Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

Coming Up

Celebrations here in the family domicile have momentarily distracted me, but that all ends tomorrow. Before I commence partying with family tonight, I thought I’d show you the books you can expect to see reviewed here over the weekend. Some are memorable and others not-so-much, but I am surprised by which are which. Wait for it:

Michael Collins, by Tim Pat Coogan****

MichaelCollinsTo date, this is the single best volume that’s been written about Collins, and it’s a meal. I purchased this title on an annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon when I was there to visit family a few years ago. Although the length of the book is listed as 480 pages in paperback, the reader needs to come prepared. The type is tiny and dense, and it took me a long time to wade through it. If it were formatted using more standard guidelines, it would be a great deal longer.

As I write this review I am halfway through Coogan’s epic history of the IRA (Irish Republican Army), and the style in which he writes is consistent in both books. Coogan tells us everything that is historically important, and he also tells us everything else he finds out, with no apparent filtering. His writing is half Irish history, half family Bible in the sense that if someone was briefly or peripherally involved with Collins, their proud relatives can probably find that person and his or her historical role somewhere in these pages. His shoe size is here, and the names of every girl he flirted with. For a man that lived so briefly, he left a large shadow, and the author was plainly unwilling to let even the tiniest bit of research go to waste, relevant or no.

I am somewhat surprised that Collins doesn’t rate more favorably with the author, given that his name is the one most associated with the creation of an independent Ireland. But Coogan does due diligence in establishing the brutality of the British occupiers, who killed indiscriminately with the use of terror. At one point, soldiers opened fire on a school yard where little children were at play; these royal ambassadors were the original school shooters, killing six little ones for being Catholic. In the protests that followed, women and girls knelt before British tanks and said their rosaries for those that had been killed for their Fenian identities.

The Irish freedom struggle took place at a time when the whole world was on fire. The Russian Revolution was unfurling with breathtaking speed; at the same time, there was no established Marxist revolution to look to for guidance, and Irish freedom fighters had no single idea of what political ideology should shape the struggle. Most of the revolutionaries were barely old enough to shave, and a lot of errors were made because of this lack of clear vision. The results were often tragic.

There’s an interesting discussion of whether Irishmen should become German allies during World War I. There is a strong resistance to becoming shills for the British, and so the question, then, is whether to remain neutral, or take the side of Britain’s enemy in the hope of receiving reciprocal assistance. In the end, nobody was organized enough, in this era of little technology, to come up with a cohesive plan, so the point was a moot one.

Should you read this biography? I think it depends upon how much time you have, and how strong your interest level is. One consideration might be to purchase it as a reference volume and flip through it to tease out the most relevant information, but be forewarned: sifting through the minutiae is not an easy enterprise. For researchers, the photos alone might be of interest, since they constitute primary documents.

Recommended for those with strong basic knowledge of Irish history that want to flesh out the details, and for those building a reference library.

Killers of the Flower Moon**

killersoftheflowermoon I received this book free from Net Galley, courtesy of Doubleday, in exchange for an honest review. It looked like a fascinating read, but I am disturbed by the sources chosen, which sent up all sorts of red flags right from the get-go and before I had even focused on the references themselves, a due diligence that has to be done before any nonfiction work can be recommended. Once I examined the references, I concluded that so many of them are so questionable that nobody, including the writer, can demonstrate anything beyond the premise of the book itself to be true. The killings happened; that’s about it.

I am perplexed, because this kind of error is the sort I’d expect from a novice, perhaps a zealous but careless graduate student bent on self-publication come hell or high water. Grann, however, is an established journalist who’s written for solid mainstream publications. He’s published successful novels. This is his first nonfiction book, and I am surprised that it went to press without his own eyes or those of his publisher finding the glaring problems here.

Early in the text a fact is documented with a block quote from one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, a series of YA novels loosely based on the author’s experiences during the Westward Movement, as Euro-Americans pushed the frontier back and took possession of Native territory. Many years ago, an interviewer challenged Wilder on a scene in one of her books, one in which a man recounts having been surrounded, chased, and threatened by wolves. The interviewer pointed out that wolves don’t do that, and Wilder tartly responded that she wasn’t aware that she had been supposed to be writing history or biology, but rather stories she had made up for little children to read. Her only nonfiction is a memoir she wrote later in life, which was not as widely seen.

This historical fiction, then, is Grann’s source material, and the fact that he chooses to give it a block quote also makes me wonder…if this is his good reference, what do the others look like?

A great many other sources are newspapers from what was then Western territory, newspapers from Oklahoma and elsewhere during the early 1800s. This is suspect material. There were no laws against printing inaccurate material, and journalists from this period often printed lies, sons of lies, and interviews based on lies, because there was absolutely no risk of penalty for doing so. To use sources like these, the very least a writer should do is find legitimate sources that agree with the questionable sources and cite both. This doesn’t happen here.

I have no idea why a good house like Doubleday would release this book, or why the writer didn’t use credible sources. Maybe he couldn’t find anything else, but that’s speculation, and I’ve just explained why nonfiction should not be based on guess work, on fiction based loosely on fact, or on unreliable sources, so I won’t take this line any further lest I be guilty of the same.

I was going to close by recommending that the reader just looking for a good story and not concerned about the research might like the book, but then I am confronted by the other unfortunate aspect of this story: I was pushing myself through it. I wasn’t spellbound, but as long as I believed there might be new information to be learned, I was ready to force myself to read this book, tedious though it is. With a DRC, I generally figure that once I’ve signed on, I have to make good on my promise. I wasn’t reading because I was absorbed; once I got a sense of the narrative I was reading out of duty, and out of the hope that at some point this thing would pick up steam. My hope was derailed by the bad source material.

Not this time.

Best of 2016: Nonfiction

I didn’t have to think twice about this one. This category includes any nonfiction published for the first time this year except for biographies and memoirs, which have their own category on this site. If you haven’t read this one, you should. It’s not only important, but oddly fascinating.

To Kill and Kill Again, by John Coston****

The Terrifying True Story of Montana’s Baby-Faced Serial Sex Murderer

tokillandkillagain

They say you should do what you’re good at, and unfortunately, Wayne Nance was good at killing people. He enjoyed his work. This is the true story of the man dubbed “The Missoula Mauler”, who killed primarily based on opportunity, high in the rugged Rocky Mountains between 1974 and 1986. Thank you to Net Galley and Open Road Media, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review. The digital version of this true crime story was released October 18, and so you can buy yourself a horrifying Halloween present today. But turn all the lights on before you dive in. Lock your doors, and check your windows. If you have a basement, secure that as well. This isn’t a thing you want to read while you’re home alone at night.

I don’t read much true crime, because it’s dark stuff. To be honest, I wouldn’t have read this one, but an Open Road rep contacted me by email regarding another title I had read, and she was having a Monday moment; consequently, she asked me to review this title rather than the one I had read, and I figured I’d been invited to read it. I don’t turn down an invitation unless I know for sure I won’t like the book, so really, I read this one mostly due to a misunderstanding. By the time it was cleared up, I had downloaded it and was 20% of the way in, and I wanted to see how it came out.

The interesting thing about Nance is that he doesn’t seem to fit the serial killer stereotype. He was a quirky guy, true. But nobody said he kept to himself, or that he was quiet. He was sociable, and he was considerate, an apparently thoughtful young man that would run an errand, drop something off at your house while you were working, bring you your lunch…of course, there was always a chance he’d either forget to return your house keys or make a copy to keep, but that couldn’t hurt you if you didn’t know about it, right?

Well, actually it could. Sometimes it did.

I recently reviewed Open Road’s Fire Lover, a true crime story in which the killer seems drop-dead obvious. That isn’t the case here. At one point Nance came up as a suspect, but he had an alibi. I think when a person lives in a small Montana town and terrible things happen, it’s comforting to assume that the horrific, violent things that have been in the local news are done by an outsider, someone passing through. Maybe it’s a trucker that drives through from time to time, or some other outlier. Nobody wants to think it’s someone they work with, that they see every day.

I have to tell you, this story is not just scary, but it’s also tragic. There are children involved. The book’s blurb says there are photos, but these are not grisly photos of dead people; nevertheless, I found my stomach turning over a time or two. It’s dark, dark business, and you alone know whether you want to read something like this. The satisfying thing is that he is caught, and so other people didn’t die that undoubtedly would have. But as for me, I don’t want to read any more true-serial-killer tales for a good long while, if at all.

That said, Coston has to wade through a lot of data to tell this story, and he does so without getting bogged down in minutiae while setting an appropriate tone and pacing the story expertly. He tells us about the victims so that their own stories will not get lost while we learn the ugly deeds of Wayne Nance.

For fans of true crime that have strong stomachs, this may be the story for you. One thing’s for sure: all your own troubles will look smaller when you are done here.

Being a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz****

beingadogHorowitz is the author of Inside of a Dog, and here she follows it up with an examination of the sensory experiences a dog encounters, primarily that of smell.  I received my DRC courtesy of Scribner and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. And though I’ve never been a science maven, Horowitz’s unbridled enthusiasm for dogs had me at hello. It’s a book bound to engage any dog lover.

So, do you have a dog?

I’ve had a dog nearly all of my 58 years, with a brief interim here and there.  I’ve never been dogless long, though; either a dog has found me, or I’ve gone looking for one. And so I was glad of the opportunity to read more about what makes my dog—right now it’s Ox, the oversized beagle puppy—work. I’d read a fair amount about dogs, particularly beagles, my favorite breed, and I thought I was well schooled, but I learned a great deal from Horowitz that I hadn’t known before, or in one main instance, in a way I had known intellectually, but not in my gut.

Almost every dog lover has heard at some point that a dog tends to be governed by its smell, and that this is its dominant sense. But until Horowitz took it apart for me and gave me the details, I didn’t grasp the implications. For example, when we throw the ball, the dog pauses before running after it, right? And with our last little dog, my husband and I would note that he wasn’t really looking in the right place, and we concluded that he was as dumb as a box of rocks. We’d yell; we’d point to it. And eventually, after he had sniffed its perimeter, he’d hone in on the ball and bring it back. And this book explains why that is exactly the correct way to do the job, if one is a hound (or other dog) rather than a human.

Sight is so important to us humans; next comes hearing. If we are in a carnival’s haunted house, and if the first room is sightless and soundless, what do we do? Do we sniff? Of course not! We fling out our arms in front of us or to the sides, partly to find out where things are, and partly to protect ourselves from slamming our face into a hard surface. And now when I consider Ox’s sense of scent, after which is hearing, I realize that by the time he has to look at something, he’s probably gained most of the information he needs already. Why would we fling our hands out in an ungainly manner if we can see and hear? And so indeed, why would my beagle do a visual scan if he can find what he wants through the use of sniffed air currents and hearing? After all, he always brings the toy back to us.

Chapters that engaged me less contained miniature chemistry and physics lessons, never my favorite, and some had longer passages having to do with human olfactory sense than I really wanted to read. I confess after the first few times the author moved from dogs’ senses back to those of humans I skimmed until we were back to the dogs.

There was so much here I hadn’t seen. For example, where does one find the best material for search and rescue dogs, or arson, bomb, drug, cadaver dogs, and so forth? I’ll give you a hint: I was crushed to find out that my beloved hound dogs aren’t necessarily the favorites here.  But it sure is interesting!

Once I had read this book, I felt that I knew my dog a lot better, and this new information solved many of Ox’s previously puzzling habits. To learn more, check out Horowitz’s new release, which became available to the public yesterday.

Because although I don’t know whether a dog is man’s best friend…I know he’s mine.

The Center, by Stewart Alsop**

thecenterAlsop’s book is a collection of essays describing Washington, DC as it was in the 1960’s. Everything here was written then, so it’s a chance to jump back in time and see what the media—and this reporter in particular– thought was appropriate for mainstream Americans reading the news of the day.  I was invited to read and review this book thanks to Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. I always hate to pan a book when I’ve been invited; it sounds as if I am insulting the host after eating at his table. However, the truth is the truth, and I see this title as fitting a narrow niche audience, but not so much the general public.

Alsop takes us back to the time that the USSR was a country and looked as if it was going to stay that way. He refers to Latvia and Estonia as former countries. Journalists that are female are referred to as “lady reporters”, and sodomy was still a crime on which the journalist frowned and assumed we would, also. He refers to justices of the Supreme Court and elsewhere as men, and with the assumption that this also is according to nature and will never change.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this collection is the chummy way he refers to the Miranda case, in which it was determined that those about to be charged with a crime had to be told that they had the right not to speak against themselves and to have an attorney. He explains that most of the court’s decision making was done in restaurants and over the phone long before they ever met, and so this case was “almost certainly” decided before the justices ever met in chambers.

This reviewer’s father-in-law is a retired judge that served many ethical decades for the State of Oregon, ending his career on the State Court of Appeals. Talk like Alsop’s would make his blood run cold—or maybe extra hot, actually. His ethics were so firm and fair that he would not tell his own family, when we dined in the privacy of our home or his, who he planned to vote for in the upcoming election…because judges are supposed to be above partisan politics. He did not discuss his cases with family, and I would stake the deed to my house on his not having entered into any chummy agreements over the phone when serving at any level on the bench.

So for those interested in the journalism of the 1960s, here’s a trip down the rabbit hole that will take you there, or at least to one version of it. Those interested in the sociology of that time period might also find this useful.

Those interested in building a better world may be encouraged to see how far society has come since this dark time. If you think things are bad now, check out what they were like 50 years ago. But don’t pay full jacket price unless it’s important to you.

You can have this book now if you want it.

Tail Gunner, by RC Rivas****

tailgunnerTail Gunner is the memoir of a member of the Royal Air Force during World War II. I was fortunate to receive a copy free in advance from Net Galley and Endeavor Press in exchange for an honest review. It’s both compelling and informative.

Those accustomed to modern air travel may find it hard to imagine flight during this time period. There was no source of heat, and of course it’s far colder in the sky than on the ground.  Our author was a turret gunner, and it turns out that the turret and the nose are the two coldest parts of the plane. He stoically assures us there is no reason to be too cold up there if one dresses properly, and then lays out the multitudinous layers that must have made flyers look like old-fashioned versions of the Michelin man, but with head gear and a parachute. He describes the layers of ice that formed on the metal inside the turret, and how his oxygen mask freezes while it is on his face.

None of this is all that important once one is shot down, however.

My interest in military history is recent; I studied and taught history for a long time, but for most of those years, I preferred to study the causes of war, and so my primary interest was more political and theory-based. Maybe this is why it never occurred to me that the pilot is always the boss inside a military plane regardless of the ranks of various officers. Rivas points out that there really can’t be a discussion when the pilot says to jump; the point is well taken!

This novella-length memoir is recommended to those with an interest in World War II, particularly its aeronautic aspects, and also to academics and researchers, given that this is a primary document.  It was released to the public April 8, so you can buy a copy for yourself.

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume I, by Mark Twain*****

automarktwainoneInitially I was surprised not to have seen the autobiography of such a famous individual before. Twain, I learned at the outset, composed his memoir with the stipulation that it not be published until 100 years following his death, because he wanted to be entirely frank about some situations and persons without incurring the displeasure of them, their children, or their grandchildren. Twain died in 1910, and his memoir had been finished just four months. For those of us living now, it was worth the wait. Although I was fortunate enough to snare the DRC for volume 3, I had to go out and hunt down volumes 1 and 2. It’s well worth obtaining and reading for those with the attention span and literacy skills it requires.

There is a lot of material here, and you may be tempted to sample bits here and there using the table of contents. I strongly advise against it. Some of Twain’s most brilliant writing regards things you would not expect to care about. The dispute with a landlord in Italy as his wife lay dying in the villa has the full intensity, concentration, and fire he has to offer. Although I will never know for sure, I suspect that Twain was one of those rare individuals who became even more savagely articulate when angry. The heat of his rage is tremendous and oh so eloquent.

A lot of this writing is gut-bustingly funny, but some of it is also really subtle, and if you rush, you may miss it. I enjoyed reading what he thought of Jay Gould and John Rockefeller; of President Theodore Roosevelt; and of Satan, for whom he confesses that he feels a tremendous sympathy. In other passages he becomes poignant, particularly in speaking of the deaths of his wife and daughter. Nobody but Twain could say it just like this.

Should the reader ignore my advice and choose to jump around, thus missing occasional references to things mentioned earlier in the text, at least do this: be sure to read his remarks about dueling.

The memoir is not linear. He tried several times to sit down and write his life end-to-end, and destroyed some drafts; others he merely abandoned, and they made the assembly of the autobiography, most of which he dictated, all the more complicated as a result. The University of California has done a splendid job of isolating the random repetitious bits at the back of the book in an appendix, while putting the rest of it together in a way that while not linear, makes sense. There are a few interesting photos at the end as well.

Those engaged in the teaching of college level creative writing, of simile, metaphor and other figurative language may indeed want to read this magnificent memoir and pluck some favorite passages for use as examples.

Twain’s life story is not for those with limited focus or who need immediate gratification with minimal effort. This volume, all 738 pages apart from the appendix, kept me company at bedtime when everyone else in our home had the lights turned out and I was the only one still awake. In those small quiet hours I studied the prose of the master, and occasionally had to leave the bedroom in order to laugh out loud, lest I wake my spouse. I would be sorry to have finished, but volumes 2 and 3 still await my attention.

For those that love the English language, and for those with an eye for history, this memoir is not to be missed!