Typical, but better than average Carl Hiassen. Your usual cast of seedy Florida characters, oddball plots, rampant corruption and hypocrisy, as well a...moreTypical, but better than average Carl Hiassen. Your usual cast of seedy Florida characters, oddball plots, rampant corruption and hypocrisy, as well as slightly deranged heroes. Either you love this stuff -- and I do -- or you don't. But if you do, this is one to pick up.(less)
After all the hype, I was a bit disappointed in the result. Certain parts are very interesting, for sure, but the book's logial leaps and unexplored a...moreAfter all the hype, I was a bit disappointed in the result. Certain parts are very interesting, for sure, but the book's logial leaps and unexplored angles left me unconvinced of its conclusion.
What does Sesame Street have to do with infectious diseases? How can you spend an entire chapter talking about Rudy Giuliani's "Broken Windows" approach to crime in New York, while barely mentioning how controversial and (to some) discredited the theory is? The book to me felt Gladwell randomly picked a hodgepodge of subjects and then, as an intellectual exercised, tried to invest a concept which could string them all together.(less)
One of the best novels I've read in a while. Cormac McCarthy uses vivid and artful prose and descriptions to carry the reader through a stark, spare s...moreOne of the best novels I've read in a while. Cormac McCarthy uses vivid and artful prose and descriptions to carry the reader through a stark, spare story about a father and son's journey to the coast in a post-apocalyptic future.
The novel isn't exactly realistic (where's the nuclear radiation?), but it is thoughtful about life in a post-nuclear winter world. More importantly, McCarthy is honest and thoughtful about death, a concept he has explored his entire career. The hopelessness of the novel is relentless, but the story is nothing if not poignant about the bond humans form in the face of evil.
The novel could be described as science fiction -- or a metaphor about life -- but it works on its own terms and its own aspirations. Read it, and then ask yourself--do you carry the fire?(less)
The definitive Obama biography does a good job reviewing his background, political beginnings, and how he came to be a national superstar and presiden...moreThe definitive Obama biography does a good job reviewing his background, political beginnings, and how he came to be a national superstar and presidential contender. For those looking at a pre-hype look at controversial parts of his past (Rev. Wright, Chicago politics, Hawaii upbringing, etc.), this is the book to read.
Of course, I'm a bit biased--the author is, like me, a former Lorain Journalite.(less)
What we think of when we think of the pre-Columbian Americas -- a wilderness lightly occupied by primitive tribes -- was in fact only the tiny remnant...moreWhat we think of when we think of the pre-Columbian Americas -- a wilderness lightly occupied by primitive tribes -- was in fact only the tiny remnants of a sophisticated and highly evolved society which had been ravaged by European disease, largely before Europeans could ever make contact with them.
That is the provocative thesis of this thoughtful and thorough look at what existed in this hemisphere before 1491, and what happened to it in 1492. While it sounds like a tired politically correct, multi-culturalal revisionism, it isn't -- it's a fascinating and honest search for a clear-eyed history of the continent. It is also a sweeping, well-research chronicle of the macro elements that mold history --- in the spirit of Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel." Not only will it change the way you look at America's history, but it will change your view of how history unfolds.
Aside from the history of the various empires which existed in pre-Columbian America -- Mayans, Azteks, Incans, and many you've never heard of -- Mann also looks at the biology, technology, and anthropology behind the history. Among some interesting points he hits on are the development of corn (the first feat of genetic engineering, he claims), why Indians were so vulnerable to European germs (it's more complicated than you think), and how Indian culture influenced the development of the colonies and, he alleges, American ideas of freedom and democracy.
Mann isn't an academic, and he largely is just collecting information that other scientists have uncovered. The purpose of the book is not to uncover new facts, but to gather them in a way they haven't before to show how the newest available research so vividly contradicts our ingrained ideas about how the Americas were settled.
That said, Mann is sometimes a bit too zealous in pushing his case, occassionally making leaps in logic that aren't backed up with the evidence. He also could have spent more time dealing with some of the reactions non-academics would have reading the book. I had some fairly unsophisticated questions myself -- "Hey, if the Indians were so well-developed, why weren't there any huge cities in the north?" "If they were so technological, why didn't they 'discover' Europe?"
But the bottom line is, this book is a must for anyone interested in the world's history. Highly recommended.(less)
I listened to the audio book of "Bringing Down The House."
About as good as I expected. The mechanics about how the MIT students churned out thousands...moreI listened to the audio book of "Bringing Down The House."
About as good as I expected. The mechanics about how the MIT students churned out thousands from Vegas casinos is fascinating. Although it is fun following the protagonists through Vegas' decadent nightlife, the author spends a bit too much time trying to seduce us with the gamblers' lifestyle at the expense of other angles.
Written like a thriller, it keeps the reader riveted and interested in each plot turn, but the New Journalisty approach makes me wonder how much is actually true.
Basically, if the book looks interesting to you, it's worth reading.(less)
It says something about Carl Hiassen's worldview that some of the "good guys" in this comic potboiler include a drug-dealer and an Indian who hides a...moreIt says something about Carl Hiassen's worldview that some of the "good guys" in this comic potboiler include a drug-dealer and an Indian who hides a dead body in the first chapter.
In Hiassen's view, all men are either corrupt sleazeballs or oafish idiots, and all women are either promiscuous sluts or are just insane.
I say this in admiration, not derision. "Nature Girl" probably isn't the best Hiassen book I've read, but around the middle I laughed out loud, louder than I can ever remember with his other books (or any other book, period).
Too complicated to explain what scene caused me to do that--let's just say the plot involves a telemarketer on the East Coast unlucky enough to call an Everglades woman, who--to avenge such rudeness--hatched an elaborate revenge plot that somehow will involve canoes.
Oh, and there's a man whose fingers have been bitten off by crabs, and then re-attached incorrectly.(less)
Haven't seen the movie, just became interested in reading the book after all the pre-release hype.
No question, this is a superb, well-written, enthral...moreHaven't seen the movie, just became interested in reading the book after all the pre-release hype.
No question, this is a superb, well-written, enthralling book. But after finishing it, I'm chewing over how I feel about it.
As someone who was born and bred in the Midwestern suburbs (and doesn't think it's something to apologize about), I appreciated the way the novel cut both ways, examining with crisp observations life in the post-war suburbs, but also showing skepticism of those who blame all of their problems on the suburban wasteland.
Bottom line is, about halfway through, I realized that Frank and April Wheeler were two of the most pretentious, vapid people I've had to spend time with for a long time. For all of their complaining--and boy, is there a lot of complaining--neither of them have any dreams, beyond the basic (and universal) desire to live without responsibilities. It's their own choices that got them into their mess, not city planning. I think they'd be equally unhappy living in Manhattan, or upstate, or the moon. (Well, they would be a bit happier in the post-Roe v. Wade world.)
The fact that Yates made me care about these characters shows how well the book works. The stream-of-conciousness style is occassionally verbose, but never for a second do you feel that what's on the page isn't what's in the characters' heads.
I doubt the movie will pick up on the book's vivid descriptions of background characters, institutions, and history. The precision of the details is one of the main reasons this book is elevated above other stories about marriages in trouble.(less)
This is a review of the audiobook--the first of many, I hope, that I read during my hour-long commute to work. Take with a grain of salt, because it's...moreThis is a review of the audiobook--the first of many, I hope, that I read during my hour-long commute to work. Take with a grain of salt, because it's harder to concentrate on audiobooks, and I'm listening to these on an iPod Shuffle, so I never know for sure that I'm getting everything. Also, another note: I'd give this book 3 1/2 stars, out of four, if I had the option.
Emotional poignancy isn't normally what you expect out of a history book. I'm not talking about 4th of July, flag-waving-type poignancy, rather the poignancy of human drama. But that's exactly what I found in "Founding Brothers," and it snuck up on me. Ellis sets out to tell the story of the nation's early days as a human story about the flawed men behind its revolution. They were real people, who were involved in something so difficult that it created strong friendships--but it was also so momentous, it often tore them apart. His chapters on Adams and Jefferson--perhaps the most famous American friendship/rivalry--reveal something new about the USA's early conflicts.
His central thesis--that the creation of the Republic was not inevitable, but shaped by people with vastly different ideas about its purpose, and that the central conflict between Thomas Jefferson's idealized, independent confederation and John Adam's strong-government, centralized nation is still being fought today--doesn't strike me as ground-breaking. But's interesting to see the story told by a talented writer with an eye for detail and story-telling.
In today's political debates, we spend so much time debating what our founding fathers intended. Ellis reveals this as folly, because they themselves could never agree on what they meant--and if you chose any particular founder, his vision for the country would be dramatically and substantially different than the nation you would know or want today. Somehow, all of these competing visions canceled themselves out to create a thriving Republic. But at the time, these conflicts were surprisingly bitter, especially because the political systems to mitigate and resolve differences were new and untested. It's interesting to listen to these conflicts play out, and even though Ellis makes few allusions to today's politics, it's hard not to try to see the connections. (Listen to Thomas Jefferson rail against elite city-dwellers and you'll swear you're listening to Sarah Palin).
Ellis focuses on Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, along with bit players like Aaron Burr. I wonder if it would have worked better just focusing on Adams and Jefferson, since their decades-long love/hate relationship really seems to capture the essence of what Ellis sent out to demonstrate. I also would have liked to have read more about the Alien and Sedition Acts. Those days--what Jefferson called the "Reign of Witches"--showed how violent disagreements in the early republic were, and it makes the current "Reign of Bloggers" seem mild. Early statesmen were simply not equipped to view disagreements as anything else than treason. Ellis blames, of all people, Abigail Adams for the acts.
I'm inherently suspicious of history which focuses on people more than the forces which move under them. But this book makes such history compelling and touching.(less)
This is a review of the unabridged audiobook of "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking.
I've always been the type of person who likes to daydream...moreThis is a review of the unabridged audiobook of "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking.
I've always been the type of person who likes to daydream about the origin of the universe--(when I was younger, this was more like an obsession than a daydream)--so it was inevitable that I eventually would attempt to finish this book.
I thought maybe the format of a book on tape would be ideal for this famous treatise on physics--which I've always been told was very accessible--but honestly, I found myself rewinding constantly, and sometimes accepting that chapters were beyond my reach. At least, beyond the type of reach you can get while riding on the R5 on the way to Fort Totten. I understood maybe about half of the book. There's a lot of talk about relativity, quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principles, space-time, black holes, and the like. I finally accepted that concepts like the Theory of Relativity are just to counter-intuitive for uneducated folks like me to understand. Maybe even the educated folks really can't understand it--at least, not the same way that they understand what a ball does when you kick it.
Occassionally, in between lessons on quarks, Hawking does try to mix in thoughts about how these rules shed light on the meaning of the universe--as he states, "Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?" Turns out, there's an answer to one of the main arguments I've made in favor of the (possible!) existence of God--that so much matter couldn't have come into existence, given the Law of Conservation of Matter. The answer is that because matter = energy, and because all of the positive energy in the universe is matched with negative energy, it makes perfect sense that the universe just popped out of nowhere. (But who made that rule....)
There's also an interesting discussion about what Hawkings terms the "Anthropic Principle." The principle is the answer to the question--why is the universe uniform and in a nature which supports the development of intelligent life. Is it proof of a divine being? Or is it because there are plenty of different universes out there, and it only happens that we're in the one which has nice uniform laws (because that's the only universe which would create life). There's a bit of poignancy when Hawking briefly describes his diagnoses with Lou Gehrig's disease--with very little emotion, but you wonder if his fascination with the universe is tied in with the thoughts (incorrect, as it turned out) that his life was going to be short.
And I'd even have a quibble (actually, more like a question) for Prof. Hawkings. In one chapter, he discusses time and our perception of it, and he defines universal time as the direction in which things tend to get more disordered. But isn't the concept of order and disorder just a human creation? He's right that pieces of glass don't pick themselves up and create drinking cups (his example), but atoms create molecules, stars and planets form solar systems, and dust particles create dust bunnies--what's the difference? I'm sure there's an answer for this, just as there was an answer for my Conservation of Matter question. (But lets assume my notion is right that order and disorder exist equally in both directions of time--then why do humans tend to create things which break down as time passes, unless we fix them?)
All in all, I'd recommend this book, but it didn't quite ignite my imagination the way I'd thought it would. If anything, it dampened it--if it turns out that physicians have mapped out the nature and meaning of the universe so far beyond my comprehension, then what good are my musings on it? But I guess that situation isn't Hawkings' fault, and I shouldn't fault him for trying to map out how our knowledge of universe has expanded since Aristolte reflected on the subject--with about as much success as I had.
A NOTE ABOUT THE AUDIO EDITION:
The narration by Michael Jackson--(no, not that Michael Jackson)--was competent, but interesting in the way the very British Jackson read the book like it was a physics lecture. Laughing at his own jokes and occassionally interjecting "uhs" when he was "recalling" the names of his subjects were subtle ways to evoke the image of a Cambridge lecture hall. clever, but I would have preferred a more informal and direct approach, to go along with the supposed accessibility of the book. And is the history of time ever brief! Most unabridged audio books last more than ten hours, but this one lasted only five hours and forty-five minutes. Although you should allow for some time for rewinding.(less)
If you could follow this novel, you're smarter than I am. I was so confused, to paraphr...moreThis is a review of this audio book, narrated by Elliott Gould.
If you could follow this novel, you're smarter than I am. I was so confused, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, not only did I not know what was going on, I didn't know what I didn't know about what was going on. At one point, I skipped ahead a chapter and didn't even realize. What's the difference? Each chapter, some bit character comes in and completely changes our idea of what happened.
According to Roger Ebert's review of the 1946 movie, when they were filming, director Howard Hawks sent a telegram to author Raymond Chandler, asking whether or not one of the characters was killed or committed suicide. "Dammit, I don't know either," Chandler said later. I think I understood at least a majority of what was meant to be understood at the end of the novel, but I still don't know the answer to Hawks' question. I am fairly certain that the answer doesn't matter to the overall point.
In fact, the plot as a whole isn't supposed to matter to the overall point. The point is the characters, the setting, and the mood of moral degredation. This is a hard-boiled, stripped down story of cynical heroes, corrupt officials, money-grubbing bit players, world-weary detectives, soulless bootlegging mob bosses, coldblooded enforcers, as well as some really damn crazy broads.
I found myself rewinding often---sometimes, in the vain hope that a sentence I missed would explain everything, and sometimes, because I missed a bit of Chandler's artful prose. I loved the descriptions of the newborn L.A. metropolis--the Pacific beaches at nighttime. It seems to me that this novel is morally conservative, even for its time--not only because of the obvious homophobia (a lot of talk about faeries), but also with its easy equation that sexual independence in women = insanity. But maybe that's the point. Philip Marlowe is fighting a hopeless, losing battle against falling standards that were never worth adhering to in the first place. And he knows it. It's almost charming to hear someone talk about the "smut racket." What would Marlowe think if he knew that some forty years later, that "racket" would be the dominant business in his town?
As far as the Audiobook goes, what else can I say? Elliott Gould's narration is excellent. Of course, he played Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman's version of "The Long Goodbye," so he knows this world well. He gets the tone of world-weariness and cynicism perfectly.(less)
I'm trying to get back in touch with my Indiana roots by reading more Indiana authors--starting, of course, with Kurt Vonnegut.
This is Vonnegut's firs...moreI'm trying to get back in touch with my Indiana roots by reading more Indiana authors--starting, of course, with Kurt Vonnegut.
This is Vonnegut's first novel, about a mechanized future in which all Americans are either relegated to the Army, the "Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps" ("Reeks and Wrecks"), upper management, or the unemployment line--while machines and computers do all the work. It's classic Vonnegut, but it doesn't quite have the ironic craziness which defined so much of his later work.
Although it was written only a few years after Orwell's masterpiece, it owes a lot to "1984," I think. It's a lot less dark, though, with a comic underpinning missing in Orwell's fiction. Is Vonnegut right about the computerized future? Well, there's a lot of talk about vacuum tubes and punch cards, technology that was obsolete well before my birth. And, I dunno--I see his point about humans being dehumanized by machines, but on the other hand as computers have proliferated far beyond what Vonnegut could have predicted, it seems like there's always been an insatiable need for professionals to type on them. What I really liked was Vonnegut's look at upper management--its personalities, the corporate propaganda retreat, and the easy way that the higher-ups justify their positions. Vonnegut may not have predicted "Microsoft," but he could have predicted "The Office."
I was surprised how caught up I got in the trials and tribulations of the main character, Dr. Paul Proteus, machine manager of Illium, New York. Like Winston Smith, he decides its time to rebel against the system from within, but he is decidedly less organized and committed to his cause--and finds it puts a strain on his marriage and life.
So, final verdict: Didn't quite capture my imagination, but it was a good read. Now, on to "Cat's Cradle!"(less)
By now, I'm pretty used to the Carl Hiassen formula: a neurotic hero, a cast of cynical, corrupt, and grotesque characters--including one who normally...moreBy now, I'm pretty used to the Carl Hiassen formula: a neurotic hero, a cast of cynical, corrupt, and grotesque characters--including one who normally ends up disfigured in some way--and a multi-layered plot which normally ends in a late-night rendezvous somewhere in the Florida wilderness. Who cares if it's not Shakespeare, and he rarely deviates from it--it's damn entertaining.
This is probably one of his best. The plot is especially inventive and creative in the way it layers mutliple absurdities unto themselves until it's gone places that seem impossible. Hiassen's usual cast of sleazy Florida pols, goons, and mobsters--(the mafia plays only a peripheral role here)--is upstaged by a character even more amoral and despicable: the ritzy Miami plastic surgeon. Oh, and a flamboyant Geraldo Rivera type. And you know you're in Hiassen country when the most likable, sane person is a TV producer.
Michael Lewis has had a pretty incredible year. Aside from the success of the movie "The Blind Side," based on his book, he's become one of the key sc...moreMichael Lewis has had a pretty incredible year. Aside from the success of the movie "The Blind Side," based on his book, he's become one of the key scribes for the Great Recession.
Lewis is apparently a bit embarrassed by all of this attention--as he puts it, he's not Jesus, he's Brian. And it would be a mistake to look at "The Big Short" as the definitive work of the financial crisis.
Lewis set out to look at the situation from one specific lense--those on the outside who managed to make money while Wall Street crashed. There are other important stories of the recession---for instance, the stories of those whose homes were foreclosed and who were laid off.
But this is the story about the few financiers who were smart and wise enough to see the disaster coming, and did what financiers do--found ways to profit from it. For the most part, this means they were on the winning end of those credit default-swaps which you've heard a lot about. Essentially, these are the people who did the work which banks, investment firms, and ratings agencies were supposed to do -- but too many perverse incentives forced them to look the other way.
Lewis is able to explain all of this in vivid prose which make distant and arcane concepts seem tangible. This is no surprise. Lewis has made a career out of examining the concept of numerical value--whether in Wall Street or in baseball. But what elevates Lewis everyone else is his ability to weave the numbers into engaging human stories which never seem forced. "The Big Short" is about a group of smart, eccentric bankers who are simultaneously entranced and horrified by the oncoming disasters -- people who are half Cassandra, half P.T. Barnum.
Much ink has been spilt over the financial crisis, but I can't imagine that any of it is a better read than these brisk 300 pages. A must read.(less)
For a while, I've had the idea that you could do a great mystery or detective novel about a newspaper reporter in northeast Ohio. Well, it turns out s...moreFor a while, I've had the idea that you could do a great mystery or detective novel about a newspaper reporter in northeast Ohio. Well, it turns out someone already beat me to it--sort of.
This is the first in a three-book series about Dolly Madison Sprowls, a.k.a. "Morgue Mama," the 67-year-old librarian of a mid-sized Ohio paper that's more or less modeled on the Akron Beacon-Journal. Sprowls lords over the newspaper's archive (the "morgue," hence her reviled nickname), and teams up with an ambitious 24-year-old reporter to try to solve the murder of a flamboyant televangelist.
Written by former Medina Gazette reporter Robert Levandoski under the pen name C.R. Corwin, the book is witty, engaging, and filled with compelling characters. Both Morgue Mama and her young sidekick, Aubrey, are likable and fun to follow. The book also gets a lot of the details about the newspaper business and Ohio life correct. (Although a lot of newspapers these days no longer have librarians.)
But just when I thought I had found a hidden gem, Corwin spoils the whole thing with a ridiculous and contrived ending that would have had me throwing it up against the wall--if I hadn't been reading it on my nook. There's a way that he could have pulled this off, but it would require more style and grace--not the type of narrative trickery which screams "amateur."
Ah well. Since Corwin went on to write two more entries in the series, and the reviews seem generally positive, so maybe my reaction is unique. It's a quick and easy read, so if you're REALLY into newspaper stories, mysteries, or Ohio, it might be worth a shot. Otherwise, my recommendation is to stay away.
NOTE: This was the first book I read on a nook, Barnes and Noble's e-book reader. I found the experience to be so similar to old paper reading that I almost forgot I was using a different format. And since this is a relatively obscure book, I doubt I would have ever found a paper copy. Even though it turned out to be a disappointment, I'm glad to have the chance to explore.(less)
Ostensibly, this mystery novel from famed D.C. novelist (and "The Wire" scribe) George Pelecanos is...moreNote: This is a review of the unabridged audiobook.
Ostensibly, this mystery novel from famed D.C. novelist (and "The Wire" scribe) George Pelecanos is about an apparent serial killer, who targets teenagers with palindrome names and dumps their bodies in community gardens. (Hence the title, a police nickname).
But while the murders (which take place over a period of decades) keep the characters moving, it's really about much more -- urban crime, racial tensions, machismo and testosterone, and how people interact in a complex and changing city like D.C. Many of the plot strands -- such as themes about the gentrification of D.C., and how the Maryland suburbs have changed -- are only tangentially related to the serial killer plot. And, as one character asks, can you ever really "solve" a crime?
The novel focuses on two characters -- a straight-shooting homicide detective, and an alcoholic, disgraced former cop eager to make his mark as private investigator. (Some of the action takes place in Hyattsville and Prince George's County in Maryland, where I lived for a few months last year and what the characters derisively refer to as the "9th Ward" of D.C.) Both began their careers as beat cops with the night gardener murders, and eventually the case brings them reluctantly back together.
Pelecanos has gained more fame recently, due to his connection with "The Wire," and at times this book is so similar to the HBO series that it feels like a novelization. Like "The Wire," there are alcoholic and vulgar cops, discussions of how the drug war has changed crime and policing, and top-down looks at institutions. Some of the characters seem like they are directly based on characters from "The Wire."
But Pelecanos has his own style and mission, and it is often captivating. As he navigates through our nation's capital, he creates a vivid portrait about how people cope with an often cruel and baffling world.
NOTE: I always feel like I have a responsibility to mention the audiobook. For the most part, Davidson performs ably. But I got a bit annoyed with his tendency to overplay accents in dialogue. Done right, this can work--I loved Ed Asner's impersonation of corrupt Floridians in Carl Hiassen's novels. But since this novel has a host of characters with different races and ethnicities, I think it would have been better to just allow us to use our imaginations.(less)
I wasn't too surprised to learn that this is considered to be one of Raymond Chandler's weaker novels...moreNOTE: This is a review of the abridged audiobook.
I wasn't too surprised to learn that this is considered to be one of Raymond Chandler's weaker novels. (It also was his last completed novel.) All of the key elements are there--hoodlums, tycoons, femme fatales, and of course world-weary detectives. But the plot relies too much on coincidence and contrivance, and isn't as convincing as his other work. It's just as baffling as "The Big Sleep," but it lacks the intensity which guided us through endless plot developments. As with "The Big Sleep," there appear to be more dead bodies than possible murderers, and I left the book honestly perplexed about whether a key character is a ruthless killer or just has bad luck.
The romance also didn't quite work for me either, although maybe I was just distracted by Marlowe's compulsion to have sex with anything and everything that moves. Isn't it a professional hindrance for a detective to bed everyone involved in his case?
Still, there's a lot to enjoy here. There's the vivid description of "Esmeralda, California," a fictional city based on the wealthy seaside resorts around San Diego, where new and old money mix in a paradise supported by migrant labor too poor to live there.
There's also an unfocused style which stops for philosophical ponderings and thoughts about life and death. In a novel like this, that's not a bad thing.
It's still Chandler and therefore worth your time, but it was a bit disappointing after "The Big Sleep."
NOTE: This is the first time that I've listened to an abridged version of an audiobook. I honestly didn't realize it was abridged until after I was finished with it--I just thought it was a short novel. I do think it impacted my enjoyment of the novel. The details matter in a novel like this, and when the novel is this complex, who the hell knows what's important and what isn't?
But, as always, Elliot Gould's narration is perfect.(less)
Before beginning this book, I knew a little about Dennis Lehane, but not much. I knew that he likes to write gritty detective stories a...moreBoston Brawlin'
Before beginning this book, I knew a little about Dennis Lehane, but not much. I knew that he likes to write gritty detective stories about Boston, and I know that film directors can't wait to get his books converted into screenplays.
It doesn't appear that any Hollywood director is working on an adaptation of "The Given Day," and probably for good reason -- this would be one complicated movie to make. It's a sprawling, 700-page epic about 1910's America, including the deadly flu epidemic of 1917, Prohibition, Sacco and Vanzetti and the rise of anarchism--and the parallel rise of organized labor, Babe Ruth and his trade to New York, race relations, finally culminating in the labor unrest which swept Boston in the late part of that decade.
It centers on two characters, who first live a world apart but find their lives intertwined. One is Danny Coughlin, a Boston beat cop who is the son of a respected Captain on the force, and finds himself wrapped up in the police workers efforts to unionize. The second is Luther Laurence, a black factory worker from Columbus whose life ping-pongs in violent turns across the country until he finds himself involved in Boston's social upheaval as well.
While I was reading it, it reminded me a bit of the movie "Gangs of New York," especially in the ways that it depicts lawlessness on the streets of our young republic. But thinking about it afterwords, it reminds me a lot of James Ellroy's "American Tabloid," another work of historical fiction which I loved when I read it back in college. ("American Tabloid" is about the Kennedy assassination. Great book.)
Like "The Given Day," "American Tabloid" was overplotted. But that was kind of the point. Ellroy didn't use descriptions or analogies or metaphors to explain his characters -- he just used plot. It was his only instrument, but the power and focus of his voice drove it along. He carried you through labyrinthine plot developments, even as they seemed unnecessary.
With "The Given Day," I found myself feeling overwhelmed. Too much plot, too many characters, too much melodrama, too many deathbed confessions, jilted lovers, double-crosses, conversions and re-conversions, too many times the author is waving his hands, saying, "Look at this!"
The other problem with over-plotting is that it exponentially increases the chances that you're going to find things that ring false. (Truthfully, Ellroy ran into this trap with "American Tabloid" as well.) For instance, the character of Luther seemed honest, but never quite realistic to me -- like Lehane spent a lot of time thinking about what it feel like to be a black man at the turn of the century, but could never quite figure it out.
But before this sounds like a negative review, let me spend a moment on what I liked about it. Lehane is a talented storyteller, and he is able to keep the narrative compelling -- despite its excesses. His tendency to stop and smell the flowers slows it down a bit, compared with Ellroy, but it's often worth it. His sprawling vision captures the social changes of the 1910's, and his vivid descriptions of Boston's cultural and economic complexities are rewarding.
So, I'd recommend this -- but you're going to have to be very interested in these subjects to get through the 700 pages.(less)
For most Americans--even journalists--Joseph Pulitzer is mostly remembered as the guy who founded the Pulitzer Prizes. Oddly enough, that's kind of ho...moreFor most Americans--even journalists--Joseph Pulitzer is mostly remembered as the guy who founded the Pulitzer Prizes. Oddly enough, that's kind of how he wanted it. The Prizes were his bid for immortality, even as his associates begged him to focus on making his newspaper, the New York World, his legacy. But the World went defunct not long after Pulitzer's death, whereas the Pulitzer Prizes and Columbia University's premiere journalism school -- which he also created -- remain as strong as ever.
James McGrath Morris, the author of Pulitzer's new biography, clearly feels that Pulitzer is under-appreciated. If people remember him at all, it's normally in the same breath as William Randolph Hearst and other purveyors of yellow journalism. "Pulitzer: A life in Politics, Print, and Power" is hardly a love letter -- it clearly demonstrates just how ruthless his methods could be, at times. But in his telling, it's also hard not to find a sneaking admiration for the self-made millionaire, whose life reads like an almost perfect example of the American Dream. An Austrian Jew who came to New York almost literally penniless, Pulitzer made a fortune through his ferocious intelligence and incredible drive -- and not by drilling oil or forging steel, but by busting corruption and giving working class readers a voice. The whole story is considerably less rosy than that summary, but it's hard not to get enthralled with the story of how Pulitzer revolutionized the media.
Despite his almost ridiculous money-making skills, Pulitzer always saw the business side as a way to influence politics, not the other way around. He wanted to be a kingmaker, not a business titan. In that way, he's probably very similar to Roger Ailes. Pulitzer helped transform newspapers from partisan mouthpieces to a force to be reckoned with on their own. The Republican-turned-Democrat, who held public office twice, (as a Missouri state legislator and as a New York congressman), he was obsessed with politics, and had a keen understanding of how people vote. Perhaps the best example of his king-making ability was when he helped turn an quip made by a minister at a political rally -- "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" -- into an election-swinging slur. It may have been the first political "gotcha!" moment in American history.
And then, of course, if you've seen Citizen Kane--(which was sort of an amalgam of both Pulitzer and Hearst's life)--you know the irony of the man who makes a fortune battling rich elitists, only to find himself among their ranks as well. Despite his humble origins, Pulitzer yearned to live with the upper crust, even as he attacked them with a ferocity that was unprecedented. The disconnect left him alienated and friendless, and as he eventually went blind and became increasingly neurotic, he lost touch with family and dozens of proteges he tried (unsuccessfully) to groom as successors. Although he had a taste for sensationalism, Morris argues that it was only pressure from Hearst that forced him into the yellow journalism which has tarred his legacy. (Morris portrays Hearst as a copycat who used his unlimited family fortune to beat Pulitzer at his own game, for a while--although it's probably good to read David Nasaw's The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst before drawing any conclusions about him.) Ironically enough, unlike William "I'll furnish the War*" Hearst, Pulitzer was somewhat of a peacenik, who railed against what he saw as growing American militarism and imperialism, especially when his arch-nemesis Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House.
The book not only captures Pulitzer's life, but also the rollicking era of journalism, when newspapers were hyper-partisan and sarcastically vicious--a lot like today's bloggers. Pulitzer didn't invent this, but he was one of its masters and took it to new heights. A great read for anyone interested in American history.
"Shame the Devil," by George Pelecanos, opens with a jolt of shocking, brutal violence, and then settles into the mundane day-to-day life of Washingto...more"Shame the Devil," by George Pelecanos, opens with a jolt of shocking, brutal violence, and then settles into the mundane day-to-day life of Washington D.C. and grief. Pelecanos' prose is like that--he writes with a realism that doesn't spare you punches to the face.
The novel begins with a deadly robbery of a pizza parlor in Northwest D.C., which leaves five people dead. The murderers successfully escape the city--one heads to L.A., the other lays low in the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Three years later, the family members of the dead are settling back into their lives--or at least trying to--when a series of events will dredge up the past.
Central to all of this is Nick Stefanos, a private investigator and a regular in Pelecanos' fiction. Stefanos doesn't have the usual pedigree of a crime fiction private dick--he isn't an ex-cop or an ex-district attorney, but an ex-marketing executive who fell into investigating after his career in electronics tanked. An alcoholic with only one client--seriously, is there ever a detective in these novels who is sober?--he's more passionate about cars and music than truth or justice. He stumbles into this story almost accidentally.
D.C. has a reputation as a hollow, superficial city filled with yuppie transplants, but Pelecanos captures another side of the city. His D.C. is a city of working people and immigrants, with a history as rich as Boston or Chicago. In this novel, much of the action also takes place in the areas of Maryland where I've spent a lot of time--Prince George's County, Silver Spring, Wheaton, Upper Marlboro, the Chesapeake, and the Eastern Shore. He's able to tie in a wide cast of characters, some only tangentially related to the central plot, but all important to the story.
I noted that "The Night Gardener," a more recent Pelecanos book, was so similar to "The Wire" that it almost read like a rejected script. This book, which was written years before "The Wire" premiered, is more basic. Aside from a few thoughts about how Congress has screwed over the District, there aren't many grand statements about American crime. It's a raw crime story about flawed good people and truly evil people. It's thrilling, but not in a cheap way---despite the violence and sex, it's ultimately a character and dialogue-driven drama. Highly recommended.
NOTE: Those summaries they put on the backs of books are kind of like movie trailers--they can give away half of the plot. I remember when I was a kid how angry I was when the summary of a Young Indiana Jones novel gave away a plot twist in the final chapter. If you can somehow manage, try not to read the back. It's not a big deal, but it somewhat spoils the surprise of how elegantly the many different plot strands ultimately come together.(less)
It's a few hundred years into the future--not exactly clear when--and humanity has regressed into the 19th century. It's never exactly clear what disa...moreIt's a few hundred years into the future--not exactly clear when--and humanity has regressed into the 19th century. It's never exactly clear what disaster brough earth to this place, but it's almost certainly some combination of global warming and resource depletion. This is a world where calories and watts of energy are scarce and valuable commodities, worth killing and dying for. And yet, while mechanical technology has regressed to the pre-electronic days, biological technology has continued unabated. Scientists can genetically engineer food, animals, and even people. Hence, the title character, a genetically engineered Japanese prostitute with the awkward movements of a windup toy and the servile instincts of a pet dog.
The story takes place in Thailand, and the main character is Anderson Lake, a "calorie man" for an Iowa food company. America is said to be no more, but global American corporations seem to wield extraordinary power as regulators of the world's food supply. Lake and his ilk enjoy themselves in East Asia like imperialists out of a Graham Greene novel, negotiating with various warring fiefdoms to increase their power. This is a violent, desolate world without much pity, and the often graphic prose matches it.
This is the type of richly imagined writing which would likely reward repeate readings. It's the type of story that my mind seems ill-suited to digest--I always find myself glossing over paragraphs and missing key details. But nevertheless, the story, told from the perspectives of several different characters, is compelling, and the environment and setting is fascinating. It's a key entry in a genre I learned from wikipedia is called "biopunk" -- environmental fiction combined with the irreverent anti-authoritarianism of cyberpunk, but obviously without the computers.
Most of this worked in more of an intellectual way than an emotional way, but I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys sci-fi.(less)