Burden of Proof – 3/5 Stars
So this is a second of the “Kindle County” series books that Turow has been publishing over the course of the last 30 years. I reviewed the first one a few months back. This a “legal thriller” and starts with Sandy Stern (of Argentine Jewish descent, which comes up, repeatedly) finding his wife dead in the garage of a possible suicide. There is a note but few clues as to what might have happened. Over the course of the subsequent days and weeks Sandy begins to piece together a hidden life that he never truly knew about his wife’s private life. In addition, he’s defending his brother-in-law in a money-laundering case. Guess what…it’s ALL connected.
This is a weird book because a lot of it tries to stay pretty tight to the idea of professional ethics and legalese about the how the different cases involved are tied together and how as a lawyer he has to proceed.
Then, there’s a LOT of description of middle-aged people doing it and doing it well. It’s weird. Like really weird Scott Turow is about 60ish now, and so he would have been in his early 30s when he wrote this book, but he is absolutely fascinated with middle-age sex. I mean it’s an important and interesting topic, but not one that seems to have much place in a legal thriller. I do appreciate that this book is trying to be more than its components, but it’s a weird concern.
This series I think functions like the Tana French series where it Daisy Chains the subject matter by moving from one character in the first book to the next.
Invisible Cities – 2/5
This book is just not for me. Maybe it plays more than I want it to, maybe it’s been built up by too many people over the years, maybe it’s whimsical and I don’t want whimsical right now, or maybe it’s derivative or copies so much. I think that those people who love this book, and that’s between them and the book, have never played video games before. Stay with me here. In Video Games, comic books, fantasy art, Magic the Gathering, and any other outlet for this kind of fantasizing about the many different worlds that could be.
The conceit of this book is that Marco Polo and Kublai Khan are talking and Marco Polo is describing the many many different cities between Italy and Mongolia. Each city has a different name and a different element and it’s not a “each city is more fantastic than the previous one” kind of thing, but instead is more of a rumination on various ideas and themes. Like I said, I was not super sold on it. I won’t tell you the further premise, but there’s a unifying connector between all the different cities and descriptions. I just wasn’t completely charmed by this. For me it reads like less good Borges, who I am already not the biggest fan of in the world. I like Borges, but he’s simply just better than this. I will hand this off to someone who might want it though.
Shockaholic – 3/5 Stars
So I saw Star Wars yesterday. This is not a review of that. This a review of the other kind of Princess Leia on life support book, where Carrie Fisher among other things describes and defends the very defensible electro-convulsive therapy or ECT. I can’t say much about that at all. She also tells a lengthy and really funny story about going on a blind date with Senator and former Presidential candidate Chris Dodd in the mid-80s. In the ECT sections of the book, the writing comes together in a much more satisfying way than it does in her other oft-passed around book Wishful Drinking that I read months ago. She had it more together for this book because she had already written the general overview history, perhaps thinking that was her early shot, and based on that book’s success, she was able to write this one in more granular detail. And that’s what we have here. We have a much more specific and detailed accounting of the controversial therapy. We have a much more detailed and specific account of her dating Chris Dodd before he was Presidential Hopeful/ Dodd-Frank Chris Dodd. And we also get a long section about taking care of her father Eddie Fisher in his dying days. She talks about Eddie Fisher in Wishful Drinking, but it’s more referential than specific.
And so more like The Princess Diarist, which tells of a such narrow time-period, the much more detailed stories in this book work better because she gives them the they need to develop.
Ten Days in a Mad-House – 2/5 Stars
It’s interesting because as a historical artifact, it shows us about the nascent field of investigative journalism as well as the kinds of conditions present at mental asylums in New York City at the turn of the century. But as a book, it’s not very interesting to read. I am currently re-reading a novel that came out pretty much the same year, and it’s still a wonderful and entertaining and beautifully written novel. I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that 1900 or any time previous was an uncultured cesspool of wildness and raw energy and no finesse, so a piece of writing that is not strong but perfunctory works just fine. But this is centuries after Shakespeare and after The Yellow Wallpaper, so the fact that this book has survived the passage of time, like I said, probably has more to do with its place in history than its writing.
So it’s about 100 pages long. The opening tells us that Nellie Bly is asked to go undercover as a mental patient to expose as good or bad the conditions of the city’s mental hospitals. And so she does. For her ten days in the madhouse, it takes 60 pages to even get her there, 20 pages to talk about the details of it, and 5 to conclude. And here’s the thing for me, it just doesn’t seem that bad. Not that it’s good, but given that there was no real treatment for what people were going through at the time…the conditions weren’t good, but they could be and definitely were worse elsewhere. And so even the writing project itself seems contrived, there was no real bad, no real good, but the writing happened regardless.
White Rage – 5/5 Stars
This book wasn’t prescient in the sense that it came out in 2016 just in time to predict Trump, because it does and it doesn’t do that. I think that she doesn’t even mention him at all. But, her last chapter in this book is called “How to Unelect a Black President” and Trump’s shitty presidency has done nothing but try to do that.
That’s the issue we have in this country that’s so hard to define and explain to people. Through a lot of purposeful cognitive dissonance and shameful language games and plausible deniability, people cannot name the pernicious parts of whiteness that are trying to destroy this country through hatred. Anderson calls it “white rage” which both works but also falls short. That’s not a fault of the book because her goal here is not to write an exhaustive history and ethnography of hateful whiteness, but instead detail some emblematic incidents in American history that show elements of a larger cultural truth, the whiteness protects whiteness. The issue with showing these particular incidents as emblematic, is that it’s easy to suggest that these a) in the past b) sometimes not even about race or c) singular events, all of which circles back to the optical illusions being weaponized to deny the existence of the very thing she’s referencing.
The other issue is that what she’s really describing is “white supremacy” but that word has been watered down to only mean hate-groups doing hate-crimes. She talks about this concept but not in enough to detail to show the distinctions between a whiteness that is about hatred in singularity versus pervasive systems of hate. Or she does talk about them, but calls them white rage, which again works, but allows for the gaps to show up.
Ultimately this book is a fiery but limited history of these events. She really emphasizes one key take away, which is these actions are spite-filled designed to control and has always hurt our country in large and meaningful ways. This is the much more concentrated history that books like HIdden Figures exist within, but couldn’t articulate fully.
The Haunting of Hill House – 5/5 Stars
This is a re-read but it was a glorious re-read. I had forgotten how much I loved and enjoyed this book the first time I read it a few years back. The issue with the first time I read it was that it was in one sitting while administering the PSAT to 11th graders. Don’t tell College Board, so while a lot of the details were there the nuances and the fear was not. This time, I also listened to the audiobook and that changed it in some meaningful ways.
To say nothing else about this book: it is a weird book. It’s weird because it knows the form it’s taking on quite well. It’s a gothic novel in all that glory, but it’s also a haunted novel, but most importantly it’s not really either of those things at all. The premise is familiar: a psychologist specializing in haunted places wants to accurately record people staying in a “haunted mansion” so he places an ad and various people show up. There’s Eleanor, who is having a early 30s crisis because she’s unmarried, living at home with a hateful mother, and having severe identity crises (quite likely unable to face up to her own queerness in a world that hates that), there’s Luke who is the heir-apparent to Hill House, and there’s Theadora, a charming socialite for whom Eleanor becomes very attached. The novel then mostly just has them exploring various rooms, features, rules, and connections to the wider community. Nothing is overly ghosty…there’s just unnerving elements. So in the novel House of Leaves, one of the scariest parts is that the inside of that house is slightly larger than the outside. And in this novel the psychologist suggests that the house is built slightly askew from expected angles and dimensions, and that this throws everything off. Regardless, as she’s doing something for the first time in her life, Eleanor becomes obsessed with and drawn to the house, and is willing to engage in increasingly drastic behavior to remain there.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle – 5/5 Stars
If The Haunting of Hill House is a play on the gothic mansion novels of the 18th and 19th centuries in a particular way, then this novel is a play on estate romances in its own way. Another novel that does something similar is Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, where a not so rich person is able to lease an estate and the trappings of the estate and weirdness of the family get pinned too much on the hopes of a marriage to a cad. In this one, it’s the mysterious mansion on the hill, where a famous murder has occurred, but after an inconclusive trial acquits one of the two remaining sisters who live there, the town has to keep living in the aftermath. It’s a play on this because usually in those book, Rebecca or such, the murder scene would have caused the downfall that ends the novel, but here it’s just the background. And so, we also have one of the best of all possible narrators Mary-Kat Blackwood, who hates and spits fire and thinks about poisons and magic words and other ways to close off her world from the hateful society who she thinks has led to the downfall of her family but more importantly might take her sister from her now. All of this is embodied in her hatred for her “cousin” who shows up to “save” the family by offering himself for marriage.
On the back-end this reminds me of I Capture the Castle and it feels like a direct influence on another novel I really like The Wasp Factory, where a young mentally disturbed teenage boy has his kinds of mystic fetishes and magic words in an elaborate machine made of bio-matter.