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REVIEWING

The Sound of Things Falling

By Juan Gabriel Vasquez

Riverhead Books | 2013 | 270 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

Juan Gabriel Vasquez

The Sky is Falling, The Sky is Falling

The narrator, Antonio (Tony)  Yammara, catches up with an  acquaintance, Riccardo LaVerde, on the street in Bogota just minutes before the latter is gunned down by unknown assailants. Standing next to him, Tony survives but suffers grievous injuries, the most serious and lasting being a case of debilitating and unremitting post traumatic stress.  The year is 1996.

Tony becomes more and more obsessed with LaVerde, who up to then has appeared as a broken down shell of a man, rumored to have spent twenty years in prison, a man he encounters regularly at the local billiards hall.  All he knows about the man’s life is that LaVerde’s American wife was coming to reunite with him in Bogota when the plane she was on inexplicably crashed in the mountains. 

Tony tracks down LaVerde’s landlady, then his grown daughter, and together they piece together the tragic trajectories of LaVerde’s life and perhaps his own.

Before the accident, Tony is a college professor of law, unapologetic about sleeping with his students, always somewhat distant and detached, seemingly missing a piece of himself.  He has difficulty connecting with his wife because she missed out living through the terrible and traumatic 80’s in Bogota, the era of Pablo Escobar, the terrorism and assassinations. 

He and the others of his era are marked forever – “the sound of things falling” seemingly referring to planes falling out of the sky, bodies hitting the pavement after being shot, the sense of impotence in a world gone crazy, and his actual psychological and physical impotence.

“My contaminated life was mine alone: my family was still safe: safe from the plague of my country, from its afflicted recent history: safe from what had hunted me down along with so many of my generation (and others too, yes, but most of all mine, the generation that was born with planes, with the flights full of bags and the bags of marijuana, the generation that was born with the War on Drugs and later experienced the consequences).”

Feeling his life bound up in LaVerde’s story, Tony works with LaVerde’s daughter to separate her father and mother from a web of lies, going through letters and diaries and the cockpit tape of the crash.  The mother, Elaine, is portrayed as the archetypal idealistic American do-gooder, willfully ignorant of politics, wanting only to help the campesinos.  Sent to Columbia by the Peace Corps, she winds up by chance in the LaVerde house in Bogota – they are a once-illustrious family fallen on hard times, and Riccardo is their young son, an aspiring pilot like his grandfather, arrogant, brash, heroic in outlook.

Elaine and Riccardo LaVerde quickly fall in love and marry and move to a rustic area in La Dorada, Magdalena Valley, where LaVerde finds work as a pilot.  They meet up with Mike, another American Peace Corps member, who symbolizes those who come to the country to help and inadvertently wreak havoc on the economy.  He teaches the native farmers how to turn a profit by raising marijuana instead of other crops.

  LaVerde with Mike’s help, becomes embroiled in smuggling marijuana and cocaine to the States, is intercepted, imprisoned, and spends his youth locked away.  His wife turns a blind eye to his business activities until it is too late.  She manages to raise their daughter to adulthood, but finally, defeated, decamps to the U.S. until her fateful flight back.

The story, the rise and fall of one love-struck couple, is a gripping one, but the emotional remoteness of the main characters, Tony and LaVerde, and our ignorance or indifference regarding their shared Columbian history makes it difficult for readers to connect.  Halfway through the book, the going is s-l-o-w.  The story starts to pick up as we delve into the early lives of the characters and get to know them as they were in the 80’s. 

The future looks rather glum: LaVerde’s daughter has walled herself into the family compound where she raises bees; Tony’s wife and daughter have decamped as they view his withdrawal from any meaningful interactions with them as incurable; and Tony, himself, feels condemned by the past and imprisoned by his memories. He has learned the world is a dangerous place with random acts of violence and cannot ignore that the sky is actually falling.

Juan Gabriel Marquez is a prize-winning Columbian novelist and this is his third novel.


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REVIEWING

The Specialist: The Costa Rica Job

By Charles Peterson Sheppard

Archway Publishing | 2013 |196 pages

Reviewed by Robert Fleming

author Charles Peterson Sheppard

Sometimes there are books that should have been embraced by a powerful traditional publisher, with substantial distribution and effective marketing. This novel, The Specialist: The Costa Rica Job, penned by Los Angeles writer Charles Peterson Sheppard, deserved such a worthy fate; but that was not the case.

That’s a shame, because The Specialist, by the first time author, is chocked full of those good, action-packed ingredients of the tough, hardboiled American covert-action thriller which currently fill our nation’s bookshelves.

Recovering from a botched assignment in Costa Rica, The Specialist suffered serious injuries inflected in a caper involving Aguilera, a corrupt cop, and his drug cronies. Our hero was stomped into unconsciousness before they stripped him of his wallet and passport, and abandoned him in a dingy town in Panama.

While catching his breath on the mend, he rents an office in Santa Monica, but a half-year was a long time to rest without a paycheck.

The Specialist is not Bourne or Bond, but he is capable of mayhem. With a sterling reputation of fifteen years, he is an expert in skills that have a critical place in this modern world of terrorism and collateral damage. He knows all about personal security, counter-terrorism, threat response, and combat. The high-rollers and famous recognize his ability to protect and serve, while the politically powerful realize he will always set things right.

In the words of The Specialist, he explains his particular brand of alchemy as a troubleshooter: “I am not a spy. I am not an assassin. I am no longer a government agent. I am none of the things that immediately come to mind to unimaginable people. Some say I am an eraser of sorts, but I don’t eliminate people…I just make problems go away.” 

Overall, the noir feel of the novel sizzles when the lovely Mimi Sabo, the “Little Rich Girl” and the daughter of the vice president of El Banco Puro in Costa Rica, one of the leading Latin banks in the hemisphere, appears with a fresh assignment for our hero. She wants to locate her father, Juan Miquel Sabo before harm befalls him. The case is complicated because her dad has been an informant for three years for the cops locally, and Interpol.

Another twist in the situation is the arrest of the bank’s president, Antonio Pascal, six weeks ago for money laundering for the drug cartels. Pascal is a busy lad, for he is involved with funding the FARC, the band of communist rebels in Columbia and Brazil. Also, Pascal had an affair with Mimi’s mother and she left the family for her new lover. That sets up a solid motive for anything tricky her father might have done to his former partner and his soiled pals.

After a little haggling about the fee, The Specialist takes on the assignment, and enlists the help of Ze’ev Pinsky, a former member of the Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli’s secret service, Mossad.

What is needed to complete the team is Chava Cresca, a Mossad operative, who is the equal of both men in excelling at spying and espionage skills. The team finds out that the bank also pilfered money from Iran’s Jundallah (Soldiers of God), now considered a terrorist group by the American government.

The Specialist really doesn’t want to go back to Costa Rica, not after the thumping he received his last time there. After a meeting with Mimi’s mother, who pleads with The Specialist to rescue her hubby, admitting that he “stole people’s money.” He changes his mind for good.

Like Flynn, Clancy, and the Bourne books, Sheppard knows how to press all of the buttons of the readers who are fond of this genre. He keeps the descriptions of the locales, characters, and the tension short and to the point. The narrative of The Specialist is the usual smart and brassy, with a smirk thrown in to break up the frenzy of excitement.

The action sequences are the major selling point of the novel: the rapid fire of the shooters, the positioning of the kill, the rows of bullets making their impact along the walls. Again, Sheppard deftly choreographs the book with scenes of aggression and combat to break up the very assured narrative-- like brief burst of machine gun fire.

It’s almost like a gory snapshot, a reaction image of the carnage, and then he goes on with the program.

Some prudes might object to the bits of lust and carnality in the novel, but he doesn’t go overboard. It’s like his action scenes, smoldering, engaging, and provocative. Here Sheppard holds his naughty Henry Miller punch, only giving the reader just what is necessary: “Call it ardor or outright lust, but I couldn’t help myself…I have to have her again, then and there. With customary assurance I placed my left hand upon her back…slid it down slowly, relishing the warm landscape…caressing, massaging…and gently clasping the firm, fleshy tush. She shivered, moaned quietly and arched her entire, sculpted derriere in response, then turned to face me with a curious gaze.” (

Other than some kick-butt action scenes and brief casual couplings, Sheppard’s The Specialist measures up with any of the other offerings in this genre on the market. It yields a satisfying ending to the caper. However, its length does it a great disservice because some of the chapters appear incomplete, as if the author was in a hurry, only able to fashion a sketch rather than to follow the natural progression of the entire scene.

Sometimes even the gunplay, the dialogue, and the descriptions of the characters fall victim to this tendency. Still, it’s an entertaining, pulsing, powerful book but much too short, as short as a light smooch from your beloved on that first date.


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REVIEWING

Wilson

By A. Scott Berg

G.P. Putnam’s Sons | 2013 | 743 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

A. Scott Berg

Woodrow Wilson

I was all ready predisposed to reviewing A. Scott Berg’s latest biography, this one on President Woodrow Wilson, entitled appropriately, Wilson, and was not deterred by the hefty 743 pages.

When I was teaching the history of American Film at a number of universities, I made his book, Goldwyn: A Biography, required reading. I thought it was a well-written, deeply researched look at how early Hollywood developed.

Reading Wilson, with A. Scott Berg’s considerable narrative skills in full display once again, I was drawn back to a subject that has always held the greatest interest for me for most of my adult life: the two narratives of American history (there is also a third one), one white, the other black.

One: “The Shining City on the Hill”; the other: “Behold, the Iceman cometh. Beware, destroyer of worlds.”

And no one in American history best embodies both of these worlds better than Woodrow Wilson.

This is also the third book on American Presidents I have reviewed in the last two years (Andrew Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt and now Wilson).

What I can say about all three men, despite my personal aversion to much of their domestic policy’s concerning blacks, with both Johnson and Wilson also having a deep seeded hated of black people-- I have come away from reading these books with the realization that being President of the United States is one tough job, indeed.

It quickly became clear to former Political Science professor Woodrow Wilson when his ideas were no longer theories to be discussed and debated in class, but could result in real lives lost.

Wilson was a progressive, and wanted to focus his administration on domestic issue and curb the power of the wealthy and well connected and had much success in his first year in passing progressive laws.

 He also started what would be, after he was finished, the total segregation of Washington, thereby wiping out years of progress made by blacks in the civil service.

However, soon, the rest of the world came knocking at the White House door. In his second year as President, in 1914, the Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta would give Wilson his first real life lesson in what it means to be the Comander-in-Chief.

   Writes Berg in a chapter entitled “Baptism, ““…the Administration had learned that a ship had left Havana for Veracruz laden with 1,333 boxes of German guns intended for Huerta.”

The strong man, General Huerta was under siege by the likes of General Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata, and the majority of the Mexican public.

The Senate had just given Wilson authority to employ the armed forces if needed against countries like Mexico “for unequivocal amends for affronts and indignities.”

Wilson decided to use this new power to see that the guns did not fall into the hands of the hated despot, General Huerta.

On April 21, 1914, eight hundred Marines and Sailors landed at the Veracruz waterfront, and by the end of the next day they had overrun the town. Nineteen Americans died in the fighting, and seventy were wounded; more than a hundred Mexicans died.

Notes Berg, “He (Wilson) would later admit that he could not dismiss the thought of the young men killed in Mexico. “

“It was right to send then,” President Wilson confided later to a friend, “but that does not mitigate the sorrow for their deaths—and I am responsible for their being there.”

In a few short months, those 19 Americans and 100 Mexican dead would pale in significance, as on June 28, 1914 a teenaged Bosnian Serb shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, killing the heir apparent of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire, and sending the world into an orgy of violence it had never witnessed before.

As much as Wilson said that he wanted America to stay out of the wars in Europe, with the American public wanting no part of yet another European conflict, only this one more bloody than the American Civil War, which had set the gold standard for bloodshed-- we ended up, in his second term, where he won on the slogan, “He kept us out of war,” nevertheless, in the trenches of Europe.

(Does this sound like most of our Presidents, anyone, including Obama?)

***

. The story of Woodrow Wilson’s rise to worldwide prominence is well presented in Wilson, warts and all. This is a wonderful book that I could barely put down, even as hefty as it was. A. Scott Berg is to be congratulated for yet another job, well done.


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Stay Up With Me

By Tom Barbash

Ecco | 2013

Reviewed by Sally Cobau

The Anti-Epiphany

Tom Barbash

Is it just a coincidence that after reading Tom Barbash’s remarkable collection of short stories Stay Up With Me, I actually did stay up?  Like many a good book, or work of art, the book left me with a residue of feeling that (in this case) kept me tossing and turning.

I will not say that I had an “epiphany,” precisely because Barbash works with the anti-epiphany.  There are “moments,” but those moments are undercut by the scorn, ineptitude, and mere disinterest of the characters.

He carefully sets the reader up—these characters are going to feel something BIG—and boom! The moment is squashed by either the numbness or the fragility of the characters.  The characters have reached a point where they can’t be reached, not for a long shot.

This is the case with the protagonist, a teenaged boy, in the story “Howling at the Moon.”  In this story, Lou gets caught up in the lives of his stepfather’s children.  Their lives appear richer than the solitary life Lou and his mother have been living after the death of his older brother.

His stepsiblings are an arty crew, playing sax, refinishing chairs, rehearsing plays—all the while on vacation in Maine.  Eventually Lou reveals his secret to them—that he inadvertently caused his brother’s death.

Lou holds this grief and can’t seem to let go.  He feels his flighty mother (she pretty much abandons her son during the vacation, choosing decedent meals and sailing over him) blames him for his brother’s death.  (And perhaps she does.)

This is an ongoing theme in the book—can we forgive?  One night Lou’s mom wants to re-bond with her son.  She wakes Lou up and suggests they “howl at the moon” like they used to when the brother was alive.

Half-heartedly Lou howls.  Later he recalls, “I looked away from her to the black water, black as ink.  I am thirty-one now, with my own children, and live across the country from my mother and Norman.  We see each other only occasionally, but even in a year when we did not speak at all I never felt so far from her as I did right then.”

The relationships between children and parents are examined throughout the collection.  Many writers have tackled some of the themes Barbash works with—loss, misplaced desire, grief—but Barbash does so with finesse and a subtly that is rare.

The first story in the book, “The Break” dazzled me.  In “The Break” an eighteen-year old boy is spending his Christmas break with his mother.  The mother is obviously proud of her boy and they become chummy—eating pizza together and laughing over films they view.  They seem to be on the same wavelength and Barbash even hints at an undercurrent of sexuality between the two of them.

They seem to be on the same wave length that is, until an older woman, a hostess at the pizza place where they eat, starts dating the son.  According to the mom, the hostess is, “A good ten years older than the boy, and not what you’d call pretty.  Though thin and busty, she had a somewhat pinched nose and a dull cast to her eyes.” 

The mother is repulsed.  For whatever reason—class, social standing, age—the mother does not think the woman is good enough for her boy.  She fixates on the woman’s “vacant” eyes.  When she catches the woman and her son together in her apartment, she becomes furious.

Barbash doesn’t vilify the mother.  It is to his credit, that in spite of her snobbery, he makes her sympathetic.  Similarly, he shows the sweetness and vulnerability of the son.  The story is compelling throughout and heartbreaking. 

Exploring the complex interplay between family, lust, sensuality, and ambition has rarely been done so well,

Barbash is one of those writers who makes writing look easy.  His writing never feels strained or artificial.  Perhaps that is because Barbash worked as a reporter before devoting his life full-time to fiction writing.

He has one story that is actually about a journalist—a do-gooder type who wants to expose the stress and strain of a small town in upper New York.  The tension in this story lies between the journalist and the townspeople, who feel that they have been stereotyped (or worse) as they read the journalist’s investigative reporting. 

Perhaps because of his journalistic training, Barbash shows restraint in his work.  But there’s also grace in his work and complexity.  He addresses the thorny issues in our lives—relationships we might not be proud of, actions that are cruel, and lies we tell our families and ourselves. 

Of course these lies can smother us—it just won’t happen in a moment.


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REVIEWING

Frederick the Great

By Nancy Mitford

New York Review Books | 2013

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

Nancy Mitford

Frederick the Great is not a new book—it was first published in 1970 and just has been re-released in paperback by the New York Review of Books. From its introduction by Liesl Schillinger: “In 1969, Nancy Mitford, the sparkling, supercilious British debutante turned novelist, began work on a biography of Frederick the Great, the eighteenth-century Prussian king who outfoxed the combined forces of France, England, Russian and the Holy Roman Empire to make Prussia master of Germany. The reader who opens this book may wonder what attracted an apolitical Francophile socialite to a fearsome Teuton whose foes reviled him as a ‘monster,’ a ‘sodomite,’ and ‘the compleatest tyrant that God ever sent for a scourge’; and whose friends, notably the French sage Voltaire, could be almost as uncomplimentary. Mitford and “der alte Fritz” (as his soldiers called him) hardly sound like a natural pairing.”

How does the saying go? It takes one to know one. For, Ms Mitford, no slouch herself, recognized in Frederick a greatest that made him unique among monarchs. It’s a pleasure to read a biography of a worthy subject written by a writer who had the wit, elegance, and insight that allowed her to consolidate information of lesser importance into a volume of a mere 231 pages—nothing can be duller than to read a biography written by a lesser writer, who feels the necessity of ponderously ploughing through the subject’s life.

Mitford’s own colorful, privileged life gave her an affinity to the colorful, privileged men and women whose biographies she composed (she also wrote biographies of Voltaire, The Sun King—Louie XIV, and Madame de Pompadodur, mistress to Louis XV). While writing Voltaire in Love, she became intrigued by his fraught, self-serving friendship with Frederick the Great.

Frederick was not highly regarded by the English, who saw him as a clever but trouble-making homosexual monarch. He was the bane of the existence of Marie Theresa, the female ruler of the Habsburg dominions, the sovereign of eighteenth century Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia (and, incidentally, the mother of Marie Antoinette.)

He was a pariah among the European monarchs of his time, but he was also feared and respected as he was a brilliant military strategist.

He was third of King Frederick William and Sophia Dorothea’s fourteen children but became heir to the throne when both his older brothers died. He was so close to his sister Wilhelmine, who resembled him, that many thought them twins. He resisted his father’s domination and was a relentless tease—by the age of twelve, he and his father were on the worst of terms. But, the people who met him were struck by his enormous intelligence—“his face contained two enormous blue eyes—dazzling like the sun.”

Also from Ms. Schillinger’s introduction: “An attractive youth, clever, musical, high-spirited, and entranced by the aesthetic and philosophical charms of France, he in no way embodied his father’s brusque, ascetic male ideal. Frederick William I, anti-intellectual, anti-French, hostile to luxury…regarded his son…as a disobedient, effeminate fop.”

Clearly, Frederick’s talents would not come into fruition until he was out from under his father’s thumb. When Frederick William I died, in May 1740, the 28-year old Frederick must have felt liberated. His first act as the King of Prussia was to seize Silesia from the Hapsburg empress.

Frederick married Princess Elizabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel only because it was expected of him, but he had no wish for a wife and no interest in women—“he is not the wood out which one carves good husbands.” Though she loved him, he had no time for her and discarded her, shipping her off to another palace, only rarely asking for her well-being. However, he treasured his friendships with men, especially with those who shared his love of music (he played the flute,) poetry, and witty conversation. Ms. Mitford maintains that his disdain for women does not mark him as a homosexual because most homosexual men revel in the company of women.

Except for Wilhelmine no woman counted with him. To his credit Frederick truly loved his male friends, and his life was saddened by their deaths. Like Queen Elizabeth I, Frederick was an entity unto himself, a person who did not require a mate to complete him—he was to Prussia as she was to England.

Well-known and documented was his friendship with Voltaire, the popular French philosopher and leader of the Enlightenment. It was not unusual for Frederick to invite friends to live with him at San Souci, the house he built for himself at Potsdam. When Voltaire’s mistress, Mme du Châtelet, died during childbirth, Voltaire was unhinged and accepted Frederick’s offer to live at San Souci. At first all went well. Voltaire had beautiful rooms at Sans Souci next door to Frederick’s, and Frederick wandered in and out at all hours, chatting and joking. But soon Voltaire began to get on the King’s nerves.

For one thing he talked stupidly about warfare, a subject that interested Frederick and about which he was an authority. When Voltaire was asked to leave, the situation degenerated into pure comedy, with Voltaire sticking his head out of the cab taking him to a hotel and screaming at the top of his lungs that he had paid 1,000 thalers for his freedom to the King, who was now double-crossing him.

Imagine! The greatest intellectual of the eighteenth century carrying on like an utter child! Frederick was more even-handed.

Voltaire always said “qui plume a, guerre a” (he who has a pen has war.) Now he declared war on Frederick with his pen, but one wonders whether his feelings for the King were the result of his wounded pride and unrequited passion.

Frederick put down his thoughts on war in Discours sur la Guerre. In it he says that though he dislikes war, it begets such virtues as resolution, mercy, greatness of soul, generosity and charity.

Though Frederick had no use for religion, regarding it as childish superstition, he did not interfere with his subjects’ rights to worship as they pleased and their right to free expression. He was among the most enlightened leaders of his time. Despite all the energy and devotion he put into governing Prussia, he was not a well man—he suffered from digestive disorders that rendered him skeletal.

On May 30th, 1778, Voltaire died in Paris. Frederick lived for another eight years, dying on August 17, 1786.

Twenty years later Napoleon stood by his coffin. “Hats off, gentlemen,” he said to his soldiers, “If he were still alive we should not be here.”

Frederick paved the way for the unification of German states, which occurred almost another 100 years later, on January 18th, 1871, under Bismarck as Chancellor.


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REVIEWING

Zora Neale Hurston’s Final Decade

By Virginia Lynn Moylan

University Press of Florida

Reviewed by Brenda M. Greene

The Birth of Democracy

Virginia Lynn Moylan

 “Never mind that she died with her books out of print and was buried in an unmarked grave, Hurston and her literary contributions were destined to be central to the canon of African American, American and women’s literature.” (Moylan 161)

A spirited and soulful writer, Zora Neale Hurston, writer, anthropologist and folklorist created a legacy of novels, short stories, plays, folklore and essays.  Refusing to succumb to the traditional mores of society, she charted new directions for her life and life’s work. However, she died in obscurity in Fort Pierce, Florida in 1960.

Alice Walker’s essay,   “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" was a defining moment in lifting Hurston from obscurity and reviving interest in a writer who has since become part of the canon of literature. Deborah Moylan’s research on Hurston is the most recent scholarship in providing the public with a fuller and more in-depth understanding of Zora, a woman who some have called a spirit warrior.

In Zora Neale Hurston’s Final Decade, Virginia Lynn Moylan, an educator and independent scholar, convincingly writes of the complexities and paradoxes of the last ten years of Hurston’s life.  Moylan’s research recounts how this proud independent Black woman who emerged during the Harlem Renaissance defied all obstacles in her determination to succeed, no matter the challenges, financial and physical.  Using interviews from friends, students, colleagues, editors, agents, never-before-published letters, and archival materials, Moylan constructs a narrative that begins with a major scandal: Hurston was charged with molesting a 10-year-old boy in 1948; despite being able to prove that she was out of the country at the time of the incident, she suffered greatly from this false accusation.

That drove Hurston from New York City in 1948 to Florida where she wrote and taught until her death after a debilitating illness.

Although the scandal had a great impact on Hurston’s reputation and career, Moylan’s research fills in gaps that reveal that during her final decade, Hurston continued to write, teach, and work and was surrounded by friends and people who respected and loved her.  In conducting her research, Moylan says she wants to “set the record straight.”

The book is structured around defining moments for Hurston, the various trajectories that her life took as she engaged in research and writing on her political and philosophical views which included southern politics, the sensational trial of Ruby McCollum, a wealthy black woman who murdered her white lover, Brown vs. the Board of Education, unions, the exploitation of immigrant migrant workers, the depiction of blacks in film and publishing and a work that was the subject of her last manuscript, the life and career of Herod, the ruler of Judea from 40 B.C.E. to 4 B.C.E.

Beginning with the scandal that had a devastating impact on Zora’s personal and professional life, Moylan takes the reader on a journey that chronicles how Hurston’s life embodied the struggle of the writer’s life in unimaginable ways. The opening lines of the first chapter in the book, “In Hell’s Basement: Harlem, 1948-1949” depict the odds that faced Hurston. 

Hurston’s nightmare began Monday, September 13, 1948 with an unexpected knock on the door of her rented room at West 112th Street in Harlem.  Charles Scribner’s Sons’ publication of her fourth and latest novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, was only a month away, and her immediate concern was its success.  But that concern vanished when she opened the door to a New York City police detective who had come to arrest her on one of the most vilest charges imaginable- child molestation. (39)

Hurston maintained her innocence and the case was dismissed.  Because it involved minors, the proceedings should have been kept confidential, but after the successful launch and favorable reviews of her latest novel, Seraph, a court reporter leaked the story to two black newspapers, which ran the stories.  Moylan, describes this series of events as a “public lynching that “. . . devastated (Zora) almost to the point of suicide.”  In a letter written to Carl Van Vechten, Hurston wrote, “No acquittal will persuade some people that I am innocent . . . All that I have believed in has failed me.  I have resolved to die.”

Despite this painful and emotional travesty, Hurston survives for she was a woman who lived life fully and had the ability to pick up and continue her life’s work.  This is a guiding principle depicted in Moylan’s book.

Building on the legacy created by the previous biographers of Hurston, Robert Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, University of Illinois Press, 1977, Valerie Boyd, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, Scribner, 2003, and Deborah Plant, Zora Neale Hurston: A Biography of the Spirit, Praeger, 2007, Moylan helps the reader to gain more insight into Hurston’s personality, character and philosophical views.

The reader learns of her controversial stance on Brown vs. the Board of Education.  While Hurston did not advocate segregation she questioned a court order that forced races, which had been segregated for centuries, to suddenly mix.  In her view, this was “not only socially risky but an egregious abuse of the Court’s power,”   She would have preferred a gradual process for the “forcing of black students to attend white educational institutions that excluded and devalued black culture and robbed black children of traditions and self-esteem.”

Her words: “The conveyance of cultural values and traditions, the quality and commitment of caring educators and administrators and the involvement of parents and the community all help determine the success of our students and schools,” speak to the strong belief that she had with respect to the education of black children.

It is clear that Hurston did not shy away from political and social controversy.  She challenged the ways in which Northern democrats used legislation to garner black votes when they knew that the legislation would be vetoed by Southerners; she exposed the ways in which immigrants were exploited by the Sugar Corporation; and she critiqued the stereotypical ways in which the publishing and film industries portrayed Blacks.

In Moylan’s contextualization of Hurston’s life during its final decade, we come to a new understanding of the carefree and proud, independent and determined woman who vowed to tell her stories in the way and manner in which she chose, who refused to be dictated to and to succumb to the mores and rituals of others, and who insisted that she was in control of her writing and personal life.  As Moylan points out, Hurston may have died in obscurity, but the final decade of her life was anything but obscure.  This is a must read for those who want an expanded view and a deeper understanding of the inner, social and political life of a complex writer and woman.


.
Brenda M. Greene, Ph.D. is Professor of English and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY


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REVIEWING

The Fire Witness

By Lars Kepler

Translated by: Laura A. Wideburg
Read by: Mark Bramhall
Macmillan Audio 2013 | 15 hours | 12 CDs | $39.99

Reviewed by Michael Carey

Lars Kepler

Lars Kepler the bestselling literary couple out of Sweden is in top form with the third installation of their Joona Linna series, The Fire Witness. In this crime mystery novel, Joona has to solve an eerie double homicide at a home for troubled girls.

The caretaker is murdered in the old brewery on the grounds the same night one of the girls has her head smashed in and is placed carefully in her bed with her hands over her eyes. Another of the girls staying in the home, Vicky, flees her bloody room and goes on the run, kidnapping a four year old boy in the process.

Joona is under investigation from his previous adventures, most likely in Kepler’s The Nightmare, and has his wings clipped being a simple observer in the murder investigations. But if there are two things we learn about Joona in The Fire Witness, they are he has a keen set of detective skills and Joona Linna doesn’t give up.

He sifts through odd leads and mismatching bits of evidence, tracking down Vicky’s past. Even after the case is considered closed, Joona continues trying to fit the puzzle pieces together.

After losing her job as a nurse, Flora Hansen is forced to serve as a maid in the house of an abusive couple that fostered her in her youth. She struggles to make it on her own, trying to make money as a medium, pretending to contact the dead for grieving individuals and couples. Her situation becomes desperate when she steals money from her employers but isn’t making enough to pay it back in time. After learning about the death of the young girl and how she was found with her hands over her eyes, a young dead girl matching the description begins visiting Flora. At first she tries to extort money from the police for her information, but as the visions continue, it becomes imperative that she just be heard.

Lars Kepler is a master of the craft. I’ve listened to a few crime mystery audio books, and I feel comfortable saying, “This is one of the best I’ve heard.” The protagonist is as much the specimen you’d expect: strong, willful, gifted, intriguing.

But contrary to the failure of some other character-based series in making the hero almost superhuman, Joona is fearful, careful, flawed, and approachable. The short chapters are a plus for listeners on the go and almost set up scenes like watching the actions play out. Even when a chapter ends in the middle of a scene, we know the next chapter is going to take us in a new direction.

The choice to continue to use Mark Bramhall as the reader of yet another Lars Kepler novel is wise. His reading is moderately paced allowing his accurate pronunciations of Swedish titles to slide into the translated prose. His raspy, baritone voice is appropriate for a murder mystery, setting the mood for a misty night in the woods, the treacherous salvage mission, and the tense shootouts. The story slows toward the end, though, to develop Joona’s past and sets up the next book causing the last two-dozen or so chapters to feel anticlimactic but not out of place as Kepler entices the listener to continue the Joona Linna saga (in The Sandman) with an intriguingly unsettling closing.

The twists and misleading turns of The Fire Witness engage the listener to form theories of their own, making the novel all the more fun, suspenseful, and exciting. On reading the synopsis after finishing the audio book, I had several issues with the points they chose to build interest in the novel, but I did completely agree with one sentence: “The Fire Witness is a riveting listen, sure to join the ranks of its predecessors as an international sensation.”

If this is your genre, you’ll love this audio book. If it’s not, there is no better way to give it a try than listen to an author that knows what he or she (or they in the case of Lars Kepler) is doing.


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