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Update  July, 2019

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Book Review

‘Last Witnesses’ offers children’s memories of WWII

Douglass K. Daniel

Does anyone suffer more in wartime than a child? All they know is at risk — parents, siblings, neighbors, homes, schools, even pets. All too soon they learn of hunger, death and inhumanity. Those who survive carry scars on their flesh and their minds — and they have stories to tell, if they can bear it.

“I want to forget,” says Liuba Alexandrovich, who was just 11 when she watched German soldiers shoot every third person in her tiny Soviet village, a reprisal for providing support to partisans opposing Hitler’s forces after their 1941 invasion. Later the soldiers gathered those whose children had joined the partisans and beheaded them. She says, “I want to forget it all.”

Belarusian writer and journalist Svetlana Alexievich believes such moments must be remembered and gives scores of Soviets an opportunity to tell their stories. Her engrossing book “Last Witnesses” first appeared in 1985, but its English translation is new, the third of Alexievich’s books to come from Random House since she won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015. Readers of the late American writer Studs Terkel, the most celebrated oral historian in the U.S., will recognize the simple but powerful prose that comes from recording ordinary people’s memories.

More than 100 people speak in “Last Witnesses” and many recall similar horrors — planes and falling bombs interrupting playtime, soldiers burning villages and their inhabitants, people fleeing into forests, children burying parents in frigid ground, young ones eating grass or garbage or the family cat to survive.

There are hopeful stories, too, serving as streaks of light in the darkness. Some people recall acts of kindness, such as a single woman telling two young orphans wandering the countryside, “You’ll be my children now.” Or a farm family taking in a Jewish girl in spite of fear of discovery and certain death.

Except for occasional footnotes for context, Alexievich lets these children of war speak for themselves. One wonders why they would willingly revisit such times. Some, like Oleg Boldyreve, who was 10 when he went to work with his father in a bomb factory, weren’t sure they wanted to. “What’s better — to remember or to forget?” he asked. “Maybe it’s better to keep quiet? For many years I tried to forget.”

For Nadia Gorbacheva, who was 7 when the horrors began, the answer was simple: “I remember war in order to figure it out. Otherwise why do it?” (AP)

A rich mystery awaits in S.J. Rozan's 'Paper Son'

 Oline H. Cogdill

S.J. Rozan's affinity for little known facts about Chinese culture has fueled exciting thrillers featuring private detectives Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. Memorable plots include a Jewish settlement in China comprised of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany ("The Shanghai Moon"), political art ("Ghost Hero") and restaurant workers' union ("A Bitter Feast").

In the outstanding "Paper Son," Rozan uses the history of Chinese immigrants who established regular grocery stores serving predominantly black neighborhoods in the Mississippi Delta during the early 20th century to sculpt a story about family, culture, prejudice and community. These businesses took hold because the Chinese laborers' jobs building the railroads dried up and white grocers who would not sell to black residents.

Lydia, a Chinese American who lives with her traditional mother in New York's Chinatown, had never heard of Chinese grocers nor did she know that she had relatives living in Mississippi until a tragedy happens. Her 23-year-old cousin, Jefferson Tam, has been arrested for the murder of his grocer father, Leland. Despite the strong evidence, Lydia's mother refuses to believe any relative — no matter how distant — could be a murderer. She wants Lydia and Bill to go to Clarksdale, Mississippi, to prove Jefferson's innocence. That alone is a revelation since Lydia's mother has never approved of her profession and has even less regard for Bill, who is white.

With Jefferson's uncle, Capt. Pete Tam, as their guide, Lydia and Bill maneuver through the morass of bigotry and an economically depressed community overwhelmed with drugs. Although the Tams have lived in Clarksdale for generations, the family still is disconnected from the rest of the town. However, those family members who moved away to larger cities have a different experience, including Reynold Tam, whose father married a white woman and who is running for governor of Mississippi.

Chinese families are complicated, as Lydia explains to Bill. While these people are distant relatives, they are still family. Adding to the tangled family tree are those men who are "paper sons" — immigrants who convinced naturalized Chinese Americans to file papers identifying them as a son. In some cases, these "sons" had never met their "fathers." A bit of money helped.

Lydia and Bill were last seen in 2011's "Ghost Hero," but Rozan's intricate plotting and affinity for characterization is seamless, making the reader remember how much we missed spending time with these private detectives. Rozan uses the historical footnote of Chinese grocers as a springboard for a rich, deeply satisfying mystery.


Barron's 'Black Mountain' stars his ex-mob enforcer

Bruce Desilva

Like a lyricist, Laird Barron excels at manipulating the tones and cadence of language. Like a Gothic novelist, the mood he creates is often bleak.

"You don't teach a child to become a killer by rote lectures," he writes. "To create a predatory machine, you foster an appreciation of the natural world and our minuteness upon its canvass... We are as nothing and that permits us to do anything."

It comes as no surprise, then, that Barron wrote both poetry and horror before turning to crime fiction with 2018's "Blood Standard," a novel that introduced former mob enforcer Isaiah Coleridge. At the start of that violent book, Coleridge appeared to be a predatory machine; but, by its conclusion, he vowed that from then on he would kill only those who have it coming.

Barron's new novel, "Black Mountain," finds Coleridge working as a private investigator in the Catskills mountains of upstate New York. There, the local mob boss hires him to find out who brutally killed two organized crime strong arms_and why.

As Coleridge digs into the case, he learns that many other victims, mostly derelicts and prostitutes, have been murdered in a similar fashion. Soon, his suspicions focus on another retired hitman, a mysterious psychopath known as the Croatoan, the name of a Native American tribe to which he may or may not be related.

But the case proves to be far from straightforward. The Croatoan would be an old man now. Is he even still alive? Could he be killing with the help of an assistant? Could the murders be the work of a copycat? Before long, it gets murkier with tendrils leading to a beautiful woman from a powerful family, her unscrupulous father, a team of mercenaries, a multinational corporation, and a government cover up.

When he manages to sleep, Coleridge is terrorized by a black wolf in dream sequences that are evocative of early Stephen King. But unlike Barron's first novel, most of the violent action occurs off stage.(AP)


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

‘Last Witnesses’ offers children’s memories of WWII

A rich mystery awaits in S.J. Rozan's 'Paper Son'

Barron's 'Black Mountain' stars his ex-mob enforcer