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Gang Leader For a day

Examining issues of race, class and poverty

Published 06/02/2010 12:00 AM

Regardless of either of those hurdles, the book is worth picking up.

"Gang Leader" is an easy read in that the narrative is usually straightforward and the storyline advances easily, but Venkatesh doesn't want you to stop there: if you will follow, he will take you as deep into tructure and a failing welfare system as you dare.

Readers of "Freakonomics" will remember a brief mention of Venkatesh as the budding sociologist who penetrated the world of a gang of crack dealers in Chicago in the early 1990s.

This book is Venkatesh's telling of that story. A student at the University of Chicago, Venkatesh naively heads to the inner city with a clipboard in hand. First question: what does it feel like to be black and poor?

This is where some of us in book club started to doubt.

The book is filled with such moments, when you can't help but wonder how Venkatesh made it out, not only alive, but minus a beating.

At times, the dialogue feels far from authentic, with gang members describing their motives, business strategy and structure, and grudges with the antiseptic language of a professor … which is what Venkatesh is now.

But it is true that Venkatesh spent the kind of time and got the kind of access never seen before, and his insight is thought-provoking.

He introduces us to the leader of the Black Kings, J.T., who runs the gang with the cool efficiency of a businessman; describes the well-oiled coordination between the gang and the tenants and housing authority of the Robert Taylor projects; and his own conflict as he tries to balance the role of researcher with his feelings of affection for the residents and even the gang members.

An adventurous trek through a war-torn country

David Benioff

$17.96

Viking, 2008

A sort of coming-of-age story set during the siege of Leningrad, "City of Thieves" is an improbable yet endearing story. Author David Benioff follows his debut, "The 25th Hour," with this novel, which follows the mai

A sort of coming-of-age story set during the siege of Leningrad, "City of Thieves" is an improbable yet endearing story.

Author David Benioff follows his debut, "The 25th Hour," with this novel, which follows the main character, 17-year-old Lev Beniov, through the biggest four days of his life. (And yes, Lev's last name is meant to closely resemble Benioff's.)

Although it is set as a recollection - the book embarks under the premise that the author is interviewing his grandfather about the grandfather's experiences in Russia during World War II - the majority of the novel reads in the first-person and present tense.

When Beniov is apprehended after looting the corpse of a German paratrooper, he inexplicably gets a reprieve from certain execution by a colonel who gives Beniov and his cell mate, an alleged Army deserter named Kolya, a task: find a dozen eggs so the colonel's wife can bake a cake for their daughter's wedding.

Lev and Kolya set out across the war-torn countryside and into enemy territory in search of the eggs, a mismatched pair who would never cross paths otherwise. Lev is an insecure, naïve and ordinary-looking teenager while the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Kolya is a wise-cracking ladies' man - frankly, by the end I pegged him as a sex addict - with a penchant for talking his way into and then out of trouble.

Their adventure is a fun read, and Kolya's humor becomes so infectious that I forgave the book for being too neat and tidy or formulaic at times: the notion that bumbling misfits can outfox the sleek German warriors or a tongue-tied virgin can catch the attention of a beautiful assassin is outrageous, but fun. And this is fiction, after all.