Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI by Robert K. Ressler and Tom Shachtman

25561483FBI veteran and ex-Army CID colonel Robert Ressler learned how to identify the unknown monsters who walk among us–and put them behind bars. Now the man who coined the phrase “serial killer” shows how he is able to track down some of today’s most brutal murderers.

From the victims they choose, to the way they kill, to the often grotesque souvenirs they take with them–Ressler unlocks the identities of these vicious killers. With his discovery that serial killers share certain violent behaviors, Ressler’s gone behind prison walls to hear the bizarre first-hand stories countless convicted murderers. Join Ressler as he takes you on the hunt for toady’s most dangerous psychopaths. It is a terrifying journey you will not forget.

Review:

Here’s what I wanted when I read Incendiary – a look into the mind of a repeat criminal. Ressler is a pioneer in the field of profiling and uses cases, both famous and not, to explore the minds of serial killers.  I learned a lot – organized vs. disorganized killers, what may push someone to their first murder, and what drives them to repeat the crime again and again.

While informative and interesting several things put me off, though.  First, the victims are minimized, often reduced to clues to analyze the mind of the killer.  The criminals’ thought process, and the men who work to understand it, are prioritized above all else.  The upcoming book Dead Girls address this point really well – watch this space for a review on release day.

Also, Ressler is full of himself and it grates.  What’s the line… ‘may the lord grant me the confidence of a straight white man’?  That’s Ressler.  He quotes letters of commendation while he humble brags about every little thing.  He tells stories about bending the rules for the sake of the investigation and always comes out squeaky clean.  It’s goddamn annoying but also maybe expected from a G-man of his era. (Note: expected does not equal excused.)

I listened on audio and have no complaints about the narrator or production. While nowhere near perfect, Whoever Fights Monsters provides a foundation to build my Serial Killer Summer on.

…yeah, I’m making it a thing. Heaven help me.

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Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling by Michael Cannell

31451258Grand Central, Penn Station, Radio City Music Hall―for almost two decades, no place was safe from the man who signed his anonymous letters “FP” and left his lethal devices in phone booths, storage lockers, even tucked into the plush seats of movie theaters. His victims were left cruelly maimed. Tabloids called him “the greatest individual menace New York City ever faced.”

In desperation, Police Captain Howard Finney sought the help of a little known psychiatrist, Dr. James Brussel, whose expertise was the criminal mind. Examining crime scene evidence and the strange wording in the bomber’s letters, he compiled a portrait of the suspect down to the cut of his jacket. But how to put a name to the description? Seymour Berkson―publisher of the tabloid The Journal-American―joined in pursuit of the Mad Bomber. The three men hatched a brilliant scheme to catch him at his own game. Together, they would capture a monster and change the face of American law enforcement.

Review:

I feel a true crime binge coming on and I started with this book because hey, “the invention of criminal profiling”.  It makes you think the how of profiling would be discussed.

But no.

Don’t get me wrong – this is a good account about the “Mad Bomber of New York” who set off pipe bombs in the city for the better part of two decades.  He started small, putting bombs in out of the way places, and got more adventurous as time went on.  The NYPD was getting criticized for allowing him to continue unfettered for years.  Desperate, they asked a psychiatrist for help.

This is the part I was waiting for – how did Dr. Brussel come up with a profile?  What medical knowledge did he draw on to arrive at the picture of a killer?

Sadly we don’t know.  Cannell sticks close to the police so we see Brussel make a prophecy (a Slavic guy in a double breasted suit, probably living with female relatives) and that’s about it.

I desperately wanted more info on the invention and process of profiling (see title) so I was disappointed.  If you’re a fan of true crime there’s a good story here, just expect more ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ than ‘hows’.

The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI’s Hunt for America’s Stolen Secrets by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

28953569The story Bhattacharjee covers is fascinating – in December of 2000 an FBI agent got a hold of coded letters sent to the Libyan consulate.  They were sent by a CIA analyst and offered to sell classified material to the foreign power at the price of millions to be wired to a Swiss bank account.  As proof of his access the writer included several top secret documents and promised information about US reconnaissance satellites, defense systems, and more.  It’s information that could put the US military and security in grave danger, not to mention kick strategy back a decade or two if it falls into the wrong hands.

I was excited to dig in – a whodunit, yea!  …except that we learn who the culprit is early on.  Heck, his name is in the first few lines of the jacket copy.  From there we could have gone down one of several paths – a why-dun-it, a how-dun-it, or a how-they-caught-him-…it.  But instead of picking one and committing Bhattacharjee gives us a little of each, and that lack of a single driving force made the read fall a bit flat for me overall.

Listening to the audiobook didn’t help, either, as alphanumeric code gibberish doesn’t translate well to the spoken word.  I got the sense that if the ciphers were laid out on a page it would all come together but in my ears it remained largely incomprehensible.

So… ‘Danger tonight’ would be enciphered as four dot one dot fourteen dot seven dot five dot eighteen star twenty dot fifteen dot fourteen dot nine dot seven dot eight dot twenty.

@_@

Not the narrator’s fault, not anyone’s fault, but it did make some parts tough going.

Overall the story is interesting and at 1.8 speed it’s a quick and fun listen, but while serviceable it didn’t tip over into awesome.  If you’re into codes or espionage you’ll want to give The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell a go, but do yourself a favor and stay away from the audiobook.

Exploring Kyoto by Judith Clancy

9781611720419_c37d9I feel so lucky that I’ve had the chance to live in Kyoto for an extended period of time.  It’s beautiful, surrounded by mountains on three sides and chock-a-block with history.  It’s the kind of place that when you tell people where you live you mention the closest temple or shrine.  “Oh!” locals say.  “It’s beautiful over that way.”

Clancy guides you around all parts of the city in 31 walks.  She’s been here since 1970 so she really knows her stuff.  History buffs will love the explanations about each attraction’s significance, and even those who loathe history ~raises her hand~ will gain an appreciation while staying interested.

Each walk starts with an overview and public transportation options to the start point.  Along the way notable shops and eateries are mentioned, often with price ranges so you know what you’re getting into.  Relevant tips about etiquette are scattered throughout and maps, photos, and a detailed index are included.

Boats awaiting passengers at Arashiyama.
Arashiyama

After reading the introduction I checked out the walk for my favorite part of the city, Arashiyama.  It’s a mountainous district with a stunning river, temples, and iconic sights.  I’ve shown friends and family around it many times and all my favorite places are mentioned, from Tenryuji Temple and the Togetsukyo bridge to the bamboo forest and Iwatayama Monkey Park.  Clancy also recommends places I haven’t heard of – it turns out that until now I’ve missed out on Rakushisha, literally “the cottage of fallen persimmons”.  It’s associated with the poets Kyorai and Basho and the gardens have stones with poems carved into them.  I can’t wait to go the next time I’m over that way.

This is the books greatest strength – it covers all the “must-sees” while also directing you to underappreciated sites.  Japan and Kyoto in particular have been attracting more and more foreign visitors each year and many go to the same places, so getting off the beaten path provides a welcome respite from any crowds and a better look at the “real” Japan.

If you’re looking to spend any decent amount of time in Kyoto you can’t go wrong with Clancy as a guide.

Thanks to Stone Bridge Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ

36556972“She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it but look what she wrote about. She wrote it BUT…”

How to Suppress Women’s Writing is a meticulously researched and humorously written “guidebook” to the many ways women and other “minorities” have been barred from producing written art. In chapters like “Prohibitions,” “Pollution of Agency,” “The Double Standard of Content,” “False Categorization,” and “Isolation” Joanna Russ names, defines, and illustrates those barriers to art-making we may have felt but which tend to remain unnamed and thus insolvable.

Review:

How to Suppress Women’s Writing can be considered a classic so I’m excited that it’s being re-released.  Written in 1983 and based on academia in the 1970s some parts feel dated but the underlying principles are sadly relevant.  Russ systematically goes through the “reasons” women’s writing has been maligned for centuries – she didn’t write it.  Or she wrote it but she had help, or she only wrote one of it, or she’s an anomaly. (Oh yes, there’s more.)

Each method of suppression gets its own chapter with historical examples of how it was used.  A word of fair warning – it’s on literary criticism and takes for granted that you know your 18th and 19th century writers.  If you’re not familiar ~raises her hand~ the name dropping with minimal explanation can be confusing bordering on annoying.

That doesn’t make the material less fascinating, though.  For example, Russ randomly looked at anthologies and academic lists and found that women accounted for between five and eight percent of writers selected.  You would think that a longer list or larger book could “afford” to include more women but the percentage actually went down with size, not up.  As Russ notes:

It seems that when women are brought into a reading list, a curriculum, or an anthology, men arrive, too – let the number of men drop and the women mysteriously disappear.

She argues further that isolating women in this way makes them look like anomalies and thus more easily minimized and ignored.  Now and then Russ points out that these same methods are used on people of color and other marginalized groups, but doesn’t dive much further until a mea culpa afterward.  I chalk this up to the fact that the book was written over thirty years ago but I was hoping for more intersectionality all the same.

All in all I’m glad I read How to Suppress Women’s Writing and I’m thankful that it’s once again in print – may it supercharge our BS detectors and empower us to fight back.

Thanks to University of Texas Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine by Michele Lent Hirsch

33931697Though young women with serious illness tend to be seen as outliers, young female patients are in fact the primary demographic for many illnesses. They are also one of the most ignored groups in our medical system–a system where young women, especially women of color and trans women, are invisible.

And because of expectations about gender and age, young women with health issues must often deal with bias in their careers and personal lives. Not only do they feel pressured to seem perfect and youthful, they also find themselves amid labyrinthine obstacles in a culture that has one narrow idea of womanhood.

Lent Hirsch weaves her own harrowing experiences together with stories from other women, perspectives from sociologists on structural inequality, and insights from neuroscientists on misogyny in health research. She shows how health issues and disabilities amplify what women in general already confront: warped beauty standards, workplace sexism, worries about romantic partners, and mistrust of their own bodies. By shining a light on this hidden demographic, Lent Hirsch explores the challenges that all women face.

Review:

Part memoir, part anecdote, and part research, Invisible does an amazing job looking at women society deems “too young” or “too pretty” to be sick.

The good:

  • The book is own voices for both health issues and being queer, which is awesome in its own right, and her conscientious efforts mean…
  • …it may be the most intersectional book I’ve ever read. Lent Hirsch mentions how each woman interviewed identifies and the range across race, sexuality, religion, and gender is amazing.  She goes into how each of these identities affect how a woman interacts with health care as well as friends, family, coworkers, and romantic partners.
  • This care is reflected in own voices reviews for Invisible.  My favorite is by Corvus who identifies as Queer, trans, and disabled.  They write, “This is the first book of this kind that I have read – that was not specifically about LGBTQ populations – that didn’t let me down.”  Their whole review is wonderful, go check it out here.
  • There’s a thoughtful discussion with several people about using the word “disability” in relation to themselves, and why they do or don’t embrace it.  There are many answers to this question and I like how so many different angles are covered.
  • Large sections of the text are straight from discussions the author had with women of all sorts.  While reading I thought – if a straight cis white man wrote this book he would only grab the juiciest quotes and summarize the rest through the lens of his own experience.  Lent Hirsch, however, has each amazing woman speak for herself and the book is stronger for it.
  • Even though my own experience as a patient is thankfully limited there are still parts that hit close to home.

    The new pharmacist was great.  He never commented on my looks or how my body made him feel.  What a low bar I was holding him to: he was ‘great’ because he didn’t harass me.

The not-so-great:

  • Only one thing here – I would have liked the 30,000 foot level writing to be stronger.  There are themes that could have been developed to make the book gel as a cohesive whole and their lack feels like a lost opportunity.

Invisible is an insightful look at what women of all sorts go through while dealing with chronic illness.  It’s a must read if you have any tiny bit of interest in the subject – I loved it.

Thanks to Beacon Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

6452798Written with the vibrancy of a first-rate thriller, Command and Control interweaves the minute-by-minute story of an accident at a nuclear missile silo in rural Arkansas with a historical narrative that spans more than fifty years.  It depicts the urgent effort by American scientists, policymakers, and military officers to ensure that nuclear weapons can’t be stolen, sabotaged, used without permission, or detonated inadvertently. Schlosser also looks at the Cold War from a new perspective, offering history from the ground up, telling the stories of bomber pilots, missile commanders, maintenance crews, and other ordinary servicemen who risked their lives to avert a nuclear holocaust.  At the heart of the book lies the struggle, amid the rolling hills and small farms of Damascus, Arkansas, to prevent the explosion of a ballistic missile carrying the most powerful nuclear warhead ever built by the United States.

Review:

While I’ve read books about nuclear power this was my first about nuclear weapons and woah. By all rights we should all be dead by now, maybe ten times over. There are two interleaving story arcs, one about the history of nuclear weapons from the Manhattan Project through the early 2000s, and another that covers a Titan II missile accident.

I had no idea that there were so many mishaps, mistakes, and close calls – planes holding H-bombs catching fire on the runway, nukes lost at sea, early warning systems that misinterpret the moon rising over Sweden has incoming ballistic missiles.  I thought everyone would be behind more safeguards against human error because no one wants to blow up their town by mistake, but it turns out the military was largely against safety measures.  A well-protected weapon requires more checklist steps and time before launch, and those minutes would be crucial in a nuclear attack.

The narrative structure is similar to Columbine in that two separate timelines are alternated – here the history of atomic weapons and a missile accident in Arkansas.  I had never heard of the accident and didn’t know how it ended up so Schlosser’s account kept me riveted.  It also serves to break up the history portions and keep the narrative fresh.

I listened to this as an audiobook and really enjoyed it.  I had no problems with the reader and was able to push the speed over 2x, which is a help when the book is over 20 hours long.

My school history books didn’t do a good job covering the Cold War so Command and Control helped me reach a much needed deeper understanding. We should all know this history, if only to make sure we don’t repeat it.


You may also enjoy:

20820098 Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters by James Mahaffey

Depression and Other Magic Tricks by Sabrina Benaim

I picked up this book after seeing the Meonicorn’s lovely own voices review (check it out!) and watching Benaim perform what I think is the best poem, “Explaining My Depression to My Mother”.  Stop reading and take three minutes to watch – it’s amazing and has over six million views to prove it:

If you have ever experienced depression or anxiety or know someone who has these poems will speak to you, as they get right to the core of the experience.

at the grocery store i practice trying to make myself feel good by pretending i am a regular person buying her groceries & not a very sad person trying to distract herself from crying.

If you don’t know anyone with depression or anxiety the poems will open your eyes to what it’s like for you brain to go off in a direction you don’t like but are powerless to change.

36070215& this is why i have a hard time talking about my anxieties / not the big heavy anxieties / but the small ones / the ones that change my earrings / & chip at my general level of self-esteem / the ones that gorge on celery & watermelon after a heavy weekend / crying quietly / standing in line / behind you / the girl you’re pretending not to notice

In addition to these poems about mental health there are others about love, loneliness, abandonment, and memory.  With a couple of exceptions they don’t feel as strong but I’m having trouble pinpointing why.  Is it a personal thing, that they don’t speak to my lived experience? (Which seems silly, because I have loved boys who haven’t loved me back.)  Is it that the images aren’t as memorable or striking?  Or is my newbie poetry spidey sense picking up that they’re just not as “good”?  I’m not sure.

While this all sounds melancholy the poems aren’t fatalistic.  You sense that the author is working to understand herself and why things happen, all on the bedrock conviction that she will get through it.

i will let dance parties be the hospitals i heal in

if i need more help i will let the medication help me
i forgive my body for being a machine after all

A great read for anyone who has dipped their toes in these dark waters if only to know that:

i am not alone
because i feel alone

 

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot

35840657Heart Berries is a powerful, poetic memoir of a woman’s coming of age on the Seabird Island Indian Reservation in the Pacific Northwest. Having survived a profoundly dysfunctional upbringing only to find herself hospitalized and facing a dual diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Bipolar II, Terese Marie Mailhot is given a notebook and begins to write her way out of trauma. The triumphant result is Heart Berries, a memorial for Mailhot’s mother, a social worker and activist who had a thing for prisoners; a story of reconciliation with her father—an abusive drunk and a brilliant artist—who was murdered under mysterious circumstances; and an elegy on how difficult it is to love someone while dragging the long shadows of shame.

Review:

(First some trigger warnings, especially for suicidal ideation and an attempt, abuse, and eating disorders.)

There is so much to admire here.  Allow me to list the ways:

  • Mailhot puts her story on the page in a way that’s both spare and evocative, simultaneously emotional and unsympathetic.  It’s like she takes the glass form of a memoir, smashes it at her feet, and rearranges it best for her truth, complete with stray debris and blood from her cut hands.
  • The writing is amazing.  Some chapters have an intricate internal logic that I’ll need to revisit to fully appreciate, and the one liners are art.

    I think of you often, but there are still spaces unchanged by you.

    I learned that any power asks you to dedicate your life to its expansion.

    Men objectify me, to such a degree that they forget I eat.  You feed your dog more kindly than you feed me.  That’s men.

  • Some chapters fairly jump off the page – the first is one of these and I was sure I had a five star read in my hands.  The good is blow the roof off amazing so maybe I’m greedy to want that all the way through, but some of the middle essays fell flat for me.  I’m hoping that changes on a reread.
  • The forward and Q&A afterward provide context and helped me build a framework to situate my thoughts.  Skip them at your own peril as they add so much to the work.  I’d also recommend reading Heart Berries in as large gulps as possible.  My own reading was spread over two weeks and feels diluted because of it.

Overall this is an unrelenting, masterfully written work – not my usual fare but I loved it all the same.

Thanks to Counterpoint and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich

34127677Ehrlich visited Wyoming on assignment and, while there, her partner died.  She decided not to leave.  Her essays are a thoughtful, deep, well-observed look at the life, places, and people of the American West.

First things first – you should know that despite being raised in the country I’m a city girl, happier in canyons of concrete than wide open spaces.

My mother is the exact opposite and would be most at home at a ranch like the one Ehrlich worked on, and Solace has helped me see why.

Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are.

She takes the myth of the cowboy straight on and describes how life on a ranch, mostly alone if not for the animals, molds them.

To be “tough” on a ranch has nothing to do with conquests and displays of power.  More often than not, circumstances – like the colt he’s riding or an unexpected blizzard – are overpowering him.  It’s not toughness but “toughing it out” that counts.  In other words, this macho, cultural artifact the cowboy has become is simply a man who possesses resilience, patience, and an instinct for survival.

The writing is gorgeous, flowing, evocative.  Ehrlich’s love for this unforgiving landscape seeps from the page and while I won’t be moving out West any time soon I finally get the appeal.

The Solace of Open Spaces invites you to inhabit and know a place on its own terms and I’m so glad I did.