one summer: america, 1927

I remember seeing One Summer: America, 1927 when it first came out and being somewhat interested, but at the time I was intimidated by it’s length and I had mixed feelings about the one other book I had read by Bill Bryson before, A Walk in the Woods. But I’m less freaked by long books now, and this seemed like a great one to listen to on audio. Edited from Goodreads:

The summer of 1927 began with one of the signature events of the twentieth century: on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first man to cross the Atlantic by plane nonstop, and when he landed near Paris, he ignited an explosion of worldwide rapture and instantly became the most famous person on the planet. Meanwhile, Babe Ruth was beginning his assault on the home run record. Al Capone tightened his grip on the illegal booze business through reign of terror and municipal corruption. The first true “talking picture,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, was filmed and forever changed the motion picture industry. All this and much, much more transpired in that epochal summer of 1927. In that year America stepped out onto the world stage as the main event, and One Summer transforms it all into narrative nonfiction of the highest order.

Bryson was matter-of-fact with the events, with a little bit of observational humor thrown in but not interjecting his own views, and not sugarcoating the bad stuff. As a reader in 2018, I couldn’t help but notice it’s largely about white men… however, yes, this book is about a very specific span of a few months of one particular year. And the major achievements and events that took place then were certainly carried out by white men. However! I appreciated that Bryson exposed these men for who they were—Lindbergh wasn’t the American hero the press made him out to be. He was bland, rude, and had secret mistresses (and children) in Germany. Coolidge couldn’t be bothered to do much, if anything, during his presidency. Henry Ford was a stubborn anti-Semite. And I loved learning about Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the U.S.’s second-ever woman assistant attorney general, and first woman to head the Tax Division. She came up with the idea of investigating tax evasion as a way to prosecute major criminal figureheads, which was used to bust Al Capone in 1931.

I learned a lot from this book. One thing leads to another. For example, I had no idea about the anarchist movement at the time, the example used here was the 1927 electric-chair executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, convicted of murder and armed robbery. Bryson profiles the executioner, Robert Elliot, who was basically America’s most prolific killer, if you want to look at it that way, and you learn about the rise of the electric chair. He also executed Ruth Snyder in 1928, convicted of killing her husband the summer of 1927. So then you learn about Snyder and her case… which made headlines in the brand-new type of news magazines, tabloids…

There’s so much more. The season of arguably the best baseball lineup ever, the 1927 Yankees’ Murderer’s Row, as well as the rivalry between Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. The development of tabloids and the popularity of barnstorming (wild stunts that enthralled huge crowds, like flag-pole sitting). The rise of cinematic “talkies” just at the peak time of Broadway. The first national radio broadcasts and the invention of television. The beginnings of Mount Rushmore. Jack Dempsey’s historic boxing career and his final fights in 1927. Eugenics and the horrifying, unnecessary (but, at the time, totally legal) sterilization of tens of thousands of Americans.

I was especially captivated by the baseball (I had a mild obsession with Babe Ruth as a kid), organized crime and Al Capone, and the achievements of early aviation. Bryson does a wonderful job placing everything in context so you understand exactly how monumentally historic and important this time was, setting up what led to the events of summer 1927 (showing how America was woefully behind Europe regarding flight innovations, for example) and then laying out their lasting effects. This is a fascinating, engaging book!

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

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: 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.]

top ten tuesday: favorite settings

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, a fun way to get yourself thinking and sharing about books and bookish things.

August 13: Top ten favorite books with ____ setting

The team over at the Broke and the Bookish say to pick whatever setting you like: “futuristic world, set mostly in schools, during World War II, books set in California, etc.” Since I mentioned my fascination with the Mafia and true crime in a recent post, I thought I’d pick that for my Top Ten Tuesday today! However, after looking back it appears I’ve only actually read six mafia-themed books, but I’ve included four that I want to read to make it an even ten. In no particular order:

1. The Mafia and the Machine by Frank R. Hayde
I loved learning about the history of organized crime in my town, Kansas City!

2. Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi
A deeper look into the story of Henry Hill and his life and involvement with the New York City Mafia from the 1950s–90s. The movie Goodfellas is based on this book.

3. Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott
Set in turn-of-the-century 1900s Chicago, this one is about the most famous and controversial brothel of the era. The Everleigh sisters were trying to bring some class and sophistication to the sex industry, but were met with Puritanical opposition left and right.

4. The First Family by Mike Dash
An excellent history of the roots of the American Mafia in the 1890s–1920s, focusing on the migration of organized crime from Sicily to the United States and criminal mastermind “The Clutch Hand” Giuseppe Morello and his cronies.

5. Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano
Half exposé and half narrative, Saviano tells his personal account of how organized crime has influenced and infiltrated every aspect of life in Italy, with most of his focus on the Camorra in the southern Campania region and its capital, Naples.

6. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
The one, the only.

7. The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry *want to read
I’ve seen some good reviews of this one! It’s the true story of two women in Jazz Era Chicago who murdered their gentlemen-friends covered by a brazen “girl reporter,” and who inspired the musical Chicago.

8. Black Mass by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill *want to read
The subject matter of this one reminds me a little of the movie The Departed: two boys grow up on the streets of Boston, one goes into the FBI, one the Irish mob. A deal struck between the two men to bring down the Italian mob in exchange for the Irish gangster’s protection leads to one of the biggest FBI informant scandals ever.

9. Capone: The Man and the Era by Laurence Bergreen *want to read
A biography of Chicago’s most notorious gangster during the Prohibition Era.

10. Five Families by Selwyn Robb *want to read
Appears to be a quintessential read on the American Mafia, a highly detailed history, and probably a good one to follow The First Family.


11. Donnie Brasco by Joseph D. Pistone and Richard Woodley *want to read
The non-fiction memoir on which the classic (well, at least to me) Johnny Depp movie is based.

[ETA: Not having to do with mafia, but I’m counting a few more true crime books as honorable mentions: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, and The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson).]

What setting for books have you been loving lately (or forever)?

top ten tuesday: best of 2013 so far

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, a fun way to get yourself thinking and sharing about books and bookish things.

June 25: Top ten books I’ve read so far in 2013

We’re just over halfway through 2013 (can’t believe it!) so it’s a natural point to think about what you’ve liked best so far this year! Here are my top ten reads of 2013 so far, in no particular order (click the links on the titles for my full reviews):

1. Lizz Free or Die by Lizz Winstead
Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show, shares her ups and downs in this hilarious and touching memoir. One of the few books that has made me laugh out loud and move me to tears. I loved it and recommend to everyone I know who enjoyed Tina Fey’s Bossypants.

2. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
An unconventional love/friendship story between a playboy-turned-paraplegic and his girl-next-door caretaker that raises ethical questions concerning death with dignity. I thought it was great (and I’m not a “love story” kind of person)!

3. Quiet: The Power of Introverts… by Susan Cain
Susan Cain defines and defends introverts and their behaviors as perfectly acceptable, useful, and normal qualities, explaining how introverts and extroverts can work, live, and play together effectively and enrich each others lives positively. Maybe not ground-breaking, but insightful and encouraging.

4. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
What can I say? I’d go to the mattresses defending this one. 🙂

5. The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne
This one is a scathing look at celebrity worship in our culture, especially of talented children. Jonny is a good kid—excellent entertainer and attractive—but jaded beyond his years and discovering how cruel and fickle fame can be.

6. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Moshin Hamid
Told from a unique point of view and structured like a self-help book, this rags-to-riches story follows a young man (you) from a rural, impoverished childhood through shady wealth-generating business dealings in an unnamed South Asia metropolis.

7. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
WWII veteran Louie Zamperini’s harrowing, incredible lifelong journey: his youth in California, competing as a runner in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, and joining the US Air Force. The book is unputdownable once you get to Louie’s fateful mission that brought his plane down, shipwrecking him in the Pacific Ocean for weeks battling sharks, and his subsequent abduction by the Japanese Navy and held as a Pacific POW for years.

8. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
A humorous yet warm tale of a mother’s disappearance and her precocious daughter’s quest to find her. I thought telling this through letters, emails, memos, and documents was brilliant!

9. Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan
Comedian Jim Gaffigan tells of the trials and tribulations of raising five children under age 10 in a two-bedroom apartment in NYC, and more. Even if you don’t have children, it’s a super funny collection of essays. Pale Force unite!

10. Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss
Moss’s exposé of the processed food industry is part science, part economics, part business ethics. I was blown away by the font of information in this book. Another excellent food science/ethics book on par with Michael Pollan’s work.

What are the best books you’ve read so far in 2013?