Wednesday, November 26, 2008

American Lightning by Howard Blum

The Players:

William "Billy" Burns: destined to be the first director of the FBI.

Clarence Darrow: destined to be known as, possibly, the greatest trial lawyer in American history.

D.W. Griffith: destined to direct the first true motion picture epic.

In American Lightning, author Howard Blum interweaves two years in the lives of these three men, brought together by an all but forgotten moment in history. The 1910, early morning bombing of the L.A. Times office building, that killed an estimated 21 men.

Mr. Blum is able to bring this story together in a way that reads almost as a fictional story. He uses his extensive research of newspaper articles and autobiographies of the men involved and those involved in their lives to access actual dialogue during what at the time was "The Crime of the Century".

But, lest you think Burns, Darrow and Griffith are the only players, there is a deeper story in these pages.

We know the What? When? Where? and How? of this crime. The unanswered questions are Who? and Why?

Who?: J.J. McNamara and his very loyal brother Jim McNamara, among others.

Why?: Socialists vs. Capitalists

Unions were at their height. Men working for and fighting against the business owners in order to feed their families and own a bit of the American dream. It seemed a time when the rich were getting richer and the middle class was loosing ground.

And this takes us to an even deeper story in American Lightning. The parallels of this particular time period and this specific crime to America today. Blum doesn't hit the reader over the head with this apparent show of "history repeating itself", but it's a hard theme to miss. He does go into complete detail in his final entry, "A Note On Sources". The author explains this far more eloquently than I could ever hope, so I'll not try.

All that said, this is also a very entertaining book.

Detective William Burns is a character, in the truest sense of the word. He is a man who has no compunction when it comes to the blurring of legal lines if it means the difference between getting or not getting his man, or his money, or his fame.

Attorney Clarence Darrow is an unusually depressed man, seemingly always on the side of the underdog and fighting to exhaustion even if he doesn't entirely agree with the circumstances.

Film-maker D.W. Griffith, having resentfully fallen into moving pictures, is a lecherous man, to but it kindly, who spared no time in making the absolute most of what he believed was a terrible situation.

In the end, American Lightning is a book well worth the read for the purpose of both entertainment and education.

Title: American Lightning
Author: Howard Blum
Publisher: Crown Publishers
ISBN: 978-0-307-34694-0

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Tsar's Dwarf by Peter H. Fogtdal

Sorine Bentsdatter is a Danish dwarf in the court of King Frederik IV. When the king is visited by Russia's tsar Peter Alexeyevich (Peter the Great), Sorine is pleased to be given to the tsar as a gift for his "collection".

But Sorine is a difficult character. She does not like dwarves. Sorine does not even consider dwarves to be human. Her self-loathing manifests itself in a caustic, sarcastic wit and a lack of fear from either physical danger or simply speaking her mind, which she does proudly with no self-editing. She is a character who believes when things are going well they will only get worse, and she makes it so. And when things are going badly she is relieved and contented. Even with all of this, she has an overwhelming affection for Peter Alexeyevich, whom she rarely sees. Much like a child for a neglectful parent.

Peter H. Fogtdal's, The Tsar's Dwarf was originally written and published in Danish and has now been translated into English by Tiina Nunnally. Although Mr. Fogtdal has written a dozen novels, this is the first of his books to be translated into English.

While, overall, an enjoyable tale, the reader is often taken out of the story when Sorine "speaks" of scenes happening out of her presence and refers to her "Dwarf vision". This had the unfortunate effect of taking a story that the reader could believe as a slice of life and making it a fantasy. Also, at times, there are words or turns of phrase ("...I can play you like a violin.") that cause pause as being too modern. Whether this is due to the novelist or the translator is not known. Although I found it a bit distracting I can't pretend to know better than Mr. Fogtdal and Ms. Nunnally as to whether or not these are accurate to the time period.

In the end, through The Tsar's Dwarf, Peter H. Fogtdal takes us on a rather incredible journey of a unique character's life beginning just before Sorine Bentsdatter's life with King Frederik IV, through her time with Peter Alexeyevich, where she not only spent time as one of his favorite dwarves, but was also kept in a cloister due to her lack of belief in God and some possible need for exorcism, and then on to a time spent in the tsar's Curiosity Cabinet to be studied by a scientist while on display to "The Good Folk". But her destiny doesn't end there...

Title: The Tsar's Dwarf
Author: Peter H. Fogtdal
Translator: Tiina Nunnally
Publisher: Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts
ISBN: 0-9790188-0-3

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Customer Service by Benoit Duteurtre

Oh, the dreaded call to customer service! You begin with a simple question in mind and the highest hopes of a quick resolve. When the operator picks up you discover, not an operator but an automated system. You patiently listen to all of your options and hit the proper number on your phone. After waiting through some lovely looped music and a periodic voice interrupting to remind you of how important your call is you finally hear a new voice. This voice, too, is automated and offers you more options!

In his satirical novella Customer Service, Benoit Duteurte explores one mans journey through this modern day labyrinth.

When the narrator looses his phone he finds himself cut off from family and friends whose phone numbers are now lost to him. When he can't remember his computer password, he looses his ability to do his work. And when he can't remember his code to the lock on his apartment building, he find himself in danger of loosing his home. After finding no resolution in the phone maze he decides to head straight to the top, the owner of the signature that appears on all of his bills, the mysterious customer service agent Leslie Delmare.

Duteurte's writing throughout this novella, as translated by Bruce Benderson, is very straight forward. It's a bit like reading a newspaper column series. The reader easily relates to the aggravation of the hours of phone calls trying to get services or billing information corrected.

The final chapter, however, takes a bit of an odd turn. Putting one in the mind of having read a Twilight Zone episode.