Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

24399756On a warm spring evening in South Los Angeles, a young man is shot and killed on a sidewalk minutes away from his home, one of the thousands of black Americans murdered that year. His assailant runs down the street, jumps into an SUV, and vanishes, hoping to join the scores of killers in American cities who are never arrested for their crimes.

But as soon as the case is assigned to Detective John Skaggs, the odds shift.

Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential, but mostly ignored, American murder—a “ghettoside” killing, one young black man slaying another—and a brilliant and driven cadre of detectives whose creed is to pursue justice for forgotten victims at all costs. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of why murder happens in our cities—and how the epidemic of killings might yet be stopped.

Review:

I’ve made the mistake of not writing this review right away so particulars have flown out of my brain, gah. Check out Doing Dewey’s review for a more proper look but let me give you my overall impression – wow.

Leovy’s writing is outstanding and is just as amazing on audiobook as I imagine it is on the page. She weaves background and context into the story of a single murder so that we understand not just what happened in one case, but in South Central LA over the course of decades.

The only thing that gives me pause is there is a whiff of white savior narrative going on, though Leovy does her best to squash the impression. And looking at Goodreads there isn’t a single person of color (as gleaned from avatars) in the top page of reviews, which makes me wonder what I’m missing. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is going on my TBR to make sure I get another perspective.

Even so, this book – part police procedural, part court drama, part whodunit – is narrative nonfiction at its best.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

25189315Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession.

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin’s engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).

Review:

This isn’t the book for everyone, but at the same time, the more you resist the more you should probably read it. (Passes given for the truly squeemish and triggered, of course.)

In this memoir-of-sorts Doughty explores her life-long fascination with death and what it means to have a “good” one. She relates what it’s actually like to work at a crematory, how bodies of all descriptions get to their final resting place, Western culture’s relationship with death and how it’s changed over the centuries, and more.

Doughty speaks honestly about things we’d never admit to being curious about (why don’t we see dead bodies at the hospital?) and things many of us never think about (what happens when a homeless person dies?). Working in medicine I’ve already given thought to my own “good death” but she pushed me a step farther – what would I like to happen <i>after</i> I die? What would donating my body to science entail? What kind of rituals or ceremonies would help my family cope?

I won’t lie, parts of the book made my eyes leak, a ‘wow that’s so beautiful/touching/wrenching’ that hits you (lovingly) in the solar plexus. This is stuff we should all be thinking about it and as the author argues, turning a blind eye to death makes for an unhealthy relationship with it.

A hearty recommend for anyone interested by the title, and even those who aren’t.

A Simple Story: The Last Malambo by Leila Guerriero

Translated by Frances Riddle

30347690Every year, at the height of summer, the remote Argentine village of Laborde holds the national malambo contest. Centuries-old, this shatteringly demanding traditional gaucho dance is governed by the most rigid rules. And this festival has one stipulation that makes it unique: the malambo is danced for up to five minutes. That may seem like nothing, but consider the world record for the hundred-meter dash is 9.58 seconds. The dance contest is an obsession for countless young men, who sacrifice their bodies and money as they strive to become the champion, knowing that if they win—in order to safeguard the title’s prestige—they can never compete again.

When Leila Guerriero traveled to Laborde, one dancer’s performance took her breath away, and she spent a year following him as he prepared for the next festival. The result is this superlative piece of journalism, told with tremendous economy and power.

Review:

The malambo is my favorite dance that I never knew about. It’s athletic, takes massive skill and commitment, and is just fun to watch.  I mean, look:

As Guerriero writes:

At three minutes, the malambo is a wall of sound, a jumble of boots, drum, and guitar that picks up speed at an asphyxiating rate.  At four minutes, his feet pound the stage with savage fury, the guitar, drum, and boots are a solid mass of blows, and at four minutes fifty seconds, the man lowers his head, raises one leg, and with colossal force, bashes it into the wood, his heart monstrously swollen, with the lucid yet frenzied expression of someone who’s just experienced a revelation.  After a few seconds of unnatural stillness, in which the public claps and shouts, the man, like someone emptying a gun into a dead body, dances off the stage with a short, furious storm of tapping, and every cell in his body seems to scream: This is what I’m made of.  I am capable of absolutely anything.

If that doesn’t make you want to watch through to the end I don’t know what will.

The yearly festival at Laborde is only known to other dancers and the title comes with a price – you can never dance the malambo in competition again.  Why do these dancers work so hard to end their career?

Guerriero examines Laborde from all sides – the dancers and their families, the practice and sacrifice required to be a contender, the place of the malambo in Argentinian society, and so much more.  The prose is powerful and comes through full force thanks to Riddle’s translation.  I purposefully limited myself to small doses so I could spread my enjoyment out as long as possible.

This book is a perfect case for non-fiction in translation: it opens our eyes to something we never knew existed that, like all things, relates back to us.  Check it out for the story, for the prose, for the dance, and for the experience.  My second five star read of the year – I heap my love upon it.

The Trouble with Reality: A Rumination on Moral Panic in Our Time by Brooke Gladstone

34525527Reality. It used to seem so simple—reality just was, like the weather. Why question it, let alone disagree about it? And then came the assault, an unending stream of “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and lies disguised as truths that is overwhelming our notions of reality. Now we can’t even agree on what a fact is, let alone what is real. How on earth did we get here?

Reality, as Gladstone shows us, was never what we thought it was—there is always a bubble, people are always subjective and prey to stereotypes. And that makes reality more vulnerable than we ever thought. Enter Donald J. Trump and his team of advisors. For them, as she writes, lying is the point. The more blatant the lie, the easier it is to hijack reality and assert power over the truth. Drawing on writers as diverse as Hannah Arendt, Walter Lippmann, and Jonathan Swift, she dissects this strategy straight out of the authoritarian playbook and shows how the Trump team mastered it.

And she offers hope—the inevitable reckoning history tells us we can count on—and a way to recover both our belief in reality and our sanity.

Review:

‘What is reality, anyway?’ seems like an impossible question but Gladstone has us covered.   The answer starts from a single core idea – that each of us has our own personal reality – and builds out bit by bit to explain how we got to where we are today.

I highlighted so many passages it’s slightly ridiculous.  Complex ideas are articulated clearly and memorably, and many have been rattling around my head as the news cycle spins on – how beliefs and conspiracies affect our realities.  How Huxley and Orwell’s dystopian fears translate to our times.  How demagogues get and lose their power.  How to avoid pitfalls in messaging and what we can do to affect change.  “Meaningful action is a time-tested treatment for moral panic,” she says, and we’re pointed in the right direction.

This is one of those reviews that’s hard to write not because of a lack of things to say but because I have trouble putting all the awesome into a few paragraphs. Let’s try this: if you’re looking for an insight into current times, if you want a timely read that will make you think and wonder and gasp in recognition, or if you’d like to plot where things go from here, The Trouble with Reality is a must read.  Much love.

Watching the English by Kate Fox

Synopsis:

288448In Watching the English anthropologist Kate Fox takes a revealing look at the quirks, habits and foibles of the English people. She puts the English national character under her anthropological microscope, and finds a strange and fascinating culture, governed by complex sets of unspoken rules and byzantine codes of behaviour. The rules of weather-speak. The ironic-gnome rule. The reflex apology rule. The paranoid-pantomime rule. Class indicators and class anxiety tests. The money-talk taboo and many more …Through a mixture of anthropological analysis and her own unorthodox experiments (using herself as a reluctant guinea-pig), Kate Fox discovers what these unwritten behaviour codes tell us about Englishness.

Review:

I’ve met a lot of Brits here in Japan so I thought I would learn what makes them tick. I feel empowered in a way – I now know how to order at a pub and properly “moan” about the weather.

But oh, the quibbles.

  • The book feels looooong. It’s not (only) due to the page count, but because Fox ends each chapter with a summary. I get that she’s doing the “tell him what you’re going to tell him, tell him, tell him what you told him” thing but it feels like blatant rehashing. The conclusion at the end of the book would have been enough.
  • “Liminal” seems to pop up twice a page. Ditto “dis-ease”. There isn’t any difference between unease and dis-ease, right? It was a cute visual joke the first time but grated after that.
  • Woah, there’s a lot here about class. It was interesting in short bursts but some sections never seem to end. Names were used as stand ins for lower and upper class teenagers – Darren and Chantelle, Jamie and Saskia – and for the life of me I could never remember which was which. To my American ear it’s two normal guy names and two uncommon girl names, so… yeah. I guess I fail that test.
  • If most of the class comparisons were between working and upper classes I may have been able to deal with it, but the fine differences between lower-middle, middle-middle, and upper-middle were a bit much for me.
  • Even though it took me a long time to get through the book repeated phrases and jokes kept jumping out at me. “The English have satire instead of revolutions” is great the first time, but by the fourth I’m rolling my eyes.

As much as I learned I’m glad to have this one behind me.

The Laws of Medicine by Siddhartha Mukherjee

25409816Over a decade ago, when Siddhartha Mukherjee was a young, exhausted, and isolated medical resident, he discovered a book that would forever change the way he understood the medical profession. The book, The Youngest Science, forced Dr. Mukherjee to ask himself an urgent, fundamental question: Is medicine a “science”? Sciences must have laws—statements of truth based on repeated experiments that describe some universal attribute of nature. But does medicine have laws like other sciences?

Dr. Mukherjee has spent his career pondering this question—a question that would ultimately produce some of most serious thinking he would do around the tenets of his discipline—culminating in The Laws of Medicine. In this important treatise, he investigates the most perplexing and illuminating cases of his career that ultimately led him to identify the three key principles that govern medicine.

Review:

I’ve been meaning to read Mukherjee for a while now, especially considering how highly regarded Emperor of all Maladies is. That tome is 571 pages, though, so I thought The Laws of Medicine would be a better introduction.

And straight off I can tell you that I like his writing and his style.  He neither dumbs down examples nor overexplains details.  I want to read more… especially because this book is so short.

Clocking in at under 100 pages, it introduces the three laws of medicine Mukherjee devised.  One is more aimed at research than clinical practice, and one is dead obvious to anyone who has studied medicine (even this lowly interpreter) but they’re still good points and worthy of the attention.

What hurts the most for me is that book could have been longer.  The idea of laws could be better explored, corollaries proposed and debated, and exceptions that prove the rule gone over.  As it stands the information is sufficient but not satisfying.

I listened to the audiobook and like the reader and the way it is produced.  Having the author read the introduction is always a nice touch.

While I liked The Laws of Medicine it didn’t affect me as much as What Doctors Feel and other medical non-fiction does.  But that’s okay – I’m viewing it as a tantalizing preview of Mukherjee’s longer, more in-depth work.  Onward!

I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi

29513537Luvvie Ajayi is a go-to source for smart takes on pop culture, and I’m Judging You is her debut book of humorous essays that dissects our cultural obsessions and calls out bad behavior in our increasingly digital, connected lives. It passes on lessons and side-eyes on life, social media, culture, and fame, from addressing those terrible friends we all have to serious discussions of race and media representation to what to do about your fool cousin sharing casket pictures from Grandma’s wake on Facebook.

With a lighthearted, razor sharp wit and a unique perspective, I’m Judging You is the handbook the world needs, doling out the hard truths and a road map for bringing some “act right” into our lives, social media, and popular culture. It is the Do-Better Manual.

Review:

Someone recommended that I read I’m Judging You as an audiobook and I’m really glad I did.  Ajayi, while not a trained narrator or actor, is engaging to listen to and provides a full experience.  The shade that comes through the speakers is real, y’all.

I enjoyed most of the book but found it highly uneven.  The sections on Life and Fame are okay, and the section covering Culture is excellent.  The chapter The Privilege Principle is my personal favorite and should be required listening for people everywhere.  Racism, rape culture, and homophobia are also covered.  The best part about this culture section is that even if you know what Ajayi is going to talk about the essays are engaging and fun.

The social media section, on the other hand, covers entry-level digital etiquette (one chapter: #Hashtag # I #Hate #Your #Hashtag #Abuse) and is boring and obvious to anyone born after 1982.  My listening slowed down at this point because yes, I get it, and no, it’s not funny listening about it.

The religion section struck me as a little contradictory.  Ajayi says that she doesn’t push faith or religion or anyone, then segues into how to be a good Christian two sentences later.  I’m agnostic so I found it annoying but (sadly) in line with my experience – people are usually understanding of other religions, but when you say you don’t have one it short circuits their brain.  Ah, well.

All in all I’m Judging You is a good read but I’m hoping that Ajayi comes out with another book that’s more solid beginning to end.

The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

Translated by Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush

32988669How do you clothe a book?

In this deeply personal reflection, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jhumpa Lahiri explores the art of the book jacket from the perspectives of both reader and writer. Probing the complex relationships between text and image, author and designer, and art and commerce, Lahiri delves into the role of the uniform; explains what book jackets and design have come to mean to her; and how, sometimes, “the covers become a part of me.”

Review:

While this book, an essay really, is only 80 pages long there isn’t much here here. Lahiri likes some of her covers and doesn’t like others. We learn that she has little say in what clothes her book… but that’s it. I think it would be compelling at a shorter length, maybe as an article in the New Yorker, but it doesn’t grab me here.

Lahiri would like it if more English-language books were dressed up in uniforms. I wanted to ask if she’s ever strolled down a genre aisle.  Harlequin Presents fits her ideal perfectly – similar look to the series, go together on a shelf, each different but part of a larger editorial whole. Or look at the first nine books of the Mercy Thompson series, where the head to knees three quarter pose of the heroine gives the line a unified feel. Avon designs a cover font for each author so the books hang together, as well as give them striking spines. Literary fiction may be letting her down but the rest of the book store has her covered and she doesn’t realize it. Sigh.

I was hoping to learn something or be enlightened but no dice.

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber

32815566Rate your pain on a scale of one to ten. What about on a scale of spicy to citrus? Is it more like a lava lamp or a mosaic? Pain, though a universal element of human experience, is dimly understood and sometimes barely managed. Sonya Huber moves away from a linear narrative to step through the doorway into pain itself, into that strange, unbounded reality. Although the essays are personal in nature, this collection is not a record of the author’s specific condition but an exploration that transcends pain’s airless and constraining world and focuses on its edges from wild and widely ranging angles.

Huber addresses the nature and experience of invisible disability, including the challenges of gender bias in our health care system, the search for effective treatment options, and the difficulty of articulating chronic pain. She makes pain a lens of inquiry and lyricism, finds its humor and complexity, describes its irascible character, and explores its temperature, taste, and even its beauty.

Review:

I knew from the opening lines of the first essay, Pain Bows in Greeting, that I would like this collection.

Pain wants you to put in earplugs because sounds are grating.  Pain has something urgent to tell you but forgets over and over again what it was.
Pain tells you to put your laptop in the refrigerator.
Pain runs into walls at forty-five-degree angels and ricochets back into the center of the room.

The essays range widely from the near poetry of the above to magazine-type explorations of what it means to live with pain.  Some spin out metaphors.

Pain twists me like the ends of a Halls cough drop wrapper.  A few cunning turns transform a flat square of wax paper into a neat home for a lozenge.  If I do not unroll pain, I carry it.

All are fascinating.  Huber tells us what it’s like to watch your body slowly decline, to mourn the healthy body you’ve left behind, to try and explain and quantify your pain in just the right way to doctors and specialists.  You’re frustrated in reducing your pain to a number on a ten point scale.  You underestimate it so you’re not labeled as a drug seeker.  When yet another person suggests that doing yoga would help, you read “the implication: if you tried harder, you could fix it.”

It’s a window into life with pain that I’m grateful to have.  As a medical interpreter I feel better armed to assist patients who are in chronic pain themselves.  I also feel like I have the tools to be a better human.  A theme that has come up in my reading this year is that when someone tells you their story, listen.  Believe them.  Huber gives you no other choice.

I like some essays more than others, but it’s still an easy recommend to anyone who works with or knows someone in chronic pain, or just wants a beautifully written peek into that world.

Thanks to University of Nebraska Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

29633797In a timely follow-up to her national bestseller Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit offers indispensable commentary on women who refuse to be silenced, misogynistic violence, the fragile masculinity of the literary canon, the gender binary, the recent history of rape jokes, and much more.

In characteristic style, Solnit mixes humor, keen analysis, and powerful insight in these essays.

Review:

I read Men Explain Things to Me a month ago and I’m happy I was able to follow up so quickly with The Mother of All Questions.  It’s a continuation of Solnit’s previous essay collection with a thankfully more inclusive lens.

The standout essay is A Short History of Silence, about how women are forbidden or prevented from speaking and not heard when they do.  It’s a truth we hold in our hearts but avoid looking at too closely because man, it hurts.

Being unable to tell your story is a living death and sometimes a literal one.  If no one listens when you say your ex-husband is trying to kill you, if no one believes you when you say you are in pain, if no one hears you when when you say ‘help’, if you don’t dare say ‘help’, if you have been trained not to bother people by saying ‘help’.

My heart aches because I know this.  I’ve seen it, not only with myself and women but other marginalized groups.  Others say the stories are ‘unbelievable’, which as Solnit points out, “means those with power did not want to know, to hear, to believe, did not want them to have voices.”  I’m happy to see that she recognizes the different and varied challenges faced by people of color, those who are LGBTQ*, and others who were often overlooked in Men Explain Things to Me.  Solnit also explores what this hyper-masculine culture means for guys, punishing them for showing “soft” feelings and effectively blunting their emotional range as humans.

Jaw dropping and rage inducing facts abound – rape is the most common form of trauma, but PTSD research is directed at male veterans.  “Fight or flight” was largely studied in male rats and humans and women often employ a third, until now unrecognized, option.  One reason the gun homicide rate hasn’t risen is not because fewer people are getting shot, but because medicine is getting better at saving those who are.  In fact more people are getting shot.  And on and on.

Luckily Solnit also points out things we can all do.  Tell your story if you can, and listen and believe those who are telling you theirs.  If someone lobs a sexist inquiry your way reply, “Would you ask a man that question?”  Do the intellectual work to not see groups (Muslims, women, poor people, etc.) as monolith entities, for that is the road to believing you can attack any member for the entire group’s perceived sins.

Overall The Mother of All Questions is more nuanced and inclusive than its predecessor while still packing an eye opening gut punch.  Necessary for the times we live in and a hearty recommend.

Thanks to Haymarket Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.