Monday, June 30, 2014

Fighting the Drug Wars in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This is another story that focuses on the "war" on drugs. It's centered at the point on the U.S.-Mexico border where the cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are in many ways joined together, even though they are divided by the international border that runs between them. A street gang called the Aztecas works both sides of the line, causing serious problems both for civilians and for law enforcement personnel.

The story is told through the perspectives of several characters. Principal among them is a young man named "Flip" Morales, who has been indoctrinated into the Aztecas while in prison. As the book opens, he is released from prison and makes his way back to his mother's home in El Paso. He'd like to be left alone, but they Aztecas make it clear that they have plans for him on the outside, and almost as soon as Flip is home, the Azteca leader in El Paso, Jose Martinez, reaches out to him.

Also at the center of the story are several law enforcement officers. On the Mexican side of the border, the principal character is a federal officer named Matias Seguro. On the American side are two members of the El Paso P.D.'s anti-gang unit, Christina Salas and her partner, a guy named Robinson. There's also the almost-obligatory obnoxious F.B.I. agent who wants to trample all over the toes of the local cops and take over their investigation.

As the Aztecas seek to increase their influence over the cross-border drug trade, law enforcement officials on both sides of the border are mounting a large-scale effort to take down the gang. Caught up in the middle are the smaller fish like Flip, as well as a number of people who have no affiliation with the gang.

Through the eyes of these characters Hawken tells a fairly familiar tale and describes the consequences of the drug wars on the larger society and on the individuals who are caught up in them. The fact that the story is familiar makes it no less depressing, especially when one thinks of the millions upon millions of dollars that have been spent in this "war" over the last forty years to no discernable effect.

If I have a concern about the book, it lies in the fact that, hard as Hawken might try, none of the characters really resonates. Most of them do not have much depth, which may be a result of the fact that Hawken has created such a large cast that we don't really get to know any one of them as well as we might.

Also from a personal standpoint, I inevitably wind up comparing any book on this subject to Don Winslow's magnificent book, The Power of the Dog, which stands head and shoulders above any other book I've ever read on this subject. That might not be entirely fair to the other authors who have tackled this subject, but the truth is that anyone who does so, for better or worse, winds up standing in Winslow's shadow. 3.5 stars for me, rounded up to 4.

The Scottish Play...You Mean, MacBeth?

MacbethMacbeth by William Shakespeare
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Witches, superstition and mysticism create one of the Bard's more fantastical of plays. Add to it the very real, human elements of self-doubt, manipulation, betrayal and soul-tormenting regret and you get one of the most enjoyable, poignant pieces of literature of all time.

Perhaps only Hamlet reaches a higher level of human suffering encapsulated (Yes, Lear comes close.) I love the hell out Shakespeare's most popular, most well-known play, but Hamlet's interminable introspection tends to mire the spirits and reading experience, especially re-readings. Macbeth endures just the right amount of suffering for my palate.

His betrayal of a friend for the chance to vault himself up the ladder of success seems like a very American idea, but so universal is the depiction of human failings that the story translates quite easily into the entertainment of other cultures. For an example, take the excellent Japanese film version "Throne of Blood".

(The witch scene is cree-pay!)

The Curse!
One of the things that furthers the play's legend is that many believe it to be cursed. All kinds of reasons for this have been bandied about. Disasters occurred, but those can/should probably be chalked up to chance accidents due to the high number of fight scenes and violent acts that take place. Nonetheless, a feeling developed that saying the title itself brought on bad luck, thus it was considered verboten to speak the name and so it became known as "The Scottish Play."

Scottish actor James McAvoy once explained to me the apparent real reason actors feared Macbeth: It being so popular, it was often put on by struggling theaters, but the production was so costly that instead of reviving the theater, it often hastened its financial ruin. If the theater went under the actors would then be out of work again, so landing a role in Macbeth became a double-edged sword.

Hamlet Hits Home

HamletHamlet by William Shakespeare
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"To be or not to be...," that is not my favorite line. My favorite is: "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times."

It's that recollection of innocent days that gets me every time, because you know Hamlet is being swept up in a vortex of innocence lost.

STUPID ADULTS! They screw up everything!

I grew up in a truly idyllic setting. As childhoods go, mine was a joy. But then you grow up and you wake up to reality.

My introduction to Hamlet came during high school in my early teen years. It's murderous plot of family deceit and infidelity struck home, my family being likewise stricken with such maladies. The parallels were all too similar and I love/hated the play for driving it all home.

Mel Gibson's movie version came out at this time, and its over-simplification and emotional heightening was a perfect fit for a simple-minded, emotionally-blinded teen. Less than stellar, the movie nonetheless had its effect upon me, furthering the torment.

Luckily my family drama was not as murdery as Hamlet's, although if the personalities of some of the principle players were slightly more volatile, there could easily have been a bloodbath of Hamlet-esque proportions. In my reality, we all got over it, sorted it out, and moved on with our lives wherever they led. The beauty of fiction is to see the deepest of fantasies played out. It gives us - I hesitate to use the melodramatic "victims" here, but that is essentially what we amount to - it gives us release from the pent up anger when we see the wrong-doers get their comeuppance.

For that reason, I doubt I'll ever been able to view this work through a truly unbiased, critical lens. Just because it's a "classic" doesn't mean you have to adorn it with a 5-star laurel wreath, but - for what it means to me - I do.