True Crime

More dark reads in the middle of the night.

So another book I've been reading after CRjr's early morning feedings is Avi Steinberg's well-reviewed title Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.*

Running It's taking me forever to get through it, because as much as I love reading in the wee small hours, lately I've been so tired that I can only keep it up for fifteen minutes or so at a crack, and it takes a long time to get through a 400-page book in 15-minute increments, even if you are a fast reader. That doesn't mean I'm not enjoying it, although "enjoying" might be the wrong word.

Steinberg details the time he spent as a prison librarian after he decided he needed a steady job with health insurance benefits.* In addition to narrating his work experiences (complete with working with prison inmates on work detail, teaching writing classes, sweeping the library after each period of visitors to clear out the numerous letters and notes (or "kites") left behind in books for other inmates, and even helping one inmate write his pimping memoir) he discusses his own career direction, or lack thereof, which he admits is less than focused and therefore reviled within his own Jewish community.

It's an interesting read but it's another one I'm finding sad. Thinking of all these people locked up in prison just makes me sick--not because I feel they don't deserve it, but more because the thought of all that roiling, always-in-danger-of-exploding violence and aggression in one place makes me very, very uneasy. And the author does do a good job of explaining things about prison that make it too horrifyingly realistic:

"There are various reasons to cry in prison.

Crying as initiation rite. Dice claimed that any inmate who tells you didn't cry when he first came to prison is a liar. As he said this, the three inmates standing around us nodded. One of them confessed he was so stressed his first day in prison he could hardly breathe. When he heard the door of the cell bolt shut for the night, he panicked and began pacing, beating on the door and shouting...

His cellmate was an old guy who took pity on him. 'He just said to me, 'Get into bed, son. Let yourself cry. There ain't no shame in that. Just do it, and then you'll be done with it.' And so that's what I did.'" (p. 338.)

To his credit Steinberg doesn't sugarcoat his own role in the prison hierarchy or attempt to make excuses for any of the inmates--a particularly strong chapter is the one in which he questions his helping with the pimp memoir, after seeing a different inmate out in "real life," (a Dunkin' Donuts, to be exact) pimping out another former inmate). So yes, I'm finding it interesting. But to say it makes for light or humorous reading would be all wrong. I've got about fifty pages to go--I'll let you know what I end up thinking about it.

*It's got a great cover, too. You probably can't tell here, but the images making up his face are library date due stamps.

**So sad that this is the only reason I figure about 80% of people keep going to their jobs. Good old health insurance.


Dark reading in the dark hours.

One of the books I looked at this past week while up at 4 a.m. was Jessica Stern's Denial: A Memoir of Terror. I forgot where I first read about it, but it sounded interesting to me: in it, Stern recounts how, in 1973, a stranger entered her house with a gun and raped her and her sister (at ages fifteen and fourteen, respectively) and how that experience shaped her. Eventually she became an expert on terrorism and post-traumatic stress disorder, even while the crime from which she suffered went unsolved and she continued to try and deny its effects on her life.

Denial I know: Yuck. I was a bit worried about myself when I read that description and wanted to read this book--who voluntarily picks up a book on this subject? Well, me, I guess. I was particularly intrigued by a sentence of the jacket copy: "After her ordeal she could not feel fear in normally frightening situations."

And the book is really good. Stern's account of the rape is told as she looks back over the original police report that was filed, complete with the notes she made for herself to try and tell the police the complete story; it's not really graphic, but it is horrifying all the same. And it's even more horrifying that the police at the time didn't knock themselves out trying to solve the case, as they believed the sisters were lying about not knowing their assailant--and their rapist most likely went on to commit other crimes.

I knew I was going to like it from the first, thoughtful paragraph: "I know that I was raped. But here is the odd thing. If my sister had not been raped, too, if she didn't remember--if I didn't have this police report right in front of me on my desk--I might doubt that the rape occurred. The memory feels a bit like a dream. It has hazy edges. Are there aspects of what I think I recall that I might have made up?" (p. 7.)

This book reminded me a lot of other superlative books I have read about violence (particularly to women) and its after-effects on the human soul and psyche: Alice Sebold's Lucky, Terri Jentz's Strange Piece of Paradise, Jeanine Cummins's A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, Lori Amy's The Wars We Inherit: Military Life, Gender Violence, and Memory, and Ron Franscell's Fall: The Rape and Murder of Innocence in a Small Town.*

But I couldn't finish it. I made it through about fifty pages, and I realized I just couldn't take it right now--I've got another depressing book (that I have to read, for review purposes) and I just need to read something a little lighter. But when I get this book back I'll talk about it again. Meanwhile, you readers who can handle a thoughtful mix of true crime and a personal story of self-understanding might like to give this one a try.

*Wow, I hadn't realized how much I gravitated towards these types of books. I abhor violence but I think I keep trying to figure out how people recover from it, which I find very inspiring in its own way.


Icky, but definitely educational.

As March Madness gears up for another weekend, I thought now might be an appropriate time to recommend a university press book I recently indexed, titled Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity, by reporters Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry.

Scoreboard It's about the University of Washington (in Seattle) Husky football team that won the Rose Bowl in 2001, but it's less about their triumphs on the field (although there's plenty of that action too, for sports readers) than it is about the difficulties many of the football team players caused others and themselves. The two highest profile cases discussed in the book are a rape case and a burglary involving a shooting, so these are not trivial crimes being investigated.

What's REALLY fascinating (in a horribly sad way) about the book is the numerous ways in which family members, friends, team members, school administrators, sports boosters, the legal community, and especially the coaches were complicit in helping to either cover up or delay the cases so that the players being charged with very serious crimes could keep on playing. I was particularly disgusted by the local judges' (many of whom were Husky fans, naturally) lenient sentencing and the prosecuting attorneys' offices reluctance to try cases at all. (They had one suspect dead to rights with both DNA evidence AND an eyewitness and still declined to prosecute.) Another aspect that was eye-opening is how afraid those in power were to "mess up" an athlete's future with criminal charges--as if the victims of the athletes' vicious attacks and crimes hadn't had their futures messed up.

In many ways it's a hard, hard book to read, but it's also very, very educational. And it's very well-written; intensively researched and yet very quickly paced. It's a university press book, but it deserves to be in every public library around, and as a $19.95 paperback, it packs a lot of punch for its price.


Book Menage Day 4: The Wrap-up.

Welcome to Day 4 of our Book Menage! I just want to take a moment and thank everyone who has popped into the comments so far; I have found this to be a particularly fascinating discussion and I'm rather glad we went with the true crime subject matter, even though they're not typically easy books to read.

I think we've already covered a lot of ground, so a few easy questions today.

1. What were your favorite and least favorite parts of each of these books? Would you suggest either to other readers, and if so, why?

2. Do you think you'll ever read another true crime book, ever again?

Sleep  3. You know that I always have to ask about covers. How did you feel about the covers of these books? (The Horn book has different covers in hardcover and paperback; the paperback cover is the one I've posted before--look below and you'll find it and the Geary cover--and I'll post the hardcover jacket with this post.

I have emailed some of our questions to both of the authors, but it's a hard time to be making a living as a writer (or artist) so I'm not sure either one will have time to answer. Please do check back, though; if they reply I'll post their answers here.


Book Menage Day 3: Exclusively Horn.

And welcome to Day 3 of the Book Menage! Today, if you're up for it, I'd love to talk exclusively about Stacy Horn's true crime book The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad. My questions for you are below; as always, feel free to answer one, some, or all.

1. I'm getting the feeling several readers didn't much care for the structure of Horn's book. How would you have preferred to see it organized or written? Likewise, if you liked the structure of the book, why did you like it?

2. Same question as I had for the Geary: If you could ask Stacy Horn a question/s about this book or the writing of it, what would you ask?

3. I'll admit it: I loved this book, and found it very "re-readable." Do you find that surprising, for a true crime book? What makes a book (particularly nonfiction) "re-readable"?

Okay, have at. And, happy Wednesday. Is it really Wednesday already? Book Menage weeks always fly by so fast.

Update: Please also consider visiting Stacy Horn's web site dedicated to The Restless Sleep; it's interesting and I'm sorry I didn't post it sooner.


Book Menage Day 2: Exclusively Geary.

Welcome to Day 2 of the True Crime Book Menage! Today I'd like to focus specifically on the Rick Geary book The Borden Tragedy.* The questions I have for you today are:

1. How do you feel about reading true crime, or really any nonfiction, in graphic novel format?

2. Did you read the newspaper articles at the end of the book too, or not? If not, why not? If so, did they add to your enjoyment of the book?

3. What questions would you have for Rick Geary after reading this book?

Don't feel like you have to answer each question if you don't want to. These are just my three biggest questions about the Geary book. As previously noted: please feel free to pose and answer your own questions in the comments. I love it when people take the comment discussions in different directions.

*Please note: if you read different titles by Geary, please feel free to answer these questions anyway--I think they're still pretty applicable.


Methland: Part two.

If you read the review and comments from yesterday, you'll see that Robert raised some questions about Nick Reding's book Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, and several people noted that they themselves had picked up on Reding's geographical and other errors.

This makes me very sad, because I actually thought Reding's book had some merit as a readable book on an ugly subject.* As Robert already covered, it is an investigation into meth addiction, production, and trafficking, as seen through the lens of its effects on small towns in the Midwest (and one small town, Oelwein, Iowa, in particular). Robert is also right in pointing out that the book is haphazardly organized. And yet...I did not and do not dislike this author. I think he made an effort to get out and talk to some people about this problem (I know I'm not seeking out meth-heads to talk to in bars, nor would I want to), and I think he's a new writer who's not quite sure how to construct a book yet. I can not excuse his geographical mistakes, although I feel part of the blame there rests squarely with the publisher (Bloomsbury USA), who should take some responsibility for fact-checking.

What I did find interesting about this book was Reding's description of how meth works (let me nutshell it: not only does it manipulate dopamine release and re-uptake to provide an incredible and long-lasting high, it also destroys the neurotransmiters in your brain, making it harder or impossible to ever get a natural high from anything else ever again--evil) as well as his history of how similar drugs were first made and prescribed for depression and to help people keep working. In particular, he speculates that meth is a "working-class drug" simply because so many working class people found that it allowed them to work double-shifts in factories, without the need for sleep, food, or even bathroom breaks. Again: evil.

So there you have it. Can you trust a book in which several glaring errors have been uncovered? Can you overlook a book that is a bit rocky in its execution in order to learn about an important but sad topic? If you can answer yes to those questions, I would still say you should go ahead and read this book. I do think it would work well as a companion read to Richard Longworth's Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism (which is also published by Bloomsbury, so I hope it is not as riddled with errors).

*This is small potatoes, but I also think its cover is perfect, both as a photograph and for the book's subject matter. Next time you're in a bookstore take a closer look at it. It gets the beauty and the loneliness exactly right.


Books about Books Week: Slightly sidetracked.

I had a completely different topic in mind for today, but last night I spent some time on Stacy Horn's blog, and today I'm feeling more like writing about her.

Restless If you'll remember, I am a huge fan of Stacy Horn, whose latest book is titled Unbelievable. I actually loved her two previous books a bit more, though: The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad and Waiting for My Cats to Die: A Morbid Memoir.

The reasons to love Stacy Horn are legion: she is a fantastic writer. She is beautiful. (I'm shallow, I'll admit it.) She loves kitties, and animals in general. She loves TV. She feeds the birds on the porch of her apartment. She lives in New York City, and regularly posts pictures of things she loves, whether it's other people's apartments or beautiful serving dishes. And she says things like this:

"Richard Dawkins: Yeah, Not a Good Idea.

I just read on Cosmic Variance that Richard Dawkins is wondering aloud if ridicule as a way to deal with people who believe in God is enough.  'I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt.'

Ridicule and humiliation generate one thing (mostly):  anger. And that anger will either be directed inward or outward.  Neither is a good thing. After spending a few years studying unsolved murder in New York, I can also add that for some the only way to restore their self-esteem is to kill someone. (Murder is often about shame, it turns out.) For the bulk of humanity however, shame will result in some smaller, quieter form of destruction, and rarely constructive change.  'Nobody likes to be laughed at,' Dawkins points out. And you think the result might be a quick switch to the position of the tormenter?  I suppose for a sad few it might, but that isn’t a true change of thinking or understanding is it?"

Oh, Stacy. (Can I call you Stacy? I hope I can. I love her too much to call her Ms. Horn.) She also points out that it is very hard to sell books. So I think what I'm tempted to do (besides beg all of you to read her books, her blog, and to either buy or suggest your library buy copies of her books) is propose her True Crime book, The Restless Sleep, as our next Book Menage book,* paired with a Rick Geary historical crime graphic novel. What does everyone say?

*I don't know that that will help her a lot, as that book looks out of print, but maybe if you grow to love her as I have you'll have to rush right out and buy all her books new.


Pretty average, for nonfiction.

It's always challenging to write a review of a book that you found pretty average. The difficulty is compounded when pretty much every other review of said book that you read falls over itself declaring how great a book is.

This is the problem I'm having with Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. Many people have really enjoyed this book. Several people I know who aren't big nonfiction readers have told me how much they enjoyed this book. I very much anticipated enjoying this book.

Whicher And, well, I read it. (That's about the best I can say.) I made it through the whole thing. It's the story of the Kent family, a British family during the 1860s who suffered through the murder of the three-year-old son of Samuel Kent and his second wife. Summerscale's writing is serviceable; the plot suitably salacious. Who killed the child? His much older and half-sister Constance, who may or may not have inherited a bit of madness from her mother, the first Mrs. Kent? Mr. Kent himself and the governess, who may have been having an affair? A disgruntled former servant?

In addition to the murder story, Summerscale also provides a character portrait of Jack Whicher, one of Scotland Yard's first detectives, who investigated the case, and how "detective fever" gripped Victorian England. All the elements are here for a gripping story.

And yet? Well, I finished it. That's all. It was okay but I just didn't feel real strongly about it one way or the other. I wonder if it's getting a lot of press because people who don't read a lot of nonfiction read it and were pleasantly surprised at how good nonfiction could be. But for those of us already in love with nonfiction? We expect it to be at least this good.

On an unrelated note: Here's a big weekend shout-out to Heidi at Two Kitties, who recently tagged me for a "7 things you don't know about me" meme. I'm a big party pooper and don't do memes here (the books are the story, not me), but I encourage you to check out her site to see my answers, and a cute photo of kittens. Hi, Heidi!


On the appeal of true crime.

It was very weird to find that, while I recovered, the only book on my library pile that I felt like reading was a true crime book: I'll Be Watching You, by M. William Phelps. It's pretty standard true crime stuff: icky killer stalks women. Investigation ensues, criminal who thinks he was smarter than the cops proves he wasn't, is convicted, gets out of jail after ten years, kills again, repeat.

Phelps Why would this be something I wanted to read while not feeling very well? I have no idea. I've always found true crime to be a fascinating genre: it must sell, as it's published in handy paperback format, yet I never had anyone at the library ask me for help with selecting titles or finding the section. Are people ashamed of reading it? Have you ever seen someone out and about reading true crime, or do they mainly read it at home? Do primarily women read it or is that just an idea that I have? I don't know how to answer any of these questions, mind you. And I guess I can see why readers wouldn't want to talk about their predilection, but I don't know. I don't think it's any weirder to read true crime than it is to read any number of violent thrillers or novels. But maybe that's just me?

I don't have much else to say about this specific title. One of the killer's intended victims did get away from him, which was a nice twist for the genre, and which I found inspiring. Sometimes I'm shocked at what people can live through. Maybe that's part of the appeal of some of these titles too? 


No, I can't forgive you.

I did not enjoy Lee Israel's Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger. The story's simple. Israel, who was, for a time, a bestselling biographer of such titles as Estee Lauder: Beyond the Magic and Miss Tallulah Bankhead, recounts her freefall into authorial obscurity and poverty (particularly after sales of the Estee Lauder bio tanked). So what did she do to make her living? Why, she started forging letters from such luminaries as Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and film star Louise Brooks, of course. Isn't that what anyone would do?

Forger Israel explains her methods, which included visiting letter and author archives, tracing signatures, and stealing old, blank pieces of paper from those collections to use as the authentic antique paper for her forgeries. Eventually she graduated to stealing letters and re-selling them, along with an accomplice, until she was caught by the FBI in 1992 and eventually sentenced to five years' probation. I'd like to explain the whole sordid affair better, but I'll admit I only skimmed the 127 pages of the narrative, as, in addition to sounding snarky, Israel managed to make her tale dull as well.

Wondering if she feels any remorse? Nah. Here she explains it:

"The forged letters were larky and fun and totally cool. Parodies of icons--Coward, Ferber, Mrs. Parker, Louise, Lillian Hellman, and poor Clara Blandick. They totaled approximately 100,000 words, give or take...I still consider the letters to be my best work. Reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman's summing up in Tootsie, I was a better writer as a forger than I had ever been as a writer. Any remorse I experience about this phase of my life in crime has nothing to do with the money various dealers might have lost; I think most of the dealers came out ahead. The remorse here is personal. I betrayed some people whom I had grown to like." (p. 127.)

Wow, how very heartfelt. Oh, and Ms. Israel, your forgeries of Dorothy Parker? I'm pretty sure anyone who read them was probably convinced by her forged signature, while they simultaneously thought, hmm, Mrs. Parker must have been having an off day. You, madam, ARE NO DOROTHY PARKER.

What a stupid book. Skip it.


Right on, Vincent Bugliosi.

I LOVE Vincent Bugliosi. If you don't know him, he's the attorney who not only successfully prosecuted Charles Manson for his many crimes, but also wrote a page-turning and bestselling true crime classic about the case titled Helter Skelter. He's written other books too, including another true crime/legal thriller And the Sea Will Tell, as well as last year's massive Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I don't know how the guy gets it all done, frankly. He must have a long-suffering spouse who doesn't care that he's a workaholic.

But his recent title has cemented my affection. Check out this shot across the bow: The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder. You can see why he wins all his jury cases, can't you? The guy doesn't pussyfoot around, I'll say that.

I flipped through the book but will not read the whole thing because, frankly, Bugliosi's preaching to the choir here. He doesn't need to lay out logical, numbered, and legally argued points to convince me that W. is a liar and a murderer. I can tell you what I think reviewers who don't like it (I have to make this up, since few have had the cojones to review it at all)might say:

There's a bit too, well, too much "Vincent Bugliosi" in the front of it (and there is a lot of talk about his own career, which I think he's offering as some sort of explanation for why he's written this book). Some of it can be very legalistic, and dry. (Much of it appears in the form of numbered points which Bugliosi is trying to make as though he were standing before a jury.) It's blatant political writing (well, it's not really, but try convincing any Republican of that). The illustrations included are meant outright to outrage and manipulate: There are several pictures of military cemeteries, crying families, Iraqi mothers holding dead babies, followed by a two-page spread of pictures of W. smirking, laughing, smiling, and leaning on the podium.) Okay, that's pretty blatant. But let's not forget Bugliosi is, first and foremost, a trial lawyer dedicated to putting on a show. Also, he meets the�charge that the picture montage might be a bit over the top preemptively, by adding this note:

"As for the photos of Bush himself, the prologue proves beyond all reasonable doubt that throughout the sea of blood and the screams and cries of men, women, and children, even babies, coming out of the hell on earth he created in Iraq, unbelievably, he laughed and joked, had fun, and enjoyed every day of his presidency. I mean, he told us this. I'm going to have a 'perfect day,' he said. Laura and I had a 'fabulous year' and we're 'having the time of our life.' Bush, in addition to his transcendent criminality, has added a snapshot view of extreme grossness and vulgarian audacity to this otherwise sacred selection of photos."

The whole book's pretty much like that, with Bugliosi quoting the president and the vice-president at every turn, and using those statements to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

So, you go, Vincent. I wish I could be on the jury of the case you want to bring.


The Laundress strikes again.

I have a good friend who goes by the name of "The Laundress." The Laundress is a very skilled and interesting person, and she also possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of graphic novels, manga, and anime. This is very useful to me, as I know very little about all those things (and I'm not going to learn: really very little interest, and not enough time). But when the Laundress tells me to read a graphic novel, I listen. She has never steered me wrong.

IncognegroSo when she suggested Mat Johnson's Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery, I listened. And I'm so glad I did. This one is fiction, but the author's inspiration came from the story of Walter White, a former head of the NAACP, who was so light-skinned that he could "pass" for white and often attended lynchings in the deep south to investigate them and tell the story.

I mean, lynchings. I do not understand how anyone thought lynchings were a good idea.*

So this is a graphic novel set in the early twentieth century, following the adventures of "Zane Pinchback," the "incognegro" who attended lynchings and wrote about them for newspapers. The story's not important but the idea is. This is one of the few books I've read this summer that I'd say you absolutely, positively, have to read. Don't worry--the Laundress won't steer you wrong either. (A word to the wise; parts of the graphic novel are truly graphic, language and violence wise. That's what happens when you tell a story about a violent and ugly history.)

*Whenever I think about race relations in America, I always picture this picture: people yelling at Elizabeth Eckford because she wanted to attend school. Look at her wearing her crisp blouse and 1950s glasses. How could anyone yell at such a girl?


Maybe nonfiction's not his thang.

This has been a real stinker week for nonfiction.  Either I've just had a run of reading bad luck or I'm getting pickier.  Hard to tell.

So what do you do when a book that has been advertised as a "page-turner" fails to make you want to turn the pages?  This has been the case throughout Douglas Preston's and Mario Spezi's true crime thriller about serial murders in the Italian city of Florence, The Monster of Florence.  Yes, I'm on page 116, but it's been a struggle to get there, and I'm about five pages away from skipping to the end and reading the last couple of chapters. 

So what's the problem?  Sure, it's a true crime book, but I've read a lot of true crime and find most of it interesting (I'll admit, it doesn't feel quite right to type, "I enjoy true crime").  The story is certainly salacious enough: from 1968 through the mid-1980s, there were a rash of killings around Florence wherein the killer(s) hunted young couples, passing the time amorously, who were parked in country lanes.  The killer then shot the couples, and removed "trophies" from the female victims after they were dead.

The writing's not terrible, with Preston relating the history of the investigation with the aid of Spezi, who was the longtime crime reporter who wrote about the case from the beginning.  There's also plenty of history and cultural information, not only about Florence but also about the island of Sardinia.  And it's got a beautiful, beautiful cover.  I fully expected this to be a fascinating book based on the cover alone. 

So what's the problem?

Preston is, of course, better known as the author of fiction thrillers, particularly those he co-wrote with Lincoln Child, starting with Relic and Reliquary.  Perhaps I should try those instead.  Maybe I'm just harboring a secret antipathy toward a novelist-turned-nonfiction-writer? (I don't think so; I am aware that Preston has written other nonfiction.) One thing I'm not enjoying is the three- to five-page chapters in this book, which I'm sure were set up to increase the "thriller" feel, but are just making it feel choppier; I'll have to double-check some true crime titles, but I don't think they're particularly known for such short chapters.

In short?  It's a book that fails.  If you want to read a book about Italy (Venice, in particular), read John Berendt's The City of Falling Angels.  If you want to read some true crime about a long-running investigation, read Ann Rule's Green River, Running Red.  Life's too short to read page-turners that aren't all that page-turney.