helter skelter

All right, I know I’m out of order on my review posts here (and still way behind!) but since today is August 9, the infamous crime’s 45th anniversary, I thought it apt to do this review of Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry today. From Goodreads:

Prosecuting attorney in the Manson trial, Vincent Bugliosi held a unique insider’s position in one of the most baffling and horrifying cases of the twentieth century: the cold-blooded Tate-LaBianca murders carried out by Charles Manson and four of his followers. What motivated Manson in his seemingly mindless selection of victims, and what was his hold over the young women who obeyed his orders?

Whoa. WHOA, you guys. This book. I was completely enthralled in a morbid fascination kind of way. I started it at a bad time, only able to read a tiny bit each day for a couple of weeks (really busy with Fringe Festival coverage, out of town a bit), but as soon as my time freed up I devoured the last 75% in just 3 days, and this is a 670+ page book.

While I fully believe Charles Manson is guilty and belongs in prison, it’s undeniable that he’s a fascinating figure. Likening himself to Jesus Christ (in some superficial ways I see the similarities, but below the surface absolute opposites), Manson was able to grow a fanatical cult around his environmentalist and anti-establishment philosophies and apocalyptic prophesying. He was a predator and master manipulator, seeking out those who were lost—rejected, abandoned, or broken by society (as he was)—and creating a place for them to feel they belong, his notorious Family. It’s incredible and simply mind boggling that he achieved a superhuman grip over his followers, and still enjoys a bizarre, ignominious status of cult popularity today.

The story of these horrifying murders gave me the chills. I just can’t wrap my head around some of the evil that happens in the world, but for some reason I am drawn to it in literature. I definitely was gripped all the way through Helter Skelter (and have probably bored my husband already talking so much about it), despite being predominately about the investigation and trials rather than Manson’s psyche. (I’m not typically interested in court-room dramas.) I learned so, so much about this case though—all I knew before was that Manson was a mass murderer and serving a life sentence for killing an actress. Reading this, I can see how so many elements came together (Manson’s troubled past, growing use of drugs, political and social unrest, etc.) that allowed Manson to rise to dangerous god-like power over a handful of vulnerable young people (women, mostly) and effectively end an era of so-called innocence in the United States.

I also couldn’t believe how incompetent the LAPD came off, with prosecutor Bugliosi stepping in on investigations and interrogations. It was insane that the prosecution’s case was so difficult to string together, with very little admissible but an abundance of circumstantial evidence. Wow. Makes you think about the clashing systems of law and justice.

I have been wanting to read this book for a very long time. I had been putting it off because I knew it would be disturbing—and it was—but also so much more, so informative. I had no idea about Manson’s obsession with the Beatles, for instance, especially The White Album, and I didn’t know about his musical inclinations and attempts at hitting it big as a folk singer-songwriter (Nick and I did go back and listen to Guns N’ Roses’s cover of Manson’s song “Look at Your Game, Girl,” now that I know it was written by him, and it’s even more creepy and haunting). I also don’t think I can listen to Nine Inch Nails’s The Downward Spiral again the same way (it was recorded at the Tate residence decades later). I highly recommend Helter Skelter if you are into true crime and American history, law, and society, especially in the late 1960s–early 70s.

Helter Skelter is my fifth of twelve books read for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from July 18 to August 4, 2014.

the bean trees

A few weeks ago I read my second Barbara Kingsolver book, The Bean Trees. (I read The Poisonwood Bible maybe five years ago.) From Goodreads:

Clear-eyed and spirited, Taylor Greer grew up poor in rural Kentucky with the goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting away. But when she heads west with high hopes and a barely functional car, she meets the human condition head-on. By the time Taylor arrives in Tucson, Arizona, she has acquired a completely unexpected child, a 3-year-old American Indian girl named Turtle, and must somehow come to terms with both motherhood and the necessity for putting down roots. Hers is a story about love and friendship, abandonment and belonging, and the discovery of surprising resources in apparently empty places.

This was a really cute book. It reminded me of Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts in tone and shades of The Round House by Louise Erdrich. Taylor is sassy and smart, but some of her talking points were a bit heavy handed, like, I couldn’t tell if this is a book with a specific message Kingsolver was trying to get across or not. The other characters, while entertaining, were kind of just caricatures—I didn’t feel like they were multifaceted, whole people. I’m not sure I perceived a real connection between Taylor and Turtle, and I would have liked to see the end turn out differently than it did.

All that said, The Bean Trees is a cute book. It’s pretty short, with a real down-home Southwestern vibe to it. Kingsolver’s writing style was raw here (it’s her first book, after all) but there is a lot of lyricism that you can see will develop. It was interesting how although there are serious themes such as domestic violence, single parenthood, immigration here, it is still ultimately an uplifting, “light” read. There is a sequel, Pigs in Heaven, but I’m not so compelled to continue. The Bean Trees works well as a stand-alone.


The Bean Trees
 is my fourth of twelve books read for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from June 23 to July 7, 2014.

the blind assassin

It took me more than five weeks to finish Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin! I was surprised it took so long to get through—I love Atwood. This was on my TBR Pile Challenge list this year. From Goodreads:

The Blind Assassin opens with these simple, resonant words: “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister’s death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura’s story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Titled “The Blind Assassin,” it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist. Brilliantly weaving together such seemingly disparate elements, Atwood creates a world of astonishing vision and unforgettable impact.

I love everything I’ve read by Atwood so far… except The Blind Assassin. I just wasn’t ever sucked in an swept away completely. You know how sometimes you can get so entirely wrapped up in a book that the outside world falls away? Yeah that didn’t happen this time for me. I also pretty much had the end-twist figured out about halfway through. I didn’t really connect with any of the characters—they’re all pretty pretentious, entitled, and generally unpleasant people.

BUT. I did indeed enjoy many parts of it. I found myself more invested in Iris and her story than the two lovers and the sci-fi stories within. And of course, being an Atwood book, it does have her signature brilliant prose, which is always enjoyable to read. The structure and premise of the story within a story within a story is very cool and does work. (Meta.)

I’m not giving up on Atwood! I still love her, she’s still one of my all-time favorite authors. The Blind Assassin was just unlike anything I’ve read from her before. It’s a super-slow downward spiral that I just slogged through. I wonder if it wasn’t for my TBR challenge if I’d even have finished it. But there was something about it that compelled me to keep reading, so there’s that. It kind of read like a Classic, even though it was published in the twenty-first century!

The Blind Assassin is my third of twelve books read for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from May 1 to June 7, 2014.

the hot house

Last week I read a book I’ve been interested in for a long time, The Hot House by Pete Earley, about life in Leavenworth Prison, 1987–89. This year, I decided to add it to my TBR Pile Challenge this year. From Goodreads:

An account of life in Leavenworth Prison, based on interviews with inmates and others, describes the lives of a sexual predator, a gang member in for forty-two years, a sociopath in “no human contact” status, and others.

I have been curious about The Hot House since I first learned about it, and realized that Leavenworth Penitentiary was so close to Kansas City, where I live. I also was completely hooked on HBO’s Oz, and now feel inspired to watch the series again after reading this book.

Life in the Leavenworth is pretty much how you’d expect it: schemes, violence, murder plots, drug and weapon smuggling, drug and gambling rackets, sexual predators, inappropriate staff behavior, and more. Much of it, though, I found incredibly mind-bending, like the relationship between Carl Bowles and Thomas Little. Was it sexual? They claim not. Did Bowles brainwash Little intentionally? Certainly emotional manipulation. It was complex and disturbing.

I was also fascinated by Thomas Silverstein, arguably the most compelling subject in the book. A “no human contact” clause has been enforced for Silverstein since he killed a guard in 1983. In Leavenworth, he was confined in a tiny basement cell with the florescent lights on 24/7, only sparingly interacting with guards that despised him. When Earley interviewed him, Silverstein admitted the disorienting isolation was taking a toll on his mental state. His drawings and dreams were disquieting.

One thing I noticed was that Earley’s main subjects were all white, with the exception of Warden Matthews, who was black. There is a big subplot regarding the Cuban prisoners rioting, but for the most part minorities remain in the background. I wonder if this is because Earley is white himself? It’s pretty clear in the book that races tend to stick to themselves. Perhaps it was difficult to get close and intimate (conversationally) to non-white inmates?

Anyway, The Hot House raises tons of issues that have escalated in the decades since publication, from race relations to the effectiveness of rehabilitation programs to mental illness to the staggering, embarrassing escalation of prison stats in the United States. This book brings to the forefront a huge, complicated blot on our society deserving of attention and action.

The Hot House is my second of twelve books read for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge.

Read from March 3 to 16, 2014.

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading?—a weekly blog meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

I finished reading The Hot House by Pete Earley yesterday! It was the second book for my TBR Pile Challenge. That one took me about a week longer than I would have expected, but I had a couple of particularly busy weeks with extra rehearsals, a concert, working through lunch a bit, and my parents visiting last weekend. I liked the book a lot though—it was a real page turner and it made me want to rewatch my Oz DVDs! I’m planning to have a review post up later this week. Stay tuned!

This week I’m going to read The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. This is my KC Library Stranger than Fiction book group’s March pick. Hopefully I will make it through and not get sick this month, I hate to miss the discussions! Anyway, I’ve had this ebook on my iPad for a while now, so it’s also a little bit of a TBR pile book, but I’m not counting it on my “official” list for the challenge. I know about the Dust Bowl already from knowing about Woody Guthrie and literature from that time, but I’m happy to be reading a non-fiction about it, especially since I live near-ish the Dust Bowl area now.

What are you reading this week?

it’s monday! what are you reading?

It’s Monday, what are you reading?—a weekly blog meme hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

I’m late to the party today, but I had a pretty decent week of reading! I finished the KC Library Winter Reads program (post coming soon), and after much deliberation was able to pick another book. I spent far too long standing in front of the bookcase going back and forth between a few, but ultimately decided on The Hot House by Pete Earley.

The Hot House is a non-fiction that chronicles the lives of inmates and guards over the course of three years in the late 1980s at Leavenworth Prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. This book has been on my radar for a few years, ever since I got more into non-fiction and realized just how close Leavenworth is to where I live, Kansas City, Missouri. I’m about 20 pages in so far and already it’s making me want to re-watch my Oz DVDs! The Hot House is on my TBR Pile Challenge this year.

What are you reading this week?