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.
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.” Read more
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.
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”
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.
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.
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)
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 dooris,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.
Channel on YouTube
Hosted, Filmed, & Edited by John Lordan
Associate Producer & Researcher: Christy Stracener
In April of this year, I discovered the LordanARTS channel while watching videos on the Asha Degree case. I was a bit skeptical at first; after watching the glossy productions of Cayleigh Elise (who deserves a review of her own), how could I enjoy a man in a baseball cap talking to a camera for forty-five minutes at a time?
But I couldn’t stop watching. Almost every night when I get home from work, the first thing I turn on is that day’s new LordanARTS video.
Sassy usually joins me, perched on my shoulder on the couch, intently watching the screen. I think she wants to pounce at the bouncing logo, or that the spooky, electronic intro music enchants her.
LordanARTS is a mostly-one-man show hosted by John Lordan. Part of Mr. Lordan’s charm is that he never fails to thank the people who make his show possible, whether that be his associate producer (Ms. Stracener), his wife, or his Patreon supporters.
While researching this review: John Lordan followed me back on Twitter and this is one of the proudest days of my life.
Mr. Lordan puts out new content every day Monday through Friday, a rate which easily puts me to shame. Mondays feature “Johnny Vlogs,” usually his reflections on the world. Once-a-week he posts an “Itchy Mystery” review, in the line of what I do here, but featuring more of a supernatural element than I typically include.
The bread-and-butter of his channel, the two features that bring me back time and time again, are “BrainScratch” and “BrainScratch: Search Light.” The former features either cold cases or more recent cases with puzzling public details; the latter profiles missing persons cases in which hope still exists for the missing’s safe return. Family members have often reached out to Mr. Lordan either to thank him for, supplement, or request videos on their missing or victimized loved ones.
The research that goes into these true crime segments is thorough, gathered by Mr. Lordan, Ms. Stracener, and fans of the show. Each segment features Mr. Lordan going through all the known information in his calm, oddly soothing (given the content) voice before offering interpretations of those facts.
Mr. Lordan is a skeptic in the best way possible; in a world where most choose between the most appealing of “alternative” facts, he allows his views to be altered by the facts. He admits to having been a bit of a conspiracy theorist in the past, seriously entertaining the notion of false-flag operations. He has since publicly announced his move away from those lines of thinking, which demonstrates real intellectual engagement and courage. His given reason for this shift was seeing the pain of mass shooting victims’ families when (usually right-wing) conspiracy theorists claimed the victims had never existed and that the grieving families were government-paid actors.
I think that degree of empathy and concern, above all the many virtues of the programming, is what brings me back to LordanARTS again and again.
5/5 stars: the facts, presented with humor and empathy 1/5 ‘fraidy cats: Mr. Lordan humanizes crime, not sensationalizes 1/5 ick-factor: No post-mortem or crime scene photos, as a matter of principle
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)
Trotsky in New York 1917: A Radical on the Eve of Revolution Kenneth D. Ackerman
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 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.
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
I tried finding more information on the persons responsible for this monstrosity, but to no avail. Perhaps it is for the best, as I am sure they are all lovely people, and I wouldn’t want to drag their names through the mud as I dismember and eviscerate this series.
If it’s dismemberment and evisceration you’re looking for (and, if you feel any rush of interest at occult and crime put together, you probably are) Occult Crimes brings it aplenty. The dramatizations and descriptions are fairly tame, allowing viewers to satisfy their morbid curiosity without feeling entirely debased, at least not in that regard.
The series, on the whole, is an insult to viewers’ intelligence. You feel dumber, not just number, watching it. The research is somewhat sloppy and the voice-overs are repetitive.
The voice-overs are one of the biggest problems. The series, I believe, is originally in French. The English narration is done by either Siri or a woman doing her best to impersonate her iPhone. The intonation, when it exists, is completely alien to the ears of a native English speaker. This somewhat-indifferent technical voice might work for a luxury car or perfume ad, but not for a show that is supposed to explore the darkest parts of the human psyche.
Additionally, when an interviewee begins speaking, a title at the bottom of the screen introduces her as the author of a book on “extorsion” rather than “extortion”.
Editing saves lives, people.
The crimes covered are committed usually by adolescents with preexisting, undiagnosed or untreated mental illness who then become engrossed in morbid fantasy worlds. I’m not sure I would classify the actions of these troubled young people as occult, as compared to say, a cult leader who knows fully what she is doing and has extensive knowledge of an esoteric belief system.
I’ll give Occult Crimes this: it doesn’t claim that metal music, Dungeons & Dragons, or Gothic literature on their own would compel an otherwise stable person to murder. It also does a good job differentiating between traditional belief systems, like Santeria or Wicca, and the knock-off “occult” beliefs that inspire many of the featured crimes.
1/5 stars:So trashy I had to shower after I watched it.
3/5 ‘fraidy cats: This should have been 5/5, but it was too low budget to inspire suspense.
4/5 ick factor: Once again, should be 5/5. If you must portray evisceration onscreen, go big on the special effects budget or go home.