"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Date with 'The Monster of Florence'

The Monster of FlorenceThe Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was introduced to The Monster of Florence through a unique program sponsored by my public library: Blind Date With a Book. On the basis of minimal descriptions, I had to choose a book covered in construction paper, check it out, and take it home before seeing the cover. Even after learning which book I had chosen, I did not experience love at first sight.

This book details a serial killing spree in the recent history of Italy. While the material was unavoidably engrossing, it took me about half the book to truly connect with the players and the struggle. Part of the challenge, pointed out by coauthor Douglas Preston, is the issue of the killer never being revealed or caught. However, I also felt Part One of the book relied too much on impersonal fact recitation. The cumulative effect was a sense of detachment from the personal tragedy in deference to an exhaustive outline. The considerable upside is the comprehensive nature of the authors' research.

The Monster of Florence almost could be understood as two books. The first provides a straightforward rendering of the history. The second part deals with the emotional and professional fallout for the authors. If Part One is the chalk outline of the victim, Part Two is the victim's remains. Moving and spine tingling interviews occur in the second half which enabled me to develop a strong emotional connection. Perhaps the most mesmerizing passage occurs in Chapter 36, as coauthor Mario Spezi recounts a monk offering penetrating insights into mental illness and the nature of evil. Here is only a snippet:

"Madness is the renunciation of all efforts to be understood."

Was my blind date with The Monster of Florence good enough to merit another date? Yes and no. It definitely rekindled my interest in the true crime genre. It also reminded me how this genre is a bay window view of our whole society. I may not return to the works of these two authors right away, but they have succeeded in strengthening my enthusiasm for excellent long-form journalism. This book is worth getting to know.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Thumbing Lake Huron for Vacation

Vacation is a week that falls between two weeks of working twice as hard to avoid falling behind. Nevertheless, I had some time off this month. On one of those days, the April sun actually made it through the clouds and spurred me to take a day drive along the Lake Huron coastline. Below is one picture I took in Port Austin, located on the tip of the thumb if you think of Michigan as mitten-shaped. To see more photos, skim my Michigan album on Google+. As always, click on the below image to see it full-size.

Swans nesting near Port Austin on Lake Huron

Monday, April 15, 2013

My Literary Blind Date

The last time I went on a blind date I was a freshman in college. It went pretty well. I took her to see Star Trek: First Contact...which in hindsight seems fitting. Though I have gone on many dates in the years since, none have been of the blind type. Then Chelsea District Library decided to fix me up.

That is right. Last week, the public library arranged for me to look at brief descriptions of several potential blind dates. After doing so, I picked one to go out with during
National Library Week. Initially I felt some trepidation but, vowing to be a good sport, I stopped by the library last week for a round of matchmaking.

Shown above, my date is dressed in a modest green outfit. Just behind my date is our chaperon. As has become standard practice for first encounters, we met in a public place. Nevertheless, there was a catch. I was not permitted to learn the identity of my date until after I checked her out.

Going in, all I knew was that our first outing would involve a discussion of true crime, an unnamed Italian serial killer, and an instance of unsolved mystery. That sounded quite interesting to me. In fact, I was so confident the date would go well I took us straight back to my place. Then things became awkward.

Don't get me wrong. I am not offended by nude sculpture. On the contrary, I find it beautiful and evocative. That doesn't mean I'd show up to a first date wearing a t-shirt with a print of Rodin's The Kiss. Nevertheless, my Mom raised me to be a gentleman. So I politely offered to take my date's jacket. Our chaperon then made it clear my date's jacket was not to be removed.

The awkwardness persisted as, during the Introduction, I learned there had been accusations of the author planting evidence. Furthermore, the primary source for this work is none other than one of the suspects. Let's be candid, folks. Blind dates don't always go smoothly. Only a half hour into mine I felt I was getting too much information. Plus, there was the added pressure of having my date hand me a comment card with instructions that I fill it out and return it to the chaperon. I know I shouldn't complain. In exchange for providing feedback, I get entered in a prize drawing. Still, early on it seemed likely I would have no trouble getting my date home well before her April 30th curfew.

After an admittedly shaky start, I am pleased to report the date is now going well. I started getting interested when my date explained the overt pyschosexual themes on the above jacket. The sculpture is called The Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna. It is in fact highly appropriate, setting the right tone for this shocking study of homicide. Furthermore, as I experience the rich culture and history of Florence, as well as the gritty nature of crime reportage, I am reminded how my reading life would be woefully incomplete without full-length non-fiction.

In another week or so, I will post a review of my blind date with this book. So far I am not as engrossed as I was with Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song. But you know what? The date is not even half over. Comparisons at this point are both premature and inconsiderate. Like all serious works of literature, this one deserves my full attention. Until next time, good reading to you all. And special thanks to Chelsea District Library for this clever book activity.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Waterloo's Mill Lake via iHiking

Never thought I would go hiking with an iPad. But presently my tablet contains the two best cameras I own. Also, since I have begun doing some modest video production at my day job, I couldn't resist the chance to try out the iMovie App. The results below are not professional quality, yet hopefully capture the enjoyment I receive from visiting Mill Lake in Waterloo Recreation Area. Playback quality on the uploaded version has varied from browser to browser. Most consistently, it seems to play well in Google Chrome.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Don't Read My 'Pet Sematary' Review

Don't read the below review. Instead, read this article to an interview with Stephen King about his upcoming sequel to The Shining. And, if you are still thinking about reading the below review, instead read this review about The Shining. But whatever you do, do not read the below review about a book so creepy I have vowed never to read it again.

The Review You Should Not Read

Pet Sematary Pet Sematary by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was raised in a religion that proffers the existence of a literal veil between this world and the next—a thin yet material demarcation between living humans and those who have passed on. So a novel like Pet Sematary, which dabbles enthusiastically in this mythic zone, is going to get traction with me whether it is earned or not. Fortunately Stephen King deftly executes the narrative, so much so that this novel earned my complete attention and emotional investment from the outset.

In terms of spookiness, Pet Sematary exceeded my expectations. Thus far King’s novels have tended to spook me after I put them down, while I am trying to sleep for instance. Pet Sematary spooked me while I read it. And the active ingredient in this spookiness is precisely what the title promises: pets. That’s about all I can say without spoiling it. Though, the other tool King uses with audacity is the spoiler. In two cases regarding major characters, King explicitly states what shocking thing is going to happen a few
pages later.

Why be subtle? Admit it. If you are reading horror fiction you want to be manipulated. King does so with frankness and, in this novel, with economy.

Alas, though it offers efficient and effective storytelling, Pet Sematary did not feel special. As I followed a weary protagonist into the deep woods of Maine, I found myself tiring from the deluge of gore Pet Sematary delivers in its penultimate crisis. Then, at the climax, King elevates a minor character to pivotal status. This would have been a satisfying surprise if the character had hitherto been more engaging than any given friend or relative with a better case for promotion.

Moreover, the decidedly spooky denouement comes as a bow half-tied. In the context of storytelling, I suppose that is better than a bow tied too neatly. Still, it is significant that I was quite content to read the ending and put the book down. With five-star reads I always want to flip back to page one.

I give Pet Sematary a solid three stars out of five. May I someday be able to craft fiction with such confidence and effectiveness. Boasting main characters a cut above stock and extremely spooky companions prowling the homestead, Pet Sematary proves more compelling than so much crappy horror fare pumped out by Hollywood. It is a tribute to the author that devices so belabored by other storytellers can here be brought forth afresh from the grave.

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