Number of books read in 2013: 9
■ Life after Death (Damien Echols; 2012. 416 pages. Non-fiction.) Two decades ago, in West Memphis, Arkansas, three second-grade boys were murdered; their mutilated bodies were found on the bank of a watery ditch. About a month after the gruesome discovery, three local teens were arrested. The murders were determined to be part of a satanic ritual in which they had allegedly participated.
Anyone with a little legal knowledge (or a sometimes diet of "Law & Order") knows that an accused person is entitled to acquittal if, in the minds of the jury, his guilt has not been proved beyond a "reasonable doubt" — that is, if the jury lacks an abiding conviction as to the truth of the charge. That the jury in the trial of Jesse Misskelly and the trial of Damien Wayne Echols and Jason Baldwin did not doubt is both baffling and profoundly disturbing.
Arguably the most recognizable face of the so-called "West Memphis 3," Damien Echols received a death sentence for his crime. In Life after Death -- part memoir, part stream-of-consciousness, part self-indulgence, part horror story, part existential tract -- he describes his childhood, the days leading up to his arrest, his imprisonment, his relationship with his wife, his eventual release from prison, and life since that time. Although the writing is, at best, uneven, the narrative is compelling enough to remain through most tiresome bits.
My interest in the West Memphis 3 developed after seeing the documentaries Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. (Yes, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is on my TBW (to be watched) pile, and Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three (Mara Leveritt) has been loaded onto the Kindle.)
Reviews of Echols' memoir can be found here and here.
My mother denied later that they treated me like this. She has a very convenient way of forgetting and rearranging the past to fit whatever view she currently wishes to promote, much like the history changers in George Orwell's 1984. She now knows very little about me, but makes up stories so as to seem closer to me that she truly is. It gains her more attention.p. 60
I'm now at a point in my life where I look back on both of them [his parents] with mingled feeling of love, disgust, affection, resentment, and sometimes hatred. There's too much betrayal to ever be completely forgiven. I am not like my mother, who may argue with you one day and go back to life as usual the next. The best I can do is say that their good deeds may have softened the blow of the bad ones.■ Daddy Love (Joyce Carol Oates; 2013. 240 pages. Fiction.) The jacket copy appears to "give it all away": Chester Cash abducts five-year-old Robbie Whitcomb and runs the boy's mother down with his van as he flees the scene, leaving her for dead. But this is JCO; the jacket copy has given us nothing. Like Zombie, Daddy Love features a particularly depraved character committing horrifying acts of physical and emotional brutality, and the underlying message is neither hopeful nor life-affirming. Still, there is much to admire here, particularly the first five chapters, which narrate a pivotal sequence of events over and over, with increasing urgency (and blame? insight? remorse?), an exercise both frustrating and mesmerizing. And the conclusion haunts: "Hi, Mom."
Reviews of this novel can be found here and here.
■ Fatal Friends, Deadly Neighbors (Ann Rule; 2012. 544 pages. Non-fiction.) The casebook opens with two novella-length investigative reports: the disappearance of Susan Powell in 2009 and the deaths of billionaire Jonah Shacknai's son and girlfriend in 2011. Seven other cases are given chapter-length explorations.
■ Don't Turn Around (Michelle Gagnon; 2012. 320 pages. Fiction.) Oh, how I wanted to love and recommend this novel. As addictive as movie theater popcorn, it went down in mindless fistfuls until I reached the bottom of the bag and wondered why I was so unsatisfied. Billed as "a teen soul mate to Lisbeth Salander," the protagonist awakens on a gurney with a healing incision on her chest and no memory of an illness or accident that would have required surgery. A sixteen-year-old hacker and victim of the foster care system, Noa flees the makeshift hospital and performs computer wizardry. And flees and performs computer wizardry. For the rest of the novel. At the 35 percent completed mark on the Kindle, the point of all of the flight and hacking remains stubbornly vague. More, the hacking descriptions are poorly executed. (See Cory Doctorow's Little Brother for an excellent example of taut computer-related suspense.) The character development is weak, the plot devices contrived.
But someone likes it: In a Beast interview, Gagnon reveals that Don't Turn Around is the first of a trilogy.
■ Julius Caesar (William Shakespeare (1599); Folger ed. 2003. 288 pages. Drama.) How does the play weather a fourth reading? Excellently. It was wasted on my teenaged self, but it was a revelation when I taught it to my son in 2003 and again when I brought it to my daughters in 2009. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater will stage the play beginning next month, so in preparation, the Misses and I decided to revisit it. Still relevant. Still memorable. Still amazing.
Act I, scene ii
Would he were fatter! But I fear him not:Act IV, scene iii
Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much;
He is a great observer and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men: he loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mock'd himself and scorn'd his spirit
That could be moved to smile at any thing.
Such men as he be never at heart's ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous.
I rather tell thee what is to be fear'd
Than what I fear; for always I am Caesar.
Come on my right hand, for this ear is deaf,
And tell me truly what thou think'st of him.
“All this”? Ay, more. Fret till your proud heart break.■ La Bohème: Black Dog Opera Library (2005. 144 pages. Libretto, history, and commentary.) To prepare for the Lyric Opera of Chicago's staging of La Bohème, the Misses and I read this entry in the Black Dog Opera Library collection. Each book in the series features a history and summary of the opera and the complete libretto in both the original language and English, as well as recording of the opera with accompanying commentary.
Go show your slaves how choleric you are
And make your bondmen tremble. Must I budge?
Must I observe you? Must I stand and crouch
Under your testy humor? By the gods,
You shall digest the venom of your spleen,
Though it do split you. For from this day forth,
I'll use you for my mirth, yea, for my laughter,
When you are waspish.
■ Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness (Susannah Cahalan; 2012. 288 pages. Non-fiction.) This is the most frightening book I've read since Howard Dully's My Lobotomy. You'll find an excerpt at Scientific American and reviews here and here.
We are, in the end, a sum of our parts, and when the body fails, all the virtues we hold dear go with it.■ The 13 Clocks (James Thurber (1950); 2008. 136 pages. Fiction.) In his lectures for the Teaching Company, Peter Saccio says of Iago that he, like "cold, agressive Duke" of Thurber's blend of fairy tale and parable, may be bad for no other reason than that is simply who and how he is.
"We all have flaws," he [the Duke] said, "and mine is being wicked."
The reference sent the Misses and I in search of the source late last summer, but as sometimes happens, the book ended up in a TBR stack. When I came upon it this morning, however, I remembered precisely why it was there. And then I came across this:
"I do not trust him," growled the Duke. "I like a spy that I can see. Let me have men about me that are visible."Oh, how I love synchronicity / serendipity / synthesis! From Julius Caesar, Act I, scene ii:
Let me have men about me that are fat;■ Saga, Vol. 1 (Brian K. Vaughan; 2012. 160 pages. Graphic fiction.)
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o' nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
The conclusion of Sweet Tooth (sad, fitting, if a bit predictable) left a graphic fiction gap for me to fill. Saga was recommended by the elves behind that big online retailer's website. Given how much I adored Vaughan's Y: The Last Man and appreciated his Ex Machina, it's unsurprising how engrossing I found his latest effort.