Monthly Archives: December 2023

Genealogy of a Murder by Lisa Belkin

Genealogy of a Murder: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful NightGenealogy of a Murder: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful Night by Lisa Belkin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joe DeSalvo killed officer David Troy one summer night in Connecticut. DeSalvo was a lifelong criminal who had been paroled based largely on a recommendation by Al Tarlov, a doctor he’d come to know when he served as Tarlov’s lab assistant in prison. One was Italian, one Irish, one Jewish and of similar ages. This true crime is the subject of the book, but the author has approached it from a different direction. She has researched the literal genealogy of these three men in an attempt to discern why three grandsons of penniless immigrants ended up on the paths they did. Nature or nurture?

The stories are at times fascinating, at times boring. Too much time and space is devoted to the early ancestors and their poverty-stricken lives with families of a dozen plus children. I say too much because the author never answered her own question: how much did the genes or the family traditions and moral examples play a role? We don’t know. The fact is, the siblings of all of the characters went on to do very different things despite having the same parents and similar upbringings. The author also makes an odd choice to spend much of the book on Nathan Leopold, of the once famous Leopold and Loeb murders, even though he appears to have had no connection to the crime, and a similar amount to DeSalvo’s brother-in-law Dante Cosentino, who also had nothing to do with the murder or the life paths of any of the three. She apparently had access to their stories and found them intriguing, but I found them a mostly irritating distraction, although of some interest. Still, they remind me of the man looking for his keys under the streetlight because that’s where the light is best, even though that’s not where he dropped them. On the whole the book stands on the excellent quality of the writing and the inherently interesting facts of the case.

In the end, the oppressive conditions under which people lived as recently as the 1930s and 40s is eye-opening, and the author’s deep research is impressive. Joe DeSalvo had a genius IQ, taught himself piano, read good literature and wrote like it, and had many chances to have a good job and normal life. Why he made the choices he did is not answered in this book and probably never could have been, even by himself. I think this is true for many criminals I have encountered over the years in the FBI. How much is genetic and how much “nurture” can be debated, but for many, they are hard-wired that way by the time they hit their teens or even before and can never be rewired. Incarceration to keep them from harming others is really the only proper course. In my view, the tug-of-war between rehabilitation and punishment is irrelevant.

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How singer/guitarists rank

Some singers hold a guitar just as a prop and can’t play a lick, or maybe only two or three chords. Others can play fairly well, but not while singing or vice versa. Some are great guitarists who managed to make it as singers, but don’t have great voices or range. A very few play and sing at a top level. Here’s my chart of how some of the bigger names rank.

I played fairly well before I got arthritis in my thumbs. I’m hoping surgery will allow me to play again, but my point is that I can judge the guitar skill of anyone who plays an acoustic or classical guitar if I’ve heard them enough. Judging singing is more of a taste. I can’t sing on key, so I have only my own ear to judge. Some singers have great voices, some great power and range, some have voices with character or stage presence. Anyone who becomes a famous singer can carry a tune, so the scale is more of how much I enjoy their voice or style.

I’m leaving out nearly all lead guitarists or lead singers from rock or pop bands since they mostly flat-pick, which pretty much all sounds the same to me, at least when blasting from an amp at full volume and the guitarist is “shredding” on the 14th fret and bending half the notes. Most of the best known of that genre just play as many notes as fast as they can then may even smash the guitar. How is that any good? Your taste may vary. The one exception on the chart is Eric Clapton. I’ve seen several videos of him finger picking¬† an acoustic guitar and I know he is excellent guitarist although his singing is mediocre at best. Feliciano is a flat-picker, not fingerstyle, but all you have to do is listen to him play Flight of the Bumble Bee¬† and there’s no question how skilled he is. Voices for all singers deteriorate as they age, so my judgments are based on what I remember from their best years. The best classical guitarists are more skilled as guitarists than anyone on this chart.

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton

Birnam WoodBirnam Wood by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mira and Shelley are two young Kiwi women who have founded an underground horticultural collective called Birnam Wood. They find spots in New Zealand that are unused, e.g. roadside strips, plant crops there, and sell them. While exploring a vacant site, Mira encounters Robert, a shameless exploitative American billionaire seeking to savage the land to extract valuable minerals, but Mira doesn’t realize his true plans and forms an alliance with him. It’s fair to call this an eco-thriller. The premise is imaginative and the writing mostly entertaining. It’s a true page turner through the last third of the book. But rating it accurately is impossible because there were so many good things about it (just mentioned), but smothered in abysmal writing through most of the book. I don’t know how to balance them out so I chose three stars almost at random.

So I told you the good; what’s so bad? Let’s start with the length. The hardback edition is 423 pages holding what should be a 250 page book. As if that’s not enough, it’s almost solid ink from margin to margin. If you open the book at nearly any point, there will be no dialogue and no more than one paragraph break on a page. It must have almost twice the words per page as the typical thriller, which means the effective page count is more like 700. The main reason for this is that the author writes almost entirely in run-on sentences. I got so frustrated I actually counted two. On p. 156-157 one sentence ran for 278 words. At least it had one semicolon. I counted a 220-word sentence on page 186. The author and the editors, Jenna Johnson and Bella Lacey, must have flunked English 1A or lost their blue pencils. All three of them should have had someone whop them upside their heads. It was agonizing to read for the first 272 pages, where the action begins, but if you can learn to skip the interior 90% of those long run-on sentences, it moves okay. In addition to the ridiculous surplus verbiage, the plot revolves around the collective members, rather obnoxious tree-hugging vegans arguing with each other in lengthy PC politco-babble about their devil’s bargain with the American corporate Lucifer, Robert.

Back to the good stuff. The author has done a creditable job of making the characters both original and believable. There’s a complicated relationship between Mira, the leader, and Shelley, the second banana, between Robert and the owner of the property in question, a pretentious businessman who was recently knighted, and between Mira and Tony, an ex-member (and ex-boyfriend) who left the group and is hell-bent on exposing Robert’s evil shenanigans. She has a knack for filling in little homey details to make events seem real and must have done a lot of research. The setting was exotic and interesting, at least for me. There were many witty, amusing moments right from the start, although crammed into 200-word sentences.

But worst of all is the ending. {Spoiler alert — sort of — but not really. You might want to stop here if you plan on reading the book anyway} I don’t actually know the ending, because I don’t know how it ended. There was violence at the end. I don’t know who survived and who didn’t. I don’t know what happened to those who did survive. There were deaths – did anyone get punished or even investigated? I read to the end, so that’s not the problem. The author just left the readers hanging in the middle of it all. I’ve read some other reviews and they all seem to think that was the ending. I can’t believe the author would leave it like that. I can’t believe any editor would allow it unless – and this is what I think must be the case – the author is already working on the sequel to finish the story. When there is a series like this, there should be a warning that this is Book 1 in the XYZ mysteries or whatnot. There is no such warning and nothing at the end promotes any Volume II. Strange. I guess the bottom line is that despite these egregious problems, I was very engaged at least for the last third of the book and eager to read the next page. It went faster than the length would indicate and I admit I enjoyed a lot of it until I became enraged at the “ending.”

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What3words in the news – Swift, San Francisco, Sioux

You know the drill: What3words is the website/app that pinpoints 3mx3m squares around the globe and tags them with three words. This works well for first responders and delivery people among others, especially if there is no street address. The word combo is easier to remember than latitude/longitude coordinates. I like to find word combinations that are particularly newsworthy, appropriate, or amusing. Search my blog for more examples. Here are a few more I recently came across.

tailor.swift.concert – Albacete, Spain. Okay, it’s 120 miles from Madrid where Tay Tay performed recently, but that’s still pretty coincidental considering that 85% of the word combinations fall in the oceans, Antarctica or other uninhabited regions.

large.crazy.ranks falls on San Francisco City Hall. Anyone familiar with the dysfunction in that city government will immediately see the connection. But there’s another interesting spot in the same building.

riding.flesh.soon also lands on that building. For those not in the Bay Area, SF City Hall is the most sought after wedding venue in the region. The building itself is beautiful and the staff there often holds mass weddings, especially gay ones during Gay Pride Week.

former.united.nations is located near Buffalo, South Dakota in the heart of the area where nine Sioux tribes were once a united nation.


Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson

Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone (Ernest Cunningham, #1)Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this mystery novel, but it’s not for everyone. The purported narrator, Ernest, is part of a family of killers, although most of the killings weren’t intentional. He also writes about how to write crime novels. He talks to the reader (or in my case, listener) throughout the book, breaking the fourth wall. That can be off-putting for many. He also describes the ten “rules” of crime fiction and assures us that he follows them, thus making the mystery “fair.” The final denouement is so convoluted that I can’t say I agree, but it doesn’t matter much. If you’re one of those people who must feel like you have a chance of solving it as you read, you’ll not be happy at the ending.

I enjoyed the book for its witty tone throughout, and its plethora of amusing observations about life and universal foibles. His descriptions and similes are clever and entertaining. There were too many characters for me to keep track of. If you choose to read it, I suggest you do so it one sitting in order not to lose the thread. Or make a diagram of characters and their relationships. I also enjoyed the reader’s Australian accent, which, not surprisingly, is appropriate since the book is set in Australia. The bottom line: it passed the time pleasantly.

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