Author: truecrimelibrarian

Library assistant by day, true crime aficionado by night.

You Know You’re a Grad Student When…Vol. 1

You know you’re a grad student when….

…you can’t stand to write a book review for your blog because that’s what you do all day and you love it but it’s also consuming your soul for all the class to see.

…you write for your blog as a “break” from school, because you need that little, wilting bit of joy in your day.

…yet you still like to complain about how school leaves no time for your blog, despite the blog eating up what your good, rational, ex-valedictorian side knows is supposed to be school time.

You know you’re a grad student when…

….you envy the undergrads for their ability to do decent work past midnight.

….you begin to realize one one-thousandth the pain your sleep-deprived parents must have felt about your screaming, crying baby self as you scream and cry over your baby: your thesis.

…you, the mature adult, finally reject the sleep-study binary and turn in early because your work would be poop, anyhow.

And, finally, you know you’re a grad student when…

…you reach for your apartment key when unlocking the department office door.

…you then begin using the department key when trying to unlock your apartment.

…you might as well just move into the department because you live there anyhow and the rent would be free.

 

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What Does a Life Leave Behind?

What does a life leave behind?

A shelf of books, a drawer of socks,
a robe never worn and given away
unwashed dishes left for a ‘later’ never-come
and bills, always bills—for pills, for palls,
for flowers and for a last ditch’s efforts.
(more…)

To Pompeii

 

View of Vesuvius, from the House of the Centenary, Pompeii. Courtesy of National Archeological Museum of Naples and Wikimedia Commons.

To Pompeii

24 August, anno 832 ab urbe condita

From Baiae I write, Severus Tarentius,
to tell you things you must already know:
business is good; the weather is fine.
I have only just come from Rome,
bringing with me two new handmaids
for my dearest wife, Aurelia.

One is a Greek woman, a skilled hairdresser—
sold, I think, by our feckless Senate colleague
Syrianus, to pay his debts.
I recently beat the old goat at alea, by the way,
a victory decisive as Scipio’s at Carthage.

The other is a rather unfortunate figure,
a slave woman from deepest Germania,
driven, the trader told me, across the river
that divides our empire from their lands
by maurauding tribes out for loot and brides.

It disgusts me how
these Germanics fight among themselves.
Such suffering they cause for their own kind!
This new woman, like many others,
fled with her small child
into the arms of our legionaries
and the warm embrace of Rome.

The babe was wailing
while she was on the block.
She wailed too as we led her away.
It was really quite distasteful:
somehow, Rome’s din grew even worse.
And the smell, Severus,
I can smell it still here—like brimstone
against the salty stink of the bay

We have given her a bath.
She’ll be well taken care of now,
among civilized people.
I think I’ll call her Macaria,
for blessed is she.

What other news is there to tell…
Oh!
I have met the new emperor
–long may he reign—
and I am not impressed.

Yet Caesar is always useful, though,
so long as we are useful to Him.
Gods, this table needs a new leg!
Perhaps Caesar can grant me one of those,
so I won’t be writing in the midst of a quake?

I am looking out across the bay
towards your home at Pompeii.
It is hot, but the mountain
looks so tranquil from here.

Such is the order of our lives, Severus:
empire without end,
baths and dinners,
immovable and unchanging
as Vesuvius’ peak.

-By Allison R. Shely, September 2018. 
All rights reserved.

Cole Destruction

The Course of Empire: Destruction, Thomas Cole, 1836. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nightmare on Peach Street: Reviewing “Evil Genius”

Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist
A Netflix Original, 2018
Four Parts
Rated TV-MA
Directed by Trey Borzillieri and Barbara Schroeder
Written by Barbara Schroeder

A few months ago, I was searching for a documentary on a case I knew only as “the Pizza Bomber” and was surprised I could find nothing aside from some local news clips saying the mastermind had died in prison. Shortly, Evil Genius would come to fill the void.

The good and the bad of this series can both be summarized in one word: understatement.

baked pizza on top of black surface near filled glass tankard

Photo by Fancycrave.com on Pexels.com

The good of the filmmakers’ understatement is that allows the horror of the events to speak for itself.

In August 2003, pizza deliveryman Brian Wells died on live TV when a bomb strapped to his neck went off. He had claimed that he had been kidnapped at gunpoint and forced into a bomb-holding collar before being sent on a bank heist/hellish scavenger hunt. His body suffered further indignities in death; authorities decapitated him rather than risk damaging  evidence: the collar that held the bomb.

This is all we know for sure, Evil Genius tells us, and it is horrible. While intriguing, the series cannot be called “entertaining” as much as “edifying.” This is an exploration of suffering and evil, and that alone. No glitz or unnecessary gore.

The understatement of the series also allows viewers to inhabit the uncertainties of the crime and the ambiguities of the suspects. The main question the series poses, without ever fully resolving to my satisfaction, is as to whether Mr. Wells was, as he claimed, kidnapped and forced to rob the bank. The alternative is that he was a double-crossed participant in a criminal ring headed by Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, a woman as brilliant as she was disturbed. The question as to whether Diehl-Armstrong, the titular “evil genius” was mad, bad, or some combination of both is another ambiguity that the four-part series explores.

The understatement and suggestion can bog down the series. With each episode clocking in at about forty-five minutes, the series felt twice as long. There is a lot of information to process. While the filmmakers to present all the evidence to preserve the ambiguity of the situation, the series would have benefited from some heavy-duty pruning.

 

3/5 stars: A good series hobbled by serious pacing issues.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: Evil acts, but nothing that will creep up on you at night.
2/5 ick-factor: Unsparing description of postmortem mutilation and mistreatment

“Looming Tower” Audiobook Leaves An Impression

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11
Written and Narrated by Lawrence Wright
Random House Audio 2006
16 Hours & 31 Minutes

Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is a book that political science professors will be assigning to freshmen for the next twenty years or more. When discussing my interest in counter-terrorism with a professor, my callow sophomore self off-handedly said “I’d like to write a book about the intelligence failures that led to 9/11.” His response was “That’s already been covered pretty thoroughly.”

Undoubtedly, my professor was referring to Wright’s comprehensive work, which is the closest you can come to reading the 9/11 Commission Report as a narrative.

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The counterterrorism studies section of my bookshelf. Sassy refused to appear in this photo for obvious reasons. 

This is a book I meant to get to for some time, listening to it in fits and starts since. I was finally spurred on by the release of a Hulu miniseries to finish the audiobook during my commute over the last month.

The enormous breadth and depth of The Looming Tower–spanning seventy years and covering everything from the nuances of Medieval Islamic philosophy to the geography of tiny Egyptian villages–becomes something of a liability when translated to an audio format. Read by the author, the text is read exactly as intended in an even, yet never boring, voice.

However, as the text covers dozens upon dozens of names, many with variable English spelling, I found myself wishing I had bought the physical book for future reference. Jumping from topic to topic and time to time, there is a disjointed, but not disorderly, quality to the book. Perhaps this is just a fault of perception in my visually-focused brain.

In a book this detailed, it is difficult to draw out favorite or most important moments, but I will try.

First: the importance of diversity, or even just an understanding of the world, in national security.

Before 9/11, the FBI had less than ten Arabic speakers. A particularly affecting moment is when Ali Soufan, then a young FBI agent, cracks the lone survivor of the Nairobi embassy bombers in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. A practicing Muslim who was born in Lebanon, Soufan debates the failed suicide bomber in Arabic on the Quran and Islamic law, eventually forcing the bomber to admit he has murdered innocents, many of them fellow Muslims going about their daily lives.

The bomber then tells everything he knows about the structure and membership of Al Qaeda.

Second: if there was ever a title of deep meaning, it is this one.

On a cursory glance, the tower of the title refers to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Indeed it does. However, it is also a reference to a Quranic verse and Bin Laden’s perversion of it. In a video message to the nineteen hijackers, Bin Laden quoted this verse as an oblique reference to the specifics of the plot, ignoring its actual meaning.

The verse (4:78)  reads, in Ahman Zaki Hammad’s wording, as:

Wherever you may be, death will overtake you at the pre-ordained time–even if you are in lofty towers.

And continues with:

Yet if any good comes to them, they say in their wavering hearts: This is from God!
But if any harm strikes them, they say: This is from you, O Muhammad!
Say to them: All things are decreed from God.

In the larger context of the passage, it is clear this refers to the limits of mortal life and God’s sovereignty over the universe. Jewish and Christian readers will find a similar sentiment expressed by Job, who acknowledges God’s control over all things even in adversity:

Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back again.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away: blessed be the name of the LORD!
Job 2:21

The verse from Surah Al-Nisa’ ends with an admonishment that could well be turned against fundamentalists of all faiths:

What is with these people that they can hardly understand any discourse?

Putting aside my very amateurish exegesis, the conclusion of The Looming Tower singles out one personal tragedy from all the horrors of the 9/11. It is the eerie coincidence of this one tragedy that sticks with me even more than Wright’s detailed research and strong prose. He seems to have provided some of the strongest evidence yet that there is a Providence to the world.

If not a benevolent Providence, at least, then, Fate with a bitter sense of irony.

3.5/5 stars: A very strong book in research and storytelling, but maybe not the best fit for an audio format.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: You know what’s going to happen and there’s nothing you can do about it, much like the law enforcement officials profiled in the book.
2/5 ick-factor: Despicable human beings of many flavors. 

Conspiracy theorists, raving Islamophobes, and ISIS trolls will be summarily banned and digitally keelhauled.

The Cat’s Meow Reviews: Drinkwell Pagoda Fountain

Drinkwell Pagoda Fountain in Blue
$70-$100
Major Pet Retailers

By Sassy “The Fluffer” Shely
Translated From Meowing by Allison Shely

A Crime of Dispassion

Her cries pierced the silence of that April morning.

“But why, Sassy?”

I watched from under the table, head cocked, not sure why knocking the water bowl for the fifth time that week had elicited so strong a response. Mother, wearing that ridiculous fluffy robe of hers, dropped to her knees, tearing at her hair.

“Mommy wants the security deposit back!”

img_1181

Is this the face of a criminal?

I didn’t mean to make her cry. I really didn’t.

*      *     *

The Backstory

I’ll let you in and tell you something a little personal: I have kidney disease. The good news is that it’s manageable and seems to be just the consequence of a congenital deformity…or whatever long medical term the vet said it was. The vet, whom I visited a few weeks back, sent me away with a clean bill of health.

Along with a prescription diet (yuck!), the other part of my treatment is good hydration. So, I’m picky when it comes to my water bowls.

Mom started me off with one of those five-gallon jug things. When that got too beat up, she was foolish enough to replace it with a mere plastic bowl.

Over the Christmas break, I learned how to tilt the bowl against the edge of the boot pan mom uses as my feeding area–undignified as that may be–to get the last of the water before the petsitter returned the next day.

That’s when I discovered that tipping over the bowl is also great fun.

Hence, how I brought mother to her knees.

Enter the Drinkwell Pagoda fountain.

img_1090

Trying out the new fountain.

*     *     *

The Deets

The main reason mom picked the Pagoda was for its heavy ceramic construction. On top of this, it holds up to half a gallon of water. I couldn’t knock it over even if I wanted to!

Mom also hoped that the steady trickle of water would keep me from knocking the fountain over for a fresher drink. It is also, I may add, quite amusing to watch, even if I was a bit scared at first.

img_1087

Taking the plunge!

As to how it works, and how it keeps me from “losing the security deposit” (whatever that means), it is worth the eighty-something dollars.

The major downside, at least as mom sees it, is that she has to take it apart weekly to clean it. There are enough little parts that, until about a week ago, she had to consult the manual every time. Not having thumbs, I am spared this drudgery.

Also bothersome is that the two different filters–a foam one for straining out debris and a charcoal one for taste and purity–are expensive and on a confusing replacement schedule. One has to be replaced every one to two weeks, the other every two to four. The filters, however, are “optional.” Mom left them out this week (because someone forgot to order them) and, so far, I have not suffered too greatly.

All in all, the Drinkwell Pagoda Fountain is one of the best things mom has ever bought for me. In gratitude, I will respect her significant investment in my hydration: I will no longer commit terrorist acts of spillage.

For the foreseeable future.

Mother’s Take-Away
5/5 stars. Worth every penny as it keeps Sassy from ruining the carpet. Around her bowls, at least.

Disclaimer
The makers of this product have not compensated me for this review in any way. The product was purchased on my initiative and with my own funds. The honest views expressed are truly mine (and the cat’s). 

Happy Tidings from the Death Card

It’s Been A Tough Year So Far

I’m not one much to talk about my personal issues on the internet, but since the events of the last six months have had a major impact on my (lack of) output for this blog, I think I owe you, and myself, an explanation.

There is a lot I can’t tell you, a lot of the details, to protect the privacy of the others involved.

Suffice to say, it involved a lot of death.

There was a brush with physical death, on Easter Monday, in a car accident.

There was a death of self, as this “adulthood” thing forced me to let go of old notions of who I am and who I want to be. This came about largely because of a death of faith, of faith in ideals and institutions that formed me.

There was the death of a friendship. I expected this one to be the worst of all, when I worried about it years ago, or in the last year as part of me, a part unacknowledged, suspected it was coming.

In all, it wasn’t so bad.

 

File:RWS Tarot 13 Death.jpg

XIII. Death. From the Rider-Waite Tarot, ca. 1909. Public domain.

You see, the death card almost never means death, at least not physical death.

I don’t believe we can foretell the future, but as a writer I am very interested in the symbolism of the Tarot deck.

The death card of the Major Arcana gets a bad rap for being No. XIII and for being, well, about death, strangely enough. The card shows death, but only because death is necessary for rebirth.

I walked away from the accident unscathed. After five hours in the ER, waiting for the final confirmation that I had not hurt my head, I went home. There I found Sassy, a little confused about why I was late, and very upset that dinner was delayed.

In letting go of what I thought I was and wanted, I have moved forward. Now that school has been out for a few weeks, I have been focused on my first few freelancing assignments. That is the logistical reason for my long silence on this blog. I am excited to be a “real” writer now and a “professional,” in fulfillment of a dream I’ve had since I was four years old.

As for the end of the childhood friendship, I wish it had not gone down the way it did. I know people grow and change. If things had tapered off between us naturally, it would have been much easier to accept.

One of the hardest lessons about growing up is that doing everything right won’t protect you. One of the other hardest lessons is that your effort can’t make up for what someone else won’t put in. It hurt a lot at the time, and it hurts from time to time, but I find myself looking forward to the future.

I get asked why I like my “frightening” and “morbid” crime shows. As trite as it may sound: while you have to be careful not to only see the darkness, you cannot look away from death without ignoring life.

The death card is change. Time is change. Time marches on, trampling over kings like Death’s horse does on the card. Who am I to resist? What point is there in fear?

That said, I’m glad to still be here with all of you.