(Book Review) American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago

51yCSoJDP2L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz takes a look at the large scale culture of violence in Chicago over one summer, 2013, as well as the effect of violence in the lives of specific people and families.

Kotlowitz puts his stories from this summer in the context of ongoing debates about gun violence in the U.S.:

“After the massacre at Newtown and then at Parkland we asked all the right questions. How could this happen? What would bring a young man to commit such an atrocity? How can we limit access to guns? How do the families and the community continue on while carrying the full weight of this tragedy? But in Chicago neighborhoods like Englewood and North Lawndale, where in one year they lose twice the number of people killed in Newtown, no one’s asking those questions. I don’t mean to suggest that one is more tragic than the other, but rather to point out that the national grieving and questioning don’t extend to corners of this country where such carnage has become almost routine. It’s in these, the most ravaged of our communities, among the most desperate and forlorn, that we can come to understand the makings of who we are as a nation, a country marked by the paradox of holding such generosity by such neglect” (7)

Although I found his writing cogent, clear, and moving, I had a hard time keeping my interest from chapter to chapter. I did not get really caught up in the overall narrative of the summer. Rather, I found a handful of the chapters particularly effective. “The Tightrope, a story in four parts”  tells the story of, Marcelo a high school student and survivor of a shooting, who is headed for a successful future until he gets caught up with a string of robberies with his best friend and member of his former gang. The four chapters about Marcello follow his journey through the court system as he fights to get his bright future back.  “Father’s Day” focuses on Mike and his adopted son Victor. Mike adopts Victor out of a terrible group home and tries to give him a chance at a future, but the issues Victor has from has past lead him back to trouble. The chapter explores how Mike and Victor each struggle with their own identity issues and secrets, falling apart and then finding each other again. In “The (Annotated) Eulogy,”  Kotlowitz tells the story of the relationship between Erin and Robert through annotations to the eulogy Erin delivers at Robert’s funeral. The formatting creates a quick and moving portrait of a couple pulled apart by violence, gangs, and the allure of quick money. Finally, the very moving chapters that tell the story of “The Witnesses” dramatize the high costs for those who cooperate with the police. After Ramaine is shot, he identifies his shooter and for years afterward, he is harassed and threatened by members of the shooter’s gang. The story also details the emotional effects on Ramaine’s girlfriend, Kaprice, and little brother, Nijujan. The story is tragic and a compelling case study for the hidden costs of trying to do something about this violence.

I had checked out American Summer thinking that it was a true crime title. Although you could technically put this book in that category, it is more serious journalism and sociological work than it is true crime at its heart. Not everyone will find this book terribly interesting, but the stories it contains and the points it makes about gun violence and which victims really matter in our media are important and well-written.


(Book Review) One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy

43A175CF-FB3B-4D76-83AB-8B72CB6A3405In One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying our Democracy, Carol Anderson lays out the nefarious, and sometimes also mundane, ways that seemingly racially neutral justifications have been used to deny racial minorities their right to vote from the Jim Crow era to the present day. I was wearily angered by the techniques she describes and impressed by the clear, cogent manner in which she argues that what could appear to be accidental side effects of changes in election policy are really expressly designed to suppress minority voters: “They target the socioeconomic characteristics of people (poverty, lack of mobility, illiteracy, etc.) and then soak the new laws in ‘racially neutral justifications–such as administrative efficiency’ or ‘fiscal responsibility’–to cover the discriminatory intent” (2).

Using racially neutral justifications, but targeting characteristics such as socioeconomic status, location, or education that are meant to exclude minority voters. Some of the highlights of her extensive survey of voter suppression include discussing the history of these strategies overlapping with tensions with Russia, an overview of the Voter Rights Act (after its passage, black voter registration in Mississippi went from 10% in 1964 to 60% in 1968 (27)), and a detailed explanation of how Voter ID laws are used as a guise for voter suppression.

Coming to the present day, Anderson lays out how voter suppression worked in Florida in the 2000 presidential election, leading the Supreme Court to basically hand the election to George W. Bush even though Al Gore won the popular vote. She also analyzes the strategies of voter roll purges, gerrymandering (including a Supreme Court case out of Wisconsin) and a false narrative of voter fraud that work together to hide new efforts for voter suppression. “Voting is neither an obstacle nor a privilege. It’s a right,” she argues (148).

In her conclusion, Anderson looks at the resistance to this new-old voter suppression in the 2018 midterm election, particularly the grassroots resistance against Roy Moore in Alabama. First, she examines how social media campaigns in the 2016 general election were aimed at keeping black voters from participating at all (149). “As insidious as all this was, the Russians, frankly, piggypacking on the years of work done by the GOP to stigmatize, disfranchise, and suppress the votes of African Americans and other minorities,” she argues. “The Republicans as we’ve seen, have consistently claimed there is rampant voter fraud, especially in cities and states that have sizable minority communities. Thus, the suspicion thrown by the GOP on St. Louis and Miami-Dade County in the 2000 election is just as dastardly as the Russians conjuring up #VoterFraud in North Carolina and Broward County in 2016” (150-51).

I was especially frustrated with a story coming out of my native Indiana. Anderson explains that after Obama carried Indiana in 2008, the GOP-led state legislature passed laws aimed and undermining the weight of Marion County, home to Indianapolis and a sizable black and Democratic population. “Counties with at least 325,000 residents could not have more than one early voting site unless there was unanimous agreement from the bipartisan county election board. Buried in that sanitized language was pure, uncut racial animus. Only three of the ninety-two counties in the state have populations that exceed that threshold…and not surprisingly, 62 percent of the state’s African American population live in either Marion or Late Counties. Meanwhile, smaller (and whiter) counties are not held tot that same restriction…” (151)

Overall, Anderson makes a compelling and far-reaching argument for the extent that voter suppression continues to damage our democracy. Her research is easy to follow and insightfully presented. I definitely recommend this book for those interested in politics, voting rights, and Civil Rights history.

(Book Review) How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

how long til black future monthPublished this month, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin is a collection of short stories spanning the career of the acclaimed scifi author. The collection emphasizes Jemisin’s success in breaking into the traditionally white and male scifi/fantasy writing market as a woman of color writing about people of color. The collection also shows Jemisin’s growth as a writer through her experiments with shorter fiction as she continued to work on novels. At first, she writes, she balked at the advice that she should master the short story, but taking the advice paid off:

Along the way, I learned that short stories were good for my longer-form fiction. Writing short stories taught me about the quick hook and the deep character. Shorts gave me space to experiment with unusual plots and story forms–future tense, epistolic format, black characters–which otherwise I would’ve considered too risky for the lengthy investment of a novel. (ix)

I am not really the target audience for this collection, because I have not read any of Jemisin’s novels, largely because I am not a big reader of scifi or fantasy. Still, I enjoy good short stories, so I thought I would give it a try.

In the collection, my favorite stories included  “Red Dirt Witch” which focuses on the fading power of an old order of witches and intersects with the Civil Rights Movement; the romantic “Cloud Dragon Skies”; “Valedictorian,” a dystopian story kind of reminiscent of YA fantasy, in which the lowest 10% plus the valedictorian are “culled” from each graduating class; “The Storyteller’s Replacement,” a dark fairytale about some tricky dragons and a king’s desire for a son; and “Cuisine des Memoires,” which features a restaurant that recreates meals that are historically or personally significant.

Although I did not love a lot of the stories as a matter of taste, I did enjoy seeing Jemisin play with some themes over and over. Frequently, she come back to the relationships between parents and children, the difficulty of being different, New York, New Orleans, and various imaginations of dystopian futures. I think that you can really see her growing as a writer throughout the collection and fans of her novels are bound to like this collection.


(Book Review) A History of America in Ten Strikes

a history of america in 10 strikesA History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis uses the history of labor strikes in the United States as a lens to look at broader trends in American history. The ten strikes include the Lowell Mill Girls strike, The Eight-Hour-Day Strikes, The Anthracite Strike, The Bread and Roses Strike, The Flight Sit-Down Strike, The Oakland General Strike, and strikes among air traffic controllers, slaves, janitors, and more. Through tracking these strikes, Loomis follows U.S. history from the Industrial Revolution to contemporary America.

The central thesis of Loomis’s book is that the history of labor strikes in the United States offers important insights into other “critical parts” of our history:

We cannot fight against pro-capitalist mythology in American society if we do not know our shared history of class struggle. This book reconsiders American history from the perspective of class struggle not by erasing the other critical parts of our history–the politics, the social change, and the struggles around race and gender–but rather by demonstrating how the history of worker uprisings shines a light on these other issues. (5)

More specifically, he argues that strikes are important moments for reasserting the struggles Americans share in common:

Strikes are moments of tremendous power precisely because they raise the stakes, bringing private moments of poverty and workplace indignity into the public spotlight. And unless you are a millionaire boss, we are all workers, if we only realize that all of us–farmworkers and teachers, insurance agents and construction workers, graduate students and union staffers–face bad bosses, financial instability, and the desperate need for dignity and respect on the job. (6)

As Loomis wraps his history, he turns to the contemporary moment in U.S. politics, especially the role of the white working class in the 2016 election and the decline of labor unions. He argues for a reassertion of the role of the worker and presents something of a call to action for workers to demand better labor policy:

We need to reorient American history in order to make it pro-worker again. First, workers have to take control over their own destiny in order to give themselves power. No government is going to do anything for workers if workers do not demand it first. (224)

Maybe, like me, you didn’t get any history of labor in your K-12 education, or at least not much.  What I found really useful about this book is the way that Loomis connects the strikes to much broader movements in U.S. history. For example, when discussing slave revolts, Loomis also discusses the role of slavery in the economy, the end of slavery, and more contemporary protests such as Black Lives Matter. He also connects strikes such as The Oakland General Strike to the birth and eventual decline of the middle class in the United States. The result of these far-reaching connections is that while Loomis provides very specific histories of the strikes themselves, he also gives a thorough look at American history that makes a great refresher on various important time periods. This book is a dense read, but I think it is an important look at the role of labor in American history, maybe especially given the economic troubles and shifts in the labor market during our own time.

(Book Review) The Perfect Girlfriend

The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton will be published March 26, 2019. I f5497cfb-5d26-4ff6-83b1-72d9eebf9cbfreceived an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

If you enjoyed You (either the novel by Caroline Kepnes or the Lifetime/Netflix series), then this novel could be a good next read for, well, you.

In The Perfect Girlfriend, Lily/Elizabeth/Juliette is obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, Nate, but she is giving him space. After all, that’s what he asked for when he broke up with her. She thought that they were destined to be together and was shocked when he asked her to move out, so she’s using that space to plan her return to his heart as well as revenge on his sister, the high-school bully who made her miserable.

This book is a tangled web and not all of the threads really weave together well. In particular, the backstory about a tragedy in Lily’s past is a bit extraneous. It does not really contribute to the character development or the plot and could have safely been edited out. The story also goes totally off the rails at the end. In the last 30ish pages, Lily/Juliette/Elizabeth goes so far in her pursuit of Nate that the result is very cringeworthy and unbelievable.

Nevertheless, this book is enjoyable in the way that a good Lifetime movie is. It’s not great, but it is plenty diverting when you just feel like snuggling under the covers and drinking tea. The story and characters are somewhat derivative of smash hits that came before The Perfect Girlfriend (Gone Girl, You, The Talented Mr. Ripley), but if you enjoyed those then you might really like this too. Although I am a bit tired of the disturbed, stalking, evil jilted woman character, I have to admit that I still like to see her at work. My favorite parts of this novel are when Juliette is schemeing. I liked seeing the pieces of the puzzle come together. She’ll do something devious and I’ll guess what she’s playing at, and then the result is often much worse than I thought. It’s fun and a little salacious and made a great read for a snowy weekend.

(Book Review) Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement

a37dc3fd-8b25-47ca-91ff-c8990c67bd87What a lovely, lovely, important book. Lighting the Fires of Freedom: African American Women in the Civil Rights Movement by Janet Dewart Bell includes interviews with nine black women about their work in the Civil Rights Movement, often emphasizing their focus on their intersectional experiences of race, gender, and class.

In Lighting the Fires of Freedom, Bell has given brief portraits of nine important women from the Civil Rights Movement and produced their stories in their own words, based on her interviews with them. The women included are Leah Chase, June Jackson Christmas, Aileen Hernandez, Diane Nash, Judy Richardson, Kathleen Cleaver, Gay McDougall, Gloria Richardson, and Myrlie Evers. Their experiences range from careers in publishing, psychiatry, and the law as well as work in the Civil Rights Movement including marching, taking part in the Freedom Rides, and losing loved ones to racial violence.

The book also features stories from women who were at different stages of their lives during the Civil Rights Movement and that gives an idea of how generational diversity came into play. For example, Leah Chase, who Tiana in The Princess and the Frog is based on, said:

“People my age, we were a bit frightened about it. It was so different from what we were trying to do. For instance, we were working with the NAACP, trying to work in the system, abide by the rules. Don’t offend this one. Don’t offend that one. And get it done. But then here comes the young people in the Movement and they said, ‘No. We gonna do this.’ And we thought, ‘Oh, God, what are they gonna do? What are they gonna do?’ People my age were kinda frightened. We didn’t know what was gonna happen.” (13)

In my dissertation, I had a chapter about Ruby Bridges and Sheyann Webb and Rachel West-Nelson and their personal account of the march in Selma, AL, Selma, Lord, Selma. For that chapter, I did a ton of research on young people in the Civil Rights Movement, so I was excited to read the profile on Diane Nash, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the group of young people behind important Civil Rights Movement events such as the Freedom Rides. She was eventually elected the chairperson of SNCC and offers these thoughts on her fears:

“It was daunting. I’m not sure I did overcome my fear. I just kept doing what had to be done. The fear was definitely there, but fear was also a great motivator, because I knew if we were not efficient someone could get killed or injured. So that fear, I think made us extremely efficient.” (98)

Judy Richardson, who also worked with SNCC and went on to a career in publishing, notes the importance of hearing women’s stories from the Movement and also to focus on how the Civil Rights Movement made things better for everyone:

“In terms of the legacy of the Movement, I think it’s important to recognize that we didn’t just change things for black folks…So for example, with affirmative action we open up the door for lots of different kinds of people. It’s not just Latinos and Asian Americans who come in. That Stanford University study of affirmative action found it is white women who most benefited from affirmative action, and I’m thinking, ‘Well, somebody needs to tell them!'” (127).

On the intersection of race and gender, Gay McDougall, who worked in the anti-apartheid movement, said:

“Gender discrimination was everywhere, except at home, because my home and my extended family were very women dominated. But everywhere outside of home was male dominated. There were the churches, there were the schools. It’s interesting in the schools–most of them had female teachers but had male leadership and administration people. I think it was everywhere. Certainly all through the Civil Rights Movement.” (162)

I definitely recommend this book for people who are interested in both the history of the Civil Rights Movement and first-person accounts of individuals’ parts in it. The book does a great job of providing brief, poignant stories from the perspectives of women who were part of the Civil Rights Movement in various capacities and at different stages of their lives. In doing so, it provides a glimpse at the diverse opinions, talents, and perspectives that went into big moments in the Movement.

How to fix a watch band with a blowtorch

A couple of months ago, my mom gave me one of my dad’s watches. It’s a neat, self-winding watch, but, because it’s a men’s watch and I have small wrists, the band was too big. I tried to find a replacement band that would fit both the watch and me, but all I could find was the exact same band.

Empowered with the knowledge that I could replace the band if I needed to, I hit some message boards to see if watch afficianados had any advice on how to add a notch to a nylon watch band. Above you’ll see the result. Worked like a charm.