Monday, February 27, 2017

Patricia Cornwell Takes Another Stab at Jack The Ripper

RIPPER: THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER SICKERT by Patricia Cornwell hits bookstores tomorrow (2/28/17).

Corwell is not the first person to pin the Jack the Ripper crimes on Walter Sickert (1860-1942). The work of several investigators before her lead to him. She was the first to apply cutting-edge forensic technology to the remaining evidence, which, when combined with details of the time period, makes for a fascinating investigation and a thrilling read.

I read Cornwell's first book on the subject, PORTRAIT OF A KILLER: JACK THE RIPPER -- CASE CLOSED, when it first came out in 2002. On tour for that book, Cornwell came to Chicago where I then lived. Borders and the Chicago Public Library co-hosted the event, which was held in the beautiful Winter Garden atop the Harold Washington Library. I no longer own that book, as I passed it on to a fellow Cornwell fan, so I didn't refer to it for this review, but I can say that her new effort is meatier, much prettier, and still just as horrifying the second time around.

As for the pretty side of things: it is printed using both black and red text. There is an abundance of informative photos and illustrations. It is over 500 pages long and heavy as a brick, yet it is the thickness of a 300-page book. The paper is thinner than that used in the average hardcover nonfiction book, but it is high quality, almost glossy.

As for horrifying, I mean, of course, the content. Cornwell paints vivid descriptions of the crimes and
the times. Some of the content of this updated and expanded book resonated with me from reading Cornwell's first book-length work on the subject, as well as CHASING THE RIPPER, an Amazon short that came out in 2014, but other information is new. Cornwell addresses the criticisms of both her investigation (such as the erroneous claim that she destroyed paintings by Sickert to acquire his DNA) and the first book (she was presumptuous to say "case closed"). She claims she sometimes wishes she'd never gotten involved with the case because it has become all consuming and she's spent millions of her own dollars on the research. I enjoyed reading about how she got involved in the case and how the research has developed over the years.

Cornwell (source)
Those of you familiar with Cornwell's fiction know that she's committed to seeking justice for the victims of horrendous crimes. In the case of Jack the Ripper, she believes there were probably many more victims of his deranged violence than were attributed to him due to contemporary police procedures and class biases of the day.

The brutal descriptions and actual crime scene and morgue photographs make me squeamish. I'm no fan of true crime, but what I found most interesting is Cornwell's descriptions of late 19th century medical and police procedures. Did you know fistulas were rather common in the 19th century? Many people were born with them and/or developed them. Walter Sickert was born with one on his penis (or possibly his anus) and underwent three corrective surgeries as a child, which would have been exceedingly painful, probably not successful, and possibly mutilated his penis. Can you imagine having surgery without anesthesia? His condition would have had to be desperate for his parents to put him through that. Cornwell believes his fistula and the horrific surgeries may have led to Sickert's psychological derangement.
Literary side-bar: Charles Dickens (1812-1870) developed a fistula around his anus and had a successful reparative surgery in 1841.
In 2002, that first Ripper book had a lot of pre-publication buzz. I read the book because I was a relatively new fan of Cornwell's fiction (I started reading her in 1999) and I thought it would be interesting to see how she applied modern investigative techniques and technology to a historic--and still open--case. Plus, I love reading about the 19th century. This updated and expanded book is definitely worth a revisit.

Author: Patricia Cornwell
Title: Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer, February 28, 2017
Source: Review copy
Bottom line: Highly recommend for true crime readers and/or those interested in 19th-century crime and history, particularly medical and police techniques. Art enthusiasts may also find it interesting as Cornwell compares Sickert's paintings to crime scene evidence.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The English Patient (1992) by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient was published in 1992 and won the Man Booker Prize (along with Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth). The movie adaptation followed in 1996 and won an Oscar for Best Picture, among other categories.

I've been waiting to see the movie until I read the book. It's taken me awhile to get around to it, like, 25 years. When I came across a $1 copy of the book at a library sale last year, I bought it. These days when I really want to see a movie I don't wait to read the book.

The story is about four very different people who find themselves in an Italian villa/monastery at the end of World War II. Parts of the story told via characters' memories take place in North Africa, England, India, and Canada.

It was a challenging read at times. After I realized Ondaatje was presenting the characters with writing crafted in their own voices, it got a bit easier, particularly in sections dealing with the character who most annoyed me, the English patient himself. He was overly dramatic and pompous. He's actually a bit of a Lancelot character--seemingly above such things as love until he finds himself hopelessly attracted to and then madly in love with a married woman. Oh, how the mighty fall. In the movie, he was softened a bit, made charming by Ralph Fiennes. (Colin Firth plays the cuckold.)

Ondaatje does a superb job crafting his characters--obviously, the character of the English patient was so well drawn that he got under my skin, as he is probably meant to. In the book, the main love story is between Hana, a young Canadian nurse, and Kip, a Sikh sapper in the British Army. In the movie, this interracial love affair plays second fiddle to that of the English patient's love affair with Katherine, both of whom are white. The movie presents the character of Kip as an exotic and sexualized masculine element. He is relegated to the role of the female--with his long hair flowing, he's shown bare-chested in sexualized scenes that reverse the male gaze as Hana looks upon him.

One of the themes that the movie carries over from the book is how things take on different uses under extreme conditions. Hana uses books from the villa/monastery's library to repair stairs that have been destroyed. She uses a crucifix as a scarecrow in the garden where she's growing vegetables. In a scene from the desert in North Africa, a healer uses his cupped feet as a bowl to mix medicine. Hana's use of the books and crucifix show her resourcefulness, but symbolically these scenes also depict the idea that in war the knowledge in books and the trappings of religion can be useless or at least their original purpose is temporarily suspended.

It's been just about a week since I finished this book and as I continue to dwell on scenes and characters my esteem for the novel grows. When I first finished it I thought it was "just okay." Then after watching the movie, I liked it even more. Writing this post has increased my appreciation of the book even more.

Funny how that happens with some books. Alternately there are those books that I adore and praise immediately upon finishing that I now barely recall (or even forget I've read!). Scrolling through Goodreads and looking at the star ratings that I've given some books makes me cringe.

The Book Cougars discussed both the book and the movie as a joint read/watch in episode 7.

Author: Michael Ondaatje
Title: The English Patient 
Publisher: 1st published by Bloomsbury, 1992. Edition read: Vintage International, 1993. 
Bottom line: You'll probably want to read this one if you're into literary fiction about WWII.  If you're not into either, proceed with caution. From my Goodreads review: Some lovely scenes, some lovely sentences, but lots of beautiful writing just for the sake of beautiful writing annoyed me after a while. I yelled (in my mind, so as not to scare the dog), "Get on with the story already!" multiple times.
Reading challenge: score one for the #readmyowndamnbooks challenge.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Library Extension: An Amazing Plug-in for Library Users

Firefox has been my browser of choice for years now, but last month I decided to try something new and am giving Chrome a try.

Around the time I made this change, I happened to see a tweet by Austin Kleon about Library Extension. It's a tool that tells you if a book you're looking at on Amazon or Goodreads (and other sites, I image) is available at your local library.

I added the extension immediately, but was bummed to find that my local library wasn't yet included, so I added the next closest library to me. I also put in a request with Library Extension to add my library. Andrew wrote me back the same day and said he updated the extension to include my library. How cool is that?  I love this tool and thought you might, too.

Here's a screenshot of how it looks on Goodreads:

The Library Extension box takes just a few seconds to load/populate the information. It even tells you what formats are/are not available.

You can install the extension from their website ( or from the App Store ( 

A Firefox version is in the works and you can sign-up to be notified when its available.
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