Monday, June 25, 2012

The Neighbor, Lisa Gardner

I realize that I am in the minority in this, but I have always been uncomfortable with the sex offender registry. In our justice system, the idea is that you do the crime and do your time, and then once your debt to society has been paid you are (almost) free to live your life as you see fit-hopefully in a law-abiding manner.  I understand that sex offenders, especially those that prey on children, are different.  Recidivism is very high, and true pedophiles have some defect in the wiring of their brain that makes them very hard to treat, even with intensive intervention.  That said, I'm not sure that the "one-size-fits-all" nature of the sex offender registry adequately addresses the difference between the 19 year old who has sex with his 15 year old girlfriend and the serial rapist or child molester.

This question, and the resulting issues around statutory rape and child sexual assault, are at the heart of Lisa Gardner's mystery The Neighbor.  Sandra and Jason Jones live a quiet, solitary life in the Boston neighborhood known as "Southie" with their daughter Ree. When Sandra disappears one night, leaving her four year old daughter alone in the house, Jason is fearful that the past they have worked so hard to put behind them is coming back to haunt them.  Sure that he is going to be arrested at any time, Jason tries to protect his daughter from the police and reporters, as well as from her maternal grandfather, with whom the couple has had no contact since their marriage, and who appears seeking custody of Ree after he sees news of his daughter's disappearance.  Jason and Sandra have a highly unusual marriage, and detectives quickly determine that Jason is hiding something, making him a likely suspect.  Meanwhile, they also have a pretty solid person of interest in the Jones' neighbor, a convicted sex offender who is on the sex offender registry.  But Jason appears to be trying harder to cover up evidence and keep his daughter away from questioning than find his wife, and Detective D.D. Warren feels like she is racing against time to find Sandra, before it is too late.

The novel is told alternately from the first person memories of Sandra, the first person experience of the sex offender neighbor, and in the third person narrative of D.D. Warren and Jason Jones.  Gardner takes her time doling out the dirty secrets of all of the characters, but in a way that draws you in rather than making you frustrated.  The most interesting thing about this book, though, is that I ended up rooting for the main characters, even after it became clear that they should not, on the surface, be sympathetic characters.  But that's where the subtleties of the effects of childhood abuse and sexual assault come in.  We as a society seem to be much more comfortable with black and white than with shades of gray.  Some of the things that the main characters do in this book are reprehensible, but Gardner presents it in such a way that while you can't condone, you can almost understand.  Not the abuse of children-the evil nature of that is never in question.  But the effects that is has on the children as they become adults, the way that it skews their mindset and their ability to have relationship, and the actions they may take as a result-those are harder to pass judgement on.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Pop Pop Poppity Pop: Eye of the Beholder, by David Ellis

Today's popcorn book entry is another mystery, thriller.  Eye of the Beholder by David Ellis begins with a murder spree, six young women killed by a seemingly deranged man, acting out the lyrics of an anti-woman hard rocker named Tyler Skye.  Here is the Booklist blurb:
Fifteen years ago, prosecutor Paul Riley made his mark by putting away Terry Burgos, who was inspired by song lyrics to kill six young women in the most gruesome of fashions. Now, a new series of killings bears a frightening similarity to the Burgos murders, and as the victim list keeps growing, Riley realizes the killer seems to be sending a personal message to him. In order to solve the new crimes, Riley, realizing that the connection to the Burgos case is very real, must confront his own past and the terrifying possibility that, 15 years ago, he might have made a terrible mistake.
As thrillers go this one was pretty good.  it kept me guessing from beginning to end, blending fairly predictable thriller plots (shady father, wild child teenager, wealthy people with dark secrets, schizophrenic serial killers) and  puts them together in ways that make them feel fresh and intriguing.  I must admit to being slightly annoyed with the "innocent man accused of a crime he didn't commit" thing, but it ends up a) not really being that and b) moving the plot along in unexpected ways.  There is a cast of interesting characters, including a troubled police detective (aren't they always?), and Riley's girlfriend, who happened to be the daughter of the governor.  In the end I didn't find the actual solution to the mystery that believable, but by then I didn't really care.  It has been a fun ride, and in the summer that's about all I'm looking for.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

True Crime With a Personal Twist

As much as I love mysteries, I've never been a huge fan of true crime books.  I think it has something to do with not wanting to contribute to voyeuristic, tabloid culture.  After all, you can hardly turn on the television without seeing a 20/20, 48 Hours, etc...special dissecting in minute, excruciating detail every thrilling part of the crime.  But sometimes a book comes along that intrigues me enough to pick it up.  A Death in Belmont is one of those books.

A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger tells the story of The Boston Strangler, but using the context of a black man named Roy Smith, who was convicted of a murder in the suburb of Bemont, MA.  The murder fit the profile of the Strangler murders, but there was enough circumstantial evidence to convince police that TBGDI-"the black guy did it".  Later, when Albert DeSalvo confessed to the killings, he never confessed to the killing that Smith was convicted of.  What made gave it a personal twist was the fact that during the time of the killings, DeSalvo was working on a construction project for Junger's family, and may in fact have left the Junger home to commit the Belmont murder.  All pf the principle players died before the complete story was revealed, and experts differ on whether the Belmont murder was a miscarriage of justice against a black man by a racist justice system, or whether Smith did in fact commit the crime.

A Death in Belmont is well researched, and Junger doles out the facts and his own speculation in a well-paced account.  He goes back and forth recounting the movements of Smith, DeSalvo, the detectives, and his own family from chapter to chapter.  In the end he makes a pretty good case for his theory of the crime.  And, of course, what makes the whole things that much creepier is the idea that while he was an infant, his mother spent her days caring for him in the company of one of the most prolific serial killers of the 20th century.  Junger's writing is compelling, and even though he goes into pretty exhaustive detail I never felt bogged down by facts or overwhelmed by the amount of information.  If true crime is your thing, this book will probably suit you quite well.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Popcorn Alert: Immoral, by Brian Freeman

Ah, summer...that magical time of year when a (not-so-young) woman's fancy turns to MURDER.  Well, at least this not-so-young woman.  Summer is the time when I catch up on all of those popcorn books I've been wanting to read-the ones that don't make me think so much but satisfy my need for pure reading escape.  This time, it was the book Immoral, by Brian Freeman.

At first glance, this book is just another formulaic mystery/thriller.  A young girl goes missing.  A hard-working but seriously flawed detective tries to figure out what happened to her.  John Stride is haunted by the disappearance of another girl the year before-a girl who was never found.  But that girl, Kerry McGrath, was a good girl with no secrets.  The victim of the most recent disappearance, Rachel Deese, was a wild child with a sordid sexual history and a sociopathic personality.  Nevertheless, the media is calling for an arrest, and despite not having a body, they have a perfect suspect in the creepy step-father.  Sounds fairly unoriginal as a plot goes, no?  But when the trial part of the book ended about two-thirds of the way through the book, I realized that in fact, something else entirely was going on.

Freeman does a good job of creating characters, and he draws you into not just the mystery itself but the lives of all of those involved.  I happen to be watching The Killing on Netflix right now, and I see similarities to the way the book and the show are structured.  Immoral is not just the procedural you might expect, but looks closely at how the case, and the missing girl, affect the police investigators, the parents, and the community.  The only thing that gave me a little bit of pause was the fact that Rachel was seen as a sexually precocious teen who may have "asked" for what happened to her.  But I think that Freeman gives enough background about her life and her evolution as a cruel, damaged person to counteract my gut-reaction feminism.  It was believable to me that she could, in fact, have been the instigator of her relationship with her step-father.  And since Freeman takes what you think you know and turns it on it's head in the last third of the book, that particular aspect ended up not being relevant anyway.  Good summer read for the mystery lover!

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Grapes of Wrath, or Lessons Never Learned


A perennial favorite on those "lists of American novels everyone should read", I knew that Grapes of Wrath would speak to the singularity of the American experience.  What I didn't know going in was that it would speak to the American experience right now the same way it speaks to the American experience during the Depression.

Steinbeck's masterpiece (and I don't use that term lightly) follows the Joad family on a journey from Oklahoma to California in search of work, and as a result from independent to dependent, from settled to homeless, from self-determining individuals to victims of chance, from a simple existence to crushing poverty.  When they lost their farm during the droughts of the 1930s, they set off cross country in search of work in California, otherwise known as the Promised Land.  Setting off hopefully because of the handbills they've seen advertising for workers, they soon realize the sad reality of their situation, and the situation of the hundreds of thousands of others on the same journey.  The poor are powerless to control the whims of the ruling class, who can choose who to hire, what to pay, where people can live, what they can eat, and where they can sleep with impunity in a system where the laws are written in their favor.  Slowly, the family and their life is eroded, starting with the old folks, eventually affecting the sons and daughters, until the family literally has nothing left but their own bodies.

This novel is infuriating, and unfortunately all too familiar sounding.  America was changing, from a farming economy to a manufacturing economy.  Small farmers were no longer able to make a living from their farms because the banks demanded payment on loans that they had no way of paying after years of bad crops.  When the banks took the land, they knocked down the houses so the people had to leave.  Sound familiar?  In the early 21st century, we have changed from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, people who used to have decent paying manufacturing jobs (or associated jobs) are now out of work, not able to pay their bills, leading to the housing crisis, when many people are losing their homes.  Why have we not learned from the past?

Oh, wait, that's right-because those who have the wealth and power will do anything they can to hold onto it, even at the expense of lots of other people.  It may sound like I judge them for that, but in the grand scheme of things I understand.  Banks and business owners have a responsibility to make money-that is their role.  So how do we protect the average person from overreaching by banks and businesses in their quest for profits?  Well, that is the role of government, right?  Not in today's current climate...

Steinbeck makes a strong case for government intervention in the book.  The only place that the Joads felt safe and secure after leaving home was a government-run camp they stayed in for a few weeks in California. There, the people governed themselves, making up their own rules, developing work schedules for camp chores, and helping each other stay fed and healthy, whether they were working outside the camp or not.  In contrast, Steinbeck describes the "Hoovervilles", migrant camps that sprung up around large farming towns all over California.  There, the people slept in tents, distrustful of each other and the people from the town.  The townies rarely wanted the migrants anywhere near, so they would periodically burn out the camp, causing people who had already lost to much to be left with literally nothing, not even their lives.

Steinbeck also makes a strong argument for labor organizing-you know, that thing that conservatives now bash as some sort of liberal take-over of business.  To hear most conservatives tell it, labor unions are jack-booted thugs who come in and intimidate the business owners into giving away the store, sort of like gang members demanding protection money.  Because we apparently never learn the lessons of history in America, the vast majority of people seems to have forgotten that it was by organizing that workers got us the weekend, the end of child labor, the minimum wage, overtime pay, employer health coverage, and work safety regulations.  Steinbeck makes it very clear that there is power in numbers, and that the system has a harder time beating down a group than an individual.

Obviously I agree with the politics of the novel, but what makes this book so powerful is the masterful way it is written.  Steinbeck intersperses the story of the Joad family with poetic chapters where he describes various parts of the migrant experience-from the decision to leave to the buying of the car to the making of camp to the search for work.  The story feels biblical, and in fact the journey of the Joad family and thousands of other families from the central US to California has been compared to the story of Exodus, in which the Israelites wander the wilderness for a generation.   Steinbeck perfectly captures of the feel of the times, the cadence of the speech, the struggle against despair and the moments of hope that describe the migrant experience in the 30s.  The Grapes of Wrath shows the contrast of the inhumanity that man can show towards his fellows, and the saving power of family-both the kind you are born with and the kind you make through shared experiences and kinship.  It shows the depths to which the soul can descend when a man feels beaten down, and the dignity he feels when he channels his wrath to fight for his rights.  People who like tidy endings will not like the way Steinbeck leaves the Joad family.  There is no resolution to their journey.  But in ways large and small we as a country are still on that journey, still trying to find the balance between people and profit, still trying to ensure the rights of the weakest among us, still looking for the Promised Land.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Popcorn Alert: Have You Been Naughty?

wow...ok, that title makes it sound like I am going to be reviewing that Fifty Shade of Gray that everyone is reading right now...let's rewind, shall we...

My summer vacation just started.  After a year full of students and grading and assessment and assessment and assessment (see a pattern here...) I have several weeks to recharge my batteries and renew my love of popcorn books.  For those of you who have not heard me describe popcorn books before, that's what I call books that are lacking in substance but oddly satisfying-just like popcorn.

My first popcorn read of the summer was Meg Gardiner's The Dirty Secret's Club.  Since mysteries and thriller are my favorite popcorn (consider them the cheddar/caramel mix of popcorn books), I was happy to delve into the world of Jo Beckett, Gardiner's latest character creation.  Jo is a forensic psychiatrist.  In other words, she is called in not to figure out how someone died, but rather why they died.  In cases of equivocal death (in other words, a death with no clear motive), it's her job to investigate the person's life and determine whether the death was an accident, suicide, or murder.

Her first case involved a series of apparent muder/suicides taking place in and around San Francisco.  A high-powered attorney was involved in a high-speed chase with police, ending in her car going over the side of a bridge and into the traffic speeding below.  Jo is called in by the police to determine why a successful woman who seemingly had it all would drive her car over a metaphorical cliff to her death, taking her passenger and three bystanders with her.  Jo soon discovers that the beautiful prosecutor was hiding a secret-in fact, that she belonged to a group of people who all had shameful secrets.  The Dirty Secrets Club arranged dares for people-dangerous acts that would either allow them to assuage their guilt over their secret, or let them feed their egos for the shameful, sometimes criminal things they had done.  Now it appeared that someone was targeting group members, and Jo needed to discover who was behind the murders in order to stop others from being killed.

There are no real surprises in the structure of the novel.  Female investigator plus tragic past plus complicated relationship with unapproachable/inappropriate man pretty much describes the work of many authors in this genre.  But I don't read popcorn books because I want to have to think-I read them for escapist enjoyment.  And this book provided that in spades.  Gardiner did a good job of pacing the action of the story so that I was engaged the whole time, and the characters are likable enough.  The plot description makes it sound like the reader will be dragged into some seedy underworld of sex and violence, but while the members of the Dirty Secret's Club do have terrible secrets in their past, Gardiner doesn't dwell on the specifics enough for you to come away feeling like you need a shower after.  I look forward to more installments in the life of Jo Beckett, with more psychological mysteries to solve.


Monday, June 04, 2012

Vinegar Hill, AKA A Life of Quiet Desperation

Conservatives love to harken back to the good ol' days, when men and women knew their roles and the family was strong and sacred.  In fact, the main argument that conservatives have against gay marriage is that we were all so much better off when the nuclear family was defined as a husband and his obedient wife and children.

Here's the thing-that ideal was never the norm.  Sure, there were families that resembled the 1950's stereotype a la Leave It to Beaver, but look at the statistic about how many poor mothers had to work, and how many middle-class mothers had substance abuse problems, and they tell a different story.  This state of affairs is beautifully illustrated in A. Manette Ansay in her novel Vinegar Hill.  Vinegar Hill tells the story of Ellen Grier and her family in 1960s Wisconsin.  When her husband loses his job in Illinois, he moves the wife and kids back to their hometown to stay with his parents.  Ellen, a school-teacher from a devout Catholic family, chafes under her mother-in-law's disapproval and her father-in-laws cruelty.  Her husband find living with the father who abused him as a child drains all energy and ambition from him.  He turns away from his wife and their children, paralyzed by his memories and his crushing fear that he will not be able to keep his family safe.  Underlying all of this misery is a family secret that has warped the minds and hearts of everyone involved, creating antipathy and unhappiness.

Much of the novel focuses on the strict gender roles that each member of the family was expected to play.  Ellen's mother-in-law and her own mother are disapproving of her career, believing that she should be at home taking care of the children.  Her father-in-law believes himself to be the head of his wife, and expects her-and everyone else-to submit to his every command.   The crushing disappointment that Ellen feels in her marriage and the feeling of being trapped in an unhappy life lead her to take long walks alone at night, and eventually leads to substance abuse.  Her mother-in-law is just as unhappy, having lived her adult life under the thumb of an abusive husband.  And her husband's unmarried aunt is perhaps the most miserable, feeling as she does that she was never able to measure up to her more attractive sister, and bearing most of the guilt for the family secret that eventually comes to light.

An action-packed novel this is not.  What action there is takes place almost exclusively within the narrow confines of the family home.  But despite that, the novel feels full.  Full of repressed emotions, quiet sadness, mini-explosions of anger.  Ansay has captured the slow, inexorable march of the unfulfilled life.  Even when Ellen makes a decision that will better the lives of her and her children it doesn't feel joyous. It's just another sad event in the sad life of a sad woman.  But Ansay leaves us with hope that things can and will get better for Ellen, even if she and her children are the only ones who pull themselves out of the emotional morass that is their family.