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Happy 6th Birthday, SPR!

As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Thursday, April 25, 2019

American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment

I picked up Shane Bauer's American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment at Book Expo last year, because, while it's not my primary research and advocacy focus, the prison system is a deep and important area of interest for me. It's intricately connected to education, and I can't help but care about the business of prison. 

Bauer is a journalist for Mother Jones magazine, and several years ago he decided to go undercover at a Louisiana prison to repent his experiences as a corrections officer there at a for-profit prison. His year-long experiment was quickly shortened — he lasted only a few months. However, it was enough to shape him and leaving him questioning everything he thought he knew about himself. 

He’s first hired over the phone, sight unseen. The for-profit prison system pays CO’s less than minimum wage, and they are hurting for employees. In fact, before finishing training, Bauer’s cohort is whittled down quite a bit. His whole training experience is enough to turn your stomach; beginning from the moment he walks in the door, not a single inmate at the Winn Correctional Center is seen as human. They are animals, and the COs’ jobs are to treat them as such. 

There is so much packed in this book, including a concise history of the for-profit prison industry, and it’s hard to know where to begin. The overall trajectory Bauer presents of himself — of a man seeking justice through journalism to a man who begins to see the inmates of Winn as the animals he is trained to view them as — was the most startling albeit the most predictable to anyone who has taken Psych 101. It’s the Stanford Prison Experiment writ large. It also feeds into a long-term research plan of mine related to education, but that’s neither here nor for this particular post. I wasn’t surprised at all at Bauer’s transformation, but wow, was it fast. Only a matter of months. It’s shocking how quickly the human brain will transform into full-scale survival mode. 

Winn, as many for-profit prisons, was facing a CO shortage. Who wants to do that job for less than most cities pay in minimum wage? And then, for those who do, who feels as though they are respected enough by their managers that they then respect the men they are tasked with supervising? It’s a recipe for disaster. My favorite parts of this book quickly became the footnotes, which usually invoked the mentioning of Winn’s denial that any events Bauer discusses aren’t true or that they have no record of them. It’s laughable, really. Anyone who has simply read an article online from anyone who has ever walked into a prison knows that Bauer’s experiences are the norm. 

I highly recommend this book for several reasons: Bauer’s persons journey, his interactions with the incarcerated men on his watch, the history of the for-profit prison system, and the final chapters in which Bauer shows the aftermath of his experiences and his reporting. It is well worth the time to ingest this book and sit with it for a time. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Strange Alchemy: A Novel

One day, many moons ago, I picked up Gwenda Bond's Strange Alchemy specifically because a friend and I had just finished watching the season of American Horror Story that took place on Roanoke Island. I figured she would love it, but unfortunately it was tucked away on that insane TBR book shelf. I picked it up recently in my quest to find ways to pass books on. 

Roanoke Island is infamous in the United States for originally having a settler colony on it centuries ago. One of the leaders went back to England briefly, and when he returned, everyone had disappeared. They haven’t been seen since, and the legend of Roanoke Island lives on. Miranda was born and raised there, one of the infamous Blackwoods believed to be descended from one of the settlers left behind. She physically cannot leave the island due to a curse laid upon her family’s head. Grant, the sherrif’s son, has his grandmother’s gift of hearing spirits, and he rebelled his way off the island two years ago to boarding school. Suddenly, at the end of the summer, 114 residents vanish — the exact number from the original colony. Where did the go? What happened? Grant is summoned home, and he and Miranda must pair up to use each of their skills to solve the mystery before everyone else on the island pays the price. 

I have loved Bond since reading her Lois Lane series, and I indulged in this book because she is such a great writer. She understands adolescents thoroughly, and her ability to write from their perspective is just astounding. This story toggles back and forth between Miranda’s and Grant’s perspectives, providing the reader with a couple of different ways of looking at the story while keeping a solid through-line. Bond also builds a romance between the two that isn’t cheesy or overwrought, which I believe is under appreciated in current YA literature. 

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of supernatural literature, so I faded a bit in the third quarter around the intricacies of the spirit plot, but I think if I were more into the genre as a whole I would have been super into it. However, as someone who isn’t into it, I still felt that Bond’s creation of characters and writing style lend the book to an enjoyable peoce of work that will hook you early and keep you reading through the end. Great writing transcends genre, and Bond is just about the best you can get when it comes to YA lit.  

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Getting Life: An Innocent Man's 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace

I have been familiar with Michael Morton's story -- and the egregiousness of Texas's gross misuse of the justice system to put away men for crimes they didn't commit -- for a while. I picked up his memoir, Getting Life: An Innocent Man's 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace recently on my library-book binge of true crime. 

Michael Morton was married with a small son when he left for work as usual one morning outside of Austin, Texas. His son wasn’t at day care that afternoon when Michael went to pick him up, and when he arrived home, it was cordoned off with crime scene tape. His wife had been brutally beaten to death in her bed with her toddler home to witness it. As if that wasn’t horrific enough, a few weeks after Michael becomes a prime suspect regardless of the evidence of his innocence, including an alibi and his son’s statements. Within a short time Michael is convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison, losing his son and his freedom in a matter of minutes. Decades later his case is taken on by the Innocence Project and Michael is exonerated. 

One of the lines that stuck out to me the clearest from his trial preparation was his lawyer telling him that truly innocent people are the hardest to defend in a murder trial. It dawned on me that this statement must be one of the truest I have heard, particularly in light of the hundreds of men and women exonerated in the last decade and a half due to DNA evidence. It’s heartbreaking to know that these mean and women have been sitting in prison for no reason other than hard-headedness and stubbornness on the part of prosecutors, who often have sole discretion on charges, plea deals, and sentencing requests. I found myself livid when I read about Michael’s case having evidence withheld because the prosecutor just simply didn’t call the lead investigator— he called a minor one in order to not have the lead ha d over his notes into discovery. There was information that, presented in court, may very well have exonerated the defendant. 

Micheal’s story, along with that of so many others, makes clear that our prosecutorial system must change. People are losing their lives — decades in prison, and many put to death — over crimes they did not commit. It should make you angry. Michael speaks candidly about the pain he endured over losing his child. His in-laws were granted custody, in part because Michael was strategically kept out of court the day of the custody hearing. They believed deep down that Michael was guilty of killing their loved one, and because of that they only put up with the required visitation, keeping his son away from him for most of his childhood. This caused a huge rift between father and son, one that could only be recotified later in life post-exoneration. 

The thing that makes me the most angry of all the issues surrounding prosecutorial misconduct is that the obsession with pegging crimes on certain people regardless of evidence to the contrary is that the true perpetrators go free and often kill again. This happened with the Morton killer, and it’s happened in several other cases. The dogged insistence of prosecuting someone around whom there is, at a minimum, reasonable doubt (notwithstanding true innocence) put the rest of us at grave risk. It allows the bad guys to strike again, and prosecutors who have put away innocent men and woman are complicit in this. 

Michael’s book is well worth the read if you are just now dipping your toe into the world of faulty convictions. If this is your first go-round, wait until you hear about fade confessions. It will knock your socks off! 

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Dear Mr. M: A Novel

On a list somewhere, Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch came up as a book to read if you loved another one. Can’t remember the details, but I did remember to get this from the library. Since I was a fan of The Dinner, I ran to get this from the library. It came out in 2016, but it’s new to me! 

I’m not even sure how to begin to describe this story in terms of blurb-ing it. The narrator is an older man now, but he was once I high school student madly in love with the most gorgeous girl. That girl had an affair with her teacher who suddenly went missing one snowy day when he went to visit the couple at her parents’ vacation home. A famous author wrote a novel based on these events, and now our narrator has found himself inserted in the author’s world. Who tells our truths, and what is the author’s role in a story? Is it to tell the truth, or is it to tell the most compelling story he can? 

This book was mind-bogglingly good. It was a slow burn; there wasn’t anything about it that made me rush through the pages. Instead, I was captivated by the detail of the story and who the characters were. Koch is the most interesting writer; he has this way of writing thrillers that don’t have you biting your nails, but rather furrowing your brow and changing your plans so you can keep poring over his words. The devil is quite in the detail in his work, and you keep pushing through because the end will be worth it. In this case, that was absolutely true. The book ends on such a quiet note that it’s explosive in the brain. 

I absolutely hated M, the writer. (Koch does this thing where very few people have names and instead are called by the first initial of their last name.) I recognize that this was Koch’s point; he’s not supposed to be likeable. It makes the last half of the story go down smoother. But I absolutely hated him. He was a heinous person both in and out, and it made me question the character is his much younger wife. She wasn’t the focus of the story though, so I could let that go. However, I say this as a testament to Koch’s character development, because if I hate a character that much, he must be written very well. I also wanted to hate the narrator — even as a boy he is not presented in a good light — and I just couldn’t. Try as I might, I couldn’t hate him. Koch has developed these characters within an inch of their fictitious lives, and it’s a glorious read. 

This is a book you must commit to. It isn’t a beach read, wherein you can whip through it in a matter of hours. I described it earlier as a “slow burn,” and that’s exactly what it is. But once you are in, you will be hooked. Koch has a lot in store for you, and you won’t like everyone you meet on your journey. You won’t even know who is writing, “Dear Mr. M” until the very end. But it will hurt so good, as it were. Promise promise. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America's Coldest Cases

The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America's Coldest Cases by Deborah Halber fascinated me, particularly after all of the Golden State Killer brouhaha. I was pleasantly surprised to find out while reading this that it wasn’t necessarily about solving murders, but much more about connecting I identified remains with missing persons cold cases.

All over America, tens of thousands — perhaps even hundreds of thousands — remains of unidentified human remains sit in morgue lockers or buried in Potter’s fields, unconnected to their identifies for a cmvarietu of reasons. It’s been only recently that the government has been able to grasp the magnitude of the problem; poor record keeping, lack of reporting, and coroner change over in smaller cities and towns has kept the information under wraps. It turns out that the problem is much bigger than anyone could imagine. So big, in fact, it’s almost impossible to find employees who can work these cases in addition to their jobs. Enter The Skeleton Crew. 

The dawn of the internet has seen thousands of couch sleuths come out of the woodwork, be it morbid curiosity or a love of puzzles, to solve these cold cases. Halber highlights several of these cases, both successful and not, in this book. I was pleasantly surprised at how taken I was by this story. Halber is a strong writer who weaves in a clear narrative into her larger work (featuring two cases: Tent Girl and Lady of the Dunes), and her writing style kept me hooked. I found myself wanting to get back to the book, not to finish it but rather to find out more about what she had to tell me. 

I did see parallels to MacNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, published three years after this. The websites devoted to solving cold cases, the people on the other end of those computers for reasons that are all their own. Some are trying to escape, some are trying to find themselves. Each is looking for someone — a perpetrator or a victim. I love true crime myself, and solving puzzles, and I could easily see myself getting sucked into this work. I’m amazed at the devotion of those not just in the higher ranks of these websites, but the gumshoes as well. 

I took some time to poke through one of the sites, the Doe Network, and before I knew it two hours had passed by. So yes, I can see how easily one who loves this stuff gets taken in. I’m also curious as to how, four years after this book was published, public DNA databases are changing the face of missing persons cases and the connection to unidentified remains. I would love to see Halber do a follow up on this connection. I loved this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed having my world opened to a new, not-so-dark corner.