A shelf of books, a drawer of socks,
a robe never worn and given away
unwashed dishes left for a ‘later’ never-come
and bills, always bills—for pills, for palls,
for flowers and for a last ditch’s efforts. Read more
From Baiae I write, Severus Tarentius,
to tell you things you must already know:
business is good; the weather is fine.
I have only just come from Rome,
bringing with me two new handmaids
for my dearest wife, Aurelia.
One is a Greek woman, a skilled hairdresser—
sold, I think, by our feckless Senate colleague
Syrianus, to pay his debts.
I recently beat the old goat at alea, by the way,
a victory decisive as Scipio’s at Carthage.
The other is a rather unfortunate figure,
a slave woman from deepest Germania,
driven, the trader told me, across the river
that divides our empire from their lands
by maurauding tribes out for loot and brides.
It disgusts me how
these Germanics fight among themselves.
Such suffering they cause for their own kind!
This new woman, like many others,
fled with her small child
into the arms of our legionaries
and the warm embrace of Rome.
The babe was wailing
while she was on the block.
She wailed too as we led her away.
It was really quite distasteful:
somehow, Rome’s din grew even worse.
And the smell, Severus,
I can smell it still here—like brimstone
against the salty stink of the bay
We have given her a bath.
She’ll be well taken care of now,
among civilized people.
I think I’ll call her Macaria,
for blessed is she.
What other news is there to tell…
I have met the new emperor
–long may he reign—
and I am not impressed.
Yet Caesar is always useful, though,
so long as we are useful to Him.
Gods, this table needs a new leg!
Perhaps Caesar can grant me one of those,
so I won’t be writing in the midst of a quake?
I am looking out across the bay
towards your home at Pompeii.
It is hot, but the mountain
looks so tranquil from here.
Such is the order of our lives, Severus:
empire without end,
baths and dinners,
immovable and unchanging
as Vesuvius’ peak.
-By Allison R. Shely, September 2018. All rights reserved.
Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist A Netflix Original, 2018
Directed by Trey Borzillieri and Barbara Schroeder
Written by Barbara Schroeder
A few months ago, I was searching for a documentary on a case I knew only as “the Pizza Bomber” and was surprised I could find nothing aside from some local news clips saying the mastermind had died in prison. Shortly, Evil Genius would come to fill the void.
The good and the bad of this series can both be summarized in one word: understatement.
The good of the filmmakers’ understatement is that allows the horror of the events to speak for itself.
In August 2003, pizza deliveryman Brian Wells died on live TV when a bomb strapped to his neck went off. He had claimed that he had been kidnapped at gunpoint and forced into a bomb-holding collar before being sent on a bank heist/hellish scavenger hunt. His body suffered further indignities in death; authorities decapitated him rather than risk damaging evidence: the collar that held the bomb.
This is all we know for sure, Evil Genius tells us, and it is horrible. While intriguing, the series cannot be called “entertaining” as much as “edifying.” This is an exploration of suffering and evil, and that alone. No glitz or unnecessary gore.
The understatement of the series also allows viewers to inhabit the uncertainties of the crime and the ambiguities of the suspects. The main question the series poses, without ever fully resolving to my satisfaction, is as to whether Mr. Wells was, as he claimed, kidnapped and forced to rob the bank. The alternative is that he was a double-crossed participant in a criminal ring headed by Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, a woman as brilliant as she was disturbed. The question as to whether Diehl-Armstrong, the titular “evil genius” was mad, bad, or some combination of both is another ambiguity that the four-part series explores.
The understatement and suggestion can bog down the series. With each episode clocking in at about forty-five minutes, the series felt twice as long. There is a lot of information to process. While the filmmakers to present all the evidence to preserve the ambiguity of the situation, the series would have benefited from some heavy-duty pruning.
3/5 stars: A good series hobbled by serious pacing issues. 2/5 ‘fraidy cats: Evil acts, but nothing that will creep up on you at night. 2/5 ick-factor: Unsparing description of postmortem mutilation and mistreatment
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
Written and Narrated by Lawrence Wright
Random House Audio 2006
16 Hours & 31 Minutes
Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is a book that political science professors will be assigning to freshmen for the next twenty years or more. When discussing my interest in counter-terrorism with a professor, my callow sophomore self off-handedly said “I’d like to write a book about the intelligence failures that led to 9/11.” His response was “That’s already been covered pretty thoroughly.”
Undoubtedly, my professor was referring to Wright’s comprehensive work, which is the closest you can come to reading the 9/11 Commission Report as a narrative.
This is a book I meant to get to for some time, listening to it in fits and starts since. I was finally spurred on by the release of a Hulu miniseries to finish the audiobook during my commute over the last month.
The enormous breadth and depth of The Looming Tower–spanning seventy years and covering everything from the nuances of Medieval Islamic philosophy to the geography of tiny Egyptian villages–becomes something of a liability when translated to an audio format. Read by the author, the text is read exactly as intended in an even, yet never boring, voice.
However, as the text covers dozens upon dozens of names, many with variable English spelling, I found myself wishing I had bought the physical book for future reference. Jumping from topic to topic and time to time, there is a disjointed, but not disorderly, quality to the book. Perhaps this is just a fault of perception in my visually-focused brain.
In a book this detailed, it is difficult to draw out favorite or most important moments, but I will try.
First: the importance of diversity, or even just an understanding of the world, in national security.
Before 9/11, the FBI had less than ten Arabic speakers. A particularly affecting moment is when Ali Soufan, then a young FBI agent, cracks the lone survivor of the Nairobi embassy bombers in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A practicing Muslim who was born in Lebanon, Soufan debates the failed suicide bomber in Arabic on the Quran and Islamic law, eventually forcing the bomber to admit he has murdered innocents, many of them fellow Muslims going about their daily lives.
The bomber then tells everything he knows about the structure and membership of Al Qaeda.
Second: if there was ever a title of deep meaning, it is this one.
On a cursory glance, the tower of the title refers to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Indeed it does. However, it is also a reference to a Quranic verse and Bin Laden’s perversion of it. In a video message to the nineteen hijackers, Bin Laden quoted this verse as an oblique reference to the specifics of the plot, ignoring its actual meaning.
The verse (4:78) reads, in Ahman Zaki Hammad’s wording, as:
Wherever you may be, death will overtake you at the pre-ordained time–even if you are in lofty towers.
And continues with:
Yet if any good comes to them, they say in their wavering hearts: This is from God! But if any harm strikes them, they say: This is from you, O Muhammad! Say to them: All things are decreed from God.
In the larger context of the passage, it is clear this refers to the limits of mortal life and God’s sovereignty over the universe. Jewish and Christian readers will find a similar sentiment expressed by Job, who acknowledges God’s control over all things even in adversity:
Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back again. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away: blessed be the name of the LORD! —Job 2:21
The verse from Surah Al-Nisa’ ends with an admonishment that could well be turned against fundamentalists of all faiths:
What is with these people that they can hardly understand any discourse?
Putting aside my very amateurish exegesis, the conclusion of The Looming Tower singles out one personal tragedy from all the horrors of the 9/11. It is the eerie coincidence of this one tragedy that sticks with me even more than Wright’s detailed research and strong prose. He seems to have provided some of the strongest evidence yet that there is a Providence to the world.
If not a benevolent Providence, at least, then, Fate with a bitter sense of irony.
3.5/5 stars: A very strong book in research and storytelling, but maybe not the best fit for an audio format.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: You know what’s going to happen and there’s nothing you can do about it, much like the law enforcement officials profiled in the book.
2/5 ick-factor: Despicable human beings of many flavors.
Conspiracy theorists, raving Islamophobes, and ISIS trolls will be summarily banned and digitally keelhauled.
Drinkwell Pagoda Fountain in Blue $70-$100 Major Pet Retailers
By Sassy “The Fluffer” Shely
Translated From Meowing by Allison Shely
A Crime of Dispassion
Her cries pierced the silence of that April morning.
“But why, Sassy?”
I watched from under the table, head cocked, not sure why knocking the water bowl for the fifth time that week had elicited so strong a response. Mother, wearing that ridiculous fluffy robe of hers, dropped to her knees, tearing at her hair.
“Mommy wants the security deposit back!”
I didn’t mean to make her cry. I really didn’t.
* * *
I’ll let you in and tell you something a little personal: I have kidney disease. The good news is that it’s manageable and seems to be just the consequence of a congenital deformity…or whatever long medical term the vet said it was. The vet, whom I visited a few weeks back, sent me away with a clean bill of health.
Along with a prescription diet (yuck!), the other part of my treatment is good hydration. So, I’m picky when it comes to my water bowls.
Mom started me off with one of those five-gallon jug things. When that got too beat up, she was foolish enough to replace it with a mere plastic bowl.
Over the Christmas break, I learned how to tilt the bowl against the edge of the boot pan mom uses as my feeding area–undignified as that may be–to get the last of the water before the petsitter returned the next day.
That’s when I discovered that tipping over the bowl is also great fun.
Hence, how I brought mother to her knees.
Enter the Drinkwell Pagoda fountain.
* * *
The main reason mom picked the Pagoda was for its heavy ceramic construction. On top of this, it holds up to half a gallon of water. I couldn’t knock it over even if I wanted to!
Mom also hoped that the steady trickle of water would keep me from knocking the fountain over for a fresher drink. It is also, I may add, quite amusing to watch, even if I was a bit scared at first.
As to how it works, and how it keeps me from “losing the security deposit” (whatever that means), it is worth the eighty-something dollars.
The major downside, at least as mom sees it, is that she has to take it apart weekly to clean it. There are enough little parts that, until about a week ago, she had to consult the manual every time. Not having thumbs, I am spared this drudgery.
Also bothersome is that the two different filters–a foam one for straining out debris and a charcoal one for taste and purity–are expensive and on a confusing replacement schedule. One has to be replaced every one to two weeks, the other every two to four. The filters, however, are “optional.” Mom left them out this week (because someone forgot to order them) and, so far, I have not suffered too greatly.
All in all, the Drinkwell Pagoda Fountain is one of the best things mom has ever bought for me. In gratitude, I will respect her significant investment in my hydration: I will no longer commit terrorist acts of spillage.
For the foreseeable future.
5/5 stars. Worth every penny as it keeps Sassy from ruining the carpet. Around her bowls, at least.
The makers of this product have not compensated me for this review in any way. The product was purchased on my initiative and with my own funds. The honest views expressed are truly mine (and the cat’s).
I’m not one much to talk about my personal issues on the internet, but since the events of the last six months have had a major impact on my (lack of) output for this blog, I think I owe you, and myself, an explanation.
There is a lot I can’t tell you, a lot of the details, to protect the privacy of the others involved.
Suffice to say, it involved a lot of death.
There was a brush with physical death, on Easter Monday, in a car accident.
There was a death of self, as this “adulthood” thing forced me to let go of old notions of who I am and who I want to be. This came about largely because of a death of faith, of faith in ideals and institutions that formed me.
There was the death of a friendship. I expected this one to be the worst of all, when I worried about it years ago, or in the last year as part of me, a part unacknowledged, suspected it was coming.
In all, it wasn’t so bad.
You see, the death card almost never means death, at least not physical death.
I don’t believe we can foretell the future, but as a writer I am very interested in the symbolism of the Tarot deck.
The death card of the Major Arcana gets a bad rap for being No. XIII and for being, well, about death, strangely enough. The card shows death, but only because death is necessary for rebirth.
I walked away from the accident unscathed. After five hours in the ER, waiting for the final confirmation that I had not hurt my head, I went home. There I found Sassy, a little confused about why I was late, and very upset that dinner was delayed.
In letting go of what I thought I was and wanted, I have moved forward. Now that school has been out for a few weeks, I have been focused on my first few freelancing assignments. That is the logistical reason for my long silence on this blog. I am excited to be a “real” writer now and a “professional,” in fulfillment of a dream I’ve had since I was four years old.
As for the end of the childhood friendship, I wish it had not gone down the way it did. I know people grow and change. If things had tapered off between us naturally, it would have been much easier to accept.
One of the hardest lessons about growing up is that doing everything right won’t protect you. One of the other hardest lessons is that your effort can’t make up for what someone else won’t put in. It hurt a lot at the time, and it hurts from time to time, but I find myself looking forward to the future.
I get asked why I like my “frightening” and “morbid” crime shows. As trite as it may sound: while you have to be careful not to only see the darkness, you cannot look away from death without ignoring life.
The death card is change. Time is change. Time marches on, trampling over kings like Death’s horse does on the card. Who am I to resist? What point is there in fear?
That said, I’m glad to still be here with all of you.
Dead Man’s Puzzle A Puzzle Lady Mystery
I tried so hard.
I tried so hard to say something nice about this book.
But I couldn’t.
It is one of the worst things I have subjected my reading eyes to.
One. Of. The. Worst.
Thank God I only bought it as part of a $5 bag of used paperbacks from Brookline Booksmith. (The Booksmith is awesome and in no way responsible for the poor quality of this book, by the way. Nor does the Booksmith in anyway sponsor or promote this blog).
I almost worry this review is going to get me sued.
I thought for sure this was a first-time novel of an artist whose work never again saw the light of day. I was surprised to learn the author has a wide following. The reasons for that escape me, but to each their own.
Let’s start with the premise of Dead Man’s Puzzle. A detective novel has to have a conceit, something quirky about its detective that makes him/her/them ‘unusual’ as a detective.
Cora Felton is a serial monogamist, recovering alcoholic, and sudoku expert who makes her living as the creator of a nationally syndicated crossword puzzle column.
As I am breaking into the series in the third book (and am breaking “out” of the series as soon as this review is done), I have no idea how this bizarre arrangement came about. I only know the fraud is perpetuated by Cora’s niece, the actual crossword constructor.
Needless to say, Cora is a spectacularly unsympathetic protagonist. I don’t need my heroes to be angels, but I do need some reason to like them. Cora’s relationships are poorly defined, even though numerous minor characters appear in useless subplots; her history and motivation are sketchy. Everything Mr. Hall does in describing her and presenting her internal monologues just makes me dislike her more.
The only time I had some sympathy for Cora was in a spare, brief paragraph describing her temptation to drink again, with the reasons for the urge (stress) and the reasons for her resistance (the shame she would feel in front of her niece) clearly outlined (246). It’s a very human moment for a character who otherwise comes across as a rather obnoxious wooden board.
The style of the writing is the thing that most makes me recoil from this book. The prose thinks it is so. darn. clever.
Consider the following, from an early chapter, which is right about where I stopped having hopes for the book. Notice the poor construction of that first sentence in particular. That medial comma is just bugging me.
“Cora got out of the car, faced a rather exasperated-looking Chief Harper. ‘All right,’ she said, ‘you got me.’
‘Didn’t you see me behind you?’
‘That was you?’
‘Yes, that was me. Why didn’t you stop?’
‘Why didn’t you use your siren?’
‘I don’t use the siren unless I’m making an arrest.’
‘You’re not arresting me?’
‘For whatever you’re not arresting me for.’
‘I’m not arresting you for anything.’
‘I guess that covers it.’ (14)”
Razor blades. Like razor blades to the mind’s eye, reading that. And it goes on like that for three-hundred pages.
It’s like a computer tried writing in the style of Jane Austen. While all the wordplay, all the sass that should make it funny is there, there is something dead about the execution that makes it fall more-than-flat. It also has very little to do in advancing the plot or readers’ understanding of the characters.
I had to force myself to pay the bare minimum of attention to each page. Even when I tried very hard to understand this book, I could not tell you what was going on.
The “story” (and I use that term loosely in describing the chain of events recorded on these cheaply printed pages) begins with Cora’s niece leaving on honeymoon, meaning Cora has to find other ways to perpetuate the fraud she commits on her devoted readers.And then a little old recluse gets murdered and leaves crossword puzzles of his own design as the only clues.And then all his poorly-characterized and largely unnamed relatives show up.
And then some…and….actually, I no longer care.
0/5 stars: Why is this even in print? I’ve read better fan fiction. 0/5 ‘fraidy cats: Fear and concern would presuppose emotional investment in this book, of which I have none.
1/5 ick-factor: Readers are subjected to superfluous descriptions of abysmal housekeeping.
Wish You Were Here Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown
Illustrations by Wendy Wray
Welcome to Bargain Bin Mysteries! In this new feature, I review paperback books that I have bought on the cheap to find you the best in bargain reading.
Today’s contestant is one I have meant to read for a while, and one I am glad to finally share with you. “Wish You Were Here” is the first of the “Mrs. Murphy Mystery” series, written by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie, her tabby.
Sassy is very pleased that I am representing other feline writers on this blog.
It has cats and it has postcards–two of my favorite things, as anyone who has been subjected to my onslaughts of cat pictures and paper correspondence knows.
Set near Charlottesville, Virginia, in the town of Crozet, the novel opens with postmistress Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen negotiating a divorce from Fair, the town’s veterinarian. Of course, this being a small town, it’s not only friends and family picking sides, but all of Harry’s customers as well.
Accompanied by Mrs. Murphy, a “gray tiger cat, who bears an uncanny resemblance to authoress Sneaky Pie and who is wonderfully intelligent!” (as reported in the cast of characters) and Tee Tucker, a Welsh corgi, Harry spends her days sorting mail and reading other people’s postcards on the sly.
This is how she first notices two of the town’s recently (and brutally) deceased residents received postcards with pictures of tombstones and the typewritten message “Wish You Were Here.” Harry goes on the hunt for murder, with Mrs. Murphy and Tucker running a simultaneous investigation and trying their best to protect their human.
Does your cat bring in brutally mangled mice? She may just be trying to show you where the murderer left the body.
While at first I thought the novel was a little slow–the first few chapters introduce half the town by having them walk into Harry’s postoffice–I grew to love it. There is a great deal of wit, delivered both by bipeds and quadrupeds. The chapters in which the animals talk amongst themselves, and try to make themselves understood to the clueless humans, are particularly delightful.
The plot quickens and is not overly complicated. Ms. Brown presents readers with a rare accomplishment: a mystery that they can solve, but only a few chapters before the heroine. The resolution is satisfying and surprising, but not forced.
Wish You Were Here is a loving, but not particularly thorough, critique of life in the South. A major subplot involves the wedding of the white mayor’s daughter, who has been banned by her parents from inviting her older brother because he is now married to a black woman. Brown admits that life is not peachy in Crozet, not for all of its residents, at least, but she does not set out to be Upton Sinclair. Commentary in the novel is not particularly preachy and always comes through the lens of a character’s mind.
I thoroughly enjoyed Wish You Were Here. When I found it in the used book cellar at Brookline Booksmith, I was able to also buy the third entry in the series. The second was not on the shelf last I checked, however.
I must find the second book, and fast.
4/5 stars: Charming, well-paced, and engaging. Great way to spend an afternoon. 1/5 ‘fraidy cats: Fairly tame, except for a scene of cruelty to a minor animal character that hurts more than any of the humans’ murders.
2/5 ick-factor: Brown leaves just enough to the imagination when describing her brutal murders. Think: cement grinder.