Pure Land

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One of my favorite travel souvenirs is to purchase a book in a local independent bookstore. While on our Arizona road trip, I visited the adorable Bright Side Bookshop in Flagstaff, where an awesome bookseller recommended local author Annette McGivney’s Pure Land.

In Pure Land, McGivney expands on her 2007 article that she wrote for Backpacker, that explored the brutal murder of a Japanese woman, Tomomi Hanamure, who was stabbed while hiking in the Grand Canyon. Pure Land is part memoir, part social commentary, and part true crime.

As McGivney was researching the story, she began to experience triggers from her own abusive childhood and this article took on a greater meaning. McGivney flew to Japan and became close to Hanamure’s family, learning that the woman had been abandoned by her mother at a young age and was raised by a single father. Hanamure always felt a pull towards the United States, specifically the National Parks of the South West and Native American culture. Hanamure was killed by Randy Wescogame, an eighteen year old meth addict living on the Havasupai reservation, who also had a history of childhood abandonment and abuse.

“Pure Land” refers to the Buddhist belief of the ultimate afterlife, the place where a person who has learned everything from earth, through multiple reincarnations, will finally go to rest. Hanamure comes from a Buddhist background and her family prays that she has made it to Pure Land to find peace. However, it also takes on a different meaning with McGivney’s book, as we can imagine that Hanamure and others find their own Pure Land when they are at peace in nature. Perhaps even Wescogame is on his way to Pure Land, while healing in prison, or maybe McGivney is finding it, as she moves forward from her childhood trauma.

Pure Land is a powerhouse. I could not put it down. The story is heartbreaking, but McGivney explores it with compassion and care. I was fascinated with the way that Hanamure felt drawn to a foreign culture, so much so that she worked minimum wage jobs to just save enough to meet her travel expenses. Her entire focus was on her trips to the United States. Her passion for the United States was not shared with her family and friends, yet she was not deterred. By all accounts, she also came across as an unusual soul by those who encountered her during her travels, yet she seemed to own this aspect of her life. It’s crushing to think that someone could have so much love for a land and its people, yet it led to her violent and untimely death.

Pure Land also explores the devastating and complex history of Native Americans and their treatment by the United States government. Through centuries of systematic racism, many tribe members that maintain their autonomy of tribal lands are facing a crisis with poverty, violence, and addiction. McGivney looks at the history of how this has happened and specifically how this life has impacted the Havasupai. While she certainly doesn’t forgive Wescogame’s crime, she does explore his life within the context of living in a tribe that has experienced incredible hardships. I was most interested in reading about the founding of the National Parks. The National Parks are the treasures of the United States and I think most citizens ( and foreign visitors) hold them in the highest regard, but the dark side of the history of the parks includes the displacement of Native tribes, forcing them from their ancestral lands.

McGivney gets specific with regard to the Havasupai, who now have a deeply impoverished reservation on a small piece of land in the Grand Canyon. Crossing through their land is the only way to access one of the most stunning parts of the canyon, a place where Hanamure was headed when she was murdered. The Havasupai tribe has made efforts to attract tourists, including building a small, heavily fortified lodge and offering guides. However, the problems that exist on the reservation make this a very dangerous area and not everyone is welcoming or profiting off of the tourists.

Although we think of National Parks as a places that should be open to all, this particular section of the Canyon is controlled by the Havasupai. It is their land. They have little with regard to ways of making an income and whether they want to or not, allowing tourists brings in much needed revenue. Their willingness to allow tourists to pass through reeks of slum tourism, with the tourists not just passing through on their hike, but also gawking at the shocking poverty on the reservation. The Havasupai that are able to make a living off of the tourists are doing the best with what they have, however reading this made my stomach hurt. The only reason that they are in this situation is because they were forced to give up their lands and forced to accept a rotten deal, yet now they are again pressured into allowing tourists to traipse through their home. I imagine that if they did not allow the tourists to pass, that the government would find a way to intervene on the tourists behalf. It’s a terrible situation.

Pure land is an important read from a historical and societal perspective. McGivney’s writing is heart breaking and haunting. I can’t imagine that I will ever forget this book.

Murder by the Book

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In Murder by the Book, Claire Harman explores a horrific Victorian England crime that captivated the country. In 1840, Lord William Russell, a well-to-do senior citizen, was found nearly decapitated in his bed at his London residence. The hunt for the murderer focused heavily on Russell’s servants and finally yielded a confession from his valet, a Swiss national named Francois Benjamin Courvoisier. Courvoisier admitted guilt, but his testimony was often conflicting and although he was ultimately sent to the gallows for the crime, there has been doubt as to whether or not he was the actual murderer, or if so, did he have an accomplice?

Harman’s book doesn’t only focus on the murder, but also puts the crime in context of other events during the era. Much as there is a current trend for blaming video games, music, and movies for violence in our society, there was a similar situation occurring in Victorian England. In the mid 1800’s, people were captivated by crime novels. There was a popular book genre called the “Newgate Novel.” Named for the infamous Newgate prison ( where Courvoisier was held and hung), the novels romanticized criminals.

In particular, there was one Newgate Novel that rose to controversy with the murder of Russell: Jack Sheppard. Written by William Harrison Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard, is the true crime tale that Courvoisier claims gave him the idea to murder Russell. Jack Sheppard was a huge part of pop-culture, which beyond the book, also was told through multiple stage plays, may of which were an inexpensive form of entertainment that all segments of society could enjoy and did so, by seeing the productions multiple times. The idea of a servant turning on their employees, especially in such a brutal fashion, was a panic at the time and led to even more criticism of Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Novel genre.

Other famous authors, like Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, closely followed the Courvoisier trial. Dickens in particular became a strong opponent of public hangings, his thought being that the damage done by the public witnessing an execution, is greater than its act as a deterrent against criminal behavior. He witnessed Courvoisier’s execution and used his writings to speak out against the act. The last public hanging in the United Kingdom would occur just a few decades later. The way Harman describes the festival atmosphere around the execution is chilling.

A very interesting fact that Harman mentions is that a doctor wrote to Scotland Yard with an idea that finger prints might be used to identify the true murderer. This was before finger printing was used and the idea was dismissed, not be used until fifty years later. Harman mentions that had finger printing had been around, other Victorian era crimes, such as Jack the Ripper, might have been solved.

Murder by the Book took me about 1/3 to really feel invested in the story, but as soon as I reached that point, I couldn’t put it down. The crime is shocking, but the real fascinating element is how the crime informed public debate over art and social policy, such as executions. Violence has always been part of culture and art has always included violence, making this shocking case from 1840, just as relevant in today’s conversation. Does glorifying violence lead to violence? I don’t advocate censorship or banning art, but somewhere in all of this there does seem to be a problem that has been occurring for generations. I think mental health is likely the missing puzzle piece and by his own admittance, Courvoisier claimed to have been in a rage. At the time Phrenology, the pseudoscience of studying skull shapes to analyze mental traits, was all the rage. Of course now, Phrenology is not only disproven, but also associated with racism and the goal of proving superiority with certain races. However, it is interesting to note that even if the Victorians were on the wrong track with Phrenology, the idea of exploring mental imbalance and its association with violent behavior was of importance.

Harman’s book leaves the reader with much to consider and would be a great pick for book clubs or classrooms. It’s great for true crime enthusiasts and history buffs, as well for lovers of Victorian England authors. Murder by the Book is a compelling read for people who can handle the gory details!

 

Watching You

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Thank you to Atria Books for providing me with a copy of Lisa Jewell’s latest novel, Watching You, in exchange for an honest review.

A brutal murder has taken place in one of the beautiful Victorian home in the affluent Melville Heights neighborhood in Bristol, England. In acclaimed novelist Lisa Jewell’s latest crime novel, Watching You, the reader quickly realizes that there are as many suspects, as there are potential victims and we will not know the truth of the situation until the final moments of the story.

I’ve read several of Jewell’s previous novels and she is simply a master at writing crime fiction. This is not a genre that I often read, yet I am thrilled every time she publishes a new book, because I know that I will love it. Watching You is no exception. Jewell knows exactly how to pace her novels to keep readers engaged. She always has a twist that is unexpected, yet makes perfect sense when you rethink through the hints that she has been cleverly dropping throughout the entire novel. At the very start of Watching You, we are told that a murder has taken place and we know that one of the characters is being questioned as a suspect, yet we do not know the murder victim until the last chapters of the novel. It’s brilliant.

More than a crime novel, Watching You is a solid drama. Jewell’s characters are having affairs, teenagers navigating first love, and families in crisis. The drama is as equally important as the crime element. I feel that this is a strong reason for why I gravitate towards Jewell’s novels. She has rich, well-rounded characters who are facing difficult situations. The crime element ups the stakes and intensifies their troubles, but it is not the root or only cause of tension in the story. Jewell’s characters are complex and troubled, even if murder wasn’t on their street.

Watching You is creepy. It has themes of power and dominance, especially through the character of Tom Fitzwilliam, a school headmaster in his early 50’s. Tom has a history of showing attention to young women. He’s charismatic and someone that women, young and old, tend to crush on. Throughout the entire story, we never quite know if Tom is a villain or victim. Is he a predator or misunderstood? The character of Tom reminded me of one of my college professors, who lost his career for predatory behavior. I never had an inappropriate situation with him, but I did get swept up by his charisma and when he was very publicly fired, it was both a shock and not a shock at all. I kept imagining this professor, every time Tom was on the page.

Culpability is a theme throughout Watching You. The recently married Joey Mullens, Tom’s neighbor, is enchanted by Tom and has an affair with him. She knows that she bears blame for this decision, yet she can’t help but focus on Tom’s power over her, as if she is possessed. Another character is confronted with her extreme bullying behavior as a teenager. Many decades have passed, but she never took responsibility and now her past has come back to haunt her. As the title implies, we are all being watched and cannot hide from our sins.

Watching You is a page turner and I was enthralled until the last word. I think this might just be my favorite Jewell novel yet.

The Late Show

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Last May, I visited family in England and I was kindly given a copy of Michael Connelly’s The Late Show, from my brother-in-law’s father, a fellow book-lover. He primarily passed along the book because he was surprised that I had not read Connelly, especially since many of his novels are set in my hometown of Los Angeles, California.

PLOT– After being harassed by a male colleague, Detective Renee Ballard is moved to the graveyard shift, also referred to as “The Late Show.” A victim of rape, Ballard lives a life that keeps her on the move. She is an ace employee, but her personal life is messy and she often chooses to sleep on the beach, rather than maintain the trappings of a normal life.

She’s on the beat, when two intense cases come her way: a shooting at a local bar and a near deadly assault. As Ballard becomes involved with both cases, she faces discrimination and road blocks from fellow detectives in the LAPD, coworkers who would rather she found a different job. Ballard must outwit them, sometimes breaking protocol and placing herself in grave danger, to both provide justice for the victims and prove that she is a worthy detective.

LIKE– I love that Ballard is a strong, kick-ass female protagonist. She’s tough as nails and smart. I think most women can relate to facing some degree of workplace discrimination or harassment. Ballard faces both, in a job that is mostly male. Although she is clearly emotionally affected by it, she doesn’t let it stop her from proving her right to be there. While It is frustrating that women have to “prove” themselves, Connelly writes this aspect of the female perspective in a way that rings true.

I love the Los Angeles setting, especially as I’m now living in a different area and feeling homesick for my hometown. The setting brought up some interesting thoughts for me. The man who gave me The Late Show is British and has never visited Los Angeles. I wondered what he thought or imagined, based on Connelly’s descriptions, Los Angeles to look like? I didn’t have to stretch my imagination very far, as I’ve been to many of the locations in The Late Show. My own local knowledge eclipses Connelly’s descriptions. It made me think back to all of the novels that I’ve read that are set in England and now that I’ve visited England many times, I can’t even remember what I thought when books/movies/TV, formed my knowledge.

Connelly does a great job at crafting intense, danger-filled action scenes. His writing is cinematic.

DISLIKE– I believe that this is my first crime/detective novel. It is my first experience with Connelly. I don’t have experience with the genre and as such, I was put-off by all of the police lingo. It felt heavy-handed. Do detectives really talk like that? Maybe they do, but as a reader unfamiliar with the genre, it grew old and was cheesy.

RECOMMENDThe Late Show is not my cup of tea, but I know that Connelly is incredibly popular and I think fans of this genre would love his latest protagonist, Renee Ballard. I’m happy to have had the chance to read something that I would not have normally picked, but I would unlikely seek out his other books.