Archive: May 2006

Book Review: Portrait Of A Killer: Jack The Ripper, Patricia Cornwell (2002)

Sunday, May 21st, 2006

Intriguing theory, but ‘Case Closed’? – Hardly!

three out of five stars

In PORTRAIT OF A KILLER: JACK THE RIPPER – CASE CLOSED, crime novelist Patricia Cornwell tackles the true crime genre with mixed results. With the help of modern-day forensics, she attempts to prove that Walter Sickert (1860-1942), an English Impressionist painter, was in fact Jack the Ripper. She lays out an intriguing, albeit largely circumstantial, case. However, one could hardly say that she’s managed to do what so many before her have not – that is, close the case.

To her credit, Cornwell presents the reader with a volume of evidence that points to Sickert as a viable suspect in the Ripper crimes. She draws on paper, watermark, handwriting, and mitochondrial DNA analysis, and also delves deep into Sickert’s personality, expounding upon his childhood traumas and adult eccentricities in great detail.

Of particular interest is a childhood condition that may have caused damage to Sickert’s penis, perhaps to the point that he was impotent as an adult. Clearly, Sickert endured lengthy hospital stays and several surgeries as a young boy. Unfortunately, hospital records kept during this time were spotty, so it’s impossible to tell whether Sickert did in fact suffer from a fistula on his penis – or if the fistula was instead located on his anus (as the more commonly accepted theory goes).

Certainly, it’s possible that the results of a penile fistula suffered in the days before modern medicine – i.e., the inability to have sex `normally,’ and/or the grotesque appearance of one’s genitalia – could cause a man to hate that which he cannot have, that is, women. Although Cornwell assumes that Sickert did in fact have a fistula on his penis as a boy, and was disfigured by the resulting surgery, she has no concrete evidence to support her claim. Since this is a significant part of her argument – after all, she presents it as Sickert’s primary motive for the killings – it tends to weaken the rest of her case, which she presents in pieces as she describes the Whitechapel murders.

The “penile or anal fistula mystery” is illustrative of what follows. Cornwell has certainly done her research; yet, when all her digging fails to turn up any conclusive evidence, she shows herself more than willing to take huge leaps of faith. What results is a case built almost entirely on circumstantial evidence. It makes for an interesting read, but to call the case closed is preemptive at best (and, quite frankly, Cornwell comes off much worse, what with the smug, know-it-all tone she takes, particularly throughout the first third of the book).

Another major point of contention is that Cornwell explicitly refuses to consider any suspects other than Sickert. She briefly dismisses John Druitt, who committed suicide shortly after Mary Kelly was murdered, but Druitt is literally the only other suspect that Cornwell mentions by name. In fact, she explicitly states that it’s not her place to clear other suspects in PORTRAIT OF A KILLER, which strikes me as rather disingenuous (especially when her case against Sickert is so flimsy!). Throughout the book, Cornwell seems so eager (“overeager” is putting it mildly) to implicate Sickert – continually referring to him as “Jack the Ripper,” a “killer” and “psychopath,” etc. – that one has to wonder whether her inexplicable hatred of Sickert clouded her judgment. Or perhaps mere stubbornness is to blame? It seems that, once Cornwell had her sights set on Sickert, on went the blinders, rendering the author incapable of registering any information that contradicted her theory that “Sickert did it!”

Other reviewers have complained that the book is disjointed. While Cornwell does jump back and forth in time, it didn’t bother me. Rather, I thought it was a nice narrative technique. I do agree, though, that the book ended abruptly. One moment, Cornwell is describing how Sickert mistreated his second wife; the next, the poor woman is dead and buried, and so is the book. I’m still puzzled why the discussion ended with the wife’s death, and not Sickert’s, particularly when Sickert’s murderous tendencies (allegedly) continued.

Finally, a note on the various formats. I first listened to PORTRAIT OF A KILLER as an audiobook on CD. Kate Burton did an excellent job of narrating, assuming both elite and Cockney English accents with ease. The play-like quality of the book also helps to offset the abrupt switches in place and time. The unabridged version, which I borrowed from my local library, ran eleven discs (the current version available on Amazon, which is listed at five discs, seems awfully short – even for an abridged book).

Not long after finishing the audio book, I ran across the hardcover edition at a used book sale and snatched it up. It has a number of pictures, including a few autopsy photos, Sickert family portraits, and snapshots of Sickert’s artwork and handwriting, side-by-side with that contained in some of the Ripper letters. After listening to Cornwell’s comparisons of Sickert’s and the Ripper’s (or the Ripper imposter’s) handwriting and scribbles, it was interesting to compare them for myself, firsthand. Suffice it to say, I was less impressed with the similarities between the two men’s handiwork than was Cornwell.

In summary: Serious Ripperologists will most likely hate this book. Very little of Cornwell’s evidence is bulletproof, and her arrogance can be off-putting (doubly so to those who have been studying Jack the Ripper for years). Even so, I found the book entertaining and thought-provoking. Cornwell’s description of 1800s England and early police work, along with comparisons of modern and centuries-old forensic techniques, makes PORTRAIT OF A KILLER worth a read alone. We’ll probably never know who killed Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes, Kelly, and possibly others – or if they were even murdered by the same person – but it’s “fun” to wonder. Cornwell’s theory, at the very least, makes for an engaging exercise in “what if?”

One star for the thorough research, another for the author’s captivating writing style, and a third for sheer entertainment value.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Esther Kaplan’s With God On Their Side (2004)

Wednesday, May 17th, 2006

A few months back, I mentioned that DefCon was starting book club in March. First on their list was Esther Kaplan’s With God On Their Side: How Christian Fundamentalists Trampled Science, Policy and Democracy in George W. Bush’s White House. I actually did read it as promised; it just took me a wee bit longer than I’d anticipated. Two months longer, to be exact.

But finish it I did, and lawdy, lawdy, it’s some scary shit. Even if the Dems win back Congress and the White House in ’06 and ’08, it’s gonna take “us” (the Dems aren’t exactly my people, but they’re as close as I’ll ever get to the White House) decades to undo all the damage that GW has wreaked, particularly in regards to his judicial appointments. We’ve gotta wait years for these unqualified zealots to drop dead before we can reinstate judges that, you know, agree with the Constitution and all its amendments. Maybe we can just pray to Jeebus. (Hey, it kinda-sorta worked for Pat!)

Anyway, thought I’d share my Amazon review, since y’all have been so patient.

By the way, my review appears under the book’s hardcover listing, but it’s available in paperback, too.


(More below the fold…)

DVD Review: Lift Weights to Lose Weight, Kathy Smith (2006)

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

Great weighted workout for all levels!

five out of five stars

Kathy’s Smith’s TIMESAVER: LIFT WEIGHTS TO LOSE WEIGHT is a fun, effective workout for all levels. The workout is divided into three sections: a 20-minute upper body workout; a 20-minute lower body workout; and a 7-minute bonus abdominal workout.

Throughout the upper body workout, you use dumbbells to work your arms and back. Other exercises include pushups and tricep dips. The lower body workout consists mostly of squats and side and back leg kicks/lifts. Finally, be prepared to do a number of different crunches during the ab section.

The nice thing about the upper- and lower-body workouts is that they can be as easy or as difficult as you like – just vary the weight of the dumbbells and ankle weights. Each has two different “Tracks” you can follow, too. The first track employs lighter weights and more repetitions, while the second uses heavier weights and allows for more frequent rests in which to recover. Half the class follows along with each track, plus there are textual cues on the video to help you keep up with your track, so it’s quite simple.

Although instructor Kathy Smith suggests that you do the workout every day, alternating between the lower- and upper-body segments (or do both on one day and then take the next off), I also do yoga, pilates, and Tae Bo, so I only do LIFT WEIGHTS TO LOSE WEIGHT about once a week. Even so, I can already see a difference, particularly in my arms and shoulders. I don’t use especially heavy weights, either – just 3- and 5-pound dumbbells and 2-pound ankle weights. I can really feel an ache in my muscles after the lower body segment, too. Finally, the ab workout is a “fun” (relatively speaking) variation from what I’m used to.

Speaking of fun, I really like Kathy Smith’s instructional style. She’s peppy and encouraging, but not to the point of annoyance (yes, I’m thinking of the wild-eyed Denise Austin here). I have a number of Smith’s workouts, and they’re all above par.


The upper body workout requires at least two pairs of dumbbells: a light-to-medium set and a second, heavier set. During the workout, instructor Kathy Smith encourages you to alternate between the two. A padded bench is optional. If you don’t have a bench, you can get down on a carpeted floor or mat instead, but I find that a bench helps me to keep proper form, so I just use my coffee table with a towel for padding. However, you will need a chair for the tricep dips.

The lower body section requires a chair for support, and dumbbells and ankle weights may be used for a greater challenge.

The ab segment doesn’t require any extra equipment, optional or otherwise – just a carpeted floor or exercise mat.

Enjoy the workout!

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

I come bearing pictures.

Wednesday, May 10th, 2006

Yesterday was my birthday (hint, hint!) – in lieu of a number, let’s just say that this summer is my ten-year high school reunion – and Shane prepared a culinary orgy of breakfast foods and vegan desserts. I suspect that I’ll be working this junk off my trunk for months.

For breakfast, blueberry pancakes, fake bacon, and hash browns (the loaded-with-fat patty kinds, no less).

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Dinner consisted of a yummy yummy Amy’s frozen pizza (my favorite) and egg rolls, and was followed with Shane’s own creation, a “Mocha Brownie Trifle.” Basically, two layers of brownies, wedded together with a chocolate-coffee-whipped cream icing, and topped with whipped cream and chocolate chips. Only way that baby could be any less healthy is if you toss some cookies on top.

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Got some cool stuff – more boxing gear, subscriptions to Ms. and The Bark, some cute animal-themed towels from my mom – but my favorite was, by far, an afghan from Shane that has one of the bestest shots of my furbabies woven right into it.

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For reference, here’s the original picture.

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Pretty sweet job, eh?

(A funny aside: he told ’em it was for Mother’s Day in hopes that they’d put a rush on the order…and they did.)

Speaking of cute dogs, my sister sent me a little doggy tee, which I promptly made Rennie model for me.

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Guess supermodels really do have it ruff, because she passed out on the couch soon after.

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