Review: Lives in Ruins

Lives in Ruins, Marilyn JohnsonMost people know a little bit about archeology, or have heard about Machu Picchu, Pompeii, and the pyramids. But what do we know about the people who discovered these places, or any of the thousands of other archeological places of interest around the globe? What makes them obsessed with digging through the dirt an inch at a time?

Lives in Ruins: Archeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble is author Marilyn Johnson’s search for answers to these and other questions.

Worth digging into

I read one of Johnson’s books, This Book is Overdue!, about four years ago and was impressed by her level of research. So when I saw that she’d written a book about another fascinating topic, I scuttled down to the library and grabbed a copy.

The first thing this book does is eviscerate the romantic notions of archeology. Archeologists are finding great stuff, of course, but they’re slogging ankle-deep through mud, bugs, and red tape to do it.

Archeology is not a profitable job. The education is expensive, the work difficult and sometimes dangerous. Most outsiders don’t understand what it means to be an archeologist, or the value of the things they scratch from the earth.

Lives in Ruins reads almost like a set of short stories. Each chapter follows a different archeologist as he or she fights to discover and preserve the past. My favorite chapters focus on aspects I knew little about: marine and military archeology. I love the idea of volunteers and deployed members of the armed forces educating themselves on how to spot and preserve archeological finds.

Johnson has written another good book, one I recommend you check out — especially if you’re an archeology buff.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. August’s challenge was to read a book in which the season, the elements, or the weather plays a role in the story.)

Review: Witches of America

Witches of America, Alex MarAlex Mar is a writer and skeptic. Like many people in her age bracket, she doesn’t feel a connection to the religion in which she was raised. But she envies those who do — in particular, the witches.

Witches of America is a chronicle of Mar’s exploration of witchcraft, from its (surprisingly contemporary) roots to its current incarnations. Along the way, Mar questions her own biases, as well as asks herself why we believe the things we choose to believe.

Eh…

For most, the term “witch” conjures images of green-skinned women, pointy black hats, or even the Salem Witch Trials. For the modern practitioners of Paganism, it’s a description of what they are.

Mar is a lapsed Catholic interested and confused by witches’ faith in their religion. What makes them choose pagan gods over mainstream ones? Are they different from the rest of us, or remarkably the same? How do they survive in a world that considers any kind of witchcraft evil?

I wanted to enjoy this book, but it couldn’t hold my attention. I don’t find Mar likeable, and many of the people and events she describes are too strange (and sometimes disturbing). I think it’s interesting that people are drawn to witchcraft and are able to find larger meaning in life because of it — but it’s just not my “thing.”

Witches of America would be perfect for those looking to learn more about the history of witchcraft and the practices of the different sects. I’m just not interested in Mar’s hand-wringing over her unsatisfactory professional and love lives.

Review: The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City, Erik LarsonOn February 24th, 1890, Chicago was chosen to host a world’s fair that celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World.

Daniel H. Burnham — who later designed New York City’s famous Flatiron Building — was chosen to put together and lead the group of designers and architects responsible for building the fair’s buildings and other wonders. The Exposition Universalle in Paris, France the year before had ruffled American feathers, and Burnham was determined to build a world’s fair that put other countries to shame.

Chicago’s business owners were excited about the throngs of people who would soon be flocking to their city. Among them was a man known to his customers as Dr. H.H. Holmes. The handsome doctor could charm anyone, especially the young women who flocked to the city in search of jobs and excitement. He would use that charm to lure and murder at least nine people, most of them inside his booby-trapped hotel.

The Devil in the White City is the story of Daniel Burnham’s efforts to take Chicago to new heights, and H.H. Holmes’ efforts to drag the city into hell.

What a ride

I picked up The Devil in the White City because I’d read that it was a phenomenal look into the creep-tastic H.H. Holmes murders — the history of the Chicago World’s Fair didn’t seem nearly as interesting.

Well, I came for the murder, but stayed for the architecture. Honestly, I can’t decide which story is better.

You might not think there’s much to putting together a world’s fair — that’s where you’d be wrong. Burnham had a little over three years to choose a team, find a suitable location, design and construct dozens of buildings, landscape the square mile of fairgrounds, and bring exhibits and people in from all over the world. Plus he had to find some way to “out-Eiffel Eiffel,” the man who just a year before had astonished the world by designing and building the Eiffel Tower, the world’s tallest man-made structure.

Jammed cheek-by-jowl with that insanity is the story of H.H. Holmes, the psychopath who built a hotel with hidden rooms and a crematory and then murdered at least nine people before being arrested. Reading about how he lured women, plotted their murders, and then disposed of their bodies (after dissecting them) chilled me to the core.

Larson could have written separate books about each of the subjects; his master stroke was putting them together. What could make for a bigger juxtaposition than a group of men trying to bring Chicago into the 20th century with engineering and entertainment marvels, and a single lunatic suffocating and gassing women and children in the basement of his gloomy hotel?

Endlessly fascinating

Holmes is, of course, as interesting as he is repulsive. Much of what investigators learned about him was never presented in court, and many primary sources that discussed him are lost to time. We have only the testimony presented at his trial, as well as Holmes’ own memoir (untrustworthy in itself).

The concept of psychopathy was only just being formed in the early 20th century, and contemporary investigator and general citizenry just couldn’t comprehend the idea of a man killing people just because he could, and because he could get away with it.

We don’t know what made Holmes the monster he was. The only information we have about his childhood comes from the man himself, and may be entirely fabricated. Was there a traumatic event that sent Holmes down his evil path, or was he simply born a psychopath? We’ll never know, and that keeps me up at night.

Only slightly less interesting to me was the man who landscaped the Chicago World’s Fair: Frederick Law Olmstead. He designed New York City’s Central Park, and would go on to design the grounds of Biltmore, the North Carolina home of George Vanderbilt.

Olmstead was obsessed with landscape design. He dwelled on the subject like composers dwell on their compositions, and painters on their canvases.

Flowers were not to be used as an ordinary gardener would use them. Rather, every flower, shrub, and tree was to be deployed with an eye on how each would act upon the imagination. This was to be accomplished, Olmstead wrote, ‘through the mingling intricately together of many forms of foliage, the alternation and complicated crossing of salient leaves and stalks of varying green tints in high lights with other leaves and stalks, behind and under them, and therefore less defined and more shaded, yet partly illuminated by light reflected from the water.’

I wish I could be as passionate about anything as Olmstead was about landscape design.

More juxtapositions everywhere. As Olmstead was trying to coax life from the muddy grounds of the world’s fair, Holmes was snuffing it out mere blocks away.

The Devil in the White City reads like a novel, but is in fact a well-researched telling of the Chicago World’s Fair and one of history’s most famous killers. True crime fans will love it. Give it a read today.

Review: The Midnight Assassin

The Midnight Assassin, Skip HollandsworthIn the early 1880s, the city of Austin, Texas was on the rise. The backwater at the edge of the United States was officially a boom town, complete with over 11,000 citizens, an air-cooled ice cream parlor, and an opera house. The town coffers were full, and the new Capitol building (under construction since 1882) was said to rival the White House itself. The city was on its way to being the jewel in the South’s crown.

Until women started dying. On December 30th, 1884, Mollie Smith was murdered in her room. Clara Strand and Christine Martenson were attacked in March 1885, and Eliza Shelly and Irene Cross were killed in May. Clara Dick and Rebecca Ramey were attacked in August — Rebecca’s 11 year-old daughter Mary was killed. Gracie Vance died in September, while Lucinda Boddy and Patsey Gibson were also injured. And finally on December 24th, 1885, Susan Hancock and Eula Phillips were killed.

The killer was brutal, dragging many of the women into their yards before hacking them apart with an axe and stabbing some kind of sharp object or rod into their brains through their ears.

If you think this modus operandi — female, mostly lower-class victims, incredibly savage attacks — sounds familiar, you’re not the only one. Some people believe that the “Midnight Assassin” murders stopped only because the killer had hopped the Pond to England. There he continued his vicious killing spree under a new name: Jack the Ripper.

Seriously, guys?

I love true crime, but it’s not a fun genre.

The Midnight Assassin has all of the things that frustrate me: violent crimes against women, racism, shoddy police work, and no satisfying conclusions.

These murders happened when forensic science was in its infancy: we knew that humans had unique fingerprints, but we hadn’t figured out how to use them in murder investigations. It was a time when people would routinely tromp through a crime scene, destroying what little evidence remained.

The first victims were African-American (or African-Swedish) — less than 20 years removed from the end of slavery, their lives were considered less valuable, and their murders less worthy of intense investigation.

Even after the investigation began in earnest, many of Austin’s leaders took a “head in the sand” approach to the murders. They seemed to think it would all just go away. The police arrested dozens of men on almost zero evidence, hired charlatan “special investigators,” and in general made such a pig’s ear of the whole thing that I’m not surprised the killer got away.

The mind of a killer

The Midnight Assassin was America’s first true serial killer. The country had experienced “maniac” killers before, but this man was something new: a person who targeted a specific type of victim, planned his attacks carefully, escaped unnoticed, and didn’t seem to have a typical motive like jealousy or revenge.

Psychological profilers existed, but weren’t called to help investigate murders they way they are today. Never before had America seen a criminal who killed so violently…for no known reason.

The police and media blamed the murders on “bad blacks,” the mentally ill, and Austin’s criminal element. But these murders were committed by someone clever and quick, someone who could blend in as a normal citizen during the day and slip out at night to bludgeon and dismember women. And that’s what makes this story that much more frightening.

A London connection?

It’s interesting to think about. I don’t think the Ripper woke up one day and just started killing sex workers in England; and I don’t think the Midnight Assassin woke up one day and stopped killing women in the US.

Was the Austin killer the same person who would rise to international fame as Jack the Ripper in London’s West End? I don’t think so. Yes, the Midnight Assassin killed women brutally, and there were some ritualistic elements…but the Ripper was at another level of hatred and precision. The types of violence acted out on these women were just too different — I don’t see a clear path of escalation from one to the other.

We’ll probably never know. Too much time has passed, and we just don’t have enough preserved evidence.

The Midnight Assassin is a marvelously well researched and written book that I’d recommend to Ripperologists and anyone interested in true crime in general. Just don’t expect a satisfying ending.

(I read this book as part of the Off the Shelf Reading Challenge.)

Review: Unmentionable

Unmentionable, Therese OneillIf you’ve always thought that a clean, simple frock is better than low-rise jeans, that you would enjoy living in the time of Charlotte Bronte, or that the centuries before ours were simpler and better…this book is not for you.

Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners will disabuse you of the laughable notion that the 19th century would be a fun place to spend any time.

Not only is there arsenic in pretty much anything you put on your face, there’s also no refrigeration, no talking to a man who’s not your husband or father, and definitely no talking about s-e-x. There’s also an astonishing array of crotchless clothing, and fat-shaming is totally a thing.

Therese Oneill’s book is an awesome examination of the horror show that was the 19th century. Let’s check out the revolting details, shall we?

Hello, slattern

I figured any book that starts with these words is probably going to be amazing. And I was right! Unmentionable is a sassy, snarky look at an era many people tend to romanticize.

Oneill starts you off with getting dressed (hide those ankles, ladies), and shares makeup tips (you know what’ll take care of those freckles? Acid!). Then it’s on to discussing periods (no matter how you manage them, it’s not the right way) and how to land a husband (by never speaking to him, apparently).

Next up we’ve got the typical “Your womb is a wandering monstrosity that makes you crazy” garbage, followed by quotes from old white dudes who thought birth control, masturbation, and visiting museums was going to lead to humanity’s downfall.

And it’s all written in the best tone ever. For example, in a section called, “Give Him NOTHING”:

You are a prize to be won. He must work to capture your affections and approval. Only the stupid and slutty trout leap out of the water to gain the fisherman’s attention. The virtuous trout simply allows the sun to gleam briefly on her shining scales and then dives back to the shadowy depths. Only a skilled man with the finest of fake bugs can ream a metal hook through her mouth. You are that trout, and the metal hook you are about to be impaled on is holy matrimony.

Unmentionable had me chortling and reading sections aloud to my husband. He didn’t think it was as funny. Maybe I let a bum fisherman catch me? Oh well. I shall comfort myself by reading this book again and thanking my lucky stars I wasn’t born in the Victorian era!