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: bury my heart and killer moon

I’m a day late, but I thought this “holiday” (it’s awesome and amazing that this is being reclaimed as Indigenous Peoples’ Day by more and more cities and states!) is a good time to share my thoughts on two excellent books I recently read about Native American Indian history:

I’ve had Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee on my TBR list forever. I really wonder why this wasn’t in my high school history curriculum (along with Zinn’s A People’s History…). Bury My Heart is a dark but necessary piece of United States history that tells the truth about how this country was built on greed, slaughter, and oppression rather than Christian values and a desire for independence as is so often taught in school. Bury My Heart outlines the systematic decimation of Native Americans from the day Europeans landed through the nineteenth century. Time and again the Native Americans were tricked, threatened, robbed, and massacred, yet they still compromised with white men to avoid war. By the time they did fight, it was too little, too late. Bury My Heart is long and dense, but gripping. This is our shameful, racist story of genocide and crimes against humanity, and should be required reading for every American. This is one of the best books I read in 2016, and I regret not reading it earlier. This horrific era (and the events in Flowers of the Killer Moon) are closer to us and our time than we’d like to think. [Listened to audiobook in Sept. 2016.]

David Grann is a master of well-researched narrative non-fiction, and Killers of the Flower Moon ranks right up there with The Lost City of Z for me. This book starts as a true-crime murder mystery: in the 1920s, residents of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma begin to be killed off, an event called “The Reign of Terror.” This is after the Osage people profited from inhabiting oil-rich land… which they were forced onto from their native lands decades earlier. Local and federal government agencies found ways to take advantage of these riches (and take money out of the hands of these citizens) by manipulating laws and policies so that the Osage weren’t deemed fit to handle their own money. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was brand new, and this was its first big homicide investigation. Using this one case as his example, Grann deftly exposes the racist, deceitful, and shameful tactics used not only by individuals but by institutions of government and law enforcement to further exploit and oppress Native Americans after where Bury My Heart leaves off. This was just shy of a century ago; why haven’t I heard about it before? This book is full of secrets, twists, and layer upon layer of disgusting corruption. It’s another engrossing piece of must-read American history. [Listened to audiobook in August 2017.]

mini-reviews: evicted, janesville, and how to speak midwestern

It’s no secret I’m very homesick here in Singapore. There is no place better or more beautiful on earth to me than my beloved home state, Wisconsin. I somehow manage to find connections to the Dairy State in almost everything—an actor in a random movie I know is from Green Bay, for example, or a singer of a song playing on the radio is from Milwaukee. And I love to celebrate all the great, wonderful things about Wisconsin: natural beauty, excellent sports, delicious food and beer, progressive political history, and more. That’s not to say I don’t recognize flaws and shortcomings in some Wisconsin systems, and I’m always interested in learning more about them and what can be done. Two new books in the last year along these lines were very high on my list, plus another one just for fun:

Evicted by Matthew Desmond won the 2017 Pulitzer in General Nonfiction this year. It follows the author as he delves into destitute neighborhoods of Milwaukee and shares the intimate stories of a few poverty-stricken families living there on the brink, forced to spend the majority of their meager earnings on rent. They are adults raising kids, differently abled persons, drug addicts, and those mired in crushing debt, living in constant fear that one tiny mishap will destroy everything, and they’ll be evicted for falling behind on rent payments (because it has happened to them time and again), and may have to move to shelters or more dangerous areas… or end up homeless. Desmond outlines how people across the country find themselves in these precarious situations, and how the cycle viciously continues with virtually no relief in sight. It’s a personal, eye-opening look at the housing crisis, and how evictions, crime, segregation, and more are connected. I admired the tenacity of the tenants—they just want a normal, safe life, like everyone does. Of course they do! I’m just at a loss sometimes as to how the system so horrifically fails its people and turns a blind eye. This is an important, devastating work totally deserving of the Pulitzer, and one of the best books I read in 2016. [Listened to audiobook in November 2016.]

Amy Goldstein’s Janesville is an excellent companion piece to Evicted, but instead of the housing crisis, Goldstein examines the job crisis during the Great Recession, using the example of the closing of Janesville’s GM plant in December 2008 and its aftermath to today. She does a masterful job immersing the readers in this small industrial city during this time, following several families through the shock, frustration, and humiliation of losing good jobs these men and women thought were stable and were relying on until their retirement… and even seeing pensions disappear. Then being told to retrain in another field, only to find those fields weren’t hiring either, or hiring hundreds of miles away (can’t move, their homes have lost value and can’t sell)—finding themselves in impossible, no-win situations. How does this economic devastation divide a community? How does it try to heal and build again? This is an excellent look at the American dream and how difficult it will be to rebuild the middle and working classes after the upheaval of the Great Recession. [Listened to audiobook in June 2017.]

I read Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern in June last year to myself in the mood before my big trip home last summer. This is a fun, short book about the subtle differences in Midwestern accents and dialects. It also covers the history of how each regional way of speech developed—a blend of slight changes from the East Coast with adaptation of Scandinavian and North Germanic languages to English. I identified with some of all of it, but of course mostly with the parts about Wisconsin! [Read ebook in June 2017.]

mini-reviews: black earth and on tyranny

In the last year, I ended up reading two books by Timothy Snyder. One is a couple years old, one is brand new, and both are terrifyingly pertinent to what the United States is going through right now.

Black Earth is a dense and extensive look at the Holocaust, but is told not only as an historical account but also as a warning that the past isn’t so unrepeatable as we may think. Snyder delves into how the Holocaust began—as a dark idea within Hitler’s mind—and each step Hitler took towards attempting to achieve his vision. Military strategies, individual heroes, the dangers of statelessness, and of course the horrors of mass human slaughter are all examined here. Snyder’s warning comes as a conclusion that we in early-twenty-first-century America are facing similar ecological and ideological issues that Europe did in the early twentieth century, and missing the lessons of the Holocaust has endangered our national and global futures. We’re not as removed from Hitler’s supposedly incomprehensible world as we want to believe. It’s a bleak read, but necessary. [Listened to audiobook in October 2016.]

On Tyranny was released in March this year, hot on the heels of the inauguration. It’s a slim volume of twenty ways to defy fascism, the dismantling of democracy, and an authoritarian governmental takeover, citing historical (mostly European) examples from the twentieth century. It doesn’t go into great depth the way Black Earth does—it reads more like daily devotionals or meditations. But still, On Tyranny does serve as a reminder that there are ways to fight back. Some lessons included are refusing to normalize the situation, defending institutions, doing your homework when it comes to information, opposing a one-party state, paying close attention to words, believing in and defending the truth, reading, refusing to obey in advance, and making human connections. This is another excellent addition to the abundant response resisting this administration and time in U.S. history. [Read in April 2017.]

reading recap: september 2017

This year, I swear. I can’t believe it’s October already. In September I read 10 books. (Bear with me while I figure out a new collage system for these posts, the program I was using doesn’t work for me anymore!)

  • ZeroZeroZero (audio) … Roberto Saviano, read by Paul Michael
  • The Heart’s Invisible Furies (audio) … John Boyne, read by Stephen Hogan
  • The Butcher (audio) … Philip Carlo, read by Dick Hill
  • Pandemic (audio) … Sonia Shah, read by author
  • Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows … Balli Kaur Jaswal
  • Kill ‘Em and Leave (audio) … James McBride, read by Dominic Hoffman
  • The Bell Jar (audio) … Sylvia Plath, read by Maggie Gyllenhaal
  • Made for Love (audio) … Alissa Nutting, read by Suzanne Elise Freeman
  • The Child Finder (audio) … Rene Denfield, read by Alyssa Bresnahan
  • What Happened … Hillary Rodham Clinton

Still almost everything on audio… I would like to change that starting this month. I was pleased though to read five books published in 2017, plus one classic, plus a couple related to music and the mafia (it’s been a long time!). I’m happy to be in a good routine again with posting short reviews here. I still have a long way to go to catch up but I think if I can keep up this pace and on a schedule I’ll be back on track by the new year.

My favorite non-fiction books I read in September were What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s new memoir about the election, and ZeroZeroZero, Roberto Saviano’s 2013 sophomore book exposing the global cocaine trafficking industry. My favorite fictions were The Heart’s Invisible Furies, my first Boyne, and Made for Love by Alissa Nutting, which was my 75th book read of the year, meeting my Goodreads goal and marking a personal record. Reviews on those coming soon!

I also finished two drawings and got ridiculously excited for football season and my Green Bay Packers during September. All in all though, it was a pretty mellow month. I’m glad it’s October even though I don’t get “fall” here in Singapore. I’m looking forward to seeing Dream Theater in concert next week and watching a ton of scary movies all month!

monthly recap image

what happened

I’ve been waiting with bated breath for Hillary Clinton’s What Happened for months. It both met and exceeded my expectations, but in different ways than I thought it would. This is a hard book to review, so I’ll keep it brief. From the hardcover’s jacket:

For the first time, Hillary Rodham Clinton reveals what she was thinking and feeling during one of the most controversial and unpredictable presidential elections in history. Now free from the intense personal experience of becoming the first woman nominated for president by a major party in an election marked by rage, sexism, exhilarating highs and infuriating lows, stranger-than-fiction twists, Russian interference, and an opponent who broke all the rules. This is her most personal memoir yet.

If you’ve paid close enough attention, there aren’t necessarily new revelations in What Happened, but I did learn a few things I hadn’t read in the news before. In a no-nonsense manner, and sometimes with surprising dark humor, Clinton goes over all the factors that influenced this election: racism, anger, sexism and misogyny, economics, Russian involvement, voter suppression and disenfranchisement, and more, including taking blame and responsibility for issues in her campaign and in getting her messaging across. There were many fist-pumping, tear-jerking, expletive-yelling moments for me while reading What Happened. She has no fucks left to give and I am HERE for it. What I didn’t expect was how much of the book she devotes to her childhood, family, and friends. It was refreshing.

I read this memoir because I wanted to hear directly from the first woman to come within an eyelash of being president of the United States what her experience was running in the weirdest, least civilized, most shameful election ever. What were her thoughts and feelings being so abhorrently demonized and lied about and hated, and having to go through such a humiliating public defeat? I wanted her unique, informed, diplomatic, experienced perspective. She’s a brilliant, accomplished, dignified, professional, tenacious, courageous, caring woman that I personally find to be admirable and inspirational. She is an historic figure in American history—her nomination alone as well as her win of the popular vote is powerful and cannot be dismissed.

I cried during Clinton’s accepting of the nomination at the DNC. I cried when the results rolled in last November. I cried when she gave her concession speech. I cried while reading many parts of this book, and while much of it is infuriating, frustrating, and worrisome, I was ultimately left hopeful by the end. As Michelle Obama says, “When they go low, we go high.” And as Hillary herself says, “Don’t let the bastards get you down. Stay true to yourself and your values. Most of all, keep going.”

Read in September 2017.