Archive for the ‘True Stories’ 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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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.

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Review of My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me, by Jason B. Rosenthal

Tuesday, August 11th, 2020

My Wife Said You May Want to Marry Me

by Jason B. Rosenthal
read by the author

HarperAudio, 2020. 7 hours on 6 CDs.
Review written August 11, 2020, from a library audiobook
Starred Review

On March 3, 2017, beloved children’s author Amy Krouse Rosenthal (okay, she wrote things for adults, too, and even made films, but being a children’s author is what I loved her for) had a column published in the New York Times, “You May Want to Marry My Husband.” It told about her impending death from ovarian cancer, which indeed happened ten days later, but also about what a wonderful man her husband was, how beautiful their life together, and hoping that he would start a new love story after her death, because she wanted him to have a happy life.

This book is Jason’s follow-up. It tells about his life with Amy and their joyful partnership, about the two years he cared for her after her cancer diagnosis, and about dealing with grief. Amy gave him the gift of a platform to talk about end of life, the grieving process, and meeting life after loss with resilience.

As a divorced woman, I’ve dealt with loss. I’m glad that Jason acknowledges that he was lucky to have the loving relationship he had. And Amy blessed it with her last loving act of writing that column. Divorced people (especially those blind-sided by a spouse who leaves before they realize anything’s wrong) don’t get that benediction, but we still have to deal with the absence of someone we love. I appreciated that Jason doesn’t shy away from telling about the good times as if to avoid pain. And his insights are helpful for anyone dealing with loss, even if on the surface, your loss seems quite different from the too-early death of a beloved spouse.

Another thing I have in common with Jason is a succession of losses. Both my parents died, two months apart, last Fall. In the two years since Amy’s death, both Jason’s father and Amy’s father died, as well as the dog that was their family’s companion for many years. Loss piled on top of loss has its own difficult impact. Jason expresses so well the process of dealing with loss upon loss while remembering the love and joy. He doesn’t pretend to have it all together. He talks about times of weeping. And he is again and again thankful to Amy for urging him to fill those empty pages with a new love story.

Listening to Jason’s own voice makes it all the more personal. Listening to this audiobook feels like a brother or a close friend sharing their life and offering encouragement. I understand why hundreds of people have written to him. Amy’s column alone makes me wish it just so happened that I was right for him. (For starters, I don’t live in Chicago.) I have no doubt he’s going to again be a wonderful husband to some lucky woman. (And he has started dating someone. I’m a little envious that he was able to find someone “organically” without using online dating, but hey, everyone’s life is different.)

The part about his life together with Amy was full of joy. I drooled at the description of the home they built – with a wall covered with bookshelves from the basement to the third floor. And I love that they set goals for their relationship while on their honeymoon. They traveled the world together. They made room for quality time with their children and with each other. And they were each other’s biggest fans.

But he’s also got encouraging and uplifting things to say about his life now and about dealing with loss and having resiliency. This is not a sad book, even though it’s centered around a very sad event. It’s the story of a joyful and loving partnership and about someone learning to continue to live a joyful and meaningful life after that partnership ended far too soon.

Like I said, it feels like the author is talking to you personally. I will resist the urge to add to the pile of letters he’s received. Let me just say it now: Jason, thank you for this book. Thank you for telling Amy’s story and your story. Thank you for giving others a window into navigating the journey of loss and new beginnings.

jasonbrosenthal.com

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Source: This review is based on an audiobook 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.

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Review of A Game of Birds and Wolves, by Simon Parkin

Monday, July 6th, 2020

A Game of Birds and Wolves

The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II

by Simon Parkin

Little, Brown and Company, 2020. 310 pages.
Review written April 23, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review

A Game of Birds and Wolves is the story of how Great Britain used an elaborate war game to strategize and win the war against the U-boats during World War II.

I hadn’t realized how important the Battle of the Atlantic was. Britain came perilously close to starving. During World War II, 2,603 merchant ships and 175 naval vessels escorting merchant convoys were sunk. More than 30,000 merchant seamen and more than 6,000 Royal Navy sailors died in the Atlantic, mostly because of attacks from U-boats.

The subtitle is a little bit misleading. This book is mostly about the man, Gilbert Roberts, who developed the giant board game and taught it to British naval officers. But his staff, the people running the game, were indeed women, officers in the Wrens, the branch of the British navy for women.

I’ve been reading a lot of children’s nonfiction, so I did get impatient with the extreme level of detail in this book. We hear about the establishment of the Wrens, about specific ships getting sunk in the Atlantic, about the glamorous lives on shore of U-boat commanders, and how Gilbert Roberts had been rejected by the navy. It seemed like the first half of the book was establishing the many, many different characters and the situations for both the Germans and the British.

But the tension does heighten as the WATU – the Western Approaches Tactical Unit – begins deducing the strategies that U-boats were using and developing ways to combat it. At the same time, we read about an admiral asking for more U-boats and finally getting them. It all builds to a dramatic battle where one of the Wrens charting the position of the ships in a giant sea battle is aware that her fiancé is in the thick of things.

As a gamer, it made sense to me that playing strategy games helps admirals devise effective strategies in real-life scenarios. They developed a 6-day course and captains coming in from time at sea would go through the course. They simulated visibility at sea by putting the captains behind a canvas screen and plotting the positions of small models of ships on the linoleum floor. They used green chalk for the U-boats, which couldn’t be seen from an angle. They made a dramatic simulation before computers could be used to do it.

The Wrens on staff were responsible for moving the models and marking the courses of the ships and U-boats involved. I enjoyed the scene where they had a young Wren play a scenario against a high ranking naval officer. She was experienced with the game and soundly defeated him.

It all gives an interesting side of World War II that I’d never heard about before.

simonparkin.com
littlebrown.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.

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Review of Kindness and Wonder, by Gavin Edwards

Thursday, June 4th, 2020

Kindness and Wonder

Why Mister Rogers Matters Now More Than Ever

by Gavin Edwards

Dey St. (William Morrow), 2019. 248 pages.
Review written December 29, 2019, from a library book.

Kindness and Wonder is a biography of Mr. Rogers, followed by ten lessons from his life, with anecdotes. I like the biography. I had tried to get through the much more detailed biography, The Good Neighbor in audio form, and hadn’t ever finished it. This one gives you the basic facts and the basic story of his life without getting bogged down.

The ten lessons are:

Be deep and simple.
Be kind to strangers.
Make a joyful noise.
Tell the truth.
Connect with other people every way you can.
Love your neighbors.
Find the light in the darkness.
Always see the very best in other people.
Accept the changing seasons.
Share what you’ve learned. (All your life.)

Some of the stories presented alongside these lessons weren’t what I expected. For example, the “Love your neighbors.” chapter told how the lives of Andy Warhol and George Romero paralleled the life of Mr. Rogers. I’m not sure I cared about them!

But mostly, this book tells about a man’s life who saw his ministry as using television to reach children, and who took children’s developmental needs very seriously.

As a children’s librarian, of all people, I need to learn everything I can from Mr. Rogers. I like the way this book points out the lessons from his example.

rulefortytwo.com
harpercollins.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 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.

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Review of Helen Oxenbury: A Life in Illustration, by Leonard S. Marcus

Thursday, May 14th, 2020

Helen Oxenbury

A Life in Illustration

by Leonard S. Marcus

Candlewick Press, 2018. 288 pages.
Starred Review
Review written 02/20/2020, from a library book

This big, beautiful, heavy book tells the story of the career of the amazing picture book artist, Helen Oxenbury. I was delighted to read it, because Helen Oxenbury’s Tom and Pippo books were a huge favorite of my firstborn child, who is now almost 32 years old.

The pages are as large as a picture book, the paper is thick, and there are almost 300 pages. There’s a decorative ribbon, so this is suitable for a coffee table book, which is where I kept my library copy while I was reading it – but I’m afraid that meant I didn’t get around to it very often. By far the majority of the pages are filled with paintings, and when there is text it isn’t long. So this book doesn’t take a long time to read if you sit down and look. Every time I thought I should give up because I wasn’t getting around to it, I’d read another chapter and be so delighted that I didn’t have the heart to part with it until I was done.

It’s a beautiful book and filled me with nostalgia especially about the books I’d read to my kids. But I also enjoyed the wonderful art from books I hadn’t been familiar with. It’s arranged in a way that you can see Helen Oxenbury’s strengths and her growth as a writer. The story of her career is fascinating, too. She met her husband, the noted illustrator John Burningham, when they were both in art school. She began her own career in the 1960s and continues to this day.

This wonderful book looks in great detail at her many illustrated books and celebrates her life. There’s a Bibliography at the back as well as testimonials from authors she’s worked with. So much fun if you or your child have ever loved a Helen Oxenbury book. And if you haven’t, you’ll discover ones you must find and enjoy.

At the back of the book, we discover that Helen Oxenbury is the one who created the Walker Bear, also used by Candlewick Press. The book finishes with a quote from Deirdre McDermott, the Publisher of Walker Books:

So it is that the story of Helen Oxenbury’s astonishing contribution to children’s books is intrinsically woven into the fabric and legacy of Walker Books and Candlewick Press. She is as steeped in our history as we are in hers. Helen’s beautiful, iconic bear has illuminated the creative path for the thousands of stories that we’ve published, and shines a way forward for the many, many more to come.

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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 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.

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Review of Waking Up in Heaven, by Crystal McVea and Alex Tresniowski

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

Waking Up in Heaven

A True Story of Brokenness, Heaven, and Life Again

by Crystal McVea
and Alex Tresniowski

Howard Books (Simon & Schuster), 2013. 245 pages.
Review written February 1, 2020, from a library book

In December 2009, Crystal McVea died in a hospital room and spent time in the presence of God. While there, he showed her his unconditional, overwhelming love for her.

To show us how significant and earth-shaking that revelation was, Crystal tells her life story. She was abused in her childhood beginning at three years old. As a teen, she had an abortion. She didn’t feel remotely lovable or forgivable.

But in heaven, Crystal saw a beautiful little girl and her heart filled with love for her. Then God showed her that girl was herself.

And then another understanding passed between God and me, and I knew this is what He’d been trying to show me all my life. He’d been trying to show me how very much He loved me.

I knew God was allowing me to see myself as He saw me. And in His eyes I was an absolutely perfect creation, and I always would be. All the things that happened to me on Earth, all the bad decisions that caused me to hate myself – none of it mattered. I had believed God couldn’t possibly love me, not after what had been done to me, not after what I had done. But this belief was a lie, and God blasted the lie by showing me the intensity of His love for me.

I believe intellectually that God loves each of us like that. But this story put it into emotions, helped visualize that kind of love.

Since then, Crystal has been telling her story and letting other people know how much God loves them.

I read this book slowly, a little bit at a time, as I do with most nonfiction. I think I might have enjoyed it more and kept the thread of the story better if I had read it more quickly. But the overall message is powerful – that God has His hand on our lives, and God loves us.

SimonandSchuster.com

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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.

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Review of Listening for Madeleine, by Leonard S. Marcus

Monday, May 4th, 2020

Listening for Madeleine

A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices

by Leonard S. Marcus

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. 367 pages.
Starred Review
Review written July 5, 2019, from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com

I’ve long been a fan of Madeleine L’Engle’s work, both fiction and nonfiction, both for children and adults. This book is an exploration of her life, composed of interviews with 51 people who knew her. Some only met her once or twice, but others knew her from childhood.

Here’s an overview from the Introduction, which also presented an outline of Madeleine L’Engle’s life story:

In pursuit of a fully rounded portrait of Madeleine L’Engle from living memory, it seemed essential to hear not only from as many as possible of the people who knew her most intimately but also from some whose more fleeting encounters were representative of those of the thousands of students, teachers, librarians, aspiring writers, neighbors, and others who crossed her path in the course of a richly complex life enacted largely in public view.

The portrait that emerges is – and was bound to be – impressionistic in nature. The principal reason for this is that L’Engle casually departmentalized her vast and densely populated universe. People important to her in one sphere of her life typically did not meet those important to her in the others. The inveterate fan and sometime practitioner of the mystery genre knew very well how to scatter the clues to her own story, an overwhelmingly admirable tale that at times, however, bore scant resemblance to the placid domestic idyll of A Circle of Quiet and its sequels, as a controversial profile of L’Engle published in The New Yorker, in April 2004, made clear. Some of the most deep-seated family conflicts also proved to be among the longest lived. Regrettably, L’Engle’s adopted daughter, Maria, was among the few people approached about an interview for this book who declined.

Most of the interviews are only a few pages. They’re divided into sections by the way the interviewee encountered Madeleine: Madeleine in the Making, Writer, Matriarch, Mentor, Friend, and Icon.

The result is indeed impressionistic, but you’re left with what feels like an exquisitely detailed portrait of a remarkable woman.

I highly recommend this book to all Madeleine L’Engle fans.

leonardmarcus.com
fsgbooks.com

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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.

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Review of Resurrecting Easter, by John Dominic Crossan & Sarah Sexton Crossan

Sunday, April 12th, 2020

Resurrecting Easter

How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision

by John Dominic Crossan & Sarah Sexton Crossan

HarperOne, 2018. 213 pages.
Review written March 3, 2020, from a library book

I’d originally checked this book out and tried to read it in 2018, but eventually gave up. (I was busy with Newbery reading, anyway.) But after Richard Rohr referred to it in The Universal Christ, I checked it out again and this time made a concentrated effort to read the whole thing.

It’s a very academic work, so that’s why it’s hard to get through, but becomes fascinating the more you pay attention to what the authors are saying. It’s a book about early Christian art portraying the Resurrection of Christ – and how it developed in two different directions.

But instead of just talking about it, the authors show you exactly what they’re talking about. They have traveled the world to collect photos of the art, and they’re on display in color on the large pages of this beautiful book. The authors also tell about their travels to old churches with mosaics and to monasteries with old manuscripts. We come to understand the timeline as they carefully date each picture and show how the iconography progressed.

As they lay out the two categories of images of Christ’s Resurrection – Individual and Universal, they also show us the different types within each category, and show how the types developed.

Here’s how the authors explain the Universal Resurrection Tradition in their Prologue:

Instead of arising alone, Christ raises all of humanity with him. He reaches out toward Adam and Eve, the biblical parents and symbols for humanity itself, raises them up, and leads them out of Hades, the prison of death.

This is presented in contrast to the Individual Resurrection Tradition, where Christ is pictured rising alone in splendor and triumph. The authors give two reasons for spending more time on the Universal Resurrection Tradition:

One is that the individual version becomes, by the second millennium, the official Easter icon of Western Christianity. As such, it is the one we know best as Westerners, and we may even presume, mistaking part for whole, that it is the only one present throughout Christian history. In this book, therefore, the emphasis is on universal over individual iconography for Christ’s Resurrection as remedial education for Western Christians. During the last fifteen years, it has been precisely that for us.

Another – and much more important – reason for emphasizing the universal resurrection tradition is based on these two final questions as the fourth and fifth themes of Resurrecting Easter. We emphasize them here and now, and we ask you to keep them in mind throughout the book, but we will only answer them at the very end of the book.

First, is the individual or universal vision in closer continuity with the New Testament’s understanding of “Resurrection” and in better conformity with the Gospels’ conception of Easter? For example, when Paul speaks of Christ’s Resurrection, is he imagining it as individual or universal? Or again, when 1 Corinthians 15:20 and Matthew 27:52 refer, using the same Greek term, to the resurrection of “those who have fallen asleep,” who exactly are those sleepers?

Second, whether you understand Christ’s Resurrection as a historical event or a theological interpretation; whether you accept it as myth or parable, symbol or metaphor; and whether you accept it religiously or reject it absolutely, what does it claim and what does that mean? How can someone or something that happens once at a certain time and in a specific place influence or change the whole human race – not just forward to the end of time, but backward to its start?…

What does it mean, whether or not it is credible, to depict Christ’s Resurrection as humanity’s liberation from death – all humanity, past, present and future?

So that gives you a feel for what’s explored in this book. Besides being a beautifully photographed book, it’s a major work of scholarship, gathering images made of Christ’s Resurrection from as early as the 700s, and placing them in chronological order and historical context.

As a universalist myself, I wouldn’t have minded if the authors had drawn more conclusions. But I personally took comfort in this confirmation that my belief that Christ redeemed all of humanity and “as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” — that this belief is bolstered by Christian art created centuries ago. Beautiful and inspiring.

ResurrectingEasterBook.com
harperone.com

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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.

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Review of Beneath the Tamarind Tree, by Isha Sesay

Friday, March 6th, 2020

Beneath the Tamarind Tree

A Story of Courage, Family, and the Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram

by Isha Sesay

Dey St. (William Morrow), 2019. 382 pages.
Starred Review
Review written February 24, 2020, from a signed advance reader copy and a library book

CNN journalist Isha Sesay tells the story of 276 Nigerian girls kidnapped from a boarding school in the night of April 14, 2014. 57 managed to escape that night. The girls were made to sleep on the ground, work for their captors, and given little to eat. They were urged to convert to Islam and then to marry their captors. The ones who refused to convert were made to work as slaves for the new wives.

I was a little ambivalent about how much Isha Sesay puts herself into the story. But it seems appropriate because part of the story is how little the Nigerian government did to recover the girls, who were from poor, rural families. There was even a strong movement asserting that it was all a hoax to make the government look bad. So the author’s work to bring international attention to the plight of the girls did help their recovery.

More than 100 of the girls have still not been recovered. But twenty-one were released on October 13, 2016, and eighty-two more in May 2017. The author worked with the released girls to find out their story, but she also gives the perspective of heartbroken parents who still have not recovered their daughters.

Even though the author is herself Muslim, the Christian faith of the schoolgirls shines through in these pages. It was their faith – especially of those who refused to convert – that helped them through the terrible times.

Boko Haram is against educating women, so it’s something of a triumph that most of the released girls are now attending university. But I do hope this book will help the world remember the plight of those who have still not been recovered.

This story is both inspiring and very sad. It’s terrible what the girls and their parents went through, and what many are still enduring. But those who came home tell an inspiring story of faith and perseverance during a frightening trial.

harpercollins.com

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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.

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