Review: Death of a Fool

Death of a Fool (Roderick Alleyn #19), Ngaio Marsh. New York: Felony & Mayhem, 2014 (originally published in 1957).

Summary: A fertility dance culminating in a ritual beheading of a fool, followed by his resurrection, ends with the fool having been truly decapitated.

It’s the winter solstice in South Mardian. Time for a ritual fertility dance known as the Mardian Morris Sword Dance. The dance is held among the ruins of Mardian Castle, in front of a home still inhabited by 94 year old Dame Alice Mardian, sharp as a tack, and her great niece and spinster, Dulcie Mardian. For generations, the core of the cast has been the Andersen family, who operated the Copse Forge, a blacksmithery in the nearby town, on a road soon to be turned into a thoroughfare. Presently, there is old William Andersen and his five sons. Andersen plays “The Fool” in the dance while the five enact a sword dance that culminates in a feigned beheading of the Fool, who conceals himself in a depression behind the Dolmen stone and subsequently rises from the dead at the conclusion of the ritual.

Three others are involved. Ralph Stanes, son of the rector and Dame Alice’s great nephew plays “the Betty,” a bisexual figure in a monstrous dress known to envelope young boys or girls. Crack, the Hobby Horse is played by Simon Begg, whose big role is to chase young maidens like Camilla Campion, the love interest of Ralph Stanes, into his arms. All of this is accompanied by the fiddling of Dr. Otterly, the town’s GP, who assiduously observes the players.

There is another key character, Mrs Bünz, a German immigrant who had fled Nazi oppression, and was taken up with researching folk rituals, of which the Mardian Morris Sword Dance is an outstanding example. She spies on rehearsals, tries to wheedle information from the players, and is resolutely resisted by William Anderson, until he is murdered.

As you might guess if you are a reader of Marsh, the staged murder actually occurs. When the Fool fails to rise at the climax, an investigation finds him decapitated, lying in the depression behind the rock. The local authorities, unused to dealing with such a horror, call in Scotland Yard and Alleyn, Fox, Bailey, and Thompson arrive forthwith.

The interviews of witnesses present a number of suspects. Anderson’s sons clearly are conspiring to conceal something. Ernest, the youngest and subject to epileptic fits and considered to “not be playing with a full deck” is the lead suspect. He wielded the “Whiffler” that beheads the Fool and he had an angry set to with his father over the putting down of a dog. He’d also beheaded an aggressive goose earlier in the day at Mardian Castle. And yet William Anderson was seen to crouch behind the Dolmen stone afterwards, very much alive. Chris, another son, wants to marry a village girl, Trixie, known to be “generous” with her favors, including with Ralph Stanes, and disapproved by William. Several of the boys, encouraged by Simon Beggs, a former officer barely surviving running a service station, wants to go in with the boys to turn the forge into a service station by the new thoroughfare. Ralph wants to marry Camilla Campion, William’s granddaughter. William is opposed because of Ralph’s previous dalliance and lets him known by asking Ralph to draw up a will with a bequest to Camilla if she doesn’t marry Ralph. And what is the real deal with Mrs. Bünz?

The big problem was that The Fool was very much alive after the pretend decapitation and very dead at the end of the play, yet the accounts of all the witnesses, including those who could see behind the stone, indicate no point at which he was attacked. So how did he die and who was his murderer? In the end, Alleyn resorts to a re-enactment to see if the murderer will be revealed.

Like many of her stories, there is “theatre,” which serves as the setting of a murder, but I thought her plotting was genius and found myself uncertain up to the end. The female characters, from crusty and imperious Dame Alice to the two young women, Camilla and Trixie, clearly upstage the men, as does the eccentric Mrs. Bünz. I also found it fascinating that Dr. Otterly seems to work more closely, and even conspiratorially, with Alleyn than the members of his investigative team, who remain in the background for the most part. All in all, I thought this, not among the very best, but certainly in the top ranks of Marsh’s Alleyn books. The use of a fertility dance in an English village was an unusual and fascinating plot choice.

Review: The Man Born to be King

The Man Born to be King (Wade Annotated Edition), Dorothy L. Sayers, edited by Kathryn Wehr. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2023.

Summary: A new annotated edition of Sayers’ cycle of twelve plays on the life of Christ.

Between December 1941 and October 1942, during the depths of Second World War, the BBC broadcast twelve radio dramas written by Dorothy L. Sayers. Through the efforts of Kathryn Wehr these works have been brought to life for a new generation, accompanied by Wehr’s annotations and introduction to the work, offering important background, explanations and discussions of textual emendations during the process of writing for broadcast. This work was supported by a grant from Marion E. Wade Center, the location of a significant archive of material on Dorothy L. Sayers,

The plays center around the idea of Jesus as king, and the contrast between the kingdom he inaugurated in his coming and the kingdoms of the day, those of Herod and the Roman Caesars, a contrast resulting in the peril of death over Jesus from his birth to his crucifixion. The first in the cycle is “Kings in Judea” where Herod is visited by the traditional Three Kings (from Europe, Asia, and Africa) seeking the one that the heavens said was born king in Judea.

The king theme is elaborated in Sayers portrayal of Judas Iscariot, who is portrayed as probably the most intelligent of all the disciples, perhaps more far-seeing and idealistic, but also proud in the particular way some of the brightest are, and thus vulnerable to the insinuations of Baruch, a recurring figure who is conspiring with the Zealots to lead an insurgency. Baruch raises questions of Jesus’s intentions and Judas comes to believe Jesus in the end was going to betray his own ideals. He determines to stop him by betraying him first–one of the most probing portrayals of Judas I’ve seen.

The plays are in the vernacular British English of the day, a controversial decision which Wehr discusses in her Introduction (as well as the miraculous consensus that came about on the religious board vetting her material). Despite protests from some religious bodies, the plays enjoyed widespread support from the public. The one thing I notice is that Sayers will sometimes quote verbatim from scripture and then at other times render accounts in the vernacular. Also, some expressions may be anachronistic today, such as Proclus, the centurion’s servant being his “batman.”

Another device Sayers uses is what she calls “tie-rod” characters. Balthazar, one of the Three Kings, reappears at the crucifixion. With him before Herod is Proclus, the Centurion, whose servant is later healed by Jesus, and who also is at the foot of the cross, testifying to Jesus as the Son of God. Baruch also serves in this role, particularly in the development of the Judas plot. Mary the mother of Jesus (Mary Virgin in the plays to distinguish from other Marys) and Mary Magdalene (who she identifies with Mary of Bethany) also recur and critically tie the narrative together.

Sayers weaves the Synoptic accounts and John’s Gospel into a seamless narrative over the twelve plays, contrary to much of the scholarship of her day. Yet she works carefully with biblical texts, other source materials and commentaries. She is also theologically acute, as is evident in this monologue of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she watches Jesus struggle under the weight of the cross up to Golgotha:

“I know now what he is, and what I am. . . . I, Mary, am the fact; God is the truth; but Jesus is fact and truth–he is reality. You cannot see the immortal truth till it is born in the flesh of the fact. And because all birth is a sundering of the flesh, fact and reality seem to go separate ways, But it is not really so; the feet that must walk this road were made of me. Only one Jesus is to die today–one person whom you know–the truth of God and the fact of Mary. This is reality. From the beginning of time until now, this is the only thing that has ever really happened. When you understand this you will understand all prophecies, and all history. . . .”

In a few sentences, Sayers powerfully summarizes the doctrine of the incarnation and the hypostatic union of the two natures.

Some comments are in order on what is included in this edition. It begins with Kathryn Wehr’s introduction to the plays, describing their inception, Sayers’ conditions, and how the plays illustrate her creative trinity, developed in The Mind of the Maker. Also reproduced are James Welch’s introduction as director of religious broadcasting for the BBC and Sayers own introduction, in which she details her own process in writing the plays.

Each play in the cycle begins with an editor’s introduction offering not only a plot synopsis scene by scene but also background information and discussion of theological issues in each play. This is followed by the cast listing for the original radio broadcast and Sayers notes to actors on the play and the particular characters and how she would have them played–fascinating for her insights particularly into the lives of the disciples, and several other key players, including Caiaphas and Pilate. Also, Wehr provides annotations alongside the text, some explanatory, some providing alternate readings from draft materials, some citing correspondence with James Welch discussing elements of the play. Underlining in the text (as well as introductions and notes) point the reader to annotated material.

This edition was published after Advent and Christmas this past year. The plays are wonderful reading at any time of year but would seem ideal in the time between Advent and Easter. Of course, anyone who follows the works of Dorothy L. Sayers will want this edition of the plays for all the scholarly material included. Above all, the plays help us ask afresh a question that recurs in the gospels and that each of us must resolve for ourselves–who is this Jesus?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Dusk, Night, Dawn

Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage, Anne Lamott. New York: Riverhead Books, 2021.

Summary: An exploration of the values that sustain us when we see a world as well as our own bodies falling apart.

Anne Lamott wrote this in the first year of the pandemic amid illness, lockdown, and death, reports on the dire consequences of a rapidly warming planet and a presidential election fraught with conflict. And she writes of being newly married, three days after she signed up for Medicare. The book evidences a consciousness of both bodies and the world falling apart. Internally as well as physically, she seems more aware than ever how messed up we are, both by the complicated histories of our families and our own lousy choices.

A predominant message of this book is “that love is sovereign here, and that the hardest work we do is self-love and forgiveness.” We try to pretend we are better than we are, only to fall flat on our faces, as Lamott describes during the time she struggled with alcoholism, sprawled on a cliff ledge after having blacked out, with a battered toenail and all muddy. If anything as we get older, we have a diminished capacity to keep up the façade.

Along the way, we listen to her as she describes the awakening to the challenge of living with another person with all their foibles, trying to teach Sunday school to a bunch of kids who are more concerned about when is the snack, who think that the passage in Exodus about seeing God’s back is about seeing his butt, and the challenges of a new cat in the house. She explores the strangeness and difficulty of repentance, the growth of forgiveness in us like the growth of a nautilus shell, her alarm at swallowing pills meant for her dog, and enduring a night of people telling the stories, droning on and on.

Somehow, she maintains hope that in the end, all will be well with the climate, and with us. She believes we’ve risen to other occasions and will to this. I think Lamott’s gift is self-deprecating honesty, grown even more acute as she gets older that eventuates in both forgiveness and recognition of the moments of grace. At times one feels that her efforts to share wisdom end up as platitudes like “love is the gas station and the fuel.” Then, on the same page you encounter the staggering insight that as messed up as we are “we are loved out of all sense and proportion.” Perhaps in the end, that is what makes all the difference between hope and despair. Platitudinous or profound, one has the sense that Anne Lamott stumbles day by day toward that love and toward that hope (and she really doesn’t care how it sounds).

Review: Doing Asian American Theology

Doing Asian-American Theology, Daniel D. Lee. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: A book laying out a framework for doing Asian-American theology considering both the shared and diverse cultural contexts of Asian-American peoples.

For too long we would “do theology” without cultural modifiers. It was assumed that the theology that arose from European and American contexts (at least among the dominant culture) was theology. Only in doing mission did the awareness arise that there was a lot in the theology of European-Americans that was contextual, and out of context in indigenous settings. To truly be embraced in indigenous contexts, the faith had to be translated not only into the language but also the culture of the people.

Daniel D. Lee contends that this concern for context is no less true for Asian Americans who believe, and in this book he attempts to set out the cultural context that frames doing theology as an Asian American. “Neutral” theology really is White theology, and risks the loss of distinctive Asian American cultural identity and the contribution of Asian Americans to the global and national mosaic of the church. Just as Jesus entered the world as a Jew in all the particularities of Jewishness, so the particularities of being Asian American matter.

Before we launch into the framework Lee proposes, we should note his definition of Asian American theology. He writes:

“Asian American theology is about God revealed in Jesus Christ in covenantal relationship with Asian Americans qua Asian Americans. Thus, Asian American theology is about Asian Americans as human covenant partners with God.”

For Lee, particularity matters and can be lost when we are blind to the cultural normativities latent in so-called “neutral theologizing.”

The framework he then proposes is what he calls the “Asian American Quadrilateral.” The four themes he articulates are:

  1. Asian heritage. These are the cultural, religious, and philosophical inheritances that inform an intuited sense of “how things are done.” As there are many Asian peoples, this is hardly monolithic and sometimes conflicting. There is a danger of essentializing or giving way to stereotypes (e.g. the “tiger mom”). He develops the use of cultural archetypes such as Confucian filial piety, some consonant with the faith, some distorted by fallenness, some neutral but which may be considered through the eyes of faith.
  2. Migration experience. This addresses the immigrant or refugee experience, acculturation and assimilation, intergenerational conflicts and identity formation.
  3. American culture. This addresses everything from American cultural and theological heritage to colonialism to the secular and post-modern turn of the culture and what it means to live amid different ways in which “things are done” and how the Asian and American aspects of one’s identity are integrated personally and in congregations.
  4. Racialization. This involves understanding the process of racial identity formation, the black/white binary, the particular experience of microaggressions Asian Americans experience, often summed up in the “perpetual foreigner” status.

After devoting a chapter to each theme, Lee offers two concluding chapters where he begins to do some theological formulation around identity and the church. He first discusses fragmented and integrated identities in the Asian American experience and the trauma of self-editing that comes with living bi-culturally. He believes healing comes when mental categories to describe one’s experience, such as the Quadrilateral, are developed, leading to storytelling that constructs a coherent narrative of one’s life, and spiritually formative communities where narratives are shared, affirmed, and offer insight.

Finally, he addresses the idea of the Asian American church, addressing the flaws in various proposals of multi-racial churches, particularly that these often lead to being blind to the structural aspects of racism as well as submerging identities, often for the sake of White normativity. He draws on Rowan William’s idea of “mixed economy” to explore the various layers of diversity that may exist within a community, going beyond race and ethnicity. Drawing on the Quadrilateral, he proposes contextual communities for Asian heritage, transitional communities for migrant communities, missional communities for American culture and liberational communities for racialization. Some will come more to the fore than others at times and they will exist in tension with each other.

The subtitle of this work is important to make sense of what Lee is doing. “A Contextual Framework for Faith and Practice” helps one see that before one engages in the work of theology proper, one must be aware (and self-aware) of the context within which it is being done so that theological reflection both reflects and engages one’s Asian American identity and the Asian and American contexts in which that is lived out. As an onlooker in this enterprise, I look forward to see what is built upon this framework and how it enables Asian American Christians to flourish, the wider church to see Christ more fully, and the wider culture offered a fresh witness to the God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Mossflower

Mossflower (Redwall #2), Brian Jacques. New York: Avon Books, 1988.

Summary: A prequel to Redwall, narrating the quest of Martin the Warrior and his companions to deliver Mossflower from the attack of the cruel wildcat Tsarmina, ruling from the fortress Kotir, next to Mossflower Wood.

Martin the warrior mouse is marching by the Kotir fortress when seized, after a fierce fight, by the forces of Verdauga, the dying wildcat Lord of Kotir. His daughter Tsarmina, furious that Verdauga has spared Martin’s life, breaks his sword, creating the enmity between Tsarmina and Martin that builds throughout the book. Martin meets Gonff, a mouse-thief in the prison, and Gonff succeeds in helping them both escape into Mossflower Wood.

Verdauga dies. Tsarmina imprisons her brother and rules. She is ruthless, willing to kill any who challenge her. The tribute she enforces drives villagers into Mossflower, leading to increasingly depleted stores. She plots the conquest of Mossflower. Her forays are resisted by mice, moles, hedgehogs and squirrels but it is apparent that Kotir’s might is superior. It is decided that only with the aid of Boar the Fighter, who went off many years ago on a quest to Salamandastrom Mountain, the Mountain of Dragons, that they can conquer. Martin, wearing his broken sword around his neck, along with Gonff and Dinny the mole, go on a quest to the mountain, surmounting encounters with crabs, toads, gulls and owls.

Will they find Boar alive? Will they return in time when no one has come back from Salamandastrom? And will the determined animals of Mossflower be able to withstand the attacks of Tsarmina until reinforcements arrive? Along the way, we see Martin truly emerge as the Warrior, and learn of the forging of his sword that plays such an important role in Redwall. We also admire the ingenuity and fierce resolution of the creatures of Mossflower.

Martin and Gonff make ideal companions and part of the enjoyment of the book is the friendship between the determined warrior and the happy-go-lucky but equally courageous Gonff. We also observe the folly of evil, its propensity to self-destruction that help undermine the advantages Tsarmina has enjoyed, even as her fortress is slowly being undermined. By contrast, there is the goodness of the creatures of Mossflower, loving peace but resolute and self-sacrificial in the defense of their home. The arrival of the Abbess Germaine adds wisdom, spiritual depth, and the arts of a healer, desperately needed as Mossflower faces war. And in her arrival, the foundations are laid for Redwall.

In addition to the contest between the forces of Tsarmina and those of Mossflower, Jacques fills in many backstories alluded to in Redwall. I hope this is not all we see of this generation. I really liked Martin and Gonff and hope I will see more of them.

Review: The Dutch House

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

Summary: Two siblings, Maeve and Danny, seek to come to terms with past losses of parents, and their childhood home, a striking three-story home built by a Dutch couple.

This story, it seems to me is about the longings of people who care for each other, often at variance with each other, resulting in wounds of estrangement, with which we may spend a lifetime trying to come to terms. So it is with siblings Danny and Maeve Conroy, born seven years apart. Their father, an aspiring real-estate tycoon has bought an extravagant house in an old Dutch neighborhood of Philadelphia, once owned by the Van Hoebeek’s, whose forbidding portraits and presence fill the house. Danny, who has never known anything else is the narrator of this account. Conroy’s wife Elna, who nearly became a nun, cannot come to terms with a place so extravagant. Her absences become longer until she leaves permanently, devoting herself to a life helping the poor, first in India and later, at various places in the United States, including New York’s Bowery.

Cyril’s ambitions, represented in his growing portfolio of properties leaves him vulnerable to the longings of Andrea, who becomes his second wife, bringing her two daughters. She has no problem seeing the house as hers. She relegates Maeve to a third floor bedroom so her daughter Norma can have her room. When Cyril, making repairs on one of his buildings, drops dead of a heart attack, Andrea expels Danny from the house, forcing him to live with Maeve. Soon they learn they have been cut out of their father’s company and assets apart from an educational trust for Danny and Andrea’s two girls.

Maeve already has a job as chief financial officer for a frozen vegetable concern and uses acumen to look after her brother, using the trust first to send him to Columbia, and then through medical school. She pours her life out for Danny, who strikes me as spoiled and self-absorbed, at times, to the detriment of her own health as a diabetic. It seems her longing is to be needed. Yet the question of what Danny wanted wasn’t asked. Finally after his medical training, he pursues what he wants–to be like the father he had followed around collecting rents and making repairs as a boy. That longing clashes with his wife, Celeste who thought she was marrying a doctor, anticipating the life of a doctor’s wife.

Meanwhile, Maeve and Danny continue to wrestle with the father and mother they lost, symbolized by the Dutch House. Repeatedly, they sit together, parked across the street wondering why their mother had left, why their father had so compromised their interests, and what had become of their evil stepmother. They try to understand their past and its hold on their lives. It turns out that they end up being versions of the parents they had lost.

I’ve often wrestled with what I’ve felt to be the unsatisfying endings of many of Patchett’s books. For one, I felt that Patchett wrote an ending I found to be satisfying. Not everyone lives happily ever after but there are real resolutions, real reconciliations. Danny, as narrator, grows in a trajectory of maturity and character. I’ll leave you to discover how Patchett accomplishes this. Like her other novels, she explores the unique ways in which families can be unhappy. In the resolution of this one, I found it satisfying in the authentic growth of the characters. I leave to you to discover how she does this and what you think.

Review: Christian Poetry in America Since 1940

Christian Poetry in America Since 1940, Edited by Micah Mattix and Sally Thomas. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2022.

Summary: An anthology of poetry written by a wide variety of poets who identify as Christian, born between 1940 and 1989.

When I first saw the title of this work, I felt myself cringe. Would this be the schlocky Hallmark poetry with a Christian veneer or something more substantial? I took the chance because Paraclete Press has come to represent intellectual and aesthetic quality in the publications I’ve received from them. I was not disappointed and in the process discovered a wide range of poets, many of whom have won distinguished literary awards or even served as Poet Laureates. The anthology includes poets born between 1940 and 1989, which excludes two of the more well-known poets we may think of–Luci Shaw and Wendell Berry.

What I found instead of saccharine-sweet pretty works were the honest probing of people who have thought deeply about both faith and life. For example Andrew Hudgins (from Ohio State, notes a fellow Buckeye) writes about “Praying Drunk” and stumbling through a rubric that will be familiar to some of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication, if he is able to remain awake. Franz Wright opens his poem “Baptism” writing “That insane asshole is dead / I drowned him / and he’s not coming back. Look / he has a new name / a new life….” “Blessings” by Jay Parini writes not only of picking dandelion greens and small potatoes and cliff diving with friends, but also of lying naked with his love. A blessing indeed but adult stuff, where a Christ-informed vision meets the real stuff of human life. We have Christian Wiman’s “After The Diagnosis,” written after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis (although it appears that he is in remission as of this writing), reflects on how change comes into our lives.

The poetry comes in a variety of forms from sonnet to free verse to Shane McCrae’s “visceral, fractured lines.” Few are longer than a page. One of the shorter poems I liked was Marilyn Nelson’s “Incomplete Renunciation,” which asks for the American dream house, concluding “And let it pass / through the eye of a needle.” Dana Gioia’s “Seven Deadly Sins” speaks dismissively in the voice of Pride of the other six sins. Scott Cairns “Possible Answers to Prayer” considers how God may regard some of the things for which we pray and the places of the heart from which we pray.

Each poet is introduced with a one page or so literary biography considering both the character of their work and the awards and recognitions that work has received. The work includes acknowledgements of the sources of each work and an index of titles as well as an introductory essay by one of the editors, Micah Mattox.

This work demonstrated to me that, contrary to the voices decrying the banality of Christians in the arts, that there are accomplished writers doing good work. For those like myself who want to get more poetry in their lives, including poetry written through the eyes of faith, this book is a wonderful gateway that both stands on its own and introduces us to writers whose work we may want to explore more deeply.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: You Are Us

You Are Us, Gareth Gwyn. Austin: River Grove Books, 2023.

Summary: An account using case studies showing how self-understanding and inner work allows individuals to become leaders in healing polarized relationships.

It seems we are in a time of unprecedented polarization around politics, racial and sexual identity, religion, and socioeconomic status. Often, we feel these divisions are so deeply embedded, the wounds and grievances so great, that bridging those divides seem impossible. Gareth Gwyn, the founder of Let’s See Labs, an organization that develops media on various platforms and offers workshops “that facilitate sociocultural transformation” through work with individuals who become leaders in transformative cross-cultural relationships.

Gwyn traces our polarized relationships to the experience of inner trauma that often draw us into social identities of reaction in which we blame the pain on “them.” We act out of our trauma, even while being disconnected from it. Transformation results when a person, often in the presence of unconditional acceptance, is able to recognize the inner wounds and traumas that have led to looking at the world through a lens of hate and “us versus them.” The book uses several case studies (accessible as online videos through QR codes in the book) to show this transformative process. For me, the story of Scott, a former KKK member deeply alienated from his own family, who had a transformative encounter with a black man at a rehabilitation center, was the high point of this book, leading to a process through which Scott experienced inner healing and became a reconciliation leader.

The book moves from our inner healing to a posture of responsiveness that claims the freedom over our emotions and the choices of action in response to them. Recognizing our own worth, we recognize that of others. We face how we have contributed to polarities, even to our own victim status, while fully grasping both the role of the other and developing awareness of that person’s own wounds. We gain freedom both to embrace and move beyond our identities.

My only struggle with the book is that the author assumes a familiarity with the vocabulary of “inner work” which may feel like in-group jargon or “psychobabble” to some. Some explanation or translation of this terminology might help more effectively make the important case this book makes to a wider audience.

Gwyn’s book seems to illustrate an important idea articulated by Fr. Richard Rohr that, “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” The cover art represents this transformation. It reads, “You Are Either With Us or Against Us.” As people do inner work dealing with their pain, Gwyn believes that we see how the other is actually “us” leading to the beginnings of bridging divides.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Speakeasy

Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann. New York: Doubleday, 2017.

Summary: The true crime account of a series of murders of Osage tribal people motivated by money and the FBI agent who arrested some of the major figures involved in the deaths.

In the 1920’s, members of the Osage Nation were among the richest people on earth. They held the rights to the oil beneath their land and each tribal member had “headrights” that resulted in growing payments and wealth. That wealth was the object of numerous unscrupulous actors from those who sold vehicles for far more than their worth to “guardians” who siphoned off proceeds for themselves. Then a number of Osage began dying, some mysteriously wasting away, others dying from “hits,” a bullet in the head.

The book centers around the deaths surrounding Mollie Burkhart. Her former husband, Roan, was murdered with a bullet through his head. Her mother and sister appeared to be poisoned. Another also died of a bullet into the head, never found by the doctor doing the autopsy. And one died in a spectacular house explosion. Then Mollie’s own health began deteriorating, even though she was under a doctor’s care for diabetes.

Local and state investigators failed to find the killers, and at points may have been in league with them. Finally, the case landed on the desk of a young J. Edgar Hoover, trying to build what would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Failure could deal a blow to his ambitions. He turned to Tom White, a former Texas Ranger, who didn’t fit the mold of the Bureau, but knew the territory. White, in turn, recruited a team of undercover agents who were crucial to the success of the investigation.

The book details White’s determined pursuit of those responsible, despite the death of witnesses and other intimidation tactics. He saved Mollie’s life, getting her different medical care, under which she immediately improved, raising questions about her own husband’s part. The book traces the trail to a powerful figure in Osage country, seemingly upstanding, but truly evil, who was lining his pockets with Osage wealth.

While White was able to see the killers of Mollie’s family to justice, David Grann also tells a darker story of many other deaths and other killers never convicted. He concludes the account with his meetings of descendants of the families who had suffered loss as he attempts to provide some account to satisfy the “blood that cried out.”

I found this an engaging, page turning account of a monumental injustice, one more of a litany injustice done to the First Nations of North America. Grann shows the ruthless and unscrupulous efforts to deprive the Osage of what was rightfully theirs. It is too bad that Tom White did not head up the FBI. The contrast between him and Hoover is striking. It would have been a very different agency. White and his family treated their work as a sacred calling worthy of their excellence and courage, defying a corrupt version of “the machine.”

Review: Season Ticket

Season Ticket, Roger Angell. New York: Open Road Media, 2013 (originally published in 1988).

Summary: A collection of essays covering the 1982 to 1987 seasons, from spring training to the drama of the championships, and all the skills of players and managers and owners required to compete at the major league level.

“Don’t you know how hard this all is?”

Ted Williams, on batting in particular and baseball in general

If there is a theme to this installment of Roger Angell’s articles on baseball, it is the conversations Angell has with different players and even an owner, all that illustrate what a challenge it is to do every aspect of Major League Baseball well. A number of the essays recount the answers of players and coaches to the question of “How do you do what you do?” What does it take to catch well for example. The biggest part is working with pitchers, yet the all stars are always the ones who hit. They may not be the best at their work with pitchers. We learn how a catcher must in a single motion catch, stand, and throw to have any hope of catching a base-stealing runner.

He takes us through the infield and the particular demands of each position. We learn what a mental game playing first base is. So much at every position is positioning for each batter, knowing your pitcher. He spends a good deal of his time with Dave Concepcion, a short stop star of the ’80s, learning about how he learned to make the long throw on a hop to first base on artificial turf because it was actually faster.

Included is an article on Dan Quisenberrry, a submarine ball relief pitcher for the Royals. We catch him at his peak in 1985 when he was nearly unhittable. We learn about everything from how he learned the motion, which is actually far easier on the pitching arm than throwing overhand to the aggressive mindset of relief pitchers. We learn about his repertoire of pitches and the attitude of flexibility of being prepared to pitch in any game that comes with relief pitching. In later articles, we also see Quisenberry’s decline, particularly after Dick Howser stepped down. The chemistry was never the same.

And then, of course, there is hitting and all the little things that go into hitting well, and as one of the best, Ted Williams says, how hard it is. We learn that basically batters want to hit a fastball. We get all the little nuances of bat weight, stance, grip on the bat, and swing, and how easy it is to get out of the groove.

Then there are the players. In this period he covers the last game of Carl Yastrzemski, the great Boston player, Jim Kaat, after a twenty year career as a pitcher, and Johnny Bench, all who played their last in 1983. We have the account of Pete Rose’s 4192nd hit, surpassing Ty Cobb, and the comparison showing how superior Cobb’s accomplishment was in far less games at a higher batting average. Rose just kept playing. Then there are the young pitchers of the era, Dwight Gooden and Bret Saberhagen in particularly.

As always, Angell seems at his best in recounting championships, in this case in particular, the 1986 Red Sox-Mets World Series and particularly the disappointing Red Sox loss that turned the tide in the fifth game. Then there is the amazing 1984 Tigers team with all their hitting, power, and speed, which finally buried the Padres.

Angell covers the rise of drug use among players, the advent of drug testing, and some of the great players who got ensnared in cocaine use. The sad thing was that apart from a few teams, the emphasis seemed less on rehabilitation and more on “gotcha.” He writes about all the pressures and temptations that came with the big money of this era.

The book ends at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown during a Hall of Fame induction. By the time Angell was done, I found myself mentally adding Cooperstown to my bucket list. He writes, “The artifacts and exhibits in the Hall remind us, vividly and with feeling, of our hopes for bygone seasons and players. Memories are jogged, even jolted; colors become brighter, and we laugh or sigh, remembering the good times gone by.”

Angell captures the fleeting wonder of the game and how amazing the players who perform at a high level for ten years or more. It is indeed hard to do so well, and hard on bodies, especially as they age. The arc from spring to autumn, both of seasons and careers in some way is a parable of the fleeting nature of our lives, as well as the glory of our existence.