Saturday, May 11, 2013

Book Reviews- Unfinished Business, The Fall of Rome, Tarnsman of Gor, Elric of Melnibone

Unfinished Business
by Joseph D. Pistone
Joseph Pistone is a retired Italian-American FBI agent who is famous for his undercover work.  I wrote before about him here. You may remember the movie Donnie Brasco starring Johnny Depp. Pistone was "Donnie Brasco". He penetrated the Mafia, initially the Colombo Family and later the Bonanno Family. He was so convincing as a supposed jewel thief, hijacker and tough guy that he was ultimately proposed for formal membership ("being made") and given murders to accomplish. The FBI ended his assignment before he could be made, which still irritates Pistone today. Nevertheless Pistone gathered a wealth of information on the Bonanno Family and other organized crime families. It greatly embarrassed the Bonannos to have almost given their highest seal of approval to an FBI agent. Pistone duped the Mafia so thoroughly that when his direct Mafia sponsors and associates were informed that Pistone was an agent, they refused to believe it and for days thought/hoped that "Donnie" had been kidnapped and brainwashed. The higher ups, the bosses, underbosses and ranking captains who had been introduced to "Donnie" weren't just embarrassed. They were angry. And when people like that get angry, other people die. "Donnie's" captain was called into a management meeting. His body was later found with its hands chopped off. A soldier who had had close dealings with "Donnie" was lured out of hiding and murdered by his own blood relatives. The Mafia is not known for forgiving mistakes.

Pistone's operation reverberated throughout federal and state law enforcement investigations, indictments and convictions for several years. There were hundreds of indictments and convictions based in whole or in part upon Pistone's information. At least that's what Pistone says. He can speak without fear of contradiction as anyone who could contradict specific allegations is either dead or in prison. The man has a very healthy ego but I think most successful undercover agents would need one. For years he pretended to be someone else while surrounded by and working closely with thieves, murderers and a few psychopaths. Some criminal associates had extremely good memories. One mistake in his cover stories and that would have been it for Pistone. With the conclusion of active investigations he decided to revisit his story and share some dirty laundry. He's more forthcoming than he was previously.

Former FBI director Hoover resisted or greatly restricted undercover actions (in criminal investigations anyway, he apparently had no issues with undercover political operatives). One of the alleged reasons for avoiding undercover operations is that it is difficult if not impossible for the agent to hew to normal FBI moral and legal standards. Although he's still keeping some info back, Pistone shares some ethically questionable decisions. When you're playing criminal 24/7 you must decide what you will do to keep cover. For Pistone, this meant giving public beatings to two junkies who had robbed his Mafia sponsor and himself, carrying out hijackings and other robberies, and once memorably being ready to go kill another Mafia soldier who had fallen out of favor. Pistone details the rivalries and jealousies his undercover work caused within the Bureau. He's a bit coy about the strain on marital and family relationships. It happened. He and his wife got thru it. End of story. He's now a happy grandfather.

The book's second half is concerned with Pistone's years of testifying in other organized crime cases and advising/instructing other law enforcement agencies, including Scotland Yard and Russian anti-Mafia units. He states the Mafia Commission put a $500,000 contract on him. Some doubted this as traditional American organized crime has rarely killed law enforcement officials but by the late eighties and early nineties Mafia members were desperate enough to consider repealing this rule. There were attempts to murder prosecutors and FBI agents. Pistone also gives an insider's view of some other famous Mafia cases.

Pistone takes a few potshots at actors James Caan and Mickey Rourke for supporting Mafia hoodlums and at Governor Mario Cuomo for his denial that the Mafia existed and what Pistone viewed as "playing the ethnic card". The Bonanno Crime Family Boss, Joey Massino, who as a captain had murdered Pistone's Mafia sponsor Sonny Black, was ultimately charged with that murder. Facing a possible death penalty, the boss himself became an informant. As Pistone might say, nothing for nothing but if you want to hear about how it really went down, check this book out.

The Fall of Rome

by Martha Southgate
You may be surprised by this book. I certainly was. I don't mean that I was surprised by the author's skill. I had heard good things about this book and knew the writer was working on a different level than your ordinary author. I mean that I was surprised that the book resonated so strongly with me because the setting, an all male prep school in Connecticut wasn't really the sort of place I had a lot of interest in or familiarity with. I did briefly attend an all boys Catholic middle school but that's an entirely different experience because you go home every day.

At Chelsea School, you don't get to go home. For some people this is problematic, for others Chelsea is their home. Still others have no idea where their home really is. This book delves into the realities of integration, colonized minds, what it means to be who you are, what your identity really is and how all of this plays out in a world in which people's perceptions and realities are still often circumscribed by race and gender.

If you happen to be on the left politically the book may even make you have some sympathy for Clarence Thomas. Hard to believe but there you are. The author has a really good knack for writing from different points of view and making you understand and empathize with different people, even if you don't sympathize with them. I liked that. 
There are three primary characters. First is Rashid Bryson, a young African-American youth who is still processing the fact that his older brother, who was also admitted to an exclusionary school, was murdered in a store robbery. Rashid has lived in a majority black area and is somewhat taken aback by the paucity of black students at Chelsea. Rashid wants to make his parents proud of him and get them through their grief.
Next there is Latin and Classics Professor Jerome Washington, a black man who has been thru pain similar to Rashid's in his private life. He also attended Chelsea when it was much less welcoming. He has closed off past hurts by a fierce unyielding devotion to individual talent, success and drive. If you don't make it it's probably because you weren't trying hard enough. Don't expect any second chances or help from him. He doesn't think life works like that. And certainly don't tell him that he owes you anything because you and he have similar amounts of melanin. He despises that sort of thinking almost as much as he dislikes stereotypically African or African-American names.

Lastly there is Jana Hansen, a divorced Caucasian-American English teacher who is new to Chelsea. Her husband left her for a younger woman. She has spent most of her career teaching in predominantly Black areas and is somewhat taken aback by Chelsea's virtual monochrome nature. She has her own demons to exorcise and tentatively attempts to strike up different sorts of relationships with Jerome and Rashid. To say more would get into spoiler territory but to me this short book was well worth the time it takes to read it. I definitely am going to be looking for more of Southgate's work. It's the best of the books reviewed today I think.

Tarnsman of Gor
by John Norman
Sometimes I think I have no idea what women like or why they do so. Well that's not completely true. You can't reach adulthood without picking up some pointers but the fact remains that often women's desires can seem quite capricious. Thumbing through romance novels would give one the idea that some women think that taming a dominant man who treats them, if not unkindly then certainly in a manner that leaves little doubt as to who's in charge (in the bedroom at least), is of intense erotic interest. The success of such films as Gone With the Wind (Scarlett beats Rhett's chest in vain as he takes her upstairs but seems quite happy and satisfied the following morning) or books like 50 Shades of Grey and the Twilight series would seem to validate that hypothesis. It's usually not men who are buying those books. How ironic then that a book which essentially gave the same message, but from a man's point of view, was so hated, mocked and insulted that it was at one point essentially all but banned from publication. So it goes.

Tarnsmen of Gor is the beginning of a sci-fi/fantasy series by John Norman. (the pen name for philosophy professor John Lange) Gor is a planet that is always on Earth's opposite side and is thus invisible to us. Ok, I know it's really bad science but ignore that for now. Gor has lighter gravity than Earth. Gor is populated mostly by humans. Gor is lorded over by the alien insectoid Priest-Kings, who rarely appear. Most of Gor has military technology that doesn't much surpass what was available pre-gunpowder. The Priest Kings keep it that way. Any inventor, scientist or engineer who gets too big for his britches disappears.

The narrator, Tarl Cabot, is brought to Gor where he is reunited with his long lost father, an important man in the Gorean city of Ko-Ro-Ba. Tarl is already an accomplished fencer and undergoes training to ensure he takes his rightful place in the warrior caste. His father needs his help for there are rivalries and wars afoot. Gor is organized along the lines of Greek city-states with every free man put into a caste. And that's where the author mixes a somewhat pedestrian alternate earth tale with the philosophical musings that brought him such controversy. Norman employs Aristotle's natural slavery theory to argue that some people are naturally submissive (slaves) while other people are naturally aggressive (free). It's a sin to treat a free person as if they were a slave and vice versa. Norman's twist is that fitness for slavery is not determined by race, ethnicity, class or national origin. It is however somewhat related to gender. Free women simultaneously have a constricted existence and yet are considered irritating by many free men. Free men would generally much rather spend their time with slave women, who are thought to be more (sexually) feminine. Free women are often jealous of slave women. Gorean society's true nature slowly unfolds throughout the book. Tarl Cabot initially finds Gor strange and repulsive but gradually takes a different view. He does remain anti-slavery..mostly. I don't mind reading works by authors with "bad" points of view if the story's plot is strong enough to interest me. Here it really wasn't. The fantasy fiction author, Michael Moorcock, harshly criticized Norman. Future series installments were heavier on both feminist-baiting and adult content and less so on action/plot. This might be more interesting if one thought the author was being tongue in cheek. But I didn't get that feeling...

Elric of Melnibone
by Michael Moorcock
Speaking of Michael Moorcock, he is another author who I starting reading as a teenager. Unlike Norman, I never put his works down. Moorcock is among the most skilled and most prolific authors of sci-fi, speculative fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction who is still living. He's among the genre's top authors living or dead. Before GRRM wrote his antiheroes and turned up the sex quotient, Moorcock had been there and done that. Moorcock is something of a left-wing feminist anarchist. However his works can be enjoyed by people of any political backgrounds. He doesn't beat you over the head with his politics. Moorcock is confident enough and honest enough to have spoken frankly of how strongly he disliked Tolkien's writing style and politics, though he says he liked Tolkien on a personal level. When you call The Lord of the Rings "Epic Pooh" you ought to be able to provide work of equal or better quality. Moorcock delivers.

Elric of Melnibone was one of his earliest stories. It's first in a series and is about as far from Tolkien and in a different way Robert E. Howard as you can get. It's also a short story. Moorcock was still writing for magazines when this came out and at just under 170 pages this book is quickly read. Where Tolkien's heroes were virtuous and desexed, Moorcock's heroes were lusty and conflicted. Where Howard wrote disguised idealized versions of himself, Celtic-Nordic strong he-men who didn't take any guff from anyone, Moorcock wrote Elric as a decadent, weak, bookish, lazy albino who would have been dead a long time ago without constant assistance from drugs and magic. Elric is alienated.

The story takes place in a world that appears to have existed long before our own pre-history had even begun. Elric is the 428th Emperor of the island nation of Melnibone. Melniboneans are not human. Generally speaking they have the same opinion of humans as humans do of cattle. Melniboneans appear to be similar to Tolkien's elves but with no sense of morality whatsoever. In this they're closer to the original legends of the Celtic Sidhe, something which the author Jim Butcher also utilizes. Anyway Melnibone has ruled the world for about the past 10,000 years with their dragons, advanced technology and most importantly magic gained by their alliances with elemental forces and the demon-gods of Chaos. In the past 500 years though their numbers, power and magic have waned. The dragons are far fewer and sleep for much longer periods of time. Now Melnibone only rules on its own island. Human pirates are getting bolder and some Melniboneans are concerned that humans may even attack Melnibone. Elric's cousin Yyrkoon is constantly critical of Elric and may be plotting against him.

But Elric is unconcerned with this. In all of his reading he has accidentally gained something akin to a conscience, or at least as close to it as a Melnibonean could get. So he coolly ignores his cousin Yyrkoon's disloyalty. Elric thinks free speech is a virtue. The only thing which truly brings joy to Elric's life is his relationship with Cymoril, his cousin, would be wife and Yyrkoon's sister. Out of spite against his cousin Yyrkoon may harbor entirely non-brotherly feelings for Cymoril. This situation comes to a head when during a battle with humans Yyrkoon takes the opportunity to kill Elric. Yyrkoon thinks he's succeeded. Elric must survive alone among humans with only his wits and his sorcery to aid him. For though Yyrkoon doesn't know it and wouldn't believe it if he did Elric is the greatest sorcerer who ever lived. More importantly than that Elric is the favorite of the Chaos god Arioch, the most dread of all of the Melnibonean patrons. He has plans for Elric. And then there is the sword Stormbringer, a cursed blade that drinks souls and transfers their energy to Elric.

This was a really exciting book to read again. It moves. Things happen on just about every page. There's a lot of hidden commentary about imperialism, morality, and the paradox that often great beauty comes from great pain. In order to win back his throne Elric may have to drop his moralistic facade and give in to his cruel and essentially amoral nature.
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