The Boston Massacre

The Boston Massacre by Hiller B. Zobel

publication date: 1970
pages (including back matter): 372
SBN: 393-05376-8

As we all learned in school, the subject of this book, the Boston Massacre, occurred when several British soldiers supposedly gunned down unsuspecting and unarmed citizens of Boston, adding another spark to the Revolutionary fire.

Zobel would disagree with that well-known, simplistic, and inaccurate telling. In The Boston Massacre, Zobel took an objective and research-based look at the years leading up to what we now call a “massacre,” the event itself, and the subsequent infamous trials against the British soldiers, who were defended by John Adams himself. Zobel’s motivation seemed to be simply illuminating the causes and effects of the Boston Massacre, both in America and abroad. Beyond that, any theme he attempted to convey revolved around the mythological significance the Boston Massacre has in our collective American history and, further, the dubiousness of that mythology considering the prolonged harassment of the British soldiers in the Colonies and the lack of solid facts surrounding what actually happened the night of the massacre. In Zobel’s own words:

[I]t seems fitting that an event so historically inevitable and yet so basically insignificant should have taken place on a moonlit night, before scores of people, without leaving any two witnesses able to give the same account of what happened.

Although I found the subject matter interesting and Zobel was clearly passionate about this aspect of American history, the book was dull. Especially tiresome was the first half, containing the years leading up to the Boston Massacre. Zobel included excessive detail, like this discussion of British troops first landing in Boston:

The sergeants, too, wore silver-laced hats and swords. Their sashes were crimson and buff or (for the Twenty-ninth) crimson and yellow; they carried long-shafted ornamental battle axes called halberds.

Do I really need all that information? Further confusing things, Zobel assumed knowledge about 1760s New England that I didn’t have. Nonetheless, I would much prefer Zobel’s zealous attention to fact and detail than read through a nonfiction book full of exaggerations, opinions, and invective. (Under the Banner of Heaven, as an example.)

This book was recommended to me as a particularly relevant historical account, considering all the gun violence on civilians recently in the news. As I was reading, I was struck by the slowness and hesitation people of that time seemed to have concerning discharging any gun, including the British soldiers who were taunted and harassed for months and then mobbed for hours the night of the massacre before firing a single shot. This is in contrast to media reports today, where George Zimmerman can legally fatally shoot a teenager without so much as a quarrel. However, was the past any different than today, considering the fact that the soldiers involved in the massacre, much like Zimmerman, were found not guilty of murder?

Whether The Boston Massacre has relevance to today, it is a useful historical account of a storied part of our history.

4/6: worth reading

I couldn’t find any lengthy reviews of this book online, but there are a few more summary reviews:

Amazon
goodreads

A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

publication date: 1980
pages: 405
ISBN: 0-8071-0657-7

Writing the review for this book was difficult: I understand why A Confederacy of Dunces, an absurd New Orleans version of Catch-22 with a little scatological James Joyce thrown in, is lauded and highly-praised; however, I did not care for it.

A Confederacy of Dunces introduces us to Ignatius Reilly, a pretentious, bumbling, philosophizing, arrogant sophist. Nearly everything about Reilly, from his explicitly gaseous constitution to his disdain for modern humanity, made me vaguely uneasy. A passage illustrating this is Ignatius’s reaction to his mother’s command that he get a job:

Ignatius was beginning to feel worse and worse. His [pyloric] valve seemed to be glued, and no amount of bouncing was opening it. Great belches ripped out of gas pockets of his stomach and tore through his digestive tract. Some escaped noisily. Others, weaning belches, lodged in his chest and caused massive heartburn.

The physical cause for this health decline was, he knew, the too strenuous consuming of Paradise [hotdogs]. But there were other, subtler reasons. His mother was becoming increasingly bold and overtly antagonistic; it was becoming impossible to control her.

Reilly was foolish, mean-spirited, high-handed, selfish, paranoid, and a host of other undesirable qualities. I wasn’t only revolted by Reilly, however. There were times when I pitied him, and even times when I found him enlightening. Reilly’s statements to his mother when she suggested he be put in a mental hospital demonstrate this:

“Do you think I have a problem?” Ignatius bellowed. “The only problem that [mental patients] have anyway is that they don’t like new cars and hair sprays. That’s why they are put away. They make the other members of society fearful. Every asylum in this nation is filled with poor souls who simply cannot stand lanolin, cellophane, plastic, television, and subdivisions.”

Moments like these, when I somewhat agreed with Reilly were bewildering because he really was a terrible person. He lied, got people fired, subjugated women, and betrayed any friends he had. Further, beyond any accurate or profound comments Reilly made he was hard to hate because I always thought of him as less of a villain and more of a mirror. It is easy to imagine any of us becoming Ignatius Reilly.

Notwithstanding the dislike or unease I felt toward the protagonist, the greatest sin of the book was its tedium. Because the book was basically just absurd characters bouncing into other absurd characters, I didn’t really care about anything that was happening. This often made it a slog to read.

However, I understand why it is a classic. It provided a detailed and uncompromising portrait of 1960s New Orleans. Additionally, absurdist books that expose the futility and stupidity of modern man will always be popular, especially with young people.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews of the book, both current and contemporary:

Curled Up With a Good Book
Illiterarty
New York Times

The Summer I Turned Pretty

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han

publication date: 2009
pages (ebook): 180
ISBN: 978-1-4169-9917-1

Just in time for winter, here’s a sweet, summer YA novel. The Summer I Turned Pretty follows Belly Conklin as she enjoys her first summer as a girl, an object of lust and love; instead of just one of the guys. Belly (what a name for a character, right!?) spends her sixteenth summer navigating between Conrad, her unrequited crush; Jeremiah, her summertime best friend; and Cam, the new guy and the only normal one of the bunch.

The Summer I Turned Pretty was formulaic, although I’m not dissing the formula. However, there were several things that made the book unique and fun. First of all, Belly is kind of a bitch. I don’t know if the author, Jenny Han, purposefully wrote her that way or if this was just how Han perceived what it was to be a teenage girl. Belly’s mean to basically everyone, from her mom and brother to all three objects of her affection and even to her supposed best friend. Sometimes Belly seemed to understand how terrible her behavior was, although she never apologized for it; but most of the time she was blissfully clueless and wrapped up in her own issues. I’m not saying Belly’s attitude was a problem for me; I thought it was realistic. In fact, it was refreshing to root for someone who was often unlikeable but relatable nonetheless.

The rest of the characters also displayed more than one dimension. Everyone was in-turn mean and loving, selfish and selfless, serious and flippant. I especially loved Belly’s mom, who was portrayed not just as a mother, but also a friend and a wife.

Additionally, Han captured what it was to be a teenage girl in a sea of boys. She described my experience whenever I was aware of a boy, at least. The idea that, if he could just know me for me and all my unique qualities – like how I’m only loud because I’m insecure and how I want to dye my hair red – he would realize I’m his perfect girlfriend! Here’s an example:

I bet that if it weren’t for football, Conrad wouldn’t be some big deal. He would just be quiet, moody Conrad, not a football god. And I liked that. I liked that Conrad preferred to be alone, playing his guitar. Like he was above all the stupid high school stuff. I liked to think that if Conrad went to my school, he wouldn’t play football, he’d be on the lit mag, and he’d notice someone like me.

Isn’t that teenage gold?

As mentioned above, the book was formulaic and generally predictable, notwithstanding Han’s attempt to manufacture suspense with weak plot devices, including inconsistent internal monologues and an implausible divorce. Also, the dialogue was sometimes unsuccessful. For most of the book, however, I was nodding right along.

4/6: worth reading

Ink and Page
Abby the Librarian
With a Book

Bananas

Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World by Peter Chapman

publication date: 2007
pages: 208
ISBN-13: 978-1-84195-881-1

For such a slim book, Bananas took me forever to finish. And even at that slow pace, I still skimmed some parts. Why, you ask? Because Bananas was so nonsensically and enigmatically written as to be boring.

Bananas was supposed to be a history of the United Fruit Company in Central America and the world. However, Chapman didn’t even mention the founding of United Fruit until page 168. Instead, he bounced around from the 1980s to the 1880s and back again in vaguely chronological order. His use of dates was very confusing and was rarely tethered to anything meaningful like historical context or cause and effect.

Not only was Chapman’s use of dates and chronology confusing and disjointed, but his introduction and discussion of the important people in the story was just as bewildering. Chapman would introduce someone in a passage with no mention of why they were important to United Fruit and then would ignore them for dozens of pages. An example is Chapman’s treatment of the Cabot family, who were introduced in a discussion of Andrew Preston:

Socially ambitious Preston preferred to stay at home. Boston’s ‘Brahmins’ were a tight-knit bunch that ruled the city . . . . [T]hey were mostly of English background, although one leading family, the Cabots, came in 1700 from Jersey in the Channel Islands . . . . The families married well and famously, and set up dynasties: the Jefferson Coolidges, the Cabot Lodges. As such they ran the political, economic and social life of a city known as ‘Beantown’ for one of its favourite foods and the ‘Hub’ from an assumed central position in the universe. As a local toast would have it: ‘And this is good old Boston, The land of the bean and the cod, Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots, And the Cabots talk only to God.’

The Cabots weren’t again mentioned until seventy pages later, and even then, I still don’t understand their importance. I hope that long quote displays Chapman’s confounding and erratic writing style, including odd uses of quotation marks and unnecessary interjections.

To further confuse things, Chapman would shift between narrators. Sometimes the book was scrawled in a textbook style, with facts being relayed with little interpretation. Other times, and with no explanation, Chapman would insert his own voice and discuss events in his own life. Another long passage illustrates the confusion:

[President Anastosio] Somoza’s story was familiar: a few bandits assailed him from distant mountain hideaways. Radical priests had joined in and were sadly deluded people who should not concern themselves with politics. What they failed to grasp, Somoza went on, was that he had pitched himself against the greedy rich on behalf of the poor. As for Jimmy Carter, the US’s present leader, Somoza found himself hard pushed to remain polite. Under Carter, the White House had taken leave of its senses and opened the way for Communism.

Actually, from what I understood, the guerrillas fighting Somoza were capable of seizing important towns just a couple of hours away north along the Pan-American Highway.

Perhaps you’re thinking that passage was confusing because you aren’t reading it in context. I can assure you that context does not help anything. Almost the entire book was written like this. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I learned nothing.

2/6: many problems

Here are other reviews of the book; the first two are positive. I really don’t understand how anyone who read the book could call it a “page-turner” or “breezy but insightful,” but here you go:

A.V. Club
New York Times
Yale Global

The Book of Lost Things

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

publication date: 2006
pages: 339
ISBN: 978-0-7432-9885-8

John Connolly explored the power of words and stories in The Book of Lost Things. The book began with young David, who understands the power of stories and books because that was taught to him by his dying mother. After his mother’s death, books become so powerful that they talk to him and beckon him to join them in another world. That is where the plot thickened, as David was transported to another land – a land with things both familiar and impossible, like the Crooked Man and wolves that look like humans.

The Book of Lost Things is very focused on stories and words. In fact, the narrative is its own character, with personality and motive. Because of this somewhat loose definition of narration, Connolly included unique plot twists and stories; however, it also meant a lot of plot holes. It seemed to me Connolly was less concerned with the coherence of the plot and more concerned with its fancifulness and any lessons we might glean from it.  In that way, Connolly mirrored the fairy tales he was alluding to.

Connolly also included many quips and rules about stories, such as which ones are best and which ones only boring old adults like. For example, books on communism are boring and poems are only good if they have a plot. He also included this bizarre condemnation of newspapers:

Newspaper stories were as insubstantial as smoke, as long-lived as mayflies. They did not take root but were instead like weeds that crawled along the ground, stealing the sunlight from more deserving tales.

The passage above illustrates Connolly’s writing style: wordy, with a Victorian formality that I usually found tiresome. I assume Connolly was again attempting to mirror the stories and fairy tales that were such a focus of this book. Although I found the writing style generally tiresome, Connolly was good at creating a sense of place. I was able to clearly imagine the places he described, such as the Crooked Man’s kingdom and the Woodsman’s cottage. Most of the places sounded distinctively horrifying; for example, the Hunter’s lair:

[T]he room was dominated by two great oak tables, so huge that they must have been assembled within the house itself; piece by piece. They were stained with blood, and from where he lay David could see chains and manacles on them, and leather restraints. To one side of the tables was a rack of knives, blades, and surgical tools, all clearly old but kept sharp and clean. Above the tables hung an array of metal and glass tubes on ornate frames, half of them as thin as needles, the others as thick as David’s arm.

For ninety-eight percent of the book, I was usually a little bored or a little confused, but there was one passage in the book that was so sad, beautiful, wonderful, poignant that it really made the whole book worth a read. I have already re-read that portion several times and think it is one of those pieces of literature I will remember forever. Of course, it wouldn’t have had the impact it did if I had not read the remainder of the story. The book is enjoyable enough, and that extraordinary passage transforms the book into something I would recommend.

4/6: worth reading

some other reviews:

Fairy Tale Critic
LAist
USA Today

Watchmen

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

publication date: 1987
pages: 416
ISBN: 0-930289-23-4

I enjoyed Y:The Last Man so much, I decided to give another comic book a read. I chose a classic: Watchmen. I understand why it has attained classic status; it was excellent.

Watchmen consisted of twelve different comic serials released over 1986 and 1987. It took place in an alternate New York City, where superheroes existed, cars ran on electricity, and Richard Nixon was president well into the 1980s. The comics began with a murder and the mystery and suspense was so well-crafted, the reader spends the next twelve issues attempting to unravel the gradually disclosed plot.

One problem I sometimes have with any media presented in a serial format, especially TV shows, is a disconnect from one episode to the next or one season to the next. Watchmen did not have that problem at all. Themes, clues, and images were present from the first panel to the last with seemingly every important plot point decided before the first issue was published. That made for a dramatic and cogent read, even as I read all twelve issues in a short time.

The authors didn’t just convey a story; instead, they explored the strengths of the comic book form. Dialogue and thought bubbles were revealing and interesting. For example, one of the superhero characters reflected:

This city is dying of rabies. Is the best I can do to wipe random flecks of foam from its lips?

Images and forms were used repetitively to create a sense of satisfying symmetry. Panels were detailed and always rewarded a closer look. Additionally, the coloring was fantastic. The comic was not a happy or escapist read and the dark and moody coloring reflected that.

I did have some problems with the book. For example, although the rest of the book was well-paced, the ending felt rushed and unconvincing. Also, the comics contained some pages in prose, which felt unnecessary, although they were interesting. The authors also included almost the entire text of another comic book that one of the characters in Watchmen reads. A comic within a comic; kind of an Inception-type thing. That interior comic went on for way too long.

It’s hard for me to accurately portray a comic book in these reviews because so much of the writing is contextual and I can’t really include images. But I will tell you that the writing was usually interesting and concise and the images were evocative and riveting.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

Roobla
Ready Steady Book
IGN

Peter Pan Must Die

Peter Pan Must Die by John Verdon

publication date: 2014
pages: 440
ISBN: 978-0-385-34840-9

Peter Pan Must Die is a classic murder-mystery, with detective Dave Gurney at its center. Gurney, living out his retirement in idyllic rural New York, is pulled back in to solving crimes by the case of Carl Spalter. According to the official report, Spalter, a wealthy politician, was murdered by his wife. However, Gurney notices some inconsistencies with the case, including the lead police officer sleeping with a major suspect for the crime and the fact that it was impossible for a gun to be shot at the precise moment that Spalter was killed by a gunshot.

The book fit nicely into its genre. Much like a Law & Order episode, Gurney spent the first half of the book interviewing all the involved parties, including Spalter’s cold but innocent wife, his saintly and sinister younger brother, and his “demented slut” of a daughter. The second half of the book followed Gurney as he pieced the puzzle together and steadily closed in on the true murderer. The book also involved all the predictable characters, including Jack Hardwick – the hard ass with a heart of gold; Malcolm Claret – the wizened psychiatrist with all the answers who doesn’t take shit from anybody; and Donny Angel – the Greek mobster with the slick exterior who only chats with cops at ethnic restaurants.

The author’s presentation of the mystery and pacing was generally very good and there were even some moments of heart-pounding suspense. However, that was all overshadowed by the book’s many problems. A major problem was it turned out the book was part of a series, and passages of the book were confusing and forced because I didn’t understand the back story. Had a known it was a series, I wouldn’t have picked up this book and instead would have searched for the first one. There was nothing on the cover or book jacket or anywhere else to indicate it was a series, however. Another problem was Verdon’s peppering of the story with ridiculous details about “urban” life. Like this gem:

Like many other little upstate towns that for years had lingered in a kind of Leave It to Beaver time warp of old-fashioned manners and appearances, Walnut Crossing was slowly being infiltrated – as Long Falls already had been – by the toxic culture of rap crap, gansgta clothes, and cheap heroin.

These little asides had nothing to do with the story. In fact, any evil acts in the book were perpetrated by people of European descent, with no connection to rap, “gangsta” culture, or even drugs.

Another off-putting part of the book was the chapter endings. They were often so maudlin as to be nonsensical. Here’s the last sentence of the first chapter:

If Gurney were the kind of man who believed in omens, he might have seen the shattered image [reflected in the water] as a sign of the destruction to come.

Oh please! And here’s another one of my favorites, at the end of a chapter where Gurney fails to understand how all the pieces of the crime fit together:

The dissonant chords of [his wife’s] cello piece were growing louder.

If you are someone who really likes mysteries, might as well give this book a try. However, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.

3/6: more good than bad

Buried Under Books
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Daisy’s Book Journal