The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo

A dramatically told history of murder, madness and urban growing pains.

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In The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer, Roseanne Montillo (The Lady and Her Monsters) concentrates on a gripping era of Boston’s history. In the late 1800s, a series of seemingly unrelated events are her focus: the Great Fire of 1872, which broke out despite the efforts of a fire chief who saw dangers parallel to Chicago’s Great Fire the previous year; the literary work of Herman Melville, who was increasingly fascinated by the concept of insanity; and, at the heart of this book, the crimes and incarceration of a boy named Jesse Harding Pomeroy.

Montillo follows Pomeroy’s childhood, his early crimes of torture against younger boys and the murders of two small children for which he would be convicted, in a burned-out city struggling with modernization and increasing class divisions. Throughout the investigation and trial, Pomeroy exhibits characteristics that would later have termed him a psychopath, and his lawyers’ attempt to plead insanity is part of the early establishment of precedent in such cases. Meanwhile, Melville experiments in his literature with the labels of monomania and moral insanity, and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes applies his medical expertise to the possible role of sensational dime novels in Pomeroy’s crimes, and weighs in on the question of executing the boy, who was 14 years old at the time of his conviction. Using detailed research, Montillo braids together these cross-disciplinary subjects–urban development and class, fire and murder, the definition of insanity and the standards of judicial punishment–into a story that has the momentum of a thriller.


This review originally ran in the March 31, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 piles of ashes.

The Wild Party by Joseph Moncure March, illustrated by Art Spiegelman

What?! I found time to read a book just ’cause I wanted to? I know! It was amazing. I’ve read a lot of truly astonishing good books this year that I got assigned to read; but there’s nothing like choosing one myself.

wild partyIt was from MetaMaus that I first learned about this slim book, and it is worth tracking down, friends. The Wild Party is a book-length story-poem originally published in 1928 but banned far and wide for its explicit content. (Tame by our standards today: there are references to sex and a fistfight or two. And lots of booze.) It is the narrative of a party, in the jazzy, profligate 1920’s. Queenie and Burrs live together, but their relationship does not run smoothly; in the opening stanzas they threaten each other’s lives, and then make a very tentative peace by deciding to throw a party that night. Everybody comes: and the descriptions of their guests are lovely, vivid, ghoulish and grand. The party itself does not run smoothly, either. It is a great orgy of drink, music, betrayals and sex. It’s awesome.

I loved Art Spiegelman’s introduction, in which he points out that he doesn’t normally do poetry (thus reassuring the rest of us, likewise). William S. Burroughs gave confirmatory acclaim to March’s work by reciting a good portion to Spiegelman at their first meeting. And of course I loved Spiegelman’s illustrations of the poem, which conform perfectly to March’s words. There’s nothing like a literary work that is evocative of pictures… unless it is those pictures also perfectly composed.

A quick read of, I don’t know, under two hours, this narrative poem takes the reader on a wild ride, and Spiegelman paints it beautifully. Do check it out.


Rating: 8 unnamed drinks.

Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin

The pile of boxes dwindled at the bottom of the stairs and grew at the top. Ten boxes left, then four, then one, and I realized I should not have left the two bags of cement for last. I climbed eight hundred and ten stairs that day, hauled up nine hundred ninety-five pounds, nearly half a ton. The feeling that resulted from the effort, the satisfaction, was so different from the one I knew putting a final period on a book review or a profile on deadline.

The journey of a journalist-turned-carpenter, a woman in a man’s world, both thoughtful and spirited.

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Nina MacLaughlin studied English and Classics in college, and went on to work for a Boston newspaper. She spent her 20’s there, increasingly frustrated by pointing and clicking and sinking into her desk chair, so she walked away, unsure of what was next, until she spotted an ad for a carpenter’s assistant: “Women strongly encouraged to apply.” MacLaughlin relates the journey offered by that opportunity in Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.

MacLaughlin’s new boss, Mary, describes herself as a “journeyman-level carpenter and a slightly better tiler.” MacLaughlin doesn’t know what these words mean, but brings her strength, work ethic and quickness to learn, and finds an unexpectedly rewarding new life working with her hands: “The feeling that resulted from the effort, the satisfaction, was so different from the one I knew putting a final period on a book review or a profile on deadline.” She documents years spent learning and working in a male-dominated field, occasionally seasoned with observations referencing poets and ancients, but mostly living and reveling in the tangible: calluses, sinews, wood and sweat. That interplay of the physical and the intellectual centers this book, which is itself both intelligent and well-muscled, hardy and poetical.

Organized by tools that represent qualities of character, Hammer Head is unsurprisingly beautifully written, and well supported in both its structural and its cerebral elements. MacLaughlin’s voice is wise and playful, wondering and astute, and Mary is a marvelous character, levelheaded and non-demonstrative. The result is a charming, thought-provoking, utterly lovely ode to work and life and learning.


This review originally ran in the March 24, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: measure 9 times.

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis by Keija Parssinen

A lovely, thoughtful, disquieting story of the effects of small-town pressures on a remarkable young woman.

unraveling

Keija Parssinen’s (The Ruins of Us) The Unraveling of Mercy Louis depicts a young woman’s coming-of-age in small town peopled by complex, conflicted, ultimately sympathetic characters.

Port Sabine is a refinery town on the Texas Gulf Coast, depressed and parochial, built around oil, secrets and religion. Mercy Louis lives with her grandmother Maw Maw, a radical evangelical who prophesies the end of the world will come in Mercy’s senior year. A basketball prodigy, Mercy needs this senior year to show the scouts that she’s worth the investment, so she can go to college if Maw Maw is wrong. A discovery in a dumpster throws the town into upheaval and witch-hunting, even as Mercy begins to explore the secrets of her own past as well as the possibilities of her future.

The cast of characters includes Mercy’s best friend, Annie, riotously rebellious and rich; Mercy’s mother, absent until a mysterious letter arrives; and Illa, the manager of the basketball team and a hopeful sports photographer with troubles of her own, fixated upon Mercy in her camera’s lens. A new boy in Mercy’s life–the first–threatens to upturn her delicate balance: obedience to Maw Maw and the church, and the poetry she makes on the basketball court.

Although this is clearly Mercy’s story, many of these characters captivate and capture the imagination; Parssinen’s gift is in rendering the essences of both people and place. The Unraveling is suspenseful and disturbing, compassionate and tender, a thought-provoking experience for anyone who’s ever been young and wondered about the past, and the future.


This review originally ran in the March 20, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 points.

Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss

A perceptive, sensitive history of both basketball and desegregation in the late 1960s.

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Perry Wallace, Jr., was a quiet, respectful student from Nashville, Tenn., who excelled at school (especially in math and science), at playing the trumpet and on the basketball court. Though not a natural leader or revolutionary, when recruited by schools across the nation, he reluctantly “made the decision to attend Vanderbilt University not because of the fact that he would be a trailblazer, but in spite of it.” When he enrolled in 1966, Wallace became the first African American to play in the Southeastern Conference, thus desegregating Deep South athletics. At Vanderbilt, he played in the same gym where Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, Jr., participated in a speakers’ symposium during Wallace’s freshman year.

In his four years at “the Harvard of the South,” Wallace was harassed, spat upon, called names and assaulted on the court in a series of “fouls” that went uncalled. (His coach told him to “learn to duck.”) The away games in Mississippi were the worst, but even at Vanderbilt his classmates publicly ignored him, yet still cheered him on the court and furtively asked for his help with their homework.

Andrew Maraniss’s Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South deftly reveals the nuances of Wallace’s childhood, early education, groundbreaking career of torments and triumphs at Vanderbilt and the exceptional, well-rounded life that followed. A Vanderbilt alumnus, Maraniss shows great compassion and insight with a detailed narrative that is both broad and deep, covering the civil rights movement and college basketball with equal authority. Wallace’s story is powerfully moving and deservedly, beautifully told.


This review originally ran in the March 17, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 fouls not called.

Call Me Home by Megan Kruse

A family story, in multiple voices, of pain and love and the journey to safety.

call me home

In her debut novel Call Me Home, Megan Kruse undertakes sprawling topics including guilt, sex, domestic violence and the complicated love of siblings, parents, children and lovers, in settings across the United States. These ambitious themes and clearly wrought characters are gorgeously rendered in feeling prose.

Amy moved from small-town Texas to small-town Washington state as an 18-year-old newlywed, before he began to beat her. The action of Call Me Home begins years later, alternatingly told in the third-person perspectives of Amy and her son Jackson, and first person by Jackson’s little sister Lydia. Amy tries to leave with her children, repeatedly, but to permanently escape her abusive husband she has to choose just one child to save. Eighteen-year-old Jackson finds himself on the streets of Portland, Oregon before taking work on a construction crew in Idaho. Amy and Lydia hide out at a shelter in New Mexico, then find their way to Amy’s hometown, where 13-year-old Lydia meets her grandmother for the first time. Flashbacks throughout the narrative also portray Amy’s marriage and abuse and the children’s early lives.

Call Me Home offers lovely descriptions of natural settings in Washington, Idaho and Texas, but central are the powerful themes and ugly realities of domestic violence, Jackson’s challenges as a gay teen navigating unfamiliar streets and country, and the shared and unique traumas of Amy, Lydia and Jackson. Kruse’s evocative, often lyrical language serves her subjects well, so that what results is not unleavened pain but painful beauty, even hope.


This review originally ran in the March 10, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 garbage bags.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

A companion to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and every bit as affecting, sweet and sad.

love song

Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry won many fans with its bumbling but likable protagonist and his improbable journey across England and through his own troubled life. Harold appears off-screen in The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey, in which Queenie replies to the postcards he sent her in Pilgrimage. Readers will be delighted to rediscover the action of the first book, from a very different perspective and with considerable added detail on Queenie’s side. Those considering Pilgrimage should definitely start there, as Love Song comprises one big spoiler. However, it’s not necessary to have read the first to enjoy this second novel.

Love Song begins when Queenie receives Harold’s first postcard. She has written to him from hospice care, sharing the news of her impending death. Harold sets out to visit, asking her to await his arrival. Queenie is startled and alarmed. She has kept an old secret from Harold that she had intended to take with her; she now decides she needs to come clean.

Joyce alternates among three timelines: in real time, as Queenie waits for Harold while composing a long letter of explanation; their separation 20 years ago, when she fled life’s complications; and their original meeting and developing friendship. While the present-day setting is inarguably dour, the action in all three stories is fresh, compelling and deeply emotional, and Queenie’s fellow residents create a charming little world of their own. Just as in Pilgrimage, a major revelation at the end amplifies the impact of an already powerful book.


This review originally ran in the March 10, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 painted nails.
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