The 87th Precinct

I’m about halfway through the 87th Precinct series, Ed McBain’s police procedural novels set in Isola, part of a fictional unnamed city that bears close resemblance to New York. While the city and its history parallels that of New York, it does have its own unique features. There do not seem to be any iconic buildings like the Empire State or the World Trade Center. However, the sections of the city correspond to New York – Isola is Manhattan, Calm’s Point is Brooklyn, Riverhead is The Bronx, Majesta is Queens, and Bethtown is Staten Island right down to being accessible only by ferry until the 1970’s.

It’s this fictional City that attracted me to the series, in many ways like Chris Nolan’s Gotham City (itself reinvented for the television series Gotham.) However, the real appeal is that the 87th Precinct is an ensemble work. Steve Carella, the no-nonsense, serious detective who features in most of the series, may be first among equals, but there’s a whole cast who get their turns as leads. In one novel, Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here, McBain (real name Evan Hunter, who wrote Blackboard Jungle and the screenplay for The Birds) bends himself in knots to get every then-current detective in the 87th into the book.

But Carella is the heart and soul of the series. A veteran and a family man, Carella is often the most focused member of the squad. Even when he’s not the central character, everyone turns to him for advice. Carella is frequently partnered with one of three detectives – Cotton Hawes, Bert Kling, and the tragically named Meyer Meyer. Hawes is a ladies man and originally introduced as a possible replacement for Carella. In his novel, Carella is seemingly killed off, only to have him recover in the final scene. (Which incidentally is one of the most emotionally intense scenes in the series.) Meyer is a patient man, his father giving him his first name as a joke that Meyer had to live with. Kling is a hot-headed young detective generally unlucky in love.

There are others. Arthur Brown, the squad’s only black detective (really a reboot of a detective killed off in the first novel, Cop Hater) is hip, suave, and popular. His polar opposite is the lazy, racist Andy Parker. However, McBain seems to grow tired of Parker by the mid-1970’s and demotes him to occasional appearances in favor of the racist, slovenly, but infinitely smarter and oddly likeable Fat Ollie Weeks. Weeks is that obnoxious uncle who makes you cringe but can’t help like. Parker is just an asshole.

There is also Detective Rick Gennero, promoted to plainclothes too soon and spectacularly dim. Hal Willis is the shortest man on the squad, though he can still kick ass. In the first half of the series, Detective Eileen Burke is almost completely absent. Though a later addition to the 87th, she shows up as an undercover detective from downtown.Her portrayal, too, is inconsistent. In her first appearance, Mugger, she’s a young officer annoyed with the boys of the 87th fretting that she’s putting herself in danger. In Fuzz, she’s portrayed as a young, sex-starved girl enjoying her cover making out with Gennero while trying to catch the Deaf Man.

Speaking of whom, the Deaf Man generally appears whenever McBain wants to shake up the series. He is an odd variation on Moriarty from Sherlock Holmes, usually undone by his arrogance.

The series starts out as a parallel to Dragnet, but it eventually takes on its own character. If it has a parallel in later years, it’s the eighties police drama Hill Street Blues, which also takes place in a fictional unnamed city. Hill Street, though, was a bit of a soap opera. Homicide, which also has a lot in common with 87th Precinct, was actually a retelling of real stories from the Baltimore Police Department. It’s a far cry from The Wire, perhaps the best known police show today, but there’s something comforting in the 87th Precinct’s slow pace of change. The series is divorced from the calendar the way a lot of literary crime is, but it still illustrates the changes in police work since its inception in 1956.

Friday Reviews: The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin

The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve SheinkinThe Notorious Benedict Arnold

Steve Sheinkin

I listened to this fascinating short bio on audio, which really made it come alive. Benedict Arnold is, of course, synonymous with “traitor” in the English-speaking world. The man is remembered for selling out the American Revolution. Americans despised him in his lifetime, and the British never really trusted him. But Sheinkin reveals how closely Arnold could have come to standing alongside George Washington in the nation’s historical pantheon.

So what went wrong? The easy answer is that Arnold was an impatient, foul-tempered egotist who could not handle the politics of the day. Some would say greed was his sole motivation. But Sheinkin reveals that the story is much more complicated than that. Arnold was, indeed, vain, thin-skinned, and impulsive. He was also brilliant, independent-minded, and dedicated to the American cause. He could count Washington among his many admirers, and Benedict Arnold, given the equipment and troops needed, could very well have made Ontario and Quebec part of the fledgling United States. He was so good at warfare that even the British admired him.

Until…

A series of political slights, back-stabbing by certain fellow commanders, and Arnold’s own abrasive personality combined to keep him from earning the promotion to Washington’s second-in-command that even His Excellency thought he deserved. However, rather than learning to manage the vagaries of early American politics and letting Washington work behind the scenes on his behalf, Arnold gave up in a fit of anger and approached Major John Andre about defecting, giving the British the fortress at West Point and General Washington in the deal. The plot would see Andre hung and Arnold living in exile for the rest of his life.

Sheinkin ultimately condemns Arnold for his betrayal, yet it is hard to come away from this biography without some sympathy for the man. As much blame lies with a fractured Congress, with opportunistic generals such as Ethan Allen, and even the British as it does Arnold.

You may end up still despising Arnold, yet you can’t help but understand what drove him to the dark side, loathed by both America and Britain for the remainder of his life.

Friday Reviews: The Mangy Parrot by Jose Joaquin Fernandez de Lizardi; Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel; The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johanne Wolfgang von Goethe; The Summer of the Pike by Jutta Richter

The Mangy Parrot by LizardiThe Mangy Parrot

Jose Joaquin Fernandez de Lizardi

Today’s reviews all come from my adventures in academia, specifically a class comparing the cultures of Germany and Mexico. These are the four novels we had to read. We start with The Mangy Parrot, sometimes translated as The Itching Parrot. Considered the first Mexican novel,its author, journalist Jose de Lizardi, clearly loves Don Quixote and makes several references to it. However, Lizardi has more in common with his English counterpart, Charles Dickens, than Miguel de Cervantes.

Lizardi creates the “autobiography” of Pedro Sarniento, a self-described rogue and possibly the spiritual ancestor to Kerouac’s Sal Paradise in On the Road. Through an unfortunate pun (in Spanish, of course) at school, Pedro, or Poll as his friends call him, earns the unfortunate nickname “Parrot.” Coupled with an ill-timed rash, this becomes “the Mangy Parrot,” an epithet he will carry with him throughout his life.

Pedro writes from his deathbed, telling his children of his dishonest past and how he threw away opportunity after opportunity to make good by being a rogue. He is reared by a poor but noble father and educated, then sent to become a priest. Pedro, however, likes gambling, women, and drinking. And he’s not above a little petty theft to finance his lifestyle. Time and again, Pedro finds himself under a new master – an abbot, an inn keeper, pharmacist, a doctor, and eventually a colonel in the Spanish army. Each and every time, someone insults Poll and he either ends up in prison or running away as he steals from whomever is helping him. Time and again, someone else offers him a chance at redemption. He nearly succeeds in reforming himself after being sentence to serve under the colonel sent to the Philippines. He observes that, by faking honesty, he eventually becomes honest. Only after a shipwreck following the colonel’s death, he manages to throw away the only legitimate fortune he’s ever made and winds up back in Mexico starving and running from the law.

The story is as episodic as any classic novel from the era, likely a function of its newspaper serial origins. However, like Dickens in England and Mark Twain later in America, Lizardi uses Poll’s lack of morality and his rotten luck to shine a light on the conditions of the poor and the downtrodden in Mexico. Indeed, it’s not hard to see why Mexico rebelled from Spain (which happens late in the story, after Poll has redeemed himself for good.)

Like Water for ChocolateLike Water for Chocolate

Laura Esquivel

Like Water for Chocolate has a similar vibe to The Itching Parrot in that it’s a life-spanning story set in Mexico during a time of radical change. Like Lizardi’s tale, Water faces a backdrop of revolution. Unlike Itching, this story has a clear arc, though it is episodic and throws similar darts to some of Mexico’s social norms. In this case, Esquivel, who published this work in 1992, has chosen to write about the turn of the twentieth century, a time close enough to us to be familiar yet far enough in the past for it to be exotic.

At it’s core, it is a love story between Tita, a young woman bound to stay with her widowed mother until she dies, and Pedro, who, since he cannot marry Tita, marries her sister. Tita’s life is defined by the kitchen. She was born in a kitchen and virtually raised by her family’s long-time cook, the elderly Nacha. Tita could marry Pedro if her father had not died shortly after her birth. In her family, the youngest daughter must stay with the mother and take care of her after the father has passed away. And Tita’s mother, the redoubtable Mama Elena, is a harsh task master, constantly reminding Tita of her duty and berating her for perceived failures.

Around the time this was written came a really annoying trend of weaving recipes into stories, usually cozy mysteries. Like Water for Chocolate, which relies on the same device, is definitely not a cozy. Tita is a cook before anything else, and the recipes are jumping off points for the next stage of the plot. Food, as much as her passion for Pedro, defines Tita’s life. In a later era, she would likely have opened her own place.

The story also is a bit of a tall tale. Tita’s crying floods the kitchen in a couple of places, and her oldest sister is so hot with lust that she causes the shower to catch fire around her. Mama Elena appears as a ghost after her death, which makes this also a bit of a supernatural tale. But the beginning establishes that the story is being told by Tita’s grandniece in a more recent time. And it’s the cookbook, from which the beginnings of each chapter are taken, that is the basis of her tale. She has inherited it, and the legend surrounding it fascinates her.

The Sorrows of Young WertherThe Sorrows of Young Werther

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

One of the first modern German novels, this classic by Goethe is surprisingly short. Consider that Goethe’s career overlaps that of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, who were rather verbose writers. Sorrows is an epistolic novel, a form that peaked later in the 19th century with Stoker’s Dracula. It concerns a young artist, the titular Werther, who goes to a city to seek his fortune. There he meets Lotte, a young woman caring for a dying mother and ailing father, and her fiancee Albert. Werther falls in love with Lotte, and she reciprocates, which causes them no end to anguish. Realizing that he is pining for a woman about to be married (and to a man she also loves very much), he decides to take a job in a foreign court. (This being pre-Napoleonic Germany, foreign often means the next town over.) Werther soon realizes he despises aristocrats and feels at home with peasants.

Although this was read in translation, Goethe’s prose is rather slim for its era, when French, British, and American writers produced dense prose resulting in huge tomes. Some of this was a function of novels of the day appearing in newspapers.If so, Goethe either did not serialize this or did not write this over very many entries.

In some ways, this novel foreshadows today’s social media world. Werther is obsessed and having an emotional affair with Lotte. Time and again, we hear stories of people getting close on Facebook and in chat rooms when one or both are in relationships already. And time and again, it ends in disaster. The difference is that Werther’s doom is portrayed in letters to his friend Wilhelm while social media plays out this drama for all the world to see. In Goethe’s time, this tale serves as a moral treatise on German society and morality. Modern variations become fodder for “reality” television. Which makes it all the more ironic that Goethe is also the author who gave us Faust.

Summer of the PikeSummer of the Pike

Jutta Richter

The final book I read for this course was Jutta Richter’s Summer of the Pike. It’s a little strange for American audiences as the bulk of the story takes place on the grounds of a medieval manor where the adults work for the earl who owns it. The story concerns Anna and her neighbors, Daniel and Lucas. They are so-called “manor kids,” who don’t really interact at school with the “village kids” or the “farm kids.” So the setting seems a little off if you’re used to a castle-less existence.

Daniel and Lucas’s mother is dying of cancer. It’s danced around and referred to vaguely through part of the book, but “cancer” is uttered. Daniel, who is obsessed with fishing in the castle’s moat, wants to catch this giant pike that lives there. Daniel has come to believe that, if he can catch the pike (the “pike-god,” he calls it after declaring he is an atheist), his mother will get well. Anna, who lives with her divorced mother, finds herself involved with their mother’s advancing illness. There’s even a whiff of adultery hinted at as Daniel and Lucas’s father is worn down by his wife’s slow death by cancer. When the rumors come to a head, Anna reacts as violently as a kid in modern rural Germany might. (Which involved shoving an ice cream cone in someone’s face.) But the summer when all this occurs only serves to underscore Anna’s isolation. While she has always been close to Daniel and Lucas, she is uncomfortable with them being treated increasingly as brothers. Also, she longs to reach out to some of the other kids at school. But they’re all living in a modern world, despite all of them having hyphenated last names starting with “Schulze-“. It implies a certain amount of inbreeding within the surrounding township (though nothing so obscene as first cousins marrying.) But it also serves to separate the kids within the manor from those outside it. They live a thoroughly modern life inside a thoroughly medieval place, and Anna feels left out.

Guest Post: Debbi Mack

Debbi MackDebbi Mack and I started out together long, long ago with the same publisher. Since then, Debbi has gone indie to continue her Sam McRae series, which she is now releasing as a boxed set. Take it away, Debbi…

‘Law Can Be Murder’: The Sam McRae Mystery Series in a Boxed Set

What started as an attempt to simply bring my out-of-print first mystery novel into readers’ hands again has grown and blossomed into an actual series. The first Sam McRae mystery, Identity Crisis, much to my shock, became a New York Times ebook bestseller back in 2011, when the list had just started to include ebooks.

Identity CrisisI had been freelancing and writing fiction up until December 2010. After that, I simply didn’t have the time or ability to do it all. So, I threw myself into writing fiction and making a living off that. I even set up my own imprint for the print versions of my books, despite the fact that most of money came from ebook sales. As a result, my first book not only hit the Times bestseller list, but became a Kindle bestseller in the U.S. and the U.K. My second novel, Least Wanted, also hit the Kindle Top 100 in both countries. I continued to write, publish, and market my books full bore until around 2012, when I became exhausted with the effort.

The truth was that the market was being flooded with ebooks — both traditionally published and self-published. Nonetheless, I was able to publish a third book in the series, Riptide. That was back in 2012.

The following year, I reissued Identity Crisis through my own publishing imprint. I’d written other stand-alone novels, but wasn’t ready to release them.

Now, I’m finally just months away from publishing my fourth Sam McRae mystery, Deep Six, along with my first young adult novel, Invisible Me.

For those of you who haven’t read the series, Sam McRae is a lawyer in Maryland, who gets involved in solving murders connected with her cases. The way I like to think of Sam is like Kinsey Millhone as a lawyer. The genre is hardboiled, with a touch of noir to it. If you own an ereader, you can buy the first three novels in a boxed set from almost any online retailer.

Law Can Be MurderThe boxed set is entitled Law Can Be Murder and is available at bargain prices, for a limited time only. If you’d like to read the first three novels in the series, you can do so at a substantial savings by purchasing the boxed set.

I’m also throwing a big Facebook party for the boxed set’s release. The party is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 2, from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. EST. There’ll be trivia contests and prizes for the winners.

Law Can Be Murder is only $1.99 right now. Buy a copy and join us on Facebook for the party next week!

*******

Debbi Mack is the New York Times ebook bestselling author of the Sam McRae mystery series. She’s also published Five Uneasy Pieces, a short story collection that includes her Derringer Award–nominated story “The Right to Remain Silent.” Her short stories have appeared in various other anthologies and publications. Her most recently published short story is “Jasmine”, appearing in Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays.

Debbi is also a screenwriter and aspiring indie filmmaker. Her first screenplay has placed highly in both the Scriptapalooza and Austin Film Festival screenwriting contests.

A former attorney, Debbi has also worked as a journalist, librarian, and freelance writer/researcher. She enjoys walking, cats, travel, movies, music, and espresso.

You can find Debbi online here:

http://www.debbimack.com

On Twitter: @debbimack and @debbimacktoo

On YouTube at: http://bit.ly/13AZEWT

On Instagram at: http://instagram.com/debbimacktoo/

On Tumblr at: http://debbimacktoo.tumblr.com/

You can buy Law Can Be Murder on Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Apple iBooks, and Smashwords!

Friday Reviews: Under The Banner Of Heaven by Jon Krakauer; Neanderthal Man: The Search For Lost Genomes by Svante Paabo

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon KrakauerUnder the Banner of Heaven

Jon Krakauer

In 1984, two brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, murdered their sister-in-law and her infant daughter. The reason? Brenda Lafferty had interfered with their brother’s destiny in the one true faith. The Lafferty brothers were practicing polygamists and part of the a fundamentalist Mormon sect. In Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer uses this horrific crime as a jumping off point to look at extreme religious faith through the lens of the complex Mormon religion that dominates Utah and surrounding states.

There is not one Mormon church. There are several. The best known is that institution, the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints (LDS for short), the organization founded by Joseph Smith in 1831. Krakauer depicts the history of the church, juxtaposing it with events in the fundamentalist sects. What caused the schism?

The controversial doctrine of polygamy.

Krakauer contrasts the mainline LDS church with the fundamentalist sects. He spends little time on the moderate polygamist sect, the Apostolic United Brethren, depicted in Sister Wives and My Five Wives and the basis for the HBO series Big Love. Instead, the focus is on the more fanatical Fundamentalist LDS (or FLDS). The sect and its splinter groups have made news over the past few decades with stories of kidnapping, of child brides, incest and Jim Jones-like leadership over followers in their own virtual city-state, Colorado City, Arizona. Whereas the AUB practices a rather benign form of polygamy (Women, for instance, are “inspired” to choose their husbands rather than given to men in arranged marriages.), the FLDS version underscores why the mainline LDS church is highly unlikely to ever reinstitute polygamy even if the practice is ever legalized. The ban not only allowed Utah to become a state, but many in church leadership in the 1890’s were horrified by the abuses that came with the doctrine.

Warren Jeffs in particular is painted almost as a sociopathic monster. The words are not Krakauer’s, who paints fascinating portraits of the charismatic Joseph Smith and the almost Jeffersonian Brigham Young. Some FLDS members themselves in interviews condemn Jeffs for his lust for power.

Krakauer describes his book as an examination about extremism in religious faith, and that it is. He even shows a court case where an expert successfully drew a line between faith and insanity. And once you see that line, insanity becomes all the more frightening to behold.

Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante PaaboNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes

Svante Paabo

Part memoir, part history of one of the most groundbreaking research projects in modern paleontology, Swedish geneticist Svante Paabo recounts the thirty-year journey that led to sequencing the genome of the Neanderthal. He relates how his career began as a medical student with a side trip into Egyptology to fulfill his research requirements. During another research project, Paabo discovered how to sequence genes from mummies. His zeal for this sort of work led him to several prestigious post-doctoral fellowships and research positions. Over the years, someone asked him to see if they could retrieve DNA from the bones of a Neanderthal. They did. Eventually, this led to retrieving and sequencing nuclear DNA, the DNA that actually designs who you are, from 40,000-year-old remains. The research even turned up yet another recent species of human, found quite by accident. Perhaps the biggest discovery, however, was that the Neanderthals did not go completely extinct. They were, in fact, absorbed into the populations of modern humans living in Europe and Asia, fragments of their DNA surviving to this day. Maybe one of your ancestors was a Neanderthal. Bet that would make for some awkward Thanksgiving dinners.

Paabo laces his long technical explanations of how DNA fragments are examined, how they function, and how they almost always are contaminated with tales of his personal life, the impact of global politics on international research projects, and, of course, all the fragile egos, academic maneuverings, and media management that goes into an otherwise dry subject. If Paabo had stuck with the technical details, one’s eyes would cross as the more arcane details of microbiology are not the stuff of a riveting tale. Coupled with personal accounts and the more human aspects of such work, Paabo’s tale becomes quite engaging. But perhaps his greatest achievement in this book is making the Neanderthals human. While he doesn’t describe the day-to-day lives of these people, by explaining how their DNA is mostly identical to humans, he reminds us that we once were not only a people of many races as we are now, but of multiple species.

That’s mind blowing.

Friday Reviews: Bread and Blood Relatives by Ed McBain

Bread by Ed McBainBread

McBain shakes up his 87th Precinct series once more by introducing one of its best known characters in this 1974 installment. Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes have one of bigoted Andy Parker’s cases dumped in their laps by a distraught warehouse owner who suffered a fire. Seems Parker did the minimum work required, never filed a report, and went on vacation. Carella, who punched Parker in the squad room, has to go visit Parker, whose idea of a vacation is sitting around in his underwear swilling beer.

Carella and Hawes begin pulling strings and find themselves crossing paths with Fat Ollie Weeks, another bigoted cop. Unlike Parker, Weeks is actually, yanno, good. Between the three of them, they uncover shady real estate dealings in one of Isola’s worst neighborhoods, a call girl ring, and a case of insurance fraud involving a German company.

This novel is a bit more light-hearted than the previous installment, Hail to the Chief. Hail was politically charged and captured the tension of the early 1970’s perfectly. Bread moves the 87th Precinct firmly into the 70’s, however. The one-time World War II vets of the squad are now implied to have served in Vietnam, one of the problems with putting characters on a sliding calendar. But it’s the mid-1970’s, and when even the most benign prejudices surface, we feel the black characters’ discomfort and humiliation more. Plus, Parker has become obsolete at this point. At this point in time, Parker would already face civil rights charges simply for his behavior toward Detective Arthur Brown.

Hence, Ollie Weeks. Ollie is a bigot, but he’s more of an Archie Bunker type vs. Parker, who belongs in a stereotypical Southern town. Weeks’ bias is not so much deliberate as it is ignorant. He apologizes to one suspect when he realizes the man is probably clean, but is genuinely puzzled when Carella calls him out for being a lout. In other words, Parker is a cardboard cutout; Weeks is complex and even tolerable. Plus McBain seems tired of having an idiot working among his cops. The hapless Rick Genero fills that role nicely.

Blood Relatives by Ed McBainBlood Relatives

If Bread had a lighter tone, Blood Relatives goes dark. Very dark.

We open with a bloodied Patricia Lowery staggering into the 87th Precinct to announce that her cousin was raped and murdered before her eyes. The killer than tried to do the same to her. Meanwhile, a patrolman finds said cousin lying dead in the rain, obviously violated and dead. What follows is a twisting, winding tale of obsession, incest, and misdirection. At first, Patricia describes an unknown man, then accuses her brother, who had an obsession with his first cousin. Eventually, Bert Kling and Steve Carella find the dead girl’s diary, which reveals yet another suspect. The ending is disturbing, surprising, and tragic.

Friday Reviews: Secret Windows by Stephen King

Secret Windows by Stephen KingSecret Windows

Stephen King

The follow-up to his classic writing memoir, On Writing, compiles a series of essays, lectures, and the odd short piece of fiction on the craft of writing. Meant to be a companion piece to the former book, Secret Windows takes its name from the novella of the same name, later a Johnny Depp movie. The intro to the original Secret Windows is here, as is a large chunk of Danse Macabre, King’s first non-fiction book on the subject of modern horror.

Many people wonder why horror is so full of absolute dreck, and yet King is considered one of our premier novelists.It’s simple. King writes about us. His setting is a fictionalized version of Maine. Derry, setting for It is Bangor, right down to the canal bisecting downtown. Castle Rock is the same small town where King grew up. Dark Score Lake and TR90, from The Dark Half and Bag of Bones, are the same lakeside unincorporated township where the King family has a summer home, and where King himself had an unhappy collision with a Dodge minivan that nearly killed him.

In other words, King takes his own everyday reality, clones it into his fiction, and drops in horror elements to take his characters out of their comfort zones (or even the land of the living.) Ed McBain did this with New York City. And even when the cities are real, authors use that same familiarity to plunge something out of the ordinary into otherwise unremarkable, or at least predictable, lives. That’s why King’s horror works.

The best part of the book is the lectures. King doesn’t call them lectures. He just riffs for an hour or two to his audience, sometimes vulgar and cranky, sometimes like a favorite uncle telling you stories about where he works. In either case, he’s very comfortable, showing us that writers are no different from anyone else. They just have more vivid imaginations. He also questions the sanity of people who think you have to be insane to write horror. Isn’t it insane, he posits, to pretend bad things don’t happen? He thinks that’s why a novel like Salem’s Lot worked. The people most offended by it were the people being skewered. (And, as a side note, the vampire and his toadie seemed to be the most normal people in that book.)

What didn’t work for me was plunking down 150 pages of Danse Macabre in the middle of the book. I already read Danse Macabre. A short excerpt would have been fine, but without those chapters, the book would have been 250-300 instead of 431 and still held the reader’s interest.

Still, if you haven’t read any of King’s non-fiction, this isn’t a bad intro. It’s also expensive, with both the paperback and hard cover editions listed as $40 new on Amazon. Obviously, it’s meant for collectors and King aficionados.

Friday Reviews: Who I Am by Pete Townshend

Who I Am by Pete TownshendWho I Am

Pete Townshend

The creative mind behind most of The Who’s music pens his autobiography, a project he admits took sixteen years. He also says he decided to write this book when he was 21. Ego? I don’t think Townshend is denying that. All rock stars, he posits, are a bit narcissistic, and while he doesn’t say it directly, he believes he is more narcissistic than Who lead singer Roger Daltrey. If you know anything about lead singers, narcissism is part of the job description.

And this is one of the amazing parts of Townshend’s autobiography. Here is the man who created Tommy, the aborted Lifehouse (which spawned the classic Who’s Next), and Quadrophenia. His solo albums, when taken as a whole instead of a collection of songs, each are organized like novels. He has one of the most ambitious imaginations in rock, perhaps exceeding the flights of fancy of Roger Waters. And yet he seems to look up to Roger Daltrey. He even says, “I hope he writes his version of The Who’s story someday.” Daltrey is a rare island of stability in his life.

Townshend hides none of his vices. He admits to being a horrible husband to former wife Kathy and worrying how leaving her might affect her. At the same time, he worries about others. The Keith Moon we have been treated to over the years was a whimsical man, the lost Monty Python member, and someone for whom being seriously was glaringly missing from his skill set. And yet, Townshend fretted over Moon’s emotional state and his bad habits, which ultimately killed him.

We’re also treated to a dismal childhood that went into much of The Who’s music, his parents contentious and adulterous relationship, probable sexual abuse at the hands of an increasingly demented grandmother, and the friends he ran with in postwar Acton, part of London. It’s all there.

Townshend’s recollection of his life is refreshingly honest and self-deprecating. I listened it on Audible, which let me hear him read what he’d written. I highly recommend doing this book on audio as his lyrical prose really comes to life.

Friday Reviews: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great ExpectationsGreat Expectations

Charles Dickens

I selected this late novel by Dickens from Harold Bloom’s list of novels in his book How to Read. The list begins with Don Quixote and includes several French and Russian novels of various lengths, along with works by Faulkner and Thomas Pynchon.

Great Expectations was a good choice. It’s text is not as dense as A Tale of Two Cities, and there’s a refreshing lack of those contrived Dickensian names (“Scrooge”, “Wackford Squeers”). Great Expectations does, however, showcase Dickens’ pet themes, namely class disparity, poverty, and the questionable application of justice in early Victorian England.

The story is about Pip, the short name of Phillip Prirrip. Pip is an orphan raised by his abusive sister and her kindly husband. In the beginning, he helps an escaped convict by sneaking him food one Christmas Eve. The convict is later arrested, and Pip forgets the incident. He is eventually apprenticed to his brother-in-law, a blacksmith, and resigns himself to a life at the forge. A mysterious benefactor sends for Pip and offers to have his solicitor, Mr. Jaggers, raise him in exchange for giving Pip a small fortune. The benefactor wishes Pip to “become a gentleman.”

Pip’s life is one of idle luxury with no foreseeable plan. But he is a gentleman, and that is what is expected of Pip. Over time, Pip feels an enormous amount of guilt over leaving his brother-in-law, who showed him more kindness than the society types Pip encounters. He also feels a growing sense of alienation from Estella, the coldly beautiful girl from his childhood. In the end, when Pip discovers the identity of his benefactor, he wonders if his entire life since leaving Kent was a lie.

Great Expectations would be the template for later novels such as Twain’s The Gilded Age, much of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. David Simon’s television work, particularly The Wire and Treme are compared to Dickens work. However, Simon pulls from a different zeitgeist than Dickens, though there are many parallels – the anger at poverty and class inequality in particular.

Before reading this, I might have picked A Tale of Two Cities as Dickens’s contribution to Bloom’s list. However, Great Expectations sums up Dickens’s philosophy on class, morality, and justice.