Sitka

 

Grizzlybear55.jpg

Grizzly bear. Public Domain. Sourced from Wikipedia.

Sitka
A Short Story
By Allison R. Shely

Newton, Massachusetts

The strip mall is an unassuming place, by Newton standards: glossy glass storefronts, a herd of Lexus SUVs parked outside the Whole Foods, the shrieks of dying human desperation breaking through the gentle Muzak.

The periodic screams come from the end unit of the center, Cheryl Smith’s boutique gym “Survival of the Fittest.”
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Stop the Presses! Media Mentions & My Guest Contributor Pieces

Dear Readers,

Media Mention

I owe a big thanks to the team at Kim Knows Nothing. They gave a wonderful shout-out about True Crime Librarian on their most recent episode, (No. 15) “The Suicide Killer” . Check for the mention at the 2:19 mark.

My New Publication Credit

Additionally, stop what you are doing–STOP IT RIGHT NOWand subscribe to the Lit Politics newsletter.

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“Kim Knows Nothing” Has a Promising Future

Kim Knows Nothing
A Weekly Podcast
Hosted by Stacy Snowden & Kim Moffat
www.kimknowsnothing.com

It’s a wonder it’s taken me so long to review a proper podcast, given that most of the time I “watch” Forensic Files now I just put it on to listen while I do the dishes or laundry.

The transition to a “proper” podcast is an easy one, and I am grateful to the team behind “Kim Knows Nothing” for giving me the push. The selfsame Kim Moffat of the title reached out to me and suggested I review the podcast she co-anchors with Stacy Snowden.

Kim Knows Nothing

Website banner. Copyrighted to Kim Moffat and Stacy Snowden of kimknowsnothing.com

It’s hard not to smile at this woman-led weekly production. As their rather elegantly laid-out homepage proclaims “Stacy knows most things” and “Kim knows nothing.” (The bloody purple kitchen knife is also a nice touch, given the topic and tone). Only begun in October of last year (2017), the podcast has in a few short months found its stride.

True-crime enthusiast Stacy does the research on “serious crimes”, which she then relates to Kim, a pop-culture maven who provides “ridiculous commentary.” (more…)

Millionaire Hunting Club Kills Thousands

The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating Disasters America Has Ever Known
David McCullough
Simon & Schuster, 1968
268 pages of narrative, 302 with apparatus

Having read Isaac’s Storm just before this, I am pleased to announce:

The Great American Flood Book Face-Off

Spoiler alert: Isaac’s Storm wins, hands-down.

Mr. McCullough’s 1968 book is an account of the 1889 flood that killed at least 2,000 in and around Johnstown, Pennsylvania. While the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was an act of God colliding with the hubris of Man, the Johnstown flood was the result of only the hubris (and stupidity) of Man.

High above the steel-mill town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a number of Gilded Age millionaires (among them Andrew Carnegie) founded a hunting club for “the better sort”. This mountain retreat included an artificial lake, stocked with bass that wardens zealously guarded from locals, that had been formed by building an earthen dam across a stream.

It turns out the dam was a rather amateurish construction, poorly maintained.

On 31 May 1889, it burst, unleashing tons upon tons of water into the valley below. Several smaller communities vanished entirely, while the larger Johnstown became a scene of apocalyptic devastation that haunted a generation.

One of the most famous photos to come out of the disaster. All six people in the house survived…somehow. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Johnstown is one of David McCullough’s earlier works. While it has been almost a decade since I read John Adams (2001) and 1776 (2005), I remember them being both richly detailed and fun to read. Johnstown is also thoroughly detailed, but the prose is rather dry.

There are some touching vignettes of families, and plenty of the social and political context of the disaster, but they come across rather flatly.

The hunting club and its members were never charged for the disaster; suits against them were dismissed. While McCullough does allude to the absolute injustice of this, and the survivors’ realization that larger forces had caused their suffering, he does not dwell on this. I am one to prefer a more polemical tone, a fault though that may be.

McCullough does do an excellent job illumining a rather forgotten brand of American bigotry: persecution of Hungarians (and anyone who vaguely looked Hungarian). Like the Irish and the Italians, Hungarians were accused of taking away good jobs for lower pay, being vulgar, and otherwise failing to assimilate and become WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants).

In the aftermath of the Johnstown flood, the yellow press accused Hungarian laborers of cutting fingers off the dead to steal wedding rings, among numerous other crimes. Artistic representations, featuring very swarthy, poorly dressed “Hungarians” accompanied the screaming articles.

Of course, these stories had no basis in fact. Very little looting followed the flood, done by Hungarians or otherwise.

The stories of Hungarian persecution particularly resonated with me because, a generation after the flood, my Hungarian ancestors arrived in the industrial towns of Western Pennsylvania. They too were called “bohunks.”

Writing in the 1960s, perhaps the theme of racial/ethnic discrimination struck McCullough as particularly important to bring to the fore of his book, while, writing today, in this New Gilded Age, another author might address issues of wealth and power more thoroughly.

If you are interested in the Johnstown Flood, you will find this book useful. If you could use entertainment, you will likely not be interested.

2/5 stars: I wanted to like it more…but it’s a little boring.
3/5 ‘fraidy catsDo you know who’s inspecting your local dam?
2/5 ick-factor: Lots of dead bodies, not much description.

 

“Isaac’s Storm” A Far-Too-Timely Masterpiece

Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
Erik Larson
Crown Publishers 1999
273 pages of text, 323 with notes

As wind shook my apartment on Thursday, as the cyclone passed overhead, I forgot for a moment if I was in Boston, with snow pelting against the windowpanes, or in Houston, with rain, trees, and shingles threatening to break through the plywood covering our windows.

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View of my neighborhood. Likely thoughts of driver: “Screw this.” 

Watching footage of dumpsters and ice floes streaming through downtown, and hearing news that parts of New Hampshire will be colder than Mars tonight, I decided it was time to delve into a disaster book.

“And in a single day and night of misfortune…
the island of Atlantis sank beneath the sea”
-Plato, Timaeus

I grew up on the flat, hot, humid coastal plains of Texas. A favorite summer destination for my family was Galveston, the barrier island about an hour south from Houston on I-45. When rain threatened our day on the beach, or we were already too sunburned for our own good, one of our indoor activities was a locally produced documentary film about the Great Storm of 1900. As a child, I was fascinated and horrified by the story of how an unanticipated September hurricane killed at least 8,000 and knocked Galveston from its position as Queen City of the South. It remains the deadliest disaster in U.S. history in terms of human lives.

That is my only complaint about the book I am about to review. For historical accuracy, the subtitle should conclude “the Deadliest Hurricane in American History.” I understand that the publisher had to sell copies, however.

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Sassy-approved. 

Isaac’s Storm is a work of nonfiction that centers on Isaac Cline, the chief weatherman of Galveston in September 1900, husband, father, scientist, and upstanding citizen. While nonfiction, Isaac’s Storm rises to narrative and descriptive heights that most fiction authors only dream of reaching. Without burdening readers with cumbersome and slow backstory, Erik Larson recreates Isaac, his family, his fellow-citizens, and his time with a historian’s scrupulous attention to detail and novelist’s gift for characterization and conjecture.

For anyone who has visited Galveston, or lived on the Gulf Coast, you will be transported by descriptions of “the susurrus of curtains luffed by the breeze” and “the thudding…caused by great deep-ocean swells falling upon the beach” (8).

The Galveston of 1900, so vividly resurrected by Larson, is a cosmopolitan city, the Ellis Island of the South, home to large communities of German and Jewish immigrants, as well as a (relatively) respected and protected African-American community. Among the most memorable characters Larson introduces is Rabbi Henry Cohen. This pillar of Galveston’s community, revered by his congregation and Gentiles alike, was marital counselor, expeditionary to Southern Africa, and single-handed rescuer of maidens from captivity in a local bordello.

Seriously, he went in swinging and carried the kidnapped woman out on his shoulder to freedom. Someone needs to make a movie about him.

Larson interlaces these human, variable, lively accounts of daily life with brutally objective descriptions of the storm as it forms off the coast of Africa and moves inexorably (and yet inexplicably) towards Galveston. These sections are set apart by black borders along the page; one is tempted to think of Victorian mourning borders on stationery.

Consider Larson’s ecstatic, almost pornographic descriptions of cloud formation:

“It began, as all things must, with an awakening of molecules. The sun rose over the African highlands east of Cameroon and warmed grasslands, forests, lakes, and rivers, and the men and creatures that moved and breathed among them; it warmed their exhalations and caused these to rise upward as a great plume of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, the earth’s soul The air contained water: haze, steam, vapor; the stench of day-old kill and the greetings of men glad to awaken from the cool mystery of night. There was cordite, ether, urine, dung. Coffee. Bacon. Sweat. An invisible paisley of plumes and counterplumes formed above the earth, the pattern as ephemeral as the copper and bronze veils that appear when water enters whiskey” (19)

Poetry. Absolute poetry.

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The binding is beautiful, too. 

Isaac’s Storm is, above all, a tale of hubris. A naive confidence that Galveston would never fall victim to a hurricane, bolstered by Cline’s per-order report to local businessmen that the city was safe; an imperialist belief that brown-skinned Cuban forecasters could not possibly know more about hurricanes than the newly-formed Weather Service’s Washington office; a last-ditch hope perhaps this house would survive the sixteen-foot storm surge when hundreds like it had not been spared.

The most salient forensic aspect of the book comes in the aftermath of the storm. Without refrigeration, electricity, DNA, dental records, or fingerprints, the people of Galveston attempt to identify and bury their dead with dignity.

Those attempts, for the most part, end rather ghoulishly.

Isaac’s Storm closes with its original 1999 conclusion, which raises the specter of global warming and its impacts on hurricane formation. Larson ponders how “a curious quirk in the New York-New Jersey coastline…[could allow] even a moderate hurricane on just the right track to drown commuters in the subway tunnels under Lower Manhattan” (273).

In the years since the publication of Isaac’s Storm, Galveston and the United States as a whole have seen numerous tropical storms and hurricanes, among them: Allison (Galveston/Houston, 2001); Charlie (Florida, 2004); the deadly Katrina (New Orleans, 2005); Rita (East Texas, 2005), which proved that you cannot evacuate 2 million+ people from Houston in an orderly fashion; Ike (Galveston/Houston 2008), which I remembered as the winds whipped my apartment last night; Sandy (NJ/NY 2012), which did flood the tunnels of Manhattan; and this damned most recent hurricane season of 2017, with Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria, which have devastated Puerto Rico, Florida, and the City of Houston.

If Mr. Larson were to provide a new foreword to his masterpiece, it should be one sentence:

“You were warned.”

5/5 stars: a nonfiction masterpiece, vivid, cinematic, and brutally timely
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: as other critics, quoted on the dust jacket, have noted, you will fear the sky for days afterwards
4/5 ick-factor: 8,000 bodies in the Texas summer heat. Use your imagination; Larson will leave nothing to it. 

Mini-review: I bought this book at the Galveston Bookshop, one of my favorite places in Texas and, consequently, the world. Stop by to enjoy their great selection of used books and new local-interest/local-author titles, as well as their fair and convenient pricing and credit system for selling your own books. I was able to redeem credit, stored in their system, from two years or more ago when I visited over my Christmas break. Isaac’s Storm is available there for $19.95 USD.

(This promotion was done freely and at my own instigation. Seriously, I just love the Galveston Bookshop)

True Crime and I, Pt. 2: Shortbread Cookies and “Cold Case Files”

My paternal grandmother was born on Christmas Eve 1929 and, as such, always insisted on celebrating it as absolutely distinct from Christmas. She was always mindful of birthdays; gifts for the birthday girl were usually accompanied by something small for the other sister.

She loved flowers and cats and painting. All of her children grew up to be cat people, as have all of her six grandchildren. Baking was a passion of hers; cherry pies and shortbread were specialties. Christmas was incomplete without a tin or two of Grandma’s shortbread, sent through the mail from Kentucky.

After a long and often difficult illness, she passed away in early September. While sudden, it was not unexpected. Luckily, Parkinson’s had left her wits mostly intact to the end, so that she could appreciate what would turn out to be final visits with family in August.

On this, what would have been her eighty-eighth birthday, I would like to share with you to inadvertent and formative role my Grandma had on my interest in true crime.

*  *  *

I have written previously on how my childhood interest in Ancient Egypt, encouraged by my parents, likely sparked my early fascination with the morbid and macabre.

Completely unknown to my parents, I fanned this fascination by watching forbidden TV as soon as their backs were turned.

There was Discovery Channel’s “A Haunting in Connecticut,” which I watched while my mom was out shopping. I was nine. I didn’t sleep for days.

Of course, I went on to watch all of Discovery’s “A Haunting” series in secret.

There was the time I watched Stephen King’s “Rose Red” on-and-off for an afternoon at my dad’s house. Big mistake.

Best of all were those chances I had to watch Discovery’s “FBI Files.” Rediscovering the series as an adult, I laughed at how plastic science class skeletons had scared the ever-living **** out of me as a nine-year-old.

Then, there was that fateful trip to Grandma’s.

The moral of this story: if you really want to know what your kids are watching, make sure you can walk faster than they can change the channel.

*  *  *

I don’t think it was that long summer we spent with Grandma after my parents divorced. I think it was an earlier trip, maybe earlier that same year. I was about eleven.

As my younger sister had taken the big-screen TV downstairs, and I did not want to watch Disney with her, my Grandma offered me the little box TV on her vanity. She left to do laundry or read.

I turned it on to find it was on A&E, which was running a weekend marathon of Cold Case Files. 

The original Cold Case Files, which ran through the mid-2000s, featured Bill Kurtis’s chilling narration. It also featured plenty of gruesome postmortem photos. I couldn’t turn away, mostly out of horror. This was beyond anything I’d seen before. I couldn’t process. God knows I still can’t watch it before bed. Speaking of which…

At Grandma’s, I slept on a cot below a large first-floor window. Unfortunately for me, I had just learned who the LA Nightstalker was. The bug-eyed, hollow-cheeked composite sketch appeared every time I closed my eyes.

All the lights were on that night. All of them. 

*  *  *

I was hooked.  On a visit to my other set of grandparents, around the same time, I watched Dateline for the first time, again, surreptitiously. I still remember my first Dateline episode, on the murder of Molly Bish. Years later, moving to Boston, the details of the case would return to me. It haunts me–as a child, Molly had seemed like a grown-up. Barely an adult myself, looking at a picture of her now, I see a child, her life cut away from in front of her.

*  *  *

I flipped over the A&E website, where you can watch Cold Case Files episodes in whole with just a little advertising. I see now they have rebooted the series, beginning earlier this year, but without Bill Kurtis’s voice. Darn.

* * *

I asked my cousin, “Do you think Grandma knew I watched sixteen hours of Cold Case Files on her TV that time?”

My cousin thought. “I feel like she knew, and she couldn’t have approved, but she wasn’t going to really object to it.”

So, Grandma, thank you for spoiling your grandchildren, even if it was with questionable TV choices.

Happy birthday. I miss you. I love you.

How to Medicate Your Cat; or, 101 Ways to Need Antibiotics Yourself

Knives hit me in the stomach. I looked down at the shrieking cat, squirming around in my hands.

Et tu, kitté?

Trying to kick off and escape, she had punched her very sharp back claws into me.

Can’t say I didn’t deserve it. I told her as much the previous day, when she nearly gave me a mastectomy, attempting to launch over my shoulder from my collarbone.

It’s for her own good.

    *     *     *

At the start of the month, Sassy had her dental cleaning. As a kid I heard people make fun of Martha Stewart for brushing her cat’s teeth, but I do think it was for the best. Dental health is a good prevention against various infections, in people and felines. Sassy had rotten teeth, no bones about it.

She came from the shelter like that, I swear.

A thorough dental cleaning requires anesthetics, because–well, have you ever put your finger in an angry cat’s mouth? I’ve been doing it for the last two weeks and I would highly recommend against it. I had been nervous about putting Sassy under, but research and a discussion with my vet have assured me that while risks do exist, they are marginal for an otherwise healthy animal.

Sassy came through the surgery without any complications–and minus two rotten-through teeth.

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High as a kite after surgery.

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A rare opportunity to give her a belly-rub…and keep my hand

That left me with two weeks of liquid antibiotics to administer orally to a cat who hates being held. Wrapping her in a blanket as a “kitty kolache” only protects me so much. The only comfort she gets from it is hiding her face in the blanket so I can’t bring the syringe to her mouth.

This process, if done to a human, probably violates the Geneva Conventions. Sassy tells me as much.

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Between doses. “I’m calling my lawyer.”

She is a good girl and doesn’t scratch to hurt–it’s just that her claws are out when she tries to escape, and my skin happens to be a good place on which to latch. I’ve never seen this cat bite anyone, even when she’s been given good reason (for example, putting her in the crate).

Aside from some nasty scratches, I’ve also had antibiotic paste spit into my eyes, onto my sleeves, and into my hair. I also swear that she woke me up every two hours last night because she knew we were going to the vet for suture removal this morning.

*    *    *

“Can you tell I’m overly attached to this animal?” I asked the vet before her surgery.
“Yep.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“I don’t think so.” He smiled.

*   *   *

It’s all worth it.

We had been concerned her weight loss was a sign that something very, very serious was wrong with her. In the last two weeks, since the tooth removal, she’s put on half a pound and is approaching her ideal weight again. Of course, this makes her even more difficult to wrangle at medicine time, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

She also seems a little less afraid of visitors. She only runs away when they approach her, not when she hears the doorbell ring.

Best of all, even immediately after I shoot two vials of antibiotics into her mouth, twice a day, she chirps at me and rubs up against my leg.

All is forgiven; all is well.