Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Related Reading: Policing the Planet – Policing and the Criminal Justice System

Earlier this week I posted my thoughts on Policing the Planet edited by Jordan T Camp and Christina Heatherton. Are you looking for more books on similar topics? Check out these other great titles (links lead to old reviews):

Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen by David Hilfiker – An examination of how economics, policies, and racism created and shaped inner city ghettos. (FIVE STARS)

It is also true, however, that we tend to punish the kinds of crimes committed by the poor more severely than similar ones committed by affluent people. Compare, for example, shoplifting and “fudging” on an expense account. Each is a nonviolent crime against business. Since neither source of income is usually reported to the Internal Revenue Service, each is a federal crime. Yet the shoplifter is much more likely to be prosecuted than the executive manipulating his expense account.

Rape New York by Jana Leo – Leo examines development policies and crime especially as it intersects with her own rape. (FIVE STARS)

Introducing crime into an area is part of a crude development strategy. The more sophisticated and perverse approach is to simultaneously clamp down on street crime while forcing it into specific buildings targeted for speculation. Containing crime in specific buildings reduces their value so developers can purchase them inexpensively.

Unruly Women: The Politics of Confinement and Resistance by Karlene Faith – A look at women in the justice system (in Canada!) and the ways in which the justice system is but the latest in a long line of efforts which have been used to keep women in their places. (FIVE STARS)

The continuum, then, does not follow deterministically from victimization to criminalization. Rather, social victims en masse serve as the very large pool from which the anomalous woman, who sells sex, steals or hurts people and gets caught, is a candidate for prosecution. These unruly masses are the target of criminal justice as well as the target of other dominant regulatory institutions in bureaucratized societies. The continuum from victimization to criminalization is arbitrarily drawn according to power relations as constructed through racially divided and class-based social structures, in tandem with the authority of law and other dominant discourses such as medicine, social sciences and welfare, which all serve selective law enforcement practices.

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis – One of (if not the) first book I read on the US prison industrial complex. Davis discusses the history of prisons in the US as well as the criminalization of groups and communities which has led to the current state. She ends by providing options and alternatives. (More on Angela Davis coming in a post at some point in the near future.)

Thus, if we are willing to take seriously the consequences of a racist and class-biased justice system, we will reach the conclusion that enormous numbers of people are in prison simply because they are, for example, black, Chicano, Vietnamese, Native American or poor, regardless of their ethnic background. They are sent to prison, not so much because of the crimes they may have indeed committed, but largely because their communities have been criminalized. Thus, programs for decriminalization will not only have to address specific activities that have been criminalized – such as drug use and sex work – but also criminalized populations and communities.

More great reads that I haven’t reviewed but which provide more context and history on policing or the justice system:

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander – a history of racial injustices and how they are a continuation of Jim Crow systems of justice. (FIVE STARS)
  • The Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces by Radley Balko – a history of how we got to the current state of the militarized police force and the results of this on how they interact with those they are supposed to protect and serve.
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson – memoir by a lawyer who works with the wrongfully convicted, children, domestic abuse survivors, and others. It discusses the injustices built into the justice system.
  • Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado – Benforado is fully on the reform bandwagon, but in this book he does a great job of examining many issues (biases and injustices) built in to the current justice system.
  • Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted by Ian Millhiser – an examination of the Supreme Court since the Civil War that shows how the rulings go more often against justice, despite a few recent historic rulings.
  • Racial Reckoning: Prosecuting America’s Civil Rights Murders by Renee C. Romano – while this book isn’t as related, it is still interesting and I make the case that it provides a great lens through which to view the police and the justice system. Through examinations of the more recent prosecutions of civil rights atrocities we see the limitations of the justice system.

Have you read any great books on policing or the justice system that my list is missing? Please let me know so that I can search them out!

Thoughts on Policing the Planet Edited By Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton

Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter is a collection of 22 incredibly intersectional and deeply researched essays on policing in the US and internationally. The collection is edited by Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton and contains a poem as well as numerous essays by and interviews with activists and scholars.

I don’t know where I first heard about this book, but it’s been on my wishlist since around the time that it was published last year. Mid-January my boyfriend gifted it to me, because clearly I picked an amazing partner. Now all I want to do is push it on everyone – seriously, it’s that good.

Cover image for Policing the Planet

How policing became the major political issue of our time

Combining firsthand accounts from activists with the research of scholars and reflections from artists, Policing the Planet traces the global spread of the broken-windows policing strategy, first established in New York City under Police Commissioner William Bratton. It’s a doctrine that has vastly broadened police power the world over—to deadly effect.

With contributions from #BlackLivesMatter cofounder Patrisse Cullors, Ferguson activist and Law Professor Justin Hansford, Director of New York–based Communities United for Police Reform Joo-Hyun Kang, poet Martín Espada, and journalist Anjali Kamat, as well as articles from leading scholars Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Robin D. G. Kelley, Naomi Murakawa, Vijay Prashad, and more, Policing the Planet describes ongoing struggles from New York to Baltimore to Los Angeles, London, San Juan, San Salvador, and beyond.

Broken Windows Policing, also sometimes called Community Policing, is the idea that by cracking down hard on small crimes such as littering, graffiti, loitering, public drunkenness, and et cetera with a zero tolerance policy people will be dissuaded committing major crimes. In other words, by showing that the police care about and enforce all rules punitively, it will theoretically scare people away from the idea of larger or more violent crimes. It was developed originally in 1982 in The Atlantic Monthly by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, and has been embraced hugely since then.

The problems with this theory are legion, but a key point raised throughout the book is this – who defines community? Because certain people get identified as being “outside” of the community (the homeless, the racialized poor people, LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming people, Native people, immigrants, drug users) it is considered acceptable if they are harmed by the police in order to maintain “order” and “safety” for those considered within the community. This harm can come through increased stops, increased fines and arrests, and increases in prison populations. All of these harms then appear on a person’s record which leads to further cascading harm as they are shut out of what remains of the social net, in many cases. The policy can lead to “cleanup” of neighborhoods, increasing property value and enabling further gentrification in neighborhoods people have lived in for years.

A second main problem, raised again and again, which is tied to the first, is the way that the policy targets and disorders individuals and behavior as opposed to issues and crimes. For example, the homeless are arrested and / or fined and /or removed from the area, but there is no action taken against slum landlords who aren’t maintaining their properties. And no action on actual broken windows on bank owned foreclosed homes. As another example, people of color are routinely stopped and frisked in certain neighborhoods because they are seen as not belonging but there is no action against discriminatory hiring practices and stealing of tips.

Abolition of policing is provided by many as the true solution to the problems. Many essays discuss the history of policing and about its beginning in the days of slave patrols and its continued use throughout history to maintain separation and penalize difference. While some activists point to short term solutions, it is important to look intersectionally at all facets of the situation to ensure that existing structures and issues aren’t maintained. Although broken windows policing originated in the United States, it has been exported around the world as some of the essays discuss. The issue is a global one and many organizations are working together for justice.

An example of the definition of community and of how activism can sometimes provide limited gains while leaving the underlying structures in place is given in Christina B. Hanhardt‘s essay “Broken Windows at Blue’s: Queer History of Gentrification and Policing“. In the essay she talks about the rise of broken windows policing in New York City and the concurrent rise in the acceptability of white gay identity due to investment in gentrifying neighborhoods. The white gay middle class investment in the city was seen as part of the “back-to-the-city” movement and this group started to be seen as increasingly different from poor, immigrant, and non-white gay individuals, as well as from trans or gender non-conforming individuals. They thus because part of the accepted “community” while the underlying structure and problems were left unchanged.

She states:

[…] mainstream gay political claims in the city emerged by expanding the distance – conceptual and spatial – between affirmative gay identity and the broad matrix of so-called deviances often associated with racialized poverty.

They thus because part of the accepted “community” while the underlying structure and problems were left unchanged. As we move forward with advocacy, this is what reform efforts can often lead to and is why we have to think critically about any reforms being proposed.

As Rachel Herzing says in “The Magical Life of Broken Windows“:

We need terms of engagement that don’t root our own survival in the suppression or denial of another’s humanity.

In the coming days I will put up a few related posts on related reading, organizations working on the topic, and other media.

Noir Reads Subscription Box – Did You Subscribe?

Earlier this month I heard about a new monthly subscription box, Noir Reads, which promises to deliver great Black Authors to your front door each month. Their site says, about the books:

Noir Reads is simple and easy way to read Black literature to develop or deepen your understanding of Black culture & the Black experience by introducing readers to writers of the Diaspora and engaging in dynamic discussions with a growing private online community.”

The box will contain 2-3 books as well as a reading guide and access to an online book club. I LOVE this idea. I’m a huge fan of subscription boxes, but because I’m in Canada and the majority of them seem to originate in the USA, shipping can be prohibitive. While this box was way more cost friendly then most I’ve seen (at $35 per month), the shipping was still expensive to Canada ($25 – sad face). For that reason I didn’t sign up, but I’m curious – did you? It was open to only the first 200 subscribers and is now sold out, I’m interested to see if they will open it up to more subscribers, or if a separate access will be available to join in the book club.

One of the main goals mentioned by the co-founders (Zellie Imani and Derick Brewer) is to foster community and a deeper understanding. The February theme and books have been announced, and they are both books which I already own, so I’m glad for that reason that I didn’t subscribe.

I am going to try to make sure to read the books each month that they select, as I love the premise and am going to be making even more of an effort this year to read diversely. February’s theme is From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation and features Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis (which I read earlier this month) and From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor (which I ordered earlier this month and is expected to arrive tomorrow).

 

Brief Thoughts on November Nonfiction Reads (2)

As I get back into blogging, one thing I’m going to have to keep reminding myself is to keep reading what *I* want to read. During my time away from blogging world, I read fairly widely and diversely. I find as I get back into the blogging world, I’m getting all kinds of great sounding recommendations that I’m searching out – but the end result is that my reading is threatening to become less diverse. Where you get your recommendations matters, as does the echo chamber that blogging often creates.

In the past week I’ve read another 4 non-fiction books. Here are some brief thoughts on each of them.

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

This collection of essays was not at all what I imagined it was going to be. I tend to like going into books with little to no advance knowledge of their subject, because I like the surprise. Generally with nonfiction, however, I pick books based on their subject. In this case, I added the book to my hold list at the library based on a couple of tweets on her writing and how fantastic it was. Obviously I gravitated toward the nonfiction offerings, and this collection appeared to be about books and reading and so I requested it.

Imagine my surprise when I begin reading and find a collection of essays on religion, divinity, theology, history, anthropology, science, culture, politics, and more! The writing is beautiful and the ideas are expansive and kind and marvelous. Her take on religion is one which grants every human the highest level of intelligence. She dissects many texts on religion and atheism and science, bringing up different opinions or aspects, looking at anthropology and history, and comparing what we say to how we act. A key point she makes a few times on the subject is that all authors have their own biases and start from certain assumptions, and so even the most objective nonfiction books should be read skeptically. This is a great point that we should all remember, and is a great reminder on why we should read widely.

A truly remarkable collection of essays that, while I didn’t agree with in all parts, I still enjoyed reading.

I am convinced that the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global. (page 26)

Since it is intelligence that distinguishes our species and inventiveness that has determined our history, by what standard should an unconventional act or attitude be called unnatural? (page 145)

When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller

I’m not sure what is dangerous about reading fifty books, but Miller does make a case that the reading that he did changed his life, reminding him of the pleasures of reading and bringing more happiness into his life. The book chronicles his decision to actually read many of the books he claimed, throughout his life, that he had actually read. From that list of 12, he continued on to read another 38. The titles are varied but ranging mostly from classic to male cult favorites.

At one point the author remarks on the internationalism of his list (which contained only British, American, Irish, Russian, and German authors…) while bemoaning the sparsity of female authors on the list. That tells you something, perhaps, of my thoughts on the books he chose – I found the lack of diversity and gender ratio (5 to 1) disappointing. While there are titles I want to read from among his list, some of the books didn’t interest me at all.

The idea of books having an impact on your life is of course something I would agree with. Miller’s constant assertions on the imminent death of libraries and paper books I agreed with less, as with his comments on giving up on a book, or his frequent disparaging comments on Dan Brown. He seemed to go back and forth on what could or couldn’t be included as a “great book”, often seeming rather dismissive of things he didn’t particular enjoy.

Could someone honestly call themselves well-read without reading Middlemarch, Moby-Dick, and Anna Karenina? Probably not. (page 53)

I frequently yearned to escape from my dull routine and a great book – of any stripe – offers us a cheap getaway from reality. But there are all sorts of holiday destinations and a multitude of ways to travel. (page 101)

Stitches by David Small

Another graphic memoir! (I swear I usually read a lot less memoirs…!) This book takes us through Small’s early life growing up in Detroit, his family troubles, and the results of a harmless operation. Beautiful illustrations and an interesting story.

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig

I have some feelings about this book as well. It was interesting and informative, and I highly recommend it as a great historical look at an important scientific breakthrough that affects so many of us. That being said, I think it, as with any book, contains some biases.

As the author mentioned a few times, the results of some of the trials and tests may have gone differently if more women had had a say in what were acceptable side effects. Along the same line, I wondered if a woman or a person of color might discuss some points in more detail that Eig seems willing to brush aside. For example: Sanger was a remarkable lady who accomplished much, but Eig seems a bit forgiving of her part in the eugenics movement, almost arguing that she said the things she did and allied with groups that she did solely to advance her own cause. As well, the trials in Puerto Rico are still a point of bitterness and contention, and when I’ve read about them in the past they’ve been used as examples of how trials should not be done. Again, Eig almost brushes this off, as if it were necessary to do the trials in the way they did.

While an interesting read, I recommend reading with an open mind and then doing some independent research. I haven’t read it, but one book on my wish list dealing with this subject is Sonia Shah’s The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World’s Poorest Patients.

What have you been reading for nonfiction November?

Brief Thoughts on November Nonfiction Reads

I had plans to actually get some longer thoughts posted on a few books I read and loved recently, but work got busy, and now my mom and aunt are visiting for a few days. My mom flew in from PEI with oysters and mussels so we’ve had a seafood feast, and now we’re entertaining ourselves with food and shows and more tasty food!

Since November 1st I’ve read 5 non-fiction books. That number is so high because three of them were graphic novels (which seems to be a bit of a theme this year in my reading, and in the nonfiction reading of others this month), one was a cookbook, and one was a book of poetry (which perhaps shouldn’t count, but I think do). Here are my thoughts on all five of them.

Dinner: The Playbook by Jenny Rosenstrach

I picked this book up because I LOVE Dinner: A Love Story by Rosenstrach. It is basically my food bible. I’ve gifted it a number of times and each time I have, I get back rave reviews. It is a good story, but also packed with simple yet truly delicious (and complicated tasting!) meals. Unfortunately I didn’t love The Playbook nearly as much. It is written as a challenge – to cook 30 new meals for your family in 30 days, as a way to get out of the rut of eating the same thing and of kids being unwilling to try new things. The recipes look good, but if you’re already happy enough with your cooking and variety, I recommend her first instead of this one. If you need a challenge to help you out, then try this one.

Fun Home: A Tragicomedy & Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel

Odd fact about me: I am generally very uncomfortable with memoirs. People are writing about their own lives, without the distance that an outside third-party might bring to their story, and they are writing while other inhabitants of their stories and worlds are still alive. This always leads me to wondering what those being written about actually think, and how much their lives may be disrupted by the publication.

Bechdel, in her defense, does talk about this. Are You My Mother? includes various discussions between her and her mother about the writing of Fun Home, about her mother’s thoughts on it, and about her mother’s thoughts on writing a book about her. It also included conversations with girlfriends and with therapists, and was really as much a look at the psychoanalytical theories on growing up and the bond between mothers and daughters, the effects of growing up in abusive homes, and so on as it was a true story about her and her mother.

Fun Home, rather than tackling the subject of the effects of family on later life, is all about her father, their life growing up with him, some of his history, and his death. It discusses his violence, his time in therapy, his brush with the law, and his sexuality. Bechdel compares her coming out as gay to his closeted gayness. I’m just going to say that the parts about her dad and his, basically, grooming of younger men did put me off slightly, as the power imbalance (he was a teacher) could have affected consent. Did anyone else wonder on this, or was that just me?

Both books are graphic memoirs, broken into different chapters which don’t necessarily flow in a chronological order. I found them both to be slightly disjointed, although interesting. Decent reads, though not favourites.

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley

Another graphic memoir, although this one, being more about the author herself and not disparaging of others in her life, didn’t make me quite as uncomfortable as memoirs generally do. In Relish Knisley discusses memories and food, and how the two are often linked for her. Her family is heavily involved in food and the food industry, and so food made up a large part of her life. Through the memoir she shares different memories through her life of food, cooking, and travels. Each chapter ends with a short recipe, which all looked interesting and delicious. I again found it decent but not a favourite.

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppernann

I saved the best for last – this collection of poems was incredible. The collection starts with an opening poem titled The Woods:

The action’s always there.
Where are the fairy tales about gym class
or the doctor’s office of the back of the bus
where bad things also happen?
Pigs can buy cheap building materials
just as easily in the suburbs.
Wolves stage invasions. Girls spit out
cereal, break chairs, and curl beneath
covers like pill bugs or selfish grannies
avoiding the mess.
No need for a bunch of trees.
You can lost your way anywhere.

So many lines and stanzas and whole poems in this collection really resonated and could become quotable favourites. Heppernann does a great job bringing the fairy tale to every day life, showing the ways the stories we are told as children continue to both resonate through our lives and haunt our lives. She expertly skewers the beauty myths and expectations placed on young women throughout, in unsettling, dark, and beautiful poems.

You can feel free to skip the rest, but I highly recommend you pick up this one!

What have you been reading through the start of nonfiction November?

Nonfiction November: My Year in Nonfiction

I am a huge fan of nonfiction, so am ridiculously excited about Nonfiction November! The event is being hosted by Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Leslie (Regular Rumination), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rebecca (I’m Lost In Books). The opening meme is being hosted by Kim – go on over and participate!

While I read a variety of types of books, nonfiction usually makes up between 30-40% by year-end. Right now it’s sitting at around 36% of my reading for the year so far. I’ve read 56 nonfiction books so far this year. Of those: 16 male authors, 44 female authors, 2 with trans or genderqueer authors (some were anthologies which contained multiple authors). 15 were by authors of color, another 9 were international (outside of US or Canada), and 14 included LGBTQ authors and topics.  Without really trying, mainly due to my interest in sociology and social justice, my reading tends to fall to at least 25% non-white authors and GLBTQ authors and topics.

New this year, 8 of the nonfiction titles I read were cookbooks or craftbooks. In the past I’ve not read many of these types of books. (Unsurprisingly, they skewed toward female authors, but white and het- cis- authors.) This has been due to my increased time for cooking and crafting. Another 7 could be classified as memoir – most of which I wasn’t a huge fan of (more on this later this month, I’m sure). Three were graphic novels.

Overall, quite a variety. You can see the full list of what I’ve read here.

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

I am having a hard time trying to pick just one or even just a couple. I want to list over a dozen here… But let me try to at least keep it only to a dozen! Here they are in order read:

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

As has Kim, I’ve recommended The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison many times! I’ve also recommended A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory From a Prairie Landscape by Candace Savage and Israel / Palestine and the Queer International by Sarah Schulman to various friends.

(I cheated by taking these off of my favourites list and moving them here – they are all also very high on my favourite reads of the year list!)

What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet?

Hmmm… to be honest, I think I’ve read fairly widely so far this year. I hope I can just continue that trend!

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

I’m mainly excited to see more bloggers talking about nonfiction – it just doesn’t get nearly enough love! I’m also hoping to help ease myself back into blogging with it.

Thoughts on Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women’s History in Canada

I picked this book up from the library because I read a review of it somewhere and thought it sounded really interesting. Here in Canada we like to have this holier-than-thou attitude where we congratulate ourselves on how well we treat minorities, and on how great we were historically to our First Nations populations as well as to black Canadians (we were the terminus of the underground railroad you know!) The truth, however, is not so rosy. While we were accepting American slaves and guarding their freedom, Canadian slaves were escaping south of the border to freedom, for example. And the most recent example of Canada being the only member country in the UN to reject an Indigenous Rights document should tell you something about our treatment, historically and in the present, of First Nations people.

Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women's History in Canada edited by Robin Jarvis Brownlie and Valerie J Korinek

I thought Finding a Way to the Heart: Feminist Writings on Aboriginal and Women’s History in Canada edited by Robin Jarvis Brownlie and Valerie J. Korinek would be essays on the history of women and First Nations people in Canada, for obvious reasons. While it was, but it also wasn’t what I expected either. The essays came out of a conference in honour of Sylvia Van Kirk, and revolve as much around her legacy and work as they do about specifically Canadian First Nations and women’s history (plus some New Zealand, Australia, and US history as well). The first three essays especially talked about her legacy and her life, and the remaining referenced her work in various ways while also advancing it in discussions more relevant to what I thought the book would be about.

Sylvia Van Kirk is known primarily for her thesis, published in monograph form in 1980, titled Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870. It was one of the first examples of foregrounding women, especially women of colour, and the domestic sphere, in works of history – showing examples on how to locate these people within traditional archives. The work is well known and still referenced regularly, along with her later work on First Nations women in Canadian history.

Whether one studies the fur trade era or the modern western experience, sexual relationships and societal perception of those experiences are significant to understanding those societies. (page 61, ‘Daring to Write a History of Western Women’s Experiences: Assessing Sylvia Van Kirk’s Feminist Scholarship’ by Valerie J Kolinek)

There were some really interesting points made in the essays in the collection, but there were also some problematic aspects. On the positive side, I found especially great the essays regarding miscegenation laws and power in various colonies, on the ramifications of gender on maintaining status and the women protesting against the sexism in the system, and on the use of media in colonial time to perpetuate the national narratives. Overall, the essays were all well written and researched, and provide important and interesting pieces of our history.

On the other side of the coin, I found problematic the language throughout. First Nations people were sometimes referred to as Natives, as Indians, as Aboriginal (as in the title), and (very rarely) by actual tribe names. When quoting source documents, keeping the same language and naming as the source document makes sense. Within the essays outside of direct quotes, however, there didn’t seem to be much consistency, or much care to what might be the preference of those being discussed. Related to this, it seems that most of the essays are written by non-First Nations scholars. While that was raised once – on the importance of not only scholarship on First Nations history, but on the importance of First Nations scholars – the rest of the collection seemed to ignore this point, or not find it important.

Although not what I expected, and dealing more with the legacy of a scholar than with history in general, most of the essays in the collection still give it enough depth and history on the topic titles to make it worth a read – if you’re interested in things like alternate readings of history, First Nations women in Canadian history, and the importance of sexual and domestic histories.

Recommended online reading: CBC Opinion article What’s in a name: Indian, native, aboriginal or indigenous?

Thoughts on The Beast by Óscar Martínez

If you pay any attention at all to the news, and you live in North America, you are sure to have heard of the large numbers of Central American immigrants entering the Southern United States, and the hateful rhetoric that is coming from those same areas about these immigrants. Thankfully not everyone is so hateful, but for those who are, some education should be prescribed, and they should probably start with The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Óscar Martínez.

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail by Oscar Martinez cover

Written as a series of blog posts beginning in 2007 for El Faro, the first online newspaper in Latin America, it was published into a book in 2010 as Los migrantes que no importan. An English translation (by Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington) was finally published in 2013 by Verso Books. The reporting is brave and in-depth, the prose is lyrical and hard-hitting, and the facts are terrifying.

Martínez, along with a photographer (one of a few different ones per trip), spent time travelling the same dangerous trails as the Central American migrants take through Mexico – talking to them, learning about what they live through, and dealing with the constant threat of danger. Some of his travels were by foot, some by train (The Beast of the title), some by bus, and sometimes by car along the border towns of the US-Mexico border. He spoke with migrants, with police and undercover agents, with priests, with Mexicans living in the towns, and with some of the gangsters. All of this contributes to the final package which is a book exploring all aspects of the trip migrants take, filled with personal accounts and vignettes.

The introduction by Francisco Goldman gives a good overview of what is to come, while at the same time highlighting the silence emanating from the United States on the dangers and violence both that the migrants are fleeing from (in many cases, the historical cause of which can be traced back to US foreign policy in the past), and that the war on drugs which fosters much of the violence they endure in Mexico. This is the only time it is truly made clear just how much responsibility the United States holds, that should be acknowledged, though it is the unspoken understanding through much of the rest of the book.

Individual stories in the book cover such topics as the impacts of injuries and what that means for a migrant, kidnapping, rape, death, murder, trafficking, and more. There is a lot of danger and fear, and the author makes clear that these things leave scars.

The suffering that migrants endure on the trail doesn’t heal quickly. Migrants don’t just die, they’re not just maimed or shot or hacked to death. The scars of their journey don’t only mark their bodies, they run deeper than that. Living in such fear leaves something inside them, a trace and a swelling that grabs hold of their thoughts and cycles through their heads over and over. It takes at least a month of travel to reach Mexico’s northern border. A month of hiding in fear, with the uncertainty of not knowing if the next step will be the wrong step, of not knowing if the Migra will turn up, if an attacker will pop out, if a narco-hired rapist will demand his daily fuck. (page 43)

Although a painful read, it is an incredibly important one. In documenting the stories, the trauma, and the pain, Martínez gives the immigrants a voice, and forces us to understand and take stock of the ways in which we are complicit, if not responsible. What have we done to educate ourselves? Have we unthinkingly believed any of the stereotypes or prejudices we’ve heard in the news? Is your country doing anything to help? If this book does nothing else, I hope that it forces people to recognize and remember our shared humanity, and the fact that we can easily, as this book makes clear, fall to violence and depravity against others if we forget.

Review: Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson

Lawrence in Arabia coverTitle: Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
Author: Anderson, Scott
Length: 577 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Politics, History
Publisher / Year: Signal / 2013
Rating: 4.5/5

In this book Anderson takes the reader on a sweeping historical journey following Lawrence and three other individuals in the Middle East just prior to and throughout the course of World War I. During this epic tale we also get a look into significant events in the lives of many others who helped to shape the destiny of the region, either by working with or against the intentions and wishes of the main characters. Although the cast of characters is rather vast, and the story line jumps from one area to another to follow each of the main four, the characters are all interesting and different enough to remain fairly easy to follow.

The main characters, other than Thomas Edward Lawrence of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame: are William Yale, a fallen American aristocrat who both acted as a spy for the US and as an employee of Standard Oil of New York; Dr. Curt Prüfer, a German scholar and spy, later a Nazi official; and Aaron Aaronsohn, a Jewish scientist who created an anti-Ottoman spy ring in Palestine and worked for the Zionist cause of a Jewish homeland. Each of these characters led interesting lives worthy of being discussed in a book such as this, and their stories added to that of Lawrence’s in highlighting the actions going on in the region and in helping to shape what was to come. At the same time, however, the stories fit together only in that sense – in that way the book is somewhat less about Lawrence himself then it is about the entire Middle Eastern theatre during World War I.

Lawrence’s life has proved to be one full of contradictions, as any life is. His past biographers, according to Anderson, have mostly skewed facts to fit their preferred narrative. In this book, instead, Anderson uses the historical sources to tell the story much more broadly and thus giving a fuller picture of the whole conflict and facts with which Lawrence was dealing. In this way he comes off as neither a hero nor a villain, though his best and worst moments are brought to light. Instead he comes across as a complex individual who was trying in many ways to live by a certain code of honour, while still being pulled into the cruelties and horrors of war.

Altogether this was a compelling and intriguing story that delves into the historical facts of World War I that are often overlooked – that of its Syrian front. Recommended reading for anyone who enjoys history, and anyone interested in the history of the current situations in the Middle East.

Companion Reads:

Referenced in the epilogue is another great read – Paris 1919 Six Months that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan- which delves in detail into the peace conference and how the various decisions were made. In this work, the story continues and highlights the after-effects of the actions in this book. Give it a read to get more insight into what happened next, as it is only discussed in very brief overview in Anderson’s epilogue.

Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia by Janet Wallach is another great read from the same period in history. I read this one back in 2009, and I’m fairly certain, based on limited recollections, that there are certainly discrepancies in the stories – in fact the book jacket for this one claims “Too long eclipsed by Lawrence, Gertrude Bell emerges at last in her own right as a vital player on the stage of modern history”. Anderson’s work makes little mention of her, so we can only wonder if Anderson’s historical sources didn’t mention her, if he instead ignored her (only one women is shown as having any agency and ability in Anderson’s work, and figures in Anderson’s book also feature in Wallach’s), or if Wallach made her story into more than it truly was. Nevertheless, both are incredibly interesting reads.

Review: Reality Bites Back by Jennifer L Pozner

Reality Bites Back coverTitle: Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV
Author: Pozner, Jennifer L.
Length: 386 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Culture
Publisher / Year: Seal Press / 2010
Source: BookDepository
Rating: 4.5/5
Why I Read It: Great reviews by Cass and Kim, fellow non-fiction readers.
Date Read: 04/30/13

Anecdote one: When reality television was first beginning to be a ‘thing’ and Survivor started, I remember my mother rolling her eyes at the “reality” aspect, commenting that obviously it was fully staged. If it was “really” surviving, there wouldn’t be cameras there. She was my first educator on media literacy and critical watching. Of course, I really wasn’t allowed watching much television, so it was more critical listening to the news articles about it and what friends were saying…

Anecdote two: I had a roommate for around two years, a few years back, who loved reality television… and when I say loved, I mean: she watched it constantly. Whatever reality television show they thought of, she was watching it. And let me tell you, there were some pretty terrible shows. Many of those shows are discussed in this book; some were bad enough they aren’t even mentioned. The residual effects of that alone were enough to turn me off of television pretty much fully, even though I’d escaped the ‘no television’ rules of the parental home mentioned above…

Book thoughts: Pozner has written a compulsively readable (much more addicting in my mind than the shows she is writing about) book about the stereotypes, prejudices, and flat out lies that hide behind the reality programming taking over TV. The research behind the book included countless hours of watching reality TV, as well as advocacy work educating youth about the power of media, reading, and more. While we like to think we are smart enough not to be tricked into believing everything we see, Pozner outlines how the shows actually do have an effect on viewers.

No matter how independent we might be as adults, how cynical we consider ourselves, or how hard we’ve worked to silence external cultural conditioning, decades of sheer repetition make it extremely difficult to fully purge societal standards from our psyches. -pg 47

Each show, to succeed, as Pozner shows brilliantly both with examples and with actual quotes from producers, plays on pervasive cultural stereotypes and ingrained biases. They denigrate women, they play on racial fears, they rely on stereotypes of consumption and class, and are written around advertisers requests. Consider shows such as The Bachelor promoted as ‘fairy tale romance’… how many of the fairy tales actually last? How much diversity is in the cast members, comparative to the diversity in actual marriage statistics? How are women and men treated and shown relating to each other? Is the consumption flashy and over the top, but aimed at realistic and ordinary? When we see only short clips, how do we know that we are seeing a full truth? And etc.

Despite having only seen a few episodes of a few shows (as outlined above, *shudder*), I didn’t feel lost or left out as when shows are first mentioned enough description is given to understand the premise. While reality TV producers like to say that they are simply providing ‘what the public wants’ the truth is that many reality shows are extended despite lackluster viewing because they don’t cost much (or anything) to produce, and are often paid for by marketers and corporations to promote products. The descriptions and discussions of the industry itself, from executives to producers to advertisers, were fascinating and disturbing. The amount of say they have in shows is incredible, as is the amount of product placement and the costs paid for this airwave time; time that isn’t even billed as actual advertisement.

Pozner in this book is not arguing against watching reality television – in fact she reaffirms that she still watches it – but she is rather asking viewers to be critical media consumers. Consider what you are watching, be aware of stereotypes and prejudices, as well as advertiser messages. Educate yourself, and advocate for better shows with better premises that show life more as it is, including its diversity, equality, and respect for others. Try playing ‘Backlash Bingo’ or a drinking game when you next watch reality TV – with helpful suggestions for play included in the book! (Though you may want to consider completing the drinking game with non-alcoholic beverages, for the sake of your health, considering the shows…)