The most arresting gangster books

Why am I passionate about this?

My father came from Ukraine, and every summer took the family to stay on a farm in an immigrant community in southern New Jersey, Carmel, a community begun by the Baron de Hirsch Foundation, which settled Jews from all over Europe. Italian immigrants also settled there. I lived in a family that spoke to their siblings in three languages, Yiddish, Russian, and Ukrainian. Hence, I was privy to the loves and losses of people who felt estranged from their language and often yearned to return to their country of origin.


I wrote...

Come with Me to Babylon

By Paul M. Levitt,

Book cover of Come with Me to Babylon

What is my book about?

One-third of all the immigrants to America returned to their country of origin. Although many of them came intending to go home once they had earned seed money to establish themselves in their own countries, some, owing to illness—trachoma or tuberculosis, for example--never got past Ellis Island; some were deported for political reasons, and some simply lost heart.   

 

Told against this background, Come with Me to Babylon relates the story of the Cohen family, who came to America seeking the Golden Medina and found instead a fallen world. Beginning in Russia and concluding in New York and New Jersey, the story exposes family secrets, cultural conflicts, the corruption of the American dream, and love's divides.   

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Great Gatsby

Paul M. Levitt Why did I love this book?

Fitzgerald himself saw the book as a struggle between rich and poor. Bootlegging functions as a backdrop to the corruption of America and its aspiring classes. The narrator, Nick Carraway, escapes the attention of most readers who think the book is about Gatsby, when in fact it is about Nick, who at the outset disapproves of Gatsby and concludes by praising him. I particularly like the irony that Nick and readers of the novel think Gatsby foolish for thinking that you can repeat the past; but in fact, the book proves that you can repeat it. Nick relates his story two years after the events occurred; Tom Buchanan is still reliving his football glories from college; and. most importantly, Gatsby and Daisy resume an affair that began shortly before he went off to war.

By F. Scott Fitzgerald,

Why should I read it?

18 authors picked The Great Gatsby as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As the summer unfolds, Nick is drawn into Gatsby's world of luxury cars, speedboats and extravagant parties. But the more he hears about Gatsby - even from what Gatsby himself tells him - the less he seems to believe. Did he really go to Oxford University? Was Gatsby a hero in the war? Did he once kill a man? Nick recalls how he comes to know Gatsby and how he also enters the world of his cousin Daisy and her wealthy husband Tom. Does their money make them any happier? Do the stories all connect? Shall we come to know…


Book cover of Billy Bathgate

Paul M. Levitt Why did I love this book?

Billy Bathgate employs a favorite device of E.L. Doctorow: placing a fictional character in the midst of factual ones. Billy goes to work for Dutch Schultz and, in memorable prose, charts the downfall of Dutch and raises the compelling question of whether Billy betrays Dutch. The epic catalogue that ends the novel is worth every reader's attention for its artistry. At times, I find the writing in this novel almost lyrical. If readers are like me, they want the prose to sing. This book is rife with arias.

By E.L. Doctorow,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Billy Bathgate as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'I was living in even greater circles of gangsterdom than I had dreamed, latitudes and longitudes of gangsterdom'

It's 1930's New York and fifteen-year-old streetkid Billy, who can juggle, somersault and run like the wind, has been taken under the wing of notorious gangster Dutch Schultz. As Billy learns the ways of the mob, he becomes like a son to Schultz - his 'good-luck kid' - and is initiated into a world of glamour, death and danger that will consume him, in this vivid, soaring epic of crime and betrayal.


Book cover of The Godfather

Paul M. Levitt Why did I love this book?

The Godfather is a favorite film of American audiences, but the book, unlike the film, raises serious questions about the integration of Italians into the American mainstream. A society within a society, the Italians embrace the gangster life initially as a way of survival and subsequently as a way of gaining wealth. From the first paragraph, Puzo calls attention to the Italians as outsiders, which makes the Don's question all the more important: Why didn't you come to me first (for help)? I find the novel rather philosophical, in an accessible way, when Michael argues that people behave not from principle but from personal motives. His argument is both passionate and moving.

By Mario Puzo,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked The Godfather as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

_________________________________
The classic novel that inspired 'the greatest crime film of all time'

Tyrant, blackmailer, racketeer, murderer - his influence reaches every level of American society. Meet Don Corleone, a friendly man, a just man, a reasonable man. The deadliest lord of the Cosa Nostra. The Godfather.

But no man can stay on top forever, not when he has enemies on both sides of the law. As the ageing Vito Corleone nears the end of a long life of crime, his sons must step up to manage the family business. Sonny Corleone is an old hand, while World War II…


Book cover of Legs

Paul M. Levitt Why did I love this book?

This book relates the story of Legs Diamond, who began as a street urchin working for Arnold Rothstein and then became a major figure among gangsters. Kennedy treats Legs as a mythic figure, larger than life, who was in the 1930s as much of the story as the Great Depression. The narrator, Gorman Marcus, functions as a kind of Nick Carraway, telling the story from an observer point of view. I admire Kennedy's ability to make Legs a likable figure, notwithstanding the corruption and the murderous instincts of the man. If readers want an intelligent gangster story, this is the book for them.

By William Kennedy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Legs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Legs, the inaugural book in William Kennedy's acclaimed Albany cycle of novels, brilliantly evokes the flamboyant career of gangster Jack "Legs" Diamond. Through the equivocal eyes of Diamond's attorney, Marcus Gorman (who scraps a promising political career for the more elemental excitement of the criminal underworld), we watch as Legs and his showgirl mistress, Kiki Roberts, blaze their gaudy trail across the tabloid pages of the 1920s and 1930s.


Book cover of Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams

Paul M. Levitt Why did I love this book?

Tough Jews is a short history of Jewish-American gangsters and their Italian colleagues with whom they made common cause. It is here for the first time that we understand why Arnold Rothstein was the most important gangster in America.  Having introduced "organized" into organized crime, he promised underworld figures the help of the famous attorney William Fallon if they landed in trouble and agreed to look after their families if they got sent up the Hudson (to Sing Sing). I am struck by the fact that Cohen makes his history personal, by means of his own contacts with the people who know the inside story of how the Jewish gangsters thrived—or didn't. He sits down with them; he eats with them; and he gets them to remember how it once was in the days of Dutch Schultz, Legs Diamond, and Arnold Rothstein.

By Rich Cohen,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Tough Jews as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Award-winning writer Rich Cohen excavates the real stories behind the legend of infamous criminal enforcers Murder, Inc. and contemplates the question: Where did the tough Jews go?

In 1930s Brooklyn, there lived a breed of men who now exist only in legend and in the memories of a few old-timers: Jewish gangsters, fearless thugs with nicknames like Kid Twist Reles and Pittsburgh Phil Strauss. Growing up in Brownsville, they made their way from street fights to underworld power, becoming the execution squad for a national crime syndicate. Murder Inc. did for organized crime what Henry Ford did for the automobile,…


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God on a Budget: and other stories in dialogue

By J.M. Unrue,

Book cover of God on a Budget: and other stories in dialogue

J.M. Unrue Author Of The Festival of Sin: and other tales of fantasy

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m an old guy. I say this with a bit of cheek and a certain amount of incongruity. All the books on my list are old. That’s one area of continuity. Another, and I’ll probably stop at two, is that they all deal with ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances—those curveballs of life we flail at with an unfamiliar bat; the getting stuck on the Interstate behind a semi and some geezer in a golf cap hogging the passing lane in a Buick Le Sabre. No one makes it through this life unscathed. How we cope does more to define us than a thousand smiles when things are rosy. Thus endeth the lesson.

J.M.'s book list on showing that somebody has it worse than you do

What is my book about?

Nine Stories Told Completely in Dialogue is a unique collection of narratives, each unfolding entirely through conversations between its characters. The book opens with "God on a Budget," a tale of a man's surreal nighttime visitation that offers a blend of the mundane and the mystical. In "Doctor in the House," readers are plunged into the emotionally charged moment when an oncologist delivers a life-altering diagnosis to a patient. The collection then shifts to "Prisoner 8086," a story about the unlikely friendship that blossoms between a prison volunteer and a habitual offender, exploring themes of redemption and human connection.

The heart of the book continues with "The Reunion," a touching narrative about high school sweethearts reuniting, stirring up poignant memories and unspoken feelings. "The Therapy Session" adds a lighter touch, presenting a serio-comic exchange between a therapist and a challenging patient. In "The Fishing Trip," a father imparts crucial life lessons to his daughter during an eventful outing, leading to unexpected consequences. "Mortality" offers a deeply personal moment as a mother shares a cherished, secret story from her past with her son.

The collection then takes a romantic turn in "The Singles Cruise," where two individuals find connection amidst shared stories on a cruise for singles. Finally, "Jesus and Buddha in the Garden of Eden" provides a satirical, thought-provoking encounter in the afterlife between two spiritual figures. The book concludes with "The Breakup," a nuanced portrayal of a young couple's separation, told from both perspectives, encapsulating the complexities of relationships and the human experience.

God on a Budget: and other stories in dialogue

By J.M. Unrue,

What is this book about?

Nine Stories Told Completely in Dialogue is a unique collection of narratives, each unfolding entirely through conversations between its characters. The book opens with "God on a Budget," a tale of a man's surreal nighttime visitation that offers a blend of the mundane and the mystical. In "Doctor in the House," readers are plunged into the emotionally charged moment when an oncologist delivers a life-altering diagnosis to a patient. The collection then shifts to "Prisoner 8086," a story about the unlikely friendship that blossoms between a prison volunteer and a habitual offender, exploring themes of redemption and human connection.

The…


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