Newtown deserves better treatment as a tragedy

12/29/2013 8:18 AM

08/08/2014 10:20 AM

“Newtown: An American Tragedy” by Matthew Lysiak (Gallery, 288 pages, $25.99)

Adam Lanza was a cypher. His crime, among the most heinous in U.S. history, demands a serious study of what transformed an odd boy into a killer. Such a work might also serve as a cathartic retelling of the massacre’s assault on the psyche of an American community. Unfortunately, “Newtown: An American Tragedy” isn’t trying to be that kind of book.

Instead, “Newtown” is a slapped-together mishmash of information, including short anecdotes about the victims and survivors (most of which have already been extensively reported), quotes culled from official news releases and funeral speeches. Lysiak covered the events for the New York Daily News, and “Newtown” feels like the work of a reporter emptying his notebook and rushing to complete his book in time for the first anniversary of the Dec. 14 tragedy.

Lysiak says in the preface that he conducted “hundreds” of interviews. But he manages only a frustratingly thin portrait of the woman at the center of the story – Lanza’s mother, Nancy, who was also the first victim.

“Newtown” is at its most compelling when recounting the horrors that unfolded during the five minutes Adam Lanza spent shooting inside Sandy Hook Elementary. Lysiak captures the terror felt by teachers and children and the cruelty of Lanza’s actions with descriptions that are spare and chilling but in no way gratuitous.

“Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times,” by Lucy Lethbridge (W.W. Norton & Company, 385 pages, $27.95)

Fictional Downton Abbey is supposed to be one of the grandest houses in England, inhabited by the distinguished Crawley family; but on this smash television hit, it’s the servants who steal the show. From Mr. Carson, the butler with the bushy eyebrows that practically dare you to defy him, to the earthy Mrs. Patmore, who rules over the kitchen with a stern hand, the staff at Downton have rich, tumultuous lives of their own, even if they are intensely circumscribed by protocol. They are, after all, servants.

In her fine new social history, Lucy Lethbridge examines the peculiar lot of these iconic figures of British culture. “The idea of the perfect servant – silent, obsequious, loyal – is a central component of the many myths of England’s recent past,” she writes. “Servants underpin the ideal, never quite attainable, of a perfectly ordered life.” Powerful in their own way – estates like Downton could not function without their retinue of retainers – the servant classes and those they served were forever locked into a kind of helpless codependency.

Lethbridge writes with sympathy about her subjects. Employers could be benevolent and onerous at the same time. One housemaid recalled that the women she worked for weighed the contents of her vacuum cleaner – “a cup and a half of dirt was considered a job well done.” Yet the service was a doomed enterprise in the 20th century. Both World Wars exposed women to alternative forms of employment. After the Second World War, crushing levels of taxation all but forced most of the grand houses to shut down. Some of the duties Lethbridge describes are downright silly – shoelaces and newspapers being ironed – yet there is a haunting poignancy to her account.

“The Tilted World” by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly (William Morrow, 320 pages, $25.99)

It’s been eight years since Hurricane Katrina, yet novels (and movies and TV shows) about the catastrophe keep bubbling up. Writers ranging from Dave Eggers to Charlaine Harris have waded willfully into the dirty bayou floodwaters. No doubt more are busy.

“The Tilted World,” the meandering disaster novel from married authors Beth Ann Fennelly and Tom Franklin, deals with a different calamity, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Though Katrina isn’t mentioned by name, parallels between the two are hard to miss.

On Good Friday of 1927, the swollen Mississippi River burst the levees near Greenville, Miss., eventually spilling enough water to cover an area equivalent to Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined. The world’s fourth largest flood on record disproportionally uprooted African-Americans in the Delta, who fled the region – and the Republican party – in droves.

“The Tilted World” saves the Great Flood as a set piece for its climax. Fennelly and Franklin place the action in the fictional town of Hobnob Landing, Miss., population 3,244, a riverfront trading post on edge as the water rises.

In the end, “The Tilted World” speaks volumes about hope and ingenuity in times of disaster, delivering a warning that those who won’t heed history’s lessons are bound to repeat it.

“Going Dark” by James W. Hall (Minotaur, 320 pages, $25.99)

Fatherhood has not come easily to Thorn, the taciturn hero making his 13th appearance in James W. Hall’s series.

Still, it’s easy to cut the Key Largo loner a break. Thorn only recently discovered he even had a grown son, and while he can never make up for lost time, he wants to at least hope for a future. But Hall isn’t after a touchy-feely father-and-son reunion between Thorn and Miami actor Flynn Moss, especially considering how their first meeting in 2011’s “Dead Last” left a family in physical and emotional tatters. Instead, Hall continues his high standards for gripping, action-packed plots that revolve around Florida’s intricate ecology and beauty in “Going Dark.”

Hall, who lives in Miami, revels in showcasing Florida. For Thorn, the “last few pockets of magic native land” are “the landscape that kept his heart in tune, that hummed in his marrow.” Hall again delivers a solid story with “Going Dark.”

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