Saturday, January 29, 2011

Long Time Gone by J. A. Jance

I had been reading Jance's Joanna Brady series for a while before I discovered her Seattle detective J. P. Beaumont. It took a bit though for Beaumont to grow on me; now I like him almost as much as Brady.

How many fictional detectives are recovering alcholics? It seems to me there are quite a few, and Beaumont is yet another AA member in good standing. He has also suffered through tragedies such as the shooting death of his female partner and the "death by cop" of his last wife on their wedding day. He was raised by his grandmother who is still "the" woman in his life even though she has married his AA sponsor. Enough drama? Beaumont thinks so and has remained single and partnerless for a while.

Long Time Gone begins with a five year old girl, home alone, who witnesses the murder of the nice lady next door. The woman is stabbed multiple times in the driveway and after the little girl hides until she is certain the murderers are gone, she returns to the window to see that the body and the blood are gone. Then we jump to years later when she is an adult, a nun, and suddenly is waking up screaming in the night. She is mother superior of a convent and her nuns are anxious for her sanity.

Not only is Beaumont drawn into that cold case, his best friend Ron Peters and his family are undergoing tension that threatens to pull them apart. When both Peters and one of his daughters come to Beaumont for advice and help, he can't help being involved in their problems.

For a loner, Beaumont ends up being so involved with these two issues that he has trouble even finding time for his grandmother who is ill. This is hard for him to handle but the story is fun for the reader to attempt to figure out. As I said, Beau has grown on me so I enjoyed this adventure into relationships for him. I don't worry about him falling off the wagon anymore; he seems quite comfortable as a nondrinker now and ready for a new relationship. Since this book is five years old, I see I have some fun ahead catching up.

I recommend this one. Even if you haven't cared for Beau in the past, give it a try.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Tucson Shootings - Will We Tone Down the Language?

I purposely haven't written about the shootings in Tucson because I needed some time to think about it. My apologies to my friend who lives in Tucson for bringing this up again but it's important, I think, to not just have a knee-jerk reaction.

For instance, the immediate response was that it had something to do with Sarah Palin's ill-advised map of congressional districts with a gunsite over districts such as Gabriel Giffords' and my own district in Pennsylvania. This will surprise people who know my political leanings, in particular my position on Sarah Palin, but I think the actual effect of that map was confined to its influence on the election and switch to the Republican majority in Congress. My own congressman, a good man who I admire, lost the election. I don't think Palin should have been so vitriolic in her language, i.e. "lock and load," but this really isn't her fault.

Jared Loughner is plainly a violently mental case. Who can possibly know what triggered his plan? It may make no sense at all to anyone but him. What's more, there is absolutely no way to protect ourselves from a person who has such little grasp of reality. It's why we have the gun laws now on the books, but there are always ways for people of a violent nature to acquire a firearm. Failing that, there are plenty of other weapons, even the knives in our own kitchens.

I have always believed we aren't safe anywhere in the world and that we must accept that fact but continue to live our lives to the fullest. That doesn't mean consciously putting ourselves in harm's way of course; that would be foolish. In the past few months there has been a rash of people crashing their vehicles into houses and offices in northeastern PA. You could be sitting in your family room watching television and suddenly become a victim of such a thing. You can't look at a person and know for sure that he isn't a madman or a mugger or so high he doesn't know what he's doing. All you can do is be alert, don't court disaster, and live your life.

Having said all that, I would admit that if this tragedy and resultant mea culpa from some politicians results in less divisive language, even possibly a little actual calm discussion among politicians and all Americans, it would go a long way toward uniting all of us. You know, like we do when someone outside attacks us. Then we're all Americans rather than Republicans and Democrats or conservatives and liberals. We're all united right now in our concern for the people who were wounded in Tucson and for the families of those who were killed. I would so love to see us change our attitudes as well. I'm a realist, however, so I'm not going to hold my breath while I wait for it to happen.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

No Good Deeds by Laura Lippman

This Tess Monaghan novel is a book sale find. I seem to be on a newspaper kick. Just reviewed Morning Miracle about The Washington Post, and now this author, Laura Lippman, was a Baltimore Sun reporter before finding success as a novelist. Also, a reporter for a fictional Baltimore paper plays an important part on this story.

Tess is a private detective who lives with her boyfriend known as Crow. Tess is realistic and rational, but Crow has a soft side and thus he ends up befriending a black teenager named Lloyd Jupiter who pretty much lives on the street and gets by through minor scams. Tess thinks Crow is much too soft. She doesn't trust the kid, and she's right - Jupiter gets them into more trouble than they can handle.

It's the characters that interested me in this book; not so much the story. Not only are Tess and Crow and their relationship intriguing, the kid is fascinating. There is a young assistant U.S. attorney on the make but incompetent, an FBI agent trying to survive until retirement age, and a dim-bulb DEA agent who thinks with his fists. The two agents have both been caught in activities that got them in trouble with their agencies, and now they're up to something again, together this time.

Secrets run the storyline from beginning to end. People keeping secrets for a variety of reasons, understandable reasons both good and bad. It's a little complicated but not enough to put the reader off completely. It's worth the read just for the characters and their individual goals.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Morning Miracle: Inside The Washington Post by Dave Kindred

I won this book from LibraryThing and just couldn't wait to read it when it finally arrived. I've been a news junkie all my life; came by it naturally since my mother was too. Our political leanings were totally opposite, leading to countless debates, er, arguments about politics. I grew up in the state capitol of Illinois so there was plenty to argue about, and every Sunday we went downtown to get the Chicago Tribune which only added fuel to the fire.

As an adult I was a journalist myself at several newspapers through the years, only leaving the profession for better pay in another field. You can imagine then how I feel watching newspapers across the country being sold and/or dying. Some respected newspapers have actually become online-only news outlets. I read an autobiography of Katherine Graham some time ago so I already knew a lot about The Washington Post from an owner's point of view. This, however, is the Post's fight for life from a reporter's point of view.

Dave Kindred started out as a sportswriter which may be why I love his writing style. In sports a reporter has to learn quickly how to sum up an athlete in one telling story. Kindred takes that ability to the news room and the owner's office and to Bob Woodward and gets great interviews on the topic of the Post and news reporting in general.

I've wondered why so few people read a daily newspaper these days. Young people are so electronically wired in that they just naturally turn to the internet, their phones and so on, but I don't even see that many older people reading a paper anymore. Last night when we stopped for a slice on our way to a basketball game, I saw a middle-aged man reading The New York Times. I could hardly believe my eyes. The Post has an amazing number of Pulitzer prize winning reporters and feature writers, yet its subscription numbers have consistently fallen and revenues along with them.

Kindred gets the background on some of the Pulitzer winning stories (the mistreatment of veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, the McChrystal report on Afghanistan, the Virginia Tech shootings, and more) with emphasis on how reporters got those stories. Those reporters didn't just waltz in, take a few notes, and write the piece. In the Walter Reed story, for instance, the two reporters spent time in Building 18 talking to patients and employees. They got to know the patients and their families, secured confirmation of all information, got a photographer in to take the damning photos, and were allowed to take all the time they needed. Then they wrote the story and as we all know, all Hell broke loose. Anyone who saw the movie or read the book about Bernstein, Woodward, and Watergate will recognize the work involved.

While these dedicated reporters were doing their job though, everyone knew their careers might be limited by the bottom line. A poignant part of the book is employee buyouts, retirement packages offered to them which eventually resulted in the 800 person newsroom being reduced to under 400. Katherine Graham's son Don moved himself up out of day-to-day operation in favor of the only family member at the paper, his niece Katherine Weymouth. Len Downie, long the managing editor and beloved by his reporters, was "advised" to take the buyout. The whole masthead was in upheaval.

This book is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions to a newsie like me even though I suppose younger people wouldn't see it as such. Kindred makes it all readable, a story of a mighty giant fallen, and although the Post survives, it is no longer that powerful force it once was. Congratulations to Kindred on a book well written, one that began as "a valentine" to the paper and ended as an elegy to a great newspaper.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

J. A. Jance's Sheriff Joanna Brady

Sheriff Joanna Brady is another of my favorite crime solvers, but in Paradise Lost she's a prime example of why I would never attempt to write about a crime solver who is married and has a child. In this novel Brady is newly married to Butch Dixon, her second husband, and her daughter Jenny is now 12 years old. Both are struggling a bit with issues that are the result of being married to or the daughter of a county sheriff.

This story begins with Joanna and Butch attending an Arizona Sheriff's Association convention. She is sneaking back into their room at the hotel at 1 am after playing poker with other sheriffs and beating her least favorite one out of about $700. Butch understands but later admits the convention was difficult for him as the only husband of a sheriff. Wives of course have gone through this since the Stone Age but it's different for a guy.

Then Jenny has problems camping with the Girl Scouts and trying to be just one of the kids. Then she and her pup tent mate find a body and the plot is off and running and so is Joanna. It's one of those novels that leaves you breathless because it goes so fast, there's so much danger, and Joanna is also dealing with family issues.

By the way, Joanna's mother, Eleanor, is the most aggravating character ever devised by a novelist. I'd say more but you just have to meet her yourself.

Actually that's the best feature of Jance's novels - the characters. They're unique and they're understandable in their lives and their actions, if a little quirky at times but aren't we all? The characters are really busy in this tale with a short-handed sheriff's department, three murders, and a lot of miles to cover during the investigation. Meanwhile, Butch is in the wedding of one of his former employees, Jenny is upset, Eleanor is very upset, and Joanna needs to be in about three places at once. What a crazy mess, but of course it all tends to work out.

I can't tell you any more without spoiling the book for you, except that a recurring theme is motherhood. I hope you'll read this one. It's a keeper.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Finished the Loooong Book!

Seems like I've been reading this book forever, but I did enjoy it. Otherwise I wouldn't have stuck with it when I came across parts that were guilty of too much information. I think Jeanne Madeline Weimann must share one of my faults. You do so much research for a book like this that it's tempting to include every little item. If anyone thinks of writing a paper about the Women's Building of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, this is an excellent source, bibliography and all.

The 1890s saw a social change in the U.S. for women, former slaves and their families, and for the upper classes as well. It was a time of bloomer girls, "typewriters" girls who typed in an office, and Susan B. Anthony still fighting for suffrage but Mrs. Stanton at home exhausted from the effort and not well. Artists such as Mary Cassatt were finding Europe much more open to their art than people who bought art here who insisted on more classical styles, certainly no nudity. There were a few female architects (one designed the Women's Building) and doctors and dentists, but very few.

The president of the commission in charge of the women's exhibitions at the fair was Bertha Palmer, wife of Potter Palmer who owned the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago. Bertha was the cream of Chicago society but found herself belittled by a visiting Spanish princess because she was "the wife of an innkeeper." Palmer worked harder than anyone to make the exhibition a success; she sincerely wanted to enlighten people to the fact that women are capable of great things and should be considered equal to men. On the other hand, at times she offended some commission members and exhibitors by her superior attitude. The long effort exhausted her and when the fair was over she pretty much washed her hands of what happened to everything as her husband took her on a year-long world tour.

The sad fact is that the fair buildings weren't built to be permanent so when the fair closed in the fall of 1893 all of the exhibitors took their paintings, crafts, etc. home and whatever was left was put in storage. Unfortunately, during that removal two enormous murals, one by Cassatt, were lost. Then two fires destroyed all evidence of the fair. A quadrangle of lawn at the University of Chicago, is all that remains of the Midway for instance, where the first ferris wheel ran during the fair. (The ferris wheel had cars rather than the seats used now. Each carried a dozen people.)

When I finally finished the book, I felt bereft like the people who worked so hard to put the fair on must have felt when it was suddenly just gone, like Brigadoon.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Only January 10 and So Much Catching Up to Do

I was amazed to notice that I hadn't posted anything since January 3rd. The short answer to this is that I've been reading a 600 page book about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair which, if I'm lucky, I'll finish today. I've also had some bad days with COPD and that makes me extraordinarily tired.

For what seems like a week now we've had some snow every single day and each day Dave has to decide whether it's worth getting out the snowblower or whether the wind will just blow it back where we don't want it. Up here on our mountain the wind sort of takes over your life sometimes. I've read about pioneer women who went crazy and killed their children because they spent so much time in their sod houses with the wind whipping across the prairie and their husbands in town trying to earn some money. Since we moved here, I understand that feeling a little better. Not that I would kill children, you understand . . .

The snow is beautiful though. I felt like I was living in a snow globe and someone kept shaking it the other day. Every time I looked out there were fat snow flakes falling gently. Mostly though we've had sideways snow blowing into drifts like sand dunes. Yet the accumulation hasn't been more than around 6 inches.

I'm glad Dave can still handle the snowblower since I can't and we have two long driveways to clear, one for the house and one for Dave's business. I've noticed Scaredy Cat waits until we clear a path before she ventures out to our patio for her food. By the way, she still won't come to me, still runs at the sight of a human, and I assume is living in the warmer barn across the street.

Today the sun is out, it has stopped snowing for the time being, and we have a basketball game tonight. As my friend Will says, life is good. Who knows, our team may actually win tonight - or not. We'll have fun regardless.

Monday, January 3, 2011

1893 World's Fair, Chicago

I'm currently reading a book from the 1980s called The Fair Women about the women responsible for the White City Woman's Building at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. I've been interested in the fair partly because I love Chicago and its history, but mainly since I discovered women's colleges including Monticello Female Academy (where I attended prep school in the 1950s) exhibited in the woman's building there. By the 1890s women's education was sort of accepted, although of course a young woman's main objective there was supposed to be finding a suitable husband. A college education would enable her to be a better mother and a good example for her children. The thought that she might use that education to set out on a career was possible, but only if she was unable to land a husband.

It reminds me of another book I read several years ago, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson (2004). An event like the World's Fair is of course a prime opportunity for all sorts of nefarious activity, including that of a serial killer. H. H. Holmes took advantage of the prosperity expected as a result of the fair in Chicago to build what was supposed to be a hotel just blocks from Jackson Park where the fair was held.

Young women from all across the country, but particularly from small-town Midwest, flocked to Chicago to see the fair. Many of them traveled alone and looked for accommodations when they arrived. Holmes preyed upon these unsuspecting young ladies, acting oh-so gentlemanly and super wealthy. Once he had them starry-eyed, he suggested that they stay at his hotel.

Unfortunately for the girls, his hotel was more of a human butchering facility. One by one the innocent died at his hands. Estimates of the number of victims range from 12 to 200.

Larson also related fascinating facts about the fair in this book. For instance, did you know the Ferris wheel was invented for this fair? It was quite a wonder. The woman's building was a huge white building in classic style with sculpture, murals, paintings, exhibits of women's work from all around the world, and other exhibits that gave women opportunities for education and careers. Mrs. Potter Palmer of Chicago was in charge, a very controversial lady whose station in life sometimes blinded her to the abilities of the less fortunate.

I'm not even halfway through The Fair Women but I'm finding it interesting, and worth looking for if you're interested in Chicago history or women's history.