Dealing with the devil

Bob Moyer was in Germany recently, but at least part of the time, his imagination was in New Orleans. He offers a review of the book that transported him to the Big Easy.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

LET THE DEVIL OUT. By Bill Loehfelm. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 304 pages. $26.

let-devil-outThe last time we saw NOPD Officer Maureen Coughlin, she was up to her knees in the Mississippi River, up to her neck in trouble. She had tried to save a key witness against a ruthless militia group tied to elite New Orleans sources, but lost both him and a corrupt colleague to the mighty river.

Then she got put on indefinite paid administrative leave.

Too much time on her hands. Too much booze, too much running, too many nightmares, too many cigarettes, too much violence – she has to Let the Devil Out. She hangs out in bars, “…searching out one special man, the one in whom she saw herself reflected back to her, the one hiding in plain sight.”  She likes the pain; it turns into a habit.

Then she gets her badge back.

Now she can’t Let the Devil Out. She wants to change, and she hopes Preacher, her sergeant and mentor, understands. But he’s little comfort: “Three hundred years people have been coming here to be somebody else. It’s not new, what you feel.” Preacher knows something is wrong, she can feel it, she almost breaks down: “her foot began thumping on the car floor…like she had no control over it…She felt sorry for it. She thought for a split second about shooting it.” She finds it’s almost as bad being on the job as it was being off the job.

Then the FBI requests her help.

The evil FBI that no one wants to work with. But the rookie has to do what she’ s told. She has to talk to the father of a militia member, initially stopped by her and subsequently killed by someone else. Immediately after their conversation, all hell breaks loose. The militia has gone into action, and she has to keep the devil in, when she points her gun at the driver of a white van, when she’s sitting across the table from a punk she wants to beat to a pulp. The denouement of this dizzying, perversely delightful book leads her to the point where she can choose to Let the Devil Out, let him go, and “Leave him out there in the dark.” Or not.

Bill Loehfelm knows his way around New Orleans; you could use his narrative as a reference for good bars and good eats. He also knows his way around real dialogue, things that sound like what real people, in this case, real cops, say to one another. And he keeps revealing a depth of character and context that surprises us. He’s the kind of writer who understands that the devil, and a good book, are in the details.

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An uncommon friendship

The Roosevelts, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War – these are fascinating topics of fairly recent history that have been dealt with extensively in books, movies and TV documentaries. Susan Quinn, coming at them from a different angle, has written a fascinating book that sheds new light even on stories we’ve heard before.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ELEANOR AND HICK. The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady. By Susan Quinn. Read by Kimberly Farr. Penguin Audio. 14 hours; 11 CDs. $45. Also available in print from Penguin Press.

eleanorandhickThis interesting and informative book tells the story of the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, and it also tells much about the separate stories of those two women who had important roles in a critical period in our nation’s history.

It does not, however – thank goodness – dwell on or speculate unduly about the physical relationship between the two, whatever that might have been. If you’re looking for a salacious account of lesbian lovers, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Although Susan Quinn drew on many of Eleanor’s letters, and those that exist of Hickok’s, in her extensive research, she acknowledges that no one really knows how physically intimate the relationship was. In the early years, especially, they write of longing for each other, and of wishing to kiss and touch. It’s well known that for years Hickok, or Hick as she was known, had a room of her own at the White House, next to Eleanor’s, and that the two went on trips and celebrated holidays together. It’s known that Eleanor’s circle of close friends included a number of lesbian couples, and that Hick did have physical relationships with some other women.

But it’s also known that Eleanor was not comfortable with physical intimacy, and that she had close relationships with a number of other people, several of them men, over the years. She and Hick had quarrels and disagreements, many of which seem to have arisen because Hick pushed for the relationship to be more intense and more exclusive than Eleanor wanted. Then too, the mid-20th century, Quinn reminds us, was a very different time when it came to public acknowledgment and acceptance of same-sex couples.

Quinn concludes that the most private details of the relationship remained private, despite some speculation and innuendo (it was also a very different time in terms of the press’ and political opponents’ respecting people’s privacy), and that ultimately, they are not what’s important. To her credit, she deals with the question but doesn’t waste much time on what doesn’t really matter in big-picture terms.

What matters, as Quinn makes clear, is the importance of the relationship in the development of these two women, and what the strengths and reinforcement they gave each other helped these two to achieve.

Quinn weaves in the stories of the early years of both Eleanor and Hick. Their experiences were very different – Hick came from a poor family in South Dakota; Eleanor from a very privileged one in the East – but they had similarities in terms of loneliness and emotional hardships. Their personalities were different, too. Eleanor was naturally shy and withdrawn, although she learned to be assertive and even dogged about her causes. Hick was often loud, brash and not in complete control of her emptions.

They became friends at what was a critical time for Eleanor. An intellectual and somewhat gawky girl, she was pushed into society by her grandmother. Eleanor had married her handsome cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, when she was only 21, and then bore six children in 10 years (one of whom died). Her mother-in-law, Sara Roosevelt, made sure that Eleanor never felt that she was the mistress in her own home or even the most important person in the lives of her husband or children. And she had been crushed by the discovery of Franklin’s affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Eventually, Eleanor worked to carve out an independent life of her own, pursuing what she considered worthwhile goals with her own friends.

But FDR’s election as president in 1932 threatened to curtail her activities and force her into more of a conventional role as First Lady.

Lorena Hickok, for her part, had worked and scrapped to establish herself as a real newspaper reporter in a profession that tried to relegate women to the society pages. She’d attained considerable success, working as a reporter for The Associated Press covering the presidential campaign, when she was assigned to cover Eleanor. It didn’t take long for their friendship to develop to the point that it was prompting fellow reporters to raise charges of favoritism and making Hick’s professional life difficult.

When she had to choose, Hick chose her relationship with Eleanor, resigning her hard-won job at the AP and accepting the first of several political positions she would hold over the years. For a time, Hick toured areas that had been devastated by the Great Depression, reporting officially to administration officials and privately, in more detail, to Eleanor. She would sorely miss being a journalist the rest of her life, and although she seemed to take pride in Eleanor’s accomplishments, including her popular “My Day” column, she also struggled to accept the fact that Eleanor could easily get articles and books published while she, Hick, the better writer, could not. In Hick’s final years, with her health failing and money needs pressing, she did find her niche as a writer of children’s books and other nonfiction, including a popular biography of Helen Keller.

Both women were intelligent and compassionate; both cared deeply about the many people in the country who were suffering. In the early years, Hick helped bring Eleanor out of her shy, insecure shell and encourage her to speak, write and become more of a public figure. Eleanor succeeded beyond all expectations; in fact, she became something of a force of nature. Even Hick could not keep up with her.

Quinn chronicles the rest of Eleanor’s and Hick’s lives, as FDR won three more terms in the White House and eventually died early in his fourth term. She takes them through the Depression, into World War II and on into the Cold War era. Drawing on a great deal of history and research, she describes enough of what was going on in the White House, the country and the world to give context to what Eleanor and Hick were doing and feeling. She describes the unusual relationship between Eleanor and FDR. After the Lucy Mercer discovery, their physical intimacy stopped, and yet they were closely bound in many ways and cared about each other. Both were independent and proud; each needed the other at times but always hated to acknowledge that need. Often, Eleanor was the idealist, trying to prod Franklin to take actions, some of which he did not believe were politically or strategically wise.

As the years went by, the relationship between Eleanor and Hick grew less intense, although they always remained good friends. After FDR’s death, Hick encouraged Eleanor to use the popularity and esteem she’d earned as First Lady to continue to champion important causes.

As Eleanor forged her post-First Lady role, on the national and international stage, she found new causes and, sometimes, new people to whom she felt especially close. Hick learned, not always happily, to deal with her own dwindling importance, but when she really needed Eleanor, Eleanor was there.

Quinn has done a remarkable job, drawing on a great deal of research and presenting an impressive amount of material while managing to tell a good story. It is, on one level, the story of the relationship between Eleanor and Hick, but it also is the story of two remarkable women who, individually, achieved a great deal and blazed trails that other women would follow.

Read by Kimberly Farr, the audio version moves along well, slowing occasionally as Quinn makes sure we understand what was happening, but never to the point that our minds wander or we lose interest.


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A secret hero

Before there was James Bond, before there was John le Carré, there was Baroness Orczy. Paul O’Connor reviews her inventive and rewarding classic.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. By Baroness Orczy. Barnes & Noble Classics. Softcover. 252 pages. $8.05.

scarletIt’s 1792, and the Reign of Terror is well under way in Paris.

The citizens of the French Revolution are herding France’s nobles to the guillotine as the rest of the privileged world looks on in horror.

But, while Europe’s royal families are frozen in response, one Englishman, known only as “the Scarlet Pimpernel,” is saving lives.

With an army of approximately 20 assistants, the pimpernel is slipping into Paris and, through cunning and guile, is helping French noble families escape. In each instance, this anonymous hero leaves behind a calling card: a small drawing of the delicate flower, the pimpernel.

In England, he is a hero, but no one outside his cadre of assistants knows who he is. Nor will readers learn until well into the story. And it is only in the closing pages that readers will be sure they’ve figured everything out.

Baroness Orczy’s first work was performed as a play before being published as a novel in 1905. It would evolve into a popular series of books and is cited as the first-ever secret agent novel, the precursor to Ian Fleming and John LeCarre’.

While the pimpernel plans to rescue a famous nobleman from Paris, the French agent Chauvelin is working his connections in England. He has leverage with Lady Marguerite Blakeney, a French actress who has married a dimwitted English lord, is living in London and who has unlimited access to the British ruling class.

Lady Marguerite carries the shame and guilt for having inadvertently exposed a French family to the guillotine years before, and the disclosure of that mistake has ruptured her marriage. Chauvelin cares not. He wants his man and continues to press her to help him, even though a second revelation of her complicity with the revolutionaries will cost her the privileged life she now leads.

Thus we have a true bad guy, Chauvelin, a damsel in distress, Lady Marguerite, and a secret hero. And, as Chauvelin intrigues his way closer and closer to the hero, readers have no idea whether the pimpernel understands that he’s in imminent danger. But we know one thing: The pimpernel is the cleverest person in the book.

This secret-agent thriller lacks the high-tech gizmos of the Bond series, but none of the suspense. It’s a classic worth checking out of the library.

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



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Flavia, unbanished

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THRICE THE BRINDED CAT HATH MEW’D. By Alan Bradley. Read by Jayne Entwistle. Random House Audio. 9 hours; 7 CDs. Hardback print edition form Delacorte Press. 331 pages. $26.

thrice-the-brinded-cat-hath-mewdIt’s happy days for the many fans of Flavia DeLuce, the 12-year-old sleuth and chemist. After a brief “banishment” to a girls’ school in Canada, Flavia has (to her delight) been “re-banished” back to Buckshaw, the crumbling family mansion near the British village of Bishop’s Lacey. So she’s free to resume her unusual 1950s childhood, free from school or governess. She has time to indulge the curiosity that often involves her in the solving of unusual murders.

Only the days, even though it’s almost Christmas, are not nearly as happy as they should be or as Flavia envisioned them when she was feeling alone and abandoned in faraway Toronto. No one but Dogger, her father’s factotum and longtime friend, shows up to meet her at the docks. Her older sisters, Feely and Daffy, are as unwelcoming as ever, and Undine, the orphaned younger cousin the family has taken in, only annoys her. Even Esmeralda, her pet chicken, is missing. Worst of all, her father is in hospital with pneumonia.

Flavia, as fans of Alan Bradley’s delightful series know, has always been a lonely child. Her mother disappeared in mysterious circumstances when Flavia was very young, and her father, crushed by that loss, by his experiences in World War II and by the massive burdens of trying to hold Buckshaw together, largely neglects his daughters. But Flavia has always loved him greatly. And, because of surprising recent developments, Flavia is trying to figure out how best to deal with the reality that, through her mother’s will, she is the owner of Buckshaw.

Not allowed to visit her father, Flavia has very little to do, a situation that usually leads her into trouble. Sure enough, when the vicar’s wife asks her to deliver a message to a woodcarver in a nearby hamlet, Flavia discovers the man dead in unusual circumstances, with a cat being the only other creature in the house.

Elated that she has an investigation to distract her from her boredom and her worries, Flavia sets to work. As usual, she uncovers a tangled web of secrets, not to mention dangers, before triumphantly solving the mystery – or at least some of they mystery, as Flavia’s new 12-year-old maturity leads her to reflect upon the ambiguities of crime and of life in general.

As the story unfolds, Flavia has more challenges to face than even her sometimes perilous adventures in chemistry and detective work have ever presented.

In recent books in the series, Bradley has introduced tantalizing bits of information about what Harriet was doing when she disappeared and why Flavia, the youngest of her three daughters, inherited both Harriet’s estate and her role in a secret society called the Nide. Both Flavia and Bradley’s readers have a lot to learn about all this background and what it means for Flavia’s future. Presumably, things will become a bit clearer as Bradley favors us with future novels.

For now, enjoy Flavia’s latest adventures riding Gladys on icy country roads and taking the train up to London.

I recommend my dual approach: I read the print book as soon as I can get my hands on it. Then I listen with great pleasure to the audio version, as the gifted Jayne Entwistle brings Flavia to life with an endearing accent and a perfect blend of precocity and vulnerability.


Posted in Audio Books, British mysteries, Detective fiction, Mysteries, Young Adult | Tagged , | 1 Comment

FDR and the huddled masses

Our references to history can be as selective as our use of current “facts.” Paul O’Connor takes a look at a recent book that tells the uncomfortable story of the Roosevelt administration’s dealings with Jews and other refugees before the U.S. entered World War II.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

1944: FDR And The Year That Changed History. By Jay Winik. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover. 536 pages. $35.

1944While Donald Trump has been denigrating immigrants and insulting Muslims, the political left has been countering with references to America’s supposedly accepting tradition of the world’s tired, poor and huddled masses.

But the left does not mention America’s history regarding the Holocaust, the MS St. Louis or internment camps for Japanese Americans.

Jay Winik does in his newest book.

Just before, and then during World War II, the U.S. State Department and the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt brushed aside Jews and other European refugees and refused to directly intercede to either stop or slow the Holocaust.

In his 2015 book, 1944: FDR and the Year that Changed History, Winik tells that story, but one would never guess that from either the title or book’s cover jacket.

This is part FDR mini-biography, part story of his dealings with Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill, part recap of American action in the European theater of WW II, and, biggest part, part history of American policy toward immigrants, especially Jews, during the years when the Nazis were preparing for, and then executing, the Holocaust.

FDR knew long before the outbreak of war in 1939 that Jews were being persecuted in Germany. And after the war began, he received credible reports that Jews were being removed from their homes and sent to camps. As the war ground on, Winik demonstrates indisputably, Roosevelt learned that Jews were being murdered on an industrial scale at Auschwitz.

Yet FDR did nothing.

In the years before America’s entry into the war, FDR refused to push for liberalization of immigration policy to allow Europeans of all religions to escape to America, turning away the MS St. Louis and its approximately 1,000 Jewish refugees in 1939. (They eventually returned to Germany.) And, he refused to act in subsequent years as the U.S. State Department constructed artificial barriers to keep immigration below even that permitted by law.

After the war began, FDR refused to take action when evidence smuggled out of Auschwitz clearly demonstrated industrial scale murder. And, with regard to the Japanese-American internment camps, FDR refused to intervene when it became obvious that they were unnecessary.

Winik tells us, as all historians do, that FDR was a master politician, one who knew how to play the game to get what he wanted, and what he wanted most was to defeat the Axis powers in Europe and the Pacific. He and his defenders repeatedly said that the best way to save all European civilians was to win the war quickly. They considered any diversion of resources from the immediate goal of destroying German military forces as unwise. Besides, they said, there was nothing they could do about the camps.

Winik thoroughly disproves American postwar claims that the camps and rail lines leading to them could not have been bombed. American bombers flew right over Auschwitz and several times hit the camp with errant bombs intended for nearby industrial targets. He also undermines arguments that the rescue efforts initiated late in the war, efforts that did save thousands of lives, could not have begun earlier, thus possibly saving millions more.

FDR’s policy toward the Jews doesn’t fit the record of a man who worked so hard to help the weak and the poor. What explains it?

Winik suggests that, given anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic attitudes afield in the U.S. in those years, FDR was afraid that efforts to rescue the Jews would cost him political capital at home, and, further, that that loss of capital would hurt the war effort.

The Jewish account and discussion, on their own, are good reason to read Winik’s book. But the rest of the book is neither original nor cohesive. The reader could get the idea that Winik restructured four or five ideas for short books and tied them into one big one.

Then there is the question of the misleading title. Why that title when the book is mostly about the Holocaust and refugees? Maybe the publishers decided that Americans aren’t any more interested in refugee issues today than they were during World War II.

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


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Absurdity, meet reality

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

RAZOR GIRL. By Carl Hiaasen. Read by John Rubinstein. Random House Audio. 12 ½ hours; 10 CDs. $54. In hardback from Knopf: 333 pages. $27.95.

razorRazor Girl is Carl Hiaasen at his hilarious best, and that is very, very good. It’s wacky fiction that’s somehow crazily connected to reality. It’s absurd but in a way that’s a whole lot like the world we live in. It’s fact paced, yet every now and then you realize, maybe while you’re catching your breath and moving on to the next escapade, that Hiaasen has sneaked in a moment of genuine sentiment or even a bit of a message. You couldn’t make this stuff up, folks would say if it happened in “real life” – and yet, Hiaasen does.

It all starts when Lane Coolman, a Hollywood talent agent, is driving down the Florida Keys to meet Buck Nance, the reality TV star who is his biggest client. Suddenly Coolman’s rental car is rear-ended, and thus begins an improbable chain of events. The offending driver is Merry Mansfield, and, it seems, she was distracted by her last-minute grooming efforts on a normally personal and private part of her anatomy. Yes, she’s the Razor Girl of title fame.

Why, one might wonder, would Merry have targeted Coolman in her creative scam? That’s a good question, and one that quickly becomes an important part of the plot

Another key character is Martin Trebeaux, aka the sand man, owner of Sedimental Journeys, a company that until now has seemed to have a bright, even never-ending future, as it steals sand from one South Florida beach to sell it to another, only to see the new beach erode and the cycle begin anew.

Then we have Big Noogie, of New York Mafia fame. And John I and John II, the fake service dogs.

Oh, and don’t forget Buck Nance, aka Captain Cock, star of a “reality” show not unlike “Duck Dynasty” but set in the Florida panhandle and involving the raising of roosters whose tail feathers are used in high-end (pun intended, sorry) fishing flies. Without Coolman to keep him under control, Nance (who is really an accordion player from Wisconsin) gets into some serious trouble. Enter Blister, a thoroughly disgusting character who has taken the “reality” of Captain Cock and his supposed life and philosophy way further than Buck Nance ever envisioned.

Into all this mess insert Andrew Yancy, the disgraced former police detective turned food inspector (roach patrol) who first appeared in Hiaasen’s Bad Monkey three years ago. As always, Yancy is trying to discourage any building on the lot next to his house, because he doesn’t want his glorious view obstructed. The threat this time is posed by Brock Richardson, a slick lawyer from Miami who makes his fortune with TV ads pushing product-liability suits. Unfortunately, he himself has gotten hooked on the product in his latest big case, a combination deodorant and testosterone wipe with side effects that are truly horrifying.

In addition to going to considerable (and sometimes illegal) lengths to protect his view, a priceless luxury in over-developed South Florida, Yancy is always vainly campaigning to be reinstated as a detective. Tracking down Coolman, Captain Cock and Blister, who become entangled in unexpected ways, seems to him a way to prove his merit and also a task that simply needs to be done.

Did I mention that Yancy is going through a romantic crisis with his girlfriend
Rosa, who used to work as a coroner and now handles at least temporarily living patients in an emergency room? Or that Merry Mansfield keeps crashing the scene (literally)?

Incredibly, Hiaasen ties all these crazy characters and situations together in a story that makes an odd kind of sense. It’s a wild ride, but you’ll be glad you were along. Just keep your seatbelt fastened and watch how the bad guys are served up their just deserts.

If you choose to enjoy this tale as an audio book, John Rubinstein does a great job keeping a metaphorically straight face while relating madcap events. And if you listen to it, as I did, while driving, don’t be surprised if your eyes keep checking your rear-view mirror.


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Short but tasty

Bob Moyer sent this review of from Germany. How can he read this book when so close to France and not go there? It’s a mystery to me.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

FATAL PURSUIT. By Martin Walker. Alfred A. Knopf. 320 pages. $25.95

Stuffed neck of duck.

fatal-pursuitThat’s the solution for a minor mystery in this series, food porn disguised as murder mysteries set in the French countryside. Martin Walker lards his narrative with culinary delights of the Perigord region, while slowly adding in the ingredients of a crime plucked from the rich past of the Dordogne. In this latest adventure of Bruno, Chief of Police for St. Denis, stuffed neck of duck is the solution for a perfect cassoulet. An ongoing mystery involving Bruno is addressed with a menu for a first date in a French farmhouse. Will goose eggs, ecrevisses a la nage and vodka cook up the right atmosphere for romance?

Interestingly enough, cuisine takes a back burner to the larger mystery in a Bruno story for the first time. The plot here is driven by a Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic, lost somewhere in southern France during World War II. One of only four of its kind, it’s worth millions if found. The search for the car fuels the activities of a freelance journalist, a rally car driver, an absentee landlord and two comrades from the Resistance. As the narrative careens down the country roads around St. Denis, it leaves two bodies by the wayside and leads to international intrigue. The implication of larger crimes brings Bruno’s brightest former flame, Isabelle, back to town, complicating the romantic subplot. Bruno, with his ear tuned to nuances of conversation, his eye out for clues, and a taste for the best in food and wine, comes up with the killer just before the book gets to the finish line.  All in all, another well-paced adventure with a little less feasting than usual.

Bonne lecture.




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Prepare to be charmed

Also a big fan of Lee Smith, I reviewed this book earlier for the Greensboro News & Record:

Not to be outdone, Bob Moyer has reviewed it for Briar Patch Books. Such a fine book merits a lot of attention.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

DIMESTORE. By Lee Smith. Algonquin Books. 202 pages. $24.95.

dimetore2Charming. Lee Smith can be many things as a writer, but one characteristic carries throughout her work. Charming, like this story of a little girl whose daddy owned a dimestore in Grundy, Va.

It’s there, behind the one-way window looking down on the sales floor that she took away what might have been her first lesson as a writer — “Nobody can see me, but I can see everybody… Thus I learned the position of the omniscient narrator, who sees and records everything yet is never visible.”

She goes on to catalogue other such moments in the context of her small-town life, like the lesson she learned from the movies where “…we grimly held our dates’ hands in a kind of death grip throughout the whole show”:  “The movies taught me that place can be almost as important as personality, and that actions really do speak louder than words.” Story after story comes to her falling “…asleep on somebody’s lap … hearing those stories, told by somebody that loved me, so that my sense of a story is still very personal.” It seems an ideal education for a writer.

Including the parts that were not “charming.”  Her mother suffered from “bad nerves” and “nervous stomach’; her father was “kindly nervous,” a euphemism for bipolar. They were periodically hospitalized, and Smith spent some time and summers with family, in one case, learning to be a lady. Of course, she wanted to be a boy. Concerned for some time that she, too, might suffer such frailties, she escaped the mountains to college.

Or so she thought. It was there she bumped into writers like Eudora Welty, who showed her “Plain stories about country people and small towns—my own ‘living world.’”  That awakening led her to her métier: “…the mountains that used to imprison me have become my chosen stalking ground.”

This book abounds with moments high and low that lead to small personal epiphanies, all lessons we have experienced in her many books. Smith shares with us how her life, like the trip down the Mississippi she took with a group of college friends on a raft, “…has turned out to be wild and various, full of the unexpected, and it’s a monstrous big river out here.”  As those of us who have read many of her books know, writing for her “… is about our own real world and our own real lives and understanding what happens to us day by day; it is about playing with children and listening to old people.”

So is this concise, charming memoir.

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A wild tale, well told

The 1970s were crazy times, but enough time has elapsed to allow a good researcher and writer to make sense of the senseless. Paul O’Connor says Jeffrey Toobin has done just that.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor


american-heiress-katie-augMost of us who were alive during the Patty Hearst ordeal, I suspect, stopped thinking about her a long time ago. There wasn’t much to like about the heiress to the Hearst Newspapers fortune, not much reason to wonder or care how she’s been doing since getting out of prison in1979.

Then, Jeffrey Toobin came along with American Heiress, resurrecting her in our national consciousness with a book that is so well researched, so well constructed and so cleanly written that we’ll devour his 339 pages.

Patricia, as she preferred to be known, gained national attention in 1974 at a time when the San Francisco Bay area roiled with a mixture of street crime, strained race relations and radical politics. Anarchists, socialists, nihilists, you name them, were conducting nearly daily bombings, and one obscure group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, had assassinated a popular African-American schools superintendent just months previous.

Hearst, 19, and her exceptionally bland and self-indulgent fiancé were living in a San Francisco apartment when, on the night of Feb. 20, someone knocked. After her fiancé opened the door, the two were wrestled to the floor, although the fiancé quickly escaped. Hearst was tossed into the trunk of a car and spirited into the national limelight.

It would be 19 months before she was arrested, yes arrested, and charged with bank robbery. Within two months of being kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, she had joined their ranks, possibly finding something to be excited about – a bank robbery and a violent overturning of society — for the first time in her life.

Had it not been for its violent aspects, the Hearst/SLA story could have been easily developed into a TV sitcom. Something akin to Three’s Company: Kidnapped boring rich girl joins an “army” of eight, most of whom are spoiled middle class pseudo-intellectuals led by a delusional escaped inmate. It’s an army of generals but no soldiers, of grand aspirations and pronouncements but no chance of achieving them. There were times I couldn’t help but laugh, even though I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to.

Toobin’s research is magnificent. He takes us through the SLA’s days on the West Coast, its trip cross country, its trip back west and then through Hearst’s capture and trial.

His telling of the story is even better. The legal writer for The New Yorker magazine, Toobin writes so clearly that the reading is effortless. It’s a joy to read an entire book and not find a single cliché.

A friend recently asked if I came away from the book disliking Hearst. I can’t remember ever really liking her, I should say, and this book did nothing to change my mind. Patty Hearst has always gotten her way in life. She’s stood for nothing other than herself, her character chameleon-like in transforming to the circumstances and what was in her own best interests. She should have been tried as an accomplice to murder. Instead, she served a few months in jail.

And what has come of the boring rich girl, turned “kill the pigs” spouting 1970s radical, turned Stockholm Syndrome victim, turned prison inmate, turned author?

In 2015, her shih tzu won the toy category in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

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




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A writer’s own stories

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE PIGEON TUNNEL: STORIES FROM MY LIFE. By John LeCarre. Read by the author. Penguin Audio. 10 CDs; 11 ½ hours. $40. Also available in hardcover from Viking.

pigeonImagine that you could visit John le Carre, the highly successful author of British spy novels, who will turn 85 in a couple of months. Imagine that you could sit with him in London, or at his retreat in Cornwall, lingering over dinner and good wine, and listen to him reminisce. Always charming and courteous, he would tell you stories about an incredibly rich life, filled with adventures, fascinating people, humor, thoughtfulness and creativity.

Few of us can have that enviable experience, but le Carre offers the next best thing to anyone who wants to devote a few hours to listening. He has written The Pigeon Tunnel, a memoir of sorts – stories from his life – and he reads the audio version himself.

Le Carre, whose real name is David Cornwell, worked in British intelligence during the Cold War for a few years, serving mostly in Germany. He wrote his first spy novel in 1961, while he was still serving. In 1964, when he was in his early 30s, he left the service, and he has been supporting himself handsomely as an author for half a century now. He goes out of his way to assert that he is in no way a great spy who turned to writing, but rather a writer who spent a few years early in life as a largely inconsequential minor figure in the intelligence establishment. From his secret service, he seems to have gleaned an understanding of how things work and don’t work more than any deep, momentous secrets.

Anyone who has read some of his books should delight in listening to these stories, written with the same intelligence, sensitivity and willingness to confront moral and ethical ambiguities that distinguish his novels.

Although he has been extraordinarily successful, earning critical acclaim and commercial success from books and many movie and television adaptations, le Carre comes across as modest, self-deprecating, often bemused and sometimes amused by the turns his life has taken.

Modest or not, he has many great stories to tell, and he tells them well. Early on, he drew inspiration from his experiences, supplemented with research, to write his novels. But, he tells us, a traumatic experience when he had to make last-minute revisions to his novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy because he arrived in Hong Kong to discover, to his horror, that “somebody had built a tunnel under the sea between the island of Hong Kong and the mainland of Kowloon without my knowledge,” he traveled considerably more for research. After that, he ventured into such interesting and sometimes dangerous places as Vietnam, Cambodia, Israel, Russia, Central America and Africa, in quest of experiences. That is how, for example, he came to spend one unforgettable New Year’s Eve dancing with Yasser Arafat.

There are stories, too, about his dealings with movie stars and producers and the vagaries of Hollywood moviemaking. He became, for a time, essential to the well-being of Richard Burton during the making of the 1965 movie of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and he has some amusing stories to tell about Burton and his then new bride, Elizabeth Taylor. He and Alec Guinness, who memorably played le Carre’s most famous character, George Smiley, became great friends. Le Carre even has an amusing section in which he recounts various movie deals that never came to fruition.

Occasionally, le Carre talks about recent political developments, and he does not mince words when he mentions, for example, the United States’ activities at Guantanamo. But this is not for the most part a political book. He is careful to suggest that in most cases, politicians and spies base their actions on what’s known or believed at the time, and it is not easy to say what he would have done in a similar situation.

Among the most moving parts of the book, and obviously one that was challenging for him to write, are le Carre’s thoughts about his parents – his mother, Olive, who deserted him and his older brother when they were young children, and especially his father, Ronnie, con man extraordinaire who had a profound impact on everyone in his orbit, including his son David, aka John le Carre, who drew on Ronnie for his novel A Perfect Spy. Le Carre writes about his father’s flaws and failings, but he also suggests that he has plenty of his own.

Perhaps best of all are le Carre’s musings about memory and imagination, and the passages where he links the stories he’s telling to characters and events that made their way into his novels. These glimpses into a writing life are fascinating.

No one could have read this book better than le Carre himself. At one point, he talks about what others have told him about his mother’s gift for imitating voices and notes that he, too, has an “ear for voices.” Often, he tells a particular story through dialogue, remembered and possibly enhanced by memory. He does a marvelous job with the voices.

What a fine gift John le Carre has given to his legions of fans. Make some time, get comfortable, and listen to stories from a master.

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