Monday, July 10, 2017

Review: Past Imperfect

Past Imperfect Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The British empire may have died, but its death spasms continue. Fellowes has gotten famous, so I understand, from Downton Abbey – which I have not managed to see – and I thought reading this might give me some flavor of what people seem to admire so much about it.

On the plus side, this is often ‘sumptuous,’ a word I associate with Downton Abbey. We get long descriptions about the lives of assorted aristocrats, their homes, and their hopes. At its best, Fellowes gives nice, insightful portraits of individuals. At its worst, it runs on, tending toward what I might call a pornography of upper class life – descriptions that acknowledge the banality of the whole crowd but that go on to detail their whims and hungers with lingering attention.

All of that is generally what I signed up for: a 21st century English novel of manners. What really disappoints me, though, is the clumsiness of the narrative here. Fellowes can certainly write at the sentence level, but the whole of this feels almost amateurish in its organization.

At an architectural level, this is a Gatsby rewrite. Our narrator is a man of “the crowd,” but he’s on the outskirts of it. Through him, an arriviste pushes his way in, falls in love with a young woman, and then finds he cannot after all reinvent his background sufficiently to win her.

As we get the story, though, it’s presented through the organization of a mystery novel – a staged and dated variation of the old locked-room mystery. The dying Damian tells us that he understands he sired a child on one of his many mistresses of a couple decades before, and he wants to know which woman is the mother. Of course he has a list of all the women he slept with, and, of course, our protagonist/narrator proceeds from one ‘suspect’ to the next.

The organization that follows is so straightforward as to be embarrassing. We get a section dedicated to each – with her name on it in all but the final case – then we get a chapter on life ‘back then’ and a chapter on the present-day ‘interrogation.’ The skill of the sentences obscures the real hack-work underneath. Why, for instance, would one woman confide that she ‘bought’ her child to fake a pregnancy that would force a man to marry her? It’s a story she’s never told anyone, and there’s no conceivable motivation for sharing it when she does; it’s just convenient to the arc of the story as we get it. When he needs an answer to move onto the next chapter, he gets it. And why does each chapter reach a ‘climax’ in which it seems the child in question might be the one…only to have the possibility eliminated by one or another last-second reveal? Again, narrative convenience.

Throughout the novel, we’re teased with the idea of “Portugal,” a final and too-embarrassing-to-speak-of scene that, predictably, we get described near the very end. [SPOILER] So, Damian loses his temper and tells all the upper-class twits off. And he’s an asshole to our narrator. By that point in the novel, our narrator’s more or less forgiven him. It’s not that big a deal, yet it carries the weight of concluding that part of our narrator’s life…even though he admits he remained in contact with his old set over the following decades.

And then there’s a ‘twist’ at the end that’s really frustrating because it violates the spirit of the ‘mystery’ as we’ve gotten it. Someone on the list shouldn’t have been there and vice-versa and, guess what? The most obvious person of all is the one. Fellowes gets to express his contempt for the excesses of the aristocracy – he shows us his appreciation for the common sort after all -- but the wealthy get wealthier, and a sliver of the fine old caste system persists.

I’m probably being harder on this than I should be. I did finish it, after all, and one of its clear sins is its length. Still, I’d heard such good things about Downton Abbey that I have time believing Fellowes had much to do with shaping the way those stories came together.


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Friday, July 7, 2017

Review: Al Franken, Giant of the Senate

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I confess I didn’t really plan to read this. I’ve loved Franken since I first saw him on Saturday Night Live, proclaiming the ‘80s not the me-decade, but the “Me, Al Franken, decade.” Still, I figured I’d heard what I needed to hear, and I’d just go on rooting for him to do his good work in the Senate while I spent time reading more serious fiction.

Then I kept stumbling across excerpts of this book, and each one made me laugh. There was the famous one about Ted Cruz, “I like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.” There was his quoting Lindsay Graham as evidence that Republicans can be funny too. Noting that Graham was running 15th in a field of 17 candidates for the GOP Presidential nomination, Franken told him, “Lindsay, if I were voting in the Republican primaries, I’d vote for you.” Without hesitation, Graham replied, “That’s my problem.” And there was his persistent talk about how he’d had to “de-humorize” his statements in order to become a legitimate Senate candidate.

Finally, I got hit with a chance to buy the book as part of a fundraiser and, well, I just couldn’t stop reading it.

In many ways, this is three books in one, and all are interesting.

The first 50-60 pages are really a memoir of Franken as a Jewish kid in Minnesota growing into a successful comic. In the spirit of Steve Martin’s recent memoir, it brought the pleasure of revisiting many of the great skits of my adolescence from the performer’s side of things. I hadn’t realized how central Franken was to the early SNL vibe. He wasn’t Martin, who came to be the manic face of the guest host, nor was he Lorne Michaels, the impresario. He wasn’t even John Belushi or Bill Murray, the most inspired of the performers. But, as a writer, he was a constant voice behind all of those people, and – with the exception of Michaels – he was there longer.

Again as with Martin’s memoir, one of the pleasures is to discover the existing comics that Franken wanted to emulate. I love his take on Bob and Ray – perhaps my father’s favorite comedy team – and, once he says it, I can see how their dry approach informed Franken, his partner Tom Davis, and much of what I remember from those early SNL days.

The middle part of this book recounts the long process of Franken’s run for the Senate. It tells how a politically inclined person slowly decided to become a candidate. Along the way, he had to overcome a strange primary – in which his old humor was read out of context – and the closest Senate race in U.S. history – in which his humor was manipulated into untruths.

This part gets a bit slow in places – there’s less tension than the narrative seems to imply since we know the outcome beforehand – but it is intriguing for a political junkie.

The best part of that section, though, is the way Franken discusses the role of humor in his campaign. He talks a lot about how he had to try to present himself as someone other than who he’d been his entire adult life. His frustration is fun to see, but even more fun is to have him release some of the best jokes he had to self-censor during the campaign. It isn’t news that Franken is funny and insightful; it is news that he was being funny and insightful at this most serious part of his life.

The final section is even more fun as the now-established Senator Franken gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the Senate. The line about Cruz turns out to be an anomaly. Franken talks about how he feels compelled to push against his Republican colleagues, but he offers a refreshing look at what it means to know the people you’re fighting with. It’s striking to hear him report that Jeff Sessions – the same guy whom Coretta Scott King called too racist to be a federal judge and who is a neanderthalic Attorney General – asked his wife to knit a blanket for Franken’s first grandchild. Franken assailed the guy during his confirmation hearings, and it’s more compelling to know he did so with a personal affection for the man whom he politically opposed.

Anyway, this turns out to be a thoughtful and fun book. I kept daring myself to put it down, but then it would jump back into my hand and make me read it. All I can say is, if you’re tempted, give it a shot. Franken’s voice comes through on the page, and we certainly need as much of it as we can get these days.


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Friday, June 30, 2017

Review: The Bird and the Sword

The Bird and the Sword The Bird and the Sword by Amy Harmon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lot of the best fantasy is ultimately about language. Tolkien began, after all, with his linguistic experiments around the language of the elves and orcs, and the stories grew from there. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy has an entire system of magic around the notion that the world came into being when the first human spoke the true language, and now all magic is the residue of that same speech. And J.K. Rowling makes a big deal about how important it is for her young wizards to pronounce words just-so, to appreciate the power of the individual word.

A lot of powerful feminist literature explores what it means for a woman to lose her voice. Whether it’s something like The Little Mermaid story or The Handmaid’s Tale, we’re called on to interrogate the degree to which women are subjected to control by the removal of their voices, by silencing them.

Amy Harmon marries those two traditions in this gently magical story of a young woman who discovers power, love and a sense of her own desires through the process of recovering the voice taken from her as a child. This is fantasy in the broad sense of the term: it’s a story that invents a new world in order to comment on the one we know. It may not be “high fantasy” in the sense of the endless parade of Tolkien/Martin wanabes, but that’s a good thing. Instead, it’s a story that spins a new mythology from the long tradition of fairy tale.

This is also a story that goes in unexpected places. Lark is a lord’s daughter whose life is overturned when the king discovers that her mother is “gifted,” that she has the power to give “words” that reshape reality. The king has the mother summarily executed, but not before she can level curses upon the king and his son, and she can command her daughter to silence so that she will not suffer the same fate for exercising her power.

To the degree that this book explores the feminist trope, it’s telling that it’s another woman who silences Lark. And she does so not out of jealousy (as another woman attempts to do late in the book) but for her own protection. It’s hard to judge the mother: has she acted wisely to defend her daughter, or is she frightened of this particular female power? I like that the answer isn’t clear, that this is a real novel, not a political tract. It asks a powerful question – how do we accommodate a woman’s power – and then it allows multiple answers to emerge.

Similarly, Lark gets taken hostage years later by the new king, only to discover that her mother’s curse has left him gifted as well. He has the capacity to change into an eagle, but he can’t control the process. As her mother promised, he is losing himself “to the sky.” Again we see the ambivalence of the situation. This power is, in its way, welcome, and the king acknowledges later that he has always dreamed of flying. Yet it also limits him. It’s both a curse and a gift, an experience of the world that makes him more and less likely to tolerate the “gifted” community his father sought to exterminate.

And, at the same time as she’s taken violently, she slowly discovers she loves Tiras. And their romance is rich and rewarding, with a dash of Pride and Prejudice thrown into the battle narrative. You buy that they’re in love for the right reasons, and Lark’s narrating of her growing desire for him is legitimately powerful

We see the dynamic with Lark’s father as well. Early on he’s praised for being a mild, unambitious man, the perfect mate for Lark’s mother who might shine too brightly if she were nearer the throne. Later, he becomes a key player in the chess game to determine who will be named successor to the dying king. He’s Lark’s protector, but he also likes her as silent; he doesn’t want to see her power unleashed.

And to top all of that off, Harmon writes with real skill. Her prose is lyrical and engaging, but it’s never overwrought. It feels like a fairy tale, but it never resolves itself into something as straightforward as that tone would suggest.

I do think there are spots where the action drags (but that might be my fault for getting distracted for days at a time as I read this and therefore coming to it with more gaps of time than I usually do). For a story that comes to depend as much as this does on intrigue, there might be more of a run-up to the political crises in the last few chapters.

All in all, though, Harmon writes so beautifully, and she does so in the service of such legitimate literary questions, that I enjoyed this very much.


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Review: Al Capone's Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago During Prohibition

Al Capone's Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago During Prohibition Al Capone's Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organized Crime in Chicago During Prohibition by John J. Binder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For starters, John Binder is the name in Chicago-area Prohibition-crime history. He’s been a friend, mentor, collaborator, and resource to me, but that hardly makes me unique. John has been a generous and insightful resource to everyone who’s found his way to him in the last quarter century. In fact, a good squeeze-the-produce way to find out if a work in this field is any good is to check its acknowledgements page: if John isn’t mentioned, it means the author never really got started digging. Lots of people are doing good and provocative work on the Capone era, (think of Rich Lindberg, Matt Luzi, Mario Gomes, Rose Keefe, and Mars Eghigian) and but none of them are doing it without somehow coming into contact with John.

And this book is the summation of John’s three or four decades of research. If you’ve never really gotten the skinny on Capone, this book has it (though it may not be the best place to get a first exposure to that long and bloody story). If you already know where some of the bodies are buried, then no other source can take you so quickly to the current, advanced thinking about what happened, what people say happened, and how far we can go with revising this well-known but distorted historical moment.

In a broad sense, this book has been done before, but not for almost 60 years and not without many significant recent findings. In the immediate wake of Prohibition, there was an entire industry dedicated to creating the general myth of Capone’s Chicago. On the one hand, you had the rise of the “Syndicate” under Colosimo, Torrio, and Capone. On the other, you had the nefarious Dean O’Banion (I can call him “nefarious” because he shot my grandfather), Hymie Weiss, and Bugs Moran lining up the Northside Gang. Then, after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, it was just Capone until he got knocked off his perch by Eliot Ness. Or was it for tax evasion?

From almost the moment the bullet casings fell to the floor, you had writers mythologizing the Chicago gangster. (Armitrage Trail and Ben Hecht were writing versions of Scarface while Capone was still at large, and every day’s newspaper – of which there were seven competing – brought some fresh anecdote.) There was nothing romantic about the character – that wouldn’t come until the middle 1960s with Mario Puzo – but he was certainly magnetic. Equal parts charismatic, menacing, cunning, and doomed, he quickly fit into an established storyline: a rapid rise and a sudden fall.

I have a long shelf full of books that people were writing in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s, all of which tell the same essential version of the Chicago gangster story, one that featured Capone but that didn’t necessarily revolve around him. Then, starting in the 1940s, writers tended to focus on one or another aspect rather than the whole. Capone’s legend grew larger and larger, to the point that it overshadowed almost everyone else’s. (There are at least four serious biographies of Capone – Pasley, Kobler, Schoenberg, and Bergreen – and that doesn’t count the dozens of books that deal with a slice of Capone’s life or the countless quickie biographies that simply recycle what’s already out there.) In other words, the Prohibition story in Chicago got reduced to the story of Capone.

What Binder does here, above all, is restore the larger context of that story. Yes, there’s still a lot about Capone and a lot about booze, but this book recovers the histories of the dozen or more substantial gangs that started out as legitimate rivals. And it also restores some necessary balance to the crimes in play. It wasn’t all booze. It began with prostitution and gambling, grew to include the crucial business of racketeering, and eventually necessitated political corruption. So it’s more characters doing more things.

That larger net makes it harder to tell a coherent story. There are stretches here where we get long lists of names that may not mean especially much to people who haven’t studied this material. Still, no one has attempted to publish such lists since at least 1961 (when Kenneth Alsop attempted the last such overarching history) and no one has ever done so with so much ancillary research at hand.

Once Binder lays out the structure here – several gangs involved in several different kinds of criminal enterprises – he gets to the familiar story of “Al Capone vs. Bugs Moran.” Except, here, Binder refuses to let it settle into the familiar rise and fall of Scarface. Among other things, he asks an obvious question that few have posed: if we know that the Northside Gang had hundreds of gunmen and dozens of significant lieutenants, then how did the killing of only half a dozen of them – leaving Moran alive – bring an essential end to the gang war?

Binder’s answer is that it didn’t. The Massacre marked the beginning of the end, but only the beginning, and he gives a substantial chapter to the extensive sequel. The Moran forces may have been weakened, but they were soon, but temporarily, even stronger after their alliance with the noxious pimp Jack Zuta, the suddenly wealthy Aiello gang, and the bold, further Northside Touhys. In other words, as Binder convincingly reminds us, the gang war continued a good five or six years longer. The Capone gang – even after Capone was sent to prison – pursued a patient and disciplined strategy, one that took foresight but also good fortune. Time after time they fragmented the opposition, absorbing some of the ones they’d defeated, and then continuing to pressure the ones who remained. It took really until World War II, but they eventually consolidated everything and became (though this is outside Binder’s study) a kind of government for the criminal world, compelling anyone who broke the law to play by their rules, paying the proper “street taxes” and abiding by clear directives about where or when they could ply their illegal trades.

Along the way, Binder offers a number of thoughtful digressions to take down either longstanding myths or attempts at historical revisionism. Among them

• He argues that the South Side O’Donnells, led by the media savvy Spike, were more influential than contemporary observers – particularly the ones who attempted to record which gangs held which territory – seemed to acknowledge. He uses careful studies of police logs and Chicago Crime Commission data to suggest we’ve allowed Spike to settle into a teller-of-tales sort when, in reality, he was consequential.

• He takes on Tribune columnist John Kass’s assertion that Capone was essentially a figurehead for later mob boss Paul Ricca. Binder acknowledges the consensus that Ricca went on to become probably the paramount figure in the mob, but he sees no evidence to suggest that influence began as far back as Kass asserts.

• He challenges the formidable Laurence Bergreen who put forward the notion that Capone was really fronting for Chicago Heights power Frankie LaPorte, but he does so thoughtfully, acknowledging the more focused (and more credible in this context) work of Matt Luzi who has shown the Chicago Heights gangsters were more consequential than contemporaries realized.

• And he more or less demolished Jonathan Eig’s recent assertion that William “Three-Fingered” White was the architect of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Those digressions sometimes do break up the core narrative of the book, but since this is a book about expanding about that narrative we can forgive it.

In the end, there’s so much here that it’s easy to declare it an essential work in the field. Binder gives us the most complete updating of the overall Chicago Prohibition era study that we’ve had in decades, and he does it with the same modesty I’ve seen in him for years, crediting others for the pieces they’ve contributed to this very large puzzle he’s done so much to solve. A lot of us have been waiting for this one for a long time, and it’s great to have it at last.


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Review: The Blue Streak

The Blue Streak The Blue Streak by Ellen Lesser
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the last of Ellen’s published works so far, though word comes that she has a new collection of short stories nearly finished.

On the one hand, this is impressive page by page. In this story of Danny, a recent college graduate who, having ruined his shoulder through over-training, has neither his near Olympic-level swimming nor any other clear plan. He’s treading water after a time as a “blue streak” in the pool, and he’s irritated his go-get-’em father in the process. Then, in the opening pages, his father dies.

What follows is a meditation on self and family, with many excellent set pieces. We get the note-for-note rendering of the family coming together and dealing with its grief, and we get close-ups of one family member after another.

The best of this comes in the details, and, as someone only a bit younger than Ellen, I found myself squirming at the all-too-close-to-home, warts-and-all rendering of a Jewish family. Since I’m scheduled to work with Ellen later this summer, I paid particular attention to that level of rendering. It’s clear she has real chops, and I hear from others she brings that same eye as a reader.

At the same time, this probably doesn’t “move” as well as I’d like. That is, its individual scenes are all solid, but they don’t always connect to one another as effectively as I’d like. (This is something I struggle with in my own writing.) We get an opening scene where, in a laundromat, Danny meets a young woman and perhaps makes a connection. Except for a quick glance back at the end of the novel, though, the scene has no staying power. The woman falls out of the novel.

In a similar vein, we get what seems a sub-plot about the medical examiner misplacing the father’s body. In a novel so steeped in realism, it seems gratuitous, a plot device to extend the general discomfort of the situation. [SPOILER: There’s also a plot twist where we learn that Danny has been cut out of his father’s will, a quirk of anger that we know doesn’t represent his father’s true feelings but that exacerbates the totality of Danny’s loss. Bottom line, it doesn’t need to be there, and it distracts from the real drama of Danny coming to grips with what it means to be his own parent.]

There’s a strong story in all of this. Danny is dealing with the end of his father’s life, the end of his career as a swimmer, and the beginning of a new kind of responsibility. At its best here, this novel makes that difficult crossroads a real drama. Danny doesn’t have it easy, but novels don’t happen in “easy.” They happen when someone like Danny has his eyes opened to a (detailed) world that doesn’t square with the one he anticipated.

It’s a pleasure to read this for its skill, but it seems less urgent today than I suspect it did when it came out.


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Friday, June 9, 2017

Review: Blood on the Tracks

Blood on the Tracks Blood on the Tracks by Barbara Nickless
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one starts out as an impressive reimagining of the procedural. Our narrator is the intriguing Sidney Rose Parnell, a traumatized Iraq war marine who’s joined up stateside with the railroad police in the Denver of her childhood. Sidney carries the horrors of her war with her, seeing the ghosts of the men and women she dealt with in her work in the morgue, and taking advice from her dead sergeant and dead lover. The one good thing she’s brought back is her traumatized service dog, Clyde, who’s pledged his loyalty to her after the death of his first handler, her boyfriend.

For most of the first half, it’s less a question of whodunit than of how Sidney will uncover everything. For all the trauma she faces, she remains a good detective, and it’s rewarding to see her puzzling through piles of evidence at the same time as she deflects the too common sexism that comes her way. She’s a strong character, and you know you’re in good hands from the start.

Toward the end, this is still pretty solid, but it deteriorates into more of a conventional thriller. It’s nice that it’s a woman detective coming to the rescue of a decent but generally helpless man, but there’s a lot of been-there, done-that to it. The climax is surprisingly bloody, and there’s a lot less of the nuance we get from the beginning. From the original straw-man bad-guy of “the burned man,” a disfigured Iraq War vet, we end up with entirely unsympathetic skin-head bad guys out of central casting.

Things move well even at the end, and Nickless can certainly deliver the goods, so I did enjoy it.

I gather this is the first in a series, and I can imagine subsequent ones will continue to mine what it means for Sidney to carry so many of her ghosts back with her. I can even imagine a series that culminates in a big disclosure around the serious crimes she was peripheral to in Iraq.

As all that plays out here, though, it feels as if much of the best material gets held back. As with the Burned Man, we get some misdirection. The Iraq crimes come to us as a tantalizing story, but, per the logic of a series, they get deferred.

This is a bit better than conventional, but it’s not quite the powerhouse it gives promise of being.


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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review: Jar of Fools

Jar of Fools Jar of Fools by Jason Lutes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the great things about reading graphic novels these days is that, mature as the genre is becoming, we can still see its origins. If you’re my age – ahem, comfortably middle-aged – you remember when Maus (and maybe even Contract with God) came out. With few exceptions, the founding examples of the form are still around, still almost current.

I can’t say I’d heard of this one before I found a nice two-volume edition for sale at my local comic book store (shout out to Comics on the Green in Scranton, PA) but it looked intriguing and I gave it a shot. It’s from 1994, still the dark ages of graphic novels, but it’s new to me.

The story here is compelling: Ernie was a top stage magician, but he’s haunted by the death of his brother Eddie in an escape stunt gone bad. Their old mentor, Al, is on the lam from a retirement home, and Ernie’s old girlfriend – who’s also haunted by Eddie’s death – can’t start the new life she thinks she wants. Throw in a con-man living out of his car with his 10 year old daughter. And you have a full cast of characters.

It’s hard to paraphrase what happens in the story because, like a lot of the best narrative art, it grows out of the urges and needs of the characters. Each of these is surprisingly well realized, and I found myself curious about everyone we get to spend much time with. I loved the first part and simply raced into the second. I think the second wraps up a bit too quickly, forcing a few changes in character that come without a great deal of explanation. But that’s a quibble next to the general inspiration of the whole.

The art is understatedly beautiful. Maybe because it was originally serialized in a Seattle weekly or maybe because Lutes hadn’t yet seen some of the box-breaking experiments other artists got into, the drawings are all small, reminiscent of newspaper comic strips. But each box is unusually eloquent. Lutes has a gift for giving quick dashes of character so that even background characters come to feel like people we recognize.

Over time, I felt as if the characters here were actually separate actors, each giving a solid performance in a moving story of broken people finding one another.

We’ll have to see how the full history of the graphic novel genre gets written, and I am sure that a lot of what we take now as exemplars of the form will fade or seem dated. These black and white drawings in their small boxes may not make the eventual cut, but there’s a poignant and broken magic to them. The form may have taken a different direction than this one suggested, but it’s a real gem, and I urge you to check it out if it comes your way.


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