The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886

dr. jekyll and mr. hyde

“…my evil…was alert and swift to seize the occassion; and the thing that was projected was Edward Hyde.”       Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Spoiler Alert

Even though I have a Capricorn symbol tattooed on my arm, I’m not really into astrology. But I could not resist the perfect tie-in to my next book selection. That’s right. As the sun begins to travel through Gemini, my book of choice…The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It fulfills the Book Written before 1920 Challenge (2018 Reading Challenge).

The Jekyll and Hyde tale is such a familiar part of pop culture I assumed I knew the story. I was wrong. I expected it to be told from the Jekyll/Hyde perspectives, but like most stories of the time, a third-party witness recounts much of the tale.  Only at the end do we get a rather lengthy letter written by the last remnants of Jekyll telling the story from his perspective.

The tragedy begins with Gabriel Utterson, Dr. Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, growing concern for the respectable and reliable Jekyll. First, Jekyll withdraws from social circles then abruptly bequeaths everything to the mysterious and unlikeable Mr. Hyde. From there, Utterson attempts to reconcile the mystery of Jekyll’s strange behavior with the sudden appearance of the wretched stranger who yields undue influence.

Of course, in the end we find out that Hyde is the manifestation of Jekyll’s bad side, allowing him to act on his evil impulses without repercussion. Using a potion, Jekyll summons the feral and barbaric Hyde in measured doses. Unfortunately, Jekyll discovers one of the potion’s ingredients wasn’t pure, and that unknown impurity  gave Jekyll domination over Hyde’s arrival. Without it, Jekyll can’t control when Hyde appears or rein in his actions.

No longer forced to transform back to Jekyll against his will, Hyde goes on an unsupervised spree. Once Hyde commits an unforgiveable crime, Jekyll knows that something drastic must be done to stop his alter-ego.

Stevenson provides a satisfying mystery, though the familiarity of the overall story, if not the details, softened the impact.  Even so, I understand how those reading it when it was first published would find it shocking and disturbing.

Thoughts that linger:

The copy I read, pictured above, came with a glossary defining some of the outdated terms or obscure references as well as interpretive notes that added insight into the Stevenson and his story.

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Burial Rites, Hannah Kent, 2013

burialrites

“They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.” Hannah Kent

Spoiler Alert, I guess.

The jagged landscape of Iceland’s coasts juxtaposed with its lush green interior always appealed to me. Though I don’t know much about the history, government or culture of the country it’s sheer beauty makes it a place I’d like to see with my own eyes. Which leads me to the next challenge: a Book Set in a Country You’d Like to Visit. (2018 Reading Challenge)

Admittedly for all the natural beauty Iceland has, there’s also a desolation that seems to go with it. Many of the pictures I see show no signs of civilization. Simply a vast amount of unforgiving landscape with no roads or shelter. I can only imagine the intensity of the seclusion in 1828 which lacked immediate communication with the outside world and travel was done on foot or horseback.

In her debut novel, Burial Rites, Australian author Hannah Kent captures that isolation in this fictionalized account of the last few years of Agnes Magnusditter’s life. As the book jacket, wiki page and any other site that comes up when you google her name will tell you, Agnes (along with a man named Fridirik Sigurdsson) were the last people sentenced to death and executed in Iceland, hence the questionable spoiler alert warning.  The event was traumatic enough that Agnes is still haunts her countrymen almost two hundred years later. Just last year, a mock trial was set up to retry the case, finding that she would have been sentenced to fourteen years rather than death. Numerous books have been written and Jennifer Lawrence is attached to star in an adaptation of Burial Rites. While the memory of her hovers in Iceland’s shared history, Agnes the woman remains mysterious and unknowable. But Kent does her best as she imagines Agnes back to life, giving her agency and purpose.

Sentenced to die in northern Iceland where there are no nearby prisons, Agnes is foisted upon the Jonsson family, who’s patriarch, Jon serves as a local official. Though eager to do his duty, Jon is understandably hesitant to allow a murderess into the home with his wife and daughters.  His sickly and stern wife Margret is incensed by what she considers and insult as is her youngest daughter Lauga, who fears that proximity to Agnes will ruin her chances for marriage. While his oldest daughter, Steina initially fights Agnes’ internment, she’s the first to let down her defenses. Agnes requests a young assistant priest named Toti, to act as her spiritual guide in preparation for her impending death. The shifting relationships between the prisoner, her reluctant jailors and the unqualified chaplain drive the story to its inevitable conclusion.

A bit of a mystery plays out, more in Agnes’ motives for the killings rather than a did she/didn’t she. Though Kent never excuses Agnes, she gives her a humanity we don’t usually like to see in our murderers. I was left with a satisfying ambiguity that comes from reading well developed characters who are neither saints or monsters. Even though the book jacket made clear Agnes’ fate, I found myself dreading the end, knowing there wouldn’t be a last-minute reprieve and unsure of whether she deserved one.

Talking As Fast As I Can, Lauren Graham, 2017

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I’d given “slapping a bass” a whole new meaning. Lauren Graham

Lauren Graham’s memoir fit into a few categories in the 2018 Reading Challenge. It was a 1) celebrity memoir that was a 2) 2017 Good Choice Award Winner that 3) made me laugh out loud. But more importantly, it fulfills the Book With A Six Word Title challenge. Six word titles are not as easy to find as you think. And now I can breathe a sigh of relief having finally found one that I was excited to read.

I’m a big Gilmore Girls fan. As the only child of a young single parent, the idea that a show would focus on that family dynamic was welcome and affirming. Disney princesses aside, you didn’t really see single parent households in family entertainment in 2000. Especially one so unapologetic. Graham’s upbeat and energetic portrayal of Lorelai captured the spontaneity that comes with growing up with your parent.

Graham recounts her whimsical childhood (first Honolulu, then Japan, then a houseboat) and her early days as a struggling theatre actress in New York to successful tv and film star in Los Angeles and all the wacky adventures that got her there.  She also talks about the perks and weirdness that accompany fame, like being famous enough to guest host on Project Runway yet still being awestruck enough to draw a blank.

Of course, for most of us, the real fun starts when she recollects her Gilmore Girls years from breathing life into Lorelai Gilmore and reviving her almost ten years later. She recalls first impressions of costars, hopes and expectations for the show as well as the behind the scenes production drama that comes with getting a show on the air. Graham focuses on the positive, staying away from gossip or pettiness leaving the quaint colorful world of Stars Hollow intact.

Would be actors will find her climb familiar and inspiring, though things have changed a great deal from the early nineties when she began her ascent. I’m sure there are aspects of the acting career that don’t change much. Gilmore Girl fans will love the inside stories of the making of the original as well as the reunion ten years later. Graham has a light, genuine tone, humility and self-depreciating humor that make her writing enjoyable and accessible.

Thoughts that linger:

I always considered Graham to be a private person since she managed to avoid the tabloids and was delighted that she shared pictures of herself from childhood to the present.

She includes a section in each of the season summaries called “Times were different” where she reminds viewers of once common, now archaic, aspects of life like *69ing and using disposable cameras.

Danger is Everywhere, David O’Doherty and Chris Judge, 2014

danger

Watch out for the page 9 scorpion.

Humor is subjective, based on the skill of the author and the tastes of the reader.  For the Laugh Out Loud book challenge (2018 Reading Challenge) I felt a bit of pressure. Do I literally need to laugh out loud? Do chuckles count?  Should I give myself a page number limit, like if I haven’t laughed out loud by page 15 I have to start a new book? I wasn’t sure how literally I should take this challenge.

And then I realized, I was already reading a book that made me laugh out loud sincerely and consistently. The only problem… it’s a kid’s book. I read and reread the challenge, and nothing said it couldn’t target the primary school demographic. It’s only criteria seemed to be making me laugh out loud. And, bonus, it tied in perfectly with the anxiety I felt about the challenge.

“Danger is Everywhere”, a manual to help potential dangerologists learn to recognize everyday threaths, is presented by the very nervous and hyper-aware Docter (yes, with an e) Noel Zone, the world’s foremost expert in dangerology (a subject he invented himself).  He prides himself on seeing the threat in everyday life like bike riding or sleeping in a bed or toilet sharks and shares his wisdom with us PODs (Pupils of Dangerology).

Complete with helpful abbreviations like T-COD (Tiny Cape of Dangerology) and POWDMB (Pointing Out Where Danger Might Be) Dr. Noel Zone sheds light on the unknown dangers lurking in our everyday lives. Like the piano walrus and mailbox octopi. But the book isn’t just about POWDMBing. It offers helpful solutions. Did you know if you find yourself face to face with a polar bear the best thing to do is not run or play dead, but rather amaze him with a card trick?

At the end of the book there’s the DETBAFOD (Dangerology Examination To Become a Full-On Dangerologist) that, when passed, will bestow the reader the title of Full on Dangerologist (Level 1).

Like all great kids’ books, it has high levels of absurdity and goofiness. While it’s written as a handbook, the format feels a lot like the slew of “diaries” out there for tweens like Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Dork Diaries. As a graphic novel, there are tons of illustrations so even reluctant readers might find the 240 pages at least tolerable if not enjoyable. And best of all, it’s a great read for the entire family, something that doesn’t always happen in the world of kids lit. Believe me, I’ve sat through some eye-rollingly bad kids books. When one can make everyone dissolve into laughter, it’s a winner.

Eloquent Rage, Brittney Cooper, 2018

eloquentrage

This is a book by a grown-ass woman written for other grown-ass women. © Brittney Cooper, 2018

For the Book About a Current World Issue (2018 Reading Challenge), I chose Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper, PhD.  The book discusses Black Feminism, a branch of feminism that uses intersectionality (the idea that race, gender, economics etc. all impact a person’s life) to try to bring about fair and just treatment for Black women and girls. Given that countries in Africa still practice genital mutilation and child marriage because of outdated and dangerous patriarchal struggles, Black feminism is and should be a world issue.

Cooper grew up in the south in the nineteen-eighties. Placed in predominantly white classes, she gained unique insight to the thoughts and actions of the white world while still maintaining a space in the black community. Never completely welcomed in either place, Cooper developed a unique outsider-on-the-inside perspective that shaped her feminist outlook.

In a style that’s part memoir, manifesto and textbook, Dr. Cooper lays out the who, what where, when, why and how of Black Feminism (capital B, capital F). Her tone easily swings from front porch banter to erudite academia to (much needed) straight up scolding and back again.

Her journey to woke was marked with the pains and humiliations that come with most life changing realization. White classmates that accepted her (to a degree), mean Black girls that shook her, religious Black patriarchy that shamed her, White patriarchy that questioned her worth–all of it comes together to form the person she eventually becomes. Her first steps begin with shedding her reluctance to wear the Angry Black Woman label after being called out by a friend. “She helped me to realize that my anger could be a powerful force for good.” Once she acknowledged her deserved anger, she was able to focus it in a way that made a difference to her identity, her relationship to others, her politics and her life.

Through topics ranging from intersectionality, politics, black churches, her father, Black and white mean girls, Beyonce and bell hooks and more, Cooper discusses why Black Feminism is so important in Black women’s lives. She points out painful but true ways that groups have done Black women harm leading Black women to hurt each other.

This is an uncomfortable read.  I would argue that it’s a necessary discomfort. No one group gets a pass, not even Black Feminists, not even groups Dr. Cooper belongs to. I would guess that for every “damn, right” uttered, there’s probably a “well, hold up a minute…” a few pages later. And to me that’s the mark of a book that’s meant to challenge paradigms, not placate egos.

Heather, The Totality, Matthew Weiner, 2017

Heather

Heather had always felt beautiful and sensed what was fair… Matthew Weiner

For the Book with Bad reviews challenge (2018 Reading Challenge), I chose Heather, The Totality. The book averages a 2.9/5 on Good Reads and 3/5 at Amazon. I know those numbers put it solidly in the mediocre category, but I really didn’t want to commit to a book that a lot of people hated. Another plus, the book is a slim 134 pages. Why commit to a huge book with bad reviews when I can suffer through a shorter one?

And while I wouldn’t say I suffered, I will say, I’m glad the book was short.

Heather is the generic passive female character we’ve seen hundreds of times. More object and ideal than person. Stunningly beautiful. Unbelievably perfect. Untouchable, unknowable. Blah, blah, blah.

Luckily, despite the title and the promises of the book jacket, she isn’t the focus. The story is more about Mark and Karen, Heather’s parents, specifically their marriage.  It’s the plausible outcome when two people marry for the wrong reasons but stay together for the child they adore. From that perspective the book is spot on, capturing the almost imperceptible decline of a bond forged in convenience and gratitude. But that’s not what the summary promised. Taken from the jacket:

“But as Heather grows—and her empathy sharpens to a point, and her radiance attracts more and more dark interest—their perfect existence starts to fracture…. Meanwhile a very different life…is beginning its own malign orbit around Heather.”

Expecting conflict and confrontation between Heather and this “different life”, I was disappointed by what eventually happens or doesn’t happen.

The author makes other style choices, verbally and aesthetically, that could either be viewed as rebellious scribe’s bold challenge to the rules or a high school freshman who hasn’t learned them yet. Because author Matthew Weiner is an accomplished TV writer (Mad Men, Sopranos) one assumes he’s choosing to break the rules, perhaps as an experiment to see if it can be done well.

Here are some of the casualties:

Show, don’t tell. It reads like the diary of a housewife suffering from acute ennui. Character activities are chronicled, emotions are not. There are few conversations between characters. Mostly, singular lines of dialogue are embedded in a paragraph.

Chekov’s gun. This rule basically states, if you draw attention to something, you better have a good reason. In this case, Heather’s empathy is the gun. We are told ad nauseum that Heather has a preternatural sense of empathy.

Examples:

“…her beauty became more pronounced but somehow secondary to…a complex empathy that could be profound.”

“Heather didn’t know for years that her ability to see people’s feelings and even feel them sometimes was unusual.”

“Heather’s empathy had matured with the rest of her…”

Weiner just lets the superpower fizzle into uselessness as she can’t sense the danger next to her, a malevolence so strong her father can sense it from across the street.

White space. Stylistically, the text floats on a sea of white space. The margins are wider than usual and every paragraph, even those in the same scene have at least three spaces between them.  I’m sure this is supposed to indicate the distance between the characters, but it feels more like a college freshman padding a term paper.

The ending is a pleasant, if unceremonious, surprise. There isn’t enough inner conflict or angst to give the reader a sense of dread on the character’s behalf. Afterward, there are no real consequences. It just comes across as a weird thing that happened one day. And then the book was over.

This was one of the most passive reading experiences I have ever had. No imagining, no guessing, no caring.

Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi, 1974

 

HelterSkelter-01

“It was so quiet…you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.”  Vincent Bugliosi, Helter Skelter.   Image © Alyssa Yerga-Woolwine

Google any crime list with qualifiers like “horrific”, “gruesome” or “terrifying” and the Tate-LaBianca murders of August 1969 probably make the top ten.  Almost fifty years later they remain one of the darkest examples of malevolence and cruelty the American public has seen. In the book Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry offers a dense, fact-heavy account of the murders, arrests and trials for the crimes that brought the decade of free love and optimism to a bloody end.

Helter Skelter, published in 1974, fulfills the Book Originally Published the Year You Were Born challenge (2018 Reading Challenge).  The murders happened a little over five years before I was born. As such, I didn’t learn of Manson and his mayhem until decades later.  By then there was a glamourous infamy that reduced the victims to footnotes and made Manson a star.

Bugliosi recounts his struggle to build a case against Manson and his followers amidst some surprising setbacks—sometimes coming from his own side. Despite the similarities, detectives reject the idea that the cases are connected and treat them separately, refusing to share information. Lost evidence and unfollowed leads plague the investigation.  Bugliosi, through his own interviews and investigations (literally searching for evidence himself) builds the case enough to present to a jury.

As expected with a high profile case this disturbing there’s a lot of information to disseminate and Buglioso does his best to make it accessible. The prose gets mired in details to the point of confusion. Evidence and possible evidence (a pair of unclaimed glasses confounds the investigators), dates, times, locations, alibis, lies, people and their relationship to each other blend together in a hazy mass of data.  The book has 50 pages of black and white photos, many of Manson but also of the victims and the Family, as well as maps and other miscellaneous images. I found myself flipping back and forth to help me keep track of who was who.

The reading becomes sludgy during the guilt trial and worse during sentencing, though it has more to do with the complexity of the case rather than Bugliosi’s straightforward writing. The four defendants—Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten—and obstructionist attorney Irving Kanarek cause so much chaos and disruption it’s hard to stay focused. This continues through the sentencing phase when some of Manson’s followers, now allowed to testify, add alternate motives and theories to the already closed case.

He truly gives readers a seat at the prosecution’s table as he takes us through the tedious seven-month long trail. He explains why certain evidence was introduced while other evidence wasn’t, why certain witnesses were called while others weren’t (he subpoenaed many of the Family members simply to keep them out of the courtroom during the trial).  He relives his doubts about the strength of the case and fears for a world where Manson walks free.

The Family’s self-righteous certainty that the murders were justified chills even the most jaded, demonstrated by the obsessive need to “understand” Manson, his followers and their reasoning. The motive doesn’t matter. The end result is that nine people died because Manson said so.

Thoughts that linger:

Sharon Tate’s unborn baby, posthumously named Paul, would be fifty years old in 2019.

Everyone was so young. The victims and the murderers.

The known victims of Manson and his followers are:

  • Abigail Folger
  • Donald “Shorty” Shea
  • Gary Hinman
  • Jay Sebring
  • Leno LaBianca
  • Rosemary LaBianca
  • Sharon Tate
  • Steven Parent
  • Voytek Frykowski

Bernard Crowe, the only person Manson shot himself, actually survived.

Many believe Manson ordered the murders to start a race war, with the assumption that blacks would be blamed, and whites would retaliate. In truth, the Tate-LaBianca murders were meant to be a blueprint with the hopes that blacks would commit copy-cat murders.