Tag Archives: non-fiction

Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him by T.J. English

“Was the Bulger story about one very crafty psychopath who had corrupted the system? Or was it about a preexisting corrupt system into which one very wily gangster insinuated himself and then played it for all it was worth?”

Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World That Made Him, a non-fiction book from T. J. English explores the trial of Boston’s notorious criminal and asks some tough questions about how Bulger continued his criminal operations for so many years. English, a journalist and screenwriter is the perfect author for this book. With The Westies: Inside New York’s Irish Mob and Paddywhacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster to his credit, T.J English is well-versed in the American organized crime scene. It should come as no surprise that English’s reputation preceded him, and doors that would have remained closed to others, opened for this author.

With the recent release of the film  Black Mass which stars Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger, many film watchers will turn with curiosity to a book on the subject. Where the Bodies Were Buried is not for the Bulger novice, for English examines Bulger’s trial and crimes, so anyone coming to this book had better already have an idea of what Whitey Bulger was all about and also have knowledge of the major players in this story of just how organized crime flourished in Boston for decades.

where the bodies were buriedT.J. English worked hard for this book, attending the trial, driving through Boston neighbourhoods and interviewing Bulger’s former associates and families of Bulger’s victims and alleged victims. The title refers not just to Bulger’s many victims, a number of whom ended up buried in the basement of a house in Boston but also refers to the many skeletons in the cupboards of this astounding story of how Bulger ran his criminal world. Bulger squashed and murdered rivals with the support of his handler, former, now incarcerated, FBI agent John Connelly and allegedly, according to the defense, with the nod from other figures in the U.S Attorney’s office and the Department of Justice.

The book covers the trial of Whitey Bulger who was finally captured in 2011 after going on the run in 1995 following a tip from Connelly about an impending indictment, but unofficially on trial here is the entire Top Echelon Informant programme, run by the FBI with the Justice Department responsible for oversight.

While ostensibly it makes sense to recruit informers from within (since civilians aren’t going to know anything about the mafia or organized crime), the realities of the programme stir some very muddy waters regarding the collusion of criminals and law enforcement. English scatters FBI memos and interviews with Bulger associates against coverage of the trial.  Bulger was indicted on thirty-two counts of racketeering and nineteen murders. He was “the last of a certain type of old-school gangster, with a criminal lineage that stretched back at least to the 1950s.”

English argues that the historic precedent for Whitey Bulger can be found in the case of Joseph “Animal” Barboza, a “renowned mob hit man” who testified in the murder trial of Edward “Teddy” Deegan. Deegan’s killer was Vincent, “Jimmy the Bear” Flemmi, an FBI informant, and thanks to Barboza’s fabricated testimony, other men were framed for the crime with the “acquiescence of many people in the criminal justice system, including field agents, prosecutors and supervisors–all the way up to J. Edgar Hoover.” And here I’m going to quote a 1965 memo regarding Jimmy Flemmi from an FBI field agent to Hoover:

“[Flemmi] is going to continue to commit murder, but informant’s potential outweighs the risk involved.”

One of the men framed for Deegan’s murder was Joe Salvati, who suffered “one of the most outrageous miscarriages of justice in the history of the United States” and served 30 years for a murder he did not commit. Interestingly, “the same FBI agents who originally recruited Bulger and Flemmi had played a role in framing Joe Salvati and his codefendants back in 1967.” Stephen Flemmi (brother of “Jimmy the Bear,“) was “Whitey’s criminal partner for twenty years.” and part of Flemmi’s defense at his trial was :

he could not be prosecuted for crimes that he had committed, because he and Bulger had been given immunity from prosecution in exchange for their serving as informants in the DOJ’s war against the mafia. 

The account of the trial is fascinating–not only for what’s said but also for what’s left buried. Law enforcement witnesses expressed frustration at attempts to investigate Whitey which were “sabotaged by the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office,” while Bulger’s defense argued that he was never “an informant for John Connolly.” Yet before the trial, Bulger argued that he’d been given immunity from prosecution for his crimes by a now-deceased federal prosecutor. Were Bulger and Connolly friends, “a corrupt team,” with Connolly “creating a fictional informant file to justify his relationship with Whitey,” or was being a Top Echelon Informant a great gig for Bulger and the Winter Hill gang? The biggest and toughest question this book tackles is just how far the Justice Department was involved in giving Whitey Bulger carte blanche when it came to his criminal activities. Was John Connelly, now in prison, some sort of rogue FBI agent who accepted “thousands of dollars in bribes,” or was the Boston office uniquely corruptible? Or is the Whitey Bulger case just part of a bigger picture of how the Top Echelon Informant programme, in a culture of collusion, really works in an ends-justifies-the-means approach:

There would no longer be good guys and bad guys, just one big criminal underworld in which cops and the criminals were all merely co-conspirators in an ongoing effort to manipulate the universe to suit their needs and the needs of their overseers.

If you’re not a cynical person, then Where The Bodies Were Buried will shock you. If you’re already cynical, then like me, you’ll know that Whitey Bulger’s trial isn’t the end of this ongoing story. Recruiting informants from within criminal organizations is problematic. It doesn’t take brilliance to understand that an FBI informer will commit further crimes as an informant. How can they inform unless they are privy to or a participant in crimes? As one of the interviewees, Pat Nee tells English:

“You do things you don’t want to sometimes because it’s all part of the life you’ve chosen. It’s not always possible to just say no and walk away. People get killed when they try to walk away from a situation like that.”

Where should the Justice Department draw a line? What sort of moral imperative gives a nod to wiping out one criminal crew by allowing another to continue operations? How far should the FBI/Justice Department go when handling informants? What is acceptable ‘collateral damage’?

On a final note, I’m fairly sure (being sarcastic here) that FBI agents who are handlers of Top Echelon Informants aren’t supposed to be accepting thousands of dollars from their criminal informants, so that aspect of the complex Bulger case muddies the waters even further….

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Filed under English T. J., Non Fiction

The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett by Nathan Ward

“By the mid-1920s, Hammett’s detective experiences were like a set of tools he rummaged through and sharpened as needed for his craft.”

If you’re looking for a biography of Dashiell Hammett, then keep going. The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett, from Nathan Ward has a very narrow focus, and one the author explains in the Acknowledgements: “exactly how he [Hammett] had made his famous transformation from Pinkerton operative to master of the American detective story.” Sounds interesting? … then read on.

In 1915 Baltimore, after a run of unsatisfactory employment, Sam Hammett answered an ad for “young men fond of travel.” As fate would have it, this ad was one of the Pinkerton’s “blind recruitment ads,” which supposedly sought salesmen but, in actuality, was a tool for screening resourceful men. Hammett was interviewed at the Continental Trust building (incidentally “guarded by small stone falcons,”) and began his career. The author traces Hammett’s career as a Pinkerton operative and makes an infallible case that Hammett’s experiences not only gave him street cred but also the hardened “cinematic” style that eventually brought him success:

What he wrote was at odds with the largely English tradition of detective fiction, a gentlemanly deductive exercise in which the reader followed an aloof inspector to the crime’s brilliant solution, often set at an English country estate. The Pinkertons had taught him the opposite lesson: that most crimes were actually solved by detectives who were observant and who circulated among the grifters, gangsters, forgers and hop heads. “A private detective does not want to be an erudite solver of riddles,” Hammett explained; “he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.”

Ward argues that Hammett’s style was shaped by his years as a Pinkerton detective–not just by the varied experiences and insider language he had, but also through the required pared down report writing, a sort of “literary training,” required by his employer. While many of the reports still exist in the Pinkerton archives in the library of Congress, tragically none of Hammett’s reports remain. Yet in spite of an absence of reports, Hammett often told stories about his past as a Pinkerton detective–various wounds, various experiences as he built his professional persona: “Hammett liked to embellish his old Pinkerton career, especially when flogging new projects in newspaper interviews.”  One story he told is that he was offered $5,000 to kill an organizer for the International Workers of the World. As Hammett became an iconic writer of detective fiction, some of these stories shifted–not that the details changed but the portrait of Hammett as a Pinkerton sharpened and then blurred. For example, Hammett claimed that James “Jimmy” Wright was his model for the fictional Continental Op but there’s no “proof of the elusive mentor Jimmy Wright.” However, the name “James Wright had long been a popular alias with Pinkertons working undercover.”

By the time the detectives he’d invented had their own renown, the one Hammett had been himself was cloudy, cloaked in his own disguising, and unacknowledged by the Pinkerton agency that had supposedly trained him in the devilish arts. Yet all of his investigators were extensions in one direction or another of the one he had been himself.

It’s important to note that the Pinkerton agency didn’t look at memoirs from former employees fondly. “Cowboy Detective,” Charlie Siringo, one of the Pinkertons who pursued Butch Cassidy and the Hole-in-the-Wall gang led a fascinating exciting life that he wanted to translate into a memoir. “The Pinkerton family held up publications for two years, until Siringo had changed many crucial names” including the name of the Pinkertons to a make-believe “Dickenson Agency.” Hammett’s detective worked for the Continental Detective Agency–clearly a twist to the Continental Building in Baltimore where he’d first applied for a job as salesman only to discover that he was applying to Pinkertons.

The Lost DetectiveHammett’s career as a Pinkerton was interrupted by WWI. In 1918 he joined the army and although he never left America, he contracted first influenza and then TB. On a disability pension from the army, he tried to return to work as a Pinkerton but eventually was forced to give up detective work. Later, drifting to San Francisco, he tried returning to Pinkertons again, but his health could not sustain the physical demands of the job. Married with one child (and another on the way), he struggled to build his career as a writer. His stories appeared in “lower rank” magazine Black Mask–a name now lauded by crime fiction aficionados for its gargantuan contribution to the genre. Hammett’s work was popular: innovative, hard-boiled and uniquely American:

Hammett opted to do something that grew out of what he had actually been trained for: creating elevated stories from the characters and situations he knew well, instead of adding to the fiction club of gentleman puzzlers or quick-draw artists. This approach would eventually set crime writing on its head.

The book explores Hammett’s early life in San Francisco, his evolution as both a writer and as a persona while tracing threads of his Pinkerton life and his private life, (including his affair with Peggy O’Toole,) through his works. Again, since this is not a biography, the book doesn’t include details of the entirety of Hammett’s life but stays focused on how Hammett became a writer. The book doesn’t follow Hammett to the end of his life, but instead leaves him, teetering, at the peak of his career. This is fascinating stuff for anyone interested in the genre of detective fiction or the evolution of Hammett.

“Hammett moved murder out of the drawing room and into the alley.”

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Filed under Non Fiction, Ward Nathan

This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial by Helen Garner

“There it was again, the sentimental fantasy of love as a condition of simple benevolence, a tranquil, sunlit region in which we are safe from our own destructive urges. Surely, I thought, Freud was closer to the mark when he said, ‘We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love.’ “

On the evening of the 4th of September, 2005, Robert Farquharson, who’d separated from his wife, Cindy, the year before was driving his three sons back to their mother after a visitation. It was Father’s Day. On the drive home, Farquharson’s car veered across Prince’s Highway between Winchelsea and Geelong, crashed through a fence and plunged into a farm dam. Farquharson survived. His children did not.

In spite of the fact that initially Cindy didn’t blame Farquharson for the deaths of her children (this later changed), Farquharson quickly became a suspect for the murder of his sons. Was it his behaviour at the dam when he insisted that two young men who arrived at the scene take him to see Cindy rather than try any rescue attempts? Was it his insistence that the children were dead? Was it his behaviour in the hospital when he was interviewed by police? Or… was it all of the above?

This house of griefAustralian author Helen Garner attended the grueling trial and also attended Farquharson’s subsequent 2010 retrial–a decision she admits that “often, in the seven years to come I would regret” and the book This House of Grief is an elegant, elegiac account of the case as it unfolded at these two trials.

This House of Grief should not be confused with any sort of reportage-style sordid true crime book. Rather the book is a very individualistic approach to this horrific tale which is primarily a study of human nature with anecdotal observations about the court system as a secondary focus. Helen Garner doesn’t hesitate to throw herself into the narrative, and this is a woman whose sensitive emotional antennae are permanently scarred by this grueling trial. Her descriptions of the often shell-shocked witnesses brought the trial to life in all its immense pathos, and she makes it clear that no one walked away from this trial unscathed. At the same time, Garner’s emotionality sometimes drove me around the bend (more of that later)–so much so that I have many ‘WTF’ notes made for certain passages. But let me be clear here–even though I have fundamentally different emotional responses from Garner This House of Grief is an extraordinary, haunting book .

Helen Garner begins attending the trial with an open mind; she wants to “think like a juror,” which is certainly one approach, but it’s also one fundamental difference between me and Garner–darker pathways I suppose–I read the book’s basic synopsis and thought Farquharson was guilty. Admittedly, though, it’s a far more interesting book because of Garner’s ‘open mind,’ so there’s always that argument. Near the beginning of the book, Garner presents a cacophony of voices which represent many of the prevailing attitudes towards the case, and this one quote jumped out.

I don’t get these guys, said a feminist lawyer. Okay, so the wife dumps them. Men don’t have biological clocks. Why can’t they just find a new girlfriend and have more kids? Why do they have to kill everyone?

Well that’s the fundamental question isn’t it?

Garner’s emotional involvement in the case mostly pays off, but there were a few sections that were annoying. At one point early in the trial Cindy’s then boyfriend, Stephen Moules testifies. Garner admits that she “was not the only woman in the court who shot Farquharson a furtive glance of comparison.” A nice touch as this can only be relayed by someone who was actually there, but then IMO Garner goes too far when she dives into her imagination regarding Stephen Moules, who later married Cindy, and the pouring of a concrete slab:

But, having recently watched a bunch of blokes pour a concrete slab in my own backyard, I was equipped to imagine the effect of this sight on a young woman in Cindy Farquharson’s stifling situation. A concrete pour is a dramatic process. It demands skill, speed, strength, and the confident handling of machinery; and it is so intensely, symbolically masculine that every woman and boy in the vicinity is drawn to it in excited respect.

That section drew one of my WTF notes.

Similarly after a particularly grueling day at court, Garner finds herself cuddling her grandson and then later chasing down the hall about to whack another when she pulls herself up short. Garner doesn’t expand this section while explaining that she “got a grip” on herself, but this anecdote seems to be there in order to make some sort of statement about inappropriate parental response and rage. Is Garner saying she frightened herself at that moment? Is she saying we can all lose control with children in stressful moments? Again, time for another one of my WTF notes as there’s simply no way that this incident can be compared to the actions of Farquharson, and while this is Garner’s experience, it’s placement here seems unfortunate.

As noted earlier, I found myself at odds with Garner on many occasions within the book particularly regarding her emotional reactions towards Farquharson. For example, at one point she “flinches” at thinking about Farquharson “stumping home sore-footed” from his cleaning job. At another moment she’s “too embarrassed” to look at Morrissey (defense) after he makes a remark, and later, she expresses a thought regarding Farquharson during the second trial when she says she “pitied him simply for the fact that he had to sit there and endure it all again.” Well if he hadn’t done it, he wouldn’t have had to sit through the trials would he now? But these are examples of me arguing with Garner, and honestly these differences paled in significance to the book’s overall approach and Garner’s attention to meticulous detail that can only be rendered by someone with Garner’s deep sensitivity and desire to understand. I found myself applauding Garner’s intelligent, insightful observations even though we have different, basic emotional responses. Garner’s remarkable coverage of the trial is extensive but goes far beyond the evidence and the facts and figures. And I have to mention the writing which is well paced and exquisite as exemplified in a quote regarding the judge speaking of Farquharson during the sentencing:

He forms a dark contemplation…

I watched the thought, to see what it would do. It firmed up, like a jelly setting. And there it sat, quivering, filling all the available space.

But in spite of my differences with Garner, this is a beautifully constructed, extraordinary book–one that will continue to haunt me. Just as grueling days in court and gut-wrenching evidence leaves Garner “beyond speech,” the book, which isn’t the story of a crime but, importantly, the story of  two trials, shows how everyone involved is impacted by this horrendous experience.  Garner notes how excessive evidence regarding marks left by Farquharson’s car exhausts the jury, the evident pain felt by some witnesses who are emotionally battered by the trial and their testimony,  and also noted are the various personalities involved in the trial: Jeremy Rapke Acting Crown Prosecutor and his “casual coups,” and Peter Morrissey SC for the defense. Finally there’s Cindy herself who emerges from this crucible of pain and grief a warrior woman. I was surprised that the theory of premeditation didn’t appear as much as I would have expected–although of course it’s implied through the tortured testimony of Greg Rice whose wired conversation with Farquharson appeared to reveal a different side of the accused’s personality. I liked Garner’s intuitive theories about memory as it related to the conversation between Rice and Farquharson that took place at the Fish and Chip shop.

As a secondary focus, Garner explores the dynamics of the courtroom and especially zeroes in on witness statements.

The repeated order ‘Just answer the question’ came to sound like a gag or a bridle. How crude, how primitive were the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in the face of questions on which so much hung!

Similarly on the subject of cross-examination.

So you get a grip on her basic observations, and you chop away and chop away, and squeeze and shout and pull her here and push her there, you cast aspersions on her memory and her good faith and her intelligence till you make her hesitate or stumble. She starts to feel self-conscious, then she gets an urge to add things and buttress  and emphasise and maybe embroider, because she knows what she saw and she wants to be believed; but she’s not allowed to tell it her way. You’re in charge. All she can do is answer your questions. And then you slide away from the central thing she’s come forward with, and you try to catch her out on the peripheral stuff–“Did you see his chin?”–then she starts to get rattled, and you provoke her with smart crack””Are you sure it wasn’t a football?” She tries to put her foot down–“Oh don’t be ridiculous”– and then judge gives her a dirty look and she sees she’s gone too far, so she tries recoup, she tries to get back to the place she started from, where she really does remember seeing something and knows what she saw–but that place of certainty no longer exists because you’ve destroyed it.

And finally here’s Garner’s partial synopsis of a taped conversation between Cindy and Farquharson two weeks after the death of the children. Cindy is medicated and Farquharson calls to “say g’day.”

Anything she says, in her thick drawling voice, he tops, or appropriates. She’s had a bad week. So has he. She has to make a statement to the police? Imagine what he’s had to do. She has calm days and then really shitty days? That’s like him. Her mum’s been having panic attacks, can’t face going back to work? That makes it hard on him. All those things affect him, ’cause he’s affected everyone’s lives and it’s on his shoulders too. How much more torture are they going to put him through?

Garner’s insightful, detailed recreation of the trial, told in her unique way made me feel as though I was there along with the jury and the witnesses. Due to the subject matter, it was sometimes hard to carry on reading. There’s so much raw pain here.  

I have to thank Gummie at Whispering Gums for bringing Helen Garner to my attention in the first place. In spite of the fact I had my differences with Garner, I know I want to read all of her non-fiction books hoping that they’ll be as extraordinary, intelligent and as thought-provoking as this one. Considering the quibbles I had with some of Garner’s points, but still predict this will be one of my best-of-2015, I think that shows the immense, power of This House of Grief. The murder of children is a tough subject for any writer to handle, and yet Garner treats her material delicately, with great respect and grace. Ultimately the result is a book that shows the best and the worst of human nature and the methods we, as a society, have devised to cope with our darkest behaviours.

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Filed under Garner Helen

The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Ambitious Dr. Abraham van Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Asylum by Thomas Doherty

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a fascination with mental asylums, so how could I pass up Thomas Doherty’s non fiction book, The Best Specimen of a Tyrant: The Ambitious Dr. Abraham van Norstrand and the Wisconsin Insane Asylum? I came to the book knowing nothing about the subject–just what the blurb promised. The author first learned about the Wisconsin Insane Asylum back in 1972, but it had long disappeared by that time and been replaced by “utilitarian 1950s era brick buildings.” Doherty was fascinated enough by the tale of the now vanished “palatial stone” asylum to return and research the “early hospital casebooks,” the minutes of the trustee meetings, and the annual reports from the asylum’s superintendents. The intro sealed my interest in the book:

From all that accumulated mustiness emerged an endless stream of lost souls, such as a young woman devastated by the deaths of her brothers in a Confederate prison camp: “Conceives she can feed the portraits of her brothers … by crumbling up bread and trying to make them eat it.”

While the book is a portrait of an age and its attitudes towards insanity, it’s also a portrait of post civil war America with its detritus of human tragedy.  The post civil war period saw an incredible upswing in insanity as a result of broken, bereaved families, unassailable grief, and the aftermath of an incredibly savage war.

Widows, wives tormented by returned veterans, mothers convinced that the draft was a death machine stalking their sons, fathers and mothers whose grief had driven them berserk or sucked all the vitality from them and there were the soldiers themselves.

This was an era of “the hospital Movement” with the medically held opinion that “insanity was not a curse but a curable disease,”  and with a national attempt underway to standardize the management of public insane hospitals. While the book is partially an examination of a particular insane asylum, even more than this, the book is a character study of Dr. Abraham van Norstrand, a man who served as a doctor during the civil war, a banker and an entrepreneur, who later became the Wisconsin asylum’s most notorious superintendent. According to the author, the asylum’s 1868 annual report was “as thick as a Russian novel,” thanks to testimony about van Norstrand and “months of dramatic hearings.”

Best Specimen of a TyrantThe book opens with van Norstrand firmly in place as the superintendent when a new, young patient is admitted, Reverend Romulus Oscar Kellogg (known as RO). Kellogg suffering from exhaustion, and had already experienced breakdowns when he was brought to the asylum by his brother Amherst. Just the week before, RO preached a thunderous sermon from the pulpit which didn’t end when he left the church. He lapsed into insomnia, ranted through “frenzied marathons” of preaching, and these episodes would end in exhaustion, with RO complaining of pains in his head and paranoid fantasies of “enemies [who] lurked in the house.” RO’s wife Caroline coped with the situation, but RO’s behaviour spread out to a local man, and the result was that RO was admitted to the Wisconsin Insane Asylum with the opinion of a local doctor that he would make a “speedy recovery”  from a condition labeled as Theomania. 36 hours later, Kellogg was dead. This death, called a ‘suicide’ by van Norstrand, led to a scandal and, eventually, to an unraveling of the superintendent’s life and ambitions.

From this point, the book goes back into a catalogue of cases–damaged people many scarred for life as result of the Civil War–and we understand why Kellogg’s case (and death) was so different from the norm. Then the book delves into van Norstrand’s past, his pre-Wisconsin Insane Asylum days, and we see a young ambitious man carving out a medical career and learning the benefits of Quinine. A considerable portion of the book is spent following van Norstrand’s army career as a Union doctor with the Fourth Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment, and while all this may seem a distraction from the death of Kellogg, this information allows the reader to very effectively get a sense of just who van Norstrand was, his character and his motivations, before he became the superintendent at the Wisconsin Insane Asylum.

There were just a couple of annoying intrusions when the author speculates fancifully about situations:

From time to time, in the comfort of his family’s elegant quarters on the second story of the central building, he night have stood at one of the towering windows overlooking Lake Mendota, his gaze fixed on the skyline of the distant city, and brooded upon his fate should some eminent figure rise out of that feverish undercurrent of rumor and resentment to point an accusing finger at him.

But this is just an unfortunate lapse; the book is much better than that, and reveals some remarkable facts about van Norstrand’s life–through his hardships as a doctor, as a politician behind a smear campaign, and as an entrepreneur and a banker during some very dicey times. His civil war experiences were horrendous, and the conditions the soldiers endured were shocking (thinking of the misery of Ship Island and that’s even before they fought the enemy), but even in the midst of war, van Norstrand managed to engage in some strange speculations involving whiskey.  It wasn’t all death and dying:

Like Flashman he had a gift for attaching himself to local gentry on both sides of the conflict and basking in their flattery. He delighted in recalling many a feast laid out for his pleasure and many a bottle of aged brandy or claret urged upon him in one white-pillared mansion or another. As head of the biggest hospital in the Department of the Gulf, he saw Fourth Wisconsin comrades die lingering deaths and was himself worn down by illness and exhaustion, to say nothing of the frustration of being locked into middling rank. But again and again those lavish encounters with the privileged–slave owners or not–and every favor and deference granted him as surgeon, officer, man of the world, energized him. And finally that old seductress, easy money, caught his eye.

We also see van Norstrand at his best during the Civil War. He held firm ideas about good diet as essential for health, and Doherty, mining van Norstrand’s memoirs shows him arguing with commanding officers and going “beyond government channels and local pharmacists, paying planters and other private citizens up to five dollars an ounce, often from his own pocket” for precious supplies of Quinine. Thomas Doherty does a fine job of re-creating the times and conveying the impression that van Norstrand was really an incredibly energetic and enterprising man–yet his flaws, his energy, his ego and that entrepreneurial spirit are the very things that led to his downfall in the end. The marvelously detailed section regarding the 1868 hearings make for fascinating reading, and we see how van Norstrand’s mammoth task to ‘cure’ the insane was fraught with difficulties in a chemical-less age when physical restraint and punishment seemed a viable option. Van Norstrand was battling against the odds before RO Kellogg appeared at the asylum, and this young man’s appearance and his reaction to morphine created the ‘perfect storm’ for disaster. While Doherty opens a window into a specific time and a specific incident, the book extends beyond even the study of one character into human nature itself. We see disgruntled employees given a venue for their discontent and yet ultimately, van Norstrand’s speculations and business ventures sealed his fate and underscore the argument that once one arena of unethical behaviour is uncovered, the door is open to all other accusations and suspicions. In crossing swords with Samuel Hastings, the man who led the attack against van Norstrand, the superintendent met his match and hence his downfall. Sometimes, it’s the corners of history that prove to be the most interesting. Highly recommended for those interested in Wisconsin or asylum history.

review copy.


Filed under Doherty Thomas, Non Fiction

The Skin by Curzio Malaparte

“We were living men in a dead world.”

Reading Curzio Malaparte’s insidiously explosive book, The Skin is rather like watching the aftermath of some horrific apocalypse; we almost can’t believe the ugliness of what we are seeing and yet there’s a fascination that renders us powerless to turn from the sight.

Malaparte, a play on Bonaparte, was a journalist whose real name was Kurt Eric Suckert. Malaparte (1898-1957) initially supported the Italian fascist movement, but he ran foul of Mussolini, was arrested multiple times and spent a short time in prison for “publishing a how-to manual entitled Technique of the Coup d’Etat.” Malaparte, as a liaison officer to the American forces, narrates the book, and as a narrator, he’s a tricky character. Slippery and never to be taken at face value, Malaparte’s ironic, often malicious narration examines life in Naples after the arrival of allied troops and mines the gap between reality and the high moral ground seized by the victors. In twelve amazing chapters, Malaparte describes scenes of life as he accompanies Colonel Jack Hamilton and various other officers in and around Naples, and his mostly light tone belies the human tragedy that surrounds them; death, disease, cruelty and starvation are in stark contrast to the high moral ideals and deliberate blindness exhibited by the victors and their idea of ‘liberation,’ and while Malaparte seems intent on exposing hypocrisy, his sympathies are for the broken human race brought to their knees by desperation.

The SkinIt’s Naples 1942, and the narrator of The Skin, Curzio Malaparte bemoans the state of Naples since the “conquerors” arrived. To Malaparte, Naples has become a toxic, moral wasteland with almost every female up for sale to the allied forces–anything is possible for a soldier who has money in his pockets and food to barter for sex.

We were clean, tidy, and well fed, Jack and I, as we made our way through the midst of the dreadful Neapolitan mob–squalid, dirty, starving, ragged, jostled, and insulted in all the languages and dialects of the world by troops of soldiers belonging to the armies of liberation, which were drawn from all the races of the earth. The distinction of being the first among all the peoples of Europe to be liberated had fallen to the people of Naples; and in celebration of the winning of so well-deserved a prize my poor beloved Neapolitans, after three years of hunger, epidemics, and savage air attacks, had accepted gracefully and patriotically the longed-for and coveted honor of playing the part of a conquered people, of singing, clapping, jumping for joy amid the ruins of their houses, unfurling foreign flags which until the day before had been the emblems of their foes, and throwing flowers on to the heads of the conquerors.

That quote captures the irony, the hopelessness, and the poignancy of this extraordinary book. It’s a rare and special book that stands as an eyewitness testament to tragic moments of human history, and while Malaparte’s book gives us an eyewitness account, this isn’t a matter of a straight forward narration; rather this is a document that forces the reader to confront some uncomfortable realities of war and the degradation of the human spirit while challenging our notions of ‘victory’ and ‘liberation.’

Malaparte’s personality seeps through these pages. He’s an extraordinary narrator, malicious and crafty, and yet it’s those very characteristics that expose the hypocrisy of both the Neapolitans and the conquering American forces. While some of the scenes of women, starving young men and children who sell themselves on the streets for a crust of bread are heartbreakingly sad, there are also moments of some really nasty humour as Malaparte, as a liaison officer, accompanies his favorite American, Colonel Hamilton, through the ravaged streets of Naples.  Hamilton is the kind of man, Malaparte argues, “that seems to hail from Ivy League America as conceived by Vladimir Nabokov, a world where military men read ancient Greek in university gymnasiums surrounded by wet towels.” 

Malaparte feels “incredibly ridiculous” in his British uniform. “The uniforms of the Italian corps of Liberation were old British khaki uniforms handed over by British command.” These uniforms, and even shoes, have been stripped from the dead of Al Alamein and Tobruk, and Malaparte speculates that they been “dyed dark green, the color of a lizard” in order to hide the bloodstains and the bullet holes. Malaparte seems to be the only one who recognizes the bitter irony of wearing the uniforms of the dead former enemies–a fact which seems as deeply insulting to those who wear these uniforms as it is to those who died wearing them. And yet the very interchangeableness of the wearer of the uniform underscores the absurdity of uniforms in the first place and the anonymous dead: strip the uniforms from the dead, dye them, and recycle them to your former enemy:

There was no gainsaying it: that stupid war had certainly ended well for us. It could not have ended better. Our amore proper as defeated soldiers was undamaged. Now we were fighting at the side of the allies, trying to help them win their war after we had lost our own. Hence it was natural that we should be wearing the uniforms of the allied soldiers whom we had killed.

Malaparte can never be taken at face value, and he’s perhaps at his most delightful, wickedly malicious and most duplicitous self when he’s accompanying Americans through Naples, and at these times Malaparte and whichever American is by his side engage in a mutual baiting game–almost as if the battles between nations continue, at a combative but less violent level. Malaparte seems unable to resist piercing that tight membrane of righteousness to reach the conscious discomfort of the conquering American who’s conveniently blind to his role in the moral corruption brought forth by circumstance. Here’s Malaparte goading Jack on the subject of “this fall in the price of human flesh,” cleverly comparing the price of children against the price of lamb:

Faded women, with livid faces and painted lips, their emaciated cheeks plastered with rouge–a dreadful and piteous sight–loitered at the corners of the alleys, offering to passer-bys their sorry merchandise. This consisted of boys and girls of eight or ten, whom the soldiers–Moroccans, Indians, Algerians, Madagascans–caressed with their fingers, slipping their hands between the buttons of their short trousers or lifting their dresses. “Two dollars the boys, three dollars the girls!” shouted the women.

“Tell me frankly–would you like a little girl at three dollars?” I said to Jack

“Shut up, Malaparte.”

“After all, it’s not much, three dollars for a little girl. Two pounds of lamb cost far more. I’m sure a little girl costs more in London or New York than here–isn’t that so, Jack?”

“Tu me dégoûtes,” said Jack.

“Three dollars is barely three hundred lire. How much can a little girl of eight or ten weigh? Fifty pounds? Remember that on the black market two pounds of lamb cost five hundred and fifty lire , in other words five dollars and fifty cents.”

“Shut up!” cried Jack.

 Malaparte’s conversations with Americans seem to frequently end with him being told to ‘shut up’ as he makes observations about life, sometimes tweaking consciences, sometimes exposing hypocrisy. Malaparte likes Jack “because he alone, among all my American friends felt guilty, ashamed and miserable before the cruel, inhuman beauty of that sky, that that sea, those islands far away on the horizon. He alone realized that this Nature is not Christian, that it lies outside the frontiers of Christianity.” Other Americans “despised” Naples and saw it as a corrupted citynot as a city of people brought to their knees and desperate to survive, no matter the cost.

Captain Jimmy Wren is an American who sees Naples as a polluted city and does not see that degradation or deprivation combined with Yankee dollars has created a market in which everything is for sale, and here’s another comment not to be taken at face value–although part of Malaparte seems to envy the Americans’ simplistic view towards morality:

Jimmy’s conscience was at rest. Like all Americans, by that contradiction which characterizes all materialistic civilizations, he was an idealist. To evil, misery, hunger and physical suffering he ascribed  amoral character. He did not appreciate their remote historical and economic causes, but only the seemingly moral causes reasons for their existence. What could he have done to try and alleviate the appalling physical sufferings of the people of Naples, of the people of Europe? All that Jimmy could do was take upon himself the part of the moral responsibility for their sufferings, not as an American, but as a Christian. Perhaps it would be better to say not only as a  Christian but also as an American. And that is the real reason why I love the Americans, why I am profoundly grateful  to the Americans, and regard them as the most generous, the purest, the best and the most disinterested people on the earth–a wonderful people.  

There’s one great section in which Malaparte goads both Jack and Jimmy on the subject of Neapolitan dwarf women who’ve turned to prostitution and have a brisk trade with American servicemen, and in another section Malaparte describes crafty, desperate Neapolitans engaged in the “purchase and resale of Negroes on the flying market,” –a process in which black servicemen are passed around as a resource through various hands, with each participant shaving off from “the lavishness and recklessness of his expenditure.” Ultimately Naples is seen as a fire sale marketplace in which everything and everybody is degraded and up for bid. Whether Malaparte is commenting on the last virgin in Naples, the epidemic of venereal disease, pubic hairpieces, the piles of bloated corpses in the streets, the brutal execution of young fascists, or friends lost in the chaos, he’s a darkly glittering marvel–duplicitous, dangerously intelligent, always the outsider watching and recording hypocrisy through the roles played by both the conqueror and the defeated in the moral degradation that results from war.

Translated by David Moore

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Filed under Non Fiction

The Borgias: The Hidden History by G. J Meyer

I found the Borgias fascinating long before it was fashionable to do so–I refer of course to the current Borgia mania fueled by Showtime’s mini-series, which, incidentally, I haven’t seen. G.J Meyer’s book The Borgias: The Hidden History is a highly readable revisionist look at one of the most notoriously rotten families in history–we’ve heard the stories of the orgies, the incest and the poisonings, and Meyer’s fascinating book takes an intense, fascinating look at the Borgias while arguing that they weren’t so bad after all….

Author G. J. Meyer (The Tudors) begins by saying that “this is not the book I set out to write,” and that his research led to an “entirely new understanding of who the Borgias were.” Meyer makes a strong argument for his case stating that the Borgia “myth” is largely built on “the acceptance as true … of accusations of the darkest kind” made by “discredited” historians and Borgia enemies. It’s an interesting premise, and while Meyer makes a cogent argument, there were times that the pendulum swung too far towards an image make-over. More of that later.

The BorgiasIn spite of a few problems I had with Meyer’s thesis, I enjoyed this book immensely. It’s richly detailed and reads very well. In my limited knowledge of the Borgias, I knew only of Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) and his infamous illegitimate children which included Cesare and Lucrezia. The book takes us back farther into Borgia history with Alonso Borgia, the “dark-horse candidate,” elected as pope Calixtus III more or less because he was so elderly and not expected to hold the office for too long. This, of course, opened the door to Borgia power. The book delves deeply into Alonso’s career–including his long, significant employment as Alfonso V’s secretary. This background information is invaluable as it illustrates Alonso’s intelligence and diplomacy, but we also see the weaved network of friendships, wars, and obligations that became so critical in matters of succession–specifically just who was the heir to the throne of Naples. Alonso’s reign as pope was complicated by a constant threat from the Turks even as he tried to “regain control” of the Papal states. With the Orsini and the Colonna families as bitter enemies, Alonso’s goal of uniting the Papal states was not easy. Alonso understood that alliances were of paramount importance, and so it’s with this Borgia, we see Rodrigo begin to rise in power within the church. According to Meyer, Alonso/Calixtus III’s approach to regaining control of the papal states was “novel” as other popes had simply thrown in their support with either the Orsini or the Colonna against whichever clan was left out of favour.

The result was an endlessly repeating pattern in which, as pope succeeded pope, the fortunes of the Orsini and the Colonna became like two pistons in a reciprocating machine, with one side up whenever the other side was down.

I had always known that these were wild times, of course, but the book brings those times to life with relevant details:

In Rome itself, disorder and danger became chronic, the Orsini turning the parts of the city that they controlled into killing zones. They showed no reluctance to shut down the highways leading to the city’s gates and so cut off its supplies of food, fuel, and other essentials whenever it served their purposes to do so.

Nepotism, according to the author, was the modus operandi of the times–not something that just the Borgias were ‘guilty’ of, and that makes perfect sense, so it comes as no surprise to see Alonso’s nephew, Rodrigo climbing to the top of the church hierarchy, and it’s with Rodrigo that Meyer first addresses the “accusations of greed.”  Meyer argues that while Rodrigo’s wealth rose to “stunning levels,” this was absorbed by his growing expenses and responsibilities. Rodrigo eventually became pope after being passed over several times, and the book details the various election processes. One delightful scene recounts how one cardinal “stationed himself in the latrine,” ambushing other cardinals as he desperately lobbied for votes.

Close to the 40% mark of the book (on my kindle edition), Cesare and Lucretia finally appear–but not as Rodrigo’s illegitimate children but rather as his grand-niece and grand-nephew. The author presents his arguments for this complete with scholarly backup, and after all these years, who knows the truth? I’m not about to argue with Meyer’s research or his scholasticism–I’ll leave that for the experts. My biggest issue with the image makeover of the Borgias came in the details regarding some of the scandals, rumours and gossip. Clearly the wickedness of the Borgias became legendary as the years passed, and there’s no argument from this reader that some of the stories are grossly exaggerated. However, and here’s one instance–at one point, there’s a discussion of a letter dated August 10 to the papal court regarding Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, who was ill, and the letter includes the line “the physician who saw him first says that he has little hope for him, principally because he had, shortly before, not slept alone in bed.” The author notes that this was “interpreted as meaning that Rodrigo had been indulging in sexual adventures” and was dying as a result.

As for the cardinal’s not sleeping alone, as recently as the nineteenth century it was not uncommon even for men of importance to share beds, and it may very well have been necessary for senior members of the pope’s entourage to do so in the grossly overcrowded conditions of Ancona that summer.

The author is an apologist for the Borgias and at times provides a weak defense of this notorious family. We don’t know, for example, and we will never know, who was in Rodrigo’s bed when the physician showed up, but to argue that it was another member of the pope’s entourage is belaboring the point. The question of whether or not Rodrigo kept his vows of celibacy seemed petty, but then of course, this later leads into the argument that all of Rodrigo’s mistresses weren’t his mistresses after all. There are many points the author makes that seem very valid when questioning some of the more outlandish accusations against the family, but at other times, the defense of the Borgias goes a little too far with the result that they seem vastly morally superior when weighed against their contemporaries. On the other hand, the depiction of many other vile characters, including Ferdinand I of Naples and the impressively vengeful, strong-willed Caterina Sforza did a great deal more towards convincing me of the relative ‘normalcy’ of the Borgias than some of the claims of their total innocence. By detailing the actions of the Borgias in the context of their turbulent troubled times, in effect, this is revisionist in itself, and niggling over some of the details which really cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt one way or another seems unnecessary.

That complaint aside, The Borgias really is a wonderful book, very readable, and a book in which many characters come to life and are not just faded images in century-old portraits.  These were incredible people living in incredible times. The author clearly loves his subject and it shows in every line, every explanation of time and place. The book includes a family tree, maps and a timeline.

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Filed under Non Fiction

The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov

I’m going to throw a question out there… Would you want your life to be defined by history? In my mind, the question is accompanied by images of Ulysses S. Grant,  Mannerheim, and Makhno–men who happened to be born at a crucial time in history and whose lives were swept up in war. But cast these images aside, and let’s start looking at something a little less famous, a lot less stature, and this brings me to The Black Russian, a non-fiction book by Vladimir Alexandrov–an incredible tale of how one man’s life was ripped apart by history and the dominant, brutal attitudes to race and class.

The Black RussianThis book tells the remarkable story of the life of Frederick Bruce Thomas who was born in 1872 to former slaves who were farmers in Mississippi. Just looking at the date of the date of Frederick’s birth tells us that he was born to a whole new Southern world, but a society that was still in a great deal of post-Civil War turmoil. Frederick’s parents must have been remarkable people as they managed to amass, at one point, 625 acres of land which they successfully farmed. But their very prosperity led to a powerful local, white landowner tricking them out of their land with a “multilayered trap” which included false threats and manufactured debts. Basically run off their land penniless, Frederick’s family fought back seeking legal redress, but after Frederick’s father was brutally murdered, the family sank into poverty once again.

Frederick set out in the world on his own and always seemed to make very concise intelligent decisions, and even though the choices he could make in his work world were very limited due to his race, nonetheless, a clear pattern emerges which “prefigures his future life and career.” Frederick quickly attached himself to those who could afford luxuries. He didn’t get stuck working in a back water dump of motel but always lived in large cities which attracted the wealthy who had money to spend.

he [had] entered an elegant service industry, one that existed for the benefit of people with money and social standing. No matter how lowly or demanding Frederick’s own labours might have been, he was nevertheless involved in providing adornments for those who could afford to pay for such luxuries.

Frederick worked as a waiter, but again, only in the most expensive restaurants and then after a successful career in Chicago and New York, in 1894, he sailed for London. Unfortunately, we don’t know what Frederick thought of England, but there are many quotes included from white Americans visiting London during the same time period who expressed a range of views–some outraged and some delighted–at the way “American negro[s]” “can go into the finest restaurants and be served just like a white man.” Frederick ran a boarding house in Leicester Square but it was a short lived endeavor, and then off to Paris where he worked for a few years and quickly learned French. But he was still restless and moved onto Brussels and the Riviera. It’s as though he auditioned countries to find his next home, and then, rather surprisingly, he finally settled in Moscow, married, started a family, and became one of the most successful variety theatre & restaurant owners in Russia. His theatres attracted the curious and those with money to throw away, and in one of his establishments, Maxim’s, he introduced the “theme space” which appears to foreshadow the outrageous hotels of Vegas.  With Frederick as an affluent millionaire, bribing local officials to look the other way for the risqué acts he searched the globe for, this should have ended as a happy story, but 1917 rolled around and a penniless 47-year-old Frederick, with his second wife and children found himself fleeing from the Bolsheviks and boarding a ship in 1919 full of American refugees. Good thing the American consul had no idea that Frederick had become a Russian citizen in 1915 under special dispensation from the Czar.

The Black Russian tells a tale of courage, ingenuity, dizzying success, flight, and then disaster. Frederick’s incredible life was bookended by racism and class-hatred, and what a tragic roller-coaster ride. He fled a country in which his class held him to the lowest, domestic positions, then, with his own unique talent and nose for business, he reinvented himself and was a phenomenal success in Russia, of all places, only to have it ripped from him by the Bolsheviks who saw him primarily as upper class and not as a black man who’d succeeded against the odds. This is one of those stories that if it were fiction, the average reader who toss aside after a few chapters thinking that the story was too implausible.  The Black Russian begins as  a gripping adventure story as Frederick’s family flees a panic-stricken Odessa, and then the book segues back into Frederick’s beginnings, his search for success, his dramatic failures in Constantinople and his ignominious end. The book also provides a backdrop of the society of the times, and while this is, at times, essential, the information is sometimes anticlimactic when compared to the main story.

At the peak of his success, Frederick was worth “about $10 million in today’s currency.”  While The Black Russian is the tale of one man’s rise and fall, the book also shows that Frederick, once liberated from the racial attitudes that held him to menial domestic positions in America, soared in a society in which his colour was no impediment. Intelligent, forward-thinking and unleashed in a country in which his colour was not an issue, Frederick showed just how successful he could be. It’s impossible not to read his story and consider how Frederick’s life would have been contained and limited if he’d stayed in America. Not only do we see  Frederick’s intelligence and strategic planning, we also see his sense of humor and how he loved to play with the American tourists who came his way, acting out–somewhat outrageously–their lowest expectations of a “semiliterate” subservient American black domestic–even though quite obviously diamond-flashing Frederick did not fit their stereotypical racist ideas and was, in fact, at the height of his success, a cosmopolitan figure, a successful, worldly millionaire who carved a fortune with his intelligence and adaptability.

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Filed under Alexandrov Vladimir, Non Fiction

The Damnation of John Donellan by Elizabeth Cooke

Elizabeth Cooke’s non-fiction book, The Damnation of John Donellan, a who-dunnit of sorts, examines the intricacies of an 18th century case involving the mysterious, sudden death of the dissolute heir of the Warwickshire Boughton family.  In 1780, future baronet Theodosius Boughton was just twenty years old when he died, most violently, after taking a dose of medicine, a “purging draught” prescribed by the local apothecary for a case of venereal disease. The draught, which supposedly contained jalop, rhubarb, and lavender mixed with syrup and nutmeg water, smelled, according to Theodosius’s mother like “bitter almonds.” Within ten minutes, Theodosius was groaning in agony, frothing at the mouth and “heaving.” A few minutes later, he was dead.

What follows, with painstakingly careful detail, is the story of what happened after Theodosius’s death, the various versions of events, and how the death of this syphilitic young heir ended in one of the most notorious murder trials to take place in Georgian England. Was he murdered by his mother–a woman described as phenomenally stupid by some of the males in her social circle, and a woman whose emotional responses to the death of her son may seem a little odd, (and then there’s the issue of her husband meeting a similar end)?  Or was Theodosius murdered by his scheming brother-in-law, John Donellan–a man who already had three strikes against him (he was Irish, a bastard, and had a shady past). Then again was it possible that Theodosius was simply a victim of his own, often secret, attempts to cure his new case of venereal disease with mercury. He contracted his first case at age 15, and at the time of his death, was attempting to overcome a fresh infection.

The Damnation of John Donellan, a book which should appeal to the fans of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, not only examines the circumstances surrounding the death of Theodosius Boughton but also gives us a unique glimpse into Georgian life and values. There were a couple of points that emphasise that the medical field is one step ahead of medieval times. No one wants to open up the corpse because it’s thought that the odours escaping from the body could be harmful (the autopsy was finally conducted outdoors), and then slaughtered pigeons were put at the feet of the “invalid” in order to “draw the bad vapours from the body.” All this amidst John Donellan claiming to use a still with lime water in order to kill fleas in his children’s bedrooms. And there are also minute, fascinating details pertaining to Georgian law:, so we see the crime placed in its complex social context:

Despite the reforming politician William Eden arguing for fewer capital crimes in his principles of Penal Punishment in 1771, no less than 240 offences carried the death penalty. This had been enforced by the Waltham Black Act of 1723, which had added fifty new capital offences; and in 1781, a man, woman or child could be hanged for offences ranging from murder and highway robbery to the seemingly absurd ‘being in the company of gypsies for more than a month’, writing a threatening letter, or, in the cases of children aged seven to fourteen, simply having ‘evidence of malice’.

Elizabeth Cooke shows that the death of Theodosius Boughton was a case that, in a sense, was too big for its time–both forensically and legally.

But in 1780 neither a surgeon nor a doctor of medicine–no matter how lurid or famous their cases–were as we would recognise them today. The practice of medicine was largely uncontrolled by any official body–it was not until the Medical Act of 1858 that a register of qualified practitioners nationally and even of those named then, only 4 percent had a medical degree from an English university.

Author Elizabeth Cooke doesn’t try to provide the definitive answer to the death of Theodosius Boughton, the heir of Lawford Hall, but instead she provides the facts behind the death, the autopsy details, the problematic legal case, and the testimony of those involved. There are even some  early day-to-day hypothetical details added which flesh out the life of the Boughton family, and these worked surprisingly well. The book bogs down in the details surrounding the various versions of events, but this is inevitable with this sort of work. After concluding the novel, I chewed over the case, and came to my own conclusion about what happened, but of course, I can’t give that away.

There were a few elements to the case that were included but not examined, and I found myself going back over some of the statements made by major players and putting this into the context of what happened. Luckily the book is well indexed so it’s easy to go back over certain aspects of the case. There are also a couple of handy family trees that help keep track of who’s who. Above all there’s a strong sense of time and place–particularly when it comes to some of the more infamous courtesans and mistresses of the day–including the mysterious Mrs. H who granted her favours to John Donellan.

Into the Boughtons’ world stepped Captain John Donellan, Master of Ceremonies at the fashionable Pantheon Assembly Rooms in Oxford Street. He was a man of the world who had returned from soldiering in India with a reputation for both bravery and fortune-hunting. He was about to use both attributes to devastating effect.

For those who enjoy reading these historic crimes, there’s a lot of rich detail relating to Georgian society, attitudes and values. We sense Donellan’s desperation as the finger points in his direction, and his Defence makes for some interesting reading. Was Donellan an adventurer who simply messed with the wrong people or was he a suitable scapegoat?

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Filed under Cooke Elizabeth, Non Fiction

Shantytown Kid by Azouz Begag

Shantytown Kid (Le Gone du Chaâba) from Azouz Begag is the final selection Emma made for our virtual Xmas gift exchange. I’m going to begin by saying that this was not a book I would have bought without Emma’s nudge. In fact, I’d never heard of it, and even if I had, I doubt that I would have bought it as I do not usually enjoy books written through the eyes of a child. Lest I seem too inflexible, there are, of course, a few exceptions to that, but experience has taught me to generally avoid books with either a child protagonist or narrator. So that preamble brings me back to Shantytown Kid, an “autobiographical novel” that follows Azouz, who was born in 1957, picking up his story sometime in the early sixties and ending in 1968. So not many years in the life of a child, and of course the story is told by a now adult Begag. Azouz Begag’s parents were illiterate Algerian immigrants who came to France in 1949. They settled in Lyon, and Azouz was born in a Lyon shantytown. These days, the author, who has a doctorate in Economics,  is a politician and a writer.

The story begins, as the title suggests in Le Chaâba, a shantytown in Lyon, a place without electricity and no running water. That also means no toilets, but more of that later. While the shantytown lacks facilities, it doesn’t lack a strong sense of community, and we see this facet of Le Chaâba repeatedly through the book. One example is the way the women squabble over the water pump by day, but bury their arguments when the men come home, and in another instance (which is hilarious, by the way), the women and children combine forces–forming an ad hoc and combative neighbourhood watch assault team to discourage the lively prostitution trade that flourishes right outside of their territory.  

Begag relates the pivotal classroom incidents and friendships which shaped his life and his decision to “prove that I was capable of being like them.” ‘Them‘ in this case being the French schoolchildren who laugh at Azouz’s use of Arabic vocabulary. Of course, mixing with French children who live in houses and not shacks serves to highlight the differences between Azouz’s life and the expectations of French children.

I knew I lived in a shantytown of shacks made of planks of wood and corrugated iron roofs and that it was the poor who lived that way. I had gone several times to Alain’s home in the middle of the Avenue Monin, where his family lived in a real house. I could see it was much nicer than our shacks. And there was so much space. His house alone was as big as the whole of le Chaâba put together. He had his own room, with a desk and books and a wardrobe for his clothes. At each visit my eyes nearly came out of their sockets with astonishment. I was too ashamed to tell him where I lived. That is why Alain had never been to Le Chaâba. He was not the sort to enjoy rummaging in the garbage dumped on the embankment, or hanging onto the sides of the garbage truck, or getting involved in extorting money from the hookers and the homos. Besides, did he even know what homo meant?

On the down side, detailed here is a nighttime excursion to the outhouse and a genital exhibition between children. Minor asides, but what’s so interesting is the clear impact of education on Azouz. At times the lessons seem designed to illuminate differences between the French children and the Arab children–this isn’t true, of course, the lessons are culturally based in subjects such as manners, etiquette, and hygiene. But the result is that the Arabic children are effectively alienated even further–unless they’re like Azouz and set out to impress the teacher–even at the cost of alienating their fellow Arabic classmates.

Rather than a cohesive narrative, the book is basically a series of incidents that take place in the shantytown, in Azouz’s schools and in the home his family later moves to. One of the best scenes takes place when rubbish is dumped next to the shantytown and the residents go hunting for anything of value. Throughout these scenes runs a strong thread examining identity and solidarity, and the  inevitable tug-of-war that occurs between one culture’s values when confronted with an adopted country. Some parents who bring their children to another country (or whose children are born in an adopted country) seem horrified when the children begin to integrate, but isn’t that a healthy development? Ideally two cultures should be meshed equally, but when one  of those cultures is considered to be a so-called prestige culture, while another is not, just how does a child accept or filter out cultural values when subjected to peer pressure, family expectations and the desire to belong? Shantytown Kid sensitively illustrates all these difficulties faced by Azouz as he makes some irrevocable decisions at a crucial early age. In one scene, he’s even held up by the teacher as an example against his own race, and in another a pied-noir teacher condescendingly corrects  Azouz on all matters Algerian.

He was really modest, my teacher. There he was, explaining my origins to me demonstrating how little I knew of Arab culture, and he dared tell me that he spoke Arabic nearly as well as I did!

As crass as the teacher is at times, he still appreciates Algerian culture–a rare thing at the time with anti-Algerian sentiment boiling away and culminating in France in October 17, 1961. As Azouz tries to navigate both worlds, he inevitably and consciously makes a decision to be “french,” and that decision comes at a cost. For me, however, the most touching parts of the book are not the episodes of Azouz’s life, but the struggles of Azouz’s father who despairs when families leave the shantytown and move to flats. While he expresses this despair as disloyalty in the departing families, Azouz’s father distress is founded in the threat to culture and loss of community, and as the families disperse, his anguish seems based in doubt about the future and fear of lost values.

So thanks Emma for pointing me towards a book I’d never heard of and one I enjoyed. Strangely enough I related to it in some ways.


Filed under Begag Azouz, Fiction

The Accidental Feminist by M. G. Lord

“The man is a husband and a father and something else, say a doctor. The woman is a wife and mother and … nothing. And it’s the nothing that kills her.” Elizabeth Taylor as Laura Reynolds in The Sandpiper.

I admit that I decided to read M. G.  Lord’s non-fiction book, The Accidental Feminist because I was curious to read the author’s argument that Elizabeth Taylor is a feminist icon. The book’s overly long, but self-explanatory secondary title is: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice, and this secondary title goes a long way in explaining the book’s direction. First the disclaimer: I like Elizabeth Taylor. I think she is a seriously underrated actress, and I tend to enjoy the films that are a little off-beat. The Driver’s Seat, for example. Butterfield 8 is another one, but in spite of my admiration, I couldn’t really see her as a feminist icon. There again I am fascinated by the idea that Taylor, who had many of the hallmarks for tragedy that destroyed other female stars (child stardom, tabloid sensationalism, multiple marriages, illness, and a noticeable appetite for gems), managed to live to a ripe old age and die fabulously wealthy. In other words, unlike let’s say Barbara Payton, Marilyn Monroe, and Linda Darnell (just to name a few from an endless list), Elizabeth Taylor managed to survive the demands of Hollywood and unlike many glamorous female stars before her, she didn’t die in oblivion. Apart from the fact that I like Elizabeth Taylor as an actress, I also admire her early stance of support for AIDS–especially when many other famous people, who might have brought attention to the issue in those critical early days, opted instead to hide from the topic.  

The Accidental Feminist is not a biography of Taylor. Instead it’s primarily film criticism with an emphasis on how her roles challenged censorship and social mores of the time. The author states that feminism is “a tricky thing to define,” and after quoting various definitions, argues that many of Taylor’s films had a definite “feminist context— “accidental or deliberate–text or subtext.” Most of us have heard of the Hays Code with its explicit lists of dos and don’ts, and what’s so interesting here is Lord’s intense exploration of how the Hays Code not only censored many of Taylor’s films but tried to creatively shape the messages of several films. This sort of information is a valuable read for any film buffs. Films examined include:

National Velvet (“A sly critique of gender discrimination in sports.”)

A Place in the Sun

Giant (“The feminization of the American West.”)

Suddenly, Last Summer (“The callousness of the male medical establishment towards women patients.”)

Butterfield 8 (“A woman’s right to control her sexuality.”)


The Sandpiper (“goddess-centered paganism against patriarchal monotheism.”)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (“What happens to a woman when the only way that society permits her to express herself is through her husband’s career and children.”)

Ash Wednesday

The Little Foxes

The slight biographical information in these pages is restricted to the bare outlines of Taylor’s life and how these details impacted her career. At one point the book unobtrusively lines up the tragedies Elizabeth Taylor dealt with effectively, including the death of James Dean, Montgomery Clift’s car accident, and the death of husband, Michael Todd in 1958 (they’d been married for just over a year).

The characters she played were women to be reckoned with. And many of her roles–the great and the not-so-great–surreptitiously brought feminist issues to American audiences held captive by those violet eyes and that epic beauty. While I know that writers and directors create movies, stars create a brand. And the Taylor brand deserves credit for its under-the-radar challenge to traditional attitudes: a woman may not control her sexuality; she may not have an abortion; she may not play with the boys; she may not choose to live without a man; she must obey her husband; and should she speak of unpleasantness, she will be silenced.

There were points at which I felt myself arguing with the premise of the book–after all these were roles that Taylor, the actress played, and that’s a separate thing from Elizabeth Taylor, the person. In spite of the risky film roles, Taylor played so well, her life, covered vividly by the tabloids also had a message. But at the same time, the author makes a powerful argument (depending on a person’s notion of what constitutes feminism), about Elizabeth Taylor’s bravery in allowing herself to be photographed bald prior to surgery to remove a benign brain tumor, her box-office power when it came to a female audience, and her early support for AIDS research. I’d also argue that the really risky role in A Place in the Sun went to Shelley Winters–not Taylor. And then there are those hilarious sexed-up ads for Taylor’s early films which de-emphasized her acting and instead accentuated her physical attributes. Giant, for example was sold to audiences as a “steamy love triangle.” Here’s a marvellously astute passage:

The ad then shows Dean, shirt unbuttoned to the waist, oozing intensity, and Taylor on her knees before him. Although they are technically chaste, their positions hint at an act that would violate the Production Code. The caption: “Jett Rink, the outsider–and Leslie, wealthy and beautiful.”

The last frame shows Dean leering at Taylor as if she were a hamburger and he had missed lunch. The caption: “Jett Rink’s shack. No one has ever set foot in it–and then suddenly, Leslie.” The last picture is the most distorted. Far from depicting a sweaty libidinous tryst, the actual scene is prim and tender. To show Leslie that he is not a brute, Jett struggles to get everything right as he makes her a cup of tea. His actions are a perfect metaphor for the feminization of the West.

 At the same time, I bristled at a few statements. Taylor and third husband, Michael Todd led a lavish lifestyle, and at one point, we’re told that after Todd’s premature death in a plane crash, he left a “mere 250,000 in the bank.” Taylor picked up and went back to work. What else could she do since there were bills to pay and three children to support, but there’s something grating about that “mere $250,000” wording…I went to http://www.dollartimes.com/ to check the value of 1958 money compared to today, and according to that website, $250,000 in 1958 terms was worth around $1,929,392.61 in 2011. With those kind of numbers, it’s hard to put Taylor in the same boat with other single mothers  who live on state support or meagre child support payments. That’s not to say that Elizabeth Taylor didn’t suffer at the death of her spouse, but let’s face it, the woman had advantages…. Another point of disagreement with the author occurs over The Taming of the Shrew, a film I love btw, but whose final scene can be construed as the “shrew,” a very beautiful Elizabeth Taylor advocating blind obedience to one’s spouse–even if his demands are insane.

One of my favourite anecdotes in the book must be included:

As a young woman Taylor, too, played the duplicity game. But in 1962, after two men in sequence very publicly ditched their wives for her, she stopped hiding. And far from suffering at the box office, she became Hollywood’s highest-paid actress. Not even the vatican could hold her back. When its weekly newspaper, L’Osservatore della Domenica, accused her of “erotic vagrancy,” she blithely quipped, “Can I sue the pope?”

Love that  term “erotic vagrancy.” Ultimately this is a highly readable book that made me think–and while I didn’t agree with every statement, the book did bring a richer appreciation of Elizabeth Taylor. And isn’t that the point?

Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley. Read on the kindle.


Filed under Lord M. G., Non Fiction