Category Archives: Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

About Time I Read It: The Best American Essays 2015

A few months ago I started craving longform journalism. Luckily for me, I have a huge stack of cast-off New Yorker magazines I’ve managed to accumulate over the last couple of years so I have no shortage of available reading material. But as I began exploring this cache I found myself craving longform stuff in book form, preferable curated by a capable editor. Fortunately for me, my public library has a number of essay collections and last week I borrowed two, one of which happened to be The Best American Essays 2015. I burned through it quickly, which is always a good sign. It also left me wanting to read more essays, which also a good sign.

Within the pages of The Best American Essays 2015 I found stuff by familiar authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Doerr and David Sedaris but the rest of the contributors were new to me. New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy served as the guest editor for 2015’s edition and a good chunk of the pieces she selected dealt with the personal: aging, mortality, family and marriage. Had I known this was the case, I might not of decided to read her collection, fearing the essays were too sentimental or self-centered. Kudos to Levy though, there’s not a stinker in the bunch. (Although Zadie Smith’s “Find Your Beach” might not have been up to my liking.) Of these Justin Cronin’s “My Daughter and God” in which he recalls in detail the existential crises and religious quest resulting from his wife and daughter’s brush with death was a favorite of mine as was John Reed’s edgy piece “My Grandma, the Poisoner” about a dear grandmother who, in all likelihood was a serial poisoner. Kelly Sunderberg’s “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is probably the best account I’ve read on the complexity and pain of spousal abuse.

As for other memorable contributions in this collection, hats off to Philip Kennicott for his piece “Smuggler” on the perils and pitfalls of gay literature. Even as a non-gay male I found his essay fascinating and smart as hell without being dry and pretentious. As a cat lover, how could I not enjoy Tim Kreider’s “A Man and His Cat” about what it’s like to adopt (or perhaps more accurately, be adopted by) a stray cat. Lastly, Isiah Berlin’s “A Message to the Twenty-First Century” on the evils of totalitarianism was another of my favorites. Originally written in 1994 it wasn’t published until a decade later. Sadly, in this age of Internet-enabled bigotry and Donald Trump, Berlin’s warnings are sorely needed.

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Filed under Christianity, Current Affairs, Memoir, Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

Soviet Spotlight: The Man with the Poison Gun by Serhii Plokhy

If you think Russia’s habit of poisoning its enemies is anything new, guess again. Decades before Russian agents used nerve gas, polonium and dioxin to eliminate troublesome individuals one of their agents used a poison spewing gun to murder not one but two political enemies who’d found refuge abroad. If this is news to you don’t be too hard on yourself. Until I read Serhii Plokhy’s 2016 book The Man with the Poison Gun: A Cold War Spy Story I had no idea either.

I discovered Plokhy’s book just like I’ve discovered so many other intriguing backlist books of late. Just like Ken Silverstein’s Turkmeniscam, Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed and Michael Levy’s Kosher Chinese I just found it on the shelf at my local public library and simply had to have it. I’m glad I borrowed it because it’s pretty darn good.

In 1950 in Soviet Ukraine, Bogdan Stashinsk, a young student was arrested on a train for traveling without a ticket. Soviet authorities, knowing his family was in the anti-Soviet Ukrainian underground worked to “turn him” and enlist him in their struggle to break the resistance. The young man complied and after showing surprising promise was given additional training and sent abroad. Eventually, he was stationed in the West and ordered to assassinate a pair of Ukrainian nationalists who’d become thorns in the side of the USSR. The murders, and the resulting criminal trial that followed captured headlines and even inspired Ian Flemming to include a similar incident in his novel The Man with the Golden Gun.

I’ve decided to apply The Man with the Poison Gun towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge since much of this book takes place in or deals with Soviet Ukraine. Also, the author Plokhy is Ukrainian. Once again, I find myself indebted to my local public library for bringing a surprisingly good book to my attention. The Man with the Poison Gun could wind up on my year-end Best Nonfiction List, or at the very least an honorable mention.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

When I spotted Sarah Krasnostein’s 2018 book The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster one Saturday morning at the public library it looked vaguely familiar, like I’d seen it reviewed online somewhere but couldn’t remember where or any details. Being sick and twisted I couldn’t resist a book about the business of cleaning homes ravaged by hoarders and traumatic deaths. So of course I borrowed it and proceeded to whip through it in no time. Yes, I found The Trauma Cleaner full of those horror stories but it was the life story of Sandra Pankhurst, the 63-year-old owner and operator of Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services that stuck with me for a long time after I finished this book.

Sandra, an Australian, was born male. Adopted as a young child by a devout Catholic couple in Melbourne, she suffered years of physical and emotional abuse from her alcoholic father and ultra religious mother who resented their adopted child for being effeminate and thus in their eyes gay. Exiled to a small shack in the backyard and denied food and bathroom privileges she was forced to pilfer from the family larder just to survive. Desperate to trade this hell for a life of normalcy she married young, fathered two children, worked the blue-collar life (which resulted in a brush with death during the West Gate Bridge collapse), and explored Melbourne’s underground gay scene. It was here for the first time she encountered trans individuals and thus began her own trajectory as a trans person.

But alas, it was no easy trajectory. During 7os in Australia most physicians were averse to doing gender reassignment surgery (some patients went overseas to countries like Egypt for their surgeries and encountered unsanitary and unsafe operating conditions) but fortunately for Sandra there was a small, secretive network of physicians willing to help. After discretely operated on by one of them, she could finally begin living as the woman she was meant to be. But even that was no picnic. For awhile she worked as a prostitute in a legal brothel and one night was raped, kidnapped, assaulted and almost murdered by a crazy client. She married twice, started one business and after it failed started a new one specializing in extreme cleaning jobs.

Perhaps because she’s lived such a hard life Sandra is able to relate well to her clients as well as her staff, since both in varying degrees are broken people. Let’s face it, no one tells their high school career counselors they wannabe trauma cleaners when they grow up. Frequently, the people Sandra employs are either drifters, semi-feral types ill-suited to office jobs or respected vocations or odd-balls. As for her clients, her bedside (or I should say “filthside” manner) makes her the Mother Theresa of Trauma cleaning. Showing up with her team at a hoarders’ home she’s well aware it’s not the resident who’s requested her services but a concerned relative, social worker or landlord. Compassionately reasoning with the hoarders, who might be sobbing and begging her to please go away, she’ll assure the resident this is for the best and she’s there to help.

Krasnostein tagged along for eight cleaning excursions, six of them at the homes of hoarders. One began with Sandra’s team removing the front doors of the house because it was so filled with refuse. With every available space piled floor to ceiling with the fossilized remains of old newspapers and magazines, rotten leftovers, garbage and pet feces “we need crowbars, spades, rakes, a sledgehammer” to get the job done according to Sandra. One of the worst cleanups involved a house with a broken toilet that had been overflowing for years, spreading its fecal filth throughout the house. When cleaning up after a resident has died, one of the first things her teams does is locate any “weird porn” and remove it.

No matter how grim the subject matter, The Trauma Cleaner is one of this year’s pleasant surprises.

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