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: heart’s invisible furies and child finder

I was really focused on non-fiction for a few months there this summer that I felt like I needed a good dose of fiction, and luckily for me there have been some fantastic new releases this year. Here are two that I listened to on audio last month:

Cyril Avery was born to a teenage mom in 1940s Ireland and adopted by a rich family who always let him know he wasn’t “really” one of them. John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a beautiful, engrossing story of a man’s life and his personal journey to uncover his identity and where and with whom he belongs. I’m always attracted to literature coming from and based in Ireland, and I’ve been wanting a great LGBTQ+ story lately too, so this book pleasantly scratched a few itches for me. I’ll be adding more of John Boyne’s books to my TBR list, for sure. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

I loved Rene Denfield‘s last book, The Enchanted, so I knew I had to read The Child Finder when it came out. Naomi, a private investigator with a troubled past, is searching for a girl named Madison, who disappeared a few years earlier. As the plot unfolds through alternating viewpoints, you learn about Naomi’s past and why she is uniquely qualified to be the titular Child Finder, and also about Madison’s experience. It’s very dark and disturbing subject matter—child abduction and all you can expect that goes along with that but it’s not graphic whatsoever—so it’s not necessarily for the faint of heart. But the writing is just as lovely as in The Enchanted, with elements of magical realism (but still heavy on the realism), use of characters’ imaginations, and an otherworldly quality that is emotional without being sappy. I didn’t dig the narrator so much, so I kind of wish I had read on paper, but despite that I did still get pulled in to the story. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

the long walk

I can’t remember when I picked up The Long Walk by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)… it was a gift for my husband a while ago. He recently read it and asked me to read it so we could talk about it. Book club! 🙂 From Goodreads:

Every year, on the first day of May, one hundred teenage boys meet for an event known throughout the country as “The Long Walk.” Among this year’s chosen crop is sixteen-year-old Ray Garraty. He knows the rules: that warnings are issued if you fall under speed, stumble, sit down. That after three warnings… you get your ticket. And what happens then serves as a chilling reminder that there can be only one winner in the Walk—the one that survives…

What I thought would be a typical teen dystopia in the vein of The Hunger Games (never read, seen the movies) turned out to be something else entirely. Participation in the Long Walk is voluntary, and for much of the book that bothered me. I thought that it should be mandatory, a lottery or something (like in Hunger Games) but THEN I thought, no. This must be voluntary. Boys selected for the Long Walk against their will would protest—they’d flee the country and go into hiding, anything to get out of it. Citizens would be in an uproar (think the Vietnam draft… and that was for a war! This is just for “The Prize” at the end, anything the winner wants for the rest of his life). Oohh… is this book an allegory for military service?? Anyway, brilliant.

King makes subtle statements on adolescent masculinity in our culture, which I’ve noticed in other books of his. But in The Long Walk, it might be the first King book I’ve read without any supernatural elements. This makes the idea of a military state in the (near?) future, where we’d cheer 100 boys literally walking to their deaths frighteningly plausible. In The Long Walk, much of the “action” is cerebral—the internal dialogue and philosophical musings of Ray, mostly. But King is so talented at character development, he manages to keep a the repetitive, singular activity of walking compelling for almost 400 pages. Also in this one, there are no subplots or intersecting storylines. It’s just the Walk, from start to finish. There’s intense, relentless focus on the boys’ horrifying physical and mental breakdowns after hours and miles of walking without rest.

The Long Walk came out in 1979, but it still has many points relevant to today’s American culture—some shockingly so. I was especially struck by how similar the feel of the Long Walk event is to reality competition shows, in that people voluntarily put themselves in the spotlight competing to win (whatever), usually at their own or others’ expense (dignity), risk, and suffering. And how society is addicted to this kind of sick voyeurism.

Awesome book, I loved it! If you’re looking for a psychological thriller with some elements of horror and dystopia that will keep you thinking about it long after, check out The Long Walk. It would be a great warm-up for Halloween!

Read from August 23 to September 3, 2015.

an untamed state

After reading Bad Feminist and seeing this one all over “best of” lists last year, I knew I had to read Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. From Goodreads:

Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men, in front of her father’s Port-au-Prince estate. Held captive by a man who calls himself The Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As it becomes clear her father intends to resist the kidnappers, Mireille must endure the torments of a man who resents everything she represents.

What a powerful, harrowing book. The brutal violence during Miri’s captivity took my breath away—it reads like a bona fide thriller. Scenes flashing back to Miri’s childhood and marriage are interspersed throughout the first part, letting the reader get to know all the players better and Miri’s mindset before her 13-day ordeal began. (That’s one shining light for the reader—you know she will be freed after 13 days. Miri does not, though.) The second half of the book covers the aftermath of the event—Miri’s fragile, volatile mental and emotional health as a result of the physical and psychological trauma she endured. Not only Miri suffers during and after her kidnapping, her family does as well. They all have to reconcile with what happened to her and find a “new normal” somehow.

I do believe An Untamed State lives up to the hype—it makes a mighty impression and is not a story you’ll soon forget. However, for me personally, I found the characters to be generally unlikable. I don’t need all my protagonists in entertainment to be likable, I just got the impression we’re supposed to like Miri and her husband. They’re supposed to be great star-crossed soulmates or something, but their overall mutual unkindness to each other and immaturity was unappealing to me. I think I would have liked more insight into the socioeconomic, political, and cultural context within this story—Miri’s privilege over her captors and Haitians living in abject poverty is mentioned but not discussed in depth.

An Untamed State delves deep into the very real issue of rape and violence against women that are rampant in societies all over the world. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so thoughtfully bold on the subject. The sheer terror and fear Miri felt, both during and after her kidnapping, were palpable. Gay doesn’t hold back on the shocking sexual and physical atrocities committed on Miri, which may be more than some readers can stomach, but sticking through the whole book is worth it.

Read from August 7 to 23, 2015.

authority

Last week I drove to Wisconsin for my family reunion and decided on Authority by Jeff VanderMeer first, to listen to on the way up there. From Goodreads:

For thirty years, a secret agency called the Southern Reach has monitored expeditions into Area X—a remote and lush terrain mysteriously sequestered from civilization. After the twelfth expedition, the Southern Reach is in disarray, and John Rodriguez (aka “Control”) is the team’s newly appointed head. From a series of interrogations, a cache of hidden notes, and more than two hundred hours of profoundly troubling video footage, the secrets of Area X begin to reveal themselves—and what they expose pushes Control to confront disturbing truths about both himself and the agency he’s promised to serve.

I read Annihilation last year and thought it was great—a mind-bending and gripping slim fantastical sci-fi novel that sparked my imagination and kept me turning pages. Authority wasn’t quite on the same level, but I was compelled enough to listen all the way through. The characters in this one weren’t as intriguing as the expedition members in Annihilation. In general, I’d say Authority was long on words and short on action, especially in the middle section. The audiobook version I listened to was narrated well, by Bronson Pinchot (Cousin Balki from Perfect Strangers, for all you TGIF early 90s kids!)

I like that VanderMeer doesn’t go with white males in this trilogy—from the women in the first book to a Latino character as the protagonist in this one. In Authority, you start to wonder more about Area X’s wider effects on humans: physical, emotional, psychological? The interviews between Control and the biologist were great, and that ending! No spoilers, but it was a nail-biter and a good cliffhanger setting up the next installment, Acceptance (which I have, hoping to get to it by the end of the summer).

Authority is not a stand-alone novel the way Annihilation is. This second book is a slow, creeping mystery and (hopefully) a good bridge between the first and last volumes. I wanted this to be as good as Annihilation, but I still can’t wait to dig into Acceptance soon to find out what Area X is really all about.

Listened to audiobook on July 8, 2015.

misery

This month, Care at Care’s Online Book Club hosted a readalong of Stephen King’s Misery. Edited from Goodreads:

Paul Sheldon, author of a bestselling series of historical romances, wakes up one winter day in a strange place to unspeakable pain (a dislocated pelvis, a crushed knee, two shattered legs) and to a bizarre greeting from the woman who saved his life: “I’m your number one fan!”

Annie Wilkes is a huge ex-nurse, handy with controlled substances and other instruments of abuse, including an ax and a blowtorch. A dangerous psychotic with a Romper Room sense of good and bad, fair and unfair, Annie Wilkes may be Stephen King’s most terrifying creation.

What a fun, creepy, genuinely scary story! I read a few of King’s books in high school, then two more a couple years ago (Under the Dome11/22/63), and couldn’t resist this readalong when I found it. Somehow I always forget how much I enjoy King’s books and writing. And of my limited experience with King, Misery is probably the freakiest of what I’ve read.

CGXdaIvUkAAZmMbI probably never thought to read this since I’ve seen the movie several times—it’s one of my favorite horror flicks. The cast is absolutely perfect. And while I still love the movie, the book was better (as books tend to be), and goes well beyond the terror found in the movie. I listened to Misery on audio while at work (it was a quiet week at the office) and squirmed and squealed through many parts that were particularly gruesome and sadistic. On audio, though, some of the Misery sections (where we’re reading Paul’s new story about Misery, the character in his romance series) were hard to follow and tiresome. I looked through those parts in my hardcover copy and they made much more sense on paper.

miseryralbutton

What makes Misery special of King’s work is that it’s horror but without the supernatural—more of a psychological thriller. You read about dangerous, lethal psychopaths like Annie in the news all the time. King is a master at creating interesting, memorable characters, and Annie and Paul in Misery are no exception. More so, even, being basically the only two people in the entire story. King delves deeply into both of their psyches. Annie must rank right up there as one of the most strange and terrifying cockadoodie villains in literature. Awesome book!

Listened to audiobook from June 9 to 11, 2015.