Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Battle for Las Vegas by Dennis N. Griffin

The Battle for Las Vegas: The Law vs. The Mob: Griffin, Dennis N ...
Why I Read It: My wife and I went to Vegas and when she asked me "What's the one thing off the beaten path you want to do?" I answered unhesitatingly: go to the Mob Museum.

Summary: Law enforcement's fight to bring down Vegas mob boss Tony Spilotro.

My Thoughts: I think I've always associated the mob with Las Vegas, but living as far from Vegas as humanly possible in the United States, I never thought deeply about it. I had some vague notion of the hotels and mob control, of shady dealings, of money secretly being shifted around, Al Capone-style. But I really had no clue.

Then, we went. My wife and I found out that Aerosmith would be doing a residency at the MGM, and decided, what the heck, let's make a long weekend of it. We wandered up and down the strip, did the sights, ate the food, got swept up in all of it. And then we went to the Mob Museum.

I was hooked, I wanted to know more, and purchased this book.

Griffin's story quickly recounts the backstory of the growth of Las Vegas and brings it into the 1970s and 1980s, where he does most of his work. He follows the life of Spilotro, Lefty Rosenthal and others on the crime side, and law enforcement members on the other. He deftly covers the politics of the various departments - from federal to local - working the cases, and the struggles for power that faced both sides. He covers the court cases, the media members who covered the mob scene and more.

He finds out the graphic details of the murders, uncovers the strategic tactics that led to the arrests, the ties that stretched all the way back to Chicago. The book ends when Spilotro's life does, but Griffin doesn't let it go as an evil erased. He is very fair to his legacy, and shares the thoughts of those who knew and loved him. He allows for the humanization of a demonized man. He could have let it go, but didn't.

I've got a clearer picture now of this storied chapter in Vegas history. I wonder how many people passed through the city clueless to what was happening around them at all time. I wonder what I missed when I was there.

Flight Calls by John R. Nelson

Flight Calls: Exploring Massachusetts through Birds: Nelson, John ...
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Why I Read It: Obligated. I've been birding Massachusetts for 25 years.

Summary: A collection of essays that intersects the worlds of birds and literature, with all thoughts pointing toward Massachusetts.

My Thoughts: This is the book that I am going to write in twenty years.

I first knew John Nelson and I were kindred spirits when he approached the subject of Brown-headed Cowbirds, birds that drop their eggs in other birds' nests and take off. The young are raised by their new "parents" and yet, somehow, the young Cowbirds seek out other Cowbirds and perpetuate the species. How do they know who they really are?

I then knew we were forever tied together because I realized that not only did I know the same people he did - many, many of them, at least - but because we had chased the same birds in Massachusetts. And I don't mean species; I mean individual birds. We've traveled the same paths, scoped the same birds, asked the same questions, braved the same weather.

But then, John has a twist to him. As a professor of literature, he has a whole different perspective on birds and birding. He has researched and read through the literature of Massachusetts, through the centuries, and knows the references, both in poetry and prose to the birds of the Bay State. We have a common friend in Edward Howe Forbush, the great compiler of New England bird knowledge in the early part of the twentieth century. I, too approach the bird world differently than most birders. My life work is in history. When it came time to write the second Breeding Bird Atlas for Massachusetts, I was privileged, honored, to write the history paragraphs for the 220 species we were profiling. It was research that made my head spin, learning so many small details about the ebbs and flows of bird populations in Massachusetts over time, trying to encapsulate them in a few sentences per species.

And so, I was surprised, after learning so much about the Massachusetts bird landscape from John, to see that he had learned from me. He references the Atlas and the State of the Birds reports we produced at Mass Audubon. I had the great honor of breaking down a half century of Christmas Bird Count data to look for any unexpected trends for the first SOTB, a true labor of love . I'll never forget when we discovered the obvious plunges of the Great Cormorant as a winter resident and tied them to open bag limits in Canada, and other such details. I have no idea why I like statistics so much, but I do.

I feel like I should have been speaking to John R. Nelson for years, that we should have bumped into each other somewhere on the birding trail. Perhaps we have. We found each other on social media long before the book came out (perhaps he was grooming me for a future sale) and give each other thumbs up from time to time. I hope we do get to share a bird in person some day.