True Crime for the Faint of Heart

I used to love true crime. For my first research paper in high school, I wrote about the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese and the phenomena of the bystander effect. In college, Investigation Discovery was my background noise while working. More recently, murder podcasts and true crime audiobooks accompanied my commute to work, and I unwound with Netflix miniseries that dissected cold cases.

But my tastes are changing. Death got a little too close to me over the last two years. A podcaster made me question the ethics of finding entertainment in another’s pain. And becoming a parent obliterated my tolerance for stories where terrible things happen to small and vulnerable beings. Don’t get me wrong – I’m still fascinated by the darkness. I just need to be more selective. Minimal death and violence. Minimal gore. Thefts, forgeries, con artists. White collar crimes. Maybe the occasional plane crash or disaster.

So I present you with an updated list of true crime stories in various formats for those who, like me, have to say “hard pass” to serial killers and kidnappers.

Flying Blind : The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing by Peter Robison. A fast-paced look at the corporate dysfunction–the ruthless cost-cutting, toxic workplaces, and cutthroat management–that contributed to one of the worst tragedies in modern aviation.

Bad Blood : Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. Recounts the story behind Theranos, the medical equipment company that misled investors to believe they developed a revolutionary blood testing machine, detailing how its CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, perpetuated the lie to bolster the value of the company by billions.

Empire of Pain : The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe. Presents a narrative account of how a prominent wealthy family sponsored the creation and marketing of one of the most commonly prescribed and addictive painkillers of the opioid crisis.

Midnight in Chernobyl : The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham. Journalist Adam Higginbotham’s definitive, years-in-the-making account of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster–and a powerful investigation into how propaganda, secrecy, and myth have obscured the true story of one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters.

Confident Women : Swindlers, Grifters, and Shapeshifters of the Feminine Persuasion by Tori Telfer. The art of the con has a long and venerable tradition, and its female practitioners are some of the best– or worst. Telfer introduces us to a host of lady swindlers whose scams ranged from the outrageous to the deadly.

The Gardner Heist : The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft by Ulrich Boser. Shortly after midnight on March 18, 1990, two men broke into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and committed the largest art heist in history. But after thousands of leads, hundreds of interviews, and a $5-million reward, not a single painting has been recovered. Worth a total of $500 million, the missing masterpieces have become the Holy Grail of the art world and one of the nation’s most extraordinary unsolved mysteries.

Made in China

Every now and then you read a book so disturbing you change your life because of it. That’s how I felt about Amelia Pang’s book, Made in China. I have not been so disturbed by a book since Road of Lost Innocence, by Somaly Mam. 

In 2012 Julie Keith opened up Halloween decorations, only to find a note in broken English, asking her to “kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization. Thousands people here who are under the persecution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”

Julie did – contacting Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, The United Nations Human Rights Council, and Anti-Slavery International.

None of them called her back.

Through her own research, she slowly learned the extent that America’s cheap consumer goods are, too often, being manufactured illegally by political prisoners in China, who work in concentration camp conditions amid torture and starvation.

 It wasn’t until she spoke to Immigration and Customs and Border Protection that she got anyone to listen – ICE and CBP are the agencies responsible for preventing forced-labor products from entering US markets. ICE made a formal request to visit the “reeducation center” where the product was made. China refused. Keith learned that China has never allowed inspection of their manufacturing facilities, and one piece of evidence isn’t enough to push further.

But Keith couldn’t stop thinking about the person who wrote the note. She wound up doing an interview for The Oregonian, and suddenly found herself in the spotlight of Chinese dissident news, CNN, Fox, and more. Through the group Human Rights Watch, Keith found out it’s almost impossible to prove human rights violations – Kmart insisted the factory had been audited every 6 to 12 months, absolutely within the law, but audits cost money and mostly check for cleanliness and quality control. They never check for the source of labor. When you have a hundred thousand subcontractors, and each audit is $1,000, the costs and time add up to impossible.

Sun Yi and his letter

Sun Yi was the man who wrote that note in 2009, three years before Julie Keith found it. He was imprisoned and tortured for belonging to a meditation group that fell into disfavor with the Party. After two years of  starvation, torture, and working sometimes 24 hours a day in inhumane conditions, he was released. CNN interviewed him, blocking his face so he could not be identified. Sun Yi decided that, while he could get the information out, he wanted to write a letter to Julie, thanking her. He included his email address. Sun realized if he was to live, he had to leave China, and slipped out to Indonesia before the Chinese authorities could stop him, since Indonesia didn’t require a visa for Chinese citizens. There, he had free communication with the world.

In March of 2017, Julie Keith flew 36 hours to Indonesia, to meet Sun Yi in person, something she always wanted to do. The meeting was bittersweet, and Keith learned much about Yi’s poor treatment.

In October of 2017, Sun Yi died mysteriously of a lung infection and kidney failure. He was said to have been befriended by a Chinese woman not long before. She wasn’t seen in Jakarta afterward. No autopsy was performed.

This book tore at my heart. It’s short, easy to read, and always engaging. As we flip past internet bargains and snap up dollar deals, think twice before buying cheap merchandise. Ask if the item was made in the USA, and try (oh yes, it’s difficult) to buy items made only in countries who pay fair wages and rely on fair trade. Does that pop-up ad on social media look beautiful, at a reasonable price? Google the company. If there’s little to no information on it, it may be because it’s fly-by-night. You might get a nice product, but the company may fold in one town and open up under a different name three blocks away in the same Chinese city, using the same illegal workers. 

I got suckered in by that myself: researched the company, found no red flags, ordered what I thought was a hand-made item by a small Mom & Pop company, until a few weeks later when I got an email telling me my package had just cleared customs from China.

Huh? 

The package arrived with a label that had a New York State company address – slapped directly over the label that was on the envelope that arrived from China.

Think when you purchase something. Without demand for cheap products, there will be less demand for labor. Ask yourself: Do I really need this? Is the price too good to be true? Where was it made? Who made it? Who is profiting from my buying it? Was someone harmed by my decision to purchase this item?

Sometimes, the answer might be yes.

Book Review: Cuba: An American History by Ada Ferrer

Sandy, our Head of Technical Services, shares this review of a recent read.

I love history. I studied it in college and in graduate school. It is the only thing I read, along with the occasional dark Scandinavian mystery.  That said, I have avoided reading any histories of Cuba. As the child of Cuban immigrants, the subject has always been too personal for me and I relied instead on the history given to me by my parents and grandparents. It was biased and it was raw and until recently, it was all that I had. I reluctantly decided to pick up Ada Ferrer’s book Cuba: An American History at the beginning of the year to see if I could rectify those gaps in my knowledge.

Ferrer was born in Cuba in June of 1962 and left the island as a baby with her mother, 10 months later. The prologue felt familiar to me. She talks about families left behind, meeting new family in “exilío” (exile), the pervasive feelings of loss, and the stories told by family members.  Stories about Cuba before the revolution, speculation about family and friends who stayed, and stories about an end to the Castro regime. She starts the history of the island in the 15th century with Columbus’ “discovery” of the region. Her discussion of this early period is thorough, outlining why Cuba became such a crucial part of trade in the region. She dives deeply into Cuba’s relationship with Spain as one of its most valuable colonies as well as Cuba’s early relationship with the United States. I think one of the most interesting things in how Ferrer tackles the history of Cuba in her work is that she puts it in the context of its relationship to the United States. The two nations have always been tightly bound to one another from their very early days, be it through trade, war, investments, and amendments that gave the US the power to intervene in the island.

Her discussion of the tumultuous period after the Cuban War of Independence in 1898 illustrates both how the US was able to further consolidate power in the island as well as how the stage was ultimately set for the revolution of 1959 and Fidel Castro’s rise to power. She takes the reader through Cuba’s resistance to the US via the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the relationship between the island and the Soviet Union in the 70s, and the fall of the Soviet Union and Cuba’s subsequent special period in the 90s; a time marked by extreme austerity measures and the mass exodus of citizens to the United States.  She talks about the hope the Cuban population felt with the thawing of relations under Barack Obama’s presidency and the despair brought on by the renewed efforts by the US government to tighten travel restrictions and the sending of remittances in 2016. The book ends in 2020 with a discussion of the effects of Covid-19 and the growing protest movements in the summer of that year.

The book is beautifully written.  Perhaps because she has spent so much of her life researching and working on this project or maybe because she is the child of Cuban immigrants, Ferrer is able to capture the essence of the Cuban people, their humor, and their ability to adapt and persevere both on and off the island. I think one of the things I appreciate most about the book is the way in which she chose to tell the history. She sums it up best when she writes, “as we ponder the sweep of centuries, it is important to pause at those lives, not just to invoke them, but to endeavor to grasp history through their eyes… It is an impossible endeavor in many ways… but the attempt itself is essential.” This book felt personal to me because of my relationship to my family and the island more broadly but I think that Ferrer’s approach to history will allow any reader without any personal stake to feel for the place as well as the people, both those that left and those that stayed behind.

Read it Before You See it: Book-to-Screen Adaptations Coming in 2022

So many screen adaptations, so little time! There are so many books coming to big and small screens this year, it’s easy to lose track or what’s coming out when. We’ve put together a list of some adaptations that we’re really looking forward to this year – some have release dates, some do not, but the list will give us time to read as many books as we can before their adaptations come out! Which books are you most looking forward to seeing on the screen this year?

 

MOVIES

 

The Black Phone Release date: Feb. 4, 2022

Death on the Nile Release date: Feb. 11, 2022

Mothering Sunday Release date: Feb. 25, 2022

Where the Crawdads Sing Release Date: July 22, 2022 (Netflix)

Salem’s Lot Release Date: September 9, 2022

White Bird: A Wonder Story Release Date: October 14, 2022

She Said Release date: Nov. 28, 2022

The Nightingale Release Date: December 23, 2022

Persuasion Release date: TBD 2022

The School for Good and Evil Release Date: TBD 2022 (Netflix)

The Wonder Release Date: TBD 2022 (Netflix)

 

TV SERIES

 

Outlander Season 6 (Starz) Premiere Date: March 6, 2022

Based on the book: A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon 

Bridgerton Season 2 (Netflix) Premiere Date: March 25, 2022

Based on the book: The Viscount Who Loved Me by Julia Quinn

Lord of the Rings (Amazon Prime Video) Premiere Date: Sept. 2, 2022

Based on the books: The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein 

The Sandman (Netflix) Premiere Date: TBD 2022

Daisy Jones & the Six (Amazon Prime Video) Premiere Date: TBD 2022

Conversations with Friends (Hulu) Premiere Date: Spring 2022

The Legacy of MLK

It’s hard to live in America and not know who Martin Luther King Jr. was. If you’re reading this from out of the country, MLK was a black Baptist minister who became the driving force in the 1960’s fight for civil rights, and for the equal treatment of black citizens in America. His call was for peaceful protest and non-violence – always non-violence – and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. For his outstanding efforts, Mr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. James Earl Ray was charged with the murder, a white troublemaker with a 7th grade education and a long rap sheet. Ray admitted to the crime, had a strong timeline leading up to the crime, had fingerprints on the weapon, but because he lied numerous times and changed pleas and facts all over the place, conspiracy theories abound.

Kings death no doubt played a major role in the passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, just a week later, in an effort to help quell the riots that followed his death. His examples reached into South Africa and Northern Ireland, areas of long hostilities, and a statue of him stands in Westminster Abbey in London.

King’s beliefs and activities created as many conflicts as they tried to solve. While the racially charged South saw him as too progressive, so far as to call him a communist, many in the black community, such as Malcolm X, thought he didn’t go far enough and demanded radical action, not peaceful protests. King alienated himself from the US government by opposing the war in Vietnam. Herbert Hoover, head of the FBI, considered King a radical and sent him threatening letters. It wasn’t until 1986 that Ronald Reagan enacted Martin Luther King Day as a Federally recognized holiday.

Biographies will give the standard information on Martin Luther King, and while White Trash (warning: FaceBook will jail you for discussing this book) and Caste are excellent books which will open your eyes to issues you never considered, they’re heavy on sociology and can be difficult to slog through at times. If you’d rather read about the issues he fought against, and where we stand today on Civil Rights in an easier fashion, check out these non-fiction books that will give you a good perspective of the issues. If non-fiction isn’t your thing, try these novels about modern issues as well, and realize we still have a long way to go. 

The Hate U Give

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Small Great Things

My Brother Moochie

The Help

Evicted

Native Son

Born a Crime

Sing, Unburied, Sing

A Raisin in the Sun

Long Way Down

The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr.

Dear Martin

My Life With Martin Luther King Jr

Survival Math

How We Fight for Our Lives