Books In Brief

Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza: Alone in the CrowdChuck Klosterman: Sex, Drugs and Cocoa PuffsEoin Colfer: And Another Thing…

Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza: Alone in the Crowd. Garcia-Roza’s Espinosa mysteries, of which this is the seventh, need not necessarily be read in sequence. This is a good thing, since that makes this book as good a place to start as any if you’re new to the author. Some series — Armistead Maupin’s beloved Tales of the City books come to mind — tend to rely too heavily on back stories and on the sense of connection that some readers develop with authors’ characters, to a point where the authors seem to skimp on other things that count, like a compelling narrative. It’s to the author’s credit that in this case, as much sense has been paid to crafting a story worth telling, and reading. I won’t spoil the plot (there’s plenty of spoilers available online); suffice it to say, if you’re a fan of Chandleresque detective fiction, with a twist, you’ll find much to enjoy in this book.

Chuck Klosterman: Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. Criticism can be dismal business. I’m reminded of this as I read things that start from the assumption that you can’t say something intellingent about something without a ranking or a handful of stars attached, and some wiseass will likely be reminded of it while reading this. 

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Puerto Rico Diary 4: Caveat Emptor

The Church, by Wilfredo Labiosa In which we come to the final part of the journey, the part where you scour your vacation destination in search of unique swag to bring back for family and friends. If you’ve ever been to Times Square or the Theater District in Manhattan, or anywhere frequented by tourists in nearly any major metropolitan area in the United States, you’ve already got a pretty good idea of what we encountered in Puerto Rico. In San Juan, one smallish hole-in-the-wall purveyor of cheap Chinese-made tchochkes, in fact, had thoughtfully but bluntly been named, “The Tourist Trap.”

As with any other trip — whether around the world, or around the block — a little persistance pays off. If you’d like something unique from your stay in Puerto Rico, there are two places that we’d highly recommend. This will sound like an advertisement, but rest assured we didn’t receive compensation from either place; we were just overjoyed to find somewhere that wasn’t hawking the same chintzy t-shirts, beach towels, and license plates that you could probably get on the NJ Turnpike (though if that’s your bag, you’ll find no shortage, either in San Juan or in Ponce).

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Puerto Rico Diary 3: Seeing the Sights

El Castillo Serralles, Ponce, Puerto Rico The State Department frequently issues travel advisories for various corners of the globe. Since Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, though, you won’t generally see much by way of advisories. This is a bit of a shame, since it would’ve been nice if we’d known before we went that practically the whole island was on strike the day we arrived. The streets of Old San Juan, if not for their distinctive architecture, could easily have been mistaken for a quiet suburb somewhere in Jersey. Both nights we were there, the largest number of people we saw out late at night were a handful of people playing dominoes in the Plaza de Armas. This isn’t to say there wasn’t plenty to do in Puerto Rico. Sure, the museums were mostly shuttered, but once you’ve run the gauntlet of the scores of McDonalds and other chains, there’s plenty to see. A few highlights:

El Morro: This fort is one of a string of fortifications–along with San Cristobal–that defended Old San Juan. If you’re coming to Puerto Rico from the mainland, this can be quite an experience, given that there’s not much on the mainland that’s any older than about three hundred years old, and many of our landmarks are more recent than that. While Puerto Rico has undergone its fair share of development, luckily it hasn’t all been at the expense of a sense of history.

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Puerto Rico Diary 2: Dining Out

Rex Cream ice cream, courtesy of kikepic, My wife and I once spent the better part of a day trying to find a restaurant in New Jersey that served authentic Puerto Rican food. It didn’t turn out to be the easiest thing. I could think of one place in Elizabeth called La Lechonera, but I refused to go back to Elizabeth on general principle, and she remembered a little spot in Lakewood called Yolanda’s Coqui, which was a disappointment. So we were back to square one. Even though New Jersey doesn’t lack for other kinds of Caribbean, central- and south-American, it’s nigh-impossible to find an explicitly Boricua restaurant.

What’s ironic, though, is that Puerto Rico–at least outside of Viejo San Juan–wasn’t exactly an embarrasment of riches when it came to Puerto Rican food either. Luckily, however, it’s not all Chinese, McDonald’s and Pollo Tropical. Read on for a bit of what we found.

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Puerto Rico Diary 1: Puerto Rico Para Gringos*

El Meson logo So we’ve just returned from Puerto Rico. Armed with the knowledge of a week in the Commonwealth, I feel fully qualified to offer this travel guide for your time on the Island of Enchantment.

We’d been warned 1,277 times (conservative estimate) about not drinking the water and told to avoid the streets of San Juan after dark, but this advice, however well-intentioned, only goes so far. The following article picks up where the usual advice leaves off, letting you know where you can find those little touches of home throughout the island, so that you can alleviate homesickness, and so you need not be exposed to the local arts and culture, much less the locals themselves. Fear not; you’ll find reminders of home nearly everywhere you go.

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Morro Castle, Part 3: Aftermath

The Morro Castle off Asbury Park, courtesy of WikimediaIn “Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast,” author Patrick McGilligan states that one of the director’s first projects upon coming to America was “Hell Afloat,” a story based on the 1934 Morro Castle fire. It was to have been a typically Langian scenario, full of spies, saboteurs, intrigue, and double-crossing. What the new arrival may not have realized at the time, but would become startlingly apparent over the course of an investigation launched while the linerstill burned on the beach off Asbury Park, is that the story of the S.S. Morro Castle already had intrigue to spare. The people involved could have been made to order by central casting, a motley assortment that included communists, dope smugglers, a haunted and suspicious captain dead under suspicious circumstances, one radio operator suspected of being an agitator and saboteur, and another–the disaster’s unlikely hero–a pedophile and psychopath beneath an unassuming exterior.

The investigation would stretch on for weeks, with passengers, crew, and experts being interviewed and cross-examined. Much as the disaster had been the first to be covered on the radio, so too would the investigation be brought into people’s living rooms. What unfolded may have struck some like a soap opera; passengers accusing seamen and officers of neglect of duty and gross incompetence, while the ship’s crew in turn blamed the passengers for panic and drunkenness and blamed one another for lack of foresight and dereliction of duty, just for good measure. The press, in the meantime, found no rumor or innuendo too small or far-fetched to report. The Morro Castle had run guns to Cuba, and this raised speculation that Communists had set the blaze; the commission also allowed that it might have been spontaneous combustion. Rumors also circulated of looters, stolen jewels, officers shooting sailors, and any number of other things. This is perhaps understandable, in a sense; when the “safest ship afloat” burns in sight of shore with the rapidity of celluloid, anything else must also have seemed possible. In the meantime, the ship’s radio operator George Rogers let slip–after a show of hesitation–that he suspected his assistant radio operator, George Alagna.

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Morro Castle, Part 2: Rescue At Sea

The crew of the Paramount after the rescue, courtesy of www.mels-place.comA short time after 3 in the morning on September 8, 1934, hysteria seemed to have gripped the Morro Castle as surely as the flames that were consuming the ships’s superstructure. Deck B, where the fire had originated in the ship’s Writing Room, was all but lost, while on Deck A, the flames were closing in on the lifeboats, radio room, and wheelhouse. Decks C and D fared little better, though at least the aft sections of both decks were–for the time being–clear of fire, if not of the bitter, acrid smoke given off by the ship’s wood furnishings and paneling, not to mention layer upon layer of highly inflammable paint, varnish, and polish.

The more passengers awoke, the greater the confusion in the ship’s smoke- and fire-choked passageways. Some passengers were roused by the smell of smoke, some when friends and family pounded on stateroom doors; still others woke to the sounds of stewards clattering pots and pans, or one of the ship’s musicians blowing reville. Nearly all were astonished to find that the fire had not, in fact, been raging for hours while they slept; it was nearly incomprehensible that so much of the vessel should burn so quickly.

The fire’s rapid spread, and accompanying smoke, quickly made the ship’s elevator impassible, and the stairways in public spaces fared no better. While the ship’s crew were aware of, and made use of, steel-sheathed companionways to move between decks, most passengers (save for a few who had been directed to the companionways by crew members) were unaware of their existance. Some passengers were also reluctant to brave the smoke and flames to reach the boats when the fire was less intense, only to find that the way was impassible when they’d finally mustered the courage to try for the lifeboats.

Consequently, most of the passengers, and many of the crew who had tried to help them, found themselves faced with a grim choice: jump–chancing the dark, churning waters in terrible weather conditions–or burn. Some of the crew had, when the fire first broke out, thrown anything bouyant that they could find overboard, in hopes of giving those who jumped over the rails something to cling to. Before the ship’s engines were shut down and the anchor dropped, however, this simply meant that the ship–moving at close to 20 knots into a headwind of about 20-30 miles per hour–left a long wake of flotsam as she moved up the Jersey shore. The fact that the ship was underway also meant certain death for many who jumped overboard and were sucked into her twin screws.

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Morro Castle, Part 1: Fire at Sea

The Morro Castle in happier days

Captain Robert Wilmott could recite her vital statistics from memory, and often did as he gave passengers a tour of the T.E.L. Morro Castle’s bridge. 11,520 gross tons. 508 feet from stem to stern. 70 foot beam. Turboelectric motors capable of producing 16,000 horsepower, and driving the ship upwards of 20 knots.

As if this weren’t enough, advanced fire detection systems covered the ship’s staterooms and cargo holds, complementing an equally advanced set of fire supression measures; naval architecture had, it seemed, come a long way since the General Slocum fire claimed 1,100 lives scarcely thirty years before. And, in addition, enough lifeboats, life jackets, floats, and other paraphernalia were available to save well over three times the ship’s passengers and crew when the ship was travelling fully loaded–which, in the depths of the Great Depression, didn’t usually happen. Captain Wilmott could often be heard boasting to passengers that the Morro Castle was safer than crossing Times Square; in 1933, after all, she had weathered a hurricane off the Carolinas that had been severe enough to send waves nearly the height of the vessel’s bridge and knock out the ship’s radio system, suffering no more than a handful of wet blankets. When a passenger asked the captain what he would do if he ever had to give up command of the Morro Castle, he joked, “Well, in that case, I’ll take her with me.”

For their part, the ship’s owners, the Ward Line, boasted that this was the safest ship afloat. But a vessel–even one like the Morro Castle, whose design was the state of the art when it was launched in 1930–is only as good as the officers and seamen that staff it. For all the care put into the ship’s design and construction, for all the attention paid to its lavish interiors that called to mind a swanky hotel, not nearly as much effort was put into making sure that the ship’s crew were equal to the task of maintaining and sailing a safe ship.

While the ship’s officers, from her captain to her fourth officer, were all licensed to operate vessels of any tonnage anywhere in the world (and a number of other staff, like her watchman, held mate’s certificates), the Ward Line’s hiring practices were notoriously lax. Crew turnover, especially among the seamen who worked in the bowels of the ship and kept things running in good order, was astonishingly high, resulting in a lack of crew cohesion that would have disastrous consequences later.

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Martin Palmer: The Jesus Sutras

Martin Palmer: The Jesus SutrasWe’ve never suffered from a dearth of books on Christianity. Even leaving aside the Bible, books on all things Christian–apologetics, fiction, inspirational tracts, and even books that take on Christianity from an atheistic viewpoint–have never been in short supply. The Christian publishing industry takes in revenues in excess of billions of dollars per year, much of it spent preaching to the converted, and much of the rest attempting to convert the rest.

What we don’t see nearly as often are books that unearth the other Christianities, those that have existed side-by-side with orthodox Christianity, or that show us the Christianities that might have been. Sure, The DaVinci Code created a flurry of interest in all things Gnostic, but there are a plethora of other possibilities that blossomed in the early years of the religion, many of them never to come to full flower. One such “alternate” Christianity is outlined in Martin Palmer’s The Jesus Sutras.

As we’re still reminded on a nearly daily basis, cultures and religions seem more likely to clash than collaborate. Palmer’s great gift in this book is to show us that it wasn’t always, and need not always, be so. Continue reading “Martin Palmer: The Jesus Sutras”

Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s UnionI’ve been told by a handful of people that I have to read Michael Chabon. Given the sources–thankfully not the same people who told me I had to read Dan Brown–I kept it in the back of my mind. I still haven’t gotten to the book generally regarded to be Chabon’s masterwork (thus far), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier And Klay, but my gut tells me that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union would likely give its predecessor a run for the money. I mean, this is a book you’d get for the title alone, if you’re of a certain cast of mind. If you’re a browser of other cultures, if you’re inexplicably drawn to things Yiddish to begin with, and you generally like the better class of detective fiction (the kind that doesn’t prominently feature crime-solving cats), it’s a bit of a no-brainer.

Chabon follows the rules of noir–there are nods to Hammett and Chandler in a few places–but makes up most of the rest as he goes along. All the familiar tropes are on display: the drunken, disillusioned detective, his long-suffering and more level-headed partner, the ex-wife–I could go on. But Chabon isn’t content to stop there. In prose that’s alternately hard-boiled and incandescent, he unravels Jewish religious and social strata, examines family ties and obligation, and puts identity politics and fundamentalism through a meat grinder. Best of all, he does all of this in a cadence readily familiar to anybody who’s watched the earlier films of the Marx Brothers. Even the story’s red herrings–and they are legion–are served pickled, in sour cream.  Continue reading “Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”