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Gang Leader for a Day – Sudhir Venkatesh

September 5, 2008

I’ve had Gang Leader for a Day for quite a while, but I’ve been caught up with reading other excellent books, such as the brilliant Watchmen and High Fidelity, but I picked it up not long back, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. I read at least the last third of it today, I was so engrossed.

It’s pretty much a true story (as far as it can be), and involves the author, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, venturing into a black housing project in late-80s Chicago. The housing project is controlled by crack gangs, but he manages to befriend (or at least, get in the good books of) one of the gang’s leaders, J.T., and ends up spending the best part of a decade spending a good deal of time there. And yes, he does become a gang leader (mostly) for a day.

I know I had no knowledge, let along experience, in relation to American crack gangs from the 80s and 90s, before reading the book, but it was an amazing learning curve, seeing how different life can be in the projects, and how different things can be compared to here in Australia; the closest thing I can think of is Wendouree West, in Ballarat, which I’ve heard is one of the largest public housing projects around (can’t verify this, though. In any case it houses significantly less people – a couple of thousand compared to thirty-odd thousand where Sudhir was), and while it can be quite dangerous and violent, there’s not a particularly high risk of getting shot or anything.

While most of the first half of the book was relatively upbeat, save a few incidents, towards the end, as things in the housing project came to a climax, everything kind of went downhill, with the two characters I admired most being killed (it makes it all the more horrible when you just sit and ponder that they were real people, and it’s not just a novel).

Anyway, if you have the chance, I really recommend picking this up, it’s brilliantly written, entertaining, and you learn something (these are my favourite kind of books). And yeah, it really actually is well-written; I was in Kinokuniya (giant awesome bookshop) last night, and I found this book that sounded really good but I read a paragraph or two and just couldn’t stand the prose. I’m kinda picky.

If we had a ‘Staff Pick’ book list here at njv, this sure would be on it.

Hmm, just noticed… Although we’ve reviewed comics here, we’ve never got as far as novels. A new unexplored area of possibilities, perhaps? Or, like, we could stick to music. I quite like music, really.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nick permalink
    September 6, 2008 3:08 am

    Woo book review. I’ve been meaning to do one for ages but I’m not really sure how. I would probably read this book if I wasn’t already way behind in readings for my two English classes. Maybe in the summer.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    September 8, 2008 12:50 pm

    High Fidelity is great, isnt it? I love the bit when he gets asked if he has any soul and after a fit of contemplation replies, ‘yep, by the rnb’.

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