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  • Owad’s Micro-Review #130: All the Kremlin’s Men
    by Mikhail Zygar

    Old Turkish proverb: “When a clown moves into a palace, he doesn’t become a sultan; the palace becomes a circus.” Sounds about right, but this book, by a now-exiled Russian journalist, proves the saying wrong. When a clown enters the palace, the entire government becomes a circus—and then becomes whatever the sultan wants it to be.

    Zygar’s book gets up close and personal with Putin’s courtiers and cronies—and at times with Putin himself. The main conclusion underpinning the many intrigues: Putin’s rise to power wasn’t a KGB plot. It wasn’t a kleptocratic conspiracy or a meticulous, authoritarian strategy. It was a series of accidents—a case of a dour, sociopathic spy who consolidated power through ad hoc decisions and the movement of chessboard pieces. Problem: parliament and big business aren’t doing the president’s bidding. Solution: run a “privatization program” that makes monied slaves of oligarchs. Problem: Ukraine’s handpicked president ceases to toe the Kremlin line. Solution: Go after the Ukrainians themselves.

    In his early years in power, Putin at least obliquely supported integration with both the EU and NATO. At the same time, he sent weekly flights full of prostitutes to Saddam Hussein’s sons in Iraq. At one point, he idolized George W. Bush; at another, Silvio Berlusconi. At all times, the only throughline in his behavior was a clear desire to be Peter the Great, but without too many distracting hopes or dreams. No glowing vision of bringing Russia into the future. No appetite for rebuilding society. Just short-term goals that could be met with the help of the right people in the right places.

    This book could have been titled The Dictator Who Didn’t Give a Damn. Or, better yet, The Guy Whose Life in Power Went Exactly the Way Any Historian Could Have Predicted. He’s not the first accidental dictator in history, but he’s the biggest one in modern times. For that reason, this book is a must-read. It synthesizes a whole lot of information in a brilliantly straightforward way.

  • Micro-Review #129: Bluesman
    by Andre Dubus III

    Dubus’ first novel tells the story of Leo, a teen coming of age in smalltown Massachusetts during the Vietnam war. For the first time in his life, Leo is having sex, falling in love, and feeling like an adult thanks to a real job building houses.

    Underscoring this awakening is a passion for the blues. Leo plays a mean harmonica and dreams of being in a band. When real life intrudes, it’s possible he’ll lose the music dream and a whole lot more. That’s too bad, but we won’t bail on Leo. Despite a somewhat dolorous tone, his story is infused with an unmistakable generosity of spirit. It’s a poignant, human book.

  • Micro-Review #128: Killer Joe
    by Tracy Letts

    A decade before he wrote AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, Tracy Letts came up with this hyperbolic story about angst in a trailer park in the South. Chris, the play’s main character, gives us the flavor of the tale when he describes his home state of Texas as “nothing more than a bunch of hicks with too much space to walk around in.” Judging from the intrigues and mayhem that follow, he might have a point. The story has everything you’d expect in a good black comedy: addiction, greed, lust, sentimentality, revenge. The humor is superb and unexpected, the violence extreme. No punches get pulled. The result is a unique and memorable read.

  • Micro-Review #127: North of Normal
    by Cea Sunrise Person

    Haven’t seen the movie, but the book tells an absorbing true story. Cea’s family leaves California in 1960s for the rugged wilderness of western Canada. The journey that follows takes her from a childhood spent in the bush to a First Nations reserve west of Calgary and then, after many colorful times with her inveterately contrary family, the runways of Europe as a fashion model.

    As a counter-culture family memoir, this story is unique. The wanderers never sought Shangri-la in the mountains of Canada. The goal was simply to escape civilization. Rules were meant to be bent or broken. Mom refused to hop off the hedonism train. Papa Dick wouldn’t stop getting naked at inappropriate times. It’s easy to imagine all this leading somewhere dark. Luckily for the reader, Cea has enough strength of character to bring us to a happy conclusion.

  • Micro-Review #126: Geniuses
    by Jonathan Reynolds

    From our Obscure Works file, here’s a 40-year-old play that’s guaranteed to make you laugh like a Filipino ferret. Four movie people are stranded together in the Philippines during a typhoon. While the blockbuster movie’s insanely expensive sets sink into the mud, a writer, an actor, an art director and a makeup artist take turns showing us just how out of whack they—and the movie business—are.

    The humor is bold and there’s no political correctness—and also nothing offputtingly heavy. The script is pure fun. You’ll read it in 90 minutes, and a year or two later you’ll read it again (for instance, after you’ve finished reading some dour tome that has been asking you to commit suicide). Reynolds was one of the uncredited writers on Apocalypse Now (two of his lines made it into the movie), and he clearly knows whereof he speaks in terms of the movie world. Find the book on Amazon or eBay. There are still a few old copies kicking around.

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