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02 December 2009


I'll admit it; I loved Horn's book. This was my second reading of it, and when I think about it, I don't remember being particularly thrown by the structure of it the first time around. But, I think that it is a structure that appealed especially to the type of brain I have: I'm kind of messy, but usually know where stuff is; I am scattered and like to do several things at once, and I often have about five books going at any one given time, so reading things in smaller bits or in a disjointed fashion is nothing new for me. I am actually so un-reliant on the "story" of a book that I often resent when thriller authors write such compulsive prose and short chapters that I feel I "can't put a book down."

My mother would refer to that as my "extreme independence" problem.

Part of why I didn't mind the structure, I think, is because I loved Horn's writing. Katharine commented yesterday that she is skilled in throwing in the detail of humanity among the statistics, and I couldn't agree with that more. I enjoyed the Geary book, but I have so many bookmarks chunked in the Horn, to mark passages I loved, that it looks like a notebook threw up in my book. One of the passages I marked:

"In a generation or two you're an old picture your great-grandchildren can no longer identify."

That is just such a perfect, evocative passage; we were just at my mother-in-law's, going over old pictures, and they were pictures of her great-aunts and other cousins, and nobody had any idea, really, who any of the people were. Which is really sad, but is what happens. Anyway. Now I've gone on too long, but I couldn't help it. :)

Hmmm...as far as number one goes, I think it would have been better to start with a chapter about the beginning of the Cold Case squad, with all the bureaucratic drama. Then follow individual detectives and explain the cases that they were handed. I just thought that Horn's treatment of the detectives was far better, more humanising, than her treatment of the cases, so if the book had been structured around them it might have felt more alive. And I think Horn shouldn't have put herself in it as much as she did; a lot of the random bits that made me think 'why am I reading this?' related to her personal stories. But this is the second Horn book I've read now, and both of them felt 'meh' to me-not awful, but not wonderful either. So I'm thinking maybe I just don't connect with her writing style. ;)

I suppose the only question that occurs to me to ask her is how she chose which cases to focus on. It seems evident that she wanted more pedestrian, 'ignored' types of cases, but of the many that are investigated, how do she settle for just a few?

I love rereading, so I get the whole 'rereadable' thing and don't find it particularly surprising. For nonfiction, what makes a book rereadable for me personally is that it has vitality, it addresses something universal about the human condition that makes me think wider than just the book, and that it's fascinating. Those are all pretty vague adjectives, though, aren't they? And there's a bit of begging the question going on; it's almost semantics to say that something fascinating is rereadable. But I'm not sure if I could get into more specifics...other than to say, just like a work of fiction to be rereadable must transcend its plot, a work of nonfiction must transcend its facts.

I totally appreciate your thoughtful comments here, especially about a book that didn't particularly "click" for you. I find it endlessly fascinating what will sometimes work--and really work--for one reader, and doesn't work--at all--for another reader. I've visited your blog a lot and I can tell you love a lot of NF I've enjoyed too, so I find it interesting we're a bit divergent on this book. Ah, the endless variety of reading.

I love your question about which cases she focused on. I wonder how many cases she read through to get to these; and also, really, how she did settle upon her organizing structure. I also wondered how she got these cops to open up to her so. They really seemed comfortable with her (and I think this probably lends to that air of perhaps getting a closer look at the detectives in these cases than at the victims); I wonder what they got out of her book project and why they went along with it.

Your adjectives for "rereadability" were good ones. I never thought of NF transcending its facts but I think you're on to something there.

Unlike you, CR, I have a very linear, can-only-do-one-thing-at-once, straightforward style. I can handle deviations from it in my reading, but it works best if I comprehend the alternative structure. The only structure I inferred at the time I was reading was that the book jumped from case to case to case. (Well, OBVIOUSLY it did that.) I would have liked it more if I'd been able to discern a method to the madness. I didn't, though. Maybe I am just dim.

Uh, I'd never thought about it before, but I'm thinking I've *never* re-read a nonfiction book. Here, let me check my spreadsheet of all the books I've ever read. (Did I mention I have an organized style?) Yes, suspicion confirmed: I've never re-read any nonfiction books. For me, at least, this is probably because I don't read nonfiction for the sake of sheer enjoyment. I only get that rush from fiction (and I only do re-reads to achieve that euphoria, hence the exclusion of nonfiction from the ranks).

(Don't tell anyone I wrote a book about nonfiction reading, they'll know I'm a total fraud.)

Oh Lesbrarian,
You are not a fraud. Anyone who could get me to read "The Vagina Monologues" based on the strength of your reader's guide annotation, is emphatically NOT a fraud. A glutton for punishment, maybe, but never a fraud.

I have always been amused by your mention of a reading spreadsheet. I have never been in the room with a spreadsheet I enjoyed or understood--just thinking the word "Excel" makes me start to break out in hives.

I do not re-read NF as often as I read my fiction faves (a very few titles that I hit almost annually), but I do sometimes, and am always pleasantly surprised. I got even more out of this book the second time around, and I re-read Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It all the time (yes, yes, let's quibble: it was published as fiction, but I view it as a memoir). So I do get rushes from NF. Now that I think about it, there's a ton of NF books I would like to re-read but just haven't gotten back to: John Bowe's "Nobodies" comes to mind, as does any essay collection by Wendell Berry. I think what I need to re-read something is a real connection with the writing STYLE and the language--not just the subject or the rush. Her organization notwithstanding, I find that Horn's use of language really speaks to me, and I like the sense I get from her words that "something should be done, dammit," like this passage: "Murderers touch us. Their presence in the world makes all our lives, for moments, unbearable. And for others, an eternity."

I think that's worth re-reading, a few times over.

For 1., I did like the structure of the book--and was inspired to read it--because it mirrors the structure of my job (I respond to Freedom of Information Law requests). Seems to me that both involve looking at a particular case for as long as is productive, moving on to another, then coming back with a fresh perspective. I think the structure also worked for me because I tend to read nonfiction a little bit at a time, whereas I like to dive into a novel more. Horn's book meant that I could read a chapter, go away and do something else, and come back without feeling like the momentum of my reading had been disrupted.

2. I would ask what it was like to research the Jean Sanseverino case--in the other cases, the investigators seemed to make more progress, even if they couldn't always find the perpetrators; in the Sanseverino one, they wound up with so many possible suspects that it was impossible to even focus on one. Would that make research frustrating--no right answer--or liberating--freedom to imagine what happened?

3. I tend not to reread too much (too busy reading more things!). I think a nonfiction book is rereadable if it involves a topic that's really interesting to me (I am a sucker for New York-related books, so that's one possibility), or if I feel like I could return to it and get more out of it at a different point in my life.

Style and language are definitely part of the re-read equation. Character, too. While I notice these elements when I read nonfiction, it is rare for them to really grab me like they do in fiction books. For instance, nothing from Horn's book snagged my attention-- not the style, not the characters, not even the crimes. (I'd plumb forgotten about the baby in the wall, and it barely registered when I did read it. See? The book just didn't hook me in.)

Like I said in the comments Monday, the one thing that did stay with me was the political infighting. Very nicely developed-- but that alone is not enough to justify a re-read. When I find a nonfiction title that speaks to me on all those important different levels, I'll re-read it.

I think it's funny that we have such different reactions to Horn as well, because I know that we've loved some of the same nonfic books! And of course, we both loathe Thomas Friedman. :D

Like you, I tend to read 4-6 books at once...I think maybe the structure issue wouldn't have bothered me if Horn's writing style had appealed to me. But since it didn't (except for the intro-I loved that!), there was no real reason for me to overlook the structural issues. Like lesbrarian, I just didn't feel that interested in anything the book had; if I had had to return it to the library halfway through, I wouldn't have been upset (except for Menage of course!). But I think it's a good book for discussion, and I'm loving these posts and comments. So I'm still glad that I read it. :)

I definitely reread NF less than fiction, even thought I read comparatively more NF. Except for memoirs, which I do reread pretty consistently. Like fiction, I think style and character determines rereadability. When I reread books, I do so to return to an old friend, something fun, comforting, enjoyable, able to be depended on to take me away from my 'real' life. Fiction and memoir do that for me, straight up NF less so. I am about to reread one of my favorite NF books (The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down) for a book club, so I'll see how that goes!

I don't think I would reread the Restless Sleep - except maybe the intro? I can't say I've ever reread any NF but that's not surprising since I also rarely reread anything. But I will be trying a few rereads this year as an experiment - perhaps I will add something NF to my challenge list.

I'm so glad I'm not the only one who rather liked the structure here, of delving into several cases at once. I rather thought it also supported her thoughts that a lot of times cops really kind of liked the "wiseguys" (mafia criminals) they were investigating--I think being a detective must be so hard, having to think the way criminals do but trying never to act on those criminal thoughts and understandings themselves. I think the world she investigated was so far from cut and dried, so hard, really, to view as black and white or linear, that the more piecemeal approach worked.

I loved your question too. And thank you for the reminder of reading things at different times in your life--I re-read Wendell Berry and Norman Maclean because my understanding of what they are saying is so different than it was even five or ten years ago.

Thomas Friedman sucks, forever and ever, amen.
When you read a lot of books at once, do you mix up fic and nonfic? Or tend to read more of one than the other?

I loved the introduction to Horn's book, which is why I was so disappointed with the rest that I read of it. I didn't finish it. I can't. It's an exercise for me to read it, unfortunately, especially when I have all these other books staring at me waiting to be read...I tend to agree with Eva about the structure. From what I could tell about the chapter headings, I was first going to learn about the history of Cold Case, which was interesting, and then hear about the cases she mentioned in depth in each of the following chapters. As soon as I got invested in any of the stories, it felt like I was bounced back into a history lesson. I guess I'm just much more for stories and people than for the history and statistics of things.

Anywho since we're talking about structure, I'd definitely ask Horn how she put together her information and how she decided to organize her book. I think she's a very good writer, the structure just drove me bananas. I'd also ask her how long it took her to research the whole thing from the germ of the idea to the finished product, and how she decided to do it in the first place.

As far as re-reading, I find that the writing and quotable material, the things you want to share with everyone else the minute you read it, that's the stuff that makes me want to have the book around either to read the whole thing or to just read parts of again. Sometimes for fiction, I'll want to read something like Palahniuk's Rant or Diary or something like Niffengger's Her Fearful Symmetry or Drury's The Driftless Area all over again just to look at it from a fresh perspective, now that I know everyone and their big secret(s), etc. (I'll also re-read fiction, simply because I loved it). I also like to read things I loved or didn't love but other people did, a couple years after I read it the first time (I had a hugely different but equally wonderful experience reading The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe as a 19 year old than I did as a 7 year old). Or possibly to relearn something, like Thich Nhat Hanh's book Anger (which I re-read every year and always have on hand) or Redfield's An Unquiet Mind.

The most recent non-fiction book I read that I remember reading passages aloud to my husband while he cooked was Sarah Manguso's Two Kinds of Decay. The book is about her life with a rare auto-immune disease, but she's a poet and writer by profession and much of what she has to say is really beautiful and I will definitely will have to have it so I can book mark and margin write and read it over and over again.

wow. sorry that was so hugely long. i guess i just had a lot to say! (what a shock)

What I'm not liking so far about the book is the use of all the detectives names, I get them confused. This is why I stay away from books that have too many characters, too much paying attention. I am going to take the advice of other CR commenter and read just one case at a time, maybe I won't get so confused.
I would ask Horn how long it was she researched as well as if she met any of the detectives families. It would be interesting to find out how they dealt with family and friends after working on murder cases all day.
I don't think I've ever re-read anything except poetry (love the Yeats). There just seems like too many good books to be reread and I am surrounded by them all day beckoning me.

I agree with katharine, actually, that it can be challenging to track all those names.

The Horn book leaned more toward investigative journalism than true crime, in my opinion. This book was good for discussion, partly because a "real" TC book would tend to focus on a specific case. If I were introducing someone to the genre, I would most likely recommend Ann Rule, "Perfect Town, Perfect Murder," or a book about the Green River Killer or Zodiac.

I'm not a re-reader. I have an eidetic memory and I spend a lot of time mentally processing a book after I read it. I think I've pretty much sucked the juice out. The exception would be children's books, because it's so nice to share them with kids. Non-fiction would probably be my first choice to read and last choice to re-read.

If I could ask Horn any questions, I would want to know A) how much of the detective work in the book she did personally and B) whether she keeps in touch with the people she met during her research.

Eidetic was a new word for me. I'm just sayin.

Good luck with "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down." Are you reading it for a library book club, or a more social one? If you think of it, pop back in and let me know how it goes. I am very curious about book clubs.
I'm probably the same as you; reading more NF in general but tending to re-read more fiction. Sometimes I need to re-read stuff; I primarily do it for comfort. And perhaps I find more fiction comforting than NF?

I LOVE long comments; no worry. I'm glad you stopped reading if it wasn't working out--making you dislike a book or spend time with a book you're disliking is not the point of this discussion. Good questions, too; I also wondered how long this one took her.

"Two Kinds of Decay" sounds fascinating (if sad)--thanks for the suggestion!

Katharine, Jessica--
I hear you on the names, particularly on the chapters that involved the wiseguys, who added even more names to the mix--Spano and Panzarella and all the people involved in the Ronald Stapleton/multiple homicide case, holy cow. Forget trying to solve these things; I wouldn't be able to keep the names of the players straight.

Jessica, the "investigative" vs. "true crime" point is an excellent one. A lot of true crime really is that way--I included a section on "True Crime Investigations" in my new nonfiction guide "The Inside Scoop" because of that. I think it just goes to show the genreblending isn't a problem/issue only in fiction--nonfiction books can move between types too--between true adventure and history, biography and history, true crime and investigative, etc.

"Perfect Murder, Perfect Town" is another fascinating book. Super sad subject, but fine reporting and writing.

Now I have to go look up eidetic!

I did like TRS though I was confused by all of the names. The police bureaucracy didn't appeal to me and I thought it was maybe a New York thing...that if you lived in NYC you would have understood what was going on with the police department. I, too, would have been interested in how murder investigations affect the policemen on off-hours. This comes up in some detective fiction as policeman has trouble dealing with his own wife and kids after the gruesome things he's seen during the day. The structure didn't bother me so much as it was divided into parts and chapters.

I generally don't re-read much, either fiction or nonfiction. The only things I do re-read are those classic works, especially if I can find a class to do justice to a major work that has much underlying it besides the plot. (For example, The Brothers Karamatzov is one I've read on my own and participated in two classes to discuss). The only other books I might re-read are those for a book discussion I'm leading.

Bah, you guys got me all insecure about 'eidetic' and I had to go look it up too! The Wikipedia article is pretty interesting.

What it means for me is that once I read something, I can remember where in the book it was and what the layout on that page looked like; when I read the book and where I got it; color; etc. I don't always use a bookmark because I can remember the page number. I can remember good chunks of quotes, though it's not as easy to recite them back. It was really helpful in college, when I could turn out a page an hour, including research, writing, and editing.

At home, I'm the one who knows where everything is, and I can tell by how long it's taking the person to find it how much more identifying information is needed. "Red jar. Behind the capers. No, not the Thai chili paste, the other one." I've been hiking and recognized the turnoff by a specific cluster of berries. I have "perfect color" memory and I can whistle back long sections of music I learned as a kid. Etc.

On the other hand, I have about zero directional sense, I'm awful at parking, I'm ADD, and I'm at about the 50th percentile in math skills. There are tradeoffs.

Jessica! You are fascinating! (I had to go look up eidetic, too. I don't have it.)

Back to TRS. I have a friend whose son is abt to be promoted to detective in NYC and this lent a wonderful motivation to my reading this and considering the history, politics, funding of departments, etc.

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