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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.
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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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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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The Strange Last Voyage of Donald CrowhurstThe Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Tomalin & Hall were both reporters who covered the story, and their book came out in 1970; give how close they were to the story, I think it's a very fair and even-handed account. They don't sympathize at all with Crowhurst's fraud, but they do empathize with the way he becomes more and more tightly trapped by the consequences of his own actions, and with the reasons he started down this terrible path in the first place. They do an excellent job of using their primary sources--Crowhurst's log books and associated papers and the abandoned Teignmouth Electron herself--to piece together the story of what happened while Crowhurst was pretending he was sailing 'round the world, and there's something brilliantly calm and rational about the way that they explore the written evidence of Crowhurst's psychotic break. I've read this book twice and probably need to own a copy so I can keep rereading it on occasion.



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Surviving Survival: The Art and Science of ResilienceSurviving Survival: The Art and Science of Resilience by Laurence Gonzales

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is essentially a sequel to DEEP SURVIVAL, asking a question I'm always interested in: what happens after the story is over? After the drama and the catastrophe and the triumph of the protagonist over impossible odds . . . what happens next? I'm interested in this in fiction, but also interested in the same question in real life: how do people deal with HAVING SURVIVED?

Gonzales examines a number of case studies, some from his own interviews, some from books that the survivors have written, some from both. None of his conclusions is terribly surprising, but it's good to see them written down: stay engaged with the world, look for humor, find ways to help other people. (Altruism seems to be a remarkably powerful tool for helping human beings adapt to their situation.)

Gonzales is an excellent writer, and SURVIVING SURVIVAL is an extremely readable book. It lacks the teeth of DEEP SURVIVAL, which was as much about why people die in crisis situations as about why they live, and had the added scarlet thread of Gonzales' own obsession (which you can see as a virtue or a defect, depending), but if you're interested in the question he's asking--for personal reasons or otherwise--it is well worth the read.

Gonzales also earns extra points from me for not falling into one of the traps that Sherwood fell into in THE SURVIVORS CLUB. Gonzales' stories are not simplistic triumphs and they don't all end happily. He recognizes that survival, like other phases of life, is both joyful and sad, funny and painful. He's very clear that after surviving a catastrophe (crocodile attack, shark attack, bear attack, husband attack . . . and I sound like I'm being glib there, but I'm not: two of his survivors are women who came very close to being killed by their husbands), the survivor can't go back. Things can't be the way they were before. They can only be the way they're going to be now.



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The Partly Cloudy PatriotThe Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Collection of short pieces: essays and reviews on a variety of subjects, but as the title suggests, America--both the idea and the reality--remains central throughout. Vowell is sharp and funny and has a gift for seeing things from odd angles. She has a great essay, for instance, on Tom Cruise, "Tom Cruise Makes Me Nervous," where she says, "Tom Cruise is the most talented actor of all time at keeping his distance" (128) which I think is a beautiful summation.

Because her writing seems always to criss-cross the verge of memoir, there's continuity with Assassination Vacation (the nephew who is three in AV is 7 months in TPCP), which contributes to the charming and sometimes disquieting sense that Vowell is truly baring her soul, telling us, her readers, things she can't tell anyone else. Telling secrets publicly is, after all, what memoir is for. Not always bad secrets or earth-shattering secrets, just the secrets about how the memoirist felt at a particular moment, what she thinks about when she's alone--all the things that we DON'T tell other people, but can tell a world-ful of faceless strangers. (I don't talk about my true crime obsession much with the people around me. I talk about it with you.)

Knowing that she works in radio and having listened to AV twice, I think that part of what makes Vowell a great essayist is her literal voice: the way she delivers her own sentences. I enjoyed TPCP (except for the eerie sense of deja vu in watching her angst about George W.'s administration and thinking, oh honey. Because, wow, yes, Dubya was a terrible, war criminal, deeply stupid president and, yes, I think he cheated Gore, so in some ways, Trump really is the repetition of history that those who do not study it are doomed to. Only they forgot to mention it's worse the second time around.), but I have the sneaking sensation I would have enjoyed it more with Sarah Vowell reading it to me.



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And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral GunfightAnd Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight by Paula Mitchell Marks

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


"Magisterial" is probably the correct adjective for this account of the gunfight at (near) the O. K. Corral. It's also fair to call it a history of Tombstone, for Marks compiles a variety of sources to give a panoramic view of the causes for the gunfight and its aftermath,. Later scholars take issue with some of her assessments of the Earps and J. H. Holliday, but this is still an excellent history/overview of why what happened in Tombstone happened. And I appreciate the fact that Marks is not impressed by Wyatt Earp.



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The Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White FamilyThe Architect of Desire: Beauty and Danger in the Stanford White Family by Suzannah Lessard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Memoir of the great-granddaughter of Stanford White, the great Beaux-Arts architect murdered in a theater he himself designed by the husband of one of his former mistresses. Lessard writes beautifully about architecture and place and family, but I think she rushes the ending.



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The Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield: A Tragedy of the Gilded AgeThe Murder of Jim Fisk for the Love of Josie Mansfield: A Tragedy of the Gilded Age by H.W. Brands

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Well-written and entertaining "popular history" account of the murder of Jim Fisk by the lover of one of his former mistresses. Not the place to go for in-depth analysis of anything, but gives a good portrait of the Gilded Age.



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Skull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in AmericaSkull in the Ashes: Murder, a Gold Rush Manhunt, and the Birth of Circumstantial Evidence in America by Peter Kaufman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Iowan Frank Novak tries the classic fake-your-own-death scam by burning down his general store with somebody else's body prepped to be found in the ashes with Novak's personal belongings. His first crucial mistake was in not getting rid of the CORPSE's personal belongings--the victim's sister identified the shirt he was wearing--and then he was unlucky enough to have a fantastically dogged detective named Cassius Claud "Red" Perrin put on his trail. I became very fond of Red Perrin as he tracked his quarry to gold-rush Alaska and brought him back, and the book was generally fascinating and a good read.



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Old Sparky: The Electric Chair and the History of the Death PenaltyOld Sparky: The Electric Chair and the History of the Death Penalty by Anthony Galvin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


History of the electric chair. Badly copy-edited and mostly surface-y, facile, and kind of gossipy in tone, except for the last chapter where he talks about what happens when executions go wrong, both for the electric chair and for lethal injection. That chapter was horrifying, but also the most interesting chapter in the book.



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Assassination VacationAssassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


[audiobook]
[library]

This is the first time I've finished an audiobook and gone back to the beginning to listen to it again. I loved this book. It hits my historical true crime buttons; it's also well-written and thoughtful. Vowell is always studying her own project and its implications even as she's tracking down obscure sites with connections to the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Also, I appreciate her sense of humor and the way she owns her own morbid geekery.

Vowell is the reader for the audiobook (with guest appearances by a wide and surprising variety of people), and once I got used to her voice and her timing, I became entirely on board with that choice. This is also the first time where the experience of listening to the audiobook has not been a second-best to reading the book on paper (although I am going to look for a paper copy as well).



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Blood Runs Green: The Murder That Transfixed Gilded Age ChicagoBlood Runs Green: The Murder That Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago by Gillian O'Brien

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is a well-written and interesting book about the murder of Dr. P. H. Cronin, yet another Crime of the Century that no one's ever heard of. Cronin's murder is inextricably bound up in the affairs of the Clan na Gael, so I learned a great deal about Irish Republicanism in Gilded Age Chicago. (I already knew about Gilded Age corruption, but this did certainly provide a number of new examples.) O'Brien is very good at examining and explaining ramifications, both in the causes of Cronin's murder and in the consequences, and she keeps track the whole time of how the Chicago newspapers both reported the news and sometimes created the news they were reporting.



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The Infamous Harry Hayward: A True Account of Murder and Mesmerism in Gilded Age MinneapolisThe Infamous Harry Hayward: A True Account of Murder and Mesmerism in Gilded Age Minneapolis by Shawn Francis Peters

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I find myself profoundly meh about this book, so much so that I'm having a hard time thinking of anything to say about it. It wasn't a bad book, but it wasn't terribly interesting. (Also, the subtitle, "A True Account of Murder and Mesmerism in Gilded Age Minneapolis," is take a few liberties with the truth. Hayward was BELIEVED to mesmerize people, but there's not a lick of evidence to say he actually DID, and he was not a professional, or even amateur, mesmerist.) Hayward was, as Peters says, a textbook psychopath, charismatic, amoral, reckless, homicidal when bored. He devised an elaborate plot to cheat a young woman named Catherine Ging out of all her money and then kill her and collect on her life-insurance policies. The only really remarkable thing here is that he actually found a catspaw to commit the murder for him--on the mistaken theory that if he didn't pull the trigger himself, he couldn't be convicted of her murder. His second line of defense was to throw all the blame on his brother, and I suppose the other remarkable thing here is the Hawyard family dynamics, where in their parents' eyes the bad brother (and Harry Hayward was clearly a bad man long before he met Kittie Ging) could do no wrong and the good brother could do no right (and a third brother apparently stayed the hell out of it).

Competently written (although badly copy-edited) but without the particular gift for exposition that could make me fascinated by this case.



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The Anatomy of EvilThe Anatomy of Evil by Michael H. Stone

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


So Stone strikes me as oddly old-fashioned. I've been trying to put my finger on why--he talks about neuroscience and there's nothing noticeably outdated in his understanding of psychopathy and personality disorders. Maybe it's the nature of his project: a twenty-two tiered gradation of evil. Maybe it's that he quotes Dante in his chapter headings. I don't know, but the book does feel old-fashioned.

I appreciate that Stone is willing to take on the big philosophical questions, even if I don't always think he's done the best job of answering them. And his twenty-two gradations do make sense, going from murders of impulse to the likes of David Parker Ray and Leonard Lake. He talks about the reasons people end up on the scale, the neuroscience behind narcissism and antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy. He is less deterministic than Raine, which means I like him better, although still a little too fond of evolutionary biology theory and the idea that our speculations about how primitive human beings lived on the savannas of Africa explain why (mostly) men behave the way they do.

He does get things wrong--for instance somehow forgetting that Richard Speck raped his eight victims before he butchered them (when that fact is actually germane to his argument)--so I'm a little leery of how much weight to give him, but it is an interesting book.



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Endurance And Shackleton's WayEndurance And Shackleton's Way by Alfred Lansing

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


[audiobook]
[library]

On the one hand, this was disappointing because it was abridged. (WHY?) On the other hand, I disliked the reader, so perhaps it was just as well I only had to spend 6 hours with him.

This book is an account of Sir Ernest Shackleton's failed attempt to traverse Antarctica. (Their ship got trapped in the ice, then crushed, and they sledged their three boats across the pack ice, then sailed them to Elephant Island; then, leaving 22 of the men behind on what was basically an uninhabitable island, Shackleton took the most sea-worthy boat and sailed to South Georgia--which, by all rights, they should have died, Google Elephant Island and zoom out until you can see South Georgia, you'll see what I mean--and then, because they were on the wrong side of the island, he and two of his men walked across what was supposed to be the island's impassable interior. So I guess he got some traversing in after all.

(Not a single member of his crew died.)

Almost everyone seems to have kept a detailed diary, so if you want to write a more realistic version of Robinson Crusoe, even the abridged version of this book is full of verisimilitude and details.

It was disappointing, though, compared with In the Heart of the Sea, because--at least in the abridged version--it's nothing but a straightforward account of Shackleton's expedition, ending abruptly as soon as the last man has boarded the rescue ship. Nothing comparable to Philbrick's disquisitions on Nantucket and whaling and other relevant topics. There was no apparatus. (I am the person who listened to Philbrick's reader reading all of his endnotes, so keep that in mind.) It was gripping listening, but ultimately not very satisfying.

Three stars.



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The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of CrimeThe Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime by Adrian Raine

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Raine is a neurocriminologist, someone who looks for the causes of crime in the structures and functions of the brain. I learned a great deal about what various bits of the brain do and about what happens when they don't do their jobs properly. Raine dabbles his toes in evolutionary biology, about which I am sometimes a little dubious, and he leans toward determinism, which--I don't care if it's an illusion, I still prefer to believe I have free will. He at least suggests that there's a spectrum from free will to determinism, that people whose brains function properly have more choice about their actions than people whose brains don't. But I still don't know.

What irritated me most was Raine's attitude toward his readers. He assumes that his readers assume they are "normal" and that they've never thought particularly about the functioning of their own brains. Which, hello, WRONG. He discusses social science as if it is made of failure and doubly so for interpretive lenses like Marxism and feminism, which I think is an overly simplistic dismissal. Ditto for his attitude toward people who work for human rights and civil liberties. He sees them only as people who wrongheadedly prevent criminals from getting the treatment they need. And he's very naive about politics (for which he is to be forgiven, because this book was written before 2016).

So basically his material was fascinating, but his interpretations were sometimes sketchy.



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