Tuesday, February 11, 2020

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, by Michelle McNamara

True crime books make up only a tiny fraction of my home library, and those are generally accounts of  crimes from long ago.   I had picked up I'll Be Gone in the Dark when it came out in paperback after I'd watched a tv documentary about the Golden State Killer; I knew then that I had to read about it.   Once I opened I'll Be Gone in the Dark, I could not stop reading.  To borrow Megan Abbott's reaction blurbed at the beginning, "This book just knocked me over."   I finished the book by dinnertime.

Harper Perennial, 2019 (hardcover ed. 2018)
344 pp

"Golden State Killer" was the name given by author Michelle McNamara to the real-life monster who was responsible for 50 sexual assaults in Northern California and ten or more murders in the southern part of the state.  While law enforcement officials in both areas investigating these cases were stumped and completely frustrated over a number of years, a breakthrough came in 2001 when DNA proved that the same individual had been responsible for all of these horrific crimes.  She had originally used that name in an article she'd written for Los Angeles Magazine in 2013; prior to that the guy had been known as "The East Area Rapist" in the north and the "Original Night Stalker" in the south, collectively EARONS once his DNA had been identified as having been linked.  He had started his reign of terror in the 1970s; by 1986 he seemed to have stopped.  In I'll Be Gone in the Dark she not only examines the crimes and the hunt for this man, but also provides a rather empathetic aspect  to the victims and their families, to the men and women in law enforcement on whom this case took a huge toll in some cases, and plays it straight about her own obsession with this case that she had wanted to see through until the end, hoping that the guy would be caught. 

She begins with a sort of teaser about a summer hunting for the Golden State Killer from her daughter's playroom.  She says that "every obsession needs a room of its own," and there, after husband and child were asleep, she did her work on her laptop "surrounded by a half-dozen stuffed animals and a set of miniature pink bongos."  I use the word "teaser" because this is just a glimpse of what's to come as we read about all the reports, archives and transcripts she read, all of the countless hours of work she and her researcher put into trying to find the guy, her meetings with members of law enforcement, trips to scenes of crimes, interviews with victims or their families, reaching out to fellow DIY detectives online, and even the unanswered questions left behind after her death.

 It's this obsession that captured me completely throughout this book, the thread I followed and hung on to while reading.  In part two, for example, via early drafts of Michelle's Los Angeles Magazine article, she speaks about a woman she calls "The Social Worker" who had lived in the east Sacramento areas "through the height of it" who warned Michelle to "take care of herself. Or it can consume you."  Michelle's answer: "Can?"  She also states that she didn't laugh about the warning, but "agreed to pretend" that they were "skirting a rabbit hole...rather than deep inside it."  When it's not her talking, but rather sections pieced together from notes, for instance,  I definitely noticed.

Gillian Flynn says in her introduction that "I'll Be Gone in the Dark" is a "snapshot of time, place, and person."  This is so eloquently captured throughout the book, but as she also notes, it's Michelle's writing about  the people here that helps to power the story.  Her husband says in his afterword that
"What interested her, what sparked her mind and torqued every neuron and receptor, were people ... " 
which is so obvious as she writes about the victims, their families, or people caught strongly in an aura of fear and utter terror just living their daily lives
"on their way back from the disco club, or a double feature of 'Earthquake' and 'Airport 77' at the drive-in, or the Jack LaLanne gym"
who knew that anyone could be a victim, any home could be the next target,  or that even the presence of a man in the house wasn't a guarantee of safety.   She also realizes the costs paid by the men and women of law enforcement for whom the Golden State Killer
 "still haunts their dreams.  He's ruined their marriages. He's burrowed so deeply inside their heads that they want to, or have to, believe that if they locked eyes with him, they'd know." 
The man responsible has left a huge wake behind him; his years of terror,  it seems, have taken a personal toll on everyone, including the author.

I spent an entire day on nothing but this book; once I was in that was it.  Outside world gone. Given that I'm not really a huge fan of modern true-crime accounts, and that they're not a usual stop in my reading repertoire,  that says something. I will say that it was a bit choppy in construction which was a bit of a put off, and I'm not quite sure I was as attentive in the final chapter when it was mostly a lot of facts related by Michelle's lead researcher and a journalist friend of hers.

 The book ends with an epilogue entitled "Letter To An Old Man," in which she predicts that
"One day soon, you'll hear a car pull up to your curb, an engine cut out. You'll hear footsteps coming up your front walk...The doorbell rings.  No side gates are left open. You're long past leaping over a fence. Take one of your hyper, gulping breaths. Clench your teeth. Inch timidly toward the insistent bell. 
This is how it ends for you."

And in the end, that's how it was.   Unfortunately, for all of the time, energy, determination and sleepless nights she put into trying to help solve this case (the "obsessive search" of the title), McNamara died in 2016, thus never got to witness the moment she'd been waiting for.   I find that tragic in a very big way, since throughout this book I could absolutely sense how very much she wanted this guy to be caught, locked up, and put away for the rest of his life.


Friday, January 31, 2020

Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America, by Candacy Taylor

9781419738173The Abrams Press, 2020
360 pp


"it didn't tell you if a place had a good steak, or good seafood, or had a soft bed...it told you where you would be safe."

This book is a must read.  An absolute must read.

I'd first heard of the Green Book while reading Matt Ruff's novel Lovecraft Country a couple of years back.  In the novel, set in the 1950s, one of the characters was the editor/publisher of something called The Safe Negro Travel Guide.  I remember at the time thinking what a crap thing it was that something like The Safe Negro Travel Guide had to even exist, and wondering if there was some underlying truth to it I looked it up, and sure as s**t there it was, The Negro Motorist Green Book.  I was appalled, actually, a) that this was a real thing and b) at my own ignorance -- I had no clue that it existed.

However sad the fact of its existence, it turned out to be, as author Candacy Taylor notes, "an ingenious solution to a horrific problem,"  representing 
"the fundamental optimism of a race of people facing tyranny and terrorism."  
In Overground Railroad, the author (who has visited over four thousand Green Book sites, and  provides some of the photos she's taken in the book)  offers an across-the-decades overview of the  Green Book, published from 1936-1967, setting her work within both historical and geographical contexts of American history.   In doing so, she examines racism and other forces at work in this country that led to the necessity of creating such a guide.   Victor Green, who founded the Green Book in 1936, most likely made no money from it, but as the author notes,
"his reward was much more valuable than money, because for every business he listed, he may have saved a life."
As she also states, "real change can come from simple tools that solve a problem," which is what made the Green Book so powerful.

  The dustjacket blurb for Overground Railroad states that
"During the Jim Crow years and into the civil rights movement, travel for black America was difficult and dangerous. Black travelers couldn't eat, sleep, get gas, or shop at most white-owned businesses."
Over the years that the Green Book was published, racial segregation was in "full force" across this country.  While the automobile offered African-American families  a larger measure of personal freedom and a chance to "venture out onto America's highways and enjoy the country they helped build," they didn't have access to a lot of the US due to segregation.  Beaches, swimming pools, golf courses, theaters, parks, and other facilities were either whites only or had separate areas for African-Americans.    "White Customers Only" signs were everywhere, and black people suffered humiliating experiences when they were more often than not denied access to basic services/necessities -- even Coke machines were off limits in some cases.  Prior to the advent of the Interstate Highway system most long-distance auto traveling was done via country roads, and then along small-town main streets where black travelers could likely be subject to harassment or worse by local law enforcement.  Sundown towns (and sundown counties, for that matter) also posed various dangers for African-American motorists who just might find themselves stranded on their roads at night, and as the author mentions, there were no published lists to let anyone know about their existence.   Route 66 was one of the worst roads to travel, since there were hundreds of sundown towns along the way and services for black people even more difficult to find than for white travelers.   Even after the interstates were built in the 1950s, travel continued to be filled with uncertainty and danger, and while there were other black travel guides in circulation, "a blessing to the black community,"  it was the Green Book that not only stayed in print the longest but also had the longest reach and the widest readership.  It became a staple in glove compartments, allowing people to "travel without embarrassment," as the inside cover of the 1948 Green Book proclaimed.   While it couldn't protect travelers from racist cops, as the author notes, "it was still the best travel aid a black family could have." 

my photo, from the book

 The Great Migration of African-Americans lasted from 1915 to 1970, and for people fleeing horrific Jim Crow realities including lynchings (the author cites more than four thousand black people having been massacred by the KKK and "other white vigilante groups" between 1877 and 1968) or who were in search of better opportunites in the North (or in some cases westward),  the Green Book was not only a "perfect tool to facilitate" this mass move, but it "likely gave black Southerners the courage they needed to leave."  Getting into a car and leaving wasn't as simple as it sounds -- even if a person had a job allowing him/her to make regular car payments, a lot of car dealers wouldn't sell to African-Americans, and banks weren't too eager to loan them the money anyway.  In some cases a white person had to offer to guaranteee a loan by co-signing. And while in Jim Crow states, sometimes just passing a white man was on the highway was a dangerous move.

The dustjacket blurb also notes that this guide was "hailed as the 'bible of black travel,' "  but in reality, it was so much more -- as the author notes, it was also 
"a compelling marketing tool that supported black-owned businesses and celebrated black self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship."
 These establishments included restaurants, gas stations, vacation spots, nightclubs, tailors, beauty parlors, motels and tourist houses among many others.   Although some white-owned, integrated places allowed African-Americans, the majority listed in the Green Book were black-owned enterprises which were not only safe havens for travelers, but the money people spent there was a boon to and strengthened local economies.

my photo, p. 264 (1963-64 edition of Green Book)

Another major impact of the Green Book  is that it helped to shape and strengthen a sense of community among African-Americans,  which would become very important especially during the civil rights years.   In Birmingham, Alabama, for example, self-made, black millionaire A.G. Gaston built A.G. Gaston's Motel in 1954;  it was listed in the Green Book in 1956.   He had intended that it should be a "place where his community could feel safe to congregate, eat, and socialize."  Gaston was an important figure not only in Birmingham business and in his efforts to support African-Americans who needed help, but he was active in the Civil Rights movement.  His motel served as Martin Luther King Jr's headquarters where he had a "war room" to organize protesters and strategize for his campaigns.  The Green Book sites, the author states, were "on the front lines in the battle for equality."

Obviously this is just a very, very brief sketch of Overground Railroad. I'm not a reviewer, just a reader, and what Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. says about this book on the back-cover blurb sort of sums it all up:
"If 'making a way out of no way' is a theme that runs throughout African-American life, few things encapsulate that theme more powerfully that the Green Book. A symbol of Jim Crow America, it is also a stunning rebuke of it, born out of ingenuity and the relentless quest for freedom."
It is unforgettable, compelling and a book that is not only beyond relevant but also critical reading in our own times, one that should be on the shelves of every library everywhere including the one in your home.   It is worthy of winning any book award nomination that may come its way.

Brava, Candacy Taylor, just brava.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Library of the Lost: In Search of Forgotten Authors, by Roger Dobson

Tartarus Press, 2018
(originally published in hardcover 2015)
305 pp


The Library of the Lost is a tribute to Roger Dobson, a writer whose devotion to literature seems to have known no bounds. It is composed of twenty of  his essays that are all delightfully informative, covering a wide range of topics and people connected to literature of the past.

It is author Javier Marías who gets the first say about his friend in this volume, in his article written for El Pais after Dobson's death in 2013.  Entitled  "A Remarkable Man,"  Marías describes Dobson as being someone who puts his "energies into rescuing someone from oblivion who has been unjustly forgotten," and a "silent enthusiast" devoted to "something that no one else much cares about."   Mark Valentine says of Dobson in his Introduction (parts of which are also found in his earlier post after Dobson's death in  Wormwoodiana ) that he was
"an author, journalist, actor, and bookman who loved to explore the stranger margins of literature and its most outré characters," 
a man "devoted to literature;" who was the "leading Machen scholar of his time," and "extremely well-read."  Even if I had not read the introduction, I would have been able to guess immediately  that Dobson was an "extremely well-read" man  given the examples of his amazing knowledge shared over all twenty essays collected in  Library of the Lost.  

The book is filled with astute, articulate, clever and often humorous essays about a number of different literary figures, some of whom are familiar to most readers, including Montague Summers, "a Jekyll and Hyde in reverse," M.P Shiel, George Gissing, Dennis Wheatley, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and W.B. Yeats.  While he doesn't get his own chapter here, Aleister Crowley features quite a bit, for example in "W.B. Yeats and The Golden Dawn," and  in another essay about poet Althea Gyles, a "strange red-haired girl" who asked for and received advice on how not to become too "enmeshed" by him.  Less familiar subjects to me (and okay, positively unknown in a few cases)  are Brocard Sewell, Julian Maclaren-Ross, John Gawsworth, Wrenne Jarman and Jocelyn Brooke.  There are also essays in which the focus is not a specific author, but writers from the past still manage to be found within these as well. 

I haven't mentioned Arthur Machen, but he is, of course,  most prominent throughout Library of the Lost. As just one example of many I could offer,  there are a number of discussions about  Machen's characters, for instance,  Wilde's Dorian Gray as a possible inspiration for Lucian Taylor of Hill of Dreams, the literary ancestors of  The Great God Pan's Helen Vaughan, and how  Machen's own experiences and "lonely struggles in London" may reflect those of some of the people who inhabit his fictional worlds.   It's all fascinating stuff, great food for thought, and perhaps most importantly for me, filled with signposts to follow in future reading. 

 As the blurb notes,
"This collection will delight all connoisseurs of fantastic, supernatural and outré literature."
 I will add only that the book should come with a warning label for potential readers.    As soon as I had started reading, I grabbed pen and paper and started noting titles of various books and stories mentioned here that  I wanted to read.  When I'd finished Library of the Lost, the list numbered thirty-four, of which I only owned twelve.  I bought three more immediately, and then after a second read, I purchased another three.  I couldn't help myself; Dobson had convinced me that these are all works worth reading. I can't begin to say how very much I loved this collection, but the proof is really in the new books now in my home library and their shelf  designated as "Dobson to-reads" after finishing it.

So very, very highly recommended. 

Friday, December 27, 2019

Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, by Stephen Kinzer

Henry Holt, 2019
354 pp


As the reviewer of this book for The San Francisco Review of Books wrote, Poisoner in Chief is an "awful story, told fast and well." I couldn't have said it better myself. 

According to author Stephen Kinzer, the early years of the 1950s were a "fearful time for Americans," citing among other things the "ugly stalemate" of the Korean War and Senator McCarthy's warnings that "Communists had infiltrated the State Department." The success of the Soviets' first nuclear weapons test led to the fear of being "attacked at any moment," and we also that the Communists "had found ways of controlling people's minds."  The term  "brain-washing" was introduced in 1950 to Americans by a militant anti-Communist propagandist  by the name of Edward Hunter, who was likely working for the CIA at the time, and who would go on to write a book called Brain-Washing in Red China, stoking fear and exacerbating Cold War anxieties. Hunter  "urged Americans to prepare for 'psychological warfare,' " since Red "specialists" were
"preparing psychic attacks aimed at subjugating 'the people and the soil and the resources of the United States' and turning Americans into 'subjects of a New World Order' for the benefit of a mad little knot of despots in the Kremlin." 
There was no real evidence that any of what Hunter said was true; nevertheless Allen Dulles along with "other senior officers" of the CIA feared that "they were losing a decisive race."   As Richard Helms would put it many years afterward, they believed that they couldn't afford to "lag behind the Russians or the Chinese" in this area. The CIA became convinced that
"there is a way to control the human mind, and if it can be found, the prize will be nothing less than global mastery." 
In a memo written in 1951, CIA officers posed a list of several questions along the lines of "Can we 'alter' a person's personality?" or "How can [drugs] be best concealed in a normal or commonplace item..." , the answers to which, they decided, would be "of incredible value to this agency."  Realizing that their current  Project Bluebird needed "an infusion of expertise and vision" from outside of the agency, Dulles and his officers decided to bring in a chemist
"with the drive to pursue forbidden knowledge, a character steely enough to direct experiments that might challenge the conscience of other scientists, and a willingness to ignore legal niceties in the service of of national security."
Enter Sidney Gottlieb.

Sidney Gottlieb; photo from NPR
Born in New York in 1918;  Gottlieb's college and postgraduate years were spent at University of Wisconsin and Cal Tech, where he majored in chemistry and received his PhD in 1943. Halfway through his doctorate program came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but Gottlieb remained to finish his degree.  In 1943 he tried to enlist in the army but was turned down due to a limp left  from childhood operations on his deformed feet.  Gottlieb was "crushed," but still had a desire to serve his country; after a few jobs working for various departments of  the government in DC, by 1948 he was looking for "more of a challenge" in his work. Ultimately he found it;  as the author states

"Everything suggested that he was headed for a career as a government scientist. So he was -- but he could not have imagined what a phantasmagorical kind of science he would be called to practice."

While this "phantasmagorical kind of science"  involved, as Kinzer puts it, "years of heinous assaults on the lives of others,"  reading about Gottlieb's home life makes for a serious case of cognitive dissonance on the part of the reader.  This man, the "poisoner in chief" and "mind control czar,"   architect of  MK-ULTRA, the  "most systematic and  widest-ranging mind control project ever undertaken" spent his time at home with his family, taught folk dancing, wrote poetry, grew vegetables, tended to his goats, and devoted time to focusing on his own spirituality.  On a segment of NPR's Fresh Air that aired this past September , Kinzer describes it as a "Jekyll-and-Hyde life," which is the vibe I got as well -- we're talking about a man who sought   "inner peace while just as relentlessly laying waste to other people's minds and bodies." 

Poisoner in Chief is not at all easy to read on a human level -- it's shocking, it's graphic, and it's frightening to think that all of what the author details over the course of this book was sanctioned and done in the name of national security and the defense of freedom. It also makes you wonder if anyone involved ever had the least qualms of conscience.  "Awful" this story may be, but at the same time, it's compelling enough that you absolutely cannot stop turning pages.

Recommended. Highly.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Labyrinth of Ice: The Triumphant and Tragic Greely Polar Expedition, by Buddy Levy

St. Martin's Press, 2019
400 pp

advanced reader edition, so my many thanks to the great people at St. Martin's Press for a paper copy.

I was delighted to have been offered a copy of this book, since I am and always have been a serious devotée of exploration narratives of all kinds, most especially accounts of expeditions in the polar/Arctic/Antarctic regions.  Another factor in saying yes to St. Martin's Press was that it wasn't all that long ago that I'd watched this fascinating story play out on  American Experience (PBS)  in an episode called "The Greely Expedition" and decided that I had to know more, so of course of I was going to accept their offer.  Smart decision on my end:  once I began reading  Labyrinth of Ice a couple of nights ago at about 6:30 p.m., I didn't  stop reading until  two in the morning, and only then because I had to be up by 5:30.

According to the author,  "Like nearly all great stories from the past," the story in this book has already been told,  but he intended this book to
"provide an interpretation that focuses on the adventures, triumphs, and the unity, brotherhood, and patriotism of the men"
 which he does, but he also doesn't skimp on the strength and fortitude of these people required for their very survival.  When this expedition began in 1881, not a single person under Greely's command would have been able to visualize the horrific challenges that would face them only two years later, when things became so dire that the expedition's doctor wrote in his journal while drifting on an ice floe that
"It is terrible to float in this manner, in the snow, fog, and dark. This seems to me like a nightmare in one of Edgar Allan Poe's stories."  
When  Lieutenant Adolphus Greely accepted his mission, he knew after years of studying the history of Arctic exploration that things didn't always go as planned.   However, he ran a tight ship, so to speak, and as the author notes, he also had an "uncanny sense of the thing to do now."  His orders were to  set up "the northernmost of a chain of a dozen research stations around the Arctic," as part of the first International Polar Year,  and to endeavor to locate and rescue the men of the long-missing USS Jeannette, the subject of Hampton Sides' most excellent book In The Kingdom of Ice.  Greely also had designs on reaching the North Pole, or failing that, at least to wrest the claim of reaching "Farthest North" from the British, who held the record.  Sailing from Newfoundland, the men reached their destination of  Fort Conger "more than 1,000 miles north of the Arctic Circle," or as the author says, "quite literally at the far end of the earth."

map taken from CBC News

While Labyrinth of Ice covers their two years there, the real story begins in 1883, when for the second year in a row, "relief-resupply" ships failed to reach these men as scheduled.   When the first summer went by in 1882 with no relief ship arriving, Greely and his men were still well provisioned, so the situation wasn't dire, but when the summer of 1883 began to draw to a close with no relief in sight, his orders were to
"depart with his men and head south, using the motorized launch Lady Greely and three whaleboats, plus a dinghy. They would retreat, scouring the shores, hoping to find food caches or relief ships and men along the coast of Ellesmere Island as far south as Cape Sabine, or at Littleton Island, both some 250 miles south of Fort Conger."
Greely and his men could remained at Fort Conger where, "if well rationed," they would have enough provisions to last another year, but he would never have considered disobeying his orders.  He was supposed to leave by September 1st, but fearing the ice, he made the decision to leave nearly a month earlier on August 9, 1883, thus beginning an ordeal which pushed his leadership and his men to their limits.     The story of the southward journey of  Greely and his men is indeed harrowing, but what makes it even worse was that had there not been so much negativity in Washington DC about Arctic exploration under the auspices of Secretary Robert Todd Lincoln, and had the people in charge of the relief expeditions carried out the parts of their mission that they could have actually fulfilled, things may have been much different in the end.

Levy has done a remarkable job with this slice of American history, and as I said earlier, I had to keep reading it despite the fact that I lost nearly an entire night of sleep doing so.  I didn't find it "dry," as some readers said they did; au contraire, it held my attention the entire time, and it is perfect for people who don't read history as part of their regular lineup.   I have only one complaint, which is that there were so many times I wanted to know the source of a quotation or something he mentioned and there were neither footnotes nor endnotes.  I have an ARC, so perhaps they are put into the final version, so if that's the case, disregard.  I happen to be one of those geeknerds who actually goes to the notes for enlightenment so in that sense, the lack of citation was disappointing.  And just one more thing: I'm not exactly sure why he chose to use Dan Simmons' novel The Terror as a source; frankly, it just seems weird.   The book as a whole, though, is so good and so well done that in the grander scheme of things, I can certainly and highly recommend it to anyone interested in Arctic exploration -- it is truly an unforgettable story that the author has put together here and I can only imagine the amount of time he put into piecing it all together.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Yellow House, by Sarah M. Broom

Grove Press, 2019
376 pp


"We are all born into histories, existing before us. The same is true of places. No place is without history."

Toward the end of this book, author Sarah Broom reveals that for the first time in five years, while visiting relatives, she had dreamed about  the Yellow House  before a trip to New Orleans.  On waking,  she wrote in a notebook the following question:
"How to resurrect a house with words?"
which is precisely what she does in this stunning, deeply personal, and unforgettable memoir.

She begins her story
"From high up, fifteen thousand feet above, where the aerial photographs are taken, 4121 Wilson Avenue, the address I know best, is a miniscule point, a scab of green. In satellite images shot from higher still, my former street dissolves into the toe of Louisiana's boot"
then moves closer to ground level to the neighborhood of New Orleans East.  The mention of this area where the author grew up is "rare and spare, afterthoughts" in the "twelve of thirteen history-telling books about New Orleans" she has stacked up; she also mentions an Avis Rent a Car map that cuts off New Orleans East, "a point beyond, a blank space on someone's mental map," although this area is "fifty times the size of the French Quarter, one-fourth of the city's developed surface."  It is also a part of New Orleans which doesn't find its way into the city's mythology; it's not that it  is "too young for history," but sadly, has been
"relegated to the sidelines, deemed not to matter as much, the place not having earned -- through demographics or economic success -- a spot on the cartographer's nearsighted map..."
It is also an area that reflects ongoing inequalities faced by African-Americans since before the author's childhood, but above all, it is someone's home. People lived and live there.

 Moving on, we are given a tour of the area as if the author is giving directions for driving there, a tour which hints at events involving her family at various locations along the way, slowly coming to Wilson Avenue until "finally arriving at what used to be our Yellow House," bought by the author's mother Ivory Mae in 1961 at the young age of nineteen and where thirteen children spent parts of their childhood.   It is there where the author's brother Carl often sits at a table at the spot where the living room of  4121 Wilson Avenue used to be, "where instead of floor there is green grass trying to grow."  This perfect beginning is beyond appropriate for many reasons which will become apparent while reading but more so because, as the author says in an interview on NPR,
"this is so important for me that I be able to act as a kind of cartographer and include my family on the map of a place that we love so much and also belong to" 
 an idea pointed to at the outset by her use of two different quotations, including part of Kei Miller's poem "The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion:"

"draw me a map of what you see
then I will draw a map of what you never see
and guess whose map will be bigger than whose?
Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?"

It was in the Yellow House, which no longer exists,  "within its walls" that her mother "made her world."  And although it is no longer there, it has not been erased;  as the dustjacket blurb reveals, Sarah Broom demonstrates
"how the enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure."
I find it appropriate that she unfolds these stories in "movements," since there is nothing at all static in the lives of these people (or for that matter, the street, the neighborhood or the city itself)  -- it is a story of people coming and going, absences, returns, displacements and dislocations, especially after 2005 and Hurricane Katrina.

The Yellow House is a beautiful, intricately-woven, often metaphorical book that allows the author to place her readers not  just inside  the house itself, but also moving outward,  inside the history of the family who lived there, the street, the neighborhood, and the city, about which the author has "braided, contradictory ideas."   It also moves inward, exploring her own connections to each, often from a distance.

Speaking of absences, and again quoting the author from the above-mentioned NPR interview, she says that
"it occurred to me that unless you knew a house had been there, you would never know. And I made this book in a way to stand in for that absence, to be a record, a history, so that some things might be saved.
While Carl keeps up the plot of land at 4121 Wilson Avenue to avoid it being taken away after the house had been demolished, "for any and for no reason, American History 101,"  he is also there  as "the keeper of the memory,"  knowing that he "could not put the house back together again," but still keeping watch, "letting the space transform and be the place it always was."

While I haven't even begun to scratch its surface here, I can't begin to say how much I loved this book; it is poignant, eye opening, and often funny, but above all,  so very down to earth and real, as it is told not only from the heart, but from the author's journalistic, investigative interviews with people within her own family.

 I have to say thank you to Sarah Broom for going against her "leanings" and bringing me to the Yellow House.  I have never read anything like this before, and I doubt I ever will again.  To say I loved it is an understatement.


Since I'm just a reader, neither a critic nor reviewer, here are a few reviews from people who know what they're doing:

The New York Times - Angela Flournoy
NPR - Martha Anne Toll
The AV Club  - Joshunda Sanders

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and The Last Trial of Harper Lee, by Casey Cep

Knopf, 2019
311 pp

On Saturday June 18, 1977, The Reverend Willie Maxwell and his wife Ophelia  were in the House of Hutchinson Funeral Home in Alexander City, Alabama, to mourn the death of Ophelia's sixteen year-old daughter Shirley Ann Ellington.  Shirley had left home one evening, and the next time she was seen was on Highway 9 not even a mile from home, but Shirley wouldn't be coming back. She had ostensibly stopped to change a flat tire, only to have the rim come loose and slip from under the jack; as a result, the car fell down with its full weight on top of her.  But hold on a moment.  Her hands were clean, the car's lug nuts were underneath instead of beside it, and the tire that she'd taken off wasn't even flat.  The rumor mill and the whispers started up immediately -- everyone in the county had an idea about  who had set up this scene and who was responsible for Shirley's death.  At the funeral, her grieving sister Louvinia noticed that Shirley's stepfather had "no tears or nothing in his eyes," and with a raised voice yelled out "You killed my sister and now you gonna pay for it!"  At that precise moment, someone fired three rounds into Maxwell's head, killing him almost immediately.   The shooter surrendered, confessed on the way to the station, leaving the question of whether he was a "hero or a cold-blooded murderer," the answer depending on, as the author notes,  whom you asked.  (By the way, I've said nothing at all here that can be taken as a spoiler, since I haven't told you anything much beyond what the dustjacket blurb says.)

It was this case and the ensuing trial that captured the imagination of author Harper Lee, who had not written another book since her To Kill a Mockingbird had been published in 1960.  It was in New York in 1976  that she'd first met the defense attorney for Maxwell's killer; a year later he had written up and sent her a summary of "the strange life and shocking death of the Reverend Willie Maxwell," a case in which she discovered "the kernel of a true-crime book" that took her to Alabama.  The attorney, "Big" Tom Radney, was "thrilled" at her interest, and gave her all of his files on the victim which encompassed "hundreds of pages of material," a veritable "gold mine."  Lee was excited, ready to face the challenge of doing something new and different, and on another level, Alabama was home.  There was also the fact that she knew that Truman Capote had stretched the facts in his In Cold Blood -- as she noted to Capote's New Yorker fact-checker and her partner  in various letters, Capote had "long ago put fact out of business" and made her "despair of 'factual' accounts of anything" -- so she was more than ready to put together a truly genuine account of her own.  At a time when, as Tom Wolfe noted about the so-called "New Journalists" of the 1970s,  "nonfiction had eclipsed the novel and that it was "the most important literature being written in America today," Lee was committed to writing "the old-fashioned, straitlaced journalism she admired," wondering whether or not she could stand on her own as successfully as the writers "trying to make nonfiction read more like fiction."   The truth is though that with  all of the resources available to her including Radney's files, newspaper clippings, interviews, court transcripts, a background in criminal law, no set deadline and above all encouragement, only four pages were ever passed on and the book, which she had tentatively called The Reverend, never got written.  In Furious Hours, the author tries to piece together why.

This book, among other things which I won't mention here, examines the events, legal and otherwise,  that inspired Lee back in the late 1970s to write again; to get to the heart of the case that caught her attention the author goes back in time to give us a glimpse at why the question  arose as to whether Maxwell's killer was a hero or a cold-blooded murderer.  To do this, Cep had to take a look at the Reverend himself and the people in his community who knew him, or at least knew of him; his reputation was larger than the man himself, for many reasons.   She then goes onto the trial with Tom Radney and how he handled the killer's defense,  and I have to say that all of that is quite interesting --  while not a lot of suspense happens in the unfurling of that tale, it still had the power to definitely keep me engrossed, largely because of Maxwell himself, and  I can totally understand why Harper Lee would have entitled her book  The Reverend.   The biggest issue I have with this book is that it isn't until page 150 that she finally gets to Harper Lee herself, and by that time, not counting the acknowledgments, notes, and bibliography, we're down to the last 126 pages of text.

the author in 1957, from Minnesota Public Radio

These last 126 pages, however,  are well worth the reading, especially for anyone not familiar with Lee except through her work and occasional bits of biography here and there,  meaning people like me.   In essence it's a biographical section  that takes us through Lee's life up to the time of her decision to write her book in the 1970s; it continues on through Lee's time on the project while working on it and not, and then comes down to her later years and her death, and then finally gets into the issue of whether or not she actually finished it.  As she relates the information here, Cep also  tries to discover what might have been the reasons behind Lee's giving up the project, but really, I think one of the issues is that Lee seems to have been so much inside herself with her own demons that trying to fathom her as a whole is just plain not doable. I will say though that I was impressed with the author's attempts, as well as her willingness to take on a woman who seems to have been far more enigmatic than can be easily conveyed on the page. As an aside, I'm also  impressed with the way she handled the whole Go Set a Watchman issue (a book I did NOT like and in so saying gained the derision of many of my reading peers) without actually offering an opinion on it, instead just relating facts around the book both in its early years and then later after it had been "discovered."

Speaking as just an ordinary reader person,  I think one of the problems other readers have had with this book (and one I completely understand)  is that somewhere along the line it's been labeled as "true crime" (and I'm just as guilty, tagging it this way but I couldn't come up with the right phrase), so when Lee finally steps in to the story, there's a bit of a disconnect somewhere. Had the book actually started with Harper Lee having met Radney, which sparked her interest in the story, then continued on as it began here with the look back at events leading up to why Maxwell was killed and what happened afterwards before circling back to Lee, things would have been a bit more straightforward and would have had more of a flow, and readers wouldn't be commenting about it seeming like two books, which it sort of does. However, after giving it a lot of thought since finishing, I'm thinking that beginning her book as the author did here, perhaps we're getting the factual story that Lee might have told had she actually finished her book, but it's a bit of a cart-before-the-horses approach that Cep has taken here, which can be confusing.  It's an issue that's hard to ignore, along with sections of text filled with what I felt were extraneous information that didn't make a difference to how the narrative progressed and could have easily been left out. On the other hand, to be very fair, anyone who reads the Prologue will clearly see that Cep lays out exactly what you're going to be reading and the order in which things are going to be happening, with Lee coming in at the last, so just beware.

Having said all of that, though, despite the confusion, I was blown away by the fact that this was Cep's first book, and I found the story to be engrossing, intriguing, a bit sad and quite satisfying.  It's a book I would certainly recommend to anyone at all interested in Harper Lee, racial politics in the American deep south, and in (for lack of a better phrase that I still can't think of) true crime.