Review: In My Father’s House

I’m back, guys. I’ve been busy. Dissertation, fellowship applications, conferences. Le sigh.

But anyway, let’s celebrate. It’s November, lovelies! The days are short, there’s a crisp in the air. I’m going to try something a little different here,  in observance of #NonfictionNovember I am going to attempt to review only nonfiction books this month. I’ve got quite a healthy backlog, so here goes…

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Review for "In My Father's House: A New View of How Crime Runs in the Family" by Fox Butterfield (2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This well-written nonfiction book begins with a very interesting statistic: that ‘5 percent of American families account for half of all crime, and 10 percent of families account for two thirds.’ This point is driven throughout the entire book with Mr. Butterfield’s multi-generational documentation of the Bogles, an impoverished White family who moved from the Reconstruction South to Texas in the early 1900’s. The story begins with the marriage of Louis Bogle and Elvie, two young people with a propensity for cons and swindles who become hard drinkers and carnival workers. They eventually have seven children, all of whom end up in prisons or reformatories for various crimes–drinking, stealing, fighting, and beating their wives.

The narrative then shifts to one of the sons of the original Bogle family, the youngest and most particularly troublesome son, nicknamed Rooster. Enabled by his mother, Rooster terrorizes his own family through physical and sexual abuse. He “marries” two women and keeps them in the same house, occasionally beating them and having several children by both. He does not allow his children to socialize outside of the family and takes them on his various criminal schemes, encouraging them to steal and even going by the state prison and telling them that they will end up there one day. Eventually all of Rooster’s children do go to either jail, prison, or state reformatories, only this time for more serious crimes–drugs, burglary, theft, rape, and murder.

Butterfield is still not finished, continuing to trace the stories of cousins, uncles, aunts, and other Bogle family members. He goes into the next generation of Rooster’s grandchildren and describes their history of meth use, burglaries, child endangerment, and more crimes. In the back of the book is an exhaustive list of over 60 Bogle family members, all of whom have either spent time in a prison or jail for various crimes.

This book does end on a bright note, with the story of one of Rooster’s grandchildren, Ashley. With strong social ties through her mother (not a Bogle), community support, and education, she graduates from college and pursues a career in the medical field. She is the first Bogle family member to graduate from college in 150 years.

This is a good book but it is somewhat depressing, as it forces you to consider how much the role of family and upbringing is overlooked in the modern theories of crime. Butterfield is careful with this argument, however. He acknowledges over and over that leaning too heavily on the link between family upbringing and crime reinforces racism, with Blacks and people of color typically being demonized and incarcerated as if they are the sole perpetrators of crime. I think this is why he chooses a White family to illustrate his point in this particular book (though his previous book I’ve reviewed, “All God’s Children,” deals with crime in a Black family).

This is an excellent read if you are interested in the criminal justice system, theories of crime/criminology, and the “nature vs. nurture” argument. It’s also cool if you just like narrative nonfiction too.

Five stars.

 

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Review: Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree

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Review for "Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree" by Adaobi Tricia Nwabani and Viviana Mazza (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree” gives voice to one of the hundreds of Nigerian girls who have been kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The internet launched a campaign with the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag going viral in response to the large-scale kidnapping of girls at a government school in the Borno State of Nigeria in 2014. Although the hashtag brought awareness to the plight of the girls, what many may not know is that the 2014 kidnapping was not the first of its kind by the group, nor has it been the last. Boko Haram continues to terrorize Nigeria and its surrounding countries, and although there have been some girls released by the group, hundreds still remain captive and missing.

The narrator of the novel is an unnamed girl, later given a name that is not hers by her kidnappers. In the beginning of the novel, before the main events take place, we learn that she is passionate about her education, her family, her Christian faith, and pursuing a scholarship to achieve her dreams. This is shattered when her village is attacked by Boko Haram and most of the men are killed. The narrator and dozens of other girls are forced to go with the kidnappers into the forest. Once there, the girls are surrounded by men with guns who force them renounce their beliefs and embrace Islam. She is made to do chores, eat meager food rations, and learn passages from the Qu’ran. Those who refuse to comply with the kidnappers’ demands are severely beaten or killed. The narrator is also forced to marry a Boko Haram fighter who physically and sexually abuses her. Despite the horrors around her, the narrator remains steadfast and refuses to be brainwashed. She continues to dream of her escape and desire for education.

This is tough reading material. The novel is told in short vignettes, which I found to be helpful in allowing the content be digested more thoroughly, especially for a younger audience. We rarely get YA books about the struggles of women in non-Western context, so I definitely loved this one and recommend it to anyone.

Review: Sadie

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Review for "Sadie" by Courtney Summers (2018)

Rating: 4 out 5 stars

This book had a lot of hype surrounding it, so I listened to all of it and read it. Ultimately, I think it’s a good novel but the heaps of glowing praise is a bit premature.

Sadie is a teenager growing up in rural Colorado who has not had an easy life. She raises her younger sister Mattie through a modest job due to her mother being mostly absent and a drug addict. When Mattie turns up dead, Sadie hits the road to bring her sister’s killer to justice. Heartbroken, Sadie and Mattie’s surrogate grandmother and neighbor brings the girls’ story to a popular radio personality, West McCray, who creates his own podcast (entitled “The Girls”) to attempt to uncover the truth.

Don’t get me wrong, the writing here is quite nice. I also loved how the story was told through podcasts (I’m a self-confessed podcast junkie) and Sadie’s POV in alternate chapters. But even with this, it took a long time for me to get into this book. When it did get going for me after about the first 150 pages or so, I still couldn’t quite “get” into Sadie’s POV. The podcast sections definitely held more interest for me, but even after a while I found myself fighting sleep. Perhaps it’s because what was just relayed via Sadie’s POV is retold through the podcast chapters, just from a different perspective. And while I liked the idea of this one, I just didn’t love it.

There’s also mad trigger warnings for things like pedophilia, rape, and murder. I wasn’t expecting all of that, but it’s definitely a major theme in this book.

Definitely more than 3 stars, so I’ll go for 4 here. This book was just not my cup of proverbial cup of tea.

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookstores I Love

Bookstores are becoming a rarity these days. With the growing popularity of Amazon, ebooks, and that ever-present bastion of corporate capitalism [*cough*] Barnes & Noble [*cough*], I’m sad to say that there is really only five independently owned book sellers left in my city. That sucks.

When I visited NYC for a conference last April, I got a chance to check out some really cool independent bookstores there too. I took pics of some, but not others, because when you’re walking all day and your battery gets low, you learn to pick and choose what’s noteworthy. Some of those pics are included here, but most I culled from Google.

Park Road Books, Charlotte, NC

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Here’s one in my very own city that’s been here forever. There’s even a small dog named Yola that walks around the shop while you’re browsing, just to say hello. Staff is super friendly too, all kinds of events are hosted here.

Paper Skyscraper, Charlotte, NC

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Another local gem. Not only do they sell books, they sell stationery, housewares, games, jewelry, you name it. There’s also large, sweet poodle that belongs to the owner by the name of Patsy that walks the aisles here and stares lovingly at you. LGBTQ friendly as well.

Kinokuniya New York, NYC

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This place was only steps from my hotel when I visited NYC, so naturally I went in here every single day I was there. There were two levels–English books upstairs and Japanese books and all kinds of stationery and gifts downstairs. There was also a small Japanese cafe that sold sushi and mochi and all other good things to eat. My son is heavily into manga, so I stocked up on books. Man, this place was a slice of heaven.

Codex Books, NYC

Another cool place off of the Bowery for new and used books. Lots of literary fiction and art titles. They also carry zines.

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Bluestockings, NYC

Cool slice of left-wing radical heaven on the LES. An activist center and completely run by volunteers, they carry thousands of academic titles and books and publications on feminism, queer studies, race, criminal justice system, and much more. Also carries zines and a lot of smutty lit titles.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: American Prison

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Review for "American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment" by Shane Bauer (2018)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I could not put this book down. Five stars.

In 2015, Shane Bauer, a reporter with Mother Jones, went undercover for four months at a privately owned (“for profit”) prison in rural Louisiana called Winn Correctional. Managed by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), he is hired to work as a prison guard for $9 an hour. He carries a pen that doubles as an audio recorder, a small notebook, a coffee thermos with a small camera in it, and documents his daily dealings with staff and inmates at his new job. What he finds at Winn is pretty much a nightmare: a dangerously understaffed facility, guards that openly brag about beating inmates, daily stabbings, reports of rapes, other examples of gross negligence and mismanagement. There are no education classes, no regular rec time, or any kind of ‘set’ schedule for the prisoners, each day’s activities are determined by how many staff decide to show up for work. There is one psychiatrist and one social worker for the entire prison. There is only one doctor and medical treatment is substandard.

At Winn, Bauer finds that every attempt is made to save CCA money. Because there is a profit motive in keeping inmates at the facility, he observes an inmate repeatedly complaining of chest pain but is refused hospital treatment and given ibuprofen. He later dies. Another inmate violently kills himself after consistent threats to do so. Corners are cut and log books are falsified. Another prisoner manages to escape and no one misses him for hours, due the fact that it costs CCA too much to staff the guard tower.

In between the chapters of undercover reporting is powerful research Bauer writes on the history of America’s for-profit prison system. Locking people up for revenue, convict leasing, and state-enforced prison labor is nothing new and has always resulted in the abuse and torture of inmates, particularly men, women, and children of color. By creating laws across the American South that criminalized minor misdeeds (drinking, vagrancy, truancy), many Black men were forced to work in prison labor camps. When one died from routine overwork, beating, or disease, the system simply got another. It has always been a system that cheapens human lives, therefore it is no surprise that CCA’s stock shares are up and they are profiting under the current president and his hateful policies towards immigrants. Corporations like CCA are beginning to turn away from contracts with jails and prisons and turn its attention to building detention centers, most of which now house Mexican and Central American immigrants.

I could say so much more about this book but it would be too much to type here. I do, however, wholeheartedly encourage you to read this, even if you read nothing else this fall.

Review: We Built the Wall

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Review for "We Built the Wall: How the U.S. Keeps Out Asylum Seekers from Mexico, Central America and Beyond" by Eileen Truax (2018)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

As an educator, I hold the steadfast opinion that until everything’s equal (money, wealth, opportunity), we’ll continue to grapple with the same issues: race and gender inequality,  poverty, crime, and a failing criminal justice system. So when it comes to nonfiction, naturally, these are the topics that I usually find myself reading about.

The other big one–immigration.

We Built the Wall  is a very well written book about Mexican and Central American (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) immigration. The author interviews immigrants living on both sides of the border and in detention centers, as well as the lawyers and organizations that help them.

I must admit that reading this book helped me understand what a complex issue both legal and illegal immigration really is. To those who simply tell immigrants to “go home” because they are here illegally, this book details how going home is nearly impossible, with violence, police corruption, extortion, and threats by criminal gangs making the lives of ordinary people there a living hell. Applying for legal immigration is an option but not very likely to happen for many. For one, it can last years. When a gang threatens to kill your whole family unless you pay them extortion money and your preteen son agrees to join them, there’s an urgency to your movement. Second, legal immigration usually carries with it a highly complicated set of criteria (you must have $$$ to apply, a U.S. citizen to sponsor you, or an employer in the U.S., etc.) that make the process damn near inaccessible to poor people. Therefore, it is understandable that many come illegally, and when caught, attempt to apply for political asylum. This rarely happens, and most are detained during this months-long process.

This book also discusses how much of America’s political asylum policies are still deeply attached to Cold War politics. Cubans who come to the US usually get their asylum request granted, due to the fact that their country is not a democracy. Mexico and much of Central America, however, does not fit this criteria. This policy has gone unchallenged for many years, and upholds a certain status quo that privileges people from certain countries (usually European-influenced) over others and leaves Mexicans, Central Americans, and people from poorer, less industrialized countries at the bottom.

The “Wall” to keep undesirables out of America is not physical but a political one, and has been firmly in place since the Cold War. I won’t give away the whole book here, but I will agree that this is a highly detailed and readable book about the current politics of immigration that I would definitely recommend to anyone.

Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

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Review for "I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer" by Michelle McNamara (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Overall, I liked this book. In case you live under a rock, this book details the crimes and investigations into the Golden State Killer, a prolific madman who killed more than a dozen people and raped at least 50 women in the late 70’s and early to mid 80’s in Northern and Southern California. The writer of this book, Michelle McNamara, died in April of 2016 before her book was completed, therefore much of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was completed by editors. McNamara was integral to building new leads for the cases and generating renewed interest, which eventually led to the capture of a suspect in April of 2018.

It goes without saying that this is a very creepy book. The killer often got into his victims’ homes by breaking through windows and sliding glass doors. I have both at my home, so there were times while reading this that I’d get up to check my doors and windows. Just, you know…because. For this reason, I was compelled not to read this book at night, or while I was at home alone. The mood is perfect here, with sections in which the crime scenes are recounted in detail. It’s not exploitative though. McNamara writes with a skill that is careful to show respect to the victims, as well as the police who did what they could do with the resources they had at that time to crack the case.

In the book, McNamara also discusses how she got into crime reporting. As a child, a young girl was murdered and her body left in an alley not too far from her home. From there, she became obsessed crime and reporting on it. Also detailed are the tactics of the killer (he climbs fences, he’s proficient with weapons, he psychologically tortures his victims), speculation into who he is, why he kills, where he lives, and possibly how he will be caught (DNA: which, it turned out was right).

There’s very little bad I can say about this book. The only thing that confused me at times was the number of people involved (victims, times, dates, locations, the cops), even with a cast of characters in the front. Because the story spans decades and crosses counties and regions, however, this was understandable. Also there is a patchiness of the writing and incoherence from one section to the next that’s worth noting, but this is also understandable, given that the author passed away during the writing of this book. Much of the book was culled from notes she left behind and filled in by editors.

There is an upcoming HBO documentary being made with this book at the center. I plan to watch it. Definitely read (or listen) to this, it’s worth your time.