Review: Tangled Up in Blue

March 13th, 2021

Tangled Up in Blue was not what I expected. My impression was that the book was intended as an analysis of the state of modern policing with the twist that the author spent a few years as a patrol officer. I’ve read a couple of these and I was looking forward to see what Rosa Brooks did with it.

Brooks is one of the few pundits whose insight I respect on deep issues. Her resume includes time with the State Department in places like Afghanistan and she is also a Law Professor at Georgetown. Resumes are one thing, and I’ve been impressed by Brooks’s thinking across a wide range of topics.

Despite all that preparation, Tangled was not what I expected. There is a surprising amount of it that is self-reflection and memoir about the decision to become a volunteer officer in DC and the effects the process had on her and her family and friends. That openness lights up the descriptions of her policing experiences and reactions to them as well. To the extent that Tangled is an analysis, that openness brings a visceral edge to it.

Another part of Tangled that I respect is that it is ultimately neither analysis nor memoir. There are issues and situations she explores in scholarly depth and with personal soul-searching, but she reaches few conclusions. Because she has provided such a rich context, the paucity of conclusions seems like an insightful assessment of the complexity of the situation. Even without a a bow around it, her rich exploration is powerful.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Office of Historical Corrections

February 27th, 2021

Happenstance led me to this collection of Danielle Evans’s writing and I’m happy it did. She writes impeccably in service of her characters. Those characters are stressed by an unfair society to the breaking point and laid open for us.

When I write these I sometimes wind up struck by an analogy to another writer, unfair as that is. And Evans is so strong a writer and so distinct that it is a crutch for me. My crutch here is T. Coraghessan Boyle.

Like Boyle, Evans has a knack for putting characters into some of the most unusual circumstances from today’s headlines and making the progression to that state so consistent, simple, and logical that I found myself looking around and surprised at my location. She deploys twin strengths of choosing those circumstances so well and creating such realistic characters that this reader found himself enlightened repeatedly.

Her writing is quite powerful, but completely in service of character and theme. The few writerly flourishes that do appear assure me that this is a choice, and I admire it.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Fearless Jones

February 21st, 2021

I think of Walter Mosley as being famous for his mystery and crime work, so it may be surprising that Fearless Jones is the first work of his I’ve read from that genre. I have heard parts of a few radio adaptations, so I knew some of what to expect.

The writing is excellent, which will surprise no one who has read Mosley before. He is a master of so many forms that he seems at his best in one of his favorite genres. I’m not enough of a mystery fan to comment on how he might be tracking or playing with the conventions of the genre. Even without knowing any of them the complex plot was easy to follow and if I were trying to solve the puzzle, I would have had no complaints.

When I do read mysteries, I read them for the characters, settings, and writing. Mosely’s writing is sublime. His characters are deftly drawn, deep, and believable. He can give a surface impression of a person with a few lines , and does. But even incidental characters who recur display their inner lives through small moments. It makes the story so much more immersive for me, and I imagine that for the puzzle solvers this can only help when looking for motives. His main characters show themselves in more detail and are a delight to get to know in both their beauty and their failings.

The immersion continues in the richness of the setting. That setting is one near and dear to my heart: historical Los Angeles. That I love the place does not blind me to its flaws, and Mosley takes a historical perspective – no year is given but it feels late 1950’s or early 1960’s to me – that throws those flaws into clear relief. He brings out the vibrancy of LA’s poorer communities, making it clear how people in them lived. That includes the ways that people and police treat them. It’s easy to paint broadly there, but Mosley brings out how the treatment varies and how the people doing it mitigate or intensify the unfairness. And the poor communities also vary.

Absent the puzzle, Fearless was about the precariousness of life at the edges of society and how the communities living on the edge come together to meet those threats. Early in the story, the protagonist (Paris Minton) loses basically everything he has because of he’s unwillingly dragged into a violent criminal contest. He quickly realizes he cannot fight this alone and connects with other in his world with the talents and hearts that can help him. These allies never seem like plot conventions that conveniently appear; they are fixtures in Paris’s life that he has a history with. Some owe him favors and some he has to convince. No one comes out and says anything like “this could happen to any of us,” but there are moments where I feel that shared understanding. It’s a warm feeling.

Fearless is also a thriller, and a compelling one. The pages flew by, and I was always eager to see what happened next. Even if you don’t care about character definition or historical LA, this book is great fun.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Queens of Animation

February 13th, 2021

I’m not a big fan of Disney animation. It’s not that I dislike it, just that I’m more of a Warner Bros. cartoon and Pixar and Miyazaki long form animation fan. And now Disney owns and promotes all both of the long form choices, so Disney seems to recognize their values. And there’s plenty of Disney animation I love and respect. But I’m not invested in the art to the same level and I don’t know the history in any detail.

For me, Queens of Animation was a snappy and scholarly introduction to Disney creative history through the lens of women’s contributions. That history is remarkable. The depth of creative and editorial investment, as well as the early personal guidance from Walt himself, surprised me. It probably shouldn’t have, though, given the beauty of the animation and the quality of the storytelling.

Nathalia Holt is not the first to publish a Disney history, of course, nor is she the most scholarly or comprehensive. She is the among the first, if not the first, to delve into the contributions of women to that legacy. Considering the quality of those contributions, that’s a terrible gap to have endured this long. This is a worthy bridge over the gap.

Holt illuminates these women and the place completely. Both the humanity and creativity of these people comes through clearly. She also brings the environment alive well, showing the power and pain generated by the studio. It’s gripping reading.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Calypso

February 6th, 2021

I’ve read an awful lot of David Sedaris‘s writing over the years, but I was pretty slow to pick up Calypso. It’s a collection of his personal essays – most about his family – a common format for him. He has a history of honest, moving, and funny essay collections that have largely made his name.

When I encapsulated Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls I said his writing doesn’t change much. Calypso contradicts that. Sedaris writes like a more introspective and melancholy man here. Given that he’s talking about the suicide of an estranged family member and the decline of his father’s health, it’s hard to take that as a surprise.

While his tone and topics are more sober, his writing remains effortlessly impressive. The essays are beautifully built and honestly resonant. Despite the somewhat dark topics, I didn’t find the essays depressing.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Eye in the Sky

December 20th, 2020

For all the cult around Philip K. Dick, it’s easy to forget that he’s a just plain good writer. I hadn’t heard of Eye in the Sky before I picked it up, but it turned out to be an interesting and fun read.

The premise is that a bunch of folks get caught in a particle accelerator accident and wind up sharing a paranormal/parapsychological experience. The experience is pure PKD. Plenty of social commentary and a dash of paranoia, rendered with panache and flavored with 1970’s California spices. There’s enough to spoil here that I won’t get into the plot much more.

There’s plenty to chew on, and it’s nakedly critical of society in ways that were more transgressive 50 years ago, but certainly still relevant. It’s also snappy and entertaining with a surprisingly upbeat ending for someone of PKD’s rep for darkness.


Review: The Undocumented Americans

December 1st, 2020

When I started reading Karla Cornejo Villvicencio’s book, I thought it was going to be a piece of journalism with a memoir tilt. And I can see feeling that way, perhaps even all the way through. She interviews people and does her research. The work is clearly well documented and well written. To me, though, the more time you spend with her, the more she clearly has her heart on her sleeve.

It did creep up on me. It seems surprising, given how strongly I feel her personality and passion. The journalism part is so sound it’s easy to see past the deep emotion and powerful honesty.

Even if it was just a set of personal essays about immigrants on the edge, it would be solid. The people and situations she finds and documents are off many people’s RADAR. They were on the very edge of mine, but I learned much more.

Strongly recommended.

Review: The Moon is Down

November 27th, 2020

The Moon is Down is an unusual little nugget of writing that sits at the corner of literature and propaganda. John Steinbeck produced it with the intent of turning it into a performance and motivating resistance in World War II. That’s obviously easy to get wrong, but Steinbeck manages it.

Moon is set in unnamed town occupied by an unnamed force, but there’s little doubt that he’s talking to an about Nazi Germany and probably Norway, but pretty certainly a Scandinavian country. It’s a clever choice in that he keeps it specific enough that it could attract those who want to solve the “puzzle” while drawing others with the writing and story.

Another feature of this approach is the opportunity to makes the situation and the characters more elemental. That tack is pretty clear to writers and readers, but Steinbeck is able to pull it off with uncommon power and depth.

The characters are all playing roles and framing symbols, but they’re believable. They are not people. I can’t imagine meeting one of them, but they all act as humans would for human reasons. It makes the themes and ideas much more powerful by not distracting readers with extraneous character flourishes. He hits the sweet spot between faceless icon and memorable character. In many ways, it feels like the play into which he wanted to adapt it.

The themes are largely about the power and pathos of the roles that war and leadership impose on us. Steinbeck manages to make even the motivations that drive occupiers most horrific actions sympathetic while the actions remain horrible.

Overall, it’s quite a powerful work in a odd niche.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Bridges of Downtown Los Angeles

November 22nd, 2020

This is another one of those photograph collections with a loose history book wrapped around it. They live or die based on the photography, and Kevin Break has found some interesting and evocative images.


Review: Unix: A History and a Memoir

November 15th, 2020

This is certainly a niche read. Brian Kernighan has taken the time to record his experiences at Bell Labs as they were creating Unix. He was in the thick of things, working with the primary authors and building his own set of contributions as well. I’m clearly a fan of those tools.

In addition to telling the story of the people doing the work, he tells the story of the institution that fosters it: Bell Labs department 1127. I had the great joy of interning in that department for several summers in the early 1990s and share Kernighan’s fondness and respect for the place.

Kernighan is a clear and evocative writer, who shares details and anecdotes of the people and the place as only someone who was there can. I found the book a joy from front to back, but he’s telling me stories of places, people, and tools that I’ve met and like to hear about. I think it’s equally welcoming to interested outsiders.