A bare-knuckle, adventure-filled journey in search of the answer to a half-century–old cold case: Whatever happened to Nelson Rockefeller’s son, Michael?
Michael was 23 when he disappeared off the coast of southwestern New Guinea, having nearly made land after swimming for 18 hours when his catamaran capsized. Dutch officials (for this was still colonial territory in 1961) eventually reported that the renowned explorer and collector of so-called primitive art had drowned. National Geographic Traveler contributing editor Hoffman (The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World…via Its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes, 2010, etc.) writes that, all this time later, the story compelled him: “I was a half-Jewish middle-class mutt with a public education, not a blue-blooded scion, but Rockefeller’s journey resonated with me.” Empathetically channeling Rockefeller as someone who wasn’t out in such remote territory merely to acquire stuff but was instead challenging himself in anything but the privileged surroundings of his youth, Hoffman set out to reconstruct that last voyage. He encountered evidence that the young man’s end was greatly different from the one depicted in the official records. Moreover, he notes, it was an open secret that Rockefeller had been killed after having been plucked from the sea. But why? In a daring ethnographic turn, Hoffman spent months among the descendants of killers, lending specific weight to the old clashing-of-worlds trope and addressing questions of why people go to war, commit cannibalism and other tangled matters. He never loses sight of his goal, but Hoffman is also sympathetic to the plight of the Asmat people, who themselves were changed by the events of 53 years ago: “The world had been one way when Michael Rockefeller came to Asmat, another by the time he was dead.”
A searching, discomfiting journey yields an elegant, memorable report.
A stirring tale of lost civilizations, avarice, madness and everything else that makes exploration so much fun.
As New Yorker staff writer and debut author Grann notes, the British explorer Percy Fawcett’s exploits in jungles and atop mountains inspired novels such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and his character is the tutelary spirit of the Indiana Jones franchise. Fawcett in turn was nurtured by his associations with fabulists such as Doyle and H. Rider Haggard, whose talisman he bore into the Amazonian rainforest. Working from a buried treasure in the form of long-lost diaries, Grann reconstructs the 1925 voyage Fawcett undertook with his 21-year-old son to find the supposed Lost City of Z, which, by all accounts, may have been El Dorado, the fabled place of untold amounts of Inca gold. Many a conquistador had died looking for the place, though in their wake, “after a toll of death and suffering worthy of Joseph Conrad, most archaeologists had concluded that El Dorado was no more than a delusion.” Fawcett was not among them, nor was his rival, a rich American doctor named Alexander Hamilton Rice, who was hot on the trail. Fawcett determined that a small expedition would be more likely to survive than a large one. Perhaps so, but the expedition notes record a hell of humid swamps and “flesh and carrion-eating bees [and] gnats in clouds…rendering one’s food unpalatable by filling it with their filthy bodies, their bellies red and disgustingly distended with one’s own blood.” It would get worse, we imagine, before Fawcett and his party disappeared, never to be seen again. Though, as Grann writes, they were ironically close to the object of their quest.
A colorful tale of true adventure, marked by satisfyingly unexpected twists, turns and plenty of dark portents.
In his first book, naturalist and explorer Rosolie chronicles his many thrilling experiences since 2006, when he first traveled to a research center located in a primordial jungle region of the Amazon basin, now threatened with unregulated development.
Now running Tamandua Expeditions to support conservation initiatives, the author was then an 18-year-old college student searching for volunteer opportunities to work with a conservation organization. During a college break, the author seized on an opportunity to spend a month at a jungle research center in southeast Peru, serving as an assistant in recording observations of the species inhabiting the area: spider monkeys, jaguars, crocodiles, a wide variety of snakes and more. This was the first of many trips to the center, which became his spiritual home. During his college years, he commuted back and forth from New Jersey to the Amazon; over time, he became an accomplished guide. Back home again, he worked to raise donations for the research center, which was a hand-to-mouth venture, and he also arranged ecotourism expeditions and volunteer groups to work at the center. Rosolie describes his deepening understanding of conservation and the issues involved in protecting natural ecosystems against would-be developers, loggers, mining interests and poachers. First and foremost, however, this is a gripping adventure story packed with plenty of adrenaline-filled encounters with massive snakes, intimidating jaguars and other creatures. On one occasion, the author was carried downriver while grasping the back of a gigantic anaconda “as thick as a small cow and easily well over twenty-five feet long…the mega-snake of legends.” As the author writes, “[a]dventure in its purest form is raw discovery. The draw to see what's around the next bend becomes hypnotizing; I was drawn forward by the powerful tide of the forest.”
A vividly written narrative of an amazingly diverse world still to be explored, whose destruction, as Rosolie wisely notes, would be a devastating loss for humanity.
The riveting memoir about how a prizewinning British journalist reclaimed her mother's traumatic past.
Brockes’ mother, Paula, was notoriously reticent about the years she had spent growing up in Durban, South Africa. Her family and friends knew that Paula had expatriated to England in 1960 for political reasons but not much else. Among the few things she brought with her from South Africa was a handgun that Brockes discovered “wrapped in a pair of knickers.” Paula considered the gun among her prized possessions but never explained why it meant so much to her. After Paula died of cancer, her daughter decided to learn about the South African side of her family and the life story her mother had suppressed. A database search in England unearthed evidence that her mother’s father, Jimmy, had been on trial for murder six years before Paula had been born. Despite misgivings that continued research into her mother’s past was “unfair, unethical [and] possibly unforgivable,” Brockes traveled to Johannesburg to talk to the maternal relatives she had never met and search through government archives for more details about her grandfather. Her aunts and uncles remembered the family patriarch as a drunken “psychopath” who brutalized his children. Paula, on the other hand, was the heroic elder sibling who called her younger brothers and sisters her babies and tried to protect them against her father's savagery by shooting him. Court records revealed still more: that Jimmy had also been tried and later acquitted for molesting his daughters.
The story of Brockes’ quest to understand her mother’s past is powerful on its own, but the backdrop against which most of the narrative unfolds—a country with its own history of rapacious violence—makes the book even more poignant and unforgettable.
The fiendish story of “mad sculptor” Robert Irwin (1908–1975), featuring “the kind of lurid goings-on that speak to the secret dreams and dangerous desires of the public.”
Examining the life and surroundings of Irwin, who perpetrated a triple homicide on Easter Sunday 1937, veteran true-crime writer Schechter (American Literature and Culture/Queens Coll.; Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of, 2012) also offers tales of other grisly murders, particularly the two murders that took place over an 18-month period in exclusive Manhattan’s Beekman Place. They are connected only by geography and the fact that the tabloids embellished the stories with any salacious material they could dig up or create. Schechter delivers a solid indictment of the journalism practices of the 1920s and ’30s. It was a time of trial by newspaper, with everyone, including Walter Winchell, having a go at the latest suspect. The police were not much help since they fed the beast in their announcements of every lead and suspect. The murders by the mad sculptor were not even his intended victims; they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Obsessing about a girl who spurned his proposal, Irwin intended to kill her, and his earlier attempt at self-emasculation to enable him to focus on his powers of visualization brought him to the only psychiatrist who understood his problem, the famed German-born Fredric Wertham. Irwin committed himself to mental institutions on a number of occasions, and his long history of mental illness, possibly due to congenital syphilis, his explosive temper and self-delusion marked him as a man who never should have been released.
For readers who enjoy the stories of the sensationalistic press of the 1930s and its crass exploitation of the details of horrific murders; not for fans of clever police work or investigative reporting.
The memoir of the emancipation of a daughter from her drug-dealer, addict mother.
Despite the hardships she endured as a child, Ruta demonstrates a deep and loving bond with her mother. Other family members meander in and out of the narrative, but it is Ruta's mom who features the most prominently in these stories of coming-of-age during the 1980s. Marathon movie nights spent tucked in bed counterpoint days of poverty, trash-strewn rooms, drug dealing and her mother high on cocaine, OxyContin or other drugs. “Mum never distinguished between physical and emotional pain,” writes the author, “especially when she had a pill that could cure both.” Ruta holds nothing back as she realistically and tenderly portrays her childhood in Massachusetts, whether she’s writing about school events at her Catholic school, her mother's ascent as a millionaire and subsequent loss of money due to drug use, or the sexual abuse at the hands of a pedophile, one of her mother's friends. Ruta also delves into her own drug and alcohol abuse, her desire to make something of herself and how she crawled back into society: "I used to be a miserable, spiritless, insecure egomaniac who smelled like whiskey. Now I am a well-intentioned, sometimes volatile, even more insecure egomaniac who smells like coffee.” It is this kind of exposure, and the use of dark humor and explicit language, that makes the book so intriguing, and Ruta shows how a strong maternal bond at an early age can lead to forgiveness regardless of the circumstances.
A sharp portrayal of recovery from a lifetime of pitfalls and the love that held it all together.
Gritty memoir with unusual connections to the criminal underworld, the legal world and Hollywood.
Berg (The Trial Lawyer: What It Takes to Win, 2003) has lived a full life, and it shows in his deft tonal balance between wry humor and embittered fatalism. Despite success as a well-known progressive lawyer, he remains haunted by the grisly murder of his venerated older brother Alan in 1968 by “card carrying” hit man Charles Harrelson (father of actor Woody). At the time, Alan was slandered as a degenerate gambler, which contributed to Harrelson’s acquittal. The author reconciles his brother’s failings with a larger, complex family story, in which the Bergs’ domineering father, having abandoned his traditionally Jewish first wife, labored to ensnare his sons in his own failed dreams. The vivacious hustler Alan joined his father in a tawdry “boiler room” carpet-selling operation aimed at Houston’s poor, a business path whose tangled dealings, Berg argues, actually provoked the murder. The author portrays 1960s-era Houston as a dangerous, seamy swamp, run by a good-ol’-boy network that tolerated violent men like Harrelson and a legal system in which favoritism and bigotry reigned. He shrewdly connects his own hard-knocks career development defending hippies and radicals in Texas with the longer arc of Harrelson’s crimes and eventual punishment, including the weird coda of his celebrity son’s belated efforts to win his release following conviction for a judge’s assassination. To unravel this long-ago narrative, Berg closely reconstructs the investigation and trial, noting how a novice prosecutor faced the state’s best defense attorney, a flinty eccentric known for winning at any cost.
Engrossing family history and an appealingly salacious tale, related in a bemused tone that does not hide the social ugliness and personal heartbreak underneath.
A taut, grim memoir weighing Western mythology against a family tragedy.
Central to this debut from St. Germain (Creative Writing/Univ. of New Mexico) is a horrific yet all-too-common act of domestic violence. While he was a struggling undergraduate, his mother was murdered by her fifth husband, Ray, who killed himself after a few months on the run. His mother was sexually independent, a former Army paratrooper and a small-business owner in Tombstone, Ariz., “the toughest woman I’ve ever known.” Nonetheless, St. Germain was long concerned about her, as she married Ray (a taciturn cop who seemed like a “good guy” after several abusive relationships) and then embarked with him on a strange “adventure” that appeared to be an aimless drift through the Southwest. Before this, however, the author paints an acerbic picture of his upbringing in Tombstone: “Broke, single, getting fat, drunk, seventeen: I was white trash.” St. Germain thus constructs an audacious framework for his memoir, indirectly implicating Tombstone’s sour, touristy culture and the Western myths derived from the famous altercation at the O.K. Corral in his ponderings as to how his mother’s unorthodox life choices may have contributed to her fate. Some of these comparisons are compelling, such as the author’s examination of the unsavory distance between myth and reality in the real life of Wyatt Earp; others are less fully explored, as when he briefly looks at contemporary gun culture in his account of his attempt to purchase the small handgun that killed his mother. Admirably, St. Germain tries to understand how his young adulthood was shaped by the murder, and he considers the costs of the idea of American masculinity that seemingly produces inevitable bloodshed. Although he doggedly reconstructs the final months of his mother’s life, any real resolution seems limited: “I know more about Wyatt Earp than I do about my mother.”
An above-average personal narrative that takes a hard look at the aftermath of violence.