Saturday, September 2, 2017

Cluster Critiques

The Arrangement: A Novel by Sarah Dunn

A couple whose marriage is eclipsed by the challenges of raising a child with disabilities decides they can no longer relate to each other sexually, and that they should try an “open marriage.” 

I went into this novel annoyed (it was a book club choice I didn’t think I’d like) and came out of it entertained. Despite my aversion to anything that even sniffs of soap-opera or romance novel, I was surprisingly sucked into this well-scribed book, which includes some juicy (tongue-in-cheek) drama, but didn't feel "soapy" or "romancy." 

I’m fussy about writing that is discernibly contrived and exploitative. And maybe The Arrangement is both. But if so, well done Dunn!

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Gann

The Osage were a dominant tribe of American Indians in Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas but were forced by the US Government to move onto a reservation in Oklahoma in the early 1900’s. One clever Osage Chief, James Bigheart, negotiated for the Osage to purchase their reservation, which gave them rights to all the lands' value, including minerals.

Then oil was discovered on the Osage land, and the Osage became “the richest people per capita in America,” leading to further exploitation of tribal members. People even married into Osage families, then murdered off all family members, to gain sole ownership of the oil royalties. There was complicity from law enforcement, coroners, judges, just about everyone, because the murdered were just “injuns.” They soon became the “most murdered people per capital in America.”  It became such a huge mess that J. Edgar Hoover’s budding Federal Bureau of Investigation interceded.

This is another chapter in the shameful history of American genocide, and although a thought-provoking story, it is not an easy read.

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson

Charged with picking out a book for our next book club meeting, I did my usual “deep” research, determined to come up with something worth everyone’s time. When I came across these two comments about The Red Parts on the NPR website’s book section - “seriously great writing,” and “on the dark side,” I was pretty sure this was it.  The Red Parts is author Maggie Nelson’s story of the 1969 murder of her 23-year-old aunt, Jane Mixer, and about the trial 35-years later of her murderer. Maggie never met her aunt, but in a period of creative limbo (writers block, life block or some of both), decides to go be with her mother, Jane’s sister, to support her and the balance of the damaged family during the trial.

Maggie’s slightly removed position (and enviable writing skills) gave her a perspective, both objective (upon seeing her aunt's murderer for the first time),  “Where I imagined I might find the ‘face of evil,’ I am finding the face of Elmer Fudd,” and idiosyncratic, “If I can make my language flat enough, exact enough, if I can rinse each sentence clean enough, if I can find the right perch or crevice from which to record everything, maybe I could do it. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story.”

Read The Red Parts.

Exit West: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid

“What is wrong with me?” I pondered. “Everyone is rating this book so highly, but I keep waiting for something extraordinary to happen.”

Exit West will end up on many “best of 2017” list, but not mine. I was so certain I would love this story of a young couple escaping civil war in their country, seeking new lives. And indeed, Hamid’s writing is crisp, describing well, in minimal-detail, how everyday life in a community can be turned upside down overnight when civil order is interrupted and a hometown becomes a war zone, and every aspect of life ceases to matter other than finding food and finding a way out.

Most compelling is Hamid’s conveyance of the pain of ripping roots from the family tree, from everything familiar and comforting. I just couldn’t seem to connect with Hamid’s characters. Maybe you can.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime is Trevor Noah’s (comedian and host of “The Daily Show”) story of growing up “half-white and half-black” in South Africa during the absurdity of apartheid.

Three things come to mind in writing this review. First, I learned a great deal about South African culture, history and politics, which was quite captivating. Second, sadly, especially as relates to recent events, it made me realize just how “not far” we’ve come on racial respect, and how little separates us (American’s) from what is viewed by some as primitive politics. And finally, Trevor Noah is an intellectual comedian, with an interesting perspective, and has what comes across as a fun, funny personality.

I enjoyed Born a Crime and believe you will too.

News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles

Captain Kidd (former Union soldier) is an older man, who in the late 1800’s, makes his living traveling around Texas reading newspaper stories to a non-reading public. He reluctantly accepts a job that involves returning a young girl kidnapped by Indians, and five years later “rescued” by the military, to her family in Castroville, TX.

Author Jiles exquisitely paints the scenery along the wagon journey, and the history leading up to and during her tale, but the story breaks down in her description of interactions between the characters, which to me felt unauthentic. That is probably because I couldn’t help but compare News of the World to a couple of other books with similar themes, True Grit and Ride the Wind – both of which excelled in characters.

In sum, News of the World is a book worth reading, but read True Grit and Ride the Wind first.

American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road by Nick Bilton

I’m not entirely sure why I found this book so intriguing. Maybe it's because the “criminal mastermind” main character of this book was a young Austinite with the pseudonym “Dread Pirate Roberts” (reference movie “Princess Bride”), or maybe it’s because I’m fascinated by all things technology-related. Bottom line, I couldn’t put this “really happened” book that felt like a fictitious, globe-hopping spy thriller, down.

In 2011, 26-year-old Austinite Ross Ulbricht, a libertarian who believes in non-governmental control over capitalism, taught himself to code and created a website called “Silk Road” on the “Dark Web” (Tor) to sell the psychedelic mushrooms he was growing in his skanky apartment. Tor is an untraceable website where anyone can sell/buy illegal items using cryptocurrency Bitcoins, i. e, drugs, hacking software, forged passports, counterfeit cash, poisons, weapons, etc. 

Within two years Silk Road had become a multi-billion-dollar business involving murder and creating a world-wide manhunt for the "Dread Pirate Roberts" (the Coen brothers are working on a screenplay). This story is full of colorful characters, lots of “plot” twists and turns and code names, like a spy novel, and the antagonist is also the protagonist.

Ulbricht was so brilliant in his deceit, I found myself irrationally rooting for him. Read this real-life adventure book.

In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi

When Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Susan Faludi wrote “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women,” I was president of the Texas Women’s Political Caucus and Ann Richards had just won the Texas Gubernatorial election. The air crackled with the power of women.

I was invited to a reception for Ms. Faludi at the private home of some Austin woman whose name I cannot remember, and I recall standing slack jawed in awe of Faludi's cerebral acrobatics.

When Kirkus chose Faludi’s most recent book “In the Darkroom” as the best non-fiction book of 2016, I was curious but weary and cynical at the impotency of brilliant feminist diatribes, so I didn’t seriously consider reading it until I saw that the book wasn’t a women’s lib manifesto. It was about Faludi’s father’s sexual reassignment, which completely caught me and Susan by surprise.

Considering the current American political climate, and the emergence of a brand of ignorance I thought we’d disposed of through natural selection, I found this topic particularly timely. Not only did Faludi’s perspective as a feminist provide a particularly fascinating view to her father’s evolution, but her analytical, journalistic nature gave the story substance and kept it from getting bogged down in emotionalism.

Faludi presents with amazing clarity a nearly blow-by-blow of her first visit to see her father in Hungry after his surgery – intertwining the story with her father’s family’s extraordinary experience surviving Nazi Hungry. I’d not  heard details about the Nazi occupation of Hungry, so that history was very readable for me.

My only reaction to Faludi's father's sexual reorientation was a a good bit of curiosity as to how Susan would handle being with her father, now a woman. That is until she said, “My father, she…,” which caused my brain to sort of short-circuit every single time she said it. 

I always feel like I’m drowning in the backwash of Faludi’s intellectualism, but what an exquisite way to go. I LOVED this book.

Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Man Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling by Michael Cannell

We seem to want to blame Muslim radicals for the invention of terrorism in America (and practically everything else bad for that matter), and although there have been some domestic attacks perpetrated by Muslim radicals, there have been just as many that were not.

Domestic terrorism is nothing new, and has been utilized to bring mass attention to many issues by many different groups and characters. For example, Ted Kaczynski, a recluse ideologically opposed to technological progress, sent 16 bombs through the mail over the course of two decades killing 3 people and injuring 23. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols killed 168 in Oklahoma City to protest the Waco siege.  Eric Robert Rudolph set off the bomb at the Atlanta Olympics, killing 1 and injuring 111, to protest abortion.

I could list many more, but the one I want to talk about is George Metesky, The Mad Bomber, who terrorized New York City citizens and alluded the authorities for 17 years between 1951 and 1968, setting off 33 bombs (11 of which failed to explode). George planted the bombs to bring attention to the fact that he felt he had been treated unfairly by this employer when he suffered a job injury.

The story of George, his bombs, and how he escaped capture for 17 years is a gripping enough story, but another aspect of this story is that George was identified and eventually captured through a relatively new and infrequently used methodology, the "third wave" of investigative science, criminal profiling.

Wiki says, “The first wave was the study of clues, pioneered by Scotland Yard in the 19th century, the second wave was the study of crime itself (frequency studies and the like), and this third wave is the study of the psyche of the criminal.” The first criminal profile assembled was for Jack the Ripper.

Dr. James Brussel’s criminal profile that lead to the arrest of George Metesky, apparently launched the FBI profiling technique, which is used extensively today.

Incendiary isn’t as exciting as it’s topic or its name, and at times is slow, so I wouldn’t recommend you take it on unless you are really interested in the history of the Mad Bomber, or the science of profiling.

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