Sacred Clowns–Tony Hillerman

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I’m finally back to this series–my library inexplicably only had it in hard copy until recently, when they got the e-version, and since I do most of my reading on my phone these days, I paused the series.

I love these books. They almost make me forget how much I hate the heat and dryness of the desert.

This book begins with Jim Chee and his girlfriend with some other people, sitting on the roof of a house, watching a ceremonial dance. This dance comes from a different tribe, so they don’t really understand all of it. One of the components is a group called “sacred clowns” who act like clowns but are used to show how silly and bumbling and flawed humans are compared to the gods, who are also portrayed in the dance.

By the end, one of the clowns has been killed.

This appears to tie to an earlier murder at a school. A popular shop teacher was killed in his classroom, and silver and other things used in shop were found in the home of a local drunk who knew him. Case closed, but it doesn’t feel right. If he’d killed the teacher and stolen silver, he’d have sold the silver immediately.

The two murders are connected–the nephew of the killed dancer was friends with someone in the shop teacher’s class, was seen at the school that night, and has gone missing.

Chee and his boss have to figure out why someone would kill a clown dancer, who had no enemies as far as anyone knew, and how that connects to a well-loved and generous teacher at the local school.

 

We Have Your Daughter–Paula Woodward

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More true crime! I’m on a true crime kick. (True crime spree? Maybe.)

This is a book about the Jonbenet Ramsay case and let me tell you, I have FEELINGS about this case and about this book.

If (like my husband) you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know this case, here’s the brief summary:

Jonbenet was a 6 year old girl, the daughter of some super rich people in Boulder, Colorado.

She was (famously) a participant in child pageants.

The morning after Christmas she was missing from her bed and there was a 3 page ransom note in the kitchen.

The police come and don’t know what they’re doing because there aren’t murders in Boulder. Result: they don’t check the entire house. They let people in and out, contaminating the crime scene.

Finally, at 1pm the only cop left in the house (what? WHY??) sends her dad and his friend to go check the house, and the dad finds the body of Jonbenet in a small room in the basement.

No one was ever arrested for the crime.

Ok, that’s the summary.

Here’s my problem. Despite the overwhelming belief at the time by the police and the public that the parents were involved in some way, I don’t think that’s actually true.

And it kind of annoys me, to be honest.

This book is very pro-Ramsay and supportive of the parents, and even with that bias, it reads really clearly that despite what the author wants me to think, these are TERRIBLE human beings. They are awful. Here’s my justification for this:

  1. the girls name. This was dad’s second marriage and he named his first son after himself, but despite this, he made up a name for the girl which combined his first and middle names and her middle name is the mom’s first name. This is so much ME ME ME that it makes me crazy. How many kids named after yourself do you need? Why is it so important that this kid be a walking advertisement for you?
  2. the pageant stuff. The mom was a former Miss West Virginia so it’s not really a surprise that she put the girl in them but there is no question that those glitzy pageants sexualize little girls. I mean, you can argue that point with me if you want but you would be wrong and I’m pretty sure that the research backs me up.
  3. carelessness. The basement window the intruder used to get in was broken. And had been since June. Let’s just sit there for a minute and ponder the fact that a family that owns their own airplane can’t get it together to repair a window for SIX MONTHS.
  4. carelessness, 2: they gave out a bunch of keys to the house to people, friends, contractors, whatever, and didn’t keep track of them or get them back.
  5. carelessness, 3: they never set their security alarm.
  6. carelessness, 4: the week before the murder they’d opened their home to the public for some Christmas tour thing. If you’re going to do this, wouldn’t you then be extra vigilant about security after that? For robbery if nothing else. If I was rich and random people walked through my house for weeks, I would be setting the alarm and checking the windows and everything else.
  7. Dad–ok, this may be my personal bias, but I find it really icky when a man ditches his first wife (that he met in college) and marries a former pageant girl. Especially a rich man. You get rich, so you trade up your wife for someone younger and prettier? And after Jonbenet’s mom died of cancer, he remarried a third time, someone ALSO younger and very pretty. I do not like him. I think he’s gross. I think he’s an entitled rich asshole who keeps looking for trophies. The plane, the wife, the pretty daughter in pageants. It’s all the same thing and it is so gross to me. Even reading about him makes me want to take a hot shower and wash the ick off.

Ok.

But here’s the thing. There was some DNA on Jonbenet. In three places. There was very little, but it was enough to be tested and to go into the FBI’s database, and that DNA is not anyone in the family. It’s completely different, and it does not match any of the almost 200 people they’ve tested.

Also, I think the dad is super gross and if you told me he was abusive I’d be willing to listen to you, but I don’t think that’s how it would go if he decided to kill his daughter. She was molested with a paintbrush, strangled and then allowed to regain consciousness before being strangled again and her head was bashed in. That’s not the kind of thing most parents would do, but more importantly to me, I don’t think that’s how he would kill her even if he was the killer. She’s a trophy for him, and you don’t do that to trophies, you’d want to keep her pretty, right? Maybe I’m wrong, I’m not a killer.

Anyway. Maybe one day they’ll get a hit on the DNA and we will know what happened, but otherwise it probably won’t be solved. Which is a tragedy. Poor little Jonbenet. She deserved better than what happened to her.

 

How to Murder Your Mother-in-Law–Dorothy Cannell

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I can’t believe I haven’t reviewed any of the Dorothy Cannell books yet.

The first book in this series is called “The Thin Woman” and is, in my opinion, a classic in the cozy mystery genre.

This is a later book.

These books are centered on Ellie Haskell, a young wife and mother. Her life is filled with absurdity. The books are clever and witty and charming.

In this book, she has the idea to invite her in-laws for a formal dinner. Her mother-in-law is a devout Catholic. Her father-in-law is a devout Jew, and so she thinks it would be nice to celebrate their anniversary. She cooks a reasonable good dinner (although I always wonder why she cooks at all, since her husband is a professional chef) except for the chocolate pudding, which she inadvertently made with chocolate flavored laxatives.

But the biggest issue is that she invited a local woman who had been a friend of her in-laws when they were young and that they haven’t spoken to in forty years. As it happens, they had stopped talking because the mother-in-law thought her friend Tricks was trying to seduce her husband.

There’s a terrible fight and the husband takes Tricks home, only to be returned by the cops because they decided to skinny dip in the ocean and lost their clothes. At that point, the Magdalene (the mother-in-law) kicks him out.

As it happens, there’s a rash of problematic mothers-in-law in town. Trick’s daughter-in-law suffers from her mom’s cavalier attitude towards life. The local member of the aristocracy, Lady Kitty, dominates and tortures her husband and daughter-in-law. The local vicar’s mother-in-law smokes in the house and is cheeky to the bishop.

They all complain and try to find a way to solve their problem, but when Lady Kitty is killed when the brake lines on her bike are cut, they start to suspect each other. And then Tricks is poisoned.

They have to find out who is bumping off the mothers-in-law before they are all killed and ideally also get the women out of their houses before they lose their minds.

 

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down–Anne Fadiman

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This is possibly the saddest story I’ve ever read.

It’s a true story, about a girl with epilepsy.

Her family were refugees from Laos and spoke no English, and their specific language is relatively obscurely so at the beginning of their ordeal, there were no translators for them in the area, which meant they could not communicate with the doctors who treated little Lia.

Result: her epilepsy went undiagnosed for quite some time.

From there, it went to hell. They put her on a bunch of medication, changing them frequently to try to control the seizures. It took them a LONG time to realize that the parents were unable or unwilling to give her the medication at home.

To be clear, they didn’t want to give her all those medications, feeling (correctly) that the side effects were severe and feeling (incorrectly) that probably she didn’t need that much medicine anyway.

However, even if they were willing to be perfectly compliant with the medications, they had a massive issue: they didn’t speak or read English. She was just a baby, so the medications were liquid in some cases, but pills in other cases, which had to be divided into segments to get the right dose, then ground up and put into food which the baby objected to. It was virtually impossible. They couldn’t tell the bottles apart, they couldn’t figure out when each med was supposed to be given, it was a disaster.

Finally, they sent a home health nurse to the house. The nurse and the social worker tried everything they could to get it to work, including taping up samples of each med on the wall with a drawing of when it was supposed to be given to the baby. But it didn’t work.

Eventually, in a desperate bid to get the baby the medication that she needed, the doctor asked for the child to be removed from their care and put into foster care, which the state did.

This trauma was, obviously, severe for the family, who didn’t understand what was happening. By the end of the ten months the baby spent in foster care, they had reduced her medications to a single one and convinced the parents of the urgency to give her that med as directed every single day. And so, the baby was returned to their care.

But then she had the worst seizure of her life. It wouldn’t stop. Even after the ambulance got her to the ER, they couldn’t stop it. It just went on and on as they tried to get an IV in and shoved medication into her little body, and tried to get a breathing tube in because she wasn’t getting any oxygen. It was a disaster. The poor little baby.

When they got her stabilized, they moved her to the children’s hospital, but the lack of oxygen had left her brain dead. She was a vegetable.

It got worse from there, of course.

The author also talks in depth about the Hmong people and their history, which is a segment of history that I knew nothing about, and I would assume most people probably know nothing about. It makes you angry, when you think of it. We used them as proxy soldiers in Laos during the Vietnam war, because we were banned by treaty from putting our own men on the ground in Laos. We paid them practically nothing, we force recruited them, and we let them die in huge numbers (five TIMES the fatality rate of American soldiers in Vietnam) and promised them they could come to America if Laos became inhospitable for them afterwards.

Laos DID become dangerous for the Hmong. We took out the officers and their families, and left the rest of the Hmong to be hunted. They crossed through to Thailand, many starving to death or being killed by their enemies. Once in Thailand, they were held in refugee camps for long periods and only gradually allowed to come here. And once here, they had no resources set up to ease the transition. No English language classes, no cultural classes. The resources provided by private companies and organizations were woefully inadequate.

It’s all incredibly sad. The author says at the end that since the events of the book (mid 1980s) the next generation is adapting well and assimilating to America well enough to get good educations and good jobs, which helps ease the blow a bit.

Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet–M.C. Beaton

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It’s been a while since I reviewed one of this series. I’m re-reading the series now, so you might see more of these. This is a cozy mystery series, following the adventures of Agatha Raisin, an abrasive former PR consultant who took early retirement in the Cotswolds and continues to stumble into murders.

In this book, she returns from vacation to find that there’s a new, handsome vet in town. Being single and perpetually on the hunt for a man, she trundles her cat along in there, and discovers that he’s not that great of a vet, he’s a little rough with the cat, but she brushes it off because he’s so handsome and charming.

He takes her out to dinner and tells her he wants to start an animal hospital and is raising money for that cause. She thinks she’ll give him a small amount, but never gets to it. Before she can see him again, he’s found dead, of an apparent accident. He was about to perform a surgery on a racehorse, and the paralytic injection got him instead, killing him more or less instantly.

She can’t help but notice that a lot of women came to his funeral, and that several of them were very bitter about him, including one woman who had given him her cat for treatment and he had decided unilaterally to put it down, and his ex-wife, who hated him, and several women who had given him large amounts of money fro the animal hospital.

It turns out that he’s a compulsive gambler, and had been raising money for the supposed animal hospital for years, with no sign of any actual hospital to show for it. His partner had been propping him up for years, and was the beneficiary of his estate. His ex-wife had lost all her money because of his gambling. And there was, of course, a long line of angry women and some disgruntled husbands who were upset with him about the money.

Agatha–along with her handsome neighbor James Lacey–investigates the crime, until as usual, she gets too close and her cats get kidnapped. She traces the clues back to the perpetrator and nearly dies before Lacey and the police arrive to save her.

These are fun books. As with many series the earlier books are the best. I like Agatha Raisin, despite her prickliness and man-eating ways, I think she’s a realistic and sympathetic character. I suppose the popularity of these books says that I’m not alone. I hear there’s a TV series of these books but I haven’t seen it and can’t speak for the quality of it or the lack thereof.

 

In Cold Blood–Truman Capote

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This is a classic. It’s true crime. It was considered the first “nonfiction novel” in that it’s non-fiction but it reads like a novel.

It is the story of the Clutter family murders. If you don’t know this story, you can learn as much as you want–the crime scene photos are online (they’re slightly disturbing but not horrifyingly gory like the Black Dahlia photos, or the Jack the Ripper photos) the book is elegant and thorough, there’s a movie and a miniseries. It’s probably one of the most thoroughly covered cases around, at least of those that do not involve a serial killer.

Basically, one night in December, the Clutter family in Kansas was murdered. They were discovered the next morning by a girl who normally carpooled into town for church with them. (Let’s take a moment and feel for her, because in 1959 therapy wasn’t so much a thing and she probably could have used a LOT of therapy.)

There were four members of the family in the house: the father, a respected and prosperous farmer, his wife, a great invalid, and his two youngest children. The older was a girl well known for her great range of skills and her willingness to share those skills with those around her, and her brother, fifteen.

They were found all tied up. The mother and the daughter were in their own rooms, the father and the son were in the basement. The basement was divided into two areas: a playroom, which was where the boy was found, on the sofa, and a furnace room, which was where the father was found. They had all been shot in the head, and the father additionally had his throat cut.

Robbery was discarded as a motive almost immediately, despite the fact that the women’s purses were open and the contents scattered about, because the father had a firm policy not to carry any cash, a policy which was well known throughout the area.

The book cuts over to follow the killers, two young men. One is handsome and charming, the other is short and has a limp, the result of an unfortunate motorcycle accident that did severe damage to his legs.

One of them had spent time in a cell with a man who had worked as a temporary farmhand for the Clutter family. This man believed there to be a safe hidden in the home office, containing thousands of dollars. On the strength of this belief, he had drawn a map of the home and grounds and this map and this information prompted the two ex-cons to go to the home late at night and burgle it.

The goal was to rob the home, but they came prepared to commit murder if they were caught, with a shotgun, a knife and a large quantity of rope.

When they could not find the safe, they woke Mr. Clutter. He told them that there was no safe, but they did not believe him. They took him up to his wife’s room, and they tied them both up and then the children, and then they searched the home.

It soon became clear that there was no safe.

They took what cash there was, less than 50 dollars, and some small valuables. Then they killed the family. They slit Mr. Clutter’s throat, and he, while definitely bleeding to death, struggled so hard to get to them that he almost slipped his bonds. At that point, they shot him in the head.

From there, they shot the boy. Then they went upstairs and shot the daughter, and finally the wife.

They left the house. They went home, established an “alibi” and then wrote a bunch of bad checks to get items that they pawned, using that money to go to Mexico. They ran through that money, so they went back to the states, repeating the process and going to Florida. When they ran out of money there, they hitchhiked their way to Las Vegas, with their basic strategy being to kill the driver when they were able to do so. They were finally busted in Vegas–the cellmate who told them about the Clutter family having busted them–and were set for trial.

They were found guilty and condemned to death, although they lodged significant appeals that delayed that verdict being carried out for several years. Eventually, however, their time ran out and they were indeed hanged.

It was a stupid, pointless, miserable crime. It was completely unnecessary. It was, indeed, a tragedy.

 

 

The Irreducible Needs of Children–T Berry Brazelton

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This is a great book, and I think the world would be a better place if all their recommendations were implemented, but let’s be real: this book made me feel super inadequate and like the worst mom of all time.

Also I think there’s a possibility that my middle child is doomed forever, because one of their suggestions is that children under the age of 3 never be separated from their primary caregiver overnight because it impairs the bonding experience and ideally also not be in a baby farm style daycare and I got divorced when she was less than a year old. Despite my protestations, the court did indeed order split custody so she spent alternate weekends with her dad. And I had to go back to work, obviously, so she was in a baby farm for a while until we could find a nice in-home daycare for her.

Basically, this book goes through the needs of children in different areas and discusses what is ideal and how we could adjust the current system to reach those recommendations. The recommendations are excellent and I have no doubt children would be better off, but it’s a bit daunting, the list.

For example, for the baby I currently have, the suggestion is no more than 10 or 15 minutes of independent play at a time. But he LOVES his jumper, so what does that mean? Do I pull him out of it while he’s playing because it’s been 15 minutes, even if he’s still playing happily? Doesn’t this directly contradict the Montessori concept of letting children do serious work to the limit of their interest, however long that is? Is Montessori wrong?

The recommendations for school aged children are less daunting and more common sense, although some of their recommendations are vast deviations from the standard. For example, they recommend tracking by subject, or even more ideally, by skill. This is mostly true in my children’s school–I get reports on their grade levels in reading and in math–but I do think it would be better if it was applied more widely than math and reading. And I would also like a skill breakdown. If she’s on grade level for math but she struggled in the multiplication unit, that should be something we should all be aware of, and that is not the case in my child’s school. Perhaps it’s a terrible school.

The daunting recommendation for the school aged kids is to give them an hour at the end of the school day where they can just hang out with their parents and talk and decompress, before any one is doing any chores, but there’s no way to do that feasibly in my life many days. Do we eliminate her gymnastics class or pull the older one out of band so we have that time? How important is that? It’s all tricky.

Regardless, I think this is a great book for all parents to read, and probably teachers too. There’s not enough emphasis on what is best for children and on the kind of care young children especially need to have the best chance at a successful future, and this book is one way to approach giving more focus to the needs of children.