Murder in the corn

The body of a young wife is found in an Iowa cornfield. Her wounds make it a clear case of homicide, but why? Complicating the investigation is that the lead detective, Sergeant Riley Fisher, was a childhood friend of the victim, though they became estranged as adults for reasons that are only hinted at through the first two-thirds of The Fields (2022) by Erin Young.

As Sergeant Fisher and her team search for clues, they discover disturbing evidence that seems to indicate an outside-the-box motive: The cornfield where the victim was found is owned by an upstart farm cooperative who have developed an organic corn hybrid that could threaten the corporate agriculture interests that dominate the state’s economy and politics. Is it just a coincidence that the victim’s husband is a research scientist for one of those Big Ag companies?

This is a decent thriller/police procedural, a fair bit more gory than most of the genre that I’ve read lately. The author created some compelling characters, and Riley was an appealing protagonist. As an Iowan, I loved the idea of a storyline that sets up Big Ag as the possible villain, but unfortunately the potential was more potent than the reality. The plot got a bit convoluted and increasingly melodramatic in the final section, and that diluted its impact for me.

All indications are that this is the opening book of what will become a series centered around Riley Fisher, and I think it sets the stage well for a continuation. I think there are a lot of possibilities in the character and the setting, and I look forward to seeing what Erin Young brings us next. Perhaps the next scenario could make use of the fact that hogs outnumber people 7:1 in this state, with all the good and bad that entails.

A final, minor observation: I’m pretty familiar with the area that is depicted in the book (Black Hawk County) and I thought it was portrayed realistically by the author. But there were several instances where some of her dialogue and exposition about farming rang a false note. For example, one of the Iowa farmers refers to the crops he grows as “vegetables, soy and dent corn.” Iowans might calls them soybeans, or most often just beans, but I don’t think many would refer to the staple crop as “soy”. (I also mostly hear people refer to “field corn,” but dent corn is not uncommon.) This particular mystery was solved for me when I saw the author is from England. The on-site research she mentions in her Acknowledgments section clearly paid off in most ways, but it’s those pesky details that are hard to pin down. Still, no one who isn’t intimately familiar with American agriculture would (or should) be fazed by these very minor slips.

The sex symbol who couldn’t see himself

I’m guessing you already know who Paul Newman is (if you don’t, please comment and tell me!) so I won’t waste words on an introduction other than to say he is considered one of the greatest movie stars of the past century, starring in a slew of iconic films. He was also renowned for a more than 50-year marriage to fellow actor and Oscar-winner Joanne Woodward.

Their relationship was idealized as the perfect romantic union, but as this new compiled memoir (and the accompanying HBO Max docuseries The Last Movie Stars makes clear, neither of those accomplishments — a stellar career and a loving relationship — were enough to make Newman feel like he deserved all the acclaim.

Indeed, what stands out in my mind after reading The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man (2022) is that a man casually assumed to “have it all” could have felt like such a failure to himself. It was a jarring discovery and made me feel sad that he couldn’t enjoy his success as we did. Early in his career, Newman studied at The Actors Studio, renowned for producing Marlon Brando, among others, who drew upon their own memories and emotions to inform the characters they portrayed. Newman said he felt like a fraud in those classes, calling himself an “emotional Republican” unable to feel anything very deeply. It’s a small consolation to read that as he grew older he did start to become more in touch with those deepest feelings, a rewarding development for himself and his friends and family.

Indeed, without that inner thaw, this book probably wouldn’t exist. It initially consisted of hundreds of hours of taped interviews between a writer friend and Newman, his friends, family and colleagues. At some point a few years before his death, Newman abandoned the project but left behind all the transcripts for his daughters to do with what they wanted. They chose David Rosenthal to go through the transcripts and cobble together a roughly chronological, somewhat unconnected series of chapters on various topics, with Newman’s own words forming the backbone of the narrative interspersed with sometimes lengthy commentary from others relevant to that particular topic. The result is raw but restrained, comprehensive but leaving the reader wanting more, and ultimately an important corrective that reveals the real-life man beneath the myth and the legend.

Obsession and mystery in ‘My Cousin Rachel’

Philip Ashley is raised by his older cousin after his parents die when he is three years old. It’s a nearly idyllic life for the two bachelors, except that Ambrose’s ill health forces him to go abroad to escape the damp, cold Cornish winters. But everything changes when Ambrose, while spending a winter in Italy, writes to Philip that he has met and married a distant cousin, Rachel, and plans to stay in Italy.

Soon the tone of Ambrose’s letters changes into incoherent ravings that seem to indicate Rachel may not be the ideal wife. Philip travels to Italy to see what’s happening, but when he gets there Ambrose is dead and Rachel is gone. He goes back home and when Rachel shows up in England a few weeks later he grudgingly invites her to stay on the estate. His ulterior motive is to somehow humiliate her in retaliation for what happened to Ambrose, but he finds himself drawn to her beauty and charm despite himself. But is she simply weaving the same sly web that she ensnared Ambrose in, with the estate’s riches as her ultimate goal?

Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel (1951) is Exhibit A for me that I don’t need to like the characters to enjoy the story. Both Philip, an impossibly young and naïve man, and Rachel, a woman who never says what she means, are infuriating in their own ways. More than once I contemplated how satisfying it would be to just knock their heads together with a solid thunk. Philip acts like a jealous brat and Rachel acts by turns like a patronizing older sister and a coy lover. The only character I had any sympathy for was Louise, the daughter of Philip’s godfather. She’s clearly in love with the stupid oaf Philip, and has to first suffer his oblivious dismissal and then his growing infatuation with Rachel without recourse to a big rock to throw at both of them.

The ending is ambiguous in terms of deciding once and for all whether it’s Philip or Rachel who commit the greatest sin, which I thought worked perfectly. And the descriptions of the Cornwall seaside are lovely and make me want to visit someday. I think I’ll pass on any offers of tea, though. Just in case.

State Department to phase out Times New Roman font, adopt Calibri – The Washington Post


Wherefore art thou, serifs? Last month, the U.S. State Department decreed that official memos and documents should be written in Calibri font, rather than the Times New Roman typeface that has been used since 2004. The justification is readability, especially for visually impaired employees who use a screen reader. The lack of serifs makes the optical character recognition (OCR) of such devices more accurate.

But as typographic designer pointed out, readability is more complex than serif/san serif font and the size. Line spacing, the contrast between background and text color, and other factors all play a role, and different types of visual impairment require different remedies.

”Pick a good default font, go to one-and-a-half line spacing, consider a baseline off-white background with black text, and then guide” readers to increase or decrease the contrast or font size based on what feels most comfortable to them.

— Ian Hosting, Engineering Design Center at University of Cambridge

Many users of the Microsoft Office suite of computer applications have gotten used to Calibri being the default, so these State Department documents won’t look too unfamiliar. But — irony of ironies — Microsoft announced in 2021 that they were phasing out the use of Calibri in favor of a set of custom sans-serif fonts. I suppose I’ll eventually get used to emails and Word documents that look different, but when it comes to good old paper books, I’m happy that most book designers still make effective use of lovely serif typefaces in their work. A beautiful font is a joy forever.

Top photo: Anton Dos Ventos/Alamy Stock Photo

Eerie stories in your ear

I don’t read a lot of horror stories — real life provides all the thrills and chills I can handle these days. But every October I like to pick one book to put me in the mood for Halloween. This year’s spooky season read was No One Goes Alone (2021), a historical fiction novella by one of my favorite narrative nonfiction authors, Erik Larson. It was released only on audio because, as Larson has said, ghost stories are meant to be told aloud. I was happy to get this one from my library just in time for Halloween, and I listened to it for an hour or so each night, in bed with the lights off for maximum effect.

The cast of characters is a mix of real-life historical figures, like William James (brother of novelist Henry), who really was a psychologist who pioneered research into “psychical phenomena,” and fictional creations who are either loosely based on real people or entirely made up for the purposes of the plot. The story is narrated by Josiah, a young scientist who is working for the General Post Office on the nascent technology of wireless communication. In 1905, Josiah joins James and a group of researchers on a trip to the Isle of Dorn off the Cornish coast to investigate several mysterious disappearances over the years, including an entire family of four.

The researchers are a nice mix of skeptics, like the infuriatingly smug Adam Winter, true believers like the son of a famous medium and the lovely Catherine, and those with an inquiring but open mind like James and the lovely Madeline. (Indeed, the sheer number of romantic pairings-off in this short novella would do a 21st-century teen comedy proud). The island setting and the house that stands upon it are beautiful and serene, making it hard to believe that anything evil could lurk within. But mysterious things start happening from the first night the researchers spend on the island, and Josiah and the rest must figure out whether someone is playing pranks or if there’s a more sinister force at work.

This is not the sort of hair-raising horror that will make you afraid to walk down the dark hall to the bathroom (Stephen King, I’m looking at you). But it’s nicely atmospheric and the tension ratchets up in a satisfying way. Continuing the narrative past the climactic scene seemed to be a miscalculation, as it’s a bit deflating to read a summation of what happens to each of the main characters in the years following their experience on the Isle of Dorn, but then right at the end there’s a secondary twist that kind of pulls it all together and ties the story off neatly.

In terms of audiobook quality, the narrator Julian Rhind-Tutt is fine, though the American accent he attempts for William James is a bit wobbly. It’s far from the worst I’ve ever listened to, though, and didn’t really detract from getting engrossed in the narrative.

The mystery of the one-book detective

Rex Stout is best known for the magnificent series of mysteries featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, but early on he experimented with other detective characters. One of them was Tecumseh Fox, who rated three books between 1939 and 1941, including one (Bad for Business) whose plot was lifted nearly wholesale by Stout and re-set in the Wolfe universe as Bitter End (1940). I’ve only read one of these and it was fine; no match for the majesty of Nero and Archie in my eyes.

The other detective Stout created, Theodolinda Bonner, only has one book in her own name, but she lived on as a supporting character in several of the Wolfe stories. There are enough promising elements in Hand in the Glove (1937), her one star turn, to make me sort of wish she had gotten another shot at the spotlight later on. “Dol” is a young woman whose life takes an abrupt left turn when her affluent father loses all his money and kills himself. Determined to never again rely on a man for anything, Dol sets herself up in business as a licensed private detective, with the help of her friend and partner, the still-affluent (though not yet of age) Sylvia Rattray.

Sylvia’s guardian, P.L. Storrs, disapproves of her foray into such a tawdry occupation as private eye and pressures her to give it all up. She reluctantly agrees to do so, and when the guardian turns up dead suspicion falls on Dol, who would seem to be the main victim of his social prudishness. But it turns out there are other folks scattered around the wealthy enclaves of upstate New York who might have had their own reasons for wishing themselves rid of Mr. Storrs.

If you read Golden Age mysteries you know you’re going to encounter a fair bit of sexism, certainly. But this passage of Storrs talking about his grown daughter Janet is really something: 

I am a complete failure with my daughter. I have never yet understood one word of anything she has ever said, and only my own vanity has kept me persuaded that she may be sane. And yet she has poetry published in magazines, and she graduated from a college … but she can’t add, I’ve noticed that.

And then there’s the narrator’s description of Janet’s mom, who granted is portrayed as a ditz of the first order, but does she deserve this?

She was not young nor slender, but neither was she unwieldy or misshapen.

To be honest, the plot in this one is a bit of a mess but the characters of Dol and Sylvia were engaging enough that I would have willingly read more of their adventures. Alas, it was not to be, and I had to settle for making Archie Goodwin my first and still favorite literary boyfriend.

Kanye West, Sam Bankman-Fried, and the Cult of Not Reading – The Atlantic


Can you really trust someone who hates books? Thomas Chatterton Williams looks at what someone’s complete rejection of the idea that there is any value in reading books says about whom a person — and a society — is.

Ye’s patently reprehensible anti-Semitic tirades rightly drew the world’s scorn. But his anti-book stance is disturbing because it says something about not only Ye’s character but the smugly solipsistic tenor of this cultural moment.

Williams does take care to distinguish between people who simply don’t read and people who act as if books have absolutely nothing to offer, which I appreciate. It’s the utter contempt that there is nothing to learn from reading a book — any book — that irritates him most.

It is one thing in practice not to read books, or not to read them as much as one might wish. But it is something else entirely to despise the act in principle. Identifying as someone who categorically rejects books suggests a much larger deficiency of character.

In yet another example of everything old being new again, Williams also connects this current idiocy back to a passage from Anna Karenina (a book, horrors) that talks about so-called “free-thinkers” who refuse to learn the principles of the things they insist on rebelling against. Perhaps that’s because to learn about the moral and philosophical underpinnings of an idea or a school of thought makes it harder to claim your brainstorm is any sort of improvement.

Or has it might be stated in today’s tech-centric terms, it’s harder to “disrupt” an industry (the ride-sharing apps purport to disrupt traditional taxi services, or Airbnb disrupts the hotel business) if you take the time to learn why those businesses exist in their current form. Or as a social media wit once deadpanned after reading about a Silicon Valley wizard extolling his new idea of a community space that would include books and other goods to be jointly owned and borrowed by community members when needed, computers with internet access, gathering spaces and other amenities, “Congratulations, bro. You just invented the library.”

Top photo: Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty

Longmire in limbo

The 18th entry in Craig Johnson’s series about Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire continues the author’s recent experimentation with structures outside of the standard mystery genre. The whole series has been steeped in Native American culture, particularly of the Cheyenne and Crow tribes, and individual books have dabbled in the mysticism that these cultures embrace.

Hell and Back (2022) goes even further, going so far as to create a sort of parallel universe where Walt — who wakes up lying in the middle of a Montana highway with no memory of how he got there or who he is — encounters people from his forgotten past who regular series readers know (but amnesiac Walt does not) are no longer alive. The answers are bound up in a tragic 19th-century fire that occurred at an infamous Indian boarding school in the town, and it seems that Walt may need to solve that mystery before he can resume his previous life.

I think people familiar with the series who enjoyed the previous forays into Indian spirituality will find this one intriguing and enjoyable. If those aspects of previous books were a little too “woo-woo” for you, this may not be your favorite of Walt’s many adventures. I’m in the former camp, and above all I appreciate how Johnson has been willing to explore storytelling techniques that raise this series a cut above most mysteries that I read.

What we do in the dark and preach in the sunlight

Faith, family and forgiveness are on a collision path in journalist Kelsey McKinney’s debut novel, God Spare the Girls (2021). Caroline and Abigail are the daughters of an evangelical pastor, deep in the heart of rural Texas. As older sister Abigail’s wedding approaches, the girls discover a shocking secret about their father, one that will have repercussions on their entire family and the megachurch congregation that he leads.

At heart this is a book about love — for God, for family, for community — and whether we can ever really know another person, no matter how close they are to us. My only siblings were brothers, so the bond between Caroline and Abigail fascinated me, as it was described in passages like this:

Abigail opened her mouth, closed it again. “Okay,” she said, rolling her eyes and raising her hands, pretending to let it go. Caroline knew she hadn’t, really, though. To have a sister is to watch the same movie on repeat until the end of time. You’ve seen every scene, every musical interlude, every action and reaction is predictable. You know which phrases are catalysts and which are checkmate. Abigail had merely decided to bide her time.

The glimpse inside the evangelical Christian religion also held some fascination for me, as I don’t have any close contacts within that community. The author McKinney walks a fine line, presenting the religious aspects fairly while being clear-eyed about the gap between “what I say” and “what I do” and how it can contribute to a loss of faith.

The rural Texas landscape plays a supporting role, with the bulk of the action taking place on the ranch that Caroline and Abigail jointly inherited from their maternal grandmother. It’s hard not to draw parallels between this description of the landscape and the contrast between their father’s public and private actions:

To Caroline, the day was bright and full of spite. Weeds with purple heads and scarves of green leaves grew on lanky, smooth stalks, their roots slithering underground, choking out the other life until they alone remained — malicious and dominating, albeit pretty if you really looked at them. The grass shifted in small ways, tiny creatures trying to survive. The air was quiet all around her.

This book may not be a good choice for anyone who has a deep-seated hostility toward reading about Christianity in general or evangelicals in particular. For me, the emphasis on the interpersonal relationships and family dynamics were the main attraction, and I’m glad to have read it.

The darker side of educating young wizards

An English boarding school for the children of wizards from around the world? Gosh, where have we heard that setup before? But rest assured, as introduced in A Deadly Education (2020) Naomi Novik’s latest series is a much more dangerous and sinister place than Hogwarts.

For starters, there are no adults at Scholomance; students arrive as freshman and graduate after four years — assuming they can pass their coursework in languages, incantations, and artifice (building magical things) while dodging the endless parade of bloodthirsty monsters who infest the school and prey on the vulnerable students. Even if the students make it to their senior year — and only about half do from each class — they have to make it through the final gauntlet of killer critters who lay in wait in the graduation hall. The only chance for survival is to form alliances with other students who have different skills than you to provide maximum fighting power and protection.

I was fairly bewildered through the first couple of chapters of this book. Novik drops the unsuspecting reader smack dab in the middle of the story without explaining anything (the previous paragraph’s summary was gleaned over the course of the whole book; you’re welcome), trusting her readers to be able to go with the flow and piece things together. If she wasn’t such a good writer, that might seem like a slog. But even when I had no idea what the hell was going on, I was hooked by the first-person narrative by Galadriel, who after nearly three years at Scholomance finds herself a an outcast among her classmates and completely lacking in the sort of alliance that will be her best chance for survival at graduation.

Fortunately, I was already a big admirer of Novik’s work, having read her Temeraire fantasy series (first entry His Majesty’s Dragon, essentially the Napoleonic Wars with dragons) and her standalone retellings of Eastern European fairy tales, Uprooted and Spinning Silver. I had faith that she wouldn’t leave me hanging forever, and she didn’t. In some ways, that aspect reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, where he makes no attempt to explain how the magic works — it’s just there, and the wise reader who goes along for the ride is rewarded with a thumpingly good read.

There are two more books in the series so far, and I’m definitely on board to visit Scholomance again.