“Vast in Perversity”

This was one of the first books I purchased for my Kindle in 2008 and I've finally gotten around to finishing it. No one can accuse Mr. Burleigh of being light on details in Earthly Powers although I'm sure that he's accused of many things. (He probably wouldn't have it any other way.) Burleigh sets out to explore the "clash" between religion and politics from the French Revolution to World War I. The clashing often takes the form of strange mash-ups in which religions take on distinctly political forms or issues or when the politics takes on the manifestations of religion.

It's fascinating to see the Jacobins of the French Revolution create their own cleric-free religion handily called "The Cult of the Supreme Being" or a Roman Catholic priest get kicked out of the church for creating a political role for the Holy See. Some of the collisions between religion and politics Burleigh unearths are amusing - like the utopian socialist writer who imagines a world in which "fairies" cure the jilted of their broken-hearts. Others are just plain disturbing. Humans can't live without some sort of religion, Burleigh seems to be saying, even if we have to make up something truly bizarre to fill the gap.

Burleigh has done his research and has his views, some of which had me nodding my head such as "there is surely something mad about all-consuming political passions" and some that had me wondering what planet he inhabits. I don't care what it's "set beside', the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre is not a "modest affaire". I don't know why Burleigh felt the need to do the written equivalent of a drive-by in referring to Beatrice Webb as "ghastly" but I admit to being as amused by that as by the phrase "harpy pawnbroker consort". I get the feeling that if someone declared this book “vast in perversity” (to quote the Vatican’s description of a work cited here) Michael Burleigh would be pleased indeed.

Burleigh isn’t shy about sharing his opinions but his quirky erudition made this worth the ride for me. I disagreed with many of Burleigh's "conclusions" but for me that's part of the enjoyment of reading a book like this - it's like having a debate with a very opinionate acquaintance. This is not an easy read and it is not for everyone. Burleigh loves obscure verbs and occasionally presents a quote in the original language without providing translation. (Why he does this sometimes and not others in the same language is a mystery.) This is an interesting book that does not transcend its topic. Recommended for those interested in the topic.

Pretty Fly for a White Guy

It’s a familiar story: over-privileged white boy gone gangsta. The unfamiliar part finds him murdering and dismembering his platonic girlfriend egged on by his equally white, equally annoying gangsta moll eggs him on. In A Descent into Hell True Crime Divinity Kathryn Casey shows us that Colton Pitonyak and Laura Hall, the two white kids in question, are poster children for Just Say No to Drugs.

Few true crime authors are as reliable as Kathryn Casey and only her name on the cover could convince me to read a book in which the disposal of the corpse involves the liberal use of cutlery. Where a lesser writer would focus on the heinous crime, Casey shows the descent of victim Jennifer Cave and killer Colton Pitonyak into hell courtesy of drugs. In a way the amount of hard drugs these two seemingly normal kids were doing by their freshman year is more shocking that the murder. Casey does an especially good job of showing how a “nice girl” like Jennifer Cave drifted into self-destruction.

Nice is not a word anyone will ever apply to Pitonyak or Hall. Having transformed himself into the drug king of the University of Texas via his own consumption and drug dealing, Colton looked for more ways to model himself on Scarface. Because that movie ended so well for Tony Montana and his little friend. Naturally this amounts to Colton going around telling other economically insulated white boys about his time in county jail, his gangsta ways, and his favorite rap song of the moment. Just when Colton couldn’t seem to be any more of an idiot he hooks up with the true monster of the book, Laura Hall. Pitonyak was a drug addled mess living a fantasy, Laura Hall is a beast who thought that helping her boyfriend dispose of a body was romantic. It’s one thing to do it, it’s something else to brag about it. On Facebook.

There is one thing wrong with this book. The obligatory salacious subtitle is lamer than usual. Colton Pitonyak and Jennifer Cave stopped being altar boy and cheerleader, respectively, by middle school so describing them thus makes as much sense as “the girl who wanted to be a teacher and the boy who wanted to be a fireman when they grew up”. Could Harper Collins just switch to decaf before they publish their next true crime?

Other than the subtitle, however, this book is pure ambrosia for true crime fans. Kathryn Casey’s books just keep getting better. Highly recommended.

Recent Acquisitions

AKA = therapy shopping at Amazon.co.uk

Found Wanting by Robert Goddard

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir

Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery by Eric Ives

A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Them and Us: The American Invasion of British High Society by Charles Jennings

Lifestyles of the Super Trashy

Before there was “mega” there was “super”. In the 1970s anything that was more with a capital m earned the prefix “super”. Stars whose mere existence caused fans to swoon were superstars. Billionaires were super rich. The top trailer park antics of Stella Maudine Stephenson etc Nichols and her daughter Cindy are of a similar magnitude – they are more than trashy, they are super trashy. In the hands of true crime great Gregg Olsen their story, Bitter Almonds, is art.

Do It Yourself gal Stella Nichols, who lived a tough life by any standards, is one of the most staggeringly promiscuous people ever. How promiscuous? She drove to bars in her trusty pickup truck “”TP 4” with a mattress in the back. That’s how promiscuous. Being a bar fly with her own rolling motel wasn’t enough to keep Stella amused. She was a winner at Tri-Chem design, which seems to have been the tasteful way to tart up one’s clothes before the invention of the Bedazzler. She designed her own pottery. She even managed to fit a few fish tanks into her single-wide trailer. Oh, and she picked up a few facts about how to kill with natural herbs and cyanide. One of the challenges of Stella’s story is that while her crime is awful, you can’t help admiring her ability to fit so much into a day.

Stella isn’t the only epic barfly in this story. Her whole family is man-crazy. I tried adding up the number of marriages the Stephenson “girls” and Grandma Cora Lee managed to rack up and I stopped at 30. That’s thirty marriages for 5 women. Just the marriages. When Stella’s even trashier daughter Cindy complains about Stella’s boozing and bed-hopping a few weeks after her husband’s death saying “I have a reputation myself to uphold in the town” one wonders if Cindy was merely vexed at having competition for the title of town tramp. This example of family love pales in comparison to warm welcome Stella’s sister Georgia extends to her daughter Wilma’s baby: “I hope that bitch you’re holding …” Wilma responds to this heartwarming expression of maternal love with a right hook and some hair pulling. The female bonding in this clan is something else.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be simply depressing. Fortunately we have Gregg Olsen on the case and no one is better at depicting the underclass of America. He’s neither preachy nor faux-sympathetic. The more of his work I read the more convinced I am that Gregg Olsen is a brilliant combination of Darcy O’Brien (another true crime great) and filmmaker John Waters in his ability to show us what we’d prefer to avoid while showing us a little of ourselves in the process. Gregg Olsen gives Stella Maudine and the rest of the Stephenson girls what they would probably most want: their dignity. He shows them at their trashy worst but always shows their strength. Of course, that strength can take the form of dumping your kids, turning your mom into the FBI or poisoning your husband but then life’s not for wimps.

Starting a Series Out Right

With several active series of detective fiction set in post-World War I Britain it’s impressive that any author would want to launch a new one, especially when the author in question already has one successful series ongoing. The writing team that comprises Charles Todd has gone as far afield from guilt-ridden Inspector Rutledge as imaginable while still staying in familiar territory. I admit my first reaction to the news of this new series was something along the lines of “why bother?” so I’m happy to report that it’s a very good thing that Todd did bother.

A Duty to the Dead handles the business of launching a series with minimal fuss. The introduction of heroine (and military nurse) Bess Crawford - a smart, resourceful heroine without being a screaming anachronism – involves a minimum of exposition and background. Todd’s choice of making Bess being the only child of a Colonel who was raised in colonial India presents many opportunities for the character to comment on a society that she both participates in and observes. It's easy to see that this will serve the series well.

The central plot sees Bess going to visit the family of a man who died under her care to deliver his last message to them. There’s plenty of English cozy-genre trappings complete with addled vicar, misunderstood town doctor and family secrets. Bess can’t so much as take a walk without someone in the town needing immediate nursing assistance or wanting to confide in her. And yet the clich├ęs and the creaks didn’t bother me because Todd kept the story going at a good pace. The mystery itself is satisfying without being too convoluted.

This isn’t a perfect book but it is enjoyable. Some will compare it to Todd’s Inspector Rutledge books – for me this stacks up well against the first entry in that series A Test of Wills. Others may compare it to Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs – I’ll take Bess Crawford over Maisie any day. Where Maisie is a humorless paragon of perfection, Bess is no nonsense and human. To each there own. If you’re a fan of either series or Rennie Airth’s fine DI Madden series, A Duty to the Dead is a sure bet.

Sibling Rivalry Played for Keeps

At times this book feels like one of the better seasons of Dynasty set in Renaissance Italy. There are fights for family power, adultery, borderline idiot husbands, unloved brides, over-indulgent fathers, trampy cousins; the only thing missing is the occasional catfight. With material like the Medici family of Florence, one expects a bit of entertainment and Caroline Murphy delivers. Murphy also acquits herself well as a serious historian.

The story of daddy’s-favorite Isabella de Medici Orsini has the drama and intrigue to sustain a book. Isabella is that rarity of Renaissance times – a woman who is not a ruling queen with a well-documented life. Caroline Murphy brings Isabella to live but more importantly, she brings the reader into Isabella’s life. We get a feeling for the rhythms, excitements and boredoms of life as a Medici princess. Isabella is not exactly a sympathetic character nor is she remarkable for anything beyond her birth but that in itself makes this book fascinating reading. It’s rare to know so much about a woman of those times who was neither a paragon of virtue nor a creature of great infamy.

Nasty gossip did attach itself to Isabella - stories accused of incest with her father and her brother – yet her murder went without official comment. In the epilogue Murphy makes the case that Isabella was killed for actions that had she been a man would have been tolerated. I have no difficulty believing there was a double-standard in 16th century Florence but Murphy’s stretching things a bit here. Helping your hare-brained cousin plot to murder her husband is going to rile up the family no matter what your gender.

Murphy’s style is clear and she does a remarkable job of weaving together the various sources into an enjoyable narrative. She does pad the story on occasion and several times she jumps around chronologically but the impact on the overall story is minor. She writes for a contemporary audience complete with mentions of Paris Hilton but doesn’t strain for popular references. This is is a well-written biography that I recommend to anyone interested in Renaissance history.

Through the Past Darkly

What must it be like to have not only a murder in the family but an unsolved murder at that? If the victim in question was your father who died before you were old enough to have meaningful memories of him the mystery would only deepen. It’s more than a whodunit – who was the murder victim anyway?

Zachary Lazar sets out not to find his father’s killers but to understand how a nice accountant living a life of middle-class ease got tangled up with shady land deals, political corruption and organized crime. The narrative device Lazar uses is to depict his father as a character in a novel, writing about his feelings and frustrations that led him to take a walk on the Phoenix wild side that in the early 1970s consisted of selling uninhabitable land to GIs in Japan. For something that skirts the edges of the Mafia and the corruption of a former presidential candidate, the scam at the heart of Evening’s Empire is surprisingly mundane and tawdry without ever being interesting. The scam and the murder are part of a labyrinth-like enterprise that does not lend itself to dramatic storytelling. Nor are the principles, for one reason or another, available to participate via interview. So two-thirds of the way through the author shifts to the first person to continue the search. I’m happy to report that Lazar does not turn this into a true-crime-travelogue aka “what happened to me while I was writing this book.” He sticks to the story only inserting himself fleetingly but meaningfully to remind the reader of the unbearable cost of any murder.

Whether you will enjoy this book depends on whether you like Lazar’s prose style and his narrative technique. This is not a class true crime - there is no tidy ending. Lazar does his best to explain the scam at the heart of the crime without appearing to explain it (no easy task he’s set for himself) but I never felt as if I understood it well enough to explain it to anyone else. What Zachary Lazar does very well is create the atmosphere of Phoenix in the early 70s. With a few sentences Lazar not only sets the scene, he can make you feel the desert heat and the texture of the vinyl poolside chairs.

For me little touches of brilliance like that and the risks Lazar takes were enough to give this book five stars. This is a story that truly deserves the description haunting - it stays with you long after you've read the last page. This book isn’t for everyone but if you don’t mind unresolved mysteries, Evening’s Empire is essential reading.

"The Opposite of Communism is Europe"

This is a fascinating book that I'm glad that I read but that I'm also glad is over.

Judt sets out to explain how Europe went from being a continent made up of many countries to, well, the European Union. His central thesis is that the utter devastation of the two World Wars left Europe so hobbled and its citizenry so shell-shocked that the only way progress could occur was with strong direction from the government. In the case of Western Europe, that meant the "Welfare State" served up in various forms in different countries, and in Eastern Europe it meant a degree of acceptance of the communist regimes put in place by Stalin. Judt ends with the Soviet Union gone, Eastern Europe clamoring to get into the EU and Western Europe struggling to figure out just what it means to be European.

That probably doesn't sound like a scintillating read. I won't lie. This is isn't a page turner over all but parts of it do have the sweep and drive of great popular history. Other parts read like a text book. Judt loves facts and figures. Given the choice between telling you that coal production in Belgium fell 45% in ten years or telling you exactly what coal production was in 1960 and 1970, he'll always go with the later. Still, I haven't come across any other book which attempts to do what Judt does and while he does have his opinions, he's far from doctrinaire. Judt isn't a fan of Maggie Thatcher, Francoise Mitterand or Boutros Boutros-Ghali - which is quite a gamut.

Judt takes on a few sacred cows as well, for instance he explains the events of Paris 1968 in a way that is less heroic and more about squatters' rights. He doesn't shy away from Europe's less appealing actions either - like enforced sterilization through until the mid-1970s. What emerges is a full picture of a continent trying to assembly itself into a community.

If you want to know how the shambles of postwar Europe became the Europe of today, this is the place to start. It's especially notable for it's insistence on seeing Europe independent of the United States and for giving equal time to the Eastern European experience. Recommended for those interested in 20th Century history.

What the Librarian Saw

The Fall of Rome is one of those rare event that demonstrates that even when history is written by the losers the truth can be in short supply. For a man whose name can still inspire visions of terror Attila the Hun is poorly understood. When he's depicted as a barbarian (see most histories of the Roman Empire written before 1850) Attila seems more Neanderthal Frat Boy than brilliant military leader. When he's shown as a worthy adversary to the crumbling Empire, Attila seems more like Alexander the Great without the fancy tutors.

Christopher Kelly aims to show us Attila as he was - the leader of a civilization that the Romans dismissed out of arrogance, ready to play power politics with Roman, Constantinople, and Persia. This is genuine popular history that draws on the latest archaeological research to show us a society with laws, elites, fools, geniuses, and above all pride. Kelly places the old stories about the Huns in the context of their times, explaining what all that hyperbolic language really meant. He doesn't glorify the Huns any more or less than the Romans or Byzantines. He shows them all acting with honor, lying, conniving, breaking treaties, and upholding right as they understand it.

Best of all, Kelly has a sense of humor and he knows a good story. The story of the Roman librarian on a diplomatic mission is half farce, half James Bond and wholly entertaining. Where else are you going to find scheming eunuchs, Dudley DoRight-esque Roman soldiers, gossipy librarians, stuttering love-sick con men and day long dinner parties? Attila did not bring about the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire but his story exposes the weaknesses, corruption and rot that did.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in ancient/Roman history.

Kindle note: photographs not included even though they are (annoyingly) referenced in the text.

A Triumph of Atmosphere

There are a fair number of mystery series with clergy of some persuasion playing the role of detective. It's easy to see why this would appeal to a writer interested in exploring the whys of a whodunit. The latitude to explore on moral and spiritual issues is greater allowing for a more complex narrative. Making the cleric in question both a woman and a former army helicopter pilot increases the opportunities for complexity. Add to this Julia Spencer-Fleming choice of locale - small town upstate New York - and you have a canvas for a broad social commentary in her All Mortal Flesh.

This is my first venture into the Clare Fergusson - Russ Van Alstyne series and in retrospect it probably isn't a good place to start for the simple reason that the relationship between the two leads comes to a crisis point. The difficulty is that not having read any of the previous books I didn't care about whether Russ and Clare would give each other up forever and nothing in the book changed that. Another difficulty is that the situation calls for the two leads to act at their least rationale which can undermine the confidence other characters seem to automatically place in them.

What Spencer-Fleming does especially well is create a believable, palpable locale, her town of Miller's Kill and the people in it feel real. Spencer-Fleming does deliver one genuine plot twist along the way. She does over play things on occasion, like St. Alban's new deacon who might as well stroll into scenes wearing a witches' hat by the end of the book for all the subtlety she's given. The final exposition was a bit of an eye-roller for me - I could see it a mile away, as I good the identity of the murderer. It was a little hard to believe that an intelligent woman like Clare couldn't add it up on her own either but then she was distracted. It might sound like I didn't like this book and the bare bones of the plot in the hands of a lesser writer might have me giving this less than the very respectable 3 stars I did. What made this book stick with me is the community Spencer-Fleming created. By the end of the book I knew what it would feel like to walk down the Main Street of Miller's Kill. That's a genuine accomplishment.

As a stand-alone book, this book leaves more than a little to be desired. As an entry in a series, it is probably quite solid. Julia Spencer-Fleming's undeniable writing talent has me headed back for more - this time starting at the beginning.

A Fine Bromance

If you live in Boston, as I did for a few years, the name Whitey Bulger is as resonate as Jimmy Hoffa. Both were men feared by some and idolized by others. Both had no qualms about victimizing those who feared and idolized them. Both were seen by some as the guy like them who managed to stand to the Establishment. And both disappeared. But nobody thinks Whitey is buried at Gillette Stadium.

Whitey Bulger was a mythic figure in Boston, especially his old neighborhood of Southie, the gangster who always managed to slip out of the hands of the law.But even Southie little boys and girls grew up dreaming of becoming FBI agents. Chances are their dreams didn't involve having gangster over to the house for dinner. John Connolly, another son of Southie, dared to have this dream and in pursuit of it he pretty much turned the Boston office of the FBI into Whitey Bulger and his Winter Hill gang's own little intelligence squad.

Make no mistake about it, James "Whitey" Bulger and his partner Stevie "The Rifleman" Flemmie were crooks, thugs, murderers, and all around low lifes. One could spend hours cataloging their many crimes. Oddly, they fail to get the credit they deserve for their pioneering work in the field of bromance. Any law enforcement agent can have an informant. Any crook can become a snitch. But it takes real imagination to turn it into quite evenings at home with your snitch/handler at the home of the handler's boss enjoying a home cooked meal the handler's boss has prepared. Candles, wine - champagne on occasion, steaks and the occasional visit from Whitey's powerful politician brother to share the latest family pictures. Just another night at Chez Agent Morris. Special dinners away from the cares of work aren't enough to keep a bromance alive, either. You need to show your bro that you care. Really care. Don't be afraid to give him a give now and then. A bottle of wine, a tasteful silver champagne bucket or a very special belt buckle says "I think you're the best" more than words ever can.

This is one mind-bending story and Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill are perfectly suited to the task. Their journalistic style is spot on in terms of original research and the kind of prose that doesn't get in the way of illuminating facts. Lehr & O'Neill know when to let these looney-tunes speak for themselves as in this line from murderer Stevie Flemmie that actually made me laugh out loud:

"I received a sweatshirt from (Agent) Nick Gianturco."

The next time you're wondering what to get that special multiple murderer in your life, look no farther than your local sporting goods store. I kept hoping it was some sort of demented joke about giving a fleece to a thief but no, ethically challenged FBI Agents John Morris and John Connolly and their pals thought this made sense.

This is an entertaining, well-researched, well-written book. The only flaws are that it drags in the final chapters when they provide perhaps a bit too much detail about the grand jury proceedings that ultimately brought this sordid business to light and that the books begs to be updated to cover Connolly's recent convictions. Aside from that, this is as smart a book about the mob as any True Crime fan could hope for. Highly recommended for any True Crime fan, anyone interested in the Mafia and anyone from Boston.

Romance is Dead

Dear Abby,

My husband and I decide to go to New Orleans to see the city 18 months after the devastation of Hurricane Katerina to celebrate our fifth anniversary. A sensational murder happened during the trip - a man committed suicide after murdering, dismembering and then cooking (and freezing!) his girlfriend. My husband, a writer, was drawn to the story. So drawn to it that while still on this second honeymoon trip he began interviewing the murderer's friends so he could write an article about it for Penthouse. Would it be too forward of me to suggest we go to Niagara Falls next time?

Confused in NOLA

No, I am not kidding. Yes, the above describes how the author came to write Shake the Devil Off. I left out the part where the author declares the prostitution and drug selling rampant in one area of New Orleans as "a tonic" to the safety of New York. Because we don't have anything like that here in the Big Apple.

Logic flaws such as this are plentiful in this book, one I fully expected to enjoy. I love the true crime genre and I'm always happy to see quality true crime printed in hard cover. The topic is interesting enough: did Zach Bowen's army experiences in Kosovo and Iran so damage him that the additional pressure of post-Katrina New Orleans caused him to snap and murder his girlfriend? After reading this book the answer is a resounding "Who knows?"

Zach Bowen and his victim Addie Hall are at arms length throughout this book. Zach seems to have drifted through his life with a fragile sense of self - this is a guy who quit high school when he loses an election - and his marriage to an older "adult entertainer" (aka, a stripper) doesn't do much to stabilize him. Initially he thrives on regimented army life only to begin to buckle under the pressure. Unfortunately, we know all of this second hand. Zach didn't keep a diary so instead of learning what the army was like for him, we hear what it was like for someone in his unit. When Zach purposely fails an army physical, we don't hear from his doctors, superiors or anyone else, we hear from a lawyer who has handled cases "like" this and thinks is should have been handled differently. Addie Hall fares even worse. She comes across as a nutjob, all but "driving" Bowen to murder. Never once do we hear from her family or close friends from before New Orleans.

PTSD while a serious and real issue isn't a convincing answer for the why of this case. Bowen clearly had psychological issues prior to ever enlisting. Bowen's experience in Kosovo and Iraq is too hazy to create a convincing causal link. A more compelling question is WHY was Bowen ever allowed in the army? I have little tolerance for the "War Veteran as Ticking-Time Bomb of Violence" cliche. Hollywood treated us to this foolishness about Vietnam Vets in the 1980s. This is a dangerous stereotype and doesn't do a thing to help war veterans. PSTD should be better treated. The army should do a better job of psychological evaluations priors to enlistment and post discharge. Sadly, this has been the case since the Boer War and things have improved marginally compared to the advancement in weaponry.

Even the author seems to lose interest in the subject three quarters of the way through, straying off to tell us about the high crime rate in New Orleans post-Katrina. Since the crime rate in was high in NOLA before, this isn't too shocking. But Ethan Brown hammers it home by telling the random story of a couple who move back to New Orleans only for the husband to be killed and then, oh the HORROR, the woman's hairdresser. What does it all mean? What does it have to do with the Addie Hall murder? And most importantly why did Mr Brown make his wife move to a city that has ceased to be a tonic in its realness but is simply a place for her to get robbed at gunpoint? The unanswered questions pile up.

A true crime travelogue such as this is hard to do well and probably hasn't been done well since Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The author is too present in the narrative making the whole exercise seem self-indulgent at times. I'm not all that interested in what the author has to do to track down sources or where he ate lunch. The author imparts this all in the most humor-free manner - and he has great material, like those rapping tranny prostitutes at the beginning - the subject is a downer but that's no reason to sap the life out of everything. In the end Ethan Brown is too enthralled with the "importance" of his story to ever put it in context or stop taking himself seriously for half a second, all of which makes for a dull read.

A Man Walks Into A Bookstore

Drive by any flea market and you will see ample evidence that for any object you can think of, there is someone somewhere assembling a collection of it. When it comes to collecting books I can easily sympathizes, up to a point. As much as I love books, as much as I've probably spent on books in my lifetime there is just no way I can see myself collecting first editions. Too expensive, too risky and too much space required. None of this, however, was a barrier to book thief extraordinaire John Charles Gilkey.

Barlett dives into the world of rare books, bibliomania and biblio larceny to tell the story of Gilkey, a genuine oddball who despite having no money, no fixed address and no clue sets out to amass a collection of first editions that will wow the world. The fact that Gilkey thinks the world will care gives a hint of what we are dealing with here. The additional fact that Gilkey steals the books and simultaneously feels aggrieved is impressive but only in the same way that it was impressive to see the driver of a Honda Civic, having cut off another car, spit on said car because the other driver dare to blow their horn. And that's one of the major hurdles of this double-spaced, generously margined book: readers will find themselves wanting to smack some sense into this dimwit.

The other main character, Ken Sanders, is an oddball of another sort but an honest and forthright oddball. He's easily one of the sanest people in the book and based on what's in the book, saner than the author. This book is written in the "Let Me Tell You How I Wrote This" style, with the author front and center telling us what she thought, felt, ate, etc. My tolerance for such ventures is low. Bartlett does a good job with this when she's ruminating on what books have meant to her, she does less well when she's telling us about all the books she read as research for this book. I'm glad her library card got a workout but a little narrative cohesion would be nice. So would a little self-awareness.

When Bartlett begins hanging out with Gilkey she seems weirdly unaware that something isn't right with him. She's trying to figure out the logic of what Gilkey does. From his first words to her it's apparent that logic isn't Gilkey's strong point so I kept wondering when Bartlett would clue in to this. When she goes to one of the bookstores Gilkey stole from with Gilkey so that Gilkey can show her how he shops, or some such silliness, I wanted to remind her that being a journalist doesn't require the removal of one's spine. Just say no, Allison. Thankfully, Ken Sanders sets her straight.

It is a rare thing to read an article in a magazine and wish it were longer. I can think of only two off the top of my head: The Miranda Obsession by Bryan Burrough and Virtual Love by Tad Friend. Not having reading Allison Hoover Bartlett's original article on the subject, I don't know if The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is eagerly awaited by readers. It's a short book and an easy read. It is also the first book I've read in which the author shares her experience of removing her bra via her shirtsleeve in her car outside a California state prison. I won't be too sad if it is the last.

Recommended for anyone interested in the world of rare books.

Work is All Hell

but at least there's a paycheck involved.

Digging out from under a pile of work and one very long book.

Recent Acquistions

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Bartlett

The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome by Christopher Kelly

Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI and the Devil's Deal by Dick Lehr

The Birthing House by Christopher Ransom

The First Family by Mike Dash

Upstairs, Downstairs and the Summer House

More Barbara Vine than Elizabeth George with Whatwasdone and Whydoneit being as important as whodunit. This book has a surprising number of passive characters - people who let tradition, circumstance and the will of others determine their fates.

As is often the case, there are several instances of 21st century opinions being voiced by characters from previous centuries. Morton does an admirable job of recreating the "downstairs" world of the servants in a great house although at times it feels slightly cribbed from Upstairs/Downstairs. The narrative is nonlinear, with flashbacks, dictated memories and letters recreating the story of what happened at the house at Riverton one night in 1924.

Grace is a refreshing lead character, starting out in life believing she is fortunate to enter "service" (being a servant in a grand house) only to later grasp the chance to become truly her own woman. Her doppelganger of sorts, Hannah, is more frustrated and frustrating. I couldn't quite make out whether Morton was presenting Hannah as a woman trying to break free of convention or as a woman who never fully matures finding make believe games and secret codes more compelling than real life. Perhaps Morton was trying for both.

Whatever the case this is an entertaining tale, decently written and in Grace, a character whose choices I found myself pondering after I'd finished the book.

Catching Up

Why do work and my family insist upon taking up time which could be more happily spent reading or at least writing about reading? There are worse things than a relative who wants to let you know that Valerie Bertinelli used to be a drug addict or dealing with Delta Airlines but in the same week?

It doesn't help matters that I'm currently reading Shake the Devil Off by Ethan Brown which is depressing AND preachy, and Postwar by Tony Judt which is panoramically informative but with three straight chapters of Stalinism. And as I type this I'm being subjected to Bob Dylan singing "John Wesley Harding." A man who murders then cooks his girlfriend, the ruthless oppression of millions and Bob Dylan's nasal vocal stylings. Death, where is thy sting?

I need to read something purely and nonviolently entertaining. And bring my headphones to Starbucks.

Barn Flamer

Having trouble imagining the words "Amish man", "murderous parent", "gay stud muffin" and "whacko" in the same sentence? What about in the same sentence used to describe one man? To quote Dewey Cox: "How's your mind? Blown?" Well, it should be.

Eli Stutzman - Amish farmer, race horse trainer, thief, drug addict, staggeringly promiscuous gay man, horrible husband, lousy date, despicable house guest and the worse father ever - is nothing is not a modern day renaissance man. Name two things that don't belong together and they can probably both be used to describe Eli. This book tells two stories simultaneously. One is about Little Boy Blue, a young boy who's corpse is found in a ditch on Christmas Eve. The other is about the boy's father, Eli, who left the boy in the ditch. On the one hand we have people of conviction and dedication who seek to do right by a boy they never knew in life. On the other hand, we have Eli.

One might expect to feel a bit of sympathy or at least pity for a young man who comes to understand that he is something that his society can never accept or acknowledge. It can't be easy to be gay and Amish. It's not an easy society to understand either. The low Amish don't allow electricity or buttons, but they let the young sow their wild oats during "rumspringa" and forbid kissing but allowing "bundling", aka, sleeping together fully clothed. Girls who allow favors too freely are known to bundle "too hard." Eli consorts with a few hard bundling gals before settling down with a nice Amish girl who, wouldn't you know it?, up and dies during a barn fire. The neighbors help Eli raise a new barn after which Eli promptly gets up to activities in the barn that aren't on the floor plan. You'll never look at a barn the same way after hearing about a few of Eli's drug and sex barn parties. Barn burners, indeed. Eli leaves the Amish community and embarks on a series of relationships made possible by the 1970s equivalent of Craig's List, The Advocate. The best part of Eli's schtick is that he keeps his Amish clothes for costume parties. Apparently broad brims are quite the turn on in certain circles. More than once while reading this book I found myself humming Weird Al's "Amish Paradise" - yes, even Ezekiel would have thought Eli's mind was gone. The law catches up with Eli but he doesn't get what he deserves. Not surprising since what he deserves involves being burned alive in his own barn.

Few writers could tell a story that encompassed the restrictive lives of the "low" Amish, the gay scene of the late 1970s and the police investigation into the death of a child without giving into hyperbole or cliches. Gregg Olsen is that rare writer who can not only avoid those pitfalls he can deliver an entertaining book.Whether he's writing about white trash, Munchhausen by proxy or Amish Boys Gone Wild, Olsen writes about his subjects and their beliefs with genuine compassion and respect. Olsen may pass judgement but he never looks down on his subjects. His talent and his integrity make Olsen's books a must for the library of every series True Crime fan.

The Ghost of Betty Van Patter

Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties by Peter Collier and David Horowitz

Looking back on one's past generally evokes one of two responses. Either a) "Wow, wasn't that a great time!" or b) "Dear God, what was I thinking?" Occasionally one can summon up a bit of both but at the very least we look back with a degree of bemusement. When self-professed "New Left radicals" Peter Collier and David Horowitz look back at the 1960s their reaction is decidedly "what was I thinking" sort. The result is that this book has essentially two speeds: bitchy and cranky.

The bitchy parts comprise some of the most enjoyable reading of the year for me.

Since this is a tale of apostasy the cranky parts are to be expected. The authors went from the New Left to embracing anti-communism in a big way, they're looking back in bitterness. Because they were insiders the perspective Collier and Horowitz aren't giving us the Woodstock and tie-dyed Sixties, they're telling stories that range from ironic ("Post-Vietnam Syndrome") to heartbreaking (Fay Stender) to verging on self-parody (The Weather Underground) to just flat out hilarious (the Berkeley City Council). The little known story of Fay Stender alone makes this book worth reading. How can the story of a nice Jewish girl who embraced every cause of the 1960s, became a major force in a prison rights, joined the feminist movement, found true love only to become the target of an assassination attempt by the very prisoners for whom she once so tireless fought have not been made into a movie yet.

The Weather Underground chapter, on the other hand, could make a fine absurdist comedy. What's more hilarious than upper middle-class white boys declaring themselves "crazy motherf*ers" devoted to "scaring the s* out of honky America"? I'll tell you what, it's an ENFORCED orgy that generates this morning after comment "I'm sure they have to do it this way in Vietnam." No dummy, they didn't. Say what you will about Ho Chi Minh, no one has accused him of directing the sex lives of the Vietnamese people like Benardine Dohrn and company. You'll hear less exhortations to arm yourself at an NRA convention than you will from a few pages of the WU. I guess polishing one's, ahem, gun helped pass the time between those required orgies. We find that, just like the Baader-Meinhof gang, the WU leadership had more in common with the Three Stooges than Marx or Lenin.

Nothing, however, prepares one for the laughs that are generated by the proceedings of the Berkeley city council. No since Eric Hobsbawm called Marie Antoinette "chicken-brained" have I laughed so hard at a serious history. The highlight is undoubtedly when the council, irked at having to tear themselves away from formulating their policy on Nicaragua, must deal with the growing issue of the homeless in the city. Those pesky homeless people just don't get the dialectic. Their rowdiness at a council meeting inspires the "radical" mayor to tell them "if we can't have order here, we'll just end the meeting and go home."

Guess what the homeless people said in response to that.

This isn't a single narrative but a collection of previously published magazine pieces (broadsides?) and essays on the author's journeys (literal and metaphorical), and as this was originally published in the 1980s quite a bit of time is spent on Nicaragua. When Collier and Horowitz are taking the humorless, gullible and inept to task, they're at their best. When they're on one of their anti-communist rants, well, it just feels dated.

What hangs most over this book is not regret, but the ghost of Betty Van Patter. An accountant that Collier and Horowitz persuaded to work with the Black Panthers as a bookkeeper in one of their community projects, Van Patter was apparently murdered by members of the group after she uncovered evidence of embezzlement. Their crushing disillusionment with their own actions and their own illusions stems from this tragedy yet the authors don't oversell this story, they don't excuse or pity themselves. These are two very talent writers who can create a compelling narrative like few others.

Yes, they have their opinions and they couldn't be more up front about them. I enjoy diverse opinions but given a choice I'd rather read a balanced history book than one slanted to any political persuasions. There are exceptions, of course. Paul M. Johnson is an enjoyable writer who isn't afraid of a bit of research and he is a man of fixed opinions but he's quite upfront about his point of view. He doesn't pretend to be unbiased or dispassionate so even though I frequently disagree with his views, I enjoy reading his work. He makes his case and dares you to disagree. He's also frequently laugh out loud funny. The same goes for Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hitchens and Susan Jacoby. The tell it as they see it never forgetting to inform and engage along the way.

On occasion I found myself disagreeing with the authors' too sweeping dismissiveness of the possibility that anything positive came from the Sixties. The New Left represented only a portion of the events of that decade and while Collier and Horowitz effectively dismantle any illusions that might remain about that on occasion they write as if the New Left was the only story from that time. I kept coming back to the comments one interviewee made of Fay Stender "It should count for something that she wanted to be a force for good in this world." He could be speaking of a generation.

If you like smart writing with an eye for the absurd and are willing to read and decide for yourself whether or not you agree with the author, this book is highly recommended.

Mysteries of Barcelona

This is one of those books that makes me glad I have access to ARC's through Vine. Very likely I wouldn't have gotten around to reading it this year even if someone gave me a copy and insisted I read it. And that would have been a pity because this is a very entertaining book.

It's the story of David Martin, a writer of pulp fiction in 1920s Barcelona. He loves books and loves creating stories, in fact that's all he really wants to do. He's so entranced by stories that he doesn't actively live his own life. A series of events sets everything he values beyond his reach: his best friend, the woman he adores, the work he loves, even his own future. Into this situation comes the mysterious Andreas Corelli with a proposition: write a book for me.

There is a strong whiff of both the Gothic and the supernatural here. Think the Mysteries of Udolfo. This is great story telling, but it's even better scene-writing. The dialogue is witty, sometimes laugh out loud witty. The central ideas - art as the repository of the artists soul, the nature of faith and the essence of friendship - are far from trivial. The most compelling part of the story for me was the friendship between David and the girl he unwillingly takes on as his apprentice, Isabella. The bond between them is so effortlessly drawn and yet so palpable. It's rare to see a male-female friendship portrayed so honestly, so reverently in popular fiction today. The translator deserves special recognition as well, this never feels like a "translated" work yet it retains a distinctive sensibility.

As much as I like this book, I recognize it isn't for everyone. If you don't like old school Gothic this won't be for you. If you want an ending with everything answered, this may leave you dissatisfied. But if want a well-written wild ride with nuggets of genuine insight about fiction and story-telling, this is a book you should read.

Reading Heaven

There are rings of reading heaven, just as there are rings of hell. I'm in a particulary lofty ring of reading this weekend:

  • I'm reading two fantastic books at the same time (ok, not simulatenously, but you get the picture)
  • One is fiction and the other is non-fiction, the perfect balance
  • One is by an author who is new to me (hello, back catalog!)
  • I'm also listening to a very good mystery on audiobook
  • I'm nearly up to date on my Kindle back log - a mere 5 books not completed, only three of which are untouched

It's as if Mary Lovell, Robert Goddard, Ann Rule, Kathryn Casey and Bryan Burrough all published new books on the same day.

Who Wants to Marry a Millionairess?

In 18th Century England, if you were a second son with few prospects or a noble first-born son whose family fortune had run low you had one option to consider: marry a woman who was the sole heir to a large fortune. Like magic, her fortune would become yours entirely and she would cease to exist in the eyes of the law. It was like the lottery, only with a religious ceremony. Mary Eleanor Bowes was one such heiress who married first the Count of Strathmore and then the inspiration for Thackeray's Barry Lyndon. Mary Eleanor, to put it kindly, had atrocious taste in men.

Wendy Moore's entertaining Wedlock tells the story of Mary Eleanor fight to divorce her rogue of second husband and fans of Stella Tillyard's Aristocrats and Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire will find themselves at home. This is popular history that is as accessible as it is enjoyable. Prior knowledge of the times is not required but those familiar with the era won't find the background provided tedious. Moore sets out to inform and entertain and she accomplishes both. The story does bog down a tad in the middle - given that the topic at hand the abuse Mary Eleanor suffers at the hands of husband #2 Andrew Stoney that's not too surprising. Moore so effectively paints a picture of the villainous Stoney that readers may find themselves, like me, sorely disappointed that hanging wasn't an option for this cretin.

This is a story of female empowerment Georgian-style and sisterhood; it's also the story of conning someone into marriage that is so complex and so amazing it's no wonder Thackeray made a novel of it. Along the way we have bad behavior among the rich and famous (including a year of girl-gone-wild antics from Mary Eleanor that would leave Britney Spears saying, "Wow, that's trashy.") and Georgian phrasing that never fails to entertain. I, for one, plan on using the phrase "my deranged finances" at tax time next year. When the Court responds to one of Stoney's lunatic lawsuits with the words "If it be possible to conceive the Husband, of all others, who ought the least to be permitted to question any such Dispositions made by a Wife, the Appellant is that Husband" you know that this is the 18th Century legal equivalent of "You have got to be kidding."

Highly recommended for fans of history and biographies.

Kindle note: no photographs or linked footnotes.

Give Pears a Chance

There are few things more exciting for a reader than discovering a new author. Not only do you have the good book you're reading at the moment, you have the promise of reading the author's previous books, you have the anticipation of new books. The only downside is that if the first book you read by the author is not only good but amazingly good, nay, great. It's a downside because you may find yourself comparing every other book by the author against that first, awesome book.

Iain Pears operates in the shadow of this downside thanks to An Instance of the Fingerpost, a historical mystery with multiple narrators, each of them concealing as well as revealing. Stone's Fall is also a historical mystery with multiple narrators, each of them, well, you get the idea. Pears is inviting comparison between these two books so let's just get it out of the way. No, this isn't as good as Instance. So what? Neither are the vast majority of historical mysteries published this year. It is, however, very good.

Stone's Fall is the story of the mysterious death of a mysterious man, John Stone. His power was pervasive yet shadowy, the source of his power is difficult to explain and the goals he sought to advance through the use of that power is far from clear. His wife hires a reporter to locate John Stone's unknown and only recently discovered illegitimate child, a job for which she will pay him extravagantly. This sends the reporter down the proverbial rabbit hole as he tries to find the child, figure out why the missus hire him instead of an investigator and learn the ins and outs of finance so he can understand what it is Stone really owns. Few authors could explain the intricacies of a stock company and make it nearly entertaining; Pears is one of them.

Of course, it doesn't matter how the stock company operates or who owns it. It's a Macguffin, a mere vehicle to transport the story. And what a story it is: sultry Hungarian countesses, shady Levantine salesmen, spies, terrorists, and more lunatics than you can shake a stick out. The first narrator is the most engaging and the most fleshed out. The second narrator is more opaque but still with moments of humor. The final narrator is surprisingly bloodless, surprising because of who it is (I'm not telling) and the story he or she has to tell. There are a few Pears' classic touches along the way: the minor character who is on to the whole thing and tells us but we readers don't believe him, the actual historical characters who have readers wracking their brains to remember what happened to them, and the link between human passions and the things we build that become bigger than us.

If you're a Pears fan, this is a must read. It is a little longer than it needs to be, part two could lose about 100 pages, and as mentioned the last narrator isn't as good as it could be but overall it is very good. If you're new to Iain Pears, I wouldn't recommend starting with this book, for the reasons mentioned above. All in all, it's an entertaining way to spend 700 pages.

Exhaustive research equals exhausting read

The story of Sam Sheppard murder case is one that has been told obliquely but never completely. Which is odd considering that 50 years later many people have an opinion as to whether "Dr. Sam" murder his wife Marilyn or was the victim of an astonishing miscarriage of justice. James Neff has subtitle his book "The Final Verdict"- a bold move. My guess is that this one will continue to be debated but I doubt we'll have a more comprehensive book on the topic.

Given the topic, my interest in it and my very vague knowledge of the case (informed primarily by movies, TV movies and TV shows), I expected to enjoy this book far more than I did. I can't fault the research which seems to me to be exhaustive. The abundance of facts may be part of the reason why reading the first part of this book felt like a punitive homework assignment. The book starts with the crime and proceeds through the investigation in detail. Neff makes points about the shoddiness of the investigation and the stomach-churning press coverage but he does it in a style better suited to a memo from HR detailing how an employee fell down a flight of stairs at the office. The verbs "to be" and "to have" get a work out in all possible tenses and the passive voice makes many unwelcome appearances. The writing isn't bad, just uninspired. Only when Neff is quoting the words of the participants does any approaching emotion break through. From part two on the writing is more engaging though it never becomes enjoyable. That surprised me. Neff is clearly deeply interested in this case, he has a stake in it, he's devoted years to it, but that passion rarely comes through.

Neff's research yields many interesting facts. I knew nothing of the enmity between D.O.s and M.D.s or why that might have played a role in the coroner's findings. (I also didn't know there was once an "Eclectic Medical School" - although I like to imagine that one day they'd teach the students the finer points of spinal surgery, the next day it was how to make the perfect omelet.) In the question of which party's behavior was most vile in this case there are plenty of contenders: the police, the press, the mayor, the coroner, etc. Take your pick, you'll find plenty of justification for your choice in these pages.

Ultimately, I can only recommend this book for readers who are very interested in the Sam Sheppard case. The combination of details and the writing style does not make for an accessible book for the casual reader. If, however, one is deeply interested in the case, this is essential reading.

Pandemic Pandemonium

When you arrive at work and there is a pack of surgical gloves and respiratory masks on your desks you know you're in for a fun day. Yes, the Swine Flu has hit my office which means this place is quite the ghost town. It also means I'm totally set should I decide to act on everything I've learned from years of reading true crime and mysteries - I have the knowledge and the equipment! A mask and gloves! I'll never get caught.

Not that one needs to actually commit a crime to do hard time as The Wrong Man by James Neff shows. I have nothing bad to say about this book. So why do I feel like I'm doing a home work assignment when I read it? Maybe it's because Neff's style is reminiscent of a CYA memo. This happened, and he did this and that happened, etc.

Maybe his editor had swine flu that day.

He's a loser and he's not what he appears to be

John Lennon didn't have James Bergstrom in mind when he wrote "Loser" yet this is as close to a perfect theme song for the serial rapist, wife-beater and all-around-creepy guy on display in Kathryn Casey's The Evil Beside Her. The basic situation couldn't be any more unsettling: rape victim finds herself married to a serial rapist and can't get anyone to believe that he is the deviant the police are seeking. In lesser hands this would be a tale of exploitation and female helplessness ripe for a Lifetime movie adaptation.

Fortunately it is in the hands of True Crime great Kathryn Casey whose abilities as a story teller continue to impress me. She captures just the right rhythm for telling the story of a young woman who drifts into a marriage with a very odd young man, then stays with him as his behavior becomes increasingly bizarre, controlling and violent. Casey gives us such a sense of the ordinary days that it the battered and terrorized woman's ability to tell herself "that will never happen again" becomes comprehensible. Linda Bergstrom, the wife of serial rapist James, is slowly acclimated to the insane world of her husband until it seems if not normal than at least ordinary.

On the nature/nurture debate we have strong evidence for nature in the Bergstrom clan who all demonstrate moral tone-deafness. We also have yet more proof that while all whiny losers may not be serial rapists and/or murderers, all serial offenders are whiny losers. Based on this book and Jack Olsen's I: The Creation of Serial Killer I'm rethinking my stance on incarceration and capital punishment. Forget execution and supermax imprisonment, just put on these yo-yos in a group setting where their endless complaining about their own victimization can torture each other. These guys aren't relentless killing machines, they're non-stop kvetching machines.

Kathryn Casey is one of the bright lights in the True Crime genre, consistently turning out quality books informed by original research and reporting. Any fan of the genre should make it a point to read her books.

24 Hour Party People

This is the story of a group of privileged young people who captivate London press with their antics (read: bad behavior and total willingness to behave like idiots in public) and occasional brushes with the law. No, it's not the story of Lauren and Heidi or Paris and Lindsey. The subjects are upper class twenty-somethings in the 1920s London.

It starts out slow - Taylor actually spends a chapter pondering why they were called the "Bright Young People." Once it kicks into gear, around chapter 4, it's quite enjoyable as tales of people with pretensions to talent, pretensions in general, out-sized egos and a deep interest in clothes go. Evelyn Waugh (a major chronicler of this ilk), Cyril Connolly, and Cecil Beaton key players but the bulk of the story revolves around once revered but now forgotten bubble-heads like Elizabeth Ponsonby, Brian Howard, Brenda Dean Paul and Steven Tennent. Yes, they may not have been complete idiots but who really wants to defend the intellects of people whose major consuming interests were: parties, stunt parties, drinking, treasure hunts, costume parties, and more drinking.

The best parts are the extracts from the diaries and letters of the parents of one of the BYP. The Ponsonbys were horrified by their daughter's activities, her lack of ambition, and her profligate spending and their observations are both acute and frequently hilarious. When Dorothea Ponsonby writes, apropos of one of her daughter's friends "I can't look at him. He is like an obscure footman" she is forging new ground in put downs. In fact, I'm tempted to make this my go-to insult for the next month. Taylor is upfront about the fact that the majority of People in question aren't terribly impressive upon closer inspection. (Except in their networking and literary log-rolling, which is truly notable.) Yet several of them have already been the subject of biographies, (entitled "Portrait of a Failure" and "Serious Pleasures", no less) Taylor is interested in what made these people newsworthy, what inspired them and what impact they have left on society. The fascination with them seems almost perverse. It's not borne of respect or admiration. It's more like straining one's neck to see the remains of the car crash.

There's plenty of metaphorical and literal car crashes on display from Brenda Dean Paul's pioneering turn as a starlet drug addict, Elizabeth Ponsonby - generally and, best of all, the story of Gavin Henderson's wedding to a nice girl mummy approved of and the wedding night that the bride spent alone and he spent with a sailor he picked up. Somehow the marriage doesn't take. They natter on about becoming actresses, writing books or plays, painting pictures, but few of them ever actually create anything more permanent than a particularly inspired party invitation. It's easy to read these stories and snicker at the disproportion between the BYP's pretensions and their accomplishments. The sadder point that Taylor makes is that this really was the very best life they could imagine.

Once past their glory days a surprising number of the BYP move into fascism or communism. There's a joke to be made here about being addicted to parties but I'm going to skip it. Better jokes are made about this by Taylor himself and Cyril Connolly in "Where Engels Fears to Tread", a satire about a BYP who embraces communism and exhorts his fellow BYPs to join him with the words "Morning's at seven, and you've got a new matron."

Back to Heidi and Lauren etc., you could easily substitute their names (or any tabloid darlings de jour) for several characters here, switch "plays" for movies and "singer" for "writer" and you wouldn't notice the difference for several pages. Seeing how far back our fascination with pointless celebrity extends is interesting and thankfully this story is in the hands of writer who is sympathetic but not indulgent.

This is an enjoyable read for any fan of biography or early 20th century European history.

Bambi vs Stalin

Susan Jacoby's book on the Alger Hiss case might easily be subtitled: Give It a Rest Already. The "It" in question is the tendency among some to make sweeping assumptions about anyone's beliefs or motivations based on whether or not they believe Alger Hiss was a spy or was guilty of perjury or was framed, etc. I've been fascinated by this case since I first saw the great PBS miniseries "Concealed Enemies" in the early 1980s. That fascination has led me to read many books on the topic, some good (Alger Hiss's Looking Glass Wars), some bad (fratricide) and some genuinely life-changing (Perjury). Jacoby's book is both good and eye-opening; in spots it is genuinely entertaining.

Jacoby is a self-described liberal who has written this book out of frustration at seeing the Hiss case still used as a litmus test of sorts. The liberal point of view has been under represented in this case since Verona so it is good to have another side weigh in. She states up front that she believes Hiss was a spy and she also states that very few liberals have thought Hiss was innocent since Weinstein's book. She also admits to finding Hiss himself to be rather noxious, an impression I share. Jacoby sketches the outlines of the HUAC hearings, the libel trials and Hiss's attempts at rehabilitating his image before addressing how the Hiss case is used today.

Jacoby inadvertently identifies another thing about this case that has got to go. As with so many books on the case, there are more fresh insights offered as to the impact of homosexuality on espionage and the criminal justice system. Long time Hiss aficionados will be familiar with the theory that Whittaker Chambers framed Alger Hiss because Chambers had a homosexual yen for Hiss. The daisy chain gets extended further here when Hiss's stepson publicly regrets that he couldn't' testify for Alger (and thus exonerate him) because he was homosexual and it would have been used against him on the stand. So, to recap, Chambers framed Hiss because he was gay, his stepson Timothy couldn't save Hiss because he was gay, and his son Tony alleges he became gay for a while because he lived for too long with his mother (Hiss's ex-wife Priscilla) who was bitter about the case. What's next? Claims that communism makes you gay? I'm eagerly awaiting the pronouncement that the Soviets weren't so much marching as mincing toward world domination. Can't we please, please dispense with these ridiculous stereotypes, too?

Jacoby does make a few missteps in my mind. I can't agree with her contention that the pursuit of Hiss was grounded in a desire to smear FDR and the New Deal. Maybe that was in the minds of some of the participants but HUAC had been around since World War 1, FDR was dead and the New Deal was old news by 1949. Jacoby also seems to embrace the notion that Hiss engaged in espionage because the Soviet Union was the only country openly opposing Hitler. A "cooler" less impassioned alliance, as she sees it. This theory has been around for a long time and for some reason it seems more palatable to many than the idea that Hiss (or any other American with communist sympathies) might have actually believed in the tenets of communism. Certainly this was the motivation for some but why is that any more plausible than the idea that Hiss thought the misery wrought by the Depression demanded radical change? White makes a convincing case that we can't know why Hiss gave his allegiance to the Soviet Union. Any theory is as plausible as the next.

She gives much credit to Weinstein's book but, weirdly, questions how Weinstein could have started out thinking Hiss guilty of lying to HUAC but innocent of espionage as one would cancel out the other. That's not so irreconcilable to me, in fact, I'll give you a theory straight from that old Hiss standby: "I was gay at the time." Jacoby even goes so far as to imply that Hiss was so cool, patrician and awesome that Chambers must have been attracted to him. Please. For all we know, Chambers' taste ran to tall, blond Tom of Finland types. The most unfortunate misstep is when she snidely follows up Chambers story of his "conversion" from communism after pondering the perfection of his baby daughter's ear with a note that Chambers was still having gay one night stands. Does she really mean to imply that one cannot love one's child or have spiritual beliefs if one is gay? I hope not.

The core of this book however, is Jacoby's call to stop using the Hiss case as it was in the 1950s when it was a "real indicator of which side you were on." Whether you believe that Hiss case was Bambi vs. Stalin (Chambers was the original translator of the Bambi story from German to English) or Harvard vs. Tricky Dick, the fact remains it is history, not current events. For me, the Hiss case is no more an indicator of broader beliefs than the case of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. Historical puzzles, yes; continuing conspiracy? Not so much.

This book is not for everyone. It is definitely not for the beginner. It doesn't offer new information about the case but it does offer a different point of view. For me, that additional point of view makes essential reading for anyone deeply interested in the understanding the Hiss case and it's impact. It isn't likely to settle the debate, just broaden the discussion.

"We baptized the library floor"

Kay Francis is one of those actresses that you either get or you don't. It isn't that she's so complex, it's that Kay is in on the joke and those who enjoy her performances are in on it too. Yes, she's dressed to the nines while playing someone down on their luck -but you didn't come in off the Depression era streets to see someone in rags, now did you? She wasn't the best actress and she wasn't the worst, she was better than Norma Shearer (and I love Norma!) despite Mrs Thalberg's Oscar.

It always surprised me that no one had written a dishy biography about Kay Francis. She was such a huge star in the 1930s and she did have all those husbands. Unfortunately for potential biographers, but fortunately for her, Kay was discrete. And Kay had a lot to be discrete about. She told much of it to her diary and based on the extracts presented here, Kay is my new dead best friend. Anyone who can sum up a day with "Read my new script - dear God!" is girlfriend material.

The authors cover Kay's career in detail and with the loving assessments of devoted fans. I'm right there with them in enjoying Kay's performances in movies like Mandalay and I Found Stella Parish. As film historian Jeanine Basinger put it in A Women's View, Kay was presence, not talent. That's not as harsh as it sounds, it's a simple assertion that Kay wasn't trying to be the great tragedian. Kay was focused on entertaining, not winning awards.

Kay did have a little time left over for her personal life. You can either look at it as quite depressing - 3 divorces, multiple abortions and a drinking problem - or you can see it as a strong woman living her life on her terms in times when women had few options. I prefer the latter interpretation and with lines from her diary like "Did something and had good time but can't remember" you get the feeling Kay preferred the latter, too.

This is a book for Kay Francis fans and movie buffs who want to know more about an undeservedly forgotten star.

Fresh Off the Vine

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only Amazon Vine participant who's only interested in the books. Of course that's not the case but the buzz on the boards seems to be mainly about the electronics items, or lack of them.

This month's harvest (yes, I can overwork a metaphor, too!) is Murder of Medici Princess by Carolyn P. Murphy and Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes, both fiction. I could swear there was a non-fiction book of the same name (Murder of a Medici Princess) a year or so ago. Well, I guess if you were a Medici death by poison was a common fate.

Maisie, Maisie, Maisie

More than once while reading Among the Mad I felt a bit like Jan Brady bemoaning the ubiquitous perfection of her older sister Marcia. Fortunately, Maisie Dobbs isn't my sister because after less than one chapter of her ubiquitous perfection I was hoping she would be the first victim of the mad bomber. I'm not proud of this unrealistic hope but Maisie does try my nerves.

I read Winspear's first Maisie Dobbs outing and finished it hoping that the author would exercise more restraint in future books. After all if anyone is likely to be a fan of this series about a World War I nurse turned investigator it's a mystery fan and WW1 buff such as me. And Winspear does get many things right in this series. The period details ring true. The role that the war plays in the lives of survivors seems more realistic than what is depicted in the otherwise enjoyable Ian Rutledge series. Maisie is a strong woman who doesn't need a man to save her, another point in her favor in my eyes.

The trouble is that Maisie is a drag. A humorless, know-it-all apparently without fault unless you count her relentless good works. In the first chapter alone she's bought Christmas presents for her assistant's family, given alms to a beggar and attempted to save a man from suicide. And made me feel like trash for wishing this paragon had been turned to bits by a grenade. I blame her document case. Nearly every chapter features some business with Maisie and her document case. She's tucking pages into it, placing it in her car, drawing wax pencils from it or, my personal favorite, taking two sets of surgical gloves and masks from it. (I'm sorry to report that last one actually made me laugh out loud.) Like the world's oldest Girl Scout, Maisie is always prepared.
A few human frailties and a sense of humor would broaden the appeal of this series. As would dialing down Maisie's superiority in comparison to, say, Scotland Yard.

If I've hard on this book it's because I think the series has promise. Winspear has made Maisie less of a psychic than she was in the first book and the narrator for this audiobook, Orlagh Cassidy is excellent. What might easily have been two stars on the page becomes four stars under Cassidy's nuanced reading. She gives Maisie more depth than the mere words do. The central mystery is decent enough though more of a serial killer hunt for the needle in the haystack than a golden era whodunit. The characters beyond Maisie, however, aren't terribly well-drawn. It's all Maisie which makes her lack of faults become tiring.

Still, if you enjoy period mysteries this series is worth checking out. My advice is to take advantage of Amazon's "Look Inside" feature and read a few pages. Some readers might find Winspear's attention to detail (Maisie doesn't rush into a call box to make a call; she goes to the box, opens the door, picks up the receiver, etc) a bit much. Others might find it just the ticket.

Worth Re-reading

My addiction to LibraryThing is allowing me to revisit old friends. One of the reasons I give for buying books instead of just borrowing them from the library is that I only keep the books I want to reread. But how many books have I actually reread?

  1. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre (best spy story ever)
  2. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (because you never forget your first gothic)
  3. Anne Sexton by Diane Middlebrook
  4. Very Much a Lady by Shana Alexander
  5. Skull Session by Daniel Hecht
  6. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
  7. Decent Interval by Frank Snepp
  8. Den of Thieves by James B. Stewart

That's a respectable start, at least.

Random Thoughts

I'm reading Iain Pear's Stone's Fall and D.J. Taylor's Bright Young People. At nearly the halfway mark I've noticed a few thing, all of them random.
  • Roughly 20 Kindle lines equal one printed page.
  • A different "voice" isn't necessary to convey a change in narrator. Pears does it effectively but subtly almost entirely through the opinions and perceptions of the narrator.
  • Although if asked I would swear that I hate slow paced books once I get into a well-written slower paced book, I like it. Stone's Fall can move glacially at times but is still entertaining.
  • Those Brits do love creating "clubs".
  • The press's fascination with reporting the doings of basically moronic people is not a new phenomenon.
  • I'm becoming obsessed with LibraryThing.
  • This obsession may not be a bad thing. So to speak.

As Good as Before

How many times have I read one book by an author, loved the book and then tried the author's other books only to find that the first one was the best. Too many times. that's how many.

That's what I thought I was in for with Iain Pears' Stone's Fall. How could it be as good as An Instance of the Fingerpost? So far (12 chapters) it is as good. All in all, I've been quite lucky with the books I've read this year. It's enough to make me forget all about The Great Upheaval.

Then again, Maisie Dobbs is still haunting me. And her damn document case.

Through a Glass, Darkly

Imagine you're watching a play. The play is similar to another play that you've seen before, several plays, in fact. This time there is a screen in front of the stage made of fine black gauze. You can see and here what it going on behind the gauze, when the light shines a certain way you could almost forget the gauze is there. Then the scene ends and when the curtain rises again the same scene is played again, this time without the gauze screen. The same words are spoken but in some by different characters than you thought the first time. In other cases you can see the actors' expressions completely now and the words, though the same, have an entirely different sensation.

This is what reading Dave Cullen's amazing book is like. I thought I knew the story of Columbine - after all I'd seen it play out on my TV screen - but I was watching the whole thing through the gauze of misconception and insta-reportage. Cullen rips the gauze away and tells the whole story. It's not enough to say he sets the record straight, that sounds like he fixed the punctuation; This isn't a merely book, it's a revelation.

When people asked me what I was reading and I answered "A book about Columbine"
the usual reaction was a visual and verbal mixture of puzzlement and dismay. "Why are you reading about that" they'd ask, "hasn't that been done to death?" The simple answer is that the truth of Columbine hasn't been told until know. And when I'd puncture a few of the myths that we'd all believed to be truth - it wasn't the Trench Coat Mafia, they weren't Goths, etc - the response was "No way" followed by "I need to read this book, too."

Yes, you do. This is the must-read nonfiction book of the year.

Cullen spent years talking to the everyone involved who would talk to him and the result is a story that is actually more horrifying that anything reported at the time. Far from being bullied teens who fought back - and wasn't that always a bit of wish-fulfillment on the part of reporters and viewers alike? - this is the story of a clinically depressed teenager in the hands of a teen-age psychopath. Eric Harris, the psychopath in question, is exponentially more terrifying than science fiction monster for the simple reason that you wouldn't invite "Alien" into your home but you'd give Eric the keys to your house to watch it while you were on vacation, all the while thinking what a nice, responsible young man he was. Meanwhile he'd be building napalm jet backpacks in your basement. Eric was misunderstood, all right, because he wanted it that way. Cullen presents one of the clearest explanations of psychopathy I've come across and the evidence for Harris being categorized as a psychopath is overwhelming.

Dylan Klebold, as Cullen notes several times, is more concerned with love than hate but the whole that depression leaves in his soul is filled by Eric Harris's hate for all humanity. It's easy to imagine Dylan Klebold taking a different path. By contrast, one can only see Eric Harris committing other more heinous crimes. Was it just bad luck that led Klebold into Harris's path? Who knows? That's the point that Cullen isn't afraid to make - that no one knows what created Eric Harris or what made Dylan Klebold so vulnerable to him. It wasn't being bullied or bad parenting or video games or Twinkies or music with hidden messages or any other stock, easy answer.

Cullen does find heroes and villains and mixtures of both. The families of the murdered react in different ways, from painful to witness hatred to self-destruction. The community reacts with compassion, understanding, exploitation, fatigue and finally ambivalence. I thought Cullen did an especially sensitive job of dealing with the role spirituality and faith played in the healing process. For some their faith allowed them to accept the tragedy with a peace reminiscent of the Amish school shooting. Others are moved by their faith to reach out the parents of Harris and Klebold only to find their actions denounced by others of the same faith. Yes, there are some who wittingly or not exploit the tragedy in the name of their religion and Cullen calls that out, too but this is a balanced portrait.

This is one of the best non-fiction books of the decade. The reporting is excellent and the writing is even better. Anyone who enjoys thoughtful non-fiction and/or wants to better understand the society we live in should make it a point to read this book.

Friends in Low Places

What we have here is a beach read. That's not a dismissive term, at least not to me. But there are good beach reads, bad beach reads, even great beach reads. This is a good beach read that occasionally skirts the edge of great and bad.

A beach read needs a plot that is interesting without being overly complex, characters which are interesting with at least one full on detestable character and, most importantly, a narrative drive set to turbo. That doesn't mean fast-paced, it means that the story needs to propel the reader along. Scott Thurow's Presumed Innocent is an example of a great beach read that has a touch of literary credibility. Back in the day Judith Krantz delivered good beach reads without any redeeming qualities.

The Devlin Diary is not only a beach read, it is two books in one which makes it hard to avoid being overly complex. Story A is set in Restoration England and involves a female physician who gets caught up in series of murders Story B, and I choose my letters carefully, is set in modern day Cambridge University involves a female fellow caught up in a murder. The woman, Hannah Devlin, in Story A is strong, smart and resourceful. The woman, Claire Donovan, in Story B is a ninny. At least it cuts down on the complexity.

And that is the dilemma in a nutshell. Story A is good. The pacing is right, the anachronisms are very few, and the characters surprisingly well-drawn. The plot doesn't completely hold up but it's really a vehicle for Hannah to find good husband material in the veritable cesspool of morals that was King Charles II's court. Story B just lays there, repeatedly referencing the rollicking adventures in the author's previous book without managing to make me want to read it and leaving it's heroine wondering why the cute guy she has a crush on isn't paying attention to her. Which might be fine if this were a teen novel and the heroine were fourteen. Fortunately Story B takes up only about a third of the book but every time the action ground to a halt with a switch to present day England I wondered why Christi Phillips bothered with it. She does well with historical fiction, she might even have the makings of a Rose Tremain. Claire Donovan doesn't make the historical portion any more accessible and, really, who wants to read about their heroine deploying her awesome translation skills?

Still, this is a beach reach and judge by those standards this is a good read overall. Take it for what it is and you'll have fun.