Book Review: Dialogues Of A Crime – by John K. Manos

It’s taken me two years to finally sit down and write a review of this book. That’s far too long. It’s too good of a book to have waited that long. I think I was so moved by it and enjoyed it so much, that writing about it was difficult for me. As it happens, author John Manos is a family friend whom I’ve know for essentially my entire life; at least, I’ve known him for as long as I can remember. He used to teach me chords to Buddy Holly songs on his electric guitar in the Evanston home he shares with his wife Leah. Seeing an electric guitar was an amazing novelty to me back then, let alone having the chance to actually hold and play one. Many, many years later, John and I would have the opportunity to perform with our respective bands on the same stage, on the same bill. That was a pretty big deal for me. I suspect it might’ve been pretty cool for him, too.

John and my father worked together for decades, and for more than just a single company. It’s safe to say that watching the interaction between the two of them over the years has had a major influence on who I am today. Their combined sense of humor always made my younger self wish I was old enough to work with them. They always seemed to make work fun for themselves, and their employees. As fate would have it, I eventually did have this opportunity for a brief period shortly before graduating college. I worked as an intern at the financial magazine for which John was editor-in-chief. Meanwhile, my father was editor-in-chief of its sister publication, and worked out of the same offices. I don’t think I appreciated it at the time, but it was a pretty great period in my life. As a kid I would revel in watching my dad and John play on company softball teams together and have a blast at company picnics, and now here I was, playing right along side them.

Dialogues of a Crime

With all of that said, I like to think that it’s not a coincidence that the main character of this book is named Michael. (You know, ’cause that’s my name.) But I’m not here to speculate. The story opens in the mid-1970’s when Michael is a relatively average 19-year-old college student. Like many college students regardless of the decade, Michael dabbled in marijuana. But unlike most of us, his experimentation experiences lead to him being arrested for assisting in the sale of the drug. Basically he unknowingly directed an undercover cop to the dorm room of a student who was selling.

Michael has a childhood friend who’s father happens to be a very important member of a Chicago mafia family. He’s powerful enough to have easily saw to it that Michael never see any time in jail. But Michael’s father is a proud man and refuses to let his son be associated with a known crime boss. Between this pride and the low-income situation Michael and his family find themselves, Michael ends up taking a deal that ultimately does send him to jail. Of course this, mixed with the violent events that Michael faces while locked up, proceed to alter the course of Michael’s life.

Eventually, we move forward in Michael’s timeline and meet him again as he works as a mild-mannered professional living in Chicago. Of course, his past catches up with him as a bizarre series of events unfold, introducing a mystery which falls into the lap of a Chicago police detective who, naturally, has his own demons. The solving of the mystery almost takes a back seat to the amazing character studies and relationship development between several of the characters within the story, not the least of which involves the detective.

Honestly, this book had the potential to become completely cliche. As I sit here describing it, I’m becoming even more aware of how easy it would have been to fall into that writer’s trap. Obviously, having been close with the author for more than three-and-a-half decades, I wanted this to be a masterpiece. But my fear was that it would be trite, trivial, and poorly executed. Of course, again from having known John for so long, I should have known better than to worry. John has always been a character in his own right, and it wouldn’t be in his nature to publish something less than masterful. Is this novel a masterpiece? I don’t know if I can say that, but it is literally one of the only books I’ve ever read that made me openly cry. There’s a very moving scene between Michael and the mafia boss that was so well crafted and so delicately written, that before I knew what was happening I had tears rolling down my cheeks. I’ve read a lot of great, moving books over the years. There was a time that I devoured books with such voracity I would plow through two or three of ’em a week. During that time, I was certainly moved to laughter, and to sadness, but I don’t recall ever having been moved to tears. Dialogues of a Crime moved me to tears.

It might have been a combination of the joy I felt as I became more and more engrossed in this work of art that my friend had created mixed with a little bit of it being emotionally the “right time, right place” for that particular scene to move me. But regardless, there’s something to be said for any writer and his ability to garner a physical response like that. It’s an impressive feat.

Best of all is that the story’s conclusion is immensely gratifying. It’s a strange combination of what you almost want/expect, mixed with a touch of “what the hell…?” But John creates the finale with such grace and finesse, it works perfectly. It’s a Hollywood ending with Chicago flavor. Part of what makes it work so well is the culmination of the character’s cultivation within their respective relationships. Given some of the unspeakable scenarios that occur (which I’ve intentionally left out of this review) the need for a sense of closure with each of the main players is a necessity. But more importantly, it’s almost as if it gives the reader a chance to sort of decompress with the characters themselves. If written any differently, I fear we’d all put the book down left with little more than a case of the Bends.

This is so much more than just a great story, or an enthralling mystery. It’s an investigation into the human psyche as much as it is a look into the penal system, or the world of organized crime. It almost takes reader involvement to a new level of interaction. As I read the book, I found times where I actually put it down in order to ponder philosophical questions which were raised by the story. Seriously, what more could a person want out of a book?

I actually don’t know if my friend John has any other manuscripts in the works, I hope he does. And frankly, knowing him, I’m certain he does. I know I’m eager to read what’s next. In the meantime, I’ll have to reread this one again.

A Reader’s Lament

What do we call that feeling we get when we finish a really great book?

I’m talking about the sort of book that completely takes you away from wherever you are. The sort of book that makes your existence in the world disappear. The sort of book that makes you pissed off that you ever started reading it in the first place because now that you’re done with it you’ve got a hollow feeling deep inside you. I’m talking about the kind of book that leaves you with the same feeling that sinks into all us after attending either a christening or a funeral.

What do we call that feeling?

It’s not sadness. It’s not joy.

What is it?

I think perhaps it’s reluctance.

Reluctance to make ourselves reenter the real world. Reluctance to accept that our journey taken through someone else’s eyes has come to an end. Reluctance to move on.

That’s what that feeling is. And it’s a good feeling to have.

Books can take you anywhere. And by books, I’m including Hustler Magazine.

Last night I finished reading the fifth book in the Harry Potter series. I had just started reading the whole series about two-and-a-half weeks ago. I’ve seen all three of the movies thus far and was quite impressed with them, being immediately taken with the idea of this fantastic wizarding world existing right under the noses of those of us who aren’t witches or wizards.

But I’ll admit that I wasn’t ready to be as taken with the books as I was. I mean they’re supposed to be children’s books, if I’m not mistaken. I know that people of all ages have read them, which is good, but I half expected them to be much more juvinile. Sort of dumbed-down, if you will. They’re not.

J.K. Rowling has blown my mind. I’ve raced through these books faster than I did that copy of Hustler that my old pal Raymond Tan gave me in seventh grade. Albeit the end result was slightly different, but the content of both have left me feeling light headed.

I found that as I’d been reading the books, I had to keep going back to reread certain paragraphs. This has happened to me before, of course, when reading political science text books, or existential essays while in college, but that was because I wasn’t paying attention to what I was reading. In this case, I find that I’m so excited to find out what’s going to happen next, that I actually end up skipping large chunks of sentences and paragraphs so I can get to the next sentence and paragraph. I have to take a deep breath to calm myself and go back.

I don’t even want to think about what sort of geek this makes me, but to be honest, I don’t really care. But what I do realize now is why everyone was in such an uproar over these books. I now understand why people were waiting in line at midnight to buy the sixth book which came out not long ago.

I’ll be starting book six later this evening, which means I should be done with it by the weekend. Then I’ll find myself in an intolerable situation. It’ll be at least a year, if not two, before the seventh book comes out. At least if I wanted a new Hustler, I could find one of those every month, but two years? You’re killin’ me Rowling! Killin’ me.

So, there it is. I’ve said it. I’m officially addicted to Potter. I’m a Potterhead. I’m aching to get home so can get my hands on some more Potter. I think there will only be seven Potter books all together. But I can’t really express how badly I want to score an eighth of Potter.

The characters in these books are remarkable. You actually see them grow up and mature. Even the adults. Not only do they tell incredible stories, but they teach so much about human nature. There are few books out there that manage to stir the emotions in me that these books do. There were points where I wanted to cheer out loud and others where I had stop and laugh at myself cause my eyes were getting a little moist. (If you tell my friends I said that, though, I’ll kill you.) But the characters are continually evolving into these unbelievably complex people. It’s great for kids to read because it teaches them to recognize what might make certain people tick. There are undoubtedly factors in each and every one of our pasts that have had an indelible effect on who we are today, but how many of us take that into account when dealing with others? Few, I would say.

Anyway, not to ramble about these books, but if you haven’t read them, do it. I promise that you won’t be sorry. I was skeptical, but clearly I was wrong to be.

The appendix: A worthless part of a book as well as the human body.

A friend of mine just went to the hospital with stomach pains and what could turn out to be appendicitis. He’s not sure yet, they’re doing checks and such. There’s no mortal danger or anything, but it did get me thinking about this part of the human body. I mean it’s basically useless, right? Serves no purpose.

According to wikipedia.com, “hypothesized functions for the appendix include lymphatic, exocrine, endocrine, and neuromuscular. However, most physicians and scientists believe the appendix lacks significant function, and that it exists primarily as a vestigial remnant of the larger cellulose-digesting cecum found in our herbivorous ancestors.”

(See innards diagram here.)

So basically, we don’t need it, which is why so many people end up getting it removed without incident if problems occur. It’s funny, cause I’ve never really known what the appendix looks like. I sort of thought it might be like a liver or a kidney. Something big and meaty. Turns out it’s just a little tube about 10 centimeters long. But yet when that thing bursts, look out.

So I find it funny that the section of books containing additional information is also called an appendix. Is this because it shares the burden of uselessness with its brother, the anatomical appendix? I suppose if it were important it’d be called a kidney, or an anus, or something that serves an actual purpose. Like a liver. But I suppose that with the amount of alcoholics there are in literature, calling it a liver would ultimately cause more work than it’d be worth, what with all the transplants they’d have to do. Reprinting costs would be astronomical.

Alright, so I don’t really feel that a given book’s appendix is useless. I’ve read through an appendix here or there. And I also realize that appendix literally means an appendage. So the appendix of a book is something that is an extention of that book. Just like the anatomical appendix is an extension of the cecum which is part of the large intestine. Hence, appendix is a suitable name for both entities.

The real question now is this, would appendix make a good name for a child?

“Hey, there! These are my kids. Appendix Joseph, Colon Marie, and Anterior Superior Iliac Spine. Say hi, kids!”

Sounds good to me.