By Ernest Barteldes
by Ernest Barteldes
I am not a big fan of political autobiographies – I have never read Bill Clinton’s “My Life” or any of his wife’s books. The one time I did read one was when I happened to find late New York mayor Ed Koch’s “Citizen Koch” at a discount store and enjoyed reading it as an introduction to life in the city I’ve called home for the last 18 years (oh my, has it been that long?), but I have steered clear of them ever since because they are basically self-aggrandizing books about how well they did while they were in office or what they hope to achieve during the next election cycle. I have read a few but avoided them until I happened to come across former vice president Joe Biden’s “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose,” which is not a political book per se but a glimpse into a period of Biden’s life as he dealt with the burdens of his job while also having to face his son’s ultimately fatal disease.
Those who expect Biden to bring forth a backstage view of his time in the White House under Barack Obama will be disappointed. This is not at all a political memoir – sure, there are some comments about long career as a senator and his role as vice president, but we only see glimpses of those as we go along. Instead, it is an intimate look at a painful period of his family’s life as they fought a losing battle to brain cancer.
Of course this being a lifelong politician, the issues that he faced as he did his job are not completely absent: he talks about the situation in Ukraine and Putin’s blatant disregard to international law, the rise of ISIS and the spiritual and political journey that led him to decide not to run for president in 2016 even when everyone around him – except Obama and most of the DNC – encouraged him to do so, mostly because they saw that the middle class was looking for a “plain-speaking American” that could talk to their needs and not some regular “elitist” who would talk down to them.
Reading the part on the 2016 election with the hindsight of what we know today, one must realize it must have taken a lot of guts for Biden not to have jumped into the race back in 2016 – and what a thrill it might have been with him going on debates against Clinton and Bernie Sanders – and had he won the nomination, it would have been incredible so see him scream “malarkey” as he did when he faced off Paul Ryan during the 2012 VP debate.
Back to the story – Beau, who was an Iraq war veteran and a former attorney general, took the fight head on, and is described as someone extremely brave under pressure. At one point, doctors suggest an experimental treatment that could simply fail and shorten his life, and his reply is loud and clear: “It’s all good,” he says as every obstacle comes against him and every alternative fail. The family’s pain is palpable, and as you turn the pages you root for Beau even if, as someone who follows the news, knows that the outcome was not what anyone wanted. But Biden, ever the sensible populist, has a way with words, and as that final moment comes, the reader feels as if they’re in a cliffhanger moment in fiction – not something that actually happened.
“Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose” is a great read no matter where you stand in the political spectrum. There is not a single moment in which Biden attacks the other side, there isn’t even a personal analysis of the election’s eventual outcome. It’s just a great family story intertwined with moments of a man’s job – which in this case just happened to be the vice-presidency of the United States.
An Anthology of Short Stories and Poems
by Coby Lane, Mason Casey, Patrick Murphy
review by Ernest Barteldes
“Not all of these stories are for the faint of heart,” reads the prologue for this short tome comprising, as the title says, as a collection of short stories and poems. Whoever wrote the preface (as none of the pieces reveal who the individual author is) was being coy to say the least. All of them- including the poems – have an element of supernatural and a bit of gore.
The collection begins with a very short story entitled “Car Crash,” in which the protagonist – a college professor – mourns the death of his wife, who lost her life in the hands of a drunk driver. Completely overwhelmed by grief, he drives to the same intersection where the original accident happens and ends up encountering the same fate. “He fully understood the pain his love had felt,” as the story comes to a close. “With his final breath, the man wept.”
The poems strategically placed are also less than uplifting. Take for instance, “Death”
‘Tick tock, tick tock
Went the old grandfather clock
He knew his life was ticking away
Faster than the average day
In some ways it was good,
Now he was finished with his dreadful adulthood.
The entire collection – which can be read as quickly as in three hours, is of a disturbing nature. What is the purpose of the authors, except maybe to make a bad day worse? The fact that is was published outside the US (and made available as a low-cost e-book by Amazon.com) makes you wonder about the market for horror stories an poems.
Don’t get me wrong. I actually found the book quite enjoyable, but I do have some interests on stories that go against the grain, sometimes going out of my way to avoid best-sellers (at least when everyone is talking about them). I recall being on the R train at the time Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code was all the rage and noticing that at least half the people in the car were holding a copy. Though I had been gifted a copy by my younger sister, I refused to crack it altogether – it sat on my bookshelf for years until I finally decided to donate several books to friends as my move to a new home approached.
Would I recommend this book? The answer would be yes, since it is a nice way to spend a few hours distracting yourself from the current real-life horror story unfolding before our very eyes. But I would certainly not call this literary gold.
By Ernest Barteldes
Rita Lee: Uma Autobiografia
$ 8.99 Kindle Edition(in Portuguese)/ $ 38 paperback
The music of Brazilian rock superstar Rita Lee Jones has been part of my life as far as I can remember, starting from when her signature song “Ovelha Negra” hit Brazilian airwaves in the mid-1970s until pretty much present day, even if I haven’t yet listened to her 2012 release Reza (“Prayer”). I have attended her shows over the years (including her last NYC appearance in 2003), and her music has been part of the soundtrack of my life along with every other musician or band that I have admired over the years.
When I heard that she had released an autobiography I was a bit curious but didn’t really make a point of reading immediately. However, my mother so kindly bought it for me as a Christmas present and I could not resist to crack the tome and find out what it was all about.
Like with any rock biography, readers tend to want the author to go straight to the stories behind the music, but since this is also her own story, we spend a few pages learning about Lee’s childhood and her relationship with her parents, two sisters and extended family in a large house in Sao Paulo. I was actually surprised to learn that she had quite a stable family life – she went to Communion with her family, and had a pretty normal life save for the horrible story in which Lee was raped with a screwdriver at seven years of age – and that the culprit was never caught.
When we get to the 60s, things get juicy, as she describes her years with Os Mutantes and their relationship with the Tropicalista movement started by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. We also learn the ugly side of the band and the way she was unceremoniously ousted from the band once the two Brandao brothers decided to take the band into a Yes-inspired progressive direction, and then we follow her entire career with details on the recording of every album she made all the way to her retirement, when she decided to stop touring and dedicate herself to family and a quieter lifestyle.
The book is highly personal, and she does not gloss over the darker moments of her life, including her infamous 1976 arrest for drug possession while she was pregnant with her first son Beto Lee, her addictions and especially the self-destructive behavior that almost destroyed her relationship with husband and longtime songwriting partner Roberto de Carvalho. She is brutally honest when it comes to her disdain to the Mutantes reunion and also her detractors – especially late rock critic Ezequiel Neves, who openly hated her and printed his vitriol in the press with impunity, even spreading rumors about her health.
It is a very good read – it is not yet available in English, but it surely deserves to be translated even if it only reaches a small audience of her die-hard fans who did not have a chance to learn Portuguese, as suggested by the English lyrics of Caetano Veloso’s “Baby” – which she recorded with Os Mutantes, by the way.
Book Review: Rage by Zygmunt Miłozewski
translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
review by Ernest Barteldes
On the final part of his Prosecutor Szacki trilogy that began with Entanglement (Bitter Lemon) , Zygmunt Miłozewski takes us to Olsztyn, where he transferred following the events from Grain of Truth (Bitter Lemon).
Szacki’s life has changed considerably – his teenage daughter is now living with him while his ex-wife is traveling around Asia with her new husband, and he is also in a lasting relationship with a local woman – which prompted him to leave Warsaw for good for this former German city, where he lives in an apartment just across the boulevard from the prosecution service.
But Szacki has not lost his usual bitterness. When he is called at a construction site below a hospital when a skeleton of what is believed to be a “German” (old remains are always – according to the novel – considered to be of Germans who previously lived there), he mutters to himself about hoping to have a “real” case that he can really investigate, not the usual drunken college student brawls that he routinely deals with. Further studies of the remains shows that the bones are actually much newer than previously thought, and that the deceased – a travel agent – had a gruesome death, dissolved while still alive using hydrocloric acid – the kind sold in any supermarket for unclogging household drains.
Rage has plenty of colorful characters – among them a doctor that assists with the investigation – a Dr. Frankenstein, who is also a professor who has alcohol-fueled parties with his students in a his campus lab. He is clearly an eccentric, but he seems to get along well with the prosecutor thanks to his dry personality and detail-focused demeanor. As the story progresses, we find that anger is central to all the main characters, going from the prosecutor himself to the surprising perpetrator.
Miłozewski does no favors to the town of Olsztyn (where he – as of this writing – resides), and describes it as a dark, uninteresting place to be with lousy weather and ugly streets: “Some sort of Warmian crap was coming out of the sky, neither rain, nor snow, nor hail. The stuff froze as soon as it hit the windshield, and even on the fastest setting the wipers couldn’t scrape off this mysterious substance. The windshield washer fluid did nothing but smear it around.”
The story line is extremely engaging all the way to its anti-climatic twist ending. Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation (she works closely with the author) flows nicely, without leaving the reader with any feeling of being lost in translation at any moment.
In the backdrop of the narrative are the news stories of the day: the political crisis in Ukraine and the the civil war in Syria and minor news headlines from around Poland. There are many other pop culture references, which might make the novel seem dated in a few years – I mean, will anyone remember reruns of the American sitcom Friends in, say, two or three decades?
According to some news reports, this is where we say goodbye to Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, and the ending makes us pretty certain of that – but given that the series has been so successful since its inception (the first two books were adapted into movies), will this really be goodbye? As a fan of the series myself, I sincerely hope not.
By Ernest Barteldes
A naked woman is found murdered outside a former synagogue in the provincial town of Sandormierz, in Southeastern Poland. It is a weird crime scene, since not only is she exsanguinated, but the murder weapon – a shehita (used in Kosher slaughters) – is found next to the body.
Called to the crime scene is prosecutor Teodor Szacki, who just transferred to the area following the events from Entanglement. His marriage ended following his involvement with Monika Grzelka, an attractive but inquisitive journalist he met during the first novel. That affair came to an end in a way the omniscient narrator doesn’t seem to care to address – he takes no more than a few lines to say it ran its course and then Szacki was on his way out of town, trading high-profile crimes to small-town cases he feels are below his expertise, such as stolen cellphones or drunken brawls created by white supremacists fueled by the recent events in Europe.
This monotony of sorts comes to an end as he is assigned to the strange murder that brings together Sandomierz’s reputation of anti-Semitism during and after World War II: St. Paul’s Church – the largest in town – has frescoes depicting blood libel committed by Jews against local Catholics. One of the worst – which can be seen by anyone who visits the city – depicts Jews purchasing young children and then ritually murdering them and finally offering the remains to rabid dogs.
The frescoes intrigue Szacki – who is not in any way an anti-Semite – and since he is an outsider, he is both the best and the worst person to investigate this crime: since he is new in town, he is not exactly trusted by locals who have been there all their lives, but he is also not one to be biased by old friendships – the other local prosecutor, Basia Sobieraj, was a longtime friend of the victim and is clearly way too involved with the city’s life to properly investigate the case.
As I have written previously, criminal investigations in Poland are conducted in a completely different manner than they are in the US. In this country, the judiciary only gets involved once the police end their investigation and ultimately turn it over to the judiciary. In that country, they get involved right at the crime scene, and fully participate in the proceedings until a verdict is rendered – so Szacki gets to see the crime scene and works together with the police almost to the very last page.
Like in the previous tome, we get to see a lot of the prosecutor’s private life. Though remorseful for ruining his marriage back in the capital, he doesn’t mind fucking any woman that makes herself available – even if that might jeopardize his professional position in this tight-knit community.
It is not an easy investigation as the prosecutor might have thought would be – within the first 50 pages it seems like it is going to be open-and-shut, but twists come along that complicate things.
The author has a very sarcastic tone about his fellow Poles – through Szacki he is very critical of the nation’s pessimism (“Maybe the Law and Order Party will win the next election,” the prosecutor snaps at a conservative co-worker after an uncomfortable exchange – how right was he in hindsight?) and Catholic values, but he does so in a satirical – and not disrespectful way.
A Grain of Truth was – like its predecessor – adapted into a movie, but this time Szacki is played by a male. I have seen the trailer but sadly not the film, since (again) it has not been released Stateside in spite of the success of the novels here. For those who enjoy an intelligently written potboiler, this is the book for you for sure – and a sequel is on the way.
A Grain of Truth
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Bitter Lemon Press
Available in various formats