The Exploitation of Tigers–by Writers!

Western writers have exploited the tiger, says Aditi Natasha Kini in a Literary Hub essay, that goes on to illustrate the interplay of literature and wildlife mismanagement.

Authors have been mesmerized by the elusive tiger’s beauty, stunned by its cunning, and fascinated by its ferocity. Whereas a lion is social and, according to no less a wildlife expert than Gunther Gebel-Williams, tends to want to get along; tigers don’t care about you, not even about each other at times, as the recent London Zoo tragedy attests.

Alas, our fascination has been deadly for the tigers. “Do you want to kill them because you are afraid—or because you covet their power?” Kini asks.

Hard to believe in this era of heightened consciousness that a New York Times South Asia bureau chief “a few months ago,” Kini says, started writing admiringly about the hunt for a tiger deemed menacing to Indian villages. Despite the editor’s “several breathless articles,” certainly this writing did not generate the bloodlust of a century ago, when an estimated 80,000 tigers were slaughtered between 1875 and 1925.

Kini draws a connection between this murderous spree and the vilification of tigers in literature and popular culture. They came to be portrayed as evil, monstrous, and murderous. Jungle creatures, “especially sinewy marvels of evolution with massive jaws and impressive, though cryptic abilities, became a vivid metaphor for the wild—and the colonial drive to conquer it.”

The near-extermination of wild tigers becomes another environmental depredation that naturally devolves from what Kini calls “the narrative of human supremacy.” Now, one legacy of that narrative contributes to global warming, and the habitat loss likely to result will provide a further threat to the species.

The World Wildlife Fund’s estimate that more tigers live in U.S. backyards than in the wild has received fairly wide publicity. Nevertheless, four states—Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin—have no laws at all about keeping dangerous wild animals as “pets,” including this week in an abandoned Houston garage. The reduced circumstances in which many of these animals live is the exact opposite of the iconic creatures of fiction. Unless, of course, you’re writing tragedy.

I highly recommend John Vaillant’s page-turner of a book about the Amur tigers of far eastern Russia, The Tiger. It’s non-fiction, and the action is heart-stopping.

Tiger photo: Damian Moore, creative commons license

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Three Minute Book Reviews

Tarot cards

You can read that headline two ways and either works. I enjoyed all three of these books, out of my usual crime fiction lane.

****The Immortalists

Chloe Benjamin’s accomplished 2018 novel details the lives of four siblings who, as children, visit a fortune teller who reveals the date they will die. We follow them then, in turn, and the question is, did her predictions engage them as accomplices in creating self-fulfilling prophecies, or was she simply right? The career of the younger daughter, Klara, who becomes an accomplished magician, was the most intriguing to me. Named “one of the best books of the year” by many sources.

****The Book Thief

Probably you read Markus Zusak’s 2005 best-seller when it first came out, but I missed both book and movie. Children (again) in a small town outside Munich face the coming of World War II—the paranoia, the excitement, the vicious militants. Liesel’s mother has left her nine-year-old daughter in the care of Rosa and Hans Hubermann. The deepening relationship between Liesel and her foster parents—both kindly Hans and foul-mouthed, foul-tempered Rosa—is a joy.

They take in someone much more dangerous too. There’s a Jew in the basement, son of the man Hans owes his life to. Just as I’d become immersed in the story, Death, a 20,000-foot observer of the book’s events, would intrude and pull me out again. I came to appreciate him as a character, though not these constant interruptions.

***Midnight Blue

Another historical novel is Simone van der Blugt’s 2018 book, her first published in the United States. In 1654, the young widow Catrin leaves her small village to seek her fortune and leave behind the suspicions about her role in her husband’s death. In Amsterdam, she finds work as housekeeper to the wealthy Van Nulandt family. Madame Van Nulandt takes painting lessons from a local master, Rembrandt van Rijn, but Catrin, it turns out, is the real artist in the household. The secret of her husband’s death returns, however, and her struggle to make a successful life despite all shows plenty of pluck and talent. Translated by Jenny Watson.

Photo: Meg Lessard, creative commons license

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Cape May’s Off-Season Delights

Maybe not this past week, with temperatures in single-digits, but off-season can be a fun time to visit beach towns, like historic Cape May, New Jersey, which clings to the far southern tip of the Garden State, and is actually south of Baltimore and almost directly east of Washington, D.C. On a narrow peninsula, surrounded by water, Cape May is full of extravagant Victorian homes (many of them now B&Bs), impressive restaurants and a range of attractions.

Visiting off-season, you find the summer crowds have disappeared like the flocks of migrating birds you can see there spring and fall—at “one of the greats migration hot spots on earth!” The Cape May Lighthouse has a hawk-watching platform, the city has a nature center, an Audubon Society bird observatory, and several other attractions catering to birdwatchers (and the curious). Even after the big migration, there are a lot of shore and wading birds.

Jersey Shore Alpacas is a place where you can pet, feed, and find out whatever you might want to know about this interesting breed of animal (and buy luxuriously soft alpaca-wool items and gifts). The farm (whose motto is “furry fun for everyone!”). Nearby is the Cape May County Park and Zoo, which, unbelievably, is free. It features some 250 species, including lions, and zebras, and giraffes, though if the day is too cold, you may not see some of them. Just a guess, but the snow leopards are probably always on view. There’s an indoor aviary for the tropical birds, and the raptors are outside. Winters, it’s open from 10 to 3:30 and, again, not crowded.

A 10-mile drive north brings to you the town of Wildwood, whose two-mile long boardwalk is almost impassable with tourists in summer. The stilled amusement park, the silent roller-coasters, the shuttered ice cream stands suggest the set for a B-movie. Sparse traffic encourages a drive past the Wildwoods’ collection of doo-wop motels, architecture straight out of the 1950s!

The Naval Air Station Wildwood (NASW) at the Cape May Airport is home to an aviation museum in a converted hangar (dress warmly), which includes an array of aircrafts, engines, and interactive exhibits. It has a moving display about the 9/11 “All Available Boats” rescuers too. When I walked inside, I thought it wasn’t going to be that interesting, but I ended up fascinated. It’s not at all slick, and seems to be a labor of love.

Cape May offers some spectacular restaurants. Our favorites included Tisha’s, Union Park Dining Room, and Fins Bar and Grill. There’s pleasant shopping, and the town has been an artists’ inspiration for decades. Evidence is this bouncy Bud Nugent song and my short story “Windjammer” about a vengeful sea captain whose ghost haunts one of Cape May’s arriviste residents.

****Death in Shangri-La

India, dawn, village

By Yigal Zur, translated by Sara Kitai – Israeli thriller writer Yigal Zur skillfully uses both an exotic setting and ongoing political turmoil to create a high level of tension in this fast-paced thriller. Published in Israel in 2012, Death in Shangri-La is the first of Zur’s novels to be translated into English, and quite smoothly at that.

A trip to India after their military commitment has become rite of passage for many Israeli young adults. When one young Israeli seems bent on abandoning a future law career and immersing himself in the life of an ashram somewhere in Sikkim, his father, arms dealer Willy Mizrachi, is outraged. He complains about it to his acquaintance, former security agent Dotan Naor, familiar with India from his days working for Israeli state security.

While Dotan counsels him to accept his son for who he is, Willy is determined to bring him home. In an action that will have deadly consequences, Willy wagers that within a year, he’ll have his son happily back home, with a wife and baby.

A few months later, Dotan learns Willy has been murdered in Delhi, just as news reports are filled with stories of terrorist attacks on Israeli young people in north India—backpackers, guest house visitors, honeymooners. Most of the novel is told by Dotan in first-person. However, the attacks are told from the points of view of the Israelis and their would-be rescuers, which effectively conveys the situational chaos.

Shortly after Dotan learns about Willy, security agency agents visit his Tel Aviv apartment hoping he will cooperate in unraveling Willy’s murder. Dotan at first refuses, but when a posthumous letter from Willy arrives saying he’s being watched, the clues it contains convince him to take the job. The female agent, Maya Kfir, will accompany him. (You anticipate where that relationship is going.)

The action moves to India, and Zur wonderfully evokes a sense of place. His descriptions of the street life, the seedy hotels where Dotan and Maya stay, the markets, the food, are terrific. The elements of the setting are not just pasted on, they are well worked into the plot. Could this story have taken place anywhere else? Probably not.

In the course of trying to untangle Willy’s death, Dotan and Maya land in the heart of the current terrorist trouble spot and must draw on Dotan’s contacts with Indians on both sides of the law. The Muslim terrorists, drug runners, Tibetan freedom fighters, the Indian army—all have their agendas and guns manufactured in Israel. Are they Willy’s deadly legacy?

The main part of the story takes place in a highly compressed few days and the propulsive action keeps the pages turning. My only complaint is Dotan—a man in his forties, not a teenage boy—is obsessed with the sexual conquest, past, present, or future, of practically every woman in the story. When he quickly develops a supposedly sincere, if highly predictable, relationship with Maya, it’s hard to take seriously. This is the middle one of three thrillers about Dotan Naor. I hope the others will be translated too, and soon!

Photo: Mario Lapid, creative commons license

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Santa’s Bookshelf

Santa Claus, reading

Creative Commons License

Still looking for that perfect book for under the Christmas tree? Here are a few ideas for your weekend shopping that might suit some of the hard-to-buy for people on your list:

Film Noir Junkies – A.J. Finn filled his blockbuster psychological thriller, The Woman in the Window, with references to classic noir, and the main character watches quite a few too. And drinks Merlot by the case (trigger warning, Sideways fans).

Intrepid Travelers – if you can’t give a trip to Paris, you can give Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense. If they’re also classical music devotees, bonus points to you for finding this story about an aging cellist in the City of Light who really makes crime pay.

Jive-Talking Rap Music LoversRighteous or any of the other I.Q. books by Joe Ide. His characters’ language unspools across the page in pure urban poetry, as they solve crimes and right wrongs.

Unrepentant Bookworms – a book they can burrow into for days and maybe never sort out all the plot shenanigans, Lost Empress is about football, Rikers’ Island, a missing Salvador Dali painting, a man and his mom, transcribing 911 calls, Paterson, New Jersey, and so much, much more.

Armchair Psychologists – OK, does he have dementia or doesn’t he? Grace may not live long enough to find out on a Texas road trip with the elderly man she believes murdered her sister. Paper Ghosts is nice work from Julia Heaberlin.

Inveterate Classicists – David Hewson’s Juliet & Romeo is another in his fine adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Always inventive, always interesting. His Macbeth and Hamlet were winners too.

Road WarriorsShe Rides Shotgun is Jordan Harper’s award-winning debut thriller about a man and his young daughter on the run. They won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough.

Fairy Tale Fans – True, they may be startled at the liberties Karen Dionne took with Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, but in The Marsh King’s Daughter, she’s created a compelling story of a girl raised off the grid and what it takes for her to build a conventional life. Can she keep it?

Anyone Who Just Likes a Damn Good Book – You should get a twofer for Philip Kerr’s book Prussian Blue, which does a deep dive into both the dark days of the Third Reich and early 1950s France. Detective Bernie Gunther’s skill at solving murders doesn’t always make him friends.

Sicily: Beyond (and Before) the Corleones – Travel Tips

Agrigento - Temple of Concordia

Agrigento – Temple of Concordia, public domain

Our two-week trip to Sicily ended recently, and what an interesting and beautiful region it was. The food was pretty spectacular too. We traveled with a British tour company called Esplora, and if you’re looking for a recommendation, this is one. Esplora and its founder Damian Croft, specialize in small-group tours of several Mediterranean countries, as well as Armenia, Georgia, and, soon, Iran.

There were a dozen of us on the tour, six Brits, an Australian couple, and four Americans. We had two charming guides (Chiara and Simona) and our irreplaceable driver/major domo, Carmelo. Our guides were language and art history specialists. How nice, I thought, in advance. How essential, I’d say now. Here’s why (and before I go on, I’ll tip you that we saw the impressive architectural remnants of all these civilizations.)

The earliest tribes in Sicily, the Sicani, documented to around 8000 BC, were followed by the Sicels and some minor groups. They lived in caves, and some of their caves are still in use for storage, as shelters for goats and chickens, and in extremis, habitation.

Sicily was a crossroads of the ancient world, and for at least some period, Siracusa was the most important city in Europe. This importance began with the arrival of the Greeks, who set up independent colonies in Siracusa, Agrigento, and elsewhere. Domination of the island was passed back and forth in practically nonstop wars between the Greeks, Romans (who established colonies under Roman authority), and barbarians, namely, the Germanic Vandals and Ostrogoths.

The Byzantines annexed Sicily in 535 AD, and were harassed by invading Arabs from Carthage (now Tunisia) in north Africa. Next came the Normans—yes, those same Normans who invaded England in 1066. This was a surprise! They established liberal government, tolerant of the many ethnicities and religions who lived on the island. That couldn’t last, of course.

Swabian Germans took over, followed by an insurrection to remove the French (Normans) and the people turned to the Spanish for aid. The Spanish Inquisition in 1492 resulted in expulsion of all the Jews from Sicily and other depredations. In the next two hundred years, the island also suffered devastating earthquakes, and the plague.

The Bourbons were next, with Sicily fighting on France’s side in the Napoleonic Wars. Guiseppe Garibaldi had a strong presence in Sicily in his successful effort to unite the separate regions of Italy into a united Kingdom of Italy (1861).

In the 20th century, assaulted first by waves of crime from the Mafia then invaded by the Allies in 1943, this little island of less than 10,000 square miles—not much larger than the state of New Jersey—was once again at the crossroads of history.

Historians will shudder at the elisions and probable errors in the above. Whole books have been written about this, of course, and here’s a really good one:

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Read my new short story in Quoth The Raven, an anthology of new works based on the style and sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe. For how to order it, click here.

****Texas Two-Step

cowboy boots

photo: Robert Stinnett, creative commons license

By Michael Pool – In this novel of crimes, both petty and not-so, Michael Pool takes you from the laid-back atmosphere of Colorado, where marijuana growing, possession, and sale is legal to rural Teller County in East Texas where it definitely is not. The county’s official policy is strictly anti-pot, rigorously enforced by its long-time sheriff, Jack Gables, who is especially diligent if he isn’t getting a cut of the action.

Transplanted Texans Cooper Daniels and Trevor Davis, close friends from childhood, have been living in Colorado for years. They think of their Texas drug deal as just going home for a spell, but home has changed, and they’ll have to dance a pretty lively two-step to stay out of jail and, maybe, out of the cemetery.

Cooper believes it’s worth the risk of selling his organic crop to the sketchy Texas drug dealer, “Sancho” Watts, because he’s vowed this deal will be his last. He’s turning a new leaf and has sworn to acquire himself a legitimate career to please his pregnant girlfriend. If he doesn’t shape up, she’s leaving him.

Cooper and Davis seem like good-natured stoners, but Watts is a wild man. Some time before the story starts, Watts sold a psychedelic drug to the grandson of a Texas state senator, and the boy killed himself. Now the legislator wants revenge, and he’s tapped Texas Ranger Russ Kirkpatrick to get something on Watts—anything, just so it puts him in jail for a long stretch.

To Kirkpatrick, the senator is a pest with a strong sense of entitlement. But the politician is not letting go, and if Kirkpatrick doesn’t produce, he’ll be a Ranger no more. While he’d rather not have this assignment, he has it, and it leads him to Teller County where the sheriff is notorious for pulling in the welcome mat when out-of-town law enforcement arrives.

Sancho Watts has teamed up with a Teller County celebrity, and you’d have to appreciate how much Texans love their football to understand the full significance of this partnership. The young man is former University of Texas footballer Bobby Burnell who lost his budding pro football career in a freak accident.

The separate strands of the story move smoothly toward an inevitable showdown, the outcome of which could go a number of different ways, most of them disastrous. Focusing on the action, Pool is light on description, and he writes good, humor-laced dialog. This is a book for fans of how things are done in Texas. Big. Very big.

American Animals

American AnimalsIn writer-director Bart Layton’s entertaining new film (trailer), four bored college students plot to steal priceless works from the library of Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky. Is this a daydream, or will they go through with it? Should they do more than watch old heist films to prepare?

A vivid demonstration of Murphy’s Law, their wildly inadequate scheme is both hilarious and tension-filled. Yet, as far-fetched as it may seem, the film is based on a real episode from 2004 and includes fourth-wall breaking interviews and current-day reflections of the actual would-be thieves and their parents. Using his skills a documentary filmmaker, Layton cleverly meshes their different perspectives on events (who decided what when), and his energetic recreation of their misbegotten enterprise is “singularly fascinating” says Cary Darling in the Houston Chronicle.

The four criminal masterminds are played by Barry Keoghan, Evan Peters, Jared Abrahamson, and Blake Jenner. The librarian they must disable is played by Ann Dowd (if you’ve watched The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll recognize her voice before you even see her).

Drifty art student Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan) wants something to happen in his life. The idea of the theft comes to him as a kind of vague “what if?”, but when he shares it with Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), he’s found someone with the single-minded enthusiasm to turn it into a sort-of reality.

Have you ever pursued an idea long past the moment when it makes any sense? Then you can understand how the four students got carried away, trapped by their own momentum. What starts out as an especially brazen prank by privileged college students has a long tail of consequences, and at times the former students’ articulate silences express their belated second thoughts. A visual theme based on the paintings of John James Audubon—one of the works they plan to steal is his Birds of America—recurs throughout, adding grace notes to a tawdry episode.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 85% ; audiences: 91%.

The Rider

The RiderThe movie The Rider isn’t really about rodeo. It’s a character study and an exploration of what it means to lose your dreams, and how to be a man in a culture that glorifies danger. Writer-Director Chloé Zhao may have been born in Beijing, but she has made one of the most authentic films about the West in recent years (trailer) and one of the best films of the year so far. Don’t miss it!

She’s drawn on the real-life story of a young man’s recovery from a rodeo injury that nearly killed him and probably will if he falls again. Brady Blackburn (played by Brady Jandreau) had a solid career on the rodeo circuit in front of him. As the film opens, his skull looks like Frankenstein’s monster, a metal plate rides underneath, and he has an occasional immobililty in his right hand—his rope hand. The doctor tells him no more riding, no more rodeo. She might as well tell him not to breathe.

He’s “recuperating,” but determined to get back in the saddle. He lives in a trailer with his father (Tim Jandreau), who puts on a gruff front, and feisty 15-year-old sister, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), who has some degree of Asperger’s. The disappointment his fans feel when they find him working at a supermarket is visible to the taciturn Brady and to us.

In his spare time—and this is where the movie comes spectacularly to life—he trains horses. Watching him work with them, you know for sure that he’s no actor. This is his real-life job, and Zhao has captured those delicate moments of growing trust.

Not that interested in rodeo? You don’t see much of it. And most of the rodeo scenes are in the video clips Brady and his best friend Lane watch. Watching them watching is the bittersweet point. Lane was a star bull-rider now unable to walk or speak. The way Brady interacts with him is full of true generosity and mutual affection.

When Brady throws his saddle into the truck to go to another rodeo, in vain his father tells him not to. The father accuses him of never listening to him, and Brady says, “I do listen to you. I’ve always listened to you. It’s you who said, ‘Cowboy up,’ ‘Grit your teeth,’ ‘Be a man,’” the kinds of messages men give their sons that sometimes boomerang back to break their hearts.

Cinematographer James Joshua Richards’s deft close-in camerawork captures the personalities of the horses, and his wide views put the windswept grasslands of South Dakota’s Badlands and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The film is shot partly on the Lakota reservation, but not much is made of the cast’s Native American heritage. By grounding the script in Brady’s real-life recovery and by surrounding him with his real-life family and friends, Zhao creates a wholly natural feel for the film, which has been nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards.

And what was it like for Brady to work with the filmmaker? “She was able to step into our world: riding horses, moving cows, stuff like that. Why should we be scared to step foot into her world?” he said in a Vanity Fair story by Nicole Sperling. “She would do things like get on a 1,700-pound animal for us. And trust us. So we did the same. We got on her 1,700-pound animal.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 97%; audiences 80%.

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.