by Hugh Gilmore

Two weeks ago I went to the public library and had a meltdown – I dropped my “should” at the door. That is, I decided to go in and pluck out a great armful of books I wanted to read and no books I felt I “should” read. “Should,” as in: I really must learn more about the Russo-Japanese War, or I should know more about the history of whaling, or I should read more Nobel Prize literature.

I still read a lot of books (if you think 90-100 a year is a lot), but I can’t really say I’ve had a good time doing it lately. I picked a lot of clinkers along the way. In the past six months I’ve read one book that compelled me (that Salinger biography I mentioned last month). You know the kind of book: Nobody can find you because you’ve snuck off into a quiet corner to read again. Your phone and emails go unanswered, your meals uncooked, your back forty unplowed, etc.

So, I guess, something cultured inside me snapped as I went through the portals of the Andorra branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia last week and headed for the New Arrivals section. I hate to say it, since I’m a novelist, but I walked past the Recent Novels section and headed for Recent Nonfiction Arrivals. I like reading true crime, survival stories, and biographies. I found about two weeks worth of what has so far been very gripping, and interesting reading. I’ll just tell you about the crime books for now.

First, a book made famous by its adaptation to screen: “Orange is the New Black.” Netflix has steered itself beyond movie rentals, as you know, into the land of movie production. Their recent original series, ONB for short, was released last spring and was a huge success.

In case you missed the series, or missed what was novel about its release, you should know that, instead of making each new one-hour episode available on a weekly basis (the usual suspenseful way), Netflix released the entire series at once.

Viewers could download once-a-week, or twice, or all at once, or in whatever order they chose. Most seem to have chosen to watch at least two in a row and possibly as many as half of the watchers saw nearly all of the series in one viewing. The term “binge watching” received its biggest boost ever after that, and is now part of everyday American vocabulary.

The Netflix series was fun for an episode, then I grew bored. My initial interest lay in the supposedly true aspects: the film was “based on” a memoir written by Piper Kerman (in the show: Chapman), a Smith College graduate who fell in love with another woman, who turned out to be a drug dealer, and who coaxed Piper to join her in the trade.

The two women enjoyed each other’s company for a while but fell out. Piper moved away, met a man, got engaged. Nine years later Federal law enforcement officers interrupted her emerging middle-class life by arresting her for the crimes of her youth. She was sentenced to the Danbury Federal Prison Camp, within the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution for 15 months.

After seeing the overblown, overdramatized, unbelievable, unrealistic, boring series, I decided to read the original memoir. Published in 2010, it was a much more satisfying book. Piper Kerman writes perceptibly about the nature of drug crimes, her fellow inmates, and the corrupt and debilitating nature of the criminal justice system. The book is compassionate, intelligent, and committed to helping reform the system. It’s a bit plodding at times, but honest and important.

Unfortunately, Netflix is already in production for a second season of ONB, to debut in January 2014. Many of the more popular characters will carry over into the new season. Most of them were invented by the writing team. (for example, the mega-Christian violent meth freak known as “Pennsatucky,” the fireman who stole to afford a gender change operation, the character of “Crazy Eyes.”). Wake me when it’s over.

Under the heading of True Crime I also read two other books that made sleep difficult. In fact I’ve learned to stop reading books like these about an hour before I go to bed and pick up a nice, calming New Yorker magazine. The first, by Robert Kolker, is titled: “Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery” (2013).

Kolker is a New York Magazine reporter who had covered the (still unsolved) Long Island serial killers story. His book describes an unfortunately familiar kind of crime, the murder of young female prostitutes, but offers several unusual perspectives. First, it reports on a relatively new social phenomenon, the manner in which new social media, such as Craigslist, have made freelance prostitution possible. Young women who choose not to work through an agency, such as an escort service, can find clients on their own, in ways that make their trail difficult to trace. More than a dozen bodies, most identified as self-employed prostitutes, have been discovered in desolate areas of Long Island in recent years. The second, most notable, aspect of this book is that every victim is presented in an in-depth, sympathetic portrait. All were poor, downwardly mobile, and desperate. Many were drug addicted. Several were mentally ill. All had fallen through the system. Their lives were pitiable and their deaths horrible. Kolker is a writer with a big heart and a gritty determination to follow a story. “Lost Girls” is a frightening and sad book.

And I guess I should say the same for “Manson,” a new (August 2013) biography by Jeff Guinn, though the “sad” aspect pertains only to the victims and is brushed aside by a huge cast of selfish, frantic scary people. All through the reading of this book I was struck to learn that there were aspiring gurus preaching on virtually every street corner in L.A. and Haight-Ashbury back in the day.

Manson’s “family” expanded till the center couldn’t hold and then he turned from nuisance crimes to deadly crimes to keep his group together. In small scale it reminded me of Jonestown and Waco and Nuremburg. I’ve never read such an exhaustive and scary history of the times I and many of my readers actually lived through. This is an intelligent, creepy book that makes you feel someone is looking through your windows as you read.

I read a few others too, including the new Ann Rule book, “Practice to Deceive,” (2013) and the business crime book, “The Informant,” (2000) by Kurt Eichenwald. Both were wall-to-wall thrillers. I recommend all five to any True Crime fans in our readership.

Hugh Gilmore is the author of several novels and essay collections available through bookstores and Amazon.com. His collection of stories from his old bookshop days, “Scenes from a Bookshop,” recently made it onto Kindle’s Top 100 list among books set in the field of old and rare books.

  • Bob Kolker

    Hello Hugh – I couldn’t track down a direct email for you but I wanted to thank you for the kind words about Lost Girls. I appreciate it! Many thanks and all best,

    Bob Kolker