Review: Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America

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Review for "Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America" by Jill Leovy (2015)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Before I begin this review I have to commend the author, because there really is no easy way to write about the subject of Black on Black crime. How do you talk about the very real issue of Black homicide rates without pathologizing an entire race? At the same time, one has to recognize that Black homicide is indeed a problem and even though poverty, racism, and decades of neglect by law enforcement play a consistent role in its existence, you can’t “excuse” it either. Even though crime rates have dropped in recent years, the murder rates among Black men remain relatively high. Violent homicide still remains the number 1 cause of death among Black males ages 15-34 in America.

Jill Leovy starts off great in this book. For her setting, she chooses inner city Los Angeles, a city long plagued by Black homicides. She describes a crippling bureaucracy, as well as homicide detectives struggling for resources–lack of computers and cars, even buying their own “murder books” (binders in which to keep case files). They didn’t even get tape recorders, many detectives had to buy their own. Leovy argues that the LAPD and the entire criminal justice system has not placed a high priority on solving Black murders. This has created a lack of trust in the police among Black citizens, tendencies toward vigilante-style justice, witnesses afraid to talk, and a “no-snitching” culture that makes closing murder cases notoriously difficult. Names go in files to be forgotten, detectives get bogged down with even more cases.

“Ghettoside” is a broad narrative, though it focuses on the specific case of an LAPD homicide detective’s son who was gunned down in 2007 while walking down the street. A long chapter is dedicated to describing his family life and how much of a “good” boy he was (not a gangster, followed rules, etc). You almost have to wonder if the author is following the same kind of rationale that many people feel toward murder victims: an unspoken sentiment that a person’s morally questionable behavior in some way should “justify” what happened to them. Another problem is the large amount of biographical information on not just one but several LA detectives and their careers, which, honestly, I just didn’t care about. It was hard to remember who was who and after several chapters of this I started skipping pages.

Another problem with this book is that, through the case of the detective’s son, Leovy seems to make an argument that if all cases were solved by dedicated detectives like the one who solved this one, there wouldn’t be any unsolved Black homicides. Well, not really. For one, the circumstances of every case is different and second, you have to revisit the idea that (perhaps) one of the main reasons why this particular case continued to stay visible was because of who the victim’s father was. You can’t take socioeconomic status, which governs so much of our lives, out of the death equation here.

Overall, a clunky but ok book for me. 3.5 stars.

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Review: The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life

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Review for "The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life" by Lauren Markham (2017)
 
Rating: 4.75 stars

I tend to be attracted to books that showcase timely social issues in a readable, narrative format. This is just such a book.

This is the true story of Ernesto and Raul Flores, identical twins who left their home in El Salvador in 2013 and illegally came to America without their parents at the age of 17. In their small rural town, the twins live with seven other siblings and their parents in crippling poverty and in constant fear of violent criminal gangs, which rule the countries of the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) with a iron fist. For $7000 each, Ernesto and Raul’s parents seek out a loan shark to pay for the services of a coyote, a smuggler who moves people through Central America and Mexico and finally through the desolate desert interior of the U.S. The story goes into detail of their capture in the desert by border patrol, detainment in a facility for unaccompanied minors (mostly from Central America), and their reunion with an older brother who also came north in the same fashion several years before.

The story, however, doesn’t stop there. Markham follows her subjects through the myriad of challenges that make up the twins’ new American life: entering school, finding legal representation to fight deportation, learning English, paying down their accumulating $19,000 coyote debt, the struggle to send money home, family problems, and of course, the struggles that simply come with being teenagers. Interspersed throughout the book are snippets of ‘boots on the ground’ research done by the author of the various aspects of the Central American immigrant experience–their journey, frequent capture, detainment, and (almost always) deportation.

I really loved this story because it was told in an easy to follow narrative style that completely humanizes the “illegal aliens” that the current president would love to build a wall to keep out. You learn about the high, very human cost of these efforts and how, despite what laws or wall is erected, many are still willing to risk it all to live the American dream, even if it means death.

Loved this book. Get it right away!

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

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Review for "We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy" by Ta-Nehisi Coates (to be published on 3 October 2017)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Great book, I tell ya…

When I heard that Ta-Nehisi Coates was writing another book, I signed up to read it on NetGalley with lightning quickness. I also read his writings elsewhere such as The Atlantic, Twitter. Matter of fact, I’ll usually drop everything I’m doing to read Mr. Coates because his perspective and words on the most pressing issues of our time are impeccable.

If you aren’t reading Ta-Nehisi Coates then you probably should be. Like “Between the World and Me,” “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” is a searing testimony to the ongoing quagmire of race in the United States: to high hopes, to failed promises, to the uncertainty of what lies ahead. These are a collection of eight essays that appeared in The Atlantic (one for each of the eight years that President Obama was in office) with a short preface added by Coates before each, which give the reading more perspective and insight.

Do read this. It should be required reading in all schools and universities.

[Note: A free digital copy of this book was provided by the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Review: The Hate U Give

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Review for "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas (2017)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I don’t know, ya’ll. 3.5 stars for me.

This is probably one of the most authentic books I’ve read this year. It deals with a very timely issue: the police killing of an unarmed Black man during a traffic stop. “The Hate U Give” is the story of 16-year-old Starr, a Black teenager who lives in a predominantly Black neighborhood who goes to a mostly White prep school. Starr has difficulty fitting in at school but she manages to maintain friends, a relationship with her boyfriend Chris, and hold down family life until she witnesses the death of her childhood best friend, Khalil, by a White cop during a traffic stop. Khalil, of course, was unarmed.

After the shooting, Starr’s life goes into a tailspin. She is torn between wanting to speak for Khalil and maintain a social status among her mostly White upper class friends, who believe the media accounts that Khalil was a drug dealer. She also deals with violent riots in her neighborhood, gang conflicts, and the problems that come from having dysfunctional family members.

Overall, this is a good book. I won’t entertain the arguments of some online reviewers who call this book racist (privileged readers who can’t understand the historical implications of institutionalized racism in America), a heavy handed promotion of the Black Lives Matter movement (who were never mentioned once), or “anti-cop” (failing to recognize that the main character had a positive relationship with an uncle who works in law enforcement). What makes this book 3.5 stars for me was its structure, which in my opinion wasn’t very good. At nearly 464 pages, this book waffles along and dabbles in far too many extraneous details. It could have been cut by about 200 pages and it would not have suffered at all for lack of information. It’s almost as if the author followed every single detail of an already overloaded plot to its own end, so much so that by the middle I found myself skipping pages. Yeah.

For those of you who follow my reviews, you know that there are some books I don’t like and don’t recommend, because I truly feel that they would be a waste of your time. This one is not the case. Regardless of how I felt about this book’s structural issues, I do recommend that you read it and form your own opinion about the issues that are explored. There is a movie deal in the works, so it would be beneficial to read it before seeing it on screen.

Review: The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister: Life and Death in Juarez

I’ve been on a nonfiction reading kick lately. A little real life adventure never hurt anyone anyone, does it? Anyway, on to my next book…

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Review for "The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister: Life and Death in Juarez" by Sandra Rodriguez Nieto (2015)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

True crime/investigative journalism book that uses the murder by a young man of his parents and sister to explore many of the issues that plague Juarez, the infamous Mexican border city that’s only miles away from El Paso, Texas. Only the first few chapters discuss the actual details of the crime and what happens to Vicente in the aftermath (he only got a measly five years in prison, btw). It’s not Vicente’s fate that drives this book as much as its overarching message: that when violence occurs in a place with impunity, it effects everyone–including a 16-year-old who decides to slaughter his family.

Nieto spends the majority of the book breaking down the rampant political corruption, cartel wars, gang conflicts, and the other cogs of the machine that are the cause of the epidemic violence that go on in Juarez. At the height of the violence in 2010, there were 20 homicides a day and 8 kidnappings. It’s pretty shocking stuff. Brutal kidnappings, dead bodies left in the street, in front of schools, in neighborhoods. Criminals that walk right out of prison because well, umm, the guards left the door open. Oops. There’s also a chapter that discusses the joke of a police department Juarez has. How does a city rack up thousands of murders in one year? It’s because they don’t even bother to investigate. Case received, case closed. Next…

I recommend this book for anyone interested in current issues, particularly in Mexico.