Monday, December 8, 2014

Book Review: Detroit, An American Autopsy

Anger and news are a powerful combination. There are those who get angry over breaking news. Then, there are those who get angry over investigations for what is or what is not discovered. As a journalist myself, there are stories that I've had, some in the form of a feature series, that left me shaking my head in disbelief and bordering on anger.

A similar affair occurred for journalist Charlie LeDuff when he left his reporting position at the New York Times and returned to his native Detroit to work at the Detroit News. His book Detroit: An American Autopsy (2013, Penguin) chronicles that period of time when he returned to the Motor City and saw how dire its situation was. At the time, the Great Recession was at its peak and both General Motors and Chrysler declared bankruptcy and Ford was not looking good either. Emergency personnel response times were terrible in parts of the city, arson was rampant and whole blocks were deserted, in part because of sky-high foreclosure rates, or had squatters. Understandably, LeDuff was furious over the lack of care in his hometown.

As he starts to unravel stories that indicate what caused the downfall of one of the nation's economic hubs, we learn a little about his own life as well. We see corrupt political figures go to jail, a man frozen in ice and a general sense of despair from the city's residents, as if they realize the problem is too big to overcome.

But the book has its problems. First, the man in ice story, one of the more memorable parts of the book, has had its validity questioned by other Detroit media outlets for various inconsistencies when the print version appeared in the Detroit News. Second, LeDuff can be an unlikeable gruff at times, but I think that's more of an extension of his anger at the city's sullen state. Third, LeDuff shows a lot of the problems in the city, but I don't think he quite got to the root causes and there are no solutions discussed. The latter issue didn't bother me as much because the story of Detroit is ongoing.

Grade: 3/5 stars. LeDuff's reporting has an edge to it that jumps off the page, but possible errors in one of the more memorable stories in the book as well as the incomplete dissection of the causes of the city's plight hold it back.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Film Friday: Playing the Enemy (a.k.a. Invictus)

About a month and a half after the September 11th attacks, the World Series pitted the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks against the powerhouse New York Yankees in what many observers of the sport consider to be one of the best playoff series of all time. But more importantly for the country, the seven-game series was something to rally around, a sign of life returning to normal. It was a moment of people coming together through sport.

John Carlin's Playing the Enemy (2008, Penguin) paints a stirring picture of a nation, South Africa, transitioning out of apartheid hatred and unifying around sport. But to call it a sports book would be a severe disservice, because Playing the Enemy manages to elevate beyond a simple sports story. In journalism, the term is "sports feature writing," where sports ties into a larger social issue and Carlin does it fantastically.

Several friends of mine have visited South Africa (one even stayed) and I found myself fascinated by that country. Carlin's book gives a thorough history of the internal struggles within South Africa leading up to the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which the country hosted. Mandela was a political genius and Carlin traces how he managed to meet with white leaders F. W. de Klerk and P. W. Botha and eventually be released from prison. Then, he bet his political capital on the Springboks national rugby team, captained by Francois Pienaar, to unite the nation during the World Cup. Carlin also tells the story of the Viljoen brothers who were split on the issue of ending apartheid and gives equal time to black aspirations of newfound equality and white fears of a vengeful Mandela. As the World Cup got closer and closer, the book veers more toward the sports aspect.

Carlin presents the story with a wide scope and I knew much more of South Africa's terrain, culture, demographics, and history than I did prior to picking up the book. Sports fans may feel like they're plodding though the first two-thirds of the book in order to get to the rugby action and conversely, politicos may be less interested in the rugby, but save for a bit of a slow-down in the middle of the book, I was invested from page to page. And that's the definition of a good read. Grade: 4/5 stars.

In the holiday season of 2009, Warner Bros. released two high-quality sports films based on books of true stories. The first, football drama The Blind Side, won Sandra Bullock an Oscar and was nominated for Best Picture, but lost to The Hurt Locker. The second film, South African rugby drama Invictus, was met with mostly positive but not rapturous reviews like previous Clint Eastwood-directed films. Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon were both nominated for Oscars, but they, and the rest of the film's crew, came home empty-handed. Damon lost to Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds while Freeman lost to Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart.

Invictus tries to straddle both the sports aspect of the story and the political and as a result, it has a few quirks. Audiences unfamiliar with how rugby is played will be a bit lost in following the action. Also, the book's history of the years leading up to Mandela's release from prison and first few years after is completely cut from the film, save for a scene where the team visits Robben Island prison. However, the film's overall theme of sports acting as a unifier in a post-apartheid world shines through in several scenes, including one where the team does a publicity visit to a black village...

And my favorite scene in the movie, when Pienaar, played by Damon, meets with Freeman's President Mandela and they discuss how to make people perform better than they first thought possible...

Had I not read the book, I'd score Invictus a bit higher, but knowing that the whole back history was cut dampens the movie. The book itself is a slice of South African history and the movie is a slice of the slice. That's not to say the movie is bad. It has fine work behind the camera by Eastwood, a great soundtrack and Freeman and Damon do stellar jobs, but the total picture of the history didn't quite make the jump to celluloid. Grade: 4/5 stars.

Have you read Playing the Enemy or seen Invictus? What did you think?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Goodreads Choice Award Winners

The winners of the Goodreads Choice were announced this week. More than 3.3 million readers cast votes for their favorite books of the year.

Best Fiction
Winner: Landline by Rainbow Rowell - 46,154 votes
My Pick: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin - 19,818 votes
My Runner-Up: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel - 11,608 votes

This category was going to be a slugfest from the word go and it didn't disappoint. As I expected, Rowell's fans came out in droves, as did avid readers of Liane Moriarty, who came in second place. Zevin's novel came in third, better than where I thought it would end up. Station Eleven came in ninth place, but it had an uphill battle since it was released in September, whereas the others had summer and spring publications. If anything, the fact that it didn't finish any lower is a testament to how well it was received in the short time period between publication and award nomination. Redeployment, winner of the National Book Award, came in 14th place.

Best Historical Fiction
Winner: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr - 41,512 votes
My Pick: Same

This book is on dozens of best books of the year lists, has received universal acclaim and was shortlisted for the National Book Award. So it's no surprise that it cleaned house in the historical fiction category. Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings and Ken Follett's Edge of Eternity made solid efforts, but in the end, the World War II-era tale was the victor.

Best Mystery and Thriller
Winner: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King - 41,453 votes
My Pick: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) - 41,034 votes

419 votes. That was the difference between the gold and silver in this category. By the hair of it's chinny-chin-chin, Mercedes took the top spot. While other books like Janet Evanovich's Top Secret Twenty One and Tana French's The Secret Place had decent votes, the proverbial air was sucked out of the category by Silkworm and Mercedes. I grew up on Rowling's writing, so I favored her writing, which is more of a detective mystery compared to King's novel, which has a more sinister tone. That isn't to say that I disliked Mr. Mercedes, especially since it was on my TBR list at one point. My vote was more about which style I tend to prefer rather than the quality of writing.

Best Memoir and Autobiography
Winner: This Star Won't Go Out by the Earl Family - 27,850 votes
My Pick: Life, Animated by Ron Suskind - 1,131 votes
My Runner-Up: As You Wish by Cary Elwes - 24,111 votes

Consider this category Exhibit A for the power of John Green's Nerdfighters. As I wrote on my previous post, I was rooting for Ron Suskind's book, but suspected that it would not make it to the final rounds. When it was eliminated, I switched my vote to Elwes' memoir on the making of the 1987 film The Princess Bride. Despite having a late publishing date, it did really well, likely from all the movie's large fan base. And yet, it didn't top a John Green-backed book about a cancer victim that helped inspire Green's book The Fault in Our Stars. The lauded crematorium memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty, which has appeared on a number of top book lists, came in eighth place.

Best History and Biography
Winner: The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport - 21,118 votes
My Pick: Five Came Back by Mark Harris - 220 votes
My Runner-Up: In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides - 7,203 votes

Some surprises here. I didn't see the Romanov biography winning at all and thought it would likely go to Karen Abbott's Liar Temptress Soldier Spy or Bill O'Reilly's latest. I also didn't think Five Came Back would only garner 220 votes, one of the lowest overall votes in the entire competition. Harris' book tells the story of five Hollywood directors, including Frank Capra, John Ford and William Wyler who served in the military during World War II. A relative of mine hardly reads or listens to books, but he was completely mesmerized by the audiobook of Five Came Back. When it got knocked out in the later rounds, I switched my vote to Sides' highly-regarded Arctic tale.

There were some other interesting tidbits from the awards results as well...

• The book with the highest number of total votes wasn't Landline, but rather Rick Riordan's The Blood of Olympus, the latest in the Heroes of Olympus series. It took home the gold in the children's category with 63,000 votes cast. Other big vote-getters included City of Heavenly Fire, the latest Mortal Instruments novel. It racked up more than 53,000 votes and handily won the young adult fantasy category. Diana Gabaldon's Written in My Own Heart's Blood also got more than 50,000 votes and coasted to a victory in the romance category.

• The closest vote came in the nonfiction category, though the best debut author category was also very well contested.

To see a full list of the nominees and winners, click here.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

When I told some friends that I was going to be reading Katherine Boo's book Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Random House), some asked in dismay why I'd read a book that screams "Downer!" I was somewhat taken aback by the question because I thought it inadvertently highlighted how there are some people that can walk this earth completely oblivious or ignorant to the plight of others around the globe. It's partly this reason why I try to read at least one book per year about some other country besides the U.S. This year, Forevers was one of two.

I've never been to India, but I understand the increasing role they play in the global economy. According to the World Bank, India's GDP was averaging 9.5% prior to the 2008 global recession, while the U.S. was averaging about 2.75%. When the recession hit, India's GDP had dropped to 4% and the U.S. rate was below zero. Factor in India's social caste system and its juxtaposing new fortune and the conditions create a horrible tease and grim reality for slum residents.

Perhaps that's nowhere more evident than in the slum of Annawadi, adjacent to the city's main airport, where Boo's tale of life in the Mumbai underclass takes place. The airport gleams with construction walls touting "Beautiful Forevers," hence the title, but behind those walls lie desperate people that want the benefits of their country's newfound economic muscle.

We meet several people along the way, including the ambitious Asha, the area's female slumlord; Abdul, a teenage boy who is the breadwinner for his family by picking garbage; Fatima, a one-legged woman who dies a terrible death; and Kalu, a homeless boy who is killed, but is hardly given a second thought by authorities.

Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writer at The New Yorker and formerly of The Washington Post, writes of the residents' plight as a reporter and it shows. The level of detail in her writing is fantastic and balances a tender sense of care with the grim realities of life in Annawadi. Boo shatters any pre-conceived notions of a slumlord or of religious aid groups in the slum. The book won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2012 and deservedly so.

It is an uncomfortable, heart-breaking and challenging read. There were many times where I had to set the book down and reflect on whether it was hypocritical to read about people so impoverished while I'm curled up on the couch enjoying a Coke on a warm fall day. It is impossible to read this book without feeling some empathy toward the people who were trying everything they could to get out of Annawadi and into India's middle class. It challenges ideas of income inequality, pure free-market capitalism and those it can leave behind.

Rating: 4/5 stars. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a difficult and challenging read because of it's inherently brutal subject matter, but it is really well-written and illuminates a side of humanity few in America think about. I am better off for having read it.

While there hasn't been any talk of a film adaptation, though YouTube vlogger and author John Green has called for it, the National Theatre in London just opened a play based on the book. Below is an interview author Katherine Boo gave with the New York Public Library about the book.