Book Review: Insane City

“OK … Just so I have this straight, for my own personal understanding. You came to a strip club with a woman who is not your fiancée, and a gorilla on your wedding day.”

Insane City is the perfect title for this book. Everything is so ludicrous that every reader, at some point, has to ask, am I really reading fiction?

The book starts with a groom, who in two days will be married to an extremely beautiful, rich, successful lawyer with equally rich, successful (and disapproving) parents. All the groom has to is be at the wedding and bring the ring. Simple enough, but not in Miami. The protagonist soon finds himself aiding a Haitian refugee and her two children, running from hired guns, driving in an Escalade that only plays porn and sex songs, dealing with an aggressive orangutan, accidentally committing robberies, and more – again, all in the span of two days.

Throughout the story, Dave Barry sprinkles dark humor. For example, “If he fucks up this wedding … She will remove his balls with barbeque tongs. Kevin and Big Steve nodded, knowing this was hyperbole, but only mild hyperbole.”

Barry’s jokes and his whimsical characters make the ridiculous plot a little more bearable.

Book Review: Gang Leader for a Day

The community in the Robert Taylor Homes public housing project hustled to survive. Gang leaders provided community members with the care and protection that those in real power (the police and the Chicago Housing Authority) did not.

Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day is about one South Asian American graduate student and the seven years he spends with the Black Kings gang members in Robert Taylor. He eats with them, sits with them, and lives with them. He learns how they take care of families, kids, and squatters, how they grow their business and manage drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and repairmen, and how they focus on resolving disputes through nonviolent means (shootings are bad for business).

Trust built over time is one of key themes of this book. “With people like us, you should hang out, get to know what they do, how they do it.” One gradually learns why the people at Robert Taylor trust the Black Kings more than they trust the police and the Chicago Housing Authority. The police raid the Black Kings for their cash, jewelry, and cars. The Chicago Housing Authority only responds to Robert Taylor maintenance requests when bribed with money or sex. “What about the ambulance?” “Oh, no, baby … They never come.”

You read about people in Robert Taylor and in the Black Kings who are thoughtful and ambitious: people want to change things for the better; people who say “I will do something important one day …;” people who stick together; people who care for each other; people who take responsibility for what they can control. They are people who will touch your hearts.