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.

Getting On My Nerves for Years

A triple biography of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon? I'm so there. And let's be clear Girls Like Us is a feet up, girl talk good time of a book. The footnotes alone are a gossipy tour de force. Sheila Weller's ambition is to tell the "Journey of a Generation" of women through Mitchell, King and Simon and there she's less successful. She makes her case and sometimes it sticks, sometimes it slides right off the wall.

I buy the idea that during the late 60s and early 70s women were seeking greater opportunities in their work and in their personal lives. And, sure, women like Mitchell, King and Simon had to fight to be heard as equals by the men who dominated the music industry. It's the idea that somehow sleeping with whoever struck your fancy for, oh, five minutes or so was part of that liberation that just doesn't fly for me. It was a trap as much as the most traditional one-sided marriage of the 1950s.

But that's a minor quibble when you have a gossip extravaganza like this. Start with Carole King, the female half of Goffin & King the music geniuses of 60s pop. Married to the other half, Goffin, who happened to be some form of crazy (bi-polar or schizophrenia? Not clear.) Carole lives part of the 50s American dream (husband, children and nice house in the 'burbs) and part of the 70s feminist dream (career, the admiration of her peers, success) while managing to be the kind of woman you'd like to have over to your house for lunch. She achieves phenomenal success but her first two marriages fail in part because of her success. Then she meets husband number 3, a con artist at best. She introduced to him by The Eagles. Yet another reason for me to hate the Eagles. I knew they were the source of the worst song ever, Hotel California. Now I know they ruined Carole King's career. Bastards.

Joni Mitchell is easily the most talented of the three and probably the last one you'd want to spend a week with. Tormented by her choice (and it was her choice) to give up a child for adoption Joni spends alot of time trying to come up with excuses for this choice. It's not a pretty sight but it's as telling as any bed-hopping. Pre-marital sex might have become acceptable but choosing career over motherhood was still unthinkable. If the judgement of her peers is any guide, Joni is the most talented and most influential of the three. Her lyrics are the most quotable and her songs the most imitated. Joni also appears to have been the most in control of her relationships, picking up and discarding lovers with a distinctly feminine twist - she's not trying to out do the guys, she's just moving on when it suits her. There's also a strong whiff of the eccentric about Joni, trying to pass as a black man, living in a cave on a Greek island for weeks, showing up unannounced on Georgia O'Keefe's doorstep unannounced, etc. Joni can give Bob Dylan a run for his money in the eccentric genius sweepstakes and bully for her. Based on the evidence in Girls Like Us she doesn't do well with long term romantic relationships or friendships. Her unwavering commitment to her artistic vision won my respect. I'm not a huge fan of her music but this book has inspired me to check out more of her work, especially Mingus.

Carly Simon is a tough one. Not as a person but as a subject of this book. While Weller assumes a vaguely "tut-tut" air about Carole King's later years and outright disdain for Joni Mitchell's tendency to rewrite her own past she is all gushing fan girl when it comes to Carly Simon. It starts out ok but by 1970 Carly is plainly the Mary Sue of this little venture. She's constantly described as "sexy" and "witty" and "intelligent" and "brave." Her many relationships are all presented as heartfelt pursuits of true love. Callous men hurt poor, sensitive Carly. Worst of all, Carly had a traumatic childhood. Her father (you may want to skip this part, it's so shocking), well, he ignored her. That's it and that's all folks. Ok, her mother did have an affair with a much younger man but as tragic events go it's weak material. But Carly mines it and mines it in song after song until one reviewer is moved to comment "Carly Simon has been getting on my nerves for years." Preach it, sister.

Don't get me wrong, Carly seems like a swell gal, a good friend (she's high maintenance but generous with her friends Weller tells us several times) and a good mother. But there are "sympathetic" scenes that make you wonder if Weller had an editor. Scenes of Mia Farrow and Carly worrying about money in their NYC apartments overlooking Central Park. High road Carly going up to a table where her ex James Taylor, his new girlfriend and a mutual musician friend are eating and asking the musician for a date. In front of her ex. You stay classy, Carly Simon. Weller presents this as "a sign of the times" instead of the "in your face" to her ex that it was. I'd much prefer it as "in your face" because otherwise Carly just seems desperate and heartless.

Weller has a tin-ear on a number of things. She inexplicably refuses to give any credence to Joni Mitchell's allegations of physical abuse by Jackson Browne. "People who know Jackson Browne say he is not a violent man," parentheses Weller. One assumes that Daryl Hannah might beg to differ. Weller backs Browne like a fan girl (she refers to him as "too good looking" to be a singer-songwriter) or the recent recipient of a cease and desist order; either way her pro-female credentials took a big hit in my estimation.

Then there are pearlers like Weller contending that Jackie Kennedy Onassis saw what she "might have become" in Carly. Really? Jackie might have become a multi-phobic singer with a junkie husband? Who knew! Weller thinks it was just a joke when Jackie sent Carly a fake mash note from Luciano Pavarotti. After 300 pages of Carly's antics, I think Jackie was twitting Carly's overwhelming willingness to believe any man who crossed her path was in love with her. And did Weller really not see that her description of Susan Braudy as a "prized girlfriend to New York's media elite" makes the founding Ms editor seem like a pass-around.

But the footnotes! The footnotes are little gossip bonbons. Sometimes they're unintentionally hilarious - like the one that starts with telling us the disco music had a big gay following and ends with the founder of Rolling Stone coming out as gay in the 1990s. Most of the time they made me hope someone would write a book about the subjects of her footnotes. A book without a Mary Sue.

The Man Who Wouldn't Fink

After school television meant old cartoons, old movies, reruns of old tv shows and talk shows when I was a child. My older sister preferred talk shows so that's what we watched. Mike Douglas's talk show was filmed in Philadelphia (near my home town) and he'd have a guest on as a co-host for an entire week. It was a weird set up and apparently all you needed to qualify as a co-host was a free week to spend in Philly. One week the co-host was Martha Mitchell, the estranged wife of former Attorney General John Mitchell. This was at the height of the Watergate scandals and Martha was a celebrity of sorts. Mike Douglas smarmily prodded Martha to say outrageous things about President Nixon and Washington in general, not that she needed much prodding. Or that smarmy was unusual for Mike. She was an attention junkie and good old Mike was happy to let her humiliate herself for an entire week. At one point Martha lead a video tour of her sumptuous 5th Avenue apartment and she pointed out a portrait of her daughter Marty. She noted that Marty wouldn't speak to her anymore because the child blamed her for what had happened. Then it was time to talk about the fabric on the walls in the bedroom. I must have been 8 or 9 years old at the time and I could clearly see what no one on the show was willing to mention: Martha was batshitcrazy. She was nuts.

When The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate came out my first thought was: oohhh, crazy Martha stories. I'm not proud of this reaction and all I can say it my defense is that my second reaction was: I really never understood what John Mitchell did or is supposed to have done. This is due to my age and the fact that once you get into the details, Watergate is a mind numbing scandal. Say what you will about Bill Clinton, at least he gives good scandal.

James Rosen may not make Watergate scintillating (even Robert Redford couldn't do that) but he manages to present the facts in a clear, lucid manner. Of the three Watergate books I've read this is the one that had me wishing for more diagrams the least. Not that this is really a Watergate book. It's a biography of John Mitchell. I started this book thinking of Mitchell as the large man who didn't say much, didn't write a "tell-all" book, and didn't seem like the right accessory for Martha.

I ended the book not liking John Mitchell - I get the feeling that 50s corporate guy that he was, big John thought of woman as wives, girls or dames - but having a weird respect for him. He made his name finding loopholes for the bond market. He got into politics because his law practice gave him connections in the political apparatus of all 50 states. He doesn't seem to have had any deeply felt political beliefs other than wanting those wacky 60s kids to obey the law and feeling that racism was probably a bad idea. He wasn't a nice guy or especially admirable except for one thing. Just like an old James Cagney movie gangster, John Mitchell didn't fink. He didn't whine either. He manned up and clammed up. Maybe I find this admirable given the current climate of "It wasn't my fault!" and "Let me tell you about my lousy childhood." John Mitchell never went tabloid and good for him.

Rosen makes the case that Mitchell was far less involved with Watergate and that most of what appeared to have been engineered by him was actually the work of John Dean. I always found John Dean to be uber creepy. That and the fact that Watergate appears to have been the best thing that ever happened to him incline me to give Rosen's theory a sympathetic listening. That said I don't pretend to have followed every one of his arguments. He raised enough doubts for me to wonder, though. Rosen comes close to absolving Mitchell in the Vesco scandal too (not worth looking into if you don't know it already) and here I agree that a) Mitchell was probably more guilty of the appearance of wrongdoing (which is bad enough given he was the Attorney General) and b) that Mitchell thought he was "doing a favor" the way he'd done a thousand times on Wall Street. Not that Rosen thinks Mitchell was innocent. He uncovers two "crimes" that should at least have been investigated but never were.

But what about Martha? She was crazier than I thought. I wouldn't have actively sought out John Mitchell but if I was stuck next to him on an airplane it probably wouldn't have been so bad. Sitting next to Martha, however, would have had be locking myself in the restroom. Even without the alcohol abuse and the exhibitionism and assorted mental illnesses Martha was not a nice person. To put it mildly. Whether making racist comments, smacking a reporter, calling several reporters communists, calling for the crucifixion of a senator or throwing bar ware at dinner guests, Martha was a shrew on wheels. The idea that she "knew the truth" about Watergate is just hilarious in retrospect. The only thing Martha new was how to get attention. And that's all she cared about too. Either you think your husband has committed a crime against the nation (in which case you leave him) or you don't. You don't change your mind on a daily basis about that nor do you in any case spend the wee hours of the morning calling reporters to bitch about the president, your husband, and communist Democratic senators from Arkansas.

A more compelling question than "why didn't John Mitchell squeal?" is "why did he stay with Martha for so long?" Rosen seems to conclude that is was a combination of love, duty and a desire to protect his daughter Marty. The same Marty whose portrait Martha showed on Mike Douglas. The same Marty who refused to see or talk to her mother ever again. It was fashionable for a few years to see Martha as a feminist icon or a brave truth teller. I never bought into that. I always saw a sad woman looking for attention who was used and used and used until she was used up. And then she was thrown away.

After 35 years, its possible that enough time has passed that Watergate can be assessed with dispassion and on the facts. Rosen makes a good start. I'm still in awe of the truly repulsive group of characters that made up Watergate and still wondering how a man as successful as John Mitchell ever got involved with these low rent wannabes.

The kind of dress you would wear to be stabbed in

This is the question I have for Tony Baekeland. Why stop at your mother when your father is plainly the one who NEEDED killing?

I first read Savage Grace when it came out in the mid 1980s. I was in high school and like most teens I was certain my parents were incredibly controlling. Brooks and Barbara Baekeland showed me how very wrong I was. My parents were comparative saints. Most parents not currently serving time on death row are saints compared to Brooks and Barbara. In the book they are compared to Tom and Daisy Buchanan and Sara and Gerald Murphy. I think of them as more like the Medicis.

The book starts with the murder. Tony Baekeland stabs his mother Barbara to death in their London apartment. This isn't a whodunit. Nor is it a whydunit because, really, it's hard to imagine anyway spending significant time around Barbara and not at least thinking about killing her. Savage Grace is more of a slow moving car crash, inevitable and seemingly unstoppable. What sets it apart from most other entries in the true crime genre is how guilty everyone involved ultimately appears to be. Nearly everyone comes across as stupid, dense, selfish, or callous.

They can't blame Nancy Robins for this. The book is told is oral history style - think Edie or Please Kill Me - so it's their own words that condemn. Sure, if you have anyone ramble on for hours and tape the whole thing they're bound to come up with some appalling comments but there are some real gems on display here. Like Tony's grandmother talking about how she was afraid Tony would be left-handed like his mother. Because clearly left-handedness was the problem. And that's one of the saner comments.

The bare bones of the story are simple. Brooks Baekeland, grandson of the inventor plastic, marries beautiful Barbara Daly and they go around the world in pursuit of their pretensions of being a writer (him) and a painter (her). They have one child, Tony, and they keep him around like a pet giving him the same attention, discipline and guidance given to a pampered poodle. When Tony starts to display signs of being more than just eccentric his parents ignore it, but what really sets them off is the fact that Tony is gay. Granted, this was a less enlightened time - the 60s and 70s - so it's hard to blame them for not being totally understanding but their reactions only drive Tony further into mental illness. Meanwhile Brooks and Barbara don't accomplish anything on their own aside from parties, interior decorating, friendships with literary types (the Jones and the Styrons figure prominently), travel and Brooks one and only "adventure" for the National Geographic. Finally Brooks leaves Barbara for a young woman who is at the very least Tony's friend and in the eyes of many (possibly even Tony's) his girlfriend. Barbara doesn't take this well and turns all her mania on Tony. There seems little doubt that she attempted to "cure" him of his homosexuality by having sex with him.

This gives you a good indication of what we're dealing with here. It's full on insane to think incest is a cure for ANYTHING and it's even crazier to TELL PEOPLE ABOUT IT. A dozen people at least. Was there nothing else to discuss over dinner?

Tony, who's never given serious mental health treatment, eventually stabs his mother during an argument. He is sent to Broadmoor. Good intentioned but clueless society friends campaign for his release and win it but never give a thought to getting care for Tony once he is released. Brooks Baekeland refuses to help him or pay for his care so Tony is sent to live with his elderly grandmother who keeps a portrait of Barbara on prominent display. Unmedicated and untreated Tony attacks his grandmother and is sent to Rikers where he commits suicide.

So who is to blame? There are plenty of candidates but I can't warm up to any answers that don't start with Brooks Baekeland. He's a horrible, horrible excuse for a human being. Narcissistic, uncaring, ungracious, untalented and a complete jerk. One former friends says he'd like to "take a brick and kill him (Brooks) in the street." Finally, I thought, someone sensible. Consider of few of Brooks lines:

"Psychiatrists - who are professionally amoral - never understood my reluctance to enthuse about their abracadabra." (These would be the doctors trying to treat his son.)

"... in Tony I clearly saw the play of Good and Evil. That was a question not only about him but about a whole generation." (This is about Tony getting kicked out of boarding school.)

"She was attracted to me not only as a mother but as any woman is to an electric young man. We were like lovers." (This is about his grandmother. Nice touch to get in a comment about his own "electricity" and a blithely incestuous coating to their relationship in one paragraph.)

"I was the young Leo she had loved." (Leo is his famous grandfather who invented plastic. Brooks, by contrast, didn't even finish his PhD. But Granny couldn't resist him anyway. He goes on for several paragraphs about how his Grandmother was a little too interested in him.)

To my mind, nothing proves Tony's obvious insanity more than the fact that he didn't kill Brooks. Any sane person in proximity to Brooks had to have wanted to off this guy on a regular basis. My Kindle notes for this book almost all relate to Brooks' quotes and range from "what a jerk" to "just die already."

Nancy Robins does an amazing job of letting people hang themselves with their own words. More impressively, she uses their words to recreate a world, a not very attractive world on close inspection, but one in which murder seems inevitable.

(The title of this entry is a quote from Rose Styron taken from the book. If you're going to get yourself murdered, you'd do worse than to have a bunch of writers for friends. They are SO quotable.)

Blogging Takes Time

and for some reason, this always comes as news to me. I've read alot during this hiatus:

Two C.S. Harris books (and looks like she has a new one coming out in November. Maybe I can have this up to date by then)
Four True Crime books
Two biographies/histories of musician types
One history
Three history books still in progress

But I still can't figure it out - how do people find time to blog on a daily basis? It's impressive.