I don't read a lot of nonfiction books - not as much as I probably should, anyway - so putting enough of those together to make a decent post takes some time. But, I think I've got a few interesting ones for you, so, here goes, an all-non-fiction book review post. And that's the truth, phhhhttttbbh!
The Hate Factory - W. G. Stone as told to G. Hirliman (Dell/Paisano, 1982)
Eyewitness account of the infamously violent 1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary riot, which left 33 people dead, and most of those getting the hard way out, by torture and mutilation. After enduring inhumane treatment and living conditions, prisoners managed to take control of the prison and went on a rampage, destroying cellblocks, getting insanely loaded on drugs from the prison pharmacy and glue and paint thinner huffing, and exploding in rage against guards and snitches. The guards were kept as hostages and weren't killed, but they were raped so repeatedly that many were driven psychotic by the experience. Prisoners from the protective ward were killed slowly and brutally; they were burned with blowtorches, had iron bars hammered through their heads, had eyes carved out, their heads were sliced off and paraded around on sticks, they were raped with billy clubs, etc. Crazy, heinous stuff, which the book claims was a logical reaction to the vicious treatment prisoners received at the hands of the system. The prison was geared not to reform but to breed hate, violence, and prejudice. The author (or reportee, at least)was not a riot participant; he was awaiting parole so he hid out while the destruction and murder was going on. It's pretty detailed and gruesomely intense, and serves not only as a record of the carnage but as an indictment of the prison system's practices. This was probably the best-selling book that Easyriders magazine offered in the 80's, back when it was an outlaw biker mag instead of the tamed-down "motorcycle enthusiast" junk it later became, and it's written in a style that will be familiar to anyone who read the magazine during its heyday -- from the gut. Biased, to be sure, but an important and worthwhile read -- I've read it twice (the first time way up in a tree because I'm a bit odd).
Dispatches -- Michael Herr (Avon, 1978)
Detailed, beautifully-written Vietnam war memoir by a journalist who was embedded deep with the troops and had a great eye for what would capture the experience. If some scenes seem familiar it's because Herr co-wrote the screenplays for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket and incorporated some of the real stuff. It follows the conflict from its early days through its deterioration and final days, and gives you a clear, vivid picture of what went on and what it was like. A must-read masterpiece of war reportage. Also available in Volume II of the Library of America's collection of Vietnam War reporting.
Tesla: Man Out of Time - Margaret Cheney (Dell, 1981)
Biography of the elusive super-scientist who didn't get credit for a lot of his inventions (such as radio, florescent lighting, turbines, and AC power) and -- thanks to corporate greed and crooks like Thomas Edison -- was prevented from developing a lot of other things that scientists still haven't managed to work out, such as wireless broadcasting of power, a death ray particle beam, and robots and flying machines and unlimited free energy from alternate sources. It's tragic that such a powerful mind was held back by others' greed and that despite all his gifts Tesla remained poor, struggling to feed himself and his pet pigeons, captive to his strange obsessions and neuroses. It does get dull after a while -- I wanted more focus on his inventions and explanations of them in layman's terms -- but it is well-researched and a good portrait of a very amazing man.
The Weird World of Eerie Publications - Mike Howlett (Feral House, 2010)
I've discussed Weird Magazine on this blog before, so you know I have a fascination for them. My childhood was warped by the depraved things. Most horror comics were tame, but Weird and its cousins felt wrong and forbidden, like a sort of pornography of sick-minded violence. Well, this book explores how those magazines came to be, a story almost as sleazy and trashy as the magazines themselves. The offices of Eerie Publications was a crazy place where editors would sometimes fire guns at the workers, and stories and art were stolen from any place they could snag it from, such as old pre-code comics and foreign works. They were real cut-and-paste deals, with things recycled right and left. When the comics started to run dry they tried branching out into other strange one-off magazines (I'm pretty sure an old "Peter Frampton Joins KISS!" magazine I bought is one of their works). The book is heavily illustrated but doesn't include stories; for that, your best source is a book called The Zombie Factory by Patrick O'Donnell. If you're interested in how the small, struggling press operated back in the 70's and early 80's, though, this is a very well-done examination.
Under And Alone - William Queen (Balantine, 2006)
Can't-put-it-down nonfiction about ATF agent William Queen who, undercover as biker Billy St. John, infiltrated The Mongols, a mostly-Chicano motorcycle gang that's more violent than the Hells Angels. He maintained his persona undetected for over two years and managed to become a full patch-holder. This is one brave mofo, and he writes well, too, explaining his conflict at having to testify against guys who, despite being evil criminals, had become like real brothers to him, often treating him with more kindness than his fellow ATF agents. Scary and compelling stuff, full of tense situations. Mel Gibson really flattered himself, planning to play this guy in a movie that unfortunately never happened. Recommended.
No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey To The Inner Circle of the Hells Angels - Jay Dobyns & Nils Johnson-Shelton (Three Rivers Press, 2009)
Unputdownable account of an ATF agent who managed the almost-unthinkable and infiltrated the Hells Angels Mjuiotorcycle Club, posing as a hit man/debt collector for another club. On the way Jay got so wrapped up in the case he lost his real self and almost his family by becoming the outlaw biker he was pretending to be. The book is extremely well-written and compelling, full of both honest self-criticism about bad things he did and a fair amount of bragging (but hey, anyone with balls enough to infiltrate the big Red & White has the right to crow a bit). The Hells Angels come across as sympathetic yet pathetic, criminal yet noble in a way... it seems like a fair assessment overall, and there's lots of interesting detail. One of the best books I've read in a long time, highly recommended.
Walking On: A Daughter's Journey With Legendary Sheriff Buford Pusser - Dwana Pusser with Ken Beck & Jim Clark (Pelican Publishing, 2009)
With The Twelfth of August unfortunately out of print, it was about time for another Buford Pusser book, and who better to tell the story than Pusser's own daughter? Of course it's going to be heavily biased in Buford's favor, which is understandable, but Dwana actually does acknowledge some controversies, such as her father's possible involvement in assassinations of some of his enemies (who you really can't feel too sorry for since they definitely had it coming). She reveals more illegal activities almost by accident, because she seems to think they're endearing (Buford's brutality to some prisoners, the irresponsible speeds he drove -- sometimes after drinking, cruel pranks played on friends that could have endangered their lives, etc.). Despite these flaws, Buford still comes across as heroic for taking on the scumbags he shut down, and his acts of kindness are also documented. Dwana talks about the filming of the movies (she likes Joe Don Baker and The Rock a lot, but Bo Svenson was pretty much of a dick) and her own trials and tribulations concerning the tragic deaths of her parents. I'd still like to read a more intensive bio by a historian (this book is fairly light and more personal than historically detailed) but given the unfortunate lack of writing on this interesting figure, this book is a very welcome addition, and it's simply written but compulsively readable. I'd love to see a sequel if she can dig up more stories. Lots of well-chosen photos.
I Was A Murder Junkie: The Last Days of GG Allin - Evan Cohen (Recess Records, 1999)
Too-slim book chronicling the author's three weeks as a roadie for GG and his just-slightly-better-behaved bandmates. The prose is sometimes a little clumsy, but that doesn't get in the way of compulsive readability of the human-equivalent-of-a-car-wreck that's depicted. When not committing acts of violence on himself or the audience, GG is usually looking for drugs or trying to get women to pee on him. Cohen makes it clear that just being around GG was enough to turn one into something of a degenerate, and it's also clear that, to a certain extent, society deserved him. Not for the timid, but if you have an interest in GG, this is worth seeking out. Don't pay the ridiculous prices some people online have been asking, though - it's only 116 large-print pages and a lot of that is taken up by pictures or blank space; it's essentially a glorified magazine article. Comes with a CD that Cohen recorded on a microcassette recorder, mostly of GG interviews, but also with a couple of acoustic songs.
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