Monday, February 22, 2010

Review of Never Enough by Joe McGinniss -- Sparely Describing The Kissel Family "Milkshake Murder"

Never Enough by Joe McGinniss (Simon & Shuster 2007).

The worst person in this book is not the killer, who drugged her husband, bashed in his skull, wrapped him in a carpet and, two days later, asked handymen to haul the festering cheroot down to the storeroom.

The worst person in this book is not the victim’s brother, who defrauded his partners, clients and neighbors of millions of dollars through lies, forgery and theft.

Incredibly, the worst person in this book is the victim’s father, a wealthy man by the name of Bill Kissel, who invented a key component of toner cartridges but, as described in Never Enough by true crime guru Joe McGinniss, combines repulsive snobbery with a ruthless need to control people.

With such a monster of a father, it’s not surprising that brothers Rob and Andrew Kissel grew up and made some terrible decisions, and Never Enough describes the ramifications of their worst choices.

Andrew appeared to be a rat from the start. He faked his academic credentials and worked for a series of shady real estate companies, before striking out on his own with investment partnerships from which he embezzled. On the side, he stole from the co-op board of which he was the treasurer.

But Never Enough is not the story of Andrew; it’s the story of his brother, Rob Kissel, a whiz with numbers who made his name on Wall Street as an expert in the field of distressed debt. Rob would identify firms on the brink of bankruptcy and, if they were salvageable, obtain a controlling interest, put the company back into shape, and sell it at a profit.

But he didn’t perform sufficient due diligence before he married his wife, Nancy, a spoiled princess who became more materialistic as Rob became more successful. When the couple moved to Hong Kong in 1997 so that Rob could make money off the Pacific Rim, Nancy’s behavior bloated into a spastic dervish of consumption. According to McGinniss, Nancy shopped compulsively, turned her nose up at Chinese people and culture, and sheltered herself in a luxurious expat development called Parkview (although Nancy was upset to discover that she did not live in the most prestigious tower).

Nancy often flew back to the family’s cottage in Vermont, where she had a passionate affair with a handyman. Rob, suspicious, gathered evidence of the infidelity and prepared to sue for divorce. But, for a woman as shallow and status-conscious as Nancy, divorce and its social diminishment were unthinkable.

Which is why, according to Hong Kong police, Nancy Kissel served her husband a strawberry milkshake laced with five prescription drugs on November 2, 2003. After he was incapacitated, she lifted a heavy statuette of two girls and used it to beat her husband on the head until his skull cracked and brain matter fell out. She let the body rot in her bedroom for two days – ordering the maid to buy multiple bottles of peppermint oil – and wrapped it in a rug. Finally, she had two of the Chinese handymen in her building haul it to a storage unit.

McGinniss writes in a spare style, with a preference for short sentences. He divides his chapters into tiny sections, which keeps the reader turning pages.

The book should have contained an Afterword explaining McGinniss’ research and writing methods. The text contains so many verbatim conversations that McGinniss either reconstructed them with literary license or he had access to tape recordings, and he owed it to the reader to explain what was what. Instead, everything in the book, especially the details of the Kissels’ warped domestic life, has to be taken with skepticism.

Which is a shame, because Never Enough is a fascinating account of soulless people. Rob is so driven monetarily – he believed earning $10 million a year was failure if a colleague down the hall earned $20 million – that you wonder what emptiness he was trying to fill. Nancy, well, everyone knows a Nancy or two, an attractive woman who believes she can recklessly indulge her appetites without jeopardizing her position in life (which is actually her husband’s position, not that she comprehends the distinction). And fraudster brother Andrew got what was coming to him.

But the dad seems to be the root and stem of the problems. In one stomach-turning passage, Bill Kissel, determined to control the custody of his now-orphaned grandchildren, threatened to make false accusations of molestation if a relative challenged him in court.

For a book packed with vile bodies, the minor character of Bill Kissel is the most repulsive. In this crowd, that’s an accomplishment.

Pictured: Although Nancy Kissel took pains to highlight her natural beauty with expensively colored blond hair, she choose to look meek and ordinary while on trial. The jury convicted her, but her life sentence was vacated this month due to evidentiary issues. She will be re-tried.

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Editorial Note: Why Some Knife Tricks Headlines Will Become Suckier

Sherman Oaks, California

As part of the world's slowest web page revamp, I will be optimizing headlines so that they are more easily found by search engines.

This means that Knife Tricks headlines will become more descriptive and boring. The book review headlines, in particular, will be affected. I console myself with the fact that I'm not a skilled headline writer, so I don't have far to fall.

I have to follow the market. While I greatly appreciate those of you who have bookmarked this blog and read regularly, the vast majority of readers arrive from Google or Yahoo. I write about esoteric topics, and, if a reader is interested in Air Koryo or expat sex lives, I'm a top destination. So I need to make Knife Tricks more visible to the bots.

Here's a British Journalism Review article about the bland impact of writing headlines for search engines rather than people. Add "punchy headlines" to the list of things that the internet has destroyed.

Also: I've started to bold the topic sentence or nut graph of each post, to make it easier for you to decide whether you want to read all of it.

Pictured: The "Gotcha" front page of the U.K. Sun, a famous Falklands War headline which would have no traction online.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Good Reading

Sherman Oaks, California

Ebert's Coda. Roger Ebert, America's most famous film critic, is slowly dying. In this wonderfully observed Esquire piece, author Chris Jones details how Ebert has lost his jaw and much of his throat but not his intellect or his sense of humor.

Roger Ebert can’t remember the last thing he ate. He can't remember the last thing he drank, either, or the last thing he said. Of course, those things existed; those lasts happened. They just didn't happen with enough warning for him to have bothered committing them to memory — it wasn't as though he sat down, knowingly, to his last supper or last cup of coffee or to whisper a last word into [his wife] Chaz's ear. The doctors told him they were going to give him back his ability to eat, drink, and talk. But the doctors were wrong, weren't they? On some morning or afternoon or evening, sometime in 2006, Ebert took his last bite and sip, and he spoke his last word.

Pictured: Roger and Chaz Ebert at EbertFest in 2007.

The FAA's Worthless "Delays" Chart. Travel writer Joe Sharkey used the recent snowstorms on the East Coast to demonstrate the uselessness of the Federal Aviation Administration's online chart of airport delays. A cancelled flight is not recorded on the chart, so a terrible travel day, with hundreds of cancelled flights, reads the same as a day with perfect weather. Sharkey also suspects that the airlines cancelled so many flights to avoid federal penalties which kick in if a plane is on the tarmac for more than three hours.

HK. The Big Lychee is an excellent blog about Hong Kong politics. (Lychee is a sweet Asian fruit, and H.K. -- but also Shanghai -- is sometimes called "The Big Lychee.")


Friday, February 05, 2010

Airlines Padding Their Schedules To Be Officially "On Time"

Sherman Oaks, California

Yeah, now that you mention it, I have noticed that the scheduled flight times for several recent trips seemed too long and that, as a consequence, we landed "early."

Turns out, some U.S. carriers are padding the schedules -- for example, booking a 50-minute flight as a 75-minute flight -- so that they meet federal definitions for "on time" arrival, Scott McCartney of the Wall Street Journal writes.

The stratagem was previously used by the boys in Baggage Claim. As author Vince Staten explains in his highly readable Why Is The Foul Pole Fair?, the same can be perceived as shorter with a few sly touches.

Waiting in line does play with your head. Several years ago, the Houston airport found it was receiving an inordinate number of complaints about the baggage wait, even though it never took more than eight minutes to go from getting off the plane to grabbing the suitcase. The problem was that it was a one-minute walk to baggage and a seven-minute wait for luggage to come rolling into the baggage carousel. The airport had a simple solution: Baggage was moved further from the terminal. It was now a six-minute walk and a two-minute wait. The complaints stopped.

Pictured: Actor Patrick Dempsey at LAX, wondering if the layout of the terminal will trick him into thinking his baggage arrived early.

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Los Angeles City Council Practically Inviting People To Leave

Sherman Oaks, California

There's a reason why people leave.

While I will be focusing this blog more on travel and expat issues, today's post is about a Los Angeles concern which might apply to you or anyone else who has ever contemplated moving abroad.

Some places drive people out.

People leave Los Angeles because it becomes too expensive to raise a family. Others decide one day that the traffic is too much. A few wake from their Hollywood dream and return home.

And some people are repulsed by a local government that consistently maintains its own revenue and power at the taxpayers' expense.

The dysfunction of California has been a media meme for several months. In sum, the unions which represent public-sector employees have grown considerably in political power in the past 15 years. The unions' demands have led to a situation in which public employees (1) earn more money than counterparts in the private sector, (2) receive pensions that are unheard-of outside government, yet (3) enjoy civil service protections that insulate them from market forces, accountability or the realistic possibility of lay offs or terminations.

Due to sharp tax revenue declines over the past three years, state and local governments have to choose between seriously cutting their budgets or raising taxes during an economic downturn.

Guess which option the L.A. City Council prefers?

As noted in today's Daily News, Council members are considering a parcel tax -- which appears to be a flat fee to be imposed on each parcel of privately owned land within city limits -- along with other, unspecified measures.

Councilwoman Janice Hahn showed where her priorities were. "My goal is we find jobs for every one of our city employees," she said, noting that any laid off employees should be matched with vacant positions in other departments. That's not how I define "laid off."

The political class seems to think that L.A. is composed only of wealthy liberals, an impoverished underclass, and a government sector which takes money from the liberals while pretending to serve the poor.

If the Council keeps at it, those might be the only people left in L.A.

Photo: When not seeking to protect the job of every city employee, councilwoman Janice Hahn likes to pander to various ethnic voting blocs.

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Lynn Jolicoeur Belts It

Sherman Oaks, California

I knew this lady when we were in college in Boston. She was a broadcast reporter and now appears to be a jazz singer. That is all.

Young American Women Allegedly Find Love In Old Europe

Sherman Oaks, California

The New York Observer published a feature last month about American women finding love -- and commitment -- in the arms of European men. American men don't want to be tied down, the salmon-colored weekly contended in a piece headlined "Want a Husband? Try a Eur-Male Pass" by Irina Aleksander (pictured, with cigarette).

Maybe it's true. Maybe it's a bogus trend piece based on a few of the writer's unrepresentative friends.

In either event, my congratulations to the ladies who have found their Don Juans.

But it's another example of the Romantic Travel Double Standard: When women leave the United States to increase their dating potential, it's empowering and serves those rats right. When men do the same thing, it's disgusting and sexist and exploitative and neo-colonialist and blah blah blah.

Admittedly, the Observer article does not castigate men who move abroad for companionship. But is there a chance in hell the paper would have run a plauditory story with the genders reversed, a story focused on how American women don't make the grade so men are on the next flight to the marriage markets of China?

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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Great Tiananmen Square Video

Sherman Oaks, California

The music video cuts between events in Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong.

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