Meh vs. Yeah!

I’ve had my nose buried in two somewhat gruesome books recently. The first, Murder Aboard: the Herbert Fuller Tragedy and the Ordeal of Thomas Bram by C. Michael Hiam, tells the story of a lumber ship due to sail from Boston to Argentina that ends up in Nova Scotia after multiple passengers are murdered, including its captain. It takes the reader through the subsequent trial of first mate Thomas Bram, a high-profile murder case at the time, but little-known now.

It sounded like a great yarn and I was hoping for a gripping, meaty tale full of characters in the vein of something Erik Larson would write. In the end, it felt like a story Larson would have considered and then abandoned for lack of material. Hiam gets the majority of his details from the dry court testimony, which he admits fairly far into the book, is incomplete. As a result, the people involved aren’t fully fleshed-out human beings that the reader feels they know, never mind empathize with. I never got enough of a feel for any of the ship’s crew to care about who did it or who may have been falsely accused. In a much shorter version, it might have been an interesting addition to some sort of murder-at-sea anthology. But at 240 pages it wasn’t much more enlightening than flipping through the court testimony yourself.

The other book, however, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth by Thomas Morris, is an absolute hoot. Morris has combed through old medical journals from around the world and highlighted the most amusingly horrifying medical conditions imaginable (or unimaginable, more accurately). The exploding teeth are the least remarkable of the stories and if you have a fascinated delight for learning about the weird shit that people will put in their bodies, this will become your personal bible. I’m still only halfway through, but have already spent most of my time reading it laughing, while also groaning in disgust.

The Cost of Living – Deborah Levy

It’s been a minute!

I have come out of hibernation to talk about The Cost of Living, by Deborah Levy (as you may have gathered by the post’s title – it’s late and I couldn’t think of anything pithy). I don’t remember how I learned about this book – I think it was in one of those “best books of the summer lists” and whoever it was that had chosen it raved about Levy’s work so much that I got this and three more of her books.

In The Cost of Living, Levy reflects on the end of her marriage and her attempt to create a new life and normalcy for her and her daughters. Her account is woven through with simple, yet meaningful, stories of encounters with strangers and friends that prompt introspection and foster empathy for and understanding of both herself and others.

The complete disassembling and rebuilding of one’s life seems ripe for drama and garment-rending. But Levy avoids guttural howls of pain, telling her story not from its turbulent center, but at a safe distance. It is gentle and quiet, as told by a person who knows she has not only survived this, but created a comfortable – and comforting – way to live anew. It feels like a peaceful oasis of calm in the current climate of vapid reality show screeching and a president of the United States that lacks both dignity and an indoor voice.

Levy rarely focuses on the details of the marriage itself and if you’re looking for a play-by-play account of a relationship falling apart, you should pick another book. But if what you need this summer is to know that women are strong and resilient, able to walk away from the remains of familiarity and security to find freedom and happiness, to gather around them other strong women and good friends, to process pain and find joy in small things, and to come out the other side a wiser, more fulfilled person, then this book won’t disappoint.

Denis Lehane has no More Fucks to Give About You, Reader.

I am going to put exactly the same amount of effort into this post about Denis Lehane’s  latest novel as he appears to have put into writing it. Ready?

I haven’t read a Lehane novel in a long time, but judging by the trite, lazy mess that is Since We Fell, it seems he at some point gave up trying to put together anything of substance or originality. It’s like a bad first draft.

Actually, I lied. I put more effort into writing this than Lehane.

The 2016 Roundup

Another year, another failed Goodreads challenge. It’s become an annual tradition, but hopefully I’ll creep closer to succeeding in 2017, now that I’m not juggling a full-time job with part-time schooling. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves so early in the year.

I still managed to finish 25 books in 2016 (not counting textbooks) – below, are some of the highlights.

I often see articles with people talking about the books that “changed my life.” Up until 2016, I’ve never been able to name my own world-rocking book. There have been books that have changed my way of thinking, ignited my curiosity, taught me empathy for others, but life changing? Not quite.

But this summer I read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, AL. And when I was done, I felt like Oprah when she found out she could eat bread every day on Weight Watchers. And if that’s not a life-changing feeling, I don’t know what is.

Stevenson’s stories of defending people of color wrongly condemned to death row in the South are compelling. The book is moving, infuriating, full of feelings of both hope and helplessness and a frighteningly sharp illustration of the systemic racism and corruption within the nation’s so-called justice system. I can’t recommend it enough.

(Here’s a great interview with Bryan Stevenson, about the need for America to confront – and openly discuss – its racist history.)

Also an excellent read, but one of a much different type, was The Bowery Boys: Adventures in Old New York: An Unconventional Exploration of Manhattan’s Historic Neighborhoods, Secret Spots and Colorful Characters.The hosts of the excellent Bowery Boys podcast, Greg Young and Tom Meyers, take their readers through the history of New York City and it’s citizens via the architecture of the Big Apple’s streets. They also take great care to emphasize the integral contribution of immigrants that made the city what it is today.

Kate Summerscale’s The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer tells the story of Robert Coombes who, in 1895, was convicted for the murder of his mother at the age of 13 and sent to Broadmoor, the Victorian lunatic asylum. The story of Robert, the murder, and his trial, is fascinating, but the second half of the book tells a story that is even more amazing.

Finally, 100 Years of Lynchings by Ralph Ginzburg is a simple book that packs a complex punch to the gut. Comprised only of newspaper articles published between the 1880s and 1960s covering lynchings in the United States, its power is in both the appalling details the articles provide and in the collection as a whole. It’s also interesting to see how newspapers in different parts of the U.S. reported on such savage crimes.

From the Back of the Shelf: Three Sisters in Black

Sometimes you stumble upon an old, unknown book through circumstances totally unrelated to its subject. I discovered Three Sisters in Black, by Norman Zierold, while perusing missing persons cases (Zierold having written a book about the 1874 disappearance of little Charley Ross, the victim of the first kidnap-for-ransom in America). Subtitled “The Bizarre True Case of ‘The Bathtub Tragedy'” there was no way I could pass it up. A week later, my copy arrived in the form of a long-retired library book, crinkly plastic cover still intact.

Published in 1968, the book tells the story of the three Wardlaw sisters – spinster Virginia, meek Mary Snead and the domineering oldest, Caroline Martin – their strange existence and the suspicious death in 1909 of Martin’s daughter Ocey.

There’s no shortage of insanity in either the Wardlaw family or this story. The sisters were born into a well-to-do Southern family in the mid-1800s, and spent much of their adult lives operating private schools for the children of their society peers. But by the time of Ocey Snead’s murder (she was married to her first cousin, Mary Snead’s son Fletcher) they had been living in various hotels, boarding houses and apartments in New York City and New Jersey, coming and going only late at night and wearing black dresses and veils, as if  in permanent mourning.

Ocey’s death occurred in a house practically bare of furniture in East Orange, New Jersey. The sisters were adamant her death was a suicide, but police were suspicious and eventually arrested all three for her murder.

Eventually a muddy backstory emerges involving the sisters’ financial troubles, numerous insurance policies on Ocey and a volume of suicide notes that may or may not have been written by her. The possible mistreatment of other family members by the sisters also emerges and it quickly becomes clear that these aren’t the kind of relatives you’d ask to look after your cat while you were on vacation.

The sheer oddity of the sisters, the tragedy of the woman’s death possibly at the hands of her own mother, and the way the police put together the pieces of this bizarre puzzle can’t help but make for a good story. But there is a major frustration.

Zierold never quite gets behind the sisters’ heavy black veils to find out what made Mrs. Martin – who emerges as the clear leader of the three – so mentally unbalanced and so successful in compelling her two younger sisters to go along with her murderous plot. The book is drawn from court records and newspapers accounts, none of which provide Zierold with any real first-person accounts of the sisters and their journey from Southern money to Northern murder. The lack of this type of primary source leaves the story’s participants feeling one dimensional and impossible to understand. At the time the book was published, it’s possible there were still relatives alive that had known the sisters, or at least heard the family stories about them, and I wish Zierold had sought them out.

That said, I wouldn’t pass this book up for that reason. It’s still a story unlike any I’ve read and the sisters – with their mysterious secrets and late night wanderings, draped in black – lend it a Gothic eeriness that quickly draws a reader in, even if it leaves her wanting more at the end.

Best Books of 2015 (or “my annual blog post”)

I fell short of many goals in 2015: I’m not thinner, fitter, a markedly better person, or a millionaire. I didn’t read the 50 books I’d promised Goodreads and I haven’t blogged more – on this site or any of my other neglected little web portals.

But it’s 2016 now, and there’s no point starting a new year by dwelling on old year failures, particularly when I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to accomplish any of them anyway.

I did manage 29 books, some of them for school, but most for pleasure. While I didn’t make my Goodreads quantity goal, had they had a quality goal, I’m confident I would have exceeded it.  So, in a tribute to good taste over free time, here are some highlights.

It was a year of new releases by several of my favorite authors. Erik Larson, Matthew Pearl, Sarah Vowell and Jon Ronson all put out new books. While Dead Wake, The Last Bookaneer, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (respectively) were all solid books, none was its author’s best work.

Larson’s Dead Wake illustrated the final days and destruction of the Lusitania in great detail, but suffered from the lack of a central character to support the historical narrative and give the reader someone relate-able. Pearl’s novel was a solid yarn about an attempt to steal the final work of Robert Louis Stevenson. Vowell’s history of Lafayette’s (and France’s) role in helping the United States escape the rule of Great Britain had less of her usual humor, but was enlightening to those of us who didn’t pay attention in history class that week.  Ronson’s was the best of the four, profiling people who gain notoriety through the moral outrage and shaming of the world’s self-righteous internet community. It was a funny and fascinating look at how we’re all one stupid comment away from losing our job and becoming a late night show punchline. I only wish he’d delved deeper into the fact that the women in his book seemed to have suffered worse, longer-term consequences than the men, even though their misjudgements weren’t any more egregious.

In addition to these old favorites, some new (to me) authors made my reading list. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz was a funny, yet respectful, look at the people of the South who are still smarting from (and fighting, in different ways) the “War of Northern Aggression.” It’s a thoughtful profile of a part of the South that a Northern like me finds hard to understand.

Australian author Helen Garner was a thrill to discover. I read two of her non-fiction books, Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial. The former tells the story of the murder of Joe Cinque and the subsequent trial of the woman suspected of the crime.  This House of Grief is about the murder trial of Robert Farquharson, who drove his car into a reservoir resulting in the death of his three young sons. Both were high-profile cases in Australia apparently, but I’d had no knowledge of either before I read the books. Garner’s writing is so engaging, that the reader easily relates to her. Rather than writing as a journalist with a deep knowledge of law and criminal trials, she writes like the average person, asking the questions and making the observations we’d all have.  Her gentle humanity shines through in both books.

Very different, but just as gripping, was another book in the true crime genre, Asne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. This is the opposite of Garner’s books, written very much in the voice of an unbiased journalist. But still, Seierstad’s narrative of Breivik’s murder of 77 people, 69 of whom were attending a youth summer camp on the island of Utoya, is heartbreaking as the reader first gets to know some of the victims, before following Breivik as he dispassionately slaughters them. The story itself is so wrenching, that it doesn’t need any additional emotional context from Seierstad.

Finally, two of my favorite books this year dealt with civil rights. Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle is about author Kristen Green’s return to her hometown in Prince Edward Country, Virginia. There Green, a white woman, learns how 1,700 black children in the county were robbed of their education in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and her family’s role in the tragedy. It’s an embarrassing, shameful piece of American history that should be more widely known, particularly when putting current race relations into context.

Goodreads tells me that, of all the books on my 2015 list, The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and a Crusading Editor Reignited the Civil War, was the least read by others on the site (only 51 others had the pleasure of this book). Author Dick Lehr tells the story of black newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter’s fight against filmmaker D. W. Griffith and the City of Boston to show Griffith’s wildly racist and inaccurate film, The Birth of a Nation, in the city’s cinemas. It’s an unforgettable story of civil rights versus freedom of speech, which goes far beyond Boston, resonating across the country. I’m both a Bostonian and a silent film fan, but had never heard the story of this remarkable battle. I hope more people read this book and acquaint themselves with the remarkable Monroe Trotter and his crusade.

 

Bunch O’Links

As the ‘best of 2014’ lists fade away, the ‘upcoming for 2015’ lists descend upon us. Here are a select few:

  • BuzzFeed. I do not understand the BuzzFeed website. It is so many things, yet so hard to define. Do I go there for serious investigative news? Cute photos of cats? Quizzes to find out whether I’m a Lenny or a Squiggy? And now it’s giving me reading recommendations.
  • Huffington Post “can’t wait” to read these books.
  • Barnes & Noble is equally impatient about their list.
  • The Millions is so beside itself with anticipation that their list numbers 91 (!) books and only covers the year through September.
  • Thanks to Flavorwire for catering to those of us who get more excited about a big, thick, juicy slab of non-fiction. (They also give us a list of novels here.)
  • Even New Scientist gets into the game with their list of 2015’s science-y books to look forward to. 

What’s on your must-read list for 2015?

The Dead Feeling of Winter

I’ve always believed I was meant to hibernate, what with my ample reserves of stored body fat, ability to recycle my urine and the overwhelming urge to sleep under a pile of dead leaves. But after a rather awkward conversation with HR during which I determined my company does not do ‘hibernation pay,’ I have temporarily put this impulse to one side.

Winter makes me all sleepy and blah and the energy I would usually put towards reading instead goes towards just keeping warm. Plus, I’ve gone back to school part time and most of my reading is definitely not for pleasure.  So there’s been a lull. And I failed my Goodreads 2014 challenge. The shame.

Here’s what I’ve managed to put away the last couple of months:

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters.  Oh book, I still don’t know how to feel about you. Shortly into this, I found myself thinking, “I bet I know what happens.” Then it happened. By that time, I was about halfway through and figured I might as well finish it, even though it was a dreary slog without one likeable character. Then it got good – real good.  Waters is a great writer of suspense and that’s what saved this book in the end. If I could somehow meld together the outstanding first half of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch with the second half of this book, it’d be amazing. Anyway, I know Waters landed on many 2014 Best Of lists, but not mine.

The Paying Guests didn’t help my reading rut and it took The Murder of the Century: The Guilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars to dig me out. Paul Collins writes a tight, fast-paced account of body parts scattered around late 19th century New York City and the race to find out who they belong to and who did the scattering.

The story of the murder is interesting enough, but the real draw is the race between the police and the New York tabloids (led by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst) to get to the truth (or whatever sells, in the case of the papers). The lengths the tabloids went to (and the depths to which they stooped) to stay one step ahead of the police for exclusive scoops were both appalling and ballsy. And never dull.

In between moping around and counting the days until spring, I did a little digging up of ancestral bones (metaphorically speaking) to find that I am descended from Mayflower passenger William Brewster. I spent many subsequent days loudly proclaiming myself to be American Royalty until I realized that a) no one was going to bow to me and b) so were around 30 million other people.  Nonetheless, it kindled an interest in the people who so bravely conquered the new world and subsequently did horrible, horrible things to Native Americans.

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War by Nathaniel Philbrook is where I turned to find out more about Brewster and his fellow Pilgrims. As I read, I tried to find some similarities between me and my 12th great-grandfather. But alas, there seems to be little that’s been passed down from the spiritual leader of a group of colony-founding pioneers to me, an atheist afraid to go camping. But the book was great – clear, concise and never dull, it takes the readers from the early days of the Pilgrims, before they set off to Europe, right through the end of King Phillip’s War. And Philbrook never makes excuses for the treatment of the Native Americans by the Pilgrims’ descendants.

This coming year looks to be a great one for readers and I’m particularly looking forward to Erik Larson’s new release Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, which is out in March; Jon Ronson’s newest, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, also out in March; and Matthew Pearl’s, The Last Bookaneer, released in April.

If you’re a classic movie fan, 2015 will see the release of new books about Alfred Hitchcock and Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and the general decadence and debauchery of that Hollywood age.  More info on those can be found here at our sister site.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: Ashes in the Lashes

I’ve been having a lot of deep thoughts lately: What’s the meaning of life? Why are we here? Why am I here? What is the point of trying to live a good, responsible life if all you’re rewarded with in the end is loss?

Ultimately, I can only conclude that there is no meaning of life and that we’ve all just ended up here, as a species, through some perfect storm of science.  Now, not only do we all have to try to live together, but also find whatever it is that’s going to make the experience meaningful to us individually.

Caitlin Doughty, in Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, has done just that, deciding to make it her life’s work to help people accept death as the natural part of life that it is and not as something morbid and frightening.

Doughty’s path to this mission started when, in her early 20s, she took a job as an assistant in a crematory where her main responsibility was operating the crematory ovens. This included not just the maintenance and operation of them, but prepping its occupants, a job that initially Doughty found challenging.

But she soon came to feel not only comfortable with the dead, but appreciative of the role she was playing in their final journey, as it were.  While her book certainly outlines many of the less pleasant aspects of death, sometimes with wry humor, she is never disrespectful of the dead or so irreverent that it becomes mocking.

It does, at times, make for uncomfortable reading if you’ve not yet fully accepted the idea of your own mortality and the fact we’re all made of fleeting organic matter (which sometimes gets stuck in inaccessible places as part of the cremation process). And this, Doughty argues, is a problem.

She puts our current traditions like embalming and closed caskets in the context of history and other cultures, arguing that we are doing ourselves a disservice by sterilizing death, hiding it away.  No longer does the western world wake their dead in their living rooms, with the open coffin sitting between the sofa and the TV. Nor do we participate in the ritualistic washing and dressing of the body, a tradition embraced in other parts of the world.  Instead, we hand the body over to expensive funeral professionals to disguise death through embalming (expensive and unnecessary, according to Doughty, who says the human body decomposes at a much slower rate than we’ve been led to believe), closed caskets and burial in impenetrable vaults or coffins underground. Or, as Doughty experiences, cremated in an oven watched over by a lone crematory worker (although families can be present for this, it’s a rare occurrence).

Doughty makes a good argument. Most of the discussion around death in the western world these days is about avoiding it:  How do we live longer? How do we keep ourselves alive despite the odds? How do we eke out just one more day, week or month?

Perhaps now is the time to change the debate and talk about how to better accept the inevitable and take responsibility for ushering our loved ones through their final journey, which may also help us better face our own mortality rather than just constantly trying to beat it.

Le Retour d’Hercule Poirot*

When I first heard that author Sophie Hannah (of whom I admittedly knew nothing) was reviving Agatha Christie’s inimitable Hercule Poirot, I shook an angry fist at the sky and shouted many impolite phrases heavenward.

As pigeons scattered, parents shielded their children and two dozen people filmed me with their phones for You Tube, I vowed never to read this unwanted, unwarranted addition to the literary world.

But then I found out that Christie’s estate had given its blessing. I started to think about how  I’ve read possibly all of the original HP mysteries and wouldn’t it be great if this new one somehow turned out to be OK. Then I read a review of it in the Telegraph that was actually positive. And that thing I swore I’d never do, I did.

Reader, I didn’t hate it.

The Monogram Murders is the mystery of three people killed on the same day in three different rooms of a rather upscale hotel. All three bodies are identically positioned, with a monogrammed cufflink in each of their mouths. Poirot and his sidekick – not a Hastings or a Japp this time, but a Catchpool of Scotland Yard – set off to follow a winding path of clues and red herrings, before Poirot masterfully pulls it all together and solves the whodunnit.

I was relieved to find our Belgian hero appears much the same (and – minor spoiler alert – no worse for wear after Christie killed him off in Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case). Sure, he refers to his moustaches in the singular now and is maybe slightly more loquacious than I recall, but Hannah ultimately succeeds in ensuring he remains the fussy, self-assured, but endearing, sleuth that Christie originally created.

The book is also true to the Christie trope of having numerous potential murders who are all assembled together at the end for Poirot’s final unraveling of the mystery – and what an unraveling. Because, again similar to many of Christie’s stories, this ending has so many moving parts that I would have welcomed a schematic diagram to help me through it.

But that was always half the fun of Christie – figuring out who was the real criminal and how she was going to wrap up all those loose ends in one final chapter. Hannah does a good job of giving the reader a satisfying ending and a thoroughly enjoyable read. While I thought I’d never say it, I’m happy to admit how hopeful I now am that she’ll give us another Poirot page-turner soon.

Up next: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium by Caitlin Doughty, which I started last night and is so far entertaining and informative while making me hyperventilate slightly with its unblinking perspective on our ultimate, shared end.

*translation courtesy of Google because it’s been a long time since high school French