Envision nine days in Los Angeles Thanksgiving week. Is this what you see? This terrifying photo’s from 2016, and I’m happy to say it wasn’t that bad this past week. With GoogleMaps directions, we survived. Most days, we got around pretty well. No dents in the rental car. No need to reenact “Another Day of Sun” from the hit movie La La Land. Are you curious how they turned a traffic jam into a musical extravaganza? Watch how they did it!
We stayed downtown at the Hilton Checkers, which was close to great restaurants and other walkable destinations—practically straight uphill to the cultural attractions at The Music Center and Center Theatre Group though. For that, we used Lyft.
It’s a 188-room boutique hotel, with a Spanish-style façade, designed in the 1920s by Charles Whittlesey, who designed the El Tovar at the Grand Canyon. Online sources differ regarding the origin of the name—the staff didn’t know—with some saying it’s named after Chequers, the traditional country retreat of the UK Prime Minister. “Richard Nixon’s dog” gets my vote.
To ease into a different time zone, our first night we ate dinner in the hotel. Given that there were only about three tables of diners, and despite our modest expectations, the food was amazingly good. If we hadn’t had so many other cuisine choices and logistical considerations, we would gladly have eaten there again. Staff was terrific.
Friends who stayed at the Checkers a few years ago report a beautiful rooftop pool. The Internet has pictures of it. We were there nine days and never saw or heard a thing about it. It may be gone or out of season.
By Robert K. Tanenbaum – Among many other legal posts, Tanenbaum has been a prosecutor, an Assistant District Attorney, has taught law, and served two terms as mayor of Beverly Hills, California. This book-jacket terms him “a New York Times bestselling author,” although many readers have learned that doesn’t necessarily mean what we think it does. This is the 29th book in the long-running series of legal thrillers featuring New York City District Attorney Roger “Butch” Karp and his wife, investigator Marlene Ciampi. How could one man do all that? Easy. He didn’t.
In a rather notorious (in writing circles) revelation in 2003, Tanenbaum’s cousin, Michael Gruber revealed he had ghostwritten the “bestselling author’s” novels, the two had parted ways, and he was pursuing his own writing career. Followed by a rather inexpert successor, the quality of Tanenbaum’s books reportedly suffered, then for a while it appeared more skilled hands were at the computer keyboard. I knew none of this when I read Without Fear or Favor, but Tanenbaum’s hunt for a good ghostwriter should continue.
The new novel tells the story of a white cop murdered by a black militant who uses the nom de guerre, Nat X. Nat X proclaims that there’s a war on black people, and cops are the enemy. He does murder a policeman early in the story, then entices a teenager to shoot another one, and the remainder of the book is about bringing him to justice.
In some respects, this book is the antithesis of Don Winslow’s The Force, also about black-white relations in New York City as they collide within the criminal justice system. In Winslow’s book, corruption is rampant; in Tanenbaum’s, aside from three vigilante cops, duly punished, the police, the investigators, and the prosecutors are models of probity. Their solid ideals are revealed in unrealistic lengthy statements, more like essays than realistic conversations.
If these editorial opinions were confined to one or two characters, you might accept that they reflect a particular character’s point of view and bombastic communications style, but they also appear in the narration, which becomes indistinguishable from the characters’ “good citizenship” and “flaws in the system” lectures.
In addition to constant editorializing, the writer has a bad habit of introducing a bolus of superficial backstory every time a new character is introduced. It doesn’t explore the individual at all, and you’re left to apply whatever assumptions you may have about someone described as a product of “only the finest prep schools.”
Unsurprisingly, the story is loaded with clichés and stereotyped and cardboard characters. Perhaps most puzzling are the courtroom scenes of Nat X’s trial. I wonder whether Tanenbaum even read them. The defense attorney is not a worthy adversary for protagonist Karp, which greatly undercuts the tension of the trial. Not to mention that her deceptive behavior might well subject her to an ethics investigation.
Instead, How About . . .
If you like legal thrillers, you may find more believable courtroom drama in Steve Cavanagh’s The Liar or The Plea or Brad Parks’s recent Say Nothing. Or, come to Richardson Auditorium on October to hear John Grisham, Wednesday October 25, 2017, 4:30 p.m. Tickets on sale at the Auditorium website at noon October 19.
Written by Joe Ide, narrated by Sullivan Jones – Japanese-American author Joe Ide grew up in South Central Los Angeles, and it’s obvious he kept his ears open. He has a remarkable ability to capture the cadences, the vocabulary, the put-downs, and the jiving of the mostly African-American characters in his debut novel, deservedly nominated for numerous awards. Sullivan Jones’s stellar narration of the audio version truly does Ide’s rich dialog justice.
Growing up, Ide’s favorite books were Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and in his book’s protagonist, seventeen-year-old prodigy Isaiah Quintabe, he’s created a new kind of superbly logical Holmes in an unlikely urban California setting, East Long Beach.
The teen lives with his older brother and legal guardian Marcus, the only family member he knows. He idolizes Marcus, who badgers Isaiah to excel. When Marcus is killed in a hit-and-run accident right in front of him, Isaiah is so bereft he drops out of high school. Although he’s underage, he’s determined to keep Marcus’s apartment, in some sense to keep Marcus close and to avoid the foster care system.
The low-level jobs he can snag aren’t bringing in the income he needs, though, and he takes in a roommate—the irrepressible, dope-dealing, trash-talking, rap-music-loving Juanell Dodson, who is soon joined by his girlfriend Deronda . If you’re easily put off by four-letter words or black folks calling each other nigga, this is probably not the book for you, though the language is absolutely true to the characters.
Dodson comes to IQ with a proposal for a high-profile gig that’s fallen into his lap: to figure out who’s behind a strange attack on a leading rap star. They watch a security video of the night when the rapper is alone in his mansion and a huge and superbly trained attack dog bursts through the doggie door. The people are threatening enough, but this dog . . .
Dodson is a bundle of barely controlled emotions, while Isaiah maintains his calm demeanor, whether he’s dealing with the star-personality rapper and his entourage, the bad guys, the neighborhood lady whose daughter’s wedding presents were stolen, the former auto-racing owner of TK’s Wrecking Yard who teaches him to really drive, or high-maintenance Dodson and Deronda.
I.Q. was nominated for Edgar, Barry, Anthony, and Strand Critics awards for a best first novel, won a Shamus Award, and was named by numerous publications (New York Times, Washington Post, Amazon, Suspense Magazine), as one of the best books of 2017.
Narrator Sullivan Jones is a California-based actor who brings a gift for humor and a lively understanding of the characters in this novel that makes his reading both perceptive and entertaining. An excellent choice for audio.
By Don Winslow, narrated by Dion Graham – For a while yet, perhaps every gritty, noir cop story set in urban America will be compared with the television series The Wire in terms of realism, character development, and sheer storytelling power. (Dion Graham, who narrates the audio version of Don Winslow’s much-anticipated new cop tale played a state’s attorney in that series.)
In both stories, the stultifying and morally questionable “powers that be” come up against a loose cannon Irish cop. In this case, Detective First Grade Denny Malone whose turf is Manhattan North, which includes Harlem and the Upper West Side. Malone, a chief detective on the Manhattan North Special Task Force—“da Force”—is a king. “Malone and the Task Force, they weren’t just any cops on the Job. You got thirty-eight thousand wearing blue, Denny Malone and his guys were the 1 percent of the 1 percent of the 1 percent—the smartest, the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, the best, the baddest.” So it’s no surprise that all manner of people want to take him down.
Winslow’s novel starts with a spectacular heroin bust Malone and his team make, and the consequences of that flow through the city, the justice system, and the lives and careers of all his characters. The essential question of the book is, whom do you trust? And Malone questions even himself.
A good cop novel is a thing of beauty. It shows every side of human nature; people struggling against poverty, the odds, themselves; the human comedy and life’s tragedies; bold acts of selfless heroism; and, often, a meticulous deconstruction of how high-minded public servants go bad. This novel has all that.
Expectations for The Force are high. Winslow’s 2015 exposé of drug trafficking, The Cartel, was excellent. His plots snare and bind his characters ever more tightly. The main characters—not only Malone, but his partners—his best friend Phil Russo and Bill Montague, a.k.a. Big Monty—are people you want to root for, so what if they’re a little dirty?
Winslow shows how corruption works, in detail, from the inside. That’s why it’s puzzling that he brings the key officials together for a scene near the end of the book in which Malone climbs up on a soapbox and recites their malefactions. The author tended toward preachiness in The Cartel too, but there it seemed warranted, since so many Americans are oblivious to the problems he exposed.
But readers of The Force likely know plenty about official corruption. For starters, Winslow has just spent more than four hundred pages showing it to them. Bleak as The Wire was, some cops tried to do the right things the right way; some characters redeemed themselves after grievous errors; some city institutions actually tried to make life better for citizens. In The Force, everyone is compromised. Some good can only be accomplished by doing a lot of bad. While you may believe widespread corruption exists, it takes a high level of cynicism to think it is the only social force at work. This book should have been better.
Dion Graham’s narration provides distinct voices, good humor, and an urgent delivery that carried me through to the end, which probably would have been a little harder to accomplish in the print version. The book itself was a disappointment. An author of Winslow’s stature and gifts could have done better.
Full title of this Joseph Cedar movie is Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (trailer). Norman the person is not very likeable. He stands too close when he talks to you, he’s relentless in searching for an angle, he’s quick with the half-to-full-lie. But in Richard Gere’s nuanced portrayal, initial discomfort turns to something more like sympathy. How he’s treated by the people who see him for what he is becomes simultaneously justified and painful.
The sympathy is possible because Norman isn’t angling to benefit himself, at least not financially. He only wants to feel important, that he matters in the world, yet he remains “always just a few capillaries removed from the beating heart of power,” says A.O. Scott in the New York Times. When he has a setback, and he has plenty of them, you see the gears turning until he hits a way to make the best of it.
When Norman “bumps into” an Israeli diplomat and does him a favor, right there you know the seeds of calamity are planted. I won’t say more about the plot, which is complicated in the delicious way that only someone like Norman could complicate it.
Israeli actor Lior Ashkenazi plays the diplomat; Michael Sheen plays Norman’s put-upon nephew; Steve Buscemi as the rabbi of a financially distressed congregation is “a marvel of wit and off-kilter humanity,” Scott says; and Manhattan plays itself, beautifully.
I have a friend who doesn’t like intense family dramas—too many bad associations. He’ll have to avoid The Dinner (trailer), written and directed by Oren Moverman. The movie is based on Dutch author Herman Koch’s excellent novel (2013), which I greatly admired (best book cover ever!). It’s told in the first person, and I wondered how the narrator’s snide and witty commentary would translate to the screen. That aspect of it worked differently in the book and survived less successfully in the film, with biting humor replaced by mental chaos.
Steve Coogan plays Paul Lohman, an erstwhile high school history teacher who loathes (actually, is desperately jealous of) his politically successful older brother Stan (Richard Gere), now embarking on a gubernatorial campaign. The brothers and their wives (Laura Linney and Rebecca Hall) are to have dinner at an exclusive restaurant, but Paul at least is not looking forward to it. Nor should he be. Stan has an agenda. He wants to discuss something truly awful—criminal, in fact—their teenage sons have done, which could explode all their lives.
Comparisons with Roman Polanski’s Carnage are perhaps inevitable, but the fireworks and the damage here are all in the family. The kids who caused the whole debacle are weakly portrayed, and the movie, unlike the novel, ends ambiguously. If your focus is on strong performances, this is a worthy effort. If you want a convincing story, read the book.
Inspired by the recent charming Jim Jarmusch film Paterson about a city bus driver/poet played by Adam Driver, we drove up there one recent Sunday to take in the sights and cultural offerings.
Paterson’s Great Falls, which drop some two million gallons of Passaic River water a day are about a tenth the height of our sentimental favorite Niagara, but nonetheless quite lovely. If all goes as planned, the area around the falls, now a National Historical Park, will become a full-fledged national park with expanding historical attractions over the next few years.
Alexander Hamilton founded the city. When shown the falls the first time, he was asked what he thought of them. He didn’t say, “lovely,” or “nice view,” he said “power.” (In recognition of the city’s founder, the score to the musical Hamilton plays in the visitor center.) And he was so right.
As in Niagara, a portion of the river’s flow is diverted to power a hydroelectric plant. The power generated by the falls brought Paterson to prominence as the first planned industrial settlement in the nation and enabled development of its textile, locomotive production, paper, machine tool, and other industries. Many of those brick factories still stand, prime loft-conversion properties. The National Park Service offers guided tours of the falls area, and our good-humored, lively guide (who coincidentally grew up in Paterson) was a gem.
Eventually I hope the Park Service offers tours of Hinchliffe Stadium, home of the Negro Baseball League’s New York Black Yankees, among other teams. The stadium has been preserved as part of the park.
photo (cropped): Ken Lund, creative commons license
The local museums were of considerably less interest, though we enjoyed a trip to Lambert Castle in the Garret Mountain Reservation, home of the Passaic County Historical Society. This little castle was built in the late 1800s by a prominent Paterson silk mill owner and once displayed the owner’s extensive art collection. The house itself was interesting, and has fantastic views of the New York City skyline, but we’d timed our visit to hear a concert by an extraordinary Ukranian pianist, Sophia Agranovich. Hearing her challenging selections played in the castle’s music room, while seated in the three-story atrium where the sound could swell, was a memorable experience.
Finally, we partook of Paterson’s well known multicultural scene, with dinner at a fantastic Middle Eastern restaurant (reportedly the best in the state), Al-Basha, 1076 Main Street. Order the Mazzah appetizer platter!
By Melissa Scrivner Love – Lola, the energetic protagonist of this Los Angeles-based crime thriller, is an eminently likeable young woman, flirting with death at the hands of rival drug operatives and flouting the legal establishment.
Lola lives with Garcia, the supposed leader of the Crenshaw Six, a four-person gang in their Huntington Park barrio. In the book’s opening scene, a backyard barbecue Garcia is hosting is visited by El Coleccionista, an emissary from Mexico’s Los Liones drug cartel. When you see how intent Lola is on monitoring the conversation between the two men, you understand she is much more than Garcia’s girlfriend. Lola battles throughout the book with the desire to be known and respected for her fearlessness and strategic acumen and the need to remain invisible for safety’s sake.
One of the gang members is Lola’s younger brother Hector, which poses particular challenges for her leadership, because, unfortunately, Hector keeps messing up. He fumbles a two million dollar cash-drug exchange that could lead to the gang members’ arrest or their deaths at the hands of Los Liones, their Los Angeles partners, or their mysterious and well-heeled competition. She must figure out a way that her gang can satisfy the competing—and apparently irreconcilable—demands of these multiple players, without becoming beholden to any of them.
The drug business is not a business just like any other. It has terrible downstream consequences, and you aren’t spared a glimpse of those either. Lola and Hector’s mother is a frequently relapsing addict, which has caused considerable grief in her children’s lives, a hole in Lola’s heart where maternal love should live.
Love does a persuasive job evoking the barrio flavor—its sights, sounds, and smells. This Latino neighborhood is down, way down, but not out. She expertly draws the desperation and determination of her complex characters. You become so immersed in their world that the degree of their alienation from mainstream society becomes clear only when Lola has to interact with people from outside
This debut crime thriller is exceptionally well-written, with nice literary touches. It offers strong and varied personalities, an intriguing and multi-layered setting, and believably dangerous situations. Finding such a talented new author is a delight!
By Paul Beatty, narrated by Prentice Onayemi – I write, knowing this review cannot do justice to this stunning satire—winner of both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award—which tackles a tricky subject: U.S. race relations and the essential absurdity of the human species. I can only urge you to read it for yourself as a journey to important places, dark and light.
Near the end of the story, Beatty’s narrator, Bonbon Me comments on a black comic who m.c.’s the Dum Dum Donuts open mic nights. He says the comedian “did more than tell jokes; he plucked out your subconscious and beat you silly with it, not until you were unrecognizable, but until you were recognizable.” Beatty has just spent 285 pages doing exactly that with his readers’ every racial attitude and carefully buried prejudice, whether toward blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, or whites.
Perhaps the only way for Americans to approach this difficult subject is with the tools Beatty wields so well: wicked perceptiveness and devastating humor. He slaps them down like a bricklayer troweling thick mortar, building his case brick by brick.
At first I thought his approach was to come at racism obliquely, like an artist using negative space, rendering everything around an object, not the object itself. Draw all the plants and trees, the shape of the dirt patch, the rocks, the pond, the lines of fencing, and every other feature surrounding an elephant and, when you’re done—voilà—out pops the pachyderm.
His descriptions of his southwest Los Angeles neighborhood, his administratively erased home town of Dickens, his father and his friends, with their intellectual floundering and frustrations as members of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, “the local think tank.” All seemed designed to produce that elephant.
We meet unforgettable characters, not least Bonbon himself: erudite, fearless, hell-bent on offending and sure to succeed. Bonbon’s father was a psychologist who subjected his son to bizarre experiments growing up, which the boy’s psyche was lucky to survive. His slave (yes) Hominy Jenkins, was a minor celebrity in his youth as a member of the Little Rascals cast; on-again girlfriend and city bus driver, Marpessa, tries to talk sense to him. And more. Much.
However, as the story proceeds, Beatty brings the hammer down. As a joke, Bonbon puts a temporary sign inside a bus that reads “Priority Seating for Whites.” When it’s inadvertently left in place, behavior on the bus becomes exemplary. People are treated with respect. Marpessa says, “Crip, Blood, or cholo, they press the Stop Request button one time and one fucking time only. You know where the kids go do their homework? Not home, not the library, but the bus. That’s how safe it is.” The sign is just the start of a Bonbon crusade. If there’s a word for “this is sooo crazy, it just might work,” Bonbon must have had that word in mind.
The book’s Prologue at the U.S. Supreme Court was a little slow for me, but when Beatty starts to roll, you are in for an amazing, hilarious, heart-breaking ride. Bonbon never breaks character. But at some point, all the comedy flips and you see it for what it is, the mask of tragedy.
It’s also a feast for people who love language. Beatty’s talent as a poet shows up in the rhythm of his prose; in multi-meaning slant rhymes, like the name of his lawyer, Hamilton Fiske; in direct rhymes, like the reference to his father’s farm, “forty acres and a fool”; and his imagery, “he was unpaid-electricity-bill dark.”
I’m sure reading this book in print would be transformative, with the advantage of being able to go back and reread and pause to reflect. Yet, Prentice Onayemi’s narration of the audio version was pitch-perfect. His Hominy addresses Bonbon as “Massa,” with just the right combination of obsequiousness and insolence; Foy Cheshire and the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals bloviate convincingly; Marpessa keeps her wits about her. You see each of them in front of you, just like you cannot avoid seeing the elephant in the middle of our collective living room.
Paul Beatty is coming to Princeton on February 8, 2017, and will appear at the Berlind Theater, 4:30 p.m., sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts. Open to the public. Free.
By RG Belsky — This is the third crime mystery in the series featuring New York Daily News reporter Gil Malloy, dogged practitioner of a fading profession. Written in the first person, it holds you close to the genial Malloy and his ups and downs—reportorial, romantic, and bureaucratic.
On the up side, Gil Malloy has fallen into what may be the scoop of the year: a beautiful blonde serial killer is targeting married men cheating on their wives. Malloy’s print editor Marilyn Staley and his internet/social media editor Stacy Albright want to milk the sexy story for all it’s worth. Keeping these two antagonists happy could be a second career. Another plus, Malloy’s adored ex-wife Susan shows promising signs that all is not well with hubby #2. Is there a chance? Capstone to his good luck, Malloy has a juicy job offer from the man likely to be New York’s next mayor.
On the down side, Malloy discovers the scoop through Victoria Issacs, who tells him her husband’s gone missing. In a former life, Issacs was the infamous prostitute Houston. When Malloy wrote a Pulitzer-nominated feature article about her several years back, neglecting to disclose his quotes were all second-hand and he’d never actually met the elusive Houston, criticism of him and the paper was withering. He nearly lost his job, and the stress cost him his marriage. Saying too much about Issacs now will reveal that Malloy actually knows her real identity and, probably worse, has concealed it from his editors.
But Houston’s secret isn’t keepable when a hotel maid finds Walter Issacs dead. The knockout blonde who went up to the room with him has disappeared. As the murders keep coming, the chase is on: NYPD after the killer, and Malloy after the story.
Malloy is a regular-guy kind of narrator with a wisecracking exterior that makes for some lively banter in the newsroom and in his efforts to get back between the sheets with Susan. His colleagues keep telling him his constant jokes can wear thin. He knows that, but can’t seem to stop himself. It is, in fact, his armor.
Frustratingly, Staley, Albright, and NYPD detective Wohlers repeatedly jump to conclusions about the case, based on their assumptions and a remarkable lack of definitive evidence. The narrative glosses over various routine questions that arise in murder investigations. How is it possible there was no forensic evidence at any of these violent crime scenes? No long blonde hair, for instance? How did a woman overpower these much larger, fit men? Drugs are an obvious possibility, but there’s no mention of toxicology tests of the victims until Chapter 49. Although this book is not a police procedural, Malloy’s proximity to the investigation and his evident skills as a reporter suggest he should be asking questions exactly like these.
Despite these quibbles, it’s fun to spend time with Gil Malloy on another wild ride. Author Belsky is an experienced New York journalist who perceptively describes the woes and conflicts in today’s news business and conjures a realistic, energetic New York City, too.
Recent vacations gave me the chance to delve into my scary pile of “to-read” books, where I discovered these gems. I hope you’ll enjoy them too.
*****The Poison Artist
By Jonathan Moore – About this psychological thriller Stephen King said, “I haven’t read anything so terrifying since Red Dragon.” Based in San Francisco, it’s the story of a UCSF professor of toxicology asked to help look for the presence of poisons in a set of torture-murder victims. Something very grim haunts the scientist’s past, his wife has left him, and he becomes obsessed with a beautiful, absinthe-drinking woman named Emmeline, whom he meets in an exclusive late-night bar. As the number of victims increases and he comes to know Emmeline better, he suspects she may be linked to the murders, but could he give her up? Is he the next victim? Smartly written and thoroughly immersive.
****Forgiving Mariela Camacho
By A.J. Sidransky – NYPD detectives Pete Gonzalvez and Tolya Kurchenko discover the body of a young woman inside what’s meant to look like an elaborate suicide device, but they see what really happened: murder. And Gonzalvez knows the victim, a Dominican beauty named Mariela Camacho whom he once loved. Maybe still does. As this police procedural unwinds, you learn more about Gonzalvez’s early life in the Dominican Republic, and the code the people he grew up with lived by. Kurchenko also has reasons to look into his past and his family’s enemies in Russia. Past and present move toward a deadly collision in this fast-moving ride through the city streets. It’s also a powerful testament to friendship. The detectives’ banter—spiced with Dominican Spanish—is entertaining and genuine. The book won the 2016 David Award at the annual Deadly Ink conference.
****The Good Cop
By Brad Parks – Reporter Carter Ross is based in Newark, New Jersey, quietly rebelling against the commodification of the news for internet and social media tastes. This is the fourth book featuring Ross and his wicked sense of humor. He needs it, because his work takes him to some pretty dark places. Ross is looking into the suicide death of Newark policeman Darius Kipps and before long decides the death wasn’t a suicide at all. Clues are hard to come by, though, and he can recognize stonewalling when he encounters it. The paper accepts the official story, so he’s pretty much on his own, depending for help on a lively and engaging set of secondary characters. Absinthe is drunk (apparently I missed a trend here). You’re reminded of the importance of deep reporting and a commitment to uncovering the truth somehow lost in the era of “non-stop news” soundbites.