Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson

 

Nothing quite warms you up during the holiday season like a nice fire, a cup of hot chocolate, and a good book about some of the most brutal murders in the 20th century.

Yes, some of us have a slightly different idea of what constitutes good leisure time. Or maybe this is just more appropriate Festivus reading than Christmas reading. But who really cares, anyway. A good book is a good book. I must say, despite never having read any other books about Charles Manson, I really don’t feel the need to read any others after this. Jeff Guinn is a truly engaging writer, and the 60s really come alive in this story of death and delusion.

I found that actually to be one of the most compelling parts of the book. We can always get a much better grasp on people’s thoughts and actions when we have an understanding of what was going on in the world around them, and thanks to far more than just these murders themselves, the 60s were an incredibly turbulent time in history. Without going off on long tangents that feel irrelevant to the main point, here we can become fully immersed in the atmosphere of the time, warts and all. Whether you lived through a certain period or not, there’s a real tendency to romanticize and look back on times past as being idyllic, better than the time we’re living in now. The 60s in particular can really fall victim to this, as we envision Woodstock, peace and love, and a virtually unlimited supply of weed. How could such an environment possibly spawn such a dark dude? But there’s no nostalgia here, only raw, honest truth. This is one of those books that take you on a mental road trip back in time, but doesn’t bore you with tours about shit you don’t care about.

This fair and well-rounded approach isn’t exclusive to the 60s, but also to Manson himself. I’m not saying that the book is sympathetic to him. That would be insane. But Guinn does do what he can to explain just how such a person could grow up to become what he did. The amount of research this involves is impressive, but the book is never bogged down by dry facts. We almost want to feel sorry for the guy, at least when he was still a kid. His life was far from easy. But when it really comes down to it, nothing is an excuse. There are of course innumerable people who have had it worse and didn’t turn out to be bad people at all, and really, Manson seems like the kind of person who was just plain born bad. Disappointed as they were, his family from what we can tell didn’t seem all that surprised to hear of what he had done.

The big question for me then, is what Manson himself truly believed. He spent a lot of time telling other people what to believe, including that he was the second coming of Jesus, but did he know it was all bullshit, or was he really just that delusional? The answer doesn’t seem to be found here, and maybe it’s something we’re just not meant to know. It’s a mystery that will ensure as long as the memory of those horrible crimes.

Rather just see the movie? Check out Helter Skelter.

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The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England

I wasn’t going to write a review for this because under the new format the review would be almost as long as the book. There is SO MUCH information here. This is very similar to Absolute Monarchy: The History of the Papacy in that it’s an overview of a topic that covers an extremely huge portion of history, so if you actually want to get a full and deep understanding of any of it, good luck. If however you’re in a rush to get to the other books in your pile, and you want an overview similar to reading a pile of articles on Wikipedia (though far better written), this is a book for you. I can’t say anything bad about it as it isn’t actually dry at all, it’s well-researched and full of contemporary pictures, and is exactly what it sets out to be. This is not however a book to learn from unless your mind is like a computer and this is serving you as an introduction to the subject matter. I would recommend this almost as more of a reference than a cover-to-cover read. I can’t say that because I don’t feel I learned anything this is any fault of the book. The project is just too ambitious. No matter how well written, a book covering so much could never be that in-depth unless it was upsettingly long, and as everyone knows, I personally don’t understand politics anyway. There are too many people involved with strange and complicated family trees and multiple changing titles to remember as it is without going over all the key players in a span of a thousand years. Despite this, I found this an enjoyable read, because I’m a nerd. Maybe you will too. If you’re a fan of history at all, give it a try.

Carny Folk

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The golden years of the side show are over. Freak shows still exist, but they typically focus more exclusively on the “self-made” types of freaks, the ones who have an unusual talent and/or aren’t afraid of pain. I think these are awesome and I’d love to go to one one day. But there’s a certain mystery about the old shows that still holds our fascination. I bet you’d kind of love to go to one, wouldn’t you? Well this book just might be about the closest you’re going to get.

Here is an all-star group of bios of famous freaks, from the earliest days of the side show to the most contemporary. And it’s very eye-opening. Contrary to what many people must imagine as a horrid and undignified existence of abuse, most of the freaks were adored celebrities in their day, earned very large salaries and were not ashamed of what they did. In fact the majority of them absolutely loved to entertain and be part of such a fun and amazing community of people. Working as a freak show exhibit could even be empowering as it allowed them to support their families and themselves, and challenge popular opinions about their deformities.Tattooed ladies and gentlemen showed off their beautiful works of body art, armless entertainers lit and smoked cigars, and the fat ladies felt not one bit ashamed. When you think about it, there really is something almost idealistic about the whole thing, and it makes you love the whole institution even more. There’s no reason to feel pity for them or guilty for being entertained by them.

Even after outrage towards sideshows became mainstream, many fought for the right to continue performing. Protesters who thought they were helping them in effect were trying to take away their only opportunity to earn a living, as well as something they deeply loved. These attempts are surely what has lead to the decline of the classic side show as well as the revamped versions of it we see today.

The few entries about freaks who did not enjoy side show living, who did it only out of necessity for a short period of time, are also treated here with a tremendous amount of respect. It always gets stressed that they didn’t want to be known for their participation in it, and focus is placed rather on what was really important to them and their families.

All of the entries show these people for who they really are, detailing their personalities, talents, and interests. They’re all laid out in full three dimensional detail, just as they should be. It would be unfair to describe only the reason they were on display, because there was so often much more to what they did than people might assume. We’re lucky here, because things things may not always have been so obvious to those who saw the shows in person.

As much truth as can be found here, this is not presented in a sensational way. It’s simply honest and dignified. The truth is after all always more interesting than fiction, contrary to what banners often displayed. Also included in this book are profiles of impresarios from P.T. Barnum to Jim Rose. On the other hand, missing is a history of side shows themselves, and you feel its absence, however that’s not really the point. It’s a matter for another book, and one that would be at least as good as this one. Any suggestions from all you Strangers is appreciated!

Other recommended reads: You tell me!

Deliver Me From Evil

They say that sometimes real life is stranger than fiction. They say “you just can’t make this stuff up.” I suppose this story of horrific abuse suffered by Alloma Gilbert and her foster brothers and sisters falls into this category. There are a lot of these child abuse memoirs out there, the covers all look the same. They’re all white with a sad-looking little kid on the front and a sad title in a hand-written style font. I never intended to get really into them as a genre, but I wanted to read just one. I wanted to learn the truths of the way some unfortunate people have had to grow up. I think everybody should.

The third thing they say, is that you should never treat anyone badly, because you don’t know their story. This particular story puts that idea firmly into focus. Even after Alloma – renamed Harriet because her birth name was claimed by her foster mother to be evil – escapes her personal hell she continues to get abused in various ways by the people she encounters in life. It’s impossible not to be heartbroken for her and anxiously read on, hoping she’ll finally learn what it means to be loved again. This isn’t a hard task – this book is an absolute page-turner. But it is difficult to take in the gory details. Her casual and conversational style sets you right next to her, and you feel her fear and pain. She describes her life with the deeply evil Eunice Spry without sensationalism, but with the modest hope that one day she will escape.

There’s really not much else to say about this except that it will really make you appreciate the life that you have. There will always be someone out there who has it much harder than you, sometimes unspeakably so. If she could get through this and triumph, you can do anything.

Other recommended reads: Nothing here yet!

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

I don’t always read long books, but when I do, it’s because I know the author’s talent will help me push through my short attention span. Once again, Antonia Fraser doesn’t fail to deliver a book that’s serious yet engaging. In a world where history and politics are often seen as boring and dry, the quality of the writing here is the real star. As much as I love history, politics is something that I always fail to grasp, and as you can imagine it makes this particular intellectual pursuit somewhat challenging. Fraser’s work is perfect for a person like me. I first found this while reading Marie Antoinette: The Journey. While politics must of course necessarily come into play, her focus is rather more on the characters she discusses. She really has a knack for bringing out the personalities of her subjects in a way that almost makes you feel as though you’ve met them before. In fact I’ve been known to defend Marie Antoinette as though she were a close friend of mine. You can really sense the despair and frustration of Catherine of Aragon as she fights to hold on to her rightful place as queen, and the arrogance and tactless ignorance of Anne Boleyn. Jane Seymour is an angel, Anna of Cleves is pitifully naive – or is she? Katherine Howard is a trickster, and Catherine Parr is motherly and wise.

But those are just caricatures. All personalities here are given a fair look. Unsympathetic ones are given credit where credit is due, and sympathetic ones are not shown to be without their faults. The motives of Henry VIII himself are given a well-rounded unbiased look that really lets us get a glimpse into his head. Considering these people all lived nearly 500 years ago, this is an impressive feat. Fraser really understands her subjects like no other author I’ve read. This is why I’ll continue to read her work, and why she’s a favorite author of mine despite me almost exclusively choosing my reading material based on subject matter alone. One day I might even read her 1200+ page Weaker Vessel, but not soon. That would really be pushing it.

Given that there are essentially 7 biographies packed into this book, those of the six wives and Henry VIII himself, it really can’t be said to be too long at all. Other reviews tend towards the opinion that she often strays from her subject matter into superfluous back-stories, but at least compared to other books I’ve read I didn’t actually find this to be the case. There were a few, but all more or less related back to the core narrative. Details about distant relatives, in terms of relation or geography, always supported the political side of the story at the very least. The pacing is also appropriate. More pages are given to the wives who were married to Henry VIII the longest, fewer to wives who’s time on stage is more brief. The whole thing just makes sense, both in terms of composition and in that this won’t be over the heads of readers new to the subject matter. And when there’s just so much to read out there, I’d rather read one book about these people than seven. Wouldn’t you?

Other recommended reads: The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne, Tales from the Tower of London