October Reading Wrap-Up 2019

October was my best reading month so far in 2019. Not only did I read the most books I’ve read in a month (eleven), but I also had the most five star reads (three). I did have a few two star reads, which is never fun, but you can’t win them all. The stand outs this month were Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds, Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, and Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. Read below for mini-reviews of everything I read in October.

October by the Numbers

Total Books Read: 11
Audiobooks: 2
Five Star Reads: 3
Unread Shelf: 1
Books Acquired: 26

By Women Authors: 5
By Authors of Color: 10
By Queer Authors: 2
Nonfiction Reads: 3
Published in 2019: 6

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

(Photo: amazon.com)

The story of August, a twelve year old Black girl navigating a new life in Brooklyn. She moves north, with her father and brother, after her mother’s death. It’s the story of August growing up, finding new friends, and creating space her own space in the world.

This book is the best coming of age story I’ve ever read. She nails what it feels like to be Black and young and fearless and terrified and longing and female and free. Woodson understands what it means to be searching and to be found. The complexities of getting older are handled with care but without any sense of preciousness. And she does all of this in less than 200 pages. That kind of brevity is rare, and a sign of true mastery.

The love between August and her three friends speaks powerfully to beauty of Black female friendships. At times it took my breath away. There is an ease to Woodson’s writing that makes these young women come to life wholly and authentically. She doesn’t attempt to smooth over the traumas or stifle the triumphs Instead there is a reality filled with pain and heartbreak, and with so much joy.

Five Stars | Amistad | May 30, 2017| 192 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound


A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua

The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here.
(Photo: amazon.com)

Two pregnant women living in a secret maternity home in Los Angeles decide to escape north to San Francisco and raise their children free of constraint and expectation of their Chinese families in this novel.

First off, Hua is a really beautiful writer, she balances her sentences between art and information in a way that is enjoyable to read. The truth is, I just couldn’t connect with the story. I liked the lead characters and the plot moved, but nothing grabbed me. I didn’t feel that I had a stake in what happened to the people in this story one way or the other. I did listen to this book on audio, and its possible that the narrator was what didn’t work for me. All of this is to say, if you like novels about unconventional women who blaze their own trails, this might be a book for you.

Two Stars | Random House Audio | August 14, 2018 | 10 Hours 54 Minutes | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound


Black Card by Chris L. Terry

(Photo: amazon.com)

In this lightly satirical novel we follow our narrator as tries to get back his Black card, that’s been revoked. If you’re looking for comparison, this book felt like the mixed kids version of the TV show Atlanta. It’s funny, a little surreal, and sometimes felt smarter/more clever than me.

Overall I liked it. Terry is clearly a creative thinker and grappling with what it is to be mixed, and how that relates to both Blackness and Whiteness, and why that matters. I love seeing stories told about being more than one thing when it comes to race and ethnicity, because there are so many of us mixed kids out there (not just Black and White, but all sorts of combinations).

Three Stars | Catapult | August 13, 2019 | 272 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound
Hear our conversation with Chris L. Terry on The Stacks HERE.


Henry V by William Shakespeare

(Photo: amazon.com)

Henry V, a play you might not know, but you’ve probably heard a few famous lines from.
“Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more”
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”
The play follows Henry, the new king, as he grapples with the responsibility of going to war, and what that says about him as a leader and as a man.

While I’m pretty over stories about Kings contemplating and ultimately going to war, I did get a lot out of this play. Henry has some wonderful speeches and meditates on some pretty heady stuff. This play got me thinking a lot about the responsibility of our leaders to the people versus the well being of the nation versus their own lust for power and legacy. It asks questions of who has blood on their hands? Is it the soldiers or the king that sends them to war? It all feels topical given what is going on in the world.

As a reader I loved reading the monologues from King Henry, but other parts fell flat, like the comedic bar scenes. There’s also a pretty spectacular courting scene in the play’s final act that shows how lacking in humanity our king is when he’s faced with courting (or conquering) a woman.

Three Stars | Pelican Shakespeare | September 1, 1999 | 121 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound


Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds

The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here.
(Photo: amazon.com)

A collection of short stories of middle school kids walking home from school. The stories are all unique and individual, but they intersect with the other stories in one way or another. It is a beautiful book about the few minutes a day kids are left unsupervised and get to experience the world on their own.

Something that Jason Reynolds is able to do with this Look Both Ways is see the humanity in his characters. These kids have all had experiences that have shaped them, some more traumatic than others, but he finds a way to present this without making the kids their trauma. The characters are full of life and joy and they are impossible to forget. Its also worth noting, Reynolds can write! His prose are rich without being over worked. He doesn’t preach to his audience, he sees his reader and shares with them. As someone who doesn’t read YA or middle grade books, Look Both Ways was a welcome surprise that brought me to life as a reader and reminded me of goodness. It is a favorite read of 2019 for sure!

Five Stars | Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books | October 8, 2019 | 208 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound


Movies (and Other Things) by Shea Serrano

(Photo: amazon.com)

Shea Serrano is hilarious and so smart. In his book Movies (and Other Things) he asks questions about movies and then answers them. It sounds like a pretty straight forward concept, but the genius in Shea Serrano is that he finds new and exciting ways to look at movies and the world. He opens up the conversation around movies so that you feel like you’re debating with your friend, and challenging yourself to see movies differently.

This book is laugh out loud funny. Not just the ideas behind it, but there are sentences that are so accurate you can’t help but laugh. Its not all funny (mostly it is) there is a little more going on in this one, for instance, the chapter on Selena talks about what it means to be Mexican American and the struggles of being two things at once. Of course, Serrano infuses his signature voice and his humor, but its more than that, trust me.

The only complaint I have about this book is that if you don’t know the movies or the genre, it can be a little harder to engage with certain chapters. Gangster movies aren’t my thing, so I felt a little lost when looking at the quintessential gangster movie scenes. Overall, if you like movies, you’ll get a kick out of this book.

Four Stars | Twelve Books | October 8, 2019 | 256 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound


Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

(Photo: amazon.com)

The story of the Han family and their Chinese restaurant, The Beijing Duck House. When there is a fire that sets the restaurant a blaze the world of the Han family and their employees is shaken up and we’re left to sort the pieces.

This one wasn’t for me. It was too long and felt repetitive. I wasn’t excited by the characters or the plot, but rather felt like I was just going through the motions to get to the end of the book. There were some cute moments, and one scene at the end that was wonderful, but overall this wasn’t something that I enjoyed reading. I do think, however, this books would make a fantastic movie, in fact the whole time I was reading it I was wishing the movie already existed. The nuances of family drama might translate better to the screen, and certainly the food would be more appetizing that way.

Two Stars | Picador | June 19, 2018 | 304 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound


Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here.
(Photo: amazon.com)

The story of one Black family through time and place. We start in 2001 at 16 year old Melody’s coming of age ceremony and then unwrap the layers that make her family fragmented, strong, unique, and whole.

Woodson understands and articulates what it means to be Black and female in America, and this book puts her ability on display. She captures the delicious subtleties of life. In Red at the Bone we see class and race and gender norms and sexuality and so much humanity, and we get to see it all through the beautiful prose of Woodson. Woodson who is a master of brevity that lands a punch. I’m not sure this specific story will stick with me in five years, but I know that the feeling of reading Jacqueline Woodson will never fade.

Four Stars | Riverhead Books | September 17, 2019 | 208 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound


Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat

(Photo: amazon.com)

We don’t normally read and review cookbooks around here, but we also are willing to try anything once, and I’m so glad we did. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a cookbook about the elements that make up everything we eat. Nosrat breaks it all down in the first 200 pages of the book, explaining each element and how to use it, and then give us 200+ pages of basic recipes to practice our skills.

This book is simply fantastic! I like to cook, but often feel I don’t know how to without detailed instructions. I find myself glued to my recipes and in a mild state of anxiety when trying something new. This book gives anyone the tools to make choices about how to cook and how to improvise. Its empowering. I would be remiss not to mentions the gorgeous illustrations from Wendy McNaughton. I can honestly say this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever owned.

Three Stars | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | October 22, 2019 | 480 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound
We discuss Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat on The Stacks Book Club, you can hear that conversation by clicking HERE.


Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

(Photo: amazon.com)

A look at why humans are so bad at understanding and engaging with “strangers”. This book is deeply flawed and highly problematic. I found the arguments made to be harmful and irresponsible. In the past I’ve considered myself a Gladwell fan (I’ve read all his books and listened to his podcast) but this book feels like he’s reached his own tipping point, it is Gladwell for Gladwell’s sake.

One glaring is that there is no clear definition of the word “stranger”. We’re led through stories of people meeting for the first time and then of colleagues who’ve worked together for decades, and both are treated the same, we’re told they’re strangers. That can’t be.

Gladwell is a gifted storyteller (which is made all the more clear through his fantastic narration of the audiobook) and is known for making compelling arguments. Our understanding of who he is helps as he shifts from interesting scientific studies to unsubstantiated claims without batting an eye. He is riding on intellectual credit, but the arguments are weak at best when we look at them more deeply.

The most offensive piece of this book is his unwillingness to take power, sexism, and racism into account when discussing people and events like Larry Nassar, The Stanford Rape Case, and Sandra Bland. Instead of discussing racism and race he opts to discuss “misunderstanding”. Instead of discussing the power dynamics of sexual assault he expounds the harms of binge drinking, but nothing of misogyny. It’s a big mess, and he should’ve done better.

The book feels like an attempt to be both relevant and placate people who are tired of “identity politics”. He moves from one hot button issue to the next without any subtlety or nuance. He is name dropping iconic incidents to insure buzz for the book, instead of crafting compelling arguments that stand up to scrutiny. This book was enraging and irresponsible.

Two Stars | Hachette Audio | September 10, 2019 | 8 Hours 42 Minutes | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound


We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

(Photo: amazon.com)

This satirical novel takes place in the near-future American South where Black people are caged in ghettos, and there are experimental treatments that will “demelanize” the black out of people (if you can afford it). It is in this world, where we find our narrator, a Black man, his White wife, and his mixed son.

More than anything else, while reading this book I kept thinking to myself, “Maurice Carlos Ruffin” is a smart person. His writing left me feeling taken care of, and I trusted that he had put thought into this world. That’s not to say that I always felt connected, or that I liked everything in this book, or that I didn’t think it could be cut down by at least 70 pages. I felt those things, and that I was reading the words of a smart and thoughtful author. My biggest issue with the book is that I wanted more world building. I wanted to know how America got to where it was when the reader shows up. I felt there were details missing that I wanted to know. Overall the book is thought provoking and examines race in a way that we so rarely see in literature these days.

Three Stars | One World | January 29, 2019 | 336 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound
We discuss We Cast a Shadow on The Stacks Book Club, you can hear that conversation by clicking HERE. You can also hear author, Maurice Carlos Ruffin on The Short Stacks HERE.


The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Short Stacks 25: Maurice Carlos Ruffin//We Cast a Shadow

Maurice Carlos Ruffin is the author of We Cast a Shadow, and joins The Short Stacks to tell us about his process in writing this satirical, speculative fiction novel. We get to talk about what music fueled this novel, how his hometown of New Orleans figures into his work, and how he finds balance between being a writer and lawyer.
There are no spoilers in this episode.

LISTEN NOW

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Everything we talk about on today’s episode can be found below in the show notes. If you’d like to support your local independent bookstore, you can shop through IndieBound.

Connect with Maurice: Twitter | Instagram

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The Stacks received All This Could be Yours from the publisher. For more information click here.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

July 2019 Reading Wrap-Up

As this year has been progressing my reading has been slowing down in a major way. I only made it through seven books in July. I need to read at least eight books a month to hit my goal for 100 books in 2019, so I’ve got to pick it back up in August.

As far as what I read, I really enjoyed everything and the content was very diverse for women in business to forensic investigations. I think the two books thats really stood out were We Live for the We by Dani McClain and The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. Both books were read for the podcast, and I’m very grateful to Dani McClain for bringing them into my life. I also loved Michelle Obama’s memoir, though that was to be expected. She is such an inspirational woman.

July by the Numbers

Total Books Read: 7
Audiobooks: 2
Five Star Reads: 0
Unread Shelf: 2
Books Acquired: 23

By Women Authors: 4
By Authors of Color: 3
By Queer Authors: 0
Nonfiction Reads: 6
Published in 2019: 1


Becoming by Michelle Obama

(Photo: amazon.com)

There is no doubt Michelle Obama is a national treasure and getting to hear about her life in her own words was such a wonderful experience. This memoir spans her childhood through the end of her husband, Barack Obama’s, presidency. She shares the ways her mother helped to shape her into the woman she is now, and she shares the ways she is shaping her own daughters. I was especially taken with the parts of the book in which we got an inside look at moments we had only seen through the media (the killing of Osama Bin Laden or when she touched The Queen).

The one place I wanted more from this book was when it came to what Michelle has learned and seen with her inside access to America. She and her family experienced so much racism and hatred from large swaths of the country, what did those experiences say to her about America? What did her inside access to the rich and famous say about income inequality? What has she seen that the rest of us could never fully understand? I just wished Michelle Obama was more candid in her observations about America. This was minor compared with how much I loved the book and her story and how much I felt inspired by her as a Black woman.

Four Stars | Random House Audio | November 13, 2018 | 19 Hours 3 Minutes | Audiobook | Purchase on IndieBound


How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman, M.D.

(Photo: amazon.com)

An inside look at how doctors approach their patients and their work. This book answers questions about why a doctor might miss a diagnosis, or opt out of administering a test. It also looks at how patients can guide their doctors in the right direction within their interactions, and how they can help them to think differently about their presenting symptoms.

Overall I liked this book, though at times, I drifted in and out of paying attention as git repetitive in sections. The earlier chapters were more enjoyable as a lot of the information was new. I wished Groopman had taken more time to look at the factors that play into our implicit biases like race and class. That could have made for a more full and nuanced book that could help change the way doctors and patients interact.

Three Stars | Tantor Audio | March 28, 2007 | 10 Hours 27 Minutes | Audiobook | Purchase on IndieBound


The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

(Photo: amazon.com)

A deep dive into the forensics and death industry and the corruption that lives just below the surface. This book is a jaw dropper, it will make you think about the systems that are in place in America and how they play into a history of racism that has led to the imprisonment of a disproportionate number of Black and Brown men.

I really enjoyed learning about this small part of the criminal justice system. The book is extremely well researched and reported and the stories in it are nearly unbelievable. I wished the authors had been more clear in linking the history of death investigation to the story they tell of one coroner and one forensic “expert”. There are missing links in this book that could round out the story telling. Overall it is interesting and opens the readers eyes to so much corruption. It almost feels like a gateway book into deeper dives into how forensics play a role in wrongful convictions and more.

Three Stars | PublicAffairs: 1st edition | February 27, 2018 | 416 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound
Listen to Radley Balko on The Short Stacks now, click HERE. We also discuss The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist in detail for The Stacks Book Club, click HERE to listen.


The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

(Photo: amazon.com)

The sudden death of her husband leads Elizabeth Alexander to reflect on life and love in this gorgeous memoir. Full of the kinds of observations about what it means to truly live a full life and what it means to be a part of a community, and a family.

I was shocked by how much I enjoyed this book. It is just beautiful. Alexander is a skilled poet and she seamlessly transitions her writing from verse to prose in this memoir. The book has a sense of deep pain but also extreme lightness. For anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one this book speaks to the magic that is inherent in that pain.

Four Stars | Grand Central Publishing; Reprint edition | September 6, 2016 | 240 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound
We discuss Light of the World on The Stacks Book Club, you can hear that conversation by clicking HERE.


The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

(Photo: amazon.com)

The Merchant of Venice is one of William Shakespeare’s more famous plays and is best known for being the play about “the Jew” but little more is said about this extremely complex and nuanced play. I was so glad to actually get a chance to reread it and attempt to examine the layers in this story.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, the Jew, lends out money and it isn’t repaid per the terms of the loan, and Shylock is ready to collect on the debt he is owed (pound of flesh anyone?). However once it turns out that he plans to fully collect everyone becomes incredulous and begs him to show a little mercy and compassion. This is an extremely common narrative in today’s society. After the murder of nine Black people at a church in Charleston, SC there was an immediate cry for the Black community to forgive the White Supremacist who murder these innocent people. We even saw the Black President of The United States, Barack Obama, sing “Amazing Grace” in his eulogy. This cry for mercy and forgiveness is often asked of “the other”.

There is a lot more that could be said about The Merchant of Venice, so far in my journey through Shakespeare’s cannon (#ShakeTheStacks Challenge) it feels like the most layered play. It feels urgent and painful and unfortunately more timely than I would like.

Four Stars | Penguin Classics | August 1, 2008 | 103 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound


We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood by Dani McClain

The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here.
(Photo: amazon.com)

A book that looks at the many elements of mothering for Black women. The book moves between McClain’s personal doubts and questions and her reporting on how other mothers are doing the work to raise their children in progressive and engaged ways.

I didn’t think I would connect with this book as someone who isn’t a mother, and yet, I was moved deeply by it. We Live for the We is a great reminder that the work of parenting and mothering is not only for those who have birthed or adopted children, but also to the friends and relatives who help shape those young lives. The book takes on a variety of topics that intersect and build off one another, things like pregnancy, children’s bodies, education, and activism. There is a lot in this book that is important for those who parent of all races, but especially for Black mothers.

Four Stars | Bold Type Books | April 2, 2019 | 272 Pages | Hardcover | Purchase on IndieBound
Hear our conversation with Dani McClain on The Stacks HERE


WorkParty: How to Create & Cultivate the Career of Your Dreams by Jaclyn Johnson

The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here.
(Photo: amazon.com)

Jaclyn Johnson (of Create & Cultivate fame) knows her stuff. She is a smart woman with a lot of insight and a very clear voice and point of view. I didn’t always like her writing style (a little too casual and filled with hashtags and pop culture references), and wonder if it will age well over time, but I appreciated much of what she had to say. She has great advice, like be a pleasure to work with, we are our reputations, and much more. She’s not rewriting the business world, but she is making it more approachable and accessible for young female entrepreneurs.

One place Johnson could have elevated WorkParty was by choosing to be more intersectional in her approach. She has centered her own story so much she doesn’t leave room to discuss Black and Brown women, people who are gender non-conforming, women who have disabilities, women who come from lower socio-economic groups and all the hurdles that these communities have to overcome just to get a seat at the table.

Overall I was surprised in the best ways by this book. There is certainly advice I will take with me as I grow as a business woman running The Stacks.

Three Stars | Gallery Books: Reprint Edition | March 5, 2019 | 256 Pages | Paperback | Purchase on IndieBound
We discuss WorkParty on The Stacks Book Club, you can hear that conversation by clicking HERE.


The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

The Merchant of Venice is one of William Shakespeare’s more famous plays and is best known for being the play about “the Jew” but little more is said about this extremely complex and nuanced play. I was so glad to actually get a chance to reread it and attempt to examine the layers in this story.

What is always so powerful to me in the reading and rereading of Shakespeare’s plays is what these stories from hundreds of years ago say about the world we’re living in now. I couldn’t help but draw many connections between the anti-semitism in the play and racism and othering of Black and Brown bodies, and those that practice Judaism and Islam, that has been on full display in The United States in the last few years.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, the Jew, lends out money and it isn’t repaid per the terms of the loan, and Shylock is ready to collect on the debt he is owed (pound of flesh anyone?). However once it turns out that he plans to fully collect everyone becomes incredulous and begs him to show a little mercy and compassion. This is an extremely common narrative in today’s society. After the murder of nine Black people at a church in Charleston, SC there was an immediate cry for the Black community to forgive the White Supremacist who murder these innocent people. We even saw the Black President of The United States, Barack Obama, sing “Amazing Grace” in his eulogy. This cry for mercy and forgiveness is often asked of “the other”.

Shakespeare is essentially asking his audience if it is fair to ask more of the aggrieved if they are outside the systems of power of the given society, weather it be Whiteness, Christian, or male?

He compounds all of this when the person who comes to defend the White Christian patriarchy in The Merchant of Venice is Portia disguised as a young male lawyer. She is the only person clever and even tempered enough to see a way around Shylock’s contract and save the day. Of course its very complicated because her actions essentially lead to humiliation for Shylock, who, while maybe a little rigid (or vidictive), is only following a contract he and his debtor agreed to.

When we talk about the power of the arts to change the world, I think, without sounding too hyperbolic, this play certainly has that ability. It asks the viewer (or reader) to look around and see the hypocrisy that we allow into our everyday life. To see that we are only willing to cling to the rule of law when it serves those in power. When the laws favor the marginalized we see the calls for mercy and forgiveness. We see the vitriolic language of hatred that leads to violence, embarrassment, and more internalized othering of those who are our most vulnerable.

There is a lot more that could be said about The Merchant of Venice, so far in my journey through Shakespeare’s cannon (#ShakeTheStacks Challenge) it feels like the most layered play. It feels urgent and painful and unfortunately more timely than I would like.

If you’ve seen or read this play I would love to hear you thoughts in the comments below.

Next month for #ShakeTheStacks Challenge, I’ll be reading Henry IV Part 1

  • Paperback: 103 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (August 1, 2000)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy The Merchant of Venice on Amazon or IndieBound

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.

Ep. 49 Relationships and Recommendations with James Sexton

We’re talking relationships today on The Stacks with long time divorce lawyer and author James J. Sexton. We discuss James’ book If You’re in My Office, It’s Already Too Late a guide on how-not-to be married. We get some good relationship advice, and some even better book recommendations, plus we talk about our favorite lawyer narratives.

Everything we talk about on today’s episode can be found below in the show notes. The Stacks participates in affiliate programs, and shopping through the links below (mostly Amazon) helps support the show, at no cost to you.

Books

Everything Else

Connect with James’: James’ Instagram | James’ Twitter | James’ Website

Connect with The Stacks: Instagram | The Stacks Website | Facebook | Twitter | Subscribe | Patreon | Goodreads | Traci’s Instagram

To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.

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The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website, and this comes at no cost to you. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr.

E4FA3654-5315-4685-8748-2A65FF1D6F41Every year I try to read at least one or two Pulitzer Prize winners, while I generally don’t enjoy the fiction books for a myriad of reasons, I have found some of my favorite nonfiction books have won or been short listed for the Pulitzer (Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson, sticks out a recent favorite). It was a no brainer to pick up Locking Up Our Own, it won the Pulitzer in 2018 for general nonfiction, and had a subject matter that excited me.

Here is a little more about this book

Former public defender James Forman, Jr. is a leading critic of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on people of color. In Locking Up Our Own, he seeks to understand the war on crime that began in the 1970s and why it was supported by many African American leaders in the nation’s urban centers.

Forman shows us that the first substantial cohort of black mayors, judges, and police chiefs took office amid a surge in crime and drug addiction. Many prominent black officials, including Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry and federal prosecutor Eric Holder, feared that the gains of the civil rights movement were being undermined by lawlessness―and thus embraced tough-on-crime measures, including longer sentences and aggressive police tactics. In the face of skyrocketing murder rates and the proliferation of open-air drug markets, they believed they had no choice. But the policies they adopted would have devastating consequences for residents of poor black neighborhoods.


This is a smart and thoughtful book. It highlights the role Black politicians, officials, and community members have had on mass incarceration. I appreciated Forman’s in depth look at this small and specific group of people. There are many nuances and subtleties in the giant machine that is the prison industrial complex, and this book zeros in on one of those nooks, especially from the vantage point of a defense lawyer.

The book mostly focuses on Washington DC (a majority Black city), and places a lot of blame on Black leaders, which Forman explains in detail. However, found myself questioning how different these laws were in other cities with large Black populations and White elected officials. A lot of the blame is laid at the feet of the African Americans who run DC, but it isn’t clear if this is unique to DC. If these trends were seen nationwide, including cities with few Black leaders, the case made against the Black leaders in DC is significantly diminished. I didn’t feel that I understood if the movement toward stricter laws was truly being led by Black folks, or if it was more a national trend in cities with large Black populations. Said another way, sure, Eric Holder enacted harsh search and seizure initiatives in DC, but was this any different than stop and frisk in Giuliani’s New York? This makes a huge difference in the argument, and these questions were left unanswered.

The writing style of Locking Up Our Own was mostly straight forward, nothing particularly fancy or noteworthy. Forman does include the cases of his past clients to connect the laws in theory to the lives they affected in practice. This didn’t feel like a priority for the book, but rather an after thought, and therefore these stories fell flat. They functioned more like interludes than anything else.

I enjoyed learning about the role that Black people have played in the mass incarceration crisis, even if it wasn’t clear if they were following trends versus creating a road map for The United States. I appreciated a much more subtle look at something that has become a topic that engenders a lot of debate.

If you find nonfiction to be a little dry, this isn’t the nonfiction book for you, I might suggest Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, because it has a much more human element (thought it is more focused on death penalty law). I would suggest you read this book if you’re like nonfiction, even when it is not story based, and are well versed in mass incarceration. It is a great compliment to The New Jim Crow  by Michelle Alexander.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • PublisherFarrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition (February 6, 2018)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Locking Up Our Own on Amazon

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Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino

A0C03263-3AE9-4F0F-8046-13CEA93858A3I am lucky to have really smart and interesting friends, and they often share smart and interesting books with me. Thats how Covering found its way into my life. Here is a little more about this book:

Everyone covers. To cover is to downplay a disfavored trait so as to blend into the mainstream. Because all of us possess stigmatized attributes, we all encounter pressure to cover in our daily lives. Racial minorities are pressed to “act white” by changing their names, languages, or cultural practices. Women are told to “play like men” at work. Gays are asked not to engage in public displays of same-sex affection. The devout are instructed to minimize expressions of faith, and individuals with disabilities are urged to conceal the paraphernalia that permit them to function. Given its pervasiveness, we may experience this pressure to be a simple fact of social life.

Against conventional understanding, Kenji Yoshino argues that the work of American civil rights law will not be complete until it attends to the harms of coerced conformity. Though we have come to some consensus against penalizing people for differences based on race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, and disability, we still routinely deny equal treatment to people who refuse to downplay differences along these lines. 

At the same time, Yoshino is responsive to the American exasperation with identity politics, which often seems like an endless parade of groups asking for state and social solicitude. He observes that the ubiquity of covering provides an opportunity to lift civil rights into a higher, more universal register. Since we all experience the covering demand, we can all make common cause around a new civil rights paradigm based on our desire for authenticity—a desire that brings us together rather than driving us apart.

There are books that come into your life and change the way you understand your own identity and place in society. For me, this is one of those books. I have always been familiar with the concepts of passing, code switching, and assimilation, but had never heard of covering until starting this book. Yoshino does a masterful job of articulating the subtleties and nuances of covering. He clearly explains and gives examples to illustrate what it is, how it functions, and why it can be harmful (and at times helpful).

Something that makes this book unique is that Yoshino mixes his own personal stories of covering, both with his identtity as a homosexual and a Japanese American, with case law from his life as a law professor at Yale. We see covering as both something specific to the author and a much bigger part of the national conversation. While this book is focused on American law and experiences, it is easy to see that covering can be universal. While I generally dislike when an author of nonfiction tries to incorporate memoir, I think for the purposes of this book, it really works. The writing is so smart and nuanced, the parallels to his private life and the world of the courts seem well matched.

It is refreshing to watch as someone work through complicated issues of sexuality, race, gender, ableness etc., with a sense of compassion and a rigorous commitment to critical thinking. One particularly wonderful moment comes up during his discussion on the demands of covering as it pertains to women. Yoshino checks his own privilege and lens of maleness, pulling back to note how he may miss covering demands that women face. This self-awareness gave me as a reader an even deeper confidence in his point of view.

The book does lose some of it’s clarity toward the end as Yoshino looks toward the future of civil rights. He gets caught up a little in that vision, and I could have done without a lot of the ending. I understand why he speculated, but I’m not sure it was needed. This book was published in 2006, and so with 12 years of knowledge that Yoshino didn’t have at the time about the United States, some of his predictions felt wildly and naively optimistic (but I again have the luxury of hindsight).

Covering  is not a definitive text on assimilation or discrimination, it is more of a starter kit for anyone interested in understanding the more subtle world of marginalized people and the behaviors they exhibit to get by. While there are times that Yoshino seems to be flexing his massive vocabulary muscle, for the most part this is a straightforward and accessible read. There is a lot to learn from this book. I would suggest it to folks who are interested in human behavior as it pertains to discrimination and civil rights. This is great option, for teenagers going off to college or starting work after high school.

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (January 17, 2006)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Covering 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.