One-Minute Book Reviews

May 30, 2014

‘Women Behaving Badly’ — True Stories of Notorious Female Killers

Filed under: Biography,History,Nonfiction,True Crime,Women — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:33 pm
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One of America’s best historical true-crime writers recalls women who made a fatal mistake by the lake

Women Behaving Badly: True Tales of Cleveland’s Most Ferocious Female Killers: An Anthology. By John Stark Bellamy II. Gray & Co., 255 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

What a pity that the FBI didn’t launch its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list until 1950. An earlier start might have allowed the spy agency to tap a few of the female killers in this sparkling collection of true-crime tales, most of which deal with murders committed in the Cleveland area in the late 19th or early 20th century.

It may or may not be true, as John Stark Bellamy asserts in the preface to Women Behaving Badly, that “there is simply no comparison in cunning, quality, and sheer entertainment value between the shallow, predictable murders of men and the complex, richly nuanced slayings by women.” But this book makes clear that Hollywood does an injustice to female killers when it stereotypes them as gun molls, action heroines or sex-obsessed stalkers.

The 16 tales in the collection deal chiefly with Bonnies without Clydes, women who took the initiative in crime instead of serving as men’s foils, and some testify to a different form of female solidarity than has inspired anthologies like Sisterhood is Powerful. One of the most chilling accounts recalls the fatal 1919 stabbing of Lakewood printer Dan Kaber by assassins his wife had hired, a crime that remains “the only homicide in the history of the world in which a grandmother, mother, and granddaughter were indicted for the same first-degree murder.” Another tale focuses on Velma West, who along with three other inmates escaped in 1939 from a women’s prison, where she was serving time for smashing her husband’s skull with a clawhammer. (Captured in Dallas, West went back to the Marysville Reformatory and implied that her murdered spouse had been too weak to live with her: “He couldn’t take it. I hit him playfully on the head with a hammer one night and that was that.”) A third tale reconsiders the case of the sadistic 1950s housewife Mary Barger, who had help from a 16-year-old niece when she tortured her brother-in-law’s two daughters, who were living with with her while their father served in the Air Force.

Bellamy tells his stories with an infectious zeal for his subjects’ audacity and an admiration for the prosecutors who matched wits with them, traits that in this and earlier books have established him as one of America’s best writers of historical true crime. He avoids the clichés and portentous tones of television shows like 48 Hours — which regularly describe victims “beautiful” people who “always had a smile” — and leaves the impression that he would shudder at the word “closure.” Just when you’re convinced that only the dimmest shield-wearer would have seen the 1905 death of Minnie Peters as a “suicide,” he writes: “But before you dismiss Cleveland police chief Fred Kohler as an utter moron, consider this: He may have been right about Minnie killing herself.” Without special pleading, Bellamy also shows a keen sympathy for the horrific circumstances that could drive women to crime. He notes rightly that some of his subjects might have had “a happier fate if they had lived in a more enlightened age.” Although he doesn’t doesn’t say so directly, at least a few of the women in his book might have avoided tragedy had they lived in times of safety nets like unemployment insurance, rape-crisis hotlines and shelters for abused women.

Perhaps the most poignant story in Women Behaving Badly involves Anna Kempf, a Hungarian immigrant who faced eviction from her home after being abandoned in 1928 by a husband who left her with three young daughters to support. Kempf had spent months visiting private and public welfare organizations, pleading vainly for financial help, and had tried unsuccessfully to place her children in an orphanage to keep them off the streets. The news that she was about to lose her job seems to have been the last straw: Kempf tried to kill herself and her children by dishing up bowls of chocolate ice cream laced with rat poison. Her youngest daughter died, and Kempf was indicted for first-degree murder. But her heartbreaking plight so struck the public that one prospective juror, upon receiving his jury-duty fee from the court clerk, said loudly: “Have this cashed for me and give the money to Mrs. Kempf to buy Christmas presents for the other two girls.” A judged sentenced her to probation and “took the opportunity to criticize the social service organizations that had so signally failed to help Anna Kempf in her hour of desperate need.” Stories like Kempf’s may have a Cleveland setting but speak to universal themes that give this book relevance beyond the Midwest.

Among the women in the book who became fugitives, only Mabel Champion had the last laugh on the law. Champion kept a four-inch stiletto in her purse and was wearing eight large diamond rings when, at a crowded restaurant in Cleveland’s theater district on a summer night in 1922, she pulled out a .38-caliber Colt revolver and shot a carnival promoter who had questioned her virtue. (“I did what any woman would do,” she explained to reporters. “I shot Edward O’Connell because he insulted me.”) She received a 20-year sentence, but after serving less than two years, she tucked a crude dummy into her prison bed and walked out of the Marysville Reformatory forever. A nationwide dragnet failed to find her. And although it’s unlikely, given her age — which would today be more than 100 – Bellamy “likes to think she’s still out there, laughing her low Texas belly laugh at the baffled lawmen who couldn’t keep this sensational Jazz-Age baby tied down.” Perhaps she even felt insulted that — when the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list has included only eight women — the FBI never chose, however belatedly, include her.

Best line: Why do women use poison as a murder weapon? “Poisoning is generally furtive, an ideal quality for someone confronting an adversary of superior muscular strength of social power,” Bellamy writes. “No messy hand-to-hand combat, knowledge of firearms, or knife-fighting technique is required. Poison is easily acquired, hidden, and disguised: many lethal poisons have nonhomicidal uses and are part of the fabric of everyday life, as any amateur gardener or pest control professional can attest. It can be stealthily administered and is difficult to detect — as many a delayed exhumation has shown.”

Worst line: Fred Gienke suffered “days of excruciating agony” after his niece, Martha Wise, put arsenic in his water. When is agony not “excruciating”?

Published: 2005. All but two of the true-crime stories in Women Behaving Badly first appeared in one of Bellamy’s earlier collections, which include the delightful They Died Crawling and The Maniac in the Bushes. The book has 32 black-and-white photographs.

Conflict alert: Bellamy wrote so many excellent reviews for the Plain Dealer when I was the book editor that I have a permanent bias in favor of his writing.

Jan is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. Her novels include The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s). She tweets at @janiceharayda.

© 2014 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

April 15, 2009

Ruth Reichl’s Memoir ‘Not Becoming My Mother’ – An Apple Falls Far From the Tree

The editor-in-chief of Gourmet remembers a mother diagnosed as manic depressive

Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. By Ruth Reichl. Penguin, 112 pp., $19.95.

By Janice Harayda

This elegant memoir is a gentler nonfiction counterpart to Diary of a Mad Housewife, Sue Kaufman’s tragicomic 1967 novel about a well-off woman who chafes against the sterility of her life as a Manhattan wife and mother. Kaufman’s Tina Balser decanted her resentments into a journal. Mim Reichl recorded hers in letters and on scraps of paper that her daughter, the editor-in-chief of Gourmet, drew on for this slender book.

Born in 1908 in Cleveland, Mim wanted to become a doctor like her father. But she yielded to parental pressure to get a Ph.D. in a field she disliked so much, musicology, that after obtaining her degree she never played her violin again. A lifetime of frustration followed as she explored paths to fulfillment that kept turning into cul-de-sacs: volunteering, raising children, starting a business.

Like legions of her contemporaries, Mim Reichl was overeducated for work as a housewife, a woman who might seem to embody what Betty Friedan would call in The Feminine Mystique the problem that has no name.”

“I can feel myself growing more and more rebellious,” she said when her bland first husband complained about her housekeeping. “Who cares about menus and the way they are cooked when there are so many more interesting things to think about?”

A move to New York and a happier second marriage didn’t end her discontents. She wrote The Homemaker’s Encyclopedia, 12-volume set that she and her husband produced and that sold well. But when that project ended, she had trouble finding a job. In the years just after World War II, many Americans considered it unpatriotic for women to take jobs from the returning soldiers.

“You women and girls go home, back to being housewives, as you promised to do,” an army general said in a televised speech.

As the years of underemployment wore on, Mim was diagnosed as manic depressive and took lithium. “Was she crazy, or was she crazy because she had nothing to do?” Ruth Reichl wonders.

A good question, but perhaps oversimplified. Mim thought in either-or terms (“I am a failure” and “My children have abandoned me”) and treated her daughter at times with shocking cruelty. Her reaction was brutal when Ruth, who had become a food writer, got her first book contract. “Do you think we sent you to graduate school so you could write cookbooks?” she asked. “When are you going to do something worthwhile?” Mim’s behavior often seems less typical of manic depression than of borderline personality disorder, characterized in part by a tendency to see the world in black-and-white, one of several alternate diagnoses unexplored in the book. At times, Mim’s mental health seems so fragile that the focus on her thwarted career seems misplaced: You wonder if she could have found satisfaction in any field or had condition, perhaps biological in origin, that would have caught up with her in any job. For all we learn about her, Mim remains an enigma.

But if Reichl leaves questions unanswered, she has written a warm and forgiving portrait of a woman who gave her many reasons to do otherwise. The most poignant sections of Not Becoming My Mother suggest that Mim never stopped trying to solve the problem of her life. As an old woman, she wrote: “Who am I? What do I want? … I need to find me.” That line echoes softly one that she wrote years earlier: “I am so sorry I did not pursue a career. If I teach Ruthy nothing else, I must make her see this. In the end, it is meaningful work – serving people – that matters most. It is what we were made for.”

That line – in which Mim seems to imply that motherhood is not “meaningful work” – makes this an odd book for a publisher to be pitching to the Mother’s Day gift market. It tells a bleak enough story that its arrival in stores may be a few weeks premature. This is an iffy prospect for your mother, but it could be fine gift for a daughter who is graduating in June.

Best line: “A fifties ad for Dexedrine pictured a sad, pretty young woman holding a dish towel and surrounded by dirty dishes. ‘Why is this woman tired?’ asked the copy. ‘Many of your patients – particularly housewives – are crushed under a load of dull, routine duties that leave them in a state of mental and emotional fatigue. For these patients, you may find Dexedrine an ideal prescription. Dexedrine will give them a feeling of energy and well-being, renewing their interest in life and living.”

Worst line: Reichl says that as she read her mother’s papers, “I began to understand that in the end you are the only one who can make yourself happy.” She doesn’t say exactly when she found the cache that inspired this book, but she was apparently well into adulthood. And you don’t believe for a minute that a woman as accomplished as Reichl “began to understand” so late in life that she had to make herself happy. After all that has come before it, that line – found in the last paragraph – seems glib.

Recommendation? This is a good book but overpriced. A typical 250–300 page hardcover costs $25. This one has 128 pages and costs $19.95. You do the math.

Published: To be published on April 21, 2009

Read an excerpt from Not Becoming My Mother.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of Not Becoming My Mother. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

September 25, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Babbittry at the Cleveland Orchestra?

A music critic’s demotion brings to mind Sinclair Lewsis’s great comic novel

Not many Americans still use the word babbittry, that wonderful term for naive boosterism similar to that of the title character of Babbitt. But babbittry may help to explain the plight of my former colleague Donald Rosenberg, who was demoted last week to an arts-and-entertainment reporter from his longtime post as the senior classical music critic at the Plain Dealer. His reassignment inspired a story in today’s New York Times and a cascade of comments on blogs, including posts at The New Yorker www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/goingson/?xrail and the Baltimore Sun weblogs.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/classicalmusic/2008/09/critic_who_dared_criticize_cle.html.

Much of the evidence suggests that this was a sad case of a critic punished for being — well, critical. Or, more specifically, for writing reviews of the work of conductor Franz Welser-Möst that weren’t boosterish enough for the orchestra management. And a Sept. 25 valentine to Welser-Möst www.cleveland.com/arts/ by Rosenberg’s successor, Zachary Lewis, strengthens that impression. No less startling than the timing of Lewis’s article was a line in it suggesting that the orchestra paid the bill for the lunch at which he interviewed Welser-Möst for the story. I took many authors to lunch in my 11 years as the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and if I had allowed any of those sources to pick up the check, I would have expected not to have a job the next day. Lewis apparently permitted it and got promoted. Many newspapers consider it unethical for reporters to allow sources to pay for meals, so even those that allow the practice tend not to advertise the freeloading as Lewis did. And unless his comment about the lunch was misleading, you have to wonder if the demotion wasn’t symptomatic of something larger.

I have no inisde knowledge of why the reassignment occurred, but I admired the intelligence and professionalism Don brought to his work at the Plain Dealer, where he reviewed occasional books for me. So this is a reminder that if he’s lost his beat, you can still read his writing about the orchestra in a book: Don wrote the definitive history of the Cleveland Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra Story: “Second to None” (Gray, 752 pp., $40).

Late Night With Jan Harayda is a series of occasional posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and comment on literary or related events but do include reviews, which appear in the morning or afternoon.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com

http://www.janiceharayda.com

November 11, 2007

My First Bestseller? ‘A Year in Cleveland’ Is #17 in the Humor Category on Amazon Shorts

Filed under: Humor — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:46 am
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Bizarre but true! Cleveland loses the pennant race but wins on Amazon

Were you on vacation in August when I wrote about a program on Amazon that for 49 cents lets you download short works of fiction and nonfiction by authors with books for sale on that site? Just in case, I’m pasting in below the original post about Amazon Shorts. And here’s an update for any writers who are thinking of joining the program:

As I’d mentioned, I didn’t know that Amazon Shorts existed until a friend suggested that I consider it for some of my own work. I sent in “A Year in Cleveland,” a parody of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, and it just sat there for a while. But in the past few weeks it’s started to move and, as of Nov. 11, ranks #17 in the Humor category on Amazon Shorts. You can see all the categories and short works by clicking on “Digital Downloads” on the Amazon home page www.amazon.com. How can Cleveland be a loser in the pennant race and a winner on Amazon? I have no idea — unless all the copies are being bought by sadistic Red Sox fans who want a few more laughs at Cleveland’s expense — but this is the closest I’ve had to a bestseller.

Here’s my original August 5 post about Amazon Shorts:

Fed up with the alpine cost of books? Amazon.com sells previously unpublished short stories, essays and other works for 49¢ through its Amazon Shorts program. The online bookseller requires that all sellers have at least one book for sale on Amazon. And some of the authors who have posted their work may surprise you, including actor John Lithgow, journalist Melissa Fay Greene and mystery novelist James Lee Burke.

But you could easily miss hearing about the program, because it isn’t listed on the home page for www.amazon.com. You have to use the search bar to look “Amazon Shorts” or go to the pull-down menu that says, “See All 41 Product Categories.” [Note: The preceding has changed since I posted this. There's now a "Digital Downloads" category on the Amazon home page.] I knew nothing of the program until a writer friend persuaded me to post my “A Year in Cleveland,” a parody of A Year in Provence, there. So you may want to check this section of the Amazon site if you enjoy short fiction, nonfiction and poetry. You can read the shorts by downloading them, having them e-mailed to you, or following an HTML link.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 22, 2007

Cleveland Never Loses in Les Roberts’s Mysteries

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:58 am
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Can’t wait until the 2008 baseball season for more scenes of the city people used to call “the Mistake on the Lake”? Pick up any of Les Roberts‘s 13 Cleveland-based mysteries about the Slovenian sleuth, Milan Jacovich, which include Deep Shaker, Full Cleveland, Pepper Pike and the recent The Irish Sports Pages, all published by Gray & Co. www.grayco.com.

Roberts was the mystery columnist for the Plain Dealer when I was the book editor, so I can’t pretend to neutrality about his klobasa-sandwich-loving private investigator. But the Washington Post said of the first Milan Jacovich novel, The Cleveland Connection: “There’s an affection for Cleveland and an insistence on its ethnic, working-class life that gives vividness to the detection. Roberts writes with sharp wit, creates action scenes that are drawn with flair, and puts emotional life into a range of people.”

Roberts www.lesroberts.com is a former Californian whose love for his adopted city helps to drive the series. So you may not be surprised to hear that he’s a serious Indians fan: He appears on the dust jacket of one Milan Jacovich novel, The Lake Effect, in a Tribe jacket.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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