mini-reviews: the art of the con and a false report

Like many people, I’m fascinated by true crime, and often the genre dominates my non-fiction reading. In May, I listened to two different but equally interesting true crime books on audio:

The Art of the Con by Anthony M. Amore was an interesting look at modern fraud and forgery in the art world. The profiles are pretty fascinating: a woman who sold fake art she claimed was real and procured from a wealthy estate, one person who employed Chinese immigrant artists (in the country illegally) to copy famous works, a high-quality scanning (giclée) operation, faked “antique” photography, and more. There’s a pretty good chapter on web-based schemes too. Amore’s writing leaves something to be desired—it’s less narrative and more news reporting. I got through it in just a couple days on audio while drawing, but I can see how this wouldn’t necessarily be a page turner on paper. I would have liked a little more information on the techniques the forgers used to recreate the masters’ style in their fakes. Still, this may be a decent place to start if you’re interested in true crime in the art world. Basically, the old proverb stands true for art, too: a fool and his money are easily parted. And if a deal on a piece of art is too good to be true, it probably is. [Listened to audiobook in May 2018.]

A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America came out this year, and couldn’t be more important or timely. T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong crafted a very engaging and fascinating examination of not only one specific rape case, but also some psychology and history on the subject. In 2008, a young woman named Marie reported that she had been raped. Within days, Marie’s honesty and integrity was called into question, as much under investigation as her rapist. She eventually broke down and said she made up the rape. The situation she was in was really horrifying and enraging. A few years later, Marie’s rapist, who was a serial predator, was caught and convicted. There is a profile of Marie’s rapist—his habits, history, and mental state. But he is not the focus of the book. The authors describe the misogynist history of rape investigations and how women pretty much have never been believed. [Listened to audiobook in May 2018.]

i’ll be gone in the dark

I’d been really looking forward to reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara since I first heard about it. I’m sure this would have been on my radar anyway even if McNamara hadn’t been married to a celebrity. I bought it the week it was published, and it will definitely be one that I recommend all year to true crime fans. From the book’s jacket:

A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, a gifted journalist who died tragically while still writing and researching her debut book. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark offers a unique snapshot of suburban West Coast America in the 1980s, and a chilling account of the wreckage left behind by a criminal mastermind. It is also a portrait of one woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth, three decades later, in spite of the cost.

I had a little trouble focusing at first on reading this book (my problem at the time, no fault of the author or subject) but I ended up having a cold last week and reading was about all I could concentrate on. I devoured the majority of this one laid up sick in bed in just a couple of days. I have an interest in true crime—read or seen documentaries on Zodiac, Jack the Ripper, etc.—how could I not have heard of this guy before?

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is meticulously researched and completely immersive—one tip or piece of evidence leads to multiple threads to follow, and just when you think “this is the guy, they’ve got him,” he’s eliminated. I had to keep reminding myself he’s still at large (right now, in 2018), is frightening in itself. Is he still alive? Dead? Imprisoned for something else, but hasn’t had his DNA sampled? He’d be in his mid–late 60s right now. Why did he abruptly stop his reign of terror in 1986? I’m just sickened by the depths of his diabolical actions. The victims and their loved ones deserve justice. After reading this book, I’m confident McNamara’s tireless efforts will have played no small part in his capture.

McNamara was not only a relentless researcher but also a gifted, natural writer. She invited you to experience her process, come along on her frequent trips to the crime scenes, and listen in on her conversations with the victims and professional investigators both past and present. I’m impressed and grateful for the dedication of these officers of the law tirelessly investigating this case, no matter how seemingly fruitless the past few decades. McNamara makes sure that every person is real to you, including the GSK. Her incredible skill at suspenseful writing is illustrated in the way she describes the GSK’s horrific crimes without fetishizing or sensationalizing. You absolutely sense her empathy for the victims and their families, even the investigators whose lives have been consumed by the case, and her intense desire for the GSK to be brought to justice. For McNamara, it became personal—less a writing assignment than a mission.

Michelle McNamara was a brilliant, passionate writer and I was totally swept up in the emotional rollercoaster of her hunt for the Golden State Killer. It’s a thrilling, fascinating, and frustrating read, knowing this monster hasn’t been caught, and so tragic that Michelle died midway through writing it, way too young. I teared up reading the end of her husband’s afterword, and her strong sense of resolve and determination rubbed off on me in her own epilogue to the book, “Letter to an Old Man.” I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is just a really excellent piece of narrative true crime journalism. I don’t usually like to predict so early in the year, but this might end up being one of my best reads of 2018.

Read in April 2018.

altamont

I’ve been craving reading about music lately, and I was really pleased to come across Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin, which I had never heard of before finding it randomly on Libby. Edited from Goodreads:

In the annals of rock history, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, has long been seen as the distorted twin of Woodstock—the day that shattered the Sixties’ promise of peace and love when a concertgoer was killed by a member of the Hells Angels, the notorious biker club acting as security. While most people know of the events from the film Gimme Shelter, the whole story has remained buried in varied accounts, rumor, and myth—until now.

The product of twenty years of exhaustive research and dozens of interviews with many key players, including medical staff, Hells Angels members, the stage crew, and the musicians who were there, Altamont is the ultimate account of the final event in rock’s formative and most turbulent decade.

I’ve been to some poorly organized shows in my life. Just last year, here in Singapore, the Guns n’ Roses concert was quite the debacle, starting with complicated transportation options: the venue was way out past the airport with only one 2-way street in and out. Then the fans were left to bake in the hot equatorial sun for hours before the concert started. There was a giant air-conditioned warehouse there for the merch tables, but the stage was outside. There was only one merch station. There weren’t enough food or beverage stands, and the organizers insisted on a rip-off, chip-bracelet “cashless system” for purchases. People were fainting from dehydration and heat exhaustion. Sound was bad. The back half of the venue had a view of a giant black screen with nothing on it for much of the show, which blocked the view of the stage. Getting out of there was chaotic. I loved seeing the band and we’re experienced concertgoers so we mostly avoided the bad stuff, but whoo boy I’ll definitely never go to that venue again, and I was even hesitant to see another concert hosted by that promoter.

Regarding the Altamont festival, I honestly didn’t know more than “someone was killed at the show” before reading this book. Wow. This entire event, from the planning stages to well afterward, was a disaster. Basically, the Rolling Stones had a wicked case of FOMO and wanted to cash in on the “free festival” trend, after not participating in Monterey Pop or Woodstock. The vibe at the time was that musicians felt that the music was their priority and they were not so interested in money, but that couldn’t be further from the truth (except maybe in the Grateful Dead’s case). The Stones’s career was flailing and they needed money so it decided to do a U.S. tour (despite being out of touch with America’s music scene in the late ’60s), invited a film crew along, and finish the tour with a free concert in California. Everything that could go wrong did—there were shady, major characters involved in the planning, the execution was lazy, and no one anticipated any violence after such a peaceful showing at Woodstock just months earlier.

I had no idea how much the Grateful Dead was involved. After playing several successful free park concerts, it was the Dead that suggested to the Stones to end with the free festival-style concert, for which the Dead also signed on to play. The Dead also suggested hiring the Hells Angels as security, after using them multiple times without issue. Pretty much no one in the Stones’s entourage took the time to handle with care or precision each intricate detail of putting on such an epic event. Everyone wanted to do things the easy, free (or at least cheap) way. Altamont was located in an area with a faction of Hells Angels unknown to the Dead. Violence was brewing from the beginning, and there was bad acid floating around. The stage was shoddily set up, only four feet off the ground, without proper space or barriers between the band and the 300,000 fans, with only about 40 Hells Angels for security. It seems like everyone was tripping on bad LSD. There weren’t enough medical tents or toilets or food/beverages available. I was dismayed (but not surprised) to learn the Stones stiffed almost everyone along the way and afterward, damages to the land, hotels, car services, etc. Reading this was like watching a car crash in slow motion.

I watched Gimme Shelter the day after finishing the book, and while I appreciated that it added images and sound to the words I’d just listened to, it wasn’t a true documentary. Major people involved were left out of the picture, two members of the Grateful Dead were on screen for maybe thirty seconds, the prevalence of dangerous drugs wasn’t shown, and it looked like the Hells Angels were to blame for the violence. It was disturbing to see the Stones keep playing their set (granted they stopped a couple times to try to quell the violence), but especially disquieting to see the look on Mick Jagger’s face as he watched the footage of one fan stabbed mere feet from the stage, and subsequently have pretty much no reaction. His greed is partly the reason for the violence and tragedy at Altamont.

Four people died—one by drowning, two by vehicular manslaughter, and one right in front of the stage, Meredith Hunter, stabbed by a Hells Angel. It was interesting and sad to read about a concert where violence broke out like this, after the gun massacres at concerts in the last few years. This is a shocking and upsetting read, just yet another example of the worst in people coming out. But it’s one of the best cultural histories I’ve read—I highly recommend if you’re into the music scene of the 1960s.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

mini-reviews: stranger in the woods, teacher wars, new odyssey, pandemic

I missed Non-Fiction November… but for good reason: I was in Wisconsin visiting family and without my computer. Catching up on posting now! Although these four books are on totally different subjects, I thought that they’re all interesting, gripping, and worth a read:

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel was a great book. When Christopher Knight was 20, he abandoned his conventional lifestyle and retreated to the deep woods. For the next 27 years, he lived the solitary life of a hermit… except for the numerous burglaries he committed for supplies. I read the original GQ article about Christopher Knight which Finkel expanded here, so some information was familiar. I think I would have liked a little more depth to the historical and cultural info on hermits in general. But wow, some of the details here—his family didn’t look for him or report him missing? He didn’t use a fire or see a doctor for all those years? I was really interested in how he constructed and maintained his compound. How did no one find it, mere yards away from populated camping areas? Overall it was an enjoyable, fascinating look into the mind and experience of a man who left civilization behind (well… almost) for nearly 30 years. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

Dana Goldstein does a wonderful job of outlining the turbulent history of teaching and education in America over the past two centuries in The Teacher Wars. She shows the origins of often controversial topics, like teacher tenure and charter schools, as well as the creation of Teach for America, and how politics has always clashed with education (the disdain for unions, as a major example). I was really interested in the teacher strikes of the 1960s and 70s, and her coverage of teacher evaluations. As a musician and artist, and someone who has advanced degrees and worked in higher education for nearly a decade, I’ve had many discussions with my friends and colleagues who teach in the arts—their own objective vs. subjective metrics, and how does the State evaluate educators in a subjective field like the arts? It’s usually complicated and often not logical or applicable to arts and music education. I gave this book to my mom (a teacher) right after I finished, and she loved it too. [Read in May 2017.]

The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley is an eye-opening book about the refugee crisis happening now in Europe. Kingsley traveled extensively and interviewed countless people about their experiences and reasoning for fleeing, helping those who flee, or pursuing those who flee. Homes are destroyed in these war-torn countries— there’s nothing left, no infrastructure, jobs, schools, homes—so families abandon their homelands in order to survive and hopefully secure a better, safe life for their children. It’s a harrowing, dangerous journey but they’re left with no choice but to go. The other side of this is that after landing in a new country (if they survive the journey), now the refugees face culture shock, as well as rejection, suspicion, racism, and sometime violence from their new communities. I was moved by many of the stories in this important book. [Listened to audiobook in July 2017.]

Sonia Shah’s Pandemic was a really fascinating, easy-to-follow book for a non-sciencey person like me. She mostly uses the development and history of cholera to drive the point home that there will be another pandemic that devastates the population. I’d like to have faith in human ingenuity to do all we can to combat it! But Shah also covers all sorts of factors that contribute to how and why pandemics happen and are largely unpredictable, including medical treatments and Big Pharma, habitats and environment (and the destruction of and/or industrial developments of these), animals and cross contamination, worldwide travel, population growth, and more. Her engaging, narrative style almost makes the contagions themselves “living” characters (well, I suppose they are living). Also, human beings are stupid and disgusting. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

mini-reviews: jonestown, going clear, gravel, and no god

I’m not a religious person. I was loosely raised as Roman Catholic… but the normal kind where we only went to church on Easter, Christmas, and when Gramma was in town. I begrudgingly made it through all the rites (except marriage) and ironically now I’m pretty thrilled to be my niece’s godmother. I was that kid in catechism class that was asking rebellious questions like, “What about the women?” and “What about the Dead Sea Scrolls?” and “Why should we believe what a bunch of old white men wrote centuries after the fact?” I bet the teachers just LOVED me, haha! My mom was secretly proud. Honestly, looking back, I’m glad I went through it, however sour my attitude may have been. I participated in a longstanding family tradition, I thought critically, I learned there are options, and once I was confirmed no one can force me to go to church ever again.

Anyway, despite all that, I’m always interested in learning about different philosophies and belief systems. It’s a big part of life and the world, and I think it’s worth reading about even if I don’t want to be religious myself. Another part of religion is the cultish aspect, which I happen to find fascinating and terrifying, and in the last year I listened to a few audiobooks on the subject, as well as one incredible book on a legit religion.

All I knew of the story of Jim Jones and his Jonestown settlement was “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” but I learned so much from Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. Guinn does a great job chronicling Jones’s path from his early life in Indianapolis, family life, rise as cult leader, moving his base around until landing in Guyana, and his ultimate betrayal and abuse of his followers and its aftermath. I had no idea Jones started out as such a staunch supporter of civil rights… but oh how quickly greed for power and an inflated sense of self-importance can drive people to do evil things. This is a great look at the development of a narcissistic megalomaniac, and trying to understand how a person gets there and charms others to follow them. [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

Another great book complementary to The Road to Jonestown is Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright. Like Jim Jones, Ron L. Hubbard was a narcissistic leader with illusions of grandeur. Wright goes deep in laying out the entire history of Scientology, Hubbard’s and his successor David Miscavige’s lives, and how Hubbard’s science fiction musings and elaborate vetting system lured so many people into following him, including rich and famous Hollywood elites. And there’s so much more, like the secret goal of taking over the U.S. government. There are some shocking, abusive practices in Scientology, including possible brainwashing, slave-like living and working situations for followers, blacklisting and practically ruining the lives of former followers, and more. Just when you think this “religion” couldn’t get any crazier, it totally does. This is a long audiobook, but I was utterly transfixed throughout its 17 hours. [Listened to audiobook in June 2017.]

Ruth Warnier was born into a polygamist cult, the 39th of her father’s 42 children. Her father was the founder of this particular sect, one which told women in order to get into heaven they must be one of many wives to a man and bear him as many children as possible. This patriarchal community blossomed in rural Mexico, where Ruth grew up in poverty-stricken conditions, as local authorities turned a blind eye to its unconventional practices. After Ruth’s father was murdered by his brother, her mother remarried a man who quickly became abusive to the children. Her book, The Sound of Gravel, relays the story of her family and upbringing. I was impressed with how even-keeled Warnier is in describing some of the horrors of her childhood—violent and sexual abuses at the hands of her stepfather, the family pulling welfare scams, and, while it’s clear her mother loved the children, her mother’s neglect and carelessness. It’s an inspiring, sad, raw story but told in an unsentimental way, and I wonder if that is a side effect of the psychological harm she had to endure. [Listened to audiobook in July 2017.]

I really enjoyed the informative and accessible No god but God by Reza Aslan. I learned so much from this book. Aslan brings to life the intricate, sprawling history of Islam and expands on its current varieties as well as how it exists and relates in the world, including in the United States in this century. He offers a narrative of Muhammed the Profit’s life, as well as challenges the religion in all its iterations faces today. This subject is broad and deep, but Aslan’s prose kept it from becoming too technical, long-winded, or overwhelming (well, it might be a little dry in the beginning, but well worth it to muscle through). This is a fascinating, refreshing, and illuminating book, especially for a Westerner, since most of us have been told time and again that Muslims are to be feared and hated because of their “evil” religion teaching them to destroy America… sure whatever. No religion is perfect, and not that I subscribed to the Islam-hatred ever, but this book did open my eyes to the fact that Islam is not all that different from the actual, historical core values of Christianity (“peace, love, and understanding,” in a nutshell). Can’t we all just get along? [Listened to audiobook in May 2017.]

reading recap: november 2017

I had a wonderful “vacation”… from my semi-permanent “vacation”… in Wisconsin the whole month of November! I spent a lot of time with family and friends, drove all over the Midwest and Wisconsin, saw some great shows (and not-so-great Packer games), and was just reminded yet again how much I love it there and it’s where I truly belong. Sigh. Anyway, as usual on my trips, I didn’t read much, so here’s a monthly recap and mini-reviews post all in one!

It has been too long since I had any nice, day-long drives all to myself, and I downloaded two for my drives in November back home. First up was Michael Finkel’s True Story, a non-fiction about his disgraceful fabrication in his The New York Times story about child slavery in Africa’s cocoa colonies, which resulted in his embarrassing firing. But then, he discovers an American man in Mexico, Christian Longo, has stolen his (Finkel’s) identity in order to escape suspicion of the murder of his entire family. It was an interesting listen, especially the dialogues and cat-and-mouse interplay between these two narcissists and how they are sort of similar (the different levels of gravity to their separate errors notwithstanding). Fans of true crime will like it. I think Finkel may have redeemed himself… if not with True Story, then perhaps with his recent The Stranger in the Woods (review coming soon!). I fell asleep when I tried to watch the movie, so I’m going to give it another try soon. [Listened to audiobook in November 2017.]

Patient H.M. by Luke Dittrich chronicles the medical and personal histories of Henry Gustave Molaison, the eponymous patient referred to by his initials in medical research to protect his identity, and whose status as H.M. revolutionized our understanding of the brain. After a serious bike accident when he was a child, Henry later developed seizures as a teen. After drugs and other standard treatments didn’t work, Dr. William Beecher gave Henry, then 27 in 1953, a lobotomy, after which his behavior and memory drastically changed, transforming him into the prime human test subject for brain study. This book also covers Beecher’s life and career and the history and controversy of lobotomy procedures. I learned a lot about the brain, memory, and lobotomies from Patient H.M.—it’s easy to understand with minimal technical medical jargon—and the lives of Henry and Beecher were equally sad, shocking, and fascinating. Like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, treatment and understanding of patients in mental health facilities of the 1950s was horrific, and the human rights issues surrounding Henry’s situation are staggering. It’s an eye-opening look for non-medical and non-sciencey people like me at the sometimes uncomfortable and ugly side of medical progress. Sometimes Dittrich goes off on familial tangents (Dr. Beecher was his grandfather), but overall this is an awesome book in the vein of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. [Listened to audiobook in November 2017.]

This might seem strange to include with a couple of non-fictions, or to review at all, but I did read it cover-to-cover last month! I bought Girl Power: 5-Minute Stories as a gift for my 3-year-old niece, for her baptism in Madison last month. It is a collection of ten short, newer children’s stories focusing on smart, fearless, determined, interesting, fun girls. It caught my eye because I wanted to get my niece the first story as its stand-alone book version, I Like Myself, but this collection was an even better choice. I also enjoyed Flora’s Very Windy DayPrincess in TrainingElla Sarah Gets Dressed, and Wow, It Sure is Good to Be You! I identified with some of these stories, of course, and wished I had these growing up! I loved how diverse the collection is, too, with girls of different ethnicities, ages, families, adventures, and more. [Read in November 2017.]

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