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@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Throughout his life, Eddie Pettit was considered “slow.” Naive and trusting to a fault, he was indeed slow to understand much of what was said to him. But Eddie had two great gifts. He possessed a prodigious memory, not just for numbers and circumstances but for images (eidetic memory) as well. Today, he might be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. But Eddie’s second gift made him truly exceptional. Literally born in a stable, he had a lifelong affinity for horses, and they for him. Eddie Pettit could calm even the most excitable horse and was widely known for his talent.
But now Eddie Pettit is dead, victim of what was purportedly an accident at a paper factory where he was visiting friends. Five of his mates from the old neighborhood in Lambeth have come to visit Maisie Dobbs in hopes she will uncover the truth about Eddie’s death. Like all of them, Maisie had been born into poverty in Lambeth. Now, however, she is Cambridge-educated, well-established as an “investigator and psychologist,” and a wealthy woman as the heir of her late mentor. Without hesitation, Maisie takes on the assignment, declines payment, and launches an investigation with the help of her two assistants, Billy and Sandra.
The search for the truth about Eddie’s death brings Maisie and her small staff face to face with anti-union organizing, a string of mysterious murders, a police cover-up, and a conspiracy to prepare Britain for war with Nazi Germany. It’s 1933, and Adolf Hitler has just seized power as German Chancellor. Winston Churchill is agitating for the country to rearm, but few are listening. This is a story set in a particular time and place, and it all fits.
All the novels in this series portray Maisie as contemplative, but none more than Elegy for Eddie. All the while the investigation unfolds, Maisie struggles with her relationship with the aristocratic James Compton. They live together on and off as husband and wife and attend social events together. Increasingly, though, Maisie doubts whether she can marry James. (“They had ventured out with their hearts towards honesty, but had scurried back to protect their feelings.”) She is also struggling with what today we might call liberal guilt. The large fortune she inherited from her mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche, weighs heavily on her—and it provides her with the means to solve other people’s problems, which she does all too frequently. She resists criticism from friends who point out that intervening in other people’s lives can lead to resentment. Overall, Maisie puzzles who she is and where her life is going: “What did she want her life to be considered well-lived? How could she honor both her past and at the same time take on a future that offered so many more opportunities than she might ever have imagined?”
Elegy for Eddie is the ninth book in the growing Maisie Hobbs series, now thirteen in number. Author Jacqueline Winspear, born and educated in Great Britain, emigrated to the United States in 1990. She now lives in Marin County, California. Previously, I’ve posted reviews of all eight earlier novels in the series. One of those reviews can be found at The pleasures of reading Maisie Dobbs. Another is here: Another great detective novel from Jacqueline Winspear.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
In American War by Omar El Akkad, the Second American Civil War erupts in 2074 when Sara T. (“Sarat”) Chestnut is six years old. Four states in the Deep South have seceded in response to federal legislation banning the use of fossil fuels—and a Southern “homicide bomber” has assassinated the President of the United States in Columbus, the country’s new capital. The Reds and Blues are now at war. And much worse is in store for the unfortunate people of this once-democratic nation.
In previous decades, rising seas and monster storms have submerged large swaths of the Eastern and Gulf Coasts, driving millions of people far into the nation’s heartland. Boston, New York, Washington—every low-lying city on both coasts—they’re all now under water. Elevated temperatures have eliminated countless animal species and destroyed huge areas of formerly rich farmland. Mexico has seized Texas and most of the Southwest, governing them under a Protectorate. And the United States has long been isolated on the world stage. “[T]he 2030s and 2040s [were] the last decades before the planet turned on the country and the country turned on itself.” The “newborn superpowers” are China and the Bouazzizi Empire that spans North Africa and the Middle East.
What’s left of Louisiana is neutral territory, considered Purple, wedged between Texas and the core Southern states that are called the MAG (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia). There, Sarat, her fraternal twin sister Dana, and her older brother Simon live in deepening poverty with their parents. In hopes of obtaining a work permit and the means to move his family to safer ground, their father sets out for the North—and there at a federal courthouse he falls victim to another Southern terrorist bomb.
American War spans the years from 2074 to 2123. The story is narrated in old age by Benjamin Chestnut, Sarat’s nephew, whom we meet by name only late in the war. Benjamin regards the tale as tragedy in the classical sense. “Some people are born sentenced to terrible inheritance,” he writes, “diseases that lay dormant in the blood from birth. My sentence was to know, to understand.” Interspersed with Benjamin’s narrative are brief excerpts from speeches, official documents, and interviews with incidental characters that broaden the scope of the tale beyond Sarat and her family. But Sarat is the tightly focused subject of this chilling tale.
At times, the action in American War is almost unbearably raw. A massacre scene that’s central to the story conjures up memories of survivors’ reports from the 1982 invasion of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in southern Lebanon, when right-wing Christian militiamen were unleashed by the Israeli commander Ariel Sharon. Those reports haunt me to this day.
Sadly, the scenario El Akkad paints in his novel of a Second American Civil War comes across as all too credible in today’s darkening political environment. His portrayal of the toll taken by the rising sea level may be exaggerated, since current scientific projections foresee a much more gradual process. But the fanaticism on both sides of the Second American Civil War—the standoff between Reds and Blues—is little greater than the polarization that has come to dominate the country’s politics in recent years. And the heated dispute over the use of fossil fuels is by no means beyond belief. Dystopian fiction is typically cautionary. American War is a perfect example.
The author, Canadian-Egyptian journalist Omar El Akkad, has reported from around the world for the Toronto Globe and Mail. American War in his first book.
For reviews of other dystopian novels I’ve reviewed in this blog, see A brief look at 15 important dystopian novels.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
In an interview on May 23, 2017, Scott Turow explained how he came to write a novel about a case at the International Criminal Court involving the massacre of 400 Roma (“Gypsies”). “‘In 2000, I was at a reception in The Hague and found myself in a circle of lawyers who said you have to write about this—it’s an amazing case,’ he recalls. ‘Usually when people say they have an amazing case it’s about their divorce, but this actually did sound fascinating.’”
The story the lawyers told triggered his memory of a brief exposure to Roma culture 40 years earlier, when Turow had observed a large group of Roma stealing ashtrays from a hospital. The incident puzzled him. He couldn’t understand why they would antagonize people they might have to deal with in the future. “‘What I later learned when researching for this book is that there’s no tense but the present in the Roma language and no written or oral tradition for passing down information. Their history goes only as far back as the oldest Roma alive. So that’s a big cultural difference from us.’” And that difference emerges dramatically in Turow’s mesmerizing latest legal thriller, Testimony.
Most of Turow’s earlier novels involve attorneys in fictional Kindle County, Illinois, and are courtroom dramas. Testimony somewhat departs from the pattern. Bill ten Boom is a successful Dutch-American lawyer—from Kindle County, like the others—who moves to the Hague in the throes of a mid-life crisis to accept a job as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Ten Boom, who goes by the name “Boom,” works with a Belgian forensic anthropologist in search of evidence about a crime against humanity that may have been committed by a now-fugitive Bosnian war criminal—or by American soldiers at a base near the site of the atrocity. Evidence emerges pointing in either direction. Boom’s investigation is complicated when he becomes involved in a torrid affair with the woman who brought the case to the court, an advocate for the Roma. Esma Czarni, beautiful, charming, and possibly brilliant, is also thoroughly untrustworthy.
But Czarni is not the only confounding character in the tale. You’ll also meet Laza Kajevic, the former president of Bosnia who has been on the run from war-crimes investigators for a decade. “Kajevic was in a category of his own, a political leader whose charisma and rage had been enough to lead an entire nation into a realm beyond conscience.” Equally fascinating are General Layton Merrill, the former top NATO commander hounded from the military in disgrace over adultery, and his former master sergeant, who describes herself as a “bull dyke cross-dressing half-breed.” She is a genius at logistics.
Though the story opens at a pre-trial hearing in an ICC courtroom, the action that follows is set elsewhere, mostly in Bosnia. Turow’s description of the poverty-stricken villages, the tragic history of the land, and Roma culture is unfailingly moving. He’s clearly a dogged researcher—and a talented wordsmith.
Boom’s perspective on his work is firmly grounded. “I know this much,” he tells the investigator assigned to him. “Justice is good. I accept the value of testimony, of letting the victims be heard. But consequences are essential. People can’t believe in civilization without being certain that a society will organize itself to do what it can to make things right.”
In his acknowledgements at the back of the novel, Turow writes, “I share with Boom the belief that, given the enduring reality of wartime atrocities, the ICC is indispensable in making the world more just. I hope that in time the United States lends its moral authority to the Court by ratifying the treaty we signed . . . I regard US fears of the Court, while far from fanciful, as misplaced and at odds with the US’s long-term interest in supporting the rule of law around the world.”
About the author
Over the past 30 years, Chicago attorney and novelist Scott Turow has written 11 works of fiction. Included are some of the legal thrillers most familiar to readers—and moviegoers, as several have been adapted to film. Among those you might recognize are Presumed Innocent, The Burden of Proof, and Reversible Errors. All three were bestsellers and made their way into theaters. Turow has also written three nonfiction books. His work has been translated into 40 languages and has sold a total of more than 30 million copies.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Centuries in the future, the people of Earth live under the control of an artificial intelligence called UniComp. A century and a half earlier, the computers governing the five continents had come together in the Unification. The result was a worldwide society free of war, hunger, crime, and violence of any sort. “Hate” and “fight” are swear words. This is the world Ira Levin describes in his superb science fiction novel, This Perfect Day.
The world run by Unicomp is dedicated to efficiency above all else. The population of the planet is kept steady at eight billion through rigorous control of the birth rate and through emigration to colonies the Family has established on Mars, Venus, and the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, as well as on several extrasolar planets. It’s inefficient to grow and prepare a variety of foods, so everyone’s nutritional needs are met through an unchanging diet of totalcakes. To suppress undesirable behavior, everyone submits monthly to chemotherapy treatments; otherwise, they will get “sick” and demonstrate aberrant behavior.
Genetic engineers are laboring to ensure that each new generation contains as few distinguishing physical characteristics as possible. “Hair the same, eyes the same, skin the same, shape the same; boys, girls, all the same. Like peas in a pod.” Conditioning through treatments suppresses the growth of facial hair on men and breasts on women as well as women’s ability “to have too many babies.” Individuals who possess unique characteristics, such as white skin or one green eye, are prone to feel guilty about their misfortune. They all live to the age of 62. Then they die. Everyone has an advisor who will guide them to early treatment, if necessary. The people sing, “One mighty Family, A single perfect breed, Free of all selfishness, Aggressiveness and greed; Each member giving all he has to give And getting all he needs to live!”
Individuals are called members of the Family. There are just four male and four female given names. Everyone wears identical coveralls. Each individual has a nameber, a long alphanumeric code that UniComp can use to track their movements as they touch the bracelets they all wear to scanners wherever they go. Cities are identified by three-digit abbreviations—Usa, Rus, Ind, Chi, and so forth—followed by a five-digit numerical zip code. The Family’s belief system recognizes four prophets: Christ, Marx, Wood, and Wei. Their names are often invoked to express concern or amazement. Wednesday is now Woodsday. March has become the month of Marx.
This Perfect Day opens in 145 Y.U. and draws to a close in 172. The protagonist, who calls himself Chip, is LiRM35MM4419. He is Li to those who don’t know him well. At age 10, Chip is granted permission to travel with his parents, his sister, and his grandfather to EUR00001 (somewhere in the Jura Mountains on what was once called the Swiss-French border). The trip is Chip’s opportunity to visit UniComp, a pilgrimage that every member of the Family is expected to take at least once in a lifetime. There he learns that his grandfather, Papa Jan, had been involved in the construction of UniComp: he had come up with the idea of constructing a secret tunnel through which UniComp’s memory banks could be driven deep under the surface of the Earth. Papa Jan even manages to bypass the scanners and take Chip deep underground to see the ranks of UniComp’s memory banks.
As a child, Chip hears rumors about the incurables who live in isolated communities somewhere on Earth. He is assured that such people no longer exist. But a seed of doubt and curiosity has been planted. Later, once Chip has completed technical training, he is assigned as a genetic taxonomist, fourth class, to a succession of jobs at locations scattered about the planet. At one posting, he rooms with a secretive individual named Karl who demonstrates artistic talent and goes to great lengths to obtain notebooks he can draw in. Chip’s first act of rebellion is to secure notebooks Karl is unable to obtain because he can’t receive permission from UniComp. When Chip asks his current girlfriend “which [job classification] you would pick if you had to pick one,” she is first confused, then incredulous. “That’s silly,” she tells him. “And sick. We get classified; there’s nothing to think about.”
As the years go by, Chip continues to wonder why he can’t make choices for himself, and his curiosity about the incurables grows. “Everything came to seem questionable to him: totalcakes, coveralls, the sameness of members’ rooms and thoughts, and especially the work he was doing, whose end, he saw, would only be to solidify the universal sameness.” When he is recruited into a small group of nonconformists—they express their rejection of society’s norms by smoking tobacco and by pairing off with partners they themselves choose—Chip finds an ally and sets off to research the truth about the incurables. The others in the group show Chip how to first reduce, then eliminate the monthly treatments. At length, he finds proof that there are islands all over the world (Madagascar, Cuba, the Andamans, Majorca, and many others) that have been suppressed from the maps. He is convinced that the incurables live there. Eventually, he comes fully alive and makes his way to Majorca.
On the island, Chip discovers that he has left a comfortable existence for poverty and endless drudgery on what is essentially a prison colony—intentionally allowed by UniComp. He is resolved to put an end to the computer’s oppression. After months of searching, Chip finds five other members who will join him on a dangerous excursion to the mainland of Eur and make their way to the mountains, where they can plant explosives to destroy UniComp.
At long last Chip locates the secret tunnel Papa Jan had told him about 27 years earlier and enters the domain of UniComp with two companions. They are shocked to discover that the facility houses a small community of programmers who live in luxury and are catered to by slavish young servants 24 hours a day. Most of the programmers are migrants from the Family, just like him. (Contrary to what everyone outside believes, UniComp makes no decisions on its own.) Disgusted by this revolting display of privilege, Chip bides his time until an opportunity presents himself to detonate bombs delivered by a new crew of would-be saboteurs. At last, his mission succeeds. He is free to return to his home in Africa, where he left behind a wife and child.
Ira Levin, an American screenwriter and novelist, was the author of A Kiss Before Dying, Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, The Boys from Brazil, and other bestselling books that were adapted into successful Hollywood films. Levin was a versatile writer, creating bestselling mysteries, horror, and science fiction.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Ten days ago Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States. The actions he’s already taken confirm the widespread suspicions about his authoritarian personality that so many remarked upon during his campaign. Many observers saw him as the heir to Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. I always thought those analogies were overblown and inappropriate. Popular opinion to the contrary, history doesn’t repeat itself. However, there’s no mistaking that the executive orders President Trump has signed and the high-level appointments he’s made, are worrisome. It would appear that he is attempting to repeal the 20th century. Given the revelations of the last decade about the NSA’s blanket surveillance of the country, Mr. Trump now (in theory at least) has the power to observe each of us under a microscope—and, if he chooses, to subject his critics individually to the sort of insulting and demeaning Tweets he so casually flings about on a daily basis. Could his Administration mark the end of democracy in America? That prediction seems overblown to me, too. But I’m scared.
With all these fears in the air, I decided to join thousands of other Americans in rereading 1984 and other dystopian classics that foresaw a grim future under totalitarian government. In the coming months I’ll get to Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, It Can’t Happen Here, and possibly other, similar titles.
So far I’ve reread only 1984. Though I was on the lookout for likely analogies to the United States in 2017, I found very few. George Orwell envisioned a future society modeled in part on the totalitarianism of the USSR under Josef Stalin but taken to an extreme with the most intrusive technology Orwell could imagine in 1947-48, when he wrote the book. The similarities to today’s reality are limited.
In 1984, Orwell relates the story of Winston Smith, a middle-ranking official in the Party that has total control over Oceania. Smith lives in London in what used to be called Britain. The country is now a small part of a globe-spanning empire that incorporates the British Isles, the Americas, Australia, and many of the Pacific islands. Oceania is one of three such empires. It’s in a state of total and constant war with either one of the others at any given time; they change sides frequently.
The ruler of Oceania is Big Brother, whose greatly enlarged portrait appears on walls and in windows virtually everywhere. (“BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.”) Apparently, no one has ever actually seen, much less met, Big Brother. The elite Inner Party enforces his rule, supported by the much larger numbers of Outer Party members such as Winston. The Party’s control of society is absolute. The 85% of the population that are called “proles” live in abject poverty; even Outer Party members face constant deprivation. A two-way telescreen in every home and the shadowy Thought Police make it almost impossible for anyone even to have a thought of opposition to the regime. The Party’s ideology is compressed into three slogans: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.
But Winston (“Everyman?”) has doubts. He’s employed in the Ministry of Truth. Like Josef Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry, Winston’s employer is engaged in telling and constantly retelling the Big Lie. In fact, in 1984, the reality is even more extreme: the Party has abolished the past. As circumstances change, Winston and his colleagues become feverishly engaged in rewriting history to conform to the current Party line. Eventually, Winston’s doubts grow. On a hunch, he arranges a private meeting with O’Brien, an Inner Party official whom he believes is like-minded. Winston’s hope is to become involved in the Brotherhood, a resistance movement headed by Emmanuel Goldstein, who is Public Enemy #1. Together with a young woman named Julia with whom he has fallen in love, Winston pursues a forbidden private life out of reach of Big Brother. Then, of course, things start going very badly wrong. Winston’s story does not end happily.
George Orwell was one of the most important writers of the 20th century, and 1984 is one of the era’s most significant books. It’s well worth reading for its own sake—and as a cautionary tale about the dangers inherent in authoritarianism. The totalitarianism envisioned by Orwell may overstate the dangers to an extreme degree. But an authoritarian ruler can do a great deal of damage even without absolute power. Watch out!
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Precious Ramotswe is a “traditionally built” woman who founded and runs the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. She is known throughout Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, for her wisdom and her street smarts. She is also reflective, unfailingly kind, truthful, and patient to an almost superhuman degree. She would have to be to put up with her rude and self-centered assistant, Grace Makutsi.
The relationship between the two women is the principal theme of Precious and Grace, the latest addition to Alexander McCall Smith‘s charming series of novels about the agency. Mma (Ms.) Makutsi has always pushed her boss to the limits of her patience. But never before has Mma Ramotswe come so perilously close to lying as in this 17th novel in the series. Shockingly, she is even forced to withhold information that will anger Mma Makutsi! “We are the people we want ourselves to be, and then there are the people we actually are: sometimes it is easier to be the people we want ourselves to be if we keep at least some things to ourselves. That, thought Mma Ramotswe, is only human.”
As in the preceding novels in the series, several subplots unfold in Precious and Grace. Fanwell, the newly promoted junior mechanic in the garage that shares space with the agency, has picked up a stray dog that refuses to return to its home. The agency’s part-time volunteer assistant, Mr. Polopetsi, has been naively promoting a pyramid scheme. And a Canadian woman has come to Gaborone seeking the agency’s help in finding the nanny who raised her when she was child in Botswana. Complications erupt each of these problems as Mma Ramotswe looks for solutions. She solves all the problems, of course. But never in a straight line from beginning to end. The twists and turns are part of the charm of this entertaining little book.
Through the character of Mma Ramotswe, McCall Smith celebrates an idealized image of Africa. However, he could hardly have picked a likelier setting than Botswana. Botswana is one of the most remarkable countries in Africa if not in the world as a whole. The country has been democratically ruled since it gained independence from Britain in 1964. One of Mma Ramotswe’s heroes, Sir Seretse Khama, set the pattern of peace and stability as Botswana’s first president. Since the 1960s, the country has lifted itself from dire poverty into mid-range income. This, despite the fact of mineral wealth that in other countries has simply enriched a small elite. For many years the nation has been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. However, Botswana also has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS prevalence on the planet, with more than 15% of the country’s two million people infected.
McCall Smith—yes, that is his last name—is clearly in love with Botswana, where he lived for years and taught law at the national university he co-founded in Gaborone. An expert in medical law and ethics, he lives in Edinburgh, where he taught at the university for many years. McCall Smith is an extraordinarily prolific author. In addition to the 17 novels in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, he has written scores of novels in other series as well as 13 books on medical law and related topics.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is always a refreshing change from the blood and guts that are common fare in most other detective fiction. Maisie, who bills herself as a “Psychologist and Investigator,” is unlike any other protagonist in crime fiction. There’s nothing the least bit hard-boiled about her. Operating in London and points south, Maisie works under the ever-present pall of World War I. Though it’s now the 1930s, Maisie’s service as a nurse at a casualty clearing station near the front line in France was the dominant experience in her otherwise very eventful life. Her fiance, Captain Simon Lynch, lies in a vegetative state in a convalescent home. They had worked together in France and were wounded by the same German artillery shell.
In An Incomplete Revenge, the fifth book in the series, Maisie is forced to face the lasting pain of her earlier years: the backstory of her family’s life, the class resentment she continues to bear as a child of poverty, the tension between her and her brilliant mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche, and her lover’s worsening condition. In the face of all this stress, Maisie takes on what proves to be a challenging case on behalf of her dear friend, James Compton, the son of the aristocratic couple that sponsored her education.
The action centers on the village of Heronsdene in Southeast England. The village lies not far from the estate where she once served as a maid and her father still lives, tending the horses. It’s hop-picking season. The fields are crowded with Londoners, a small tribe of Gypsies, and villagers, all seeking to supplement their meager income. It’s 1931, and the Depression is well underway. All the land nearby, and the brickworks located on it, are the property of a single owner, who is universally despised in the area. Alfred Sandermere is a bully, a drunkard, and a wastrel.
Maisie has come to Heronsdene because James wants her to look into the strange circumstances there, as he is interested in buying the estate. These circumstances include a series of suspicious fires, a rash of thefts at the Sandermere mansion and elsewhere, and the villagers’ mysterious refusal to talk about the Zeppelin attack that killed the local baker and his family in 1916. With mystery piled on mystery, this is a case tailor-made for Maisie Dobbs.
Naturally, Maisie triumphs in the end, having disentangled the threads of this complicated story and given her friend the green light to proceed with the purchase. But the fun, after all, is in the telling.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Spoiler alert: do NOT read this book (or this review!) unless you have already read Pines, the first novel in the Wayward Pines trilogy. Wayward is the second. It makes absolutely no sense as a standalone story. Now, assuming that I’m not revealing any secrets, here’s how the novel opens . . .
Former Secret Service Special Agent Ethan Burke is now the Sheriff of the small, isolated Idaho town of Wayward Pines. At a casual glance, Wayward Pines is an idyllic settlement, free of poverty, crime, terrorism, or any of the other afflictions of modern civilization. However, with barely fewer than 500 inhabitants, the town is the last human settlement on Earth — and more than 1,800 years have passed since Burke arrived in town. Yes, it’s now the 39th century. Burke’s role is essentially to keep the residents in town in line, preventing them from attempting to escape. In reality, they are all captives, ignorant of the circumstances in which they live.
As Burke learned in his own early attempt to flee, Wayward Pines is surrounded by an electrified fence topped by razor wire and backed by sheer cliff walls. Outside, the new top predators on Earth are “aberrations,” or “abbies,” mutant descendants of the human race with enormous talons and a voracious appetite for flesh. Humans included, of course. Burke’s job, as he sees it, is to keep the residents safe from attack by these vicious creatures. However, that’s not the way it seems to the evil genius who built the town and sent its inhabitants into the far future through suspended animation. That man, David Pilcher, was convinced that human DNA was degrading in the 21st century and that the species would soon go extinct. He was right, as it turned out. To his mind, Burke’s top responsibility is to ensure that none of the inhabitants learn any of this.
As the action slowly unfolds in Wayward, Burke learns more about the extent to which Pilcher controls the lives of its inhabitants — and about the emptiness of the lives they lead. “More and more, he was coming to realize that living in Pines was like living in an elaborate play whose curtain never closed.” A play, he comes to find out, with an underlying reality of extreme, recurring violence. With accelerating suspense, the story rushes forward to what book publicists are fond of calling “a shattering climax.” The author, Blake Crouch, is supremely skilled at turning this highly original if unlikely science fiction story into a thriller that’s impossible to put down.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Journalist Misha Glenny’s exploration of criminal gangs and drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro focuses on one favela (slum) and one drug lord. It’s a fascinating and surprising tale that pokes under the covers of the broad generalizations that dominate news coverage both of poverty in Brazil and of the drug trade.
Glenny’s subject is Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, “Nem of Rosinha.” (Glenny translates Nem as “Babe.”) Conducting interviews with Nem in prison, he reviews the rocky political history of the country during the military dictatorship (1964-85) and the tumultuous democratic period that followed. Though he keeps returning his attention to Nem throughout the book, Glenny describes the man’s trigger-happy predecessors and competitors and veers off into broader issues. Nem comes off as extremely intelligent and a brilliant manager, and he resorts to violence much less frequently than his rivals (or, apparently, the police, for that matter). Unlike other Rio drug lords, Nem dealt almost exclusively in cocaine, shunning the arms trade and extortion that were common in other slums. Like the others, he meddled in the corrupt politics of the region.
Nem ruled the favela of Rosinha in the south of Rio de Janeiro for four years (2007-11). Glenny describes the favela as the largest of Rio’s many slums. But Nem’s influence extended far beyond the borders of his community. When arrested by police in 2011, he was estimated to be responsible for more than 60% of the cocaine consumed in Rio and have a net worth of $60 million. The Brazilian government labeled him Public Enemy #1. A pitched gun-battle inadvertently triggered by some of his henchmen brought unwelcome attention and soon led to his capture.
Ironically, Nem presided over nearly four years of peace and stability in Rosinha. He vigorously enforced rules against extortion and murder within the favela. The neighborhood descended into chaos following his arrest and imprisonment.
Nemesis is not an easy read. Glenny lurches from past to present and back again with annoying regularity, sometimes on a single page. It’s dizzying. And, despite his reputation as a top-flight journalist, he is careless with facts from time to time. For example, in one place Glenny refers to one of Nem’s rivals as running a region that consisted of “dozens of favelas,” implying that this constituted a large swath of the city. Later, he states that there are “more than 1,000” favelas in Rio. Later still, he asserts there are “some 900.”
Misha Glenny is a British journalist who specializes in southeastern Europe, cybersecurity, and global organized crime. Nemesis is the only one of his six books to deal with Brazil.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Two recent books set out to paint a picture of working-class culture. One is White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg. I found the book to be too densely written and couldn’t finish reading it. The other is far more accessible. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance, is the haunting story of one man who escaped the bounds of his class and now sometimes finds himself adrift. The book also paints a vivid picture of America’s hardening class divisions. It’s a riveting illustration of widening economic inequality.
The outlines of Vance’s story are easily described. Born and raised in a Rust Belt town in Southwestern Ohio, Vance was abandoned by his father at an early age. His mother, a nurse, descended into drug addiction. From the age of sixteen, Vance was raised by his mother’s parents (Mamaw and Papaw). Though she packs pistols, swears like a sailor, and intimidates nearly everyone, Mamaw brought long-needed stability and encouragement to the boy’s life.
After a four-year stint in the Marines, Vance attended Ohio State University. He graduated summa cum laude after one year and eleven months! (This man is clearly no slouch.) Yale Law School followed. At the age of thirty-one, married and settled into a job as an attorney, he looks back on his life and his family with brutal honesty and a tender touch. Some might call his family and their neighbors “white trash” or “rednecks.” Vance finds the term “hillbilly” more precise and uses it throughout the book.
It’s the culture that handicaps Vance as he transitions from life in a hillbilly community to Yale and then a New York law firm. He clearly has the necessary intelligence. But he doesn’t possess the social capital to fit smoothly into his new environment. The problem isn’t that he doesn’t know which fork to use at a banquet (though that’s also true): worse, the social cues and sometimes the vocabulary seem to throw him. Some might call this culture shock.
Vance’s portrait of working-class poverty is at times alarming. It’s disturbing throughout, with its portrayal of unstable families, substance abuse, domestic violence, willful ignorance, indolence, and occasional welfare fraud. Vance writes skillfully, and his story is suspenseful to the end. The biggest surprise is how beautifully he survives a childhood that seems impossible to bear.
J. D. Vance was born and raised in the working-class community of Middletown, Ohio. His “people” come from the coal-studded region of Eastern Kentucky, where poverty is as severe as anywhere else in the United States.