The Fields by Erin Young

book cover

Never tell.
It was an oath she had broken first, many months later, the words heaved from her in sobs, her parents’ expressions frozen, Ethan stumbling from the room, his face ashen. The secret once shared—once detonated—had destroyed them. Not in the first blast, but slowly, inexorably. A sickness in the heart of their family. A poison that lived for years, quietly working in each of them.

It’s not heaven. It’s Iowa.
———-Ray Kinsella in Shoeless Joe

Damn, did he have that right. The Iowa of Erin Young’s The Fields is a hell of a lot closer to The Children of the Corn than it is to any Field of Dreams. After spending some time in Cedar Falls and it’s larger sibling, agro-urban-wasteland town, Waterloo, where the rust-belt meets the corn-belt, you might swear off dreaming altogether. Well, town might be down-playing it a bit. Between the two (both are real places) they total about 100,000 souls (not counting livestock), so maybe small cities rather than towns. Abba may have been on to something when they referred to Waterloo. (Couldn’t escape if I wanted to) Some truly can’t. One of those turns up dead in a cornfield.

If not for the University of Northern Iowa—where she’d majored in criminology—with its annual influx of students and money, Riley guessed Cedar Falls would have slumped into the same depression as Waterloo. There had been some brave attempts at regeneration in recent years—microbreweries sprouting on weed-covered lots, kayaks for hire on the Cedar River and an annual Pride festival, fulminated against by local churches. But they were fighting a strong downward pull.

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Erin Young, nom de plume for Robyn Young, showing off her Thriller-writer pose, or her “You expect me to believe that? Come on now.” face – image from her facebook pages

Riley Fisher is local, mid-thirties, single, grew up in Cedar Falls, her grandfather a former head of the Blackhawk County Sheriff’s Office. She knew early on that she wanted to follow in his footsteps. Now, after a detour or two along the way, she is head of investigations, to the consternation of others who had hoped for the promotion. The new-found body is in a field owned by the Zephyr Farms cooperative.

Cooperatives were how some smaller Iowa farms had been able to survive the relentless advances of Big Ag. By dominating the market in hybrid seeds, fertilizer and pesticides—the holy trinity of crop production—through aggressive trademarking, swallowing up the competition and tactical lobbying at the highest levels of government, giants like Agri-Co had come to control much of the nation’s agricultural wealth.

Been out there for days, been ripped at in an unusual way, was maggoty, ripe, and unsettling. No problems with an ID, though, once Sergeant Fisher arrives on the scene. Chloe Miller (nee Clark) was one of Riley’s besties two decades back, in high school. But they’d gone their separate ways. Seeing Chloe brings back a terrible time from Riley’s youth, a time that had derailed her life, a time she could never forget.

So, we are faced with two mysteries. What happened to Chloe in that field and why, and what is it about Chloe’s death that has brought Riley to such a state of emotional turmoil? Something happened back when they were still friends, something major. And the revived memories are not exactly a source of comfort. Both mysteries are peeled back like leaves on a lovely ear of you-of-what, bit by bit, the present-day crime via procedural investigation; the personal mystery through intermittent, mostly small recollections.

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Blackhawk County – Image from Lands of America

But wait, there’s more. The discovery of Chloe’s body is the spark that starts the action, but Young has a wider field of view in her sites. A writer of very successful (over two million sold) historical novels, she wanted to have a go at writing thrillers, finding inspiration in

an article she read about the menacing power of Big Agriculture. A decision to set the novel in Iowa, corn-capital of the world, led her to make a fascinating journey across the state – from chance encounters with cops and farmers, and an audience with a local mayor, to shooting Glocks and getting caught in supercell storms. – from her website

A voice is given to concerns about the darker implications of increasing concentration in the age of the agro-industrial complex.

A necessary evil, some called them. Progress, said more. But to those whose forefathers had farmed this land since the days of the first families from New York, Philadelphia, and Virginia, who’d settled here after the Black Hawk War when the Ioway had been driven west, these corporations were vultures, polluters and thieves.

(Entirely unlike the settlers who drove out the natives, I presume.) So, not exactly a tension-free relationship between local growers and the bigger side of the farming industry, personified here by the Agri-co corporation. We get a strong oppo position from an activist determined to head off even more governmental pro-corporation actions.

Companies like Agri-Co only care about profit, not the soil and water they infect with their chemicals, or the wildlife they destroy. Cancer rates are rising from pesticides, and, still, their political allies and lobbyists help them sow their poison.

She blames the current governor, up for re-election, for his role in this. Concern with big-Ag concentrating power at the expense of smaller producers and fouling the environment in the process finds an echo in another part of the country.

It was almost a year since Logan joined the department, moving with his folks from Flint. His father, niece, and nephew had been badly affected by the crisis there—when lead seeped into Flint’s water supply after city officials changed the system in an attempt to save money, then tried to cover up the devastating consequences.

It is clearly impossible to run from the national corporation-led degradation of our environment, or from pervasive public corruption.

Riley is an engaging lead, clever in the way we expect our fictional detectives to be. We also expect our lead to carry some personal baggage, challenges at the very least. Her beloved grandfather, Joe, has been in decline for quite a while, coherent and in possession of his memories on an increasingly part-time basis. Her brother Ethan is a bit of a disaster, divorced, a ne’er do well with some substance issues. Riley can usually count on Ethan to step back whenever she needs him to step up. Ethan’s daughter Maddie is a teenager, a decent sort, overall, in a tough situation, but, you know, a teenager, so offering the family their RDA of stress. And Riley still carries the weight of what happened all those years ago. Unfortunately, Riley is saddled with the addition to her team of Officer Cole, an asshole cop straight from central casting, toting the usual bigotries, inflated self-view, and presumptions, with an extra dose of jealousy. Thankfully, Riley’s other partner, Logan, is another good cop.

And then a second body turns up, (not in a field) also not discovered until well past passing, also in very nasty shape, also featuring some remarkable damage. Is there a serial killer on the loose?

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Abandoned meat-packing plant – image from sometimes-interesting.com

Thrillers have tropes like Ruffles have Ridges. Black SUVs put in an appearance. Are they good SUVs or bad SUVs? Ya gotta figure, when Riley spots a large poisonous snake on her property, (Chekov’s snake?) that it will rattle into play at some point. The question is how, when, to whom, and to what effect. News of a coming storm is another one. Usually this signals that the violent final resolution will occur against an atmospherically dramatic background. Young preps us with a mention of eight twisters having touched down in Iowa since April. Will one drop down into the mix here? Now, that would be a real twist. The upcoming Iowa State Fair is also noted, and gave me visions of snakes dropping on fair-goers, transported by a tornado, as everything is revealed in a climactic disaster scene. But Chekov surely does not have to take ownership of all these things. They could also just be foreshadowing images or external representations of the fear and turmoil Riley is experiencing, or the dangers she is facing. (But I sure do like that State Fairground snakenado notion).

So how does the historical novelist fare at the thriller genre? Young ticks off many of the usual boxes that make up the type. The author has to make good with the reader on explaining things at the end, the main things, anyway. Check. A ticking clock? “I’ve had the county attorney on the line already. Less than two months from the state fair and with the gubernatorial coming up? You know how vital this next budget is to the department. I want this case handled quickly. Efficiently.”, so, check. Our hero must face an increasingly perilous set of challenges, no escaping, victory can only be had by overcoming. What’s she gonna do when all those snakes start dropping out of the sky (Ok. I got carried away, again.) But yeah, Riley rolls, doing battle on multiple fronts. An element of suspense? Sure. Got that. Whodunit, why, and who’s next. An appealing hero? Sure. A reliable sidekick with an alternate skill set? Yep. Logan fills the bill. Plot twists? Of course. Red herrings? Bring your fishing pole. There are a few swimming about. Alternate POVs? The story is told in third person, but there is one first person POV that appears a few times. Cliffhangers? That is what made it tough to read only 20-30 pages a night of this book. An exciting climax? Yeah, for sure, even though I was really kinda hoping for the snakenado thing, even though I know it would have been really cool silly.

I quite enjoyed Young’s simple, but dark descriptions.

Waterloo was lifeless in the stagnant air. Smoke seeped from factory chimneys and the Cedar flowed sluggish and brown. Although the roads were clogged with trucks and trailers, there were few people about, just a few vagrants shambling along broken sidewalks, and cleaners and hospital workers trudging to or from shifts…It wasn’t long before she saw the old meatpacking plant on the outskirts of the city…Its twin smokestacks were dark fingers against the pallid sky, old bricks the color of rust. The bottom windows were boarded over, the ones higher up mostly shattered. A chain-link fence surrounded the site, bristling with barbed wire…stepping over heaps of rubbish, she found herself in a cavernous hall. Metal steps ascended to gantries that crisscrossed in between pillars and snaking pipes, conveyor belts and wheels. It all looked like some complex ride at the state fair, only made of metal and rust, fractured glass and hooks. She imagined the steers and hogs shuddering round, the iron spike of blood, steam from spilling guts. Parts of the gantries had collapsed. In places, the floor yawned into darkness.

A good book should teach you something about the world while delivering a good story. You will certainly get a sense of the perils of Big Ag, the history of how such concentration got started, and the impact it has had on the economy and the people of this area (presumed to be comparable in all farming states) You will learn a bit about the potential and potential dangers of genetic research for crops. And will learn some Ag lingo.

Good writing is good writing whether it is for historical novels set across the pond (well, across for us in the Western Hemisphere. For her, living in Brighton, the pond is right there.) or for a gritty thriller set in America’s heartland. Young has made the transition smoothly, with an engaging procedural-cum-political-thriller, featuring a strong lead, a diverse supporting cast, well-paced action, and plenty of mystery to keep one’s curiosity on high alert, all while offering a bit of information about the world, and highlighting very real issues concerning Big Agriculture. I am looking forward to the further fleshing out of Riley’s story and those of her supporting cast. Seeds have been planted. The soil is fertile.

The shoots are emerging for the Riley Fisher series, and look very promising. A bountiful annual harvest is forecast. Volume #2 will be set in Des Moines. I am betting that when she writes it, readers will come.

The lifeblood of rural America was being drained, leaving husks of cities, where poverty and crime rushed in to fill the void. It was a legacy all too visible in the boarded-up factories and processing plants that loomed like broken tombs around the city, haunted by vagrants and hookers, and cruised nightly by the squad cars of Waterloo PD.

Review posted – January 14, 2022

Publication date – January 25, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads.

I received an ARE of The Fields from Flatiron in return for a review that was not too horribly corny. Well, I tried, ok. Thanks, too to NetGalley for facilitating.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Erin Young and Robin Young personal,
FB, and Twitter pages

Items of Interest
—–Ruffles have Ridges
—–Master Class – Masterclass: What is the Thriller genre?
—–A bit of silliness
—–Reedsy Blog- Chekhov’s Gun: Don’t Shoot Your Story In the Foot
—–Crop Prophet – Corn production by state
Corn Production Rankings: 2020
Rank State Production (M bu)
1 Iowa 2296.2
2 Illinois 2131.2
3 Nebraska 1790.1
4 Minnesota 1441.9
5 Indiana 981.8
6 Kansas 766.5
7 South Dakota 729.0
8 Ohio 564.3
9 Missouri 560.9
10 Wisconsin 516.8
11 Michigan 306.5

Items of Interest from the author
Young has a few items coming up for publication soon, one in CrimeReads on her research trip to Iowa, and another in The Big Thrill Magazine. There is also an interview upcoming on Jeff Rutherford’s Reading and Writing podcast

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Filed under Action-Adventure, Cops, Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller

A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

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1968 was certainly an interesting time. Laguna Beach was an interesting place, an artist colony and tourist destination of about 13,000 residents, and, these days anyway, about six million visitors a year for a current local population of a bit over 20,000. So, even with a temporal discount it had to have been a lot back then too. T. Jefferson Parker lived there for a stretch. It inspired his first, very successful, novel, Laguna Heat, so he knows the territory into which he places his young hero.

Sixteen-year-old Matt Anthony is a hard-working, pretty decent kid. Holds down a paper route for money, building muscle and character on his Schwinn Heavy-Duti bike. Single mom, Julie, holds down a crappy job at a Jolly Roger restaurant. (Might be better named Davey Jones’ Locker?) His older brother, Kyle, is a short-timer in ‘Nam, terrified that something will happen to him in his remaining weeks. Their father, Bruce, a former cop, has been mostly out of the picture for years, but maintains occasional contact. Mom has issues with substances, which are dramatically available in southern Orange County, and her issues are growing more alarming. Matt’s body is going through some changes, which is always a joyous experience. And then his sister, Jasmine, a recent High School graduate, gorgeous, straight-A student, in-crowd, rebellious toward the usual authorities, goes poof! Stayed out overnight (not alarming in itself) but has remained MIA and the local fuzz are uninterested.

I was fourteen-years old in 1968 so I experienced the strange, beguiling world of Laguna Beach as a very impressionable, wide-eyed, wonder-struck boy. When it came time to create a hero/protagonist for A Thousand Steps, I just aged myself—that fourteen-year old boy—into a sixteen-year old on the cusp of getting his driver’s license, and let him take off in his mother’s hippie van! – from the Mark Gottlieb interview

Bill Furlong personifies that disinterest, a large officer, with an interest in Julie for things other than possession of illegal substances. Brigit Darnell is the good cop, young, a mom, willing to listen to Matt. It may or may not matter. He knows his sister. Does not accept that she had simply run off. And one more piece. Bonnie Stratmeyer, 18, missing two months, posters proclaiming the fact up all around, has just been found at the bottom of the stairs at the Thousand Steps Beach. (Last time Parker actually went up, or down, or both, he counted 224, but the number changes with each attempt. It’s 219 in the book.) Bonnie had not taken the usual route down. Thus Matt’s panic about Jazz.

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T. Jefferson Parker – image from Laguna Beach Independent – photo by Rita Parker

The thousand steps of the title is a notable waterfront location, but it might also be what Matt sets himself to take on, in the absence of official interest. The plot is Matt continuing to search for his missing sister, continuing to turn up clues, continuing to pester the cops to do their job, while trying to cope with chaos at home, and while coming of age, physically, socially, and emotionally. Although it may be less of a journey for Matt than other teens. He is a pretty grounded kid. And then there is the local color. A holding pen of new agers, con-men, regular crooks, a biker gang, drug dealers, drug abusers, and feckless teens. There are enough shady goings on here to blot out the California sun.

Mystic Arts World is a bookstore/head-shop/local institution that offers classes on meditation, among other things. Johnny Grail, the owner, is a bit of a local legend, a slippery sort, well able to keep a step or two ahead of the police, (who are desperate to catch him holding or doing anything illegal) to the delight of area residents. The whole New Age thing was not particularly popular with the constabulary. Go figure. But despite their clear prejudice, they actually may have something. Johnny is about as clean as a public crash pad.

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Mystic Arts World (1967-1970), a head shop in Laguna Beach, was ground zero for psychedelic culture in southern California during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was there that a loosely organized group of artists interested in alternative culture, mystical experience and the transformation of society, “The Mystic Artists”, congregated and exhibited their art. Their artistic expression ranged from Beat assemblage to figuration to psychedelic art. – image and text from The Brotherhood of Eternal Love site

Local color extends to the presence of Timothy Leary, offering lectures at the MAW, and a Swami who has attracted a bit of a following. He offers increasing levels of instruction to his followers. Some reside at his compound, a former seminary. Matt and his brother used to play there when they were kids and it was unused.

The town hosts an annual tableaux vivants, i.e. classic paintings brought to life with people dressed up as characters in the works, and sets made to bring the paintings to life. A few characters in the novel are in it. Matt likes this. He is a budding artist and draws a passel of scenes from his experiences to help police in their frail attempts to look for his sister, and address other crimes. He is particularly fond of the work of Edward Hopper.

Working class life contrasts with the lifestyles of the rich, corrupt, and horny. We get a peek at some excusive locations hosting some very dodgy goings on. Matt fishes less for recreation than for a supply of protein, which mom cannot always provide. They live in a clapboard rental, for which Mom struggles to make rent, Matt sleeping in the garage. But we see great wealth on display as well. There is a part of town called Dodge City, for its casual relationship with the law, general run-down-ness and general hostility toward people toting badges. Get out of Dodge? Sure, ASAP. But up-slope and down-slope have plenty of criminal intent in common.

So what happened to Jazz? Is she still alive? As the days pass the odds seem worse and worse. Is Matt’s mom serious about stopping her drug use? He gathers help where he can, and pedals on, but we wonder if he might be wasting his time. Why does Mom want to move to Dodge City? Will his father ever show up to help? He keeps promising. And even if he does, would he be more hindrance than help? Is the Swami as nice and wise as he seems? Girls are becoming more a part of his life, and maybe even some activities that often accompany such associations. Will Matt’s permanent crush on Laurel ever go anywhere?

I am roughly the same age as Matt, so can relate to being a teen in that era. It never hurts to add that into the reading enjoyment mix. On the other hand, my east coast experience was quite different from his Cali life, including the degree of drug exposure. My older brother was in the army too, but not in Viet Nam. My father was around. My mom’s drugs of choice were Tareytons and tea. But still, we all go through adolescence, so there is the coming-of-age element to relate to. Sounds like Matt skipped the parts where your voice goes to hell, your face resembles a moonscape, and embarrassing body parts pop up for no discernible reason, for all to see. Whatever. It is impossible not to love Matt. There is one gripe I have about him, though. For someone who was so smart and intrepid about tracking down his sister, he is startlingly blind about some items, which I will not spoil here, that were jumping up and down and screaming from the pages. Yeah, he is just an unworldly teen, so could easily miss some things, but he seems pretty sharp about other stuff, so it rankled.

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Matt’s bike – image from TJP’s Twitter cache

Parker has been at this for a while. Steps is his 27th book. His first, Laguna Heat, was an instant success, and was brought to the screen by HBO. His work includes multiple series, and has earned him THREE EDGAR AWARDS! So, no slouch. He started his writing career as a cub reporter. In the Internet Writing Journal interview Parker was asked how his journalism background informed his writing.

The best thing about journalism is that it teaches a young person how the world works. It’s not the writing itself, because that is fairly straightforward and desirably formulaic. It’s the exposure that’s valuable. When I was 23 I was covering cultural events, movies, books, city hall, school board, fires, police — everything but sports and business. It was a crash course on civics, human nature, bureaucracy. It was also a crash course on how the press and the government and business all interact. Those relationships are at the core of what we are as a republic.

He knew he was not a journalistic long-timer, but being a reporter did hone his skills, and also allowed him a venues in which he could collect plenty of details to include in his fictional writing. His craft has grown as well. Keep an ear out for the soundscape Parker has incorporated. It enriches the reading experience.

I read this one at bedtime, 20-30 pps a night, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending. Every day I was reading this book I was eager, very eager to tuck my lower half under the covers, (also good for hiding the cloven hoofs) crank up the laptop for my notetaking, switch on the lights to make reading my hardcopy ARE possible, and reveled. You all know that feeling when you are truly enjoying a book, and look forward to getting back to it every day. Well, presuming that you do not just scarf down the entire thing in one ginormous gulp. I prefer to spread out that joy. So, a couple weeks, and it delivered every night.

Bottom line is that I totally enjoyed this book. Appreciated the portrait of a time and place well known to the author, loved the lead character, and had fun trying to figure out who had committed (was committing?) which crimes, how, and why. A few of those will quickly succumb to your investigative instincts, but the rest will keep you guessing. Mystery, suspense, thriller, coming-of-age? Use whatever adjective suits or mix and match. Doesn’t matter. Whatever you call it, A Thousand Steps will remain a pretty good read. You will not need any LSD or opiated anything to get off on or get into this book. Go ahead. Be a tourist in Laguna Beach for a bit. It’s a trip you won’t want to miss.

Review posted – January 7, 2022

Publication date – January 11, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by and say Hi!

I received an ARE of A Thousand Steps from Macmillan’s Reading Insiders Club program in return for a couple of hits of that sweet product. Righteous, man.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Parker’s personal, FB, GR, and Twitter pages

What does the T. stand for?
Not a thing. No, really. Nada. Zip. Nothing. Jeff’s mom always explained it by saying she thought the T. would look good on the President’s door.
– from the Bookbrowse interview

Interviews
—–Mark Gottlieb Talks Books – Three-Time Edgar Award-winner and New York Times Bestselling Author T. Jefferson Parker
—–2007 – Bookpage – Only in California by Jay MacDonald
—–The VJ Books Podcast – T. Jefferson Parker – A Thousand Steps by Roger Nichols
—–2018- Bookbrowse – An interview with T Jefferson Parker
—–The Internet Writing Journal – A Conversation With T. Jefferson Parker by Claire E. White
—–2002 – Orange County Register – THE VIEW FROM ELSEWHERE by Amy Wilson

Songs/Music
—–The Rollingstones – Satisfaction
—–Cream – Tales of Great Ulysses
—–Cream – Sunshine of Your Love
—–Jimi Hendrix – Foxy Lady – Hendrix performs in front of an audience of the sitting dead in Miami
—–The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man

Items of Interest
—–The Brotherhood of Eternal Love – their site
—–Brotherhood of Eternal Love – Laguna Beach – Wet Side Story – a bit of Laguna Beach history
—–All That’s Interesting (ATI) – An interesting article about the BEL in the 1960s
—–Wiki on Timothy Leary
—–Wiki on the Pageant of the Masters, an annual event held in Laguna Beach, featuring tableaux vivants, i.e. classic paintings brought to life with people dressed up as characters in the works, and sets made to bring the paintings to life. A few characters in the novel are in it. Here is a nifty video promoting the event today.

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller

Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

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Milley believed January 6 was a planned, coordinated, synchronized attack on the very heart of American democracy, designed to overthrow the government to prevent the constitutional certification of a legitimate election won by Joe Biden.

Milley summarized and scribbled. “Big Threat: domestic terrorism.”
Some were the new Brown Shirts, a U.S. version, Milley concluded, of the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party that supported Hitler. It was a planned revolution. Steve Bannon’s vision coming to life. Bring it all down, blow it up, burn it, and emerge with power.

The title, Peril, is drawn from President Joe Biden’s inaugural address, in which he says “We have much to do in this winter of peril…” It is the epigraph for the book. Winter is not coming. It is bloody well here, and has been here a lot longer than most folks realize. Woodward and his much younger partner, Bob Costa, national political reporter for the Washington Post, look over some of what we have endured, consider the peril we face today, and give us plenty to think about concerning what lies ahead. Biden’s speech addresses not only the threat to our democracy, but the threat to our safety from COVID variants, the cry for racial justice, and the threat to our planet from global warming. This book focuses on the threat to American democracy.

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Bob Woodward and Robert Costa – image from CNN

It rolls along on two parallel tracks. One is Trump’s attempt to illegally overturn the 2020 presidential election. The other is Joe Biden’s determination to preserve the soul of our nation, focusing on his campaign, and the first few months of his administration. The chapters alternate, more or less between Trump and Biden.

“Was that from this book?” One peril to be faced in reading this book is that of fixing what one read, when, where, and by whom, given the firehose flood of books on the Trump era. I addressed that in my review of I Alone Can Fix It. If this is of interest you can click here for a look.

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Trump’s mob assaults the Capitol on January 6, 2021 – image from Business Insider

January 6, 2021 is a date which will live in infamy. That was the day on which American democracy was nearly bombed into surrender by a sneak attack on the citadel of our national values. That was the day on which a failed Trump-led coup could easily have made moot the election he had just lost, and rendered American elections, certainly presidential elections, meaningless. It was the coming out party for an American brand of fascism that has long been an undercurrent, and sometimes much more, in our political life as a nation, a dark but always-present element in our population that Trump had recruited and encouraged for years, even before he ran for office.

It is clear that, to the extent that we will ever know all the details of the coup plot, it is likely to come from the Congressional January 6 Committee’s final report, in combination with unredacted testimony given to that committee, testimony given at what we hope will be very public trials of those in charge of the effort, and intrepid reporters. The authors count among that final group. While offering far from a complete portrait of the plot, they have given us an insider’s look at what people in the administration and the government beyond that faced on 1/6 (which I personally think should be called Desecration Day.) And what they had to deal with in the months leading up to it.

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Milley speaking with Trump – image from DNYUZ

It was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley whose intercession with his Chinese counterpart talked the Chinese military down from a concern that Trump might launch an attack on China in order to remain in office, not once but twice. As the Chinese were again concerned what our imbalanced president might do after his coup attempt failed. There was also concern that Trump would attack Iran in an attempt to secure his own position. I doubt Israel would have appreciated the incomings such an action would have surely generated. He also floated the idea of evacuating troops from Afghanistan in January, 2021, with minimal planning. Thankfully he was dissuaded from that impulse as well.

Milley is the official most in the limelight here. He was appointed to that post by Donald Trump. In Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s book I Alone Can Fix It, Milley told them of his concerns about the dangers of a right-wing coup. There is plenty more of that in this book as well. We hear a lot from Trump-whisperer Lindsey Graham about his conversations with Trump, who appears to have actually convinced himself of the truth of his own lies. He is a fine representative of those who, while remaining loyal to Trump, try to counsel him to sane courses of action.

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Donald Trump pretends to check his watch as Senator Lindsey Graham speaks at the White – image and text from The Guardian

We get a look at the conversations among the cabinet level officials, unwilling to allow him to use the US military as his private army. We learn what analyses they shared about the dangers facing the nation, what agreements they came to among themselves, what steps they took, and what mistakes they made. We get a look at how these and other level-headed adults in the administration did whatever they could to keep Trump from causing irreparable harm to the nation with his impulsive-driven, self-serving, poorly-informed decision-making. Part of all this included making certain that proper chains of command would be followed should Trump decide to start a war as a Wag the Dog self-preservation move, or command the military to take actions that were illegal.

Days after the election, Trump fired Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, in large part for his public opposition to the use of the military to suppress BLM protests. It was certainly clear to those tracking Trump’s actions that Trump wanted the US military to be his personal security force, and Esper was an impediment. In fact, it was appropriate for the military to be brought to bear to battle an insurrection, and the delays in the military’s response can be traced to the Department of Defense, by then Esper-free, sitting on its hands for far too long.

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper – fired after the election – image from Reuters via BBC

One item that becomes clear from the telling here is that Mike Pence did his best to find a way to Yes for Trump, but was unable. It is also clear that Trump pushed Pence a step too far when he issued a press release claiming that the Vice President agreed with Trump’s lie that the VP had the legal right to refuse to accept the electoral votes of any state. It was the only thing, apparently, in four years in office, that generated a spine in the relentlessly invertebrate Pence, driving him into bunker mode. It is unfortunate that Pence will likely be remembered more for this single act than for his years of pathetic subservience to and enabling of an American Mussolini. It is chilling to consider that had there been alternate slates of electors ready to bring to bear, Pence might have actually done the deed. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi called him repeatedly after the insurrection, wanting him to invoke the 25th amendment. He refused to take their calls, calling a quick halt to his vertebrate moment.

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Mike Pence flees the mob on 1/6 – image from The Guardian

The book will (it certainly should) make your blood boil. The Founders put together a guiding document and a set of rules that presumed they would be carried out by honorable officials. They did not count on the possibility of a sociopath being elected president. Someone with not only no respect, but outright contempt, for the rule of law. He really claimed, and maybe even believed in his diseased mind, like Louis XIV, who famously said “L’etat est moi,” that he, personally, was the state.

Bottom line is that when you see Woodward and Costa being interviewed about this book, or talking about the events they covered, their hair is on fire. They understand what it was that happened, namely that not only did the nation narrowly avoid a fascist coup that would have made the USA a dictatorship, but that the party of the guy who ordered it is all lined up and ready to goose-step their way to another try. We may have survived Trump’s 2021 coup attempt, but it is clear that he will try again, and there are far too many who are more than willing to go along, whether actively or passively.

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Trump with Steve Bannon – image from CNN

Now, as for the other part of this book. It should come as a salve for the angst generated by the reporting on Trump. They follow Biden’s decision to run, following the Charlottesville “good people on both sides” outrage, convinced that the very soul of the nation was imperiled, and that he could offer a way out of this very dark cloud, more so than other extant or potential candidates. We get to see a very human Biden, sincere, knowledgeable, willing to listen to well-informed and well-meant advice, willing to make needed adjustments, willing to talk to anyone, anywhere, and unwilling to be baited by Trumpian taunts and lies. We are let in to some of the family troubles the Bidens have endured, that they continue to endure. Biden is shown as the anti-Trump, an incredibly decent person, gifted at making personal contact with people, caring about people, remembering them, willing to spend unheard of amounts of time with people who could offer him nothing but their shared pain. It shows candidate Biden behaving in a presidential manner when the actual president would not. It is a warm portrait of a man the authors have certainly seen enough of to know. They also show him getting tough in legislative negotiations, and showing his exasperation when sanity, and decency, seem insufficient to accomplish a goal. The book continues into March 2021, so shows Biden as president as well as merely a candidate.

But, of course, being Washington reporters, they feel it necessary to take a swing or two. In one instance they report on Biden snapping at a reporter who was being particularly dickish as if there was something wrong with that. That Biden later apologized was the real fault here. The reporter merited being smacked down. Their portrayal was that this was a kind of gaffe. Take a moment to roll your eyes here. The Beltway media have particular story lines that they adhere to, regardless of the facts. Reporting Biden as particularly gaffe-ridden is among them. He is no more so than most other people. We all misstate things at times. But they seem eager, drooling even for a chance to catch another one and reinforce the image. Their treatment of Biden’s entirely appropriate reaction to a hostile reporter is of a cloth with that mindlessness.

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Presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden takes a picture with the Downs family after campaigning in Rehoboth Beach. – image and text from the Cape Gazette

Gripes (in addition to the one above)
As happens far too often in books of this sort, namely political history books put together largely through personal interviews, the authors sometimes slip into stenography mode. They report, presumably straight-faced, about Senate Majority, now Minority Leader Mitch McConnell trotting out his spin about tax cuts for the rich being “tax reform” and crediting Trump for an economy that had been humming along quite nicely when he took office. I call BS. They continue in this mode about McConnell working with cabinet members trying to push Trump to some semblance of normal. Take nothing McConnell reports himself saying at face value. Second-party confirmation is always needed there. Ditto for Lindsey Graham.

Former Republican and Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt issued a statement about Graham…saying that many people have tried to understand Graham over the years. He encouraged people not to look at it “through the prism of the manifest inconsistencies that exist between things he used to believe and what he’s doing now.”
Instead, Schmidt said, “The way to understand him is to look at what’s consistent. And essentially what he is in American politics is what, in the aquatic world, would be a pilot fish: a smaller fish that hovers around a larger predator, like a shark, living off of its detritus. That’s Lindsey. And when he swam around the McCain shark, broadly viewed as a virtuous and good shark, Lindsey took on the patina of virtue. But wherever the apex shark is, you find the Lindsey fish hovering about, and Trump is the newest shark in the sea. Lindsey has a real draw to power — but he’s found it unattainable on his own merits.”
– from Salon article

Graham is quoted at length here, and it is all self-serving. Douse that with salt before consuming.

Gripes, notwithstanding, Peril is an important book, another in a large library of reporting on the workings of the Trump administration, and particularly at how close Trump’s attempted coup came to succeeding.

There are many lessons to be learned here. One is that the January 6th Committee should interview, whether via subpoena or not, all the players involved in orchestrating the insurrection, including Trump, and that they need to complete their report and make all necessary criminal referrals to the Department of Justice before Republicans have a chance to regain control of the House and shut them down. We learn that the norms and rules of American government are fatally flawed, allowing the dark-hearted to game the system for their political and personal advantage. We learn that even in dark times there are officials willing to put their careers, and even their lives on the line to stand up for the ideals and institutions, that Americans claim to admire and respect. We learn that there need to be fixes made to the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to make sure that each state’s electors truthfully represent the decision of the voters.

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Attorney John Eastman, left, speaks next to Rudy Giuliani at Donald Trump’s rally on 6 January – Image and text from Reuters, by way of The Guardian – photo by Jim, Bourg

The book’s epigraph cut short Biden’s inaugural statement. The full sentence reads We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility. Despite the subsequent COVID variants that have killed or damaged so many in our nation, and the world, a major relief bill made it through a very marginally Democratic Congress. Other measures are needed, but hope that more can be done remains alive, despite Joe Manchin. There are hopeful signs in many parts of the nation that democracy is on the rise.

But the forces of darkness are indeed on the march, with shameless efforts, far too often successful, to suppress the right to vote of people unlikely to vote Republican, and to seize partisan control of state vote-counting mechanisms to make sure that if that suppression is not enough there is a second way to cheat their way to victory. What we are looking at in America is the rise of a fascist party that wears the name-tag Republican. Do not be fooled. These are the same sorts of people the Allies fought in World War II. The same sorts of people who seized control of Turkey in 2016, and who have gained power in far too many nations. The same sorts of people who admire corrupt autocrats like Vladimir Putin. Woodward and Costa have offered us a look at how such people operate when they find themselves in a position of power. No law is too sacred. No act too extreme. Thankfully, they were not as organized as they needed to be on 1/6 to succeed in their goals and they do not yet have enough power to implement their dark desires. But have no doubt that should they achieve their electoral goals, fairly or not, they will usher in a new Dark Age in America.

We as a nation are in mortal danger. We need to continue reading, learning about what has happened, and what has been hidden, so that we can be better prepared for the challenges that await. Woodward and Costa’s book helps us see what has gone on, and helps us prepare, offering one Peril we should all welcome.

Five years ago, on March 31, 2016, when Trump was on the verge of winning the Republican presidential nomination, we worked together for the first time and interviewed Trump at his then unfinished Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.
That day, we recognized he was an extraordinary political force, in many ways right out of the American playbook. An outsider. Anti-establishment. A businessman. A builder. Bombastic. Confident. A fast-talking scrapper.
But we also saw darkness. He could be petty. Cruel. Bored by American history and dismissive of governing traditions that had long guided elected leaders. Tantalized by the prospect of power. Eager to use fear to get his way.
“Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear,” Trump told us.
“I bring rage out. I do bring rage out. I always have. I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do.”
Could Trump work his will again? Were there any limits to what he and his supporters might do to put him back in power?
Peril remains.

This review has been cross-posted, well, most of it, on Goodreads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Bob Woodward’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Links to the Robert Costa’s Instagram and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Washington Post – Transcript: “Peril” with Co-Authors Bob Woodward & Robert Costa by Karen Tumulty – transcript of a Washington Live interview
—–The Guardian – ‘American democracy will continue to be tested’: Peril author Robert Costa on Trump, the big lie and 2024 by David Smith
—–NPR – Trump’s strategy to overturn the 2020 election didn’t work. Next time it might by Terry Gross

My reviews of other books by Bob Woodward
—–2020 – Rage
—–2018 – Fear
—–2010 – Obamas’s Wars
—–2008 – The War Within

Some other related books to check out
—–I Alone Can Fix It by Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker
—–Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump
—–Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine K. Albright
—–Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff
—–Unbelievable by Katy Tur

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, True crime

Accidental Gods by Anna Della Subin

book cover

Deification has been defiance: from the depths of abjection, creating gods has been a way to imagine alternative political futures, wrest back sovereignty, and catch power.

Gods are born ex-nihilo and out of lotuses, from the white blood of the sea-foam, or the earwax of a bigger god. They are also birthed on dining room tables and when spectacles of power are taken too far. They are born when men find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. Gods are made in sudden deaths, violent accidents, they ascend in the smoke of a pyre, or wait, in their tombs, for offerings of cigars. But gods are also created through storytelling, through history-writing, cross-referencing, footnoting, repeating.

Heaven knows, there are plenty of men who think they are god’s gift to humanity. For most of them we roll our eyes and pretend to see a friend across the room that we simply must go to, or vote for anyone else. Serious problems occur when the number of foolish people in a community so outnumbers those with brains that the self-deified persuades enough sheeple that he is who he imagines himself to be. History is far too rich with examples of the Badlands lyric poor man wants to be rich, rich man wants to be king, and a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything. Another, non-rhyming, way to put that last bit is that a king is not satisfied until he becomes a god. Roman emperors were notorious for this brand of nonsense. The appeal of deification is strong. A comparable theological tool has been the Divine Right of Kings, typically used to justify rule over white subjects in Europe. And nicely translated into Manifest Destiny in justifying American expansion westward. As the author notes, sometimes those engaging in apotheosis are crazy like a fox, employing a methodology that is overtly religious for a covertly political aim. Consider how so many evangelicals in the USA, led by their institutional leaders, have made common cause with the most amoral president in American history, claiming his selection by God. You really can fool some of the people all the time.

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Anna Della Subin – image from Nina Subin Photography, by Nina Subin

But there are others who find themselves regarded as divine without really trying. Anna Della Subin looks at the history of many people who have been deemed to have risen beyond the merely mortal, whether they were still alive or not. She uses a broad brush for who counts in that list.

There is no single definition of what it means to be a god, or divine. Divinity emerges not as an absolute state, but a spectrum, able to encompass an entire range of meta-persons: living gods, demigods, avatars, ancestor deities, divine spirits who possess human bodies in a trance.

I would add saints to that list, the nyads and dryads of Christianity. Surely prophets could find a cozy place on the spectrum, not to mention heroes of ancient Greek legend, intercessors called karāmāt in Islam, and how about those supposedly “chosen” by god for this or that. Many a king certainly claimed a divine right to rule. But who gets to decide who is a prophet, or a hero, or a saint? Yes, I know the RC canonizes individuals as saints for its institution, but there are plenty of candidates, deemed saints by large numbers of people, who never receive the official imprimatur. Can public opinion alone certify sainthood? Was Mother Teresa a saint before the Church hierarchy canonized her, or did she have to wait until her ticket number was called and her application stamped by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints? Point is, divinity is squishy, and often designated by popular will (with or without political manipulation) rather than bestowed by those sitting atop religious institutions.

For good or ill, most of us are touched by religion, and take on many of its beliefs, whether knowingly or by osmosis. For example, according to western religions, there are the living and the dead, and never the twain shall meet. Well, except for carve-out exceptions here and there. (for raising the debt ceiling, maybe?) Jesus pops to mind. Human? Divine? Less-filling? Tastes great? Even his mother, who supposedly died a natural death was “assumed” up to heaven, her tomb having been found empty on day three post-mortem. Thus, the rather large notion of Mary’s Assumption. And you know what happens when you assume. Not usually physical elevation to another plane of existence. But this line was not always thought to be so fixed. Even in the time of Jesus, the barrier between here and there was seen as more of a curtain than a firewall. But to us in the 21st century it seems particularly strange that people anywhere believed that human beings could become gods. (Well, I hereby offer a carve-out for Sondheim. Our Stephen, who art on Broadway, hallowed be thy name) Yet many have been deified, often without their permission, and sometimes over their considerable objections. (not The Divine Miss M, though) The Pythons were on to something in The Life of Brian. “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.” Surely post-mortem Elvis sightings fit into this array somewhere.

Thus the folks Subin writes of here. The book is divided into a trinity of parts. In the first she covers in detail the divination of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Prince Phillip of the UK, and General Douglas MacArthur. Part I goes into considerable detail about Selassie, and it is all incredibly fascinating, including the use of his supposed divinity by Jamaican politicians for their own ends. Prince Phillip was imagined to be divine by the residents of what is now Vanuatu. It was news to him. It was likely sourced in the knowledge that he was in a position to deliver considerable physical materials to the island, so what could it hurt to feed his ego by claiming godhood for him, if there was even a chance that he might come through with some much-needed supplies. MacArthur was raised to divinity on multiple continents, and in diverse ways. If Stalin, in attempting to minimize the military impact of religion, asked How many divisions has the Pope? had substituted “Pipe” for ”Pope,” considering MacArthur’s apotheosized position, he would have gotten a very different answer.

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7 foot balsa rendering of MacArthur built to lead an army of wooden figures against dark spiritual forces – Image from University of Chicago

The section continues, noting several colonial military sorts who were raised up by third-world locals.

Part II offers many more examples of westerners being viewed as gods by the colonized. Queen Victoria is among those, although her newly exalted status did not soften her opposition to women’s suffrage. The local practice of Sati, Hindu widows immolating themselves on their late husbands’ biers, comes in for a look, as those who went through this were deemed holy.

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Annie Besant – image from BBC Sounds

There is an immersive tale of Annie Besant, of the Theosophist religion, a supposed single path to divinity, joining the beliefs of all religions, and the rise and fall and rise of Krishnamurti, a boy believed divine, who was nurtured by the Theosophists, and who would ultimately follow his own path. This is a story worthy of its own book, and Netflix mini-series.

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Krishnamurti – image from the Theosophical Library

Subin takes us into the 20th century in which there were some in India who viewed Hitler as (yet another) avatar of Vishnu, and later, according to some, Vish reappears in the person of U.S. president Dwight David Eisenhower, who might fit the bill a bit better, given that he had control of nuclear arms and could, with such god-like power, become a literal destroyer of worlds.

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Ike visits India in 1959– image from Outlook India

Subin also looks at the myth-making around the early European visits to the New World. Expedition leaders said that the locals revered them as gods, but it is quite possible, given that they did not at all speak the local patois, that the New Worlders had been significantly misquoted. She points out that the claims added heft to the already strained reasoning being crafted to justify enslaving the indigenous people and seizing their land, in seeing them as too barbaric, and simple-minded to rule over their own affairs.

This book is as much about colonialism as it is about religion. I was shocked, frankly, at how many cases Subin cites of people (usually public officials of one sort or another), being worshipped as gods in various places. Most often, in this telling, anyway, it is white colonials being raised up by the colonized. Sometimes while still with us. Prince Phillip, for example, was worshipped while still in his prime. Captain Cook, on the other hand, was seen as a deity both before and after he had been the long pig main course in a Hawaiian feast. Julius Caesar could probably relate. (Et yet, Brute?)

Subin makes a case for apotheosis being primarily a white colonial enterprise, not that Westerners necessarily went to colonial nations expecting to be worshipped, but they were more than happy to take advantage of the local predilections when it suited their needs.

She also writes about the consolidation of religions, particularly the many faiths that were lumped together under the heading of Hinduism. Animism to ancestor worship to shamanism to localized religions, to world religions seems much like the global consolidation of small businesses to large businesses to corporations to trans-national corporations in the economic sphere, and toward a similar purpose.

So, there is a huge lot to unpack in this book. And not just the specific history of humans being worshipped as something more. There is a lot in here about the whiteness infused in colonialism and the cited examples of apotheosis. There is a mind-bending discussion about whether we are people made in god’s image, and the implications of religions that hold that image as reflecting the color of their skin alone.

I have some gripes, per usual. While I loved the deep-dig stories about several of the characters portrayed here (Anne Besant, Krishnamurti, Hailie Selassie, et al) I often felt bogged down in a firehose flow of names, places, and dates where accidental god-hood took place. Reading in the more survey-report sections became a slog. Which is one reason why this review is being posted two weeks post publication, not the Friday immediately before or after. I was not exactly dashing back to my computer to read. Maybe it is like taking too large a slice of a torte, and being unable to finish it.

Some dismissive items bugged me. There is a reference early on (in the wake of the pale world’s first “internecine” war [WW I]) to WW I, which seems remarkably oblivious regarding the centuries of war waged by European nations on each other.

I also caught a whiff of what I perceived, correctly or not, as woke lecturing, with only whiteness, in the guise of the association of godliness with whiteness by the colonial powers, at fault for all the world’s ills. I make no argument with her perception of colonial whitewashing of history, but aren’t other invasive cultures worth at least a mention? Were there no examples to be found of the people subjected by the Japanese, the Chinese, by Genghis Khan, by Incas, Aztecs and other expansive cultures encountering the same sort of deification? I get the sense that she is rooting for the elimination of all authority held by Caucasians.

White supremacy will not leave us until we reject the divinity of whiteness. White is a moral choice, as James Baldwin writes. Faced with the choice, I blush and refuse.

I take issue with this. While I agree that white supremacy is of a cloth with an exclusively white divinity and that both deserve to be rejected, I feel no personal reason to blush at being white. My working-class ancestors were being exploited by their rulers in diverse European nations when Conquistadors and explorers of various maritime powers were seizing lands in the New World from the residents they found there. Horrible? Of course. But not a cause to blanket-blame white people. For the moment at least, and despite the history, which is nicely referenced in the book, of how we came to use the mislabel of race, it remains a common element of today’s world. As such, it is not a moral choice to refuse or to accept being white. It just is. And I, for one, make no apology for DNA over which I had no choice.

Gripes over, there is much in Accidental Gods that is eye-opening and fascinating, with several detailed stories that could each justify their own books, a serious examination of deification in several contexts, and gobs of unexpected information, if a bit too much at times.

Were these deified people gods? Of course not. They were human beings who were born, lived and died like the rest of us. Insisting that they are deities is some hi-test bullshit. That said, bovine droppings may smell bad, but mix them with some compost and you can make a meaningful fertilizer, a popular ingredient in terrorist explosives. And deified humans have proven quite useful in fueling many a sociopolitical crop.

It doesn’t matter whether anyone believes it or not; belief is not the right question to ask. As Merton wrote, “When a myth-dream is constantly in the papers and on TV, it seems pretty real!” The religion of Philip is real because it has been told and retold, by South Pacific priests and BBC storytellers, by journalists and Palace press officers, in a continuous, mutual myth-making over the course of forty years.

Review posted – December 24, 2021

Publication date – December 7, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Accidental Gods from Holt in return for my eternal blessings upon them as their rightful and all-powerful ruler. Particular blessings upon Maia for her help in arranging this miracle.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Subin’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Item of Interest from the author
—–London Review of Books – Several Subin pieces for LRB

Items of Interest
—– General MacArthur among the Guna: The Aesthetics of Power and Alterity in an Amerindian Society

—–The Guardian – 11/27/21 – ‘There was a prophecy I would come’: the western men who think they are South Pacific kings by Christopher Lloyd
—–George Carlin: Stand Up About Religion

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Filed under History, Non-fiction, Religion, World History

The Social Leap by William von Hippel

book cover

…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

…lying is a uniquely human form of social manipulation that requires substantially greater cognitive sophistication. To tell a lie is to intentionally plant a false belief in someone else’s mind, which requires an awareness that the content of other minds differ from one’s own. Once I understand what you understand, I’m in a position to manipulate your understanding intentionally to include falsehoods that benefit me. That is the birth of lying.

William Von Hippel’s The Social Leap looks at the crucial importance of our social evolution as we developed from australopithecines to Homo erectus to the Homo sapiens of today. The first phase was cutting out dependence on

Trees – come on down, why don’t ya. Of course, it was more like an eviction than an option, as changes in the environment made it necessary to descend to find greener pastures, or savannahs, actually. (Sure sounds like being kicked out of Eden to me, going from top tier predator to prey, leaving a verdant, arboreal life for a world of danger). And once our great-great-grandparents had been forced down, there was a clear advantage to

Bipedalism – stay up on those legs, and get a better view over the tall, tall grass, big guy. It might give you a heads up on those incoming lions. Of course, that took many millennia to evolve. Those who succeeded at walking on all twos lived to breed and make more little two-steppers. As we no longer had the need to climb, well, constantly anyway, those lower limbs could be re-focused on locomotion.

If we had not become bipedal, we almost assuredly would never have learned to throw so well, in which case the social-cognitive revolution that made us human might not have happened, either.

The physical realignment that resulted over hundreds of thousands of years is why we have creatures like Jacob deGrom walking the earth. It allowed them to do something their predecessors could not, throw things, rocks in particular, but I expect whatever was lying about would do, which came in pretty handy when something with large claws and teeth was coming at them. But being able to hit a moving strikezone from a distance was not, in and of itself, sufficient. It took something more to turn this rather huge change into a formidable force,

Cooperation – Instead of running in all directions from an incoming large kitty, they learned to join together with their fellow homo saps and throw rocks at the invaders. Voila, y’all get to live another day, or at least until the next predator attack, (and you might even get a nice meal out of the exchange) but that is a lot better than it might have been had you not joined together. This confluence of the ability to throw and the ability to throw as a group at a specific target, allowed humankind to claim the throne (iron?) of apex predator. Think of those films about medieval battles in which a phalanx of archers launches five hundred arrows at the enemy at once. More effective than a single archer, no? The only things we needed to fear, as a group, were other groups of Homo erectus.

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William von Hoppel – image from Singularity University

This combination is a major element in what separates us from our forebears (which sounds uncomfortably ursine in this context) in the primate family tree, cooperation, and learning to kill at a distance. It is not that no other species cooperates, but there is no species that has done so to the astronomical level of Homo sapiens. And that initial cooperation, for self AND group protection has led to a world of change. Also, no other species has mastered the art of long-distance defense, or offense, depending, perhaps the greatest advance in military technology ever.

That change is manifest in the considerable size of our brains. Much larger than our Australopithicus, erectus, habilis, and all our early ancestors. Did we gain our cranial advantage from having to invent methods of coping with the world? von Hippel says not. He argues that most of the cause of our sudden boost in gray matter occurred because when we opted for cooperation for self-defense, that blossomed into cooperation across a passel of other matters as well, and created a social species, and that very pact of cooperation forced us to change.

…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

Cooperation may have been born out of a need for self-defense, but it broadened to form the basis of a community. Instead of only ever thinking of personal survival, our orientation was changed to having to consider the needs of the group at least as much as our own needs. So cooperation within the group was paramount. Anyone found to be slacking in doing their bit to support the group, piss enough of the group off, for whatever reasons, and you would likely be tossed out on your loincloth, and make a fine meal for a large local predator. Ostracism = death = no more babies for you = how natural selection externalizes those whose behavior leads to their death. But there was still

Competition within the group for mates. Von Hippel points out that mate choices were largely driven by females, who had a far greater amount at risk than any male. It is not really so different today, even to the physical characteristics that we find attractive in a mate. And then there was competition with those outside the group, which led to a not groundless

Hating/Fearing of the outsider, the other. When we evolved to the apex predator point that the only real threat to the group was from other groups of Homo erectus, we became particularly wary of outsiders. Not only might they attack us militarily, maybe take prey and other foods in our hunting domain, but they could make us ill. One does not need to have a theory of microbes to learn from experience that contact with certain groups is likely to result in illness. This inclination to be wary of anyone outside our group, however that may be defined, has certainly flourished in our DNA and in our social organizations. Thus racism, xenophobia, and bigotry of all sorts. Part of the development of our groups, clans, tribes, et al, was the development of a

Theory of Mind, meaning a desire, and some ability to see what is in someone else’s mind, gauge what they are thinking, even if the people of that time had no such grad school terminology. They learned to evaluate what other people were thinking and learned how to turn that knowledge to their advantage. The methods for accomplishing this make considerable use of

Lying and Exaggerating

But most of our smarts are going be dedicated to jockeying and manipulating our position among others. And if that’s the case, then the truth is only semi-important. If I can convince you of a world that’s actually favorable to me, then I can get you to back down in conflicts or defer to me when you really shouldn’t; that is a form of power. – from the Vox interview

Sound like something that might be relevant today? Even with our predilections we are not creatures of instinct. Unlike other animals we do not carry inside us a set of instructions on how to get by in the world. And our brains are not even ready to take in the information until we have been around a relatively long time. So we must be taught. Our urges, our impulses will still be there, but we do not have to yield to them. At least 50% of who we are, what we do, is the product of choice, and education. As a result, our genes may not be able to order us around, but they are ever-present, and bossy.

The tale revs up big time when it gets to the beginning of agriculture. I will leave that, and it’s very relevant look at the beginnings of contemporary society, for you to discover for yourself. It explains a lot.

Von Hippel certainly makes a strong case for our cranial ballooning being more the result of having to cope with other people, rather than from having to invent things. We are social creatures, who are both inclined toward cooperation, but also primed for competition, for mates and against outsiders. Thus the aphorism All’s fair and love and war.

This book was written as an attempt to help explain why we behave today in the ways that we do. What evolutionary basis might there be for those behaviors.

…potential ancestors who wandered the woods in the moonlight were less likely to survive and procreate, and thereby less likely to pass on their proclivity for midnight strolls. This is how evolution shapes our psychology, with the end result being that no one needs to tell you to be afraid of the dark; it comes naturally.

There are plenty of roots to be found here to the forest of our current world. Many of the ancestral behaviors described in this book were waaaaay too familiar. I found that throughout the book, while the socio-psychological evolution of humans was totally fascinating, I kept flashing specifically to the politics of today. So much of what von Hippel writes of offers an understanding, or at least some insight into the psychology of politics in the time of Trump. Don’t mistake me, I am not saying this is an anti-Trump screed. It is not. But some of what is in here makes understandable what seems singularly opaque about the motivations of any true Trump (or any other demagogue or authoritarian) supporter (those who are not cynically supporting Trump in order to accrue personal gain in some specific way). As in, how can any sane person buy into Trump’s transparent stream of lies, xenophobia, and demagoguery? There are plenty of group-think practitioners on the left as well, but those tend not to have guns, or to bother, ya know, voting, or threatening to kill people. But the innate need for the approval of the group makes it possible that people will believe whatever they want to believe, regardless of objective truth, and that is a very difficult barrier to breach. Von Hippel may make this dynamic more understandable, but it makes it no less frightening and disheartening.

The similarities between ancestral and contemporary mate selection preferences was quite interesting, as is his discussion of leadership styles, contrasting the styles of those who rule for all (elephants) with those who rule only for themselves (baboons), as is his discussion of how a division of labor enabled early man a great ability to do well in the world, as is his explanation for the basis of politeness.

This is very much a pop-psychology book, aimed at a general audience. It is eminently readable, and offers brain candy of the first order. Von Hippel cites his sources (including his own research) for the sundry opinions offered, without leaving one struggling with obscure charts or mathematical formulae. He is an excellent writer with a friendly, familiar style that will make the information go down very easily. I recommend checking out some of the videos linked in EXTRA STUFF, to get a feel for how he sounds as a lecturer and interviewee. He comes across very much the same in the book. Von Hippel is absolutely the prof you want for your psych classes.

You will not have to get an ok from your group to go ahead and check this book out. The Social Leap will expand your brain, without you having to wait a few hundred thousand years. That counts as real progress.

Of all the preferences that evolution gave us, I suspect the desire to share the contents of our minds played the single most important role in elevating us to the top of the food chain.

Review posted – December 17, 2021

Publication date – November 13, 2018

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages

Von Hippel was born, raised, and educated in the USA. He taught at Ohio State and Williams College for over a decade. He has been teaching and conducting research in evolutionary social psychology in Australia for more than twenty years, since 2006 as a professor at the University of Queensland. He lives in Brisbane with his family

Interviews
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters By Sean Illing
—–The Covid Tonic – Autism and Innovation – 2:03
Most folks. Because we are inherently social creatures, will seek social solutions to presenting problems. But people who are much less socially adept, those on the autism spectrum, for example, will, as a group, turn more to technical solutions to problems.
—–Owltail – There are several audio interviews available here
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters – by Sean Illing
—–London Real – What Women Look for in Men – 3:32
—–London Real – WILLIAM VON HIPPEL-THE SOCIAL LEAP: Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy Part 1/2 – 45:37 – begin at 3:20

Items of Interest from the author
—–The Evolutionary Origins of Human Culture – Von Hippel offers a lecture on the origins of culture
—–The Royal Institute of Australia – Seven Deadly Sins: Lust – Is Love Blind? – Bill von Hippel – 26:38 – on how physical differences between males and females result in psychological differences as well, the impacts of testosterone, selecting long-term mates, and the significance of menopause

Just in case the ones linked here are not enough, there are many videos of the author being interviewed or delivering lectures.

Item of Interest
—–Five Early Hominids – Introduction to Hominids

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Reviews, Science and Nature

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

book cover

“Between life and death there is a library,’ [Mrs Elm] said. ‘And within that library, the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be different if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

Every second of every day we are entering a new universe. And we spend so much time wishing our lives were different, comparing ourselves to other people and to other versions of ourselves, when really most lives contain degrees of good and degrees of bad.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. But how much examination can one life stand? Nora Seed has reached bottom. Her cat is dead. And her philosophy degree is at least as dead as Schrödinger’s cat. She is 35, and has been working in a music shop in her home town, Bedford, (not Bedford Falls) for almost thirteen years. Nora’s boss tells her “I can’t pay you to put off customers with your face looking like a wet weekend.” She was in a band, with her brother, but bailed when the going got too promising. She was also a primo swimmer as a teen, one of the fastest in the country. The pressure put her off it. She had also backed out of her wedding to Dan…with two days notice.

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Matt Haig – Image from Independent – photo by Kan Lailey

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Haig counts down for us the hail of misery descending on poor Nora, the bad choices, the disappointments, the misfortune. Alienating those closest to you does not leave much of a support network, a needed bolster in a tough time. As with George Bailey, we are also introduced to the positive bits in her life. Expect to see them pop up later. But Nora has decided that she is not much use to anyone, that there is no real future for her. Her self image is that of a black hole, collapsing in on herself.

There was an old musician’s cliché, about how there were no wrong notes on a piano. But her life was a cacophony of nonsense. A piece that could have gone in wonderful directions, but now went nowhere at all.

She decides to continue the process to its logical conclusion, and has a go at that.

[I seem to have been on a tear in 2021, reading books that deal with people considering ending it all before life gets even worse. Should We Stay of Should We Go? by Lionel Shriver, The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons, and Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time look at older sorts considering the dark deed. Younger folks struggle to cope with the damage in their lives, some of which has been self-inflicted, in Alice Hoffman’s Faithful, and now this one. Was the universe trying to tell me something? I may be getting on but I have had my three COVID shots and am not exactly contemplating a self-propelled early exit. Too many books left to read. Just seems odd, somehow.]

But then she wakes, or something, (apparently, she is not dead yet) has a look around, and finds her way through the mist to a modest-sized building with a clock on it, set to midnight. Mrs Elm, a librarian who’d helped her out as a student, is there to greet her. And the game is on.

For a decade I’ve been wanting to do something about parallel lives. Obviously, this is a well-trodden territory in film and literature, so I thought I didn’t have anything new to bring to the table. It had been done so well, so many times. And it was really just getting the concept of the library. What I liked about the concept of the library is that it managed to be a neat plot device, but it was also the center of what I was trying to do on the philosophical side of it…someone who’d reached this point where they’ve run out of options, everything’s bleak.


Between life and death you get to see all these different branches of how things could have been. So I liked the library because it was literally and metaphorically what I was trying to sort of do with the story as well as it being a little love letter to libraries, because libraries, I suppose, are our portals to other places anyway. – from The Strand interview

The Midnight Library offers immersion of a different sort than the experiences one might expect at a more usual book-lending emporium. Nora can select one element of her life she would change. A book appears applying the specific change and Nora gets to live that life. There is technobabble in here about the multiverse and all possible branches being true in some universe. Fine, whatever. Doesn’t matter. Skim.

Libraries have more than a few books, so Nora gets to make more than a few decisions, live more than a few lives. What if she had stuck with swimming? What if she had stayed with the band? What if she hadn’t bailed on her wedding? What if? What if? What if?

The appeal of the novel is that it makes manifest the thoughts that all of us have had. How would my life have been different if I had done this rather than that, chose to focus on this area of study or skill rather than on another? What if I had asked that girl for a date instead of chickening out? What if I had chosen some other boy than the one I chose? What if I had tried harder to save the relationship instead of calling it quits? What if I had called it quits sooner instead of staying in an unhappy situation? What if I had not made that deal with the dodgy Colombian drug dealer? Wait, what? (Oh, never mind) Go ahead, pick a change, get a book, find out.

Personally, I am pretty Zen about the whole what-if scenario. I am completely convinced that had any of my larger life choices been different, I would have wound up in similar or worse circumstances. Maybe I would not have learned the lessons I learned at place B that I learned at place A. Maybe I would not have grown in certain ways with person C that I did with person D. It is possible, of course, that my life might have been dramatically more successful than it has been, which is not terribly. But could I have handled success, even if it had? I expect the universe is a leveler, in terms of personal choices, anyway. We are who we are and our choices reflect that person. Different choices would reflect that person as well, even if the map of our lives might have been redrawn, presenting different challenges from the ones we have already lived through.

There’s a certain formula to tales of this sort. Character is miserable in his/her life, but gets a chance to see how it could have been different, maybe fulfills all their fantasies, or sees how much worse it might have been, and arrives at the end ok with life as it is, more or less. Maybe with a greater understanding, appreciation for what is. Some offer a single, long view of that alternate possibility like George Bailey’s, in It’s A Wonderful Life or Frank Cross in Scrooged, not to mention the original on which that one was based. Others offer iterations like a programming loop: DO whatever UNTIL some condition is met. EXIT. In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors has to relive a single day over and over until he figures out how to be a better person. In Palm Springs, Nyles is caught in a time loop with a similar path to salvation. Speaking of loops, they seem to have been in my reading list this year too. The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke and Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silvey pop to mind. Maybe the universe wants me to be on the lookout for a time-loop story in which older people consider ending things?

At least Nora gets to have different days, places, and relationships. Of course, it’s tough keeping up when you enter every new sphere not knowing your specific history in it. Where do I work? Is that my kid? I live in this house? Cool. Or not. The stress of trying to figure out who she is in each iteration is both comedic and nerve-wracking. Whenever Nora knows (feels, really) that a particular life is not quite the one for her, she dissipates back to the library for another go.

One life Nora never got to have was being a male. Almost, though. The character of Nora began as a male in draft #1. Haig felt that it was not working, that he was writing too much about himself. He wanted his lead to very much NOT be him. Switching to a female lead took care of that quite nicely. The freedom he felt with the change allowed him to actually insert more of his personal concerns into the character without it really seeming to be him.

One piece that is very much about him is that he gave up piano lessons, even though he was pretty good, at age 13, caving to mindless peers who considered piano lessons so uncool. He imagines an Elton John version of himself in a parallel Universe. In a more serious vein, Haig struggled with depression as a younger man, and knows what it feels like to lose hope.

Nora’s alternate lives are diverse, expressing wishes any of us might have had. There are the grand ones of fame and huge success, but others of a much more modest scope, like owning a pub with your partner, salving ordinary regrets. Some focus on doing good, like studying global warming as a glaciologist. Some of the lives are pretty decent, but are any of them the right one for Nora, the right combination of the same, yet different, keeping the good, while minimizing the awful?

I have only one particular gripe with the book. When Nora finds herself in each of the parallel universes what is supposed to have happened to the Nora that was in that universe before the peripatetic Nora arrived? Did she die? When Nora winks out of each of the lives she leaves, does the Nora who was there before wink back into existence? Is she like the understudy who steps in for a time, to be replaced when the star is all better? I know this is fantasy, and not science fiction, so I should just shut up and get over it, but it bugged me. Thankfully not enough to detract (much) from my enjoyment of the book.

I feel like if you’re putting something out into the universe, why not offer people some sort of nourishment, or hope, or usefulness? Or all the things that are frowned upon in some sort of academic quarters. Why not make people feel good?

The book has been a huge success, selling gazillions and making Haig bags of money. Movie rights are sold. Good for him. In a world impacted way too much by darkness and cynicism, it is a welcome thing to have authors eager to spread some sunshine. Nora Seed is a decent person, not fabulous, mind you, but relatable. And she faces many difficult choices in her many parallel lives, well, really, one choice, many times, stay or go. It is not hard to root for her to find the right mix of ingredients in a life somewhere, that will allow her to escape the increasingly unsatisfactory option of death. If The Midnight Library offers you some impetus to consider the choices you have made in your life, and wonder maybe what alternate experiences might have resulted, so much the better. Or you could simply enjoy it as an engaging, heart-warming tale. And you don’t even have to choose one or the other.

Equidistant. Not aligned to one bank or the other.
That was how she had felt most of her life. Caught in the middle. Struggling, flailing, just trying to survive while not knowing which way to go, which path to commit to without regret.

Review posted – December 10, 2021

Publication date – September 29, 2020

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Strand Book Store – Matt Haig with Kristin Hannah: The Midnight Library– video – 1:02:49 – definitely check this one out
—–Independent – Matt Haig: ‘I ignored a phone call from Meghan Markle’ by Olivia Peter

Songs/Music
—–Cher – If I Could Turn Back Time
—–Jim Croce – If I could Save Time in a Bottle

Books noted in the review, and one not noted
—– The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons – Life has been very disappointing. An elderly Eudora is determined to see herself off, until life intervenes and offers reasons to reconsider
—–How to Stop Time by Matt Haig – if you lived forever might you welcome death?
—–Should We Stay of Should We Go?<!– by Lionel Shriver – a couple, many years ahead, considering whether to check out at age 80
—–
Faithful by Alice Hoffman – Shelby struggled, following a trauma, to re-start her life after shutting it down for several years, which included a suicide attempt
—–The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke – too spoilerish to tell
—–Meet Me In Another Life by Catriona Silvey – Thora and Santi experience multiple lives, trying to figure out their relationship and how they can step out of the loop. It also features a prominent public clock.
—–A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – skinflint Ebenezer gets some fresh perspectives on his life – full text with illustrations, from Gutenberg
—–Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr – if there is a bigger homage to libraries and librarians, I do not know what it might be

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews

Fiddling While America Burns – I Alone Can Fix It – Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker

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Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who worked in Lyndon Johnson’s White House and closely studied many presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, said, “I have spent my entire career with presidents and there is nothing like this other than the 1850s, when events led inevitably to the Civil War.

Here’s the deal, guys: These guys are Nazis, they’re boogaloo boys, they’re Proud Boys. These are the same people we fought in World War II,” Milley told them. “Everyone in this room, whether you’re a cop, whether you’re a soldier, we’re going to stop these guys to make sure we have a peaceful transfer of power. We’re going to put a ring of steel around this city and the Nazis aren’t getting in.”

I did not intend to write a full review for this one. It came out in July. I did not start reading it until August, and did not finish reading it until late September. That is what happens when I read a book on my phone, in addition to the two I am usually reading, one at my desk and the other at bedtime. But I was going to offer a few thoughts. Typed a line or two and then my fingers started pounding away at the keyboard pretty much all on their own. I astral projected myself to the kitchen to whip up a sandwich, make some tea and when I returned they were still banging away. I am sure there is a lesson in there about compulsion.

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Phil Rucker and Carole Leonnig – image from Porter Square Books

There have been, currently are, and no doubt will continue to be many books written about the Trump years. I Alone Can Fix It tracks the final year of Trump’s presidency, notes that he had faced no major problems until 2020, and then proved incapable of managing the ones that presented, seeking only his own aggrandizement, while clinging to power at all costs.

If you read books of this sort all the time, if you read The Washington Post, The New York Times, or other world newspapers, watch CNN, BBC, MSNBC, and other at-least-somewhat-responsible news sources, much of what is in this book will not be all that surprising. In tracking Trump’s 2020+, I Alone Can Fix It offers inside looks at the actions and discussions, the conflicts and challenges inside the White House, almost day-by-day. Much that is detailed here has been reported before. And a lot of the new material has been outed in leaks to newspapers and TV political shows. Interviews with the authors chip away even more at the new-ness of the material, if you are coming to it any time after its initial week or two of release.

Trump’s rash and retaliatory dismissal of [Acting DNI Joseph] Maguire would compel retired Admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the Navy SEALs raid that killed Osama bin Laden, to write: “As Americans, we should be frightened—deeply afraid for the future of the nation. When good men and women can’t speak the truth, when facts are inconvenient, when integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security—then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.“

I am betting it is not news to you, for example, that when 1/6 was happening, Liz Cheney screamed at Trump toady Jim Jordan (who, as a wrestling coach at Ohio State University, had participated in a coverup of sexual abuse of wrestlers within the program) “Get away from me. You fucking did this.’” Or that Trump wanted to use the army to put down demonstrations in American cities. Or that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley was concerned that Trump wanted to use the American military to keep himself in office.

Carol Leonnig (National investigative reporter focused on the White House and government accountability) at the Washington Post and Phil Rucker (Washington Post White House Bureau Chief) are top tier political reporters. They sat with many of the principals in the administration, including Trump, and amassed a vast store of materials in pulling this tale together. It is a horror story. In doing so they have unearthed considerable detail that did not make it to the pages of daily reporting. It is a portrayal of Donald Trump as someone who is generally disinterested in the well-being of the nation, concerned only for himself, which comes as a surprise to exactly no one with eyes to see and an ability to reason.

I take issue with the clearly self-serving nature of some of the interviews. Spinners are gonna spin and twirling is the name of the game in Washington politics. Bill Barr, for example, attests to his devotion to the law. How Leonnig and Rucker allowed such tripe into the book is beyond me. This from a guy who routinely politicized the Department of Justice to subvert justice, seek punishment of Trump enemies (otherwise known as truth-tellers) and neglect to trouble those accused and even convicted of crimes. Puh-leez. He also pretends that he was practically dragged from retirement to serve as AG when, in fact he had actively campaigned for the job. Sure wish they would have called him out on that steaming pile of poo.

Esper, Milley, and Barr—were tracking intelligence and social media chatter for any signs of unrest on Election Day. They and their deputies at the Pentagon, Justice Department, and FBI were monitoring the possibility of protests breaking out among supporters on both sides. The trio also were on guard for the possibility that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act in some way to quell protests or to perpetuate his power by somehow intervening in the election. This scenario weighed heavily on Esper and Milley because they controlled the military and had sworn an oath to the Constitution. Their duty was to protect a free and fair election and to prevent the military from being used for political purposes of any kind.

Plenty more seek to burnish their records (the phrase polishing turds pops readily to mind) for history, eager to remove the fecal stench of attachment to the most corrupt administration in American history. I could have done with a bit more of Leonnig and Rucker pointing out for readers where the spinning ends and the truth begins.

One of the heroes of this story is General Milley. Were his actions not confirmed by multiple other sources, one could be forgiven for suspecting that he was polishing his own…um…medals in reporting to Leonnig and Rucker his role in staving off Trump’s desire to use the military to suppress domestic dissent, and in working with other defense leaders, legislative leaders, and foreign military brass to help prevent what could easily have become a shooting war with China. But what he told them checks out. The man deserves even more medals, pre-shined.

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General Mark Milley – image from New York Magazine

One of the things that is most remarkable for its absence in this book is mention of Afghanistan. Really? That deal with the Taliban was not worth including? It makes sense, though. The MSM paid little attention to it when the deal was made, and largely ignored the fact that the actual Afghani government was not a party to the talks. They were more than happy, though, to jump on Biden’s back for implementing the shitty treaty by actually getting our troops out of an endless no-win war. Trump was rarely mentioned, and the awfulness of the deal, THAT TRUMP HAD NEGOTIATED, rarely merited serious coverage. Disappointing that Leonnig and Rucker seem to have skipped over this in their book. It was significant.

It is an avocational hazard for those who consume political news in mass quantities that when there are so many books out about aspects of the same thing, namely the Trump disaster, it can be difficult to impossible to keep track of where particular stories originated. Also, each of the Trump era books is heralded in the press in the weeks leading up to publication with the juiciest bits from the opus du jour. The cacophony of revelations can make it impossible to discern the altos from the tenors from the sopranos from the basses. It all becomes one large chorus. Did I read about that in this book or that one, or that other one? Maybe I heard a piece about it on CNN, or BBC, or MSNBC, or one of the traditional network news shows.

And no sooner does one finish one of these books that there are ten more peeping for attention like baby birds in a nest far outnumbering the worms their poor parents are able to scrounge. Thus, we get by with the news and political talk show interviews and daily early peeks at the books, hoping to be able to read at least enough of these things to get a clear picture.

Like AI learning systems, there is a constant feed of information. At some point (although hopefully one has already achieved such a state) one internalizes the incoming stream, somehow manages to sort and categorize it, finds some sort of understanding and can use the collective intelligence to face new questions, problems, and situations with an informed base of knowledge, and generate a wise, informed decision, or opinion. At the very least we should have a sense of where to look to check out the latest claims and revelations.

“A student of history, Milley saw Trump as the classic authoritarian leader with nothing to lose. He described to aides that he kept having this stomach-churning feeling that some of the worrisome early stages of twentieth-century fascism in Germany were replaying in twenty-first-century America. He saw parallels between Trump’s rhetoric of election fraud and Adolf Hitler’s insistence to his followers at the Nuremberg rallies that he was both a victim and their savior.
“This is a Reichstag moment,” Milley told aides. “The gospel of the Führer.”

To that end, the Leonnig and Rucker book is a welcome addition to the ongoing info-flow. We live in dangerous times, and they offer some of the nitty gritty of how the sausage is made, how the perils are generated, and sometimes averted, who the players are and how they acted in moments of crisis.

In the long run it probably does not matter if you heard the relevant information in this book, in a Woodward book (I am currently reading Peril) or in one or more of the gazillion others that have emerged in the last few years. What matters is that we get the information, that it is brought to us by honest, intelligent, expert reporters and/or participants, and that it is presented in a readable, digestible form. Leonnig and Rucker are both Pulitzer winners. Keep your eyes out for any irregularities, of course, but these two are reliable, trustworthy sources. Add their work to your data feed and keep the info flowing. We need all the good intel we can get to counteract the 24/7/365 Republican lie machine and to face down the next coup attempt. Knowledge is power. Acquire it. Learn from it. Remember it. Use it.

Review posted – 12/3/2021

Publication date – 7/20/21

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Carol Leonnig’s WaPo profile and Twitter pages

Links to Phil Rucker’s Instagram, WaPo profile, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Face the Nation – “I Alone Can Fix It” authors say former president learned he was “untouchable” from first impeachment – video – 07:46
—–The Guardian – Inside Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year by David Smith
—–Commonwealth Club – Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker: Inside Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year by Yamiche Alcindor – video – 57:01
—–NPR – Fresh Air – Investigation finds federal agencies dismissed threats ahead of the Jan. 6 attack – audio – 42:00 – by Terry Gross – more about Leonnig’s book Zero Fail but worth a listen

Items of Interest
—–NY Times – Day of Rage: How Trump Supporters Took the U.S. Capitol– By Dmitriy Khavin, Haley Willis, Evan Hill, Natalie Reneau, Drew Jordan, Cora Engelbrecht, Christiaan Triebert, Stella Cooper, Malachy Browne and David Botti
—–Washington Post – The Attack: Before, During and After – Reported by Devlin Barrett, Aaron C. Davis, Josh Dawsey, Amy Gardner, Tom Hamburger, Rosalind S. Helderman, Peter Hermann, Spencer S. Hsu, Paul Kane, Ashley Parker, Beth Reinhard, Philip Rucker and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. — Written by Amy Gardner and Rosalind S. Helderman — Visuals and design by Phoebe Connelly, Natalia Jiménez-Stuard, Tyler Remmel and Madison Walls

Items of Interest from the authors
—–Washington Post – list of recent articles
—–Washington Post – list of recent articles

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, History, Non-fiction, Public Health, True crime

Cleanup in Room 401! – The Maid by Nita Prose

book cover

The truth is, I often have trouble with social situations; it’s as though everyone is playing an elaborate game with complex rules they all know, but I’m always playing for the first time.

Today at work, I found a guest very dead in his bed. Mr. Black. The Mr. Black. Other than that, my work day was as normal as ever.

A totally charming lead, Molly the Maid, Molly Gray, is as dedicated a guest-services employee as any hotel could wish for. She is an obsessive cleaner, determined to live up to the hotel’s stated desire to return every room to perfection every day, and particularly after guests have checked out…well…in the usual meaning of the term. Molly has the misfortune of entering a room where a notorious guest, Mr. Black, a hotel regular, and wealthy wife-beater who has been giving his second, trophy wife, Giselle, a miserable time, has checked out in the other meaning of the phrase. Cleanup in Room 401!

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Nita Prose – image from her site

It is upsetting, of course, but so is the fact that his shoes are misaligned on the floor, and the room is in need of much more cleaning than usual. She calls down to the front desk, where she can be counted on to be ignored, then sees something so alarming that she faints straight away. Returned to consciousness, Molly phones down to the lobby again, this time demanding that the hotel manager, Mr. Snow, be notified. People soon arrive.

She has some challenges to overcome, both financial and social. When the police get involved in the hotel killing, her problems only multiply. Thankfully there are some who appreciate her, and are willing to help.

Over the course of the book we learn more and more about both the dodgy folks in and about the Royal Grand Hotel, and about Molly herself. It is clear to readers that Molly is on the spectrum, but has found work that she finds satisfying and well-attuned to her proclivities (neat-freak). It has the added element of honoring her beloved, recently-deceased grandmother, who had raised her, following in Gran’s career footsteps. Molly’s penchant for cleanliness stands out in stark contrast to the rather dirty goings on at the hotel. Her social cluelessness makes it tough for her to understand that there is something decidedly rotten about some people she believes to be good eggs. But, while not entirely morally pristine herself, Molly is a decidedly good egg, who values friendship, honesty, and loyalty. Her total recall makes it possible for some of the events of that terrible day to be played back, in detail. This makes it possible to unscramble the mess, at least some, but will anyone listen?

Nita Prose (pen name for Canadian editor Nita Pronovost) has a lot of fun with The Maid. In addition to an appealing, first-person narrator to lead us through the action, she decorates the scenery with nicely chosen colors, patterns, and motifs. Starting with colors, Molly is, of course, Gray. The hotel manager is Mister Snow. Molly’s unpleasant landlord is Mr Rosso (red). Her corrupt supervisor is Cheryl Green (notorious for poaching tips intended for other maids) . An unspeakable ex is Wilbur Brown. One of her co-workers is called Sunshine. Coloring applies to people, themselves. The deader sports red and purple pinpricks around his eyes. Giselle has green eyes. Molly has alabaster skin.

The palette extends to the surroundings, a black and white background against which some colors can glow. As I place a hand on the shining brass railing and walk up the scarlet steps that lead to the hotel’s majestic portico, I’m Dorothy entering Oz. (The Oz notion is picked up later, beyond the visuals, when Molly thinks of Giselle as bridging two worlds.) The hotel features an obsidian countertop on the front desk, marble floors that glow white, and emerald loveseats in the lobby. Molly’s uniform consists of black trousers and a white blouse. The receptionists, in black and white, look like penguins. A white bathrobe is found on the floor of room 401. Giselle stands out for having a yellow (yolk-colored?) purse. One character wears a wine-colored dress with a black fringe. Molly is sensitive to the colors of her world, and they stand out for her like a blood-red rose against a colorless background.

Prose also offers up invisibility as a theme throughout. Molly is invisible to most of the world due to her difficulty with social interactions, and welcomes this invisibility in her job. My uniform is my freedom. It is the ultimate invisibility cloak.; It’s easier than you’d ever think—existing in plain sight while remaining largely invisible; [Mr Black]…often did this—bowled me over or treated me like I was invisible; Discretion is my motto. Invisible customer service is my goal. Molly is always intensely grateful whenever someone makes her feel seen or appreciated. Some find Molly’s invisibility enviable. And she is not the only person at the Regency Grand to be afflicted with translucence.

Eggs offer a bit of focus, as Molly thinks of people as good or bad ones. And there is a very different sort of egg that impacts Molly’s life. Someone preparing eggs for someone else is a very clear symbol of affection.

As an editor, Pronovost is always thinking about how a manuscript fits into a specific genre or how a story might bend reader expectations in that genre. For her own novel, she imagined mixing a misfit-character trope – inspired by the titular protagonist of Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – with a contemporary locked-room mystery inspired by the work of U.K. thriller writer Ruth Ware. Add in a touch of the film Knives Out and the board game Clue, and there is The Maid. – from the Quill & Quire interview

But these are not her only influences. Prose provides some hints to the sort of story we are reading, informing us that Molly enjoys reading Agatha Christie novels. Gran has so many of them, all of which I’ve read more than once. But she adds to that Molly and Gran’s fondness for another mystery entertainment. …we’d eat our meals side by side on the sofa as we watched reruns of Columbo. Expect amateurs to do some sleuthing. No hard-boiled detectives in this one. And you may or may not know who they should be investigating very early in the story.

Universal Pictures picked up the film rights to the book. Academy-Award-nominee Florence Pugh is slated to star as Molly. We all know that options are sold all the time, and most are never actually made. So believe it when you see it.

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Florence Pugh – image from Daily Actor

While reading, I was totally reminded of a TV series, Astrid et Raphaëlle, as it is known in France, and Astrid in its release on Prime in the USA. Sara Mortensen plays an autistic woman drawn into helping the police solve crimes with her unique talents. I kept picturing Mortensen’s Astrid while reading this book. The show is delightful.

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Sara Mortensen as Astrid – image from Amazon

Hopefully, you will not wait until all your rooms are in a pristine state to give The Maid a look. It is a charming, engaging, cozy mystery, with a wonderful lead, a colorful cast of supporting players, and an effervescent sense of style. Ideal for kicking back and just enjoying while you recover from the holidays. But be sure to put a coaster under that drink. Someone is going to have to clean that up.

Is now a good time for me to return your suite to a state of perfection?

Review posted – 11/26/2021

Publication date – 1/4/2022

I received an eARE of The Maid from Ballantine Books in return for making a few beds and doing a little vacuuming. Thanks also to NetGalley for calling this book to my attention in their newsletter, and facilitating the download.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads
=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Prose (Pronovost) is a vice president and editorial director with Simon & Schuster’s Canada division.

Items of Interest
—–A wonderful review of a personal-favorite TV show featuring an unusual crime-solving duo – Astrid – I pictured the Astrid of the title as Molly
—–Wiki on Columbo

3 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

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It was like the beginning of every show where the streets empty and something terrifying emerges from mist or fire.

I passed streams of people with signs, packs, water bottles. I passed squad cars and squadrons. I passed burnt-out stores with walls like broken teeth. I passed a woman with a shopping cart full of children. Down another street, a giant tank was rumbling forward. I turned to get out of the way. Pockets of peace then smoking ruins, then tanks and full-out soldiers in battle gear. I got a cold, sick feeling, and I knew there would be deaths down the road.

Bless me, Father, for I have read. It has been three weeks since I began reading. I am only sorry that I came to the end and could read no more. But I promise to avoid the occasion of reading… this book again, well for a while, anyway.

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Louise Erdrich – Image from MPR news – by Dawn Villella | AP Photo file

There is magic to be had in the Catholic sacrament of confession. Confess your sins to an invisible presence across a visually impenetrable screen, let the priest know you are truly sorry, promise to do the penance you are assigned (and actually do it. Depending on the severity of one’s sins, this sentence is usually of the parking-ticket-fine level, typically saying a number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers.) and, after a few traditional, if not necessarily magical words, your sins are erased, at least in the eyes of an even more invisible, all-powerful deity. Sins, forgiveness (or not) and redemption all figure large in Louise Erdrich’s seventeenth, and latest novel, The Sentence. The sentences are a bit more significant than the penances doled out in confession.

We meet Tookie, an immature thirty-something, early on. A friend manipulates her into stealing her dead-boyfriend’s body, and bringing it back to her. This bit of Keystone Kops body-snatching has the ill-fortune of involving the crossing of state lines…and the corpus delecti had some extra baggage. Her so-called friend throws her under the bus and Tookie is sentenced to 60 years, by a judge who would be right at home in the Kyle Rittenhouse case. A teacher of hers sends her a dictionary when she is in prison, and Tookie spends her time in lockup reading as much as she can. When she gets out, well short of the max sentence, she goes to every bookstore in Minneapolis with her resume and, finding the one where the dictionary-teacher is working, is taken on. This is not just any old bookstore, but a barely-bothered-to-try-disguising-it simulacrum of Louie Erdrich’s Minneapolis shop, Birchbark Books. With her love of reading, Tookie fits right in, becoming a professional bookseller, and thrives.

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Birchbark books storefront – image from the BB site

Louise Erdrich has made a career writing about the contemporary world in light of the history of indigenous people, how the past continues to impact the present. One might even say to haunt it. The hauntings in The Sentence continue that focus, but add a more immediate presence.

There is just one problem at Tookie’s job. In 2019, four years after she starts, a frequent-flyer of a customer, both engaging (Tookie’s favorite, even) and very annoying, Flora, has passed on, but does not seem to accept this. She sustains enough mobile ectoplasm to make her presence known as she haunts the bookshop. The central mystery of the story is why. Like many who shop at this Indigenous-oriented emporium, Flora seemed a wannabe Indian. Claims some native blood, and did a fair bit to walk the walk. But she never seemed quite the genuine article to folks at the store. For reasons unknown, Flora’s ghost seems to have fixated on Tookie, bugging her more than other store employees, making noises, knocking books off shelves, and worse.

I had always wanted to write a ghost story. There’s this anomaly, “I don’t really believe in ghosts,” but I knew people who had inexplicable experiences and would not admit—as I would not—to believing in ghosts. I sometimes would take a poll when I was doing a reading and I would ask everyone in the audience if they believed in ghosts. Very few hands would come up. And then I would ask, “Have you had an experience or know someone who has had an experience with a ghost?” and almost every hand would go up. We do have some residual sense of the energy of people who are no longer living. They are living in some way. – from the PW interview

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A handcrafted canoe hangs from Birchbark’s ceiling – Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

It becomes a challenge, figuring out how to cope with this unwanted visitor. Why was she there, in the bookstore in particular, and what would it take to get her to leave? Flora had been found with an open book, a very old journal, The Sentence: An Indian Captivity 1862-1883. The book seems to be implicated in Flora’s passing. Tookie tries to figure out if the book had a role to play in Flora’s death. There might be a perilous sentence in the book.

But Flora is not the only unwelcome intruder. Erdrich gives us a look at what life in Minneapolis, and her bookstore, was like (and may be again) paralleling Flora’s growing intrusiveness with the COVID rampup in 2019 and lockdown of 2020. Figuring out how to cope with COVID, both personally and professionally, adds a major layer of challenge. A very present, you-are-there, account of empty streets, closed shops and short supplies, adds to the haunted feel of the entire city during the lockdown. (“This is the first book I have ever written in real time.“)

Sometimes late at night the hospital emitted thin streams of mist from the cracks along its windows and between the bricks. They took the shapes of spirits freed from bodies. The hospital emitted ghosts. The world was filling with ghosts. We were a haunted country in a haunted world.

And then there was George Floyd. Floyd was hardly the first (even in recent history), minority person murdered by police, but what set his example above so many others was the precise documentation of his killing. Also, not alone in current near-history, but the straw that broke the camel’s back, in a way. The outrage that has followed has been driven not just by the phone-videos that now have become commonplace, but by the long history of the same events that lacked such undeniable evidence. The annihilation of native people by Westerners is of a cloth, if at a much greater and intentionally genocidal level. It is amazing there is room enough left for living people with all the ghosts that must be wandering about.

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The confessional – image from MapQuest – This part of the store figures in the tale

Tookie is our focus throughout, with occasional side-trips to other POVs. Her journey from convict to bookseller, from criminally-minded to good egg, from single to paired up. Hers is a later-in-life-than-usual coming of age. You will like her. She starts out with edge, though, which you may or may not care for.

I am an ugly woman. Not the kind of ugly that guys write or make movies about, where suddenly I have a blast of instructional beauty. I am not about teachable moments. Nor am I beautiful on the inside. I enjoy lying, for instance, and am good at selling people useless things for prices they cannot afford. Of course, now that I am rehabilitated, I only sell words. Collections of words between cardboard covers. Books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters.

In case you are wondering what that final line means, even Erdich is not sure. Tookie may not have been the most glorious flower in the bouquet, but she still has considerable appeal. In addition to being smart and creative, being willing to learn, to grow and to repent her sins are among her finer qualities.

The cast of supporting characters is wonderful, per usual. Pollux is Tookie’s other half, well, maybe more than a half, as he totes along with him an adolescent niece in need of parents. He is a bona fide good man, although he has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to believing in ghosts. One of the truly lovely elements of the book is how Tookie and Pollux express their love for each other through food. His niece, Hetta, is, well, an adolescent, so the emotional interactions can be…um…lively. The shop crew are a fun lot, ranging in age and interests, and we get a look at some of the sorts of customers who patronize a shop that specializes in indigenous-related material. One other supporting cast member is the bookstore’s owner, a famous writer, referred to only as “Louise.” Erdrich has a bit of fun with this, giving herself some wonderful, LOL lines, and letting us in on some of her life under a bookshop-owner’s hat.

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image from KARE 11 – Credit: Heidi Wigdahl

One tidbit I found interesting from my wanderings through things Erdrich is that she writes to a title, that is, the title is the first element of her books, and the rest is built around that. She first came up with the title for this one in 2014.

I gathered extraordinary sentences. healing sentences, sentences that were so beautiful that they brought people solace and comfort, also sentences for incarcerated people. – from the Book Launch

At some point the weight of her accumulated material justified beginning to flesh it out. This happened in 2019. I did not find any intel on just how many titles she carries about with her at a given moment, or what was the longest gap between title idea and deciding to write the book.

Bottom line is that when you see the name Louise Erdrich on a book, you can count on it being an excellent read. You can count on there being compelling contemporary stories, engaging characters, and a connection with the history of indigenous people. You can count on there being some magical realism. In this one, there is a powerful motif of sins in need of forgiveness. Mistakes need correcting, penance needs to be done, and redemption is a worthy, if not always an attainable goal. The Sentence asks how we can come to grips with the ghosts of the past, and cope with the sins of the present while mass-producing the specters of the future.

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Protesters gathered at Chicago Ave. and East 38 th Street in South Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd – image and text from Minneapolis Star Tribune

At the end of the sacrament of Confession, the priest says, “I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” If only forgiveness were all that was needed. Read two literary novels, one thriller, a memoir and a non-fiction, and sin no more.

Many books and movies had in their plots some echoes of my secret experiences with Flora. Places haunted by unquiet Indians were standard. Hotels were disturbed by Indians whose bones lay underneath the basements and floors—a neat psychic excavation of American unease with its brutal history. Plenty of what was happening to me happened in fiction. Unquiet Indians. What about unquiet settlers? Unquiet wannabes?…Maybe the bookstore was located on some piece of earth crossed by mystical lines.

Review posted – November 19, 2021

Publication date – November 9, 2021

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages. Erdrich’s personal site redirects to the site Birchbark Books. She owns the store. There really is a confessional there. According to the store’s FAQ page, it was renamed a “forgiveness booth” after it was rescued from becoming a bar fixture.

A GHOST LIVES IN HER CREAKY OLD HOUSE

This is Erdrich’s seventeenth novel, among many other works. She won the National Book Award for The Round House, the National Book Critics Circle Award for LaRose and Love Medicine, and the Pulitzer Prize for The Night Watchman, among many other recognitions. Her familiarity with cultural mixing is personal, her mother being an Ojibwe tribal leader and her father being a German-American. Familiarity with both native spirituality and western religion also stems from her upbringing. She was raised Catholic.

Interviews
—– Louise Erdrich: The Sentence Book Launch Conversation by Anthony Ceballos
—–PBS – Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Sentence’ explores racial tensions in a divided Minneapolis
—–Publisher’s Weekly – A Ghost Persists: PW Talks with Louise Erdrich by Marian Perales

Other Louise Erdrich novels I have reviewed
—–2020 – The Night Watchman
—–2017 – Future Home of the Living God
—–2016 – LaRose
—–2010 – Shadow Tag
—–2012 – The Round House
—–2008 – The Plague of Doves
—–2005 – The Painted Drum

Songs/Music
—–Johnny Cash – Ain’t No Grave – Flora plays this while haunting Tookie

Items of Interest
—–NY Times – Where to Find Native American Culture and a Good Read By J. D. Biersdorfer
—–Twin Cities Daily Planet – After 17 years Birchbark Books continues to center Native stories, space amid society of erasure By Camille Erickson | April 27, 2017
—–The Catholic Crusade – the traditional Act of Contrition

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Filed under American history, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Native Americans

Weighing the Cost of Silence – Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

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It was a December of crows. People had never seen the likes of them, gathering in black batches on the outskirts of town then coming in, walking the streets, cocking their heads and perching, impudently, on whatever lookout post that took their fancy, scavenging for what was dead, or diving in mischief for anything that looked edible along the roads before roosting at night in the huge old trees around the convent.
The convent was a powerful-looking place on the hill at the far side of the river with black, wide-open gates, and a host of tall, shining windows, facing the town.

Bill Furlong is a decent man, risen from a lowly station in life to being a respected pillar-of-the-community sort. Not well off, mind, but a coal and wood supplier who keeps several folks employed, his customers supplied, and his family fed, a George Bailey sort, but from a much less settled foundation. There is never much left over, and always a new cost looming on the horizon. In the course of making his rounds he sees something that presents a powerful moral challenge. The story is Furlong’s struggle to decide, stay silent, or do something.

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Claire Keegan – image from her FB page – shot by Cartier-Bresson

1985 is a grim time in New Ross. Ireland is in the midst of a long recession. Despairing of ever finding work, people are emigrating in droves, to England, to America, to wherever work can be had. Those who remain hold little hope for any near relief. Those with work know that they could be laid off in a heartbeat. Those running businesses know that their continued survival depends on the continued demand of their customers, and the customers’ ability to pay. Those without work drain their savings, survive on the dole, or what charity they can find. Too many, employed or not, drown their fears in drink. Keegan captures the bleak tone of the time.

the dole queues were getting longer and there were men out there who couldn’t pay their ESB bills, living in houses no warmer than bunkers, sleeping in their coats. Women, on the first Friday of every month, lined up at the post office wall with shopping bags, waiting to collect their children’s allowances. And farther out the country, he’d known cows left bawling to be milked because the man who had their care had upped, suddenly, and taken the boat to Fishguard. Once, a man from St Mullins got a lift into town to pay his bill, saying that they’d had to sell the car as they couldn’t get a wink of sleep knowing what was owing, that the bank was coming down on them. And early one morning, Furlong has seen a young schoolboy eating from a chip bag that had been thrown down on the street the night before

Christmas is coming, and one might wonder if that starving boy was a descendant of Tiny Tim’s. Keegan even summons A Christmas Carol to mind, noting that, as a boy, Furlong had received the book for Christmas.

He had had a difficult start to life, raised by a single mother, his father not known to him. Luckily for them, a well-to-do local woman, Mrs Wilson, took in mother and son, employing mom to work in the house. Things could have been a lot worse. Like many other nations, Ireland was host to a network of Magdalene Laundries. These were institutions run by the Catholic Church, with the complicity of the Irish government. Young women who became pregnant were often cast out of their communities, their families even, and these enterprises took them in. Reports eventually emerged revealing the abuses these girls and young women endured, often being forced to give away their babies, living in degrading conditions, essentially forced laborers in church-state workhouses. Thousands of infants died there, and many of their mothers as well. New Ross was one of the places where a Magdalene laundry was run. It is one of the reasons Keegan chose to set her story there. This is not a tale about these laundries, per se, but one of those constitutes the immediate and very considerable dark force that Bill Furlong is thinking about taking on. While delivering coal to the convent, he sees something he was not supposed to see. To act or not to act, that is the question.

Why were the things that were closest so often the hardest to see?

The language of this novel, the imagery is powerfully effective, celestial even. I felt a need to read a lot of this book out loud. (trying to avoid spoiling it with my terribly fake Irish accent) There is a rhythm, a musicality to the writing that propels its powerful imagery towards the intended targets.

The passage quoted at the top of this review offers a sense not only of a grim time and place, but of the hostile force of the nuns, priests, and the Church, as embodied by the crows. The state, participant in the Magdalene miseries, is given passing notice when a local pol parachutes into town for a Christmas-tree-lighting, if it is possible to parachute in while riding a Mercedes and wearing a rich man’s coat. This is a town that is not being well looked after by the authorities.

When she was 17, she went to New Orleans. “I got an opportunity to go and stay with a family there, and then I wound up going to university. A double major in political science and English literature.”
She remembers well what Ireland was like the year she left.
“I really wanted to get out. It was 1986. Ann Lovett had just died. I felt the darkness that is in Small Things Like These. I felt that atmosphere of unemployment, and being trapped maybe. And things not looking so good for women.
“My parents used to go dancing, and I used go with them, down to the pub. I remember everybody getting really drunk at the bar on a Sunday night.
“I remember looking at all the men at the bar – it was pretty much all men at the bar – and they were getting drunk and saying they couldn’t bear the thought of going back to work in the morning. And then others would say they didn’t have any work in the morning.
– from the Independent interview

When she returned home with her degree, Keegan sent out 300 resumes and did not get a nibble. Erin go Bragh.

The harsh times have not driven from people in New Ross the ability to want things, needed or not. Furlong’s wife, Eileen, wants a proper, going-away vacation, as well as some nice things seen in a shop window. His children have small, mostly manageable desires. The people in town want an end to economic doldrums, some reason to stay around instead of emigrating. The residents of the convent want something more significant. Furlong is in dire need of a new truck to replace the one his business relies on, and which is nearing its last gasp. He also wants to know who his father was.

Of late, he was inclined to imagine another life, elsewhere, and wondered if this was not something in his blood; might his own father not have been one of those who had upped, suddenly, and taken the boat for England.

He is no saint, but workaholic Furlong has that rare capacity to look inside himself critically, consider his life, his actions, in light of his values, even recognize where he might have stepped away from the moral line he believes in following. He had opted to ignore wrongs he had seen before, but for this father of five girls, and son of a single mother, this is a tough one to let pass. However, there are powerful, and insidious forces arrayed against his better angels. He is repeatedly warned, when he mentions his concerns, that crossing the Church could be extremely costly.

The cold of the season will make you shiver and want to add another layer as you read. Some Irish coffee might help as well. Will Furlong cross that bridge and do something or let what he knows sink into nothingness in the dark, frigid waters of the Barrow River below? You will want to know, and will read on until you do.

Keegan is mostly known as a short-story writer. She has won many awards for her work, which is marked by compactness, showing what needs to be shown to tell her tale. Do not dismiss this novel for its brevity. Small Things Like These is huge! You may not need to prepare a manger with fresh hay, but I would definitely make room for this novel in your collection this holiday season. It is an evocative, beautiful, moving novel that deserves to become a Christmas classic.

As they carried on along and met more people Furlong did and did not know, he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?

Review posted – November 12, 2021

Publication date – November 30, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Small Things Like These from Grove Press in return for a fair review, and a few lumps of coal. Thanks, folks, and thanks to Netgalley for facilitating. Bless you, every one.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Keegan’s personal, FB, and Twitter pages

On her personal site, there are links to, among other things, two of her short stories, in the Links tab.

Interviews
—–The Guardian – Claire Keegan: ‘Short stories are limited. I’m cornered into writing what I can’ by Sean O’Hagan – 2010
—–New Ross Standard – Claire’s novel examines cult of silence in 1980s New Ross by Simon Bourke – April 2021
—–Claire Keegan: ‘I think something needs to be as long as it needs to be’ by Claire Armistead
—–Independent.ie – Writer Claire Keegan: ‘I think stories go looking for their authors’ by Emily Hourican
—–The Writing Life – Claire Keegan and the art of subtraction by Terence Patrick Winch – video – 28:29 – from 2013 – re her short stories

Items of Interest from the author
—–The New Yorker – Foster – this is an abridged version of her award winning story
—–Hollihoux – a reading of Foster by Evanna Lynch

Items of Interest
—–The Charles Dickens page – A Christmas Carol – the full text
—–BBC – Irish mother and baby homes: Timeline of controversy
—–Wiki about The 2005 Ferns Report on sexual abuse of children by priests in the Diocese of Ferns
—–The actual report
—–Wiki on the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland
—–Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries
—–George Bailey
—–Ann Lovett

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction