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Crime, Justice & Pulitzers….& the LA Times Books Prizes

April 20th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


The winners of the LA Times Book Awards were announced Saturday night on the USC campus. It was a grand and glorious night devoted to the celebration of good literature.

(You can find the complete list of winners of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize here.)

But for those of you who, like me, are criminal justice junkies, (and also reading junkies) the Current Interest nonfiction list of finalists for the LAT prize is one that you should definitely check out.

(FULL DISCLOSURE: I was one of the judges for the Current Interest prize.)

We found all five of the books we chose as finalists to be stellar, which meant we struggled to settle on a winner, with several of the books holding the top spot at one point in the judging or other.

The five were:

Atul Gawande,Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End”

Jeff Hobbs, “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League

Bryan Stevenson, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap”

Héctor Tobar, “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

These are all important books that each read with the narrative urgency of a novel. Yet, obviously, not all deal with justice issues:

Atul Gwande’s essential “Being Mortal,” is about the limits of medicine and how well or poorly we deal with aging and dying.

Hector Tobar’s brilliant “Deep, Down, Dark” tells the remarkable tale of the 33 trapped Chilean miners, their rescue and the aftermath.

But then there is Matt Taibbi’s “The Divide, which lays out, in relentlessly reported detail, stories of investment banks, hedge funds and short-sellers, many of whom commit extravagant crimes without being held to account, juxtaposed with the poor, whom Taibbi shows being locked up on the flimsiest of pretexts.

And there is Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy,” which recounts-–with stories that come from Stevenson’s own experience as a public interest lawyer—the many different and devastating ways that brutality, unfairness, and racial bias continue to infect criminal law in the United States

And finally there is the winner: The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs.

Although the issue of race and justice is one of the many threads that wind through Hobbes’ haunting narrative about his near-genius Yale roommate who is shot to death in a marijuana deal gone bad, it is merely one thread in a complex and unforgettable interweave.

Here’s what we judges wrote when we turned our selection in to the Times.

We know the ending of the story before we open The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, yet when we arrive at the moment foretold by this important book’s title, author Hobbs has engaged us so completely that we wish to reach inside the narrative and roll back time, to make the finale play out differently, to force the spectacularly gifted, charismatic, courageous and painfully conflicted Peace to walk quickly in another direction. Hobbs’ deeply reported and mesmerizing work of literary journalism avoids easy assumptions, while offering us many satisfying gifts and troubling questions.

So read it. Hell, read ‘em all. You won’t be sorry.


LA Times book prizes were on Saturday, then the Pulitzer Prizes were announced Monday and, among the winners and finalists, there were some works of extraordinarily fine journalism pertaining to the world of crime, justice, and juvenile welfare that you shouldn’t miss. To wit:


The Pulitzer’s top journalism prize for Public Service was awarded to the staff members of the Charleston Post-Courier for their shattering series, Till Death Do Us Part, about South Carolina’s murder rate for women, which is twice that of the nation’s.

Here’s a clip from Part I:

More than 300 women were shot, stabbed, strangled, beaten, bludgeoned or burned to death over the past decade by men in South Carolina, dying at a rate of one every 12 days while the state does little to stem the carnage from domestic abuse.

More than three times as many women have died here at the hands of current or former lovers than the number of Palmetto State soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

It’s a staggering toll that for more than 15 years has placed South Carolina among the top 10 states nationally in the rate of women killed by men. The state topped the list on three occasions, including this past year, when it posted a murder rate for women that was more than double the national rate.

Awash in guns, saddled with ineffective laws and lacking enough shelters for the battered, South Carolina is a state where the deck is stacked against women trapped in the cycle of abuse, a Post and Courier investigation has found.

Couple this with deep-rooted beliefs about the sanctity of marriage and the place of women in the home, and the vows “till death do us part” take on a sinister tone.

Consider 25-year-old Erica Olsen of Anderson, who was two months pregnant when her boyfriend stabbed her 25 times in front of her young daughter in October 2006. Or Andrenna Butler, 72, whose estranged husband drove from Pennsylvania to gun her down in her Newberry home in December. Or 30-year-old Dara Watson, whose fiancé shot her in the head at their Mount Pleasant home and dumped her in a Lowcountry forest in February 2012 before killing himself.

Interviews with more than 100 victims, counselors, police, prosecutors and judges reveal an ingrained, multi-generational problem in South Carolina, where abusive behavior is passed down from parents to their children. Yet the problem essentially remains a silent epidemic, a private matter that is seldom discussed outside the home until someone is seriously hurt.

“We have the notion that what goes on between a couple is just between the couple and is none of our business,” said 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, chief prosecutor for Charleston and Berkeley counties. “Where that analysis goes wrong is we have to remember that couple is training their little boy that this is how he treats women and training their little girl that this is what she should expect from her man. The cycle is just perpetual.”


One of the co-winners of the Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting was Eric Lipton of the New York Times for his very disturbing stories showing how the influence of congressional lobbyists can slant justice toward the wealthy and connected—which is a definite must read.

The other co-winner was the Wall Street Journal staff for “Medicare Unmasked,” a remarkable project “that gave Americans unprecedented access to previously confidential data on the motivations and practices of their health care providers.”

But it is the runner-up for Investigative Reporting that we want to draw to your attention. It is a searing investigative report by Chicago Tribune journalists David Jackson, Gary Marx and Duaa Eldeib, about Illinois residential treatment centers for juveniles where kids are mistreated in ghastly ways.

Here’s a clip:

In residential treatment centers across Illinois, children are assaulted, sexually abused and running away by the thousands — yet state officials fail to act on reports of harm and continue sending waves of youths to the most troubled and violent facilities, a Tribune investigation found.

At a cost to taxpayers of well over $200 million per year, the residential centers promise round-the-clock supervision and therapy to state wards with histories of abuse and neglect, as well as other disadvantaged youths with mental health and behavioral problems. On any given day, about 1,400 wards live in the centers, although far more cycle through each year.

In the best cases, the facilities rebuild and even save young lives. But the Tribune found that many underprivileged youths — most of them African-American — are shuttled for years from one grim institution to another before emerging more damaged than when they went in.

Reports of patient-on-patient sexual assault are commonplace at some of Illinois’ largest and most relied-on facilities. Child prostitution schemes take root. Vulnerable children are terrorized by older ones and taught a life of crime. Some are preyed on sexually by the adults paid to care for them. And staggering numbers of wards, some as young as 10, flee to the streets.


In the category of Features, the winner was Diana Marcum of the Los Angeles Times for her compassionate and piercing dispatches from California’s Central Valley as its residents cope with the drought.

But it is the work of finalist Jennifer Gonnerman writing for the New Yorker, that we want to direct you toward. Her story about 16-year-old Kalief Browder who was accused of taking a backpack, a crime he maintained in the face enormous pressure, that he didn’t commit. As a consequence, Browder spent more than a thousand days at Rikers Island—many of them in solitary confinement—with no conviction before the district attorney simply dismissed the case.

With much of his adolescence simply lost to the system, Browder is working to make something of his life as he battles the ever-present emotional wounds of those frightening years inside Rikers.

Here’s a clip:

Browder’s brother…noticed a growing tendency toward despair. When Browder talked about his case, he was “strong, adamant: ‘No, they can’t do this to me!’ ” But, when the conversation turned to life in jail, “it’s a totally different personality, which is depressed. He’s, like, ‘I don’t know how long I can take this.’ ”

Browder got out of the Bing [solitary] in the fall of 2011, but by the end of the year he was back—after yet another fight, he says. On the night of February 8, 2012—his six-hundred-and-thirty-fourth day on Rikers—he said to himself, “I can’t take it anymore. I give up.” That night, he tore his bedsheet into strips, tied them together to make a noose, attached it to the light fixture, and tried to hang himself. He was taken to the clinic, then returned to solitary. Browder told me that his sheets, magazines, and clothes were removed—everything except his white plastic bucket.

On February 17th, he was shuttled to the courthouse once again, but this time he was not brought up from the court pen in time to hear his case called. (“I’ll waive his appearance for today’s purposes,” his lawyer told the judge.) For more than a year, he had heard various excuses about why his trial had to be delayed, among them that the prosecutor assigned to the case was on trial elsewhere, was on jury duty, or, as he once told the judge, had “conflicts in my schedule.” If Browder had been in the courtroom on this day, he would have heard a prosecutor offer a new excuse: “Your Honor, the assigned assistant is currently on vacation.” The prosecutor asked for a five-day adjournment; Browder’s lawyer requested March 16th, and the judge scheduled the next court date for then.

The following night, in his solitary cell on Rikers, Browder shattered his plastic bucket by stomping on it, then picked up a piece, sharpened it, and began sawing his wrist. He was stopped after an officer saw him through the cell window and intervened.

Browder was still on Rikers Island in June of 2012, when his high-school classmates collected their diplomas, and in September, when some of them enrolled in college. In the fall, prosecutors offered him a new deal: if he pleaded guilty, he’d get two and a half years in prison, which meant that, with time served, he could go home soon. “Ninety-nine out of a hundred would take the offer that gets you out of jail,” O’Meara told me. “He just said, ‘Nah, I’m not taking it.’ He didn’t flinch. Never talked about it. He was not taking a plea.”


And, we don’t want to forget, in the category of Breaking News, the LA Times staff was a finalist for their quick and excellent coverage of the Isla Vista shooting rampage. “The staff mobilized reporters in the middle of the night to cover a deadly spree near the campus of UC Santa Barbara that left seven dead, including the killer, and wounding 13,” said the Times in announcing the honor.

Posted in art and culture, arts, Books, children and adolescents, Civil Rights, criminal justice, journalism, writers and writing | No Comments »

Veteran PTSD Stigma, Homeboy & the Solar Industry, and Twitterature…

May 25th, 2012 by Taylor Walker


In honor of Memorial Day–and because it’s an issue of great import–we thought veteran PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and the attached stigma an appropriate topic. PTSD is not given the same validity as visible injury. Veterans who return home from service with invisible injuries such as PTSD are often perceived as weak, instead of deserving of honor and support. Maybe if we were to stop stigmatizing our veterans, we could move next to understanding our inner city kids with PTSD on par with that of service members.

Time’s Frank M. Ochberg addresses the issue. Here’s a clip:

There are a few dozen of us who are considered the pioneers of the modern era of traumatic-stress studies, and most of us are worried  – deeply worried — on behalf of the current generation of veterans with invisible wounds.

We thought that by now there would be access to care whenever needed. We thought that by now there would be clear understanding that PTSD is a wound, not a weakness. We thought that a veteran who served honorably and received a compensable medical diagnosis for PTSD due to his or her service on the field of battle, would receive a medal for sacrifice.

But instead of honor, there is stigma. And this stigma must stop.


Chris Warren, editor of a photovoltaic magazine called Photon, chanced upon two seemingly out of place Homeboys at a solar panel convention in Huston, TX. Warren approached them and learned of Homeboy Industries and the Homeboys’ preparatory training for careers in the solar power industry.

Photon’s Chris Warren’s editorial introduction to the article, alone, is a very worthwhile read. Here’s a clip of the actual article (which made the cover story, but is not available online without a subscription):

In a weak economy, many struggle to get jobs. But the task is much more daunting for those who have been in prison or involved with gang activity. Since 2008, Los Angeles, California-based Homeboy Industries has provided in-depth training for former inmates and gang members to become PV installers. Despite successes, placing graduates in jobs remains difficult.


The New Yorker is testing out Twitter literature with Jennifer Egan, author of 2010′s big prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad‘s new story Black Box. The New Yorker fiction feed (@NYerFiction) will tweet 10 daily installments (the first was May 24th), each beginning at 5:00p.m. PST and lasting an hour.

The L.A. Time’s book blog has more details. Here’s a clip:

Each evening’s Twitter postings constitute one installment, and that installment will appear on the New Yorker’s revamped book blog, Page-Turner, after the installment has finished. Read it there or complete, in the magazine, when it hits newsstands May 28 — look for the science fiction issue, dated June 4 and June 11.

That’s the logistics: In real time (or real-ish time) on Twitter over 10 nights, or serialized on a blog, or all at once in print. It’s an interesting experiment, one which seems designed to cover all the bases — if you don’t have the patience for the online serialization, just read the printed version.


Posted in Books, Gangs, Homeboy Industries, medical care, PTSD, Uncategorized, War | 1 Comment »

Michelle Alexander and The New Jim Crow—In Compton Thursday Night

May 11th, 2012 by Celeste Fremon

Just about the time that POTUS Obama was snarling traffic getting to his starzilla party in Studio City,
civil rights attorney and best selling author Michelle Alexander was rockin’ the house across town in Compton, where she gave a 90-minute speech in front of a large and wildly enthusiastic crowd at a the New Philadelphia AME Church, talking about how Jim Crow is alive and well in this country’s criminal justice system.

Alexander is a legal scholar and a racial equality advocacy lawyer with an impressive resume that includes a Supreme Court clerkship and lots more after that.

But what has really put her on the map is her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, in which, with mounds of research, Alexander lays out her thesis that the mass incarceration the U.S. has embraced since the mid-1980′s as its primary method of social control is, for black communities, simply devastating. The result is a second class caste system in which, in some major American cities, more than one half of all working age black men, and a growing number of black women, and other minorities, are relegated to a permanently disenfranchised status—much like in the days of Jim Crow, but in far greater numbers. Right now if you are a black man anywhere in America, there is a 32 percent chance that you’ll go to jail or prison at some point in your life.

The New Jim Crow has been the book that criminal justice activists and experts have been urgently recommending above all others these past two years—to the point that when it came out in paperback in January, it became a surprise NY Times best seller.

I first became aware of Alexander’s work when I watched an April 2010 episode of Bill Moyer’s Journal that featured her together with superstar civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, and the combination of what they had to say grabbed my attention, as it encapsulated and quantified what I’d seen anecdotally in my reporting for years.

The usual wiggly iPhone videos below will give you a glimpse of what she has to say as they are from the very beginning of Alexander’s 90-minute talk Thursday night.

You might also enjoy the clip of Alexander with Stephen Colbert on the Cobert Report.

Better yet, just get the book.

However you do it, find a way to check out what Michelle Alexander has to say.
Hers is a deeply important American voice that is very much worth your time and attention.

PS: THIS WILL BE A SHORT POSTING because everyone at WitnessLA is working on stories. So stay tuned. There’s a lot coming up soon.

IN THE MEANTIME, TAKE A LOOK AT THIS STORY ON THE CRIME REPORT: CRACKING THE BLUE WALL OF SILENCE, in which former and serving NYPD cops talk about racial profiling and arrest quotas.

ALSO CHECK OUT THE 30-YEAR SENTENCE FOR A FIRST TIME OFFENSE BY THE TEXAS GRANDMOTHER who may or may not have known she was smuggling a ton of drugs in the tour buses that she co-owned, but who got the book thrown at her because she wouldn’t take a deal and had nobody else to give up, so had nothing of value to trade to prosecutors. The Houston Chron has the story.

PS: I’M DELIBERATELY IGNORING THIS STORY, but it’s not that I didn’t see it.

Posted in American voices, Books, criminal justice, prison policy, race, race and class | 6 Comments »

Thursday Must Reads

May 26th, 2011 by Celeste Fremon


Dear CDCR,

If the LA Times’ Jack Dolan has his story right, you’ve done a lousy job of sorting out who can be paroled without supervision and who needs high control parole supervision. If true, it means you’ve compromised public safety and betrayed those of us who have pushed hard for much needed parole reform.

And “Ooops, our computer programs need a little work,” is not an adequate response.

Please advise. Immediately.


More and more people who are veterans of many sides of the justice system are saying that we should reconsider putting kids away for life without the possibility of parole—LWOP kids, they call them.

A recent voice on the matter if Anthony Barkow whose essay on the topic appeared this week’s Huffington Post.

Barkow was a decorated federal prosecutor in the US Attorney’s office for 12 years before he became the Executive Director of the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at NYU School of Law.

Here is a clip from his essay:

I was a prosecutor for 12 years. During that time, I prosecuted a wide variety of crimes, ranging from international terrorism to securities fraud, from domestic violence and sexual abuse to homicide. I prosecuted cases in which offenders received very substantial sentences. I am proud of my work as a prosecutor and I have no doubt that criminal punishment is critical to keeping communities safe.

One of the defendants I prosecuted committed murder when he was 17-years-old. He gunned down his victim and shot him 17 times in cold blood in broad daylight in the middle of a residential street. The same defendant had committed another murder before he turned 18. For these crimes, he was sentenced to consecutive terms of years that were so long as to be tantamount to life imprisonment, and he will never be released. And, in that case, that was a just result.

But at the same time, there are other youthful defendants who have been sentenced to unjust sentences of life without the opportunity for parole. For example, a 15-year-old boy in Chicago, “Peter A,” on instructions from his older brother, helped steal a van so that his brother could drive to the home of two individuals who stole drugs and money from the brother’s apartment. Peter stayed in the van while two others went inside. While Peter waited in the van, one of the men who had gone into the home shot and killed two people. Peter was sentenced to life without parole, even though the judge said at sentencing that he wished he could impose a lower sentence and described Peter as “a bright lad” with “rehabilitative potential.” But the sentence was mandatory and the judge had no discretion or choice to sentence Peter otherwise. Peter is now 29 and has spent nearly half of his life in prison. During that time, he has obtained his G.E.D. and completed a correspondence paralegal course. He has an exemplary record in prison, receiving a disciplinary ticket only once in the past six years (for possessing an extra pillow and extra cereal in his cell). But no matter how much Peter changes in prison, he will serve the rest of his life in prison without having even the possibility of asking to be released, much less getting out.

That is the critical fact to keep in mind about those seeking to end life without parole for juveniles. No one is arguing that any particular individual should be let out of prison. Ending juvenile life without parole merely leaves open the possibility that a child who commits a crime can petition for release later in life, if he can demonstrate that he is remorseful, has rehabilitated, and will not reoffend. Parole authorities can and should be trusted to make informed, reasoned decisions regarding the release and continued incarceration of inmates petitioning for parole…..

Read the rest.


Madeleine Brand interviews ,education wonk and commentator Alexander Russo, about his new book, Stay Dogs, Saints and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America’s Toughest High School chronicles the transformation of very troubled Locke High School—what has been accomplished and what remains to be done.
I’ve been looking forward to the book’s release for months, and will have more it once I’ve finished reading. In the meantime, listen to the interview. Russo’s a smart guy and has a bracingly clear-eyed view of why the “Locke experiment,” as he calls it, is important.


WLA doesn’t usually cover transportation issues but, seriously, this is a no brainer. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board votes on this issue today. Let’s hope they understand how important a station at historic and iconic Leimert Park station is, not just to South LA, but to the rest of the city.

Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas has an op ed in Thursday’s LA Times explaining very clearly why there can be only one possible answer to the Leimert Park station question.

Metro board, please get this one right.

Posted in Books, Education, Green Dot, LGBT, LWOP Kids, parole policy | No Comments »

Notes from the LAT 2010 Book Prizes

April 26th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon


As most of you know, the LA Times Book Awards were this past Friday night, and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books took place on Saturday and Sunday at UCLA. 125,000 people were expected at the LATFOB and judging from the crowds I saw both days, it is likely that the book fest hit its mark or more.

But first the awards: the full list of the winners may be found here. (For those of you looking for a good reading list, the lists of winners and finalists are a great place to start. I’ve already downloaded on to my iPod the audible version of the First Fiction winner, Phillipp Meyer’s American Rust)

I was a judge for the category of Current Interest—along with my wonderful and wise colleagues Henry Weinstein and Bill Boyarsky, The three of us read a preposterous number of books, many of which were very deserving. (A few, not so much.)

We finally narrowed it down to the five below, all of which featured excellent writing and reporting and dealt topics of consequence.

“Columbine” by Dave Cullen
“Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers
“Strength in What Remains” by Tracy Kidder
“Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide” by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sharon WuDunn
“The Healing of America: The Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Healthcare” by T.R. Reid

The winner was Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun-–my personal favorite and a book I can recommend unhesitatingly to any of you. It’s a great story, meticulously reported, and possessed of the grace and velocity of a good novel.

Eggers also got a newly created Innovator’s Award–which “recognizes the people and institutions that are doing cutting edge work to bring books, publishing and storytelling into the future, whether in terms of new business models, new technologies or new applications of narrative art.”

(For the details go here.)

However, while assuredly very deserving of the latter honor, Eggers turned out not be be your average techno nerd/writer. In the course of accepting the two awards, Eggers blurted that the only way he got any reading done was to completely unplug the Internet at his house. “I only go online twice a day,” he said. Even then, in order to get a WiFi signal, he takes his laptop and drives to the parking lot of a local carpet store, and steals their WiFi.

When he and I spoke later on in the evening, we talked about the unplugging issue and I mentioned in passing that, unplugging aside, I thought that the iPhone app for his magazine “McSweeney’s was particularly good.

Eggers winced. “I’ve never seen it,” (said Mr. Innovation).

Me: “What?! You’re kidding.”

Eggers: (apologetically) I saw the drawing. I mean, I thought the drawing was good.

Me: No really, that’s bad.

Eggers: Probably.

[Here's a demo of the app.]

Yet as a writer, a publisher, and as an innovative promoter of the written word-–from basic literacy to literature— Eggers is very, very good. As LA Times Book Review editor David Ulin said to me after he interviewed Dave Eggers on Saturday at the Book Festival—he’s the real deal.

Posted in American voices, art and culture, Books, literature, writers and writing | 8 Comments »


January 27th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

It ain’t going to save the newspaper biz,
but it is going to change book publishing—in a good way, in my personal opinion. (Operative word “change” not “save.”) Who cares about paper. Bring on the literary downloads.

Okay, now onward to USC to teach. (Must stop obsessing.)

See you after that other, you know, presentation: the SOU.

PS: The iTampon jokes are really, really dumb. It’s like hearing people endlessly talk about shopping at Tar-jey.

PPS: Here what David Pogue says.

PPPS: Who cares that it doesn’t have Flash. It will, however, eventually need a camera and video—if only for Skype.

Posted in Books, literature, media | 24 Comments »

WLA’s Last-Gasp-of-Summer Reading List

September 4th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


These are sobering times.
The Station fire, the largest fire in LA County history, has been deemed to be arson. It has cost the County of Los Angeles $21 million to fight, with that dollar amount still rising. Worse, it has cost us the lives of two deeply admired firefighters (I will have another story about Ted Hall, Arnie Quinones, and the Mt. Gleason Camp situation next week.) in addition to incinerating more than 60 homes, and around 250 miles of the Angeles National Forest.

Meanwhile, the California budget is still such a nightmare that we’re looking to donuts to save us.

Plus many of our nation’s lawmakers, democrats prominently included, appear to be in some form of indentured servitude to the health care industry….

And Afghanistan is looking so disastrously quagmire-ish that even a few Republicans are now suggesting a cut-and-run policy and non-alarmist journalists and commentators are starting to use the V word.

….And the American embassy in that same benighted country is being guarded by depraved, drunken and witless American rent-a-thugs, who also happen to be heavily armed—and paid handsomely for their hideous behavior with our tax dollars..

ON THE OTHER HAND, Labor Day is upon us—which means it is our last chance for a long summer weekend that might conceivably involve recreational reading.

So, for one a brief and shining moment, let us set aside the aforementioned troubling issues—and talk about good beach books.

I’ll have other, more serious books to recommend in the coming days and weeks, but for now, here’s my personal short list of beach, pool and airplane-worthy reading.

(And after mine, I want to hear yours. Deal? okay, deal.)

In no particular order:

1. Stieg Larrson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire

These first two books of the trilogy of intellectual thrillers written by Swedish novelist Stieg Larsson are monster best sellers for perfectly good reasons. (Sadly, Larrson died suddenly in 2004, so will produce no more past the three.) They’re intelligent, and the first—The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo— is filled with many cool tidbits about the world of Swedish high finance, some of which serve as easy analogs for our own recent financial debacles. The second book is sequined with its another pleasing array of arcane factoids—this time about such subjects as Olympic-class computer hacking and high-flown mathematics problems. But most importantly, both books feature, along with muckraking financial journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, the glorious literary creation that is Lisbeth Salander, an anti-social punk-styled near-genius girl hacker who may or may not be suffering from Asperger’s. She alone is worth the price of admission.

2. The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly

There are at least five reasons to read this book: First of all, it’s a Michael Connelly novel, and one has to be terribly grumpy to live in LA and not have at least a teensy weensy soft spot for Connelly novels.. Second, its sub theme is the collapse of the newspaper business and significant chunks of the novel are set at the LA Times. Third it even manages to have an ex-Times reporter/editor turned blogger character, who is a barely disguised Kevin Roderick of LA Observed fame. (The fictional blog is called “The Velvet Coffin.”) Fourth, Michael Connelly is Bill Bratton’s favorite mystery novelist and that must mean something, right? Fifth, it’s a Michael Connelly novel. (Did I already say that?) And Connelly has grown very, very good at what he does, thus it is a comfort and a pleasure to be in his company for each successive book-length ride.

3. Into the Woods and The Likeness by Tana French

French’s two books are best read in sequence as they feature many of the same characters who assume greater or lesser importance from one book to the other. Both novels are wonderfully psychologically-nuanced police procedurals written in a literary, almost Donna Tartt-ish tone—and all set in Ireland. I liked both of them a lot.

4. Nobody Move by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson won the National Book Award for his unfathomably beautiful Viet Nam war novel, 2007′s Tree of Smoke. Before that, he was the Next Big Literary Hope with his pared-to-the-bone book of short stories, the bleak and stunning Jesus’ Son, which first made us aware of his capacity for writing those gorgeous sentences.

But going from the 800-word, image and symbol-loaded Tree of Smoke to Chandler/Hammett-type genre fiction that is so fat-free that it is barely 200 pages, evidently confused certain reviewers—even though there is a long tradition for such genre hopping among literary types. (Most recently, John Banville did it after he won the Booker prize, albeit under another name. Kate Atkinson leaped over to genre fiction after winning the Whitbread award, and never went back. And then there is Pynchon, below.).

But there are others
who embraced the book with no confusion at all because they simply love the man’s writing, whatever structure or genre happens to contain it.

I fall into that latter category. Pick up one of his books, and maybe you will too.

5. Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

It is California noir laced with so much in the way of happily outrageous 60′s/70′s stoner dialogue that it makes Cheech and Chong movies of the period seem positively abstemious in contrast, and it comes complete with its own surfer music sound track (minus the audio). (Actually, I take that back. Amazon and other sites have listed all the songs, with links to the audio when possible. When there are no links, it is because Pynchon made the song up out of whole cloth—complete with lyrics. My personal favorite in the latter category is “Soul Gidget” by Meatball Flag.)

This Pynchon book is over-the-top, occasionally deliberately anachronistic, sly, dark, funny and fabulous. Much in the way that Graham Greene wrote his “entertainments,” Pynchon has created something masterful in which even the deep, dark, philosophical points he has slipped into the genre plotting are made to seem light as cotton candy.

I never wanted it to be over.

Okay, now your turn.

Posted in Books, writers and writing | 45 Comments »

The First Annual WLA Summer Reading List….. Part 3

August 5th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon


Finally, the 3rd Chapter in summer reading….and an intriguing, smart, amusing and quirky list it is.
We’ve got Controller Laura Chick, DA Steve Cooley, Attorney General Jerry Brown, City Council Member Ed Reyes, gang advisor Dr. Jorja Leap, and Tell Zell’s the honorable Mr. Inkstained Retch.

There is the public school contingent, LAUSD board prez, Monica Garcia, and teachers union prez A.J Duffy.

And just to make sure the literary LA folks are represented, we have LA Times Opinion Editor Nick Goldberg (who makes a case for reading Anthony Trollop on the beach). And novelist/author Rachel Resnick—who has a wild and wonderfully-written memoir coming out this fall called Love Junkie (and a good recommendation or 2 for you now).

Both Jerry Brown and Joe Domanick thought that pre and post WWII-era Historian and theorist, Louis Mumford, was just the ticket for poolside. (What’re the odds?) And there were a couple of Graham Greene lovers in this batch.

Interestingly, it was both Steve Cooley and Jerry Brown who couldn’t stop with only one book. (In fact, Cooley was cheerily enthusiastic about four books [I only included 3] and, I suspect, would have easily gone further. Jerry too.)

As a reporter, I don’t think I’ve ever asked a question of public officials that so many people seemed, not only willing, but eager to answer.

And that’s a very good thing.

Los Angeles City Controller

I know that Lisa See has a new novel out, Peony In Love, but I actually just finished her earlier book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. I loved it for many reasons. This book opened up a whole new world , taking me on a great adventure in ancient China. It also has terrific character development and I feel like I really got to know them.

Above all this is a phenomenal story of the tremendous strength of women.

District Attorney, City of Los Angeles

Well one book I read recently that I thought was extremely well done and insightful was called The Criminal Justice Club. It’s written by a retired deputy named Walt Louis. He recounts is time in the criminal justice system in LA county. He spends a lot of time documenting what he asserts are the failings of the media in reporting on the criminal justice system, especially the Los Angeles Times.. I read it and couldn’t put it down.

And Hollywood Station and Hollywood Crows by Wambaugh. They’re sort of a one two punch, one is a continuation. Hollywood Station is very funny. Hollywood Crows is a little darker. They’re right up to the minute.

California Attorney General

You could read Bad Money, by Kevin Phillips. It’s about the confluence of oil dependency, financial debt and leverage and the takeover of the financial sector from manufacturing.

Also, The Condition of Man by Louis Mumford. I’m just reading it. It’s from 1944, and it’s hard to get but it’s very interesting. It’s a classic. It’s about how we plan. How we live together.

Opinion Editor, The Los Angeles Times

There is no author whose books are better for lazy, fun, utterly engaging summer reading than Anthony Trollope. He wrote so many nearly perfect books that it’s hard to choose among them, but if I had to recommend just one it would be the first one I ever read: “The Last Chronicle of Barset,” the story of the Reverend Josiah Crawley and the (very minor) crime he is alleged to have committed.

President, United Teachers of Los Angeles

I don’t get much time to read. But I haven’t read Catch 22 in ten years. I’d like to read it again. It’s such a great book. It shows the whole hypocrisy of war. How we’re one world, but we take money out of one pocket and put it into another pocket to fight ourselves. It’s a great, great book.

adjunct professor of social welfare at UCLA’s School of Public Affairs, advisor on gangs and youth violence for the National Institute of Justice

For a fun summer read, Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller. This is the ultimate summer book. Part great rock gossip, part social history and enough feminist psychology to lend some insight into everything from what women want to why Hillary failed. A great read and some hidden learning!

City Councilmember First Council District

I recommend “The Power and the Glory,” Graham Greene, which I read while a student at UCLA. No matter how bad things are, or how badly you may find yourself, there’s always something good about you. There’s a lot to an individual if you do the right thing.

Board President, Los Angeles Unified School District.

I’m reading, The Search for a Civic Voice, by Kenneth C. Burt. It’s about how Latino communities have worked with the political system. It’s such an amazing time, but the challenges are so great that we have to have a historical perspective of what the struggles have been, to encourage us and inspire us to continue.

novelist/author (Go West Young F*cked-Up Chick and Love Junkie: A Memoir, to be released in November)

Books that resonate, that one would suggest for summer, or any time…? Giacometti: A Biography by James Lord. The Palace at 4 a.m., to the spookily attenuated figures that made him a preeminent profiler of existential unease. Lord astutely chronicles this transformation, and the evaluation of Giacometti’s formidable personality is notable for its sensitive delineation of his ambivalent feelings toward women. Without scanting the sculptor’s tragic view of life, the author also inspires exhilaration with his portrait of a man who was always true to his art.

Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison is another—but somehow I’m not able to quickly sum up why…

LA Times reporter, creator/blogger,

Here I will surely disappoint. I don’t do much book reading. I’m a news guy, through and through. However, I did recently reread Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, about a CIA agent trying to foment democracy in Vietnam. Man, the parallels to Iraq were outstandingly weird.


TO READ ALL 22 RECOMMENDATIONS: For Part 1 click here, Part 2 , here.

Posted in American artists, Books, writers and writing | 15 Comments »

Summer Reading List, Part 3 – Evidently, I lied

August 4th, 2008 by Celeste Fremon

I know I promised it’d be Monday for more book recs. But, it seems I lied. It will be Tuesday, not today.

The deal is, I promised I’d wait for one more person whose book choice I won’t get until later today.

(Hey, more book recommendations are never a bad thing.)

Posted in Books, writers and writing | 2 Comments »

WLA Summer Reading List 3 on Monday, I Promise

August 1st, 2008 by Celeste Fremon

Next Book list on Monday—fer sure.

It’ll feature the book recommendations of: LA District Attorney, Steve Cooley: California Attorney General Jerry Brown; LA Times Opinion Editor Nick Goldberg; Tell Zell’s Inkstained Retch; LA City Controller Laura Chick; UTLA President A.J. Duffie; LAUSD School Board President Monica Garcia….and more.

In the meantime: For Part 1 click here, Part 2 here.)

Posted in American voices, Books, Los Angeles writers | 1 Comment »

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