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, 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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criminal justice, personal

Criminal Injustice

A few years ago I got pulled over and received a ticket.

I became nervous when I noticed that the police car had started following me.  I tensed up and kept my hands on the wheel at ten and two.  I made sure I didn’t go over the posted limit.  I was in the van with my kids, heading to the mall so they could play indoors during the cold weather.  Soon after I turned onto the ramp for the expressway, the patrol car lights came on.  I muttered under my breath.  Immediately I pulled over to the shoulder and waited for the officer to tell me what I had done wrong.  It turned out my registration had expired.  The officer had noticed I didn’t have an updated sticker on my license plate.  We had moved a few months earlier, and I had neglected to inform the DMV of our new address.  Consequently, I didn’t receive a reminder to renew, and I didn’t remember all on my own.  Of course as luck would have it, my insurance card was also expired (though our insurance was paid up, I had also neglected to print out an updated card).

However, I wasn’t worried that our vehicle would be searched.  I wasn’t worried that the officer would presume I had drugs or a weapon, or even a criminal record.  I wasn’t worried about being arrested.  I wasn’t worried that our interaction would escalate.  I wasn’t worried about getting killed.

And while I was nervous during my interactions with the officer, it was only because of my personality.  I don’t like to get in trouble with authority figures (just ask my wife).  But I wasn’t nervous about my safety or my rights as a citizen.  I’m a white male, and those aren’t things I have to fear when interacting with the police.

I politely received my citation and that was that.  I continued on my way to the mall.

I’m not writing about this incident in order to talk about whether cops are good or bad.  That’s not the point.

Rather, my ability to take my safety for granted in an interaction with the police when racial minorities, especially African Americans, cannot is a symptom that something is wrong with our criminal justice system.  By now, the statistics may be familiar to you (And they are not under dispute.  A quick Google search led me to a NAACP fact sheet and a list of facts from Alex Jones’s InfoWars, hardly ideological companions, that agreed across the board on the situation).

  • The U.S. has 25% of the total prison population of the world, despite only having 5% of the total population. That means that the U.S. has more prisoners than either Russia or Cuba.  [Check out these graphics on Vice News that help put it into perspective]  Most individual states, including my own South Dakota, have higher incarceration rates than any other country in the world.
  • The U.S. prison population has quadrupled since 1980. The violent crime rate increased from the 1960s until its peak in 1991, but has decreased steadily since then.
  • The incarceration rate for African Americans is close to six times the rate for white people. African Americans and Hispanics constitute well more than half the prison population, even though they are only a quarter of the general population.

Recently I finished reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado and my eyes opened a little wider to the problems with how we in America treat criminals and dispense justice.  Originally I was planning on writing a long post synthesizing all of the things I had learned about the criminal justice system from these two books (and some other sources), but it’s too much.  Now I’m planning on breaking down my thoughts into more manageable chunks and writing separate posts on the many topics involved, such as the nature of punishment (including capital punishment), racial bias, felon disenfranchisement, manipulation of witnesses and memory, among others.  So consider this part one of a series of posts in the coming weeks, months, and years, concerning what I’m learning about criminal justice.

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