The Reject Pile, Mid-2017

Fortunately, it’s been a good year so far with respect to reading material. These two are the only Reject Pile candidates, and the second is a rather soft selection at that.

The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, A Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con by Amy Reading

  • 304 pages (I gave up around page 158)
  • Who doesn’t love to read about a caper? Turns out, it depends…

I’m still trying to shake off the confusion in this tale of deception and confidence games. Author Reading has done her homework and plainly knows the story. Halfway through, though, I felt like I still didn’t have a sense of how much of it was fiction and how much of it was true. The premise of the overarching story is that an upstanding Texas cattleman goes to exceptional lengths to bring down the confidence man who costs him his fortune. He targets each member of the criminal’s crew and runs them down, jailing crooked cops as part of his quest. Along the way, however, our Texan hero experiences such outrageous moments of fate that one can only assume deus ex machina. In fact, Reading throws up her hands in certain spots to say that the Texan’s claims about his crime-fighting adventures – which he later published as a magazine serial – are not verifiable, actually contrast with news reports of the day, or don’t match the overall timeline she has pieced together.

Much of Reading’s interest in the topic is the way in which the Texan’s upstanding character slowly degrades over the course of the story, a lá Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Unfortunately, it’s the morally lapsed fellow who has been the primary source for this account. While some readers will appreciate the irony here, I simply found it frustrating. Apologies to Ms. Reading, who also salts in some fascinating tidbits about P.T. Barnum, “bucket shops” and other mid-/late-19th century American scams; unfortunately, I found the constant wondering what to believe distracting when I wanted to just absorb a curious narrative.

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman

  • 323 pages (I read the whole thing)
  • Not actually bad, just not a book-length story

I’m the minority report here and struggled for a while to come up with a blog post of my usual length about The Zookeeper’s Wife. I just don’t have much to say about it. This book was a New York Times bestseller, and it’s pretty hard to go thumbs-down on a book about how evil the Nazis were. The edition I read had discussion questions for your book club on the last page: it’s not a particularly dense read and the story is interesting enough, so it’s not a bad topic to discuss over a few glasses of wine.

Author Diane Ackerman has researched her story, so no complaints on the factual basis of her work. She has previously published books of poetry, and she draws on that literary talent to offer the reader wonderfully vivid descriptions of the rustic natural beauty outside Warsaw. She also chose to write in a very narrative style, based heavily on diary entries of the title character. Many people will find that style more accessible than many historical accounts. However, I thought the story she chose to tell would have made a more compelling feature article in a magazine like The New Yorker or even Reader’s Digest than a book-length publication. If you’re determined to read it, you can polish it off in a weekend, even if you have other things to do.

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