I have followed the case of Damian Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Miskelley since 1996, when the documentary Paradise Lost came out. This memoir breaks my heart, as I listen to an innocent man go through the tortures of prison and death row- and before that of poverty and community ignorance. Through it all, Mr. Echols maintains poise and dignity. Listening to the story in Echols' own voice brought home the emotion and loss of the tragedy.
I personally was glad that there was little or no mention of the gruesome details of the murders and the new suspect arising from DNA tests, all of which is available in the many documentaries about the case and the websites supporting the West Memphis Three. This narrative is the story of Mr. Echols' life so far, which shines a bright light onto the inhuman conditions that we allow to exist in our prisons. A truly excellent memoir, which breaks your heart over and over again.
I bought this after hearing part of an interview with the author on public radio, and was so engrossed in it that I couldn't stop listening. While I knew a few things about Scientology, I knew next to nothing about L. Ron Hubbard, and it was fascinating to hear his history (particularly compared with the sanitized history put forward by the COS). Honestly, it was quite shocking to have to keep in mind that this man had somehow founded a powerful religion with a net worth in the billions. He frankly comes across (in his OWN WORDS) as a delusional, paranoid narcissist. I also recently read a book about Jim Jones and People's Temple, and I was really quite struck with the similarities between Jim Jones, L. Ron Hubbard, and David Miscavige. In fact, I found myself chuckling at the irony of L. Ron Hubbard having his empire more or less stolen by another charismatic charlatan.
It blows my mind that so many people could buy into such weird ideas, or that any such belief could persist after the first instance of abuse that is described as affecting all but the high-priority celebrities. I had no idea the COS was so endemically homophobic, or that there was any connection between it and Prop 8.
It was an eye-opening look at current celebrities and their relationship with the COS. I'm sure that Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Jenna Elfman, and others will be very upset about having some of their activities involving the Church detailed. (Travolta actually comes across as a fairly decent guy.) The story of the Church auditioning actresses for the role of "Tom Cruise's new girlfriend" was so sexist and appalling that I think I will henceforth refuse to ever watch another movie he's in. If it is in fact the case that he and other celebrities involved in Scientology are unaware of its abuses, it is only through willful blindness- and they should be ashamed of it.
This book was one of the most interesting non-fiction stories I've encountered in a long time. I was shocked by how little of this story I knew considering that I was alive during the time it was being shaped- it really reinforces the point that is made repeatedly that the media simply ignored what should have been a HUGE story because it affected mainly the gay community. In hindsight, it is simply incredible to hear about stupid, short-sighted decisions made by scientists, journalists, politicians, and even members of the most affected communities. Decisions made because of simple denial, which lead to many avoidable deaths. This includes 2) the shocking decision of blood banks to simply ignore evidence that HIV was a blood-born viral agent, leading to infection of people receiving blood transfusions, 3) the absurdly counter-intuitive decision of scientists and policymakers in the U.S. to ignore or dispute cases of infection in hemophiliacs, IV drug users, children of infected mothers, and those receiving blood transfusions, 4) the intentional under-funding of AIDS research by the Reagan administration despite efforts by Congress to provide additional funding, and 5) decisions by some gay leaders and public health officials to focus almost entirely on civil liberties issues and ignore attempts to curb the rate of infection.
It was also pretty embarrassing as an American to read about the underhanded and dishonest efforts by scientist Robert Gallo to take credit for the work of French scientists, even including fraud- all while ignoring the fact that these shenanigans affected a real epidemic that was claiming real lives.
Shilts is not an objective journalist, often using language that is conclusory and inflammatory. He doesn't just present facts that clearly illustrate that politicians and scientists didn't care about AIDS (then called GRID) because they believed it only affected homosexuals- he says it. And he says it repeatedly. I realize that this rubs a lot of people (particularly journalists) the wrong way because journalists are supposed to be objective in a "just the facts, ma'am" kind of way. Everyone once in a while this grated on me a bit too, but honestly I couldn't get too upset about it because it was pretty hard to draw any conclusion OTHER than Shilts's from the conduct of those described. As a result, the indignation and anger over the recklessness of scientists, public officials, and community leaders felt justified and it didn't bother me as much as it would have in another journalistic context.
The one thing I disagreed with was the continual implication that Gaetan Dugas was the reason the epidemic spread so fast. While I'm sure that Dugas did spread the disease to many, many people, the focus on him in the book unfairly presents him as a sort of villain for the story when he was hardly alone in his continuing to have sex long after he should have considering his diagnosis. I thought Dugas's story was fascinating, and representative of HOW the virus spread so fast within the gay community and masked the obvious truth that no virus targets one sexual orientation over another; however, that was a set of dots that Shilts didn't really focus on. He clearly felt compelled by anger to find fault with various figures (including Dugas) rather than to note and elaborate on the fact that the disease being identified with the gay community was due only to the tragic coincidence that the lethal virus got introduced into the gay community at the exact time that promiscuity was widespread in reaction to the new-found freedom gay men were experiencing at the same exact time. I was ok with Shilts crossing the line of journalistic objectivity when the conclusions he was voicing were fairly obvious, but what he implied regarding Dugas seemed more personal and less fact-driven.
The narrator was perfect for the material- he tone really matches the tone of the text, bias and all.
I read all the Potter books (as an adult) and loved them. I pre-ordered this book when I heard it was coming out, but was very much aware that it was not going to be a children's book and was interested to see what Rowling's craft was like when it was not paired with the plot from a series which pulled the reader along regardless of whether or not the writing was polished. Then I started reading the reviews from others, both Potter fanatics and not, which lambasted this novel. (I did hear good things, too.) The criticism seemed to be along two veins: either people found the novel boring, or they were horrified by the sex, drugs, and cursing. Personally, I would never be offended by sex, drugs, or cursing in a book as long as they belong where they are put in context. I was, however, somewhat put off by the suggestion by many that the book would be boring- particularly since the plot summary involves small town politics in a tiny town. The plot didn't actually sound very interesting to me, and would not have made me pick it up off the shelf if it was not an author I already knew. Eventually, I decided to get it on Audible so I would be less tempted to put it down if it started out slowly if I was passively listening to it while doing other things.
The book does actually start out fairly slowly, and I can definitely see why many did not get past the introduction of a large number of characters. Many if not most of the characters introduced are not particularly likable, and it takes awhile to get invested enough in any of them to care what happens with the 'casual vacancy.' For my part, I initially had trouble getting invested because it's a tiny town taking it's local politics so ridiculously seriously that it's hard not to roll your eyes with even the characters you would tend to agree with politically.
Then a funny thing happens. You suddenly do start to care what happens, even though you don't necessarily empathize with many of the characters. If you think about it, that's quite an accomplishment on Rowling's part as a writer, and where her unusual point-of-view choice (each chapter from another character's perspective, sometimes with a shift during the same chapter) really pays off. The characters are three-dimensional, not caricatures. There is no protagonist, and no obvious antagonist. Even with characters that are quite unlikable, it is possible to see the complicated nature of their motivations. As the story arcs weave together toward the end of the novel, I became more and more involved in the story. It reminded me of a less sleazy Peyton's Place, or a less melodramatic Dickens novel.
This book should never have been billed as a black comedy- it isn't. If you look at it as a black comedy, Rowling would come across as a fairly heartless and snide author. And a reader expecting comedy will be looking at the characters through the wrong lens. I can see why this book was a problem for many Potter fans- that series appealed to a very wide swath of readers, whereas this novel will only appeal to a small part of that group. However, if you happen to be in that group, it is well worth the investment of time.
I was pretty familiar with this story already, having seen Heavenly Creatures when it came out and having read a few things about the case, but there were many details included in this book that I hadn't known and enjoyed reading. The detail available, including actual testimony from the case, lengthy passages from diaries, and information from many close to the case, was very impressive. I was frankly astonished to hear accounts of the way both girls maintained their sickeningly grandiose superiority complexes well after they were separated and in prison. I suppose I had imagined that it wouldn't have taken long for them to come back down to earth, but this was not the case at all.
Knowing that Juliet Hulme would go on to become a famous and well-respected author, I had hoped to see some iota of remorse or guilt, but the book ends with no such epiphany. It was very discomfiting, actually, to consider the possibility that perhaps Anne Perry truly is not and was never able to appreciate the wrongness of her conduct. Likewise I would have liked to have heard more about when and whether Parker came to truly regret what she had done. There are no answers about this to be had, however, as neither woman was involved in the research of the book and there is little information available about what either thought of what they had done when they were adults.
The narrator was a bit annoying to listen to, primarily because of the mechanical way he was reading, but it didn't bother me unduly.
I actually thought I was going to like this book more than I did. Maybe it's because Anderson Cooper seems a certain way on the news and comes across quite differently in his own words. I was put off initially by the way Cooper presented himself as almost an adrenaline junkie, feeling bored if he was not covering a war or stationed in some other dangerous place. It felt unseemly that he was drawn to places of such misery, especially after he went on at length about his reaction to the press that wanted to cover news of his brother's suicide. I hadn't known that he grew up with such vast personal wealth, which sort of exacerbated my impression of him as a person who was not truly connected to the misery he was seeing.
This was not the case with his discussion about Hurricane Katrina, however, and this was by far the best part of the book. He may have been better off sticking to that subject while periodically inter-cutting to his own story as he did throughout the book. The other parts weren't bad or poorly written, but he clearly felt a personal connection to the Katrina story that came across better and more clearly than the other stories described.
I had seen a review of this (book) from a friend and decided to get it on Audible. I was instantly hooked into the story from the first moment. What sets this apart from the traditional true crime book is the way the story is told from several different perspectives, based on interviews with friends, family and acquaintances of the victim, but also acquaintances and family of the perpetrated. It ends up being both a chronological story of a crime, its investigation, and the trial and a character study of many of the most prominent characters, not just the victim. It also presents a portrait of the difference between Japanese and British/American world views about crime, justice, society, and family. It really was almost impossible to stop listening once I started, and I highly recommend it if you're looking for an engrossing listen.
The narrator, who I have heard on several other audio books, was excellent.
Dave Cullen has accomplished a difficult task with this book- he presents a balanced, unsentimental story about the killers and their victims, the rampage, the run-up, and the aftermath. This is harder than it sounds considering how far into the minds of the killers Cullen must delve in order to formulate the narrative of what caused them to do what they did, and hot-button topics like the misconceptions about the Cassie Bernall story. The picture that emerges is just that- a picture. The author does not attempt to argue a perspective. What I found especially interesting, as I had not known about it, was the attempt by the local county sheriff's office to cover up and hide information. The Columbine shooting comes across as less the product of bullying than it is the unfortunate pairing of an explosive young depressive with a budding psychopath, leading to tragic results. I didn't realize how thoroughly inaccurate the news accounts of the incident, and its causes, had been. In a way, the real story is much scarier than the media version.
I find Hare's work fascinating, and his psychopath test is an important contribution to many fields. While much of the book is interesting, it becomes obvious as the narrative goes on that 1) Hare thinks of psychopaths and being essentially a different species,which is a bit disturbing, and 2) he is not very open-minded once he has decided an individual meets the psychopathic definition- whether or not he has actually diagnosed the person. Interesting, but Hare comes across as seeing psychopaths around every corner.
I found this book very enjoyable, particularly listening to it in Ronson's own voice. The voice really adds a lot to the humor for whatever reason. It was an odd read, though, because while I enjoyed every part of it and found the subject very interesting, it was a little disjointed. It was like Ronson couldn't decide if it was a humor book or a piece of journalism. It works as humor, but wanders around quite a bit and makes no fleshed-out conclusions as journalism. This didn't bother me at all, but if you're looking for a methodical scrutiny of the "madness industry" as it is billed, it falls a bit short on that score. Still highly enjoyable, but as story-telling more than investigation.
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