Thursday, July 31, 2014

Memoir as Self-Punishment: My Dark Places by James Ellroy--Book Review

Photo: From the book's Wikipedia page.  This ain't the edition I read.  This cover looks terrible.  I get the reason for it, but there wasn't a better pic of him driving and investigating?

These are some very dark places, indeed.  This is a memoir / autobiography / crime procedural written in Ellroy's hyper, staccato style.  (Think of his Black Dahlia or L.A. Confidential, two classics of the crime genre--or of any genre.)  You'll learn more than you'd want to know about Ellroy as a young boy--and you'll be blown away by how honest it is.  These are things that even very honest people don't put in their memoirs, but I suspect that Ellroy likes the honesty of it, in a brutal, self-hurting, confessional kind of way.  I'm curious to know what he thinks he's punishing himself for.

The beginning portion chronicles his parents from a child's POV.  They get divorced.  His mother gets murdered.  His father becomes a useless drunk.  Ellroy becomes a nervous, high-strung, self-destructive kid who barely graduates high school.  After doing so, he learns how to B & E into his favorite girls' homes, and he doesn't do so to steal anything.  You can take it from there.  He later becomes an alcoholic / sniffer and homeless person.  He gets so bad that he develops an abscess on one of his lungs and almost dies from it.  This straightens him out.  Somewhat.

Fast-forward many years.  He becomes very successful and decides to re-open his mother's unsolved murder case.  He hires an ex-cop and they track people and things down.  Amidst all this is the most frank Oedipal writing you'll ever see, to the point that it made this reader a little uncomfortable.  Despite this, you can't help but marvel at the tremendous breath and energy of his writing, or the depth he plumbs of his feelings and thoughts.  It reads so fast, but so dense, that you wonder how he could top it with the author-read audiotapes advertised at the back of the book.  But I'll bet he does.

This book is not for the squeamish, for the crime scene descriptions, the murders detailed, and the psyche analyzed.  Ellroy doesn't come out of this especially likeable, but you'll be fascinated by his energy and writing--if you like the staccato style.  If you can't handle hyper people, you won't like his hyper writing, and you certainly won't like his hyper mind.  He comes across as a guy you'd love to have a beer with, maybe, or to talk to, because he's undeniably fascinating.  But you probably wouldn't want to be married to this guy, or to have to live with him for any reason.  I bet he'd wear ya down.  And that's me sayin' this--surprising, as I'm the most hyper and hyper-kinetic guy I know.

Anyway, his 50s L.A. is also fiendishly covered, as is the investigative process.  After the huge letdown of the unsolved JonBenet murder case I covered in my recent review of Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, this (still) unsolved murder was also a bit of a downer.  Seems like people are getting away with murder these days--literally.  (Or, in the late 50s and in 1996, anyway.)  But books like these show you what the cops are up against, and how easily a murder investigation can very quickly go to hell.  Most of the murders mentioned, covered and explained in Ellroy's book are all unsolved.  When a jury comes back with a guilty verdict for a guy from a 1950s cold case gone right, the 1996 investigators all have a party--and the reader feels like joining them.  This guy, at least, towards the end, is one that didn't get away.  But all the others do.

Ultimately, a reviewer from the San Francisco Chronicle said it best when he wrote that Ellroy's My Dark Places was "...Both a harrowing autobiography and a disturbingly fixated love story...blunt, graphic, and oddly exhilirating." 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Perfect Murder, Perfect Town by Lawrence Schiller--Book Review



Photo: Paperback cover of the book (I read the First Edition hardcover) from harpercollins.com

Incredibly dense and thorough chronicle of the JonBenet Ramsey investigation, from the POV of almost everyone involved, from reporters to DAs to police detectives--and everybody in between.  If you're interested in what happened to that little girl on December 26th, 1996 (Could it have been that long ago?!?) then this is mandatory reading for you.

Like the case itself, it is a complicated maze to read, and you may, like me, forget momentarily who somebody is.  There's a character page in the back to help you with this problem.

Schiller doesn't pull any punches and immerses you in everything for the sole purpose, as he says, to chronicle what happened for anyone interested in the case.  It reads like a 579-page report.  There are no writers' tricks here, and no embellishments.  Schiller does an amazing job of organizing all of this stuff into one (mostly) seamless flow.

What does it show?  Oh my goodness, it shows how very thoroughly and completely the D.A.'s office, the Boulder Police Department, the witnesses, the suspects, and the media all worked together to screw up this case beyond repair.  Like the research into AIDS in the early-80s, when American and French scientists fought each other over copyrights and egos and countless people died, so too did the Boulder PD and the D.A. office fight each other over supremacy, evidence and theories.

And we know what happened.

Nothing.

Nothing at all.  A grand jury failed to indict anybody in 1997, and here afterwards have we sat.

As detailed in this book, this case never had a chance.  Evidence was immediately trampled upon.  Both Ramseys, and their son, Burke, took leave of the police for a very long time upon the arrival of the first cops.  The crime scene was not controlled and it became very, very compromised.  And the Ramseys somehow were allowed to not be thoroughly interviewed until four months after the killing.

And the police bungled evidence and interviews that anyone who's ever seen an episode of Law & Order could have done better.  The D.A. turned down help from the FBI, whose officers had investigated and tried tons of murder cases against children.  How many had the current D.A.'s office tried?  Zero.

You may imagine yourself, as I did, screaming at, and shaking, some of the well-intentioned but hopelessly inept people involved in this case.

And that's just the beginning.

The book stops just before the grand jury returned its verdict of nothingness, that there wasn't enough evidence to bring anything to a trial.  That's frustrating, and you may want to read more current material after reading this.

But, sadly, there's nothing much to add.

Patsy Ramsey has died since.  Nobody's ever been brought to trial.  It may seem there's nothing more to say.

But there is.  Schiller takes pains to try to remain unbiased with his book, and largely he succeeds.  But his one-page epilogue gives him away a little bit, as does the preponderance of the evidence he allows the real people to supply here.

Ultimately the reader has to make his own decision about who did it.  Was it the Ramseys?  Any of them, in the murder and / or in a cover-up?  Was it an intruder?

You'll have to decide.  I have, I think, for the most part.  Maybe I'll write about it in my blog one day--keeping in mind, of course, that many of the people are still alive.  And able to file lawsuits for slander.

But still a riveting read.  If this case interests you, read it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Deleted Comments---My Bad

Ummm...Yeah.  So...it turns out that when you delete comments from the published folder, you also delete them from the blog itself.  Didn't know that.  Doesn't make sense to me, because once you've posted them, why are they still tethered to the published folder?  Wish I knew that before I deleted the last 50 or so comments...

Well, anyway, I am working hard to find these comments again and re-post them.  I'm taking this very seriously, since if people are nice enough to take their precious time to read my blog and post a comment, they shouldn't get said comments deleted.

I especially apologize to Dreki, who has posted quite a few comments recently, and after a bit of a hassle.  I'm working hard to get those back.  And I apologize to Diane, who lost the most comments.  I'm sorry this happened.

So please rest assured everyone that I am working hard to resolve this problem.  If you have any advice to give about how I can do this, please leave me an email at sb[at]stevenbelanger.com, or leave a comment below.  I promise not to delete those, too.

If you've commented on my website since February 2013 (!!!), and if you still have a copy of it on your computer somewhere, please either send it to me and I'll take care of it (though I'd rather not have to do that), or just re-post it yourself if you don't trust my computer savvy.  I wouldn't blame you. If you don't want to do anything because you're as disgusted as I am with the whole thing, I wouldn't blame you for that, either.

The Road Less Traveled and Tough Choices


 Photo: It's got a long address, and I'm lazy, so I'll link it here.

Despite the high rating I'd give to this book, it's time to let it go.  By this, I mean it's off to the box for my yard sale, or the box to my used bookstore for credit, or yet to the box for donations to my local Salvation Army.  Probably in that order.

Why am I letting it go after all these years?  Why, if I'd rate it so highly?

Well, first, why I like(d) it.

It's got one of the all-time great opening lines for any self-help book: Life is difficult.

It is, indeed.  I also believe that life is often (though not always) supposed to be hard.  To not accept or expect this is to live a life of frustration and an inability to adapt.  That's me saying that, by the way, not Peck.  But he'd agree with me.

Peck was amongst the first of the popular self-help guys to really preach self-responsibility.  Or, at least to the point that he did so with popularity.

This is huge for me, philosophically and psychologically.  I've tired of the nature vs. nurture debate because it seems that many are trying to explain away self-responsibility.  It's not my fault, I have ADHD.  It's not my fault, I was raised that way.  It's not my fault, that's what I was taught to believe in.

He was the first to say that, no, everything was actually your responsibility after all.  Especially after a certain age.

I'm all for that.  I embrace that.  I live it and breathe it.  Nobody's more hyper and hyperactive than I am.  Yet I focus, accomplish much, balance my finances, control my emotions and treat others with respect.

But...

Here's why I don't really like it anymore.  It's not just because Peck turned out to be an addict, a sex addict, and a very frequent cheater on his wife.  But keep those things in mind as we continue--and remember the phrase "traditional values" in his title.

I didn't realize before, when I read this in my teens, how actually preachy it is.  I don't mind, now, that it's religious.  But I do mind that a trained psychiatrist would use religion and God as self-help.  Is that belief, or is that maybe a little too self-serving?  Dubya bought into this sort of self-help religion, as many recovering addicts do.  Which is fine and good, but...for a psychiatrist to preach this so heavily in a self-help book?  That's blasphemy, in my opinion, but blasphemy for practicing psychiatrists and self-help professionals and religious leaders alike.

Is religion supposed to be so self-serving?  Can one get better psychologically if one doesn't believe in the Christian God? According to Peck, in this book...Well, no.  Kind of.

And don't even get me started on the phrase "traditional values" in his title.  A psychiatrist should really, really know better.

What if you, and your problems, aren't traditional?  Can you still benefit from psychotherapy?  Well, yes, but according to this book?  No...kind of.

He hedges a lot when it comes to this kind of thing, like his psychiatrist self and his televangelist self were warring for control.  When his psychiatrist self wins, this book is almost ingenious. When he writes about accepting responsibility, delaying self-gratification, the difference between neurotics and personality-disordered people, and overall personal self-responsibility, this book is a winner and deserving of the 10+ million copies it's sold, and its place for a number of years on the best-seller list.

Ultimately, for me it's time for it to go.  I have literally hundreds of books, and it's time to make some tough choices.  This is actually a tough decision for me, but many books simply must go, so...

In terms of a book review, I reiterate that I do recommend this book because of its heavy reliance on self-responsibility.  It made a huge impression on me when I was a teenager, and this book was partially responsible for my decision to also major in Philosophy, and to focus on Existentialism, if I could.  I could and I did.

So this was an important book for me, and it may also be for you.  Read it and learn from it, if you wish.  But don't feel badly if you don't keep it in your bookshelf.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Cockroaches (Harry Hole #2) by Jo Nesbo--Book Review



Photo: Jo Nesbo, from his official website

Extremely well-written follow-up to Nesbo's The Bat, this book takes Hole's character and adds a little more depth to him.  We see more of his sister, and we see the ex-girlfriend, Kristin--mentioned in the first book--even more here, to good effect.  The girlfriend from the first novel is mentioned frequently here, too, as is his compunction for alcohol--though he may have a new drug of choice by the end of this one.  But then, if I had to spend this much time in the traffic and heat and humidity of Bangkok, Thailand, I might feel the need as well.  (I'm a wuss; I need the central air.)

Anyway, the plot of this novel is quite intricate, though the reader shouldn't be hard-pressed to figure out who done it.  The "Why?" and the "How?" may throw the reader; however, when you learn the how, you won't feel badly about not figuring it out.  Nobody would, or could, have.  Except Hole, of course, who is so good at this kind of thing that two characters openly marvel at it.

Nesbo, the Raymond Chandler of Nordic Noir, writes a book that is a classic of its kind.  The bad guy is memorable, as well, especially in a scene right out of Titus Andronicus near the end.  (This has to be on purpose, because Hole finishes it all off with an instrument from Shakespeare's early play as well.)  I always saw the guy who plays Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones as the villain, though I'm not sure he's described that way.  Weird.  At any rate, Nesbo varies the writing a bit here from his last: some chapters show the villain straight out doing his villainy, especially at the end; more chapters start off with a minor character's POV before quickly focusing on Hole once again.  A couple of chapters don't feature Hole at all, which is also different from the first book.  (I think only one chapter was without Hole in the first book.)

I read this book in less than 24 hours.  I'm on vacation, so I can do that.  You might not, but you'll read it quickly.  It's that good.  And as openly depressing as its predecessor, so be forewarned.