Kate’s Review: “The Best We Could Do”

29936927Book: “The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui

Publishing Info: Abrams Books, March 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.
 
At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent—the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through. With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home.
 
In what Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “a book to break your heart and heal it,” The Best We Could Do brings to life Thi Bui’s journey of understanding, and provides inspiration to all of those who search for a better future while longing for a simpler past.

Review: Stories of refugees and immigration are incredibly relevant these days. Between certain world leaders trying to impose travel bans, to the threats of building a wall all along a border, to the devastating refugee crisis being seen due to instability in Syria, the very thought of people finding a safe place to live, while leaving their home behind, has become incredibly politicized. When I first heard about “The Best We Could Do”, I knew that I needed to immediately get it on my request list so that I could read it as soon as it was available to me. It’s heartening to see that graphic novels are becoming more and more used to tell personal stories, and a story as personal as this one was only bolstered by the imagery that we found on the page. Oh boy was this a wonderful book.

And a very sad book as well. Thi Bui was born in Vietnam, just around the time that the Vietnam War was starting to wind down. Her family history is intwined within the stark differences in the Vietnamese society up to and during the war, as her mother was from the bourgeois class and her father was decidedly less well off. But this story isn’t just about a family trying to escape a violent and unsafe situation; it is also about a family that is forever affected by society around it, and a family trying to fit in in a new place that is completely new and different to them. By giving the context of her mother’s background, her father’s background, and the culture and society of Vietnam during their childhoods and her childhood as well, we get a story that is tragic, hopeful, devastating, and important all at once. She also does a very good job of showing how Western Imperialism and Colonialism, of course, had a large effect on how Vietnam dealt with a cultural conflict of the North versus the South. I really appreciated that she pointed out that for people in America during the war (those fighting it aside), it was more of a concept and something to support or speak out against. But for the Vietnamese, it was the life they were living every day, and that somehow kind of got lost in the narrative.

I also really liked the stories of her family, as imperfect and in some ways dysfunctional as it was. She has a very conflicted opinion of both her parents. Her father wasn’t a very good parent to her, and he wasn’t a very good husband to her mother either. But seeing his childhood that was filled with turmoil, poverty, instability, and broken family ties, we can completely understand why he turned into the man he became. We also see that her mother was in many ways a remarkable person who had ambitions and dreams, but then found herself in a marriage she wasn’t completely invested in, and with a family that, as cherished as they were, put an end to her ambitions, ambitions that absolutely could have been backed up by talent and know how. Bui contrasts her own journey into motherhood against the story of her own mother, and it is incredibly effective and bittersweet.

I think that what I found most effective about this story is that it has a powerful message, but it is wrapped in a family memoir. I was expecting far more about the fall of South Vietnam, and the journey out under cloak of darkness. But while that certainly does play a part, it’s really a story about a family, and how having to move from one life to another, whole new life in a whole new place caused damage that never quite repaired. Trauma, war, and displacement isn’t something that is forgotten just because you move to a new place and start a new life, and sometimes adapting to that new life can be a challenge in and of itself.

The art in this book is absolutely gorgeous. It is fairly simple at first glance, but images pop out and really take the reader’s gaze into them. I loved the colors and I loved how detailed it was, even though it looks like it’s fairly straight forward.

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I really cannot recommend “The Best We Could Do” enough. In a time where I think empathy and understanding are sorely needed when it comes to trying to understand the refugee experience, Thi Bui’s memoir will engage readers and show them how much is lost and how much is sacrificed just to stay alive. This is an incredibly important book.

Rating 9: A personal and powerful memoir with gorgeous illustrations, “The Best We Could Do” is an important book with a relevant message to the issues of immigration and the refugee crisis we are seeing today.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Best We Could Do” is included on the following Goodreads lists: “Required Reading: Graphic Novels”, and “Vietnamese-American Novels and Memoirs”.

Find “The Best We Could Do” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “American Heiress”

28007903Book: “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst” by Jeffrey Toobin

Publishing Info: Doubleday, August 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: From New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author Jeffrey Toobin, the definitive account of the kidnapping and trial that defined an insane era in American history

On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a senior in college and heiress to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by a ragtag group of self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The already sensational story took the first of many incredible twists on April 3, when the group released a tape of Patty saying she had joined the SLA and had adopted the nom de guerre “Tania.”

The weird turns of the tale are truly astonishing — the Hearst family trying to secure Patty’s release by feeding all the people of Oakland and San Francisco for free; the photographs capturing “Tania” wielding a machine gun during a bank robbery; a cast of characters including everyone from Bill Walton to the Black Panthers to Ronald Reagan to F. Lee Bailey; the largest police shoot-out in American history; the first breaking news event to be broadcast live on television stations across the country; Patty’s year on the lam, running from authorities; and her circuslike trial, filled with theatrical courtroom confrontations and a dramatic last-minute reversal, after which the phrase “Stockholm syndrome” entered the lexicon.

The saga of Patty Hearst highlighted a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown. Based on more than a hundred interviews and thousands of previously secret documents, American Heiress thrillingly recounts the craziness of the times (there were an average of 1500 terrorist bombings a year in the early 1970s). Toobin portrays the lunacy of the half-baked radicals of the SLA and the toxic mix of sex, politics, and violence that swept up Patty Hearst; and recreates her melodramatic trial. American Heiress examines the life of a young woman who suffered an unimaginable trauma and then made the stunning decision to join her captors’ crusade. Or did she?

Review: I grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, and my usual stomping grounds were also in upper middle class areas. One of those neighborhoods was one that I could bike to, to hit the local Barnes and Noble, get a Starbucks mocha, and maybe go see a movie. This neighborhood also happened to be the same neighborhood that Sara Jane Olson, aka Kathy Soliah of the Symbionese Liberation Army, was found in after decades on the lam. My parents, both former anti-war protestors and pinko liberals of the 1960s and 70s, were pretty stunned, and when they explained who Soliah and the SLA were, I was stunned too. It was around this time that I was first introduced to the story of Patty Hearst, the heiress to the Hearst Fortune who was kidnapped by the SLA, only to join up with them. Sure, Hearst has kind of entered the pop cultural zeitgeist after all these years, that famous ‘Tania Picture’ pretty recognizable to even those who don’t necessarily know the significance of it. Hell, I had this picture on my bedroom door in high school (in vague protest of local gun legislation, but I digress). But outside of knowing the very basics of the case, I knew very little about Patty Hearst outside of this photograph. So when “American Heiress” ended up at my library, I decided it was time to learn more.

Toobin, a writer for the New Yorker, tells a comprehensive and detailed story not only about Patty and her kidnapping, but the crimes that the SLA committed before, during, and after, the trials and scrutiny that Patty faced, and the social and political climate of the United States in the 1970s. Gone were the idealistic days of the 1960s, and the 1970s was a time of much anger and frustration, as well as uncertainty. Nixon had recently been exposed for his corruption with the Watergate Scandal, gas prices were astronomical, and tensions were high. The Symbionese Liberation Army fancied itself a revolutionary group, but was less akin to peaceful protest and discourse, and more interested in bombs and murder (including the assassination of school superintendent Marcus Foster). Toobin does a great job of profiling our main players in the SLA, and his profiles are expansive and in depth. He also does a very good job of profiling Patty and her life pre-kidnapping. She was a student at Berkeley, engaged to an older man, and already feeling a little bit unappreciated and approaching a stagnancy. His descriptions of all these factors, as well as explanations of various societal events and views, all mix together to bring the reader right into this setting. I could almost feel the tension in the air.

What I also liked was that Toobin was pretty good at presenting a lot of this neutrally and seemingly without a conclusion he wanted the reader to draw. That may be in part to the fact that Patty Hearst didn’t have anything to do with this book, and declined to work with him on it. Because of that, Toobin has to work with other sources. He still managed to present a well thought out analysis of many factors within this crime. One of the biggest turns of the crime was the fact that Patty ‘joined’ her captors and began to commit crimes with them, releasing propaganda images and films denouncing her former life. She was eventually tried and convicted, in spite of the defense’s arguments that she was suffering from Stolkholm Syndrome. Eventually she was pardoned by President Carter. Toobin has really set out just to tell the story as it was, and how the SLA could have influenced her choices to cooperate. While the SLA didn’t have the competence to actually systematically brainwash her, it was, in a way, their short sightedness in their plan that may have led to her cooperation. They kidnapped her with no plan, and were constantly threatening her life and waffling with what to do with her. Because of this, through a need to survive and adapt, it could be argued that Hearst decided that to save herself, be it consciously or not, she needed to become one of them. But not once does Toobin go so far as to suggest that there is no responsibility there. After all, he also points out that she was angry with her parents for how they seemingly handled her kidnapping, and felt that they had turned their back on her. And by the end, I don’t really know where I fall in the argument. I jumped between ‘If she wasn’t a Hearst, or a white woman, or rich, she would have been in prison for far longer than eighteen months’, and ‘this poor girl was a complete victim and was completely railroaded!’. I still don’t really know where I stand, but I appreciate that. It shows that Toobin knows that it’s almost too complex for any solid answers to come out of it, especially after all this time. Honestly, it’s a combination of all those things. She was certainly a victim. But many victims don’t get the luxury of being seen as one.

The book is a little dense, so I hard a slower time getting through it, but in it’s density we get a whole lot of really interesting facts. I had no idea that so many familiar names were involved in this case. This runs the gamut from perhaps obvious people, like Ronald Reagan who was the Governor of California of the time (who said some pretty wretched things about poor minorities in relation to this case, surprise surprise), to the less obvious like Desi Arnaz (who was a family friend of Patty’s parents and whisked them away on a vacation to help them take their mind off of things). While sometimes this book could get a little off track with these things, I found it all pretty engrossing.

I think that true crime fans would like this book, but so would history buffs, and possibly even people interested in psychology and sociology. Patty Hearst is still around, making public appearances here and there, be it at the Westminster Dog Show or on TV. I don’t think anyone can really know everything about her outside of her, and she isn’t going to address it anytime soon. Nor should she have to. That said, Jeffrey Toobin does a great job of postulating and assessing various factors in her kidnapping fairly and in an insightful way. “American Heiress” was a good read, and I’m happy I know more about the poor girl whose chilling photo was on my bedroom door.

Rating 8: An in depth and interesting book about a notorious crime that never goes for sensation or salaciousness, “American Heiress” looks at the Patty Hearst Kidnapping through many lenses.

Reader’s Advisory:

“American Heiress” has not been out long, and isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists. It can be found on “Fresh Air 2016”, but I think it would also fit in on “California True Crime”.

Find “American Heiress” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Altamont”

28435534Book: “Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, and Rock’s Darkest Day” by Joel Selvin

Publishing Info: Dey Street Books, August 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: In this breathtaking cultural history filled with exclusive, never-before-revealed details, celebrated rock journalist Joel Selvin tells the definitive story of the Rolling Stones’ infamous Altamont concert in San Francisco, the disastrous historic event that marked the end of the idealistic 1960s.

In the annals of rock history, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, has long been seen as the distorted twin of Woodstock—the day that shattered the Sixties’ promise of peace and love when a concertgoer was killed by a member of the Hells Angels, the notorious biker club acting as security. While most people know of the events from the film Gimme Shelter, the whole story has remained buried in varied accounts, rumor, and myth—until now.

Altamont explores rock’s darkest day, a fiasco that began well before the climactic death of Meredith Hunter and continued beyond that infamous December night. Joel Selvin probes every aspect of the show—from the Stones’ hastily planned tour preceding the concert to the bad acid that swept through the audience to other deaths that also occurred that evening—to capture the full scope of the tragedy and its aftermath. He also provides an in-depth look at the Grateful Dead’s role in the events leading to Altamont, examining the band’s behind-the-scenes presence in both arranging the show and hiring the Hells Angels as security.

The product of twenty years of exhaustive research and dozens of interviews with many key players, including medical staff, Hells Angels members, the stage crew, and the musicians who were there, and featuring sixteen pages of color photos, Altamont is the ultimate account of the final event in rock’s formative and most turbulent decade.

Review: I’m going to take on a new responsibility here, guys! I’ve decided that I’m going to start reviewing the occasional non-fiction book as well as the other genres that I’m tackling. I don’t read non-fiction as much as fiction, but I have been reading enough pretty good stuff that I want to share it with you guys! So I’m starting this off with “Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, and Rock’s Darkest Day” by Joel Selvin. I went through a phase in high school where I listened to a lot of rock and roll from the mid to late 1960s, and went so far as to try and dress up like a hippie when I went to school (though admittedly I probably was more akin to an anti-war protester, as my Mom was my inspiration and I went off old photos of her as my template). Hell, my first ever concert was CSNY in 9th grade (also because of my folks). I had heard of the Altamont Concert in passing by my parents and the cultural impression it left, but didn’t know much beyond the Hells Angels stabbing Meredith Hunter to death while the Rolling Stones played. But that’s where Selvin comes in. Because he taught me quite a bit.

What I liked about this book is that it didn’t just cover the concert: it covered events that influenced the decision to have the concert, and the days leading up to it. I had not realized that by the time Altamont rolled around, The Rolling Stones were practically broke. I’ve never lived in a world where The Stones weren’t legends, so to think that at one point they were having monetary problems was mind blowing. They were still kind of living off the image of being a tour that packed in teenage girls, even though they had started to experiment with harder and edgier sounds like ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. They hadn’t toured in awhile, and the tour that Altamont was part of was going to be a quick effort to make some cash. I also hadn’t realized that Altamont was basically thrown together in a short period of time, and moved locations in even shorter time. The information that was provided in this book really opened my eyes to how the poor planning happened, and why everything was so haphazard.

Selvin also did a lot of good research about the people who attended this concert, from Meredith Hunter (the victim of the stabbing), to his girlfriend, to other people in the audience who were injured or killed during or right after Altamont. Everyone hears about Hunter’s death, but I had no idea that some drugged out people jumped into ravines, off bridges, and had terrible car accidents. Not only that, a member of Jefferson Airplane was knocked out by an Angel, and poor Stephen Stills was repeatedly gouged with a bike spoke by another one WHILE HE WAS ON STAGE SINGING.  It all seems like such a contrast to Woodstock, which has gone down in legend as a peace, love, rock and roll fest…when in reality, it sounds like it really just got lucky that it didn’t have the same awful stuff that Altamont had. Though admittedly, the Hells Angels played a part in that. But even the Angels Selvin really looked into. While it would certainly be easy to chalk it all up to these guys being violent thugs (and hey, they were), he also makes sure to point out that they too got pretty screwed over in a way here. They were not prepared to work security for such a huge show, and their own biker culture was in direct conflict with the druggie hippie culture, with neither side trying to understand the other (I too would be pissed if I had a motorcycle that a bunch of drugged out kids kept touching and knocking over).

My one qualm that I had with this book is that Selvin, while trying to ease blame off of the usual suspects and showing it as a perfect storm of nonsense, kind of throws the Stones under the bus a little bit. Do I think that the Stones were idiots to agree to this entire thing given how shoddily planned it was? Totally. Do I think that Jagger was disingenuous in his dealings with the press when asked about pricing for their tickets? Yes indeed. But Jagger was twenty six. Richards was twenty five. Grown men, yes, but young, and they had been surrounded by yes men for a few years whose jobs were to shield them from this stuff. It’s not fair to humanize the Hells Angels, who were stabbing, beating, and roughing up concertgoers, and then imply that the Stones were to blame for all the violence. I call bullshit on that. And I also wonder how witnessing this traumatic event, liability in question or not, affected the members of the band. After all, shortly thereafter at least Richards starting doing heavier drugs than he usually experimented with. It may not be connected but it did raise some questions.

Overall, this was an engrossing book that intrigued and disturbed me. I appreciated learning more about this notorious rock concert, and looking into how things can, and will, go wrong, to the point where there’s no turning back.

Rating 8: A very well researched book about a shitshow of a rock concert that has become notorious. Selvin gave more info than I expected, and told me many new things about Altamont, all messed up and disturbing.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Altamont” is not on many lists yet, as it’s a fairly new book. But I think it would fit in on “Best Books on Rock and Roll”, and “The Rolling Stones”

Find “Altamont” at your library using WorldCat!.

 

Kate’s Review: The “March” Trilogy

Book: The “March” Trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Top Shelf Production, August 2013 (1), January 2015 (2), and August 2016 (3).

Where Did I Get These Books: The library!

Book Description: Congressman John Lewis (GA-5) is an American icon, one of the key figures of the civil rights movement. His commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.

Now, to share his remarkable story with new generations, Lewis presents March, a graphic novel trilogy, in collaboration with co-writer Andrew Aydin and New York Times best-selling artist Nate Powell (winner of the Eisner Award and LA Times Book Prize finalist for Swallow Me Whole).

March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement. 

Review: John Lewis, noted Civil Rights Activist and Georgia Congressman, can now add another fabulous moniker to his name: National Book Award Winner. On November 16th, 2016, he won the National Book Award (in the Young Readers category) for his book “March: Book 3”, the conclusion to his autobiographical graphic novel series about his time during the Civil Rights Movement. I caught his acceptance speech, and like many other people, cried deeply because I was so happy for him, and it clearly meant so so much on so many levels. By total coincidence, I had just read “March: Book 2” that morning. It had been awhile since I read “Book 1”, and was playing catch up. So then all I had to do was wait for “Book 3” to come in, vowing that once it did I was going to review the entire work as a whole. Because that’s what the “March” Trilogy is: it’s one large story about a remarkable man during a tumultuous time, a story about a movement that changed the nation and a movement that seems all the more relevant today. So I waited. And “Book 3” finally came in for me. So now, let me tell you about this fabulous series.

“March: Book 1” starts with Lewis’s childhood as the son of a sharecropper in rural Alabama and goes through the Lunch Counter Protests in Nashville. From a young age Lewis had a drive and a passion to lead and learn, his early aspirations of being a preacher evolving into the leadership and commitment that he put forth while in the Nashville Student Movement, and then into the broader Civil Rights Movement as a whole. “March: Book 2” talks about his time with the Freedom Riders and the violence they faced during their non violent protests and demonstrations, all leading up to the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. This book deals more with the growing aggression of the white citizens and government, as well as the Federal Government starting to waffle and teeter and struggle with the role that it should be playing. It’s also the book that shows Lewis and his own inner struggles, as while non violence is always the mission and the goal, his resentment and anger threatens to boil over. “March: Book 3” is the conclusion, and addresses Freedom Summer, Voting Rights, and Selma. And this story is told all within the frame of the Inauguration of President Barack Obama. Stunning framework, absolutely beautiful. There are multiple parallels between things in “Book 1” that come up again in “Book 3”, and there are themes that link all of them together not just with Lewis, but with other prominent figures as well. Lewis sets out to tell all of their stories as best he can, and the result is one of the best damn graphic novel series I have ever read.

This series is so powerful and personal, and it goes to show just how remarkable John Lewis is. He’s one of the ‘Big Six’, aka one of the most influential members of the Civil Rights Movement, and one of the only ones left, as he reminds us in “Book 1”. These books are very straight forward and simple, but they are so honest and personal that the power they have is immense. I found myself crying many times during my reads of all these books, but also laughing, and cheering, and seething. Lewis brought out so many emotions in me with his story, and his immense talent as a storyteller comes through, just as his charisma does. We get to see the story of the Civil Rights Movement through his eyes, and he tells us the stories of those involved within the movement and those who influenced it from the outside as well. Yes, at times these books are violent, and upsetting, but they need to be, because the horrors that fell upon many people during their non violent protests must never be forgotten. I think that the entirety is an accomplishment, but I understand why they gave the National Book Award to “Book 3”. After all, while it is probably symbolic of awarding the whole darn thing, I think that “Book 3” was the most powerful in terms of emotion being served, be it pride, fear, rage, or determination. It certainly was the one that had me weeping from the get go, as the very first moment was the bombing of the 16th Baptist Church that killed four little girls. The violence is absolutely horrifying, but it cannot be forgotten or glossed over. It absolutely cannot. “March: Book 3” also was the one to really address the differences of ideologies within the movement as a whole, not just between King and X, but Lewis and SNCC as well. And Lewis also has no qualms addressing the fact that LBJ, while he did ultimately get things going on a Federal level, was incredibly reluctant to do much in terms of help until he absolutely  HAD to. I think that realities get lost in the historical narratives that come in our educations, and that is absolutely why the “March” Trilogy is fundamental reading when it comes to the Civil Rights Movement in this country.

And, like other graphic novels before it, I want to address the artwork in this series. Because it is beautiful in it’s simplicity, and yet powerful in it’s design. It’s all black and white, and stark and striking on every page. Nate Powell brings the story to life on the page, and he did it both with bits of humor to go along with the hope, horror, and courage. There were bits of realism to accompany the distinct style, but it always felt very tangible and very authentic. As I mentioned before, the illustrations do not gloss over the violence that was prevalent during the time, and while it certainly is disturbing, it’s done in a way that could never be dismissed as exploitative or ‘over the top’. It is incredibly honest and upsetting, but it needs to be. The reader needs to be upset and outraged by it. Because it IS upsetting, and it is outrageous.

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I cannot stress enough how important the “March”Trilogy is in these uncertain and scary times. John Lewis is a treasure and an inspiration, and I feel that this is required reading. Get this in schools, get this in curriculums, get this in peoples hands. And you, you should likewise go out and get your hands on this series. You will not regret it. You will learn something. And you will be moved. Thank you, John Lewis. Thank you for so much.

Rating 10: A phenomenal and deeply personal series, John Lewis tells his story of activism through this astounding graphic novel trilogy. He speaks on the Civil Rights Movement from his perspective, and shows parallels to recent fights for rights and freedoms.

Reader’s Advisory:

The “March” Trilogy can be found on the following Goodreads lists: “Civil Rights Reading List”, “History Through Graphic Novels”, and “Activist Memoirs”.

Find The “March” Trilogy at your local library using WorldCat! Book 1; Book 2; Book 3.

Kate’s Review: “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places”

28815491Book: “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places” by Colin Dickey

Publishing Info: Viking, October 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: I bought it.

Book Description: An intellectual feast for fans of offbeat history, Ghostland takes readers on a road trip through some of the country’s most infamously haunted places–and deep into the dark side of our history.

Colin Dickey is on the trail of America’s ghosts. Crammed into old houses and hotels, abandoned prisons and empty hospitals, the spirits that linger continue to capture our collective imagination, but why? His own fascination piqued by a house hunt in Los Angeles that revealed derelict foreclosures and “zombie homes,” Dickey embarks on a journey across the continental United States to decode and unpack the American history repressed in our most famous haunted places. Some have established reputations as “the most haunted mansion in America,” or “the most haunted prison”; others, like the haunted Indian burial grounds in West Virginia, evoke memories from the past our collective nation tries to forget. With boundless curiosity, Dickey conjures the dead by focusing on questions of the living–how do we, the living, deal with stories about ghosts, and how do we inhabit and move through spaces that have been deemed, for whatever reason, haunted? Paying attention not only to the true facts behind a ghost story, but also to the ways in which changes to those facts are made–and why those changes are made–Dickey paints a version of American history left out of the textbooks, one of things left undone, crimes left unsolved. Spellbinding, scary, and wickedly insightful, Ghostland discovers the past we’re most afraid to speak of aloud in the bright light of day is the same past that tends to linger in the ghost stories we whisper in the dark.

Review: As a person who loves history and learning about our culture through a historical lens, finding a good book on America’s past is always an exciting thing for me. I’m also a huge fan of haunted places and scary stories, as I am a hardcore Fox Mulder in that I want to believe (even if the Scully side of me butts in and usually pulls me from the total brink of belief). So when I found out that there was a book that combined both of these topics, I was so excited I couldn’t wait for the library to get it, and bought it myself. “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places” by Colin Dickey is truly a perfect read for the month of October, and for Horrorpalooza. Because these are ‘true’ ghost stories! Sort of. It’s more trying to find out why certain places get haunted reputations, outside of a place actually being haunted by a restless spirit. Going into this book I thought that it was going to be a bit more about the latter with American history serving as a back drop, but what I got was a deeper exploration of our country’s past and all of the baggage that comes with it.

Dickey travelled from haunted place to haunted place in America, not only telling the reader about the story behind the place, but also telling an in depth exploration of the non haunted history of that place and the implications that surround it. While there were numerous stories in this book that I had at least heard of in passing (or in the cases of the Winchester Mystery House and the city of Savannah, Georgia, actually been to), the actual background of those places were almost always unfamiliar to me, either because I just never learned about it at all, or because I’d believed the ‘haunted’ history that time has elevated. This had two reactions from me as I read the book. The first reaction was from the history buff in me, which was

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But the second reaction was from the Fox Mulder in me, which was

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At one point in this book, Dickey speaks on the fact that the belief in the supernatural vs the disbelief in it are always going to be at odds with one another, because you aren’t going to convince a skeptic that ghosts exist, just as you aren’t going to convince a believer that they don’t. As I read this book, even though I had this in mind, I found myself falling into that exact trap. When Dickey would explain the actual history behind a haunted place, such as the Winchester Mystery House, I would write off the things that didn’t fit with my thoughts as sometimes dismiss them completely. No, I don’t necessarily believe that Sarah Winchester was told by a medium that she had to move west and keep building a house to trick the spirits from cursing her. BUT, I ALSO don’t believe that she built this strange house for years and years and years at a huge financial expense just because she was experimenting with architecture. Does a tourist site like the Winchester Mystery House have a vested interest in hyping it’s haunted reputation at the expense of the actual history of Sarah Winchester? Of course it does. But I wholly believe that there was something else going on beyond an enthusiastic woman enthralled by her design creativity. It was times like these that I felt that this book was a little less than thrilling for me. Just because there wasn’t a record of a mental problem going on doesn’t mean that there wasn’t one.

But Winchester Mystery House aside (and it’s good that Dickey didn’t go all in on Savannah outside of saying it’s a tourist city hoping to protect and promote it’s ‘brand’), I really enjoyed reading “Ghostland”, because Dickey did bring up a lot of good points about American history and culture, especially when it comes to how these places and hauntings reflect our value systems. I especially liked that he brought up the fact that so often, the ‘ghosts’ that haunt these places are very Western centric and white, except when it comes to mass tragedies that our country perpetuated and both feels guilty over while also ignoring them. Specifically, slavery and the genocide of the Indigenous Peoples. While there have been stories of Thomas Jefferson haunting Monticello, a ghost that the site can embrace, you very rarely hear about ghosts of slaves and those that Jefferson wronged wandering it’s halls. On the flip side of the coin, the idea of the “Ancient Indian Burial Ground” is a trope that has been used repeatedly in horror stories, but it serves as little more than a way to Other multiple distinct groups while assuaging our guilt that we don’t really like to think about. In our stories it’s a revenge that is understandable, and yet we are still predisposed to sympathize for those (usually non-Native) people being haunted rather than the reason the haunting is happening in the first place. I had never really thought about these things in depth before reading this book, and boy did it really make me think.

Dickey also did a fair amount of research going into this book, with a fair amount of source notes that tie it all together. He did a good job of presenting a lot of information without it ever dragging or seeming dry, which is a true talent when dealing with the complexities of American history. He has a serious penchant for storytelling and kept things interesting while keeping them solidly anchored in historical context. And I do appreciate that Dickey postulates that even if they are overblown, hyped, and in some cases patently untrue, these ‘true’ hauntings do serve a larger purpose beyond just entertaining the masses. Sometimes they help us cope, or serve as warnings, or just help us understand what we’re seeing before us.

While “Ghostland” may not have changed my mind about the possibility of ghosts (though that wasn’t the intention at the heart of it), I did really find it a fascinating read and completely perfect for this time of year. I can’t recommend this book to history buffs enough, especially those like me who love a good ghost story. So if you want to learn some potentially new ghost stories and get some context as to what functions they serve in modern society, pick it up!

Rating 8: Though it sometimes downplayed a bit too much, “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places” is a fascinating read with a lot of insight to American history and society and the ghosts that haunt us.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places” isn’t on many Goodreads lists yet, but it would fit in on “Best Nonfiction Ghost Books”, and “Understanding History”.

Find “Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Dark Night: A True Batman Story”

30357924Book: “Dark Night: A True Batman Story” by Paul Dini and Eduardo Risso (Ill.)

Publishing Info: Vertigo, June 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: This is a Batman story like no other-the harrowing and eloquent autobiographical tale of writer Paul Dini’s courageous struggle to overcome a desperate situation.

The Caped Crusader has been the all-abiding icon of justice and authority for generations. But in this surprising original graphic novel, we see Batman in a new light-as the savior who helps a discouraged man recover from a brutal attack that left him unable to face the world.

In the 1990s, legendary writer Paul Dini had a flourishing career writing the hugely popular BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES and TINY TOON ADVENTURES. Walking home one evening, he was jumped and viciously beaten within an inch of his life. His recovery process was arduous, hampered by the imagined antics of the villains he was writing for television including the Joker, Harley Quinn and the Penguin. But despite how bleak his circumstances were, or perhaps because of it, Dini also always imagined the Batman at his side, chivvying him along during his darkest moments.

A gripping graphic memoir of one writer’s traumatic experience and his deep connection with his creative material, DARK NIGHT: A TRUE BATMAN STORY is an original graphic novel that will resonate profoundly with fans. Art by the incredible and talented Eduardo Risso (100 BULLETS, TRANSMETROPOLITAN).

Review: I’m a lifelong Batman fan. Superman is my favorite DC Superhero, but Batman will always have a piece of my heart because I grew up with him and all the villains that came with him. Batman pajamas, Batman sheets, Batman comics, Batman school supplies (well namely Catwoman, but still), I love Batman unabashedly even if I think that he’s kind of a lunatic. Even though I grew up with Batman, I only sporadically watched “Batman: The Animated Series”, as I think it ran opposite “Bill Nye, The Science Guy” where I grew up. Apparently to me the only hero greater than Batman was Bill Nye.

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This probably comes as a shock to no one. (source)

But of the episodes I did watch, I greatly enjoyed, and Paul Dini is one of the people to give huge thanks to for that (along with “Tiny Toons” and “Batman Beyond”). We also need to bow down and kiss his feet for creating Harley Quinn. I had no idea that Dini went through a traumatic near-death experience, as how much does the average comic fan know about those who write the stories? So when I heard that he was releasing a graphic memoir of his attack and recovery, I was definitely interested. Dini is a master storyteller, and when it comes to telling his own story it’s that much more powerful.

Not only is this a story of trauma and healing, it’s also a story of self reflection. Dini had a lot of problems even before he was attacked by two random men while walking home one night. His anxiety levels were high, his self esteem levels were low, and he had moments of depression and self mutilation even before the night he was nearly killed. The way that Dini lays his anxieties out in this comic are as various Batman villains he has written for. Poison Ivy is there to torment his conceptions about his sexual life. Scarecrow is there to freak him out about medicine and the healing aftermath of his attack. And then there is the original Big Bad himself, Joker, who is used to show Dini just wanting to turn his back on his world and self destruct. These villains are the perfect representations of all the worst fears he had at the time, and they are matched up well to those fears. And then there is the Caped Crusader himself, representing Dini’s struggle to overcome these issues and fears. I liked how Dini stayed true to the nature of all of these characters, but still was able to apply them to his own personal issues at the time. They never felt shoe horned in to fit his agenda, which I was worried about when I picked this book up. But Dini is a great writer, and he knows what he’s doing with these characters.

I think that Dini is also very brave for telling this story. He is more than willing to talk about his own flaws as well as the cruelty of others, and never makes himself out to be a sad sack perpetual victim in this. He calls himself out in the moments that he was acting foolish, and is honest about when he hit rock bottom and failed not only himself, but those around him as well. He talks about his PTSD after the fact, but the near emotional breakdown he was teetering towards even before he was attacked, stemming from a childhood of being an outsider and an adulthood of neuroses. A lot of his story really resonated with me on a personal level, and as someone with her own personal Jokers, Ivys, and Scarecrows she deals with (though not as extreme as Dini’s), seeing one of comics greatest minds open up about his demons was very, very satisfying and relatable. The message I loved most from this story was his message of “When someone hurts you, you are so much more than what they took from you.” A mentality that is very hard for victims of trauma to remember sometimes. Dini certainly had a hard time remembering. But he fought to remember.

I also need to note the artwork in this book. Eduardo Risso is no stranger to amazing artwork in the comics world, as he has done the art for “100 Bullets”, “Transmetropolitan”, and other Batman stories. He’s an Eisner Award winner as well. The art in “Dark Night” is gritty and haunting, with lots of shadows, darker or muted tones, and vibrant splashes of reds and oranges and pinks for blood and panic and mania.

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But when there is hope, and yes, there is hope, the colors are lighter, less harsh, and more vibrant and welcoming. One scene in particular, with Dini’s creation Harley Quinn, has a soft and kind feel to it that made me smile, and made me feel comfortable that there is light at the end of the tunnel for him, and for others struggling with mental illness and traumatic events. Dini takes solace in his creative works, just as many take solace in them as well. It’s a lovely concept.

“Dark Night: A True Batman Story” is incredibly brave and poignant. Dini continues to amaze, but this time it’s with his own redemptive arc rather than that of the Caped Crusader. Batman fans, I implore you to pick this up and read it. It is a testament to how important Batman, and other fictional characters, can be, especially when the night is at it’s darkest.

Rating 9: A deeply personal story that explores the importance of creative works within a healing mind and soul. This is a beautifully written memoir, with Batman at his most important.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dark Night: A True Batman Story” is not on any Goodreads lists yet, but I think that it would fit perfectly on “Popular Graphic Memoir Books”, and “Memoirs of Mental Illness”.

Find “Dark Night: A True Batman Story” at your library using WorldCat!