Sunday, June 28, 2020

Alexander McCall Smith The Talented Mr. Varg

McCall Smith, Alexander  The Talented Mr. Varg

Alexander McCall Smith’s high volume of work often makes me think of frothy foam on the top of a cappuccino.  There is flavor there, but you need to dive beneath the foam to find the real essence of the drink.  McCall Smith is the ultimate cultural chameleon and most impressively seems to be as much at home writing about southern Sweden as he is about  Edinburgh or the African veldt.  

I quickly discovered  that the Varg books have been dubbed “Scand-blanc” because they take the dark and violent novels of  Henning Mankell,  creator of Wallander or Stieg Larsson (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and turns them on their head.  Detective Ulf Varg is a man , to keep the metaphor going, who seems to be measuring out his life in coffee spoons.  He is a Swedish policeman who works in  a unit called the Department of Sensitive Crimes.  The paradox is that the team concentrates on things that are so tiny, so problematic, or so lacking in sensitivity that they appear to have no reason to be investigated at all.  

The personnel in the station appear to be castoffs who have been found to be lacking real police chops. They spend most of their time navigating a bureaucracy devoted to obscuring procedures and creating endless reports. In one recurring episode they receive a directive to only order needed supplies by number.  However,  no numbers are included to attach to the supplies requested.  Further pleas allow them to discover that the number list is only available to people above their pay scale.  In that sense the office also seems to resemble the so called “Peculiar Crimes” unit created by mystery writer Christopher Fowler.  In his books  Detectives Bryant and May are packed full of amusing  British eccentricities.  In the Varg series the hero is just a guy who is dull and normal to the point of boredom.

We finally arrive at the unassuming plot.  Like the man and the department he works for, it is wispy almost to the point of non-existence.  A benevolent author who is trying to maintain an alternate personality for the public may be the victim of blackmail.  Anne, one of Ulf Varg’s  co-workers is a woman he has always had a secret crush on and she brings a personal problem to her superior. She thinks her husband is having an affair and wants Ulf to investigate if it is true.  Ulf determines that her husband had had an affair but it has now ended.  Therefore he can honestly answer Anne’s question by saying that her husband isn’t having an affair.  If it doesn’t sound like much, it isn’t.  

Life in flat and relaxed Malmo goes on. Not much happens, nobody much cares, tomorrow is another day.  Yet there is so much pleasantly droll wordplay going on that the book remains a good natured and interesting read. Call it an anecdote if you will to all the blood, guts, and sex detective novels of the past.  The crimes turn out to be semi-real and the cases get solved by twisting the law a bit to allow for second chances or forgiveness.

To top it off we hear about political parties like the “Moderate Extremists” and the “Left Centrists.”  I shall leave you with this bit of the book’s wisdom from below the cappuccino’s foam .  So says Detective Ulf Varg,   “Everybody’s under pressure to do something these days.  If you don’t do something you’ll be accused of doing nothing.” 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Tribute to a Worker Bee

Chester De Young 1906-2002
A life-long Worker Bee
The Story of Chet De Young

Chet with his son Jim in 1939  (That's me the author of this tribute) 

My dad, Chester(Chet) De Young, had a long and productive life. He was lean and not very tall,  but he did possess a natural athleticism that revealed itself as a fine youthful baseball player and later in life a good bowler and a very competitive golfer. He was a steady disciplined  worker who held the same job for over fifty years. I would like to think that my sister and I  have inherited that work ethic from him and have passed it on to our children.  Like most of the human race,  Dad did not attract a lot of attention outside of his immediate circle of family and friends, but there were plenty of those and I do not recall any of them speaking ill of him.

Work started early for him and it didn’t result in some romantic Horatio Alger myth. There was no pot of gold waiting .  Yet given the acute deprivation of his early years, his attainment of a respectable middle class life for himself and his family carries only admiration.
Dad spent his early childhood as the eldest son of what can be charitably called an affable, dreamy, itinerant farmer with let’s admit it a drinking problem. His parents, John and Emma De Young (nee Draeger) were married in 1900. Their first child  Margaret (always called Marge) was born somewhat less than nine months after their nuptials.  According to my father the shotgun wedding did not earn the couple any points--especially with his mother’s in-laws. The couple were more careful after that because my father didn’t come along for five years more years in 1906.
The young De Youngs initially lived in a duplex on my great-grandfather Isaac’s farm just outside of Beaver Dam, WI and young John Joseph (my grandfather) worked as his own father’s hired hand. As the first and only at that time male child,  my Dad was integrated into the normal routine of daily farm chores by the time he was five or six.

Dad’s more formalwork experience also began early.  My great grandfather Isaac sold his Beaver Dam farm in 1913 and moved into town for his own years of retirement. There was to be no primo geniture for my dad’s father. Instead he was apparently given a cash gift and told that there would be no further inheritance. John Joseph took the money and purchased a new farm over 100 miles north just outside of Marshfield, WI. The family moved there but stayed  only a short time before selling out and moving into a rented house in the town of Marshfield proper  in 1917.  By that time the family was growing.  My dad and his older sister now had three more sisters (Hazel, Gladys, and Frida) and another brother on the way. John was born in town.  An additional son, Elmer, had been born in 1909, but passed away in 1910 most likely of influenza.

Life now got more stormy.  The family narrative, even though the real estate documents are missing, says that when my dad’s father, John Joseph, sold the  Marshfield farm and moved the family to town, he took some or all of the sale money and decided to look for a new property or business in Minneapolis or the eastern Dakotas. It now seems certain that sometime in the fall of 1917 dad’s father gathered up a $10,000 grubstake (almost certainly from the sale of the Marshfield farm) and traveled toward Minneapolis.  It is reasonable to think he took a train as Marshfield was a major rail center and had several passenger trains a day in all directions. After that all we know is that somehow he lost the money in a misadventure. Whether it was gambling, theft, or a scam we shall probably never know.

What we do know is he stopped communicating and disappeared. His wife (my grandmother)  was left with six children and no income.  She ultimately resorted to filing a formal abandonment warrant against her husband. This probably triggered some welfare, but she also located a job cleaning for a furniture store/funeral parlor in downtown Marshfield. This represented a real salvation because the job included some kind of subsidized rent for a second floor apartment above the store. This helped with finances, but Dad’s older sister Marge still had to quit school to work.  New baby John stayed  in Marshfield with Grandma Emma and  some of the other girls were sent to relatives for a time. My dad was eleven and stayed home and in school, but took a series of part time jobs to help out. According to his testimony he sold magazines and newspapers, he helped Mr. Remb, the proprietor of the furniture store/mortuary, collect bodies, and also held a  part-time job at the local Adler Opera House cleaning seats, assisting the projectionist, and helping with finding props and materials for the traveling stock companies who arrived to perform.

So where did my grandfather John J. go for over a year?  The older children  testified that their father had returned wearing an Army uniform and carrying a dented helmet. Yet for many years no one could produce and records that proved he was in the Army.  Modern computerization of WWI war records finally solved the problem. John Joseph De Young, my dad’s father, enlisted in the US Army under the assumed name of John J. Jones in February of 1918. He served as a Private during WWI in Company E, 5th Regiment, Corps of Engineers and his military stint included a six month tour on the front lines in France. The details of this search will be left for an article on my grandfather’s life. For this essay it will suffice to say that when he was eleven years old my father was already practicing to be a full time breadwinner.

One piece of absolute proof that dad’s father had returned to the family in 1919 was the 1920 census, which does show both parents and all the children  living in the Marshfield apartment above the furniture store/funeral home. This does not mean that the next years were suddenly devoid of economic peril. The family added two more mouths to feed with the births of sons Harold and Eugene in 1921 and 1922 and they moved at least three times more to other farms in south eastern Wisconsin before finally settling permanently in Watertown, WI. in 1922 just before my uncle Eugene’s birth.

My father’s oldest sister Marge left for an independent life and marriage in 1923. Her husband Walter (Stubby) Schultz was a successful and generous man and he and Marge supplied housing and employment for most of the other siblings over the following years.  Even with this kind of  help from Marge and Stubby,  finances remained precarious for the family.  Chet (my dad) had to drop out of Watertown H.S. after his sophomore year to go to work in 1925. He was never able to return to get a high school diploma.   
As the great Depression gathered steam over the next five years, Dad worked at a cannery and in the fields around Watertown  harvesting peas. Meanwhile, his sister Marge and her husband, Stubby had moved  to Toledo, Ohio where Stubby had taken another position at an American Can Company facility. Stubby offered him a job in the company office and also an opportunity to live with them, which would save dad some more money.  
There is some fuzziness in Dad’s life between 1925 and 1930 . My best estimate is that he came back to Watertown, WI. from Toledo in 1927 or 1928. With a bit of money saved and his skill set now showing experience in the clerical area, he probably set his sights on the larger and more fruitful Milwaukee, WI  job market.  A combination of the 1930 census and the Milwaukee City Directory revealed that he was working as a clerk for a company called Griffin and Turner that sold seeds and garden supplies. Since Dad grew up on a series of farms,  employment at a seed and garden company would seem to make sense. Always frugal, Dad was also not living above his means. The 1930 census shows him living in a rooming house with several other men. We need to remind ourselves that in the middle of the Great Depression anyone with a job of any kind was clearly thankful. 

At this point however,  brighter days were on the way.  Sometime between 1927 and 1929 Dad met my mother Lillian.  Lil had grown up on a farm outside of Watertown, WI.  She had attended Johnson Creek high school for two years and then transferred to Watertown HS in order to take advantage of their special commercial training program. She graduated with that emphasis in 1927 and also set off for the big city of Milwaukee to find a job.  She roomed with her long time school chum from Johnson Creek, Addy Brown, and found a job as a secretary. Dad said that they actually first met on the old interurban line that ran from Milwaukee through Watertown when both of them were returning home for a weekend visit.  Though they had grown up within ten miles or so of each other and had even attended the same high school for a time, the school yearbooks seem to prove that they did not intersect. Dad left Watertown HS after his sophomore year in 1925 and my mother did not transfer in to Watertown High from Johnson Creek High until the year after dad left. 

In any case things progressed from that chance meeting. First there was acquaintance, then some serious dating, and then a marriage  in Milwaukee on Sept. 16, 1930.  They were still married when my mother passed away in 1991. Dad told me that he had secured his job with Lindsay Brothers in Milwaukee shortly before their marriage. That would make it sometime in 1930 , but after his 1930 census interview when he was listed as a clerk and living in that rooming house with a bunch of men. 
It is time for me to issue an apology for depending so heavily on my dad’s recollections. The truth is I never really took the opportunity to talk to my mother a lot about her life and then I moved away and bang she was gone.  My dad was not as talkative as my mother, but he did live on for many years after she died and after he sold the family home in Milwaukee and moved to Galesburg IL, IL, we spend a great deal more time together and talked more about the past.

For instance he told me about his marriage to mom in some detail during a long conversation at a Perkins Restaurant in Galesburg in 1999.  He recalled that he and Mom had been married at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee in the office of the minister. He didn’t recall who made the arrangements. I suspect it was Mom.  Mom’s best friend from Johnson Creek and her roommate in Milwaukee was her Maid of Honor. Addie’s husband Earl was the best man. The Browns continued to be friends of my folks down through the years. Earl was in the insurance business but also a fine photographer and took some of the early pictures of me. In the years after their marriage and before I was born they traveled and vacationed with the Browns.

After the wedding ceremony Dad said they had a lovely dinner at the dining room of the Astor Hotel on Milwaukee’s lower east side. I looked the hotel up recently and found that it was built in 1928. It was still operating as of 2018 at 924  East Juneau Ave.
After dinner, according to Dad, he and Mom took a bus to Chicago arriving there around midnight. There they transferred to a bus for Toledo, OH  and arrived early the next morning.  He said they sat in the bus station to wait for a reasonable hour to call his older sister Marge and her husband Stubby to come and pick them up. They stayed about a week he thought before taking a bus back to Milwaukee. And that was their honeymoon.
Dad was already somewhat familiar with Toledo as he had worked there at the American Can Company for a couple of years before 1930 and had lived with sister Marge and her husband. Marge’s husband worked for the American Can Company and Stubby got him a job, which was in the office not on the factory floor. It was probably there that he got the first taste of clerical work and it probably was good for his resume when he interviewed for his position at Lindsay Brothers.
Lindsay Brothers Inc. was already a well established wholesaler of agricultural machinery and supplies in the 1930’s. While talking to me in June of 2000,  Dad said that he got the job through a depression era employment agency set up at the Milwaukee YMCA. His new boss, F.H. Lindsay, just happened to be on the board at the YMCA and may have been impressed by the earnest young man.  Over the years at Lindsay Bros.’s.  Dad was a clerk, general office worker, accountant, salesman, and buyer for the firm. He also helped to set up and run the company’s profit sharing plan for retirees. He worked continuously at Lindsay’s until he retired some fifty-one years later.

When I was growing up I visited his office often. I met some of his co-workers and his boss, Mr. Lindsay, on several occasions beginning in the late 1940’s.  Old F.H. Lindsay took a particular interest in me. He used to buy sheets of new postage stamps as they came out and when he discovered I was a stamp collector, he let Dad take groups of commemorative plate blocks to give to me. I still have those stamps and though collecting is not a popular pastime any more, they do have some value today.  

The Lindsay building was in the old Third Ward at 126 S. 2nd Street. It was constructed in 1892 and was impressively large with 220,000 sq ft of warehouse space on the upper floors and 10,000 sq ft of office space on the first floor. As far as I can tell the company went out of business sometime between 1990 and 2000 and the old building is now part of an historic urban renewal area. I marvel that such an impressive structure was put up in what was essentially an industrial area.  I remember it as not quite so sparkling. The trim was green  and 2nd street was a busy and noisy thoroughfare with a streetcar route and large numbers of trucks and other delivery vehicles passing by.  You entered the office up a half flight of steps in the middle of the building. The office itself was well lighted from the large windows and filled with desks on an open plan. Whenever I visited things always seemed to be busy yet quite informal and friendly. My dad’s desk was fairly close to the entrance and near his boss, F.H. Lindsay. F.H.’s desk was closer to the front windows, but I don’t recall any separating partitions to make it private.

At the far end of the room a wall separated the office from the loading docks. Behind those docks were two  big old lumbering freight elevators. They would grind up slowly to the upper floors where the inventory was kept.  The few times I went up there I remember it as shadowy and a bit scary.
The Lindsay brothers (I think there were three) had big summer homes in a compound on Oconomowoc Lake just outside of Milwaukee. The yearly company picnic was held there and it was a highlight for all the employees and their families. There was space to run, plentiful food, games with prizes, swimming, and boat rides on the lake. This helped to spark other social activity among the employees and I know my parents counted a number of Dad’s fellow workers as close friends and saw them and their families outside of work.

Dad was a low priority for the draft in WWII.  He was almost forty,  married with a child, and working in an agriculture related industry.  On the other hand his current job was not highly paid and my mother had quit working when I was born. I have no recollection of her working again when I was a child. She did return to the work force as an admitting officer at St. Luke’s Hospital in Milwaukee during my sister Nancy’s college years and did continue to work after Nancy graduated. I know the extra income did make their later years more comfortable financially.
At some point during WWII, Dad also took a part-time evening job at the cigarette and cigar stand in the lobby of the Milwaukee Athletic Club.  My guess is that it was a help for the family finances and allowed for some extra savings to make a down payment on a house. Dad was a smoker at the time and the job also came with a chance to get scarce wartime cigarettes at a good price.

After their marriage Mom and Dad rented a two bedroom apartment on the 2nd floor of a house at 4438A West Medford Ave on Milwaukee’s north side. We lived there until the impending arrival of my sister Nancy in 1945 made the search for a somewhat larger house more important. In 1946 we moved across town to Milwaukee’s  south side and a tiny but still a 3 bedroom bungalow at 3722 S. 20th Street. It would be the first and only home my parents would ever own. 

Another job I remember Dad doing in the late forties and early fifties was ushering at Marquette University basketball and football games. I have no idea how he got involved in this, but he seemed to have been in charge of checking the ushers in and then paying them at the end of the game. The usher hats were kept in a large chest and came in lots of sizes. Dad often took me along to these games and when he did he would put me in charge of handing out and collecting the hats. I was allowed to wear a hat too and I remember always searching through the trunk to find a size small enough to fit me before the other guys arrived. At checkout time Dad would pay each person two or three dollars in cash. I usually got a dollar. It was one of my first paid jobs.

Dad retired from Lindsay Brothers in the 1980’s and lived on to enjoy many years of relaxation and travel. He and my mom were able to see Hawaii and to go abroad to visit my wife and I in London and my sister and her husband when they were stationed in Germany. Both mom and dad were faithful churchgoers and members of the Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church. They  served at various times as Elders or Trustees and  Dad also served as the financial secretary for the church. 
With my sister and I out on our own, mom and dad continued to live in the house on 20th St. that they had purchased in 1946. A few years after my mother’s death in 1991, we moved Dad to an apartment at a Galesburg, IL Senior Home. This put dad about 20 minutes away from my wife and I in Monmouth and we were able to see him regularly until he passed  on in 2002 at the age of 96. 

                         “Well done oh kind and helpful servant.”

Chet with his two children Nancy and Jim in  March, 2002  not long before his death.

Jim De Young, 2020

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Book Revuew Louise Penny The Beautiful Mystery

Penny, Louise  The Beautiful Mystery  2012  Book 8 in series

“Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?´ is a quote from T.S. Elliot’s Murder in the Cathedral that keeps coming up in Louise Penny’s eighth book in her Inspector Gamache series.  Each time it is mentioned it helps to highlight grave internal decisions faced by the characters.  
The setting is not in Three Pines this time and it inserts Gamache and his assistant Jean Guy Beauvoir deep into the Quebec’s wilderness where a group of cloistered monks are facing the apparent murder of their own choir director. Once the detectives are on the scene, it becomes apparent that brotherly rifts have been simmering for some time over whether the order ought to issue a second CD of Gregorian Chants  to capitalize on a wildly successful first one. The money earned had enabled the completion of some major repairs to their buildings, but it had been at a cost of allowing the modern world and modern temptations to enter their peaceful seclusion and reduce their concentration on their music and their faith.   

Surrounding this central plot is the all-enveloping presence of Gregorian Chant as an accompaniment to the daily monastery rituals of worship. Penny displays a wealth of  research and love for music on almost every page. We learn a lot about the history of the Gregorian chant, the sounds of various chants, and their impact on the psyches of both the singers and their listeners. 

The chosen setting also lends itself to the emotional pressure cooker of the classic  whodunit.  Agatha Christie would definitely approve of a murder in a walled  monastery  located off the grid on the shores of a cold lake surrounded by deep forests and swirling mists. Access is only by boat or seaplane. The 24 resident monks, supposedly dedicated to Christian love and service, are then confronted with the unpleasant knowledge that one of their sequestered brethren is a violent killer.     
To complicate things further Gamache and Jean Guy bring with them their own demons. They are both still suffering from the horrors of the disastrous factory shootout that resulted in the deaths of several young officers and seriously injured both of them.  Their guilt rushes even closer to the surface when Inspector Francoeur, Gamache’s superior. swoops in like a giant bird of prey to stir an already boiling pot.
This allows Penny to zero in on questions of responsibility and guilt. Why must there be guilt? Who is to blame for the outcome? Must there always be blame? If so is it singular or plural?  The chapter ends with Gamache thinking about the monestery’s own patron Saint (Saint Gilbert), who had taken sides in King Henry’s dispute with the Archbishop of Canterbury long years ago. Gamache asks himself, if it is ever right to kill or hurt one for the sake of the many? This impacts the murder at the monastery as well as his own pending conflict with Jean Guy and the even more nasty conflict with his superior. Penny seems to answer with a biblical quote--Matthew 10:36--  “And a man’s foes, shall they be of his own household?” This clearly cuts several ways and adds to the moral complexities that Ms. Penny delivers. 
I found this book a bit chillier than some of her earlier offerings. I do kind of miss some of the warmth and humor that creeps into those that are set in Three Pines. There is no monk who can hold a candle to Ruth Zardo and her acerbic comments or her pet duck. Some other minor quibbles would be that It was a bit much to see the big boss Francoeur make such a long and hard trip just to prosecute his feud with Gamache.  It also took some suspension of disbelief to accept that the monks had been out recruiting singers of supreme quality for over two hundred years and yet remained secret and basically unknown until the murder.  Finally the late appearance of the Inquisition all the way from Rome was definitely a step too far. Three arrivals at  this remote place in twenty four hours does test credibility. I’m afraid I was reminded more of Monty Python when he showed up.  

I give it a 3 and move on to the next one.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Kingdom of Lies Book Review


Kingdom of Lies, A Murder Mystery by Lee Wood

I found this novel in the discard pile at our local library last fall and just now got around to reading it. It takes place in England, which is always a plus for me.  

An American professor of medieval history turns up at an academic conference in Leeds with her English friend, who, is working on a study of royal bloodlines. The Englishwoman quickly turns up dead in a pond on a country estate near Leeds and a local detective with anger and relationship problems is given the case.   Interference from above wants the death to be a simple suicide, but both the detective and the American professor have doubts.  The question becomes is there a serial killer on the loose and is the English Crown really under threat?  The detective is sent to London to keep an eye on the American lady and, and needless to say,  there is a relationship potential simmering beneath the surface.  The American is a modern educated woman and definitely want to go looking for the killer on her own in spite of warnings from n independent cuss who wants to search for the killer on her own in spite of warnings from the locals and the Leeds detective. There are lots of cultural contrasts explored and plenty of London travel and place details described, which again is a pleasure for me. The plot kind of goes off into la la land after a while, but the final windup is exciting. Even though the rocky love affair never gets resolved in this book, there is promise of this being the first of a series featuring the two sleuths from different lands.

Not quite as good as I had hoped but still worth a summer read. 2.5 stars.