Sunday Book Review – 11/1/20

Bookshelf books, photo by Alien Motives

The Baby Train by Jan Harold Brunvand (1993, Norton)

Brunvand’s first book to catch the public eye was The Vanishing Hitchhiker. An English Professor at the University of Utah, he produced the book as a text for a course on American folklore. As one might expect from a scholarly work the terminology was precise and technical, but the topic, urban legends, was of great interest to students.

The book became popular despite the writing style, and Brunvand was encouraged to write more. He did, growing ever more comfortable with casual writing, and he was eventually given a syndicated column on the subject of urban legends which was carried in newspapers throughout the country.

The Baby Train is Brunvand at his best: an experienced writer and researcher combining the best of his columns with a slew of new writings debunking myths of the modern age. He was Snopes before Snopes existed, explaining the origins of rumors with the deft hand of a practiced storyteller.

The book is informative, and it (like its immediate predecessors: Curses, Broiled Again!; The Mexican Pet; and The Choking Doberman) helps to explain not simply how some misinformation becomes popularized but why. Through a series of examples, Brunvand explains the reasons why certain stories are retold and the assumption of truth which surrounds them.

One of the greatest strengths of the book lies in its age. Modern fact-check sites are often seen as politicized, whether deservedly or not. Brunvand’s pre-internet work avoids that stigma while teaching people signs of potential misinformation and falsehood, and it does so through entertaining stories. It should be considered for a Christmas gift for anyone in your daily life who has been drifting toward conspiracy theory.

Flood by Andrew Vachss (1985, Donald L. Fine)

Flood began what would become an 18 book series by child advocate Andrew Vachss. It introduces Burke, a private detective who is intimately familiar with operating on the wrong side of the law. Burke is the sort of man who will get things done, and in this case it means locating a child murderer for a client so they can exact a direct and deadly revenge.

Vachss’ experiences as an advocate for abused children and his wife’s experience as a prosecutor for the sex crimes division of New York City’s DA office are omnipresent throughout his writings. He has made no secret that cases have inspired entire books, and his anger at the malefactors often seethes from the pages. In some of the later titles that is a drawback as they can drift into extended lessons on the intentional destruction of innocence, affection and love by the monsters who hide among us. Here, it strengthens the narrative by making the driven nature of the characters reasonable and relatable.

What seems like a simple detective story shifts into thriller territory, with a hard look at the nature of vengeance.

Flood isn’t technically the best of Vachss’ work. It’s choppy in places, imbuing the book with a raw-edged feeling which suits the story but can be disruptive. Still, it’s worth picking up and those who enjoy the book will have a new series to follow. There are even crossover works with the Hap & Leonard characters of Joe R. Lansdale, so two new authors may be discovered by an interested reader.

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.