In the Darkness by Karin Fossum

Fiction – print. Translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson. Harvill Secker, 2012. Originally published 1995. 314 pgs.

Walking along the icy riverbanks late one afternoon, Eva and her seven-year-old daughter, Emma, discover a dead body bloated from weeks in the river floating near the surface. Emma instructs her mother to call the police, and Eva complies instructing her daughter to wait patiently outside the phone booth while she makes the call. Instead, she calls her father – never once mentioning the dead body – before taking an overweight Emma to McDonald’s for a Happy Meal, which the little girl asserts they can now afford because her mother suddenly has money.

An elderly woman eventually alerts the authorities to the location of the body, and Inspector Konrad Sejer arrives on the scene to discover the body is that of a man named Egil who worked at the local brewery and has been missing for months. The man’s disappearance was cloaked in mystery – his wife insisted he loved his car, but both she and Egil’s son assert that the man disappeared when he went to meet a buyer for the car. And now that his body has surfaced and found to have fifteen stab wounds, Inspector Sejer begins to wonder how a disappearance presumed to be about money could have resulted in such a personal and violent attack.

At the same time, Inspector Sejer is investigating the murder of a known prostitute by the name of Maja who was found dead in her apartment just before Egil went missing. The case has gone cold, and there are few leads as to which one of Maja’s johns killed her. The only connection between the two cases is Eva, who Inspector Sejer eventually learns was the first one to find Egil’s body and was the last person to see Maja alive.

It is fairly obvious from the beginning who at least one of the killers is, but Fossum is far more interested in the how and, most especially, the why the killer did what they did. In fact, Fossum’s book follows a rather unique structure blending the killer’s confession with the investigation of the crime so the resulting narrative jumps from past to present as pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

It took me about a hundred pages to find my footing and it felt like Fossum was struggling, as well, since she uses the third person narrative throughout of the book. I can’t set aside mystery novels after a certain point because I have to know whodunit.

Yet, in this case, I couldn’t give up on the book because I had to know whydunit. And the physiological exploration of why as it unfolded in the second half of the book was well worth sticking with the book because while I cannot say I was shocked by the ending, I thought the way she tied everything together in the end was very clever. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if more of Fossum’s novels follow me home from the library, especially since this is the first book in a series.

Finally, I do have to comment on the translation by James Anderson. I usually find with some of the lesser known Scandinavian crime writers that their work is translated into British English rather than American English. Obviously, I’m more than capable of adapting to the few differences – boot instead of trunk, phone box instead of phone booth – but there were words here and there that I had to look up  to make sure I was understanding correctly. The context provided by the rest of the sentence failed me, I guess, because I wouldn’t have classified these words as slang. (And, dummy me, I returned the book before remembering to write them down.) But this was more of a quirk I noticed than a complaint, and it shouldn’t be taken as a reason not to pick up Fossum’s novel.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Nonfiction – print. Riverhead Books, 2015. 290 pgs. Library copy.

If a chapter of your books ends up being published in the New York Times magazine, odds are I’ll end up adding it to my to-read list. Which is how I ended up reading this particular book – a portion of Ronson’s book was published back in February under the somewhat provocative title “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”.

I remember seeing the Sacco incident unfolding in real time as people I follow on tumblr reblogged a screenshot of the tweet exclaiming their disgust over it and calling for Justine to be fired. I never saw the original tweet on Twitter, but I did see the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trending in the United States as I logged on to delete the account I created for a project at work. (We needed a test account and I didn’t want to use the one linked to my book blog, obviously.)

I saw a story in the newspaper a few days later following up on the vitriol explaining that Justine was, in fact, fired after sending out a tweet to about 150 followers. And while I don’t defend what she said, I remember being struck at how one tweet to a smallish group of followers practically destroyed this woman’s life. I mean, while I had heard of people being bullied on Facebook and Twitter, I thought such large scale public smack downs were usually reserved for companies. Oh, the naiveté.

Turns out, others have experienced what Justine Sacco went through and Ronson interviews five others – a journalist who turned out to have plagiarized himself and others by the name of Jonah Lehrer, a young woman named Lindsay Stone whose offensive photography of an inside joke with friends earned her death threats, a world racing guru named Mosely caught having German-themed orgies, a computer programmer who made a sexual joke to a friend in the crowd of a conference and ended up losing his job, and the woman who publicly shammed the computer programmer in a tweet.

Jonah Lehrer’s experience seems rather cut and dry as journalists should be held to high standards and plagiarism and embellishment diminish their credibility. And I’ve seen people claim Justine deserved her public shaming because she works in public relations and should know better than to tweet something that could be perceived as racist, even if she later stated she meant to poke fun at the way most Americans view Africa. (An excuse I don’t buy.)

But the computer programmer and the woman who publicly shammed him were the two cases that really introduced shades of gray to this situation. Should the man have made a sexual joke for anyone to overhear? No, absolutely not. Should the woman have tweeted a picture of him in an attempt to publicly shame him? No. She could have just as easily tweeted her disgust without the picture, and Ronson explains that the conference organizers did investigate her charge of sexual harassment. (Would they have investigated it without the picture? Hard to say.)

The tweet ended up costing the man his job, which seems extreme, but it also ended up costing the woman her job after he posted that her tweet cost this father of three his job, which also seems extreme. He almost immediately went on to another job at a technology startup without a single female employee; she ended up receiving rape and death threats from anonymous internet trolls and men’s rights groups.

These antidotes were certainly food for thought in terms of my own personal, online presence, and I ended up discussing quite a few of them with my father during his recent visit. I do agree with his point that we (mainly Americans, it appears from Ronson’s book) have developed a “pile on” culture that is constantly out for blood. People cannot make mistakes because every misstep is logged online and scrutinized by millions of people they do not know.

Ronson tries to point out that public shaming was an accepted form of punishment for hundreds of years and, in fact, some judges in the South still sentence defendants to some form of public shaming.  At this point, the book starts to lose steam and the premise begins to fall apart. His research into this history is weak, at best, and his attempts to find a solution felt halfhearted.

Basically, a victim of public shaming has three options: (1) turn themselves into a super honest person which will probably land them in even hotter water, (2) refuse to engage or overengage by finding someone to sue for libel like Mosely did, or (3) pay a company hundreds of thousands of dollars to basically “up vote” good things about them to the top of Google’s algorithm so their transgression falls to the second page.

A quick Google Images search shows the latter did not work for Lindsay Stone, which is a shame because I had never heard of her or her picture until I read this book. And it makes me wonder what Ronson had hoped to accomplish with this book. He discusses that question quite a bit in the text, but I don’t think he ever figured it out.

He neither offers solutions for those who have publicly shammed (as one of his interviewers said they wished he would do) nor does he really trace the history of public shamming to provide context for how and why our society works this way. All he really accomplished is providing an opportunity for these people to publicly shammed all over again, and you can gleam enough of that from reading the portion of this book published in the New York Times magazine.

Trinity by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Nonfiction – print. Hill and Wang, 2012. 160 pgs. Library copy.

Fetter-Vorm’s graphic novel provides a short introduction the history of the world’s first atomic bomb(s), which was developed by the United States during the Second World War and dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. The bomb was developed in total secrecy – the Manhattan Project was later used as a case study for the CIA – in several locations across the United States including an underground squash court at the University of Chicago, an electric plant at Oak Ridge in Tennessee, and a hastily built town at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

The groups of scientists at Los Alamos were led by J. Robert Oppenheimer under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Fetter-Vorm focuses much of his book on these two men – how they became involved with the project, how they acted during the project, and how they viewed the project after the second atomic bomb was dropped on Japan.

My knowledge of the development of the atomic bomb is comprised of where (New Mexico in the United States), why (weapon of war), and when (during World War II). The critical piece missing is how, and comics turned out to be the perfect way to illustrate how nuclear fission works and all the reactions required for an atomic explosion to work. Reading a text-only explanation likely would have gone right over my head, but Fetter-Vorm guides his readers through a step-by-step explanation of nuclear fission and the difference between using energy as a source of electric power versus as a weapon of war.

For such a short book, Fetter-Vorm manages to span the entire expanse of the atomic bomb from conception to post-drop reactions. Nearly every American history textbook contains a picture of the bomb’s plume after eruption, which Fetter-Vorm includes in his book, but few include the immediate and delayed impact on the people of both Japan and the United States. The black and white drawing of the half-burnt, little boy looking for water to ease his pain stuck with me long after I finished the book as did the scene he depicts where Oppenheimer meets with U.S. President Harry Truman to inform him that atomic weapons are too evil to ever be used again only from Truman to kick him out of his office and say he never wants to see or hear from Oppenheimer before.

Fetter-Vorm also explains how the Cold War and nuclear proliferation began even before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the British having their own version of the Manhattan Project, the Soviets placing at least one spy at Los Alamos, and Stalin being deeply offended over the way the Americans informed him of their intent to drop the bomb on Japan. But the most surprising facts I learned actually had nothing to do with the atomic bomb. The firebombings of Japanese cities by the Americans produced far more casualties than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined – in fact, the Tokyo firebombing killed more people within six hours than in any equivalent period of time in the entire history of mankind.

So, yes, I’m very glad I stumbled across this graphic nonfiction book at the library. The chemistry primer and history lesson were much needed and much appreciated.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

Fiction – audiobook. Read by Jim Dale. Listening Library, 2003. 26 hours, 32 minutes. Library copy.

Now that Lord Voldemort has returned, Harry is desperate for any kind of news – Muggle or wizarding — during yet another miserable summer with the Dursleys. His so-called friends keep sending him owls with evasive answers, hints to something really important going on, and promises to tell him everything when they all return to Hogwarts in September. Harry tries to listen to the Muggle news with his aunt and uncle figuring an attack on Muggles would make the news even if Voldemort isn’t identified as the culprit. But Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia are suspicious of their nephew, especially since Harry keeps pulling out his wand every time a car backfires, and banish him from their home when the news is on.

Wandering a back alley of Little Whinging, Harry comes across his obese cousin, Dudley, saying goodbye to his gang of bullies. Harry’s attempt to take Dudley to task for his behavior towards the smaller and younger residents of Little Whinging is quickly forgotten when two Dementors appear and attack Harry and his cousin. Harry is forced to break the ban on the use of underage magic to defend himself and stop the Dementors from kissing his cousin. His self-defensive actions earns him an eviction from his uncle’s house and a notice from the Ministry of Magic informing him that he has been summarily expelled from Hogwarts and the wizarding world.

Dumbledore, Hogwart’s headmaster, manages to interfere with the Ministry of Magic downgrading Harry’s immediate expulsion to a hearing and with his Aunt Petunia with the reminder that she made a promise when she took Harry into her home as an infant. But Little Whinging is, clearly, no longer safe and Harry is quickly packed up and moved to 12 Grimmauld Place in London, the ancestral home of his godfather, Sirius Black, and new headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix where Hermione and Ron have been spending the summer.

Harry is eager to learn about the Order of the Phoenix, but he is still steaming that his friends have kept him in the dark all summer long and anxious about how his hearing before the Ministry will go. His anxiety turns out to be well founded: the Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, is still refusing to believe that Voldemort has returned, the Daily Prophet is engaged in a smear campaign to undermine everything Harry and Dumbledore say, and Harry’s explusion hearing is moved from a small department within in the Ministry to a full trail before the Wizengamot, wizarding Britain’s high court of law.

Dumbledore arrives to defend Harry before the Wizengamot and, while Fudge and several members of the court are disgruntled to do so, Harry is cleared all of charges and allowed to both keep his wand and return to Hogwarts for his fifth-year. After saying goodbye to his godfather and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, Harry arrives at Hogwarts for what will be the hardest year of school yet – only because of he will sit for the O.W.Ls examinations at year’s end but because Delores Umbridge, a member of the Wizengamot who voted against Harry and an obvious spy for the Ministry, has been given the Defense Against the Dark Arts post.

As the Ministry begins to exert control over Hogwarts through a series of decrees, Umbridge refuses to teach her students the application of the theories she insists they learn only through reading a textbook and launches a vicious campaign to punish Harry and his friends for believing that Voldemort has returned. Harry and his friends start a club called “Dumbledore’s Army” to practice defense against the Dark Arts, and Harry refuses to bend before Umbridge despite all her torturous detentions and lifetime bans on qudditch because he saw Voldemort return and continues to see Voldemort attacking people, including Ron’s father.

This book is the one that firmed up my unpopular opinion about the series: Albus Dumbledore is not the demi-god everyone makes him out to be. At the end of the book, he explains why he made the decisions he did and how he has come to regret those actions in the end. I won’t spoil them here, but I ended this book feeling like Dumbledore does not deserve the free pass so many people give him for the events in this novel (and for previous books). He condemned a child to an abusive home in the name of protecting him, condemned a child to losing the closest thing he had to family in the name of protecting his innocence (even after Harry saw Voldemort return), and condemned a child to live (at least) an entire year of his life in the ready access of Voldemort without explaining that to him in the name of protecting himself from Voldemort. Like Harry, I spent much of this book angry at Dumbledore; unlike Harry, I don’t so readily forgive.

Of course, I do loathe the character in this book we are supposed to hate – Delores Umbridge is the epitome of evil. Except, and this is probably one of the most important lessons of the book, she’s not on the same level of evil as Voldemort. Umbridge believes in the superiority of wizards over all others in both the wizarding and Muggle worlds and is quite pleased to exert power through her close relationship with Fudge, but she is not hell-bent on genocide the way Voldemort is and her particular brand of evil introduces shades of gray to the black and white view Harry had of his world in the first four years at Hogwarts.

We also see a similar lesson through Harry’s interactions with Severus Snape, a spy for the Order of the Phoenix and Harry’s dreaded potions teacher. Although Dumbledore continuously vouches for Snape, Harry and several other members of the Order, including Sirius Black, are still suspicious of his intentions and believe him to be evil incarnate. Neither Harry nor Snape are happy that Dumbledore instructs Snape to teach Harry Occlumency in order to protect the latter from Voldemort’s invasion of his mind, but the lessons allow Harry to see Snape’s worst memory – a moment in his own fifth-year when Harry’s father and Sirius mock and magically string Snape upside down and Snape calls Lily Evans (Harry’s mother) a ‘mudblood’ when she comes to his defense.

Instead of fixating on Snape’s offense against his mother, Harry is horrified to learn that his father (and his godfather, for that matter) was as vicious of a bully as Draco Malfoy and Harry’s cousin are. The knowledge unsettles Harry and, again, introduces shades of gray into Harry’s understanding of good versus evil.

And, of course, Harry starts to grow up in other ways – namely, his blossoming relationship with Cho Chang. I don’t remember feeling such disappointment about the handling of this relationship in previous readings of this novel. Maybe knowing the contents of the epilogue of the final book is coloring my perception? The relationship adds a tremendous amount of angst this novel seemingly for naught as several interesting paths for Harry’s development are shunned for a quick resolution to this relationship. Thankfully, we have Fred and George Weasley and Luna Lovegood, to an extent, to provide comedic relief amidst all this angst.

This book throttles back on the fast-paced adventure introduced in the previous books, and a strong story central to this book was sorely missed. I was surprised at how I had forgotten the end of this book yet managed to retain all the important background information, such as why Harry was marked with his lightning bolt scar instead of another boy born at the end of July and Snape’s story, introduced in this one. Maybe because so much of this background information becomes central to the stories of the next two books? Or, maybe because I was disappointed after three years of waiting for this novel that my brain decided to forget?

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Fiction – print. Scribner, 2014. 320 pgs. Library copy.

Eighty-five year old Addie Baum recounts her life story to her twenty-two year old granddaughter beginning as a teenager in 1915 and ending with her current affairs in 1985. The American-born daughter of poor, Jewish immigrants living in Boston’s North End, Addie’s desires to become an independent and educated woman are often spurned by her father and mother. The local Sunday club for young ladies offers Addie the opportunity to take classes in English and spend time with people her own age outside the city at Rockport Lodge, and the eventual marriage of a local shirtwaist factory owner to her older sister (and, later, her oldest sister) affords Addie a job and a means of economic escape.

One thought keep running through my head as I read this book: does any elderly person tell their life story in perfect chronological order without deviations? I once “interviewed” my grandfather for a class about when he learned about the Holocaust and, instead, we ended up a long discussion about how he met my grandmother, his time in Afghanistan, and, finally, his childhood living in the Dust Bowl. Not at all in order. Not at all an answer to my question. I doubt Addie’s perfect recollection and timeline would have bothered me as much as it did had the novel been written in third person, but the first person narrative perfect preservation of suspense as to who she marries and how she escapes her family’s tenement rung false with me.

The novel relies far too much on stereotypes and common archetypes – the aloof father who turns to religion after a painful loss, an immigrant mother who controls her daughters because she is afraid of all the differences between America and her homeland – to really stand out in my mind. Addie appears to chafe against the traditional expectations of her family longing for a more “American” experience, but even those problems are neatly wrapped up with the end of each chapter.

For a novel spanning several decades, I found it odd that major events in American and Boston history, including World War II and the Great Depression, are largely glossed over. Only the flu pandemic of 1918, which admittedly is often forgotten in historical fiction, leaves a lasting mark on this family, but even losses from that event barely linger in the family’s mind as the narrative quickly moves forward.

The reason why I stuck with the novel for so long was not because of a great affection for Addie, but because of my interest in her sister, Celia. The young woman appears to be mentally unstable yet her mother and father still marry her off to a man they don’t entirely approve of with tragic consequences.

Addie tries to link her sister’s suicide to her working as a child laborer in a sweatshop upon arrival in the United States and her eventual husband is a passionate advocate for child labor laws. But this connection is so subjective because Addie never works in a factory (other than as a secretary) so the reader never sees these conditions, never experiences the horrors she suspects her sister went through. There are other novels – the American Girls series for juvenile readers comes to mind – that do a far better job showing how awful child labor in the early twentieth century than this novel does.