Saturday, January 6, 2018

Recent reading

Okay, I just haven't been reading lately. Sad, I know. I recently took on the Goodreads 2018 reading challenge and committed to 48 books (4 per month). We'll see how I do with that.

In the meantime here are the only ones I've finished recently, and by recently probably in months (one of which may read as a bit of a rant, but there it is). I decided to post these now (finally) to get a fresh start in the new year.

The Late Show by Michael Connelly
In The Late Show, Connelly introduces a new character, Detective Renee Ballard, who was inspired by Connelly's experiences working with a real-life female detective.

Ballard works the graveyard shift at LAPD's Hollywood Station. Known as "the late show", it's a demotion that resulted from her filing a sexual harassment complaint against a former supervisor while she was on the promotion track. It's also a role that has her answering calls during the night, but rarely closing them as the shift's cases are usually turned over to daytime detectives.

One night Ballard and her partner receive two calls that she isn't willing to part with. One is the beating of a transvestite prostitute, while the other is a mass shooting at an upscale Hollywood club that may or may not involve a dirty cop. Despite being discouraged from working the cases by her superiors, Renee relentlessly pursues them like an obsession, frequently during her off-hours and often at the risk of harm to herself. The way the club shooting was resolved was a startling twist that I didn't see coming at all.

Ballard is a unique character. Born and raised in Hawaii, she spends almost all of her non-work time paddleboarding off Venice and pretty much living out of a van with her dog. Like Connelly's Harry Bosch, she's a loner driven by the need to see justice done even when it involves pushing the boundaries of LAPD rules. I'm already eagerly anticipating the next Renee Ballard book.

Outside the front doors of the hospital Ballard stopped and took stock of where things stood. She was facing the depressing realization that her investigations were stalling on all fronts. With Ramona Ramone unable to identify her attacker, there was no evidence and no case against Trent, no matter how sure in her gut Ballard was that he was the abductor.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Vance writes of growing up in the "Rust Belt", an area where factories once employed thousands until the relocation of those industries and jobs left the population in abject poverty. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Vance managed to break out of the cycle of poverty, first thanks to several non-dysfunctional relatives determined to get him through it, then by joining the U.S. Marines, after which he attended Ohio State and finally graduated from Yale Law School. But despite his improbable success, Vance is still haunted by what he left behind and the people still stuck in those dysfunctional communities along with everything that accompanies it (drugs, welfare dependency, broken families, neglected children) and that was his impetus in writing this memoir.

Hillbilly Elegy came to my (and a lot of other people's) attention thanks to a snide, condescending essay in which a clerk at an independent bookstore who apparently feels that the book, its author and its readers are, in a nutshell, too conservative/right-wing, wrestled with how to deter customers from buying the book. I gave my take on it here.

Apparently what set the bookstore clerk off is that Vance and his poverty stricken community are white (and definitely not privileged) and in the book Vance promotes opinions currently seen as embraced mainly by those who he considers to be racist, intolerant conservatives, such as the declining work ethic of recent generations, a focus on the decline of the middle class and their chances for upward mobility, the negative affects of welfare/government dependency, and the embracing (rather than villainizing) of people perceived as "hillbillies, rednecks and white trash". To me the clerk's take is loftily presumptuous and dare I say, not very tolerant and open-minded. Plus, this isn't some guy writing about a cause because of his political slant - it's a memoir. Vance lived this nightmare, survived it, and has every right to write about it.

The best description of the book comes from its back cover:

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis - that of poor, white Americans. The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for over forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck.

Having actually read the book, I can highly recommend it. It's a riveting story that opened the door to a society that I was unfamiliar with, and Vance's fight to escape a society that could have easily doomed him to personal and professional failure is incredibly admirable. So thank you Mr. Preachy Self-Important bookstore clerk for bringing it to my attention.

But I often wonder: Where would I be without them? I think back on my freshman year of high school, a grade I nearly failed, and the morning when Mom walked into Mamaw's house demanding a cup of clean urine. Or years before that, when I was a lonely kid with two fathers, neither of whom I saw very often, and Papaw decided that he would be the best dad he could be for as long as he lived. Or the months I spent with Lindsay, a teenage girl acting as a mother while our own mother lived in a treatment center. Or the moment I can't even remember when Papaw installed a secret phone line in the bottom of my toy box so that Lindsay could call Mamaw and Papaw if things got a little too crazy. Thinking about it now, about how close I was to the abyss, gives me chills. I am one lucky son of a bitch.

Inside Trek: My Secret Life with Star Trek Creator Gene Roddenberry by Susan Sackett
Sackett was hired by Gene Roddenberry to be his personal secretary in 1974 and it began a rollercoaster ride that not only gave Sackett the chance to be on the inside of the Star Trek films, but also to be an active participant in the launch of the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

She also became more than a secretary to Roddenberry - shortly after being hired, she became his mistress, despite the fact that he was married to original Trek actress Majel Barrett. The affair continued until his death in 1991, and Sackett isn't shy about sharing a lot of the details, including the fact that Roddenberry was often impotent.

I became aware of Sackett thanks to one of my favorite documentaries of the past couple of years, William Shatner's Chaos on the Bridge, which chronicles the dysfunctional launch and early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Sackett appears in the film and is even identified onscreen "Secretary/ Mistress".

She makes no apologies for her nearly two-decades long affair with a married man, almost wearing her devotion to Gene like a badge of honor. Somewhere along the way Majel apparently became aware of their relationship, but chose to ignore it (at least according to Sackett). According to this book, Majel was a self-absorbed ice-queen whose marriage had deteriorated to being pretty much in name only. And although Sackett considered herself and Gene to be soulmates, and she cared for him mentally, physically, and sexually in ways no one else did, she claims that she never asked Gene to leave Majel and marry her, supposedly because he was so traumatized by his divorce from his first wife. Sackett mentions that by sticking with this affair, she pretty much lost out on the possibility of a healthy marriage and family life for herself, but she seems to consider Roddenberry more than worthy of that sacrifice.

The book is simply written and easy to follow, but Sackett's habit of contradicting herself is somewhat distracting. In one example, she frets about how distressing it was to her when Roddenberry, flush from the success of Next Generation, purchased a Rolls Royce because she couldn't imagine spending $100,000 on a car when there were so many homeless and starving people. She describes expressing this concern to him, but he assured her he was the same old Gene, that his newfound success hadn't affected him. But shortly thereafter, not only does she praise Roddenberry's generosity to charitable causes, but also mentions that to this day, when she sees a Rolls, the sight warms her because she remembers the great joy Roddenberry got from the car. She also starts the chapter following the Rolls story with the line, "Gene never let his success go to his head...", despite having just expressed her concern that he was doing just that. It might be hero worship interfering with the telling of her story, trying to be objective without completely criticizing a man she was madly in love with, but it's still annoying.

On the upside, it's a fascinating behind the scenes look at Roddenberry, the Star Trek phenomenon, and Roddenberry's non-Trek projects. Sackett does touch on some of the insanity that accompanied ST:TNG, but she does so protectively from Gene's point of view. The book is still a great addendum to the documentary, as well as a look at the very complicated Roddenberry.

Shortly before Gene went into Schick, Paramount Studios presented him with a written treatment for a new television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. The studio executives in charge of this production had hired an outside writer to create this new incarnation of Star Trek, and they wanted Gene's opinion. Gene mustered self-control I didn't know he had as, politely, he told them to which end of space to go. "When I read what they had written, I almost threw up," Gene told me. If the studio wanted a new Star Trek, he was their boy, not some outsider who had populated a new starship with a bunch of "gee whiz" space cadets.

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