Reader’s Notebook, 10-5-17

The Force – Don Winslow.
Winslow writes excellent epics anchored in the world of organized crime. In the past he’s focused on the drug trade, specifically the cartels of Mexico. Here he shifts much farther to the north to look at the life of Denny Malone, Manhattan’s toughest, best, and most powerful detective.

Malone’s crew runs North Manhattan. Nothing happens in that part of the city without either his permission or his punishment. His crew makes the biggest drug busts, snatches the most rapists and murderers, and attempts to keep the peace between the various drug gangs that harass the locals.

Stephen King offers a cover-blurb for The Force and says is is reminiscent of The Godfather for both its scope and quality. I would argue the book more closely mirrors Goodfellas if you want to compare it to a classic tale of the American mob. The first third of the book is a very Scorsese-like setup: we see Malone and his partners reaching the pinnacle of their power, and enjoying the spoils of that success. Everything builds up to a single night of celebration after a huge bust. The next morning everything falls apart: the FBI has Malone on tape committing multiple Federal crimes, and demand his cooperation in order to save his badge. He has to weigh the value of saving himself, and his family, against becoming the worst thing a cop can be: a rat.

The whole thing is typical Winslow: sprawling, detail rich, great characters, and filled with moral ambiguity.


Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
I had never read this classic before. But I recently came across a list of best dystopian novels and picked it from several I had not knocked out in the past.

I hate it when I read a book that is revered and it just doesn’t connect with me. I enjoyed the central concept of the story: a society where citizens are numbed by constantly staring at screens that feed us videos designed to make us forget the struggles of life and wipe out independent thought, and where all books are banned and any found are burned by a crew of firefighters. But, man, Bradbury’s writing style was just so dry and tedious to my eyes. I struggled mightily to get through the first 100 pages. M said she will read it at school next year so the one redeeming quality is now I can discuss it with her. I wonder how it will read to her 21st century eyes.


The North Water – Ian McGuire
Here’s a fine book. Set in 1859, on a British whaling ship that is embarking to Canada with a crew full of misfits and men trying to salvage their lives after past failures.

One crew member is an Irish surgeon who was on the wrong side of a battle with a commanding officer while serving in India. He is educated and worldly, and thus doesn’t fit in with the rest of the crew. Another crew member is a sadist who has equal appetites for liquor, prostitutes, physical conflict, and teenage boys. And the captain has had a series of disastrous whaling trips and is torn between redeeming his reputation and fulfilling a troubling order from the ship’s owner.

Their trip to Baffin Bay goes poorly. A young deckhand is murdered and while a crew member is charged with the murder, no one is really convinced he is the guilty party. After some early luck with the whales, the hunting soon runs dry. Yet the captain persists in staying deep in the Northern Canadian waters even as the winter ice begins to regenerate. Soon their ship is trapped, and then destroyed, by the freezing pack. The crew soon dissolves into chaos: there is another murder, they argue about whether to seek a ship that can rescue them or travel toward the nearest known settlement, all while winter weather begins to bear down on them. The story builds to an expected, but satisfying, final confrontation.

McGuire is brilliant in setting the scene for us. He describes all the sounds and smells of Hull’s shipping yards and the taverns that surround it where the crew spends its time while onshore. It’s not a pleasant description, but it is very effective for putting you there. The process of stripping a whale carcass is laid out in tremendous detail. He knows his way around a ship, and supplies all the necessary nautical terms and functions.