to become serial arsonists.  They burned many of the unoccupied farm buildings as well as several homes and businesses.  Over eighty fires in all were started.  They managed to elude a massive effort by local and state police as well as F.B.I. and A.T.F. to stop them.  The author does a very creditable job of creating non-judgmental character studies of both of these people.  One of the problems the police had was defining a motive but Hesse does ferret that out by the end of the book.  There are many other fascinating character studies in American Fire, including the volunteer firemen and the police officers involved.

     Just as important as the character sketches, though, the author manages to paint a very stark and realistic picture of the Eastern Shore.  She traces the history of the area, including it's rich farming traditions and its short-lived era as a vacation destination.  She elaborates on the current economic woes which define this area as well as many rural areas in modern America.  In some ways, this book could be viewed as a companion to J.D. Vance's Hillbilly ElegyBoth books give a harsh view of a distressed and hopeless slice of America.  Hesse's views however are balanced.  She recognizes the charms of living in area such as the Eastern Shore as well as the challenges:

"I went to Accomack County and I found endless metaphors for a dying county in a changing landscape.  There were endless metaphors that went the opposite way, too: rural life as a fairy tale, better than the rest of the country.  The reality is probably somewhere in between.  The people who lived in Accomack were happy to live in Accomack.  It wasn't small, it was close-knit.  It wasn't backward, it was simple.  There weren't  a hundred things to do every night, but if you went to the one available thing, you were pretty much guaranteed to run into someone you knew.  As economies change, as landscapes change, nostalgia is the only good America will never stop producing."

     The author also includes an entertaining chapter on infamous "Crime Couples", including Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow Gang, the "Barbie Killers" Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, and Leopold and Loeb.  She describes a shared psychotic disorder, folie a deux (madness of two), which is applicable to these famous cases as well as the Eastern Shore arsonists.  There is also a fascinating chapter on the subspecialty of arsonist profiling.  Using a computer program and the locations of the crimes, police are able to pinpoint where the arsonists live.  In this particular case they narrowed it down to one residential block (which was accurate) but still couldn't identify the culprits even though everyone on the block, including the perpetrators, were interviewed.

    Monica Hesse is a feature writer for "The Washington Post" and has written this book and Girl in the Blue Coat, an Edgar winner for Best Young Adult Mystery.  She has created a stellar entry in the genre of creative non-fiction with American Fire.  I enjoyed it from a nostalgia point of view as well as from the fact that it is a very entertaining and informative read.  

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Stanford Freshman Required Reading List (2017)

 
     The Stanford Freshman Summer Reading List - 2017



      Stanford University assigned three books to their incoming freshman class.  Wanting to be as well read as these eighteen and nineteen year olds I decided to read them as well.  I read them for two reasons.  First, I thought I might learn something.  Second, I wanted to see what someone, or some committee at Stanford felt was important for their incoming freshmen to know.  So here are my thoughts regarding these three books, all of which were superb in their own way.

     The first one I read was Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones.  This was a National Book Award Winner in 2011.  It has been described as "the first great book about Katrina" ("The Boston Globe").  I found it more of a crystal sharp, eyes-wide-open view of poverty in modern America.  You can read as many books about poverty which you can find and none will make you feel the experience as well as Salvage the Bones.  The story is set in coastal Mississippi in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina in August, 2005.    It is told through the eyes of an unforgettable 14 year-old African-American girl.  She lives with her three brothers (two older and one much younger) and her father among chickens, fighting dogs, broken down cars and trucks and a dilapidated house.  What sets this novel apart is the quality of the writing.  There isn't one false word or phrase.  Each paragraph packs an emotional punch.  The author's doesn't just tell us about poverty in rural Mississippi, she shows it to us through her vivid descriptions.  This ability enables the setting to almost become its own character.  The land and location certainly set the stage for the lives these people lead:
   
"The few dirt-scratched yards and the thin-siding houses and trailers of Bois Sauvage seem a sorry match to the woods, like pitting a puppy against a full grown dog.  Here, there are swimming holes that are fat puddles and some the size of swimming pools fed by skinny clear creeks, but the earth makes the holes black, and the trees make them as filthy with leaves as a dog is with fleas.  There are clusters of magnolias that are so tall and green and glossy, they are impossible to climb, and the air around them always smells like peaches.  There are oaks so big and old that their arms grow out black and thick as trunks, which rest on the ground.  There are ponds that are filled with slime and tall yellow grasses, and at night, frogs turn them teeming, singing a burping chorus.  There are clearings where deer feed, startle white, and kick away.  There are  turtles plowing through pine straw, mud, trying to avoid the pot."

   The author deftly counterposes daily life for this way below the poverty line family and the father's sense of urgency regarding the impending hurricane.  The final chapters tell of Katrina's arrival and are riveting.


     The Sixth Extinction is a work of non-fiction written by Elizabeth Kolbert, a journalist who currently is a staff writer for "The New Yorker."  She is not a scientist by training but very adroitly makes her case that we are living in an era of mass extinction.  This would be the sixth such event in earth history.  She illustrates her points by personal research including, for example, time spent in Central America examining the disappearance of thousands of species of frogs.  I expected this to be a diatribe regarding climate change but refreshingly, it is not.  She does have chapters on our current climate condition, but she does so without standing on a soap box.  The chapter on acidification of the oceans (CO2 absorption from the atmosphere) and its effects on coral reefs and the ecosystem which relies on them was clearly written.  The other chapter which in my opinion was extremely well done was the one on invasive species and how this has changed environments and native species all over the world.  This process has been accelerated in our lifetime by globalization.  She notes that the most invasive species ever has been homo sapiens:

"Before humans emerged on the scene, being large and slow to reproduce was a highly successful strategy, and out-sized creatures dominated the planet.  Then, in what amounts to a geologic instant, this strategy became a loser's game.  And so it remains today, which is why elephants and bears and big cats are in so much trouble...  Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature, it's not clear that he ever really did."

 Kolbert not only explains what is going on in our environment today but draws parallels to the five other eras in history when major species extinctions have also occurred.  This book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2015.

     Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing made the biggest impression on me.  This epic story relates a multi-generational slave saga, starting in Ghana in the late 1700s.  The main characters are two half-sisters, one of whom marries a British officer and into a life of privilege.  The other is sold as a captive by a warring tribe and shipped to America.  Chapters follow descendants through major events in history, including the slave experience in Mississippi, the American Civil War and into modern times. These stories are not told in direct chronological order, but interconnect and the ending chapters are back in Ghana.  The characters here are exceptionally well developed and captivating.  I was reading this novel at the time of the events in Charlottesville in August.  Homegoing gave me insight into how reminders of the pre-Civil War South could be enormously hurtful to descendants of slaves.  The slave experience is woven in the DNA of African Americans and this book helped me appreciate that fact.  I am aware that unless you are Native American, we all have an immigrant heritage.  My great grandparents immigrated from Ireland during the potato famine in the 1880s.  My great grandfather worked as a blacksmith in Richmond.  I am also well aware that many ethnic groups faced the obstacle of prejudice in subsequent generations.  I don't think any of these equates with the slave experience and this book enormously helped me understand that.  It doesn't answer the question of what to do with Confederate statues, but at least it makes the issue make sense to me.

     So, all three of these books were excellent and presented the Stanford freshmen and me with lots to think about.  I would imagine that whomever assigned these books generally wanted their freshman to have an awareness of the larger world.  The two novels certainly give insight into poverty and the heritage of slavery.  As Stephen Covey has written: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."  These books give the reader incredible insights and would seemingly help develop empathy.  The Sixth Extinction gives a broad view of environmental processes and concerns without a political agenda. Again, this would seemingly serve the purpose of helping a young person become aware of issues outside of the college campus.  I enjoyed reading all three of these books and yes, they made me think and rethink some of my opinions.  I recommend all three very highly.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Book Review: The Girl Before by J P Delaney



The Girl Before
Author: J P Delaney
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Date of Publication: January 24, 2017
Pages: 352

     The best word to describe this book is creepy.  It's creepy good, but creepy nonetheless. Edward Monkford is a reclusive "minimalist" architect.  He designs communities around the concept of living comfortably with the bare necessities.  His most famous building is One Folgate Street in London.  It is the ultimate minimalist cottage with sparse furnishings and elaborate electronics.  One Folgate Street was designed and built when Edward was married.  After the accidental death of Edward's wife and son the cottage is available for rent.

   The Girl Before follows the stories of two tenants in alternating chapters.  Emma Matthews and then Jane Cavendish are each recovering from their own personal tragedies.  Emma suffered a brutal attack in her former apartment and Jane suffered a late term loss of a baby during an unplanned pregnancy.  Each is attracted to the property by the sense of order and asylum which it provides.  They are each selected to move in after an elaborate application containing questions like: "Make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life."

   Both women have similar experiences after moving in.  They each met Edward Monkford during the application process and both are drawn to his eccentric but magnetic personality.  Odd disruptions in the electronic services reveal that the house is collecting data about the tenants.  Ostensibly this is to have the house provide the perfect environment (think room temperatures, shower settings, etc...).  However, as they each become more involved with the reclusive architect even everyday occurrences take on sinister implications.  When they each discover suspicious aspects of the accident which caused the death of Edward's family the terror level ratchets up exponentially.  Each fears for her life.  The conclusion of the book is a complete surprise (at least for me) and makes for a clever and rational closure of these multiple overlapping story lines.

    J. P. Delaney is a pseudonym for a best-selling author wanting to write thrillers.  This first effort is terrific.  The book has already been optioned for a movie by Universal Studios to be directed by Ron Howard.  As I read this I envisioned a younger Anthony Hopkins playing Edward (yes, Edward reminded me of a non-cannibal version of Hannibal Lecter).  The Girl Before is a very entertaining and fun read and I look forward to further efforts by J. P. Delaney.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance



Hillbilly Elegy

Author: J. D. Vance
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Date of Publication: June 28, 2016
Pages: 272


     
                                           "They learned readin', rightin', route 23
                                            To the jobs that lay waiting in those cities' factories
                                            They didn't know that old highway
                                            Could lead them to a world of misery"
                                                  - Dwight Yoakam (from "Readin', Rightin', Route 23")


     It seems a little premature for a 30-something to write his memoir.  It is surprising to me that a publisher bought it and even more surprising that Hillbilly Elegy has become the primer for understanding poor white America and the feelings of helplessness and anger which propelled Donald Trump to the presidency.  After reading the book, however, I understand the importance of this book and its unique perspective on the current state of "the American Dream."  

     I found this book easy to read.  Even though it seems like a sociology text in spots, the author keeps the statistics and academic analysis to a minimum.  Vance is able to tell his story and his family's story in such a way that the reader can truly understand the multiple variables which affected him (both positively and negatively) and shaped his adult life.  These same variables defeated many in his family.  The author was fortunate to find the right mentor and guidance at just the right time to point him in his upwardly mobile trajectory.

     This is a story of a grandson of Kentucky "hillbillies" who migrated from Eastern Kentucky to Ohio following World War II.  These folks were looking for jobs and their slice of the American Dream.  As noted in the Dwight Yoakam song quoted above, the escape via Route 23 didn't always have a fairy tale ending.  For the Vances, life brought broken marriages, lost opportunities and addiction: in short, a world of misery.

    J. D. was saved by the two most exceptional characters in the book, his grandparents:  Mamaw and Papaw Vance.  Their home was a safe refuge for J. D. when chaos consumed his home.  J. D. enlisted in the Marines after high school and did a tour in Iraq.  He returned home and attended Ohio State University and Yale Law School.  He very frankly describes his difficulties each step of the way.  Even as he climbed the ladder of success he had to fight the feelings that he didn't belong. 

     In the Preface the author states that "I do hope that readers of this book will be able to take from it an appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism.  To many analysts, terms like 'welfare queen' conjure unfair images of the lazy black mom living on the dole.  Readers of this book will realize quickly that there is little relationship between that specter and my argument: I have known many welfare queens; some were my neighbors, and all were white."  Vance points out that "there is  cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government and that movement gains adherents by the day."  He notes that "There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites."  He then goes on to explain how politicians, especially modern conservatives, fail to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents.  "Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers...  The message of the right is increasingly: It's not your fault that you're a loser; it's the government's fault."

   So, I guess it was time for this thirty-something to write his memoir.  There is much to mull in this short but powerful book.  It is an American success story for the author, but one that is paved with misery and suffering on a grand scale for his family and friends.  The characters are powerful and the author tells this in a very engaging and entertaining way.  It is just as funny in some sections as it is pitiful in others.  Read this book.  It is indeed an important one.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The 2017 Best Novel Edgar Award - My Choice







The 2017 Best Novel Edgar Award - My Choice


Five novels published in 2016 have been nominated for the 2017 Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America.  The winner will be announced on April 27, 2017.  I have read and reviewed the five novels on this blog and now will pick my winner.  I will up date this blog on the 28th and we will see if I agree with the experts!

These are the five nominees, hyperlinked to my reviews:







The reality is that I liked all of these books.  There was not a single dud in the bunch.  I would recommend them all.  But, somebody has to win and somebody has to lose this award, so here are my rankings:




#5:


     This book was really good.  I appreciated the way the author incorporated a lot of modern technology into the story.  The characters were well developed but not very likable.  The plot was a bit convoluted for me, but the ending made sense.  All in all, a worthy nominee, but not my winner.

#4: 


     What Remains of Me was clever with interesting characters but I thought suffered from a bit of a convoluted plot.  The resolution of the story was surprising.  Again, a worthy nominee, but not my winner

#3:



     This book pretty much had it all: interesting and sympathetic characters, a well paced and believable plot and a satisfying conclusion.  My only gripe here was that the ending was a bit predictable.  I also thought that the media types presented here were a bit stereotypical.  Nit-picky complaints, though, given the great quality of this book.


#2:




     This book had great characters but could have had maybe a little tighter plot.  I thought that it dragged in sections.  That said,  I probably would have picked this as my Edgar winner in most years.


My Winner:


     If you had asked me before I had read any of these books, I would undoubtedly ranked this book last.  I had no expectations for this and thought that I would hate it.  Boy, was I wrong.  The writing is superb.  The plot moves along and the characters are all incredibly well developed.  I enjoyed every page of this book and was genuinely sad when I finished it.  This is not your typical "mystery novel", but is my winner by a long shot.  We'll see what the Mystery Writers of America have to say later tonight!

Update:  The Mystery Writers of American announced that Noah Hawley's Before the Fall won the Best Novel Edgar for 2017.  I can't argue with that at all.  Again, I thought all five books were  excellent and would recommend them all!  T.C.

Book Review: 2017 Edgar Nominee: Where it Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman



Where It Hurts

Author: Reed Farrel Coleman
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Date of Publication: January 26, 2016
Pages: 368

    Reed Farrel Coleman is a veteran writer with many accolades.  He has twenty three previous novels.  Where It Hurts is the beginning of a new series featuring ex-cop Gus Murphy.  This author knows how to tell a story.  The dialogue here is crisp and moves the story along.  The author is very familiar with the Long Island setting and this gives the book authenticity.  This novel is character driven and the main character is very sympathetic.  You can't help rooting for Gus Murphy.

    While most ex-cops in these types of novels are alcoholics, Gus is not.  He is mired in grief over the loss of his only son.  His marriage disintegrates, his daughter goes off the deep end and his career is over.  He is pathetically sleep walking through a mindless job as a van driver for an airport hotel.   Gus is approached by a career criminal who asks for his help in solving the murder of his son.  Gus agrees to help this fellow, mainly because he is sympathetic over the situation.  Gus is gradually sucked into a serpentine investigation, crossing swords with his former co-workers in the police department as well as annoying members of organized crime, drug dealers and assorted other ne'er-do-wells.  

     This was an entertaining and well written novel.  My only complaint is that the action kind of comes and goes.   There are very slow sections where the author explores the characters more than moving the plot along.  Frankly, I got lost a few times.  All in all, though, this was a very good read and I would suspect that future installments will be even better.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Book Review - 2017 Edgar Nominee - Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye






Jane Steele

Author: Lyndsay Faye
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Date of Publication: March 22, 2016
Pages: 432  

     I try to read the novels nominated each year for the Best Novel Edgar before the winner is announced by the Mystery Writers of America.  I pick my own winner and see how it stacks up against the Mystery Writers.  Each year there is one book which I dread reading;  usually that book is something way off of my usual reading path.  This year Jane Steele was that book.  Likewise, there is always one book each year which totally surprises me and makes me glad I read it.  Jane Steele was that book this year as well!

     This is not the classic "who-done-it" or police procedural.  This book reinvents Jane Eyre.  The reader follows the life of Jane Steele, the daughter of a British gentleman and a French lady.  Orphaned young, Jane leaves the family home for boarding school and, finally, to life in Victorian London.  The book comes full circle when, as a young adult, Jane is hired as a governess by the new owners of her childhood estate.  Each stop along the way Jane is involved in a mishap whereupon someone is killed.  Just as this book is not the usual mystery novel, Jane is certainly not the usual serial killer.

     The plot is almost incidental to the writing.  The author excuisitely describes mid-1800s life in  various locales in Britain.  The sections focused on London were particularly entertaining.  The various secondary characters are all vibrantly brought to life and add many dimensions to the story. The hero, though, is Jane herself, who ventures into self-discovery and survives devastating circumstances time and again.

     Here is an example of the author's ability to draw her characters.  Jane is in London, having abandoned the private school to which she had been sent after her mother's death.  She encounters a man selling newspapers:

     "Then I heard a strange voice calling out.
     'Most 'orrible and beastly murder done!  Most haudacious and black crime committed!'
     A man of middle age stood with a sheaf of yellow papers, crying out the latest atrocities.  He was bent over - I hesitated to call him hunchbacked, but he flirted with the appellation - a heavy, downward-leaning human whom I could imagine tracking rabbits like a bloodhound.  He owned a bloodhound's jaw too, a great slab on either side of his face framing his crooked teeth with fleshy drapery.  His hair was russet and his eyes a hard yellowish hazel like petrified wood.
     'Murder most'einous!' he cried.  'Murder most hunnatural!  Penny a page, miss.'" 

     So, this book succeeds on many levels.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and was genuinely sad when I had finished it.  I would not be surprised if Jane Steel was the Mystery Writers' pick for the Best Novel Edgar!