Monday, May 30, 2011

Folklore, American Vampire, and the Once Upon a Time Challenge

I read American Vampire (Volume One) back at the end of March (review) and it has stayed on my mind.  A lot.

In the various musing on it that I have done, I realized that it is perfect for the "Folklore" category of Once Upon a Time Challenge and I'm shocked that I didn't see it at first.  That's the thing about a book like this, though.  It is so layered it takes months to peel away at it; and the more I peel, the more I find.

Folklore takes the customs of a group of people and tells it in story form, usually (to my layman's mind) using a lot of exaggeration and showing that particular people to be something special.  Think of the Jack tales, if you will.

Snyder and King (especially in King's half of the novel) have taken the vampire legend and made it something completely American, indigenous only to this breed of people.  In short, they've created a new folklore.

If you like vampire stories, or the Wild West, or revengeful women, or. .. heck, just as long as you like to read but don't mind a little gore (okay, even if you DON'T like to read; this might be a good starting point), give this one a try.  Let it marinate for a while afterwards and see where it takes you.

Darn fine book.

In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts
Erik Larson 
Hardcover: 464 pages 
Publisher: Crown; 1st edition (May 10, 2011)
reviewing ARC, courtesy of Amazon Vine
5/5 stars

In the Garden of Beasts is an amazing book.  It is a nonfiction account that reads with the ease and entertainment of a good novel.  When I wasn't reading it, I was thinking about it.  When I was reading it, I was engrossed.

Larson uses letters, journals and papers to tell the story of William Dodd, U.S. Ambassador to Germany in the thirties, of his daughter (Martha), and of Hitler's rise viewed through their eyes.  Martha, socialite and party to many romantic escapades, found herself in a position to garner information that the Ambassador couldn't know and become the center of several intrigues herself.  As for Ambassador Dodd, as he became more disillusioned with (and ultimately more fully aware of) Hitler's Germany, he became more of an outcast with the "in crowd" of the State Department, creating an entirely different, but important, conspiracy of sorts.

Despite knowing the ultimate outcome of the Dodds' adventure, In the Garden of Beasts is still a page turner and thoroughly fascinating.  It was with reluctance that I turned the last page, and said good bye to these people that had consumed my mind so completely.

Larson's apparently has the ability to write a biographical account in such a way that makes it more enjoyable than most fiction.  (I've not read The Devil in the White City*, but that has been moved to the top of my to-read list.)  I can not recommend this enough, regardless of your interest in the subject.  My initial interest was not high, but I came away with new understanding and knowledge of the time period, US and German politics, and ultimately, human nature. In the Garden of Beasts is a must read.

*I did read The Devil in the White City and it was a five star read!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family

Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family by Nicholas Pileggi

It's impossible to review this book without mentioning Goodfellas, the movie it spawned. And since the movie has now been mentioned, let's move on.

Wiseguy is the life story of Henry Hill, a half-Sicilian Brooklyn boy who became what he always wanted to be: a mobster. A wiseguy. Over his criminal career, he rubbed elbows with the worst hoodlums in the Mafia Mecca of New York. He stole, cheated, schemed, scammed, and busted heads alongside made men.

Contrary to popular belief, working for the Mob is much harder than holding down a nine-to-five. Wiseguys are always on duty. For thirty years, Henry Hill was always on the lookout for the next big score. He describes the elaborate thefts and cons with relish, but the message is clear: it ain't as easy as it looks. And in the end, when the cops had all the information they needed to put him prison until the Resurrection, Henry Hill made a deal - he entered the Federal Witness Protection program and testified against his former partners.

Wiseguy is a fast read, if you are at all interested in the subject matter - I knocked it out in a day. The writing is tight, the pace is swift, the language is authentic. You don't want it to end.

But end it does, right where the movie does, with Citizen Hill living in the suburbs like an ordinary schnook. The roller coaster comes to a halt and the credits roll, and a darned good book is finished.

But wait, there's more!

The rest of the story is not as much fun, so it's not covered in the book. Hill was kicked out of the Witness Protection program after just a couple of years. He has been in and out of trouble, mostly due to drugs and alcohol, ever since. For a guy who was in fear for his life, he keeps a high profile. He's always on TV or radio somewhere, sells tie-in products over the internet, owns restaurants. He's in the American Gangster Museum. If the Mafia has such a long memory, why is he still alive?

The guys he sent to prison are mostly dead, so maybe nobody has a beef with him. Maybe the Mob has gotten kinder and gentler.