Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Journalism’ Category

Of all the rumors swirling around Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird over the years, the idea that Truman Capote was the book’s real author always bothered me the most. Sure, he was Scout’s pal Dill in the story, but it was always Lee’s story to tell, and anyone who knew anything about Lee and Capote’s friendship and writing styles knew it. What many may not know is that after Lee helped Capote research the Kansas murder that became In Cold Blood, she tried writing her own true crime book. As journalist Casey Cep recounts in her non-fiction page-turner Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Knopf, digital galley), Lee thought she’d found her subject in September 1977, when she sat unrecognized in a small-town Alabama courtroom similar to the one she described in Mockingbird, drawn there by a case involving multiple murders, insurance fraud, vigilante justice and rumors of voodoo.

“The defendant was black, but the lawyers were white, and so were the judge and the jury. The charge was murder in the first degree. . . The mystery in the courtroom that day was what would happen to the man who shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell. But for decades after the verdict, the mystery was what became of Harper Lee’s book.”

Journalist Cep proves a natural storyteller as she excavates both mysteries, mining details on Alabama history, geography and politics in the process. The first part of the book chronicles the story of “The Reverend”  (Lee’s title for the project), who held insurance policies on many of his relatives, five of whom turned up dead in mysterious circumstances. Often suspected and accused of murder, Maxwell was never convicted. He was the prime suspect in his stepdaughter’s murder, but at her funeral a relative took out a gun and shot him three times in the head. Maxwell’s former defense attorney, having just lost his best client, then volunteered to defend his killer. This lawyer, Tom Radney, a progressive Democrat, chose to argue that his new client was not guilty by reason of insanity.

No wonder Lee saw the makings of a book, and she struggled for years to write it, either as fact or possibly even fiction. Cep, who has written about Lee for The New Yorker, provides a well-researched portrait of a complicated, private woman who was close to her family and a small circle of friends but who often felt like an outsider in her hometown, at college and in law school (she dropped out with a semester to go), and in Manhattan, where she wrote Mockingbird and its predecessor, Go Set a Watchman. The facts may be familiar, but Lee had many facets that Cep illuminates in engaging fashion. Overall, it’s a sympathetic rendering of the issues she faced at various times, including  writer’s block, alcohol, fame, the death of family members and of Truman Capote.

It’s possible that Lee wrote and discarded some semblance of a manuscript, or maybe even kept it, but no pages have been found beyond Lee’s original research and notes. But don’t think of Furious Hours as the next best thing. It stands on its own as a involving story and fascinating literary mystery.

 

 

Read Full Post »

palmettodoveThis was going to be a different post when I started writing it last week. It was called “Summer Lowdown,” and it was about how I was homesick for the South Carolina Lowcountry — family, friends, food — after reading four beach books set in my favorite part of the world. But that was before nine people were shot in a downtown Charleston church, leaving me heartsick that such a hate crime could happen in this day and age in the United States, especially in a city I hold dear.

Many people have written many things about Charleston in the week since the tragedy, and I’ve read news accounts, blog posts, editorials and essays in an attempt at understanding. I’ve heard the powerful words of forgiveness from the victims’ families. I’ve talked with friends who are as surprised and saddened as I am about the ignorance and racial antagonism still showing up on social media. I grew up in the Carolinas and have lived in the South most of my life. My grandmother told me how her mother remembered being a child and her daddy — my great-great grandfather — coming home from the Civil War, walking down the dirt road to their lowcountry farm. I went to college with classmates who had Confederate flag beach towels.

I’m not posting the reviews of the four books today. They’re all good escapist fiction, and I’ll wrap them up with other summer reading picks in the weeks ahead. But if you want something good to read and think about, I’ll make two recommendations. One is something Josephine Humphreys wrote about growing up in the segregated South and posted to Facebook last night. You can use this link to where I shared it on my timeline: Charleston

Humphreys writes about what changed her. To Kill a Mockingbird started the change in me. My aunt gave me Harper Lee’s novel when I was in the fifth grade, and it’s been a favorite ever since, read so many times I know passages by heart. I was planning on a reread before Go Set a Watchman comes out next month. I think I’ll start now.

 

 

Read Full Post »

kimcrossKim Cross made me cry. Or rather her book did. What Stands in a Storm (Atria Books, digital galley) is subtitled “Three Days in the Worst Superstorm to Hit the South’s Tornado Alley,” but I read it in hours, gripped from the very beginning:

“3:44 p.m., Wednesday, April 27, 2011 — Smithville, Mississippi

Patti Parker watched the dark funnel grow until it filled the whole windshield, blackening the sky. Its two-hundred-mile-per-hour winds were furious enough to blast the bark off trees, suck the nails out of a two-by-four, and peel a road right off the earth, and it was charging at sixty miles per hour toward everything she loved most in the world — her children, her husband, their home. She was racing behind the massive storm, down the seven-mile stretch of rural highway between her and the life she knew.”

My tears came later, when after reading through part one, “The Storm,”  I found out what happened to everyone in parts two and three — “The Aftermath” and “The Recovery.” By everyone I mean the people huddled in basements and bathtubs, the seasoned meteorologists who saw the storms coming, the college students crouched in stairwells, the dispatcher who stayed at her post, the motel clerk with the friendly smile, the stormchasers trying to decide to turn left or right, the passengers in the cars and the drivers of the semis beneath the highway overpasses, the staff at the threatened hospitals, the firefighters with the flattened trucks. As Rick Bragg notes in his introduction, Cross puts the human face on the drama and makes the numbers real: the 358 tornadoes that ripped through 21 states in three days, seven hours, eighteen minutes; 348 people killed, $11 billion in damage.

Now an editor-at-large at Southern Living and a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Cross is a superb reporter who cloaks the tick-tock frame with a specificity of detail and imagery. The ugly greenish sky is “the color of fear,” a family collapses in a huddle of “elbows and tears.” Trucks cartwheel through whipping debris and crumple like soda cans. “At the Wrangler plant, a flock of blue jeans launched into flight, flapping like denim birds.”

The response and reaction is heart-wrenching and heart-warming. Phones ring in the terrible silence. Neighbors help neighbors and strangers. Volunteers serve plate after plate of soul food. A wedding goes on without the maid of honor. A memory quilt is found because of a Facebook posting. A father with “kind, sad” eyes sits for five days next to the slab of the apartment building that buried his college student son. A trained black German shepherd named Cinco and a honey-colored retriever mix named Chance help find the body. People from all over send clothes, supplies, cash. “Japan sent Alabama eight thousand blankets, a thank-you gift for all the help Americans had sent in the wake of the March tsunami.”

These days it seems that natural disasters strike all too frequently: an earthquake in Mexico, a tsunami in Japan, a hurricane in the South Pacific, forest fires and mudslides and tornadoes. It’s possible that you might not be able to separate the Tuscaloosa tornado from the storm that struck Joplin, Missouri, in May of that year, or the one that hit Moore, Oklahoma, in May 2013. There’s a forthcoming book by Holly Bailey about the Moore tornado, The Mercy of the Sky. I’m going to read that one, too.

Tornadoes scare me because they are so random and indiscriminate. What Stands in a Storm brings that home with a terrible immediacy. I was going to back into this post, begin with the years I spent in Kansas and tell you how funnel clouds still haunt my dreams. I was going to tell you about how I can look at a cloud bank like a bruise on the horizon and predict the sirens going off, about hunkering down and hoping and praying. But my experiences are puny compared to those I read about in What Stands in a Storm. What a powerful and poignant book. You might cry, too.         (more…)

Read Full Post »

lovestoryHypothermia as murder weapon. Young Cardiff detective Fiona Griffiths almost gets iced in Love Story, with Murders (Random House, digital galley), Harry Bingham’s crafty follow-up to Talking to the Dead, one of my favorite crime novels from last year. This procedural is more complex as narrator Fiona details her part in investigating two grisly murders, dubbed “Operation Stir-fry” by her colleagues (although not within hearing of frosty DCI Rhiannon Watkins).  Soon after Fiona discovers well-preserved bits and pieces of university student Mary Langton, missing for five years, very fresh parts of engineering lecturer Ali-el Khalifi begin turning up. Fiona helps the other detectives look for links between the victims, even as she spies a connection to an inept drug smuggler and a local business with foreign contacts.

But that’s only half of it. Bingham’s quite the plotter, but it’s Fiona, who describes herself as the “more-than-slightly crazy daughter of one of Wale’s best-known criminals,” who really keeps things interesting. As a teenager, she spent two years wrestling with a rare mental illness that made her think she was dead. Ten years on, she struggles to be “normal” — fixing dinner for her boyfriend, going shopping with her younger sister — but she still has an affinity for the dead, sometimes uncertain of reality. She also is continuing to look into her own past; she was abandoned as a toddler in a parked Jaguar belonging to the man who adopted her. And yes, she knows he was once a crime boss, arrested several times but never convicted. Digging into her past means digging up his. To be continued, thank goodness.

northofPirio Kasparov makes for another unconventional sleuth and narrator in Elisabeth Elo’s chilly North of Boston (Pamela Dorman/Viking). Pirio, heir to a high-end perfume business started by her Russian immigrant parents, has become known as “the swimmer” after surviving several hours in the icy Atlantic after her friend Ned’s lobster boat is run over by a freighter. Ned is presumed drowned, and it’s such a wonder that Pirio didn’t die that the Navy recruits her for research on surviving extreme cold. Meanwhile, Pirio has suspicions that the collision was no accident, and an investigative reporter has similar ideas. He’s been asking questions of  Ned’s fishing buddies at the company Ocean Catch, as well as Pirio’s  alcoholic friend Thomasina, who has a young son with Ned. Soon Pirio goes to sea again on a giant fishing trawler, and the story morphs into a suspenseful environmental thriller in Canada’s Baffin Bay. Battling bad guys and the elements, Pirio also discovers family secrets on an island remembered from childhood.

leavingWilliam Shaw’s keenly observed She’s Leaving Home (Little, Brown, digital galley) takes its title from a Beatles song, which is apropos considering its setting, 1968 swinging London. Detective sergeant Cathal “Paddy” Breen is bemused: “It was as if some kind of coup had taken place. The young and the beautiful had seized power. They had their own TV programs, their own radio stations, their own shops, their own language. In his early thirties, Breen felt cheated. Jealous even.”

Probationary constable Helen Tozer, 10 years younger, is Breen’s brash opposite, but the two are reluctantly paired  investigating the murder of an unidentified young woman near Abbey Road and the Beatles’ recording studio. The two question the neighborhood’s residents, including a nosy shrew, an elderly widower and an African surgeon, as well as the Beatles groupies hanging around for a glimpse of George or Paul. Tozer is a George-girl and surprises stolid Breen with her pop culture knowledge. Still, their search eventually takes them to Devon and Cornwall to find out why the dead girl left home and clues to her killer.

whitelie

Andrea Gillies’ first novel The White Lie (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley) is both a country-house saga and literary mystery, perfect for fans of Gosford Park. Michael Salter is 19 when he vanishes from the family estate in the Scottish highlands. His young aunt Ursula, emotionally stunted since a childhood tragedy, claims she has drowned Michael in the loch, but the family closes ranks, telling the villagers that fatherless Michael has merely gone away. Why the white lie? Perhaps because “the family has had more than its share of disasters, of premature deaths, one generation after another, such that people quite routinely refer to the power of the Salter curse.”

By the way, that’s Michael talking, or rather his ghost, 14 years after the incident at the loch. Able to review his past as well as “cinematic visitations” of other relatives’ memories before he was born, Michael makes for a beguiling narrator as he moves back and forth in time delving into the Salters’ secret history. Trust me. It works because Gillies writes beautifully, with elegant confidence.

hardgoingHard to believe, but Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ Hard Going (Severn House, digital galley) is the 16th entry in her estimable procedural series featuring London police detective Bill Slider. Seems like only yesterday that Slider was courting musician Joanna on the sly; now they’re embracing domestic bliss with a child.  But once again, the job interferes with family when Slider and sidekick Atherton are called out when a retired solicitor noted for his philanthropy is bashed over the head. They discover that the victim once successfully defended a man charged as a child molester, and death threats ensued. Perhaps, though, the answer lies closer to home and a colorful cleaning woman with criminal connections. There’s also an ex-wife in the background. Slider and company sort it all out in fine fashion.

Read Full Post »

nightfilmSeveral friends just finished participating in a giant international online scavenger hunt that sent them hither and yon around Central Florida taking pictures of assorted vignettes, including a Star Wars storm trooper in a laundromat, a nun on a rope swing and a scuba diver in spin class. My pals said it was fun but also frustrating at times and that they were exhausted.
Which is pretty much the way I felt upon finishing Marisha Pessl’s much-buzzed-about novel Night Film (Random House, digital galley), arriving seven years after her much-lauded Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Billed as a literary thriller, the twisty narrative is sprinkled with realistic documents, newspaper clippings, photographs, transcripts of online sessions and other ephemera related to the life and career of reclusive filmmaker Stanislas Cordova and his piano prodigy daughter Ashley.
The presumed suicide of 24-year-old Ashley in a deserted Manhattan warehouse spurs investigative reporter Scott McGrath on an obsessive quest to find out the truth about the mythic Cordova, who hasn’t been seen in decades and whose terrifying “night films” have a cult following. Two unlikely assistants also play detective: 19-year-old hat check girl Nora, who saw Ashley the night she died, and Hopper, an enigmatic young man whose past wanderings intersected with the dead girl.
Pessl sets these characters loose on a trippy scavenger hunt through the Twin Peaks-like world of a Cordova film: the locked halls of a private mental hospital, a seaside mansion that hosts S&M parties, the hotel suite of a faded movie star/drug addict, a tattoo parlor, a magic shop, an antique store and, eventually, the vast Adirondacks estate that Cordova used in his films. Along the way they meet a professor whose cats are named after Cordova totems, a surprisingly pragmatic psychic, a former priest who lived with the Cordovas, a child clutching a doll-like figurine. Rumors of nasty and possibly Satanic rituals at the Cordova estate swirl like the smoke from the strange incinerators on the property.
The story zips along despite dead ends, red herrings and disappearing witnessess until McGrath and company get lost on the Cordova backlot. Separated from the others, the reporter is chased through dark underground tunnels and begins to lose his grip on reality. He is caught up in one or more of the Cordova films that Pessel has lovingly created as part of the book’s elaborate backstory. She’s a flashy, inventive writer bent on describing the forest and the trees. Keep up, readers!
“What, really, was the difference between something hounding you and something leading you somewhere?”
The book is longer than it needs to be, and some of it is utter rigamarole. I wanted more of Nora, the orphan who grew up in a Florida old-folks home, and less of McGrath’s domestic troubles with his ex-wife. I have a bit of a crush on Hopper. And one day, at least a year from now, I’ll read Night Film again. Or maybe see the movie.

Read Full Post »

Watching the first two episodes of the new HBO series “Girls,” I chuckled, cringed and laughed out loud. That was when 24-year-old Hannah announced to her parents that she believed she was “the voice of her generation,” or at least “a voice,” and needed $1100 a month for the next two years to finish her collection of essays. Her mother sputtered, “That’s ridiculous!”

Present-day me agrees with mom. But long-ago me recognizes the confident bravado of the young writer when everything is bright and shiny and possible. Still, as Hanna’s gynecologist asserts in the next episode, “I wouldn’t be 24 again.”

I can’t speak for Anna Quindlen (more on that in a moment), but I imagine that she would have a similar reaction to “Girls.” Her new memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, reminded me that Quindlen is the voice of my generation, beginning with her “Life in the Thirties” column for the New York Times 25 years ago and continuing through her books. Like many other women of a certain age, I find myself nodding in agreement as I read her new one.

Early on, she writes, “There comes that moment when we finally know what matters and, perhaps, more important, what doesn’t, when we see that all the life lessons came not from what we had but from whom we loved, and from the failures perhaps more than the successes. … We understand ourselves, our lives, retrospectively.”

How true. As are her observations on collecting “stuff,” the choices that bless and burden our generation of women, how much of life is surprise and happy accident, the importance of girlfriends, “the joists that hold up the house of our existence.”

I could continue quoting, but you should have the pleasure of discovering what Quindlen has to say on your own. It’s like an ongoing conversation with your BFF about books, men, mothers, kids, work, aging. I can’t speak for Anna Quindlen, but she sure speaks for me.

Open Book: I’ve never met Anna Quindlen, but I feel like I know her through her books and novels, and having looked at a series of pictures of her at different ages in the current issue of More magazine, I know we sort of look alike, except for our noses.  And having read her over the years, I know we share remarkably similar interests and views. So much so that after reading a NetGalley digital copy of Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Random House), I bought two hardcover copies — one for my college roommate for her birthday, and one for me just because.

Read Full Post »

Trapped in waiting rooms, I turn to thrillers for escape. And doctors wonder why my blood pressure’s up.

Like Joseph Kanon and Alan Furst, Mark Mills is adept at historical espionage. His atmospheric fourth novel The House of the Hunted (Random House, digital galley via NetGalley) is set in the seemingly idyllic South of France in 1935, where ex-Britsh spy Tom Nash is enjoying the good life in a villa overlooking the sea. He’s squashed memories of his violent past and lost love Irina, but when an assassin breaks into his house in the middle of the night, Nash finds old habits die hard.

Who among his circle of close friends and entertaining expats wants him dead? Nash turns spy again, suspecting a genial hotel owner, German dissidents, exiled White Russians, local police, even as his old boss, all the while nursing a crush on the daughter of said boss and closest friend. If Mary Stewart had written the book, it would have been romantic suspense from lovely Lucy’s point of view, in love with the older man she has known since childhood. As it is, Nash does his best to protect her from the secrets of the past and save both their lives in the process. A bit slow at the start, the story accelerates nicely once Nash starts driving the twisting coastal roads with a killer on his trail and yet another waiting around the next curve.

David Baldacci’s The Innocent (Grand Central Publishing, digital galley via NetGalley) is a hunting-the-hunter tale, full of cliches and contrivances. I didn’t believe a word of it, but I couldn’t put it down.

The beginning finds lonely government hitman Will Robie taking out the bad guys, no muss, no fuss, and then waiting for his next mission. He’s the consumate, patriotic professional but with his own moral compass, so the day comes when he refuses to pull the trigger on a designated target.  Then he’s on the run, and with his skill set, should be able to survive. But there’s 14-year-old Julie, who witnessed the murder of her parents. and who desperately needs his help. Aw, shucks. Chase on!

Now, you may find pet psychics and sleuthing felines to be wildly implausible, but Clea Simon has no trouble convincing me of the detecting abilities of Pru Marlow and her clever tabby Wallis. She follows up her first Pet Noir mystery, Dogs Can’t Lie, with the entertaining Cats Can’t Shoot (Poisoned Pen, paperback galley).

Horrified to be called out on a cat shooting, Pru soon discovers the white Persian isn’t the victim but the accused killer, apparently having set off an antique dueling pistol. The poor cat is so traumatized, Pru can’t tune into her thoughts, but she and Wallis trust their own instincts that there’s something fishy about the scene — and it’s not kibble.

My only quibble with Simon’s tales is the reminder of how many animals are in need of rescue and ever-after homes. But I think that’s probably a good thing.

Simon describes herself as a “recovering journalist,” which is also one of my identities, and yes, we know each other through Facebook and occasional e-mails. I don’t know Brad Parks, who describes himself as “an escaped journalist,” but I sure recognize his series sleuth, Carter Ross, an investigative reporter for a Newark, N.J., paper. You can still find cool, cocky, cynically idealistic guys like Carter in newsrooms across the country, although not in the troop strength of back-in-the-day. Look for the khakis, oxford-cloth shirt and attitude. Love ’em.

The Girl Next Door (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley through NetGalley), the third in the series, is terrific at capturing newspaper atmosphere and antics, but I wish the plot was stronger. Looking into the accidental hit-and-run death of a newspaper delivery woman for a tribute story, Carter finds evidence of foul play, perhaps dealing with the circulation department’s acrimonious labor negotiations with the tight-fisted publisher. Convinced he’s on to something despite his sexy editor Tina’s admonishments, Carter risks his career in pursuit of the story, facing such obstacles as a pretty waitress, an egghead intern built like a football player, a runaway bear, the tight squeeze of a cat door and the inside of a jail.

Carter’s snappy narration saves the day, but the interrupting scenes from the real villain’s perspective give away the killer’s identity way too soon. Too bad; this could have been a sweetheart with some rewrite.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »