Black Widow of the Heartland

Book review: The Truth About Belle Gunness, by Lillian de la Torre On a spring day in 1908, police were called to the scene of a fire in a farmhouse in La Porte, Indiana. In the ruins of the house, they discovered four bodies: three children and a headless adult believed to be the farm’s proprietress, Belle Gunness. A former employee, Ray Lamphere, was charged with … Continue reading Black Widow of the Heartland

We Have Nothing to Envy in the World

Book review: Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick “In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only color to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea.” I saw this book mentioned in an article about David Sedaris’ special habit when going on a US speaking tour. He recommends a book for each … Continue reading We Have Nothing to Envy in the World

Love, Death and Feudalism in Old World Italy

Book review: Murder in Matera, by Helene Stapinski Author and journalist Helene Stapinski comes from a long family line of thieves and crooks, as detailed in her popular history of crime and theft in Jersey City (especially her family’s participation in it), Five Finger Discount. In her new memoir, Murder in Matera, Stapinski travels to the Basilicata region of southern Italy, attempting to track down and flesh out a … Continue reading Love, Death and Feudalism in Old World Italy

Tracking Al-Qaeda and the Hunt for Bin Laden, 9/11 to Now

Book review: The Exile, by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy Investigative journalist Lawrence Wright published the Pulitzer-winning narrative history The Looming Tower in 2006, detailing Al-Qaeda’s formation and the road to September 11. It closes shortly after the towers fall. With the recent popularity of the film Zero Dark Thirty portraying the SEAL team raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, a narrative was fixed in the public mind, though it’s … Continue reading Tracking Al-Qaeda and the Hunt for Bin Laden, 9/11 to Now

What Makes the Russians Tick

Book review: Russians, by Gregory Feifer “Russia has no need of sermons (she has heard too many), nor of prayers (she has mumbled them too often), but of the awakening in the people a feeling of human dignity, lost for so many ages in mud and filth.” – Vissarion Belinsky on the Russian Orthodox Church in a letter to Nikolai Gogol, 1847 This quote opens a chapter of Russians titled “Cold … Continue reading What Makes the Russians Tick

The Bones of Bioarchaeology

Book review: Built on Bones, by Brenna Hassett Brenna Hassett is a bioarchaeologist. If, like me, you have no idea what that is, it means she studies human bones and remains, such as teeth found in archaeological sites, looking for clues to understanding more about human existence and how it’s evolved through the ages. Her book focuses especially on cities, or our earliest iterations of urban developments, asking … Continue reading The Bones of Bioarchaeology

What We Can Learn From Mozart’s Pet

Book review: Mozart’s Starling, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt When I set out to follow the story of Mozart and his starling, I saw at its center a shining, irresistible paradox: one of the greatest and most loved composers in all of history was inspired by a common, despised starling. Now I muse upon the many facets of this tale, and it is wonderful, yes, even more wonderful than I had imagined. But … Continue reading What We Can Learn From Mozart’s Pet

Murders in Indian Country and the FBI’s Beginnings

Book review: Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann It’s a deeply unfortunate, painful characteristic of American history that crimes against Native Americans are often lost to history. If you read a book like Dee Brown’s classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, you’re hit with wave after wave of frustration with each successive incident of their treatment at the hands and laws of white Americans. Killers of the … Continue reading Murders in Indian Country and the FBI’s Beginnings

A Demagogue With Eerie Resonance Today

Book review: The Road to Jonestown, by Jeff Guinn Bestselling investigative journalist Jeff Guinn writes a comprehensive biography of Jim Jones and his infamous Peoples Temple cult, drawing heavily on interviews with former members and a wealth of Temple and FBI documents. Beginning with Jones’ parents and childhood in small-town Lynn, Indiana, and progressing via sections divided by the Temple’s successive locations in the United States and Guyana, the narrative … Continue reading A Demagogue With Eerie Resonance Today

Rest in peace. You are not forgotten.

Book review: History of a Disappearance, by Filip Springer “‘Our memories of the town keep getting more beautiful as the years go by,’ they laugh, because that’s how human memory is – it sifts out the bad and only holds on to beautiful images.” It’s a strange but true facet of history that for several periods of many years, Poland didn’t exist. Situated between Germany and Russia, … Continue reading Rest in peace. You are not forgotten.

From Idaho to St. Petersburg, Across Eons, Resurrecting a Saw Tooth

Book review: Resurrecting the Shark, by Lisa Ewing Think of what a shark looks like. Think of the teeth, that unmistakable sign from nature: here is a predator. Now imagine those sharp, self-replacing teeth arranged not in rows but on a buzz-saw whorl, jutting from the shark’s open mouth. The extinct shark Helicoprion had just that, and yes, it was scary as hell. “But was it just jammed … Continue reading From Idaho to St. Petersburg, Across Eons, Resurrecting a Saw Tooth

Simpler Times: When Bill Met Monica

Book review: A Vast Conspiracy, by Jeffrey Toobin I was too young to understand much about, or grasp the gravity of what an impeachment was when it happened. What I remember most vividly of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky saga was the edition of the newspaper where the lurid details appeared (maybe it was excerpts of the Starr report, I’m not sure). It carried a parental advisory warning … Continue reading Simpler Times: When Bill Met Monica