Archive for the ‘Current Issues’ Category

Review of The Women of the 116th Congress: Portraits of Power

Friday, September 11th, 2020

The Women of the 116th Congress

Portraits of Power

Foreword by Roxane Gay

Portraits by Elizabeth D. Herman and Celeste Sloman

Abrams Image, 2019. 208 pages.
Review written September 5, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Here’s a lovely book that fills my heart with pride in our nation. It consists of 130 portraits of the 131 women (one was not available) serving in the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States of America after the 2018 elections.

The portraits are presented alphabetically by the state each woman represents. A list of firsts that woman has achieved are presented, many of them being the first woman from their state or their district in the House or the Senate, or the first woman of their ethnicity or religion or sexual orientation. And there’s a paragraph quote from each woman talking about what it means to them to serve in the United States Congress.

Throughout the book, there are short interruptions with spreads about historic women who paved the way for these ones, such as Jeannette Pickering Rankin: “I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won’t be the last.” Or Shirley Anita Chisholm: “In the end anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing: anti-humanism.”

I never thought of it as an important cause to elect more women to Congress – until I looked through this book and it made me so happy and proud. I love to think that the day will come when we can look back on the 116th Congress and think how relatively few women they included back then.

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/women_of_the_116th_congress.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Brilliant Maps for Curious Minds, by Ian Wright

Saturday, August 29th, 2020

Brilliant Maps for Curious Minds

100 New Ways to See the World

by Ian Wright
illustrated by Infographic.ly

The Experiment, 2019. Originally published in the UK. 192 pages.
Review written July 29, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

This book is a collection of maps from the author’s website, brilliantmaps.com. As the subtitle suggests, these maps are able to help you see the world in a different way. Most of the maps shine a spotlight on one aspect of the world and make you see that aspect differently.

The 100 maps are broken into 9 chapters: People and Populations; Politics, Power, and Religion; Culture and Customs; Friends and Enemies; Geography; History; National Identity; Crime and Punishment; and Nature.

Some of the maps you might consider silly – for example, longest place names, countries whose flags contain red or blue, and world plug and socket maps – others more serious, such as Homicide rates: Europe vs. the U. S.

Some maps I enjoyed included Probability of a White Christmas map (except that the probability is low where I live); European countries that have invaded Poland; How the North American population fits into Europe; and Countries without McDonalds.

This book is well titled. Yes, these maps are brilliant. Yes, you are sure to enjoy them if you have a curious mind.

brilliantmaps.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo

Thursday, June 18th, 2020

So You Want to Talk About Race

by Ijeoma Oluo
read by Bahni Turpin

Blackstone Audio, 2018. 7 hours, 41 minutes.
Review written June 17, 2020, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

I wish I already knew the things talked about in this book. I wish the topic wasn’t so timely in 2020. And I wish it hadn’t taken timely current events to get me to listen to this book. However, all things taken together, I’m very glad this book exists to educate me about issues of race and how black people in America have many very different experiences than I do. And I’m glad I finally listened to it.

This book is a black person telling things like they are. She doesn’t hold back to spare your feelings. So much of what she says was eye-opening for me. I hadn’t thought much about how the world responds to black people, because the world doesn’t respond to me that way.

I was surprised by how long the book was. It turned out that she had plenty of things to cover, and covered them well. Whatever else I was feeling as I listened to this book, I wasn’t bored for even a second.

I liked the way she approached explaining privilege. She first talked about ways in which she herself is privileged. One of those ways is by having a college degree. Yes, she worked hard for that degree. It did help that she was born into a family that valued education. But once she got the degree, she was able to get better-paying jobs, even when they didn’t use anything she learned while gaining the degree. Just having the degree got her a higher income. Then she encourages the listener to consider their own privilege.

Something disturbing happened during the week I was listening to this book. There have been many protests going on, and some friends of mine actually posted things that exactly fit what Ijeoma Oluo had talked about. One was accusing protesters of “making everything about race.” Another said “I want my country back!,” and yet another posted a video of a white man who’d traveled across America and said what good people he’d found throughout this country and that we should all calm down. That story was nice, but he seemed completely oblivious to what I’d just learned, that if a black man traveled throughout this country, he couldn’t count on a positive and helpful attitude in every neighborhood where he shows up as a stranger. The very idea that black people and people of color have very different experiences in America than white people do was an insight I became much more aware of from listening to this book.

I still have a long way to go. This author, like others, said that you’re going to make some mistakes. But better that than continuing on my oblivious path. And she finished the book with some practical steps those of us with privilege can take.

ijeomaoluo.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library eaudiobook from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Open Borders, by Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith

Thursday, May 28th, 2020

Open Borders

The Science and Ethics of Immigration

written by Bryan Caplan
artwork by Zach Weinersmith

First Second, 2019. 249 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 6, 2019, from a library book

This is a graphic novel about the case for, yes, open borders. And yes, it’s got science and ethics and statistics to back it up.

I’ve long said about children’s nonfiction, that the graphic novel format is a fantastic way to get facts across. It turns out to also be true about facts and current issues for adults.

I’ll admit up front that I was leaning toward advocating for open borders – because from my perspective it certainly seems the more Christian thing to do. But I wasn’t sure about answers to the various objections.

This book is written by a professor at George Mason University (down the road from me), and he has answers to a whole lot of objections. He also has ideas for opening up immigration that fall short of open borders, but that are still better than our current situation.

It would be easier to make a case against open borders if the United States hadn’t had almost open borders (“with infamous exceptions”) until the 1920s. In fact, my own ancestors came to America long before the 1920s, so they didn’t have to worry about legal or illegal immigration. In fact, most of my ancestors came before the United States existed. They came to English colonies, a lot of them looking for freedom of religion. Many of them did not, in fact, speak English. I have a copy of a will from an ancestor who fought in the Revolutionary War. His will was written in German. (No, he didn’t come to fight. He was one of the “Pennsylvania Dutch.”)

No, that’s not covered in this book, but that explains my leaning toward allowing immigrants today to do the same thing my ancestors did – come to America looking for a better life.

The author begins by talking about “global Apartheid.” The reason people from poor countries don’t emigrate to richer countries is that the richer countries don’t allow it. He takes a hard look at the ethics of that.

Then he uses statistics and studies to show that immigration helps the world. Immigrants are more productive in first world nations, and everyone benefits. Global productivity dramatically goes up when everyone can live where they want.

But he does proceed to take on arguments against immigration. He uses statistics to show they’re misguided. I especially like the section on Numeracy where he shows that the fear of criminal immigrants is flat-out innumerate.

Another chapter I like is where he looks at utilitarianism, egalitarianism, libertarianism, cost-benefit analysis, meritocracy, Christianity, and Kantianism – and shows that all of these world views can be used to support open borders. In the Christianity section, the author asks, “And who is my neighbor? People on my street? My town? My state? The whole country?” Jesus says, “Funny, you’re not the first person to ask. Let me tell you a little story about a Samaritan.”

But don’t take my word for it. Like I said, the graphic format is a very effective way to make an argument – but you do need to see it for yourself.

Open borders are not only the ethical thing to do. They have a dramatically net positive effect for everyone.

bcaplan.com
smbc-comics.com
firstsecondbooks.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/open_borders.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Tears We Cannot Stop, by Michael Eric Dyson

Thursday, April 23rd, 2020

Tears We Cannot Stop

A Sermon to White America

by Michael Eric Dyson

St. Martin’s Press, 2017. 228 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 17, 2019, from a library book

First, thanks to the Racial Reconciliation Group at Floris United Methodist Church for recommending this book. I did not make it to the meeting where the book was discussed, but I did read it in time for the meeting. And I was deeply challenged to look at the world differently.

This isn’t a comfortable book for a white person to read. But I was challenged that my very comfort is something I take for granted because I’m white. I’ll let the author explain the book from his “Call to Worship”:

America is in trouble, and a lot of that trouble – perhaps most of it – has to do with race. Everywhere we turn, there is discord and division, death and destruction. When we survey the land, we see a country full of suffering that we cannot fully understand, and a history that we can no longer deny. Slavery casts a long shadow across our lives. The spoils we reaped from forcing people to work without wages and treating them with grievous inhumanity continue to haunt us in a racial gulf that seems impossible to overcome. Black and white people don’t merely have different experiences; we seem to occupy different universes, with worldviews that are fatally opposed to one another. The merchants of racial despair easily peddle their wares in a marketplace riddled by white panic and fear. Black despair piles up with each body that gets snuffed on video and streamed on social media. We have, in the span of a few years, elected the nation’s first black president and placed in the Oval Office the scariest racial demagogue in a generation. The two may not be unrelated. The remarkable progress we seemed to make with the former has brought out the peril of the latter….

If you’re interested in my social analysis and my scholarly reflections on race, I’ve written plenty of other books for you to read. I tried to make this book one of them, but in the end, I couldn’t. I kept coming up short. I kept deleting words from the screen, a lot of them, enough of them to drive me to despair that I’d ever finish. I was stopped cold. I was trying to make the message fit the form, when it was the form itself that was the problem.

What I need to say can only be said as a sermon. I have no shame in that confession, because confession, and repentance, and redemption play a huge role in how we can make it through the long night of despair to the bright day of hope. Sermons are tough, not only to deliver, but, just as often, to hear. Yet, in my experience, if we stick with the sermon – through its pitiless recall of our sin, its relentless indictment of our flaws – we can make it to the uplifting expressions and redeeming practices that make our faith flow from the pulpit to the public, from darkness to light.

This book is challenging. It’s also eye-opening. I don’t know if I’ve ever listened to someone speak so frankly about what it means to be black in America. Stories are told, history is detailed, statistics are listed. These are all things I’d rather not think about. I’d like to think America has grown past racism, but of course even I can’t think that given the behavior of our current president. So it’s time for me to listen to voices that aren’t white.

This book is a very good start.

The “Benediction” section does have some suggestions for action. One of those is cultivating empathy.

Beloved, all of what I have said should lead you to empathy. It sounds simple, but its benefits are profound. Whiteness must shed its posture of competence, its will to omniscience, its belief in its goodness and purity, and then walk a mile or two in the boots of blackness. The siege of hate will not end until white folk imagine themselves as black folk – vulnerable despite our virtues. If enough of you, one by one, exercises your civic imagination, and puts yourself in the shoes of your black brothers and sisters, you might develop a democratic impatience for injustice, for the cruel disregard of black life, for the careless indifference to our plight.

Empathy must be cultivated. The practice of empathy means taking a moment to imagine how you might behave if you were in our positions. Do not tell us how we should act if we were you; imagine how you would act if you were us. Imagine living in a society where your white skin marks you for disgust, hate, and fear. Imagine that for many moments. Only when you see black folk as we are, and imagine yourselves as we have to live our lives, only then will the suffering stop, the hurt cease, the pain go away.

stmartins.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Me and White Supremacy, by Layla F. Saad

Wednesday, April 8th, 2020

Me and White Supremacy

Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor

by Layla F. Saad

Sourcebooks, 2020. 242 pages.
Review written March 29, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

Wow. Me and White Supremacy is a book full of gut punches. This isn’t a book to read; it’s a book to work through, along with a journal. And I’m afraid that when you’ve finished the book, your work isn’t done.

There are twenty-eight days of work here, so you’re going to have to renew it if you use a library book. Might as well purchase your own copy, since you’ll want to go back and think about these things again. My first time through brought me new awareness and new understanding of issues I’d never grappled with before. And it also made me aware that is only the beginning. I haven’t graduated; I’ve only begun.

Here are some paragraphs from the note to the reader at the beginning of the book, to help you understand what this book is trying to accomplish.

Dear Reader,

How did you feel the first time you saw the title of this book? Were you surprised? Confused? Intrigued? Uncomfortable? Maybe all of the above? I want to begin by reassuring you that all those feelings and more are completely normal. This is a simple and straightforward book, but it is not an easy one. Welcome to the work.

I’m Layla, and for (at least!) the next twenty-eight days, I’m going to be guiding you on a journey to help you explore and unpack your relationship with white supremacy. This book is a one-of-a-kind personal antiracism tool structured to help people with white privilege understand and take ownership of their participation in the oppressive system of white supremacy. It is designed to help them take responsibility for dismantling the way that this system manifests, both within themselves and within their communities.

The primary force that drives my work is a passionate desire to become a good ancestor. My purpose is to help create change, facilitate healing, and seed new possibilities for those who will come after I am gone. This book is a contribution to that purpose. It is a resource that I hope will help you do the internal and external work needed to become a good ancestor too. To leave this world in a better place than you found it. The system of white supremacy was not created by anyone who is alive today. But it is maintained and upheld by everyone who holds white privilege – whether or not you want it or agree with it. It is my desire that this book will help you to question, challenge, and dismantle this system that has hurt and killed so many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).

I’ll be honest – I was somewhat skeptical even after reading the introduction. I still didn’t realize all I didn’t realize.

Here are more of the author’s words. (This isn’t everything – please read the book for yourself, but this gives you an idea of what you’ll find here.)

Many white people hear the words white supremacy and think That doesn’t apply to me, that they don’t hold that belief but rather that they believe that all of us are equal and that they don’t modify their treatment of people based on the color of their skin. What this book, which is a deep-diving self-reflection tool, will help you to realize, however, is that that isn’t true. White supremacy is an ideology, a paradigm, an institutional system, and a worldview that you have been born into by virtue of your white privilege. I am not talking about the physical color of your skin being inherently bad or something to feel shame about. I am talking about the historic and modern legislating, societal conditioning, and systemic institutionalizing of the construction of whiteness as inherently superior to people of other races. Yes, outwardly racist systems of oppression like chattel slavery, apartheid, and racial discrimination in employment have been made illegal. But the subtle and overt discrimination, marginalization, abuse, and killing of BIPOC in white-dominated communities continues even today because white supremacy continues to be the dominant paradigm under which white societies operate.

So we must call a thing a thing.

We must look directly at the ways in which this racist ideology of white supremacy, this idea that white equals better, superior, more worthy, more credible, more deserving, and more valuable actively harms anyone who does not own white privilege.

If you are willing to dare to look white supremacy right in the eye and see yourself reflected back, you are going to become better equipped to dismantle it within yourself and within your communities.

This book explains concepts such white privilege, white fragility, tone policing, white silence, white superiority, white exceptionalism, color blindness, anti-Blackness, racist stereotypes, cultural appropriation, white apathy, white centering, tokenism, white saviorism, optical allyship, and many more ideas. You’re asked to look at your own life and heart to see when these things have shown up. And you’re asked about your values and commitment to make changes.

The author approaches all this with compassion. I love this paragraph at the end of the first week’s work, and I think it shows the consistent attitude she takes toward this work:

On this reflection day, I want to remind you that we are not looking for the happy ending, the teachable moment, or the pretty bow at the end of all learning. We are also not looking for dramatic admissions of guilt or becoming so frozen with shame that you cannot move forward. The aim of this work is not self-loathing. The aim of this work is truth – seeing it, owning it, and figuring out what to do with it. This is lifelong work. Avoid the shortcuts, and be wary of the easy answers. Avoid the breaking down into white fragility. Question yourself when you think you have finally figured it out – there are always deeper layers, and you will continue to reflect even more as you continue on with this work.

This book is a challenge – and it’s a challenge I didn’t conquer. But it did begin to open my eyes.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with light skin.

laylafsaad.com
sourcebooks.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Histories of the Transgender Child, by Julian Gill-Peterson

Saturday, August 17th, 2019

Histories of the Transgender Child

by Julian Gill-Peterson

University of Minnesota Press, 2018. 262 pages.
Review written August 9, 2019, from a library book

This book is dense and written for academics, and it took me a long time to read. However, what I could understand was fascinating.

The big point of this book is that there’s a false narrative circulating that transgender children are some kind of new phenomenon. The author looks at medical histories of transgender children throughout the twentieth century, which was when medical science began getting involved in sex organs and hormones. We learn about attitudes toward transgender children and attempts to “cure” them or force them into preconceived ideas of what they should be.

Here’s a section from the Introduction:

Yet an even more fundamental assumption about trans children that floats this contrast has yet to be challenged: that they are, in fact, new and future-bound. The narrative that we are in the midst of the first generation of trans children is so omnipresent as to be ambient. It is repeated ad nauseam in the media, online, by doctors, and by parents. Trans children, these various gatekeepers say in unison, have no history at all. Trans children are unprecedented and must be treated as such, with caution or awe. What happens if this consensus turns out to be baseless? The bleached and medicalized image of the trans child circulating as unprecedented in the twenty-first century is actually prefaced by an entire century of trans children, including black trans children and trans children of color. And trans children played a decisive role in the medicalization of sex and gender, rather than being its newest objects. These are two of the key ruptures that Histories of the Transgender Child uncovers. If the contrasting effect of contemporary figurations of black trans and trans of color life, placed next to trans childhood, is so damaging in its staging of an antinomy between negativity and futurity, this book argues that the twentieth century provides a surprising archive of trans childhood that undoes them from the inside.

Histories of the Transgender Child rewrites the historical and political basis for the supposed newness of today’s generation of trans kids by uncovering more than a century of what came before them. From the 1910s, children with “ambiguous” sex were medicalized and experimented upon by doctors who sought in their unfinished, developing bodies a material foothold for altering and, eventually, changing human sex as it grew. In the 1930s, some of the first trans people to seek out American doctors connected their requests for medical support to reports that “sex changes” on children were being regularly performed at certain hospitals. In the 1940s and 1950s, five decades of experimental alteration of children’s sex directly led to the invention of the category gender, setting the stage for the emergence of a new field of transsexual medicine and the postwar model of binary transition. And in the 1960s and 1970s, as that field of medicine became institutionalized, many children took hormones, changed their names, attended school recognized in their gender identities, and even underwent gender confirmation surgeries. Trans children not only were present but also were an integral part of the transgender twentieth century and the broader twentieth-century history of sex, gender, and race in medicine.

The material is dense, academic, and full of detail from medical records. This isn’t for everyone curious about the history of transgender children. I did wade through it and understood some of it. After that process, here are some thoughts that stuck with me:

Transgender children are not new. When medical science began to have a way to get their bodies to match their gender identity, that’s when they made themselves known, in hopes of getting treatment. But that wasn’t when they began to exist.

There are a hugely wide range of intersex conditions. Some of them are life threatening, which is why medical science began to get involved in sex and gender. Medical procedures used on intersex children then were requested by transgender people, and children were seen as the perfect object of study.

These stories made utterly clear that gender isn’t nearly as binary as we’d like it to be. If intersex children exist for a wide variety of medical reasons (and they do), it’s not logical to doubt the legitimacy of transgender children, who may be transgender for a physical reason in their brains that we can’t see.

I also have a better realization that for decades, doctors tried to “cure” transgender children. The truth is, it did not work. If being transgender could be changed, the folks in the twentieth century surely would have figured out how to do it. They gave it prodigious effort.

And this brings us to one of the main conclusions of this book:

Histories of the Transgender Child asks us to turn against and away from figurative thinking about trans children in general. Trans children must no longer bring us to some new knowledge of trans life or sex and gender, making them a means to some other abstract end. Rather, through the twentieth-century history of the chapters that follow I propose an ethical relation that calls upon adults to stop questioning the being of trans children and affirm instead that there are trans children, that trans childhood is a happy and desired form – not a new form of life and experience but one richly, beautifully historical and multiple.

Transgender children exist. Transgender adults exist. Medical doctors have been studying gender for more than a century. Gender as it occurs in humans is nowhere near as binary as some would like to think it is. Transgender people do not need to be “cured.” Those who believe medical treatment will improve their lives should be allowed to get it without stigma.

This book isn’t for everyone and is definitely not light reading. But if you’re curious about the history of how transgender children interacted with the medical profession and how attitudes toward them changed, this book is an valuable resource.

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?

Review of Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, August 7th, 2019

Just Mercy

A Story of Justice and Redemption

by Bryan Stevenson

Spiegel & Grau (Random House), 2014. 336 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 6, 2019, from a library book

A big thank you to the Racial Reconciliation Group at Floris United Methodist Church for choosing this book for a book discussion. I confess, I did not read this book in time to participate in the discussion, but their choice brought it to my attention, and the book blew me away.

This book is the story of a young lawyer who in 1983 did an intensive course on race and poverty litigation, met some prisoners on death row, saw their humanity, and began working for people who didn’t have a voice and were not receiving either justice or mercy.

After talking about his first experience visiting a prisoner on death row, here is how Bryan Stevenson introduces this powerful book:

This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America. It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us. . . .

After graduating from law school, I went back to the Deep South to represent the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. In the last thirty years, I’ve gotten close to people who have been wrongly convicted and sent to death row, people like Walter McMillan. In this book you will learn the story of Walter’s case, which taught me about our system’s disturbing indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of unfair prosecutions and convictions. Walter’s experience taught me how our system traumatizes and victimizes people when we exercise our power to convict and condemn irresponsibly – not just the accused but also their families, their communities, and even the victims of crime. But Walter’s case also taught me something else: that there is light within this darkness.

Walter’s story is one of many that I tell in the following chapters. I’ve represented abused and neglected children who were prosecuted as adults and suffered more abuse and mistreatment after being placed in adult facilities. I’ve represented women, whose numbers in prison have increased 640 percent in the last thirty years, and seen how our hysteria about drug addiction and our hostility to the poor have made us quick to criminalize and prosecute poor women when a pregnancy goes wrong. I’ve represented mentally disabled people whose illnesses have often landed them in prison for decades. I’ve gotten close to victims of violent crime and their families and witnessed how even many of the custodians of mass imprisonment – prison staff – have been made less healthy, more violent and angry, and less just and merciful.

I’ve also represented people who have committed terrible crimes but nonetheless struggle to recover and to find redemption. I have discovered, deep in the hearts of many condemned and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity – seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.

Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and – perhaps – we all need some measure of unmerited grace.

This was a difficult book for me to read. As a white woman who’s never had a personal encounter with the justice system, I’d like to believe that our justice system in America is fair and above board, and if you do no wrong, you won’t have any trouble with it.

Bryan Stevenson does highlight the story of Walter McMillan, telling about his case in alternate chapters. Walter was an African American on death row for a crime he couldn’t possibly have committed – since it happened the same time as a barbecue he attended, and multiple witnesses saw him there. The story of how the murder was pinned on Walter is complicated, involving plenty of racism, sentiment against him because he had an affair with a white woman, a strong desire to pin the crime on someone, pressure on the unreliable witness who testified against him, and a public defender who didn’t make much of an effort, among many other factors.

Even working hard on Walter’s case, there were still numerous obstacles to vindicating Walter, and he ended up spending six years of his life on death row, causing layers of pain to his entire community, since their testimony hadn’t been heeded.

The chapters in between the ones about Walter’s story tell about so many other people who needed justice. Some wrongfully accused and convicted, some harshly punished out of proportion to the crime. I learned that death by electrocution can be horribly painful. I’d had no idea. In view of recent law changes, especially heart-wrenching were stories of women who miscarried when alone – and then were convicted of murdering their newborn infant. This happened despite how much the women wanted to have a baby, and even to a woman who miscarried so early, there’s no way a baby could have survived.

So this book filled my heart with sadness and disillusionment – yet the focus is hope. And the book is written by a man who’s fighting for justice and making good progress at changing laws and helping folks wrongly imprisoned be set free.

In the Epilogue, Bryan Stevenson tells us some things he learned from Walter:

Walter had made me understand why we have to 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. A system that denies the poor the legal help they need, that makes wealth and status more important than culpability, must be changed. Walter’s case taught me that fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous. I reflected on how mass imprisonment has littered the national landscape with carceral monuments of reckless and excessive punishment and ravaged communities with our hopeless willingness to condemn and discard the most vulnerable among us. I told the congregation that Walter’s case had taught me that the death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?

Finally and most important, I told those gathered in the church that Walter had taught me that mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven’t earned it, who haven’t even sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion. Walter genuinely forgave the people who unfairly accused him, the people who convicted him, and the people who had judged him unworthy of mercy. And in the end, it was just mercy toward others that allowed him to recover a life worth celebrating, a life that rediscovered the love and freedom that all humans desire, a life that overcame death and condemnation until it was time to die on God’s schedule.

This was an amazing and powerful book that shook up my worldview. I hope many more people will read it, and it’s consistently on hold, which is a good sign. It was because I was reading this book that my heart sank when I read the news that federal executions are going to begin again. This book will change your perspective. Highly recommended.

eji.org
spiegelandgrau.com

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Review of The State of Affairs, by Esther Perel

Saturday, July 27th, 2019

The State of Affairs

Rethinking Infidelity

by Esther Perel

Harper, 2017. 320 pages.
Review written June 3, 2019, from a library book

I’m not completely sure why I read this book. A library customer had me put it on hold for her, and it sounded interesting to me, so I put it on hold, too. And then it wound up on the top of my huge nonfiction-books-to-read stack, and it really did fascinate me.

Of course, my initial reason to be interested in the topic is that my own marriage ended after my ex-husband had an affair for a year and a half. The number of lies it took to pull that off ended up shaking my whole sense of reality when I finally found out.

I’m not sure this book gave me a whole lot of insights about that affair, though I did have the ability to understand a little better why some people have them. The fact that I could read this book at all without being overwhelmed by pain or anger says to me that I’ve come a long way in my healing process!

You won’t be surprised when I say this book is not written from a Christian perspective. From my perspective, adultery is wrong, and that’s pretty much all there is to say about it. It deeply wounds someone you’ve promised to love. However, because this author approaches it without judgment – she can find out much more that’s going on under the surface.

She doesn’t judge, but she still doesn’t recommend having an affair. She put it this way:

While I prefer to sidestep flat-out condemnation to allow for a thoughtful inquiry, I do not approve of deception or take betrayal lightly. I sit with the devastation in my office every day. Understanding infidelity does not mean justifying it.

In the Introduction, the author convinced me that it was worth reading on:

There is one simple act of transgression that can rob a couple of their relationship, their happiness, their very identity: an affair. Yet this extremely common act is poorly understood….

Affairs have a lot to teach us about relationships – what we expect, what we think we want, and what we feel entitled to. They offer a unique window into our personal and cultural attitudes about love, lust, and commitment. Through examining illicit love from multiple angles, I hope to engage you, the reader, in an honest, enlightened, and provocative exploration of modern relationships in their many variations. I would like to stimulate a conversation between you and your loved ones about issues such as fidelity and loyalty, desire and longing, jealousy and possessiveness, truth-telling and forgiveness.

I’m afraid she does destroy the idea of an “affair-proof” marriage. And she’s even looked at open marriages where affairs happened. She says that wherever humans set up rules, others will get a thrill from breaking them.

This reminded me of a concept I learned in the book Forgive for Good, by Dr. Fred Luskin: Unenforceable rules. He says that we make rules for our loved ones that we can’t enforce. Instead of saying, “My spouse must not cheat on me,” which you can’t enforce at all, he suggests, “I hope my spouse will not cheat on me.” Then your spouse’s faithfulness becomes a loving gift, rather than meeting a demand. Either way, though, I was reminded in this book – you can’t actually make your spouse do anything.

She explores many different sides of affairs in this book and how it plays out for all parties involved, in many different situations. At the end she’s got a section with the heading, “What Can Marriage Learn from Infidelity?” I’ll finish with some paragraphs from that section:

Some relationships die, some survive and revive. What are the lessons of infidelity, for all of us who love? I hope these pages have served to illustrate that affairs are many things, but at best they can be transformative for a couple. I began this book with the analogy that while many people have positive, life-changing experiences as a result of terminal illness, I would no more recommend having an affair than I would recommend getting cancer. What many people want to know, then, is what they can learn from affairs without necessarily having to go through one. It comes down to two questions: How can we better fortify our relationship against infidelity? And how can we bring some of the erotic vitality of illicit love into our authorized union?

The answer is counterintuitive. The impulse to protect your marriage is natural, but if you take the common “affair-proofing” approach, you risk heading back down the narrow road of stifling constraints. Outlawing friendships with the opposite sex, censoring emotionally intimate confidences in others, nixing water-cooler conversations, curtailing online activity, banning porn, checking up on each other, doing everything together, cutting off exes – all of these homeland security measures can backfire. Katherine Frank argues persuasively that the “marital safety narrative” creates its own demise. When a couple tries to safeguard their relationship through various forms of surveillance and self-policing, they risk setting themselves up for the exact opposite: the “enhanced eroticization of transgressions.” The more we try to suppress our primal longings, the more forcefully we may rebel….

Rather than insulate ourselves with the false notion that it could never happen to me, we must learn to live with the uncertainties, the allures, the attractions, the fantasies – both our own and our partners’. Couples who feel free to talk honestly about their desires, even when they are not directed at each other, paradoxically become closer….

We also learn from affairs that for most, the forbidden will always hold an allure. The ongoing challenge for steady couples is to find ways to collaborate in transgression, rather than transgressing against each other or their bond….

For Viola and Ross, it meant creating secret email accounts through which they could conduct private, X-rated conversations during meetings, playdates, and parent-teacher conferences. For Allan and Joy, it was occasionally leaving the kids with her mom and going out with no curfew. Dancing all night with a sense of unboundedness is the opposite of the regimentation of family life. Bianca and Mags can’t afford to go out, but they want to affirm that they’re not just parents. So once a week they put the babies to bed, light candles, dress up, and have a date at home. They call it “meeting at the bar.”…

Our partners do not belong to us; they are only on loan, with an option to renew – or not. Knowing that we can lose them does not have to undermine commitment; rather, it mandates an active engagement that long-term couples often lose. The realization that our loved ones are forever elusive should jolt us out of complacency, in the most positive sense.

On reflection, I was one of those people who thought that an affair could never happen in my marriage – and I was completely wrong. It’s tempting when I think about starting a new relationship to try to go into it with lots of “safeguards” in place. I think that’s something of what I gained from reading this book – a deeper understanding that people are people. I can’t make someone I love behave a certain way. But a deeper understanding of marriage and what people want out of it and what an affair does to that – is not a bad thing to have, not a bad thing to process.

In the end, this book is fascinating reading about people and relationships.

estherperel.com
hc.com

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Review of Shade, by Pete Souza

Thursday, May 9th, 2019

Shade

A Tale of Two Presidents

by Pete Souza

Little, Brown and Company, October 2018. 240 pages.
Review written February 19, 2019, from a library book

Pete Souza was the official white house photographer when Barack Obama was president and has already published the wonderful book Obama: An Intimate Portrait. In this book, he uses some of the same pictures to throw some shade.

He explains what he’s doing in an introduction. Let’s just say that he was struck by the contrast between things our current president was doing and saying and things a competent president whom he knew well had done. So he began posting photos on Instagram that directly contrasted with things the new president was doing. People loved it, and some said he was “throwing shade,” so he tried to figure out what they meant. Here’s what he says about it:

So, finally, I googled “throwing shade” and Merriam-Webster explained it to me: it’s a “subtle, sneering expression of contempt for or disgust with someone – sometimes verbal, and sometimes not.”

Yup, that’s what I was doing – throwing shade. And I kept it up for the first 500 days of the new administration, and I plan to keep going long after you’ve read this book. My comments are often humorous, and I’d even say they are more or less respectful. They are certainly more respectful than the tweets coming from this president.

I also try to make subtle comments with my Instagram posts without directly revealing what the current president has said or done. Many people tell me they see my posts and then try to find out what they missed in the news.

In this book, I take a turn to full transparency and let it all hang out. In the pages that follow, you will see adaptations of my original posts matched up directly with what inspired them – a presidential tweet and/or the news that caught my attention in the first place. You can call it shade. I just call it the truth.

I hope you laugh, and maybe even cry, as you read this book. During the past 18 months, outrage has bubbled up inside me. I have become more and more appalled at the person that we, with help from Russia, elected to represent our nation. With this book, I’m standing up and shouting out. I can’t be subtle any longer.

Obviously, this is a book for fans of Obama. I loved the book and indeed laughed over it. I managed not to cry – but it does add to my frustration with the present situation to remember how a president should act.

A few examples. On one side of the page there are headlines about Trump’s Muslim Ban. On the opposite page there’s a photo of Obama talking with young refugees at a Dignity for Children Foundation classroom in Malaysia. There are a couple of times with headlines about how Trump got along with foreign leaders contrasted with pictures of Obama with them (both allies and Putin). There’s a headline about Trump denying climate change contrasted with Obama talking with a scientist on the site of a melting glacier in Alaska. There’s a headline with a Trump attack on the media contrasted with a picture of an Obama press conference – lots of smiling faces in that one. A “Fake news” headline from Trump is contrasted with the range of newspapers and news magazines presented in the Obama white house daily.

Our current president has broken norms over and over again – it’s good to be reminded how a president should actually approach the job. To be honest, I think a photographer could have come up with contrasting photos using almost any other president, not just the outstanding one who came just before Trump. May things go back to normal very soon. Here’s hoping.

Meanwhile, you can enjoy reading this book.

@petesouza
littlebrown.com

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Find this review on Sonderbooks at: www.sonderbooks.com/Nonfiction/shade.html

Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?