‘Unbelievable: A True Story of Doubt and Betrayal’ by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong ****

Like many people, I’m sure, I was intrigued by the Netflix series ‘Unbelievable’, and am pleased that I had the chance to read the book before sinking into the series.  Unbelievable: A True Story of Doubt and Betrayal has been written by two detectives, T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, on their ‘relentless hunt for justice’.  For the article entitled ‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape’, which preceded this book-length investigation, the authors received a Pulitzer Prize.

Unbelievable follows a true crime case from its beginning.  In August 2008, an eighteen-year-old Lynnwood, Seattle resident named Marie reported that she had been raped by a masked man, who had broken into her bedroom.  Marie had been living in foster care for some years, and her vulnerability was exploited by those who first interviewed her.  Ultimately, they pushed her into saying9781786090072 that she had made the story up, as there were too many inconsistencies.

Miller and Armstrong noted that they had ‘heard from people in Marie’s life who had doubts.  And when the police had confronted Marie about those doubts, she had wavered, then buckled, saying she had made the story up – because her foster mom wasn’t answering her calls, because her boyfriend was now just a friend, because she wasn’t used to being alone.’  She was consequently charged with making a false report, and faced criminal prosecution.

In 2011, two female detectives, Stacey Galbraith and Edna Hendershot, were working in Colorado.  They realised that a serial rapist was on the loose, ‘one whose calculated method suggested experience in the army – or the police’, and noted the strong similarities with Marie’s case.  He had a very particular modus operandi, which allowed them to link the cases together.  They decided that Marie’s “false report” ‘seemed worthy of a second look’.  She soon became newsworthy, and was spoken about nationally.  Miller and Armstrong write: ‘In Washington and beyond, Marie’s story became an exhibit in a centuries-long argument about credibility and rape.’

The prose of Unbelievable is absorbing and accessible, and statistics have been woven in throughout, which constantly remind the reader that Marie’s experience is far from unique.  The tone throughout feels just right with regard to the story; it is not wholly journalistic, but is easy to read whilst still being accurate, hard-hitting, and insightful.  Miller and Armstrong detail how the subsequent investigation panned out, and just how much work actually goes into getting to the bottom of a crime.

Unbelievable is incredibly moving, and highlights the huge injustices which exist in the justice system, not just in the United States, but all over the developed world.  Marie’s story is just one of many important cases in which the most vulnerable people are not believed, or are coerced into retracting their stories for whatever reason.  Unbelievable is a highly compelling book, and one which I would wholeheartedly recommend.


Reading the World: Holland

I used to use my Reading the World project as a BookTube feature, but at present, I have very little time to film, and am very behind schedule with it.  I thought that instead of forcing myself to film and edit, it would be easier to transition the project over to the blog.

For each country or region which I write about, I will give at least five books as recommendations, along with the official blurbs.  I must apologise for the lack of personal details as to why I selected each book going forward, but I am up against time constraints due to my Master’s.  I hope you can understand, and enjoy the recommendations!

We kick off with Holland, or The Netherlands, dependent on what you call it.

1. An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43 by Etty Hillesum (1999)
‘Etty Hillesum (1914-43) lived in Amsterdam, like Anne Frank, and like her she kept a diary. ‘All the writings she left behind,’ writes Eva Hoffman in her Preface to this edition of her diaries and letters, ‘were composed in the shadow of the Holocaust, but they resist being read primarily in its dark light. Rather, their abiding interest lies in the light- filled mind that pervades them and in the astonishing internal journey they chart. Etty’s pilgrimage grew out of the intimate experience of an intellectual young woman – it was idiosyncratic, individual, and recognisably modern… The private person who revealed herself in her diary was impassioned, erotically volatile, restless… Yet she had the kind of genius for introspection that converts symptoms into significance and joins self-examination to philosophical investigation… In the last stages of her amazing and moving journey, Etty seemed to attain that peace which passeth understanding… Finally, however, the violence and brutality she saw all around her overwhelmed even her capacity to understand… But by knowing and feeling so deeply and fully, an unknown young woman became one of the most exceptional and truest witnesses of the devastation through which she lived.”

2. Tales from the Secret Annex by Anne Frank 9780553586381
‘The candid, poignant, unforgettable writing of the young girl whose own life story has become an everlasting source of courage and inspiration. Hiding from the Nazis in the Secret Annex of an old office building in Amsterdam, a thirteen-year-old girl named Anne Frank became a writer. The now famous diary of her private life and thoughts reveals only part of Anne s story, however. This book rounds out the portrait of this remarkable and talented young author. Newly translated, complete, and restored to the original order in which Anne herself wrote them in her notebook, Tales from the Secret Annex is a collection of Anne Frank s lesser-known writings: short stories, fables, personal reminiscences, and an unfinished novel, Cady s Life.”

3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown and Company, 2013) (* Partially set in Holland)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
‘”The Goldfinch” is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind….Donna Tartt has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction.”–Stephen King, “The New York Times Book Review” Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art. As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love–and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle. The Goldfinch is a mesmerizing, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.’

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    4. Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies and Alison Leslie Gold (Simon & Schuster Ltd., 2009)
    ‘For the millions moved by Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, here is Miep Gies’s own astonishing story. For more than two years, Miep and her husband helped hide the Franks from the Nazis. Like thousands of unsung heroes of the Holocaust, they risked their lives every day to bring food, news, and emotional support to its victims. From her remarkable childhood as a World War I refugee to the moment she places a small, red-orange-checkered diary — Anne’s legacy — into Otto Frank’s hands, Miep Gies remembers her days with simple honesty and shattering clarity. Each page rings with courage and heartbreaking beauty.’5. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (HarperCollins, 1999)
    ’17th Century Holland. When Griet becomes a maid in the household of Johannes Vermeer in the town of Delft, she thinks she knows her role: housework, laundry and the care of his six children. But as she becomes part of his world and his work, their growing intimacy spreads tension and deception in the ordered household and, as the scandal seeps out, into the town beyond. Tracy Chevalier’s extraordinary historical novel on the corruption of innocence and the price of genius is a contemporary classic perfect for fans of Sarah Dunant and Philippa Gregory.’

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‘The Good Earth’ by Pearl S. Buck *** (Classics Club #3)

The third entry upon my Classics Club list was a novel which I had been meaning to read since I first started taking adult literature seriously, at around the age of nine or so.  Perhaps rather predictably, I waited for quite some years before purchasing a copy, but I made myself read it sooner rather than later.  To say that I was disappointed with the novel is fair; I believe that the setting and story had been put on a pedestal of sorts in my mind, and almost as soon as I began to read The Good Earth whilst on a relatively long train journey, I knew that I wouldn’t love it. 

Its premise – as I find with many classic or ‘modern classic’ novels – is fascinating: “In The Good Earth Pearl S. Buck paints an indelible portrait of China in the 1920s, when the last emperor reigned and the vast political and social upheavals of the twentieth century were but distant rumblings. This moving, classic story of the honest farmer Wang Lung and his selfless wife O-Lan is must reading for those who would fully appreciate the sweeping changes that have occurred in the lives of the Chinese people during the last century. Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck traces the whole cycle of life: its terrors, its passions, its ambitions and rewards. Her brilliant novel–beloved by millions of readers–is a universal tale of an ordinary family caught in the tide of history.”

Whilst The Good Earth was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, a year after its publication, I could not help but feel that the prose which had been used was rather too simplistic to build the levels of emotion which should have been present in such a novel.  I expected that Buck’s writing would veer toward the poetic, but in places it felt incredibly flat, largely due to its matter-of-fact third person narrative.  Some of her descriptions were rather nice; however, it did not seem as though the same amount of care had been taken throughout to make the prose feel consistent.

Buck’s perception of the Chinese culture was interesting, but I had the feeling that she was merely scratching at the surface for the most part.  One would think that as a resident of China herself, she could perhaps have included several details which are – or were – not that commonplace, but there was no real sense of her delving deeply into the history and social aspects of the country.  Due to the detached way in which the novel was both told – and, it could be said, constructed – I did not feel much sympathy at all for any of the protagonists, and did not often find myself agreeing with their actions either.

To conclude, whilst I have given The Good Earth three stars, I feel that my rating is rather generous.  Whilst I was relatively interested in the novel up until around the halfway point, and it did largely keep my attention, the second half of the story was rather bland.  Rather than rushing out to read more of Buck’s work, as I had half-expected I would when I added The Good Earth to my Classics Club list, I do not feel at all enthused to pick up any more of her novels.

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Sula by Toni Morrison ****

My real life book club was attempting to read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas this August.  I thought they were being a little overambitious, and I must admit that until I read a marvellously favourable review of it, I was not keen in the slightest to join in.  Before I could even get my hands on a copy, the decision to read it was changed as everyone was struggling so much with it.  We were told to choose our own books instead and comment upon them at our next meeting.

I was unsure about what to choose.  The last time we had a free choice for what to read, I chose the brilliant The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, and despite my enthusiasm for it, I doubt if anybody has read it on my recommendation.  I toyed with the idea of reading a Virginia Woolf or a Charles Dickens, since my suggestions for group reads by both authors have been spurned by those who have never read them.  When mentioning that we should read The Waves by Virginia Woolf a few months ago, I received a series of grimaces, and before I had as much as mentioned Dickens as a candidate for another idea I had (choosing one author and each person then reading a book by them and commenting upon it), I was told, ‘Now, literature graduate, no Dickens or Hardy’.  What to choose, then?  Which book could I extract from my to-read shelves which wouldn’t bore the other book club members (all of whom are at least twenty years older than me, I might add), and which they might like to read?  I went to William Faulkner first, all set to review the excellent As I Lay Dying, but then I spotted rather a new addition to my shelves – Sula by Toni Morrison.  It is by a Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winner, which is impressive enough already, and it sounded marvellous.  Why not?, I thought.  I had been looking forward to reading one of Morrison’s books for an age as I’ve heard such great things about her, and this slim volume seemed a good one to begin with.

In her introduction to Sula, Morrison states that in this novel, she aimed to ‘use folk language, vernacular in a manner neither exotic nor comic, neither minstrelized nor microscopically analyzed’.  She goes on to say, ‘I wanted to redirect, reinvent the political, cultural, and artistic judgments saved for African American writers’.

The novel begins in 1919 and takes place in Ohio, in a segregated dwelling place known as ‘the Bottom’.  The retrospective perspective in the opening paragraph shows the way in which the landscape of the Bottom has altered over time.  Morrison tells of how the Bottom was left to a slave by his master, on the condition that he would ‘perform some very difficult chores’ in return.  In consequence, ‘The nigger got the hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away the seeds, and where the wind lingered all through the winter’.  She tells the story of two young girls, Nel and Sula, who grow up with one another in the Bottom.

Morrison has historically grounded her story in the most marvellous manner.  Throughout she gives details which relate to a particular moment or period in time, such as a character named Shadrack fighting in the First World War, and the rehabilitation which follows:

“… not daring to acknowledge the fact that he didn’t even know who or what he was… with no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no address book, no comb, no pencil, no clock… and nothing nothing nothing to do… he was sure of one thing only: the unchecked monstrosity of his hands.”

The psychology which Morrison presents in this way is sensitively and skilfully wrought.  Along with the historical and period details, she has included rather sad experiences which her characters undergo due purely to their race or class.  During a long train journey, Nel’s mother, Helene, becomes desperate for the toilet, but has to wait until they stop in a station which has a bathroom for ‘Colored Women’.  There are none, and she has to humiliate herself by using a row of bushes just out of sight in consequence.  Nel is told that she cannot play with Sula merely on account of her mother being “sooty”.  Helene tells her daughter that she cannot speak Creole and that Nel cannot either, in the hope of leaving her past behind her:

“I don’t talk Creole.”  She glanced at her daughter’s wet buttocks.  “And neither do you.”

The entirety of the novel is incredibly sensory: ‘saffron dust’, ‘let the tenor’s voice dress him in silk’, ‘let the fingers that danced on wood kiss his skin’, for example.  The scene is so well set, which allows the book to unleash its full power.  The storyline is not at all predictable, and veers the reader in unexpected directions.  It is beautifully written throughout, and would certainly have earnt a place on my treasures shelf if the ending hadn’t been a little disappointing and it had been a little longer.