Nonfiction

Photo Essay: Weekend Nor’easter

7 March 18
Norfolk County
Massachusetts

Currently I’m inside at my desk, listening to the rain fall as this new storm moves across my neighborhood and into Boston. No snow, so far. Just a day of rain.

I’m thankful it’s quiet, because I nearly died in the last Nor’easter, which blew through Friday into Saturday, spawning confusion, panic, and #windmaggedon.

As I never tire of harping on, I grew up in Texas. I’ve lived through hurricanes, the worst of them being Ike. I’ve lived through two weeks of late Houston summer with no air-conditioning in the wake of said hurricane. (I know, I know, first world problems).

I fulfilled my childhood goal of becoming a storm chaser when I nearly drove into a tornado crossing I-10 somewhere between El Paso and San Antonio. It came at us we didn’t go to it.

Easter weekend one year I spent huddled under the staircase with my sister as the sky turned green. The door into the garage was ripped from its hinges and thrown across the yard.

New England weather doesn’t scare me.

Usually.

Polar vortex? Chilly.

Nine feet of snow in five weeks? Impressive.

Whatever fresh hell came through town last weekend? Utterly terrifying.
(more…)

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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)

Cayleigh Elise: YouTube Queen of True Crime (and Darkness More Generally)

Last week I covered the LordanARTS  YouTube channel; before getting to this week’s main event, I want to thank Mr. Lordan for the lovely acknowledgement of my review on JohnnyVlogs. Check out the 1: 55 mark, specifically.

However, I only found LordanARTS through the video suggestions received while watching Cayleigh Elise’s dark, atmospheric productions.

Since posting her first video in 2015, Cayleigh has amassed nearly 300, 000 subscribers, of which I am one. Having had a chance to watch some of her very earliest videos over the past weekend, I am amazed at her growth and development as an artist.

These first videos tend more towards horror or personal stories of spooky experiences, the latter narrated in a bubbly, delightfully self-aware-yet-self-deprecating style. While engaging, these videos are distinctly amateur in comparison to her more recent work.

That corpus, focusing on the macabre and the mysteries, includes subscriber stories, missing persons, cold cases, and the supernatural. Of the many series and mini-series I have two favorites: Nameless, focused on identifying those poor souls whose bodies have been dumped like trash and whose names have gone unknown; and Dark Matters, which profiles particularly disturbing or mysterious unsolved cases.

Cayleigh’s narration for these dark stories is slow, hypnotic, and always full of compassion. If A&E ever reboots Cold Case Files, I nominate her as successor to the great Bill Kurtis.

The visuals are also fantastic. I want to steal her wardrobe; the changing backgrounds feature bizarre and fascinating decor; the source materials and editing are superb.

Let me emphasize it again: these videos are dark. They are frightening for the narratives alone, before even considering the visuals. I will warn you, as Cayleigh Elise does before the videos in question, that Nameless often features postmortem photographs. She includes these not out of morbid interest, but in hopes that these pictures will trigger someone’s memory where composite sketches have not. When she says “I have to warn you, this next picture is graphic,” I usually duck my head down. Because I’m a wuss.

There have been occasions when I peeked too soon, and mutter something along the lines of “Oh, dear Lord Jesus, help us all.” I don’t know if death is ever ‘pretty,’ but for the John and Jane Does of Nameless, it never comes gently.

Because of the possible Massachusetts connections, I recommend to you especially her most recent video at the time of writing, the case of the Woodlawn Jane Doe. Do you recognize this woman?

 

I will end this review as Cayleigh Elise always ends her videos, by reminding you that “While these may be dark matters, the darkness always matters.” It matters because our humanity is defined by how we treat others. To acknowledge the dark is to face, head-on, the realities of pain and evil in the world.

The Catechism says that burying the dead is an act of mercy. Naming the forgotten dead, surely, is one as well.

5/5 stars: High-quality visuals and narration. A host with a natural sense of the dramatic, abundant compassion, and tact.
5/5 ‘fraidy cats: Some videos are too harrowing for me to watch after dark. The rest make me check that the door
 is ,in fact, locked.
5/5 ‘ick’ factor: Death is frightening; murder even more so. Crime scene/postmortem photos and descriptions may be particularly difficult for sensitive viewers. You will be warned when to look away. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

 

 

“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.

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.