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April 2012

Any historical true crime readers out there?

If so, I need your help.

I'm working on a project involving historical true crime nonfiction,* and I've got some questions about it. This is a genre that includes such popular bestsellers as Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City and Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook. Normally I find True Crime somewhat interesting nonfiction, but it's a hard nonfiction genre to research--nobody really talks about what it is or how it attracts readers.

My biggest question is mainly how to group similar Historical True Crime titles together. Would you say historical true crime readers are more interested in the types of crimes and criminals (e.g., serial killers), or are they more interested in the historical period (e.g., modern European history or the American Civil War)? What is it, do you think, that readers find compelling about historical true crime and true crime in general?

Thanks for any insight on this matter!

Oh, and I can't resist: read Matt Taibbi's latest article on the post office. Amen, Matt Taibbi. I for one LOVE the postal service and think they're getting a raw deal. I have always opined that anyone who thinks the post office is a rip-off has not sent anything by UPS or FedEx lately. Once I had to return a book I worked on to a publisher by UPS (the publisher's rule), and it cost me $30 bucks to send a package the USPS could have sent, taking one day longer, for about 6 dollars. And while you're at it, send someone a card or letter today. They'll enjoy it, and so will the post office. Happy weekend, all.

*I'll be glad to be done with the project--reading all this true crime, all at once, is starting to freak me out just a little bit.

Death Comes to Pemberley

Because I am addicted to all things Jane Austen (even modern imitators), I of course had to read P.D. James's mystery novel, featuring Austen's characters from Pride and Prejudice: Death Comes to Pemberley.

DeathI enjoyed it, quite a bit. The crime/mystery was interesting enough to hold my interest, and I think James got the language and characterization right. It wasn't as subtly humorous as Austen's novels are, but I suppose it's hard to work humor into a murder mystery.

I won't tell you who the murdered or the suspect is, but you probably won't be surprised--rest assured that other characters from Pride and Prejudice play a large part in the crime.

And that's all I've got on this one, really. If you're a hardcore Austen fan I would guess you'd enjoy it (although I know at least one reviewer who would beg to differ). I'll leave you with a sample of the writing:

"It is doubtful whether Mrs. Bennet missed the company of her second daughter, but her husband certainly did. Elizabeth had always been his favourite child...Mr. Bennet was a clever and reading man whose library was both a refuge and the source of his happiest hours. He and Darcy rapidly came to the conclusion that they liked each other and thereafter, as is common with friends, accepted their different quirks of character as evidence of the other's superior intellect." (p. 9.)

Other reviews: New York Times, Washington Post

Tuesday Article: What Broke My Father's Heart

I was not over-impressed with most of the essays I found in the 2011 edition of The Best American Essays, edited by Edwidge Danticat. But one did stand out:

Katy Butler's What Broke My Father's Heart

I highly suggest all of you read it. It will make you very unhappy, probably, about the business of American medicine (and that's exactly what it is--a business--only not a customer service business), but it should be read.

I got sucked in anyway.

For the most part I managed to sidestep "Downton Abbey Fever," which has seemed widespread this past year.

I watched the first episode, and bits of subsequent episodes, but I could never really find the energy to dedicate subsequent Sunday nights to it.* (I prefer my Masterpiece Theatre viewing in one- and two-episode chunks, I find.) I also got a bit bored with it because its popularity has been a big and continuing story, and one that I linked to frequently whenever I blogged for the (aimed at librarians and readers' advisors) Reader's Advisor Online Blog.

DowntonBut of course I couldn't help myself when I saw that a companion guide, The World of Downton Abbey, had been written by Jessica Fellowes. It truly is a companion guide, hewing closely to the storylines of the program and referring to the characters as though they were real people. It does include beautiful photographs, and the chapters cover the topics of family life, society, change, life in service, style, house and estate, romance, war, and behind the scenes.

Although I'd hoped to find more historical information and context, the little there was was quite interesting. Consider this tidbit:

"While bells are now seen as a symbol of servitude, at the time the bell-boards came in, around the 1820s, they were hailed as an absolute liberation. Up until that point, the footmen had to sit on hard wooden chairs within earshot of the family--usually in the hall. They would get a message...find the maid, and then go back to their chair." (p. 20.)

Of course I read the whole thing. It was like candy; I just couldn't stop. It also gave me more of an urge to watch the series, but I'll have to find a whole lot more time to devote to it than I have now.

*Plus I found the main heroine, Mary, to be the most obnoxious leading lady ever, and her romantic interest, played by Dan Stevens, doesn't do anything for me character- or looks-wise. As Mr. CR would say, he's no Mr. Darcy. (The joke on Mr. CR is that Mr. Wentworth and Mr. Tilney both beat out Darcy as my favorite Austen men. Don't tell him--he thinks his "Oh Mr. Darcy..." shtick is very clever.)

Well, I don't think I got any dumber this week.

Which was a nice change. Walking around in the world lately I feel like a) I have just come out, blinking, from years of solitary confinement*, and b) that I get dumber as everyone around me seems to get smarter and move faster. It must be because I don't have one of those smart phone thingies. And never will, God willing.

But I did learn a few things this week. A lot of things I won't tell you about as they are personal, but also a lot of fun trivia tidbits that you can take with you to parties and various other glamorous outings this weekends.

I'm working on a book review article, and am reading a whole bunch of books I wouldn't normally otherwise. I'll tell you about the article when it's published, but for right now I can share the tidbits with you:

1. The Secret Service has responsibility for investigating counterfeiters (of U.S. currency and securities)--when they're not busy being too cheap to pay for their sexual favors;


2. The man who sat next to Abraham Lincoln in the theater box on the night Lincoln was assassinated would eventually go on to kill his wife (and spend the rest of his life thereafter in a German asylum).

3. (This tidbit comes from a Nova program I watched the other night. I am becoming a Nova junkie.) You've got to watch this clip of a cruise ship sinking--but don't do so if you're planning a cruise in the near future.

Huh. I just thought those were interesting (if tragic, in the second and third items) nonfiction tidbits.

*I felt this way when I went to pick up an order at Sears, and everything is automated! Scan your receipt, scan your credit card,** they pop out with the box. Weird. But then again, I haven't visited the merchandise pick-up area of Sears since roughly 1990, when Mom had to go pick stuff up there and I went along.

**And how does this work for most people? Do people usually have their receipts AND their credit cards? I say this from years of working at the public library, when people NEVER had their library cards or any sort of identification, and acted like we were crazy for requesting any such ID.

A pleasant puff piece.

I had forgotten that I had requested Sally Bedell Smith's Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch from the library, but I was excited to see it when it came in. I brought it home, intending really only to take a look at the pictures and maybe read the first few chapters. But pretty soon I just got kind of sucked in, and before you know it, I was finishing the book's last chapter about the wedding of William and Catherine and the future of the monarchy.*

ElizabethNow, there's nothing really very challenging here. Smith keeps an upbeat tone about everything, spinning all the stories as positively as she can for both the Queen and the other members of her family. There is nothing really overtly gossipy about this book either; Smith seems to have spoken with a lot of people, but the quotes she shares all seem pretty innocuous. Although I did enjoy this bit, about a much younger Elizabeth and Philip:

"During a visit to the Brabournes in Kent, John said to Philip, 'I never realized what lovely skin she has.' 'Yes,' Philip replied, 'she's like that all over.'" (p. 48.)

So, it's a puff piece. But it's a well-done puff piece. I particularly enjoyed learning more about the Queen's knowledge and love of horses and horse-racing, as well as more about her relationships with all the different prime ministers she's known. And the book included a fair amount of pictures, which I always enjoy. Looking for a read about her majesty? You could do a lot worse than this one. And this might be a fun year to read one--it's QE2's Diamond Jubilee year, celebrating her 60 years on the throne.

Reviews: LA Times, New York Times

*I did skip some of the political history and commonwealth visiting bits just to finish a bit faster.

Paul Theroux: Part 2

Just a bit more about Paul Theroux's Kingdom By the Sea, which I really enjoyed.

As I was saying yesterday, I think I have finally aged into an appreciation for Theroux's writing and mix of observational travel writing with his own quietly (very) opinionated take on the people and places around him. In this book, an account of his travels around Great Britain's copious island coastline, he shares many small stories that very admirably get at the tone of people's encounters with one another. (He also didn't make me laugh out loud as much as Bill Bryson does, but I enjoyed something about his surprisingly gentle humor all the same) I really enjoyed this exchange, about a gentleman who was really just trying to give his newspaper to his bus driver:

"The bus driver said, 'That's a Tory paper.'

'I'm through with it,' Mr. Lurley said.

Dan, the bus driver, said, 'I don't want it.'

'Why not?' Mr. Lurley said.

'Tory paper!'

'They're all the same,' Mr. Lurley said, and left it on the little shelf under the windshield with Dan's lunch bag (two cheese and chutney sandwiches, a small over-ripe tomato, and a Club Biscuit).

Dan picked up the newspaper and threw it out the bus door.

'They're not the bloody same,' he said. 'That's a Tory paper.'" (p. 94).

I really enjoyed that. This book was written in 1983, and a large part of its narrative is Theroux's observations of Brits' observations about the early days of the 1982 Falklands War. I don't know much about that period in history, but I found it interesting all the same.

And, in case you're wondering, Theroux does a good job with the standard travel writing attribute of describing one's surroundings with flair. I am not often enamored with landscape descriptions (I tend to skip right over them, as a matter of fact), but this type of writing seemed worth reading:

"Ever since Tenby I had noticed an alteration in the light, a softness and a clarity that came from a higher sky. It must have been the Atlantic--certainly I had the impression of an ocean of light, and it was not the harsh daytime sun of the tropics or the usual grayness of the industrialized temperate zone; daylight in England often lay dustily overhead like a shroud. The cool light in West Wales came steadily from every direction except from the sun." (p. 162.)

It was a good read. I'm going to try one of his non-British titles again and see what I think of it.

Have I finally aged into Paul Theroux?

I gave a short talk on nonfiction the other day, to a lovely class of library school students (at the request of their indefatigable teacher--you know who you are--thank you!) and we chatted a bit about nonfiction readers and their characteristics. As I babbled on and on, I think I said something about readers "aging into" nonfiction; this is certainly the way it happened for me. I didn't become a nonfiction junkie until my late 20s, although I always read a bit of it. In fact, I find this one of the most interesting facets of nonfiction--how young readers love perusing it (dinosaur books, anyone?), often seem to leave it behind in favor of fiction, but then sometimes return to it as older readers.

TherouxAnyway. I've read some Paul Theroux in my time, but never understood why he was such a classic travel author or how he'd gotten so popular. Well, I recently picked up his Kingdom By the Sea, and either it's because the book is about Great Britain and I'm just a sucker for all things Brit, or I've finally aged into an appreciation for Paul Theroux's writing. Or perhaps a little of both.

Theroux took as his task traveling around the entire coast of Great Britain by rail, bus, and walking, starting in London and working clockwise (including Ulster, Northern Ireland, as well). A common theme throughout is the lamenting of the dismantling of Britain's rail system, particularly as he sometimes found it difficult to "get from here to there" without a vehicle, and most particularly towards the end of the narrative when transit workers went on strike. Although the book was published in 1983, I still feel that Theroux had a good grasp on where the world was going. Consider this exchange, with a person he met on his travels:

"'Our society is changing from one based on the concept of the individual and freedom,' Mr. Bratby said, 'to one where the individual is nonexistent--lost in a collectivist state.'

I said I didn't think it would be a collectivist state so much as a wilderness in which most people lived hand to mouth, and the rich would live like princes--better than the rich had ever lived, except that their lives would constantly be in danger from the hungry predatory poor. All the technology would serve the rich, but they would need it for their own protection and to ensure their continued prosperity."

There were quite a few bits I wanted to quote from this book. More tomorrow.


A tough act to follow.

I waited for months and months (thanks to a kindly reader who alerted me to its upcoming publication) to read Craig Taylor's oral history Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now--As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It, and Long for It. When it finally arrived in for me at the library, I was ridiculously excited, and took it along to read in the car on the way to visit my in-laws the next day.

LondonersIt seemed like a bad sign when the book couldn't even hold my interest in those surroundings, as, when you are stuck as the passenger in a car driving through south-central Wisconsin in March, there's really not that much else to do or look at.

I was massively disappointed in this book as an oral history, and as a treatise on the city of London. Slave to convention that I am (indexing and proofreading books has made me, somewhat prematurely, and for lack of a better phrase, a "pedantic old fart"), I had to read the entire introduction to this book first--and that set off the first warning bell. At seventeen pages (that read like a long seventeen pages), the introduction is just too long. It shouldn't be that complicated to say, in effect, "London is an interesting city, populated by a wide variety of interesting types. Let's hear what they have to say."

The actual transcripts of the authors' interviews with Londoners (which are numerous--I'm not saying the author didn't talk to a whole lot of people) are also, for the most part, unsatisfying. Each speaker's name is given, as is their "role." (For example: "Kevin Pover, Commercial airline pilot.") Although some are meaty, many tend to end just as they get interesting; for example, one man arrived from another British city, Leeds, and explained how he went homeless for the first few nights while looking for a reasonable place of his own. Although he seems to be speaking in the past tense, describing an ordeal he has already survived, there is no closure to the interview--did he find a place to live? How did he deal with having all his possessions in the world--stored in his backpack--stolen while he was sleeping?

It did not help that I read this book shortly after re-reading John Bowe's and Marisa Bowe's superlative oral history abou working, titled Gig: Americans Talk about Their Jobs. The books are structured similarly--interviews woven together in larger thematic chapters--but whereas Gig was completely satisfying, which each interview telling its own complete little story (even if the endings were still unknown)--this one just left us wanting more.* There were some bright spots--the interview with the woman who provided the taped voice messages for the London Underground particularly stood out--but not enough to carry me past p. 91 of this book. That's where I'm stopping, and it's going back to the library.**

Other reviews: New York Times; The Guardian

*Mr. CR read a large chunk of the book and mentioned to me out of nowhere that he was also annoyed with the interviews' lack of narrative arcs.

**Although after writing this I did read a few more interviews in the book, and found several of them quite interesting. I might just have to get this one back in the future.

I at least like my manifestos to be helpful.

I was thoroughly annoyed by Charles J. Selden's The Consumerist Manifesto Handbook: The Guerilla's Guide to Making Corporations Pay for Faulty Goods, Substandard Services, and Broken Promises.

ManifestoAlthough I don't really have the energy to become a "consumer guerrilla," I do largely agree with the author that most corporations are out to make cheap, sell high, and by no means to provide anything approximating decent customer service. Largely I deal with this belief by striving not to buy anything I don't have to, but invariably, there are things a person needs.* And because I am the world's worst shopper, I somehow always manage (I feel) to get taken advantage of. So I thought this would be a handy little book for learning a few techniques for making complaints and actually getting them resolved.

Sadly: not so. Selden spends most of his book describing ways in which corporations take advantage of consumers (through various methods such as rushing goods to market; accepting a certain number of defects in their products because they'll make more money off them than they'll have to spend in resolving complaints; quality fade; customer disservice; etc.). Yeah, you're preaching to the choir here, Selden, I already KNOW that's what corporations are doing. I'm not saying a little background isn't helpful, but this is all old news for anyone who has bought any consumer goods in the past ten years.

Selden is also very good at relating stories about what a clever consumer guerrilla he is, most of which I just found obnoxious. Consider:"When I buy a prepackaged bag of food labeled fresh, I put any suspicious pieces--in their original containers--in the Returns Area of our pantry...Going to the minor trouble of retaining a couple of potatoes from a 5-pound bag, or even a couple of berries from a 1-pound box, nets me refunds for the entire container. Food retailers charge more for food because it is labeled 'fresh,' reason enough to raise consumerist expectations. Every potato and every berry had better be good--and fresh--or I'll expect a refund for the whole package--even if the majority was consumed." (p. 42.)

Now, that paragraph raises all sorts of questions. Were the majority of the foods they consumed actually "fresh" enough to meet their expectations, with one or two truly offending potatoes or berries really being "unfresh," or was the author just pulling a fast one, getting a refund for food already eaten?**

Later on the author discusses his wife's predilection for fancy-name clothes from Bergdorf Goodman***, and how he bought her a Barbara Bui suit on sale for $370 (marked down from $1,850), mailing it back to BG after ten months because its "feathery lapels" had started to lose feathers, and asking for an explanation or replacement. When they didn't hear back for a month, they called BG, who could confirm they had received the suit back but couldn't find it. Eventually BG offered to compensate them for losing the suit, asking them what they paid for it originally. The author's answer? The truthful (but again: dicey morally?) gambit, "I think it sold for around $1,800." BG offered a credit of $1,250, and the author took it, making $880 off a suit his wife wore for ten months.

I don't know what you think about that, but I'll tell you what I think: Gross. 

A greater problem with the book is that, although you may pick up some consumerist tips buried in the author's self-congratulating stories, the actual section on how to deal successfully with corporations that have you screwed you over only constitutes about twenty pages of the book (pages 155 through 172). It contains some not unhelfpul suggestions: have a couple of credit cards ready to use so you can always dispute charges on one or the other, document your purchases, write letters and find company officer names and phone numbers so you can call them at times amenable to you, not them, and so on. The appendix listing online resources is also not unhelpful.

But all in all: start your consumer guerrilla career by not spending the $14.95 on this book.

*The other day Mr. CR said to me, "hey, you have a big tear in your shorts, in a fairly obvious spot" (meaning, "I can see your underwear, and I don't want to, and neither do our neighbors"). And I said, "Oh NO...this is my one pair of shorts!" I can only hope that hot weather doesn't return any time soon.

**I get his larger point. Corporations shouldn't charge a premium for "freshness" if they can't back it up. But this is a level of semantics--and deliberations with front-line grocery store workers--to which I am simply too lazy to go. And I remember what I used to think of shoppers who came back to my farmers' market stand, demanding refunds for my produce that they'd eaten. It was not kind.

***How hilarious is that? Even when such "name" merchandise is on sale, talk about "made-up" value, that consumers impose upon themselves. I don't think you can blame companies for that one.

Go big or go home.

Well, hello!

I'm sorry that it's been a couple of weeks since I posted. As you all know sometimes life gets busy, and when it does, I tend to react by getting even lazier than usual. It's a problem. Evidently I need a bottle of 5 Hour Energy about every, say, 4 hours.

In positive news, I have been finding and reading a ton of great nonfiction books. However, the more great books I found, the greedier I got for reading time to read them, and therefore did not feel like taking the time to write about them.

But there's another issue at stake. Lately it occurs to me that it is time to go big or go home with the blog--commit to at least three days a week, do more features, be a bit more organized, perhaps really try to build traffic and (gasp) accept ads. So with that in mind, I'm going to take another week off and try to build up some posts, and polish off some unfinished business: the results of the reading poll everyone was nice enough to take way back in 2011, the final "nonfiction books you might actually want to read" lists, another book menage, etc.*

So please do stay tuned. New, improved posting (hopefully) sometime during the week of April 9. (And thank you, thank you, for your patience with me and my laziness.)

*Forgot to ask earlier: any features or posts you'd like to see, or changes you'd like to see made to Citizen Reader? Let me know!