Blogging from A-Z – Book review: ‘Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter’

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter “C.” (I’m blogging the alphabet in April. Read the details at Suzy & Spice here or the A-Z page here.)

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TrixieBeldenI suppose I came by my love of mystery stories honestly.

My Grandma Tressie – Dad’s mother – would pass along her Agatha Christie paperbacks after she finished reading them. And she read them all.

I’m sure she read other things – I can’t know every possible thing she liked – but Agatha Christie is what I remember sharing with her. It was our thing. (That, and her Dell crossword puzzle books that came in the mail; she had a subscription.)

For me, it was Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys … then Edgar Allan Poe and, starting in high school, Stephen King. I devoured every one of them. There was even a lesser-known girl detective, Trixie Belden, whose adventures I followed during grade school and junior high. Good thing I had a county library and school libraries to feed my habit – my parents would have gone broke keeping me in books.

Mystery, horror and crime stories were not all I read, but they’re what I remember most. Then I became an adult and turned to nonfiction as my mainstay. Forsook the love of my childhood.

So I hadn’t read a good mystery in years – forgot how much I loved them, in fact – until Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.

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My monthly reading group’s March meeting coincided with bestselling author Tom Franklin’s visit to Lyon College, where he was awarded the Leila Lenore Heasley Prize. (I wrote about that evening here.) Before the event, I had nabbed Crooked Letter from the county library rather than downloading it to my Kindle app … just in case I didn’t like it.

I needn’t have worried.

Franklin’s book – a mystery about two disappearances a quarter-century apart, and the man suspected in both crimes – isn’t so much a crime story, in my opinion, as it is a story about a friendship.

“When [the investigator] left, Larry lay amid his machines, thinking of Silas, how time packs new years over the old ones but how those old years are still in there, like the earliest, tightest rings centering a tree, the most hidden, enclosed in darkness and shielded from weather. But then a saw screams in and the tree topples and the circles are stricken by the sun and the sap glistens and the stump is laid open for the world to see.”

The friendship starts when the boys are in grade school and, despite an event that causes them to part ways when they’re young, they remain a part of each other, past, present and future.

Many mystery/horror/suspense novels are short on character development – relying on action to the detriment of the story – but that’s not the case here. Franklin weaves dialogue (inner and outer), plot, action and scenery to good effect.

A writer from the South and of the South, he may use kudzu as a metaphor once or twice too often, but, on balance, this is a tale that I enjoyed thoroughly – definitely one of those can’t-put-down kinds of books.

There is plenty of action, to be sure. This isn’t a romance novel – it’s a mystery story. Lovers of suspense won’t be disappointed.

But the inside-the-character’s-head writing is why I like it so much:

“Larry never accompanied her to the fabricated metal building they used, understanding it was easier for a congregation to accept the mother of an accused killer than the killer himself, but, hungry for God, he would abstain from food when she did. He found the first skipped meals the hardest, the hunger a hollow ache. The longer he went without eating, though, the second day, the third, the pain would subside from an ache to the memory of an ache and finally to only the memory of a memory. Until you ate you didn’t know how hungry you were, how empty you’d become. Wallace had shown him that being lonesome was its own fast, that after going unnourished for so long, even the foulest bite could remind your body how much it needed to eat. That you could be starving and not even know it.”

Yes, it’s a mystery novel.

But much more than that, it’s a book full of beautifully descriptive thoughts and scenes and characters. It’s a tale of two friends, one black, one white.

It’s a must-read.

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Tomorrow: D is for debt-proof living.

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Blogging from A-Z: Book review – ‘The Boys in the Boat’

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter “B.” (I’m blogging the alphabet in April. Read the details at Suzy & Spice here or the A-Z page here.)

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Confession: I haven’t quite finished the book.

But I’ve finished enough to know that I can recommend, without hesitation, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.

An author friend of mine, when I told him I was reading Unbroken (the story of 1936 Olympic runner and World War II veteran Louis Zamperini – read my review here), recommended The Boys in the Boat as my next read. Conrad specifically urged me to listen to the Audible.com version because of the wonderful narration by Edward Herrmann (God rest his soul).

I typically don’t listen to audio when I run outdoors, but lucky for me I was stuck with the treadmill for several weeks because of icy weather and short, dark days. 🙂

BoysInTheBoat_coverThis book, and Herrmann’s lovely, fluid reading of it, proves that nonfiction doesn’t have to be dry and boring. A good tale, well told, is like poetry, or music, and this one has been an exciting melodic discovery for me.

While I plod along on the ’mill with the book turned up loud, the minutes sail by. I can practically hear the swish-swoosh-swish of the water as the University of Washington crews practice their craft (and art, and mental game) in hopes of beating their University of California archrivals in the next regatta, or making it to the 1936 Olympics.

I can almost hear the voice of Englishman George Yeoman Pocock, who designed and built the boats our boys rowed in, as he explains to farm boy Joe Rantz how a racing shell takes shape. It’s obvious Pocock had a love affair with his boats, and the materials that went into making them:

“As Pocock talked, Joe grew mesmerized. It wasn’t just what the Englishman was saying, or the soft, earthy cadence of his voice, but the calm reverence with which he talked about the wood – as if there was something holy and sacred about it – that drew Joe in.

“ ‘The wood,’ Pocock murmured, ‘taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, about prevailing over adversity. But it also taught us something about the underlying reason for surviving in the first place: something about infinite beauty, about undying grace, about things larger and greater than ourselves, about the reasons we were all here.

“ ‘Sure, I can make a boat,’ he said, and then added, quoting the poet Joyce Kilmer, ‘but only God can make a tree.’ ”

Pocock wasn’t the only poet-at-heart. Brown, the book’s author, seems to have taken the topic of rowing and made a master’s thesis out of it, but not the kind that puts you to sleep (unless the thesis is a lullaby). Maybe Brown grew up with the sport; maybe not. However he came to possess the information, he’s an expert on his subject matter, and he makes it come alive, with beautiful and rich description.

We know the boys made it to the Berlin Olympics. We know the things Hitler did as he grew in power. We know who won medals in 1936 and who didn’t. That information is all in the history books.

But when you know the outcome of an event and you’re nevertheless breathless at the telling of it – can’t wait until tomorrow night when you get to read the next installment – well, that’s good storytelling, folks.

You can Google or Wiki the tale of these working-class “boys in the boat” – find out which of them made the team and whether they brought home Olympic gold – but save the cold, hard facts for after Brown has introduced you to his Boys in the Boat.

It’s worth its weight in gold.

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Tomorrow: C is for “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter,” my review of another great book.

Follow me on Twitter: OakleySuzyT

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