Review of “Beauty Mark: A Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe” by Carole Boston Weatherford

This is a work of fiction written in free verse as if it came from the pen of Marilyn Monroe. It begins with the epigraph, “No one knows how it feels inside my troubled mind. No one wants to.” That latter statement isn’t quite true.

Marilyn Monroe was a legend in her own time and remains a major icon of pop culture and source of fascination long after her death – allegedly by suicide – in 1962. (The cause of death has remained controversial and is the subject of many conspiracy theories involving the Kennedy brothers, inter alia.)

She did leave an archive of diaries, poems, and letters, excerpts of which were not published until 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux as Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe (Bernard Comment, Editor). These texts shed some light on Marilyn’s psyche and private life, but much was not revealed. As Weatherford writes in one of her poems in this new imagining, “Some secrets I will carry to my grave.”

Nevertheless, Weatherford does try to envisage what Marilyn must have felt like throughout her life, through a series of poems that take us through the many heartbreaking, and much fewer exhilarating, moments of Marilyn’s life.

Weatherford’s choices of what to include don’t always seem understandable. For example, why is there a whole poem/chapter delineating the plot of the movie “Some Like It Hot”? At least one would expect an analysis of the messages for women and relationships in this movie that seem so clearly offensive now, and may have seemed that way to Marilyn. In any event, those who are interested in what happens in the movie would do better by reading the plot on Wikipedia; it is much clearer in narrative form than in free verse.

Evaluation: I would have to say this book is uneven in quality (some of the poetry sounds as flat as Trump reading from a teleprompter) and the topic coverage is quixotic. On the positive side, Weatherford continues her pattern of featuring women who were maligned in their time, but who employed bravery and perseverance to confront the obstacles presented to them. But Marilyn’s own compilation of thoughts, referenced above, is a much more poignant, affecting work that touches the reader a great deal more. For that matter, so is the song about Marilyn Monroe, “Candle in the Wind,” by Elton John.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2020

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Review of “The Lantern Men” by Elly Griffiths

Note: Spoilers for previous books in this series.

This twelfth book in the Ruth Galloway crime series will not disappoint its fans.

Ruth Galloway was formerly a forensic archeologist at the (fictional) University of North Norfolk. There she occasionally worked with Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson of the Norfolk Police. Since Ruth is an expert on bones, the two teamed up to solve a number of crimes, and Ruth was even seconded to the Serious Crime Unit, which is headed by Nelson.

Nelson works at the King’s Lynn Police Station. In actuality, King’s Lynn is a seaport in Norfolk, England and Norwich is a town in Norfolk. During the 11th century, Norwich was the largest city in England after London, and one of its most important. Thus old bones do in fact get excavated quite frequently. Griffiths integrates many interesting historical aspects of this region into her story lines.

Harry is married with two adult daughters (Laura and Rebecca), but Ruth and Harry share a daughter, Kate, now 9. Harry and his wife Michelle had another (unexpected) baby a little more than two years before, a boy named George, and all four of the children are fond of one another. Michelle allows Harry to see Kate but insists that Harry only see Ruth in a professional capacity.

As this book begins, we learn that for the past two years, Ruth and Kate have been residing in Cambridge, where Ruth took a position teaching forensic archaeology at St. Jude’s College. She and Kate are living with Frank Barker, an American historian and television personality.

Although no longer in close proximity, Ruth and Nelson still share unsuccessful attempts not to think about one another. In this book, moreover, Ruth is called back to Norfolk by the police because a man accused of a number of murders of young women will talk to no one but Ruth about where the bodies are buried. The man, Ivor March, was recently convicted of two of the murders of missing women, but Nelson is convinced he killed more, and would like to help bring closure to the families of the victims.

March used to be part of a group of three men calling themselves “The Lantern Men” after an old legend in the area that told of mysterious figures carrying lanterns who haunted the fens and marshes and lured travelers to their dooms. The legend presumably came from spontaneous combustion of marsh gas which occurs on warm nights in rotten swamps and bogs. In the distant past people thought these represented evil spirits waiting to lure lone night travelers to their deaths. The popular practice of creating jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween is derived in part from this legend.

This contemporary group of “Lantern Men” admitted that they used to drive around in a van and pick up young women, but they claimed they were only “helping” lost girls. They would bring the girls back to their art commune at Grey Walls, now a writer’s retreat, and teach them “about art and life and all that.” After a while the women would “just vanish,” presumably, according to the Lantern Men, off to lead more fulfilling lives. By remarkable coincidence, some of those “helped” by the Lantern Men are also on the list of missing and dead women.

The women who were a permanent part of the Grey Walls commune seem fiercely devoted to March and insist he could not have murdered anyone. The police are convinced otherwise. But then another similar murder occurs with March already in prison and no one is so sure anymore. And Ruth, because of her involvement in the case, once more gets in a life-threatening position.

Evaluation: I enjoy this series a great deal because the main characters are all complex, likable and funny. Yet there is still plenty of page-turning tension and a lot to learn about archeology and history in the Norfolk area. In this book there are also developments in the characters’ personal lives that will have readers champing at the bit for the next installment.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020

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Review of “Axiom’s End” by Lindsay Ellis

This alternative history is set in 2007. The premise is the revelation of first contact with extraterrestrial life after a whistleblower, Nils Ortega, leaks a memo proving the U.S. Government has known about these others – still on earth! – since 1971 and has been covering up their presence. Some of the aliens have died since their arrival but the government doesn’t understand why. The memo concerns the ongoing desire for a means of communication, or as the poet Adrienne Rich famously characterized the universal problem in her book of poems: “the dream of a common language.” Rich’s point was that even two human beings deeply in love cannot always relate to one another. Imagine then if one of the beings trying to communicate has a conceptual and perceptual framework so exotic that words we could understand cannot bridge the cultural, biological, and ideological disparities.

In another parallel, the epigraph to Rich’s book of the same name is also very apt for Axiom’s End:

“I go where I love and where I am loved . . . . ; I go to the things I love with no thought of duty or pity.” (from “The Flowering of the Rod” by H.D.)

Axiom’s End is ultimately a book both about language, and surprisingly, about love, but not in the way you would expect.

Cora Sabino, 21, is Nils’ daughter, although she, her mother, and two younger siblings have been estranged from Nils for years. Nils now lives overseas and has a website popular with anti-government elements and conspiracy theorists. It is also in the forefront of the “transparency movement,” advocating for truth and openness from government. As an acquaintance of Cora’s argues to her after Nils’s bombshell:

“This is a big deal. . . . the biggest discovery in human history that is being hidden from us as we speak. . . . Don’t we have a right to know?”

Nils published the leaked memo – dubbed the “Fremda Memo” for the name the CIA gave the alien group – one day after a so-called meteorite (but actually suspected alien vehicle) landed in Altadena, California, which was code-named the “Ampersand Event.” It was followed two months later by another “meteorite,” called the “Obelus Event.” It was after this second event that Cora got involved when she inadvertently was given the role of an interpreter for the alien she started to call Ampersand, since this being arrived in the first of the two recent events.

Ampersand developed a translation algorithm so that humans and the aliens could “talk” to one another. The alien species, partially organic and partially synthetic, were unable to vocalize in ways recognizable to humans, so Ampersand created a computerized voice device he inserted into Cora’s head. She not only communicated with Ampersand this way but later she served as a translator for others interacting with Ampersand. Many words and sounds were not translatable, however, so both Ampersand and Cora had to improvise, with Cora often rephrasing Ampersand’s words to be more diplomatic and less threatening.

In one of the simultaneously amusing and poignant aspects of the story, both Cora and Ampersand admit apprehension about one another. Ampersand finds it entirely logical to have a fear of “billions of aggressive, violent flesh-eaters.” Cora finds it similarly logical to be frightened of a being that looks so monstrous. But Cora is possibly even more afraid of the nebulous collection of government officials she now encounters.

At one point a perplexed Ampersand asks Cora, “Why are you afraid of your own government?” Cora obseres that even those who speak the same language don’t always speak true words, or they shade the truth by omission. Indeed, different communication issues are woven into different strands throughout the plot.

But Cora and Ampersand have much in common despite being two entirely different species: both feel lonely, lost, and frightened, and both are therefore inordinately receptive to acts of kindness and care. They discover that emotions are easier to convey without using any words at all, while words can be inadequate no matter how outwardly similar two people are.

They eventually form a bond of sorts, though Ampersand contends, “Given our disparate physiology, we can never communicate through high language. I will never truly know you. We will always be isolated within our own minds.”

Too bad he was unfamiliar with the work of Adrienne Rich: it’s not just an interspecies problem.

Evaluation: It turns out this is only the first book in a series to come. I was very glad to learn that; there are so many interesting “conversations” to be had, not only between the characters, but between the author and readers, and so many thought-provoking ideas.

I especially loved the rather humorous quote from a fictional “New Yorker” article inserted early into the novel:

“If these ETIs really do exist, most of us would have to admit that they have terrible timing. Humanity is fractured, bellicose, paranoid. It’s the cosmological equivalent of having a guest come to the door when you’re in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out fight with your spouse, there are lines of coke on the coffee table, and your pants are down around your ankles.”

I can’t wait for the next volume.

Rating: 4/5

Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2020

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Review of “Silent Bite” by David Rosenfelt

This is #22 in the Andy Carpenter crime/legal procedural series that always manages to get us laughing out loud.

Andy Carpenter, the main character, is a “semi-retired” criminal defense attorney in Paterson, New Jersey who hates to work, but keeps taking on new litigation anyway, albeit reluctantly. In this book, he explains that even besides not liking to work, it is fear that is behind Andy’s reluctance to take on clients: “. . . the risk that scares the shit out of me is having an innocent client and not being able to convince a jury of that truth. . . . that’s why I have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a courtroom.” He actually doesn’t have to work; he came into a lot of money from a previous win in court.

Usually a case comes to his attention because of some involvement of a dog. In this book, it is not only a dog that draws him in, but a plea from his friend, former client, and current partner Willie Miller. Willie and his wife Sondra are Andy’s partners in the Tara Foundation, a dog-rescue operation. [In real life, the author founded the Tara Foundation as a home for sick or injured dogs, and the foundation has rescued over 4,000 dogs from shelters.]

Willie’s friend Tony Birch has been accused of the murder of Frank Zimmer, shot in the back of the head, but Willie tells Andy he is sure Tony is innocent. For that matter, Tony’s dog Zoey, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, also seems to believe firmly in Tony’s goodness.

Andy takes on the case but without his usual partner, the lawyer Hike Lynch, who is moving out of town. At Hike’s recommendation, Andy hires Eddie Dowd, a lawyer who is a former football player for the Giants, and who very amusingly heavily peppers his legal analyses with sports analogies.

Tony used to be in a gang, but now is a respected owner of a car repair shop. Nevertheless, he has no alibi, and a strong motive, not only for Zimmer’s killing, but for the other related killings that have happened recently, complicating Andy’s investigation.

As the case goes to trial, Andy remains clueless about how to help Tony, until a sudden insight at the last moment allows him to come up with a defense that just might work, or not….

Evaluation: My husband and I love these books, which, by the way, you don’t really need to read in order to enjoy. This one takes place during the Christmas season (four months long in Andy’s house, much to his chagrin), which mainly serves to allow Andy to inject many jokes about the horrors of ubiquitous Christmas music. Andy’s sarcasm and wit are unfailingly entertaining, as are his relationships with the rest of his team, which includes his ex-cop wife Laurie and their “muscle,” Marcus. For a quick, diverting read that challenges you at the same time, you can’t go wrong with David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter series.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2020

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October 28 – National Chocolate Day

The New York Times reports that Americans spend $21 billion on chocolate every year, but the pandemic has driven an even bigger boost in consumption.

Most anthropologists trace the use of cacao products to South America over 5,000 years ago.

The cacao tree (“cocoa” is a variant of “cacao”) is an equatorial plant with ovoid pods that grow directly from the trunk. The cacao beans are the seeds that grow inside the pod. After harvesting, the beans are fermented for up to a week to develop their flavors, and dried.

The dried beans are then roasted and cracked to separate the outer husks from the inner nibs.

Chocolate makers grind the nibs into what’s called chocolate liquor, and then grind them again after the addition of other ingredients such as sugar, milk power, and vanilla. Afterwards the chocolate is heated and cooled to specific temperatures so that it sets with the desired look and texture.

Today, South America is no longer the primary source for chocolate. Rather, multinational chocolate makers are heavily dependent on chocolate from West Africa. Fortune Magazine reports that more than 70% of the world’s cocoa is grown in the region, and the vast majority of that supply comes from two countries: Ivory Coast and Ghana, which together produce 60% of the global total.

So, you may ask, how did cacao production move from South America to West Africa?

INAFORESTA, in international voluntary group dedicated to the analysis and improvement of the relationships between cocoa, trees and forest worldwide, gives a capsule history on its website.

Spanish conquistador Hernán (or Hernando) Cortés, who went to Mexico, headed for the Aztec capital, and brought back chocolate to the Spanish court in 1528 along with the equipment necessary for brewing the drink. (In exchange, Cortés left the indigenous population with a number of Western diseases such as smallpox which caused huge fatalities, but we digress.)

The Spanish court went wild for the chocolate drink, adding cane sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and pepper.

As recounted in the book Bite-Sized History of France by Stéphane Hénaut & Jeni Mitchell, many Spanish Jews were involved in the chocolate trade and processing of chocolate, which meant that the industry moved around Europe as Jews were booted out of one country after another.

The grinding stone, or cocoa grinding stone, widely used in Spain until the 19th century, via Wikipedia

The industry first moved to France when Jews were banished from Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Edict of Expulsion in 1492 and the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536. Some of these Jews resettled in Bayonne in the Basque region of southwestern France and there built the country’s first chocolate factories.

Alas, the secrets of the craft became more widely known, along with a glimpse of the profits that could be made from it, and in 1761 the Jews were banned from the chocolate business by the city of Bayonne’s envious Christian leadership. Previously, in 1681, Jews had already been banned from making chocolate outside of the St. Esprit suburb in which they were forced to live. And while they could trade in the city proper, they could not sell chocolate on Sundays or Christian feast days. A Bordeaux court annulled the decree in 1767, because apparently many in Bayonne preferred the chocolate of the Jews. (See On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao by Deborah Prinz, 2013)

Bayonne is still famous for artisanal chocolate – photo from L’Atelier du Chocolat in Bayonne

Hénaut & Mitchell recount that chocolate remained a luxury product until cacao was introduced to West African colonies, which helped reduce the price (because: slave labor). Cocoa plantations soon spread throughout the African continent. This led to the decline of production in South America, because it was cheaper not having to actually pay for labor, and easier to get the product back to Europe from Africa. Then the Industrial Revolution made possible the mass production of the chocolate bar, and eventually, as the authors write, “most people were eating rather than drinking chocolate.”

Today, while “slaves” aren’t used, laborers – not always working voluntarily – don’t exactly make a living wage.

As the Washington Post reports:

“According to recent research from Fairtrade International, the median income for a cocoa household in the Ivory Coast — the nation that produces more of the world’s cocoa than any other — is just $2,707 per year, an amount hovering close to the extreme poverty level of $2,276. The research of more than 3,000 households found that just 12 percent of those surveyed earned a living income.”

In Ghana, the second-largest cocoa producer – the average age of cocoa farmers is 52, and few young people see farming as an attractive vocation.

So where do the laborers come from? As Stéphane Hénaut & Jeni Mitchell explain in the book Bite-Sized History of France, “it is estimated that more than 2 million children labor on cacao farms, some trafficked from neighboring countries.”

Children working on a cocoa farm, via Raconteur online magazine

Major chocolate companies maintain, as they have claimed now for years, that they are working to improve social conditions and thus eliminate the factors that lead to child labor. But as of 2020, the New York Times reports, there are still no laws in America to require American companies not to use sources using child labor. Even if there were such laws, there remains the question of how effectively they could be enforced.

Dr. Maricel Presilla, a culinary historian in New Jersey, and author of The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes,, observes:

“Everyone wants to be able to buy chocolate and go to heaven, but the issues are complicated.”

To help you contemplate the surprisingly unpleasant complex politics of chocolate over the years, it might help to do so with a piece of the popular Bayonne Basque Chocolate Cake. The recipe comes from “The Forward,” in an article about the smuggling of chocolate to France by persecuted Jews written by food blogger Rabbi Deborah Prinz (the author of the history of chocolate book cited above):

Basque Chocolate Cake

Serves 6-8

¾ cup unsalted butter

5½ ounces bittersweet chocolate

3 large eggs
¾ cup sugar

1⁄3 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup black cherry preserves, for serving
Crème fraîche, for serving

1) Preheat the oven to 375°F.

2) Lightly butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan. In a large heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, combine the butter and chocolate. Melt over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until smooth, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the eggs with the sugar at high speed until thick and pale, about 3 minutes. Add the flour and beat at low speed just until combined. Fold in one-third of the melted chocolate, then gently fold in the remaining chocolate; do not over mix.

3) Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 20–30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Invert the cake onto a rack and let cool.

4) In a saucepan, warm the cherry preserves over moderate heat. Cut the cake into wedges and serve with the cherry preserves and crème fraîche.

Picture of Gateau Basque (and slightly variant recipe) from The Slow Pace.com at http://theslowpace.com/2014/09/08/mmm-monday-chocolate-gateau-basque/

Happy National Chocolate Day!!

This post will be shared with Weekend Cooking, hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader (and Baker). Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts.

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