Saturday, August 30, 2008

Back to School: Mysteries Involving Teachers

Resort to Murder / by Mary Ellen Hughes
Needing a break from her job as a high school Geometry teacher, Maggie Olenski is looking forward to her resort weekend getaway. But when the body of a hotel employee turns up dead, another mystery seems ‘angling’ to get at her.

Children’s Games / by Janet LaPierre
Meg Halloran and daughter Katy were glad to start a new life in a new town until letters from one of Meg’s former student’s finds stirs things up. Can Meg protect herself and her daughter while maintaining her incognito status?

The Salaryman’s Wife / by Sujata Massey
An American English teacher working abroad in Tokyo, native Californian Rei Shimura suspects the police to be erring in their investigation of a murder during Rei’s weekend holiday north of the city.

A Little Yellow Dog: an Easy Rawlins Mystery /
by Walter Mosley
After a series of distasteful events force Easy to assume the position of supervising custodian at a Watts junior high school, he’s immediately thrust into investigating (incognito) the disappearance of a teacher and the murder of another staff member.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ordinary Men

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland / by Christopher Browning

The Holocaust of over 6 million was perpetrated not by a collection of self-deluded madmen nor elite "super" soldiers, but groups (usually 9-15) of average guys, or ‘Ordinary Men’. Active in handling the physical extermination procedures, these reserve battalions, or ordnungspolizei, quite literally enacted the final solution, adhering to the perfunctory details of executing men, women, children, infants, etc.; even as many themselves had families far removed from the horror.
So Why? While its not easy to pin down, Browning’s account of the Josefow (Poland) camp gives a good deposition. A chronologue as scrupulous in detail as it is shocking in revelation, it admonishes the full array of influences involved in the process.

As with any operation of Nazi design, mass-murder genocide was a multifarious undertaking (read: organized), involving issues pertaining to the psychology of initial resolve, the group dynamic and hierarchy as well as ultimatums driving things forward. For some, the necessary ‘removal’ of Europe’s racial inferiors was a mere pre-requisite for the Reich's proliferation, a Machiavellian answer to a long-standing problem of socio-economic equanimity. Others weighed the cost of ostracision and coalesced while still more assented out of a need for survival (the threat of personal ‘removal’ always loomed). There were conscientious objectors, members whose sympathy lay with their victims or those with convictions preventing their participation, even as it led to their deaths.
The magnitude of the Holocaust and its legacy is most often viewed from the victim’s perspective. What comes to mind concerning the executors of the act generally concerns those at the top, even as those people—Hitler, Goebbels, Eichmann, Himmler, Heydrich, etc.—were so far removed that little concern involved the middle men. To the Nazi heads, camp administrators were a means to an end and as expendable—to some degree—as the victims themselves. This is an important, tediously constructed chronicle detailing 'the details' of one of history’s most chilling events.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Man of Property / by John Galsworthy

'Man of Property' is the first novel in John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, an epilogue chronicling a set of wealthy Victorians during the second half of the nineteenth century.

"She is Mine!"
Among the more pretentious members of the eminent Forsyte clan, Soames Forsyte is a man who desires things to be "his alone”. A noted barrister and wealthy heir to a family patriarch, his whims and wants seldom fail to meet with success. Undeterred by the needs of others, his possessiveness targets his beautiful wife Irene, whose marriage to Soames out of financial want has proved a bitter pill indeed. Jealous of Irene’s friendships and eager to remove her from potential acquaintances, Soames' plan for a relocation to a new home in the country backfires when Irene becomes embroiled in an affair with the architect, Philip Bossinney. Their passionate union and subsequent removal from society ends not just one marriage but intended matrimony of Bossinney and June Forsyte, Soames’ cousin. Meanwhile other members of the family cope with money woes, aging, and further marital discord.

Victorian literature was defined by Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, etc.; but it was (and still is) popularized in retrospect by authors like John Galsworthy. Rather than exacting the technical aspects of the “novel”, Galsworthy reveled in exploring the condescending veneer of that period’s social hierarchy, depicting--with reserved aplomb--the scandal and indignities hidden beneath the surface. Spanning over five decades and four generations, the saga follows the family from its prestigious mid-Victorian seat to its more settled bourgeois status at the turn of the century. While the major figures of Soames and Irene, Bossinney, June, and Jolyon are examined most extensively, Galsworthy does well not to totally override the other, less dramatic family members.

Victory of Eagles: Temeraire Series (5) by Naomi Novik

The new historical fiction/fantasy writer Naomi Novik moves along with her acclaimed series about Will Lawrence, naval captain turned aviator in England’s Aerial Corps. The twist in his situation is that England is fighting Napoleon, so there are no airplanes in the Corps but only dragons, harnessed from incubation and pressed into service for their country. Novik gives the dragons full reasoning capacity, and indeed, they have innate insights into mathematical and scientific phenomena that far surpass our own abilities.
Fearful and enormously strong, the dragons in this series continue to enchant us as characters developed in their own right, human-like yet with distinct dragon characteristics, such as their natural aggression and their attraction to treasure. Will’s dragon is Temeraire, and some parts of the story are told from his point of view. Will’s view is necessarily more complex, and he struggles with the political and tactical ramifications of his and Temeraire’s revolutionary actions. Temeraire is no ordinary dragon, but an ancient and rare Chinese breed who finds himself by chance in the thick of war between England and France under Napoleon. Having visited China (in Book 2), Temeraire sees the contrast between how his ancestral country respects and accommodates dragons, and how the European nations view them as beasts to be used for military purposes only.
Novik does not hesitate to plunge her characters in desperate straits, and heroic action may bring accolades or devastation. In this book, Will and Temeraire struggle to be true to each other and to their compatriots as they deal with the dishonor and punishment allotted them for obeying their consciences. Novik skillfully allows both of their ideas of honor and of what noble action consists of to be tested over and over again.

Note: For photos, maps, and unpublished excerpts, check out Novik’s website at (Peter Jackson, the director of the Rings Trilogy, has purchased the film rights to the series.)

Sons of Texas trilogy / by Elmer Kelton

Elmer Kelton was raised on a ranch near Andrews, Texas where he was exposed first-hand to life on the range. After graduating from the University of Texas in 1948, he worked as an associate editor for a newspaper prior to beginning his career as a novelist. He has since risen to the pinnacle of the Western genre winning countless accolades for his work. His “Sons of Texas” trilogy is one of his more recent collections of Western classics.

Sons of Texas (2005)
The year is 1816 and Mordecai Lewis leaves his farm in Tennessee for what's intended to be a short trip to Texas to wrangle some wild horses and bring them back to sell. But unbeknownst to Mordecai, his teenage son Michael has secretly joined the party. When the group meets with trouble near the Louisiana border, Michael witnesses the death of his father along with most of the others, barely escaping with his own life. Vowing to settle the score, Michael returns to Texas five years later only to meet up with a young Stephen F. Austin and a new life on the Texas frontier.

The Raiders (2006)
In this second book in the Sons of Texas series, members of the Lewis family resume their hard-scrabble lives in the westward expansion of the American frontier. The elder Michael Lewis is a family man now, keeping a home with his wife Marie and three children even as he himself constantly feels the pull of adventure. Andrew, still a bachelor, remains the reliable one; constant in his devotion to duty and country (and secretly to Marie) amid the forbidding Texas borderlands. Together with other loyal homesteaders, the brothers confront Indian outlaws and Mexican partisans as well as an old Tennessee family they’ve long shared a blood feud with in this riveting tale of early life in the Lone Star state.

The Rebels (2007)
The last book of the Sons of Texas trilogy finds the Lewis brothers still strangers in a foreign land, striving to raise their families and cultivate a living out of the unforgiving terrain near the Texas-Mexico border. Meanwhile race, politics, and outlaws intertwine as both Mexican and American cultures clash in the escalating tensions between the two countries. War arrives soon enough bringing the Lewis boys into the battle for Texas independence. Fictionalized renditions of legends Sam Houston, General Santa Anna, and Jim Bowie are included in this classic western adventure.

Going Postal: a Novel of Discworld / by Terry Pratchett

Sci-Fi/Fantasy author Terry Pratchett has essentially ingrafted another dimension onto the genre with his 30+ Discworld novels about a pseudo-parallel universe existing within a spherical disc-shaped world.
A career con-artist, Moist von Lipwig has always maneuvered life’s little travails; although now, under the current circumstances, he seems to have met his match. Imprisoned in Ankh-Morpork municipal jail and scheduled to be hanged, Moist’s fate seems a foregone conclusion until—right under his nose—his death is faked and the magistrate, Lord Vetinari, offers him a choice: death by suicide or become head of the city’s woefully neglected post office. The latter choice turns out to be not quite the reprieve Moist expected as the post office, unoperational for years, has literally filled to the brim with undelivered mail. With limited resources and even fewer personnel—only the elderly “junior” postman Groat and narrow-minded Stanley remain from the old staff—Moist makes what he can out of his new situation, learning to gauge the position’s responsibilities and interact with its “ghost reality” simultaneously.


The original downfall of the post office, Moist later learns, occurred because of the “trans-dimensional letter-sorting machine". An invention of the infamous Bloody Stupid Johnson, the machine enabled the sorting of unwritten letters (“ghost reality”), a calamitous operational error effecting a disproportionate amount of mail to be processed. Through Moist’s rather practical angle of employing postage stamps and 'golem' creatures for delivery, the post office finally gets back on its feet, even gaining unwanted attention from the rival Grand Trunk Clacks line. Before long the Clacks chairman, Reacher Gilt, sets a banshee assassin after Moist with the intention of ending the reign of the new postmaster, only managing to burn down the building as an unsuccessful end result. Moist’s prompt escape and confrontation with Gilt escalates into a challenge of honor; a race between the Clacks line and post office to see who can fastest deliver a letter to Genua.

Published in 2004, Going Postal, while Pratchett’s 33rd Discworld novel, is the first to feature the character of Moist von Lipwig. The story contains many--characteristic of Pratchett--references to modern-day reality (“The Smoking Gnu”, Gilt’s lavish Gatsby-esque parties, AT&T, etc.), subtly poking fun at life in the digital age. It's Pratchett's language that most catches the reader's eye, a quirky jumble of inventive words and alliteration reminiscent of Dickens or Lewis Carroll with the witty, if patronizing, jabs directed at the status quo. While its a fun read for anyone, the novel's (and Discworld in general) clever nuances make for a unique dynamic within the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre, a contrivance of scene and characters seemingly far-removed from reality and yet strangely mirroring our own world.
The return of history and the end of dreams by Robert Kagan

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, many Americans hoped for a new international landscape in which all nations cooperated peacefully, recognizing diversity but avoiding all conflict. Robert Kagan considers that idea to be an empty and naïve hope, as competition and conflict between autocracies in a resurgent Russia and an exploding China, as well as the rapid development in India, Japan and Iran, conflict with the geopolitical forces of the United States and Europe. Add radical Islamists who challenge all modern secular powers and democracies to the mix and you have the confusing and volatile brew that is the current state of affairs in the global order.

Robert Kagan, a columnist for the Washington Post, and the author of several other books on International Relations, provides a well-reasoned, highly-understandable overview of the current state of world affairs today. Although short in length (the book is just over 100 pages not counting footnotes), it provides a useful framework for understanding today’s headlines, while offering some understanding for possible solutions to shape tomorrow’s events. Well worth reading!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Glass Castle / by Jeanette Walls

Discontented with your, relatively speaking, compatible living conditions in Arizona, your parents decide to uproot you and your three siblings and promptly settle in West Virginia. That kind of gumption might fly with the Robinsons, but in real life, as they say, 'it rolls downhill'; even living at the top of a hill as you do in the lean-to, shanty-of-shack you now call home. Having permanently entrenched in coal country, your parents essentially relieve themselves of responsibility, conspicuously devoting their lives to sloth and indigence while you bare the brunt of their unfortunate choices.

This particular 'Your' life was, in fact, the hard-scrabble yet comically-driven youth endured by current MSNBC journalist Jeanette Walls. What begins as a considerably upbeat family-on-the-move adventure evolves into a rather tragic narrative of poverty and privation before Jeanette, at 17, takes matters into her own hands, leaving her family for New York City. Her father 'Rex', a foremost nonconformist and wannabe inventor-entrepeneur, may as well bare the blame for the whole mess. While it's his charisma which drives things forward, he constantly fumbles away family priorities, ultimately succumbing to despair, dissipation and neglect by the book's second half. Even then, he manages to consume a multitude of Jeanette's compassion, empathy and dignity; not to mention large quantities of her money prior to his premature, alcohol-induced death at 55.

With traumatic childhoods all the rage, one more over-indulgent memoir can't hurt things too much. For all the problems Walls and her (now moderately successful) siblings faced growing up, she still loves her parents as if they were the enlightened visionaries they aimed at being rather than the deadbeat losers they exemplified((-y); her mother still claws through garbage around NYC)). It entertains though; which is enough to establish it as the perfect book club book for mainstream readers.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Holcroft Covenant / by Robert Ludlum

Robert Ludlum's 'Bourne' series has made waves in recent years as film versions of each novel have exploded onto the big screen. But his numerous other works have long held an appeal among readers of popular fiction. Published in 1978, The Holcroft Covenant follows a New York architect who inherits several hundred million dollars as part of a covert Nazi pact.

In the final stages of World War II amidst the downfall of the Third Reich, Nazi financiers secretly made plans for a future they'd never see. The plot, involving hundreds of millions of dollars, would involve their descendants in a worldwide effort to 'reconcile' with the victims of Hitler's atrocities. Over three decades later, Noel Holcroft (son of the chief financier) is summoned to Geneva to be let in on the pact. Together with the descendants of the other two financiers, Holcroft is bequeathed the money to be incorporated--supposedly--in compensating war victims and their families.
Such a noble purpose is indeed worth the time and effort--removed from his job as a New York City architect--needed to connect with his two co-inheritors. But things are hardly as straightforward as the Swiss banker made it sound in Geneva. 'Other' people, apparently in on things all along, now seek to alter the pact's 'intentions' by eliminating its major players--essentially marking Noel as a wanted man. With every step a potential pitfall, Noel embarks on seeking out the other two benefactors--both still in Germany--to help follow through on his father's wishes, doing his best to navigate a maze of treacherous leads and misinformation along the way.
The 'spy' label tagged to this book may not work as well as 'thriller'; a not just action-packed but action-paced story, riding one adventure into another up until the final confrontation. Even as it relegates the plot's finer points into the background leaving its share of stones unturned, readers won't have a problem attaching interest to the protagonist throughout his various escapades, compelled along by the action and suspense toward a worthy climax. Those familiar with Ludlum will recognize his tried-and-true methodology of interweaving characters and multiple settings, a combination always making for a gripping page turner.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Here If You Need Me: A True Story by Kate Braestrup

After her husband, a Maine State trooper, is killed when a truck crashes into his patrol vehicle, Kate Braestrup decides to become a Unitarian minister, since that was what her husband had been planning to do when he died. She ends up as a chaplain working with the Maine Warden Service. These wardens comb the woods, fields and sometimes bodies of water looking for lost children, hikers, hunters and fishers who due to some tragic misstep never find their way back. And sometimes they track someone who didn’t want to come back, who wanted to end it all.
Kate may wait with the family or accompany the search, wherever she can be of most assistance. If she is present when a body is found, she kneels and says a prayer, sometimes out loud, sometimes silently. Braestrup’s faith in God is tentative, which makes her an odd candidate for the ministry, but Unitarianism allows her to form her own simple creed: God is love, and somehow exists in the midst of tragedy. Whether it’s God or just love that exists is not Braestrup’s concern. What she values is that this path keeps her sane and keeps her going, doing what she can do in her husband’s stead.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Gardens of Water by Alan Drew

Alan Drew went to Turkey in 1999 to teach English and happened to arrive just before the devastating Istanbul earthquake. He ended up volunteering in tent cities set up by the Americans, who along with other foreigners came in to launch rescue operations, using technology and resources which the Turkish government so desperately lacked. Out of this experience and his two years stay Drew wrote Gardens of Water. Having lived in Istanbul six years myself, I was curious to see how someone could write a novel with its core characters from another country. The story concerns a Kurdish family and their experiences during and after the earthquake, and their relationship with an American family. The teenage daughter of the Kurdish family falls in love with the American teenage son, who (typically enough) has learning disabilities and mood swings and is on medication for these ailments.
While Drew moves his characters along and his description of Istanbul is evocative, the motives that drive the characters are one-dimensional and ultimately false. The Kurdish father hates Americans for their tacit support of the Turkish government’s ruthless tactics against the Kurds in Southeastern Turkey, and clings to his hate regardless of the American father’s selfless ministrations to him and his family in the tent city.

My experience with the Middle Eastern culture was of how warm the people are, and if you even share food or drink tea with others, you create a bond that is not easily broken. The daughter is obsessed with her father’s favoring her younger brother, yet that favoring of the boy child is so strong throughout the culture that all family members participate; it’s not just something imposed by the father. My final impression of the book was of the author manipulating the story to illustrate cultural conflicts, not fully realizing the characters and letting the story emerge from them, from their world.

Enjoy The Silence (DVD)

Ingmar Bergman's Tystnaden (1963)

"How nice it is that we don't understand each other. . ."

Three travelers--a woman named Esther, her sister Anna and nephew Johan--are returning home when Esther's chronic illness leaves them layed over in a foreign town. Seemingly accustomed to characteristic stopovers, Anna and a bed-ridden Esther fall into practiced routines, icily keeping the other at bay, while young Johan explores their hotel. As the summer night ominously approaches, emotions from tarnished past steadily invade the atmosphere, ultimately unraveling a truth too unbearable to behold.
Ingmar Bergman is that snooty Swedish meatball always referred to in Woody Allen movies; but a more popular label would be the landmark director whose emotionally-driven films revolutionized world cinema. Able to push the envelope with his extreme close-up style of cinematography and edgy thematic elements, Bergman brought to the big screen what dramatic theatre only did for a small audience and attained a visual capacity rarely captured within traditional filmmaking. ‘Silence’ is widely revered as one of his darkest, most disturbing portrayals of distressing, hard-to-look-at stuff; probing the depths of human misery, affliction, desire, and repulsion.