Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Favorite Fictional Villains

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl) is a “character freebie,” meaning we could post a list about anything related to book characters. I thought it’d be fun to revisit some favorite fictional villains, those characters we love to hate, or just love for their inimitable badness. 🙂

Ben and I had a conversation about how it may not be easy. The fiction we read is so often more complicated than good guys vs. bad. I think that’s one of the things you learn in high school English classes right off the bat – protagonists aren’t always the “good guys” and the bad guys sometimes have very good reasons for being bad.

It’s not always the Rebellion against the Empire. And if it is, you can usually see why the Empire became the Empire in the first place. There’s a backstory.

That said, we did each come up with five villains that have stood out to us in our reading lives, and frankly, I scrambled a bit. You’ll see I had to include a “mysterious, nefarious presence” as a villain because the books I read lately that have villains are more likely to be ghost stories.*

Ben’s Top Five Fictional Villains

1. Valentine Wolfe – Deathstalker series by Simon R. Green

Deathstalker

An appropriately insane space aristocrat from the delightfully deranged Deathstalker saga. He’s a ruthless, amoral schemer who is searching for some sort of transcendent consciousness by surfing a constant wave of exotic drugs while he plots against the heroes, his rivals, his own family…basically everybody.

2. The Black Riders – The Lord of the Ring series by J.R.R. Tolkien

BlackRiders

Their mysterious, implacable menace as they stalk the hobbits through the early stages of The Fellowship of The Ring haunted my childhood nightmares. You know that the unimposing halfling heroes stand no chance if they’re caught without heavy hitters like Gandalf or Aragorn to protect them. So the relentless pursuit fills the reader with dread. And as always, the monster is scariest when it’s still a mystery.

3. Iago – Othello – Shakespeare 

Othello

Robert Ramirez as Iago, Notre Dame Shakespeare Festival

He didn’t totally jump off the page to me when I read Othello. But seeing Robert Ramirez perform the role last year, he absolutely steals the show. His wit and all-too-knowing humor made it tempting to root for the bad guy up unitl the heart-wrenching final act.

TheWarrior4. Samuel “Slick” Des Grieux – The Warrior by David Drake

He’s actually the protagonist of “The Warrior” by David Drake, and he starts off looking like a hero. His rivalry with nemesis Lucas Broglie could be described as Achilles vs Hector with hovertanks: a heroic fighter gone off the rails due to pride, stubbornness, and rage.

5. Montresor – The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe

cask

Right: Still from The Cask of Amontillado short film by Moonbot Studios

Another villain-as-protagonist, Montresor’s carefully-plotted vengeance in The Cask of Amontillado is haunting and sinister. Thanks to his narration, we journey through dark catacombs inside a mind poisoned with resentment over “a thousand” unspecified injuries and insults. His smug closing line, “Yes, for the love of God!” is deliciously dark.

 

Shannon’s Top Five Fictional Villains

1. Mrs. Danvers – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Danvers

Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers (right) with Joan Fontaine as the unnamed protagonist in Rebecca (1940)

I hate to be so basic but no one makes me want to shout “WHY DON’T YOU SHUT UP AND GET OUT OF MY LIFE” in a Napoleon Dynamite voice like Mrs. Danvers. The housekeeper at Manderley made her creepy presence known and hated at every turn, along with her obsessive devotion to her previous mistress, and nearly drove our heroine to jump out a window to her death. Horrid woman.

2. The Sheriff of Nottingham – The legend of Robin Hood

SheriffofNottingham

My two favorite sheriffs: Pat Buttram (1973) and Alan Rickman (1991)

Is there any worse villain than a mid-level government official on a power trip? I mean, we’ve all had business at the BMV or the County City building. Sorry, too real? In the legend of Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottingham is characterized as a power-tripping, greedy low-level tyrant of the worst order. He imposes unreasonable taxes on the poor and is, of course, the nemesis of beloved Robin Hood. My two favorite flim adaptations of this story are the Disney movie and, because I grew up in the 90s, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. “Look into my eyes…You will see…What you mean to me…”

3. Annie Wilkes – Misery by Stephen King 

Misery

Cathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990)

Ahhhh, she’s so crazy. A classic obsessive psychopath, Annie Wilkes imprisons the injured bestselling novelist who has killed off her favorite character in his series of Victorian romance novels. That just won’t do. Is there anything better than a mentally unstable villain? They’re so deliciously unpredictable. And Cathy Bates is iconic in the movie adaptation. I think I’ll reread the book this year…

4. Count Olaf – A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

CountOlaf

Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf in the Netflix series (2017)

Count Olaf is a guy who is easy to hate. Ugly, mean, and lacking good hygiene, Count Olaf enacts a series of ridiculous and complicated plots to steal the fortune of the three Baudelaire orphans. Reading the series is a bit like watching a bunch of Scooby Doo episodes. It’s always “we thought it was [a grizzled seaman/mean gym teacher/detective in sunglasses] but it was really Count Olaf in a mask the whole time!”…or whatever. I read these books to Jacob when he was younger and always got a kick out of the “surprise.”

5. Mysterious, nefarious presence – The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

HillHouse

Julie Harris as Eleanor “Lance” in the 1963 adaptation The Haunting

I don’t know if you consider inexplicable phenomena villains, but I feel that in the case of Hill House, it is an apt description. The spooky presence at Hill House leads poor, meek Eleanor Vance to a cataclysmic ending, so you be the judge. I don’t know how Jackson made progressively louder door-knocking so scary, and in book format no less, but I didn’t want to get up to pee in the middle of the night for like a week after reading this book.

*Speaking of ghost stories – do you have any you like and can recommend? I’m always on the hunt for more.

Check out our past Top Ten Tuesday posts here.

Standard
Friday Fives

Friday Fives

What’s everybody up to this “holiday” weekend? Quotes around “holiday” because it’s just a regular weekend for me and it’s only a holiday in the U.S. Ben is working tomorrow and my house is in desperate need of a good cleaning. So, yay?

On with the Friday Fives!

Movie Cover: Being JuliaWhat I’m Watching: 

Still finishing up 90210 (I’m on season 10!), but I also just noticed that the book I just finished, Theater by W. Somerset Maugham, is also a movie starring Annette Bening. I will be watching it tonight (may have to start it on my lunch hour though!). Now that I see the dvd cover, it does kind of ring a bell. Looks like Bening won a best actress award for it too.

 

Book Cover: Go Down Together: The True Untold Story of Bonnie and ClydeWhat I’m Reading: 

I’ve started Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde. I’m on, like, page 10, so I haven’t committed yet, but it’s pretty good so far. Good in that it’s a very dramatic story that holds my attention. Sad in that it starts off with the terrible murder of a young police officer.

 

bb62a5ebe94a56f229f5a845769dc7e8.1000x1000x1

What I’m Listening to:

Still Crime Junkie for now, but I also discovered the Allah-Las the other day, and contemporary psychedelic surf rock might actually become my thing this summer.

 

img_20190625_105025877

An ATC for a swap group I’m in.

What I’m Making: 

Some collage. Other than that, not much, honestly. I need to get back to my craft table, but I think I’m back in “consumption” vs. “production” mode. (Explanation here.)

 

 

img_20190605_171026What I’m Loving: 

Nothing earth-shattering lately. I’ve been buying fresh flowers for myself lately and it improves my mood every time I look at them. Highly recommend if you can swing it.

Happy weekend!

Standard
2019 Classics Challenge, Fiction

Theater

31326Have you heard of the author/playwright W. Somerset Maugham? I hadn’t. Not until I pulled his 1939 novel Theater from a library shelf at random a few weeks ago. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve added some of his other novels to my TBR.

This story is tightly centered on Julia Lambert and her husband Michael, both London actors. Julia has become known as one of the greatest actresses of all time at this point, and Michael, while a serviceable actor, learned early on that his talent lay in producing and directing.

The book tells the story of their rise to success in the theater world. And like many stories about successful women, we meet Julia at mid-life, when her career is the best it’s ever been, and yet…there’s something missing.

She ends up having a brief affair with an accountant who takes a shine to her, but is mostly interested in her lifestyle. Julia and Michael are very rich by this point. The affair muddies up her sense of self and her confidence in who she is as a person outside of her art.

The story pulls in many themes in the examination of Julia’s marriage and her rise in the London theater scene. All of that is quite fun.

But the most interest in this story for me lies in Julia’s dance with her own image. Throughout the story, she’s constantly confronted with reflections of who she is and who she thinks she is as these concepts battle for emotional real estate.

Essentially, what people think of her and what she thinks of herself are intertwined, as they are for almost all people. But the fact that she’s an actress magnifies this and makes mining through her emotional landscape difficult.

There’s a great ending scene where her son Roger confronts her, telling her what she’s been like as a mother and where that’s left him in life. Julia has a choice about whether to take in what he’s saying and become willing to look at herself from an honest perspective. The will-she-won’t-she kept me reading to the end.

p.s. This novel counts as my entry for a 20th-century classic in the 2019 Back to the Classics challenge.

 

 

Standard
Top Ten Tuesday, What Ben Read, What Shannon Read

Top Ten Favorite Childhood Picture Books

Yeah, I know, late again for Top Ten Tuesday, but I loved this week’s theme and couldn’t not participate! So here we are.

This week, it’s Top Ten Favorite Picture Books from your childhood. I thought that because Ben also has a great reading history in this department, we should do a shared list (much like the characters list we did last month).

So, my five are first and Ben’s five follow.

Shannon’s Top Five Favorites

Ack, this list has me all sappy remembering these books and being read to as a kid. Get ready for some non-high-brow literature, baby. Here we go.

ADayattheBeachBook1. A Day at the Beach by Mircea Vasiliu

I was truly tickled to see that this one had reviews and comments on Goodreads. I loved going through this as a kid because everything is labeled and I could pick out all the things I recognized and all the things our (Great Lakes) beaches didn’t offer: crabs, giant seashells, etc. I still have my copy of this and every time my eye passes over it on the shelf, I remember being little and running through the waves with a butt covered in sand and sticky lemonade spills. So pure.

p.s. I did a bunch of Googling but couldn’t find a spread to share and I think my copy might be at my dad’s house or with one of my siblings.

 

2. Fairy Tales: A Puppet Treasury Book, Illustrations by Tadasu Izawa and Shigemi Hijikata

img_20190704_102456327I memorized every single story and image in this creepy-ass 3D puppet illustration fairy tale book. The witch in Hansel and Gretel is truly alarming. Some internet sleuthing tells me that this was a popular form of “illustration” and that my compendium of stories were originally released as individual books with various editions in the 60s and 70s. There’s no copyright date inside the volume I have, just individual copyrights for the illustrations. It was bought for me in the 80s. Creepy? Yes. But now I also see now that I hold a bit of picture book history in my personal library.

CreepyPuppetBooks

 

14927513. The Christmas Day Kitten by James Herriot, Illustrations by Ruth Brown 

This one was given to me by my mom’s cousin and his wife. It’s written by Jim Herriot of rural-veterinarian-writer fame. It’s a sweet story about a mother cat who brought her kitten to the home of an elderly woman before she (the mother cat) died. Very real talk for a little kid, but I loved sweet stories about animals. I also read this to Jacob when he was little.

img_20190704_102443429

 

img_20190704_102517405

4. This random children’s Bible

We were pretty Catholic when I was growing up. I received this as a baptism gift and my dad read it to me at bedtime.  I’m no longer religious, but I still have the Bible, which went through both my siblings after me, then passed on to Jacob. I’ll probably have it forever and/or pass it on to grandchildren or, if Jacob doesn’t have children, possibly nieces or nephews.

 

img_20190704_102539642.jpg

 

5. The Bedtime Book 

This was a board book and I am now kicking myself because I can’t find. I’ve had it since I was little. It’s a board book. There is a little girl on the cover praying and the book is shaped around her silhouette. Gonna’ check with my siblings to see if either of them have it. I couldn’t find it online and really, it offers no literary significance. It was just special to us because it was read to us about a million times. Sort of our version of Goodnight Moon, which I don’t remember having as a kid.

 

Ben’s Top Five Favorites

Top 5 Records presents: the top 5 picture books of my childhood. Dr. Seuss boutsa be all up in the mothafuckin house. 😉 With longer to work on it I might make slightly different selections, but I think this is a pretty decent list.

2272201. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien, illustrated by Michael Hague

The story itself is delightful, Tolkien’s Middle Earth is enchanting, and what little kid wouldn’t love an epic adventure where a half-size character gets to play the hero? Hague’s illustrations are a delightful mix of evocative scene-setting and dramatic action. On top of all that, it was a birthday present from one of my favorite Aunts. One of my all-time favorite books, picture or otherwise.

TheHobbit

77752. Happy Birthday to You by Dr. Seuss

I could fill this whole list with just Dr. Seuss books. But this one has a family tradition behind it. Also, if Wikipedia is correct, it is the first all-color picture book. So it’ll stand in for other favorites like Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are, On Beyond Zebra, and I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew. We would always get Happy Birthday To You from the library when any of the Rooney children had a birthday coming up, and my Dad would read it in honor of the birthday child. I find myself noting the sage injunction, “You have to be born, or you don’t get a present” to this very day.

unnamed

Did this book contribute to the fact that I keep wanting to treat myself and those around me to slightly-extravagant birthday celebrations? Maaaaayyyyybe…..

 

2979113. The Grey Lady and The Strawberry Snatcher by Molly Bang

The whole book is just beautiful, slightly surreal pictures. The style is sort of Toulouse-Lautrec meets Dixit. Despite the absence of words the story is quite clearly told, and there is plenty of action and suspense.

 

unnamed

 

17631114. Upside-Downers by Mitsumasa Anno

This book is really fun and creative. It’s written half upside down, and half right-side up. But which is which? The playing card-themed characters bicker about who is doing it wrong. Finally the matter comes before the Kings. “Oh king, great king your Heartiness, aren’t we the ones who are up? Oh King, kind king your Clubbiness aren’t they the ones who are down?”

unnamed (1)

 

101185. Saint George and The Dragon by Margaret Hodges, Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

If you didn’t get this book from the Scholastic book fair back in the day, you were missing out. It has vivid illustrations, with some cool little details in the sidebars that reward a closer examination. The prose hints at alliterative verse, giving it a somewhat poetic effect. There are a few awkwardly turned phrases here and there, but as a kid I wasn’t about to scrutinize minor authorial foibles. LOOK AT THAT FREAKIN’ DRAGON!

unnamed (1)


Thus ends another belated Top Ten Tuesday. Did you participate? If so, leave your link below!

Standard
Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Flat Broke with Two Goats

34931315._SY475_This post is about the book Flat Broke with Two Goats by Jennifer McGaha—a.k.a. Much Ado About a Cabin.

It is a very long post and for that I’m sorry. I JUST HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS.

Allow me to explain.

Jennifer and her husband David used to live in Suburbia. David made a “six figure” salary as a freelance accountant and Jennifer taught about three classes a year as an adjunct English professor, which brought in around $10,000 a year.

They decided to send their three kids to a private middle and high school nearly an hour away from their home because Jennifer and David didn’t have a good experience going through their local public schools as kids and they wanted better for their children.

David’s salary was more than enough, and seemed to be getting better all the time, so when their good friends told the couple that they were selling their beautiful rambling Cape Cod in a gated neighborhood, Jennifer and David opted to buy it. They settled in nicely for the next eight years and, while David continued to handle the bread-winning, Jennifer focused on raising their three kids, now teenagers, volunteering at their schools and organizing their birthday parties, making sure homework got done, etc.

One day in the future, when their two oldest children were off at college and their youngest was in school, a man knocked on the door. Jennifer answered thinking it might be a delivery person, but no, it was a repo man, there to take back her minivan, which hadn’t been paid on in several months.

This, apparently, was the first sign of financial trouble in Jennifer and David’s lives as far as Jennifer was aware. And then, one night, Jennifer realizes David is crying into his pillow. When she questions him, he responds that they owe back taxes. A lot of back taxes. As David was “in charge” of the couple’s finances, Jennifer gave him a talking to and David apologized profusely, saying he would “fix it.”

And this is where I began to question Jennifer and David’s decision-making and general competence. This memoir takes place right after the Great Recession and the burst housing bubble that left so many Americans in terrible debt. So, I do have some empathy here. You bought a big house and sent your kids to expensive schools because you thought you could depend on your high income. Then the market crashes. Happens to a lot of people.

When it became impossible to make mortgage payments, Jennifer and David stopped making payments because when you’re about to be foreclosed on, it doesn’t make sense to shovel your available cash into a sinking ship. Totally understandable and I don’t have any qualms with this.

But then follows a series of terrible choices:

-David floats the idea of moving into a cabin owned by a distant relative, which they can rent for $250 per month and fix up. Because even though they’re broke and in, Jennifer says, $350,000 of debt, they can somehow afford to fix up a house? David is even fantasizing about adding skylights at some point….?!?!

-Watch out, boys. We’ve got a runner. Jennifer half agrees to move into this cabin, but then is so angry at David for ruining their finances that she fantasizes about leaving him and, in fact, applies for, then takes a five-month teaching job in a city 12 hours away. She takes one of their dogs and lives in a rehabbed boxcar while she teaches there. She develops a whole life for herself in this other city, including friends and even a guy she kind of dates. David has to reminder her at the end that she promised to come home even though she doesn’t want to.

-The cabin is in the mountains, next to a picturesque waterfall, which is right out the front door. So that’s cool. But it needs total rehabbing. They can’t even count on hot water for showers. At one point, they’re at Lowe’s trying to decide what kind of new flooring to put in and I’m like, WHERE ARE YOU GETTING THE MONEY FOR THIS SHIT? YOU SHOULD BE COUNTING EVERY FUCKING PENNY NOT DEBATING HARDWOOD AND LINOLEUM. Live with the old, ugly carpet while you get your shit together. God, this is stressful to read about.

-The owners of the Cape Cod move all Jennifer and David’s stuff into the garage of the Cape Cod because it has taken Jennifer and David an unreasonable amount of time to move out and even though Jennifer and David still technically own the house, the sellers, to whom they pay their mortgage payments directly, are apparently sick of waiting for them to move out. So Jennifer and David go over and break into the garage of their old house with a sledgehammer to get their stuff out. I don’t even know what to say about this.

-In addition to his accounting business, which is suffering due to the down economy, David also decides to “take over” a local Chipotle franchise. This is not totally explained in the book. David spends a bunch of time coming up with new menu items and Jennifer suggests craft beer options, so I think the Chipotle was maybe being turned into a different restaurant? Jennifer and David invest money into it but only “break even” and then hand it back over to the actual owner when they can’t make it profitable…This…sounds like a nightmare for a financially sound couple. I have so many questions but the details are murky in the book, so I don’t really know what to think about this episode.

-Next……they buy chickens! WHAT? Why? The IRS is suing you. You have almost no income. You are on the verge of divorce. But, you know what we should make sure to take care of? Our personal preference for farm fresh eggs. What the fuck.

-Next……let’s buy some goats! They do. They buy goats.

These are truly people who, due to an upper-middle-class upbringing, do not understand the value of a dollar. Jennifer acknowledges that their financial incompetence is due to their not being taught how to handle money…but then the couple doesn’t seem to be trying to better their situation by making good decisions and it is so painful to watch them flounder.

Here’s a passage to give you a sense of the privilege from which they come and the general lack of maturity/self-awareness with which they handled their situation throughout the book:

One day, I came home after mountain biking for hours. I was sweaty and muddy, my leg bruised and bloody from where I had grazed a tree. There was nothing I wanted more than a hot shower. When I stripped off all my clothes and hopped in the shower only to find there was no hot water. I was furious. I pulled a towel around me and went downstairs to find David.

“I didn’t choose to live here,” I said. “You did. And if you want me to stay, you will make sure we have hot, running water in this house.”

It wasn’t fair, but I was angry, and I needed someone other than myself to blame for my unhappiness. David looked stunned. He loved living here, could not imagine living in a real house or neighborhood again.

“It’s like Disneyland here,” he told me once. “There is so much fun stuff to do!”

A real house? *Eyeroll* And his comment about Disneyland made me laugh. They are so clearly playing at being poor. To them, being broke is about a cabin in the woods next to a picturesque waterfall. It means raising chickens and planting a garden. It means homesteading.

But, dude, homesteading, if you haven’t inherited a homestead, which maybe your family has worked for generations and held on to despite economic depressions and recessions, not to mention the rise of big agriculture, is fucking expensive. I mean, did they buy plant starters for the garden? Cheap seeds? Fertilizer? Where did they get the tools? These people can only just cover their bills.

But never fear. Here comes Jennifer, bastion of thrift. When she gets back from her teaching stint, Jennifer realizes she has “a lot of time” on her hands. And since she’s an avid cook and has always wanted to learn to make cheese, she decides to try her hand at it.

QUESTION: IF YOU HAVE FREE TIME, WHY DON’T YOU GET A JOB, JENNIFER?

Once, before Jennifer’s out of state teaching stint, she’s lamenting to some friends that there are no good jobs for a writer available to her and her friend suggests that she get a job at their local Belk’s department store. Her response is along the lines of “LOL, have you seen how I dress?” as she looks pointedly at her quirky outfit of mini skirt, cowboy boots, and a necklace made from recycled Coke bottles. Because goddess forbid you sacrifice your personal style for a salary.  No one ever does that.

The fact that there’s a recipe after every chapter and the book blurb lauds Jennifer and David’s “firm foot in the traditions of Appalachia” is kind of galling. I can’t imagine a poor person in Appalachia reading it and doing anything but laughing. When you can’t heat your home in the winter, making your own garden fresh pesto is just not that high on the list. The recipes are, at best, tone deaf.

This couple has a firmer foot in upper-middle-class America and this “embrace our Appalachian heritage to save money” nonsense is just that: nonsense. Instead of homesteading, they needed to read a Dave Ramsey book and go to marriage counseling.

So, Jennifer does go back to teaching part-time and sometimes teaching workshops, but the IRS is garnishing her wages, so the whole situation probably feels impossible. And she does have enough self-awareness to admit that she knows buying goats won’t actually change their lives, but instead will shore up her spirit while she waits for the IRS to settle their debts. You do what you can with what you know.

I don’t know what it’s like to be in that much debt, though I do know what it’s like to be heavily in debt, thanks to my student loans. Frightening. That’s what it’s like.

And some times you just get tired of the constant stress and have to say, fuck it, let’s buy some goats.

But you don’t then take out student loans and enroll in an MFA program. And that’s exactly what Jennifer did.

QUESTION: WHO LET THIS PERSON TAKE OUT STUDENT LOANS?

Then Jennifer’s ailing grandma comes to visit and Jennifer takes that as a sign that her grandmother is trying to reassure Jennifer that she’ll be OK even though her grandmother is dying.

That’s the end of the book.

I just. I can’t even.

Have you read it? Did you have a kinder reaction than I did? Do share!

Standard
Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

Book cover: Heartland: A Memoir if working hard and being broke in America by Sarah SmarshI’m not sure I can adequately sum up the many wonderful parts of Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh in a blog post. But I’ll do my best.

Firstly, Smarsh’s story of growing up poor and “country” in Kansas brings a realness and a deeply personal perspective to an examination of being poor and white in the U.S. Through a combination of scenes and vignettes, we are led through a story of one family’s struggle to get by in rural Kansas.

The Goodreads blurb explains the overall concept best, “During Sarah Smarsh’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, the forces of cyclical poverty and the country’s changing economic policies solidified her family’s place among the working poor. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves, Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country and examine the myths about people thought to be less because they earn less.”

Her narrative set-up is unique. Throughout the book, she speaks directly to “August,” her as yet un-conceived daughter. I thought I would hate that device. And it’s getting a lot of guff on Goodreads, but honestly, I think the way she uses it is kind of brilliant. It sounds airy-fairy, but by the end of the book you come to understand that she is sort of speaking to a version of  herself or even to her Higher Self (as the New Agers say).

The idea that Smarsh would end up a pregnant teen is one that hangs over her as she grows up. She’s the daughter of a teen mom and so is her mom and so was her grandmother. This lineage leads us through a timeline of generational poverty, inherited by the daughters of each subsequent mother, right through to Sarah’s childhood in the 80s and 90s.

An examination of the system that keeps poor people poor is woven throughout. Herbert Hoover, Regan, Bush, and Clinton (the demonizer of the “welfare queen”) are all mentioned and their policies criticized. Sarah also examines the judgement placed on poor people just for being poor in the U.S. Being poor is often seen as a moral failure here and is likely to be blamed on an individual’s choices rather than acknowledged as the result of a systematic problem.

Here’s a quote:

Our struggles forced a question about America that many were not willing to face: If a person could go to work every day and still not be able to pay the bills and the reason wasn’t racism, what less articulated problem was afoot? When I was growing up, the United States had convinced itself that class didn’t exist here. I’m not sure I even encountered the concept until I read some old British novel in high school. This lack of acknowledgment at once invalidated what we were experiencing and shamed us if we tried to express it. Class was not discussed, let alone understood. This meant that, for a child of my disposition—given to prodding every family secret, to sifting through old drawers for clues about the mysterious people I loved—every day had the quiet underpinning of frustration. The defining feeling of my childhood was that of being told there wasn’t a problem when I knew damn well there was.

So this book is much more than a memoir. It tells the story of one woman and one family, but it also provides cultural context for that story.

Finishing this book, I was emotional. I kept thinking, “What can we do? What can we do?” Unchecked capitalism is definitively not working. But what are the answers? How do we fix a broken system, one where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? It’s modern, Western society’s whole set-up. But it only works for a few of us.

The problem is so big. And I’m not educated or smart enough, let alone powerful enough, to know how to solve any of it. I can only cast my vote in the way I think best and help where I can. I don’t know.

Standard
Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

Two True Crime Hits

I sped through two works of true crime last week. I can’t get interested in any of the classics I’ve been wanting to read because all I want to read about is murder, apparently.Green River, Running Red: The Real Story of the Green River Killer - America's Deadliest Serial Murderer

What kicked off this spree was listening to the Crime Junkie podcast and hearing the story of the Green River Killer. It reminded me that Ann Rule had written a book about the case that I had glanced at and then dismissed because I wasn’t interested. Well, I downloaded the Kindle book from the library and set about getting all the terrible details.

Green River, Running Red is a story about the investigation of murders committed by a serial killer who targeted mostly women involved in prostitution beginning in the 80s (and possibly late 70s). Rule tells the story of many of the victims and what led them to prostitution along the SeaTac highway in Seattle. She does tell the story of the killer, Gary Ridgway, a classic normal-seeming blue collar worker who left some of his first victims along the Green River. He was finally caught in 2001 and eventually convicted of 49 murders, though he confessed to around 70, and is suspected to have been responsible for even more.

Ann Rule is my favorite true crime writer, hands down. Her focus in Green River, Running Red, like in her other books, is the police investigation of the crime at hand and she pays special attention to the victims and their stories, making sure to humanize those whose lives are often disregarded by larger society. She does paint a picture of the killer’s life and upbringing because she, like her readers, is fascinated by the personality that can lead someone to kill and kill over and over again.

Those stories are told within the framework of the police investigation leading to the killer’s eventual arrest. I recommend reading this only if you’ve got a strong stomach. There are graphic descriptions of the ways in which victims’ bodies are found, but I found the description of Ridgway and clearly psychopathic personality almost equally disturbing.

EvilAnother Crime Junkie episode reminded me of the case of Sylvia Likens, who was tortured to death in the home of a woman who was supposed to be taking care of her while her parents worked with a traveling carnival outfit. This case is well-known in Indiana, where I live, as it took place in Indianapolis, so I was eager to learn more.

After some online research, I landed on House of Evil by John Dean, which was first published in 1966, just a yer after Sylvia’s murder.

What’s unique about this terrible story is the fact that Gertrude Baniszewski, caregiver to Sylvia and her sister Jenny, solicited the help of her own daughter, Paula, as well as several neighborhood children, to abuse and eventually kill Sylvia. This story also requires a strong stomach, so if you can’t stand stories of child abuse or violence, avoid it, and maybe read the Wikipedia article, which is pretty correct, instead.

A review note: I thought this book was well-written, but I noticed some Goodreads reviewers calling it “scattered.” I didn’t think it was at all. There’s a clear progression along a timeline leading from the Likens sisters being dropped off with Gertrude right through the trial. Scenes are written pretty much chronologically.

On a tangential note, it’s hard to say why I read true crime. After finishing these books, I wondered, am I turning someone else’s tragedies into entertainment? I can’t honestly say that that’s not part of what I’m doing in reading these books. I mean, I think some  fascination with abhorrent behavior is natural. We all like to tell or listen to incredible stories and then remark “Isn’t that crazy?” And wonder how or why something terrible/crazy was allowed to happen. But is this kind of leisure reading akin to watching reality TV where the struggles of the people being filmed are offered up as entertainment? I don’t have an answer.

This list of 12 Reasons We Like True Crime was slightly reassuring. But only slightly.

Thoughts?

Standard