I was mostly being polite. No, that’s too bitchy-sounding. I’m not bitchy. I was being friendly. I was being reciprocal.
Polite has never paid so good.
I met Josh Stallings a few weeks ago and to say that he struck me as a singularly lovely person feels like damning him with faint praise. I spoke with him for maybe fifteen minutes over the conference weekend, but he left an impression, both of his own and of kindness towards other writers. He’s cool. His personality edges out past his aura, maybe protecting that aura a little bit; a Russian nesting doll of warmth, enthusiasm, probably some hurt, and definitely some wisdom. You can tell that right away.
He said he liked my book. So I bought his most recent book.
I just finished it.
All the Wild Children might be the best memoir I’ve ever read.
I hope this recommendation gets somebody who reads this to go straightway to get the book, but let’s get something out of the way, so that it doesn’t come back on me later: In places, it’s bawdy. In lots of places, really. Josh Stallings has very little trouble typing the sentences the way they come to him. There’s cussing. There’s sex. There’s drug use. There’s violence. But you won’t catch me calling any of it profane, because it’s beautiful and it’s also beautifully honest. I loved this book.
Where you can identify with Stallings and all that he has done and all that he’s seen (so far) and all that he’s felt about those things, you will be either delighted or devastated. Where you can’t identify, where adventure and heartbreak has taken him but not you, Josh Stallings’ way with words and candor will make you think you almost can. It’s not a wallow. It’s everything but.
What I value very most in reading is a scratch to my greedy itch. I want more life. Josh Stallings gets that and makes a gift of his own experience. I’m a little bit wrecked this morning over it, but so, so grateful.
I am utterly lucky to have crossed his path with a little money in my pocket and room for one more book in the suitcase. This book is brilliant and I can’t recommend it enough.
The first thing you should know about wildlife watching in Yellowstone is that the longer you stare at a buffalo, the less real it looks. It’s a weird phenomenon. At the first glance, it’s a lump-in-the-throat reverence for Nature and a pang of majestic appreciation set to rising violin music in your head.
But it’s quickly doomed to go all snorts and giggles once you admit that on whatever day of creation that happened, God had surely woken up in a very Jim Henson mood.
Also note: Buffalo don’t like to be laughed at. Or even looked at, really. They’re very grumpy.
If you drive any distance at all through the park, you will see a buffalo in the first half hour, unless you’re blindfolded for some Fifty Shades of Long Drives reason. By the minute hand’s next full sweep, you will have seen sixty-seven of them and the bloom is rather off the rose. Then you will begin to resent everyone who hasn’t figured this out yet. You will not be (or I will not be, anyway) kindly disposed toward all the yahoos compelled to stop for a photo of every buffalo on the horizon or, in fact, in the middle of the roadway. Honestly, they’re like squirrels. Massive, walnut-brained, irritable squirrels.
So, you’ve got your buffalo and your pronghorn antelope. Elk are neat to see and only slightly less all over the place than the bison. And whatever you do, never dip your head or extend your hand, in any way – not even to point, at a chipmunk in Montana. This is the Universal Snack Sign and you will have a rodent scaling your leg faster than you can scream.
But what everyone really hopes to see is one of the big boys. The shaggy, toothy, razor-clawed showstoppers. That’s what you’re drifting all over the yellow line and drying out your eyeballs for – a glimpse of a grizzly bear or a wolf. And you may get one, though I didn’t really. My cousin, Randall, says I’m a jinx. He could be right.
I did see both bears and wolves on our trek through Yellowstone, but at such a distance that I can only take the crowd’s word for it. Even with binoculars, it might have been a very leggy tortoise. The lady next to me was somehow positive it was a bear, but whether that was wishful thinking or a degree in zoology, I’ll never know. One roadside stop showed something dark definitely chasing a herd of elk. I’m not sure what would do that if not a wolf, so I’ll go with that. I saw an inky blur that was probably a wolf deviling a collection of deer.
But I didn’t leave the Wild West without a wolf encounter of my own. It inspired the only souvenir I brought home.
The story of wolves in Yellowstone is interesting . The short of it is that by 1940, every wolf in Yellowstone had been killed. Deemed a dangerous nuisance, it was perfectly acceptable to lace bait meat with poison or broken glass – and it worked down to the very last one. The eradication of wolves in Yellowstone caused problems that humans hadn’t had the foresight to calculate. The elk population exploded to the detriment of the all the green in Yellowstone, cutting into the pasturing for the bison. Coyotes took over as the apex predator, mostly interested in much smaller game and people’s pets. Mid-grade ecological chaos changed what the park had been meant to be.
So in 1994, the US Government put some wolves back into the park. You can read about the program here. Today, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 wolves doing their wolfy thing and restoring wolfy balance to the region.
But, of course, there aren’t any fences around Yellowstone.
On Day 8 of our adventure, we left through the west checkpoint and tucked our RV into a camp just outside the park exit in West Yellowstone, Montana. It was late in the day, so we backed in, hooked up, and walked into town for possibly the best pizza I’ve ever had in my life.
My daughters, 11 and 15, and I headed to the camp’s bath house to wash off the day – rather later than usual. We came back out at around 10:20 pm, and it was as dark as night ever gets. Montana-black is, shall we say, comprehensive. The bath house had short-reaching floodlights that abandoned us in solid pitch after about ten steps.
Julia, my oldest, kept talking even after I’d stopped our walk, my hands flung out across both girls’ middles. The wolves were so loud, she thought they were sirens. The pack happened to be unfortunately situated, by the sound of them, just on the other side of our camper. They were dead ahead of us, likely-but-not-certainly just beyond where we needed to go. And it was definitely a they, not a him, not a her, not a slightly-less-terrifying it all on its own. To get back, we had to march straight at a full-on choir practice with quite a number of distinct howly voices ringing in harmony.
I didn’t have my phone, so my choices were to sleep in the bath house or to make a run for it. A quick bit of math noted that we were already a quarter of the way there and if we didn’t come back, my husband would surely feel obligated to come out after us – with his back to the wolves and quite a bit closer to them, for a lot longer than we would have to be, and all by himself.
Wolves aren’t known to be aggressive toward humans, especially humans in noisy groups. I tried to make a mantra of that terrific bit of trivia, but the howling was doing my head in. My littlest stuffed her towel into her mouth to keep from screaming. I put my hands on my girls and set off at a cheerfully chattering clip that I wouldn’t allow to turn into a run until we were within a hundred feet of the RV.
The wolves sang us home, and at the slamming of the door I was aglow with the cavewoman’s delight at not being someone else’s dinner. I drank a beer. Then a nip of whiskey.
The next morning, I related the night’s flight to the camp office.
“Was it… coyotes?” I asked, although I’ve heard coyotes in my own backyard and they sound nothing like that. And besides, an affirmative wouldn’t be exactly reassuring. Given the choice between facing down a pack of wolves or a pack of coyotes, I think I’d rather go ice-skating.
“Oh no, that was wolves,” she said.
“But they sounded as if they were right behind my RV.”
“Oh they were…” because unbeknownst to me, just on the other side of the split-rail fence from our RV slot, was the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, a rescue zoo and educational exhibit of animals that cannot, for one reason or another, be released into the wild. (It’s a great place. Definitely a must-see if you’re in the vicinity.)
I had been a mere stone’s throw from three packs of wolves, howling in the dark – caged and harmless.
I don’t know what color I turned. The lady helpfully drew a line, of sorts, under my humiliation.
“But I can’t promise they were all in cages. The Yellowstone wolves come out to talk to our wolves all the time. But I’m sure you were fine.”
So the last time I talked about Tana French’s books, I was delighted by the Möbius strip impossibility of ranking my favorite among her first four novels.
I’m equally delighted to take a scissor to the strip. Every one of Tana French’s books is wonderful, but The Secret Place is just that little bit more so. Or rather, it’s an extra heaping dose – on every page – of the things she does best.
The Secret Place brings back detective Stephen Moran and also Holly Mackey from Faithful Place, which draws the inevitable cameo of her da, Frank, who readers will remember with varying degrees of antipathy from both The Likeness and Faithful Place. (I, for the record, enjoy the hell out of Frank Mackey.)
The murder of young Chris Harper on the grounds of a girls’ school is chilling – in at least two senses of the word. A beautiful, popular boy cut down in the moonlight freezes both the community and St. Kilda’s faculty and students, but the case itself has also gone cold. That is, until Holly Mackey brings a card, pried from the school’s confessional bulletin board, The Secret Place, to Stephen, the cop she chooses over her father to spark onto the year-old investigation. The card reads: I Know Who Killed Him.
The story takes place in a single day, with flashbacks into the tangles of teenage politics and crystalline glimpses of youth blooming into independence. Our narrator, Stephen, struggles on a tightrope, looking to wring every professional advantage from this gift of opportunity as its balanced against what’s at risk for everyone involved. The mystery is cracking. The resolution is wrenching.
And still it’s not the best part of the book.
That would be the writing. Tana French vaults everything she’s done yet with jeweled tone and sparkling description to put the reader everywhere they need to be. Sometimes it’s painful. I cried about seven times. But I full-on cheered once. Scared the hell out of my husband while he was driving.
Truly, The Secret Place is a wonderful book. It comes out September 2, 2014. Get it as soon as you can.
I wonder how long I’ll feel like a crazy person? I’m fighting the blooming of a new mantra, running from the illogical inevitability of my new motto:
Never Do In One Trip What You Can Drag Out Into Three.
I blame Stacy Allen and Dave Sedaris, and Mr.Sedaris only because he reminded me in his wonderful essay in The New Yorker after Stacy played the snake in the Garden a few months back. I could blame myself, but my very least favorite thing in all the world is anything being my fault.
My writer-friend, Stacy, and I roomed at SleuthFest in February, and she dangled the sleek little electronic jewel under my nose. Truthfully, I don’t think the FitBit got any closer to me than the nightstand between our beds, but still, it’s just one of those things you’ll covet because of its tactile gloss and its sexy little rounded corners. My precioussss.
But then there’s what it does – it counts steps and makes charts of them.
A little over a year and a half ago, my dream came true and, for now, I get to try to be a professional writer. I should be struck by lightning if I’m not thankful. And I am. For everything but the ten extra pounds.
You see, I have become a puppet of inertia. And if the body at rest has an excuse not to fight it, like say a real, grown-up deadline or paid research, then the mouth near the top of that body will say, “I have to sit here all day! I’m busy!” But that brand of busy will conspire with time and your fondness for 10pm snacks and it’s not like your vanity has taken the year off. Just sayin’.
So the FitBit sits there, with its incessant little pressure against your shoulder or hip or wherever you’ve clipped it, reminding you that you’ve become a lump.
You can see it in the graphs on your FitBit.com dashboard – all the nothing your feet have been doing, all the gaps in the progress toward that daily goal and the digital pat on the head for vaulting that number.
Then you start doing crazy stuff like carrying each folded shirt, individually, from the laundry to the drawers. That’s mental, but it’s worth twenty extra steps per roundtrip. (And if you think I didn’t just walk down there to count it off, you’d be wrong. I’m up about sixty steps for that sentence!) The flowers that I planted last weekend don’t change every twenty minutes, but I know that for a fact, not just in concept. The chore of errands has been met in these last few days without dread simply for the prize at the end – the little counter going up and up and up. I pace when I brush my teeth.
I don’t know how long it will last, this mania. And I don’t know what I’ll get to keep from it. But it has inspired me to drink herbal tea instead of crunching munchables in those last hours before bed, and now I hop onto the elliptical machine when I get a phonecall. (I was delighted to find that those steps count!) It feels good. I feel good.
The inertia-devil still lives here, but he seems to be sulking in some undusted corner of my house, although with as many points as I get for puttering, I don’t know where he could be hiding.
I’ll miss the habit when its gone, or maybe I won’t. But right now, I kind of want to take a walk. That can’t be a bad thing.
I’m very excited to be able to share the synopsis for my second novel, Monday’s Lie, that Gallery Books has written up for its Spring 2015 catalog. It’s wonderful to be working with them again and I’m utterly delighted to play in the crime fiction sandbox for another round.
Wish me luck!
Gallery Books, On sale: February 1, 2015
From the acclaimed author of the “ripping good” (The New York Times) debut novel Three Graves Full comes a new thriller about a woman who digs into her unconventional past to confirm what she suspects: her husband wants her dead.
Dee Aldrich rebelled against her off-center upbringing when she married the most conventional man she could imagine: Patrick, her college sweetheart. But now, years later, her marriage is falling apart and she’s starting to believe that her husband wants her gone…for good.
Haunted by memories of her late mother Annette, a former covert operations asset, Dee reaches back into her childhood to resurrect the lessons and “spy games” in which she learned memory tricks and, most importantly, how and when to lie. But just as she begins delving into her past to determine the course of the future, she makes a discovery that will change her life: the money that her mother left behind. Now, Dee must investigate her suspicions before it’s too late and untangle conspiracy from coincidence, using her mother’s advice to steer her through the blind spots. The trick, in the end, will be in discovering if a “normal life” is really what she wanted at all.
With pulse-pounding prose and atmospheric settings, Monday’s Lie is a thriller that delivers more of the “Hitchcockian menace” (Peter Straub) that made Three Graves Full a critical hit. For fans of the Coen brothers or Alexander McCall Smith, this is a book you won’t want to miss.
(originally posted March 8, 2009)
We ordered a pizza last night and my six year old went with me to pick it up. As I waited at the counter to pay, she asked me for a penny to throw into the fountain at the back of the restaurant.
I gave her one and then one extra, with instructions for a wish to be made on my behalf. I realize this is plainly against the wishing rules, but the rules, for all they’re worth, haven’t played it quite straight with me either. And besides, it made her a full inch taller, that mission, being in charge of my wish. I watched her tapping the coins together self-consciously as she slipped through the seated diners, seeing them twist in their chairs to smile at the way she doesn’t quite acknowledge that there’s anyone else in the room. She always looks like she wants to sparkle and be invisible all at the same time.
She came back to me, her nervous smirk a little tighter now that she was empty-handed and too old to finger-fidget in full view of everyone.
“I’ll give you a hint about what I wished for,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, agreeing to risk jinxing it all for a glimpse into her guarded little clockworks.
“If I get it, I won’t let it change who I am.”
Many of you will know that this is a cause near to my heart. (In other words, near to the burning coal of fury otherwise known as my heart.)
A few months ago I had a very near miss at a head-on collision on the edge of a steep drop. I was nearly killed by a stupid, horrible, piece of shit of a man who is most likely a nice, decent, valuable part of his circle of loved ones. The difference is subtle – only a matter of a split second and thirty inches or so.
He was texting and driving and almost completely in my lane on a curve in a winding mountain road.
We missed colliding by a couple of feet.
This was one of three incidents in the last half year (that I’ve been aware of) of drivers texting behind the wheel in full view, close enough to become my business. I could see it because they drifted into my lane, or wobbled right by with their eyes on their phones, thumbs a-typin’, steering with their knees, or their pinkies, or The Force.
Watch this. Or if you can’t be bothered, let me paraphrase the moral of the story: killing and maiming people is not worth telling anyone “Lol!” or “Get pepperoni & mushroom” or “I’ll be right there” or “Love you, too”.
(Thanks to Debra Lynn Lazar for sending out the link to this short film.)
I’ve just closed the back cover on possibly the most important book I’ve ever read. I’m tempted to go buy a carton of copies to give out. It easily and immediately takes a place in my top five favorite books. Although, “favorite” doesn’t quite fit. It’s a hard book.
In the interest of full disclosure, James Dawes, the author of EVIL MEN, was the valedictorian of my high school class. But make no mistake, this isn’t a pal hawking a cohort’s book. Jim and I aren’t friends. Not to say that we’re enemies. We just don’t really know each other. I saw notice of the book on our school’s alumni Facebook page and, being curious, thought I’d have a look.
Jim Dawes and I didn’t have overlapping social circles in school. I do remember him, but I imagine that most of the class of 1987 remembers him. He was like that. Brilliant, kind, and athletic, he rather had all of his ducks in a row back then, which is remarkable for any kid that age. But there was more gravity to Jim than there was to other socially and academically successful teenagers. He was prominent in an unusual way, even if that way is still difficult to articulate all these years later. It left an impression that has lasted decades and definitely had something to do with being able to relate comfortably to a gaggle of peers while thinking quite a bit beyond us.
Apparently that has carried over into a life of valuable research and singular eloquence.
And that’s probably all I’ll say about James Dawes, the person, because a) I still don’t know him personally and b) this isn’t really about James Dawes, it’s about the book, EVIL MEN, just out from Harvard University Press.
EVIL MEN is a dissection of atrocity and conceptual evil, inspired by a series of interviews with Japanese war criminals. These very old men recounted, through a translator, the horrors they had meted out in uniform during the Sino-Japanese wars. It broadens from there into a display of theory, ethics, scientific study, history, philosophy, and human rights advocacy, all tethered in a coherence that I would have to be incoherent to adequately express my admiration of. Let’s just say that you will be quite a bit smarter by ‘The End’ than you were on page one, but you’ll need to pay for the education in careful reading. This is by no means a one sit read. It demands (and rewards) deliberation.
There is no making sense of the things we do to each other, especially under the banner of military duty, but the value in this book is discovering that maybe there is a way to make sense of it not making sense. And if that sounds like a bit of intellectual tail-chasing, it isn’t. This is not an entertaining book. But having just written that, I have to say that, one step removed, it is vastly entertaining to unfold the map of our collective conscience and see the red dot proclaiming that YOU ARE HERE.
The most remarkable feat of EVIL MEN is in its balance. The moral paradoxes of relating these traumas are thoroughly addressed. Doing justice to the victims with mere words while evoking the necessary vividness to adequately represent the crimes is no easy task. Then avoiding catapulting the whole works into gratuitous carnival takes the utmost heartfelt precision, which he exhibits without faltering. James Dawes is exacting of himself as a researcher, as a writer, and as a moral human being. Following his lead through the nautilus of self-examination is effortless and, somehow, not terrifying. It’s not safe to go there, for certain, but it’s not safe not go there either, as he explains on the page.
Most importantly, for me, EVIL MEN left me with a notion. If the model of morality is in any way analogous to the model of physics, then this book inspires the hope that perhaps it all works in the same way quantum mechanics plays under the screen of our observable, Newtonian world. Maybe in the act of just examining our malleability and by measuring our own frailty, perhaps we change it.
Go get this challenging, wonderful book. Read it and discover what evil is (or isn’t) made of.
Having just been shown the cover art for the paperback (set to release on August 20th) it seemed like fun to line up TGF as it’s come to be, artwise:
(left to right: advance review copy, hardcover, audiobook, large print edition, US/Canada paperback, UK/Australia/New Zealand trade paperback, Dutch version, German version, UK – B format, Czech version, Japanese version)
So on Monday, Charles Ramsey heard a woman crying out for help in his Cleveland neighborhood. He kicked down the door to what turned out to be the resolution to at least three missing persons cases more than a decade old. With his boot, he ended the torture and imprisonment of three young women who had been plucked off the street years ago by a very, very bad man, Ariel Castro.
Charles Ramsey went on to numerous television interviews and proved to be an engaging storyteller. He’s funny. He’s animated. He’s bright. And he feels terrible that he’s lived next door for more than a year while these women were cruelly abused by a man Charles Ramsey has barbequed with.
And today we learn that Charles Ramsey has served prison time for felony domestic abuse. He went to jail for beating his wife.
It seems we can put heroes on pedestals or fillet them to their sundry parts, some of which are bound to be ordinary or even sub-par. Disappointment, either way, is inevitable. Construct a superhuman image of a mere mortal and that’s arguably psychologically unhealthy for both the hero and the rabble left to worship an unachievable standard. Dredge up a hero’s less-than-heroic moments and somehow the triumph is diminished.
It’s a struggle to find the right temperature of love for heroism. We need heroes. Or more accurately, we need heroic moments. Then it seems against our nature to let these intersections of time and place stand on their own. We cast the hero into both the past and the future, and only in the mode of their moment of glory. When that doesn’t match up to what they’ve done or what they will do, we seem to find that the particular moment that gave us goosebumps and a lump in our throat is farther away in our mind than where we thought we’d put it.
We dig. We dig knowing that it’s too good to be true. And I don’t know whether it’s the right thing, knocking them back. Maybe it serves a purpose, avoids too much distance between ourselves and our heroes. In the end, maybe it keeps us in their company, increasing the odds that we may dare to join their ranks if needs be.
Or maybe, as it feels this morning, we need to be careful sawing off our heroes at the knees. We can ill afford to have it play into those seconds or milliseconds of calculation in an emergency. The thought if I do this, and it helps, every other thing I’ve ever done is going to be held up in comparison against this moment would leave a lot of people stranded on the cold side of assistance.