Aurora by David Koepp

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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

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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

Carolina Moonset by Matt Goldman

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My parents owned dozens of paintings by local artists, but the one in the foyer was the only one that depicted night. And it’s the only painting I remembered from my childhood. It showed the dark marsh in heavy brushstrokes. A sprawling oak in the foreground framed an expanse of reeds. A tidal creek snaked through the reeds. The tide was out, and the creek’s muddy bottom reflected the moonlight. A clump of more oaks in the distance lay dark under the full moon shining above them. And behind those oaks, the dark shadow of an immense home, no light in the windows except for one on the second floor. The marsh is beautiful during the day, changing colors with the angle of the sun. But it’s eerie at night. Too many secrets hiding in its vastness and in its crevices. The sea comes in and the sea goes out. Only it knows what’s hidden in the marsh.

The name of that painting is Carolina Moonset. It always gave him the creeps. Too bad the artist’s signature is smudged.

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Matt Goldman – image from Amazon

Forty-something Joe Green (not mean at all) is visiting Beaufort, South Carolina (lives and works in Chicago) to help mom, Carol, take care of his ailing father. Marshall Green, 75, is a good guy who had passed on having a lucrative medical career to open a free clinic on Chicago’s South Side. When he retired, he returned to his home town. Dad is suffering with Lewy Body Dementia, second most widespread form of dementia, after Alzheimer’s.

My mother sat down next to me and said, “It’s like when a person loses their sight, their hearing improves. Except with Dad, he’s lost his short-term memory, and his long-term memory has improved. He tells stories I’ve never heard before.”

Well, that’s one element. Another is that he sometimes talks to people who are not there, which can be unnerving. One such is long-late friend Trip Patterson, who died very young, under dodgy circumstances. Joey is curious who this guy was and begins looking into some family history.

“Aw, Joey. You were always a good fisherman. Even when you were tiny you were fascinated by what you couldn’t see below the surface. That’s what fishing is all about. Curiosity and the patience to learn.”

Fishing of all sorts will be done. Soon after Joe’s arrival a local bigwig is shot dead in the street. Pops did not have a high opinion of the man or his family.

Those Hammonds are nasty sons a bitches. Every one of ’em. Stole that island from the blacks. When the Union Army came through, they gave black people their own land. Gave ’em a chance. And it worked, too. The people prospered. Until the goddamn Klan took over and redistributed the land.” My father had venom in his voice. “Redistributed the land with guns and knives and ropes and trees. I wouldn’t live on Hammond Island if you paid me a million dollars. Hope a hurricane wipes it off the face of the earth.”

Despite his considerable impairments, Marshall is considered a suspect. Particularly when the gun that did the dark deed sure looks like dad’s old revolver. And when Joey looks for his father’s gun, why is it not the usual place? Did Pop pop Thomas Hammond, whether he remembers doing it or not? Faces from the past re-emerge, whether in person or in memory alone. Questions remains, like what ever happened to Roy Hammond, Thomas’s brother, who vanished under mysterious circumstances? What’s the deal with Thomas’s much younger glam-wife, Gail?

As a forty-something, in town sans kids, Joe is prime matchmaking material for his parents’ set. It seems that their next-door neighbors just happen to have a forty-something divorced daughter, Leela, in town for a holiday visit. The senior circuit angles to get them together. And lo and behold, Joey and Leela hit it off remarkably fast.

I was single in my mid 40’s like Joey, and people in my parents’ generation, including my parents, would often mention single women they knew of. I think some people in that generation are less comfortable with a younger person being single, so they try to play matchmaker. I also wanted Joey to have a partner in his informal investigation—someone in whom he could confide—and adding a romantic element to that felt not only fun but true in that life presents beautiful magic and brutal reality at the same time. And finally, I recently experienced a Joey/Leela like courtship. I met my wife in February of 2018 and we married that same year in October. I wanted to show how a combination of chemistry and life-experience can lead to that kind of relationship in a grounded way. – DAB interview

Joe and Leela team up to see below the surface to what might be swimming in the deeper waters, as they try to land a killer. I found their relationship delightful. And can attest, from personal experience, to the possibility of a quick connection between mid-life divorced/single people. Leads are followed. Murder suspects make their way across the page, along with their theoretical motives. In a book with fishing as an element, there are, of course, red herrings. Bait is employed to good effect. The who and why-dunnit puzzles will keep you casting a line flipping the pages for more.

The story takes place in the present, but there are many references to mid 20th century, when some long-ago crimes are crying out to be solved. At the center of these, the Hammond and Green brothers were young men with diverse world views, and some serious personal conflicts.

In addition to the fun of the mysteries and the investigation, Goldman also offers a look at the racist, classist realities of South Carolina, both the actions that took place in the past and their ripples forward to the present.

GRIPES
The cops are portrayed as soulless dolts, which is common enough in mysteries, but remains a disappointing accession to default settings. There are several mentions of Joey’s sisters, but they manage to remain off screen and out of mind once noted. Why include them at all if they are to serve no role? There are several instances of what seemed trite wisdom being proferred. Here is a sample

as teenagers, girls grow more complicated and difficult and boys more stoic. That is a generalization. A stereotype. But having been a boy who fit the stereotype, I believe stoicism is a mischaracterization of our behavior. We are not more stoic than girls. We are more ashamed. Of our boy-thoughts and risky deeds, mostly revolving around or inspired by sex or at least the idea of sex. That seemingly unattainable nirvana ignited by blossoming bodies and invisible pheromones. That shame sends us underground. Quiets us. Our vortex of shame is so powerful all our thoughts and deeds get sucked into it, so we share nothing.

another

A friend once told me women have face-to-face relationships and men have shoulder-to-shoulder relationships. Men do things like watch football and go fishing.

Ok, it is starting to seem like the Gripes piece is getting large. I do not want to give the impression that I disliked this book at all. In fact, I quite enjoyed it. The gripes are merely what kept me from adding that final star.

There is a lot in Carolina Moonset that is lovely, nice bits of craft that reinforced the steady forward movement of the plot with some meaningful imagery. Paintings, for example, stand out. Not just the strong image of the book-title work. Joe’s uncle David has a painting over his desk and there is a framed work in the Hammond residence that offers some food for thought. Even the word painting is used in other contexts to offer a perspective.

So fear not. Carolina Moonset is a fun mystery with an appealing dynamic duo of amateurs slogging through a marsh of information trying to figure out multiple crimes, one now, others back then, without much help, in fact with only interference from the po-po. The addition of historical/cultural payload makes it even richer. If you reel this one in, pretty soon you will be the one who’s been hooked.

From where I’m sitting, Thomas Hammond’s motto must have been Think Globally, Destroy Locally.

Review posted – June 3, 2022

Publication date – May 31, 2022

I received an EPUB of Carolina Moonset from Forge/Macmillan in return for a fair review, and a lovely mint julep. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

From About the Author
New York Times bestselling author MATT GOLDMAN is a playwright and Emmy Award-winning television writer for Seinfeld, Ellen, and other shows. Goldman has been nominated for the Shamus and Nero Wolfe Awards and is a Lariat Award Winner. He lives in Minnesota with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and whichever children happen to be around.

Interview
—–Donnell Ann Bell – Author Interview with Matt Goldman & Carolina Moonset

Items of Interest from the author
—–Macmillan – excerpt

Songs/Music
—–Fiddler on the Roof – Matchmaker
—– James Taylor – Carolina in My Mind

A personal aside – a tiny bit spoilerish, nut not enough to hide.
I understand that some might scoff at the speed at which Joey and Leela bond with each other. I can relate to the notion of finding the right person on the second-go-round fairly quickly. I was around the same age as Joey, first marriage done, when I encountered the woman who would become my second wife. It was not a matter of days, as with Joey and Leela, but it was quick as such things go. (I did suggest marriage after our second or third in-person date, if memory serves. But that might have had something to do with a good friend of hers having season tickets to the Mets.) When you reach a certain point in life, you have a sense, in fairly short order, of whether a relationship is likely to work out or not, or at least whether it might be possible. Turns out it was. We have now been married for twenty-one years. (as of 2022)`

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Suspense

Friend of the Devil by Stephen Lloyd

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“Your problem,” he told himself as he headed back to the Devil’s Vale, “is that you can’t leave well enough the hell alone.”

“Kid walks in here with a bullet lodged in him, I gotta call the cops. Kid walks in showing obvious signs of abuse, I have to contact a social worker. Kid walks in pregnant, I need to inform the parents. Beyond that, for the most part, I’m supposed to keep my trap shut.”
“Who do you call if a kid walks in pregnant, with a bullet wound, showing signs of abuse?” Sam asked.
“A career counselor,” she said, brushing her hair back, “’cause I’m outta here.

Ok, island off the Massachusetts coast, private school, Danforth Putnam. (Thomas Danforth and Ann Putnam were judge and accuser in the Salem trials). Why a high school?

I still think high school is one of the scariest places there is. It’s a place where human beings, who are barely more than children emotionally and mentally, face calamitous, potentially life-ruining choices, while approaching the height of their physical powers and sexual energy…Boarding school is all that with no parental supervision, which just amplifies its Lord of the Flies quality. – from The Big Thrill interview

Friend of the Devil is an enclosed environment thriller of a familiar sort. Think Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. (the original book had a different, dodgier title) An eleventh century book has gone missing and SATCO Mutual, (we can imagine what the SAT stands for) the insurer on the hook, has sent Sam (for Sam Spade) Gregory to bring it back. Identifying the perp is not all that challenging for our gumshoe, but there is more to the tale than nabbing a thief. What is a prep school doing with such an ancient book? What is the nature of the book? Why was it stolen? The questions mount. Like what happened to that pre-teen who supposedly returned to the mainland to be adopted? Is he really having a better life?

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Stephen Lloyd writing on an impressively retro word processor – image from The Big Thrill – image by Stephen Lloyd

Sam is a fun lead, with military hair, a capacity for violence, PTSD hellfire memories of ‘Nam, and not much else, and a determination to see his job through to completion. And then people begin dying, with a hint of brimstone in the air. Sam takes his licks, getting repeatedly knocked out in a running joke, but keeps on keepin’ on, following leads and doing what he does.

Harriet (the spy) is our student cozy investigator, epileptic, a nerd extraordinaire, black, bullied, and dogged. She gets her licks in by writing exposes in the school paper. If Sam fails to get to the very bottom of all there is, Harriet is sure to find her way there. Their paths can be expected to cross, eventually.

It is 1980. No cell phones. Memory of the Vietnam War is still fresh. Reagan has arrived in a sulfurous chariot to do some lasting damage to the nation. There is a specimen of that breed at the school, who behaves as one might expect, receiving some unwanted insight in return.

The references keep on coming. Mr. Chesterton is named for G.K.. There are plenty more, overt and not. Laura Hershlag is named for the title character of one of the classic noir films. Dr. Spellman is named for a character in Sabrina. There are references to Poe’s The Raven, the Tales of Hoffman and plenty more, a veritable cornucopia for those who enjoy playing literary treasure hunt.

The staff at this school are not the friendliest. Sam interviews Ms. (Annabel? ) Lee, the librarian, whose cat is named for Alistair Crowley.

When she saw Sam, her mouth twisted into a citrus pucker. “May I help you?” she asked in a voice that could freeze pipes.

The students are no prize either. We expect rich kids to be spoiled, but even the scholarship kid is up to no good. One palooka hopes to juice his way into the NFL, while using his considerable physical brawn to dark purposes. Others are not much better.

Ok, so I had a forked reaction to this one. First is that there were multiple LOL moments, including one ROFL. This is a HUUUUUGGE plus. Not at all surprising from one of the main writers and executive producers of How I Met Your Mother and Modern Family. And I loved all the references.

Second, was that it felt lean, to the point of gaunt. Not quite a novel in length, FotD settles in at a more novella-ish 45,000 words, give or take. Supporting cast was mostly of the cardboard cutout variety. Yes, some background is offered, but only enough to make them cast shadows. (Well, assuming that the characters are actually capable of casting shadows) This is a product of Lloyd’s very successful TV career, (four Emmy nominations) in which the clock is always ticking and descriptions and self-reflection are seen as tools of the devil’s workshop. (which may be in Iowa) There is plenty of gruesomeness, but it is handled with a light touch which, I know, sounds like an oxymoron, and maybe it is. There is a fabulous twist, which is always a delight.

Sam Gregory is a fun lead, an investigator with a Chandler-esque, noir sense of humor, and a war-veteran’s issues with sleep. Harriet, honor student in the civilian investigator role, is one of the better cast members. Their perspectives alternate throughout. It moves along at an over-the-limit pace, while building up a body count, and revealing more and more witchy elements.

Bottom line is that this a devilishly (helluva?) fun summer read. You will blaze right through, pausing on occasion to fall out of your seat laughing. Your brain can occupy itself with catching as many references as it can. This is a fast, pure entertainment, with only an occasional side-glance at real-world concerns. You will not risk eternal damnation if you read this one, so long as you keep your inner demons where they belong, but you may hurt yourself laughing.

Review posted – May 27, 2022

Publication date – May 10, 2022

I received an ARE of Friend of the Devil from G.P. Putnam’s Sons in return for a fair review, and the tiniest sliver of a soul. Thanks, folks

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

————————————————–

Lloyd seems interested in writing a sequel, having set this one up to allow for the possibility. I hope he does.

Possible Titles for Volume 2 – Here, I’ll get you started
Dead Lasso
Demon Elementary
Devil Knows Best
Devil-ish
Distant Relation of the Devil
Everybody Loves the Devil
The Fresh Prince of Level Nine
Flight of the Demons
How I Met Your Devil
Kids Say the Most Demonic Things
Married with Demons
The Marvelous Mrs Scratch
Modern Satanic Family
Young Beelzebub

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

From Penguin Random House

Stephen Lloyd is a TV producer and writer, best known as an executive producer of award-winning shows such as “Modern Family” and “How I Met Your Mother.”

Interviews
—–The Crew Review – Stephen Lloyd | Friends of the Devil – 50:42 – by Sean Cameron, Christopher Albanese, Mike Houtz
—–* The Big Thrill – Up Close: Stephen Lloyd by Allison McKnight

Songs/Music
—–The Grateful Dead – Friend of the Devil
—–The Rollingstones – Sympathy for the Devil

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Mystery, Noir, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller

My Wife is Missing by D.J. Palmer

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The devil again, perched upon his shoulder. He knew. The past was something Michael carried with him, even when he forgot it was there. His mind flashed on an image sourced from memory, one of blood and gruesome cuts to a body, of eyes open wide but seeing nothing. It wasn’t over. It would never be over.

Michael and Natalie are at a Times Square hotel with their kids, a short vacay from their life in Boston. When Nat had suggested it, Michael jumped at the chance. Healing was needed, not just for Natalie’s too-persistent insomnia, but for their marriage. She had been sure Michael was having an affair, despite his persistent denials. He is hoping she is ready to try patching things up. She sends him out for pizza for the family at a local emporium, but when he returns the family has vanished like a Manhattan parking spot. He does what one might do, but the detectives show him hotel video of Natalie and the kids making tracks. No alien abduction this time. His wife has done a runner. The question is why?

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D.J. Palmer – image from Amazon

The book follows two characters Michael, as he tries to figure out what is going on, and Natalie in two timelines, before leaving and after, on the run. So three threads to keep straight. Not a challenge.

Secrets abound. Michael has a large one from his past. Natalie has put together a theory, which reflects poorly on Michael and informs her desire to flee. And then there is the murder to consider.

Palmer give us plenty of fodder to munch on. What is that scar on Michael’s arm? Was it really from a bicycle accident when he was a kid? Why does Michael have no family other than Natalie and their kids? Whose long hair was it that Natalie found on his clothes one night? But the Michael we see seems a pretty decent, if flawed, guy, eager to get his family back, and Natalie has some issues. Her insomnia has become severe and persistent. Has her grip on reality suffered from this? Has she become paranoid?

We see in the looks back how Natalie came to think what she thinks. We do not get a lot from Michael’s history side until near the end.

The supporting cast is fun. A detective who is looking into the recent killing attaches himself to Michael when he goes looking for his family. We presume his intentions are less than benign, as he keeps ramping up his questioning. But Michael really wants to find his wife, and the access a detective has to otherwise unavailable resources makes it worth putting up with the guy being fixated on him as Suspect Zero. Natalie has a bff at work. A company investigator from her work spices things up briefly, and a young attractive sort at Natalie’s job passes on through for a while, is exposed to Natalie’s fears, and steps way back.

The tension builds and builds, as we keep hoping to find answers, but when we get them they arrive with a fresh set of questions. The pace sustains at frenetic, and there are severe twists aplenty, which make sense and are satisfying, however jolting.

I was not all that smitten with the leads here. Michael should not have been so secretive with Natalie about his past. And he should have been much more honest about other things as well. Natalie is ragged, which makes her concerns at least somewhat suspect. She may be right or she may be wrong, but it is a bit tough to get fully on board for her. It is possible she is suffering from paranoia., but just because you’re paranoid, that does not mean that they are not really out to get you.

This is only my second book by this author. One thing I preferred about The Perfect Daughter is that there is informational payload in that one about an unusual medical condition. My Wife is Missing is straight up thriller/mystery, payload-free as far as I could tell. It works fine as that, but I do prefer novels that add in some extra, educational material to give them a bit more heft.

This is a perfect beach read. It sustains a page-flipping pace while offering the sorts of twists and turns that make it a fun journey, without demanding to much deep thought. You may go missing for the few hours it will take to read My Wife is Missing, but we know that you are sure to be found.

He couldn’t be in any picture that risked going viral, and certainly couldn’t tell his in-laws why.

Review posted – May 20, 2022

Publication date – May 10, 2022

I received an ARE of My Wife is Missing from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review, and sticking around. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

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

My review of Palmer’s 2021 novel, The Perfect Daughter

Items of Interest from the author
—–Soundcloud – audio excerpt – read by Karissa Vacker – 3:48

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The Last Days of the Dinosaurs by Riley Black

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The disaster goes by different names. Sometimes it’s called the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. For years, it was called the Cretaceous-Tertiary, or K-T, mass extinction that marked the end of the Age of Reptiles and the beginning of the third, Tertiary age of life on Earth. That title was later revised according to the rules of geological arcana to the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction, shorted to K-Pg. But no matter what we call it, the scars in the stone tell the same story. Suddenly, inescapably, life was thrown into a horrible conflagration that reshaped the course of evolution. A chunk of space debris that likely measured more than seven miles across slammed into the planet and kicked off the worst-case scenario for the dinosaurs and all other life on Earth. This was the closest the world has ever come to having its Restart button pressed, a threat so intense that—if not for some fortunate happenstances—it might have returned Earth to a home for single-celled blobs and not much else.

The loss of the dinosaurs was just the tip of the ecological iceberg. Virtually no environment was left untouched by the extinction, an event so severe that the oceans themselves almost reverted to a soup of single-celled organisms.

This is a story about two things, Earth’s Big Bang and evolution. K-Pg (pronounced Kay Pee Gee – maybe think of it as KFC with much bigger bones, where everything is overcooked?) marks the boundary between before and after Earth’s own Big Bang, manifested today by a specific layer of stone in the geologic record.

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Riley with Jet – image from The Museum of the Earth

Ok, yes, I know that the catastrophic crash landing of the bolide, a seven-miles-across piece of galactic detritus, most likely an asteroid, that struck 66.043 million years ago, give or take, was not the biggest bad-parking-job in Earth’s history. An even bigger one hit billions of years ago. It was nearly the size of Mars, and that collision may have been what created our moon. Black makes note of this in the book. But in terms of impact, no single crash-and-boom has had a larger effect on life on planet Earth. Sure, about 3 billion years ago an object between 23 and 36 miles across dropped in on what is now South Africa. There have been others, rocks larger than K-Pg, generating even vaster craters. But what sets the Chicxulub (the Yucatan town near where the vast crater was made, pronounced Chick-sue-lube) event on the apex is its speed and approach, 45 thousand mph, entering at a 45-degree angle. (You wanna see the fastest asteroid ever to hit Earth? Ok. You wanna see it again?) It also helps that the material into which it immersed itself was particularly likely to respond by vaporizing over the entire planet. An excellent choice for maximum destruction of our mother. And of course, its impact on life, animal life having come into being about 800 million years ago, was unparalleled. In the short term, it succeeded in wiping out the large non-avian dinosaurs, your T-Rex sorts, Triceratops grazers, brontosaurian browsers, and a pretty large swath of the planetary flora as well, burning up much of the globe and inviting in a nuclear winter that added a whole other layer of devastation. Aqueous life was not spared. You seen any mososaurs lately? Even tiny organisms were expunged en masse. (Cleanup in aisle everywhere!)

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Image from Facts Just for Kids

Here’s what the Earth looked like just before, just after, and then at increments, a week, a month, a year, and on to a million years post event. It is a common approach in pop science books to personalize the information being presented. Often this takes the form of following a particular scientist for a chapter as she or he talks about or presents the matter under consideration. In The Last Days… Black lets one particular species, usually one individual of that species per chapter, lead the way through the story, telling how it came to be present, how it was impacted by the…um…impact, and what its descendants, if there would be any, might look like. She wants to show why the things that were obliterated came to their sad ends, but also how the things that survived managed to do so.

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Quetzcoatlus – image from Earth Archives

But as fun and enlightening as it is to track the geological and ecological carnage, like an insurance investigator, (T-Rex, sure, covered. But those ammonites? Sorry, Ms. Gaea, that one’s not specified in the contract. I am so sorry.) is only one part of what Riley Black is on about here. She wants to dispel some false ideas about how species take on what we see as environmental slots.

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Mesodma – image from Inverse

Some folks believe that there are set roles in nature, and that the extinction of one actor (probably died as a result of saying that verboten word while performing in The Scottish Play) leads inevitably to the role being filled by another creature (understudy?) As if the demise of T-Rex, for example, meant that some other seven-ton, toothy hunter would just step in. But there is no set cast of roles in nature, each just waiting for Mr, Ms, or Thing Right to step into the job. (Rehearsals are Monday through Saturday 10a to 6p. Don’t be late), pointing out that what survived was largely a matter of luck, of what each species had evolved into by the time of the big event. If the earth is on fire, for example, a small creature has a chance to find underground shelter, whereas a brontosaurus might be able to stick it’s head into the ground, but not much else, and buh-bye bronto when the mega-killer infrared pulse generated by you-know-what sped across the planet turning the Earth into the equivalent of a gigantic deep fryer and making all the exposed creatures and flora decidedly extra-crispy.

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Thescelosaurus – image from Wiki

Black keeps us focused on one particular location, Hell Creek, in Montana, with bits at the ends of every chapter commenting on things going on in other, far-away parts of the world, showing that this change was global. When the impact devastates the entire planet, it makes much less sense to think of the specific landing spot as ground zero. It makes more sense to see it as a planet-wide event, which would make the entire Earth, Planet Zero. It was not the first major planetary extinction, or even the second. But it was the most immediate, with vast numbers of species being exterminated within twenty-four hours.

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Thoracosaurus – image from artstation.com

I do not have any gripes other than wishing that I had had an illustrated copy to review. I do not know what images are in the book. I had to burrow deep underground to find the pix used here. I expect it is beyond the purview of this book, but I could see a companion volume co-written by, maybe, Ed Yong, on how the microbiomes of a select group of creatures evolved over the eons. For, even as the visible bodies of critters across the planet changed over time, so did their micro-biome. What was The Inside Story (please feel free to use that title) on how the vast array of bugs that make us all up changed over the millions of years, as species adapted to a changing macrobiome.

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Purgatorius – image from science News

I love that Riley adds bits from her own life into the discussion, telling about her childhood obsession with dinosaurs, and even telling about the extinctions of a sort in her own life. What glitters throughout the book, like bits of iridium newly uncovered at a dig, is Black’s enthusiasm. She still carries with her the glee and excitement of discovery she had as a kid when she learned about Dinosaurs for the first time. That effervescence makes this book a joy to read, as you learn more and more and more. Black is an ideal pop-science writer, both uber-qualified and experienced in her field, and possessed of a true gift for story-telling.

Also, the appendix is well worth reading for all the extra intel you will gain. Black explains, chapter by chapter, where the hard science ends and where the speculation picks up. Black incorporates into her work a wonderful sense of humor. This is always a huge plus!

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Eoconodon – image from The New York Times

Pull up a rock in the Hell Creek amphitheater. Binoculars might come in handy. An escape vehicle (maybe a TVA time door?) of some sort would be quite useful. Get comfortable and take in the greatest show on Earth (sorry Ringling Brothers) There literally has never been anything quite like it, before or since. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs a joy to read, is one of the best books of the year.

From the time life first originated on our planet over 3.6 billion years ago, it has never been extinguished. Think about that for a moment. Think through all those eons. The changing climates, from hothouse to snowball and back again. Continents swirled and bumped and ground into each other. The great die-offs from too much oxygen, too little oxygen, volcanoes billowing out unimaginable quantities of gas and ash, seas spilling over continents and then drying up, forests growing and dying according to ecological cycles that take millennia, meteorite and asteroid strikes, mountains rising only to be ground down and pushed up anew, oceans replacing floodplains replacing deserts replacing oceans, on and on, every day, for billions of years. And still life endures.

Review posted – May 13, 2022

Publication date – April 26, 2022

I received an ARE of The Last Days of the Dinosaurs from St. Martin’s Press in return for working my ancient, nearly extinct fingers to the bone to write a review that can survive. Thanks, folks.

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

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

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

Profile from Museum of the Earth

Vertebrate Paleontologist & Science Writer
Riley Black is a vertebrate paleontologist and science writer. She is passionate about sharing science with the public and writes about her experiences as a transgender woman in paleontology.

Riley began her science writing career as a Rutgers University undergraduate. She founded her own blog, Laelaps, and later wrote for Scientific American, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, and more. Riley has authored books for fossil enthusiasts of all ages, including Did You See That Dinosaur?, Skeleton Keys, My Beloved Brontosaurus, and Written in Stone.
Riley loves to spend time in the field, searching the Utah landscape for signs of prehistoric life. Her fossil discoveries are in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum of Utah, and the Burpee Museum of Natural History. Riley’s work in the field fuels her writing. She believes doing fieldwork is the best way to learn about paleontology.

In your own words, what is your work about?

“What really holds my work together is the idea that science is a process. Science is not just a body of facts or natural laws. What we find today will be tested against what we uncover tomorrow, and sometimes being wrong is a wonderful thing. I love the fact that the slow and scaly dinosaurs I grew up with are now brightly-colored, feathered creatures that seem a world apart from what we used to think. I believe fossils and dinosaurs provide powerful ways to discuss these ideas, how there is a natural reality we wish to understand with our primate brains. The questions, and why we’re asking them, are more fascinating to me than static answers.”

Interviews
—–IFL Science – IFLScience Interview With Riley Black: The Last Days of the Dinosaurs – video – 15:40 – with Dr. Alfredo Carpineti – There is a particularly lovely bit at the back end of the interview in which Black talks about the inclusion in the book of a very personal element
—–Fossil Friday Chats – “Sifting the Fossil Record” w/ Riley Black” – nothing to do with this book, but totally fascinating

Items of Interest from the author
—–WIRED – articles by the author as Brian Switek
—–Scientific American – articles by the author as Brian Switek
—–Riley’s site – a list of Selected Articles
—–Science Friday – articles by the author
—–Excerpt

Items of Interest
—–Earth Archives – Quetzlcoatlus by Vasika Udurawane and Julio Lacerda
—–NASA – Sentry Program
—–Science Friday – Mortunaria – a filter-feeding plesiosaur
—–Biointeractive – The Day the Mesozoic Died: The Asteroid That Killed the Dinosaurs – on the science that produced our understanding of how the dinosaurs died out – video – 33:50
—–Wiki on the Hell Creek Formation

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Filed under Non-fiction, paleontology, Science and Nature

The Mad Girls of New York by Maya Rodale

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God save Nellie from the ladies’ pages. If a woman was lucky enough to get a job working for a paper—which spared her from working in a factory, or as a domestic or a wife (shudder)—she would have to spend her days writing about household hints and recipes, garden shows and charity luncheons. It was mind-numbingly tedious and she wanted to avoid it at all costs. It was one reason why she had left Pittsburgh.

There is nothing worse than being told that you don’t know your own mind or body. If you aren’t mad when you go in, chances are you will be by the time you come out.

When twenty-three-year-old Nellie Bly headed to New York City in 1887, she left a message for her boss at The Pittsburgh Gazette.

I’m off for New York. Look out for me.
—Nellie Bly

Good advice. It was no easy task for Elizabeth (Elly) Jane Cochrane. Women in journalism were relegated to the “ladies’ page” when they were hired at all. And often had to use pen names to get their work into print. Persistence paid off, though, and Cochrane finally got a gig with The New York World, by promising to go undercover at the New York City Asylum for the Insane on Blackwell’s Island. (called Roosevelt Island today). The notorious institution had already been the subject of multiple journalistic examinations. But it was a tough place to get into, and, as it had changed from a co-ed institution to a women’s asylum in 1872, it would take a female to be able to get inside, one of the downsides to journalism being such a boys’ club. But Nellie’s self-confidence, and courage, knew no bounds, so she dove right in.

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Maya Rodale – image from Open Shelf – photo by Elsa Ngan

The Mad Girls of New York is a novelization of Bly’s actual early adventures in NYC. Some of the characters are taken from Bly’s seminal work, Ten Days in an Asylum, which was comprised of and expanded from the articles she had written for the New York World, a series that made her reputation. She persuaded those who needed persuading that she was mad, in order to be institutionalized as a patient. It was surprisingly easy. Once in, she experienced the horrors inflicted on the patients, although inmates would have been more accurate.

The asylum was a physically cold place, and the residents were provided with painfully inadequate clothing and covers. The food was unspeakable, often insect-ridden, the physical accommodations spartan, the doctors dismissive, the nurses abusive, and the cleanliness regimen was cruel. It did not help that some of the help was recruited from the prison that was also on the island.

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Nellie Bly – image from the Irish Times

We meet several groups of characters. The journalism pack leads off. This includes the editors she interviews during a project on why the papers do not hire women. There is a fair bit of LOL to be had in this as she leaves them spinning and sputtering in their own contradictions. There are the other women journalists with whom she engages, a club of sorts, who help each other out, getting together in an establishment, The Ordinary, that serves women only. Such institutions did exist at the time. She has a competition going with a male reporter, Sam Colton, from Chicago. There is also a simmering attraction between the two, but it is not romancy enough to intrude into the story too much, thankfully. There is also a flirtation with the hunky, single mayor.

When you learn that there was in fact a hot bachelor mayor of New York City named Hugh Grant, you must include it in your novel. – from Rodale’s Twitter feed

Rodale has produced numerous romance novels, (22 by my count, plus some novellas, a children‘s book and a couple of non-fics) so it would have been a shock if there were not some sparks flying in this tale. But if you are hoping for ignition into conflagration, you will have to check out her considerable romance work instead.

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The New York City Asylum for the Insane – image from Wikipedia – cheery-looking, no?

Then there are the patients. Anne is in need of care, but cannot afford decent treatment at a private institution. The Princess has a regal bearing but will only say three words, Rose, Daisy, and Violet, over and over. Tillie has a nervous condition, truly needs some rest, some peace and quiet, in a warm place, but her friends dumped her off at Bellevue (with friends like that…). Prayer Girl, who pleads with god to kill her ASAP, somehow never takes the initiative herself. Women are committed to this place for a variety of reasons, few of them good. Many devolve to a broad category of their being inconvenient, something Martha Mitchell might recognize. Then there is Mrs Grady, the Nurse Ratched of this enterprise, a cruel overseer, super control freak, eager to inflict pain and punishment and never willing to hear any of the real concerns of her charges. Toss in a few cruel cops and attendants, a clueless doctor, and another who at least shows some bits of humanity.

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Newspaper Row in Lower Manhattan. That is City Hall in the foreground on the left. The domed building to the east of City Hall is the New York World Building. The Brooklyn Bridge had not yet been built when this shot was taken, but if it had, it would appear to the north (left) of the World Bldg) – image from Stuff Nobody Cares About

Rodale’s focus is on how women were treated, not just in this horrid institution, but in all institutions of the wider world, using her story-telling skills to show us how women were regarded as a lesser life form, in politics, in journalism, in finance, in the overall world of work, well…paid work. Slaving at home for hubby and progeny was still just fine and dandy. She shows the struggles that smart, driven women had to endure in order to access the same level of opportunity and respect as men, just to be able to cover hard news. Bly was one of a group of women called “Girl Stunt Reporters,” daring women journalists who put themselves in peril in order to delve into many of the social wrongs of the late 19th century.

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Hugh J. Grant two-term NYC Mayor – image from Wikipedia

Rodale spices up the story, as if it needed additional condiments, with a mystery about a high-society spouse gone strangely missing, with the widower chomping at the bit to wed a younger, richer, woman. She incorporates actual historical events and people into the tale, sometimes with name changes, sometimes with tweaking of timelines. Some personages retain their names, including the aforementioned mayor, Hugh Grant, (who did not actually become mayor until 1889, two years after the events of this novel) Hetty Green (The Witch of Wall Street), Harriet Hubbard Ayer, a writer of articles about beauty and health for the New York World, and others.

Despite the harshness of the conditions Bly, and now Rodale, reveal, there is no graphic violence or sexual behavior in The Mad Girls of New York. This helps make it perfectly suitable for younger readers, particularly girls, who may not know about Nellie, and what a pioneer she was. It is a very fluid, quick read.

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Hetty Green – The Witch of Wall Street – image from wiki

The book is listed as A Nellie Bly Novel #1, so we can presume there are more in the works. I do not have any inside intel on this, but I imagine that Nellie’s around-the-world-in-80-days challenge (she did it in 72) will be among the upcomings. Something to look forward to.

Nellie’s story is a remarkable one. Rodale has done a very nice job of letting modern readers in on what Nellie faced as a gutsy, newbie reporter in New York, and what she accomplished, at least in the short term, encouraging us to learn more about this brilliant, dogged, remarkable woman. You’d have to be crazy to pass this one by.

The madhouse had been horrible, but this part—writing it all down with the promise of seeing the atrocities in print, made it feel worthwhile. When she thought of the public reading her words and knowing about the suffering that happened at Blackwell’s, Nellie felt shivers. Do stunts, Marian had flippantly suggested. But Nellie had found her life’s work.

Review posted – May 6, 2022

Publication date – April 26, 2022

I received an ARE of The Mad Girls of New York from Berkley in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating. Can I get a warmer blanket, please?

This review has been cross-posted Goodreads.

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

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

Interview
—–Wine, Women and Words – Nerding out about Nellie with Maya Rodale with Michelle Leivas and Diana Giovinazzo

Item of Interest from the author
—–Lithub – The Real-Life Heroines of an Outrageous Era: A Gilded Age Reading List

My obsession with the Gilded Age began with romance novels—I wanted to set a series in old New York in the world of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom and dollar Princesses, which felt like an updated version of the Regency Era. But in researching the time period I discovered that the best stories weren’t just uptown in Fifth Avenue mansions—they were everywhere. I also discovered that the Gilded Age was a golden age for independent, ambitious, boundary breaking real life heroines.
One of my favorites is Nellie Bly…She was the first and most daring of the stunt girl reporters, who found fame and success by going undercover to report stories that detailed women’s experiences as factory girls, or getting abortions, or learning ballet.

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Nellie Bly
—–Wiki on Hugh J. Grant – NYC’s 88th mayor
—–Wiki on Hetty Green – “The Witch of Wall Street” – Marian goes to see her to get intel on Jay Wallace in chapter 24
—–Wiki on – Harriet Ayer – Nellie’s mentor in the book
—–Library of Congress – Research Guide for Nellie Bly
—–Gutenberg – Ten Days in a Madhouse – the full text
—–Wiki on The Martha Mitchell effect
—–Smithsonian – These Women Reporters Went Undercover to Get the Most Important Scoops of Their Day – an outstanding piece by Kim Todd, author of Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters
—–Wiki on The Ladies Ordinary – a women-only establishment where Nellie meets with other reporters
—–For a real blow to your consciousness, check out this site, for Octagon NYC. This part of the original asylum has been converted, as all things in NYC are, into luxury housing. The prices are insane. (a 540 sq ft studio is $3,028 a month, a 3 BR, 1,316 sq ft goes for $7500 a month)
—–The American Journal of Psychiatry has a brief, but informative, piece – The Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island and the New York Press

Reminds Me Of
—–Leslie Parry’s 2015 novel, Church of Marvels, includes a look at Blackwell’s when one of the characters spends some time inside.
—–One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – the film

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Filed under Feminism, Fiction, Historical Fiction, New York City

The Lonely Stories – edited by Natalie Eve Garrett

book cover

When I invited people, I typically would offer up various prompts. I definitely made it clear from the beginning that I was interested in [pieces] that explored the ways in which alone time can be maddening and isolating and painful, but also pieces that explored the ways in which alone time can be a thrill, or a joy, or something that you crave but can’t access, which I think a lot of people also experienced during the pandemic. There was this simultaneous excess of loneliness and then absence of solitude, which is something I contemplated a lot. I feel like one thing I learned from making the book—but after it had already been printed, of course—is that our longing for solitude is also another kind of loneliness. I think it relates to my experience of the pandemic, and probably a lot of people’s experience of the pandemic. There was so much loneliness, but also the loneliness of not having solitude. Like, I have kids at home, and solitude is something that I crave. It’s like loneliness from oneself. A lack of connection to yourself. – from the CityLit interview

We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone. – Orson Welles

Welles was wrong. No one is born alone. We all emerge from mothers. Even so-called “test-tube” babies gestate in and emerge from a woman. Dying alone is a lot easier to manage, particularly when the passing occurs away from medical care. But, for most of us, even in the age of COVID, there are people likely to be in attendance, even if they are not necessarily the people one might have preferred. We are social creatures from birth. That said, I do take Welles’ point that we are isolated bits of consciousness trapped inside a meat sack.

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Natalie Eve Garrett – image from her site

We are the only true witnesses to our lives, present for every moment, every experience, every feeling. Even our closest friend(s), lover(s), shrink(s) or interrogator(s) can only know a sliver of the totality of us. So what? Is this something we require? Does this mean that we are doomed to aloneness forever? The best we can do to share that self with others is to select subsets, parts of ourselves, immediate needs, likes, reactions, interests, artistic expressions, and feelings to share, to connect our solo consciousness with the greater humanity within which we live, to demand responses, connections back, human links. What if that desirable steady-state of exchange is disrupted, or never settles in at all, for reasons internal or external? CAN ANYONE OUT THERE HEAR ME?

But we do have ways of connecting. Communication, if we can muster that. Words, gestures touch, other non-verbal modalities. We are largely telepaths, communicating our consciousness to others through the magic of sight and sound. No station-to station hard wires required. And yet, even given this miracle within us, we can, and often do, experience (suffer from) loneliness. Is loneliness a failure of communication, a reaction to external stimuli (rejection), a mechanism, like pain, that tells us that something needs attending to, or something else entirely? Maybe being lonely is just a garden variety human feeling that we all have from time to time, but that some have in dangerous abundance, in a way like cell growth and replication, which is desirable, versus out-of-control cell growth, which is cancer.

In The Lonely Stories, editor Natalie Eve Garrett has called together twenty-two writers of note for their lonely stories, memoir items, not fiction. The quote at top tells us that she was interested in looking at a few things; alone time as burden, blessing, or out of reach, longing for solitude, and feeling isolated in our lives among others. We learn more in that CityLit interview:

Even though it’s called The Lonely Stories, I definitely wanted it to encompass facets and permutations of being alone, including joy in solitude, how solitude can be replenishing and healing. So it felt like maybe sometimes I nudged things more in one direction or another and it was really important to me that the book tease out the distinction between the two, because loneliness is being defined as a lack, whereas solitude is kind of the art of feeling at home with oneself. There’s a quote for me that a friend reminded me of, that loneliness is a poverty of self and solitude is a richness of self. I feel that really nicely addresses the paradox of how being alone can be both maddening and joyful.

The tales told here cover a range. All of these stories, none longer than eighteen pages, present complexity. No simple woe is me, I’m feeling bad, will be found here. Sure, there is a bit of surviving the breakup of relationships, licking wounds, but there are universal concerns, at the very least concerns that very many of us share.

Megan Giddings writes about self-empowerment, allowing herself to function, to survive when alone, whether in a hostile social world or a physically perilous situation. Several writers tell of feeling isolated, lonely and alone in relationships. Imani Perry writes of the singular loneliness of the hospital room, and of how many of those offering help do so out of social obligation, without substantive intent or understanding. Maggie Shipstead writes of the up and down sides to experiencing the beauty of nature while alone. ( The natural beauty I saw while walking my dog—the frozen ponds and snowy beaches, the tender pale sunsets over whitecapped ocean—sometimes felt irrelevant, even discouraging, without anyone else to stand there with me and say something like, Wow, so pretty) She and others write about the joys of being alone. Sometimes coping with loneliness requires some creativity. One writer tells of concocting imaginary helpers to beat back the night. COVID figures in some stories, one in a particularly dramatic way. Of course, one can choose to be alone and find that it is not quite what one had hoped for. Lev Grossman’s story of setting out to make his fortune as a writer was hilarious, and hit very close to home. ( I can’t overstate how little I knew about myself at twenty-two or how little I’d thought about what I was doing.) Of course choosing to be alone works out just fine for Helena Fitzgerald and Melissa Febos. A question is raised; Can succeeding at aloneness spoil you for togetherness?

There are stories that will make you weep, stories that will make you laugh out loud, stories that will make you think, and stories that will make you feel. There are stories that deal with racism, alcoholism, marriage, rejection by one’s only parent, the loss of one’s parents to age and/or dementia. Three writers tell of the experience of immigration, one of multiple immigrations, and how being the outsider can stoke the engines of loneliness to a high intensity.
One of the most powerful pieces here is Yiyun Li’s story of public and private language. (Loneliness is the inability to speak with another in one’s private language. ) Anthony Doerr goes from a consideration of his on-line addiction to a concern about whether he actually exists at all. We think of writing as a solitary undertaking, yet some of the stories here point to writing as a way to create connections with other people.

One take on dream interpretation is that every person, every character in a dream is some manifestation of yourself. The experience of reading The Lonely Stories was a bit like that for me. In so many of the tales I could see myself in the experience of the story-tellers. I imagine that will be the case for many of you as well.

An aspect of this book that was, and probably should not have been surprising, (given the quality of the writers. Really good writing often has this effect.) was that I felt prompted to recall personal memories of loneliness, and it took some effort to turn that spigot off after only a dozen. I could have easily made this review a platform for my lonely stories, which would have been a disservice. (What if I alternate one of mine with one of theirs? went my inner gremlins. Wisdom won out. You have been spared.) It is the sort of book that would serve well as a springboard for a writing class. Everyone has felt lonely, if not all the time, then in some particular moments or parts of our lives. How about you tell of a time when you were lonely? The tales here will prompt you to think about a time, or many times when experiences, when feelings you had might fit quite nicely into a collection like this.

One thing I wished for was more of a look at definitions, where loneliness ends and being alone begins, for example. Where is the line between solitude and isolation? Where does the need to communicate run into a need for privacy? A three-dimension spectrum of solitude (not to be confused with the Fortress of Solitude) might be an interesting way to visualize aloneness, with the X-axis reflecting the degree of solitude, measured, I guess, in interactions per day in person or via comms, the Y-Axis indicating how much personal choice is involved (probably not much for a prisoner, some, for most people, more for a single person of means) and the Z-axis reflecting how a person feels about their XY intersection, with end-points at going insane and I’m good. Add color if a fourth dimension is needed. But maybe that would be in a psychology book, and not a memoir collection, so fine, whatever. There was an opportunity missed here in the selection of writers. Loneliness is a particular factor with older people, yet the oldest (that I could determine from simple Google searching) contributor is 60. Not a single fully vested Social Security recipient in the bunch, at least as far as I could tell.

Bottom line is that, while the title of this book may suggest it could be a downer, The Lonely Stories is anything but. It not only connects on an emotional level, but offers a wide range of insight into the human condition. You will laugh and cry, and maybe feel prompted to consider loneliness, or lonely times in your own experience. One thing is for certain. However you react to this book, you will not be alone in that reaction.

It’s the worst loneliness, I think, the loneliness we feel among those we feel we should be most like. Our tribe turns out not to be quite our tribe.

Review posted – April 29, 2022

Publication date – April 19, 2022

I received an ARE of The Lonely Stories from Counterpoint in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks. I felt less alone while reading the book and writing about it.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Interviews
—–Catapult – Natalie Eve Garrett Wants Us to Feel Loneliness Without Shame by Tajja Isen
—–CityLit Project – Navigating Solitude with Kristen Radtke, Natalie Eve Garrett, & Nguyen Koi Nguyen

Songs/Music
—–Roy Orbison – Only the Lonely
—–Paul Anka – I’m Just a lonely Boy
—–B.J. Thomas – I’m So lonely I Could Die
—–Charlie Haden – Lonely Town
—–Bobby Vinton – Mr. Lonely
—–Yes – Owner of a Lonely Heart
—–Gilbert o’Sullivan – Alone Again
—–Carousel (the film) – Rogers & Hammerstein – Claramae Turner – You’ll Never Walk Alone
—–Les Miserables – Lea Salonga (concert performance) – On My Own

Items of Interest
—–Garbo – ”I want to be alone”
—–Roots of Loneliness – Solitude Vs. Loneliness: How To Be Alone Without Feeling Lonely by Saprina Panday
—–The
loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
by Alan Sillitoe – complete text
—– Frontiers in genetics – Long-Term Impact of Social Isolation and Molecular Underpinnings

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

book cover

I had a hand in breaking all of this. I had to have a hand in fixing it.

When does helping become controlling? When does loving become smothering? When does zeal become interference? How does one do what one knows is best without crossing the line? Civil Townsend, a 23-year-old nurse in the Montgomery Alabama of 1973 has to figure all that out. Working for a federally funded family planning clinic, Civil is one of several nurses responsible for administering Depo-Provera shots to young women patients. The Williams family is her first case. They live in a cabin that is little more than a shack on a farmer’s property, Mace, the father, Mrs Williams, his mother, and two girls, Erica and India. Civil does her job, but after having administered the shots learns that neither eleven-year-old India nor thirteen-year-old Erika has had her first period. In fact, neither of the girls has even kissed a boy yet. So why are they receiving birth-control shots? She learns as well that there are questions about the safety of the shots, which had been found to cause cancer in test animals. She starts looking into what might be done about this.

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Dolen Perkins-Valdez – image from American University

Civil has the hard-charging enthusiasm of a rookie, eager to do all in her power to help those in need. Her background is nothing like that of her patients. Her father is a doctor, and her mother an artist. They raised her to do good, even named her for their aspirations of achieving civil rights for black people.

Civil learns how hard it is to go up against authority
She is complicated. She does not always do the right thing. She stumbles in her zeal.
– from the Politics and Prose interview

Civil does everything she can to help the family, gets them some public services, a decent place to live, schooling. And she has an impact, but, on a day when Civil is not working, the head nurse at the clinic tricks the family into signing papers agreeing to the girls’ sterilization. Civil’s alarm turns to rage, and then to fighting for change, so this outrage can never happen again to other unsuspecting girls and young women.

It is 1973, only a year since the infamous, forty-years-long Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was finally shut down. In that one, hundreds of black men were supposedly being treated for syphilis, but in fact no one was being treated. Of the four hundred who were diagnosed with the disease, one hundred died of syphilis directly or complications from the disease. Dozens of wives were infected, and children were born already afflicted. All this, to see how syphilis ran its course in the untreated.

Civil’s activity gets a lawsuit started locally. But soon a young civil rights lawyer, Lou Feldman, is brought in. He transforms it into a national cause célèbre, as the case shifts from looking at the individual harm done to the Williams family to the national disgrace of the forced sterilization of tens thousands.

Our research reveals that over the past few years, nearly one hundred fifty thousand low-income women from all over the nation have been sterilized under federally funded programs.

He wants the laws changed, to end this practice. It is a huge concern for the Black community, but the novel makes clear that there were other groups who were victimized by this heinous practice.

The story take place in two, very unequal timelines. The frame is Civil at sixty-seven, a doctor in 2016, returning to Montgomery after a long absence to see the Williams girls. India is dying. This offers us an ongoing where-are-they-now report. The bulk of the novel takes place in 1973 and immediately after.

Civil struggles with her guilt over having played a part in this horror. It is clear that the notions that had supported legislators allowing such things were not entirely unfamiliar. Civil talks with Lou about the history of eugenics.

“So the idea was what . . . to stop us from having children because we were inferior?” I whispered.
“Well, the ideas were often aimed at specific populations that included Black people, yes. But also the poor, the mentally retarded, the disabled, the insane…” Mrs. Seager probably put the girls in three of these misguided categories: poor, Black, and mentally unfit. Had I done the same? I had initially deemed the girls unfit to be mothers, too. Because they were poor and Black. Because they were young. Because they were illiterate. My head spun with shame.
“Did they target poor white folks, too?” Ty asked.
Lou nodded. “Back in 1927, the US Supreme Court ruled that compulsory sterilization of people deemed unfit was constitutional. People in asylums all over this country were sterilized.”

Perkins-Valdez offers a most welcome maturity of perspective. Lou, a young, white lawyer, is viewed with suspicion to begin, but earns the community’s trust with his dedication, brilliance, grueling work habits, and effectiveness. He is lauded as a hero, while Mrs Seager, the head nurse, is shown as a flawed person who, though she was doing something terrible, thought she was doing the right thing. Characters take or avoid difficult decisions for understandable reasons. Even a black Tuskegee librarian whom Civil admires has a hard time understanding how she did not see what was going on right under her nose. There is very little good vs evil going on here in the character portrayals, only in the broader horror of a dark-hearted, racist and classist policy.

One of the many joys of the book is the portrayal of a time and place. There are details that add to the touch and feel.

The first thing that hit me was the odor. Urine. Body funk. Dog. All mixed with the stench of something salty stewing in a pot. A one-room house encased in rotted boards. A single window with a piece of sheet hanging over it. It was dark except for the sun streaming through the screen door and peeking through the holes in the walls. As my eyes adjusted, I saw that there were clothes piled on the bed, as if somebody had stopped by and dumped them. Pots, pans, and shoes lay strewn about on the dirt floor. Flies buzzed and circled the air. Four people lived in one room, and there wasn’t enough space. A lot of people in Montgomery didn’t have running water, but this went beyond that. I had to fight back vomit.

Some are more cultural, like the perceptions middle class black people in Montgomery had of poor black people, and the less fraught parallel football culture in which Alabama vs Auburn, followed by white people, is replaced for the black population with Alabama A&M vs Alabama State. News to me. We also get a taste of the segregation of the time, how bathroom accessibility while on the road could be problematic for those of the wrong skin color, how a beach that used to be open to all, and featured black-owned businesses, now required one to pay a park ranger and display a piece of paper on your car, the businesses now long gone.

The case on which Perkins-Valdez based her novel was a real one, Relf vs Weinberger, filed in July, 1973 in Washington D.C. by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Joseph Levin, one of the Center’s founders, was the young lawyer who prosecuted the case.

Mary Alice was 14 and Minnie was 12 when they became victims of the abusive practice of sterilizing poor, black women in the South. Their mother, who had very little education and was illiterate, signed an “X” on a piece of paper, expecting her daughters, who were both mentally disabled, would be given birth control shots. Instead, the young women were surgically sterilized and robbed of their right to ever bear children of their own. – from the SPLC

The story ultimately is about the horror of forced sterilization on poor black people and other classes deemed unfit to breed. You will learn a lot about a crime against humanity that was perpetrated by our own government, and the story of how this injustice was fought. But if the story does not engage, you may not get the benefit of the new knowledge it delivers. Thankfully, there need be no concern on that score. While we may echo the commentary of others to Civil that she did not bear any responsibility for what was done, that her guilt was helping no one, here is a very full-bodied portrait, of a flawed character. One who makes mistakes. A young person who has not yet learned when to push forward, when to take a step back. We see her learning this and can applaud when she takes steps in the proper direction. We also get to see the difficult family dynamic she must negotiate with her own parents, the burden of expectation that has been fitted to her broad shoulders, and the challenge of loving the Williams family, but not too much. And we have a front row seat to her relationships, her struggles, with friends and colleagues.

Take My Hand is a wonderful addition to the Perkins-Valdez oeuvre, begun with her outstanding 2009 novel, Wench, and followed by Balm in 2015. She has a fourth in the works, due to her publisher in October 2022, set in early 1900s North Carolina. So maybe a 2023 release?

A helping hand is often that, kindly meant, but maybe, sometimes, before you put your hand in another’s, you might want to know where it has been, and where it might be taking you. If the hand is attached to Dolen Perklins-Valdez, grasp it and hold on. It will take you somewhere wonderful.

I had never known that good intentions could be just as destructive as bad ones.

Review posted – April 22, 2022

Publication date – April 12, 2022

I received an ARE of Take my Hand from Berkley in return for a fair review. Thanks to Elisha K., and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Profile – from Simon & Schuster (mostly) and her site

Dolen Perkins-Valdez, PhD, is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Wench. In 2011, she was a finalist for two NAACP Image Awards and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for fiction. She was also awarded the First Novelist Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Dr. Perkins-Valdez taught in the Stonecoast (Maine) MFA program and lives in Washington, DC, with her family. She is currently Chair of the Board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, and is Associate Professor in the Literature Department at American University.

Interviews
—–Publishers Weekly – Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s ‘Take My Hand’ Reaches for Hard Truths by Jen Doll

there was something about the Relf sisters she kept coming back to. “The thing that struck me about it was that, even though they’re only really mentioned in passing whenever we talk about this, it was a big deal at the time,” she says. The sisters’ ordeal was heavily covered in the press, and they appeared before a Senate subcommittee led by Sen. Ted Kennedy. “There were so many parts of it, to me, that felt absolutely remarkable. I think some people had heard a little bit about it, but they didn’t know enough. I wanted people to know enough.”

—–Politics and Prose bookstore – Dolen Perkins-Valdez — Take My Hand – in conversation with Victoria Christopher Murray
The sound level is uneven, which often makes it difficult to hear. But if you have a sound system the Q/A kicks in

My review of earlier work by the author
—–2010 – Wench

Songs/Music
—– Booker T. and the M.G.s – Behave Yourself – chapter 14
—–Mahalia Jackson – Precious Lord Take My Hand – the epigraph notes MLK requesting this be played on his final day
—–Stevie Wonder – You Are the Sunshine of My Life – chapter 20

Items of Interest
—–Eunice Rivers – re the Tuskegee syphilis experiment
—–Mayo Clinic – Depo-Provera

Depo-Provera is a well-known brand name for medroxyprogesterone acetate, a contraceptive injection that contains the hormone progestin. Depo-Provera is given as an injection every three months. Depo-Provera typically suppresses ovulation, keeping your ovaries from releasing an egg. It also thickens cervical mucus to keep sperm from reaching the egg.

—– Mississippi Appendectomy
—–Southern Poverty Law Center – RELF V. WEINBERGER – the real-world case on which the novel is based
—–Wiki on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

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Filed under American history, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Public Health