‘The Given Day’ by Dennis Lehane exceeds ‘Live By Night’

The sequel to The Given Day by Dennis Lehane, Live By Night is a prohibition era gangster novel aiming to establish an ethos for the gangster lifestyle first in Boston Massachusetts, second in Tampa Florida, and finally in Cuba and into the northern Gulf of Mexico cities Miami through New Orleans.

Live By Night 2 (Dennis Lehane)

A adequate job of tension was central to the story, and for that I was grateful. This quality of the book frankly saved the book for me, as the inner conflict . The characters lacked some depth, in my humble opinion, and the story almost felt like an attempt to offer us Joe Coughlin as modeled on the character Michael Corleone from Mario Puzo‘s The Godfather. Live By Night is no The Godfather, and Lehane does not compare well with Puzo in this effort.

It is not necessary to read The Given Day to read Live By Night, as the two books share at least three characters of significant import. The focus of the two books are greatly different; the protagonists for these two books are largely different. In fact, I would say that the idea of carrying characters over from one book to the other feels more an accommodation to a publisher than a deliberate desire from the author.

Live By Night 3(From the author of Shutter Island and The Given Day)

In comparing the two books, I liked the first more than I did the second. I felt more invested in the characters of The Given Day. The resolution to the characters that carried over between these two books was much better in the first book, too.

Overall about 3.25-stars, rounded to 3.00.

Matt – Sunday, July 23, 2017

To shrug would be wrong with Andrew Solomon’s ‘Noonday Demon’

To shrug would be wrong. Andrew Solomon‘s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression deserves so much more. Noonday Demon brings so much advocacy, scholarship, and personal truth to its tale that I cannot help but recommend this highly for those with an open mind and feelings.

Noonday Demon examines depression, mental illness, and anxiety. He explores a number of his own experiences with the disease, as well as that of his mother. The non-fiction narrative looks into other cases upon which Andrew Solomon is familiar and conversant. This is the first book that I’ve read that treats this subject both firsthand and with some academic rigor (at least from my reckoning).

There were several areas that stuck with me as noteworthy and memorable. I will quote a few passages that were forceful and compelling.

Noonday Demon 2(Andrew Solomon)

Solomon quotes George Brown at the University of London, a founder of Life Events Research, on the nature of depression and anxiety:

“Our view is that most depression is anti-social in origin. There is a disease entity as well but most people are able to produce major depression given a particular set of circumstances. Level of vulnerability varies, of course, but I think at least two-thirds of the population has a sufficient level of vulnerability. According to the exhaustive research he’s done over 25 years, severely threatening life events are responsible for triggering initial depression…Depression is a response to past loss and anxiety is a response to future loss.

Ellen Frank from the University of Pittsburgh gets into the potential causes of depression, in a sense almost blaming those who suffer for their illness:

“I do not believe that if the causes of your problem were psycho-social that they would require a psycho-social treatment nor that if the causes were biological they would require a biological treatment.”

Solomon pulls no punches in his unapologetic disagreement for this as well as for the weak evidence for claiming that these suggestions indicate a path for returning those suffering back to health.

“It’s fashionable for psychiatrists to tell you first the cause of your depression…and second, as if there a logical link to cure; but this is poppycock.”

Solomon takes on the notion of self-medicating as a means of trading the pain you do not understand for one that you do. Emotionally, I find it hard to judge the decision-making, even though I hope for better.

“Pains are not destiny. If you take drugs, you do it deliberately. You know when you’re doing it. It involves volition. And yet, do we have choice? If one knows that there is ready relief for immediate pain, what does it mean to deny oneself?
     Part of what is so horrendous about depression and particularly about anxiety and panic is that it does not involve volition. Feelings happen to you for absolutely no reason at all.
     One writer has said that substance abuse is the substitution of comfortable and comprehensible pain for uncomfortable and incomprehensible pain, eliminating uncontrollable suffering which the user does not understand in favor of a drug-induced dysphoria which the user does understand.
     In Nepal, when an elephant has a splinter or spike in its foot his drivers put chili in one of his eyes and the elephant becomes so preoccupied with the pain of the chili that he stops paying attention to the pain in his foot and people can remove the spike without being trampled to death. And in a fairly short time the chili washes out of his eye.
     For many depressives, alcohol or cocaine or heroin is the chili, the intolerable thing the horror of which distracts from the more intolerable depression.”

After describing four types of suicide, and then staking out approval for one particular type, Solomon brings the case home by paraphrasing Sigmund Freud:

“Freud himself said that we have no adequate means of approaching the problem of suicide. One must appreciate his deference to this subject. If psychoanalysis is the impossible profession, suicide is the impossible subject.”

The bringing together of a compelling narrative is Solomon bringing his argument together for recognizing that there is a politics of mental health. The cases strikes me, as a layperson, as strong. While this argument aims at speaking to the people of the United States, the case for helping a demographic in need is emotionally compelling.

“The question of what constitutes mental illness and who should be treated rides very much on the back of public perceptions about sanity. There is such a thing as sanity and there is such a thing as madness and the difference is both categorical and dimensional, of kind and degree. Ultimately there is a politics of what one asks of ones own brain and of the brains of others. The problem is not so much the politics of depression as our failure to recognize that there is a politics of depression.
     A particularly disturbing recent op-ed article [at the time of writing] in The New York Times written by a psychiatrist at a conservative think tank in Washington in response to the new Surgeon General’s report on mental health proposed that helping the mildly ill would deprive the seriously ill as though mental health care were a finite mineral resource. She stated categorically that it was not possible to get unsupervised people to take their medications and proposed that those mentally ill who end up in prison probably need to be there.
     At the same time she proposed that the 20 percent of the U.S. citizenry who carry the burden of some kind of mental illness in many instances do not need therapy and therefore should not get it. The key word here is need because the question of need turns on quality of life rather than existence of life.
     It is true that many people can stay alive with crippling depression, but they can also stay alive, for example, with no teeth. That one could manage okay on yogurt and bananas for the rest of ones life is not a reason to leave modern people toothless. A person could also live with a club foot but these days it is not unusual to take measures to reconstruct one.
     The argument in effect comes down to the same one that is heard over and over again from outside the world of mental illness, which is that the only people who must be treated are those that pose an immediate expense or threat to others.”

Should there be more help? Is there no help because people choose to not understand? This is the political animal that Solomon says exists. To shrug at this would be wrong. My call to you is one of awareness; compassion; pressure applied smartly and in astute ways.

Noonday Demon 3(Quotation from Noonday Demon)

I too, am saying that I rate this book highly. I give Noonday Demon 4.5-stars out of 5 stars.

Matt – Friday, July 14, 2017

Jon Krakauer documents acquaintance rape enablement in the book ‘Missoula’

Jon Krakauer documents a dominant and judicial culture that enables acquaintance rape in the book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.  As indicated in the preface summary for Missoula on Goodreads, “Krakauer documents the experiences of five victims…These stories cut through abstract ideological debate about acquaintance rape to demonstrate that it does not happen because women are sending mixed signals or seeking attention. They are victims of a terrible crime, deserving of fairness from our justice system.”

Missoula 2 (Jon Krakauer)

My perspective as a male reading this book is that the book is fairly researched, even handed to those suffering at the hands of rapists while also fair in pointing out culpability of different systems of investigating and judging guilt, innocence, and the correct courses of action for those accused of rape in a college setting. Many in the Missoula County Attorneys Office, the University of Montana, and the Missoula city police department strike me as frighteningly unaware and deliberately obsessed with taking a severely unsympathetic to the legitimate sensitivities of the victims of sexual contact without consent.

Emily Bazelon in her April 28, 2015 review of Missoula for The New York Times, under title Jon Krakauer’s ‘Missoula,’ About Rape in a College Town, takes a less flattering view. Quoting from her review:

“Instead of delving deeply into questions of fairness as universities try to fulfill a recent government mandate to conduct their own investigations and hearings — apart from the police and the courts — Krakauer settles for bromides. University procedures should “swiftly identify student offenders and prevent them from reoffending, while simultaneously safeguarding the rights of the accused,” he writes, asserting that this “will be difficult, but it’s not rocket science.””

The book is intense, graphic, and at times quite emotional for both of those reasons. Imagery had to be all those things to truly remove address much of what is taboo or mysterious for people when it comes to crimes against intimacy, trust, and gender. Part of what cannot wring true for ladies reading this assessment, that of a male, is that I have many of the same blind spots about ladies that female reviewers of the book, including Emily Bazelon, readily know and identify. Sharing wisdom taken from Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Lewis Herman strikes me as an excellent educational means to illuminate some of that blindness with knowledge.

Missoula 3 (Judith Lewis Herman about enabling rape)

For those familiar with Krakauer‘s work, I see Missoula as aligning more closely in intimacy and narrative tone to Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith or Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman than Into the Wild.

Overall, the presentation was clearly and forthrightly told. The book is lucid throughout, though perhaps less synthesized from a first person narrative accounting of many ladies. My rating for the book is 4-stars out of 5 stars.

Matt – Tuesday, July 4, 2017

George Stephanopoulos apologizes to his ideals in All Too Human in recapping service to U.S. President Bill Clinton

All Too Human by George Stephanopoulos serves as a young yet powerful political consultant’s experience inside the presidential administration of former United States President Bill Clinton. The presentation is largely early presidential career biography with firsthand storytelling for Stephanopoulos in his early 30’s, from transition to the 1992 campaign for president through much of Clinton‘s first of two terms as United States President in 1996. This book gives insight into much of Stephanopoulos‘ role within the campaign, the first term administration, and offers the political junkie a lens through which to see a layperson’s view into the day-to-day of becoming, then serving, inside a presidential administration.

All Too Human 2 (George Stepanopoulos)

George Stephanopoulos spends much of All Too Human apologizing for his actions in serving idealism and ambition as a political aide to the most powerful person in the world. He ends up confessing to an endless compromise of pragmatic decisions that wound up undercutting the good fight for an agenda that he, Stephanopolous wanted for the administration of 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton.

All Too Human 3 (Former First Lady and President Hillary and Bill Clinton)

Much of my motivation for reading the book, which I started last fall when I thought that Clinton would wind up in the White House again as First Gentleman, was to reacquaint myself with the dynamic of both Bill Clinton and former U.S. Senator and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Getting to know them more, through the eyes of somebody near the inside for the better part of five years, seemed like a way to gain insight.

Truth be told, I struggled through much of the second part of the book because I lived so much of the Bill Clinton presidential narrative the first time around. The nature of the advice and council that Stephanopoulos offered never really is addressed in the book, though largely I think his role was to be a voice in the room, understand the moods of the president and his wife while serving as a buffer for them, and to sometimes help as speechwriter.

All Too Human 4 (Bob Woodward)

It was interesting to see how Stephanopoulos was played a bit, within the evaluation of the Clintons and others, for bad council that Stephanopoulos had given in offering background for Bob Woodward‘s book The Agenda. It was interesting to see how Stephanopoulos butted heads with Dick Morris, who championed much of the re-election campaign for Bill Clinton‘s second presidential term by moving the president from many Democratic Party positions in America towards, at the time, more Republican Party positions.

All Too Human 5 (Dick Morris)

I sense from Stephanopoulos own account that he never came to grips with accepting, if even understanding, much of why the Clintons needed Morris for getting a second term. I think this was evidence that fed the narrative feeling of the tale; the tale of of George Stephanopoulos losing some degree of influence and idealism and suffering over the loss of the moral platform that he felt he shared with former president Bill Clinton.

Overall, the presentation was clearly and forthrightly told. While difficult to stay with at times, I found myself entertained. My rating for the book is 3-stars out of 5 stars.

Matt – Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Room of One’s Own offers context

A Room of One’s Own by literary thinker Virginia Woolf serves as college lectures converted into an extended essay. The presentation style precedes and could have informed the recently reviewed The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, which came more than 30-years later and spoke to a different yet potentially overlapping audience. Both aimed to discuss iniquities within their chosen subject matter; both took the form of an extended argument addressed to an audience on rational and compelling grounds.

A Room of One's Own 2(Virginia Woolf)

For the sake of offering a review of Virginia Woolf‘s work, I will end the argument of similar structure here. Woolf structures A Room of One’s Own with a narrative style that feels fictional, by which I mean the intimacy of fiction.

The arguments made are factual and personal, thus serving as persuasion with rhetorical insight based on the branches of literacy chosen; in turn, Woolf looks into lifestyle concepts, family structure, the ability to have one’s own profession and money, the freedoms of supported lifestyle and supported intellectual growth. The hypothetical case of Judith, a would be sister of William Shakespeare, hits its mark. Comparing opportunities of learning, life experience, and the freedom to be focused on the craft of their work shone brightly.

A Room of One's Own 3(A Room of One’s Own)

The subject matter looks logically into the lack of opportunity to get into the sciences, the humanities, poetry and novel and plays. Choosing to review the careers of lady writers including George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Charlotte and Emily Brontë, and Jane Austen were instructive as far as their working conditions, and how the working conditions coupled with a lack of recorded lady writers before them affected their craft is forceful. Articulating how feeling the frustration of the limitations “fenced in” with anger some of these writers, and not others, hit another mark for me.
I cannot adequately step into the female persona and say that the opinions of Virginia Woolf 100% resonate with me. There is truth in the analysis and feeling of the case made, whatever you think of the structure chosen. I cannot refute the main thesis of the narrative of A Room of One’s Own, which is to say that women deserve opportunity and the life experiences to go get their own just merits. My rating of this book is 4-stars out of 5.

Matt – Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Kite Runner tells a betrayal tale heavy in family and cultural illuminating

The Kite Runner by Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini tells the fictional tale of two unknowing half-brothers growing up in Afghanistan. Born of the same father yet both growing up motherless, Hosseini gives us one brother betraying the other to the brutal attack of a childhood bully. The father proves guilty of the crime of “stealing the truth ” of the identity of the two brothers, owing to the dictates of a stringently ancestral legacy likely still alive today. The tale leads us to a sticky sense of redemption for these Afghan characters experienced against a background taken through the turn to the twenty-first century.

The story at first strikes me as an education in Afghan culture for an American audience, teaching us about a male dominated culture steeped in armed conflict dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. The modern history dates back for the country called Afghanistan today was relatively peaceful through the early 1970s, which is when the children characters begin experiencing childhood together in the era before heavy armed conflict between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union of that era.

The Kite Runner 2(Khaled Hosseini)

One large theme of this book stakes the reader to the feeling of the caste society of rich and poor in Afghanistan. We see well-to-do Pashtun born Amir, receiving the luxury of education, luxury, servants, and the craving of affection from his father, Baba. We also see Amir bonding with Hassan, a Hazara, spending his day after servanthood “kite fighting” in the hitherto peaceful city of Kabul. The two are close, though one treats the other as a superior given the Afghan culture that they were gifted.

Amir and Hassan suffer a serious childhood split, following a tournament kite fight in which Amir had finally won the affection of Baba. The split came when  Hassan, in retrieving the kite, encountered the childhood bully Assef. Assef seriously assaults Amir in a grotesquely graphic way, wherein Amir should have intervened yet did not. Hassan shares this story with his servant guardian, and the two (Hassan and the guardian) leave the service of Baba and Amir as a consequence. Hassan would never see Amir or Baba again, and it isn’t until after Baba dies in America with Hassan that we learn Hassan’s true lineage.

Hassan had grown up the poor servant of an Afghan culture who could not receive basic education or healthcare. As part of that reality, Hassan grew up with a cleft lip until near the time of his split with Amir. It was shortly before the kite fight beating that Baba had paid to have Hassan’s lip repaired “as a birthday present.”

More than a decade after Baba’s death in America, after Amir had taken Soraya as his wife with the blessing of Soraya’s family as well as Baba, Hassan’s guardian had made contact with Amir with regards to a mission of redemption. Through that mission, Amir goes back to Afghanistan and among several things learns that Hassan has died. We see the rise of the Taliban, the deterioration of Afghanistan from the country experienced in Amir’s childhood, and the discovery of Sohrab, Hassan’s son, in an orphanage. The Taliban had killed Hassan and his wife.

The Kite Runner 3 (Symbolism)

Assef, the childhood bully that inserted himself between Hassan and Amir, was now a member of the Taliban. Assef stood between Amir and his access to Hassan, as in Assef had inflicted the same treatment on Hassan’s child, as an adult, that he had inflicted upon Hassan as a child. The redemption story for The Kite Runner involved Assef beating Amir within an inch of his life, thus assuaging Amir of guilt over Hassan. Amir escaped Assef with Sohrab, adopts Sohrab with Soraya, and then briefly comments on an Afghanistan and United States following the events of 9/11.

I rate this book highly for the cultural education, the familial themes, the ability to feel things with the characters, and the overall authenticity with which the full package of this was delivered. My sense is that this book would make Hosseini unpopular in certain Afghan circles, so it is in recognition for speaking a hard perspective that I also recognize this book. My rating of this book is 4-stars our of 5.

Matt – Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Fire Next Time offers a personal and intimate account of racial injustice

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin offers a strikingly personal and intimate account of James Baldwin‘s early life in Harlem while examining the consequences of racial injustice. Rooted in an intellectualism that is simultaneously and unapologetically provocative by design and delivery, The Fire Next Time this 106-page personal search for meaning wedded with civil rights call for action for 1963 America. These two essays (or letters?) were targeted to a white and black American audience, 100-years after the Emancipation Proclamation, attacking the terrible legacy of racism and calling for legitimate cultural and social action in American civil rights.

I am a male in my forties, married without kids, “parent” to a well-mannered dog. In reading Mr. Baldwin, there are parts of the struggle that I intellectually recognize as difficult. I can look back to inequities in the outcomes and treatment for people of color in the day and see wrong. I see efforts to legislate change as well meaning movements towards justice aimed at the legacy of institutional wrong. I see the struggle there is with race in elements of society in 2017, and the honest difficulty people have in how society thinks about racial violence, policing, access to fair treatment in professional opportunities, and more. My early experiences with race are not the same as James Baldwin‘s in Much of the account is deeply personal, getting into the daily frustrations. Baldwin helps you feel the intimately devastating realities of needing to have a gimmick to struggle with being black and poor in Harlem. He provides the context of needing a “gimmick” to overcome the carnal or religious seductions of this time and place; he sees education as a path that led to nothing for too many. Regarding education, Baldwin sees that merit in educational accomplishment wasn’t rewarded with professional opportunity.

The Fire Next Time 2 (James Baldwin)

The first letter in The Fire Next Time was “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” This reflected Baldwin‘s evaluation on the racism in America in the 1960’s, along with guidance to his nephew for behaving as a catalyst for changing the fortunes of an aggrieved black population. Baldwin contends, as this excerpt from eNotes shares, that “White America holds fast to ideals that are not actually practiced. This failure to practice its ideals is proven in its steadfast denial of the value of black lives. Baldwin tells his nephew that American society has narrowly circumscribed his world so that his dreams will never move beyond the street corner of the Harlem ghetto.”

The second, longer essay for The Fire Next Time is “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind.” In this essay, Baldwin first discusses the how growing up in the Harlem ghetto lead him to becoming involved in the church, almost competing with his father who simultaneously preached at the church. Later, Baldwin reflects on the black nationalism as occasioned in meeting with Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam. In the the third movement here, Baldwin offers solutions to the racial conflict confronting America in 1963.

Much of the account is deeply personal, getting into the daily frustrations. Baldwin helps you feel the intimately devastating realities of needing to have a gimmick to struggle with being black and poor in Harlem. He provides the context of needing a “gimmick” to overcome the carnal or religious seductions of this time and place; he sees education as a path that led to nothing for too many. Regarding education, Baldwin sees that merit in educational accomplishment wasn’t rewarded with professional opportunity.

The Fire Next Time 3(Quote from The Fire Next Time)

The broader message, that is solution, that James Baldwin offers in The Fire Next Time was that both white America and black America broaden its conceptions of reality in order to transcend their experience, beliefs, and fears with relation to their own stereotypes of themselves and others. The effort to reach across the gulf of difference in a real sense, not simply through legislation but in actual practice, is where meaningful change would and could be realized for the benefit of an aggrieved and aggrieving population.

Overall, I give the book 3.5-stars out of 5.

Matt – Monday, May 29, 2017