Murder on the Orient Express

I first read Murder on the Orient Express in college, when I went through a phase where I read a loooot of Agatha Christie mysteries. I started with And Then There Were None (as it came highly recommended by one of my best friends’ mom, who was one of two sets of extra parents I was fortunate enough to have growing up), and then moved on to Murder on the Orient Express.

I revisited it in preparation for the movie that, at the time, was coming out in November. Spoiler alert: I never saw the film.

The book is considered one of Christie’s two best (along with And Then There Were None) and upon revisiting, it’s definitely one of my favorites.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I like limited settings. They require a lot of interesting dialogue and a clever plot. Murder on the Orient Express takes place on a train! A train that is caught in a snowstorm!

For those who don’t know, the Orient Express was a long distance passenger train that originally ran from Paris to Istanbul. The line made a lot of changes through the years and eventually was shut in 2009, the last version of the line running from Strasbourg to Vienna.

Our favorite Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who ends up on the train when his plans are changed, is called in to solve the murder of Samuel Ratchett, by his friend Bouc who operates the train line and who is on board. Ratchett, who believe his life was being threatened and tried to hire Poirot and was refused, is murdered on the second night of the trip when the train is caught in the snow near Vinkovci.

The story moves on from there. The story involves a kidnapping and a ransom and another murder. It was very reminiscent of the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932 and may have inspired this part of the book.

I was glad I revisited this story. It really isn’t very long and was quite a nice break from the near constant stream of non-fiction books I usually involve myself in.

Christie’s murder mysteries aren’t usually solvable by the reader because of some piece of unknown information that the reader isn’t privy to until the big reveal towards the end. In this case it was details of the other murder relevant to the story. That said, you could guess at the ending better in this story than with many of Christie’s other stories.

Not being able to solve the mysteries doesn’t usually bother me. I never enjoy something I solve half way through…sometimes less than halfway through. Like the movie Fracture with Anthony Hopkins and Ryan Gosling. Solved it half way through. Knew how it would work out. Was psyched with my own cleverness but sad that I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the film.

While the mystery here isn’t solvable, exactly, the solution is particularly interesting. It’s cleverly done, and very satisfying.

One thing that always sticks out in Christie’s mysteries, though, is how dated they are. Not, necessarily, in a bad way. I’m obsessed with train travel, so the idea of a rail line that goes from Paris to Istanbul is fascinating to me. What is a little off-putting, but not book destroying, is how constantly stereotypes are adhered to in Christie’s writing. Poirot is Belgian, and constantly referred to as “foreign.” It’s done all over her works with regard to nationalities, ethnicities, and gender. It isn’t inherently negative, but to someone who isn’t used to these references, it’s a little bizarre. It’s done here.

As I said, it doesn’t ruin the story. It’s just a little off putting if you aren’t used to it. And the books are nearly 100 years old. It was a very different time.

I really loved revisiting Murder on the Orient Express. It isn’t a long read, so if you haven’t read it and are looking for a clever story, it’s a lot of fun.

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Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches

This is the book I thought I was getting when I downloaded American Nations. SC Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon was about the 40 years of conflict between white settlers and the Comanches on the open plains of the United States.

I’m not sure why they chose to add to the title about Quanah Parker. Maybe it’s because I was actually quite busy while I listened to the audiobook but I didn’t feel like he featured a lot. There was a lot about the history (of violence) between white settlers on the frontier and the Native Americans who already lived there, but Parker was a minor player during most of the novel. He was supposedly the greatest of all the Comanche chiefs, and Gwynne didn’t much go into him, in spite of his name in the title.

That said, I really enjoyed about learning about the different types of Native Americans in the book, although the focus was definitely on the Comanches and plains Indians. I knew they were incredible horsemen, but I had no idea just how incredible, or how young they started training with horses.

I also found it fascinating that Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by Comanches at age 9 and but later adopted by a Comanche family and then married a Comanche warrior was never able to readjust to life in whitelandia after being found and returned to her actual family at the age of 33. She kept trying to escape with her younger children. Oh, she was Quanah’s mother.

Another fascinating narrative was the role the buffalo played in the relations between the plains Indians and white settlers. It made me sad that the innocent buffalo were just pawns in this conflict between two different groups of people.

I enjoyed this book as a history book, although the title was misleading. That said, there are a number of Goodreads reviewers who seem to think the book is “racist.” It’s really, really not.

Gwynne makes it quite clear that the white settlers of the time were just as capable of brutal violence as the Comanche tribe, sometimes more so. And Gwynne does use the language white settlers used to describe the Native Americans of the time; words like “savage” and the like. But context matters here. He would frequently use white people’s own language and quotes when describing their views of the Comanches. People unable to grasp context may find this book prejudiced and unflattering to Native Americans, but I think it’s just as harsh to the white settlers. The white settlers are also described as barbaric and opportunistic. This isn’t something only limited to the descriptions of Native Americans. People who want to see racism here will see it. To me, it’s just a history book. But considering how people want to stop reading Huckleberry Finn because of the use of the ‘n’ word, I won’t hold my breath that people won’t miss the forest for the trees.

Again, I think this book has a lot of good history. That Quanah Parker only shows up for the last third of it makes the title very misleading. I feel like we get a lot more of Cynthia Ann Parker’s story than Quanah’s. Quanah’s story is sort of more about how he negotiated for the tribe as their time was fading, but it wasn’t much part of the book. Still, this is a really good look into life on the plains in the 1800s and early 1900s.

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus

I’m not sure what made me check this out to listen to on Overdrive. I kept seeing it available? Maybe the title? It is sort of unusual to describe a virus as ‘diabolical.’ Viruses are viruses. They do what they do. There is no evil intent there.

But rabies is different. Even now, in the year 2018, with a method of treatment for the sickness that got animals killed by the thousands and terrified everyone throughout cities and rural communities alike, rabies is a scary disease. It’s good practice, as a matter of routine, that if you find bats where you live, you go get treated for rabies. If you’re bitten by anything outside, go get treated for rabies.

Rabies has terrified people for thousands of years. The sickness that makes you fear water is a long, slow, painful way to go out. Even now, once it takes hold in the brain, nobody is immune to it and (almost) nobody survives it. You painfully lose your mind, and you die.

Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy takes us through Greek mythology to the middle ages to the Renaissance to contemporary times, examining the science, history, and the cultural impact of the rabies virus.

One of the most interesting things I found in this book was the link between rabies and the vampire and (even more so) werewolf legends of the middle ages in Europe. Rabies, after about 30 days, depending on the site of the bite, causes the infected, previously normal person to (more or less) lose his/her mind as (s)he becomes a snarling, hissing, foaming shell of his/her former self. The lycanthropy legend involves an infected but previously totally normal person to totally lose his/her mind and become a snarling, hissing, animal monster. When does this occur? At the full moon. How often does it occur? About every 30 days (about the incubation period of the rabies virus). Oh, and how is the werewolf infected? (S)he’s bitten by another person who has the disease. Just like…rabies.

One of my favorite parts of the book was learning about the heroic efforts Louis Pasteur took to come up with a way to inoculate against the rabies virus. I forget exactly why he was interested in this. I can’t remember if someone he loved died of rabies or it was just because he was biologist/microbiologist who was interested in it. He was fearless, collecting samples of saliva from rabid dogs himself (with the help of two assistants), testing the vaccination over and over on various animals (this hurts my heart but I recognize there was really no way around it), and finally testing it on 9 year old Joseph Meister, who had been badly mauled by a rabid dog. This was a huge risk to Pasteur because, in spite of his extensive scientific background, he was not a physician and it opened him up to legal consequences should anything go wrong.

But Meister survived. 3 months after being mauled, he was still in good health. Meister always publicly defended Pasteur (who was somewhat of a controversial figure, as people of science and forward thinking can be) and served as caretaker of the Pasteur Institute in Paris until his death in 1940. The story says he committed suicide rather than let the Nazis enter Pasteur’s crypt.

Fun Fact: I celebrated Louis Pasteur’s birthday this year by baking cookies and handing them out at work. We should celebrate our great thinkers. By the way, Pasteur also came up with the process of Pasteurization aka heating liquids to a certain temperature to destroy dangerous microorganisms living in them. Liquids like milk. Dunk your cookies.

There is a method, called the Milwaukee Protocol, to treat rabies after neurological signs of infection start showing (which usually means the patient is beyond hope) but it usually fails. It worked one time, saving the life of a Wisconsin teenager who is now the only known person to survive rabies without receiving the vaccine. Treatment involves putting the patient in a coma, pumping the patient with antiviral drugs, and letting the body fight off the infection before it completely destroys the brain. The theory behind this treatment being something along the lines of “if the human body can fight off other viruses, it can fight off this one given enough time and medical help.” If a patient is showing neurological symptoms, they might as well try this treatment. They’re definitely going to die without it and only probably going die with it, which is still better than “definitely.” But really, if you think you’ve been exposed, just go get the vaccine.

Finally, as with many of my books, I did this one on audiobook. It was read by Johnny Heller, who was the same person who read another one of my 2017 favorites, The Lampshade. Heller did an excellent job narrating this book as well.

I loved Rabid. It was, in many ways, a scary book. It’s easy to understand why people hundred and thousands of years ago who didn’t understand viruses thought the rabies virus was diabolical. It is slow, and painful, and always fatal, sending normal people into unrecognizable, raving madness before killing them. I know a lot of people on Goodreads didn’t find it a very interesting book, and for some reason they really hated that the virus was anthropomorphized in the title. But I think they missed the point. And I loved the book. I love myths and legends, science and history. And people get all wrapped up in how scary rabies is, and it is scary. But the book, possibly without meaning to, provides a lot of reasons for hope – not just regarding rabies, but regarding lots of things.

As scary and dangerous as the rabies virus is, science and human ingenuity conquered it. Rabies has been almost entirely eliminated as a human cause of death globally. Even developing countries have seen huge declines in deaths by rabies infections. Just think of all the other things we can accomplish.

Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw

I listened to two Anthony Bourdain books this year, both read by the author. The first one was Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook and the second was Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

As you probably know, Kitchen Confidential was the book that made Bourdain famous and the one that was probably the most shocking. Of the two, I liked it less.

I didn’t dislike it because of the content – the content was just fine. It was Bourdain reading it. He sounded monotone and kind of bored, and you think that maybe he recorded this book back before he’d really mastered his public persona. He does a 180 in Medium Raw, during which he sounds lively, funny, and engaged in what he’s reading.

A lot of people don’t like Anthony Bourdain. A lot of people see him as one of those guys who never grew out of the smart ass, teenage bad boy thing. He acts like he’s a badass but you don’t really believe him. They say he’s angry, and he can be vulgar and brutal. I always just thought he was being honest.

I’ve always liked his style. He’s gruff and says some wacky stuff from time to time, but Bourdain, to me, is very cool, and he’s cool because he doesn’t care what you think. He doesn’t care if he’s cool, if you think he’s cool, or what you think about him either way. He is what he is and he does what he does, and that kind of honesty and self-assuredness, is the coolest thing anyone can possibly achieve.

Both books are similar – stories of Bourdain’s time in kitchens, how the industry worked, in Medium Raw he talks about what’s changed about the industry since he wrote Kitchen Confidential, etc…

I found both books funny, but Medium Raw funnier, because Bourdain’s sense of humor about himself is on full display. He did it in Kitchen Confidential, too, but it was different. It’s easy to make fun of yourself as a goofy kid just out of college who thinks he’s really cool. It’s much harder to make fun of yourself as an adult who is supposed to be taking himself and his career very seriously.

Medium Raw also torches the Food TV industrial complex that has emerged in the last 20 or so years. That book actually came out in 2010, so Bourdain was criticizing actual chefs who had never worked in restaurants. As someone who really used to enjoy watching those chefs Bourdain made fun of on Food Network, I have to say that in 2018, Food Network kinda sucks now. They used to have actual TV personality chefs making things for most of their programming. Now we mostly watch food based reality TV shows, which are kind of interesting sometimes but mostly bore me to tears. I used to love turning Food Network on during the holidays and see what people used to make their own holidays special. Now it’s just, like, sad people competing to see who can build the biggest most structurally sound gingerbread house.

Sorry, tangent. My point is, I get where Bourdain is coming from even if he caught a lot of shit for it (and he DID catch a lot of shit for it).

I found Bourdain’s stream-of-consciousness style both endearing and conversational, writing the way most of us talk (although without maybe using so many F-bombs). I liked the stories. I know from these books that I could never work in a kitchen, so that is one regret I don’t have to suffer.

Plus, I’m a fairly adventurous eater. I’m not Bourdain’s level of adventurous (I enjoy his TV shows as well, although I don’t watch them often), but it’s nice to hear about food from someone who knows about food. If it wasn’t for him, I probably never would have tried oysters (which I now love) because I just didn’t know what to do with them.

The bottom line is that both books were enjoyable food-centric memoirs. And who doesn’t love food-centric stuff?

Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story

I don’t remember where I picked up Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story. Probably at Barnes & Noble. But I do remember why I picked it up. Our intelligence agencies have been under attack, particularly by Donald Trump, since before he was elected president. And I wanted to have a better idea of what happened at the CIA and got the opportunity.

The author, Jack Devine, worked for the CIA from the 1960s through the 1990s and now runs some kind of “security” company – which sounds like a fancy spy agency, when he describes what his new company does. He says that although he retired in 1999, he could probably have a tail on somebody faster than just about anyone else in the world. I thought this was slightly outlandish, but now I believe him.

Devine started as someone who worked in the CIA equivalent of the mail room and who rose through the ranks to become a high ranking executive. Among other things, he ran covert ops on at least three continents, lived abroad with his wife and children, and knew Aldrich Ames, one of the biggest traitors in the history of the CIA and in modern American history.

The book was fascinating. I read this one. It took me about a month because of wedding planning, but it isn’t a very long book and should be considered a must read of contemporary American history.

Devine recounts for readers how the CIA worked while he was there, and his recipes for “good hunting” – running successful spy operations that endanger as few people as possible while also gathering the most useful possible information from the most reliable sources possible. Devine details how he built relationships with his informants, how the agency operated during his time there, and what he viewed as his and his colleagues’ successes and failures during his career.

Devine also goes into what he believes are problems with the agency now, the biggest being that the emphasis of gathering intelligence has been placed on the backburner and that the CIA is involved in too many paramilitary operations and the jobs that they used to do – meeting people, gathering information and cultivating reliable sources – have been given to the military, who don’t do as good a job because they aren’t trained to do that job. The CIA has also been ensnared bureaucracy and, of late, has been highly politicized.

As interesting as the book was, I had to read it with some grains of salt. Devine worked for the CIA, and still thinks quite highly of it. Everything he says could be lies and considering it’s his legacy, he has plenty of reasons to lie.

That said, I don’t think he’s lying. I think he may sanitize some of the harsher truths and the role he played in some of the stuff that went on, but I don’t think he’s lying outright. I could be entirely wrong, of course, but he strikes me as a man of integrity. He never once calls himself a patriot, but I would call him one. He does call his colleagues patriots, and with few exceptions, thinks very highly of them, even when he disagreed with them either politically or with the actions they chose doing their jobs. It was very refreshing not to hear someone trashing their colleagues left, right, and sideways for attention.

Lastly, some of the good writing in this book is clearly attributed to cowriter Vernon Loeb, who is a professional writer. Props for that.

I highly recommend Good Hunting. Part memoir, part history lesson, I thought it was a well written, highly educational, and very enjoyable read for anyone interested in the inner-workings of the CIA.

My Bloody Mary

I haven’t done a cocktail post in quite sometime, but I never stopped drinking. I decided to jump back into the cocktail posts with one of my staples: a good bloody mary.

I’m a sucker for a good bloody mary. They’re delicious, they’re versatile, and although they’ve been unjustly labeled as a breakfast/brunch drink, I drink them pretty much any time of day. AND YOU CAN TOO!

The coolest thing about bloody marys is how varied they are. Everyone has seen those instagram accounts and pinterest posts dedicated to the most elaborately garnished bloody marys. They’re meals almost in themselves.

But! A bloody mary is, first and foremost, a drink. And no matter how many wacky garnishes you add to it (I’ve seen everything from the traditional celery to a whole fried chicken), if your drink isn’t very good, you aren’t going to enjoy it very much.

Like any good meal, the key to a good drink is good (fresh, if possible) ingredients. I don’t have any fresh tomato/vegetable juice, so I use V8. Typically I use the high fiber or low sodium versions for personal health reasons, but you can use whatever you like. Campbell’s puts out a tomato juice that a lot of people like. That’s another cool thing about bloody marys – they can be tweaked to your taste, almost endlessly.

The other thing that makes a drink good: quality liquor. Sure, there are times when plastic bottle vodka and supermarket brand orange juice from concentrate serve their purpose, but as you get older, and you’re drinking socially, and not just to be wasted, you want something that gets you pleasantly buzzed and doesn’t also taste like it was an experiment concocted in a Russian prison.

I make bloody marys with two liquors: vodka or tequila. I’ve had one where a whiskey was used, but I didn’t enjoy it as much. The taste just wasn’t right. So I stick to vodka and tequila.

I’ve found a recipe that works for me, more or less, every time. You can adjust as you wish, but here is how I make mine.

1.5 – 2 oz vodka or tequila. For this particular morning, I used this:

img_3449

This is Tanteo Jalapeño Tequila, and it is delicious.
I also used:

6 – 8 oz high fiber V8
the juice of 1 whole small lemon, or 1/2 one large lemon (limes work too, I just prefer lemons)
1 tablespoon horseradish (for me, this is key!!!)
4-5 dashes Worcestershire sauce
Old Bay seasoning
(the airtight jar is filled with pickled jalapeños – more on that later)

My ingredients looked like this:

img_3451

(Ignore the brown bananas. They’re for banana bread later this weekend.)

Add the liquor, vegetable juice, lemon juice, horseradish, and Worcestershire sauce into a cocktail shaker. Shake to combine. Pour into glasses, either over ice or without, according to preference. Sprinkle Old Bay Seasoning over the top. I used the pickled jalapeños for garnish. I have also muddled them up and used them to add flavor when I used plain vodka instead of jalapeño tequila.

img_3454

 

So that’s my basic recipe for a bloody mary, minus the pickled jalapeños. Sometimes I change it up with crumbled bacon or some olive juice or a flavored vodka/tequila, but basically, that’s it. As I said, there are a million variations you can use to make a bloody mary. Some people like a really spicy one or don’t like Worcestershire sauce. Whatever. It’s up to you.

BUT! I always use horseradish in my bloody mary. As mentioned, it’s key. I prefer it to Tabasco or any other hot sauce for two simple reasons

  1. It adds a unique taste that hot sauce doesn’t have (although my husband likes adding both horseradish and hot sauce).
  2. It adds texture. I love texture. You can adjust spice by adding more or less horseradish, or using fresh. In my experience, fresh horseradish is very potent. Don’t use the purple horseradish, which has beet juice in it. Well, I guess you can, but I don’t like it, haha.

And like I said, I drink these at all hours. My version is quite popular with my family (we’re drinkers and they’re my favorite test audience because they don’t lie – if something sucks, I hear about it). Serve with brunch, dinner, afternoon tea. Enjoy.

The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress

Another one of my weird interests: people who disappear. I don’t think I’m actually unique in this but I will admit it, which I think makes me unique. And kind of weird. But knowing you’re weird makes it ok, right?

Anyway, this is one of those cases.

Joseph Crater was a New York Supreme Court Justice who disappeared on August 6, 1930 and whose body was never found. There is no proof he was murdered, but most people of his stature who disappear without a trace and are never found are frequently murdered.

His disappearance was a factor in the downfall of the Tammany Hall political machine, a New York City political organization started in 1789 and dissolved in 1967. By the time of Crater’s disappearance, Tammany Hall was a thoroughly corrupt enterprise tied to organized crime. Its influence really began to wane not long after Crater went missing – they engaged in a losing battle with reformers looking to clean up the political process in the city. One of the reform leaders was Franklin D. Roosevelt, first governor of New York, then President of the United States.

Ariel Lawhon’s The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress builds a mystery novel around the three major women in Crater’s life around the time Crater disappeared – his wife, Stella, his maid, Maria, and his mistress, Sally Lou Ritz.

This was a very entertaining novel. Crater was presented as complete asshole, so his disappearance is really no loss. The characterizations of the three women, however, was a fascinating picture of three women, each who are unable to really exercise any agency in their roles in the early 20th century, taking control of something in their lives as they react and deal with the disappearance of this man they were all, in some way, dependent on.

The story moves between the 1920s, the 1930s, and the 1960s, where Mrs. Crater and Maria’s husband meet in a cafe. IIRC, Mrs. Crater is telling Maria’s husband, a non-corrupt NYC police detective who helped investigate her husband’s disappearance, exactly what happened in the months leading up to August 6, 1930.

I’m not going to give away the ending here, although it was an immensely satisfying explanation, because it’s never fun to read a mystery when you know the end. But the book itself, despite the dark subject matter, isn’t particularly dark, and is really more about these three women, their relationships with each other, and their efforts to improve their lives. The characterizations were fun and their relationships, particularly with each other, are so well developed.

I did this one via audiobook at work and in my car, which I very much enjoyed as I traveled all over two counties, working and apartment hunting. This a great book for the beach – an intelligent, not too dense, page turner.

The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans

This book was one of my best literary surprises of 2017.

Everyone knows the horror stories that came out of Nazi Germany’s concentration camps. The mass executions, forced labor, illness, starvation and almost any other torture that can be imagined probably has a home in a Nazi death camp. My own grandfather was in the United States Army and had pictures of liberated prisoners. From what I understand, his unit helped liberate the camps. When he died, my mom told me my grandmother didn’t know what to do with them. She didn’t want to keep them because they were so horrifying, but didn’t have the heart to just get rid of them either. I’ll have to ask my mom what happened with that. I don’t remember.

This story, however, was kind of new to me. As we’ve put World War II further and further behind us, some of the stories have started to fade, and aren’t as well known. I remember vaguely hearing once that the Nazis made things from the human skin of the people they murdered, but it never really stuck in my mind. Maybe I dismissed it as too horrible to be real, or whatever, but The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans dives right in to that particular rumor and turns it inside out.

The book was written by Mark Jacobson, a journalist, who ends up with a lampshade purchased by Skip Henderson for $35. Henderson bought the lampshade in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina from a sidewalk rummage sale in New Orleans. I can’t remember if he actually bought it from self-described neo-nazis, but the lampshade was advertised by the seller as made from victims of the Holocaust.

Henderson, who couldn’t figure out what to do with the lampshade and the idea of having a murdered somebody’s skin in his home made him restless and uneasy, sent the lampshade to Jacobson and basically said, “You’re the investigative journalist, investigate!”

And Jacobson sets out to investigate the lampshade. Genetic testing initially confirmed that the lampshade was made from human skin. Jacobson went on to visit Buchenwald, where such items were supposedly made, Holocaust museums in Jerusalem and Washington DC  (which both refused the lampshade and maintained that items made of human skin were a myth), Holocaust deniers/neo-Nazis, a psychic, the mythology surrounding items supposedly made of human skin, the mythology surrounding the Holocaust, and the black market in which these kinds of taboo items are allegedly bought and sold.

I say allegedly, because in spite of the fact that human skin artifacts were widely reported by prisoners in the death camps, this lampshade is the first grisly artifact of this type to be discovered and subsequently investigated. Most Holocaust museums maintain that objects made of human skin were a legend, some kind of mass hallucination in the mind of desperate prisoners who, with good reason, saw even more exaggerated evil than was really there. Still though, most (contemporary) legends have some roots in historical truths.

I loved this book. First of all, I listened to it, and the narrator, Johnny Heller, really did a great job. I liked his voice, and he did a wonderful job balancing the seriousness of the subject matter with the dark humor Jacobson employs all through his investigations in Poland, Germany, Israel, and the United States. It’s clear Jacobson doesn’t take neo-Nazis seriously, but he does try to get to the bottom of their insanity. And some of the stuff these people say is darkly hilarious except for the fact that they’re serious.

I don’t remember exactly what happened to the lampshade but IIRC, at the time of publication, Jacobson still had it and could sleep at night having done the best he could to get to the truth. Or something of that nature.

So The Lampshade comes highly recommended by me. It was a well researched report on a grisly topic that is significant in not just remembering the Holocaust and the atrocities committed by the Third Reich, but that there is a continued ongoing effort made by good people to put things right in small ways after an unimaginable horror. For all the research about the Holocaust, this book happened because neither Skip Henderson nor Mark Jacobson could live with the idea that a lampshade allegedly made of a Holocaust victim’s skin was in their possession and they made no attempt to do justice by the victim – in this case, the only justice available being to discover the truth and tell the story.

 

The Woman in Cabin 10

Another book that was so promising but turned out so, so underwhelming.

Typical thriller premise – woman sees another woman on a boat who disappears and doesn’t appear in the passenger manifest, nobody believes the first woman – and the story goes on from there. I think I picked this up because I’m terrified of boats/open water and will never get on a cruise if I can avoid it. Plus, the premise implies murder. It’s a boat. There’s only so many places someone can hide, no matter how big the boat is. I also tend to like settings that are somewhat claustrophobic where the setting is a huge part of the story. There’s the movie ‘Clue,’ books like The Haunting of Hill House and The Shining, and so on and so forth.

I think the biggest problem with this book is the main character, Laura Blacklock, or Lo, as she’s called. She’s a travel journalist (which is how she ends up on the boat), she has a stupid nickname (you need to shorten ‘Laura’…really?), she’s conceited, she has absolutely no idea how to handle anything without being hysterical and/or completely ridiculous, and she wasn’t really compelling in any way. Even her panic/anxiety attacks were annoying.

Another problem is pacing. At least when I read trashy Dan Brown thrillers, they’re exciting and keep a good pace. This book starts with a burglary. Great! Then we spend WAY too much time rehashing it and returning it. Then Lo sees a mysterious, unexplained stranger who is not accounted for in the ship’s passenger list. Okay! Then we spend waaaaaay too much time wandering the boat looking at the crew.

And on and on and on.

Add to that the resolution of the novel sucks, and well…you get The Woman in Cabin 10.

I have heard good things about Ruth Ware’s debut novel In A Dark, Dark Wood but this book doesn’t incline me to read it much. I will probably skip Ruth Ware for the foreseeable future.

 

The Magicians

I listened to Lev Grossman’s The Magicians because the book I originally wanted to listen to wasn’t available at the time and this was labeled as “the adult Harry Potter.”

I’ll stick with actual Harry Potter.

It’s weird though. I didn’t hate this book. The story was interesting, I liked the premise, and there was magic, terror, and some pretty good actions scenes. I feel like in some ways it was a lot more true to real life – particularly the parts about being in a hyper-competitive, highly exclusive school (studying is something that JK Rowling glosses over in the HP universe – only Hermione’s study schedule is ever detailed and not many words are devoted to that either – and Hogwarts is the public school of magic in the UK, meaning everyone goes whether they’re good at magic or not).

But there was a lot of stuff that was tough for me to get past. Our hero – anti-hero? – is Quentin. And Quentin is suffering from depression. Boy oh boy, is he suffering from depression. And consequently, so are we. In addition, Quentin is selfish, brooding, narcissistic, and an overall miserable prick. He’s not very likeable.

This, in itself, isn’t necessarily a problem. The thing is, everyone at this magic school Quentin attends, called Brakebills, is a huge asshole in some way or another. Seriously. There is almost nobody to like. At all. I don’t mean that they just have some asshole qualities. All of them are fucking awful in almost every way. They are also brave and smart, which makes them just this side of tolerable, but overall? They’re all negative, brooding, asshole-y douchebags who have too much free time and drink too much.

The other thing I struggled with too was the length of the novel. According to Amazon, it’s 432 pages. I don’t remember how long the audiobook was, but by the end I just wanted it to be over. It drags out too long. Grossman crams 5 years of schooling into this novel with much of it not being particularly noteworthy. Magic is hard, complicated to learn, and requires endless hours of practice and study. But I feel like, maybe, we don’t need to go through every hour? It wasn’t well paced. For every good scene of significance, there was one that was bad and could have been cut. Maybe two.

Interwoven into this whole thing is Quentin’s obsession with Fillory, a Narnia like place he read about in stories as a kid that featured a family called the Chatwins, specifically the children. As I said, it’s very Narnia-esque. This obsession eventually becomes relevant (and it takes quite awhile for it to become relevant) when Quentin and his friends discover they can travel to Fillory. I honestly wish Grossman had gone more into the Chatwins. They couldn’t have been worse than the main characters in this story.

Anyway, Quentin manages to be miserable in Fillory too – no joke. The magical land he’s been obsessed with since childhood, and Quentin manages to fucking be miserable there. There’s a villain in Fillory, called ‘the Beast’, who Quentin and his friends end up seeking to outrun and destroy. They’d met the Beast before in school, when (IIRC) a spell goes awry and the Beast eats a student before the faculty can vanquish it.

Magic is much more dangerous in this book than in the Harry Potter universe because it seems to be a lot less…stable, I guess is the word I’m looking for? Or maybe it’s more wild? Anyway, in Harry Potter books, you use the right gesture with your wand, say/think the right incantation, and boom, spell. Intent of the spell also matters. If you’re going to cast an unforgivable curse, you know you’re doing that. In The Magicians universe, magic has a lot of complex variations that change with things like phase of the moon. Messing up a spell near the wrong body of water, even one meant to do good, can be catastrophic. Spells gone awry is hinted at as a possibility in the Potter universe (Luna’s mother dying as a result of an experiment gone wrong) but in this one it has real consequences when the Beast is released and kills a student.

Anyway, the whole thing is eventually resolved in a neat little bow. Okay, not that neat, but a bow all the same. Grossman clearly didn’t know he’d be writing a trilogy. Yes, there are two more ‘Magicians’ novels – The Magician King and The Magician’s Land.

I’m not sure I’m going to get to the last two books of the trilogy. I thought I was. But even though I didn’t hate this book, I can’t really say I liked it either. Plus my favorite character became a freakin’ niffin. And no. I have zero interest in the television adaptation.

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