The Outlaw Album – Daniel Woodrell
It had been awhile since I read a Woodrell book, so I glanced at the library’s offerings and grabbed this. I didn’t know it was a short story collection and may have skipped it had I known. In fact, calling it a short story collection might be giving it too much credit. It feels more like Woodrell unloading his notebook of half-fleshed out ideas and packaging them for the benefit of his publisher. There are a couple decent nuggets in here, but many of the pieces feel more like writing exercises that full-blown ideas.

Night Heron – Adam Brookes
I follow a few politics and national security folks on Twitter who, occasionally, like to throw out ideas for good spy novels. I had never heard of Brookes before but his name recently came up in one of those conversations as an author who really gets the tradecraft side of the genre right. Throw in that this is the first in a trilogy, and it went right onto my To Read list.

Night Heron begins with a prisoner, called Peanut because of his physical shape, at a labor camp in remote western China breaking free and returning to Beijing. He slowly works his way back into society as we learn about his past life: he worked in the missile technology section of the Chinese military but was imprisoned after attacking a soldier during the 1989 student protests. He has another secret as well: he and several of his colleagues had passed top secret information on to the British. His contact in the 1980s was a British agent who posed as a journalist, so he seeks out a British journalist to reopen his connection with London.

That journalist is Philip Mangan, a free lancer who has spent years in China and occasionally run afoul of the government for his coverage of religious and ethnic minorities they persecute. Mangan has no experience with espionage and blanches when first contacted by Peanut. When he mentions this contact to a friend at the British embassy, alarms go off all over the British intelligence service and Mangan is quickly forced to serve as chief contact with Peanut.

Like many spy novels, there is a good deal of setup and placing of pieces before the final 150 or so pages bring everything together and roar by at a quick pace. Things get rather dark over those pages and Mangan and Peanut feel the hands of the Chinese security service slowly closing around them. There are a couple rather unlikely escapes, but given the genre they seem appropriate.

Brookes was a journalist in China for much of his career, so he writes of the country and its government from a place of familiarity. And given how well the spy stuff flows, you wonder what his personal history is beyond just chasing stories for newspapers and TV. I’m very interested to see where he takes me in the next two books in the series.

Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows – Richard Cahan and Michael Williams
I don’t usually write about the photography books I flip through. But this one is special. I imagine some of you have heard the story of Vivian Maier. She served as a nanny and caretaker in the Chicago area for nearly 50 years, almost always carrying a camera with her. She was constantly taking pictures, but never shared them with anyone. In 2007, after she failed to pay her rent on a storage facility where many of her photos were stored, they went up for auction. They were split among several buyers who purchased them having no idea what they were getting. It turned out Maier was one of the most interesting photographers of her age, capturing the details of life in the American suburbs and city from the late 1950s through the 1990s.

Following her death in 2009, when more of her photos were discovered, it became apparent how important a find her work was. Showings were arranged at some of the most important galleries in the US. To date five books of her work have been published. Most famously, the documentary Finding Vivian Maier was released in 2013.

Her story is fascinating not just because of her work, but also because she was such a reclusive and mysterious woman. As she never published her work during her life, there are no deep, contemporary biographies of her. The people that purchased her photos have had to dig through public records to learn of her childhood in New York and France, talk to the families she worked for over the years (including, briefly, Phil Donahue), and seek hints in the captions she only occasionally wrote on the pictures she had printed. The portrait we have of her is of a lonely, hard woman with an eye for the areas in which modern society lets down its citizens. She had a passion for the underprivileged. She generally worked for rather well-to-do families, and would often take the children she cared for into poor, run down sections of Chicago to both take pictures and show those kids that there were people with very different lives a short bus ride away from their homes.

While much of Maier’s story is sad – especially her final years – I find a lot of inspiration in her story. There was the way she lived her life, with no apologies to anyone for her behavior, appearance, or beliefs. There was her empathy for others, something I believe is sorely lacking these days. And there is the impact she has had on so many others. It doesn’t matter that she died nearly penniless and didn’t enjoy any of the critical approval of her work. Her photos make people stop and think. They show how even if the results don’t come until well after you have passed, you can still have a profound emotional effect on people if you do something that you love.