Mrs. Mike by Nancy and Benedict Freedman

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1947. Paperback. 283 pages.

In 1907, 16-year-old Katherine Mary O’Fallon travels from Boston to live with her uncle in Calgary, Alberta. Soon after her arrival, she meets and falls in love with Sergeant Mike Flannigan, an officer in the Canadian Mounted Police. They marry and his job soon takes them to remote outposts in northern Canada. The novel is about Katherine’s relationship with her husband and it’s also about her relationship with the harsh country and the people who live there. Many of the people she meets are from First Nation tribes such as Dane-zaa (called Beaver in the book) and the Cree.

Mrs. Mike has a brisk pace, of the sort that I really like. Sometimes you want a novel that just moves. In storytelling style, I found it reminiscent of my experience reading Larry McMurtry’s amazing epic Lonesome Dove. Maybe I found them similar because they’re both frontier stories, but I think it’s also the particular liveliness that both books possess that also connected them in my mind. Mrs. Mike is the warmer of the two books, however, and less cynical in its depiction of people than Lonesome Dove.

The cover of my edition of Mrs. Mike touts it as a love story, and that description is true. But Mrs. Mike also has elements of horror as well. There are things that Kathy witnesses and experiences that are raw and terrible, and there are also horrifying stories that are told to her second-hand. One woman tells Kathy of her family’s tragic journey from France to Canada. While on the boat, the storyteller’s sister sickens and dies of the smallpox. The boat’s crew locks the family in their cabins and one by one the woman’s whole family dies of the disease, leaving her the only survivor. It’s an evocative scene, and chilling. But then, tales of epidemics have always left an impression on me.

Mrs. Mike is based on a real person who Nancy and Benedict Freedman met in California, but the veracity of some of the details in the book are apparently questionable. I approached it completely as fiction, however, and enjoyed it as such.

Mrs. Mike is perhaps old-fashioned in some ways, but a number of Kathy’s observations come through fresh and clear. It’s a book that surprised me too in the directions it took, but classic novels are often sneaky that way, taking your presuppositions of the era in which they were published and dashing them.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Becky’s Book Reviews – “I enjoyed the historical aspects of this one. I also liked the romance of it. It was a good, clean read. A book that almost anyone of any age could enjoy–if historical romance is their genre of choice.”

It’s All About the Book – “While I liked this book a lot, I think I would have liked it even more as a teenager. Not sure why exactly. I just think I would have been very much caught up in the adventure and romance, whereas now, perhaps I’ve read too much at this point and the book felt lacking in parts.”

Okay, also must add, I ran across a Goodreads review that panned the book and said each chapter could have been the basis for an episode of a cheesy Hallmark series. Now it’s been a while since I’ve seen a Hallmark show, but I am pretty sure Hallmark productions are not featuring plots full of bear-maulings, disease epidemics and dozens of people being burned alive in a wildfire. Like, what??

 

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Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright

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Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David

Recommendation from: Maphead’s Book Blog

A few years ago, I read Lawrence Wright’s book on Scientology called Going Clear. I was impressed by his writing and research, and later took the opportunity to see him speak at the National Book Festival in 2015. At the Festival, he focused his talk on his most recent book, Thirteen Days in September which is about the 1978 Camp David Accords, a peace agreement struck between Egypt and Israel. This pushed up the book in my priority for reading (I had already had it on my to-read list from Maphead’s Book Blog – see link above).

In Thirteen Days in September, Wright provides details of what happened in the nearly two weeks that led up to the agreement, as well as historical context for the agreement. He provides profiles of the three very different men at the center of the negotiations (U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin) as well as for members from their respective delegations.

Though the book may sound like it has a narrow focus chronologically, Thirteen Days in September in effect covers the whole sweep of the Middle East conflict from the 1940’s to the present-day. Begin and Sadat’s experience during World War II shaped who they would become as political leaders. For example, Begin’s family and community were all killed during the Holocaust, and this horrific tragedy was a motivating force behind his extreme, uncompromising stances when it came to Israel.

Egypt and Israel had been engaged in war and hostilities with each other since 1948, but it was a drain on both of their countries’ resources. Carter hoped that by sequestering the two leaders and their delegations at Camp David (the U.S. presidential retreat in Maryland), a peace might be struck between the two countries. All three leaders were risking their political careers to be there, and there were many times during the thirteen days that either Israel or Egypt’s delegation were on the verge of calling it quits. The U.S. delegation team ended up drafting a peace agreement that was then painstakingly modified based on feedback from either side. Names and wording had deep significance for all those involved, and creative solutions had to be made. (For example, slightly different wording in the Hebrew translation of the agreement compared to the English-language version.)

In the end, a historic and lasting peace was made between Egypt and Israel, and Begin and Sadat were later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their part in it. (Carter won a Nobel Peace Prize many years later for different work and the Nobel committee acknowledged then that he should have received it earlier for his work on the Camp David Accords.) As historic as the agreement was, unfortunately the fate of the Palestinians was not resolved by the agreement. Based on the information in this book, this failure seems to lie mostly at the feet of Begin, who backtracked on part of the Accords soon after the meeting at Camp David. The lack of resolution for the Palestinians is a problem that continues to prevent peace in the Middle East to this day.

I found the passages about the Palestinians very helpful as a frame for understanding where we are presently in the Middle East conflict:

Arab refugees flooded into neighboring countries, and Israel locked the door behind them. Instead of being digested by other Arab societies, the refugees became a destabilizing presence and a source of radicalism and terror that plagued the whole world. Except for Jordan, the Arab states have avoided absorbing the Palestinian refugees in order to keep the conflict alive. The numerous attempts to bring this conflict to an end have failed because of the absence of political courage on both sides to accept the sacrifices that peace would entail.

The last phrase “the sacrifices that peace would entail” really caught my eye. I feel like public discourse is more used to discussing the sacrifices of war (the loss of human lives) than the sacrifices required for peace (e.g. the loss of power).

And this quote also connects the Camp David Accords to where we are today:

In signing the treaty with Israel, Egypt severed its link to the Palestinian cause. Without a powerful Arab champion, Palestine became a mascot for Islamists and radical factions who could only do further damage to the prospects of a peaceful and just response to the misery of an abandoned people.

In addition to being highly informative and well-researched, Thirteen Days in September is written in a very engaging style, capturing the high-stakes drama of diplomacy. If you have an interest in this topic, or are a fan of Lawrence Wright’s previous books, I highly recommend reading Thirteen Days in September. Reading this book at the end of December proved very timely, as the United States had just controversially abstained from using its veto to stop a U.N. resolution condemning the continued building of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. I was able to follow this news story with increased understanding thanks to this book.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Alan Chong (2/25/15 review from Goodreads) – “Lawrence Wright turns what sounds like a snore fest – the story behind an ultimately failed accord – and turns it into a political thriller, filled with intrigue, deeply compelling characters, and a rich, violent history that stretches deep into the mythologies of three religions. This is deeply interesting stuff, giving me a new respect for Carter, and a complex look into the deeply flawed characters of Sadat and Begin.

Christian (1/16/15 review from Goodreads) – ““Thirteen Days in September” is a blow-by-blow behind the scenes account of what happened during the negotiations. All the research he did was truly amazing. The conversations between all the leaders were told. Many were based on interviews with leaders who took part in the combative negotiations. He got a lot of reliable information on what happened through a variety of sources.

John DiConsiglio (10/12/15 review on Goodreads) – “It doesn’t hit the heights of Wright’s masterpieces, Looming Tower & Going Clear. Sometimes feels cluttered & wonkish. Mideast-lite perhaps, but still a page-turner.

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The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kingsley

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2017 (US release). W. W. Norton. 368 pages.

In March 2015, UK’s Guardian presciently decided to ask one of its young journalists, Patrick Kingsley, to become a migration correspondent. Kingsley had already been working in Egypt for the Guardian and had been writing stories on the smuggling of Syrians from Egypt to Italy. Earlier in September 2014, a ship carrying 500 refugees had sunk off the coast of Egypt, killing everyone on board. Kingsley had interviewed a Syrian family who had been set to board that boat, but had been arrested before they reached the dinghy. Kingsley kept in touch with the father of the family, Hashem al-Souki.

When Hashem decided to try again to reach Europe, this time on his own, Kingsley asked if he could chronicle Hashem’s journey. Hashem agreed, and his story forms a narrative throughline in Kingsley’s book on the refugee crisis, The New Odyssey. In alternating chapters, we follow Hashem’s journey Syria to Egypt to Europe (with Sweden being his ultimate goal). He was arrested fairly early in the Syrian conflict and imprisoned in poor conditions without news from the outside. When he is released, a friend drives him home by a circuitous route. “What are we trying to avoid, asks Hashem. The front line, the friend replies.” Hashem and his family attempt to stay on in Syria, but as the situation deteriorates, they decide to flee to Egypt, which was still open to Syrian refugees at the time. Egypt becomes less and less hospitable, and so Hashem and his family, like many others, lay their hopes on making a life in Europe.

The other half of the book provides a larger context for Hashem’s journey – the political and economic realities that drove the mass migration as well as the decisions and factors that influenced the routes chosen by the refugees. He includes the stories of other refugees – Syrians, Eritreans, Ghanians, Iraqis, and others. He interviews smugglers and aid workers. Kingsley takes the reader from a outpost town in sub-Saharan Africa to the coasts of Greek islands to fields in Serbia where a stream of people treks across borders.

Kingsley’s main argument throughout the book is that Europe and other countries failed to manage the migration in a humane and organized way that would have benefited all involved. For mainly political reasons, they persisted in denial, assuming they could somehow deter the movement of increasingly desperate people. Instead, the people came chaotically, preyed upon and beaten by bandits and extortionists, rounded up like animals, dying by the hundreds in the Mediterranean.

An encapsulation of desperation: a former Syrian officer, Abu Jana, fled to Egypt after refusing to shoot unarmed protestors in Damascus. But due to Egypt’s rules about residency, Abu Jana risks being deported by the Egyptians back to Syria where he will surely be executed. ‘Why do we keep going by sea?’ Abu Jana asks Kingsley. ‘Because we trust god’s mercy more than the mercy of people here.’

The Eritreans, meanwhile, are fleeing a country as closed-off as North Korea, which conscripts a large portion of its citizens into the military, where they are often paid very little or not at all, in unsafe conditions. Kingsley interviews one Eritrean teenage refugee who dropped out of school to support his younger siblings, but because free movement is prohibited without school enrollment, the teen was arrested by the police for being outside of his house.

At one point, Kingsley includes a quote from Jeremy Harding, who has also written extensively on refugees:

We think of agents, traffickers and facilitators as the worst abusers of refugees, but when they set out to extort from their clients, when they cheat them or dispatch them to their deaths, they are only enacting an entrepreneurial version of the disdain which refugees suffer at the hands of far more powerful enemies – those who terrorise them and those who are determined to keep them at arm’s length. Human traffickers are simply vectors of the contempt which exists at the two poles of the asylum seeker’s journey; they take their cue from the attitudes of warlords and dictators, on the one hand, and, on the other, of wealthy states whose citizens have learned to think of generosity as a vice.

I appreciated Kingsley’s interrogation of the supposed distinction between refugees and economic migrants. Throughout the book, he shows that people can’t be easily separated into these two categories. I also liked this pointed response from a Cameroonian (an “economic migrant”) on his way to a departure point in Libya: “The white man arrived in Africa by sea without a visa,” says the Cameroonian, “And we have learned to travel from the white man.”

I followed the refugee news story fairly well, especially in 2015, when the numbers and media coverage peaked, but this book still felt like necessary reading for me. Kingsley’s reporting and writing is excellent and humane.

I’ll close this review with another quote from the book:

It’s an odd experience, stepping across a border like this. On the ground, there is nothing to denote the boundary. On the Greek side, there is a field of sweetcorn and, on the Macedonian side, a vineyard. In the middle, there’s no marker that reveals you’re moving between two countries rather than two farms . . . In moments like these, you realise the absurdity of dividing the earth into fairly arbitrary parcels of turf. It’s a facile point to make, but sometimes even the facile feels profound when you’re wandering through Europe with people whose future depends on repeatedly flouting these invisible divisions, and whose own homeland is currently in the process of being divvied up into a new set of arbitrary parcels.

**Disclosure: I requested and received a digital copy of this book from Netgalley in return for an honest review. (The digital copy expired today.)**

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Goodbye 2016: A Look Back at the Year in Reading

In a number of ways, 2016 was not an ideal environment for a good reading year. Unwelcome changes at work injected an undercurrent of stress that was exacerbated by alarming developments on the national and world stage. I found it hard to tear myself away from the news and settle down with books, though I still managed to read 73 over the course of the year. Books were still a mainstay – some provided escape, others challenged my worldview. I laughed and learned and was touched at the heart by books in 2016.

So here is a retrospective of my year in books, interspersed with photos I took throughout 2016, except for the last picture which was taken by my dad.

Two books that brought me home

One of my favorite books read this year was Ruth Moore’s 1946 novel Spoonhandle. Set in 1930’s Maine, the book follows various inhabitants of the community on fictional Big Spoon Island. Moore’s characterization and depiction of island life were wonderful. My early childhood was spent on Mount Desert Island, so that personal connection also added to my enjoyment.

Last week, as I was flying to Maine for Christmas, I read Susan Hand Shetterly’s Settled in the Wild, which is a short collection of essays about nature and community in coastal Maine. Shetterly’s writing was lovely and insightful, and put me in a perfect frame of mind for my holiday visit with my parents.

Classic reads

I know that I found parts of Henry Fielding’s History of Tom Jones, A Foundling humorous, but when I think of it now, I mostly remember how tortuously long it took to finish that classic 18th century tome.

I have much more fond memories of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage and Jane Austen’s Lady Susan / The Watsons / Sandition.

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Books without romance

Another classic that I read in 2016 was Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, which I enjoyed and also had me asking where are all the novels about single, never-married adult protagonists where there is no romantic interest? From Twitter to Goodreads to Book Riot, the conversation that followed was engaging. I also came away with some book recommendations, one of which was Amy Stewart’s historical novel Girl Waits with Gun, which I quite liked. I’m looking forward to reading more of these recommendations in the future.

Along the same lines, but in the nonfiction realm, I thoroughly appreciated Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.

Books with romance

Of course I still enjoy reading books with romance, and read a handful in 2016 worth highlighting here. I liked Jill Sorenson’s gritty romantic suspense novels set in San Diego and Mexico (Edge of Night, Caught in the Act, Off the Rails). Rose Lerner’s below-stairs historical romance Listen to the Moon was a stand-out for me as was Zen Cho’s novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Shannon Stacey and Courtney Milan remained reliably good with their latest respective offerings Fully Ignited and Hold Me. The lively banter and savvy humor of Lucy Parker’s Act Like It was perfect entertainment on my return flight from Maine this past week.

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A pair of young adult reads

I still frequently think about Meg Medina’s young adult novel, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass as well as the similarly-themed book I read soon after, Brock Cole’s The Goats. I really connected to the emotional realism of Medina’s and Cole’s books.

The start of something good

In the last couple of months, I read two books that are each the start of a series that I fully intend to continue into 2017. The first was Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, which featured excellent worldbuilding. I already have the sequel ready on my Kindle. The other book was Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years, a family saga set in pre-WWII England. Howard’s book reminded me strongly of Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings in its deft handling of the child characters. The Light Years is the first of five novels that comprise the Cazelet Chronicles.

Books I did not finish (and one rocky reading experience that paid off in the end)

The first book of 2016 to be abandoned was Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place. It wasn’t a bad book, but I wasn’t very invested in it and dropped it fairly early. Later, I picked up Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street as it was a to-read for my classic club challenge. The satirical focus of the novel wasn’t feeling very resonant with me, so I took up with Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here instead. I thought it would be more timely and certainly a speech made at a town hall meeting early in the novel had parallels to today. But as I kept going, the book didn’t feel as freshly relevant as I’d hoped, and it was kind of boring to boot, so I dropped that as well. Sorry, Sinclair Lewis.

In more recently published books, two failures for me were Patricia Park’s Re: Jane and Leonie Swann’s Three Bags Full. The former is a retelling of Jane Eyre, but the characterizaton was awful and without much nuance. I made a fair amount of progress in Swann’s Three Bags Full, but this mystery novel narrated by sheep turned into a slog after the initial novelty wore off.

Though I never considered abandoning it, I had a difficult time with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children due to the narrative style. The narrator kept incessantly interrupting the story to hint at future events and it was driving me nuts. It wasn’t until two-thirds through the 650-page novel that I begrudgingly saw the cleverness of this narrative tic, in the often unexpected way that the anticipatory hints were fulfilled.

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Books with friends

In terms of participating in bookish community, 2016 was a good year. In February, I participated in Book Blogger Appreciation Week. Book blogger events also led me to read the following books this year:

Spoonhandle by Ruth Moore (Reading New England)

Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (#Weirdathon)

Haunting Emma trilogy by Lee Nichols, A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine (RIP Challenge)

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley, Wonder by RJ Palacio, Radio Silence by Alyssa Cole, others already mentioned earlier in this post (Book Riot’s #Read Harder challenge)

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (Social Justice Book Club)

Thanks to the book club I’m in with Leslie and Teresa, I read these books: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer, All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, and Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion.

My cousin Phil and I decided to pick a book to read in common this year and it ended up being Laura Hillenbrand’s excellent Unbroken.

Along with several friends, I went to the National Book Festival in September this year. I saw several great authors, but I was especially glad to see Margo Jefferson, author of the memoir, Negroland, which I had read in February.

After the US presidential election, several bloggers I follow on Twitter started a Facebook book discussion group, which I joined. We started with Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark. I know I’ll be referring back to quotes from this book as motivation in the years ahead.

My current read

While my Goodreads profile lists four books as “currently reading”, there is really only one book that I’m actively reading at the moment. It is Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David. Wright uses the historic 1978 meeting as the framework for discussing the history and personalities involved, as well as the difficulty of forging peace. Wright’s book is well-researched, and who knew diplomacy could be so dramatic? This book has seemed especially timely considering recent developments in the relationship between the USA and Israel. It’s also timely as a year-end read as it’s about fighting for a better world, even when there’s baggage and seemingly intractable problems that beset us.

So, goodbye 2016! And Happy New Year everyone!

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All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

All the Single Ladies

2016. Simon & Schuster. ebook. 352 pages.

As a life-long single woman (as in, have had dates but never a dating relationship), I had perked up when Kate Bolick’s book Spinster came out last year. Like, hey, there may be something relatable in there for me. Before I got around to reading it though, reviews came out that revealed that Bolick’s book wasn’t really about single women. All of the women she profiled were married at some point, and Bolick’s autobiographical sections – framed as a metaphorical spinsterhood – apparently still involved a fair amount of dating. I contented myself with Briallen Hopper’s excellent essay on spinsters instead.

Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies is closer to the real deal. Her book looks at single women from a variety of angles: social history, economic factors, the role of urban life, the value of female friendships, and cultural views of single women, sex and parenthood.

The chapter on the history of single women was one of my favorites. Traister finds some great source material revealing how single women have been discussed throughout the ages. Traister refers to a 1904 article called “Why I Do Not Marry” written by a “Bachelor Maid” that I wish I could find in its entirety. The bits that I have found online reveal a young woman snarkily rejecting the cultural norms of her day and it’s quite cheering.

But even more than the history and the cultural review, what I loved about Traister’s book was reading about single women like me talk about being single as a way of life, not a waiting period. Whether it’s in fiction or in nonfiction, single life is rarely addressed without regarding it as some precursor to another stage. But I’m certainly not living my life like it’s a precursor to anything. From the book: “After all, unmarried life is not a practice round or a staging ground or a suspension of real life.”

And here I’m going to divert into personal story for a bit:

I remember when I was 22 or 23 and in graduate school. I participated in a Christian campus group and there was a slightly older guy who seemed to be giving signs of interest. We went to a museum together once. I think that was only the second time in my life that I’d gone on something resembling a date. There was an engaged couple in the campus group as well, and the girl unexpectedly invited me to lunch one day. I knew instinctively that she had deputized herself to talk to me about this guy and I was right. I remember that she clumsily tried to relate to my singleness by saying that she understood how it was to be single, as she had been single in high school. She said that the guy, being older, was probably looking only for serious relationships. I expressed that I didn’t have any particular plans at this point. She said something to the effect that at our age, it was time to move beyond casual dating. It was completely ridiculous and fortunately, I took none of it to heart.

As Traister’s book underscores repeatedly, there is no universal life-script that we should all be following. Anita Hill was interviewed for this book and is quoted as saying: “And I want everyone to understand that you can have a good life, despite what convention says, and be single. That doesn’t mean you have to be against marriage. It just means that there are choices that society should not impose on you.”

I identify strongly with the single women in this book who expressed ambivalence about dating. First, from Traister’s own life (this story ends with her finding a relationship, but I include the quote because the rest echoed my own feelings so well):

I felt smothered by suitors who called too often, claustrophobic around those who wanted to see me too frequently, and bugged by the ones who didn’t want to try the bars or restaurants I liked to go to, or who pressured me to cut out of work earlier than I wanted to cut out. I got used to doing things my way; I liked doing things my way. These men just mucked it all up. I knew how I sounded, even in my own head: picky, petty, and narcissistic. I worried about the monster of self-interest that I had become.

In retrospect, however, I see the fierce protection of my space, schedule, and solitude served as a prophylactic against relationships I didn’t really want to be in. Maybe I was too hard on those guys, but I am also certain that I wasn’t very interested in them. I am certain of that because when, after six years without a relationship that lasted beyond three dates, I met a man I was interested in and didn’t think twice about Saturday mornings, about breaking my weirdo routines or leaving work early; I was happy every single time he called.

More simply put, from one of Traister’s interview subjects (Elliott, from D.C.):

Mostly, I didn’t pursue people I wasn’t crazy about because I was busy doing other things that I enjoyed more than I enjoyed being with men I wasn’t crazy about.

Amen.

In conclusion, this is a book well worth reading. I know so many single ladies – not just never-marrieds like myself, but also divorced and widowed – and the tyranny of the romantic narrative has meant these other life narratives have been regarded as not worth much coverage in fiction or non-fiction. Traister has done some good work in filling in that gap. May there be even more books to come on the subject.

Here’s excerpts to others’ reviews:

The 3R’s Blog – “I give Traister credit for getting beyond her own demographic and including the voices of single mothers, college students. seniors, and women from a broader range of economic and cultural backgrounds–she really has made the effort to consider all the single ladies.”

Running N Reading – “For those of you who may think, “well, I’m not single, and I don’t want to be single, so I’m not sure how interesting this will be,” let me assure you that you can lay those worries to rest; this is a remarkably accessible account of women’s history in our nation.”

Shelf Love (Teresa) – “This is as comprehensive a book on single womanhood in America today as you’re likely to find, especially if you want to something that’s just 350 pages and written for a general audience.”

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Mini-Reviews: Crime and Intrigue

I’m feeling that end-of-year compulsion to tie up loose ends and catch up on my book reviews for this year. This post gathers up all the private eyes, cops, and amateur sleuths I encountered in 2016.

The Body in the Library (Miss Marple #3) – Agatha Christie

I listened to this one while driving from Maine to Virginia back in January of this year. My sister and brother-in-law were along for the ride too and I remember discussing our whodunit theories over fast food dinner somewhere in Pennsylvania. We didn’t figure it out – Christie kept us guessing. This one stands out for having quite the cold-blooded murder plan.

Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins #1) – Walter Mosley

Recommendation from: Beth Fish Reads

This mystery set in 1940’s Los Angeles features a black man named Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins who is hired by white men to look for a missing blonde who was known to frequent black establishments. Rawlins takes the gig as he needs the money to keep his house. It is not a fancy house, but home-ownership means independence and freedom for him and he does not want to give that up. The symbolism of Rawlins’ house is what I remember most from this book. The investigation and mystery in the rest of the book were fine. I’m not sure if I’ll read more in the series. I’m generally terrible at continuing on with mystery series even if I’ve enjoyed the first entry.

Still Life (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #1) – Louise Penny

I read a good chunk of this book one morning in Seattle. I had flown to Seattle for a conference and the time difference meant I woke up super early. While waiting to meet a friend for breakfast, I found a seat in Pike Place Market overlooking Elliott Bay and read and read. Still Life was an engaging mystery. A couple of the characters were a bit hard to believe in their terribleness. However, like other readers, I found the character Chief Inspector Gamache a refreshingly stable presence in a genre that seems to favor troubled,  lonely souls as the leads. (Not that those are bad books, but it’s nice to have a change.)

Lush Life – Richard Price

A young white man is shot and killed while resisting an attempted mugging in the Lower East Side, his memorable last words being, “Not tonight, my man.” Price’s novel follows a wide cast of characters who are all connected to the fatal shooting: the shooter, the detectives on the case, the main witness, the family, and the people of the neighborhood.

Although the book dragged on too long in the end, Price is terrific at characterization, dialogue and scene-setting. The young man’s memorial service is one of the high points in this regard. Most memorable however are the early scenes where detectives psychologically break-down a witness who they believe is the murderer. When I read Adam Benforado’s Unfair earlier this month where it talked about American police interrogations, my mind immediately recalled these scenes from the novel.

The Deep End (The Country Club Murders #1) – Julie Mulhern

Recommendation from: Lakeside Musing

On the more frothy end of the mystery spectrum, we have Mulhern’s series which is set in mid-1970’s Kansas City, Missouri. I say frothy in terms of tone – it does have a fairly high body count. Ellison Russell is our amateur sleuth who discovers the body of her husband’s mistress in the country club pool. Her husband is missing, she’s a suspect, her teenage daughter is upset and there are a lot of dirty secrets she’s about to uncover. Ellison has a reputation among her set as a bit of an ice queen, but manages to collect a couple of potential love interests over the course of the novel all the same. (The philandering husband having left that field open.) I was a little disappointed that Mulhern didn’t lean more into the setting. It’s not every time you read a book set in Kansas City, much less in the 1970s, so I was hoping for more historic and local specificity than was delivered. Perhaps later books in the series do better on that score. Overall, it was a quick, page-turning read that hit the spot at the time I read it.

No One Lives Twice (Lexi Carmichael Mystery #1) – Julie Moffett

Another light mystery: Lexi Carmichael is a low-level tech for the National Security Agency who is suddenly thrown into high-intrigue mystery when her best friend mails her a puzzling document and then disappears. Suddenly, Lexi is being threatened on the street of her parents’ house, her apartment is being burgled, and several sexy men of undetermined trustworthiness have swooped in with offers to help. Lexi’s obliviousness strains credulity at times, but I liked the attention to detail when it came to the plot. In particular, the villains’ plans – when all is revealed – were satisfyingly interesting and complex. (The title does acquire some additional meaning by the end. It’s not just there for Bond connotation.) I know the author, so that’s why I wanted to check out the book. Overall, I found the book to be a fun bit of escapist reading.

A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine

Recommendation from: Teresa of Shelf Love (in the comments of the linked review)

All the books above have had at least partial focus on the investigator. In A Fatal Inversion, the main characters are complicit in the murder, and they fear discovery now that the body has been found many years later. The novel follows them in their present-day panic. It also follows them into their flashbacks as they remember being young and irresponsible, living it up in a country house, heading toward a tragedy of their own making. I was telling Teresa while I was midway through the book that A Fatal Inversion was like Tartt’s The Secret History featuring the young hippies from Joan Didion’s essay “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”.

Despite knowing who is responsible for the murder, A Fatal Inversion has a lot of unexpected revelations in store for the reader. In addition to this fine plotting, Vine’s characterization is also terrific. (Or rather I should say Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine was her pen name). This was my first foray into Rendell/Vine. I’m not sure what would be next among her prolific backlist. I think I’ve had Rottweiler on my to-read list for a while, but I’m open to suggestions.

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Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado

unfair-benforado

2015. Broadway Books. Paperback. 391 pages (290 pages of main content with 100 pages for bibliography, index and reader’s guide)

Review:

Adam Benforado is a law professor whose courses include a seminar called “Law and Mind Sciences”. Reading Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice feels like taking a survey course on the topic. Each chapter focuses on a particular stage of the American justice system and examines that stage in light of psychological and cognitive science research. The chapters have titles such as “The Labels We Live By – The Victim” and “In the Eye of the Beholder – The Jury”.

Benforado’s main argument is that our justice system rests on incorrect assumptions, even dogmas, of how people think, respond, act and make decisions. These assumptions contribute to the miscarriage of justice, including the conviction of innocent people. We should rigorously review police and court practices to make sure these practices are in line with empirical evidence of what works to actually achieve justice for all.

I would like to highlight two of the chapters that really stood out to me. Chapter 2 “Dangerous Confessions – The Detective” focuses on the fallibility of police techniques for interrogating suspects, especially the commonly used Reid approach. This approach encourages aggressive, lengthy interrogations, and allow for police to lie about the evidence in their possession. Subject to hours of beration and isolation, people will sometimes falsely confess just to escape the abuse. In the moment, people may have cognitive myopia and find it hard to remember long-term consequences when there is an opportunity for short-term relief. Unfortunately, in the justice system, once a confession is extracted, the investigation becomes biased and may ignore details of the confession that don’t align with the evidence. At the end of the book, Benforado describes how the UK has changed its interviewing techniques where the goal is to get as much information as possible from suspect, rather than trying for a confession. “The reforms have not only reduced the likelihood of a suspect admitting to a crime he didn’t commit, they’ve actually increased the amount of useful information that guilty suspects reveal.”

Chapter 6 “The Corruption of Memory – The Eyewitness” argues that eyewitness testimony is frequently mishandled in our current justice system. Eyewitness memory is treated in the justice system like it can be played back exactly the way it happened. But over time, we lose specifics and additionally, all memory is filtered “through the lens of our motivations, expectations and experiences”. Benforado offers many research studies to support the fact that our memory is very malleable after the fact. Primary investigators who have a theory of how the crime happened may inadvertently direct the witness’ memory. Lawyers who mean well can alter an eyewitness testimony through witness prep. As Benforado writes, “A memory of a perpetrator’s face is just as susceptible to adulteration and misuse as a hair sample or partial fingerprint taken from a crime scene, but we don’t treat it that way.”

In the second-to-last chapter about the challenges of reform, Benforado points out that many procedural rules give the appearance of eliminating discrimination in the legal process but actually fail to do so. For example, the Supreme Court banned lawyers from removing people from jury selection on the basis of race alone, but discrimination still happens. Benforado included this astonishing anecdote about jury selection process: “Between 2005 and 2009, prosecutors in Houston County, Alabama, struck approximately four out of five blacks in capital-case jury panels. About half of the resulting juries were all white, and the other half had only a single black juror.”

The final chapter of the book “What We Can Do – The Future” is an exciting conclusion to the book as Benforado describes multiple paradigm-shifting possibilities for reform. One of the most intriguing reforms that he mentioned was the idea of the virtual courtroom. This would mean that victims wouldn’t have to be in the same room as their attackers. This would mean less reliance jury’s overconfident conclusions drawn from the appearance and demeanor of witnesses and defendants. (We are not as good at detecting innocence and guilt as we think we are.)

Benforado also questions whether our current adversarial approach really serves justice. He frames the common practice of plea bargaining in a way that I had never considered before:

…the adversarial system has played an important role in the shift from quick and relatively straightforward proceedings to trials that are long and extremely complicated. And with lawyers constantly wrangling over procedural rules, it’s no longer possible to provide regular trials to everyone charged with a crime. We just don’t have the resources, which has led us to rely heavily on the plea bargain. In nine out of ten cases today, as we’ve seen, the accused waives his right to trial in exchange for a lighter punishment . . . Constitutional protections do not apply in plea negotiations. And this is particularly consequential because, in plea bargaining, the prosecutor enjoys a tremendous amount of discretion, taking on all the key roles: accuser, investigator, adjudicator, and sentencer. This concentration of authority inevitably leads to unequal treatment and unfairness.

I’m not 100% sure I’m on board with all of the reform ideas in the last chapter – I’m still mulling over the ideas about prison reform – but I appreciate the challenge to my assumptions of what justice looks like. In fact, I can say that about the entire book. I wasn’t unaware of judicial problems before reading this book, thanks to books like Krakauer’s Missoula and the life-saving work of The Innocence Project. However, Benforado’s thorough, systemic approach attacks foundational assumptions that I hadn’t previously examined.

I received a copy of this book for review via Blogging for Books.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Advice Unasked – “The final chapter of suggestions for reform is a scant 29 pages, and very thin. Problems without solutions make many readers uncomfortable, and any courtroom case wraps up with an argument for action, but I wish, nonetheless, for a different conclusion. That chapter could easily be another book, and perhaps it should be.”

Shaina Reads – “I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a deeper understanding of how the brain functions and why humans as a whole are ill-suited to passing objective social judgments.”

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