The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts: Murder and Memory in an American City
Laura Tillman (Scribner, 256 pages, $26)
In the spring of 2003, a young couple killed all three of their young children in a grim, nearly windowless, apartment in Brownsville, Texas. When journalist Laura Tillman moved there five years later, the city was debating whether or not to tear down the building, now deserted by everyone but drug dealers, prostitutes, and squatters — and the ghosts of Julissa, John Stephan, and Mary Jane, taken by their parents in a crime of almost unbearable ugliness.
This is not to suggest “The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts” is sensational; rather than focus on the gory details, Tillman instead is interested in how Brownsville itself has been wounded, and how it sets about to recover. As a good reporter must, she talks to everyone from lawyers and psychiatrists who consulted on the case to local people who still regard the building as a site housing evil. Her investigation goes in so many directions that the book can feel unfocused. Yet there’s a strength in Tillman’s rejection of a single narrative. Pondering poverty, mental illness, and a belief in demonic possession as three of the motives raised at the trial, Tillman concludes that [t]he truth can be more than one thing.”
A Burglar’s Guide to the City
Geoff Manaugh (FSG, 296 pages, $16 paperback original)
In art, the concept of negative space is crucial to any formal composition — this is as true in great paintings as it is in those optical illusions that ask you whether you see a face or a vase. In Geoff Manaugh’s smart, original “A Burglar’s Guide to the City,” he argues for a similar symbiotic relationship between architecture and burglary. No matter what a city’s builders intend, he writes, “[i]t is burglars and police, not architects or urban planners, who most readily and consistently show us [its] unseen possibilities.” By observing details the rest of us miss — the particular fire-escape arrangement that signals large or small apartments inside, street-level fog that indicates subterranean creeks and tunnels — burglars are “masters of architectural origami,” “three-dimensional actor[s].”
Manaugh delights in the sheer creativity of burglars, like the great Victorian bank robber George Leonidas Leslie, an architect who meticulously planned each heist, building large scale models of bank vaults and interiors in empty Brooklyn warehouses. He describes, too, a kind of arms race between burglars and law enforcement, each trying to see things the rest of us ignore — the “secret passageways and trapdoors” found or invented by the most creative criminals. In a book this delirious with ideas, a few land more firmly than others. It may not be literally true that “[b]urglars are as much a part of architecture as the buildings they hope to break into,” but it’s hard to argue with Manaugh’s contention that burglary is “a new science of the city, proceeding by way of shortcuts, splices, and wormholes.”
Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years
Catherine Newman (Little, Brown, 215 pages, $25)
Catherine Newman’s “Waiting for Birdy” chronicled her pregnancy and childbirth while mothering a toddler. Readers loved the memoir for its warmth and wit — Newman’s voice was eminently relatable for any exhausted, overwhelmed new parent, yet capable of venturing into real emotional depth. In “Catastrophic Happiness,” Newman traces the growth of son Ben and daughter Birdy from preschool to pre-adolescence. Her husband appears, too — a steady, loving presence — but mostly this is a book about mothers and children, or really, about how the job of mothering changes a woman, inevitably, irrevocably, and sometimes uncomfortably.
At times, Newman’s family sounds too good to be true. They eat healthily, forgive one another easily, end the day warmly. At other times, well, it’s like this: “If there were a Gilbert and Sullivan opera called ‘I Wanted to Suck the Dirty Washcloth’ except there was only one line in it, and that line was ‘I wanted to suck the dirty washcloth,’ and the whole ensemble sang it while they were wearing just their Hello Kitty underpants — and crying — you’d get a pretty good sense of the most recent couple of hours of my life.” Newman’s self-awareness is what makes the book work; it’s a portrait of striving toward a perfection that never existed, while loving the imperfection that surrounds us. “The parent I want to be floats in and out of life,” Newman writes, sometimes helpfully present and other times as elusive as “a shaft of sunlight I want to capture.”