by: Joelle Charbonneau
I don’t. Well, sometimes I do, but as a general rule, when I want to throw myself into a book, I pick fiction. And I read just about every genre – mystery, thriller, noir, fantasy, historical fiction, young adult, romance, etc… I can’t help myself. I love a good story. A lot of non-fiction just doesn’t give me that.
Not that there isn’t great stuff to be had between non-fiction covers. There is. I just have a harder time finding the ones that really grab me. Until two weeks ago.
My husband loves buying me books, especially since my awesome agent sold mine. Between my birthday, our anniversary, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, I have an entire Minotaur Books library of recent releases. (Yep, that's my version of the intimidating TBR pile Scott was talking about in his post yesterday.) And I’ve enjoyed making my way through the stack. But for Mother’s Day he bought me one that was different. A non-fiction book that he thought I might be interested in since the subject matter coincided with my current work in progress. The book is Gang Leader For A Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets by Sudhir Venkatesh.
The title is a bit dry and while it gives the facts of what lies inside, it doesn't fully capture the essence of the book. Yes, he did get a chance to be a gang leader for a day, but that took all of about 15 pages. The rest is a rich detail of a graduate sociology student who was interested in plight of Chicago’s poor. In trying to take a survey about their lives, the grad student ends up meeting a high ranking member of a gang who is willing to offer protection. This gives the student a unique view into the gang, the housing projects and the life of those who live there. I'm really simplifying here, but you get the point.
This story wasn’t told with dramatic prose. There wasn’t rapid fire action or high body counts. In fact, the lack of that type of story telling was what made this book so intriguing. It would have been tempting to pump up the drama considering the subject matter. But Sudhir Venkatesh showed great restraint with his turn of phrase. Instead, he gives an honest telling of his younger self’s naivete about gangs, his ethical dilemmas and his strange, but very real friendship with a man who controlled an entire community through drugs and fear.
Through the book, Sudhir is honest about the questionable morality of many of his decisions. He looked the other way when perhaps he shouldn’t have. He saw illegal activities and didn’t report them. There was always a reason why he didn’t call the police or tell his professors. Sometimes they were good reasons. Other times not.
The best crime fiction always has moments of blurred morality. Shades of gray are always more interesting than those that are black and white. This book isn’t fiction, but I believe most lovers of the genre will find this story compelling for many of the same reasons. If you read it, let me know. I’d be curious to see what you think.
And for all of you lovers of crime fiction – tell me – do you read non-fiction? If so, what is the most compelling non-fiction you’ve read? I’m ready to read another one.