They Want To Kill Americans by Malcolm Nance

book cover

There is only one way out of this. The only way out of this outcome is that the November midterms are the final referendum on whether America truly stays America and a democracy or if it becomes a fascist dictatorship. If the Democrats lose the House and the Senate, then it is all over. There may never be another free and fair election in America. If the Republicans take control, we may be teetering on the edge of an American dictatorship. – from The Guardian interview

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call “The Twilight Zone.” – One of several introductions used for the show

It does not take a lot of imagination to see what is happening in America today. They are coming for you. They are coming for your voting rights, your right to have your vote counted, your right not to be gerrymandered into an Jackson-Pollock-designed district that renders your vote moot, your right to be able to vote without having to stand on line for hours, your right to vote without having armed men and women watching you, intimidating you, your right to vote by mail, by drop box, your right to have someone bring your ballot to the election board if you are unable to do it yourself. They are coming for your right to privacy. An extremist religious SCOTUS whose members lied when they swore they would uphold precedent, reversed that very precedent and removed your right to do what you need, what you want, with your own body, blithely leaving hungry state foxes in charge of the abortion hen-house.

They are coming for your money. Trump could not seem to do much to improve infrastructure, get us out of Afghanistan, deal with global warming or COVID, or seriously address any real public policy issues, but he managed to pass a massive tax cut for the wealthy and corporations. One guess who is supposed to make up that lost revenue. They are coming for the safety net programs that vast numbers of Americans rely on, while raising taxes on the middle class, on the working class and the poor.

By Election Day 2020, the Trump-dominated Republican Party solidified itself for what it perceived was a battle to change the soul of America permanently. Trump’s financial backers saw endless opportunity for tax cuts and limitless, tax-free profits. The stock market saw a president who would ruin nearly a century of regulation and allow them unimaginable capital gains that they could pass on to their children without paying taxes. The party investors saw a middle and lower class that would pay for virtually everything Republicans wanted and divest from virtually every social program liberals wanted. In their eyes, the average American would see none of the profits of America but literally pay for the wealth and prosperity of the richest of the rich. In fact, Trump and his lieutenants managed to do precisely that in his first four years. By the end of his administration, money allocated for education, childcare, and mental health would pay for mega yachts. In Trump’s America, executive jet purchases were tax free.

They are coming for your right to remain alive. Republicans have fought every attempt to enact sane gun control, untouched by the daily slaughter from these weapons. They are apparently just not that into you. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of the rights and benefits that they want to take from you, from us. The right to marry, to love who you want, the right to define for yourself, and not allow the government to define your gender. Yes, they are coming for inter-racial marriage. They are coming for your right to use birth control. And they will not stop there. You have not just woken from a dream in an episode of The Twilight Zone (TZ). This is the terrifying reality of America today. Forget the reality you know, or thought you knew. You have been dragged, or maybe you ran, into The Twilight of Democracy Zone.

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Malcolm Nance – image from Macmillan

Malcolm Nance is an intelligence professional, who has been dealing with foreign enemies for decades. What he has seen in analyzing terrorism and insurgencies abroad has given him a unique insight into what is now an ongoing domestic insurgency, an insurgency that is the means by which the fascist Republican right will take what it wants from you. They will try to win elections, and will win many, some fairly. But they will try to win by cheating, wherever playing fair will not get the job done. Once in office they will steal your rights, and legislate permanence to their position. What they cannot win at the ballot box, they will try to seize at the end of a gun. He calls this movement TITUS, for the Trump Insurgency in the United States. If you are among the remaining sane Republicans you might feel like the guy in TZ episode 1, who finds himself all alone in an abandoned town.

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Earl Holliman as Mike Ferris in TZ episode 1, Where is Everybody – image from Do You Remember

Nance presents a group-by-group look at the organizations involved in promoting and perpetuating chaos in our country, with the goal of seizing power. Many of these will be familiar. (Proud Boys, Three-Percenters, Oath Keepers Boogaloo Bois) Some were news to me. (e.g. Atomwaffen, the Base, Panzerfaust) He offers some history, showing how the bigotries of the past have persisted, albeit with some costume changes. He shows how the unspeakable monsters of the far right have gained increasing publicity from the right-wing media echo machine, and the main-stream media. And sadly, how the views expressed have found a home in a large portion of American households. He notes Trump’s rapid transition from distancing himself from the crazies to fully embracing them. No, this is not a Rod-Serling-generated fantasy land. The Proud Boys really are the khaki’d descendants of the skinheads.

TITUS is a pre-rebellion political-paramilitary alliance that intends to use politics, instability, and violence to meet its goals. The number one goal is reestablishing the Trump dynasty as the primary operating system for America. Then they will use the power of the government to punish their enemies. The political wing of TITUS, the Trump-dominated Republican Party, has already initiated a dangerous plan to embrace the launch of protracted political warfare in America.

Recent reports are that Trump even dreamed of having generals as loyal to him as Hitler’s were to Der Fuhrer, not realizing, because he is an ignoramus, that Hitler’s generals had tried to kill him on multiple occasions. It is pretty clear that this is not the only thing about Hitler that Trump envies.

What we are looking at is a world in which there are people hoping to put Anthony Fremont into the Oval Office, again. You don’t remember Anthony? If you are a Twilight Zone fan you might. He was a monster, the star of one of TZ’s most famous, and chilling episodes. He was six years old, and lived in Peakesville, Ohio. But he was born with an unusual talent. He could make things vanish or rearrange them in horrible ways. He has already made all the world around Mar-a-Lago, sorry, Peakesville, disappear, and if you harbor any unhappy (UnMAGA?) thoughts he will do terrible things to you. The episode was called It’s a Good Life, taking its title from the ironic statement of an adult who knows it is anything but.

Discussing the impeachment of President Trump on Meet the Press, Representative Jason Crow, a Democrat from Colorado, said most members of the GOP are “paralyzed with fear.” He continued: “I had a lot of conversations with my Republican colleagues. . . . A couple of them broke down in tears . . . saying that they are afraid for their lives if they vote for this impeachment.

This is what TITUS wants.

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Billy Mumy as Anthony Fremont in It’s a Good Life, TZ season 3, episode 8 – image from NY Post

Nance goes through what he calls the Psychodynamics of Radicalization, pointing out characteristics that well describe many on the right. They all see themselves as victims, are emotionally reactive, internalize negative stimuli until they burst, embrace conspiracy theories, have flexible ideological identifications (meaning there is no there there, any excuse will do to back up whatever it is they want, or are being told to do.) It goes on, but offers a fair description of many of the TITUS horde. There is certainly a lot of thinking inside the bubble going on, which leaves them with reduced capacity to think critically about the propaganda they mass-consume from the likes of Fox and Breitbart.

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TZ Season 1, episode 22, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street – image from Noblemania – two aliens are amazed that simply by fiddling with a local electricity grid, they can cause the residents of this place to reveal their inner monsters and destroy each other

One thing that I hoped would be addressed is the role Russia might have played, or is still playing in organizing or supporting some of these nut farms. Personally, I believe that Russia was instrumental in the creation of Q-Anon, but do not claim that to be a fact. It would be consistent with Russian cyber-war attacks against the West over the last few decades. There is a strong connection between Putin and disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who has been rumored to be “Q.” Nance might be in a position to have an actual informed opinion about who Q is. He does, however, offer a provocative scenario in which Q-Anon evolved from a live-action-role-playing game.

An even more provocative scenario depicts a theoretical nation-wide assault on governments by the armed right. It is chilling.

The violence of today’s right has been bubbling for a while. He reports on increasing white-nationalism in the police and military. The significance of this is that instead of bumbling amateurs trying to storm governors’ mansions, many of the assaulters will be combat trained, able to organize assaults, and comfortable using weapons. Military-style training camps have been increasing in number. Insurrectionist-oriented organizations joining together, or coordinating, can form a serious threat to the nation. Another huge threat is the propagation of lone-wolf terrorists, fooled by right-wing media lies into taking action against non-existent crimes. Remember Pizzagate? In its ability to inspire low-information followers to commit mortal acts of violence TITUS very much resembles ISIS.

Violent extremists in the United States and terrorists in the Middle East have remarkably similar pathways to radicalization. Both are motivated by devotion to a charismatic leader, are successful at smashing political norms, and are promised a future racially homogeneous paradise. Modern American terrorists are much more akin to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) than they are to the old Ku Klux Klan. Though they take offense at that comparison, the similarities are quite remarkable. Most American extremists are not professional terrorists on par with their international counterparts. They lack operational proficiency and weapons. But they do not lack in ruthlessness, targets, or ideology. However, the overwhelming number of white nationalist extremists operate as lone wolves. Like McVeigh in the 1990s and others from the 1980s, they hope their acts will motivate the masses to follow in their footsteps.

He also points out that the right has an advantage in camouflage. The January 6 insurrectionists were able to get as close as they did to the Capitol largely because they were white. Had a black mob of comparable size been breaking down barriers in DC that day, the response would have been very different. The whiteness of the assaulters allowed them to get close. Will that work in state capitols too, or again in DC?

You will pick up some of the terminology used by the right, terms like accelerationism, ZOG, The Storm, zombies, sovereign citizen, constitutional sheriff, and plenty more.

You will also learn about some of the books that inspire these folks. You may have heard of The Turner Diaries, but maybe not about The Great Replacement, by Renaud Camus, or Siege, by James Mason (no, not that one).

They Want to Kill Americans is Malcolm Nance, with his hair on fire, trying to get everyone to see what is coming, pleading with us to take measures to forestall a bloody American insurgency. The book works in two ways, both as a warning of imminent peril, and as a resource. Use this book to learn who the relevant right-wing groups are, what they are about, who their leaders are, what their goals and methods are. There are many names named in this book. It would be good to learn as many of them as possible.

Sadly, we are not in a dimension beyond time and space. We are in the dark place in which millions around the world find themselves facing hordes of fascists determined to destroy democracy as we have known it, substituting authoritarian rule. The threat is real, and unless we can fend it off we may never be able to find our way out of The Twilight of Democracy Zone. (with apologies to Anne Applebaum)

…several Republican legislatures including in Florida, Oklahoma, and Missouri have made the murder of protesters by running them over in a vehicle legal.

Review posted – August 12, 2022

Publication date – July 12, 2022

I received an eARE of They Want to Kill Americans from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review. Thanks, Sara Beth and Michelle.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

The focus on his personal site at present is Ukraine, where Nance is working with the government to fend off the Russian invaders.

Interviews
—– The Mary Trump Show – Malcolm Nance & Mary Trump: They Want To Kill Americans – VIDEO – 41:21
—–Malcolm Nance: ”The Republican Party is an insurgent party” – By David Smith
—–Salon – Malcolm Nance on the Trump insurgency: Jan. 6 was a “template to do it correctly next time” by Chauncey Devega
—– The Commonwealth Club – MALCOLM NANCE: BEHIND THE IDEOLOGY OF THE TRUMP INSURGENCY – video – with Pat Thurston – 1:16:52

My review of another book by the author
—–2018 – The Plot to Destroy Democracy

Item of Interest
—–University of Ohio – Twilight Zone Introduction

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Filed under American history, Non-fiction, Public policy

Upgrade by Blake Crouch

book cover

My mother had tried to edit a few rice paddies and ended up killing two hundred million people. What havoc could she wreak—intentionally or through unintended consequences—by attempting to change something as fundamental as how Homo sapiens think?

We were a bunch of primates who had gotten together and, against all odds, built a wondrous civilization. But paradoxically—tragically—our creation’s complexity had now far outstripped our brains’ ability to manage it.

OK, so if you had the chance to upgrade yourself, would you do it? I know I would. There are so many things about me that could be better. But, as we all know from the constant barrage of upgrades offered by the makers of every bloody piece of software, some have downsides. Such as new, bloated code slowing down your app. A feature you liked has been removed. You now have to endure ads. Are the benefits of greater value than the costs? Sometimes, but usually, we won’t actually know until the new version is installed, which can take anywhere from minutes to “really, this fu#%ing thing is still processing?” Sometimes, you have no choice, the app updates whether you want it to or not.

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Blake Crouch – image from his site

I suppose agent Logan Ramsay could tell us something about that last case. On a raid, he walks into a planned trap, which goes boom, and Ramsay is infused with version 1.0 of something, which gets busy rewriting his internal code to produce version 2.0 of Logan. There are upsides and downsides. This is no steroidal enhancement, trading zits and rage for increased muscle mass. A nifty bit of tech called a gene driver, (can’t help but see a tiny Uber with double-helix treads) is busy re-writing his actual DNA. (For a new you, no really, a totally, completely new you, call…1 800 FIX-THIS. Of course, we have a la carte if there are only some minor changes you would like. Operators are standing by.)

Logan already had a complicated life. Mom was a geneticist trying to improve crop yields in China when there was a slight bit of collateral damage. Her altered-DNA material went where it was not supposed to. Oopsy. It was known as The Great Starvation. As noted in the quote at top, over two hundred million dead. Junior, who had been working with Mom, dead in the ensuing mess, wound up taking undeserved legal heat in her place, spent time in prison, but was sprung three years in. Now he works as an agent for the federal GPA, or Gene Protection Agency, (too late for Wilder) fiddling with genetic code having become a serious, felonious no-no, and Junior wanting to make amends for his family’s role in the global debacle. He is a geneticist like Mom, now dedicated to seeing that it never happens again.

So, what happens in every single film and book in which our hero is altered by some weird outside force? They are dragged into enforced isolation for relentless study. Or base their subsequent actions (FLEE!!!) on the presumption that this is what the powers that be have planned for them.

Of course among the changes that have been implanted into Logan is a significant increase in IQ. His perceptions have been enhanced as well, giving him a wider bandwidth for incoming sensory information and a much improved ability to process that new flow.

This is both a chase and a pursuit story, as Logan must stay out of the clutches of the government, while searching for a dangerous geneticist, trying to stave off another potential global disaster. His personal upgrades make both running and chasing less of a challenge for him than it might be for an unaugmented person.

Crouch offers a steady, if light, sprinkling of tech changes, letting us know we are in the future, if not necessarily the far distant future. Some seem more distant than others. Hyperloop, for example, is a widespread viable transportation mode. There is a mile-high building in Las Vegas.

The book is set slightly in the future, because I wanted to accelerate where some of the climate change and more in-the-weeds technology was heading, but it’s a mirror of where we might be five minutes from now. – Time interview

Some of the alignments seemed out of kilter. The story takes place in the 2060s. But delivery drones and driverless taxis hardly seem much of an advance for forty years. Ditto electric cars with greater range. Mention is made of a Google Roadster. Google producing its own car has been a project in the works since 2009. So, maybe only five minutes into the future for a lot of the tech Crouch employs. The five-minutes vs forty-years lookahead was jarringly inconsistent at times, which pulled me out of the story.

He also reminds us, with a steady stream of examples, that the underlying issue is humans having screwed up the Earth to the point where the continued viability of Homo Sap is called into question. Lower Manhattan and most of Miami are under water. Glacier National Park no longer features glaciers. Many wildlife species are only memories. It is raining in the Rockies instead of snowing. There are now seven hurricane categories.

There are some things about this book that I would change. There is an escape scene in which I found the means of egress a bit far-fetched, given the year in which it takes place. Surely there is better tech available? I kept wondering who got Logan sprung from prison. If it was revealed, I missed it. I wondered, during a flight from hostile forces, at how little pursuit of the runner there was by the pursuing forces. Really? That easy to get away? I don’t think so. A couple of lost family members merited a bit more attention. And there is a decided absence of humor.

Expected questions are raised. Things like what is it that makes us human? There are those who believe that enhancing, upgrading humanity’s intelligence-related genes to stave off the potential extinction of our species is the only solution, regardless of what collateral damage that might entail. If we are smarter, goes the theory, we will see that what we are doing is madness, and find more sustainable ways of living. While that notion is appealing, it seems pretty glaring that an intelligence boost alone will not cut it. I mean, so you make people smarter. What could possibly go wrong? Logan addresses this:

What if you create a bunch of people who are just drastically better at what they already were. Soldiers. Criminals. Politicians. Capitalists?

The notion has been done a fair bit. Forbidden Planet is the classic of this sort. That most of the genetic manipulators in this tale ignore this suggests that maybe they were not so smart as they thought they were, enhanced or not.

Might it enhance one’s appreciation of Upgrade if one had read his prior sci-fi thrillers? No idea. Have not read them. Cannot say. My unaugmented research capacities tell me, though, that this is a stand-alone, so at least there is no direct story or character connection to his prior work.

Upgrade is a fast-paced thriller that keeps the action charging ahead. I often found myself continuing to read beyond where I had planned to stop. Logan is a decent guy who struggles with moral decisions in a very believable way. There are reasons to relate to him as an everyman, regardless of who his mother may have been. Crouch offers character depth enough for this genre. The tech never gets extreme, a beautiful thing. The concerns raised are very serious. Hopefully, it will boost, if not your muscle mass and speed in the forty, your interest level in the world of genetic manipulation, which, albeit with the best of intentions, could wind up degrading us all.

TIME: You did a ton of research on gene editing for Upgrade. Was there anything you learned that stood out?
Blake Crouch: The big thing I came away with is how afraid scientists are of this research and this technology. I didn’t realize how unnerved everyone was about both the optimistic potential of this technology—but also the pitfalls that await us.

Review posted – August 5, 2022

Publication date – July 19, 2022

I received an ARE of Upgrade from Penguin Random House in return for a fair review, and not trying to change too much. Thanks, KQ, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

From the book
BLAKE CROUCH is a bestselling novelist and screenwriter. His novels include Upgrade, Recursion, Dark Matter, and the Wayward Pines trilogy, which was adapted into a television series for FOX. Crouch also co-created the TNT show Good Behavior, based on his Letty Dobesh novellas. He lives in Colorado.

Interviews
—–Time – Blake Crouch No Longer Believes in Science Fiction – by Anabel Gutterman
—–Paulsemel.com – Exclusive Interview: “Upgrade” Author Blake Crouch

Songs/Music
—–“Träumerei,” from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood – Noted in chapter 6 as Logan’s favorite tune – if he says so
—–Bowie – Changes – a live version from 1999 – just because
—– Yamer Yapchulay – playing a violin cover of Tonight from West Side Story – one was played in Chapter 15
—–Kyla – I Am Changing – you can thank me later

Items of Interest
—–Carson National Forest – a hideout
—–Quantum annealing computing – mentioned in chapter 7
—–LifeCode is mentioned in chapter 9

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Filed under Cli-Fi, Fiction, Sci-fi, Science Fiction, Thriller

Nobody is Protected by Reece Jones

book cover

In…Almeida-Sanchez v. United States in 1973, Justice Thurgood Marshall, an icon of the civil rights movement and the first Black man to serve on the Supreme Court, asked a series of questions that pressed the government’s lawyers about the true extent of the Border Patrol’s authority on American highways deep inside the United States. Unsatisfied with the response, Marshall finally asked if the Border Patrol could legally stop and search the vehicle of the president of the United States without any evidence or suspicion whatsoever. When the lawyer said “Yes,” Marshall concluded, “Nobody is protected.”

The Border Patrol in their green uniforms, patrols between crossing points. Customs was renamed the Office of Field Operations, its agents, in blue uniforms, work at crossing points and in airports. Agents of a third unit of CBP, Air and Marine Operations (AMO), wear brown uniforms and manage the agency’s aircraft and ships. AMO’s authorization in the U.S. code differs from the Border Patrol in that it does not include any geographical limits, so they are able to operate anywhere in the country.

So a few military-looking sorts in camo, with automatic weapons, rush up to you, grab you by both arms and stuff you into an unmarked van that speeds away. Only a general “Police” insignia on their uniforms, wearing shades at night, covering their faces, no explanation of why you are being abducted. Where are you? Russia? Turkey? The West Bank? How about Portland, Oregon, July 2020? What the hell was the Border Patrol doing in Portland anyway, at a demonstration protesting the police murder of George Floyd, an event having zero to do with immigration?

In Nobody is Protected, Reece Jones explains how it has come to be that an agency created to protect the border, and to deal with immigration issues has seen its domain grow to the point where it can operate in most of the country, and take on missions having absolutely nothing to do with crossing a border. What makes them particularly dangerous is that they do not live by the laws that govern the rest of the police forces in the nation. Do they need probable cause to stop your vehicle? Not really. How about a warrant? A BP agent laughs. Can they use racial profiling for selecting who to stop? Of course. That a problem? Oh, and they are now, taken together in their three parts, adding in ICE, the largest police force in the nation. Sleep tight.

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Reece Jones – image from Counterpoint – photo by Silvay Jones

Jones looks at the history of border patrol efforts prior to the establishment of BP in 1924. He tracks the changes in the characteristics of the BP over time, while noting some of the traits that have not changed at all. The Texas Rangers of the early 20th century figure large in this, complete with reports of Ranger atrocities and their considerable representation in the Border Patrol once it was set up. As Mexico outlawed slavery long before the USA, one of the things the Rangers did was intercept American slaves trying to flee the country. The mentality persisted into the BP force, along with those Rangers. Jones offers reminders that the charge of the patrol was often racist, reflecting national legislation that sought to exclude non-white immigrants, with particular focus on Mexicans and Chinese. Exceptions were made, of course, to accommodate Texan farmers during the seasons when labor was needed. A guest worker program was established to compensate for many American men being away during World War II.

Willard Kelly, the Border Patrol chief at the time, told a Presidential Commission in 1950 that “Service officers were instructed to defer apprehensions of Mexicans employed on Texas farms where to remove them would likely result in the loss of crops.” Instead, they would focus on the period after the harvest in order to send the workers back to Mexico. Similarly, during economic downturns, the Border Patrol would step up enforcement to ensure the state did not have to provide for the unemployed laborers. These roundups would often happen just before payday, so agribusinesses got the labor and the agents got their apprehension quotas, but the Mexican workers were not paid.

Outside the illuminating history of the force itself, much of what Jones offers here is a delineation of the laws that define where BP responsibilities and limitations lie, looking particularly closely at several Supreme Court decisions.

We have all heard of Roe v Wade and Brown v the Board of Ed, cases decided (some later undecided) by the Supreme Court (SCOTUS), that were major legal landmarks. Roe established a right of privacy that made abortion legal across the nation. Brown established that separate-but-equal was not a justification for continuing segregation in public schools. There are many such landmark cases. In Nobody is Protected, Reece Jones looks at the rulings that have allowed the Border Patrol to become a dangerous federal police force, subject to far fewer limitations than any other police force in the nation. These cases, while not household names like Roe and Brown, are of considerable importance for the civil rights of all of us, not just immigrants. In Almeida-Sanchez v. United States in 1973, SCOTUS allowed the BP to search a vehicle without any justification. In its 1975 decision in The United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, SCOTUS was ok with agents using racial profiling for selecting vehicles to stop. In 1976, SCOTUS held in The United States v. Martinez-Fuerte that BP could establish checkpoints in the interior of the USA and detain anyone to ask about their immigration status.

So you live nowhere near the border, right? Shouldn’t impact you. But hold on a second. By administrative fiat, BP was granted a one hundred mile border zone. And not just from the expected Mexican and Canadian borders, but from the edge of the land of the USA. So, this means that two thirds of the population of the United States falls within BP’s rights-light border zone. Fourth Amendment? What fourth amendment?

Jones reports on a crusader named Terry Bressi, an astronomer who has been stopped 574 times (as of the writing of the book) while driving to work at an interior checkpoint. He got fed up and started videotaping all his interactions with checkpoint law enforcement, for posting on line. They did not like that. They hated even more that he knew his rights and stood up to bullying by local cops that had been assigned to the checkpoint.

You will learn a lot here. About a policy of Prevention through Deterrence that channeled thousands of would be immigrants and asylum seekers away from normal points of entry, toward perilous crossings. And if they should not survive the effort? Sorry, not our problem. And they try to interfere with people who simply want to save the lives of those coming into our country at risk of their own lives.

In addition to failing to properly search for missing people in the border zone, the Border Patrol also actively disrupts efforts by humanitarian agencies. Beyond the destruction of water drops and aid stations, they often refuse to provide location information to other rescuers, deny access to interview people in Border Patrol custody who were with the missing person, and harass search teams in the border zone.


As No More Deaths volunteer Max Granger, explained, “The agency itself is causing the deaths and disappearances. Any response, even if it is a more robust response, is going to be inadequate. Their entire overarching prevention through deterrence policy paradigm requires death and suffering to work. They are not invested in saving people’s lives.

You will learn of agency mission creep, from border control to drug enforcement to testing for radiation in vehicles (which catches a lot of cancer patients, but so far no dirty bomb terrorists) to actions that are blatantly political in nature and patently illegal.

I expect you will not be shocked to learn that abuse by BP personnel goes largely unpunished. No action against the agent was taken in over 95% of cases of reported abuse. When the Inspector General for the agency tried to investigate the 25% of BP deaths-in-custody that were deemed suspicious, he was stopped (this last bit is from the This Is Hell interview, not the book).

The BP manifests a Wild West mentality that is not much changed from when it was staffed with slave hunters and disgruntled confederates. One thing that has changed is the increasing politicization of immigration by fear-mongering Republican demagogues, and the increased concern over national security brought about by 9/11. There are vastly more agents on the force today. In the 1970s, for example, there were only about fifteen hundred BP agents. Today, just in the BP wing of Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) there are almost twenty thousand. The Field Operations branch adds another twenty thousand, and the Air and Marine Operations branch tops that off with another eighteen hundred. Another twenty thou in ICE, and it gets even larger. Jones may not be entirely correct when he says that the Border Patrol, per se, is the largest police force in the USA, but when these four connected wings are considered as one, ok, yeah, it is.

Jones offers some do-able solutions in addition to proposing legislative changes that might rein in this growing giant, and increasing threat to the rights of all Americans. It is usual for books on policy to toss out solutions that have zero chance of seeing the light of day. So, sensibility here is most welcome.

I have two gripes with the book. There needed to be considerable attention paid to the SCOTUS decisions that have allowed the BP to expand its legal domain. But Jones dug a bit too deep at times, incorporating intel that slowed the overall narrative without adding a lot. In fact, a better title for this might have been The Gateway to Absolute Police Power: SCOTUS and the Border Patrol. Second is that there is no index. Maybe not a big deal if one is reading an EPUB and can search at will, but in a dead-trees-and-ink book, it is a decided flaw.

Bottom line is that Reece Jones had done us all a service in reporting on how a federal police agency has grown way larger than it needs to be, has accumulated more power than it requires to do its job, and has used that power to feed itself, to the detriment of the nation. He points out in the interview that border security has become an “industrial-complex” much like its military cousin, albeit on a smaller scale, with diverse public and private vested interests fighting to sustain and expand the agency, regardless of the value returned on investment. It is a dark portrait, but hopefully, by Jones shining some light on it, changes might be prompted that can rein in the beast before it devours what rights we have left.

Despite the transformation of the border in the public imagination, the people arriving there are largely the same as they always were. The majority are still migrant farm and factory workers from Mexico. In the past few years, they have been joined by entire families fleeing violence in Central America. These families with small children, who turn themselves in to the Border Patrol as soon as they step foot in the United States, in order to apply for asylum, pose no threat and deserve humane treatment. However, that is not what they have received. As journalist Garrett Graf memorably put it, “CBP went out and recruited Rambo, when it turned out the agency needed Mother Teresa.”

Review posted – 7/29/22

Publication date – 7/5/22

I received a hardcover of Nobody is Protected from Counterpoint in return for a fair review. Thanks, KQM.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to the Reece Jones’s personal and Twitter pages

Profile – from Counterpoint
REECE JONES is a Guggenheim Fellow. He is a professor and the chair of the Department of Geography and Environment at the University of Hawai’i. He is the author of three books, the award-winning Border Walls and Violent Borders, as well as White Borders. He is the editor in chief of the journal Geopolitics and he lives in Honolulu with his family.

Interview
—–This is Hell – Nobody is Protected / Reece Jones – audio – 52:10 – by Chuck Mertz – this is outstanding!

Items of Interest
—–Borderless – excerpt
—–The Intercept – 7/12/19 – BORDER PATROL CHIEF CARLA PROVOST WAS A MEMBER OF SECRET FACEBOOK GROUP by Ryan Deveaux
—–No More Deaths – an NGO doing humanitarian work at the border
—–Holding Border Patrol Accountable: Terry Bressi on Recording his 300+ Checkpoint interactions (probably over 600 by now)
—–My review of The Line Becomes a River, a wonderful memoir by a former BP agent

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, Public policy

Project Namahana by John Teschner

book cover

They talk about shareholder value because they need to call it something. But there’s no accountability, not to shareholders, not to anyone. It’s chance. You can do everything right, but if there’s a drought in India and orders drop ten percent, you’ll be blamed. Unless you can get transferred in time for the blame to hit the next guy. And it goes all the way up. No matter what anyone tells you, or what they believe about themselves, all anyone is trying to do is make sure there will always be a chair for him to sit on when the music stops.”

“To quote Dr. Wilson,” said Professor Higa, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary. Can anyone explain?”

Project Namahana is a book about responsibility. Who accepts it. Who ducks it. How it is spread around so thinly that it ceases to have any substance. Are you responsible if you shoot someone? Sure thing, unless they were shooting at you first. Are you responsible if people are killed because of decisions you made? It begins to get tougher. What if you’d known there was potential for harm? It can be difficult to assign personal blame, particularly when decisions are made by a range of people.

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John Teschner – image from The Big Thrill

Jonah Manokalanipo takes his son and two cousins to a nearby dam for a swim. When he returns for them, after a heavy rain, he finds all three dead. What killed them? Jonah has an idea, and raises a huge fuss.

Micah Bernt is a military veteran, a loner mostly, seriously PTSD’d. He uses this to keep people at a distance, for their safety. He is not completely wrong to do so. Bernt is living on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, working selling outboard motors, renting a small place from a friendly older couple. He finds their comity off-putting, not wanting to get too attached and maybe expose them to his darker side. There is one. He did not get his screaming meanies from spending too much time in a knitting circle. There is plenty of guilt to go along with his unwelcome memories.

Michael Lindstrom is an exec with the Benevoment corporation, producers of GMO seeds and bespoke pesticides. There is a particularly promising project underway on Kauai that could yield major gains in production. But it is not quite ready for prime time, and the upstairs suits are eager to try something else, a different genetic mix, that would be particularly harsh on non-buyers. Lindstrom has been in charge of the older product line since its inception, and wants the company to hang on with it just a bit longer. But when it is implicated in the deaths of several local boys in the Namahana area of Kauai, Lindstrom is sent from the home office in Minnesota to get things sorted. Of course, there are additional complications as there might just be a connection to the several locals who have gone missing or worse.

From the sociologist Robert Jackall I learned corporate managers make directives as vague as possible, forcing those lower down the chain to make ever more concrete decisions. And from Stanley Milgram, I learned it’s human nature to shift our model of morality when following orders, justifying actions we would never do on their own. – from Teschner’s Tor/Forge article

Bernt’s landlord, Clifton Moniz, is one of these. The circumstances of his death are seriously hinky. Moniz’s widow, Momilani, knowing that Bernt has some military police background, asks him to look into the death for her. And we are off to races.

Chapters flip back and forth, mostly between Bernt’s local travails and Michael Lindstom’s coming of conscience, as he begins to really feel responsibility for what his company might have done, recognizing that many of the relevant, bad decisions that had been made by the company had been his. He engages not only in an investigation of the problem at Namahana, but in considerable soul-searching.

[the] novel was inspired by a NYT Magazine story of structural violence: for decades, as told by Nathaniel Rich, DuPont factories dumped toxic chemicals in West Virginia streams, abetted by permissive regulators and a corporate bureaucracy that distributed the action of poisoning other human beings into a chain of indirect decisions carried out by hundreds of employees. – from Teschner’s non-fic piece in the Tor/Forge blog

Both Lindstrom and Bernt are on roads that lead to the same place, literally, as well as figuratively. Micah and Michael (maybe the reason for the similarity in names?) are both in great need of redemption, Michael for his managerial sins, Micah for whatever crimes had gotten him discharged from the military with an honorable discharge but maybe not so honorable a final tour.

There is considerable local color, showing a part of Hawaii that is not on the postcards or tourism brochures. Teschner lived on Kauai for seven years, so, while not a native, he knows a bit about the place. This includes not only elements of the local economy, but the relationships among the residents. There is considerable use of local lingo. I read an EPUB, so do not know if the final version includes a glossary. You might have to do some looking-up, but not at a problematic level.

Literally millions of people visit Hawaii every year, but I venture to say that few will find anything familiar in here except for the landscapes. The tourism industry on Hawaii has been so successful, the unique culture of the island itself is almost completely hidden by the stereotypes and the carefully managed visitor experience. – from the Big Thrill interview

Teschner may have presented us with a purely evil Benevoment ag-biz corporation, but his company exec is much more nuanced. We get that he is a well-meaning sort, who sees his work as helping ease world hunger, even if there might be some collateral damage in getting from place A to place B on that road. Micah Bernt is also a good-hearted soul, even if that soul may have acquired some indelible stains. These internal conflicts give the leads some depth. That said, we do not learn enough about Micah Bernt’s challenges while in the military.

Project Namahana looks at systemic, institutional violence foisted on locals by higher-ups in government, the corporatocracy, or both, looks at how personal responsibility fits into that, and fits his two leads with a need for expiation. It is fast-paced and action-packed, with the requisite twists and turns, and even a complicated love interest for Micah. We get to see both the welcoming aloha tradition and the darker side of a brilliant place. It is a fine first novel, showing some serious talent. I expect that the proper reaction to this book is to say Mahalo.

The newest version was the most effective yet, but the tweak in chemistry had made the volatility worse. Morzipronone wouldn’t stay where it was sprayed: a slight breeze carried it miles. It didn’t matter what they put on the label; no application guidelines could prevent drift onto neighboring fields. Any crop that wasn’t genetically modified to resist it would cup and die after just a few exposures.

Review posted – July 22, 2022

Publication date – June 28, 2022

I received an eARE of Project Namahana from Tor/Forge of Macmillan in return for a fair review, and some of that wonderful Kona coffee. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF
Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Profile – from the Big Thrill interview

John Teschner was born in Rhode Island and grew up in southern Virginia. He has worked as a newspaper reporter, professional mover, teacher, and nonprofit grant writer. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya and rode a bike across the United States. He spent seven years living on the island of Kaua’i with his wife and two boys, where he helped lead Hui O Mana Ka Pu’uwai outrigger canoe club and became a competitive canoe racer. He now lives in Duluth, Minnesota, where he is learning how to stay upright on cross-country skis. PROJECT NAMAHANA is his first novel.

Interview
—–The Big Thrill – Project Namahana by John Teschner

Items of Interest from the author
—– The Non-Fiction Pieces That Inspired Project Namahana by John Teschner
—–Tor/Forge – excerpt

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Thriller

The Angel of Rome by Jess Walter

book cover

I suppose every person, at some point, tries to break free from the identity you are assigned as a kid, from the person your parents and friends see, from your own limitations and insecurities. To create your own story.Angel of Rome

First sex is like being in a stranger’s kitchen, trying all the drawers, looking for a spoon.Famous Actor

You know that guy in the second Indiana Jones movie, The Temple of Doom, the Thuggee priest Mola Ram? Questionable taste in haberdashery, but possessed of a special power. He could reach his hand directly into a person’s torso, secure a grip on the heart, and rip it directly out of the body, not a procedure certified by the AMA. While I expect Jess Walter has better taste in hats, he is possessed of a similar power. Of course, when he rips out your heart, you won’t, unlike Mola Ram’s victims, actually die. You will get your heart back. But you will feel deeply, sometimes painfully, and the experience will stay with you.

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The author? No. Heartbreaker Mola Ram doing his thing in The Temple of Doom – but clearly a relation – image from Swarajya

It has been nine years since Jess Walter’s last short story collection, We Live in Water, but he has continued to write them, publishing in a variety of journals and other outlets. When it was time, he looked through the fifty or so he had written since his last collection and managed to cull that down to a dozen, well, fourteen, but his editor made him cut two more. (Boooo! So mean of her!)

like many novelists, Walter got his start in fiction writing by crafting short stories and selling them wherever he could – Harper’s, Esquire, McSweeney’s, ESPN the Magazine. Despite his success as a novelist, he still loves writing short stories. After all, he said, they’re no more difficult to write than novels, “they’re just shorter,” he said.> – from the Spokesman Review print interview

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Jess Walter – benign twin of Mola Ram? – image from The Spokesman-Review – shot by Colin Mulvany

Just for the record, Jess Walter is one of the best writers working today, and this collection is a fine representation of a master at the pinnacle of his power. His work is engaging, powerful, moving, literary, and often LOL-funny.

There are several motifs that repeat through multiple stories but the overall theme here is hope. While there are no overt feathers floating about in the stories, still, there is a comforter’s worth of downy literary substance in the air. Faced with challenging circumstances, many of the lead characters find a way to a hopeful place.

It sorta surprised me because I think of myself as someone who likes to plumb darkness, but I kept coming across dark situations that led to moments of hope, and moments of connection between characters that I found surprising. I look back on those years, from 2013 to now [2022], losing a close friend, having my father suffer from dementia, and I can see different themes. A mother passing away from cancer and cancer always works its way…and I can see these themes that in almost all the stories that I ended up choosing, there was a surprising figure. Like Mr. Voice in the first story. And I think I was finding that I was finding such connection in my family and in my friends, even during a hard several years, personally and politically for a lot of people, I think I was looking for those places where you felt some refuge. – from the Spokesman Review print interview

A subset of this is characters, particularly young ones, coming to define themselves, to mold themselves into the people they want to be, rather than simply accepting the pre-fab path that has been laid out for them.

I suppose every person, at some point, tries to break free from the identity you are assigned as a kid, from the person your parents and friends see, from your own limitations and insecurities. To create your own story. – The Angel of Rome

In To the Corner, one youngster seems to find a way forward, out of the despair that permeates the place where he has been growing up. Before You Blow centers on a young woman who finds an unexpected career option in her future, In Fran’s Friend Has Cancer, a character wonders just how much of their life it is possible to control.

Place is important to Walter

Growing up, the geography of New York was imprinted on me in the literature that I read, especially “Catcher in the Rye.” I’ve always wanted to do that for the city I live in. I think as writers, we mythologize these places where we don’t live. And I love creating a kind of mythology of Eastern Washington. It’s one of my favorite things when people from other cities come to Spokane because they want to visit places from the books. I also just love it there. It’s an incredibly rich place to write and set literature. I can still see Holden Caulfield’s Times Square, and I want readers to be able to see my Spokane that way. – from the Seattle Times interview

More than half the stories are set in Spokane, with one in Boise and another in Bend, Oregon. Three travel farther afield, with one each in Manhattan, Rome, and Mississippi.

Fame
There are several famous characters in the collection. Mr Voice is a household name in Spokane for his voice-over work there. The Famous Actor is both impressed by his own fame, and massively insecure. One of the characters in Before You Blow is destined for fame, of a sort. The Angel of Rome features two stars, an Italian actress and an American TV actor. Walter manages to give them all personalities, for good or ill (mostly good).

Angels
Maybe not the magical sort, but no less benevolent. Mr Voice turns out to be so much more than meets the eye. An American actor in Rome takes a shaky American scholar under his wing. An old friend comes to the rescue of a woman in great need. An old man turns his despair into a pointed generosity.

Teens
Most of the stories focus on characters in their teens and twenties, some adding a POV from the character looking back decades later. A couple focus on older people

Thematic threads, and literary gifts are of no matter if the characters do not gain and hold our interest. Thankfully writing characters you can relate to is yet another tool in his shed. Jess Walter can be counted on to write tales that are both image-rich and accessible. But he also gives us relatable characters, heart-rending tales, great twists, and a comedy-club-night-out worth of raucous laughter. You will be charmed, moved, and very satisfied. A triumph of a collection, The Angel of Rome, I am sure even Kali would agree, is simply heaven-sent.

“I guess it seems to me”—Jeremiah pauses, choosing his words carefully—“that you shouldn’t give up hope until you’ve done everything you can.”

Review posted – July 15, 2022

Publication date – June 28, 2022

======================================THE STORIES

Story 1 – Mr. Voice
Tanya’s father has been out of the picture forever. Mom eliminated boyfriends like they were murder suspects. A looker, she was never short on male attention. But at some point you make a choice and hope for a life. Mom chose Mr. Voice, older, a voice-over performer well known in Spokane. Tanya looks back from forty-nine on her years with her Mom and stepfather from when she was nine into her teens. An intensely moving tale of parental sorts connecting, or failing, and lessons to be learned about relationships, with a gut-punch finale.

Story 2 – Fran’s Friend Has Cancer
On aging, lives being reduced to feeling-free stories
Sheila and Max, an older couple, are having lunch before a Broadway matinee when they notice something strange.

In that story there’s somebody doing what I used to do when I wanted to learn how to write dialogue, sitting in a restaurant, recording the way people speak. I really just wanted to get patterns of speech down. And I started thinking about the…kind of arrogance of that, and…just what sort of flawed thinking it is that just by overhearing a conversation you could create a whole human being. – from the Spokesman Review video interview

…most meta story in the collection. There are all these different parts of the process of writing, and sometimes you feel this ideal, like you’ve created life. And then other times it seems like they’re alive, but they’re only 3 inches tall and they can only do one thing. I was sort of just playing with that idea. – from the Seattle Times interview

Max confronts the writer and finds a whole other layer of concern.

Story 3 – Magnificent Desolation
Jacob is a 12-yo with an attitude problem. His constant smirk accompanies his constant challenging of career science teacher Edward Wells over basic scientific truths with “We don’t believe in that.” When Wells has had enough he e-mails Jacob’s parents. What to do when he is instantly smitten with Jacob’s mother? There are wonderful references here to two contributions to the world by Buzz Aldrin.

Story 4 – Drafting
Myra is 24, way too young to have cancer, to be facing the possibility of an early reaper. Needing a way back to living, she gets in touch with an ex, someone who provided her a highlight film of her emotional life. Beautiful, moving ending.

…so Myra told the carpenter’s wife how, during radiation, there was a moment when she thought it might be okay to die. “In fact, it was like I was already gone—like I was looking back at my life. And I could see the whole thing laid out, like, I don’t know, a straight line. You’re a kid. You go to school. And you see where the line is supposed to go: boyfriend, job, husband, baby, whatever. But when I looked at the line…the only parts that really meant anything to me were the jagged parts…the parts that everyone else saw as mistakes.

Story 5 – The Angel of Rome
is a coming of age story that very much reminded me of the amazing film, My Favorite Year. It is the longest story in the book, more of a novella really, at 65 pages. Nebraska twenty-one-year-old, Jack Rigel, has somehow signed up for a Latin class being taught at the Vatican. He is, of course, in way over his head. About to pack it in and return home he stumbles across a magical scene.

It was like looking into another world, the room so bright as to seem luminescent, like a religious painting, the sparkle of bejeweled patrons, swirl of silverware and wineglasses, gleaming white-shirted waiters carrying trays of rich food, every table filled with beautiful people. They laughed and gestured and smiled like movie stars.
It was as if some kind of dream has been constructed on the other side of this glass. And then I had the simplest realization: I have always been on the outside.

But what if you are invited in? An American TV star, believing Jack is fluent in Italian, and wanting to say something to a woman on his film, hires Jack as his interpreter. This is a hilarious, heart-warming tale that really, really deserves to be made into a film. It began as an audio original, and is the only story in the collection to have a collaborator. Walter had worked with actor Eduardo Ballerini before. Ballerini had read other Walter works for audio books. The paired work, a rare, maybe singular event on Walter’s career, turned out to be hugely satisfying. Walter’s love letter to Rome, this is one of the most fun stories I have ever read, LOLing throughout. You will be charmed, una dolce favola.

Story 6 – Before You Blow
Jeans is seventeen, a high school senior, waitressing in a local Italian restaurant. Joey is 22, works the pizza over Friday and Saturday. There will be flirting and more as Jeans is deciding whether to give this guy her V-chip. There are issues with Joey, but he is pre-law, from a long line of lawyers, which impresses her parents no end.

Your older brother Mike wanted to be a motorcycle cop; that’s what passed for ambition in your family. It was the first time you really thought about a career having anything to do with your station in life. Before, you always thought of careers as simple job descriptions, like figurines in an old PlaySkool town. This one’s a fireman. That one’s a teacher. It didn’t occur to you that a certain profession might make you a more important person, a better human being.

But there are some concerns. Maybe he’s a catch, maybe not. All it takes is a high-stress situation to put it to the test.

In the video interview linked in EXTRA STUFF, Walter reads this story, beginning at about 25:00. It is delicious.

Story 7 – Town and Country
Jay’s father is losing his grip, memory becoming increasingly dodgy, wandering off, mostly to bars. He has not lost his appetite for booze, cigarettes and women. When it becomes too much Jay looks into residential care facilities for him, most of which suck. But then he learns about a very special place, Town & Country, which is both an original kind of care place for a declining population in need of the comfort of an imagined familiarity and a powerful metaphor for a larger senescence.

He wouldn’t know an email from an emu. But this is what happened with him now—he would hear some phrase on TV (Hillary’s emails, slut shaming, Make America Great Again) and it would rattle around in his brain until it became real.

Story 8 – Cross the Woods
Maggie, a single mom, was in a relationship with Markus that seemed more a serial hook-up than anything else. But she had feelings for the guy, despite his fondness for bolting before dawn. After a year of not seeing each other, he shows up at her father’s funeral, and she feels drawn to him again, despite their past. Has she really changed? Has he?

Maggie wondered then if there wasn’t just one ache in the world: sad, happy, horny, drunk, sorry, satisfied, grieving, lonely. If we believed these to be different feelings but they all came from the same sweet unbearable spring.

Story 9 – To the Corner
Leonard is an old, depressed widower, wondering about the point of living. A group of kids hang out on the corner, and indulge in some awful behavior He despairs for them as well. His ditto-head son has given him a gun, supposedly for protection against these middle-school desperadoes. Is there really no way out of this descending spiral?

Walter had been a reading tutor at a local Elementary School

“I would see the kids I tutored in the park,” he said. “Scary kids are a lot less scary when you’ve read ‘Johnny the Turtle’ with them sitting next to you.” – from the Spokesman-Review print interview

Story 10 – Famous Actor
The rich and famous are different from the rest of us, aren’t they?

Story 11 – Balloons
Ellis is 19, and the bane of his parents for not having a paying job. Mom gets him a gig checking up on Mrs Ahearn, the 40-something widow who lives across the street, doing a little shopping, raking leaves, being tongue kissed and having his ass grabbed. Life is not made any easier by having a sainted genius brother in U of Wash law school. Over the course of a few months, Ellis learns some things, and comes to a new appreciation for the experience of others.

That’s the thing, I guess—how impossible it is to know a thing before you know it. What whiskey will taste like. What it’s like to kiss someone. Probably even what it’s like to lose a husband.

Story 12 – The Way the World Ends
Two climate scientists interview for a teaching job at a Central Mississippi college. It gets raucous, which is a challenge for recently out Jeremiah, who is in charge of the guest house where both applicants are staying. Amid the partying there is much conversation about the despair of scientists, but also of reasons not to give up.

Among climate scientists, it’s called “pre-traumatic stress disorder” but the feelings are no joke: anger, hopelessness, depression, panic—a recurring nightmare in which you see the tsunami on the horizon but can’t convince anyone to leave the beach. She knows scientists who have become drunks, who have dropped out and moved to the desert, who have committed suicide.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

My reviews of earlier work by Jess Walter
—–2020 – The Cold Millions
—–2013 – We Live in Water

Interviews
—–Seattle Times – Spokane author Jess Walter on writing short stories, his working-class roots and his hometown by Emma Levy
—–The Spokesman Review – Northwest Passages: Jess Walter and ‘Angel of Rome’ – with Shawn Vestal – video
—–The Spokesman-Review – Finding truth and keeping it real: In Jess Walter’s new collection ‘The Angel of Rome,’ the Spokane author lets character shine through by Carolyn Lamberson

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Short Stories

The World As We Knew It – edited by Amy Brady and Tajja Isen

book cover

“At a time when our planet is experiencing terrifying and unprecedented levels of change, what corresponding transformations have you witnessed in your lives, yards, neighborhoods, jobs, relationships, or mental health?” That’s the question that Tajjia Isen and I asked the contributors to this anthology. We wanted to hear their personal stories, allow then to serve as witnesses of this incredibly complex moment in history. – from the Introduction

This is what climate change is. It’s what it does to the psyche, along with the body and the places we love. It’s nearly invisible until the moment something startles you into attention. A creeping catastrophe waiting with arms outstretched to deliver a suffocating embrace. And once the knowledge is gained, there is no unknowing it. You are no longer climate blind. You see and cannot unsee.

Things change. Often it happens too slowly for us to notice. Sometimes processes have been evolving for a while and take a sudden, tipping point jump into the observable. But often it takes being away for a while to get a visceral sense of change.

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Tajja Isen – image from Catapult, where she is Editor in Chief

What do you notice, and what slips by as just the normal range of expected experience? I have been around long enough to have personal elements that fit in with the editors’ approach. I was not keeping track of the frequency or height of the snowfalls that marked winter growing up in the Bronx. Does it snow more now? Less? Maybe, but not that I could say from personal observation, particularly. Although there was a stretch of years when it began to seem that snow was a thing of the past. Then it returned. I would have to look through tables of data to really know. Summers were hot growing up, days in the 90s, maybe a few in triple digits. Fire hydrants, including the one in front of the apartment building where I was raised, were opened, sometimes by friendly firefighters, sometimes by unauthorized people, so kids like me could get some relief from the heat. Are NYC summers hotter now? I don’t really know off the top of my head. Again, I would have to check tables of historical data. But I do know that Summer nights in New York were increasingly uncomfortable over my many years there, with overnight lows far too often in the 80s. Yes, the city holds the heat well, but it held it well during the entirety of my life. Something had changed. Then there was Superstorm Sandy.

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Amy Brady – image from LitHub

In a way, the editors asked their contributors to respond to a lawyerly question: What did you notice and when did you notice it? With the extra of asking how the noticed change(s) impacted them. Editors Amy Brady and Tajja Isen have put together essays from nineteen writers from around the world, each exploring what they have noticed.

In 2022, we are witnesses to one of the most transformative moments in human history: a time when climate change is altering life on Earth at an unprecedented rate, but also a time when the majority of us can still remember when things were more stable. We are among the first—and perhaps one of the last—human populations to have memories of what life was like before. To us, the “new normal” is not how it’s always been. Our lives jostle against incongruous memories of familiar places. We are forced to confront, in strange and sometimes painful ways, how much those places have changed.

Being swamped with relentless tales of big scale environmental horror can have a numbing effect. Numbers, estimates, projections, possible outcomes, blah, blah, blah. We can stop hearing after a while, tune it out. Outrage is appropriate and we experience that, but it is not something we can endure continuously. At our core, humans are creatures of story, not statistics. For as long as we have existed people have concocted origin stories, not origin reports. So, maybe story is a better way to communicate, to connect, to inform people, some people anyway, about the real on-the-ground reality of global warming. And that is what we have here.

These nineteen stories are memoirish, covering the far reaches of the planet and a range of personal experiences. Landscapes that have been transformed by warming, devastating long-term drought, massive reduction in wildlife, invasive species wreaking havoc on formerly stable ecosystems, growing public consciousness of particles per million in the air, and on.

Some are a bit tangential. In Unearthing, Lydia Yuknovich focuses on the harm done by the Hanover, Washington facilities that produced much of the fissile materials used in America’s nuclear bombs. Her witness to the very personal impact of radioactive pollution on a peer growing up is not really a global warming tale, however heart-breaking. Some focus less on personal global warming miseries to look more at human interactions, class, racial and gender politics coming in for some attention

Some tales are wonderful in their strangeness. Walking on Water looks at how those charged with relocating both people and native deities to make way for a huge dam in Africa interact with local people and customs. Signs and Wonders notes, and celebrates, the increasing weirdness in the world, as long-hidden things begin to reappear when landscapes change and glaciers recede.

Some offer strong imagery. In Cougar, Terese Svoboda builds on an experience she had while driving, in which she narrowly avoided hitting a cougar that was making a dash across a Nebraska highway. She looks at ways the creature is making a comeback, among other elements in her story, and sees cause for hope that humanity can find a way as well.

In The Development, one of my favorite stories in the collection, Alexandra Kleeman notes a slice of green near her Staten Island apartment and pays attention as this (at least temporarily) abandoned piece of NYC is taken over by nature, plants left alone to grow, to spread, wildlife moving in. The optimism of regeneration lives side by side with the dread that it is only a matter of time before developers carve a pristine, straight-line urban walkway out of it.

Lacy M. Johnson tells of her religious father, in Leap. He was a white collar at a coal plant, justifying the environmental carnage being caused as God giving people the Earth to use however we want.

Some focus on illness. Warming has expanded the range of ticks that carry Lyme disease to the chagrin of well, everyone. Having had the pleasure some years back, I can very much relate to this concern. Lyme disease gets a mention in two of the stories. Porochista Khakpour’s Season of Sickness tells of his travails with Lyme and the joys of black mold in his apartment, and on. Is warming only generating more risks, or is it also impacting our resistance?

The collection is rich in beautiful writing and insight. The sense of place is particularly strong throughout. It certainly offers a prompt most of us can work from. What have you noticed? And how has it impacted your life?

One change that stands out from personal experience is a product of the others, expectations. Growing up, most of us, I believe, expected that the physical world would continue on pretty much as it had. That is no longer the case for anyone who pays any attention to environmental events in the world. While the fear of imminent and instantaneous destruction in the 1950s and 1960s, helped along by duck-and-cover drills during the Cold War, may have dissipated, (although it has certainly not been eliminated) the existential threats of today have more to do with our less flash-bang demise. The ticking up of temperatures worldwide makes us all frogs in the proverbial pot of warming water. And it seems an insuperable task trying to get those in charge of the range to turn off the flame, or at least turn it down enough. Will my children and grandchildren be able to see the places in the world I have been able to see? Will all those places even exist? What does warming mean for their longevity? Human lifespans increased significantly in the USA over the 20th century. I have already outlived my father. Will my children outlive me? We know that change is possible. When I was a kid it seemed that everyone smoked. After decades of effort, smoking was much reduced. Hope is a reason to go on, to keep trying, but one change I see is a whittling back of hope itself. Sure, there are positive developments. Electric cars have arrived and renewable energy production is growing as a percentage of overall supply. General awareness has surely grown. Our understanding of the complicated parts that make up global warming is expanding, increasing the possibility that fixes, or at the least ameliorations, can be identified, whether or not they are implemented. But is that enough to stave off the worst? Is anything, at this point, enough? Are we in the world of Don’t Look Up, where the only sane response is resignation? I sure hope not.

We must learn to become conservationists of memory. Otherwise, this damage we have done to our planet will cost us our past, as it may already have cost us our future. And without a past or a future, what are we? Nothing. A flickering violence of a species, here such a short time, insatiable, then gone. – Omar El Akkad

Review posted – July 8, 2022

Publication date – June 14, 2022

I received a copy of The World As We Knew It from Catapult in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to Amy Brady’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Links to Tajja Isen’s’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Publishers Weekly – ‘The Raw Data of Someone Else’s Life’: PW Talks with Amy Brady and Tajja Isen by Liza Monroy
—–Writer Unboxed – Seeking the Existential, the Intimate, and the Urgent: Essays That Model Masterful Storytelling by Julie Carrick Dalton

Items of Interest from the author(s)
—–LitHub – A list of pieces Brady wrote for LitHub
—–Orion Magazine – excerpt – Faster Than We Thought by Omar El Akkad

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Filed under Non-fiction, Public Health, Science and Nature

Local Gone Missing by Fiona Barton

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…my childhood was one long nightmare, really. But this is different. Unfinished business—a time bomb ticking quietly like a second heart in my chest.

He’s been up to his old tricks again.

All is not what it seems. Ebbing is a small coastal community, rich with day-trippers, and increasingly, week-enders. We meet a cast of locals, Dave, the owner of a pub, The Neptune, Toby and Saul, who own The Lobster Shack, the postwoman, Pete Diamond, a new arrival eager to run a music festival, the unspeakable Pauline, and plenty more.

Elise knew that Ebbing wasn’t like its neighbors, Bosham or West Wittering. It didn’t feature in the Bayeux Tapestry or have thousands of visitors surging in like a spring tide on a nice day. An old fish factory with a corrugated roof squatted in the armpit of the curved sea wall guarding the harbor, and the ten thousand inhabitants lived mostly in prefabs, housing estate boxes, and salt-stained bungalows rather than thatched cottages but Elise didn’t mind. It felt a bit more real—and it was all she could afford on her own if she wanted to be by the sea. She’d never really considered it until recently—she was a city girl, through and through—but she’d worked up this fantasy that the sea would be company.

DI Elise King, 43, is on extended leave, still recovering from, and being treated for, a nasty bout of breast cancer. Well, that and a broken heart after the sudden end to a long-term relationship. Being stuck, unable to properly get back to major-crimes work is a hardship of another sort.

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Fiona Barton – image from the Madeline Milburn Agency

Luckily for her, there just happens to be a notable local person missing in Ebbing. Charlie Perry is 73, silver-haired, (I see Bill Nighy) a particularly friendly sort, a local sweetheart, with an adult disabled daughter on whom he dotes. He is involved in many local charities, and has a kind word for everyone. We meet Charlie in the prologue, affixed to a chair, gagged, waiting for his captors to return, desperate to escape.

The second piece that gets Elise moving is Ronnie, her charming, if intrusive, next-door neighbor. A particularly effervescent sort, she bubbles over on learning that Elise is a murder detective, and nudges her to get involved in solving the mystery of Charlie’s disappearance, unofficially of course, and just by following small leads.

But there are other local curiosities that bear looking into as well. Two young people collapse at a local music festival after consuming some tainted drugs, (how did those drugs get there?) and a local barn catches fire mysteriously. There is a fair bit of unfaithfulness, more than a bit of financial distress, and lots and lots of secrets.

Of course, small leads lead to more questions, which lead to more leads which lead to… and on it grows. This offers Elise a way to test out her weakened physical and mental muscles, building her confidence, as long as she stays in the good graces of her colleagues in the local constabulary.

The structure is to alternate current action (in which Elise, with Ronnie, conducts a private investigation and in which sundry characters try to cope with emerging facts) with a recounting of events that led up to the present unwelcome state of affairs. We go back to seventeen days before Saturday, August 24, 2019, and step up to the present, day by day for the most part. Chapters are labeled with when events take place using the metric of the number of days before August 24. Both current and look-back chapters shift POV. Our primary character, Elise King, takes the most (37) but Dee, her house-cleaner takes up a fair number (19). Charlie gets 8 and 9 chapters are distributed among other characters. Barton is a master at presenting diverse POVs. It is always clear who is speaking, whose eyes are providing our witness.

One lovely element of this Fiona Barton novel was the rise in prominence of place. It has not been a major focus in the past, except in The Suspect, which included a lot about Thailand.

We moved here three years ago and it was lovely because we’d never lived by the sea before. So I had all this new material when we moved here. Lots of new people to watch and y’know, take notes about and so I decided that I would set my next book in Ebbing. Fictitious town. Did not want to get weighed down by a real location…I’ve had a lot of fun…describing this small rundown seaside town…It is not one of the chi-chi ones that everybody wants to buy a property in, but it’s full of characters. – from The Poisoned Pen Bookstore interview

She writes about the tension experienced in any gentrifying place, as locals become economically squeezed by more affluent outsiders. Another change for Barton this time is that her main character is a detective. Her prior series featured a journalist, reflecting Barton’s many years as a pro in that field.

In any mystery there are two general things to look at, the story itself (Is it interesting? Does it make sense?) and the appeal of the lead. Do you want to spend 384 pages with this person? Not to worry. We are introduced to Elise King as she is struggling to work her way back to the love of her life, the thing she is best at, the thing that gives her the most satisfaction, her work. The limitations she experiences are the result of her illness, an act of God essentially, and not the product of substance abuse or moral failing. Another element that is crucial to a satisfying mystery, a subset of story I guess, is that it offers surprises. You may need a neck brace to prepare for the whiplash from the many twists that Barton has woven into her plot. There are a couple of particularly good ones near the end.

The supporting cast is a true strength in this one. Dee gets a lot of screen time, so we get to know her second-best. It is a fun challenge trying to figure out what is going on with her. Pauline, Charlie’s wife, is comedically awful. Ronnie is a wonderful support and much-needed nudge for Elise. I was very happy to learn that Barton plans another Ebbing-based tale, and Elise and Ronnie will both be back.

Bottom line is that I found Local Gone Missing to be an entertaining mystery, with engaging characters, a compelling core story, and a string of related events that is tightly woven into a very readable book. If you can locate a copy you will not be sorry.

“You have to remember that monsters don’t look the part, Ronnie,” she said. “They’re not marked out in any way. If only . . . They live among us in plain sight. In their cardigans and sensible shoes. They have library cards, buy a poppy for Remembrance Day. They’re the man or woman next door who picks up a pint of milk for you, asks after your parents, or takes in parcels from deliverymen.” All the while planning their next act of depravity.

Review posted – July 1, 2022

Publication date – June 14, 2022

I received an ARE of Local Gone Missing from Berkley in return for finding it in myself to write a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Interview
—–The Poisoned Pen Bookstore – Fiona Barton in conversation with Barbara Peters. Barton discusses Local Gone Missing – video
—–Crime Café – Interview with Crime Writer Fiona Barton: S. 8, Ep. 1

My review of an earlier book by Fiona Barton
—–The Suspect (Kate Waters #3)

Songs/Music
—–Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Theme song to Peaky Blinders – Red Right Hand – referenced in chapter 14

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Suspense

Aurora by David Koepp

book cover

When nothing works anything goes.

Be Prepared! – Boy Scout Motto

Ever since the Neolithic and the introduction of sedentary farming, we are a species that has evolved to rely on external supports to keep us going, an infrastructure that provides water, transportation routes and means, manufacturing, either by hand or machine, of things we need that we do not or cannot make for ourselves, and means of communication that do not require direct line of sight, or being within proximate hearing distance. So, what happens when one of the absolute necessities undergirding all our infrastructures vanishes? It’s not like the K-Pg asteroid that obliterated vast numbers of species across the planet in a day, 66 million years ago. How might people react when there is a sudden, if not immediately lethal, change in our way of living? Will we devolve to warring tribes? Will we come together for the common good? Some combination? Something else entirely?

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David Koepp – image from his site

This time it is a major solar flare, aka a CME or Coronal Mass Ejection. Which I prefer to think of, because I am twelve, as massive projectile solar vomiting. (Probably had too much to drink at that intergalactic frat party. It likes beer!) We have not seen the likes of such a mass ejection since 1859. (If we do not count the Braves-Padres game of August 12, 1984, when 17 players and coaches were asked to leave, but I digress). When it arrived back then it did not really make that much difference. We were a pre-electrical civilization. Telegraphy had a bad day. A few wires got fried. This and that went wrong. But no big whup, really. This time the solar storm is the same, but the results will be dramatically different. These days we are a species that is reliant on electricity for almost everything. Very big whup this time. The power spike of power spikes. Everything shuts down, or close enough to it.

There are a few scientists who see what is about to happen. They warn the people who need to be warned, or try. Think the film Don’t Look Up, or almost any disaster film. Of course, the reaction of world leaders is not what Koepp is looking at here.

The notion of extraordinary global events that deprive us of power—in ways both literal and figurative—is something I’ve explored in the past. But it was fascinating to shift my focus from the global to the hyperlocal, and the ways in which tiny communities might come together or split apart during hardship. – from the acknowledgments

There was a wonderful series of ads on in 2020 and 2021, for a shingles vaccine. A person would be shown doing something healthful, or telling how they take care of themselves. The sonorous voice-over would interrupt with “Shingles Doesn’t Care,” which was pretty funny, and memorable, getting the advertiser’s message across that people over 50 should get vaccinated. I thought of that while reading this book. No, no one in the book is suffering from that virus-based ailment, but we are reminded over and over that the best laid plans of mice and men…(Actually the original, from the poem To a Mouse by Robert Burns, goes The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley), which we will translate here into the modern patois of Doomsday Doesn’t Care!

There are the usual suspects who insist that the bad thing is never gonna happen, deniers at full volume. (Sadly, these are all too much a mindless, know-nothing, demagogic trope in real life, so no reaching is required.) Why waste precious government resources (which reminds me of precious bodily fluids from another era) on things like girding for a known, expected emergency, when it can be redirected to building walls, jails, ethnic hatred, religious intolerance, and paranoia, or cutting taxes for the richest. Doomsday Doesn’t Care!

Ok, so a very hard rain is gonna fall, and we need some folks to be our eyes and ears through the experience. Aubrey Wheeler is our primary POV. She is 38 and the default parent of her step-son, Scott, 16. Her ex, Rusty, is a disaster, enough so that when he left, Scott opted to remain with Aubrey.

The guy who impressed Aubrey when they met has taken a nose-dive straight to the bottom, drugs, crime, amorality, and a willingness to use anyone to get what he wants. Rusty was a “shit,” used in the classical sense of “waste matter expelled from the body,” because he had been an enormous misuse of her time, resources, and love.

They reside in Aurora, Illinois, a city of nearly 200,000. But within that, a much tinier slice. Cayuga Lane fit the model of what Aubrey had been trying to build since she was little. Ten minutes from downtown, it was short cul-de-sac with six houses, most of them old builds from the 1920s or ‘30s. Small community number one.

How about if you set up a safe house, a place where you can weather the storm, whether it is months or years, lots of supplies on hand, expertise being shipped there as we speak, lots of nice insulating earth between y’all and the incoming energy burst? Someplace out of the way, say, outside Jericho, Utah. Small community number two.

Thom Banning is an obnoxious billionaire tech sort, brilliant in his way, but maybe not the most gifted person on Earth with people skills. He has reconfigured an old missile site as his personal bug-out retreat in the event of a catastrophe like this one. He even figured in all the professional sorts he might like to have at hand for a long time away from everything. Security, power, comms, food, food-prep, transportation, living space, lots of cash. Excellent Boy Scout work. But then there is that people-person chink. He aspires to reconcile with his wife there. Thom is Aubrey’s big brother. I was in NYC when superstorm Sandy set Con Ed’s Manhattan transformers sparking and popping like slow-sequence firecrackers. Prep all you like. Doomsday Doesn’t Care!

There are smaller looks elsewhere. A city area does not fare well. Reports come in from other places, generally not in a very hopeful way. But the how-are-they-faring focus is primarily on Aurora, and Thom’s redoubt. Koepp wanted to write a ground-level, personal perspective to a disastrous global event, while contrasting someone who was uber-prepared with someone who was not prepared at all.

The story alternates between Aubrey, in Aurora, and Thom, et al, in his tricked-out missile silo, living La Dolce Vita relative to most of humanity, with a few breaks to see through other eyes.

The supporting cast is a mixed lot. Rusty is a baddie from the build-a-loser shop. We have to wonder, even though Koepp offers us a paragraph of explanation, how Aubrey did not see through his act way sooner. He is a powerful presence, but pretty much pure id. There is more going on with Scott, the stepson. A young scientist photobombs the story then vanishes until called on for a cameo later on. An elderly scientist offers a nice touch of deep, zen-like appreciation for the wonders of nature, while shedding bits of goodness and optimism like a seed-stage dandelion on a windy day.

The idea of how different communities might respond to disaster certainly offers us the chance to consider how things might develop in our communities. Would our neighbors come together to forge a way forward, or form armed bands to take whatever they wanted?

The relationship between Aubrey and Thom is a connective thread that sustains a tension level throughout. What is the big secret, often hinted at, which binds them? What level of crazy will Rusty reach? How far will he go?

I would have preferred a bit more on the science and details of how a newly power-free world slows to a stop, with discussion about what would be needed to crank things back up. But that’s just me. The story in no way requires this.

Aurora does not break new ground with its local-eyed view of global phenomena, but it works that approach effectively enough. Aubrey is an appealing lead, disorganized, very human, flawed, but very decent at heart, thus someone we can easily root for. Characters do grow (some better, some worse) over the duration, which is what we look for in good writing. You will want to know what happens next, and next, and next, so should keep flipping the pages. There is not a lot of humor here, but still, I caught a few LOLs sprinkled in. It seems to have been written very much for the screen, with a minimum of internal dialogue, and an absence of florid description. Plot is uber alles here, driving the engine forward.

Movie rights have been sold, which is not at all surprising, given the author’s impressive career as a screenwriter and director. Kathryn Bigelow has been signed to direct it for Netflix.

This is a wonderful Summer read, mostly a thriller to keep the juices flowing. Hopefully, it prompts you to give at least some thought to how your community might react when faced with a comparable crisis. High art it ain’t, but it does not intend to be. No Sleeping Beauty here, this Aurora is a page-turner of a thriller and will keep you wide awake while you read.

…last year, things made sense. Last year, you walked into the grocery store, you paid a fair price, and you came out with your dinner. This year, you beg somebody to sell you a week’s worth of groceries for a thousand dollars. ‘if you’re lucky, they say yes, and you eat. If you’re not. They beat you to death, take your money, and they eat.

Review posted – June 24, 2022

Publication date – June 7, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

From his site

David Koepp has written or co-written the screenplays for more than thirty films, including Apartment Zero (1989), Bad Influence (1990), Death Becomes Her (1992), Carlito’s Way (1993), Jurassic Park (1993), The Paper (1994), Mission: Impossible (1996), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), Snake Eyes (1998), Panic Room (2002), Spider-Man (2002), War of the Worlds (2005), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Angels & Demons (2009), and Inferno (2016).
As a director, his work includes the films The Trigger Effect (1996), Stir of Echoes (1999), Secret Window (2004), Ghost Town (2007), Premium Rush (2012), and You Should Have Left (2020). Ghost Town and Premium Rush were co-written with the enigmatic John Kamps.
Koepp’s first novel, Cold Storage, was published by Ecco in 2019, and his new story Yard Work is coming from Audible Originals in July.

Interviews
—–Author Stories – David Koepp – a lot on his experience of writing novels and screenplays rather than about this book in particular. But they do get to Aurora in the final third – audio – 43:20
—–The Nerd Daily – Q&A: David Koepp, Author of ‘Aurora’ by Elise Dumpleton

Items of Interest
—–FEMA – Catastrophic Earthquake Planning – New Madrid Seismic Zone
—– Mid-America Earthquake Center – Civil and Environmental Engineering Department University of Illinois – Impact of Earthquakes on the Central USA
—–Deadline – Kathryn Bigelow To Direct Adaptation Of David Koepp Novel ‘Aurora’ For Netflix
—–Doctor Strangelove – Precious Bodily Fluids

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Filed under Fiction, Science Fiction, Science Fiction

Woman of Light by Kaji Fajardo-Anstine

book cover

The radio smelled of dust and minerals, and in some ways reminded Luz of reading tea leaves. They were similar, weren’t they? She saw images and felt feelings delivered to her through dreams and pictures. Maybe those images rode invisible waves, too? Maybe Luz was born with her own receiver. She laughed, considering how valuable such a thing must be, a radio built into the mind.

Maria Josie insisted Diego and Luz must learn the map, as she called it, and she showed them around first on foot and later by streetcar. She wore good walking shoes, and dressed herself and the children in many layers. It tends to heat up, she had said, another moment, it might hail. The siblings learned to be cautious. It was dangerous to stroll through mostly Anglo neighborhoods, their streetcar routes equally unsafe. There were Klan picnics, car races, cross burnings on the edge of the foothills, flames like tongues licking the canyon walls, hatred reaching into the stars.

There is a lot going on in this novel, so buckle up. Focused on the experiences of 17/18 year-old Luz Lopez–the Woman of Light of the story–in Depression-era Denver, the story alternates between her contemporary travails and the lives of her ancestors. The beginning is very Moses-like, a swaddling Pidre being left by his mother on the banks of an arroyo in The Lost Territory in 1868. We follow Pidre and his children and grandchildren into the 1930s. All have special qualities. Among them, Luz, his granddaughter, reads tea leaves, seeing visions of both past and future. Diego, his grandson, would definitely belong to House Slytherin in a different universe. He tames and performs with rattlesnakes.

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Kali Fajardo-Anstine in the Western History & Genealogy Department of the Denver Public Library – image from 5280 – photo by Caleb Santiago Alvarado

This is a story about stories, how telling them carries on identity, while ignoring them can help erase the culture of a people. Pidre is noted as a talented story-teller, urged, as he is given away, to remember your line. KFA remembers hers, giving a voice to Chicano-Indigenous history.

My ancestors were incredibly hard working, generous, kind, and brilliant Coloradans. But they were also poor and brown and this meant our stories were only elevated within our communities. When I began writing seriously in my early twenties, I was reading books by James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, Edward P. Jones, and Katherine Anne Porter, and many, many others. I saw how these authors shined the spotlight on their people and I also wanted to write work that was incredibly sophisticated that honored my cultural group, making us more visible in the mainstream. – from the Pen America interview

Fajardo-Anstine brings a lot of her family’s history into this novel. Her great-aunt’s name is Lucy Lucero. In addition to the name of our protagonist, a second connection can be found in the name of the stream where Pidre is found, Lucero. An uncle was a snake charmer. An aunt worked in a Denver glass factory, as Luz’s aunt works in a mirror factory in the book. Her family had hidden from KKK, as characters do here. Her Belgian coal-miner father abandoned his family, as Luz and Diego’s father does here.

There is a feel to the book of family stories being told around a table, or in a living room, by elders, passing on what they know to those most recently arrived. Remember these tales, the speaker might say, and in doing so remember where you came from, so you can better know who your people are and ultimately who you are.

As they hopped and skipped in and out of the archway lights, Luz imagined she was jumping between times. She saw herself as a little girl in the Lost Territory with her mother and father walking through snow fields, carrying fresh laundry to the company cabin. Then she saw herself in Hornet Moon with Maria Josie, beside the window to her new city, those few photographs of her parents scattered about the floor, the only remnants of them she had left. She saw herself eating Cream of Wheat for breakfast with Diego in the white-walled kitchen. They were listening to the radio, the summertime heat blowing in from the windows, the mountains far away behind the screen.

The racism that Luz and other confront is not subtle. A public park features a sign

NOTICE
This Park Belongs to WHITE PROTESTANTS
NO GOOKS
SPICS
NIGGERS
Allowed

Luz is denied an opportunity to apply for a job because she is not white. A KKK march has a very pogrom-like, 1921-Tulsa-like feel.

Luz gets a chance to see the range of crimes going on in the city, when she gets a particular job. Sees how the system that is supposed to protect regular folks does anything but. The murder of a Hispanic activist by the police is not just a historical image, but a resonant reminder of police killing of civilians in today’s world, usually with little accountability. The more things change…

There is a magical element in this novel, that, when combined with the multi-generational structure, and richness of language, and, of course, her focus on particular groups of people, makes one think of Louise Erdrich. As to the first, among others, Luz receives visions while reading tea leaves, and at other times as well. An ancestor speaks with the dead. A saintly personage associated with mortality appears in the flesh. People appear who may or may not be physically present.

The ancestry begins with Pidre in 1868, but in his infancy we meet elders who reach back much further.

The generation I knew in real life was born around 1912 and 1918. They would talk about the generation before—their parents, but also their grandparents. That meant I had firsthand knowledge spanning almost two hundred years. When I sat down to think about the novel and the world I was creating, I realized how far back in time I was able to touch just based on the oral tradition. My ancestors went from living a rural lifestyle—moving from town to town in mining camps, and before that living on pueblos and in villages—to being in the city, all within one generation. I found it fascinating that my great-grandma could have grown up with a dirt floor, not going to school, not being literate, and have a son graduate with his master’s degree from Colorado State University. To me, time was like space travel, and so when I decided on the confines of the novel, I knew it had to be the 1860s to 1930s. – from the Catapult interview

Luz is an appealing lead, smart, ambitious, mostly honorable, while beset by the slings and arrows of ethnic discrimination. Like Austen women, she is faced with a world in which, because of her class and ethnicity, making her own way in the world would be very tough without a husband. And, of course, the whole husband thing comes with its own baggage. Of course, the heart wants what it wants and she faces some challenges in how to handle what the world offers her. She does not always make the best choices, a flaw likely to endear her to readers even more than an antiseptic perfection might.

The supporting cast is dazzling, particularly for a book of very modest length (336p hardcover). From a kick-ass 19th century woman sharpshooter, to a civil rights lawyer with conflicting ambitions, from a gay mother-figure charged with raising children not her own to a successful Greek businessman, from Luz’s bff cuz to the men the two teens are drawn to, from an ancient seer to a corrupt politician, from…to…from…to… Fajardo-Astine gives us memorable characters, with color, texture, motivations, edges you can grab onto, elements to remember. It is an impressive group.

And the writing is beautiful. This is the opening:

The night Fertudez Marisol Ortiz rode on horseback to the northern pueblo Pardona, a secluded and modest village, the sky was so filled with stars it seemed they hummed. Thinking this good luck, Fertudez didn’t cry as she left her newborn on the banks of an arroyo, turkey down wrapped around his body, a bear claw fastened to his chest.
“Remember your line,” she whispered, before she mounted her horse and galloped away.
In Pardona, Land of Early Sky, the elder Desiderya Lopez dreamt of stories in her sleep. The fireplace glowed in her clay home as she whistled snores through dirt walls, her breath dissipating into frozen night. She would have slept soundly until daybreak, but the old woman was pulled awake by the sounds of plodding hooves and chirping crickets, the crackling of burnt cedar, an interruption between dawn and day.

Really, after reading that, ya just have to keep on. One of the great strengths of this novel is its powerful use of imagery. There are many references to light, as one would expect. Water figures large, from Pidre’s introduction in the prologue, left by a stream, to our introduction to Luz and her aunt Maria Josie sitting together in Denver, near the banks where the creek and the river met, the city’s liquid center…, to a rescue from a flash flood, to an unborn buried near a river, and more. A bear-claw links generations. This makes for a very rich reading experience.

I felt that the narrative fizzled toward the end, as if, having accomplished the goal of presenting a family and group history, filling a vacuum, there was less need to tidy everything up, a quibble, given that the novel accomplishes its larger aims.

Kaji Fajardo-Astine’s 2019 short-story collection, Sabrina & Corina, made the finals for National Book Award consideration. You do not need to read tea leaves or have visions to see what lies ahead. Woman of Light, a first novel, illuminates that future quite clearly. By focusing a beacon on an under-told tale, Kaji Fajardo-Astine, is certain to have a brilliant career as one of our best novelists.

Celia, Estevan’s sister. Luz listened and watched as she read her own words in her own voice. First in Spanish and then in English. The crowd moved with each syllable, cries of anguish. A lamp unto my feet, a woman yelled behind Luz. A light unto my path.

Review posted – June 17, 2022

Publication date – June 7, 2022

I received a digital ARE of Woman of Light from One World in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Interviews
—–Red – June, 2022 – Q&A: Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s “Woman of Light” with Cory Phare
—–Pen America – 2019 – THE POWER OF STORYTELLING: A PEN TEN INTERVIEW WITH KALI FAJARDO-ANSTINE with Lily Philpott – not specific to this novel, but interesting
—–Catapult – June, 2022 – Kali Fajardo-Anstine Believes Memory Is an Act of Resistance with Jared Jackson

Items of Interest
—–Following the Manito Trail
—–5280 – Inside Denver Author Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s Much Anticipated Debut Novel by Shane Monahan

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Filed under Feminism, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Native Americans

A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons by Kate Khavari

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Dr. Henry glared at Blake and snatched the champagne glass from her hand. “I can pour my wife’s drink well enough, Blake.” He sloshed a dollop of liquid into her glass, refilling what he had just caused to splash out. He smiled obnoxiously at Mrs. Henry as she accepted the glass from him and took a drink.
With a cold smile to her husband, she said, “Thank you, darling.”
Then Mrs. Henry crumpled to the floor and lay quite still.

Saffron Everleigh is Dr Maxwell’s research assistant in London’s University College biology department, the only woman employed there and thus the subject of whispers. Science was making great strides in the post-war world, but 1923 was maybe not the best time to be a young woman trying to build a career in a heretofore male field. It helps that her father was a renowned biologist, but she must face serial sexism and some truly odious individuals in her quest to advance her studies and career. She finds herself facing a very different challenge, though.

…when I taught fifth grade American history, the story of how America developed felt like a story instead of a bunch of names and dates in a book. Writing about the ‘20’s feels the same- so many things were happening as a result of World War One that influenced everyday life. Technology and science were exploding with new discoveries, women were finding their new place in the world, millions were adjusting to horrible new realities of destroyed countries, bodies, and minds, and politics were ever-changing and charged with fear and hope. It’s a fascinating time to write about.

When we meet Saffron, she is enduring a department party at the grand home of a major donor, and meeting-cute the studly, witty, but mysterious Alexander Ashton, who will become her partner in this. Are those sparks igniting between the two of them or maybe just some spores floating in the air? Ashton is a biologist AND a microbiologist, a weird coincidence, as Khavali’s husband just happens to be a biologist AND a microbiologist too.

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Kate Khavari – image from her site

At the party we are introduced via observations and overheard conversations to a series of characters and potential conflicts. We are let on, for many, to just what we should think of them.

Harry Snyder, Dr. Henry’s assistant, was seated on her other side. With small brown eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, and thin lips that emphasized his large, impeccable teeth, he looked rather like a rodent. His demeanor, skittish and reticent, matched his mousy appearance.

Probably not setting Snyder up for a heroic role. The excitement of the party turns out to be the sudden collapse, noted in the introductory quote at the top, of Mrs Henry, wife to Lawrence Henry, the man slated to lead an upcoming expedition to the Amazon. Was it an allergic reaction? Young George Bailey might have a good idea just what caused Mrs Henry’s sudden shift from the vertical.

Saffron becomes concerned that the doltish police are settling on her boss as a possible suspect, deciding that since the authorities can be relied on to get everything wrong, it is up to her to find out what really happened at the party. Thankfully, she has considerable knowledge of things biological so the game is afoot, focusing on a particularly poisonous (and fictional) South American plant that her boss had discovered decades ago.

Everleigh keeps pushing to learn more, gaining help from Ashton in her pursuit. There seems to be a connection between the two, but the sexual tension between them seems to blossom, then wilt, blossom then wilt. We are kept in the dark, and thus guessing, about his role in all this. A prospect or a suspect? Is he a reliable partner, or is he using his appeal like that of a carnivorous cobra plant, not as transparent as he appears? This romantic element crops up from time to time in fawning descriptions of the guy.

The tale is of the cozy mystery sort, not much blood and violence on screen, although there is some very definite peril. The investigation is done by rank amateurs. Usually, there is someone with police expertise to advise, but not so much here. The fun feature of this particular book and, I expect, the planned series, is the introduction of botany as the root of all Saffron’s investigations. The possibilities are vast. We are led to suspect first this one and then that one, while maintaining a short list of likely subjects.

Khavari has some fun with names, (I love this stuff) seeding her cast with a veritable garden of botanical references, some obvious, like Saffron, Inspector Green, and Doctor Aster. Alexander Ashton must certainly reference the tree. I am sure there are more. She also has some fun of a different sort with other character names. Does Doctor Berking’s character reflect the etymology of his name? How about Eris Ermine, a femme fatale sort?

She also brings into the tale a consideration much in the world of this era. The long-lasting, personal impact on those involved in the front lines of World War I.

Much has been written about soldiers experiencing shell-shock, so I wanted to explore a lesser known avenue of symptoms and recovery. Alexander’s recovery from the Great War is complex and isn’t straightforward—few cases are—nor it is over. I will just say that many hours of research and consideration went into developing his symptoms and coping strategies… – from The Book Delight interview

Saffron has to deal with MeToo miseries from the more aggressive, and personal and institutional chauvinism all around, even among some thought more advanced. The toxic nature of academia politics is noted. No antidote is prescribed.

This book is hardly a yuck-fest, but there is still considerable humor and the occasional LOL.

Khavari, who grew up in Wichita, Kansas, keeps her characters on the move, and thus holds our interest. Saffron is a decent sort, working hard in multiple ways to produce good results. She is mostly honest, although suffering a bit from a moral disorder that afflicts so many investigators, a willingness to engage in criminal behavior on the grounds of the-ends-justify-the-means.

Ultimately, though, A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons (which was called Saffron Everleigh and the Lightning Vine earlier in its life. I have no inside intel on why this title was not used, but suspect it was a bit too close for comfort to the Harry Potter book titles format.) is a delightful sapling in the The Saffron Everleigh Mysteries series. Who knows? Maybe you will learn a few tricks for preparing that special drink for that special someone. The second volume, A Botanists’s Guide to Flowers and Fatality is expected to sprout in June 2023. It is something to look forward to. Once you begin spending time with Saffron Everleigh, you will not want to leave.

Her eyes fell on the name of a plant from south-central Mexico, brought back decades ago by Dr. Maxwell. The vine was a sickly yellow color and zigzagged around trees as it grew, clinging tightly to its host. Maxwell had named it the xolotl vine, after the Aztec god of death and lightning, since the growth pattern resembled a fork of lightning and the toxin in its leaves struck as quickly. Saffron had the feeling that Maxwell enjoyed the notorious reputation of his plant, occasionally still telling secondhand stories of people dropping to the ground immediately upon consumption.

Review posted – June 10, 2022

Publication date – June 7, 2022

I received an ARE of A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons from Crooked Lane Books in return for a fair review, and the secret to my special tea. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Interviews
—–The Book Delight – AUTHOR INTERVIEW: KATE AKHTAR-KHAVARI with Jean M. Roberts
—–Wichita Public Library – Read. Return. Repeat. S2E1: The Books are Back in Town – with Sara Dixon and Daniel Pewewardy – video lists as 43 minutes but the KK piece begins at 1:21 and goes to the 28 minute mark

Item of Interest
—–It’s a Wonderful Life – ”It’s poison, I tell ya, poison!”

Item of Interest from the author
—–In her site, Khavari provides A Botanical Index of all the plants referenced in the book

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Suspense