Two great Trial Stories to end the year with

by Hugh Gilmore
Posted 12/30/21

Though I strive each year to read 100 books, I fail more often than succeed. This year I managed 60. I don't know why.

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Two great Trial Stories to end the year with


As with many of my life experiences, I keep detailed lists of the books I read. I note where and when I acquired them, whether they were fiction or nonfiction, print or Kindle format, whether I purchased or borrowed them, and whether or not I liked them. In some ways these notes could, I suppose, help me recreate the state of the world during the past year.

For example, in the Year of the Covid 2020, and its sequel, 2021, I avoided bookstores and purchasing print books online at retail prices. Though our local libraries still allowed us to borrow books placed on computer hold, the system was slow, cumbersome and not reliable. Cut off from browsing and borrowing, and wanting to save money, I used my Kindle to read eBooks. In fact, in those two years, I read 79 books on my Kindle. And sometimes, dozens in a row before I turned to the relief of holding a print book in hand to receive each day my daily bread.

Two months ago, I noticed the Philadelphia Free Library's doors had reopened for browsing and I've gone once a week again. Walking out with an armful of books puts me back in touch with that great feeling of being a kid leaving the library carrying treasure and hurrying to find a comfy, well-lit hole where I'd leave the world behind. My reading pace picked up at once when the libraries reopened, and even my trusted Kindle now feels cold and mechanical compared to holding a warm print book filled with pages. 

Though I strive each year to read 100 books, I fail more often than succeed. This year I managed 60. I don't know why. I feel stunned, quite Rip Van Winkle-ish, sitting here with my list wondering why it's so paltry this year. (I realize 60 is a large number for some readers of this column, but for many of them, the hardcore, 100 would be the qualifying number for membership in the Stunt Readers Club.) 

I suspect I don't do more book reading for three reasons: (1) During the day I read six journals online. (2) Some puritanical streak in me that says "work before pleasure" keeps me from reading books before, at the earliest, 4:00 p.m. (3) And, – let's be honest here – I probably average two hours a day watching television or rented movies. I'd be curious to know how readers of this column get their book-reading done each day. 

My Favorite Read this Year: "The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial." By Maggie Nelson. A Graywolf Press paperback original, 2016. Borrowed from the Chestnut Hill Branch of the Free Library. In the mood for reading a True Crime book I happened on "The Red Parts" in the Recent Nonfiction Arrivals section. The cover blurbs mentioned that it told the story of the trial of a Michigan serial killer for the murder of an aunt the author had never met and knew only through family lore. But, oh, this book is about so much more than that. Expecting the usual retelling of a crime, its solution, and the trial that followed, I found myself enthralled right away by Maggie Nelson's brilliance and emotional daring. There is simply no trail her thoughts lead to that she is afraid, ashamed, or reluctant to follow. Equal parts raw autobiography, biography, true crime tale and creative nonfiction, this book is staggering in its philosophical and artistic sweep. I kept wondering "Who is this woman? Why isn't she better known?"

Mea culpa, to my chagrin, she is. Famous as a genre-busting writer and thinker, she is, among other things, a MacArthur Fellow and a National Book Critics Circle awardee. She teaches at USC in Los Angeles. 

Compelling, but Frustrating: "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher and the War for the Soul of the Navy Seals." By Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter David Philipps. Crown, 2021. This suspenseful book claims that there are both sadistic rogues and idealistic warriors among the elite Navy Seals. In this case a handful of men who felt they could do the dirty work of war - as long as they felt they were the good guys fighting the evil guys - claimed that their chief, Eddie Gallagher, was one of the bad guys. At the finish of their deployment in the Iraq War they accused Gallagher of torturing and killing a prisoner of war and of firing indiscriminately at civilians. Their accusation, which the author feels was justified, moved all the way up the line of command within the U.S. Navy, meeting resistance at every level. Ultimately Gallagher was acquitted - to the delight of Fox News, which had championed him. The ultimate question it raises, but never manages to resolve, is: What recourse do soldiers (cops, nurses, teachers - any employees, really) in cumbersome, hierarchical organizations have in worse-case scenarios, if they think, or know, that their leaders have turned criminal?

In closing I'd like to say I'd be glad to share my 2021 reading list if you request it. I'd be happy to see yours as well. My email is and I always write back. Wishing you great reading in 2022.