Book Review: X


Five StarsxI’ve been a fan of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series since I first read K is for Killer in the early 1990s and discovered there were ten books written before it for me to read. I went back and read them all in order and have been grabbing the new ones as soon as they are published. Grafton doesn’t disappoint in X.

I noticed immediately that the 24th book in her Millhone series doesn’t follow her naming pattern. The title is simply X, not X is for something that starts with X. The inside page explains it all, though I didn’t realize it until I reached the final page.

X: The number ten. An unknown quantity. A mistake. A cross. A kiss. X marks the spot.

Grafton’s X is all of the above.

Three quite different stories weave through this novel. Contrary to what I expected, they are not all neatly tied together at the end.

First there is the mystery of Teddy Xanakis, the revenge-seeking ex-wife of Ari Xanakis, a successful and wealthy businessman whose generosity to the community ended at the same time as his marriage to Teddy. Why was she so eager to get in contact with a small-time bank robber recently released on parole? Does X refer to the Xanakises?

And there is the mystery of the assignment of Pete Wollinsky, a PI who was killed during a robbery gone wrong. He died before he had time to deliver a package he had collected from Father Xavier who had held it for safekeeping for more than 20 years. What was Pete’s motivation in hiding both the package and a list he felt compelled to encode to keep its contents secret? Does X refer to Father Xavier?

Finally, Kinsey and her landlord, Henry, draw very different conclusions about their new neighbors, Edna and Joseph Shallenbarger. Which of their conclusions were more accurate?

Grafton tantalizes the reader with these questions, allowing Kinsey to reveal her assumptions and conclusions along the way. But as is always the case with Grafton’s mysteries, there are twists and turns in each of the sub-plots, revealing unknown quantities, mistakes, crosses, and kisses. Assumptions are overturned. Behind each mystery hide even more mysteries.

I regret only two letters remain for Grafton’s alphabet mysteries. It has been too long since the most recent one, and I fear the final one will be here too soon.

• Genre: Private Investigators, Women Sleuths, Suspense
• Print Length: 512 pages
• Publisher: G.P/ Putnam’s Sons; Reprint edition
• Publication Date: August 2, 2016

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Book Review: A Fireproof Home for the Bride

Five StarsafireproofhomeforthebrideI don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading a book more than I enjoyed reading Amy Scheibe’s A Fireproof Home for the Bride. The story is fiction so it didn’t happen, but, as is always the case with good storytelling, it could have happened. I know because I was there at the time of the story—1958—in the place of the story—Fargo, ND, and its twin city, Moorhead, MN. So I knew many of the people Scheibe included in her novel. And the events that were true—it is fiction, so not all events were true—happened to me as well.

First, let’s get the storyline out of the way.

In this coming-of-age story, Emmy Nelson, a Minnesota farm girl, breaks away from her Lutheran parents and their plans for her to marry Ambrose, the son of their wealthy farming neighbor, a plan she is happy to follow until her family moves to the nearest town, Moorhead, Minnesota, before her senior year of high school. In Moorhead, Emmy meets Bev, a member of the in-crowd, who introduces her to another possible future, causing Emmy to realize she wants more from life than settling into a predictable routine as farm wife and mother for the rest of her life. She realizes the marriage to Ambrose would secure the financial future for both families, but she isn’t aware of the full range of reasons her parents are eager for her to marry as soon as she graduates from high school.

As she begins to explore other options for her future, including the attention a Catholic boy from Fargo, ND, is paying her, she learns her parents and grandmother, her fiancé and his father, have been keeping secrets from her that threaten to destroy her happy childhood memories and even her life.

I loved reading this story because I recognized so much of my own coming-of-age experiences in it. While I am ten years younger than Emmy, so many of the details are mine.

The story takes place in 1958, the year after a family of killer tornadoes destroyed the Golden Ridge housing development in north Fargo as well as many farm buildings along what is now I-94 across North Dakota and US Highway 10 continuing east into Minnesota. I remember sitting in the basement of our house, convinced that we were all going to die as we waited for the tornado to hit. And in the days afterward, I remember adults talking about how sad it was that six children in one family were all killed by the tornado because none of them knew they should open a door or window so the tornado wouldn’t cause the house to implode. Scheibe changed the details of the family in the novel, but the emotional impact of reading about them brought back real memories.

One of the characters who helps Emmy adjust to her new, much larger, high school is the guidance counselor, Reinhold Utke. By the time I reached junior high school, Mr. Utke had been moved into the principal position at North Junior High School where I saw him every day for three years and then again seven years later when I completed my student teaching at North Junior High. I remember being called into his office one day in ninth grade. I didn’t think I had done anything meriting being called to the principal’s office, so I went there apprehensively. He was smiling when I arrived. He explained that my English teacher, Mr. Tangen, had shared with him an essay I had written about an upcoming school bond issue, based on Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper. Mr. Utke wanted my permission to send the essay on to The Fargo Forum, the paper where Emmy worked in the novel. The Forum printed it, and I learned years later that my father carried a copy of it in his wallet to show others I had written it.

In the novel, Mr. Utke found Emmy her first job at the Moorhead Theatre. My first job in high school was also at the Moorhead Theatre, though Emmy’s starting salary as candy counter attendant in 1958 was five cents more than mine as usher was in 1965.

Scheibe also used a word to describe the Texas farm workers who traveled each spring to Minnesota to work in the sugar beet fields that I doubt most people in Moorhead had ever heard: betabeleros. It sounds like a Spanish word, but it isn’t in any Spanish dictionary. Betabel is the Spanish word for beet. Farmers and the Texas workers added “eros” to refer to those who worked with betabel, just as vaqueros, Spanish for cowboys, is based on the Spanish word vaca, or cow. I only know the word because I spent a summer translating for a Bolivian sponsored by the Lutheran church to minister to the families of the betabeleros in 1973.

I love this level of detail in the novel. But I loved the story on its own merits as well. The major tension in the story centers around a charismatic Chicago man who manipulates men into joining the Citizen’s Council, a xenophobic organization that uses fear of foreigners, especially the farm workers, and raises the specter of a changing demographic destroying the community. The Council’s goal: take over local government. Unfortunately, we see some of those same tactics being used by politicians today, another reason I love this book.

Genre: Family Life, Historical, Literary
Print Length: 384 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: March 10, 2015

Guardian Angel III

At the end of my first semester at California State University, I traveled back to Minnesota for the summer. I had hoped to find either a summer job or a volunteer opportunity, but by the time I arrived, car troubles had drained my financial resources, and I knew I needed a job.

Instead, however, I learned Mom had worked on my other option: she had volunteered me to drive and translate for a Bolivian lay minister as he met with sugar beet farm workers who traveled from Texas to Minnesota each summer. The minister, Ruben, spoke no English and didn’t know how to drive. He had assumed he would be able to walk from farm to farm. The distances between farms in the US astonished him, as did the fact that, while the farm workers all spoke Spanish, almost none of the farmers or those working in businesses did.

Much as I thought I should find a job, I agreed instead to honor Mom’s commitment because of her conviction that something good would come from it. I also knew that if I really needed more money, all I had to do was ask her. I didn’t want to, but I could.

The churches who arranged for Ruben’s mission told me they couldn’t pay me for the work; they would reimburse me for my gas.

I spent the next six weeks filling the tank each morning, then driving the 60 miles to the farm where Ruben stayed. Each day from that point I drove more than a hundred miles on gravel county roads in four counties, Cass and Traill in North Dakota and Clay and Norman in Minnesota, so that Ruben could meet with the families of the farm workers. My tank was nearly empty each evening when I returned home.

One afternoon, Ruben pointed out a group of workers in a field. He asked me to pull over so he could talk with them. Usually he only met with the families of those who worked in the fields, in the cabins the farmers provided for them. I should have told him we shouldn’t stop them from working. But trying to figure out how to say that in Spanish was difficult. So I gave in. We were on a gravel county road with what looked like a wide, grassy shoulder. I pulled over and immediately felt the car begin to roll. Within seconds, the passenger door rested against a sign warning of a curve in the road ahead. The only sign for miles. Let me repeat that: the – only – sign – for – miles on that road.

Ruben, in the passenger seat, couldn’t get out, and the car tilted enough to make it difficult for me to open my door.

The workers saw what happened, ran from the field to the road, and pulled and pushed my car back onto the road. Shaken by what had almost happened, I silently thanked my guardian angel and told Ruben I needed to go home early that day. He understood.

 

Guardian Angel II

angel by maphler, on Flickr
angel” (CC BY 2.0) by maphler

 

The summer following my first semester at California State University at San Francisco proved to be a real test for my guardian angel. I had no classes in the summer so I set off for Minnesota, to spend the summer with family and relax before returning in the fall. I hoped to find either a summer job to earn money or a volunteer opportunity to get experience working with Spanish-speaking families who moved from Texas to Minnesota each summer to work in the labor-intensive sugar beet fields.

I had very few possessions, nearly all of which fit inside the trunk and on the back and the passenger seats of my VW Beetle. My bicycle fit on a rack in the back, over the engine. I took off on the nearly 2,000-mile drive and ran into a little trouble on my first stop to fill my tank, at the intersection of I-80 and I-505 at Vacaville. Once the gas tank was full, I tried to start the engine. The car didn’t fire up. I had experienced this before and knew what usually worked. I removed the bike from the rack and opened the engine cover.

Once the gas tank was full, I tried to start the engine. The car didn’t fire up. I had experienced this before and knew what usually worked. I removed the bike from the rack and opened the engine cover.

I was about to remove the distributor cap and poke around the points with a screwdriver when a young man wearing a cap with the station’s logo walked towards me. When he got close enough to see what I was doing, instead of offering to help, he said, “Well, it looks like you know what you are doing,” turned around, and headed back to the station.

After poking the points as a friend had shown me in the past, I replaced the distributor cap, closed the engine cover, and then tried starting the car. This time, it fired up as expected. After repositioning the bike rack and wrapping the bike tightly, I took off again.

The drive from San Francisco to my parents’ home took three-and-a-half days. I made it to western North Dakota before I had to play around with the points again. Then, smooth sailing–until I got to the Highway 75 off-ramp from Interstate 94, only two miles from my parents’ home. When I reached the stop sign at the top of the ramp, the car stalled and wouldn’t move one more inch. I engaged the emergency brake, removed the bike, pumped up its tires, and rode three blocks to a gas station on Highway 75 where I arranged to have my car towed to my parents’ home.

AAA paid for the towing. I had $240 in my pocket. I knew I would need $60 for gas and motel rooms to get back for the next semester. The estimate for repairing the engine was $180. I did the math: I needed a job. No volunteering for me. At least I had a no-cost roof over my head while I waited for the car to get fixed.

But this was just my guardian angel’s first job that summer.

Book Review: China to Me: A Partial Biography

Five StarschinatomeEmily Hahn’s China to Me: A Partial Biography is precisely the type of memoir I had hoped to write 40 years later about my own life. Like Hahn, I set out to live and work in a foreign country. Hahn chose China in the middle of turbulent times when Japan was asserting control over much of the country. I chose Iran in the waning days of the greatest period of influence the US had in that country.

Neither Hahn nor I could foresee what the future would bring in our different environments, but Hahn stuck it out longer than I did—nine years to my two-and-a-half. She also succeeded at getting to know her host country and its people more intimately than I, even becoming the concubine of a Chinese poet in Shanghai, a fact that allowed her to claim Chinese citizenship so she could remain in Hong Kong when American citizens were ordered to leave after the Japanese took over that city. Her reason for wanting to remain: her British officer lover, imprisoned at a Hong Kong hospital, the father of her illegitimate child.

In contrast, I left Iran at the end of a contract, leaving behind, I hoped, the negative memories I allowed to store up because life in Iran in the 1970s did not match my barely-beyond-adolescent romantic notions. I lacked the strength of character to live a truly independent life. And I lacked–and still lack–the courage to tell my story, the whole story, and nothing but the story. Hahn wrote her memoir immediately after the events. I’ve waited 40 years and am still facing fear of judgment that keeps me from completing my memoir.

While Emily Hahn, Mickey to her friends, also spent plenty of time among other expatriates in China, she moved easily among the upper levels of Chinese society as well. Along the way, she met the illustrious Soong sisters (Soong Mei-ling, the wife of Chaing Kai-shek; Soong Ching-ling, the wife of Sun Yat-sen; and Soong Ai-ling, wife of the richest man in China, H.H. Kung) and eventually wrote a biography of the three.

What appealed to me even more than the details of the daring lifestyle Mickey chose, without apology to anyone, was her writing style. She shared the most intimate and revealing aspects of her life as though she were writing to a close friend, inviting the reader to share in her exuberance as well as in her heartbreaks. She included asides within the narrative, a technique all my writing teachers have tried to dissuade me from using. In Hahn’s writing, the asides work. They bring the reader into the nearly 80-year-old story. To see what I mean, following are three excerpts that touched me, the first for how it evoked my own positive memories of Iran, the second for her honesty in acknowledging that her readers prefer to think the worst of the enemy, and the third for the recognition that life sometimes is harder to believe than fiction.

Crossing by way of the rice paddies was out of the question on such a dark night. The coolies explained this to me and then set off at a good brisk trot along the newly built road. I don’t really know why I bother to tell this incident. It has no value as an anecdote. I only want to evoke, if I can, for my own sake, the sensations of that night. I have known China so thoroughly, all her scents and noises and colors, that it is easy for me to bring back the feeling of a familiar moment there. The streets of Yangtzepoo in Shanghai, for instance, or the dust-choked air of Peking in summer. The wet pathways of Hangchow along the lakeside, and the drifting silence of one of those flat boats with canopies. The hard sharp rocks and the soft gliding clouds of the Yellow Mountain. It is easy to think of these. I could draw pictures of any of them. I would know at midnight where I was if I should wake up in any of these places; I would recognize the smell of it and the sound of it. But that night in my chair, gliding along the dark road from Madame’s house, was a special moment. It had no familiarity. It was not China, and it was not me. Somehow we, the coolies and I, had become new people in a different universe. We trotted along at the bottom of a deep, dark canyon of blackness and all the exciting pleasures of the afternoon, my talk with Mme. Chiang, the poem we had read, the sunlight on my neck as I crossed the field, the flowers I was carrying even now, in the back of the chair—they were not there. I had it all in my mind, like something I had read in a book, but it was no more real than that. My whole life was just that: a book I was reading. That moment, then, that was the proof. Once and only once, for the first time, I closed the book and laid it aside. I sat back in the chair as it jounced and joggled along to the soft pats of the coolies’ feet on the road, and wondered: Now what?

I want to tell the truth, in so far as I know. I have heard since this all happened that the Japanese stretcher-bearers were brutal in their work that day, slamming sick men around regardless and “pulling splints off of broken limbs, et cetera, et cetera.” I saw nothing like that. The stretcher-bearers I watched were gentle and considerate. I don’t suppose you like to read that. I admit I don’t much like writing it. It isn’t artistic; it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the picture, and it isn’t fashionable. It would be easier just to report atrocities. Please bear with me, though: I do want to tell the truth. It seems to me that the truth doesn’t hurt anyone in the end.

What followed sounds incredible. That is the trouble with real life: you can’t write it down as fiction because it is so impossible. I’ve known that happen a dozen times. You will have to believe me because this is the truth. I reached into that thick-pressed crowd and plucked out by the arm one Freddie Kwai, a student from Shanghai and a nephew of Sinmay’s [Hahn’s Chinese lover].

I picked out Hahn’s memoir because of my interest in learning about China from 1920 to 1940, the years my great uncle worked for the Chinese Maritime Customs Service. By the time I finished reading, Mickey Hahn had become a new subject for my fascination, one I wish to explore thoroughly. Thankfully, she wrote 52 books and 181 articles for The New Yorker, material that will keep me reading for some time to come.

Genre: Biographies & Memoirs, History, China
Print Length: 454 pages
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication Date: April 1, 2014
Original Publication Date: 1944

Guardian Angel I

guardian angel by Prayitno / Thank you for (11 millions +) views, on Flickr
Great were the results of my mother’s prayers. She always got what she prayed for, or so we kids thought. When I complained that prayers didn’t work, Mom insisted that, while God answers all prayers, his answers aren’t always what we want. And then she would remind me of the nights she sat on my bed while I said my prayers, to remind me to ask for God’s help to stop biting my fingernails. And I remembered.

 

Years later, I stopped praying myself, but I know Mom never did. And I believed her prayers directed a guardian angel for each of her children.

For example, when my brother returned from his four-year Navy stint, Mom prayed he would meet a woman like a newcomer at her church. A year or two later, while my parents were away, my sister hosted a party at the house, and my brother dropped in and met that church newcomer, a friend of one of my sister’s classmates. My brother and that newcomer have been married for more than 30 years and have three sons and a granddaughter.

As for me, at 21 I married, graduated from college, and left my parents’ home. Even at that distance, I felt a protecting spirit. My husband and I arrived in Berkeley, California, with enough money for one night in a motel room and the cleaning deposit and first month’s rent for a tiny apartment we found the next day. Had we not found that apartment on that day, or had the landlord required first and last month’s rent, we would have been out on the streets. That night, I thanked my guardian angel.

Good fortune has limits, however. As we entered our third year in Berkeley, my husband decided the marriage wasn’t working. He moved out; I kept the apartment. He took our tent, a sleeping bag, and a bicycle; I kept the borrowed bed and the car I was still making payments on. I had never felt so alone.

To keep in touch with the few people I knew, I wanted to keep the same phone number. The phone company wanted me to set up a new account with a new number. Business practices at that time required I get my husband’s permission to keep “his” number (since another business practice was to issue all accounts in the husband’s name). Businesses presumed an angry wife would run up large bills on her husband’s accounts before a divorce.

I didn’t know where my almost-ex-husband lived and was close to giving up when, suddenly one day, he stopped by the apartment. He signed the form, and I kept the phone number. Such a little detail, but oh, so important for the rest of this story.

By this time, I had decided to go to graduate school and had been accepted at California State University at San Francisco for the following January. I didn’t know how I would pay for it. I would have to quit my job in Berkeley and assumed I would have to find a part-time job in San Francisco. Instead of worrying, I decided to wait to see how things turned out.

Then, one early November morning, I overslept. I was already late, and my hand was on the doorknob when the phone rang. I almost ignored it. But these were the days before answering machines, and my curiosity over who was calling prevailed. I answered the call. On the other end, the producer of a San Francisco television program, Pippa’s Prize Movie, explained my phone number had been selected at random from the phone book (remember those?), and she asked if I was willing to take part in their contest. She mentioned a consolation prize, complimentary dinner for two at a San Francisco restaurant. My mind began running through the names of people l knew, searching for someone I could invite to join me for dinner, as the producer explained she would call me back in five minutes for the contest itself.

During those five minutes, I recalled having read a piece by my favorite columnist, Herb Caen, where he mentioned this contest. I found the newspaper, reread the column, and located what I thought was a clue before the phone rang again. Pippa played a song, barely audible through the receiver of the phone (I didn’t own a TV). When she asked me to name the tune, I said, “I understand it is the theme from the movie, ‘They Call Me Mr. Tibbs.’”

“You’re right!” Pippa said.

“I am?” I asked.

All those events, set up by my guardian angel, and I didn’t know I had the answer.

The next day, Herb Caen mentioned me in his column; Pippa’s Prize Movie became Pippa’s Morning Movie, altering the format by eliminating the prize; and I had five minutes of fame as I received, on air, a check from Channel 7 for $2,219. More than enough for my first semester of graduate school in 1973.

Thank you, guardian angel!

Book Review: The Bonfire of the Vanities

bonfireofthevanitiesFour starsBecause of the length of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, I was willing to read the first 75 pages to get to the heart of the story. After all, Wolfe writes very well. When I reached the inciting incident, what the Amazon summary calls “a freak accident in the Bronx,” I thought I was at the beginning of an important story, one that would explore the disparity in the conditions of life for the rich vs. the poor, for whites vs. persons of color and even, perhaps, begin to explain the source of the inequities. Instead, the inciting event, the “freak accident,” serves only to point out exactly what the title promises—that all is vanity.

While Sherman McCoy may be the central character in this novel, and the only character whose life at the end differs significantly from what it was at the beginning, he is no more likable than any of the other players, each of them involved only for what they can get out of life to polish and prop up their images and reputations.

He makes a wrong turn after picking up his mistress at the airport and ends up in the Bronx, a part of New York that he knows little about and even less about how to get out of. His bossy mistress badgers him, figuratively poking his ego, questioning whether he really knows what he’s doing or where he’s going. In this haze of dealing with his wounded pride, he jumps to a conclusion about the intentions of two young Black men he encounters as he searched in the dark for a ramp to a road back to Manhattan. To his credit, he quickly realizes he may have misjudged the two men, but instead of insisting on reporting the incident, he allows his mistress to win the argument as she replays his original assumptions and flatters his male ego by pointing out his heroism at saving her from a terrible situation.

Tom Wolfe paints memorable word pictures of the characters, complete with the idiosyncratic dialects of McCoy’s southern mistress and the New Yorkers of various ethnic stripes. He went overboard in his attempt to render dialogue according to dialect, making me thankful that he didn’t try to stick with the non-standard spellings throughout. After getting enough of a sense of the differences in the dialects, I skipped over the transliterations. That cut down a bit on how much I had to read to finish the novel.

My specific copy also contained eight entirely blank pages, beginning with page 535 and every three or four pages thereafter until page 563. I didn’t feel I missed anything by skipping those pages.

I wish the novel had dealt more seriously with the inciting incident and that more of the characters were changed. But that’s a judgment from 30 years after this book was written. Hopefully, such a story won’t need nearly 650 pages to tell.

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Print Length: 623 pages
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux (November 1987)
Publication Date: November 1987