Sleuthing for the Nazis

Bob Moyer has a wide range of reading favorites that includes mystery/thrillers and books about the Holocaust. Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series deftly combines these two interests.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE LADY FROM ZAGREB. By Philip Kerr. Putnam. 421 pages. $26.95.

It’s 1942, the beginning of the end, the Soviet Union has not fallen, hundreds of thousands of people are being killed, and Bernie Gunther has an appointment with Hitler’s henchman, Dr. Goebbels, whom he calls the “Mahatma Propagandi.” Humor in the face of horror – just one of the many characteristics that make Bernie such a marvelous protagonist in this rewarding series.

His multifaceted persona enables him to maneuver adroitly around any crime the Nazis ask him to solve, while illuminating with his observations the context in which it occurs. It seems he has a knack that they can’t do without, and a penchant for tongue-in-cheek comments that he has to keep in check. The Nazis, and the author, have him right where they want him.

When he gets to the appointment, he learns that Goebbels wants him to find the father of Germany’s most popular movie star, and deliver a letter to him. It’s a favor that the Mahatma can’t officially order; he wants her in his next movie, and his bed. Bernie immediately makes a simple task more dangerous by beating Goebbels to the lady’s boudoir. Caught between a rock and a soft place, he is soon swept up in a major lie, and a series of conspiracies involving Swiss skullduggery and a lot of gold.

As the bodies pile up, Bernie travels through the narrative throwing light on historical events, a hallmark of this series. Atrocities by the Croatian Ustase that turn even the stomachs of the Nazis, the horror that is the Brandenburg Prison, the Wannsee mansion where the Final Solution was first discussed, all appear as background to the plot. We meet the young Austrian officer Kurt Waldheim, future head of the United Nations; the cruel spymaster of the OSS, soon to be the cruel spymaster of the CIA; and the frightened former owner of the Wannsee mansion.

As Bernie works his way through the many clues thrown out here, he brings so many of the background features into the foreground of our attention. While barreling down the Autobahn in Goebbels’ Mercedes roadster, he reflects how Hitler was met at the gates of prison when he was first released by the owner of the motor company Daimler Benz, and given a car: “One day I hoped some thoughtful historian would point out the close connection between the Mercedes-Benz motor car and Germany’s favorite dictator and that the lord would find a way to pay these bastards back for their help in bringing the Nazis to power and keeping them there.” Perhaps some historian has, but he certainly didn’t reach as many readers as Kerr just did.

Some of the best dialogue, and greatest dilemmas, occur inside Bernie’s head, of course. Reflecting on his inescapable conflict, he recalls the medieval Auerbachs Keller in Leipzig with “…all the pictures on the wooden walls of Faust drinking with Mephistopheles. I’ve often felt an affinity with him, too. How else was I to explain my still being alive?” At any moment, Bernie could be shot, hung, or even worse, sent to the front. That’s why his dalliance with The Lady From Zagreb doesn’t disturb him in the slightest: “It felt like a very welcome intermission in the black-and-white horror movie that was my life.”

As the plot plays out, the author throws around clues that make both Bernie and the reader a little smug about what the solution is. To Kerr’s credit, and the reader’s delight, those conclusions jumped to so readily take unexpected twists, leaving Bernie bereft, but still alive for book number 12 in the series, coming in August 2016.

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When the planes fell

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

I knew about Judy Blume, of course. She wrote all those children’s books. When my sons were early readers, they enjoyed the Fudge books, among others. Their childhood friends, the boys and especially the girls, read lots of Blume’s books.

I did not know, however, that she’s also written books for adults. Now that I’m aware, I’d like to find her earlier adult fiction.

IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT. By Judy Blume. Alfred A. Knopf. 402 pages. $27.95.

For her latest novel for adults, Judy Blume, who is 77, draws deftly from real events during her teenage years in Elizabeth, N.J. Over a span of three months in the winter of 1951-52, three commercials airplanes crashed in Elizabeth, with a devastating toll of death and destruction on the grounds as well as among the passengers and crews.

Nor surprisingly, Blume puts her skills at getting into the minds and hearts of young people to good use, centering the novel on Miri Ammerman, who is 15 and swept up in first love when the planes begin to fall from the sky. As In the Unlikely Event opens, an adult Miri is returning to Elizabeth, with trepidation for multiple reasons, for a commemoration of the terrible events that played such a big role in the worst year of her life 35 years earlier.

Blume quickly takes us back to December 1951, and we see the disasters play out through the eyes of Miri and a number of other people. The story moves quickly, drawing the fascinated reader in through brief chapters from multiple viewpoints, dialogue, and news accounts, including those written by Miri’s Uncle Henry Ammerman, an ambitious young reporter.

This is not just Miri’s story, but also the stories of her family and friends, and her friends’ families, and some of those who died in or survived the crashes. Everyone is affected in one way or another, but the effects are particularly powerful on Miri and her impressionable teenage friends. Rumors swirl – Are aliens involved? Are they being singled out? – and normal adolescent insecurities threaten to become unmanageable.

Part of the message of the book is that life goes on, however, and for Miri, her boyfriend and her best friend Valerie, the way life does proceed beings to seem as out of control as the airplanes that bring death and destruction.

Blume doe a marvelous job of depicting, without belaboring anything, American life in the early 1950s era, with its Cold War tensions and bomb scares as well as movie stars, fashions, songs and social conventions.

In the end, life does go on, even as it is filled with “unlikely events.” And, as Miri comes to realize and appreciate, not all those unlikely events are bad. Some, in fact, are pretty good.

No matter what age she’s writing for, Judy Blume tells a good story.

 

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Israel, the U.S. and one man’s journey

If Paul O’Connor indulges in light books for summer reading, he keeps it a secret. Here he tackles a hefty book on a serious – and timely – subject.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

ALLY: MY JOURNEY ACROSS THE AMERICAN-ISRAELI DIVIDE.  By Michael B. Oren. Books on Tape. $50. 16 hours, 52 minutes. Read by the author. Also available in hardback from Random House. 432 pages.  $30.

During a visit to an American college campus, Michael Oren, then the Israeli ambassador to the United States, faced a surprise question, one different from the usual collection of either pro-Israel softballs or anti-Israel screeds.

Which is more difficult, the student asked Oren, who served as ambassador from 2009 to 2013, explaining Israel to Americans or America to Israelis?

Although he relates the anecdote in Ally to begin a chapter on the Arab Spring, he could have used it to open the book, because this memoir is Oren’s attempt to explain the current Israeli government’s strategic and political positions to both American and Israeli readers.

He’s consistent. Whether on the questions of Israeli settlements, or pre-1967 borders, or incursions into Gaza, or dealings with Iran, Oren details how the Israeli position was correct and the American – or read, the Obama administration’s – was flawed. It’s almost as if one were listening to Fox News.

But who would expect anything different?

It’s obvious that a former Israeli ambassador will write from his perspective – that Israel was making all the effort at peace, the Palestinians were refusing to participate, and the Americans were misguided in not seeing that simple truth.

Therefore, approach this book forewarned. And once forewarned be prepared for what is a deep discussion of the issues in the Middle East and a good story about a young man born in New Jersey, educated at Columbia and Princeton, who emigrated to Israel, and eventually surrendered his American citizenship but not his love for American football.

There’s much to be learned about Middle East affairs, and Israel’s positions, from this book. Israel, for example, is highly sensitive about the notion that it exists as a remedy to the Holocaust. It is important Israeli doctrine that the country exists because of a 3,000-year-plus presence on that piece of land, not as a reward of damages after the pogrom. Also, the reader will get a deeper insight into the Israeli position on the Palestinian Authority’s threats to have Palestine declared a formal political state.

But when it comes to the policy elements of this book, Oren’s expression of all in Israeli terms will not serve the casual reader well. This is not a book that, by itself, will give readers a deeper understanding of the great issues at hand. It will only give one a better understanding of the Israeli view.

And it is not only the Palestinian perspective that is neglected. So is the American perspective. Oren only rarely concedes that the U.S. has interests of its own and that it cannot always concern itself first with what is best for Israel.

Oren never stops speaking of his love for the United States, but he also rarely gives the administration credit for doing anything right.

There is another story, here, however, one more personal. It is the memoir of a man who overcame obstacles – severe learning disabilities and anti-Semitism – while in his teen years to accomplish his life’s dream, becoming Israeli ambassador to the U.S. He is also an accomplished historian and an excellent writer.

Stories of life in Israel, in the Israeli military and in the diplomatic corps are also engaging.

Although Oren told the college student who posed the insightful question that it was more difficult to explain America to Israelis, doing so could hardly be the purpose of this book. Instead, Ally reads mostly as an explanation of the Israeli argument to Americans and secondly as Oren’s presentation of himself to Israeli readers. He is now a member of the Knesset.

In the audio version, Oren does a credible job of reading his own work, with one annoying exception. He doesn’t settle on a pronunciation for the name of Benjamin Netanyahu. Is it “net TAHN yahoo” or “net TAHN yow”?

That aside, this is a very current book considering the agreement on the Iranian nuclear program – at least current from the Israeli perspective.

 

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Heroes and myths

Paul O’Connor, who’s putting his summer break from teaching aspiring journalists to good use, reviews a book about the Doolittle Raiders, who struck back against the Japanese just months after Pearl Harbor.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

TARGET TOKYO: JIMMY DOOLITTLE AND THE RAID THAT AVENGED PEARL HARBOR. By James M. Scott. Read by L.J. Ganser. Audible Studios. $34.95. 20 hours, 3 minutes. Also available in hardback from W.W. Norton. 648 pages. $34.95.

The U.S. Army Air Corps raid on Tokyo on April 18, 1942, occupies a curious position in American military history. Although the 16 B-25s under the command of Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle did little damage to the Japanese military, it ranks at the top of our military mythology.

That curiosity can be explained by the dual nature of the raid, and, therefore, of the discussions about it that persist. First, we have a story of adventure and brave young men. Second, we have a debate of military impact and repercussions.

In terms of military improbability and pure daring, the raid was every bit the equal of Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor less than five months previously. The Japanese felt inviolable in a homeland that foreigners had not attacked in centuries, in this case especially so considering the damage their sneak attack had perpetrated against the American Pacific fleet on the morning of December 7 and the vast ocean that separated them from the closest American air bases.

Just for those reasons, U.S. military leaders gambled that they could surprise their enemy. They’d solve the distance problem by sailing the carrier U.S.S. Hornet within 500 miles of Japan. They wouldn’t attack with carrier aircraft, however. Those had neither the range nor the ordinance capacity for such a raid. Instead, they would launch medium-range, land-based B-25s off the Hornet, an untested idea.

The B-25s would bomb Tokyo and nearby cities on the island of Honshu, and then fly to China, where they could land on airbases controlled by our Chinese allies.

This is the story that James M. Scott tells so well in Target Tokyo. He did exhaustive research into the lives of the American fliers, their training, and their experiences during and after the raid. He reports from diaries, letters, newspaper interviews and other documents that introduce us to these volunteers who knew they were going on a “suicide mission.”

Mining both flight logs and Japanese post-raid documents, Scott carries us along as each of the 16 planes’ attack detailing where each of their four bombs was dropped and the impact that each had. It is remarkable reporting.

By the end of the raid, however, the reader is only half done. There are hours of listening/reading ahead to learn of the fate of these 80 men and to measure the morale boost the raid had on the American people.

The adventure is every bit as exciting as we can imagine. But when lives and precious military assets are involved, a question follows: What did the raid accomplish?

Little in terms of military damage to Japan. Civilian targets were hit by mistake, and dozens of civilians died. But no important factories were destroyed, nor ships sunk, nor armies obliterated.

And there were horrendous consequences in China. Once Japanese leaders determined that there had been Chinese complicity in the raid and in the escape of some fliers, Japanese forces launched a bestial attack on the civilian population, likely murdering a quarter million innocent people. Scott recounts it all in chapters that are extremely difficult to read.

Japan’s fury did not stop there. To avenge the raid, and to ensure it could not occur again, Japanese military leaders pursued another attack directly due east, this time hoping to take Midway Island and lure the remaining American fleet, especially American carriers, into a battle they were certain to lose.

History turned unexpectedly, however. The Battle of Midway was a decisive American victory and the turning point in the Pacific theater. If the Doolittle attack is judged by military historians to have been impetus for the Japanese venture toward Midway, then the raid suddenly gains enormous military significance.

While Scott provides some historical evidence that the raid did lead to the Japanese move toward Midway, he does not fully answer that in this book.

Maybe it’s a topic better covered in histories of Midway.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.
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History is what we make it

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

I approached this book with hope but also some trepidation, having loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society so much that I read it in print AND listened to it as an audio book. Annie Barrows co-wrote that wonderful book with her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer. As its many fans will recall, that book is an epistolary historical novel told through fictional letters from and to a variety of characters. Barrows’ new book uses a few letters, and also a variety of points of view through first- and third-person narration. Thus, Barrows’ new book is different from the beloved Potato Peel, yet it has much of the same charm, wit and wisdom. I need not have worried.

THE TRUTH ACCORDING TO US. By Annie Barrows. Read by Ann Marie Lee, Tara Sands, Julie Whelan and others. Random House Audio. 15 CDs; 19 hours. $58. Also available in print from The Dial Press, 512 pages. $28.

It’s 1938, and the Great Depression still has the United States firmly in its grip. Normally, such grim realities would have little or no effect on Layla Beck, the daughter of a U.S. senator. But Layla has declined to marry the man of her parents’ choice, and her father is determined to teach her a lesson. He cuts off her generous allowance and pulls strings to secure her a job with the Federal Writers Project, a New Deal program. Layla is neither really impoverished nor a writer, but she’s sent to the middle of nowhere to write the history of Macedonia, West Virginia.

Macedonia is a textile mill town, more Southern in spirit and manners than much of West Virginia. There, Layla rents a room from the Romeyn family, once among the town’s most prominent, but now struggling with some hard times of its own.

Layla learns a great deal during her time in Macedonia, although not the lessons her father had in mind. For one thing, she learns that just because a town is small and remote from the upper crust of Washington and the Northeast does not mean that its residents are benighted and its society is boring.

Her hosts, the Romeyns, are particularly intriguing, especially Felix, the elder brother. Felix lives in the family home, along with Willa and Bird, his two young daughters from his failed marriage. Felix loses no time in putting his considerable charms to work on Layla – when he’s not off on his mysterious, unpredictable and possibly illegal business trips. The girls, meanwhile, are being raised by Jottie, the eldest Romeyn daughter, who has a number of mysteries of her own, including whatever has kept her from marrying and having a life of her own.

It doesn’t take Layla long to figure out that there are lots of secrets in Macedonia, and that some of them are intertwined with the secrets within the Romeyn family. History, she realizes, is not an absolute set of facts, but rather depends upon who’s doing the telling, and what is included.

Layla is not the only one trying to learn the truths within the Romeyn family and the larger community. Willa, who’s 12, smart and sensitive, has decided that she’s tired of adults keeping secrets and shielding her. Determined to get to the bottom of things this summer, she finds that she’s quite good at snooping. Willa’s parts of the story, told in first-person, are endearing. Her voice is reminiscent of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce, and a bit like what Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird might sound like when she’s a few years older. Willa’s tales are woven skillfully among third-person accounts, largely focusing on Layla and Jottie, and occasional correspondence.

Gently humorous tales of Macedonia and its inhabitants, past and present, leaven the emerging mystery. Gradually, light begins to shine on some of the darker secrets from the past, and then life-changing truths emerge.

The audio version of the book is especially delightful, with multiple readers bringing the characters and the town to life.

The only – minor – criticism I have is that, at 512 page or 19 hours of listening time, the book is a bit long. For most of the way, the story and the characters were so engaging that I didn’t notice, but the pace slowed after the climactic scene.

 

 

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Why the Constitution lives

Paul O’Connor reviews a book of history that, as is often the case, is relevant to today’s political debates.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE QUARTET: ORCHESTRATING THE SECOND AMERICAN REVOLUTION 1783-1789. By Joseph J. Ellis. Read by Robertson Dean. Random House Audio. Nine hours and 20 minutes. $35. Also available in hardcover from Knopf. $27.95.

There’s a six-year gap in the American history that many of us studied in school. It starts with victory at Yorktown in October 1781 and ends with the opening of the Constitutional Convention in May 1787.

The gap is usually filled with a sentence such as this: “The newly independent states operated under the weak and unworkable Articles of Confederation until a new constitution was written in Philadelphia.”

Unfortunately, current political forces have used the gap to concoct all manner of stories about the intentions of our Founding Fathers, usually to promote right-wing positions.

Fortunately, there’s Joseph J. Ellis, who is probably the finest combination of American Revolution era historian and readable writer. He never comes out and screams “Bull!” to these revisionist historians. He simply lays out the record.

The Articles were a natural outgrowth of the republican spirit of the revolution, a rebellion against a big and distant government. Thus, the Articles placed power in the states, limiting the federal government’s power.

George Washington was one of the first to understand that this form of government would not work. As commander of Patriot forces, he experienced the ineffectiveness of the Continental Congress when it came to financing and executing a war. Alexander Hamilton came from the same perspective.

James Madison grew into his distaste for the Articles, and John Jay came to the same conclusion in his experiences in the diplomatic world.

The Articles did not work in three major areas. The first was finance. Congress had no authority to raise money. If that was the case, then it could not pay the country’s debts or execute the war.

The second was in foreign policy. The European powers snickered at the misnomer “United States of America.” In reality, the states were 13 separate sovereignties.

Finally, there was westward expansion. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 gave the U.S. all lands north of Florida and to the Mississippi. The Articles required the states to give up all claims to western lands. But the weak federal government could not manage expansion and guard against new territories either creating their own countries or aligning with England, France or Spain.

Given this mess, four men, Washington, Hamilton, Madison and Jay, led what was nothing less than an elitist campaign to dispose of the Articles – not reform them – and replace them with a strong, national government.

Ellis presents his readers with a highly detailed history of these years, of the roles each of the four played and how they manipulated events to forge a new constitution that most Americans probably did not want nor understand the need for.

The author’s storytelling ability is as impressive as his historical skills. He engagingly weaves the story’s many strands.

In the process, Ellis provides us with tools to use in current debates on governing. Madison, who probably did more to win approval for the Constitution than anyone else, did not buy the era’s argument that small government worked best, nor that the government was the main threat to our liberties.

Larger government allowed for the expression of more opinions, and the main threat to liberty came from the majority. A strong government would protect the minority from that majority.

Finally, as to the idea that contemporary Americans must follow the framers’ “original intent” when employing the Constitution, Ellis demonstrates that the founders could not agree on so many issues that they purposefully left things unsettled for future generations to decide.

The only original intent of the founders, Ellis concludes, was ambiguity. And that is what supporters of the idea of a living, flexible Constitution argue.

Finally, no one could have narrated this audiobook better than Robertson Dean. He has the necessary gravitas. But this is one book I wish I had read, underlined, taken notes from rather than heard because it is so dense with important insights into our Constitution.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.
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Commas and other fun things

For decades, I unquestioningly followed Associated Press and newspaper style when it comes to, among other things, commas: There should not be a comma before the last “and” in a series. In recent years, however, I have discovered that there is a rebellion brewing among the younger generation. Many of my journalism students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill passionately favor the use of what they call the Oxford comma. Now even Tom Dillon, a veteran journalist and wordsmith, has been won over.

Reviewed by Tom Dillon

BETWEEN YOU AND ME: CONFESSIONS OF A COMMA QUEEN.  By Mary Norris. W.W. Norton and Co. 228 pages. $24.95.

Some things I learned by reading this book:

  •   The New Yorker magazine still uses Caslon type for its body copy. That’s the old round type that was used in the 18th century for things like the Declaration of Independence. I’d venture to say that almost nothing else is still printed in Caslon; it’s not even available on my computer, though I would probably use it from time to time. Please note that the study of old typefaces can be fascinating, however.
  •   There are still No. 1 pencils, those big soft-lead pencils beloved of artists and others. You may never find one, but author Mary Norris favors them in her copy-editing job with The New Yorker and has gone to great lengths to acquire some. Apparently, she and her cohorts can still use these pencils even in the age of the computeroid, the lucky dogs. There’s also a pencil sharpener museum in Logan, Ohio, if you ever get there.
  •  The comma was invented by Aldo Manuzio, a printer in Venice, in 1490, and we’re been arguing about it ever since. Do you play by ear, or do you follow the rules? Good question. I remember an argument between James Thurber and Harold Ross, an earlier New Yorker editor, about the magazine’s overuse of commas, which Thurber called something like “chairs flung into the hallway of readability.” But after reading this book, I have decided to forget 40 years of newspaper usage and put commas before the last “and” in a series. I decided to do this after Norris gave this example, gleaned from the Internet: “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” Other such examples exist.

You have probably gathered by now that this is another of those wonderful books about language – these dashes are in place of a comma, which I’m not sure about here – and the use and misuse of it. The book is somewhat in the pattern of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss’ 2006 book that was subtitled, “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.” And Norris is just as funny as Truss, though I don’t think she’s quite as strict. Her first chapter is “Spelling is for Weirdos,” and she says the book is “for all of you who want to feel better about your grammar.” There’s also a chapter about profanity, which you probably shouldn’t read if it bothers you.

The book is unusual because, in addition to being a grammar book, it’s a sort of memoir. In it, we learn about Norris’ early upbringing in Cleveland, her various jobs as a swimming pool athlete’s-foot checker and milk deliverywoman, her various bouts with education, and her eventual move to New York and The New Yorker. (Please notice that there’s a comma before the last “and” in the series in that last sentence.)

Norris deals with such things as the “en” dash and the “em” dash, both created to mimic the width of the respective letters, and she goes into the ongoing argument about whether pronouns in English are sexist. The chapter is called, “The Problem of Heesh.” I think she probably agrees with me that this isn’t a serious problem – all you have to do is use the plural and the problem disappears. Norris sums up, “I hate to say it, but the colloquial use of ‘their’ when you mean ‘his or her’ is just wrong.” Then she adds, “Sing in me, o Muse, of that small minority of men who are secure enough in their masculinity to use the feminine third-person singular.”

She also notes that our problems are nowhere near as serious as those encountered with German, where everything has a gender: das Boot (boat) is neuter, der Tisch (table) is masculine, and die Katz (cat) is feminine. Good lord, even the word for maiden – das Madchen – in German is neuter; shouldn’t that be something to complain about?

Every writer about language seems to have an ax to grind, and Norris’ ax shows up in the title of her book. The proper usage is “between you and me,” not “between you and I.” A good many people apparently believe that the word “me” can’t possibly be right in a formal setting, she notes, but they’re wrong. You’ll understand that if you simply reverse the phrase: “Between I and you” can’t possibly be right, and it isn’t. Along this line, you might note the overuse of “myself,” when the speaker really means “me.”

I had a little quibble with Norris’ chapter on Herman Melville, in which she lets him get away with using “laid” instead of “lay” for the past tense of “lie,” but it’s a minor thing. Melville does use “lain,” a word that is about to disappear, correctly. And there’s a lot more here, including a copy editor (not Norris) who became a millionaire; such things apparently are possible. In sum, I had a good time with this book. If you like language, you will, too. (Note that last comma.)

 

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Tough going in the Big Easy

It’s always a happy occasion when Bob Moyer returns from one of his journeys ready to tell us about the books he’s been reading.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

DOING THE DEVIL’S WORK. By Bill Loehfelm. Farrar Straus Giroux. 308 pages. $26.

In his excellent police procedural series set in New Orleans, Bill Loehfelm pours into his narrative all he has soaked up while living there. He has a sharp eye, and sharper pen, for all the detail that makes New Orleans — well, New Orleans. From dicey uptown neighborhoods, hear “…the whine of an ambulance headed down Napoleon Avenue, the imitative howl of a dog in a nearby yard, the long, deep note from a ship on the river.”  Down on Frenchmen Street, “the dusky crown of an oddball neighborhood called the Marign. … Fedora-topped hipster poets smoking hand-rolled cigarettes perched typewriters on folding cocktail tables, scratching their beards and tapping out poetry on demand, hoping for enough in cash donations to cover their next round.”  With a splash of sound here, a splatter of color there, he does New Orleans as well as anyone writing today.

He doesn’t just know New Orleans, however; he knows how to use it. In his hands, the Crescent City becomes more than a setting. It becomes a major character that carries on a vibrant relationship with his cast of players, bringing out their best and worst, their hopes and dreams, and of course, their darkest secrets.

Sometimes, the dialogue helps the reader size up someone, like his hero, Maureen Coughlin. When she stops for a moment on a call, she calculates her chances in relation to “…the fifty people, most of them men, drunk, high, some them armed, between her and the corner. She was a cop … but she was also five-four and 120 pounds. Outnumbered and outgunned.”  When she stops at a local diner, the St. Charles Tavern that “…smelled of old kitchen grease, moldy air-conditioning, and cheap ketchup,” we get more than just atmosphere, we get an insight into Maureen herself:  The Tavern “…served their coffee the way she liked it, old and burned. Or as she liked to tell her coworkers, hot, black and bitter like her heart.”

A displaced Yankee, Maureen has a tough time adapting to the corrupt cop culture of the sleazy Big Easy post-Katrina. Quick to anger, slow to catch on, she finds herself constantly in situations she can’t talk about, and conversations she can’t tell anyone about. Loehfelm’s dialogue has the tension of real cops talking, not characters served up to act out a story. For Maureen, there’s no black and white, just hundreds of shades of gray.

In this third installment, she’s still tracking the murderer from the second book when she stumbles into a complicated plot that carries her from street people to uptown posh parties to a Mississippi militia. She gets so caught up that both a criminal and a possible informant accuse her of Doing The Devil’s Work. Although she has a strong moral compass, some of her other parts need repair. By the time she ends up waist deep in the Mississippi, she has sunk even deeper into the corruption of the local culture. Perhaps Loehfelm will let her take the detective’s test so she can pull herself out of the muck in the next installment.

 

 

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Who will be the next prey?

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson.

GATHERING PREY. By John Sandford. Read by Richard Ferrone. Penguin Audio. 9 CDs, 11 hours. $40. Also available in hardcover from G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

When a novelist has a long-running successful series, as John Sandford certainly does with his ‘Prey” thrillers starring Lucas Davenport, fans know what to expect. Some books will please various fans more than others. I’m not sure “enjoyed” is the right word for my experience with this one, but I certainly was caught up in the audio version of it, to the point of taking the long way home when I was at one of the many suspenseful passages.

“Gathering Prey,” the 25th book in the series, offers much of what readers have come to expect from Sandford. We’re back in Minnesota, at least for a while, where Lucas works for the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension out of the St. Paul office.

Lucas is an intelligent, thoughtful person who works because he mostly enjoys the challenges and thinks he’s doing something worthwhile at least some of the time, not because he needs the money, which he definitely does not. He’s also a family man, with a wife who’s a surgeon, a couple of young children and an adopted daughter, Letty, who’s had a mind of her own and a stubborn streak even before she got old enough to head off to college at Stanford.

It’s in California, where Letty is about to wind up her freshman year, that the action starts. She befriends a couple of “Travelers” –young people who roam the country with their belongings in backpacks, hitching rides here and there, working long enough to earn money to buy food and get to the next place, maybe smoking a little marijuana but not doing anything really bad. Letty gives the girl, Skye, her contact information, but she’s surprised when she does hear from her after she’s back home in Minnesota. Skye is in South Dakota, alone and frightened; the gentle young man she traveled with has disappeared, and she’s been told he was murdered in a particularly gruesome way by a group led by a man called Pilate, a man she already had thought of as the devil.

Letty helps Skye get to the Twin Cities, and Lucas volunteers to go along when she meets with her, partly because he suspects Skye is taking advantage of his daughter’s generosity. He’s heard these sorts of stories before.

The more they hear, however, the more Lucas begins to believe that there’s truth in Skye’s story. When he, and at first, Letty, try to find out what happened to her companion, they gain insight into the terrible world of Pilate and his followers. These people roam the country, often crossing paths with Travelers and often showing up at gatherings of Juggalos, fans of the band Insane Clown Posse, who gather for festivals at various locations.

Pilate’s group, however, is into more serious drugs, crime and abuse of women than are the gentler souls they mingle with – including murder for the thrill of it. Think Manson family, only several times worse. Lucas’s quest takes him from Minnesota into Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

That quest also gives rise to some elements of this book that might not please some long-time fans. Sandford never minces words about the crimes Lucas is investigating, and Lucas has certainly dealt with some horrific events before, but there’s a lot of violence in this story, and some of it is difficult to read about or listen to.  And the need to track the group as it moves from state to state means that Lucas doesn’t have as much time as he sometimes does to get to know the local people and authorities he’s dealing with.

I thought the book was good, gripping, worth reading to the end. Besides as much action and suspense as anyone could want, it offers insights into a part of American life most of us are only vaguely aware of, if at all. This 25th novel also marks the emergence of Letty as a more important character, which promises interesting stories to come. And it moves Lucas to a watershed moment in his career. Stay tuned.

Richard Ferrone does a fine, Lucas-worthy, matter-of-fact job of reading the story, which needs no embellishment.

 

 

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Great achievement, great story

Paul O’Connor takes a look at a new book from a master storyteller about the brothers whose genius transformed the world in 1903.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE WRIGHT BROTHERS. By David McCullough. Audible.com. Read by the author. 10 hours, 2 minutes. $17. Also available in hardback from Simon & Schuster. 336 pages. $30.

Speaking in Raleigh in May, author David McCullough said he doesn’t consider himself a historian, an odd statement from someone who has won two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Book Awards for historical books. No, the author said, he’s a storyteller, more a journalist than an expert.

Over the past 40 years or so, one would be hard pressed to find anyone who could lay better claim than McCullough to being America’s storyteller. He’s written 11 highly acclaimed and entertaining books that ranged in topic from the Johnstown flood (his first, in 1968), the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, to the lives of three presidents.

It was McCullough who narrated Ken Burns’ fabulous Civil War and, for many years, The American Experience on PBS.

His latest book, The Wright Brothers, perfectly fits his self-appraisal. He tells us a great story.

Not being a Wright Brothers expert, I can’t say whether McCullough brings any new information to aviation scholarship. But, he presents the story of their lives, challenges and achievements so compellingly that it will have even those with a fear of flying turning the pages or staying tuned to the audiobook.

Wilbur and Orville Wright shine in history for two major reasons: their genius and their integrity.

The genius is often dismissed or diminished in the frequent references to their being bicycle mechanics. That’s like describing Abe Lincoln as a country lawyer. The two were self-taught engineers of the highest caliber, men with a deep understanding of math and physics. Wilbur was a true Renaissance man and Orville made essential avionic discoveries. Both were excellent writers.

These were not two men who tinkered with already discovered knowledge, correctly applying what others had calculated first. To the contrary, the key differences between the successful Wright flyers and the failed air machines of contemporary engineers were the direct result of knowledge that the Wrights discovered in their study of birds and physics.

The second overriding theme of McCullough’s book is the integrity and modesty of these two sons of a preacher. They sought no attention for themselves, did not allow world fame to seduce them and were the straightest of arrows. Add to that a resolve to succeed that lifted them out of the Kitty Hawk sands time and time again after failure, and we see two men who epitomize much of America’s self-perception as exceptional.

This is not necessarily a book for an engineer. McCullough does not allow the technical aspects of the Wright accomplishments to clog the story’s flow. The author, in very understandable terms, provides us just enough to grasp the challenge and the solution to each of these hurdles.

The author reads the book, and no one has ever been more blessed to narrate American stories than McCullough. But in this audiobook, I am so sad to say, the effects of his age – 81 – show. It’s not that it diminishes the storytelling. It’s that it does not rise to the great beauty we had enjoyed in so many other of his narrations.

At just over 10 hours, this was a perfect listen for my latest long summer ride. It’s prompted me to download a few of his older books, ones I had not read, for future listening.

  •  Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.
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