Maryland Books

August 30, 2009

'A Question of Freedom,' R. Dwayne Betts, Avery, 240 pages, $23.

A voracious read- er, R. Dwayne Betts grew up with books - thanks to his mother, a single parent who encouraged her son to excel in school. Then on a fateful night in December 1996, he tapped on a car window with a gun and unleashed a nightmare that lasted eight years. His memoir, "A Question of Freedom," chronicles Betts' experiences during those years: from being shuffled (in handcuffs and shackles) among Virginia's worst prisons; to witnessing the insanity of correctional officers using shotguns to break up arguments; to musing on society's notion that incarceration rehabilitates people by treating them inhumanely. Long on literary devices and somewhat short on logical connections, the poetically written account describes Betts' coming of age in jail. The story begins as 16-year-old Betts, who grew up in Suitland, is arrested for attempted carjacking with a deadly weapon. It ends 13 years later as Betts, a published poet and graduate of the University of Maryland, reflects on the events that culminated in his jail time but eventually led to his considerable accomplishments. Ultimately, Betts' success has little to do with prison rehabilitation and more to do with his love for reading, an inspiration that helped him escape what he aptly calls an adult version of "Lord of the Flies."

'The Arms Maker of Berlin,' Dan Fesperman, Alfred A. Knopf, 384 pages, $24.95.

A connection exists between retired professor Gordon Wolfe and an anti-Nazi group code-named the White Rose. Nat Turnbull's job is to find out what it is before more people get hurt. The hero of Dan Fesperman's latest thriller, "The Arms Maker of Berlin," Turnbull travels from Pennsylvania to New York to Berlin as he follows the trail of archival materials that Wolfe supposedly stole. The novel begins as Wolfe, Turnbull's mentor, is arrested and Turnbull, a professor of history at a sleepy Pennsylvania college, is taken by the FBI from his library study carrel. After Wolfe dies in prison, seemingly from a heart attack, Turnbull tries to understand the older man's cryptic last words. Moving the plot from present to past and from the U.S. to Germany, Fesperman combines several stories to make up this busy, multilayered narrative. A former foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and winner of the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, Fesperman has written five previous novels set in world hot spots. With compelling plot twists, the nonstop action in this new book involves theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer as well as two mysterious German women who may be related - one from the 1940s and the other from 2007. As the two women appear and disappear, Turnbull must find them and learn how they connect to the rest of the sometimes maddening puzzle.

'The Wolf in the Parlor,' Jon Franklin, Henry Holt and Co., 304 pages, $25.

A discursive account of the human-dog connection, Jon Franklin's "The Wolf in the Parlor" is part story of Franklin's attachment to a poodle named Charlie, part musing on topics ranging from writing to teaching to studying, and part summary of the information Franklin gleaned from the few facts known about the evolution of dogs. According to Franklin (a Pulitzer Prize winner and former Evening Sun reporter), very little has been written about that evolution because almost no one has allocated funds to study it. Franklin, who wasn't a dog fan until Charlie entered his life, says women - not men - were responsible for domesticating the wolf. Women cooked the food and disposed of any scraps, which enticed "follower wolves" to stay near humans. Women also chose those wolf cubs that might be used to entertain young children as well as those that would end up as dinner. Over time, these wolves became gentler than their wild cousins. Their brains, jaws and teeth became smaller. As Franklin sees it, these wolves evolved into dogs over eons as they formed a partnership with people. Dogs relied on humans to think for them while humans relied on dogs because they connected us to our feelings. Wishful thinking? Perhaps. The book contains little solid evidence, but Franklin offers a thought-provoking argument for more research.

Diane Scharper reviews local-interest books for The Baltimore Sun. She teaches English at Towson University.

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