After a pretty long literary dry spell, I started completing books again back in April on a trip to a work conference in Florida. It was a good book and a pretty boring trip, so I actually finished something. Now I’m on a roll, so here are the most recent reads:
Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, Sudhir Venkatesh. The Robert Taylor Homes housing project is no longer a huge part of Chicago’s south side, and they are tearing down the remaining projects under federal supervision right now. Regardless, this book illustrates vividly a part of life in the city I would not otherwise see. It’s not a broad, high-level research book, though Venkatesh knows his facts especially pertaining to the underground economy; instead, it is a personal account of life with one of the gangs that controlled not just the drug trade, but the Homes’ microeconomy as a whole. The futility of the drug wars, evidenced by the amount of reliance that the gangs have on their income from that part of their business, shines through, as does the respectable and sad struggle of the majority of the Homes’ residents.
Bad Sex: We Did It, so You Won’t Have To by the writers of Nerve.com. Add another book to the list of things I read some might find mildly disturbing or unnecessary, but this was worth it. It’s hilarious at times, hot at other times but mainly just plain disturbing. Everyone has had bad sex, I suppose, and some of these writers have had the worst of the worst. Inappropriate but convenient partners, vampirish cutters, insane partners and a mean-spirited marathon are just some of the stories. It’s a good and fun read.
The War Behind Me: Vietnam Veterans Confront the Truth about U.S. War Crimes, Deborah Nelson. This is a rundown and analysis of boxes full of files, released by the Pentagon after decades of being classified, that detail the (usually minimal and unsatisfactory) results of U.S. government investigations into scores of Vietnam war-crime allegations. My Lai was the tip of the iceberg, and Nelson visits the memorial sites in Vietnam where residents still remember the horrors. I didn’t see the book as anti-veteran at all; it’s more anti-cover-up, and allows, in a lot of cases, some veterans to speak up about things they’d needed to express for decades. I’m not expert on the war, but Nelson and the reports on which the book is based seem to have added an important piece to our understanding of those years.
The Royal Ghosts: Stories, Samrat Upadhyay. Well written short stories about Nepali life, by a Nepali. The final story concerns the murders of the royal family by one of their own in 2001 — not the murders, but the reaction to it by regular people. That sums up the book: life in Nepal, relationships, family and jobs, under the monarchy, with the Maoist uprising’s ebbs and flows, as lived by the people of the beautiful country. I love Nepal’s terrain, love the people’s easygoing attitude about life and the way it fits their religions and have worried for the past ten years about the future of the country. This book shows how the people deal with and embrace the life they have.
I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, Tucker Max. Wow, just wow. This is the first book in a while to have me laughing out loud — in bed, on the beach, in the car, wherever I read it. It’s disgusting, but mainly just because he is brutally honest. Worth reading, just so you can see how base the dating scene can be, I guess, and definitely worth reading for the laughs.
The Outfit, Gus Russo. I’m no expert on the Chicago Outfit or any other part of the mob in America. Hell, I haven’t even seen the Godfather series or made it past season two of The Sopranos. But I wanted to know more about how this city grew up, but this is a major part of it. Sure, it concerns the rise of Vegas, the development of Hollywood and countless other national and international institutions. But the base was here, and the main heirs of Al Capone were here as they schemed. It had what I was looking for: history of the various mayors and their interactions with the Outfit, along with the aldermen, police officers and ward bosses that were made or otherwise in the Outfit’s pocket. But it explained so much more, as well, such as the continuous takeover of underworld schemes by the upperworld (Vegas, offtrack betting, lottery, etc.), which kept the Outfit on its toes looking for new sources of income (parallels to a good solution to the misguided, expensive “war on drugs” and gang violence, anyone?). Russo does a masterful job of sticking mainly to the facts; I’ve seen some reviews question his use of single, unnamed sources and hearsay, but the book seems to be respected as one of the most factual on the topic. His only obvious diversion is one that comes up often: he holds law enforcement and the legal system in general in low esteem for their focus on Italians when, first, the other waves of immigrants had done much the same things to survive initially in this land, and, second, the upperworld capitalist bosses went unpunished and unpursued for what would be considered greater crimes against humanity.
Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America, James Green. This is another bit of Chicago history I needed to have filled in. It fits somewhere between Sinclair’s The Jungle and the various books I read a couple of years ago about the Weather Underground, which blew up the statue commemorating the police version of the Haymarket tragedy a couple of times during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Maybe it is needless to say this, but the book is sad: the “police riot” at the 1968 convention is better remembered, but, hell, there were like 6 or 8 in the years detailed in this book. The event in question, which ended with police officers shooting people (including their own in their tight formation) at random, leads to the tragic hanging for murder of four men who were leaders in the labor-rights movement but who had nothing to do with a bomb that was thrown (by a person never determined and therefore never charged) and were, as stated by later Illinois Governor Altgeld when he pardoned the remaining defendants following the hanging, railroaded by a partial judge who acted more like a prosecutor, a lying prosecution, a police department which violated the rights of thousands of labor agitators with false arrests and beatings, a jury containing none of their peers and controlled by powerful capitalists and a press — local and national — that predetermined guilt and advocated for premature sentences of death. And their death was on charges of murder, yet they were judged purely as conspirators for the radical ideas they preached in response to violent suppression of strikes and other workplace actions. It was pure bullshit, as Green tells it, from a “democratic” country that had just pardoned the leaders of the breakaway South following the Civil War: in this case, the men in question had verbally challenged the capitalists, and that was somehow less acceptable than Jeff Davis’ statements AND actions that led to the deaths of >600,000. At the time, and during the years following the state-sponsored murder of these four men, the point was made that abolitionists all over the country should have been strung up for murder charges based on the legal reasoning used to convict in this case. Where was free speech, what happened to freedom of the press and what of the free thinking we supposedly value so much? It’s amazing how many times various parts of this country and various contingencies in commerce and government have dragged us so close to the brink of being a true police state, and yet we let it happen again and again whenever overly cautious and unthinking citizens get the shit scared out of them by a group of businesses, a CPD Inspector Bonfield, Senator McCarthy or Dick Cheney. What’s a little repression, as long as it makes us feel comfortable? Fucking asshats.
And, finally, who doesn’t like a good Hardy Boys book? Yesterday I had, in a flash of boredom, the thought of looking online for some Hardy Boys e-books, assuming that some of the copyrights surely had expired. This was not hard to find: www.goanwap.com/ebook-0-0-0.html. Take a look — they have Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and some others. It is by no means complete, but without collecting all of the books how else would you get a chance to read both the original and the revised version of thirty-some old books that are only published now in a sometimes significantly revised form? I’m most of the way through one now — Dead on Target, the first in the Casefiles series. I used to have a bunch of the books, original, Digests and Casefiles, but now I only take these three from apartment to apartment with me: