Listen to this: More true crime on the air

It's hard to do when you're caught up in a story but one fun way to listen to a true crime podcast is binge-listening. That requires you to wait until the entire season or series is posted before you start. But it means you can just listen to as much as you want without being stuck waiting for the next episode — and possibly trying to remember who the different characters are.

I recently did that with In The Dark, a podcast produced by American Public Media in Minnesota. It's about the abduction and murder of a young boy in 1989. It's not a whodunit so much as a why-the-hell-did-it-take-so-long-to-catch-the-guy. There is a lot — trust me, a lot — to be pissed off about in how this case was handled. But the approach is so even-tempered that you can work yourself up into outrage right alongside the host, without feeling like you're being manipulated into it (like the Geraldo model, one episode of which focused on this case). I will most definitely be signing up for whatever their next project is and am putting this on top of my true crime list, even ahead of those podcast stars at Serial. One thing I really appreciated: I never had to hear about how the host felt about the information she was uncovering, or her feelings about talking to people who had been victimized in various ways, from having their child go missing without an answer, to being molested as a kid, to having strangers call them at all hours to tell them THEIR feelings about the case — a useful reminder that people were capable of terrible behavior to strangers well before the Internet — to being publicly suspected of the crime when they were actually totally innocent. The focus was all on the story.

Cuba — it's complicated*

Graffiti on the wall at the top of the Bacardi tower in downtown Havana. Photo by Nancy Klingener.

Graffiti on the wall at the top of the Bacardi tower in downtown Havana. Photo by Nancy Klingener.

"Finally!"

That was my friend Vern's response when I told him I was going to Cuba.

He's right, of course. I've lived in South Florida since 1989, and in Key West — famously closer to Havana than Miami — since 1991. People I know travel to Cuba all the time. My husband had been twice, more than a decade ago.

It's not that I was anti-Cuba or uninterested. I'm interested in Cuba just because of the proximity and influence on our local culture. When I moved to Key West, one of my first stories was the restoration and re-opening of the San Carlos Institute. It's on the site where José Martí spoke and united the anti-Spanish exile factions. The current building served as a Cuban consulate - and in county property records, it's still owned by the Republic of Cuba. I've always loved doing stories on the long and (until the last six decades) close relationship between the islands. I've always been proud and a tiny bit smug that Key West had Cuban-American mayors, judges and state legislators almost a century before they started reaching those milestones in Miami. Cuban culture is part of the Conch culture DNA.

Still, in the time in which I have lived 90 miles from Havana, I have traveled to Fairbanks, Alaska, and Fort Kent, Maine. I've been to Germany, France, Italy and England. But I had never, until last month, gone to Cuba. In my defense, much of my vacation time has been spent either visiting family or going somewhere that's entirely different from where I live - we really like Europe in late November. It seemed kind of silly to use precious travel time and money going to a warm place with palm trees.

The cigar industry made Key West rich — and Cuban — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are a lot of beautiful images from the cigar labels of that era. This is one of my favorites. From the Dewolfe & Wood Collection of the Monroe County Public Library.

The cigar industry made Key West rich — and Cuban — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There are a lot of beautiful images from the cigar labels of that era. This is one of my favorites. From the Dewolfe & Wood Collection of the Monroe County Public Library.

I wasn't going to go to Cuba as a reporter. There are so many other journalists — at the Miami Herald, where I worked for my first 9 years here, and at my current employer, WLRN News — who know so much more about Cuba than I do. Who speak Spanish fluently. Who are willing and able to delve into the difficult, complicated land of reporting about Cuba. It just seemed like my efforts were better directed elsewhere.

And I wasn't all that tempted to sneak into the country as many people did until recently. I could probably have gotten a ride on a boat, but I get seasick very easily and I know the Straits are a notoriously bumpy ride. (If you think that sounds wimpy, maybe you've never been seasick.) And I just wasn't willing to go to the effort and expense of the fly-arounds of Mexico or the Bahamas.

Besides that, I was uncomfortable with the idea of going there just because the place was nearby, yet exotic. As soon as I moved to Miami and started working with and getting to know Cuban-Americans, I got that the story of this relationship is far more nuanced — and yes, complicated — than the shorthand many Anglos understand. Cuban exiles are cartoonishly portrayed in much of the country as hard-core right-wingers, but I've only met a couple of those. From what I saw, mostly of people my generation and younger, families were separated, and suffering. I covered the 1994 Rafter Crisis from this end, and I saw the desperate risks people were taking to leave. I still remember the notes covering the walls of the Transit Center where they first tried to cope with the increasing numbers of people making that journey, Ellis Island in a Stock Island storefront. Those notes had names of people whose relatives were trying to find them, hoping they had made it across safely. The perils of that crossing were re-emphasized just this week, when a boat carrying 23 people capsized. Only three survivors made it to shore here in the Keys.

You can 1) think that the embargo has been ineffective and 2) also understand that Cuba is not a lefty paradise for those who live there. I didn't want to go just to admire the picturesque old cars and decaying buildings. I definitely did not want to be the person who wanted to see Cuba "before it's ruined," as Natalie Morales brilliantly portrayed in this column. The educational and cultural tours that local nonprofits have been organizing for years were out of my price range.

I'll admit I found it frustrating that more recent arrivals, once they'd gotten their U.S. residency, were allowed to travel back and forth more easily than I could. I understand why it's so important for them to send back money and goods for their families, but it seems to conflict with that sacrosanct embargo, or at least the principle behind it. And of course there's the abuse of the Cuban Adjustment Act, detailed in this investigative series in the Sun-Sentinel. It's hard to watch that happen, when refugees from Haiti and Central America are being turned back, imprisoned and deported.

I've been an interested observer since President Obama announced the normalizing of relations in December, 2014 — and I've been covering some of the various reverberations. Will we get a ferry again in Key West? How could this affect the wet-foot, dry-foot immigration policy that was the result of the 1994 crisis? Could we return to the days when Key Westers go to Havana for the weekend, or a doctor's appointment, because it's easier than going to Miami?

The stars seemed to align when friends told us they were taking their family vacation to Cuba. They're British, so traveling to Cuba is much simpler for them. We like to meet up with them every couple of years in various places, from Florence to Boston — and this place was so close. So we made the reservations and made the trip.

Officially, our travel was educational — and that was no lie. I feel like I finally have some firsthand experience of Cuba even though I am far from understanding the place. How was Cuba, people have asked since we returned. "Really hot," is my first answer. I figured it would be no big deal since I live in South Florida, but the heat kicked my ass a couple times. I didn't quite realize how well we insulate ourselves with AC. But my next answer is: "really interesting." Surreal, in some ways, to see a place that is so close and yet so different from home. Really impressive, to see how people have coped with what are clearly challenging conditions. Beautiful, both in the grandeur of Havana that has withstood decades of neglect and in the countryside around Viñales. 

We stayed in casas particulares, as small guesthouses or rooms for rent in private homes are known. Even though I felt a bit envious when we were briefly in the elegant, air-conditioned lobby of a downtown hotel, I'm glad we did. We were in Centro Habana, a real neighborhood, and can only hope our stay was helping the families who hosted us and made us beautiful meals. I would like to return, though definitely not in the summer. The overall attitude was of genuine hospitality — not in the determined tourism-industry manner, but more in a hey, come check this out kind of way. Once you've made a personal connection, they deploy their network to help you out. 

When we returned one of the first things I did was sign up for Spanish class at the community college. I've been reading some Cuban fiction, crime fiction by Leonardo Padura and science fiction by Yoss. I look forward to returning, which I hope will be even easier now that regular commercial flights have started. And I look forward even more to a time when going over to Cuba will be no big deal. Like 100 years ago. I don't think I will ever fully understand Cuba. I feel like I'm just getting a handle on this three-by-five-mile island, 25 years in. But I'm OK with that. It's complicated.


* One of the highlights of our time in Havana was a tour of the Museum of Fine Arts. Our excellent guide took us through the galleries, which are arranged chronologically, roughly by decade. Each time we went into a new room she would say, "In the 1930s in Cuba, it was ... complicated." Or "In the 1970s in Cuba, it was ... complicated." Which of course it was, and still is. More than most places, from my perspective.

 

 

Note to self

Lately I've found myself making some snarky remarks on FB comment strings. And I *want* to make a lot more than I do.

This isn't usually my thing. I think these comment debates are largely pointless, have real potential for needless harm and my job as a journalist means I shouldn't be spewing my opinions all over the Internet anyway. Either you're arguing with a total stranger, or you're possibly fracturing a relationship with someone you may get along with perfectly fine otherwise. I value social media a lot, as a way to stay in touch with farflung family and friends, to read and share interesting articles I wouldn't otherwise have seen, to find out what's going on in my community. I like funny comment strings but I've never been tempted to use that as a venue for argument, except about important matters such as what will happen next on Game of Thrones.

But lately ...  I *want* to. I think this is the result of this bizarre and intense political season and our recent outbreak of publicized violence. I recently wound up making a snarky remark in response to a total stranger's comment on a friend's post. The post was about the recent shooting of Charles Kinsey, an unarmed therapist who was attempting to help an autistic man who had wandered out of the group home where Kinsey worked. Kinsey was lying on the street with his hands in the air when he was shot in the leg by a North Miami Police officer. That officer may have been aiming for the autistic man, who was holding a toy truck that may have been mistaken for a gun.

This is all very terrible in so many ways, except that at least Kinsey wasn't killed. One friend posted a story about it. Other people started commenting, adding that there were positive things going on in the world, you know. But "the media," those jerks, just like to post about the negative.

So I snapped, just a little. I've always been kind of annoyed and defensive when people gripe about "the media," as if there were some cohesive, organized collective that coordinates its actions with nefarious intent. The media is a vast, fractured cacophony, people, and in these digital and social media-dominated times you have more access and control than you ever have. (And yes, I realize that people in other professions - say, "the police," or "the government," probably feel just as annoyed when their entire, diverse, disorganized profession gets categorized and blamed for stuff. I swear I try to keep that in mind when I'm reporting, or making snarky social media commentary.)

But I was particularly annoyed in this case because I work for a South Florida news organization where my colleagues, led by the apparently tireless Nadege Green, have been covering the hell out of this story. And even though I work 150 miles away and have not been involved in the coverage, I know for a fact that they are not doing it because they enjoy inflicting negative feelings onto the world. Covering this story is not easy. It is not fun. I'm quite sure my colleagues would much rather be leaving work at a reasonable hour, spending time with their families and friends, working on stories about some more fun aspect of life in South Florida (and yeah, we do those - lots of them). But they're covering the hell out of this story because it matters. When an unarmed therapist lying on the street with his hands in the air gets shot, possibly because the cop was actually aiming at the unarmed autistic client sitting in the street with a toy truck - yeah. Maybe people should know about that. And think about how it happened, and how such things might be prevented in the future.

I didn't put all that in my snarky remark but that's what's been obsessing me ever since. If only I could yell at enough people, they would get it, right? The International Court of Facebook Commentary Justice would issue its ruling on my behalf! Which leads me to another point, which I think applies to the original commenter at whom I snarked - and to me. I totally get feeling overwhelmed and occasionally enraged by aforementioned media/social meda cacophony. It is overwhelming and occasionally enraging and your social media channel of choice (mine is Facebook) can be horribly addicting. So take responsibility and take a break. Walk away from the computer or phone. Read a book. Walk the dog. Watch something totally silly on TV. I recommend "30 Rock," "Arrested Development" and "Flight of the Conchords" - they all hold up to repeat viewings. Listen to a podcast, or an audiobook. When you are unhappy with what the media is posting, you are unhappy with your choices in media intake. You have the power to change that.

So now, I just need to take my own advice.

Here be dragons

I read a couple of Anne McCaffrey books as a kid, but I was never all that into dragons. I like them when they show up in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire — and especially in the HBO Game of Thrones adaptation — but that series is really about the people. Dragons are just a superweapon.

league of dragons

But in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, dragons are characters and that's the genius of the series. She just wrapped it up with League of Dragons, and she did it well. Fortunately there are nine books in all so if you're feeling bereft about the end of the series you can just start from the beginning again, with His Majesty's Dragon.

I can't really suggest these books for people who are jonesing for Game of Thrones between TV seasons or the much longer wait between books. The better comparison is with Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series — because both are set in the British service during the Napoleonic wars and have a friendship at heart that is the most important in both parties' lives. But Naomi Novik is obviously writing an alternative/fantastical version of history (there are dragons!). So you get fun twists you'll never find in straight-up historical fiction. Like: Some dragons only allow women to be their captains/companions. Napoleon ranges even farther afield — all the way to South America. And most importantly, our protagonists and the society as a whole are forced to wrestle with their treatment of the dragons, many of whom are more intelligent than most people. Temeraire is an exceptional dragon, to be sure, but he is expert at mathematics and speaks multiple languages. And all the dragons are sentient beings, even if they are too often treated like livestock — or convenient weapons.

Really, these books are best suited for anyone who has ever felt strongly connected to an animal, like a dog or a horse. The fantasy isn't so much that there are giant, flying reptiles but that your companion from another species could communicate with you directly — and both delight and exasperate you with his or her idiosyncrasies. Dragons, in Novik's world, are imprinted on the first human who harnesses them and will do everything in their considerable powers to protect that person. Many are intelligent, though they have a weakness for treasure, especially the shiny kind.

That consideration of how dragons should be treated within society as a whole is really the heart of this series, and what elevates it above just another fantasy ... with dragons. Though it may have inspired me to give Anne McCaffrey's books another look (it's been more than 30 years). And also to finish the Aubrey-Maturin series, which I have been drawing out for well over a decade now.

Read these, not that

Not this

If you must do this, do it on audio. Or better yet, wait for your local library to get the audiobook.

If you must do this, do it on audio. Or better yet, wait for your local library to get the audiobook.

Let’s get the negative out of the way: Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia. This is a serialized novel from the creator of Downton Abbey – I heard an NPR interview with him about it, I like historical fiction, I figured I’d give it a go. I also like to check out innovative or slightly different modes of storytelling – though the serial format is a bit of a throwback, too, it’s one that’s rarely seen anymore.

First, the app. It sucked. You had to sign in every time, it never remembered where you were, simply turning pages was far glitchier on the same device than it was in the Kindle or iBooks apps. You had to reload everything every time. New chapters didn’t appear until the day after they were promised. Overall, not pleasant.

Second, the content. I listened to the first (free) chapter on audio. Hiring the actress Juliet Stevenson to narrate the audiobook was the best decision anyone made regarding this enterprise. I liked it enough, and was feeling supportive enough about the whole idea, that I invested $14 to get the rest of the book, delivered in weekly installments.

I started reading the next few chapters and …  see page-turning glitchiness complaints, above. Also, it soon became clear that while Fellowes may be a supremely talented creator of high-end soap operas, he’s not a great writer, even in the context of historical romance. I read enough of those to know. This wasn’t, strictly, a romance — I’d call it more of a melodrama. But it was insanely predictable and two-dimensional even by those standards.

Which made me very surprised to read in Entertainment Weekly an interview about his latest project, Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne (for future reference: avoid projects where the creator’s name appears in the title). Fellowes said this: “Trollope is one of my favorite writers of all time. His emotional position is very similar to my own in that nobody is all good or all bad.”

And my immediate reaction was, what the hell are you talking about? Your villains are so bad they practically twirl their mustaches and the good guys are so good you almost want to smack them. I was glad when I saw that the good critics at Slate had also noted this odd contradiction, as Laura Miller wrote Fellowes “professes to love Trollope and to value the “moral complexity” of his characters, then proceeds to strip all such complexity out of their portrayal.” (She credits the TV critic Willa Paskin though Paskin’s review is kinder toward the TV show than Miller’s — enough that I might give it a try since we have Amazon Prime anyway and I’m curious to see Fellowes-as-Hitchcock. Or maybe I should just, you know, read Trollope.)

I went back to listening to the chapters on audio and found the experience improved considerably – thanks, Juliet Stevenson! Maybe Fellowes just writes better for dramatic presentation than old-fashioned reading anyway. Plus no more glitchy page turning. There’s nothing that makes you feel stupider than repeatedly swiping and tapping your iPad so you can read the next page of a book you don’t like that much that you paid real money for. Was it a waste of time? Kind of, though once I’d plunked down that $14 I was going to see this melodrama through to the melodramatic finale. I think that’s what I’m most annoyed about – if I’d gotten this book from the library or even paid a dollar or two on the Kindle, I would be OK with it. But $14 is real money, bookwise, and I feel like I fell for a British-accented, elaborately costumed scam.

And I didn’t even watch Downton Abbey.

These!

Worth the wait, and the length.

Worth the wait, and the length.

Enough with the negative. Let’s move on to gushing about highly hyped entertainment reading that delivered on its hype: The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin. This is the third in the dystopian trilogy that started with  back in 2010. I was working at the library then and jumped on the train. Loved the first book, liked the second enough to get through it all (these books are loooooong) and I was damned sure going to finish the last.

It had been awhile (four years!) since The Twelve, though, so I was a little worried about what I remembered about the plot. And it’s not like you’re going to plow through a thousand-plus pages AGAIN to refresh yourself. So I used the same method I do on the rare occasions that George R.R. Martin produces a book – I read the plot summaries of previous installments on Wikipedia. Plus, Cronin used a future-history-of-the-chronicled-events plot device that reminded me of the events of book 2. And we were off.

I loved it. I spent the entire weekend wallowing around in that book – not rushing through, though it was a page-turner, not savoring though I was perfectly happy hanging out in that world. It wasn’t one of those giant tomes where you’re like, “This thing could easily lose a couple hundred pages and no one would notice.” The extended backstory was interesting and a fun return to the 1990s — and a refreshing break from the dystopic present of the novels. I liked it at least as much as the first novel and much better than the second. So I was very grateful to my local library for buying several copies and wish I could take that $14 back from Julian Fellowes and give it to Justin Cronin.

All the Austen essentials, delightfully updated.

All the Austen essentials, delightfully updated.

My local library was also kind enough to supply a copy of Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. This update of Pride and Prejudice (should that be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?) got a rave in the New York Times Book Review so I figured I’d like it. And I liked the earlier installment I’d read in this series of contemporary Austen updates. It was also the perfect antidote – or remedy is maybe a better word — to my City of Mirrors book hangover. It’s not like I wanted to live in Justin Cronin’s created world — but I had been so intensely immersed in it that it was hard to focus on minor things like my life and my job. Eligible is a frothy social comedy in the best sense – and it was just so much fun to both learn about these new versions of Bennets and Bingleys and Darcys – as well as watch them reach the happy endings I knew were in store. My only complaint about Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense & Sensibility were that I felt she did some contortions to fit the plot into the 21st century. Sittenfeld’s use of a Bachelor-like reality show (the titular “Eligible”) was brilliant.

I loved how she adapted and changed the characters’ roles and ages but managed to hold onto the essentials – Liz is smart but sometimes a little too sharp, Darcy is uptight but honorable, Jasper Wick (ie Wickham) is a charming douchebag, Mrs. Bennett is pretty awful but hey, she’s your mom and Mr. Bennett is smart and funny but disastrously disengaged. Though my favorite change might be the most radical — Kathy DeBourgh as a formidable Gloria Steinem-like feminist icon.

I did gallop through this one – really, really short chapters made me feel like I was supposed to be doing that – but I was happy to do so. And immediately went to the library and got the two Austen updates I hadn’t read yet, Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. I really can’t wait to see who gets Persuasion.

Just because.

Just because.

In review

So … five stars to Justin Cronin, Curtis Sittenfeld, their editors and publishers and of course my local library.

Two stars to Julian Fellowes – mostly for trying something a little bit out of the norm. Stick to screenwriting, dude, and next time hire a much better app developer. Though I will check out Downton Abbey one of these years.