As I was browsing the library’s list of new materials for March, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa by Michael Finkel caught my attention.

The summary begins “In February 2002, a reporter in Oregon contacts New York Times Magazine writer Michael Finkel with a startling piece of news: a young, highly intelligent man named Christian Longo, on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for killing his entire family, has recently been captured in Mexico, where he’d taken on a new identity–Michael Finkel’s.”.

I was intrigued. How does someone react to the news that a fugitive on the Ten Most Wanted list is impersonating them? Finkel’s reaction was flattered (a little), curious, and relief for the distraction.

Finkel had just become an ex-writer for the New York Times Magazine and was awaiting the vilification he’d receive when the announcement was made. He created a character from people he interviewed for an investigative piece on cocoa plantations and child slavery. Finkel used the name of one of the interviewees, Youssouf Male, just not his story and got caught.

After the story of his deception and firing had played itself out Finkel reached out to Christian Longo, asking for a chance to talk. A month later Longo called.

Thus began a years long relationship between Finkel and Longo. With Longo incarcerated their communications were by letter, weekly phone calls, and rare face to face meetings separated by a wall of glass.

Finkel knew that having an exclusive on Chris Longo’s story might save his career. What he didn’t know was that getting to know Longo would force him to examine his own character and the choices he’d made.

This book is a mix of true crime, biography and confession/apology. The narrative switches back and forth between Longo and Finkel. Finkel’s part begins with the assignment to write the cocoa plantations piece.

The story was a hot topic and many news agencies were in West Africa covering it. But as Finkel delved deeper he discovered the issue was not slavery but extreme poverty. Children came willingly to work because as bad as it was on the plantations it was better than home.

After 3 weeks he came home with a different story than what was assigned. His editor approved the new storyline but wanted a human interest angle. He needed to tell the story through one character. Finkel agreed to do the story without admitting that he hadn’t conducted the interview needed to write the story through one person.

Longo’s tale begins in Oregon with the discovery of the bodies of his son, 5-year-old Zachery, and daughter, 3 ½-year-old Sadie. The bodies of his wife, MaryJane, and 2-year-old daughter Madison were found a few days later. By the time the bodies were discovered and identified Chris Longo had fled to San Francisco and from there to Mexico.

In Mexico, Christian Longo became Michael Finkel, reporter for the New York Times. He made no attempt to hide other than the name change and was friendly with fellow tourists. He was memorable to many including a Canadian tourist who, on the day that he was placed on the FBI’s wanted list, reported seeing him in Cancun. Two days later he was arrested and returned to Oregon to be tried on 4 counts of murder.

Many of the details about Longo’s movements after the murders and his time in Mexico are provided by him. He wrote and sent to Finkel thousands of pages about his life before and after the deaths of his wife and children.

Finkel came to like Chris Longo even as he was using him to get a story. And Longo was using Finkel – to see how his story was received and to refine the parts Finkel questioned. Longo, Finkel realized, was a good liar and he saw some of himself in Longo.

This is an intriguing and disturbing tale. Finkel makes Chris Longo come alive and he is unsparing about both of their failures. As the story moves through Longo’s life and the murder trial I was reminded why I usually avoid true crime books. I prefer to read about murder as fiction not fact. I sleep better at night.

It’s spring! Really, it is. Some days even seem like it. In springtime many of us think of gardening, so, come snow or sleet or whatever, it’s time to get into those gardening books and see what improvements can be made to our yards (or decks or patios if that’s all you’ve got).

One challenge many of us face is trying to come up with pleasing combinations of plants. Mixing colors, sizes and textures can be daunting for some, me included. With that in mind, let me offer “The Encyclopedia of Planting Combinations: Over 4,000 color and planting schemes” by Tony Lord and Andrew Lawson. It was originally published in Britain, but the hardiness zones are the same wherever you go, and they have revised the American publication to list feet and inches before the metric measurements.

The first section gives a very detailed explanation of the legends for each listing, which include excellent photos of each plant, including most in combinations with suggested companions. Other information given (and explained) are notations of Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit recipients, the height and spread of the plant, soil conditions needed, hardiness zones, bloom time, pH requirements, water preferences and a very nice graphic representation showing what light ranges are acceptable, as well as what light levels work best for each plant.

The next section provides information on the whys and wherefores of combinations, and the next covers different planting styles (bedding, border, herbaceous border, mixed border, woodland, exotic, meadow, naturalistic, country, cottage, grasses, Mediterranean and minimalist) as the authors think of them.

After that, we come to the heart of the matter—plants. The first section deals with shrubs and small trees. So, if you have a forsythia and would like to know what to plant alongside it, you might choose an Oregon grape holly for the contrasting foliage or an early flowering clematis like clematis armandii that can be draped over the forsythia for a lovely white and yellow flowering display.

Climbers appear next, and if you’ve ever tried to figure out what to plant with a clematis or ivy, you’ve come to the right place. For something quick, grown as annuals here, a planting of Crimson Rambler (or other red morning glory) with yellow canary creeper creates a very bright and cheerful display. Various companions for different kinds of honeysuckle make for some very attractive displays as well.

Got roses? The next section gives many combinations for ramblers and climbers as well as old shrub roses and modern shrub roses and even hybrid teas and floribundas. A really lovely combination here is a Rosa Pink Bells groundcover rose planted with a white musk mallow and a lavender-blue peach-leaved bellflower for a very attractive pastel mix.

Perennials come next, so if you’d like to know what to combine with your hostas, look no further. Something to go with your iris? It’s here. Got bulbs? That’s the next chapter, so if you like the look of alliums but can’t figure out what on earth would go with them, here are some suggestions.

Finally, for those who don’t have a lot of space or money or just want something simple, there are the annual combinations. Purple Swan River daisies and white sweet alyssum make a very nice display, and there’s a fabulous mix of white cleome (spider flower), verbena bonariensis and pink cosmos that I believe I might try!

This book is an excellent addition to our already terrific (if I do say so myself) collection of books and magazines on gardening, even a smattering of DVDs, as well as some books to help get children started on a lifetime of gardening. So, whether you’re a beginning gardener or more advanced, interested in flowers, shrubs, trees, perennials or vegetables, we have gardening information for you, even if you’re just an armchair gardener. Come have a look!

Will Trent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has gone undercover as “Bill Black,” a small-time but frightening ex-con. Will, as “Bill Black,” is attempting to penetrate a drug ring and discover the identity of crime boss“Big Whitey.” During the course of his investigation, he comes across some evil people who commit atrocious crimes.

Recently, Detective Lena Adams of the Macon County, Ga., Police Department led a raid on a drug house in hopes of capturing “Big Whitey’s” contacts, or even Big Whitey himself, but the raid went horribly wrong and some young women were kidnapped.

Motorcycle-riding tough guy “Bill Black” (Will Trent) has managed to gain the confidence of some members of the drug organization. Bill Black, employed as the lookout at the scene of a home invasion, interrupted an incredibly brutal and graphic planned hit on Lena and her husband, Jared. Bill (Will) was unaware that it was Jared and Lena’s home until he came to their rescue.

Lena immediately goes into cop mode when Jared is shot.  Jared has been working on their home and a hammer is the closest weapon at hand, so Lena uses it to defend Jared and herself from two men who are determined to kill them both.  Lena kills one of the men but Will stops her from killing the second man.

Jared is badly hurt and taken to the Macon County Hospital. Only a few days earlier the couple was looking forward to having a baby, but Lena had a miscarriage. Instead of bringing them closer together, it has put a real strain on their marriage, and they were arguing when Jared was shot.

Jared is the son of Sara Linton’s dead husband, Jeffrey Tolliver, which makes Jared Sara’s stepson.  Five years ago, Jeffrey was killed and Sara has always blamed Lena for his death. Lena was his partner at the time, and Sara cannot get over the bitterness and resentment that she feels for Lena over Jeffrey’s death, plus the fact that Lena is married to Jared.

Sara has been trying to make a new life with Will Trent, despite the fact that Will is still a married man. He has avoided telling her of his undercover work and his involvement in the attack on Lena and Jared. Sara becomes involved in the investigation without either one of them aware of her participation.

“Unseen” is the seventh novel in the “Will Trent” series. Apparently, the Grant County series should be read first, although the author uses overlapping characters in both series. I have to confess that this is the only novel by Karin Slaughter that I have read,but I found it so engrossing I could hardly put it down.

The author’s character descriptions and their complicated relationships are intriguing. The plot is riveting and complex with one twist after another. Drugs and the underground child porn world intertwined with some unsavory characters make for a gritty novel. The crimes are gruesome and the violence intense.  “Unseen” is not a novel for the squeamish.

“Unseen” is available in print, compact disc audiobook and downloadable audiobook formats from the Joplin Public Library.

Last time I wrote I covered two historical fiction books set during World War II. It seems I can’t leave this era, for again the books I’d like to share with you are from this time period. This time, however, they are non-fiction accounts.

An exceptional opportunity for Joplin inspires these reviews. The author of the first book I’m writing about is Marian Blumenthal Lazan. She will be coming to Joplin Public Library to speak at the end of the month. She was 10 years old when the Russian army liberated her while she was on a death train from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Our current generation is the last generation to be able to meet and hear from concentration camp survivors in person. It is a unique chance for us to learn.

Ms. Lazan wrote “Four Perfect Pebbles,” a non-fiction book for elementary-age children. The four pebbles refer to the author’s belief that “If she could find four pebbles of almost exactly the same size and shape, it meant that her family would remain whole. . . the sets of pebbles were her lucky charms, and they gave her a purpose.”

Lazan’s family initially tried to emigrate from Germany to the United States. After years of preparation, papers and visas were in order and passage to the United States was ticketed. There wasn’t enough room for them on the ship, however, and they had to flee to refugee camps in Holland instead.

After several years in the Dutch refugee camps, they were forced to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. There, the search for the four perfect pebbles began. Since she is coming to the library to speak, you know that she survived the camps, but that’s as much as I’ll say. You’ll have to come to know the whole story.

Today’s second book is a young adult book, “Surviving the Angel of Death: The Story of a Mengele Twin in Auschwitz” by Eva Mozes Kor. As 10 year olds, Eva and her twin sister, Miriam, were saved from immediate extermination in Auschwitz because the infamous Dr. Mengele realized they were twins and wanted them for medical experimentation.

Eva relates her refusal to die. She had been given a shot of “something” that caused her to become ill. Overhearing doctors, Eva heard Mengele relate that she “only has two weeks to live.”

Rather than giving up, survival instincts kicked in. “I said to myself, ‘I am not dead. I refuse to die. I am going to outsmart those doctors, prove Dr. Mengele wrong, and get out of here alive.’”

Get out alive she did. Her sister Miriam survived as well. Circumstances led her to the United States after marriage, and in the late 1970s she began to lecture about the Holocaust.

Eventually, she met a Nazi doctor who had been at Auschwitz. She forgave him and found the power in forgiveness. She discovered “forgiveness is not so much for the perpetrator, but for the victim.”

After writing this doctor a letter of forgiveness, she immediately “felt that a burden of pain had been lifted . . . a pain I had lived with for fifty years. I was no longer a victim of Auschwitz, no longer a victim of my tragic past. I was free.”

Both these authors have a positive impact despite their experiences. They continue to advocate for survivors and educate people in hopes such events will never happen again.

Marian Blumenthal Lazan, author of “Four Perfect Pebbles,” will speak at Joplin Public Library at 6 p.m. on March 25. Her visit is being sponsored by General Mills of Joplin.  “Four Perfect Pebbles” will be available for purchase and autographing. Admission is free.



As a fan of anything odd or creepy, I was intrigued to see a biography for Robert Ripley cross the checkout counter. Robert Ripley is best known for Ripley’s Believe It or Not! cartoon sketches, books and museums, but I was interested in learning more about the man behind the drawings.

In the book A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley by Neal Thompson, the reader is introduced to a young boy in Santa Rosa, Calif., named LeRoy Robert Ripley. Bucktoothed and painfully shy, ignored and mocked by many of his classmates growing up, LeRoy was most comfortable behind a drawing pad.

After selling a drawing to LIFE magazine, Ripley put together a portfolio of sketches consisting of political and sports themes and started showing them to different editors in San Francisco with the help of a friend. With no real artistic training, he was hired at the San Francisco Bulletin. Hired and fired from two newspapers in just two years, Ripley was helping support his mother and siblings, so he was determined to find a new job. With the same type of luck that seemed to follow him throughout his life, Ripley landed a job at the San Francisco Chronicle, just as their sports cartoonist was suffering from an eye injury.

Ripley was known for his sports cartoons, and after three years in San Francisco, he made the leap across the continent to the bright lights of New York City. While still using the name of LeRoy at this time, it was decided by Ripley’s editors at the New York newspaper the Globe, that LeRoy wasn’t manly enough for the sporting department. Thus, he was reborn as Robert L. Ripley.

On a day in December 1916, with little happening sports wise, Ripley put together a cartoon featuring unusual sports records. Featuring a man who stayed underwater for six minutes, one who skipped rope 11,810 times and two who boxed to a draw after seven and a half hours, this cartoon was one of the earliest harbingers of the big idea that would make him famous worldwide.

In December 1918, Ripley published a cartoon that is considered the first “Believe It or Not,” called “Champs and Chumps,” about sports oddities. It wasn’t until October 1919 that the first cartoon carrying the title “Believe It or Not” was published. The first year or two of cartoons featured sports peculiarities and records, but by 1921 they started featuring non-sports characters, including a man who ate 60 eggs a day for a week and another man with a “revolving head.”

After a messy divorce, Ripley fled America with an around-the-world tour that started the fascination he had for exotic and foreign oddities. After this trip, gruesome seemed to be the new theme behind Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” cartoons. With many upheavals in the newspaper world, Ripley moved from newspaper to newspaper but managed to make a living while still drawing the cartoon that continued to grow in popularity. But it wasn’t until his 1928 cartoon claiming that Charles Lindberg was the 67th person to make a non-stop flight over the Atlantic Ocean that his reputation as the man who had been called a liar “more often than any other living person” took off. With more shocking and startling statements like that, Ripley engaged and enraged readers, always able to prove the veracity of his statements.

At one point in the 1940s, Ripley’s’ cartoons were voted the second favorite feature of newspapers, behind only the front page and he was considered one of the most well-known and well-liked personalities in America. Ripley went on to have a multitude of radio shows, movies and a television show, along with a variety of books, comic books and exhibits.

Ripley was an obsessed world traveler up to almost the very end of his life, hoping to one day visit every country in the world. He bought many exotic and unusual items, filling his house and apartment with the objects. Different world fairs featured these objects and some of the people he’d drawn about, in what were known as the Ripley “Believe It or Not” Odditoriums. The first permanent Ripley museum and Odditorium was started in St. Augustine, Fla., after Ripley’s death and there are now over 30 Odditoriums around the world.

On a personal note, my family and I visited the Branson museum during a family vacation and were amazed by the extremely odd trivia, items and people featured. My youngest purchased a three-armed stuffed monkey that was based on an actual monkey Ripley brought back from a trip. She was heartbroken when her sister’s dog destroyed it a few years later. When I called the Branson museum’s gift shop to find a replacement, I was told they no longer carried the monkey. But the staff found that the St. Augustine museum had some and gave me their phone number. When I called and told the gift shop staff the story hoping to purchase a monkey, they sent me the replacement monkey free of charge, making my daughter extremely happy.Image

I feel this serves as a perfect example of the spirit of Robert Ripley because throughout the book he was portrayed as a loyal and generous friend, sharing his good fortune with others and always looking for the oddest thing or person in the world. He knew it was still out there somewhere. This book was enjoyable; reminding me of the different “Believe It or Not!” cartoons I’ve read over the years and was a fascinating look at the man behind the sketches.

By the time you read this column, I will be winding up my adventures at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Mo., now in its eleventh year.

During a phone call in which we decided on our viewing schedule, my best friend and I revisited some of the documentaries that we’ve seen at previous festivals. One that stayed with both of us was “Blackfish,” which probably has been seen by more people beyond the film festival circuit, most likely due to its subject matter and repeated airing on CNN. It is a film that breaks hearts and angers people. It also changes the way people think – something a good documentary should be able to do.

“Blackfish” is about orcas (killer whales) in captivity. The impetus for the film was the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was attacked in 2010 by a massive, 12,000-pound bull orca named Tilikim.

This documentary serves as an indictment against SeaWorld and similar facilities for their attempts to cash in on human fascination with and affection for marine animals, all at the expense of said animals. The world-famous marine park, in particular, has a shameful history of separating young orcas from their mothers, providing inadequate tanks for the whales and not only failing to use safety precautions for their trainers, but attempting to conceal previous accidents and attacks.

“Blackfish” features excellent interviews with whale experts and remorseful former SeaWorld trainers. SeaWorld itself refused to participate in the documentary.

To understand what might have led to Brancheau’s death, one needs to look back at decades of poor decision-making and morally questionable practices on the part of SeaWorld and other marine parks.

With great detail, “Blackfish” traces Tilikum’s history, beginning with his capture in the open ocean at a young age. He was sold to Sealand, a marine park in Canada, and eventually SeaWorld. Prior to Brancheau’s death, Tilikum had killed two people and repeatedly exhibited disturbing behavior, such as lunging at trainers.

However, the film hints that Tilikum is a product of his environment and that, as a result, Brancheau’s death was almost inevitable. As a young whale, he’d been trained using punishments such as withholding food. He’d also been confined in a small area with other whales who would attack him, before he was eventually moved into isolation.

One expert asserts that such treatment led to a psychosis – not impossible, considering studies of orca brains indicate that they experience emotions and social bonding that might be more complex than other mammals, including humans.

“There’s something wrong with Tilikum,” one of the trainers says. “You understand that he’s killing not to be a savage. … He’s killing because he’s frustrated. He’s got aggravations and he has no outlet for them.”

To understand this frustration, one must recognize the differences between life in captivity and in their natural habitat for a whale. Despite orcas’ power, to this day there is no record of an orca doing any harm to a human being in the wild. In the wild, they live in pods that are their family, their community, and have life spans similar to humans. Adult offspring never leave their mothers. And there is every indication that whales use language distinctive to their pod.

In contrast, whales in captivity are separated from their young and forced to live in confined conditions with whales from other parts of the world, with different genes and a different language. There is more violence, aggression and killing among whales in captivity than in the wild. Life spans are also significantly shorter – anywhere from 10 to 35 years.

I urge you to watch “Blackfish.” But be forewarned: The film contains several disturbing sequences. From the opening in which chilling 911 phone calls are played over beautiful, graceful images of a trainer and a whale in the water together, to whale captures in the ocean, to actual attacks on trainers, it’s not viewing for everyone.

“Blackfish” will leave you heartbroken and furious, both for the whales and the trainers, and will linger in your mind. It is a film about animal rights, but it’s not a strident one. It’s just as much about corporate responsibility and personal ethics.

And what has happened to Tilikum? He now lives alone in a tank and is brought out only to perform at SeaWorld shows. He is essentially a stud whale, and it is estimated that 54 percent of SeaWorld’s orcas carry his genes. It’s not a great life, and a whale expert interviewed for “Blackfish” says it best.

“I feel sad for Tilikum. A regal thing like him, swimming around a tank …”

Lisa E. Brown is the Administrative Assistant at the Joplin Public Library.

countingSeveral years ago I had the honor of hearing Nancy Pearl speak at a library conference.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, she is a celebrity in the world of libraries.  She is an author, a book critic, a former library director, and a readers’ advisory genius, and the Librarian Action Figure was modeled in her likeness.

Her conference talk centered on recommending books and, more specifically, the “doorways” through which readers enter books.  She believes that when a reader opens a book and starts reading it, he or she “enters the world of that book,” hence the term “doorway.”  According to her, there are four major “doorways” to enter through, and they include: story, character, setting and language.

Her talk really struck a cord with me because I recommend books to library users every day, and I am always looking for that next great book to read myself.  From her talk, I discovered that my “doorway” is through the characters.  If you ask me about a favorite book, I will always mention the characters.  And while reading a great book I get so caught up that I feel like the characters are real—that they are my friends, enemies, family, etc.  And this is exactly what I experienced while reading “Counting by 7s.”

Willow Chance, the lead character of “Counting by 7s,” is not your typical 12 year old.  Ever since she was dubbed highly gifted in kindergarten, her teachers have struggled to engage, much less challenge, her.  In her free time she reads medical textbooks, studies skin conditions and cultivates a beautiful garden in the middle of her California desert backyard.  Her adoptive parents, James and Roberta, are supportive and loving, and it is thanks to them that Willow has had such a happy childhood.  In an effort to allow her to make a new start, they enroll Willow in a brand-new school at the start of her sixth-grade year.  Willow hopes to fit in and, more importantly, connect with someone her own age.

However, thanks to finishing a state standardized test in record time, plus getting all the answers correct, Willow is labeled a cheater by her teacher and later the principal.  Willow does not tell her parents about any of her school trouble even after she is sent to see school counselor Dell Duke once a week.  Willow is attending one of these weekly sessions, along with two other teenagers, Mai and Quang-ha Nguyen, when tragedy strikes and she is left without parents for a second time in her short life.

Willow’s world is completely shattered, but thanks to her new school acquaintances she is not left completely alone.  Mai, Quang-ha and Dell become unlikely allies for Willow and soon she is surprising even herself with the changes and choices she is making.

If readers enter books through the character “doorway,” then author Holly Goldberg Sloan does not disappoint.  She has crafted a beautifully moving chapter book that readers are sure to devour.  Willow herself is enough to keep the pages turning, but Sloan’s book has a well-rounded and diverse mix of characters, plus a heartfelt and engaging story.


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