Saturday, December 15, 2012

Book Reviews-The Racketeer, Grimm Reapings, The Don is Dead, Detroit: Then and Now, When I left home: my story

The Racketeer
by John Grisham
It's been a while since I read a John Grisham book. There were mixed reviews on The Racketeer but I'm usually willing to give a familiar writer a chance. I liked this book. It set a pretty fast pace but it wasn't difficult reading. Like many of Grisham's previous works the protagonist is a lawyer.

In The Racketeer the hero is a black man. This is not critical to the story. People are people. IMO, Grisham gets a few very minor things wrong, like the protagonist calling/referring to his father by his first name. I've never known any black person who did that, even as an adult. Possible? Sure. Just not very likely in my neck of the woods. No sir.

Anyway, the hero, Malcolm Bannister, narrates most of the story. There are occasional switches back to third person so that the reader can learn things Bannister doesn't know yet or see events take place in Bannister's absence. Bannister is a federal convict with about five years left on his sentence. Previously he was an up and coming lawyer at a small black owned law firm. Bannister briefly did some arms length work for a shady lobbyist and was, according to him, wrongfully convicted of money laundering. Insisting on his innocence, he refused to plead to a lesser charge and was as surprised as anyone when he was convicted, given a sentence that exceeded guidelines and ultimately sent to federal prison. Bannister's wife has divorced him and remarried. His son is learning to call another man father. His own strict father visits him infrequently and seems to believe that Malcolm must be guilty because otherwise he wouldn't be in prison. He is a source of shame to his previous partners who hired him when racist white law firms threw his resumes in the trash. 

Though the ex-military Bannister is still buff enough to have avoided any unpleasant physical incidents with other inmates during brief stints in higher security jails or prisons, the fiercely intelligent man must show deference and submissiveness to dim bigoted white prison guards and wardens. This grates on Bannister. But he still has one card left to play.

When a right-wing federal judge is murdered, Bannister is confident that he knows who did it and why. And for the reward money, release from prison, wiping of his record and entry into the Witness Protection Program, Bannister will tell the authorities everything that they need to know.
The FBI is desperate to make a deal to solve the case. The federal prosecutors are confident that they know the law better than any convicted former attorney and see no issue with making a deal. Of course getting out of prison is only the first part of Bannister's plan. He has plans within plans and nothing but a cold contempt for the system that ruined his life. Although Bannister maintains his innocence the book plays with this for a while. You may come to your own conclusions about this before the story gives the definitive answer. That is IF the story gives the definitive answer. I'm not telling. Bannister behaves like an innocent man..most of the time.

Grisham obviously knows a lot about the law. That's evident in the casual references to all sorts of laws and precedents (many real, some fictional) in the story. He also doesn't like bullies, the insane proliferation of federal crimes and the awesome ability of federal prosecutors to convert just about any activity they don't like into a crime, given time and motivation. That comes across loud and clear in the book. Grisham has a lot of criticism of prosecutors and the legal system as it actually works in practice, not in theory. One character muses it's surprising that more federal judges aren't murdered. You don't have to be a legal eagle to appreciate this story.

I'm not sure we get quite enough information early on to really root for Bannister. Most of the bureaucrats and prosecutors Bannister deals with are unpleasant people who don't care about his innocence or guilt as long as they get a promotion and/or their department budget increases next year. There are a lot of twists so if you like the idea of the author (and protagonist) showing you that he's smarter than you, or at least was smart enough to fool you a few times, you may like this story. As mentioned, it can be read very quickly. This is something which could and should very easily be made into a movie starring Idris Elba or Michael Ealy.



Grimm Reapings
by R. Patrick Gates
Grimm Reapings is the sequel to the book Grimm Memorials. It's been years since I read Grimm Memorials but Grimm Reapings, which takes place thirteen years after the first book's events, provides just enough back story to jog a reader's memory if they've read the first book or satisfy their curiosity if they haven't.

In the first book, we learned that there really are wicked things that go bump in the night. Eleanor Grimm was a real life witch. And I don't mean "witch" as an euphemism for a gender slur or "witch" as some new age feminist who wears a lot of patchouli, avoids deodorant and has full moon consciousness raising sessions to commune with the Goddess. No, Eleanor Grimm was the real deal. She was straight out of Grimm Fairy tales. She was an old ugly hag who via very real magical and psychic powers and acts of great evil, had discovered what she believed to be the secret to immortality. This involved sacrifices of innocent children and various sexual perversions. At the height of this carnage she intended to place her soul in the unborn child of one Diane Nailer. Eleanor Grimm would have thus been able to live again in another body. She intended to sacrifice Diane Nailer's other children, Jen and Jackie. However, six year old Jackie proved to have powerful resistance to Grimm's mind control. In a scene deliberately lifted from Hansel and Gretel, with the unknowing assistance of ten year old Jen, Jackie was able to push Eleanor Grimm into her own oven and burn her alive.


Thirteen years have passed. Jackie Nailer is a somewhat disturbed college student. His mother tries to believe that Eleanor Grimm was a child molesting killer and tries not to listen to what her subconscious tells her. Jen has just married and doesn't remember anything of the events (she was under Grimm's domination). Jen has even gone so far as to have moved into Grimm's mortuary. She and her husband are turning it into what they hope will be a profitable bed-and-breakfast.


Jackie alone remembers everything and knows that the supernatural is real. Barbara Walters does a special retrospective on Eleanor Grimm and her occult claims and "serial killings". Walters interviews Diane and her two older children. Jen and Diane are mildly discomfited. Jackie is more upset initially but is rather mollified when his Goth girlfriend, Chalice, is turned on by Jackie's "bad boy" past and expresses this to Jackie in the usual way.

But Jackie and Jen's half brother, thirteen year old Stevie Nailer, is intrigued by the television special. He was the unborn baby that Eleanor Grimm tried to possess. Eleanor Grimm left all of her considerable wealth to him. Stevie has strange memories. He has effeminate ways and a girlish voice, something which confuses, irritates and embarrasses him greatly. Stevie resents that no one will tell him what happened to his father or what Eleanor Grimm intended to do. Stevie doesn't know it but when he was younger Jackie kept a sharp eye on him, looking for evidence of Eleanor Grimm's possession. Well Jackie didn't look deep enough because there is something of Eleanor Grimm still floating around. It's just awakened in Stevie and will soon control him. Eleanor Grimm has horrifying new plans for all of the Nailers, but ESPECIALLY for the young man she still calls Little Jackie, the only person who was immune to her power. There are rituals to perform, folks to kill, people to manipulate and possibly a new unborn child to possess as Jen is pregnant. Obviously Jackie becomes aware that all is not right with little brother and for that matter other people around him.

This book had a few more gross out scenes than I remember the previous book having but like I said it's been YEARS since I read the first book. There is a goodly amount of (often perverse) sex described within. YMMV. There are no post-modernist or relativist musings here. Even when we (rarely) see things from Grimm's viewpoint she is evil with a capital E. I can't overestimate the sheer malice of Eleanor Grimm.



The Don Is Dead
by Nick Quarry (Marvin Albert)
A truism of life is that anything that is done successfully invites other people to copy it. The Don is Dead was a dime store novel (original edition cost $.75) that was rushed out by Fawcett Publishing after the unlikely success they enjoyed with Mario Puzo's The Godfather. It is nowhere near as bloated as The Godfather. I don't know if you ever read that book but it was chock full of boring sideplots about feminine medical problems, Hollywood's mistreatment of writers, abortionists with hearts of gold and other dross which was fortunately dropped from the film adaptation.
The Don is Dead doesn't have all of that extraneous clutter so it doesn't hit The Godfather's lows but of course Marvin Albert (Quarry was a pen name) was not Mario Puzo so it also lacked The Godfather's high points. The characters aren't as well defined as those in Puzo's work so you don't care as much when they start to run into trouble. Albert doesn't depict any of the characters as relative good guys. There are some people you may dislike more than others but that will be about the extent of your involvement.
That said it's not a bad book. It's short, just 182 pages and moves VERY quickly. The stage is drawn and things start to happen almost immediately.  It reminded me of Mickey Spillane's work in some places.

In an unnamed Eastern city ruled by three Mafia kingpins and friends, the oldest and most powerful Mafia boss, Don Paolo Regalbuto, dies of a heart attack. The Mafia Commission must decide who will inherit Regalbuto's criminal kingdom or failing that split it between the other two organizations. Regalbuto's son Frank claims the right to rule but everyone else agrees that Frank is too hotheaded, not leadership material and far too young. The second Mafia kingpin Jimmy Bruno is in prison but has left his organization under the control of an ambitious man known as The Accountant. No one trusts or likes The Accountant and they are wise not to do so. The Accountant and his trampy power hungry wife Marie have their own plans about what comes next. Regalbuto's top enforcers, the violent Fargo Brothers (based on The Gallo Brothers) who are both mean and liberal minded in business matters (they use blacks and hispanics in their crew) decide they want to go independent, despite their friendship with Frank. Angelo DiMorra is the city's third and final Mafia boss. He wants to honor his friend's memory, avoid bloodshed and settle everything peacefully. But DiMorra didn't become boss by drinking tea and writing poetry either. These people search for a settlement that will satisfy everyone's interests. They briefly find one. But it wouldn't be a story if war didn't break out, sooner than everyone expected and over a pretext no one saw coming. This isn't great writing but it's entertaining genre prose. The film version starred a few of the same people who had been in The Godfather. You never know what you can find in dusty musty used bookstores.



Detroit Then and Now
by Cherri Y. Gay
I like old things: antique music, vintage cars and archaic buildings. It seems like that there was a craftsmanship and panache in older creations that simply isn't found in our more hurried creations of today. I'm old school to the bone. That said, though like the song says, everything must change and nothing stays the same. No one gets to live in the past. The moving finger writes and having writ moves on...

This book is a photographic essay which contains a number of side by side pictures comparing Detroit landmarks from when they were first created, or at least relatively new and to how they look today, or more accurately how they looked when this book was published in 2001. Some of these buildings or areas no longer exist or have been so greatly altered as to be unrecognizable to anyone who saw them back in the day.There's a lot of hidden beauty in Detroit and I'm sure that's true of whatever city you happen to call home, as well.


The Michigan Theater

Fort Street Presbyterian Church

Wayne County Building
So in that aspect this book is about as close to time travel as you can get unless you happen to have a flux capacitor and a 81' DeLorean laying around. Detroit has a really fascinating mix of neo-gothic and neo-baroque architecture sprinkled with perhaps the Midwest's largest collection of Art Deco architecture. Okay maybe not the largest. But it's certainly among the nicest. This book was another gem I purchased when Border's Bookstore went out of business. I just now got around to reading it. I have literally hundreds of books I haven't read yet so I am trying to pick up the pace. This book isn't "ruin porn". Some of the places shown have definitely improved over the years. This shows the city at its best in modern times and in times long gone. Each photograph has some short blurbs explaining what you're looking at, what purpose it served in the past and how it's changed, or not, for modern times. The author is a librarian, photo archivist and treasurer of the Michigan Photographic Historical Society.


When I left home: My Story
by Buddy Guy
My brother gave me this book, for which I am quite thankful. George "Buddy" Guy was born in 1936 Lousiana. He was among the last of his generation of black American musicians to see blues as a commercially and personally viable musical option. Guy was among the final blues guitarists to have a truly original sound. He was only a few years older than famous rock musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and only a few years younger than rock-and-roll originators or avant-garde bluesmen like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and BB King. So he's the bridge between a lot of different musical formats. Buddy Guy could legitimately sing about such archetypes of black oppression as "one room country shacks". He lived it.

This (ghostwritten) book is just as Buddy Guy says his story. There aren't a lot of people left around to contradict Buddy Guy's version of events. There is some score settling. Buddy Guy arrived in Chicago in 1957 and was on the verge of starving to death before legendary blues singer and guitarist Muddy Waters gave him a sandwich, something to drink and ultimately his first job in the big city. Decades later you can still feel Guy's gratitude and respect leaping off the page.


In Chicago Buddy Guy was unusual because despite his youth he was intimately familiar with all of the more relaxed, slower and more intricate blues popular with the older generation of people like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. Buddy Guy began a career as a session guitarist for labels like Chess and Cobra. He arrived promptly, played what he was told to play and didn't (at first) ask questions about shady accounting practices. Buddy Guy also had a completely different side when playing at clubs.


He was a wild live performer. He would use tricks, some of his own devising, others borrowed from people like Guitar Slim and T-Bone Walker. These included but were not limited to playing guitar behind his back, starting his set by playing outside and walking in, leaping into the audience at the solo's climax, using extreme volume and feedback, playing the guitar with his teeth or a handkerchief and so on. Compared to people like Albert King or BB King, Buddy Guy never played one note when ten would do. Buddy Guy was very attuned to the rock-n-roll and soul that of the late fifties and early sixties. When he finally got a chance to lead his own sessions, some of this pent up energy slipped out. Both his voice and guitar style could be described as impassioned and frantic. To hear Buddy Guy tell it he was playing Hendrix before Hendrix was. This may be slightly overstated but it is a matter of record that Hendrix was a Guy fan and would record Guy at clubs. Unfortunately none of this louder faster music impressed Leonard Chess very much and he usually insisted that Guy tone it down on vinyl. Guy tells the story that eventually Chess, upset that he hadn't exploited the heavier sounds, invited Guy to kick him in the a$$ for his stupidity. Guy has told this story before and plainly it is something that still vexes him. I was fascinated not by Guy's frustrations over career setbacks caused by racism or stupid label owners, but rather his descriptions of working the tough Chicago and national black club circuit.

It was not an overstatement to say that some venues Guy played were literally buckets of blood. Serious fights were common among the audience, among band members, and between musicians and occasionally mobbed up club owners who never seemed to pay in accordance with the original agreement. Guy tells a story of a musician relaxing between sets only to be approached by a drunk man who boasted that his wife would never bother him again because he had cut off her head and was carrying it around in a paper bag. I was struck by how much of the chaos and destructive lifestyles that Guy relates, the fights, the boozing, the prostitutes, the drug abuse, seems to fit right in with a lot of the rappers today. Blues, like rap today, was often considered to be very low class. Guy writes ruefully how those rare blues musicians who could read music often got better paying/classier/safer jazz gigs where reading music was mandatory and a much wider range of musical knowledge was expected.
Another powerful theme was Guy's touching detailing of his decades long love/hate partnership and friendship with gifted harmonica player Junior Wells. These two were so close if one of them had been a woman they would have been married. These were the original Blues Brothers. Unfortunately Wells had a rather serious alcohol problem. This increasingly caused erratic behavior, including fights, missed gigs and what would today be termed sexual harassment. Drunkenly pawing/chasing a white woman in Texas was probably not Wells' wisest career move. Ultimately Guy decided that he would be better off going solo. Guy was "rediscovered" in the eighties and nineties thanks to fans of people like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Robert Cray. He seems thankful for this but remains proud enough to be somewhat upset that it was even necessary. Guy tells it like he sees it with no apologies. He is somewhat coy about his own relations with women before he married but that's how a gentleman should be I think. If you are curious about Muddy Waters' sick sense of humor, Willie Dixon's ability to gobble up songwriting credits faster than he gobbled up food or how Guy's venture into club ownership worked out read this book. It is despite everything a very optimistic story. I still can't help but think that he hasn't told the half of it. As you may notice Guy was and is one sharp dressed man. He never played into stereotypes about decrepit bluesmen. Unbent, unbroken and unbowed, Buddy Guy has an extremely healthy ego. And I'm glad to see that.
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