Saturday, March 24, 2012

Book Reviews-LA Confidential, Why is Sex Fun?, Weapons of Choice

L.A. Confidential
by James Ellroy.
I don't know what James Ellroy really thinks of black people or what he's like in real life. Absent other evidence, as readers we should be really wary of assuming anything about authors. On the other hand I think that over time you can and indeed must make some judgments about people based on what they write. It's tricky though. SM Stirling quote:
"And a special acknowledgment to the author of Niven's Law: There is a technical, literary term for those who mistake the opinions and beliefs of characters in a novel for those of the author. The term is 'idiot.'"

I would like to provoke ambiguous responses in my readers. That's what I want. There's part of me that would really like to be one of Dudley Smith's goons and go back and beat up some jazz musicians, and there's part of me that's just appalled. I figured out a while back that I'm an unregenerate white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heterosexual. So are my men. Their racism and homophobia is appalling, but it's germane to their characters, and people will either get that or not get it. That's that.* Ellroy Quote
Also, so that we would know exactly what he thinks of people that have a problem with his prose style Ellroy thoughtfully shared this
In L.A. Confidential, Ellroy tells a multifaceted story of good and evil (perhaps lesser evil and greater evil or better yet different kinds of evil) in post-war Los Angeles. His primary protagonists are three LAPD officers. They make Daryl Gates look like Michael Dukakis. The men also almost exactly line up with id (White), ego (Vincennes) and superego (Exley) and rather less well with the old D&D alignments of Chaotic Evil (White), Neutral Evil (Vincennes) and Lawful Neutral (Exley)
These three generally unlikable men all have some small commitment to justice. There's Officer Wendell (Bud) White, a frightening enforcer who lets his fists and nightstick do his talking. White is among the LAPD's most violent cops. The department leaders use his skills to obtain confessions from hardcases or send a message to criminals. Out of town mobsters who arrive in LA are given a brutal meet and greet by Bud White and other members of an anti-hoodlum squad set up by Captain Dudley Smith and tolerated by Chief Parker.
As a boy White watched his father murder his mother. Now White spends his spare time visiting men paroled for domestic violence and putting the boot to them. White may not even bother "talking" to them. He always has a throwaway gun ready to plant on someone he killed in "self-defense". White is well aware that his bosses see him as a dumb brute. He hides that he's smarter than people think. White wants to be a detective. The quickest way to get hurt badly by White (besides calling him Wendell) is to insult or harm a woman. God help you if you raise a hand to a lady in his presence.
Chief Parker:LAPD

There's Lieutenant Detective Edmund Exley, a strait laced police officer and war hero who is caught up in Oedipal competition with his father Preston Exley, a former police officer and wealthy businessman.  Unlike White, Exley prefers doing things by the book. He usually avoids open profanity, racial slurs or abuse of authority, certainly not because he thinks any more of certain despised groups (blacks, hispanics, gays, prostitutes, etc) but rather because he has extreme confidence in his own intelligence and ability to get what he needs from people without the rough stuff. Exley and White hate one another because Exley testified against White and White's partner in a savage Christmas beating (this happened in real life) of defenseless Hispanic suspects. Exley's no nice guy though. He manipulates the rules to help his own rise and harm that of his rivals. If he does the right thing it's usually because that's what the law or code says he should do, not because he has any huge desire to protect citizens. When pushed to his limits his ability for violence may rival White's.
Lastly there's Sergeant Jack Vincennes aka Trashcan Jack. Jack is neither an open thug like White nor is he obsessed with rules, procedure and doing the right thing like Exley. Vincennes is a narcotics detective who works the Hollywood beat. He is the LAPD liaison for a Dragnet like TV show. He uses his film and music industry contacts to enrich himself and his friends, most specifically Sid Hudchens, the owner and publisher of the gossip magazine Hush-Hush. Blackmail and information is Vincennes' stock in trade. He knows which stars are drug addicts, rapists, pedophiles, or closeted homosexuals. He knows who's engaging in adultery or miscegenation. He knows all the pimps, prostitutes, pornographers, junkies and pushers. 

Vincennes channels this information back and forth to Hudchens and others, both for personal profit and to smear political rivals. Vincennes is pleasantly corrupt and goes along to get along whenever possible. He's self-interested and doesn't want to do anything to jeopardize collecting his full pension upon his swiftly approaching retirement. Vincennes is an alcoholic and not above sampling the drugs he confiscates. He has other more shocking hidden dirt. He may even have a hidden conscience.

James Ellroy
All three men are pulled into a nightmarish and complex case which starts with a gangland style massacre at the Nite Owl restaurant. Black hoodlums are blamed and soon after killed. This should be the end of the story. However for different reasons and at different times, all three cops pursue leads that suggest that the black hoodlums weren't the killers. In fact there may be a nexus of multiple conspiracies between the LAPD, business leaders and local organized crime that really explains what happened. Ellroy anticipated the Gary Webb Dark Alliance story. Eventually the officers team up and then the pillars of heaven start to shake. All three men have to compromise and change to crack this case. It requires each of the trio's special talents.
This is a very deep book. There are at least 7-8 different storylines that are going on. It's easy to get lost. Ellory has a staccato writing style. He uses short direct sentences. L.A. Confidential has so much going on that like the classic noir novels it's modeled on and surpasses, you may have to go back and reread a few chapters. Things are never what they seem. Just when you think you've got something figured out Ellroy writes a twist that shows you that no you didn't. I like that sort of writing. A recurring theme is that justice may require getting your hands dirty. There aren't always easy answers. Sometimes evil is required to defeat evil. Exley's father warns him that if Exley is, as he says, unwilling to shape a case as the prosecutor sees it, shoot a fleeing felon in the back, plant evidence on a guilty man, or turn a blind eye to brutality then he needs to find a line of work where he won't have to make those choices. Everybody gets a little dirty in the world of L.A. Confidential. Hypocrisy is the name of the game.

The racism, sexism, and contempt for homosexuals is of the times.  Reading this I was wondering if Ellroy was trying to prove that he could use every racial slur against blacks that had ever been invented. If he didn't reach that goal, it certainly wasn't for lack of trying. Again though this is appropriate when writing a story about the 1950's era LAPD. So, if you like hardboiled noir, where the cops are tough, the hoods crack wise and the dames are all playing different angles, this could be for you. But if you like stories with clearly defined good guys and bad guys where everything is neatly wrapped up then this is definitely not a book for you. It is however a masterful piece of writing. The movie was excellent in a different way but definitely softened the uglier attitudes that are present in most of the characters.
*Ellroy Quote

Why is Sex Fun?
by Jared Diamond
This question might seem to answer itself of course but someone like Jared Diamond isn't satisfied with just leaving queries like that on the table. Diamond is a biophysicist, biologist, anthropologist and in general an all around smart guy. I suggest reading his book Guns, Germs, and Steel.
In Why is Sex Fun?, Diamond seeks to answer that question by looking at the total path of human sexuality. He examines how sexuality, posture, and brain capacity make us different from our nearest relatives, the great apes.

You don't have to have science degrees to understand this book as it appears to be quite deliberately written for the non-scientist. It's a very short fun read that tries not only to solve the title question but offers investigation into which animals have the oddest sex life, what men are good for, what signals we send purposely and unwittingly, why humans even have sex when there is no chance or desire for reproduction, why we have concealed ovulation, why privacy is important and several other questions or quirks that make humans quite different from other animals and other mammals. Why is paternal care for the young so rare among mammals?

This was written back in 1997. It has a very strong helping of evolutionary biology which some people may find problematic. Some of the information may be dated. But that's an argument for another day. Culture and biology work together and feedback to and reinforce each other. Diamond tries to avoid "just so" stories, which is what a lot of evolutionary biology is accused of being.

People with the relevant scientific backgrounds or of political persuasions that leave them skeptical of evolution or biological differences may find holes in some of this book's examples, logic and reasoning. It is a short book. It's just 160 pages. But I found it cogent, concise and well argued. YMMV.

Weapons of Choice 
by John Birmingham
Time travel may well be theoretically possible (at least going into the past) but as far as we know no one has ever done it. But what if someone did? And what if that someone were a 2021 multinational and multiracial carrier force, led by Americans and full of Navy and Marine personnel, that was sent back to 1942 just before the American - Japanese Midway battle?

You've likely seen stories like this before but Birmingham does a bang up job of making this book (the initial in a trilogy) really come alive. He does this by the simple fact of including human nature as a character in his book. The Americans from 1942 are initially happy to have assistance from the Americans of 2021 while the modern Americans are delighted to give it.

However this starts to change almost immediately as many of the 1942 Americans have zero use for feminism, racial equality, modern fitness techniques, non-smoking or any of the other ideas we take for granted. They become very wary of and coolly hostile to their countrymen and countrywomen from the future. They view the idea of taking orders from women of any race or blacks of either gender with profoundly deep disdain. They don't get why a carrier is named after a woman President (The USS Hilary Clinton)  And they are desperate to prevent these ideas from spreading. For their part the modern Americans think that the 1942 Americans all sound like actors from old Warner Brothers movies and are generally eager to change things as quickly as possible.

However not all of the multinational ships made it through the wormhole in one piece or under American or allied control. The 1942 Japanese, Germans and Russians have gotten their hands on some of the modern military technology and worse yet, on history books. So Stalin, Tojo, Hitler and others are able to see what mistakes they made. And the countries that had nuclear programs or were thinking about them are ecstatic or frightened to find out that not only are such weapons possible, but the future Americans have them.

This entire book is an example of chaos theory in action on political, scientific, military and even romantic relationships. Some members of the 2021 multinational force that came through the wormhole are Japanese or Indonesian. They're not sure they want to be fighting their own great grandparents or fighting on the same side as the 1942 British and Dutch who intend to reestablish white colonial rule in SE Asia. This was a really fun book that was crammed with realistic characters. You can probably pick it up for cheap. I did.
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