Thursday, August 6, 2020

Book 245: Perfect Murder, Perfect Town

"When the detectives began working the Ramsey case, they said to each other that they wouldn't settle for anything less than the death penalty. After the CBI's tests determined that what they had thought was semen was in fact blood, the detectives said they would accept nothing less than a conviction on a murder charge. A few months later, they would have settled for a felony conviction. By the time they met with the FBI at Quantico in September 1997, they would have considered an indictment a victory. When Eller was replaced, handcuffing would have felt like a triumph. After a solid year of working the case, they prayed for the chance at a second interview with the Ramseys. Now, eighteen months in, they were happy to have the opportunity to present the case to the DA."

Dates read: June 25- July 2, 2018

Rating: 7/10

When I was a kid, I was on the swim team. I grew up on the lake, learned how to swim early, and just loved the water...I spent basically all summer splashing around either at home or at day camp. I am without much in the way of athletic gifts (read: I am slow and clumsy), but I was a reasonably competent swimmer, so my mom signed me up for the swim team. There was some contention about it my freshman year of high school: I was no longer interested in the kind of practice required for high school swimmers, so I wanted to drop out. I was mediocre at best, so no one would have missed me. But my mom, remembering her own mother's decision to force her off the swim team she loved, refused to let me leave before the end of the season. I swore I'd never swim another lap if she persisted. She did, and I haven't swam one since.

What I'm going for here, beyond an example of my supreme stubbornness, is that many parents direct their kids toward activities that they themselves enjoyed growing up. My father-in-law was a long-time runner and track coach. My husband ran track throughout high school into college (and liked it!). And when Patsy Ramsey had a beautiful little daughter, she put her in pageants, which she'd participated in and enjoyed growing up. While it seems very unlikely at this point that the pageants had anything to do with JonBenet's death, at the time it lead to a lot of suspicion. Lawrence Schiller recounts these rumors, as well as quite a lot of actual facts, in Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, his book on the still-unsolved murder of the little beauty queen. Sourced from what seems to have been exhaustive research and interviews with as many of the players as possible, it recounts how the case developed (and developed issues) right from the moment the cops were called to report a kidnapping until the case was finally submitted to the grand jury.

What actually happened as a result of that grand jury (an indictment was issued against John and Patsy Ramsey, but the prosecutor refused to sign it) isn't covered, and that is of course the most interesting part. Who did it? Someone did. The book steadfastly refuses to answer the question, though. Schiller clearly is trying to stay neutral as much as possible, presenting the police department's firm belief that the parents were getting away with murder with just as much credibility as the prosecutor's office investigator's belief that it was an intruder. The answer is, of course, that we will almost certainly never know. JonBenet is dead. Patsy Ramsey, too, has passed away in the years since. John is still around, but unless he or whoever else might be responsible issues a deathbed confession, this case will remain forever open.

Schiller spends a lot of time on context to really develop a comprehensive picture of what was happening at the time in the world in which the Ramseys lived. The City of Boulder, its tightly controlled development and the resulting high price of real estate creating a little enclave, the rareness with which the police department had to investigate serious crimes, the charging philosophy of the District Attorney...all are relevant to what happened, or didn't happen. It's obvious that there were serious complications even from the start, with friends at the Ramseys having arrived at their home even before the police, with John apparently shutting the open basement window, with his discovery of his daughter's body and race with her upstairs. All of that destroyed valuable evidence, evidence that could have solved the crime maybe. Was clumsiness and shock at the root of the Ramseys' behavior? Or criminality?

We're presented with evidence both ways. At some points, reading this book, I was sure they'd done it, but at others sure they wouldn't have. I kept having to remind myself that I know full well, as a former attorney, that the parents absolutely did the smart thing by getting lawyers hired so soon and refusing to cooperate with the police. If I have one piece of free legal advice I ever give, it's that you should never ever talk to the police without counsel present. I would have done the same thing in their place. But it's so hard to reconcile this understanding with the gut assumption that refusing to talk to cops about the death of your daughter "isn't what an innocent person would do". It's easy to say they should have cooperated, but until you've been in their place and figured out that you're likely the number one suspect in a murder, it's hard to say what you would have done differently with their resources. To get back to the book, it's well-researched and well-developed. I could have done with less about the tabloid reporter, who Schiller clearly found interesting but I did not. It doesn't have much of a narrative flow, it's more a work of reporting than of story-telling, but it's organized and clear. I would definitely recommend it to those curious about the crime!

One year ago, I was reading: Marie Antoinette

Two years ago, I was reading: Less

Three years ago, I was reading: Party Monster

Four years ago, I was reading: Reading Lolita in Tehran

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books with Colors In Their Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're looking at books with colors in their titles. This was a hard one to do without repeating ones, and I had to cheat a little bit too.

The Scarlet Letter: I almost went for The Red Tent here, but I've talked enough about that book on these lists so decided to highlight this classic, which a lot of people did not like but I actually think is really good!

A Clockwork Orange: The title is actually referring to the fruit and not the color per se, but it's my list and I make the rules!

James and the Giant Peach: Another fruit-not-color, but peach also works as a color and I don't talk about this book very much although it was one of my favorites as a kid!

The Golden Compass: I'm lucky they changed the name for the American release of one of my all-time most frequently re-read books! 

Green Girl: I read this book a couple years back and while it wasn't especially good, I think about it every so often. There was an appealing rawness to it. 

Olive Kitteridge: Last one where it was definitely not meant to refer to the color but I'm taking it that way anyway! Olive is the name of woman who inspired some mixed feelings in me (as did the book as a while)

Island of the Blue Dolphins: I loved this book so much as a kid and still remember doing a book report on it in elementary school!

The Color Purple: This was the easiest one to think of! I haven't read this book since AP English in high school and loved it, so I hope to be able to revisit it someday soon.

Black Beauty: I like the book, of course (like every little girl who loved horses), but the movie was one of my absolute favorites as a kid!

The White Tiger: This is a sharp, funny satire and more people should read it.

Friday, July 31, 2020

A Month In The Life: July 2020

Another month of mostly staying home down! I would hope that anyone reading this doesn't need to have it said again, but please, y'all, wear masks when you're out and about in public. I'm sure we all would like to get back to something resembling normal-ish life again soon and the way we do that is wearing masks to keep this disease from continuing to explode out of control.

In Books...
  • The Borgias and Their Enemies: This was very paint-by-numbers feeling...a lot of "this happened, and then that happened.". Italian politics of the era were extremely complicated and Hibbert did not do a particularly good job of illuminating them. His portraits of the the three most prominent members of the family (Rodrigo, Cesare, and Lucrezia) did not do much to make them come alive, though I do have to say I am now very curious to learn more about Lucrezia!
  • The Residue Years: This was the book club pick for the month, and it did not grab me at first. But the further I went with it, the more I was drawn into this autobiographical novel about a Black mother and son living in Portland in the 1990s. Mitchell S. Jackson tells the story of Grace and Champ, both caught in the drug trade, with powerful, beautifully crafted prose and just incredible character-building. This is a great book, but be warned that it is a downer.
  • Tampa: Wow was this not for me. It's like a cross between Lolita and American Psycho, but with none of the sophisticated, elegant prose of the former or devastatingly sharp satire of the latter. A beautiful woman in her mid-20s becomes a middle school teacher in order to get access to the 14 year-old boys she is exclusively attracted to so she can make one her victim. It makes grasps at saying something about our cultural obsession with youth and beauty but was mostly just full of sex in a way that just felt gross because of the whole statutory rape thing. 
  • Hidden Valley Road: I was a Psychology major in college, so I'm predisposed to like books in the general subject area, so this was on my radar even before Oprah picked it for her book club! It's the true story of a family from Colorado Springs, the Galvins, who have 12 children (10 boys, two girls), six of whom develop schizophrenia, and traces their history as well as the greater history of treatment for schizophrenia in the US. It's very solid, both well-researched and well-told, but never rose to greatness and kind of loses steam at the end. 
  • Cat's Eye: I will read anything Margaret Atwood writes. This book tells the story of an artist, Elaine, who returns to Toronto, where she spent much of her childhood before moving to Canada's west coat. She finds herself immersed in memories of her youthful friendship with three other girls, most especially Cordelia, who was the ringleader of an intense campaign of cruelty against her. I've always found tales of frenemies compelling, and Atwood is just a phenomenally talented writer and I never wanted it to end.
  • Pope Joan: The Catholic Church does not allow for female priests, but for hundreds of years it was reported that there had, ever so briefly, been a female pope during the Dark Ages. Most (but not all) historians now seem to believe that Pope Joan never existed, but this book hypothesizes how such a person might have existed. It's a decent book, but never more than that...everyone feels a little one-dimensional and I never got very invested in either the plot or Cross's prose.

In Life...
  • Special session: When your state loses $1.15 billion of its budget, the only way to deal with that is to bring in the legislators to figure out where to make the least damaging possible cuts. This was my fourth special session, but the first one where the Legislative Building was effectively closed: only electeds, staff, and press were allowed inside. So at least I didn't have to commute and was at home in my jammies as discussions went on past midnight.

One Thing:

I have often seriously contemplated canceling my subscription to The New York Times, but whatever my disagreements may be with some of their editorial decisions, their reporting is usually top-notch and they also run columns like the By The Book series, interviews with prominent figures (usually but not always writers) about the way they approach books and reading.

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Book 244: The Feast of Love

"You think that what I've just told you is an anecdote. But really it isn't. It's my whole life. It's the only story I have."

Dates read: June 22-25, 2018

Rating: 5/10

What is it, exactly, that makes up "chemistry"? I'm sure many of us have sat through a date with a perfectly nice, reasonably attractive human being who just could not possibly be less interesting in a let's-fall-in-love kind of way. On the other hand, there's the stranger we were in the elevator chatting with for five minutes that lingers in our mind for weeks afterward. You can ignore it, but if it's there, you can't force it.

The sparks and romantic connections between various couples in Ann Arbor are the connecting thread in Charles Baxter's A Feast of Love. Most of them are connected through Bradley, a middle-aged man who owns a coffee shop in the mall but pursues his love of painting at home. Bradley's marriages, both of which end in divorce, are brought in, as are his young employees Chloe and Oscar, who are crazy about each other. His neighbors, a long-married couple struggling with how to deal with their drug-addicted son, are also players in the drama. The story is framed by the conceit that a friend of Bradley's, a professor and writer (meant to be Baxter himself), is interviewing all of the players one-by-one over a period of time.

There's not much in the way of a plot, per se. Each little story has its own rising and falling action...Bradley's first wife, who leaves him when she falls head over heels for another woman, is a bit player, but his second wife, who marries him mostly to spite the lover who refuses to leave his wife for her, has a larger role in the narrative. Chloe and Oscar's story, which appears steadily throughout the book and sees the couple dealing with his unbalanced father and a larger, more unexpected problem, provides probably the most straightforward structure in the whole thing. Also constantly recurring is the title, first as the name of Bradley's best painting, which then inspires the author-within-the-book to title his work in progress after it.

When this book is on, it has moments of real brilliance. The story I mentioned above, in which Bradley's first wife meets, falls for, and eventually divorces Bradley in pursuit of the other woman, feels alive with poignancy. A story Bradley relates about having to kidnap his own dog from his sister sparkles with dark humor. And it's more specific to me personally, but as an Ann Arborite in exile, I love reading about the city. Allmendinger Park, post-game traffic, the mall...all of these are deeply familiar to me and make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside to see on the page. The experience of seeing places that are meaningful to me depicted in print is something I didn't even know could be as powerful as I found it.

Now for the critical part. I feel like I've read several of these interconnected-vignette style books lately and perhaps I'm just tiring of that presentation, but all of them suffer from a lack of traditional plot and tension. This feels more like a piece of writing than a book, if that makes sense. It feels stylized and over-written, and part of the issue is that the character work is spotty. Bradley's clearly meant to have a particular personality but it never really feels honest or consistent, and the way Chloe is written was extremely off-putting to me. She's a Manic Pixie Dream Girl before that was a thing, insisting on a quirky pronunciation of her name and using some of the most cringey language to describe sex I've ever read. Anyone who writes a girl under 20 as using the phrase "lovemaking" to describe sex unironically has never really listened to a young woman talk about it, and that is far from the worst example. In the end, I just never really got invested in it. There's some very capable storytelling here, in parts, but it's not well-realized enough throughout to get an affirmative recommendation for me unless you're determined to read about Ann Arbor.

One year ago, I was reading: Money Rock

Two years ago, I was reading: Shantaram

Three years ago, I was reading: Notes on a Scandal

Four years ago, I was reading: Masha Regina

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Biographies of Women I Can't Wait To Read

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week is a freebie, so we get to pick our own topics! So I've decided to highlight some biographies I am really looking forward to reading. While the biography genre tends to be dominated by books about dudes, particularly white dudes, I am going to talk about biographies of women that I'm excited to dive into!

Madame Curie: Marie Curie was a scientific genius and the only woman to win two Nobel Prizes. This book was written by her daughter, so I am very curious to read more about her life from a voice inside her own family!

Get Happy: I know the outlines of Judy Garland's life...the child stardom, the weight issues that led to the studio pushing drugs on her that she was never really able to shake, the unhappy marriages. But I know very little of who she was outside of the Hollywood story and I want to change that!

Zelda: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were both writers and creatives, but of course he's the one that gets all the plaudits. I'm looking forward to reading more about her.

Empress Dowager Cixi: She was a concubine who maneuvered herself into position to effectively rule China as the power behind first her son and then her nephew, and I am excited to read about a royal woman outside of the European sphere!

Jane Austen: She wrote only six complete novels but all are regarded as classics of the English language. I actually know quite little about her life so I am really interested in finding out more.

If This Was Happiness: Gilda is an incredible movie, and no one who has ever seen it can forget Rita Hayworth's performance in it. But despite the glamour that that movie, or her high profile marriages to Orson Welles and Prince Aly Khan, her life was full of struggles and I am really curious to learn more about her.

Femme Fatale: Mata Hari is a name that evokes danger and intrigue...she was a stripper! She was a spy! She was actually Margaretha Zelle MacLeod, no more exotic than any other Dutch girl, but she was also both of the things she was accused of being and I want to learn more about her!

Catherine the Great: Had to get at least one member of Russian royalty in here! I have not watched the popular Hulu series based on her life because it is apparently just incredibly historically inaccurate, which is a shame because her life was actually incredibly interesting.

The Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green was an incredibly rich, successful business woman during the Gilded Age, a time when "success" for women was usually defined as good marriage. She was also a legendary cheapskate. I am always interested in women breaking the conventions of their time!

The Duchess: I do enjoy biographies of scandalous aristocrats, and in her time Georgiana Spencer was pretty much as fashionable and dramatic as it was possible to be.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Book 243: The Completionist

"I can't remember telling her my name. I can't remember breaking her arm. But no, I didn't break her arm. I would never harm a woman, not me, not myself. Yes, I've harmed women. I've damaged their brains, their hearing, their eyes, their skin. I've killed women; I'm sure I have. But that was different. I've never broken a woman's arm. I have two sisters. I would do anything for them, but I would never break a woman's arm." 

Dates read: June 19-22, 2018

Rating: 4/10

I can't think too hard about the amount of information the internet has about me or I get freaked out. I willingly upload the photos that could make facial recognition on any internet-connected camera possible. I tag myself in certain places, opening myself up to profiling based on my patterns of behavior. I click on emails advertising sales from my favorite stores, giving them valuable information about what percentage off I need to see to engage with their content. Even on this blog, I'm constantly talking about my life, my childhood, my past and my hopes for the future. I don't think of myself as a particularly public person, but I've got precious little privacy when push comes to shove all because of my own behavior on the internet.

For many of us, our phones might as well be glued to our hands since they're seldom more than arm's length away. In Siobhan Adcock's future-set The Completionist, they've just cut out the middleman and wearable devices are implanted directly into your arm and connected with your nervous system at a young age. They monitor your health, transmit messages directly, and all you need to do to figure out where your family members are is look, because your GPS position is uploaded automatically. So when his little sister Gardner disappears from the map, recently discharged Marine Carter Quinn is worried. His older sister Fred is even more so, and insists he try to find her. Fred would do it herself, but she's pregnant, which is something of a miracle in the post-apocalyptic Chicago they inhabit, especially since it happened naturally. Ever since the wars, when the water was poisoned and the precious artificial water was developed instead, there have been fewer and fewer babies being born, and most of them are the result of years of expensive fertility treatments.

Carter is glad to have something to do. Ever since he returned to civilian life from the outlying areas where soldiers fight to defend the shipments of water that keep the city alive, he's been having a rough time. It's not just the PTSD, which he treats with growing consumption of alcohol. It's some sort of bioweapon used against the enemy that he inhaled himself, which he can't figure out how to treat at all. He throws himself into the task of looking for Gardner, who was last working as a Nurse Completionist (a sort of midwife/specialized mother-to-be nurse) at a mysterious clinic, trying to track her down before Fred's forced marriage to the one-night-stand who knocked her up. But Gard remains out of sight while Carter goes farther and farther down into an underworld he didn't even know existed.

Let's start with a positive: I absolutely loved Fred as a character. Hard-driving and irrepressibly foul-mouthed, the book is strongest when she's on the page. While Carter and his father (one of the few other significant characters) generally seem mired in their own dramas, Fred comes in and actually moves things forward. In the back half of the book, we get a long series of past conversations between Fred and Gard before the latter's disappearance, and I wanted it to go on forever because she was such an entertaining, lively presence. I basically wanted the entire book to be from her perspective.

But it wasn't, and the choice that Adcock made to have Carter as the protagonist was a significant factor in the book's failure to launch, for me. He's not honestly very interesting, and spends most of his time either drunk or fighting off symptoms of his poison exposure, which makes everything that happen seem disconnected from reality in a way that was not effective. And, not to spoil the book, but the post-apocalyptic world it's set in, in which women who do get pregnant are subjected to almost impossible demands to care for their child literally as soon as its conceived, didn't hold up to scrutiny for me. It would seem that if babies are rare and precious, there'd be more support for the mother rather than punishments. I get the parallel she was going for with our own world, with the expectations we put on mothers and very real pushback they get for failing to meet them perfectly, but I didn't think it really worked in the way she tried to scale it up to official government policy in a world experiencing a fertility crisis. While I'm generally interested in the wave of feminist dystopia that's been pretty trendy in the book world lately, this is not a strong example of a genre and everything about this book apart from Fred is forgettable. It's not egregiously bad, but I don't really recommend it either.

One year ago, I was reading: Sashenka (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Romanov Empress (review to come)

Three years ago, I was reading: Station Eleven

Four years ago, I was reading: The Fugitives

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Events/Festivals I’d Love to Go to Someday

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! As someone who lives far from a major literary hub and with a limited travel budget, I have never actually gotten to go to any book events. But here are seven (I honestly couldn't come up with ten) that I'd love to be able to once we can travel again!

Book Expo America: This is basically the Rose Bowl of the book world, the largest trade show in the US. It sounds like Christmas!

PEN World Voices Literary Festival: Like most Americans, I primarily read American authors. But I enjoy the work of authors from all over the world and would love to go to this celebration of international lit!

Chicago Humanities Festival: I will always have a soft spot for Chicago after spending my honeymoon there! And this festival deals of course with books but also other forms of art/media, which I am extremely here for!

Hay Festival: First of all, I would love to visit Wales! Second this is supposed to be an incredible event.

The LA Times Festival of Books: Like the Chicago festival, this one focuses on media broadly. Also it's at least on the same side of the country I am so it's more likely I would be able to make this one happen.

National Book Festival: This one is put on by the Library of Congress and held in DC!

Edinburgh International Book Festival: I'll be honest, while this event looks amazing I really just want to have an excuse to go to Edinburgh.