Thursday, June 17, 2010

COLUMBINE: No more myths

It’s difficult to find an appropriate word to use to describe Dave Cullen’s COLUMBINE. If I had to pick one, I think I’d go with “engrossing.”

During the span of ten years, Cullen pored over tens of thousands of pages of police documents and records, and interviewed survivors, victims’ families, and other members of the community that surrounded Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.

In my opinion, COLUMBINE should be required reading in any beginning journalism class. In a society that seems to accept opinion and speculation from the mainstream media as fact and “news,” Cullen takes one of the most emotionally-charged events in our nation’s history and reports it, period. He has plenty of opportunities to profess anger, sadness, sympathy, and disbelief, but he doesn’t. He refuses to point a finger of blame at anyone other than the two boys who committed the crime, and then, you know he points that finger only because it’s so obvious what they did. Cullen’s book is journalism at its best: he presents the facts – all of them, in all of their gory, infuriating, heart-wrenching details – and allows his readers to come to their own conclusions. He cites his sources unwaveringly and never places himself in the story. Journalism 101.

Although I stand by my description of the book as “engrossing,” it was an incredibly difficult read. I have a very clear understanding now – probably the best I can hope to have not having lived through it personally – of what went through the minds of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold for years prior to the attack. Cullen walks his readers through everything, literally step by step in some instances. By the end of the book, there is very little left to wonder.

There are triumphs in the story, and they help to assuage the pain and disbelief, but they don’t negate it completely. I think overall I am glad that I read COLUMBINE. I think it’s good to have a bit of understanding when something so unspeakably tragic takes place. I think I learned from it. I know I’ll never hear “Columbine” again without shuddering a little, without thinking about the thirteen who died, the one who dreamed it all up, and the one who followed.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Read GONE, BABY, GONE (with a word of caution)

So, I became a Dennis Lehane fan after reading SHUTTER ISLAND. I wanted to read the book (amazing!) before seeing the movie (have yet to see). Upon finishing SHUTTER ISLAND, I went looking for his earlier novels and began reading the Patrick Kenzie/Angie Gennaro series. A DRINK BEFORE THE WAR is the first in that series and successfully pulled me into the dark Boston world where Kenzie and Gennaro live and work as private detectives investigating heinous crimes.

GONE, BABY, GONE is the fourth in that series and is the basis for the movie of the same name (which I haven’t seen). Lehane’s writing and character development are what keep me coming back to his stories. The plots are always interesting, and I’m always wondering whodunit? but I’m much more intrigued by how his characters act and react in the situations they encounter.

The mystery that opens GONE, BABY, GONE revolves around the disappearance of four-year-old Amanda McCready. Every available police officer in the Boston area has been pulled into the search; all resources are in play. Regardless, Amanda’s been missing for three days when Kenzie and Gennaro are brought in and neither have any hope of finding the girl alive. It’s the little girl’s aunt Beatrice who pleads for help, though, and to whom Angie can’t say no.

The search for Amanda brings new characters into Patrick and Angie’s world: a couple of detectives named Poole and Broussard, as well as a convicted drug dealer named Cheese Olamon. There are other new bad guys, some recurring good guys, and, in true Lehane fashion, it’s a little unclear through most of the book as to who’s bad and who’s good. It’s fun guessing, though.

One word of caution: Lehane is not afraid to make children the victims in his stories. As they search for Amanda, Patrick and Angie come across people who commit horrific crimes against kids, and Lehane doesn’t pull any punches as he describes these circumstances. I’m not sure why he chooses this route so often – why kids are so often the ones who suffer in his stories. If I ever have a chance to talk to him, that’s probably going to be my first question. If it weren’t for the fact that he writes so darn well, I might not be able to pick up another of his books that put children at the center of crime.

Maybe that’s his point. Maybe he wants us to think about the fact that children are violated in a multitude of ways in our country and the ones who could be rescued often aren’t. The end of GONE, BABY, GONE makes me wonder if this isn’t the impetus behind his writing. Face what’s going on and figure out what you can do to help.

Believe me, by the end of this book, you’ll be wondering a lot of things. I’d love to hear what some of them are.


Looking for something a little different to read? Try Jean Kwok’s GIRL IN TRANSLATION.

In the early 1980’s, Kimberly Chang emigrates with her mother from Hong Kong to New York City in search of a better life. They believe they have a shot at something good because Kimberly’s aunt Paula, her mother’s sister, had married an American and together the couple had built a business in the garment district. When Kimberly and her mom see the apartment Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob found for them, though, the fantasy of life in America comes to an abrupt end.

The apartment is in a condemned building and Kimberly and her mother are the only occupants. There is no heat when they arrive in the middle of winter. Two windows are broken in the kitchen and covered with plastic trash bags. Roaches and rats are everywhere.

When Kimberly and her mother report to the factory Paula and Bob own, they discover it’s a sweatshop filled with other Chinese immigrants – some old enough to be grandparents, some much younger than Kimberly’s eleven years. The workers are paid according to how many pieces they finish, not how many hours they work, which is illegal, and Kimberly’s mother is treated the same as everyone else. It doesn’t take Kimberly long to understand that she will have to work in the factory with her mother – after school is out each day – if they have any hope of getting out of the horrible apartment and paying off the debt they owe to Paula and Bob for bringing them to the United States.

From the description so far, the book probably sounds pretty bleak, and, in places it is. Kwok immigrated to the United States when she was a child, coming from Hong Kong just as Kimberly did. With her family, Kwok also worked in a sweatshop, so it’s not hard to believe the horrible conditions under which Kimberly and her mother work – Kwok is writing what she knows.

But as much as the book is a condemnation of modern life in the garment district, it’s also a celebration of the strength and resilience of Kimberly and her mother. Nothing is easy for the two of them. Everything they have – even the stuffed animal material they rescue from a Dumpster and turn into blankets and clothes – is gained through incredible struggles and is held onto with a determination you have no choice but to applaud.

GIRL IN TRANSLATION is a bittersweet story of hope and survival, and, ultimately, success and redemption. It will make you count your blessings.