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Thursday, October 30, 2008


My uncle Jesse gave me two Sue Grafton novels, telling me that she put together an intriguing and interesting story. Right he was, and though Rob and I listened to S is for Silence as a perfectly performed audio book, I think I am going to go back and pick up the other letters of the Grafton alphabet—beginning with A is for Alibi.

The characters who people this 19th novel in the Kinsey Millhone series are not particularly admirable, not even Grafton's private investigator, Kinsey Millhone. She's hard-boiled enough that late in the book she apologizes to a woman for being relentlessly cold and unfeeling for the pain others might feel in the solution of this decades' old disappearance. But even her regret is fleeting. The suspects themselves are unattractive in their attitudes and actions, and each one has a grudge against the missing woman that makes her disappearance no surprise. Still, their baseness might be what makes them interesting, and Rob and I had plenty to talk about as we each tried to guess the ending of the story. It might be that Kinsey’s less than perfect character makes her more interesting, if less brilliant, than a Sherlock Holmes, although he could be pretty awful too.

The premise of the plot is interesting. The book is set in 1987, but the mystery really begins in 1953—on the 4th of July. A young woman out to see the annual fireworks display vanishes leaving her young and adoring seven year old daughter with a father the child knew more as her mother's sparring partner than as a loving dad. Violet’s disappearance is of local interest for a while primarily because she is the town’s femme fatale—very 1950s--and all sorts of rumors are attached to her name. But interest fades into local folklore, as such stories might, once the novelty wears thin. She was neither liked nor missed. She had a bad reputation, fought publicly with her husband, and was respected by few. Where she fled, with whom, and how she was able to leave remains an unsolved mystery, and it is not until many years later that her now-middle-aged daughter whose life and self-esteem were destroyed by the abandonment seeks to answer those questions as a way to pull her own life back together. Enter California private investigator Kinsey Millhone. Digging into people's pasts can be very unpleasant, and in some cases, dangerous, but that is exactly what Kinsey Millhone is hired to do. She goes about her job with a vengeance!

If you like audio books, this is a good one. Judy Kaye did a splendid reading. If you like detective mysteries, this is a good travel mystery--a perfect vacation book. It will have you guessing just as it had us.


These days Costa Rica, nicknamed the “Switzerland of Central America” because of its tall mountains with slopes cradling lush vegetation, is a major sun destination, so it is with additional interest that Rob and I looked forward to the time here. We also booked a great shore excursion that included a 90 minute drive through the city and countryside, a gondola ride up through the forest canopy with commentary from a naturalist-guide, and a trip on an amazing jungle river. We were not disappointed.

Costa Rica is the second smallest republic in Central America. It’s narrow, and you can easily enjoy Pacific Ocean beaches as well as Caribbean beaches. It has magnificent rain forests. Only a few degrees from the Equator, the temperature throughout the year rarely moves more than 10° away from the norm of 89°. It has only two “seasons,” the rainy and the dry, and from what our naturalist-tour guide, Randall said, it can rain 15 days straight during the rainy season, and rainfall can reach 100 inches per year. On the other hand, when you think of the lush vegetation this climate engenders, you feel you’re traveling in a tropical paradise filled with magnificent, tall trees, brightly colored flowers, and jungle-rimmed rivers where crocodiles lazily sun themselves on the banks, iguanas gaze at the passing tourists with arrogant disinterest, and a plethora of birds fill the air with their sight and song.

Now through the Panama Canal and in the Pacific Ocean, our ship docked in Puntarenas, and for our tour we traveled in a Mercedes coach through the port village with its colorful shops and stands filled with all the souvenirs any tourist could desire. Randall gave us a running commentary on the history of Costa Rica and its democratic traditions including free education for all citizens. In school, English is mandatory. With these new opportunities for its citizens, Costa Rica has attracted businesses like Intel because there now exists a skilled workforce. Sounds a bit like Ireland, and look at their boom economy, the Celtic Tiger!

Our first stop was the Guacalilo Estuary where we boarded a covered shallow draft river cruiser to explore the ecological offerings of the Tárcoles River. In this country where the rain forests impact heavily on everything Costa Rican, there is a huge push at ecco-tourism so that visitors gain an understanding of the fragile interweaving of nature. The company Princess Cruises hires stresses the Save the Rainforest campaign, and their very knowledgeable guides point out changes in the ecological balance throughout their presentations.

The river cruise is extraordinary. We begin moving slowly along the shore of this brackish river, and our bus guide changes hats, slips on a field glass harness and we have a real expert on Costa Rican wildlife. BTW, guides are licensed in Costa Rica, and Randall is a college grad and extremely knowledgeable—and sharp eyed.

We see about 23 different species of birds, and Randall describes their habitats, unique qualities and notes if they are in any way endangered. He points out iguanas of all colors and shapes. He does the same with crocodiles and explains that of the many types of crocodiles that once existed, only about seven different types exist today. I loved seeing the birds, but I admit the crocs were incredibly exciting. They lie on shore almost camouflaged by the brown waters and sand.

They lie there, some absolutely mammoth and mean-looking, mouths open to breathe, and should they decide to stop posing for us and head to the water, they rise on their legs, looking quite ridiculous but still incredibly lethal. They move swiftly and smoothly—more swiftly than one would imagine of a reptile often more than eight feet in length can move—and they silently, stealthily, slip beneath the water leaving behind not so much as a ripple.

It’s utterly amazing. All we see are two bulging eyes and the end of a snout. We viewed this scene several times during the ride, but repetition did not diminish the dramatic spectacle.

Our boat went to the spot the river opens to the ocean, at which point we turned around and took another route back. We entered a man-made river carved out of the jungle years ago by a foreign corporation now long gone. The river has been maintained, and it offers a unique opportunity to travel into areas which would have been inaccessible to us. There we saw and heard the cries of howler monkeys high up in the trees. Their loud screeching echoed through the jungles as they leapt between trees. Seeing animals in their own habitats is incredibly exciting, and Rob and I have decided to investigate the possibilities of doing more eco-tourism.

After we returned to the dock, we boarded our coach for our journey to the Pacific Aerial Tram.


What a beautiful country is Costa Rica. We thought it wasn’t going to get any better than the fantastic voyage on the Tarcoles River, but we were wrong. We were slated for another incredible voyage, but this time through the air. We rode a gondola up through the thick jungle greenery through the canopy, all the time delighting in the abundantly lush foliage including ferns, lianas, orchids, and astoundingly different trees. There were huge termite hives nestled in the crotches of some trees. Absolutely awesome! The naturalist-guide spoke throughout, naming some of the species or pointing out animals and birds or their nests. It was incredibly beautiful. We watched some zipliners go down through the canopy, and I think I would love to try that. Well, maybe.

We also toured the botanical gardens at the base of the tram. The gardens contained flowers so beautifully and vibrantly colored that we wanted to touch them to make sure they were real. Our guide, however, warned us that often miniscule but potentially lethal snakes crawl into the flower’s recessed parts and touching the flower might cause a very unfavorable ending to the day. We heeded the warning!

There, too, we enjoyed a Costa Rican lunch—fresh fruits, including ripe and juicy papaya and wonderful bananas—the kinds we can never get in stores--chicken, rice, and beans among other things. We also had the opportunity to taste Costa Rican coffee which was so good that we bought several bags to bring home.

We are interested in returning to this very intriguingly beautiful country. We did not get a chance, of course, to see the Caribbean side or the resorts and beaches. There’s so much more to see and do here.

I have to tell you that Costa Rica has a serious garbage problem. There is garbage everywhere—in the streets as well as in and along the rivers. It was so evident that our guide felt he had to talk about it. Randall explained how the government is trying to deal with the problem and has a television advertising campaign to educate people about garbage disposal even as the government works on pickup problems, etc. It’s a cruel irony to see a country so ecologically involved yet struggling with a garbage problem. The crocodiles we saw, for instance, live among old tires and bottles thrown by the river up on the muddy banks. Again, I am only talking about the areas we saw. As Third Age Traveler is more than just a “travel diary,” in good conscience I must mention that. I also say that the problem would not keep us from returning.


My friend, Carol, is a great re-reader, something I do rarely. But my recent re-reading of Steinbeck's monumental 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, moved me in ways I never expected. Almost 70 years after its initial publication, The Grapes of Wrath remains contemporary, politically astute, and skillfully artistic. If anything, the passage of time and the way history provided the finishing touches to the story increases its already inestimable value.

This is a sad story. Nature, economics, greed, and human nature run amuck, and the result is incredible human misery. This is an uplifting story. Moral courage, perseverance, a set of values, and an understanding of how human beings can lead purposeful, good, compassionate lives result in the belief of the strength of the human spirit.

Steinbeck pulls out the stops. His novel is the narrative of people forced from their land to wander and readjust to a new world that is cruel, destructive, and uncaring. At times it might seem a bit preachy, but most of the narrative is moving and descriptive. A reader is drawn into the action and longs to see how each character reacts to his life's circumstances.

As a writer, Steinbeck pulls out all the stops literarily. You don't need to recognize his art to feel the power of the novel, but his allusions are fun to discover--like pieces of a puzzle. You might miss Steinbeck's art altogether because his skill makes everything blend seamlessly, but he does employ all the literary techniques that add depth and meaning to his work--should that be what you're looking for. My favorites here included the intercalary chapters--those chapters not about the Joad family but about "all people," the words of the characters that hint of bigger meanings as when Ma Joad informs Tom, "...we're the people..." perhaps as a reminder to insensitive government of the words of the Declaration of Independence, of the unmistakable use of symbols and analogies to other stories like the Exodus and the Myth of the American West. Don't be put off by any of this. Grapes of Wrath is an eminently readable book. It’s a great and moving story.

Take Grapes of Wrath away with you on a trip. It will involve you, delight you, horrify you, offend you, and make you pause to consider what your mind's eye is seeing. And when you're done, rent the 1940 (imagine--book to movie in less than a year) John Ford movie starring Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. You won't be sorry!


We just got back from a trip to Charleston for our nephew's wedding on the gorgeous Isle of Palms--our third stay in Charleston but there is still more to enjoy there. Conde Nast Traveler magazine's Reader's Choice Awards gave Charleston the #2 spolt as the best U.S. cities to visit. Took that place away by bumping NYC to #3!