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.