Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Review of "Convicting Avery" by Michael D, Cicchini

The review first appeared at the New York Journal of Books on April 3, 2017 - http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/convicting-avery-bizarre-laws-and-broken-system-behind-making-murderer

Buy the book from Amazon through the following link - https://www.amazon.com/Convicting-Avery-Bizarre-Broken-Murderer/dp/1633882551/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1491347433&sr=8-1&keywords=convicting+avery

In 2015 Netflix released the controversial documentary Making a Murderer, which explored the story of Steven Avery, a man from Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, who spent nearly two decades in jail for the rape of Penny Beerntsen, before being cleared by DNA evidence in 2003. After his release he sued the Manitowoc County sheriff’s department for wrongful conviction but was arrested in 2005 on charges of murdering Teresa Halbach, a local photographer.

“For every piece of evidence that initially pointed to guilt. Avery’s defense team presented conflicting evidence and also exposed law enforcement’s motives, inconsistent stories, and, at the very minimum, incredibly shoddy investigative work.”

In 2007, Steven Avery was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In Convicting Avery: The Bizarre Laws and Broken System Behind “Making a Murderer,” author Michael D. Cicchini dissects the tangled legal procedures and sketchy evidence that was used to convict Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. The author himself is a criminal defense attorney in Wisconsin, blogger, and author of several legal books that includes Tried and Convicted: How Police, Prosecutors, and Judges Destroy Our Constitutional Rights (2012). He is also a contributing columnist for the Wisconsin Law Journal.

At the beginning of Chapter two Cicchini writes, “When I first opened my criminal defense practice . . . I started with a naïve belief that trial judges would be wary of wrongfully convicting an innocent defendant . . . but after a few months of practicing law, I completely abandoned my unfounded beliefs and stood corrected.”

By scrutinizing key evidence in the Avery case such as tainted physical evidence, dubious witness testimony, and illegal police searches, Cicchini skillfully examines and explains the legal how’s and why’s of these controversial convictions. He successfully uses the Avery case to highlight police misconduct and the obviously broken Wisconsin legal system while convincingly demonstrating that the injustices perpetrated against Avery and others were not an unusual occurrence. Cicchini writes, “Wisconsin loves its massive, draconian, ever-expanding, and increasingly irrational criminal justice industrial complex.”

Convicting Avery will most definitely captivate fans of the documentary, and while Cicchini had no direct involvement in the Avery case, this book adds expert legal depth to the key procedural and evidentiary issues that were raised in the original documentary. It provides a rare glimpse inside the complex American criminal justice system.

Although this book certainly assumes that the reader is acquainted with the Making a Murderer documentary, the author’s writing style and concise analysis allows those not familiar with legal terminology to easily comprehend the complexities of the case.

Overall, Convicting Avery is a revealing and fascinating read that will interest readers of true crime, criminal law, or American legal procedures. It will most certainly stimulate further discussions of how someone can be railroaded and falsely convicted of a crime. But regardless of your position on Steven Avery's guilt or innocence, the content of this book raises important concerns about a clearly broken legal system.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Review of "The Ambulance Drivers" by James McGrath Morris

This review first appeared at the New York Journal of Books on March 27, 2017 http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/ambulance-drivers

“Paris represented everything their homeland was not for the generation of Americans writers like Hemingway and Dos Passos who had come of age during the Great War. An incomprehensible number of men, more than 9 million, had been killed, and twice that number had been maimed. It seemed to these young aspiring writers . . .the world was no longer the same and never would be again.”

John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway initially crossed paths in 1918 as ambulance drivers in war torn Italy. The two literary icons would met again in the early 1920s in the American expatriate society of Paris where the allure of the city had seduced many writers, artists, and composers. By this time, Dos Passos was already an established author and highly respected, while Hemingway was still an up and comer on the brink of greatness. Throughout the 1920s and better part of the 1930s they were best of friends and honest critics of each other’s works.

“John Dos Passos was one of the few people at certain times whom Ernest could really talk to” and “Their nascent friendship rose out of a unique common bond . . . they dreamed of penning the great books of their generation. They were almost alone among American writers of their age in having witnessed the war that defined their generation.”

Although these two former Chicagoans had many things in common on the surface, they were complete opposites as far as philosophy and temperament. Hemingway was arrogant, certain of himself, willing to get ahead at the expense of others, and athletic. Dos Passos was well educated, timid, considerate to a fault, and not an athlete.

By the mid-1930s, their relationship began to deteriorate. Hemingway became more obsessive about his writing and even more self-centered in his relationships. Dos Passos, who was busy with his own writing was inattentive to Hemingway. The latter’s egoistical selfishness to friends was worsened by his almost total lack of social awareness, his preoccupation with the horrors of war, and his own self-destructive psychoses.

Tiny incidents accumulated to an intolerable level, at least in Hemingway’s mind, and he began to lash out at his baffled friend. The ultimate breaking point, however, came in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. Hemingway and Dos Passos were in Spain, when José Robles a patriot in the leftist Popular Front and good friend of Dos Passos disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The Hemingway-Dos Passos relationship finally reached its endgame on April 22, 1937, when Hemingway, brimming with confidence and cruelty, told Dos Passos that Robles had been shot as a proven fascist collaborator, a renegade, a dirty spy, a betrayer of his friends. Dos Passos was left shocked and devastated. Their friendship never recovered.

James McGrath Morris, the author of several critically acclaimed biographies, including the New York Times bestselling Eye on the Struggle and Pulitzer delves head first into the mercurial relationship of these two American literary legends in his new book, The Ambulance Drivers: Hemingway, Dos Passos, and a Friendship Made and Lost in War.

Throughout this riveting biography Morris expertly narrates the journeys, relationships, and life-changing events that inspired two of the greatest authors of the 20th century. While Hemingway believed that literature should be a perfect representation of an imperfect world, Dos Passos wanted his writing to change the world. Both versions played a significant role in shaping what would become the voice of the Lost Generation.

The Ambulance Drivers is a lively and engaging biography that takes a fresh look at the life of Dos Passos, but fails to shed any new light into Hemingway, whose life has already been well documented. Although readers may at first hesitate to embark on yet another analysis of Ernest Hemingway, Morris’ framing of the context of his fragile and contemptuous relationship with fellow literary giant John Dos Passos creates a worthwhile read. It will most certainly fascinate Dos Passos and Hemingway aficionados, as well as the casual literary biography enthusiast.

Michael Thomas Barry is the author of seven nonfiction books that includes America’s Literary Legends: The Lives & Burial Places of 50 Great Writers.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Review of Murder in Plain English by Michael Arntfield & Marchel Danesi

Murder in Plain English: From Manifestos to Memes--Looking at Murder through the Words of Killers

The review first appeared at the New York Journal of Books on March 6, 2017 http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/murder-plain-english

Buy the book through Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/Murder-Plain-English-Manifestos-Memes-Looking/dp/1633882535/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1488840796&sr=8-1&keywords=murder+in+plain+english

“Humans are the planet’s outliers when it comes to murder. We are, needless to say, also the only species that has the ability to document our experiences associated with murder through the written word.”

Why are we as a society so obsessed with crime? Our fascination with murder in particular has led to the writing of countless volumes of books which have further stoked the insatiable need to know as much as possible about these heinous acts as possible. Is there a link between murder and literature? And how can we use the writings of killers to identify them, catch them, and stop them? Murder in Plain English: From Manifestos to Memes—Looking at Murder through the Words of Killers, co-authored by Michael Arntfield, a professor of criminology at Western University and Marcel Danesi, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, attempt to answer this unique and thought provoking question.

“The first book to examine murder through the written word, not only the writings of the killers themselves, but also the story of murder as told in literary fiction and crime dramas that are now a staple of film and television. Based on extensive research and interviews with convicted murderers, the book emphasizes the often-overlooked narrative impulse that drives killers, explaining how both mass and serial murderers perceive their crimes as stories and why a select few are compelled to commit these stories to writing whether before, during or after their horrific acts.”

Arntfield and Danesi call their tantalizing theory, “literary criminology,” the study of crime through literature and language. In this book they attempt to “penetrate the raison d'être of murder, through two sets of eyes, those of the literary writer and those of the murderer-as-writer.”

Early on in the text the authors make an astounding statement that they believe “countless deranged killers . . . were failed writers of one kind or another,” and further state, “literary genius . . . is rather common. Mass murderers, terrorists, and serial killers alike, regardless of education or literary level, demonstrate a consistent narrative impulse to both document and rationalize their grisly crimes.” Although part of this statement is true, they never fully backed up the murderer as “literary genius” claim with any evidence.

Murder in Plain English includes an extraordinary large and impressive collection of murderers and their foul deeds, both well-known and obscure. Be warned this is not a book for the faint of heart and is explicit in its descriptions. Unfortunately, the sheer number of stories, its rambling disjointed nature, and academic writing style makes for a difficult and often unpleasant read.

While the books premise is extraordinarily unique, the author’s obvious bias and often forced inferences on the evidence, instead of reasoning from facts to conclusions leave the reader confused. Despite all the specifics, analysis, and provocative nature of the subject matter there is no greater understanding of the reasons why people commit murder. The mere statements of killers and madmen, whether in written confessions, letters, diary entries, manifestos, or memes cannot be considered literature and any attempt at connecting the two is a stretch beyond the point of reason. In the words of the authors themselves “This linkage between writing and murder has undergone very little expert scrutiny or analysis,” and to be honest there’s a reason for that.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Review of Illusions of Justice by Jerome F. Buting

Image of Illusion of Justice: Inside Making a Murderer and America's Broken System

Book review first appeared at the New York Journal of Books on February 28, 2017 http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/illusion

Buy the book through Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/Illusion-Justice-Inside-Murderer-Americas/dp/0062569317/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1488301738&sr=8-1&keywords=illusions+of+justice

“Yes, I believe [Steven] Avery is innocent. This is my opinion, which I know is not worth very much, but my opinion is based on an assessment of the evidence.”
—Jerome F. Buting

In 1985, Steven Avery was convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder and served 18 years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. After his release, he filed a multimillion dollar civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. In November 2005, while this suit was pending, he was charged and later convicted of the murder of Teresa Halbach and sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

The handling of the Halbach murder case was highly controversial and his defense lawyers, Jerome Buting and Dean Strang, argued that their client had been set up by his judicial rivals. Avery’s 2007 murder trial and its related issues were the focus of the wildly popular and provocative Netflix original documentary series, Making a Murderer, which was released in December 2015.

In Illusions of Justice: Inside making a Murderer and America’s Broken System, Jerome F. Buting links his version of the Avery murder trial with other cases from his 35-year career as a criminal defense attorney. From his early career as a public defender to his success overturning wrongful convictions working with the Innocence Project, Buting’s first foray into memoir delivers an insightful look at the rampant bias and shocking realities of criminal defense law.

“. . . with greater regularity than people outside the system might expect, the American criminal justice system leads to results that are unreliable, unjust, and sometimes both.”

Buting states that his purpose in writing this book was not to “retry the Avery case day by day” but to highlight what he saw as the central issues in the case. He states that his perspectives were shaped not only by the facts of the case but also by his previous experiences as a criminal defense attorney.
In this easy to read narrative, Buting explores his personal life, which includes a deeply personal and emotional account of his battle with cancer, while explaining and outlining his career-defining cases. He also sheds light on the imperfections of America’s justice system and provides a thought provoking and credible outline for its improvement.

“I have always looked at the career of a criminal defense lawyer as more of a vocation than a job. But cancer was a wake-up call. It helped me understand how people must feel when they find themselves wrongly accused as a defendant in court, totally dependent on an expert . . . to guide them through the labyrinthine criminal justice system.”

He goes on to write, “The saga of Steven Avery, which unfolded in a sweeping narrative studded with intricate detail, stunned many as a portrayal of a badly warped American justice system.” When he agreed to team-up with fellow defense attorney Dean Strang in the Avery case, he instinctively knew that they were involved in a tragic case that bordered on Shakespearean proportions.

“This was the kind of profound challenge that a good attorney in the prime of his career should not shy away from. The Avery case would test our faith in this system like few others. It had all the elements of the awesome power of the government juggernaut arrayed against one man, who had been an outcast his whole life.”

Buting’s Illusion of Justice is thought provoking and delivers critical interpretations and powerful commentary on the problems that are plaguing our criminal justice system. Through painstaking analysis and evidence, the author provides an unyielding and persuasive argument both for Steven Avery’s innocence and the need for change within our criminal justice system. His unwavering advocacy for justice in the face of overwhelming obstacles is commendable and must be applauded. This book is a must read for legal scholars, true crime enthusiasts, or anyone interested in the complexities of America’s criminal justice system.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Review of Blue on Blue by Charles Campisi

Review first appeared at the New York Journal of Books on February 6, 2017 http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/blue-on-blue

It’s often said that the police are the “thin blue line,” the fragile wall standing between the public and unrestrained anarchy and crime. But within the realm of policing there is no more despised or guarded assignment then Internal Affairs.

“Their work is often misunderstood, by the public and by others cops. It is racked with uncertainties and ambiguities, not simple black and white but varying shades of grey.”

The domain of Internal Affairs is filled with lies and betrayal, a world of squealers and snitches, wires and wiretaps, shadowy surveillance and covert operations. By necessity officers of Internal Affairs have to operate in the shadows, in secret, separated from their fellow officers. Good cops who recognize that the work they do is essential, are happy they don’t have to do the job themselves. But without these brave, honest, and faithful officers, the thin blue line would most certainly collapse from within.

In Blue on Blue: An Insider’s Story of Good Cops Catching Bad Cops, author Charles Campisi, a recently retired chief of the Internal Affairs Bureau for the NYPD recounts his 40-year career of flushing out crooked cops and combating police corruption. With assistance from veteran reporter and journalist Gordon Dillow, Campisi offers a fascinating and illuminating description of his career within the NYPD from a lowly rank and file officer in some of New York City’s most crime ridden precincts to his reluctant acceptance of head of the Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB).

Campisi is honest but cautious about his assessment of his new job post: “as I leave Ray Kelly’s office . . . All I know is that our mission now is to transform Internal Affairs and I know that’s not going to be easy. Because anybody who thinks he’s going to change the way the NYPD handles corruption and misconduct within its ranks has a lot of history to overcome first.”

With aggressive support from superiors, Campisi sought ways to alter the IAB’s bad reputation.
“As far as most cops are concerned, other cops go into IAB for only three reasons: one, they’re cowards or shirkers who are too afraid or lazy to work on the streets; two, they’re rats who jammed up by their own corruption or misconduct and agreed to work for IAB and rat out other cops to save their own skins; or three, they’re zealots who simply get a sick and twisted pleasure out of persecuting cops.”

During Campisi’s 18-year tenure (1996 to 2014) at the IAB the number of people shot, wounded, or killed by cops declined by almost 90 percent, and the number of cops failing integrity tests shrank to an equally startling low. But to achieve these results wasn’t easy, and Campisi had to triple IAB’s staff, hire the very best detectives, and put the word out that bad apples wouldn’t be tolerated. Although he concedes that eliminating all significant police misconduct is virtually impossible, he emphasizes that the majority of cops do their work professionally and honorably.

Campisi’s narrative is thought provoking, and as an ultimate insider he offers the reading public a rare glimpse inside one of the most secretive branches of policing. Within its pages, he recounts the most critical cases that put the IAB to the test and which ultimately helped clean up the department.
Charles Campisi’s Blue on Blue is a compelling behind the scenes account of what it takes to investigate police officers who cross the line between guardians of the public to criminals. It’s a mesmerizing exposé on the harsh realities and complexities of being a cop on the mean streets of New York City and the challenges of enforcing the law while at the same time obeying it. The breadth and depth of experience of the author and his unwavering commitment to justice makes this a refreshing read that will most certainly enthrall true crime enthusiasts and those interested in the history of modern law enforcement and particularly how police misconduct is handled.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Review of "By Women Possessed: A Life of Eugene O'Neill" By Arthur and Barbara Gelb

Review was first published at the New York Journal of Books on December 1, 2016 http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/women-possessed

Nobel Prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill was a pioneer of the American theater and led the way for other literary legends such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee. His true legacy is found in his ability to fearlessly tackle social and political values that today continue to inspire countless generations of authors and productions.

Since his death in 1953, O’Neill’s treasure trove of works such as Long Day’s Journey into Night and others have been in constant production around the world. Although he was a very talented writer, O’Neill was a deeply flawed human being, who struggled his entire life with depression and alcohol abuse, which presented challenges in all of his personal relationships.

“But, whatever O’Neill’s personal failings, there is no denying that, as an artist, he stood tall. An idealist and visionary, he bravely endured his years of struggle, demanding to be accepted on his own terms as a dramatist.”

The celebrated and award winning husband and wife team of Arthur and Barbara Gelb have spent 50+ years studying and examining the life of Eugene O’Neill, and their previous works include O’Neill (1962) and O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo (2000). Arthur Gelb died on May 20, 2014 and Barbara “wearily polished” the final few pages of their final collaboration, a book they had been grappling with for nearly a decade. Their third and final collaboration in the O’Neill saga, By Women Possessed: A Life of Eugene O’Neill, is an 869 page epic, in which the Gelbs examine the last 25 years of the playwright’s life through his stormy relationships with the most important women in his life, primarily his third wife, actress Carlotta Monterey.

The word comprehensive is often used to define thoroughly researched biographies and other works, but this definition doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface in the amount of excruciating detail the Gelbs have provided in this volume. The majority of the book is spent discussing his emotionally tempestuous marriage to Monterey, which was dominated by years of alcoholic setbacks, mental and physical decline, and hostile resentment. Within this volume are also discussed some of the longstanding misconceptions of O’Neill’s life such as his battle with alcoholism and depression, as well as his views on feminism and racism.

“He also had a violent and destructive temper, especially when he was on a drinking binge. At those times, he didn’t hesitate to manhandle his lovers.”

Unfortunately, there are only brief discussions of O’Neill’s early marriages and his complicated relationship with his mother.

“When, as an adolescent, Eugene O’Neill realized that his mother, Ella Quinlan O’Neill, blamed her morphine addiction on his birth and confessed she wished him unborn, she betrayed him in a way he could never forgive or forget.”

In this work the authors rely primarily of the previously unpublished diaries and interviews of Monterey as well as material from friends and associates. Monterey gave the authors a melancholy version of O’Neill’s final years as a sick and forgotten man who isolated himself from his family and fans.

“O’Neill hated hotels, she told us, because he had been born in one and had spent the first seven years of life traveling from hotel to hotel while his father toured the country with his acting company. . . .” She repeated what are commonly claimed to be O’Neill’s final words, spoken on November 21, 1953, “Born in a hotel room and God damn it, died in a hotel room.”

By Women Possessed is a captivating and in-depth study of one of America’s most revered literary giants. This volume is a superb example of a skillful, thorough, and cynically examined editorial biography that draws from an exhaustive treasure strove of previously unexploited source material. It offers the reader an extraordinary and thought provoking view on the playwright’s life and works. By Women Possessed is heartily recommend to anyone interested in the American theater, Eugene O’Neill, or biography in general.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review of Deirdre Bair's "Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend"

Review first appeared at the New York Journal of Books on November 16, 2016 http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/al-capone

Buy the book at Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/Al-Capone-Life-Legacy-Legend/dp/0385537158/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1479399607&sr=8-1&keywords=al+capone

“Al Capone was a son, husband, and father who was looking for the best way to become a good provider for everyone.”

Nearly seven decades after his death, what is it about Al Capone that captures the imagination? Some lives contain multitudes, and his would seem to be one of them. From his heyday to the present, his life has enthralled the public’s collective imagination.

Born on January 17, 1899, in Brooklyn, New York, to Italian immigrant parents, Capone would become one of the most notorious crime figures in American history. During the height of Prohibition, his criminal enterprises dominated the city of Chicago and included bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling.

His long-running turf war with rival gangs came to a bloody and shocking crescendo on St. Valentine's Day 1929. Through it all, the charismatic Capone remained barely above it all, and Federal income tax evasion was his eventual undoing. In 1931 he was sentenced to eleven years in federal prison but served a little over half his sentence, mostly at Alcatraz. A very ill Capone, suffering from the physical and mental effects of syphilis, was released to live out his final years in Miami.

Deirdre Bair, National Book Award winner and author of numerous biographies, attempts to uncover a more personal side of the infamous crime boss and examines the legend and facts surrounding this intriguing and enigmatic figure in her new biography, Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend.

“His ascent in mobdom was phenomenal, his time at the top sensational, and his downfall meteoric. Indeed, his reign did last only six short years, but everything that happened in that brief time still commands worldwide attention, interest, and speculation.”

The book follows Capone’s entire life from his humble beginnings in Brooklyn to his rise as crime boss in Chicago through his astonishingly swift downfall and imprisonment and death in 1947.

“This is the story of a ruthless killer, a scofflaw, a keeper of brothels and bordellos, a tax cheat and perpetrator of frauds, convicted felon, and a mindless, blubbering invalid. This is also the story of a loving son, husband, and father who described himself as a businessman whose job was to serve the people what they wanted.”

Written with the cooperation of Capone’s family and descendants, Al Capone does a wonderful job of gathering all of the urban myths surrounding his life and career and lays them out side by side with the facts, exposing and demystifying their falsehoods from the realities. “Attempting to reconstruct their truth is much like trying to solve the most complicated puzzle imaginable.”

Although this book is superbly documented and researched, its end results are mixed. The narrative is somewhat dry and uninspiring in its presentation and ultimately failed to uncover any startling new information. In the end, this book is best suited for readers who already have a basic understanding and familiarity with the subject matter. It is recommended for anyone interested in anything related to organized crime, Al Capone, and the Prohibition era in general.