The Ghostlight Project

Ghost Light

photo: David Nestor, creative commons license

Safety considerations bolstered by a healthy love of superstitions led theaters to always leave a light burning on stage at night. A bulb in a simple stand will do. (I see Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly dancing with one of these, but that may be my imagination). This tradition inspired The Ghostlight Project.

Yesterday at 5:30 in each U.S. time zone, outside some 700 theaters across the country, people gathered to create/shine/be a “light” for values the creative community holds dear, particularly “the values of inclusion, participation, and compassion for everyone.” Here in Princeton about a hundred people and one dog met outside McCarter Theatre Center to hear pledges from the organizations that use the building—McCarter, the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Princeton Triangle Club—to uphold those values.

Most important, these efforts are not meant to be a one-off. From these initial seeds, many more activities are expected to grow. If you’ve wondered how you can respond in a positive and ongoing way to negative trends in our country, you may want to track what your local theater community is planning going forward. Artists have always led the way, let us hope they can do so again, despite the increasingly uncertain funding future for the arts.

Cincinnati: Pure Fun!

carew tower view, CincinnatiThough we took in some high culture on our recent visit to Cincinnati (more to come on that), some of the sights we saw were plain fun—a tour of the Cincinnati Reds stadium, a nighttime horsedrawn carriage ride through downtown, zipping up to the Carew Tower’s 49th Floor observation deck, and enjoying the holiday displays at the Cincinnati Zoo and Krohn Conservatory.

Great American Ball Park

The storied Cincinnati Reds play here, on the banks of the Ohio River. A wonderfully informative and entertaining guide walked us through the exclusive clubs, down to the field, and “backstage.” It seemed a long way from home plate out to the “batter’s eye,” a black screen required in all ball parks after Chicago Cubs fans (ahem!) would sit right in the batter’s line of sight wearing their white shirts when the opposing team was at bat, and change to black shirts when the Cubs were batting. “All the better to see the ball with, my dear.” You knew about this, right? Lots of interesting memorabilia. Loved “the toothbrush” light stanchions.

great_american_ball_park, Cincinnati

photo: wikimedia commons

The GABP is the Reds third ball park. The team started 135 years ago, and from 1912 played at a stadium called Crosley Field (that Mr. Crosley was a great story!), then moved to Riverfront Stadium in 1970, at the onset of “the Big Red Machine” era, then to the GABP in 2003. Our guide asked, “Who is the only guy to have played all three—Crosley Field, Riverfront Stadium, and here?” Puzzled looks and wracked brains among the baseball trivia nuts in our group. Answer: Paul McCartney.

Below decks we passed the room where the  umpires get ready and take their breaks, identified with an embossed-letter plaque and—confirming the worst fears of every baseball fan—braille.

Cincinnati Zoo

We visited the Cincinnati Zoo at night to see the magical Festival of Lights (video clip)—voted #1 zoo lights display in the country–so the only animals we saw were homo sapiens. As to the lights, there are 2.5 million of them. What more need be said? I wanted to ride the little train but was outvoted. Seasonal snax (hot chocolate, s’mores-n-more).

Krohn Conservatory

Not to be outdone at the holidays, the Krohn Conservatory has an enchanting indoor display full of toy trains and depictions of the city’s landmark buildings and bridges, created from plant stuff—gourds, seeds, and other natural materials. While its varied greenhouse exhibits would be beautiful at any season, I’m a sucker for model trains, so found lots to enjoy. On display until January 8.

krohn-conservatory, Cincinnati

photo: WVXU, Cincinnati

What to Read if You Get Rained Out

  • The Machine: A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping World Series: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds
  • Crosley: Two Brothers and a Business Empire That Transformed the Nation

But Where Do You STAY in Cincinnati?

cincinnatus

Cincinnatus (photo: Lucas, creative commons license)

Cincinnati takes its name from Roman farmer Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, who exemplified unwavering service, civic virtue, and a willingness to set aside personal power for the good of the nation.

Similarly, George Washington was admired for stepping aside after two terms as President (while some framers of the Constitution wanted the President to have a lifetime appointment). You may recall this event being recognized in the musical Hamilton, in which Washington sings about “how to say goodbye.”

The Society of the Cincinnati, named in honor of Washington’s act, was set up for veterans of the Continental Army and is the nation’s oldest military hereditary society. Cincinnati was the first major American city founded after the Revolution (1788) and is named for the Society.

Cincinnati an overlooked gem. Even my family’s recent week there didn’t do it full justice. But where do you stay?

Netherland Plaza

Dear reader, no question about it. You stay at the French Art Deco palace, the Netherland Plaza, now a Hilton. The name came about because this landmark hotel is built on the flat land, the Netherland, of the Ohio River’s flood plain below the steep hills for which the city is famous. Its name also came about because the owners originally planned to name it the St. Nicholas Plaza, but ran into legal obstacles after they’d received all the monogrammed linens, china, silverware, and stationery. They needed a “SNP” name—fast. Thus for a while it was the Starrett’s (the builder’s) Netherland Plaza.

netherland-plaza, Art Deco

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The interior, dining rooms, ballrooms, and every tiny detail are a feast for the eyes. It’s hard to believe such an investment was still doable when construction began in January 1930, a few short months after the big stock market crash.

It was all painted over in the 1960s, of course, in a bid for modernity, but restored lovingly in the early 1980s. Alas, the ice rink in the middle of the restaurant Pavilion Caprice is no more, nor the garage’s automatic (driverless) parking equipment. I’ve seen pictures and cannot imagine how it worked, but it did.

Orchids in the Palm Court is one of only 63 AAA five-diamond restaurants in the United States, and the only one in Ohio. The stunning decorations—murals! marble and rosewood! silver nickel sconces!—would be worth savoring even if the food were less spectacular.

Maybe you won’t luck out like my cousin did and be given the Churchill Suite for a week—yes, Winnie stayed there—but all rooms on the high floors have wonderful views of downtown and the River.

Cincinnatian

Another highly rated hotel is The Cincinnatian, but we spoiled ones found the décor only so-so and the Christmas decorations downright tatty. Still well worth a visit for the delicious high tea, served the third Sunday of every month.

21C Museum Hotel

Now for something completely different. The 21C Museum Hotel is part of a small chain of boutique hotels that feature—and celebrate—contemporary art. We took a tour with a super-knowledgeable guide, and it was thrilling to see so much thoughtful, creative work—painting, sculpture, photography, tapestry, interactive, unclassifiable.

One mesmerizing piece was a clock that uses Big Data to tell the viewer how many x have happened since noon that very day until the current hour and minute. In the ever-changing graphic display, “x” might be “new cases of syphilis” (29 that day),  “dollars spent at US Walmarts” (you don’t want to know), “cases of Svedka vodka sold” (thousands), ad infinitum. Upstairs, a photo exhibit.

Literally hundreds of framed artworks are in the hotel’s Metropole restaurant. Tasty and unusual. Condé Nast travelers named this the “#1 Hotel in the Midwest” in 2014. Loved it lots! Also the yellow penguins’ surprising appearances.

21c-museum-hotel, penguins

photo: Ohio Redevelopment Projects, creative commons license

What to Read in Your Hotel Room

Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality, co-authored by Jim Obergefell, a Cincinnatian whose same-sex marriage to his dying partner was one of the four lawsuits prompting a 5-4 Supreme Court decision favoring gay marriage. Co-authored by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Debbie Cenziper. (Click carefully; other books have the same title.)

Uncouple the Olympic Rings

Olympic games

photo from Beijing Olympics opening ceremony: U.S. Army, creative commons license

The five interlocking Olympic rings symbolize the assembly of the best athletes from around the world in the quadrennial games. This enduring myth of internationalism hides an ugly truth: hardly any country can host the games any more. It’s too damn expensive. It costs between $10 and $20 billion to put on the games, and they generate maybe a quarter of that. The only recent games that broke even were Los Angeles and Barcelona, mostly because they used existing facilities, instead of breaking the bank building new ones.

Even cities that can afford to host the games may not want them. Boston withdrew its 2024 bid in part because the citizens didn’t want the massive disruption and high costs that success would bring. While the costs don’t begin with the arrival of the Olympic torch, nor do they end with its departure. In Beijing, the beautiful bird’s nest stadium costs $11 million a year in maintenance, and the Water Cube requires $1.5 million in subsidies over and above what it brings in as a water park.

Writing in Wired, Megan Greenwell, a former editor of ESPN The Magazine, has a radical suggestion: Pull those rings apart and have a number of “host cities” around the world, not just one. “Send beach volleyball to Rio permanently, where there are actual beaches. Hold the fencing competition in Italy, where many of its gold medalists are born. Move swimming to Australia, where it’s a nationwide obsession. Host soccer in South Africa, where the 2010 World Cup was a moment of national pride. Let each country bear the cost of one set of events at a time instead of dozens.”

Yes, we’d lose the entertaining (and expensive) opening and closing ceremonies, where the athletes of all the countries parade in. Instead, each country could have a small ceremony for the world’s best gymnasts, the world’s best cyclists. I may not be the only person who thinks the rabid jingoism of some of the fans is the Olympics’ worst feature. This approach might put the focus back on sport and on all the athletes’ tremendous sacrifices and achievements rather than on national glory.

The technology to do this is already here with online streaming. Time differences are erased. Viewing events on demand is the future. Someday, my family will actually be able to find equestrian.

Sharing the hosting glory would make an Olympic experience available to attendees from countries who would never be able have it otherwise. Kenyans who could see their runners.  Says Greenwell, “Giving them the chance to witness the Olympics firsthand would finally make the games a truly global event.”

****Blood of the Tiger

photo: Damian Moore, creative commons license

photo: Damian Moore, creative commons license

By J.A. Mills – Tigers are many people’s joy and woe. Beautiful, intelligent apex predators, their numbers in the wild have diminished to a few thousand, and the forces threatening them seem irredeemably entrenched. This book lays out in stunning, infuriating detail the shortcomings and compromises in international policies toward tigers by both governmental and non-governmental organizations, even presumed good guys like the World Wildlife Fund.

Mills’s arguments are well supported by many other organizations and investigations. The nub of the problem is this:

  • Wildlife protection efforts focus on illegal trade, ignoring the legal Asian “tiger farms”
  • “Tiger farms” provide a totally inappropriate environment (group cages) for solitary animals like tigers, and animals raised in them cannot survive, if released into the wild
  • Proponents say tiger farms reduce pressure for poaching wild tigers, which is completely false
  • The availability of tiger products from farmed animals builds demand for these products, increasing the incentive for poaching
  • It is vastly cheaper to poach a tiger (about $10) than to raise it on a farm ($10 per day in food alone)
  • Consumers view products from farmed tigers as inferior to those from wild-killed ones.

Here is what becomes of farmed tigers in China. They are hunted in fake “big game” shoots, their pelts are made into rugs and clothing, their meat is eaten (yes), their carcasses are deboned and the bones steeped in vats of wine, then sold as “tiger wine.”

All this happens behind the smoke screen of “domestic” versus “international” trade, of China’s 1993 ban on tiger bone products, and fake compliance with international wildlife protection regimes.

While Mills’s book gets these points across effectively, it is not very inspiring reading, as it details one failed attempt after another by international organizations and high-level conferences to “save the tiger” in the face of false cooperation by, primarily, Chinese government officials to do whatever they please.

Luxury tiger goods are big business in Asia. What’s true for tiger-derived products is also true for bear paws, bear bile, rhino horn, and elephant ivory. Indiscriminate killing of the latter two species puts them on the path to extinction as well. Some Chinese investors openly say they are stockpiling these animal parts for the time when the animals are extinct and the “value” of their collections will skyrocket.

We in the United States are part of the problem. Inconsistent policies across states allow private individuals to keep wild animals, and there are more tigers in U.S. back yards than in the wild.  Often the conditions they are maintained in are filthy, too small, and in every respect wholly inadequate. You may recall the notorious and tragic episodes that have resulted in Jackson Township, N.J., and Zanesville, Ohio.

I am a regular supporter of Panthera, an organization dedicated to saving the big cats in the wild. Unfortunately, even their promotional material skirts a fundamental problem, by emphasizing the fight against “illegal trade,” when China’s tiger farms are perfectly legal. Mills supports her text with ample footnotes and a short section on “what you can do,”  including strengthening state laws about private tiger ownership in the United States. Her website provides more ideas.

Wikimedia Privacy & You

Privacy

photo: SparkCBC, creative commons license

What is privacy in an era of NSA mega-sweeps, email hacking, and rampant security breaches? Sure, companies all have privacy policies, full of boilerplate, but what do they mean in practice?  The recent Wikimedia Foundation transparency report shines a light on one tiny piece of our potentially massive digital persona. If you use Wikimedia often, as I do, you may realize that it keeps some non-public user-identifiable information. Law enforcement and security agencies may be interested in those data.

Sometimes I joke about this, because, as a writer of crime thrillers, my history of searches would be highly suspicious. It has happened to writers, and  here’s a case where a Long Island family’s Google searches got them into trouble. UK’s Daily Mail has published a looooong list of search keywords and phrases of supposed interest to the Department of Homeland Security. Examples of suspect words: exercise (which I use mainly in the context of “I should get more”), prevention, organized crime (oops! a biggie for me), sick, smart. With such a “broad, vague, and ambiguous list,” as the Electronic Privacy Information Center termed it, adding Wikimedia searches to the data would generate a bazillion hits.

Wikimedia’s Privacy Practices

Wikimedia’s transparency report for the six-month period July to December 2015 is therefore a welcome peek behind the privacy curtain. It receives requests for user data from government, individuals, and corporations, but doesn’t collect much non-public data or retain it for long, so often does not even have what people want. Case closed. But when it does, it will notify you before disclosing any information and may even assist you in fighting “invalid requests.”

Between July and December 2015, Wikimedia received 25 user data requests, 14 of which were from non-government entities. It produced the requested information for only one of them—in response to a court order from France, affecting one user account. This is of course a vanishingly small number of requests compared to what Facebook or Google receive.

Wikimedia also sometimes discloses information to the authorities on its own initiative. That happened a dozen times in the same six-month time period. For example, it alerted authorities to a bomb threat originating from an IP address physically near the target site (an arrest and confession followed);  reported a detailed threat against President Obama; and disclosed a credible suicide threat, with another positive outcome.

The Internet Never (?) Forgets

Also in that period, Wikimedia received 220 legal requests to alter content or remove information, granting none of them. It encourages complainers to work with the community to rectify what they perceive as errors or inaccuracies.

You may know about “Right To Be Forgotten” (RTBF) efforts, authorized under a 2014 European court decision involving Google Spain. Wikimedia opposes this movement, and tends not to grant RTBF requests, though people may do a workaround, by having Wikipedia links removed from search engines. (Here’s an example.)

Dig Deeper

Although Wikimedia’s efforts are a tiny finger in the dike, its commitment to privacy and to letting users know it, is laudable. Read more on this topic:

privacy

graphic: Bernard Goldbach, creative commons license

Igniting the American Revolution

Washington_Crossing_the_Delaware_by_Emanuel_Leutze

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze

The David Library of the American Revolution is a history gem, just up the road from Washington Crossing (yes, THAT Washington Crossing) Historic Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. As a preamble to July 4, last Saturday historian Derek W. Beck gave a lively talk about “the war before the war”—the goings-on in Massachusetts before the Declaration of Independence, before the formation of the Continental Army, and in the earliest days of George Washington’s command.

Paul Revere

photo: Kathy, creative commons license

Beck tries to present both sides of the conflict and in his efforts exposes certain myths that arise when historians wear partisan blinders. Would Paul Revere have ridden through the countryside hollering, “The British are coming, the British are coming!”? Not likely, Beck says. If he did, he’d be greeted by puzzled looks and scratching heads, because practically everyone considered themselves to be British. They didn’t necessarily want independence from England (yet); they just wanted to be treated like any other British citizen. But in our mythologized history, with the clarity of hindsight, we know who the enemy was, and we name him.

Another example is “the shot heard round the world”—the first gunshot of the Revolution, traditionally fired at Lexington, Massachusetts. Who fired it? In the verse by Ralph Waldo Emerson,

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

It was to the Americans’ advantage to be the aggrieved parties, the victims, so preferred the view that the British fired first. However, Beck says, forensic evidence suggests that the very first shot wasn’t fired by either an American militia member or a British soldier, but a bystander outside a pub. (Figures.)

Beck considers it a plus that his two books (Igniting the American Revolution and The War Before Independence) are said to “read like action novels,” and he consigns the documentation that ordinarily fills history books to a thorough set of notes at the end. Such details are of vital interest to historians but make books much less interesting to those of us who merely want to gain a better understanding of our country’s past and establish a stronger connection to it.

Noble train, Henry Knox, Ft. Ticonderoga

The Noble Train of Artillery

Another myth he debunked was the one in which poor General Henry Knox struggled through heavy snows with the cannon from Fort Ticonderoga (“the noble train of artillery”). Histories (and many artworks) commemorating this episode depict them being pulled by oxen. Indeed, that was Knox’s plan. However, the farmer who owned the oxen so inflated their price, that at the last minute, he used horses instead, and he wrote about the change in his diary at the time.

Beck’s insights were informative, entertaining, and memorable, just as history ought to be!

A Zoo at Night!

owl, zooWhile it may be hard to tear the kids away from the amusement park rides and midway attractions at Hershey Park, near Harrisburg, Penna., don’t overlook ZooAmerica’s adjacent North American Wildlife Park. Originally the zoo had larger acreage and a comprehensive collection of world animals, but styles of zookeeping have changed a lot since Milton Hershey first thought of a zoo to house animals presented to him as gifts.

With the amusement park expanding and the animals needing more space, more tailored care, and more programs suited to keep them both physically and mentally healthy, a more focused program made sense. The downsizing of the zoo has let the staff concentrate on much more completely on comprehensive animal welfare. And North America has a lot!

You can visit the zoo during the day directly from within Hersey Park or do just the zoo (separate entrance). You can also participate in by-reservation-only early morning or evening behind-the scenes tours. There are also special tours for photographers. Because we were traveling with three children, the likelihood of mobilizing everyone early enough for the morning program seemed unlikely—and kind of anti-vacation—so we chose the after-dark tour. Good choice!

The After-Hours Tour

Two zookeepers accompanied our group of six and one other couple and showed us much the regular visitor does not see. The wolves were howling as we followed the zoo’s paths guided only by flashlights. The zookeepers knew, of course, which species and individuals were likely to be active at night. They showed us where the animals’ food is prepared, explained what goes into each different diet, and we saw where they are cared for if they are sick—if they need surgery, they go to the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center (just like you or me), to be operated on by a team of veterinarians (not).

Hershey bearWe fed river otters, a sloe-eyed alligator, and a huge tortoise. In the education center, we “petted” a baby alligator and held a young owl. That was quite a thrill! The highlight was the opportunity to hand-feed bears (grapes on a skewer held through the bars), which the bears delicately removed. These real-life Hershey bears—outdoors in daytime—come into their cages to sleep at night, so kids and bears had bars between them, plus, of course, seven hovering adults to make sure little fingers stayed well away. These were black bears so he isn’t terribly visible in the photo.

The zoo staff was terrific about explaining animal behavior. They obviously delighted in the children’s—and adults’—fascination with their work. These days, would-be zookeepers generally follow one of two main educational pathways: zoology, as you would expect, and psychology. Modern zookeeping emphasizes creating interesting environments and novel challenges for captive animals.

An unforgettable experience!

Your Travel Circles

I provide this information to help you make the most of your trips to “destination cities” by also seeing attractions in a reasonable driving distance. I’ve had too many business trips when I never got out of the meeting hotel!

  • If you’re visiting Harrisburg, Hershey is less than a half-hour (14.5 miles) away.

If you’re visiting Philadelphia, Hershey is less than two hours (95 miles) away.

****The Cartel

Mexico, drug cartels

(graphic by Christopher Dombres, creative commons license)

By Don Winslow, read by Ray Porter – Is there anyone who still thinks a little illegal drug use is a victimless crime? Who thinks the American “war on drugs” is actually accomplishing anything other than creating vast, lucrative criminal enterprises? Don Winslow’s much-publicized new thriller about the Mexican drug cartels will cure any such addictions to fantasy.

It’s clear that Winslow wanted to write an important book, possibly even a consequential one, and main character U.S. DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) agent Art Keller occasionally climbs on his soap box to tell us how bad things are. Those speeches are hardly necessary after the author’s detailing of the mayhem resulting from the turf wars between the Mexican drug cartels of 2004 to 2012 and the repeated U.S. missteps in fighting them. American initiatives have been undermanned, outgunned, and overconfident. Time and again, they have underestimated the strength and determination of their foes and the extent of their penetration in the highest levels of the military, the police, and the government.

At the opening of Winslow’s novel, Keller has retired from the DEA and lives incognito as a bee-keeper at a southern California monastery. Still he’s intrigued when his old boss tells him Adan Barrera—Keller’s arch-enemy imprisoned near San Diego—has started to talk. Barrera is the mastermind of the Sinaloa drug cartel, and one of his conditions for providing information is that he be transferred to a prison in Mexico. The Americans agree.

In the Mexican prison, Barrera lives like a king and before long escapes, pulling Keller into a frustrating and labyrinthine pursuit. (If you’ve read about the IRL escape last July of Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin Guzman Lorea from Mexico’s only super-max prison, via a tunnel lit by fluorescent lights, provided with fresh air, and containing metal tracks for a small rail-car pulled by a motorcycle—a down-market version of the supertunnels the cartels use to smuggle drugs into the United States—this fictional escape is perfectly believable.)

When Barrera puts up a $2 million reward for Keller’s murder, the ex-DEA man is forced back into the arms of his former employer, and the hunt for Barrera, begun in his previous book, The Power of the Dog, renews. But there are distractions as the war intensifies among the cartels, each trying to control territory and the transit of drugs—cocaine, methamphetamines, marijuana, heroin. It’s at this point that the “innocence” of smoking a little pot or doing a few lines of coke breaks down. Because the market for drugs currently illegal in the United States and Europe makes the profits so high, people can and do torture, burn, dismember, behead, rape, and murder their competitors and many innocent civilians to maintain those profits. Every day, day after day.

With Winslow’s book, you have 640 pages of torture, burning, dismemberment. You have the cooperating police and complicit Mexican army, the corrupt politicians, the pre-teen killers, the squads of sicarios (assassins), the brazen narcotraficantes, the intimidated officials, the killers who leave a Jack of Spades on each corpse. And, in all this, you must consider U.S. complicity both directly and indirectly—by our behavior and by deploying a drug policy that produces so much collateral damage.

Mexico, drug cartels

“Silence Makes Me Furious” (photo: Knight Foundation, creative commons license)

In addition to Art Keller, portions of the story are told from the point of view of an admittedly not-very-courageous Ciudad Juarez newspaperman, Pablo, working with his feisty colleague Ana. They love and want to save their city, but it slips beyond journalism’s ability to prod action, as fear and graft overwhelm every sector, and reporters are threatened, bribed, and coerced into not reporting. (Winslow lists the names of 53 journalists murdered or “disappeared” during the period covered by his book and says, “There are more.”) And some is told from the point of view of a young boy who drifts into increasingly brutal killings, though no person whose pieces he leaves behind is more dead than he is.

If this sounds depressing and difficult, it is. And as Americans have become bored with the failures and setbacks and hypocrisies of the war on drugs, ever more so. For the people living in Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras, this war never goes away and they live every day with the deadly consequences of our personal habits and public policies. How can we, in good conscience, look the other way?

Nevertheless, Winslow pulls together his many characters from the competing cartels, the silenced journalists, the ordinary citizens, and the military leaders to create a compelling story. La Familia Michoacana, The Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas, the Sinaloans, the Juarez cartel, the South Pacific cartel. The gangs are all here, as is the Zetas’ IRL expansion into kidnapping and its efforts to horn in on the oil and natural gas supply. Yes, this is fiction, but of a “ripped from the headlines” variety with a powerful cumulative effect.

Mexico, drug cartels

“Your Fight is My Fight” (photo: Eneas De Troya)

Keller is endlessly frustrated at how everything the United States has done to combat drugs in Mexico—including such failed ideas as “Operation Fast and Furious”—has made the situation more unstable, more violent. (You will recall that in that sorry episode, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives allowed straw purchases of guns they knew were headed to Mexico, in the hope that tracking them would lead to the higher echelons of the cartels. Instead the ATF lost track of some 2,000 guns, subsequently found at crime scenes in which hundreds of Mexican civilians have been injured or killed.)

If thriller writers typically try to ramp up the sadistic violence perpetrated by their villains, in order to persuade readers how evil they are, in The Cartel, Winslow didn’t need to go beyond what he could find in the daily newspaper. In a Crime Fiction Lover interview, he cited the “astonishing escalation” of drug-related atrocities between the time he wrote The Power of the Dog and more recent years. It’s of a piece with the chilling non-fiction reportage of the late Charles Bowden, in his amazing Down by the River.

This is a long book and a long audiobook—23 and a half hours–and has a huge cast of characters. Still, the excellent narration captured the American, Mexican, and Guatemalan voices so well that I had no trouble following the story. It’s hard to say that I “enjoyed” this book, because it was heartbreaking on so many levels; however, Winslow has done a great service by exposing the deep and bloody wound below the U.S. border in a way that is compelling and unforgettable, and I’m glad I read it.

Booklovers’ Sand Sculptures

Alice in Wonderland, Cheshire Cat, sand sculpture

Alice (photo: Andy Field, creative commons license)

As the last weekend of summer approaches, a fitting tribute to two combined passions—going to the beach and reading—has been assembled by Kelly Jensen in this photo-essay for BookRiot, showing how sand sculptors around the world have interpreted the scenes of literature—from Gulliver to Alice—in that doomed-to-destruction medium, sand.

One wonders what the writers who created the books that inspired these creations might think of them. As they labored over a page, did they worry that their words would be as ephemeral as these amazing creations? Or that the tide of public opinion would soon wash them away?

Enjoy summer’s last fling!