Friday, August 8, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Cop Town by Karin Slaughter

     In 1974, it was tough to be a police officer in Atlanta, Georgia. They city was changing. Civil rights had taken hold, and for the men of the Atlanta Police Department, the world was changing. And not for the better. A black man had been elected Mayor, and appointed black men to key positions within the City. The Department was mandated to hire minorities, including women and Jews. A man suspected of killing a police officer a year before was acquitted after it was suspected that evidence was planted. And a new cop killer, dubbed The Shooter, was on the loose in Atlanta.
     Cop Town by Karin Slaughter revolves around a family of police officers: Jimmy Lawson, his sister Maggie Lawson, and their Uncle, Sgt. Terry Lawson, and new recruit Kate Murphy, whose first day on the job follows the most recent cop killing. It is chock full of violence, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, alcoholism; and that’s just among the Lawson family.
     Cop Town wonderfully highlighted the attitudes I presume were very common among police officers in the 1970s, dealing with what was the beginning of a war on the –isms listed above. A war that, while moved largely underground, is still being waged today. The plot moved quickly, although not unpredictably, keeping me interested from beginning to end. The characters were caricatures of what each of them were to represent; static exaggerations of the stereotypes of their times. The alcoholic, racist, sexist cops; the streetwise, foul mouthed, smoking, drinking, woman assigned as a street walker; the local hero, former football star, who has a dark secret that would destroy his reputation among his peers; the wise old grandmother, who survived the holocaust to give sound, liberating advice; the rookie officer, naïve to the other side of Atlanta; the womanizing doctor, who proudly proclaimed, “My wife is for making babies. You’re for fucking.”
Author Karin Slaughter
          But there is more to Cop Town than a statement on the state of law enforcement in Atlanta in the 1970’s wrapped in a police procedural. It demonstrated the different worlds that exist in close proximity: the rich and poor, black and white, men and women.  Kate, the rookie officer, attempted to talk about some of her experiences with her father, who gave this advice:

“My point is that you see these people in a way that I will never see them. Your experiences are no longer my experiences. I can’t guide you any longer because I don’t know where you’re going.”

     It also demonstrated that people can be flawed in many ways, but in other ways do many good things.

“So I listened to this one particular violent asshole today, and he was disparaging President Kennedy, saying Bobby’s assassination was a godsend. Disparaging the mayor, blacks, women, me…And yet he was in the war, too…He helped liberate the camps. He freed people from enslavement, from death…And I have to assume that in his capacity as a policeman, at some point, perhaps many points during his day, he helps people then, too…How can they be so awful, yet they do these good things?”

     And finally, in many ways, Ms. Slaughter hit the nail on the head when it came to the nature and personalities of police officers, even if they were taken to extremes. Sometimes it was awful; the racism, sexism, anti-Semitism. But sometimes it was humorous.

She thought that the girls were bad at her high school…there was no society more viciously controlled by rumor than your local police force.

     Whether you are looking for good, fast paced crime fiction, want to read about policing in the 1970’s, or just want to be submersed in an extreme example of police culture, Cop Town is for you. 

Slaughter, Karin. Cop Town, Delecorte Press, July 2014. 
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345547491

Cop Town was provided to The Thirty Year Itch by the publisher via
No compensation was received for this review.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

REVIEW: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

     The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is the story of Theo Decker, a thirteen year old boy growing up in NYC, living on the lower end of a privileged life struggling with living with an alcoholic and despondent father first, then with his mother after his father abandoned them. Not a bad kid, but testing the limits. One of his tested limits got him suspended from school, a meeting scheduled with school staff and his mother.
     The morning of the meeting, after finding themselves with some time to kill and needing to get out of the rain, Theo and his mother go into an art museum. Art is one of her passions, and they tour the museum with her expert analysis of several pieces. Toward the end of their visit, Theo and his mom separate, just for a moment, and there is an explosion. Just like that, in an act of domestic terrorism, Theo is an orphan, forever changed by and connected to a dying man and his niece, taking with him a…secret, of sorts, that becomes the powerful but underlying source of comfort and pain, connecting him to the tragedy and his mother, throughout the book.

     What remains is a first person account of Theo’s life and constant struggles not only with the world around him, but in his own body and mind. He is tormented, blaming himself, abusing drugs and alcohol from an early age, living with three different ‘families’ before reaching adulthood and reaching stability, albeit fragile and nontraditional.

Author Donna Tartt
     The Goldfinch is filled with compelling characters. Theo’s mother, in her brief appearance, is a strong, solid, loving woman with varied successes and interests, doing her best to balance a disastrous marriage, career, her love of art, and parenting. The aristocratic Barbour Family, New York old money, who took him in immediately after his mother’s death, and who Theo learned loved him more than he realized, but in way he would never understand. Theo’s father, an unrealized actor, alcoholic, drug abuser, degenerate gambler. Boris, perhaps Theo’s only friend, who shared the death of a mother, the abuse of a father, drugs and alcohol, but was also so different, less burdened, courageous, and either a mastermind or a combination of dumb, lucky, and too naïve to know any better. And Hobie, an unquestioningly generous, big, soft Teddy Bear of a man who became Theo’s guardian despite having nearly no prior relationship with him, only a peripheral connection.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius
     The Goldfinch is outside my normal genre, selected by my book club, but so intense that I felt compelled to review it. It is the third novel by Ms. Tartt, and is a beautifully and descriptively told story, addressing so many issues that one review can do none of them justice: the impact of terrorism, abuse, gambling, drugs, alcohol, PTSD, wealth, poverty, abandonment, love, despair, crime and right and wrong and the blurred lines in between. Art and antiques, their beauty and meaning, people’s love for both, strong enough to lie, cheat, steal, and sometimes kill. Ends justifying means, and so much more.
     The strengths of The Goldfinch, though, could also be considered its weakness. The book was over six hundred pages long. While much of it was essential, fast moving prose, or meaningful descriptions of emotions or beauty derived from art and artists, much was also lengthy, unnecessary and sometimes repetitive reflections of things already said or addressed. It was not meaningless, but tiresome, especially perhaps for a reader of generally more fast past crime fiction and thrillers.

     More than one book has been suggested as a modern replacement for, or addition to, The Catcher in the Rye for older high school or college literature classes, and perhaps The Goldfinch should be one of them. Students would likely relate to at least one of the many struggles of Theo Decker and his friend Boris, and adults to the many flawed characters in the book, if not to Theo and Boris themselves.  

Tartt, Donna. The GoldfinchLittle, Brown and Company, October 2013
ISBN 978-0-316-24867-9

The Goldfinch was purchased by The Thirty Year Itch. No compensation was provided for this review. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014


      Kidnapped for Christ is the first feature film directed by Kate S. Logan. And it was an accident. Kind of.
     While in college at Biola University, Ms. Logan was working on a film project at a Christian school for troubled American youth. The school, Escuela Caribe, was located in the Dominican Republic. She learned of it while there on a mission trip. She thought the visit to the school would give her an opportunity to film "a story about redemption." Instead, she witnessed hard labor, forced exercise until children were coughing up blood, humiliation, kids locked in rooms for hours, and physical abuse.
     While Ms. Logan had access to several kids at Escuela Caribe, the documentary was mostly about David, a seventeen year old boy from Colorado. Despite having good grades, good friends, and many scholarship opportunities awaiting him after his senior year of high school, he was awoken one night, taken from his bed by three men, and eventually ended up in the Dominican Republic. Why? He came out to his parents as gay.
Director Kate Logan
     David had an opportunity to share a lot with Ms. Logan while at the school. He recognized he had little
choice about being there, but when he turned eighteen and was not allowed to leave, others got involved. Family friends from Colorado were devastated about David's situation. They held regular meetings planning how to get him home, culminating in a trip by two adults to Escuela Caribe. But despite David being eighteen, he was not allowed to leave the school. Even the US Embassy offered little help in securing David's release.
     Meanwhile, Ms. Logan was receiving threatening letters from lawyers: if you make and release a film about Escuala Caribe, we'll sue you. She didn't finish the film. At least not then.
     A few years later, David agreed to talk. He had been threatened, coerced, and was frightened. Ms. Logan started her film making again, following David to a meeting of  a group called Survivors of Institutional Abuse. There were too many stories like David's, at schools for troubled teens all around the world, even within the United States. And no laws to stop or even regulate them.

     I have heard of several institutions like Escuela Caribe over the years. While I knew no details about them, I always thought of them as tough love boarding schools, a last resort for parents of incorigable children who were out of control, involved in criminal behavior, drug abuse, or were destructive to themselves or their families. I never thought one could be sent off for being gay. And I never would have thought of these schools as so demeaning and abusive as what was exposed in Kidnapped for Christ. Most of the filming that took place was with the full knowledge and in the presence of school staff. I hate to think about what happened when the cameras were not around.
“The afternoon that I arrived at Escuela Caribe, this scrawny 12-year-old was being ‘rebellious’… so they staged this boxing match in front of the students and the dean of the school basically beat the crap out of this boy, and the message of that was clear: either conform or be conformed.”  - Julia Scheeres, Author of Jesus Land, a memoir about her and her bother’s time at Escuela Caribe
“My parents thought they were sending me to a tough boarding school in the Caribbean run by Christians. I still have nightmares about Escuela Caribe about four times a week.” - Edgar Schoenwald Jr. former student at Escuela Caribe and additional editor on Kidnapped For Christ
“I believe every day [at Escuela Caribe] was a violation of my person … I am diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of my experience in the program.” - Lisa Brown, Former Student at Escuela Caribe
“Out of the country = NO US LAWS ... and they take full advantage of it.” - Chris Kam, Former Student at Escuela Caribe
“I remember being scared nearly every moment of every day.” - Bethany Leeuw (Beerhorst), Former Student at Escuela Caribe 
“I was abused under the illusion of 'God's love,' and refused the human dignity to disagree … These tales we tell are terrible & horrifying, but they are true.” - Joshua Sierk, Former Student at Escuela Caribe 
     Despite the title, the film did not put as much focus as I thought it would on the religious aspect of the school. It was a Christian school, but there was not as much proselytizing by school staff as I expected. Despite that, the cruelty the children were exposed to was enough to want to disassociate with any organization or faith that would proudly run an institution like Escuala Caribe. Ms. Logan herself, in her narration of the film, acknowledged that what she saw caused her to question her own faith. 
     But as much as I would like to have seen more of the religious justification of the abuse of these children, to demonstrate the dangers of such a strong influence religion has over some people and how it is used to justify atrocities by others, it would have taken away from the bigger picture about this school and the many like it. It is not about religion bashing; it is about the children being hurt in this kind of environment, and it doesn't matter if it is secular, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist. 
     Ms. Logan went from being a documentarian to playing an active role in helping David. While this might violate the rules of making a documentary, I understand if she felt she had no choice.

     Kidnapped for Christ was not a big budget film. There were few charts, few diagrams, no special effects, no fancy filmography. But its message was strong, powerful, and well told. I hope it continues to be shown across the country, bringing attention to schools like Escuela Caribe, preventing parents from resorting to sending their children away to these places, forcing law makers to investigate the abuse and regulate them, and putting pressure on the schools to close their doors, or at least reevaluate their methods.

     It is a tragedy that so many children have suffered the way David and the other children at Escuela Caribe and so many other schools around the world have. But it will be worse if nothing is done, and the abuse continues, destroying the youth, hope, optimism from so many more children.

Kidnapped for Christ, 2014
The Film Collaborative
Directed by Kate S. Logan
Yada Zamora, Kate S. Logan, Paul A. Levin
Yada Zamora
Peter Borrud, Stash Slionski, Sam Allen, Joshua Csehak, Bradley Scott, Kate S. Logan
H. Dwight Raymond IV, Sean Yates

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