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.