Review: American Prison

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


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

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.

Review: Cherry


Review for "Cherry" by Nico Walker (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I admit that I, like a lot of people, was probably attracted to this book for all the wrong reasons. We know that “Cherry” was written entirely in prison, and the author is currently an inmate, serving an 11 year sentence for bank robbery. Even though the author says this story isn’t true, you know from the first couple of pages that the prior declaration is BS. This is the tale of exactly how Mr. Walker got to be behind bars, complete with all kinds of expletives, debauchery, and straight up honesty. Anyway, I liked this book.

The unnamed narrator of “Cherry” begins as a college student in Ohio, casually drinking and questioning his existence. He eventually flunks out of school. He meets a girl named Emily and they fall for each other. They marry. The narrator joins the Army and receives training as a combat medic and from there he goes to Iraq, where he witnesses all of the full-blown horrors of war. He also begins a drug habit overseas, mostly huffing computer duster and taking pills. When he returns to his home he continues to flourish in his addictions, eventually going from Oxycontin abuse to heroin. After depleting all of his money and hooking up with shady characters, the narrator begins robbing banks. The book stops just short of his capture because uhh, the book really isn’t about all of that. The crime is clearly the focus here, not the punishment.

The writing here is not sophisticated or complex. There’s a really flat, kinda matter-of-fact tone that catches you immediately, because you realize that there really aren’t any pretensions here. Some of the descriptions are also quite hilarious:

“Drill Sergeant Cole punched me in the penis for no reason. You’d have that though. You just had to remember it was all make-believe. The drill sergeants were just pretending to be drill sergeants. We were pretending to be soldiers. The Army was pretending to be the Army.” 

The only thing I didn’t like was how ridiculously dull the middle of this book was. The narrator’s Iraq experiences are described with a lot of military jargon and he assumes we all know what he’s talking about (or, at least that we know what an FOB, IED, and Kevlar wings are). I didn’t understand a lot of this stuff and could not follow this section of the novel to save my life. I get the point though. He went to war and he was mostly a grunt, doing grunt work. I get it.

I do recommend this book, however. A portion of the proceeds from this book are going toward Mr. Walker’s restitution fees, and he will get out of prison in 2020. Despite the lip service we give to the notion of “debts paid to society,” the fact remains that unless you’re Lil Wayne, chances are that a felony on one’s record won’t transfer to a good post-prison life. So my reasons for reading and supporting this book is all for the better, in my opinion.

Four stars. Umm hmm…

Review: Finding Yvonne

Review for "Finding Yvonne" by Brandy Colbert (2018)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Another YA book I luv’d. Let me count the ways:

“Finding Yvonne” is a complicated, beautiful novel that explores race, the uncertainty of the future, family dynamics, and perceptions of the choices we make. It focuses on Yvonne, a Black 18-year-old Los Angeles teen, raised by a single father. She attends private school and plays violin, yet feels that she has lately lost much of her passion for the instrument. Her father smokes weed regularly and runs a successful restaurant. Yvonne is currently in a relationship with Warren, one of the young men employed as a sous chef at her dad’s restaurant. Despite the fact that Yvonne and Warren have chemistry, they have a very complex romance which leads Yvonne into a messy affair with a street musician. After sexual encounters with both men, Yvonne unexpectedly finds herself pregnant.

I won’t tell you the rest of the story for fear of spoiling it. However, this story is less about the pregnancy of the main character and more about her passions and the day to day struggles of her life, which is brilliantly written about here. Yvonne was always fresh and real to me, and even though she made choices that I disagreed with, I understood her. I never stopped rooting for Yvonne and wanting to see her win. Also refreshing was the sex positivity here, the portrayal of Yvonne as a person capable of making her own decisions about her body and not as a pariah.

Definitely worth the read.

Review: The Perfume Burned His Eyes


Review for "The Perfume Burned His Eyes" by Michael Imperioli (2018)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Ok, ok…I admit I read this book because Michael Imperioli’s name was on it. I’m a big fan of HBO’s “The Sopranos” and couldn’t resist.

This book, however, was just ok for me. It’s about a 16-year-old named Matthew who moves from Queens to Manhattan with his mother to start a new life after his grandfather dies and leaves them with a large sum of money. Matthew is very insecure and hopes that maybe the move will bring him confidence, which, after getting a delivery job at a local deli, happens. Not long after he begins working, Matthew meets Lou Reed. Yes, THAT Lou Reed (musician, rock god). Reed plays quirky neighbor and the two form a very unusual bond. Matthew begins to come out of his shell a bit. At the same time, Matthew becomes enchanted by a mysterious girl at school named Veronica. I never got a sense of what the exact nature of their relationship was, but Matthew learns a lot about the world from her as well.

All in all, an ok book. It’s clear that the point here is a youth’s coming of age, but honestly, that’s about it. Some parts go on longer than normal and other parts had way too much dialogue, but it’s a fast paced story and one that I guess I’ll recommend, depending on your personal tastes.

Meanwhile, I’m going to declare a personal moratorium on reading books by celebrities. I don’t know why I expect literary greatness, as if they aren’t cut from the same cloth as the rest of us who may (occasionally) produce ho-hum material.


Review: Katerina

Review for "Katerina" by James Frey (2018)
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

NO NO NO NO NO NO….*slams book on the table with each successive NO*

This book’s terrible. It reads like a bad Tumblr poetry, awful teen fan fiction. Choppy lines, run on sentences, and magnetic poetry kit lines masquerading as style. “Katerina” is the story of Jay, a whiny brat of a dude who goes to live in Paris in the 90’s. All he does in the City of Lights is eat bread, get drunk, vomit, snort coke, sleep, have sex, and share his opinions on the superiority of French culture and art, which I really don’t care about. Somewhere in the middle of all this he tries to establish himself as a writer, though I don’t care about this either. He falls in love with a Norwegian model named Katerina, who is equally as shallow and as horny as Jay is. We suffer through dozens of their awkwardly written sex scenes (trust me, they’re not titillating at all) until they finally have enough of each other and break up. Jay returns to America shortly thereafter and starts smoking crack.

Fast forward to present day and Jay is a nouveau-riche writer and still a douchebag. He is married and making tons of money writing, though he hates himself for doing so. He’s contacted by Katerina and they begin chatting online. The present-day scenes are interpersed throughout the text with ones from the past, and are eerily reminiscent of his James Frey’s current life, including his “Million Little Pieces” controversy. For the third time, I don’t care about this. I’ve never read his first book and never will. I do care about how bad this book is though. Ugh.

Every now and then the book manages to say something interesting, but most of it is so ridiculously shallow and self-indulgent it’s not impossible to wonder how it managed to get published, though the author’s notoriety is probably a good reason. Anyway, skip this. Please.