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: 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.

Review: The Other Wes Moore

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Review for "The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates" by Wes Moore (2010)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Ack…I DNF’d this one.

The idea behind this book is indeed noteworthy, as we’ve all wondered at some time or another about the life of another individual who, by some stroke of fate, happens to have the same name as we do. In this book, the author does just that as he discovers another man with his same name and similar age, also raised in the city of Baltimore. He begins a prison correspondence with the “other” Wes Moore and sets out to explore where their paths in life diverged. The author is a former White House Fellow, a writer, and an Army veteran. The “other” Wes Moore is serving time in prison, has fathered several children, is a convicted drug felon, and had an attempted murder conviction all before the age of 18.

The premise of this book is flawed, however. Moore points to the commonality of absentee fathers and poverty between the two of them, but this is simply not true. While both Moores grew up fatherless, the author’s father died, he was not abandoned. Secondly, Moore’s mother, even though a widow, had a strong support system. The author half-heartedly acknowledges this, as well as his privilege of attending a private school during his formative years to steer him away from bad behavior and negative influences. Also, while the negative behavior that author Wes Moore speaks of (tagging buildings with graffiti, etc) is akin to a middle class teenager’s ideas of rebellion, the “other” Wes Moore’s descent into drug dealing and criminal behavior is not rebelliousness but a necessity, a way of gaining power in a single parent household as the ‘man of the house.’ Even though the “other” Wes Moore’s choice to delve into criminality was his own doing, the lack of a support system and the presence of poverty in his life cannot be understated.

I stopped reading this book about 2/3 of the way through, once the faulty premise became apparent. Perhaps I’ll pick this up in the future, but for right now, I’m good.

Review: Girl Trouble

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Review for "Girl Trouble: An Illustrated Memoir" by Kerry Cohen (2016)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I read Kerry Cohen’s memoir “Loose Girl” a few years ago, so I decided to see what this book was about. This is a memoir that chronicles the author’s very complex relationships with women, beginning with her older sister and continuing throughout her childhood to the present day. Each relationship is presented vignette-style, with illustrations of several of the characters included within. Some of the relationships Cohen discusses are friendships, others describe a contentious situation (i.e., the author being bullied by another girl), some girls are passing acquaintances.

I certainly understand Cohen’s reason for writing this book. It seems that she wanted to not just talk about girl relationships but to examine the many, many ways in which women can be cruel to one another. There are problems with this, however. One of the main ones here I noticed was that the author seems quick to discuss the many times in which she has been victimized by girls and women, yet minimizes her own actions in some situations in which she was equally cruel. Case in point: a period during the author’s college years in which she admits that she slept with a friend’s boyfriend. She tells us that the boyfriend was not really her friend’s boyfriend, just some guy she was seeing at the time. Either way, when the cheating was discovered, her friend stopped speaking to her. The author meets up with the friend years later after she writes about it in “Loose Girl” and tries to explain herself, yet her tone is not one of contrition (after all, she did go and write a book about it) but one of slight indignation, as if the friend just should have ‘gotten over it’ already. 

There’s other layers here of meaning I could talk about here, but it’s repetitive. After a while each “friend” and each “boy” all sounded the same and reading this became tiresome. And the illustrations, while good, didn’t really add anything to the book. Picture here, more words. Picture there, more words. Blah.

Even though I get the point, I can’t help but to feel that this is essentially the same book as “Loose Girl,” only with a slightly different focus. Many of the same incidents from that book are retold here.

No mas. Two stars.

Review: The Terrible

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Review for "The Terrible" by Yrsa Daley Ward (2018)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a very unique memoir. It is written in prose, but large parts of it are written in verse. There’s no pattern to what the next page is going to be (a poem or prose), but that was perfectly OK. I was too wrapped up in the author’s words. Needless to say, I loved this book.

Yrsa Daley-Ward, author of bone, tells a very honest story about her life. Her and her younger brother grow up in a very strict, very religious Seven-Day Adventist household with her mother’s parents. With her father absent, her and her brother go to live with their mother later in her childhood. The relationship between her and her mother is dysfunctional as well. Eventually Ward drifts into a life of drugs, drinking, depression, and sex work. There is a lot of pain invoked in this novel, along with an exploration on inter-generational conflicts, pain not healed that is passed from parent to children.

I won’t tell you too much more about this book because I don’t want to spoil it. It is definitely worth your time to read it. Four stars.