The month so far: NF November and #NovNov23

First of all, today was clock switching day for us in the U.S., which always discombobulates me a little bit. In the fall, when we “fall back,” the discombobulation is all positive. I get an extra hour! Yay!

So far, I’ve read two novellas and finished on non-fiction book:

Hell's Half Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, America's First Serial Killer FamilyHell's Half Acre: The Untold Story of the Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
by Susan Jonusas
Rating: ★★★
Publication Date: March 1, 2022
Genre: non-fiction
Pages: 345
ReRead?: No
Project: non-fiction november

A suspense filled tale of murder on the American frontier—shedding new light on a family of serial killers in Kansas, whose horrifying crimes gripped the attention of a nation still reeling from war.

In 1873 the people of Labette County, Kansas made a grisly discovery. Buried by a trailside cabin beneath an orchard of young apple trees were the remains of countless bodies. Below the cabin itself was a cellar stained with blood. The Benders, the family of four who once resided on the property were nowhere to be found. The discovery sent the local community and national newspapers into a frenzy that continued for decades, sparking an epic manhunt for the Benders.

The idea that a family of seemingly respectable homesteaders—one among the thousands relocating farther west in search of land and opportunity after the Civil War—were capable of operating "a human slaughter pen" appalled and fascinated the nation. But who the Benders really were, why they committed such a vicious killing spree and whether justice ever caught up to them is a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. Set against the backdrop of postbellum America, Hell’s Half-Acre explores the environment capable of allowing such horrors to take place. Drawing on extensive original archival material, Susan Jonusas introduces us to a fascinating cast of characters, many of whom have been previously missing from the story. Among them are the families of the victims, the hapless detectives who lost the trail, and the fugitives that helped the murderers escape.

Hell’s Half-Acre is a journey into the turbulent heart of nineteenth century America, a place where modernity stalks across the landscape, violently displacing existing populations and building new ones. It is a world where folklore can quickly become fact and an entire family of criminals can slip through a community’s fingers, only to reappear in the most unexpected of places.

I liked this one, but I didn’t love it because there was something missing for me. I think it’s probably just the basic reality that there weren’t a lot of sources available to the author, so some of it felt like speculation, and it felt incomplete. There wasn’t much meat on the bones; I don’t really feel like I know a lot more than I would have from reading a long form article in a magazine. It’s a fast read, though, and is entertaining enough to keep me turning pages.

In PatagoniaIn Patagonia
by Bruce Chatwin
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1977
Genre: travel and geography
Pages: 199
ReRead?: No
Project: non-fiction november

An exhilarating look at a place that still retains the exotic mystery of a far-off, unseen land, Bruce Chatwin’s exquisite account of his journey through Patagonia teems with evocative descriptions, remarkable bits of history, and unforgettable anecdotes. Fueled by an unmistakable lust for life and adventure and a singular gift for storytelling, Chatwin treks through “the uttermost part of the earth”— that stretch of land at the southern tip of South America, where bandits were once made welcome—in search of almost forgotten legends, the descendants of Welsh immigrants, and the log cabin built by Butch Cassidy. An instant classic upon its publication in 1977, In Patagonia is a masterpiece that has cast a long shadow upon the literary world.

My second non-fiction this month is shelved on Goodreads under multiple categories: travel, non-fiction, history, adventure, memoir, biography, nature. All of them fit, and, really, none of them fit. A favorite – and overused – descriptor of book reviewers is “genre busting.” Yeah, it fits here. There’s also a fair amount of mythologizing happening in this book, I think. How much of the information about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is based in fact? No idea. I’m reminded, just a little bit, of A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor, although I found Fermor quite a bit more charming than I found Chatwin.

Patagonia is an odd place, though, and the thing that I did like about this book is that I feel like it did justice to the oddness. It is a place that was repeatedly colonized, and Chatwin introduces the reader to many of the different cultures that are represented there, and the effect that the geography is having upon the individuals involved. I’m not sure that a book like this would be published today, in our era of sensitivity to colonialism. The indigenous people of Patagonia are not entirely absent, but a lot more time was spent with the settlers. I kept thinking about Agatha Christie’s character Arthur Hasting and his foray into “the Argentine” as a cattle rancher, and, as well, the former Nazis who fled to South America at the end of WWII.

I don’t think I’ll be reading more by Chatwin, I didn’t enjoy this enough to make me seek out more of his books. I am reminded, though, that I want to read the other two books in Fermor’s trilogy of travel memoirs: Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road: from the Iron Gates to Mount Athos.

Maigret Defends HimselfMaigret Defends Himself
by Georges Simenon
Translated from: French
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Inspector Maigret #63
Publication Date: January 1, 1964
Genre: mystery: silver age (1950-1979)
Pages: 160
ReRead?: No
Project: inspector maigret

For the first time in his career Inspector Maigret receives written summons to the Prefect's office where he learns that he has been accused of assaulting a young woman. With his career and reputation on the line, Maigret must fight to prove his innocence.

Penguin is publishing the entire series of Maigret novels in new translations. This novel has been published in a previous translation as Maigret on the Defensive.

I have ready so many of Simenon’s Maigret mysteries over the last couple of years. This is a later Maigret (number 63, which really just seems nuts that someone could write 63 books using the same character), published in the 1960’s. Maigret is 3 years shy of the French mandatory retirement age of 55, which makes him 52 years old. It feels like Maigret was around 50 years old at the start of the series 33 years earlier, in 1931. Apparently, Simenon wasn’t particularly interested in character growth.

This is a bit of an odd one, although admittedly, I feel like I often close a Maigret and mutter to myself “well, this was a bit of an odd one.” This is probably a testament to Simenon’s skill as an author, that I don’t feel like his stories are formulaic. We are in Paris for the entirety of this book, and Maigret is investigating . . . himself. Someone is trying to set him up, and he has to figure out why. At a slender 160 pages, this was my first novella of #NovNov23.

by Claire Keegan
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 2007
Genre: fiction, novella
Pages: 128
ReRead?: No
Project: #novnov

Claire Keegan's piercing contemporary classic Foster is a heartbreaking story of childhood, loss, and love; now released as a standalone book for the first time ever in the US

It is a hot summer in rural Ireland. A child is taken by her father to live with relatives on a farm, not knowing when or if she will be brought home again. In the Kinsellas' house, she finds an affection and warmth she has not known and slowly, in their care, begins to blossom. But there is something unspoken in this new household--where everything is so well tended to--and this summer must soon come to an end.

This was definitely the standout book of the week for me. Keegan has two novellas that I’m planning to read this month – this one and Small Things Like These. She is a beautifully economical writer, and Foster was compelling, sad, and impactful. A perfect gem of a book, without a word out of place, it gave me all of the feels.

When I read a book by an Irish author, I always want to read more books by Irish authors.

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