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Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case by Michael A. Ross

The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Race, Law and Justice in the Reconstruction Era is a nonfiction work by a history professor at the University of Maryland, Michael A. Ross. This story, while nonfiction, has all of the elements of any great fictional crime drama that I’ve read, and as we say, sometimes real life is stranger than fiction. Set in 1870 in the Reconstruction Era, two multiracial women are accused of the abduction of a Caucasian 17-month-old Mollie Digby, who lived in New Orleans with her parents. This was the first kidnapping case that drew the attention of the national press, and it was sensational from the date of the crime in June 1870 until the resolution of the trial in January 1871. More than just the crime itself, Ross portrayed the fascinating complexities of the Reconstruction Era which arose at the end of the Civil War under President Andrew Johnson, failed in its goals of structuring social justice for the South, and came to a crashing end in 1877 with the onset of the Jim Crowe Era.

New Orleans was a unique setting for the story to occur. Originally settled by the French and Spanish, there was already a history of tolerance of multiracial relationships before the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. In racial terms, the Creoles, both white Creoles and Afro-Creoles, were in middle ground between whites and blacks. With the take over by United States, the government became dominated by southern white supremacists, and the relatively cooperative spirit among the races in New Orleans came to an end.

Had the kidnapping happened a few years earlier, or just a few years later, the outcome of the trial would surely have been different, but it occurred during the Reconstruction Era when Blacks could serve on juries and their testimonies were not automatically discounted. Interestingly, the Republicans at the time were connected to Lincoln, abolitionists, and the reconstruction movement, while Democrats were the party of the white supremacists that where working hard to reestablish the Old South, as it had been before the Civil War. Reporting in the news was sensational, at least as much as it is in this current day. Adding to the story were some of the characters involved, from the “boy Governor,” 28-year-old Henry Clay Warmouth, the DA, the Chief of police, the defendants’ attorneys, and others. Ross did a marvelous job of explaining their histories and importance to this case and the times.

I happened on the book in a review in the International New York Times, and I read it on the heals of a current-day fictional story of crime and racism by Greg Iles, Natchez Burning. Through the miracle of the Internet and Kindle, I was able to download the book from my location in Ubud, Bali. I love being able to do that, although I must also admit I miss spending hours rummaging through book stores, something I’ve not had to do in a while. If you’re a fan of American History, which I am, I highly recommend this book. I know too little about the Reconstruction Era, and this book helped enormously, especially with arriving at a better understanding of the unique history of New Orleans.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Natchez Burning by Greg Iles

If you were in high school or college during the 60’s, if you got wrapped up in the civil rights movement, and if you were shocked by the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK, then this is a book for you. This is the 4th book in the Penn Cage series by Greg Iles, and this is the best one yet. Cage has moved on from being a prosecuting attorney in Houston and a successful crime novelist, and he has returned to his hometown of Natchez, Mississippi where he has become the mayor. Politics are not his forte, but he really wants to help the town fully integrate and revitalize, goals that many think are mutually exclusive.

On his way to becoming the mayor, Cage made enemies of the black DA Shadrack Johnson and the white Chief of Police Billy Bird, and now a bizarre murder occurs. Cage’s dad is a beloved physician to whites and blacks. His former chief nurse, the beautiful Viola Turner, returned to town after 37 years away. She has metastatic cancer and has come home to die and have Dr. Cage watch after her. But, we learn that her disappearance from Natchez 37 years ago was fraught with intrigue, and her return has stirred up some very old and ugly racial hatreds which touch rich and poor, white and black. With her death from natural causes only a short time away, she is murdered. Did Tom Cage euthanize her or did a radical white supremist shut her up. What about the relationship that Dr. Cage had with her – could they have been lovers and produced an offspring? In order to understand the current day murder of Viola, some old racial murders must be solved.

Iles used his usual cast of Cage, Cage’s dad and mom, his daughter, and his finance, the hard charging newspaper reporter/publisher, Caitlin Masters. It’s not a short read, nearly 800 pages, and I could not put it down. There are lots of characters, but that’s not a deterrent – Iles does a great job with character development and I did not find myself confused about who was who. The ending scene is a dramatic battle that could have gone in any number of directions, but the author brought this to a satisfactory conclusion, which also set up the next story which I’ve already acquired. Greg Iles is the real deal – historical fiction and crime novel rolled into one great story.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer award winning novel about the culture of farm life and the tragedies one Iowa farm family endured through multiple generations.

Larry Cook is an Iowa farmer whose success is measured by the thousand acres of land he owns debt free.  Some of the land was passed down to him by his parents who inherited the land from their parents and some he acquired by working hard and skillfully stewarding what he had inherited.  His wife passed early in life leaving him with three young daughters to raise.  The two older daughters, Ginny and Rose married local boys who went to work in Larry’s farming operation.  The youngest daughter, Caroline went off to college and then became a lawyer in Des Moines.  Ginny and Rose shared the responsibility of caring for their father, doing his household chores and preparing his meals.

At age 68, Larry suddenly decides to retire and makes plans to deed the land to his daughters.  Ginny and Rose go along with their father’s wishes but Caroline challenges her father and as a result is excluded from the inheritance.  This sets off a chain of events that threatens to destroy the family.  Under Larry’s autocratic leadership style, dark family secrets and deep emotional feelings among the sisters were suppressed. Now with Larry increasing showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, the control of this multi-million dollar farming operation is up for grabs.  What was a seemingly well mannered, compassionate, hardworking, God fearing family transforms into vicious back-stabbers and bitter rivals. All the dark secrets from the past, incest, abuse, jealousy, and murder, manifest themselves in the present along with adultery and suicide.  The rich American dreamlike heritage of the Iowa farm is doomed as the current generation implodes.

A Thousand Acres is a thousand miles from the genre I typically read.  I chose this book thinking I’d feel nostalgia for I too grew up on a multi-generation farm.  But I got much more than nostalgia… I got a reminder of all that can go wrong when we chose to put ourselves above all else… a true lesson in humanity… a true human tragedy.  I highly recommend this book. 

The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

For the first time, I was disappointed in a book by Louise Penny who remains in my power rotation of authors. This is the eighth book we at Men Reading Books have reviewed by Penny, and until now, the reviews have been highly favorable. In The Long Way Home, Penny uses the usual cast of characters from Three Pines, the small village outside of Montreal. Artists Clara and Peter Morrow have been separated for a year, but Peter failed to show up on the anniversary of their parting, as he had promised. The separation had occurred because he was too jealous, angry and destructive because of Clara’s sudden and remarkable success with her art career, after Peter’s career had previously always eclipsed hers. Penny continues to write with remarkable sensitivity and insight into relationship issues between the various characters.

A few weeks after his failure to appear, Clara sought the help of her dear friend, the now retired Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete Du Quebec. Gamache was continuing to recover from his wounds in the last case involving Three Pines, and his daughter had married Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his second in command, who was also nearly killed in the same battle which nearly killed Gamache.

There were multiple compelling story lines about the recovery of Gamache and Beavoir, and how the chase after Peter brought their recent brush with death painfully back into play. But the main plot involved the hunt for Peter. I thought Penny spent way to much time on the details of Peter’s new art work that he had produced in the year of separation, as well as the repeated efforts at trying to interpret the meaning of the changes in his technique and content. The resolution of Peter’s disappearance ultimately involved some of his and Clara’s professors in art school. It was absurd that a murder plot involved someone who was one was trying to murder another by an exposure to asbestos. The absurdity made all of the characters who were a part of that seem unbelievable, and for me, the story fell apart at that point.

The finale did bring an unexpected resolution of the main story line, but I must say that this one did not hold my interest like Penny’s other works. But, Penny has written too many good books for me to be put off by one substandard effort.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Unmanned by Dan Fesperman

Air Force Captain and F-16 fighter pilot Darwin Cole lives alone in a trailer in the desert outside of Las Vegas. See, he got drummed out of the Air Force and his wife took their two kids back to her home in Saginaw, MI. A mission went bad and the resulting fallout stuck him in the desert boonies where the most common livings thing he'd seen in months were coyotes.

Cole was a good pilot; perfect for an up and coming program outside of Vegas - drone pilot. And the job was one part boring and all parts weird, peeking over shoulders a world away before firing a missile into some hut before heading home for dinner with the family.

Intelligence in Afghanistan had a high value target in a home in the middle of nowheresville Sander Khosh. He drives the drone, his spotter finds the target. Ground contact says go. Cole fires the missile. 55s to target. At about 45s, Cole sees 3 kids run out of the house to play. Too late to divert the missile. It obliterates the house, kills the 2 boys, and the girl survives, albeit with 1 less arm.

Cole goes off the deep end. Good-bye war. Hello coyotes.

Keira and Steven find Cole and drive up for a chat. Both are reporters (recent victims of old school newspaper purges) who are on a story about a rogue contractor who was fighting the war using his own rules. And the contractor they are looking into was Cole's on-the-ground contact during the fateful missile strike. So they think maybe Cole can provide some details.

Cole reluctantly joins the pair, and their third, Barb. He travels to their place in Baltimore by bus to avoid cameras, credit cards, and security posts. The unlikely quartet works the story talking with sources, defrocked 'agency' types, and drone engineers not only about the who, but the fact that the genie has been released from the bottle.

The technology is advancing at light speed. And contracting companies are competing with and against each other and will manipulate, buy, and steal their way to bigger more lucrative contracts. Even to the point of buying off local Afghan informants from a competitor. Cole ended up in the middle of an inter-contractor battle that a little girl paid for with an arm.

This is 6th Fesperman book reviewed here at MRB so obviously we must like his work. A number of his other books were centered in an around the former Yugoslavia. The only connection to that conflict is that Cole flew F-16s there and was credited with the only air-to-air kill since Vietnam. While those earlier books explored the brutality and the darkest depths of human hatred, Unmanned veers into a psychological thriller about the people, the technology, and the lengths that people will go to harness what drones can do not only in war, but also the promising and lucrative domestic market of the future. We hear about drones almost daily and Fesperman adroitly parts the curtain for the uninitiated to see just what drone technology is capable of.

So it you hear what sounds like a distant weed whacker, I'd suggest you keep an eye on the skies while I check back in with Fesperman to see the next thing he wants us to watch for.

available at Amazon.com

East Coast Don

When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin Yalom

I recently wrote a very favorable review of the most recent novel by Irvin Yalom, The Spinoza Problem, which was written in 2012 and is probably the best book that I read in 2014, fiction or nonfiction. When Nietzsche Wept was written 20 years earlier. The book may not play to as wide as audience as his latest novel, but, as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, I loved this book too. This book is the only one of Yalom’s which was made into movie, in 2007.

The story is one of a fictional encounter between Josef Breuer and Friedrich Nietzsche in 1882. Breuer was an eminent Viennese physician in the 1870s and 1880s, and was a mentor to Sigmund Freud. Like Freud, Breuer’s further rise in academic medicine was blocked because he was a Jew in a time of rising anti-Semitism. Although Breuer discovered the “talking cure” which led to Freud’s creation of psychoanalysis, he was mostly a neurologist. The concept of the unconscious was not yet well understood, and no one had yet talked about issues such as transference, or as was so important in this book, countertransference.

Nietzsche was a German philosopher known for nihilism and the phrase “God is dead” (philosophy being only one of his many talents), was ill for much of his life until his early death in 1900 at the age of 55. In the book, as proposed to Breuer by a beautiful Russian woman, Lou Salome, even though Nietzsche could not know of her behind-the-scenes involvement, Breuer undertook the treatment of Nietzsche for both his horrendous migraines and his unacknowledged despair. Meanwhile Breuer was tormented by his own obsessional love for a patient, Bertha Pappenheim, who as the result of Breuer’s papers about his treatment of her, became the famous Anna O. Yalom paralleled the struggle that Nietzsche had with his thoughts and feelings toward Lou Salome while Breuer had similar struggles with Bertha Pappenheim. In an attempt to lure the resistant Nietzsche into treatment, Breuer violated the boundaries of the doctor-patient relationship when Breuer realized that Nietzsche could help him with his own obsessions. Yalom writes of an intense psychic intimacy between doctor and patient. Written by a master clinician in today’s world, the treatment arrangement by Breuer was wildly unconventional by the standards of 1882 and would certainly be grounds for malpractice in current times.

I loved the brilliant and emotive dialogue between the two principals, and meanwhile, I got to learn more about Nietzsche. This work of historical fiction is not an easy and quick read, but the story of the mutual therapy between Breuer and Nietzsche was incredible. If you’re a student of psychology, then read this book.

Son of Andalusia by Thomas K. Matthews

Son of Andalusia is a powerfully written work of historical fiction, starting with the author’s forward about the difficult life his father had growing up in Alabama, an early life that contained too much pain and shame. The power of this story, told through the narrative and biting dialogue, lasts through the final page. The tale takes place in an Alabama prison starting in 1926 when a child is born to an inmate, Mariah Christianson. Matthews’ first sentence and the following lines in the book are beautiful and dramatic: “Nothing could stop the birth or the storm. Both mother and sky joined in a state of expulsion that could not be deterred by God or man. The rain and the wind came from nowhere and joined the drama unfolding in barracks one.”

Matthews explains that this child, who is the Son of Andalusia, could be raised by an inmate and is destined to be taken in by the State’s child services. But Elizabeth Thatcher, the wife of the warden, had desperately wanted a child but had ben childless, and she demanded that her husband give her the child to raise as their own. Warden Hollister Thatcher hated this idea, but he was hopelessly in love with his wife and he gave into her demand. The book explores the effect of this tension between the warden’s love for his wife and his hate for this child. As the author explained in the forward, in this saga, there is ample pain and shame to go around.

James Thatcher/Christianson is a remarkable boy and young man as the reader follows him for the first 17 years of his life. Meanwhile the warden is effectively the tsar of the prison and can get away with anything, including murder. James, a forgiving, honest, and charismatic young man, is the perfect foil for his drunken and evildoing father. When Elizabeth succumbs to an illness, that leaves the warden free to ignore his wife’s deathbed pleas to continue the boys education and nurturing.

This is the fourth book I’ve read by Matthews and it is different than the others. I’ve favorably reviewed his other books, but this is not just a murder mystery, although there is plenty of crime that occurs. There is a stark quality to this dark novel which only heightens the experience of reading it. Had I not been flush with too many other tasks to get done, this would have been a book that I read in one sitting. This novel gets my strongest recommendation.