I never understood the concept of a summer read. It’s supposed to be light, breezy, and fun, right? Well, I’ve always gone the exact opposite route. This summer, I decided to revisit Gitta Sereny’s books. A while ago I read her book Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell. It was captivatingly dark; I was spellbound by Sereny’s journalistic prowess, and her writing was always clear and empathetic. If you don’t already know the story of Mary Bell, here it is in a nutshell:
In 1968: an eleven year old girl named Mary Bell killed two boys (ages 3 and 4). The courts tried her, found her guilty, put her in jail until she was in her 20’s. This book revisits her case years after she was released from jail and tries to figure out why she did it, what her life was like before she committed this crime, and whether she really understood the gravity of what she did at the time. I don’t want to give any of it away, but I was so engrossed that I wanted to read the whole thing in one sitting… I couldn’t only because it was so overwhelming: at times so depressing, at other times funny and even joyful. I had to take breathers because it was so intense.
The author does a good job of bringing out the various threads of the story. She’s compassionate and understanding, but also she makes it clear that none of this is an excuse for the crime itself. She makes the case that when a child commits a horrible crime like this, the court’s job is not only to say whether she was guilty of the crime or not, but also to ask why a child would do this? And to help the child psychologically with their problems.
This time around, I am reading her book Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth. It’s about Hitler’s architect and armaments minister. He was “one of the few defendants at the Nuremberg Trials to take responsibility for Nazi war crimes, even as he denied knowledge of the Holocaust.” Sereny is drawn to these dark corners of humanity, and yet she does not blindly accuse. She stares into evil and tries to understand every thread of how it came to be. Through hours of interviews and research, she has written a biography full of insight and compassion. I’m only a fraction of the way into this huge book, but I’m already enjoying it immensely.
Do you also have an unconventional take on what makes a good summer book? What’s your idea of a good summer read?