Monday, November 19, 2018

Review of "Bad Things Happen: A Novel" by Harry Dolan

This story reminds me of a contest that was used to promote a science fiction mini-series a while back. The plot of the mini-series revolved around multiple murders, and people entering the contest had to try to solve the crimes. Well the solution was VERY tricky and I was completely wrong. 😏

To get on with the review:

A mysterious man who calls himself David Loogan arrives in Ann Arbor and rents a furnished house near the University of Michigan. Loogan, who has no job, hangs out at coffee shops; people watches; reads; and just drifts through his days. Then, by a serendipitous sequence of events, Loogan is offered a job editing stories for a literary mystery magazine called 'Grey Streets', published by a man named Tom Kristoll.

Over the next few weeks Loogan and Tom become friendly and occasionally hang out or have a few drinks. Then Loogan meets Tom's wife Laura, and the seductive blonde seduces Loogan. So Loogan sometimes schmoozes with Tom, and sometimes romances his wife.

The real action starts when a man is killed in Tom's house, and the publisher calls Loogan in something of a panic. Tom and Loogan bury the body in the woods, and Loogan insists on knowing who the dead man is and what happened. Tom spins an elaborate tale involving self-defense, which turns out to be a lie - and the truth is slowly revealed as the story unfolds.

More violence follows the first tragedy, and before long two more people are dead - supposedly suicides. However Police Detective Elizabeth Waishkey isn't fooled, and she and her team investigate the suspicious deaths. Complications add up as another person is killed; everyone lies; people keep changing their stories; evidence goes missing; etc.

Waishkey and Loogan meet during the police inquiries and like each other, but it goes no further than that - especially when Loogan becomes the #1 suspect and goes on the run. Loogan is determined to uncover the murderer himself, and interviews people who might have information about the crimes. These include the staff at Grey Streets; writers who contribute stories to the magazine; book authors; friends and neighbors of the victims; and more.

Loogan buys a burner phone and repeatedly calls Detective Waishkey to chitchat about the case. The cop tries to convince Loogan to turn himself in - saying they'll figure it out together - but no dice.

To complicate matters, a retired detective from upstate New York - who's bored with fishing - arrives in Ann Arbor. He tells Detective Waishkey that he heard about Loogan being spotted in Michigan, and that 'David Loogan' is an alias for a criminal who escaped justice in New York. It was the detective's case, and he wants to see Loogan get captured.

As the mystery plays out, people's baser natures are revealed, secrets are uncovered, and the truth comes out. If there had been a contest to guess the perp I would have lost miserably. LOL. 😟

I enjoyed the book, but I have some criticisms:

- Tom asks Loogan to help dispose of a body and Loogan immediately agrees. Really? He could go to prison (maybe for life) as an accessory to murder. This isn't believable.

- Detective Waishkey casually - and repeatedly - blabs police discoveries to persons of interest in the case. Cops would never do this.

- The plot has too many twists. It's unnecessarily complicated, and hard to keep up with.

This is Harry Dolan's debut novel, and - overall - it's a good effort. I think many mystery fans would enjoy the story.

Rating: 3 stars

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Review of "The Glass Castle: A Memoir" by Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls

Journalist and author Jeannette Walls had a wildly dysfunctional childhood, but was able to escape her chaotic home and help rescue her younger siblings.


Jeannette's father, Rex Walls, was a ruggedly handsome, brilliant, and charismatic man. However, he was a selfish alcoholic and gambler who could never keep a job as an electrician/engineer for more than a few months. Rex would tell his family to pack at a moment's notice ("You can only take one thing") and frequently hustled them from one dilapidated hovel to another, which he called "doing the skedaddle."

Rex Walls

Rex told his kids he was on the run from the FBI, but was really fleeing from bill collectors. For decades, Rex said he was 'rooting out corruption in the unions' and perfecting an invention, called 'The Prospector' - which would separate gold from dross. When fortune struck, Rex planned to build a 'Glass Castle', a fairy tale abode for the family.....which he was designing himself.

Jeannette's mother, Rose Mary Walls, was a carefree, hippy-dippy artist - and sometimes teacher - who had her head so high in the clouds that earthly concerns like feeding, bathing, educating, and nurturing her four children (Lori, Jeannette, Brian, and Maureen) were hardly on her radar. If the kids had problems or concerns, Rose Mary assured them that 'hardship fosters strength' and blithely went on her way. When the youngsters were hungry, they had to fend for themselves IF there was even food in the house.....which was rare.

Rose Mary and Rex Walls on their wedding day

Rose Mary and Rex Walls and three of their children

Having to feed herself, three-year-old Jeannette was cooking hotdogs one afternoon when she went up in flames. Rose Mary swaddled the blazing child in a blanket and, courtesy of a neighbor, rushed her to the hospital. The Walls family, which usually avoided scrutiny from the outside world, was subject to negative judgment from doctors and social workers.....who expressed their concerns.

This infuriated Rex, who already had issues with doctors, lawyers, bankers, businessmen, etc. (people we now call 'the one percenters'). Moreover, Rex disapproved of Jeannette's medical treatment and - using his toddler Brian to create a distraction - mounted a skedaddle to rescue Jeannette from the hospital (and probably skip out on medical bills). This may have contributed to the permanent scars on Jeannette's torso.

During Jeannette's turbulent childhood, she witnessed Rex toss the family cat out of a moving car and drown a batch of kittens, which he did nonchalantly, without regret. Rex taught his young kids to shoot guns; launch arrows; and throw knives. He encouraged little Jeannette to pet a cheetah at the zoo (which got the family thrown out), and - not having money for proper gifts - gave the children 'stars' (in the sky) for Christmas.

Young Jeannette Walls

As a result of the family pinging from one town to another, Jeannette met a hodgepodge of kids, many of whom were roughhewn delinquents. One time, when the Walls were living in Phoenix, Arizona, a boy named Billy took a shine to Jeannette, and - thinking she liked him back - forced a kiss and tried to do more. When Billy was rejected, he showed up with a bebe gun and the resulting scuffle - involving a REAL gun wielded by Jeannette- necessitated another hasty skedaddle.

After traipsing around the Southwest for years, the Walls family was penniless and desperate. Therefore - against Rex's VOCIFEROUS objections - Rose Mary insisted the family move to Rex's home town of Welsh, West Virginia. There the Walls' lived with Rex's hillbilly parents and brother for a time, resulting in (relatively minor, but troubling) physical and sexual abuse....perhaps providing a clue to Rex's turbulent personality.

When they'd lived in Welsh for several months , Rex and Rose Mary found an old wreck of a house at '93 Little Hobart Street', and moved the family there. The house had no toilets or heat, and was almost unbearable in winter. The kids started to excavate a foundation for the 'Glass Castle', but the large depression soon became a stinking garbage pit. School was a trial as well. Jeannette was dirty; smelled bad; had raggedy clothes; and usually had no food for lunch. On top of that, she was much smarter than her classmates. Thus, she was bullied by schoolmates and even some teachers.

93 Little Hobart Street

One time, when Jeannette was fourteen, Rex took her to a bar and encouraged a fellow patron to dance with his underage daughter, and even take her up to his apartment - while Rex hustled money for drinks. Jeannette was almost raped, but managed to escape. The girl was furious with her father, who was nonchalant and blasĂŠ, saying "I knew you could take care of yourself." (This pimping out of his daughter is Rex's most outrageous behavior IMO.)

Whenever the family got a little money, Rex usually spent it on alcohol and cigarettes.....though the kids were starving. On one occasion, the children amassed a good bit of 'Piggy Bank' money by mowing lawns; babysitting; tutoring; doing other kids' homework; and so on - to finance their eventual escape to New York City. Rex found and stole their savings. Nevertheless, oldest sister Lori headed for New York the day she graduated high school, and was followed by Jeannette when she completed the 11th grade. Later, the girls sent for their younger siblings, Brian and Maureen.

Some years later, when all the Walls children were established in New York, Rex and Rose Mary showed up, and - after exhausting visiting privileges with their children - became homeless squatters in a downtown tenement. Luckily, Rex was able to (illegally) rig up electricity from a power line, but the couple became dumpster divers to survive.....despite their children's offers of assistance.

Rex and Rose Mary Walls in their later years

Rose Mary and Jeannette Walls

The really remarkable thing about all this is that Jeannette continued to adore and idolize her father, though she deplored his behavior. Jeannette's attitude toward her mother seems more ambivalent. She apparently blamed Rose Mary for not taking the kids and making a run for it, but - nevertheless - showed her mother kindness and consideration.

Though Jeannette's story is bleak, it has lighter moments. During a stint of relative prosperity, Rex bought Rose Mary a piano. To get the heavy instrument into the house, Rex rigged up a system of ropes that attached to the piano in the front yard, threaded through the house and out the back door, and were tied to the family car. Rose Mary was supposed to gently nose the car forward, pulling the piano into the house. However, she hit the gas hard and hauled the piano through the entire house and into the backyard, where it stayed from then on.

This is a remarkable story of resilience in the face of adversity, and kids with less intelligence, spunk, and drive than the Walls' youngsters may not have fared as well.

This memoir, which has been on the New York Times best seller list since it's publication in 2005, was made into the 2017 movie 'The Glass Castle.' The film, though a clearly recognizable adaptation of the book, gives the story a 'fairy tale' touch that's a bit disingenuous IMO. Still, it's a good movie.

Movie posters for 'The Glass Castle'

This is a well-written, riveting book, highly recommended to readers who enjoy memoirs.

Rating: 4 stars

Friday, November 16, 2018

Review of "Barracoon: The Story of the Last 'Black Cargo'" by Zora Neale Hurston

Though the United States passed the 'Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807', boats continued to deliver abducted Africans to America for more than 50 years. The last shipment of slaves arrived in Alabama on the ship 'Clotilda' in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War.

One of the African men on the Clotilda was Oluale Kossula, also known as Cudjo Lewis, who survived five years of slavery, became a free man, and helped found the black enclave of 'Africatown' (or 'Plateau') near Mobile, Alabama.

In 1927, when Cudjo was in his mid-eighties, he was interviewed by Zora Neale Hurston - the American folklorist, anthropologist, and author. In this book Hurston relates Cudjo's story, much of it in his own words.

Cudjo Lewis

Zora Neale Hurston


Cudjo describes his ancestry and his early life in the African village of Takkoi, where he was happy with his family and friends. Then, when Cudjo was 19, his village was invaded by warriors from nearby Dahomey, who killed some residents and kidnapped others to sell to white slavers. "De King of Dahomey, you know, he got very rich ketchin slaves. He keep his army all de time making raids to grabee people to sell."

The scene Cudjo describes is horrific: "Dey got de women soldiers too and dey run wid de big knife and dey ketch people and saw de neck wid de knife den dey twist de head so it come off de neck. Oh Lor', Lor'! I see de peoples gittee kill so fast!

Cudjo's village was located in what is now Benin

The white slavers housed the Africans in a barracoon near the ocean, until 65 men and 65 women were loaded onto the Clotilda and brought to Mobile, Alabama. There they were split up among the slavers, who kept some Africans for themselves and sold the others. "We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ’nother. Derefore we cry. Our grief so heavy look lak we cain stand it. I think maybe I die in my sleep when I dream about my mama."

A barracoon

Cudjo talks about his life as a slave, which was difficult for several reasons. The work was very hard and the new African slaves didn't mesh well with those already living in the country. "In night time we cry, we say we born and raised to be free people and now we slave. We doan know why we be bring ’way from our country to work lak dis. It strange to us. Everybody lookee at us strange. We want to talk wid de udder colored folkses but dey doan know whut we say. Some makee de fun at us.”

After emancipation, a group of freed slaves - who couldn't raise the money to return home - established Africatown ("We call our village Affican Town") near Mobile, Alabama. Cudjo married a woman named Seely, 'unofficially' at first, then - after they joined the church - with a proper license. "So den we gittee married by de license, but I doan love my wife no mo' wid de license than I love her befo' de license. She a good woman and I love her all de time.

Shacks in Africatown

Africatown is now a tourist attraction

Cudjo and Seely had six children (fives boys and a girl). "Oh, Lor’! Oh, Lor’! We so happy. We been married ten months when we have our first baby. We call him Yah-Jimmy, just de same lak we was in de Afficky soil. For Americky we call him Aleck."

Along with other residents of Africatown, Cudjo sought to educate his offspring. “We Afficans try raise our chillun right. When dey say we ign’nant we go together and build de school house. Den de county send us a teacher. We Afficky men doan wait lak de other colored people till de white folks gittee ready to build us a school. We build one for ourself den astee de county to send us de teacher.”

Residents of Africatown

Cudjo's children had a difficult time living in America. "All de time de chillun growin’ de American folks dey picks at dem. Dey callee my chillun ig’nant savage and make out dey kin to monkey. Derefo’, my boys dey fight. Dey got to fight all de time.....When dey whip de other boys, dey folks come to our house and tellee us, “Yo’ boys mighty bad, Cudjo. We ’fraid they goin’ kill somebody.”"

This violence may have contributed to some of the children's unfortunate ends.

One son was killed by a law enforcement officer. "Somebody call hisself a deputy sheriff kill de baby boy now.... If my boy done something wrong, it his place come ’rest him lak a man....He have words wid my boy, but he skeered face him. Derefo’, you unnerstand me, he hidee hisself in de butcher wagon and when it gittee to my boy’s store....Dis man, he hidin’ hisself in de back of de wagon, an’ shootee my boy."

A second son was hit by a railroad train, but the company offered no compensation. (A lawyer later helped Cudjo sue for recompense, but Cudjo didn't see a penny of the money.) Of the four remaining children, three died of illnesses, and one mysteriously disappeared.

When Hurston interviewed Cudjo, Seely had also been dead for 20 years, perhaps from a broken heart.

It's clear from the book that Cudjo had a very difficult life, traumatized by the barbarity of slavery and devastated by its subsequent consequences, including discrimination, bigotry, and aggression towards the communities and families of black people. Cudjo's story is both moving and disturbing, and demonstrates how some things in the United States haven't changed enough.


To earn Cudjo's goodwill, Hurston would bring him Georgia peaches, watermelon, and once a Virginia ham. Over the course of many visits, Hurston also helped Cudjo clean the church where he was a sexton, worked in his garden, and drove him to buy crabs.

Hurston notes: “I had spent two months with Kossula, who is called Cudjo, trying to find the answers to my questions. Some days we ate great quantities of clingstone peaches and talked. Sometimes we ate watermelon and talked. Once it was a huge mess of steamed crabs. Sometimes we just ate. Sometimes we just talked. At other times neither was possible, he just chased me away. He wanted to work in his garden or fix his fences. He couldn't be bothered. The present was too urgent to let the past intrude. But on the whole, he was glad to see me, and we became warm friends.”

Cudjo in his cabin

The end of the book contains Cudjo's recitation of several African folktales, which are sly and amusing.

This is an interesting book, recommended to readers interested in African history, slavery, and anthropology.

Rating: 4 stars