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Circles of Delight: Classic Carousels of San FranciscoCircles of Delight: Classic Carousels of San Francisco by Aaron Shepard

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book is full of gorgeous photographs of the carousels and carousel animals of the San Francisco Zoo carousel, the Yerba Buena Gardens carousel, and the Golden Gate Park carousel. I am particularly enamored of the carousel at Golden Gate Park, both because it was built by Herschell Spillman (Celebrating North Tonawanda Carrousel Animals 1883-1959) and because it was restored (1977-1984) by an artist named Ruby Newman, who made the transgressive choice not to follow the original color scheme (and Golden Gate Park loses major points for not crediting her in their description of the restoration). Normally I am all about AUTHENTICITY!, but her choices make the carousel alive in a way that sometimes purely authentic historical restorations fail to achieve. (For one example, look at this stunning fellow.)

If you are as hopelessly in love with carousels as I am, I recommend Circles of Delight wholeheartedly.



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Small Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and MurderSmall Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and Murder by Ann Rule

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Ann Rule wrote mediocre books, good books, and excellent books. This is one of the excellent ones.
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Nothing But MurderNothing But Murder by William Roughead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


facsimile reprint of the 1946 Sheridan House edition from Literary Licensing, hardbound, high-quality

Contents
"An Academic Discussion: A Macabre Conceit"
"The Boys on the Ice: or, the Arran Stowaways"
"Killing No Murder: or, Diminished Responsibility"
"Pieces of Eight: or, the Last of the Pirates"
"The Boy Footpads: or, More Murder in Murrayfield"
"Nicol Muschet: His Crime and Cairn"
"The Adventures of David Haggart"
"The Fatal Countess: A Footnote to 'The Fortunes of Nigel'"
"Physic and Forgery: A Study in Confidence"
"Locusta in Scotland: A Familiar Survey of Poisoning, as Practiced in that Realm"
"My First Murder: Featuring Jessie King"
"The Crime on the Toward Castle: or, Poison in the Pocket"

A collection compiled by Roughead for an American publisher, with a strong focus on Scotland and Edinburgh (except for "The Fatal Countess": Frances Howard must count among Roughead's "darker favorites," even though he only lists her nineteenth century sisters in his essay (in a different collection) "To Meet Miss Madeleine Smith": Madeleine Smith, Jessie M'Lachlan, Florence Bravo, Adelaide Bartlett, and Florence Maybrick). I found "The Boys on the Ice" both horrifying and creepy, with its sad, terrible image of the boy M'Ginnes, left to die on the ice in St. George's Bay when he was too exhausted to continue: "He was 'greeting.' We heard his cries a long way behind us although we could not see him" (24-25). And "Locusta in Scotland" is a magnificent overview of some five hundred years of murder by poison.



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Ripperology: A Study Of The World's First Serial Killer And A Literary PhenomenonRipperology: A Study Of The World's First Serial Killer And A Literary Phenomenon by Robin Odell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I have tried and tried, and I can't think of a better word to describe this book than "charming." Which seems so wrong in the context of the Whitechapel Murders and Jack the Ripper. But Odell is not writing about Jack the Ripper, exactly. He's writing about the people who write about Jack the Ripper, what they write, and why, and considering the crazy theories that have been put forward in the last century, Odell's wry, generous, thoughtful voice is charming, like a Virgil to lead the reader patiently and clear-headedly through the Inferno of Jack the Ripper Studies, otherwise known as Ripperology.

Odell is himself a major contributor in the field, so he knows the ins and outs of the community of Ripperology very well. He doesn't explain the actual historical crimes and investigations as well as Philip Sugden or Neil R.A. Bell, and the occasional circumstances of the book's production (the Kent State University Press asked him to write about the relationship between American Ripperologists and British Ripperologists for their imaginatively titled "True Crime Series") create an odd, intermittent emphasis on what the Americans happened to be thinking but he's very good at timelines and cross-correlations and using them to poke holes in various whacked-out theories. (His lack of patience for Patricia Cornwell made me very happy.)

This is an excellent overview of the evolution of the historiography of Jack the Ripper, and a great way to get the gist of books you (a) most likely can't find and (b) most likely don't want to have to wade through (the elaborate castles-in-the-air accusing the Duke of Clarence, Walter Sickert (with or without Sir William Gull), James Maybrick, and a number of other unlikely suspects), but that are important artifacts in the history of this particular and very narrow field of criminology.



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The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and MemoryThe Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory by Harold Holzer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Unexpectedly apposite this week (*facepalm*), this is a collection of essays originally presented at the Lincoln Forum (except for a reprint of the first chapter of The Lincoln Nobody Knows). As is inevitable, the quality varies pretty widely, from the essays by Edward Steers Jr. and Michael Kauffman on the trial of the conspirators, which are well-written and thought-provokingly at odds with each other, to Frank J. Williams' disorganized assemblage of remarks about Lincoln, Obama, and the constitutional rights of political detainees. I disagree with Williams' politics pretty vehemently, but my actual problem with the essay is that it has no clear thesis and doesn't seem to be sure what it's trying to talk about.

The essays in this collection have in common the attempt to understand Lincoln's assassination, and the responses to it by various parties, in the context of April 1865. These attempts range from a collation of newspaper accounts of Lincoln's funeral procession in New York (and how much of the route and the buildings along it are still extant today); to a biographical assessment of Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, the man who oversaw the conspirators' trial and who became lost in his obsession with avenging Lincoln's death on the men he thought responsible: the leaders of the Confederacy; to an examination of the trials of people accused of celebrating Lincoln's death (sentences of up to ten years' imprisonment were imposed; one soldier was sentenced to death by firing squad for saying, "Abraham Lincoln was a long-sided Yankee son of a bitch and ought to have been killed long ago." (His sentence was commuted, although what happened to him after that is not shown.)

Oddly, the most resonant part of the collection for me (aside from the stupid grief I feel for a man who would have been dead long before I was born anyway) are Elizabeth Leonard's quotes from Joseph Holt's writings. Holt became wrong, and I make no apologia for his conduct of the conspirators' trial, but before that, he wrote: We are all with our every earthly interest embarked in midocean, on the same common deck, the howl of the storm in our ears, and [...] while the noble ship pitches and rolls under the lashings of the waves, a cry is heard that she has sprung a leak at many points, and that the rushing waters are mounting rapidly in the hold. The man who in such an hour will not work at the pumps is either a maniac or a monster. (Joseph Holt, open letter published in the Louisville Journal and the New York Times, May 31, 1861, qtd. in Elizabeth Leonard, "Lincoln's Chief Avenger: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt," p. 123). The ship of state is certainly storm-tossed at the moment and (to bring this into a ring-composition), I wish I believed that the man at the helm was neither monster nor maniac.



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The Black Museum: New Scotland YardThe Black Museum: New Scotland Yard by Bill Waddell

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


I regret to report that this book is just not very good.

Waddell is a poor writer, showing little regard for his words: e.g., "euphoria" when (my guess is) he meant "hysteria" in discussing Rose Mylett, "another name added to the endless list of murdered women who were believed to be Ripper victims, when in fact there was very little to connect them with the Ripper's modus operandi. Such was the euphoria created by the press of the time" (79). He's preachy and prone to platitudes; his prose is clumsy; and he has lamentably zero flair for true crime narrative. I admit he has an uphill battle in trying to write a book about the Black Museum, but still.

He perpetuates several myths about Jack the Ripper (there were no farthings, polished or otherwise, found near Annie Chapman's body) while taking other writers severely to task for perpetuating myths, and I'm afraid I lost a great deal of respect for him when he started defending Sir Robert Anderson's "Mad Jew" story.

I bought this book because the odds of my ever having the chance to visit the Black Museum are very close to zero. And it does provide at least some of what I wanted. But as a book, it was disappointing.



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Capturing Jack the Ripper: In the Boots of a Bobby in Victorian LondonCapturing Jack the Ripper: In the Boots of a Bobby in Victorian London by Neil Bell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Bell is not a graceful writer, but he conveys his information clearly. He is a sane and responsible Ripperologist--meaning that he assesses evidence logically, refers generally to "the Whitechapel murders" to avoid questions about which women are "canonical" Jack-the-Ripper victims and which aren't, and regards all letters, chalked messages, pieces of kidney, and other communications alleged to be from Jack the Ripper with healthy skepticism--and has done a great deal of research into the lives of ordinary bobbies, specifically in H Division (Whitechapel), but more generally in the Metropolitan and City Police. Questions about uniforms, about training, about what a constable's "beat" actually consisted of, about the likely career path (you could rise up steadily through the ranks as long as you didn't trip yourself up by getting sacked for being drunk on duty--which happened a lot), the procedure for interviewing witnesses, communications between Scotland Yard and individual stations, what happened when someone was arrested for drunk and disorderly, where the chinks were for corruption to creep in. He goes into detail about Sir Charles Warren's rise and fall (including some incidents I had never read about before), and throughout he presents the Whitechapel murders as much as possible as they were experienced by the police of London.

Highly recommended for anyone researching--for whatever purpose--the police of late Victorian London.



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Poison: An Illustrated HistoryPoison: An Illustrated History by Joel Levy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is a beautifully designed book which talks about poisons from arsenic and snake venom to ricin and sarin. It's not terribly in-depth on any of them, but it does offer a panoramic overview from Cleopatra and Socrates to Alan Turing and Georgi Markov. Levy is an engaging writer, mostly light and deft--he missteps kind of horribly when talking about the assassination of Sarkov by a KGB agent wielding a pellet-shooting air-gun concealed in an umbrella (ammunition: jeweler's ball-bearings that contained ricin). Describing the umbrella as a "slaughterous sunshade" is, I'm sorry, over the top (134)--and very good at explaining how poisons work in a way that's simple enough for a layperson to follow but detailed enough for that same layperson to feel like s/he actually has a good understanding of what's happening, chemically speaking.

The beauty of the design does occasionally get in the way. Some of the font choices are hard to read, and, the sidebar pages offering profiles of the various poisons being printed on colored paper, some of the colors are too dark to easily read the text against.

So: good, but not great.



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Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I'm a little disheartened to learn that Csikszentmihalyi has gone on to become "the world's foremost producer of personal development and motivational audio programs," because that makes his work sound like exactly the kind of self-help bullshit that he says, in Flow, doesn't do any good. But I can see where, from what he wrote in 1990, he could have become a proselytizer for his theory, and, yeah, that is going to lead you into "personal development" and similar dreadful sounding things.

Csikszentmihalyi's theory may not be everybody's dish of tea, and the stronger he comes on the more nervous he makes me, but nevertheless I found this book extremely illuminating and helpful, as it explained to me something about myself that I've noticed for years without having the words to describe.

Csikszentmihalyi says that what makes people happy are activities which have (a) clear goals, (b) clear rules, (c) clear challenges that are neither too difficult (leading to frustration) nor too easy (leading to boredom). He points out that for all we have been socially conditioned to prize unstructured leisure time in which to do nothing (i.e., watch TV), it provides only passive pleasure and does not actually make anyone happy. Unless, of course, you turn your TV into an activity that involves what he calls "flow," which is a possibility that doesn't seem to have occurred to him. He says that people who are good at "flow" (what most athletes call being "in the zone") are able to create these activities for themselves out of jobs that other people find boring or in fact out of boredom itself. He cites the charming example of Herr Doktor Meier-Leibnitz (yes, a descendant of the Leibnitz who was Newton's rival), who invented a complicated finger-tapping pattern game to amuse himself during boring conference presentation. Not only does this game alleviate his boredom without taking away too much of his attention, it allows him, because he knows how long it takes him to go through an iteration, to time how long a problem-solving train of thought lasts. Csikszentmihalyi says that these criteria for flow activities remain the same across differences of class, race, nationality, sex, and age, and that people describe the feeling of "flow" in ways that are recognizably the same, whether they are blind Italian nuns or teenage Japanese gang members.

And it explains to me my fondness for translation, for algebra, for crossword puzzles, logic puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and all kinds of puzzle-solving games, for rock climbing (several of his interview subjects are rock climbers), and for dressage, because--as widely disparate as they are when considered as activities--they all meet Csikszentmihalyi's criteria for "flow." I can even recognize that I have invented a flow activity out of my day job, which explains a great deal why I like it.

And I can see that writing used to be a flow activity, but that I've somehow lost the unconscious ability to set goals, so that now I veer wildly between "I've done this before, the puzzle is solved" (boredom), or "omg this is impossible, I'll never be able to do it" (frustration and despair). And Csikszentmihalyi gives me objective guidelines that show what's gone wrong and that offer, if not a solution, at least an avenue of exploration more promising than I've had in a while.

And I appreciate the way that he points out that activities we undertake for their own sake, not because we "ought" to or because they will make us "successful," are the activities we find most enjoyable and most enriching, and thus the activities that are actually more likely to bring us a feeling of satisfaction and success--and more likely to produce poetry, art, music, scientific breakthroughs, etc. He gives a quote from one of his respondents, someone who is both a rock-climber and a poet, which I have added to my collection of quotes that I keep around my desk where they will provide a sanity check: "The act of writing justifies poetry."

I do, yes, find him a little smug, and his understanding of evolution is woefully unnuanced and kind of wrong--not surprising for someone who coined the term "autotelic" to describe people who create flow out of the materials to hand. He is decidedly a teleological thinker who sees evolution as a steady advance toward more complex and therefore better and therefore humans are the current pinnacle of evolution and must take their own evolution in their autotelic hands to make the species advance rather than stagnate or regress. So take his somewhat megalomaniacal concluding chapter with a liberal application of salt, but if you recognize yourself in anything I've said, you might want to give Flow a look.



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Glengarry's Way, and Other StudiesGlengarry's Way, and Other Studies by William Roughead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I am extremely fond of William Roughead, and my rating of this book--fair warning--reflects that. This is a collection of ten essays on Scottish crime and Scottish trials, courts, lawyers, and judges, focusing mainly on the eighteenth and nineteenth century. None of them are crimes or trials you will ever have heard of, unless you are a devotee of Sir Walter Scott, and I read purely for the pleasure of Roughead's voice and personality--and incidentally a great deal of information about Edinburgh and the history of the Scottish legal system, neither of which I know anything about.

If you like this sort of thing, as Abraham Lincoln said, this is the sort of thing you'll like.



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Murder & its motivesMurder & its motives by F. Tennyson Jesse

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book is extremely dated, with its talk of "moral imbeciles" and its somewhat naive belief that the motives for murder can be neatly separated in 6 categories (gain, revenge, elimination, jealousy, lust for killing, and conviction--she does admit there can be overlap). Jesse is a clear precursor of modern profilers, attempting to figure out what kind of person commits murder and what motivates them, even if her attempts seem clumsy now. And she provides excellent true crime writing. She writes clear and vivid narratives of the crimes of her subjects: William Palmer; Constance Kent; a dreadful pair of siblings, Aime and Aimee de Querangal; Mary Eleanor Pearcy; Thomas Neill Cream; and Felice Orsini, who tried and failed to assassinate Napoleon III. She conveys the horror of murder better than most of the true crime writers I've read, particularly in the chapter on Mrs. Pearcy.



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In the Wake of the Butcher: Cleveland's Torso MurdersIn the Wake of the Butcher: Cleveland's Torso Murders by James Jessen Badal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[There is apparently a revised and updated edition of this book, which I will be keeping an eye out for.]
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