Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession

Now just hold your horses, all you obsessed, bloodthirsty, thrill-seeking ladies out there.  This title would have you devouring the pages of the book, ripping at them with fang and claw…..drooling.  ‘Fraid not.  This is sociology, my friends, and, according to the sociological theorizing in Rachel Monroe’s book, it is the ladies who are obsessed with true crime.  Maybe, but it does make interesting reading, and the true stories of four women are cited as examples of cultural archetypes – Detective, Victim, Defender, Killer.

The unlikely Detective is Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy heiress, who, in the Forties, constructed Nutshells, exquisitely detailed miniatures of crime scenes as training tools for law enforcement….how to see and analyze a crime scene.  Arguably, Ms. Lee’s work could be called the beginning of forensic science, introducing a thread that continues throughout the book.  Many of Ms. Lee’s Nutshells still exist and have been exhibited as art.

The Victim is Patti Tate, younger sister of Sharon Tate.  She inherits her mother’s fight for victim’s rights.  The Defender, Lorri Davis, marries incarcerated Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three and works tirelessly for his eventual freedom, one of many women who befriend and, eventually, love imprisoned men, investing them with a bad boy sexiness or a mysterious uniqueness.  The Killer is a very young Lindsay Souvannarath, and her James, internet buddies/imaginary lovers involved online with admirers of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.  Mostly chatter and bravado, but Lindsay and James actually make plans to shoot up a mall in Halifax, Nova Scotia where he lived.  Unrealistic plans.  Neither had ever fired a gun, and she insisted on wearing heels.

These four women are springboards for broader discussions, a sociological mash-up that tries to cover the waterfront and is only more or less successful.  A Sisyphean task, either in search of a point or adrift in a sea of them, so don’t obsess over it.  Just leave your savage appetites in the basement and nibble thoughtfully on this one.  Here’s the thing.  Without reference, I named Sharon Tate, Damien Echols, the West Memphis Three, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold , and you know who they are.  Don’t you?

Savage Appetites takes aim at bookstores on August 20, or thereabouts.  Pre-order here from your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Scribner via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Superlative: The Biology of Extremes

The outliers:  biggest, smallest, deadliest, smartest, strongest, oldest, fastest.  A sort of Guinness Book of Records for grown-up nerds, huh?  Same fascination factor, for sure, but with purpose and science to boot.  What can we learn from these extremes of nature?  How did they come to be?  What are the challenges to their survival?  How can they benefit us?

For example, in “Why Almost Everything We Know About Giraffes Is Wrong”, we learn that prevailing theories say giraffes developed their unique bodies and long necks in order to graze from tree tops.  But did they?  They seem to bend down to eat from grasses and shrubs as much, if not more, than in trees.  So why those long necks with those pretty little heads at the top?

And there’s “Why Elephant Cells Are Like Empathetic Zombies”.  Elephants grow so rapidly that cells tend to mutate, and so it seems that elephants would develop cancers at an astounding rate – but they don’t.  In elephants, mutating cells appear to “develop a conscience” and die.  Now wouldn’t it be great if our pre-cancerous cells offed themselves?  Yeah, that’s the ticket, and we’d have elephants to thank, so back off, poachers!

I’ve only sampled Matthew LaPlante’s good book, but I’ll be back, and it’s perfect for enjoying this way if you like.  Of course, for many, it’ll be like potato chips.  Hard to stop with one or two.  Whatever your style, munchies or the full buffet, the line starts here.

Be the biggest, smartest, fastest reader to buy this book from your local indie bookstore.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by BenBella Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story

After finishing Silver, Sword, and Stone:  Three Crucibles of the Latin American Story, I felt as if I’d been beaten about the head and ears.  The “brutal calculus” of Latin American history simply clobbered me, left me reeling.  Marie Arana calls her book a mixture of history and reportage, and that approach, I think, is what makes it so readable, but her work is massive in both scholarship and scope:  from the Pre-Columbian to the Perons, conquistadores to Castro, Santiago to Pope Francis I.  Its structure and focus are derived from three major currents, co-equal driving forces of Latin American history, identified in the title as silver, sword and stone.

Silver for wealth:  mineral, agricultural, fossil fuels, and drugs.  Sword for violence:  war, conquest, revolution, terrorism, dictatorships, gangs.  Stone for religion:  the Sun God, ancient sacrifices, Catholicism, missionary zeal, political involvement.  All leading to or resulting in weakened extractive societies and exploitation driven by greed.  For each of the three, Ms. Arana weaves in a humanizing touch, stories of three individuals, living examples of silver, sword and stone in today’s Latin America.  Leonor Gonzales is the wife, now widow, of a sick, impoverished gold miner.  Carlos Buergos, a petty Cuban criminal, fought in Angola and was expelled from Cuba when Castro emptied the prisons of “undesirables”.  Spaniard Xavier Albo, a Jesuit priest from Catalan, has served the Church in Bolivia since he was seventeen and is now in his nineties.

To this day there is a cruelly high economic imbalance between rich and poor in most of Latin America and a pronounced arc toward violence and instability.  Latin American countries and cities are often in the majority on lists of the World’s most dangerous. Exploitation and greed, internal and external, historic and current.  Ms. Arana is both fair and thorough in her examination of these volatile parts of our world, and her timely book is a good balance of scholarship and readability.  Effective and affecting.

Available at booksellers everywhere on August 27, 2019. Shop your local indie bookstore to pre-order.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Simon & Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Grace Will Lead Us Home: The Charleston Church Massacre and the Hard, Inspiring Journey to Forgiveness

That subtitle basically says what needs to be said.  Jennifer Berry Hawes gives us an even-handed look at the horror in Charleston on June 17, 2015.  An atrocity that, for a moment in time and shared grief, appeared to unite us in a complete reversal of Dylann Roof’s avowed hope for race war.  Nine innocent lives are lost at historic Mother Emmanuel, and there is a tenth, lost but not innocent:  the shooter, lost to hatred.  Ms. Hawes movingly recounts the anguish of the families involved, and willingly recognizes that, as human beings, we are all flawed.  In the aftermath, there are those who inspire us with forgiveness, others who struggle, family quarrels, and church schisms because, well . . . humans, you know.  The book offers no blinding insights or solutions to our ongoing struggles, but rather, it serves to remind us of the healing power of forgiveness and, for those who believe, the grace of God.  Oh, wait, did I say no insights or solutions?  Could be I was wrong.  A thoughtful read.

Out today, June 4, from St. Martin’s Press.  Shop your local indie bookstore for a copy.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming

Dennis Rader of Wichita, Kansas, is a perfectly ordinary looking man, living with his wife and two children in a small ranch house, working reliably, going to church and rearing his nice family.  Dennis Rader is a serial killer known as BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) who terrified Wichita for thirty years, taunted the media, and killed eight adults and two children.  Dennis Rader is Kerri Rawson’s father.  Kerri’s innocence and that of her family ended on February 25, 2005, when Dennis Rader was arrested.

The secret life of a loved one.  Unimaginable, isn’t it?  Devastating, emotional ruin…..but Kerri tells her story with fairness for the father she loved while offering no possible explanation for or understanding of the killer she didn’t know existed.  How could she?  How could anyone?  Her father writes from prison, and she writes in return, initially – and then she turns away.  Fits and starts, years of on-again, off-again therapy, a PTSD diagnosis, a loving, insightful husband, supportive family, a growing strength in her faith, and, to some extent, the saving grace of humor, as in the chapter title “PTSD Blows Chunks”.  Ms. Rawson’s story is a difficult one to read.  How difficult must it have been for her to endure and to tell?

Shop your local indie bookstore for this wrenching memoir. Also available at Amazon.com

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Nelson Books / Thomas Nelson via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

Last Witnesses: An Oral History of the Children of World War II

When Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, she was lauded for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”  I can’t say anything as good as that.  I don’t think anyone could.  I feel foolish for trying, but I’ll tell you what I can.  Last Witnesses, originally published in 1985, is without preamble other than a quote and a question:  the one referencing millions of Soviet children who died during WWII on the Eastern Front, and the other (Doestoevsky) asking what can be justified if “at least one little tear of an innocent child will be spilled?”  And then it begins with Zhenya, “June 1941…I remember it.  I was very little, but I remember everything…”.  The remembrances of adults who, as children, survived the German invasion of Russia and the cruel, bitter times that followed.  They ran when told to run.  Hid when told to hide.  Held on tight and were pulled away.  101 survivors are included here, and you will read them all.  They compel.

Children of Minsk, Belarus, orphanages, concentration camps, the Siege of Leningrad, and Gypsies, the forgotten ones.  Galina remembers the dogs and cats of Leningrad, a city starving under siege for 900 days, and thinks there should be a monument to them.  Vera, afraid of men ever since the war, says, “I never married.  Never knew love.  I was afraid:  what if I give birth to a boy…”.  Her whole life, you see.  And Leonid.  After the war, his grandfather returns to the ruins of their cottage and gathers family bones in a basket.  The bones don’t even fill the basket.  Leonid says, “So I’ve told you… Is that all?  All that’s left of such horror?  A few dozen words…”.  A few dozen words from each of 101 survivors.  Svetlana Alexievich understands power and lets it speak.

Random House reissues this testament available on July 2.  Pre-order from your local indie bookstore or from Amazon.com.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Publishing Group / Random House via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.

The Wild Boy: A Memoir

Italian writer Paolo Cognetti grew up in the city, but until the age of twenty, spent summers in the Italian Alps, free to roam, a wild boy.  At thirty, Paolo suffers a rough patch and cannot write.  So he reads.  Thoreau’s Walden, Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild, and Elisee Reclus, The History of a Mountain, and he decides to return to the Alps hoping to live an essential life and to find that wild boy again.  Renting a refurbished cabin at 6,000 feet above sea level, he spends three seasons there, “…where the last conifer trees gave way to summer pastures.”  Not dangerously isolated as was Chris McCandless of Krakauer’s book, Paolo has a couple neighbors across the way; there are summer cowherds who come and go; and he even gains a dog that didn’t make the cut as a herding dog.  While this book is neither as gripping and gritty as Into The Wild nor as introspective and philosophical as Walden, Cognetti is an excellent writer, and this is a beautiful book.  Did he find what he was looking for?  Did he even know what he was seeking after all?  Do any of us?  Get away for a while with Mr. Cognetti, and find something for yourself in his breathtaking Alps.

Currently scheduled to hit bookstores on July 2, 2019. The Wild Boy can be pre-ordered here from your local indie bookseller or click here to order from Amazon.

Full Disclosure:  A review copy of this book was provided to me by Atria Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I would like to thank the publisher, the author and NetGalley for providing me this opportunity.  All opinions expressed herein are my own.