the iceman

As you know if you read me here, I’m fascinated by American mafia culture. Right now, I’m working on a drawing of Paulie and Chrissy from The Sopranos. I thought Anthony Bruno’s The Iceman would be a perfect companion to listen to while I work, and it was! From Goodreads:

At home, Richard Kuklinski was a dedicated suburban family man; on the street, he was the Iceman, a professional hit man and lethal scam artist, a man so heartless he kept one of his victims frozen for over two years to disguise the time of death. His personal body count was over one hundred, but the police couldn’t touch him. Then undercover agent Dominick Polifrone posed as a mobster and began a deadly game of cat and mouse. The Iceman chronicles Kuklinski’s grisly career and exposes his murderous double life.

Kuklinski had a terrible, abusive childhood, the violence of which obviously followed him into adulthood. This book doesn’t cover it (and I’m no doctor), but he must have had some sort of untreated mental illness, too, from the descriptions of his wild mood swings; his wife said she never knew when he’d fly into a random fit of rage. I found it interesting that Kuklinski wasn’t like other mob guys you hear about—he was not a womanizer, he didn’t dabble in drugs or gambling. His killings were gruesome and horrifying, and the sheer impassivity he displayed regarding his actions and taking another human life is chilling.

The Iceman definitely scratched my perpetual true-crime itch for the time being. I thought about reading Philip Carlo’s book on Kuklinski, also titled The Ice Man but after his lackluster writing in The Butcher, I think I’ll just stay with Bruno’s book. This was a fast-paced, engaging read, even if at times towards the end some information was repeated. I think I have seen the 2012 film starring Michael Shannon (I’d have to see it again…) and now I definitely want to watch The Iceman Tapes documentary, where Kuklinski himself is interviewed on film.

Listened to audiobook in October 2017.

mini-reviews: my life on the road, freedom is a constant struggle

I have admired the work of Gloria Steinem and Angela Y. Davis for a while, but haven’t read any books or essays by either until this past year! Here are my thoughts on their 2015 releases:

I won an ARC of Steinem’s fascinating, engaging memoir My Life on the Road from Goodreads. I didn’t know anything about Steinem’s upbringing, and she was so relatable here. I really enjoyed learning about her nomadic childhood, with her father’s wanderlust taking the family on frequent road trips, and how those experiences shaped her adult life both personally and professionally. I think this would have been even better on audio. A few sections dragged, but overall I loved how she used travel to illustrate feminism, organizing, and more in our world. She had insightful things to say about Hillary Clinton and 2008 primaries and election season, which was interesting to read just before the 2016 election. [Read in Sept. 2016.]

Freedom is a Constant Struggle is a great collection of selected speeches and conversations of Angela Y. Davis. The speeches in the last half of the book especially stood out to me; they connect race, feminism, civil rights, intersectionality, fighting for freedom, and more. Despite some repetitiveness, I think this is a must-read in these times as it drives home the point that several complex struggles we’re facing in the United States are also global issues. Davis is a fascinating, inspiring figure, and I’m awed by her brilliance and bravery. She’s a radical thinker and activist, and this slim book pushed my thinking on several issues. [Read in February 2017.]

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: kill ’em and leave and metallica: back to the front

As a musician I always have my eye out for great books on music and other musicians, and two books I read this year on the subject did not disappoint.

I’ve had James McBride’s Kill ‘Em and Leave on my radar ever since it came out last year, and finally decided to get to it this month. It wasn’t a typical biography, and I would have liked more about Brown’s experiences touring and more from/about some of his personal relationships, but this is a great book outlining James Brown as a real man. McBride doesn’t sugarcoat Brown’s flaws, but drives the point home how Brown was a powerful influence on generations of Black Americans and musicians. There was more of McBride present than I expected (he complains about his own divorce as the impetus to taking on this writing project, for example), but it bothered me less as I got further into the book. [Listened to audiobook in Sept. 2017.]

I read Metallica: Back to the Front by Matt Taylor to get myself amped for Metallica’s January concert here in Singapore, which was amazing and just what I needed at that time. I waited in line for eight hours and got a spot right up front close to the stage. I moshed for the first time in probably 20 years (still got it!) and was sore for three days afterwards. Anyway! This book is definitely a must for die-hard (and probably even cursory) Metallica fans. It reads like an oral history from all the important players (the band, managers, engineers, road crew, family, friends) about the making of and tour for its seminal 1986 album Master of Puppets. It also serves as a poignant tribute to founding bassist Cliff Burton, who tragically died during the tour in a bus accident. The book itself is beautiful, with tons of gorgeous professional and candid photos. I loved it. [Read in January 2017.]

notorious rbg

It’s March 15 and it’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s birthday! What better day to write my post on Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik? From Goodreads:

You can’t spell truth without Ruth.
Only Ruth Bader Ginsburg can judge me.
The Ruth will set you free.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg never asked for fame—she was just trying to make the world a little better and a little freer. But along the way, the feminist pioneer’s searing dissents and steely strength have inspired millions. Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, created by the young lawyer who began the Internet sensation and an award-winning journalist, takes you behind the myth for an intimate, irreverent look at the justice’s life and work. As America struggles with the unfinished business of gender equality and civil rights, Ginsburg stays fierce. And if you don’t know, now you know.

Already I can tell this will be one of my favorite books of the year. I honestly didn’t know many details about RBG or her history, and Notorious RBG was an excellent primer. Her work on the Supreme Court has definitely been important and progressive, but learning more about her perseverance throughout her professional career as a woman, wife, and mother made her even more inspiring to me. I’m just in awe of her knowledge, dry wit, and tenacity. And the woman does TWENTY push-ups every day! Despite being a book born from the Internet (Tumblr, in this case), Notorious RBG is balanced well between personal life, professional accomplishments, and some playful, fun sections, too. I appreciated how the authors made the dissents and other legal items totally accessible.

This was an entertaining, informative, and unconventional biography. I was thrilled to see the news this week that a new book of her writings will be released early next year! But I can’t recommend Notorious RGB highly enough. The woman is a true American feminist hero.

Read from February 19 to 29, 2016.

just kids

I’m on a rock bender lately! Maybe it’s my awesome new turntable stereo I just got set up. In addition to reading Gregg Allman’s My Cross to Bear (almost done!) I started reading Just Kids by Patti Smith on my iPad. From Goodreads:

In Just Kids, Patti Smith’s first book of prose, the legendary American artist offers a never-before-seen glimpse of her remarkable relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the epochal days of New York City and the Chelsea Hotel in the late sixties and seventies. An honest and moving story of youth and friendship, Smith brings the same unique, lyrical quality to Just Kids as she has to the rest of her formidable body of work—from her influential 1975 album Horses to her visual art and poetry.

I am in the middle on this book. While I loved the illuminating look at life of the starving artist in New York City in the 70s, and I can totally identify with being in an artist-artist relationship, being each other’s muses, supporting each other, etc. There’s a lot of name-dropping—Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and numerous other artists, poets, and musicians—but that’s part of the allure of this book. Just Kids was a beautiful, loving tribute to Mapplethorpe. The last section about their last conversations and his death were intimate, poetic, and heartbreaking.

There is a lot to love about this book, however at times it felt weirdly sincere AND contrived at the same time. Does that make sense? I feel like, I can forgive her romanticism of New York and her relationship with Mapplethorpe, but that she was so naive about the lifestyle (drugs, mostly) and 70s NYC arts scene in general is hard to believe. There was a lot of “this happened, then this, and I did that, and he did this.” Her language is just a little too antiquated for me too, trying to hard to be poetic maybe. On one hand, I enjoyed listening to this on audiobook better, read by Smith (I split it up this time between audio and ebook), but I had to speed it up to 1.5x because it was a slog at normal speed.

If you can get past the quibbles I had, then I’m sure you’d like Just Kids. I do think it’s a must-read for fans of Smith and Mapplethorpe, or who want to live vicariously through two gifted artists in 1970s New York City.

Just Kids is my fifth of twelve books read for my Ebook Challenge.

Read/listened from July 22 to 24, 2015.