Tag Archives: D.C.

Positively 14th Street

What It Was: A Derek Strange Novel by George Pelecanos (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books, $9.99, 272 pages)

I live a block off 14th Street, the setting for much of George Pelecano’s gritty crime novel, What It Was.   Set in 1972, it’s a fascinating read for anyone who likes books set in the Washington “beyond the monuments.”   Watergate is briefly touched on, but this book contains no Senators, no wacky Masonic conspiracy theories and hardly any politics at all.

What It Was concerns the lives of real people, mostly cops and criminals, in a city scarred by riots.   The popular conception of 14th Street is that it was a wasteland, from the disturbances of 1968 to the start of gentrification in the 1980s.   But life went on.   Pimps, drug dealers and hustlers of all kinds moved in.   And for a lot of them, and the cops that pursued them, it was a hell of a time, even a good one.

Red Fury wants to make a name for himself and is going on a crime spree across the city.   He wants to be remembered.   Hunting him is Frank Vaughn, a dinosaur in the evolving era, someone not afraid to bend the rules to get the job done.   Also mixed up in the case is his friend Derek Strange, a cop who has left the force to become a private eye.

Pelecanos has a great eye for the details of the time, from the tricked-out cars to the soul music of the 1970s.   He also resurrects a lot of old DC haunts, legendary bars and restaurants that are long gone in this gentrified city.   His knowledge of the city is encylopedic.   For example, Red hides out in Burrville, a neighborhood I didn’t even know existed.

I wrote my own crime novel about the city, Murder in Ocean Hall.   It’s set in many of the 14th Street neighborhoods of What It Was but during a time of rapid change.

What It Was is a fast, involving read.   Pelecano’s style is muscular, alternating perspectives as it advances towards an inevitably violent conclusion.   Interestingly, the novel is available on the Kindle for only 99 cents.   It’s a limited-time offer designed to generate new readers for this crime novelist.   Forward-thinking publishers are experimenting with new strategies and promotions to adapt to the world of e-readers.

What It Was is also the first book I’ve read on my iPad.   Using the Kindle app, set to sepia, it was a comfortable reading experience – though not as easy on the eyes as using an e-ink reader like the Kindle.   But the 99 cent strategy worked for me.   After dipping into the gritty crime world of What It Was, I’m primed to read the rest of Pelecano’s work.   Well recommended.

Joe Flood

 Joe Flood is the author of two novels, Don’t Mess Up My Block and Murder in Ocean Hall.   He is also a photographer and web content manager.   You can see more of  his writing – and his photographs – at: http://joeflood.com/ .

What It Was is available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download for $4.99.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of What It Was: A Novel by George Pelecanos.

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One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)

The Ballad of Bob Dylan: A Portrait by Daniel Mark Epstein (Harper; $27.99; 512 pages)

Bob Dylan is a performing artist – a traveling bluesman, a modern-day minstrel – and the best way to try to access his art is to see him perform live.   Reading the lyrics, even listening to the records just does not do the man justice.   In The Ballad of Bob Dylan, Daniel Mark Epstein does what few have been able to do at all, much less do well – capture that spirit and, in doing so, somehow manages to get closer to the essence of an American icon.

Epstein explores Mr. Dylan through the lens of four concerts spanning 46 (yes, you read it correctly, 46!) years.   Beginning with the Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C., December 14, 1963; moving to Madison Square Garden, 1974; then to Tanglewood, 1997; and, finally, ending with Aberdeen, 2009, the author invites the reader into the endless iterations and reincarnations of the man who, by Dylan’s account “doesn’t do folk-rock” and is “just a guitar player.”   Epstein tells of a Hibbing, Minnesota, Jewish boy obsessed with American roots music.   He explores the inner workings of a young man who locks himself in his room listening to far away radio stations – a teenager enamored with Little Richard and Buddy Holly.

Epstein takes the reader on an improbable journey in which this same person, later in his life, converts to Christianity and – for nearly three years from 1979-1981 – almost exclusively performs music from his three religious albums, regularly using the stage as a pulpit.   Epstein describes a man so distraught that in 1987, after years of going through the motions and hiding behind back-up singers, concludes that retirement from live performances is his only option.

At this point, Epstein alludes to a turning point in Dylan’s career familiar to many of his fans.   On October 5, 1987, in Locarno, Switzerland, Dylan, petrified, needing to take the stage on the verge of a panic attack, indicated that he heard a voice, and a revelation occurred to him.   “I’m determined to stand, whether God will deliver me or not.   And all of a  sudden everything just exploded in every which way.   After that is when I sort of knew:  I’ve got to go out and play these songs.   That’s just what I must do.”

This moment is likely the birth of what has become known as “The Never Ending Tour”, a tour that Dylan claims has ended, but to which the author refers in an effort to describe Dylan’s continual need to perform well over 100 shows per year.   Epstein describes Tanglewood as the 880th show of the tour.   Specifics aside, Dylan has kept up this pace ever since.   He has played in front of a couple of thousand people or less; he has played to sold-out arenas; he has played summer shows in amphitheaters to crowds of 20,000-plus; he has played ballparks and college campuses; he has played in front of crowds that have enthusiastically embraced him, as well as several who have walked out on him.   But keep playing, he has.

As Epstein relates, Dylan wanted to take his music to a new audience without preconceived ideas of what it was supposed to sound like.   In so doing, Dylan essentially recreates his music on a nightly basis.

Moving from concert to concert, Epstein recounts various stages of Dylan’s career.   Many of these stories can be found elsewhere.   However, the perspective is unique, and there’s ample and interesting new ground.   The best example of this is Chapter 12, in which the author goes to great lengths describing the impact drummer David Kemper had on the band during his 509 shows (1996-2001).   It is probably no coincidence that this is the era in which Dylan reconnected with the masses.

Another interesting tidbit is Epstein’s account of when Larry Campbell replaced John Jackson on lead guitar.   Upon arrival, Campbell had to learn Dylan’s songbook, yet during the rehearsals prior to his first tour, the band almost exclusively played covers from the traditional American songbook.   Rarely did they ever rehearse anything.   Dylan wanted things raw and spontaneous and created an environment to ensure it.

There are a great many other nuggets in this book, and Epstein’s bright ability to capture the essence of Dylan’s commitment to performing live is unique.   Paul Williams wrote three books entitled Bob Dylan Performing Artist, which consider work from different eras of Dylan’s career, but Esptein – for reasons that will become apparent to the reader – does a better job than most at providing the context of why this discussion is worth having in the first place.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is the author of a novel about baseball, family and Bob Dylan entitled Life and Life Only.   He has seen Bob Dylan perform live twenty-nine (yes, 29!) times over the years and decades; however, Mr. Moyer has never played his drums for Mr. Dylan.


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The Mighty Quinn

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber (Henry Holt and Company; $27.00; 296 pages)

On March 30, 1981, I was at the Orange County (California) airport – waiting for my return flight to Sacramento – when it became clear that something had happened back east.   The new president of the U.S., and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan had been shot in an apparent assassination attempt.   Three other persons were shot and it was not known whether Reagan, at his advanced age, would survive.   It appeared that a hundred or so persons jammed into the airport’s pub to watch the 19-inch RCA televisions broadcasting the dramatic events.

On that day, I assumed that a book about the near assassination of an American president would appear within 6 to 18 months, clarifying exactly what happened that day.   Years and decades passed by and it did not appear…  This, finally, is that book.

Del Quentin Wilber takes a micro-level look at the events of 03/30/81 in a style that recalls books like The Day Lincoln Was Shot, The Day Kennedy Was Shot and The Death of a President. It is an immediately engaging narrative which begins by looking at the schedules of Reagan (whose secret service code name was Rawhide), his secret service detail members and of the highly disturbed and bizarre individual who sought to impress a Hollywood actress.   The language and mood become more intense as the hour of the assassination attempt draws near.  

Wilber properly sets the stage by reminding us that this shooting came just three months after the killing of John Lennon, and followed the history-altering assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.   Wilber’s sadness in relating these events is palpable, and informs the reader that this is a non-partisan account – one need not have been a political supporter of Reagan’s to fear for his safety (and for the country’s future) while revisiting that period.

“If Jerry Parr hadn’t decided to redirect the limousine from the White House to the hospital, Reagan would likely have died…”

“(The) doctors had been keeping pace with Reagan’s bleeding by pumping donated blood and fluids into his system.   So far, the tactic was working…  But this compensatory approach couldn’t continue forever.   They would have to stop the bleeding surgically.”

In these pages, Ronald Reagan is a likeable and courageous man who was able to joke with his emergency room physicians.   (He wondered what the gunman had against the Irish as all those shot on this day happened to be of Irish heritage.)   But he was also a man who wondered if he was about to meet his maker.   It was an open question because, as we now know, Reagan lost fully half of his blood volume as surgeons sought to remove the bullet that lodged just one inch from his heart.   Those of us glued to the TVs in early 1981 had no idea that the president came this close to dying.

Once the danger period passed, the president was advised to convalesce for several months.   But he was a uniquely physically fit and strong elderly man.   Twelve days later he was back at the White House, and a mere month later a visibly thinner president addressed a joint session of the Congress.

There’s more, much more, in this telling that disappoints only in that it seems to conclude too soon.   The courage of the secret service agents who saved the president’s life on this day is close to being incomprehensible.   “(Agent) Parr’s training had taught him one thing above all:  when faced with an actual threat, he could never freeze.   Not for three seconds, not for one second.   Without fail, he had to respond instantly.”

This is a fascinating and unique account, and constitutes a worthwhile addition to the historical record.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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This Ain’t No Disco

A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer (Harper Perennial; $15.99; 560 pages)

“There was no statute of limitations on murder.”

Lauren Belfer has produced a grand, glorious and occasionally disappointing tale of medicine, war, love and other things in this 560 page historical novel.   This is primarily a fictional account of the discovery and development of penicillin soon after the United States was dragged into World War II.   Belfer sets the scene well, convincing the reader that Pearl Harbor was an overwhelming experience for the average American; quite comparable to 9/11.

The primary character is one Claire Shipley, a photographer for Life magazine which provides her with the credentials to witness history in the making.   In this role, Claire comes to meet and fall in love with James Stanton, the physician who is heading the government’s military-based efforts to develop the new drug on a massive scale.   Claire can relate to the importance of Stanton’s mission as her daughter died from a blood-borne disease at a young age, a disease that might have been halted by penicillin.

One early surprise about this novel is that Stanton reports to a civilian authority figure in Washington, D.C. – a man by the name of Vannevar Bush.   Bush, a key scientist and organizer of the project that led to the development of the atomic bomb, comes across as a very serious and intelligent figure, yet with a touch of playfulness.   With Bush, Belfer succeeds in bringing a lesser-known historical figure to life.

She also succeeds, at least during the first half of A Fierce Radiance, in juxtaposing two stories, the story of the medicine, science and sheer luck behind the development of a life saving drug, and a love story.   Claire and James meet the love of their lives when they meet each other, but each has issues and problems that make their becoming a couple unlikely.   Each has perhaps seen too much of life by the time they’ve met.

If Belfer has played it safe to this point, she soon gambles with the reader’s patience and understanding.   This is because a murder affecting one of the major characters occurs, turning a two-headed story into a three-headed one.   Now the novel is not just about the war and medicine and love during wartime, it also becomes a murder mystery.   It seems at first a bit much especially when – wouldn’t you know it – a New York City Police Department detective (wise and grizzled) enters the scene.

Of course, the author has provided herself with a very broad field to work in here; one can tie together a lot of loose ends in close to 600 pages.   What Belfer does so well is to write in a voice that makes the reader feel “calmed and safe.”   There’s a patience and politeness in the voice that will seem familiar to readers of Anna Quindlen and to those who have read the other recent novel about life in the U.S. during World War II, The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.   It’s as if the oh-so-calm voice does take us back to an earlier time with ease.

Yet there are at least two problems with the telling.   First, the omniscient point of view of the narrator becomes tiring and also keeps the reader from knowing each of the characters as well as we would like.   Because the omniscient (godlike) narrator goes into the mind of every character, the author skimps on well-rounded character development.   This becomes frustrating to the reader and may be a major reason the omniscient voice is used less and less in today’s popular fiction.

Next, while Belfer has written a story that reads like an overly long screenplay, if it were made into a film, most viewers would be very far from satisfied with the ending.   The author does not take the easy way out…  she ends the story with a whimper rather than with a bang.   In this she may have successfully reflected the happenings of life in a truer way than it might be displayed in a tightly scripted and highly dramatic Hollywood-style ending.   This may well be to the author’s credit but it is asking a lot – in fact, far too much – of a reader to devote more than 550 pages to a story that sometimes sizzles before it blandly fizzles out.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   A Fierce Radiance will be released in trade paperback form on March 29, 2011.


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A Mystery Most Fowl

Buffalo West Wing: A White House Chef Mystery  by Julie Hyzy (Berkley; $7.99; 320 pages)

Author Julie Hyzy writes two series of mysteries, White House Chef Mysteries and Manor House Mysteries.   Buffalo West Wing is the fourth in the White House Chef series.   Earlier this year, her first Manor House Mystery, Grace Under Pressure, was reviewed here.

White House executive chef Olivia Paras has a full plate on her hands with a new first family moving into the White House.   Yes, that White House.   She is well-known for being the first female executive chef and was well-loved by the prior president and his family.   The new first family must be won over to assure her tenure as executive chef.   The family includes grade-school children and a grandmother which makes Olivia’s job that much more challenging.   The mix of characters makes it highly contemporary and easily believable.

The story is based on a mysterious box of buffalo wings that’s delivered to the White House kitchen on inauguration night with a note attached designating it for the new young occupants.   Olivia is a veteran of many an intrigue and exercises her good judgment by withholding the tasty treats as she cannot attest to their source.   The new first lady is not amused when she finds out that Olivia has denied her children a special treat!   But Olivia is proven to be in the right when the wings are determined to be poisonous – danger hits the House.

The plot unfolds as Olivia, her kitchen staff members, the Secret Service and an annoying bunch of know-it-alls vie for the favor of upper management.   Author Hyzy writes knowledgeably about all matters related to White House dining and state dinner preparation.   She brings the reader along as Olivia gets in and out of some terrifying situations.   As is the case with the most enjoyable of novels, this one brings with it a peek into a world not observed by most folks.   There are recipes included at the end of the book for the dishes that are featured in the story.

Well recommended.

This preview-review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.   Buffalo West Wing will be released on Tuesday, January 4, 2011.

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