Thursday, January 24, 2019

Carol Potenza

Carol Potenza is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at New Mexico State University. She and her husband, Jose, live in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Hearts of the Missing, her debut novel, won the 2017 Tony Hillerman Prize.

Recently I asked Potenza about what she was reading. Her reply:
The Vanishing Season: A Mystery by Joanna Schaffhausen

I picked up Joanna Schaffhausen’s debut because she’d won the Minotaur Books/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition. Then I couldn’t put it down. Her protagonist, Ellery Hathaway, a small-town New England cop, is hiding her identity. Not because she’s committed a crime, but because, as a child, she was snatched by a serial killer—and was the only victim who survived. She’d had enough of the media’s attention and wanted to be left alone to heal, if she ever could. But she’s been found—for the last two years on her birthday, someone in her community has vanished without a trace, and another birthday is rapidly approaching. No one in town believes her theory that the disappearances are linked, so she turns to the one person who might: FBI agent Reed Markham, the man who’d rescued her. Markham, whose career zenith had been saving Ellery, is now at a nadir in his life. His marriage falling apart and a shattering misstep in a recent high-profile case have left him adrift. When he’s contacted by Ellery about the disappearances, he sees possible redemption. But he doesn’t quite trust Ellery not to be behind the disappearances herself. I loved the characters, red herrings, and twists in this book.

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

This historical non-fiction book was everywhere in 2018 and is being adapted into a movie by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. It details the murders of dozens of Osage Indians in 1920s Oklahoma, all because of money. The U.S. government had settled members of the tribe on land initially thought worthless but under which was actually millions of barrels of oil. At one point in history, the Osage had the highest per capita worth in the United States. Osage traditions of giving and sharing wealth were different than those understood by non-Natives in the U.S., who saw the extravagant spending of the Indians as sinful and wasteful. Soon, laws were passed that decreed Osage individuals with high blood quantum did not have the mental capacity to control their money properly. They were assigned guardians, many of whom did not have the best interests of their clients at heart, but did have murder in their own. High levels of corruption at the local, regional, and even national level allowed the suspicious deaths to continue for years. It wasn’t until a young J. Edgar Hoover sent in a team of agents that some of the murders were solved and the FBI was born. I have tempered my language in this synopsis because I’m always leery of judging another time through a modern lens, but it was the horror of rampant racism toxically mixed with unbridled greed that drove these murders. It’s a shocking story and well worth the read.

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish

I always knew I’d write genre instead of literary fiction, but after reading The Weight of Ink, there is a lingering feeling of envy that I don’t write books like this. The prose is spectacular, the characters complex and memorable. Inside the pages two stories are intertwined, one contemporary and one from the mid-1600s, both set in London. A cache of letters, journals, and philosophical treatises have been found during the renovation of an old home, and Helen Watt, a sick, aging professor who specializes in Jewish British history, is called to consult along with her borrowed American graduate student, Aaron Levy. Though constantly at odds, they discover that the scribe who wrote the cache was a female Jewish philosopher, an astonishing find. Ester Velasquez, the protagonist of the historical book within the book, is truly the central character and one I can’t get out of my head. A woman with a mind of her own, she disguises herself in her letters so she can correspond with the greatest philosophical minds of her time. But history was not kind to educated women, and Ester had to navigate traditions that vehemently disapproved of the education of females and decreed a woman’s security came only with marriage. The settings and characters, both modern and ancient, are rich in detail, and the many story threads are riveting. I didn’t want this book to end.

Goodbye Mr. Chips by James Hilton

I saw this movie years ago and it made me cry. When I found the book, I snatched it up to read—and it made me cry. It’s very short—an afternoon read—and is almost completely narrative, very different from dialogue-heavy modern genre fiction. But Hilton’s story is satisfying because it’s familiar: if we were lucky, we had a teacher like Mr. Chipping, or as his students called him, Mr. Chips; one who made a profound difference in the direction of our lives—not necessarily because of what they taught, but because of how they reached us. The reader follows Mr. Chips during his tenure at a fictional boys school in England and through a portion of Great Britain’s history from the Franco-Prussian war to the rise of Hitler. Chips led a simple and ordinary life, married once and widowed, and outlived so many of his peers and the boys from his school that he was pitied by some as lonely and alone. But he never felt sorry for himself. He evolved and changed with the times and was beloved by the boys he taught over the years, such that at his death, he claimed all of them as his own children. An ordinary man with an ordinary life, like so many of us in this world. We should all be so impactful.
Visit Carol Potenza's website.

--Marshal Zeringue