Books

“The Girls Are Gone” Leaves Us Wondering: “Where Are the Adults?”

The Girls Are Gone: The True Story of Two Sisters Who Vanished, the Father Who Kept Searching, and the Adults Who Conspired To Keep the Truth Hidden
Michael Brodkorb and Allison Mann
Wise Ink Creative Publishing
October 2018
335 Pages, with Notes

***I don’t normally do trigger warnings, but this one will be hard on survivors of childhood abuse.***

The Girls Are Gone Front Cover

Provided by the publisher.

Parental Alienation: The Unaddressed Abuse

When I agreed to review The Girls Are Gone, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no prior knowledge of the crime it portrayed–the 944-day disappearance of Samantha and Gianna Rucki in the midst of their parents’ bitter divorce–and I had no idea just how wrenching the details of the crime would be.

This is not a book that focuses on gory or gruesome details of crime scenes. In fact, this is the rare story of abduction that has a happy ending. And we know that ending from the very start–this is not a “who dunnit?”

What this book by Mr. Brodkorb and Ms. Mann is–is a forensic accounting of family dissolution. Much of the book is taken directly from court transcripts and media reports, giving an unvarnished look at the rather unsavory antagonists in this story.

David Rucki, a Minnesota resident,  found himself defrauded, deceived, and betrayed by his then-wife of twenty years, Sandra Grzzini-Rucki. Without his knowledge, she divorced him, stole his assets, and began a ruthless campaign to take their five children from him by slandering him and manipulating their children.

Ms. Mann’s involvement in the case began as a paralegal for the firm representing Mr. Rucki. Mr. Brodkorb became involved later on, as a journalist covering the case, and who eventually helped along its resolution. Both did so under a barrage of threats, vexatious and frivolous legal challenges, and an all-out smear campaign.

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Ms. Mann. Photo provided by publisher.

 

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Mr. Brodkorb. Photo provided by the author.

I was unaware of “parental alienation” before I read this book. I learned that parental alienation is a manipulation of children against one parent by the other, often in the context of a custody dispute. In the book, the courts described Grazzini-Rucki’s behavior–attempts to obstruct court proceedings and put false claims of abuse in her five children’s mouths–as abusive because it attempted to deprive her children of a parent.

This culminated in her absconding with her two oldest daughters and leaving them in the care of “Bible-based” caretakers on a remote ranch for the next three years.

So, Where Are the Adults?

Grazzini-Rucki was assisted by a ragtag army of ‘activists’ and ‘bloggers’ who are convinced that family courts infringe on….something or other. The book suggests some of this vigilante army is inspired by conservative Christian beliefs in the sanctity of the family.

Because nothing says ‘family values’ like parental abduction.

It is this army of vigilantes that has been harassing Mr. Brodkorb and Ms. Mann up to this very day, as of November 2018. On their website, Missing in Minnesota, the pair detail the latest attempts of the vigilantes to harass Mr. Brodkorb’s wife and minor children.

We are left wondering which of these characters is mad or bad–which of them are mentally unwell and which of them are using the unwell ones.

Perhaps then this is why the book relies so heavily on court transcripts, which sometimes makes the narrative drag.–with a horde of litigation-happy convicted felons out to get you, the most blunt version of the truth is your best defense.

Summing Up

This is a difficult book to read.

Its content is heavy. At times, the narrative is weighed down by the inclusion of court records.

But the court records are only annoying because one wants to know what happens next. Desperately wants.

I agree with the authors: this is a story that needed to be told.

4/5 stars: A solid book, despite pacing flaws. Looking forward to more from the authors.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: This same abuse scenario–coming to a family court near you.

3/5 ick-factor: Disgusting, aiding-and-abetting human beings

Well, That Was Overrated: “Devil in the White City”

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Erik Larson
447 pages, with notes
Vintage Books
2003

I don’t get it.

I just don’t get it.

Why does everyone love this book?

Why has it been on my reading list since I saw it on my dad’s nightstand in the sixth grade?

How did an author this good produce a book this “meh?”

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“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.

Bargain Bin Mystery #2: A Book So Bad It Makes Me Want to Cry

Dead Man’s Puzzle
A Puzzle Lady Mystery
Parnell Hall
Worldwide Mystery
2009

I tried.

I tried so hard.

I tried so hard to say something nice about this book.

But I couldn’t.

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“What the fluff is this?”–Sassy

It is one of the worst things I have subjected my reading eyes to.

One. Of. The. Worst.

Thank God I only bought it as part of a $5 bag of used paperbacks from Brookline Booksmith. (The Booksmith is awesome and in no way responsible for the poor quality of this book, by the way. Nor does the Booksmith in anyway sponsor or promote this blog).

I almost worry this review is going to get me sued.

I thought for sure this was a first-time novel of an artist whose work never again saw the light of day. I was surprised to learn the author has a wide following. The reasons for that escape me, but to each their own.

Let’s start with the premise of Dead Man’s Puzzle. A detective novel has to have a conceit, something quirky about its detective that makes him/her/them ‘unusual’ as a detective.

Cora Felton is a serial monogamist, recovering alcoholic, and sudoku expert who makes her living as the creator of a nationally syndicated crossword puzzle column.

As I am breaking into the series in the third book (and am breaking “out” of the series as soon as this review is done), I have no idea how this bizarre arrangement came about. I only know the fraud is perpetuated by Cora’s niece, the actual crossword constructor.

Needless to say, Cora is a spectacularly unsympathetic protagonist. I don’t need my heroes to be angels, but I do need some reason to like them. Cora’s relationships are poorly defined, even though numerous minor characters appear in useless subplots; her history and motivation are sketchy. Everything Mr. Hall does in describing her and presenting her internal monologues just makes me dislike her more.

The only time I had some sympathy for Cora was in a spare, brief paragraph describing her temptation to drink again, with the reasons for the urge (stress) and the reasons for her resistance (the shame she would feel in front of her niece) clearly outlined (246). It’s a very human moment for a character who otherwise comes across as a rather obnoxious wooden board.

The style of the writing is the thing that most makes me recoil from this book. The prose thinks it is so. darn. clever.

I know I’m not one to talk, but bear with me.

Consider the following, from an early chapter, which is right about where I stopped having hopes for the book. Notice the poor construction of that first sentence in particular. That medial comma is just bugging me.

Cora got out of the car, faced a rather exasperated-looking Chief Harper. ‘All right,’ she said, ‘you got me.’
‘Didn’t you see me behind you?’
‘That was you?’
‘Yes, that was me. Why didn’t you stop?’
‘Why didn’t you use your siren?’
‘I don’t use the siren unless I’m making an arrest.’
‘You’re not arresting me?’
‘For what?’
‘For whatever you’re not arresting me for.’
‘I’m not arresting you for anything.’
‘I guess that covers it.’ 
(14)”

Razor blades. Like razor blades to the mind’s eye, reading that. And it goes on like that for three-hundred pages.

It’s like a computer tried writing in the style of Jane Austen. While all the wordplay, all the sass that should make it funny is there, there is something dead about the execution that makes it fall more-than-flat. It also has very little to do in advancing the plot or readers’ understanding of the characters.

I had to force myself to pay the bare minimum of attention to each page. Even when I tried very hard to understand this book, I could not tell you what was going on.

The “story” (and I use that term loosely in describing the chain of events recorded on these cheaply printed pages) begins with Cora’s niece leaving on honeymoon, meaning Cora has to find other ways to perpetuate the fraud she commits on her devoted readers.And then a little old recluse gets murdered and leaves crossword puzzles of his own design as the only clues.And then all his poorly-characterized and largely unnamed relatives show up.

And then some…and….actually, I no longer care.

0/5 stars: Why is this even in print? I’ve read better fan fiction.
0/5 ‘fraidy cats: Fear and concern would presuppose emotional investment in this book, of which I have none.
1/5 ick-factor: Readers are subjected to superfluous descriptions of abysmal housekeeping. 

Bargain Bin Mystery #1: “Wish You Were Here” Delivers Brutal Hits with Wit

Wish You Were Here
Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown
Illustrations by Wendy Wray
Bantam Books
1990

Welcome to Bargain Bin Mysteries! In this new feature, I review paperback books that I have bought on the cheap to find you the best in bargain reading.

Today’s contestant is one I have meant to read for a while, and one I am glad to finally share with you. “Wish You Were Here” is the first of the “Mrs. Murphy Mystery” series, written by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie, her tabby.

Sassy is very pleased that I am representing other feline writers on this blog.

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“Took you long enough. Hmph. Hemingway never credited his cats…”

It has cats and it has postcards–two of my favorite things, as anyone who has been subjected to my onslaughts of cat pictures and paper correspondence knows.

Set near Charlottesville, Virginia, in the town of Crozet, the novel opens with postmistress Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen negotiating a divorce from Fair, the town’s veterinarian. Of course, this being a small town, it’s not only friends and family picking sides, but all of Harry’s customers as well.

Accompanied by Mrs. Murphy, a “gray tiger cat, who bears an uncanny resemblance to authoress Sneaky Pie and who is wonderfully intelligent!” (as reported in the cast of characters) and Tee Tucker, a Welsh corgi, Harry spends her days sorting mail and reading other people’s postcards on the sly.

This is how she first notices two of the town’s recently (and brutally) deceased residents received postcards with pictures of tombstones and the typewritten message “Wish You Were Here.” Harry goes on the hunt for murder, with Mrs. Murphy and Tucker running a simultaneous investigation and trying their best to protect their human.

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The cover art is whimsical and gives away just enough of the book.

Does your cat bring in brutally mangled mice? She may just be trying to show you where the murderer left the body.

While at first I thought the novel was a little slow–the first few chapters introduce half the town by having them walk into Harry’s postoffice–I grew to love it. There is a great deal of wit, delivered both by bipeds and quadrupeds. The chapters in which the animals talk amongst themselves, and try to make themselves understood to the clueless humans, are particularly delightful.

The plot quickens and is not overly complicated. Ms. Brown presents readers with a rare accomplishment: a mystery that they can solve, but only a few chapters before the heroine. The resolution is satisfying and surprising, but not forced.

Wish You Were Here is a loving, but not particularly thorough, critique of life in the South. A major subplot involves the wedding of the white mayor’s daughter, who has been banned by her parents from inviting her older brother because he is now married to a black woman. Brown admits that life is not peachy in Crozet, not for all of its residents, at least, but she does not set out to be Upton Sinclair. Commentary in the novel is not particularly preachy and always comes through the lens of a character’s mind.

I thoroughly enjoyed Wish You Were Here. When I found it in the used book cellar at Brookline Booksmith, I was able to also buy the third entry in the series. The second was not on the shelf last I checked, however.

must find the second book, and fast.

4/5 stars: Charming, well-paced, and engaging. Great way to spend an afternoon.

1/5 ‘fraidy cats: Fairly tame, except for a scene of cruelty to a minor animal character that hurts more than any of the humans’ murders.

2/5 ick-factor: Brown leaves just enough to the imagination when describing her brutal murders. Think: cement grinder.

“Bullied to Death”: Brutal Topic, Respectful Narrative

Bullied to Death: A Story of Bullying, Social Media, and the Suicide of Sherokee Harriman
Judith Yates
WildBlue Press
Released 10 April 2018

This is a hard one to read, folks.

Ms. Yates is not to blame, except in that her gaze is unsparing, the scope of her research unafraid. Ms. Yates tells the story well, but it is the story of a child’s miserable life and rending death.

In September 2015, fourteen-year-old Sherokee (pronounced like “Cherokee”) Harriman stabbed herself to death in a public park, in view of a group of teenagers who had been tormenting her earlier that day.

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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.