Book vs. Show: Alias Grace

Hellooo! I have a lot to talk about, so let’s jump into it.

A couple weeks ago my sister asked if I had seen any new shows recently. I told her that I hadn’t, because I’ve been growing farther and farther away from television – other than Mindhunter on Netflix because that show is GREAT. To which she replied, speaking of Netflix, you have to see Alias Grace, it’s about a servant woman in the 1800s who supposedly killed her masters but has amnesia, so a doctor tries to get her to remember if she killed them or not… and it’s based on a true story.

Well, once she said it was based on a true story I was sold. I’m a history person, and I can’t refuse a based on a true story movie. Hell, I can’t even refuse a documentary.  So I hopped over to Netflix to start watching, but first I viewed the trailer. Well, the trailer said it was based off of Margaret Atwood’s book of the same name. For those who don’t remember, Atwood is the woman who wrote the bestselling book turned series The Handmaid’s Tale. I LOVED The Handmaid’s Tale book – but was lukewarm on the TV show. So I figured, you know what, before I watch the show I’ll read the book.

And holy crap.

I have some pros and cons here, but honestly the book was spectacular, and the show was phenomenal.

Let’s start with the book:

Basically, the story is all about uncovering what really happened the day of the murders. As I mentioned, Grace Marks is a woman who was accused of a double murder, that of her Master Mr. Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. She was accused along with the stableman, James McDermott. He was convicted of the murders and hanged, spouting his tale of how Grace was not only a willing participant in the murders, but the one who had the idea in the first place.

Unfortunately, Grace remembers nothing of the murders, and despite her testimony from the trial in which she admitted to helping McDermott, she claims her innocence and says that her lawyer told her to admit in order for her to get a life sentence instead of a death sentence, which she agreed to. Flash forward some fifteen-twenty years later where Grace is living in a Canadian penitentiary.

Dr. Simon Jordan, a doctor who deals with the mind (i.e. somnambulism (aka sleepwalking) and amnesia) is commissioned by a local Reverend, who is convinced of her innocence, to come and do a study on Grace to find out what truly happened on the day of the murders.

So, that is the premise of the book. For fear of spoilers, I’m not going to go into detail on what happens in the story because it’s an emotional rollercoaster that is best left a surprise. However, I have some problems with the book.

To start, it’s actually an interesting read. What I mean by that is it’s written very differently from other books, and that made it absolutely enticing and exhilarating, but it also made it very dull and honestly a bit of a slog.

The first 80 pages or so I almost just put the book down and said screw it, I’ll just watch the show. I’m really glad that I didn’t, but I do have to put that warning out there. The book is written basically from three angles:

  1. Grace Marks’ story itself;
  2. Dr. Jordan’s perspective and life whilst in Canada (he’s an American);
  3. Letters between Dr. Jordan, the Reverend, Grace Marks’ lawyer, someone from the insane asylum she was in before the prison, etc.

To be perfectly honest, while the parts about Dr. Jordan, as well as the letters, are certainly integral in understanding what happened to Grace, it was really, truly, a slog to get through. First of all, I had a personal battle when it came to Dr. Jordan because sometimes I liked him and other times I wanted to punch him in the face, which made it very difficult to read his sections of the story. Second, the letters were fine and all, but seeing as it did all happen in the mid 1800s, the letters reflected the writing style of the time, which is to say: super formal. For me, it was really only interesting to a point, and I found myself skimming certain paragraphs to get to the good stuff.

However, Grace Marks’ part of the story was PHENOMENAL. I was on the edge of my seat throughout the entire story, and thought that Margaret Atwood did an absolutely spectacular job at creating a fictionalized version of the woman, and in really reflecting the problems and social structure of the time period.

Now for the TV mini-series:

Here’s where I have some problems, not because the show wasn’t great, because it was. But because I think the show was both better and worse than the book itself.

To give you an idea – every single thing (minus a couple liberties) that is shown in the series is almost exact to how it happened in the book. That is so rare!! It was actually really surprising to me at first, because I wasn’t sure how they were going to fit everything in, but they did it spectacularly. The scenery was great, the acting was great, the clothing was spot on, even certain scenes were almost exact to how I pictured it in the book. Everything aligned perfectly. And even the little liberties they added didn’t subtract from the story, it actually added to it.

However, my problem is not what they added but rather what they left out.  The book talks about so many more little things that were heart wrenching that I couldn’t believe they left out. This is where it gets tricky for me, because if I think about it, those little heart wrenching scenes didn’t actually need to be in the show in order to understand what happened, but at the same time I can’t see how it would have hurt the series to have included it.

You know how sometimes you watch a movie and you leave it thinking “you know, if they had taken out 30 minutes of crappy exposition in that movie it would’ve been perfect?” It was almost the opposite for me. Those little, almost trivial, pieces of the story may have been viewed as trivial exposition, but they were all something that I felt lifted the story into a higher plane of artistry rather than hindering it.

Keep in mind, almost everything that I’m thinking of that I feel should have been added would probably have only taken up about 3-5 minutes within the show itself, and almost always the series actually did bring it up at some point within the show, they just didn’t spend that much time on it (and in some cases it was literally only mentioned in one sentence and then never spoken of again). So it’s not like these were big plot points that they didn’t bring up, it was just flavor text that I absolutely loved within the book that was not there in the series.

Overall: READ THE BOOK FIRST!!!!!

I have one big favor to ask of you: If you plan on reading the book AND watching the series, read the book first!!!!

Why, you might ask? Because those first 100 pages are going to be boring as hell for you. The show really jumps right in to the action, which is great, but it means that your expectations are going to be that the book will jumps right in as well, which it does not. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t read this book, because I actually think that reading the book in conjunction with watching the show is amazing because the book gives you a LOT more information than the show does and really does pique your interest. However, if you plan on watching the show first, keep in mind that it is extraordinarily different in terms of language, and for some people that will be a deal breaker.

All in all, though, I honestly think the book and the show are tied here. Both have their faults, but both have amazing pieces to them that the other does not have. The two of them paired is something outstanding, and I highly recommend that you enjoy BOTH of these in that order: book then show.

Let me know what you guys thought of both the book and the series – I’m really curious to hear your opinions. As always, if you want to contact me please feel free to comment down below or to e-mail me at rachel@booksandcleverness.com!

Until next time,

Rachel

e-mail: rachel@booksandcleverness.com

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Book vs Movie: Murder on the Orient Express

Alright, y’all! You know what time it is… It’s clobberin’ time!

Okay okay, the movie really wasn’t that bad. Actually, I really enjoyed it. I just think it was very different from the book.

So here’s how this all went down: I was super excited for Murder on the Orient Express the movie, and as you know from my previous blog on the book, I had never read any of the Agatha Christie novels before, but I was fairly well-versed in Hercule Poirot movies thanks to my wonderful parents (hi guys!). But when I heard they were making a new movie with Kenneth Branaugh as Poirot, I was really excited.

Naturally, I saw the movie at the theatre and I was…. underwhelmed. Not because it wasn’t a good movie, but because I didn’t think they got Poirot quite right. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I’d like to mention the three biggest highlights for me in this movie:

 

  1. The visuals are stunning! For a story about being stuck on a train, this movie did not at all feel claustrophobic, which is a huge feat in my opinion. They had interesting camera angles and they managed to get a whole bunch of really wide beautiful landscape shots.
  2. The acting was great. I think that some of the actors (*cough cough* Michelle Pfeiffer) maybe overacted in some parts. Not to be confused with over-reacting. But overall, the acting was fantastic.
  3. This is more of a sub-note, but Johnny Depp was amazing in this. His portrayal of a bad guy was spot on, and I was genuinely creeped out by his performance as Casetti, which is exactly how I felt about his character while reading the story. Fantastic job on his part!

**Note: I’m not adding anything here with spoilers, I will only add something within the plot that happens, but does not play a role in the ending of the story whatsoever**

Now, let’s get to the dicey bits.

To start, there were some plot points that were not at all in the story that I understood why they were there, but felt either could have been placed better or left out completely. I’ll provide you with

 

two examples because these were the things that bugged me the most:

  1. Problems with Prejudice

It’s made pretty clear in the original story that prejudice plays a role on the train. There is an Italian man, Antonio Foscarelli, that M. Bouc consistently tries to get Poirot to believe is the murderer due to his own personal prejudices towards Italians. M. Bouc is also not the only one who has prejudices in the story – a lot of the British people and Americans have backwards ideas about one another.

However, all of these prejudices are about ethnicity, not race. In this movie not only is Colonel Arbuthnot portrayed by a black man, Leslie Odom Jr. (who is a fantastic singer, by the way; he played Aaron Burr in the original Hamilton on

 

Broadway, and really blew me away in this with his on-screen acting chops), but the Italian has been replaced with its Cuban counterpart, Biniamino Marquez.

So I have some issues with this. I mentioned earlier that there were things I think shouldn’t have been there in the first place and things that should have been arranged differently. I think this should have been arranged differently.

For instance, I completely understand that when this story came out (1934) immigration prejudices were far more talked about than those of race – that was always pretty hushed up around white people. Thus, it makes a lot of sense that the man called “The Italian” in the story would be very stereotypical, and not trusted by M. Bouc and others on the train. I also fully comprehend that we don’t have these specific prejudices in our current society. I am sure there are some who do, but for the most part that is not the focus.

The focus at the present is racial, not ethnic. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to have someone take Foscarelli’s place to make it more topical. That is where Biniamino

 

Marquez comes in. Given our immigration issues currently, it would make a lot of sense to switch that prejudice from Italian to Hispanic. WHY DIDN’T THEY?

Instead of taking the smallest, but most effective action, they switched the story entirely and made Colonel Arbuthnot African-American, and made the prejudices about his skin color.

Here’s why that upsets me (and keep in mind that in this story, every person on the train has some connection with the Daisy Armstrong murder [a play on the Lindbergh trial] two years previously *not a spoiler*): This story takes place after WWI. Historically speaking, African-Americans were in their own regiments, and did not fight alongside white men, let alone well-to-do, influential white men. Historically speaking, it makes absolutely no sense that the Colonel would have been anywhere near Mr. Armstrong enough to have made a deep friendship with him in the war… Actually, it doesn’t make sense for them to have any connection at all in battle!

So here’s the thing, I understand that currently in America we need to have a very serious talk about the racial violence and prejudice going on. We need to figure that stuff out, and we need to have an open dialogue. I want to make that clear. My issues here are not prejudicial, they’re historical.

Now, I am not at all a “purist” – I don’t believe that every literary work when put onto the big screen needs to be exact. However, it’s important to keep the context of the story as close as possible so it doesn’t lose the overall atmosphere of the original story. In keeping the time period (1930s) but making the prejudice about the Colonel and not about the Italian (or Cuban in this case), the historical context is lost.

Granted, that’s my opinion. I feel like while it’s important to have a discussion about race in our current society, it cannot be done the way this movie wanted to do it. With keeping the time period, there is no logical way that a Colonel in WWI (or any war at the time) would have been seated alongside any African-American in equality. That would not have happened, and that really bugged me throughout the movie since they tried to keep the rest of the story historically accurate except that one piece.

What would I do differently, you ask? I think it would have made more sense to keep Colonel Arbuthnot a white man, but make the counterpart to Foscarelli (who was just a regular guy and not in the armed forces) a black man or a Cuban man, which would have aligned more accurately with the prejudices of the time.

2. Poirot’s…. Issues

Alas we come to the thing that needed to change completely: Poirot, himself.

Look, he really wasn’t that bad. He just wasn’t Poirot. What I mean is that as a detective – just a regular ol’ Belgian detective – he’s great. But as POIROT, he misses the mark.

First of all, in the movie – the very first scene of the movie, mind you – Poirot keeps sending back a poor little boy who needs to find two PERFECTLY sized eggs in order for Poirot to have his breakfast. Poirot even has a little measuring tape. In what world would Poirot ever send anything back? His manners completely forbid him to do such a thing, he would rather just sit there and be polite to a fault than send something back, especially that many times. To set the air with that first shot just threw me for a loop because it was so uncharacteristic of Poirot and it was the very first thing you see him do. Hrmph!

Then, there’s the matter of his OCD. The movie makes a big deal about Poirot being OCD to the point that they try to imply that for him, his idea that there is only right or wrong in the world is sprung on by his OCD tendencies of having a right way of doing something and a wrong way, and not a matter of his “little grey cells” that the Poirot stories general imply.

The “cells” by the way are basically a way of saying that it’s in Poirot’s DNA to understand that which others cannot in a murder case. Whereas in the movie, the writing makes it sound like he only sees things because his brain – his obsessive compulsive thoughts – are what allows him to be a good detective. While it may seem like a minuscule thing, to me it was a massive oversight. Or rather, not an oversight but a down-playing of Poirot’s natural abilities.

Finally, there is Poirot’s “heroism.” There’s a chase scene here. Poirot chases someone. A chase scene!! Poirot is supposed to be an older man, portly, gentleman in this series – how exactly do you expect Poirot to run? Because I can assure you it will mess up his mustache and if there’s one thing that you don’t mess up, it’s Poirot’s mustache! That’s all I’m going to say about that – just know that I was flabbergasted.

All in all, objectively this is a great movie. If I knew nothing about Poirot and just went in thinking that it was going to be a fun period-piece detective movie I think you’d come out of it really liking this movie. However, as someone who actually read and enjoyed the story and likes Poirot’s character in general, it was a little tougher to get really into it. Again, I also had a very hard time getting past the historical inaccuracies, which I just felt could have been handled in a more effective, less sloppy way.

But like I said, it’s still a really enjoyable movie. It has a lot of plot twists that you don’t see coming (a lot of which they added to this movie that wasn’t in the original story, but nevertheless was entertaining), the acting was great, and the cinematography was spectacular.

Not surprisingly, the book wins this battle once again!! However, while I think you should read the book, I really do urge you to see the movie as well because it really was a fun movie to watch and it’s not that long. If you have time I would say go see it or rent it at home when it comes out because it was very entertaining!

Well, that’s all folks! As always, if you have any comments or questions, feel free to leave them below, or you can e-mail me at rachel@booksandcleverness.com!

Until next time,

Rachel

e-mail: rachel@booksandcleverness.com

Murder on the Orient Express Review

Holy crap! Two posts in just over two weeks? What is this, sorcery?!

Nope! Just little ol’ me, finally getting a little time to read for my own pleasure! So, what did I read you may ask? (Or you might not ask, since it’s the title of this blog…) Well, friends, I decided to go tried-and-true: Agatha Christie.

Hercule Poirot is easily one of my favorite personalities sprung from the world of fiction. Now I have a confession to make: I had never read any Agatha Christie story before this one. I know! I’m sorry, don’t crucify me! It actually occurred to me only recently that I hadn’t read any of the stories, but I have a (somewhat-)valid excuse:

My parents instilled in me a love of Poirot since I was a kid. I have seen all of the Peter Ustinov Poirot’s, and many others (but Ustinov is by far my favorite), and absolutely adore the character. So why did I never read the books? Well, that’s a question I asked myself two weeks ago.
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You see, I saw that there is going to be a new film version of Murder on the Orient Express, and immediately was ecstatic because, I mean… c’mon, it looks amazing. But then I was like, wait – have I never read any of the Poirot novels?? Well let’s change that.

So I took matters into my own hands. I bought several Poirot novels, only two of which I’ve seen in film version, including my all-time favorite Hercule Poirot story, Death on the Nile (Maggie Smith for the win!), and a copy of Murder on the Orient Express. Keep in mind, I have not seen these movies in years and couldn’t (still can’t) remember the majority of the murderers – only the plots, which means that I can enjoy the endings as intended!

For those who are unfamiliar with Agatha Christie, here’s a little somethin’ for ya: Christie is a wildly successful crime novelist and short story writer. In fact, she is so successful that she is the most published author, only being out-sold by the Bible and Shakespeare. She’s written over seventy novels, as well as short stories, plays, autobiographies, and romance novels. Most of her books are detective stories, and more than fifty of them include my dear Hercule Poirot, private investigator.

So, now that that’s cleared up: let’s hop to it! This story is the ultimate mind-fuck. I’m just putting it out there now. Obviously I’ll say now that there will be no spoilers in this article, because I’m not a monster. Here we go:

One: Plot

Okay, Christie has always been known for her amazing stories, that is no doubt. However, this story is incredibly intriguing. The story is obviously centered around Poirot, but the plot of the novel is this: On a train journey across the Orient, Poirot finds himself in a sleeping car with thirteen other passengers. Overnight the train is stopped by a huge snow storm and the train, and its passengers are stranded together. Come morning things get interesting – the wealthy Samuel Ratchett is found stabbed a dozen times in his compartment. Who committed the crime?

This is amazing for many reasons, but primarily because there’s just nothing like it. As far as murder mysteries go, it’s usually a man that gets poisoned in a mansion, or is shot in a small town and the place is in a frenzy trying to find the murderer. In this case, there are thirteen passengers, plus Poirot, and no one could have come on or off the train, leaving everyone in cramped quarters and high tension.

What a lovely setting!

Two: Writing Style

Christie’s writing style for Murder on the Orient Express is really nothing short of brilliant. It’s broken up into three parts: “The Facts,” “The Evidence,” and “Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Thinks.” This is honestly the best possible way to construct this novel. The first part, “The Facts,” really just follows Poirot on his journey from one train to another across the Orient, up until just past the murder. The second part, “The Evidence,” meets with all of the individuals on the train and gets their testimonies/alibi’s. And finally, in part three, “Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Thinks” about the information he has received and begins to piece together what really happens.

As someone new to the Christie writing genre, I was unsure at first what to expect in terms of writing flow, and difficulty in understanding the language of the 1930s. But I have to hand it to her, she writes a mean novel! The way she split it into three parts made it very easy to understand what was going on and how the characters each fit in to the plot. Sublime!

Three: Characters

It can be very difficult for an author to write this many novels with the same main character. As a writer myself, I can see how it would be strenuous to consistently come up with unique stories, and new unique characters. Now I understand that Christie got inspiration for this story from the true story of the Lindbergh kidnapping of 1932. However, she put a very imaginative spin on it, and made it so intriguing.

Each character gets their own aforementioned chapter, but it’s not without reason. Each person is telling Poirot where they were and what they were doing at the time of the murder, and each person has seemingly airtight alibis. Christie shows the difference between gender, classes, generations, and cultures, and seems to do it seamlessly, all the while still centering around our favorite investigator who always has the answers halfway through the plot but you’d never know it.

Honestly, I am so glad that I read this novel. I’m already reading another, and hopefully, if my workload doesn’t get too crazy, I’ll be able to write a review on that shortly. Obviously, I will be seeing the film version in theatre in November, and absolutely cannot wait! So I’ll definitely do a book vs. movie ASAP.

Hopefully y’all found this helpful if you were considering getting into Agatha Christie novels, and I find that this is a really great story to start with to get you used to the kind of language and detective style that Poirot has.

As always, if you have any comments or questions you can leave them below or you can shoot me an e-mail at rachel@booksandcleverness.com! I hope to hear from you all soon!

Until next time,

Rachel

e-mail: rachel@booksandcleverness.com

Cress and Fairest – Marissa Meyer Reviews

Hi friends! I’m almost done with the Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer!

When we talked last, I had paused reading Cress, the third novel in the installment, so I could read the newest Harry Potter book (!!! – I’ve already done my review if you’d like to read it!) Well, once I finished reading that, I picked up where I left off, and boy was it good.

For those who don’t know, the series is a play on different fairy tales, for example, the first book is centered around Cinder – a well known mechanic who is trying to save her sister from the worldwide plague, Letumosis. The story gets crazy from there, but let me just say: this is no fairy tale story. Unless you’re counting the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales, in which case – yeah, that seems about right.

The other books are Scarlet (a play off of Little Red Riding Hood), Cress (Rapunzel), Fairest (a prequel following around the evil Lunar queen, Levana), and lastly Winter (Snow White) which is the last of the series.

So since we last talked, I read both Cress and Fairest and holy shit. Let’s do this one at a time:

Cress:

cress-final-e1378337072559This story follows a girl named Cress. She’s been kept in isolation for her whole life spying on Earth for Queen Levana. She’s awkward, anxious, socially inept, and totally in love with Carswell Thorne – a friend of Cinder’s. I don’t want to give too much away because I really think you should read this series, but she and Carswell have to go on an adventure together, while Cinder is left to deal with a huge amount of problems and worries with the rest of their crew.

This book hit me harder than the two previous novels. As an awkward, anxious and socially inept person myself, I fit in with her. I also have a shit ton of hair, so I feel like she and I have a connection.

This book was written spectacularly, and I thought the story was above most fiction I’ve read recently. The character development was not only great to watch unfold but felt really genuine. I really feel like I’m watching these characters develop before my eyes and love it!!!!!

This book was pretty big, over 400 pages I think. But it went by so quickly. It’s just such a great read!

Fairest:

5119ihf8lulThis book is fucked up. I’m putting that out there now. It’s fucked up, but it’s awesome. This is the fourth book in the series and serves as a prequel to everything we know from the beginning of Cinder on.

It follows Levana back when she was just a princess, and her jerk sister, Channary, was Queen. It follows her path of destruction, her manipulation and basically slavery of the man she “loves”.

My boyfriend can tell you: I said aloud quite a few times while I was reading, “Wow, that’s really fucked up.”

Seriously I don’t want to ruin everything, but one thing that we know from the beginning of the series (it’s not a surprise) is that Levana killed her niece by burning down her nursery because the young Princess Selene was too powerful. She burned down a nursery to kill her niece. Legitimate murder. Straight up, no remorse, killing an innocent child murder. Dat’s fucked up.

This whole book was just one horrible thing after another, but I thought it was incredible. It was a great way to actually get inside the mind of this horrible Queen and what her justifications are for doing such horrendous things.

I’ve mentioned before that I love crime books, serial killer books, and things that really let you get inside a messed up person’s mind. I like to hear their reasoning and try to understand why someone would do something so terrible: this book did not disappoint. I felt like this book was almost as messed up and as amazing as the book I read about Carl Panzram (Panzram: A Journal of Murder Review) which was an incredibly messed up book. I think because it’s fiction it’s not as terrible and disgusting to read, but the way that Meyer writes the story feel so real that I was sitting there like, “someone better kill this bitch. Oh wait, she’s just misunderstood. Nope. Nevermind, BURN HER!”

highly, highly, highly recommend this book series. I’m about 250 pages in the last book, Winter, and it’s sooo good. It’s incredible. And I just can’t praise this series highly enough.

This series appeals to not just the young adult fans, but also the fans of science fiction, of war, of fantasy, of fairy tales, of romance – it has everything. It’s one of the most exciting series’ that I’ve read in a very long time, and I just absolutely love it!

Marissa Meyer, keep up the good work.

10/10 for both books. 8 thumbs up! 12/10 dentists would recommend.

Until next time,

Rachel

If you have any opinions on the series, or any questions, or even just want to chat – you can leave a comment down below or you shoot me a message to rachel@booksandcleverness.com

Panzram: A Journal of Murder

Hi friends! Well, another month has come and gone, and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write this, but I’ve been a slow reader recently. However, I’ve been super excited because I started (and finished) reading Panzram: A Journal of Murder by Thomas Gaddis and James Long.

I’ve wanted to read this book ever since I saw Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance back in 2013. The documentary was made by the same man who made H.H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer, John Borowski.

510hrlg6mglI’ll give credit where credit is due and put it out there that my sister actually got me addicted to crime stories: books, movies, documentaries, articles, memoirs – anything. She had always been a fan more of the psychology aspect of things. She loves Law and Order SVU, she’s read a ton of memoirs on drug addiction and alcoholism, and one of her favorite books is In Cold Blood – Truman Capote. So yeah, that’s where I learned it from. Thanks, sissy.

Anyway, I watched that documentary and the second I was done watching it, I re-watched it. It was so interesting, and tantalizing, and terrifying, too. But mostly it just made me think. I hadn’t really thought about the documentary until recently when I saw it on Netflix and immediately re-re-watched it. I loved it. I honestly wanted to finish it and watch it again (because apparently I have nothing better to do).

Instead, I decided I would read the book that the documentary was based on. That’s where you guys come in! So I started reading it in early June, and was breezing through it. Or rather, going at a slightly faster snails pace than I recently have been. Side note: I feel like a horrible reader! I used to read a hundred pages a night, and now I’m lucky if I read 25. I’m so ashamed.

So I was reading this book at a pretty decent rate. I think the first three nights I read 61 pages. There are 253 pages total. But once I started hitting about 140 pages I very quickly slowed to a pace of about ten pages a night, or every other night. Not because I didn’t have the time to read, but because it got tedious. I’ll explain:

The book is not just about Carl Panzram, it’s partially (mostly in the beginning) written by Panzram. Panzram met a young guard named Henry Lesser in a Washington D.C. jail, and soon became friends with the guard – one of the only guards who had proven to him to be a friend and not a vile human being. Because of their friendship, Panzram agreed to write down his life’s story. That’s where his written account comes from in the novel.

Panzram was born into a life that wasn’t very happy or loving, but certainly wasn’t cruel. Growing up in Minnesota he always wanted to run away to the West and be a cowboy. When he attempted to steal a gun at the age of 12 to finally live out his dream of cowboy, he was sent to the Minnesota State Training School, which was a “reform school” for boys of the ages 7 to 21, notorious for it’s abuse.

redwingtrainingschool1908

Minnesota State Training School – Red Wing

Bob Dylan actually wrote a song about the horrible school that finally legitimate reformation in 1906 after a botched hanging of a Minnesota inmate. The song was called The Walls of Red Wing, with a stanza saying:

“It’s many a guard
That stands around smilin’,
Holdin’ his club
Like he was a king.
Hopin’ to get you
Behind a wood pilin’,
Inside the walls,
The walls of Red Wing.”

Panzram was brought to the school in 1903. He endured unimaginable torture at the hands of men who repeatedly said they were doing it for Panzram to learn to be a good Christian. He stated that the guards “most popular [form of punishment] with them was to take us to the “Paint Shop,” so called because there they used to paint our bodies black and blue.”

Panzram spent two years in the school with repeated attempts to escape. One of his attempts was actually used to burn down the “Paint Shop,” an action that not only caused an uproar by the people who ran the place, but also created a huge boost of morale for the students. Panzram was beaten almost to death for his act, but it was that act that caused Panzram to change his method of survival: pretending to “be a good Christian.”

He fooled the higher ups of the school and was finally let free in 1905, at the age of 14. Panzram, to the day he died, hated religion and everyone who believed in it. He had seen horrendous things done at the hands of believers.

Carl Panzram was finally free to go to The West and be a cowboy. He “rode the rails” for a year. Jumping from freight car to freight car. Unfortunately this ended in Panzram being raped by several men. This experience would change his mentality completely. He no longer wanted to be a cowboy, he just wanted to steal from, sodomize, and murder as many men and people as possible – something he did very well.

71436_91ateztvl6l_bitsHis life outside of prison didn’t last long, though. He joined the army, lying about his age, but was sent to prison only a couple months later. Because he had lied about his age, saying he was 18 years old instead of 16, he was sent to an adult prison: Fort Leavenworth Military Prison in Kansas.

Over the course of more than twenty years, Panzram would spend time in two reform schools, nine large prisons for dangerous inmates, and hundreds of smaller jails. He would break out of most of them.

In the mid 1920’s Panzram was in Dannemora Prison. He attempted escape up a 30 foot cement wall. His makeshift ladder broke and he felt those thirty feet onto the concrete. When the guards found him he had broken both of his ankles and legs, fractured his spine and “ruptured himself.” He was taken to a hospital to lay without medical attention for five days. After those five days he was made put into a cell, still with no medical attention, for 8 months. For another six months he would need to walk with crutches or a cane. After 14 months he was finally granted surgical attention. They repaired his “ruptures” and removed one of his testicles.

In Panzram’s mind, he was more concerned with making sure his reproductive organs still worked, and attempted to commit sodomy on another inmate. For this infraction he was denied care and put back into his cell to heal on his own. From that day on, he couldn’t walk without a sideways gait and limp.

Once he was freed from that prison, it wasn’t until 1928 that he was arrested again in Washington D.C. for housebreaking. This is where he met the guard Henry Lesser.

After becoming friends with the guard, and giving him the story of his life, he was transferred back to the first large prison he ever got stuck in, Fort Leavenworth. During his stay, he murdered one guard, and had planned on killing thirteen more, had they been where he thought they would be. He would live in this prison for two years before his execution by hanging on September 5, 1930.

So, the review. I think this story is fantastic. I think it’s a great example of a regular kid trying to rebel to get the attention of his family and friends, who was then turned into a hardened criminal by the surroundings he was forced into.

Now I know that I could be totally wrong. Maybe this guy was born evil and it was just a matter of time before he started murdering and raping everything he saw. But from what I’ve read, I truly believe that this man was put under horrible conditions from a very young age; was forced to do horrible things, and in turn only learned about hatred, lies, and manipulation. Don’t get me wrong, I think he’s despicable. But I don’t necessarily think he would have been despicable.

Through Panzram’s entire confession, he repeatedly states that he wants to be executed. He wants to die before he hurts more people. He believes that all humans are inherently evil, including himself, and thus he is “reforming” them by killing them. Yes, this is the rationale of a crazy person. But is it not also the rationale of someone carlpanzram252822529who had been subjected to torture, brain washing, and molestation from a very early age? As someone who had grown up in “reform” schools, does it not seem odd that he would go through life “reforming” those he met?

Maybe that’s not the topic at hand – maybe I should just review the story – but I feel like I would missing a huge opportunity to explain to people just how dangerous the American prison system can be. Even one hundred years later, there are still stories and confessions of people exactly like Panzram, who are arrested from an early age, not given an opportunity to better themselves, and often are sent out of prisons into a new life of crime that they may not have had to deal with, had they had the right opportunities and the right people helping them.

But here’s what I think of the book: I’m going to give it 4 out of 5 stars. Not because the entire book was wonderful. Because I really feel like after the first 150 pages it got really slow, with not too much to add from Panzram’s side other than how he wanted articles to read before he died. Once he was brought to Fort Leavenworth for the second time, he was basically in isolation for two years – that doesn’t really give you a lot to talk about. So instead that time was spent reading about Panzram just wanting to die. I preferred reading about Panzram’s life and his ideals – the way he reacted towards other people and how he handled life in prison for almost thirty years.

That said, the writing by Gaddis and Long was exquisite, the writing by Panzram was dark, horrible, and depressing – but it was fantastic. I think this book deserves 4 stars, or two thumbs up, or fifteen Quatloos, simply for this man’s story, and the amazing amount of research that Gaddis and Long did on the penitentiaries and towns that Panzram had visited, as well as the research into Panzram himself.

If you are a fan of crime books, or are intrigued by this kind of thing, I highly recommend that you read it. It’s well worth the read. If you’re not a fan, I hope you at least enjoyed this post!

If you have any opinions on anything I’ve mentioned or if you have anything at all you want to say I really would love to hear all about it. You can comment below or send me an e-mail to rachel@booksandcleverness.com

Thanks for reading, and until next time,

Rachel