Viral video opens old wounds in ‘The Hidden Things’

With The Hidden Things (Gallery Books, 2019) Jamie Mason has crafted a solid suspense thriller that is firmly rooted in contemporary culture. It all begins when 14-year-old Carly fends off a would-be attacker who follows her home from school. Their encounter in the front hallway of her family’s home is captured by the surveillance cameras that her stepfather, John, had installed. Predictably in the 2010s, the video goes viral on social media after first being posted on the local police website. Soon Carly is fielding questions and attention from friends and strangers alike, who all know her as the plucky teen who defeated the bad guy.

Carly’s a bit overwhelmed by all the attention, but not so much that she doesn’t notice how oddly John is acting in the wake of the incident. And she isn’t immune to the household tension that erupts because neither Carly nor her mom realized John had installed surveillance cameras inside as well as outside the house.

Many cities away, the viral video comes to the attention of a group of people who are particularly interested, not in Carly and her heroics, but in what’s shown in the background: The corner of an old painting that was stolen from a museum and later thought to be lost forever when an underground sale went awry. How did it end up in Carly’s house? And to what lengths will people go to get it back?

The story is told from a variety of viewpoints, giving the reader insight into what all the main players are thinking and feeling. There’s Carly, of course, who is the heroine in more ways than one. But there’s also her stepfather, who finds himself trapped in a situation that could cause him to lose the comfortable home life he has finally found. And the other people who were involved in the caper-gone-wrong along with John are also given their turn in the spotlight: hapless loser Roy, ruthless bad guy Owen, and the enigmatic Marcelline, left for dead but very much alive. As they all converge on Carly’s home, no one’s sparing a thought for who might get caught in the crossfire. And it’s up to Carly to try to save herself, her family, and her “normal” teenage life.

Mason does a great job of juggling the rotating viewpoints without losing the reader’s attention. She managed to make me sympathize with each of them in turn, even when I knew the unspeakable things some of them had done. And she doesn’t try to wrap things up with a neat bow and unbelievable feats of strength from a young teenager. Carly is indeed her own savior (with a little help) but she is changed irrevocably by what she learns and what she is forced to do, and Mason doesn’t shy away from exploring the consequences of those actions. It kept me turning pages to the very end, and feeling satisfied when I closed the cover.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Up in the air

Only Dick Francis could combine horses and air travel in such a fascinating way

cover image of book Rat Race.

The most amazing thing about Rat Race, a 1970 mystery written by Dick Francis, is that it isn’t the only horse-racing mystery that Francis set in the world of aviation. Flying Finish, published four years earlier, delved into the world of long-distance horse transport. In both my 1980s-era paperback and a brand-new ebook edition of Rat Race by Canelo, there is an introduction from Francis explaining how the story came to be. His wife Mary figures prominently, as she apparently got so absorbed in researching the details of flying taxis that she took flying lessons and became a pilot herself. The Francises even had their own flying taxi service for a while before they sold out to a competitor.

Francis often publicly acknowledged the extensive research assistance that his wife did, to the extent that some people suspect she actually wrote the books. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know the care the Francises took to detail the specifics of various professions is one of the things that make reading Francis’ mysteries such a pleasure for me. Rat Race is no exception.

As I said, this book was originally published in 1970 and it shows in the cultural descriptions, in particular a hippie character named Chanter, who sprinkles around a generous helping of “man”s and disdain for authority as he’s casually groping the female love interest and railing against the establishment. Thankfully, he’s limited to two brief appearances, so don’t let him turn you off from this groovy story, man.

Matt Shore is a pilot. Once among the best in his profession, flying for B.O.A.C. (one of the forerunners of the current British Airways), Shore’s career has been on a bit of a downward spiral and he’s been reduced to working for a ramshackle flying taxi service that is barely keeping its wings above water. He’s depressed and keeps himself shut off from the world, until he is blasted — literally — out of his apathy when a bomb explodes on the plane he had been piloting just minutes earlier. It is seemingly only through the merest chance that Matt and his passengers — the top steeplechase jockey in Britain, a respected former Army Major, and an iron-glove woman trainer — escape serious injury. But accidents keep happening, and Matt realizes he needs to figure out where the danger is coming from before his career and his life both go up in smoke.

I remember when I first read this one ages ago, I was fascinated by the glimpse into the world of private aircraft. I think all of the experience that Mary Francis acquired in her research lends a nice air of authenticity. Of course, aviation technology has changed so much over the past 40-odd years that some of the dilemmas Matt faces probably wouldn’t happen today, but it hardly mattered to my enjoyment of the story.

The way Francis managed to meticulously and believably depict such a variety of different professions while maintaining a connection to the world of horses at the core of each book he wrote is remarkable. Plots set exclusively within the horse-racing scene so familiar to former jockey Francis would likely have grown stale in short order, but Francis deftly shows the reader how that industry closely interacts with so many other aspects of ordinary life. It’s always a pleasure to re-visit one of these old favorites.

You could look it up

Kory Stamper Shares Her Love For Language in the Delightful ‘Word by Word’

Every last syllable of Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (Pantheon Books, 2017) is utterly delightful. You should seek it out and read it immediately. The End.

cover image for Word by Word book.

OK, that’s not much of a review. Let’s try again.

Kory Stamper is a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster, which means, essentially, that she and her colleagues write the dictionary. She’s long been one of my favorite word-nerd Twitter follows (@KoryStamper), because she is smart and profanely witty and even more in love with language than I am. More than once, as she has shared some wry observation about the lexicographical life, I’ve thought, “Man, that would be my dream job.” And now, she’s written a book for all of us who have ever wondered, “How on earth do you write a dictionary, exactly?”

Stamper cleverly constructed the book as a series of chapters, each focused on one particular dictionary word. But she uses a word’s story to tell her own, in the process highlighting all the aspects of lexicography that go far beyond writing definitions. The word “but” is the jumping-off point to discuss how grammar figures into dictionary writing, and the tremendous difficulty sometimes of pinning down just what part of speech a particular usage of a particular word actually is — and how none of that is what most people mean when they talk about grammar:

To them, “grammar” is a loose conglomeration of stylistic word choices that get codified into right and wrong, misspellings that every English speaker has made at some point in their life and yet are branded as “bad grammar,” half-remembered “rules” about usage shamed into them by their middle-school English teachers, and personal, sometimes irrational dislikes. This is the grammar that shows up on Internet memes about “your” and “you’re,” the sort of grammar people are referring to when they claim you can’t end a sentence with a preposition, the grammar that is invoked when people claim that the “10 items or less” sign at the grocery store is “bad grammar.”

Kory Stamper, Word by Word

That excerpt probably gives you a clue that Stamper is — as indeed are all lexicographers and the dictionaries they create — descriptionist rather than prescriptionist. Despite years of claims to the contrary (including the marketing materials of those self-same dictionaries!) the purpose of a dictionary is to describe and define language as it is being used by ordinary people right now, not to settle bets or teach anyone the One True Way. A similar message is conveyed in the chapter about “it’s,” wherein I learned that in fact the possessive and plural forms of that word were pretty much interchangeable for hundreds of years, including in the King James Bible and much of Shakespeare.

Other chapters use a specific word as the basis for illuminating the myriad tasks that a lexicographer performs every day: searching written materials to find new citations for new words as well as new ways of using old words; the tricky considerations that go into defining the word “surfboard,” which seems deceptively obvious until you try to pin it down; how small, ordinary words like “take” and “set” are the hardest to pin down because they have so many senses and subtleties of meaning (Stamper refers to them as “semantically oozy”). 

A chapter on revising the entry for “bitch” expands into a discussion of how dictionaries treat words that are considered vulgar or derogatory, and the problems that arise when not everyone agrees that certain words or sub-senses of words deserve to be labeled as such (including the problem that the majority of the people making those calls are still older white men of relative privilege who have not experienced having those words hurled at them in very personal ways).

But wait! There’s more! There are also chapters on the challenges of nailing down a word’s etymology, and how a good anecdote (“posh” is shorthand for “port out, starboard home”) is no substitute for actual documentation; the never-ending search to find the earliest known written use of each word; and the tricky business of conveying pronunciation that can accommodate dialect differences (this is why dictionaries use phonemic alphabets so that the letter i is pronounced like the vowel in pin, whatever that may sound like in your dialect). Again Stamper makes the point that the dictionary’s focus is on describing usage, not judging right and wrong.

The final chapter details how all hell broke loose in 2009, when some evangelicals noticed that the dictionary had added a sub-sense to the word “marriage” that described relationships between people of the same sex. (That the definition had changed six years earlier with no one noticing did not stem the outrage.) It’s a thoughtful intro to discussion of how people often get very angry about specific dictionary entries because they feel the dictionary is instigating societal changes that make them uncomfortable instead of simply describing how society has already changed. 

I no longer have any illusions that being a lexicographer is like getting to have ice cream for breakfast every day. It seems now to be a difficult, demanding, and rewarding endeavor that requires skills that go beyond just “loving words”. Loving words is definitely a prerequisite, though, and this book will give you an even greater appreciation of the nutty ways that English has developed and evolved over the centuries. If I had my life to live over, I could think of much worse ways to spend it than writing a dictionary.

Currently Reading, 8 July 2019

Something Old, Something New

I start this post-holiday week with three books on the go:

Rat Race by Dick Francis (originally published 1971 but I’m reading a brand-new ebook edition just published by Canelo) is a re-read for me. We’ve got a little group read going on over at LibraryThing where we will read one Francis book every other month. It’s been a fun chance to introduce one of my most reliable “comfort read” authors to new readers, and to reminisce with others who like me have been reading his horse-related mysteries for years. Someday I should write a post here about all the reasons why I love Dick Francis.

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope (originally published in 1860; I’m reading an public domain ebook from Project Gutenberg) is the fourth volume in Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles, a series of books set in the same fictional English county. I don’t think I’d have dared tackle these books without the help of another group read at LibraryThing back in 2012. Especially in the earlier books, there is a lot of arcana about church history and customs, and the political intrigues of the day, that this semi-modern American was completely unaware of. Thanks to the group leader Liz, I could actually make enough sense of the first book, The Warden, to realize how much I enjoyed Trollope’s sly social commentary.

Finally, I’m reading an ARC of Jamie Mason’s The Hidden Things (Gallery Books, August 2019), a thriller that is entirely of the current moment. What are the ramifications when a video goes viral on social media? What completely unintended consequences can arise in the lives of those caught up in the moment? Those are the questions faced by a family whose lives unravel in a cascading series of events sparked by secrets that won’t stay in the past.

Literary links

Bronze Link” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s a hot summer holiday weekend, and for me that usually means curling up in an air-conditioned safe space with a book. Maybe you prefer to turn the pages while lounging poolside or at a cabin by the lake. Wherever you’re going to be this weekend, here are some reading-related articles that caught my eye.

Wired

I’m not gonna lie: Microsoft’s Ebook Apocalypse Shows the Dark Side of DRM by Brian Barrett sent chills down my spine. I read a lot — I mean, A LOT — of ebooks because I’d much rather carry around a compact e-reader than a pile of books that get scuffed and battered and weigh down my tote bag. I never bought a book from Microsoft’s ebook store (truth be told, I never knew Microsoft had an ebook store, which might be partly why it failed) but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how easily this could happen elsewhere, including at Kobo Books, my preferred e-tailer. So I guess I have a new task for this holiday weekend: Making sure I’ve got all my ebooks downloaded onto my computer’s hard drive so even if they disappear from the Great Internet Cloud they will still exist.

The Guardian

Oliver Twiss? Nickelas Nickelbery? The Penny Pickwick? What in the name of Charles Dickens is going on here? Just a little 19th century plagiarism, according to Alison Flood’s recent article, Oliver Twiss and Martin Guzzlewit – the fan fiction that ripped off Dickens. It’s all down to a fellow named Edward Lloyd, a prominent press baron of the time who capitalized on the immense popularity of Dickens’ serialized novels by publishing his own ripoff versions.

In some ways the plagiarisms could be seen as the original fan fiction, as they took familiar characters and did different things with them.

Professor Rohan McWilliam

By all accounts, the author of A Tale of Two Cities was mad as the Dickens (oof, sorry) about the whole situation but a judge said he had no recourse to force Lloyd to stop publishing. You can read more about Lloyd’s appropriation and his other influences on Victorian Britain in a new book of essays edited by McWilliam and Sarah Louise Lill, Edward Lloyd and His World: Popular Fiction, Politics and the Press in Victorian Britain (Routledge, 2019).

The Atlantic

Next week is Major League Baseball’s All-Star Break, when the theoretically best (or at least most popular) players in MLB gather to compete in a Home Run Derby and an American-vs-National game that thankfully no longer counts for anything. Since you’re not going to have any actual games to watch for four long days, why not take some time to read The New Science of Building Baseball Superstars, an article by Jack Hamilton that reviews a new book, The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Noncomformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players (Basic Books, 2019) by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik.

Hamilton makes a thoughtful analogy to the rise of the steroid scandal in the 1990s with the more-or-less simultaneous popularization of “sabermetrics” an advanced form of player analysis encapsulated in Michael Lewis’ now-classic Moneyball.

The steroid and stat revolutions have unfolded very differently so far, but they arose from a common source: a desire to deploy scientific methods to improve the way baseball is played. Steroid use focused on player enhancement, whereas analytics focused on player value. To put it polemically, one was a revolution driven by labor, and the other by management, which is probably one of many reasons the latter has been more readily accepted.

Jack Hamilton, The Atlantic

There are other nuanced takes throughout the article, as Hamilton casts a skeptical eye on some of the claims made by Lindbergh and Sawchik about this new era of “Betterball.” Far from discouraging me from reading the book, I’m more eager than ever to check it out see for myself whether The MVP Machine is firing on all cylinders or running on fumes.

Big things come in small packages

a family tragedy of the american west

Montana 1948 (Milkweek, 2007) is a story of sibling rivalry, the malleability of the criminal justice system when it’s applied to people of color, the internal struggles that we all experience when it feels like the only way to do the right thing is by doing the wrong thing. The spare prose and the slender size of the book make the complex depth of the characters all the more astonishing.

Cover image of Montana 1948

David Hayden is 12 years old in 1948, when his family’s housekeeper, a Native American woman named Marie Little Feather, becomes ill and is later found dead in her room at the Hayden house. The truth about what happened to her, and the repercussions of both the original acts and the subsequent reactions, tear apart the Hayden family in painful and irrevocable ways.

Watson has a way with evocative description that made me feel as if I had once visited the small Montana town where the Haydens lived, in the High Plains eastern part of the state. And his rendering of Adult David’s thoughts about the events of that long-ago summer made me feel as if I was right there in his head, looking back on my own memories:

… the sound of breaking glass, the odor of rotting vegetables. … I offer these images in the order in which they occurred, yet the events that produced these sights and sounds are so rapid and tumbled together that any chronological sequence seems wrong. Imagine instead a movie screen divided into boxes and panels, each with its own scene, so that one moment can occur simultaneously with another, so that no action has to fly off in time, so nothing happens before or after, only during. That’s the way these images coexist in my memory, like the Sioux picture calendars in which the whole year’s event are painted on the same buffalo hide, or like a tapestry with every scene woven into the same cloth, every moment on the same flat plane, the summer of 1948 …

Larry Watson

Watson effectively uses the first-person perspective of an adult David looking back on this time in his life. While grown-up David occasionally adds some big-picture perspective and hindsight, he’s also careful to emphasize his younger self’s bafflement at some of the secrets and discussion that he overhears. He calls himself naïve for a boy of 12, and I think he would be in today’s culture, but I suspect many 1948-era 12-year-olds would seem rather immature to today’s tweens.

I suggested this book to my real-life book club as part of our criminal justice theme. (I first read it in 2015 but didn’t review it then and didn’t remember enough to feel comfortable leading a discussion without re-reading.) The other books we’ve read for this theme include The Green Mile by Stephen King, Minority Report by Philip K. Dick, A Study in Emerald by Neil Gaiman, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. That last book is without doubt a book every American should read, but Watson’s minor masterpiece just might be my favorite. 

Will no one rid me of this troublesome brother-in-law?

Christopher Buckley serves up slapstick political intrigue in ‘The Judge Hunter’

Samuel Pepys has a problem. The incessant diarist of the 17th century has successfully negotiated himself into a position of minor power in the Restoration government of King Charles II after having inconveniently supported Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads in the overthrow of Charles I. Life would be reasonably tolerable if not for his wife’s brother, Balthasar, a ne’er-do-well content to sponge off Pepys as a more appealing alternative to getting and keeping a job. If only Sam could find some way of getting Balty out of his life and his purse!

The answer to Pepys’ prayers, at least in the pages of Christopher Buckley’s latest satirical novel (Simon & Schuster, 2018), seems to come when he stumbles upon a plan to send Balty to the American Colonies on a vague quest to search for two judges who were responsible for condemning Charles I to execution. Once landed in the Massachusetts colony, Balty is taken under the wing of one Hiram Huncks, who is ostensibly going to help Balty find the judges but may have his own agenda.

Buckley is a master at historical satire, weaving comedic hijinks throughout an otherwise historically faithful account. Between yuks in The Judge Hunter, he delivers plenty of solid history about the founders of the American colonies, whether English or Dutch. The severe Puritans who founded the Massachusetts colony are reliably skewered, as are the even stricter sect that split for Connecticut when they thought Massachusetts was getting a little too loosey-goosey (narrator: they were not), and the Quakers who refused to renounce their faith despite severe persecution. I learned more about the second Anglo-Dutch War (truthfully, I’m not sure I even remembered there had been a first one) than I ever learned in school. “Excerpts” from Pepys’ famous diary are scattered throughout the narrative, and it was nice to have confirmation in the afterword that all but one or two were entirely made up. Too bad, because Buckley almost had me convinced to tackle the many-volumed classic work.

At the outset, I was concerned that Buckley was serving up too heavy a dose of slapstick, which would rapidly wear thin. Happily, as the plot progresses the characters acquire some more substantial traits than mere deliverers or receivers of punch lines, giving the overall work a pleasant depth.

The Judge Hunter is a worthy follow-up to Buckley’s first historical satire, The Relic Master, which set its skewed sights on the 16th century trade in saints’ remains. Buckley has stated his intention to continue the series with books set in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Based on past performance, those will be worth keeping an eye out for.

Exploring the science of grief

‘Lost and wanted’ is a modern ghost story

How are we supposed to feel when we learn of the death of a friend who had slowly drifted out of our day-to-day life? As Nell Freudenberger shows in her latest novel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2019), it’s complicated. Helen Clapp and Charlotte “Charlie” Boyce were as close as it is possible for two people to be when they were students at Harvard despite being as different as chalk and cheese. Helen is a studious science nerd from a white working-class family; Charlie’s academic interests lay in French literature, and she is supermodel-level gorgeous, the only child in an affluent African-American family. After college, they drifted apart: Helen stayed in academia, eventually landing at MIT as a professor of physics; Charlie moved to L.A. to work as a television producer, where she married a surfer dude and had a daughter. Helen remained single but had a son via sperm donor.

Busy with their respective careers on opposite coasts, Helen and Charlie haven’t spoken for some time when Helen unexpectedly gets a cryptic text message from Charlie. Before she has a chance to follow up on this unexpected communication, Charlie’s husband calls to tell her that Charlie has died — before the text message was sent. What’s going on here?

That question seems as though it will be the heart of a modern-day ghost story, but in the end the answer is less important than what Helen learns about herself, about friendship, and about grief. As she struggles to process her emotions and remembers the high and low points of her and Charlie’s friendship, Helen expresses herself using the language she is most comfortable with: physics. I really struggled with these bits, as I have the most rudimentary of science knowledge. I still felt able to enjoy the story but I’m sure someone who could relate to the scientific concepts would feel a much deeper connection.

Once I gave myself permission to stop trying to make the scientific connections, I came to realize that Helen’s frequent retreats into scientific analogy were a way to distance herself from the intensity of her feelings. With that insight, I found myself absorbed in Helen’s journey of re-discovery. The ways in which she interacts with the people around her who also knew Charlie felt completely organic, and her need to re-interpret her memories of Charlie through the lens of new information learned after her death was compelling. As Helen muses at Charlie’s memorial service, “… love was particular even though it was directed at the same person, that we hadn’t lost just one Charlie but as many as the number of people who were seated here today.”

Readers who expect a modern-day ghost story based on the initial setup may be disappointed, but Freudenberger’s meditation on connection and loss should resonate even with those of us without a firm grasp of quantum mechanics.

Battle of the book covers

U.S. versus U.K. — who ya got?

Illustration created by Electric Literature

Are your Mondays filled with too much thinking? Ease into your work week by gazing upon some beautiful and striking book covers. The fine folks over at Electric Literature pitted the U.S. and U.K. cover versions of some new books to see which their readers preferred. I agreed with some of their choices (the U.K. version of Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway), disagreed with others (I prefer the U.S. cover for Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future), but mostly I added a bunch of titles to my library holds list. Let me know in the comments which ones stand out to you.

Abby, sometimes I wonder if our parents were right when they forbade us to read novels! It is all the fault of the Circulating Libraries!” “Putting romantical notions into girls’ heads?” said Abby, smiling. “I don’t think so: I had a great many myself, and was never permitted to read any but the most improving works.”

Georgette Heyer, black sheep