Author: Jim Bishop
Title: The Murder Trial of Judge Peel
Rating: 4

Summary: “As a writer I have sometimes chronicled the trials of the big murders, and of them all I consider this the weirdest and most complex.” ––p. x

Ever a fan of the true crime genre, I was delighted to discover this little gem in the K section while browsing the stacks in search of a book for this week’s theme selection. As might be expected from the book’s title and its classification in the “Law” section, the trial takes front and center stage here. The crime and preliminaries are laid out in the first 30 pages, with the rest of the book divided into chapters for each of the seventeen days of the trial, ending rather abruptly as the verdict is revealed with just a few remarks about the aftermath of that verdict. In brief, Judge Peel, fearful that Judge Chillingworth is about to ruin his career with a ruling in a misconduct case, hires two men to kill the threatening judge. Chillingworth’s wife had the misfortune of being present when the killers arrived so she was also murdered. The setting is small town south Florida in the late 1950s.

Jim Bishop, newspaper reporter, columnist, and author, enlivens this rather sordid and not particularly sensational crime through a colorful but fact–filled style. By approaching the material as a storyteller rather than a legal analyst, the courtroom drama never drags for the reader, though the pace of the trial was certainly frustratingly slow for many of the participants. The following quote describing the scene as the prosecutor begins cross examination of defendant Peel illustrates the writing that was such a pleasure to read: “There was a fat moon over the St. Lucie courthouse and the air was scented with night jasmine as O’Connell got to his feet to bury his old friend.”–p. 196.

Having some familiarity with the geography and culture portrayed here enhanced my enjoyment of this book. The author drops some tantalizing hints about the outcome which were effective in keeping me from peeking ahead to the end, which I must admit was a little anti–climatic. As is the case with most true crime books, the crime itself is disturbing. The judge and his wife were innocent victims whose lives were needlessly and cruelly taken. Although justice comes, solace is often harder to find.

Author: Terri Cheney
Title: Manic
Call: RC 516 C48 2008
Rating: 5

Summary: “This harrowing yet hopeful book is more than just a searing insider’s account of what it’s really like to live with bipolar disorders. It is a testament to the sharp beauty of a life lived in extremes.” ––Book jacket

As you might expect from a memoir based on a bipolar life, this is really a roller–coaster read. The ride plunges immediately in the opening chapter with a suicide attempt narrowly averted by the most unlikely rescuer. As the title implies, the focus is more on episodes of manic activity, but depression is always lurking, ready to take a turn when the mania is exhausted. The story is told episodically rather than chronologically mirroring the author’s contention that her life is defined by mood rather than time.

The memoir reveals extreme actions followed by extreme consequences as various escapades end in such unpleasant situations as being in a jail cell or strapped to a mental hospital bed. The reader gains insight into how tortuous and compelling this life has become for the author as this illness whips her back and forth without mercy. Fortunately, after a bout with electric shock treatment and many attempts to hone in on medications which would bring stability, she is able to control her moods and live a more normal life. Although the years of living with this disorder compromised her health and resulted in the loss of career and relationships, she seems at peace with herself in the end. In fact, this is not really a depressing book to read at all. She infuses a sense of humor and honesty in the narrative which carry the reader through the most disturbing scenarios.

This book was both fascinating to read and also gave me a much better understanding of how bipolar disorder affects everyday life. As a memoir, it is the story of one person’s life experience, without clinical details or scholarly explanations. However, the story told makes it clear that for some people, just living takes a lot of courage. This is probably the most memorable book I’ve read this summer.

Author: Alan Moore
Title: The Watchmen
Call: PN 6737 M66 W38 2008
Rating: 4

Summary: “And now for something completely different.”––Monty Python’s Flying Circus

Reading my first graphic novel was about as different an experience as I ever expect to have with a book. About as far removed from the comic books of my childhood as a pail of sand is from the beach, this book was a thrill ride and well worth the effort of getting used to an unfamiliar format. Imagine a world where “superheroes” who have delivered a vigilante form of justice are retired, tights hanging in closets, and then they make a comeback of sorts. However, these characters don’t really have any superpowers (except for one who is more mutant than Superman). They just dress up and act like superheroes. The murder of one of these “Watchmen” provokes the others to action as they hunt for the killer. From there the plot takes too many twists and turns for a simple summary. Elements of science fiction, politics, noir, and even romance, are skillfully blended into a pretty amazing story.

Of course, in this genre, the illustrations are not just an interesting accompaniment to the text, but an integral part of the work. The visual impact of this book is impressive to say the least. The author also includes pages of textual backstory and additional exposition of the plot. The “comic within a comic” is another unusual element that takes the reader along two completely different storylines at the same time.

I’m looking forward to seeing the film adaptation of this book now that it’s out on DVD, but I recommend reading the book before seeing the movie to get the full blast of the creators’ vision for this work. I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy reading The Watchmen since it is completely different from what I usually read on many levels, but sometimes different is just the ticket.

Author: Oliver Sacks
Title: Musicophilia
Rating: 4

Summary: “There is now an enormous and rapidly growing body of work on the neural underpinnings of musical perception and imagery, and the complex and often bizarre disorders to which these are prone.”–– Preface

Neurologist Oliver Sacks turns his storytelling attention to the miracle of music in his latest exploration of the human brain gone awry. He includes some interesting biographical details in revealing some of his own musical experiences. The effects resulting from a variety of neurological disorders covered in this book include seeing music in colors, an inability to perceive musical sounds as anything but random noise, hallucinations of hearing music (even by the deaf), tasting music, and more. Special attention is given to those suffering from amnesia, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and Tourette’s syndrome. The closing chapter “Dementia and Music Therapy” reveals that when nearly all other memories have left Alzheimer’s patients, musical ability, both vocal and instrumental may persist with surprising vigor.

Although not overly technical, the author does include both musical and scientific details for many of the cases discussed. Additional information is also provided in footnotes and in an extensive bibliography for those interested in further reading. An interview and presentation by the author about this book are available on the website, making for either a good introduction or a satisfying review depending on whether you listen before or after reading the book.

Author: Herbert Kohl
Title: Painting Chinese
Call: LA 2317 K64 A3
Rating: 5

Summary: “How many mid–autumns can an old man have?
He knows this passing light cannot be held...”––Shen Chou, p. 103

Herbert Kohl is a familiar name to anyone involved in education during the 1970s, even just taking classes as I was. The Open Classroom and 36 Children are just two of the important books written by this renowned reformer during his long career. However, when we meet him here in 2007, with his work winding down, he is taking stock of where he has been and where he might be going next. Although this isn’t a biography or a book about education, Chinese painting, or aging, the author skillfully manages to pack all of these elements and more into this slim volume.

Moving into his seventies, Kohl seems to be taken by surprise that old age is just around the corner. Even more disconcerting than newly emerging physical infirmities is the realization that “many of my theories about educating children were neither relevant nor effective anymore.” Although the ingredients for despair, at least deep melancholy, are bubbling up, this life–long learner refuses to stagnate in self–pity. Instead, he seeks out a completely new challenge to provide the balm that will both heal his pain and give him new incentive for growth. He joins a beginners class in Chinese painting. Surrounded by children and guided by a patient teacher, Kohl slowly learns to master and then enjoy both a new skill and a new phase of life.

The introduction to Chinese painting will be an interesting bonus for most readers. One of the most fascinating aspects of this practice for me was to become aware of the importance of copying over originality. For Kohl, whose professional life featured the individuality, creativity, and free–expression of the open classroom, accepting this discipline was both a struggle and a mind–opening experience. The Western reader is given valuable insight into this area of Chinese culture and point of view.

Although accessible to all, this book will probably be most appreciated by those who are at least in mid–career. Contemplating one’s mortality is never a pleasant experience, probably best delayed until the bloom of youth is at least a recent memory. Traveling along with Kohl as his journey takes some unexpected twists, he provides the reader with valuable lessons for dealing with the “long and winding road” of life.

Author: Vincent Bugliosi
Title: And the Sea Will Tell
Rating: 5

Summary: Palmyra Island–“Only the most adventuresome, or desperate, would plan an extended stay here. This is the true story of two men and two women who did. Four lives forever changed on an island that never wanted company. Not all of them would leave alive. The mystery shrouding their fate would be as dark and chilling as the ocean floor deep beneath Palmyra Island.” – p. 13

In some ways, this is the perfect summertime reading beach book. The story unfolds in the tropical islands of Hawaii and lesser known Palmyra. The first half is a tale of relationships and mystery which set the stage for the courtroom drama of the second half. And, finally, at 500 plus pages, the joy of reading such a captivating saga is deliciously prolonged. Actually, I read this book when it was first published in the early 1990s and had intended to just skim over it again for this review. However, I found myself once again drawn into the story so completely that I just had to read the whole book a second time.

Vincent Bugliosi, former high profile district attorney in Los Angeles, is not only the author but a key player here. Having left the prosecutor’s office, he has become a defense attorney and is hired by one of the defendants in a murder trial. In addition to covering the trial proceedings, he provides considerable insight and detail about his work as an attorney and his thoughts about the justice system. Although the coverage gets a bit tedious near the end, Bugliosi is thorough in everything he does. His legal stature and storytelling abilities combine to make this true crime episode a memorable one.

No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that there is a definite element of “truth is stranger than fiction” in this book. Any also, like truth, the ending is not always as neat and tidy as might be contrived by a fiction writer. And the Sea Will Tell... well last time I checked the sea wasn’t about to give up any secrets.

Author: Charles Kuralt
Title: On the Road with Charles Kuralt
Rating: 4

Summary: “I have tried to go slow, stick to the back roads, take time to meet people, listen to yarns, notice the countryside go by, and feel the seasons change.”–– Foreword

Although neither mystery nor romance, this book would be a welcome addition to any summer beach bag for a leisurely read. The collection of short interviews, essays, and vignettes easily holds the readers attention, but is also suited for breaking away when a swim, a nap, an offer of ice cream, or other such warm–weather distraction comes along. Since I was a frequent viewer of Kuralt’s Sunday Morning television program, I was able to invoke the author’s voice as narrator providing an added dimension of realism to the reading experience.

These are human interest stories pure and simple, told in the context of the classic American “blue highways” road trip. This collection is the result of many destinations so the structure is topical rather than linear. Kuralt has a knack for running into interesting people in some otherwise uninteresting places. Although a few historical stories are included, the focus here is on the characters met along the way rather than on the journey’s geography. Still, my favorite part of the book is the chapter entitled “Seasons” where the author elaborates on his ideal destination for each month of the year. If I ever have an opportunity to travel extensively, I will definitely be referring back to this chapter for ideas.

Author: Arthur Koestler
Title: The Lotus and the Robot
Call Number: CB 427 K6 1961
Rating: 5

Summary: “I travelled in India and Japan (in 1958-9) in the mood of a pilgrim. Like countless others before, I wondered whether the East had any answer to offer to our perplexities...” –– Preface

This book was the perfect follow-up to Esalen, which I had just finished. The author was a popular visitor during the early days of the Esalen Institute, and although Eastern mysticism is also a primary focus in this book, the text is much less difficult to grasp. The countries selected for his journey represented for Koestler the extreme ends of Eastern civilization at the time: India still mired in tradition (the Lotus) and Japan, riding a tidal wave of modernization (the Robot). In addition to covering fascinating aspects of culture and every-day life, the author concentrates on a major spiritual tradition from each of these countries: Yoga and Zen. The no-holds barred observations, surprising insights, and final conclusions make for an intriguing read. I would recommend this book to anyone thinking that the answers to life’s questions are free for the taking in the ashrams of India or the Buddhist temples of Japan. Nirvana is a lot like the Big Sleep and the Zen Garden is really no garden at all!

More than a travelogue, less than a scholarly treatise, this interesting and illuminating exploration is one of many gems in the “C” classification area of the library collection, quaintly named “Auxiliary Sciences of History.”

Author: Jeffrey Kripal
Title: Esalen
Rating: 3

Summary: Book Jacket Quote: “Esalen has always been on the edge.” Located on the cliffs of California’s Big Sur coast overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Esalen Institute is both geographically and intellectually way out there! The author presents a veritable who’s who of twentieth century psychologists and their contributions to the development of this birthplace of the human potential movement. The book tells the story of a unique think tank that evolved in a unique location.

Warning: This is not a beach read!! This is one of the most challenging books I have read in a long time, a major slog actually, relieved only occasionally by pictures and bits of drama, but if you have any interest in the subject, persistence will be rewarded!

I have long been tantalized by the idea of Esalen, knowing just enough to be motivated to seek out the whole story that this book so amply provides. However, I got more than I bargained for since the author insists on providing a lot of information about a wide array of ideas that resulted in the events and activities of the place. And I mean, lots of information about philosophy, Eastern belief systems, various psychological schools of thought and practice, and more. One reason for the complexity of Esalen is the guiding principal that “no one captures the flag,” meaning that there has never been a dominating philosophy or practice. Diversity of thought, expression, and understanding is a distinguishing feature. I was impressed by Esalen’s exceedingly wide reach. The author includes many examples of this influence from the personal to the national to the global arena. The most interesting parts of the book for me were about Esalen’s early days and also about how the Institue seeks to remain relevant in more recent years, the story of the two primary founders, and details about some of the many seminars and their leaders.

It was fascinating to read near the end of the book about a long-running series of seminars focusing on “Survival of Bodily Death,” which those in the know refer to as Sursem, the survival seminar. For all their metaphysical gymnastics, the people of Esalen, like people everywhere are driven to make sense of death and to wrestle with what comes next or not. After struggling through so many pages filled with concepts that I don’t fully grasp, it was a relief to realize that when it comes to the Sursem, my own faith and understanding of life after death puts me back on solid ground!

Now when I drive by Big Sur, the beauty will remain, but this book has resolved much of the mystery about Esalen for me. I kind of know what has happened there, who was involved, and what all the fuss was about.