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.]

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.]

mini-reviews: born a crime, you can’t touch my hair, and awkward thoughts

This year I read three wonderful new memoirs by comedians that are not to be missed:

My only regret with reading Trevor Noah’s brilliant memoir Born a Crime is that I didn’t have it on audio. I really enjoyed this book, especially his thoughts on the power of language and the ramifications of apartheid on the ground level. Noah was raised by his single black mother in apartheid South Africa, only seeing his white Swiss father sparingly throughout his childhood and then not at all for many years. His stories are at times hilarious, touching, and harrowing, and throughout the book he expertly balances gravity and humor. His mother is AMAZING. [Read ebook in January 2017.]

I want Phoebe Robinson to be my friend the way Phoebe wants Michelle Obama to be her friend. I want Phoebe, Michelle, and I to all be friends. I loved this book and it was well worth the wait for audio (read by the author). You Can’t Touch My Hair is a collection of hilarious, poignant, and sharp essays that tackle race, growing up, gender, pop culture, and more. The relentless pop culture references and her own unique vernacular can get somewhat tiresome, but I think it probably still works better on audio than read on paper. The chapters about hair (of course), the letter to the future female POTUS, and her letters to her niece were the best for me. The guest entries from Jessica Williams and John Hodgman were brilliant too. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

To be honest, all I knew of W. Kamau Bell before reading The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell was his name and that he is a comedian; I had never heard any of his comedy or shows. But that didn’t matter because I loved this book! It’s full of funny, observant, interesting, even moving essays on his work, his interracial marriage and raising mixed-race daughters, race, being an ally to women and LGBTQ+ in show business and life, and more. There were things I related to (being a lazy kid, getting excited about random things) and lots of things I learned from his life experience. [Listened to audiobook in October 2017.]

mini-reviews: station eleven and the last one

I bought Station Eleven right after it came out, and of COURSE I didn’t read it until two years later. Somehow it survived my Great Purge of Stuff of 2016 in the overseas move, and I finally read it last fall. Coincidentally, I won a copy of The Last One from a Goodreads giveaway right before moving too.These two post-apocalyptic literary books are often compared, and rightly so.

I had to work a bit to get into Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and unfortunately (for me) I only got a little ways in before I had to put it down for the move, but when I finally picked it up again I flew through it. After a lethal virus sweeps the globe, a group of actors, musicians, and artists travel the decimated Great Lakes region performing plays and concerts to the few inhabitants left in the towns they pass through. There were a few odd things (like the dearth of guns/ammo and books in America after almost all of its citizens are wiped out… wouldn’t there be an abundance of these things?) but these minor anachronisms don’t detract from the story. I really enjoyed this thoughtful and imaginative speculative fiction novel. It shifts timelines, giving you a glimpse of living through a societal collapse instead of just showing you the aftermath. Thus, rather than being strictly about survival during and after a global epidemic, the story is more about beauty, nature, music, art, literature, and culture surviving. It’s about humanity and connection. Station Eleven was one of my favorite reads of 2016. [Read in September 2016.]

Alexandra Oliva shows she is a promising, creative writer with her debut novel, The Last One. During the filming of a survival reality TV show, a pandemic killed off much of the population. The show’s contestants have been cut off from the outside world and don’t know what’s happened. One person, a woman known as Zoo, who continues believing she’s in a game rather than an apocalypse. Zoo wasn’t as kick ass as I wanted her to be and I think the book is a bit long and winding overall. I also kind of wish I (as reader) hadn’t known that the corpses, danger, and devastation Zoo comes across were real—it left me frustrated that I knew and she didn’t, having to witness her behavior based on being in the dark. But I liked the book in general. It’s thought provoking regarding the portrayal of reality in media (how much of reality TV is real?) and how it can shape your perception of people, the world, etc. I think it’s worth a read if you like post-apocalyptic stories. [Read/listened to audiobook in March 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.]