Travel Tips: Central Ohio Destinations

A recent two-day visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park (never heard of it? You’re not alone!) was the perfect jumping off place for several other lesser-known attractions in the Ohio Region.

Warren G. Harding Tomb & Home

Harding home - Marion Ohio

photo: uberdadofthree, creative commons license

Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding ran a “front-porch” campaign from his Marion, Ohio, home, giving speeches—newly enfranchised women, laborers, African-Americans, Native Americans, and many other citizen groups—numbering as many as ten thousand individuals at a time. They arrived by train to undoubtedly overwhelm this small town. His neighbors rapidly saw the opportunity, however, and set up lemonade and baked-goods stands.

Years before, when he was 18 years old, he’d bought a struggling local newspaper with three friends. He made a success of it and was a prominent newspaperman before running for state and national office.

A handsome man, he was notoriously unfaithful to his wife, Florence Kling, five years older than he. In recent years, DNA testing has proved that he fathered an illegitimate child and disproved the persistent rumor that his great-grandmother was African-American.

The origin of the phrase “the smoke-filled room” as a place where political decisions are made refers to how he was selected to receive the Republican party’s 1920 presidential nomination. Many considered him a weak candidate, and his reputation has been further tarnished by numerous scandals in his administration (Teapot Dome scandal being the best known), the extent of which emerged only after his death.

Harding died in 1923, partway into his first term, and was buried in an elaborate tomb at the city’s cemetery, with Florence now alongside him. A sign says the tomb is maintained by a local technical college, but the grass inside was in need of cutting and weeding. It was shameful, really.

The Mazza Museum

University of Findlay, Ohio

photo: Alvin Trusty, creative commons license

About an hour north of Marion is Findlay, Ohio, home of the University of Findlay, a private liberal arts college with more than 4,000 students. Its best-known programs are in education and equestrian studies [!].

In keeping with the campus’s emphasis on education, its Mazza Museum houses what at first may seem an unusual collection: artwork from children’s literature. The museum has some 11,000 illustrations, collages, paper sculptures—indeed, works in every medium—that have been used over the generations in children’s books. About 300 of these are on display at any one time.

Although weekends are crowded and during the school year, classroom groups frequent the museum, when we visited, we were the only visitors. It was really fun, with an enthusiastic staff member to show us around.

If you’ve shopped for a child’s book any time in the last five decades, you may have noticed how beautiful and effective the artwork is, but perhaps, like me, you haven’t thought much about it. A visit here is an astonishing visual treat!


From Toledo, 47 miles to Findlay (45 minutes) and 97 miles to Marion (1.5 hours); from Cincinnati, 160 miles to Findlay (2.5 hours) and 145 miles to Marion (2.5 hours)


You can order any of these books through the Amazon affiliate links below (yes, I get a few cents if you do!):

  • Warren G. Harding by John Dean – a 170-page bio that tries to refute Harding’s reputation as “worst ever” president
  • Beloved by Tony Morrison – the legacy of an African-American slave’s flight to the free state of Ohio; winner of the Pulitzer Prize
  • June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore – a novel set in small-town Ohio in which a terrible mistake changes a family forever
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – a classic collection of interlocking short stories that de-romanticize small-town life; published in 1919 and now considered one of the last century’s best novels

Dear Class

Dear ClassDelighted to announce my friend Jane Stein’s children’s book, Dear Class: Traveling Around the World with Mrs. J., with charming illustrations by Pamela Duckworth, has been published and is available for ordering online.

The book is about a teacher who visits more than a dozen countries in an amazing six-month trip. It’s based on the travel log of the real Mrs. J, who took this trip in 1963. Readers learn about her adventures through the letters she writes her students, reproduced in the book.

Sidebars include historical information, updates, fun facts, websites, and activities. Written for children ages 8 to 12, Jane says, the book is the story of living out a dream—in this case, to travel around the world–and having the adventurous spirit to do it alone.

During the course of her adventures, Mrs. J studies at the Sorbonne, visits a school in Istanbul, lives on a houseboat in India, and more. She sets out to learn about people, places, food, art, and the culture in countries around the world. While she does that, she also learns a lot about herself.

Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter. Order for your kids, grandkids, kids of friends, and reward this imaginative, fun project! Good work, Jane!!

****Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen

English history, Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII

Book Cover and Matching Lamp (photo: author)

By Giles Tremlett – An excellent, well researched and highly readable biography that breathes life into the woman Henry was married to for 24 years—longer than all his other wives put together. As The Guardian says, “Catherine of Aragon tends to get shuffled into the Prologue, something to be rushed through as quickly as possible. You can’t help feeling, along with Henry himself, that things would be so much pacier if only Spanish Catherine would hurry up and cede her place to that home-grown minx, Anne Boleyn.”

But Catherine stuck it out, refusing to be divorced from Henry and finally dying, abandoned and isolated from court—though still much-loved by the common people. Her death freed Henry of Anne, as well, and only 19 weeks later Anne of the Waspish Tongue was beheaded. Neither woman produced a male heir, a persistent frustration for Henry.

Catherine was well prepared to be a staunch defender of the Catholic principles that underlay her opposition to the divorce, even though she feared she and her daughter Mary might themselves be executed. She had powerful parents, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, to serve as role models. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, was her nephew to whom she sent pleas for support. Catherine’s ultimate decision not to goad Charles into war was “possibly as important as any other she made,” says Tremlett.

The impact of Catherine and Henry’s marriage still reverberates. She petitioned the Pope for aid, and his support, albeit tardy, led to Henry’s assertion of his authority over the church, the schism with Rome, and formation of the Church of England. In her five-year reign, Catherine’s daughter Mary (“Bloody Mary”) attempted to restore the Church, perpetuating the religious crisis, and it was left to Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth I to complete the Reformation.

Tremlett’s descriptions of the political to-and-fro, court life for insiders and outsiders, and the place of women in Tudor society create living, breathing—and unforgettable—characters at this massive historical turning point.

Related articles

Getting There Is Half the Fun

If travel is in your summer plans—whether by plane, boat, foot, auto, imagination, or whatever—NPR has worked up a booklist for you (and your kids)! Only a rather diabolical sense of humor would team up Anna Karenina and The Little Engine that Could. But NPR has faith you’ll get it. Hmmm. Sorry to say I forgot to check that particular list for Murder on the Orient Express. But you get the idea. As NPR says, “This summer, we’re focusing on the journey.”

On our recent trip to Ottawa, I could stay up as late as I wanted and read four books, even had an excuse to go to the bookstore to pick another. It was heaven! I’ve written about the joys of destination reading before, and NPR’s mode-of-transport approach provides an entertaining new wrinkle—“a surprising, serendipitous book discovery experience for the summer months.” Already listeners and NPR online followers are enriching the network’s dozen lists with their own suggestions, and you’re invited to do the same at the NPR website (link above) or to tweet them with the hashtag #bookyourtrip.


A Failed Censorship Attempt

Afghanistan war, military, Mike Martin, Intimate War

(photo: Hurst Publishers)

The UK Ministry of Defence has been trying to stop publication of a book it requested on the British Army’s 13-year campaign in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. The MoD commissioned captain Mike Martin of the Territorial Army to write the book, entitled An Intimate War – An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict 1978-2012, but does not like its conclusions. It therefore held up publication for almost a year, under a policy governing books and articles by serving military personnel.

The ongoing dispute  prompted captain Martin to resign from the Army, and the book will be published soon. In the U.S., it’s available from Amazon for pre-order, coming Friday, April 18.

According to an account in The Guardian, “the book presents a bleak picture of British and American involvement, claiming that troops failed to grasp that it was primarily a tribal civil war.” As a result, Martin says, the troops “often made the conflict worse, rather than better. This was usually as a result of the Helmandis manipulating our ignorance.” Involvement in Afghanistan has cost the Britain 448 deaths, many of which occurred in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold and one of the country’s major poppy-growing regions.

Martin’s book argues that the Taliban were not the “main drivers of violence,” but rather that the conflict was driven by the personal motivations of Helmandi individuals, including local politicians  and tribal chiefs. This made the conflict akin to a civil war  between clans, “rather than a clash between the ‘good’ government of Afghanistan and the ‘bad’ Taliban,” says The Daily Mail.

Martin wrote the book as part of his PhD work for Oxford University and was one of a very few British soldiers who speaks Pashtu fluently. The book was the result of six years of research, involving 150 interviews conducted in Pashtu, and it begins with the problems the Soviets faced in Afghanistan in the 1970’s.

The Daily Mail story says “his criticism of intelligence blunders and the failure of commanders to understand the conflict is said to have embarrassed officials.” Although the Ministry opposes the book, Major General Andrew Kennett, who commanded Martin’s unit, said: “I think he has done the Army a great service by writing this,” and General Sir David Richards, the recently retired head of the Armed Forces, who commanded international forces in Afghanistan between 2006-07, said, “I sincerely wish it had been available to me when I was ISAF Commander in Afghanistan.”

Martin plans to donate proceeds from the book to military charities.

Three years ago, the Ministry of Defence bought up and destroyed all copies of a book by Sunday Times journalist Toby Harnden: Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the Real Story of Britain’s War in Afghanistan. Harnden’s award-winning book also was about the British deployment to Helmand, and after deletion of 50 words, it was reprinted.


Enhanced by Zemanta

Kids Review Books

child reading, children's books


Fast-growing children’s reading and book discovery site BiblioNasium has launched a feature that lets kids under 13 review books (previously disallowed so kids didn’t inadvertently provide personally identifiable information). In part the impetus for the new service was evidence that kids read and respond to books recommended by their friends.

Says BiblioNasium Chief Education Advocate Adele Schwartz, “Our goal is to instill the habit of reading and to raise a generation of passionate readers.” The website, designed for children K-8, includes reading challenges, virtual rewards, online reading logs, and other features, as well as the reviews, “in a safe and private digital space.”

Currently, nearly 100,000 kids and 20,000 educators use the site and growing by about 1,000 users every week. When asked whether the future of reading and book recommendations is social, BiblioNasium founder Marjan Ghara said, “The present of reading is social.”

Among other awards, BiblioNasium is a recent winner of an EdTech Digest 2014 Cool Tools Award and a 2013 Best Website for Teaching & Learning award from the American Association of School Librarians.


Enhanced by Zemanta

Girls Books, Boys Books?

girls books, boys boooks, Let Books Be Books, gender stereotyping

Is “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” a girls’ book or a boys’ book? Is “Chicka-Chicka-Boom-Boom”? These are books for any child. But as children grow past the board-book stage, it doesn’t take long for gender stereotyping to creep in, with princesses and cupcakes for girls and superheroes (OK, a few not-so-interesting super-heroines, too) and robots for boys. Last I knew, boys liked cupcakes, too. Too bad the ones in books are always pink.

The UK grassroots (moms and dads) gender-neutral toy campaign, Let Toys Be Toys, has launched a “Let Books Be Books” effort to encourage publishers, booksellers, (and bookbuyers) to be reexamine their marketing practices and better reflect the diversity of kids interests, rather than channeling them into girl-boy stereotypes. It’s gaining support. I loved Nancy Drew until I read my first Hardy Boys adventure, and I never looked back. The “boys books” were just more fun!

The covers of the books on the Let Books Be Books web page tell the story. The boys’ covers feature adventure! Skills! (Submarines, kites, soccer, vikings, rocket ships); the girls’ books? Cupcakes, butterflies, flowers, balloons, jewelry. You’re nothing if not slathered in cutesy stuff. The message is clear: Boys DO. Girls look pretty. In 2014? (You can sign a petition here, if you care to).

“Artificial boundaries turn children away from their true preferences,” the LBBB website says. They narrow kids’ perspective on the world. A recent birthday party for a four-year-old girl provided cloying evidence that “Princesses Rule” in the constricted world of gifts for diminutive females. This tiny effort may be a dragonfly wing in the hurricane of gender-based marketing, but still worth taking a stand.

See All Those People Down There? They’re Reading!

Los Angeles, Hollywood

(photo source:

50 finalists for the L.A. Times’s annual Book Prizes were announced recently. Bestselling young adult novelist John Green (whose book The Fault in Our Stars I actually read) is slated to receive the Innovators Award for his “dynamic use of online media to entertain and engage.” Susan Straight, will add a lifetime achievement award to her a nice list of other prizes: the Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement, National Book Award finalists (for Highwire Moon), and the Lannan Literary Prize.

Finalists were named in 10 categories: biography, current interest, fiction, graphic novel/comics, history, mystery/thriller, poetry, science and technology, first fiction, and young adult literature. See the full list at the link above. I’ve reproduced four of the categories below. Haven’t read a one, but eager to read the highlighted ones! Winners will be announced in April.

Current Interest
Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, Crown
David Finkel, Thank You for Your Service, Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Charlie LeDuff, Detroit: An American Autopsy, The Penguin Press
Barry Siegel, Manifest Injustice: The True Story of a Convicted Murderer and the Lawyers Who Fought for His Freedom, Henry Holt & Co.
Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, Knopf

Percival Everett, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, Graywolf Press
Claire Messud, The Woman Upstairs, Knopf
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being, Viking
Susan Steinberg, Spectacle: Stories, Graywolf Press
Daniel Woodrell, The Maid’s Version: A Novel, Little, Brown & Co.

Richard Breitman and Allan J. Lichtman, FDR and the Jews, Belknap Press of Harvard University
Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, HarperCollins
Glenn Frankel, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, Bloomsbury USA
Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, Simon & Schuster
Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832, W. W. Norton & Co.

Richard Crompton, Hour of the Red God, Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling, Mulholland Books/Little, Brown & Co.
John Grisham, Sycamore Row, Doubleday Books
Gene Kerrigan, The Rage, Europa Editions
Ferdinand von Schirach, The Collini Case, Viking

Books of 2013

2013 – PRINT

**** Glimmer Train – Winter 2014 – Ten short stories, an interview with author Ben Marcus, and one in the series of “Silenced Voices.” The editors start this issue by noting research on the good effects that reading literary fiction has on the brain. Self-serving, ok, but believable! An interesting thought from the interviewer about Marcus’s book The Flame Alphabet: “(In) Protestant evangelicalism, at least in the United States, . . . the emphasis is on literal interpretation. In contrast, with Hebrew, the literal interpretation of a word is considered the lowest form of interpretation.” Ans.: “And isn’t the idea of faith, really, that you have to put aside your rationality? . . . I think the rabbi is almost going one step further and saying, ‘If you even think you are understanding this, you are on the wrong track.'”

**** House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski A book whose form is almost as complicated as its content. Full review here.

*** A Twist of Orchids – Michelle Wan – I’m surprised the review Amazon quotes calls this book “electrifying.” It was anything but. A sweet mystery with hardly any menace. If I were more interested in the characters, I might have turned the pages faster. One of the “Death in the Dordogne” mysteries and a nice sense of place.

**** The Shadow Girls – Henning Mankell – Quite a departure from his Kurt Wallander detective series, and a clever framing for what in less skilled hands would be a lecture on the perfidy of Sweden’s (and all developed countries’) restrictive immigration laws. The main character, acclaimed poet Jesper Humlin, is surrounded by people who talk past him and involve him in frustrating and funny conversations that go nowhere. Serendipitously, he meets a trio of young women–two of whom are in the country illegally and the third who lives in a repressive immigrant household–all of whom want to learn to write, to make themselves visible through documenting their stories. He decides to help them and learns about a Sweden he barely knew exists.

**** Black Swan Green – David Mitchell – If you ever needed to understand the psychology of bullying, it’s all here in Mitchell’s semi-autobiographical first-person story of 13-year-old Jason Taylor–secret poet, indifferent athlete, and creative genius at avoiding the words that might, on any given day, trigger his stammer. The boys in school are rough on each other and the girls are learning how to be. I’m sorry that odd Madame Crommelynck didn’t stay on the scene longer. A tutorial on British teen slang in the early 1980’s, a voice I thought I’d tire of, but instead became attached to.

** The Spy’s Bedside Book – Graham Greene & Hugh Greene (brothers) – More vacation reading and very light. Mostly brief excerpts from pre-1960 spy novels and real-life spy chronicles. They share a kind of innocence about that trade that we lost after 1963, when The Spy Who Came in from the Cold appeared and destroyed any remaining illusions about the glamor of a trade plied in labyrinths of betrayal.

** Dracula: Prince of Many Faces – Radu R. Florescu and Raymond T. McNally – While this book, written by two Boston College history professors, has positive reviews on Amazon, I can recommend it only for those with very strong stomachs. It’s a well researched story of the 15th century Romanian leader who ruled Wallachia–not Transylvania, as the Bram Stoker novel would have it. I read it in preparation for a recent visit to Romania (including the medieval castle where the real Dracula was imprisoned for many years), but half-way through decided I knew enough. Too much, in fact.

*** Glimmer Train – Fall 2012 – Yes, I’m a year behind. Short stories in this issue contain lots of fire and ice and, as always, include several by award-winning writers. “Finis,” by Alexi Zentner, begins conventionally, but then the page split into two columns as alternative scenarios play out (did he leave her, passed out on her bed, or did he turn his truck around and go back to spend the night?). There are four of these two-column interruptions, and one of each pair of alternatives would bring the story to an end at that point. Also liked “Sure Gravity” by Jennifer Tomscha.

**** Between the Woods and the Water – Patrick Leigh Fermor – In 1934, when he was 19, British travel writer Fermor was in the midst of a walking tour across Europe. This book describes the second stage of that journey, in a Hungary and Transylvania that are now lost to history, war, and, at last, modernization. His appreciation of the countryside and its people of all classes makes him welcome wherever he goes (on a £1 per day allowance!), and he at times sleeps outdoors and at times in the grand kastély of people to whom others he’s met have provided introductions. A little slow-moving, as a walking tour should be. If you want to feel you’ve been there, this works. The book would have benefited from a couple of maps!

*** A Traitor to Memory – Elizabeth George – This 700+ page psychological mystery in the Inspector Lynley series has much going for it: strong recurring characters, interesting minor characters, complex plot, and excellent writing (more about George’s strong sense of dialog here). But rather too many rehashes of the potential murder suspects–and too much memory-groping by the main non-detective character, violinist Gideon Davies. Took a while to realize (my fault) that the interspersed entries from the diary Gideon keeps for his psychiatrist began at an earlier time and moved forward somewhat behind the main detective story. They cover several months, whereas the main plot resolves in a few days. As a result, “who knew what when” became difficult to track. Admirably risky plot device. Liked the ambiguous ending, too.

**** Rat Medicine & Other Unlikely Curatives – Lauren B. Davis – Of all the ways a character’s relationships with other people and with the world can go wrong, most of them are represented here. Davis’s collection of short stories is an exploration of voices, characters, and human dilemmas that have serious staying power. By turns funny, appalling, and illuminating, like life.

*** The Vintage Caper – Peter Mayle – A frothy adventure about French wineries and wine collectors, taking place mostly in Marseille. No real chills here, so it won’t satisfy readers who like a little blood on the table. Mayle, as always is pleasant and fun and knows his terroir.

**** Glimmer Train Winter 2009 – This issue wasn’t quite the downer of the Spring 2013 issue, reviewed earlier this year. Several nice stories about friendship over time, a funny story about two pairs of sisters, and only one about terminal illness. One or two I’m still puzzling over. So many talented short story writers out there!

*** Hell to Pay – George P. Pelecanos. Nobody writes about the gritty side of Washington, D.C., like George Pelecanos. A lifelong Washingtonian, he sees the city’s scandalous power imbalances clearly and, in this novel, any political glamor is so far removed from the lives of young black residents, Congress and the Administration might as well be on another planet altogether. Easy to see why Pelecanos was one of the go-to writers for The Wire. It’s a straight detective novel, with a hefty dose of violence that may be too much for some readers, great dialog, and a strong and likeable main character.

*** The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kidd. Picked this up at the library book sale, since I knew it had good press when it came out a decade ago. It’s a sweet fantasy, set in South Carolina in 1964, and while I found the story superficially engaging, it too soon lapsed into feel-good stereotypes. Oh, if only there were such perfect homes as the Boatwright sisters provided to runaway Lily Owens. I’m not surprised Hollywood picked it up. The best part was the voice of the protagonist and narrator, Lily. Kidd nailed that nicely: “She stared at the bee and shook her head. ‘If you get stung, don’t come whining to me,’ she said, ’cause I ain’t gonna care.’ That was a lie.”

**** A Darkness More Than Night – Michael Connelly. You know you’re in the hands of a master detective novelist from the first page. No cheap tricks. The crisp plot is more complicated than you think. You care about the protagonists. The outcome is important. Not Connelly’s most recent–it’s from 2001–but still a fun read.

**** The Potomac Runs Through It – Tom Gore. This memoir was a fun read for me, because I know some of the principals. I could easily envision them engaged in all the rituals and shenanigans that a group of guys who’ve known each other for years would get up to on weekends of serious fishing interrupted by misadventure. The joy of true camaraderie comes through on every page. Nicely written, well drawn characters. A simple pleasure, just like the events it recounts. Gore’s dry humor kept me smiling. An example: “one unnamed member suggested we supplement our refreshment choices with boxes of supermarket wines–vintages of Thursday–but we said no, the cheaper stuff is just fine.”

***** The Empty Room – Lauren B. Davis. Living in the head of a serious alcoholic is exhausting, even for a day! Lauren Davis takes us inside in this tour de force, alternating the pain of Colleen Kerrigan’s current “worst-day-of-her-life” with flashbacks to the stumbles and fractured relationships that got her where she is. Did you ever look at someone who drinks too much and think, How can she do that? You find out. Along with pain are flashes of intelligent humor and personal insight that give hope those flickers, if nurtured, can lead to a better result than what addiction–and the pretty fairies in the bottle–have in store for her. A wonderful book, and anyone with alcoholics in the family will find greater understanding and validation here.

**** White Teeth – Zadie Smith. Her amazing first novel, published in 2000. Truly enjoyed her On Beauty, too. She has a remarkable ability to capture the rhythms of her characters’ speech–the Indian and Jamaican and Arab immigrants and a repellent family of touchy-feely Brits whom I can hear talking, right off the page. The book is a tribute to unlikely friendship and a lament about all we do not understand and cannot control within our own families and, thus, speaks to everyone. It’s full of ripe language and bursting with perfect similes: “Archie says Science the same way he says Modern, as if someone has lent him the words and made him swear not to break them.” Beautiful job.

**** Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? – Marion Meade. Oh, my. While we think of the Algonquin Round Table and its witty, literate crowd in a glittering, fantasy Gatsby  light, this book is a cold dose of reality. While there was wit, these legendary personalities floated on a river of booze. And drowned. Dorothy worked hard on her writing, in spurts, but overall was a model of financial and interpersonal irresponsibility. This detailed biography is an enormous accomplishment, inasmuch as she left no personal papers, unless (which appears more than a possibility), they were destroyed by her literary executor, Lillian Hellman. The book is a fully drawn picture of an era–several eras, in fact–from Prohibition through the Army-McCarthy hearings and the blacklists of the 1950’s. The characters around her including the likes of Harold Ross, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, and so many others, most of whom died well before their time.

*** A Noble Radiance by Donna Leon. This book is one of Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti Mysteries, which are set in Venice. While ethical erosion in the Italian judicial system (for anyone needing to be reminded) and sensationalism in the news media, against both of which which Brunetti strives for truth, make an amusing background to her books, the foreground in this book was not all that interesting. Brunetti deserves wilier adversaries of more inherent interest and psychological complexity. A beach read.

*** The Survivor – Gregg Hurwitz. Hurwitz really knows how to accelerate the roller-coaster of suspense. One challenge for thriller writers must be to constantly up the ante with new, more horrifying threats. While this was a page-turning read, it had a few too many implausibilities built up around the grisly actions of the Russian mobsters chasing our hero, a man with a troubled past (any other kind?), in need of repairing his family relations (of course), and, to boot, an incipient case of ALS, which saps his physical abilities at all the wrong moments (naturally).

***** Victoria’s Daughters – Jerrold M. Packard. For full review see 6/2/13 blog post. My only quibble: throwing in a few more dates would help.

*** The Thing about Thugs – Tabish Khair. A multi-narrator, multi-layered story of a series of grisly beheadings in 19th century London that embroils phrenologists, Indian lascars, underground Mole people (maybe), a self-promoting journalist, a passel of drunk Irishmen, and a baffled police detective in trying to find the perpetrators. It also jumps back and forth in time. I became confused. A “the lady or the tiger” ending wasn’t very satisfactory, either. But some beautiful writing, like this: “With dawn now limning the horizon, the dark masts of ships seem to stand solitary and mute, aspiring to heaven but failing to reach it; the riggings are spread like empty nets.” And a few lines later, “At that instant, the morning or the wind passes a thin blade across the belly of the clouds to the east and sunlight spills out like blood.” Nice.

*** Glimmer Train Spring 2013. A premier literary journal, to which I’ve subscribed from near its 1990 inception. This quarter’s nine stories dealt with: a son’s substance abuse and his father’s death; painful divorce; adult children who abuse drugs to deal with a father’s neglect (also the death and dismemberment for burial of a horse and stillborn colt); death of an adult son (I quite liked this one); miscarriage; a paraplegic’s pilgrimage to the site of his musician hero’s suicide; unrootedness; how-to guide for Israeli immigrants to New York (eerily reminiscent of Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box“); woman picking her Powerball numbers whose husband is dying and whose sons were 1) in prison, 2) dead, and 3) fled with the neighbor’s pregnant wife. Great line from this last one: “As Mother Nature abhors a vacuum, Poverty abhors an empty bedroom.”

***** Flight Behavior – Barbara Kingsolver. Her 2012 book was dinged for being too polemical (the issue is global warming), but I found it complex and beautifully written, and if the characters were waxing on about their concerns, they did so in character. The protagonist, Dellarobia Turnbow, is caught between two world views: the mind-opening perspective of a scientist who comes to her small Tennessee sheep farm to study an unusual biological phenomenon, and that of her family and community, who resist the notion of climate change on religious grounds. Granted, the latter viewpoint is not presented as persuasively (at least to me) as the former, but focusing the hopes and dreams of everyone involved one the fate of an errant swarm of monarch butterflies was a brilliant conception that allowed KIngsolver to tell many small personal stories, as well as one giant one affecting all humanity.

*** The Lullaby of Polish Girls – Dagmara Dominczyk. This new coming-of-age novel reveals the essential rudderlessness of three young women from Kielce, Poland. Two spend at least part of their lives in the United States, but are drawn back to Kielce, and each other. Much in the book is handled well, though more depth would be desirable, and I felt by the end I was develop a smokers’ cough.

** Assassin’s Code – Jonathan Maberry. This book has 2.5 more stars from Amazon reviewers than I gave it. A thriller involving nukes, Iranian oil fields, Muslim-Christian conflicts dating to the Crusades, and, alas, the Upierczi. That’s Russian for vampires. I met the author and know his books are way popular, and, reading the glowing reviews, wanted to give it a chance. It’s a good, fast-paced thriller that would have been better without the fangs. They didn’t make it scarier, just harder to believe in. Oh, and I forgot the Sabbatarians (vampire-hunting adepts born on a Saturday), who must have cornered the Iranian market in garlic. Vampires, zombies, werewolves? Reality is plenty scary enough.

*** The Wrong Man – David Ellis. Not to be confused with the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock/Henry Fonda flick, this thriller is strong on legal strategy and details–Ellis is a lawyer–but weak on character development. And I knew that woman was a wrong number from her first appearance. A few plot “huhs?” as well.

****Contagious: Why Things Catch On – Jonah Berger. I’m not a big fan of the breezy, self-help writing style. But there’s good information here, not as engaging as Malcolm Gladwell, but useful nonetheless for everyone who is promoting something (that’s pretty much all of us!). I blogged about this one.

***The White Queen – Philippa Gregory. Elizabeth Woodville (who, if my family’s spurious genealogy were actually correct, would be one of my ancestors), wife of England’s Edward IV, and mother of the two little princes murdered at the behest of their uncle, Richard III, narrates her own story. On the strength of her beauty, she rose from commoner to Queen, caught up in the endless battles between Edward (House of York), the Lancastrians, and his own brothers. Too much “witches and spells” for my taste; the reality of her increasingly precarious situation was drama enough. Long on plot–rather, plots–ordinary writing, and only the narrator is a well developed character.

**** Fifth Chinese Daughter – Jade Snow Wong. First published in 1945, this charming autobiography of a Chinese-American girl growing up in San Francisco is a model of simplicity in the writing, as well as a rounded picture of the many adaptations her family makes to living in America and in changing times. Not deeply emotional, but fittingly so.

***** Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn. This was on many top-of-2012 mystery/first novel/you-name-it “best-of” lists, and it is great!  Two manipulative people in a boa constrictor – jaguar deathmatch. I thought the last bit lost steam, but a tour-de-force of character development. Well worth the time.

***Autopsy – Milton Helpern with Bernard Knight. This memoir of Milton Helpern, “The World’s Greatest Medical Detective” isn’t for the faint-hearted. Helpern worked in New York City’s medical examiner’s office for more than 40 years and was its chief from 1954 to 1973. Although technology may have changed, what remains fascinating–and invaluable to crime writers–is the philosophy he used in tackling many of the era’s most challenging homicide cases.

***** The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection – Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. Colorful profile of Paris around the turn of the 20th Century, in particular the demimonde, the artists, the gangsters, and the anarchists who kept the pot boiling. And, trying to keep the lid on, the Sureté, with its accelerating use of scientific methods of detection and criminal identification. Full review here.

*** The Fault in Our Stars – John Green. Young adult fiction with great reviews. I’d hoped to like it better. About a young cancer patient dealing with her disease, her parents, and her too-good-to-be-true boyfriend. Plot predictable and, in some developments, unbelievable.

***** Telegraph Avenue  – Michael Chabon. Fanciful, beautiful writing. Complicated, vivid characters. About so much–a failing vintage record store, a too-outspoken midwife, relationships between parents and sons.

**** Swamplandia! – Karen Russell. Nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer. Wonderful writing, but sometimes stumbles. Fascinating plot about a family living on the edge of the world, running an Everglades theme park, and the mutability of reality.

**** The Prague Cemetery – Umberto Eco. Characteristically dense and convoluted. About a 19th c. forger and spy and “split personality” who ends up creating a fictional screed against the Jews, which we recognize as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Church, the Masons, the Jesuits. They’re all there.

2013 Audio (links are to audio versions)

***** The Dinner – Herman Koch (read by Clive Mantle). The cover design of this book sums it up. A “nice dinner out” turns into an emotional conflagration, when two brothers–one a rising politician, one an inactivated teacher–and their wives meet one evening at a trendy restaurant. Talk about an unreliable narrator! Not Clive Mantle, who wields his voice like a butcher knife when expressing the contempt the story’s first-person narrator feels for his more successful sibling. He is so sly and witty as he punctures the absurd pretensions typical of today’s upscale restaurants that the reader (me!) is totally on his side, until . . . a snowball of doubt creeps in, and starts rolling down the mountainside. Wonderful!

**** The Professor of Truth – James Robertson (read by Cameron Stewart). Superb narration of this fascinating book, a fictional interpretation of the plane crash over Lockerbie, Scotland, and one husband’s relentless 20-year effort to find those responsible for the deaths of his wife and daughter. It’s a beautifully written mystery tale, a story of self-discovery, and a search in a cavern of secrets with a penlight. What is most important is what Alan Teiling finally finds out about himself, some 20 years on, and what it is to let your life be absorbed in pursuit of the unknowable, however high-minded the quest. Semi-based on real characters, and the perils of reinterpreting a controversial reality are explored here.

** One Fearful Yellow Eye – John D. MacDonald (narrated by Robert Petkoff). I didn’t remember reading any of the legendary Travis McGee novels, and bought this one on sale. Published in 1966 it was a real walk back through time. And not a very pleasant one. The women characters were treated like bimbos or diabolical schemers. At least MacDonald (through first-person narrator McGee) acknowledged that the idea of a manly man, like McGee, using his lovemaking expertise to thaw the Ice Maiden, was a bit of a ridiculous cliche, but then, he used it! Twice!! Also, a deus ex machina of eye-rolling proportions. Curiosity satisfied.

**** Spilled Blood – Brian Freeman (narrated by Joe Barrett). Winner of the International Thriller Writers’ best book of the year, it shows you can write a thriller without over-the-top viciousness (though there is some, of course) or making the stakes unbelievably stratospheric. Two towns and a growing animosity between them, as the industry in one town slowly poisons the children of the other. Or not. Nice reading, too.

***** Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk – Ben Fountain (narrated by Oliver Wyman). A finalist for the 2012 National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, I can’t recommend this book too highly. For a war novel, there’s almost no war in it, remarkably; it’s about the victory tour given to the young members of Bravo squad who performed a particularly brave Iraq action fortuitously (or not, depending) caught by Fox News cameras. The culmination of their stateside tour and most of the action of the book takes place at the Thanksgiving Day game at Cowboys Stadium. There, the disconnect between what they know and have seen and the flatulent patriotism of everyday Americans approaches–and probably surpasses–irreconcilability. Karl Marlantes (author of the unforgettable Vietnam novel, Matterhorn) calls it “The Catch-22 of the Iraq War.” Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal parts and oh, so well written. If you don’t appreciate irony, you won’t like it. And narrator Oliver Wyman–whom I at first thought I didn’t like–is a genius.

**** Live by Night – Dennis Lehane (narrated by Jim Frangione). This book won the 2013 Edgar award for Best Novel, and Ben Affleck is making his next movie out of it. The story takes place in Boston, Tampa (Ybor City), and Havana mostly during the Prohibition Era. While the logistics of managing a criminal enterprise were interesting, the times when things were going well for protagonist Joe Coughlin are too idealized. Not convincing. It’s the bad guys against the badder guys, and while I rooted for Joe in tough situations, did I really care? And his means of escape from one really tight spot (cement overshoes) was so obvious even I saw it coming.

**** The Increment – David Ignatius (narrated by Dick Hill). There’s one too-thinly explained “huh?” in this book, although the situation is interesting–a scientist working in Iran’s secret nuclear program begins an outreach to the CIA, and while the Administration is all for going in, guns blazing, our hero–CIA Agent Harry Pappas–is desperate to wait and see what the data the U.S. is being sent really mean.

**** Broken Harbor – Tana French (narrated by Stephen Hogan). Broken Harbor tells the story of the investigation of a triple homicide–dad, 2 kids (mum survives)–that at first appears to be an inside job, then the work of a man who’s been spying on them from the empty house next door. When he’s arrested, unfortunately, we were only a few hours into a 20-hour audio book, so you know it won’t hold. Too much navel-gazing by the first-person narrator, Dublin detective “Scorcher” Kennedy. Great depiction of his mentally unbalanced sister. The two principal characters–Kennedy and the family survivor–suffer from the same perfectionist ethos, and you see where this is going way ahead of time. Judicious editing, and a lot of it, would have made a better book.

**** The Expats – Chris Pavone (narrated expertly by Iranian-American film & TV actor Mozhan Marno). This top-ranked debut thriller of 2012 was a fun listen. Engaging plot as hero Kate Moore discovers more secrets about her husband’s activities than she herself is hiding. The twists at the end keep coming, requiring the reader to keep reevaluating all that has gone before. Just when you think you’ve got it . . . This book received good reviews and had a lot of publisher promotion. Interesting the Amazon reviews are rather middling.

**** The Moving Toyshop – Edmund Crispin. A witty, fast-paced mystery featuring Oxford don Gervase Fen, who solves a murder in 24 hours with the help of a menagerie of scholars, students, and bumblers. Published in 1946, the book’s madcap tone evokes a prewar innocence that never was. Fun, and my grandma could read it.

**** What It Is Like to Go to War – Karl Marlantes. This nonfiction book explores the physical, mental, and primarily spiritual demands that War makes on young soldiers. And for which they are not prepared. Marlantes used many of the illustrative episodes from the Vietnam War in this book as the touchstone for his wonderful novel, Matterhorn. He also compares that experience to what today’s veterans face. This is a thought-provoking book, a little redundant at times. It bears rereading to grasp the entirety of his message.

**** The Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers. A 2012 “Best Book” by an Iraq War veteran, among the first good books to come out of that conflict. The war scenes–ennui punctuated by terror–are well written, but don’t break new ground. The depiction and impact of PTSD, however, is excellent. Important reading.

**** The Case of the Missing ServantTarquin Hall. Part of a series of what might be called Indian-cozy mysteries. No grim violence. Amusing, charming, evocative of the subcontinent, and beautifully narrated.

**** The Black Echo – Michael Connelly. His first novel (1992), introducing Detective Harry Bosch (and one of his three novels with Black in the title). He’s not a full strength yet, but Connelly always delivers a good read. The title refers to the Vietnam War’s “tunnel rats.”

Chichi’s Magic and the Books of Childhood

My namesake’s third birthday is coming up on Valentine’s Day, and when thinking about a gift, I thought back to the presents I enjoyed as a child. Books, same as now. First to come to mind was Chichi’s Magic, about a mischievous monkey (is there any other kind?) in the Central American jungle who finds a mirror—the magic. My uncle worked for The Steck Company, a commercial printing firm that served banks, schools, and the like, but also published a series of children’s books called “Woodland Frolics,” and Chichi’s Magic was one of them. Part of the joy of the book was that it came from him. Possessed by nostalgia, I ordered the book from ALibris. It arrived. I flipped through it, loving the pictures, but hesitated to read it again. Maybe it wouldn’t be as charming as I remembered. What I do remember now seems so fragmentary and idiosyncratic. Chichi wanders the countries of Central America. I learned their names. Chichi encounters ancient Mayan ruins, which laid the foundation for a lifelong fascination with pre-Columbian civilizations. Chichi encounters a beautiful green quetzal—a strange word for a fourth-grader—and I recall its extravagant tail. But the book is clearly too advanced for the birthday girl, so will be lovingly saved until she’s older. Another book I hope to share with her is one I read many times, Heidi. I associate her with delicious goat’s milk cheese and the sweet aroma of spring flowers in alpine meadows. Still today it’s hard to resist a charming round cheese in the dairy case. I remember Heidi as the first time I was bothered by having pictures in a storybook, because the artist’s drawings did not match the vision in my head. Reading their books repeatedly, children acquire images and associations that in later life may take some digging to uncover. Hidden threads woven into the mental fabric.

Exploring Further: A blog post by another person who fell under the spell of Chichi’s Magic

Scholastic’s “Celebrity Bookprints,” where some 300 celebrities–from Bill Clinton to Mehmet Oz to R.L. Stine—describe the five books that have been most important to them.