Archive for August, 2016

Bound Voices

Celia, a Slave, by Barbara Seyda, (Yale University Press), 112 pages, release date 16 August, 2016

Barbara Seyda’s Celia, a Slave deservedly won the 2015 Yale Drama Series competition. I’ve been thinking about this review for a while and just don’t know that I can do this title justice, but I’ll give it a try.

The framework on which Celia, a Slave hangs is the trial of the play’s title character for the murder of her white owner. The play lacks a linear narrative (a statement of fact, not a criticism) so understanding that context helps, but theatre-goers and readers are left to construct a narrative for themselves out of the material Seyda presents. The play offers a series of non-chronological monologues that make substantial use of legal documents and archival records from that era. The voices of the play, African American and white, slave and master are real, not an imagining of what might have happened, been done, been said, been thought—but the actual words and thoughts as recorded at that time.

I hope someday to see a production of Celia, a Slave, but whether or not I do, the play itself is worth reading. It moves from monologue to monologue, using lighting to isolate the individual characters so that they stand alone, even on a stage that holds a number of actors. This series of individual presentations puts the reader/viewer inside each character by its elimination of an “outside,” of a more comforting, more acceptable voice one can listen to and identify with while being presented with painful truths.

The structure and voices of Celia, a Slave are challenging, but the truths the play uncovers are essential for understanding, not just Celia’s time, but our own as well.

August 23 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Lincoln and Speed: Springfield Detectives

These Honored Dead: A Lincoln and Speed Mystery, by Jonathan F. Putnam, (Crooked Lane Books), 304 pages, release date 9 August, 2016

These Honored Dead offers a compelling central premise: a young Abraham Lincoln, just arrived in Springfield, and Joshua Speed, a part owner of a local dry goods store, share a bed (as was common at that time) and find themselves working together to solve a mystery. The two men begin as ciphers to one another and their acquaintance develops gradually. Speed, the son of a plantation owner, comfortably accepts the institution of slavery; Lincoln is already opposed to it. When Speed’s younger sister arrives on the scene, determined to escape the life of a proper woman of her social class, she seems to understand Lincoln—and the mystery—more readily than does her brother.

These Honored Dead isn’t “high literature,” but its attempt at portraying a young Lincoln and placing him alongside a foil like Speed is certainly interesting. This is the sort of book that one hopes will have sequels. The developing Speed-Lincoln partnerships leaves ample ground for further development.

August 22 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Anarchists Past and Present

The Attempt, by Magdalená Platzová, translated by Alex Zucker, (Bellevue Literary Press), 224 pages, released 10 May, 2016

Magdalená Platzová’s The Attempt is one of those novels that rewards multiple readings—and the concise beauty of her prose makes multiple readings easily possible. This work of historical fiction ranges from the anarchist communities of 1920s Europe to the recent Occupy Wall Street movement.  Besides its two historical threads, this book offers a meditation on political resistance; it jumps forward and backward in time, looking at the interplay between individual lives and larger political constructs. When you want a book that will really make you think—not for a few moments, but at length—reach for this title.

August 18 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

The Cultural Evolution of Hominim Fossils

Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils, by Lydia Pyne, (Viking), 288 pages, release date 16 August, 2016

In Seven Skeletons, science historian Lydia Pyne takes an evolutionary approach to some of the world’s best know human fossils. This evolutionary approach includes discussion of these fossils’ places on the tree of hominim development, but its real focus is their post-discovery evolution—the way they became the cultural icons they are today.

While occasionally repetitive, Pyne’s approach is fresh and engaging. Some of these fossils made a scientific splash from the moment of their discovery, but others were initially ignored or undervalued. Pyne also spend time considering Piltdown man, originally hailed as “the first Englishmen,” but consigned to the ranks of ignominy when the fossils were revealed to be a hoax.

Most of the fossils discussed will seem like old friends to readers. Learning about their “afterlives” adds to our understanding not just of them, but of ourselves.


August 16 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Before Holmes, There Was Mrs. Glasser

The Female Detective: A British Library Crime Classic, by Andrew Forrester, (Poisoned Pen Press), 256 pages, release date 2 August, 2016

The Female Detective is a delightful piece of literary history. Originally published in May, 1864, it is believed to be the first book-length collection of detective stories featuring a female detective. The protagonist and narrator, who never tell us her name, but sometimes uses the aliases Mrs. Glasser or G, appeared at a time when women had not yet entered the ranks of British police, so in a sense these are not just detective stories, but alternate reality pieces as well. The fact that G lives in a world where other women work as police and as detectives adds to this alternate reality. She is exceptional in her skills, but not as exceptional in terms of her professional identity.

The quality of the narration—and of the mysteries themselves—varies, but always avoids tedium. Two of the tales included are novella-length; the remainder are more typical short stories. In addition to recounting specific cases, G  makes general observations about her profession: the detective’s habits of thought, the kinds of access to suspects and witnesses available to female detectives that is not available to their male peers. The prose can get turgid, but that is a marker of the time period more than a particular weakness of Andrew Forrester’s writing. In fact, most readers will find their vocabularies broadened by this reading, learning terms like defalcation, absquatulation, blague, doucer, and ukase. (For those who are interested, these are defined as embezzlement, an abrupt departure, nonsense, a bribe, and an arbitrary command.)

G has the tone of later hard-boiled detectives. She notes bribing an informant: “my acts being of course illustrated with several silver portraits of her majesty the Queen.” One local character is pitied in “a small-beer kind of way.” In a statement both cynical and feminine she tells us “the public see the right side only of the police embroidery, and have no idea what a complication of mistakes and broken threads there are on the wrong.”

Not surprisingly, class and nationality are frequently used to assess the reliability or worth of individuals. G tells us she will not reproduce the text of a suicide note “for it was badly spelt, and written in a highflown sentimental style, which might appear ridiculous to the more unthinking of my readers.” One story notes the “mutual candor” to be found among “men who have gone to school and been thrashed together.” A local police offices shows “rustic signs of impatience.”

Of particularly interesting note is one case that hinges, in part, on a dog who doesn’t bark—this some thirty years before Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will solve the case of “Silver Blaze” using a similar clue.

The Female Detective is well worth a read for its own sake and for the perspectives it gives us on British life and gender roles in the mid-1800s. Poisoned Pen’s reissue of this title is a real gift to readers of detective fiction.

August 15 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Uncomfortable, Valuable Reading

A Meal in Winter: A Novel of World War II, by Hubert Mingarelli, translated by Sam Taylor, (The New Press), 144 pages, release date 5 July, 2015

Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter offers a brief, deceptively simple tale: in occupied Poland, during World War II, a trio of German soldiers, desperate to escape their bloody, daily work as executioners, gain permission to leave their base to search for hidden Jews. They take a prisoner, spend an evening in an abandoned cabin with this prisoner and a Polish national, putting together a stew of cornmeal, sausage, and the local rot-gut alcohol.

Mingarelli’s novel was originally published in French in 2014, and this English translation is both a welcome and a distressing piece of work. No one in this novel is truly likeable, but the motivations of characters are presented with enough clarity that readers can’t simply vilify them with a smug “I would never.” The central characters are all living lives they despise, choosing between multiple evils on a daily basis.

Did I enjoy this novel? No. Will I be reading it again? Yes. This is the sort of reading that isn’t pleasurable, but is necessary, forcing confrontation with historical fact and with what may potentially lie inside each of us. You can read A Meal in Winter in an evening, but it will remain with you for much, much longer.

August 12 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Dr. Siri Paiboun Rides Again

I Shot the Buddha: A Doctor Siri Paiboun Mystery Set in Laos, by Colin Cotterill, (Soho Crime), 352 pages, released 2 August, 2016

Back in May, 2015, I reviewed the previous Dr. Siri Paiboun novel, which was the tenth in the series. I loved every moment of it: the deft interweaving of humor and the history of modern Laos and the unusual range of characters peopling it. Well, good news! Dr. Siri is back in I Shot the Buddha. He’s retired from his position as coroner, but the mysteries keep coming.

This time, he’s taking on a mission for Noo, a homeless Buddhist monk who had been living with Dr. Siri and his wife, Madame Daeng and who has suddenly disappeared. Noo leaves behind a note asking Dr. Siri to help smuggle another monk across the Mekhong into Thailand. Dr. Siri finds himself in a hostile Thai village where he must solve a series of horrible crimes if he wants to have any hope of returning to Laos. At the center of the mystery is a mechanic who may or may not be the latest incarnation of the Buddha and the legacy of colonial occupation.

Read this book both for the fun it offers and for the basic education in Buddhism and Lao/Thai history that it offers as a side dish.


August 10 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

The Long Shadow of Racism Depicted in a YA Paranormal Novel

What the Dead Want, by Nora Olson, (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins), 304 pages, released 26 July, 2016, listed by the publisher as directed to readers thirteen years old and above

Nora Olson’s What the Dead Want explores racism, war, and hatred using both paranormal conventions and a variety of prose genres. The previous sentence may sound ponderous, but the novel isn’t. Gretchen, the protagonist, is the daughter of a father who is gone for months at a time on medical missions and a mother who ran a gallery specializing in spiritualist photography. Her mother disappeared years ago, and Gretchen is primarily being raised by a neighbor. Gretchen is, like her mother, a photographer, though not of the spiritualist variety.

At the start of summer vacation, Gretchen receives a phone call from a great-aunt she never knew of who wants to bequeath a mansion to Gretchen, but first needs Gretchen to come and help “tidy up” the place. When she enters the cluttered mansion, Gretchen realizes that tidying up will be a major undertaking—and that’s before she encounters any of the malevolent spirits who make the mansion their home.

Gretchen discovers that her great-aunt was a well-known war photographer, who spent her life capturing important, but disturbing images of some of the 20th Century’s great conflicts. In addition, the mansion grounds themselves were the site of an atrocity: a mass killing of of members of a Black church by racist vigilantes. For years accidents and deaths have occurred on the anniversary of that atrocity. And, of course, that anniversary is coming soon.

As Gretchen works to overcome the spirits haunting the mansion, she—and through her, the reader—is given a chance to reflect on the lasting impact of violence. She is moved less by the atrocities themselves than by the lost histories of those killed in the atrocities. She wants, in some way, to do right by these victims, which means she has to puzzle out “what the dead want.” Because Gretchen is both clever and brave, she finds a way of doing what she can to ease the mansion’s spirits.

Olson peppers the novel with invented “historical” documents, including newspaper clippings, letters, and photographs. This provides perspectives—both destructive and benign—beyond Gretchen’s own.

If you know a middle schooler who loves paranormal fiction and who also worries about questions of justice, What the Dead Want will provide her with satisfying reading. Yes, the world’s great history of violence can’t be easily resolved in a novel of 300 pages, but 300 pages is enough to raise important questions and to offer some possibilities for addressing these wrongs.


August 08 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Mystery and Religious Conflict in 16th Century Spain

The Devils of Cardona, by Matthew Carr, (Riverhead Books), 416 Pages, released 14 June, 2016

Matthew Carr’s The Devils of Cardona is set in 16th Century Spain, a time and land fraught with conflict between the Catholic government and its morisco citizens: Muslims forcibly converted to Catholicism. When a hated priest serving in a morisco community is found murdered in his own church, magistrate Bernardo de Mendoza is ordered to investigate the crime. What follows is tale of shifting suspicions and additional murders. Are these crimes being committed by moriscos? Are they being committed by powerful Catholic landowners hoping for an excuse to drive the moriscos away? Are they about faith or money or power or some combination of these?

While I’m not a historian, I want to say that I found the period detail in this novel very convincing, particularly the portrayal of religious conflict at that time. Mendoza—a humanist, which is unusual for his time—doesn’t just uncover clues to the murders. He also learns a good deal about life in the morisco community: the prejudices they face and the lengths they must go to in order to preserve their religion. Because Mendoza is not firmly committed to either side in this religious conflict, he provides an open-minded perspective that will appeal to present-day readers.

If you enjoy historical mysteries that effectively explore the eras in which they’re set, you’ll want to read The Devils of Cardona. Even if you’re not interested in historical settings, The Devils of Cardona will offer you a complex and satisfying read.

August 04 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Native American Children Stolen and Stolen Again

Stealing Indians, by John Smelcer, (Leapfrog Press), 200 pages, release date 2 August, 2016, recommended by the publisher for grades six an up

John Smelcer has published over fifty books, both fiction and nonfiction—but finding a publisher for Stealing Indians was a challenge. Why? Because the topic precludes a happy ending, something generally expected in young adult fiction.

His topic is the forced removal of Native American children from their homes and their placement in residential schools. Indians are stolen in two different ways in this novel, first by their displacement, then again as the federally run schools attempt to eradicate every trace of their Indian heritage. These schools operated from the late 1800s well into the 20th Century. Many were still functioning into the 1950s; a few were still in place in the 1970s.

At the center of this novel are four friends, each from a different region and tribe. Their school, as was typical of these schools, forbids the speaking of native languages, forbids the celebration of native ceremonies, forbids all traditional practices. The punishments for breaking these rules are brutal. Students are at risk of violence and sexual assault from those running the schools and from older children. Yet the friends manage to support one another.

Stealing Indians makes for heart-breaking, but necessary, reading. Smecler’s characters are vivid and complex creations. Thanks to Smecler’s articulate, finely-tuned prose, they retain their dignity throughout the novel, as their lives narrow and grow increasingly bleak.

Smecler, son of an Alaskan Native father, has served as executive director of his tribe’s Heritage Foundation. He has worked compiling and editing Native language dictionaries and pronunciation guides. He has also conducted extensive interviews with survivors of the Indian residential school system. He knows his topic—and knows tidy, happy endings wouldn’t be appropriate. As publicity materials for Stealing Indians say, “This is a work of fiction. Every word is true.”

August 03 2016 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

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