A Modern Irish Murder

Fact: Ireland is a Modern Country

Sad Fact: Few people outside of Ireland realize this.

Thanks to the impressions of popular culture, many Americans still tend to think of bombs, booze or leprechauns when they hear the worlds “Irish” or “Ireland”.  Those who read, remember Yeats or the Potato Famine.  Movie-fans recall Darby O’Gill or The Quiet Man.  Few of either group think of murder.

Yet, Murder in a very modern context is the background of Tana French’s brilliant debut, In the Woods.  It’s the story of Irish police working a contemporary crime site that, unfortunately, has ties to the past.  It also has one of the best unreliable narrators I’ve come across in several years.  Rob Ryan tells the story of when past and present collide in the head of a traumatized survivor and the damage that radiates from that impact.  And he tells it in a beautiful, lyrical voice that hints but never tells you what’s what.

In the Woods is also the brilliant first novel of what is known as the “Dublin Murder Squad” series.  So far, each story is told by one detective on the Squad who may (or may not) appear in later tales.  Each character is brilliantly developed in their own stories so we get to see how different people view the same incidents.  And we also see the toll this job takes on detectives.  Thankfully, we also get to see Ireland, complete with cell phones, office buildings and the concerns and issues facing contemporary society.

Along with murder, that most ancient of crimes.  Because some things, it seems, never change.

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A Sense of Taste, A Sense of Place,

With the arrival of the Holiday Season, everyone is focused on families, friends, and parties, which usually means food.  That’s great because I love to eat; but awful because I’m a lousy cook.  I mean world-class lousy.  I’m the gal who confused teaspoons and tablespoons in Home Ec. class and braised radishes with too much oregano. (Who braises radishes anyway?) My newlywed cooking turned Meat Loaf into Meat Cake and made my husband a permanent fan of take-out.  I’m slowly getting better at the domestic arts but it’s hard overcoming a kitchen philosophy I created years ago that states, “When it comes to cooking, I’d rather read.”  Luckily, I live in the South, a region of great writers, as well as great cooks, and, at times, those two fields overlap.  When that happens, the results are cookbooks that feed the body as well as the soul.

Cross Creek Cookery

[amazon_link asins=’B01HCAA6PO’ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’e0878d7c-9dc8-11e8-bd6a-6b909a316344′]I’ve written before about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her great love-affair with central Florida.  One of the most remarkable chapters of her wonderful book, Cross Creek, recounts Marjorie’s own development from lousy to gifted cook and her joy learning Southern cuisine. The only problem was the book was published during World War II and her rhapsodies on the Joys of Southern Food made an awful lot of American soldiers homesick.  One fellow, who loved food, wrote to her saying, “Lady, [after reading your book] I have never been through such agonies of frustration.” In response, Marjorie published “Cross Creek Cookery”, a collection of recipes and anecdotes that are equally enjoyable.  For example, there is the time she confused an electric ray with flounder and shocked herself trying to catch it.  There is also the tale of Godfrey, a Florida version of Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson who considers serving collard greens beneath his dignity. (Godfrey must have been out of his mind; collard greens are the first vegetable that made me fall in love with Southern Cooking.)  Cross Creek Cookery is the first cookbook that made me laugh out loud.

Recipies of My Life

 

But literature is more than love and laughter, and so is cooking, as Pat Conroy makes clear.  His cookbook, [amazon_textlink asin=’0385532717′ text=’Recipes of My Life’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’0d018287-9dc9-11e8-aa34-9bd32eba34a1′] describes not just the art of preparing food he came to adore, but how food can become a short-cut to memories of other times, places, and people.  I know that myself; a taste of grouper, garnished with almond slices and stuffed with grapes, takes me back to an Augustine restaurant and one of the best dinners and nights of my life.  Pat takes his readers through his memories of life and garnishes the experience with recipes that recreate the scenes.   Here are the soft-shell crabs and shrimp salad of Beaufort, South Carolina, the Scottiglia and Saltimbocca of Italy, and Eugene Walter’s Pepper obsession. But more than anything, Conroy makes clear how close good writing is to good food.  Both are the results of creative thinking and memory, distilled to levels of clinical precision.  A recipe, Conroy says, is just a story that ends in a good meal.  That is a philosophy that could make me want to learn to cook.[amazon_link asins=’0385532717′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’66ae5b93-9dc9-11e8-a10d-1d686ce27dc3′]
Tell me about the cookbooks you love to read and re-read!

The Murder Mystery No One Expects

[amazon_link asins=’1402282125′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’a92a20ae-98d0-11e8-9ba9-c9056b6a34ad’]At one point, there was just Jane Austen.  A British lady, (by which I mean gentlewoman, not a member of the aristocracy) gifted with humor, keen powers of observation, and the tenacity to create fiction in a time where few men and no women were encouraged to write. Her novels were known to humorists and English Majors but considered too esoteric for the hoi polloi.  In those days, she was just Jane Austen.
Now, Miss Austen is an industrial source.  Her six major novels have been analyzed, adapted, pillaged, and parodied beyond belief (I have friends who debate the merits of filmed version of P&P), there are shelves heavy with revisionist tales drawn from her original stories and Jane-mania  has spawned at least two books of its own: Austenland and the Jane Austen Book Society. None of this surprises me.  In our culture, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. What I did not expect was murder, that darkest, most obsessive of crimes, would be linked to Jane Austen. And yet, the tie may be true. Of course, it would take a crime writer to see it.

The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen

Enter Lindsay Ashford, a crime journalist, late of the BBC.  With a reference from one of Ms. Austen’s last letters and the analysis of a lock of Jane’s hair, Ms. Ashford realizes Chic Lit’s premier author may have expired, not from Addison’s disease, or tuberculosis, but arsenic poisoning. Add in some research, a few other strange deaths of near relations and the result is  The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen, a story that irritates as much as it charms.
Sunny, sensible, practical Jane Austen: is there any less likely candidate for murder?  Yet, Ms. Ashford concocts a theory, narrated by Anne Sharp one of the few non-relatives the real Jane Austen corresponded with.  As a governess once employed by Jane’s brother, Edward, Miss Sharp has the education and sense to recognize literary genius when she sees it. She also has the perspective to see the tangled relationships and characters in the Austen clan.
[amazon_link asins=’B01N03H0E7′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’f9564529-98d0-11e8-9095-c1e2cf8a2b63′][amazon_link asins=’1402282125,B01N03H0E7,1906784264′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’02cfa73b-98d1-11e8-9fa7-afa36d7103b9′]Character is something Lindsay Ashford occasionally does well as she brings a younger brother, Henry, to life.  This Henry, who reinvents himself and survives on his charm, has some characteristics of Jane’s ne’er-do-wells like Wickham and Henry Crawford but he is also his sister’s champion. Unfortunately, Jane Austen had six brothers and, in the interest of setting out her murder plot, Ms. Ashford forgets to give each of them the necessary distinguishing detail needed to understand her theory.  In the end, you can see Jane’s murder was one in a series of attacks on the Austen family and you can see who had means and opportunity.  A reasonable motive for this act is what’s lacking.
Still, The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen is fascinating in the research behind it and the questions it poses.  Why did Austen die at the young age of 41? Who were the real-life models behind her classic characters?  What was contained in so many of Jane’s letters that after death, her sister, Cassandra, was compelled to destroy them? In the absence of real answers, we at least have the joy of imagining what they may be.

Blossoms of Evil

The Memory

Everyone has memories they don’t like but can’t shake.  This is one of mine.
I was small and my parents were driving back through a desert in the southwestern states.  We hadn’t seen a town for hours, and I’d gotten used to seeing the endless miles of saguaro, yucca, and empty skies. So, when we started to pass a row of shacks that lined the empty road, I was surprised.  These structures didn’t seem to be part of any town or village, and it would be generous to describe them as houses.  With concave walls, covered with tarpaper and tin, they were the worst excuses for houses I’d ever seen but, judging from the faint light coming from the windows, someone seemed to be living in them.  Even odder, each shack’s sway-backed porch seemed to hold at least one shiny, white, refrigerator or washer and dryer. My mom made a noise of disgust.
 “It’s terrible the way they are treated,” she said.  I asked what she was talking about.

 

Then, with a soft, but angry voice, Mom related this country’s history concerning Native Americans as if she was telling me an unhappy bedtime story.  Attacked, betrayed, segregated and undermined for years by the white colonists and their government, the indigenous Native-Americans had been systematically corralled onto ever-smaller and poorer tracts of land and relegated to a marginalized existence.  Mom said the row of shacks we were passing was part of one reservation.  She added, “And see how the government treats them? Some official probably thought these folks would be fine if they just had modern appliances. Did you notice they don’t have electricity?”

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The Book

In a way, Killers of the Flower Moon is just another chapter in Mom’s sad tale about how white men treat American Indians.  But, instead of a misunderstanding and callous government making mistakes, this story’s a lot more personal.
Imagine a tribe actually choosing the land where they will build a reservation.  In the 1870’s, as they were being relocated, the Osage Indians did exactly that. They sought and purchased a tract of Oklahoma they believed was too rocky and poor for any white man to ever desire it. Unfortunately, neither the Osage or the U. S. Government realized the land in question covered a deep, rich, oil reserve.
Killers of the Flower Moon details what happened to the Osage tribe once the drillers struck oil. A host of schemes and deals to separate the Osage from their dividends were put into play, including price-gouging, theft, and outright murder.  This fast-paced history reads like a suspense thriller, detailing not only the conspiracy that exterminated almost an entire family, until the FBI intervened but an even wider number of Osage victims whose murders were never addressed.
It’s a fascinating story, but one that can make you rethink old ideas.  Where I grew up, everyone thought striking oil and becoming rich would be a wonderful thing.  The Osage could argue that striking it rich is the surest way to shorten your life.

The Stories We Hide

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The Story

Everyone has secrets they want to keep.
Keeping secrets is harder when you live in a small town.
Small towns are the original spots where everyone knows your name.  They also know your parents, your siblings, and whether you went to reform school or college.  But they have secrets they want to keep too. Sometimes, this can make small-town society seem like an insulated conspiracy of silence.
Until curiosity or a stranger shows up, that is.
This is the premise of Annie Barrows’s 2015 novel, The Truth According to Us. Set in the fictional town of Macedonia, West Virginia in 1938, The Truth According to Us is almost an experiment in human psychology.  What happens when a couple of curious souls look at decades of mythology and lies?
One mind belongs to Layla Beck, the WPA writer commissioned to transcribe Macedonia’s history; the other to twelve-year-old Willa Romeyn. Presented with conflicting reports, Layla has to decide what deserves to see print, the truth or a glossed over fiction. Was the town’s founder a hero or tyrant? Was their legendary preacher a charismatic saint or sexual predator?  Layla’s present and future become tied up with Macedonia’s history.  To Willa, it’s the way to demystify her family’s past.
Where does Father go when he vanishes for weeks at a time? Why does he leave his kids with Aunt Jottie?  Why doesn’t Aunt Jottie have a family and kids of her own?  At the age of twelve, Willa’s beginning to notice how the people she loves the most avoid certain topics of conversation.  In fact, sometimes they lie.  With the Macedonian virtue of ferocious devotion, Willa decides to unearth the facts and learns that truth can come at a terrible cost, even while it sets you free.

The Truth Behind the Story

On a side-note, The Truth According to Us highlights an obscure bit of history, The Federal Writers Project. I know the notion of a federal program subsidizing writers may give some people indigestion, but it was a good idea at the time.  For meager wages, writers documented histories of places and individuals that usually wouldn’t get covered: guides were written about every state in the union, and the oral histories of former slaves were transcribed. Valuable information that would have been lost altogether was saved by this work, and it trained more than a few writers that went on to literary glory including Conrad Aiken, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston and John Steinbeck. Today, our culture still enjoys the benefits of what that agency did more than eighty years ago. Not bad for a short-term, New-Deal program.
But this is background.  The Truth According to Us is what happens when a fresh light is shed on a mythology created by resentment and shame. Passions heat up faster than the dog days of summer. It’s perfect for an August read.

Redeemed by the South

[amazon_link asins=’0143118579′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’c33e494d-9f27-11e8-a68b-29dffb8a1256′]Strangers to the South take a look at this place and react in one of two ways: either they loathe it or love it.  Either they see nothing but the region’s excesses and sins and complain endlessly about both (“Oh God, it’s so hot! And what happened here! I couldn’t live in this place.), or they fall in love with the South, history, Kudzu and all.  Southerners understand both reactions because they tend to fall into the same camps, except the South is a part of their identity.  Still, love it or hate it, few people can claim they were rescued by the American South.  The exception is one dear, troubled, fictional child. Ladies and gentlemen, meet CeeCee Honeycutt, a girl who really needs saving.
Today, Cee Cee would be called an abandoned child, but they didn’t talk like that in the 60’s, when she was young.  If her father is rarely home, well, he travels for his job.  And CeeCee’s mom is…well, let’s say a bit odd. To CeeCee’s schoolmates and the citizens of their Ohio town, Camille Honeycutt is a bona fide loony, with her flamboyant behavior and fashion sense. To CeeCee, she’s mom, by turns loving and frightening, the grown-up Cee Cee looks after. Still, no one steps in to help until the Happy Cow Ice Cream truck accidentally runs over CeeCee’s mom. The funeral brings Tallulah Caldwell, a stranger who says she’s a great-aunt and invites CeeCee to move in with her in Savannah, Georgia.
These days, Savannah is probably best known as the setting of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a hothouse for eccentrics and oddballs in the 1980’s.  The Savannah of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is 20 years younger, still quirky but suitable for its younger audience. Here is a world of lush gardens, storied houses, garrulous neighbors, and sweet tea; a place where living is an art to be appreciated and savored.  Burdened by conflicted memories and thoughts of her parents, CeeCee begins her childhood over again at 12 and learns about life and friendship from the women of Savannah, white and black.  CeeCee’s Savannah is neither heaven nor hell, but a place redolent, flavorsome and alive.
Like the South, CeeCee has a conflicted past that sometimes threatens to overwhelm a good heart. But the love and acceptance of friends can move mountains, they say.  They can save an old house, or a child’s future, or even a life. That’s redemption, wherever you are in the world, folks. And on summer mornings as beautiful as this, redemption is a miracle that seems possible.

Victorian Tale/Modern Mind

I’ll admit I’ve been on a Brontë kick this summer; heat tends to drive me toward stories about simmering characters in cooler climes, a sure recipe for a Brontë book.  But, for all of my repeated readings of Charlotte Brontë‘s prose and my disaffection for sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, I never bothered to read the work of Anne Brontë.  Now, I want to bang on the front doors of all my English teachers and yell, “Why didn’t you assign her books to your courses?  What were you thinking?” Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall may be the surprise sensation of my summer reading.
 
It seems the book has always defied expectations. Published when English Women had no right to vote, own property or even have custody of their children, it’s a challenge to that “civilized” society.  It dealt with issues like addiction and adultery so realistically it was a literary sensation when it was first published. It was so controversial, that sister Charlotte tried at one point to suppress the book’s being reprinted.
The story’s subtitle could be “the mysterious new girl in town, ” and it’s told by Gilbert Markham, a young, rather satisfied, gentleman farmer whose family has “always” been part of the community.  He sees the same old friends all the time and visits the same old places with them. His mom doesn’t like his girlfriend, but that’s nothing new. Life, for Gilbert, is just a bit boring. Then strangers move into Wildfell Hall.
[amazon_link asins=’1853264881′ template=’ProductCarousel’ store=’theboothafoly-20′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’12e923c2-9f57-11e8-8d62-91c08c161465′]Everyone’s curious about the new tenants, a Mrs. Graham, and her little boy and everyone wants to know more about them. But Mrs. Graham doesn’t like to socialize.  She stays away from parties and turns down so many invitations that many people she’s anti-social. When Mrs. Graham’s in a group, she voices strong-minded opinions on subjects like alcohol and education for girls. Gilbert’s intrigued. Between his mom, his sister and the females of the village, he’s used to flattery and flirtation from women, two things Mrs. Graham won’t give him. The more he learns about her, the more he wants to know and the harder she pushes him away.   Eventually, Gilbert learns his new neighbor is hiding from her charismatic bad-boy of a husband, a man who wants to introduce her and his young son to every degrading vice in the book. It’s a complicated story, told in Victorian Language, but it reads like a modern page-turner.
 
There’s something in the urgent voice of Mrs. Graham that compels you through most of the story. You can see why she married the wrong man and how initially she tried to make the marriage work.  You understand how hard and necessary it was for her to shut the door against him and how frail is her hope of freedom.  Even when she stops speaking and Gilbert again takes up the story, Mrs. Graham’s voice is the one you remember.

About the Author-

 

Anne Bronte

It’s astounding to realize this is only Anne Brontë’s second book and her last one at that.  She died at 29, the year after  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published. More strident than Charlotte and less moody than Emily, she is the realist of that intense family: Wildfell Hall is no romantic spot like Thornfield or Wuthering Heights, it’s a big old house that sorely needs maintenance.  And, instead of vengeance or spiritual transcendence, Anne’s characters want and demand justice, a call that resonates today.  Perhaps that’s why, after almost 200 years, Anne seems the most “relevant” Brontë.  She wasn’t just the youngest Brontë sister.  She was the most modern female in the bunch.

The Obsessive Story of the Obsessed Bronte

My obsessions don’t make me a better person.  They eat up too much time and energy and can turn me into an absolute bore but, they are part of me.  I find an interesting subject and suddenly I have to know everything about it.  That’s the mark of an obsessive and, as I say, it has its downfalls.  But sometimes that drive yields obscure treasures.
Obsession is one reason I love Daphne Du Maurier’s stories. Two of her most famous works, (Rebecca and My Cousin, Rachel) are about the mania of being haunted by a subject.  And, according to at least one biography, the Du Maurier had a literary obsession that I share: the Bronte family. Trust me, this makes sense.
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The Unforgettable Bronte Siblings

The Bronte sisters are a fascinating subject, whether you are studying literature or history. Three adult sisters, with minimal resources, strove to support themselves as writers, when the publishing world of publishing was pretty much closed to women. The sisters created poems and novels that often dealt with obsession. The novels become best-sellers and then literary classics, studied and loved ever since.  The Bronte girls all attained incredible literary success but Ms. Du Maurier didn’t want to write about them.  Instead, she chose to write about the great failure of this talented family: their brother, Patrick Branwell Bronte.  Story-wise, this makes sense too.
The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is a look at the then-forgotten brother of three literary geniuses (genii?) and figure out why he failed. By all accounts, it should have been the other way around. Young Branwell, with his imagination and brains, led his sisters in games of imaginary world-building,  He should have been the Bronte writer the world remembers.  With his superior education and opportunities, he should have, at least, been able to support himself. Instead, Branwell ruined every chance that he got and lived off his father or his sisters.  In the end, Branwell’s talent and gifts were outweighed by his flaws: an overwhelming ego, little self-discipline, and a destructive addiction to alcohol. Still, he’s an interesting failure and a brilliant psychological study, perfect for Du Maurier’s mind.
Perhaps Branwell’s disastrous luck was contagious because The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte did not sell well, even though it was written by a popular author. After publication, it was rarely read.  But, like Branwell, if his biography is a failure, it’s an interesting one.  It’s the story of a man who had a gifted but uncontrollable mind.  In other words, it’s one obsessive writing about another.

Betrayed by Your Closest Friend

The Swans

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It’s the story literary freaks, pop culture geeks and gossip mavens all know. The story of a covey of fascinating young women who were known for being beautiful; graceful as swans. Beauty made them famous and envied and rich but it didn’t make them happy, Instead, Beauty made them insecure and lonely.  They wanted friends who’d value them instead of their looks or the powerful men they had married. Then one day, this flock of sad, lovely, women befriended an unusual man,  An odd, little man, who liked but didn’t lust after them. A clever talker of a man who cheered them up with the juicy gossip, whenever they were blue.  The strange storyteller listened to each woman when she talked. and told each woman he adored her.  And, because he was gay and understanding and fun, the women showered him with gifts and friendship.  They even shared their deepest secrets with him.
Secrets he wrote down.

The Story

This is the setup for The Swans of Fifth Avenue, the story of a fascinating literary scandal.  It stars some of the original American taste-makers of the mid-20th century like Babe Paley, and Slim Keith, and Truman Capote, the man they befriended. When he was a young, semi-successful writer, these women and many of their friends each found Capote to be a kindred spirit. He made them laugh and praised not only their faces and forms (referring to them collectively as “swans”) but their intelligence, taste, and souls.  In turn, they supported him during the lean years and celebrated with him as they all found success.  Then, when he was desperate for one more book, he published their nastiest secrets with just enough fiction on top to turn their humiliating memories into a guessing game for the reading public.  At least one woman included in the story killed herself the day that she got a printed copy. The rest of the women ended the friendship.   And was Capote surprised by their reaction?
Oddly enough, he was.

The Summary

In one sense, The Swans of Fifth Avenue tells the story of how friendship is made and destroyed.  It captures a bit of America in the center of the 20th century.  Like Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, Swans is an amalgamation of research and imagination now known as the “non-fiction novel” But mostly, it’s an old-fashioned, gossipy fun book to read, perfect for the summer.
 
Capote, I think, would have loved being the star of this story. His swans, I believe, would not.
 

 

Murder Takes a Hike

Summer is here in all but fact, the season when most people take vacations.  If you grew up in the United States, the odds are that your vacation history includes one or more of our National Parks.  That’s great! The National Park system is a great idea: beautiful spaces owned by and open to the public. The only problem, for the addicted reader, is you can’t look at the natural beauty while you’re reading a book. I mean, as much as I adore the outdoors, I start jonesing for a good story to read, even when I’m face to face with the Grand Canyon or El Capitan. Of course, the second my face turns to the book, I feel guilty about ignoring Nature.  I can’t enjoy both together.

At least I thought so until my friend, Edna, introduced me to the Anna Pigeon mystery series by Nevada Barr.  Why are those books the solution? Because Anna Pigeon is a Park Ranger and each of her adventures occurs in a National Park.   Let’s start out with the first book in the series, the award-winning Track of the Cat.  It’s set in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a spot my folks dragged me to when I was small.  It’s a beautiful, barren, desert kind of place, full of antiquities and cactus.  That’s the world the tourists see.  To Anna Pigeon, Park Ranger and heroine of the series, the park is so much more.

Of course, she sees the land and its animals: beautiful, terrifying, vulnerable and dangerous.  She also sees the Park’s human visitors. There are the ill-prepared, day-tripping tourists and permanent neighbors who have their own agendas for Park land. Anna also sees the word of Park Service employees many of whom work for a pittance in order to keep the land and its visitors safe.  When another Ranger is found dead, it becomes Anna’s mission to bring the responsible party to justice.

Like all good literary detectives, Anna is at least as complex as the victims and perpetrators she pursues and that’s why I’m continuing with the series.  Thanks to Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta and Val McDermid’s Carol Jordan and Tony Hill, I’ve started expecting fictional detectives to fight City Hall and their own personal demons while they track down a killer.  On this score, Nevada Barr and Anna Pigeon don’t disappoint.

So, get out the map and decide which vacation spot you’ll visit this year.  Remember to pack your camera, bug repellent, and a big enough water canteen.   And, if you’re visiting a National Park, be nice to the Rangers, especially if they catch you reading an Anna Pigeon mystery. Park Rangers need fans too.

 

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