Larry Cox COLUMN
“AMERICAN TABOO: A MURDER IN THE PEACE CORPS” by Philip Weiss (HarperCollins, $25.95)
Philip Weiss, a contributing writer to the New York Times, was backpacking through Samoa when he first heard details of a sensational murder that had just occurred on the South Pacific Island of Tonga.
In October 1976, Deborah Gardner, a beautiful, young Peace Corps volunteer, was found bleeding to death in her hut. She had been stabbed 22 times. Several hours later, a second volunteer, Dennis Privens, turned himself in to the Tongan police. The Peace Corps hired an attorney to defend Privens and after a nine-day trial, the accused was found guilty but insane. Immediately after the verdict, Privens left the island after Tongan officials had been assured by the State Department that Privens would be hospitalized upon his return to the United States. That promise was, unfortunately, not kept. He would, instead, eventually become the manager of the Brooklyn Social Security office at an annual salary of $78,000. And who says crime doesn’t pay?
The murder of Deborah Gardner had become a mere footnote and that disturbed Weiss. He became determined to investigate the case and sort out the truth. Was Dennis Privens a disturbed psychopath or had he manipulated the system to get away with coldblooded murder? “American Taboo” is a gripping tale of murder, conspiracy and cover-up that is meticulously researched and vividly written. This is a profoundly moving human story and one of the better true crime books of the summer.
4 out of 5
“THE CHOICE” by Irene Eber (Schocken Books, $23)
In 1980, shortly after her 50th birthday, Irene Eber returned to her father’s hometown of Mielee, Poland. It was a bittersweet journey filled with extraordinary memories. In 1938, at the height of the Nazi regime, Eber and her family were expelled from Germany. Forced to leave the country with little more than the clothes they wore, they sought refuge in Poland.
“The Choice” is a moving account of the deportation, starvation, filth and random mass murders the Eber family encountered during those difficult years. In vivid, moving prose, the author recalls a decision that would change her life forever, namely to escape by herself. She survived the war by hiding in a chicken coop for 20 months. Her father and several other members of her family were not so fortunate: They died in the camps.
After the war, Eber moved to California where she earned a doctorate in Chinese history at Claremont Graduate School. She eventually immigrated to Israel where she teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
This is an important, personal memoir marked with grace and insight.
3 out of 5
“A LOVESOME THING” by Prue Leith (Thomas Dunne Books, $24.95)
Prue Leith is one of England’s top chefs. The publication of 12 cookbooks, her frequent appearances on the BBC and a thriving school of food and wine have made her a culinary star throughout the United Kingdom. Even the best of chefs, however, make mistakes. Leith’s latest concoction, a romance novel, is a case in point. It is half-baked and so gooey that reading it is much like going down in a sea of syrup for the third time.
At the center of her story is Lotte Warren. Shortly after her 40th birthday, she discovers her husband, Sam, is having an affair. She gets a quick divorce and eventually applies for a job as head gardener to billionaire Brody Keegan. Despite the fact her new boss is very much married, she finds herself attracted to him and – pardon the expression – a love affair begins to take root.
The plot is predictable, the characters one-dimensional, and the writing plodding. Other than that, “A Lovesome Thing” is perfect summertime entertainment for the truly simple-minded.
1 out of 5
“SLIPPING INTO PARADISE: WHY I LIVE IN NEW ZEALAND” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (Ballantine Books, $24.95)
Imagine a place with friendly, gentle people, almost perfect weather, sun-drenched beaches, tropical forests, no snakes, and little or no crime. Writer Jeffrey Masson found just such a place.
After traveling extensively throughout the world, Masson found himself in New Zealand four years ago and was so impressed, he returned to California to persuade his wife and two sons to relocate there with him.
Surrounded by unpolluted blue waters and sumptuous greenery, Masson paints a vivid picture of his new home in Auckland. Just outside his front door is a beach and to the rear of the property is a lush, prehistoric forest. In his new book, he reflects on more than just the beauty of the area, however. He ponders such weighty subjects as the meaning of home, the importance of acting on intuition and the things that can happen if you have the courage to take a chance.
“Slipping Into Paradise” is a memoir and travelogue laced with just the right amount of philosophical reflection. There are fascinating anecdotes, little-known facts and an assortment of illustrations in full color. The only thing more satisfying than Masson’s narrative would be an actual visit to this incredible country.
Masson has written more than a dozen books including at least two best sellers, “The Pig Who Sang to the Moon” and “When Elephants Weep.”
4 out of 5