About Victoria

Born in Detroit. Lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, D.C., and Princeton, New Jersey. Degrees in Journalism (U. of Michigan) and Public Health (U. of Pittsburgh). Alumna of U. of Michigan and U. of Pittsburgh. Favorite authors: Neal Stephenson, Frederick Forsyth, Alan Furst, Charles Dickens--they all know how to tell a good story! Best book read so far in 2012: Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies. Favorite TV: The Wire; Treme.

****Lullaby Road

Night Sky

photo: U.S., Bureau of Land Management

By James Anderson–In this, as in Anderson’s admirable debut novel, The Never Open Desert Diner, you share the adventures of short-haul truck driver Ben Jones, who drives a hundred-mile stretch between two small towns in the high Utah desert. If the town of Price is next-to-nothing, Rockmuse, at the other end of his route, amounts to even less.

These are literary novels, yet they encompass mysteries and crimes of many kinds, including crimes of the spirit. Anderson sets you down, unmistakably, in the high desert—with its sunrises and sunsets, the brilliance of its stars at night, its smells, the amazing quiet, and its deadly hazards, human and otherwise.

In his new book, half-Jewish, half-Indian Ben and his cast of oddball desert dwellers are as reclusive and tetchy as ever. They live far from ordinary conceptions of civilization for a reason, generally. Ben delivers their groceries, water, auto parts, horse feed—whatever they need. In hot weather, it can be a brutal job. In winter, it may be worse. Blinding snowstorms barrel over the mountains, scouring the land and hitting the mesa to the east, only to ricochet back for another strike on the inhabitants.

Ben is in a tricky situation. On a not very good morning, winter weather-wise, he fuels up at the Stop ‘n’ Gone before starting a run to Rockmuse, and finds a Mexican child and a suspicious dog, sitting by one of the pumps. A child not dressed for the freezing temperatures. The station owner has locked up and won’t respond to Ben’s pounding. Ben has “no choice”—a phrase he particularly loathes—but to take the child inside the warm truck cab and sort things out later. The child doesn’t talk. Eventually, Ben finds out why.

This is bad enough, but his neighbor stops him before he can drive away and hands over her infant daughter. She has “no choice” but to deposit her baby with him for the day. Like it or not, and he definitely does not, he’s left holding the diaper bag. So now you understand the book’s title.

The child, the protective dog, and the infant Belle turn out to be good travelers. That’s lucky, because the day turns dangerous and requires all Ben’s concentration. With the road margins indistinct in the blinding snow, it’s like driving into oblivion. And that’s just the weather.

Author Anderson does a great job describing the difficulties Ben runs up against trying to help the people living in such a remote place—their scant resources and limited access to communications, helicopter airlifts, and other take-for-granted trappings of modern life.

Much as Ben hates it, “no choice” often is the choice, and everything cannot turn out well. The book is generous in acknowledging that good people can make bad decisions, it is sincere in grieving for the innocent, and it leaves open the expectation that bad people may yet get what’s coming to them.

Kentucky Travel: “Not Barry Manilow and a Glass of Wine”

Derby HatThe first question everyone asked when they learned we were going to the Kentucky Derby this year was—“Do you have a hat?!” Yes, I did, and here’s the photo to prove it! It was like wearing a dinner plate on the side of my head.

Unlike the unlucky folks who didn’t spring for under-cover seating, we were nice and dry, even though the May 5 race was the wettest Derby on record, by far. Our seats were great—right across from the winner’s circle and in full view of the finish line.

Given the television coverage, which we watch year after year, mint julep in hand, we were prepared for the elegant hats, the snazzy men’s suits, even Johnny Weir. But we were surprised Churchill Downs’s food options aren’t any better than those at our local AAA baseball team. Our Derby package came with a tent buffet (only so-so), and I pitied the patrons who had to depend on the track’s concession stands. Though we’d been warned off the premade mint juleps readily available, the one the bartender in the tent made from scratch was delicious.

The Derby itself—“the most exciting two minutes in sports”—was of course the pinnacle of the Louisville portion of our trip, but we saw lots of other sights in town, notably:

  • 21C Hotel Art

    Art at the 21C Museum Hotel; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

    The Louisville Slugger museum and a tour of the factory, which makes millions of baseball bats every year. Down Louisville’s Main Street are plaques in the sidewalk commemorating key ball players, along with life-sized replicas of the bats they used. And here I thought if you’ve seen one baseball bat, you’ve seen them all.

  • A guided tour of the modern art collection at our downtown hotel, the 21C Museum Hotel (If you’re interested in modern art and don’t know about this small but growing boutique hotel chain, you’re really missing something!).
  • The Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. The 12th president’s tomb was of peculiar interest to me, because recent genealogical research unearthed a photo of the gravestone of my three-greats grandmother, which says she was a descendant of President Taylor. A modicum of digging proved this to be more fake news.
Lexington horse farm

Lexington horse farm; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

  • The nearly 300-acre Cave Hill Cemetery, with its graves of Louisville founder George Rogers Clark, Muhammad Ali, Col. Sanders, Confederate and Union dead, and more than 100,000 other Louisville residents, famous and not-so.
  • A bus tour that took us to Lexington and two horse farms, where we “met” the sire and grandsire of Derby winner “Justified” and saw lots of new foals. Also were briefed on racehorse breeding. “It’s not Barry Manilow and a glass of wine,” our guide said. No indeedy.
  • A pleasant self-guided walking tour of Old Louisville, one of the country’s largest remaining Victorian neighborhoods.

Where we fell short was on the Urban Bourbon Trail. We visited only three of the 40 or so bourbontastic watering holes included in our passport, and even forgot have it stamped in one of them. On a five-day visit, that performance would have to be judged weak.

Reading on the Go

When you travel to Kentucky, here are some books you might take along.

Churchill Downs

Churchill Downs’s iconic twin spires; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

***In Strangers’ Houses

Cleaner

photo: ePi.Longo, creative commons license

By Elizabeth Mundy – Highly visible as an “issue” and yet highly invisible as individuals, East European immigrants and best friends Lena Szarka and her friend Timea Dubay clean London’s houses in the daytime and its offices at night. Although the work offers them more upward mobility than would be possible back in Hungary, working in a foreign country isn’t easy. The language is difficult, the systems and culture are unfamiliar, and nasty anti-immigrant sentiment lies just below the surface.

Most of Elizabeth Mundy’s debut murder mystery is told from Lena’s point of view, enabling a close-up perspective on the complexities and hazards of immigrant life on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. As house cleaners, she and Timea work in others’ private spaces, see their most intimate secrets, and observe their habits. It is an act of faith that they can do so safely and will be paid for their efforts. Mundy has created engaging characters facing believable challenges. It’s no surprise this is intended as the first of a series featuring the warm-hearted Lena.

Lena is a few years older than Timea and coping fairly well. But Timea, a single mother, is struggling. She’s never told anyone who her son Laszlo’s father is—and though it was hard to leave the boy behind, she expects this sojourn abroad to jump-start a better life for them both. The women’s childhood friend Istvan, a handsome television actor, also lives in London. Istvan is married to a well-off woman who has helped his career, and he’s achieved a lifestyle starkly contrasting with that of the women, one that lets him concentrate on what is most important, himself.

Early in the story, Lena begins to worry about Timea. Her friend is increasingly unhappy and confesses that the problem is someone she must get away from. When Timea doesn’t come home one night, Lena’s worry blossoms into fear, and when she doesn’t return by the next day, Lena goes to the police. They are disinclined to take the disappearance seriously. Experience tells them Timea is most likely with a boyfriend and will turn up.

When Timea’s body does turn up, floating in Regent’s Canal, the police take a brief interest, but conclude the death was suicide. They hold this opinion even more strongly once the autopsy reveals Timea was three months pregnant. Mundy rounds out her characters in a series of flashbacks to Lena, Timea, and Istvan as children, a history that convinces Lena that Timea would never kill herself. In true amateur detective form, Mundy gives Lena no choice but to embark on the investigation herself.

Mundy shows a somewhat different facet of London than we usually see and makes Lena’s situation fresh and interesting. The writing is solid, though the police detective sometimes sounds as if he’s memorized a criminology textbook. By contrast, Lena’s slight awkwardness in expression is part of the book’s charm. After all, English is a bit of a struggle for her, but she sticks with it bravely, just as she does the pursuit of Timea’s killer. A quick read without a lot of graphic violence or sex. I’ll be interested to see more from Mundy.

Got the Horse Right Here!

horse racing

photo: TNS Sofres, creative commons license

It’s Derby week, and attention turns to things equine. The horses are huge, but run on the most fragile of ankles. The jockeys are small, but mostly heart. Racing is a quick way to burn money. No wonder storytellers have capitalized on its dramatic potential. This is a repost of my favorite horse books and screen entertainment, with the addition of Triple Crown, a crime novel by Felix Francis, carrying on his late father Dick’s call to the post.

Horse Heaven – by Jane Smiley. Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for A Thousand Acres, yet I found this novel way more satisfying. She’s developed a stableful of engaging characters as you follow the fates of several horses bred for racing, a risky proposition in the best of times. As much about people and their passions and predilections as about horses, of course.

Lords of Misrule – by Jaimy Gordon. Winner of the 2010 National Book Award, this novel is set in the lower echelons of horse-racing, among people for whom the twin spires of Churchill Downs are a distant dream. She has an almost miraculous way of capturing the way horse people think and talk.

The Horse God Built – by Lawrence Scanlan. This one I haven’t read, but it was too tempting to include a book about Secretariat—“the horse God built.” Secretariat won racing’s Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes) in 1973, with track-blistering performances. This nonfiction book is Secretariat as seen through the eyes of his groom and a story of friendship. This is one of six great nonfiction books about racing compiled by Amy Sachs for BookBub.

Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand, was made into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Toby Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and real-life jockey Gary Stevens. A heartwarming story, this production includes footage shot from the midst of a race—an unforgettable view of why this sport is so dangerous. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 77%, audiences 76%.

Luck – HBO. For the full immersion experience, try this nine-episode series, developed by David Milch. It’s all-star cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Richard Kind, Nick Nolte, Michael Gambon and, again, jockey Gary Stevens (who raced in the 2016 Kentucky Derby at age 53). The three touts, convinced they’re on track for riches, are priceless.

The King’s Choice

The King's ChoiceLet me guess. You know as few of the details as I did about how neutral Norway reacted to the invasion by German forces during three tension-packed days in April 1940. Well, now there’s Erik Poppe’s remarkable 2017 movie (Neflix!), based on true events, in which you’ll see a fine and memorable demonstration of courage and leadership (trailer).

As the Nazis hunt them, Norway’s King Haakon VII (elected as head of the constitutional monarchy in 1905) and his family, along with his weak-kneed cabinet, must flee Oslo. The cabinet had ignored the king’s warnings of possible German aggression and is in disarray. In any case, the king is the only person Hitler wants his envoy to negotiate with. The monarch faces agonizing decisions for himself, his family, his country. We are repeatedly reminded of how difficult it is to see issues clearly in a crisis, where imminent action is needed and no options are without substantial risk.

Back in Oslo, a Norwegian fascist plots to take over the government and negotiate with the Germans. His name was Quisling. And, instead of becoming the national hero he must have envisioned, his name became synonymous around the world with “traitor.”

Jesper Christensen is superb as King Haakon VII, Anders Baasmo Christiansen plays the untried but decent son, Kronprins Olav, and Karl Markovics is the frustrated German envoy, Kurt Bräuer, who truly wants to negotiate with the king, but who has very little time or sway with the fast-moving military machine.

The Norwegian countryside in late winter is as grim as the situation, snow on the ground, grey skies, almost as if the film were shot in black-and-white. It was Norway’s entry for Best Foreign Language film last year. Godfrey Cheshire on RogerEbert.com says it “deserves recognition for the excellence of every aspect of its making.” Subtitles.

Rotten Tomatoes Critics’ Rating: 84%; audiences 81%.

What Happened Next . . .

This is not part of the movie, but historian Lynne Olson praises King Haakon’s courage in her book, Last Hope Island, a fascinating–and previously unexamined–chronicle of what happened when King Haakon and six other European monarchs made their way to England and worked with the British government to aid the Allied cause.

King Haakon’s specific contribution to the war effort was that Norway’s Navy and Air Force and some army units followed him to Britain. Perhaps most important, he made available to the Allies the loyal 1,300-ship merchant marine fleet, the world’s largest and most modern, a prize the Germans dearly wanted.

****The Greek Wall

razor wire fenceWritten by Nicolas Verdan, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson –The European refugee crisis has been front-and-center in the news media for so long it’s become easy to tune it out. In award-winning Swiss author Nicolas Verdan’s literary crime thriller, all the horrifying consequences of what happens when groups of people are ripe for exploitation are on display. And he doesn’t stop there, underscoring how wide its ripples have spread in European society.

It’s 2010, and Agent Evangelos of the Greek National Intelligence Service is sent to investigate a severed head found outside the northern city of Orestiada on the border separating Greece and non-EU Turkey border. Is it the head of a Westerner? That’s what Evangelos’s superiors want to know, and they want the answer to be ‘yes.’ Something else to blame on the refugees.

Finnish members of the European Border and Coast Guard (Frontex) found the head near the bank of the Evros River. This strip of land is not only Greece’s border but that of the EU’s passport-free Schengen Area—in a sense, all of Europe. It’s the main crossing point for refugees into the European Union. Greek politicians want to build a Trump-like border wall there, and they want the EU to pay for it. Greece certainly can’t. (In real life, a 10-mile wall—actually a razor-wire fence—was eventually built.)

Verdan’s novel – his first available in English – is part political thriller, part police procedural, part mystery. A brief prologue offers hints regarding who has lost his head, but the circumstances are murky.

Much of this literary, sensitively written novel adopts the close-up point of view of Agent Evangelos, who takes the constant reversals of policy in stride simply by ignoring them. His focus is on solving the crime, and he moves doggedly forward, even when he’s told not to push his inquiry too hard. Novels based on current events risk becoming outdated, but the essential humanity of Verdan’s characters make this story timeless. An extra star here for humanity.

Walter Mosley’s Advice for Author Readings

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter MosleyWalter Mosley—one of the illuminati of crime fiction—spoke yesterday in Princeton, providing good advice for authors invited to read from their work. He prefaced it by noting that, while he loves writing and cannot imagine doing anything else, it’s also his business. It’s how he earns a living. Participating in a lot of readings over the years, he’s developed this nugget: “the longer you read, the fewer people buy the book.”

He once attended a reading for a book that adopted an esoteric analysis of the life of Tolstoy. “Sounds interesting,” he thought. After the author went on to read from it for an hour, “I was never going to buy that book.”

Then he proceeded to read about seven pages from the beginning of his own new book, published last February, Down the River Unto the Sea, leaving us wanting more, enough to buy the book more. He told us in advance that his black ex-detective, a man named Joe King Oliver, becomes involved in the case of a black political activist sentenced to death for killing of a couple of on-duty policemen, with Oliver hired to help prove a wrongful conviction. It’s evident that though the early pages are full of Mosley’s sly wit, there is lots of pain to come.

Mosley has written 55 or 56 books, even he isn’t sure of the exact number, many of them his popular Los Angeles-based crime novels involving detective Easy Rawlins, and other kinds of books too—literature, science fiction, plays, and advice for writers. But he says, “Everyone wants me to write mysteries.” Those people will be happy with this new work, which Richard Lipez in The Washington Post called “as gorgeous a novel as anything he’s ever written.”

He’s received a wonderfully long list of awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and was brought to Princeton as part of a reading series organized by the Lewis Center on the Arts Creative Writing Program.

Check out more of his wisdom in this recent interview.

A Trio of Notable Crime Novels

photo: Stew Dean, creative commons license

Exciting plots, award-winning authors, worthy protagonists. Three crime thrillers for spring!

****Slow Horses

By Mick Herron – In Britain’s MI5, the slow horses are the agents whose incompetence, outrageous errors, or general unlikeability cause them to slip off the fast track. They’re stabled at the aptly-named Slough House, far from Regent’s Park, the energized center of important decisions and brisk walking. With luck, sheer boredom will move them to seek some different pasture.

The slow horses work under the benign supervision of Jackson Lamb, who may be more wolf than lamb, and you’d be forgiven for anticipating that the luckless occupants of Slough House are not without tradecraft tools and the wit to use them.

When a young man is abducted by people threatening to behead him live on the Internet, the political complexities of the situation quickly escalate. Slough House has reason to be involved, but HQ won’t hear of it. Worse, a violent attack on one of them suggests any means possible will be used to prevent their sticking their noses in. Slow horses or no, the race is on. Against the kidnappers and against their own superiors.

Herron has written a page-turner of a novel, with many laugh-out-loud moments. This first in an award-winning series was thoroughly enjoyable.

***Night Life

By David C. Taylor, narrated by Keith Szarabajka – In 1954 New York City, police detective Michael Cassidy—who could have inspired Sinatra’s “My Way”—becomes embroiled in a mystery that will require all his detecting skills and a great deal of political savvy to unravel. A young gay man is found tortured to death. The killer was apparently looking for something. Cassidy must look for it too.

He’s not sure what he’ll find when he starts turning over rocks in these early Cold War days, with paranoia about Communism and Communists on the rise, with the hearings of Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt in the news, with the CIA and the FBI competing for scraps of information. Cassidy is a straight-up cop, but he’s unaware of his own vulnerabilities. He’s about to discover them, and they will put the people he cares about most at risk.

Screenwriter Taylor creates a powerful noir atmosphere that evokes not only the streets of New York some sixty years ago but also the psychic atmosphere, with its fear-mongering about the Red Menace and its rampant homophobia. In this novel, both of these caused people to kill and be killed. Nice narration from Keith Szarabajka.

This book won the 2016 Nero Wolfe Award for Best American Mystery, and was a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award nominee.

***Shutter Man

By Richard Montanari, narrated by Scott Brick – Another good cop story, this one intergenerational. It’s set in Philadelphia, and the early scenes take place in 1976 in an Irish neighborhood called Devil’s Pocket. Back then, a group of teenage friends from the Pocket were involved somehow in the death of a mentally disabled young man who was a member of the powerful Irish crime family, the Farrens.

Today, one of those young men is police detective Kevin Byrne, another is DA candidate Jimmy Doyle, and the Farrens are still operating outside the law. Byrne and his friend, Assistant DA Jessica Balzano (teamed up in several of Montanari’s books) are working on a set of bizarre killings that seem to be linked, but how? And do they reach all the way back to those Devil’s Pocket days?

Montanari’s characters are interesting and well-rounded and he creates considerable narrative tension. While Scott Brick provided a fine narration, the multitude of characters and the switching between time periods make this a better candidate for enjoying in print.

One of The New York Times‘s 10 Best Crime Novels of 2016.

The Writer’s Essential Tool: Curiosity

Question

photo: Barney Moss, creative commons license

Award-winning fiction author (and fellow U-Mich alumna) Danielle Lazarin’s recent Glimmer Train essay tells how she probes the depths of her characters and their dilemmas by questioning everything, large and small, from the shape of a character’s existential dilemmas to what she wants to be called and by whom. The scribbled questions that litter her writing notebooks, she says, “aren’t signs of confusion or desperation but of sufficient curiosity on my part to propel a story forward.” Curiosity that manifests itself as questions.

In New York City recently, we took two tours. A robotic one that sounded as if it never deviated from the memorized script by so much as a syllable and one from a young guide at the Tenement Museum who was introducing her group to three post World War II families who’d shared a specific two-bedroom apartment.

She asked lots of questions. How did the Jewish couple manage to instill a sense of family tradition in their daughters, being the only ones left from their families? Why did the Puerto Rican mother insist her sons start the pot of beans on the stove when they got home from school? How did the four children of the Chinese family manage to all study (and graduate from high school and college) at the same tiny desk? While our first guide seemed notably uncurious, everything about those families’ lives interested this second guide. She was a perfect illustration of the interrogatory mind-set Lazarin endorses.

When a story idea seems too preposterous, Lazarin expresses it as a question, “easing myself into a space I’m likely afraid of exploring.” The question mark asserts her tentativeness toward the idea that makes it more comfortable. She can “sit with it and remain skeptical.” That idea leads to further questions about the how and the why, as she excavates layers of meaning and the detail that make them real. Two-time Booker Award-winner Hilary Mantel has said that when she’s having trouble capturing a character she imagines interviewing them.

As I write, I compile a list of all the questions I believe the story has raised, large and small. Reviewing this inventory of questions from time to time may suggest where the story needs to go next, how different characters coming at the situation from their different perspectives—and their own knowledge and, indeed, questions—can interact, reinforce, or thwart each other in unexpected ways. When I reach the end, I check to make sure all the questions have been addressed.

While stories generally answer the specific questions they raise, Lazarin says a story also asks a fundamental question of the reader that invites a personal response. Examples she cites are: do people require hope; how do we grieve; why do we continue to disappoint others? The author cannot “answer” that question without coming across as polemical; readers must arrive at their own, individual responses. Careful attention to all the questions integral to the story, Lazarin believes, can “take readers into a space where they can ask the big questions, too.”

Danielle Lazarin’s book of short stories, Back Talk, was released earlier this year to stunning reviews.

****A Hole in One

Golf Clubs

photo: Susanne Nilsson, creative commons license

By Judy Penz Sheluk – In this charming cozy mystery set in a small town north of Toronto, Canada, Arabella Carpenter decides to promote her Glass Dolphin antiques shop by sponsoring a hole in one contest at a local charity golf tournament. The prize: a pricy jet ski. All good fun until she hits her ball into the woods, and amongst the trees finds not her golf ball, but a dead body.

The victim, killed by a gunshot to the chest, is the estranged father of Arabella’s ex-husband, Levon Larroquette. The two men were so estranged that Arabella never met her ex-father-in-law. But she has seen him. He and Levon were arguing in the park just a few days before the tournament. Arabella still has feelings for Levon, and precisely how strong those feelings are is revealed whenever he encourages her to join him in drinking a little too much cognac.

Levon might have flaws as a husband, but Arabella is convinced he’s no killer. Worried that her information has made him appear more guilty, she’s determined to clear Levon’s name by investigating the murder herself, with the help of her business partner Emily, a former investigative reporter.

This is the second in the Glass Dolphin mystery series, in which Arabella and Emily boldly go where, maybe, they shouldn’t, as some of the information they turn up seems to implicate Levon even further. Their inquiries give author Sheluk the opportunity to introduce a sizeable cast of interesting, often amusing characters, with their tidbits of information and propensity for creating confusion: an Elvis impersonator, potential romantic interests for both Arabella and Emily, a vengeful local newspaper editor and reckless blogger, and an antique dealer going out of business who has sad secrets of her own.

Sheluk is an antiques expert herself and currently editor of the New England Antiques Journal. Writing with a light touch, she has a knack for inserting just the right amount of intriguing details about antique items, the antiques market, or running a small business. That information gives the story a nice grounding in reality, even as the plot twists and turns.

A Hole in One is thick with dialog, with the banter between the two women full of good humor. You may not doubt that they will succeed, almost despite themselves, but the fun is in seeing how they go about it as their theories—and the bodies—pile up.