Ep. 82 Chase Darkness with Me by Billy Jensen — The Stacks Book Club (Jac Vanek)

Chase Darkness with Me is Billy Jensen’s true crime book about his journey into solving murder cases. We get to talk about this book, and all the complicated issues it brings up with Jac Vanek (LadyGang, The First Degree). We look at the merits of crowd sourced crime investigation, how we treat victims who aren’t pretty white women, and how the current obsession with true crime is a little problematic.
There are minor spoilers on this episode.

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Everything we talk about on today’s episode can be found below in the show notes. If you’d like to support your local indie, you can shop through IndieBound.

Connect with Jac: Instagram | LadyGang | The First Degree | Jac Vanek

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Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

D4FF632C-4321-43F0-BA48-93A26BFEF576The story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, was first brought to my attention when the Bad Blood review was released for the New York Times. I didn’t read the full review, I don’t like to read reviews before I read the book, but the first few lines caught my attention that I immediately added the book to my TBR (to be read) list and couldn’t stop thinking about it. The story sounded so interesting and totally in my wheel-house, a start-up fraud of epic proportions.

If you’ve not heard of Theranos or Bad Blood here is a little background for you.

In 2014, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was widely seen as the female Steve Jobs: a brilliant Stanford dropout whose startup “unicorn” promised to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood testing significantly faster and easier. Backed by investors such as Larry Ellison and Tim Draper, Theranos sold shares in a fundraising round that valued the company at more than $9 billion, putting Holmes’s worth at an estimated $4.7 billion. There was just one problem: The technology didn’t work.

A riveting story of the biggest corporate fraud since Enron, a tale of ambition and hubris set amid the bold promises of Silicon Valley.

I really loved this book. It is a wild story whose veracity baffled me. If it was a movie, it would be written off as too unbelievable, but the fact that it is true makes it utterly consumable. The writing is quick, deliberate, and to the point. John Carreyrou, the author and the journalist who brought the Theranos fraud to light for The Wall Street Journal, does a phenomenal job of presenting the characters without interpretation. He allows Elizabeth Holmes’ behavior to speak for itself. I appreciate Carreyrou trusting that his reader is smart enough to draw their own conclusions.

The thing about this book is that it should be boring. Its a book about medical equipment and lab testing procedures that never worked. Its about science and business and startups, and normally that kind of stuff would bore me, except that the scam was so big and those involved so powerful, the story is fascinating. It is written like a true crime book with riveting characters, threats, intimidation, billionaires, blackmail, and more. You’re immersed in the story of Theranos and I couldn’t put the book down, I needed to know how this all could happen and then how it all fell apart.

There is one strange moment in the book, when the story goes from a third person recounting of the rise of Theranos (the first 2/3 of the book), to introducing Carreyrou himself as a player in the story of Theranos. Its a total revelation and it feels very staged. I don’t know if I have a solution for how Carreyrou could announce himself as a player in the fall of Theranos, but how its pulled off feels a little melodramatic.

I highly recommend this book, especially if you enjoy non-fiction. This is top of its class non-fiction. This is an insane story broken down and detailed. There is a commitment to truth telling and it explaining what happened and what went wrong. You leave this book feeling like you understand Theranos so much better, but then again, I have a ton more questions. I plan to follow this story as it continues to develop in the news.

  • Hard Cover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (May 21, 2018)
  • 5/5 stars
  • BuyBad Blood on Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

EFD9FC14-C160-498F-8A7F-7B028658C6EDI live in Los Angeles, and this book about crime in South Los Angeles has been on my radar since it came out in 2015. I mean, it has all the things that I proclaim to like: true crime, race relations, specifically those dealing with Black folks; a journalistic style and approach, and a woman author. Plus, it talks about locations I’m familiar with and people that live 20 minutes (without traffic) away from me. This has just always felt like a must read for me.

If you aren’t familiar with Ghettoside, here is more about the book.

Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential, but mostly ignored, American murder—a “ghettoside” killing, one young black man slaying another—and a brilliant and driven cadre of detectives whose creed is to pursue justice for forgotten victims at all costs. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of why murder happens in our cities—and how the epidemic of killings might yet be stopped.

I found Ghettoside to be a very well manicured book. It is clear from the moment the book starts where it will end, and it is clear exactly what points author Jill Leovy will hit. It has no twists and turns, no suspense, no real excitement in the storytelling. That is not what Leovy is doing here. The point of this book is to show how routine and mundane murder has become in South Los Angeles. The point is that day in and day out Black men are being killed, and the LAPD detectives are the only people of authority who care (her point of view not mine).

Leovy embeds with the Southside detective unit and spends much of her time with one detective, John Skaggs. He is ostensibly the hero of this book. He is the guy we are told to be impressed by, he is the best one, he solves the cases, he is dedicated to justice. While I enjoyed hearing about the detectives, the parts of this book I enjoyed most were about the victims, their families, and even those people involved in perpetrating the crimes. Detectives are cool, but we have so many stories focused on them. I wish Leovy would have spent more time engaging with the stories of those who live in Watts, those who lost loved ones, those who stories are often erased in from their own narratives.

Something that got in the way of my enjoyment of Ghettoside, is that Leovy clearly grew to respect and admire the work of the detectives in the units she was with. I think that biased her to the work of other police officers. The book felt incredibly pro-detective, and mostly anti-patrol cop. I’m not doubting the detectives do good work, and that cops make mistakes, its more that it felt like the detectives were the heroes only being foiled by lousy police work and out of control gang members. I found it hard to trust her praise or condemnations fully.

I am glad I finally read this book. I enjoyed the well researched subject matter, and the amount of effort Leovy put in to talk to so many different people involved in South Los Angeles murders. I also appreciated her willingness to discuss the anti-Black racism that has led to a world in which the murder of Black men goes mostly unseen, unreported, and unsolved. She really gave these murders the context that is so often overlooked in place of a “personal responsibility” narrative.

If you’re interested in the detective process and how crimes are solved, this would be a good book for you. I also would suggest this book to anyone living in a city with high rates of murder perpetrated against Black men, or anyone who thinks this topic sounds interesting.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; Reprint edition (October 27, 2015)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Ghettoside on Amazon

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Vulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace by Maureen Orth

IMG_5910.JPGI talked extensively aboutVulgar Favors: The Assassination of Gianni Versace by Maureen Orth with Tony nominated choreographer Sam Pinkleton, on an episode of The Stacks podcast. You can hear us discuss and sort through the many layers of this book there.

If you aren’t familiar with the story of serial killer Andrew Cunanan and his crimes, here is a little more about this book.

On July 15, 1997, Gianni Versace was shot and killed on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion by serial killer Andrew Cunanan. But months before Versace’s murder, award-winning journalist Maureen Orth was already investigating a major story on Cunanan for Vanity Fair. Culled from interviews with more than four hundred people and insights gleaned from thousands of pages of police reports, Vulgar Favors tells the complete story of Andrew Cunanan, his unwitting victims, and the moneyed world in which they lived . . . and died. Orth reveals how Cunanan met Versace, and why police and the FBI repeatedly failed to catch him. Here is a gripping odyssey that races across America—from California’s wealthy gay underworld to modest Midwestern homes of families mourning the loss of their sons to South Beach and its unapologetic decadence. Vulgar Favors is at once a masterwork of investigative journalism and a riveting account of a sociopath, his crimes, and the mysteries he left along the way.

There are parts of this book that are interesting and fascinating. There are whole sections and chapters that I couldn’t stop reading. Orth’s ability to paint the scene of Cunanan’s life and more specifically his crimes, are some of the best parts of this book. I had a hard time sleeping thinking about hist first murder. It is about as haunting as they come.

Where I struggled with this book, and ultimately what turned me away from it, was Orth’s contextualizing of the story. Orth’s tone is intolerant at best, and outwardly homophobic at worst. She has a disdain for Cunanan, which of course makes sense, but she also judges those people in his world. And his world is that of gay men in the 1990’s. I can’t help but think that the “vulgar” in the title is directed at the Cunanan and his community. She discusses sex, drugs, and lifestyle as if this community is synonymous with all gay people all over. Its generalization at its worst. If you’d never met a gay person, you might think that all they did was pay each other for sex and snort (or swallow) meth.

Vulgar Favors is a book about a man who is obsessed with lies and celebrity and Orth gets wrapped up in that herself. She name drops through out, and forces connections where none exist. Her sources, and she has a whole lot, can feel a little unreliable, who doesn’t want to distance themselves from a man who killed five people, before then killing himself?

The story is multilayered and entertaining, but Orth can’t resist turning it into spectacle. She draws conclusions and connects dots that just might not be there. Vulgar Favors is full of contradictions and hearsay. While I enjoyed the book for what it is, if you read it, read it as a period piece from 1999, and not historical fact. Its a reminder of how people felt about homosexuality not too long ago. Its a reminder of different era of technology and media. You can also watch the FX Series The Assassination of Gianni Versace; American Crime Story and be just as entertained and not feel quite as icky.

If you do read this book, which is just fine, I would love to hear your thoughts.

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; Reprint edition (October 3, 2017)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Vulgar Favors on Amazon

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here