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Birds of a Fly-tying Feather   Leave a comment

The Feather Thief
I first heard about The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson on NPR. It struck me that a nonfiction account of something as seemingly innocuous as bird feathers would warrant the subtitle: Beauty, Obsession and The Natural History Heist of the Century. After all, why would someone rob a museum of feathers?

Johnson provides the answer in great detail. He recounts the efforts by 19th century naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, who trekked through Malaysia on scientific expeditions and amassed, among other things, a collection of birds, many of which are now either extinct or near extinction.

Johnson recounts the feather fashion frenzy at the turn of the 20th century before introducing readers to 22-year-old Edwin Rist, an American flutist studying at London’s Royal Academy of Music. He also happened to be a part of a fly fishing subculture specializing in tying Victorian-era salmon ties. Toward this end, the requisite feathers for the flies to be as authentic as possible were among the ones gathered by Wallace.

It’s no mystery that Rist steals hundreds of birds/feathers from the Tring Museum, an outpost of the British Natural History Museum, to fuel his hobby and to sell to others. The author is drawn to story because Rist essentially gets away with the crime causing Johnson to wonder who ended up with the stolen goods – something he decides to pursue.

This part history/party mystery is a quick read. Although, the idea of stealing feathers to craft flies remains baffling.

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and The Natural History Heist of the Century
Three-and-a-half bookmarks
Viking 2018
308 pages with notes, bibliography and index

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Pie in the sky. American as apple pie. A piece of the pie.   1 comment

unbaked pie

Pie makes its way into the vernacular of literature, sports, business and politics, but more importantly into our kitchens and, ultimately, our stomachs.

Thank goodness for Heather Briggs, aka The Pie Lady, owner of Gold Star Pies. To say she’s a pie aficionado is an understatement. She’s such a fan that even after baking pies and selling them around Colorado Springs in her pie truck she still enjoys a slice with her morning coffee or any other time of day. “I love pie,” she exclaims!

Her enthusiasm is contagious, yet it’s her knowledge and ability to share her passion that makes her so engaging. This is done in two primary ways: selling pie slices from her truck and teaching others some of her pie making techniques. A group of friends recently gathered in my kitchen for such a class.

After providing a brief history of pie – who knew it has such ancient roots – Heather demonstrates how to make dough while emphasizing the importance of keeping things chill. Literally. Cold dough is essential.

Most of us expected flour to be flying everywhere while dodging rolling pins. Not so. We each made our own dough to take home for future pie crusts. However, the only rolling was done by Heather who’d arrived with two premade-blueberry lemon verbena pies for us to enjoy.

finished pie

Heather offers classes in your home or in a commercial kitchen. She’s organized, knowledgeable and fun; and she brought ice cream for pie a la mode. Cost is $45 per person.

Gold Star Pies Class
Five plates
https://www.goldstarpies.com/

 

Investing in Justice   Leave a comment

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Red Notice by Bill Browder is a true-life tale involving financial investments, conspiracy, Russian intrigue and, ultimately, murder. A look at how U.S. laws are enacted is also included. A red notice is essentially an international arrest warrant. Putin tried, unsuccessfully, to have one placed on the author. The political climate with Russia makes this a timely read.

Browder recounts his experience as a foreign investor in Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union. He discovers a motherlode, secures investors and founds his own capital management firm. Initially, the focus is on Browder’s financial acumen. Then, things get ugly for him and his associates when he exposes corruption in – surprise! – the Russian government.

Browder’s visa is revoked, but he’s able to covertly move his company’s holdings out of Russia saving his clients’ fortunes in the process. However, this isn’t where the author reveals his valor. That comes in the narrative’s final third as he seeks justice for the abuse and murder of his friend/attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, who revealed a multi-million dollar fraud committed by the Kremlin.

Browder’s efforts, along with assistance from U.S. government officials, helped put in place the Magnitsky Act, which, initially*, blocked Russian officials and business leaders from entering the United States and froze their assets held by U.S. banks.

Guilt motivates Browder’s actions, but the true hero of the story is Magnitsky who steadfastly believed truth and fairness would prevail.

With some exceptions, such as occasional extraneous details, the rapid-fire pacing makes Browder’s story engaging.

Red Notice: A True Story of Finance, Murder, and One Man’s fight for Justice
Four Bookmarks
Simon & Schuster, 2015
396 pages, includes notes and index

*The act was expanded in 2016 and now applies sanctions to human rights abusers worldwide.

A Swedish Mystery With Plenty of Light   Leave a comment

Image result for still waters book

Still Waters by Viveca Sten is part of the Sandhamn Murders, a Swedish series set mostly on an island near Stockholm. It’s often safe to assume that when the words murder and Sweden appear in the same sentence a dark, somber mystery is in store – the kind that makes you want to keep a light on at night. Sten’s novel breaks the mold, sort of.

Forget the gloom typically associated with Scandinavian who-dunits: Sandhamn is a coastal resort and in a part of Europe where the sun barely disappears from view.

Thomas Andreasson, a detective in Stockholm, grew up on one of the small islands of the archipelago of which Sandhamn is a part. He’s assigned to investigate what initially appears to be an accidental drowning. However, when the dead man’s cousin also turns up dead on Sandhamn, Thomas – and the reader – know this is no mere coincidence.

Along with the detective is his childhood best friend, Nora; she’s a married lawyer and mother of two young sons. The friendship is platonic, although marital issues between Nora and her husband surface. The characters are likable and engaging, but the deaths of the cousins are less compelling. Sten does little to create tension as Thomas works to solve the case. The single event designed to keep one on edge is, unfortunately, predictable.

The only real grit comes from the constant references to the sand. Nonetheless, Still Waters makes for a good summer read with no worries about locking doors or having a night-light.

Still Waters
Three-and-three-quarter Bookmarks
Amazon Crossing, 2008
434 pages

Love and the Passage of Time   Leave a comment

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An American Marriage is about the institution of matrimony and race in America. Author Tayari Jones introduces readers to Celestial and Roy as each provides their perspectives on their relationship from its early stages to the circumstances that shake its foundation.

Roy’s a country boy with grand aspirations who left rural Louisiana at his first opportunity; Celestial is an artist born and raised in Atlanta. She could be considered haughty, just as he could be seen as arrogant in his drive to move far beyond his roots. Yet, Celestial is the more appealing character of the two. She’s intelligent, independent and creative. There’s just something about Roy that makes him less sympathetic.

This is true even after he is sentenced to serve a 12-year prison term for a crime he did not commit. During his incarceration, the narrative is told through the couple’s exchange of letters. Initially, their correspondence is warm, loving, a continuation of their previous life together. Slowly, the letters become less personal, more terse and infrequent.

The other significant character is Andre, literally the boy next door; Celestial has known him all her life. They have always been close friends and it was Andre who introduced her to Roy.

One year quickly becomes five. Life moves forward for all concerned through professional success, a death and realizations about the past. Following an early release, Roy hopes the passage of time hasn’t completely removed him from Celestial’s world. All are left to wonder what future their marriage holds.

An American Marriage
Three and three-quarter bookmarks
Algonquin Books, 2018
306 pages

Fate and Chance   Leave a comment

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Admittedly, I knew nothing about pachinko before reading the book of the same name by Min Jin Lee. The first mention of the popular Japanese pinball-like game doesn’t surface until halfway through this epic novel spanning four generations.

It begins on a small Korean island in 1910 and progresses rapidly several years later following the birth of Sunja, the only daughter of a poor, disabled innkeeper and his wife. Times passes quickly; soon Sunja is a teenager helping her widowed mother run the inn: a glorified name for a shack with paying guests. Tension between Korea and Japan contributes to the dire economic straits.

Sunja discovers she is pregnant and her lover is married. The arrival of a young man, ill and en route to Japan to serve as a minister, changes the course of her life. They marry, move to Osaka and live with his brother and sister-in-law.

History converges with their story as war, famine and prejudice dictate their lives: Koreans are considered less than third-rate citizens.

The family’s ability to survive depends largely on an unknown benefactor, reminiscent of Great Expectations. Heartache ensues once the identity is revealed.

The novel is rich with characters reflecting both the intolerant attitudes of many Japanese and the cultural constraints of Koreans living on foreign soil.

This is a bulky, albeit well-paced, joyful and heart wrenching story with a historical perspective. The game is an apt title since much of life is left to chance while bouncing around from situation to situation.

Pachinko
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Grand Central Publishing, 2017
490 pages

Tasting for Evil   Leave a comment

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History has already documented the atrocities of World War II at the hands of Adolf Hitler. In addition to the horror, his idiosyncrasies and his death are well detailed. Nonetheless, author V.S. Alexander has one more story to add to the fiction side of the scales: The Taster.

Magda Ritter is adrift in war-torn Berlin. With no job or romantic prospects, her parents send her to Berchtesgarten in the German Alps to escape the bombing – to ensure her safety. Their efforts succeed but not the way Magda imagined. She’s assigned to taste Hitler’s food to ensure it’s safe for him to eat.

Alexander describes the bucolic life at Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof, where much of the novel is set. It’s a stark contrast to other parts of Germany. Initially, Magda is frightened by her responsibilities, but she soon realizes they are keeping her and her family alive. Still, she is repulsed by the knowledge that by tasting Hitler’s food she is keeping him safe.

The focus of Alexander’s narrative is Magda who falls in love with Captain Weber, a conspirator within the SS. The cook, other tasters and Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, are among the interesting characters with whom Magda interacts. Feelings of mistrust, a constant cloud of fear and the blind devotion so many had toward the Fuhrer are well developed.

Alexander notes this is a work of fiction, and his research is chillingly thorough. Knowing Hitler’s death is imminent does little to dispel the thriller he creates.

The Taster
Four Bookmarks
Kensington Books, 2018
320 pages