The Devils Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea

2912C833-EC19-4E44-A72B-70B58A50E35BA friend gave me her copy of The Devil’s Highway, and told me I had to read it. This was back in February, and I just wasn’t into it. I couldn’t motivate myself to pick it up. However, in the last few weeks with all thats going on with family separation at the US border I felt compelled to finally pick up this book.

Here is a little about this book.

In May 2001, a group of men attempted to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona, through the deadliest region of the continent, the “Devil’s Highway.” Three years later, Luis Alberto Urrea wrote about what happened to them. The result was a national bestseller, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a “book of the year” in multiple newspapers, and a work proclaimed as a modern American classic.

This book is so well crafted. It is a heartbreaking story, however there is still strength in its telling.  Urrea uses beautiful yet uncomplicated prose to describe the story of the US-Mexico border and all those who are caught navigating it’s terrain.

The Devil’s Highway is the story of one group that is representative of a greater population. Those people who feel that life has gotten too hard where ever they are, that it is better to leave home and try to find something better. Even if that means going through hell.

I think it trivializes the magnitude of this book to say it is “timely”. It does speak to this current political moment, but it was written over 15 years ago, and it spoke to that moment as well. It speaks to any moment where one group of people is trying to keep out another group. It speaks to humanity. It speaks to human nature. That is what makes this book powerful. It is about how we treat one another, when the option is, to be kind or to be cruel.

Urrea makes a point to include the narratives not only of the men walking through the desert, but also that of the coyotes, and the border agents, and the US law enforcement. He includes consulate workers from Mexico, and families of those men who left home. He is inclusive in his work, and yet he is clear in his point of view. Its a challenging balancing act, that Urrea executes perfectly. It is what gives this book credence and authenticity.

This book is graphic, and there are moments where I wanted to turn away from the story, because it was overwhelming and bleak. This book is wonderful. It is powerful. It made me feel things. It allowed me space to think about immigration and compassion. It has allowed me more perspective as I think about what it means to be American, and who has to stay out, so I can stay in.

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The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantu

AF357627-167C-4A24-A9EB-25093AF52EB2Before I say anything about this book, here is the premise.

For Francisco Cantú, the border is in the blood: his mother, a park ranger and daughter of a Mexican immigrant, raised him in the scrublands of the Southwest. Haunted by the landscape of his youth, Cantú joins the Border Patrol. He and his partners are posted to remote regions crisscrossed by drug routes and smuggling corridors, where they learn to track other humans under blistering sun and through frigid nights. They haul in the dead and deliver to detention those they find alive. Cantú tries not to think where the stories go from there.

Plagued by nightmares, he abandons the Patrol for civilian life. But when an immigrant friend travels to Mexico to visit his dying mother and does not return, Cantú discovers that the border has migrated with him, and now he must know the whole story. Searing and unforgettable, The Line Becomes a River goes behind the headlines, making urgent and personal the violence our border wreaks on both sides of the line.

This book enraged me. I found it to be a self serving and romantic look at immigration into The United States. Cantu’s story is told through short glimpses into his life. He tells us little antidotes of how he was kind to an immigrant he captured on the border, of how he literally takes the shirt off his back to give one man, and how he asks people their names. He tells us so much of his humanity, and so much of the humanity of all the border agents around him. Even the bad ones come off as not that bad, they’re Cantu’s friends after all. The problem is there is no journalistic integrity. Cantu never sites anything about his experiences, there are no dates, no records, no direct quotes. So how are we to know if any of this book really even happened? And if it did, did it happen how he says?

Every once and a while Cantu will give us a little historical context into the border, its development, the changes in its policing, and the violence that has led so many to leave central America looking for a better life in the USA. In these more academic moments, Cantu does use quotes from other writers. Thankfully. Its the only time actual quotations are used.

The Line Becomes a River is a love letter to Cantu. He writes about his trauma and his growth and the things that haunt him and the things he’s scared of, and his dreams, so much about his dreams. Its a memoir, so of course it’ll be told through his lens. However this book takes it to the extreme. He always does the right thing. He is never in the wrong, he just happens to be in the wrong profession (a profession he chose to go into for perspective). He is always our hero. There is however no one to corroborate any of his stories. It might all be fiction, how are we to know?

There is another conversation at play here, and that comes from Cantu’s desire to be a border agent in the first place. He says its because, after studying the border in college, he wants to see the border in a new way. He wants to be on the front lines. I got the sense that this book was always in the back of his mind. That when he took the job, he knew his experiences would become something more, a vehicle for him.

Cantu tells us, he is trying to humanize the immigrants he comes in contact with, but even that falls short. I couldn’t stop thinking about how the whole book felt like a ode to himself. His growth, his ability to see the humanity that others missed, his trauma, his struggling, his triumph. He is so centered in the book, its hard to believe he really can see anyone else.

When The Line Becomes a River received a lot a criticism after its release, Cantu took to twitter and said the following

“To be clear: during my years as a BP agent, I was complicit in perpetuating institutional violence and flawed, deadly policy. My book is about acknowledging that, it’s about thinking through the ways we normalize violence and dehumanize migrants as individuals and as a society.

I’m not here to defend BP. But I am here to listen and learn from the ways my writing may be construed to normalize, eroticize, or beautify border violence, and the ways my voice may amplified at the expense of those who suffer from it. Ultimately, I’m here to work against it.”

Even this clarification feels a little off. Cantu was not, as he states complicit, he was an active participant. Just like in the book, he misses the fact that he enables this activity and behavior. And it is worth noting, he does not ever truly condemn the border patrol or the US policies around immigration as violent, hostile, or hateful. He more notes that these things are true, but doesn’t do any work to say why it is that way. Just thats how it is, and isn’t it so sad that he had to live through this.

The last third of the book focuses on Cantu’s journey on the other side of the system. His undoucmented Mexican friend isn’t allowed back in the USA. Simply befriending an undocumented immigrant and helping out while he goes through court proceedings, does not wash away Cantu’s sins. Asking us to believe that it does is condescending.  It also does not mean that you’re humanizing other undocumented people. Cantu’s one experience is not neccessarily indicative of the greater picture, no matter how many pages he writes about it.

Cantu’s sense of entitlement to these stories is felt through out this book. Without any real research or journalistic integrity, we are told this story. We are asked to follow this man and trust his observations, because he is Mexican America, because he worked in border patrol, because he was given a book deal. I simply could not buy in. I don’t believe you should have to either. I would not suggest you read this book. If you’re looking for books about immigration that are both good stories and give insight into the lives of migrants and/or the border patrol look into, The Devil’s HighwayThe Far Away Brothers, and Tell Me How It Ends.Each of these books uses well sited research and beautiful writing to tell stories from the border. In addition, Radio Lab has a fantastic (and also very graphic) three part podcast about the border that is wonderful. I think these are all a much better use of your time.

Did you read this book? What did you think? I would love to hear your opinions. Comment below.

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Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

4387B5FD-4304-4C6C-AE33-3F41ACB0136CA few years ago, I fell in love with reading books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one of the most respected journalists of that subject is Sebastian Junger. He helped to create the film Restrepo which I love, and write the book War which is really good. When I saw that he wrote another book about the struggles that face our veterans when they return home, I couldn’t resist it.

If you’re not familiar with Tribehere is a little more about this book.

Decades before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin lamented that English settlers were constantly fleeing over to the Indians-but Indians almost never did the same. Tribal society has been exerting an almost gravitational pull on Westerners for hundreds of years, and the reason lies deep in our evolutionary past as a communal species. The most recent example of that attraction is combat veterans who come home to find themselves missing the incredibly intimate bonds of platoon life. The loss of closeness that comes at the end of deployment may explain the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today.

Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, TRIBE explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. It explains the irony that-for many veterans as well as civilians-war feels better than peace, adversity can turn out to be a blessing, and disasters are sometimes remembered more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations. TRIBE explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.

I thought this book would be about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I thought it would be stories of individual soldiers and their journeys through PTSD and how they did or didn’t find community. That is not what this book is at all. It is more of an essay on how we need to rethink our social obligations to one another. How important having a “tribe” is. And that these tribes, weather they be neighborhood or nation, help to keep humans mentally healthy.

Junger weaves in a lot of context of the power of tribe through discussing American Indian tribes (as well as other cultures more generally) and how they treat one another. How they work and live together, what things are needed to succeed, and what transgressions can not be tolerated. It is all interesting and gave me a lot to think about. He compares these tribes with American society, where they differ, and how these differences can be devastating on human survival. The book is less about the military than I thought it would be, and that was a welcome surprise. Junger is drawing larger conclusions about American society as a whole, and then connects those overreaching ideas with the military.

For the most part the book is thought provoking and well done. I loved hearing alternative theories about PTSD and more. He makes great points and really shifted my thinking about mental health. I did listen to Tribe on audiobook, and I think that Junger’s tone negatively colored my understanding of the book. Junger can be condescending. He presents his theories as fact and doesn’t leave room for any push back. He can be a little harsh. The book is short, he doesn’t give much credence to any alternative opinions.

I think this book is interesting, I know that I look at society, soldiers, and how we can do better as a people, differently thanks to Junger. I think if you’re interested in sociology and human behavior this book would make a great fit.

  • Harcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve; 1 edition (May 24, 2016)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Tribe on Amazon
  • Listen to Tribe on Audible (for free 30-day trial and audiobook download click here)

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

 

 

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington

C453A6E7-C6C0-4746-BDF9-2E68F8A3D081Before I share any of my thoughts, here is a little bit about Harriet A. Washington’s book.

Medical Apartheid is the first and only comprehensive history of medical experimentation on African Americans. Starting with the earliest encounters between black Americans and Western medical researchers and the racist pseudoscience that resulted, it details the ways both slaves and freedmen were used in hospitals for experiments conducted without their knowledge—a tradition that continues today within some black populations. It reveals how blacks have historically been prey to grave-robbing as well as unauthorized autopsies and dissections. Moving into the twentieth century, it shows how the pseudoscience of eugenics and social Darwinism was used to justify experimental exploitation and shoddy medical treatment of blacks, and the view that they were biologically inferior, oversexed, and unfit for adult responsibilities. Shocking new details about the government’s notorious Tuskegee experiment are revealed, as are similar, less-well-known medical atrocities conducted by the government, the armed forces, prisons, and private institutions.

This book is a major accomplishment on Washington’s part. It took her years of schooling and preparation to even be able to learn the correct way to speak of these medical abuses. You can sense her passion on the issues that are brought forth, and her immense understanding of all the forces at play. This book is ambitious and vast, and for that I am eternally grateful to Washington’s patience.

Aside from exposing the many atrocities against Black bodies, one of the most important things this book does is give context to the common idea that Black people are scared of medicine and doctors. Iatrophobia is the fear of doctors and medical treatment, and after reading this book you will come to understand that the Black communities fears are well founded.

The detailed language and intricacies of this book are admirable, however they do not make for an easy read. I really struggled to get through this book. Not only because the subject matter is devastating and infuriating, but also because the book is dense. Medical Apartheid is closer to reading a text book than anything else. It is a detailed history, and Washington takes herself and her subjects seriously. While there is great care to make sure the reader understands the medical jargon, there are plenty of statistics and clinical terms through out this book. There is a lot to get tripped up on. I made it through this book, but I had to work hard. I had to earn it.

The reward is an extremely well written expose on medical practices that target Black Americans. We are led from Marion Sims’ experiments on his female slaves through to governmental chemical attacks on Black neighborhoods in the American South. There is much that has been hidden away about the racist treatment of Blacks in this country, this book scrapes the surfaces of these events.

If you’re not sure you’re ready for such a dense look at a deeply troubling topic, you might consider reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which deals with one example of medical malpractice and theft of Black patients. Another book about racism in America is Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. I think Stamped from the Beginning (you can see my full review here) makes a great companion read with Medical Apartheid, as it dives into racism in America in a way that I have not often seen in books about race.

I recommend this book to anyone who is passionate about understanding anti-Black racism in The United States, anyone who works in fields where they conduct experiments on humans, or anyone passionate about medicine. Give yourself time, and be patient. This book is worth it.

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (January 8, 2008)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Medical Apartheid on Amazon
  • Listen to Medical Apartheid on Audible (for your free 30-day trial and audiobook download click here)

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Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

7E239298-DBDB-4CD3-80C7-7FDFF44C5003.JPG

I have never read an advice column in my life. It is not something I seek out, or something that I have any interest in. Well, now that I’ve read Tiny Beautiful Things, that has all changed. Now, I love advice columns, but only if Cheryl Strayed is giving the advice.

If you’re not familiar with the Rumpus magazine’s Dear Sugar column here is a little of what you can expect from this book.

This bestselling book from the author of Wild collects the best of The Rumpus’s Dear Sugar advice columns plus never-before-published pieces. Rich with humor, insight, compassion—and absolute honesty—this book is a balm for everything life throws our way.

This books is special. It is full of advice. That at once seems obvious and still unique and is specific and still universal. Strayed does a thorough and compassionate job of answering the letters. She is never condescending and seems to always come from a place of working it out the best you can. Which is often harder than it sounds. She reminds people they know the answer, or she guides them toward what she thinks is right, or she shuts them down, or she builds them up. She seems to know how much of each ingredient her response needs and takes her time to doll it out.

If you don’t know Strayed, which at the time of writing to “Sugar” these people in need of advice didn’t. You assume the woman answering the questions has her whole life together, and always has. But if you do know Strayed, you know thats not true. I won’t spoil her life for you (you can read it all about it in Wild or watch Reese Witherspoon in the movie), but she has lived a big life. Its what makes her advice so precise and potent.

I don’t think I related to a lot of the letters, but some of them might as well have been written by me. I would imagine everyone who reads this book feels that at some point. Some, perhaps the best ones, are questions you’d never think to ask, but you’re so glad someone did because you needed to hear the answer.

I’m grateful to this book, I have suggested it to a lot of people. I have even mentioned it on The Stacks podcast (Ep.9 at the 39:30 mark). Everyone who has read it has enjoyed it, found it interesting at the very least and some have found it life changing. I’m grateful to this book for helping me, and those I love to see life in a new and special way.

I listened to this book, and Strayed reads it. I fell in love with her voice and her cadence and if you’re so inclined this is a fantastic audiobook. I went back a few times to listen to my favorite ones again and again. Hearing Strayed say “sweet pea” is better than I could’ve imagined.

The best news is, I just found out (and I realize this makes me very late to this party) that there is a Dear Sugars podcast, with Cheryl Strayed and the Sugar before her, Steve Almond. So once you’ve read the book go listen to the podcast. More Sugar to go around.

Read this book. Share it with a loved one. Chances are they will take something meaningful away from this book, and thats a tiny beautiful ting indeed.

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page (https://www.patreon.com/thestacks). We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of The Stacks.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

IMG_6194 2Have you ever picked up a book thinking, this is “my kind of book”? Before you read it, before you even hear other people’s opinion of it, you know this is a book for you? Well, thats how I felt about New Boy by Tracy Chevalier, a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. It is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, a group of novels written based on Shakespeare plays.  I knew it was going to be a hit with me, I love Shakespeare, so I even made it a pick for The Stacks Book Club. The only problem is, I ended up not liking the book at all.

Here is a little more about the book, before I dive into my thoughts.

The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Peeking over the shoulders of four 11 year olds – Osei, Dee, Ian, and his reluctant ‘girlfriend’ Mimi – Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.

Even re-reading that blurb of the book, makes me excited about all its potential. However, Chevalier does not deliver. The racism and bigotry in this book is handled as if it is no big deal. Its a lazy and inaccurate depiction of how prejudice works in America and on the school yard. The teachers, refer to Osei as the “bla— new boy” as if they are caught in the urge to say black, but must be PC. Considering how overtly racist these characters are, these seems like a unrealistic, false modesty. Its contrived at best. The book would be better off being more direct, the title should be Black Boy. The teachers should call Osei “colored” (as they would have in the 1970’s) and the current political correctness should be done away with.

This is the root problem with this book, there is no punch. There is no edge. There is no hurt. Its all a little too clean, and kind. If you’re talking about racism, lets talk about it. Its too big of a deal to get polite and shy away. Shakespeare certainly didn’t. IMG_6171

There is another major flaw in the story telling. There is no where for Osei to fall. In all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, those who end up as the tragic characters (Hamlet, MacBeth, Romeo and Juliet etc.) start off high and end in utter disrepair. The plays start off as near comedies, and then there is the fall. Othello, is leading ranks in the army, beloved by his troops, newly married, and off on another great battle. In New Boy, Osei is hated from the moment he walks on the school yard. Students notice him and shun him right away. He is nothing and therefore has nothing to lose. There are no stakes. The same is true of the Iago character, Ian. Ian is hated by all the kids, everyone is terrified of him, and he is known as a bully. Why would anyone ever listen to or trust him? In Othello, Iago is constantly called “honest Iago” and people love and trust him. This is what makes his betrayal and lies so devastating. We don’t see any of this in New Boy.

The book takes place over the course of a school day, this also diminishes any chance of building real emotions and consequences. How could any one of these children want to destroy one another after just a day? Chevalier really belittles her efforts by narrowing the time frame and the characters in this way.

This book minimizes the many characters and their motivations. It also neglects to embrace the complexity of racism and the feelings of entitlement that are clear in Shakespeare’s original. Chevalier has successfully stripped away much of what makes Othello great, and leaves us with the most simple and trivial version of what was once a complex and nuanced narrative.

I would not recommend this book to anyone, unless you’re planning to read through all of the Hogarth Shakespeare collection to compare the work of many contemporary artists, and to see how they each dive into Shakespeare’s source material. The good thing is that New Boy is very short, and an easy read. Its too bad the content isn’t any good. There are so many books on race, alienation, betrayal, and entitlement, that I can not suggest you spend time on this one. Honestly, you’re much better off reading the original (you can find my full review of that here).

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth; Reprint edition (February 13, 2018)
  • 1/5 stars
  • Buy New Boy on Amazon

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here

The Stacks Book Club June Picks

790DB80A-4D74-426E-B8D9-052C6E9265FA.JPGHere are the next picks for The Stacks Book Club. These books will be covered in the month of June on The Stacks Podcast. Make sure you read the books and then join us for our in depth conversations.

June 6th, I’ll be joined by actress, Vella Lovell and  we will discuss Tracy Chevalier’s  New Boy. This book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, in which contemporary author’s reimagine Shakespeare’s plays. New Boy, is a retelling of Othello, set in a 1970’s suburban Washington School yard.

On June 20th join founder of Black Arrow FC, Aaron Dolores, will join the show to discuss How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer. This book uses soccer as a lens to reexamine the most pressing issues of our day, from globalization to racial and cultural dynamics. We’re reading this book at the start of the World Cup, to help contextualize the most popular sport and sporting event on the planet.

Once you’ve read the books, don’t be shy. Please send over your thoughts and questions so we can incorporate them into the podcast. You can leave a comment here, or find us on our Instagram @thestackspod.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.