Review of “Truly Dead” by Anne Frasier

Anne Frasier is the pen name of Theresa Weir, widely known for her excellent memoir, The Orchard. Her fiction stands out, in my opinion, for her deep and compassionate understanding of physic pain.

This is the fourth book in a detective series featuring homicide detectives Elise Sandburg and David Gould. It is set in Savannah, and is richly atmospheric.

As the story begins, Elise and David are called back to Savannah from Chicago; they had both been fired after their last case. The Savannah medical examiner, John Casper, asked them to come back unofficially and help him with a new case. They agree because John is also a personal friend: “John was the good kind of family. The kind that wasn’t blood.”

Bodies of children have been found in a house slated for demolition. The house was once occupied by a murderer, Frank Remy, who was put in prison by Elise’s father Jackson Sweet. Remy reputedly died there 36 years before. Making the case more disturbing, the m.o. is similar to that of a serial killer terrorizing Florida.

Returning to Savannah, especially for a case involving dead children, brings up all sorts of ghosts for Elise and David.

David lost his own child to murder, and Elise had been captured and tortured in Savannah by a psychopath named Atticus Tremain who was never caught. The case pushes emotional buttons for both of them.

Meanwhile, the police decide to exhume Remy’s body to see if the DNA matches any of the DNA on the bodies inside the wall, and then all hell breaks loose. Not only Elise and David but everyone they love is in danger.

Discussion: As in previous books, the author closely captures the feelings of people who are dealing with loss and/or agonizing memories. She shows how hurt, loneliness, and shame can translate into a pain that is physical.

Evaluation: The colorful setting of Savannah; the appealing but troubled protagonists and the chemistry between them; and the suspense that builds to a fever pitch make a winning combination. I definitely look forward to more volumes in this series.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Thomas & Mercer, 2017

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Review of “Cattle Kingdom: The Hidden History of the Cowboy West” by Christopher Knowlton

This is one heck of a good book, so full of interesting historical facts and vignettes that you will be driving everyone around you crazy as you read by calling out repeatedly, “Listen to THIS!”

It tells the story of the open-range cattle era and the rise of the cowboy from the perspective of its economic origins. But if that sounds dry, don’t be deceived. Knowlton, a former magazine writer, understands how to hold your interest. As far as the story he wants to tell, it is one with contemporary relevance. He writes:

“One goal here is to shine light on the psychology and greed that drive an investment mania, and on the financial and human catastrophes that result from the bursting of a commodity bubble.”

He sees this history not only as a morality tale about those who devote all their dreams (not to mention money) on speculative financial bubbles, but as an opportunity to study the environmental disasters that were both caused by the cattle boom, and which contributed to its demise.

He also wants you to know the real story of the American cowboy, and how different the reality was from the iconic and heroic myth that has grown up around cowboys and that is portrayed in books and movies. He explains:

“The work was hard, dirty, and monotonous – hardly the exciting version depicted in the dime novels and the eastern press. . . .”

As one cowboy noted in his memoirs, it was “a continual round of drudgery, exposure and hard work which beggar description.” In addition, “the job of a cowboy entailed an astonishing number of ways to get hurt or killed: “You could fall from your horse, you could be kicked in the head while roping a steer; you could be gored by a horn, you could drown while crossing a river, you could be caught in quicksand,” etc. And there were many less-than-fatal perils of the job, such as the torment of insects, sunstroke, sun blindness, infections, lack of medical care, grueling hours, and the long winters with no work at all.

Rancher and trail boss Charles Goodnight is credited for inventing the chuck wagon in 1866 to serve men on the cattle drives; they became ubiquitous across the open range.

Furthermore, the stories about “cowboys and Indians” were exaggerated as well. Relatively few skirmishes took place between these two groups. In fact, by the time the cowboy movement began out West after the Civil War, the numbers of Native Americans had been drastically reduced by disease and starvation, and in any event most had been moved to reservations.

How and why did it get portrayed otherwise?

As it happens, the story of the cattle era is also a story of fake news; news manufactured to spur immigration to aspiring new states, to drive profits, to justify killing Native Americans and lynching rivals, and to build up the careers of those wanting to capitalize on this particular definition of the American character. Knowlton argues that the cowboy myth, so appealing to Americans, has even influenced America’s foreign policy.

Finally, this book focuses on three young men in particular who were drawn to participate in the cattle boom: a rich Englishman, a rich Frenchman, and a rich American, Theodore Roosevelt, who of course went on not only to become the U.S. President, but also to be one of the leading conservationists in American history.

Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands

When the Civil War was over, the Confederate economy was devastated, and the impoverished young men of the South had no way to make a living. It was in Texas, the author reports, that the era of the Cattle Kingdom was born. Thus, as the author reports, at the peak of the cattle boom a majority of cowboys were white southerners, many former Confederate cavalrymen.

In Texas, there was an abundance of cattle, although before the Civil War, cattle were not valued for meat, but rather for their hides and tallow. Americans ate more pork than beef, because pork was easier to preserve. But that was about to change, thanks to the incentives and innovations of the cattle ranchers.

At the peak of the migration, “the largest forced migration of animals in human history,” some ten million cattle would be driven north out of Texas, accompanied by half a million horses and some 50,000 cowboys.” (Knowlton also devotes space to the rise of prostitution out West. It was in fact in Dodge City, one of the cowboy towns that sprang up, that the term “red-light district” was first coined, derived from the name of the red glass panels in one of the brothels.)

Dodge City in 1874, from Ford County Historical Society

And here’s a question for “Outlander” fans: What did the Highland Clearances after the Battle of Culloden have to do with developments of the American cowboy movement? The answer is surprisingly relevant, because the British were very big investors in the American West. But I’ll let readers discover the answer to that one by reading the book.

Some of the most interesting information in the book has to do with all the innovations and changes that the cowboy era brought, such as the rise of the meatpacking industry, and the influence of its automation innovations. In fact, as the author reports, meatpackers developed the first assembly lines, and it was from studying the process at Chicago slaughterhouses that Henry Ford came up with the idea of using a similar method to produce cars. The meatpackers also radically changed the American system of business procedures and management practices. Even the story about how Chicago got to be the epicenter of the meat business is fascinating.

Swift and Company
Packers, Union Stock Yards, Chicago, 1893

And as refrigeration was developed to get all this beef to eastern markets, Americans began to switch their eating habits. A trio of restaurants in New York known as Delmonico’s helped popularize eating steak. Delmonico’s is also credited with being the first American restaurant to allow patrons to order from a menu à la carte, as opposed to featuring fixed menus. Who knew?

Delmonico’s, Beaver and Williams Streets, 1893

Then there was barbed wire, which, invented to help solve the problem of wandering cattle, totally changed the husbandry of cattle. And, as the author points out, it would also come to play a significant role in the incarceration of people as well as livestock.

As for environmental disasters, perhaps the biggest one was the killing off of the bison. As Knowlton stated, “if the cattle were to come, the competing buffalo would have to go.” He declared:

“. . . nothing could match in numbers, poundage, and sheer waste the slaughter of the bison, or the speed with which this animal approached extinction. …in a stunningly short period of time, less than twenty years, the bison were forced to the edge of extinction, with no more than 325 surviving south of Canada.”

Bison skulls to be used for fertilizer, 1870

There were a number of contributing factors to the bison slaughter, not unrelated to the cattle boom. One was the expansion of railroads and telegraph lines, especially in response to the needs of the cattle business. Advances in firearms made killing these generally docile animals “the big-game equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.” The U.S. military also abetted the slaughter in their efforts to deprive Native Americans of food so as to facilitate their “herding” into reservations. Even the fact that female bison hides were preferred by hunters led to the animals’ rapid extinction.

And what about the demise of the cattle era and the bursting of its economic bubble? Overgrazing, drought, corruption, greed, incompetence, growing conflicts between cattle barons and cowboys, and absentee management all played a role. But the nail in the coffin came from the brutal winter of 1886-1887, later known as “the Big Die-up.” Temperatures in the Great Plains went as low as sixty degrees below zero in places, accompanied by high winds and deep snows. It was the coldest winter on record. When it was over, nearly a million head of cattle were dead, some 50 to 80 percent of the herds across the northernmost ranges. Knowlton describes it as “the greatest loss of animal life in pastoral history” – at least, from environmental, rather than human causes.

Train stopped during Blizzard 1886. Ford County, Ks. Image courtesy Kansas Historical Society

Evaluation: I can’t begin to tell you all the fascinating things you will learn in this book. It’s a book I never thought would interest me, and yet it is one of the most absorbing and even exciting books on history I have ever encountered. I can’t sing its praises enough. Jim loved it as well, even though I spoiled much of it for him by reading many interesting parts to him while I read it first. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017

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Kid Lit Review of “Pass the Pandowdy, Please” by Abigail Ewing Zelz

This book for kids 8-11, subtitled “Chewing on History with Famous Folks and Their Fabulous Foods” aims to provide a glimpse into the food customs of famous people throughout history. As the author notes, “History is written between the lines of menu items.”

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There are two parts to each of the profiles of the sixteen historical figures featured: one is a description of what that person would have eaten, and the other, told as if in the person’s own words, tells why the person was famous. (I especially enjoyed the title of the bio of Napoleon – “More About Moi.”)

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For example, we learn about George Washington’s false teeth, and how, by the time he became President, only one of his teeth was real. Thus he preferred soft foods, and famously loved having hoecakes with butter and honey for breakfast. (I have tried the Mt. Vernon recipe for this meal, and it was very good.)

washington_spread

Paul Revere apparently had his teeth, but ate a lot of cornmeal mush anyway (it is also called “hasty pudding”), a food introduced to colonists by Native Americans.

It is Abraham Lincoln who enjoyed pandowdy, although he tended to get so absorbed in his work he would forget to eat.

Under Queen Victoria, dishes became popular such as fried ox feet, tongue, and sheep’s head. (You can learn more about the rather unsavory – to me, anyway – aspects of eating in the Victorian Era in this website on British Food History.)

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Gandhi was a vegetarian (when he wasn’t fasting during protests to draw attention to injustice). [Although not included in this book, Gandhi famously said “The body was never meant to be treated as a refuse bin, holding all the foods that the palate demands.” Probably good he didn’t live in current times in America.]

Babe Ruth, on the other hand, was well-known as a big eater, especially “relishing” ballpark hot dogs. The famous Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai is also discussed.

hokusai_spread

Martin Luther King, Jr. loved traditional Southern cooking. One of my favorite stories about him (not in this book) is about how much he was looking forward to dinner the day he was assassinated: he wanted to make sure they would get “real soul food”. Canaan’s Edge, the concluding volume of “America in the King Years,” by Pulitizer Prize winner Taylor Branch, provides a poignant account of King’s last day, and the food he wanted for his supper. What the author of this book for kids does include however is the important role played by lunch counters in the Civil Rights movement.

The main part of the book ends with a section on Neil Armstrong, offering entertaining information on how astronauts eat.

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At the end of the book there is a timeline, and a bit more information for each person profiled in a section called “Wanna Learn A Little More?” This is followed by “Wanna Read A Little More?” offering a bibliography and website list. Finally, there is a simple recipe for pandowdy.

The very clever and amusing watercolor illustrations are by Eric Zelz, husband of the author. He uses caricatures and eye-catching text enhancements.

columbus_spread

Evaluation: The selection of historical figures is reasonably eclectic, and the historical information offers enough of a taste to whet kids’ appetites for more.

Published by Tilbury House Publishers, 2016

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

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Review of “Words in Deep Blue” by Cath Crowley

A new book by Australian author Cath Crowley, who also wrote Graffiti Moon and A Little Wanting Song, is always a treat because she is such an exceptional writer. In addition she is especially adept at portraying the emotional landscape of teens. This one has further appeal because it is centered around a bookstore, “Howling Books,” and the love of books and their words, a love shared by the protagonists.

Rachel Sweetie, 18, lost her brother Cal ten months before in a drowning incident. She, her brother, and mother had moved to the coastal town of Sea Ridge three years earlier to help out her Gran. Now Rachel is about to return to Gracetown, the suburb of Melbourne where she grew up. She just hasn’t been able to get over Cal’s death, and failed her last year of school (although before Cal’s death she was a straight-A student). She will stay with her favorite aunt, Rose, for a change of scene, in the hope it will aid healing her heart.

Before Rachel left Gracetown, she left a note for Henry Jones, whose family owns Howling Books. She inserted it into his favorite book in “The Letter Library.” This is a section of Howling Books where the books aren’t for customers to buy. Instead, as Rachel explains, “The idea is that they can circle words or phrase on the pages of their favorite books. They can write notes in the margins. They can leave letters for other people who’ve read the same books.” Henry’s dad calls it “a library of people.”

In the letter Rachel left for Henry, she told him she loved him. They had always been BFFs, but she realized she felt more, even though he was besotted by his new girlfriend Amy. She never heard back from him, and she was angry, hurt, and humiliated.

Now, back in Gracetown, her aunt gets her a job at Howling Books, much to Rachel’s horror. She will have to face Henry and his sister George every day, and they don’t even know yet that Cal is dead.

When Rachel finally tells Henry about Cal, she explains that it seemed especially unfair to her, not just that he died, but that before the accident, he was so excited about all the things he wanted to do in life and all he wanted to see. Now he would never realize any of it. Henry opined that one could also see it as Cal having gotten lucky in a way, because his last days seemed so beautiful to him, “filled with golden light”:

“Maybe he didn’t get screwed over by the universe. Maybe it was trying to cram everything in for him.”

“Not very scientific,” Rachel counters.

“‘Sometimes science isn’t enough. Sometimes you need the poets,’ he says…”

The two talk a lot about memory and souls and how the dead can stay alive through their stories. As Rachel comes to understand, “We are the books we read and the things we love. Cal is the ocean and the letters he left.” Cal will always be with her.

Meanwhile, all of them are also dealing with the repercussions of the possible sale of the bookshop, because it is failing financially in spite of a [small] coterie of faithful customers. Henry is devastated. He loves books, even though his girlfriend Amy wants him to do something with more prestige and more money. He tells Rachel why the store has been so important to him:

“Books are important. Words are important. Words matter, in fact. They’re not pointless, as you’ve suggested. If they were pointless, then they couldn’t start revolutions and they wouldn’t change history. If they were just words, we wouldn’t write songs or listen to them. We wouldn’t beg to be read to as kids. . . . . If they were just words, people wouldn’t fall in love because of them, feel bad because of them, ache because of them, and stop aching because of them….”

There is a third theme running through the story: that of sea monkeys. These are actually a kind of brine shrimp that grow really fast, but only if conditions are right. If not, they remain in dormant cysts for as long as it takes for things to get better: “And then, when things are good again, the life cycle keeps going.” You can see the metaphor here, even though Crowley is never so blunt as to mention it.

The story is told in alternate narration by Rachel and Henry, with intermittent excerpts from notes left in The Letter Library.

Evaluation: This is a touching, hopeful, and absorbing exploration of the different love that characterizes families, friends, and romances. It is also a paean to books and authors and words. In fact, I compiled quite a list of books I want to read that were mentioned in this one. There are also some side characters so appealing one hopes they get their own book one day. Cath Crowley’s books have a way of getting into your heart and staying there.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, and imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House, 2017

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Review of “Chasing the North Star” by Robert Morgan

This historical fiction book follows, in blow-by-blow manner, the journey of the 18-year-old slave Jonah Williams to the North and to freedom following a beating by his master in South Carolina. He is soon joined in his attempt at escape by a young slave woman, Angel, who decides to hitch her star to Jonah and follow him to gain her own freedom.

In a way it is something of an escaping-slave version of the 1987 book Hatchet, the Newbery Honor-winning young-adult wilderness survival novel by Gary Paulsen. Jonah has to overcome a great deal of adversity and a large learning curve to get what he needs to survive. He, along with Angel when he is eventually joined by her, manages in part by a great many felicitous turns of events, in circumstances when making it to the North alive and without mutilation or death was never a sure thing. It might even be said that Jonah and Angel experienced more luck than was probable.

In any event, the story kept me turning the pages. But I had a couple of strongly-felt criticisms of it.

One is the writing. The descriptions of the changing landscape are well written, but I did not think the dialogue sounded realistic. Rather, I thought it ranged from sophomoric to wooden to improbable in many cases.

My biggest problem, however, was with the character of Angel. While I liked Angel’s perseverance and pluck, I found it difficult to believe that so much rape and abuse by men could be so elevating for her self-esteem, making her feel “beautiful” and “wanted.” On the contrary, her portrayal was alarmingly close to the white stereotype of black women as inherently licentious, basically sexualized animals. It was, in my view, a repulsive characterization. In addition, I thought that the lines she spoke or thought were pretty appalling, showing not much insight into what a female in her circumstances might be thinking, at least in my opinion.

Evaluation: If the author had stuck to the story of the male escaping slavery rather than adding in a female, I think it would have been a much better book. I’m trying my best not to see the author as sharing or being complicit in the salacious and degrading gaze of the white men in the book towards Angel, but it’s not easy.

Rating:
Jonah’s story: 3/5
Angel’s story: .5/5

Published by Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishing, 2016

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