Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession by Rachel Monroe

A powerful, well-researched inquiry into why we find violent crime so fascinating, viewed through the stories of detective, victim, defender and killer.

Rachel Monroe has been “murder minded” since childhood, part of an overwhelmingly female demographic that consumes true-crime books, podcasts and television shows. It’s an obsession that makes her a little uncomfortable. She develops a theory: “Perhaps we liked creepy stories because something creepy was in us.” Monroe’s first book, Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, explores these interests through four case studies: detective, victim, defender and killer.

Frances Glessner Lee chafed at the limits placed on her by 1890s high-society gender norms. Barred from attending college, she became an expert on early forensic studies and built the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, miniature houses (fully functional, furnished and wired) portraying crime scenes. The Nutshells are still studied today: they are on display in Baltimore in the medical examiner’s office.

Twenty-one years after the Tate murders, Alisa Statman moved into the garage apartment at the former Tate-Polanski residence. She avidly studied the case and befriended Patti, Sharon Tate’s youngest sister. The two lived together and claimed domestic partnership. By the time of Patti’s death, Statman was telling a very public story of Tate family tragedy that included herself, but all but erased Debra, the middle Tate sister.

The West Memphis Three were teenaged boys wrongfully convicted of murder because they were social outcasts. Their story, and one of them in particular, caught the attention of Lorri Davis, who moved cross-country and devoted her life to freeing him from death row; they are now married.

As an awkward teenager, Lindsay Souvannarath nursed a growing interest in mass murder. At 22, she met her match in a young man with a plan. He got the guns and she chose her outfit, but by the time she arrived, the cops were on to them. “I had a skull mask I was going to wear, and he had his scream mask. We would’ve looked perfect.” Her accomplice killed himself, and Lindsay is currently serving life in prison for their plans.

These case studies, exploring the archetypes that structure our thinking about crime, are intercut with stories of Monroe’s own life, her own guilty obsessions and research. Each story receives intelligent context: the “tough on crime” crackdown in the wake of the Tate murders; the panic over imagined satanic sacrifices that drove the conviction of the West Memphis Three; the fangirls who call themselves Columbiners and swoon over school shooters. She references Harriet the Spy, Ayn Rand, the Oxygen true crime television channel and a multitude of serial killers.

Monroe attends CrimeCon and Souvannarath’s sentencing hearing, giving herself nightmares, and ultimately mines her personal experience of true-crime obsession to question the appeal of violent crime. Is it possible that within each of us resides detective, victim, defender and even some version of killer? Savage Appetites is a chilling, compelling examination of the darkness in us all. This is obviously a book for true-crime fans, as well as anyone interested in human nature.


This review originally ran in the July 18, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 Tumblr posts.

Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth

Disclosure: I was sent an advanced copy of this book in exchange for my honest review, because I was a preexisting Kingsnorth fan.


If I read nothing for a year and if I wrote nothing for a year, would I, could I, begin to clear away the scaffolding which language, written language, conceptual, abstract language, has built up around my poor right brain? Could I fend off the assault which logic, reason, empiricism, analysis has been raining on my inner poet all my adult life? Could I silence the watcher? Could I split the gauze?

(I would quote the entire first two pages to you if I could.)

Savage Gods is a raw piece of questioning nonfiction, an honest and open view into the soul of a writer at a loss for words and mission. Paul Kingsnorth has moved with his family to a home in rural Ireland, where he hopes to finally feel at home in a place, to finally belong. This plan has failed, and he is compelled to contemplate all the ways in which plans fail, and people–especially writers–especially Paul–fail to fit in, even when they think that’s what they really want. This wandering, seeking style of writing is one I especially love, and my feeling of kinship for Kingsnorth made it especially poignant to read these struggles. Also, let it be said that although he feels his words abandoning him, he’s written another remarkably articulate, lovely, moving book.

Kingsnorth pulls in the outside voices of D. H. Lawrence, Annie Dillard, Milan Kundera, a mythologist from Botswana named Colin Campbell, a Zen teacher named Charlotte Joko Beck, poets R. S. Thomas and W. S. Graham, cultural ecologist David Abram, American Indian activist Russell Means, Mark Boyle*, Bruce Springsteen, gods Loki and Buddha and Freya, and many, many more. He spends time with the tension between poets Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh, which serves as metaphor for a tension within himself. “My inner Kavanagh is bloody-minded and self-destructive. It wants to strip away the world’s delusions and my own, detach from all notions, be joyful, have fun and do good work and screw the rest. My inner Yeats wants to go hunting for wandering Aengus in the Burren at dusk, prefers the inner flame to the outer ashes and is constantly disappointed that his imagined world is nothing like the real one.” I love the recruitment of other voices, all of these in conversation with Kingsnorth’s fine, inquiring, discerning mind, but it is still his voice that sits center stage.

Having moved to a small rural holding in Ireland, Kingsnorth thought he knew what he was doing, thought he was moving in the direction of his goals: to settle, to be rooted, to be self-sufficient, to be involved with the land, “to be closer to nature and further from the Machine,” to learn new skills, to be the best parent possible, and to write “truer books than I had ever written before.” Instead, he finds his relationship with the thing he does best–words, language, writing–troubled. He worries if language is not in fact part of the problem.

I would love to have access to a searchable electronic version of this book, and some statistics, because I suspect there are far more (literal) question marks in this than in most nonfiction books of similar length. (Not long, scarcely over 100 pages.) The narrator is constantly questioning; the mood of the book is best described as lost. Here, I took a short survey for you from over several pages:

But lessons don’t work like that, do they?… Can you have a concrete cottage?… I knew this, so why didn’t I know it?… What does that incident carry for me?… What would that be like? And could I have it?… What does a writer do when his words stop working?… Can you write from silence?

This is one of those wonderful works of nonfiction in which basically nothing happens but still it leaves my head spinning for days. It’s a beautiful, all-encompassing book, and it captures quite well the sense of nihilism and despair that can come of considering the state of our world; but it captures as well the thrush’s song, which is both joy and pressure: “My kids would just have heard him, reacted, and moved on, but I stood there listening rapt while, at the same time, berating myself for not having the kind of spontaneous experience of the thrush’s song that I wanted to have and I felt I ought to be able to have, especially if I was going to write books with thrushes’ songs in them.” I feel it deeply. I will follow this writer anywhere; I hope he is able to keep working, keep “wrangling that beast and then going down to make dinner for the kids.”


Rating: 8 red-tailed bumbles.

*Boyle wrote in The Way Home of meeting Paul at the pub for conversations of significance, and Paul reciprocates here, which I find strangely thrilling.

Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South by M. Randal O’Wain

Disclosure: Matt O’Wain is a visiting faculty member at my MFA program and a friend.


I was the son who left, after all, the boy who packed a bag and tramped back and forth across the country in place of stability, but what grounded my wanderlust was the belief that I was never too far from my childhood home, my loving parents. And though I had no right to lament the loss of [that childhood home], the act of boxing it all up or throwing it all out or driving it to Goodwill made me keenly aware that the home I’d been fleeing was the very foundation that allowed me to run.

M. Randal O’Wain’s first book is the essay collection Meander Belt, subtitled “Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South.” But to me, it is at least as much about home, the competing human urges to settle and to flee, and a sense of belonging.

I said the competing human urges; but within this narrator, the clear winner is the urge to run. O’Wain is originally from Memphis, where his father Chris works as a carpenter and his mother Linda collects the detritus of other lives off curbs. She is a survivor of childhood polio, and sensitive about her distinctive gait. He is a man who values hard work, preferably the manual kind, and while he loves his sensitive younger son, he doesn’t understand him. Matt (as the young narrator is called) doesn’t see a place for himself in the world he’s born into. He idolizes his father, and his older brother, also named Chris, who follows neatly in the older man’s footsteps and fits into his value system: goes to work as a mechanic, steadily builds toward a home and a family, falls asleep alongside their father in front of the television in the evenings. But Matt, from a young age, feels driven to run. At sixteen, he runs away to Montreal; at eighteen, he moves with his band to Olympia, Washington. He has just moved to Oakland, California when his father dies. He has just (finally, improbably) settled down in southern West Virginia when his brother dies.

These are the losses that give Meander Belt its subtitle, and offer the essay collection a certain shape, but I don’t feel they define it. This is a mostly-chronologic memoir-in-essays, and it ranges beyond family and beyond home. The opening essay is an inspired choice: “Mirrored Mezzanine” briefly, beautifully shows the love of a young child for his father, whom he does not understand. “The Junk Trade” explores trauma, sex, and work. With “Thirteenth Street and Failing,” O’Wain considers death. In “Halfway Between,” he recognizes the importance of place and what we lose in the compromise that is growing up. “Memento Mori Part One” (of three) takes up nearly a third of the book; the other seventeen essays vary in length but none compare to this, the long story of a father’s decline and death. Subtitled “Calls in the Night,” one of the movements it charts is ironically a growing closeness between father and the son who moved away.

After three mementos mori, the collection sees O’Wain’s adult life settle in some ways, and several essays tend to sum up, where many earlier essays stuck more closely to narrative storytelling. The essays marking brother Chris’s death, and a new love with Mesha Maren (she of Sugar Run), fit this more expository model. This is not a criticism, though; as the subtitle promised, coming-of-age is the book’s work, and it feels appropriate to see O’Wain’s later years laid out only in service to the whole, if that makes sense. Also, let me note that the essays take various forms throughout; some are segmented with numbered sections, and “How to Walk as a Nontraditional Graduate” uses the second person.

I appreciate these essays because they are both narrative and essayistic, meaning that they search, seek, question, assay. I trust the narrator because he is so honest about his confusion, the ways in which he’s lost in the world, the ways he is surprised by life. This is a narrative voice with a grasp of the difference between the man or boy these events happened to and the writer telling them now, but even now, he doesn’t claim to know all the answers. I also appreciate a writer equally pleased to bring in the voices of Virginia Woolf, DC Comics, and Leonard Cohen to help him see his own life. These reference points serve as cultural markers but also as conversationalists as O’Wain interrogates the past.

I’m very pleased I got to read an advanced copy of this collection, which will be published October 1; look for my interview with O’Wain coming up at Shelf Awareness (and eventually here as well). Meander Belt is thoughtful, brave, and unflinching, and I think it’s a book for every reader who cares about real lives, whether they have much in common with O’Wain’s background or not.

Preorder here.


Rating: 8 cigarettes.

Amazing Racers: The Story of America’s Greatest Running Team and its Revolutionary Coach by Marc Bloom

When a little-known high school cross-country team inexplicably explodes into national domination, a journalist asks why, and uncovers a coach and kids both amazing and remarkably ordinary.

Marc Bloom (Run with the Champions) was as astounded as anyone when the boys’ cross-country team from Fayetteville-Manlius High School, in upstate Manlius, N.Y., demolished the competition, including the far-and-away favorites, at a major regional race in 2004. Bloom followed F-M for more than a decade as it continued to dominate their sport. Like coaches, runners and fans everywhere, Bloom wondered: What are they doing up there in Manlius? In Amazing Racers: The Story of America’s Greatest Running Team and Its Revolutionary Coach, he examines the student athletes and their coach, Bill Aris, offering an answer to that question, if not a prescription to follow in their very fast footsteps.

A dogged marathoner and cross-country coach, Aris studied the methods of New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard, as well as philosophies from the ancient Greeks and classic rock-and-roll. But it was iconoclastic Australian coach Percy Cerutty who gave Aris his guiding philosophy: a lifestyle Cerutty dubbed Stotan, from a blending of stoic and Spartan. Stotan training is the surprisingly straightforward key to F-M’s astonishing success: clean eating, good sleep, hard work; an emphasis on teamwork, humility, harmony with nature and mind-body connection. F-M’s prodigies are “regular” kids, their accomplishments born not of technology or special talent but hard training, inspired by and devoted to their coach. In pep talks, Aris might make references to Jim Morrison or Churchill alongside Aristotle, Cerutty or the brilliant Australian miler Herb Elliott. His athletes sometimes tease him, sometimes compare him with God. And, indeed, Aris’s coaching style and super-close-knit team can feel a little cultish at times–at least to those of us on the outside.

Also exceptional is Aris’s approach to gender in sport: he ignores it. F-M’s girls undergo the exact same training, lifestyle expectations, radical honesty and tough love: “We’re not boys or girls. We’re athletes.” In 13 appearances at the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN), F-M’s girls won 11 championships, rounded out by second- and fourth-place finishes. The boys won eight top-five finishes in the same 13 years. F-M is the only team in the country to qualify for NXN every year since the race began. Beyond their athletic performances, these high school students exude calm and maturity when discussing selfless race tactics and the importance of clean living.

Amazing Racers is an inspiring illumination of a sensational team. Bloom’s consistent and sincerely awestruck tone drives home just how special this story is, celebrating both the dedicated young athletes and their leader. His close reading of races, often called in heart-racing play-by-plays, is supplemented by research in sports physiology and psychology, and the history of cross-country racing. This book is thorough in its studies as well as its praise. While readers looking for the secret to victory may be disappointed–the prescription is, basically, just hard work–there is much to inspire everyone from the armchair racer to the elite athlete in this heartfelt biography of running royalty.


This review originally ran in the July 15, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 peanut-butter sandwiches on whole wheat.

I Heart Oklahoma! by Roy Scranton

Legendary teenaged serial killers, the era of Trump and three dysfunctional artists combine in a phantasmagoric road trip across the United States in this strange, lively novel.

Roy Scranton (Learning to Die in the Anthropocene) flings an exceptionally odd, of-the-moment novel at Trump’s America with I Heart Oklahoma!, a fever-dream road trip featuring three shapeshifting central characters. Jim is a nonconformist bad-boy filmmaker out to record contemporary Americana with the help of his regular cameraperson, Remy. He hires Suzie to write his script, two pages a day as they drive the country in a lime-green 1971 Plymouth: “You could cram a Girl Scout troop in that trunk,” Jim brags, and only a few pages into his story, the reader believes he just might. Suzie is skeptical of the whole thing, and pretty repelled by Jim personally, but she needs the money, and wasn’t doing much else with her New York City apartment but feeding Steve the Cat. “She doesn’t take reality as it comes, but pumps it through a machine in her head that spits it out as stories she can control.” She sublets, and the eccentric threesome hits the road.

Early on, the novel reads as a coherent story: tensions hover at barely manageable levels between the prickly, offensive Jim, impatient Suzie and Remy, who aims to please and therefore displeases Suzie, who wants an ally against their shared boss, and maybe wants to sleep with Remy. Sex and violence are constant undercurrents in the Plymouth as in the country and culture they navigate, making fun and satirizing, for example in a memorable scene starring Suzie in a wedding dress moving in slow motion through the Oklahoma City bombing memorial. After one member of the team abandons the others, the narrative turns decidedly hallucinatory. The main characters morph into simulacra named Jack, Jane and Jesse (and eventually Jesse II), with Remy/Jesse’s pronouns turning gender-neutral. They are joined by Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Caitlyn Jenner, Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Trump and others. Among the book’s recurring cultural reference points are Caril Ann Fugate and Charlie Starkweather (who inspired Natural Born Killers).

Under the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, Tom Waits, Walt Whitman and others (according to his acknowledgements), Scranton loops and wheels through states of varying lucidity, sometimes employing a stream-of-consciousness prose style and sometimes more straightforward storytelling. “Bleach sun shuddering humid over endless yellow-sprouting cornfields, low green rows of soy, off-white box architecture, strip malls and highways, highways and parking lots, parking lots brilliant with the shine of two hundred sixty million gas-powered combustion-engine personal-transit devices….” This novel of sex, violence, apathy, despair and art offers a bizarre, lightning-paced excursion through the present. For those readers on board with its wild, winding style, I Heart Oklahoma! incisively parodies a weird time to be alive.


This review originally ran in the July 12, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 4 seemingly drug-addled meanderings.

(Not for me personally.)

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City by Anna Sherman

These lovely, understated ruminations on time and Tokyo will please those interested in Japanese culture, language or history–or lovers of any city, anywhere.

The Bells of Old Tokyo: Meditations on Time and a City is Anna Sherman’s exploration of a city that is not originally her own, but her perspective is perhaps all the more closely attentive, thoughtful and serious. Through Tokyo’s Bells of Time, which rang out the hours for hundreds of years, Sherman examines many aspects of both city and time. Her prose is careful, contemplative, even solemn. The result is philosophy, travel writing, elegy and love letter.

“Tokyo is one vast timepiece,” begins Sherman. “Time is counted out in incense sticks; in LEDs; and in atomic lattice clocks,” and in so many other ways she will consider. Time is ignored, too, in this city where residents “have their eyes fixed on the future, and are impatient when a word is said of their past.” Sherman never states the reasons for her preoccupation with time, clocks and Tokyo’s past, but her book thrums with it. She views the first Bell of Time, at a former prison at Nihonbashi, and the smallest, in Akasaka; seeks the lost bell of Mejiro; meets the man who rings the bell at Ueno; and visits a widow surrounded by “an island of old clocks” in Nezu. She also consults with numerous sources, modern and ancient, and studies the Japanese language and its translations. This is a narrator deeply immersed and committed to her subject; Sherman’s bibliography and notes are extensive for such a slim book.

A point of stillness at the center is a special coffee shop where Sherman makes a friend. “Tokyo is a restless city, where everything changes and shifts, but not Daibo Coffee.” Daibo is the one character she returns to, and his influence is felt in her love for the city and in her questions.

“[Author and composer] Yoshimura believed that a temple bell’s sound was as much about silence as about its ringing.” Sherman’s writing similarly respects white space as much as it does words: her approach is lyric and minimalist, and respectful of the culture she studies. An American living in Japan, she is sensitive to her outsider status, as when writing about the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo: “Growing up, I was part of the old soldiers’ we. I had never thought about what we had done to them.” She is present for the 2011 earthquake and Fukushima reactor explosions that followed, and her writing about these events is spare: “I bought tickets… I wanted to see Daibo… I said nothing.” At times, Sherman slides into prose poetry. “Mirrors and clocks in love hotels and the time they tell, the translucent sheeting over building sites, the streetlamps, the slopes, the signs I can read and the ones I can’t.”

The Bells of Old Tokyo is an elegant series of musings, a beautifully written evocation of a place and a philosophical inquiry into the nature of time itself. Sherman has given the world, and one city in particular, an astonishing gift.


This review originally ran in the July 9, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 bowls of green tea.

The Asylum by John Harwood (audio)

This is a Victorian gothic mystery/psych thriller, and how it ended up in my iPod is another mystery which I cannot explain. I hit ‘play’ on it on a whim, and listened to the tracks from disc 1 and then there were no more. I was involved enough that I then went and paid for the audiobook (which I never do), and now I’m left unsatisfied with my purchase.

Georgina Ferrars wakes up in an asylum (a madhouse, she surmises, although the doctor in charge demurs at the term), with no memory of the past several weeks. She’s told she checked in under the name Lucy Ashton; her L.A.-monogrammed valise supports that claim. When Dr. Straker telegrams her uncle, the reply comes immediately: Georgina Ferrars is here at home. Your patient is an imposter.

It’s an engaging enough opening, and what unfolds from here continues to intrigue. It seems Miss Ferrars has a double, a new friend (or long-lost something-or-other?) named Lucia Ardent (note the initials), and the two look just alike. The question now is which is whom? Miss Ferrars is missing her two prized possessions: a dragonfly brooch that was a gift from her father to her mother; and a writing case, with her journal inside. If that journal could only be found, we might learn what happened in the missing weeks…

Solid plot so far, then. I found it a little bit exasperating to listen to the distraught young lady who (how Victorian) is wont to become faint at every shock, but okay, it’s part of the period setting. When the diary is located, we start learning more about the Ferrars/Ardent/Ashton history; here connections and plot lines get increasingly twisted, and I’m afraid Harwood got his threads a little entangled. There is a major reveal that just did not follow for me – I didn’t see how we made the logical leap – and, because I was listening to the audiobook while driving, I wonder if it was my fault, if I just missed a crucial moment. But I did go back and re-listen to some parts. And, too, a number of other readers on Goodreads were left confused as well. I’m inclined to think that if a larger portion of your readership missed something, maybe it’s on the writer and not the readers. (I have experienced this as a writer – I put the fact in, but everybody missed it – and even though I put the fact in, if they all missed it, I didn’t do my job properly.)

At any rate, the final third or so of the book – the protracted denouement – was far less compelling, and less believable, than what came before. Our heroine is alternately the fainting Victorian weakly woman, and a surprisingly scrappy, clever one; these quick shifts back and forth and back again did not ring true. The quickly complicating plot threads got too incredible for me. The final action scene, followed by the final proposal and answer, topped out the ridiculousness; it was a major letdown. Oh, and – spoilers in white text here; highlight to read – there’s a lesbian incest thread, for good measure.

Full credit for that first disc’s worth of tracks pulling me in; and more than half the book kept me engaged. After that, I was just hanging on out of increasingly incredulous curiosity about how this silliness would wrap up. Not particularly recommended. As I learned on Goodreads, Harwood has his fans, and some of them loved this book; some would recommend others of his over this one. I won’t be trying him again, but you’re welcome to.


Rating: 6 windows.
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