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Archive for the ‘Bud’s Picks’ Category

Bud has found another gem hidden in the stacks:

higherOne of the best things about working at a library is being able to wander through the stacks and find, through sheer serendipity, wonderful books that you’ve never heard of before. Higher by Neal Bascomb is an example of this. I noticed it, hidden away in the architecture section, while re-shelving and was intrigued enough by the description to start reading. It hooked me from the start.

This non-fiction book tells the story of how three of New York City’s most famous landmarks, the Chrysler Building, The Manhattan Company Building and the Empire State Building, came to be built. It’s a fascinating tale.

In the early 1920s, architect William Van Alen was asked by automobile magnate Walter Chrysler to design a skyscraper that was unique, beautiful and tall… taller than any other building in the world.  Van Alen, an example of the architect as artist, was delighted, and with a virtual blank check began the design and construction on what would eventually become that art deco jewel, the Chrysler Building.

Meanwhile, across town lived another architect named Craig Severance. Severance was far more interested in the financial rewards of the construction business than its artistic aspects.  He and Van Alen had formerly been partners in a successful architecture firm but had parted acrimoniously leaving them bitter rivals, both professionally and personally. Severance was not about to let Van Alen get credit for the world’s tallest skyscraper so he gathered funding from friends and investors and started work on the Manhattan Company Building at 40 Wall Street.

As the book goes on and the buildings go up we learn a lot about how the construction industry operated in the 1920s. How funding was pulled together through financial wheeling and dealing and the covert finagling involved in buying property.  The construction trade was complicated and detail-oriented. Hiring work crews, the demolition of the property’s pre-existing building, the logistical problems of making sure that materials are at the right place at the right time, and the actual process of constructing a skyscraper floor by floor are all clearly explained.  

You might think this kind of technical information would be boring but it’s not. The work was by its very nature costly, difficult, dangerous and exciting all at once, especially at the rapid pace the projects mandated.  Remarkably, construction on both buildings was completed in less than two years despite the additional complications brought on by all the secretive architectural adjustments and machinations that Val Alen and Severance went through in order to insure that THEIR building was the tallest.

Unfortunately for the both of them these efforts were all for naught because while they were focused on each other, a group representing General Motors also entered the race and with its completion in 1931, the Empire State Building became the world’s tallest skyscraper.

I found this book to be colorful, fast-paced and well written. It makes you look at something you’ve always taken for granted, an office building that’s been standing there for 80 years, with a new eye and appreciate what a wonder it is and just how much effort went into creating it.  I was also struck by the pride and optimistic, “can-do” spirit that was such a big part of America at that time.  Bascher concludes the book with this paragraph:

 All the exuberance, daring, romance, moxie, innovation and pride that infused the decade is seen in these pinnacles. No misfortune or turn of events could take that away. Even if these skyscrapers were ‘torn down, as others have been before them, ‘ Chrysler said at the time of the race, ‘the spirit of the men working together that they represent will build new ones.’ It was this spirit-not steel and stone- that carried these skyscrapers higher.”

I recommend Higher for anyone interested in New York City, architecture or history.

Check the WRL catalog for Higher

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Former PeopleThrough the stories of two aristocratic families, the Shermetevs and the Golitsyns, author Douglas Smith details what happened to the once mighty Russian nobility when the Communists came into power in the early 20th century.

The pattern was depressingly consistent, dispossession followed by displacement and often death. First, their wealth and property were taken from them. Secondly, those who didn’t leave Russia willingly were exiled to remote areas of the empire. Relentlessly exploited as symbols of decadence and oppression by their government, nobles were classified as “Former People” and never allowed to fully integrate into regular Soviet society. Eventually, many of them ended up dying in prisons or gulags.

You can’t really call this sad, non-fiction book upbeat, but it is well-researched and a timely reminder about the depredations of communism and the danger of all-powerful governments.

Check the WRL catalog for Former People.

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7GablesIn old New England, scheming Judge Pyncheon craves a piece of land owned by poor farmer Matthew Maule. When Maule refuses to sell, he is suddenly accused of being a witch and condemned to die. On the scaffold he curses his persecutor, Judge Pyncheon. “‘God,’ said the dying man, pointing his finger, with a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy, ‘God will give him blood to drink!’” So begins the story of the Pyncheon clan and the curse that blights them down through the generations as they live in their house with seven gables built on land wrongly and ruthlessly appropriated from an innocent man.

First published in 1851, Hawthorne’s novella may be off-putting for modern readers with its lack of action and obvious symbolism, but stick with it. The story is intriguing and eventually you come to care about the characters, especially lonely old spinster Hepzibah. As befits a gothic novel, it’s very much a mood piece with the oppressive decay of the house and its dark history overshadowing everything. Hawthorne’s Victorian writing style is also quite interesting because the dense, highly literate prose, emphasizing psychological insight, is so different from modern popular fiction, which focuses on fast-paced plotting and snappy dialogue. The House of Seven Gables will not appeal to everyone, but if you’re tired of low-brow pop culture and looking for a classic good read, give it a try.

Check the WRL catalog for The House of Seven Gables

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LIONSIn 1898, the British began construction on a railway line in East Africa that was to run from the port of Mombasa up to Lake Victoria. Nicknamed the “Lunatic Line” by critics, this huge and difficult project became even more so when:

“Two most voracious and insatiable man-eating lions appeared upon the scene, and for over nine months waged intermittent warfare against the railway and all those connected with it in the vicinity of Tsavo. This culminated in a perfect reign of terror in December 1898, when they actually succeeded in bringing the railway works to a complete standstill for about three weeks.”

John Henry Patterson was the engineer in charge of construction, so, by default, it became his responsibility to put an end to the depredations. The book relates his efforts to do just that and despite his understated prose, it’s a nail-biting read. These lions were smart, fearless and vicious. It’s not known exactly how many people they devoured, but Patterson affirmed 28 railway workers and they are traditionally credited with 130 kills before finally being stopped.

First published in 1907, this non-fiction thriller is rightly considered a classic of Africana and hunting literature and is recommended for people who like true tales of adventure and don’t mind a little gore… OK, maybe more than just a little gore.

Check the WRL catalog for The Man-eaters of Tsavo.

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Stone of Heaven“Bud” closes out Lost in the Stacks Week with this treasure of a post:

One of the rarest, most valuable gemstones in the world is Jadeite. Smooth to the touch with a lovely luster, it’s sturdy and capable of being carved into shapes and objects. Green is the best known color but it also comes in shades of lavender, yellow, white and black. Being a favored gemstone in China for 3000 years, a wealth of superstition and folklore has developed around it. The best jadeite, “Imperial Jade” has long been coveted by Chinese royalty. The fascinating history of Imperial Green Jade is nicely recounted in the non-fiction book, The Stone of Heaven by Adrian Levy & Cathy Scott.

Levy and Scott, who are both investigative journalists, combed through ancient texts in archives throughout Asia to uncover many wondrous tales of jade and the people who loved it including:

Emperor Qianlong – This powerful 18th century Chinese emperor engaged in a bloody and financially crippling war with the country of Mien-Tien in order to exact tribute from them, and the tribute he specifically wanted was Imperial Green Jade.

Griffith and Bayfield – At the instigation of the British East India Company, two men, Dr. William Griffith, “a ‘hardy and active’ scientist with a passion for exotic tea bushes” and Dr. George Bayfield a British Diplomat, endure a harrowing jungle trek in search of the legendary serpentine jadeite mines. These mines were rumored to be located somewhere in the Kachin Hills region of Burma, in the “Valley of Death” beneath the shadow of the “Great Golden Mountain.”

Empress Cixi – A young court concubine, Lady Yehenara, through luck, pluck and sheer ruthlessness becomes the dowager empress of China. She was also a rabid collector of Jade:

“Cixi’s satin robes were now Imperial yellow and her head-dress bore ‘a beautiful phoenix in the centre made of purest jade’ … Her shoulders were covered by a ‘transparent cape of 3500 pearls the size of canary bird eggs’, fringed by 40 jadeite drops and held at the throat by jadeite clasps, that a lady–in-waiting would later describe as ‘the most magnificent and costly thing I ever saw.’  Cixi wore six Imperial Green Jade Bangles carved into candy twists, triple-hoop jadeite ear-rings and a 108-bead court necklace made from Qianlong’s stone of heaven.”

These are just a few examples of the many colorful stories to be found in the book, which is compulsively readable.  In the last section, the authors furtively slip into Burma (present day Myanmar) to investigate working conditions at the jade mines in the 1990s. What they find is horrific, with brutal working conditions and exploited people.  Well researched and written, The Stone of Heaven is a fascinating exploration of a renowned gemstone and its role in history.

Check the WRL catalog for The Stone of Heaven: Unearthing the Secret History of Imperial Green Jade

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Little Gloria Happy at LastHere’s post number four for our “Lost in the Stacks” week from Bud:

The millennial generation knows Anderson Cooper as a CNN news anchor. Their baby boomer parents know that Cooper’s mother is Gloria Vanderbilt and that she was a famous fashion designer in the 1970s.  But the parents of the baby boomers knew Gloria before she was the queen of designer jeans. This older generation will remember her as little Gloria, the poor-little- rich-girl pawn in a scandalous celebrity custody trial, a trial that is scrupulously detailed in the entertaining, true-life social history, Little Gloria…Happy at Last, by Barbara Goldsmith.

Little Gloria’s father was Reginald Vanderbilt, an alcoholic, playboy wastrel,  and her mother was the beautiful “Glorious” Gloria Morgan. Gloria and her twin sister Thelma, who was the mistress of the Prince of Wales, were known in the society columns of the 1920s as “the Magnificent Morgans.”  Raised to be “a prize for a rich, socially impeccable man” by her overbearing mother Laura, Gloria married the much older Reggie but soon discovered that he had gambled away his inheritance and was living on credit. When little Gloria came along in 1924, a Vanderbilt trust fund was established for her. Upon Reggie’s death in 1925, big Gloria was given access to that trust fund until her daughter came of age and used it to live large on two continents as a scintillating member of cafe society.

Poor little Gloria was left in the care of her doting but neurotic nurse Dodo and crazy, controlling grandma Laura. Concerned about little Gloria’s well being (and her inheritance) Laura and Dodo sought out Reggie’s sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and intimated that big Gloria was leading an immoral life that was harming her child. This set the stage for an epic custody trial that was played out in all its tawdry glory before the tabloid press.

The cast of characters is eclectic and eccentric. Although the tale itself is gossipy fun with details about the glamorous lifestyles of the rich and famous, courtroom histrionics and dramatic denouements, ultimately the story is quite sad. At the heart of it is a frightened child surrounded by selfish or indifferent adults who just didn’t understand or were incapable of giving her the love and emotional support that she needed.

The fact that little Gloria Vanderbilt was able to overcome her problematic childhood and become an artist, actress, writer and the socialite wife of men such as conductor Leopold Stokowski and director Sidney Lumet is a testament to her remarkable resilience. Well researched and clearly written, this book is an enjoyable read for anyone interested in social history or courtroom tales.

Check the WRL catalog for Little Gloria… Happy at Last

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It’s “Lost in the Stacks” week, and Bud is back with another post:

“Poppa, have you got any idea how a man took to jazz in the early days? Do you know how he spent years watching the droopy chicks in cathouses, listening to his cellmates moaning low behind the bars, digging the riffs the wheels were knocking out when he rode the rods – and then all of a sudden picked up a horn and began to tell the whole story in music? I’m going to explain that.”Really the Blues

So says Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow in the opening chapter of his strange but fascinating autobiography,  Really the Blues. Mezzrow, a white Jewish kid, was born in 1899. A wild child from the beginning, he landed in reform school at the age of 15 where he discovered and became completely enamored of black culture in general and New Orleans jazz in particular. He learned how to play the clarinet and immersed himself in the jazz world of the 1920s, a world that, for him, revolved around three big Ms – musicians, mobsters and marijuana. As the story unfolds we learn a lot about all three.

Really the Blues will appeal to music lovers because Mezzrow knew just about every famous jazz artist of the period. He jammed with Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Bessie Smith, Joe Oliver, Baby Dodds, Gene Krupa and many others. His unadulterated portraits of these talented people and their colorful milieu are fascinating.

The Mob also played a prominent role in Mezz’s life. He worked in some of Al Capone’s road houses, was turned onto opium by a member of Detroit’s vicious Purple Gang, and had Dutch Schulz try to muscle in on his marijuana distribution business.

And, yes, there is marijuana, lots of, as it was referred to in the ‘20s, muta, tea, reefer or muggles (the word pre-dates Harry Potter). In fact, Mezzrow was such a heavy user (a viper) and dealer that in his circle of acquaintances it became known by another slang term–the mezz–and was referenced as such in the song, “If You’re a Viper” by Stuff Smith. The book contains gritty descriptions of the joys and subsequent lows of drug addiction. His four-year stint as an opium addict is particularly grim.

The stories are great, whether or not they’re all true is questionable, but what makes this book distinctive is the style in which it’s written.  As you can tell by the paragraph quoted above, the prose tends to flow like musical cadences and is rife with jazzy slang. This can make for disconcerting reading at first but it soon seems natural and appropriate to the author and what he’s describing.  If you have difficulty with the slang, the back pages contain a helpful glossary.

This is not a book for everyone. It’s a strange, often lurid tale, told in a distinctly unusual manner by an arch iconoclast. If you’re looking for something warm and fuzzy this ain’t it.  But if you have an interest in the history of music or the Chicago underworld or are just in the mood for something really unusual then give Really the Blues a try.  It’s a book you won’t forget.

Check the WRL catalog for Really the Blues

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Night of the GrizzliesHere’s the second of the books that “Bud” found lost in the stacks. Track it down today!

On the night of August 13, 1967 two young women, Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons, were killed by grizzly bears in Glacier National Park, Montana. The girls were not mauled by the same bear; the attacks took place in separate areas of the park miles away from each other. The story of this unprecedented incident ( it was the first time in Glacier’s history that anyone had died by bear attack) is related in the terrific, nonfiction book,  Night of the Grizzlies  by Jack Olsen.

The story starts in the early summer months of 1967 with a series of unsettling run-ins between bears and campers. One grizzly in particular was behaving aggressively towards people, and the bears in general seemed to be losing their fear of humans. The Park Service was not overly concerned with the situation because, after all, no one had ever been killed by a bear in Glacier National Park. In fact, they inadvertently increased the interaction between people and animals by not incinerating all of the garbage that accumulated around the camp sites. At night the bears came to feed off the trash and the campers loved to watch them. Unfortunately, this complacency would lead to disaster on that hot night in August.  The attacks and subsequent hunt for the man-eaters are related in fast-paced, gripping detail.

The story itself is compelling and the author, Jack Olsen, who primarily wrote about true-crime, has a knack for pacing and suspense. The tension just builds and builds to the point where  (yes, I’m going to use the old cliché) you can’t put the book down.  It’s a thrilling read. The attacks are described in all their gruesome detail but the gore is not emphasized. In fact, you come away with a sense of sadness and compassion for both man and animal.

In addition, to the book, the WRL also has a documentary about the bear attacks entitled, Glacier Park’s Night of the Grizzlies created by the Montana PBS.  It’s an interesting follow-up to the book because you get to hear from many of the people involved in the incident and see the actual locations.  Particularly poignant are the Polaroid snapshots taken of the girls the day they died. Both book and documentary are highly recommended with a caveat. If you read it before going on a camping trip in the woods, you’re not going to sleep well.

NOTE:  This story was originally published as a three part article for Sports Illustrated in 1969.  When it was redrafted as a book a 37 page prologue was added that details the history of Glacier National Park and provides some natural history information about Grizzly bears. It’s interesting but not required reading. Starting with Chapter One will get you right into the story.

Check the WRL catalog for Night of the Grizzlies

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King Lehr and the Gilded Age“Bud” shares this as the first “Lost in the Stacks” week post:

Picture this scene:

A beautiful young woman sits in her boudoir.  Married that morning, she anxiously awaits her new husband.  In he comes and makes the following statement, “There are some things I must say to you, and it is better that I should say them now at the very beginning so that there can be no misunderstanding between us.”  “In public I shall be to you everything that a most devoted husband should be to his wife… I will give you courtesy, respect and apparently devotion. But you must expect nothing more from me. When we are alone I do not intend to keep up the miserable pretense, the farce of love and sentiment. Our marriage will never be a marriage in anything but name. I do not love you, I can never love you …The less we see of one another except in the presence of others the better.”  The shocked girl asks him why he married her? With a bitter laugh he replies, “Since you force me to do so I must tell you the unflattering truth that your money is your only asset in my eyes.”

Wow.

Although this sounds like something  from a hackneyed romance novel, it’s not. This really happened to Elizabeth Drexel Lehr, and the story of her life with Harry Lehr, the gold digging cad that she was unfortunate enough to marry,  is recounted in the rather astonishing autobiography, King Lehr and the Gilded Age, by Lady Decies (formerly Elizabeth Drexel Lehr).

Elizabeth was a child of wealth and grew up happy and comfortable in late 19th century New York City. Harry Lehr was also born into money,  but when his father died he was left penniless, embittered and determined to make his way back into the privileged world of the wealthy. His plan was twofold, first he ingratiated  himself to society matrons by being ever so engaging, witty and fun. He survived on their largesse and kickbacks from suppliers whose goods he encouraged his benefactors to purchase. Secondly, he kept an eye out for a wealthy and pliable heiress to marry. Poor Elizabeth was gullible enough to fall for his smarmy charms.

What may be surprising to modern readers is that she didn’t divorce Harry the day after the shocking  wedding night declaration. Fear of shaming her mother and alienating herself from her society friends kept her bound to Lehr for decades despite the fact that he emotionally abused her and lavishly indulged all his whims with her money.

The narrative follows their unhappy life together as they travel amongst the rich and powerful in the U.S. and Europe during the early years of the 20th century.  We get a decidedly jaundiced view of the American “Downton Abbey” crowd, although many of the grandees mentioned will probably be unknown to people nowadays.

Elizabeth’s story is an interesting expose of a lost world and its dubious mores and manners. The book was considered quite shocking when it was originally published in 1938.  It’s an  engrossing page-turner for people who enjoy social history, women’s lives or scandal among the rich and famous.

NOTE: There’s a famous photo of Lady Decies taken by Weegee. Here you see Elizabeth going to the opera in 1943. The image makes a startling  contrast to the beautiful painted portrait of her on the cover of the book.

Check the WRL catalog for “King Lehr” and the Gilded Age

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Another true crime review written by Bud:

On the morning of January 8, 1937, the corpse of a young woman named Pamela Werner was found lying in a ditch beneath the supposedly haunted Fox Tower on the outskirts of Peking, China. Brutally murdered and savagely mutilated, the girl was only identifiable by her diamond-studded platinum wrist watch and the singular grey color of the iris in one of her slashed eyes.  The story of this murder and its ensuing police investigation are related in the terrific true-crime thriller, Midnight in Peking by Paul French.

Peking in the 1930s was a fascinating mixture of clashing cultures. The British lived quite comfortably inside a large walled section of the city known as the Legation Quarter. Outside of this area resided the Chinese nationals and a combustible mix of expats of all nationalities. Overshadowing everything was the impending threat of the Japanese Army, which had invaded China and was slowly making its way towards the city.

Amidst this turmoil the death of one girl seemed of little importance. But Pamela was the daughter of a former British consul, and had apparently been killed in Chinese territory, which could potentially make the case a political hot potato. To diplomatically resolve the problem, two detectives, one Chinese, Col. Han Shih-ching, and one British, a former Scotland Yard officer named Richard Dennis, were assigned to work the murder together.

Their queries took them from the debauched soirees of the insular Brits to the depraved dives of the lowest Chinese slums, but current events, hidden agendas and meddling superiors stymied the investigation and prevented them from bringing the case to a satisfactory resolution. Furious at this turn of events, Pamela’s grieving father took up the case and relentlessly pursued it. He hounded officials at home and abroad and drove himself into poverty trying to identify her killer and bring him to justice. The details of what he was eventually able to uncover about his daughter’s murder are heinous and heartbreaking.

Midnight in Peking is both an intriguing mystery and a colorful evocation of a famous city at a pivotal point in time. The author, Paul French, lives in Shanghai and is an expert in Chinese culture. This fast-paced, engrossing tale is recommended for true crime buffs and people with an interest in pre-war China.

Check the WRL catalog for Midnight in Peking

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Bud gets this Halloween week started with a post that goes back to the dark side of the silent film days:

A small-town girl comes to Hollywood looking for stardom. She hits the big-time in her first starring role and fame and fortune are hers forevermore. It’s the old Hollywood fable. But there is another old Hollywood story, one that is far more common. In this scenario, the ingenue hits town, maybe has some success, maybe not, but there is no happy ending to her tinsel town tale. Booze, drugs, poor choices in men, personal problems or simple bad luck sends her on the downward slide to obscurity where the ending is almost always tragic.

Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels by Michael Ankerich explores this dark side of the film industry with short biographies of fourteen silent movie actresses who found moderate success in the 1920s only to hit hard times in the ‘30s. For these poor souls, the Depression years really were depressing. Among the ladies detailed are:

Agnes Ayres: This once popular actress is best known for co-starring with Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik. But she put on weight, lost her looks and was prone to diva behavior and nervous breakdowns so the film industry gave her the heave-ho. She died alone at the age of 48, physically and emotionally depleted from years of struggling to regain the spotlight.

Barbara La Marr: La Marr, who played seductive vamps onscreen, was known as The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful. In her brief, scandal-plagued life she burned through five husbands, numerous lovers and a vast quantity of drugs and alcohol. She died at 30 from some mysterious wasting disease leaving behind a child and an unmatched reputation for living hard and fast.

Mary Nolan:  Mary had a hard knock life, much of which she brought on herself with her predilection for stimulants, drama and bad, bad men. After a brief stint as a Ziegfeld Girl she went on to become an international film star. But Mary had masochistic tendencies and her rendezvous with sadistic men did not lead to 50 Shades of Grey love affairs.  Instead, unsurprisingly, they resulted in scandal, severe physical injuries and continual pain that she numbed with narcotics. Poor Mary wrecked her career, lost her money and ended up singing in cheap saloons before the inevitable sad fade out at the age of 42.

Despite–or perhaps because of–the dark nature of these stories they are compulsively readable, poignant scandal sheets from the early years of the film industry.  The depressing nature of the stories is mitigated somewhat by the writing which is not mean-spirited or salacious. The author Ankerich is clearly sympathetic to these ill-fated starlets.

Each section is sourced, includes the actresses’ filmography and there are plenty of illustrations.  Recommended for film buffs or anyone with an interest in women’s history or celebrity scandals.

Check the WRL catalog for Dangerous Curves atop Hollywood Heels

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The American press has always loved a good scandal or murder mystery. In 1897, they got both when a headless torso was found floating by a pier on the lower East Side of New York City. At first the police dismissed it as a ghoulish prank perpetrated by medical students. But when the severed limbs turned up in a ditch on the other side of town and stab wounds were found on the trunk, they realized this was not a prank but murder. Murder of the Century by Paul Collins tells the story of this ghoulish crime and its resulting trial.

In the 1890s, New York City’s major newspapers were involved in a brutal circulation war. Joseph Pulitzer’s old guard New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s up-and-coming New York Journal would do anything to out scoop the other. A headless body was manna from heaven for them and they went wild with it.

Reporters took the investigative lead over the police and identified both the victim, one William Guldensuppe, and the probable perpetrators, Martin Thorn and Augusta Nack.  Augusta was ready made for the tabloid press. A cold-blooded femme fatale, she ran an abortion service out of her apartment, was married and had not one but two lovers, the dead man Guldensuppe and the accused killer Thorn. With both murder and a sexual scandal on display the resulting courtroom trial had the whole country watching.

The author Paul Collins does a terrific job in relating this juicy tale that is flush with colorful characters and twisty plot turns. In addition, we get some interesting historical information about the turn-of–the-century newspaper business, police operations and courtroom procedures.  Well written, fast-paced and entertaining, Murder of the Century is a good choice for true crime fans.

Check the WRL catalog for The Murder of the Century.

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On the morning of February 15, 2003, the caretaker of the Antwerp Diamond Center went to open the building’s vault and made a horrible discovery. Instead of being locked up tight, the vault was wide open. The Diamond Center had been robbed and the thieves had made off with at least 130 million dollars in stolen gemstones. The true story of this amazing theft is told in Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History.

Just who carried out this audacious robbery is not a mystery. Leonardo Notarbartolo, an Italian businessman and occasional jewel thief, is introduced in the first chapter. The story follows him as he conceives the robbery and recruits accomplices from a close knit group of professional thieves known as “The School of Turin.”  The book provides intriguing insight into how high-level professional thieves operate in Europe as Notarbartolo and crew spend two years casing the Diamond Center and planning the robbery.

We also learn about the diamond industry in Belgium.  The elaborate efforts that go into safeguarding gems include police protection, huge safes, complicated electronic security sensors and surveillance cameras. The clever way that Notarbartolo and his associates overcome all these obstacles and pull off the crime makes for engrossing reading. It’s like a real world version of the movie Ocean’s 11. The aftermath of the robbery is also covered including the international police investigation and the fatal mistake that led to the crew’s discovery.

The authors know their material. Scott Selby is an expert on diamonds and the jewel trade and Greg Campbell an award-winning journalist. The text is informative, clearly written and fast-paced. Flawless is a good choice for people who enjoy the non-violent side of true crime.

Check the WRL catalog for Flawless.

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Between the years 1963-65, Ian Brady and his girlfriend Myra Hindley kidnapped, tortured and murdered five children, burying their remains on the Saddleworth Moor near the Manchester area of England. Known in the UK as the Moors Murders, these sadistic crimes and their aftermath are brought vividly to life in the BBC mini-series, See No Evil: The Story of the Moors Murders, and in the HBO movie, Longford.

Part police procedural and part family drama, See No Evil is unusual for a crime tale in that it doesn’t actually show the crimes. In fact, it doesn’t dwell on the murders much at all, except for a couple of brief but horrific flashbacks. Rather it focuses on the savage pair’s everyday activities and family relations. It emphasizes the tragic effect the killings had on the victims’ loved ones and, in particular, on Myra’s sister, Maureen (Joanne Froggatt, who played Anna on Downton Abbey), and her husband David Smith (Michael McNulty). It was David, with Maureen’s encouragement, who broke the case open by reporting to the police that he had seen Ian brutally murder a teenager with a hatchet.

Despite the lack of criminal activity the movie is engrossing. Sean Harris as Ian and Maxine Peake as Myra do a fine job in displaying the subtle but distinctly cold and creepy attributes of this pair of psychopaths. The location filming on the windswept Moors and the haunting musical score ratchet up the tension.

Longford, also based on the Moors Murders case, takes place years after Ian and Myra have both been convicted and imprisoned. Myra is trying to get paroled by claiming that she has found God and repented her acts, which she only did because Ian made her do it, not to mention all the pre-trial prejudice due to her bad mug shot. (The mug shot really is creepy; google “Myra Hindley mug shot” to see it.)

In an effort to boost her chance for parole, she contacts British aristocrat Frank Aungier Pakenham, the Earl of Longford. Longford was a deeply religious Catholic, social activist and longtime advocate of prisoner’s rights. Opinion of him varied, with some approving of his work while others considered him to be a gullible, upper-class twit. Longford (Jim Broadbent) enthusiastically takes up Myra’s cause much to his personal and professional detriment.

This movie is intriguing right up to the end because of the sociopathic personalities of Brady and Hindley. Has she really repented her crimes and, even if she has, does that entitle her to be set free? Her partner in crime, Brady, disputes her conversion and tells Longford that she is just using him. Who is telling the truth? What about the victim’s families, who are outraged at the thought of this murderess being released? Themes of guilt, redemption, punishment and even sexism are touched on.

Both films are well done forays into true crime at its darkest. One criticism I could make is that the filmmakers presuppose a basic knowledge of the crimes that many Americans may not have. Nevertheless, both films are recommended. They are unrated but not suitable for children.

Check the WRL catalog for See No Evil.

Check the WRL catalog for Longford.

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In 1885, Minnie Wallace was accused of murdering her husband, the mayor of Emporia, Kansas. He was wealthy, she was 16 years old and they had only been married for about a month. Thus began Minnie’s long career as a con artist and husband killer, a career that is detailed in the true crime book, The Adventuress.

Minnie was born in New Orleans in 1869 and was raised to be, if not a courtesan, at least the consort of a wealthy man. Considered to be a real beauty, she was vain, selfish, coldblooded and quite a conniver. The first half of the book relates her murder trial, which became a cause célèbre throughout the country. The author provides a meticulous description of the legal wrangling using courtroom transcripts and newspaper articles from the period and provides some insightful portraits of the many people involved in the case.

The second half of the book recounts Minnie’s adventures later in life when she ran with a villainous crowd of grifters and con artists and made a career of seducing vulnerable men, leaving them financially ruined, dead or both.

Ms. McConnell, who has written several true crime books, does a nice job in recounting this little-known story of a 19th-century Black Widow. Recommended for historical true crime buffs or people interested in courtroom tales.

Check the WRL catalog for The Adventuress.

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Murder and Mayhem in Jefferson County is the understated title of a respectable collection of true crime tales set in Jefferson County, New York. In the 19th century, Jefferson County was a rugged locale occupied by hardworking farmers, upstanding citizens and just a few vicious murderers. The depraved deeds of this criminal minority are related in this short but entertaining book.

Among the crimes covered are:

  • “George Powell’s Problem with Women” (1876) – The mysterious drowning of Julia Powell, whose husband was suspiciously apathetic about her demise.
  • “The Ax Murders of Slaughter Hill” (1828) – wherein a disgruntled renter takes violent issue with three men trying to evict him from the premises.
  • “The Spineless Shooting of Mary Ward” (1893) – A woman’s greed makes her lover very, very angry.
  • “The Mary Crouch-Mary Daly Double Homicide” (1897) – In which a bigamist finds himself with one woman too many and comes up with a brutal solution.
  • “The Gruesome “Watertown Trunk Murder”” (1908) – A woman covets her neighbor’s property and hatches a cold-blooded scheme to gain possession of it.

Most of the tales are interesting and the gruesome nature of the crimes is leavened a bit by the author’s wry asides, such as “after the initial shock of being found out wore off and a smidgeon of reasoning (disturbed as it was) returned, Mrs. Farmer attempted to lay blame for the murder on her husband.”

The author also quotes generously from newspapers of the period, which are colorful in their descriptions of the perpetrators, “…a brute in the shape of a human being” and the crimes, “This is one of the most atrocious murders ever known, and we only regret that the cold-blooded villain still breathes but will not tell the truth about his horrible crime.”

This is a fine book for fans of historical true crime looking for a quick read.

Check the WRL catalog for Murder and Mayhem in Jefferson County.

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Bud continues BFGB Fashion Week with this review: 

From the 1920s through the 1950s, Valentina Schlee was one of the most famous and successful fashion designers in the world. Valentina: American Couture and the Cult of Celebrity, by Kohle Yohannan, details the life and career of this now forgotten woman in a fine book that’s an interesting amalgam of fashion history and gossipy biography.

Born in Russia in 1899, Valentina’s early years are rather mysterious. Throughout her life, she told conflicting tales about herself in order to engender an aura of mystery, but by 1919 she was working as an actress in a theatre in the Crimea. It was here that she met George Schlee, the man who would be her lifelong companion and business partner.  Fleeing Soviet Russia, the Schlees emigrated to the U.S. and in 1928, she opened Valentina Gowns, Inc. on Madison Avenue in New York City. Immediately successful, the business was financially profitable right up till the salon closed in 1957.

From the start, Valentina fashions targeted the upper echelons of society. No crass, ready-made for her. It was café society, Broadway, and motion picture actresses and the glitterati only. Within a few years she only designed for clients she approved of, cavalierly dismissing all others with the simple phrase, “I’m afraid my gowns would not please you, Madame.”

How did a dress designer achieve this kind of clout?

Primarily by being an expert at self-promotion and as much a celebrity as the movie stars and socialites for whom she designed. She created a public persona that was exotic, mysterious, imperious, and intriguing. A globe-trotting sybarite, she socialized with the right people, went to the right clubs, and routinely dropped colorful quotes. Her innate sense of glamour, style, and drama drew publicity, making her a favorite of the gossip columnists and fashion pages. She further cultivated her image by being the primary model for her design line in advertising layouts.

Of course, the clothes themselves also played a role in her success. Valentina’s couture emphasized clean, simple lines and had a timeless quality. They were chic, void of elaborate embellishments, and always comfortable to wear. She despised fashion trends and did not follow them. Her inspirations were often drawn from classical Greek gowns, nun’s habits, and simple peasant styles. She was skilled at using bias cuts to achieve lovely draping effects. Each outfit was designed specifically for the individual client to suit their particular figure, coloring, and lifestyle, minimizing flaws and emphasizing their best features. Examples of her fashions are found throughout the book, which has many large, lovely photos.

Even if you have no real interest in couture, this book is still worth perusing for the many colorful anecdotes about Valentina’s uber-sophisticated private life, including details of  the long term ménage a trois she and George were rumored to have engaged in with actress Greta Garbo.

Author Kohle Yohannan, an art and design historian, has done a wonderful job in resurrecting a forgotten fashion diva. His book will be enjoyed by anyone interested in 20th century social history, fashio, or stories of remarkable women.

Check the WRL catalog for Valentina.

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Bud continues BFGB Fashion Week with this review: 

One of the challenges on television’s Project Runway last fall was to create a dress inspired by fashions of the 1970s. There were some comments about “timeless 70s style” or something along those lines.

Timeless 1970s style?  Really?!

I lived through the 1970s, and I speak from experience when I say that the only style that came from that period was bad style. I’m talking polyester shirts, skintight jeans with elephant bell legs, gaudy horse-blanket plaid suits kind of bad style.

If you don’t believe me, just watch any episode of the Brady Bunch… or peruse an ABBA music video… or flip through the pages of a little book entitled The 70s: The Decade That Style Forgot. Truer words were never spoken.

This book is a collection of British fashion advertisements from the period, punctuated by pithy comments. Acid-washed denim safari suits for men, shapeless shirtdresses in some hideous brown flowery, swirly, paisley kind of pattern. Oh, the horror, the horror.

This book is not a heavy intellectual tome. For those of us who survived that fashion-failure decade, it’s an amusing look back at a time that should never have a fashion revival… EVER!

Check the WRL catalog for The 70s: The Decade that Style Forgot.

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