Books read in May 2013

FOR THE RECORD, I’m also halfway through a post about Star Trek and Khan Noonien Singh and stuff, but also I’m involved in this convention that’s a week from now, so, yeah, I’ve got stuff happening.

But not so much stuff that I couldn’t read SEVEN WHOLE BOOKS, YEAH!

Okay, so last month I read seven books and I was like, “I fail so hard!”  This month I’m practically high-fiving myself, which, also, I don’t recommend because it’s awkward and you look weird.

My excuse is that this month’s books were more substantial than April’s, in that there were no graphic novels or YA re-readds.  YEAH.

Red Dragon Thomas Harris Thriller
The Revolution Was Televised Alan Sepinwall Television
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress Rhoda Janzen Memoir
Triangle: The fire that changed America David von Drehle History
Thunderstruck Erik Larson History
Pox: An American History Michael Willrich History
The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder Charles Graeber True crime

ALSO, all but one of those books was non-fiction.  Not that NF is superior or anything, but it engages a different part of the brain.

The one novel I read:

Red Dragon by Thomas Harris, because Hannibal (the TV series, not the terrible book) fandom is hilarious, and also it looks like a really good show.  And I read Silence of the Lambs at an impressionable age (14), then held my breath until Hannibal came out.  Whereupon I turned my exhalation into a tantrum, because that was character-destroying shite and I have never forgiven Thomas Harris for what he did to Clarice.

(One of the few conversations I had with my high school crush — conversations that didn’t come to a premature end because I was hyperventilating, I mean — was about how much we hated Hannibal.)

I quite enjoyed Red Dragon, despite the complete lack of Clarice Starling (which is why I didn’t read it as a teen, because WHAT IS THE POINT?).  Will Graham is a character-type so common now as to be generic, but I could see where Thomas was reaching for something new.  Lecter himself seemed less layered and more cartoonish than he would later become, but it might be that I have rose-coloured memories of reading Silence for the first time.

What didn’t really work for me was the villain, who didn’t seem to fit any realistic psychiatric profiles (‘cos I’m an expert, you know) and wound up kind of a stereotype of the schizophrenic murderer.  Also, he eats a painting.  Well, a watercolour.  OH WAIT, YOU REALLY CAN’T MAKE THAT ANY LESS WEIRD.  And by weird, I mean that was the moment when literature jumped the shark.

The book about TV

The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall.  A TV critic looks at the way television has evolved in the 21st century, specifically in the development of elaborate, narratively ambitious cable series.

This was pretty interesting, but what I took away from it in the end was that, coming from a critic’s perspective, Sepinwall missed both the academic and fan angles.  And that’s unfortunate, because it led to slight inaccuracies that are nonetheless grating if you’re a TV nerd.  For example, he claims that the very first TV show to be discussed on the internet was The X Files, which was more like the first show where discussion exploded and became quite mainstream.  (The first was probably Star Trek: The Next Generation — I’ve read that the cliffhanger that ended “The Best of Both Worlds” part 1 was what made TV bulletin boards explode.)  And The X Files (again) was one of the earliest and most successful shows to use ongoing mythology and an arc, but Babylon 5 debuted first, and I’d argue that even Twin Peaks paved some ground.

But that’s just little things.  If you want an overview of quite a few prestige TV series, and the network shows that preceded them, this is a good, light read.  And you get bonuses, like Ron Moore being quoted as saying Star Trek fans don’t watch The West Wing and vice versa.

The religious upbringing memoir

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen.  In which the author, after her marriage ends and she suffers a serious car accident, goes home to her parents, members of the conservative Mennonite community.

It probably says something about my upbringing that I was really struck by the lack of abuse in this book.  Actually, no, that’s not true — Janzen’s account of her time with her family also unfolds, slowly, the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband — but the only terrible things her conservative! religious! family did to her involved making her wear nerdy clothes, and sending her out into the world with no sense of self-preservation against predators.  

I was slightly disappointed that Janzen’s family aren’t the conservative Mennonites of the kind I saw in Canada.  Her parents had that lifestyle growing up, but were liberal enough to own a car and a modern house.  And her mother had a nursing career.  (By the time Jenzen returns, they’re so liberal her mother asks why she’s not showing off her legs in attractive shorts at a Mennonite gathering.)  But if you’re coming into this book hoping for a look at the lifestyle of the very conservative and technology-rejecting, you’re going to be disappointed.  We only get glimpses of that.

On the other hand, Janzen has an amazing ear for dialogue, and every character has a distinctive voice that feels very real.  And her observations about the Mennonite church, German-American-Canadian culture, and growing up in an eccentric and loving family are really fun to read.

There’s another book in here, though, which is about Janzen coming to terms with her marriage.  At first she seems to have come out of a relatively normal marriage that ended when her husband left her for a man he met on the internet.  Then, in a trickle, we learn more about his abuse, his refusal to hold a job (because it would interfere with his creativity), his financial exploitation, threats of violence, etc.  Janzen seems at times a little too preoccupied with her husband’s sexuality and his new partner’s penis, but it’s very clear this book was written while she was still processing and coming to terms with everything.  The story is told in a very light, breezy, funny style, so it comes as a shock when her ex almost attacks her when she turns up for a court appearance (and he subpoenaed her), and her lawyer advises her to hide in the bathroom after the hearing, so he doesn’t have a chance to attack her.

The two books don’t quite sit together properly, even united by Janzen’s distinctive voice.  I enjoyed Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, but don’t feel compelled to read the follow-up.

The ones about the Progressive Age

Triangle: the fire that changed America by David von Drehle; Thunderstruck by Erik Larson; Pox: an American History by Michael Willrich.

Wanted: recommendations for books about the New Deal.  Because between these three — especially the first and last — it’s easy to forget that there was the better part of a century between the early 1900s and now, and for most of that time, America’s workers had rights and stuff.

I tweeted, you see, about the one-star review for Triangle that said it was all about the leftist notion that workplaces should be safe, and not burning to death at your job is a privilege, not a right.  I meant it facetiously, but I got all these responses from Americans who have worked or are working in warehouses with inadequate fire safety facilities, and offices without fire escapes, and so forth.

Not to single America out, but Australia frankly doesn’t get this level of popular history.  (I know, because I spent a whole afternoon looking for a book about the Bubonic plague epidemics that Sydney suffered in the early 1900s.  There was a book years ago, but it’s out of print.)

Triangle covers, obviously, the Triangle Waist Factory fire, where a large number of workers, most of them young immigrant women, burned to death due to inadequate fire safety facilities and the factory owners’ practice of locking a major exit to minimise theft.  It also covers the garment workers strike of the year before, and the campaign, after the fire, for better conditions.

Needless to say, it’s quite a harrowing read in places, but also compelling, especially the strike chapters.  The strike was overtaken to a degree by wealthy sympathisers, many of them women, which caused resentment among the Socialists, many of them men.  This third of the book is almost a diversion, since we see very few of the people involved in the strike in the fire chapters, and safety conditions weren’t on the strikers’ agenda.  But it’s a vivid introduction to the culture of New York’s immigrant classes, Tammany Hall, and the city’s conflicts.

If it had no other value — and I really do recommend it a lot — Triangle would be notable for having the most complete possible list of the fire’s victims.  The press at the time was more concerned in being first than being right, and because many of the casualties came from immigrant backgrounds, they had unfamiliar names that were often misspelled.  Von Drehle worked quite hard to find the most likely spellings and other biographical details about the dead.

Thunderstruck is much less political.  Erik Larson contrasts Hawley Harvey Crippen’s murder of his wife with Marconi’s development of the wireless, which enabled the capture of Crippen.

I’m usually a big fan of Larson’s books, but I was a bit disappointed in this one.  He continually refers to Cora “Belle Elmore” Crippen’s generous figure and sensuality, as if that somehow justifies Crippen’s murder.  He seems to regard her as a thoroughly unpleasant woman, excessively sensual, manipulative and with ambitions beyond her talents.  All of which was true to an extent, but she was also a very popular member of her social circle, well-liked by her friends, which to me doesn’t suggest she was as terrible as Larson makes out.

Marconi is an unpleasant figure, and remains so right up to his dying days (in his later years he supported Mussolini and joined the Fascists.  I don’t think that “he didn’t care for Hitler” entirely ameliorates that, you know?) but at least Larson is aware of it.

There are interesting parallels between Marconi’s work and contemporary digital rights management issues.  Marconi was paranoid about having his ideas stolen, and so, rather than selling his machines, merely licensed them, and their operators, and tried to keep wireless a closed network that he controlled.

The British government wasn’t happy about this — the post office had a monopoly on telegraphy, and regarded itself as the rightful controller of radio — and so, when the Royal Navy licensed the Marconi devices, they promptly started pirating them.  Yarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Pox: an American History is less about smallpox in general, and more about the epidemics that swept America at the turn of the century, and how they led to the formation of a federal health system, plus debates about compulsory vaccination, medical ethics and more.

Now, smallpox was one of my big childhood fears (along with black holes and Daleks), so I started this book thinking that anyone who refused a smallpox vaccine was a dangerous idiot, same as the contemporary anti-vaxxers.  But it’s actually a lot more complicated than that:  the smallpox vaccine was (and still is!) the most dangerous, side-effect-filled one around, and for many people, the vaccine was worse than the disease.  Even if you didn’t get tetanus from an infected sample, as many children did, you might be unable to work for weeks until your body recovered.  For poor people with families to support, that was an unacceptable choice.  Oh yeah, and many states and cities had compulsory vaccination before there was a safe vaccine.

Then there’s the issue where, yeah, smallpox was basically wiped out in the Philippines, but that was because the US army were rounding people up and vaccinating them by force.  In the United States, the same treatment was meted out to African Americans and Italians, and anyone else who seemed a bit shifty.  (Spoilers!  Wealthy white people were treated differently to the poor!  I know, who saw that coming, right?)

In fact, for quite a few years, white Americans, particularly in the South, were quite convinced that smallpox was restricted to black people.  Boy, were they hilariously wrong.  There’s quite an interesting sequence about a public health official, whose name now escapes me and my Kobo is not to hand, who basically made it his mission to promote public health in the South.  And he came to the conclusion that Southerners were intelligent, sensible people who would give you a chance if you were honest with them, but their political institutions were messed up.  That seems pretty universal, really.

(This guy was also the son of a Confederate hero, a very privileged white dude who was quite pro the Jim Crow laws and other general racism, but he was also one of the few public health officials who even acknowledged that African Americans also needed support in their health issues, and he spent his later years empowering black communities to wipe out tuberculosis.  People: complicated.)

Suffice to say, things were pretty complicated and a lot of people died before matters were taken in hand.  Willrich had a lot to say about the growing power of the federal government at the time, much of which I skimmed because it was quite repetitive.  One of those books where the topic is more interesting than the writing.  But it basically boiled down to this:

The federal government finally began to oversee vaccine manufacturing, and imposed restrictions and rules, and shut down any manufacturers who weren’t doing their job properly.

This was hailed as the rise of socialism and the end of American democracy.

So far, so contemporary.  But what we don’t get these days is actual socialists taking offence and saying, nope, this is all so much capitalist bullshit, and a pox (heh) on both your houses.

The one about the serial killer

The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder by Charles Graeber.  The pox book had kind of piqued my hypochondria, so naturally I turned to a book about a nurse who kills people.

This is just straight up true crime, but meticulously researched and well-written.  The first half of the book deals strictly with Charles Cullen, the murderer in question, and frankly I found it tough going, because it’s told in tight POV (based on extensive interviews with the man), and needless to say, he’s an unpleasant character.

The second half details the investigation into his crimes, hampered by the detectives’ lack of medical knowledge, and the hospitals themselves, trying to avoid lawsuits.

You know how sometimes you’re reading a book, and a person walks into it who’s somehow radiant, even though he or she is really just words on a page?  This book has one of those people, a fellow nurse and friend of Charlie’s named Amy, who starts out as his ally and winds up risking her job and health to help capture him.  She’s a thirty-something single mother with a heart condition, an abuse survivor, the kind of woman who knows bullshit when she sees it.  And she’s so thrown when she realises what Charlie is, realising that all her well-honed instincts were completely wrong, that she has to do something.

Graeber has a good ear for dialogue — this has been a good month for those authors! — and Amy just brings the book to life.  If she was a character in a movie, you’d say she was unrealistic.  But she’s brilliant.  She’s basically my heroine.

One chilling postscript:  the final chapter deals with Cullen in jail, trying to donate a kidney to his ex’s brother.  And his chaplain recounts how she got hate mail from a Pentecostal pastor, telling her that if Charlie is saved and goes to heaven, she’ll have done a terrible thing.  That, to me, was more upsetting than the recounting of the murders, because at least Charlie Cullen knows he did something terrible and wrong.

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