The Reader Cries Uncle

wind-cries-mary-erika-grey-paperback-cover-artLike any other hazardous object, The Wind Cries Mary should have a warning label. Something along the lines of “reader is advised to wear neck brace to prevent injuries cause by abrupt changes of topic” or perhaps a more catchall “abandon all hope ye who enter.” This, gentle reader, is one rough ride.

The description provided on Amazon might lead the unsuspecting to believe this book is about the murder of Mary Mount. That’s just one of the many, many murders given the once over here. The narrative careens from Mary’s disappearance to the nearby disappearances of other girls, to the murders of three teenagers to half a dozen serial killers and on and on. It’s a grueling trip down Connecticut Murder Memory Lane.

But that drive-by style is preferable to the treatment given to the case of John Rice, Jr., who murdered most of his family in the throes of a psychotic break. Grey is convinced that Rice also killed Mary Mount. Why? Well, he lived in the same town. That’s pretty much the whole case. Rice was found guilty by reason of insanity of his family’s deaths and released a few years later. He moved to Massachusetts to raise llamas and here Grey tracked him down, and by all appearances, stalked him. Oddly enough, Rice didn’t open the door to the nice lady who lurked in his driveway or answer her emails. Grey proudly suggests that Rice moved halfway across the country just to get away from her.

The most disturbing thing about this book isn’t the murder of Mary Mount, it’s the casual way Grey implies that Rice killed everyone from Mary to Molly Bish. If anyone within a 50 mile radius of Rice dies, he did it. Why? Well, he was there and he did have that nasty case of acne when he was a teen. Rice’s crimes were horrific but more in line with a family annihilator killing than a serial killer. There’s not one shred of convincing evidence – physical, eyewitness or circumstantial – to establish Rice as a credible suspect in the Mount murder.

The writing is somewhere between a 5th grade book report and Nigerian 419 scam email. Sometimes everything looks fine, if plodding, other times something isn’t quite right as in “Greenwich, the first town one enters after leaving New York.” Sure, it’s the first town if you’re entering Connecticut or I-95 but there are other ways to get from New York to the Nutmeg State without going anywhere near Greenwich.Then there are lines that stop the action, such as it is, cold: “Joseph Mount died eventually.” Apropos of nothing, this line appears after a rundown of the professions chosen by Mary’s brothers. Unfortunately, the writing is memorably bad, which means I’ll be trying to dislodge this howler for years:  “an older man with criminal tendencies happened to walk in.”

This book wasn’t a total loss. I read it for free from Amazon Prime and I did learn that “Police salaries are paid by the tax dollars of their town or city.” Up until now I’d just assume it was bake sales and car washes that kept the cruisers rolling.

Amid the confusion and bad vibes

 This is the book equivalent of a survey course, covering crime, politics, music, movies, literature, sports and major events of the year 1969. It is relentlessly US-Centric - you won’t hear a peep about any other country unless it’s Vietnam.  At it’s best, this survey approach introduces the reader to lesser known topics, like the Native American occupation of Alcatraz or the rise of MC5. At it’s worst, 1969 rehashes topics by quoting from deathless sources like Wikipedia or Salon magazine.

That was part of the fascination for me. 1969 is a triumph of secondary research. Kirkpatrick read many a book and magazine article, fearlessly watched DVDs of documentaries and most challenging of all, watched a few movies and listened to a few albums. It’s a shame he didn’t actually talk to anyone who was there. It’s not like he was writing about 1669.

The once-over-lightly feel means nothing really gets its due but in fairness this is a way to whet your appetite, not satisfy it. Still, events like My Lai and Chappaquiddick are no less horrific with the passage of time. Fortunately events like the moon landing, Earth Day and the Jets winning the Super Bowl retain their magic. As a readable introduction to a single year of American history, one could do much worse.

Oddly enough, 1969 isn’t the only year that everything changed. Apparently everything changed in 1959 too.  Maybe 1979 was the year that didn’t change much of anything.

From the Vine

Latest picks from Amazon Vine:

The Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis

A mystery set in the time of the Borgias: "Niccolò Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci come together to unmask an enigmatic serial killer."

I'm pretty sure this is the episode that inspired Machiavelli to coin the phrase: Let the good times roll. That Leonardo, he really knew how to be in the right place at the right time.

My Samsung Galaxy Tab By Eric Butow, Lonzell Watson  

Yes, the book on how to use it is bigger than the tablet itself. Maybe that's a good thing - it's SO powerful and versatile it takes an encyclopedia! I've had my Galaxy for a year but there are still things that I'm probably doing the hard way. 

The Redgraves: A Family Epic by Donald Spoto

I foresee "The Redgraves: The Movie" in the offing. No matter. Donald Spoto is the one that claims Laurence Olivier had an affair with Danny Kaye so the gossip should flow like water. Preferably including juicy tidbits about Timothy Dalton and the family's reaction to Lynn's portrayal of The Happy Hooker. 

I Say, Would You Shut Up Already?

One of the enjoyments of a mystery series is meeting familiar characters. Sometimes they evolve over time, sometimes its all about how they don't change. Jill Paton Walsh stays very close to the spirit and the form of the Dorothy L. Sayers characters in The Attenbury Emeralds. Perhaps too close.

I read Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey series when I was a teenager enthralled by Golden Age mysteries. Sayers' mysteries were always less whodunit than howdunit. How did the one of the small group of suspects (the guilty one being easy enough to guess for any self-respecting mystery fan) manage to commit the crime? Another notable aspect of the series was the reliance on dialogue. The books read more like plays with very little non-spoken exposition which means that characters have to deliver often tremendous amounts of background information in the guise of witty repartee. It can get on your nerves.

What can really get on your nerves is Lord Peter himself. If you didn't like the original series you won't like this book. Sure Lord Peter is married with children now but that's never been a very convincing arrangement. Anyone who read the first Wimsey books would be forgiven for assuming that the monocled son of a duke was Out, Loud and Proud. (He still seems better paired with the loyal Bunter but I guess Harriet is a bit masculine so I'll play along.) Walsh tries to update the series by referencing the changes in society - they don't eat in the formal dining room now! - which is fine in small doses.

But she takes is too far. How far? Somewhere around page 80 Walsh blithely mentions that sometimes Bunter the butler and wife sometimes sit down to dinner with the Wimsey family. I'd sooner believe that Harriet and Peter were committed Maoists.

The story is a bit blah. Starting out by having Peter recount his famous first case might not be a bad idea but its told in dialogue form with Harriet making witty comments and Bunter chiming in lugubriously to add an important detail and Peter losing the thread in his usual slapdash way.

It made me want to smack them. Yack, yack, yack. By page 40 I was praying for a murder. By page 50 I was willing to settle for the delayed detonation of a World War 2 bomb somehow left unnoticed in the Wimsey living room. Instead they went for a stroll to look at flowers while Peter kept telling the story and no one emerged to drown them in the Serpentine. There is eventually a murder which let's Peter and Harriet do their stuff: solve the murder while bouncing bon mots back and forth. The Wimsey family encounters a few significant developments, too, which does surprisingly little to dampen the witty repartee.

In summary, I didn't enjoy this book. Walsh is a talented writer but Lord Peter is best left in the inter-war years where class consciousness explains why no one throttles him and everyone can pretend that he isn't as gay as a spring day. If you're a huge fan of the Wimsey series this book might be for you. If you've never read any of Sayers' books then read a sample chapter first. Without the back story this might be an enjoyable mystery.

Censor the narrator

David Bianculli's love for the Smothers' Brothers Comedy Hour fuels Dangerously Funny so it's no surprise that this a 400 page admiration of the 1960s variety show rather than a critical assessment or a dispassionate history of the show. You'll find a mini biography of Dick and Tom, details about specific shows, and play-by-plays of the shows battles with the CBS censors.

Tommy Smothers emerges as a canny businessman and spotter of talent, committed to his beliefs but also surprisingly driven to propel small disagreements with his bosses into scorched earth battles. Those battles have become part of TV lore. Bianculli's research shows that CBS's censors weren't part of a well-oiled machine trouncing any hint of expressed opinion contrary to the network's own. The censors come across as behind the times and behind the eight ball on most occasions, playing catch up to avoid angering the affiliates. Unfortunately Bianculli doesn't present any information directly from the affiliates, who seem to the be ones who had the biggest problems with what the Smothers' Brothers were putting on screen.

What was on screen combined old-fashioned showbiz stalwarts like George Burns and Bette Davis mixing with the likes of Joan Baez, Glen Campbell, Donovan and the Who. Some of it sounds hilarious  (the Honey House, dedicated to the dead wife from the Bobby Goldsboro hit), some of it ground (and guitar) breaking, some of it woefully dated (Tea with Goldie) and quite a bit involved the bane of my existence, folk music. But that's the challenge of variety shows, not everything scores. The mix of old and new was both the strength of the show and a source of discomfort - viewers who watched for Bette also saw Pete Seeger and were, or the network feared would be, offended.

This is an interesting story and Bianculli tells it well. I wished he'd spent more time exploring why Tom Smothers felt the need to fight CBS over the small stuff rather than save his chits for the bigger battles. It became clear, to me at least, that CBS ultimately fired the Smothers Brothers for being more trouble than their ratings were worth but why Smothers maneuvered himself into a corner where CBS felt it had to fire them to save face it still a mystery.

Prior to reading this book I'd never seen a full episode of the show for various reasons: it was before my time, variety shows frighten me and self-congratulatory Baby Boomerism makes me nauseas. I had heard about the show, mostly in the context of the censorship battles and it being canceled for allegedly nefarious reasons. It's a tribute to Bianculli's infectious enthusiasm for the show that after finishing this book I went in search of episodes to see it for myself. I still think Mason Williams' Classical Gas is more gaseous than "a gas!" and I'd still rather redo the grout in the guest bathroom than have to watch Harry Belafonte or Peter, Paul and Mary. Bianculli's a good writer, not a miracle worker.

I also take issue with Bianculli's contention that nothing on TV has tackled on since the Smothers' Brothers lost their gig, other than David Kelly's Boston Legal. Everything from Chappelle's Show to Law & Order have tackled tough topics in prime time; even Saturday Night Live manages something trenchant once in a while.

A word about the audiobook version. The narrator, Johnny Heller, and the producer of this production should be sentenced to hard time. Heller is fine reading the straight passages but for some reason known only to him, the producer and I presume, Satan, he felt the need to provide an imitation of every single quotation from anyone even the slightest degree of fame. And not a particularly good imitation. It's ok when Heller is imitating Tommy Smothers' halting stage delivery, I guess that helps the listener get the joke. A lame LBJ imitation doesn't help sell the meaning of "I will not seek my party's nomination" and there is absolutely no occasion that calls for an imitation of Harry Belafonte or David Steinberg's speaking voices. None. By chapter five, every time a quote seemed in the offing I cringed in  anticipation of another embarrassing impression by Mr. Heller.
When a novel promises to tell the story of a famous actress from Hollywood's golden age, potential readers might fear they are in Jackie Collins/Judith Krantz territory. Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures isn't a gossipy, trashy romp. It's a smart journey alongside a strong woman. One who on occasion is weak but who is never, ever less than real.

If you're a fan of big studio era Hollywood films, it's easy to start playing the who's who game. Is Irving Green a combination of David R. Selznick and Irving Thalberg? Is Laura Lamont really Jennifer Jones? Ginger must be Lucille Ball. Susie and Johnny? Hello Judy and Mickey. If none of the previous names mean anything to you, don't worry. You don't need to know anything about Hollywood to enjoy this book.

That's because the core of this book isn't about stardom, it's about happiness. Do we know what makes us happy? Or unhappy? It's also about what it means to be yourself. Early in the book the main character is rechristened in true Hollywood-style. Laura, formerly Elsa, remains the same person but understands that she now has two distinct histories and futures. There are simply things that Elsa could do that Laura can't or won't do. It's not a psychological split, it's acknowledgement of the bargain she's tacitly made.

This book deserves a wide audience. It is enjoyable and thoughtful without being maudlin or manipulative. Laura's life isn't perfect but her choices are believable and her strength a welcome change from the old "high price of fame" routine. Highly recommended for fans of Old Hollywood, movies and intelligent fiction.

(The perfect companion book to Laura Lamont is Jeanine Basinger's insightful The Star Machine which explains in entertaining detail how the great studios manufactured stars.)

Sundays with Louis

AuchinclossA Voice from Old New York is not an autobiography.It’s not exactly a memoir either, being generally low on gossip about the author or others.The chapters don’t quite flow into each other, instead each stands on its own. The book feels more like the reader is meeting Louis Auchincloss for coffee or drinks at a quiet hotel bar (upper East Side, please) and listening to him reminisce over over times.
Occasionally he repeats himself or lets drop tantalizing details without filling in the lines. At times you wish he’d dish the dirt a bit more or wonder at his rather set opinions but you can’t help admiring the clarity of his insight into the closed world he knew so intimately. There are not big revelations here. Auchincloss knew both the Bundy brothers (McGeorge and William) and the Dulles brothers (John Foster and Allen) but you’ll find nothing here you won’t find in their biographies. I did find yet another proof point for my personal theory that Nancy Mitford was born a bitter hag and got worse as she aged, not that I needed another.
If you want big statements on society (with and without a capital S), look to his novels and short stories. If you want to spend a few hours – this is a very short book at less then 210 pages – hearing the memories of the master chronicler of 20th Century New York Society.

Sixth Senseless: I Was Told There Would be Ghosts

The Ice Cradle is not the book I was expecting. It's my own fault, too. If I had read all three paragraphs on the Amazon Vine newsletter I would have seen the phrase "bookbinder and ghost whisperer extraordinaire"which would have activated my bullshit detector. Instead, I read the first paragraph about  Block Island and a New York-bound steamer and I clicked away with shameless abandon, fully expecting a Daniel Hecht/Cree Black style ghost story to arrive in my mailbox.

What I got was Touched By the Ghost Whisperer Medium. It's the old story: single mom struggles to make a living by binding books at home while raising adorable tot and helping the dead sort of their issues.

On the plus side, I had many experiences in common with the heroine. Anza (the Ghost Whispering, Bookbinding Medium) lives in Cambridge - I lived there, too, once upon a time! Anza goes on a visit to Block Island, RI and I've been there, too! Anza gets to go there basically for free, all expenses pay and I had to pay! Anza runs into ghosts everywhere and I nearly got run into by someone on a bike while I was there. It's like we've lived parallel lives.

I could get all snarky about this book but the fact is that this was not written with a reader like me in mind. It's not a ghost story and more than it's a call to action about the horrors of wind farming (don't ask.) It's a paranormal romance, basically, and deserves to be evaluated as such.

The writing is workman like and general unoffensive. I'm not sure why it took two people to write this but maybe one of them was in charge of getting coffee or keeping the printer filled with toner. The characters are standard-issue, light-duty cardboard. Anza is a devoted mom who agonizes over being a good mom (for minutes at a time) and tries to balance motherhood, the hectic world of bookbinding and all those ghosts who will go on just as soon as they twig that one can actually see them. It's a full life. Henry, her son, is an adorable tot who (cue foreboding music) has inherited mom's gift. No, he's not a whiz with glue and spine stitching; he can also see dead people. There's a local who provides the romantic interest. And, of course, a literal boatload of ghosts.

There's nothing surprising or unique here. Bad people want to do bad things. The environment must be protected. Ghosts need to move on. Which is what I suggest that you do. Move on to another title. Unless you're a fan of The Ghost Whisperer in which case this book might just be for you.

Edgar Project - Beast in View

For anyone who loves to read, finding a great new author with a nice fat backlist is nirvana. My first find of the year was the amazing Louise Penny and her Inspector Gamache series. Thanks to Lists of Bests I've found another gem: Margaret Millar.

Margaret Millar's Beast in View won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1956 and it took only 5 pages for me to understand why. This is a smart, suspenseful, psychological thriller/mystery. Helen Clarvoe is an unhappy heiress - trapped in the luxury suite she's occupied at a Los Angeles hotel for nearly a year. Helen has been barring her door in more ways than one for years  so when she receives a threatening phone call from an unknown woman she finds she is so isolated that she has no one she can turn to for help. No one except her money manager, Paul Blackshear.

The rest of this short novel speeds along as Blackshear, at first reluctantly, tries to find out who is threatening Helen and why. Millar paints several impressive character portraits of Helen, her self-absorbed Mother, Blackshear and others. The ending is a shocking, twist that never feels false or forced.

How has Margaret Millar has escaped my attention until now? Why isn't she as well-known as Patricia Highsmith? I can't wait to dive in to more of her work. She is an undeservedly little-known genius.

Lists of Challenges

Challenges bring out the best of me. I sign up for LibraryThing's 75 book challenge (read 75 books in one year) every year. Now that I've found Lists of Bests I have another source of great recommendations and something to feed my competitive spirit. As befits my over the top nature, I've signed on for 45 challenges.

I'm concentrating on the Agatha (#4) and Edgar Best Novel Award (#26) winners, and thank God some of the winners cross over.

Books I've Finally Managed to Finish

Some books just don't start well for me and it requires an effort to stick with them. Sometimes that effort is rewarded with a great story. Mansfield Park took 100 pages for me to really get into it. Even something as light and fluffy as Spying in High Heels didn't get going for 40 pages or so. I'll take slow start/great ending over great start/bad ending any day.

It doesn't always end well. Sometimes slow start ends in worse ending. Over the past months I've experienced the highs and lows of slow starts.

1. Caribou Island by David Vann   It took 3 false starts to finally finish this one. It never actually sailed along and it is as depressing as a 20 hour Alaskan mid-winter night but I respect it. Great writer. Maybe in need of Prozac or Lexapro; or just a few hours of Chappelle's Show.

2. Deadly Little Secret by Kathryn Casey   Spending over 50 pages with someone who is scared they are going to be murdered and who you know will be murdered is a little ghoulish. That made the first part of this book tougher going than is usual for Kathryn Casey. It definitely improves. This isn't her best but it's still worthy of any true crime fan's time.

3. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen  I've been on a classics kick lately and this is one of the books that's been sitting on my shelf, mocking me, for years. I finally tackled it last month and although it didn't grab me until the end of Volume 1, after that I couldn't put it down. According to the introduction in the edition I read this is Austen's "most complex and least likable novel." I can see why but it is definitely worth reading.

4. Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man's Smile by Gyles Brandreth  How do you make Oscar Wilde boring? If you're looking for lessons on that, and I can't imagine why anyone would, then seek out the first 50 or so pages of this book. Recounting famous incidents from Oscar's life isn't the best idea if you're going to make them dull. The mystery, once it gets going, isn't bad though perhaps needlessly complex and the evocations are 1890s decadence are a hoot.

I'm currently reading (listening to) Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers and it suffers from another complaint: draggy middle section syndrome. The dialogue is snappy, although I don't see how Lord Peter Wimsey makes it through all those books without someone telling him to shut up and the narrator is making the most of it. But page after page about fingerprints - the lifting of them, leaving of them, photographing of them, measuring them, etc - is over the top, and not in a campy way.  Well, it's on the list so I'm going to finish it.

Cardboard Cliches

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw has been on my to-read list since it came out last spring. The central idea was intriguing: tracking the emotional of a hit-and-run death, focusing on the people in the car. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed reading a book so thoroughly flawed as this one. In short, the dialogue is unbelievable, the characters are cliches, the narrative is so chopped up that it feels more like a short story collection than a novel but the descriptions and simple human observations are very good, often beautiful.

For every "Olivia's family was an epicenter of credit card frivolity" and cats whose "purring made them seem motorized" you have to wade through dialogue such as: "I hate when you talk that voodoo science crap." You could plan an evening's entertainment around having your friends over to read some of the dialogue aloud, competing to see who can actually make it sound like something a human being would say.

The characters saddled with this dialogue aren't exactly fleshed out in believable ways beyond their giggle-worthy dialogue. It's a weird combination of characters with mostly believable emotional responses utterly unbelievable actions and words. The main characters, the Kinney siblings are fleshed-out cliches: Nick is the drugged out astrophysicist, Alice is the wildly success artist with women falling out of the sky to sleep with her, and Carmen is the earth-mother left-winger. Half the time their dialogue consists of "stuff lefties say" instead of anything that sounds remotely like what real people say. This is livened up by the occasional snatches of "stuff conservatives say" and that's even worse.

When Anshaw is on, usually in her descriptions, she's great. When she's not on, it's painful and stunningly off-key. Her unsympathetic characters are so unrealistic it stops the show - like when Carmen's in-laws bring a statue of the Virgin Mary to her wedding. That's how Anshaw conveys that these are spiritually certain folks, with shtick. The nadir is the chapter devoted to 9/11. For a writer who understands the subtler nuances of guilt this is one ham-handed scene. Carmen is spouting conspiracy theories as the towers fall, Alice yammers on about being numbed by special effects and Nick awakens from a drug-induced stupor to announce, "We just took delivery on a big message." It doesn't sound anything like people experiencing the horror of 9/11, it sounds like exactly what it is, someone thinking back to that day.

I don't know whether to recommend this book or not. Even it's exploration of the effect of the accident on the Kinney siblings isn't entirely successful - only one character truly deals with it and the end is just beyond words goofy. But there are phrases and lines that stick. If you're truly interested in this book, the Audible version may be your best bet. Renee Raudman's reading gives dialogue a humanity that is missing on the page.

True Crime Buying Binge

Lately I've been reading everything but True Crime. Then I found Lists of Bests and my competitive spirit took over. Soon to be arriving at my abode:

Exit the Rainmaker by Jonathan Coleman
The Importance of Being Famous: Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity-Industrial Complex by Maureen Orth

Murder in Mayberry: Greed, Death and Mayhem in a Small Town by Mary Kinney Branson and Jack Branson

By Persons Unknown; The Strange Death of Christine Demeter. by Barbara Amiel

Cold Kill and Salt of the Earth: A Mother, A Daughter, A Murder by Jack Olsen

The Yale Murder by Peter Meyer

The Underwear Made Him Do It

The Poet and the Murderer is really three books in one. Make that three articles bolted into one not entirely coherent book. Only one of these articles is successful, in my opinion, and the union of the three is a bit of a mess.

The first article is about a library curator who makes the acquisition of a lifetime only to quickly develop concerns that this prize is actually a forgery. The second article is about Mark Hofman, forger/murderer/hypnotist and inspiration for multiple books. The third article is about Emily Dickenson, the forged poet. The chapters on the Dickenson forgery and the byzantine world of dealers and auction houses were interesting enough.

Worrall's prose would benefit from a greater familiarity with the dictionary, and a cold shower, replete as it is with unfortunate metaphors and sloppy word choices. Like what, you ask? The curator "ransacked Amherst's libraries" for info about Hofman. Really? He trashed the place? Or did he just look through the card catalog? Instances of Worrall misusing a word or phrase abound. Then there's nomination for dumbest metaphor: "cleanliness and work, the twin carburetors of the German soul." Take a moment with that line. Carburetors blend air and fuel. The idea seems to be that the soul is an engine but why does it need two carburetors? Is Worrall clear on what a carburetor is?

The second section, the adventures of Mark Hofman, is quite lame. Three books (Salamander, Victims and A Gathering of Saints) have already been written about the Hofman case; all of them good. So any new book needs to add something new to the conversation. Unfortunately what Worrall adds is more bad prose and pointless slams at the Mormon Church.

Anyone who has read Under the Banner of Heaven knows it is possible to write a clear-eyed, historically accurate, questioning account involving the Mormon Church without mocking its believers. Worrell goes another route, invoking George Orwell, Communist China and The Lord of the Rings to describe the religion. Why bother to understand the role the religion plays in the lives of its believers when you can just mock the belief? So many of Worrall's sweeping assertions don't pass the laugh test: "Not even the Pope enjoys the absolute power, and authority, invested in the head of the Mormon Church." Really? He's got his own Swiss Guard and he's a head of state?

Worrall makes the case that the "hypocrisy" Hofman saw in the Mormon Church made him try to destroy it from within. You know you're in special territory when the author summons up more venom for the traditional Mormon "garment" (basically, underwear) than for a murderer. People leave the Mormon Church every day so I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that the underwear can be removed if one so chooses. There are also people who manage to disagree with the Mormon Church and its teachings without throwing bombs.

By the time the "Poet" section rolled around I was hoping for a more balanced approach. Fat chance. Lo and behold, Emily lived in an oppressive religious society, too, just like Mark! I was half expecting Worrall to reveal that Mark Hofman was trying to take down the corrupt Dickenson industry by forging her poems, striking a blow at spiritually-certain Emily fans by making it appear she was agnostic. Alas, no, there's nothing that clear or declarative on offer. It all ends up with Worrall happening to be at the right place and time to find out that Sotheby's was a pack of lying liars who lied about the provenance of the forged Dickenson poem that spawned this dreary book.

This is the second edition of this book and Worrall assures us that he trimmed down several chapters. The prospect that there was once additional padding in this already well-padded book is unpleasant indeed. Not recommended unless you need ink recipes.

A Whale of a Time

The English excel at the nurturing and cultivation of eccentrics. From ferret legging to innkeepers who charge extra to those "whose faces he didn't care for" there's an eccentric for every taste from the land of Shakespeare. I think Will S. would have enjoyed the subject of Kate Summerscale's ode to eccentricity - Marion Barbara "Joe" Carstairs - what with the tropical islands, cross-dressing, vague paternity and feats of derring-do, how could he not?

Joe, The Queen of Whale Cay, demonstrated that with enough money and limited interest in the opinions of others one could pretty much live as one wished back in the 1920s and 1930s, including living openly as a lesbian, obsessing over a stuff doll and owning your own kingdom. Refreshingly, our boy-girl Joe is happy eccentric; generous and loyal to friends and lovers, interested in the welfare of her subjects, and generally enjoying life. Despite being inexplicably nicknamed "Betty" by the press, she also earns her title of "the fastest woman on water" by racing powerboats in the early days of the sport.

Summerscale strikes just the right note for this slim biography - light without being lightweight. She doesn't over think what motivated Joe and certainly doesn't ask the read to feel sorry for her. If Joe was a bit more comfortable proclaiming her love for inanimate objects rather than people or if she was surprisingly vague about her mother's first name, none of it seems to have resulted in regrets.

Joe was who she was, and everybody just had to accept it. She appears to have earned no enemies but many friends. And she lived well and gave generously but still managed to die with sizable estate. We should all be so lucky.  A fun, quick read.

Super Clan? Super Fly!

VoodooHistoriesThere are those who believe in conspiracy theories and those, like me, who do not. As a non-believer I see something enviable in the ability to believe that events can be so easily controlled, in the sunny optimism of those who think the world would be going their way were in not for those darn conspirators mucking things up for everyone. More often I just long to tell the believer to please, shut up. At last, we non-believers have a book that is one long “Shut Up!”

David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories tackles everything from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to Who Killed Diana to 9/11 “truth” seekers. He is thorough, rationale and witty in examining, explaining and demolishing conspiracy theories past and present.

Many is the time, usually trapped in a limo to the airport, when I have wondered how anyone (namely the driver of said limo) could believe, for example, that the legendary island of Atlantis is submerged in the Hudson River and that this is why New York City is the capital of the world. Aaronovitch’s theory is that belief in conspiracy theories offers two benefits: 1) the believer knows something the rest of the world does not and is therefore superior; and 2) the theories offer a comforting explanation for the occurrence of something they wish hadn’t happened. Not unlike a three year old claiming their imaginary friend knocked over the glass of milk. So whether it’s one side claiming an election was stolen (how else to explain people voting for a candidate you don’t like?) or another side claiming the elected candidate isn’t actually a citizen (he’s not a candidate, he’s a conspiracy!), these theories offer a weird comfort against unpleasant reality.

The chapters on the Protocols and the Moscow Trials are solid but perhaps a bit slow if you aren’t a history buff. Stay the course, because Aaronovitch really hits his stride in his chapter-long take-down of Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Truly laugh out loud funny and informative. Learning that the Priory of Sion, like NY gubernatorial candidate Jimmy McMillan, were motivated by a conviction that the “rent is too damn high” has made my year.

The book covers the all four basic categories of conspiracies: 1) Things that were planned in advance for profit (Both World Wars, most terrorist attacks); 2) Groups that are planning to take over the world but can’t keep a secret (the Da Vinci code, the Elders of Zion, the Super Clan); 3) People who were killed because they interfered with or knew about 1 or 2 (JFK, Hilda Murrell, Diana); 4) Aliens are responsible.

Aaronovitch’s book reveals the lie of the claims that by belief in conspiracies takes courage. It doesn’t take courage to believe the worst about people/groups you don’t like. An entertaining, informative book. Highly recommended.

Must You Go On?

Must-You-GoIt's surprising that a dramatist known for his meaningful pauses inspired such a chatty memoir. Harold Pinter couldn't have asked for a more sympathetic biographer than his wife Antonia Fraser and this book, drawn from Fraser's journals, has a gentle intimacy reminiscent of a long, happy marriage.

Pinter emerges from these pages as a romantic (who knew?) devoted to his extended family. Fraser doesn't dish the dirt - even when it comes to their "scandalous" affair that broke up their respective marriages - nor does she present the couple as innocents. She does spend more time talking about the loss of beloved real estate than of discarded spouses but that is safer ground, I suppose.

I could have done with fewer pages about Harold's adventures with Vaclav Havel and other ventures into politics. Pinter's off-handed comment that Reagan and Gorbachev are "my boys" if their nuclear reduction treaty makes Fraser happy says far more about Pinter's devotion to his wife (and thus about him as a person) than a thousand rallies. But it is nice to learn that Pinter was a "house angel/street devil."

This isn't the definitive biography of Harold Pinter nor does it pretend to be. It is a warm remembrance of a man and a happy marriage.

You'll have a gay old time

Club Kids. Meet the Club Kids. 
They're the post discotheque family.
From the heart of downtown,
They're a homage to the Factory. 

Let’s hear about the drug dealer they killed
Unsolved, through NYPD’s lassitude.

When you're with the Club Kids
you'll have a skrink-la-da time.
A slogger do time.
You'll have a gay old time. 

Never before have I felt the need to quote the Flintstones in order to properly review a book but then I've never read a book quite like Disco Bloodbath before. Which is a shame because this is a great book. Not just fabulous. Great.

James St. James tells the story of his life in the magical world of club kids and the murder of drug entrepreneur Angel Melendez by party maven and drug addict extraordinaire Michael Alig. The case was on every magazine and newspaper in New York in the mid 1990s because it was about murder (and we do love our murders in New York) and it "said something" about the wacky subculture of downtown. Brace yourself for some shocking news: some people who go to clubs take drugs. It gets worse: some people sell drugs at the very same clubs. Yes, this was supposedly a big revelation.

Reading Disco Bloodbath the shock isn't that drugs were a constant at clubs, or even that so much drugs were consumed. The shock is that more people didn't die. It's not just the landfill size portions of everything from heroin to special K to cocaine, it's that even a drug-induced grand mal seizure wasn't enough to persuade one's fellow party goers to call you an ambulance.

St. James has just the right bitchy, campy tone for this insane world. His wit isn't at odds with the material - a gruesome murder followed by dismemberment - it's a direct counterpoint to the sheer absurdity of it. He doesn't spare himself, he details his own drug addiction, his exploitation of other club denizens and his failure to go to the police after Alig confessed the murder to him. He doesn't go in for idealizing the victim either. St. James doesn't have many nice things to say about Melendez and its refreshing in the True Crime genre to have an author say that even non-saints don't deserve to die. He's particularly strong at pointing out how little the NYPD cared about solving this far from secret murder. Hispanic, gay, wing-wearing drug dealers didn't inspire any over time.

So, the wit, the tips on how to cook up some special K in your very own kitchen, the tips on make up, self-insight and a surprisingly clear-eyed view of a nasty world, Disco Bloodbath is a must read for any fan of True Crime.

Less of a Jerk but Still a Perjurer

A new book on the Alger Hiss case inevitably raises the question of  “why” among those familiar with the case, and there are valid reasons for that response. For one thing, all the protagonists are residents of various cemeteries or urns and have been so for quite some time; for another, settled opinions on the matter are unlikely to be changed at this point. Even for those who use the case as a litmus test of sorts have to be bored by the whole thing.

What drew me to Alger Hiss: Why He Chose Treason was not a rehash of the question of Alger Hiss’s guilt but the more intriguing and still open question of why Hiss so vigorously maintained his innocence. Post self-professed liberal Susan Jacoby’s book “Alger Hiss and the Battle for History” declaring that today almost no one on the left believes Hiss was innocent it was probably inevitable that someone of a more conservative persuasion would weigh in on the topic. Christina Shelton has stepped into the fray and her book is surprising on many fronts.

Shelton, a former Soviet analyst, has a distinctly anti-communist nearly neo-con point of view. (She doesn’t claim to be unbiased and that works for me just as it did for Jacoby’s book.) The first surprise is that Shelton actually met Hiss and found him to be pleasant company. The second is that Shelton goes to greater lengths that even the most pro-Hiss books to present a him as a caring, three dimensional human being. For the first time in reading nearly two dozen books on the case I got a sense of a man who could inspire such devotion and loyalty. I also encountered someone whose concern for his fellow man could make the hope presented by socialism/communism appealing.

A less pleasing surprise are Shelton’s blanket statements about the “failure” of socialism and the refusal of American universities to admit that communism wasn’t such a great idea in practice. I studied political science at a liberal arts college in New England in the 1980s and my well-known professors never pretended that the Soviet Union was anything other than a repressive mess. I wouldn’t argue that communism was thriving but there’s a world of difference between a Social Democrat in Sweden and Leonid Breshnev. Shelton is on firmer ground laying out the similarities between Stalinism and Fascism, but while demolishing a retrospective claim that Hiss was doing good by supporting Stalin against Hitler this isn’t hugely additive.

Shelton does an admirable job of assembling all the evidence against Hiss. It isn’t thrilling reading but it is comprehensive. In it’s totality it is compelling. Also compelling is Shelton’s thesis that Hiss maintained his claim to innocence because it was more useful to the cause of communism than an open embrace of his beliefs. Shelton’s version of Hiss is much more appealing (and human) than the dissembler (he’s a master spy!) of Allen Weinstein’s Perjury or the serial-deceiver (he just plain likes to lie!) of Edward White’s Looking Glass Wars or the cold-fish (he’s a jerk!) – all worthy, readable books that have their place.

Taken as a whole Shelton’s book makes a contribution but it’s not for everyone. I got the feeling that she’d like those who supported Hiss for decades to admit they were had but that’s not likely to happen and, for me, it’s beside the point. Recommended for anyone very interested in the Hiss case but not as the first book on the subject.

Recent Acquisitions

Via the magic of Amazon's pre-order service, this morning I received Christina Shelton's new book Alger Hiss, Why He Chose Treason. I was excited to read this book - the first reassessment of the Hiss case post Venona and other materials being made public. I prepped for it by finally reading Sam Tanenhaus's magesterial biography of Whittaker Chambers and now, in flight to Chicago, I'm diving in. 

Shelton appears to be coming at this from the right side of the political aisle so this might be a nice companion piece to Susan Jacoby's recent book on the subject. (I don't mind bias as long as it is openly stated.) 

Another Item for the Things Not To Do List

Kay Thompson is one of those Hollywood characters I'd catch glimpses of when reading the biography of a star of the Forties or Fifties. When slogging through, say, Judy Garland's third "It's going to last forever!" wedding it  was easy to glance over at Kay and think she might be more interesting than the slow-motion train wreck in progress. Now Sam Irvin has put Kay in full focus and the results are generally entertaining even if Miss Thompson loses a bit of interest along with her mystery.

On the plus side we have a strong woman forging her own path in a male-dominated industry without sacrificing her dignity or her individuality. On the negative side we have Sam Irvin's unbridled prose. Irvin's ability to pack multiple cliches into a single sentence frequently put me in mind of air travelers who refuse to believe their extra large suitcase won't fit into the overhead bin. Behold:

"Somehow ... she managed to bury the hatchet, but it was a shallow grave on the edge of a slippery slope."

The book makes up for this by piling on the loony details that I find compelling. Who knew Van Johnson and Keenan Wynn had an affair? Who knew White Plains, NY once had a Bonwit Teller? Who knew you could ask your friends to help you paint tables with nail polish using those tiny little brushes? Irvin is at his best dishing the dirt. He's at his worst trying to convince readers of Kay's brilliance. I am sure my life span was decreased by the reference to Kay as "the Godmutha of Rap."

Ultimately Kay's story adds up to a long list of projects she didn't do. Literally. Plays she didn't star in. Movies she didn't make. Finally Kay takes on a major role as active godmother to Liza, supplying advice and "better gaydar" to her beloved goddaughter before coming a recluse. I guess excessive gaydar deployment will do that do you.

Boredom Comes to the Reader

 It is a truth universally acknowledged that a disappointing book by a beloved author is more depressing than a genuinely bad book by an unknown author.  Death Comes to Pemberley is such a disappointing book. Surprisingly disappointing given my love for P. D. James, especially her Adam Dalgliesh series, and my enjoyment of Jane Austen's books. Jane's suffered more than her share of exploitation of late between mash-ups, story extensions and a series depicting her as busy-body-mystery-solver, and while this latest re-purposing of her characters doesn't involve anything as nutty as sea monsters it is nonetheless a mystifying endeavor

I truly cannot understand why P. D. James felt the need to write this book but my bafflement there is miniscule compared to my total incomprehension of why she felt the need to publish it. I can't understand why, having committed to writing a book based on Pride and Prejudice she felt the need to retell the entire plot of that book in the first 10 pages of this one. Nor can I come up with a reasonable answer as to why an author with a finely honed style like James would want to play ventriloquist with another well-known style.

What really left me staggered in this book is how dull, nay, boring it is. I don't mean slow-moving, I mean actively, aggressively dull. The book focuses on proud, shy and aloof Darcy, which cuts down on the conversational opportunities. The sisters Bennet are barely present and only two of them having anything approaching a conversation. Which made no sense - a murder happens at your sister's house and you don't want to chat it over? The murder isn't interesting and all the opportunities it gives Darcy to plumb the depths of his soul just proves that Darcy isn't all that deep. The absolute nadir, however, involves one character explaining the events of the murder while allowing that another person will probably want to tell their own version. And they do. Except it's pretty much the same version. Just told twice.

To sum up, while this book does not feature zombies, it might as well have been written by one. Avoid this one.

Recent Acquisitions

Believing the Lie - Elizabeth George
I'm really hoping EG keeps the appalling female love interests at a minimum on this outing.

Catherine the Great - Robert K. Massie
Maybe I'll even get around to reading that Potemkin biography I bought ten years ago.

Love Her to Death - M. William Phelps
Phelps is my True Crime find of 2011, I'm trying to meter out his books. Knowing there's reliably good true crime available makes the bad books bearable.

Worst Book of 2011

I may not have posted much last year but I read more books than ever. Even with a larger pool of candidates the worst book of 2011 is easy to name: Ginny Aiken's Design on a Crime. What's staggering is that it is the first in a series, Deadly Decor. Not surprisingly, this book also wins "worst main character of 2011" easily. Haley is one annoying human being. A blurb about the book says the author writes "inspirational fiction." I was inspired to throw my Kindle across the room and plot Haley's gruesome demise. Does that count?