Tag Archives: Henry Holt and Company

The Unexplained

A Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman (Henry Holt and Co., $28.00, 288 pages)

an unexplained death

Author Mikita Brottman lives at the Belvedere Hotel, a Baltimore landmark with a long history of strange occurrences, suicides, and mysterious deaths.  Brottman here professes her fascination with the occult, tarot cards, and suicide so the examination of the apparent 2006 suicide of Rey Rivera – a once-fellow resident of the Belvedere, would seem to be a perfect topic for her writing.

Brottman’s account of events, An Uexplained Death, provides numerous details surrounding Rivera’s death as well as a tremendous amount of conjecture on her part.  What it fails to do is to provide clarity or new information beyond what was already known or presumed. (The authorities found the death to be a suicide.)  Brottman goes on – in what seems like a stretch – to explore cultural attitudes about suicide from around the world, and she provides her personal views on various matters whether related or not.

Rey Rivera was a tall and attractive aspiring film maker who moved to Baltimore from Los Angeles with his new wife, Allison.  He joined with Porter Stansberry of Agora, publishing newsletters offering financial advice.  His death happened to come at the time when he had borrowed money to produce his own film, was getting ready to quit Agora – which was engulfed in an SEC investigation – and was about to move back to L.A.

Did Rivera jump from the roof of the Belvedere, falling through a skylight at the top of a space which once housed the hotel’s swimming pool, or was he running from someone intending to do him harm?  Brottman investigates various alternatives to suicide possibilities, but none of them seem either likely or probable.  She wonders aloud whether Rivera was depressed about the Agora investigation or whether he became entangled in a homosexual affair.  It’s all so much smoke and mirrors because each such alternate explanation is discarded shortly after being raised.  And Brottman’s conclusion of this strange, quasi-fictional investigation of a real-life death provides nothing of substance.

The story is slightly compelling during the few periods in which Brottman sticks to the subject matter at hand.  But she spends far too much time writing about herself, her life, and her obsessions.  Oh, but for an editor!

The typical reader is unlikely to find Brottman’s affinity for rats very endearing.  The same is true concerning her fascination with strangely committed murders, and the time she spends imagining herself in another person’s shoes (such as Allison Reyes’s).  All in all, this is a book of rambling distractions, which is as generally uninteresting as it is undisciplined.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is a public school superintendent in Illinois and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

Notes:

The Beaux Arts style Belvedere Hotel was opened as Baltimore’s first luxury hotel in 1903 and was converted to residential condos in 1991.

I read the book and wondered why the writer spent an obsessive amount of time attempting to solve a crime which the local authorities had already solved, resolved and literally closed the book on.  – Joseph Arellano

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That Was Only Yesterday

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber (Picador, $16.00, 320 pages)

On March 30, 1981, I was at the Orange County (California) airport – waiting for my return flight to Sacramento when it became clear that something had happened back east.   The then-new president of the U.S. and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, had been shot in an apparent assassination attempt.   Three other persons were shot and it was not then known whether Reagan, at his advanced age, would survive.   It appeared that a hundred or so persons jammed into the airport’s pub-restaurant to watch the 19-inch RCA color TVs broadcasting the dramatic events.

On that day – back in the day – I assumed that a book about the near assassination of an American president would appear within 6 to 18 months, clarifying exactly what happened.   But years and then decades passed by and the book did not appear.   This, finally, is that book.

Del Quentin Wilber takes a micro-level look at the events of 03/30/81 in a style that recalls books like The Day Lincoln Was Shot, The Day Kennedy Was Shot and The Death of a President.   It is an immediately engaging narrative which begins by looking at the schedules of Reagan (whose Secret Service code name was Rawhide), his Secret Service detail members and of the highly disturbed and bizarre individual who sought to impress a Hollywood starlet.   The language and mood become more tense and dramatic as the hour of the assassination attempt draws near.

Wilber very properly sets the stage by reminding us that this shooting came just three months after the killing of John Lennon, and followed the history-altering assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, and of Martin Luther King, Jr.   Wilber’s sadness in recalling these events is palpable, and informs the reader that this is a non-partisan account – one need not have been a political supporter of Reagan’s to fear for his safety (and for the country’s future) while revisiting that period.

“If Jerry Parr hadn’t decided to redirect the limousine from the White House to the hospital, Reagan would likely have died…”

“(The) doctors had been keeping pace with Reagan’s bleeding by pumping donated blood and fluids into his system.   So far, the tactic was working…  But this compensatory approach couldn’t continue forever.   They would have to stop the bleeding surgically.”

In these pages, Ronald Reagan is a likeable and courageous man who was able to joke with his emergency room physicians.   (He wondered what the gunman had against the Irish as all those shot on this day happened to be of Irish heritage.)   But he was also a man who wondered if he was about to meet his maker.   It was an open question because, as we now know, Reagan lost fully half of his blood volume as surgeons sought to remove the bullet that lodged a single inch from his heart.   Those of us glued to the TVs in early 1981 had no idea that the president came this close to dying.

Once the danger period had passed, the president was advised by the medical professionals to rest and convalesce for several months.   But he was a uniquely physically fit and strong elderly man.   Twelve days later he was back at the White House, and just a month later a visibly thinner president addressed a joint session of the Congress.

There’s more, much more, in this telling that disappoints only in that it seems to end too soon.   The courage of the Secret Service agents who saved the president’s life on this day is close to being incomprehensible.   “(Agent) Parr’s training had taught him one thing above all:  when faced with an actual threat, he could never freeze.   Not for three seconds, not for one second.   Without fail, he had to respond instantly.”

This is a fascinating and unique account, and it constitutes a worthwhile addition to the historical record.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Rawhide Down was released as a trade paperback book on March 27, 2012.  

“Full of spectacular, original reporting.”   Bob Woodward

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Chain Gang

Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire by Robert Perkinson (Picador; $20.00; 496 pages)

“Hardly light reading…  a slog through a muddy field.”

It’s doubtful that anyone would wish to take the position that modern American prisons serve as the perfect example of rehabilitative environments.   Yet Professor Robert Perkinson takes approximately 500 pages to argue the case that they are not the best representation of a “forgiving society.”   That’s fine but this reviewer wishes that at least half of this large tome had dealt with solutions rather than simple issue spotting.   Finding problems is the easy part, finding solutions – applying innovative social engineering – is the tough part and is missing from this quasi-legal brief.

Texas Tough is highly documented with source materials and yet academic knowledge is not the same as practical experience.   At one point in his Conclusion, for example, Parkinson disparages “high-tech uberprisons like Pelican Bay in California,” as not being very friendly (prisons like this are “regimented lockups” in his view).   I saw no indication in the Notes that Mr. Perkinson has ever visited Pelican Bay (as I have); this is an end-of-the-line facility for the most violent of hard-core offenders.   It is not meant to serve as either a Club Fed or a cozy community college.

What would Mr. Perkinson do as the administrator of such a facility?   (Asked but not answered.)

One of the most interesting aspects of this book (and the first half is much harder reading than the second half due to some highly obtuse language) is the application of The Law of Unintended Consequences, popularized by the sociologist Robert K. Merton.   This principle is often referenced in law schools as litigation and legislation-based reforms may produce results that surprise their sponsors.   Due to court-ordered reforms in the state of Texas, for example, the author notes that inmates are now “as plagued by tedium as toil.”   Their death rates are also much lower.   These two points don’t seem to support his case very well.

The professor also spends a great portion of this work arguing that northern prisons have become more punitive (and “southern”), while southern prisons have become more “northern” and less harsh.   Perkinson ties this to race but it seems more than a bit tenuous.   Let’s just say that it may remain an interesting issue for further research for sociologists.  (Just a thought: Why didn’t Perkinson compare west coast prisons to east coast ones?)

If one has never read a book about the U. S. correctional system, then this might make for an interesting, if sometimes blatantly overdone, introduction to the subject.   It is hardly light reading.   In fact, it is sometimes a slog through a muddy field.

This reviewer is hopeful that someone follows up on this survey work with a constructive and solution-based approach to what Professor Perkinson somewhat dramatically labels as “America’s Prison Empire.”

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by Henry Holt and Company.   Take Away:  Perkinson spends a lot of time (and reams of paper) making an argument that not a lot of people are going to disagree with.   The fault is that after pinpointing problems he fails to even suggest possible solutions.

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The Mighty Quinn

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber (Henry Holt and Company; $27.00; 296 pages)

On March 30, 1981, I was at the Orange County (California) airport – waiting for my return flight to Sacramento – when it became clear that something had happened back east.   The new president of the U.S., and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan had been shot in an apparent assassination attempt.   Three other persons were shot and it was not known whether Reagan, at his advanced age, would survive.   It appeared that a hundred or so persons jammed into the airport’s pub to watch the 19-inch RCA televisions broadcasting the dramatic events.

On that day, I assumed that a book about the near assassination of an American president would appear within 6 to 18 months, clarifying exactly what happened that day.   Years and decades passed by and it did not appear…  This, finally, is that book.

Del Quentin Wilber takes a micro-level look at the events of 03/30/81 in a style that recalls books like The Day Lincoln Was Shot, The Day Kennedy Was Shot and The Death of a President. It is an immediately engaging narrative which begins by looking at the schedules of Reagan (whose secret service code name was Rawhide), his secret service detail members and of the highly disturbed and bizarre individual who sought to impress a Hollywood actress.   The language and mood become more intense as the hour of the assassination attempt draws near.  

Wilber properly sets the stage by reminding us that this shooting came just three months after the killing of John Lennon, and followed the history-altering assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.   Wilber’s sadness in relating these events is palpable, and informs the reader that this is a non-partisan account – one need not have been a political supporter of Reagan’s to fear for his safety (and for the country’s future) while revisiting that period.

“If Jerry Parr hadn’t decided to redirect the limousine from the White House to the hospital, Reagan would likely have died…”

“(The) doctors had been keeping pace with Reagan’s bleeding by pumping donated blood and fluids into his system.   So far, the tactic was working…  But this compensatory approach couldn’t continue forever.   They would have to stop the bleeding surgically.”

In these pages, Ronald Reagan is a likeable and courageous man who was able to joke with his emergency room physicians.   (He wondered what the gunman had against the Irish as all those shot on this day happened to be of Irish heritage.)   But he was also a man who wondered if he was about to meet his maker.   It was an open question because, as we now know, Reagan lost fully half of his blood volume as surgeons sought to remove the bullet that lodged just one inch from his heart.   Those of us glued to the TVs in early 1981 had no idea that the president came this close to dying.

Once the danger period passed, the president was advised to convalesce for several months.   But he was a uniquely physically fit and strong elderly man.   Twelve days later he was back at the White House, and a mere month later a visibly thinner president addressed a joint session of the Congress.

There’s more, much more, in this telling that disappoints only in that it seems to conclude too soon.   The courage of the secret service agents who saved the president’s life on this day is close to being incomprehensible.   “(Agent) Parr’s training had taught him one thing above all:  when faced with an actual threat, he could never freeze.   Not for three seconds, not for one second.   Without fail, he had to respond instantly.”

This is a fascinating and unique account, and constitutes a worthwhile addition to the historical record.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Brooklyn Roads

Sunset Park: A Novel by Paul Auster (A Frances Coady Book/Henry Holt and Company; $25.00; 320 pages)

It is the policy of Joseph’s Reviews to consider each work as to its own merit.   This latest novel by famed Brooklyn, NY writer Paul Auster is the first of his works read by this reviewer which makes it easy to adhere to the policy.   The book has served to pique my curiosity about Auster’s previous novels.   I hope they, too, have the quietness and narrow focus that he grants each of his characters in Sunset Park.

There is aloneness, almost an alienation that Auster’s characters Miles, Bing, Alice and Ellen have in common.   They are approaching midlife without the confidence and skills necessary to carry them into the next segment of their lives.   Each has strongly felt needs that serve to nudge them into the world each day away from the city-owned house in a seedy part of Brooklyn where they have become squatters because all of them are painfully short on funds.   These needs are coupled with real world time-sensitive matters that cannot be ignored.  

Miles’ girlfriend in Florida, Pilar, is a ticking time bomb through no fault of her own (she’s underage).   He is both drawn by and afraid of his need for her.   Alice is closing in on the final chapters of her doctoral dissertation, Ellen knows that her job is in peril if she cannot stay focused and Bing fears his own proclivities.

The housemates are aware that any day Brooklyn city police will serve them with an eviction notice.   Even though there is a sense of passing time and looming eventualities, the pace of the novel allows the reader to observe each character and appreciate how life has handed them challenges that will either serve as lessons or bring them disastrous outcomes.   Of the four, only Miles has a safety net in the form of famous parents and step-parents.   He has a painful secret that he has kept and danced around for over seven years.   This secret has drawn him away from his parents and into hiding.

Auster tells just enough of a tale to capture the reader’s attention.   He leaves out enough to allow the reader space to consider the reality that each of us has issues in life and they can be vastly different.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Sunset Park will be released on Tuesday, November 9, 2010.

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A 4 Book Giveaway!

We’re giving 4 different books away.   The first, courtesy of St. Martin’s Press, is The Vaults by Toby Ball ($24.99).   Here is a synopsis:   “The City,” your typical 1930s metropolis full of corruption and sleaze, is home to a host of crooked cops, businessmen, and everyday citizens.   However, for the few who don’t adhere to the shady rules of this society, there is a mystery unfolding.   When Arthur Puskis, the reclusive archivist for “The City,” finds duplicate files for one criminal in his flawless archiving system, he can’t help but try to find out why the fraudulent one exists.   Meanwhile Ethan Poole is a private detective and top-notch blackmail artist who is going after the mayor’s right-hand man while trying to track down a woman’s son who disappeared seven years ago.   Frank Frings is a well-known investigative journalist who, between printing attacks on the mayor of “The City,” is dating its most notorious jazz singer.   Eventually all three men are lead to evidence of “The Navajo Project,” something the mayor and his associates are desperate to keep under wraps – by any means necessary.

We also, thanks to Doubleday Books, have two (2) hardbound copies to give away of the novel The False Friend by Myla Goldberg, which will be released on October 5, 2010 ($25.95).   We posted a copy of the book’s cover on September 25, 2010 (“Second Hand News”).   Here is a brief synopsis:   Leaders of a mercurial clique, Celia and Djuna subjected each other and their three followers to an endless cycle of reward and punishment that peaked one afternoon when all five girls walked home along a forbidden road.   Djuna disappeared that day; Celia blocked out what happened.   It was assumed that Djuna was abducted, though neither she nor her abductor was never found.

We’re also, at the suggestion of one of our readers, going to give away a grade “A” condition advance reading copy (ARC) of the thrilling ride On the Line by S. J. Rozan, which was reviewed on this site on September 19, 2010 (“Hold the Line”).   It’s a recommended book, the hardbound copy of which is selling for $24.99.   Why not just win the ARC instead?

Before giving you the giveaway contest rules, we have one brief announcement.   We’re moving up the closing date for our contest to give away a copy of the novel The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier.   This novel was reviewed here on September 3, 2010 and the hardbound copy has a value of $25.00.   If you want to enter this contest, you will need to do it now.   The rules (“Win a Second Chance!”) were posted on September 4, 2010, and your entry must be in by tomorrow – Tuesday, September 28, 2010 – at midnight PST.

As for the four books being given away, in order to enter this contest just post a comment below with your name and e-mail address or send an e-mail with this information to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.  For a second entry, indicate which book/ARC you are most interested in and why.   In order to keep this interesting, Munchy the cat may decide to give all four books to one person, two books to two persons, or one book to four persons.   It’s his call, so you may offer to bribe him with cat treats.   Yeowk!   (OK, just kidding)

Your entries must be received by midnight on Friday, October 15, 2010 because we want to move these books fast.  In order to enter, you must be a resident of the continental U. S. and you must supply, if you are contacted, a residential mailing address.   No books will be shipped to a P. O. box or a business-related address. 

This is it for the rules.   All rules are subject to be changed at any time by Munchy.   Good luck and good reading!

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What Went Wrong with Tomorrow?

The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn (Holt Paperbacks; $15.00; 250 pages)

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved in return.”

This is an interesting and slyly engaging novel built around the theme that people never quite get what they want  out of life.   The story tells the tale of Frank Allcroft, a TV news anchorman working in his home town of Birmingham, England.   Frank appears to have everything possible in life – a great and glamorous job (one that makes people want to buy him his drinks), a beautiful and intelligent wife, and a bright, inquisitive and strangely optimistic daughter.   But things are unraveling at the seams.   His idol Phil, his predecessor in the anchor chair has died under mysterious circumstances; his late architect father’s buildings are being torn down; and his mother wants to be left alone to die in an assisted-living facility.

It seems that Frank will only be able to shake his malaise if he manages to figure out the details of Phil’s death.   Was it an accident, a suicide or something else?   Phil was always a positive extrovert but in the weeks before his death he was tearful and gloomy, drinking too much and telling his co-workers how much he loved them.   Something just doesn’t add up.

Frank likely saw Phil as a second father, one whose death brings back all of his memories of his father’s passing only a month after a professional setback.   Frank’s now seeing that nothing in life lasts, and the promise of a better future appears to be quickly diminishing in line with his own aging (he can no longer see to drive at night).   Yet, just when the reader sees that he or she has this one all figured out, O’Flynn puts in some sharp curves on what’s been an otherwise straight drive.   We learn the shocking truth behind Phil’s death as we see that, for some, life offers new rewards, gifts.

The reader receives the message from O’Flynn that some people never recover from a death; it’s a harsh fact of life.   “He’s never once felt Elsie’s presence since she died.   He watched the last breath leave her body and then the world changed.   She was gone.   He feels her presence all the time…  He understands now.   Our absence is what remains of us.”

O’Flynn has provided her audience with a beautifully balanced treatise on the things that life provides and the things that life takes away from us.   It is a quietly stunning work.

Well recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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