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Summer Reading

John Simkin

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I thought it might be a good idea to create a new thread on recommended books for reading during the summer holidays.

Last week Granta sent me several books to review for Education on the Internet. One of these was John Gilmore’s Severed: The Black Dahlia Murder. I have to admit I placed it with the maybe will read books. As I placed it on the pile I noticed that a side view revealed that the book included a great number of photographs. I am a sucker for old photographs and could not resist taking a look. I soon wished I hadn’t. The autopsy photographs were truly upsetting (the victim, Elizabeth Short had been cut up after she was murdered). However, the other photographs were fascinating. They were mainly photographs of Elizabeth and her numerous boyfriends. In each photograph she looked completely different. In fact, if the photographs were not accompanied by captions, I would have refused to believe they were of the same woman. Yet, in each of the photographs, you could tell why she had no difficulty finding male company.

I then began reading the quotes from the critics. They spoke highly of Gilmore as a writer and explained why Granta had decided to reprint what it called this “cult-classic” (it was originally published in the United States in 1998).

That night I ignored my pile of history books I am currently reading and picked up Gilmore's book. I am glad I did. The book is a masterpiece.

The first chapter deals with the discovery of Elizabeth Short’s mutilated body in January, 1947. It is written like a novel. You are unaware of a narrator. Instead you seem to be observing events like they appear on a television screen (Gilmore is also a screenwriter). I assume the conversations that we read are based on witness statements and interviews with the author. Each one speaks with a different voice. One automatically assumes that these words have not been invented by the author.

The next nine chapters explore the early life of Elizabeth Short. You also find out a lot about the people she meets and befriends on her route to what she believes will end up with her being a Hollywood actress. In chapter 10 she is murdered. In chapter 11, a chilling account of the autopsy reveals why she was murdered. One of those rare moments when you feel the hair on the back of your neck standing up. The reason why she was murdered was kept secret until the publication of Gilmore’s book. Why? One of the problems for the police investigating the case was the large number of people who confessed to the crime. To test if they were telling the truth, it was vitally important that only the murderer and the detectives knew why she was murdered. Chapters 12 to 20 follow the investigation and the impact that the murder was to have on Los Angeles (the Black Dahlia case is America’s Jack the Ripper).

In the final chapter the author emerges from the shadows to reveal he was one of the characters in the book. He then explains who killed Elizabeth Short and why the man was never arrested for the crime.

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  • 2 weeks later...
Sounds a good read John. They don't have it in my local(large) WHS tho it's on the Web-site. Apart from Amazon, any ideas where I can make a cheap purchase without loads for pp being added?!

I am afraid you cannot rely on WH Smiths to supply books like this anymore. I always use Amazon for books that the publishers don't send me for free.

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Bill Clinton, My Life (2004)

Although the tales from his miserable childhood are perhaps the most entertaining part of Bill Clinton's autobiography, they will come as no surprise to anyone who has read Andrew Morton's book, Monica's Story. Showing great generosity towards the man who sexually exploited then dumped her, Monica Lewinsky also details the early traumas which apparently explain why the president turned into such a ghastly grown-up.

Morton quotes pages of the 25-year-old's tender attempts to understand the president's vulnerable, "little boy" side. She has even relayed to Morton the now famous tale of the Easter egg race, when the boy Clinton was too plump and slow to end up with any chocolate. The identical accounts of this episode tend to confirm the sincerity of Lewinsky's version of their affair, which was published in 1999, and underline what is so signally missing from Clinton's new summary. Where Lewinsky's account is generous and childishly romantic, full of agonised details about his hair-stroking, his compliments, her nickname - "Kiddo" - and their lewd little jokes, his is curt and self-pitying to the point of inhumanity.

For Clinton, who offered neither his regret nor his sympathy to Lewinsky after she became persecuted and more or less unemployable, the affair can be dismissed as a mistake for which he needed to atone "as a husband" and battle through "as a president". The womaniser is the vulnerable party; his quarry is no more than "an intern", who left him feeling "disgusted with myself". Still, with the aid of Thomas à Kempis and Marcus Aurelius, plenty of prayer and a year of multi-disciplinary counselling, he was able, finally, to acquire self-knowledge and forgive himself. Lewinsky took up knitting.

If there is much in My Life to wound Lewinsky, who seems to have been contemplating suicide precisely around the time President Mandela was offering Clinton succour in Robben Island, she does, at least, have her intimacies acknowledged. Paula Jones, who accused Clinton of sexual harrassment, is swatted away as someone who had to be paid off with half the Clinton family savings, even though her claims were untrue. Gennifer Flowers, whose story Clinton first publicly denied, then confirmed under oath, is no more than "a tough survivor who'd had a less-than-ideal childhood and disappointments in her career but kept going". She kept on going long enough to have a protracted affair with Clinton and then, even as he still denied it, to write a book identifying herself as "a marked woman" who - like Lewinsky - admits "I guess I haven't completely gotten over him". Is it healthy, she wonders, "to confront these demons from a past that is still very much with me?" Probably not, but it certainly puts President Clinton's enduring claim to be a supporter of women's rights - albeit with some "old demons" of his very own - in an interesting perspective.

Since it was obviously unrealistic, even in a book of almost 1,000 pages, to expect Clinton to give much thought to the women he made notorious, his willingness to depict them, even in these glancing references, as needy losers or opportunists will have to tell its own story. On the kindest interpretation, the feminists' favourite president still has no self-knowledge at all. Back to the Thomas à Kempis.


Edited by Catherine Bennett
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