mini-reviews: psycho, deviant, and the monster of florence

It’s almost Halloween! I love watching scary movies all month and reading spooky books to get me in the mood, even if I don’t actually do anything on the 31st (except, of course, have a¬†Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” marathon ūüôā Here are three books on serial killers I listened to on audio this year:

I’ve been enjoying classics lately on audio, so I went with¬†Robert Bloch’s seminal horror novel¬†Psycho last March. Thanks to the iconic Hitchcock film, you all know the story: Woman skips town with a wad of cash from work, ends up at Bates Motel, where she meets Norman Bates, whose secrets go deeper and are more upsetting than some stolen money. She’s never heard from again, and her boyfriend and sister go looking for her. Even though this was short and I knew the plot already,¬†Psycho is still a tight, suspenseful read that has quite a bit of depth left out of the movie. Bloch was inspired by the capture of Ed Gein (see below). It’s very short‚ÄĒjust over five hours on audio‚ÄĒbut it packs an intense punch. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

I’m not sure why I decided to listen to¬†Deviant by Harold Schechter last March/April… maybe I was homesick, as weird as that sounds! (Well, I’m always homesick.) Anyway, it popped up in my recommendations after I finished¬†Psycho and I decided why not. The life of Ed Gein is truly one terrifying, disturbing nightmare. Gein was a low-profile farmhand in Plainfield, Wisconsin, often helping out neighbors as a babysitter or handyman, basically regarded as a harmless “town simpleton.” But beneath the innocuous facade was a depraved murderer, whose behavior and actions behind closed doors was unimaginably gruesome, each discovery unearthed in his farmhouse by authorities in 1957 more strange and chilling than the last. He was the inspiration for¬†Psycho,¬†The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,¬†The Silence of the Lambs, and more.¬†As a sucker for true crime and Gein being serious lore in my home state of Wisconsin, this book kept me intrigued and captivated throughout. It is definitely NOT for the faint of heart; Norman Bates is positively quaint compared to Ed Gein.¬†Fun fact: Gein spent the last years of his life at the Mendota Mental Health Institute, just a couple miles from the street I grew up on! [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

***Both¬†Psycho¬†and¬†Deviant¬†are fascinating, gripping books, but I have to mention that the discussions of mental illness and the way the term transvestite is used in both books are dated and problematic. Deviant (1989)¬†would be easy enough to edit and update, and anyway I’d even bet there are more recent books on Ed Gein.

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston was recommended to me by one of my oldest, best friends back home in Madison last summer, and I was excited to see it was available on my library app! Author Douglas Preston discovered the olive grove in front of his family’s new Italian home was the location of one of Italy’s most notorious double-murders. Preston, with the help of a local investigator Mario Spezi, attempts to uncover the identity of the murderer, known simply as the Monster of Florence. They end up interviewing the man they believe may be the killer, but then end up the focus of a police investigation themselves. I liked the first part of the book better (the second half dragged somewhat, and was more about Preston than the murders), but it still reads like a suspense-thriller in the vein of Berendt’s¬†Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil¬†and Larson’s¬†Devil in the White City. [Listened to audiobook in August 2017.]

mini-reviews: evicted, janesville, and how to speak midwestern

It’s no secret I’m very homesick here in Singapore. There is no place better or more beautiful on earth to me than my beloved home state, Wisconsin. I somehow manage to find connections to the Dairy State in almost everything‚ÄĒan actor in a random movie I know is from Green Bay, for example, or a singer of a song playing on the radio is from Milwaukee. And I love to celebrate all the great, wonderful things about Wisconsin: natural beauty, excellent sports, delicious food and beer, progressive political history, and more. That’s not to say I don’t recognize flaws and shortcomings in some Wisconsin systems, and I’m always interested in learning more about them and what can be done. Two new books in the last year along these lines were very high on my list, plus another one just for fun:

Evicted by Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer in General Nonfiction this year. It follows the author as he delves into destitute neighborhoods of Milwaukee and shares the intimate stories of a few poverty-stricken families living there on the brink, forced to spend the majority of their meager earnings on rent. They are adults raising kids, differently abled persons, drug addicts, and those mired in crushing debt, living in constant fear that one tiny mishap will destroy everything, and they’ll be evicted for falling behind on rent payments (because it has happened to them time and again), and may have to move to shelters or more dangerous areas… or end up homeless. Desmond outlines how people across the country find themselves in these precarious situations, and how the cycle viciously continues with virtually no relief in sight.¬†It’s a personal, eye-opening look at the housing crisis, and how evictions, crime, segregation, and more are connected. I admired the tenacity of the tenants‚ÄĒthey just want a normal, safe life, like everyone does. Of course they do! I’m just at a loss sometimes as to how the system so horrifically fails its people and turns a blind eye. This is an important, devastating work totally deserving of the Pulitzer, and one of the best books I read in 2016. [Listened to audiobook in November 2016.]

Amy Goldstein’s¬†Janesville is an excellent companion piece to¬†Evicted, but instead of the housing crisis, Goldstein examines the job crisis during the Great Recession, using the example of the closing of Janesville’s GM plant in December 2008 and its aftermath to today. She does a masterful job immersing the readers in this small industrial city during this time, following several families through the shock, frustration, and humiliation of losing good jobs these men and women thought were stable and were relying on until their retirement… and even seeing pensions disappear.¬†Then being told to retrain in another field, only to find those fields weren’t hiring either, or hiring hundreds of miles away (can’t move, their homes have lost value and can’t sell)‚ÄĒfinding themselves in impossible, no-win situations. How does this economic devastation divide a community? How does it try to heal and build again? This is an excellent look at the American dream and how difficult it will be to rebuild the middle and working classes after the upheaval of the Great Recession. [Listened to audiobook in June 2017.]

I read Edward McClelland’s¬†How to Speak Midwestern in June last year to myself in the mood before my big trip home last summer.¬†This is a fun, short book about the subtle differences in Midwestern accents and dialects. It also covers the history of how each regional way of speech developed‚ÄĒa blend of slight changes from the East Coast with adaptation of Scandinavian and North Germanic languages to English. I identified with some of all of it, but of course mostly with the parts about Wisconsin! [Read ebook in June 2017.]

league of denial

Last summer, I listened to the excellent audiobook version of League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. With football season upon us, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at this one. Edited from Goodreads:

“Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis.”

So concluded the National Football League in a December 2005 scientific paper on concussions in America‚Äôs most popular sport. That judgment, implausible even to a casual fan, also contradicted the opinion of a growing cadre of neuroscientists who worked in vain to convince the NFL that it was facing a deadly new scourge: a chronic brain disease that was driving an alarming number of players‚ÄĒincluding some of the all-time greats‚ÄĒto madness.

League of Denial reveals how the NFL, over a period of nearly two decades, sought to cover up and deny mounting evidence of the connection between football and brain damage.

If you read my little slice of the internet here, you know I’m a rabid Green Bay Packers fan. My mother grew up in De Pere, in a house just a mile from Vince Lombardi’s house. Lombardi frequented my grandparents’ church. My grandparents went on dates to games. We have coveted, hard-to-get season tickets. As a fan, as someone who cares and is curious, I decided to read¬†League of Denial. I already knew there are health consequences to playing contact sports, but I had no idea just how disturbingly deep the CTE controversy goes in the NFL.

League of Denial exposes the fraud of “safety” in football, from the physically violent way the game is played to attempting to solve the CTE issue with advances in helmet construction and technology, from medical teams to owners to the highest levels of administration. It was just like how Big Tobacco convinced everyone for the longest time that smoking cigarettes was safe. There’s no helmet that can keep the brain from experiencing trauma and damage inside the skull when a player is hit, whether it’s football, baseball, boxing, or anything else.

The amount of research and countless interviews that went into¬†League of Denial is staggering. I know Brett Favre is concerned and vocal about his own future health regarding CTE, and the distressing experiences of football greats like Troy Aikman and Dan Marino in this book really bring home CTE’s seriousness, as well as the NFL’s denial and inaction. The most disquieting story, though, is the life and tragic downward spiral of four-time Super Bowl champion Mike Webster. He was from Wisconsin, where he grew up on a farm, rooted for the Packers, and was a center for the Badgers in college at UW-Madison. It’s a very typical Wisconsin upbringing that hits close to home for me.

This is a compulsively readable book. The only downside of the audio is I’m sure I missed out on a photo section on paper. I haven’t been able to denounce and boycott the game, primarily because the Packers are such a huge part of my homestate’s culture and my family’s bond and history. But I’m paying closer attention for sure to this issue and how the NFL handles it going forward.¬†As a sports fan, and particularly a football fan‚ÄĒone with a conscious‚ÄĒI’m glad I read this informative book. It serves as a warning for exactly how more and more rampant CTE will become each year, and makes the reader question why we as a society are so obsessed with a sport that mimics war and glorifies violence.

Listened to audiobook in July 2016.

al franken, giant of the senate

I don’t know how I’m going to catch up on all my book posts! One at a time, I suppose. I’ve been a fan of¬†Al Franken for years, like pretty much everyone, and I think his time as a senator has made me like him even more (and seriously consider a move to Minnesota! But we do have the wonderful Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin).¬†I recently listened to Franken’s new memoir Al Franken, Giant of the Senate on audiobook, read brilliantly by Al himself.¬†Edited from Goodreads:

In this candid personal memoir, the honorable gentleman from Minnesota takes his army of loyal fans along with him from Saturday Night Live to the campaign trail, inside the halls of Congress, and behind the scenes of some of the most dramatic and/or hilarious moments of his new career in politics. Has Al Franken become a true Giant of the Senate? Franken asks readers to decide for themselves..

First off, the chapter on Ted Cruz is worth the price of this book alone. “I probably¬†like Ted Cruz more than most¬†of my other colleagues¬†like Ted Cruz, and I hate¬†Ted Cruz,” says Franken. But the entire book is full of interesting and enlightening details about his life and two careers. I really appreciate his honesty (he talks about how he cannot understand and abide by lying) and integrity as a senator. Franken sums up his memoir as “the story of how, after a lifetime of learning how to be funny, I learned how not to be funny.” Because senators aren’t supposed to be funny. But rest assured, Franken is still very funny, with his signature Minnesotan dry humor and droll observations found throughout. He recounts his childhood, his time on SNL, and his campaign run, as well as¬†explains policy and political processes in a straight-forward manner that’s easy to follow and understand.

I really enjoyed hearing about his friendship with Paul Wellstone, which inspired him to get into politics, as well as his reconciling his funny and serious selves. While there is a lot of ugliness in politics right now, and we are going through some terrifying times, Franken managed to make me feel hopeful by the end of Giant of the Senate. I think this memoir is a must read for people who truly want a fair, balanced view of politics and politicians. With a few jokes thrown in, naturally.

Listened to audiobook in July 2017.

summer 2017 in wisconsin

I just finished a five-week visit back home to Wisconsin, and it may have been the best summer I’ve had… ever? I had more fun than a person should be allowed to have. I didn’t want it to end!
Early in the trip Nick and I spent a weekend in Chicago, where we had burgers at the metal-themed¬†Kuma’s Corner with a cousin of mine and his girlfriend. After that, we stopped by¬†Chicago Music Exchange to drool over all the amazing guitars, and later had cocktails at Reno where another cousin of mine works, to say hi to her.¬†The next day, we brought our nephew to the¬†Shedd Aquarium. He loved the sharks best! And of course we had to have¬†Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza while we were there. I also hung out in Chicago later, the day before I flew back to Singapore, visiting the¬†American Writers Museum and¬†Museum of Contemporary Art, which had an amazing Takashi Murakami exhibit,¬†The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg.

It’s really, really hard to beat summer in Wisconsin, specifically Madison. I’m honestly not sure there’s anything better. (I realize I’m completely biased!) I don’t think I was bored for even one minute. I went for a hike around¬†Devil’s Lake, something I haven’t done in years, as well as biked around Madison a lot, including the Monona Lake Loop twice. I played my own bass again; I missed it so much!! I spent a bunch of time on State Street and at the UW Memorial Union Terrace, went to the Dane County Farmer’s Markets¬†and Concerts on the Square, and had a great time reconnecting with high school and best childhood friends. Not to mention enjoying all the Wisconsin food¬†I’ve missed terribly‚ÄĒcheese curds, fish fry, dumplings and sauerkraut, ice cream, brats, the beer!! The gloriously cheap local craft beer. Sigh.

My dad retired the last day of June, and I was so happy to be there for him. His coworkers pulled out all the stops, throwing a big party and making special shirts, “baseball cards” with my dad’s “career stats,” a huge poster with all his signature workplace sayings, and a 10-minute farewell video that had my mother and me in tears. They gifted him a very nice new bike and two sunburst chairs you see at the UW Terrace. It’s just heartwarming to see someone you love so appreciated and loved by others.

Another highlight of my trip was framing and delivering three of my drawings to their new owners, my cousin, nephew, and niece.¬†I’ll write another post about my drawings soon, but it was a pleasure to pick out a spot in my nephew’s bedroom for his transformer drawing, and my niece lit up when she saw the horse drawing, even “petting” it and giving it a kiss on the nose. D’aww.¬†

My best friend Lee and his husband Thomas came to see me in Madison, and they were a sight for sore eyes! We did all sorts of classic Madison stuff, including checking out the¬†Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, having¬†a boot at the Essen Haus, and making a little trip down to the¬†New Glarus Brewery, which is something I’ve wanted to do forever!

Two of the best weekends I had back home were in Green Bay and Antigo, for my family reunions. In Green Bay, I went to the¬†Packers Hall of Fame and took the¬†Lambeau Field tour, which I had done before but the HoF was all updated and redone‚ÄĒit’s incredible. I could do a whole post alone on Lambeau Field. Also in Green Bay, I visited the farm one of my cousins manages, and of course went to my mom’s side’s family reunion. I talked to extended family I hadn’t met and/or seen in a long time, and some great stories were shared. I hadn’t been to this side’s reunion in several years (I always had a gig in Kansas City the same weekend) so it was wonderful to finally make it this time.

My dad’s side’s family reunion is held at my grandparents’ farm just north of Antigo, which is a small city in the north-central part of the state. My dad’s immediate family (my dad and mom, his siblings and their spouses, my cousin and her son, and me) went to the farm a couple days early to enjoy some “us together” time and prep for the reunion. We biked around the country roads, went berry picking, had a fish fry, went swimming at Jack Lake, and of course held our reunion. This year’s theme was Disco (for the adults) and¬†Toy Story (for the kids). I wore my new “Disco Demolition Night” shirt and played two songs on guitar for the skit show, ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and my own original “Back to Antigo,” which I sing every year now. People go all out with costumes, we crown a new “Potato Queen,” and sometimes roast a family member. We always finish up the festivities with a softball game, bonfire, and fireworks.

I really needed to see my family and feel like I’m at home where I belong after all these months abroad. I just felt awake and alive, and I got a vital dose of love and attention that I’d been craving. Singapore is nice and I’m happy for the adventure, but it can be a little lonely for me here sometimes; I’m not used to being apart from family for so long. And besides, there’s no place else on Earth quite like Wisconsin. I already can’t wait to return.

reading recap: june 2017

I’m back in Singapore after the most wonderful, fun visit to see family and friends in Wisconsin last month. I’ll post about that soon, but in the meantime here’s my (late) monthly reading recap for June:

  • Going Clear (audio) … Lawrence Wright, read by Morton Sellers
  • How to Speak Midwestern (ebook) … Edward McClelland
  • The Emperor of All Maladies … Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • Janesville: An American Story (audio) … Amy Goldstein, read by Joy Osmanski

Not much because of my trip, which was expected. I hardly ever get much reading done while visiting family. But these four books were all really interesting and enjoyable. I’m not sure I can even choose a favorite or stand-out; I would recommend them all.¬†The Emperor of All Maladies¬†was on my list for a very long time, though, followed by¬†Going Clear. I’m really happy I finally read them; they were long but worth every minute. I knew as soon as I heard about it I had to read¬†Janesville, about the economic fall of the formerly booming industrial town in my home state, and luckily I was able to get the audio from the library without a wait.¬†How to Speak Midwestern is a fun, brief look at the subtle differences in Midwestern accents, and was a really nice way to get in the mood for my trip back home.

I finished reading Roxane Gay’s phenomenal memoir¬†Hunger on the plane ride back a few days ago.¬†Next on my list are¬†It by Stephen King in anticipation of the new movie coming out in September, as well as¬†Al Franken, Giant of the Senate and Chris Hayes’s¬†A Colony in a Nation. I also hit 80% of my reading goal for the year already… maybe time to bump it up once more?? Possibly! No matter what I feel good that I’m going to have a record year for reading.
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