Monday, February 20, 2017

Bryan Stevenson: Just Mercy


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'Just Mercy' has been on my list for awhile. Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, which works for the end of unjust incarceration and for racial justice. He works tirelessly to get people off of death row, or to stay their executions, or to get their sentences to match their crimes- the disgusting penalties children receive are one of his projects.

What it is:  'Just Mercy' tells the story of Stevenson's career framed by the story Walter McMillian- a man sentenced to death for a crime he couldn't have committed. A white teenage girl was killed in a small Alabama town while McMillian, a well-known local black character, was at a fish-fry with much of the black community. The local law enforcement community hadn't been able to solve the crime, so they figured out how to pin the crime on McMillian, complete with a lying witness. The crime was considered so heinous that McMillian was housed on death row, even before the trial. The jury sentenced him to life in prison, and the judge overruled the sentence and sentenced him to death. It seems heinous because it is.

Why you should read it: This kind of miscarriage of justice is not unique to McMillian's case. Stevenson has dedicated his life to overturning this kind of injustice, especially in Alabama and the south. "In Alabama, even though 65 percent of all homicide victims were black, nearly 80 percent of the people on death row were there for crimes against victims who were white. Black defendant and white victim pairings increased the likelihood of a death sentence even more." As he writes, "Some victims are more protected and values than others." As Jill Levoy argued in Ghettoside, some victims don't matter to the system: their homicides are never investigated. On the other hand, some victims matter so much to the system that people are unfairly persecuted.

My "aha" moment: Jail is the solution to white people's complacency. I've been thinking a lot about white complacency lately. It's easy to look at Trump and neo-Nazis and conservative racism, but a lot harder to look at liberal racism. We benefit off of systemic racism just like everyone else. Stevenson describes Southern racism like this: "For a hundred years, any sign of black progress in the South could trigger a white reaction that would invariably invoke Confederate symbols and talk of resistance." Now we deal have mass incarceration of black men, women, children and the mentally ill. But it's okay, because crime.

Rating:  Buy it, or get it at the library then donate the cost of the book to EJI.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Carla Power: If the Oceans were Ink

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I admit to knowing not very much about Islam (bad religion major!). Carla Power has written an insightful book that not only educated me about Islam, but also allowed me to challenge my perceptions of how white Westerners think of Muslims among them. I've read plenty of books about the Middle East, Muslim countries, etc, but this book fits right in with the time-to-educate-yourself theme.

What it is: Carla Power was already a journalist on Islamic culture and politics but realized she wanted to know more about the Koran proper and the spirituality behind the religion. So she spent a year with an Islamic scholar, Mohammad Akram Nadwi- following him, reading the Koran with him, attending his lectures, etc. Nadwi has written biographies of thousands of women, which leads to fascinating discussions of women's roles in the religion.

Why you should read it: What you think you know about women in Islam, what you've been told about women in Islam, what you want to believe, etc., will really be shaken up by reading this book, and Power is right there with you thinking this through. She takes a no-nonsense, honest-with-herself approach, which is welcome.

My "aha" moment: Nadwi's feelings about hijab, which actually means barrier, or separation, are beautiful. The idea of covering oneself in simple, modest clothing (men included) before God, is lovely. It's not the misogynist "elbows are too sexy and distracting" of Orthodox Jews (my people), and something that gets totally lost in the discussions of who should be able (secular countries) or required (Muslim countries) to wear hijab or burka.

Rating: Library. I'll be honest, I didn't love the writing. But this book really made me think, and showed me a huge hole in my knowledge.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Jeff Chang: We Gon' Be Alright


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I read a lot of books. I recently heard Michael Eric Dyson speak about his new book, Tears We Cannot Stop, in which, among other things, he speaks about white ignorance. Whenever white people are afraid, he argues, they plead ignorance. Slavery? What slavery? The Civil War was about economics. It is our job to learn about, and intentionally overcome this ignorance. So I decided to start blogging the books I read again. Trump is terrible, but he didn't become the Great Pumpkin in a vacuum. He was elected by people who forget that they are part of a false racial binary, that they are where they are because America is built on a false idea of racial superiority. White America spends too much of its time intentionally ignoring the opportunities to humbly listen to what is going on around them to pay attention to the havoc the system causes to black and brown people. Instead we call on black and brown people to teach us, to explain to us what they mean by systemic racism, or why they are harmed by oppressive police tactics. That's messed up. So I'm going to share what I read, and maybe others can learn a little bit, or will be inspired to pick up some of these books themselves, or to have a dialogue. I'm gonna try out a new format to make this easy to digest.

 What it is: We Gon' Be Alright is a short (168 small pages) book of essays by Jeff Chang, prolific author. The essays are very current- Trump hadn't been inaugurated, but he was about to be president. There's an essay on Beyonce's Lemonade and #blacklives matter, with an emphasis on Ferguson
Why you should read it: The subtitle of Chang's book, "Notes on Race and Resegration," tells it all. You want to know why we are where we are? White flight or gentrification- what happens when black and brown people are forced to the suburbs, and what does it mean that the news writes stories about the tragic tale of no more kids in San Francisco? This is the book.
My "aha" moment: Diversity really is for white people. The first essay, "Is Diversity for White People?" was the most moving, in my opinion. Chang walks the reader through this history of the words and meanings of "diversity" and "affirmative action," and convincingly argues that diversity is not really for people of color at all, but for the benefit of white people. Admissions departments at universities, mayors of diverse cities (Oakland), etc., all use diversity as marketing tools to attract people. As Chang writes, "The appearance of diversity signaled excellence, and the appearance of excellence signaled diversity." What a joke: diversity has become a tool for white people to feel better about ourselves, not a true indicator that things are working.
Rating: Library, or read the essays online. If you buy it, pass it around! Easy to read for your not-that-into-reading friends.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Eight Years Ago

I quit the internet and stopped blogging, but I'm having feelings and writing has always been my way of expressing them.

Right now, thousands of people are out in the streets in Oakland, expressing their feelings about the Trump election and I'm reminded about Obama night 8 years ago. We were so happy- we danced in the streets. It was the most wonderful, safe, communal feeling- shared elation and pride in our country finally getting something right. A black president. A turning point. One of the most amazing moments of my life. I wished my grandma had been there to see it, but was so glad I was there.

Now people are in the streets of Oakland again- burning things, shouting things and generally expressing feelings of grief, terror, sorrow, anger. I don't want to go down there. I don't know what being there would do for me, but clearly it's cathartic for some. I feel lost and terrified: all of a sudden nuclear war seems real again- that existential threat of annihilation. Hatred has triumphed over inclusion. The wall is back.

I can't believe it's been eight years since we were dancing in the street, passing celebratory glasses around with strangers. I'm gonna tip a 40 to my memories, and keep drinking.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Ari Berman: Give us the Ballot, Michael D'Antonio: Mortal Sins

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Ari Berman has written a cheerful book about one of the most depressing topics in the last 100 years: the way voting rights have been steadily and intentionally eroded. I say cheerful because there's very little in the tone of the book that since reconstruction and the Voting Rights Act, white politicians have been steadily working to "Change the rules of the game to protect their own power." It's been a minute since I finished this book, so I can't review it thoroughly. I didn't really enjoy it, but I would say that it's an important book and probably worth reading.


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Michael d'Antonio's Mortal Sins is very readable and not quite as depressing as it could be, considering it's an overview of the abusive priests in the Catholic Church in the last 40-odd years. I think the saving grace is, instead of focusing on the victims (not to say that this isn't important), d'Antonio is looking at the bigger picture of who knew what, when, and who was digging for the truth. It's awful- they knew, forever.




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It always makes me sad when I can't read a book that I really wanted to read. The Dreadful Deceit was one of these books. I literally fell asleep after each page that I read. Not even worth writing more.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Yang Jisheng: Tombstone


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Between 1958 and 1962, tens of millions of people died in China because of Mao's Great Leap Forward. Not surprisingly, getting a real history and accounting of that time has been difficult. Yang Jisheng has written a monster of a book, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine 1958-1962, which documents in both factual/historical and anecdotal detail the depth of the disaster. The book, unfortunately, is too long and detailed (and was cut down from 1200 pages) for me to have finished. That said, it is clearly a much needed story of a manmade non-natural disaster, the scope of which is only beginning to be understood. As Jisheng writes,
The basic reason why tens of millions of people in China starved to death was totalitarianism. While totalitarianism does not inevitably result in disasters on such a massive scale, it facilitates the development of extremely flawed policies and impedes their correction. Even more important is that in this kind of system, the government monopolizes all production and life-sustaining resources, so that once a calamity occurs, ordinary people have no means of saving themselves.
While it is hard to imagine something on this scale happening again in post-Cold War society, it is not impossible to imagine a totalitarian government creating another such scenario. The lengths that China went to ignore and then cover up the problem makes it even worse. Jisheng's book is admirable, unwieldy and important.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Lawrence Osborne: The Forgiven

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My list of books that I wanted to read (now wisely kept on my phone so that I have it everywhere) had gotten very short. So I went online a couple of times and stocked it up, using everyone's favorite newspapers, a couple of blogs and Kirkus reviews. In those stock-up session, I even put a couple of pieces of fiction on my list. The Wallcreeper came first and now The Forgiven. I gotta say, for short breaks between my otherwise quite depressing and serious reads, this fiction stuff isn't so bad! Plus, it gives me something to talk about with people. When most people want to talk about books they should read, they're thinking fiction or at least a memoir or history, not the 500 page book I'm reading about China or the polemic on the border patrol. Even more, it gives me something in common with said people- when they bring up a book they've read, now I have a slim chance I might have read it, since it's fiction! (I'm going to start using this as an excuse for why I binge watch TV during the offseason, too- it's so I know how to talk to people!)

Anyway, The Forgiven is a nice piece of fiction. This British couple who doesn't really like each other go to Morocco to an extravagant party hosted by a gay couple who have bought a village, basically, and restored it in their own image. As the book flap says, so I'm not spoilering anything, on the way to the party, the drunk British husband runs over a young Moroccan man. The next three days, supposed to be festive, are of course altered by this event. How they're altered and what happens, is the meat of the book, and not predictable in the least- it's mesmerizing. The husband is an unlikeable oaf who, by the end, we understand, and the wife is a likable woman who, by the end, we're not sure how much we like. For 200 pages, there's a lot going on, and the end is amazing. (Also not a spoiler- it's on a blurb on the back of the book.) Highly recommended by at least two members of my family.