Bryan Stevenson puts human faces on the data-driven bodies of research exposing the injustices in our American criminal justice system. Stevenson's heartfelt book revolves alternating chapters around the death sentence of Walter McMillian, a black man in Alabama wrongly convicted of killing a white woman. In between chapters relating Walter's heart-wrenching story, Stevenson tells of the creation of the Equal Justice Initiative and their fight to challenge death penalty cases, unfair juvenile imprisonment, racism in the justice system, and injustice related to poverty and mental health. Stevenson repeatedly drives home the assertion that "The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned." Not only does he reveal a lot about racism, but he also shares deeply moving stories about inequity for the condemned simply because they can not afford good attorneys and bail. “We must reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent." Our justice system often blocks poor and mentally ill people from getting fair representation in legal matters. The stories he shares are incredibly powerful and sad but also reveal his expertise at channeling emotion through words.
I also recommend The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton. Hinton was another innocent death row inmate freed by the efforts of the Equal Justice Initiative. Hinton is mentioned briefly in Stevenson's book. He's remarkably resilient and a profound optimist. His story completely changed my views on the death penalty and left me with a whole new understanding of what our prison systems do to inmates, both innocent and guilty.
I've always been fascinated by religion especially those sects that veer off into the fundamentalist realm. There always seems to be so much secrecy and an acceptance of hypocritical thought among believers. Followers are fervent, and it's interesting to read what makes some people stay and others leave the religious communities they're raised in.
Hasids are ultra-Orthodox Jews who dabble in mysticism and practice a strict adherence to ritual laws. Deborah Feldman, assumed white, is raised by her grandparents after her mother leaves their Satmar community in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. Her father is mentally ill and the family doesn't seek treatment or help for him. Deborah struggles to understand why the Hasid community keeps such tightly locked secrets. She's not allowed to read secular books, and she spends her days hiding library check-outs under her mattress and stealing time to read. She questions Hasidic law and custom at every turn and feels like the adults in her life are always keeping things from her. She longs for freedom from the ritual structure of her community and finds her own ways to rebel in small doses until she eventually leaves the Satmar group for good.
Married women are required to cover their hair, and many Hasids shave their heads and wear wigs. Women are required to visit the mikvah, a bath for a ritual cleansing after their periods, and Deborah talks about how uncomfortable she feels being forced to participate in the custom. Marriage is arranged by a matchmaker, and elaborate gift-giving customs are part of the engagement. Deborah is married at age 17 and completely unprepared for life with a man. Both she and her husband experience sexual dysfunction and can't initially consummate the marriage. She's horrified when her new husband's family tries to intervene and longs for privacy and a marriage that's forged out of mutual love and desire.
There's a lot of controversy surrounding Deborah's version of events in her memoir. I wish she had explained Hasidic customs more in-depth as I felt lost trying to understand many of her brief recollections. Part of this may be because she didn't understand them herself when she actually wrote her story. As a reader with zero knowledge of this faith community, I was longing for more detail and background on the reasons for some of the practices. In my own personal view, religion should stand up to questioning. People who are truly curious thinkers will most likely never be satisfied with answers of "just believe" and "because this is how it is." I also find it appalling when religious groups ostracize and shun family members who choose another path. I can't get behind any system that treats people this way. I was also disgusted by how women are subjugated in Deborah's Hasidic community. Of course, this is only one perspective, and I can't assume this is reflective of all practicing Hasids, but I was alarmed by the repressive elements of her life story and can empathize with her choice to speak out.
I found this to be slow and klunky at first, but strange and engrossing as I got further along. The book got me interested in learning more about these enigmatic Hasidic communities and to follow up with learning about other followers' experiences.
Glennon Doyle has a very interesting voice. I appreciate a lot of what she's laying down, but some of this just felt a little selfish, to the point where it's borderline snobbery. Yet I also felt a kinship with Doyle and much of her take on the world felt like she was talking directly to me, absorbing right into my being. How can you not love a book like that? Doyle shares her experience with a divorce and a new relationship with a woman, retired soccer star, Abby Wambach. I loved the island metaphor that she uses to explain to family and friends that were not accepting of their new family unit. "When you are ready to come to our island with nothing but wild acceptance and joy and celebration for our true, beautiful family, we’ll lower the drawbridge for you. But not one second sooner." I especially related to her sections on parenting a sensitive child. She talks about how sensitivity is a superpower and not something to be ashamed of. Her mantra "We can do hard things," is something I've already started repeating to my girls especially in these last few months. Feelings are meant to be felt - all of them, not just the happy ones that we display to the world around us. Doyle is obviously a kick-ass mother but is also quick to point out when she doesn't do things right. She has a genuine ability to self-reflect, and this makes her thoughts that much more likeable and relatable.
I'm all for women taking stock of their lives and knowing when to say no. Selfishness has a rightful place in our lives, but it also needs to be balanced with empathy and awareness of others. Women often put others first to the detriment of their own sanity, but a healthy balance is what's missing not a full onslaught of self-talk, and a me-me-me-me-me attitude. But with that said, Glennon (I feel like I'm already on a first name basis with her, and I'm pretending we're friends) would probably point out that confident women all too often get labeled entitled, and to that point I agree. Quibbling over how much selfishness is too much or just right is not enough to take away from the other points in her book. She has so much good stuff in here to ignore. And then she says “When a woman finally learns that pleasing the world is impossible, she becomes free to learn how to please herself,” and I feel like I everything I just thought was wrong. She's so good and really makes me think about ALL OF THE THINGS.
And then she brings on the pizzazz with this gleaming pearl that I can't stop thinking about. “Mothers have martyred themselves in their children’s names since the beginning of time. We have lived as if she who disappears the most, loves the most. We have been conditioned to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist. What a terrible burden for children to bear—to know that they are the reason their mother stopped living. What a terrible burden for our daughters to bear—to know that if they choose to become mothers, this will be their fate, too. Because if we show them that being a martyr is the highest form of love, that is what they will become. They will feel obligated to love as well as their mothers loved, after all. They will believe they have permission to live only as fully as their mothers allowed themselves to live.If we keep passing down the legacy of martyrdom to our daughters, with whom does it end?" Gut punch. Doyle has a way of just getting to the raw meat of women's lives, and this is just one of her many juicy bits of wisdom that make me keep coming back to this book, cringing and loving it all at the same time.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
My girls will read this book someday, and if I had sons, I would have them read it too. I don't care that it's graphic and raw; it's also dripping with an angry truth that everyone should hear and feel. Chanel Miller's voice is fireworks of emotion. The day I finished this book, I tried to explain it to my husband while he was driving, and I just couldn't get the words out. I cried and tried to explain what she wrote about. He patted my knee and then lightly squeezed my arm, and that's all I needed. He understood what I was trying to say without another word. I ached for this woman, for myself, for my friends, for every woman who has faced even the tiniest bit of the cruelty and injustice that comes with sexual harassment, assault, and rape. Chanel's voice is difficult to connect with at first, and I found myself confused about who she is. Then as she continued her story, and her writing style revealed her true voice, I got it. She didn't act the way survivors are expected to act because there are no set rules. She didn't ask questions. She expressed more concern for the well-being of her sister than for herself. She did what she was told. She was a victim put on trial while her rapist, Brock Turner, was pitied, and his lost swimming future lamented. Her life and private parts were put on display while people made excuses for his privilege. She eventually writes a searing victim impact statement only to have it edited for time, and the justice system demeans her further. Chanel finally gets her say when her entire statement is published and read by millions of people worldwide. Her words are uncensored, and the polished euphemisms often used in sexual assault cases are bravely and notably missing. Chanel Miller makes her name known to the world despite the outrageous slap on the wrist that Brock Turner gets at sentencing. I was enraged, devastated, and disgusted by what Chanel went through. Her story lays out the reality of sexual assault and the way victims are degraded in the current processes of our judicial system but also a path toward healing by creating justice with her own words.
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The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
James McBride grows up questioning his identity as a black child raised by a white mother with eleven black siblings in a poor housing project in Brooklyn. Ruth McBride Jordan is fiercely protective of her children and evasive about her childhood and past. James spends a large part of his life embarrassed by his mother and questions everything while she artfully and sometimes gruffly dodges his inquisitions. When he asks her what color God is, she replies that, "God is the color of water," and she generally lives her life according to that principle. Her expectations for life and living transcend the human construct of race, but James struggles to find himself. James and his siblings eventually all become successful college graduates, and James begins to uncover his mother's hidden past and roots in Jewish traditions. I absolutely love how McBride switches back and forth between his and his mother's stories. Ruth is a tough woman, and her memories and reflections are both inspiring and tragic. This is not just a story of James' life, but a moving tribute to his mother. He understands who he is after finding home and self in her memories and acknowledging her sacrifices and strength. I've been meaning to read this for a long time and wish I had sooner. This book gave me hope and reminds me all is not lost when chaos takes hold in the world around us. We can all find ourselves again. We can all find our center, our home, our worth, and that orbit is always pulling us back to the middle. This book is a precious pearl settled softly in my heart. It's a rare one you absolutely need to add to your reading list.
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This memoir has feels to last for eternity. Albom's books are always powerhouses but this one is on another level. Some of the life-changing lessons Albom learned in Tuesdays with Morrie resurface and change as he faces these new experiences with life and death.
Finding Chika: A Little Girl, an Earthquake, and the Making of a Family by Mitch Albom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Mitch Albom's books squeeze hearts so slowly that the aching feels warm and devastating all at the same time. The mark of an amazing book is one that leaves you with a feeling so deep that you can't shake it for days after finishing. This book left me with a profound sadness that I couldn't stop coming back to, and yet I loved it despite how it ripped me up inside. This is one of those books that will roll around in my heart forever.
Albom and his wife, Janine, start an orphanage in Haiti and are eventually given the scary news that five-year-old Chika has a brain mass that can not be properly treated in her home country. They take her back to Michigan only to find out that the tumor is rare, and the diagnosis is terminal. Through it all, Chika captivates everyone with her bold personality, fighting spirit, and sweet nature. Although the Alboms did not have any children of their own, Chika immediately becomes their girl blessing them with cheer and wonder despite the dire circumstances. They create a family focused on the short seven years of blessings she brought to their lives. After Chika passes away, Mitch begins to see her again. She visits him at home, and they talk just as they did in life. As Mitch grieves, he also relives her joy. She urges "Mr. Mitch" to write her stories, and he celebrates her. His honesty on what it's like to have a dying child, a child with older parents, a non-biological child, an orphan child from poverty and trauma is all powerful and authentic.
While I read part of this in print and also listened to the audiobook, I highly recommend the audio. Albom includes clips of Chika's voice, and the raspy sweetness of her laughter and speech in between Albom's narration is magnetic, soothing, and bittersweet. Have a large box of tissues handy through this entire book, and be prepared for full-on sobbing. I will assume you have a heart of stone if you don't cry reading this.
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This one really spoke to me. If you enjoyed Hillbilly Elegy, Educated, or Rising Out of Hatred, then you will devour this book.
Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope by Megan Phelps-Roper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This memoir gave me the shivers and spoke to my heart and soul in ways that will forever cement it in a place of honor on my reading list. Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the most notorious and hated religious sect in the nation - Westboro Baptist Church. Known for picketing soldiers' funerals and outrageous signs spouting homophobic and anti-Semitic slogans, church members also rejoiced at the AIDS epidemic, celebrity deaths, natural disasters, and all other manner of tragedy as proof that the rest of the country and world is doomed for a fate of Hell-fire and damnation simply for not being a Westboro believer. Megan left the church at the age of 27 in 2012, and was forced to sever ties with her family and the only life she ever knew. A seed of doubt grew slowly inside her until she couldn't rationalize the church's beliefs and intolerance any more. She grew to be incredibly brave, intelligent, and independent in thought. She's also remorseful for the ways in which her church's hatred has altered people's lives and hurt them in immeasurable ways. One of the most surprising things I learned about her grandfather and Westboro founder, Fred Phelps, was that before he started his crusade against gays, he was a highly respected and successful civil rights leader. In addition, the entire Phelps family is highly intelligent and many of them are lawyers. This part of the family history was fascinating to me. How can these intelligent people so blindly follow a religion so steeped in hatred? There's a certain type of child, very often female, who grows up to believe that she just has to be good and follow the rules. Even when logic defies this need, the desire to be good and tow the line trumps everything. When you combine that personality and the indoctrination of following orders and religious belief without question, you find a dangerous brew of power struggle and judgment. Megan does not look back with reciprocal hatred for the family and community that now shuns her. While her parents may not have been perfect, the family's love for one another was soft and authentic. She reveres those memories as they were comforting, special, and made her who she is. The other special part of this book is how the kindness of others is a part of what eventually lit the tiniest flames of doubt within Megan's mind. Megan was big into social media and arguing with non-Westboro people around the world. It was people who respectfully disagreed with her but still treated her with love online who made her question her church's vision. After leaving, she quickly discovers there are good people everywhere, and their religion doesn't define whether or not they deserve kindness and respect. People of all religions, or none at all, can and do have goodness and light. This theme reminded me of another big emotional book, Rising Out of Hatred by Saslow, where a white nationalist learns the error of his upbringing through the kindness of a Jewish college student and South American immigrant. The feel of Unfollow is also prevalent in Hillbilly Elegy and Educated. The quote Phelps-Roper used at the beginning is really the best way to end this review as it covers all of this book's vibe so perfectly. "Reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope." F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.
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I love sad memoirs. I could read them one after another. I'm not a sad person; I'm just drawn to stories of people who face hardship. I love to learn about the human experience and hopefully take little pieces of them with me so that when I also face struggles, I'm just a little bit better equipped to get through them. These stories layer themselves inside me, softening the way I understand the world, and while I can't claim to comprehend their experiences, I can at the very least use them to frame my attempts.
My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward by Mark Lukach
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Mark and Giulia had a fairytale romance and marriage. Seemingly out of the blue, Giulia suffers a psychotic break characterized by religions delusions and suicidal ideations that lands her in a psychiatric ward for nearly a month. Mark's account of Giulia's initial breakdown, diagnoses, and subsequent hospital stays is heartbreaking and honest. Mark talks about how it impacts Giulia's job, family, personality, and their marriage. Mark also talks candidly about his own selfishness and how Giulia's mental health impacts his ability to lead a normal life. Giulia's hospital stays affect his ability to work, his own mental health, and his ability to lead a productive, fulfilling life. Not only does Giulia suffer, but their marriage and love for each other is constantly put to the test. I found this book to be incredibly sad, but it also gave me perspectives on mental health that I didn't full understand before. I particularly liked when Mark was inspired to create a plan with Giulia when she was feeling well so that they each had limits and wants clearly outlined before the psychosis took away Giulia's ability to make those calls on her own. This book certainly gave me pause to think more about those suffering within the shell of psychosis and how terrifying and helpless everyone around them must feel.
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Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.