‘The wet air was as cold as the ashes of love.’ – Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

April 14, 2018 at 10:01 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I just finished Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler and my head is so full of this astonishing jumble of (at times, frustrating) episodic brilliance that I can’t at the moment think or write about anything else.

There’s plenty of tension in this yarn, some of it generated by the interplay of opposites: good cop versus bad cop, a beautiful but deadly female versus a woman of genuine virtue and compassion. There are lots more characters, from the large yet love-struck and improbably named Moose Malloy to the unlikely – and distinctly unlikable – ‘Psychic Consultant’ names Jules Amthor.

And in the midst of it all, Philip Marlowe, licensed private eye, trying to make sense of it all.

For this reader, the strangest, almost inexplicable interaction occurs between Marlowe and a man called Red Norgaard. Marlowe is in search of a power broker named Laird Brunette. Red – he of the fire-colored hair and outsized build – plies the offshore waters of the Pacific in his motor boat, He offers to help Marlowe board a gambling ship illegally – i.e., with a gun. Their interaction is quite lengthy; in the course of it, Marlowe is moved to disclose something of himself that’s normally kept well out of sight. He begins by stating bluntly that he’s scared, then going on to elaborate.

“I’m afraid of  death and despair,” I said. “Of dark water and drowned men’s  faces and skulls with empty eyesockets. I’m afraid of dying, of being nothing, of not finding a man named Brunette.”

Red is a straight arrow of a guy. He’s not at all stupid but he’s not given to existential ruminations either. His reaction to Marlowe’s disclosure:

He chuckled. “You had me going for a minute. You sure give yourself a pep talk.”

Somehow, though, Red has touched something deep in Marlowe. Perhaps it was a his straightforward kindness, his willingness to help a stranger on a dangerous mission.

Hardboiled protagonists are famously portrayed as loners. But in this instance, Marlowe needed a friend and, like a blessing, one appeared at precisely the right moment. Later, after his harrowing adventure at sea:

I thought of the giant with the red hair and violet eyes, who was probably the nicest man I had ever met.

(It’s a safe assumption that Marlowe does not meet many ‘nice’ men – nor women, for that matter – in his line of work.)

Figurative language abounds in Farewell, My Lovely, sometimes it’s almost hypnotic. Of Nulty the cop:

He hung up and scribbled on a pad and  there was a  faint gleam in his eyes, a light far back in a dusty corridor.

Other times it’s downright disconcerting. Of Moose Malloy, on the novel’s first page:

He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.

(This made me think of Mercutio’s riposte to Romeo: “‘…’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a  church-door…'”)

Subsequently, still descriptive of Moose Malloy:

Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.

Of a room just entered:

A couple of frayed lamps with once gaudy shades that were now as gay as superannuated streetwalkers.

There’s more, this mode of expression being one of the hallmarks of hardboiled prose. And this is probably as  good a place as any to quote a paragraph that seems to me emblematic of the style:

I got up on my feet and over to the bowl in the corner and threw cold water on my face. After a little while I felt a little better, but very little. I needed a drink. I needed a lot of life insurance. I needed a vacation. I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room.

And the plot? On the site Detnovel.com, Prof. William Marling calls it “disjointed.” Hah!  I call it all but incomprehensible. A multipliicity of twists and turns. A McGuffin in the form of a supposedly priceless jade necklace. Strange hand rolled cigarettes with secrets inside. Really, I was pretty much lost by the time we reached the back stretch. But you know what? It didn’t matter. By then I was all but mesmerized by the at times almost poetic urgency of the first person prose.

It has to be mentioned that Farewell, My Lovely has its share of ethnic slurs.The instances are not overabundant, but they are there, and they are jarring. Say what you will about “the times,” one wishes – I wish – that they could be made to go away. (This was in fact actually done in this country with post-World-War-Two editions of the works of Agatha Christie.)

I was prompted to read Farewell, My Lovely by the fact that it’s the June selection for the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group. I’d actually been wanting to get back to Chandler for some time. This forms part of my extremely enjoyable program of returning to the classics of crime fiction. I’ve recently read these two:

 

Trent’s Last Case (1913) was termed by Dorothy L. Sayers to be “…a tale of unusual brilliance and charm, startlingly original”; Agatha Christie called it “One of the three best detective stories  ever written.” (I’d like very much to know what Christie’s other two choices for this designation were.) The Robthorne Mystery is less well known. Published in 1934, this quintessential English village mystery turns on a puzzling question of identity. I though the plot exceptionally well wrought. John Rhode’s real name was Cecil John Charles Street. Also writing as Miles Burton and Cecil Wayne, he was extremely prolific. (See the ‘Bibliography’ section of his Wikipedia entry.)  I enjoyed The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton.

Farewell, My Lovely exists in two notable screen versions. The first was released in 1944, titled Murder, My Sweet, and starring Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe and Claire Trevor as Mrs. Lewin Lockridge Grayle –  sometimes called Helen Grayle, other times called something else.

The second version from 1975 retains the original title and stars Robert Mitchum and Charlotte Rampling.

**************

  The Modern Library edition of Farewell, My Lovely that I just read also contains The Big Sleep, which I read years ago. This volume was published in 1995. Right after the last page of the novel, there’s a list of those who were on the editorial board at the time of publication:

Maya Angelou
Daniel J. Boorstin
A.S. Byatt
Christopher Cerf
Shelby Foote
Vartan Gregorian
Larry McMurtry
Edmund Morris
John Richardson
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
William Styron
Gore Vidal

Some very distinguished names. Most – but not all – have now passed from the scene.

I love the photo of Chandler on the cover of the Modern Library edition. The other photo of Chandler that I cherish is this one: Chandler and his wife Cissy both doted on Taki the cat.

The story of Raymond Chandler’s life is both fascinating and surprising. I recommend  A Mysterious Something in the Light: A Life of Raymond Chandler by Tom Williams.

 

 

 

 

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‘A light, almost transparent mist floated a few inches above a run of water near the trees, and the mist clung between the trees like a fallen cloud.’ – Jackrabbit Smile, by Joe R. Lansdale

April 8, 2018 at 4:15 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  I’m always happy to encounter lovely descriptive writing, never more so than when I’m immersed in a work of crime fiction. The line quoted above in the title occurs about a third of the way in. It is not the only instance of lyrical prose in the novel.

There’s quite a bit of humor too, mostly consisting of snappy dialog and self-deprecating putdowns, all in the hoary tradition of hard-boiled prose. That aspect of Jackrabbit Smile reminded of me of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels; in addition there’s the banter between Hap and Leonard that’s reminiscent of the rapid fire quips exchanged by Spenser and Hawk. (Similar, but not the same; for this reader, Parker’s Spenser novels are irreplaceable.)

Joe Lansdale’s novel The Bottoms won the 2001 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel; in addition, it was a finalist for several other accolades. (See his entry in Stop!You’reKillingMe.com.) There’s something about crime fiction set in Texas that seems to lend an enveloping at times almost suffocating, atmosphere to the action. One thinks first of last year’s memorable Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke.Then there’s true crime that likewise unfolds in The Lone Star State: The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth and the older but riveting and unforgettable  Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson.

So at this point, are you sensing a “but” hovering over this write-up? The fact is, I have reservations about this book. They can be simply expressed in three words: vulgarity, profanity, and violence. Maybe it was just me, but it seemed as  though all three of these elements became increasingly prominent as the narrative unfolded.

I can accept a certain amount of coarse dialog in mystery fiction. And violence – well, we are talking about crime. But at what point do one, or both, become intolerable? I can’t pinpoint the moment. It’s down to the individual reader, I think.

And so I ended by being somewhat disappointed, albeit in a wistful way, with Jackrabbit Smile. I consider Joe Lansdale to be a fine writer with a sure grip on the conventions of crime writing. He has the ability to push the outer envelope in good ways, too. Hap and Leonard are genuinely appealing characters. (As this novel opens, Hap has just married his business partner Brett.) I can’t say how similar the other Hap and Leonard books are to this one, it being the only one that I’ve read. I may come back to the series in time – but not right away.

The Hap and Leonard series has been adapted for television by the Sundance Channel.

Joe R. Lansdale’s Wikipedia entry lists his occupations as “Writer, author, martial arts instructor.” He appears to be a lifelong Texan, currently residing in Nacogdoches. (The Nacogdoche are a Native American tribe originating in eastern Texas.)

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Sleeping in the Ground by Peter Robinson

April 4, 2018 at 7:22 pm (Book review, books, Music, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

  One of the aspects of Peter Robinson‘s Alan Banks novels that I most enjoy is Banks’s love of music. It’s an extremely eclectic affection – everything from rock to classical. In Sleeping in the Ground, I was especially pleased to encounter not one but two references to Gustav Mahler, a composer for whom my husband and I have a deep and abiding love. Banks mentions that Mahler wanted to hear Schubert’s Quintet in C as he lay on his deathbed. When you hear the Adagio from this work, you will understand this request:

Sleeping in the Ground begins with a horrendous act of violence, followed by an extremely tortuous investigation. Because of the nature of this particular crime, one is all the more appreciative of Banks’s dogged persistence, not to mention his shrewd instincts, honed by his many years on the job. He is a person of deep conviction and steadfast determination.

He is also a reserved and somewhat lonely man, divorced and the father of two adult children who have pretty much gone their own way and check in with him from time to time. Banks’s ex-wife has remarried; he has not. He’s had a few relationships, but none that have lasted. In this novel his old flame Jenny Fuller, psychologist and criminal profiler, re-enters his life, both professionally and personally. She’s been living in Australia, but now she’s back to stay. What will this mean, for the two of them?

After dinner together in the snug of a local pub, they’re still not sure. While not ruling out a renewal of their romance, Jenny nonetheless favors a go slow approach.

Banks didn’t know where his next thought came from, and he had  the good sense and quick enough wits to stop before he spoke it out aloud, but as he leaned back and reached for his beer glass, it flashed through his mind, as clear as anything: I don’t want to grow old alone.

Straight-up, unpretentious writing about straight-up unpretentious people – it’s one of the qualities I most appreciate in Peter Robinson’s wonderful long running series of procedurals.

Peter Robinson

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‘Holmes smiled. He was always warmed by genuine admiration—the characteristic of the real artist.’ – The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and The English Country House Mystery

March 25, 2018 at 9:37 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  The May 2017 issue of CADS 75 (Crime and Detective Stories) features an article by  Kate Jackson entitled.”Doyle’s The Valley of Fear and the Country House Mystery Novel.” The author had encountered an intriguing assertion made  by Zach Dundas in The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes. Dundas contends that The Valley of Fear  stood as  “prototype for the soon-to-be-classic English country-house murder mystery.” Jackson was intrigued and decided to investigate this claim.

In the event, she was not convinced; in fact, she believes that if there is a work in the Conan Doyle canon that prefigures the English country house mystery trope, it’s The Hound of the Baskervilles rather than The Valley of Fear.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s piece served as a reminder to me that I’d never read The Valley of Fear. So I set about remedying this omission. The result: I enjoyed this novella far more than I’d expected to.

I hadn’t realized that The Valley of Fear is in a sense a bifurcated novel. The first part describes a crime that by and  large replicates the classic country house murder scenario as we know it today (although it must  be recalled that The Valley of Fear is in fact a very early exemplar, having first appeared in The Strand Magazine between September 1914 and May 1915).

Then, much to my surprise, the scene suddenly shifts to the Great American West. According to Wikipedia, this part of the novel was inspired by the activities of the notorious Molly Maguires and by the renown and resourcefulness of Pinkerton Agency detective James McParland.

I never expected to be reading a Western by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s been a while  since I read this book, but one thing I do remember: I enjoyed it tremendously, especially the second half.

Forthwith, some excerpts from The Valley of Fear:

“A touch! A distinct touch!” cried Holmes. “You are developing a certain unexpected vein of pawky humour, Watson, against which I must learn to guard myself.”

(Wiktionary defines “pawky” as ‘Shrewd, sly; often also characterised by a sarcastic sense of humour,’ adding that the word originates in northern England and Scotland.)

The second speaker is Sherlock Holmes.

“You mean that he has a great income and that he must earn it in an illegal fashion?”

“Exactly. Of course I have other reasons for thinking so—dozens of exiguous threads which lead vaguely up towards the centre of the web where the poisonous, motionless creature is lurking.”

The first speaker is Sherlock Holmes:

“Have you ever read of Jonathan Wild?”

“Well, the name has a familiar sound. Someone in a novel, was he not? I don’t take much stock of detectives in novels—chaps that do things and never let you see how they do them. That’s just inspiration: not business.”

“Jonathan Wild wasn’t a detective, and he wasn’t in a novel. He was a master criminal, and he lived last century—1750 or thereabouts.”

“Then he’s no use to me. I’m a practical man.”

“Mr. Mac, the most practical thing that you ever did in your life would be to shut yourself up for three months and read twelve hours a day at the annals of crime. Everything comes in circles—even Professor Moriarty. Jonathan Wild was the hidden force of the London criminals, to whom he sold his brains and his organization on a fifteen per cent commission. The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up. It’s all been done before, and will be again.”

I’m no Sherlockian scholar, but it seems to me that Conan Doyle isn’t given sufficient credit for the eloquence and inventiveness of his dialog (not to mention the sheer wittiness when you least expect it). To my mind, this is one of the chief aspects of the stories that makes them so readable even more than a hundred after they were first penned. I should also add that as I was reading reading The Valley of Fear, the character of Holmes became particularly vivid to me. He increasingly came across as congenial; dare I venture, even at times, sprightly.

The English country house murder is almost a crime fiction subgenre unto itself. Novels and stories with this setting were fairly abundant during the Golden Age; that is, the era between the two World Wars. I found several “best” lists online, such as this one from the blog Crossexamining crime, and this  from The Strand Magazine. Regarding the first, having recently finally gotten around to reading An English Murder by Cyril Hare, I confess I was somewhat disappointed. Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White has been recommended in numerous places, but I tried to read it more than once and had to give up. (This, despite very much enjoying White’s The Wheel Spins, the novel on which Hitchcock’s film The Lady Vanishes was based.) However, further down on the list I was pleased to encounter several favorites: Envious Casca by Georgette Heyer, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie, and most especially Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers and The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey. Regarding this last, let me quote from an earlier post I wrote on The Art of the Mystery:

Franchise is one of my all time favorite novels. Tey drew her inspiration for it from two actual  criminal cases. An adolescent girl levels a bizarre, horrifying accusation against Marion Sharpe and her mother. The Sharpes, who live in genteel poverty in a house called The Franchise, are stunned and bewildered by this turn of events. They have no idea what this girl is talking about and claim never to have seen her before.  The clashing versions of reality give momentum to a narrative that is riveting from start to finish. Comic relief is provided by the elder Mrs. Sharpe, whose name fits the action of her tongue perfectly!

Of the ten titles enumerated by William Shaw for The Strand Magazine, I’ve read and enjoyed all but two: Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin and Blacklands by Belinda Bauer.I’m so glad that William Shaw makes mention of Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Height, a truly great novel in any genre. Shaw states simply: “Hill was a brilliant writer.” I could not agree more. Here’s a link to Celebrating Reginald Hill, an appreciation organized by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain in 2012 . I felt very honored to be included in this company!

  One of my favorite short story anthologies is entitled English Country House Murders. Delightfully subtitled Tales of Perfidious Albion, it’s edited by Thomas Godfrey and was published by The Mysterious Press in 1989. (Rather curiously, both the paperback and a 1988 hardback edition have a different subtitle: Classic Crime Fiction of Britain’s Upper Crust.) This collection starts off with a bang: two terrific tales, ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” by Conan Doyle and “A Marriage Tragedy” by Wilkie Collins. There are also stories by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, and numerous others.

In his Introduction, Thomas Godfrey considers this question: “How to define  the English Country House Mystery?” He comes up with some lively suggestions, several of which are offered in a decidedly decidedly tongue in cheek spirit. To wit:

Authentic English Country House Mysteries should only be written by authentic English authors. (Americans and Canadians need not apply.)

Of course, there should  be a crime, with murder being preferred.

“Poison is the prescribed means for eliminating victims in English Country House Mysteries. The alternative is a good solid wallop on the head. (I find defenestration shockingly under-utilized and commend it to new practitioners of the art.)”

“The crime, whether attempted or successful, should take place in the house on the grounds. If events take the investigation elsewhere, the earliest possible return to the house is in order.”

There’s more, but you get the idea. English Country House Murders is available from Amazon and through interlibrary loan.

 

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P.D. James and Ruth Rendell

March 21, 2018 at 2:47 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Short stories)

There is a sense in which I can add nothing to this portrait of two exemplars of excellence in the writing of crime fiction. Nevertheless, I feel the need to try, especially after recently revisiting their works.

  P.D. James died in 2014 at the age of 94. This slender volume was published just last year. One does not ordinarily think of James in regard to short stories; her art was most expressive in the long form of the novel. There she had scope for her examination of the moral struggles of the men and women who were her subjects. The stories that comprise this anthology are not police procedurals; rather, they’re tales of seemingly ordinary people acting under extreme and unanticipated duress. And throughout, we are treated to Baroness James’s exquisite prose, like this passage from “The Girl Who Loved Graveyards:”

It was to be another warm day, and over the serried rows of headstones lay a thin haze pierced by the occasional obelisk and by the wing tips of marble angels whose disembodied heads seemed to be floating on particles of shimmering light. And as she watched motionless in an absorbed enchantment, the mist began to rise and the whole cemetery was revealed to her, a miracle of stone and marble, bright grass and summer-laden trees, flower-bedecked  graves and intersecting paths stretching as far as the eye could see. In the distance she could just make out the spire of a Victorian chapel, gleaming like  the spire of some magical castle in a long-forgotten fairy tale.

I enjoyed all of these tales, but I think my favorite was the first, the improbably named but cunningly plotted “The Yo-Yo.” Three of these six stories were initially published in a series of anthologies  called Winter’s Crimes. I remember these books regularly entering the library’s collection when I first went to work there in 1982. Here’s the background on those volumes, from the Internet Book List:

The Winter’s Crimes anthology series was launched in 1969 by the London publishing house, Macmillan, at first under the auspices of George Hardinge. For several years the series was edited some years by Hardinge and in other years by another Macmillan editor, Hilary Watson, except for Winter’s Crimes 5, edited by Virginia Whitaker. In 1983, Hilary Watson married her fellow Macmillan editor and literary agent James Hale, and continued the series under her pleasantly alliterative married name, Hilary Hale. With the 23rd volume in 1991, editorship passed to Maria Rejt, who finished out the series with Winter’s Crimes 24.

George Hardinge edited a 2-volume “Best of” anthology from the first 17 volumes (the ISBN for the 2-volume set is 033342106X) and Maxim Jakubowski selected Murders for the Fireside from the 24-volume series, following it with More Murders for the Fireside, which also contains stories from anthologies not in the series.

(Someone who, like me, loves graceful phrasing must have come up with “pleasantly alliterative.”)

At the time, I ignored these books. I was just discovering the joys of crime fiction and was pretty exclusively immersed in the genre’s long form. Little did I realize the gems I was cavalierly overlooking!

In 1992 an anthology came out entitled Murders for the Fireside: The Best of Winter’s Crimes. The contributors number among my favorite mystery writers: Eric Ambler, Robert Barnard, Colin Dexter, Dick Francis, P.D. James, Peter Lovesey, and others. At present, the library does not own Murders for the Fireside. (I’ve ordered a used copy from Amazon.)

I’ve rather strayed from the P.D. James book, and I have only one thing to add. The cumulative effect of reading these stories one after the other was the creation of a mood that is hard to describe, but I would say was characterized by a feeling of unease and apprehension bordering on dread. This was mixed with a strong desire to understand the human impulses at work in the story by going relentlessly forward. I was trying to think whose work this strange phenomenon reminded me of, and then I realized: It reminded me of Ruth Rendell.

I just finished revisiting Rendell’s Shake Hands Forever via audiobook, narrated by Nigel Anthony. Every once in a while I get in the mood to revisit one of her novels in this way. Usually, with my penchant for procedurals, it’s a Wexford novel, as this one is.

    Shake Hands Forever, published in 1975, is ninth in this series. At the beginning, I was somewhat dismayed by the characters. They seemed stereotypical, especially the women. First we meet the sour, mulish and domineering  mother of the protagonist, Robert Hathall. Then we meet his bitter and resentful ex-wife, who is much preferred by the mother to the new young wife.

We also meet Hathall’s near neighbor, a single fortyish person named Nancy Lake. She’s a very attractive woman, or so she strikes Wexford, who is immediately and powerfully drawn to her. This is a somewhat startling development, or at least it was for me; Reg Wexford is one of the most uxorious men I’ve encountered in crime fiction. (Another would be Commissario Guido Brunetti, the splendid creation of Donna Leon.) But the annoying aspect of this is that Nancy Lake is deliberating cranking up the charm for Wexford’s benefit – dare I say, she’s actually vamping him. It comes across as a performance from a much earlier era. In fact, Rendell waxes quite lyrical when describing Nancy’s effect:

She was of the season in which they were, a harvest-time woman, who brought to mind grape festivals and ripened fruit and long warm nights.

Nancy Lake may have information relevant to the Hathall investigation. Nevertheless:

He had to make an effort of will to keep questioning her in this impersonal way, for she exercised a spell, the magical combination of feminine niceness  and strong sexuality.

Grape festivals? Really?

Just as Wexford’s discomfort reaches its climax – “He remembered that he was not only a policeman but a husband who must be mindful of his marriage vows.” –  this situation quickly moves offstage. It is fortunate for Wexford, I would say, as well as for the (twenty-first century) reader.

As the plot unfolds, Hathall, Chief Inspector Reg Wexford, and Wexford’s nephew Howard Fortune, of the London CID, begin to take center stage in what is essentially a variant of that old saw, the cat and mouse game. There’s a very cunning plot afoot, and try as he might, Wexford can’t find  the key to unlock it. Howard is similarly baffled.

A passage in the classic mystery Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley describes the effect of a moment of  sudden realization that occurs in the course of an investigation:

Swiftly and spontaneously, when chance or effort puts one in possession of the key-fact in any system of baffling circumstances, one’s ideas seem to rush to group themselves anew in relation to that fact, so that they are suddenly rearranged almost before one has consciously grasped the significance of the key-fact itself.

Finally, after a long and frustrating slog, the ‘key-fact’ in this stubborn case hits Wexford like a thunderbolt. Trust me, it’s a moment worth waiting for.

A word about this novel’s title. The phrase “Shake hands forever” comes from a poem called “The Parting” by Micheal Drayton (1563-1631). Here it is:

INCE there’s no help, come let us kiss and part–
Nay, I have done, you get no more of me;
And I am glad, yea, glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly I myself can free.
Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows,
And when we meet at any time again,
Be it not seen in either of our brows
That we one jot of former love retain.
Now at the last gasp of Love’s latest breath,
When, his pulse failing, Passion speechless lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of death,
And innocence is closing up his eyes,
–Now if thou wouldst, when all have given him over,
From death to life thou might’st him yet recover.

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‘History was never very far away in New Mexico….’ Land of Burning Heat, by Judith Van Gieson

March 18, 2018 at 1:40 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Judaism, Mystery fiction)

This past Tuesday, the Usual Suspects took up Anne’s choice for discussion, a book entitled Land of Burning Heat by Judith Van Gieson. Anne explained that in advance of a trip to New Mexico she had sought out reading that would complement her journey. Van Gieson’s novel, set in Albuquerque,  seemed just the ticket.

Our discussion ranged far and wide. The plot was rather convoluted, and we didn’t spend very much time trying to untangle it. This is because at the center of the novel there resides a fascinating subject: the saga of the Conversos, sometimes called Marranos or more lately, crypto-Jews. These were Jews who escaped the Inquisition by pretending to convert to Catholicism, while all the time practicing their Jewish faith in secret.

Most of us think of the Inquisition as an event – and a despicable one at  that – that happened exclusively in Spain in the late fifteenth century. But as the expelled Jews fled to Portugal and to other Spanish speaking lands, the practices of the Inquisition followed them, first to Peru and then to Mexico City. Eventually some of these superficially converted individuals found their way north of the border.

NPR’s site has an interesting feature piece on this subject. In addition, there’s a first person narrative from a 2009 issue of Harper’s that I simply must link to because it has a title that delights me.   Also, if you’re interested in learning more on this subject, I recommend the book The Mezuzah in the Madonna’s Foot by Trudi Alexy.

We did spend some time talking about the series protagonist, Claire Reynier. Claire is an archivist at the University of New Mexico. As such, she has a natural interest in the region’s varied and colorful past.

History was never very far away in New Mexico, which was one of the things she liked about it. She enjoyed the sensation of moving from one century to another.

This is especially true as regards the rich mixture of ethnicities that have resided in the Land of Enchantment over the course of centuries.

A young woman named Isabel Santos comes to Claire’s office at the University to ask for her help. She has recently moved into the family home in nearby Bernalillo. In the process, she’s made a strange discovery. Under a loose brick in the house’s flooring, she found a wooden cross with a hole in its bottom. From this hole, Isabel extracted  a small piece of paper with writing on it. She has copied  out the text and brought it with her to show Claire. The language was not immediately recognizable, It  seemed to be a mixture of archaic Spanish and Hebrew.

Isabel Santos wanted to know what it all meant. She felt that as an archivist, Claire might be able to assist her with this conundrum. Claire is clearly intrigued. But before she can take even the smallest step toward investigating this possibly valuable find, murder rears its ugly head. And the cross and its precious secret disappear.

Rather than being the end of Claire’s involvement in the case, this turns out to be just the  beginning.

Anne provided us with a list of probing discussion questions. Here is the first:

Did you find Claire Reyner an unusual detective? What attribute equipped her for solving this case when the police and everyone else believed it was a simple interrupted burglary?

The short form answer would be that in light of her training as an historian, Claire tends to take the long view, placing that alongside factors that are more immediately relevant. As for Claire herself being an unusual detective, we thought she was, for several reasons. First of all, as an academic with a decidedly intellectual bent, she seems an unlikely person to get involved with some of the vain and venal characters she encounters as the plot unfolds. But on a more personal level, she does not come across as a strong, aggressive distaff version of the classic male tough guy cop or private eye. Nor is she as matter-of -fact, (relatively) nerveless, and upbeat as say, Kinsey Millhone. On the contrary, she seems clear-headed, thoughtful, and a bit unsure of herself. Why doesn’t she just pull out? Because she has a very clear concept of right and wrong; in other words, a conscience that won’t let her off easily, if at all.

Currently in early middle age, Claire lives alone but is kept intermittent (and not always welcome) company by her cat, Nemesis. She’s divorced and has two grown children, a son and a daughter. Neither of them lives locally, and they don’t seem to figure very prominently in her emotional life. Although she enjoys her work and has plenty of friends and colleagues in Albuquerque, she seems to be in the grip of an inchoate yearning. In other words, she’s  prey to loneliness. At least, she seemed so to me.

I found her believable, likable, and admirable.

How great it was to come back to Judith Van Gieson, a writer who so effectively evokes the otherworldly magic of New Mexico.

  I’ve been a fan of this author since I first read The Other Side of Death when it came out in 1991. The protagonist of that series is Neil Hamel, a twice divorced attorney living, like Claire Reynier, in Albuquerque. At the time the events in this series take place, Neil has a younger lover whom she calls the Kid,  an auto mechanic by day – he has his own shop – and a musician at night.

The first two pages of this novel are…well, let me quote some of it for you:

Spring moves north about as  fast as a person on foot would–fifteen to twenty miles a day. It crosses the border at El Paso and enters New Mexico at Fort Bliss….following the twists of the Rio Grande, it wanders through Las Cruces and Radium Springs, bringing chile back to Hatch. A few more days and it has entered Truth or Consequences and Elephant Butte. The whooping cranes leave Bosque del Apache, relief comes to Socorro….By mi-March the season gets to those of us who live in the Duke City, Albuquerque. On 12th Street fruit trees blossom in ice cream colors. The pansies  return with purple vigor to Civic Plaza.The Lobos are eliminated from NCAA competition. The hookers on East Central hike up their skirts. The cholos in Roosevelt Park  rip the sleeves off their black T-shirts, exposing the purple bruises of tattoos….

This intense and lyrical description is in the first paragraph on the first page. It goes on for  a while, and then becomes more specific on page 2. Now we see that there’s another kind of magic Van Gieson is equally good at summoning up:

At my place in La Vista Luxury Apartment Complex, the yellow shag carpet needed mowing; the Kid’s hair was getting a trim. His hair is thick, black and wound tight and the way to cut it is to pull out a curl and lop off an inch. The hair bounces back, the Kid’s head looks a little narrower, the floor gets littered with curls.

He sat, skinny and bare chested, in front of my bedroom mirror, and I took a hand mirror and moved it around behind him so he could see the effect of the trim. “Looks good, Chiquita,” he said. I vacuumed up the curls and helped him out of his jeans, then we got into bed.

The afternoon is the very best time: the window open to the sound of kids playing in the arroyo, motorcycles revving in the parking lot, boom box music but not too close, the polyester drapes not quite closed and sunlight playing across the wall and the Kid’s skin. Warm enough to be nice and sweaty, but not so hot as to stick together. And in the breeze the reckless, restless wanderer— spring.

“Oh, my God,” I said in a way I hadn’t all winter.

Chiquita mia,” said the Kid.

I was a real fan of the Neil Hamel novels, having read all eight of them, when the series ended – abruptly, I thought – in 1999 with Ditch Rider. The new series featuring Claire Reynier began the following year with The Stolen Blue. I read it but I remember being underwhelmed at the time, most likely because I was missing the wisecracking,  free spirited Neil Hamel. Reading Land of Burning Heat has changed my mind and made me more receptive to the Claire Reynier series. That said, The Shadow of Venus, the fifth and last entry in the series, is dated 2004. Van Gieson’s present efforts would appear to be centered on publishing. ABQ Press is an initiative aimed at promoting and sustaining New Mexico writers. What the future holds for her as a writer remains unclear – at least, to me. I’ve examined her website for clues but found none. (For a complete listing of the books in both series, see Stop! You’re Killing Me.)

Judith Van Gieson

I corresponded briefly with Judith van Gieson in the early 1990s, when I was preparing a presentation and discussion of The Other Side of Death. I recall that she was generous in providing me with background information on herself and her books. This was all done via snail mail. I may still have those notes and articles, but I have no idea where to look for them. With luck, in the course of the Great Clean-up that looms in my future, they will turn up.

Judith Van Gieson in her home in Albuquerque’s North Valley. I seem to recall reading that she was able to purchase this lovely domicile when one of her novels – or perhaps the whole series – was optioned for either film or TV by a production company. Alas, as so often happens, those plans never materialized.

One more point concerning our discussion of Land of Burning Heat: Prompted by Marge’s curiosity, we explored the subject of what it means to be Jewish; specifically, why being Jewish is different from being, say, Presbyterian or Catholic. I, for instance, tread very lightly when it comes to the observance of the Jewish religion (and that includes even the High Holy Days). Yet I consider myself unquestionably Jewish. It is an identity, in fact, of which I am singularly proud. In 2010, David Brooks wrote an article for the New York Times in which he cited the following:

Jews are a famously accomplished group. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates.

Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Ivy League student bodies, 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37 percent of the Academy Award-winning directors, 38 percent of those on a recent Business Week list of leading philanthropists, 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction.

All of this is quite splendid, but it still doesn’t answer Marge’s question. (By the way, I remember this same subject being raised when I was in Religious School: “Is being Jewish a religious identity? An ethnic identity? A nationality?” I remember being very impatient with the whole topic and just wanting to get home so I could have some Matzoh Brei.)

Finally Hilda observed: “You don’t ever hear of someone being a ‘lapsed Jew.'” Somehow that seemed to sum things up. It was a bracing discussion; it’s nice to have one of those in connection with the reading of crime fiction.

When I got back from New Mexico (the first time? second time?), I listened to Ottmar Liebert’s “Santa Fe” over and over again.

 

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“‘The dead are attached to the living, and those who have lost them are attached to the dead.'” – Ghosts of the Tsunami, by Richard Lloyd Parry

February 25, 2018 at 11:48 pm (Book review, books)

  This is a gracious and compassionate book on an extremely painful subject.

In March of 2011, a tsunami struck the Pacific coast of Japan. It was was preceded by an temblor that registered 9.0 on the Richter Scale. Known as the Tohoku Earthquake, its epicenter was situated off the country’s coast. Its effects were certainly felt and damage was done, but worse – much worse – was to come.

Most of the reporting on this calamity concentrated on the earthquake damage sustained by the nuclear power plants located in Fukushima Prefecture. There was plenty to worry about on that score. Yet that was only a small portion of the toll exacted by a series of catastrophic events.

About an hour and forty minutes after the earthquake struck, a tsunami hurled itself inland.This paragraph from Parry’s book is a succinct, horrifying summation of what happened as a result:

It was the biggest earthquake ever known to have struck Japan,and the fourth most powerful in the history of seismology. It knocked the earth ten inches off its axis; it moved Japan four feet closer to America.In the tsunami that followed, 18,500 people were drowned, burned, or crushed to death. at its peak, the water was 120 feet high. Half a million people were driven out of their homes. Three reactors in the Fukushima Dai-ichi power station melted down, spilling their radioactivity across the countryside, the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl. The earthquake and tsunami caused more than $210 billion of damage, making it the most costly natural disaster ever.

Parry’s book focuses on the fate of the teachers and the children at Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. An evacuation plan existed; it was spelled out in the pages of a notebook. But those charged with implementing it succumbed to uncertainty and confusion. In the end, they waited too long.

Writing about extreme grief from the outside is a very difficult thing to do. By exercising great empathy and sensitivity, Richard Lloyd Parry is able to accomplish this – but only just. In many cases, he allows the bereaved to speak for themselves, when they can and if they are able to.(At the time of these events, he and his wife were expecting their second child.)

He was also able to extract, from a welter of eyewitness testimony, some extraordinary stories. In one case, he describes the experience of Teruo Konno. Konno had been aiding in the effort to recover bodies from the midst of the destruction when he himself was suddenly engulfed by the wave. Through the expenditure of every every ounce of his strength and resourcefulness, and with a large dollop of luck thrown in, Konno was able to survive an incredibly harrowing ordeal. As soon as he had sufficiently recovered, he went back to helping the living in their effort to unearth the newly deceased.

They were dreadful, crushing tasks, even for one who had not gone through such an experience. But Konno found that it had left him with an indifference to mental hardship, and an absence of trepidation of any kind. He had no fear, of life or of death. He was like a man who had suffered a dangerous disease, to survive with complete immunity to future infection. The prospect of his own extinction–now, soon, or far in the future–was a matter to him of no concern at all.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, there were some strange manifestations. In some cases, survivors seemed possessed by the incorporeal presence of the dead. In others, it seemed as though ghosts were dwelling, albeit briefly, among the living:

At a refugee community in Onagawa, an old neighbor would appear in the living rooms of the temporary houses and sit down for a cup of tea with their startled occupants. No one had the heart to tell her that she was dead; the cushion on which she had sat was wet with seawater.

This narrative gets its driving force from the bitter recriminations in the aftermath of the failure to save the children at Okawa Elementary School. A suit was filed, and ultimately the city of Ishinomaki and Miyagi Prefecture were ordered to pay substantial damages to  the bereaved families who had participated as plaintiffs in the action. The courtroom confrontation was aimed more at ascertaining the truth rather than obtaining a large payout (although many survivors were in desperate need of assistance). The terrible pain of the loss, however, could not be assuaged in this way – or in any way.

The true mystery of Okawa School was the one we all face. No mind can encompass it; consciousness recoils in panic. The idea of conspiracy is what we supply to make sense of what will never be sensible–the fiery fact of death.

 

Born in northern England in 1969 and a graduate of Oxford, Richard Lloyd Parry is now the Asia editor of The Times of London. He has lived and worked in Tokyo since 1995. He is also the author of People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo–and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up. This was a riveting read.

Towards the conclusion of Ghosts of the Tsunami, Parry pays tribute to the people among whom he has had the privilege of living for over two decades:

There were many terrible and fearful scenes, and bottomless pain, but the horror was offset, and almost eclipsed, by  the resilience and decency of the victims. It seemed to me at the time that this was the best of Japan, the best of humanity, one of the things I loved and admired most about this country: the practical, unsensational, irrepressible strength of communities.

Richard Lloyd Parry

 

 

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A (somewhat different) Passage To India: The Widows of Malabar Hill, by Sujata Massey

February 21, 2018 at 2:31 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  This is a novel that succeeds on several levels: as an examination of a particular culture at a specific moment; as the narrative of a complex mystery that unfolds in the context of that culture; and finally, as a look into the heart of a vibrant, intelligent, and vulnerable young woman.

In post World War One India, Perveen Mistry aspires to be an attorney. She has before  her the example of her father Jamshedji. He is a superb lawyer of upright character and unquestioned integrity; moreover, he is devoted to Perveen and fiercely protective of her. He  would like nothing more than for her to join him in his legal practice. But they both must figuratively walk through fire before realizing this goal.

I knew almost nothing about India during this period, so reading this novel was a learning experience for me. I didn’t realize what a rich mixture of ethnic origins and creeds the country was at that time. (Perveen and her family are part of the Parsi minority dwelling in Bombay at that time.) It should be emphasized, though, that Massey wears her erudition lightly. There’s no dry academic tone here; rather,  aspects of the different cultures are presented in service to the narrative and to the characters and their often turbulent lives.

Perveen Mistry is a wonderful creation. For me as a reader, she came along at just the right moment. I was beginning to tire of the trope in which the Plucky and Resourceful Female takes on big challenges and, by means of unwavering determination and perseverance, surmounts them (with little, if any, material assistance from nearby males.) Perveen does waver; she’s not absolutely sure of herself at every turn, and she readily acknowledges her mistakes. Ultimately, she prevails, both personally and professionally, through a combination of her own native courage and the unwavering support of friends and family.

Sujata Massey appends the following information in her Acknowledgments pages:

Perveen Mistry was inspired by India’s earliest women lawyers: Cornelia Sorabji of Poona, the first woman to read law at Oxford and the first woman to sit the British law  exam in 1892, and Mithan Tata Lam of Bombay, who also read law at Oxford and was the first woman admitted to  the Bombay Bar in 1923.

Some readers might feel that there is too much time spent on Perveen’s personal life and not enough on the actual mystery. For this reader, the former was substantially more compelling than the latter. When the novel begins, a complex legal situation has already presented itself and is made yet more complicated by  murder. The cast of characters is large and diverse. Add to all of this, it’s difficult to care about the victim. But from the outset, I was so enthralled by Perveen herself that I was glad to remain on board for the privilege of being in her company.

One other caveat about The Widows of Malabar Hill: it jumps back and forth in time. This can be disconcerting. It is almost always my preference that a fictional narrative adhere to a strict chronology. If it was good enough for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope, it should be good enough for other novelists as well. (Not that I have definite opinions on this subject!)

That said, I consider these reservations to be minor. I still loved this book and recommend it highly.

******************
I confess that when I learned the name of this protagonist, and that of Mistry Law, the firm headed by her father, I was reminded of the novel A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I read this novel shortly after it came out in 1996. It is without doubt one of the most moving and powerful works of fiction I have ever encountered.

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A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen, read by Graeme Malcolm

February 13, 2018 at 6:18 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

  Many things interrupted my getting through this recorded book. (I do my listening only in the car.) But I finally finished a couple of days ago. The experience has not quite left me.

A Conspiracy of Faith by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen is basically a story of revenge. A man who was brought up by a despotic father according to the tenets of a rigid creed decides to take out out his anger and resentment on other religious families. Most of these people are blameless and quite unlike his own family of origin. That doesn’t matter to him. He works out a system where he gets close to them and then betrays them in the cruelest way imaginable.  Equally frightening is the fact that he has a wife and a young child. He seems devoted to them, at least on the surface.

A Conspiracy of Faith is the third novel in the Department Q series. The name comes from the place to which Detective Carl Mørck and his team have been exiled: the police station’s basement. It’s about as inhospitable as it sounds. Mørck’s second-in-command is Assad, Syrian born but now a resident of Denmark, which, in his exasperation with the climate, he calls “this refrigerator country!” Assad was not even a trained officer when he was first assigned to Department Q. But in the event, he turns out to be a gifted detective. (He has to provide proofs of this gift, in order to counter Carl’s initial skepticism.) In this novel, Assad’s resourcefulness proves nothing less than crucial in solving this terrible mystery. At one point, after he has unearthed several vital but hidden clues, Carl at last gives way to feelings of amazement:

And then he looked up at Assad in disbelief. What the hell would he do without him?

Assad may be brilliant in his way, but he does not have the native knowledge of Danish ways and the Danish people that Carl possesses by right. He is at the same time both astute and naive, sometimes touchingly so. He’s a wonderful character, in my view, an inspired creation.

And this is probably the right moment to praise Graeme Malcolm’s outstanding narration. Malcolm, a Scottish actor, gets it exactly right in his reading of this novel. He’s especially good at rendering Assad’s lines in an utterly convincing manner.

I read the first entry in Department Q series, The Keeper of Lost Causes, shortly after it came out here in 2011. I was seriously impressed by Adler-Olsen’s storytelling gifts, yet I have to say also that the novel approached the extremity of the violence that I’m able to tolerate in crime fiction. Still, I found myself wanting to revisit the characters and the milieu they inhabit. Hence, my decision to listen to A Conspiracy of Faith. (I had previously encountered Graeme Malcolm as a reader of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth novels, so I already knew how good a narrator he was.)

Incidentally, there exists some confusion regarding the titles of the Department Q novels. There are currently seven in the series; the first four were released with different titles here and in the UK.  (The latest one, The Scarred Woman, also has a variant title.) Your best bet is to view the listing on StopYoureKillingMe.com.

The first three novels have been made into films. Trailers can be viewed on YouTube. I confess I’m wary of them, but of course you can decide for yourself.

A few more words on A Conspiracy of Faith. You will note that I’ve not identified the perpetrator by name. In the course of the novel, he goes by several of them: Mads Christian Fog, Lars Sorensen, Mikkel Laust. He’s extremely slippery, I almost want to say slithery. One of the most thoroughly cunning and evil humans I have ever encountered in fiction.

Finally I’d like to make this observation. I’ve read many mysteries in which the ending was, for one reason or another, a disappointment. (That actually goes for ‘literary fiction’ as well.) A Conspiracy of Faith concluded beautifully – a very moving ending that to me, seemed exactly apt.

Jussi Adler-Olsen

 

Graeme Malcolm

 

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Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, by Jessica Bruder

February 5, 2018 at 9:02 pm (Book review, books)

  This is not the kind of book I would ordinarily choose to read. My preference in nonfiction is for history, biography, and the arts: fact-rich tomes written in an accessible style. But the reviews of  Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland piqued my interest. And I found that once I started it, I didn’t want to put it down.

The eponymous nomads are, for the most part, retirees in their sixties and seventies who are having trouble making ends meet. So, in the time honored American tradition, they’ve hit the road.

Bruder spends a lot of time describing the ways and means by which this is done. Van dwellers predominate, but there are  some lucky enough to have procured regulation RV’s of various sizes. And there are some who are living in much smaller cramped quarters. The ways in which people are able to procure electricity and arrange plumbing – sometimes barely adequately – testify to their entirely admirable ingenuity. Their lives are testimony to the ability to make do  with less.

It turns out that there are work opportunities for these folks, most of whom still have the requisite strength and determination. They can be camp hosts at RV campgrounds. These are multifaceted jobs involving registering parties of campers, seeing to their safety and comfort, keeping the peace when necessary, and cleaning the facilities – yes, that includes toilets.

They can be part of Amazon’s CamperForce. These jobs ramp up seriously as Christmas approaches:

The Amazon CamperForce program brings together a community of enthusiastic RV’ers who help make the holidays bright for customers of Amazon.com. As a CamperForce Associate, you’ll begin this seasonal assignment in early Fall and work until December 23rd.

The program lasts 3-4 months in the winter, and your responsibilities will be in the areas of picking, packing, stowing, and receiving.

Some who are enthusiasts or creative types try selling their wares at gatherings like the fabled Rubber Tramp Rendezvous held – up until this year, at least – in Quartzsite, Arizona.  There are any number of ways to make money.   “Workampers” are endlessly resourceful; they have to be.

Rubber Tramp Rendezvous was founded by Bob Wells, whose site, CheapRVLiving, offers tips, encouragement, and helpful information to fellow van dwellers.   It also features an illuminating section on the philosophy that underpins the way of life that he and others have chosen to follow. Wells has in fact written a book on the subject:

Vandwellers – seemingly an umbrella term for all those inhabiting some kind of mobile living space – are sensitive about how they’re perceived by others.

In his book, Bob Wells draws a bright line between vandwellers and the homeless. He suggests vandwellers are conscientious objectors from a broken, corrupting social order. Whether or not they chose their lifestyle, they have embraced it.

Although Bruder encounters her fair share of hard luck stories, the vandwellers do seem to be by and large a cheerful lot, and not necessarily as ideologically motivated as the above passage might  suggest. Several people did state that they prefer to see themselves as “houseless” rather than “homeless.”

Bruder eventually comes to believe that she needs to get inside this subculture to fully understand it. So she buys a van and gets a gig at CamperForce. One of the first priorities Bruder needed to satisfy was the naming her newly acquired vehicle. Vandwellers all do  this, and they try to be creative about it:

In my encounters with vandwellers I’d already met Vansion, Van Go, DonoVan, Vantucket, and Vann White–this was a pun-happy subculture.

Her own final choice was ‘Halen.’ I had to ponder this for a couple of minutes before the nickel dropped.

Van Halen the rock group

 

Van Halen the van, with the author atop

Naturally, I was interested to know what reading matter was favored by the vandwellers. Here are some of the titles mentioned in the book:

 

I’ve read Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille and loved it. This is a book that more people need to know about. And I was really pleased to know that people were reading Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey’s paean to the glorious Southwest. Last month, in an article in the New York Times Book Review, historian Douglas Brinkley sang its praises and urged President Donald Trump to read it.

Bruder’s narrative is framed by the presence one particular vandweller whom she comes to know well. This is Linda May, 63. Linda’s story is very engrossing; through her eyes, we get to know other members of this set, and to participate in what is a surprisingly lively social scene. (There are some individuals who self-identify as introverts and tend to camp a bit distantly from the group. No matter – if they need help, it will be there quickly.)

Linda’s ultimate aspiration is to build herself an Earthship House and retire from workamping.. I really want this dream to come true for her.

Linda May and Coco

Jessica Bruder’s writing is lively and engaging. I fairly zipped through Nomadland. At 251 pages, it’s a fast read, but I was sorry when it was over.

Highly recommended.

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