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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Review of The Drop

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of The Drop:

I liked this classic Connelly as I have enjoyed most of the Hieronymous Bosch detective series. on for a few caveats.

The title is a play on multiple plot themes: the suicide of the son of Bosch's earlier nemesis who now sits on the city Council and has become a thorn in the side of the police department; Bosch's ability to continue work as a detective past the normal retirement sequence (called the "drop); and the budding relationship Harry's starts with a Hannah, a psychologist working in a half-way house for sexual predators. This relationship, BTW, seems woefully unnecessary to the rest of the story(ies) and appears to be there for the sole purpose of some Connelly "preaching" -- I use the word advisedly -- with regard to how society treats sexual predators and the roots of evil and Harry seems to do a flip-flop-flip on the issue depending on whether he wants to have Hannah in bed or not.

Connelly likes to show off his knowledge of LAPD police procedure and buildings, which is OK, it brings some verisimilitude to the book, but at times feels like overkill.

There's also a tension between getting the bad guys and doing things by the rules. This is always something the bugs the hell out of me. Many police detective stories rely on the heroes breaking the rules in order to get the bad guys as if they couldn't without doing so. It's the we're-righteous-so-it's-OK syndrome. [spoiler coming] After the suicide/murder investigation has been resolved and Harry and his partner, David, have returned to his original cold case, they finally track down the father of the guy they think is the perp in an old rape case.  Bosch cleverly realizes the guy is not the father but the son.  Then Bosch proceeds to coerce a confession out of the guy and does an illegal search of the next door apartment where the guy says all his trophies are stored.  This, while they are preparing a search warrant (he jumped the warrant) to look for evidence they already know is there and would be totally tainted if the coerced confession were revealed.  This is followed by a sanctimonious lecture on how important it is to follow the rules in order top make sure the guy doesn't get off on a Fourth Amendment violation. The fact is, Bosch has just committed a plethora of legal errors quite willingly and totally unnecessarily.  Once they had the information about the son's impersonation of the father they had more than enough information to get a proper warrant (they can submit requests wirelessly and it would have taken but a few minutes) and search the adjoining condo where all the incriminating evidence was stored, thus eliminating the risk of a tainted prosecution.

Now, if that's the way the LAPD really operates, it's abhorrent and breeds a sense of distrust and dismissal of the very rules the police are enjoined to enforce.

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Review of Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President:

Does anyone really care about James Garfield?  You will after reading this book. Were it not for the Emperor of Brazil would Alexander Bell have been relinquished to the backwater of history? And how ironic that a British Dr. Lister proclaimed knowledge that had it been followed would have saved Garfield's life?

Our reading club decided to read this book for several reasons, perhaps the most important being that Charles Guiteau hailed from Freeport where most of us live. We used to joke it was Freeport's only claim to fame, home of a presidential assassin.  I mean why not?  I can see it now, assassination fairs, Guiteau banners, restoration of his house (it's still there,) and some nifty slogans.  They could even rename the Freeport Pretzels to the Freeport Assassins.

The author narrates dual tracks, following Guiteau and Garfield.  They were so different:  Guiteau the religious fanatic and loser, and Garfield the rather brilliant orator (albeit verbose), successful Civil War general, and abolitionist who really didn't want to be president.  Guiteau bounced from one scheme to another, convinced, especially after his survival from a ship-wreck, that God had special plans for him. He tried evangelical preaching, lawyering ( in the worst sense of the word), and even joined the Oneida Community where he was shunned by most of the members.  They believed in non-monogamous relationships, but the women refused to have anything to do with him, calling him by the nickname, Charles Get-Out.

The recounting of the Republican Convention in 1880 is fascinating. Garfield was not even in the running; he was there to support the nomination of a fellow Ohioan.  But things got out of hand after the first ballot failed to nominate a candidate and by the 35th ballot the delegates were looking for an alternative. Despite his best efforts, the convention nominated him to run with Chester Arthur as his running mate.  How the assassination changed Arthur (another presidential non-entity) and his rejection of Conklin is also quite fascinating.  It wasn't until the assassination of McKinley barely two decades later that focused everyone's attention on presidential security.

Presidential openness and availability has changed drastically. The president remained open  to the public, walking around the streets with little thought given to security, and Guiteau was able to just walk up to him and Blaine, the Secretary of State, in a train station and shoot him. Guiteau felt slighted because he was sure, in his mind, that he had been responsible for Garfield's election and was therefore deserving of a place in the administration, specifically the representative to France. When it was not forthcoming, God called him to eliminate the president.

Garfield would have survived easily had he been some bum on the street who received no medical care.  The bullet had missed all vital organs, but the initial doctor, ignoring all Lister's medical knowledge to the contrary, poked around in the wound with septic bare fingers and the cause of death was out of control septicemia. There was also an unseemly battle for who was to be the "doctor in charge" of the president's care. The winner, Bliss, really screwed up his care. Many soldiers more severely injured in the Civil War had survived just fine. In fact, the policeman who hauled Guiteau off to jail had a bullet still lodged in his skull. The book could have been titled, The Doctor who Killed the President.

For some, the book will be a disappointment as it focuses on Alexander Graham Bell perhaps more than some would wish.  Personally, I like this kind of cultural history/biography mix very much.

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Friday, March 08, 2013

Review of Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia:

What was originally intended to be a meditation on the trial of a Holiness pastor, Glenn Summerford, who was convicted of using snakes to kill his wife morphed into a rather bizarre memoir that follows the spiritual development (?)  or devolution of an erstwhile Methodist to snake-handling Holiness followers in Scottsboro (yes, *that* Scottsboro**) Alabama.  He traces his ancestors back to earlier generations of snake-handlers assuming in a rather Lamarckian fantasy that their fascination with holy rolling is genetic.  He's clearly fascinated by his (and his daughter's) intense physical reaction to the music.  A risk-taker himself, having been a journalist in war-torn Central America, where he had been under fire several times, one cannot help but wonder if putting oneself in danger doesn't have an exceptional appeal to some people.
His original idea was to write a book about these people. The result of is a very interesting cultural essay filled with delightful little tidbits of irrationality:

"She explained what they were, bare trees in rural yards adorned with colored glass bottles. Then I remembered I’d seen them before. I thought they were only decorative. But my neighbor told me spirit trees had a purpose. If you happen to have evil spirits, you put bottles on the branches of a tree in your yard. The more colorful the glass, the better, I suppose. The evil spirits get trapped in the bottles and won’t do you any harm. This is what Southerners in the country do with evil.  But this nonsense -- in the literal sense -- is no different from the recent Pope Benedict's resurrection of the Office of the Exorcist.  (

His discussion of the origins of snake handling reinforces what I have learned elsewhere, i.e. that it represents a rejection and fear of encroaching industrialization with its concomitant societal upheaval.

"Snake handling, for instance, didn’t originate back in the hills somewhere. [A debatable point, I believe.] It started when people came down from the hills to discover they were surrounded by a hostile and spiritually dead culture. All along their border with the modern world — in places like Newport, Tennessee, and Sand Mountain, Alabama — they recoiled. They threw up defenses. When their own resources failed, they called down the Holy Ghost. They put their hands through fire. They drank poison. They took up serpents. They still do. The South hasn’t disappeared. If anything, it’s become more Southern in a last-ditch effort to save itself....Enter the snake handlers, spiritual nomads from the high country that surrounded Scottsboro, from isolated pockets on Sand Mountain and the hollows along South Sauty Creek. They were refugees from a culture on the ropes. They spoke in tongues, anointed one another with oil in order to be healed, and when instructed by the Holy Ghost, drank poison, held fire, and took up poisonous snakes. For them, Scottsboro itself was the wicked, wider world, a place where one might be tempted to “back up on the Lord.” They’d taken the risk, though, out of economic desperation. They had been drawn to Scottsboro by the promise of jobs in the mills that made clothes, carpets, rugs, and tires. Some of them had found work. All of them had found prejudice."

The author finds himself drawn to the emotional excess of the handler "services" and his description of becoming part of the experience, handling a huge timber rattler, is, for him, quite exotic and unsettling. But his rational side also admits to being drawn to danger. He describes the experience this way: "It occurred to me then that seeing a handler in the ecstasy of an anointing is not like seeing religious ecstasy at all. The expression seems to have more to do with Eros than with God, in the same way that sex often seems to have more to do with death than with pleasure. The similarity is more than coincidence, I thought. In both sexual and religious ecstasy, the first thing that goes is self. The entrance into ecstasy is surrender.
Handlers talk about receiving the Holy Ghost. But when the Holy Ghost is fully come upon someone like Gracie McAllister, the expression on her face reads exactly the opposite — as though someone, or something, were being violently taken away from her. The paradox of Christianity, one of many of which Jesus speaks, is that only in losing ourselves do we find ourselves, and perhaps that’s why photos of the handlers so often seem to be portraits of loss."

One is tempted to look for a rational reason why the snakes don't bite more often, but the fact remains they bite all the time and deaths from snakebite are disproportionately large compared to those in the general population.  Handling is clearly stressful for the snakes who rarely live out a season whereas they can survive for several decades in the wild. Often the snakes will die while being handled.  They are certainly untameable and contrary to popular opinion one does not attain a certain immunity to snake venom after multiple bites.  To the contrary, one is more likely to develop an allergic sensitivity.

My rational side recoils from the unfathomable need of these people to lose themselves in what is clearly something very precious and moving.  Having read three different accounts of snake handling (not to mention strychnine-drinking), I remain baffled but fascinated.