Other People’s Problems

Reading

Memoir is not my favorite genre, but lately I’ve read a couple of interesting ones—about a misbegotten woman and an idolized father—and two nonfiction stories about the trials of war, one with a happy ending, one not.

****Celibacy: A Love Story
By Mimi Bull – The book’s subtitle as the punchline, “Memoir of a Catholic Priest’s Daughter.” As a child in a world of secrets, she was adopted by an older woman and her twenty-something daughter. It doesn’t surprise that her “sister” turns out to be her mother. Only after the mother dies does Mimi learn who her father was. Despite the lack of suspense, the book is fascinating. The adult Mimi and her husband lived in Istanbul, in Sedona, in Vienna. A unique story, charmingly told.

**The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
By Lucette Lagnado – I heard about this book while I was in Egypt, a country that once had a significant Jewish population, until Egyptian President Nasser forced them to leave. To the child Lucette, Cairo and her family’s apartment were paradise, and her father was king. When they are exiled, a Jewish aid agency finds them a disreputable lodging in Paris and an unsatisfactory apartment in New York. Lucette’s father’s business is murky; in New York, he sells fake Italian neckties. The family hates its new life. Lucette blindly adored her father, but I cannot tell you why.

****Escape from Paris
By Stephen Harding – This is the true story of a group of American airmen shot down over France and the complicated escape routes the French set up for them. Danger is on all sides. One of the safe houses is right under the nose of the Nazis, in the apartment of the caretaker of the Hôtel des Invalides, site of Napoleon’s tomb. Very exciting!

***The 21
By Martin Mosebach – As the cover proclaims, this is “a journey into the land of Coptic martyrs.” On February 15, 2015, twenty-one young Egyptian men, ISIS captives, were marched onto a beach in Libya and beheaded. The video recording of that event went around the world. What was most striking was the dignity and faith they maintained until the end. The author sets out trying to learn about them, their home villages, and the faith that supported them. A bit philosophical for me, but I read it to pay my respects.

Busy Day

For the two new members of our family. “First we tore apart this feather thing, then we went to the vet.” Hard to get a clear picture. I tell them to stand still, but . . .

How the West Was Lost: Travel Tips

A recent trip to Scottsdale prompted a return visit to Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, at 2d Street and Marshall Way—a fine place to spend a couple of hours. There’s a permanent exhibit of Western “stuff,” ranging from saddles to signage to six-shooters, plus special exhibitions.

On view until August 2020 are more than 300 works from the man called “the West’s greatest artist,” Maynard Dixon. Born in 1875, he lived during the time the frontier American West began to disappear.

When he was a child, the wars between Indians and European settlers still raged, Texas cowboys herded cattle north long distances to railheads, and “civilization” was as flimsy as the frontier town stage sets in Blazing Saddles. Dixon not only painted hundreds of notable landscapes and portraits, he was a prolific illustrator, producing cover art for magazines and illustrating popular novels.

Artists gave Easterners their first glimpses of the beautiful and dramatic West, but they were less appreciated on their home ground. Said Dixon,
“In those days in Arizona being an artist was something you just had to endure—or be smart enough to explain why. . . . If you were not working for the railroad, considering real estate or scouting for a mining company, what the hell were you? The drawings I made were no excuse and I was regarded as a wandering lunatic.”

Also at the museum, we had the chance to see a one-man show, “Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier,” in which one of Earp’s descendants gave the true “not-what-you-learned-from-Hollywood” story. It was a lot of fun (tickets best ordered beforehand, though I don’t believe the website makes that clear). While this program may not regularly repeat, the museum offers frequent special events, noted on its website.

By coincidence, on this trip I was reading David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which puts a tragic twist on the story of the “conquest” of the West. In the 1870s, the Osage tribe had been driven into an unpropitious area—“broken, rocky, sterile, and utterly unfit for cultivation,” according to a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent. The Osage bought the land, located in what became northeast Oklahoma, thinking it so undesirable they would not be evicted again. Maynard Dixon’s works even evoke this suffering.

But the new reservation held a surprise. Oil. For a time in the 1920s, tribe members accumulated dollars in the millions, becoming the wealthiest people per capita in the world. Then the murders began.

It’s a riveting yet almost forgotten real-life tale of greed, corruption, and betrayal that reads like a novel. There’s even a bit part for J. Edgar Hoover, who intuited that solving this case would catapult his little agency—and himself—to national prominence.

Alas, we cannot look back at those days and think the exploitation of our beautiful West ended there. We are still losing it.

Or maybe this post should be titled “Small Museums: Part 2.” (Part 1 here.)

*****The Spy and the Traitor

By Ben Macintyre – A pal of John Le Carré, Ben Macintyre brings the novelist’s gift for writing compelling characters and page-turning narrative to the nonfiction realm. The Spy and the Traitor, subtitled “The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War,” is based on the defection to Britain of KGB operative Oleg Gordievsky, and it provides at least as many thrills as the best espionage novel.

Gordievsky, raised in a family where working for the KGB is the family business, becomes disenchanted with Soviet hypocrisy. Posted to Denmark, he has a tantalizing taste of what life is like when lived outside a surveillance society. A British MI6 agent, working in Copenhagen under classic diplomatic cover, notices him and several modest bits of outreach are made by the two of them, but nothing comes of it. Gordievsky, however, sees his future and when he returns to Moscow, works at becoming accepted into the KGB’s English-language training program. Finally, he succeeds. After a few years, he’s posted to London.

Then the connection is made, and over at least a dozen years, he secretly works for MI6.

The intelligence he provides and particularly his insights into the Soviet mindset are pivotal in the late Cold War era, and he provides significant background for Margaret Thatcher’s meetings with Soviet leaders. His advice helps her craft proposals they can accept. It’s vital and thrilling diplomacy, all accomplished well out of public view.

I especially enjoyed the intriguing nuggets of tradecraft Macintyre drops as he follows Gordievsky’s twisting path. That level of detail is just one feature inspiring confidence in the narration and investment in the protagonist’s fate.

Throughout his years spying for Britain, Gordievsky is, of course, acutely aware that Soviet paranoia is ever on the lookout for leaks and traitors. MI6 is so protective of him, they do not even reveal his identity to the Americans. Good thing, too, because the head of counterintelligence in the CIA at the time—Aldrich Ames—is himself a double agent. Ames ultimately betrays more than two dozen Western spies inside Soviet intelligence, effectively signing their death warrants. His motive? Money.

Every so often, Gordievsky and his family are required to return to the Soviet Union for a term of months or years. This is the normal rotation to prevent personnel from becoming too attached to their place of posting. In case he comes under suspicion while inside the Iron Curtain, MI6 prepares an elaborate escape plan. No one is truly confident this plan can work, least of all Gordievsky. A breakdown at any point will be disastrous. But once Ames fingers him, they must give it a try, and that whole episode is a real nail-biter.

Macintyre’s book won the 2019 Gold Dagger for nonfiction, an award sponsored by the UK Crime Writers’ Association. John Le Carré calls The Spy and the Traitor, “The best true spy story I have ever read.”

Photo: tiburi for Pixabay.

A Dose of Reality

gun, firearm, weapon

Although the average American may not encounter diabolical teen serial killers, sociopathic torturers, or gun-toting assassins with preternatural aim and massive martial arts skills of the types found so frequently in novels, there are plenty of real-life tragedies to baffle our humanity and cry out for explication. Readers and writers of crime fiction don’t have to look further than national crime statistics to understand the interest crime stories hold.

A friend passed on the following information from the October 2019 “violence and health” issue of Health Affairs, the nation’s top health policy journal. Here are some data points, drawn from the 20 or so peer-reviewed articles—the real-life backdrop against which crime stories are written and read.

In 2017, the United States experienced about 19,500 homicides and 47,000 suicides from all causes.

US violent death rates, which had fallen dramatically since the 1970s and held steady for fifteen years are rising again, driven by increasing rates of homicide and suicide by firearms. Rates of firearm deaths increased between 1999 and 2017 in most states; in 29 states, the rate increased more than 20%.

The firearm homicide rate in the United States is 25 times higher than that of other industrialized countries, while the firearm suicide rate is eight times higher.

Many mass shootings involve domestic or family violence, as when the shooter opens fire on a group that includes a target individual.

More than one in five US children are physically abused, and about one in six are sexually abused.

About three in ten emergency physicians are assaulted every year.

About three percent of homicides are police killings.

Research on violence is underfunded. The federal government spends about $25 million per death on HIV research, about $200,000 per death on cancer research, and $600 per death on violence research.

In four surveys conducted between 2013 and 2019, in which gun owners were over-represented, the National Survey of Gun Policy found greater than 75% of respondents supported such policy measures as universal background checks, temporary gun removals based on family concerns, mandatory licensing for concealed carry including a safety test, and a mandatory safety course for first-time gun owners.

Journal editor Alan Weil says, “Even as media attention tends to focus on incidents of mass violence, it is the daily burden of violence in its many forms that takes the greatest toll.”

You can order a copy of this themed issue here.

Photo: r. nial bradshaw, creative commons license

The Music of the Night

Sleeping with the windows open to catch the late-summer breezes is one of life’s pure pleasures. But here lately, we’ve been catching more than cool air—the night noises.

A screech owl has made itself heard several times, and I was able to identify its strange cry from audio clips posted on the excellent website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Apparently they make several sounds, but the one in the trees outside our house went for the whinny. When I heard that in the middle of the night, I wasn’t sure whether it was a bird or some other kind of critter. Very distinctive. We’ve not seen the screech owl. The Cornell Lab photos show the superb camouflage of these robin-sized owls.

For a story I’m writing I wanted to say something about the nighttime insects that keep up that steady late-summer buzz. Like a lot of people, I lumped those nocturnal music-makers in with the cicadas. No. Back in 2015, NPR did a nice piece on “telling crickets, cicadas, and katydids apart.” Cicadas are active in the daytime, I learned. Those night insects are tree crickets and katydids.

I was doubtful, thinking of the dark brown and black crickets that make individual chirps and like to hide in some obscure place and drive you nuts with their ventriloquism. Tree crickets are pale green and look like skinny grasshoppers. I’ve seen them, but I never realized they were serenading me nightly. When there are a lot of them, you get that constant sound. NPR has the sound clips to prove it! Or, listen to this!

And when to expect the steamroller of cicada noise? A few states will have broods of 13- or 17-year locusts next year, but for the eastern third of the country, 2021 will be amazing, when Brood X (ten) emerges. When and where.

Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren Resized and cropped for this use, under this creative commons license.

David Crosby: Remember My Name

This A J Eaton documentary (trailer), released so close in time to Echo in the Canyon, covers some of the same ground and personalities, but in a totally different way. Echo is about the musician-heavy Laurel Canyon area in a brief period of the mid-sixties. This film, by contrast, examines one man’s career and his musical and cultural influence over a lifetime, and it shares a fair amount of that music with you.

As to cultural influences, in a poignant coincidence, the film tells how Dennis Hopper modeled the character of Billy in the film Easy Rider on Crosby. It was bittersweet seeing clips from the film so soon after its star Peter Fonda died (a young Jack Nicholson too).

In the documentary, David Crosby says he’s 76 years old, has eight stents in his heart, diabetes, a liver transplant—in short, a load of health problems. “How is it you’re still alive?” he’s asked, when so many others are not. There’s no answer to that, and he doesn’t attempt one.

Yet he’s still making music, still releasing albums as recently as last year. He’s touring. His life is music. It’s too bad he shot himself in the foot so many times with his band mates in the Byrds, and Crosby Stills Nash, with and without Young. His behavior was terrible, but it was in Echo that he said point-blank that Stills, Nash, and Young dumped him “because I was an a——.” Subsequently, acrimony has repeatedly thwarted the group’s attempts to reassemble.

He doesn’t spare himself or make excuses. What emerges from the many hours of interviews with Cameron Crowe, who’s known the musician for 45 years, is compelling viewing. Jon Bream in the Minneapolis Star Tribune says, “Rarely have we seen such an unvarnished, unflattering and revealingly real portrait of a music star.”

Echo was dinged for not including Joni Mitchell (she came later, the filmmakers said), but you see plenty of her here. Crosby saw her perform in Florida and brought her to Los Angeles, but as with most of his relationships with women, theirs was fraught. He blames himself. In 1969, his girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed in an auto accident, and Graham Nash (if I remember correctly) said that after Crosby identified her body, he was never the same. Since 1987, he’s been married to Jan Dance.

Asked whether he has regrets, he admitted to big ones, mainly the wasted decade as a junkie, which led to lost music and lost potential. Time, he says, is the ultimate currency. “Be careful how you spend it.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 92%.

A Puzzle Puzzle

Don’t ask me why these pictures are upside down. They are correct on my WordPress editing screen! ?

This jigsaw puzzle has been calling me since I received it as a gift last year. It depicts Thomas Moran’s famous painting, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which our family had just seen. Moran’s Yellowstone paintings were so admired, they helped lead to the declaration and preservation of Yellowstone as the first national park in the United States and, probably, the world.

And, here is the completed puzzle. Perhaps you’re struck with how different it is from the painting, how much redder and, in person, how much darker. All those murky reddish blacks on the right, those murky greenish blacks on the left (hidden by the light reflection), those murky blacks, and acres of taupe. Granted it’s weird, but I don’t consult the box when assembling a puzzle, just to make it that little bit harder; in this case, the picture on the box wouldn’t have been much help. But maybe it holds a clue to why the difference between the picture and the pieces. Oh, yes. Here it is: “Printed in China.”

Perhaps it wasn’t merely printed in China. Perhaps it was also cut with a jigsaw in China, its 1000 pieces disassembled, and 1001 of them sealed in their plastic bag. That would go a ways to solving another puzzle. See that extra blue piece? It’s a dupe. If you’re working on this puzzle and missing a bit of sky, I have it.

At the same time, you may have noticed the finished puzzle is missing three pieces. I have three pieces left over. But they don’t fit those spots. Maybe they’re dupes too. In the hundred or so puzzles I’ve assembled in my lifetime, I have never seen this before.

Where was quality control? Did the manufacturer think bagging up any old 1000 (or 1001, in this case) pieces would be good enough? After all, wasn’t that a 99.6% accuracy rate?

I realize that a jigsaw puzzle is not a fate-of-the-world consumer item, but you have to wonder about a mindset that allows the sloppy handling of something so simple, yet precise, and what happens when something critical, yet precise, isn’t quite right. Like a component for your driverless car or nuclear power plant or corporate computer system. I think we know the answer to that.

In the movie Puzzle, the character Agnes says the rewarding thing about doing a jigsaw puzzle is, when you get to the end, you know you’ve made “all the right choices.” The folks involved in the supply chain for this product did just the opposite.

Revolution in the News

The American Revolution. The first one. Last week Joseph Adelman gave a talk at the wonderful (and, alas, soon to be moving out of our area) David Library of the American Revolution about his new book, Revolutionary Networks.

While much has been written about the importance of colonial-era newspapers and broadsides in spreading the word about the ideas and events of the American Revolution, no one before has paid as much attention to the printers actually responsible for producing them. Only a few were as well known or wealthy as Benjamin Franklin. Yet, though they were engaged in hard physical labor and not necessarily well educated, they straddled a unique place in society—one foot in the working class and the other in contact with the elite of their communities.

Much of what appeared in the newspapers of the day was recycled from other larger papers (a slow-motion form of “broadcasting”), some came from oral reports of townspeople, visitors, or sea captains, and some from written reports to the newspaper or obtained by it. Only the largest newspapers would employ journalists to go out and find stories. Oddly, in most towns, local news got short shrift. The number of local movers and shakers was so small, the local news was not news to them. The job of the printer was to decide which material from these sources to reprint and how much of it, and in that curatorial role, they played a significant part in spreading the arguments for independence and popularizing those ideas.

The Stamp Act, a significant British miscalculation, hit printers especially hard by taxing the paper they printed on. In case you wonder what the printers thought of it, the skull and crossbones version pictured gives a fair idea! A boss of mine would often repeat the maxim, “never alienate the man who buys ink by the barrel.” That is exactly what the British did, and the “the killing stamp” was circumvented every way possible.

Prior to the Boston Tea Party, the Sons of Liberty worked with local printers to encourage stories emphasizing how calm and orderly they were, a prescient public relations effort. Paul Revere rushed to Philadelphia with the story of the Tea Party, which prevented a similar occurrence in that city. The ship’s captain was given a choice: sail back to England with his tea or suffer the same fate as the East India Company’s ships in Boston. He sailed.

A final anecdote: you may recall that Benjamin Franklin advocated for creation of the U.S. Post Office. His goal wasn’t to facilitate personal correspondence, but to improve the circulation of newspapers, which he of course printed. So all those newsprint sales flyers that arrive in your mail? Annoying as they are? Going right into recycling? They are carrying out the original purpose of our postal service!

Adelman is an assistant professor of history at Framingham State University, among other posts.

****The Bulldog and the Helix

Double helix

By Shayne Morrow – This fascinating true crime story by a former newspaper reporter is set in Port Alberni, a small town on Vancouver Island, the 12,000 square mile island across the Strait of Georgia from the city of Vancouver, British Columbia. Two tragedies from this tiny town tested the limits of DNA technology and forensic practice.

In 1977, Carolyn Lee, age twelve, was abducted as she walked to her parents’ restaurant after dance class. Her body was found the next day in a remote area, face down in the mud. While the police had a strong suspicion about who her murderer was, they had no evidence. In 1996, eleven-year-old Jessica States disappeared from a park near her Port Alberni home, and a massive search finally located her battered body, hidden in a nearby ravine under bark torn from a tree. In this case, there initially was no suspect.

While these tragedies were traumatic for the community, what propels them into salience for the wider world is how they demonstrate advances in forensic analysis. In the almost 20 years between these murders, DNA technology arrived. Morrow effectively details how not just the science improved dramatically during that period, but law enforcement procedures evolved, and legal requirements related to collecting DNA evidence changed. He describes a justice system constructed of moving parts. One mistake by the police and an entire case could be dismissed.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have a practice of moving officers around, much like itinerant preachers, so the officers who first worked on the Lee case had long been reassigned. Yet it wasn’t forgotten, and the RCMP hoped the new DNA analysis would finally solve it. Miraculously, some of the evidence had been saved from that two decade old crime and from which DNA could be extracted. The tenacity and careful work of the officers dedicated to solving this cold case—the investigative Bulldog of the title—that finally led to a conviction in 1998. Fortunately for the States family, justice was not so long delayed, and her killer was convicted in 2001.

These two cases were landmarks in Canadian jurisprudence regarding the treatment of forensic DNA evidence, and author Morrow was the primary court and crime reporter for them both. His meticulous retelling of the RCMP decision-making process—which, although it could have gone off the rails at any number of points, led to a successful prosecution of two killers—is as much a page-turner as any novel.

Graphic: Mehmet Pinarci, creative commons license