Thursday, October 22, 2015

Can't a Guy and his Kid Read on the Subway without Going Viral?




This innocent enough looking photo of my 10 year old son and me reading together on a New York City subway has gone viral.  Someone took this picture of us on Saturday afternoon, and by Wednesday morning it had led to various threads on Reddit, trending at one point to #1 there.  As of this writing on Wednesday night, it has been viewed over one million times on imgur.com.  All well and good, but the question I was asking myself all day, since finding out this picture was out and attracting so much attention, is why.  What’s the reason for the fuss? We’re only reading, for crying out loud, a father and his kid, something we do on the train quite often, but to judge by the comments on the Reddit threads, something about this picture hit people.  The experience of suddenly finding thousands of anonymous people talking about you and your kid, speculating about you, giving definitive opinions about you, has been surreal to say the least.
            
First off, there have been the people who ask bluntly why this picture is even posted and getting upvoted.  “I don't get it, is reading a book in public something people don't do anymore,” reads one comment, and another says, “How did this manage to reach the front page.. father & son reading wow.. ok?” To be honest, that’s precisely what I would have thought if I’d seen this photo causing a stir on social media.  These people, actually, seem like the sensible ones to me, and I understand if they get a little sarcastic in their tone. But then there are the people who are angry, their anger directed at any number of things. For brevity’s sake, let me try to list the anger points the threads contain:

1) Anger at the photographer for taking the photo at all.  The general thrust here: Can’t people go about their normal business without someone creepily using their phone to snap a shot?

2) Anger at the photographer along racial lines. This is a common one. The photographer took this shot out of an obvious condescension for black people, or as one person says, “It must be the person’s first time seeing black people in the wild reading.”  I lost count of how many people are certain the photographer is a racist. They’re sure he or she posted this out of some, perhaps unintentional, racial intent. Either the photographer’s amazed to see a black man and his son reading or the person’s astounded to see a black father at all with his son: “OMG! A father figure! Quick! Take a picture!  It must be like seeing a unicorn in NYC to see a man of color reading a book AND hanging out with a young child.”  Well, call me a na├»ve black man, but until I read the comments like these I didn’t give any particular thought to the racial motivations of the photographer.  I figured the person saw two human beings in a specific way that made them appear worthy of a shot. Of course I could be wrong, but…

3) Anger at the people whose views about the photo they disagree with.  These threads mostly consist of people cursing at other people on their thread or cursing at the friend of the photographer who actually posted the picture.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. And I’m not even getting that deep into the self-styled wits among the commentators, the ones who came up with pearls relating to why we’re only reading books (who does that anymore?) because we can’t afford smartphones to read from, or Kindles.  Ah well, the commentators were entertaining, I can’t deny that, and to watch this little picture open up a world of arguing and dissent pretty much made my day.  My son and I in a photo that served as a Rorschach Test on Reddit. 

The truth is we were just reading.  I happen to love reading, have read since I was a child, and I’m trying to pass that enthusiasm on to my kid.  Anything complicated there?  If he’s into a book and wants to read on the subway – and sometimes, yes, I have to push him to pick up a book – I’ll read my book at the same time as a form of encouragement. Plus, again, I just like to read.  If I’d posted this explanation on Reddit, would anyone have believed me? I’m not sure.

But what do I think the photographer’s intention was?  Since I know nothing about the person, I can only venture a guess.  And I like to go with what’s most straightforward, and most likely.  The person with their phone saw a cute scene, son leaning his head against his father’s shouder, the two reading separate books, and took a quick shot.  As a friend of mine said, the photo sort of says, “Look, there’s hope in the world.”  Probably we’re dealing with a softy at heart, and this softy simply wanted to put out a photo that would warm other people’s hearts. I’ll tell you what: that’s how most of my friends, people who know me, white and black, took the photo, and there were plenty of people on the Reddit threads too who conveyed a basic, “That’s a sweet scene. Don’t read more into it,” in their comments.  So maybe there’s hope after all, even on anger-filled sites like Reddit.  Who knows?  To start the day in normal fashion, unknown to all but family and friends, and end the day as the object of intense speculation among over a million people is enough to make me want to hole up in my house right now and sink into a book.  Not with my son, though. At this moment, it's late at night, and he’s asleep.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

MISSING PERSON by Patrick Modiano

Recently, I got around to reading Patrick Modiano, winner of 2014's Nobel Prize for literature. For awhile now, I've been reading about him, and what I read made me think I would like his books, particularly Missing Person, his 1978 novel that won France's highest literary award, the Prix Goncourt.  A detective story about a man investigating himself, ran one description somewhere, and I was very intrigued.  I'm happy to say my expectations were fulfilled.  I liked Missing Person a lot and decided to write something about it.  It's a piece you can find here: Missing Person. Check it out if you have a few minutes.



Friday, September 11, 2015

Ghost Money by Andrew Nette

Using the thriller or crime novel as a means to explore a particular place and historical epoch can be a precarious business.  On the one hand, there is the danger that the historical detail will overwhelm the narrative's drive and suspense.  We've all read thrillers that get lost in the thickets of period research.  The story's pace slows; the author seems to be letting you know he went to a lot of trouble to gather, study, digest, and regurgitate the information before you.  On the other hand, the thriller author runs the risk of appearing to use a grim setting - Germany under Hitler, the Soviet Union under Stalin - merely for sensationalism and light entertainment.  We get action set against a blithely presented atrocity exhibition.  Actually, I'd rather read the second type of novel more than the first.  At least the pulpy approach can be fun, and the book will probably move fast.  But better than either approach is the seamlessly blended historical crime tale, the one where the researched information is folded into a propulsive, compelling narrative.  It's a blend difficult to pull off, but for the most part, Andrew Nette accomplishes it in his 2012 novel Ghost Money, set in Cambodia in 1996.



The plot is clear and engrossing.  The sister of a shady Australian businessman named Charles Avery hires Max Quinlan, an ex-cop from Australia, to find her brother.  Quinlan himself had a Vietnamese mother and Australian father, making him something of an outsider wherever he goes.  He picks up Avery's trail in Thailand and that trail leads at once to Cambodia, where Avery has apparently been involved in dark business dealings with members of the Khmer Rouge.  Out of power for seventeen years, since arch-enemy Vietnam invaded Cambodia and pushed them out, the Khmer Rouge has remained a potent and fearful force all this time, and they've been surviving by selling timber and mined gems along the Thai-Cambodian border.  By now, however, a significant chunk of the movement has defected and wants to abandon hiding and exile.  Cambodian Co-Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge member, is open to the possibility. He'll negotiate with them.  So the country sits on edge, at a defining moment in its blood-soaked modern history, when Quinlan arrives to do his investigative work.  

In a country this byzantine, that has a language he doesn't know, Quinlan needs assistance.  He finds it in the form of a Cambodian journalist called Sarin.  Both men carry their traumas with them - Quinlan's are personal (he had an alcoholic father who killed himself; while a cop, his own arrogance got a fellow cop killed), and Sarin's are historical (he survived the horror of Khmer Rouge rule, but he acquired the inevitable mental scars that go with such a survival) - and while dealing with their anxieties and fears, they have to contend with the outside dangers arising from their quest to find Avery.   Whether Western or Cambodian, the man's acquaintances were not exactly polite types, and these people want to track him down as much as Quinlan does.  On every level, from the intimate to the societal, it's a treacherous, hazard-filled world Nette depicts, and reading his book evoked some of the feeling I love to get when reading a novel by Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene. These two were absolute masters at integrating crime and espionage plots into political and historical contexts, and Nette has learned a good bit from them.  Certainly there are echoes of Greene's The Third Man in Ghost Money's plot, and the hunt for the shadowy Avery, leading Quinlan from the man's sister to the dense Cambodian jungle, has a Heart of Darkness vibe.  Two or three times, Nette pauses the narrative flow to fill us in on recent Cambodian history and how the country came to be where it is by 1996, but these sections only serve to enhance the novel.  We need to know what happened in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period in order to understand why the characters act the way they do and why the country Max Quinlan travels through is as idiosyncratic, and haunted by ghosts, as indeed it is.  This is a crime novel about people caught up in history and how they adapt or fail to adapt to the burdens and terrors of that history.  Ghost Money is a serious entertainment, and it's well worth any reader's time.




Monday, July 6, 2015

Death in Brittany by Jean-Luc Bannalec

Sometimes in my crime reading I enjoy a little escapism, namely, a traditional mystery.  If it's set in an enticing locale, one I'd like to visit in real life, all the better.  I recently read Jean-Luc Bannalec's debut novel DEATH IN BRITTANY for this type of escape, and the book served its purpose well. I reviewed it for Criminal Element - and it's a piece you can read right here.



Thursday, May 28, 2015

Blind Man with a Pistol

For a non fiction anthology piece I''m preparing to write on Chester Himes, I've been reading/re-reading Himes.  In particular, I've been going through some of the Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson books.  I just finished Blind Man with a Pistol, the 8th and next to last one in the series (last is Plan B, which Himes left unfinished), and all I can say is....wow, remarkable.

I'll write more about this novel in my coming piece, but I just wanted to jot a few thoughts down now.  For one thing, what struck me is how the chaos that is in all the Harlem Detective novels Himes wrote completely takes over in Blind Man with a Pistol.  We get a blistering, almost absurdist novel where violence is rampant and none of the major crimes, including murders, get solved. There's nothing muddled or confused in Himes method, though. He knows exactly what he's doing, presenting a picture of a world out of control, with racial tensions and racial hatred at a boil (the book was published in 1969).  The final images are those of total communication breakdown and, quite literally, a blind man with a pistol firing his gun in the enclosed space of a crowded New York City subway.  This time even Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones understand nothing and can accomplish, in their perpetual peacekeeping efforts, almost nothing.  It's a remarkably relevant book still, and it's uncompromising.  It is also, in typical Himes fashion, very funny, but when you laugh reading these pages, you have a feeling of thorns getting caught in your throat.




Thursday, May 14, 2015

THE DEEPENING SHADE

A few weeks ago, I read and reviewed Jake Hinkson's superb collection of pieces on film noir, THE BLIND ALLEY.  Now I've finished reading his first collection of short stories, called THE DEEPENING SHADE.  Like the non-fiction work, it's a book well worth seeking out, and you can read my review of it here: THE DEEPENING SHADE.



Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Great Private Eye Film: THE LATE SHOW (1978)

Over at Criminal Element, I have a new piece up about one of the best private eye films of the 1970's.  It's a film that always seems to be just a little neglected.  I'm talking about Robert Benton's THE LATE SHOW, starring Art Carney and Lily Tomlin.  You can read the piece by clicking here: THE LATE SHOW






Wednesday, April 29, 2015

JAKE HINKSON'S THE BLIND ALLEY

Jake Hinkson's new book on film noir, THE BLIND ALLEY, is terrific.  It's a collection of essays on cinematic noir, and it's compulsive reading.  I wrote a review of it for the new great crime website The Life Sentence. Take a look here.


Monday, March 23, 2015

The Mongolian Conspiracy

And what about Mexican crime fiction?  I'm starting to read more crime novels set in Latin America, and one I read recently that stands out is The Mongolian Conspiracy, by Rafael Bernal. It's set in Mexico City, and even though it was written in 1969 and takes place during the height of the Cold War, its view of Mexican politics remains as relevant as ever.  It's also mordantly funny. A great read overall. 

I wrote a piece about it for Criminal Element, which is right here: The Mongolian Conspiracy.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Brothers on the Road

When a writer really knows his characters and their world, when he knows his people and their milieu inside and out, a novel can’t help but be a strong one.  Assuming the writer has talent and craft.  Mike Miner has both, and in Prodigal Sons he has put his skill, experience, and imagination to use to write a calm, nuanced book about a family in crisis.
           



The book centers around the Flanagans, from Connecticut.  There are three brothers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and their parents.   Matthew, the oldest and the wild child of the family, has moved to Los Angeles.  Mark works in the family store.   Luke, the youngest, lives in Boston where he battles with mental illness.  In L.A., Matthew writes scripts, makes a lot of money working on commercials, and has a beautiful, loving wife and a large home.  Everything should be ideal for him. He has ostensibly made it.   Except that he drinks too much. Way way too much.  When his wife leaves him and his boss places him on leave from his job, Matthew responds by taking to the road and going on an epic bender, accompanied by a teenage girl he has met named Tomiko.  (Their relationship is sweetly conveyed and not a sexual one).  Where else do you go when you want to cut loose and immerse yourself in debauchery?  Las Vegas.  Matthew and Tomiko drive there from Los Angeles, while back in Connecticut, the Flanagan family meets to decide what to do about Matthew.  He’s gone missing from his LA house, and nobody knows where he is.  When Mark and Luke agree to go out west to find him, everything is set in motion, and you wonder what Mark and Luke will do if and when they get to their brother.  Will they give him a few brotherly punches in the mouth, tie him up and drag him to rehab, bring him back home?

Prodigal Sons is a fluid, fast-moving read about excess, the lure of darkness, family ties, and the difficulty of grappling with the question of stability.  Matthew is the unfettered one and has brought chaos upon himself.  Mark is the family straight arrow, but he sometimes wonders what life is like on the other side, where Matthew is.  Luke doesn’t need an intoxicant to get out of himself; with him, the chaos and the demons are within, always about to swallow him.  Miner gets deep inside the head of each brother and renders the cares and concerns of the Flanagan parents wonderfully.  This is a very real family, parents and siblings who love each other, irritate each other, grouse a lot, joke among themselves, carry resentments, have both happy and sad memories of one another – in a word, complex.  Matthew drinks too much, but there is no moralizing in this book (a great thing), and it’s clear that everyone in the family, when the need arises, likes to pop open a beer and chug one or two.  Miner has a sharp observant eye for the physical world as well; the book contains some lovely descriptions of snowy Connecticut and the flat dusty land abutting the roads in Nevada and Utah.  With the possible exception of a plot development at the very end, nothing in this book feels strained or forced.  It unfolds with ease. Again, I think it’s a testament to a writer working in full command of his material, and because of that command, I found Prodigal Sons an engaging read, start to finish.