Recent Acquistions

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Bartlett

The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome by Christopher Kelly

Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI and the Devil's Deal by Dick Lehr

The Birthing House by Christopher Ransom

The First Family by Mike Dash

Upstairs, Downstairs and the Summer House

More Barbara Vine than Elizabeth George with Whatwasdone and Whydoneit being as important as whodunit. This book has a surprising number of passive characters - people who let tradition, circumstance and the will of others determine their fates.

As is often the case, there are several instances of 21st century opinions being voiced by characters from previous centuries. Morton does an admirable job of recreating the "downstairs" world of the servants in a great house although at times it feels slightly cribbed from Upstairs/Downstairs. The narrative is nonlinear, with flashbacks, dictated memories and letters recreating the story of what happened at the house at Riverton one night in 1924.

Grace is a refreshing lead character, starting out in life believing she is fortunate to enter "service" (being a servant in a grand house) only to later grasp the chance to become truly her own woman. Her doppelganger of sorts, Hannah, is more frustrated and frustrating. I couldn't quite make out whether Morton was presenting Hannah as a woman trying to break free of convention or as a woman who never fully matures finding make believe games and secret codes more compelling than real life. Perhaps Morton was trying for both.

Whatever the case this is an entertaining tale, decently written and in Grace, a character whose choices I found myself pondering after I'd finished the book.

Catching Up

Why do work and my family insist upon taking up time which could be more happily spent reading or at least writing about reading? There are worse things than a relative who wants to let you know that Valerie Bertinelli used to be a drug addict or dealing with Delta Airlines but in the same week?

It doesn't help matters that I'm currently reading Shake the Devil Off by Ethan Brown which is depressing AND preachy, and Postwar by Tony Judt which is panoramically informative but with three straight chapters of Stalinism. And as I type this I'm being subjected to Bob Dylan singing "John Wesley Harding." A man who murders then cooks his girlfriend, the ruthless oppression of millions and Bob Dylan's nasal vocal stylings. Death, where is thy sting?

I need to read something purely and nonviolently entertaining. And bring my headphones to Starbucks.

Barn Flamer

Having trouble imagining the words "Amish man", "murderous parent", "gay stud muffin" and "whacko" in the same sentence? What about in the same sentence used to describe one man? To quote Dewey Cox: "How's your mind? Blown?" Well, it should be.

Eli Stutzman - Amish farmer, race horse trainer, thief, drug addict, staggeringly promiscuous gay man, horrible husband, lousy date, despicable house guest and the worse father ever - is nothing is not a modern day renaissance man. Name two things that don't belong together and they can probably both be used to describe Eli. This book tells two stories simultaneously. One is about Little Boy Blue, a young boy who's corpse is found in a ditch on Christmas Eve. The other is about the boy's father, Eli, who left the boy in the ditch. On the one hand we have people of conviction and dedication who seek to do right by a boy they never knew in life. On the other hand, we have Eli.

One might expect to feel a bit of sympathy or at least pity for a young man who comes to understand that he is something that his society can never accept or acknowledge. It can't be easy to be gay and Amish. It's not an easy society to understand either. The low Amish don't allow electricity or buttons, but they let the young sow their wild oats during "rumspringa" and forbid kissing but allowing "bundling", aka, sleeping together fully clothed. Girls who allow favors too freely are known to bundle "too hard." Eli consorts with a few hard bundling gals before settling down with a nice Amish girl who, wouldn't you know it?, up and dies during a barn fire. The neighbors help Eli raise a new barn after which Eli promptly gets up to activities in the barn that aren't on the floor plan. You'll never look at a barn the same way after hearing about a few of Eli's drug and sex barn parties. Barn burners, indeed. Eli leaves the Amish community and embarks on a series of relationships made possible by the 1970s equivalent of Craig's List, The Advocate. The best part of Eli's schtick is that he keeps his Amish clothes for costume parties. Apparently broad brims are quite the turn on in certain circles. More than once while reading this book I found myself humming Weird Al's "Amish Paradise" - yes, even Ezekiel would have thought Eli's mind was gone. The law catches up with Eli but he doesn't get what he deserves. Not surprising since what he deserves involves being burned alive in his own barn.

Few writers could tell a story that encompassed the restrictive lives of the "low" Amish, the gay scene of the late 1970s and the police investigation into the death of a child without giving into hyperbole or cliches. Gregg Olsen is that rare writer who can not only avoid those pitfalls he can deliver an entertaining book.Whether he's writing about white trash, Munchhausen by proxy or Amish Boys Gone Wild, Olsen writes about his subjects and their beliefs with genuine compassion and respect. Olsen may pass judgement but he never looks down on his subjects. His talent and his integrity make Olsen's books a must for the library of every series True Crime fan.