reading recap: october 2017

I know I say this every month, but wow this year has flown by. Again, again, again almost all my reads were on audio. What can I say, I like to be told a story while I’m drawing.

  • How to Win at Feminism … Reductress
  • A Colony in a Nation … Chris Hayes
  • The Awkward Thoughts of… (audio) … W. Kamau Bell, read by author
  • I Know I Am, But What Are You? (audio) … Samantha Bee, read by author
  • Chernobyl 01:23:40 (audio) … Andrew Leatherbarrow, read by Michael Page
  • Black Mass (audio) … Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, read by various
  • Bitch Planet, Book Two … Kelly Sue DeConnick with Valentine De Landro
  • The Secret History (audio) … Donna Tartt, read by author
  • Dear Ijeawele (audio) … Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, read by January LaVoy
  • It’s Up to the Women (audio) … Eleanor Roosevelt, read by Suzanne Toren
  • The New Jim Crow … Michelle Alexander
  • The Iceman (audio) … Anthony Bruno, read by Bronson Pinchot

I am proud of myself sticking pretty well to my goal of catching up on blog posts. I’m saving my review of The New Jim CrowBitch Planet 2, and A Colony in a Nation until after I meet up with Anthony, my fellow reader and partner in crime in our Best Friends International Book Club, to discuss in person in a couple of weeks.

My favorites of the month were definitely The New Jim CrowA Colony in a Nation, and The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell. I really enjoyed getting back into mafia books with Black Mass and The Iceman.

Next month I’m going back home to the States for a visit, and I’ll be bringing with me on paperback The Glass Castle and Killing Pablo. I have a books on my Libby app, True Story and Patient H.M. (audio) and Katy Tur’s new one Unbelievable (ebook). I’m also bringing home What Happened for my mom to read. And I’ve downloaded Stranger Things season 2 and a bunch of other videos to my iPad Netflix app. Why am I always so concerned I’ll be lacking in entertainment choices on flights and trips?? LOL!

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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: psycho, deviant, and the monster of florence

It’s almost Halloween! I love watching scary movies all month and reading spooky books to get me in the mood, even if I don’t actually do anything on the 31st (except, of course, have a Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” marathon 🙂 Here are three books on serial killers I listened to on audio this year:

I’ve been enjoying classics lately on audio, so I went with Robert Bloch’s seminal horror novel Psycho last March. Thanks to the iconic Hitchcock film, you all know the story: Woman skips town with a wad of cash from work, ends up at Bates Motel, where she meets Norman Bates, whose secrets go deeper and are more upsetting than some stolen money. She’s never heard from again, and her boyfriend and sister go looking for her. Even though this was short and I knew the plot already, Psycho is still a tight, suspenseful read that has quite a bit of depth left out of the movie. Bloch was inspired by the capture of Ed Gein (see below). It’s very short—just over five hours on audio—but it packs an intense punch. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

I’m not sure why I decided to listen to Deviant by Harold Schechter last March/April… maybe I was homesick, as weird as that sounds! (Well, I’m always homesick.) Anyway, it popped up in my recommendations after I finished Psycho and I decided why not. The life of Ed Gein is truly one terrifying, disturbing nightmare. Gein was a low-profile farmhand in Plainfield, Wisconsin, often helping out neighbors as a babysitter or handyman, basically regarded as a harmless “town simpleton.” But beneath the innocuous facade was a depraved murderer, whose behavior and actions behind closed doors was unimaginably gruesome, each discovery unearthed in his farmhouse by authorities in 1957 more strange and chilling than the last. He was the inspiration for PsychoThe Texas Chainsaw MassacreThe Silence of the Lambs, and more. As a sucker for true crime and Gein being serious lore in my home state of Wisconsin, this book kept me intrigued and captivated throughout. It is definitely NOT for the faint of heart; Norman Bates is positively quaint compared to Ed Gein. Fun fact: Gein spent the last years of his life at the Mendota Mental Health Institute, just a couple miles from the street I grew up on! [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

***Both Psycho and Deviant are fascinating, gripping books, but I have to mention that the discussions of mental illness and the way the term transvestite is used in both books are dated and problematic. Deviant (1989) would be easy enough to edit and update, and anyway I’d even bet there are more recent books on Ed Gein.

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston was recommended to me by one of my oldest, best friends back home in Madison last summer, and I was excited to see it was available on my library app! Author Douglas Preston discovered the olive grove in front of his family’s new Italian home was the location of one of Italy’s most notorious double-murders. Preston, with the help of a local investigator Mario Spezi, attempts to uncover the identity of the murderer, known simply as the Monster of Florence. They end up interviewing the man they believe may be the killer, but then end up the focus of a police investigation themselves. I liked the first part of the book better (the second half dragged somewhat, and was more about Preston than the murders), but it still reads like a suspense-thriller in the vein of Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Larson’s Devil in the White City. [Listened to audiobook in August 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: fire this time, we gon’ be alright, underground railroad

Three more books related to race issues that I read recently, two of which (The Fire This Time and We Gon’ Be Alright) were among my favorites from last year:

I will read anything and everything by Jesmyn Ward. She only wrote the introduction and one entry in The Fire This Time, but there is fantastic writing by all the authors, which include Carol Anderson, Claudia Rankine, and more. Everyone should read this book. Ward has compiled a thoughtful, powerful, and moving collection of essays and poems—sometimes autobiographical, all unique perspectives—on life and race in America today. It’s infuriating and heartbreaking, but also hopeful. I wish I had read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time first, but I will get to it someday for sure. [Read ebook in October 2016.]

Jeff Chang’s We Gon’ Be Alright is another essential collection of essays to help understand why race relations in America remain so strained today. The pieces examine Ferguson, racism in higher education, the morphed definition of “diversity,” #OscarsSoWhite, growing up Asian American, Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, white flight, segregation in k-12 schools, the symbolism of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and more. The chapters focused on student protests in Missouri really hit home—he mentions an incident with then-UM President Tim Wolfe being approached by student protesters in Kansas City after a fundraiser gala. I was at the event working, but I didn’t witness the confrontation. It was a big deal—we had to plan ahead for his attendance and what might happen. I admire the protesters for their courage and resistance, and my colleagues who were there for keeping the peace and being respectful. Tim Wolfe, on the other hand, was ignorant, rude, and dismissive. Anyway, this is a timely, incisive, and impactful must-read. [Read in December 2016.]

And now for my unpopular opinion. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad was by far one of the most hyped books of 2016, but unfortunately I didn’t find it engaging. It’s about a runaway slave and her journey to freedom, only Whitehead’s “railroad” here is a physical one with trains. I thought there would be more about the trains and railroad, like it would become magical realism, but it does not. I was so intrigued by the premise of this book, but the plot jumped from scene to scene and past to present too frenetically, or it slogged too slowly, and I had trouble connecting with the characters—they fell flat for me. The cheese stands alone, though, as The Underground Railroad has won numerous awards including the 2017 Pulitzer for Fiction. I think perhaps a non-fiction on this subject would have affected me more than an historical fiction. I had to force myself to finish. [Read ebook in September 2016.]

mini-reviews: ghettoside, blood at the root, another day

I’m watching the unfolding of events in the United States very carefully from here in Singapore. I feel helpless a lot of the time… I do what I can from here (emails to my representatives, mostly, and of course absentee voting) but one thing for certain that I can do is educate myself. In light of the current protests happening across the NFL lately, I thought this week it would be appropriate to catch up on reviewing related books I’ve recently read.

Ghettoside is about the murder of a young black man in L.A., who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who also happened to be the son of a policeman who lived where he patrolled, as well as the detectives who were assigned to this case. Beyond this central story, there is also examination of gang-related violence and killings in South-central L.A. and societal failures for these communities. I liked Jill Leovy‘s attention to detail and thorough reporting, but I felt there was too much focus on the white detectives and their value and roles, and not enough from the perspectives of the members of the black communities this violence effects. But the overall message certainly is that Black Lives Matter and tries to offer possible solutions to reducing and solving gang-related murders. [Listened to audiobook in August 2016.]

In 1912, three young black men were accused of raping and murdering a white woman in Forsyth County, Georgia. This launched the rise of a group of white supremacist terrorists prowling the county and the systematic removal of black families there, using tactics that were forceful, intimidating, outright inhumane and violent, and often outrageously “legal” thanks to white elitist legislators in the state. Patrick Phillips’s Blood at the Root is a fascinating, gripping, and often personal book that details the shameful, unjust racial cleansing that plagued this particular county, but is required reading in order to understand how this kind of homegrown terrorism continues to effect and shape our nation’s racial climate today. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

Another Day in the Death of America provides an outsider’s view of how normalized gun violence has become in the United States, as the author, Gary Younge, is from the U.K. Being black and new to the U.S., he became alarmed by how he had to change raising his children to be prepared in our dangerous society here. He chose a random date and examines the tragic deaths of ten children by guns on that date. Ranging in age from nine to nineteen, most of these kids were black, but all were boys from low-income communities. Some were gang-related killings, some were just two kids messing around unsupervised. I agree with Younge’s argument on the urgent need for strict gun regulations, but I wish he hadn’t insisted in the opening that this book is not meant to be a political statement. That’s my only criticism. Gun availability, use, and regulations have all been heavily politicized, there’s no way a book like this isn’t political. And the problem is deeper than just gun regulations—it’s economics, media, and popular culture, too. This book is difficult to read at times, but important in that it is a potent reminder that there are real people—real, individual children and families—who are victims of of this insane, rampant gun violence EVERY DAY. It’s critical to not become desensitized. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]