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Bookworm: A hauntingly good read

And there’s no denying this climate change book is funny

Terri Schlichenmeyer
Columnist
“Gone at Midnight: The Mysterious Death of Elisa Lam” author Jake Anderson.

“Gone at Midnight: The Mysterious Death of Elisa Lam”

  • By Jake Anderson
  • c. 2020, Citadel Press
  • $26, $35 Canada; 368 pages

Something doesn't feel right. Things are off a little bit, or a lot. One point's out of place, another seems slightly askew, and once you spot a problem, you can't unsee it. Casual observers, heck, even professionals might think the picture’s perfect, but you know better. As in the new book “Gone at Midnight” by Jake Anderson, some things just don’t add up.

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A sunny southern California vacation always sounds good to a northerner, especially in January. And that's the reason Chinese-Canadian student Elisa Lam was in Los Angeles that winter, 2013, though her parents worried about her traveling solo.

“Gone at Midnight: The Mysterious Death of Elisa Lam” by Jake Anderson.

For the choice of hotel alone, they had reason to fret: says Anderson, the Cecil Hotel – Lam's chosen destination – was in a sketchy area, near Skid Row. It's possible that Lam didn't know the area, he suggests, or its history.

Built in 1924 with the intention of bringing luxury and opulence to downtown Los Angeles, the Cecil Hotel was constructed with the wealthy in mind, but it also included several rooms for long-term residents. Almost immediately after its opening, though, problems arrived: a number of arrests occurred in the hotel, crimes were committed in its rooms, and several murders and more than a dozen suicides happened there. By the 1970s, in fact, the Cecil was known as "Suicide Hotel."

But Elisa Lam didn't realize that or didn't care. She checked into the Cecil Hotel with two women that she'd apparently just met, and who ultimately complained to hotel management that Lam was acting weird. Indeed, Lam had only recently realized that she'd suffered from depression for many years. But was she suicidal?

No one knows, and we never will: in mid-February of 2013, Lam's nude body was discovered floating inside the Cecil Hotel's water supply tank, under suspicious circumstances; officials said she drowned and Anderson says they refused to comment further.

But Lam's friends were outraged. They told Anderson that there was absolutely "no way" Elisa Lam killed herself ...

You might have seen the video, shocking as it is. It shows a slight Asian woman, and what looks like fearful behavior. In "Gone at Midnight," author Jake Anderson says that body language experts saw things differently, and he explains.

That's all good, at first. Very good: it's the stuff horror movies are made of, and Anderson plays into that creepiness by hinting that the Cecil is haunted and that the building seemed to call to him as he was researching this book. Read, check the windows, see if the hairs don't rise on your arms.

Again, very good – until this book's breathy prose, esoteric details, and personal information start to feel outsized. There's also a lot of biography here, and a lot of it is Anderson's. That's relevant, to a point, but it shifts the focus too much.

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Still, this chilling tale of obsession and gruesomeness is great for murder-mystery fans who also like a bit of paranormal sprinkled in. Turn on the lights, don't read at night, and "Gone at Midnight" could be just right.

“Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change”

  • By Dr. John Cook, founder of SkepticalScience.com
  • c. 2020, Citadel Press
  • $16.95, $22.95 Canada; 164 pages

It stormed again last night. That was exactly what you didn't need. You don't need another puddle, snowdrift, windstorm, or hailstone. If it wouldn't get too cold or too hot anymore, you'd be okay with that, too. So how do you explain weird weather causes to adults who don't believe in science? In "Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change" by Dr. John Cook, you'll get wind of some ideas.

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Think fast. If something happens suddenly, that's pretty easy to do. The human brain has evolved through the centuries to react quickly to danger, which is why it might be hard to wrap your cranium around climate change: "global warming is a slow-motion disaster" that science had known about for decades.

"Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change" by Dr. John Cook.

How it became a political issue is a shorter story. Says Cook, it started out with a nod toward human-caused global warming and an argument against government regulation in favor of free markets, which got big industries involved. They became worried about the cost of science on their bottom lines, and so they hired firms to sow doubt, making the "general public" believe that climate change was nothing. Science believers and non-believers ultimately divided along political lines.

The facts are there, though, says Cook: seasons have shifted over the past thirty years or so. Glaciers are melting, causing sea levels to rise and wildlife to suffer. You might have noticed more catastrophic storms. He points at climate change.

But when faced with your "Cranky Uncle," what can you do?

Be educated and know the myths and history of global warming. Learn to understand the other side and remember that climate deniers are "a small but vocal minority." When discussing climate change, know the three laws of science communication and that there's no reason to yell. Also remember that climate deniers' viewpoints are deeply entrenched. You're unlikely to change minds, even with facts at your fingertips.

“Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change” author Dr. John Cook, founder of SkepticalScience.com.

And that irritates you so much: wild weather, glacial melting, the danger to humans and animals, it's hard to understand why anybody would ignore what's happening. "Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change" might help with your frustration but take it slow.

As you'll see from this books' first few pages, the issues are complicated-not-complicated, in that they're clear cut to both sides. Author Dr. John Cook surely educates readers who'll need to understand both POVs before presenting any kind of arguments for science. It's also quite helpful to know how this all happened, and that becomes clear through graphic-novel-type drawings and an abundance of sidebars. Still, it's ... complicated.

Be aware, though, that this book is as absolutely politically one-sided as you might expect. It's not something you leave lying around when your conservative uncle drops by, or when you're hosting a family dinner. It's not small-talk fodder.

It's also not a breezy read. Understanding "Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change" takes conscious thought, openness, maturity, and patience. If you possess those traits, are 15-or-older, and have an activist's heart, you'll love this book. If not, its usefulness to you will be a little cloudy.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.