Book Report: Books peel back layers of grim reality
Lines of book people stood in the rain outside the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates at Wordstock, the one-day literary event held in the park blocks recently.
But others, like myself, queued up for the writer David Grann at the First Congregational Church. Inside a beautiful venue, Grann talked about an ugly period of American history. His book, "Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI," (Doubleday, $28.95) was five years in the making and is a chilling look at the murders of Osage Indians in Oklahoma in the 1920s.
Amazon just selected it as the best book of the year, and it's being developed into a feature film by Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese.
Grann related how he was in a small museum looking at a photograph from which a figure had been torn out. What the person did was too terrible, Grann was told, and locals described him simply as "the devil." Grann asked to see the rest of the photo, and he was off to the races, doggedly researching a series of terrible murders and charting the rise of the FBI under its first director J. Edgar Hoover.
The Osage were invited to the White House by President Thomas Jefferson and assured their lands would always remain theirs. Broken promise followed broken promise until the Osage moved to a part of the country they thought no one would ever want. As "luck" would have it, the land included vast supplies of oil making them very rich and targets of scams big and small that included murder, poisonings and bombings.
Grann spent five years writing, visiting Oklahoma twice a year for one and two months at a time. He visited graves, interviewed Osage, pored over genealogy charts, and sifted through archives. Filing under the Freedom of Information Act, he uncovered records and testimonies he called remarkably frank.
"No one thought anyone would ever read them," he said.
Thanks to Grann, we will.
• Istanbul, Turkey-based writer Elliot Ackerman came to Portland for Wordstock and to take part in a panel on Syria. Amid photos of Syria's bombed markets and news reports of the refugee crisis, it's hard to grasp more than shadows of this awful war. Can fiction help produce a more lasting picture, or give us a better vantage?
Ackerman's new book, "Dark at the Crossing" (Knopf, $25.95), is an uneasy novel about an Iraqi-American named Haris Abidi, who earned his U.S. citizenship as an interpreter for the U.S. military during the Iraq war.
The beginning of the book is told in flashbacks, and we see Abidi unable to tell who to trust. A fatal miscalculation results in the death of an American military fighter. As reward for his military service, Abidi earns a drab life as a janitor at a Michigan college, where his sister attends classes. He finds himself more alone after she marries a rich Kuwaiti and leaves the United States.
"I brought you to this country only to have you move back to that part of the world," he tells her.
Abidi decides to find purpose by becoming a fighter against the Assad regime in Syria. But when he tries to cross into Syria, he's robbed of his belongings, money and pride by a fixer who betrays him. Penniless, Abidi falls in with Amir and Daphne, an estranged couple who live in limbo in Antep, 60 miles north of Aleppo. Daphne and Abidi fall in a fatal kind of love, and each is determined to get to Syria for different reasons.
Reading this book is disturbing. At the same time, we feel grateful that we're reading about it and not living it.