Tag Archives: unhappy books

Murder Most Charming

The First Floor: New and Featured section of the Main library has a pretty epic graphic novel collection. That’s where I first came upon the works of Rick Geary, who writes and illustrates A Treasury of Victorian Murder and A Treasury of XXth Century Murder, two of the most delightful historical true crime series that’ll you’ll ever find (though to be fair, I’m not sure that he has a lot of competition in this arena).

I’ve read them all a few times, and always pounce on the new titles as soon as they come in. Here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order.

beast

That is not a trustworthy mustache.

The Beast of Chicago: an Account of the Life and Crimes of Herman W. Mudgett, Known to the World as H.H. Holmes – This character may sound familiar to you. It’s because he’s the Devil in Erik Larson’s most excellent book, The Devil in the White City. If you want both murder and lengthy digressions about architecture, read Larson’s book. If you want to get right down to business, read Geary’s book instead – there’s more than enough historical detail in here to make it both educational and an exciting romp. For the best of both worlds, you should (of course) read both books. This one really helped me picture the events described in The Devil in the White City, because, well, pictures. There are excellent diagrams of Holmes’ bizarre mansion, illustrations of Chicago and the World’s Fair, and maps of Holmes’ final flight. Good stuff all around.

(Bonus: Here’s a DVD about architectin’, and here’s one about murderin’. Because I belong to the Film & Audio department and have to work this stuff in somewhere.)

The Borden Tragedy: a Memoir of the Infamous Double Murder at Fall River, Mass., 1892 – Before I read this book, all I knew about Lizzie Borden could be summarized as “Lizzie Borden took an axe, something something something.” But after reading just the title of this book, my Internal Borden Murder Fact Database instantly tripled in size! And once you crack open the covers, there’s even more good stuff – Borden’s mother wasn’t murdered, it was her stepmother. Borden’s father didn’t believe in hallways, so their house looked really weird (the floor plans are mighty confusing). Mrs. Borden died while cleaning the guest bedroom (19 blows), and Mr. Borden died while napping in the sitting room (10 blows). The back cover even lists the similarities between Lizzie’s case and that of the formerly illustrious O.J. Simpson.

that song

Copyright 1997 by Rick Geary!

Those two are pretty famous cases, like most of the titles in the series – there are books about the Lindbergh kidnapping, Jack the Ripper, and the assassinations of presidents Lincoln and Garfield, to name a few. But there are others – cases that were famous in their day but aren’t remembered now, like the murder of actor and director William Desmond Taylor, the trial of poisoner Madeline Smith, and the story of the Bender family, described below.

Hospitable looking, aren’t they?

The Saga of the Bloody Benders: the Infamous Homicidal Family of Labette County, Kansas – The Bender family (mother, father, son, and daughter) appeared in Kansas in 1870, purchased land near a local trail, and set up a small inn and grocery store to attract the business of people travelling west. Over the next three years or so travelers and locals alike started to disappear, usually after last visiting the Bender property. The family themselves vanished just when the townsfolk decided to start investigating – and then all sorts of things came to light: a missing man’s glasses, an odd assortment of hammers, a blood-soaked basement floor, and a collection of shallow graves. Ew.

If you enjoy true crime, unhappy books, Victorian history, cool illustrations, and gruesome facts, these are the books for you. Or if you have a slightly morbid reluctant reader (with strong nerves) in your home, introduce him (her/it/them) to Rick Geary. His books are educational, beautifully illustrated, and creepy good fun.

– Amy

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Uphill, in the snow.

On February 21, 2011, we were hit by a record-setting unexpected snowfall. By the time I left work at 8 PM, there were at least seven inches of snow on the street leading to my house – certainly enough to render a Pittsburgh-grade hill impassable.

Since I couldn’t make it home, I retreated to the gas station at the foot of the hill and waited for the plows while sitting in my toasty car, listening to the news on the radio, and enjoying a gas-station-quality dinner. By 10:30 PM the plows still hadn’t arrived, so I decided to climb.

I was forced to improvise because I didn’t have my winter gear. I ended up wearing a towel, toting an umbrella, and crunching about in Mary Janes lined with plastic bags begged from the gas station. Half an hour later I was home, safe and sound and none the worse for wear, though slightly chilly and damp.

Uphill, in the snow, for half a mile. Hardcore.

This is the closest I have ever gotten or will ever get to mountain climbing. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like to read about mountain climbing – especially when things go horribly wrong (after all, I Enjoy Unhappy Books). One particular event that fascinates me is the 1996 Everest expedition in which eight climbers died.

Books

If you’ve heard about this expedition at all, it’s probably because of the bestselling book Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster, by journalist Jon Krakauer. His book provides a pretty decent beginner’s history of Everest and discusses the commercialization of the mountain and its impact on the environment and local people – which is exactly what his sponsor, Outside magazine, sent him to do.

There’s also a lot of information about climbing techniques, equipment, and the logistics behind an Everest expedition, so even though the action doesn’t really start until about two-thirds of the way through the book (when Krakauer finally sets foot on the summit of Everest) you’ve learned so much along the way that the whole story up to this point (and what comes next) makes sense.

Krakauer’s criticism of the guides and leaders of the competing expeditions on the mountain spurred the writing of The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest, by Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt. Boukreev was an experienced guide for a rival expedition, judged harshly by Krakauer and others for descending from the summit of Everest before his clients and climbing the mountain without the use of supplemental oxygen (which many considered extremely irresponsible for a paid guide). He did some amazing rescue work though, going back out into a raging blizzard on Everest multiple times to search for both his clients and clients from other expeditions.

For a slightly more detached view of events, try Everest: Mountain Without Mercy, the National Geographic companion book to the IMAX movie listed below. While the book is primarily about the filming of the movie, there are two chapters devoted to the events on the summit. Since most of the IMAX crew was in lower camps at the time, their perspective on the tragedy is entirely different, though no less immediate than Krakauer’s or Boukreev’s.

Before returning to the story of their own expedition, the movie crew offers a detailed analysis of the factors that led to the disaster, from inexperience and poor communications (not all of the guides carried radios – more understandable in the mid-90s but astonishing today) to the lack of a fixed turn-around time. And if you learn nothing else from these guys, you’ll learn that they’re not afraid to cry. There was a lot of crying down at the bottom of the mountain.

If that’s still not enough, here are two more books that I’ve uncovered but haven’t read yet: Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest, by Beck Weathers (who climbed with Jon Krakauer, and lost his nose to frostbite) and Climbing High : a Woman’s Account of Surviving the Everest Tragedy by Lene Gammelgaard (who climbed with Anatoli Boukreev and still has her original nose).

Digression: Yes, this post is rather morbid. But it’s also a wonderful example of why it’s good to compare primary sources. There’s your library lesson for the day.

DVDs

Everest is the IMAX movie filmed at the time of the disaster. According to the cover, you’ll “witness the perils of skin-blistering cold, violent blizzards that drop the windchill to minus 100 degrees, and air so thin it numbs the mind.” I watched this one while nestled on the couch in a fleece blanket with a couple of purry cats. That kind of takes the edge off.

Everest: The Death Zone is a 1998 Nova special that documents the effects of cold and altitude on climbers and how it can really wreck a person’s decision-making abilities. It also uses the phrase “corpse-strewn” on the back of the box, so squeamish viewers should beware. (Also, I now regret doing a Google image search for “Everest corpses.” It was very educational, but… yeah. I won’t be giving you a link for that.)

Storm Over Everest, a 2007 episode of Frontline, is a collection of interviews that David Breashears (of the IMAX team) conducted with the climbers and Sherpas of the 1996 expeditions. The companion website has a clip from the show, and a really nifty interactive map/timeline thingy.

– Amy, who really should stop complaining about her chilly office

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