Posts tagged ‘New England’

May 14, 2014

#77) Memoir autopsy: “Dogtown”

I don’t often give up on books – not even “In a Sunburned Country” – but after taking more than a month to get through only 75 pages or so of Elyssa East’s “Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town” I realized that this one wasn’t going to happen.

“Dogtown” is not an over-hyped, “50-Shades of Gray”/”Oprah Book of the Month” situation.  This is a book I wanted to like.  I stumbled upon it at the library and it seemed to have all the elements that would make it a home run: a town (in my home state) with a haunted past, a brutal murder and a young woman searching for her purpose in life.  I felt more disappointed than angry when I threw in the towel on this one. In this age of the memoir, the unfulfilled promise of “Dogtown” holds some valuable lessons for writers and it is in that spirit that I present this post.  I can’t call it a review, having not finished the book, so I’ll call it an autopsy.  Look on the bright side – you know there will be no spoilers.

Dogtown is an abandoned settlement in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that fishing town north of Boston immortalized in “A Perfect Storm.”  Author Elyssa East – originally from Maine – learned of Dogtown from the work of Marsden Hartley, a troubled artist who was pretty much ready to walk away from painting when the ghost town gave him new inspiration.  In the late 1990s, East traveled there herself, learning details of a brutal murder that had taken place there in 1984.  Gloucester tends to be a magnet for transient types on the fringes of society and one such drifter, Peter Hodgkins, had a reputation as a misfit and loner and a record including indecent exposure and other charges of harassment.  As the town absorbed the shock of the murder, Hodgkins became a leading suspect.

So why doesn’t it work?

The main problem is that East fails to weave the various story lines – her own personal journey, Hartley, the history of Dogtown and the murder – in a compelling manner.  My critique of “Sunburned Country” notwithstanding, Bill Bryson is usually adroit not only at mixing personal narrative with local history but at making history entertaining.  East on the other hand tends to devote entire chapters to history, making it often feel like little more than lists of names and dates.  While she vividly conveys the violence of the murder without becoming melodramatic, she is unable to make Marsden Hartley seem like much more than a stereotypical tormented and misunderstood artist and her descriptions of Gloucester often have the feel of one of the textbooks I pretended to read in high school.

It’s also disappointing that we don’t get to better know East herself (at least if the first 75 pages are any indication.)  We are told that “[S]truggling in her own life, East set out to find the mysterious setting that had changed Hartley’s life, hoping that she too would find solace and renewal in Dogtown’s odd beauty.”  Yet she only describes her struggles in vague terms.  I give her props for not insisting on the spotlight, but she could have done more to make herself an engaging character.

Perhaps someone with a longer attention span than me–that is to say, most of the human race–might have slugged it out and learned the ultimate fates of Elyssa East, Peter Hodgkins and the other characters in the story.  In my defense this is the first book I’ve abandoned since my doomed attempt to read “Two Years Before the Mast” three years ago.  Maybe I’ll revisit this one down the road; maybe I’ll see the movie if it’s ever made.  For now, “Dogtown” sadly gets filed under unfinished business.

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December 4, 2013

#64) The real reason Red Sox fans are upset about Jacoby Ellsbury

Red Sox fans aren’t upset about Jacoby Ellsbury signing with the Yankees; they just think they are.

Oh, they’re pissed, no doubt; at least if tweeting death wishes can be seen as a sign of being pissed.   But let’s take a step back here.  The Red Sox are the defending World Champions and have won more titles in the last decade than any other MLB team.  Many baseball pundits believe that Ellsbury isn’t worth what he wanted to be paid by the Red Sox and that the Yankees are overpaying him.  As Yogi Berra once said, in baseball, you don’t know nothin’, but it’s certainly plausible that the deal will have more of a net benefit for the Red Sox than the Yankees.

Granted, the fan who expressed hope that Ellsbury “get[s] herpes from Jeter and die[s]” might not represent the overall mentality of Red Sox Nation, but let’s face it, New Englanders can hold a grudge like nobody else (present company included).  But while the sense of outrage at having lost yet another player to the Yankees might have been justified ten years ago, before the Sox broke the “Curse of the Bambino”, it now comes off as a little bit petty.  From 1987 to 2001, no Boston/New England sports team won a championship, but since the Patriots’ victory in Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, the market has claimed more titles–8–than any other: three each for the Pats and Sox; one for the Celtics and one for the Bruins.  In the same time period L.A. has six (including the Anaheim teams) and New York has four (including the New Jersey Devils).  Boston fans have the look of the successful businessman who still resents the high school girlfriend who dumped him.

Be all that as it may, perhaps there’s a deeper explanation for why Sox fans are so outraged.  It could be that the recent wealth of Boston championships is actually the cause of the Nation’s animosity.  Before 2004, the line was always, “What are we going to do when the Sox actually win the World Series?”  It’s like prisoners who anticipate their release but once they’re actually on the outside, don’t know how to function.

My guess is that before long Sox fans will have forgotten about Ellsbury.  Sure, he’ll get some half-hearted boos when he comes to Fenway wearing pinstripes, but maybe he’s not the real problem.  Maybe Red Sox Nation misses the good old days.  Maybe they need Bucky Dent to hit the pop-fly home run.  Maybe they need Aaron Boone to hit the home run off Tim Wakefield.  And maybe, just maybe, they need the ball to go through Buckner’s legs.