book reviews, comics, faith, literature, politics, psychology

Book Reviews, May 2016

In May I read two great books on serious questions about America today that I would recommend heartily, one on what it means to be gay and Christian in America, and the other on poverty and the crisis of affordable housing in this country.  There are two reviews for comic books, too, but only one of them is worth your time.

  • Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America by Jeff Chu is a fascinating series of snapshots of the American church and how it is currently dealing with LGBTQ issues.  Chu spends a year talking to Christians–some gay, some not–all over the country to find out about their experiences.  When I first heard about this book, I thought it was going to be mostly a memoir about Chu’s own life.  While he does give some autobiography, almost the whole book is given over to other people’s stories.  He talks to people with views and experiences all across the spectrum.  What I really appreciated is that Chu allows people to talk and give their opinions, really seeing them as individuals, even when he disagrees with them.  He would then tell his own thoughts, but it was clear who thought what.  He even managed to do this when talking to Fred Phelps, the late pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, in a tense conversation (the book was published in 2013, a year before Phelps’s death).  Chu also spends time with those who have lost faith because of the way the church treated them, and with people in ex-gay ministries like Exodus International, and with gay Christians trying to remain celibate, and with those who have reconciled their sexuality with their faith.  He talks to some who are well known like Ted Haggard, the disgraced pastor, Jennifer Knapp, the one-time star in Contemporary Christian Music, and Justin Lee, the founder of the Gay Christian Network.  But he mostly talks with everyday ordinary people who are trying to figure out their faith and sexuality.  A recurring element throughout the book is the ongoing story of a young man who is struggling to come out to his conservative family.  It all adds up to a very powerful book.  I think any Christian, no matter where they stand on the issue, would profit from hearing the stories of these individuals.

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  • Ocean/Orbiter: The Deluxe Edition, written by Warren Ellis with art by Chris Sprouse and Colleen Doran, is a collection of two stories about human space flight.  Though unrelated, both stories are science fiction about technologies beyond what we currently have.  In Ocean, a global research team attempts to figure out what is below the ice on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, before a technology corporation (a thinly veiled Microsoft stand in; their operating system is called Doors instead of Windows).  The answer threatens the fate of humanity.  The second story involves a space shuttle that disappeared for ten years and then suddenly returns to Earth modified by unknown forces.  Again, the answers to what happened to the shuttle affect the fate of humanity.  The concepts behind both stories are interesting to a point, but they were very idea focused and not invested nearly as much in character.  I don’t regret reading the book, but I don’t feel compelled to recommend it to anyone unless they’re craving mysterious space adventure light reading.

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  • The One Trick Rip-Off + Deep Cuts by Paul Pope is a grab bag of early formative comics by an extremely talented artist.  Pope’s art is full of action and expressive characters both heavily influenced by Japanese manga.  The art is not a rip-off, though, but a blend of styles that becomes something new and uniquely his.  The title story fits nicely in the crime genre, but with a bit of a supernatural twist.  Rival gangs such as the Paid-in-Spades and the Do Nothings compete in the city, but individuals in the One Tricks gang each have a special ability to control others with their speech (much like Kilgrave in Jessica Jones).  The protagonist of the story is Tubby, a member of the One Tricks, and his girlfriend Vim.  They plan a heist of their own gang’s stash so they can get out of the city, but naturally it all goes wrong as these things tend to do.  The other stories in the collection range from poems put into comics to a short story about an eating contest to a pair of wordless stories about chance encounters.  A particular standout is a short piece about a young woman waiting for her artist boyfriend to pick her up after work late at night.  He says he’ll be right there, but then gets caught up in his work again and arrives later than he said, leading to her having to fend off sexual violence from strangers while she waits and waits.  It does a good job of perspective taking since most everything else in the collection is about young males and their viewpoint.  Overall, it’s a good read for those who like crime fiction or good art.
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond is an essential book.  Please, please, read it (Read an excerpt here).  Desmond makes the convincing case that there is a serious lack of affordable housing that exacerbates, and is a root cause of, the hardships the poor face.  The book follows the lives of a small number of tenants in Milwaukee and their landlords through their evictions and searches for shelter.  We meet Arleen and her two boys Jori and Jafaris (all the names have been changed) who get evicted at Christmas time after spending money on a funeral for Arleen’s sister instead of rent.  We meet Scott, a nurse who lost his license after he suffered a back injury and got hooked on painkillers and can’t keep up with rent because of his addiction.  We meet Lamar, a man with no legs, who tried to make up for back rent by helping paint the upstairs apartment, all to no avail after the house burned down later.  Their stories are gripping and heartbreaking.  And we meet their landlords Tobin and Sherrena, the former the owner of a rundown trailer park and the latter an enterprising owner of many dilapidated yet lucrative properties in the city leading her to proclaim that “the ‘hood is good.”  For the most part, their stories are presented in a straightforward manner based on first hand observations and recordings Desmond took while spending time with the people.  Occasionally he would add a beautiful description that made it more novelistic: “[she would] sit on a windowsill and light a cigarette, its smoke coming alive in the breeze like a raging spirit that had only seconds to live” (289).  When appropriate during the narratives, Desmond explains aspects of the housing crisis in cities like Milwaukee, but he leaves most of the research, his own and others’, in the 60 pages of endnotes (which are worth reading, too).  For example, “For many landlords, it was cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain their properties” (75), and that over a period of two years, half of renters in Milwaukee “experienced a serious and lasting housing problem” (76).  Problems with housing ripple outwards, too, leading to health and psychological problems.  For instance, if the tenants at a property called 911 too frequently (3 times per month) the police could cite the landlord for a nuisance violation.  Landlords would likely evict renters who called 911 too much, thus leading to an incentive for renters not to call, which is of course a problem if there are genuine reasons like domestic abuse to get police involved.  Milwaukee recently changed the nuisance law to make an exception for abuse, but the incentives not to call remain for most situations.  So many poor people live in substandard housing in bad situations, but then they don’t even receive the help that they are entitled to because the programs are underfunded.  Sixty seven percent of poor people who rent received absolutely nothing from the federal government for housing assistance in 2013. It’s shameful.  At the end, Desmond offers two solutions that could begin to ameliorate the sad state of affairs in housing.  The first is to guarantee legal representation for those in eviction court, just like is done for criminal defendants.  Without a proper defense, most renters lose in court against their landlords, if they even show up to court at all.  But more fundamentally, housing should be a basic right for everyone.  One way to accomplish this would be to give everyone under a certain income a universal housing voucher that guarantees that no more than 30% of their income goes towards housing costs.  Such a program would not be cheap, but is certainly achievable if it were made a priority.  For example, the cost of the mortgage interest deduction to the federal government alone would be able to pay for the program.  For a country that calls itself a Christian nation, our priorities are certainly skewed.  If you have any interest in understanding poverty, please read this book.  It is uniformly excellent.  I can hardly recommend it enough.
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book reviews, comics, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, medicine, poetry, politics, science

Best Books I Read in 2015

I read a lot of great books in 2015, and I would recommend many of them to interested readers.  But I thought it might be helpful to narrow it down to a smaller list of titles for a year end wrap up.  So here are the five books I would most recommend to anyone, followed by ten more that were also great (and I feel bad leaving off books I liked by Anne Lamott, Patrick Hicks, Marilynne Robinson, and Brian Turner, among others—it was a good year of reading).  I’ve put them in the order that I read them with a brief quote from my original reviews (and a link to the review if you want to see more).  First, the top five.

Complications (Atul Gawande)

“a phenomenal book of medical stories and explorations of the human experience at a most vulnerable time.  The book’s greatest strength is its stories.”

The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander)

“a devastating critique of American society.  Alexander argues, persuasively I feel, that upon the end of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, instead of ushering in a time of equal opportunity, America erected a new racial caste system based on mass incarceration (via the War on Drugs) with devastating effect on African Americans.  Her argument is a complex one, requiring diving into history, law, and social science research.”

Get in Trouble (Kelly Link)

a book so good I reviewed it twice!

“It hit the right tone between reality and fantasy that got under my skin so I didn’t know what to believe.” (blog review)

“It’s this quality of the fantastic, when in the best hands like Link’s, that helps the reader to get out of the ordinary world and see something different, all while shedding light on some part of the ordinary that we often overlook. Plus, it’s fun.” (Rock &Sling review)

Hiroshima (John Hersey)

“And though this is a survival story, we see death everywhere.  It’s important to reckon with this, look at the death and destruction square in the face.  As an American, this is my legacy: America is the only country to have used atomic weapons.”

Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)

“a flat-out incredible book.  Through the stories of prisoners young and old, innocent and guilty, whom he has represented as an attorney through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson shows the many ways that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed and often leads to unjust outcomes.”

And the runners-up

Gulp (Mary Roach)

“the perfect bathroom book, and I mean that in the best way possible.  The book is fascinating and funny, and the subject matter is often fecal.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson)

“The book is satisfying but not overlong, and still I wished I could spend more time with these delightfully eccentric sisters.  I’d recommend this novel to anyone who likes a slightly twisted and dark story.”

God and the Gay Christian (Matthew Vines)

“Vines presents a well-organized and detailed argument that the church should affirm LGBT individuals and marriage between same sex partners that is monogamous and committed.  And it fulfills the promise of its subtitle: it is a biblical argument.”

Carver: A Life in Poems (Marilyn Nelson)

“In many ways, I thought it read better than a traditional biography would have.”

Searching for Sunday (Rachel Held Evans)

“a mix of memoir and a meditation on church.  The book is structured around the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage), which helps hold the fragmentary nature of the chapters together.”

Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)

“Coates’s writing is an inspiration for me.  He is a writer that I admire for many reasons: love of language, curiosity of self and the world, and deep humility.”

Neurotribes (Steve Silberman)

“a comprehensive and important history of autism […] it gives a multi-faceted perspective to an often misunderstood condition”

Davita’s Harp (Chaim Potok)

“another beautiful and moving novel by this author.  Like the others I’ve read, it’s a coming of age story about a young, smart, Jewish kid; unlike the others I’ve read, this one is about a girl, and that makes all the difference.”

Killing and Dying (Adrian Tomine)

“is an impressive short story collection in comics.  I would put it next to any collection of stories in prose out this year and be confident it would hold its own, it’s that good.”

March, Book One (John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell)

“This is one instance where I think the medium of comics is especially effective at conveying the power of the story while also helping the reader see the larger context.  The scenes of violence are particularly potent to help the reader see both the resistance the protesters faced and the way the strategy of nonviolence worked in the face of violent resistance.”

I hope 2016 brings at least as many good books my way!

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book reviews, comics, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, medicine, politics, psychology, science

Book Reviews, November 2015

November’s books are a varied lot, but they were all pretty great (with one notable exception–I’m looking at you, Luke Skywalker).  You might find something you like.

  • NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman is a comprehensive and important history of autism.  He details how two researchers, Hans Asperger in Austria and Leo Kanner in Baltimore, both discovered autism around the same time in the late 1930s, but came to radically different conclusions based on their observations.  Kanner viewed autism as a rare condition with a strict set of “fascinating peculiarities.”  Asperger, working under the shadow of the Third Reich, however saw it as “not at all rare” and as a continuum, but his work remained untranslated from the German for decades.  It wasn’t until Asperger’s views were rediscovered and disseminated in the 1980s by like-minded psychologists such as Lorna Wing and Uta Frith that views began to shift.  In the meantime, Kanner’s narrow view of autism meant that few got a diagnosis and the help that they needed, and of those that did, he proposed theories (popularized by Bruno Bettelheim) that parents were to blame, especially “refrigerator mothers.”  The continuum model, or spectrum as it is now called, finally took hold in the DSM-III-R of 1987.  One of Silberman’s chapters details the fascinating history of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as it relates to autism, and how with the inclusion of Asperger’s syndrome in DSM-IV in1994, the way was paved for many more individuals to get a diagnosis.  It is this new understanding of autism that has led to the “epidemic” of diagnoses in the last 20-30 years.  Autism has always been there, but now there is a label to attach to it.  Silberman slaps down the study by Andrew Wakefield that supposedly showed a link between vaccines and autism, showing how the study was seriously flawed in many respects and was later retracted by the journal that originally published it.  There were many other chapters that focused on different aspects of autism besides the clinical and diagnostic side.  One focused on the impact of the film Rain Man, which was a favorite of mine in high school (not sure how it holds up as it’s been a long time since I saw it).  Another detailed the connections between autism and ham radio and science fiction fandom.  Others chronicled how families cope with autism and how the autism community has begun to define itself.  Overall, it gives a multi-faceted perspective to an often misunderstood condition.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in autism.
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is a flat-out incredible book.  Through the stories of prisoners young and old, innocent and guilty, whom he has represented as an attorney through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson shows the many ways that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed and often leads to unjust outcomes.  The main narrative concerns Walter McMillian, a man wrongly sent to death row in Alabama for a murder he had nothing to do with.  The twists and turns in the case as they try to appeal his conviction against a hostile prosecutor and law enforcement officers and indifferent courts read like a John Grisham novel (Grisham himself gives the book a positive blurb).  I could barely put it down.  The structure of the book aided this quality: he interspersed the chapters on the McMillian case with chapters on other topics including juveniles tried as adults, mothers in prison, and the mentally ill, so the reader can’t stop.  The stories are forceful and worthy of indignation.  Ultimately, Stevenson has compiled a moral argument for criminal justice reform that is a perfect complement to books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Adam Benforado’s Unfair (both of which I reviewed in May and mentioned before).  He provides the emotional heart of the argument in the stories of the imprisoned that the others make in detailed analysis of case law or social science research.  What is the point of our criminal justice system anyway?  Stevenson points out how inhumane it has become as we have overseen the era of mass incarceration: “We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak—not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken” (290).  I can’t recommend this book enough.
  • When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson is an important book of essays dealing with big topics like democracy, human nature, and the difficulty of history.  It’s not nearly as daunting as that sounds, but it is a bit daunting.  First, she knows a lot about history and literature.  Second, she doesn’t write down to her audience.  It’s not that she is showing off, but she packs so much into her analyses and probing that it sometimes does take a moment to soak it all in. Robinson has a style that meanders in a pleasant way, touching on matters that don’t always appear at first to be on topic, but that she brings around to great effect.  There are many passages I marked because they were so powerful.  For example, when talking about the Homestead Act, she points out that “housekeeping is a regime of small kindnesses, which, taken together make the world salubrious, savory, and warm.  I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental” (93).  Or when discussing a number of books that attempt to debunk the Bible, especially the Old Testament for its violence, she proceeds to show how the Torah is heavily interested in the care of the poor, listing many laws that command making provision for those in need.  It’s a rich book, well worth the time and worth rereading.  I had the opportunity to meet Robinson once at a wine and cheese gathering before a reading.  She read from her then forthcoming novel Gilead, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.  At the time, I had only read one of her books, a different book of essays, but when I had a chance to shake her hand, I told her that I thought she wrote beautifully and that I planned on reading everything that she had written.  I’m still working on that project, and I’m the better for it.
  • My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner is a startling and poetic memoir of an Iraq War veteran.  The book is divided into short, numbered sections, and it’s not surprising that some of them read like brief poems since Turner has written two well received books of poetry before this memoir.  To give an idea of what I’m talking about here’s the closing paragraph of an early section where he describes his time in Bosnia, where he was also deployed:  “Fires burned in Mostar and Visegrad, Gradacac, Gorazde and Sarajevo.  Season by season, the dead sank deeper into the soil—each enduring the severe and exacting labor of leaves and rain and sun in their compression of mineral and stone, there within the worm-driven kingdom of hunger, phyla of the blind.” (32)A later section about a house raid in Iraq begins with “The soldiers enter the house” and repeats the phrase like a refrain over and over, each time with a different description of how they enter the house (e.g. “with shouting and curses and muzzle flash” or “with the flag of their nation sewn onto the sleeves of their uniforms”) (The entire section can be read at this link; I highly recommend taking a few minutes to read it; it’s worth your time).  I had the opportunity to hear Turner give a reading last month, and he chose this passage from the book.  It’s the centerpiece to the book, a moving description that humanizes the soldiers bursting into the home as well as the Iraqis who are disrupted and traumatized.  The fragmentary nature of the narrative allows Turner to play around with memory and time.  Memory often works likes this, brief glimpses of the past disconnected from what came before, a moment captured, but then sometimes intertwined with an image or a person or a feeling to some other moment, leading to another glimpse.  One of the themes of the book is the legacy that Turner feels as he tries to explain why he joined the Army.  He recounts the war experiences of many relatives, including his father and grandfather, and the bonds that are forged by that experience and how it never leaves a person.  In fact, another part of the book explores how anyone can come back from a war zone and try to re-integrate into civilian life.  He describes himself as two persons, one Sgt. Turner who, although dead, still watches the other, civilian Brian Turner, from the cameras of a drone.  It’s a remarkably potent image of the nature of identity integration and the trauma of war as it is carried out in the 21st century.  I began reading the book on Veteran’s Day because I felt that I need to grapple with the experiences of our soldiers and the costs of our country’s decisions to go to war, even when I didn’t agree with the reasons for going to war.  Those men and women went on my behalf whether I asked them to or not.  Turner’s story is only one soldier’s story, but it’s worth knowing when it’s told this well.  [Here’s a great interview with Turner as well]
  • Star Wars: Skywalker Strikes, written by Jason Aaron with artist John Cassaday, is essentially a placeholder comic, not really worth the time.  I was pretty disappointed at how predictable it all was: the first arc especially is simply another small band of heroes infiltrating an enemy base.  Set between the first two movies (Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back), it is very constrained in what it can do in terms of story and character development.  These first six issues of the comic feature only familiar characters from the movies (with one notable exception at the very end of the collection).  For what it is, a retread of familiar characters in familiar situations, it actually is well done.  Aaron has the voices of the characters down, and the art by Cassaday is top notch, reproducing the facial expressions of the actors with real skill.  But I expected much more from these two creators who have written or provided art for some of my favorite comics (e.g. Aaron’s writing on Scalped and Cassaday’s art for Planetary and Astonishing X-Men).  I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you absolutely cannot wait until the new Star Wars movies come out, and you can read it for free (like I did, from the library).
  • Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok is another beautiful and moving novel by this author.  Like the others I’ve read, it’s a coming of age story about a young, smart, Jewish kid; unlike the others I’ve read, this one is about a girl, and that makes all the difference.  Davita’s Harp is the only one of Potok’s novels with a female protagonist.  Davita herself tells the story of her childhood, growing up in New York City during the Great Depression.  Her mother is a Jewish immigrant, but not religiously observant, and her father is from New England privilege, but has renounced the wealth that he came from.  They are Communists (when that wasn’t quite as unfashionable as it would be today) with hopes and beliefs about making the world a better place.  Her father is a journalist who travels a lot to cover strikes and other important events, eventually traveling to Europe to cover the Spanish civil war in 1937.  Her mother is a social worker and very active in the party.  Davita never quite understands her parents and their beliefs, but she loves them dearly and respects their desire to make the world better.  She wants to understand how they changed so profoundly: her mother had been brought up in a Hasidic family (a very strict Jewish sect) but had lost her faith, and her father had renounced capitalism and his wealthy heritage because of some event in his past.  It’s all quite mysterious to Davita.  As she grows, she learns more about her parents and about her place in the world, both as a girl and the daughter of Communists.  There’s a lot of connections to the history of the period, to Jewish identity, and even to characters from other Potok novels, though it’s not necessary to read the other books to find pleasure in this one.  I enjoyed this one thoroughly, and I’m glad that it wasn’t another story about fathers and sons like so many of his others (though I liked those a lot, too).
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book reviews, comics, faith, history, literature, poetry, politics, science

Book Reviews, October 2015

I’m trying something new with October’s batch of book reviews.  The first review is twice as long as usual so that I could go into more depth on the important history of voting rights in America.  I think I’ll try doing this again when the subject warrants it.  As for the rest, it’s more poetry, science, and faith stuff, which is pretty typical for me.  [edit: I’ve added another review at the bottom of a scary comic book I read on Halloween but didn’t have time to review until a few days later]

  • Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Ari Berman is a vital look at the history of the Voting Rights Act from its passage in 1965 until today.  It traces the many challenges to the law, the Supreme Court decisions that defined how the law could be interpreted, and ultimately how the law has been rendered mostly toothless by the recent Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013.  It’s easy to think that when constitutional amendments or major legislative victories pass that they have solved the problems, but it’s not like those who were on the losing side of the argument suddenly give up at that point.  The 15th amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited all levels of government from denying the vote to any citizen based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”  But after Reconstruction ended in 1877, the south passed numerous Jim Crow laws that essentially denied the vote to African Americans through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, and the like.  For nearly one hundred years, the constitution was not enforced.  The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 with bipartisan support and signed by Lyndon B. Johnson after the dramatic march from Selma to Montgomery illustrated the extreme lengths that the state of Alabama was willing to go to deny the vote to blacks (the recent film Selma does a fantastic job showing the efforts of civil rights protesters).  But again, those who lost the battle of the VRA did not give up the war against minority voting.  For instance, say a city had 60% white people and 40% black people and had heretofore always elected a white city council by suppressing the black vote.  But now that blacks could register to vote because of the VRA, they had the opportunity to elect, say, two black city council members because two of these hypothetical districts were majority black.  In such a case, many cities switched from having district voting to citywide at-large voting so they could continue voting in an all white city council.  This type of effort to dilute or further suppress the black vote continued to happen in the southern counties covered by the VRA after it was passed.  Both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan courted southern states by promising to water down the VRA in what has been termed the southern strategy.  Reagan even went so far as to fill the Justice Department with lawyers who were not eager to enforce the VRA, including some who were outright hostile towards the law such as future Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.  Other methods of suppressing minority voting include voter roll purges (where voters are removed from the registration list in an effort to update the rolls, but often leads to errors where lawfully registered voters are removed for no good reason) and voter ID laws (promoted to prevent in person voter fraud, a problem that does not in fact exist, but which hurts minority, student, and elderly voters who may not have the required identifications).  In the 2000 election, the Florida recount made famous the confusing butterfly ballots and hanging chads that made it difficult to determine who received more votes in the presidential election.  What got less attention was the voter roll purge that took place before the election.  Florida purged the names of ex-felons (because by law in FL they did not have the right to vote), but they did so even if the names were a 70% match.  That means that even if voters had a different middle initial or suffix or even their race or sex data didn’t match, they might be purged.  The company that did the work for FL later went through the names again using stricter criteria and found 12,000 names that shouldn’t have been purged.  Some of those people definitely tried to vote but were not able to because when they showed up at the polls, they were turned away since they were no longer registered based on mistakenly being identified as a felon.  More recently, Indiana’s 2008 voter ID law was found constitutional despite zero instances of in person voter fraud in the state.  After the Shelby County decision in 2013, which struck down section 4 of the VRA, numerous states that had been under the VRA rushed to try and pass voter ID laws.  Section 4 of the VRA used a formula to stipulate which counties in the country would be subject to preclearance by the Justice Department of changes in election laws.  With no formula, the preclearance portion of Section 5 was rendered inert.  The Republican controlled Congress, despite overwhelmingly reauthorizing the VRA in 2006, has made no effort to rewrite the formula since the Shelby decision in 2013.  In general, Republicans do not come out looking great in this book based on their actions, with a few exceptions like Everett Dirksen, Bob Dole, and James Sensenbrenner, who respectively each played a role in passing the VRA and renewing it in 1982 and 2006.  However, I did not care for the few times Berman took cheap shots at Republicans based on irrelevant details or issues not involved in voting rights (e.g. mentioning that John Ashcroft spent taxpayer money to cover a statue of Lady Liberty at an event or insinuating that Hans von Spakovsky has a sinister sounding name).  It didn’t happen often, but it hurts his credibility in telling the vital history of voting rights in America.
  • The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements by Sam Kean is a fascinating tour through the elements.  True to its title, Kean’s book includes interesting stories and anecdotes for every entry on the periodic table, from the probable zinc mixed with King Midas’s bronze (itself an alloy of tin and copper) that made it a much shinier brass and perhaps mistaken for gold to the effects of lithium on the brain of a poet like Robert Lowell (e.g. resetting the circadian rhythm).  Kean goes out of his way to include humor and arcane tidbits as he tells his stories.  It’s partly a history of science, but it also touches on other historical events when an element plays a prominent role.  I never took a chemistry class in high school or college, so I feel a little behind in my scientific understanding, but this is the kind of book that goes down easy.  It’s science for the rest of us.  I found myself dipping into the book frequently, and having a hard time putting it down as each new story sounded alluring.  I’d recommend this grab bag of chemistry to anyone who finds science interesting.  My only (admittedly minor) complaint is that there isn’t really an overall theme or point to the book beyond being a delightful collection of diverse stories about or related to the elements.  The title of the book refers to gallium, a moldable metal that melts at 84 degrees, so that a teaspoon made of gallium would literally melt in a hot beverage as a nerdy prank.  Oh, science!
  • Transformations by Anne Sexton is an off-kilter poetry collection retelling familiar fairy tales. The stories from Grimm may be familiar, but the tone and the telling are decidedly fresh and exciting. Take the scene in “Cinderella,” where the sisters are trying on the slipper:The eldest went into a room to try the slipper on
    but her big toe got in the way so she simply
    sliced it off and put on the slipper.
    The prince rode away with her until the white dove
    told him to look at the blood pouring forth.
    That is the way with amputations.
    They don’t just heal up like a wish.
    The other sister cut off her heel
    but the blood told as blood will.
    The prince was getting tired.
    He began to feel like a shoe salesman.
    But he gave it one last try.
    This time Cinderella fit into the shoe
    like a love letter into its envelope.But it’s not long before the lovely image of the letter and envelope are undercut by Cinderella and the prince living happily ever after “like two dolls in a museum case” with “their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.” (read the whole poem here)  Many other tales such as “Rapunzel,” “Snow White,” and “The Frog Prince” get the same sardonic treatment. I especially enjoyed some of the tales that I wasn’t already familiar with like “One-eye, Two-eyes, Three-eyes.” It’s a deeply weird meditation on parenthood and disability in which three sisters each have a different number of eyes. The odd-eyed sisters are favored by their mother, and the normal two-eyed girl is an outcast. Of course, in the usual manner, that means she will come out on top through magic and the love of a knight. But Sexton frames the tale with the deeply conflicted thoughts of parents dealing with children with disabilities. Parents can see their child as a gift from God, a cosmic mistake, a cause for martyrdom, or a millstone around the neck. The tale ends with Two-Eyes taking in her sisters out of pity and because they are like magic talismans. She can’t help but have them. It’s a poem that I’ll be returning to again and again out of sheer fascination. I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes fairy tales.
  • The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus by Robin Meyers is a provocative look at church.  The main problem with the church, as Meyers sees it, is that it has been co-opted by Empire (first the Roman Empire under Constantine, today the American church by the government and/or political parties).  He outlines ways in which the church should disentangle from Empire and get back to its roots as a countercultural force.  Meyers envisions followers of Jesus from all denominations and theological beliefs coming together to live the faith that we profess.  To him, faith is not a list of beliefs, but radically embodied trust, or “an orientation toward the mystery of God [… b]ecause we trust in spite of what we cannot know” (118).  Another key element for Meyers is that the Underground Church he envisions is nonviolent: we are called to peace and to love our enemies.  It’s something that has been lost from many Christian traditions outside of the Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish (and perhaps a few others).  He has lots of other ideas about how the church can be true to its roots: by making communion an actual meal that is shared with not only the congregation but also with any who may be hungry and in need, by budgeting as much money for outreach as for keeping the lights on and staff paid, by standing up against injustice wherever it may be, and by taking care of God’s creation and not exploiting it out of greed and selfishness, among many others.  I felt convicted by some of his exhortations.  I really liked his sense of shared mission in living out unconditional love no matter what church background.  For myself, I’ve found a home in the Episcopal church.  But just recently my mom was telling me about the wonderful after school program for inner city kids that her evangelical church (the one I grew up in) has been running for close to 15 years.  We may not see eye to eye on every bit of theology, but she and her church are showing the love of God to those kids.  My only complaint about the book is that I wanted Meyers to provide more depth to some of his historical analyses.  I appreciated what he did say about the early church and the time of Constantine, but I wanted more.  I thought the idea of church being co-opted by Empire important so I wanted even more analysis.  His book read more like extended sermons, though, which makes sense since he is a pastor.  He comes from the United Church of Christ, so though he wants to find common ground with Christians of all stripes, it might be harder for those who are more conservative to overlook some of his more liberal statements.  But I think it’s worth the effort in trying to find common ground with other Christians if we truly want to love God and our neighbors. [Disclosure: I received the book from the Carol Mann Agency via a Goodreads giveaway in the hopes that I would give it an honest review.]
  • Wytches Volume 1, written by Scott Snyder and penciled by Jock, is a pretty terrifying horror comic book.  Primarily, it’s the story of a family who has moved to a small town in New England in an attempt to start over.  The mother is still recovering from an accident that confines her to a wheelchair, the father needs time and space to work, and their daughter Sailor is trying to start over after a terrible confrontation with a bully in her old town.  But the past cannot be outrun.  And there is something evil in the woods, something old that preys on human greed and selfishness.  These aren’t the witches of Oz or Macbeth, but something more primal and awful.  But it’s not just a story of confronting evil, but a story of confronting limits, the limits of a parent in protecting a child, or the limits of a teenager’s control of anxiety.  The story is well paced, divided as it is in six parts (originally it was published in single issue comic books, each with an effective cliffhanger).  It was hard to put down.  Also, I was glad I read it during the day so I didn’t have to think about the scary parts in the dark.  The artwork by Jock has two modes: during daylight it is fairly realistic, but when it is dark or there are supernatural elements, the artwork becomes more jagged and exaggerated, like it is more about the sensation of the characters or setting rather than their literal presentation.  The art is a perfect match for Snyder’s story.  The book also contains some extra material at the end that allows the reader to see some of the process of the artwork from penciling to the finished product.  From this material it becomes clear that the colorist Matt Hollingsworth is also a vital member of the team to make this story work.  Though Wytches is an ongoing work, this first volume can be read as a standalone story with a clear climax and ending to this part of the story.  Having said that, I’ll be eager to find out where it goes next.  I’d recommend this to anyone who likes scary stories.

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book reviews, history, literature, poetry, politics

Book Reviews, September 2015

My September book reviews include the latest from a recently announced MacArthur “genius” award winner, a memoir by a very funny woman, a rollicking sword & sorcery adventure, and a powerful book of poems

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a necessary book.  Written as a letter to his son, it addresses the issues of race and the American Dream. There are important themes and concepts that occur throughout the book, some of which are a culmination of his writing for the past few years.  It seems like a reader who is not familiar with the questions he’s been asking, who enters the book with no prior knowledge might be at a disadvantage (like a kid reading Marvel’s Secret Wars back in the day).  But maybe getting lost in the concepts could be good.  Sink or swim.  I know there have been plenty of books where I didn’t know the first thing that I figured out along the way.  In this case, it’s important to understand the idea of race as a social construct (i.e. racial categories only have meaning because we as a society have given them meaning).  Over and over again, Coates refers to “people who believe they are white” (a paraphrase of James Baldwin).  It’s a belief, not something innate to who we are.  It’s easy to see how mutable the categories are, how they change over time and from place to place.  Another theme is “the Dream,” an unreal fantasy of a perfect life in the suburbs, safe from all harm.  It’s a dream that is built on lies and false consciousness, turning a blind eye to history.  Coates implores his son: “I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world” (108).  I took this to be the overall message of the book, too.  To live in the Dream is to deny that housing discrimination has damaged black people, to accept that the criminal justice system is applied fairly in this country, and to believe that poverty is always the fault of the poor.  In short, it is to look at the world uncritically with no sense of history.  Coates tells his own story to his son of how he grew up on the streets of Baltimore and then attended Howard University.  He left college before finishing a degree, noting that he “was made for the library, not the classroom” (48).  He was and is a voracious learner.  I’ve been reading his blog at The Atlantic for years now as he has wrestled with ideas, culminating in recent articles on housing and incarceration, and this moving book.  I mentioned way back in the introduction to this blog that Coates’s writing is an inspiration for me.  He is a writer that I admire for many reasons: love of language, curiosity of self and the world, and deep humility.  He always makes me think.  I highly recommend his book and his other writing.
  • Yes Please by Amy Poehler is a funny memoir, full of funny stories and observations about her beginnings in improv comedy, her friendships with Tina Fey and Seth Meyers, bad jobs, bad drugs, parenting and family, technology, and life in show business.  Any fan of Poehler will find a lot to like and laugh about/with.  I liked the funny bits, but I think I liked some of the more serious parts best.  At the beginning she talks about how hard it was to write a book.  I started to write out a quote about writing, but then I took a picture with my phone of the paragraph because it was easier (despite my often writing longhand, with pen and a legal pad).  The gist of it is that writing is hard work.  Using a shortcut to writing out the quote also fits with the last chapter of the book where she talks about how phones (as a stand-in for all technology) will kill us all.  It’s a funny bit on dystopian Skynet handwringing, but it’s true how technology can take us out of the moment and put barriers between people even as it is supposedly connecting us via social networks.  I also liked her story of apologizing for an SNL sketch that crossed the line (it had made fun of a young woman with cerebral palsy).  In retelling the incident, she reveals her pride and anger when she tries to justify herself (she didn’t write it, she didn’t know beforehand that it was about a real person, etc.), but also her willingness to make things right years after the fact by apologizing.  It’s a very hopeful and real story.  Unfortunately, I didn’t care as much for her story of her Haiti trip to visit orphanages after the earthquake.  She doesn’t say anything wrong, but it still made me uneasy.  She was in the aftermath of her own divorce, and despite her goodwill and intentions, the story feels self-indulgent.  It’s about her and how it affected her, but maybe there’s no escaping that.  Maybe that’s the only window we can use sometimes to see the tragedies outside our narrow view.
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed is a tremendously fun fantasy novel set in a world like that of the Arabian Nights.  It’s a world with sword-wielding dervishes, an evil manjackal, a portly ghul-hunter, and a Robin Hood type fomenting revolution in the capital city.  It might sound a little hokey, and it might be if you don’t care for sword and sorcery fiction, but the plot is tight and the characters interesting (if rather flat, given the nature of the story).  The narration takes turns examining the points of view of the various main characters, and they have reasonably interesting if predictable back stories: the ghul-hunter is the world weary ready to retire type, and his sidekick the dervish is young and a bit of a religious zealot.  They’re soon joined by a shape-shifting young woman (she can take the form of a lion) from one of the nomadic tribes outside of the capital city.  Later they are aided by a foreign born magus and alkhemist  husband and wife duo.  The motley crew is trying to figure out a new evil the likes of which the ghul-hunter has never seen before, all while negotiating the politics of a religious city-state.  I liked that the religious aspects weren’t just an add-on to the culture that had been created.  The characters clearly had real religious beliefs and quoted scriptures to each other, though they each had a different take on God and belief.  Overall, it was a very fun and quick (only 273 pages!) fantasy novel in a genre that can often take many huge volumes to tell a story.  It does say on the inside jacket that it is Book One of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, but the story has a clear ending at the end of the book.  I can easily imagine Ahmed setting more future stories in the exciting world he has built.
  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is a searing and thought provoking, although sometimes frustrating, book of poems, largely about life in America as a person of color.  The first thing I noticed is that these are prose poems, often one paragraph of text on a page, each a little scene.  I haven’t read many prose poems before, but it worked for much of the book.  The second thing I noticed is that the poems are written in the second person, addressing the reader as “you,” which has the effect of drawing the reader in and making it a conversation with the speaker.  It places the reader into the situation.  The brief scenes or situations are little moments that communicate negative messages against the speaker or the person addressed (the reader, or “you”).  These are commonly referred to as microaggressions.  They might be entirely unintentional, but the snub or insult can still hurt.  A few examples include accidentally being called the name of someone’s housekeeper or having a little girl not want to sit by you on an airplane.  It’s not necessarily any one incident that does all the damage, it’s that they happen with regularity.  If it were a onetime occurrence, you could shrug it off.  But it wears a person down.  There’s a whole section of the book that deals with the many racist incidents Serena Williams has had to deal with over the course of her career in tennis.  The speaker is amazed that she holds back anger as well as she does.  The first half of the book is strong, but I was frustrated by much of the second half.  Many of the sections in the second half deal with recent events such as Hurricane Katrina, Trayvon Martin, and the Jena Six in a somewhat oblique manner.  My frustration is probably my fault as a reader because I don’t know the history of some of these events well enough to understand her poems.  I’m reminded of how little I understood T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land the first time (probably more like first dozen times) I read it, but that my understanding grew the more I grappled with it and its allusions.  I feel like the same would happen with the later sections of Citizen, but they haven’t happened for me yet.
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book reviews, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, politics, psychology, science

Book Reviews, May 2015

The May installment of mini book reviews has the two books I referenced in my last post about criminal justice, as well as two very different novels set during World War II, and another book on creation and evolution because I can’t stop reading about the topic.

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander is a devastating critique of American society.  Alexander argues, persuasively I feel, that upon the end of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, instead of ushering in a time of equal opportunity, America erected a new racial caste system based on mass incarceration (via the War on Drugs) with devastating effect on African Americans.  Her argument is a complex one, requiring diving into history, law, and social science research.  It started with calls for a return to “law and order” during the tumultuous 1960s, then with Nixon calling for a “war on drugs” that didn’t really come to fruition until Reagan’s administration.  Reagan truly initiated the Drug War early in his time in office by dramatically increasing anti-drug budgets.  Interestingly, at the time he called for a War on Drugs in October of 1982, only 2% of the country thought drugs were the most important issue facing the country.  Things didn’t get better under Clinton in the 1990s.  He enacted many “tough on crime” policies such as 3-strike life sentences for certain crimes.  His administration cut public housing at the same time it was increasing money for corrections.  In Alexander’s telling, no one is blameless for the current predicament of mass incarceration.  After detailing the history, Alexander shows how police have virtually no legal restraints in carrying out the drug war.  Because there are few, if any constraints, the seemingly race neutral drug war ends up targeting and incarcerating people of color disproportionately, especially in light of the fact that whites and people of color use drugs at similar rates.  Even after someone has served a sentence for a drug crime, the system isn’t done with them yet.  Policies that control ex-prisoners make it difficult to truly re-integrate into society, often leading to second class status or, even worse, recidivism.  In order to end mass incarceration as a caste system, it is not enough to point out that drug use is a public health problem and not a criminal one.  Alexander argues that the racial component of mass incarceration has to be confronted head on.  If it is not, then even if mass incarceration is ended, another racialized caste system will emerge just as Jim Crow followed slavery, and mass incarceration followed Jim Crow.  I would highly recommend this book.
  • Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado is a critical examination of the American criminal justice system.  And it is vitally important that we look at it.  Benforado details the many, many ways that the criminal justice system does not, in fact, deliver justice.  The structure of the book, from investigation to adjudication to punishment, allows him to show how things can go wrong each step of the way.  Along the way he points out the relevant social science research that helps to explain how these mistakes can be made.  For instance, some innocent people confess to crimes that they didn’t commit in order to make a grueling interrogation stop.  Or they might take a plea deal if they’re led to believe that a trial will not show their innocence.  Astoundingly, over 90 percent of those charged with a crime and offered a plea take it without a trial.  During a trial, it can be hard to determine guilt or innocence when prosecutors withhold evidence or a jury inaccurately rates a witness trustworthy or not.  Or take an eyewitness’s evidence: people’s memories can be notoriously unreliable when looking at a lineup or recalling the circumstances of a crime.  Memories can be easily corrupted or altered or even fabricated without the eyewitness realizing he or she is doing it.  And the impartial judge who oversees the proceedings of a trial may not be as objective as we would like to believe.  Of course everyone has biases, but it’s amazing how something like the time of day can affect someone.  In studies, judges are more lenient earlier in the day, but they are much harsher before lunch or at the end of the day.  How is that fair?  When it comes to punishment, Benforado puts forth the scientific evidence that “it is a desire for retribution—not deterrence or incapacitation—that has the strongest influence” (191).  This type of punishment leads to mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes laws, life without parole, and the death penalty, which don’t work to actually deter crime.  Once in prison, it’s hard not to become “institutionalized” or broken as a person (whether by solitary confinement or the threat of rape and violence), so it’s not surprising that so many prisoners cannot re-integrate into society after serving time.  Benforado offers a smattering of possible reforms big and small that could get us closer to true justice.  One of the best suggestions, I thought, was the virtual courtroom.  It would remove obvious problems like being “swayed by the attractiveness of a witness” (266) or thinking a nervous witness is lying when they are merely nervous at speaking in public (we are not good at detecting whether people are lying or not, though we think we are).  My only real complaint with the book is that it sometimes reads too easily.  Benforado presents historical cases or the social science research so smoothly and convincingly (similarly to Malcolm Gladwell) that I was almost entertained by the story he was telling or the research findings he was presenting, when I really should be outraged.  It’s not that I wasn’t ultimately outraged, but maybe the pill should stick in the throat more rather than go down so easily. Despite that slight, and possibly idiosyncratic, complaint, I would highly recommend this book to everyone.  [Disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof from the publisher via a goodreads.com giveaway in the hopes that I would give an honest review of the book.]
  • The Commandant of Lubizec: A Novel of the Holocaust and Operation Reinhard by Patrick Hicks is a novel of witness and remembrance.  It’s an unflinching account of the horrors of a Nazi extermination camp told in a documentary style.  I’ll admit that I mistakenly thought it was going to be told more from the point of view of the title character (though the back cover and the blurbs are quite clear about the documentary nature of the story).  A story told from the POV of the Commandant would have been contrary to the spirit of the novel.  Rather, the narrator refers repeatedly to the absences and the missing, to the thousands killed on a daily basis, about which “traditional modes of storytelling fail us” because “the darkness itself is the story.”  It’s powerful.  And haunting.  The fictional camp of Lubizec is modeled on real camps like Treblinka.  In high school I read Jean-Francois Steiner’s account of Treblinka and the revolt by the prisoners there.  Something similar happens in this novel, but the narrator reminds us that this is not an adventure story, it is rebellion against the killings.  And though this is not a character study of the Commandant, it does in its own way try to humanize him by detailing his family life outside of the camp.  He is truly a bifurcated individual, a loving father at home and a cold, unfeeling engineer of murder at the camp.  His two selves seem impossible to reconcile.  Near the end of the novel, he even refers to himself in the third person when trying to explain his actions during the war.  I would highly recommend this book to everyone wanting to understand the Holocaust better.  [Disclosure: I am acquaintances with Patrick Hicks; he teaches literature and writing at the same college where my wife teaches.]
  • City of Thieves by David Benioff is a marvelous adventure story set during World War II during the siege of Leningrad.  The narrator, Lev Beniov (in the conceit of the novel this is the author’s grandfather telling him the story), along with Kolya, a deserter from the Army, must find a dozen eggs for an important Colonel, so that his daughter can have a wedding cake.  The city is surrounded by the German army, and the people are starving during the winter months.  It simultaneously has the quality of a fairy tale where the heroes have to accomplish an impossible task while also being a coming of age story for the 17 year old narrator.  During their search, the two young men encounter the many brutalities of the war, but there is also a lot of humor in the story, especially the way Lev and Kolya interact.  Kolya treats Lev like a younger brother whom he can teach about the ways of the world and women.  Like any quest narrative, it hits the right notes with twists and obstacles to keep our heroes from their objective, while also subverting some of our expectations along the way.  It was a very satisfying read.  As it was primarily a guy book, I would recommend it as that, though noting that anyone could enjoy it.
  • Evolution from Creation to New Creation: Conflict, Conversation, and Convergence by Ted Peters and Martinez Hewlett is a useful book on the topic of theistic evolution.  The two authors (one a theologian, the other a scientist) offer a helpful guide to the landscape of Christian approaches to origins.  They critique the young earth creationist and the intelligent design positions, but in the most fair and serious way I’ve ever seen.  They treat those who hold those positions with the utmost respect as fellow Christians (it’s a marked contrast to books I’ve read by Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller).  Curiously, they don’t spend any time with old earth/progressive creationists.  The best part of the book is where they detail the spectrum of beliefs in the theistic evolution camp.  They analyze various thinkers in five areas: (1) deep time, (2) natural selection, (3) common descent, (4) divine action, and (5) theodicy (i.e. an attempt to answer why a good God would allow evil and suffering).  Afterwards, they present their own model that avoids some of the pitfalls they see in the other positions.  For example, most of the other thinkers used some version of the free will defense to answer how God could allow evil.  The problem they see with a free will defense is that it requires God to relinquish interacting with creation, which then makes evolutionary processes random and purposeless.  Most theists would like to avoid that conclusion.  Their approach is novel, by contrast, but it too is rather unsatisfying.  They view creation as both an initial point in time (creatio ex nihilo) as well as an ongoing process (creatio continua) that is not yet complete until it can be redeemed as a “new creation.”  In their reading, the “very good” declaration of Genesis is from the standpoint of the new creation, looking back on the whole history of creation (seems like a stretch).  They admit that they, like Job, don’t know why suffering and death are part of the creation at this time.  So, it’s still a mystery.  Regardless, the book is a handy reference for the various positions within theistic evolution.  I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the debate on creation and evolution.
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personal, politics

The Needle and the Damage Done

There’s an exchange in Saga, the sci-fi comic by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples (you should read it!), where two characters debate the role of drugs and the merits of their art.  Alana is a new actress in the Circuit, an underground theater troupe whose performances are broadcast to the universe, and Yuma is the set designer and a veteran of the troupe.  The soap opera plots of the Circuit performances are hokey, but Alana has always wanted to be a star in the Circuit.  Yuma is more cynical about their role in the universe, a universe where most inhabited planets are stuck in a protracted war with one another.

Yuma: It’s true, the Circuit has only ever existed to pacify an angry and hopeless population.

Alana: Maybe shitty shows like ours, but what about actual good ones?  I got into “Filament City” when I was young, changed the way I think about poverty.

Yuma: And what did you do?  Join a nonprofit organization?  Volunteer at a soup kitchen?  Or did you lock yourself in a tiny room, shut the blinds and mainline every transmission like a junkie?  Some art might have the power to change people, but the Circuit can only ever change the way we feel, and never for very long.

Alana: Yuma, if you really think this business is just narcotizing our audience, why are you still working here?

Yuma: Because I adore drugs.

Science fiction, though set in a galaxy far, far away in some distant age in the future or past, often functions as a critique of the here and now.  These words by the two women seem pointed to our own TV entertainments.  I know I’ve binge-watched shows on DVD or Netflix “like a junkie.”  But it’s the comment about the show “Filament City” that really gets me.  HBO’s The Wire seems analogous with the fictional “Filament City.”  However, The Wire is actually good (as opposed to the Circuit productions) and socially conscious.  And it helped me change my mind on how I think about poverty and especially the Drug War, as I’m sure it has for many other viewers.

I’ve never used illegal drugs.  It’s not that I have incredible self control and just say no; I’ve never even been offered drugs.  I’ve never sought them out, either, though.  So I don’t have a lot of experience with drug users.  But I suppose I thought, when I thought about it at all, that drug users deserved their jail time because they knowingly broke the law.  I tend to be a rule follower, so it was easy to sit in judgment over those who have broken the rules.  I didn’t really think about the fact that drug users need help with their addictions.  It’s not something that a person can usually do by themselves.

So The Wire helped me change my mind on drugs by showing me lives ruined by drugs and the drug trade, from users to dealers to cops to innocent bystanders.  Yuma, in the quote above, seems to think that any sort of change, if it’s real change, would require getting involved in some way, either by volunteering to help drug addicts or becoming an activist.  And sure, those would be great things to do, but they are not things I can undertake at this time.  Does that mean that my mind hasn’t really changed if I don’t become an activist?  I don’t think so.  I think there are other ways to express my change of thinking.  For me, watching The Wire is a catalyst, leading me to want to know more about the criminal justice system (I’m really interested in reading The New Jim Crow) and the lives of those in poverty affected by drugs (I’m also eager to read Random Family).  Now I want to support political candidates who are for changing sentencing guidelines for drug offenders or other prison reforms.  Educating myself and voting behavior are not meaningless changes.

One question that bothers me is why do we lock up drug offenders instead of offering them treatment?  Why is drug addiction considered a criminal matter rather than a health issue?  I recently finished a delightful non-canonical Sherlock Holmes story called The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, where Watson helps Holmes kick his cocaine habit.  Sherlock’s cocaine use was mentioned in the original stories, but in this tale, his addiction has gotten out of control.  He is delusional, and the drug is killing him.  As his best friend, Watson naturally cares for him and wants him to be free of the drug.  He hatches a plan to help Sherlock break his addiction.  Throughout the story we empathize with Sherlock, wanting to understand his addiction and eager to see him helped.  But this is not how we treat most drug users in America.

In America, we lock them up.  Nearly half of all inmates in federal prisons are there on drug charges (48.7%, or 97,252 as of Nov. 29, 2014).  Many of the state and local inmates are also there for drug charges.  I could not find exact figures for non-federal inmates, so I looked up the stats for South Dakota, the state where I live.  Twenty three percent of inmates in SD are there on drug charges, and more than half of that 23% were guilty of possession (pdf).  Possession charges make no distinction between personal use and intent to distribute or sell the drug; it merely means the person has illegal drugs.  The total prison population (federal, state, and local) is over 2 million inmates, but it hasn’t always been so large.  Starting in the mid-1970s the prison population has grown more than four-fold.  It used to be less than 500,000 before the Drug War started.

And what has the Drug War accomplished besides filling our prisons to capacity?  The price of drugs has gone down, not up, over time.  The purity of the drugs has also increased over time.  These are evidences that drugs are more available than ever, despite the efforts of the War on Drugs.  There is also the human toll.  The Drug War disproportionately targets black people more than white people.  Whites use drugs at least as much as if not more than blacks over the course of their lifetime, but blacks make up a larger percentage of prison inmates on drug charges.  Black people are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, though their rate of marijuana usage is practically the same as for white people.

I don’t claim to know what to do for those who use drugs.  But incarcerating them for the last 40 years doesn’t seem like the solution.  The War on Drugs is a war on people who need help.  And it’s a war that isn’t working.  Some of you already know this, but it took the art of The Wire and a further adventure of Sherlock Holmes to help me see it, too.

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