Nonfiction

“Zodiac” Audiobook A Roadtrip Staple

Zodiac: The Shocking True Story of the Nation’s Most Bizarre Mass Murderer
Robert Graysmith
Narrated by Stefan Rudnicki
Blackstone Audio
Approximately 10 hours, 40 minutes of listening time

Back in July, before I was hit in the face by this thing called “grad school,” I took a road trip to D.C. On that same drive, I listened to Ann Rule’s Small Sacrifices and, having finished that, turned to Robert Graysmith’s heavy 1976 Zodiac. This recording, available on Audible, is narrated by Stefan Rudnicki, whose low voice and grave cadence suit the subject matter without becoming overly dramatic.

Graysmith was a political cartoonist at one of the San Francisco papers that received the Zodiac killer’s cryptic letters, often finding himself in the room when the editors opened the missives. Admitting as much, he became obsessed with the case. Considering the gravity and mystique posed by a masked madman with a love of Gilbert & Sullivan shows, I’d have to say the obsession is understandable. The personal element shines through not only as Graysmith enters the narrative as a sleuth on the killer’s trail, but also in his deft and sensitive portrayals of the victims.

In addition to this book on the Zodiac killer, he also wrote the 2002 Zodiac Unmasked. The 2007 movie Zodiac is based on Graysmith’s earlier book, with Jake Gyllenhaal playing the author as a young man.

Graysmith’s book is masterfully, even overwhelmingly, researched. I have to conclude I held off on reviewing it for so long because it would be impossible to provide anything more than surface-level analysis in a short-form post. Without the text of the book, I was still able to enjoy the story and learn a lot about the case, like the Zodiac’s aforementioned love of classic operettas.

Why he thought quoting the Lord High Executioner’s comic aria at length would make him more intimidating, I don’t know. I laughed down the Washington Parkway, thinking of my eighth grade class’s abbreviated production of Pirates of Penzance, as I listened to Rudnicki dutifully read the killer’s most bizarre letter in meter. 

If you are looking to learn more about the case, I would definitely recommend purchasing a hardcopy of the book in case you want to take notes.

As for entertainment value, the audiobook drags at a few points, most notably in Graysmith’s intensive focus on victim Darlene Ferrin’s personal life and murder, which occurs early in the book and interrupts its forward momentum. Then again, I was lost in New Jersey during that part, so maybe I was projecting my frustration with the state onto the book.

Graysmith later uses the Ferrin connections of one suspect  to argue he is the killer. This suspect goes unnamed in the book for legal reasons, but is likely Arthur Lee Allen. Allen, who is since deceased, has seemingly been excluded as a suspect based on comparison of his DNA with a partial profile extracted from the Zodiac letters.

In the end, do give Zodiac a listen or a read to experience one of the stalwarts of the true crime genre. Given the killer’s fondness for murdering motorists at night, listening to it in the car as twilight fell, as I did, is sure to scare the living daylights out of you.

4/5 stars: Good research, solid storytelling. A classic, but somewhat dated.
4/5 ‘fraidy cats: A serial killer who dresses up as an executioner and was never caught. Then again, Gilbert & Sullivan can never be made terrifying.
2/5 ick-factor: The crimes are bloody, the murders are heinous, but Graysmith does not relish the details.

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Ackerman’s “Trotsky” Enjoyable…Except for the Errors

Preface

It’s been a hard few weeks for me, hard for me to face the blank page and (in my own mind, at least) provide some wit or wisdom to anyone who might read this blog.

Me? I, myself, am fine. The news has been deplorable, even more than usual. People in my social circles, including close friends, have been suffering terribly.

But, I remember I promised reviews of my summer reading, and remember that writing for you always makes me feel better.

With that said, let’s talk about violence.

Since Monday was the anniversary of Trotsky’s death (by ice ax, not by ice pick, see Fig. 1) he gets to go to the front of the review backlog line.

The story of his murder is one for the ages. I should feature it some time.

Fig. 1–Know your weapons. This will be on the quiz.


Ice ax. Similar to weapon used to kill Trotsky. (Wikipedia)


Ice pick. Still deadly, but not used on Trotsky. (Wikipedia)

The Book

Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution
Kenneth D. Ackerman
Counterpoint Press
2016

Even before the book begins, you can tell Ackerman is not a historian or political scientist.

And, for the most part, it works well.

Ackerman is a New York lawyer who has set his hand to retelling that great city’s history. Trotsky is his second work, chronicling the ten weeks the Russian radical, expelled from war-torn Europe for anti-war writings, lived in the Bronx with his common-law wife and their two children.

I sort this as relevant to true-crime fans because 90% of what Trotsky and his comrades had done in their lives up to this point was illegal. There is also plenty of spy intrigue and conspiracy going on separate from their plan to overthrow the capitalist order.

For “serious” historians of the Russian Revolution, (and trust me, I’ve read them) this period of time gets maybe two pages in a 900-page book. To see so much effort put into a generally-ignored period is like seeing your favorite canon characters in a spin-off movie of the best kind.

For anyone not familiar with Trotsky, Ackerman’s book is a gentle introduction in a novelistic tone.

For anyone not partial to Trotsky, the book is still enjoyable for its portrait of Gilded-Age New York, a time of optimism and social ferment. As the Russian Marxist exiles write and argue, separated from the horrors of WWI by an ocean, oblivious to the wars they will soon begin, even the most cynical reader has to admit there is at least a slight charm to their idealism.

Ackerman’s passion for the project shows even from the dedication, which is to his grandparents, who “fled Poland for America as a result of the 1920 Soviet Russian invasion…led by the then Soviet people’s commissar for military and naval affairs, Leon Trotsky.”

Yeah, spoiler alert: the Bolsheviks win. Next spoiler: Trotsky still ends up losing (see Fig. 1 above).

But passion does not save Ackerman from some egregious factual, or editing, mistakes. One of these, which still makes my eye twitch thinking about it, comes early in the book. Introducing Lenin to readers on page seventeen, Ackerman includes a quote from a contemporary…a quote about Trotsky.

A quote about Trotsky that is a fairly well-known quote about Trotsky.

(For clarity’s sake, this quote is the one that describes Trotsky as stalking around the speakers’ dais like “a bird of prey.”)

I forgive Ackerman these few…infuriating…slips because of his genuine commitment to the book, which shows forth in a novelistic, bubbly style.

3/5 stars: a nice popular history…the errors in which make this thesis survivor histrionic.
1/5 ‘fraidy cats: This is the
Downton Abbey of my summer reading.
1/5 ick-factor: I suppose it depends on your political leanings.

Update: Mr. Ackerman reached out to me in the comments to very graciously thank me for catching the error with the quote. He says it will be corrected in the next edition of the book. I thought his thoroughness deserved recognition immediately after my initial critique.

 

“Small Sacrifices” Audiobook A Great Introduction to Ann Rule

Small Sacrifices
Written and read by Ann Rule
An Audible audiobook production
Approx. 3.5 hour run-time

Audiobooks are an old friend of mine. Camping with my family as a kid often involved twelve-hour drives across Texas to the Chihuahua Desert; books on tape were how my mother kept everyone entertained and content.

So to audiobooks I turned for my drive down to Washington, D.C., over this past Fourth-of-July weekend. For my choice of book in particular, I turned to one recommended to me by a beloved high school teacher, Mrs. G.

It was in Mrs. G’s AP English class my junior year that we read In Cold Blood, the granddaddy of true crime and my first serious exposure to the written genre. A year ago, when this blog was just starting out, I visited my alma mater and consulted Mrs. G for books to review.

I am very pleased to have finally gotten to Small Sacrifices. It is fitting that this book was recommended to me by a teacher, for the late, great Ann Rule’s reading voice took me back to afternoon story time in elementary school. Just with a far, far darker topic.

This, like some of my favorite books in the mystery and true crime genres, is more a “whydunit” than a “whodunit.” It is the story of a female psychopath (who are, I have to agree with Ms. Rule, not profiled extensively enough in the genre or acknowledged in popular imagination) and how she came to be past the point of empathy. To her, children are “fungible” currency to purchase love.

To write anymore would be to give away the best of Rule’s probing psychological analysis. Her prose is easy on the ears when read aloud: detailed without being overwhelming, descriptive without dragging, incisive without losing feeling.

I never liked the song “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Now I am sure I will never listen to it again.

5/5 stars: excellent book of true-crime, brought to life by the author
3/5 ‘fraidy cats: The murder and abuse of children is described unsparingly. Not even driving through the Hudson River Valley on a sunny day could dim that sense of evil.
3/5 ick-factor: See above

Kidnapping, Wedding Crashing, and Plenty of Jumping to Conclusions: My Adventures in July

Dear Readers,

I can explain.

The broken promises. The long silences. The unannounced trips.

Okay, I think I advised the other day about the trip. I certainly did give warning that I was preparing for a move. Said move went well, by the way, and I am settling into my new apartment quite nicely. It did take me a week to get my internet up and running, which is another reason I have been incommunicado.

July has been a busy month for me, but I bring back from my adventures not one, not two, but THREE new reviews coming out this week. The first two are of audiobooks I enjoyed on my Boston-D.C.; the third is of a hardback book I have been working since Christmas and finally finished after my electronics had been packed away.

Some tales from the trail:

I Think I’m Getting Kidnapped

It is the day before my drive to D.C. I am already wound up. While standing in line, waiting for whatever I need to complete yet another pre-trip frantic errand, a voice behind me announces “Hey, do you like novels?”

Why would he know that?

Perhaps because “stranger danger” was drilled into me as a kid, more likely because of the things I read and watch, I am a little wary of overly interested strangers. The person I encountered was nice enough, and was promoting a new e-book. No harm done.

I leave the store and begin to walk back to my car, not being followed. When I arrive at my car, there is an idling vehicle pulled up alongside mine. With cars parked in front of and behind mine, I am effectively stuck. Somewhat inconvenient, but again, no harm done.

Then the driver of the idling car looks up and calls me by my first name. My blood runs cold.

“Yes?” I say.

“I’m your ride.”

“No you’re not.”

He is silent. I move to the back of my car. He is not moving.

“This is my car,” I say.

He looks at me, puzzled.

“I need you to move,” I say.

He rolls forward and I hop into my car, not sure why this person knows my name. Then, in my rear-view mirror, I see a woman my age, of similar appearance, coming out of the apartment building I parked in front of. She got into the car that had been boxing mine in.

I had not fended off a kidnapping. I had only managed to scare the living daylights out of myself and an unsuspecting Uber driver.

I Crash a Wedding

The next day, I dropped True-Crime Cat off at the vet for boarding, fought back tears at seeing her little green eyes disappear behind the counter, and set off driving for D.C. From Boston to the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge, I enjoyed the audiobook of Ann Rule’s Small Sacrifices.

This was my first road trip and, as is to be expected, newbie mistakes began piling up.

I grew up in Texas, where toll booths are few and far between. As such, it did not occur to me to prepare for all the tolls, and I did not have cash to pay the toll booth attendant as I drove south from I-84 to the Jersey Turnpike. Consequently, with plenty of July-Fourth-Weekend traffic piling up behind me, the very patient toll attendant filled out an invoice for me to pay NY State by mail. (Which I did, of course)

I then promptly got lost in New Jersey, because I unintentionally set my navigating app to to avoid tolls, which led me parallel to the Turnpike, down a country road full of stop lights. This was probably why I had trouble focusing on the first three hours of Robert Graysmith’s hefty true-crime classic Zodiac.

After finally pulling over somewhere south of Princeton and re-calibrating Siri, I had only lost two hours to waiting at traffic lights. The sun was beginning to sink low as I headed south to Delaware, surrounded by trees.

“The young couple were alone in their car, surrounded by trees,” crooned the narrator of Zodiac, “It was already evening.”

Not an actual quote, but close enough. And that is when I began hitting myself for my choice of audiobooks. I had promised myself I wouldn’t do Zodiac books on my solo drive. I promised myself.

Somewhere south of Baltimore, I realized it was time to find a ladies’ room. Seeing an exit up ahead, I prepare to get off I-95. The “NSA-EMPLOYEES ONLY” sign and the cop with the rifle blockading the exit tipped me off that I would not be making a pit stop here.

So I drove on. The next exit is “NASA-EMPLOYEES ONLY.”

I am beginning to get desperate.

Why didn’t I stop in Baltimore? I ask myself.

Then, finally “NASA Greenbelt-State Park.” Where there’s a park, there’s a park ranger. Where there’s a ranger, there’s a HQ.

I pull off the highway at last. Right at the exit is a rustic structure  set in a wooded area, surrounded by cars.

Oh, good, they must have lots of services here if it’s this crowded. 

I find a parking spot and look up. It is a veterans’ association lodge, and there is obviously a party going on. But I am desperate.

I run to a couple taking a smoke break outside and explain the emergency.

“Is there any chance I could use the ladies’ room?”

“Oh sure, go on in, sweetie. We won’t tell anyone.”

I enter. There is a wedding cake. I wouldn’t dream of doing this on any other day. By some miracle, though, it was a casual wedding, and I came wearing the dress code.

On my way out, thanking God and the American Legion, the couple I met at the door invite me to stay for drinks. I politely decline.

I make it back to my car and close the door. Between putting the key in the ignition and turning it, I begin laughing and put my forehead against the wheel. I am ready to be done driving. After another hour, and twelve in total, I make it to my hotel.

And that is the story of how I became a wedding crasher.

P.S. Wherever you are, happy newlyweds, I wish you every happiness in the world.

P.S.S.: Come back tomorrow for my review of Small Sacrifices. Reviews of the Graysmith Zodiac audiobook coming Friday. Next week, I address the hard-copy book I finished this month, Kenneth D. Ackerman’s Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution, a tale of spies, suspicious Russian political operatives, and sassy backtalk.

 

“A Guide to Haunted New England” is Light on the Ghosts, Heavy on the Charm

A Guide to Haunted New England: Tales from Mount Washington to the Newport Cliffs
Thomas D’Agostino
Haunted America series, The History Press
2009


Photo by me. 2017.

Since Occult Crimes failed to satisfy, I thought I would offer up another suggestion for those with a hankering for the unearthly.

I picked up A Guide to Haunted New England at a local historical attraction. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the title–I was looking for a good collection of ghost stories to keep me up all night long. (Docia Williams’s Best Tales of Texas Ghosts was a formative influence on me, and the cause of many sleepless nights in middle school).

A chilling, comprehensive collection of spooks this is not. It is, as it proclaims, a travel guide, and a fun, charming, serviceable one at that.

It is a slim volume, perfect for toting around in the car for the road trips it suggests. D’Agostino includes not only locales with reported ghosts, but also sites with macabre (though not haunted) histories. If you don’t believe in ghosts, or would rather not find out for yourself if they exist, you can still enjoy D’Agostino’s suggested drives, accommodations, and restaurants through the region. I did not look into if D’Agostino has any connection to local tourism boards, but they ought to give him a medal for his enthusiasm.

I was surprised not to find a section devoted to Boston in Haunted New England, but I suppose Boston deserves a book all its own. Lizzie Borden’s house is not included in this volume, but the Salem witch trials are. The section on Salem was quite enjoyable; it makes me want to go back to that strange, sweet seaside town already.

I didn’t get what I was looking for at the souvenir shop, but that’s not such a bad thing.

2.5/5 stars: Not as spooky as I wanted it to be, but very charming. May plan my next road trip with it.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: Not chock-full of ghosts, but “Popcorn” and his glass-topped coffin is a chiller.
1/5 ick-factor: No blood, no guts, no gore. Just charming pictures of farm houses and graveyards taken by the author and his wife/fellow paranormal researcher.

 

 

Police Scanner Tuesday–23 May 2017

Police Scanner Tuesday makes its triumphant return this week, only to bring you the latest and most visible in human depravity.

  1. Manchester, U.K. Bombing: On 22 May, as an Ariana Grande concert was ending, a Briton of Libyan heritage detonated himself in the crowd of exiting fans. Of the 22 killed, many were teenage girls or younger, including an 8-year-old girl. Many of the younger casualties were accompanied by their mothers.

    The so-called Islamic State has taken responsibility for the attack, but it is unclear if they coordinated it or are piggybacking on the actions of someone radicalized remotely. Police say the suicide bomber acted alone, but they are not sure if he may be part of a larger network bent on carrying out follow-up attacks.

    British PM Theresa May raised the country’s terror alert to the highest level and has deployed soldiers to the streets to forestall further attacks.

    According to Adam Chaikof, a public policy student at Brandeis University’s Heller School, the attack is likely to bolster Prime Minister May and her Conservative Party ahead of next month’s snap elections. The Labour Party’s weakest area is national security, and Labour was not expected to do well as things stood before Monday.

  2. Since the beginning of May, 66 civilians have been murdered in Syria, as documented by the University of Syracuse College of Law’s Syrian Accountability Project.
  3. In Maryland, family and friends are mourning the loss of Second Lieutenant Richard Collins III, who had just been commissioned as an officer and was set to graduate Bowie State University  earlier today. Adding to the grief of his loved ones is that he was murdered, and his murder seems to have been motivated by white supremacist ideology.

    Lt. Collins was black and Bowie State is a historically black university. The white twenty-two-year-old male being held without bond for Collins’ murder belongs to a Facebook group called “Alt-Reich Nation.” While saving room to disparage women, Jews, and Latinos, the preferred target of this group’s venom are African-Americans.

    In the early morning hours of Saturday, 20 May, Lt. Collins and two friends were leaving a party at the University of Maryland. While waiting for their Uber at a campus bus stop, they were accosted by the alleged perpetrator, who was screaming at them from a distance before approaching the friends and demanding they move under threat of physical harm. Collins refused to be bullied and flatly said “No” to the disorderly man’s demands he move. The white man then stabbed him repeatedly with a four-inch knife.

    At the Bowie State University Graduation ceremony, Collins’ gown and cords were draped over a chair at the front of the Commencement assembly. His father received his posthumously conferred degree.

    By all accounts, our country has lost a man who would have done great credit to the military and served this nation well. My thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Lt. Collins.

 

 

Are You Dizzy Yet? The Hand-Held Guide to Comeygate

In literary studies, story is the sequence of events in chronological order. Plot is the same sequence of events, presented to the audience in a non-chronological order.

The plot of the ongoing controversy involving James Comey, former head of the FBI, widely reviled for his perceived influence on the outcome of the 2016, who has now been fired by the winner of the 2016 election:

  1. 9 May: Comey is fired by the President. This is within the president’s rights, but the optics look very bad. See below.
  2. 10 May: Media reports Comey had asked for more resources towards the FBI’s investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 election, which would include possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.Many members of the campaign and now presidency have been found to have unreported ties to Russia, most notably former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign after revelations he made money through an unreported Russian connection.
  3. May 11: Media reports that Comey had a tense and strange meeting with President Trump in February. The President demanded a pledge of personal loyalty. Comey refused. Comey documented this in conversations to confidantes shortly after the fact, for fear of being fired.Newsflash: FBI’s loyalty is to the law, not a particular office, nor its holder. See here for more details.


  4.  May 12: President Trump courts comparison to Nixon with this beauty of a tweet:
    Trump Tweet Tapes
    Too young to remember Watergate? Not sure why every scandal is now called X-gate?
  5. May 15: Throwback to that time James Comey’s testimony buried Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department career.
  6. May 16: Media reports that Comey actually wrote a memo about his meeting with the President. More juicy memo details come out: the President allegedly asked Comey to end the FBI investigation into Flynn for collusion with Russia, as a personal favor. If true, this could constitute obstruction of justice, an impeachable offense.
  7. May 17: More juicy memo details: Comey wrote that the President encouraged him to jail journalists using leaked information, which has not been the practice of American law enforcement. See the Pentagon Papers.
  8. May 17: Robert Mueller, FBI director under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama, is appointed special counsel on the Russian election meddling investigation.The appointment was made by Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the same guy who allegedly recommended Comey’s firing even though he knew Comey would be fired before writing the memo to the president.

    Mueller is widely respected in both parties and perceived as independent. A special counsel is appointed by the Justice Department when it believes in-house officials may have too much of a vested interest in an investigation. A special prosecutor differs in the manner in which he or she is appointed.

 

The story:

  1. Comey has a history of devastating testimony before Congress.
  2. In February, President Trump and Mr. Comey had a meeting which Comey alleges involved
    1. demands of personal loyalty
    2.  requests to end an investigation into one of the President’s close associates
    3. hostile plans against journalists
      None of this is illegal, but it betrays an un-American authoritarian worldview.
  3. Comey documents this meeting in a memo
  4. Comey asks for more resources on the Russia investigation
  5. Comey is fired shortly thereafter
  6. The President tweets about possible secret recordings of the February meeting.
  7. The media learns about the memo and its contents.
  8. Mr. Mueller is appointed special counsel.

Things to watch for:

  1. Comey to testify before Congress? Reportedly, he will only do so if public. That would make for juicy television.
  2. Subpoena of the White House tapes? Do they exist at all? Will these ones have mysterious, minutes-long gaps in them?

 

Still dizzy?

Understandable.

Nervous yet?

You ought to be.