Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

In a book that navigates feminism and the many facets of being a woman, Men Explain Things to Me runs the gamut from snarky to scathing, from an indictment of society to a reflection on it. Rebecca Solnit has thought a lot about feminism and women’s rights, and her essays clearly indicate that.

Men Explain Things to Me came out in 2014 (my edition has added content and come our in 2015), and in the years since, the women’s movement, the 2016 election, the #metoo era, and so much more has propelled the conversation about feminism and the abuse of women in a way that Solnit couldn’t predict. In this way, the book feels more dated than perhaps it should. Solnit feels like a tame observer compared to the books and essays that have come out in the last 2 or so years. So while I found these essays smart and well done (though some were a little disjointed), they felt redundant as a reader in 2019.

I know that Solnit was an early advocate, and this critique comes with all the powers of hindsight, but in my reading, the book doesn’t hold up so much against time. It does serve as a reminder that we’ve been having these discussions for decades. In these debates around feminism, Solnit has been on the front lines and we have her to thank for many of the conversations we’re having today. One essay in this book, #yesallwomen, feels like connective tissue from this book, to the current conversations and debates we’re having today.

Men Explain Things to Me is a certain kind of feminism that centers White women. In 2019, that feels life a gapping omission. It is a reminder that 53% of White women voted for Trump. Which is of course, part of the problem when we come to the coalition that fights on behalf of women. Sure, these essays are good, but they lack in inclusion and perspective that now, just four years later, feels unacceptable.

If you’re looking for a book that is intersectional and feels very of this moment, Men Explain Things to Me might not be for you (I would suggest Good and Mad by Rebecca Traister, or Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper). If you’re looking for a book that might remind you of how we got here, Men Explain Things to Me, might be a good place to start.


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.

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 my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Short Stacks 3: Best of 2018//Lauren Fanella

Its the last day of 2018, and we’re celebrating with our very own wrap up, New Year’s Eve show. We brought back friend of the pod, Lauren Fanella (who you might remember from episodes 15 and 16, where we talked about Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore). Lauren joins me to talk about each of our top five books from 2018, and the five books we’re most looking forward to in 2019. Get your TBR ready!

Connect with Lauren: Lauren’s Instagram|Lauren’s Twitter

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.

Sponsors

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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.

The Reckonings by Lacy M. Johnson

The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here.

After reading Lacy M. Johnson’s memoir, The Other Side I couldn’t wait to dive into this essay collection, that was positioned as a sort of response to her kidnapping and rape that was documented in her memoir. The Reckonings is that response, and it is much more than that as well.

More on The Reckonings

In 2014, Lacy Johnson was giving a reading from The Other Sideher memoir of kidnapping and rape, when a woman asked her what she would like to happen to her rapist. This collection, a meditative extension of that answer, draws from philosophy, art, literature, mythology, anthropology, film, and other fields, as well as Johnson’s personal experience, to consider how our ideas about justice might be expanded beyond vengeance and retribution to include acts of compassion, patience, mercy, and grace.

She grapples with justice and retribution, truth and fairness, and sexual assault and workplace harassment, as well as the broadest societal wrongs: the BP Oil Spill, government malfeasance, police killings. The Reckonings is a powerful and necessary work, ambitious in its scope, which strikes at the heart of our national conversation about the justness of society.


The Reckonings is one of the most powerful books I’ve read. A well crafted meditation on justice and the roles that each of us, as humans and citizens, has in the greater picture and good of society. Johnson is a great thinker, who is subtle with her own intellect. She is wise. She is thoughtful. She is accessible. She sees the world in a more compassionate and realistic way than many. However she never forces her depth on her reader, instead she allows to understand her own processing, peppering her discoveries with “I think”. This isn’t done out of self doubt, but as a way to remember Johnson is trying to figure it all out, and figure out her role in it all.

This book is profound. It has something to say, about joy and health, and access, and vindication, and mercy, and grace, and privilege, and art, and the most base human desires. Johnson leans into the complex nature of sacrifice and healing. Honest and vulnerable each essay is willing to engage with the complexities of society, and in doing so, Johnson has to confront herself. Her biases and what they say about her ability to be compassionate or an ally, or whatever it is that comes up. The Reckonings has so much to say, that when I got to the end of the book, I went ahead and read all of the notes, in full, and then went back and re-read the first two essays. I couldn’t get enough of the words and what they had to say.

There are essays in The Reckonings that range from the Nigerian Girls captured by Boko Haram to Hurricane Harvey, from the justness of the death penalty to the cost of the BP oil spill. The essays seem like they wouldn’t belong in a book together, but somehow as you’re reading them, each one feels like it is in its perfect place. They all build on one another until we come to some resolution. I won’t tell you where that is, but know that it was fulfilling and bleak. The only way this book could have ended.

I think there is something to learn from this book for just about everyone. The writing is beautiful and the content matches. Johnson is a professional writer, something that we often times over look, but The Reckonings reminded me why people dedicate their life to the arts, so that they can create artwork that reminds the rest of us what it means to be alive.

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • PublisherScribner (October 9, 2018)
  • 5/5 stars
  • Buy onThe Reckonings Amazon

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.

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 my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Hear Traci on the What Should I Read Next Podcast

452FE02D-C7E3-4FD6-904D-E25E207B0BE8.JPGI am thrilled to be a guest no this week’s episdoe of the What Should I Read Next podcast, hosted by Anne Bogel aka Modern Mrs. Darcy. Each week Anne helps her guests answer the question, “what should I read next?” by talking with them about their tastes and goals for their reading life.

On today’s episode we discuss some of my most favorite books, my love of nonfiction and true crime, a book I really did not like. And as usually I throw out a ton of other book recommendations to make sure your TBR never gets too short. Then Anne works her magic on me, suggesting some books she thinks I should read next. Tell me in the comments what you think I should read next.

Listen Now

Apple Podcasts|WSIRN Podcast Website

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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 my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

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The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here

This was possibly my most anticipated read of the year. I knew of Kiese Laymon’s essays, but had never read any of his books, and many people that I trust ad respect have nothing but the highest praise for him. So, I was eager to read his “American Memoir”.

Here is more about Heavy

In Heavy, Laymon writes eloquently and honestly about growing up a hard-headed black son to a complicated and brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi. From his early experiences of sexual violence, to his suspension from college, to his trek to New York as a young college professor, Laymon charts his complex relationship with his mother, grandmother, anorexia, obesity, sex, writing, and ultimately gambling. By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, Laymon asks himself, his mother, his nation, and us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free.


Complexity and vulnerability course through the pages of Heavy. Kiese Laymon never strays from a commitment to tell the truth of his story. As we read on, we understand his truth is painful. We learn how Laymon got to be the thorough, confrontational, relentless man that is writing this memoir. He allows himself to unfold page by page, until you feel as if you might actually know this man. Of course you don’t, but his brutal honesty gives a seeming closeness or understanding.

Laymon is a beautiful writer. He captures feelings and emotions in short and specific sentences. He creates worlds and moments with his words. In Heavy Laymon shows how his mother shapes him as a man, and also as a writer, and more importantly a thinker. In all of these things, her influence is not always positive, but it is obviously formative. She is herself a Black thought leader and academic who forces Laymon to confront the need to be excellent from a young age. We also watch as people come into Laymon’s life and influence his mind and his body. Quiet literally shaping him. We learn of his deep commitment to revision. We see how that compulsion towards excellence is pathological and often times destructive.

I knew very little about Laymon when I started reading, and within a few pages I understood that what I was reading was different than other memoirs. It was at once personal and a social commentary. Laymon would expose personal secrets, and also institutional deficiences. Heavy is a deeply intimate account of one man and his relationship to his own identity, and an examination of America and her relationship to her citizens. Racism, discipline, addiction, education, beauty standards and more are unpacked in Laymon’s memoir.

I was beyond impressed with this book.. I learned a lot and felt the wind knocked out of my sails at times. I have been calling it “Coates-ian” (a reference to author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates), except more intimate, more vulnerable, and less of a reflection on the broader racial questions of our time, more an examination of how one experience is inclusive of the larger picture. There have been some amazing reviews of Heavy, and I highly suggest one by Saeed Jones in The New York Times, Jones beautifully expresses the struggle for excellence and what that means for Laymon and all of us. Before I unequivocally suggest to you to read this book, I want to note there are some very graphic scenes of a child abuse in this book, and while that can be triggering for many, it is an important part of Laymon’s history. I couldn’t imagine this book without those scenes. Now, here it comes, go read this book.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • PublisherScribner; First Edition edition (October 16, 2018)
  • 5/5 stars
  • Buy on Heavy Amazon

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.

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 my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

Ep. 35 Prodigies, Time Machines, and Beautiful Writing with Aja Gabel

cropped-TheStacks_logo_final.jpgThis week on The Stacks our guest is author Aja Gabel. Aja’s debut novel, The Ensemble, came out in 2018, and she talks with us about writing her book, cover design, which writers inspire her, and why she got a PhD in creative writing. We also talk music prodigies and time machines, which is to say, we talk about a little of everything.

You can find everything we talk about this week in the show notes below. By shopping through the links you help support The Stacks, at no cost to you. Shop on Amazon and iTunes.

BOOKS

EVERYTHING ELSE

Connect with Aja: Aja’s Website|Aja’s Instagram|Aja’s Twitter

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.

Sponsors

Audible– to get your FREE audiobook download and FREE 30 day trial go to audibletrial.com/thestacks.

My Mentor Book Club – for 50% off your first month of new nonfiction from My Mentor Book Club go to mymentorbookclub.com/thestacks


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 my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Other Side: A Memoir by Lacy M. Johnson

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The Stacks received this book directly from the author in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here

I picked up this book, The Other Side, so I could read the semi-prequel of The Reckonings. I wanted to get a sense of Lacy M. Johnson before I read her newest book. It wasn’t quiet accidental, but it was certainly not planned. This book turned out to be one of the best surprises of my year.

Here is more about The Other Side

Lacy Johnson bangs on the glass doors of a sleepy local police station in the middle of the night. Her feet are bare; her body is bruised and bloody; U-bolts dangle from her wrists. She has escaped, but not unscathed. The Other Side is the haunting account of a first passionate and then abusive relationship; the events leading to Johnson’s kidnapping, rape, and imprisonment; her dramatic escape; and her hard-fought struggle to recover. At once thrilling, terrifying, harrowing, and hopeful, The Other Side offers more than just a true crime record. In language both stark and poetic, Johnson weaves together a richly personal narrative with police and FBI reports, psychological records, and neurological experiments, delivering a raw and unforgettable story of trauma and transformation.


So what do you make of a book about a violent rape and kidnapping? Aside from that it is terrible and horrible and a total nightmare? What do you do with this traumatic story? If you’re Lacy M. Johnson, you turn it into a powerful reflection on relationships, memory, body, self, motherhood, growth, vengeance. You turn it into art. That sounds corny. The Other Side is not. It is a dynamic book that leans into to the complexity and contradictions of trauma.

Lacy M. Johnson is the kind of writer that makes words make sense. Her use of language moved me as a reader, it felt specific, and like every word was in place, without feeling overworked or tedious. Johnson writes freely and with purpose. The book is poetic in one moment and clinical in the next. There is a quiet balance to this book.

If I learned anything from this book, it is that memory and truth are often at odds with each other. Not in a linear way. In a way that involves layers of memory and truth mixing with one another and turning muddy. That some memories are strong and wrong, and others are faint and almost unknowable. That the brain fills in the gaps and creates a narrative. The story. The story as we have come to know it. Our truth. What Johnson points out, and doesn’t want us to forget, is that this truth, this story, is just one version. That we all have our own story, and the people around us have their own. That these versions, these truths, all exist in the world at once. That none of this is real or true, not completely. That is terrifying and comforting at once. The Other Side is a memoir that grapples with these types of ideas, The Other Side is an outstanding book.

The Other Side is triggering (rape, emotional abuse, physical abuse). You should be fully aware before you pick it up. That being said, this book handles the trauma with dignity. It is not sensational. Johnson is unique in her experiences and never once attempts to turn her journey into anything universal. It is this specificity that keeps The Other Side from feeling common or precious. That is extremely clear from the first pages of this book. It holds true through the end, and even into the notes section (of which I read every word, I simply didn’t want this book to end) where Johnson mixes science and poetry.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, the fluidity of language, the self reflection, the pain and the calm. I know it could be an extremely tough read for many people. If you can, read this book, it is worth reading. It is worth thinking about. It is worth your time.

  • Paperback: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Tin House Books; 1 edition (July 15, 2014)
  • 5/5 stars
  • Buy on The Other Side Amazon

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.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

7796075C-DD3E-4D0A-8259-4C8E5A469D83I’ve been lying to the world. I’ve been proudly boasting that I love Malcolm Gladwell and that I’ve read all his books, and that he’s just the best. Turns out, thats a lie. I thought I had read all his books, but I had never actually read his first book, The Tipping Point. It has been a point of shame for me, I felt a little depressed that I wasn’t as much of a super fan of his work as I thought. But now, I can go back to my unabashed bragging about my love for Mr. Gladwell, because I have finally read The Tipping Point.

If you’re not familiar, here is more about The Tipping Point

The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate. This widely acclaimed bestseller, in which Malcolm Gladwell explores and brilliantly illuminates the tipping point phenomenon, is already changing the way people throughout the world think about selling products and disseminating ideas.


Malcolm Gladwell is a thinker. Sure we all think, but we’re not all professional thinkers. His brand is his thought process; critical, obscure, individual. He has become known for taking an idea we think we understand, and flipping it on it’s head. Showing us the complexities of life, and often time the simplicity of it as well. The Tipping Point is his first book, and is perfectly in line with Gladwell’s brand and subsequent books, and podcast, Revisionist History.

I really enjoyed this book. Gladwell takes his time explaining his points, without laboring any one idea to death. The book is the right length, long enough to make sure you understand what a tipping point is, and how it works, but not so long that you’re skipping ahead because you’ve got it already. This is hard to do. Many books make a point early on, and work through it so many times it becomes redundant and stale. Gladwell uses a variety of examples, from crime in NYC to Hushpuppy shoes, to Divine Secrets of the Ya-ya Sisterhood, to illustrate his points, and this variety keeps the reader interested and engaged.

The later edition of The Tipping Point has an afterword that shows how ahead of conventional thinking Gladwell is. In the afterward written in 2002, a few years after the original book (2000) Gladwell makes a few predictions about the future as he sees it. One thing he discusses is school shootings as an emerging epidemic afflicting American teens, all before many of the most notorious school shootings of the last 20 years. He also forecasts a growing apathy toward email, and how we will become immune to the power of email, which of course in 2018 is expressly clear. Gladwell’s thinking is ahead of his time.

There were moments where Gladwell lost me in his train of thought. I wasn’t sure what point he was making, or the difference between certain categorizations he had laid out (i.e. maven vs sales person), or the connection between two seemingly unrelated topics. This happened a few times throughout the book and I had to go back and draw the connections in a second (or sometimes third) pass.

I listened to the audiobook of The Tipping Point with Gladwell narrating, which is well done. While he isn’t as animated as as he is on his podcast, you can hear his passion for the work he has done. He is convincing and clear. I also happen to enjoy the smooth sound of his voice. But again, I am huge Gladwell fangirl.

I recommend this book. I recommend just about everything Malcolm Gladwell does. Have I mentioned how much I love and admire his work? I don’t always agree with him, but I appreciate his thinking and his ability to shift the way I think and perceive the world around me. He is a provocateur in the best way.

  • Audiobook: 8 hours and 33 minutes
  • Publisher: Hachette Audio (December 31, 2006)
  • Paperback: 301 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books (January 7, 2002)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy on The Tipping Point Amazon

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.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

To the Bridge: A True Story of Motherhood and Murder by Nancy Rommelmann

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The Stacks received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. For more information click here

A friend who recommends you books that you love is a rare and valuable friend. I am lucky to have such friends, who tell me what to read, and rarely lead me astray. I came to To The Bridge by Nancy Rommelmann through one of these friends, my book recommending savant Heather John Fogarty. Heather told me about the book months before it came out, even before I had created The Stacks. She knew it was my kind of book. So once I decided to start the podcast, it seemed obvious Heather would be a guest and we would discuss it for The Stacks Book Club. That episode is out now, and you can listen to it here.

Here is more about To The Bridge

On May 23, 2009, Amanda Stott-Smith drove to the middle of the Sellwood Bridge in Portland, Oregon, and dropped her two children into the Willamette River. Forty minutes later, rescuers found the body of four-year-old Eldon. Miraculously, his seven-year-old sister, Trinity, was saved. As the public cried out for blood, Amanda was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to thirty-five years in prison.

Embarking on a seven-year quest for the truth, Rommelmann traced the roots of Amanda’s fury and desperation through thousands of pages of records, withheld documents, meetings with lawyers and convicts, and interviews with friends and family who felt shocked, confused, and emotionally swindled by a woman whose entire life was now defined by an unspeakable crime. At the heart of that crime: a tempestuous marriage, a family on the fast track to self-destruction, and a myriad of secrets and lies as dark and turbulent as the Willamette River.


Nancy Rommelmann has crafted a layered and nuanced book with To The Bridge. She never falls into the trap of trying to make the book easy or clear. She presents her investigation and trusts that we, the readers, are smart enough to draw our own conclusions. For me, the conclusions were less obvious than I would have hoped, they were complex and often times contradictory, they came out of the work Rommelmann had done.

Where this book soars is in Rommelmann’s ability to sift through all the information she’d gathered. She is our guide into the world of this toxic relationship, between Amanda Stott-Smith and her estranged husband Jason Smith, and while she is somewhat objective, she also becomes a subject of her own writing. She is a character in this book.  At first Rommelmann’s pressence in the book threw me off, I was not excited about author and subject in a non-memoir type of true crime book. However in the end it didn’t bother me at all. I maybe even liked it a little, it helped me to understand this rocky landscape more clearly.

This is one of those books that you think you know how it is going to go, and if I’m being honest nothing really surprised me. Sure, there were details I didn’t guess, but mostly the story of sociopaths follows a pattern and this book just highlights those patterns. We all know that something is wrong if a mother is killing her children. However in To The Bridge we are not forced to read a sensational account of the events that led Stott-Smith to the bridge. Instead Rommelmann affords her subjects dignity and autonomy, and ultimately asks us to hold them accountable.

There are certainly things I wished would have been presented more expressly in the book. I would have appreciated if Rommelmann gave me the answers. I would have loved to know exactly what Amanda was thinking when she dropped her kids off the Sellwood bridge that night. But, To The Bridge can not definitively answer that question for me. I don’t even know is Amanda herself could answer for certain. What I respect about this book is that Rommelmann investigates to try to find out why, and then she shows us her work. She doesn’t shy away from the messy realities of the toxicity of Amanda and Jason’s marriage and she doesn’t let those around them off the hook for their complacency. I would love final answers, but that is not how life works. Things can get complicated, and this book leans into that complexity, it doesn’t attempt to smooth ir out.

If you like investigative journalism, if you like uncovering the story beneath the story, then this is a book for you. It moves fast, and is an easy read even though the subject matter is anything but. If you are a sensitive reader or are triggered by domestic abuse and child abuse then I would suggest you prepare yourself for this book, or set it aside for another time.

Don’t forget to listen the The Stacks with Heather John Fogarty discussing To The Bridge.

  • Hardcover: 303 pages
  • Publisher: Little A (July 1, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy on To The Bridge Amazon

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.

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.

The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

5DF10CBB-A65E-4C65-B6E5-F119B079DA59.JPGI have been fascinated with murders and murderers for as long as I can remember. I’ve also always been a big reader, and when you put those two things together, true crime and reading, you invariably get to The Executioner’s Song. It is an eleven hundred page true crime classic. And so after ten years, I finally decided to check this off the big book bucket list.

Here is more about The Executioner’s Song:

Arguably the greatest book from America’s most heroically ambitious writer,The Executioner’s Song follows the short, blighted life of Gary Gilmore who became famous after he robbed two men in 1976 and killed them in cold blood. After being tried and convicted, he immediately insisted on being executed for his crime. To do so, he fought a system that seemed intent on keeping him alive long after it had sentenced him to death. And that fight for the right to die is what made him famous.

Mailer tells not only Gilmore’s story, but those of the men and women caught in the web of his life and drawn into his procession toward the firing squad. All with implacable authority, steely compassion, and a restraint that evokes the parched landscape and stern theology of Gilmore’s Utah.The Executioner’s Song is a trip down the wrong side of the tracks to the deepest source of American loneliness and violence. It is a towering achievement-impossible to put down, impossible to forget.


Normally when I read a book, I feel pretty confident in my review. I sit down to write it, and out comes my thoughts. I may stop and start a little, but with The Executioner’s Song I am about 4-5 attempts in and still feeling unsure of where I stand. Part of my struggle is coming from the fact that there is just so much book, so many ideas to unpack and feelings to sort through. Another part is because I do not want to spoil anything, even though you could easily spoil so much by looking up Gary Gilmore on wikipedia. So here goes my attempt to explain my thoughts without out giving away too much…

This is the kind of book that haunts you, not because of what happens in it, but because of how it all unravels. I didn’t love the book. It never fully hooked me, but I have found myself thinking about the people involved in Gilmore’s life and death a lot since I finished it. There were moments of suspense that I thoroughly enjoyed, and then sections that felt endless. There were people I loved in one section of the book, and then was hoping they’d be leaving the story a hundred pages later. While I never fully understood why so many people rave about this book, I suspect it has to do with the way Mailer is able to give his characters room to transform in front of the readers eyes. These people feel full and complete, no one is without dimension. Mailer’s writing style is impressive and specific and lacks any frills. It is direct, like the people you find in the book.

A tale of White toxic masculinity told by a toxic White man, The Executioner’s Song can be rage inducing. I felt myself feeling sorry for a murderer and domestic abuser in one moment and then feeling furious at the author for presenting the story in that way. Giving Gilmore so much room to garner sympathies when he really behaves disgustingly through out. Despite his deep flaws, Mailer does find humanity in Gilmore. He also finds the humanity in the kind of world where a Gary Gilmore could be created. I don’t disagree with Mailer that part of Gilmore was cultivated during his time in prison, however the compassion that Mailer asks us to show to Gilmore was often times more than I could bear.

There are no answers in this book. I am okay with that. Conversations around incarceration and murder and class and relationships are seldom clear cut. Mailer throws all his research your way, and more or less asks you to sift through it. He may guide you, or allow his characters to sway you, but in the end you’ll take from this book whatever you need.

One of the big topics of debate revolves around capital punishment, not only if its a good idea or not, but how someone is sentenced for death and how that process progresses. Forty-plus years later, this part of the book feels more current than it should. We get a view of the death penalty debate from many sides. We see how death row works, how the appeals process functions, we even get a good look at the media frenzy behind high profile criminal cases. In the end, I found myself asking over and over, what is the point? Is the world really any better off with Gilmore dead?

In the end I am glad I read this book. I didn’t love it, but I appreciated it, not only as a piece of writing but as a glimpse into a moment in time. After spending the better part of a month reading through this book, it was not the greatest thing that ever happened to me, but I did have major moments of shock and awe. It is an incredible feat of journalism and story telling, and it is an exceptional commentary on the death penalty and the humanity of criminals. I can recognize the greatness in The Executioner’s Song theoretically, but I could never fully feel the power that many others have experienced in reading the book.

  • Hardcover: 1136 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing; Reprint edition (May 8, 2012)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy on The Executioner’s Song Amazon

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