October 2008
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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(10/14) The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule. (read me! )

Many years ago, I saw a terrific miniseries about Ted Bundy starring Mark Harmon that was based on this true crime book by Seattle writer Ann Rule. I can't remember what spurred my decision to get the book from the library recently and, in fact, I was surprised when it showed up in my pile of books on hold one day. But I took it home and read it anyway, and though I was kind of disappointed in it overall, I think that probably has more to do with the genre of true crime rather than the book itself.

Ann Rule actually knew Ted Bundy -- they worked together at a crisis clinic in Seattle for years. And for years after the murders began, Ann sort of suspected her Ted might be "The Ted," but couldn't really bring herself to believe it might be true. That the author of the book actually knew Ted gave the story an interesting perspective, if only because Rule could recount conversations she'd had with him both before he was an actual known suspect and after he'd been arrested.

That said, I confess what I found sort of a let-down about this book was that there was literally no attempt on Ann Rule's part to theorize what made Ted do what he did (which, incidentally, I was sort of shocked to discover he did about three blocks from where I work -- he actually lived more like two blocks from where I work, too, in a house I probably walk by every week). And sure, Rule is not a psychologist or a profiler, but she had amazing access to the man, and I kept wanting her to ask him questions she kept not asking. While I know some of that was because he was her friend and it was hard for her to believe what was going on, let alone pepper him with personal questions about his childhood and his anger towards women, I still wanted this book to go a bit deeper than it ever went. It's all surface -- descriptions of Ted, descriptions of his victims, detailed (ugh) descriptions of some of his attacks on those victims, details of his numerous escapes from custody, descriptions of his trials. But nothing deeper than that.

And maybe that's the way the true crime genre works -- I don't typically read these kinds of things. Maybe if I want to get inside Bundy's mind more, I need to read books written by abnormal psychology experts or something. In any case, this is a very well-written and gripping book and even though it's a very disturbing tale, it's also quite fascinating at the same time. I'm glad I read it, even if it did mostly just succeed in making me wish it could've told me more. [comment on this book review]
[NON-FICTION]

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(10/7) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. (read me!)

I know it looks like I haven't read a book since September 17th, but, in fact, I've been reading constantly since then, it's just that for a few weeks there, every book I picked up turned out to be crap -- I'd get part-way through one and then toss it aside in disgust or annoyance. Must've been at least three or four in a row. Man, I hate it when that happens!

Luckily, a week ago I finally hit a keeper. Fifteen pages into The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I knew it was going to be a book I really enjoyed (which surprised me, actually, because the title of this novel is somewhat off-putting in its cutesiness -- that's why I hadn't picked it up sooner, despite the fact I'd been hearing positive buzz about it). Thirty pages in, I was so in love with this novel I started rationing it the way I do when I hit a book that is so absolutely wonderful I don't want to waste a single paragraph when I'm distracted. This is a fairly short novel and I could've easily read it in a day or two. But instead, I spent eight days with the people of Guernsey, and absolutely loved every single moment I had with them.

This wonderful epistolary novel, set in the post-war 1940's, opens with a letter from a guy named Dawsey who lives on Guernsey Island (one of the Channel Islands of the UK, in between the UK and France). He had recently purchased a used Charles Lamb book and found the name and address of the previous owner inside. Because he'd so enjoyed the book, he decided to write her, a woman named Juliet, a letter saying so. The two strike up a friendship, and as they exchange more and more letters, it comes out that Juliet is herself a writer, looking for an idea for her next book. When she begins to learn through her correspondence with Dawsey of the experiences of Guernsey during World War II, she knows she's found her topic. Because wow, what a story -- Guernsey was occupied by the Nazis for many years during the war, and saw first-hand many of the horrors the war wrought on Europe. The starving, the murders, the cruelty. It was all right there, thrust upon them, day in and day out.

One of the stories Dawsey tells Juliet about is the initiation of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book club that was invented off the cuff one night when he and several of his neighbors were caught outside past curfew. One of his friends, a spunky woman named Elizabeth, immediately told the German soldier who caught them that they were coming from a literary society meeting, where they'd gotten so transfixed by the writings of a German author they'd lost track of time. The excuse worked, and the group decided a literary society might actually be fun, so they started one up.

Though the literary society's solace in books is the framework that holds the story together, the real tale is about the solace, and strength, the residents of Guernsey found in each other as the war progressed, and the way that strength rubs off on Juliet the more she gets to know them. Just before the occupation, Guernsey families were forced to decide between keeping their children in an Nazi-ruled territory, where they might easily be killed, or loading them up on ships and sending them to England, where they might be safer. Unimaginable. And things got worse from there when one of the literary society's key members was sent to a German death camp after committing an "unforgivable" crime (helping a young boy hide from the Germans), leaving behind her toddler daughter Kit, who ends up serving as a quite literal example of it "taking a village to raise a child."

Eventually, Juliet begins to write to other Guernsey residents, soon becoming fast friends with many of them. When she finally goes to Guernsey herself, she finds herself feeling at home at last -- unable to leave the island for her old life, and totally transformed by the people who surround her. There's sadness, love, hope, inspiration, and comedy -- all rolled into this one single, short book of letters. I never knew the story of the German occupation of Guernsey, and it's an amazing one. This is definitely not a novel to be missed -- I can't recommend it highly enough.

In fact, I half-wish I hadn't read it already so I could read it again right now like it was brand new.  Damn you, space-time continuum! [comment on this book review]
[FICTION]

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