Book Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (1994)

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Review 2.12

 

Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt’s sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case. [Source]

The murder-mystery at the center of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil doesn’t occur until almost halfway through the book. First, author John Berendt takes his readers on a tour of Savannah, Georgia in the early 1990’s and introduces us to a cast of characters so bizarre they can only be real. Among the colorful denizens of this insular community are Joe Odom, the charismatic thief who swindles his closest friends one evening and then attends their parties the next. There’s the Lady Chablis, the outspoken transvestite drag queen who nominates Berendt as her personal chauffeur. The pampered former beauty who is a near recluse. An eccentric who claims he has a bottle of poison powerful enough to kill the entire population of Savannah. I could go on and on. These voices serve as a quirky and often hilarious backdrop to the trial of James Williams for murder.

Of course the star of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is the city of Savannah herself, and Berendt describes the small coastal city with language usually reserved for beautiful women. Savannah is sultry and mysterious, seductive and veiled with secrets. She’s wary of outsiders, but still honors the Southern tradition of hospitality. People go to church on Sunday and then hire the local voodoo woman to work charms in the graveyard the next night. I dare anyone to make it through this book without stopping at some point to look up flights to Savannah. I think I got to page fifty.

The central plot deals with the murder of a male escort by a prominent member of Savannah society, and the nearly ten-year series of trials that followed. How Berendt became privy to so many intricate details of the case is never made entirely clear, but I wonder if Williams didn’t keep Berendt well-informed as a way of ensuring that his version of events was the one people would remember. Either way, Berendt’s fly-on-the-wall perspective gives a unique insight into a case that got little national publicity, but which rocked the close-knit community of Savannah to it’s core.

Overall, I can see why Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has received so much praise from high circles. After this book was published in 1994, the city of Savannah saw a boom of tourism that continues to this day. For me, Savannah has now joined cities like Boston and New Orleans on my list of must-see places in the United States.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (2017)

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Review 2.9

Many people dream of escaping modern life, but most will never act on it. This is the remarkable true story of a man who lived alone in the woods of Maine for 27 years, making this dream a reality–not out of anger at the world, but simply because he preferred to live on his own. [Source]

Right from the title, something rings false about The Stranger in the Woods. Finkel (or his publisher) draws us in with the promise of the last “true hermit”, and then spends a large amount of the book’s length debating whether or not Christopher Knight was even technically a hermit at all.

This book was odd. I don’t quite know how else to describe it. Author Michael Finkel doesn’t seem to know exactly what point he is trying to make. The sections describing his interviews with Knight are juxtaposed with chapters detailing the history of hermits and the psychological need for human interaction. However, Knight’s particular case is so unusual that he shares almost nothing in common with what we often think of as a hermit. Knight did not enter the forest seeking wisdom. He wasn’t running from something or trying to hide from the government. He did not embark on a spiritual journey. There are really only two pieces of information that I took away from this book.

1. Knight was just a guy who wanted to be left alone.

2. He committed hundreds of burglaries in order to achieve that goal.

Those are essentially the only ideas that Finkel was able to convey in The Stranger in the Woods. Knight was not some noble hero; he stole every single thing that kept him alive during his decades in the forest. He made people feel insecure and ill-at-ease in their own homes. He said in court that he was deeply ashamed of his actions, but was he truly sorry for stealing or only sorry that he was finally caught? Finkel doesn’t explore any of those questions, and instead adopts an almost fanboy-esque attitude towards Knight.

One of my goals this year was to read more nonfiction, but it wasn’t until The Stranger in the Woods that I fully understood how important a role the author plays in this kind of narrative. As readers, we need to be able to trust Finkel and his motivations in order to accept his version of events as the truth. Finkel, who was fired from the New York Times in 2002 for false reporting, does not inspire that kind of trust. But even before I knew about the NYT incident, something felt off about Finkel and his attitude towards Christopher Knight.

Finkel becomes increasingly stalkerish as The Stranger in the Woods progresses. He shows up announced and uninvited to visit Knight in jail. He shows up unannounced and uninvited at Knight’s family home. He refuses to listen to Knight’s frequent pleas to “stay away” and “leave me alone”. During the course of his time spent with Knight, Finkel traveled through the dense Maine woods no fewer than eight times in order to visit Knight’s “camp”, spending the night on several occasions in a kind of pilgrimage. He asks psychiatrists who have never met or heard of Christopher Knight to talk about whether or not Knight might be autistic. It all adds up to a narrator who is unreliable, unprofessional, and potentially unethical. I felt a cringy, awkward sort of empathy for Knight as Finkel refused to leave him alone. After all, that’s all Knight ever wanted in the first place.

My rating: 2/5

You can find The Stranger in the Woods here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is narrated by Mark Bramhall and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

Three Cups of Deceit: How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way by Jon Krakauer (2011)

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Review 2.7

Greg Mortenson has built a global reputation as a selfless humanitarian and children’s crusader, and he’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is also not what he appears to be. As acclaimed author Jon Krakauer discovered, Mortenson has not only fabricated substantial parts of his bestselling books Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, but has also misused millions of dollars donated by unsuspecting admirers like Krakauer himself. [Source]

Here’s the twist. I’ve never read Three Cups of Tea, the 2007 mega-bestseller coauthored by David Relin Oliver and Greg Mortenson. I saw it for years in various airport bookstores; I even picked it up once or twice and glanced at the book jacket. I never felt the urge to read the book despite the glowing praise it had received, because something about the whole premise rang false. I’ve never trusted people who feel the need to strike million dollar book deals before imparting the “wisdom” they’ve supposedly learned while traveling. Similar to the odious Eat Pray Love, I assumed Three Cups would be full of self-aggrandizing humble-bragging, complete with pithy statements about how “the children of Afghanistan taught me more than I ever taught them”.

I tend to be a bit cynical.

So when I stumbled across short e-book entitled Three Cups of Deceit, I was immediately intrigued. Written by Jon Krakauer, an author who is quickly becoming of my favorite nonfiction writers. And when the subtitle read How Greg Mortenson, Humanitarian Hero, Lost His Way, I felt the sweet, sweet confirmation bias wash over me.

Three Cups of Deceit is a seventy-page arrow aimed directly at the heart of Greg Mortenson, coauthor of Three Cups of Tea and founder of the Central Asia Institute, a charity that ostensibly exists to build schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. By educating the children of these war-stricken regions, Mortenson claims, they are less likely to become radicalized by Islamic extremist groups.

Unfortunately, Krakauer claims, Mortenson has fabricated nearly every aspect of the narrative that surrounds his personality and his supposed charitable works. The “origin” story in Three Cups of Tea, in which Mortenson stumbles upon a remote village in the mountains of Pakistan never happened, or at least not in the village Mortenson claims. Mortenson’s eight-day kidnapping and abduction by terrorist groups was a complete lie. Many of the schools built by CAI have been abandoned due to lack of materials, funds, and teachers. Many more of the schools were simply never built at all. All the time, Mortenson was using donations from the non-profit to fund a never-ending book tour, complete with five star hotels and private planes.

Three Cups of Deceit is my third book by Krakauer, and I have never been given a reason to doubt his journalistic integrity. I was surprised then, to see how closely he toes the line here. Krakauer is clearly angry, his words nearly simmer off the page with his fury at having been duped by Mortenson (Krakauer was a financial supporter of CAI). While his anger is certainly understandable, it is obvious that he was too close to this issue to maintain a professional demeanor. This is as much personal take-down as it is journalistic expose.

You can find Three Cups of Deceit here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible version is excellently narrated by Mark Bramhall and is available here.

My rating: 3.5/5

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: American Prison by Shane Bauer (2018)

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Review 2.6

In 2014, Shane Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Four months later, his employment came to an abrupt end. But he had seen enough, and in short order he wrote an exposé about his experiences that won a National Magazine Award and became the most-read feature in the history of the magazine Mother Jones. 

Still, there was much more that he needed to say. In American Prison, Bauer weaves a much deeper reckoning with his experiences together with a thoroughly researched history of for-profit prisons in America from their origins in the decades before the Civil War. For, as he soon realized, we can’t understand the cruelty of our current system and place in the larger story of mass incarceration without understanding where it came from. Private prisons became entrenched in the South as part of a systemic effort to keep the African-American labor force in place in the aftermath of slavery, and the echoes of these shameful origins are with us still.  [Source]

This is my first time reviewing a book that I’ve listened to on Audible instead of actively reading in print. I wondered how it would affect my enjoyment and also if it would impact my ability to remember and retain information. I wanted my first book to be nonfiction and I chose Shane Bauer’s follow-up novel to his acclaimed 2016 Mother Jones exposé My Four Months as a Prison Guard. In American Prison, Bauer goes into greater depth and detail regarding his time at Winnfield Prison. He also takes a look at how we got to this sad state of affairs.

Roughly half of American Prison is taken from Bauer’s personal accounts and observations during his time as a prison guard in Louisiana. He details his application process, which was less in-depth than an interview for KFC. Mainly, his potential employers just wanted to make sure Bauer was okay with low wages and mandatory overtime. No psychological review was necessary for the job, which becomes readily apparent once Bauer meets his fellow coworkers. He chronicles his interactions with the inmates as well, and establishes a connection with some of them. I was particularly fascinated by an inmate named Derek, who seems close to actually being friends with Bauer. They discuss the hardships faced by both inmate and guard and the shortcomings of the prison to deal with the needs of both. Derek seems like an intelligent, thoughtful young man. Bauer later informs us he is in prison for multiple counts of rape. Bauer’s keeps a personal account of the ways his personality changed during his time as a corrections officer. His stress level rose, his empathy plummeted, and he suffered from high blood pressure and insomnia. All for nine dollars an hour.

The other half of the book is a supervillain origin story of sorts. Bauer looks at the history of the American private prison system in the hopes of determining at what point it became acceptable to treat humans as business commodities. Sadly the answer is a bit like the hypothetical chicken and egg. Private prisons saw increase an in popularity during the latter half of the 19th century, and Bauer argues that this was connected to the ending of slavery after the Civil War. State-run plantations which previously relied on slaves for free labor now had to look elsewhere, and a few enterprising eyes fell upon the convict population. By using convict labor, the plantations could continue operating at minimum cost and everyone from the wardens to the politicians could continue lining their pockets. Bauer follows the history of various state-run prison systems in the southern American states as they went from being for-profit farms to being for-profit holdings pens for millions of incarcerated individuals.

American Prison offers a bleak but realistic depiction of the current state of affairs in America’s private prison. The epilogue, in which Bauer recounts the fallout from his Mother Jones expose, was particularly bittersweet. Apparently, his story caught the attention of the Obama administration, and a law was passed abolishing private contracts for federal penitentiaries. Two years later, the Trump administration revoked the law, and now more inmates than ever are behind the bars of private prisons. On a more positive note, the shareholders are doing swell.

My rating: 4/5

You can find American Prison here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. The Audible edition of this book is narrated by James Fouhey, and can be found here.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

Book Review: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)

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Review 2.4

In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, a party of moose hunters found his decomposed body. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild. [Source]

 “I now walk into the wild.” – Christopher McCandless

The story of Christopher McCandless has become something of an urban legend crossed with a cautionary tale. I’m sure parents have warned their children that if they aren’t careful they’ll end up “dying in a bus somewhere in Alaska”. When I mentioned to my husband that I was reading this book, he scoffed and muttered something about idiot kids and white privilege. For some, McCandless is a cultural admonition about the foolishness of youth. For others, he is a symbol of wanderlust, that powerful urge to explore the wild places of the world and reconnect with nature that exists somewhere within all men.

It’s easy to write McCandless off as just a spoiled boy from an affluent background who got what he deserved when he walked into the Alaskan wilderness with no supplies. It’s easy to say that he was mentally ill, or suicidal, or just plain crazy. What Krakauer has done with Into the Wild is to tell the harder story, one of a charismatic and talented young man whose obsessive desire to connect with nature ended up costing his life.

“At long last he was unencumbered, emancipated from the stifling world of his parents and peers, a world of abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence.”

Last year I read Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which chronicles the violent history of the Mormon faith and how it led to the death of an innocent woman and child. Krakauer has the remarkable ability to write nonfiction as if it were fiction. He weaves his plot and characters together with meticulous attention to detail and exhaustive research. Reading Into the Wild, it is obvious that Krakauer was profoundly moved by the death of McCandless. The book represents an homage of sorts, a chance to tell Christopher’s story in a way that makes him look brave but naive instead of just incredibly stupid. Krakauer brings a sense of tragic nobility to Christopher’s life and death while trying to explain what drove him to venture alone into the wilderness. He looks at journals, interviews friends and family members, and ultimately journeys to the hollowed out bus where McCandless’ body was found.

I am writing this review more than five days after finishing it, and I can’t get Christopher McCandless out of my head. At random times of the day, when I’m washing dishes or marking homework, the image of a lonely boy dying in a lonely bus in a cold, lonely forest comes into my mind. I had before heard the story of the idiot kid who died in the wilds of Alaska. Now I feel like I actually know the story of McCandless’ life. This book was amazing.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Into the Wild here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. In 2007 it was adapted into a film starring Emile Hirsch and directed by Sean Penn.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X. R. Pan (2018)

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Review 2.2

Leigh Chen Sanders is absolutely certain about one thing: When her mother died by suicide, she turned into a bird.

Leigh, who is half Asian and half white, travels to Taiwan to meet her maternal grandparents for the first time. There, she is determined to find her mother, the bird. In her search, she winds up chasing after ghosts, uncovering family secrets, and forging a new relationship with her grandparents. And as she grieves, she must try to reconcile the fact that on the same day she kissed her best friend and longtime secret crush, Axel, her mother was taking her own life.

Alternating between real and magic, past and present, friendship and romance, hope and despair, The Astonishing Color of After is a novel about finding oneself through family history, art, grief, and love. [Source]

Depression is such a tricky subject to write about. It’s so mercurial in nature, so difficult to define and diagnose and treat. The Astonishing Color of After triumphs as a portrayal of depression from all perspectives. The repercussions of Leigh’s mother’s suicide reverberate down the plotline when Leigh becomes convinced that her mother has transformed into a bird. Fearing for her mental state, Leigh’s father sends her to Taiwan to visit her grandparents for the first time. Once there, Leigh begins the long, slow process of healing.

The Astonishing Color of After blew me away with its depiction of depression and the effect it can have on a family. Instead of focusing on Leigh’s mother as she battles her inner demons, the perspective is Leigh’s, which helps to convey the constant stress and strain that mental illness places on family members. Humans can adapt to almost anything, and it’s sad that the warning symptoms of suicide can be overlooked because we see a person as always being “up and down” or just “having a rough patch”. For Leigh, her mother’s depression was just another part of life until it wasn’t.

Leigh’s adventures in China add a welcome lighter tone to the story. All the descriptions of the Mandarin language and culture and food made me miss my days spent living there. One scene set in an outdoor night market was particularly vivid, I could almost taste the stuffed bao buns and room temperature beer. For Leigh, the trip to Taiwan offers a chance to grieve her mother while learning more about her childhood and the circumstances that drove her to cut off all contact with her family.

The Astonishing Color of After evoked a stronger emotional reaction than I had anticipated. The combination of magic realism with the themes of loss and grief was a heady mix, and I found myself ugly crying towards the end. But it was a cathartic, healing kind of cry. The kind you didn’t know you needed until it’s over.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Astonishing Color of After here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

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Review #77

This graphic novel tells the story of Marjane Satrapi’s life growing up in Iran during the tumultuous years that include the fall of the Shah and the beginnings of the Islamic Republic. Marjane, raised by well-educated intellectuals and the great-granddaughter of one of Iran’s last emperors, finds herself struggling to understand the difference between the freedom of her home life and the sudden restrictions of public life.

Surprise graphic novels are the best kind of graphic novels! I was unaware when I requested this book from my local library that the story was going to be told using simple yet powerful black-and-white illustrations. I was expecting a painful story of a girl whose freedom was stripped away by a regime change. Instead, Persepolis is something far more unique. It is equally parts funny, heartbreaking, and triumphant.

The best part of Persepolis is its heroine. Marjane (Marji) is outspoken, honest, and at times contradictory. Spanning her life between ages ten and fourteen, Persepolis focuses on her changing attitudes towards religion, family, politics, and Iran itself. She begins the novel with a strong belief in God, and tells her parents that when she grows up she wants to be a prophet. Marji’s faith is shaken as the people she loves are exposed to persecution and violence. For a twelve year old girl to turn her back on religion is a devastating life choice, and we share Marji’s sadness and anger as she realizes that faith can be used as a tool for suppression.

This is a smaller, more personal viewpoint of a historically volatile time period. Marji has very little knowledge of exactly why these things are happening, and couldn’t get less about the larger international implications. Instead she just knows that one day she has to wear a veil to school when last year she didn’t, and she finds it uncomfortable and restrictive. She leaves her house one day in “modern” clothes and is accosted by a woman who shouts that she is a whore. Things go from bad to worse when her family experiences the loss of a beloved family member.

I loved this novel because even though the graphic panels are in a stark black and white, the plot itself exists in shades of gray. Marjane Shatrapi illustrates the horrors that were perpetuated during the Islamic Revolution, but also makes room for lightness and laughter. She presents the Iranian people as having a “philosophy of resignation”. When the Ayatollah rose to power, the vast majority of people went about their lives and loved their families and found small victories in listening to modern music and drinking contraband alcohol. The love between Marji and her family shines through every page of Persepolis. I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on the sequel.

Going in, I realized that I did not have enough information about Iran during the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Ayatollah. I did a little bit of research so that I could truly understand what was happening in this novel. I found this video to be particularly helpful if you are also interested in learning a little bit more about this time in history.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Persepolis here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!