By Secret We Mean Sex

It's my own fault. I wanted to read a biography next, I scanned the biography offerings on Kindle, saw one about Oscar Wilde and clicked "Buy Now" instead of "free sample". So let me make something quite clear: the "secret life" in question is Oscar Wilde's sex life.

Neil McKenna makes the case that no single biography can do justice to the whole life of any subject and proceeds from here. He set out to tell the story of Oscar Wilde as a homosexual man in Victorian England and most else in Oscar's life takes a back seat to that. This isn't the book I set out to read but I'm not disappointed to have read it. Somewhere along the way I received the wisdom that Oscar Wilde was just another metrosexual Victorian man until Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) rolled onto the scene. McKenna makes it clear that was not the case.

There is a whiff about this book of "reclaiming" Oscar. Yes, I'm convinced Oscar was a gay man and I'm certainly interested in rereading some of his work in light of McKenna's interpretations of Dorian Gray and Willie Hughes. On the other hand: Who knew reading about another person's sex life in such detail could be a chore? When Bosie and Oscar aren't bedding rent boys or other fetching creatures, they're racking up charges at five star restaurants and hotels. Unfortunately, that's all they seem to do a lot of the time and it gets a little dull. Maybe it's the mindless promiscuity involved, maybe it's that I'm not a gay man or maybe my Puritan root go stronger than I realize but by the time the bailiffs came for Oscar I admit I was relieved.

McKenna is a tad myopic. Anything and everything is examined for tell tale signs that Oscar was gay and writing for a gay audience. Not surprisingly, he always finds signs. From Dorian Grey - ok, that's an easy one - to the Happy Prince, McKenna will have you seeing hidden messages everywhere. Bless his heart there isn't an inanimate object in your house that isn't a "code word for" for "Uranian love" when McKenna's on the case. This can lead to some giggle-worthy interpretations, my favorite being the "persistent rumor" that Saint Sebastian wasn't shot through with a hundred arrows by gang-raped by the entire Praetorian Guard and bled to death. Where do you even start on a theory like that? I'll start with the fact that I've never, ever heard that before nor does it make a lot of sense especially since the fact that the "arrows" didn't kill Sebastian is one of the reasons he was made a saint. He was actually beaten to death. (Unless I'm once again behind on the rumors.)

Still, I can't write this book off as all agenda and no substance. McKenna does a create a compelling portrait of Oscar Wilde as a man who acceptance his sexuality and genuinely loved Bosie. Now why he loved that mess of a human being is anyone's guess. Bosie may have been the cat's meow in his day but that's no excuse to letting him in the house. Selfish, bratty, vindictive, nasty, and way too interested in young boys, Bosie nearly single-handedly creates the scandal that destroys Oscar and then tops all this by going straight in later life. You'll be hard pressed not to side with Oscar friends who want to keep him away from this human wrecking ball.

This is an interesting book. Not the definitive biography of Oscar Wilde but an interesting exploration into a relatively unknown aspect of Victorian life. Just bear in mind that sometimes a cigar is a cigar even when the smoker in question is Oscar Wilde.

Skidmore Confidential

Years ago I saw an episode of Hawaii Five-O that featured a white trash family that came to Honolulu on a murder-robbery spree. When McGarrett finally brought them to justice the Deliverance-level-creepy mother announced: "It wasn't killing cause they wasn't family and it wasn't stealing cause they was dead." After reading In Broad Daylight I'm convinced that this was also the motto of infamous "Skidmore Bully" Ken Rex McElroy.

The bare outlines of the story are still well-known: a man who terrorized the residents of a small town in Missouri is gunned down in broad daylight, practically at high-noon, yet everyone present claims they didn't see a thing. Vigilantism? Frontier justice? Fear? No one was ever convicted or charged in the killing. At the time reporters and commentators tied themselves in knots trying to dissect the meaning of it all, usually ending with a degree of head-shaking "how could it happen?" How could otherwise decent, law-abiding people decide that killing someone was the only solution? Harry N MacLean set out to understand the whole story - from the beginning - and succeeds in finding meaning where so many others failed.

The story MacLean tells is profoundly depressing. In the annals of the true crime genre this has to be one of the only books in which the victim flat out "needed killing." Ken McElroy had a tough childhood that clearly leaves him with little ambition and fewer options. What he does to the people of Nodaway County goes beyond anyone's concept of taking it out on society, however. McElroy feels wronged and owed by everyone but what explains his taste for very young girls? He's a one man crime spree - stealing livestock, raping young girls, threatening people with shotguns, making late night threatening phone calls, etc. Through it all McElroy retains a sense that he is the one who has been wronged.

All of this is terrible but what is truly horrific is the fact that McElroy is not held accountable for his actions. Over 20 indictments equal zero convictions. Blame it on his "slick" attorney or blame it on McElroy's relentless talent for intimidating potential witnesses, it's just not quite explanation enough. It's hard to read this book and not come to believe that justice is available only for some in America. Nodaway was a poor county with few law enforcement officers that rated little attention from the state, or anyone else for that matter. The people of Skidmore were on their own.

MacLean convincingly portrays the townspeople's growing sense of terrified helplessness. Even after they've summoned up the courage to testify against McElroy and see him finally convicted he was still free on bail to park outside their homes fondling one of his many shotguns or make not so veiled death-threats. What happened seems inevitable in MacLean's telling.

This is a true crime classic for reason. It's well-written, thoughtful and says something about the society that produced all the participants. You won't leave this book feeling much sympathy for Ken McElroy but you may find yourself looking a little closer the next time you drive through a hard-luck town in the middle of nowhere.

You Gotta Have a Gimmick

Writing a mystery series can't be easy. You have to have characters who are compelling enough to support multiple books, you need to dream up a new mystery in within the constraints of the series, you need to move the lives of the main characters forward while still propelling the mystery along, and you need to put up with readers like me who love a good series but don't like the recurring characters to become the main event. Then there's also a more recent trend in mystery series: just like the strippers in Gypsy, you gotta have a gimmick.

Ellen Crosby's gimmick is wine. Her Wine Country series features a plucky mystery-solving heroine - Lucie Montgomery - who runs her family's vineyard in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and the plots usually involve, well, wine. This is a series is more cozy than hard boiled with numerous cups of coffee and tea being consumed in the proceedings. Lucie has lots of friends and family roaming through the book. Older men are "like a father to her", she has a "beloved grandfather", and everyone freely offers relationship advice. Quite frankly, it's the sort of book that has to work hard not to get on my nerves.

Unfortunately Crosby writes this series in the first person. That's an odd choice in the cozy sub-genre and generally a tough one to pull off in any mystery series. It can work if, like Dennis Lehane's Patrick Kenzie, the story is framed by the narrator's worldview but if the story is framed by the narrator talking about her own life and her friends it's difficult for the narrator not to come across as a self-obsessed, self-justifying bore. It's even worse when the writer tries to fit in a lot of backstory that isn't directly tied to the mystery. Only 44 pages in and Lucie has twice told us she spent "months in Catoctin General learning to walk again" which comes across as poignant the first time and slightly self-pitying the second time. Then there's the fact that Lucie can't even have dinner without telling us about her grandfather's "famous" cheesecake recipe. Since her grandfather is a) dead and b) not part of the mystery at hand this sort of thing earns a rousing "who cares?" from me. Lucie isn't a particularly witty narrator nor is her worldview unique and Crosby's action follows Lucie's days in too close detail. (Do you really want to read about the narrator's intake of ibuprofen?) Too often she comes across as an over privileged woman who's too eager to throw herself a pity party. The mystery - the murder of an unlikable woman - isn't terribly compelling either.

I'm not the likely target for this book. I love mysteries but I'm not a fan of this kind - I like my recurring characters to app ear but not dominate - and I rarely think about wine unless I'm ordering it or drinking it. I also hold mysteries printed in hardcover to a higher standard than paperback originals. This isn't the worse book I've read this year - The Great Upheaval established too high a standard to be beaten - but it's a disappointment. It's also a reminder that I should know better than to read books with main characters who spell the name Lucy with an "ie".

Oh yes, you can

One of my very least favorite plot devices is the foolish/impetuous action which imperils the heroine. Double annoyance points if the heroine's impetuous foolishness is powered by an alleged concern for others. Twenty pages into Ellen Crosby's The Bordeaux Betrayal plucky Lucie Montgomery is confronted with an overturned SUV in a river. Wisely, she firsts calls 911 to summon help. Nobly, and despite needing a cane to walk, Lucie ventures into the river to see if the driver is alive and if she can help before the ambulance arrives. So far, so good. Sadly, the driver is dead.

Let's have an I.Q. test, shall we?

Should Lucie:
  1. Go back to the riverbank to await help?
  2. Go back to the riverbank and call 911 again to update them
  3. Go back to the riverbank and polish your cane
  4. Attempt to remove the driver - who is suspended upside down - from the SUV and take her back to shore

Yes, answers 1 through 3 are viable options. Option 4 is what Lucie does, resulting, you guessed it, physical injury, a lost cane and a very suspicious scene for the police to happen upon. And when someone asks Lucie WHY she engaged in such epic stupidity she tells them "I couldn't just leave her hanging there."

Oh yes, you can, Lucie. Especially since you had no reasonable chance of getting her back to shore, you numb skull.

A Flaw in the Plot


I don't know how I got into this historical mystery kick. No, wait, I do know. It's all because of C.S. Harris and Sebastian St Cyr. Once I bought all the books in that series Amazon started tempting me with "others who purchased this book also bought." I'm such an easy mark. This is my third mystery set in the Victorian era with a heroine who wants to break out of the accepted role of women and a hero with a past. At least no one has psychic powers in this one.

On the other hand: Victoria Regina, we hardly knew ye.

The plot in A Flaw in the Blood centers around the death of Queen Victoria's beloved consort Prince Albert and the question of how hemophilia entered the Hanover-Saxe-Coburg-Gotha bloodline. If you're expecting the standard prissy widow in serious morning version of Queen Victoria be warned, this Victoria has a secret diary and isn't afraid to confide in it. The narrative is split between third-person accounts of the adventures of English Doctor Georgiana Armistead and Irish-born lawyer Patrick Flanagan, the dastardly efforts of German Count Wolfgang von Stuhlen to silence them and Victoria's secret diary. The action lives up to its "A Novel of Suspense" subtitle by constantly putting Georgiana and Patrick in mortal danger, usually at the hands of von Stuhlen. But is he acting on Victoria's orders or is she just another mark in his game?

I'm hard pressed to explain exactly what didn't work for me in this book without giving away key plot points. I don't want to do that because this book isn't bad at all, it's decently written and I'm sure many an intelligent mystery fan would find it enjoyable. So I'll try to convey my reservations without treading too close to the plot. The writing in general is solid. Barron does occasionally write dialog in phonetic dialect, something that bugs me beyond measure when it's over done but it was tolerable here.

There are a few problems here thought and chief among them being the characterizations of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, both of which strain credibility. It's ingenuous, I suppose, to have the Little Miss Perfect who ruled England for over 60 years be diabolically ruthless but I couldn't quite swallow that. Strong-willed, spoiled and a little wacky after Albert died, yes. Sex-obsessed and potentially murderous? Not so much. At first her diary confidences are merely surprising - the idea that Victoria desperately needed an outlet for her true feelings rings true. But would Victoria really have written about Albert's "erection surging"?
Nor could I buy the idea that Prince Albert was SO principled and so innocent that he would give up his hard won personal power. Or that he was so principled he couldn't tell when what was "right" might in fact cause national if not international turmoil. An "Angelic Being" is one thing, a village idiot is quite another. Of course, I think I'd buy that quicker than I would that he was a feminist.

Georgiana and Patrick are the least fleshed out characters in the book. Part of the problem is that keeping thinking and saying the same things. Georgiana can't let too long go by without declaring "I'm a doctor" and Patrick has to moon over her at least once a chapter. It doesn't leave them a lot of room to grow. It also got a little tiring for me but then I'd rather "observe" a character than be "told" about them. Patrick thought about how much he worshipped Georgie but I was never too sure what the attraction was for him. Same with Georgie who's too frequently reminding Patrick and anyone else within earshot that she is a doctor! I'm all for a little anachronistic I-am-woman-hear-me-roar but Georgie veered into sandwich board territory at times. Also, what drove a woman to make such an unconventional choice against such enormous odds? Sure she was intrigued and her "guardian" was a famous doctor but that's not exactly depth of characterization. By contrast the villain Von Stuhlen and even the revisionist version of Queen Victoria are better drawn. You can't help but get the feeling that Barron had more fun writing for those two. Von Stuhlen has a key advantage over all the other characters in that he has a motivation for his actions that makes sense.

The plot is intriguing enough. But even there the links to Georgiana and Patrick were too stretched to be convincing. If you can believe that Prince Albert, an arch traditionalist in most matters, would consult a woman doctor on the topic of cholera and public sewage, than you're doing better than me and you probably stand a better chance of enjoying this book.

Amazon's new ranking system

Last weekend Amazon changed (updated?) the way it ranks reviewers on its site. On the whole, it seems fine to me. For one thing, it's their site and they can rank any way they see fit.

The biggest change is that if someone consistently gives a reviewer positive votes, they're listed as a "fan" and their votes don't count. On the one hand that seems fair: the end of block voting. On the other hand: it assumes that all "fans" aren't rating a review on content but on their relationship with the reviewer. Then there is the opposite of fans, what someone on the Vine Forums referred to as a "nemesis". And what about the yahoos who vote based on whether they agree with the opinions expressed?

There's probably no easy way to manage this.

Damn Fool Business in the Balkans

For someone who's quite interested in the Balkans, I've started but failed to finish a distressing number of books on the topic: Misha Glenny's 700 pager, a two-volume history of Serbia, a book on Greece's wars of independence, etc. I though the problem is that the topic is too large for one book until I found Mark Mazower's The Balkans: A Concise History. In less than 250 pages Mazower covers not just the basics but the major issues as well. He also manages to upend a few long-held but factually unsupported beliefs.

The outline is simple, first cover the land and the people, then life under the Ottoman Empire, then the struggles for "independence" (definitely a relative term in this instance) and finally the events of the 20th century. By the end I understood just how empty the concept of nationalism truly was in the Balkans in the 19th century, the roles of the Greek Orthodox Churches, the Austrian Empire and Russia, and the allure that fascism held for these newly emergent nations in the 1930s. That's a lot for 250 pages. That Mazower also manages to take on the myths of the "violent" Balkans and how swell it was to be a non-Muslim in the Ottoman Empire is truly impressive.

(That last one has always amazed me. It's one thing to rightly point out the relatively better treatment the Ottoman Empire afforded to non-Muslims compared to non-Christians during specific periods of history but the sugar-coating that's gone on in the last 10 or so years is just ... lame, not to mention uninformed. It requires total ignorance of the whole picture and takes portions of society out of context thus draining them of meaning. I really hate "histories" that insist on having "heroes" and "villains", no matter who's occupying either category it's bad scholarship. /rant mode off)

This one's a winner and I'm definitely going back for more Modern Library Chronicles and more about the Balkans.

Contourless Visions

Patty Hearst was almost captured in my home town. Ok, not quite - there were just reported sightings of her there but that was the most interesting thing that had happened there in a decade. Maybe that's why the Symbionese Liberation Army fascinated me as a child. For one thing, the Patty Hearst kidnapping story was wall-to-wall for weeks. Then Patty showed up at a bank robbery and in those days before the Stockholm Syndrome it was assumed that the heiress had had her consciousness raised by her kidnappers. I wouldn't have voiced my opinion exactly this way since I wasn't even 10 years old but, seriously, what a crock of shit. Did anyone really think that after Patty was dragged screaming from her home the kidnappers treated her to a crash course in Trotsky?

As usual, I digress, because there were many things about the SLA that intrigued. What, for example, is a Symbion and why did it need liberating? Is it any wonder that I had the vague idea this was all connected to the Lebanese civil war? In news reports the SLA was talked about in the same breath as the Baader-Meinhof gang. If the SLA was vague, the Baader-Meinhof gang was practically a ghost. By the time I became aware of them there wasn't a Baader or a Meinhof on the scene which only added to the confusion. Sometimes they were referred to as the Red Army Faction making it easy to confuse them with the Red Brigade. A few years later members of the Weather Underground starting turning themselves into the police after years, well, underground. It seemed like the Seventies were crawling with middle class white kids sashaying around throwing bombs. Why they were throwing bombs had something to do, vaguely again, with the Vietnam war.

I couldn't make sense of it then and for years later I couldn't find any books (in those pre Web days) to explain even the basics let alone attempt to answer any of the larger questions. Finally some thoughtful research is being applied to this era, starting with the incredible documentary Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst. Then there was Susan Braudy's slightly less scholarly but oh-so-much fun Family Circle about Kathy Boudin of Weather Underground Fame. Both are entertaining and illuminating of the individuals involved. What's been missing for me is a deeper understanding of what the "radicals" in question where trying to achieve. That's where Bringing the War Home comes in.

It's hard to overstate Jeremy Varon's accomplishment. He tackles the Baader-Meinhof Gang (Red Army Faction or RAF) and the Weather Underground - two groups as focused on their own myth-making as on the "change" they sought to affect - and rescues them from being either "left wing nuts" or "revolutionary heroes". He makes a clear case for what inspired both groups. For the RAF Germany's Nazi past seemed unexorcised, former Nazis were in positions of power in government and business. Worse, for the RAF, some of the mindset that enabled the Nazis to rise to power remained in place: a desire for order over law, conformity at any cost over dissent, etc. Socialism, even communism, still seemed a better venue for achieving true equality over what they perceived as the failed promises of Western Democracy. For the Weathermen it was the blatant inequality that plagued Black Americans on every level that inspired them. For both groups, the Vietnam War was both a cause and an inspiration. If the people of a small Third World Country could stand up to (and even defeat) a super power in the name of their own liberation, surely a revolutionary vanguard in Germany or the US could do the same. That was their reasoning, at least.

Varon goes deeper still in the both the workings of each group and their ideology. His analysis of their writings and intra-group debates is thoughtful and thought-inspiring. While some may think Varon gives each group a little too much credit for their ideological writings, I'd argue that Varon exposes the weaknesses (and a few of the strengths) in each. The Weather Underground's writings can look like a Mad Magazine parody of Trotsky or Lenin's works one minute, then coolly rational when refusing to back down on the necessity of American Workers to give up some of their benefits in order for workers around the world to be at parity. The RAF, by contrast, has far fewer rational moments. A truly shattering quote from Ulrike Meinhof's mother sums up the flaw in both groups: "social-ethical-utopian ecstasy, a contourless vision of the Coming Time." Power to the people, death to the fascist insect they preys upon the people, and kill the pigs. They believed, they KNEW, things had to change, but then what? What aside from not being what it was before was society going to become?

The Weather Underground and the RAF came to embody a radical chic in the early 1970s that, along with the fear they inspired, was entirely out of proportion to their numbers, their followers or even their acts. They spent more time on their communiques then on educating the oppressed about their status or on anything else for that matter. The revolution had better be televised or there wasn't much chance of anybody knowing these groups existed. But of course they were made for tv: articulate, attractive middle-class young people spouting moral outrage. (See the documentary for a few unintentionally hilarious clips of young radicals on tv.) You can't help but think that Lenin or Trotsky would have joined the Black Panthers in their disdain of both groups.

So while I can't say that Varon made me respect either the Weather Underground or the RAF, he did something far more important. His book has helped me to understand why they came to be in the first place and rescued their goals - vague though they sometimes were - from the fog of myth.

Home Sick

After a few days of being homesick while in Tokyo, now I'm home sick with a cold. More time to read and ponder why so many publishers just can't get the hang of formatting for Kindle. This time the violence is being done by Harper to Simon Baatz's For the Thrill of It. I didn't expect a book about the Leopold and Loeb murder to make me homesick for intrasentence punctuation.

Paying the Piper


Proof once again that a) the Kindle is my best purchase of 2008 and b) nothing makes a long flight go faster than a Xanax and a good book. Thirteen hour flights even in business class are flat out painful and if not for reliable Kathryn Casey, this one would have been even more painful because the movies on offer were unusually dreadful.

The true crime genre has many hacks, several reliable practitioners and a few greats. Kathryn Casey is becoming one of the great ones. Die, My Love by Kathryn Casey would be perfect if it weren't for the awful title. But that's the only bad thing I can say about this entertaining book. This is the story of one very odd woman, her nearly equally odd sister and the murder of her husband. How odd? Well, would you want a self-proclaimed "druid" and "bard" as your lawyer? If the answer is yes, then Piper Rountree is the lawyer for you.

Piper Rountree Jablin is batshit crazy on her best days and for some reason the men around her routinely find this charming. Her family, especially her sister Tina, coddle if not encourage Piper's permanent residence in La-La land. It's one thing for Piper to think she possesses magical powers, it's something else altogether for Tina to agree. Another friend praises Piper's "live for today" attitude, apparently unaware that Piper suffers from ADD. This book is full of those "are these people for real" moments so dear to the heart of true crime fans. Piper thinks nothing of urging a fellow lawyer to lie on an affidavit or designing the most unintentionally hilarious business cards ever.

When her husband finally has enough - after 20 years - and sues for divorce and joint custody, Piper takes her commitment to nutty behavior up several notches. Her sister Tina joins in on the hi-jinks. Tina Rountree is worth a book herself. Like Piper, she fancies herself a protector of women. Also like Piper, she barely has to wave her hand for half a dozen men to throw themselves at her feet. They're attractive women but the sheer volume of men willing to do their bidding made me wonder if there was something in the water in Houston. Most women are happy if their significant other takes out the garbage, these two have men all but hiding bodies for them.

It's an entertaining story on its own but Casey makes it better. She adds dimension to all the characters. She's done the sort of hands on reporting that is essential to making a true crime book more than a rehash of news reports. Casey writes in a clear, almost matter-of-fact manner that propels the book along. At one point Casey delivers one of the most chilling, devastating details (about Tina Rountree) I've read in a long, long time. She makes it all the more stunning by telling this detail straight out without adornment or overheated prose. That's the mark of a true master.

Kathryn Casey delivers on every level in this book. This is the second of her books I've read. After two excellent reads, she joins my short list of true crime authors whose work I'll pre-order as soon as I hear they have a new book coming out.

The book that sapped my will to read


I drafted my Amazon review of The Great Upheaval by Jay Winik here. Harsh as it is, it doesn't seem harsh enough. This book was godawful. It's so bad I've been scared to buy another book - over 175K books available for my Kindle but what if one of them heavily features sentences like "Stanislas was handsome and refined, warm-hearted and humble"? After 700 pages of such dreck I couldn't even read on my commute yesterday. Is anyone actually reading this book, I mean really reading every sentence? It doesn't seem possible.

I wanted and expected to like this book. Instead I find myself pondering if this is possibly the worst non-fiction book by a major publishing house that I've ever read. It's certainly the most disappointing.

To be fair, Jay Winik's thesis - how the events of the late 18th century formed the modern world - puts him in comparison to several truly great books. Schama's Citizens, Zamoyski's Holy Madness, Ellis' Founding Brothers, even Johnson' Birth of the Modern, to name a few. Comparison isn't the problem, however. Even Winik's often naive and insular take on events isn't the problem either. Not even the numerous factual errors are responsible. It's Winik's prose style that makes this book simultaneously grueling and appalling.

If someone told me that Winik wrote this book on a dare, something like, "I dare you to write a book that violates every tenet of Strunk and White's Elements of Style," I would find it completely believable. It's either that or a willful assault on the English language. At first Winik's overuse of adjectives and adverbs is annoying, then it's amusing in a morbid way and finally it makes The Great Upheaval the reading equivalent of the Bataan Death March. I'm not exaggerating. I've never before encountered a writing style so awful on so many levels. Whether it's the passive voice ("books were written, universities established," "guns were silenced") or long lists of objects to describe a culture or place or the constant burdening of every single noun with an adjective and a verb with an adverb, Winik's prose is exhausting to read.

Then there's his habit of asking a rhetorical question to further a description. Once or twice might be fine, but Winik does this dozens upon dozens of times. The most hilarious instance being when follows up one of his rhetorical questions with "good question." Why wait for reviews when you can just heap praise on yourself? Winik's commitment to tautology - "brutally decapitated", "old shibboleths" - is almost as impressive as his apparent dislike of the simple, declarative verb "said." People exclaim, exhort, decry, declare, mutter, shriek, yelp, hiss, mutter, etc, usually with an oddly chosen adverb attached as when Kutuzov "tartly muttered 'God be with us!"

Take a moment and try to imagine how that last sentence might actually be spoken. Seriously, how does one mutter, tartly or not, anything in such a way as to warrant an exclamation point at the end? Many of Winik's sentences suffer from a similar lack of logic. King Stanislas of Poland is "inebriated by the winds of liberty". Potemkin "fondled their dreams". Russia and Catherine the Great bring out the Barbara Cartland in Winik. Every time the action shifts eastward Potemkin is wailing or flouncing, Pugachev's eyes flash and Catherine is storming around like Joan Crawford. It's campfest on the Dnieper even without Catherine wondering "What would Peter (the Great) do?" The events of the American and French Revolutions and the end of Catherine the Great's reign are all dramatic and compelling enough. They don't require an avalanche of overheated prose to make them appealing to the modern reader.

Even without the atrocious writing, the book would still be a failure. The number of factual errors in this book is unforgivable. This is popular history, not fiction. Winik's subtitle "American and the Birth of the Modern World" is never given life. Aside from proximity in time, what do these events all have to do with one another? Winik doesn't explain it. He does make a multitude of unsupported assertions, my favorite being that Catherine the Great has been overshadowed in history by Robespierre. Winik (over) describes 3o years' worth of events without illuminating or satisfactorily linking them.

If you're still wondering whether to buy this book, I urge you to use Amazon's Search Inside function to read a few pages first. Or just ask yourself if you want to read 720 pages of sentences like "As in the past it was enfeebled by mass strangulations, constricted by fickle palace ritual, and suffocated by Islamic religious fundamentalism ..." Over-stretched metaphor like that are morbidly impressive for only so long.

Admittedly I finished this book out of a refusal to be cowed by Winik's bad writing. That doesn't mean I have nothing to show for it. The Great Upheaval may be a total loss as history but it's a winner as a drinking game. Just load up on the alcohol of your choice, invite a few friends over and play along:

Adjective/adverb plus noun/verb = sip
Rhetorical question = drink
Overheated synonym for "said" = drink
Long list of nouns in lieu of substantive description = drink
Tenuous metaphor = drink
Factual error = drink
Simple declarative sentence = chug

You'll be blind drunk on the sips alone after 5 pages but maybe that's the best way to read this book.

An Upheaval of Another Kind

That's what's in store if Jay Winik continues his war on the English language in The Great Upheaval. The man apparently took a vow to leave no noun or verb unmodified. This combines with his unholy love of the passive voice and devotion to subjecting everything to the metaphor treatment to create a mess.

It could, however, make an awesome drinking game.

On the bright side, Derek Wilson finally has some competition for most overwritten non-fiction. I didn't think anyone could top Wilson's stunning performance in Charlemagne when came up with five nicknames for Jesus in one page topping it off with "the pale Gallilean." He was Semitic, he spent most of his life outdoors in a harsh, sun-drenched climate. How is it possible that Jesus was pale unless he was an albino?

Comparative Mysteries: Helpful Handsome Men and Anachronisms

Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn is about a widowed English noblewoman under the age of 30 in Victorian England who comes to realize her late husband was murdered and is fortunately assisted in her pursuit of the killer by a Helpful Handsome Man wise in the ways of crime fighting. In And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander, a widowed English noblewoman under the age of 30 in Victorian England also comes to realize her late husband was murdered and is fortunately assisted in her pursuit of the killer by a Helpful Handsome Man wise in the ways of crime fighting.

What are the chances? More importantly, how do Deanna and Tasha feel about this turn of events? Does Tasha Alexander, who published her book in October 2005 look upon Deanna, who published her book in January 2007, with the same fondness Martha Grimes bestows on Elizabeth George? The similarities are remarkable but the resulting series are not of the same quality.

Not that I'm in any position to comment on And Only to Deceive since I've only read A Poisoned Season. But I won't let that stop me. Tasha Alexander has clearly written the better plotted and more faithful to the era series. Her heroine, Emily Ashton, is smart and resourceful without being annoying. She grapples with her growing understanding of the limitations of being a woman in her times - she doesn't own the house she lives in or the books she loves, she can go out on her own but she's held to a different standard than the men of her class, etc - without becoming a walking anachronism. Or becoming thoroughly annoying. She's unconventional but she pays the price for her unconventional behavior and at times that price is too high even for her. The handsome man who helps her is Colin Hargreaves, a good friend of her former husband, who does spying for the British Government. Emily has an overbearing yet devoted in her way mother, two close women friends running the gamut from conventional to heretical and access to the highest echelons of society.

The mystery in A Poisoned Season is well-plotted, logical and filled with just the right number of red herrings. Alexander also tosses in a few off-hand remarks that students of the era will find amusing while novices can gloss over them without grinding the action to a halt. I just hope And Only to Deceive is half as good as this one.

Silent in the Grave is another matter. Raybourn can still pull this series out of the clutches of silliness but she needs to work on a few things. Like cutting down on all the March siblings who stroll in and out of the story being relentlessly eccentric. Each in their own way because that's why they exist, to be eccentric enough to deliver the plot devices required. Next she needs to tone down the Helpful Handsome Man, Nicholas Brisbane. He's 1) a detective, 2) he has migraines, 3) he has a mysterious Frenchwoman as a confident, 4) he has psychic abilities(!), 5) he's the grandson of a duke, 6) he's a gypsy, he's ... Just stop, Deanna, ok? Give it a rest. I found Nicholas interesting after 1 and 2, by number 4 I was in "give me a break territory and by 6 I was pondering what a mistake it is to give the Helpful Handsome Man more backstory than the heroine and her murder victim husband combined.

Julia Gray, the heroine in question, is likable enough. She lacks the edge and genuine introspection of Emily Ashton but she could get there. Raybourn gives Julia several witty observations. But she also has her delivering exposition along the lines of "Oh no, don't tell me you've stolen one of the ravens from the Tower? They belong to the Queen and stealing them is treason. Why do I have to have such a reckless younger brother?" Not a direct quote but roughly what I was dealing with. Which reminds me, dump about half the subplots and red herrings next time, Deanna. And lighten up on the scandalous!revelations! Grave robbing, sodomy and venereal disease (not to mention, treason) all in one book? What's up for the next in the series? Incest, genocide and mental illness?

Finally, Julia needs to stop acting like she's born in the wrong century. It's one thing to have her question the rampant antisemitism of her times; it's quite another to have her entire family happily condone her sister's lesbian relationship. Not ignore, not tolerate, but accept like Ellen's mom. That's just plain insulting to anyone who has a clue about the era or about the reality of life for homosexuals in Victorian England. It wasn't chatty dinners with the whole family, just ask Oscar Wilde.

There was enough right about the Silent series for me to try another one. Then again, I'm willing to try another Maisie Dobbs after that unintentionally hilarious group sing-a-long in which the murderer was captured. I may be too hopeful for my own good.

What Makes Me Reread Books?


It's not a bad thing, maybe even a good thing to reread a good book. At my most Type A I could convince myself that I'm denying myself the ability to read a NEW book, which plays right into my strange compulsion to prove wrong the theory that even a well read person reads only a few hundred books in their lifetime.

On the other hand, rereading Very Much a Lady by Shana Alexander has become a habit for me. The story is too interesting and Alexander's skill at telling it too good to resist revisiting it every so often. I've read it at least 5 times since it came out. Then add in the allure of seeing whether the book and Alexander's take on Jean Harris still hold up. Do they ever. This is the book Shana Alexander was born to write, no doubt about that.

And no doubt that one of the pleasures of Kindle is being able to own books that have been out of print, or were hard to justify the space they take up on my ever crowded bookshelves. Thanks to Kindle I'm rereading True Story by Michael Finkel - it holds up nicely too.

It is highly unlikely, however, that I will ever be drawn to reread The Great Upheaval by Jay Winik. I'm going to finish this dreary book, even if it inspires a near upheaval in me when Winik overloads every noun with an overwrought adjective. I'm feeling every one of the 692 pages on this one.

More off the Vine

This getting books for free deal is pretty fabulous. The latest offerings from Amazon Vine to come my way are American Lightning by Howard Blum - an account of the 1910 bombing of the LA Times building and The Bordeaux Betrayal by Ellen Crosby - the third installment in a mystery series. While I can't claim that the Vine is expanding my reading horizons (it's not like I'm suddenly addicted to, say, Fantasy Fiction) but it is introducing me to books and authors I might otherwise not have heard about.

The question occurred to me as I perused this month's offerings: what if a book I intended to buy was on the list? Would I take the freebie? Should I? I hope I'm strong will enough NOT to succumb to the temptation to the early and the free. It might be idealistic and probably not among the Amazon's goals for the program but I'd like to think that a side benefit for reviewers is the chance to be introduced to new authors. If I get a book for free I was planning to buy anyway I'd be depriving another reviewer the chance to learn about an author I enjoy. Isn't that why many people write reviews - to metaphorically grab a stranger by the lapels and say "you've go to read this, it's great"? Or, less occasionally, "Save your time and money, this one rots."

So far temptation has stayed away. There was that John LeCarre book but I wasn't really planning to buy it and it was more the likelihood of not finishing the book before it came out in paperback that kept me away.

More Proof the New York Times is Killing the Publishing Industry

Maybe it's not intentional. Maybe the hardworking men and women at the NYT actually love books. And, maybe, like a small child who nearly suffocates his/her new pet kitten out of love, they just don't know how to express that love.

Or, maybe they're just raving idiots.

Today, I'm going with the idiots theory because that's the only explanation for Let’s Face It, This Isn’t a Job for Supernanny. This is an intentionally hilarious story on multiple levels. For one thing it's yet another in a long line of instances where the Times brings us the news straight from the Internet. Because why go out and do some actually reporting when you can just sit at your desk and click? (Will Columbia's School of Journalism start offering courses in how to dramatically quote from someone's MySpace page. Based the emergence of this "technique" as the very bedrock of NYT's reporting it might be a wise move.) Courtesy of Craigslist the NYT brings us the story of woman who has bratty kids, aspires to be a writer and is insane enough to advertise for a nanny on the Internet. This woman treated potential applicants to veritable heart of darkness - her kids are "a pain", she doesn't want to feel guilty about shopping at Bergdorf - and her aspirations to be a painter and a writer.

That's what stopped me cold. The line about the woman "acknowledging her hopes, as she had in the posting, that perhaps she deserves a book deal."

This cretin deserves many things but a book deal isn't among them. This is a woman who is fortunate enough not to need to work outside the home who is totally willing to leave her young children all under the age of twelve and all in school in the care of a near stranger. She can live her life as she chooses and make life hell for as many nannies as she can get her hands on but A BOOK?

What on earth would the book be about? The tribulations of living on the Upper East Side and having a country house in Connecticut? How hard it is to have children that are in school all day and report to the nanny as soon as they hit their own front door? The difficulty of finding good help these days - there's a fresh idea! Some equally clueless editor at a publishing house saw this article and thought something along the lines of "how brave" and "won't this really resonate with women today" and is already prepping a book deal.

No, it's not brave and it doesn't resonate with 99% of the population. I say this as someone fortunate enough to be able to afford to shop at Bergdorf - this woman doesn't need a book deal, she needs a clue and a dose of reality. The publishing world needs to spend less time and money on stunts like this and more on nurturing real talent so that readers like me have a reason to buy.

No respect at all

When you're a true crime fan you have to inure yourself to a certain amount of disrespect. The scoffing at the genre by those who've either never read it or who look down on anything that doesn't meet their narrow definition of literature. I can shrug that off. It's the disrespect from publishers who are actually making money off the genre that bugs me.

On the one hand I'm grateful for St. Martin's Press's commitment to True Crime. They publish the gamut from instabooks to decent efforts to the occasional gem. So why are they doing such a relentlessly crappy job at digitizing their catalog? I could understand it if they refused to commit to e-books or the Kindle format but why make only half an effort? Why, in short, create e-book versions that read like galleys? Unformatted galleys, at that.

Safe Harbor by Brian McDonald has to be the absolute worst e-book formatting I've ever seen. Plain text files with hard line breaks are easier to read. One more weirdly broken capital "H" and I'm going to be feeling murderous.

Long National Nightmare Over

At last I've finished Sacred Causes by Michael Burleigh. I've been trying to finish it pretty much since my Kindle became my constant companion. I'm glad I read it, even gladder that I finished it but what in the name of printers' ink was Chapter 8 all about? A whole section of ranting about Ireland and the Irish? How could anyone including Burleigh's editor have thought that this was a) something that would make the book better and b) a good idea? A big WTF all around.

Is it really possible the print version is only 500 pages? Did they use really small type? It felt like 800 pages, and that's without the notes and bibliography.

Please Don't Let This Character Recur

Just finished Careless in Red by Elizabeth George. As usual the pace and tension picked up considerably half-way through so the pages flew by. Havers showed up and she didn't get on my nerves once which made me realize that Lynley and Havers are at their best interacting with each other. Havers on her own pondering her own life is just plain dreary, not informatively literarily dreary but drab pointless dreary.

It's possible that Havers was so welcome because Daidre Trahair was around and becoming progressively creepier. I fear that Elizabeth George means Daidre to be strong, conflicted and mysterious and, ohgodletmebewrong, a new love interest for Thomas Lynley.

I'm going to try to forgo a rant about how tacky it is to have a woman get all turned on by a man who's wife has been dead less than six months. Really, I can do this. But I'm not going to give a pass on how wrong George gets this character. I have a low tolerance for characters who create their own problems, get all pissy about the problems existing, and are never held to account. Daidre hits the trifecta. First she pointlessly lies to the police, setting herself up for suspicion, then she gets all huffy because the police investigate her and, worst and finally, she gets all stalkery with Lynley. Let me be clear, she gets pissy because the police investigate her background but she goes trolling on the internet for information on Lynley after knowing him less than 24 hours. She hangs out in front of his hotel waiting for him to emerge - you know, stalking him.

She's repulsive all around: to the other police, to her "friend" Aldara, and to her family. She lies when a vague socially correct answer would do. Or, a simple, I'd rather not say, would be better. It never once makes any sense why she lies, for instance, about not knowing the deceased. "I've seen him around town" would have done just fine. For some reason Elizabeth George seems to think that Daidre's conflict - she was adopted and had a good life while her siblings and family did not - is very interesting. It's not. It's dead dull. And if she's thinking that the dull Daidre will make a perfect love interest for Lynley - who practically begs (twice!) for this cow to call him "Tommy" for some weird reason and, natch, the heffer refuses - she's not only indulging in some seriously bad taste she's losing sight of what made this series a success.

No, I don't mean that it's all about people being terribly upper crust in an American's idea of what the British upper class are like. It's always been about people who know each other and themselves very well yet never quite as well as they think. Adding a lying liar who lies into the mix won't spice things up, it will ruin the dish entirely.

Hell in a Pizza Hut

Calling Sharon Nelson trashy would be an insult to landfills everywhere.

Gregg Olsen starts Confessions of an American Black Widow as a standard police procedural: law enforcement is called to the scene of a fire at a fireman's house. Then they stumble across a body with an "unexploded head." You might think, as I did, that this was a good thing. It's not. It immediately alerts the police is that is in fact a murder. The action quickly turns to the past and the widow of the victim, the awesomely trampy Sharon Nelson.

Former preacher's wife, former good girl and current town pump Sharon is like Bette Davis's camp classic Rosa Moline (from Beyond the Forest) brought to life. Whether seducing every man in the zip code or setting up her step-daughter to be expelled from boarding school or just strutting around town in painted-on short-shorts, Sharon is a trip. Unfortunately, she's a trip to the morgue for two of her husbands.


It seems a simple story: girl raised by ultra-religious parents marries minister and then rebels against the strictures in her life. What makes Sharon Lynn Fuller Nelson (Adams) Harrelson's story more complex isn't just the murders, it's her relentlessness in acquiring a trailer-park version of the finer things in life. These include a Jeep, hot rollers, and romantic lunches at Pizza Hut. That's one of the first things that struck me in this story - for someone willing to resort to murder to get what they want Sharon set her sights a little low. But then Sharon doesn't come across as a deep or expansive thinker, she's more like a child distracted by a red helium balloon. If the town eye doctor looks like a better catch than her minister husband, Sharon goes after him. Then she goes after the eye doctor's slightly better off good friend the rancher. You get the picture. Then Sharon plum loses her mind over ... a "mountain man", which I can only assume is Sharon's personal code for "complete loser than I'm inexplicably attracted to." No job, living in a trailer, and in need of Viagra before it was invented, this is the man of Sharon's dreams.

In lesser hands, this would be a dreary tale. Gregg Olsen makes it a cross between a classic true crime investigation and, well, a camp classic. And bless him for it. If you're going to tell the story about a woman who thinks nothing of having the neighbors walk in on her having sex on the kitchen floor with a man other than her husband it helps to have a sense of humor, which Olsen has. He's hilariously droll at times, letting "mountain man" Gary Adams confide his love for Sharon's special sauce (no, he's not talking about McDonald's). Other times Olsen is a master at the throwaway bitchy remark like having Sharon wonder "Hadn't she pleased him in bed? In the woods? By the lake?"

Olsen does a fine job of presenting Sharon's story and the story of her numerous victims, he doesn't skimp on showing the human toll of her selfishness. He lets the people of the small towns in Colorado where Sharon lived act as a Greek chorus with more than a few sage remarks on human nature coming from ordinary working folks. And then there's Sharon. Telling strangers that she sun bathes in the nude or greeting dinner guests by letting them know what great sex she and her husband had the night before. And, bizarrely, using the local Pizza Hut for pivotal moments in her life. Apparently nothing goes with adultery or confessions to murder quite like a deep dish pizza.

This book is good solid true crime and its just plain fun. This is my first Gregg Olsen book but it definitely won't be my last.

Franchise Building

I love a good mystery series. Anything from Miss Marple to Erast Fandorin can have me forgetting everything else but the book. I can also see why publishers love a good mystery series, they mean a built in audience for every new book in the series.

Creating a first in an intended series is no doubt a challenge. The author needs to create characters who can remain interesting over the series, the mystery needs to be compelling enough to stand on its own and the groundwork needs to be laid for long term interaction between the characters. The balance between the recurring characters and the mystery has to be perfect. Some writers, like Agatha Christie, make it work by keeping the "detective" well-defined but not central to the mystery. Neither Jane Marple nor Hercule Poirot ever spent pages pondering their lives or the burden of finding the guilty. Others, like P. D. James, use the "detectives" and the mysteries as mirrors of each other. This is much harder to do.

Martha Grimes got it just right in The Man With a Load of Mischief but she's gone off the deep end with her last half dozen books with more than half the story being devoted to Melrose Plant or Richard Jury pondering their pasts. Elizabeth George usually gets it right too but for me a little Havers goes a long way. Of course, P. D. James is a master at it. Jacqueline Winspear got it so wrong at the beginning of her Maisie Dobbs series the first book played like a comedy.

My latest book from Amazon Vine is Our Lady of Pain by Elena Forbes, the second book in a series and it's off to a slow start. We have the murder and then ... we slow down and endure a family lunch with one of the detectives. Then the detective gets to the scene of the crime and he rehashes the family lunch with his partner. Don't these people have a murder to solve? Only 20 pages in and I've heard about the "squad" and their last case "The Bridegroom" and what the detectives are wearing and not a whole lot about the crime itself.

I'm keeping an open mind. It can't be easy to create a series without the machinery showing once in a while. And I am more of a Law & Order fan than an NYPD Blue sort - I want to learn about the detectives over time, I don't want them front and center - I'm hoping Elena Forbes is too.

Giving It a Wide Berth

That's what I'm going to do when it comes to reviewing books with political content on Amazon. I noticed a few weeks ago that I had a large number of negative votes coming from a small number of reviews.

I've been known to give a review an unhelpful vote when the review a) doesn't talk about the product itself or b) the reviewer unnecessarily attacks the beliefs of the author or other reviewer or c) it's just lame. I mean lame as in "I LOVED THIS SO MUCH!!!!" (that's the whole review) Ok, I rarely bother to ding the lame ones. Of course, I rarely bother to give an unhelpful vote anyway because I pay more attention to "helpful" votes when reading a review to help me make a purchase choice.

That's why nearly 50 "unhelpful" votes for one, admittedly short, review struck me as odd. It may not have been a great review but it wasn't terrible. It certainly wasn't bad enough to warrant 50 people stopping by and saying "My God, what a waste of time and space." I've seen truly wretched reviews that don't get 50 unhelpfuls. So what gives?

I think it's because the book in question is Decent Interval by Frank Snepp. It's about the "Fall of Saigon" (the "Rise of Ho Chi Minh City"?) by a former CIA agent who was there. I first read this book in college when I wanted to read a complete account of just what the Fall was. I was a child at the time and I remember some powerful images but I was too young to make much sense of it. There weren't many thoughtful books on the topic, which I found then and still find today to be quite surprising. For an event so widely covered at the time by 1985 few had attempted to make sense of it. Snepp's book was one of the few and it was highly controversial because Snepp was CIA and that usually involves a promise to keep secrets. Snepp was also quite critical of the US Ambassador and others on staff at the Embassy in his book.

He had his point of view but he also provided an insider's view of what it was like to be in a city about to fall to the enemy. That fascinated me. Whether I agree with his assessment, the politics involved or whatever else doesn't matter. What does matter is does Snepp tell me things I didn't know? Does he give me a better sense of what when on? Does he tell me things I didn't know? And, most importantly, does he make me want to learn more? The answer to all of the above is yes. Snepp doesn't come off as the world's best guy or even the sharpest guy in Vietnam, but so what? I can't remember whether he was pro-War or not. That didn't matter - I'll make up my own mind about Vietnam and any other event, thank you very much.

The content may be polarizing, I'll allow that. But the reviews of the content? Can it really be that any review that gives the book 4 or more stars is unhelpful to 50 or more people? Isn't that a little unlikely?

I see the same thing when reviewing fiction but it's not as pronounced - criticize someone's favorite or touch a sacred cow and watch the unhelpfuls pile up. It's just less extreme in fiction. It's mildly annoying to see a good review (and here I mean by someone other than me) have a ton of unhelpfuls just because of the opinion expressed. I can't be the only person who can appreciate a review that expresses an opinion contrary to mine.

But that's at the heart of it, isn't it? These votes aren't about helpfulness, they're about agreement and someone daring to voice a contrary point of view. That's probably why the voters in question wouldn't bother to read a book that offered a differing opinion. It's their loss, imho.

Don't even get me started about the negative votes on Amazon Vine products - that shit is out of control.

At least I've been reading

So I haven't posted much. Vacation, more work stress, etc but, thankfully also reading. Finished two books, make that three, and started a few more. One that I started that I've been putting off a little is Elizabeth George's latest Insp Lynley mystery. I haven't read her last two. The last wasn't a mystery and from the write-ups didn't appeal to me, and the one before, which was a mystery featured a serial killer. I don't get the whole serial killer appeal in mysteries or true crime. I like motives, real motives, not psychosis. To each reader their own, I guess.

From what I understand With No One as Witness killed off one main character and left another in a tailspin. That was unpopular but honestly I don't know what else George could have done. Her characters were getting a little stale. I say that with fondness but really, how much more could anyone have taken of Deborah obsessing over the fact that she can't have children or Thomas feeling oh so guilty about something. I think that's why I liked A Place of Hiding - most of that was limited and one of the characters pointed out to Deborah that her life wasn't so bad. Also, the mystery was satisfyingly twisty. And Barbara Havers wasn't on scene. I could do with a lot less Havers in any of these books.

Anyway, then George write a slice of life novel (or whatever) about the little urchin who shot poor Helen. And that, from what I understand, was even less popular. Well, bully for Elizabeth George if she wants to stretch her wings a bit. Not that I'm likely to ever read What Came Before He Shot Her but rock on anyway.

So now we roll into Careless in Red and Lynley is understandably a bit, well, insane (in a very upper class sort of way) but still has his wits enough about him to follow proper procedures when stumbling upon a dead body. Like most Insp Lynleys, this one starts slow but once all the characters have been introduced the plot hums along. Yes, everyone does think about everything verging on too much (turning on a light switch can send these people into long reveries about the past) and the MacGuffin that fascinates everyone this time around is .... surfing.

No joke, surfing. A change of pace from everyone being obsessed with World War 2 in A Place of Hiding and maybe because I went to high school in Florida, just a little giggle worthy. Half the town is either a surfer or vehemently opposed to everything surfing stands for. And who knew surfing stood for anything?

Then there is one of the main female characters - a large animal vet named Daidre. She has secrets. Or should I say SECRETS because her lack of apparent candor is noted by nearly everyone who comes in contact with her. Then there was an incredibly weird scene in which Daidre presumes to tell Insp Thomas Lynley that it's all ok that his wife is dead because she's in a better place, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah. After knowing him for 2 or 3 days and after just admitting that she'd basically Googled him to get the goods on his background. If she's supposed to be his future love interest I swear this is my last Elizabeth George because who does this shit? You find out a stranger is recently bereaved and you ram your not too clear yet not exactly original spiritual beliefs on him!?! Calling the mess of tripe she offered up "spiritual beliefs" is too kind by half since Daidre avoids mentioning God or Allah or Buddah or Jesus or any other major spiritual figure and keeps referring to feelings. If a Wiccan wandered by during this speech I'm sure he or she would have advised Daidre to get a little structure in her beliefs already. A Unitarian would have giggled and told her to make a choice already. (Ok, I'll stop now.)

Enough complaining: I like the mystery, I'm glad to see Insp Lynley back with all his endless navel gazing and it's good to be spared Havers for a change.

A Very Long Haul

I'm still trudging my way through Michael Burleigh's Sacred Causes. If ever a book challenged my commitment to judge a book on its merits and not on the beliefs and prejudices of the author this is the book. Burleigh is at his best when he's showing how secular totalitarian regimes adopted many of the trappings of religion and while they also co-opted the habit of devotion among their populations. He's also very good at taking a widescreen view so that Portugal, Mexico and Austria get the same attention to detail usually reserved only for the major Axis powers.

What he's a little too good at his grinding his axe. I guess if you see other authors making claims about history that you believe aren't represented by the record (like, say, "Hitler's Pope"), you could get a little cranky. But does he have to take it out on me? Does he have to randomly take pot-shots at Islamic leaders in his asides that have nothing to do with the action at hand?

I'll stick with it. I'm too stubborn to give up and my lifelong fascination with religions' impacts on societies is strong enough to see me through it. But the Cold War is coming and I really don't think Burleigh's going to be in a good mood about any of it.

True Crime Binge

This must say something about me, the fact that in times of extreme stress I devour true crime books. Does it mean that I want to escape into a fantasy world? That I subconsciously yearn to kill those who annoy me? Or that I just enjoy a good book? I'll pick the last.

The true crime books are also helping me avoid The Great Upheaval by Jay Winik, a popular history book that's not knocking my socks off. It's not bad, even though Winik does love to list things ad nauseum. It's just not that good.

My latest Amazon Vine book, Unholy Business, is holding my interest. Plus I'm learning new words like ossuary and vitrine. If only this was a Kindle book I could look those words up and not have the strange idea that a vitrine involves vines and latrines.

The Pleasures of Rereading

Among my greatest hopes for the Amazon Kindle is that it will spur publishers to reissue out of print books. Particularly the books I want - like Joe McGinniss's great Blind Faith for example. There are enough delectables available to keep me happy, and to help me get through this horrendous week.

Rereading G. Edward White's Alger Hiss's Looking-Glass Wars has been a joy. White is a legal historian known for writing biographies of such wild men as Oliver Wendell Holmes so who'd have known he could write such a highly readable yet deeply thoughtful book about one of the most famous cases of the Cold War spy scares?


I've been fascinated by the Hiss-Chambers case since seeing Concealed Enemies on PBS over 20 years ago. I could never quite believe that Alger Hiss was the wronged innocent he claimed. You don't' recognize Chambers, you recognize his teeth, etc. But the ambiguities were there too. The thing about a good spy is that they leave no evidence, but then neither does an innocent man. The claims against Chambers, though, never set quite right with me. After reading Allen Weinstein's majestic Perjury I was more convinced of Hiss's guilt and more nauseated by the mudslinging against Chambers.

The pro-Hiss version is that Chambers lead a knock-about life, was deeply damaged by his father's suicide, never made much of himself and was, gasp, homosexual. All of this made him target Alger Hiss who'd simply tried to help the poor schmuck back in the day. Alger was a paragon of virtue, a Harvard Law grad who participated in the Yalta conference as a senior State Dept functionary and now headed up the Carnegie Foundation. Except that Hiss' father committed suicide too. Hiss's background was hardly stable with a brother (like Chambers) who died young, a sister who also committed suicide and a mother who set the rules. Chambers, also, was an editor at Time magazine and by the time of the HUAC hearings was married with two children. A purely psychological defense - Hiss is stable and Chambers is crazy - didn't play. Weinstein set out the facts to prove that they didn't play either.

Hiss, however, was very fortunate in his enemies, namely J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon. By the early 70s both were disgraced and the possibility that they would be part of a conspiracy to disgrace Alger Hiss - a classic New Dealer in his telling - seemed more and more reasonable. Then Weinstein's book came out. Then the Venona documents were yet another nail in the coffin. This is one very well-nailed coffin. White approaches the case, thus, not asking "was he guilty" but how could he claim innocence for so long knowing the price others paid for that claim and knowing that he could so easily be found out?

I remember this book being a bit of a slog. This time I devoured it, I hated to see my train pull into Grand Central because I knew I'd have to put the Kindle on hold. White is a lawyer and he writes like a lawyer. Normally that could be a bad thing, for this book it's perfect because not only does White make his case logically based on facts and reasoned supposition (blissfully free of partisan silliness). He also is willing to tackle bigger issues. Sure, I could have done with a few less details about the founding of SDS and the extended chapter on Hiss's time with Oliver Wendell Holmes dragged a bit. But the chapters on Hiss in prison and his post-prison attempts at vindication are fascinating.

Alger Hiss was not a other-worldly, courtly gentleman framed by the twin evils of Hoover and Nixon. The accusations and evidence against him go too far back for that theory to hold water. Now being pro-Soviet Union during the Depression was hardly unusual, it was even understandable in my mind. What makes Hiss repulsive to me is his scorched earth policy regarding Chambers (He's gay so he must be insane!) and his systematic trashing of his wife. It takes a classy guy to claim that the reason he was apprehensive about the investigation was because his wife's abortion WHICH HAPPENED BEFORE THEIR MARRIAGE AND FIVE YEARS BEFORE HE MET CHAMBERS might come out.

The apple didn't fall far from the tree when it comes to Tony Hiss. He claims that mom made him gay (!) until he moved out on his own (at age 30), that Alger probably wanted to go to jail to get away from his wife and it was all her fault anyway that Alger didn't really pay attention to his defense because she was too high maintenance. I have not the words.

Great Book Meets Crappy Work Week

Most days I know I'm lucky. I have a job that I enjoy and I'm fairly compensated. That's a rare combo in these times and I know it. But every once in a while I have a work week, like this one, that makes me yearn to do manual labor. (Aside from the fact that I'm an utter klutz and would likely cause harm to anyone in the vicinity while attempting said manual labor.) This was one of those weeks; with a vengeance.

Fortunately this was also my first week of Amazon Vine and the first book off the Vine was The Lace Reader. I can admit now that I was half-expecting to hate this book or be disappointed by it. For one thing, it was a "Book Club Favorite", a phrase I associate with dreck like Eat, Pray, Love or worse. (Note to self: stop being such a book snob.) Even after 100 pages I was prepared for disappointment.

Instead I found a book so well-written and well-crafted that the big "twist" wasn't an "where did THAT come from" but "oh, yeaaahh, that makes sense." And that's how I prefer my big plot twists, I like them to make sense. I like little clues along the way that are subtle yet add up, especially in retrospect. This is a great book, the closest thing to The Secret History since, well, The Secret History.

Amazon Vine - First Book

I'll admit it: when the box from Amazon arrived and inside was an "Advanced Reader's Edition" I was impressed. And excited.

The Advanced Reader's Edition in question is The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry and so far, page 42, so good. Amazon Vine classified this book as "Literature" and I'm not at all sure what to call it myself but this one line is giving me a hint:

".... my Auntie Emma Boynton, who is Eva's daughter, May's half-sister, and my sister Lyndley's legal mother."

Ladies and gentleman, welcome to Gothic Territory. I hope this holds true. If it does then my initial suspicions that this book has a lot in common with The Secret History by Donna Tartt will also hold true and I will be in book heaven. Which is right next door to Gothic Territory

A Good Book Can Save Your Sanity

Twice now in 6 months a book has kept me from climbing the walls. First it was when I had to fly home from London knowing that as soon as I arrived home I would have to take my beloved pet to the vet for the last time. It was a horrible situation but C.S. Harris's What Angels Fear miraculously managed to hold my attention enough to help me hold myself together for the flight.

Thankfully I saved another C.S. Harris book in reserve, the first two were so good I knew I needed to meter them out, because this week I really needed a good book. Monday and Tuesday were the kind of work days that make you wonder if you really need a paycheck after all. Those train rides to and from work would have been anxiety-fests without Sebastian St. Cyr and company.

Of course, now I'm out of C.S. Harris books until her new one comes out in November. Well, there's still those two Dennis Lehane's I'm saving.

On the vine

The Amazon Vine, that is.

So I've been asked to join Amazon's early reviewer program called "The Vine." I don't know if this is a privilege or a cry for help - doesn't this mean that I basically spend too much on books for my own good? Maybe this is Amazon's way of starting me on the twelve steps, "Here's some free stuff" or maybe it's the equivalent of the cocaine dealer letting you have your daily supply on credit so that you won't be tempted to go cold turkey. Still, free books, woohoo. Free books before they are available in the bookstores, more woohoo.

The only bad thing is that these all appear to be physical books, no e-books. Wait, that doesn't really qualify as a complaint. Because the "free" part still applies.

I wonder if Amazon gives away stuff aside from books? I've bought three vacuum cleaners from Amazon - I'd hate it if they offered me a free vacuum cleaner. I'd feel obligated to accept and I don't have the room or the need for another. It could get ugly. Best to stick to books.