The Odds Against Me

The Book of the Week is “The Odds Against Me” by John Scarne, published in 1966.

This is the autobiography of a man passionate about gambling. Starting in elementary school, he exhibited an incredible talent for calculating figures in his head. As a teenager, Scarne gravitated toward performing magic tricks, and gambling. He developed expertise at manipulating playing cards. His parents were less than thrilled, as they wanted him to choose a noble profession.

Eventually, Scarne made a career of assisting law enforcement with identifying rigged games in casinos. In his book, he described a sting operation against a croupier who was using a magnetized roulette ball, and other dishonest behind-the-scenes goings-on in games of chance.

The Red Parts

The Book of the Week is “The Red Parts” by Maggie Nelson, published in 2007. In this eloquently written book, the author writes about the murder of her aunt, that occurred years before she herself was born. New DNA evidence prompted law enforcement to re-open its investigation of the cold case. The crime had been committed around the same time as other murders committed by a serial killer at the University of Michigan, where her aunt was a student. The author attended the case’s later court proceedings in connection therewith, and reports on the outcome. She also provides autobiographical details about her family members and their quirky irreverence, and herself and her own relationships.

The Case of Joe Hill

The Book of the Week is “The Case of Joe Hill” by Philip S. Foner, published in 1965.  This is the story of the grave injustice perpetrated against Joseph Hillstrom (“Joe Hill” was the American-English translation).

In the early 1900’s, American managers of industry had politicians on their side and violent opposition to unions was commonplace. In 1914, the Swedish-American was wrongly accused of murder, and because he was a member of a vilified socialist labor organization, “International Workers of the World,” local authority figures (and possibly the Mormon Church) in Utah– where his trial was held– conspired to convict him.

He was a well-known, prolific writer of socialist songs. Despite the legal funds and political support from solidarity-minded labor groups around the world (support that included an urgent appeal to President Woodrow Wilson), the trial ended badly for him.

This account is reminiscent of the book, “Big Trouble” by J. Anthony Lukas, published in 1997, a 1905 case in which two union activists were wrongly accused of murder and denied due process, too.

Our Little Secret

The Book of the Week is “Our Little Secret” by Kevin Flynn and Rebecca Lavoie, published in 2010.  This is a true murder story that took a long time to unfold, and the secret was not very little. The crime was committed in November 1985 in Hooksett, New Hampshire by a high schooler, Eric Windhurst, acting on behalf of another, Melanie Paquette.

Many friends and family members of both the victim, Danny Paquette, and the shooter had reasons for not telling law enforcement all they knew about the incident.  Some would argue there were many victims in the case, just a few of whom included Danny’s brother, Victor, Danny’s ex-wife, Denise, his stepdaughter– the aforementioned Melanie, and Eric’s half-sister, Lisa Brown.  If the reader skips the back-cover blurb, the very first page, prologue and the pages of photos of this book, he or she ought to enjoy a well-researched, suspenseful saga of abuse, anger, fear, regret and finally, resolution.

Walking After Midnight

The Book of the Week is “Walking After Midnight” by Katy Hutchison, published in 2006.  This book tells the suspenseful story of how a woman channeled her grief over her husband’s death into a public service.  Her twin daughter and son were four years old at the time.  Eventually, she turned the tragedy that had befallen her family into a potentially life-saving endeavor.   She began lecturing teens on alcohol-related behavior; the kind that led to the situation that killed her husband on New Year’s Eve (no, it was not drunk driving).  Read the book to learn the details of this inspiring story.

Safe Harbor, A Murder in Nantucket

The Book of the Week is “Safe Harbor, A Murder in Nantucket” by Brian McDonald, published in 2006.

This is the story of Thomas Toolan III’s murder of Elizabeth (“Beth”) Lochtefeld in October of 2004.

The killer (Tom) had been an alcoholic since high school.  Before his relationship with Beth, he had had a few other relationships with women in which he was a jealous, abusive liar.  He had worked in the past at an investment bank for a very few years. His parents had bailed him out, every time he got into trouble.

The victim (Beth) had been a workaholic expediter– a party that facilitates the paperwork required to do construction in New York. At 44 years old, she was still looking for a lifelong mate. It was unclear why she couldn’t find a permanent significant other– she was pretty, fit, brainy, well-traveled, very social, and wealthy.

Read the book to get to know the characters better, and learn the details of the murder.

Everything is Broken

The Book of the Week is “Everything is Broken” by Emma Larkin (an alias), published in 2010.  This book discusses the actions of the oppressive regime of Burma (aka Myanmar) with respect to Cyclone Nargis, which hit on May 2, 2008.

In addition to describing the nation’s violent history, the author also delves into the religious side of Burma, which includes an active monastic community.  Such community ended up on the losing side of an ugly dispute with soldiers in the summer of 2007.  There had also been a famous 1988 student uprising, which resulted in imprisonment of the dissidents.

Well over 100,000 people died in Cyclone Nargis, which did devastating damage to the Irrawaddy Delta.  Many lives could have been saved had the Burmese government– run by military generals and one general in particular– for almost a week, not refused disaster-relief workers entry into the country. The government also barred the media from the affected areas, blockading road and river access.

Human corpses and cattle clogged the waterways.  The one and only newspaper (a propaganda font) distributed in Burma, reported that people were eating fish and frogs they caught in the rivers, because they were not receiving foodstuffs from aid workers.  A famous comedian who publicly contradicted this account was summarily arrested and imprisoned, in accordance with the government’s practice of draconian censorship.

Although Burma has drawn harsh criticism from international civil rights groups, the generals do not care because their land contains precious minerals, teak and most luckily of all, natural gas and oil deposits.  Other countries of the world such as France, the U.S., Thailand and China are still eager to do business with it.

The author writes of the Burmese authorities, “The facts were already bloated with hindsight, overblown by rumor and sound bites from the more sensational elements of the international media and activist groups, and underplayed by the regime’s own meticulously archived propaganda machine.”  People in developed nations might feel this quote depicts their situation on a local level, even given the standard of living and freer political climate in their communities.

Nevertheless, there is a slight difference between this very common tale in third-world countries– oppressive military governments ruthlessly let people die in natural disasters, or persecute citizens at the slightest provocation; developed countries’ governments might impose education reforms that worsen conditions, or violate the civil rights of a particular group of people so that they lose their livelihoods, but violence and murder are extremely rare.

A book like this allows a reader to put things in perspective, and feel grateful that he or she does not live in Burma.