Magazine Love – and “Best American” anthologies

January 30, 2008 at 9:02 pm (Book review, books, Eloquence, Magazines and newspapers)

I love magazines! Wheat would we do without these often-unheralded repositories of terrific writing? And now, here come a slew of “Best of” anthologies, to help us catch up on quality items we may have missed.

crime-reporting2.jpg I have just finished – or, almost finished – Best American Crime Reporting 2007. This little baby made it home with me from the library while I was working on my true crime post. Let’s just see what’s in it, I said to myself. After all, one does not wish to take in too much of “this sort of thing” at one gulp. Well, you know what’s coming. I read pretty much the whole collection, finding “this sort of thing,” for the most part, irresistible.

As with most collections of this sort, there is a series editor and a guest editor. The job of series editor is shared by the venerable Otto Penzler and writer Thomas H. Cook, with Linda Fairstein doing the honors as guest editor. I like what Penzler and Cook have to say in their preface:

“The common thread of crime is crisis, which has the striking power to generate suspense in its development and poignancy in its outcome. How, the heart asks, did this crisis come about, by what means will it be resolved, and at what human cost?”

The fifteen articles in this anthology were originally published in a variety of magazines, most of which are associated with a particular city or state. Where sheer numbers are concerned, New York Magazine was the clear winner, with four entries. Esquire and The Atlantic each had two. The Boston Globe Magazine, GQ, Texas Monthly, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago had one each.

texas-monthly.jpg new-york-mag.jpg esquiremay-2002_sm.gif atlantic-monthly-magazine.jpg

The selections vary widely, as does the nature of the crimes delineated by these authors. In “The Loved Ones,” Tom Junod tells the story of family-run nursing home, St. Rita’s, located just southeast of New Orleans. From all accounts, Sal and Mabel Mangano, with help from other family members, tended the home’s residents with loving care. Yet they made a fateful decision not to evacuate their charges and their staff when Katrina hit the Crescent City. The home was completely inundated; as a result, thirty-five residents lost their lives. The Manganos were subsequently hauled up on charges of negligent homicide:

“Now they were notorious–icons of abandonment whose mug shots after their arrest personified more than just the prevailing stereotype of unscrupulous nursing-home owners. An entire American city had been left to die, and sixty-five-year-old Sal and sixty-two-year-old Mabel Mangano had somehow become the public faces of a national disgrace.”

So what happened, exactly, at St. Rita’s on that fateful Monday, August 29th 2005? I can tell you, once you read Junod’s moment-by-moment reconstruction of how catastrophe overtook the nursing home, you will not forget it.

I was initially tempted to skip this story, feeling, probably like many other people, Katrina’ed out. Once again, the lesson was brought home to me: the stories of individual people, even in the midst of the heavily-reported melee created by a killer hurricane, deserve to be heard. Tom Junod has told this story with urgency and eloquence. He is not a writer with whom I was familiar up until now. I would like to read more of his work.

Some of the criminal behavior recounted in these stories is more bizarre than vicious. Angela Platt managed to embezzle nine million dollars from her employer, construction magnate John Ferreira. Granted, Platt was a trusted and seemingly conscientious employee, yet she was using ill-gotten gains to finance a lavish, ostentatious lifestyle for herself and her perpetually out-of-work husband. Did she think she could keep it up forever and not be found out? And how do you not miss nine million dollars stolen from what is essentially a family business? Read all about it in “The Inside Job” by Neil Swidey (Boston Globe Magazine).

“The Devil and David Berkowitz” by Steve Fishman (New York Magazine) was another story I was tempted to forego. But Fishman’s tale of Berkowitz prison transformation from serial killer pariah (“Son of Sam”) to Evangelical preacher is fascinating, if surreal. This scenario presented Fishman with the challenge of portraying ardent Christian fundamentalists in an evenhanded way and without irony or snarky asides. He succeeds beautifully.

“The Double Blind” by Matthew Teague (Atlantic Monthly) is the story of how British intelligence infiltrated and ultimately disabled the IRA. Teague tells this story through the prism of the experience of one man, Kevin Fulton, who was caught in the crossfire of a turbulent, often deadly war of attrition. You would think this would be a straightforward story of good guys triumphing over bad guys. You would be wrong.

Betty Williams is a vibrant, headstrong teen-ager who yearns for death. Her ex-boyfriend helps her to achieve her goal in Pamela Colloff’s immensely disturbing “A Kiss Before Dying” (Texas Monthly). And novelist Douglas Preston tells the harrowing tale of “The Monster of Florence” (Atlantic Monthly). Yes – that’s Florence, Italy, cradle of the Renaissance, repository of fabulous art treasures, surrounded on all sides by gorgeous countryside – countryside in which a serial killer stalked amorous couples and killed them (and worse). Preston and his friend, journalist Mario Spezi, decide to investigate the case on their own; they are stunned when they are accused by the Italian authorities of obstruction of justice and concealing evidence. This is a classic case of truth being stranger than fiction.

monster.jpg (Preston and Spezi’s book, The Monster of Florence, is due out in June.)

I think the story that will haunt me the most is “Last Seen on September 10” by Mark Fass (New York Magazine). On September 10, 2001, at eleven o’clock in the morning, Ron Lieberman said goodbye to his wife Sneha Ann Philip and left for his work as an emergency-room intern. He returned around midnight to an empty apartment. He wasn’t unduly alarmed at first; apparently Sneha, also a physician in training, sometimes stayed out late, or even overnight with friends or relations, and did not call her husband. When Ron awoke early the next morning and Sneha was still not home, he was more annoyed than worried, knowing her habits as he did.

Then the unthinkable happened. And then Ron Lieberman panicked. With good reason. Sneha had still not been seen or heard from. The search for her became entangled in the search for survivors of the September 11 attacks. But no trace of Sneha Ann Philip has ever been found.

There is one story in this fine anthology that I was unable to finish. Written by C.J. Chivers, “The School” (Esquire) is the story of the siege of School No.1 in Beslan, a city located in the Russian republic of North Ossieta. It was September 1, 2004, the first day of the new school year. Festivities welcoming the children were under way when a hoard of Chechen terrorists descended on the school as if out of nowhere. A bloodbath followed. I have no doubt, from the little I could get through, that this is a terrific piece of reportage, an up close, true picture of what a gang of pitiless fanatics is capable of perpetrating on innocent people. )

Probably the single most harrowing magazine piece that I have managed to get through bears the deceptively modest title “A Sea Story.” It’s the story of the sinking if the ferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea on September 28, 1994. Written by William Langewiesche, “A Sea Story” appeared in the May 2004 edition of the Atlantic Monthly. It is also included in Langewiesche’s book The Outlaw Sea. outlaw-sea.jpg Don’t read it if you have a weak heart!


  1. Pauline Cohen said,


    As you know, I’ve been away and didn’t get a chance to add a comment earlier. I didn’t read the New York magazine article about Dr. Sneha Ann Philip, but I did read a follow-up to her case recently in the Toronto Star newspaper. (She has some connection to Toronto that I don’t recall.) She has been declared dead and believed to have been one of the victims of the World Trade Center conflagration on 9/11. I don’t know what was said in the article so I might be repeating what was covered in the New York magazine.


  2. Last Seen… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] July 13, 2008 at 1:20 pm (Current affairs, Magazines and newspapers, books) (Sneha Anne Philip) I almost missed “Woman Restored To 9/11 Toll,” a brief item that appeared in Friday’s Washington Post. What caught my eye was a name: Sneha Anne Philip. This is the young medical intern whose disappearance was chronicled in an article by Mark Fass in New York Magazine,  “Last Seen On September 10.” I read this article in the terrific anthology Best American Crime Reporting 2007. […]

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