Book Review: Terrible Typhoid Mary by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Terrible Typhoid MaryTerrible Typhoid Mary
A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America
Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, August 2015
ISBN 978-0-544-31367-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Mary Mallon was a cook. A good cook, with a terrible temper. She worked for the wealthiest families in New York City. But all that changed when six members of the Warren household fell sick, and Mary mysteriously disappeared. The hunt for “Typhoid Mary” began. 

Mallon’s complex story illustrates that a “culture of shame” is not a new phenomenon. The methods of castigating women for seemingly offensive behavior may be different but the struggle for girls and women to recover is remarkably similar. When examined through this lens, a woman who is assumed to have played a large role in the spread of a terrible disease is shown to been a victim herself. The book also raises questions about reactions to “disaster diseases” and how they catapult communities into questionable actions. 

I’ve known about Typhoid Mary as far back as I can remember and was always intrigued by this cautionary tale but knew little of this woman’s story beyond the fact that she was an asymptomatic carrier of a deadly disease. When I was offered the opportunity to read this new biography, I jumped at the chance and I’m really glad I did.

Mary Mallon was a woman trapped by her times and its male-dominated society but also a victim of yellow journalism and the misguided intentions of scientists and doctors, led by sanitary engineer and epidemiologist Dr. George A. Soper, who valued their work far above human rights. Until now, I had no idea that this Irish immigrant cook was only the first of numerous “healthy carriers” and that, in fact, she caused the deaths of many fewer people than the old tales would have us believe. She did make a lot of people sick but she didn’t understand how and it didn’t help that Soper and others let their arrogance towards an uneducated poor woman get in the way of gaining her cooperation. If only they had treated her with respect and compassion, the second half of Mary’s life would have gone much differently.

The award-winning Ms. Bartoletti has done extensive research and it shows but, more importantly, she sheds a light on the paternalistic attitudes in existence in the first third of the 20th century and the willingness of those in power to ignore legalities and the Constitution itself even when confronted with the illogic of what they do. Written for the young adult market, Terrible Typhoid Mary also has much to offer adults as well as middle graders not only in the riveting story of one unfortunate woman but in what power run amok can do. A cautionary tale, indeed.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2015.

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Book Reviews: The Memory of Trees by F.G. Cottam and Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century by Peter Graham

The Memory of TreesThe Memory of Trees
F.G. Cottam
Severn House, October 2013
ISBN 978-0-7278-8315-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Billionaire Saul Abercrombie owns a vast tract of land on the Pembrokeshire coast.  His plan is to restore the ancient forest that covered the area before medieval times, and he employs young arboreal expert Tom Curtis to oversee this massively ambitious project.

Saul believes that restoring the land to its original state will rekindle those spirits that folklore insists once inhabited his domain. But the re-planting of the forest will revive an altogether darker and more dangerous entity – and Saul’s employee Tom will find himself engaging in an epic, ancient battle between good and evil.  A battle in which there can be only one survivor.

We have a collective unease when it comes to deep forests and that unease has pervaded our storytelling world for a long time. From Hansel and Gretel abandoned in the woods to Dorothy’s trek with her companions to the simple stories of British highwaymen, we’ve been preconditioned to prefer open space. With that mindset, I anticipated a good scary tale in The Memory of Trees. Alas, it didn’t quite pan out that way.

The idea of megalomaniacal men trying to manipulate sorcery to obtain good health or immortality is not a new idea and it’s a serviceable motive for Saul Abercrombie’s desire to rebuild a vast forest on his land but I found his total disregard for what might happen to his daughter rather unlikely. Even more so was everyone’s lack of serious alarm when confronted with abnormal and threatening situations. As an example, Tom Curtis and Sam Freemantle go to a location called Gibbet Mourning where they observe something that is undeniably menacing and actually begins to “rustle and shiver” and make sighing noises when Sam approaches it. Should I find myself in such a scenario, I’d run for the nearest collection of people and hide in a dark corner but Sam and Tom calmly talk about hauntings and agree that they don’t like the place. That’s it. That’s also pretty unbelievable.

The growing malevolence is made very obvious but, somehow, it didn’t really make much of an impact on me, possibly because the cast of characters is too big and too widespread, making it a little difficult to remember exactly who they are. If you can’t connect with a character, it’s hard to really care about what happens to them.  When very strange things begin to occur with the plantings, there’s little reaction beyond noting the strange things.

That lack of reaction to practically everything that goes on in this story is essentially why it didn’t work for me because it meant there was no real tension. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for The Memory of Trees, I enjoyed Mr. Cottam‘s style and obvious ability to write and will try something else by him. I do think other readers would enjoy this book more if they take logic and normal human behavior out of it and just read it as a tale of ancient evil come to life.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2013.

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Anne Perry and the Murder of the CenturyAnne Perry and the Murder of the Century
Peter Graham
Skyhorse Publishing/W.W. Norton & Company, May 2013
ISBN 978-1-62087-630-5
Hardcover
Originally published in 2011 in New Zealand under the title
So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme and the Murder That Shocked the World

From the publisher—

The spellbinding true story of Anne Perry, her friend Pauline Parker, and the brutal crime they committed in the name of friendship.

On June 22, 1954, teenage friends Juliet Hulme—better known as bestselling mystery writer Anne Perry—and Pauline Parker went for a walk in a New Zealand park with Pauline’s mother, Honora. Half an hour later, the girls returned alone, claiming that Pauline’s mother had had an accident. But when Honora Parker was found in a pool of blood with the brick used to bludgeon her to death close at hand, Juliet and Pauline were quickly arrested, and later confessed to the killing. Their motive? A plan to escape to the United States to become writers, and Honora’s determination to keep them apart. Their incredible story made shocking headlines around the world and would provide the subject for Peter Jackson’s Academy Award–nominated film, Heavenly Creatures.

A sensational trial followed, with speculations about the nature of the girls’ relationship and possible insanity playing a key role. Among other things, Parker and Hulme were suspected of lesbianism, which was widely considered to be a mental illness at the time. This mesmerizing book offers a brilliant account of the crime and ensuing trial and shares dramatic revelations about the fates of the young women after their release from prison. With penetrating insight, this thorough analysis applies modern psychology to analyze the shocking murder that remains one of the most interesting cases of all time.

We never like to think our children are capable of doing horrific things and it’s even more difficult to understand when two individuals predisposed to such acts find each other. When that happens, behavior that may never have gone beyond thoughts can become reality and this seems to have been the case with Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker. The interesting thing to me is that Juliet was considered the dominant personality and, yet, it was Pauline’s desire to kill her mother that they carried out.

Both girls thought they were “geniuses far above the common herd of mankind”, a personality trait frequently found in anti-social personality disorders. They had developed their own sort of religion in which sin could be a good thing although they didn’t appear to take it seriously; it was mostly a form of self-entertainment. Both were very narcissistic and showed no remorse when they were found out. In many ways, they mirror the 1924 case of Leopold and Loeb. As intelligent as they may have been, especially Juliet, they were really clumsy with their attack on Pauline’s mother and their ineptitude was probably due to lack of knowledge about such things but there is no doubt that impulse control was not a factor as they planned the murder in detail.

Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century is a fascinating account of a sensational case. Modern-day readers from  the US and other more “sophisticated” countries won’t recognize this as the murder of the century but it certainly was in 1950’s New Zealand. There are recognizable contributing elements such as the girls’ self-imposed isolation and their obsessive dependence on each other and it’s interesting that Juliet received much rougher treatment in prison for no apparent reason.

Overall, the accounting of Juliet’s and Pauline’s lives after prison takes a harsher approach to Juliet, who took the name of Anne Perry in an attempt at anonymity. In particular, she is painted as an icy woman even in her 70’s and, with this, I must take some exception. I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Perry in 2002 at a book event and spent a few moments chatting with her over my display of her books. She was nothing but charming and friendly and I suspect that her demeanor towards readers is quite different from how she reacts to those who pry into her life. At the time that I met her, I had not heard her story but, when I did a year or two later, it did not change my opinion that she is a likeable person. I believe Anne Perry is a prime example of the young person who commits a terrible act but is able to redeem herself in later life and would never pose a threat to anyone again. I have no reason to doubt the veracity of Mr. Graham‘s account of this crime and its aftermath but it’s time to let it rest. Anne Perry’s private life is hers to protect and I’m content to just enjoy her books.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2013.

Book Reviews: The Ranger by Ace Atkins, Dead Scared by S. J. Bolton, and Dinner with Lenny by Jonathan Cott

The RangerThe Ranger
Ace Atkins
Berkley, May 2012
ISBN: 978-0-425-24749-5
Trade Paperback

Quinn Colson, the eponymous protagonist, has returned home to Tibbehah County, in rural northeast Mississippi, to attend the funeral of his beloved uncle.  He is told that his uncle committed suicide, but refuses to accept that.  In trying to uncover the truth, he discovers much more than just what the former sheriff had been up to in the months leading up to his death.

Quinn is a man of many talents and skills who had joined the Army when he was eighteen.  The author says of him:  “The Regiment had whittled him down to a wiry, muscular frame built for speed, surprise, chaos, and violence . . . .He had a Choctaw grandmother about a hundred years back mixed with the hard Scotch-Irish who settled the South.”  He has not been home for six years, is now a platoon sergeant with the Rangers, having done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and back again.  He returns home to find a town that had seen hard times, getting harder, and a bunch of good ol’ boys spreading drugs, money and corruption wherever and whenever they can.  The town is perhaps typified by the following:  “Nobody has real names out here.  We’re all just kind of passing through until we can get to Memphis or Jackson,” and a chancery clerk at the Courthouse whose “job was elected, but unless you ran away with half the county’s budget or performed an intimate act in public you could pretty much keep the job as long as you wanted it.”

All the action – – and there is a lot of it – – takes places over a one-week period, the time frame allowed to Quinn for his bereavement leave from the Army.  There is a recurring theme of lost young women and the families – – and babies – – they leave behind.  And finally the inevitable showdown that you knew had to be coming, but that packs a punch nonetheless, with some plot developments that perhaps should have been expected but were not, at least for this reader.

I have to admit that this was my first Ace Atkins book.  It is one which is recommended, and I am looking forward to the next one.  [He has written four standalones, plus four books in the Nick Travers series, and, recently, The Lost Ones, a sequel to The Ranger.   In addition, the author was selected by the Robert B. Parker estate to continue the Spenser series, the first of which, titled, aptly enough, Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby, was also published in the past few months.]

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2012.

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Dead ScaredDead Scared
S. J. Bolton
Minotaur Books, June 2012
ISBN: 978-0-312-60053-2
Hardcover

The brief prologue sets the scene for the reader:  Near midnight; one of the tallest towers in Cambridge, England; D.I. Mark Joesbury, racing up the stairs to its roof; and a young woman perched near the ledge at the top.  And then the reader is brought back eleven days in time to see how they got there, with a 1st person p.o.v. of D.C. Lacey Flint, which alternates with third-person perspectives.  Flint has been “loaned out” from the Southwark Police to the Special Crimes Directorate of the Metropolitan Police which deals with covert ops, typically being sent on “difficult and dangerous situations.”  As we are introduced to them, the slightly flirtatious banter underlying their meetings hints at the least of a possible romantic entanglement between them at some point in the relatively recent past.

Lacey goes undercover as a student at Cambridge University after the latest in a number of suicides, with a suspicion that there is more going on than meets the eye.  The death was only the latest of three suicides during the current academic year.  The only one outside of her police colleagues who knows the truth is Dr. Evi Oliver, head of student counseling.  The belief is that there is “something decidedly sinister” happening. Lacey’s remit is to “keep a lookout for any unhealthy subculture that might be unduly influencing young people.”

Initially Lacey feels out of her element:  “I knew I’d never get used to it,” in a place where “Wordsworth and Wilberforce weren’t characters from history but alumni.”  But she is there to do a job, and it becomes increasingly urgent.  Within several days, one more death occurs.  And further investigation indicates that there have been a total of nineteen suicides over the past five years, far more than the general statistics on suicide would bear out.  And the manner of death chosen is not what might be expected, including self-immolation by one girl and another who’d decapitated herself.  As the days go on, whatever is going on threatens to ensnare Lacey herself.

This is a book at once not an easy read and yet difficult to put down, much more so on both counts as the book progresses. The fifth novel from Ms. Bolton, this is the first I have read, but it will certainly not be the last.  It is a nail-biter, beautifully written, and highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2012.

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Dinner with LennyDinner with Lenny
Jonathan Cott
Oxford University Press, January 2013
ISBN: 978-0-1998-5844-6
Hardcover

This is a book, sub-titled “The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein,” that is slight in size only, but which provides hefty and fascinating insight into the mind of the internationally renowned “Lenny” Bernstein, brilliant conductor, composer of orchestral works as well as legendary musical scores for Broadway, including On the Town, Wonderful Town, and West Side Story, and lecturer at innumerable Young People’s Concerts at Carnegie Hall.

The author conducted a twelve-hour interview at Bernstein’s country home in Fairfield, Connecticut in November of 1989, not long after his 71st birthday – he passed away less than a year later.  The book opens, fittingly, with a Prelude, and concludes with a Postlude, in which the author discusses his subject, with many details of his career, e.g., it was on his 25th birthday that he was appointed the conducting assistant to Artur Rodzinski, then the music director of the NY Philharmonic, who told the young man that he had “gone through all the conductors I know of in my mind and I finally asked God whom I should take, and God said, “Take Bernstein.”  Three months later, he made his “legendary conductorial debut with the New York Philharmonic substituting for an ailing Bruno Walter on only a few hours’ notice at a Sunday afternoon Carnegie Hall concert on November 14, 1943.”

Bernstein states that he “was fourteen when I attended my first concert, and it was a revelation.  It was a Boston Pops benefit for my father’s temple – – he had to go because he was vice-president of the temple.”  He did jazz gigs as well as weddings and bar mitzvahs to defray the cost of his piano lessons.  There is discussion on Freud; the family seders; political references, e.g., Bernstein was blacklisted for years and the FBI had a file on him 700 pages thick, and the fact that he made the front page of the NY Times and Washington Post – –  which included his picture, he was quick to note – – when he refused to attend the White House luncheon awards ceremony given by President Bush; gave six lectures at Harvard University in 1973; famously took the all-Catholic Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, whose players didn’t know what a Jew was before he conducted them, to Israel; among many other anecdotes.  Bernstein’s enthusiasm, erudition and brilliance shine through these pages.  This is a book to be savored by musicians and non-musicians alike, and is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2012.

Book Review: Homer’s Odyssey by Gwen Cooper

Homer’s Odyssey
Gwen Cooper
Read by Renee Raudman
Random House Audio, 2009
ISBN 0307704114
Unabridged Audio Book

A tiny homeless kitten is left with a veterinarian, a kitten with a terrible eye infection that could be successfully treated only be removing his eyes.  Being blind is one thing; being eyeless is quite another and the vet faces a difficult time finding a home for this little creature.  Then she introduces him to Gwen Cooper, a young woman with a love of animals, and a new life begins for the fluffball Cooper names Homer.

With Cooper‘s diligent help, Homer learns to maneuver in his sightless world, sharing space with two other cats and completely unaware that he has a disability.  His infection had taken hold before his newborn eyes opened and he had never had vision.  If you’ve never had sight, you don’t know what you’re missing and Homer sets out to conquer whatever hurdles he encounters.  Along the way, he teaches Cooper and every other person who meets him a thing or two about living beyond one’s limitations.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about one episode in Homer’s life, his survival of the horror of 9/11 when Cooper was prevented from returning home to her pets.  Cooper‘s telling of her experience during this terrible time and her fear for her cats struck a chord in me.

http://www.cncbooks.com/blog/2010/08/01/a-911-story/

I enjoy animal tales and Homer’s Odyssey is a special example of how much an animal can affect our lives.   Listening to the audio edition, I felt almost a part of this tiny cat’s life and I thank Ms. Cooper for sharing his story with us.  He is a little guy I wish I could meet in person.  Homer is now 13 years old and you can check in on him and his feline “sisters”, Vashti and Scarlett, at the author’s blog here—

http://www.gwencooper.com/blog.php

(Note: click on the “Uncategorized” tag in any post to get to the older posts.)

A portion of the author’s royalties go to animal rescue organizations and the paperback will be available this Tuesday so you’ve got no excuse—buy the book and meet this wonderful cat!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2010.

Book Review: Homer's Odyssey by Gwen Cooper

Homer’s Odyssey
Gwen Cooper
Read by Renee Raudman
Random House Audio, 2009
ISBN 0307704114
Unabridged Audio Book

A tiny homeless kitten is left with a veterinarian, a kitten with a terrible eye infection that could be successfully treated only be removing his eyes.  Being blind is one thing; being eyeless is quite another and the vet faces a difficult time finding a home for this little creature.  Then she introduces him to Gwen Cooper, a young woman with a love of animals, and a new life begins for the fluffball Cooper names Homer.

With Cooper‘s diligent help, Homer learns to maneuver in his sightless world, sharing space with two other cats and completely unaware that he has a disability.  His infection had taken hold before his newborn eyes opened and he had never had vision.  If you’ve never had sight, you don’t know what you’re missing and Homer sets out to conquer whatever hurdles he encounters.  Along the way, he teaches Cooper and every other person who meets him a thing or two about living beyond one’s limitations.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about one episode in Homer’s life, his survival of the horror of 9/11 when Cooper was prevented from returning home to her pets.  Cooper‘s telling of her experience during this terrible time and her fear for her cats struck a chord in me.

http://www.cncbooks.com/blog/2010/08/01/a-911-story/

I enjoy animal tales and Homer’s Odyssey is a special example of how much an animal can affect our lives.   Listening to the audio edition, I felt almost a part of this tiny cat’s life and I thank Ms. Cooper for sharing his story with us.  He is a little guy I wish I could meet in person.  Homer is now 13 years old and you can check in on him and his feline “sisters”, Vashti and Scarlett, at the author’s blog here—

http://www.gwencooper.com/blog.php

(Note: click on the “Uncategorized” tag in any post to get to the older posts.)

A portion of the author’s royalties go to animal rescue organizations and the paperback will be available this Tuesday so you’ve got no excuse—buy the book and meet this wonderful cat!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2010.