Sunday, May 27, 2018

Hardcore Twenty-Four

Since there are only so many mystery-related T words, Janet Evanovich switched to rhyming for the title of the 24th Stephanie Plum novel.  Hardcore Twenty-Four is entertaining, but far from the best in the series.  This time, Stephanie's cases mesh with Joe Morelli's - both of them are encountering headless bodies.  Steph is also the temporary guardian of a hot dog (and roadkill) loving snake and trying to stop Grandma Mazur from hooking up with a swinger in Florida.  Oh, and Diesel is back in town and back in Steph's apartment.  Evanovich hits most of her usual notes (Lula's outfits, a funeral, lunch with Grandma Mazur and Mrs. Plum, a particularly funny car death), but the main plot doesn't hang together well and the outcome doesn't fit the series's tone.  It's worth reading if you come across it, but probably not worth searching out.

The Rottweiler

I love most of Ruth Rendell's novels written as Barbara Vine, but didn't start reading the works she published under her own name until a few years ago.   I'm not sure why The Rottweiler wasn't published under the Vine pseudonym, because it feels more like The House of the Stairs or King Solomon's Carpet than the non-series books written as Ruth Rendell.  While entertaining and well-written, The Rottweiler is a bit to self-consciously eccentric, tying together several disparate (and one quite depressing) threads.

The Rottweiler is the name given by the press to a serial killer.  He strangles young women, takes a memento, and hides their bodies.  We quickly learn his identity, but not quite as quickly as his landlady, Inez.  A 50ish widow, she runs an antique shop and rents three of the four apartments above it.  Her assistant Zeinab has a loose relationship with punctuality and two rich fiancees, and her tenants (a woman with a fake Russian accent and an affable boyfriend who pretends not to live there, a mentally disabled young man named Will, and a computer consultant) wander in and out of the plot, along with Will's aunt Becky, his boss and his boss's sister, a theft ring, Zeniab's family, Becky's romantic target, and an enthusiastic but less-than-competent police detective.  It sprawls and doesn't quite mesh (Will's and Becky's story is much sadder than the other's, and Zeniab's includes one unexpected and hilarious scene), and relies a bit too much on coincidence.  I'm not sure if I've decided to never read it again (and donate my copy), or re-read it in a few years to see if my opinion was influenced by the personal upheaval I was dealing with while reading this book.

Educated: A Memoir

When I think of separatists, I think of people living in a cabin far from civilization.  What surprised me most about Tara Westover's upbringing was that her cabin was only 15 or so miles from town - distant to a Philadelphian like me but not far for someone in the rural parts of the Mountain West.  She grew up in a separatist family.  Her mother theoretically homeschooled her and her six older siblings but in reality kept the family financially afloat as an herbalist and midwife.  The children all worked for their father, sorting scrap metal and doing occasional construction jobs.  In their father's eyes, school was part of the government and the government was the enemy.  After all, the government had killed the Weavers, and had done so because they homeschooled their children.  Modern medicine poisoned rather than healed, and the family treated even severe injuries with herbal remedies mixed in their kitchen.  And yet, the family had contact with general society.  Tara's paternal grandparents lived in an adjoining property and they saw each other almost daily.  Her maternal grandparents lived in a nearby town, and the family also attended weekly services at the Mormon church in town.  As the children (Tara is the youngest of seven) came of age, some of them took jobs in town, and Tara even participated in musical theater productions.   With nearby family and contacts in town, I wonder how or why no one noticed what was happening on Buck's Peak.

It all seems innocent, when Grandma-over-the-hill offers to take Tara with her on her yearly snowbird trip to Arizona.  If she comes to Grandma's house by 5 am, no one will notice that Tara is missing until nightfall.  By then, she'll be in Arizona and can enroll in school.  She's tempted, but after staying up all night decides not to go.  Maybe Tara was too young at that point to see how truly difunctional her family is, or maybe it wasn't quite so bad yet.  It's probably a bit of both.  At seven, Tara's life felt normal to her because she'd never experienced anything else, and it becomes clear that Gene Westover is not so much an ideologue as a man whose severe but undiagnosed mental illness became more disruptive and destructive as time passed.

By age 10, Tara is only theoretically homeschooled.  Her mother Faye's midwifery practice fell victim to concussion-induced migraines and with the three oldest sons gone (Tony started his own trucking business and got married, Shawn ran off after a fight with his father, and Tyler unexpectedly went to college), Gene needed Tara's labor sorting steel from copper, working alongside her brothers Luke and Richard (15-year-old Audrey had found a job in town).  Tara follows suit, working as a babysitter for two families and packing nuts at a local store.  That's when she started taking piano, dance, and voice lessons, leading to a disastrous recital and her foray into musical theater.

It's during her years in community theater that we first get to know Shawn.  We see from the start that he's emotionally manipulative and explosively violent, but to Tara he's a protective older brother. Later, the family attributes his mood swings and outbursts to a head injury incurred while working on a family construction project, but we (and Tara) eventually realize that he's always been violent, perhaps having inherited a variant of the mental illness that plagues their father.  Tara's relationship with Shawn is unsettling, leaving me to wonder if she left anything unsaid.

Music also leads to Tara's unexpected entrance into the outside world.  Her brother Tyler, now a college graduate and about to start a graduate program in mechanical engineering, encourages her to apply to BYU.  They accept homeschooled students, and they're a conservative, Mormon university.  She hesitates, but he convinces her that if she majors in music, she can become a choir director in a Mormon congregation.  With a high ACT score and an application filled out by Tyler, she's accepted and enrolls.

Tara doesn't initially adjust well to outside life.  Her roommates shock her by wearing revealing clothing and grocery shopping and doing homework on Sunday.  She, in turn, appalls them wth her questionable hygiene.  She'd never heard of the Holocaust or the Civil Rights movement, and had no idea that she was supposed to buy textbooks.  Somehow, though, she manages to make it through her freshman year and eventually gets counseling from her congregation's Bishop.  Asking a professor for help in class leads to mentorship, and eventually to a program at Cambridge.  Still, Buck's Peak calls her back and she spends summers scrapping and working at the local grocery store.  Her expanding knowledge, though, eventually shows her that Shawn is dangerously violent (and also victimized Audrey and Tyler).  Things change after her father suffers severe burns in an accident.  He survives, attributing it to Faye's herbal preparations.  Suddenly, they've got a successful business and Gene's survival leads him to become almost a cult leader.  Tara's journey to be Dr. Westover isn't just a matter of being educated, but a matter of developing the perspective to see how destructive her upbringing really was.  Estranged from part of her family, close to others (including Tyler and Richard who have Ph.D.s in mechanical engineering and chemistry, respectively), and reconnected with the aunts and uncles she barely new growing up, Educated ends with the newly minted Dr. Westover reading an e-mail for her aunt who's excited that she'll see Tara again in only 12 hours.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Higher Loyalty

I have to compensate for two types of bias in my review of A Higher Loyalty.  The first is political, and the fallout of the 2016 Presidential election.  The second is more personal - how does the book compare to my 22-year-old memories of my Trial Advocacy professor?  I've never read, let alone tried to review, a book by someone I knew, albeit slightly.  Because of that, I'm going to break my review down into parts.

Comey's writing style is engaging and highly descriptive, showing an affinity for the language which meshes with my memories of his classes.  As a professor, he emphasized preparation (which indirectly led to my Jack McCoy moment) and using your questions to make the witness comfortable enough to use his vernacular.  He makes those priorities obvious in the chapters on his early career as a prosecutor.  I found them engrossing, particularly the mob trials (which he also used as classroom examples) and the prosecution of Martha Stewart, but readers who aren't lawyers and don't read legal thrillers might not agree.

He also uses a bit of self-deprecating humor to counter an earnestness that verges on self-righteousness.  That's important as he segues into his years as Assistant Attorney General and FBI Director.  Comments about being the "FBI giraffe" and the tight quarters in the Situation Room humanize a man who clearly believes in the American system and the rule of law.  Without that, these chapters might come across as a bit too self serving.  I assume that anyone who writes a memoir has a healthy ego, but Comey's writing style and flashes of humor prevent these chapters from coming across as self-aggrandizing.

Now, about the emails...  I've spent the last 19 months thinking that the FBI mishandled the "October Surprise."  Not just because of my political views, but because I've spent most of my career doing document review.  When I heard, less than 2 weeks before the election, that there were thousands of new emails to be reviewed, my first thought was "de-duping."  Document review programs have gotten much better at de-duping in the 15 years since I moved from hard copy to electronic review - good enough that de-duping (along with predictive coding) has affected my job security.  Comey writes he was told that there was no way to review all of the newly found emails before the election.  My belief (which I think is supported by the fact that the *FBI* did review them all in under a week) is that he received bad information.  Most of the emails were duplicates, and the rest were fully reviewed within a few days.  I've found that partners and associates who either haven't done document review in years or who've always had project attorneys to handle the grunt work don't have a good grasp of the mechanics of electronic review.  My experience has been with associates who don't understand the limitations of the review systems, but I can easily see how the top few levels of the FBI legal team, who probably hadn't done document review since they slogged through a warehouse full of bankers' boxes in the late 20th Century, wouldn't know how good review programs are at de-duping data sets and how an experienced reviewer can separate the relevant an non-relevant documents with a few good keyword searches.  Keeping that in mind, I can understand Comey's reasoning, but I still think he made the wrong decision.

This leads us to Donald Trump.  Press reviews focused on Comey's description of Trump's hair and spray tan, but that's not particularly important.  I was more struck by Comey's comparison of Donald Trump to the mobsters who filled the headlines in the 1980s (and my Friday night viewing while in law school) - so much so that I flashed back to Trial Advocacy and Comey's cadences as he switched between the his prosecution voice and that of his mobster witness.   Except that he's less disciplined, firing (executing) people with little thought about the repercussions.  That mix of ruthlessness and thought-free "decision" making combined with avarice and more than a dash of incompetence scares me.  I think it scares James Comey as well, and reading A Higher Loyalty I think he feels some responsibility.  I just don't know how much.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Adventuress

Lady Emily's childhood friend Jeremy, Duke of Bambridge, has spent Tasha Alexander's novels making himself the most useless man in England and avoiding marriage.  At the start of The Adventuress, we learn that he's failing at one of his goals.  Jeremy, Emily and Colin, Cecile, and Meg are in Cannes to celebrate Jeremy's engagement to the daughter of an American millionaire.  Amity Wells is a bit unpolished compared to Jeremy and his friends (although not when compared to her social climbing mother - the mother and daughter reminded me of To Marry an English Lord), but her enthusiasm grew not only on me but on Emily.

Emily can't help but encounter dead bodies, and in this case, it's one of Jeremy's Oxford friends.  Even worse, the poisoned whiskey was intended for Jeremy - but who would want to kill the cheerfully useless young Duke?  I thought I figured it out early on, and then changed my mind, only to change it again about 5 pages before Emily discovered the murder's identity.  Normally, that's an ideal mystery - fooled twice, but solved.  However, the murder's motive was a bit off in my mind.  I followed the logic but it just felt wrong.  I'd still enjoyed the book, because I love Lady Emily, and I was thrilled to see Margaret again.

Hissing Cousins: The Untold Story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Roosevelt Longworth

More than a century later, Eleanor is a heroine and Alice has mostly been forgotten. No one could have envisioned that in the early 20th Century, when Alice Roosevelt Longworth was the sparkling, sharp-tongued star of Washington society and her cousin Eleanor Roosevelt was the slightly cowed wife of an ambitious politician who was himself considered a bit of a dilettante.  Their shockingly different personalities came from a surprisingly similar background.  Not only were they cousins born a few months apart, but they also lost parents young and were partially (and most affectionately and effectively) raised by their Aunt Bambie, Theodore and Elliot Roosevelt's older sister.

Hissing Cousins only spends a few chapters on the cousins' upbringing, but it explains how the two girls grew into very different women.  The Alice we know is a whirlwind brimming with confidence and her father's famous swagger, but here we see her as a baby abandoned by her grieving father (TR lost his mother and wife on Valentine's Day, 1884, the day after Alice was born).  After a few years with Aunt Bambie, Alice returned to her father and step-mother. Edith Roosevelt was a rather stern and forbidding character who insisted that Alice live with the family because it was proper.  My impression is that she meant well, but Alice never felt welcome and in modern parlance "acted out."  That led to occasional trips back to Aunt Bambie, who was also Eleanor's occasional guardian.

Eleanor's story is even sadder.  Her alcoholic father half-abandoned, was half-removed from his family and eventually died from his addiction.  Shortly afterwards, her mother also died, but instead of being permanently left with Aunt Bambie, Eleanor and her brothers were left in the care of her maternal grandmother.  Mary Hall's household was backwards and repressive, far from the ideal situation for a bright, sensitive girl, and visits to Aunt Bambie (plus a year in finishing school at Babmie's insistence) still left her shy and insecure.

As adults, they continued to live parallel lives.  Both married unfaithful men (although they dealt with that in different ways), were indifferent and ineffective mothers but loving grandmothers, and became standard bearers for their respective parties.  That is where their stories separate and why we now revere one and barely know the other.  Alice was a grand campaigner, and the doyenne of Republican Washington, but her high profile position was essentially inconsequential.  Eleanor, as befits her more earnest personality, got into the weeds of policy discussions.  Political differences exacerbated the personality differences, and they spent much of their adult lives estranged.  But even someone like Alice can mellow with age and tragedy, and by the time of Eleanor's death, they were at least cordial.  I thoroughly enjoyed this dual biography of two strong women who were joined by blood and separated by the blood sport of politics.  It made me want to read more about them, and about the sprawling Roosevelt family.