This book reminds me so much of Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Two women obsessed with unsolved murders to the point where their lives become intertwined with the stories. Becky Cooper, a Harvard undergrad, hears bits and pieces of a story about a murder that occurred forty years ago. Jane Britton, a 23-year-old grad student in Harvard’s anthropology department was murdered in her apartment, but the rumor mill spins out a different version where she was found dead in the Peabody Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology, killed by a professor after threatening to reveal their affair. Cooper begins a slow descent into researching Jane’s life and death becoming so enthralled with finding the truth that she begins merging Jane’s story into her own. In addition to searching for the truth for Jane, Cooper also uncovers an unsurprising amount of misogyny among the elite academics at Harvard. She relates story after story of women’s attempts to climb the academic ladder thwarted by men in positions of power and the silencing culture that an institution like Harvard seems to cultivate. I enjoyed the mystery of Jane’s life and death, but Cooper clearly devoted a huge chunk of her young adult life to this story, and she certainly does it justice but in excruciating detail. I was ready for things to move faster about halfway through, but it just kept slogging along. I applaud Cooper’s dedication and due diligence but can’t say I felt enough of the same mystique and draw to keep me entertained the whole way through this.
I’ve been a big Davis Sedaris fan for the last few years after only discovering him embarrassingly late in life. His sarcasm, wit, and self-deprecating humor slay me in every single thing he writes. The Best of Me is a compilation of some of his best work; some I’ve read before and some were new to me. The thing I love the most about Sedaris is that in addition to writing about the outrageousness of every day observation, he also sneaks in these really poignant thoughts about life, death, family, love, and general human behavior. Although many of his stories are tinged with darkness, he’s an open book about family details, infusing absurdity with deep melancholy when relating anecdotes about his mother’s alcoholism, sister’s suicide, and the rocky relationship he has with his father. My favorite parts of this collection include “Me Talk Pretty One Day” when he tries to explain Easter in French to a Moroccan student; his sister, Lisa’s pet parrot that he refers to as the “little fatso living in my sister’s kitchen”; the neighbors who have no TV and show up for trick-or-treat on the wrong night forcing young David to give up some of his own hoard; and the beach house called the “sea-section.” My all-time favorite story was included in this collection and is a riotous scene where Sedaris is living in the French countryside when some tourists stop for directions as he’s trying to drown a rat in a bucket of water on the front porch. After the tourist comes through the front door, Sedaris starts to realize all of the ways in which his home reflects that of a serial killer. I’ve come across this one many times over the years, and I crack up over and over again. An enjoyable collection that just further cements Sedaris as a master humorist in the literary world. It’s David’s world, and we’re just laughing through it.
The Wheelan family are my heroes. They quit their lives for nine months and traveled around the world on a gap year adventure. Not only were their experiences hilarious and exciting, but Charles Wheelan also details how they managed to make it happen along with the disastrous and wonderful parts of each leg of the trip. The trip included Charles, his wife, and their three teenage children. Now of course, a trip like this comes from a certain amount of privilege, and Wheelan does discuss this when explaining how they made their arrangements. They rented their home to relatives who also wanted an adventure in a different state. They found people willing to keep their family pets. The oldest daughter took a classic gap year before her first year of college, and the other two teens completed online school from various parts of the world. Wheelan and his wife take sabbaticals from their jobs in the academic world. They crafted a strict budget and stuck to it. The amount of planning this trip must have taken sends my head spinning but also excites me to another realm. I had daydreams about doing this before I read this book, and now it’s a full-on obsession. Wheelan is funny and presents as the typical embarrassing dad-joke kind of guy. His kids (like all teens) are equal parts bratty, intelligent, loving, sentimental, kind, and all-around great young people. Wheelan doesn’t shy away from sharing the tough parts about adventure travel. One of his daughters gets a flesh-eating bacterial infection. They get swindled in India. They lose two kids (temporarily) in Colombia. Wheelan’s banter with his kids is so familiar and made me smile over and over again. If you like travel, this book will stir your spirit.
The Killer's Shadow: The FBI's Hunt for a White Supremacist Serial Killer by John E. Douglas, Mark Olshaker
This was an interesting look at how criminal profiling got its start and ultimately helped track a white supremacist serial killer in the 1970s. Joseph Paul Franklin robbed banks, bombed targets, and killed people sniper-style. He targeted interracial couples, Black, Jews, and anyone he deemed the antithesis to his racist and Anti-Semitic views including Larry Flynt and President Jimmy Carter. Author, John Douglas was the profiler who hunted Franklin. He and Olshaker discuss Franklin’s background and how his hatred turned criminal. Douglas’ detailed analysis and detective work narrowed Franklin’s escape options until he was finally caught and eventually executed. It’s so amazing how profilers can make strikingly accurate predictions about serial killers by studying every detail of their lives and crimes. Douglas discusses other killers in comparison to Franklin and used all of his interviews to further hone the craft of criminal profiling. Franklin is not a name talked about much in the sensationalized crime media world. It was also disturbing to read how many Black lives were taken over the course of so many years before the FBI got really serious about stopping Franklin. It took suspicions about him targeting President Carter before Franklin became a larger priority. Douglas makes sure to point out how quickly words of hate can escalate into deeper criminal behavior and how this is playing out in today’s social media culture.
Stamped is one of the most meticulously researched books I’ve ever read. At almost 600 pages, it’s one you really need to own in print so you can underline and take notes for future reference. Ibram X. Kendi lays out the history of racist thought in America, revealing strategies that have failed to produce change and those that have perpetuated racism. He emphasizes that the self-interest of intelligent people creates policies that are racist and in turn preserves racist ideas. Racism has not and will not be eliminated or explained away through education. As long as racism continues to benefit the people who have the power to abolish it, they will never choose to eliminate it. America can only be antiracist when antiracists are in power and their policies become law.
Kendi examines this through the lens of five prominent people in history including Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis. Mather founded a philosophical society and crafted racist ideas as the first assimilationist. Mather pushed the religious justification that Christianity could make blacks better slaves, and by turning to this Christian God, blacks could be uplifted toward whiteness in their souls. Jefferson loathed slavery but feared losing his way of life filled with lavish hypocrisy. His views were contradictory, both abolitionist and racist as many of his writings included his thoughts on black inferiority. Garrison was considered radical because of his beliefs for immediate emancipation, yet he still shared the racist belief that blacks were inferior. The racial science theory of polygenesis begins to push the agenda that blacks are a different species. Black features are bad or ugly, and white is better. I found Kendi’s examination of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be really interesting. He points out the racist views that this book categorized blacks as soulful and whites as the source of intellect. Although black, DuBois consumed racist ideas. He went to a white owned college with all white professors and believed that racism could be educated away. His famous book, The Souls of Black Folk enforced the racist idea of blacks having different characteristics – soulful and having a simple faith, whereas whites are portrayed as smart and strong. A new strategy develops that in order for blacks to change racist minds, they have to command white respect. When positive portrayals of blacks were used in media, racist whites often just dismissed it as extraordinary exceptions. DuBois spent his whole life urging blacks to uplift to white standards, but by the age of 65, he had turned to an almost completely antiracist viewpoint. He saw his life’s work urging moral uplift and education had changed virtually nothing when it comes to racist ideas in America. He began arguing for black empowerment instead of education and integration. Davis became active in the black power movement and is one of the most famous female antiracist academics.
This book was insanely long and tedious to read, but I also felt enlightened in a whole new way from slogging through this dense history. It helped me understand how the complex issue of racism has been able to keep its grip on this country and a better approach for the future. Angela Davis really sums it up best. “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”
Colin Jost has somehow mastered the human race – handsome, hilarious, intelligent, self-deprecating, and then he writes this book filled with poignant and outrageous musings and life experiences in a way that compels me to read it multiple times. I never re-read books. Ever. But I would for this man. I’ve always found him funny and likable on SNL, especially when Leslie Jones was involved on Weekend Update, but now I find him admirable. His life story is really interesting, and he tells so many ridiculous stories that sometimes it’s hard to believe they’re even real. I laughed out loud throughout the entire book and really enjoyed the format. He moves somewhat chronologically and saves the SNL parts for the end, but I snort-laughed over the sour cream museum (name he gives to an old couple he was forced to live with while abroad in Russia), waking up in a graveyard after mistaking it for a park, and the references to his whiteness including mayonnaise yeti and milquetoast. I teared up over the section where he talks about his mom’s heroic actions and miraculous, near-death moments when the towers fell on September 11. I was also thoroughly grossed out by the numerous injuries he shares details about; the crowning glory being that time he got mysterious bites on his legs while in Central America, and they turned into festering egg nests. I appreciated the laughs and the intelligence of the whole book. I’m definitely a Jost fan now.
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 wish I had read this years ago, and it was a perfect complement to White Fragility by DeAngelo. I can honestly say that my understanding of issues surrounding race and racism have been dramatically altered in the last year as I've been on a quest to read more nonfiction. Although Michelle Alexander's book was published over ten years ago, it continues to be a trailblazer, clarifying history and explaining how our current social and racial structure is just another version of the Jim Crow caste system from the Reconstruction era.
Mass incarceration started as a result of a loophole in the 13th Amendment. This amendment abolished slavery except in cases where it's used as a punishment for a crime. Southern whites, angry about losing their slave labor and watching blacks become part of "their society" enacted Jim Crow laws to forcibly separate blacks from whites, preserving the best schools, jobs and neighborhoods for whites. Additionally, free blacks were arrested for committing petty crimes in alarmingly higher rates than whites. Misdemeanor offenses were elevated to felonies, and new laws were created to criminalize black life. Crimes included stealing a pig, walking beside a railroad, spitting, speaking too loudly to a woman, and selling goods after dark. These black, incarcerated men, women, and children were then leased out to private businesses as laborers. Convict leasing became a huge economic boost for the South, and it's no coincidence that arrest rates went up during cotton-picking season. A lower caste is created to keep black people from upward mobility.
Michelle Alexander uses her book to point out that this lower caste system is propped up on the backs of the complex systems in place in our society. Mass incarceration is based on the label of jail and not necessarily the length of prison time. One a person is labeled a felon, they are immediately barred from ever moving up in society. Institutions in place in our country lock people of color (she focuses on black men) from being able to move from this lower caste. There are so many examples of this that I could go on forever. Some of the ones that stuck out the most to me included the traffic studies in New Jersey and Maryland. While studies showed there were actually more white people traveling on the roads, 80% of the stops were of black people, and they resulted in minimal amount of drug seizures. The Reagan-era War on Drugs has been largely ineffective in curbing drug use but highly effective at subjugating more and more black people to this undercaste system despite the fact that drug offenses are committed at roughly equal rates across races. Drunk driving rates and deaths were skyrocketing at the same time as the War on Drugs, but penalties were much higher for first-time users of crack. Statistics showed that drunk drivers were more often white males while the harsher penalties were given to black males for low-level drug offenses. Felons are not allowed on juries, can not vote, can not apply for public housing assistance, and have a nearly impossible time finding jobs. Once a person is labeled a felon, they are rarely able to better themselves. Jails were being filled up with black men during the War on Drugs, and the tough-on-crime attitude of the 80s and 90s seemed to be focused mainly on crimes committed by black people.
This caste system has been perpetuated by policies created under both political parties. In the version I read, Alexander has a new Foreward that discusses this book in today's politics. She discusses Obama's record-high number of immigration detentions, Trump's tweeting of a white power supporter and calling the Charlottesville white supremacists "very fine people", Reagan's ineffective War on Drugs, and Clinton's disastrous three strikes crime bill. The Supreme Court has effectively blocked black people from legally fighting against racial bias. The ruling in the McClesky vs. Kemp case requires people to present such an impossible burden of proof with regards to racial discrimination in the justice system that it virtually makes bias and discrimination constitutionally acceptable. The layered, interlocking systems in place in our society lock poor people of color into a second class status. Alexander also points out that our nation's emphasis on colorblindness creates a racial indifference that allows these systems to stay in place, to a point where today's racial caste is no different than that of the Jim Crow era. She calls for a society where we see one another, learning and caring about our differences.
When I finished reading this, I felt hopeless and sad. I can't even begin to imagine how people of color feel living with this grim reality every day. Alexander does not offer solutions in her book as she focuses mainly on research and data. I felt the need to read up on what solutions exist to combat some of the things discussed in Alexander's book. I found the Sentencing Project's Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System, and they recommend the following:
*Ending the War on Drugs
*Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences
*Reducing the use of cash bail
*Fully funding indigent defense agencies
*Requiring the use of racial impact statements
*Implementing training to reduce racial bias
*Addressing collateral consequences
I highly recommend this book if you're looking for some perspective on the complex issue of race in America. As a white person, I wish this had been required reading much earlier in my life, and I will forever sing its praises.
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.
Good Morning, Monster: A Therapist Shares Five Heroic Stories of Emotional Recovery by Catherine Gildiner
Be prepared for this book to tear your guts out and leave them in a sloppy pile on the floor. It will make you feel like complete garbage for ever complaining about anything in your life. Catherine Gildiner is a white therapist who tells about her work with five patients suffering from traumatic life experiences. She tells their stories with tenderness and obvious fondness. Each patient overcomes the debilitating elements of his or her own emotional turmoil, finding ways to create success and exemplifying the qualities of true emotional superheroes.
Gildiner starts with a white woman named Laura, forced into parenting her younger siblings after her father left them abandoned in a remote winter cabin. Next up is Peter, a painfully shy son of Chinese immigrants, who was left alone in a room above the family's restaurant for so long that he suffered severe developmental gaps that created intimacy issues in his adult life. Although all of the stories were heart-wrenching, Danny's struck a particular nerve with me. Danny, of the First Nations, lost his wife and daughter in a car accident and was referred to Dr. Gildiner by his boss when he was unable to show emotion or feel pain after the loss. After learning more about Cree indigenous cultural norms, Dr. Gildiner helps Danny discuss his painful childhood when he was torn away from his native family and sent to a Canadian residential school designed to eliminate his identity. He was horrifically abused and spent the rest of his adult life blocking out all emotion. Alana, white and of high intelligence, was sexually abused by her father, and Madeline, also white and from a wealthy family, suffers from OCD and shares how her mother would psychologically torture her in various ways, greeting her each morning with "Good Morning, Monster."
While Gidiner shares lessons from each person's story, she also discusses the mistakes she makes and how these cases helped shape her professional growth. She's quick to point out her own flaws and ways in which she could have done things differently, and this reflective quality makes me like her even more. While not for the faint of heart, this book will give you the space to consider your own emotional resiliency in comparison, and lord knows we can all use some hopeful models to look up to these days.
Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.