Monthly Archives: February 2013

An arc of Ordinary Grace

What better way to spend a dreary February day( or any day for that matter) than to curl up and read a new book by William Kent Krueger, one of my favorite authors? I was fortunate enough to snag an advance copy of his latest, Ordinary Grace, and spent the better part of one such gray day basking in the warmth of a Minnesota summer in the year 1961. Those of you who know me have heard me talk about his Cork O’Connor mysteries, but this novel stands alone—in more ways than one.
The summer of 1961 was a time of many things, the new Minnesota Twins, a new president in the White House, cold root beers after pick-up games at the local vacant lot and, for Frank Drum and his brother Jake, the unwelcome shadow of death. As minister’s sons, they’ve been to services for the dead before, but never for a friend or for the nameless vagrant they had discovered down by the riverbank. These two deaths set the tone for the summer and a third event shatters the world as they know it. Their older sister Ariel disappears after a party and is later found in the river. There is no question of accidental death. Ariel has been murdered.
As their world and family unravel, Frank and Jake find that knowing the secrets and failings of the grown-ups in their lives is a terrible wisdom, raising more questions than either of them wanted to ask and more answers than they ever wanted to know. Their parents are no longer perfect, other people in their lives show unexpected compassion and courage, and the end of the summer brings the knowledge that there is an awful and wonderful grace in the knowing of the truth.
While there is a mystery to be solved here, the mystery itself is not the story. Ordinary Grace, for me, is the coming of age of a young man in a time of relative innocence and his reaction to the imperfections he discovers in his own small world. Frank’s summer begins with no more worries than yard work for his grandfather and ball games with his friends and ends with his realization that growing up comes with a price as well as rewards. Mr. Krueger weaves his usual magic with flowing narrative and fully fleshed out characters, major and minor. He knows the workings of small towns back in the day when calling home meant finding a pay phone and doors could be left unlocked without qualms. You don’t have to have read his other books to relish this one, but I guarantee that after reading Ordinary Grace you will.

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Lovin’ Lyle

Once upon a time, when I was younger and could fold myself into a cramped seat in the back row of the balcony at a local theater, I spent $25.00 to go hear a country singer and his ‘large’ band. It was a benefit for the theater itself, which needed some major upgrades to handle the plays and classic movies it presented to us, so I really didn’t mind. I’d been going to that theater since we moved here and didn’t want to see it become another vacant building, place on the National Historic Register notwithstanding. I think I got the last available ticket for the concert, thankfully an aisle seat even if it was in the last row. I had a great view of the stage however, and some friendly concert goers next to me. Truth be told, I’d gone partially because my daughter had said “Mom, you’d like him,” and she does have good taste in music. Still, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. Just who was Lyle Lovett and what exactly was a ‘large band’? When the curtains parted, I found out. And I was hooked.
Lyle Lovett is a storyteller, pure and simple. It doesn’t matter what type of song it is, he infuses it with his personality and makes it his own. Big band numbers like “Tickle Toe” and simple acoustic pieces like “Don’t Shed a Tear” carry the same commitment…reach the listener and share the story. The performances span everything from love gone wrong to love gone right, from a song about Indiana’s tall corn to riding in the back seat of a car with Mom and Dad in the good old days. He can cause a tear or tease a smile. His voice may not be as polished as some, but then it’s really the story he tells that matters, both to him and to us. Or at least that’s how I see it every time I pop one of his cds into my car’s player or hunt up a song of his on iTunes.
Did I mention he could act? He’s done a movie or two, and even been on ABC’s Castle as a government agent, but for me he’ll always be that rail-thin guy in the suit and tie, guitar in hand and band at his back. Thanks, Lyle. You sing a great story.

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A Good Read for Tuesday…or Any Morning

We’ve all heard stories, good and bad, about Sir Winston Churchill in the early days of World War II before the Yanks joined in, but what haven’t we heard? What if there was a double agent in Great Britain’s MI-6 who, with the blessing of Heydrich and Hitler, had a plan to assassinate Churchill? What if there was an MI-6 agent who suspected this man but could prove nothing, at least not at first? This is the premise of Simon Tolkien’s latest thriller, Orders From Berlin, which not only answers these questions but serves as an introduction to Detective Trave of Scotland Yard, the protagonist of two of Tolkien’s earlier books.
Analyst Albert Morrison has been sent out to pasture but his former assistant Alec Thorn, now deputy head of MI-6, keeps in touch with his former boss, not only for Morrison’s expertise but because he harbors an affection for Morrison’s daughter Ava. When Thorn intercepts a coded message he believes might give a clue to the true identity of a Nazi agent embedded in MI-6, he goes to see Morrison. Discovering Morrison is not at home, he leaves a copy of the note for him to analyze. Thorn has his suspicions that Charles Seaforth, the department’s rapidly rising star, is Hitler’s man in MI-6 and believes Morrison might be able to decode the message from ‘D’ to ‘C’ in time to prevent disaster.
Seaforth, whose mission includes discrediting Thorn to get closer to Churchill, knows of Thorn’s close relationship with Morrison and panics when Morrison shows up looking for Thorn. He follows the older man home, tries to get information from him, but ends up pushing him over the balcony to his death. Ava, who has come to persuade her father to join her in the bomb shelter, sees her father fall from the balcony and land at her feet. Trave and his superior, Quaid, get the call to investigate what looks like a suicide but cannot convince Ava, who swears she saw someone push her father to his death. Seaforth pretends to be a friend of the victim to get close to Ava and sets in action a chain of events that are calculated to not only present the police with the murderer they seek but to implicate his nemesis Thorn in the assassination of Churchill while putting him at the top of the MI-6 ladder.
Simon Tolkien captures not only the atmosphere and tension of wartime London—a bonus for those who like historical settings—but the effect the constant uncertainty has on the people involved in that history. His characters are well-drawn but not so fixed that they cannot do the unexpected, and the twists the story takes make the reader wonder if somehow Seaforth will achieve his mission in spite of what we know of Churchill and the events of World War II.

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“Laissez les bon temps rouler”

Did you think this post was going to be about Mardi Gras? I’ve never been, although I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the city of New Orleans at other parts of the year. And this post isn’t about New Orleans either. Not just New Orleans that is. It is about my favorite cities, of which The Big Easy is one. Portland, Oregon, Chicago, New Orleans, and Edinburgh, Scotland, are all cities I’ve been to, fallen in love with, and would go back to in a New York minute. Sorry New York…maybe in another post.
I was born near Chicago; so near that my dad could walk ½ block, hop on a commuter train, and be at his job in about 45 minutes. We went downtown almost every school holiday, and our school field trips took us to exotic places like The Field Museum (history, dinosaurs, and bones), the Museum of Science and Industry (culture, inventions, a German submarine and Coal Mine I was not brave enough to ride until I was an adult), The Shedd Aquarium, Goodman Theatre, and so on and so on. Did I mention the Art Institute? I still like to play tourist up there even though the cityscape has changed over the years and the Prudential Building is not the tallest structure anymore. The food is amazing, the shopping and theatre are both extraordinary, and there are surprises around every corner. Dirty, scandalous, a city of rich and poor, clusters of small ethnic neighborhoods. Would I live there? Hmmm.
Portland Oregon is where my daughter lives, a point in the city’s favor of course, but the city itself seduced me. Mountains (even though I’m afraid of heights) in the background, the Willamette and Columbia Rivers within shouting distance, a temperate valley where people seem to be greener and friendlier even on those rainy days of winter when the skies are gray and the best place to be is Powell’s Books or possibly a café serving tea and macarons. Portland is a walker’s and a biker’s city. It has The Pearl, Laurelhurst, Mt. Tabor (part of the city is built around an old and hopefully dead volcano) Hawthorne Street, Chinatown, and you can see them in a day or two without running yourself ragged. And the bridges. Portland has ten, I think, linking one side of the city to the other. The Columbia Gorge is an hour away, as is Mt. Hood, the coast is an hour in the other direction and you can visit Astoria, where the Pacific and the Columbia River meet.
Edinburgh is close to my heart and my heritage. The city lives and breathes history, good and bad, with buildings older than the colony of Virginia. The past is revered there. If a building is sound, it is used. There are stairways between streets that pass below windows through which 17th century dwellers tossed their dirty dishwater. There are ghosts and legends and an amazing Castle. My mother came from Scotland as a young girl, and we made the trip to see her birthplace in Ayrshire, a small town named Crookedholm. The town is still there…and still small. But we went to Edinburgh as well, and Sterling. The people are lovely, friendly, and know their origins. Three days was not enough time to see it all.
And then there is New Orleans. The City that Care forgot. I used to think that saying meant that Care never dared show its face in a city so filled with music and cultures, but sadly, it means the opposite. New Orleans is a city of contradictions: music like nowhere else in the world, Cajun, Creole, zydeco, blues, jazz, and, yes, their own brand of rock. Amanda Shaw’s fiddle, Big Sam’s Funky Nation funk, trombones, drums lines, brass bands and mournful pianos and saxophones. Food people travel miles just to experience, whether it’s the mufalettas at Central Grocery, Mother’s famous sandwiches, the bread pudding at Pascal Manale, or crawfish at a boil during French Quarter and Jazz Fests. The people are, for the most part, courteous to friends and strangers alike. I say for the most part because there are always those too busy to stop and say Hey, but I’ve been greeted with smiles more often than not. What you need to know is that New Orleans is more than the French Quarter. It is a city of neighborhoods and cultures, sometimes closely held and sometimes spilling over onto each other. There are places it is not safe to be day or night, and there are beauties like Audubon Park and the Waterfront. And the Mississippi River.
Thumbnail sketches never really tell you everything about a place, or a person, but the words above hopefully share some of the reasons these cities are tops on my list. Good times roll in each and every one of them…as I hope they do for you wherever you are.

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