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.

The Cars - Move Like This

Music Review: The Cars — New Cars quality at a old Cars price

It’s been nearly 24 years since The Cars released a studio album — 1987’s Door To Door. After four and two score years, yesterday saw the release of Move Like This, the band’s latest album. All of the band’s original members reconvened for this effort, with the notable exception of bassist and vocalist Benjamin Orr, whose voice you’ll recognize singing lead on “Drive,” “Let’s Go,” and one of my all-time favorites, “Just What I Needed.” It’s relatively clear that he’s the one thing this new album is missing. Orr passed away in 2000 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Lead singer Ric Ocasek handles all the vocals on this seventh album by the band. Ocasek himself has been quoted as acknowledging that Orr would have done a better job on half of them. While this is likely true, the album is still really good. It’s classic Cars. Isn’t that what we want? Too often you hear bands from decades ago reunite in an attempt to re-invent themselves. Too often these bands simply sound old. Members of these bands have a misguided interpretation of where they fit in within the confines of pop culture. I’ve loved The Cars since seventh grade. I remember walking home from school in the warmth of spring listening to “Just What I Needed” on my cassette walkman. At the time I had a crush on April Velazquez. I still do, really. And Move Like This sort of reminds me that I do.

The Cars - Move Like This

The individual gray hairs that are beginning to decorate my beard might remind me that I’m not 13 anymore, but this album is as effective as any Just For Men product when it comes to reclaiming some semblance of youth. While it appears that the band hasn’t released any of the album’s songs as a single, it occurs to me that if the MTV that we knew in the 80’s (where they actually played music videos) still existed today, it’s possible that one of several songs off of Move Like This would be featured in heavy rotation. The best thing about this album is that they sound like The Cars. Each song is simple, poppy, well-structured, and quirky, yet somewhat profound.

They’re demonstrating their relevance.

One could argue that a drawback to this album is that it doesn’t really show any major growth by The Cars as a band. It’s true that they may have gone back to the well for the soft, repetitive two-string chords and light, steady high-hat beats that remain their signature. But that’s the thing, they didn’t forget the formula, and it still works. Though it might’ve been nice to see some departure, I guess that’s what solo careers are for. However, perhaps it also represents why the extended hiatus was a positive thing. Twenty-four years worth of these albums may not have been the greatest legacy, but an album like this ain’t too bad. Despite the nearly quarter-century absence, it’s nice to know that they’ve found their way back to the record store shelves. We still have record stores, right?

Again, it’s worth noting the absence of Ben Orr. His vocals would have perfectly suited songs like the enchanting “Soon” or the eerily familiar-sounding “Sad Song” (which doesn’t actually sound sad at all). This album is vintage early Cars. Many will remember Orr’s vocals from 1978’s “Moving In Stereo” which was featured in the movie Fast Times At Ridgemont High. If I have to remind you, it’s played during the slow motion Phoebe Cates/bikini scene.

"Hi Brad. You know how cute I always thought you were."

That’s pretty much all that’s missing from this album. They’re lacking the mysterious synthesizer and Orr’s voice that helped make the Cars sound like a more complete entity. On no song is this more evident than it is on “Take Another Look.” Ocasek does a decent job with the song, but the opening lines make it clear that Orr’s higher vocal range was invaluable to the band’s success over the years. This does not diminish the overall brilliance of the album, however. It’s as a close a return to what we love about the band as one could hope.

The question is: what prompted this sudden reunion of the band? Ocasek stated ages ago that the band would “never, ever” get back together. Could this be their way of reminding people of who they are? Perhaps it’s a knock at the door of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame? Whatever the motivation, fans should be thankful. It’s an enjoyable album, and while not necessarily one of the greatest of the year, it is worth a download. You can do so for free here: http://www1.rollingstone.com/hearitnow/player/cars.html

Actually, nevermind downloading this album, run out to your local Record Town or Musicland to pick up a cassette tape of your very own. Just don’t hurt yourself trying to open that ridiculous, plastic shoplifting-prevention packaging that audio tapes used to come in. You know what I’m talking about, thirty-five-and-over year olds.

Duran Duran + Mark Ronson = Newer Wave

Yesterday, March 22, Duran Duran released the packaged version of their 13th studio album, All You Need Is Now. This album was actually originally released for download in December of last year, so it’s been out for several months. Without question this is their finest album in the last decade, and probably their best since the release of Rio in 1982. It’s unquestionably a better effort than 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre.

The album is produced by British DJ-turned-producer Mark Ronson. Ronson, who won a Grammy in 2008 for producing an album with Amy Winehouse, was only six years old at the time Duran Duran released Rio.

The first notes of the album appear to be signature Ronson. Not entirely unlike his own song, “Bang Bang Bang” released last year on the album  Record Collection by Mark Ronson and the Business Intl., these harsh, synthesized sounds that open the title track “All You Need Is Now” greet the listener almost as an assault the ears. But the jagged sound of the opening quickly gives way to the always perfect vocals of Simon Le Bon. It doesn’t take long to recognize that this just might, in fact, be your father’s Duran Duran.

After 19 years, they seem to have rediscovered the qualities that made them one of the biggest bands of the 80’s. While it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that the album oozes the New Wave pop sensibilities that were so vivid on songs like “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “The Reflex,” it probably is fair to say that it’d be corny to say that. But nonetheless, there it is.

Mark Ronson appears to be a bit retro as an artist in his own right. As a DJ, he gained notoriety not only for his talents at mixing, but also because of the vastness of the musical catalog from which he sampled. As such, many of the studio albums he’s released have distinct New Wave qualities to them. In an odd twist, he now finds himself in a position to put his own stamp on the new albums by some of those very artists that inspired him in the first place. While the individual members of Duran Duran, and Mark Ronson himself may literally be a generation apart, this pairing clearly demonstrates that music spans all generational gaps.

Unless you’re a fan of Taylor Swift. Not sure how to explain that. Sorry, future.