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.