Tag Archives: nonfiction

#37: Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall, by Frank Brady

Begun: 4/30/2011
Finished: 5/10/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 2/5

I find myself in the frustrating position of having to review a book that I did not particularly enjoy but having absolutely no clue how to explain what I didn’t like about it. I can’t think of a single thing that the author could have done differently that would have improved the book for me. Except written about something else, perhaps.

It isn’t that I don’t know much about chess. The book isn’t particularly chess-intensive. It isn’t that it’s badly written, although Brady’s objectivity is a tad suspect. It isn’t that the subject matter isn’t interesting. Bobby Fischer’s wack-ass life is certainly fodder enough for a good read. I just didn’t enjoy reading about it. It was boring. It was frustrating. It was increasingly off-putting.

The fact that Fischer was not a particularly likable person, ever, doesn’t help, and by the end of his life he’d become an extremely UNlikable person. While Brady attempts to explain his behavior and give rationales for why Bobby was the way he was, it’s hard not to just view him as a total bastard, a diva, and a demanding egotist. Not that the biographies of such people can’t be interesting, in fact I’d venture to theorize that difficult people make for more interesting copy, it’s just that I didn’t find this biography interesting. I couldn’t tell you why it didn’t work for me. I can only tell you that it didn’t.

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#34: Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

Begun: 4/27/2011
Finished: 4/27/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 5/5

loved this book. Full stop. Loved. It. My initial reaction, that it’s just like Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, was echoed right there on the jacket blurb (which I had failed to notice before beginning).

Caveat: I have not read Walls’ famous memoir The Glass Castle. I understand that it’s largely about how dysfunctional and neglectful her mother and father were. Walls started out intending to write this book about her mother’s childhood on a ranch, but ended up writing about her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, a remarkable character. Spending early childhood living in a dugout house on a river in Texas, at fifteen she rode 500 miles to take her first teaching job. She took herself off to Chicago on her own to get a diploma, returned to take more teaching jobs, broke horses, and with her husband ran a 160,000 ranch, where their two children were born.

Walls describes the book as a “true life novel.” She has gathered information about her grandmother’s life (she died when Walls was eight) from family oral history and discovered that most of it was corroborated by other sources, but where it conflicted, she went with the oral history. She writes the book first-person in her grandmother’s voice, and what emerges is an intriguingly intimate account of this woman’s life. Some things are gone into in detail, others are skimmed over, as it is with memory and stories told about the past. The life Lily led is itself fascinating enough. She is a complex narrator, resourceful and independent, but with flaws. She is severe and even cold with her children, pragmatic to the point of being mercenary, and short-tempered. I’m guessing most people found her intimidating, difficult and forbidding, but I found myself wishing I could have met her myself.

#31: The Killer of Little Shepherds, by Douglas Starr

Begun: 4/06/2011
Finished: 4/25/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 3/5

First of all, this book has a bit of a misleading subtitle.  It purports to be “A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science” but it’s really more about forensic psychology.  As if becoming a common pattern among historical true crime books, the author follows two threads, one about a criminal and the other about an investigator, until the two converge.  Now, the investigator here is Alexandre Lacassagne, who is considered one of the founders of modern forensic science, but the trial detailed in the book, that of French serial killer Joseph Vacher, was not really about forensic science, nor was forensics used to convict him (he confessed, but pled insanity).

The advent of modern forensic techniques, many of which were developed by Lacassagne, did help to corner Vacher and capture him, but most of the work was done by a magistrate named Fouquet, and he tracked Vacher the old-fashioned way.  The connection between this case and forensic science is pretty thin, although much is made of the difficulties of rural autopsies in late 19th century France and how Lacassagne worked to standardize the practice of medico-legal investigation and developed techniques that are still used.

None of which really impacted Vacher’s capture and trial.  In fact, most of that boiled down to the then-heated (and still murky) debate about what constitutes criminal insanity, how you know someone has it, and the ethics involved in trying and executing someone who may or may not have a mental illness that excuses him from culpability.

Vacher’s crimes were indeed horrendous.  Starr’s descriptions of Vacher’s vagabond life in the French countryside is vivid and interesting, as is the historical information about the development of the scientific side of things in urban centers, but the connective tissue here is pretty thin.  The writing is serviceable, although some maps and illustrations would have added much to the text.

#28: The Devil’s Gentleman, by Harold Schechter

Begun: 4/02/2011
Finished: 4/11/2011
Format: Hardcover (library)
Rating: 4/5

It is sometimes interesting to read two similar books at one time.  I’ve been doing that for a week or so, although the other book is my lunchtime reading so I’m making far slower progress on it.  Both are true-crime books about murders that took place in the last few years of the 19th century.  This one is about Roland Molineux, who lent his name to an often-cited legal statute familiar to viewers of Law & Order (it has to do with the inadmissability of prior bad acts that aren’t part of the indictment before the court) and was tried in 1899 for several poisonings.  The other is The Killer of Little Shepherds, which is about the notorious  French serial killer Vacher, who was killing at almost the exact same time in the French countryside.  That book is about the birth of modern forensic science, but this one is more about society’s reaction to sensationalized criminality.  In essence, it’s about the birth of tabloid journalism and the genesis of what we now accept as the standard conflation of news, information and entertainment.  Schechter asserts that this was the real beginning of the twentieth century, and after reading the book, I find myself agreeing.

Schecter is a well-known writer to aficionados of true crime, and he’s taken his game up a peg with this well-researched and well-written history.  He has a knack of giving a great deal of interest to the biographical details of the key players, building up the crime itself, and setting the stage of the events of the time.  He doesn’t lapse into New Journalism Capote-esque fictionalization, nor does he do much editorializing.  In fact Molineux’s guilt or innocence is never clearly established, and Schechter doesn’t take a position.  The book was very interesting, especially to watch the interplay between the press, the popular opinion, and the actual investigators.  Molineux’s father was a venerated Civil War hero.  His wife was an ambitious socialite.  The world of journalism was changing with both Pulitzer and Hearst’s papers trying to out-yellow each other with sensationalist reporting.  The whole thing was hopelessly partial and ridiculously biased.  Say what you will about our legal system, at least it’s no longer acceptable to use blanket insinuations about men who are possibly gay killing in a “women’s fashion” like poison to bolster one’s defense strategy.

A very accessible and interesting book and a good start for newbies of true crime who don’t want to delve right into the most gruesome books about serial killers. And the book is just as much of interest to those interested in journalism history or legal history.

#27: The Devil’s Candy, by Julie Salamon

Begun: 3/29/2011
Finished: 4/05/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 4/5

I read Bonfire of the Vanities so that I could read this book, an account of the making of the big-budget, star-studded film adaptation, which became one of the most legendary flops in film history.  You wouldn’t have to have read the book to enjoy this account but I’d think you would at least have to have seen the film (which I have not, incidentally).  That being said, I felt like I got a lot more out of the book having read Wolfe’s book, and knowing what its message and tone was in comparison to how the film was made.

Author Salamon sat in during the entire production of the film.  Of course at the time, she and director Brian De Palma, who approved her journalistic presence, were unaware of the disaster the film would turn out to be, so Salamon would have had no idea that she’d be chronicling a symbol of Hollywood hucksterism.  Sometimes the universe just hands you a big juicy plum for no particular reason.

Salamon’s account of the filming is precise and detailed, even a tad dry at times, but she admirably sticks to what she witnessed and learned through interviews.  She doesn’t speculate or traffic in gossip, presenting the actors and Hollywood power types as she experienced them.  The book was a fast read and very interesting, as well as illuminating of the frustrating process of trying to make a good film when every single thing is piecemeal.  It’s like the death by a thousand cuts, or like being pecked to death by ducks.  I would have appreciated some more material at the end and some analysis of why the film failed so badly.  There is some, of course, but the end felt a tad rushed.

#21: Death’s Acre, by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

Begun: 3/20/2011
Finished: 3/21/2011
Format: Kindle
Rating: 3/5

I have a keen interest in forensic science and true crime.  I studied forensic anthropology for a little while in grad school (and I feel compelled to add that I did this before it was The In Thing).  My interest in the subject was sparked by a book by Dr. William Maples, one of the founders of the field, called Dead Men Do Tell Tales. Dr. Bass is another of the giants in the field, although Maples’ book is more artful and creative than this one, which is somewhat formless and meandering.

I felt like I’d heard some of these stories before.  Given how many books in this field I’ve read, it’s entirely possible that I have, but the similarities between Bass’ career and Maples’ are sometimes striking.   Bass is a friendlier narrator than Maples (at times Maples’ ego shines forth like a pair of neon green fuzzy dice hanging from a rearview mirror) but his voice wanders, and he inexplicable gives the same explanations several times in different chapters, almost as if the chapters were written as standalone articles and later compiled, resulting in some repetition of expository information.

His discussion of his work at the so-called Body Farm (actually the Anthropological Research Facility) is actually pretty minimal.  Most of the book is about his other cases.  I would have liked more insight about the work they’ve done at the facility.  My enjoyment of the book (which I read very quickly) was probably impeded by my familiarity with the subject matter; a lot of things that would be interesting and new to a less prepared reader were old hat to me.

It’s an interesting read but at times wearying and repetitive.  I’m surprised his co-author didn’t corrall the prose a bit more.  Weak, Jefferson.  Weak.

#20: Titanic’s Last Secrets, by Brad Matsen

Begun: 3/20/2011
Finished: 3/20/2011
Format: Hardcover
Rating: 4/5

I’m a bit of a Titanic buff.  I’ve read tons of books about it.  It all started in the 8th grade when my advanced English class did a unit about it for no reason I can discern.  But I was fascinated, we all were, and that was just about the time that the wreck was discovered by Robert Ballard.  And ever since, the Titaniacs (as they’re apparently called), both amateur and professional, have been arguing over how the ship broke up, what sunk it, why did it sink so fast, yadda yadda.  When That Movie came out in 1997, Cameron’s depiction of the sinking (a high-angle break, big drama) was reflective of the best theory of the time.  But that theory’s been cast into some doubt, largely because of the work described in this book which was done by the two wreck divers whose previous exploits were published in the Shadow Divers books and chronicled on TV on “Deep Sea Detectives.”

Their theory is that weaknesses in the hull caused by newly-designed expansion joints made the ship break in two at a much lower angle than the 45 degrees we tend to think of, as little as 11 degrees, which means the sinking would have occurred extremely fast when the ship was still pretty close to horizontal.  Huge pieces of the bottom of the ship (which the divers found among the wreckage) ripped away and the whole thing flooded like gangbusters, taking most people on board by surprise.  It’s a much more horrible situation than a high-angle break, wherein everyone could see what was happening.

The book is surprisingly heavy on history, but it’s a section of the ship’s history one doesn’t often see chronicled: its building and the politics around it, and the men who made it possible.  I was fascinated by this although not everybody would be.  I’d say only 40% of the book was about the current work and the dives to the wreck, and then the investigation.  Most of it was history.  Relatively little time is spent on the Titanic’s voyage and sinking (we know this ground pretty well already).

I love a book I can read in a day.  I love it when I have a day that I can just devote to reading.  Not terribly common these days.  So thanks for the quick, interesting read, guys.