Monday, June 29, 2020

Three Bodies Burning by Brian Bogdanoff

Three Bodies Burning: The Anatomy of an Investigation into Murder, Money, and Mexican Marijuana 
by Brian Bogdanoff
Published 2011 by Press, LLC at Smashwords
Source: checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
A haunting triple murder... the inside story of the investigation.When two worlds collide-the illegal transportation of tons of Mexican cartel marijuana to inner city gang members in a Midwestern city's "hood"-three bodies end up burning, caught in a web of greed as a major international drug deal goes very bad.The chilling trail of evidence from a remote wooded area where three bodies are set on fire leads homicide detectives across the country chasing down witnesses and conspirators in a two-year search for cold-blooded killers. This case has it all: murder, piles of cash stashed in the most unlikely of places, a blood-soaked crime scene, the remote dump site for bodies, luxury cars, flashy jewelry, and hundreds of pounds of illegal dope.An unbelievable break takes detectives down the rabbit hole where CSI meets Law & Order and where good old gumshoeing and meticulous forensic procedures bring down a mega-million-dollar drug conspiracy and lock up the bad guys for life.Follow the case through the eyes of the gritty homicide/narcotics detective. A handbook for the amateur criminologist, this book is for true crime fans, prosecutors and defense attorneys, and cops and robbers.Warning: This book contains graphic crime scene photos and adult language.

My Thoughts: 
In my previous job, we were required to have a certain number of hours of fraud training annually. To that end, we attending several lunches hosted by a fraud group every couple of months. Finding people who wanted to speak became difficult and the tie to fraud was often tenuous. For example, the lunch where the county attorney spoke, along with former police officer, who were, to the best of my recollection, talking to us about fraud caused by drug dealing. Completely irrelevant to my line of work but one of the most interesting lunches we ever attended as the former officer was Brian Bogdanoff who spoke about his work in the narcotics division and in solving the crime to which the book title refers. I had every intention of picking up a copy of the book shortly there after and thought of it again when my daughter began studying criminal justice. Eight years later I finally got around to reading it. My thoughts about this book would certainly have been different had I read it years ago. 

I can remember watching the morning news fifteen years ago and learning that three bodies had been found burning just on the edge of Omaha. It's frightening to think that you live in a city where that kind of thing happens. And then, as happens when something ceases to be a news story, I forgot about it. A year later, I recall the trial, in no small part because of the fact that my husband was serving jury duty at that time and, fortunately, was excused from this case. Five years after that, I had forgotten about it again until Bogdanoff talked about it at our lunch and I was fascinated about how the police managed to identify three bodies without identification on them and then track down their murderers. 

I'm still fascinated by that and by the amount of luck, tedious work, and detail it takes to solve crimes like this one. And how much the police rely on the criminals to screw up. Two pieces of paper were left in the pockets of the three men who were killed; had those not been overlooked when the killers emptied the victims' pockets, this case might never have been solved. Finding out who the victims were was key to solving the case - that led officers to their families who confirmed that the men were in Omaha on drug business and gave them the street names of the men the victims had been working with. Still, those were not names the police were familiar with and it would be some months before their identities were discovered. The amount of paperwork and the number of people involved in solving this case are staggering. The detail involved in putting together a case that won't be able to be overturned later due to some technicality is unbelievable. I 100% believe that the men who committed these crimes were terrible people who deserve to spend the rest of their lives in prison and I'm glad that Bogdanoff and the people he worked with were able to find them and get them off the streets of Omaha. 

That being said, in light of things I've learned in the past few years and of my new way of thinking about the way police departments work, I did have some problems with the book. For example, in the first chapter, Bogdanoff says, "...very few times do the good guys, the cops, catch a break or get lucky." It wasn't the only time he referred to the police as "the good guys," setting up "us versus them" mentality that I'm growing to believe is one of the problems with how our criminal justice system works. 

That's reinforced when he defends a practice the policy use known as a "bar check" which caused some problems for him once. He, of course, says he and the other officers involved did nothing wrong and that the leaders of the African-American community who "claimed they were threatened, harassed, and intimidated by officers coming into a celebration they were having" might have been doing so as a media ploy. I can't say for certain, but knowing what I know now, I'm guessing that these "bar checks" were more often done in neighborhoods were persons of color live. Bogdanoff says that they went into that particular bar because there was a "large volume of foot and vehicle traffic in the parking lot of a bar that was directly next to one of the housing projects." It clearly never occurred to him then, or in retrospect, that it might have been anything other than suspicious. Bogdanoff grew up in this town, he'd worked extensively in that neighbor, and I can't help but think that he surely must have recognized some of the people going into that bar. But he says "I...learned that I would face people...who have certain agendas, and to support those agendas, they will manipulate situations and facts." I'm sure he's not wrong, that he did encounter people who did that. Again, though, it doesn't seem to occur to him that he may have done the same thing. 

I wish Bogdanoff had had a better editor - I didn't need to know that the prosecutor from the county attorney's office looked like Diane Lane or that once he could "literally hear [another office] crap his pants." And perhaps a little less of the braggadocio. It's a book that could have been tightened up and more focused. Because there is a hell of a story here and an impressive job of bringing two murders to justice. 

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Life: It Goes On - June 28

Happy Sunday! Can you believe June is ending? It's been a strange four months that feel like they drag on and on but then suddenly we are to the Fourth of July. How has this virus affected your plans for the coming holiday weekend? We go, as you may remember, most years we go to my parents for the neighborhood Fourth of July breakfast which has been held every year except one (when it was rained out) since 1976. God love the ladies who have taken over the organizing - they have set up a Zoom breakfast so the event can continue. My dad will do his annual talk and then the neighborhood children will hold the first ever Fourth of July parade. I love the way people are finding ways to carry on even when everything has changed!

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: I'm working my way through The New Jim Crow. It's slow going because, as my friend who's had to listen to my continual outrage can testify, there is so much here to learn. I do have about five hours left to listen to in the next couple of days so I'm going to have to just listen and stop bookmarking. Then I think it's time for something lighter for a bit. 

Watched: We watched the movie adaptation of Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy this weekend. I felt like they did a pretty good job of adapting a book that isn't just one story. One thing that did stand out to me, though, was that the movie actually made the prison guards look better than they did in the book. I wondered if that was to make the movie more palatable to a wider audience.

Read: I'm hoping to finish Manderley Forever in the next couple of days. Daphne du Maurier was certainly an interesting person who led an interesting life.

 Homemade ice cream for Father's Day and a new hot fudge sauce. I lost my ice cream recipe - it was nearly a disaster, especially since it came from, of all places, a Muppets recipe brochure I got more than 30 years ago. Miraculously, I found a copy on the internet and the day was saved!

Enjoyed: Father's Day with my daddy last Sunday. We had to eat in the garage but whatever it takes to be together I will do!

This Week I’m:  

Planning: For a visit in a couple of weeks from Mini-me and Ms. S! I must admit to be a little nervous about having people in my house but I know they've been taking care to be safe and I'm not willing to miss a chance to see them. 

Thinking About: What needs to be done before Miss H moves. The restaurant she was going to work at has permanently closed so she is job hunting now and will move as soon as she has a job, hopefully by the end of July. 

Feeling: Like I need a lazy day. It's not going to happen anytime soon though. Maybe I'll have time for that in August!

Looking forward to: I know that the Fourth of July is the highlight of the coming weekend for most but Mini-him, Miss H and I are most looking forward to Friday, a.k.a. Hamilton day. 

Question of the week: How will you be celebrating the Fourth?

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
Read by Richard Armitage
Published May 2020 by St. Martin's Press
Source: my audio copy courtesy of the publisher, through Austenprose, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England's finest novelists. Now it's home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen's legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen's home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.

My Thoughts:
Here's the thing - you all know I love Jane Austen. Or have I not reread one of her books in so long that you don't, in fact, know that? Well, I do. For some fans of Austen, that means that they can't get enough of anything that has to do with her beloved story lines, characters, and personal life. For me, it's kind of the opposite. I often find myself getting annoyed when I pick up books that try to "cash in on" Austen. But, for some reason, I took a chance on this one. Maybe it's just the times we live in. There's a comfort to Austen that I needed right now.

In the spirit of Erica Bauermeister, J. Ryan Stradal, and J. Courtney Sullivan, Jenner introduces readers to an ensemble cast of characters. None are without their struggles. I went into this book expecting light fare but Jenner has touched on a number of deeper themes - death, addiction, homosexuality, the aftermath of war, and difficult family relationships. For a book set in a small town, this could have come off as forced to make the storyline more dramatic. But, given the time period and the way Jenner handled it, it felt entirely believable.

I loved the way Jenner tied Austen's work to these characters and made it relevant to their lives, made it feel perfectly natural that these people would love her books and want to honor her genius.
“No sooner had the words left his mouth than Dr. Gray realized that time was the one thing so many in their sleepy little village seemed to have. Jane Austen had used her time here for housework and visits and composing works of genius. That the population of Chawton had barely varied since then made Dr. Gray suddenly see each of the villagers as almost pure one-to-one substitutes for those of the past. If they weren’t up to the task of preserving Austen’s legacy, who on earth ever would be?”
You expect that you know how the book will end and you'll probably be right; the guy that feels like the bad guy turns out to be the bad guy, couples end up together, and the society is successful.'s not all happily-ever-after which actually made me a little sad but did keep it from being too saccharine.

Richard Armitage reads the audiobook and it seems to be tough for him to find enough women's voices for all of them to sound somewhat natural. It's a problem I've noticed in other books read by men; so often at least one of the female voices will sound like a little girl rather than an adult. Armitage, otherwise, does a marvelous job but I think this book would have made a wonder choice to have it read by a cast of readers.

Oh, and one last thing, can we just talk about that cover? It is both gorgeous and perfectly sums up the book. It's the kind of cover that jumps off the book shelf!

For other opinions about this book, check out the full tour here.

Natalie Jenner was born in England and emigrated to Canada as a young child. She obtained her B.A. and her LL.B. from the University of Toronto, where she was the 1990 Gold Medalist in English Literature at St. Michael's College, and was Called to the Bar of Ontario in 1995. In addition to a brief career as a corporate lawyer, Natalie has worked as a recruiter, career coach, and consultant to leading law firms in Canada for over two decades. Most recently Natalie founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. A lifelong devotee of all things Jane Austen, "The Jane Austen Society" is her first published novel.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators 
by Ronan Farrow
Read by Ronan Farrow
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
In 2017, a routine network television investigation led Ronan Farrow to a story only whispered about: one of Hollywood's most powerful producers was a predator, protected by fear, wealth, and a conspiracy of silence. As Farrow drew closer to the truth, shadowy operatives, from high-priced lawyers to elite war-hardened spies, mounted a secret campaign of intimidation, threatening his career, following his every move, and weaponizing an account of abuse in his own family. 

All the while, Farrow and his producer faced a degree of resistance they could not explain — until now. And a trail of clues revealed corruption and cover-ups from Hollywood to Washington and beyond. This is the untold story of the exotic tactics of surveillance and intimidation deployed by wealthy and connected men to threaten journalists, evade accountability, and silence victims of abuse. And it's the story of the women who risked everything to expose the truth and spark a global movement.

My Thoughts:
Predators. Did you catch that in the title? I don't know why but I was under this impression when I picked this up was that this was a book about uncovering Harvey Weinstein's crimes. Nope. Donald Trump and Matt Lauer both come under fire and can I just tell you that, after thinking that I was pretty well up to speed with what each of them had been accused of, I had no idea. Just as I was finishing this book, I was talking to my book club and telling them how angry this book made me. A week later, I'm still angry. 

And it's not just about the crimes these men are alleged to have committed (and, in Weinstein's case, convicted of) or their overall belief that they could do or say whatever they wanted to women. It's the system that allowed them to get away with it. From people who refused to believe these men were guilty to people who protected them regardless. 

All three men, in a way, owned the media. Weinstein and Trump were close to Dylan Howard, the editor of The National Enquirer, whose parent company, American Media Inc, practiced "catch and kill" in which they would purchase a story to bury it. Certainly they did some of that to be able to hold it over people's heads in the future, but some of it was absolutely done to protect the people they wanted to take care of. In effect, NBC, who employed Farrow at the time he began researching the allegations against Weinstein, essentially did the same thing to protect Lauer. NBC needed to protect their golden boy, the guy that kept them at the top of the morning show ratings. As with all of these men, and so many others not included in this book, money talks. And it's yet another way that the rich stay out of prison while the poor end up their for doing much less. 

As for the actual writing, Farrow was, shall we say, thorough. Sometimes I appreciated it; it reinforced the number of women impacted, the amount of work it took to get these women to feel like they could talk, the incredible effort it took to get this story out to the public. After initially seeming to support Farrow's reporting, NBC started dragging its heels, finally trying to kill it. But a promise to his sister, Dylan (who has alleged that she was molested by their father, Woody Allen), and a feeling of commitment to the other women, drove Farrow to keep going. Unfortunately, there were times I just wanted to Farrow to condense the information. 

I did have one major beef with the audiobook. For the most part, Farrow does a fine job reading his own book. But why someone didn't stop him from trying to do voices, particularly women's voices I can't imagine. Everyone of them sounded like a caricature which is the last thing a book that is meant to be supporting women should be doing. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Life: It Goes On - June 21

Happy Father's Day to all of the fathers out there and anyone who has ever fathered a child in any way! We are headed off to do a social distancing lunch with my dad soon. Thank heavens the days honoring our parents come in May and June when it is nice enough to be able to be outside, together. The poor Big Guy won't have much of a celebration as only Miss H will be around to fete him. One of our local grocery stores had lobsters on sale yesterday and the plan was to get a couple of lobsters for our dinner but it turns out that none of us could actually face killing the poor guys. So I guess we're grilling burgers instead!

Last Week I:

Listened To: Catch and Kill and finished that. My next book is The New Jim Crow but I couldn't start it for a couple of days; I was too angry, after finishing Catch and Kill to start another book I knew was going to make me angry again. So music it was. Until yesterday, when I started The New Jim Crow and two hours into it, I'm angry again. 

Watched: Selma on Juneteeth. I like to think I'm fairly knowledgeable about the Civil Rights movement but I learned a lot watching that movie. There were some incredible performances in the movie, Tom Wilkerson as Lyndon Johnson, Tim Roth as George Wallace, Wendell Pierce as Rev. Hosea Williams, and, especially Daniel Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Read: Three Bodies Burning, about the investigation into a triple murder in Omaha, which I finished Friday. Then I started something completely different, Manderley Forever, about Dauphne du Maurier. 

Made: I was meant to be making a pie today for my daddy, who loves pie. But one of the drawbacks about doing pick up groceries is that you don't always get everything you order, like the strawberries you need to make strawberry rhubarb pie. But homemade ice cream is a good substitute for him. 

Enjoyed: Book club Tuesday, an evening on the patio with friends last night, and a morning at the salon yesterday. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: On getting Miss H packed for her big move in about a month. Fortunately she won't have too much to move, only her bedroom and not even her bed since she'll be getting a new one there. 

Thinking About: Decluttering - now that I can drop off donations again. 

Feeling: Tired of being angry and tired of not being able to see my family.

Looking forward to: Celebrating this guy today!

Question of the week: Have you been getting out more now that restrictions are being lifted more?

Thursday, June 18, 2020

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

If Beale Street Could Talk
by James Baldwin
Read by Bahni Turpin
Published 1974 by Dial Press
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin’s story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions–affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.

My Thoughts:
Let's start with the easy part - the reading. I first "met" Bahni Turpin when I listened to The Hate U Give and was reintroduced to her in Red at the Bone. She's marvelous; the very voice of a young black woman. Imagine my surprise to find out that she's 58 years old! In looking at the work she's read, I'm tempted to go back and listen to some books I read in print just to see what she can do with those. 

Now the harder part. Until the movie adaptation of this book came out two years ago, I had never heard of this book. I was aware of James Baldwin but not his story or of the impact his books had had. It's a clear indication that I have much more work to do in my efforts to read diversely. 

I listened to this book at the same time I was reading Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy; it was the perfect fiction/nonfiction combination dealing with the unjust justice system as they both do. Joyce Carol Oates had this to say about that, in her review of this book:
"For Baldwin, the injustice of Fonny's situation is self-evident, and by no means unique: "Whoever discovered America deserved to be dragged home, in chains, to die," Tish's mother declares near the conclusion of the novel. Fonny's friend, Daniel, has also been falsely arrested and falsely convicted of a crime, years before, and his spirit broken by the humiliation of jail and the fact--which Baldwin stresses, and which cannot be stressed too emphatically--that the most devastating weapon of the oppressor is that of psychological terror. Physical punishment, even death, may at times be preferable to an existence in which men are denied their manhood and any genuine prospects of controlling their own lives. Fonny's love for Tish can be undermined by the fact that, as a black man, he cannot always protect her from the random insults of whites."
This is not just the story of a man falsely accused. It's also a love story and a story of family - the lengths we will go to for family and that "family" is not limited to those we are related to by blood. It's also a book about hope in the face of insurmountable odds. I have not yet seen the movie but it's my understanding that, in a surprisingly un-Hollywood twist, the movie doesn't leave the viewer with the kind of hope the book does. 

It's no mean feat for a man to write a book from the point of view of a young woman but Baldwin does it impressive; only occasionally did it seem apparent that the book had been written by a man. The story can be almost poetic and often has a dreamy feel but Baldwin also allows his characters to lash out, to become angry and mean at times. If Beale Street Could Talk was Baldwin's 13th book; he had clearly mastered his craft. 

I look forward to reading more of Baldwin's work and of watching this movie soon. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
by Bryan Stevenson
Published 2014 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: bought for my Nook

Publisher's Summary:
Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever. 

Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.

My Thoughts:
Read this book. Read it now. There are a lot of great books out there about racism right now that should be read but this one, this one addresses both racism and the ways that our justice system has failed all of us, primary persons of color and the poor. Let's start with some numbers.
"The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970's to 2.3 million people today [2014].There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated."
"Hundreds of thousands of nonviolent offenders have been forced to spend decades in prison. We've created laws that make writing a bad check or committing a petty theft or minor property crime an offense that can result in life imprisonment. We have declared a costly war on people with substance abuse problems. There are more than half-million people in states or federal prisons for drug offenses today, up from just 41,000 in 1980. We have abolished parole in many states. We have invented slogans like "Three strikes and you're out" to communicate our toughness. We've given up on rehabilitation, education, and services for the imprisoned because providing assistance to the incarcerated is apparently too kind and compassionate. We've institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them "criminal"..."
There are a lot of numbers in this book, all of them appalling. But this book is not about numbers, it's about the people those numbers represent. The children as young a twelve who were sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole, the people who are in prison because the justice system allowed them to illegally be judged by a jury not of their peers, those who are incarcerated solely because a crime needed to be solved and this person just happened to be handy and those whose terrible pasts are never taken into consideration. It is about all of the people who have been mistreated by the system and how slavery evolved into the systemic racism that results in a disproportionate number of persons of color being incarcerated.
"In poor urban neighborhoods across the United States, black and brown boys routinely have multiple encounters with the police. Even though many of these children have done nothing wrong, they are targeted by police, presumed guilty, and suspected by law enforcement of being dangerous or engaged in criminal activity. The random stops, questioning, and harassment dramatically increase the risk of arrest for petty crimes. Many of these children develop criminal records for behavior that more affluent children engage in with impunity."
The story of Walter McMillan, who was not just a man who insisted he was innocent but who the prosecution knew was innocent before they railroaded him into a conviction that carried the death penalty, is interspersed with chapters about how Stevenson came to start Equal Justice Initiative and the many other people who EJI has fought to save, including all children who were sentenced to life in prison. When people demand the police be defunded now, this book makes it clear what reallocating the monies spent on police budgets might be better used for. The system is broken, from the abuse that goes on reported and unstopped to the substance abuse that goes untreated to the lack of rehabilitation in our facilities.  

Walter was Stevenson's first case and the person he came to think of as a brother. You know, as you read, that things are going to go very badly for Walter or this book might not exist; but you cannot believe how cruel the system is to him at every turn. It is at once heartbreaking and infuriating. What makes the entire case all the more interesting is that it happened in Monroe County, Alabama, home of Harper Lee and the setting of her book, To Kill A Mockingbird. In an entirely unironic way, the people of Monroeville celebrate her book, a book that includes the prosecution of an innocent black man, all while they championed the conviction of another innocent black man. 

So I come back to this: read this book. It will open your eyes. It will make you rethink things you may have thought to be truths. I hope it will make you as angry as it makes you sad. Ultimately, there is this:
"The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned."

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Life: It Goes On

Happy Sunday! 

I pulled up this blog this morning and two things struck me immediately. First, that three week review cushion I had a few weeks ago has shrunk to nothing. Whew, a few weeks of reading slump will catch up to you fast!

And two, Blogger looks completely different now. To the point where I'm having a hard time figuring out how to use it. I'm not the world's leading expert on all things computer, but I've gotten pretty good about figuring out my way around things and I'm stumped. Even the HTML doesn't work the same way which shouldn't change at all. I'd seriously consider changing platforms (which, to be honest, I should have done years ago), but that seems too time consuming for something that is just a hobby. I'll give it a go for a bit but I'm confused as to why a platform that used to be so user friendly has chosen to become harder to use. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: I finished If Beale Street Could Talk and started Ronan Farrow's Catch and Kill. If you don't think that rich, powerful people can get away with whatever they want, read this book. 

 Embarrassing confession - I watched both the 1995 and 1996 Husker bowl games when we won the National Championship. Did you know football games can be condense to one hour when you only show the plays? As a general rule, I'm not into rewatching games but I think I just needed to watch something where the outcome was known and one I would like. 

Read: I finished Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy. If you haven't read it, read it. I'll say more in my review this week but, seriously, everyone should read this book if you want to know the truth about our justice system and racial inequality. 

Made: We pulled a lot of leftovers out of the freezer this week (pulled pork, stuffed pasta shells), grilled some pork chops, and had a lot of salads. I did need to use up some apples so made some fried apples. Otherwise, I think the only thing we turned the oven on for this week was to make sweet potato cubes a couple of nights. 

Enjoyed: Eating out on Friday! We did happy hour on the patio of a burger joint we like and I felt pretty safe out there. It felt good to be out. 

This Week I’m:  

On finishing a patio project I started yesterday. It started as a simple project - a five foot long tree branch, strung with lights, hung from the fence on my patio. But when I picked up the branch and a piece of bark chipped off, that easy project suddenly took all of my Saturday afternoon just to get the branch ready. Let's just say that the rest of the bark did not come off so easily and a screwdriver, hammer, sandpaper, and two knives were involved. The lights arrive tomorrow and I'm hoping to get the thing hung either tomorrow on Tuesday. Yet another easy project gone horribly awry! 

Thinking About: Where my contributions go this week. Oh to be rich and feel like you really could make a financial difference!

Feeling: Like I need to find ways to calm my mind every night before I go to bed. I had the strangest dream I think I've ever had in my life the other night. It was scary and uncomfortable and I had to wake myself up from it and then lie awake for a while so that my brain was cleared before I went back to sleep so I didn't drop right back into it. Maybe some meditation and definitely no more books that make me angry or sad right before bed. 

Looking forward to: Book club this week. It's possible that we'll be able to do a social distancing in-person meeting. Assuming it's not too hot which is a distinct possibility. 

Question of the week: What's your best recommendation for a book that will capture my attention and take my mind off life's problems?

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Lit: Uniquely Portable Magic

If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, today's edition of Uniquely Portable Magic will come as no surprise to you. In fact, it might properly be renamed "Uniquely Portable Education." If you've been around here long, you'll also know that I've been working to add more diversity to my reading in the past few years.

So, in light of what's happening right now, I've got some book recommendations for you to help you (and me) understand the history of racism and what it's like to live as a person of color. Some on the lists are books I've read and can recommend, others are books that have been recommended to me. There is not starting point - you just need to start!

Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
We Were 8 Years In Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
You Can't Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
The Sellout by Paul Beatty

And while I'm at it, let's add some shows to watch and some podcasts to listen to:

13th (Netflix)
Dear White People (Netflix)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Hulu) - I would also recommend the book on which it is based
Selma (the list I looked at says this is available to rent by I found it on tv the other night)
Do The Right Thing (available to rent)
BlacKkKlansman (HBO Max)
Get Out (available to rent on Amazon Prime)
Fruitvale Station (available to rent on Amazon and iTunes)
Loving (HMO Max)
Blindspotting (HBO, HBO Max)
Malcolm X (Netflix)

Intersectionality Matters!
Come Through with Rebecca Carroll
Lynching In America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror
Justice In America

I know, I know - it's heavy reading, watching, and listening. No one expects you to do it all in one day. But today is as good as any to start doing the work. I don't know about you, but my Christian, moral upbringing keeps reminding me that it's the right thing to do. I'm not sure why I never saw that before.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland

Florence Adler Swims Forever by Rachel Beanland
Published July 2020 by Simon and Schuster
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
Atlantic City, 1934. Every summer, Esther and Joseph Adler rent their house out to vacationers escaping to “America’s Playground” and move into the small apartment above their bakery. Despite the cramped quarters, this is the apartment where they raised their two daughters, Fannie and Florence, and it always feels like home.

Now Florence has returned from college, determined to spend the summer training to swim the English Channel, and Fannie, pregnant again after recently losing a baby, is on bedrest for the duration of her pregnancy. After Joseph insists they take in a mysterious young woman whom he recently helped emigrate from Nazi Germany, the apartment is bursting at the seams.

Esther only wants to keep her daughters close and safe but some matters are beyond her control: there’s Fannie’s risky pregnancy—not to mention her always-scheming husband, Isaac—and the fact that the handsome heir of a hotel notorious for its anti-Semitic policies, seems to be in love with Florence.

When tragedy strikes, Esther makes the shocking decision to hide the truth—at least until Fannie’s baby is born—and pulls the family into an elaborate web of secret-keeping and lies, bringing long-buried tensions to the surface that reveal how quickly the act of protecting those we love can turn into betrayal.

My Thoughts:
To prove how important the cover of a book can be, when Netgalley asks potential reviewers why they're requested a particular book, one of the reasons is the cover. To be honest, between the title and the cover, I was going to request this book - doesn't it, after all, look like a perfect summer read? While the cover and title and absolutely perfect, they are also very misleading. This book is not a simple summer beach read.

If I'd paid at least as much attention to the description as I did to the cover, I would have known that. I would also have noticed that the Jewish faith was going to play a role in this book. But I didn't notice that. So early on Beanland not only stunned me with something incredibly she also surprised me with how much of a role faith was playing in the book. And, I'll be honest, I wasn't sure that was going to be a book I was interested in reading. I'd recently read two books in which the Jewish faith played a big role and I wasn't necessarily interested in reading another one so soon. But you all know how hard it is for me to put down a book, so I kept reading.

While faith continued to be a part of the story, it began to feel less intrusive and more cohesive to the story. And I began to care about these characters and to understand the family dynamic. By the end, I was really enjoying the book and happy about how things played out.

I did have a couple issues with the book as I was reading but some of those have faded away as I've thought about the book more. Isaac is always the guy you're going to dislike, even when you find out why he is the way he is; but in real life, not everyone grows and changes so his lack of growth is not only to be expected but more believable.

If you choose to read this book, I'd definitely recommend you read the afterward. Much of the story is based on Beanland's family history. I think she's written a lovely homage to her great-aunt Florence!

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Read by Dylan Moore
Published March 2020 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Source: checked out the audiobook from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star lodging on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. On the night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a hooded figure scrawls a message on the lobby's glass wall: "Why don't you swallow broken glass." High above Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients' accounts. When the financial empire collapses, it obliterates countless fortunes and devastates lives. Vincent, who had been posing as Jonathan's wife, walks away into the night. Years later, a victim of the fraud is hired to investigate a strange occurrence: a woman has seemingly vanished from the deck of a container ship between ports of call.

My Thoughts:
The Atlantic calls Mandel "philosophically profound." The New Yorker says "Mandel's gift is to weave realism out of extremity." And NPR says "Intricate, interlocking narratives are Mandel's signature..." If you've read Mandel, you know all of those things to be true. This book is no exception.

Mandel opens and closes The Glass Hotel with Vincent, chapters titled "Vincent In The Ocean." Beyond that, the focus of the story shifts and characters come and go only to all come together later when as Alkaitis' business falls apart. Throughout, Mandel looks at how chance affects our lives and the ways that people reinvent and transform themselves. Mandel is so good at reinventing characters that she has even brought back two characters from Station Eleven (Leon and Miranda), and even a building, who get chances at new lives in this book.

Ghosts appear to many of the characters: Vincent; her brother, Paul, and Jonathan. But apparitions are not the only ghosts Mandel plays with here. Both Jonathan and one of employees create alternate fantasies, ghost lives.
"What does it mean to be a ghost, let alone to be there or here? There are so many ways to haunt a person or a life."
If I'm honest, I sometimes feel that I'm not smart enough for Mandel's writing, that I don't alway "get" it. But that never stops me from being impressed by it. She always manages to work so many ideas into a few hundred pages. Here she explores shadow countries, the world the rest of us don't notice. Shortly after I read this book and before I wrote this review, George Floyd was killed and we were all forced to see a shadow world we've all found do easy to forget about even when we've previously been forced to confront it.

Mandel also forces us to think about morality, trust, and the frailty of life (hence the book's title). She makes us think about how easily our lives can be broken and how we would deal with that. As one character says, "We move through this life so lightly." Mandel makes us think more about the choices we make.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Life: It Goes On

Happy very, very hot Sunday!

Here's a little lesson for those of you who haven't been married long - NEVER let your husband know that you can do anything he typically does. If you do, be very wary if he tells you that you've done a better job at it than he does. Apparently, I'm going to trim the yews today in 90+ degree heat because I did such an outstanding job last year. I will have been married 38 years this fall. You'd think I'd have learned this lesson from watching my husband fumble his way through housekeeping chores in what was clearly an attempt to make me throw up my hands in despair and vow he'd never be allowed to do that chore again. Instead, I almost hurt myself, patting myself on the back last year for doing such a great job!
Last Week I:

Listened To: I finished The Jane Austen Society, a book I very much felt like I needed for the comfort of it after all that has been going on with the virus; then I started If Beale Street Could Talk because it's time up my diversity reading game a whole lot but I needed to ease into it. I did download  Stamped from the Beginning - The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi; it's more than 19 hours long so that's something I'll be listening to for a while, probably mixing it up with some other audiobooks.

Watched: So much news coverage until I couldn't take it any more and had to watch some Queer Eye.

Read: I finished Florence Adler Swims Forever and started Just Mercy. I'm meant to have joined a readalong but between the time I'm spending on the internet trying to keep up with the news and teach myself and reading things I think it's important to read, I'm going to have to bail on that.

Made: Guys, I don't remember. Chicken nachos one night with the chicken left over from a meal I can't remember. I really thought I'd do better with meals since I'm off work earlier and have no commute but this has been a week where I was just not feeling it.

Enjoyed: Peonies. I cut almost all of my blooms and brought them inside where we could enjoy them.

This Week I’m: 

Planning: On making a Goodwill run (finally!) and then really getting down to finishing the sorting and tossing around here. I have six more weeks working from home and I need to take full advantage of the extra time that affords me. 

Thinking About: My niece and her family. She is married to a black man and her children are black. I thought I understood but it has only just occurred to me this week how much more frightened she must be every time her children leave the house than I was when my children were their ages.

Feeling: Angry, ignorant, tired, shamed, guilty.

Looking forward to: I'm having a hard time with looking forward right now, what with so many things we were meant to have been doing this month having been cancelled.

Question of the week: Essential oils - have you used them and what was your experience with them? I keep going back on forth on whether or not I want to invest in good ones. On the one hand, if I can get chemicals out of my house, that would be great. On the other hand, I don't want to sink a bunch of money into something that only smells good but doesn't really accomplish much. 

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Apeirogon by Colum McCann
Read by Colum McCann
Published February 2020 by Random House
Source: my audiobook copy from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Bassam Aramin is Palestinian. Rami Elhanan is Israeli. They inhabit a world of intractable conflict that colors every aspect of their daily lives, from the roads they are allowed to take to the schools their daughters, Abir and Smadar, each attend. Theirs is a life in which children from both sides of the wall throw stones at one another. But their worlds shift irreparably when ten-year-old old Abir is killed by a rubber bullet meant to quell unruly crowds, and again when thirteen-year-old Smadar becomes the victim of suicide bombers.

When Bassam and Rami learn one another's stories and the loss that connects them, they become part of a much larger tale that ranges over centuries and continents. Apeirogon is a novel that balances on the knife edge of fiction and nonfiction. Bassam and Rami are real men and their actual words are a part of this narrative, one that builds through thousands of moments and images into one grand, unforgettable crescendo

My Thoughts:
I had no idea what this book was about when I downloaded it; it was Colum McCann and that was all I needed to know. And now I don't know how to tell you about this book other than to say that it is incredible. So I'm just going to share with you some of my notes:

  • The Guardian says you don't so much read Apeirogon as feel it. I concur; as I was listening, I got angry, sad, frustrated, and hopeful. 
  • This bookends the novel: "Beyond right and wrong, there is a field. Meet us there." It is perfect. 
  • In a nod to the One Thousand and One Nights, there are 1001 chapters in this book. Many are simply a sentence which are astonishingly impactful. Many are, apparently, blank pages which, of course, I missed listening to the book. 
  • Abdel Wael Zwaiter was the first Palestinian assassinated by Mossad as part of the retaliation for the killings of Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics. At the time of his death he was in the process of translating the One Thousand and One Nights into Italian. This is only one of the many recurrent images and themes in the book.
  • Birds and music play recurring roles in the book. 
  • One person who makes a recurring appearance in the book is then U. S. Senator John Kerrey. Aramin met with Kerrey with the sole intent of saying "You killed my daughter." Kerrey was not insulted; he didn't rush Aramin out of the office or respond with hollow words of sympathy. In fact, Kerrey was remarkably understanding.
  • McCann makes use of a lot of repetition. This gives the book a poetic feel.
  • While the book theoretically takes place over one day, McCann moves back and forth in time, telling both of the men's stories and the stories of their daughters' deaths. He also gives us background on the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis. The fact that the mens' stories are not told in a straight line actually makes it easier to keep track of what's going on. 
If ever there were two men who should not have become friends, Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan are those men. Aramin was tortured after being imprisoned for throwing rocks; both men lost their young daughters to the conflict. And yet they first formed a friendship and then joined a group of other parents who had also lost children. They speak of their experience trying to help others find a way past their hatred, to find a way to live with the idea that there may not be a wrong side and a right side. But beyond those there is a field. Meet us there, they ask. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Outer Order, Inner Calm by Gretchen Rubin

Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness by Gretchen Rubin
Read by Gretchen Rubin
Published March 2019 by Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale
Source: audiobook checked out from my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Gretchen Rubin knows firsthand that creating order can make our lives happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative. But for most of us, a rigid, one-size-fits-all solution doesn't work. When we tailor our approach to suit our own particular challenges and habits, we can find inner calm.

With a sense of fun, and a clear idea of what’s realistic for most people, Rubin suggests dozens of manageable tips and tricks for creating a more serene, orderly environment, including:

• Never label anything “miscellaneous.”
• Ask yourself, “Do I need more than one?”
• Don’t aim for minimalism.
• Remember: If you can’t retrieve it, you won’t use it.
• Stay current with a child’s interests.
• Beware the urge to “procrasticlear.”

By getting rid of things we don’t use, don’t need, or don’t love, we free our minds (and our shelves) for what we truly value.

My Thoughts:
Let's be honest, you don't really need to read my review to know, if you read my Sunday posts regularly, that this was a book that was perfect for me. I'm forever talking about how much better I feel when I've decluttered a closet or made a drop off at my local Goodwill. Which might also beg the question, why did I even bother to read this book given that I'm already on board?

Well, to begin with, every book I read about decluttering brings me fresh ideas and the inspiration to dig back in to all of our "stuff." Different people bring different approaches - Marie Kondo believes that her method will work for everyone and has some very definite ideas about how things must be done. Rubin, on the other hand, believes that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for anything, including decluttering. Instead she offers a wide variety of ideas that can be tailored to the way that you live, learn, and are most productive.

The reason to work toward achieving outer order is essentially the same no matter what approach you use. According to Rubin:
"Outer order saves time, money, space, energy, and patience."
Further, she does offer this "golden rule" that is the one thing she says will help everyone.
"Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful." 
Now that's a rule I think we can all strive for; at least we're not holding up our toilet plungers asking ourselves if they bring us joy.

To be honest, there was a lot here that was not new to me since I listen to Rubin's Happier podcast. Still, I'm seriously considering picking up this book in print. I recently confessed to my friends, who know me to be a person who loves to clear things out, that I have a hard time getting rid my kids thing. In this book, I may have found the push I need to, at the very least, vastly reduce what I've kept. But I feel like I need the book at hand to remind me to do that. On the other hand, Rubin does tell readers to ask themselves if they need more than one. And you know that I already have a half dozen organizing books sitting on my bookshelves collecting dust. The struggle is real people, which is why I'm always looking for new inspiration!