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text 2015-02-09 11:00
List of Reviews

Book Weights

Last updated: 9 February 2015

Below you will find a book of the books I have and reviewed in alphabetical and chronological order.


These lovely bookends (and many, many others) are sold by DesignAtelierArticle at Etsy. Have a look, they are wonderful.


Alphabetical order


A - C

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review 2014-08-09 15:00
Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience
Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience - Gitta Sereny

Read in December of 2013, just updated to Booklikes-i-ness (and added pictures).


This is one of the most incredible Holocaust books I have come across to date. It is about so much more than author Gitta Sereny's conversations with Franz Stangl (Commandant of Treblinka). These conversations (conducted while Stangl was in Düsseldorf prison) give us a narrative around which Sereny integrates her exceptional research, outside interviews and experiences. Sereny manages to be both our guide and an appropriately impartial observer of the events described (and is open in describing what could and could not be verified).


Gitta Sereny interviewing Franz Stangl at Dusseldorf


Written in 1972, this book seeks to address facts that "have become blurred" and the claims of "chroniclers...who will have us believe that the extermination of the Jews was almost an accidental development, somehow forced upon the Nazi's by circumstance" (p.93). Similarly, she disambiguates two sets of terms that have been conflated over time: concentration vs. extermination camps, and War Crimes vs. Nazi Crimes.

Stangl's retelling of his own story, I think, can best be summed up in a quote from Carl Jung:

“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.”

Stangl's justifications for his role at Treblinka are remarkably similar to the findings of behavioral economists regarding the "trolley problem" wherein (pardon my terrible summary) participants seem infinitely more comfortably with hitting a switch to divert a trolley headed for five people, but that would, then kill one person than they would if they had to physically push that one person in front of the trolley in order to prevent the five people further down the track from getting killed.


Trolley Problem switch versus push


In Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, author Paul Bloom describes:

...this is because the thought of touching the man, of laying your hands on him and shoving, gives rise to a powerful emotional response, much more than the thought of just throwing a switch, and this is why most people see this act as morally wrong (p.169).

This concept is illustrated time and again in Stangl's perception of his actions at Treblinka. Stangl's wife, Therese, recounts a conversation with her husband she had after he received his appointment at the Sobibor extermination camp:

I said, 'I know what you are doing in Sobibor?...What are you doing in this?'...he said...'I have nothing to do with any of this...My work is purely administrative...Oh yes, I see it. But I don't do anything to anybody.'(p.136)

This theme plays again when Stangl vehemently denies having ever fired a gun into a group of people who were, hours later, gassed en mass in an operation he was overseeing.


Sereny's work also intricately examines the role of Pope Pius XII — something I previously knew little about, so if you're into that you'll enjoy that part as well. 


Hopefully these passages will give you just a glimpse of myriad accounts gathered through Sereny's persistent research and access to survivors, witnesses and prisoners alike. In the time since finishing it, I have found myself referencing this book constantly, and recommend it highly. 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-07-13 21:28
Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell (Hardcover)
Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell - Gitta Sereny
This is an incredible account. I know it is still controversial in the UK, but the story of Mary Bell is a lesson in the rush to demonize any child under 13 who kills. In her story I see parallels with the 12 year olds who tried to kill another young friend in their age group that has recently taken place and known as The Slenderman attempted murder case.
Just like in Mary Bell's case one girl who was and is considered an accomplice has been all ready given diminished capacity while the other 12 year may be charged as an adult. These cases seem from what I have read scarily similar to the case of Mary Bell and Norma Bell (they are, were not related). I had heard the story of Mary Bell many times before finally finding a first edition for sale in a used book store. The book was brand new with a 1990s Amtrak stub in the book.
The book is the single best true crime book I've ever read. And yes, I confess it--I'm a True Crime Junkie.  So I had read summarized versions in some books that call Mary Bell the youngest Serial Killer.  A complete lie if there ever was one but it sounds sensational to keep people interested.  The truth is in some cases all too common and that it is common is part of the tragedy. The difference between Mary Bell and probably millions of severely abused physically and sexually children is that she at the tender age of 11 began to act out what we can only assume were murderous revenge fantasies on younger children who were weaker than her.  The fact that they were both male may be more significant in light of the way she was abused by her prostitute mother and the horrible men who paid probably extra to have an 8 year old child participate in sick sex games that ended with an 8 year old being forced with no recourse against her abusive mother (and one assumes a man consenting to these sorts of acts with an 8 year old child) to have oral copulation with her mother's tricks. 
When Mary killed the second boy, she tried sever his penis with scissors. What greater sign do you need about what her maybe subconscious drive was doing?
But this is getting ahead of myself.  Lets start at the beginning, from the books point of view.
This is the story of two profoundly disturbed 11 year old girls who had a murder fantasy game they played and tragically acted out in the murder of two little boys who were basically toddlers. The girls never really hid their intentions in numerous disturbing incidents that proceeded the murders. They even tried to take credit for the first murder in ways they announced their announced their intentions when they vandalized the local nursery (Police took it as children playing pranks, the first boys death was thought to be a tragic accident). Mary Bell's story is compelling because once they caught the girls they confessed, maybe bragged about what they had done totally unaware of the seriousness of what they did.  To them it was still a game. 
By the time they got to court they had recanted their confessions each accusing the other.  To the author of this book and the one that preceeded injustice was inflicted on both these children.  The author was told by her editor to cover the case.  She had covered the Nuremberg Trials after WWII... And here she was watching the law come down on two young girls who had no concept of what was going on around them.  They each took the stand. It was clear that Norma Bell "the accomplice" was developmentally disabled.  She was one child from a household who had more than 5 children.  Sometimes the girls giggled in court.  Which everyone took to be a sign of evil delight in their crimes instead of two little girls sitting next to each other in a very boring courtroom where they didn't understand what was going on very often entertaining themselves.  So, sinister indeed.  Norma Bell was allowed to go live with her family during the trial while Mary Bell stayed in custody.  In the book, the women that took care of her in her lil attic jail cell said they often would have to go and track down her mother to force her see her daughter in her confinement or just make her go to court.  These lay people knew that Mary had done something unimaginably horrible and knew that though they didn't know everything her mother was the root at it all.  So as I remember reading, "By God we were going to make sure her mother showed up to court, its the least she could do".  They felt this way because they had to deal with the woman who was Betty Bell.  She was rude, unrepentant.  And all ready began milking her daughter's infamy for every penny it's worth while in semi private visits crying uncontrollably about how Mary had ruined her life.  To anyone who spent even the minimum amount of time around Mary Bell and her mother Betty Bell it became obvious to what caused a young intelligent girl to act out in such an aggressively murderous way.  But in the court, they saw a smart little girl who they began to think of as a serial killer (in the UK, to qualify for that title you have to kill two random people in motiveless murders on two separate occasions.  And in the strictest sense, maybe Mary Bell could have become a serial killer.  Her horrific background, bed wetting, vandalism all fits with what is said about budding serial killers.  I believe there is a chance if Mary hadn't killed at 11 and gone on the same path to adulthood she could have become an incredibly dangerous human being, like all serial killers are.  But the fact of the matter is, she did these killings at age 11.  And in the most perverse way, it seemed to be her loudest call for help and the one that was finally answered.). 
I don't know if Norma Bell participated in the second killing.  But she was present. 
Only Mary was found guilty because the court never learned the absolute horrifying child abuse that was inflicted on Mary by her prostitute mother. Her mother allowed her tricks to pay to have oral sex with her daughter many years before. Before that happened she was repeatedly physically abused, her mother even drugged her to "go out and party", and her mother tried to literally kill her on at least one to two occasions that outsiders know of. Even after these abuses Mary tried to protect her mother, downplaying or trying to act like she didn't remember abuse. What she did admit to was hard because she was bound in love, craving love from a mother who always used her daughter for own ends. The author was before her death a highly respected journalist who wrote her first book on Mary Bell from being assigned to it. Mary Bell's extended family told the author many disturbing truths (though one doubts it was full disclosure, for Mary's paternity was clouded with clues that she was most likely the product of incest between her mother and grandfather!).
Though you could assume Mary tried to make up excuses for her behavior--SHE NEVER DID. The author stressed she never threw her mother under the bus in speaking with her. The hardest things for Mary to talk about were the murders and the unimaginable abuse she suffered with her mother. The only abuse that hadn't been easily crossed checked was her mother using her directly in prostitution until Mary stood up for herself and made it stop. However her mother came close to admitting that atrocity she committed against her daughter to some who told the author in her cross reference of the things Mary said. It's a fact that in the lead up to the murders Mary began to charge old men coins to look at her naked and more. In addition her mother made it clear she was to accompany her mother when she went back off doing tricks in Glasglow, putting Mary Bell at the snapping point. She ran away, she behaved aggressively towards other children. All these signs in 1968, lead to more punishment. So Mary and her best friend at11 began a murder fantasy game made up from WESTERNS SHOWN IN THAT ERA ON TV (I stress that, because those blaming "SLENDERMAN" will find not two evil 12 year old girls but two girls from some exceptionally disturbing homes....like Mary). Finally Mary snapped. The similarities with the SLENDERMAN attempted murder are chilling.
This book asks us to explore if a preteen understands if they act out murderous games it is forever. MARY BELL STRESSES THAT AFTER SHE COMMITTED HER FIRST MURDER, ALONE.... SHE DIDN'T FULLY UNDERSTAND THAT POOR MARTIN BROWN WAS LITERALLY GONE FOREVER. MARY needed to have been put in a juvenile mental hospital, instead of reform school to deal with her disturbed nature. So did her friend Norma Bell (I think in the end, as odd as it is, Norma Bell got the worst end of this by being acquitted simply because she never got the treatment she must have needed--now she has never committed a crime like this since but something was hapening in her life that led her to particpate by craving an N into the body of the seond victim, Mary superimposed her M over Norma's N....
But in 1968, they didn't have those facilities. Her friend was acquitted and they decided to let her free. In an odd way, things turned out okay for Mary as the only female in the boys reformatory where she finally at her young preteen age met adult mentors if not trained to heal and deal with her profoundly disturbed mind with psychotherapy. But just having adults she could love and trust not to hurt her profoundly helped healing her. Upon turning 16, they put her in adult prison where she remained till her schedule one parole.
After reading this book I researched child killers under 12. In most, they came from highly disturbed Families.This has left me with the conclusion that parents, families, should be heavily personally investigated in these sorts of crimes and the laws should reflect that the child should be taken for extreme psychotherapy and held for as long as MARY BELL. If abuse as extreme is found like with MARY BELL'S case, the parent or parents should face steep consequences. Not all abused kids react like Mary Bell but if you read this book, you should see that her mother's extreme abuse WAS THE CATALYST. Because of this, the parent who is responsible for their kids should face equal consequences for the abuse that led a kid who didn't comprehend her actions in the full IF AN INVESTIGATION PROVES EXCESSIVE NEGLECT &ABUSE OF THE NATURE TO LEAD A CHILD TO BECOME SO DISTURBED.....
My opinion and argument are quite simple.  If your child hits a baseball through a neighbors window, or vandalizes someones property...  YOU HAVE TO PAY FOR THAT ACT.  And you punish your child as what befits your conscience.
My argument is in children who murder with a parent like Mary Bell's mother Betty Bell....Well MRS. BELL WAS GUILTY AS WELL AND SHOULD HAVE FACED CONSEQUENCES.
Even after Mary was convicted, her mother USED her daughter's infamy to give stories to a salacious British press on Mary Bell to fund her life. I see the preteen girls in our country, with people calling them bad seeds. There is no such thing as a bad seed. They are created.
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review SPOILER ALERT! 2014-04-27 09:29
Cries Unheard... Until it was too late.
Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell - Gitta Sereny

When this book was first released, it created a massive controversy over criminals profiting from their crimes in the nation where this story really happened: Britain.  I can only surmise that those whom so vigorously felt that way didn't even read the book.  Not long ago, I got my hands on a first edition American Version of the book published in 1999 from a thrift store.  


This book is the horrific story of tragedy.  When a child of barely 11 years old strangles two young boys between the ages of 3-4 the mob mentality kicked in.  Everyone rushed to put away the monstrous little girl who could do such vile acts without ever thinking or asking what on earth caused this child to act out in this way?  Instead she became a living incarnate of the "Bad Seed".  A child simply born evil.  


The Book Cries Unheard by Gitta Sereny looks at the entire picture of the phenomenon that is Mary Bell, who is often billed as the world's youngest serial killer.  A misnomer if there ever was one since Mary Bell was released in 1980 and has never re-offended in the slightest way while it is a fact true serial murderers are incapable of stopping (often knowing they under police surveillance...or at least suspicion).  


This was one of the best books I've ever read on the subject of child murder and child murderers.  The author gives us a full biographical account of the child's life into womanhood.  In the case of Mary Bell, to know what happened in her young life to lead her to act out the way she did is essential to understanding why and how she ended up killing two young boys.  Some children have hellish childhoods and are able to cope.  They go on and live reasonably normal lives.  When children murder (in the WAY) Mary Bell did, you can't look at a child who doesn't have the capacity to fully understand what it was they did as you would even a child a few years older.  We all know maturity and understanding grows in leaps and bounds in those years.  


This book was incredible with its indictment on the system.  The system failed Mary Bell and through that failed her victims.  Starting as a baby she suffered unimaginable abuse at the hands of her mother.  Her mother Betty had tried to give her away to strangers but refused to allow her more stable family members adopt her. Betty worked as a prostitute from possibly even before Mary was born.  She specialized in giving her clients unique 'experiences'.  Some of those were her being a dominatrix and forcing her young daughter to have oral sex with her clients.  Also allowing her to get beat during these sessions.  In fact her mother practiced Erotic Asphyxiation on her clients till they passed out in Mary's presence while also subjecting her to the same strangling that would cause her to lose consciousness.  This left Mary with a belief that when you strangle someone to the point of losing consciousness, they will wake up as she had and seen others do countless times!


The end point of this abuse dovetails with what a young girl did, to two boys younger and weaker than herself.  It is completely probable that as she strangled these boys she didn't understand she was killing them.  She had been subjected to the same strangling where she woke back up.  But there is something else that culminated in these murders.  A young girl had been acting out for months begging for attention so someone would take her away from her mother.  No one noticed until they finally realized she killed two young boys.  By that time nobody cared that in the most final and horrific way she was seeking attention to get away!  No one labeled her mother what she was: a sexual abuser who prostituted her own daughter, drugged her in the presence of other people by mixing sedatives with her candy, physically abusive!  Mary was the bad seed with no one realizing she was reacting to the home she had to grow up in.  


None of this absolves of her or excuses her crimes.  The child needed to be put into a mental institution to get help for the trauma she was subjected to rather put into a reformatory school till she was 16 that indeed CHANGED her life, making her a better human being (all that needed to be done was for them to take her mother away and replace a stable set of individuals to teach the maturing girl how to behave in society 11-16).  But throwing a 16 year old with her trauma into a women's prison was vengeance on behalf of a world that couldn't see Mary Bell wasn't BORN evil, nor inherently evil at all!!  In fact she was created.  Prison could have totally regressed her.  Luckily those years in an also unsuitable Reformatory School taught her how to live correctly as a good person.


So you see this story is controversial for many, many reasons.  It cuts open for the world to see what happens when someone like Mary at such a young an age commits the ultimate crime how unprepared we truly are to handle it as a society-- be it Britain or the USA.  Something happened to these children to cause them to act this way and we should be exceptionally thankful that the murderous reaction to unbearably inhuman abuse by children is rare (at least while they are STILL children.)  These factors are common in the childhoods of real serial killers.  But this is why I don't consider Mary a 'serial killer' in the truest sense since true ones are like sharks that can never stop devouring.  Mary needed structure, then she needed help to move on with her life.  If somehow at 11 years old she had some sort of murderous impulse, it wasn't like what we see with male or female serial killers the world over who lose control of those impulses at some point or another.  For Mary, it stopped being an issue once she left the custody of extremely abusive mother.  


The book is debated ethically for many reasons.  One being Mary Bell was paid for participation.  I understand the anger of the victims family's.  At the same time it is hard for me personally to see Mary Bell getting paid for her painful, excruciatingly abusive life that culminated in the murders of two young boys as on the level of a callous murderer looking to profit off what he did.  There is nothing in common in this book with say Ian Brady's arrogant "Gates of Janus" where he in a Ted Bundy arrogance tries to tell the world who he is as such an incredible expert in serial murder.  


Cries Unheard is an astoundingly poignant book that rips open the tragedy that befell everyone involved.  In order to understand it, you had to know... you had to have the details from Mary Bell herself. She opened herself to examination is ways few of us would dare even without her past.  Yet Mary's story is vitally important for understanding what causes children to kill (and if they grow up without intervention...reveals the personal horrors driving them).  Maybe the saddest part of all is in order for Mary to end her abuse, she had to commit soul ripping acts of horror herself to get the attention she had been trying to get for a long time acting out.  In fact she may have aggressively, been reenacting the erotic asphyxiation that she witnessed her mother perform on clients and was performed on her.  


Mary has grown up into a rather normal woman no doubt to being taken away from her mother's influences (as much as possible, her mother used the press to further her daughters image as evil murder for money while in reformatory and prison--she was never above USING her own child.  Especially since no one called her out as the creator, except the author of this book and a book on the case before it).  Mary has now become a grandmother!  She has never done ANYTHING illegal again (she is on a strict parole for life).  


I think before people damn this book they should read it.  I found myself aching for two little boys who paid the price for Mary's mothers sins. And maybe for the failure of society to help them all.


The only part of the book that I didn't particularly care for were the author's 'solutions' to this problem of abuse that results in these acts of murder.  In her view all children should be given over to the government for raising so parents just can't have the opportunity to commit vile acts of abuse.  While it is true no one can really understand what goes on behind their neighbor's closed doors...  The answer is not allowing the state to have control.  The fact of the matter is most of the time family's love their offspring and make mistakes.  You open up the can of worms that an UNLOVING institutional government agency can do better than the majority of parents is not only naive, it's stupid.  We have to believe in the sanctity of family.  The issue is reporting.  In the book the author often sites that lots of people KNEW Mary Bell wasn't being treated well even if they didn't know the full extent.  An abusive mother who is a prostitute, I think it's perfectly fine to report that situation to the authorities.  Especially when the woman's family closes ranks behind her trying to hide her shortcomings and even abuses.  Regardless of how totally niave and unrealistic the author's conclusions are on how to handle children with troubled backgrounds the book is amazing.  And more amazing because in the end the young girl, at the center of it all made a recovery into the integration back into society.  It will just never cease to hurt ones heart what had to happen for someone to take notice of the tragedy brewing until it was spilling over in the streets of her neighborhood.

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review 2013-07-22 12:35
Gitta Sereny
Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience - Gitta Sereny

A Fascinating book based upon the authors interviews of Franz Stangl, Commandant of Treblinka. My interest in reading the book was a focus on responsibility and guilt. How at any one point in time within an individual lifetime, it can paint a portrait of one's character, permanent and overriding all other aspects of an individual existence. I found great interest in how Franz Stangl described his innocence, having not personally been involved in the exterminations that occurred under his administration. It did more to affirm my feelings about the wide spread guilt and responsibility that should have existed then support any one individuals efforts to exonerate themselves from the horror that occurred in these camps.

I truly enjoyed reading this book by Gitta Sereny and recommend it to anyone looking for an understanding of how individuals could participate in these type programs, be they related to WWII or all the other human exterminations that have occurred over the past century.

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