Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard

October 28, 2011 at 1:57 am (Book review, books, History)

  James A. Garfield, twentieth president of the United States, was inaugurated on March 4, 1881. On July 2 of that same year, while preparing to board a train in Washington DC, he was shot twice by a man who had been stalking him for weeks. That man, Charles J. Guiteau, suffered from paranoid delusions and other symptoms of severe mental illness. He had no difficulty positioning himself directly behind the president so as to carry out his plan.

Those are the bare facts. But there is more to this story – much more….

Candice Millard has given us a riveting narrative of post Civil War America. But what I am most grateful to her for is the depiction of Garfield himself.  Here was a man who wanted only to be able to farm his acreage in his beloved native Ohio, and to dwell there in pleasant amity with his wife Lucretia and their five children. Instead, his fellow Republicans, recognizing his sterling qualities, drafted him into politics, ultimately nominating him to run for president. It was not what he wanted:

‘This honor comes to me unsought. I have never had the Presidential fever; not even for a day.’

Nevertheless he was called upon to serve, and he did. His reward was to be shot by maniac and to endure two month of excruciating pain and misery before finally succumbing to septicemia and a host of other ailments brought on by the shooting and subsequent ill-advised medical treatments. The date of his death was September  19, 1881. He had been in office a little more than six months.

This is a rich feast of a book. I want to write more about it in a later post. Just now, though, I want to sing the praises of Destiny of the Republic, and to recommend it as warmly as I possibly can. There were times when this was not an easy book to read. The story of Garfield’s ordeal at the hands of the medical men – Dr. D. Willard Bliss in particular,  whose arrogance was largely responsible for his prolonged agony, was appalling. In an interview with Diane Rehm, Candice Millard says she had difficulty writing about his suffering because she had come to care so much about him. I had difficulty reading those passages for the same reason.

Candice Millard

Garfield was a thoroughly admirable human being, a devoted family man, a dedicated public servant, a man of deep learning and deeper compassion.

Modest to a fault, James Garfield  would have shunned the comparison, but when I finished this book, what came to my mind were the words spoken about Brutus by Marc Antony at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

His life was gentle; and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, This was a man!

James A. Garfield, official White House portrait


I’ve been talking about this book compulsively for weeks, to anyone who would listen. I’ve been surprised at the number of people who have looked at me with bemused expressions, as if to say, You’re reading a book about James A. Garfield? Why, pray tell? I do hope I’ve answered that question.

I also can’t resist adding cheerfully that my husband has, of late, been reading a book about tomatoes: 

Permalink 2 Comments

Society (of Little People) News: Miss Etta Lin celebrates her first birthday

October 16, 2011 at 11:49 am (Family)

On Saturday October 8 Miss Etta Lin celebrated her first birthday among friends and family at her home in Chicago.  Present were her parents, three sets of grandparents, and numerous friends of widely varying ages. (Etta has expressed particular pleasure at having so many grandparents, feeling quite certain that this happenstance will result in bonus amounts of gift giving, not to mention a large quantity of unquestioning adoration. So far, her expectations have been richly borne out!)

Etta stoking her little engine with pieces of strawberry, unfazed by a temporarily missing pigtail

Festivities commenced at noon on a glorious sunny day. Temperatures were in the eighties, a rare occurrence for that time of year. (Etta felt quite certain that this was a sign that Providence was smiling upon the event. Your Humble Reporter cannot but concur in this assessment.)

For this distinguished occasion, Etta wore a lovely dress of turquoise and white, with a large bow fetchingly placed at her shoulder. Here, her parents are making some last minute adjustments to her outfit, in order to assure maximum visual impact:    .

Speaking of visual impact, young Everly made quite a splash in her floral print dress with matching headgear:

Food and drink were plentiful and were consumed with gusto. As the older guests socialized, the younger ones were entertained at an ad hoc preschool set up by Etta’s Grandma Dorothy, whose prowess as a party planner had Your Reporter completely awed:

Grandma Dorothy supervising the craft activity, with June and her Mom taking part

Preschool continues, while Grandma Kathy holds little Etta

The older children also enjoyed the monkey-faced pinata, which finally released its payload of sweets and treats:

(The party had a monkey theme, in honor of Etta’s long standing fondness for a stuffed monkey, mysteriously named Bear….)

At any festive anniversary such as this, the opening of presents is invariably a highlight. Here we see Etta surrounded by gifts so generously bestowed upon her small person:

Etta received a green tutu with matching green hair ribbon barrettes from us. I was out with some  friends who have granddaughters and they urged this purchase on me. “Little girls love these!” they enthused. Many thanks, O wise friends!

Later that day, Etta had a chance to model this fine garment:

A true child of the twenty-first century, Etta takes every opportunity to acquaint herself with the latest trends in electronic gadgetry:

These days, parties frequently include a cupcake component. This one was no exception:

Our heartfelt thanks go out to Etta’s Mom and Dad and Grandma Dorothy for  this splendid entertainment. Thanks also go to the guests, who were so generous with gifts and good cheer. And of course, thanks also to Etta for – well, just being Etta!

Permalink 9 Comments

“All Marina could see was green. The sky, the water, the bark of the trees: everything that wasn’t green became green.” – State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

October 15, 2011 at 6:21 pm (Book review, books, Music)

  Marina Singh, a physician, is employed by a pharmaceutical research firm in Minnesota. This same firm has dispatched  another scientist, Annick Swenson, to the Amazon to investigate a drug with tremendous, if somewhat mysterious, potential. Dr. Swenson disliked cell phones and was in general a poor communicator. There came a point where she had not been heard from for a disturbingly long time. Anders Eckman, Marina’s research partner, has been sent to try and find her.

When Marina and her boss Mr. Fox finally do hear from Anneck Swenson, it is to impart some deeply distressing news.

Here’s how State of Wonder opens:

The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things? This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world.

This missive from Dr. Swenson is curiously brisk and elliptical. Its chief purpose is to inform Mr. Fox of the demise of Anders Eckman. Due to the exigencies of the situation, Dr. Swenson informs him, the decision was made to bury Eckman in Brazil.

For any number of reasons, this minimal communique just won’t do. For one thing, Anders Eckman has a wife and three sons. In the midst of her terrible grief, Karen Eckman is demanding answers. The role of getting those answers falls to Marina, who must now herself make the arduous journey to Brazil.

I don’t want to give away any more of the plot beyond this point. This is a highly original novel, unlike any I’ve read in a long time, filled with vivid descriptive writing.  Here is Marina in Manaus, first stop on the way into the jungle:

She went to the market hall at six in the morning when the world was out to accomplish as much as was humanly possible before the truly devastating heat began. The smell of so many dead fish and chickens and sides of beef tilting precariously towards rot in the still air made her hold a crumpled T-shirt over  the lower half of her face but she took the time to stop and look at the herbs and barks at the medicine table, the snake heads floating in what she sincerely hoped was alcohol. A black vulture the size of a turkey walked down the aisles like all the other shoppers, looking for whatever fish heads and entrails were to be had underneath the tables.

There’s a wonderful scene in Teatro Amazonas, Manaus’s opera house. Marina goes there in the company of an eccentric (and often supremely exasperating) couple, Barbara and Jackie Bovender. The Bovenders are tasked with protecting Dr. Swenson in absentia and with concealing her whereabouts; they are succeeding only too well in this endeavor. At any rate, Marina enjoys the music, especially the Bachianas Brasileiras No.5 by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos. Since arriving in Manaus, Marina had been in a state of heightened agitation. She derives solace from the otherworldly strangeness of this music: “It took eight cellos and a human voice to quiet her mind.”


At the dawning of the new milennium, I read a book that seemed to have been written just for me.  The story of an opera singer* who finds herself taken hostage in a nameless South American country, the narrative is permeated from beginning to end with the love of great music and with a belief in the power of that music to transform the human heart. The novel was called was called Bel Canto; its author was Ann Patchett. 

For ten years, I’ve been waiting for yet another work of fiction that could equal that one in scope, in imaginative reach, in the grace of its prose and the memorable qualities of its characters. I have finally found that work; it is State of Wonder.

Ann Patchett


*Renowned soprano Renee Fleming served as the model for singer Roxanne Coss in Bel Canto. In the course of a series of conversations, Patchett and Fleming became friends. Last month, Renee Fleming  wed lawyer Tim Jessell. They met through a blind date set up by Ann Patchett.

Here is Renee Fleming singing “Song To the Moon,” from Rusalka by Antonin Dvorak:

Permalink 1 Comment

A Ruth Rendell retrospective, Part One

October 7, 2011 at 2:02 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

My first thought upon arriving home after the Tuesday night meeting of the Usual Suspects was, I’m exhausted.

My second thought, upon waking up the following morning at five AM with a splitting headache was, I’ve had a bracing lesson in humility!

In all honesty, it’s a lesson I needed to get. Assuming that everyone else will love an author or a work of literature with the same fervor that you do is certainly born of hubris of the highest order.

A bit of background: Marge and I had the idea of presenting a survey of Ruth Rendell’s body of work (excepting the novels of Barbara Vine, just to narrow things down a bit on this particular occasion). Since Rendell has been so prolific, we decided to do our presentation in two parts, beginning with the Wexford novels.

Ruth Rendell

Marge kicked off the proceedings by providing the background for Rendell’s life and work. Born Ruth Barbara Grasemann in 1930, she was an only child. Her parents, both teachers, were unhappily married and fought frequently. In her book Women of Mystery, Martha Hailey DuBose quotes Rendell to the effect that this stressful home life imbued her “…from a very early age with a sense of doom.”

After graduating from Loughton County High School, she began her working life as a journalist. In 1950, she married her boss at the paper, Don Rendell. Two years later, her journalism career abruptly terminated. Various reasons have been given for this sudden cessation. She may have decided that she wanted to focus on her son Simon, born in 1953. There exists, however, the possibility of a rather more colorful scenario.  Martha Hailey DuBose begins her chapter on Ruth Rendell thus:

There is a story often told about Ruth Rendell…about the time when, asa journalist, she was assigned to cover the annual dinner of a local tennis club. Like many a newspaper reporter faced with a deadline and yet another predictable social event, she wrote her story from the advance copy of the guest speaker’s text. What Ruth didn’t know was that the speaker  had dropped dead in the middle of her speech. The reporter turned in her resignation the next day.

All this time, Rendell had been writing short stories and sending them off to various magazines, only to have them returned unpublished. She began experimenting with longer forms in various genres, including historical fiction, family sagas, and detective novels. Finally in 1964, From Doon with Death, the first Wexford novel was accepted for publication. It launched her career as a writer of crime fiction. Since then, she has been both prolific and successful, winning numerous awards and having her work adapted for television programs and feature films.

I should explain first how Marge and I set up this two part discussion. Some weeks prior to Tuesday night, we distributed the following list:


Psychological suspense (non-series):

Judgement in Stone – We believe that this novel is going to achieve classic status. Rendell did something incredibly audacious by giving the plot away in the opening sentence. Despite this, the sense of accumulating dread as you read is almost excruciating. (Understandably, some readers find themselves too unnerved by the scenario created by the author.)

Crocodile Bird – I just revisited this book on audio & found myself wanting to discuss with someone – anyone! Could a woman such as Eve actually exist? Could she raise a child in such a restricted (though physically attractive) environment, in this day and age (late 1980s)? This is also one of those novels that leaves you speculating as to what will happen, beyond the narrative’s actual conclusion.

Keys to the Street – A favorite with both of us, though not read recently by either. We both recall the novel featuring at least one rather scary character – and one vulnerable young woman.

Tigerlily’s Orchids – Rendell’s latest, and a triumph, in our view. Also distinctly less scary than some of the other psychological suspense titles. Evocative & beautifully written Tigerlily’s Orchids rather surprisingly contains the most unsparing, devastating portrayal of end stage alcoholism that I have ever encountered in a work of fiction.

The Water’s Lovely – Did Heather Sealand drown her stepfather? She seems such an unlikely murderess. And yet…

Wexford novels

Simisola – Rendell tackles the tricky subject of racial prejudice in this compelling tale of a young woman of African heritage who goes missing from her home. Her parents are health care professionals; in fact, her father is Wexford’s primary care physician.

Road Rage– In Kingsmarkham, anger boils over at the prospect of a new highway cutting through s beloved landscape.  As tensions escalate, the case becomes personal for Chief Inspector Wexford.

Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter – This novel opens with a shocking  scene of violence. Yes, it’s disturbing, but it is also very compelling.  The plot is snaky and devious, and I’d be interested to know if you suspect the culprit before that person’s true identity is revealed.

End in Tears – Several young women have been making frequent trips to Frankfurt, Germany. Wexford must find out the purpose of these journeys in order to solve a string of bizarre and terrible crimes.

From Doon with Death – Published in 1964, this is the first Wexford novel. Reading it gives you the chance to see how the detective’s character – and his creator’s style –  have evolved over the years.

We asked that group members read one from each of the two groups. We would discuss the Wexford series first; the second session would be devoted to the non-series novels.

From Doon with Death (1964) seemed like the natural place to start our discussion of the Wexford books. Several people had read it. The consensus was that it was a pleasant enough read, but not exceptional – in other words, fairly standard fare for a police procedural. Even a bit ho hum.

I did not quite agree with this assessment. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. My library copy is sitting in front of me, festooned with post-it flags. I especially liked the depiction of mid-sixties small town Britain. (The town in question is the fictional Kingsmarkham.)

Ah, well, to each his or her own taste….

  Next came Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter (1992). With its shocking opening scene, vivid imagery, and cunning plot, this has long  been one of my favorite Wexford novels. Those who had read it, however, were largely negative in their assessment.

Ah well, to each his or her own….

  With Road Rage (1997), reactions were somewhat more positive. Environmental concerns dominate this novel. The “rage” in the title refers not to the anger of individual motorists but to a general outrage at a plan to build a road through a pristine wooded area on the outskirts of Kingsmarkham. I don’t have the novel in front of me and it’s been a while since I read it, so I can’t say too much more about it right now. And this points up one of the problems with a discussion of this kind; namely, that some of the material will not be fresh in the mind of the presenter. Would it have been better to have suggested a smaller number of titles? Possibly. (Comments welcome on this subject.)

At one point during the evening, Barb asked why Marge and I were allotting so much time to the work of this one author. I answered immediately that I was simply crazy about Rendell’s writing. True enough: she could describe someone walking down the street to mail a letter and I would be enthralled. Farewell to any pretense of objectivity! And that, I realize, was (and is) a big part of my problem. (Barb expressed a preference for Donna Leon. On that score, she won’t get an argument from either Marge or me: Leon is a great favorite with both of us.)

  We went on to discuss Simisola (1994). This is one of Rendell’s most explosive narratives. In it, she gives her unblinking take on racism, involuntary domestic servitude, and chronic unemployment. She depicts a society oblivious to the anguish of the poor and powerless, making halfhearted gestures of appeasement in their general direction. These disadvantaged people are seen by the majority as an undifferentiated mass. Wealthy and prominent locals are shown to be capable of shocking cruelty toward those they view as part of the underclass. Idle youths congregate on the front steps of the benefit office. One of them is Raffi Johnson. His mother Oni possesses dangerous knowledge; in a ruthless attempt at intimidation, she is beaten nearly to death. Raffi’s vigil at  her bedside speaks volumes about the goodness of his heart. (He is rewarded for this and his other good qualities in a subsequent book in the series.)

We talked about the shocking scene at the heart of Simisola in which Wexford misidentifies a homicide victim. This is just the sort of mistake that he thought he had schooled himself against. In his continuous self-examination and soul searching on the subject of attitudes toward racial differences, Wexford once again finds himself, in his own estimation, coming up short.

Marge placed  strong emphasis on Rendell’s treatment of social issues, stating that it is one of the chief reasons for holding this author in such high regard.

For me, one of the more poignant moments in crime fiction occurs at the very end of this novel. Wexford wants to make sure that his team does not think of this victim as yet another anonymous unfortunate. He stands before them and says: “Her name was Simisola.” (Thanks, Carol, for taking meticulous notes on your reading and sharing your insights with us.)

  Our final title for the evening’s consideration was End in Tears (2005). At the heart of this novel is a baby selling operation that not only ends in tears but in death as well. As usual in the fiction of Ruth Rendell, cruel ironies abound. The novel begins with a horrific car accident, deliberately caused by a saboteur, in which Mavis Ambrose, an innocent woman who is not the intended target, loses her life.

In End in Tears, we get to know DS Hannah Goldsmith, a member of Wexford’s team. She’s ambitious and highly competent. She also advocates strenuously, and at times almost irrationally, for  the rights of women. Wexford has pretty much taken her measure:

Hannah liked complex family arrangements. In her world they signified freedom of choice and self-assertiveness. A bunch of children, thought Wexford, each with a different father and some with different mothers, all living under one roof with four or five unrelated adults would be her ideal.

With her rigid ideological stance, Hannah can be a pill. At least, that’s what some who had read the book called her – and quite rightly too, I think. But she has her vulnerable points, especially regarding yet another team member.  This is DC Bal Bhattacharya. The attraction seems to be mutual, but Bal is a a slow mover. If memory serves me correctly, they’re on the outs with each other at  the end of this novel. There’s more to their story, though, in Not in the Flesh (2007), the next Wexford and one I am particularly fond of.

Marge wanted everyone to be aware of the of the ways in which the character of Wexford grows and changes in the course of this series. In From Doon with Death, he is somewhat abrupt, even at times coarse in his mode of expression. As the series developed, Rendell bestowed a family on this character. He is, in fact, one of the few series detectives with an intact and happy family life. There is some tension, though, regarding his relationship with his two daughters. Sheila, an actress, is a  free-spirited beauty, while Sylvia, who’s a social worker, can be somewhat priggish and judgmental. Because of his stronger natural affection for Sheila, Wexford feels the guilt that any parent would feel in a similar situation. He tends to overcompensate. In Babes in the Wood (2002), though, he gets a genuine opportunity, in harrowing circumstances, to show Sylvia just how much, and how unconditionally, he loves her.

In this video, made on the occasion of the publication of The Monster in the Box, Rendell talks about the way in which the character of Wexford evolved:

The relationship between Wexford and Mike Burden, his second in command, is an interesting one. As the series begins, Burden holds extremely conservative views on social issues and tends to be disapproving of those with freewheeling lifestyles. But tragedy strikes Burden early on: his beloved wife Jean, mother of his two children, dies of cancer while still quite young. He is devastated and seems to lose his way for a period of time. But Wexford supports and helps him during this crisis. Before long, Burden enters into a felicitous second marriage. Over the years, he and Wexford  become close friends as well as uniquely compatible colleagues.

So – what about the discussion? I felt that the verdict on this author was somewhat mixed. But I think some people did genuinely enjoy their selections. (At least I hope they did.) Pauline opined that while Rendell at her best can be truly outstanding, her output is somewhat uneven. She’s so prolific, this would almost inevitably have to be the case. So…why do I totally love everything I’ve ever read  by her? Because, Roberta, you are obviously not rational on this subject!

As I mentioned before, it’s challenging to run a discussion adhering to this format. I’d be less than truthful if I didn’t say that I’m a bit chagrined at the prospect of presenting Part Two of the retrospective, in which we’ll be considering Rendell’s nonseries novels of psychological suspense. Unfortunately, this feeling was somewhat exacerbated by the fact that I was already getting negative feedback on a couple of the books in the nonseries section of the list. However, I shall press on, undaunted!

I want to praise members of the Usual Suspects once more for the vigor of their minds, their great sense of humor, and their eagerness to engage in lively discourse. I noted Tuesday night that several people had already read several of the titles on the list we’d given them. I deeply appreciate that dedication.

I should add here that reports of Wexford’s death have been greatly exaggerated. However, reports of his retirement are true. In The Vault, out here just last month, Wexford is asked to assist on a baffling case, even though he is no longer officially on the force. The case in question is actually a throwback to events that occurred in A Sight for Sore Eyes. This is a non-series novel published in 1999 and featuring one of Rendell’s creepiest creations: Teddy Brex.


Suspects, I’ll see you next month, for yet another bracing session! Meanwhile, I must finish packing. We’re journeying to Chicago to celebrate, with her parents and other grandparents, the first birthday of this highly esteemed (not to mention greatly adored) little person:

Permalink 17 Comments

The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox, by Nina Burleigh

October 2, 2011 at 1:35 am (Book review, books, Crime, Italy)

  This is the story of a brutal killing and its sensational aftermath. It is also the story of ancient place, with a history that is at once glorious and strange, and sometimes violent.

On the night of November 1 2007, Meredith Kercher was found murdered in a house she shared with several other young persons of varying nationalities. Like her housemates, Meredith, herself a British national, was a university exchange student in Perugia, Italy. Three individuals were charged with the crime and brought to trial: Rudy Gude, a resident of the city and native of the Ivory Coast, Amanda Knox, an American from Seattle, and Amanda’s Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito. All three were found guilty and sent to prison. Attention is now focused on Knox, who is currently appealing her conviction. A decision in this matter is expected any day now.

Nina Burleigh reviews all aspects of this crime with admirable lucidity and attention to detail. She’s especially enlightening on the subject of the Italian legal system, which in some aspects is similar to our own. There are, however, differences. For instance, juries are not held to the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, one assistant prosecutor declared, “Only God has no doubts.”

What Burleigh does in her book that I found very valuable – not to mention fascinating – is to put this crime in a cultural context. Where the history of Perugia is concerned, I came away with the sense of a place where evil and depredation are inextricably yoked to a transcendent beauty. One could also say this of Naples, a city I first journeyed to in the Spring of 2009. I’m thinking of the title I bestowed on my post about that city: ” Chaotic, anarchic, harrowing, defaced… and sublime.”   Naples is home to two Caravaggio masterpieces, the veiled Christ, and many other priceless works of art.  It is also home to its own crime family: the Camorra. (In 2006, at the astonishingly tender age of 27, journalist Roberto Saviano penned Gomorrah, an expose of this notorious organization. The book’s jacket flap tersely informs readers that as a result of the book’s explosive content, Saviano “…has been placed under police protection.”)

Then there’s the Monster of Florence. Of Florence..? Sadly, yes. (For more on this, see The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi.)

There is also the Beast of San Gregorio. Her name was Caterina Fort. Think carefully before you pursue further knowledge of this woman. I personally would be happy never to have heard of her.

Perugia is  home to great art, magnificent churches, and numerous medieval artifacts. There are some jarring juxtapositions: “For nine months out of the year, the San Lorenzo duomo steps are an Italian Amsterdam, with young people sunning themselves and drinking beer from plastic cups and smoking spinelli–joints filled with hash.”

Indeed, as Burleigh tells it, life for Perugia’s college students was a Bacchanalian feast, with numerous bars and discos open till the wee hours, liberal consumption of drugs and alcohol, sex on offer anywhere and everywhere. The pace of the partying was frenetic. The life of the mind seemed the last thing on anyone’s mind.

And yet….

Inside the duomo, a stone wall’s width away from the party scene outside, lies  the town’s most precious relic, the Virgin Mary’s wedding ring, a circle of green onyx that pilgrims and knights supposedly rescued from Jerusalem in the fifteenth century through great peril. The ring is  secreted in a locked silver reliquary tucked high in the wall behind red velvet curtains, accessible only by a ladder and pulley system. It has been displayed only once a year for the last five hundred years. The reliquary can be opened only with fourteen different keys, held by fourteen different prominent Perugians.

For me, the most eye-opening content in this book involved the description of pagan rites whose practice allegedly persists alongside the rites of traditional Christianity:

Despite the fact that the Pope resides among them, Italians are not as Catholic as one might expect. Italy remains, as the journalist Luigi Barzini put it, “gloriously pagan.” It Italy, “Christianity has not deeply disturbed the happy traditions and customs of ancient Greece and Rome” but is “a thin veneer over older customs.”

(I was pleased to encounter the name of Luigi Barzini. I well remember his celebrated work, published in 1964, claiming pride of place on my mother’s bookshelves. She had just begun traveling to that storied place, and she loved Barzini’s book.) 

What, you may well ask, does all of this have to do with the crime that forms the centerpiece of The Fatal Gift of Beauty? The answer lies primarily with the crime scene, and the way certain features of it struck Giuliano Mignini, the magistrate whose brief it was to investigate and prosecute the murder of Meredith Kercher. Mignini, a devout Catholic, was struck by several odd aspects of the crime scene. First, there was the broken bedroom window that lacked any trace evidence whatsoever, either organic or inorganic, as though “whoever had come in through that window–if anyone had–possessed a superhuman power of levitation….” Then there was the cat’s blood on the lower floor.

Possibly most bizarre of all, there was a trail of bloody footprints made by a single shoe: “The removal of one shoe during Masonic initiation is a piece of pagan symbolism so ancient that historians don’t even understand its significance.” Burleigh continues:

After studying numerous statues with one sandal and myths such as Cinderella, involving lost shoes, or the laming or hobbling of one foot, as in the Achilles’ heel, the Italian cultural anthropologist Carlo Ginzburg theorized that the ritual laming of a foot or the removal of one shoe was a symbol of stepping into and out of the underworld.

There’s more – quite a bit more. By the time I finished this part of the book, I wanted to run and hide somewhere. (A church or synagogue would have served nicely.) Inevitably, these and other characteristics of the crime scene raised the specter of Satanic ritual.

In the final section of her book, Nina Burleigh brings us firmly back down to earth, to the hard reality of this case. She lays out the evidence in a clear and forthright manner. As the investigation and the trial have run their course, Amanda Knox has exhibited some strange  behaviors. At times it was just a matter of an inappropriate demeanor. She seems throughout to have exhibited an oddly flat affect when faced with the horror of her roommate’s murder. At one point, while being questioned in open court, she shocked those present by imitating the sounds a person would make after his or her throat had been slashed. She has done herself no favors by these actions, but neither do they in and of themselves signify guilt.

I picked this book up last week and read it through to the end, with no break. It was riveting.

Closing arguments in Amanda Knox’s appeal were heard today. And once again, hundreds of reporters and photographers descended on Perugia. Click here for coverage by CBS News.

A verdict is expected on Monday.

Permalink 5 Comments