PLOT | Don't let the economical cover design and link-bait sounding title fool you, 400 Things Cops Know is requisite reading for a better understandiPLOT | Don't let the economical cover design and link-bait sounding title fool you, 400 Things Cops Know is requisite reading for a better understanding of law enforcement, as well as for learning about problems endemic to urban American life. The book is written by Adam Plantinga, an active Sergeant in San Francisco, who boasts fifteen years experience shared between two different urban departments. He breaks policing down into its loosely-defined components, and then writes a number of aphorisms and anecdotes specific to each part of these law enforcement components. Examples include: officer-involved shootings and use of force, vehicle and foot chases, working with juveniles, dealing with dead bodies, and making arrests.
The book is titled numerically because Plantinga includes four hundred paragraph-length, and sometimes page-length, pieces of wisdom about his profession. His writing is a very entertaining mix of stories from the job, insider information about officer best-practices, and insight into some of the problems with society that involve police. On this last point, despite being a part of law enforcement and having cause to be bitter about one-dimensional media representations and bitter towards citizens who are not always thankful for police service, Plantinga is very sensitive and even-handed. He is honest in his assessment of the mistakes made by individual officers and their departments, and equally honest in his indictment of those who choose to commit crime.
ANALYSIS | Officers refer to their profession as "front row seats to the greatest show on earth," and it's these same stories that frequently fascinate people, regardless of if they do or do not like law enforcement. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when the two things I liked most about 400 Things Cops Know were NOT the gritty stories. Plantinga's prose is so on point, his ethical compass so due north, his writing so funny (without being mean-spirited), that he comes off like Richard Russo in Straight Man, or like a non self-deprecating Tim Kreider circa We Learn Nothing. His writing has a literary quality, evidenced by strong and creative similes (ex: "Considering who to arrest is a lot like fishing. You gotta throw some back."), a clear authorial voice, and pockets of descriptive beauty (ex: When describing walking through a naturally deceased persons home, he describes household items as "The things that people gather to show that this is who they are and this is what they did.").
Lantinga, pairing his masterful writing with political tact, is not afraid to address problems that must be dealt with, problems that belong to officers and citizens alike. He doesn't bring up specific controversies, the Michael Browns of days past; rather, he discusses poverty, recidivism, misguided youth, boredom, drugs, mental illness, and all of the other problems tomorrows criminals must suffer. Plantinga doesn't pretend to be the solution, or even have an idea of what a solution would look like, for most of these problems. When discussing serious mental illness, he sort of shrugs, saying, "All I can really come up with is that it's nice not to be them". The only time he really buries his spade is in discussion of personal responsibility, and even then, he makes it clear that an officer is not the exception, but the rule, in this matter.
QUOTES | The following are some of my favorite quotes from the book, and I've included them to help give you sense of Plantinga's skill as a writer (I've tried to give a context for each quote, but I probably failed):
* On leaving a HAZMAT [hazardous materials] situation up to the Fire Department: "It wouldn’t kill the firefighters to take an occasional break from surfing Match.com at the station house or primping for next year’s calendar to get out there and work for a living." (Section 3, #17)
* An empathetic section on having to arrest a Juvenile: "You snap back to reality as you book the thirteen-year-old auto thief. Food is stuck in his hair and he smells bad. He lives with his grandma because he doesn’t know his father and his mother is in prison for the next decade. When you’re filling out your arrest paperwork and ask him how to spell his middle name, he takes a stab at it before admitting he’s not sure. You stare at him, trying to penetrate his thoughts, to mentally peel open his brain to see what’s going on in there. To see if he’s going to make it. And you don’t know. What you do know is that, for better or worse, he’s the future." (Section 5, #17)
* On a police officer's attitude about death, after having done numerous death investigations: "As a police officer, you are put in situations where you can do right by a person simply by showing common decency. You are in just as many situations where you can do them a grievous wrong by its absence."* AND *"It comes down to this - you're sorry that person is dead. You're glad you're still going." (Section 13, #6 and #14 respectively)
* On officer integrity, and being truthful in case reports: "But you can’t quite get on board with that approach. Because you know that if you step over the line to make a case stick, next time the line will get pushed back further still. And soon enough, you will be one of those people who wonder how it all came to this. You’ve seen it happen to other cops you used to respect. Cops who made a series of terrible choices, each one worse than the next, until they watched hell open up beneath their feet. Sure, you can lose a case because you put in your report that you didn’t see the suspect drop the drugs or the gun. But honesty will last longer than that case. Honesty will mean more. Your word has to be good. You have to stand for something. So you leave the lying to the criminals. They’re better at it than you anyways." (Section 19, #29)
CONCLUSION | Police officers, deservedly and not, are at the center of many of our most pressing political debates: gun control, acceptable ranges of use of force, dealing with the mentally ill, localized poverty, profiling, and so forth. Just once though, it may be worth looking at the occupation from the point of view of an officer, one of civilization's sanitation engineers who "has always wanted a job that other people didn't want, or couldn't do, or were too scared to do well". If people were to better understand the things required of an officer, maybe we would be more forgiving of decisions made in situations where there are no right answers, just available (and inevitably disheartening) solutions.
TL;DR | If you want a well-written, funny, and uplifting book about the realities of being an effective police officer in an urban setting, look no further. Sergeant Plantinga will deliver that and more, and you'll have a deeper appreciation for social problems that are without cause or solution by the end....more
PLOT |The River Why is very straightforward. Augustus [Gus] Orviston, son of fly-fishing enthusiast Henning Hale-Orviston (H2O) and bait-fishing extrPLOT |The River Why is very straightforward. Augustus [Gus] Orviston, son of fly-fishing enthusiast Henning Hale-Orviston (H2O) and bait-fishing extraordinaire Carolina Orviston, decides after completing high school to dedicate himself to his one true passion: fishing. He moves to a small cabin alongside the fictional Tamawise River in Oregon, where his mission is twofold: to grow as a fisherman, and to understand his favorite (fictional) author Izaak Walton's adoration of the personage GOD that writes about in the (again, fictional) Compleat Angler (a book Gus was raised on, as if it were the bible of the house). The story is at once about fishing, about growing up, about God, and about our responsibilities as nature's stewards.
ANALYSIS | As is evidenced by the title (The River Why is a play on Wordsworth's poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798", commonly known as Tintern Abbey), Duncan's work, despite containing numerous allusions to literary/spiritual traditions and works, is incredibly playful in its writing.
Gus is a master storyteller, and in his quest for self-knowledge, the stories he tells about his past and his family's origins sound a lot like Parables, and are easily referred to as such when talking about parts of the book (these include The Parable of the Parking Lot Fish, The Doberman Rat-dog Parable, and The Parable of Bill Bob's Tuckin' Time, The Parable of Nick the Saved). Not only are these parables uproariously entertaining, and frequently insightful, but they also give the book a light-handed credibility when it comes to the author's closing remarks on the nature of God, and the conditions of belief. It's biblical, but not literally, as it requires no specific creeds or beliefs on the part of the reader and is left somewhat open-ended (I consider myself an Atheist, but found the style and message both very endearing).
The book itself uses fishing as a controlling metaphor that works on a variety of levels: Gus fishes, Gus is the fish (figuratively), the reader is the fish and DJD is the fisherman, etc. Duncan's use of simile, as in his other works, is once again unparalleled, as are his stylistic choices he makes when describing childhood, angst, and the entire Oregonian countryside. We see themes similar to those in The Brothers K, such as familial difference, war stories, and a love for nature, but this bildungsroman is a very different, much more singular narrative, than its epic counterpart.
QUOTES | The following are some of my favorite quotes from the book, and I've included them to help give you sense of Duncan's skill as a writer (I've tried to give a context for each quote, but I probably failed):
* Gus's recollection of Uncle Zeke's retelling of his parents falling in love with each other at first glance when they meet whilst fishing: "As campfire an' firewater dried his clothes an' brains respectively, he finally seen the cowgirl was a pretty little thing an' a differnt fire lit up an' dried him out quicker'n what wood or whiskey could o' done" (p.9) * Gus on the motivation behind his "Karping Lot" prank (where he would catch large fish and leave them in his high school's sizable parking lot puddle): "But when you grow up in those suburbs - when you've seen the streams, woods, farms, and ponds dying all around you but have been lucky enough to escape every weekend or vacation to a wild river full of beautiful game fish, only to return home to the sight of hopeful little kids with impossibly crappy poles plying poisoned creeks where even the crawdads have died - it does something: something way inside me would start to die." (p.48) * Nick the Saved concluding his parable to Gus about his time in war: "I don't know if you've been to that place beyond help or hope. But I was there, on the sea that day. And I was sent the help unlooked for, an' it came in the shape of a hook. An nothin' will ever be the way it was before that day, not for me it won't..." (p. 231) * Gus on how people really don't know what they're talking about when they talk about love: "You can make analogies; love is like lots of things. One thing it's like is a trout stream: try to capture a trout stream with a dam and you get a lake; try to catch it in a bucket and you get a bucket of water; try to stick some under a microscope and you get a close-up look at some writhing amorphous microcooties. A trout stream is only a trout stream when it's flowing between its own two banks, at its own pace, in its own sweet way." (p.287)
CONCLUSION | I won't lie, I was apprehensive before starting The River Why. Between the book's Sierra Club publishing house and the consistent reviews suggesting 'conservationist' and 'religious' themes, I was worried that the book would either: (A) be so insistent thematically that the text would suffer as a piece of fiction, and actually come across as some sort of veiled finger-pointing OR (B) mis-align with my own personal opinions so much so that the book wouldn't be that much fun to read. I was very misguided, on both accounts.
Duncan's messages operate on the reader like a dog-sled team operate in the conveyance of the musher: there are lead dogs (Spirituality, also called Nameless and God), swing dogs (we should love nature as it is part of what we are), and team dogs (familial love, wisdom traditions, and so forth). His writing, like nature, is too big to take in with just your eye. It's funny, descriptive, meaningful, and the kind of book that will warm you up like the whiskey that brought Gus into being.
I know almost nothing about fishing, and I don't believe in God, and yet The River Why makes both ways of life so approachable, its a wonder I never fished or gave thanks before. This book is perfect for anyone primed for a deeper appreciation of the big questions in our lives. ...more
Holy military acronyms Batman!! If you're not in the military or, at the very least, a military enthusiast at heart, you'll want to have your favoriteHoly military acronyms Batman!! If you're not in the military or, at the very least, a military enthusiast at heart, you'll want to have your favorite search engine ready for a few of the short stories in Phil Klay's collection Redeployment. The use of military jargon can make for tough sledding at times, but the acronyms are used to great effect in this informed, stylized, and multi-perspective retelling of the American experience in Iraq. Despite my own inclination to give the collection a seemingly middling grade of 3.5/5 stars, I still strongly recommend the book for any readers interested in the truths and falsities of the Iraq war, any readers interested in war stories and their impact on both our individual and collective psyches, and finally, for any readers who like to debate the merits of award-winning pieces of fiction.
PLOT | Klay's Redeployment consists of twelve short stories, with different points of view and a variety of central characters. These characters include, but are not limited to, enlisted Marines of various ranks and responsibilities, military chaplains, and private contractors. My favorite story, "Psychological Operations", is about a young Arab-American named Waguih who, post-deployment and attending Amherst, gets into a spat with an attractive and recently converted Muslim girl named Zara. As Waguih tells Zara what could be (but is in no way conclusively) a war story about his efforts to stop insurgency counterattacks as a translator, readers see that Waguih is both not what he pretends to be, nor what he thinks he is. A professional architect of information, Waguih's performance identity is so entrenched that the reader is left with more questions than answers: Is his story true? Is he trying to connect with Zara and share a part of himself, or his he creating a part of himself just so he can feel superior to or have sex with Zara? Is he posturing because, after the war, he can't know anything else? Does he even really have a bad relationship with his father, or is that just part of his story's design?
I liked many stories in the collection, and some other plots include: * A USMC Sergeant comes home to his wife. * A private contractor tries to increase the water supply to Iraqi residents, as well as support the growth of a local women's health clinic. Because of politics, both these imperatives fail, and the contractor is left with a middle-management position dedicated to the preservation of 'baseball democracy'. * A military chaplain infers that the unjust killing of a civilian has taken place, in addition to the 'contact bait' death of a US soldier. He is unable to help the units of the same company who are grieving. * A Lance Corporal takes credit for the kill of a juvenile insurgent at the request of the shooter in his company who does not want to admit to it. The real shooter's grief is not assuaged.
ANALYSIS | Like his subject, Klay's writing is masculine, efficient, and worthy of sustained thought. Besides for the heavy use of acronyms, his diction is simple to understand, the dialogue between characters is routine, and the action sequences are aptly described. The stories themselves function more like vignettes, in that they don't all rely on dramatic structure to tell a story. Instead, these stories provide impressions of what conflict, and the systems behind conflict, are like, without offering a lot in the way of context, descriptive prose, or resolution. By impressions, I mean there is often an instance of something tactile that contributes to either characterization or theme. On such example comes in the first story, 'Redeployment', when Sgt. Price is reunited with his wife after coming home from his tour: "I hadn't felt anything like her in seven months. It was almost like I'd forgotten how she felt, or never really known it, and now here was this new feeling that made everything else black and white, fading before color".
Klay's writing is not airtight though. There is little difference between characters and their voice, so the themes these characters represent are quickly worn. Namely, two different stories discuss the stupidity behind shaking a veteran's hand in peacetime in almost identical terms, something along the lines of "Thank you for your service, but nobody knew what it meant." Another tediously repeated theme is the inability of veterans to connect with people, specifically women. In fact, many of the characters in this collection leverage their military experience for sex, for one reason or another. Is it a sad reality? Sure. But it is not necessarily a sad reality that is better understood after four or five iterations. Finally, and this is not really a criticism as much as it is one reader's opinion, but I felt that the final two stories added little to the collection, the final story "Ten Kliks South" in particular.
QUOTES | There were a lot of succinct, thematically dense, quotes. Here are some that I liked:
On being alert in combat: "I think you take in too much information to store so you just forget, free up brain space to take in everything about the next moment that might keep you alive."
On war stories and truth: "So when I thought back on it, there were the memories I had, and the stories I told, and they sort of sat together in my mind, the stories becoming stronger every time I retold them, feeling more and more true."
On propaganda: "Real life doesn't fit on bumper stickers, so remember: If you tell too much truth, nobody will believe you."
On post-deployment life as a civilian: "With them I'd reverted back to college, cracking dirty jokes and telling drunk stories, so when I sat down at my computer, I think I wanted to recover whatever it is that I am when I look at names of the dead."
CONCLUSION | I am happy to recommend Redeployment to those who are interested in war, its effects, and its participants. The collection is thematically rich, politically ambivalent, and effective in its descriptions of conflict and character. That said, due to troubles with voice, character apathy, thematic repetition, and one-sided discussions of Iraqi firefights, I would remind readers that they are getting exactly what they buy: a book by Americans, for Americans, about something that America did (for better of for worse!)....more
I had an incredibly difficult time trying to think of a hook for this book, not because it isn't hook-worthy, but because the book's entire goal is toI had an incredibly difficult time trying to think of a hook for this book, not because it isn't hook-worthy, but because the book's entire goal is to put personal hookishness into perspective (meaning: stop with the posturing, just say something because it is true and the right thing to say). If my use of the totally unreal term 'hookishness' doesn't resonate here in the intro, please just read the rest of the review, and maybe it will make sense three paragraphs later.
PLOT | The Brothers K is a book about Hugh and Laura Chance raising six children in Camas, Washington. The story is told by Kincaid Chance, the fourth-oldest child (youngest male), and despite being narrated primarily by Kincaid, we don't learn much about him. You learn that Kincaid is writing his family's story as some sort of project, and as part of that project, there are some cool inclusions of letters, school essays, and correspondences with other characters. To say more of the plot and characters would be to spoil a very enchanting read, and so concludes my discussion of plot.
Obligatory Q&A: Do I need to read The Brothers Karamazov to understand Duncan's take? No familiarity with the original Bros K is required. The narrator Kincaid, who is writing his family's story, uses the original Bros K as a sort of scaffolding, and sort-of invites comparisons here and there. So, if you have read Dostoevsky's heavyweight, you may get a little extra mileage out of the book.
ANALYSIS | If I had a gun to my head and was required to recite the 'deeper meaning', it would be: DJD (author) wanted to prove that both our successes and failures are two sides of the same coin, and even though Fate or Chance or God or Society is the one doing the flipping, it is our family members that are doing the ones catching. Notable threads within the text worth talking about at book club include: criticisms of organized religion, relationships between fathers and sons, criticisms of war, the shallowness of politics, the insufficiencies of solitude, the importance of self-discovery, and, finally, how to write a ridiculously funny book with 3D characters. On that last point, The Brothers K is incredibly well-written from a technical standpoint, but a discussion of the mechanics would at least double the length of this post. Suffice it to say, uproarious puns, satirical prayers, goofy limericks, and humorous insights abound.
CONCLUSION | As much as I love difficult literary fiction, it's really nice to be able to let my defenses down and enjoy a piece of sustained, pithy writing that is not simultaneously smarmy, self-conscious, chronologically fractured, overly bookish, or cartoonish in its implausibility. It's nice to read a book that is funny without making fun of others, a book that isn't afraid to see characters live and dies, a book about why baseball is so meaningful, a book that isn't afraid to make a claim about the American spirit is (that is, without making America out to be some sort of egocentric has-been, full of greed and narcissism). The Brothers K is the best book I had never heard of, and you can bet your ass that I've already bought The River Why and, well, the rest of Duncan's works....more