Bank Robberies and Little Fires

It’s been a good start to the year. So here I am again.

The first book I finished this year was “Ranger Games,” by Ben Blum.  This book was really fascinating.  Ben’s cousin Alex trained to be an Army Ranger.  It was Alex’s dream.  And right before his first deployment, on a free weekend, he and another Ranger robbed a bank.  The book is a lengthy (probably just a bit too-lengthy) investigation of what happened and how his cousin Alex snapped.

It’s a true story, but it’s made more real by the fact that Alex is the author’s cousin, and so the impact to the Blum family is made more real as the author sorts through his feelings and the aftermath.  I think that’s what makes this more of a compelling story than had the author been a non-involved reporter.

The author tracks down everyone involved, including and especially the charismatic and probably psychopathic ringleader, Luke Sommer, a more senior Ranger who basically manipulated Alex and created a world in which Alex had difficulty distinguishing right and wrong.  Ben also describes in detail the Ranger training, which was a window into a world totally foreign to me.  At first, Ben’s assessment is that the Ranger training essentially brainwashed Alex, but as the book develops, you see it in a broader, and less nefarious context.

Ultimately, and in what I thought was a tremendous ending, Alex and Ben have a conversation that gives the story and reader some closure.

The book gave me a lot to think about–familial relationships, mental health, our military structures, and the minds of the young.  Ben Blum has real writing talent (he cites Zadie Smith in his acknowledgments) and I’ll want to read his next book for certain.

Here’s the thing that occurred to me about this book–it would have also made a hell of a good podcast.  Think about Serial or S-Town or some other kind of serialized story.  I would have loved to hear the voices of all the people Ben talked to.  And each chapter, in a way, felt like an episode of a still-unraveling story.  Maybe I’m accustomed to that podcast form so much now, but this book especially struck me as something that would have fit quite well in that medium.  After this, though, I needed a palate cleanser.

Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” was the solution.  A super quick read, fun, and funny.  This was on everyone’s end of the year list, and it’s now going to be a mini-series that Reese Witherspoon is attached to. The story takes place in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, that felt a bit like my own neighborhood here in Cincinnati.  (It’s not a perfect comparison, but it wasn’t too far off.)  The story also takes place in the mid-nineties, right about the time when I was in high school in Columbus.  Ng knows Ohio and got this period just right.

I’m not entirely sure how to recap this book; quite simply it’s worth just reading.  There are four families at the core of the novel. There’s much about life in high school.  The families all intersect over a controversial adoption that divides the town, exposes old secrets, and affects the relationships between the families.  Ng (who you should also follow on Twitter) keeps the pace brisk, revels in the 90s cultural era, and raises issues of class and ethnicity just perfectly.

If anything, and unlike “Ranger Games,” this book could have been longer.  One review I read said that more character development would have been welcomed.  Yes, had this been full-on “The Goldfinch” style, it would have still been brisk and fun and we would have known the characters even more.  I don’t know if I became attached to any one particular character as I did in “The Goldfinch.”  In fairness, is it because the characters in this book were almost all women?  And in Goldfinch it was men?  Maybe so.  Short or not, you should read this book.

The last book I occupied myself with this month was “His Excellency: George Washington” by Joseph Ellis.  It was fantastic.  This is the first book of the multi-year book club we’re hosting at the Mercantile Library.  We’ll read a biography of every President, in order, over the course of seven years.  “His Excellency” was a great one to begin with.  Not too long, enough new detail about Washington to give me new perspective, and an easy read.  They won’t all be this easy.  (I’m looking at you, Fillmore.)  One thing I’ll say about reading about Washington in a post-“Hamilton” world, I found myself singing lines from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play repeatedly.  Was the battle of Yorktown as fascinating before “The Battle of Yorktown?”  I don’t know, but for me while reading this book, it certainly was.

Thanks for reading.