Tuesday, May 21, 2013
Photo: Book's cover from its Wikipedia page
Almost as quick a read as its predecessor, this one is told from the point of view of Stevie, from his cigarette shop, as he looks back on his past. The cast is all here, and a few more characters show up, including one of the all-time bad women you'll ever read about--who unfortunately reminded me of a few people I used to know, but that's a review for another day.
NYC in the late 1890s is brought to vivid life again, but with a bit more of a bittersweet tinge to the tale, as Stevie also writes about his love at the time, a drug addict / prostitute who never had a chance to go straight. The very strong theme here is the role of females in that world, and, no doubt, in this one, and what, if any, males in a male-dominated era (then and now) may have helped cause some women to kill their children. The socio-politics described are too complex to go into here, but they are not easily dismissed or ignored, and the reader may recognize some of what is described. The villainess is almost as much of a victim as the actual victims--so much so that I looked up the real-life women mentioned by the author as topics of research in his acknowledgement section. These real-life women all killed their own children, and many of their men, to such a degree that you'd have to wonder if anyone in the legal or medical communities were paying attention. One woman brought one child to the hospital, dead. Then another. Then another...until all twelve were dead. Another woman killed off her children, and literally dozens of men who came to her farm to win her favors--favors that were advertised in area newspapers. This woman was often seen digging in the middle of the night in her hog pen--and she'd had dozens of heavy trunks delivered to her property.
At any rate, this one has more than a few things in common thematically with my own WIP, including how women are treated in a male-dominated society. This novel also ends with a slow declining arc, more than a little bit after the main conflict has been resolved, just as mine does.
Anyway, great writing (except for an aboriginal hitman that didn't work for me), great historical detail, and some strong wistful nostalgia at the end that readers older than 30 should recognize, all coalesce in a novel that was quickly read and thoroughly appreciated.
Published in 1997, this has been the last in the series, and you have to wonder why. Both were tremendous bestsellers, and this second one mentions frequently that the group was involved in many other cases, both all together and, for Sara Howard, by herself, so there's plenty of other potential material to write about...and yet Caleb Carr never has. Here's to hoping he comes out with another one soon.
Monday, May 6, 2013
Photo: Bellevue Hospital Ambulance, New York Times, 1895--from the Wikipedia page of The Alienist.
Been a few weeks away with illness, exhaustion, overwork, and some good headway on my novel and some shorter pieces. Sort of an odd time lately, mostly without focus. I've been reading six or seven books, and writing too many things at once--and not completing any reading or writing at all. My sleeping patterns have been all screwed up, and...blah blah blah. I'm tired of my own whining, but it is what it is.
That changed with The Alienist, a novel so well-written that I finished all 597 pages in just a few days, even waking up early to read it. I read it through my cluster-headache on Sunday; I read it through an otherwise scattered-minded few weeks. It cut through all that and straightened my focus and psyche out--for quite awhile, I hope.
I'd heard great things about this for a long time, and finally I gave it a go, with regret, since I'm trying to finish about six other things, like I said. But I'm glad I did.
This novel has a lot going for it. It's told in a first-person limited POV, by a reporter narrator who's good at describing his world without making it seem like he's purposely describing his world. But he is, and he needs to for us, because he's describing 1896 NYC (and a little of D.C. and New Paltz, NY, too). Caleb Carr does a fantastic job making this world interesting and alive, and the crimes he covers--and the investigation they cause--are top-notch. (But not for the squeamish.) Essentially Carr describes the first wrinkles of what has become known as criminal profiling, which basically can be boiled down to analyzing the crime, and then asking yourself, What kind of person could have committed this crime, exactly this way, in this exact place and time?
As readers of this blog should know, I've long been interested in this kind of thing myself, so it was very cool to see some characters using these methods as the focus of their investigations. In addition to profiling the crime, they profile a letter the serial murderer sends to a victim's mother--with some handwriting analysis as well, also new at the time--and there's a lot of attention paid to the earliest childhood years of many criminals in the book, also a cornerstone of criminal profiling. Abusive and criminal parents will, more often than not, create abusive and criminal offspring. This sort of implies that it's more nurture than nature, and that free will isn't all that strong, either, but that's a misreading that many people today--and many characters in the book--suffer from.
I'll leave that to the reader. Bottom line is, if you like historical fiction, or crime/criminal investigation, or the 1890s in general, or if--like me--you happen to like all of those things combined, than this book is the one for you. As I've said about some of Stephen King's books, there's something to be said for a 597-page book that's read in about three days.
As I mentioned, it was so good that it straightened out my psyche for a few days, and made me feel more complete, more whole, more in my own realm--whatever the hell that is. Next up: his follow-up, The Angel of Darkness.
As the footnote at the beginning of the book says, an alienist is today's psychiatrist, or mental health researcher, as someone who needed to speak to someone like this (because there were few private practices in those days, so most people, especially the poor, would have to be committed to a facility or to a hospital to speak to one) was thought to be alienated, both from their society and from their own true natures. (Sort of like how I've felt the last few weeks, though not to the extremes you'll read here.) So a helper to these people would be an alienist.
Caleb Carr himself is quite an interesting guy, as is the story surrounding Lucius Carr, his (in)famous father. It seems as if his father stabbed to death a man who was hitting on him, and William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac helped him dispose of the body and of some evidence before Carr confessed. He served a couple of years in an Elmira prison, then worked for UPI for 47 years, though he was apparently also an alcoholic and an abusive father.
Caleb Carr comes off as a novelist of historical fiction who also dabbles in historical articles and books (and, it turns out, screenplays of two Exorcist prequels), but it turns out to be the opposite. He's a well-respected historian. Caleb has an injury to his arm and shoulder, similar to his alienist character, and he lives in a beautiful, self-made home with a wrap-around porch, in the mountains--alienated from his society, and recovering, as Carr admits, from being alien to himself.
Art imitates life.
Saturday, April 20, 2013
Photo: Boston's finest rushing to help an injured runner. This will be SI's cover. From mashable.com.
My thoughts, such as they are, on this week's marathon massacre and the FBI's and Watertown PD's amazing capture of Suspect #2. There'll be another post soon that chronicles my thoughts as the week unfolded:
--This week's news reporting was the best of up-close and immediate news and technology. And the worst. It was the best because we were up-to-date about a really serious issue--this was news worth the attention, for once. But we were in people's backyards. Reporters and cameramen had to be told by the police and FBI to not report on tactical information, to not show how they were about to storm the boat, to constantly get back. Incorrect information was reported around the world before it was checked by reporters. For example, the supposed post of "You killed my brother, now all of you will die," or something like that, was incorrectly reported as written by the second suspect. Instead, it was written by some loser hoaxer. And a student missing for a long time now from Brown University was reported as one of the suspects. He wasn't, and he's still missing. The positives far outweighed the negatives, but as this sort of coverage happens more and more, I hope news stations don't get more powerful, more arrogant, more resistant to the authorities and to responsible and accurate reporting.
--Before the post-bombing events unfolded, I made a sort of criminal profiling blog that I didn't post, because I thought it'd be a disservice to those who suffered, and, also, frankly because I thought I'd be so wrong that I'd embarrass myself. (Back during the DC Sniper situation, I wrote a long email to a friend that was my attempt to amateur profile the situation. I was right about most of it, including that there were two snipers, that one was much older than the other, that they were living in a vehicle, and even about their race and approximate ages. I was wrong about the vehicle: I predicted a van, but they were in a Chevy Caprice, with a hole in the trunk's lock for the gun barrel. There will always be some sort of anomaly.) This sort of thing is more playing the odds, more common sense, than any sort of talent or intelligence. Anyway, here's what I'd thought, and what actually happened:
--I thought there'd be two of them, maybe more, if the information was correct about the JFK Library's fire (it wasn't) and if there were two other bombs that didn't detonate (there weren't). I thought that, if there were two, they'd be very close (but I didn't anticipate literal brothers), and that there'd be an age gap (but I predicted a larger gap, like with the two DC snipers). I never thought there'd be just one, someone who planted the bombs himself and detonated them separately on a timer. I thought this because, if there had been just one, it'd make more sense for him to detonate them at exactly the same time, because people will run away from the whole race once the first bomb explodes.
--I thought the suspects would be younger, both in their teens and/or twenties, but younger than thirty. And that, along the same lines, I thought they'd be students at one of the great many nearby universities. (I thought these because--Why the marathon? It struck me as an odd thing to terrorize. My conclusion is that the suspects must've been very familiar with it. Why's that? Because they're nearby.) I thought they'd be wearing caps or hoods. This last is a minor thing, but not everyone wears caps and/or hoods, and the authorities would need something to exclude some of the people they'd have to analyze on film or in photos. And the suspects would know there'd be cameras somewhere--though that's what ultimately caught them, anyway. Turns out, in an urban area, there are cameras everywhere.
--But I thought there'd be a much more personal reason for the bombings, something not completely political or religious. I was totally off-base about that, which is why I'm just an amateur at this. The suspects purposely bombed the onlookers, most of whom would be American. And they bombed the Boston Marathon itself.
--I thought the suspects would have more of a personal reason because the bombs went off long after the professional--and, often, international--runners had finished, so I thought they wouldn't be the targets. And if the professional, international runners weren't the targets, then the amateur runners must have been. Turns out, there are a lot of international amateurs who run in the marathon (for some reason, my thinking was limited on this). And it now seems like the crowds themselves were the targets, not any of the runners.
--However, I was on about their approximate nationalities, based on the pressure-cooker, which has been a sort of specialty used in conflicts in many Eastern-European, Russian-bloc countries. As well as in conflicts in some countries where every type of bomb has been used. I thought the suspects would not obviously stand out in appearance, so that they'd probably "look American," whatever the hell that means.
--I thought the FBI should release the images of the suspects, which national intelligence organizations are often reluctant to do. Once they did, it was all over in about twenty-four hours. But the rapidity of that shocked me, as it did everyone else.
--I thought it might have been possible for the suspects to be tied into the specific restaurant or whatever that the bombs were placed in front of. Totally wrong on that.
Well, that's about it, as far as that kind of thing goes. Next time I'll post something about my thoughts during the week as everything unfolded.
I want to close by saying that I will not soon forget the horror I felt during the initial event, and the respect and admiration (words I do not throw around, and emotions I do not quickly and easily feel) for the men and women who helped the victims and who fought and apprehended the suspects.
For many of them, law enforcement is a personality, not just a job.
People are inherently good, and many of them are inherently good at what they do.
Monday, April 8, 2013
Photo: The Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library, Manhattan
I realized recently--okay, I've had this "realization" frequently over the years--that I have a book-hoarding problem. You know, like those people on the show Hoarders, who have psychotic breaks when a professional therapist, visiting the squalid house, tells them that pooping and peeing on their stereo speakers because they have too much stuff in the way to make it to the bathroom is not a normal thing? Well, I'm not that bad, as my floors and hallways are mostly bare, but I have lots of piles of books in the living room, on the table, and on the kitchen table, and in my office on my desks and chairs. I have books in seven bookcases in the house, and in about nine boxes in the garage, and in a giant bookcase in the spare office/bedroom downstairs, which has ten deep bookshelves.
If this sounds like you, these are signs enough that you have a book-hoarding problem. But here are a few more signs that you have too many books:
--You find yourself reading six books at once, and yet you still look for more things to read.
--You realize that fifteen bookcases are not close to enough to hold all of your books.
--Your reading material in your bathroom impedes your path to your "favorite chair."
--And you look forward to needing to go to the bathroom so that you can read.
--You read much more than you need to in order to research your novel or story.
--You have so many books that you actually consider opening your own free library, somehow.
--Except that you don't want anyone else reading your books.
--You have so many books that you end up getting duplicates at yard sales or library sales because you forgot you had them to begin with.
--You buy books that your friends want to borrow from you because you don't want them to read yours.
--You own every book ever written by Stephen King, and Robert B. Parker, and Jonathan Kellerman, and Mickey Spillane, all of whom have written at least 40 books each.
--You've forgotten which books are in the seven or eight boxes in the attic and basement.
--You have about fifty anthologies of short stories, poems and short novels.
--You still have all of the books you ever needed to read in college, and you majored in English and Philosophy. That's a lot of required reading.
--You tell your friends that they should ask you if you have a book before they buy it, even though you have no intention of ever letting them borrow one. (See the comment five bullets above.)
--You have to instigate a policy of no book-buying for yourself.
--You promise yourself that you'll just get new books from the library, so that you can read them without being driven to keep them. And you know you won't follow through with this.
--You say to yourself that you won't buy anything new until you've finished reading all of the books you have, even though this couldn't possibly happen during what's left of your lifetime.
--You realize that you'd rather stay at home and read a lot rather than go to Disneyland or some such thing during your vacation.
--You think that the best thing about summers is the reading you can do on your house deck or in your house in the central air.
--Your favorite characters are more endearing to you than are your favorite people.
--You realize that you like more characters than you do real people. And you're okay with this.
--You think that e-readers of any kind are blasphemous.
--You have books by Wilkie Collins on your computer desktop. Unread.
--You think that one of the best things about finishing a book is the review you'll write on Goodreads.
--Or for the blog entry, of course.
--You've considered wall-papering a wall with small posters of your favorite book covers.
--You can actually tell someone why the white bookcovers of the post-1990 Catcher in the Rye is a sinful, crying shame compared to the classic red carousel horse and NYC skyline of the original. And you sound like a lunatic doing so, and don't care.
--After you've recently shelved literally hundreds of books into your new library, someone says to you, "Are you actually keeping all of those?" You say, "Yes," and don't realize their incredulity until over an hour later.
--You've been in minor branches of public libraries with fewer books than you have in your house.
--You have five favorite genres.
--One of your favorite places in Manhattan is the New York Public Library. And an actual wish is to have one that's just as beautiful, if not a little smaller, in your house.
--You have three different editions of Shakespeare's Complete Works. And you're not getting rid of any of them.
--You realize you have more books in your home than some of the more poor schools do in their classrooms, their bookrooms and their libraries. Combined.
--You have over 30 bulleted reasons about why you have too many books, including this one.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Photo: Jackie Bradley, Jr., from nbcsports.com
A little self-advertising, if you will. The following is the first entry of a re-booted sports blog, which you can find after this at Steve's Baseball Blog.The link from this blog is listed with my other sites in the right column.
So I'm going to give this blog another shot. Hope springs eternal, right? Gone seems to be the bitterness of last year, in which we had a manager nobody liked (including his own players), players nobody liked (including the manager, and the other players) and a front office that seemed to be a bit distant from the action. Then came the fire sale trades at the end of the season, and things looked up, except for the players themselves, because by then nobody cared.
In all of that, you have the fact that the players weren't trying at all, despite being paid millions (or, tens of millions, in a few cases), and then when the Jerry Sandusky thing came around, that was it for me, folks. Maybe I'll see you, maybe I won't.
After that, I tried with some baseball cards--which I liked doing, by the way. And I liked how I went into the players lives, and delved a bit deeper into their backgrounds, or their issues. In the meantime, I learned a few things as well. But then some personal changes happened, and my writing took off, and I didn't have the time anymore.
But now I'm back. The smoke has cleared, and the dust has settled, and whatever other trite cliches you can think of have happened. Spring is here. There's hustle and bustle and excitement and exuberance on this Sox team again--for now, anyway. But there does seem to be a new attitude, and that's not just the Sox ads on NESN talking there.
So, the game. Opening game, opening series, and at Yankee Stadium, no less. True, this Yankees team is essentially their Triple-A team right now, but the Sox still had to face Sabathia. They've handled him well in the past, sure, but this game wasn't even about facing him, beating the Yankees, or even winning, per se. It was about the new look, new attitude Sox. The new face of the team. That's what I mostly wanted to see.
And I did. Specifically, here are the notes I took during the game (when I watched it on DVR after returning from an appt.):
--I'm glad I thought ahead enough to get two autographed baseballs from Jackie Bradley, Jr. when he was at Pawtucket Red Sox Hotstove League in January. One to keep, and one to sell when the time is right. Already his autograph has sold on ebay for about $50. After one major league game.
--Lester is noticeably taking less time between pitches. He needs to do that all year. He was told to do so the last couple of years, but didn't. This was a Becket influence, I think, since Josh has a cup of coffee and a sandwich between pitches.
--Lester's keeping the ball down and not feeling, also like Becket does, that he can just blow his fastball by people whenever he wants. He has to set up his pitches better, which is what he's doing now.
--Seeing what I've just written, I'm noticing how glad I am that Becket's gone.
--Bradley's first AB was brilliant and memorable. Down quickly 0-2 to Sabathia. Takes some (very close) pitches for balls that you would expect a player with his limited experience to swing at. Fouls off some good pitches. Finally draws a walk after a seven or eight pitch at bat. This pushes runners to second and third, which is more important than the fact that it loads the bases. This PA proves John Farrell's point about how impressed he was with Bradley's approach every AB.
--I don't know why Sabathia didn't continue to give him off-speed stuff inside and low. He was susceptible to those in this AB.
--Iglesias infield hit to short; Bradley safe at second by an eyelash, which extends the inning and scores the run. Speed on both counts, Bradley safe at second and Iglesias fast enough to not even draw a throw to first. I like it!
--Ellsbury hard hit to first, throw home for one out rather than to second and back to first for a possible double-play. Youkillis knew that with Ellsbury running, the DP wouldn't happen. Again, speed. Iglesias now on second and Bradley at third.
--Victorino singles in both speedy runners with a hard hit single. I was wrong to question batting him second. I forgot about his solid production the last few years, and I forgot about his Gold Gloves. My bad.
--Pedroia singles in speedy Ellsbury. With Bradley batting eighth, Iglesias ninth, Ellsbury first and Victorino second (and maybe even Pedroia third), the Sox have five consecutive above-average to speedy runners. That's very nice.
--Napoli, who'd looked silly in his first AB, just (and I mean just) gets under one and skies to deep center to end the second inning.
--Good show here in the second, with lots of walks, speedy running, and clutch-hitting. You can do a lot of things with walks and singles. This is how the Sox won titles in 2004 and 2007. This needs to happen every game, all year, in order for them to have a chance.
--Bradley's great catch on Cano's (don'tcha know) drive in the 4th. He took an odd-looking route to it, but it's a results-oriented business, as Orsillo says, and he made a great catch.
--Iglesias's push-bunt single in the fourth. He needs to do that much more often. Every time he hits it in the air, he owes me twenty push-ups.
--That's a line from Major League, by the way. That one was for you, big guy. (Because Bunky's already taken.)
--I love Jonny Gomes, the second straight Jonny the Sox got from the Oakland A's who's an under-rated table-setter, run-producer and all-around making-it-happen kind of guy. You don't see a two-run infield single too often. I won't be surprised if the players talk more about Gomes's hustle than they do Bradley's play in this game.
--Bullpen is doing a good job, but we knew heading into the season-opener that the bullpen was actually going to be a major plus for this team. That, by itself, is unusual for Boston, even for the World Series winning teams.
--There's so much talk about Bradley right now, it seems like Sox fans have him already ticketed for the Hall of Fame. And he doesn't even have a hit yet.
--Great start for what hopefully is a new-look, new-attitude team. They should at least be fun to watch, on tv and at Fenway. I go to my first Fenway game on April 12th.