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Tag Archives: nonfiction

“A Death in Belmont” by Sebastian Junger

A couple of weeks ago I drove by myself to and from Denver for a short library conference. Along with Diet Coke, pretzel M&Ms, and Twizzlers, I kept myself company with an audiobook on CD, Sebastian Junger’s “A Death in Belmont” originally published in 2006.

Every few years I crave a true-crime book, and this one about the Boston Strangler came right out of that Dewey number, 364.152.

Junger is known as a nonfiction writer. He picked up this topic because his own family had a connection to the Boston Strangler. When Junger was a little boy in 1963, his parents had a studio built in their backyard in suburban Belmont. One of the subcontractors on that job was Albert DiSalvo, who was convicted of the murders attributed to the Boston Strangler. The day before the studio was finished, a photograph was taken of the Jungers and the men who worked on the job. Junger reflects on that snapshot showing his mother holding him on her lap, with Albert DiSalvo standing behind them.

Junger clearly places himself in this story, but he does a great job of backing up to describe the context, what Boston was like and how the murders impacted people.

He explores a murder done in Belmont at the time that Albert DiSalvo was working on the Junger project just a mile away. A black man named Roy Smith was convicted of that murder, proclaiming his innocence until his death behind bars. In many ways this murder was a typical Boston Strangler job, in others, not. But both Smith and DiSalvo die before full light can be shed on Smith’s case. Junger leads one to believe that Smith was very probably wrongly convicted.

Junger manages to tell this story, graphic details and all, without seeming to exploit the victims or the situation. He introduces a wide variety of people at a perfect pace, setting up a sort of chess board of characters. Kevin Conway, the narrator, maintains an even tone in his reading that reflected Junger well.

I loved “A Death in Belmont” for a traveling companion. I’ve noticed that the books that I most enjoy in audio are those with a strong narrative thread. Junger maintains this well. I was sorry when the book came to an end just before I reached Ogallala. I felt like I’d learned some interesting history, had reflected on the role of race in the early 1960s, and been told a fascinating tale by a fine storyteller.

“Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”

I took a break from my Notable Books reading for “Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. I’d heard some interviews with her earlier this year, and found her comments intriguing.

And then I had to wait awhile because there were (and are!) quite a few holds on it.

Cain’s title tells it all–she supports and values the combination of traits that characterize introversion–needing solitude for recharge, preferring one-on-one conversations over cocktail parties, focusing on one topic at a time, and a tendency for active environments to be overstimulating.

She includes research, cultural aspects, advice for romantic pairs and advice for parents.  Cain herself isn’t a researcher, but has interviewed many who are, and she has done plenty of homework in seeking out a variety of opinions.

An introvert myself, I connected with many of her observations. In particular, I saw myself in her description of the need to gear up for certain kinds of social events, almost as if going into battle. On the other hand, I haven’t sensed the scorn or disapproval of the extroverts in my life as much as she seems to have, and sometimes I felt like she “protested too much.” A personal note–I do clearly recall my college boyfriend kindly pointing out that my quietness at parties could be interpreted as my being stuck-up. And he did say so kindly. And I still remember that–it stuck with me. I would guess that quite a few introverts have received similar observations.

I’ll recommend this book to people who are interested in the many ways in which personality can be profiled, so that we understand ourselves better, and get along with others better. I’m finding myself having extended animated conversations with others who’ve read this–and so far, her audience seems mostly–introverts.

“Inside Scientology” from the Notables List

I continue in my reading of the American Library Association Notable Books List with “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion” by Janet Reitman.

Reitman is a journalist/writer who was inspired to write this nonfiction book after she began writing a feature article on Scientology for the “Rolling Stone” in the summer of 2005. Her interest had been piqued by the actor Tom Cruise, a prominent Scientologist who often speaks out regarding Scientology.

Local readers may recall that Scientology’s founder, L Ron Hubbard, was born in Tilden, Nebraska, in 1911.

Reitman describes the evolution of Hubbard’s concept of “Dianetics” to the church of Scientology that exists today. I hesitate to attempt a brief description of the framework of Scientology. Foundational ideas include a belief that people are immortal souls who come back to the earth over and over. A practice known as auditing leads people to move past traumatic events that keep them from reaching their full potential. Scientology holds strong positions against much psychiatry and the prescription drugs it uses; they consider their own processes as much more successful. As people progress through auditing into upper levels of the church, they typically pay more and more money to move forward. Reitman sees money as central to the story.

Reitman seems less interested in the belief system behind Scientology, and more interested in the structure of the church, the personalities who run it, and how it raises money.

The view that she presents is primarily from outside–Scientology’s leaders did not speak with her. She relies heavily on former Scientologists, those who have left the religion, to get inside views of the structure of the church. She describes people who left the church having been treated shabbily or worse, detailing in particular the death of Lisa McPherson in 1995.

She gives an overall picture of a “church” in quotes, which she implies is actually a business that uses the cover of religion to shelter money. Further, she reveals how the personalities who head Scientology, first Hubbard, and now David Miscavage, shape the church in sometimes bizarre ways. She presents Miscavage as a sheltered young man who came to lead the church in his 20s, ill prepared for the job. She details many ways in which his direction seems irrational.

Yet she concludes with optimistically-toned interviews with young people currently engaged in Scientology.

I expect that the Notable Books committee chose this title because it brings forward information on an important topic of interest to many readers. I would point out that Reitman sometimes employs language that seems biased, describing Hubbard as a huckster, and using terms such as “concoction” that carry laden meanings. I would have preferred more measured reporting.

Even so, I’ll recommend this to readers who prefer nonfiction and who like to read about current events and issues. I was struck by the parallel stories of a belief system on one hand, and the personalities behind it on the other. That is where much of the energy in this book lies–in the end, it is a story about people.

An Especially Good Nonfiction Notable–“Destiny of the Republic”

Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard is subtitled, “A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of A President.” In this American Library Association Notable book, Millard tells the story of President James Garfield, who was elected in 1880 and died in 1881.

Some readers may recall Millard as the author of “The River of Doubt” which was a One Book One Lincoln finalist a few years ago. That focused on an episode in the life of Theodore Roosevelt. She excels at writing history as story.

Millard opens this story with a prologue that introduces us right away to Charlies Guiteau. Guiteau survived a collision between two steamships in 1880. His own survival when others died led him to believe that he was saved for an important purpose, and when that belief combined with his mental illness, it twisted itself into his intention to kill President Garfield.

Chapter One picks up at the United States’ Centennial Exhibition in 1876, where James Garfield, a congressman, strolls the grounds with his family. Millard uses this event to introduce two key angles that will be highlighted when Garfield is shot–the work of Inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, and pioneering work regarding antiseptic procedures in surgery.

Millard spends enough time with Garfield’s remarkable rise from poverty to presidency to set the context of the time, and to tell the parallel story of Guiteau’s descent. The events following the shooting take up a good deal of the book, yet she doesn’t lose the narrative’s momentum.

I appreciated how much I learned in the course of this book. This takes several forms. The sense of the United States shortly after the Civil War, the personalities engaged in politics, the dirtiness of the politics, and the lack of cleanliness as it impacted Garfield, are staying with me.

This may not be the book for serious students of American history, but for readers who have a general interest in the time and who are unfamiliar with James Garfield, Millard unrolls a fine story. I’ll recommend it both to those with that interest in American history, and also to fiction readers who are willing to try nonfiction “when it reads like a story.”

From the Notables List, “Turn Right at Machu Picchu”

I just finished “Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time” by Mark Adams, one of the nonfiction titles on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books List.

Adams alternates chapters of his own recent trek to Machu Picchu with chapters describing the travels of Hiram Bingham, the Yale professor who “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911.

Adams travels to Machu Picchu via the ancient Inca Road, using routes that allow him to see what Bingham saw. He includes himself very squarely in this story, offering many personal opinions, observations, and conversations with his guide and the Peruvians who manage the donkeys, food and gear. This works. As a travel writer, Adams achieves that delicate balance where his own personality enlivens the story with overpowering it.

There’s something about Machu Picchu that remains eternally interesting. Recent developments regarding the ownership of many Inca items that Hiram Bingham transported back to Yale have added an additional measure of interest to Bingham’s portion of the story.

Adams explores several theories about the function of Machu Picchu, describes well the mountainous area where it is, and draws connections among stories, geography, and personalities. He deepens his own experiences with deft study of others, including those who have always lived in the area, the early white explorers who sought the Lost City of the Incas, and the thousands who visit the site each year.

Although this is not a deep academic study, I’ll recommend it to people with an interest in this area. In particular, I will mention it to those who have visited or intend to visit Machu Picchu, to readers who enjoy travel books generally, and to fiction readers who will enjoy a nonfiction book of it’s “a good story.”