The Lost Girls of Paris (Book Review and Anachronism Rant)

The Lost Girls of Paris

The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Tl;dr: dnf-ing at 30%.

First, I would think a book about female wireless operators and saboteurs helping the French resistance in WW2 would slam-dunk the Bechdel Test. And technically it does pass; the female characters do have conversations with each other about things other than men. But the letter of the law and the spirit of the law do not always agree. I can spot a hate-meet insta-love setup at 300 paces, and spotting two of them is painful. This reads like romance disguised as historical fiction. Not a Bechdel winner.

Second, I hate anachronisms. I’m no historian, so if I can spot them, they’re fairly egregious. Like, I seriously doubt anyone was watching a televised newscast on a TV hanging over the counter in a diner in 1946. But what’s really pissing me off are the nylons.

This conversation is from Marie’s training to be undercover in occupied France in 1944 and getting dragged about doing things the French way so as not to give herself away as English:

“And these stockings…” The colonel held up the pair she’d worn when she’d arrived the night before.

Marie was puzzled. The stockings were French, with the straight seam up the back. What could possibly be wrong with that? “Those are French!” she cried, unable to restrain herself.

“Were French,” the colonel corrected with disdain. “No one can get this type in France anymore, or nylons at all for that matter. The girls are painting their legs now with iodine.”

No. Just NO. Nylon stockings, soon dubbed “nylons,” were invented by an American and first produced in the U.S. in 1940. They were immediately and immensely popular, but they had seams up the back. Seamless stockings were rare anywhere even by the late 40’s and didn’t become popular until the late 50’s or so (confirmed by my mom and a friend’s mom, aged 81 and 88 respectively). When the U.S. entered WW2 in 1941, it diverted its nylon production to the war effort just as Japan did with its silk, resulting in a widespread and severe stocking shortage for women. During the war, women everywhere faked nylons/stockings by shaving and painting their legs with various substances, and many went further by drawing on “seams” with eyebrow pencils. The Great Google tells me that the British did have some nylons they used as recruitment enticement for the WRENS, but even if they were made of much-less-desirable cotton (and therefore not really “nylons”), they still would have had seams.

And after all that? Marie is later escorted to the plane that will drop her into occupied France wearing…her nylons. But I guess the nylons aren’t much of a risk since she’s the most birdbrained, blabbermouthed undercover saboteur/wireless operator imaginable.

Another character in a different timeline also has nylons that have apparently been torn in a one-night-stand with the chance-met best friend of her dead husband. I doubt she would have had a pair of nylons even in February 1946, given that only a month prior nylon stockings were still so scarce they were actually rioted over, and even if she’d taken a day off of work to participate in those riots and get a pair, they were precious enough that she would not have wasted them on a workday.

I never thought I’d read a book where nylons killed it for me, but the devil is in the details, as they say. I suppose I’m glad they aren’t pantyhose.

I could possibly put up with this if the writing was good, but the characters are cardboard, there’s far too much telling vs showing, and the contrivances show up like seams on stockings. Now I just read the part where Marie is thrown into proximity with her hate-meet romantic interest, because even though he’s the leader of the undercover British sabotage efforts in occupied France, he needs her with him (nylons and all) because he doesn’t speak French.

Nope, I’m done. The only reason I’m not throwing the book across the room is that it’s on my Kindle.

Bookshelves: abandoned, anachronisms-abound, historical-fiction, just-no, ww2

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The Donner Party (Twofer Book Review)

Bookshelves: american-history, americana, mother-nature-will-kill-you, non-fiction, man-vs-nature, survival, wild-wild-west

Both of these books are about the doomed Donner-Reed Party of 1846-47, a wagon train of 87 emigrants to California who started through the Sierras too late in the year and with only a meager food supply, were trapped in the mountains by twenty feet of snow, and had to resort to cannibalizing those who had already died of starvation.

Takeaway from both books: Generally speaking, women have more gumption than men. Of those left in the camps at Truckee (now Donner) Lake, men turned their faces to the wall and were ready to die long before the women gave up. “I’m sick, my gravel hurts, I’ve got a bad foot.” Waaaah. And of those who snowshoed out, more women attempted AND made it.

I’m pretty sure calling someone a pussy should be considered a compliment.

The Mothers: A Documentary Novel of the Donner Party

The Mothers: A Documentary Novel of the Donner Party by Vardis Fisher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was assigned reading back when I was in 8th or 9th grade. Clearly, it made an impression as I wanted to read it again, so I scrounged around online and found a used copy. This account of the Donner Party is touted as a “fictionalized biography” and a “novel,” although it sticks very close to the facts as I’ve learned them.

The story is well told as far as it goes, but the arrival of various rescue parties is–to me, anyway–only the beginning of the end. In this book, there’s no ending to the end. We are told of the Breen family (those who had not been taken out by the first relief party) refusing to budge during a snowstorm as they trekked toward Bear Valley with the second relief party, then being left behind and forced to cannibalism. That’s it. I’m left with the mental picture of a bunch of people sitting in the snow, gnawing on a human leg, fade to black. That’s not how it ended for the Breens. No spoilers.

No epilogue, no aftermath. I’m miffed that there is no source material listed. Yes, it was published as a “novel” in 1960, when all the source material may not have been available to the author, but the story was a well-known historical tale and there had to have been some archives he consulted. The writing itself is a bit stilted at times, and perhaps it’s just that the style is dated, but it’s still quite readable.

I do see why it moved me so much when I was a young teenager. It’s a decent read, if you like to immerse yourself in gory stuff like I do.

For a better read on the subject, in my opinion, check out:

The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest DestinyThe Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny by Michael Wallis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is more like it. Great stuff. Not only is it a very personal story of members of the Donner-Reed Party, especially considering its academic approach, it is a close and often scathing look at the arrogance of white America and the principle of Manifest Destiny. It’s a recital of facts, to be sure, but it is a suck-you-in story, never dry, never boring. The heroism and the ignobility, the generosity and the greed, the courage and the cowardice, the strengths and weakness of those who found themselves in a horrific struggle for survival, are all here. One of the more fascinating tidbits, to me, was that banished-party-leader-turned-rescuer James Reed was a good friend of Abraham Lincoln, who might well have been a member of the party had he not been married to Mary Todd, who most emphatically did not want to go to California. On such chains of events our destinies sit.

I contacted my son, who is a co-host of the Lax Historical Context podcast, to suggest a villain for him: Lewis Keseberg, no doubt the most–perhaps fairly, perhaps not–vilified member of the Donner-Reed Party, who went on to found Sacramento’s Phoenix Brewery and introduce lager to California before eventually dying a penniless outcast. Nope, kid was five or six steps ahead of me; Donner Party episode already recorded a couple of months ago. He also knew all about the Donner Party Porter I’d happened across, naturally.

Not only is this review a plug for the book, it’s a shameless plug for the podcast. If you like history, you should check it out: Lax Historical Context, wherever you find your podcasts. If you’re interested in the most infamous emigrant story of pioneer America, read this book, wherever you find your books.

Now, in 75-degree weather and with nary a snowflake on the horizon, I’m in the mood for a beer and I’m going to see if I can’t acquire some of that Donner Party Porter.

Join me for a beer over at Goodreads

2020 Reading Challenge (I’m Gonna Do It This Time!)

Well, I mostly completed my 2017 Reading Challenge. I ran out of steam toward the end of that year, but I’ve recently picked up a few 2017 stragglers, including The Alchemist and Rebecca. Reviews to come. 2018 and 2019 were off writing years for me.

My Goodreads Year in Books for 2019 impressed even me, at 68 books for the year, and it’s even more impressive when you consider that I don’t count rereads (I’ve gobbled up a few Miss Marples and made it through M in Sue Grafton’s alphabet series) and I’m sure I missed several that I read on my husband’s library account. But as I look back on it, I was reading the same old stuff I always read. I love reading challenges because they take me to new places.

2020, let’s do this! And credit where it’s due, this is not my own list; I largely stole it from PopSugar. And to be further upfront, I cheat sometimes and combine categories.

ninocare
Photo: ninocare/Pixabay

(1) A book with a bird on the cover: The Bird King, a fantasy novel by G. Willow Wilson. Take a second and Google the cover. It’s gorgeous.

(2) A bildungsroman: I’m going to add to my Literature-With-a-Capital-L cred as well and read Great Expectations. I’ve read Bleak House, and I liked it, but I think I have to like at least two Dickens books before I can claim to be one of those people who likes Dickens.

(3) A book that passes the Bechdel test: Feminist me loves the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test originated in 1985 with Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, purportedly inspired by Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” in which Woolf observed that women always appear in books and cinema solely as they are related to men. The Bechdel rule for fiction is simple: there have to be at least two women, who have to have at least one conversation with each other, that isn’t about a man. Books like this aren’t so hard to find these days, but it’s still difficult for movies.

I’m going with My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite.

(4) A book on a subject I know nothing about AND (5) a book with flora or fauna in the author’s name: I may regret this choice.

My maternal grandmother was a teacher through and through, even beyond her dying day. She willed her body to the university medical school where I was employed when she died, to be used for teaching purposes. One of my job duties, in the Public Relations and Development area of the Dean’s office, was to give tours of the facility to various Very Important People, of which the anatomy and pathology teaching laboratories were a high point. The lab staff were always considerate and made sure my grandma was nowhere to be seen if they knew I was coming. It was strange and unsettling, and they were very kind to me about it.

I have a morbid interest in true crime and forensic science. So, my weirdo pick here is Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. Blurbs say it is not only educational, but hilarious and “oddly uplifting.” I fervently hope so.

(6) A book with a robot/AI/cyborg character AND (27) a book set in a city that has hosted the Olympics: More sci-fi! I’m reading Marissa Meyer’s Cinder. It’s a retelling of Cinderella featuring Cinder the cyborg, set in Beijing. More cover love.

(7) A book with only words on the cover, no graphics or images: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. This looks like a great trashy read, with the plus of a different culture.

(8) A book with one of the deadly sins in the title: Riffing on pride, I’ve picked Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. In all these years, I’ve never read that one. I love satire when it’s done well.

thommas68
Photo: thommas68/Pixabay

(9) A book with gold, silver, or bronze in the title: I loved Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash, so now I’m finally going to pick up Quicksilver. See, I could smoosh another twofer here and also tick off (12) A 2019 award winner by reading Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver instead, which won the 2019 Locus award for fantasy and also sounds like it’s channeling Rumpelstiltskin. But I’ve been meaning to read Quicksilver anyway, and I could use a cyberpunk fix, so I’m going to read both of them.

(–) A book with a pun in the title: Everything I found online sounded stupid. Skipping this one.

(10) A book with three words in the title: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Described as the anti-Jane Eyre, which sounds delicious.

(11) A book about a world leader: Let’s spice things up with Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson.

(13) A book with the same name as a movie/TV show but that is not related to it: More sci-fi with Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. I watch very little TV and have no idea what show that title belongs to.

(14) A book about or including social media: Ah yes, the bane of modern culture (says the woman who tweets and Facebooks her blog posts). Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation by Andrew Marantz looks interesting.

(15) A book with a book on the cover: I just downloaded Laurie R. King’s Touchstone, one of her novels that is not about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. I won’t get to it until after the New Year, so it’s not cheating.

(16) A medical thriller: Sorry; I’ve never cared for either Robin Cook or Michael Crichton, and I got burned out on Patricia Cornwell some time back. I’m going to feed my forensic and true crime addiction with more non-fiction, with Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.

(17) A book with a made-up language: Lord of the Rings is the obvious one, because who doesn’t want to speak Elvish, but that would be a re-read for the umpteenth time. My pick is Strange the Dreamer, a YA fantasy by Laini Taylor.

(18) A book set in a country that starts with C: Our Man in Havana, the classic spy thriller by Graham Greene.

(19) A book with a title that caught my attention AND (24) a book by a trans/non-binary author: How friggin’ awesome is the title An Unkindness of Ghosts? Is the unkindness a deed, like a bunch of ghost juvenile delinquents bullying somebody? Or is it the collective name for a group of ghosts, like a murmuration of starlings or a shiver of sharks? I am intrigued. Nominated for several awards, it ticks off the sci-fi, horror, LGBTQ, and dystopia boxes.

(20) An anthology: Two choices here. There’s Glimpses by various authors, or Apothecary, by Thomas Fay, both fantasy short story collections. Both are FREE through the Amazon Kindle app right now as I write this in the wee hours of December 29 (hi, insomnia!); I just snagged them both. The only thing better than books is free books. And sleep.

(21) A book published during my birth month: Tattered paperback copies of Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews, published in November 1979, were passed around when I was in high school, but I somehow never read it. Time to amend that.

(22) A book by or about a woman in STEM: Joan Proctor, Dragon Doctor, a picture biography suitable for kids but evidently adored by adults too, looks delightful.

(23) A book published in 2020: A story of migrants fleeing peril and poverty to seek safety and security in America (*snerk*), Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt looks to be heartbreaking.

(25) A book with a great first line: “I am an invisible man.” I’ve been on the waiting list for The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and it should be my turn in the next couple of weeks.

quote-i-am-an-invisible-man-i-am-a-man-of-substance-of-flesh-and-bone-fiber-and-liquids-and-i-might-ralph-ellison-57506 (1)

(26) A book about a book club: I can’t decide between The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Beatriz Rivera’s Playing With Light. I’ll surprise you.

(28) A book with an upside-down image on the cover: I found a lot of these with birds on them, interestingly enough, but I’d already picked my bird book. Then I stumbled upon the cover of Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.

Many years ago I was dating, for several months, a guy who was openly losing his mind about turning 40. I’d already done it and assured him it was no big deal, but nooOOoo, don’t listen to me. He souped up the Mustang he already owned and painted it bright red, and not long afterward he ghosted me. My suspicions were confirmed a few weeks later when I saw a cute little blonde driving said Mustang around town. I ran into him a few years ago; he was paunchy, most of his hair was gone, and there was no cute little blonde to be seen (hi, Neil! Yes, you’re a walking cliche). And I am happy to report that, in shocking defiance of the gods and the odds, I happened to be dressed to the nines, lookin’ fine, with a handsome and attentive man on my arm. Bite me, Neil.

The book is described as witty, crude, and midlife-crisis focused. I hope it’s as funny as Neil was in retrospect.

(29) A book with a map: As a kid on road trips, I frequently overheard one adult saying to another about me: “Why has she been reading the road map for the last two hours?” “Well. She is a strange child sometimes.” I love maps, I decorate with them and have a favorite map head scarf, so I could happily read an atlas. But I’ve picked Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, and I have just one question: WHY HAVE I NEVER HEARD OF THIS DELIGHTFUL-SOUNDING BIT OF CHILDREN’S METAFICTION THAT’S AS OLD AS I AM BEFORE NOW?

(30) A book recommended by a favorite online book club/chat group/whatever: It’s a super-secret online book group formed for super-secret reasons with super-secret membership, but I can tell you the book is Lisa See’s The Island of Sea Women. I can also tell you it’s taken me months to work my way up to #27 on the wait list at my library.

I think that’s enough structure. Happy Bookish New Year!

A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester (Book Review)

A Crack in the Edge of the WorldA Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 by Simon Winchester

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book should be titled, “A Crack in the Edge of the World: A Fairly Exhaustive Geological History of Planet Earth With Regard to Plate Tectonics and Continental Drift, and Tales of the Author’s College Days, Camping on Mount Diablo, and then Finally Two Chapters That Are Actually About the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.”

Seriously, dude. Too many tangents, and waaaay too much technical detail, at least for lay readers. I mean, I mostly (kinda) understood it, but don’t ask me to explain it. Part of me was sure there would be a test.

We meander from the Moon to Neil Armstrong’s birthplace to Iceland to the Gaia Hypothesis to Missouri to the sociopolitical history of California to Alaska to…oh, seriously. After getting sidetracked again, in South Carolina I think it was (my eyes were glazing over at that point), I skipped waaaaay ahead to the penultimate chapter, where Winchester finally gets around to the purported subject of the book: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Huzzah!

Those last two chapters were enjoyable enough, and probably would have been more enjoyable if I wasn’t already annoyed.

Not what I was hoping for.

Bookshelves: non-fiction; american-history; mother-nature-will-kill-you, couldn’t-really-read-it; disappointment

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Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Five-Star Book Review and a Bit of a Rant)

Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

TRIGGER WARNING: If you are a native Seattleite, this review may piss you off.

Bookshelves: the-shit, satire, pnw, #seattlefreeze, suburbia, humor, epistolary, multiple-povs, chick-lit, five-stars-means-i’ll-read-it-again

Seattle is the only place I know of where this book actually had to be set. I loved a lot of things about this book, but I most loved the way it absolutely nails the insularity and snootiness of Seattle. And yes, I thought twice about saying that for fear of pissing off my Seattle friends. That second thought lasted about a millisecond, because although I moved to Seattle seven years ago, I don’t actually have any friends.* Bernadette would not have had the troubles she did if someone in Seattle had actually been goddamn nice to her. The setting is the whole basis for Bernadette’s continuing conflict, and without conflict you don’t have a book. So.

Decades ago, back in my home state of Nevada, I was the Soccer Mom the Other Soccer Moms Don’t Speak To. I’d say “hello” and smile as pleasantly as I know how and get looked at like I was a cockroach they found in their TGI Fridays potato skins**. I’d bring snacks to the game on my assigned snack week and get a look like I was some psychopath off the street trying to poison their kids with orange sections and granola bars. What was wrong with me, I wondered. Was it because I didn’t drive an SUV? Didn’t wear athletic garb on the street? Didn’t have my hair in a pert blonde ponytail or a butterfly tattooed on my boob? What was I doing wrong? One time, when my son got the wind knocked out of him, my identity was challenged when I went out to him as he lay on the field. “I’m his mother,” I snarled, “which I really think you should know since you see me here with him six fucking times a week.”*** I gave up after that, waited during practice in my car with a book and deliberately set up my private game-watching bubble at a distance. I did have other friends who are good folks and actually extend friendship to people, so, so what.

I thought that was bad. Then I moved to Seattle.

SCENE 1: There was a woman who had waited at my Metro stop every single morning for the previous six months. Daily contact, same time, same place, we lived in the same damned building. Several times I’d smiled at her. She just looked back down at her phone. One time I ventured to say, “Good morning.” That at least got her expression to change. Her eyes widened. Then she looked back down at her phone without a word. After that, when I joined her at the stop she looked studiously in the other direction. It took me several months to be truly repentant, when I finally grasped the depth of the insult I had inflicted upon her: I’d said “good morning.”

SCENE 2: This happened to me just last week. The front-desk women (both Seattle natives, coincidentally?…I think not) at the executive suites where I work frequently do me a small favor and I offered to buy us all lunch as a thank-you. Day scheduled, day arrived, restaurant selected, menu selections made, I ordered and paid to have it delivered and tipped generously. They immediately picked up their dishes and took them to their shared desk to eat, leaving me with nowhere closer than the conference table 50 feet away. I paid $60 for lunch for the three of us and ate by myfuckingself.

Welcome to Seattle.

As Audrey says in the book: “Within a four-mile radius is the house I grew up in, the house my mother grew up in, and the house my grandmother grew up in…My point is, you come in here with your Microsoft money and think you belong. But you don’t belong. You never will.”

No lie, Audrey, no lie. Because you are determined that we will not “belong.”

But I had to move to Seattle so I could work. To, you know, eat. I didn’t move here with Microsoft millions; I’m just another peasant struggling to pay my increasingly ridiculous rent (which Seattleites blame on transplants, the people who move here as labor force for Google and Microsoft and Boeing, instead of blaming it on the government and movers/shakers who brought those corporations in to begin with).

Google the “Seattle Freeze.” It’s a thing. Seattle is a great big bunch of Soccer Moms, albeit a bit cooler and with overall better taste, right down to the pretentiousness of wrestling their kids into the “right” kindergarten and judging a woman’s suitability to be a fellow school parent by her North Face vest and the fruit wash spray**** in her shopping cart.

And don’t get me wrong, there are good things about Seattle. The setting is exquisite and the climate is wonderful. It’s very eco-minded and the arts community is vibrant. In Seattle, nobody looks down on you for getting your clothes second-hand because it’s not about being poor or cheap, it’s lauded as upcycling (although you will be judged on the labels). Seattle maintains a very liberal and PC face, of which I also approve, but goddamn, people need more than superficiality. They need to connect. As people. Ask Maslow.

And yes, I’ve tried. I’ve extended invitations, which were ignored. I’ve joined book clubs and taken knitting classes, only to be snubbed. I do not say “the 5” or “the Puget Sound.” I know how to pronounce Alki and Puyallup and I have learned to bitch about the heat when it’s only 85. I do admit to using an umbrella and I don’t care if it makes me not cool. I don’t want my Donna Karan silk blouse ruined even if I did upcycle it.

OK, back to the book. Aside from rightfully pillorying Seattle as one great big cold shoulder, this book is a delight. It’s chick lit, but it’s good chick lit. I adore multiple points of view and the epistolary format when they’re well done, as they are here. It is a high-IQ, sassy, satirical romp.

My advice is to immediately read this book. And if you move to Seattle, embrace your inner introvert. You’ll need it.

*Well, I have one friend. We’re both transplants and were friends before either of us moved here.

**This was in the 90’s. In today’s parlance, cockroach in their kale salad.

***My kids learned to swear at home, where they’re supposed to.

****I googled it and good lord, there is such a thing. Like, hello, WATER?

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A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson

A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles” by Marianne Williamson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book was a gift from a boyfriend who hadn’t gotten around to divorcing his third wife, from whom he’d been estranged for 10+ years, not long before he ghosted me for two weeks and then dumped me with a flowery, blathery, meaningless email. (I’d already “accidentally” left the book in a coffee shop booth because I suspected it was trying to either give me diabetes or groom me for a cult.)

Says it all, really.

Bookshelves: anybody-who-actually-knows-what-the-fuck-they’re-doing-2020; abandoned; wannabe; shilling-for-jeebus

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The Burning Bed by Faith McNulty (Book Review)

Burning Bed: The True Story of an Abused WifeBurning Bed: The True Story of an Abused Wife by Faith McNulty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bookshelves: investigative-journalism, women, sleep-with-the-light-on, non-fiction, crime, social-commentary, as-seen-on-tv, in-the-news

A group of women I participate with was discussing a recent interview with Lorena Bobbitt, she of penis-ectomy fame, and remarking how deplorable it is that only now, decades later, is any focus given to what was done to her rather than to what she herself did. The movie The Burning Bed starring Farrah Fawcett came up, and it seemed to me it had been based on a true story. I checked around and saw that indeed it was, the story of how Francine Hughes got sick and tired of being beaten to a bloody pulp and having absolutely no help available to her, and during the desolate, desperate evening of March 9, 1977, she set her husband on fire to be free of him. It’s available in print but not as an e-book that I can see, and be careful–one Amazon seller is asking $69.81 for it! I found a used paperback at my favorite online used bookseller for about $5, including shipping.

Why do I read this stuff? I’m going to have to sleep with the light on again. This is a graphic, horrifying, and absolutely unfuckingbelievable story, not only of the emotional, verbal, and physical abuse one woman took, but the lack of laws or any kind of support that would help her escape him. Even if the cops came to the house, they couldn’t arrest Mickey unless they actually saw him assault her. Never mind that both of Francine’s eyes are blackened, her lips are puffed, she’s covered with bruises, the house is destroyed, broken dishes and furniture everywhere, children cowering and sobbing. Never mind that Mickey actually tells the police, on more than one occasion, that as soon as they leave he’s going to “break her fucking neck.” Our hands are tied, nothing we can do ma’am, so sorry, you try to stay calmed down now sir, ya hear? Repeat at least once a week, ad nauseum, for thirteen fucking years, and see what happens.

After her arrest for murdering her husband, even in the days before the Internet, Francine Hughes became a cause célèbre, and women everywhere owe…well, I don’t want to say we owe Francine anything. I’m sure she’d have given anything not to be the symbol she became, not to have had to do what she did, and the sense I get of her says she would not have wanted the label “hero” stuck on to her forehead. So I guess it’s to her defense attorney and the jury of her peers to whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude, for seeing beyond the letter of the law and the norms of society, seeing deeper to the human beings our society is supposed to protect. Francine’s case shone a harsh light on the brutality levied on women every day, and helped to make things as much better as they are now. Francine Hughes did not have what we have now: Better laws, harsher consequences, protection orders, and shelters and assistance and education programs. It’s not enough, as violence against women remains a worldwide epidemic and will continue to be as long as patriarchal norms are maintained. But it’s a start.

The whole story is such a tragedy, and my heart particularly breaks for those children. (I found an interview wherein the oldest child said of her father, “I spit on his grave…He was a rotten son-of-a-bitch.”) As I read, I was trying to find a kernel of sympathy for Mickey Hughes’ family, empathy for their grief at losing a son and brother. And I actually had that kernel, right up until Mickey’s mother took the stand and said her son was a good and loving father and husband, that he had never hit her, that she had never seen him strike Francine, that Francine was always the cause of the trouble–all provable lies. I mean sure, it would have been wonderful if Mickey could have lived a full life in the loving bosom of his wife and children and parents and siblings.

You know what else would have been wonderful? If Francine Hughes had not had to endure more than a dozen years of endless shouting, name-calling, philandering, insults, oppression and repression, being the sole support of her children because their father was a lazy drunken piece of shit, almost daily beatings, and then having to live the rest of her life with the knowledge that she had deliberately taken a life, justifiable though it was. That’s what would have been wonderful. And at that point I lost any sympathy I’d had for Mickey’s parents. They created him, nature and nurture, and set the example, and he lived right up to it.

The takeaway: Mickey and Francine Hughes are but a single case study. John and Lorena Bobbitt are but another. This kind of shit still happens, everywhere, every day.

Added note: This book was considered a stellar forerunner in the genre known as creative non-fiction or literary journalism, which Truman Capote is generally credited for developing. It’s another shining example of a true story that reads like a novel.

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