nonfiction

Book Review: An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

What do you know about Chicago? The Sears Tower (it’ll never be the Willis Tower, dammit!), the Magnificent Mile, Lake Shore Drive, our sports teams, corrupt politicians…and violence. Maybe Chicago’s violence was the first thing to come to your mind. But whatever you think you know, the story most likely goes deeper, and one of the very best people out there telling the story of the devastation suffered by Chicago’s Black and brown communities is journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz. He’s probably best know for There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (if you haven’t read that, I highly recommend it). I’ve admired him for years, and I was excited to read his latest, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago (Nan A. Talese, 2019). There aren’t a whole lot of people out there writing books about Chicago, but Alex Kotlowitz’s masterful writing and storytelling is the equivalent of a thousand lesser authors.

An American Summer begins with Pharoah (not a misspelling), one of the boys profiled in There Are No Children Here, giving an update on his tumultuous life. Mr. Kotlowitz then delves deeply into Chicago’s most violent communities, expanding upon the stories that make headlines, the ones people blow off because they read ‘gang member’ and immediately dismiss the victim/s as unworthy of sympathy. The story, as always, goes far deeper than that. These are real people, loved by their family, friends, and community; they’re parents, friends, employees, students. They’re people who have spent the vast majority of their lives being traumatized over and over again by the violent deaths of their loved ones and community members, and being dismissed by the world around them as not worth caring about. The phrase ‘hurt people hurt people’ comes to mind often when reading their stories, and while it’s difficult to grasp this level of violence, this book illuminates what daily life looks like for the people who live it.

Alex Kotlowitz paints pictures of bleak, isolated neighborhoods full of run-down homes, often abandoned, full of bullet holes and grieving families. These communities aren’t without hope, though it’s occasionally difficult to find. There are high schoolers who have witnessed multiple deaths by gunshot- of friends, of family members, of strangers, often right in front of them. These are entire neighborhoods of people with the worst forms of PTSD and no hope for treatment, because unemployment- and thus lack of health insurance and an income high enough to pay for regular therapy and medicine- is so high that comprehensive treatment is often out of reach.

An American Summer is nonfiction that reads like a heartbreaking novel, but this is all tragically real. I could get into my car and be in some of these neighborhoods in less than half an hour. The massive difference between their lives, their neighborhoods, and mine is unfathomable, and it should never, ever have become like this. These people deserve so much better than what racist America has afforded them. They need jobs, fully funded education, healthcare (including comprehensive medical care)- the same thing the rest of America needs, but the situation is desperate here, and no one makes this clearer than Alex Kotlowitz.

If you think you know Chicago, read Alex Kotlowitz’s work. He’ll show you another side, the people behind the headlines, the trauma lived there every day. It’ll break your heart in a thousand different ways.

Visit Alex Kotlowitz’s website here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth

Ever since reading Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan in my early 20’s, I’ve been fascinated by prison and have read about it often. And with prisons being the largest supplier of mental health care in the United States, I knew I needed to read Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth (Basic Books, 2018) when I learned about it- partly because of this fascination, and partly for semi-personal reasons.

In Insane, Ms. Roth details the challenges the prison system faces being the provider of mental healthcare for its millions of prisoners. Funding is short, so providers- whom it’s difficult to hire for various reasons, including safety and lower-than-civilian-jobs salaries- are constantly lacking. Therapy is challenging when it can only be given out in the open, with no privacy. Fewer providers mean services don’t get rendered in time; meds don’t get handed out in time; diagnoses don’t get made for months, sometimes years. Officers get little-to-no training in how to deal with severely mentally ill prisoners. Overcrowding exacerbates symptoms and strains already strained resources. If you’re unaware of just how overburdened the prison system is in regards to mental healthcare, you’ll have a pretty good idea after reading this book.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t places trying, and Ms. Roth points that out throughout the book. It’s just that this is a monumental task, and the country does almost next to nothing in order to keep these mentally ill patients treated so that they don’t end up in prison in the first place. (Our garbage healthcare system, tied to employment, shares a lot of this blame, as does the lack of therapists and psychiatrists- and I’d say the problem of affordable higher education is also an issue there.)

This is a deeply distressing, heavy book, full of information that I wish everyone knew and cared about. We’re all just one slightly different brain chemical away from ending up as a patient on the wrong side of the law- and that’s if we’re lucky, because far too often in the US, mentally ill people end up being shot by the police. A dear friend of mine had a son who suffered from schizophrenia and one of her greatest fears was always that he would end up being shot by the police during an episode. I learn so much about mental illness from her, and I think of her son and her continued fight to improve mental health care in this country every time I read a book like this. The two of them are a continued reason why I pick up these kinds of books; what Ms. Roth is doing, shining a light on the conditions faced by inmates who are often incarcerated due to the affects of their illnesses, is so necessary, and it’s such a service to the mental health community.

Insane isn’t an easy read. It’s a tough subject matter, and a lot of what she talks about will probably scare you or make you uncomfortable. It should. But you should use this information to become better informed and a better advocate for the mentally ill. Because stigma is bullshit and mental illness is illness- like cancer, or heart disease, diabetes, or epilepsy. It deserves research, resources, treatment options- treatment BEFORE tragedy, as my friend Laura says. And mentally ill people deserve dignity and respect, which Ms. Roth definitely affords them all throughout this remarkable book.

Visit Alisa Roth’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

Slightly different kind of book review today. Not as much of a review as a recommendation, and a plea.

I’ve had Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (Bold Type Books, 2016) on my kindle for a while, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Which made it a perfect choice for my parenting group’s reading challenge pick for a book that’s been sitting around on our shelves (or digital shelves) for a while. I’m glad my copy was digital; had I been able to flip through a paper copy, I would have been intimated both by the size (592 pages!) and the academic writing style. Instead, I clicked on the icon on my kindle and dove in.

This is a history of racism and racist ideas in the United States from the beginning of the country up until the present (or at least until the book was published in 2016). Whatever you think you know about racism in this country, it’s worse, and this book pulls no punches. That historical figure you always admired? Racist, and disgustingly so. That president you considered a decent guy? Yeah, he said some horrible things and signed off on policies that mirrored those things. History looks a little different than the stars-and-stripes-waving rhetoric that American grade school textbooks push, and if you haven’t really looked into history beyond that, you need to. This book is a good place to start.

This book is extremely comparable in tone and depth to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, so don’t go in expecting an easy, relaxing read; this is a book you work for. There were sentences and paragraphs I needed to reread to make sure I was understanding them fully. There were times when I paused and looked things up online to get some extra information. And on nearly every page, there’s a story that made me want to hurl the book across the room in a total rage. How are people like this? Why? How are they still like this? This book doesn’t answer those questions, but it does provide a fuller picture of the suffering that people who look like me have caused to Black people, and it provides impetus for doing better NOW.

I know over the summer this was free as an audiobook on Spotify; I don’t know about now, but most libraries should have it available. I don’t normally make the suggestion of audiobooks, since I myself don’t listen to them (not enough quiet time here, plus at least for fiction, my brain tends to wander), but if those are your jam, I highly, highly recommend this on audiobook as an easier way of making it through the book, because this is an information-packed, intense read, and I so want everyone to read this book. It’s 2020, people. We should have been beyond racism a loooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnng time ago, and instead, we’re still…here. We have to do better. And we can.

Start here. Start with this book. And then go out and do better and be better.

Visit Ibram X. Kendi’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · YA

Book Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear Martin by Nic Stone (Crown Books for Young Readers, 2017) has been on my radar for years, but I just hadn’t gotten to it yet. And it made its way into my home and onto my bookshelf last summer (thank you again, awesome used book sale), but I still hadn’t gotten to it- see the importance of reading the books you own? Those books don’t do us any good if they just sit there serving as décor. I picked it up as my third book of the year and finished it on the third day of the year. It’s a fast read that packs a major emotional wallop.

Justyce is one of the few Black kids at his private prep school. He’s been watching as more and more Black men and teenagers are shot by police officers around the country, and things are tense at his own school, where his white classmates insist that racism died out long ago. Justyce, who knows that’s not true after his own brush with police, begins writing a series of letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., trying to work out his feelings and figure out how to be like him.

But things escalate faster than Justyce could have ever imagined, and suddenly his best friend is dead in an incident that mirrors those he’s seen splashed across the headlines. The spotlights are on him, blaming him, digging up everything in his past that could possibly be construed as thug-like, and Justyce needs to figure out who he is, what he believes in, and who he wants to be, in a world that seems determined to decide all of that for him.

What a devastating book. There’s a lot in here that should enrage you- racism, both casual and blatant; massive miscarriages of justice, murder- and the rest will leave you feeling…sad. Depressed. Hopeful that change is still possible, but incredulous that there are still so many people out there who don’t get it, don’t want to get it, and who are actively opposed to anyone else getting it. I see this every day in the comments sections of social media pages in my very white hometown, populated by people who have never lived anywhere other than blindingly white areas and who haven’t bothered to expand their worldview beyond that one tiny midwestern town. These people scare the crap out of me and I know it’s on me to reach them, but I don’t know how to reach people so determined to hate. I’ll keep trying.

Ms. Stone raises a lot of excellent questions in this book, questions to live by that came up in Marra B. Gad’s The Color of Love: if nothing were to change, what kind of person would you want to be? We don’t have to be in perfect circumstances to still live in a way that brings honor to ourselves and the world around us- even to a world that doesn’t deserve it, because we still do. Heavy questions here with answers that will be different for everyone and that will probably change throughout our lives.

I feel like this is a book I’ll be processing for a long time, that I’ll return to in my mind when yet another Black person’s life becomes a hashtag and a headline. When the pandemic is over, there’s a local group I’m planning on getting involved with that is working to address these issues, and this novel has only furthered my commitment to that. Would that one day, these books that tell the stories of tragedies that didn’t have to be will no longer be necessary.

If you’ve been on the fence about reading Dear Martin, this is your sign to pick the book up. It’s painful and deeply upsetting, but that’s the reality of where we are as a society in the US, and it’s not something any of us should look away from. Read it, feel every last bit of it, and then do what you can to be part of the solution every day of your life.

Visit Nic Stone’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

I first became aware of Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (Knopf Publishing Group, 2020) when I was searching NetGalley for new books. My request for it wasn’t accepted (you win some, you lose some!), but I knew 100% that I had to read this. After reading their previous book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, they’re an auto-read for me. So much eye-opening information, presented in a way that keeps me turning the pages.

The American Dream is increasingly unavailable to anyone but the very rich; hard work and a determined attitude don’t count for much when your brain is primed for addiction and chaos, and there are no resources to help pull you out. In Tightrope, Kristof and WuDunn shine a light on communities in America that, through poor choices aided or directly caused by policy failure, have fallen through the cracks and are barely surviving. Some aren’t surviving at all. The pain travels through the generations; when parents suffer, their children don’t thrive either, and when they’re raised in chaos, they pass that along to their own children, and the damage works its way down the line. Poverty, violence, drug addiction, dropping out of school, lack of jobs, lack of opportunity, prison records, these aren’t merely personal choices (although some of them start out as such); they’re systemic failures that our society and our government have failed to address and at times have purposefully made worse.

Kristof and WuDunn don’t just point out problems, they offer solutions (ones that will summarily be ignored by anyone with power in order to further their own short-term gains, as our country is wont to do). The US is chock-full of problems, but they’re solvable problems, if only we stop looking at things like hunger and lack of available jobs as a personal choice.

It’s a damning book, and I fear that the people who need to read it will ignore it. Look at this quote:

‘Children in America today are 55 percent more likely to die than kids in other affluent countries, according to a peer-reviewed study in Health Affairs. “The U.S. is the most dangerous of wealthy, democratic countries in the world for children,” said Dr. Ashish Thakrar of the Johns Hopkins Hospital, the lead author of the study. If the United States had simply improved at the same rate as other advanced countries, 600,000 children’s lives would have been saved, Thakrar calculates. If America had the same mortality rates as the average in the rest of the rich world, 21,000 kids’ lives would be saved each year. Because we failed to modernize our health system the way our peer countries did, we lose fifty-eight children a day.’

Fifty-eight kids a day die because we’ve deemed them not worthy as saving. That’s over THREE of my daughter’s first grade classes. PER. DAY. We throw fifty-eight kids in the garbage every single day, and who knows how many adults, because it’s more important that insurance companies make money than those children get a chance to grow up. If you wouldn’t be okay with this for your own kids, or for yourself, you shouldn’t be okay with it for anyone else.

Why do some people thrive while others sink to the bottom? How do some folks escape difficult circumstances while others struggle for generations? The writing team covers this, as well as the resources necessary for everyone to thrive. In order for America to prosper, we can’t leave vast swathes of the population behind; America is only strong when Americans- ALL OF THEM- are strong, and the authors illustrate this well in heartbreaking example after example.

Kristof and WuDunn focus mainly on the community where Kristof grew up, in Yamhill, Oregon (famously the hometown of Beverly Cleary; she writes about it in her autobiography, A Girl from Yamhill), but they do expand their look to other states that have been hard-hit by the policies of the last fifty years. It’s a devastating look, a hard one that far too many aren’t interested in taking at the US, but one that absolutely needs to be taken. It’s not without hope, but it’s sobering, and if you’re in the US, you can’t afford to miss this book.

Read Nicholas Kristof’s writing at the New York Times here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

Follow Sheryl WuDunn on Twitter here.

middle grade · nonfiction

Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny and Injustice- Veronica Chambers

I went to the library (I’m sure you’re shocked) a few weeks ago with a list of books for my daughter. As I was passing through the nonfiction shelves, I came upon a copy of Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny and Injustice by Veronica Chambers (Harper Collins, 2018). Curiosity piqued, I grabbed it off the shelf and flipped through it. It looked right up my alley, so into the pile of 37482374983289 books for my daughter it went!

(I’m sure you’ll also be super surprised that the bag actually ripped as I was walking out to the car. 100% serious here! Whoops.)

Resist begins with an inspiring foreword by Senator Cory Booker, about how one person’s resistance to injustice made his entire life possible. Ms. Chambers then serves up short profiles of 35 historical and modern figures, each who fought or are fighting for the rights of those who have been oppressed. There are blasts from the distant past, including Joan of Arc and Martin Luther, the more recent past, like Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X, and current rainmakers such as Malala Yousafzai and (much to my delight) Janet Mock. Civil rights, women’s rights, religious rights, migrant rights and more are covered in this stirring, yet easy-to-digest middle grade nonfiction book.

This is a cool little book that would make for a fabulous parent-child read, especially for when your kids overhear some of the terrible things on the news these days and they come to you, worried and scared about their futures. Ms. Chambers has chosen an excellent motley batch of people who have struggled and fought to bring justice to the masses, with little victories and big, with small losses, along with those who lost their lives fighting. Reading Resist, it’s possible to show your child that throughout history, there have always been brave people willing to step forward and do what’s right, even when it’s difficult, and there are still people working hard for the sake of justice today. These profiles of courageous people- adults and kids!- might help kids have a little hope for what seems like an increasingly uncertain future.

This is something I’ll head back to in a few years when my daughter is older. It’s something we can read together, either with me reading out loud to her, or with us sharing the reading-out-loud duties. There’s a lot of fodder for great parent-child discussions here too, so I’m looking forward to the day that she’s old enough to take part in discussing these stories about the lives of such brave people and what their actions meant to both the people in their lifetimes and to us today. Maybe she’ll even be inspired by them. I hope so.

Resist is a great biographical overview of what courage means and looks like, and for me, it was not only inspiring, it’s a good reminder that the middle grade section has a lot of hidden gems that I need to dig up more often. 😉

Visit Veronica Chamber’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.