Murder in the Math Department — Faye Kellerman’s Latest Murder Mystery

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Faye Kellerman’s The Theory of Death  is an engaging mystery with great characters, a clever plot and very human characters.   Pete Decker is a retired LA homicide detective who has taken a job with a small police force in an Eastern college town.  Decker is aging and thinking about it, but of course there is a murder to keep him occupied.  Ever since I first read Amanda Cross’s Death in a Tenured Position, I have loved academic mysteries.  This one is set in the hyper-competitive math department of a small college, and there is lots of petty intrigue and jealousy to keep the story moving.

This series has been around for a long time and also features Decker’s wife Rina, an interesting orthodox woman of great understanding and warmth.  Inevitably she gets drawn into the efforts to figure out who did what to whom and why.  Decker is also an observant Jew and that adds a unique dimension to his character.  Since moving East, this series has acquired a young, irreverent yet dedicated cop, Tyler McAdams.  The tension and repartee between the experienced Decker and the newbie McAdams add to the charm and the bite of this series.

If you have never read an of Faye Kellerman’s Pete Decker series, you might want to start at the beginning.  The Theory of Death stands on its own, but I really liked the early books because they set up Decker’s relationship with his wife and also offered a crash course in orthodox Jewish practice, in much the same way as Chaim Potok’s The Chosen.  I have a always loved this series and particularly like this foray into academia.

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Traveling and Reflecting with Gloria Steinem

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Gloria Steinem’s new memoir, My Life on the Road, is just a gift.  This is a person I would so like to know.  Steinem has always projected a cool and confident mystique  —  she is thoughtful, rational and stratgic.  Yet it is clear from her stories that she had a very challenging, impoverished and unsettled childhood.  While her parents’ cross-country wandering may have been the source of  Steinem’s love of travel, it is also true that they provided her with precious little security and nothing came easy for her.  Certainly there was nothing inevitable about Steinem’s success.

This book is a collection of life stories and travel writing.  It moves gracefully among autobiographical stories and an eclectic mix of travel encounters and gives a good sense of how Steinem evolved into a feminist organizer.  She is an eager and avid traveler and comes across as a low-maintenance companion.  Steinem doesn’t just see new places  —  she relishes new experiences and new people.   All sorts of people come up do her and share their own stories, and she loves it.  She chides herself for sometimes making unfounded assumptions about people and relishes the surprises people present to her.

This is by no means a self-help book, but it is certainly inspirational.  I hope I will think of Steinem the next time I am confronted with travel snafus or have the opportunity to meet new people.  Say yes to the trip, and never assume.  More importantly, it is always the right thing to try to help people, to do whatever needs to be down and to be kind.

It would be nice if the women’s movement had succeeded, such that this book could be an anachronism.  Sadly, it remains terribly relevant.  The struggle continues, and we all need to try harder to advance equal rights for all women.

This is a great book.  Please read it!

A Mighty Fortress — A New History of the German People

Steven Ozment has written a sweeping history of the German people since the time of the Romans in a mere 325 pages  —  A Mighty Fortress – A New History of the German People.  I just read this book, which was written in 2004, before the Angela Merkel era, so an update might  be in order.  Nonetheless this is a useful book.   I was put initially put off by the language, which seemed unnecessarily dense at the beginning.  Clearer language and a few timely references for some of the more obscure figures would have been helpful in the dense narrative.

However, the story of all the different regions coming together was impressive  —  if only it hadn’t ended up with the machinations of Bismarck, the awful comedy of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the utter horror of the Third Reich.  The discussions of Hitler’s coming to power, the Third Reich and the Holocaust were particularly interesting.

Today, it is beyond terrifying to see the parallels between Hitler’s appeal and the current state of American politics.  After the thumping defeat in World War I, many Germans were scared, humiliated and looking for anyone who claimed to be strong.  They seem to have decided that they were in such a state of crisis, that extreme action (and extreme rhetoric) were absolutely necessary.  And, of course, they were susceptible to a candidate targeting scapegoats.

In Hitler’s case, this led to unprecedented tragedy.  The people in a position to oppose him didn’t take him seriously until it was too late.  It is hard not to hold the Germans who voted for him to account, because Hitler pretty much did what he said he was going to do.   With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, there was nothing inevitable about Hitler, but he was nonetheless voted into power.  Fortunately for the world, Hitler considered himself a military genius (despite his paltry military record), and made a number of fatal strategic mistakes that brought the war to an end.  Unfortunately this defeat came only after the deaths of millions upon millions.

Americans like to think that such tragedy couldn’t happen here, but the current election seems to be testing the theory.   Today, a substantial number of American voters seem untroubled by candidates’ lack of foreign relations and military experience.  It is enough for candidates to declare that American will regain its power and be strong, and then to trumpet the candidates’ lack of experience, common sense and humanity as virtues.  Being a boor has somehow become an asset.  Similarly the blanket targeting of Muslims, the bullying of opponents and a determined disregard for factual accuracy all hark back to tactics prevalent in Hitler’s rise to power.

The German people’s response to the Nazi genocide is inevitably unsatisfying.  Even where guilt is acknowledged and reparations are paid, I’m left with the feeling that so many Germans, past and present, really don’t understand or accept that horrific crimes were committed in the name of the German people.  There is  a distancing and a lack of accountability.  Hitler wasn’t just some curse Germany had to endure  —  he was elected and then supported for a very long time.  As with many accounts of this period, this section of the book left me disappointed and unconvinced.  My qualms aside, Germany has taken important steps to quash Anti-Semitism and neo-Nazi revivals.

The reunification of Germany at the end of the Cold War brought the book to a close.  The conclusion felt anticlimactic, and certainly didn’t anticipate Angela Merkel or Germany’s current role as one of the more humanitarian countries in Europe.  I can’t help thinking how furious Hitler would be about all the immigrants flocking to Germany, and of course he would be even more furious about the welcome they have received.  The scenario calls for a Mel Brooks treatment.

I did think A New History of the German  People was an interesting book, and it probably deserves a second look.   A lot of important material was set out in remarkably concise fashion.

 

 

A Beautiful Blue Death

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A Beautiful Blue Death is fantastic book title, and Charles Finch’s murder mystery lives up to the promise of its title.  It is always wonderful to discover a new author who has written a series of mysteries with an interesting detective.   A Beautiful Blue Death is the first in a series, and I have high hopes that the other books in the series will be equally interesting.

Charles Lenox is an English gentleman whose avocation is solving mysteries.  In A Beautiful Blue Death, Lenox can’t resist getting drawn into the murder of a young housemaid.  Lenox is an interesting man.  He clearly longs for something else in his life and loves to plan exotic trips he is unlikely to take  —  he knows somehow that something will get in the way.  All the book’s characters are well-drawn, and there is a potential romantic interest in the form of a thoughtful and content youngish widow.  In addition to an excellent detective, fine characters and a complex plot, Charles Finch draws an excellent picture of Victorian England.  The political context and the social order are an important part of A Beautiful Blue Death, and the book is the better for it.  All in all, this series holds great promise.  I’ve already ordered the next book in line.

An Intriguing Mother-Daughter Relationship – Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt

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Amanda Mackenzie Stuart has written a particularly good dual biography of Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough, and her mother Alva Vanderbilt. In 1895, Alva famously coerced the eighteen year old Consuelo into a loveless marriage with the Duke of Marlborough, a thoroughly disagreeable man, who made little pretense of loving Consuelo, but did need her money.

Most people know of these two women as exemplars of the Golden age and as the most infamous example of a driven, social climbing mother pushing her reluctant daughter into an utterly miserable marriage just to get the prestige of an English title.  All that is pretty much true, but fortunately there was a lot more to their lives.  With considerable independence and initiative, they each stepped outside their gilded spheres and took action to help the needy and disenfranchised.

Alva Vanderbilt didn’t have a particularly easy life prior to marrying one of the grandsons of the Commodore, the founder of the great Vanderbilt fortune.  Alva cared passionately and ferociously about many things, including social status and architecture  — she commissioned several over-the-top palaces, including Newport’s Marble House.  Alva didn’t waste a lot of time on personal reflection or considering other people’s perspectives.  She knew what she wanted, and she went after it with a vengeance.

Unfortunately one of Alva’s greatest passions was the raising of her Consuelo, her eldest child and only daughter.   Alva was convinced that a British husband with a title was the only acceptable fate for Consuelo, so she went out and got Consuelo a duke.  When Consuelo timidly voiced objections, Alva ran over her like a steam roller.

Consequently, Consuelo ended up married to one of the most limited and mean-spirited men in England.  Their marriage produced two sons, but Consuelo and the Duke were completely unsuited to each other and never got along.  They separated and ultimately divorced, which was considered terribly scandalous at that time.

That Consuelo ultimately triumphed over her overbearing mother and boor of a husband and found her own way to be happy and useful was nothing short of miraculous.  Equally interesting was Alva’s strong support for feminism and suffrage.  At times Alva was like a bull in a china shop with her fellow feminists, but she nonetheless made important contributions, both financially and strategically.  Consuelo shared many of her mother’s views but eschewed her hardball tactics.

Despite Consuelo’s disastrous coerced marriage, there was never a definitive break between mother and daughter.  Alva never stopped trying to  manipulate her daughter, but Consuelo learned how to manage her own life and deflect her mother’s attempts to control her.  They ended up as neighbors in the South of France toward the end of Alva’s life.

This is a fine book about two fantastically wealthy women, who never forewent their privileges, but nonetheless became social activists and knew how to wield their wealth and power to improve the lives of others.  In addition to the drama of their own lives, Alva and Consuelo lived in interesting times and knew a slew of the most famous men and women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  This is a great read, and you learn a lot of interesting American and British history along the way.

 

Excellent Combination of Period Mystery and Contemporary Novel

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Elizabeth Ironside has written a beautiful and intelligent mystery, Death in the Garden.  The story goes back and forth between modern England and England between the Wars.  An unpleasant MP is discovered dead in the garden of his country estate during a house party weekend of old friends.  Most of the guests at the house party have an artistic or academic bent and also share grim experiences from World War I and its aftermath.  Their personal stories are complex and presented in overlapping layers.  That story along would support a novel.

Happily, Ironside also provides a complicated, yet sympathetic modern story, and the book goes back and forth between the two eras and their plots in an elegant, seamless manner.   In the modern story, Helena, an overworked London lawyer, inherits the country estate upon the death of an elderly aunt, who was the hostess of the house party and the wife of the dead MP.   Upon learning that her aunt had a hidden and scandalous past involving an unsolved murder, Helena tries to unravel what happened, even as she deals with complications in her own life.

I highly recommend this elegant mystery because of its plot, the wonderful period settings and its cast of troubled, yet sympathetic characters.

Mortal Sins — An Intelligent Discussion of the Catholic Church’s Sex Abuse Scandals

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Michael D’Antonio has written a profoundly depressing and comprehensive history of the Catholic Church’s failure to recognize and prevent the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests.  Mortal Sins  —  Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal, was published in 2014, over a year before the release of the recent movie Spotlight, which focuses on Boston’s clerical abuse scandals over many years.  Spotlight  is an excellent movie and does a tremendous job of showing how difficult it was to uncover the vast scope of the problem and to recognize the church hierarchy’s willful obstruction and tacit perpetuation of the problem.

While Spotlight was focused on the particularly sordid Boston experience and coverage provided by the Boston Globe, Mortal Sins follows the scandal trail all over the country and ultimately around the globe.   Mortal Sins also gets into the nitty gritty of the legal actions that compelled the Catholic Church to accept responsibility for what had happened and to begin to take steps to prevent future atrocities.  As a lawyer who had some acquaintance with this issue years ago, I found the legal discussions particularly interesting.   While it would be nice to think that the church decided to do the right thing because that was its ethical obligation, in reality the church was often reluctant to do anything other than sweep the problem under the rug until it faced horrific public exposure and crippling financial losses.  It is a good question whether the church would have taken any action at all, but for the financial ruin it faced.  But for the legal actions, it is unclear when if ever the church would have stepped up to the plate on this issue.

How and why the abuse happened, as well as the campaign to stop it, makes for a compelling story.  Fortunately Mortal Sins also focuses on the damage done to the individual victims.  The pain, betrayal and hopelessness they endured should always be the centerpiece of this saga.  Some victims were emotionally wrecked for life, while others seemed better able to move on with their lives.  Many children never told anyone or, if they did try to tell, were punished for it.  Even when children’s parents believed them and confronted the church hierarchy, they were frequently given the utterly false promise that the abusive priest would be kept away from children.

D’Antonio doesn’t shy away from looking at the structure of the priesthood and the types of candidates it attracted.  While acknowledging that other religions have faced abuse issues, D’Antonio’s position is that the structure of the priesthood made it particularly attractive to troubled priests and that the church was programmed to look the other way, rather than fix the problem.  Anytime you get in a situation where the primary focus is on helping and shielding the perpetrators to the detriment of their victims, you know something is rotten.

I highly recommend this book.  While steps have been taken to stop sexual abuse of children by priests, this problem has not gone away.  And, as Spotlight brutally reminded us, we all have a responsibility to confront the problem and protect our children.