Monthly Archives: July 2022

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.

description
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
—–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

Leave a comment

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.

description
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

Leave a comment

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.

description
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

description
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

Leave a comment

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.

description
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.

description
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

2 Comments

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

Local Gone Missing by Fiona Barton

book cover

…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.

description
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

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Suspense