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Cannonball Read #11: Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury (and added movie review)

So I read Gangs of New York a few weeks ago, but as I may have mentioned it was not very exciting and made me rather sleepy. Not that it was a BAD book exactly--it definitely had a lot of information in it that I didn't know--but though it may be informative it's not an easy read.

The first problem I had was the fact that the book was written in 1927, and the author takes for granted the reader's knowledge of events at the time. Although I know a certain amount about American history (probably more than the average person, I think) I had no idea about some of the people, places, and happenings the author referenced. I needed wikipedia at the ready to help me along in some spots. Also, the book's rather poorly structured. It's extremely tangential, and often meanders off-track completely. There is no narrative, and although it's marginally arranged chronologically, it's still tough to keep up. There are often spots that start off with "Googly-Eyes McGee*...who hung out with Limpy-Leg Jones...who was affiliated with this gang...who lived here but then moved here later...and which also included Kid Monkeyface...who was killed by Ulster Pete, wielding a steak knife, in 1903." And then it goes back to Googly-Eyes McGee, but you've already forgotten all about him. I just found it a little tiring.

However, here are 5 things I liked about the book:

1. The names of these people are crazy. They are almost worth reading the book just to see the kind of things people called themselves.

2. There were certain facts about America's history that I wasn't aware of. For example, the New York Conscription Riots are not something that most people seem to know about. I mean, did you know that the Union Navy FIRED ON the slums of New York City? Yeah, that's not exactly something they bring up in 8th grade Civil War History, is it?

3. Some of the facts I learned were sort of unintentionally funny. Did you know that the firemen during the late 19th century in New York City were all volunteer companies, and each company was its own little gang? Since there was a bonus awarded to the first company to arrive at the scene of a fire, often the first two companies to arrive--instead of throwing themselves into fighting the fire--would start fighting each other for the right to claim first on the scene. Meanwhile, the crowd would loot the burning building while the neighboring buildings caught fire.

4. It's a glimpse into parts of history that mostly go unmentioned in modern times.

5. I learned that a brickbat is not in fact a type of bat. It's just a chunk of brick that still has the corners on it.

Having read the book, I figured it was about time I saw that movie (Gangs of New York) that is "loosely based" on it.

Well, let me tell you, when they say "loosely based" that is about the most generous use of the word "loosely" I have ever seen. Since, as I mentioned, there is no narrative to the book, basically the only thing based on the book is the context. The parts of the film discussing what was going on with the Draft Riots, the fire companies, the police, Tammany Hall, etc. were pretty accurate. However all the personal stuff was obviously fiction--while there was a man who went by the name Bill the Butcher, and his last words were supposedly "At least I die a true American" that's about the only things he had in common with the character played by Daniel Day-Lewis.

As far as the acting went, I was pretty impressed. Daniel Day-Lewis deserved any and all accolades he received for that part--although it was in some ways quite over-the-top, that's kind of the way the character needed to be played. Liam Neeson and John C. Reilly were good in their smaller parts, and for the most part, the ensemble of the cast did very well. However, I can't say I was altogether thrilled with the casting of the leads. First of all, I am not a fan of Cameron Diaz, and I find her particularly out of place in an historical epic. (Really, I don't think she belongs in any movie that doesn't involve her discussing shoes, belching, or shaking her ass...those are the things she excels at. Emoting...not so much.) And the hair! Really? Someone thought that red mess looked natural?

As for Leonardo DiCaprio, I guess I find him distracting. I mean, I know he's a good actor, but I find it really hard to forget that it's him. I never completely accept the characters he plays (with the notable exception of Arnie in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? in which I thought he was outstanding)--it's kind of the way I feel with Tom Cruise. I don't see "Amsterdam Vallon"...I see Leonardo DiCaprio with a hat. It's not really his fault--as I said, I think he's very talented. It's probably more that he was SO FAMOUS when I was younger and that he really hasn't aged much at all--aside from getting a little of the Tom Hanks fathead, he really looks pretty much exactly the same as he did in Romeo & Juliet. I simply couldn't get behind him. Also, after he's "horribly maimed," everyone goes on like he'll be forever hideous! Horrible! Children will weep when they see him! You'd think he had his nose and eyeballs removed...and then he turns up a scene later with what appears to be a little scrape on his cheek. That's seriously the best the make-up artists could do for a permanent disfigurement? Ridiculous.

On the whole, I enjoyed both the movie and the book, though I would recommend them both with cautions. I think one should certainly read the book first, in order to to understand some of the history involved. However it's not something you can power through in one night--it's kind of heavy, slow-going reading. Then watch the movie for the cinematography, the costuming, the amazing sets, and Day-Lewis's performance.

*Names are not accurate, but they're close enough for you to get the idea.

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