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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Less by Andrew Sean Greer

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

I was so excited to read and discuss Less for The Stacks Book Club this week. I got to dive into this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner in Fiction with the smart and thoughtful Zeke Smith. You can listen to our full conversation here, however, be warned there are spoilers on this episode.

Here is a little more about Less

Who says you can’t run away from your problems? You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes–it would be too awkward–and you can’t say no–it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.

QUESTION: How do you arrange to skip town?

ANSWER: You accept them all.

What would possibly go wrong? Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. Through it all, there is his first love. And there is his last.

This is a perfectly lovely book. There is nothing hurtful or offensive or troubling or even deeply thought provoking. The writing is simple and fluid, the characters are human, the plot moves forward, it is for all intents and purposes a perfectly lovely book.

Less did not excite me, it did not challenge me, it did not make me think. I found it to be an easy read and once I got to the end, I thought “why did I read this book?” There was no really passion in the book, and I didn’t connect with the humor.

My biggest challenge with reading this book was the feeling that I did not care about the main character, Arthur Less. I found him whiny and average (and not in a good way), he didn’t charm me, he didn’t evoke pity from me. He just was. Another book about another White man who I am supposed to empathize with, and I didn’t relate. I didn’t even want to relate.

I have to admit, before I read this book I was shocked that it won the Pulitzer Prize. A book written by a White man in 2018, about another White male writer. What is the point? Then I read the book, and while I would not have awarded Less with the Pulitzer, I understood the book a little better, and the love other people have for Greer’s work. Mostly, I think this book is a nice distraction from the craziness that has overtaken The United States. This book is not focused on racism, sexism, abuse, trauma, or anything that many people are struggling  through (and in many cases very publicly). This book is easy. It has very nice things to say about life, and humanity, and love. It is a distraction from pain, and that can be a good thing. It is not the thing I would chose to award, especially in times like these.

One thing that deserves praise in this book is the centering of a gay character that is neither the stereotypically flamboyant nor the deeply suffering . There is no AIDS epidemic there is no glitter speedo. There is real life that happens to a gay man, and that is not something we are presented with as often as we should be. Gay people deserve the diversity in their stories that heterosexual people are given. LGBTQ stories deserve the space to be just as average and mediocre as White cis-gender heterosexual males.

I did not love this book, I liked it just fine. It didn’t speak to me in any meaningful way, and some books just aren’t for me. There were a few moments throughout that were cute or smart, but nothing sustained me. I appreciated the ending. I wouldn’t rave over this book, but I wouldn’t tell you not to read it either. It is a well written book about a man that I didn’t care about, and it is a perfectly lovely book.

Don’t forget to listen the The Stacks with Zeke Smith discussing Less.

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books; Reprint edition (May 22, 2018)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy on Less Amazon

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. 26 Less by Andrew Sean Greer — The Stacks Book Club (Zeke Smith)

cropped-TheStacks_logo_final.jpgWe are thrilled to discuss this year’s Pulitzer Price winner for fiction, Less by Andrew Sean Greer, for The Stacks Book Club this week. We are joined by guest, Zeke Smith. Zeke is known for his time as a contestant on Survivor (Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen XSurvivor: Game Changers, CBS), and for his work as a writer and trans activist. Less tells the story of Arthur Less, a struggling novelist who decides to travel the world instead of subjecting himself to being a guest at his ex lover’s wedding.

There are spoilers this week on the show. Listen at your own risk.

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.

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

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

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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.

Ten Non-Fiction Books for Fiction Lovers

AB2EBDFE-7E76-4563-941D-06EB3B3B0AA9As I have become more engaged with the book world, and I have been outed as a non-fiction lover, I have had lots of conversations with many of you on what are some good non-fiction books. So I put together my list of top 10 non-fiction books for people who don’t read non-fiction.

This isn’t a list of the best non-fiction I’ve ever read, but books that I think those of you who love a good novel will enjoy. Those of you looking for a way in. Most of these books are more narrative driven, and use rich language to develop characters and events. While there are a variety of types of non-fiction books on this list, they are all captivating.

This list is presented in alphabetical order, I simply can not play favorites with these books.

Between The World and Me Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic) is known for his work on dissecting the experience of Black Americans. Between The World and Me written to Coates’ son, is a powerful look at the history and practices that have created a culture in America, where Black people are not valued as full citizens. He looks at slavery, discrimination, mass incarceration, and the murder of Black citizens by the police. Coates asks us not only how did this happen? But also, where do we go from here?

 Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood This is the story of Trevor Noah’s upbringing as a mixed child in Apartheid South Africa. It is at once funny and poignant. You learn so much about his life, and gain a new appreciation for his success. I laughed at loud at parts and felt my self tearing up here and there.

Columbine In this deeply emotional reexamination of one of the most famous school shootings in American history. Author, David Cullen looks at the facts of the shooting and uses forensic experts, the killers’ own words, and all the evidence to figure out what really happened on April 20, 1999.

Jesus Land: A Memoir In this memoir by Julia Scheeres, we learn of her childhood with her adopted brother, David who is black, in racist rural Indiana. We see her life in the Mid-West and also her experience in a religious camp in the Dominican Republic. Scheeres’ story is heartrending and emotional. You can’t imagine the world she comes from and the stories she has to share.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption The story of a lawyer, Bryan Stevenson, and his journey as an activist and advocate on behalf of those who are sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty. Not only is this book a memoir of Stevenson’s early days as a appeals lawyer, it is also a searing indictment of the United States criminal justice system.

Men We Reaped: A Memoir Over the course of five years, author Jesmyn Ward loses five young black men in her life. This book is her examination of why something like this could happen. It is a look at what it means to be young and black in America. Written with all her skill as a fiction writer, and all the truth of her lived experience. This is a really special book. We cover this book on The Stacks Podcast and you can listen to our episode here.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After In her memoir, Clemantine Wamariya (with co-author Elizabeth Weil) tells her unimaginable journey of life as a refugee from Rwanda in 1994. Clemantine and her sister Claire, travel through eight African countries, before they ultimately end up in America. While the book is about their journey, it is also about finding one’s voice and strength to carry on and to thrive. It is both devastating and empowering. The writing is beautiful.

Unbroken:A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption This is one of those stories that you wouldn’t believe if you saw it in a movie (and guess what, this book is now a movie).  Laura Hillenbrand writes this story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner turned WWII pilot, turned prisoner of war, turned survivor. Its almost more than you can handle, and then you remember what Zamperini went through, and you remember you’re just reading.

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith When it comes to non-fiction, author John Krakauer is my favorite. I can highly recommend any of his books (Where Men Win Glory is a personal favorite). In Under the Banner of Heaven Krakauer dives deep into the Fundamentalist Mormon Church. He examines the religion, their traditions, believes, and brings up many questions about Mormonism. This book is not to be missed.

Zeitoun Dave Eggers tells the story of a Muslim man caught in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The book takes place at the intersection of natural disaster response and The War on Terror. The story is almost beyond believe, and the storytelling is illuminating.

63439241-927F-48C9-B6A5-67C450C9950AThis list is a great starting place if you think you’re not so much of a non-fiction person. And if you make your way through this and think maybe you want a little more, here are ten bonus books. While some of these may be less accessible (more niche topics, more clinical writing) for pure fiction lovers, the stories are inescapably engrossing and the writing is of course delicious.

I hope that these books help you add a little non-fiction to your world of reading. And if you already love non-fiction I hope you find something here that sparks your interests. Tell me what you think of my list, and add any of your favorite non-fiction books.

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.