Reading 2017: Rounding Out the Year

See bottom for links to further entries in the “Reading 2017” series.

Well, 2017 has been an absurd year in too many ways, so it was nice to end it with the feeling that at least my reading wasn’t doing too badly. As I’ve mentioned earlier in the series, I wanted to focus more on content and not just books in terms of numbers. After my first year reading challenge (2016), in which I aimed for a certain amount of books to read, I found a way this time to shift away from that numeric goal with some fun and variety. The dirty details:

Three books from each of three new or newish genres:

Graphic novel: These turned out to be The Metamorphosis; The Iliad and the Odyssey and Frankenstein. In passing I also read a couple of Raina Telgemeier’s, who I knew from my son having read her in the lower grades. Two, Smile and Claudia and Mean Janine, I quite liked, though a third not so much as the whole story generally felt unfinished. All three of my central choices I’d read before (in “regular” form) and loved—save The Iliad, which I mildly enjoyed. (Perhaps I ought to give that another shot in ’18.)

Until reading Mary Shelley’s entry in a sort of nineteenth-century Fright Night writing contest, the only thing I really knew about Frankenstein was that everybody mistakenly referred to the monster by the title name. I was surprised at how much I liked the plot way back, though I admit Shelley’s style of writing more than likely had something to do with it. Nevertheless, the graphic novel version held up as well, even though it lost a bit from me knowing how it would end. Still, the tension was apparent and you felt for all parties involved; there just was no winning corner.

In contrast is The Odyssey, which in previous poetic reading I loved on a level so much higher than Frankenstein that I even told stories from it to my boy when he was littler (the island of the cyclops being a favorite). Here, however, we see that color isn’t everything, which is a pity because the shades are rather vibrant and alive. They don’t, however, really do anything for the narrative, though the fault of that may lay within the technique of text on bottom of panel, words within, floating in speech bubbles—too all over the place. The effect is meant to convey casual asides and humorous remarks, but I found it irritatingly distracting. Also, there is so much lost in the story, and while I get there was a lot for the author to choose from, this just isn’t a dynamic intro to Homer’s amazing tale.

For my review of Franz Kafka’a The Metamorphosis (adapted by Peter Kuper), click here.

True Crime: I happened upon it quite by accident, when reading an update on appeal of the amazingly entitled Michael Skakel, convicted of murdering fifteen-year-old Martha Moxley in her own front yard. Apart from the crime’s own shocking nature is the jaw-dropping reality that the Greenwich, Connecticut police were either too incompetent or inexperienced to find the young girl’s killer—or were they cowed by the sleazy Kennedy name and money that tries to lord over everything it touches (and frequently destroys)? Former police detective and author Mark Furhman investigated years later and literally wrote the book on how Skakel’s name became seriously linked to the murder. For my review, click here.

I was so impressed with Fuhrman’s style—as a detective as well as writer—that I sought out another, Murder in Brentwood. Here we are given a glimpse into the cross-aisle backstabbing, soulless ambition and strikingly stupid cult of personality behind the scenes of the infamous O.J. Simpson case that de-armed detective authority and investigation and later destroyed Fuhrman’s career. The author himself is no angel and he comes clean on everything the prosecution accused him of while also rightfully stating something to the effect of the R in racism being today’s scarlet letter—and utilized as recklessly. It’s an amazing story that fills in so many gaps I was shocked to read and even more surprised to learn when I talked to people about it, how widespread is awareness that Fuhrman was totally set up by an ego-enabled prosecution utilizing the wrong tack and a defense that would go to any lengths to win. Most of all, however, it made these two lost souls, people cut down so young, so heartlessly and so devoid of justice, individuals and not just more famous statistics, or distant humans you read of in the papers and then forget about.

Ann Rule is also a gifted writer, and her book, The Stranger Beside Me too was a recommended read. Utilizing her previous experience as a police officer, she at the time events in the book were occurring, had retired and engaged as a true crime writer for magazines and newspapers. She volunteered for the suicide hotline of a crisis center along with Ted Bundy, who I knew very little about except that he had been a serial killer. I don’t tend to think much about this sort of psychopath, but can guarantee that after reading this book they were on my mind for weeks. My usual rejoinder, “I don’t lose sleep over it, but—” lost a lot of airtime because I did stay awake more than I should have. Reading about the victims of Skakel and Simpson didn’t have the same effect—and I knew this straight away—because while they were targeted, in a set of rages, perhaps, they weren’t random. Bundy, on the other hand, could strike anywhere, and that set me on edge for awhile, especially having read Rule’s descriptive passages of sexual and mental abuse of such horrific nature I could barely comprehend how any human could even think this shit up. I won’t go into details here, just suffice to say that ISIS probably borrowed heavily from Bundy’s catalogue of twisted torture techniques. It’s not something I’m really keen on reading more of, to be quite frank.

Science fiction: Sky fi, as my wee one likes to call it. That’s one thing, but the real question, I found, is: What is it? To be honest, Jurassic Park didn’t strike me as sci-fi and when himself suggested it, I was initially taken aback. It contains science and is a work of fiction, yet for some reason I tended to think of outer space, which I typically only like reading about as non-fiction. Then someone suggested 1984, which really threw me for a loop. So I dropped it all and instead of heading for booklists, the first thing I did was look up the definitions because in order to choose some sci-fi, I first had to be clear what it is.

From the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction: “Science fiction is the literature of the human species encountering change, whether it arrives via scientific discoveries, technological innovations, natural events, or societal shifts.”

(Inserting a small note here: I’ve never heard of Gunn before, so don’t endorse or not endorse them.) At the web page their definition is expanded, but even in keeping with this foundation, it also squares with this one:

Och, who am I kidding? The real reason I’m on so long about this is because I didn’t manage to finish my sci-fi reading challenge. Surprisingly, quite a few titles appealed to me, although in thinking about it, I’d be willing to bet at least a few of them I’d put down after awhile, which is something I haven’t done a lot in recent years. Hyperion caught my eye, but somehow it went back to the library unread, and later I settled on Jurassic Park, 1984 and The Time Machine, though only ever finished the first. (I did read 1984 in elementary school, if that can score me some points). And while they weren’t official choices for the challenge, I can’t say enough about Richard Abbott’s Far from the Spaceports series, the first of which shares the series title and the second, Timing, continues the adventures.

Both involve Mitnash Thakur and his AI partner, Slate, battling financial fraud in space colonies near Jupiter, though terminating the criminal activity doesn’t tend to involve standard, earth-like consequences. The colonial culture and detective angles also drew me in, and I’m certain these will both be re-reads.

The other ones, though … I just couldn’t get interested enough to read them. I did have “discipline” in mind as a factor toward the challenge, though when push came to shove, didn’t see much worth in disciplining one’s self to read something, for leisure, that one can’t get into. I did open my mind to the genre, though, which is the real goal, and may return to those titles at a later date.

It might have helped if I didn’t have others that appealed more, but contributing likely was also my own all-around reading slowdown. Once I finished the massive pile of reviews I’d needed to do, I told myself I would read, during Christmas break,  only what I wanted to read—which turned out to be not much. I picked out a few books but simply spent a lot of time doing other things. I’m rarely not in the mood to read, but it does happen, and when it does, it’s a sizeable block. Close to the end I picked up a bunch of children’s books, the easier reading of which has jump-started me in the past. I pretty rapidly went through an old favorite, Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives, which was as absolutely fabulous as it ever was. I may even write a tad about it in the new year. A couple of others I began and passed on, and as of this writing I’m still reading Company of Fools (Ellis), whose story has also pulled me in.

And, finally …

Five off my neglected TBR shelves:

I didn’t have particular titles in mind, though at the time I wrote up a blog about the ideas, I was eyeing a certain few. It wasn’t long before I had to remind myself that lots of my leisure reading is determined pretty much by mood and what I feel like reading, so even had I definitively chosen, they stood a chance of being displaced—or not. It just depends.

As it happens, this year, like last, most of my reading was for reviewing, so very few of my own books came off the TBR. I did, however, manage to meet and exceed my five: Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger; The Revolving Door of Life, Precious and Grace, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, The Bertie Project and The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, all by Alexander McCall Smith; and three Peter St. John Gang books I’ve been after since I reviewed one last year: Gang Loyalty, Gang Petition, Gang Territory and Gang Spies. As you can see, I’m a great fan of both McCall Smith and St. John, the latter of whom has at least two more on backorder that I mean to read—and I say that with great emphasis! Semi-autobiographical stories of an orphan evacuee from the Blitz, these tales are funny, poignant and delightful, with a re-readability factor that’s out of this world.

A lot of books I’ve read this year have really great covers (e.g. Cometh the Hour, The Popish Midwife, Company of Liars), which had been a focus of many discussions I’ve seen across 2017, two of which I was privileged to be a part of. Another, Hand of Glory by Susan Boulton, came at a great moment, set during and after the Great War as it is, given my sort of “re-awakening” to the era. For the past couple of years I’ve been remembering all the Siegfried Sassoon we’d studied in high school and telling myself to dip into the era some more. Boulton’s story contains a mythical twist and the war portions are written with such dexterity: sensitivity but also a knowing of harsh realities, and some resulting passages simply wind into your reading being. And, at the risk of overloading anyone else’s TBR or shopping lists, speaking of getting into you: Jennie Orbell’s Two Chucks and a Tabby Cat had me laughing nearly all the way through, even at passages that weren’t always topics of humor. Orbell has such a feel for the foibles of humanity and a witty way of pointing them out to us, all while knowing when to retreat.

Retreat is what I did once in awhile, as you can see scattered through my 2017 reads here, by backing away from reviews and picking up one of my own, most of which are listed above. I love to write reviews, mind you, and I admit it felt a little odd to be reading a book with no intention (at least at the outset, and some I had to reprimand myself and say no) of writing it up. That happened at the end of the year as well, and taking a couple of weeks off to be reading whatever I pick up off the shelf has been simply grand.

Reads from the last part of 2017, some of which you may see again in these pages. As mentioned elsewhere, numbers weren’t the goal, though you have to plug something in. (Click image for full Goodreads spread.)
2017 saw the conclusion of my 1066 series (see tab in sidebar for links to posts), and the beginning to my Knights Templar (Michael Jecks) following. I’ve got the next two queued up to read as I type.
My reading of Susan Boulton’s Hand of Glory really revved my engines for more about the Great War. A mystery with supernatural and mythological twists, the novel has great staying power.
I’m hoping to dip into more reading about the Barbary Wars, having finally found a great start with Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates.

*********

Previous entries in the Reading 2017 series:

The Importance of Covers (Book Bloggers Group Chat)

Readers’ Chat with Stephanie Hopkins

Origins of the Challenge

Reading Challenge 2017

New Genre Library (True Crime): Murder in Greenwich

New Genre Library (Graphic Novel): The Metamorphosis

New Genre Library (Science Fiction): Jurassic Park

New Genre Library is a three-part spinoff series of Reading 2017

*********

Thanks for reading and may 2018

be your best year yet!

Advertisements

New Genre Library: True Crime (Murder in Greenwich)

This new series explores genres new or newish to me as part of my 2017 reading challenge, to be discussed in an upcoming post.

Murder in Greenwich: Who Killed Martha Moxley?

by Mark Fuhrman

I don’t typically include true crime on my list of preferred genres, though a couple of memories lingering in the back of my mind may have opened me up to it. In 2012 Samantha Koenig was abducted from a coffee hut close to our house and later murdered, and it was my young son’s most in-your-face introduction to the realities that life can dish out. More recently I read a beautifully-written true crime memoir, Finding Bethany, authored by an Anchorage detective whose own sister had also been murdered when he was a boy. He weaves in her story as well as that of his search for Bethany and, later, her killer.

I didn’t know either of these young women, though I recall Bethany’s case from when my son was a new baby, and Samantha’s killer was arrested when my boy had just turned nine. While our personal timeline is insignificant to the cases, the two events stood in my awareness then, like bookends. A strange coincidence occurred in Detective Klinkhart’s own timeline: Bethany Correira disappeared on his sister’s birthday, May 3.

As I type I recall another book I read years before, that of a London detective investigating the murder of a baby. His suspicions were later found to be correct but Victorian England was obsessed with the new profession of detecting, and the investigator who lends his name to the title of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher saw his career destroyed. Perhaps it set the stage for the affection and admiration I have for homicide detectives in particular, whose work takes them to the dark side, sets them amongst people who block them at every turn, whose passion for restoring some sort of justice to people they (mostly) never knew taps into a deep sense of integrity and demand that murderers pay for their crimes, no matter who they are.

Before a year or two ago, I never heard of Martha Moxley or Michael Skakel, though I vaguely recall reading about the case, perhaps when Skakel was in and out of prison on appeal for the 1975 murder of fifteen-year-old Martha Moxley of Greenwich, Connecticut. More recently his case came to national attention once more when it was determined he had indeed received a fair trial with competent counsel, and his conviction for the murder was reinstated. I saw the news piece at iOTWreport, where blogger Big Fur Hat notes retired Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman’s instrumental role in re-opening the case and the resultant conviction. Something struck a chord and I decided immediately to read the book.

murder_in_greenwich-1The late Dominick Dunne opens Detective Fuhrman’s Murder in Greenwich account with a foreword that straight away acknowledges the Moxley murder case never really became a national story. This struck me as odd, given its circumstance: a fabulously wealthy neighborhood, closely guarded and protected from outsiders by its own security force, a beautiful teenage girl who died right in front of her own house. That a “Kennedy cousin” lived next door and might have been involved seems like it would contribute to its national story status, though as Fuhrman discovers and relates as his investigation proceeds, Michael Skakel’s family wealth and connections actually play a role in the cover up and shielding of the suspect, even years after the crime.

Fuhrman leads us through sections in the book that outline background, his taking on of the case, evidence examination, individual profiles of participants, and a breakdown of his investigation. Each section contains attention to detail that he writes in narrative and linear form, inviting readers in as he points out and connects details, drawing conclusions or asking questions. For instance, on the night of the murder Martha was out with friends and her mother, Dorthy, was painting a room upstairs. The cold drove her to close the window despite the fumes, and at one point

she heard a commotion on the side of the house—the sound of voices so loud that she could hear them through the closed windows. She clearly heard the voices of male youths, or at least one male youth. She was accustomed to hearing kids on the property, since they often cut through her yard. But these voices didn’t sound friendly or innocent[.]

Fuhrman also reports that several neighbors noted a cacophony of dogs barking, and some even went outside to investigate. Later, in “Hypothesis of a Murder,” he utilizes forensic clues to determine that Moxley was not killed where she was found, and notes a streetlight near where she was initially struck with a golf club before being dragged to a spot under a tree and left. How could it be that when he pursued his investigation, despite advantageous views from some areas to the spot, the noises Mrs. Moxley heard and the amount of blood the crime produced, nobody saw or heard any part of the commotion outside?

Perhaps most awe inspiring is how meticulously Fuhrman traces details, follows leads, digs through years and records redacted and aged, runs up against Greenwich detectives who absolutely refuse to cooperate with him, or at least answer his questions as to why they didn’t follow certain procedures, why they allowed a dog, for example, sniffing and licking around on the ground, to literally eat evidence. The author traces the Skakel family’s earlier history and Michael’s movements through the years as he was shielded by his family from authorities who eventually began to focus on him.

As a writer Fuhrman is to the point, revealing his compassion and detecting talent as he moves forward, each step noting in layman’s terms what even seemingly insignificant details might mean to someone “reading” a crime scene. His periodic illustrations and accompanying notes lend greater understanding not just to the details of a murder and what a detective might be looking for—including what is there as well as what is not—but also what sort of procedures investigators follow, such as note taking, order of who they talk to, keeping people separated and even simple first steps, such as blocking off the crime scene. It is unfortunate, exceedingly sad even, that the Greenwich police had so little experience investigating murders that they didn’t even know to do this.

Is this the largest part of the reason why local authorities refused to help Fuhrman? Did pride get in the way as they bitterly considered the consequences of an outsider solving a case they couldn’t? Did they later come to understand the horrific series of mistakes and careless acts of their force? Or were they afraid of the Skakels and stalling on an investigation in order to protect a well-connected member of their community? Fuhrman touches upon all of this and more, at times expressing his anger at how, with so much evidence, someone could be allowed to get away with this crime, and nobody seemed interested in changing that. This he does with great feeling, though without falling into any over-emotive passages that crash and burn by the time readers finish the book.

On the contrary, this account has stayed with me, and as an outsider I saw Fuhrman’s investigation in a way he doesn’t, as someone not typically exposed to the anatomy of a murder, as he calls it, and as it includes the murder as well as its subsequent investigations. In the case of Murder in Greenwich, this entails also how one copes with an unsolved case and the incredulousness that comes with the awareness that, as Fuhrman frequently declares, someone out there knows something.

As readers and consumers of current news, we now know what the Mark Fuhrman of 1998 didn’t: Skakel faces justice in the end. Given his family’s possible appeal yet to come, the anatomy may still be forming itself, perhaps never to end, not so long as anyone remembers that a lovely, vivacious girl once lived, that despite those in-your-face realities of life that haunt our memories and bookmark our timelines, someone cared enough to stand for her and demand answers to the questions left behind.

*********

Thanks to BFH at iOTWreport for linking!