Machete Kills! : Alex Segura – “Dangerous Ends”

“Defer no time, delays have dangerous ends” – William Shakespeare, “Henry VI, Part I”

dangerous ends

ABOVE: Presente y Pasado

When I last left Miami P.I. Pete Fernandez, he was venturing “Down the Darkest Street.” Some time has passed and now I find him up to “Dangerous Ends.” His best friend Kathy Bentley has published not one but TWO best-selling true crime books based on his exploits, and so it’s no surprise when he’s contacted (and contracted) by Maya Varela, the daughter of a notorious murderer; she means to exonerate her father, who was convicted on relatively slim evidence for a murder that, Maya insists, he never committed.

But then a jury can’t be expected to stay too rational when a man is accused of hacking his wife dozens of times with a machete, that most Cuban of sharp implements. ( The “Mambi” guerrillas that fought for Cuban independence in the 1860s-1890s had few rifles and often had to resort to what had essentially been a forest-clearing, sugar-cane cutting tool until then.)

elpidio valdes

ABOVE: Educational Cuban cartoons: Teaching kids to slash into “the enemy” since 1959.

Pete’s Cuban ancestry has been a very subtle element in the series, but in “Dangerous Ends,” that Cuban past bluntly intrudes upon the present- as it often does on Miami streets. We learn that Pete’s grand-father Diego was exiled from the island after Fidel Castro’s 1959 take-over; several interludes fill-in the story of the Fernandez family, as Diego becomes an influential, anti-Castro radio personality in Miami.

Does Pete’s abuelo tie to the Varela murder? What about the brutal death of Rick Blanco, the husband of Pete’s lost love, Emily? And who exactly are Los Enfermos, the mysterious drug-running Miami gang that may have ties to the Castro regime?

As the novel asserts at one point, “It’s all connected.”

“Dangerous Ends” is the smoothest Pete Fernandez novel so far, and the one that truly announces Segura as an assured practitioner of the noir. Here, all the elements gel: theme, style, setting, plot, and character working together. The dark and sunny complexities of Miami’s history are explored in terse prose. The plot barrels forward confidently, taking several surprising twists, and opening quite a few possible doors for the next installment. (I can’t wait to read more about the history of Los Enfermos!) The ensemble finally comes into its own too: Kathy goes from foil to full-on no-nonsense partner; Dave Mendoza, the brawn in Fernandez’ investigating team, becomes more psychologically interesting (and more violently volatile?); and a former rival, retired FBI agent Robert Harrass, makes a welcome return, this time as the voice of experience and wisdom. As this series plays with continuity, (major characters fade in the distance; small characters re-appear, and may not be so small next time around) we’re aware that Pete’s world is still in flux, and that any of his peripherals may hide interesting secrets, or may switch allegiances or, you know, may get killed.

RATING: COOL!

P. S.: Like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Pete Fernandez is a music lover, (we get a dutiful visit to Miami’s legendary Sweat Records) and so Sonic Youth and Neil Young and the Jam are alluded to- but it’s the Elena Burke allusion that his grandfather Diego might appreciate. Burke was a remarkable singer of Cuban boleros, great at squeezing longing from each note of her torch songs and somehow transforming that pain into joy. (Daughter Malena Burke is also a major Cuban icon; and grand-daughter Lena is a Latin Grammy nominee. Watch for Ena Burke to play Cuban music on the Moon in 2040.)

elena burke

malenaburke

lenaburke

ABOVE: You can guess which is which

 

Hanta Yo! : Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera: “Scalped”

ABOVE: “The Man who Ate People who Ate Other People.”

 

The Prairie Rose Indian Reservation is a fictional South Dakotan locale populated by the somewhat less fictional  Oglala Lakotas. In Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera’s crime saga “Scalped,” Oglala is the poorest American county, with an 80% unemployment rate and pitiable rates of alcoholism; every other store is a transparent front for a meth-lab; and Sheriff Lincoln Red Crow rules over his domain with the greedy rapaciousness of his animal name-sake.

Into this dead-end, one-horse town strides Dashiell Bad Horse, (turning Prairie Rose, I suppose, into a two-horse town.) Dash is an undercover FBI agent who has infiltrated Red Crow’s farcical “police” force; he’s also the Rez’ prodigal son, having lit out over a decade earlier for reasons that will only be slowly revealed. It’s a great / bad time for Dash to return to Prairie Rose. The new Crazy Horse casino is about to open, and with it a whole new can o’ criminal worms.

ABOVE: “Also, can you direct me to the nearest hospital? This head-wound is not gonna heal pretty.”

 

Dealing with the local ready-to-brawl toughs is easy. Much harder is dealing with the women from Dashiell’s past: Gina Bad Horse, the mother who perceives him as a race traitor; and Carol Ellroy, the former childhood sweetheart who once let Bad Horse watch her pee and is still waiting for reciprocity. Carol also happens to be Red Crow’s daughter- and the most openly, self-destructively promiscuous “heroine” in any non-erotic graphic novel I can recall. Maybe in any “novel” period.

Things get exponentially complicated over the 60 issues of this modern American classic.

ABOVE: Bad Horses Make Bad Romantic Decisions

 

By choosing to draw his cast from mostly corrupt non-heroes, Aaron is forced to explore the human complexity at the core of the inhuman criminality. We learn how the past influences the present through the secondary inhabitants of the rez: Diesel, the white boy trying to pass for Kikapoo; Officer Falls Down, the one un-bribable cop around; Dino Poor Bear, the kid who dreams of escaping the pervasive poverty; Baily Nitz, the FBI agent bitterly settling an ages old score; Catcher, a Rhodes Scholar/ alcoholic burnt-out who believes he gets messages from the Thunder Beings.

Dashiell is the familiar all-Native-American hero: ready to get violent on the quest for justice. Much more complex is the Big Bad, Lincoln Red Crow, a former Red Power idealist who traded integrity for success, wealth and power- all variables subject to the machinations of the higher-ups in the Tribal Council and rival gangsters.

Look past the grit and the deliberate ugliness of R, M. Guera’s work (best described as “Impressionistic Carnage”), this is a graphic novel of intense humanity, perhaps the most ambitious Native-American epic in modern pop culture, and even comparable to Sherman Alexie’s work in its unflinching understanding of the cultural dilemma of the Native American: The ultimate disenfranchised minority in its own native nation.

If you want the biggest representation fail in American culture, reflect on this. When you ask the average person what their favorite Native American actor or actresses are, they’ll stare blankly for a moment. After some deep thought, they’ll summon something like: “That one guy from ‘Longmire.’? Lou Diamond Phillips! Yeah, him!”

Lou Diamond Phillips is a Filipino-American.


RATING : MASTERPIECE!!!

 

We, the Subjects : Yuval Noah Harari – “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”

The most thought-provoking book I’ve read since Peter Watson’s “Ideas”, Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” delivers on its title. As with that previous tome, I first intended to make notes on amusing tidbits, but then I would simply end up transcribing the book, so what’s the point? Read it for yourself.

I was particularly knocked about by the chapter on the Agricultural Revolution: it had never occurred to me that maybe plants aren’t controlled by humans to OUR benefit, but that humans may be controlled by plants to THEIR benefit. Harari misses some points for a few far-fetched extrapolations and overly tongue-in-cheek photo-captions, (leave those to blogs like this one!). “Sapiens” also contains some provocative opinions, so if you LIKE to get upset at other people’s diverging opinions, this might be the book for you! The more informed reader will find it an amusing, ambitious recap of where we are as a species, while making minor objections to points here and there. As for the younger reader, I couldn’t recommend this more: an engaging, mind-blowing run though millennia of human history that should be read by all. 


 One concept that I do want to expound on is Harari’s description of the inter-subjective, because I imagine most adults understand “objective” and “subjective,” but I don’t think enough of us are aware that most of the time when we say “subjective,” we actually mean “inter-subjective.”

OBJECTIVE: Average temperatures across the globe are rising. This is a REAL THING. It is MEASURABLE. Temperatures that had remained more-or-less stable through their recording by humans are rising exponentially, at least partly if not largely due to human behavior, and this has negative repercussions for humanity. Whether people are aware of it or not, it doesn’t matter, because the phenomenon is real and still takes place.

Answer to the age-old riddle: “If a tree falls and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” YES. It made a sound because the fall established in the premise caused a vibration in the air, which is how sounds are made. No human heard the sound, fine. It’s doubtful that no animal or bird heard that sound, considering how forests work, but ok. The fact is, the sound was created, even if no one was close enough to perceive it. “If global warming happens, and a single human can’t perceive it happening, does it still have consequences?” YES YES YES.

SUBJECTIVE: “I don’t feel hot. It’s Christmas and I’m in Fargo, Minnesota, and it snowed just fine.” That’s one person’s limited reaction, based on that person’s experience. I don’t find much wrong with this. We’re all ignorant of an endless variety of phenomena. Typically when exposed to an object, idea or experience, we learn about it and are changed by it, unless we have some powerful personal investment on denial or delusion, or there’s some developmental issue that make us resist new information.

The problems (and solutions) of society lie with the Inter-Subjective:

INTER-SUBJECTIVE:

“Global warming is a hoax by liberal eco-terrorists that have somehow involved climate scientists all over the world in their fight against profitable industries, specifically the oil industry; it will ultimately come to nothing.”

Or its converse:

“Global warming is a real imminent threat, caused by a conservative coalition of evil corporations that don’t care if they destroy the planet in their psychotic quest for profit; we must fight against it with all our might or the human race will face a horrific end.”

Both inter-subjective myths have ‘some’ connection to the initial objective fact, but they’re also limited distortions of reality; they’re dogmas, -isms, myths, memes in their shortest form. Their “reality” is of no relevance. What matters is that they can connect large networks of people and unite them in one behavioral path.

Intersubjective ideas emerge from one authoritative source and spread widely to a network of consciousness. Changing them is nearly impossible from outside that network, because there’s usually too much of our identities at stake in our position within a group. But they can adapt with time- slowly and with some resistance- if enough members of the network that share it agree to adapt. Both of the inter-subjective mind-sets above have faced changes:

“Ok, fine, maybe global warming it’s real, but that doesn’t mean it is man-made. We can’t control that!” And then: “Ok, fine, maybe mankind does affect the environment, but so what? ‘Civilization is but a small break between Ice Ages’ and all that. Why disrupt our society and economy when humanity is doomed no matter what?”

As for its converse:

“Ok, fine, maybe we have limited control over weather patterns and there’s not that much we can do stop it, but we at least have to reduce our carbon footprint, or we will all die!” And then: “Ok, fine, we’re all gonna die anyway, but what about our children’s children?” And then: “Oh, ok fine, they’ll all die too, because eventually the global warming will be over and we will have an equally deadly global cooling, and anyway the sun will exhaust itself at some point so the only true hope for your children’s children’s children’s is to escape out of the Solar System and inhabit another galaxy and…”

Etc etc etc.

Here are other inter-subjective concepts:

“We have to do something! We are the stewards of the planet!”

“We don’t have to do anything! We’re a dumb arrogant species that deserves to be knocked down a peg! The dinosaurs didn’t have to do anything about climate change; why should we? What makes us think we’re better than dinosaurs?”

These ideas may have originated “subjectively” in hypothetical personalities within my head, but they’re very adaptable as “inter-subjective” ideas  because there’s nothing about them that makes them “me”-centered. Either one of them may easily match YOUR personal philosophy- or both, if you’re as weird as me.

Inter-subjective concepts may be “falsehoods” but they are at the roots of community, society, civilization. None of these is possible without inter-subjectiveness. “Law, money, gods, countries,” are Harari’s examples. I would add “art” and “love,” two illusions to which I happily subscribe. They have no real “truth” outside of their usage by a group. If the group co-operates without dissent, they become entirely truthful and meaningful to THAT group, because they create a sense of drive and purpose. It is up to our collective human judgment to be FLEXIBLE with our shared lies, so that these concepts can be helpful social inspirations, and not crushing, tyrannical delusions.

RATING: MASTERPIECE!!!

Lit Up : M. L. Stedman – “The Light Between Oceans”; Anthony Doerr – “All the Light We Cannot See”

ABOVE: “I’m going to show you my lighthouse. Yeah, that’s my name for it.”

A lighthouse in post-WW1 Australia provides the picturesque excuse for M. L. Stedman’s “The Light Between Oceans.” Now, this is a very pretty romance, for the most part; a Nicholas Sparks pot-boiler solemnized by history and setting. The premise is genuinely good: Lighthouse-keeper Tom and his wife, Isabel, are still mourning over her inability to bear a pregnancy to term. They stumble upon a dying man and a baby, presumable the dying man’s daughter. The couple then makes an ethically questionable choice that is justified by their grief and their location: they keep the baby and raise it as their own.

The baby, of course, belongs to a family that knows as much about grief and loss as the couple.

The first two thirds are absorbing: lyrical language, sympathetic characters, enough Aussie-ness to make the foreign reader feel like they’re getting their educational worth…That will do for most readers. But the resolution disappointed me.

SPOILERS:

A tear-jerker should accept its intentions. Even at their little-girl-killing worst, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens had the courage of their convictions. But “The Light Between Oceans” half-asses its tear-jerking. We’re promised melodrama of nearly operatic power. Instead, we get a climax that is nearly undone by a triple set of flaws.

First: An element is introduced for cheap suspense- and it does not pay off. (It is hinted again and again that Australia’s wild life, in particular snakes-in-Eden and scorpions, will bring about a deadly denouement. They don’t, and it pisses off the Anton Chekhov in me.)

ABOVE: They even put the frikkin scorpion in the cover!

Second: The potentially horrifying climax is built upon the frustrating, clichéd, ridiculous contrivance of people refusing to tell a simple truth out of proud reticence EVEN IF IT MEANS KILLING SOMEONE THEY LOVE.

Third: Let’s say we accept the melodrama and we’re biting our fingernails over it. I half did! But THEN- it all comes to naught. Without further spoiling: imagine if a novel’s final act was about how a husband refused to give his wife an alibi because he was upset about a cold soup, so he puts her in a position to be given the death sentence- and then a judge was like: “Eh, let’s give her two months community service instead. Oh, and the couple should make up.” VERY DEFLATING.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH


“It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.
—Joseph Goebbels”

ABOVE: All the poetry we cannot grasp

Anthony Doerr’s WWII novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” ticks off any number of crowd-pleasing melodramatic tropes on its way to some eventual Oscar-bait cinematic adaptation two or three years down the line. Pulitzer prize winners have rarely been this mild and conservative, (“Did you know that Nazis suck?” might very well be its most provocative statement.) I’m a sucker for this stuff, (how can I resist the fact that Marie Laure, a blind French girl, is a Braille-reading fan of both Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas?). But I’m hating on it because nearly universal praise should always be punctured a little.  Doerr can endure my insignificant hate. This IS a lovely novel, a delicate novel, but surely these are times when Pulitzer prizes should go to sturdier stuff, not to lovely and delicate novels about little blind French girls and sweet German boys forced into the horrors of war!  (The National Book Award did indeed go to “Redeployment” by Phil Klay, which caused an uproar among the very, very small circle of people who care about such things.) “All The Light we Cannot See” is a very conventional, respectable novel, is what I’m saying. But, I mean. WWII? Again? It’s kind of playing it  safe, isn’t it?

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH

 

 

 

 

Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road? : L. Frank Baum – “The Emerald City of Oz” (Oz #6)

The Road to Oz is paved with L. Frank Baum’s cruel intentions. Much like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could barely restrain his murderous tendencies toward Sherlock Holmes, Baum hates Oz, and his desperate need to  wipe out the land is manifest in “The Emerald City of Oz,” the sixth book in the series, published in 1910.

The Emerald City of Oz

ABOVE: Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road

There’s two stories here.

On the one hand, you have the Nome King, Roquat the Red, who is recruiting an army of discontents to tunnel his way to Oz in order to destroy the city. (Roquat’s need to put an end to the land for no real reason other than “its presence bugs me” parallels Baum’s own urge.)

On the other hand, you have Dorothy’s symmetrically-opposed journey, one in which Baum displays one outburst of creativity, not unlike that of the supposed re-gathering of energy that precedes death. Wonder follows nonsensical wonder as we meet living paper dolls and pastries; kangaroos without mittens; zebras that argue geometry with crabs; Rigmaroles and Flutterbudgets; jigsaw puzzles that attempt to assemble themselves. One utters this admirable bit of wisdom:

“Madam, you have perhaps noticed that every person has some peculiarity. Mine is to scatter myself. What your own peculiarity is I will not venture to say; but I shall never find fault with you, whatever you do.”

ABOVE: She meant to say, “I’m the Kook.”

 

Baum unleashes a barrage of painful puns as we get to the land of Utensia, where kitchen utensils live as if in anticipation of future Pixar movies. Sample:

“Why is the colander the High Priest?”
“He’s the holiest thing we have in the kingdom.”

None of the encounters add anything to the plot; the author is simply unloading every half-formed, Oz-related ideas on the way to a conclusion of intense finality, one that shuts off all possibility for sequels:
“YOU WILL NEVER HEAR ANYTHING MORE ABOUT OZ, BECAUSE WE ARE NOW CUT OFF FOREVER FROM ALL THE REST OF THE WORLD. BUT TOTO AND I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU AND ALL THE OTHER CHILDREN WHO LOVE US.
DOROTHY GALE.”

Of course, after a three-year hiatus, L. Frank Baum said: “Screw it. Papa needs a brand new Ford Model T. Oz, here we go again!” 8 more books followed.

RATING: COOL!