Book Review: The Man from the Train by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Robin McCarthy

On June 9th, 1912, eight people, a family of six and two children visiting for the night, were murdered with the blunt side of an axe. The murder of eight people, six of them children under 12 years of age, rocked the small farming town of Vilisca, Iowa. But the Moore family were simply the latest victims of this violent perpetrator. Someone with an axe to grind (sorry, I really, truly couldn’t help myself) was traveling across the breadth of the country at the turn of the twentieth century, and leaving piles of corpses in his wake . . .

Bill James is a baseball guy. Specifically he is a baseball statistician, and he approaches this topic with a mathematical mindset. After all, the Vilisca murders, considered to be one of the most infamous unsolved mass murders in US history, are tentatively considered to be part of a series of serial killings at the turn of the twentieth century, but James expands on the widely accepted dimensions of the serial killer’s crimes. Rather than the several crimes most ascribe to the killer, James posits that the man from the train began his cross-country murder spree as early as 1898, and may be responsible for over one hundred murders.

Such a claim often precedes eye rolling and offers of tin-foil hats, but in this book, James provides the reader with carefully researched and sourced data to back up his assertions. Using newspaper records from across the country, combined with modern profiling techniques, James has unearthed a truly startling number of mass murders like the one in Vilisca. Like any good historian, James is careful to use primary sources where possible, and to document where the data available clash with his hypothesis. While several similar crimes are dismissed out of hand as being tied to our suspect, James makes quite a strong argument for adding several more murders to the ones traditionally ascribed.

Fans of history and true crime (lovers of Devil in the White City take note) should enjoy this book. But the casual reader need not despair. James’ writing style is accessible and engaging, and replete with dark humor and some truly monstrous puns.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath

rejected princesses

Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by Jason Porath

Dear husband brought this book to my attention after hearing a segment about it on NPR (what a very good husband!). After hearing only a few anecdotes about it, I needed to read it, NOW. Thank goodness for Amazon Prime.

Rejected Princesses grew out of a lunchtime chat among Dreamworks animators: Who was least likely to be turned into an animated princess? Out of this seed grew a blog (http://www.rejectedprincesses.com) and the blog sprouted a book (with a second on the way!). The first volume is a massively heavy compendium of 100 women who defied norms, expectations, invading armies, assailants, and politicians. Each entry is roughly 2-3 pages long, and each features a Disney-style illustration of the featured “princess.”

The entries are neatly cataloged with maturity ratings and applicable trigger warnings. This means you can read the more family-friendly entries to the kids, and save the stories of rape, murder, and revenge for later (or never, as it suits you). In this way, Porath has created a book that has something for all ages, while at the same time not glossing over the violence experience by quite a few defiant women. The stories also skip across time, space, and legend. You’ll find biblical queens next to Bolivian revolutionaries next to British suffragettes next to African warriors next to Japanese samurais. You’ll find straight women and women who represent every color of the LGBTQA rainbow. Porath show us that there is a princess out there for everyone.

This book was amazing. Some women, like Hatshepsut (the only female pharaoh in Egypt), Harriet Tubman (“Moses” of escaping slaves), and Joan of Arc (the gold standard of defiant woman) I had heard of already, but others like Saint Olga of Kiev (who set a town on fire using pigeons), Calafia (mythical Muslim queen and namesake for the state of California), and Trung Trac and Trung Nhi (Vietnamese sisters who led armies to defeat the Chinese in the 1st century) I had never even guessed existed. The book is jam-packed with these kinds of stories, and the encyclopedia-entry-style of each story means it’s easy to pick up and put down as needed, and come back to your favorite parts. Once you read through the book, there are even more entries on the Rejected Princesses website, so you can head over there to keep getting your fix.

This is a great book for anyone looking for inspiration from some truly badass ladies. Porath’s rating system means that you can share these stories with the little girls in your life, and let them know they can grow up to command their own tank regiment (Mariya Oktyabrskaya), overcome handicaps (Wilma Rudolph), be great at math (Hypatia), and/or decide exactly what they want out life and strive for it.

Book Review: A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin

a doubters almanac ethan canin

A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin

 

“Genius is a true degenerative psychosis.” These words, a quote by Cesare Lombroso and spoken by a character in “A Doubters’ Almanac” sums up this book quite efficiently. In this character study by Ethan Canin, we see how the pressures of genius can turn ambition upon itself in self-destructive fury.

As the story begins, we meet young Milo Andret, a bright young man being raised by indifferent parents. Milo skips grades, is socially indifferent, and spends his free time by himself in the woods. As Milo begins high school, he realizes his potential as a mathematician (heretofore unrecognized by himself or his parents). Milo heads to college at no less an institution than UC Berkeley, where he is brought under the tutelage of brilliant mathematician Dr. Borland. Borland is determined to rope Milo into his preferred field of topology. Pressure mounts as Milo’s genius is taken as a given, and we hear the repeated refrain that mathematicians either make their mark early or they fizzle out. Milo decides to focus his intellect on the Malosz Problem, which has baffled the greatest minds in mathematics.

And it is here that we begin to see the self-destructiveness of Milo’s vast intelligence. He becomes obsessed with solving the Malosz Problem, and it becomes the pivotal point of his college career. Milo’s obsession with solving the unsolvable continues to haunt his choices later, when he has achieved a professorship at Princeton University. Throughout the book, we see how the pressures of genius coupled with substance abuse combine to form a toxicity that will damage Milo and his family for decades to come.

This book is certainly not my normal fare. I tend to read things of a more escapist bent. I received this book as part of Powell’s Indiespensable (Vol.58), and this is one of the reasons I value the program so highly: it introduces me to books outside of my comfort zone. This book was well-written, the characters very vivid, and the plot skips backwards, forwards, and sideways in time. And while it’s certainly a far cry from my usual historical-sci-fi-mystery choices, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. I will say I had to stop midway through and take a break to read a historical-sci-fi-mystery fun book (A Perilous Undertaking if you must know) to keep my spirits up.

The slog through the destruction of a family becomes disheartening at points, but with some well-earned escapism out of the way I can say that I’m quite glad to have read this book.Even the high math references going (way, way, way) over my head didn’t detract from the plot

If you’re generally a fan of soul-searching family and personal drama, or a math nut (which I am not) then you’ll most likely enjoy this book. Ethan Canin is a fine craftsman with words and his story is quite compelling. I definitely recommend this as a heavy read.