I Can’t Breathe by Matt Taibbi

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I love Matt Taibbi, so I admit to a preconceived bias toward this book. I went in wanting it to be good. And I thought I was familiar with the sad story of Freddie Gray, the African-American man shot as he was selling “loosies” (single cigarettes) in New York. But I realize I knew SO LITTLE of the real story. For starters, Freddie was not a large, shambling doofus as he was often portrayed. He was incredibly intelligent, and a hard worker. And the actual killing was way more complicated than I had previously thought.

I’m not completely ignorant of the realities of big-city crime: I have read some books about the serious issues in law enforcement in the U.S., particularly as pertains to African-Amercians. But I had not read ANYTHING that was so accessible – so well written in terms that are easily understandable. It’s just a huge accomplishment the way Mr Taibbi has told Freddie’s story along with informing the reader about the realities of the justice system — which, for too many Americans, particularly those of color, is better referred to as the “justice” system. Shocking, sad, needs to be widely read. Five gigantic stars.

Need to Know by Karen Cleveland

SPOILER ALERT: The basic premise (which is a surprise at several points) of Karen Cleveland’s Need to Know is laid out here; so if you want total surprise, stop reading! But I’m not giving away the BFD ending which is designed to be a real shocker, so if you don’t mind reading a plot outline, have at it!

I had read some of the hype about this book (optioned as a film with Charlize Theron, so my image of protagonist Vivian Miller was of Charlize), so I was pleased to get an advance copy of this book from Random House/Ballantine and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. As the story begins, we meet Vivian Miller (Charlize), a super-dedicated CIA counterintelligence analyst who has been working for years on a project that, if successful, will uncover the identities of people living in the U.S. as members of Russian sleeper cells. She has developed this system to identify the people who appear to be normal residents of the U.S., but who are actually working as Russian agents.

Vivian’s life has gotten complicated as she and her husband Matt and their four children live the lifestyle of a middle-class couple, complete with a big mortgage and some medical problems for one of their kids that guarantee they can’t just walk away from her job on a whim. One day, while she is online accessing the computer of someone she thinks may be a Russian operative, Vivian stumbles on a secret file that contains information about deep-cover agents in the U.S. As she scrolls through the photos of the agents assigned to the suspected handler, she is stunned to see her husband Matt’s photo. She is torn about what to do – if she turns him in, her job will be over, her kids will be devastated, and everything that matters to her will be gone. Should she confront Matt? Maybe tell her boss? Or tell her trusted friend who works with her on the special project, FBI Agent Omar?

She seems to be faced with impossible choices. She starts looking back at her entire relationship with Matt – how they “met cute,” fell in love, got married, had kids, lived together for a decade – is it possible she is wrong, her life’s work of developing a method to identify the sleeper agents a failure?

I really enjoyed the process of reading this, and it was pretty much all-engrossing. But it required a bit of willing suspension of disbelief, because this genius woman seemed to keep making some dumb decisions. But then, I’d think, “Who knows what I’d do in her situation?”

Good plotting, good character development, good escapist entertainment. More than a bit unsettling, TBH. Just like you sometimes find out the seemingly normal guy down the block is a serial killer, you might have a member of a sleeper cell in the neighborhood, coaching your kid’s soccer team. Four stars.

The Kennedy Imprisonment by Garry Wills

Garry Wills, who has been described as “a sort of intellectual outlaw” by the New York Times, has written many books related to politics, including Reagan’s America, Nixon Agonistes, Lincoln at Gettysburg (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize), and The Kennedy Imprisonment, originally published in 1982. This 2017 edition of The Kennedy Imprisonment includes an updated preface, but is still essentially Wills taking on the myths surrounding the Kennedy clan and disabusing people of the popular vision of the Kennedy image as viewed through the lens of Camelot.

For Kennedy fans who haven’t done much reading about the reality, this book may be unsettling as it pulls back the curtain and reveals a corrupt and opportunistic political family who valued image over reality, flattering myths and stories over truth,
and a world of “almost-Kennedys” and hangers-on who gave up their own integrity for the privilege of basking in the reflected glory of the Kennedy clan.

Wills covers the PT-109 story and the expert manipulation of it in print and film, the question of actual authorship of Profiles in Courage, the story that was presented as historical fact about the handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the notorious womanizing of Joe Sr., John, and Teddy (with Bobby allegedly being the faithful one).

The book is divided into five sections, each devoted to a particular aspect of the Kennedy family: Sex, Family, Image, Charisma, and Power. But even before we get to these, the prologue tells us the particular slant of the author: “Because of privilege of various sorts, bad behavior does not have consequences, which means that it continues and becomes more pronounced.” The heavy weight on each of the brothers following the deaths of their siblings culminates in Teddy’s sad comment: “After Robert was killed, he told his aide Dun Gifford: “I can’t let go. We have a job to do. If I let go, Ethel will let go, and my mother will let go, and all my sisters.”” Yikes, what a heavy load he carried…and his dysfunctional, doomed campaign for the Presidency in 1980 is covered in depth, including a good look at poor Joan, who never really made it into the insular inner circle of the clan.

Wills says there was a palpable energy between and among the Kennedys that excluded all outsiders: “When the nurse took the Kennedy children swimming at Taggert’s Pier, back in the thirties, they all wore the same color bathing hats, so they could be distinguished from the other children…Ever since they have been wearing invisible caps that signal to each other on a radio frequency no one else can use.”

I have vivid memories of JFK’s inauguration (when a TV was wheeled into my elementary school classroom so we could watch and hear his speech) and the assassinations, including the televised coverage of the aftermath each time another tragedy unfolded. I admit it was a bit disconcerting to learn the level to which coverage and myth protection was managed and manipulated, but I was still pleased to have the opportunity to read a copy of this edition (thanks to Open Road Integrated Media and NetGalley).

For me, the problem is that this book, written as it was in the early 1980s, assumed a familiarity with many of the people and events that was likely appropriate 30+ years ago, but for many of us, memories fade – and for others, there is complete cluelessness about who these people are and what their significance was to the Kennedy story of the 1960s-80s.

In addition to needing to figure out the characters and their roles, the author’s writing became annoying. I appreciate a strong vocabulary, but in several instances, it seemed like a simpler word might have served the purpose: for example, “jansenist,” “circumnambient,””orotundities,””thurible,” and “perdured’ seem a bit over the top (while the less puzzling “circumlocutious,” panegyric,” and “simulacra” seem to adequately demonstrate the author’s fine vocabulary). Or maybe it’s just me, and everyone else is completely familiar with the over-the-top examples listed above? In any case, that detracted from my appreciation of the book. (And spellcheck was equally puzzled by 7 of the 8 words listed above!)

In any case, it is a fine history of the clan and their impact on U.S. history and, while it may provoke a certain level of disappointment for readers to learn about both the human frailties and downright corrupt actions of their heroes, it is hugely entertaining. Political junkies in particular will love this. Four stars.

 

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

COVER Zevin Young Jane Young

Being in a book club offers lots of positive experiences…for me, it frequently means I will read something I NEVER would have selected on my own! That was the case with Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. Why wouldn’t I have picked it? For starters, there is that weird title. Then the blurb, letting me know it was about a loner who owns a struggling bookstore…well, those weren’t exactly grabbers for me. But I loved the book, and after pondering why, it came down to the fact that it was just FUN to read. It entertained me and it made me THINK.  So I was happy to receive a copy of Zevin’s new book Young Jane Young, from Algonquin Books and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Young Jane Young is the story of Aviva Grossman, a Congressional intern in Florida who has an affair with her boss and telling the story in her (supposed to be) anonymous blog. As is often the case, the guy is temporarily damaged by the scandal, but Aviva becomes notorious. Like Lewinsky, she is slut-shamed and her name becomes synonymous with the ick factor in politics in general.

Aviva changes her name to the generic Jane Young, moves to Maine, and starts over, with her daughter in tow. She becomes a successful small-town business owner, raising her daughter to be a strong, confident young woman. Everything goes well until Jane runs for public office and finds that Google provides an indelible scarlet A. It seems that in social media, the past is never gone. Ruby finds out her mother isn’t the person she had always thought she was, and as she confronts the reality of the world, she needs to decide how much this matters.
The novel follows three generations (Aviva’s mother, Aviva and Ruby) and uses rotating points of view to tell their stories, along with that of the Congressman’s wife. The characters are terrific: Aviva’s mother Rachel is the first one we meet, and she tells us (as she is talking about how her best friend Roz and her new husband spend time together) “I don’t particularly want a husband. They’re a lot of work, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life alone either, and it would be nice to have someone to go to classes with is what I’m saying.” Jane works hard on raising Ruby mindful of the lessons she absorbed from her own childhood: “I believed a mother must act like the woman she wanted here daughter to become.” And Ruby is just…amazing.

I loved how it entertained me with tons of humor, and made me think about how the world still wants to define women’s roles and possibilities. I’m kind of a political junkie, so that aspect of it appealed to me as well.

Sadly, double standards are still with us, and misogyny is rampant in politics and business. This is a fairly quick read, but anyone who cares about the issues will find the characters and their experiences rolling around in their brain long after the final chapter. Five stars. Hugely enjoyable, as was Fikry.

Actual Malice by Breton Peace and Gary Condit

Cover Peace Actual Malice

Admittedly, the true crime genre is a guilty pleasure of mine. I also follow politics, so the whole sad, sordid Chandra Levy saga looked to be right up my alley, and eagerly anticipated reading Actual Malice by Breton Peace, published in fall, 2016. I appreciate receiving a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review – thanks to Ghost Mountain Press and NetGalley.

It’s difficult to describe my level of disappointment in this book. It was described asa true crime thriller that will take you through the backrooms of political gamesmanship, deception, and cover-up.” For me, not so much! Where to begin??

This book presents the reader with the story (or at least one view of the story) of 24-year-old Chandra Levy, a  constituent of Congressman Gary Condit of California’s Central Valley, and her disappearance in 2001 just as her internship with the federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C. came to an end. As the investigation into her disappearance unfolded, it was on the news 24/7 after Condit was revealed to be “involved” with Chandra. Good grief, it was on the news 24/7 and Condit came off looking suspiciously like a lecherous creep. I was hoping the book might reveal some backstory that would make the whole thing at least a tiny bit less creepy.

Alas, even though this book was co-authored by Condit himself and therefore clearly meant to present him in at least a slightly favorable light, he still comes off as a lecherous creep!

I did enjoy the parts of the book describing Condit’s role as a “blue dog Democrat” in the sort-of-sleazy world of California politics, as he worked closely with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in a rapid rise to power. Condit was photogenic, charming, and ostensibly able to “work across the aisle.” Anyone with an interest in politics would find this interesting, and I did, although I kept being distracted by the gigantic need for an editor (example: when Condit’s chief of staff was described as “pouring over newspapers.” Ugh. Lots of errors like this that, to some of us, are visual fingernails on a blackboard!)

When he left California to take on the role of Representative in Washington, Condit was part of a coalition that delivered bipartisan victories during Clinton’s second term and sat on the House Intelligence Committee. It seemed like he had accomplished something that seems impossible in today’s political climate—genuine political independence from both sides of the aisle. Should have been golden, right? Well, no.

Despite all this promise, Condit seemed to have several red flags, including his relationship with his driver/bodyguard Vince Flammini, who comes across like a character from Goodfellas – or at least a wannabe in that vein. And as the Levy story is devoured by the media, stories of Condit’s womanizing emerge, contributing to the less-than-flattering picture of him.

So, overall, my four big takeaways from this book are:

  • Chandra Levy’s disappearance (and murder) is a sad tale, made even more so when you consider that the case was never solved.
  • Police often seem to find a suspect and then tailor their investigation to fit that storyline.
  • The media is an insatiable beast, especially when sex and politics are involved.
  • Men (including high-profile politicians) who can’t keep it in their pants say and do really stupid things.

Actual Malice is presented as a book that chronicles in vivid detail the heartache and intrigue behind the salacious, if fanciful, headlines that too often drive public debate and derail the serious business of our nation and its system of justice.” Really? To me, it comes across as almost a puff piece, sort of gliding over the facts that demonstrate that yes, Condit was a lecherous creep who betrayed his family as well as his constituents. I am actually surprised and a bit disappointed in myself as I admit that I expected more – even though Condit was co-author. Duh. What was I thinking?

I couldn’t resist — I knew that Condit has lost his bid for re-election and faded away, but I just had to look and see what became of him: according to the Washington Post, “Condit has written a book but allegedly can’t find a publisher. Soon after leaving politics, he invested in Baskin-Robbins ice cream franchises. The stores failed and prompted a breach-of-contract suit in which Condit was ordered to pay about $98,000. A source close to the Condit family says Gary has long since left the ice cream business.”

Like I said, sad. Two stars. I rarely give anything fewer than three, but this one was just awful in so many ways. Despite the effort of the two authors to present Condit in a positive light, I still felt like I need a shower.

 

 

A Colony in A Nation by Chris Hayes

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Having both watched him for a few years on MSNBC and having read his work in The Nation, I love Chris Hayes, His earlier book Twilight of the Elites (called “a stunning polemic by Ta-Nehisi Coates), emphasized how out of touch America’s political leaders were with those they were elected to govern (and this was in 2012!). In his new book, he takes the experiences he has had reporting from places like Ferguson and West Baltimore and combines it with his outstanding knowledge of U.S. history and concludes that our country has broken into two distinct factions: the Colony and the Nation.

As he examines the issues and events in Ferguson, West Baltimore and other places where racially-motivated crime and violence have been in the news in recent years, he contends that the conditions in these cities and towns mirror those that sparked the American Revolution. Along the way, he examines the political, economic and social conditions in both eras.

He explains that despite our wish to live in a “post-racial” world, the situation that exists in “the Colony” looks very much like a police state, where aggressive policing makes the police look like an occupying force and fear is paramount.

He points out that our country imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than any other county, except the archipelago of Seychelles, with “nearly one out of four prisoners in the world …an American,” although we have only 5% of the world’s population. And “American criminal justice isn’t one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land.” Ouch!!

He examines the end of Jim Crow and the change that happened in the 1960s is a time when some believe “it was reconceived and reborn through mass incarcerations” – for me, this was unsettling to read. In Ferguson, Hayes believes “…the police had taken on the role of enforcing an unannounced but very real form of segregation in the St. Louis suburb.” Further, he says our “post-civil-rights social order …gave up on desegregation as a guiding mission and accepted a country of de facto segregation between “nice neighborhoods” and “rough neighborhoods,” “good schools” and “bad schools,” “inner cities” and “bedroom communities.””

To his credit, he in unflinching as he presents his self-analysis of his own privilege as he lives the “the Nation,” and explains “None of this came about by accident. It was the result of accumulation of policy, from federal housing guidelines and realtor practices to the decisions of tens of thousands of school boards and town councils and homeowners’ associations essential drawing boundaries: the Nation on one side, the Colony on the other,” And, as in the case of Sandra Bland, “In the Colony, violence looms, and failure to comply can be fatal.” And he points out that this is not so in The Nation.

Many of us are currently pondering how the hell our country got to the point where it is today. This book doesn’t have all the answers, but it is eye-opening, well researched, easy to read and comprehend, and reveals Hayes’s intelligence as well as his compassion and desire for change. It comes at a good time for anyone wanting to have some awareness of how we got to where we are, and I highly recommend it. Five stars.