The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

August 25th, 2014

school busForget January 1. As the parent of a school-age child, the first day of school rings in the real New Year where the optimism shines as brightly as the new first-day-of-school outfit.  My son, though, has never been able to fully revel in this joyful season.  Instead of inspiring him with talk of a new start or lofty resolutions, his ever cynical mother can offer only real-life, social-doom-related adages, such as never ever leave your lunch tray unattended at any time for any reason or let your cosmetologist cousin “fix” your hair the day before class pictures.

This summer, I resolved to rediscover the magic of a new year by reading and watching characters reinvent themselves. My favorites included:

Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen
Rebecca, a once famous photographer, finds herself stuck in a raccoon-infested cabin in rural New York consumed by worries about money and her stalled career.  Relaxing into daily life with her quirky neighbors and the roofer who traps the rampaging raccoon, Rebecca leaves her old self behind, finding inspiration and a late-in-life second chance in the upstate woods.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Once renowned L.A. architect Bernadette Fox finds both the people and weather of Seattle eroding her sanity. Attempting to plan a long promised family trip to Antarctica hilariously derails as Bernadette is forced to ever more eccentric means of hiding her agoraphobia. Bewildered by his wife’s behavior, Microsoft guru Elgin Branch attempts a mental health intervention, during which Bernadette mysteriously disappears. Compiled by her daughter, the story uses Internet postings, emails, magazine articles and FBI reports to trace Bernadette’s journey back to her family and a rediscovered life.

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison
A former stay-at-home dad whose wife has left him, Ben takes the job of caregiver to Trev, a teen with muscular dystrophy, hoping to find a purpose in life. Their subsequent road trip in search of Trev’s estranged father (during which they pick up a runaway, a pregnant farm girl and a tail in a Skylark) points the way to forgiveness for Ben’s past deeds.

Doctor Who: The Second Series – DVD

The poster child of reinvention, Dr. Who’s regeneration in “The Christmas Invasion” features murderous Santa robots, a deadly spinning Christmas tree and a plot by the alien Sycorax to enslave the human race.  Putting his own stamp on the beloved character, David Tennant’s debut as Dr. Who encapsulates both the confusion and excitement wrought by a brand new start.

Busy Monsters by William Giraldi
Jilted by his fiancée for a giant squid hunting oceanographer, Charles seeks to win her back by embarking on a manhood-proving quest of his own. Confronting Bigfoot, alien abductees and other questionable creatures, he fights his own self-created monsters on a comic road trip to true love.

All good intentions aside, as my son left the car to wait at the bus stop all I could think to say was to sit toward the front, keep your eyes forward, ears closed and hands to yourself. I was rewarded with a massive eye roll and just the hint of a smile. I guess there’s always next year.

What’s your favorite back-to-school advice?

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Larger-Than-Life Crime

May 20th, 2013


I recently heard a news story so bizarre I could hardly believe it was true.  A series of crimes in France was linked to a suspect, but then the case took a very odd turn. Police discovered the man was living with his identical twin and because twin DNA is virtually identical, they were at a loss to figure out whodunit. Did one or both twins commit the crimes? If only one twin was the assaulter, did the other twin know?  Would scientists be able to find case-breaking minute differences in their DNA?  The story seemed more like a best-selling thriller than real life, adding to that well-known adage that truth really is stranger than fiction.

Add to this mix the odd case of Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee Olympic athlete who shot and killed his supermodel girlfriend on Valentine’s Day.  At the same time, Pistorius’s brother Carl also was on trial for murder, this time in the form of vehicular homicide.  To top it all off, the lead investigator in Oscar’s case had to resign because he too was accused of attempted murder after firing into a taxi full of innocent passengers.  Like a well-written suspense with many twists and turns, I can hardly keep all these crimes straight.

Give it a few years, and I predict we’ll see a rash of books, movies and maybe even a few cheesy made-for-tv-movies about these cases.  But in the meantime, these larger-than-life crimes inspired me to wander the stacks in search of real life cases that could touch this level of outlandishness.  Turns out, there are many true accounts of cases so bizarre, you can hardly believe they are real:

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – The riveting history of America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, who took advantage of the 1893 Chicago World Fair to cover up his crimes.

Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich A charming and brilliant young scientist pulls off the audacious theft of a 600-pound safe of moon rocks from a high-tech government facility, all to impress his girlfriend.

The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perryman  – The true tale of scandal and sex-filled murder cases involving beautiful Jazz Age women. This story inspired the musical “Chicago.”

Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal – Hard-to-believe but real account of a master identify thief who posed as a member of the wealthy Rockefeller family for over a decade, married a wealthy woman, and then kidnapped and disappeared with his own daughter.

Midnight in Peking by Paul French – In 1937, a British schoolgirl’s dissected body is found propped against an old building in Beijing. The building is notorious for being haunted and though the murder becomes a media sensation, the crime is never solved and the public’s attention is quickly drawn away by invasion of Japanese forces.

Anyone You Want Me to Be: A True Story of Sex and Death on the Internet by John Douglas – Shocking account of a seemingly harmless family man who used the anonymity of the Internet to seduce and murder vulnerable women.

Provenance by Laney Salisbury – Fast-paced thriller of an elaborate, international con in which villains exploited high-profile art institutions into legitimizing hundreds of forged artworks, many of which still hang in museums today.

The Bobbed Haired Bandit: A True Story of Crime and Celebrity in 1920s New York by Stephen Duncombe – With her modern haircut and fashionable wardrobe, Ceila Cooney seemed anything but a criminal mastermind. Nevertheless, she engineered a thrilling series of thefts, taunted police, and escaped the largest manhunt in New York City history, becoming a celebrity and icon of the rebellious Jazz Age spirit.

What are your favorite shows, books and movies about crime?

Photo credit: “Crime Scene Do Not Cross” by Curtis Gregory Perry

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