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: 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.]

one of us

One of Us by Åsne Seierstad is one of the first books I read after moving to Singapore, and one of the best I read in 2016. Edited from Goodreads:

A harrowing and thorough account of the massacre that upended Norway, and the trial that helped put the country back together.

On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb outside government buildings in central Oslo, killing eight people. He then proceeded to a youth camp on the island of Utøya, where he killed sixty-nine more, most of them teenage members of Norway’s governing Labour Party. Journalist Åsne Seierstad tells the story of this terrible day and what led up to it. What made Breivik, a gifted child from an affluent neighborhood in Oslo, become a terrorist?

One of Us is mostly a deep dive into the life of Breivik, and an investigation of what in his past could have possibly shaped him into a terrorist. With intricate detail, Seierstad maps his transformation from smart yet socially awkward teen to radicalized, misogynistic bigot. It’s disquieting to examine the mind of a killer, especially when there’s no clear, black-or-white answer to the why of his evil deeds. I appreciate that Seierstad dutifully and respectfully recounts the lives of several of the teenage victims as well. By the time you reach the chapter on the island massacre, you feel like you really know all these people.

I’m unfamiliar with the Norwegian justice process, but I was shocked that Breivik received only 21 years, which is the maximum sentence allowed there. (It can be extended indefinitely.) He murdered 77 people in cold blood, injured hundreds more, and proudly proclaimed it in court. I admire Norway’s belief in and commitment to rehabilitation instead of permanent institutionalization, but it appears that Breivik won’t change for the better in prison. He’s recently popped up in the news claiming “inhumane conditions” and abuse by Norway while in prison, as well as for changing his name. In court appearances he shows zero remorse for his terrorist acts and murders, and frequently performs Nazi salutes.

I’m not sure how to recommend One of Us… I suppose in the same way you’d recommend Helter Skelter or The Executioner’s Song. It’s fascinating, upsetting, and doesn’t wrap up nicely in a necessarily just or fair way. The main takeaway from One of Us, I think, at least for me, is that sometimes you can’t make sense of the world. But for every one Breivik, there are countless good, decent, compassionate, and open-minded people. In the wake of all this brutally unfair sadness, this quote from the Norwegian prime minister’s response to the attack struck me as particularly inspiring:

We are a small country, but we are a proud people. We are still shaken by what has happened to us, but we will never relinquish our values. Our answer is more democracy, more openness and more humanity. But never naivety.

One of Us is a comprehensive journalistic achievement, bullet by sickening bullet, but reads like a novel. This is such a powerful, frightening, and important book. It’s difficult to get through some sections. I can only imagine the profound pain and anguish of the victims’ families. As an American, I’m furious and concerned about the lack of gun laws and regulations in my country, and how many lives are lost and destroyed by gun violence every day. It shouldn’t be this way, and it doesn’t have to be.

Read in August 2016.

missoula

As a big fan of his work, I’ve been waiting for Missoula by Jon Krakauer to come up available through my local library’s Overdrive on audio since it was released this past April, and finally got to it last week. Edited from Goodreads:

Missoula, Montana, is a typical college town, with a highly regarded state university, bucolic surroundings, a lively social scene, and an excellent football team with a rabid fan base.

The Department of Justice investigated 350 sexual assaults reported to the Missoula police between January 2008 and May 2012. Few of these assaults were properly handled by either the university or local authorities. In this, Missoula is also typical.

A DOJ report released in December of 2014 estimates 110,000 women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four are raped each year. Krakauer’s devastating narrative of what happened in Missoula makes clear why rape is so prevalent on American campuses, and why rape victims are so reluctant to report assault. Acquaintance rape is the most underreported crime in America. In addition to physical trauma, its victims often suffer devastating psychological damage that leads to feelings of shame, emotional paralysis, and stigmatization. PTSD rates for rape victims are estimated to be 50 percent, higher than for soldiers returning from war.

In Missoula, Krakauer chronicles the searing experiences of several women in Missoula—the nights when they were raped; their fear and self-doubt in the aftermath; the way they were treated by the police, prosecutors, defense attorneys; the public vilification and private anguish; their bravery in pushing forward and what it cost them.

As you can imagine, Missoula is a difficult book to get through. Krakauer is a relentless, dutiful researcher, and his work on Missoula is no exception. The subject matter is intense, very real, and a very real problem everywhere—Krakauer uses the single example of Missoula to illustrate the epidemic crisis that rape/sexual assault has become across the country.

I fully admit I was a bit shocked with the depth and detail of the descriptions of rape and assault—not for the faint of heart. But it’s completely necessary to the book and respectful to the victims for not sugarcoating what they went through. I was completely incensed at the perpetrators, the justice system for frequently failing these women, and even some citizen bystanders for heartless victim blaming. The cards are so stacked against women in this society that accusing a man of rape—especially a young man on a popular football team—more often than not is an exercise in futility. I can’t imagine being doubted, mocked, and shamed for a violent atrocity committed to YOU, and having to recount and relive this traumatic life-altering experience over and over again to police officers and lawyers.

One reason I gravitate to Krakauer’s books is that he maintains a clear-eyed perspective throughout. His tone is fair and without judgement, though you can usually tell which “side” he’s on. Missoula is an important, informative book for our times, and I suspect will go down as one of Krakauer’s more controversial works.

Listened to audiobook from November 17 to 21, 2015.