Sunday, July 21, 2019

Chasing Cosby: The Downfall of America's Dad

I remember Bill Cosby from the beginning. I owned several of his comedy albums when those things were available only as vinyl LPs, and I paid good money to see him perform live when he came to my town.  I remember well his huge breakthrough to star in the weekly television series “I Spy” with Robert Culp, a huge achievement for an African American actor of that time. And, of course, I remember the “don’t-miss” series that my own children grew up on in which Cosby portrayed the perfect father and family man the whole country fell in love with. Little did any of us know that just below the surface of one of the most beloved men in America lurked one of the most despicable human beings on the planet. The real Bill Cosby.

For decades, too many powerful people, and too many weak people who depended upon Cosby for a paycheck, consciously and knowingly enabled Cosby to drug, sexually abuse, and rape dozens and dozens of women.  Cosby, after all, was a generous man who said all the right things about what was wrong in society – especially what he saw as the self-destructive way that too many African Americans raise (or don’t raise) their children. He gave millions of dollars in support of colleges and charities over his lifetime, and that bought him the benefit of the doubt for way too long.  Simply put, Cosby was a black man who achieved tremendous success and wealth, and he singlehandedly did more to change the image of the black family than anyone before him.  As such, he was sacred, and no one wanted to see him fall from grace.

Nicole Weisensee Egan
But fall, he did – with a thud heard around the world – and Nicole Weisensee Egan’s Chasing Cosby explains exactly how it all happened.  Cosby was first tried for his crimes in 2005 in a Philadelphia courtroom, but the resulting mistrial allowed him to walk away a free man.  Try as he might to buy off his accusers, though, in 2018 Cosby found himself again having to fight for his freedom. And this time, things would be different: the #MeToo movement was happening and even though the statute of limitations allowed only one of his accusers actually to bring charges against him, sixty-two other women had also gone public with their own stories of nonconsensual drugging, molesting, and rape at the hands of Bill Cosby.

None of what Egan reveals about Cosby’s crimes and how they affected his victims for the rest of their lives is easy to read. Dozens of women suffered, and Cosby, his wife, many in law enforcement, and many in Hollywood could not have cared less. Cosby, the con artist, fooled most of us – but he was protected by others who knew the truth and did nothing to stop him.  According to Tommy Lightfoot Garret, a “Hollywood insider,” it was no secret in Hollywood what Cosby was doing and what kind of man he was. Garret claims to have heard the rumors in the 1980s when he first became part of that scene, and he says that, “Everyone who was anyone in Hollywood knew.”  But no one wanted to place Cosby, their cash-cow, in danger.  How else could he have gotten away with something like this for decades?  One of the most disgusting things about Cosby’s defenders is how ready they were to claim that he was simply another victim of racism – that no white celebrity would have been charged with the same crimes under the same circumstances. What they ignored is that approximately one-third of Cosby’s accusers were themselves black women, most of whom struggled with their role in bringing down a black icon like Cosby.

But the creepiest thing pointed out in Chasing Cosby, a point that is seldom brought up, is the utter disregard that Cosby had for the lives of the women he was drugging and raping. He was not concerned that they might die from the drugs he was slipping into their drinks; he did not worry that they might have other health issues or that they might die in an accident on the way home if they managed to get away from him before passing out.  Some of these women were unaware of what was happening to them for more than 24 hours – others say they did not feel fully in control of themselves again for as long as four days. It is a miracle (and I hope it’s true) that no one died at Cosby’s hands.

In his defense, the author does point out that Cosby is a man with a mental problem. He openly displayed that by chuckling out loud at his second trial during the prosecution’s defense of the character of his accusers. But Cosby’s problem is deeper than that. He has been legally labeled a “sexually violent predator,” a person with a mental disorder that “makes him likely to repeat his crimes.” As such, he is required to participate in monthly counselling sessions for the rest of his life. He will forever be a registered sex offender.

Chasing Cosby is not an easy book to read. It will make you angry, and it will leave you wondering just who is the guiltiest in a case like this one: the convicted criminal or all those hangers-on who helped him set up his victims. 

Book Number 3,418

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Making Classic Lit Look Cool

It's not the most original idea for bookish humor, but this article from The New Yorker did manage to hit the nail on the head with its rebranding of "classic female-authored novels."  I wonder if a few high school English teachers might want to try this for some of their assigned reading when school starts back up in a few weeks.  

Here are a couple of my favorites from the piece:

"To Kill a Mockingbird
Six-year-old Scout Finch tells the story of her father, the woke AF lawyer Atticus. While her dad defends Tom Robinson, a black man who’s wrongly #MeTooed in the South, Scout discovers through her relationship with a mysterious neighbor that not all incels are bad. "

"House of Mirth
Lily Bart isn’t like other girls—she’s poor and, at twenty-nine, old as hell for a single lady! Even though she’s totally gorge and not just some basic thot, no one’s even tried to put a ring on it, not even her BFF, Lawrence Seldon, a broke-ass lawyer who works hard for the modern equivalent of what, like, maybe $70K, max? #Struggle. As Lily hobnobs with the New York élite, she’s increasingly drawn to Seldon in this classic Ross-and-Rachel romance." 

Other classics ranging from Little Women to Gone with the Wind are included in the article, so take a look to see if one or two of your favorites are there. It's fun.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Where We Come From - Oscar Cásares

Where We Come From offers a view of what is currently happening on America’s southern border through the eyes of those physically and emotionally closest to the situation.  Author Oscar Cásares grew up in Brownsville, Texas, just across the Mexican border and he himself is one of those people. The border is a dangerous place for those who live just north of it and for those who cross it every day to do jobs on its American side. But it is especially dangerous for those who cross it illegally with the hope of setting up a permanent home somewhere within the vastness of the United States for themselves and their families. 

Nina, the book’s main character, grew up in Brownsville and has never lived anywhere else.  Never married, and the only daughter in her family, Nina is now doing what is expected of her women like her by abandoning her own life in order to care for her mother for the rest of the old woman’s life.  That’s just what women like Nina do, and although she resents how readily her brothers assume that the job is hers alone, Nina has now been caring for their mother for eight years.   Although neither of them is much happy with the state of her life, Nina and her mother have more or less settled into a routine they can live with now.

Author Oscar Cásares
But all of that changes one day when Nina agrees to do a favor for someone from the Mexican side of the border, setting into play a chain of events that will forever change Nina’s life and how she sees her place in the world.  Now Nina is hiding something from everyone she knows, including her mother and the brother who very occasionally shows up to see if they need anything.  In the little pink house behind the house she and her mother live in, she is hiding a little Mexican boy named Daniel who is hoping to make it all the way to his father in Chicago.  It is hard enough to keep this secret from her mother and her brother, but when her Houston godson Orly comes to stay with her for a few days, it is only a matter of time before the boys become aware of each other’s presence. And when they do, Nina, her mother, and Daniel are in danger – Nina and her mother of being jailed or fined, and Daniel of being taken into custody until he can be deported.

Bottom Line: Oscar Cásares does a good job of humanizing the generic “illegal immigrants” so commonly seen on the daily news shows, and he reminds the reader that the fact that they are willing to risk their very lives to get here is the best indication of how desperate a life they live on their own side of the border.  They are willing to risk everything for a better life for themselves and their families.  Cásares uses some memorable characters to tell his story: Nina, who surprises herself by bonding with the little Mexican boy who depends on her to keep him safe; Orly, who was raised in a Houston white-collar neighborhood and barely speaks Spanish; Daniel, the little boy who escapes a police raid only to find himself all alone in a country he doesn’t understand; and Nina’s chauvinistic brother who will quickly turn Daniel over to the authorities if he ever figures out exactly what Nina is up to.

All of these are legitimate characters, but they tell only one side of the story.  Cásares barely addresses the drug smugglers, gang members, and serial criminals who come across the border with those seeking better lives.  And that is typical of the whole discussion about America’s border problem. Those on one side want to talk only about hardcore criminals and the fact that anyone having crossed the border without papers is here illegally; those on the other side want to ignore the cost of illegal immigration and the violent crimes being committed by serial criminals who come and go across the border almost as they please, and instead want to focus mostly on what happens in the hopelessly overcrowded government detention centers on the border. Until both sides are willing to have a serious discussion that includes all of the issues, people will continue to die, be abused by people-smugglers, and be forced to lived life in the shadows.  Where We Come From can be a conversation starter.

Book Number 3,417

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Libraries Must Draw the Line on E-books - Sari Feldman, Publishers Weekly

Librarian Sari Feldman
Because so few avid readers can afford, or have the space, for all the books they want to read, they are highly dependent upon their local libraries to fill in the gaps. I have read an average of about fifty library books per year for the last ten years, so that’s most certainly the case for me.  And I’m not talking about just tree-books, I also check out e-books and audible books. Sometimes the titles I’m interested in are readily available; other times I find myself waiting for more than fifty others to read a copy of the book before my turn at it finally comes. That’s frustrating - but apparently, it’s not frustrating enough for Macmillan.

About a year ago, Macmillan placed a four-month library “embargo” on e-books published by its Tor imprint.  Now, it seems that the publisher has become convinced by its embargo that releasing new e-book titles to public libraries sooner than four months after publication depresses sales of the titles to the consumer, and it has indicated that the embargo is likely to be extended to titles released by any and all other Macmillan imprints. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the Tor imprint, anyway, so the Macmillan trick hardly impacted me.  But there are plenty of other Macmillan titles that I do want to read – and I don’t want to wait four months to read them just because I can’t afford to buy all the books I read in a given year.  I sympathize with the publishers, and I understand that they are searching for the business model that will maximize profits in an environment in which readers have wholeheartedly embraced e-books and audiobooks. I get it.  But I think that Macmillan is taking it too far.

According to librarian Sari Feldman’s recent article in Publishers Weekly, public libraries are already paying “three to five times the consumer price for two-year accessto e-books” to pretty much all publishers (but only Macmillan actually embargoes titles for four months). She gives the example of Elin Hilderbrand’s The Rumorselling to libraries for $84 per copy and to consumers for $14.99. At first, I was also against access being limited to two years, but I suppose that compares to something close to the average shelf life of a physical library book, so it does make some sense.  But those inflated per-copy prices are a big reason that I’m lined up behind 50-150 people on the more popular titles that I don’t jump on right away.  Do publishers make more money by selling fewer copies at five times the price than they would make by selling some higher number of copies to libraries at the consumer price? That sounds like a question out of Economics 101, but I doknow it would ease the pressure on public library budgets everywhere.

And now, according to Feldman, Hachette Book Group and Simon & Schuster have placed a two-year limit on copies of audible books sold to libraries for streaming purposes.  Can the other major publishers be far behind? 

That brings us to the super villain of retailing, Amazon.  Amazon, via its Audible service, is said to be aggressively pursuing exclusive agreements with publishers that would preclude those publishers from selling any copies at all to libraries of “the most highly desirable audio content, including from major authors such as Margaret Atwood and Michael Lewis.” The only good news in audio books that Feldman shares with us is that “four of the Big Five publishers – Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster – have thus far committed to a no-embargo policy for new release titles” (on audiobooks).  That’s something, I guess.

But between the usual evilness of Amazon and the greed of Macmillan, the cracks in the public library business model are starting to become obvious. Despite what politicians and retailers like to believe, there are millions and millions of people who love their local libraries and depend on them to provide the reading material they cannot afford to purchase for themselves.  Too, I am particularly concerned with publishers deciding to limit ready access to audiobooks because so many sight-impaired people depend on them for entertainment and access to current trends and thought.  (And since I have the beginning stages of macular degeneration in both eyes, this hits very close to home.)

Maybe it’s time for public libraries to ask for some help from the Federal Trade Commission before things get even worse for library patrons.  And maybe it’s time for library patrons everywhere to speak up for themselves.  This is what we pay all of those childish do-nothings in Congress to help us with, after all.

Monday, July 15, 2019

The Punishment She Deserves - Elizabeth George

Last year’s The Punishment She Deserves is the twentieth detective novel in Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series, and the first addition to the series since 2015’s A Banquet of Consequences. Fans of the author’s Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers character will be pleased to learn that the novel is as much, actually much more, about Havers as it is about her boss Thomas Lynley.  Lynley, in fact, does not make a “live” appearance in the book until approximately page 200 of the 690-page novel. Prior to that point, he is either referenced to by other characters, or perhaps consulted from afar.

Barbara Havers has never gone exactly by the book when it comes to homicide investigations, an attribute that Lynley sees considerable value in if only he can keep her from being fired or transferred to the boonies because others in New Scotland Yard do not share his appreciation of Barbara’s methods.  But now it seems that Barbara is on the brink of having precisely one of those two things happen to her because she has been assigned, along with a superior officer who wants little more than to rid herself of Barbara’s presence, to a tricky investigation in the sleepy little town of Ludlow.  Just the two of them – and DCS Isabelle Ardery is hoping that if she gives Barbara enough rope, she will hang herself with it.

It seems that the church deacon, Ian Druitt, has been found dead while in police custody. Due to the circumstances of the man’s death, the police are of course anxious to have the local coroner’s characterization of the death as a suicide confirmed by the investigators from New Scotland Yard.  And Isabelle Ardery, who has personal problems aplenty of her own at the moment, is inclined to humor them – if only she can reign in Barbara long enough to make suicide appear to be the most likely possibility.  Well, good luck with that.  Barbara, instead, tries to walk the fine line between following orders precisely and letting the investigation lead her anywhere and everywhere it might. That’s not usually where DCS Ardery would like her to be.

Author Elizabeth George
The Punishment She Deserves is very much a police procedural, and it is fun to watch the wheels turn in the minds of Lynley and Havers as one small clue leads to another and another until some big piece of the puzzle finally falls into place.  The last few Lynley novels have seen the Havers character evolve into one of the better investigators in all of New Scotland Yard, and she more than holds her own when teamed up with Lynley in this one.  Despite still being as socially inept as she always has been, Havers and Lynley have by now managed a solid bond both on and off the job.  Lynley is probably Barbara’s best friend in the world, and the protective Lynley considers her a good friend, also.  When Lynley and Barbara are sent back to Ludlow to finish up the investigation into Druitt’s death, things finally begin to happen.

Bottom Line: The Punishment She Deserves will probably be more satisfying to long term fans of the series than it will be to those reading it as a standalone.  This is particularly true because of how adeptly the novel further evolves the Havers character into a truly impressive New Scotland Yard investigator. This is not so true of the Lynley character, however. Thomas Lynley reached a low point in his personal life several books back, and the character has changed very little since he stabilized and returned to the job. At 690 pages, the novel has somewhat of a bloated feel to it, but the same can be said for the last few Lynley novels (think Stephen King).  That said, I’m still a huge fan of the series and will most certainly buy the next one to see what’s going on in the lives of two of my favorite fictional characters. I just hope I don’t have to wait three years this time.

Book Number 3,416

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Blood Ties - Barbara Fradkin

Blood Ties is the fourth in a series of what author Barbara Fradkin calls Cedric O’Toole Mysteries. It is my first exposure to Mr. O’Toole and his friends, and I’m still trying to figure out what I really think of the guy – and his friends.  Cedric (or Rick, as he prefers to be called) is so laid back about life that he doesn’t get very excited when a man shows up at his door claiming to be the half-brother Rick never knew existed.  Well, I figured, maybe this is just the mark of an overly cautious man.  But it turns out that even after Rick has decided to help Steve answer some key questions about the father they supposedly share, he is still not willing to approach the very people most likely actually to have the answers they are seeking. 

Then, just when I was ready to write Rick off as some kind of oblivious weirdo, I decided that he was probably just afraid of what he might learn about his family by asking the wrong questions of the wrong people. Steve, though, was not playing that game.  And that got Steve – and Rick - in a whole lot of trouble.  The book’s cover describes Cedric O’Toole as a “reluctant sleuth and unlikely hero,” but that description does not much hint at what Rick is capable of when a hero is required and he is the only one around even remotely fit for the role.  He can be a hero when he has to be one, Rick just doesn’t really want that job. 

Author Barbara Fradkin
Barbara Fradkin, who is also a practicing child psychologist in Ottawa, has set Blood Ties in a relatively remote Canadian village, and she uses that closed setting to emphasize how easy it is for a relatively small circle of adults to keep a life-changing secret from someone who was not even born yet when the event in question occurred.  Fradkin gives her readers plenty of action and plenty to think about in this novella of only 148 pages – maybe not enough to get me to look for the previous three books in the series, but definitely enough to get me to check out the other two series she is writing.  I would call Blood Ties a “cozy mystery,” because it shares most of the key characteristics that I use to define that mystery sub-genre: mild language, behind-the-scene sex and violence, and a community in which everyone seems to know everyone else. If cozies are your thing, this one might be just the thing for you.

Orca Book Publishers provided an Advance Reading Copy of Blood Ties for review purposes.

(Book number 3,415)

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Stranger than Fiction - Will Ferrell & Emma Thompson

This is day number two of my no-reading week, but I did manage to find a fun, book-related movie today to help ease some of the pain of my book-withdrawal. I'm referring to a 2006 movie called Stranger than Fiction starring Will Farrell, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Queen Latifa. 

I suppose that Stranger than Fiction could be categorized as more of a romantic comedy than anything else, but its unusual plot is what really caught my attention. Will Farrell plays an IRS auditor who hears a voiceover in his head describing everything he does. The voice narrates his toothbrushing technique, his necktie choice, the speed at which he walks to the bus stop, etc., until it begins to drive him nuts.  His search for answers leads him, of all things, to a literature professor who recognizes that the narration described by Farrell sounds an awful lot like words from a novel.

And as it turns out, the Will Farrell character is actually the central character of a novel being written by the Emma Thompson character.  Farrell, of course, knows nothing about Thompson, but Thompson is equally in the dark about their situation. She has no idea that the character she’s in the process of creating is walking around in the real world. The scary thing for Farrell, is that Thompson has killed off the central character of all eight of her previous novels, so it seems to be just a matter of time before his own turn comes.  And then one day, Farrell hears the voice in his head say that, even though he doesn’t know it, his own death is fast approaching.

In the middle of all this, the Farrell character is falling in love with a baker he’s been assigned to audit, a rebellious young woman who purposely underpaid her taxes by 22 percent in protest of how the government uses its tax revenue.  So now that he knows that the novelist is about to kill him off, what is our friendly IRS auditor to do?

He starts with a visit to the writer’s apartment - and that’s when things really get interesting.

Stranger than Fiction is fun, but I think it chickened out on the ending it should have had, and that makes the movie’s attempt to pull hard on the heartstrings not very effective.  In the end this is kind of a throwaway movie, and I’m a bit surprised that actors like Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman were part of it.  But during this no-book week, I’m really, really glad that I found it.  

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

In and Out - But Mostly Out

My second cataract surgery and lens implantation was done early this morning, and that means that my reading and blogging time will be severely limited/handicapped for the next six or seven days.  I've really got to force myself to stay away from physical books and the internet as much as possible because that is supposed to hasten the healing process, but that's tough for me.  Until the eyeball swelling goes down considerably, I can't see much of anything out of my left eye, so there's that for motivation.