The Short Stacks 17: Radley Balko//The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist

In August we’ll be discussing The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington for The Stacks Book Club. In anticipation, we have author and journalist Radley Balko (Rise of the Warrior Cop) on The Short Stacks. We talk about how Radley started reporting on death investigations in Mississippi, the process of working with a legal team for this book, and the In the Dark podcast.
There are no spoilers on today’s episode.

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

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The Stacks Book Club — August 2019 Books

August is just around the corner, which means its time to share out picks for The Stacks Book Club for August. We’ve got two very different (and very good) nonfiction stories for you!

Our first book, for the August 14th, is The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. In her memoir, Alexander shares what it is like to have loved and lost after the sudden death of her husband. She uses her skills as a poet to tell this beautiful story of love, family, community, grief, and a life well lived. This memoir was touted as Michelle Obama’s favorite book of 2015 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Then on August 28th, we’re reading The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington. This book might not scream “beach read” but trust us, this book is hard to put down. This true crime story explains how two men in Mississippi could be imprisoned for over 30 years for a crimes they didn’t commit and how the forensic experts who helped convict them have a long history of exploiting the death investigation industry and the racist history of The United States. Hold on, this one is a wild ride.

As always, we want to hear from you, so please reach out with your thoughts, questions, and things you want to hear discussed on the podcast. You can email us at thestackswithtraci@gmail.com, comment on this post, or reach out to us through our Instagram @thestackspod.

Order your copies of our August books on Amazon or IndieBound:

  • The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander (Amazon | IndieBound)
  • The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington (Amazon | IndieBound)

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

The Stacks participates in affiliate programs in which we receive a small commission when products are purchased through some links on this website. This does not effect 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.

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.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

B5DEB0BF-DB0D-48AD-9963-60B75E9C0F0BAs far as I can tell, An American Marriage has been the most hyped and talked about book in 2018. The day the book was released it was also announced that it would be part of Oprah’s Book Club which is about as much buzz as a new book can get. So before I read this book (which I of course ordered as soon as I saw it was on Oprah’s list) I knew I was in for something.

If you don’t know much about this book, here is a little synopsis.

Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.

Before I go further, I am trying to talk about An American Marriage without spoilers, but if you haven’t read the book, you might want to proceed with caution.

I enjoyed this book. I read it in about three sittings, the writing is smooth and easy to consume. While I wanted to know what came next, I had already figured out what would happen. There were no surprises (for me). I just wanted to hear Jones tell me her story. Jones is the MVP of this book. She creates a story that is nothing special, with characters that are polarizing and mostly unlikeable (I know some of you might disagree), that I still wanted to read and know where everyone ends up. The book is neither plot driven nor a full introspection on the characters, its somewhere in between. Its a good place to be.

As a reader the main question of this book, is which character do you want to come out on top. Whose side are you on? I had a hard time picking sides. While I felt for Roy, (how could you not?) I also felt for Celestial. Twelve years isn’t a life sentence, but its long enough to destroy a marriage, especially one thats only 18 months old. Its not so much looking for excuses or passing blame, its just that for me, none of it was simple or cut and dry. I could understand where they were coming from and wish it could’ve all played out differently. Or at least that they both had mediators to help them communicate with each other.

Let me also say this, loud and clear, Andre is the worst. What a cornball. I’ll take any team he is not on. Andre is a strong no for me. I couldn’t let this review proceed any further with out getting that all off my chest.

What I’ve discovered from discussing this book with friends and family, is that we all bring to this book whatever we feel about marriage. Thats what makes this book powerful, and worthy of praise, and continued conversation. We all look at Roy and Celestial and we see ourselves and our partners, our failed and successful relationships. The ones that got away, and what we attribute to a successful relationship.  The things we each value most in love; loyalty, forgiveness, communication, physical connection, are the things we base our arguments on for why we’re #TeamRoy or #TeamCelestial. That is the beauty of the book. No matter what you think of the characters and their choices, you see yourself in it, you see yourself navigating this most terrible of situations.

I recommend this book. I’m glad I read it, and met these characters and saw their world. I don’t know that it will stick with me for years to come. I enjoyed it in the moment. It touches on wrongful convictions in a important way, and in a way I’ve never seen in fiction before. Jones asks us to look at the cost of incarceration on those who are ultimately cleared for their crimes. For that alone, this book is worth reading, and lucky for us this book takes on even more. I can’t wait for the movie, it must be coming right?

And since I know you all want to know, and since we’re picking teams, I’m going on the record as #TeamTayari all the way.

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; Oprah’s Book Club edition (February 6, 2018)
  • 4/5 stars
  • Buy An American Marriage on Amazon

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 Central Park Five: The Untold Story Behind One of New York City’s Most Infamous Crimes by Sarah Burns

IMG_5205This book falls perfectly in my wheel house, a book about true crime, a book about racial politics in the United States, and a book about the wrongfully convicted. I already knew a lot about this story, and the facts of this case before reading the book, in fact I had already seen the PBS Documentary.  That being said, if you’re not familiar with this story, here is some context.

On April 20th, 1989, two passersby discovered the body of the “Central Park jogger” crumpled in a ravine. She’d been raped and severely beaten. Within days five black and Latino teenagers were apprehended, all five confessing to the crime. The staggering torrent of media coverage that ensued, coupled with fierce public outcry, exposed the deep-seated race and class divisions in New York City at the time. The minors were tried and convicted as adults despite no evidence linking them to the victim. Over a decade later, when DNA tests connected serial rapist Matias Reyes to the crime, the government, law enforcement, social institutions and media of New York were exposed as having undermined the individuals they were designed to protect. Here, Sarah Burns recounts this historic case for the first time since the young men’s convictions were overturned, telling, at last, the full story of one of New York’s most legendary crimes.

As I mentioned I was already keyed into this story. I had seen the documentary years ago and was really moved by it. This book, is written by the same woman, Sarah Burns, who was a co-creator on the film (her father, legendary documentarian Ken Burns, is also a co-creator). Both the book and film share from one another, and I can only imagine how ground shaking this book would be if you were relatively unfamiliar with this story.

Burns does a fantastic job of detailing not only the events of 1989 and 1990, but also recreating the environment and cultural current of the time. She walks us through how something like this could happen; the media frenzy, the racist attitudes, and so much more. Her writing is straightforward, though also a little biased (and I think rightfully so). This is not a “we need to hear both sides of this story” kind of book. In all fairness, the “other side”, the side of the city of New York, has been driving the narrative on the Central Park Five for the last 20+ years. She is righting a wrong. She is setting a record straight.

You can sense Burn’s frustration with the system through out the book. The Central Park Five is a searing indictment of the way that the NYPD and District Attorney’s office handled this case. Burns does lean in a little deeper and remind us that this case could happen to anyone, as the practices used to convict these young men are still very much alive and well in today’s judicial system.

The only thing that this book lacks for me is a deeper connection to the boys who were dubbed The Central Park Five. I wish Burns dove deeper into repercussions these events had on the five teenagers. At the center of this story is not only wrongdoings by the city of New York, but also the story of those who were wronged. This book is more styled to be a piece of journalism chronicling the events, and less and expose on the lives that were altered. I would have loved for it to have done both things.

If you’re not familiar with this story, or the revelations that have come up in the last 15 years, I highly recommend this book, and the documentary. It is also worth noting that Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time) has signed on for a five-episode Netflix series about The Central Park Five set to film this summer. I’m obviously looking forward to this as well.

If you’re familiar with this story or have read the book or seen the documentary I would love to hear from you. Leave your comments below.

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor Books (May 9, 2012)
  • 2/5 stars
  • Buy The Central Park Five on Amazon

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.