Book Review: Polish Robbin’ Hoods

This 1992 book is the story of Chicago’s Panczko brothers — “the gang that couldn’t steal straight.” It’s written by Ed Baumann and John O’Brien, two beloved and experienced Chicago newspaper crime reporters. The book is from a small Chicago publisher, seemingly now defunct, and took me quite a while to track down.

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The Panczko family was, nearly to the person, a blue-collar crime syndicate on the North side of Chicago. The family’s patriarch, “Pops,” was called the Dean of Burglary by the Chicago Police, and in this book he is described as a Thomas Edison of breaking and entering. Among his many innovations were the invention of a tool that yanks the cylinders from door locks, being the first to wear rubber Halloween masks to conceal his identity, and being the reason that businesses starting enclosing safes in concrete. (So he couldn’t remove them and work on entry at his leisure.)

The book is smartly written, and sometimes laugh out loud funny. It gives a true voice to the era and the participants, and as a result, I learned some new slang and ethic slurs.

You might be wondering how the Panczko story ends. Well, I don’t know. I wanted to read it for research purposes, and while enjoyable, I soon found that the detail of every caper, betrayal, and life event in the family was not a productive use of my time. So, I didn’t finish the book. You’ll have to read it for yourself to find the ending. Let me know, willya?

Briefly noted

"Brevity naturally provides an opening to mystery because the mysterious eludes all explanation. It speaks to something more significant than what can be explained. There is always something beyond. We can feel that anticipation, the suspense that naturally resides between the known and the unknown, the opening up of questions."

Writer’s Digest

Book Review: Haunted Junk Drawer

This 2023 publication by Eric Bartholomew is subtitled “Thirteen tales of objects and strange occurrences.” It’s a collection of short stories centered around a household (mostly) objects that exhibit supernatural characteristics.

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I was surprised and pleased at the variety and cleverness of the objects themselves. And the fun perspectives on how each might manifest its haunted nature. There are stories about bottles, bus tickets, elevator placards, toys, and — my favorite — a haunted pie tin that, under the right circumstances, emanates ghostly scents of past bakes.

The stories are all snappy and fun. They’re just the right length to adequately explore the premise and leave enough things unanswered that they stick with you after you’ve finished. The writing style is first-person anecdotal and feels very much like you’re hearing the tale from a good friend.

I don’t know the author, but I feel like we’ve passed on the street. That’s because many of the tales are set in locations that I’ve visited, some of which are nearby. For me, this familiarity pulled me even further into the stories.

There were quite a few thoughtful concepts that Bartholomew explored, and several more that he conjured within me. Such as:

  • Junk drawers as a place for both artifacts of memory and aspirational futures.
  • The joy of finding an object that has no discernible online presence. It’s like Howard Carter entering Tut’s tomb!
  • Dementia as a form of distorted reality, a person within the world but viewing it from a removed perspective. Is this how a ghost might see us?

I bought my copy of this delightful book at Quimby’s. You can reach the author via his website.

Book Review: Apocrypha Now

This 2016 book, by Mark Russell and Shannon Wheeler, is a fresh look at writings that were omitted from the Bible in AD 325. Additionally, the book offers many tales that were included, and from related sources such as the Talmud, but are often overlooked in today’s world.

Comic from book

The stories are retold in contemporary style and language. This makes them more relatable than usual, and the writing is sharp and often laugh out loud funny. Shannon’s clever comics add to the fun, too. (Such as the story of when God turned Abraham into a giant to fight the Elamites. By the way, I call dibs on “Seventy Foot Abraham” as a band name.)

The book even provided me with some unexpected clarity, particularly the Epilogue, which summarizes that history and tribulations of the Jewish people under Greek, Roman, and Christian rule. (It seems like Jared Kushner could have benefited from reading this, too.)

A small selection of other tidbits that I particularly enjoyed:

  • There is a 400-year gap between the Old and New Testaments. Despite two years of religious training as a young man, somehow this fundamental fact was never communicated to me, nor did I notice it.
  • The proper form of “Mary Magdalene” would be “Mary the Magdalene.” Magdalene is not, of course, her surname. It means “reformed prostitute.” So omitting the article is rather disrespectful. Changing the culture to use “Mary the Virgin” when referring to the other Mary would be nicely parallel, but I’m confident that ship has sailed.
  • A lost book, The Gospel of Judas, is a rather contemporary discovery (1990s) and it wasn’t translated into English until 2005. It shockingly states that Judas was secretly asked by Jesus to turn him over to the Romans. It was not a betrayal at all.
  • The great sins of Sodom and Gomorrah were their greed and xenophobia, not buggering. It was for these acts that these (and other) cities of the Jordan Plain were destroyed. Republicans, take note.

The Bible, for better or for worse (mostly the latter) permeates society in both subtle and obvious ways. It’s a good idea to remind yourself what’s in it, what used to be in it, and how just how crazily selective some adherents are to its details. I bought my copy of this highly recommended book at Quimby’s, but of course, it’s also found on the Amazon.

Book Review: The Hooked X

This 2009 book by Scott F. Wolter is subtitled “Key to the secret history of North America.” It covers a number of anomalous archeological findings that suggest history is not as it is commonly taught.

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Briefly, there are plenty of examples of Europeans knowing about, and visiting, North American more than a hundred years before its “discovery” by Columbus. One piece of this evidence is the Kensington Rune Stone, which was found in the late 1800s, in Minnesota. The 200 lb stone is carved with ancient Swedish runes, including an “X” with an extra stroke, or “hook” as it is come to be known.

Initially, the unusual rune led many to conclude the stone was a hoax, but as the book lays out, there is evidence that the stone is authentic. (The Hooked X was eventually authenticated, long after the stone was found, as a legitimate and ancient rune.)

The book seems to largely be a follow-up to another of the author’s publications, and as such it makes many assumptions about the knowledge of the reader. The first 3/4 of the book sometimes feels as if you are joining into the middle of a lengthy and technical conversation about a topic you’ve never heard. Oh, there are plenty of interesting tidbits you can wrap your head around, but there are also many things that were, for me, presented without context or clarity. There isn’t an Editor credited in the book, and I suspect it didn’t have one. It would have benefited from an outsider’s perspective.

But the last part of the book is much better. This is where evidence beyond the Kensington Stone is correlated to create a convincing argument about an alternative historical record.

A couple of the additional bits that stood out for me are:

  • The fleur-de-lis is a stylized bumblebee, used by Charlemagne. The bee is a symbol of royalty and the Muses.
  • I am very likely related to one of the first witnesses to the discovery of the Kensington Rune Stone.
  • Pentadic numerals are a thing.
  • Christopher Columbus’ real name was Cristobal Colon, and he was likely a Knight Templar. He was also Portuguese, so all the Italians upset about Chicago’s Columbus memorial being moved have misplaced nationalistic ire.
  • Newport Tower, connected to the Sinclair family (of Rosslyn Chapel fame) may very well be an ancient Templar structure. (It’s in Rhode Island.)
  • Venus traces a horn pattern across the sky over the course of a year, and this may be the origin of the Catholic Church putting horns on the devil. (To literally demonize Goddess worship associated with the planet.) The book also states that the pattern followed by the planet creates a pentagram, but the description of this is muddied. I found a clearer explanation here.
  • The tablet held by the Statue of Liberty is in the shape of a Masonic keystone.
  • In its Hebrew form, Yahweh is a feminine word.

If this is your first exposure to the milieu of the bloodline of Jesus Christ, the conspiracies and practices of the Knights Templar and Masons, and pre-Columbian archeology, then there are better books for you. If you’re already hip, you’ll find numerous bits to enjoy, despite the work you have to do to find them among the meandering organization of the book. I bought my copy a few years ago — I don’t recall where — but it’s still available at the Amazon.

Book Review: Over My Dead Body

This 2022 book by Greg Melville is subtitled “Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries.” It’s both a travelogue and a history of burial practices. Overall, it provides a fascinating look into the culture and the American-style business of corpse disposal and, if you’ll pardon the expression, it really tickled my sociology bone. It’s also a beautifully designed book with a handful of nice photos, many from the author. Before digging into the details, suffice to say, I enjoyed and recommend it.

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I learned a lot from this book, and there are too many salient points for me to list here, but this sample should give you a flavor of what stood out for me:

  • The practice of burying a body “six feet under” arose during the plague as an attempt to prevent animals from digging up the bodies and further spreading the disease.
  • While the Donner Party gets all the scorn for cannibalism, the settlers at Jamestown also ate their mates.
  • Speaking of pilgrims, the corn that got them through the harsh winter was largely stolen from Native American graves, where it was buried for use by the deceased in the afterlife.
  • By tradition, bodies are buried with their feet facing East so that they can stand and face Jesus when he returns.
  • It was (and remains) common practice for cemeteries to seek celebrity bodies in order to increase sales of nearby plots. Daniel Boone, for example, was disinterred and moved for promotional purposes. Moreover, Arlington National Cemetery wasn’t nearly so popular until Kennedy was buried there.
  • Mausolus, an ancient leader of what is now Turkey, was buried in an ostentatious tomb and that is where the word mausoleum comes from.
  • An obelisk at Green-Wood cemetery (Brooklyn, NY) is inscribed “Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors.” It features a slot where people can slip written confessions inside, which are emptied and burned regularly.
  • Modern US-style embalming was popularized by the actions of Abraham Lincoln, who had the new technology applied to Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the first Union officer killed in the Civil War. Ellsworth’s body was preserved, so it could be taken on tour to Northern cities as a fundraiser to pay for the war. (10,000 people came to see it in Manhattan.) And yes, there is a US-style of embalming to this day.
  • The magazine Ladies Home Journal coined “living room” to describe a home’s parlor, after the practice of displaying the dead in their house stopped being common.
  • Despite the hundreds of thousands of Chinese immigrants who built the country, there are very few of their dead (still) buried in the United States. That’s because their remains were disinterred and recovered by the Chinese government.

Those of you who know me or follow this blog won’t be too surprised at my enthusiasm for this book, as evidenced in A Cat at Begraafplaats Huis de Vraag , my review of Grave Plots, and my delight over a book of Cemetery Maps.

I bought my copy of Over My Dead Body at Quimby’s in Chicago, but you can also uncover one by searching on the Amazon.

Book Review: Blah Blah Blah

This 2011 book by Dan Roam is subtitled “What to do when words won’t work.” It’s essentially a primer, a justification, and a tutorial for incorporating sketching into your notes and presentations. For the purpose of increasing clarity, improving focus, and utilizing “both halves” of your brain.

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It’s a big book; about 350 pages. And while the design and illustrations are very engaging and unique, most of the large-format pages are, inevitably, filled with words. Ironically, too many words. There are a lot of redundant and tangential paragraphs that an editor should have pared down or eliminated.

I was given this book by a friend. And I enjoyed it. I also learned a few things, and I thought quite a bit about its methods and arguments. But those of you who know me professionally will attest that I am an avowed minimalist when it comes to instructional design and writing. This book uses, almost literally, the proverbial “thousand words” to describe the “pictures” it prescribes. I had a hard time not slipping into critique mode as I read its meandering and overwritten advice.

That said, there are a few points of particular interest:

  • Words have become our default thinking tool but cannot alone “detect, describe, and defuse the multifaceted problems of today.”
  • “Words can be used to describe anything, but that does not mean words are the best way to describe everything.” (The author should consider using “depict” in this sentence for clarity and snappiness.)
  • Dr. Suess wrote Green Eggs and Ham to win a $50 bet from his publisher. The challenge was to write a book using only 50 words, including “Sam,” “Ham,” and “am.” (Constraints breed creativity!)
  • “Language is the single most sophisticated, finely developed, and important technology humanity has ever created. Using words is what makes us human. … it is also our easiest technology to mess up.”
  • School children spend year after year learning how to express themselves using words. But visual education stops at the preschool level, and for most, never develops past that.
  • Too much emphasis on words and language has reduced most thinking to using just “halve our minds” — our visual thinking side takes a back seat too often. The author includes a useful chart that relates simple drawing methods to common categories of information. For example, when dealing with a list, try a map instead.

Despite its length, this book can be a quick read. That’s because pretty much all the salient points are covered in the first three chapters and the two appendices. (One of which is based on the author’s Back of the Napkin business book.)

I recommend this book as a tool for exploring a different way of presenting information. I just wish it were more focused and not quite so gimmicky. You can get a copy from Amazon, of course, or borrow it from the library and skim the front and back portions — after that you’ll know if you want to dive into the blah blah blah of the middle sections.

Book Review: 50 Things to do in the Urban Wild

This heart-filled volume by Clare Gogerty implores the reader to discover, appreciate, and celebrate the natural world that lurks beneath the surface of an urban city.

Or, at least, that’s what I hoped it would do. Such insights can definitely be mined from the author’s pages, but overall, I found the book to be more about small projects suited to suburban (not urban) living.

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The book is charming, and Gogerty’s appreciative enthusiasm is undeniably contagious. But her definition of city life, as a resident of a small English county, differs greatly from mine as a Chicagoan.

But I did discover several hints and perspectives that made me smile, and a few that I will put to use in my own way. The suggestion about creating natural, ephemeral art in public green spaces, is one example of the latter.

While this book didn’t hit home for me, if you live in the suburbs or a small city, I could imagine it really speaking to you. You can find a copy at the Amazon, of course.

Book Review: The Merry Spinster

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This 2018 short story collection by Mallory Ortberg is subtitled “Tales of Everyday Horror.” While I would quibble with the “everyday” designation (the book is quite otherwordly), I fully agree with “horror.”

Each of the eleven stories is essentially a fairy tale for adults. You may recognize some of them right away, while others draw from a diverse range of influences, which are thoughtfully outlined in an appendix. For example, for “The Thankless Child,” the author cites influences that include Cinderella, King Lear, and Psalm 139. I loved that this appendix is included in the book!

The writing is crisp, clever, and sometimes challenging as Ortberg freely plays with pronouns and genders in several of the stories. This is fun, and contributes to keeping the reader engaged with the unfamiliar. (Talking fish, mermaids, and gender roles by choice not fiat! Where is this is place‽)

I should also mention that, generally speaking, the stories are dark. Ortberg’s take on The Velveteen Rabbit will stick with me for a very long time. As a back-cover blurb observes: “The Merry Spinster will ruin your most-loved fables, in the best possible way.”

Here are just a few of the many phrases and concepts that tickled my fancy:

  • “Humans die,” said the grandmother, “and humans suffer too, for they lead short lives and when they are dead, no one eats them. They are stuffed in boxes and hidden in the dirt, or else set on fire and turned into cinders, so no one else can make any use of them; they are a prodigiously selfish race and consider themselves their own private property even in death
  • A king’s wife is outranked by her belly.
  • The devil’s hour occurs at 3AM, the inverse of Christ’s death on the cross at three o’clock in the afternoon.
  • “… she looks at one as though she disapproves of how one parts one’s hair, or spells one’s name, somehow.”
  • “A whip for a horse,” I said, “a bridle for a donkey, and a rod for the back of fools.” I don’t know why I warned her next, but I did. “I’m going to speak a bible over you now,” I told her. “Brace yourself.”
  • “I did not ask what the frog wanted,” his father said, “I asked if the frog expected to be let in.” All the other daughters had stopped pretending to eat at this point and stared in open excitement at the prospect of watching one of their number get into trouble.

I bought my copy at The Writer’s Block, but of course, it’s also available at the Amazon. Enjoy!

P.S.: For more on fairy tales for adults, see Book Review: The Sister Who Ate Her Brothers and Book Review: The Fairy Tale Review