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: 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: Stamped from the Beginning

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Review for "Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America" by Ibram X. Kendi (2016)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book is all about racism, specifically, how racist ideas about people of African descent led to the institution of slavery and became a unique history, woven into the fabric of American life.

This book is nearly 600 pages. I listened to it on audio. Unless you have time to really go through it and make notes and annotations, I recommend that you keep this on audio. I will probably go back through and read this when I have more time, just because of how excessively detailed the information is. That’s a good thing, though.

Anyway, Dr. Kendi makes his argument fairly plain–that racism is more than simple “ignorance.” If racism were as simple as people behaving “ignorantly,” Kendi asserts, it would not have persisted for thousands of years, nor would it be the institutional scourge that continues today. Racism is actually a very complex system of ideas, drawn from a number of highly complex sources. Kendi uses five guides into his argument who we’ve all probably heard about in our American history classes in school–Puritan minister Cotton Mather, founding father Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, author W.E.B. Dubois, and the Black feminist radical, Angela Davis. He separates these figures into three camps to trace the development of anti-Black, racist ideas: segregationists, people who believe that Black people are to blame for their own inferiority, assimilationists, people who believe that both Blacks and racial discrimination have equal part in beliefs surrounding Black inferiority, and anti-racists, people who reject both of these ideas. Kendi spends a great deal of time with each one of these arguments, and all five of these historical figures who play some part in either building or dismantling racist ideology.

All in all, I found Stamped from the Beginning to be a very complex and nuanced book. It’s also exhaustively researched. Even though I knew that Cotton Mather and Thomas Jefferson were not all that my high school history teacher were telling me they were, this book breaks down their racist ideas in a way that I’ve never quite seen before. This is a book that begs to be read by all people, especially in today’s times. I will definitely also say that I have learned much from this book, I highly recommend it.

Review: In a Day’s Work

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Review for "In a Day's Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America's Most Vulnerable Workers" by Bernice Yeung (2018)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a very timely, informative read about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace among those whose jobs we rarely see–night office building custodians, farm workers, domestic workers. Many of these workers are female, and many of them are undocumented. They are often afraid to pursue legal action against the men who violate them due to their undocumented status, fear of losing their jobs, or because they simply do not think that they will be believed. In addition to the threat of rape from male bosses at work, these workers are also taken advantage of in other ways, like being forced to work for no pay, working in dangerous conditions, unpaid overtime, not allowed to take breaks, etc.

It is obvious that the Ms. Yeung has been working on this topic for a long time, and her knowledge of this topic shows brilliantly in her writing. There was a documentary that came on PBS’s “Frontline” about 2 years ago which reported on the plight of female farmworkers, another that came on about a year ago that reported on the sexual harassment of female custodians. I watched both of these programs. Much of the reporting on both of those stories (both excellent) were completed by this author as well. I also liked how the author gives solutions on how this problem is being tackled by new legislation and oversight committees that are currently in place, attempting to protect and make a difference in the lives of female workers.

An impactful, well-researched book. Highly recommend!

Review: Another Day in the Death of America

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Review for "Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives" by Gary Younge (2016)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Another Day in the Death of America” is a look at the effects of gun violence on children in the United States. Younge, a British reporter, picks a random day (November 23, 2013), and identifies 10 children who died of gunshot wounds around the country within that 24 hour period. He follows up with their families and acquaintances, interviewing them and seeking insight into the victim’s short lives.

All of Younge’s subjects are male. The youngest victim was 9 years old, the oldest, 18. They hailed from large cities and small towns, inner cities and suburbs. Seven of the victims were Black, one was White, and two were Hispanic. Some of their deaths were accidental and some were intentional. In at least four of the cases, the killer (or killers) is still unknown. What matters the most, however, is that all of them were loved by their family, the majority of which agreed to be interviewed for this book.

The author puts a very human face on the tragedy of gun violence. He also probes, quite extensively and justifiably, issues of race and social class, which play a part in the prevalence of violence in some communities more than others. While he says that this book is not a plea for gun control, I’m not sure how this book can be read by anyone as anything but. It is clear that the point the author is making is that Americans are not inherently more violent than the citizens of any other country, yet the availability of guns make deaths more likely and more prevalent.

This book was written in 2016, and yet, two years later, it is still a timely one. The author admits that he began the research and writing on this book shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting. I read this in 2018, and we’re only several months removed from yet another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida. The questions raised in this book two years ago are the same questions we face today over gun control, and we’ve done absolutely nothing since.

I try to refrain from getting overtly political on my site, because, well, it’s all about the books, right? However, I realize more and more that the books I choose are political, and that every time I post my thoughts about them it is clear where I stand on certain issues. I’m OK with that. I am not a Democrat or a Republican, but I am a mother who sends my 14-year-old son off to school every morning with a hug and a kiss, just like everyone else.

I pray every single day that he comes home without a bullet in his body.

Review: Tyler Johnson Was Here

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Review for "Tyler Johnson Was Here" by Jay Coles (2018)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

From the moment I saw this book I knew I had to have it. I’m always down for YA books by and about people of color that are overtly political in nature, as well as books that challenge young people to think critically social issues. And yes, THAT cover. Gor-juss…

“Tyler Johnson Was Here” is just such a book that is destined to provoke conversation, particularly on police killings and the role of Black Lives Matter movement. The novel centers on the lives of twins, Tyler and Marvin, growing up in the fictional town of Sterling Point. The twins are raised by their single mother while their father, who is incarcerated, makes frequent appearances throughout the book in the form of letters written to Marvin.

Even though this is the story of twins, the story is told through Marvin, the more grounded of the two. Marvin hangs out with his friends Guillermo and Ivy, makes decent grades, watches reruns of “A Different World” and hopes to get into MIT. Tyler is the more restless twin, directing his energies toward social pursuits and hanging with a tough crowd. Much to Marvin’s dismay, he notices a rift between him and his brother and cannot convince Tyler to stay away from trouble. One night, after a party thrown by a local drug dealer, Tyler does not return home. Several days later, he is found deceased. A leaked video reveals that Tyler was unarmed when he was shot by police. As Marvin deals with his grief and anger over his brother’s death, he turns his efforts to protest and making sure that his brother’s memory isn’t forgotten.

What’s wrong with this book? A lot. Hell, I’m just going to bullet point here:

— The pacing of this novel was a problem for me. We’re told on the front flap of the book that Tyler is going to disappear and later be discovered dead. However, the characters do not discover Tyler’s death until well over halfway into the book. I felt as if the author could have skipped the ‘missing’ part, because it slowed the pace of the novel significantly. You’re literally just sitting around waiting for the inevitable for the first 150 pages. That’s not fun.

— Characterization fell a bit flat in this book as well. Even though I felt I understood Tyler, when I finished this I realized that I really didn’t. The limitations of a single perspective (Marvin’s) is apparent here. We know he was a good kid who got mixed up in a troubled crowd, but we’re never told the exact nature of his last days, his dealings with his friends. The author spends a great deal of time making the point that although Tyler may have been troubled, this was no reason for the manner of his death. While this is true, I think this point would not have required so much emphasis with more character-building as far as Tyler was concerned.

— There’s also a side character that goes absolutely nowhere: an aunt who’s a police officer, mentioned several times in the novel, who’s “always on the phone” with Marvin and Tyler’s mom. Considering that the police are the bad guys here who murdered Tyler and all of law enforcement in this book is portrayed as the epitome of evil, a relative of Marvin’s who happens to be a cop may have added to the complexity of this book. But that’s never explored. Weird.

— Marvin meets a girl, Faith, through his attempts to discover his brother’s whereabouts after the fateful night at the party. They eventually become involved with one another, but I never got a sense of their chemistry, her relevance to the story beyond the standard YA romance requirement, or really why she is in the book at all.

— The multitude of references to the tv show “A Different World”: Marvin is obsessed with this show, viewing it as a way to “understand” diverse Black characters. I’m not sure why this is, especially when there are more modern (and diverse!) shows with Black characters that could have been referenced here. I’m an 80’s baby, so I watched “A Different World” as a teenager (it went off the air in 1993, right as I went into high school). A teenager in 2018 still fixated on characters from a show from well over 25 years ago seemed strange, kinda like a kid who watches a dated show like “Hogan’s Heroes” expecting to find enlightenment. Yikes.

Comparisons to “The Hate U Give” are inevitable (both have Black main characters, both are about the subject of police violence), and if I had to pick between the two I’d say in a heartbeat that “The Hate U Give” is the much better book. Despite my criticisms, however, I won’t go lower than 3 stars for “Tyler Johnson Was Here.” I also wholeheartedly recommend this to other people to read. Even though TJWH has problems in its execution, I respect what it does accomplish successfully, and that’s place the narrative surrounding police violence in the hands of Black youth, within the context of their own language and culture. The value of those things in and of itself is immeasurable, respectable, and deserves notice.

And yes, the cover. It’s quite beautiful.

*sigh*

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.