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Ghosts From The Nursery: Tracing The Roots Of ViolenceGhosts From The Nursery: Tracing The Roots Of Violence by Robin Karr-Morse

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I wanted this book to be more interesting than it was. Maybe it's just that it's 20 years old, or that its conclusions seem so common-sense to me: yes, of course, the first three years of a person's life are vital to their development, and if those years are filled with abuse and neglect, the person is likely--though not guaranteed--to turn out violent, impulsive, and thus most likely to commit violent crimes. Intervention can turn a child's life around, but the earlier the better, and sometimes no amount of intervention can undo the damage done. Their prose was competent but unexciting, and I never felt really engaged by the book.



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The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest JourneyThe River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


[library]
[audiobook]

I don't know about this one. I listened to it with great attention (the reader is excellent), and I enjoyed it, but when it was over, I was left feeling sort of meh? about it. Millard has certainly done her research, and she has a good prose style. I can't tell if it's that she killed her own efforts at suspense (quoting from Roosevelt's post-expedition accounts makes it quite clear that he survived, no matter how dramatically you describe his near-death state) or if it's just that there isn't very much story here: Roosevelt and a Brazilian explorer descend a hitherto uncharted river in the hostile heart of the Amazon. All but three of their company make it out alive--one drowning, one murder, and the murderer who fled into the jungle and was presumably killed by something or someone in very quick order. There's a lot of individual events that are quite exciting, in various ways, but there's no real throughline, and I can't quite put my finger on why. (I found the bits set in New York much more vivid and compelling than the bits set in Brazil, and I'm not sure why that is, either, except possibly that where Millard really excels is in writing the history of complicated and sophisticated human interactions, and the thing that this expedition stripped right out of everybody was complexity and sophistication.)

In any event, if you're interested in Theodore Roosevelt or the history of the exploration of the Amazon, this is well worth checking out, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it more generally.

Three stars? Four stars? I'm going to give it four, but that's for the way she writes the set-up and denouement, not the expedition that is the point of the book.



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Killing for Company: The Story of a Man Addicted to MurderKilling for Company: The Story of a Man Addicted to Murder by Brian Masters




I don't think the comparisons with In Cold Blood are justified (mostly because In Cold Blood is so much its own thing that it's hard to compare anything to it usefully), but this is a very good book about how and why one particular serial killer became what he was (he died last year).

Nilsen would be tragic if he hadn't killed fifteen young men: intelligent, ambitious, driven by his staunch union beliefs, living alone except for his faithful mongrel bitch Bleep, unable to form connections with other (living) people. But then there are the murders and his macabre near worship of the corpses ... and the utterly grotesquely utilitarian methods by which he disposed of the bodies.

Masters is a very calm dispassionate narrator, always looking past what Nilsen--who was extremely articulate--said about what he did to the reasons underneath. He does an excellent job of showing where the crevasse in Nilsen's psyche was, even if he can't quite explain it any more than Nilsen or any of the defense or prosecution psychiatrists can.



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Blood of Innocents: The True Story of Multiple Murder in West Memphis, ArkansasBlood of Innocents: The True Story of Multiple Murder in West Memphis, Arkansas by Guy Reel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Like Devil's Knot, this is a book about the West Memphis murders. It was written before Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were offered an Alford plea, and it is much less certain about their innocence. I would call it agnostic, really. Reel, Perrusquia, and Sullivan don't have a theory; they are just telling the story of the case. (Which is itself a loaded undertaking, but I don't think they have an axe to grind.) Although Leveritt includes a lot of information in Devil's Knot that Reel, Perrusquia, and Sullivan don't have, they present some details she leaves out, including unfortunate details that point towards Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley's possible guilt. There are things she paints as ridiculous about the police investigation that they provide real explanations of--explanations that have to have been available to Leveritt as well.

But there's a lot they agree on. Reel, Perrusquia, and Sullivan do emphasize that the police investigation was a mess and that the prosecutors didn't present evidence beyond a reasonable doubt in court. They may not be sure about guilt or innocence, but they make it clear that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley did not get fair trials. I got less angry reading this book than I did Leveritt--who is trumpeting MISCARRIAGE OF JUSTICE on almost every page about the trials--but the calmer assessment comes down to the same thing.

This was a better book than I was expecting (based on its paperback original publication and its lurid and badly designed cover, which I know isn't fair). Four stars.



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What Lisa KnewWhat Lisa Knew by Joyce Johnson




One of the many sad things about Lisa Steinberg is that I'd never heard of her before. Her murder is yet another cause celebre that vanished overnight--all those Crimes of the Century that turn out not to be--the major difference in Lisa's case being that she was only six years old when she died in 1987, the victim of a combination of child abuse and child neglect. It's questionable, I suppose, whether her alleged parents (black-market adoption, and they never bothered to get the paperwork done to make it legal) meant for her to die, but one of them beat her to death and they both failed to call an ambulance for possibly as much as 12 hours.

Johnson's major point--aside from the general outrage at the way Lisa was treated and the way that all the adults around her seem to have been struck blind when it came to noticing egregious signs of neglect and abuse--is the way in which Hedda Nussbaum (Lisa's "mother") and her attorneys deployed a set of narratives and cultural beliefs, about mothers, about battered women, to simply shut down any line of questioning that wondered about Nussbaum's complicity--or agency--in Lisa's death. They put it all on Joel Steinberg; Nussbaum testified against him, and that, too, provided a very simple narrative schema, where her role as witness/victim of Steinberg's abuse (and I don't want to deny that Steinberg abused her; they may have had a BDSM relationship, but it was neither safe, nor sane, and while it started out consensual, I'm not sure it stayed that way) precluded her being an abuser herself. Johnson does not believe this narrative and goes to considerable, careful lengths to re-open those thorny questions. Her abhorrence of both Nussbaum and Steinberg comes through very clearly.

This is a very good, very sad book.



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The Death of Innocents: A True Story of Murder, Medicine, and High-Stake ScienceThe Death of Innocents: A True Story of Murder, Medicine, and High-Stake Science by Richard Firstman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I don't know where to start.

Okay, this is an excellent book about a very complicated subject. Part of it is about Waneta Hoyt, a serial murderer whose targets were her own infants; part of it is about SIDS and apnea and the incredibly influential theory linking the two that was launched by a study including Hoyt's fourth and fifth babies--and the moral and ethical tangle caused by the fact that SIDS and infanticide (and/or Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy) look exactly the same. Firstman & Talan do an amazing job of laying all of this (including the evidence that discredits the apnea theory of SIDS) out clearly, in compelling language, and making it as easy to follow as is humanly possible.

It is a massive brick of a book (mine has gained character by being dropped in the bathtub), but I read it with absorbed attention from first to last.

The terrible thing is that Molly and Noah Hoyt could have been saved. The nurses at the medical center where they were being studied were convinced that their mother was causing their apneic spells, but the doctor in charge--the man with the theory--ignored them. Firstman & Talan find evidence of that happening in other hospitals, too: the person who could intervene to save a child's life is too blinded by their own theory to see the evidence in front of them. This is definitely a cautionary tale about the danger of having a theory (and, as Sherlock Holmes says, twisting the facts to suit it): people become so enamored of the theory, they stop actually analyzing the evidence, and they do massive harm to the babies they're supposed to be helping.

In comparison, Waneta Hoyt's evil is painfully straight-forward. She wanted her babies to stop crying, so they did.



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Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid ThingsEveryday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things by Laurence Gonzales

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


The subtitle of the book is "Why Smart People Do Stupid Things," and the tl;dr answer is "because they're not paying attention." Gonzales is arguing that there are a lot of things in our lives that we* aren't paying enough attention to--he talks about what he calls a "vacation state of mind"--and discussing what happens when we don't pay attention, both in terms of what our brains do, the automatic scripts that run because (a) this situation is LIKE another situation, or (b) this script has always worked in this situation before (He doesn't mention the terrible fire in the London Underground, where a woman had people walk right by her into the boiling greasy smoke as she was trying desperately to get them to stop. Because that script had always worked before.) and in terms of what happens when an automatic script runs that isn't appropriate.

I was disappointed by this book because it is a bait and switch. Most of what Gonzales is talking about isn't why smart people do stupid things; he's really talking about why we are destroying our environment and how we can make ourselves stop, a question which requires him to go all the way back to the Big Bang to make his argument. Please note, I don't disagree with him about the importance of that question, but (1) that's really not what I was hoping for and (2) he is terribly didactic, and that's offputting whether I agree with him or not. I don't even want to be put off by it, since (not being stupid) I do think the topic is important and I thought his take was interesting and useful, but I spent half the book feeling like he was beating me over the head with a hammer.

And I really would have liked more on the original question, because what he had was fascinating.

---

*For the purposes of this book "we" are middle-class Americans. "We" are decidedly not anyone else.



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Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War IIFrozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


[library]
[audiobook]

Zuckoff was doing his own reading, and I did not like him as a reader, which may have influenced my generally meh opinion of the book.

During World War II, a cargo plane was lost over Greenland. One of the B-17s sent out to search for it wrecked on a glacier, and its crew was trapped out there for four months. In the efforts to rescue them, a Grumman Duck disappeared with three men aboard. So Zuckoff is telling the saga of the B-17 crew's survival and rescue, and then also the modern day expedition (in which he participated) to find the Duck and repatriate the remains of the three lost men.

Zuckoff is a competent author, and his material was (potentially) fascinating, but I just didn't find myself fascinated. He alienated me by banging the We Must Bring Fallen Heroes Home! drum at every opportunity--which is not to say that I think we shouldn't, or that I don't think these guys were heroes, but there's a difference between acknowledging that and being sentimental about it, and Zuckoff is definitely (endlessly) sentimental. I deeply dislike and distrust sentimentality, so I was at odds with the author basically through the whole thing.



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Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis ThreeDevil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


[audiobook]
[library]

Thirteen discs is a very long time to hate somebody's voice.

The book is fascinating, and I'm glad I own it in print, but I cannot recommend the audiobook because that's how much I hated the reader's voice. That said, this is an excellent book about the West Memphis Three and I do recommend it highly. Leveritt is careful and thorough and she digs into questions in a way I really appreciate. I'm sure people who believe the guilty verdict think she's grossly biased; I think she's doing her best to be fair to people who don't deserve the courtesy

In 1993, three little boys were horribly murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas; with no evidence except hearsay, the police decided (1) the murders were "occult" and (2) they were committed by a kid named Damien Echols because he was "weird," a kid named Jason Baldiwn because he wore black t-shirts and listened to Metallica and was (gasp!) Damien's friend, and a kid named Jesse Miskelley because they browbeat him into confessing. Damien, Jason, and Jesse are about my age, and I think of all the kids I knew in high school who were "weird" or who wore black t-shirts and listened to heavy metal (and because I did not grow up in western Arkansas, I knew more than one of each), and I want to start screaming at people, starting with the juvenile probation officer who decided without evidence that Damien was a Satanist more than a year before the crimes and would not leave him the fuck alone, then the cops who conducted such a slipshod and panicky investigation, advancing to the prosecutors, and possibly not even ending with the judge. All three boys were tried as adults and found guilty of capital murder; Damien (the alleged ringleader) was sentenced to death. (After the book was written, a circuit court judge reviewed the trials and allowed the three, after a decade in prison, to enter Alford pleas and walk free. To this day the murders have not been solved.) The gross prostitution of justice documented in this book makes me furiously angry, and I think Leveritt's comparison with the Salem witchcraft crisis is not inapt, in that the people committing evil here are not the suspects, but their prosecutors and judges. It's hard for me to believe that anyone would commit such evil--the railroading of innocent teenagers--on purpose, but it's equally hard for me to believe that any rational human being could look at Jesse Miskelley's "confession" and not recognize that it is made of leading questions and desperation. And that's clearly something that perplexes Leveritt as well.

So yeah. Excellent book, shame about the audio version.



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The Class Project: How To Kill a Mother: The True Story of Canada's Infamous Bathtub GirlsThe Class Project: How To Kill a Mother: The True Story of Canada's Infamous Bathtub Girls by Bob Mitchell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This book suffers from all the stereotypical flaws of self-published works: poor cover design, poor interior design, spelling errors and typos abounding...

It's the story of the murder of "Linda Andersen" by her daughters "Sandra" and "Beth" (since the girls were sentenced as juveniles, Canadian law prohibits their identities ever being made known), a carefully premeditated and executed murder, and the girls would have gotten away clean if the older sister had been able to keep her mouth shut. What makes the case particularly appalling is that several of the girls' friends knew what they were going to do ahead of time and offered advice and encouragement. One of them may have supplied the Tylenol-3's with which Sandra and Beth drugged their mother before drowning her in the bathtub. Nobody told the cops. Nobody told a parent. Nobody said, "Hey, wait a minute." And all the evidence is logged in MSN chats.

Mitchell writes like a reporter, so there isn't a lot of nuance or analysis, but the amount of direct quotation he does allows you to see how these girls talked, what they said and how they said it. What annoys me most about Mitchell is that there's a fundamental question at the root of the story: was Linda Andersen a hopeless alcoholic (as her daughters saw her) or was she a hard-working mother whose thankless daughters were never satisfied with what she did for them (as her friends and extended family saw her)? Were the Andersen family finances a wreck because Linda spent all the money on alcohol (daughters) or because her daughters demanded designer clothes (family)? And Mitchell, for all the things that he lays out as flat as asphalt, never explicitly says that Beth and Sandra were correct (although the fact that they spent the day of Linda's murder getting her drunk on vodka and lemonade is suggestive)--or never explains how the evidence shows that some of what Beth and Sandra said was correct (Linda drank too much) and some of what the family said was correct (Beth and Sandra felt entitled to a lifestyle their mother couldn't afford), which is the most realistic option. But "most realistic" isn't necessarily the same as true. Did Beth and Sandra have genuine reasons for feeling that no one would help them, since all the adults in their lives refused to admit their mother had a drinking problem--or was it in fact true that their mother didn't have a drinking problem? If I'm supposed to end this book uncertain about the answers to these questions, I would really have liked Mitchell to tell me that the evidence was ambiguous and I'm supposed to feel that way, instead of me being left feeling like Mitchell didn't do his job.



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Defending the Damned: Inside Chicago's Cook County Public Defender's OfficeDefending the Damned: Inside Chicago's Cook County Public Defender's Office by Kevin A. Davis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book is about the Cook County Public Defender's Office Murder Task Force, i.e., the lawyers who defend indigent murder suspects. Davis interviews a number of the lawyers, who tell him stories of their worst and best cases, and he follows one case, the shooting of Officer Eric Lee, from beginning to as much of an end as it looks likely to have, which is basically a giant question mark. It's not even certain that the man convicted of Lee's murder fired the bullets that killed him. I give Davis kudos for interviewing both sides, both the prosecutor and the defense team, both the widow and the alleged murderer. And I don't know whether I think the alleged murderer is the actual killer or not.

This is also a book about ethics, and about some of the ugliest questions ethics can bring you face to face with. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty; everyone has the right to an adequate defense. Even a man who raped two little girls and then threw them out a window. Even a man who raped his own daughter and beat her to death when she got pregnant. Even a man who tortured his seven year old stepson to death over the course of several months. And of course there's the looming question of the death penalty. Not all of the Murder Task Force are against the death penalty in general; as one of them says, it's wrong when it's MY CLIENT you're trying to kill. But, as with Defending Gary, written by Gary Ridgway's defense team, the defense lawyers' view of the death penalty--of the legal process in general--is starkly different from the ordinary view, and I think this Alice through the Looking-Glass perspective is a good one to have, a good reminder that (a) the American legal process is not infallible and (b) abstract ethics are all well and good, but applying them to non-abstract people is . . . tricky.

This is a good book, but not a great one, and I've been trying to figure out what it is that didn't quite satisfy me about it. It wasn't the ambiguity of the central case; that doesn't bother me and it's not something Davis could control anyway. But I feel as if he could have dug deeper, somehow, as if there's some dimension he left unexplored. This is certainly a great piece of journalism; his coverage of the Lee case is excellent. But as a book, it just didn't quite hang together for me.



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Lost At Sea: Ghost Ships and Other MysteriesLost At Sea: Ghost Ships and Other Mysteries by Michael Goss

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book is SO WEIRD.

It starts out as a discussion of folklore--the Flying Dutchman and so forth--and there's a fascinating couple of chapters about submarines, and then it takes a sudden HARD left into paranormal and psychic phenomena surrounding shipwrecks. Granted that much of the folklore is about ghosts, I still feel like I only barely kept on the road through the turn. It continued to be fascinating, but in a quite different way. They went from stories about shipwrecks to what I guess you might call testimony about shipwrecks. And they ended with the Queen Mary, which is notoriously haunted (I've seen that terrible episode of Unsolved Mysteries) but not a shipwreck at all.

It's a very well written and engaging book; I don't entirely mind that it changed projects in the middle, because I continued to be engaged by it, but either they had a couple of different books that they just sort of smooshed together into one, or their original intentions got hijacked by the Titanic (Behe is the VP of the Titanic Historical Society, so there's a degree to which that's not surprising, either).

Full confession: I loved this book all the way through, because it's weird and morbid and full of ghost stories, but I recognize my own biases here. Nevertheless, five stars.



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This is the other book about the 1968/9 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race (along with A Voyage for Madmen and The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst). It is in fact, in capsule summary, A Voyage for Madmen with interviews. Eakin doesn't have anything new to say about the race, but he's tracked down all the participants that are still living and are willing to be interviewed (John Ridgway declined), and he's done extensive interviews with Eve Tetley, Francoise Moitessier, and Clare and Simon Crowhurst. So the book was interesting for the different perspectives it offers (Clare Crowhurst loathes The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst) and it does give a better sense of the devastation that Crowhurst (fraud and suicide) Tetley (died two years later under very mysterious circumstances), and Moitessier (fucked off to Tahiti and screwed his wife over financially) left behind them, but I think A Voyage for Madmen is a better book.
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For anyone in the Madison area, I'll be doing an author event at A Room of One's Own on Tuesday, February 26, at 6 p.m. I'll be reading from the next book in the Goblin Emperor universe, The Witness for the Dead.
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Like Gormenghast, only funny.

There's a giant house, a cast of horrible people, a louring sense of doom--but Jackson's characters are self-aware and given to witty dialogue. Even the dreadful Orianna Halloran has a sense of humor about herself.

The book is a series of scenes and set pieces (like the amazing garden party at the end), strung together on the premise that the end of the world is coming and only the people in the house will be saved. As in The Road through the Wall, at the very end there is a murder, and this time it's abundantly clear that Jackson has set the mystery up to be insoluble--or to have any solution you please. It might be any of the characters; she deliberately sets the murder when people are dressing for dinner--I mean, the end of the world--so no one has an alibi, and almost all the characters have very good motives for wanting the victim dead. As this makes obvious, the book is also a parody of the country house murder mystery--entirely focused on the ensemble of suspects and not providing a detective at all.

I loved this book.
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I have been trying to review this book for a week, and I just have nothing to say about it. It's Shirley Jackson, so it's beautifully written and quirky, and it may suffer from seventy years of the trope of Multiple Personality Disorder (which properly these days is called Dissociative Identity Disorder, but the TROPE is definitely MPD) so that it doesn't feel like there's anything particularly new or fresh about, oh look, the protagonist has MPD and that's why all these weird things are happening to her.

So if you like Jackson, it was an excellent read. I think it also qualifies as the most mainstream of her books: it HAS a plot (and chapters even!) with a mystery that has a solution, and even a happy ending. I certainly enjoyed it.
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So this is a sharply observed novel about a young woman's first semester of college. It is also, I think, although I'm sure interpretations vary, a novel about a demon lover. (The back jacket copy of the omnibus I got out of the library says it is about her descent into schizophrenia.)

Natalie Waite is seventeen; her father is a writer (it's never quite clear WHAT it is he writes, although I'm guessing literary criticism of some sort more so than fiction or poetry). He is assiduously grooming Natalie to become a writer herself (although Natalie seems to write nothing except letters and her diary, so I'm not sure what kind of writer he expects HER to be). He has carefully chosen the college to send her to (and it's very clear that she is SENT, rather than going) and chosen it deliberately because it does not offer a first class education (Jackson is so very snide about the college's "progressive" ideals that I don't think you could argue it ISN'T based on Bennington College, where her husband was teaching at the time.) and his idea of what a person needs to become a superior adult seems to be that you have to go to college, but not in order to learn anything. (I like Mr. Waite, but I think he is incredibly harmful--although you could argue that that's only because I disagree with him.) So Natalie is sent to college, where she fails to make friends because she is shy and awkward and an ugly duckling who has been put down in the middle of, hey, a bunch of ducks. (Mr. Waite ALSO chose this college deliberately because he knew Natalie would be miserably out of place there--like I said, I think he's incredibly harmful.) This middle-ish section of the novel was funny and painful at the same time, because Natalie's thought processes when trying to figure out how to have a conversation with another person are eerily similar to my own.

Then Natalie meets a girl named Tony. Tony is the Perfect Friend, with whom Natalie almost instantly has a friendship so close that she never has to analyze what she's supposed to say next or how she's supposed to act. (The girls on Tony's floor clearly think Natalie and Tony are lesbian lovers; Jackson conveys beautifully the closeness of what I believe has been called a romantic friendship: they sleep together in the same bed and comb each other's hair and are generally utterly at home in each other's space--but it isn't sexual.) In the grip of this friendship, Natalie starts skipping all her classes and stops worrying about what other people think; she and Tony are a charmed circle of two.

And then Tony takes Natalie out to a deserted amusement park in the rain and the dark and . . . changes. This is where the back jacket copy ("schizophrenia") and I ("demon lover") diverge. It's clear that Tony isn't entirely . . . I tried "real" and that was wrong, I tried "human" and that was wrong. Tony, the Perfect Friend, the Demon Lover, is clearly someone Natalie made up (the Perfect Friend is also of course the Perfect Enemy, because no one on Earth knows you as well, or knows all your weaknesses)--but, because I'm a horror writer, I don't think that that necessarily means Natalie is insane. (This is something Jackson plays with in her short stories, too.) Tony is someone other girls on campus can see and interact with; she has a room in a different house than Natalie's; she clearly has at least some objective reality. But that doesn't mean that Natalie didn't create her.

I don't know. (My suspicion is that the subtitle of this post ought to be "Shirley Jackson is smarter than I am.") Much as with The Road through the Wall, Hangsaman is a novel in which very little happens until suddenly there's a major catastrophe, so there isn't a lot to hang interpretation on. I am baffled by many things, starting with the title and the epigraph. (I do get the relevance of "Green Grow the Rushes O": one is one and all alone and ever more shall be so.) There's the thief in Natalie's dorm, and Natalie's terrifying encounter with her, which has absolutely no follow-through of any kind, unless you count the fact that at the end of the scene, Natalie meets Tony. (At first I thought the thief WAS Tony, but I reread and could see that I was wrong--except that I may have been just a little bit right.)

I get that the novel completely shifts gears when Natalie meets Tony because Natalie ceases to be interested in anything that is !Tony, and thus characters like the Langdons and Anne and Vicki simply get left behind, and Natalie's family become an obstruction to her rather than a refuge. (And, you know, that's pretty accurate for someone's first semester in college anyway.) So the part where it doesn't hang together may be a bug or a feature. Or it may be that it DOES hang together, and I just don't see it, as this article suggests. (The writer is spot-on in describing the experience of reading Hangsaman as falling forward into darkness.)

(Google also tells me that Jackson based the novel loosely on the disappearance of Paula Jean Welden. This doesn't help.)

So I understand some things about Hangsaman, but not others. And maybe that's the best I ought to hope for.
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I almost never read fiction any more, but I realized this week that there are four of Shirley Jackson's novels I have never read, and that just seemed too dreadful to be borne.

Of course, having read The Road through the Wall, I naturally want someone to have written a critical analysis of it, which probably someone has, but not readily available on Google. So I'm at least going to write down my own thoughts about the book, so that I'll have them.

WARNING: Spoilers for a book published in 1948.

TRttW takes place in 1936 in a suburb of San Francisco, on a street where everyone is lower-middle to upper-middle class, some with aspirations to lower-upper class. The street itself, Pepper Street, is the main character (this is the point of the prologue, with its panoramic view of the street and its environs), and the novel weaves back and forth between its various inhabitants, stopping now here with Miss Fielding, now there with Harriet Merriam, now over here with Mrs. Ransom-Jones, now here with Tod Donald or Artie Roberts. It is all painfully recognizable as Shirley Jackson: the virtuoso and completely confident use of omniscient, the oddball and outsider characters, the sense of irony underlying everything like the blade of a knife. The things that happen in TRttW are very small and subtle--one family moves away, another family moves in; two girls start and end a friendship; a boy goes trespassing in a neighbor's house; endless sewing and gossiping get done; tiny family dramas play out nightly; a road starts to be built (the road through the wall of the title)--until the very end, where things happen very quickly and two children die.

Having pondered it, I think the rush of the ending is on purpose. Jackson has been lulling her reader all through the book, with these tiny inconsequential happenings where the worst result is a return to the status quo, so that when tiny Caroline Desmond goes missing at the end, I simultaneously guessed she was dead and found myself thinking, She wouldn't, when I know very well that Jackson would. Which you can chalk up as a victory for the long game Jackson is playing from the start. And then Tod Donald, the neighborhood scapegoat, is accused of the murder and hangs himself--but it's not clear that Tod hangs himself out of guilt. He may hang himself out of fear, either for the simple reason that the policeman's crude tactics have literally scared him to death, or because he knows the first people to turn against him will be his own family. And that, like falling off a cliff, is where the book ends, with only a few tidying up remarks to close us out. Most of the stories, if you can call them that, of the book remain unfinished. And possibly some of them remain unfinished because of Caroline Desmond's murder, but Jackson never goes as far as saying so.

And, of course, the omniscient narrator refuses to come out and solve the murder. As a mystery reader by long habit, I am naturally driven insane by this and have been trying to solve the murder in my head. One of the Pepper Street residents inevitably puts forward the idea of the tramp--but there are no tramps on Pepper Street; that, too, is part of Jackson's point. Tramps would be too much verisimilitude for the people of Pepper Street to bear. Caroline Desmond is only three, so has no enemies of her own (if it had been Virginia Donald who ended up dead, there would be a list of suspects), and the Desmonds, for all that they are the wealthiest people on the street, are also almost complete ciphers--and that, too, is deliberate, considering how deftly Jackson can draw a character in a paragraph or a handful of lines of dialogue. Tod Donald is the boy who trespasses, and the Desmond house is the house he trespasses in, so there's some evidence linking Tod and the Desmonds together, but Tod isn't interested in Caroline; his fixation--if I can go as far as calling it that--is on Mrs. Desmond. But then again, Caroline throughout the novel is only an extension of her mother (she has no lines or independent existence, the baffling thing is how she was far enough away from her mother for long enough for anything to happen), and I think it's important that when she's found, she's dirty: "She was horribly dirty; no one had ever seen Caroline as dirty as she was then, with mud all over her yellow dress and yellow socks" (Jackson 258). So, yes, it could be Tod Donald, and maybe it's only my love of overcomplicating things that makes me think it isn't. He's behaving oddly the night of the party where Caroline disappears: he leaves the party without saying goodbye to Mrs. Ransom-Jones, the hostess, he tries to sell his bike to Pat Byrne for $5 (why?), he's hiding behind the half-demolished wall as the men of Pepper Street are ineffectually trying to figure out how to search for Caroline, he's desperate to get home without his family noticing him. And maybe it's because he's only thirteen and underdeveloped: that's his defining trait, being squashed almost out of existence by his brother and sister--and it's true that in James Donald's simple binary view of the world, football is good and Tod is evil: "Much of James' athletic sense of good and evil was invested in Tod; Tod was inefficient and a bad sport, which was evil . . . Consequently James never required himself to include any form of evil in his own personality; such things belonged naturally to Tod, and were accepted numbly by Tod as his portion" (48). But it seems to me that most of what Jackson's doing in TRttW is suggesting that the things the people of Pepper Street think are evil (Chinese people, Jewish people, the road itself) are not evil, that the evil belongs to the girls who cruelly snub the Chinese man, the woman who makes her daughter end her friendship with the Jewish girl, to Pepper Street itself.

It's probably relevant that at one point, goaded by his sister, Tod throws rocks at a group of girls: "Possessed by a sort of frenzy, Tod threw a handful of pebbles together, as hard as he could, into the group of girls on the lawn, and Mary Byrne howled and fell over backwards, her hands over her face" (52). Tod apologizes--"It was glory of a sort" (52)--and Mary's mother says, "She's got a little scratch on her cheek; she's no more hurt than a fly" (52). She adds, of Mary's overreaction, "You'd think she'd been killed" (52). Foreshadowing? It's much more chilling reading it in hindsight, knowing that Caroline is going to be killed by being hit in the head with a rock. And there's the line, "Tod Donald rarely did anything voluntarily, or with planning, or even with intent acknowledged to himself; he found himself doing one thing, and then he found himself doing another, and that, as he saw it, was the way one lived along, never deciding, never helping" (89-90). And, oh dear, "He reached over his head and pulled a yellow blossom off a bush [...] Its petals were precise and neat, so soft he could hardly feel them against his fingers; annoyed at its soft pliability, he crushed it flat with his fingers and rolled the petals cruelly, until the flower was a little damp ball and he dropped it" (96).

But at the same time, it seems too obvious for a novel so interested in subtlety; Tod seems too ineffectual (is the pebble-throwing scene foreshadowing or a demonstration that a scratch is the most damage Tod can do?). The people of Pepper Street are too satisfied with that answer. The brutish policeman is, as a person, so obviously wrong. Although, as I said, this may be me overcomplicating things. And if it isn't Tod, I don't have the least idea who it is.
truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
Survival PsychologySurvival Psychology by John Leach

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


[library]

This is a dry (occasionally dryly funny) textbook-ish discussion of the psychology of survival. Leach defines all his terms, talks through them carefully, considers all angles. It is the exact opposite of The Survivors Club, in terms of attitude and realism. Leach is clinical (he does not shy away from the word "victim") and starkly realistic (i.e., not handing out little badges that say SURVIVOR to everyone who wants one); interestingly, he, too, ends with the observation that some people survive disasters and come out stronger and happier on the other side--this comes, however, after a considerably longer discussion of PTSD and psychological upheaval. Obviously I prefer this approach, even though it is a little uncomfortable, especially when he's talking about the prevalence of denial and inactivity among people who know a disaster could be or outright is coming. I look at my own failures in tornado preparedness (when tornadoes do happen where I live) and cringe. "Denial and inactivity," says Leach, "prepare people well for the roles of victim and corpse."

If you're interested in how people behave during disasters and why some people survive and others don't, this is definitely the place to start.



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truepenny: artist's rendering of Sidneyia inexpectans (Default)
A Voyage for MadmenA Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Nichols, himself a single-handed yachtsman, does a great job of examining the voyages of all nine men; he focuses, logically, on the men who completed or came closest to completing the voyage--Robin Knox-Johnston (the winner); Nigel Tetley, whose boat sank under him; Bernard Moitessier, who abandoned the race to keep sailing; and of course Donald Crowhurst--but he's interested in everyone's story (he won my heart forever by telling me the names of all the yachts), and he's a good, vivid writer who understands how to capture the life of a small sailing boat. He also points to the history and community of solo circumnavigations and single-handed yachting in general--a context for the race that outsiders (e.g., Tomalin & Hall's excellent The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst) don't write about.



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