mini-reviews: black mass and the butcher

If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know that I’m fascinated by mafia culture. There’s a certain thrill and allure to the power, dangerous living, and rule defiance that the organized crime lifestyle affords. And true crime is always more interesting to me than fiction.

Black Mass by Dick Lher and Gerard O’Neill is a classic true crime book that I’ve wanted to read for years. I started it three or four years ago but unfortunately ended up DNF’ing due to the international move. I did end up seeing the movie a couple years ago, but I was happy to finally devote myself to the entire book this month on audio. Black Mass is the story of notorious Irish Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger and his manipulation of the FBI, specifically agent John Connolly, for decades. Bulger famously evaded the FBI and lived in hiding for another seventeen years before his capture in 2011 and sentencing in 2012–13. I was spellbound by the meticulous attention to detail in Lehr and O’Neill’s research. On one hand, it’s incredible and sickening the depth of corruption in the FBI and those with authoritative power in the law… but on the other, what else is new? It was interesting reading this after David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon for another example of dirty practices in the FBI. And as an FBI informant, Bulger took advantage of every opportunity to get away with all kinds of evil deeds, evading the law left and right. This behavior is also fascinating on a psychological level, as Bulger identified not only as a Southie gangster but also an Irish one, and being a “rat” is tantamount to the ultimate betrayal in both cultures… not to mention he was a completely ruthless psychopath. It doesn’t flow quite as well as other non-fiction narratives I’ve read, but overall it’s a great addition to mafia history literature. It actually makes me want to rewatch the eponymous movie and The Departed, even better! [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]

Last month, I listened to The Butcher by Philip Carlo on audio. Unfortunately, this one wasn’t nearly as good as Black Mass or other mafia-themed books I’ve read before. This one is about Tommy “Karate” Pitera, a capo in the Bonanno family in the 1980s, who was famous for his cruelly grotesque murders. Pitera spent two years in Japan honing his martial arts skills and learning about Japanese militaristic strategy.  I was of course interested in the subject, but the writing was mediocre. It’s a good story told poorly. Carlo was redundant, used three or four words when one will do, and included more similes and metaphors than I could count. It’s very “good guys versus bad guys” throughout; no nuance or insight and more dramatization than research. It was a short book, so I ended up finishing it, but sadly I think I’ll remember The Butcher more for the bad writing than Pitera’s life story. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

mini-reviews: milk and honey, tilting our plates, more beautiful things

Something unusual for me… I read quite a bit of poetry in the last year. In addition to Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman (recently posted), I read these three collections:

Rupi Kaur’s incredibly popular milk and honey started strong enough but lost me halfway. I see why her work resonates with so many, I do. It’s familiar subject matter, accessible, and easy to “get,” unlike some other poetry. But I was completely underwhelmed by the collection as a whole. I know I’ve heard or read some of these lines before elsewhere. Other readers have compared this to Tumblr posts, and I agree. While simple, linear drawings can be effective, I wasn’t really impressed by those included here. The whole thing is way over-hyped. [Read ebook in November 2016.]

I picked up Singaporean poet Cyril Wong’s Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light as a gift for my mom for Christmas last year, as I was getting everyone uniquely Singaporean gifts and she’s a reader. I couldn’t help but read this slim volume first before shipping it off, though! Tilting Our Plates uses musical (symphonic) metaphors and the ancient myth of Shiva (as Mohini) falling in love with Vishnu to relate the story of a couple in love, aging, and living in the shadow of a disease. Wong conveys simple poignancy in the everyday ordinariness of a deep partnership. It’s a lovely, heartbreaking collection. [Read in December 2016.]

There are a handful of striking poems in Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, like “All They want Is…,” “Afro,” “13 Ways,” “The Gospel According to Her,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” and “99 Problems.” There’s tension, rage, empowerment, and vulnerability simmering throughout many of the poems. But others fell flat… again it could be me—I’m starting to think that I’m not much of a poetry person in general. And I also definitely recognize that some are not meant for me—I do not personally know the black womanhood experience. But I like to learn, acknowledge, and be open-minded. I think these pieces would be more impactful performed aloud. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

mini-reviews: phenomenal woman and mom & me & mom

I simply adore Maya Angelou. I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 2008 just as I was finishing grad school and was awestruck by her tenacity and wisdom and way with words. And then inexplicably, I didn’t read any more of Angelou’s books until 2014, with Letter to My Daughter.That’s crazy! She’s amazing. This year I made time to read two more of her works:

I was already familiar with two poems in Phenomenal Woman: the titular poem and “Still I Rise,” which is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing ever. But the other two, “Weekend Glory” and “Our Grandmothers,” were new to me. Angelou awakens an empowerment in women with these poems, acknowledging women’s complexity, depth, and strength with an inimitable level of passion and wisdom like only she can. I read a library-borrowed ebook version, but I think I need a paper copy of my own. These are timeless and meant to be savored time and again. [Read ebook in December 2016.]

I guess I’m going out of order with Angelou’s autobiography series, having started with book 1 (Caged Bird) and moving on to book 7, Mom & Me & Mom, next! Oh well. I’m not sure they need to be read in order, necessarily, because from what I can tell, both these books stood on their own. This book chronicles Angelou’s complex relationship with her mother, Vivian Baxter, throughout her life. She loved and respected her larger-than-life mother, but it was ever-changing and sometimes turbulent. The writing wasn’t quite as excellent as I was expecting based on what I remember from Caged Bird, and there some jumping forward and backward in time with the events described. But this was still a fascinating relationship and life to learn about. As always, it was a pleasure listening to Angelou narrate her own words on the audiobook version. I look forward to reading more from her autobiography series in the future! [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

mini-reviews: americanah, what it means, beasts

As I’ve been catching up on these blog posts of book reviews, I noticed I read three books that center around Africa and African characters:

Why, why, why did I wait so long to read AmericanahChimamanda Ngozi Adichie crafted a brilliant, epic story about relationships, family, love, cultural identity, the immigrant experience, race, class, home, belonging, and more. I bought this years ago but was kind of intimidated to start since it looked dense and long (and it is), but once I got into it I found it difficult to put down. My minor quibbles are that it might be overly long—some scenes are repetitive of earlier ones—and Ifemelu could be pretty annoying at times. But generally this is a great book and I look forward to reading more from Adichie. [Read book and listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

So many great reviews of What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah compelled me to borrow this collection of short stories from the library, and I wasn’t disappointed. The stories are memorable, with not one dud, and the writing is absolutely beautiful. There are a few that still stand out to me in particular months later, like “Who Will Greet You at Home,” wherein a childless woman crafts a baby for herself out of hair, and the titular story, in which mathematicians have devised a way to eradicate grief in the future. Magical realism permeates a few of the stories, and most revolve around young women testing the waters of adulthood and wildness. I loved it. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

I requested Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala as my entry for “author born the same year as you” for the Litsy bingo reading challenge… which I quickly abandoned. Oh well! But I’m still glad I read this short, harrowing book. I had already seen the Netflix movie, which was excellent too. After his family is killed during a civil war in their unnamed African country, a boy named Agu is recruited into a group of rogue guerrilla fighters. The movie was quite faithful, but the book gives even more insight into Agu’s internal thoughts and fears. It’s fascinating to see how is psyche becomes increasingly warped in his new, horrifying reality full of fear, terror, and brutality as a boy soldier. I highly recommend both the book and movie. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

chernobyl 01:23:40

Andrew Leatherbarrow’s Chernobyl 01:23:40 was in my library recommendations after I read The Radium Girls earlier this year. I’m fascinated by disasters, natural and man-made, so I thought this sounded like a good read. Edited from Goodreads:

At 01:23:40 on April 26, 1986, Alexander Akimov pressed the emergency shutdown button at Chernobyl’s fourth nuclear reactor. It was an act that forced the permanent evacuation of a city, killed thousands and crippled the Soviet Union. The event spawned decades of conflicting, exaggerated, and inaccurate stories. This book presents an accessible but comprehensive account of what really happened. From the desperate fight to prevent a burning reactor core from irradiating eastern Europe, to the self-sacrifice of the heroic men who entered fields of radiation so strong that machines wouldn’t work, to the surprising truth about the legendary “Chernobyl divers,” all the way through to the USSR’s final show-trial. The historical narrative is interwoven with a story of the author’s own spontaneous journey to Ukraine’s still-abandoned city of Pripyat and the wider Chernobyl Zone.

Guys, how about we don’t have a nuclear holocaust, ok? Truly, I already knew (based on reading HiroshimaThe Radium Girls, etc.) that radium poisoning and nuclear bombs are bad. Devastating. Chernobyl 01:23:40 is another entry into the case for scrupulous handling radioactive material, taking all necessary precautions, and taking its inherent danger to living things and the world with the utmost seriousness. Now of course, this was a power plant and not weaponry, and this incident was mostly an accident-by-neglect (faulty construction of the plant, procedural failure, improper training, etc.). I agree that nuclear energy is a newer phenomenon and something we’re still learning about. I’m not convinced we should abandon nuclear power entirely. By today’s standards, would the Chernobyl plant even be operational with all the shortcuts taken on construction and procedure? Likely not, so the accident cannot necessarily be blamed on nuclear power itself but rather on human error. Still, its catastrophic consequences can’t be ignored. It’s incredible to me that even after all we’ve learned from the Curies, the Radium Girls, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bikini Atoll, and more, things like this seem to still be bound to happen. Look at Fukushima in 2011. Look at current threats between the person who won the electoral college and North Korea.

Leatherbarrow’s personal journey to the area was somewhat distracting from the horrific event and aftermath of the accident in April 1986, and I’m sorry to have missed photos in the paper book having listened on audio, but it was still a compelling, easily digestible, short read. I’m sure I can find his photos online, and I’ve seen some before anyway. The brief history of nuclear power in the first chapter was a great setup to the rest of the book. I think Chernobyl 01:23:40 is a good, accessible starting point if you want to learn more about this subject.

Listened to audiobook in October 2017.

mini-reviews: life in parts, wishful drinking, i know i am

Following up on yesterday’s post, here are three more memoirs by funny people!

Bryan Cranston‘s A Life in Parts shows that he’s much more than his roles Walter White from Breaking Bad or Hal from Malcolm in the Middle. He does cover his time playing these parts, and I loved the behind-the-scenes glimpse at these shows, but I think I might have enjoyed his ruminations on the craft of acting even better. Cranston has many memorable stories in this memoir, formatted as different “parts” he’s embodied in his life: as a son, brother, husband, father, employee, and finally actor. It’s not the deepest, most revelatory memoir ever, but it is equally funny, touching, sad, and interesting. It’s specially good on audio with Cranston himself narrating. [Listened to audiobook in December 2016.]

I had Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking in my iBooks app for a few months when she died last December. I decided (a couple months later) that it was time to finally get to it—and I read almost the whole thing while standing in line for a concert. Wishful Drinking was a fun, quick read! It rambles and goes off on tangents at times (reading like her HBO special on which the book is based, I suppose), and I think I was expecting more depth and reflection regarding her mental health and addictions. But I did enjoy this irreverent, funny collection of anecdotal pieces from a Hollywood lifer. I’m sure this is way better on audio! [Read ebook in February 2017.]

Samantha Bee’s I Know I Am, But What Are You is hilarious! And delightful, snarky, relatable, a little raunchy, and everything I could ever hope for from a Samantha Bee memoir. I loved the audio—I was laughing and looking like a fool anytime I listened out in public. It’s not inspirational like Amy Poehler or Tina Fey’s memoirs, if that’s what you’re into. This is purely autobiographical full of meandering musings about her own life and times. I Know I Am was published in 2010; I hope she writes another one in the future! [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]