All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island by Liza Jessie Peterson

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I picked this book up as part of a buddy read on #bookstagram. A buddy read is basically a one off book club, you all read the book and then discuss it (through video chat). All Day was the third book I’ve read with this group, and was our first miss, but it led to some great conversations. Before I dive in here is a little more about All Day.

 

Told with equal parts raw honesty and unbridled compassion, ALL DAY recounts a year in Liza Jessie Peterson’s classroom at Island Academy, the high school for inmates detained at New York City’s Rikers Island. A poet and actress who had done occasional workshops at the correctional facility, Peterson was ill-prepared for a full-time stint teaching in the GED program for the incarcerated youths. For the first time faced with full days teaching the rambunctious, hyper, and fragile adolescent inmates, “Ms. P” comes to understand the essence of her predominantly Black and Latino students as she attempts not only to educate them, but to instill them with a sense of self-worth long stripped from their lives.

All Day was a total miss. A book about incarcerated juveniles at Rikers Island and their teacher sounds like it would be a gripping and compelling narrative, Peterson, however, does not deliver. The book is mostly focused on Peterson and her thoughts and struggles, though she never gets vulnerable enough for us to fully see her. She puts up the front of a tough woman, but we never get to see her softer side. She barely shares with us information about her students and their lives and how they got to Rikers (however the few moments she does are great). Peterson mistakes the readers interest in what it is like to be a teacher at a jail, for what its like to be her. I did not care about her as the star of this story, I wanted to know about the boys, their lives, their struggles, and the battles they fight daily to survive. I felt most connected to the book when the boys were centered.

The writing is not great. The style is very casual, using a lot of slang. Peterson is making a point to her reader, that she is in fact a Black woman. Something that no one questions. She has insecurities around her own control and status, and they come across through out the book, both expressly and through inference. The book goes on too long and Peterson loses focus, drifting from subject to subject without any real points to be made. She retells the same stories over and over and tries to turn this book into a sort of comedy, relaying jokes and quippy interchanges between her and her students. Most of this is not funny, and makes little sense in the context of the book.

Peterson herself traffics in prejudices throughout the book. While she doesn’t say it expressly, the way she talks about the boys who come from single parent homes, how she dismisses their learning disabilities, and the words she uses to describe them are problematic and damaging. There is very little empathy toward them and their situation. She perpetuates stereotypes about Black and Latino youths, and even allows her own intuitions to be bases for condemnation. All Day was published by a very conservative publisher (Center Street), and this anti-Black lean allowed the publisher to get credit for a Black narrative by a Black female author, and still push forward damaging ideas about Black and Brown youth to their audiences.

I would not recommend you read this book. There is much better content (books, films, and TV) that captures the experiences of life as an incarcerated youth, and that of the people who work with them. All Day is self serving and has a conservative lean that is troubling and damaging.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Center Street (April 18, 2017)
  • 1/5 stars
  • Buy All Day 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.

Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy

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

When I heard about Dopesick by Beth Macy, I was so excited. This is the kind of book I just love, investigative journalism meets profiles of drug abusers meets cover up by big business, meets politics meets the healthcare system meets current events. This book has all the things I love reading about. If you’re not familiar with this book here is a quick blurb:

Beth Macy takes us into the epicenter of America’s twenty-plus year struggle with opioid addiction. From distressed small communities in Central Appalachia to wealthy suburbs; from disparate cities to once-idyllic farm towns; it’s a heartbreaking trajectory that illustrates how this national crisis has persisted for so long and become so firmly entrenched.

Beginning with a single dealer who lands in a small Virginia town and sets about turning high school football stars into heroin overdose statistics, Macy endeavors to answer a grieving mother’s question-why her only son died-and comes away with a harrowing story of greed and need. From the introduction of OxyContin in 1996, Macy parses how America embraced a medical culture where over treatment with painkillers became the norm. In some of the same distressed communities featured in her bestselling book Factory Man, the unemployed use painkillers both to numb the pain of joblessness and pay their bills, while privileged teens trade pills in cul-de-sacs, and even high school standouts fall prey to prostitution, jail, and death.

This book is telling the story of the heroin/opiate addiction that runs rampant in this country, and in this book specifically in Virginia. It is a compassionate look at the individual lives touched by these drugs and a also a searing indictment on the big pharma companies and government agencies that allowed it to get out of control. I think this book is important in the stories it tells, and only wish that other drug addicts and families got the same compassion and understanding the the victims of the opioid epidemic invariably seem to get.

Macy’s writing style is verbose to say the least, there are sentences that are filled with so many commas and dashes that I found myself having to reread them to figure out what she was talking about. As far as investigative journalism goes, this style is not what you tend to see. Macy inserts herself in the book, which is a trend I’ve noticed in two other works of investigative journalism published this year (Bad Blood by John Carreyrou and To The Bridge by Nancy Rommelmann). I don’t feel that Macy needed to be an outright voice in this book, nor do I understand her choice to be one. It didn’t take away from Dopesick, nor did it add anything.

I learned a lot about OxyContin, heroin, methadone, fentanyl, a slew of other opiate drugs and the effects they have on a human body while reading Dopesick. I found myself constantly looking up from the book and asking my husband (who is a doctor) if he knew this or that, if he’d ever prescribed OxyContin, if he’d dealt with babies born addicted to opiates. The book excited my love of learning. Like most addictions, the stigma around heroin/opiate use prevents a lot of information from getting out to the world, and Macy’s work exposes the dark secrets we don’t hear about. Like the mother who takes the doors of the hinges to prevent her son from doing drugs in the house. All the things that people who aren’t connected to this kind of addiction would never see.

Macy is thorough in her research and reporting on this drug crisis. Her politics and perspectives are very much present in the book, and she even shares some of her opinions point blank (around drug treatment policy, the current President and his administration). I wish she would have pushed back on some of the racism and racial double standards we find through out the book and on the topic of drug use in America, in general. There was certainly more room for questioning and dissecting the politics around a book like this. Why is the main drug dealer in this story Black? Why is he described as a predator?

As I read the book, I kept asking myself, if we know that drug addiction alters brains, and changes humans, how come we’re only willing to extend the benefit of understanding to White kids and their families? Where are the compassionate profiles that examine addiction in theBlack and Brown communities? The book isn’t to blame for this, but it does highlight the second chances that White heroin addicts are given by law enforcement, the courts, doctors, and the community at large. That is what frustrates me most about the opioid epidemic and the way it has been prioritized in American political and popular culture.

Overall I suggest this book, if you’re OK with some of the more graphic and emotional details that come with drug addiction and overdoses. The book is a pretty heavy read, and the subject is upsetting. There is a lot to learn from reading this book. Trigger warning for those who are dealing with opiate addiction in their own life in any capacity.

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1st Edition edition (August 7, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy Dopesick on 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.

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

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.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

IMG_7843On this week of The Stacks podcast, we discussed The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. Our guest for this episode The Stacks Book Club was Becca Tobin, actress best known for her work on Glee, and co-host of Lady Gang podcast. You can listen to our full conversation about The Mars Room right here.

If you’ve not yet heard of the The Mars Room here is a little more information for you.

It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision.

This book is a bleak examination of lives in proximity to incarceration. While the book mostly centers on Romy and her experiences, we do have other narrators, and other characters who steal our focus for moments throughout the book. The Mars Room feels like a much darker and less “entertaining” look at the prison system than what you might be familiar with from a show like Orange is the New Black (Netflix). One of the things I appreciated most with this book was how dark Kushner was willing to go. She romanticizes nothing. It is all bleak and full of despair. I find that choice to be a strong and refreshing choice.

Throughout the book we meet a lot of flawed and interesting and dynamic characters. People who have been dealt shitty hands and lived hard lives and yet have perspective and depth and hope, and sometimes, though not enough, humor. Through these people Kushner asks us to question our own relationship to the incarcerated, our own thoughts on gender identity, racism, and sexual assault, the power of institutions and more. There are moments in this book where Kushner gets caught up in showing us her point of view, that the book does become a little preachy. Kushner uses characters as devices to make larger points, which leads to some characters being full and dynamic and some feeling like they are just there to prove a point (Romy’s son Jackson comes to mind here).

A major problem with this book has to do with Kushner’s choice of featured characters. While she does include Latina and Black characters in secondary roles, none of the featured narrators are people of color, despite there being ample space to allow for their perspectives. In a book about incarceration, our central character is a pretty white woman. This type of whitewashing of a predominately Black and brown space is irritating at best, and something more cynical at worst.

When faced with the choice to leave the reader with hope or not, Kushner mostly choses not. I respect that. I think we are constantly looking for a silver lining, and sometimes when we strip that false hope away we see a picture of reality that can also be comforting. This book addresses this head on. If the reality of hopelessness that so many people live with scares you, or turns you off, this book isn’t for you, and thats OK. Aside from major issues of representation, I enjoyed this book and suggest it to those who are not faint of heart.

Don’t forget to listen the The Stacks with Becca Tobin discussing The Mars Room.

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; First Edition Limited Issue edition (May 1, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy The Mars Room on 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.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

C3AC3073-5D3F-4AFD-AE59-A65863E1162FI have had this book by Celeste Ng on my list for a few months, and I finally decided to read it. I knew it had to do with the mysterious death of a teenage girl, and I knew that by the end of the book I would know “who done it”, which was important to me because an unresolved ending ruins my week.

If you’re not familiar with this book here is a little more,

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

This book is really well written. The story weaves through the thoughts and minds of all the members of the Lee family, and dives into their history as individuals and into how they relate to each other. I understand why so many people love this book. For me, it didn’t work, I couldn’t get myself to care about any of them, aside from a general feeling of “thats too bad”. I generally don’t like these types of books, family dramas. I decided to read Everything I Never Told You because of the mysterious death part, which I’m always interested in. I thought solving the mystery would play a more active part in the book. However after reading it, Lydia’s death is more of device to look deeper into the family’s dynamic. A device that gave us flashbacks that went on and on, and often times felt redundant. I wanted more plot and more movement forward.

The Lee family, like every family, has issues, and they are intensified by the racism they face as the only mixed race, Chinese and White American, family in the town. The book takes place in 1977 Ohio, which can only be described as intolerant and racist. In addition to racial taunting there are lots of elements dealing with sexism in this book, Ng questions a woman’s role in the family, and in the world. A lot of the racism and sexism in this book felt unspecific and stereotypical. Not that it wasn’t believable (I find that bigots tend to be pretty uncreative), but more that they are so commonplace they felt unexceptional. Which may have been the point.

The way that Ng writes about the shock and grief of the Lee family, is really well done. It is sometimes subtle, and sometimes not, which is true to how grief can look and feel. She takes care with each of her characters, even though I felt that they all kind of felt like the same voice. I enjoyed seeing the Lee’s carrying on and adapting after Lydias death. That is where I found myself enjoying the book most.

Overall I would say, that this was not the book I thought it was going to be. I wanted a book about the death of a teenage girl and what happens next, and instead I got a book that looked back and inward at a family. It is a solid book. If you like a family drama, if you like multiple perspectives on the same events, if you like flashbacks, this is your book. If you like a little more plot or action, I might skip it, however the writing is good enough to carry you through the 300 or so pages.

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.

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin

78BB304E-DA7D-4F9A-BB17-42DF210C020EHere is yet another book I decided to read right away, because the movie is coming. I have read a little James Baldwin here and there and never been disappointed, but to be honest I was in no hurry to read this book, until I saw the trailer for the If Beale Street Could Talk.

If you’re not familiar with the this novel, here is a brief synopsis for you.

Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin’s story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions–affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.

This book seamlessly marries a fictional story with very clear and searing commentary on injustice in America. Baldwin never wavers in this convictions about racism and the corruptness of the criminal justice system, however these ideas don’t come at the expense of believable characters or dialogue. The people found in this book embody the spirit of Baldwin’s thoughts and they live effortlessly in his words. The interactions feel authentic and the characters all have agency. They are not puppets for Baldwin’s believes, nor are they just there to move the story along.

If Beale Street Could Talk moves between present day and flashbacks, and is told through the eyes of Tish. Baldwin’s economy of words is beyond impressive, with a less skilled writer this book could easily be over 400 pages, but Bladwin keeps the book short and the emotion charged through out. He knows what he is trying to do an he executes. There are scenes in this book that are so tense that I shrieked out loud and had drop the book and walk away for a few moments to get my heart rate down. That kind of writing is not common, it is extraordinary.

While I enjoyed both the main character Fonny and Tish, the supporting characters were the real stars of this book for me. From both of Fonny and Tish’s family to the waiters at a small Spanish restaurant. The world is made vivid through the thoughts and actions of those who live in and around our young lovers.

The only thing I can say that I didn’t love about this book, is that I thought it got off to a slow start. I wasn’t fully invested in the book until about 50 pages in, and in a book thats less that 200 pages, thats a good chunk. However, once I got in, I was hooked.

You should read this book before you see the movie. I would say you should read this book even if you have no intention to see this movie at all. James Baldwin is considered one of the greats for a reason, his work is great. It is that simple.

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.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

IMG_7803This week on The Stacks Podcast, we discussed Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, for The Stacks Book Club. I was joined by Jay Connor, a writer, and the creator and co-host of The Extraordinary Negroes podcast. You can listen to our conversation about the themes in this book right here.

If you’re not familiar with this book, which came out in 2015, here is a small description.

In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward.

To say that this is a good book, is almost trivializing all this book says and does. This is one of those books that changed the way I saw the world fundamentally. It changed how I interacted with the world as a Black woman, and also changed the way I saw other Black bodies. I all of a sudden felt as though I was part of something bigger, and also less a part of a something else.

The Dream is what Coates refers to when he talks about this notion of White exceptionalism or supremacy at the cost of the marginalized (and in this book more specifically Black folks). The Dream is the force that fights against Blackness. It is exclusionary, violent, and forgives all sins that are perpetrated in its name. To Coates, The Dream is how we can exist in a world with racists, but no white folks know any racists. The Dream is how we can excuse the horrors of slavery to the point that we have stripped the slaves of their humanity, even in the history books hundreds of years later. The Dream is what protects and defends Whiteness, and Coates calls this all to task. This book is not to make you comfortable, it is to make you think and understand how America functions.

Coates asks the reader to think and analyze ideas we often take for granted. To deeply question convention. One of his most controversial points is leveled around 9/11. Coates discusses why he is conflicted about the hero worship that came during and after September 11, 2001. He notes that this same neighborhood, Lower Manhattan, was home to the site of slave auctions and much plunder perpetrated against the Black Body. Its thoughts like this, really unpopular to many, that elevate this book. Coates is not sentimental, he is not afraid to speak his truth. And this is not the only moment that he confronts the reader on their beliefs.

Coates expertly weaves his own thoughts and feelings with the greater context of violence, racism, and hatred. However that is not all this book is, it is also a celebration of Blackness. Coates just as carefully reflects on the power of his time at Howard University, and how that time showed him the vastness of the Black cultural landscape. The diversity in the Black community, and the influence that had over him. This book is a master class in writing a thoughtful cultural critique. It blends the scholarly with the personal in both nostalgic and objective prose.

Most people could benefit from reading this book. Especially those people who live in The United States. What he is discussing and presenting the reader is a valuable perspective on race, violence, and Black bodies throughout the history of America. Read this book, please.

Don’t forget to listen the The Stacks with Jay Connor discussing Between the World and Me.

  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; 1 edition (July 14, 2015)
  • 5/5 stars
  • Buy Between the World and Me on 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. 20 The Stacks Book Club – Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

cropped-TheStacks_logo_final.jpgWe’re thrilled to have writer and host of The Extraordinary Negroes Podcast, Jay Connor, back with us this week for The Stacks Book Club,  discussing Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This episode is spent talking about the three major themes from the book: race, violence, and the Black body, and how those themes are ever present in American society. There are no spoilers this week.

We cover a lot of topics, and you can find links to everything below, in the show notes. Use the links when you shop on Amazon and iTunes to help support The Stacks.

Connect with Jay: Instagram|Twitter

Connect with The Extraordinary Negroes: iTunes Podcast|Android Podcast|Website|Facebook|Instagram|Twitter

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

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.

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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.

Black Klansman: A Memoir by Ron Stallworth

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The Stacks received this book for free as part of a giveaway from the publisher. See Disclosures.

This book has been on my radar for a while, but with the BlacKkKlansman movie coming out I decided I had to read the book. The book is very short, so it wasn’t intimidating at all. If you don’t know the story of Ron Stallworth, the Black Klansman here is a blurb to catch you up:

When detective Ron Stallworth, the first black detective in the history of the Colorado Springs Police Department, comes across a classified ad in the local paper asking for all those interested in joining the Ku Klux Klan to contact a P.O. box, Detective Stallworth does his job and responds with interest, using his real name while posing as a white man. He figures he’ll receive a few brochures in the mail, maybe even a magazine, and learn more about a growing terrorist threat in his community.

A few weeks later the office phone rings, and the caller asks Ron a question he thought he’d never have to answer, “Would you like to join our cause?” Ron answers the caller’s question that night with a yes, launching what is surely one of the most audacious, and incredible undercover investigations in history. Ron recruits his partner Chuck to play the “white” Ron Stallworth, while Stallworth himself conducts all subsequent phone conversations. During the months-long investigation, Stallworth sabotages cross burnings, exposes white supremacists in the military, and even befriends David Duke himself.

I found this book a little boring. Which was shocking to me, because the idea of a Black man in the Ku Klux Klan seems explosive and exciting, and it is a pretty crazy story. However there really isn’t a plot. The title pretty much explains the story, a Black man infiltrates the Klan. There are details that come out, of exactly how, but once I got that information, I was ready for the book to end.

One of the things that really irritated me about this book, is that Stallworth seemed to feel like he had an obligation to be fair to the KKK. He would talk about something heinous they would say, and then remind us that David Duke is also a great father and husband. Or, he would talk about how dangerous groups who were protesting the Klan were. As if he, the man being called a “nigger” had to defend the humanity of members of the KKK. I think it took away from the vulnerability and authenticity of his story. I would have much preferred to hear how he felt, and not diplomatic responses.

Another thing that comes up a lot in Black Klansman is the idea that the members of the Ku Klux Klan as so dumb for being duped by a Black person. I think this is also a dangerous game, it allows those folks in the KKK to be dismissed as idiots, and not as clever spin artists who can manipulate public opinion about entire groups of people, and get elected to public office. The idea that those who spew hate are unintelligent is dangerous and lets that hatred off the hook.

There were moments that were interesting in this books. Particular details of how Stallworth pulled off his infiltration. I also loved that he had so much detail from the investigation, direct quotes and dates and more. It really lent credibility to the story.

This book is fine, but it is nothing special. The writing didn’t work for me, and I didn’t feel like I learned much about Stallworth, or the Klan, or even the time period in Colorado. I would say, if you were really curious about the story, you could read this one, but if you’re just medium on the idea I wouldn’t read it. Either way, the book is short, which is usually a good thing.

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books (June 5, 2018)
  • 2/5 stars
  • Buy Black Klansman on Amazon

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Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy

EFD9FC14-C160-498F-8A7F-7B028658C6EDI live in Los Angeles, and this book about crime in South Los Angeles has been on my radar since it came out in 2015. I mean, it has all the things that I proclaim to like: true crime, race relations, specifically those dealing with Black folks; a journalistic style and approach, and a woman author. Plus, it talks about locations I’m familiar with and people that live 20 minutes (without traffic) away from me. This has just always felt like a must read for me.

If you aren’t familiar with Ghettoside, here is more about the book.

Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential, but mostly ignored, American murder—a “ghettoside” killing, one young black man slaying another—and a brilliant and driven cadre of detectives whose creed is to pursue justice for forgotten victims at all costs. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of why murder happens in our cities—and how the epidemic of killings might yet be stopped.

I found Ghettoside to be a very well manicured book. It is clear from the moment the book starts where it will end, and it is clear exactly what points author Jill Leovy will hit. It has no twists and turns, no suspense, no real excitement in the storytelling. That is not what Leovy is doing here. The point of this book is to show how routine and mundane murder has become in South Los Angeles. The point is that day in and day out Black men are being killed, and the LAPD detectives are the only people of authority who care (her point of view not mine).

Leovy embeds with the Southside detective unit and spends much of her time with one detective, John Skaggs. He is ostensibly the hero of this book. He is the guy we are told to be impressed by, he is the best one, he solves the cases, he is dedicated to justice. While I enjoyed hearing about the detectives, the parts of this book I enjoyed most were about the victims, their families, and even those people involved in perpetrating the crimes. Detectives are cool, but we have so many stories focused on them. I wish Leovy would have spent more time engaging with the stories of those who live in Watts, those who lost loved ones, those who stories are often erased in from their own narratives.

Something that got in the way of my enjoyment of Ghettoside, is that Leovy clearly grew to respect and admire the work of the detectives in the units she was with. I think that biased her to the work of other police officers. The book felt incredibly pro-detective, and mostly anti-patrol cop. I’m not doubting the detectives do good work, and that cops make mistakes, its more that it felt like the detectives were the heroes only being foiled by lousy police work and out of control gang members. I found it hard to trust her praise or condemnations fully.

I am glad I finally read this book. I enjoyed the well researched subject matter, and the amount of effort Leovy put in to talk to so many different people involved in South Los Angeles murders. I also appreciated her willingness to discuss the anti-Black racism that has led to a world in which the murder of Black men goes mostly unseen, unreported, and unsolved. She really gave these murders the context that is so often overlooked in place of a “personal responsibility” narrative.

If you’re interested in the detective process and how crimes are solved, this would be a good book for you. I also would suggest this book to anyone living in a city with high rates of murder perpetrated against Black men, or anyone who thinks this topic sounds interesting.

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; Reprint edition (October 27, 2015)
  • 3/5 stars
  • Buy Ghettoside on Amazon

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