Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Review: Shadows of Pecan Hollow

Shadows of Pecan Hollow Shadows of Pecan Hollow by Caroline Frost
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was 1970 when thirteen-year-old runaway Kit Walker was abducted by Manny Romero, a smooth-talking, low-level criminal, who first coddled her and then groomed her into his partner-in-crime. Before long, Kit and Manny were infamous for their string of gas station robberies throughout Texas, making a name for themselves as the Texaco Twosome.

Twenty years after they meet, Kit has scraped together a life for herself and her daughter amongst the pecan trees and muddy creeks of the town of Pecan Hollow, far from Manny. But when he shows up at her doorstep a new man, fresh out of prison, Kit is forced to reckon with the shadows of her past, and her community is sent into a tailspin. 

This gritty, penetrating, and unexpectedly tender novel ensnares the reader in its story of resilience and bonds that define us. With its rich rural landscape, indelible characters, and striking regional language, Shadows of Pecan Hollow is a hauntingly intimate and distinctly original debut about the complexity of love—both romantic and familial—and the strength and vulnerability of womanhood. 

Gritty, it is. A little bit of Lolita and quite a bit disturbing. Not my favorite book but well written.

Review: We Carry Their Bones: The Search for Justice at the Dozier School for Boys

We Carry Their Bones: The Search for Justice at the Dozier School for Boys We Carry Their Bones: The Search for Justice at the Dozier School for Boys by Erin Kimmerle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author of this book began this journey accidentally. As a forensic anthropologist she was called upon to verify 31 graves at an old reform school cemetery. What she discovered was a poorly kept burial spot for the children that died on the campus. As she dug deeper (figuratively speaking and, later, literally), she was approached by some of the survivors of the Arthur Dozier School. Buried in secrecy and shame, the school housed "juvenile delinquents" from ages 5 and up who were imprisoned for minor or no infractions and leased out as slave labor by day, and brutally abused and murdered by night. She uncovered horrific stories which are not clearly shared and attributed for privacy issues but enough is shared that the reader's stomach will turn. 

Using fascinating technology, Kimmerle maps out part of the land and discovers anomolies that indicate 55 graves instead of 31 that were previously marked. The secrets are vast and not all told nor uncovered, but what Kimmerle found were the grown boys of the "White House," a building painted white where unspeakable brutality occurred; beatings with a leather strap, up to 135 lashes by "The One Armed Man," rapes, and murders. The boys were in their late 60's and older and deeply haunted by their time at the school, struggling with mental health issues for the rest of their lives. Additionally, many families never knew what became of their sons and brothers when they didn't come home. The semi-cemetery gave some of them answers.

What the author uncovered was a small town in Florida that did not want the secrets to be told. The school employed their fathers, grandfathers, and uncles who went home every night to their wives and children. They didn't want to know about the systemic racism or the cruel treatment meted out within the walls of the school and the fields in the surrounding areas. 

The author brings some measure of closure to many of those impacted by the abuses at the school and shines a light on the historical (some are not in the distant history) mistreatment and inequality of the juvenile justice system in Florida. For the sake of brevity and readability, the detail on the lives of the boys is limited as is the story of abuse and death. Kimmerle is a scientist and carefully explains the way she went about identifying the unmarked graves, unearthing them, and identifying them where possible. It's heavier on the science side but the connections formed by her work are a clear by-product that impacted the author and the survivors lives for the better.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Review: Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

** spoiler alert ** Apparently, I read this book 12 years ago. I know it impacted me when I read it but I didn’t write a review. The probable reason is that I was still processing it. Honestly, I have spent 12 years processing it and just reread it. It was a different experience. The last time I read this book I was fascinated by the science of altitude, acclimation, climbing strategies, wind velocity, and then the terrible tragedy. Admittedly, I had opinions about many of the climbers and they weren’t always good. I accepted Krakauer’s report of what happened as the truth. The end.

This time around I viewed every climber with more compassion and humanity. I also noticed that Krakauer did not judge harshly. He merely reported what he remembered. He is a reporter AND a mountain climber. He didn’t dissect their characters, but I think I was still looking for a smoking gun, so to speak. Someone that bore responsibility for the tragedy that day. This time around, I viewed every climber with compassion and recognized that there is no smoking gun. There were at least a couple dozen contributing factors, but nothing and nobody caused that tragedy. And everybody and everything contributed to it.

I live at 4500 ft. above sea level. I spend a week every year at a lake at 6000 ft. We have a cabin at about 8000 ft. I think I will also add that, even given this altitude, I suffer from a genetic condition where I have too many red blood cells. Im sleepy the first few days at the lake. I can’t seem to take a full breath at the cabin and I can’t sleep. I am very aware of the altitude, particularly at the cabin. My son gets altitude sickness with a headache and throws up. He doesn’t enjoy the cabin quite as much. We would adapt if we lived there year round. Mount Everest is over 29000 ft. above sea level. They acclimate for some of the altitude, but the energy it takes to breathe thin air and stay warm is not sustainable. What happened is the climbers bodies used up all of their fat and started consuming the muscle. Then bran cells die without adequate oxygen.

As they climbed and the air thinned, their bodies were pushed to the limit but they took 6 weeks on the mountain before the summit. There are four camps. They moved freely between base camp and camp 2, adding camp 3 at the end. Camp 4 and the summit are above 27000 feet. That’s how high airplanes fly. The oxygen is so thin that it is called The Death Zone. Life is not sustainable no matter how prepared a climber is. The body consumes itself, it can’t stay warm, and above all, brain cells die. Every single climber is cognitively impaired. I could not read this book this time around without the fact at the forefront of my mind. It seemed that nobody possessed the cognitive ability at that altitude to make lucid decisions. Or even have clear thoughts. They are confused, may start hallucinating, even lack the ability to fully enjoy the view from the top of the world. I can’t imagine that kind of cognitive impairment, on a technical mountain at that altitude when a blizzard blows in.

This time reading I was most impacted with Krakauer as he returned to base camp and afterward. The sudden clarity as oxygen reached his brain and realization of what happened up there. It would be an impossible event to process. He pieced together the events by using his memory as a guide but gathering information from others. His account is not a complete story. But the aftermath is very real. He wrote this book as a way to process the experience but admitted it merely scratched the surface. Still, it is the most comprehensive book written on the 1996 Everest tragedy. I came away with a greater appreciation for Krakauer’s attempt to reconstruct what happened, mostly on May 10 and 11. There were survivors that are forever scarred (physically and emotionally) who barely made it out alive. Out of oxygen and completely exhausted, they couldn’t help with a possible rescue. There were some heroics but no heroes. There were mistakes but no villains. They were climbers uniting to summit Everest. They all have stories to tell. Krakauer gives as comprehensive report as he could. I read another that was pretty incredible from the group but the writing isn’t as good.

This book stays with you.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Please Join Us

Please Join UsPlease Join Us by Catherine McKenzie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This isn’t my favorite Catherine McKenzie book. The concept is original, though. A group of women form a sisterhood to support one another in their professional pursuits. But it may not be what it seems.

View all my reviews

The Spy Who Knew Too Much

The Spy Who Knew Too Much: Pete Bagley's Quest Through a Legacy of BetrayalThe Spy Who Knew Too Much: Pete Bagley's Quest Through a Legacy of Betrayal by Howard Blum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a really well written non fiction book that is organized like a good novel. Pete Bagley is a rising CIA star, keeping a cool head and using his extraordinary memory to catalog information. The book is told in past and present tense. The present begins in 1978 when a cover is blown in Moscow. Shortly thereafter, a former CIA agent disappears off his tricked out boat. Pete Bagley, retired CIA agent takes note and activates himself to solve some mysteries that cut his promising career short. The present moves forward from there to Bagley’s death in 2014.

The past tense sets the stage of the Cold War and double agents, defection, moles, and misinformation. Spoiler alert: One thing Russia has down Pat is disinformation. The author writes the book like a novel but is not as the cast of characters is large. Rather than take notes, I followed along well enough but will probably read it again. Absolutely fascinating. The story follows the end of the Cold War and enters into the Cold Peace. The book has a satisfying ending with an unlikely friendship developing. So intriguing is the unlikely friendship, I was led to an earlier work by the protagonist, Pete (Tennent) Bagley and am currently reading about the KGB side of the Cold War. Also fascinating but the cast of characters have Russian names so I’ve mostly given up on keeping track of them.

Better than any spy novel or movie I’ve seen.