Unforgettable Fictional Friends

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We read novels because we care about the people who live between their pages.

William Shaw develops fascinating characters. Each person is vulnerable and brilliant in his or her own way, including the cast of The Birdwatcher.

Police Sergeant William South serves as Neighborhood Officer in the coastal patch of Kent in Southeastern England near Dungeness. He’s a first responder and the man who tracks down an elder who has lost his way. He keeps an eye on the local drug scene and chases shoplifters. A solitary man, South spends hours along the beaches and bogs looking for unusual birds.

On page one, when Sergeant South is ordered to assist in a murder investigation, he begs off because it’s October and prime birdwatching season and although no one else knows, William South is a murderer.

Luck abandons the Sergeant. The Dungeness victim happens to be his next-door neighbor and fellow birdwatcher. He’s torn between exposure and helping the Serious Crime Directorate find his friend’s murderer. He could leave the investigation in its early stages or later when told to stay away. Call it fate, but even official duties and ordinary acts like shopping or helping a friend, drag him deeper into the mystery. Each involvement redoubles his risk of exposure and even death.

Detective Sergeant Alexandra Cupidi’s past drives her from the Metropolitan Police and London. She’s desperate to make a strong first impression in Kent. A guilt-ridden single mother, she weighs professional success against her daughter Zoe’s adjustment to Kent.

Cupidi sees Neighborhood Officer South as an asset in her investigation. He knows the victim, the territory, and the shortcuts. Their relationship deepens as South eases tensions between Cupidi and Zoe. He rescues Zoe from bullies at her new school and hides her indiscretions.

Zoe is mature beyond her age—an adult trapped in the life of a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. She loves and understands her mother. At the same time, Zoe compromises Alexandra’s professional and personal life. She can’t talk to her mother or the “cows” at school. Surprisingly, she confides in William South and plays matchmaker between him and her mother. Bored, Zoe gives birdwatching a try. Her drawings of birds in flight capture their jizz, amazing the experienced South.

The murderer lurks in the shadows and hides in plain sight. He or she may be stalking Cupidi, Zoe, or South. Cupidi believes that it must be a man. A woman could never kill with such violence and frequency, “Someone who literally cannot control themselves, or doesn’t want to. Someone so consumed with anger they cannot stop.”

Cupidi is anxious to close the case and secure her place in the Kent Serious Crime Directorate. When someone fits her image of the killer, South challenges her conclusions. His experience as a murderer suggests someone else is guilty.

Birds and birdwatching add color and plot twists. Birdwatching focuses on the extraordinary visitors, not the local gulls and sparrows—migrating species and individuals blown off course by ocean storms. South’s birdwatching parallels his police work. The Sergeant scans for anything unusual—a broken window, an abandoned automobile, or a group of individuals camped on a beach. South applies his birdwatching techniques to the murder investigation—high power binoculars and stakeouts even the birds can’t detect.

The Birdwatcher is two stories in one. Each chapter ends with a snippet set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Parallels between the life of young Billy and adult William include their interest in birdwatching and their fear of murder investigations.

The first page of The Birdwatcher accuses William South. Could he get away with murder, suffer imprisonment, or fall prey to the Kentish murderer? He’s an engaging character with great potential. Does he have a future?

 

 

From Oasis to Atoll

 

More than a half-century ago, four members of a wedding headed west traversing four states, the Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers. At two in the morning, we lost our way in a desert of Iowa corn. We scrutinized our paper road map to no avail. Ahead and to our right, mercury-vapor lamps buzzed their sharp blue rays at an isolated house and barn. Being city-folks, we decided—perhaps irrationally— that we might find ourselves on the receiving end of buckshot if we approached the sleeping homestead, so we looked to the sky for guidance—prayers and celestial navigation.

For some reason, Iowa had more stars than we’d seen in our cities. Nevertheless, we found the Big Dipper and Polaris. Reoriented, we zigzagged along any westward trail we could find until we stumbled upon a paved road with highway signs. What a wonderful feeling to locate ourselves on the roadmap. In time, we connected with Route 20—a road that runs from Boston to Oregon. Twenty steered us through endless Iowa-cornfields, across Missouri, and into the endless Nebraska-cornfields. Eventually, Route 20 brought us to O’Neill Nebraska. Handwritten directions guided us to the bride’s family farm—an oasis of trees amid the endlessly dry and sand-colored rows of corn. In true oasis fashion, the family welcomed us as friends they’d never met, offering us food, and a place to sleep. The rehearsal, the wedding, the celebration, and the times in-between remain fuzzy but pleasant memories.

Our hosts explained that oasis trees were a luxury—something like pets or exotic plants. The plains were meant for grass, not trees. Trees may survive along river or stream banks, but on a farm they needed TLC, especially watering during dry-spells. In return, cottonwoods, oaks, and walnuts blocked some of the wind and cooled man and beast in summer.

My image of the oasis surrounded by Nebraska corn suffered a devastating jolt during the news coverage of this week’s bomb cyclone in the plains, including Nebraska.  Ariel images revealed fallow farmland flooded from horizon to horizon. Occasionally, rings or clusters of trees—like atolls—surrounded flooded houses, barns, and sheds. I’m not sure how O’Neill fared, but it has likely suffered crippling losses. Fortunately, my friends survived, although the floods swept away a local access road.

Meteorologists predict the worst is yet to come. As snow and ice melt upstream and the flooding swells rivers to the south. Destruction and misery will multiply downstream. The short and long-term consequences will challenge the skills and resources of emergency managers and stress the agricultural sector already suffering from tariffs.

As in Louisiana and California, levy-failures exacerbated property loss and environmental degradation. The USA has long ignored infrastructure. Supposedly, both Parties agree on this issue.

Nikita Khrushchev said, “We do not have to invade the United States. We will destroy you from within.” From the looks of our infrastructure, the USA is on its way to destruction. Thanks to Nikita and his ilk, our obsession with defense spending for tanks and aircraft that the Generals have rejected has shortchanged infrastructure. Neglect and misguided priorities have begun to process of destroying America from within.

 

 

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Diogenes Eats Humble Hummus

 

We needed yeast and a few other things, so I drove to Market Basket to fill a shopping cart with bare necessities, among them a container of hummus, and of course, the yeast. The yeast was the smallest item in the cart, so I had to make sure it didn’t escape.

At check-out, I tapped my credit card on the counter and chatted with the bagger as she loaded my items. I paid no attention to the yeast until I arrived home.

Where was it? I searched the sundry shopping bags I’d used—no yeast.

Maybe it fell out of my cart and was never bagged. Now I had to find the receipt. You can tell, I’m disorganized. But I did find the sales slip and checked each item. I’d paid $1.49 for a three-pack of quick rising yeast. Did I put it in the refrigerator? No!

Well, if I lost the yeast, other items may have gone astray. Careful screening of the receipt revealed I’d paid $3.49 for the hummus, but it too was gone. A psychologist friend once told me I suffered from Diogenes Syndrome. You remember Diogenes, the guy with the lamp searching for an honest man. In my case, I’d spent years of my life looking for misplaced items like yeast and hummus.

Yes, my life is a mess. Imagine a desk piled with papers surrounding a laptop. Look over the pile. That’s me behind it. As a Diogenes sufferer, I’ve developed coping skills. These skills do not include a filing system or shedding clutter. Diogenes taught me that if two things disappear, they likely ran off together and hide in the same place. I’d probably misplaced a shopping bag. Who knows what else the bag might hold, perhaps an honest man?

No luck. I was out $4.98 and a cloth shopping bag. No big deal, right?

Oh, no. My life was ruined.

“What?” you say. “You could hop in the car and Diogenes the check-out counters or simply, buy replacements.”

They cost less than five dollars, but their loss got under my Diogenes skin. I admit they shouldn’t have. The mishap wounded my pride and demonstrated my attachment to trivialities. Buddhism teaches that attachment causes pain. Christianity asks that we seek first the Kingdom of God and all else will be given to us. Rely on God and not on our limited powers and we will be happy in this world and the next. I should have listened.

Anyway, this morning I found the yeast packet stuck between two bags of English Muffins. The hummus hid behind the Pico de Gallo salsa in the back of the refrigerator. All of my concern overnight hurt only me. Next time I lose something—where are my car keys?—I’m not going to worry—I’ll be late if I don’t find them—I’m going to relax and strive for a spiritual perspective and peace.

God Bless.

 

Thomas Merton after 50 years

Fifty years ago, December 10, 1968, Thomas Merton left this world. His prophet words serve as a warning to the people of our times.

The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton’s autobiography of faith tells of God’s subtle enticement of Merton’s spirit. The ruins of Cistercian monasteries in France fascinated Young Thomas. He read a range of philosophers including Jacques Maritan and other Catholics who convinced Merton that Scholastic Philosophy offered the best explanation of reality.

Most of all, Merton was drawn by example. Before his conversion, he sat near a young woman at Mass. Her fervor and sincerity convinced Thomas of the strength of her faith and encouraged him to deepen his own.

Baroness de Heuck, a Russian immigrant, shaped his concept of social justice. During the Great Depression, Communist recruiters opened soup kitchens in Harlem. When hospitals refused medical treatment for persons of color; when landlords denied housing, and employers, jobs; Communists brought doctors, rented apartments, and offered financial support.

The Baroness noted that it was once said: “See how these Christians love one another.” She observed no sign of Catholic love in Harlem. The Cardinal and Bishops dined with the wealthy but ignored the poorest within the Archdiocese.

The Baroness frightened establishment Catholics with her application of the social encyclicals of Popes Leo XIII and Pius IX. She embarrassed pastors in Harlem who hired white tradesmen to repair their buildings when Harlem residents stood in unemployment lines. She claimed that the Catholic Church was “just a front for Capitalism.”

She established Friendship House and Blessed Martin de Porres Center—Catholic Christian responses to the social needs of Harlem. Merton worked there briefly, but the experience influenced his social justice message.

In Merton’s discussion of sins and virtues, he noted that during the period leading up to the Great Depression, the Capital Sins of Pride and Greed had become virtues. Americans of the 1920s chose personal and national greatness over goodness and humility; unregulated growth and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few over a disciplined and reliable economic system that allowed everyone to benefit. Merton’s words warn Americans about the consequences of its Roaring 20/20ies economic injustice—redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class to the rich and the threat of another depression. Greatness is not measured in triumphalism or superiority but love and justice.

America ignores the prophetic words of Thomas Merton, Popes Leo, Pius, and Francis at its peril.

 

Playing by Heart, by Carmela Martino

 Emilia Salvini, her mother, and sister Maria speak through a curtain with Zia Delia, the girls’ aunt, and a cloistered nun. Delia’s parents send her to the convent against her will because they lack money for her dowry. Emilia, Maria, and their two younger sisters realize that their family can only afford two dowries. Two daughters would be sent to the convent. The others would marry a man of their father’s choosing—often a widower whose first wife died in childbirth leaving children for his new wife to mother, a man who may be three times her age; he with children as old as his new bride.

 

Nevertheless, Playing by Heart is a young adult romance because Carmela Martino writes with heart, capturing her readers in a web of passion, sorrow, longing, and desperation. She serves a full course cultural experience touching on the plight of women in the eighteenth century, the class system, social climbing, and family structure. She makes the impossible come to be.

 

Before judging Signor Salvini for dispatching his daughters either to the convent or an arranged marriage, remember that he follows the customs of the times. He takes the unusual step of educating Maria (mathematician and linguist) and Emelia (musician and composer). Unfortunately, he uses them as pawns in his quest for elevation to the nobility.

 

Seemingly helpless, Maria—who prefers the convent to an arranged marriage—and Emelia—who wants to marry for love—find unusual allies who could turn the minds of even the most domineering men.

 

Maestro Tomassini criticizes his student Antonio Bellini (Emilia’s love interest and a commoner) because of his musical compositions—although technically adequate—lack passion. He praises Emilia Salvini because her compositions reveal her deepest emotions. Carmela Martino listens to the Maestro and writes with passion. She ensnares the reader with tendrils of concern for the characters. She smoothly guides Emelia and her family into impossible circumstances from which there is seemingly no escape. Her readers faithfully follow although they can see no light at the end of the tunnel.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed Playing by Heart and would rank it among the best novels I’ve read this year. It has a wide appeal to anyone interested in history, music, women’s rights, and fiction. Carmela Martino is meticulous in her attention to details: classical music, color, feelings, interpersonal dynamics and eighteenth-century politics, dress, and customs. The reader will not only enjoy the story but will grow with the experience of Playing by Heart, especially since Carmela Martino bases her characters on actual eighteenth-century Milanese sisters. Playing by Heart will not disappoint even the most discriminating reader.

 

The author provided a pre-publication copy so that I could write this review.

Standing Strong, by Theresa Linden

The tagline for Standing Strong—Theresa Linden’s most daring novel—reads: “Blessed is he who is not scandalized in me.” Most young adult novels ignore the spiritual life, some ridicule it, or replace it with fantasy. Standing Strong embraces spirituality—with a strong Franciscan flavor—as God shapes the lives of Jarret and Keefe West, and brings peace to their family.

Readers of the first three West Brothers novels know Jarret as narcissistic, manipulative, and cruel—a teen just waiting for karma to catch up with him. His favorite targets include his twin, Keefe, an unwilling accomplice, and their younger brother, Roland—Jarret’s frequent victim.

 

Rather than karma or Satan, it is mercy that catches Jarret. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, Jarret resets his priorities, sincerely attempting to amend his life. He admits his mistakes and avoids the people, places, and circumstances associated with his earlier misdeeds. He shows genuine compassion to his family, friends, and even his enemies. Unfortunately, he grows overconfident, and the lure of his deeply ingrained habits and the expectations of his classmates impede his spiritual progress. He finds himself rejected; crying out, “God, why do you make this so hard?”

 

Keefe, Jarret’s perennial foil is so used to deferring to his brother, their father, and anyone who challenges him that he stalls on his journey to the religious life—mired in self-doubt, and his fear of wrath, ridicule, and rejection. Can he make the leap of faith, faith in himself and his calling, despite the apparent obstacles and contradictory signs? Can he embrace the scandal of Jesus?

 

The author devises an elaborate series of subplots that pit Mr. West, Roland, and his friends, Channel—Jarret’s voluptuous girlfriend—, and strangers along the road who deflect the West twins from their holy trek.

 

Standing Strong appeals to a wide audience, especially troubled high school students and those contemplating the religious life. Theresa Linden’s research into adolescent psychology and the life, legends, and spirituality of Saint Francis of Assisi erects a sturdy framework through which she threads her themes.

 

The author shared the pre-publication copy of Standing Strong that enabled this review. I thank her and applaud her creative spirit.

The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch, by T.M. Gaouette

 

 The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch by [Gaouette, T. M.]

At age ten, Benedict carries massive chips on both shoulders. Having passed from bad foster homes to worse, he dreads the uncertainty of new surroundings and new rules. When he arrives at The Sunshine Ranch, he doubts the sincerity of his new foster parents, David and Martha Credence and withholds his affections lest he is ripped again from friends and security. Benedict sees the other foster children as rivals and doubts that his good fortune will last. Over the next four years, he remains aloof, not daring to trust that he has found a home and family.

When foreclosure threatens The Sunshine Ranch, Benedict’s doubts seem to be confirmed. Although David and Martha ask Benedict and their other foster kids to have faith that God will provide, Benedict refuses to believe. But Micah, Benedict’s roommate, and chief rival keeps the faith. Eventually, Benedict realizes that The Sunshine Ranch gives him the only happiness that he has ever known, and that his constant worry and fear prevent him from enjoying it.

David and Martha Credence and their many foster children embody generosity and unquestioning faith. Theirs is an impossible task — they welcome hard-case kids like Benedict and scrape together the resources to meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Benedict, on the other hand, provides a counterpoint to everything the Credence family attempts to share. Too wounded by his early life experiences to accept the healing they offer, he’s likely to reject them and run away into the night. Micah, the optimist, has suffered as much as Benedict, but he always sees the bright side and attempts to wear down Benedict’s rough edges.

The Destiny of Sunshine Ranch appealed to every emotion: there are joy and sadness, richness and loss. T.M. Gaouette delivers a powerful story with an emotional wallop, filling her pages with surprises and suspense, mystery and romance, pain and growth. Unquestionably, this novel is a page turner.

I would recommend this book for family reading. Biological progeny and foster children, biological and foster parents can see themselves somewhere in the pages of this book. It will especially benefit students preparing for careers in social services. I enjoyed reading this story because its characters deeply touched me. I pray that many couples will follow the example of David and Martha Credence and provide a loving home for foster children.