If it weren't for a friendly sex talk, everything here would be miserable
(in a good way?)
So James M. Cain is now may favorite. Write that down. James M. Cain is Theric's favorite. And then I read a book that I found fascinating and fun but also deeply angering and irritating. Great combination? Probably not. And inbetween, a new BCC Press book I highly recommend to all you sexual creatures out there.
Let's dig in!
015) Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, finished February 10
After being blown away by Postman (every day that passes, the more highly I think of it) I decided to get the one based on a movie I have seen (albeit twenty years ago—all the same, great movie; although I think it wasn't quite exactly what I just read; but then: twenty years ago).
And it too was incredible—what a writer!
Cain can make a novel-shaping metaphor in a two-sentence paragraph—or even a two-word paragraph. It's amazing to watch. And amazing that it works.
I love the twisted messes of humanity he presents, and his view of a relentless justice pressing down on his do-badders is relentless. And all along we are propelled forward. I know they're short books, but I wasn't even trying to read this one quickly. It was quick all on its own.
Anyway, James M. Cain, every body. I should maybe read something else before picking up another, but I dunno. I might not wait....
016) Sex Educated: Letters from a Latter-day Saint therapist to her younger self by Bonnie Young, LMFT, finished February 13
Good book. I appreciate the angle and the information. I hope it gets a wide audience. Too many minor errors (eg, a missing space; thinking her friends made up something Judy Blume made up; two endnotes at the same location, the second of which reads "Ibid."; which reminds me that sometimes it likes "Ibid" and other times "Ibid."—stuff like that), but they don't get in the way of the book's value.
The book has twelve letters to her younger self, one each for when aged 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 22, 26, and 28. The conceit is solid. The execution varies at time but since, at it's core, this is an exercise in practical advice for an external audience and not actual letters sent back in time, the shaky literary choices that would get her eaten alive by an audience neck-deep in time-travel novels hardly matter and I'm ashamed of myself for even bringing them up. I should work on my self-control, I suppose. See the letter to sixteen-year-old Bonnie.
I do love the concept and execution, though, make no mistake. I read things and thought, oh yeah, that would have been helpful at the time, even with the later letters. And she makes a few points later on that I'm not sure I'd had articulated for me before and, frankly, I appreciate that they now have been.
It's not a long book. You can read it in a day or a week or six months, as you please. Although in the opening letter to the reader, she says, "despite the fact that the first few letters of this book address a child, this is not a children's book." I've been thinking about that—just when is the right age to leave it lying around for a kid to find? When you've read it, I'd be interested in your opinion.
four or five days
017) Unmask Alice: LDS, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World's Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson, finished February 20
I had a wide variety of reactions to this book. Let's see if I can get them to cohere into one thing in one draft. Ready, go.
The book is super-readable. Maybe an eighth-grade reading level in terms of vocab and syntax, with supershort chapters, often a bit cliffhangery. I zoomed through this book. It's like potato chips.
I've never read Go Ask Alice or Jay's Journal or any other of Beatrice Sparks's books. My primary memory of them is me age . . . eight? (so years after Jay had been released in 1978) at my aunt's house, she and my mother having a whispered conversation about Jay's Journal. I don't remember details, but satanicpanicesque rumors swirled through the 80s and I knew Jay's Journal was connected. (We also weren't allowed to watch Dungeons & Dragons on Saturday morning. Though I snuck it in a few times anyway.) The book stayed at our house, while my mom was reading it, with a strict warning not to touch. Even today, when you enter my aunt's house, the first thing you see is her bookshelves, and so that haunted hardback's spine would look at me every time I entered.
Go Ask Alice I was less aware of, though I knew it was controversial. It never attracted my interest to actually read and I didn't know the two books were connected by the same serial hoaxer. Or, if you prefer, the same liar. And I didn't know she was LDS until just a few years ago. As was the nonSatanist kid she based Satanist Jay on.
In an early footnote on the word "Mormon," Emerson says this:
* Officially "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints," a bulky phrase I don't wish to type nine thousand times. In daily life—and despite the Church's best efforts—it typically gets shortened to "LDS," but given this book's frequent mentions of "LSD" (the drug), that seems like asking for trouble and/or inadvertent hilarity. For clarity's sake, I'm sticking to "Saints," "Latter-day Saints," "Mormon," and other casual terms. No disrespect is intended.
No disrespect may be intended, but it's hard not to be disrespectful when you have genuinely zero idea why anyone might be religious. The book's vibe on religion can be summed up as "crazy-stupid shit we have to respect for some reason" and it shines through.
Now, look—midcentury LDS culture had plenty flaws I've no interest in defending, but when religion is defacto crazy-stupid to you, so are its adherents. Every Mormon in this book is, on some core level, a fool and possibly a dangerous fool. And details that emphasize that thus get more light shined on them than any that might mitigate.
Unmask Alice opens with an author's note that essentially says—I am not exaggerating—don't check but I have sources for everything and you can trust me.
I decided to go ahead and take him at his word but when I came to the second author's note at the end of the book, I was shocked to see that his sources consist of 1) things you can check yourself so I didn't put them in the book, 2) other things you can check yourself if you really want to, and 3) "Things that aren't public and, for reasons of privacy, aren't currently checkable."
The last few chapters of the book consist of research that largely falls into #3, and he does say when he's doing it as he's doing it, which is a great way to build trust (suspiciously great, a cynic might say, being a tool Sparks also used). He says, for instance, that one of three librarians he's talking to will not be named at her request as her brother also committed suicide (like "Jay").
Emerson works to assure us he's naming his sources whenever he can. But at one point he slams an HBLL program that works on Wikipedia articles by quoting an anonymous "BYU researcher." He later gives a generous thank you to the HBLL in his final acknowledgments, but that anonymous BYU researcher remains anonymous. Why? Did his brother commit suicide too?
Even more startling to me was something thrown into the appendix. After three scans of Library of Congress records (to demonstrate how inconsistent they are describing Sparks's work and how library records are, essentially, entirely whatever an author/publisher claims—he spent pages complaining about this system earlier in the book), he includes a scan from his own contract that "stipulates that fact-checking is my responsibility, and that I solemnly swear not to lie" (all captions were italicized)—which I found shocking because, given his trust-me form of sourcing, I was really counting on assurance that the publisher provided some New Yorker-level factchecking. They did not.
Look: The book largely rings true. But given my own knowledge about some aspects of what he talks about, I know he's not playing totally straight, even if he thinks he is. Plus, he just takes so much (perhaps justifiable) delight talking about historical panics over LSD and marijuana and (nonexistent) Satanic cults. At one point, he blames his style on his experience in talk radio, and honestly that does feel explanatory. But no sources, no index—in the end, this does not feel like a work of scholarship. It's a fun read and I believe it is mostly true, but the deeply disturbing irony of a book about someone who failed to source anything failing to source turns Unmask Alice into a work of popular entertainment. I would like to update several Wikipedia articles using his research, which seems good, but his assertion that his sources are out there should I too wish to search the Nixon tapes or Pleasant Grove High School yearbooks or the historical rosters of UCLA is weak. It's just incredibly, embarrassingly weak.
It's hard for me to understand why someone would do all this work and then get so lazy at the end. I suspect it's because the publisher told him to do it himself. There's a lesson here for authors and publishers alike. (Sadly, that lesson might be you can cut corners and sell the same amount of books, but I'd rather not consider that lesson.)
Finally, Rick Emerson is just kind of a jerk. And while he's usually a good host, his willingness to take cheap shots now and then did not inspire my trust. I penciled "What a dick." at the bottom of page 334, and I'm leaving it when I return it to the library. Let the rest of Contra Costa County know my opinion. I stand by it.
Two more things about <i>Unmask Alice</i>:
1. A granddaughter of someone quoted in the book says Emerson was "claiming he went to BYU, Harvard, and Columbia. Well, the first two are correct, but later in life he got an additional degree from a degree mill called Columbia Pacific University — vastly different than THE Columbia." Amusingly, Emerson made fun of that—I think <i>he</i> called it a diploma mill—not many pages away from this error
2. He called Orem a postage stamp of a city near Provo, which, I mean, it was over 25,000 people by 1970 when Provo was over 50,000. I don't feel the description holds.
Oh---another thing I thought was funny was calling Yakima and Ukiah "opposite ends of the West Coast."