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No One Cares About Crazy People by Ron Powers

No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America - Ron Powers

This is a deeply emotional book about an important topic, and it seems to have found a large audience (judging by the number of holds at my local library if not the number of ratings on Goodreads). It’s a great idea, alternating between nonfiction chapters about the nature and history of mental illness and a memoir of the author’s family, including two sons with schizophrenia. And as a journalist, the author has an engaging writing style that kept me wanting to read on. It is marred, however, by odd choices in structure and focus. In the end, there is far less about mental illness in it than I expected, and the author’s major policy proposal involves disempowering the very people to whom he claims he wants to give a voice.

The larger part of this book is the nonfiction, much of which is history. The author writes a bit about the spiritual roles often held in traditional societies by people who would today be defined as mentally ill, before discussing the history of asylums (they seem to have started out somewhere between prisons and zoos, to be later reformed in the era of Dorothea Dix and then deteriorate again). And other low points: eugenics (Hitler was all about wiping out mental illness through murder, but the U.S. pioneered forced sterilizations), lobotomies (shudder), and deinstitutionalization (the U.S. closed most of its asylums in the 1960s, resulting in many of the mentally ill winding up on the streets or incarcerated). For no reason I could discern, the chapter about the aftermath of WWII comes after the deinstitutionalization chapter, but it’s otherwise roughly chronological.

Powers’s writing style is engaging, and there is useful information here for those who don’t know much about the topic, but the nonfiction portions could have been much better. When the subject is science – what is schizophrenia, or the link between mental illness and creativity – there’s little actual science and lots of authorial speculation; Powers spends more time detailing debunked theories with emotional appeal for him than laying out the facts. When the subject is history, he has a tendency to go off on tangents at best loosely related to the topic of the book: the eugenics chapter goes into detail on how Darwin came to travel on the Beagle, but neglects to mention that forced sterilization went on in the U.S. until the 1970s.

The chapter on antipsychotics is particularly off-base. I expected this chapter to answer such questions as: how effective are antipsychotics? What is it like to be on them? How have these drugs changed in the sixty-odd years since they first became available? What are their disadvantages? Instead we get a history of the development of the precursors to the first antipsychotic drugs, including biographical details of involved scientists, and then a long catalogue of misdeeds by drug companies, often not related to psychoactive drugs at all. There’s even a discussion of the intricacies of patent law that cause medication to be expensive in the U.S. in the first place, and mention of Bernie Sanders bussing seniors up to Canada to buy cheaper meds. As a piece of journalism it’s fine, but that isn’t why I picked up this book.

The memoir portion is equally marked by odd choices of focus. Three-quarters of it takes place before either of the author’s sons begins showing signs of schizophrenia. I understand the author’s desire to focus on the happy events in their lives, and even his drive to include supportive emails he sent his kids over the years. Perhaps one of his goals was to get readers invested in Dean and Kevin as people rather than seeing them as representatives of an illness. But a good writer could have done that while focusing on the years when they were actually sick (they’re still people, which is supposed to be the author’s point, and they’re hardly psychotic all the time). And this structure winds up giving the impression that life ends with schizophrenia, that everything worth telling in his sons’ lives happened beforehand – even though one of them is alive and apparently doing well.

Again, there’s a lot of authorial speculation and tangents here. He theorizes that his older son, Dean, was moody and withdrawn as a teenager because he was in the early stages of the disease, never mind that Dean’s first psychotic episode seems to have come around age 30. He discusses at length the social and judicial consequences of a car accident when Dean was 17, during which it becomes clear that he has a bone to pick with the other teenager’s family (who previously wrote their own book). Dean’s own opinions are noticeably absent. The author will mention that he never asked how Dean felt about a particular event, or doesn’t know some fact from Dean’s life, leaving me wondering why he didn’t just walk downstairs and ask. Memoirists generally have living, non-estranged family members read their manuscripts and share their memory of events, which could only have improved this book.

Finally, though there’s little discussion of specific policy proposals, Powers advocates throughout the book for parents having increased authority to force treatment on their unwilling adult children. Of course, early diagnosis and treatment is extremely important to health outcomes, and it was clearly agonizing for Powers and his wife to watch Kevin go off his meds, insisting that he’d gotten better. But having recently read a horrifying account of involuntary commitment in another memoir, I’m hesitant to say we should do this more, and concerned by the author’s pooh-poohing of civil liberties concerns. A basic tenet of a free society is that adults get to make their own life decisions, even if their judgment is terrible, as long as they abide by the law. If someone is incompetent, the court can appoint a guardian. Powers apparently believes this option is insufficient because there can be delay (in which case the delay is the problem) and, bafflingly, because this is “not a medical hearing, with psychiatrists, but a judicial hearing, with a judge and lawyers.” Um, yes, this is how government works; it’s called due process of law and why courts exist. There’s nothing stopping psychiatrists from testifying in them.

At any rate, the author doesn’t seem to have thought this proposal through. Does he believe in involuntary treatment only during episodes of acute psychosis, or indefinitely once someone has a diagnosis? His experiences make it seem like the latter. In which case, what diagnoses are sufficient? How long does someone have to be stable to get their rights back? Does he think parents should have this power for life, or only while their children are financially dependent young adults? How would he prevent situations like Rosemary Kennedy's, where less conscientious parents choose a treatment that destroys their child in an attempt to make her easier to manage? If the ill person is married, does the spouse get to dictate treatment? Has he considered the ways mental illness already leaves people vulnerable to domestic violence (“you’re crazy, so no one will believe you”)? There's a long history of inconvenient women forced into mental institutions, because people given power over others don't always exercise it well. It doesn’t appear the author has considered the implications of his ideas beyond his own pain, and while his experiences are a valid consideration, the inquiry can’t stop there.

 

So in the end, while there is some good journalistic writing here and I found the book more engaging than a 2-star rating implies, it falls short of the author’s stated goals. He writes in the introduction that he wants reading the book to hurt, and he wants to give a voice to people with mental illness. The book includes a few tragic stories taken from the news, dealing with police shootings and suicide in prison, and certainly his son’s suicide is one of the most tragic events a family can experience. But far more page time is spent on Powers family vacations and why the author hates Thomas Szasz. And I’m confused as to how he believes he’s given anyone a voice when there’s no indication he interviewed anyone with mental illness for the book; even his own surviving son appears to have had no involvement. Raising awareness is good, but this book is too much of the author’s feelings and too little of anything else. What a wasted opportunity.

The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper

The House at Sugar Beach - Helene Cooper

I loved reading this book. It’s a memoir of the author’s privileged childhood in Liberia, the early days of civil war there and her family’s flight, and her journey of building a life in another country and ultimately coming to terms with her homeland.

Helene Cooper is an award-winning journalist, and you can see that clearly in her writing, which is compelling, informative, and relatable. She builds scenes from her childhood in an almost novelistic way, and explores the dynamics of her complicated family with depth and honesty. While she was born to a Liberian dynasty (descended from the first free blacks who arrived from the U.S. to build a colony), there’s an ever-present reminder of her privilege in her best friend, a poor native Liberian girl her parents adopt to be her playmate. The divergence between the lives of these two as they grow older tells you a lot about Liberia (and the world). Cooper is also able to tell a personal, gripping story about the war, in which her family does not escape violence. And she includes a few helpful chapters detailing her family history and the early history of Liberia. While the portion of the book dealing with her life outside Liberia is much shorter, it’s still an interesting look at the family members’ relative assimilation and race relations in the U.S.

But it isn’t all heavy stuff. There’s quite a bit of humor and fun in the book, especially as the author remembers her childhood and teenage years. She also seems enthusiastic about explaining Liberian culture and Liberian English to those unfamiliar with it, adding a lot of flavor to the story.

In fact, perhaps neither of my two reservations about the book is fairly attributed to the author. One is that it has more than its share of copyediting mistakes. The other is that, despite the history included, I never understood how the relatively peaceful country in which Cooper grew up spawned one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars, with all the atrocities she describes. I’m sure that to the teenaged Helene Cooper this made just as little sense; but as a veteran foreign correspondent who rode along for the invasion of Iraq, she probably has some insight into what makes wars different from one another. I would have appreciated the level of research about the war that she clearly put into the colony’s early years, though as a memoir the book succeeds regardless.

Overall, this is a very well-told story featuring distinct, complicated personalities, from a self-aware and thoughtful writer with fascinating life experiences. It’s also a great way to learn about a corner of the world that most people know little about. I would definitely recommend this one.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum

"Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity - Beverly Daniel Tatum

This is an informative book about the racial aspect of identity development. I am giving it a mild recommendation because I did not find it life-changing. But despite being a book about social issues published in 1997 (with an updated edition in 2003), it has maintained relevance. It is primarily geared toward parents and teachers, with a focus on child and adolescent identity development: how to raise non-white children in the U.S. with a healthy sense of themselves, and how to raise white children to speak out against racism. Because of the smattering of angry reviews, it’s also worth pointing out that the book is geared toward those who acknowledge that racism is an existing problem that affects people of color, and would like to improve their understanding or learn to do more about it.

Beverly Tatum is a college professor and administrator with a background in psychology and extensive experience teaching workshops about race, and also a black woman who’s put careful thought into teaching her sons about race. The book has a detached, somewhat scholarly tone, though it remains accessible and readable. The author compiles several theoretical models for racial identity development and illustrates them with examples from students, workshop participants, and her own life. In general I found the information she provides helpful, not earth-shattering for someone relatively familiar with social justice issues, but not too basic either.

The book does mostly focus on black and white, though the author makes an effort to expand from that. There are 10-page sections about Hispanic, Native American, and Asian-American identity, which are more substantial than I expected based on their brevity, but lack space to do more than summarize these groups’ experience with American government and society, and flag some key issues relevant to grade school teachers. Unsurprisingly, the portion of the book dealing with African-American identity is the richest. It’s useful – and probably necessary – for teachers and others to understand what kids are experiencing.

In writing about white people, the author is familiar with common racial attitudes, and explains them in terms of a growth model even though many people get stuck somewhere along the way (the same of course can be said for black people): from not having to think about race, to blaming minorities for their situation, to white guilt, to hopefully speaking out against racism in a productive way. Her analysis of the reasons white people are afraid to speak out seems dated to me (suggesting that fear of ostracism from other white people is a major factor, while de-emphasizing fear of putting one’s foot in one’s mouth because white people aren’t taught to talk about race). But otherwise the book’s analysis of race relations feels contemporary.

The author’s conception of a positive white racial identity is also incomplete, though as a black person, this isn’t really her job. She believes (and I have doubts about this) that positive change requires white people having a strong, positive racial identity of their own: including whiteness as a major part of their self-conception without being racist. But as far as she gets in envisioning what that looks like is suggesting that white people look to other white people who have fought racism, and build anti-racist identities. The problem is that opposing racism is a social position, not an identity, and most people are not activists who build their lives around their opinions. Ultimately it’s for white people to determine what white identity looks like, though, so I can’t fault the author for failing to do so.

At any rate, this book is informative and the actual text is only just over 200 pages, so it’s worth a read if you’re interested in the subject. It isn't a book that inspired any strong reaction in me, but I feel a bit more knowledgeable for having read it.

Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota

This novel of Indian immigrants struggling to survive in modern England straddles the line between fiction and op-ed. It’s a compelling story, but one in which the author’s interest in documenting the abuses the characters suffer at home and abroad is clearly the top priority.

 

Three young men travel from India to England in search of work, and for a time are all residents of one overcrowded house inhabited by the members of a construction crew. Randeep, Avtar, and Tochi each represent a particular experience: Randeep grows up middle-class with a father in government, but as the only son, is forced to drop out of college and support his family following his father’s nervous breakdown; Avtar’s family is urban working poor, a precarious existence that offers no future to his middle-class girlfriend; Tochi comes from a rural family of the “untouchable” caste, which falls victim to horrific violence in the book’s most over-the-top scene of emotional manipulation. (I almost stopped reading upon reaching this section early in the book, but am glad I didn’t – nothing else in it is quite so manipulative or unearned.) The men find various routes to England depending on their resources; in Randeep’s case, it’s by marrying Narinder, a devout young Sikh woman from an immigrant family who rounds out the primary cast.

 

In a sad irony for a book devoted to chronicling the lives of desperate immigrants, Sahota seems much more capable of inhabiting those characters who come from comfortable backgrounds. Randeep and Narinder are fully-realized characters with inner lives. Avtar and Tochi are object lessons in the difficulties of being poor in India and the reasons young men would immigrate to England even under harsh conditions. Both can be thoroughly described by the word “dutiful,” and neither has any discernible inner life, unless you count occasionally becoming angry at their circumstances. Randeep and Narinder are shaped by the circumstances of their lives but have personality that isn’t a direct response to the events around them; Avtar and Tochi read like hollow representatives of “typical” poor immigrant men.

 

That said, the story moves briskly and Sahota does an excellent job of chronicling the characters’ day-to-day lives in a compelling way, which had me eager to return to the story even when I wasn’t fully convinced by the characters. As a work intended to raise awareness about a social issue, this does an excellent job: Sahota writes with authority about the characters’ circumstances, shaping readers’ understanding of their lives so that we understand their choices and the protagonists remain sympathetic characters throughout. At times the tragedy becomes predictable (I was reminded of Rohinton Mistry, though this isn’t quite as tragic or of the same literary caliber), though it isn’t simply an endless catalogue of misery; more often the characters experience good things only to have them snatched away. The end is rather weak: the final chapter leaves the characters at their lowest point, only to jump 10 years into the future for the epilogue. Seeing how the characters pulled out of those circumstances would have improved the book, though it’s long already. And for a 10-years-later epilogue, this one is surprisingly inconclusive.

 

It’s also worth mentioning that the text includes many Punjabi words (and without a glossary); unlike most books that do this, this one does not always make the meaning evident from context. A few times I tried to find translations online (with varying success), though they are not so crucial that you wouldn’t understand the story.

 

At any rate, I enjoyed reading this book and think it’s a good one for raising awareness and for those who enjoy social realist novels. Rounding the rating down on sites that require it because although the plot kept me engaged while reading, I would have appreciated a little more literary quality and a little less of an object lesson.

 

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

The Bean Trees - Barbara Kingsolver

This is an uneven debut novel from a talented author. It is in some ways a feel-good story, about a young woman who travels far from home and builds a community. The book focuses on the themes of motherhood and of growing up and trying to do right in the face of the ugliness of the world, and does so effectively. There is room for improvement though, in particular because a major aspect of the plot depends on a premise both problematic and extremely unlikely.

Taylor Greer is a young woman from the mountains of Kentucky who decides to reinvent her life, so she sets off in her beat-up old car with no clear plan in mind. By the time she reaches Tucson, she isn’t alone: when she stops at a bar in the Cherokee part of Oklahoma, a woman dumps a 3-year-old child on her. So Taylor unexpectedly has to learn to be a mother, which winds up connecting her to a wider community.

Which is all written very sweetly, but the situation makes little sense. From what little we learn of the child’s background, she’s been abused and neglected, and it’s her aunt who gives her to Taylor after her mother’s death, apparently in an attempt to protect her. All the aunt knows about Taylor is that she’s eating alone at night in a mostly-empty bar, where she requests the cheapest thing on the menu, and she drives a beat-up old rattletrap of a car with out-of-state plates. No names or contact information are exchanged. No matter how desperate the child’s home situation, it’s hard to imagine any relative believing this is a good idea. Meanwhile, although a large part of Taylor’s identity is based on having reached her early 20’s without pregnancy, and although she has no means to care for a child, she easily accepts responsibility after a token protest, without considering that contacting social services or the police might be a better idea than driving off with a stranger's child. She doesn't give a second thought to the ways accepting sole responsibility for a traumatized toddler will upend her life.

That’s the unlikely part. The problematic elements come to the forefront when Taylor’s legal relationship with the child is called into question, and she resorts to dishonest means to resolve it. This is particularly unfortunate when the child belongs to a tribe, given the long history in the U.S. of native kids being removed from their homes. Apparently Kingsolver, who is known for her investment in social justice issues, ultimately came to the same conclusion, since a few years later she wrote a sequel dealing with this issue.

At any rate, it’s easy to see the signs pointing to Kingsolver’s later popularity as an author: the story is engaging after a slow start; the writing and the first-person voice are strong. The characters are interesting, and Kingsolver does a good job of bringing secondary characters to life even with little page time. The main characters are strong although not entirely consistent (Taylor’s roommate, Lou Ann, is a young mother with an obsessive fear of danger that’s nowhere to be seen in the two chapters at the beginning told from her perspective). There are some details that don’t add up – Lou Ann’s husband had an accident in which he fell from his truck, caught his foot in the door and was dragged along, and his only serious injury was to his foot? Taylor, who’s in her early 20s in a story set around 1980, had a great-grandfather who was not only alive but old at the time of the Trail of Tears in 1838? – but their impact on the story is minor.

At any rate, this isn’t a book I’d recommend people go out of their way to read, but it was an enjoyable story. I do plan to read the sequel, though more to see how the author resolves the issues raised in this book than from any deep investment in the characters.

Sarah Phillips by Andrea Lee

Sarah Phillips - Andrea Lee

This is a very well-written book, clear and evocative, and I particularly liked the early chapters, which evoke suburban childhood summers and follow the young protagonist through her first encounters with race. Sadly, the later part of the book didn’t jive as well for me, though the writing is equally good. The chapters are episodic to the point that it resembles a short story collection more than a novel (some of them appear to have been published independently), which I wasn’t expecting. It was also odd, given that this is presented as a semi-autobiographical work and people who meet the narrator identify her as black, to see a picture of the author – she looks vaguely southern European, perhaps Hispanic, and I struggled to reconcile that with a book about coming of age as an upper-middle-class African-American woman. (I realize that a portion of the author's heritage is African-American and she identifies as such, but that seems to me a vastly different experience from actually looking black.) At any rate, though it didn’t all quite come together for me in the way I expected, this is an elegantly-written and complex work with realistic, nuanced characters, certainly worth the relatively short time it takes to read.

Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness - Tracy Kidder

This is a readable but mediocre book that gets a lot of praise because it’s about an impressive person and a tragic topic. Deogratias grew up in rural Burundi with few advantages, but made it to medical school, until he got caught up in the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi in 1993. A friend helped him flee to New York City, where despite a job delivering groceries he found himself homeless at first, until making friends who helped him get back on his feet. He then went to college and medical school in the U.S., and returned to Burundi to set up clinics for people with no access to health care.

 

This book reminds me of Ashley’s War, in that both are about people and subjects that absolutely deserve a book, but their authors sell them short. Kidder’s writing feels superficial throughout. From early on I had the impression that he was drawn to Deo but never really understood him (or perhaps Deo wasn’t willing or able to open up to the extent an author would need to write a biography that appears to be based mostly on his own disclosures), and so was able to relate the facts but only on the surface level. This becomes even more apparent in the second half of the book, when Kidder accompanies Deo on one of his trips back to Burundi. They visit numerous memorials and sites from Deo’s past, and Kidder describes how Deo reacts, but in the end we get more of Kidder’s feelings about the trip than Deo’s.

 

Though this is primarily a biography, we do get some information about the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi as well, along with a brief overview of the countries’ history. Though, again, this feels superficial, it’s an adequate starting point and is interesting for a reader with relatively little knowledge of the area. Especially interesting is Deo’s theory that the genocide was made possible in large part by structural violence – that when everyday life is full of fatal illness and injury, hunger, violence at home and at school, and little opportunity to improve one’s lot in life, people perceive the value of their own lives as low and therefore value others’ even less. Also interesting is the fact that, although westerners reading about the genocide assume Hutu and Tutsi are clearly definable ethnic groups, the reality seems to be anything but; these are apparently social groups more than anything else, and it appears Deo isn’t alone in being unable to tell the difference.

 

At any rate, this is a very readable book, not a bad choice for those who are interested in the topic. (It’s also worth pointing out, for those unsure about whether they can handle a book about genocide, that only one 35-page chapter is all about that; most of the book is about Deo’s life before and after, and about Kidder spending time with Deo and the people who helped him in New York.) But I’m underwhelmed by Kidder’s writing and likely won’t recommend this to others.

Tender by Sofia Samatar

Tender: Stories - Sofia Samatar

This is a beautiful, original, often surprising, and yes, tender, short story collection by a fantastic author. Samatar’s novels are lovely, but I think she may excel even more in the short story format, which combines her exquisite writing with compressed plots that necessarily move briskly. And her wide command of genres is impressive: fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, fairy tales, contemporary, young adult. Most of the stories are sci-fi and fantasy, and while I love fantasy I typically avoid sci-fi, but I absolutely would read more if Samatar wrote it. Her stories never use characters simply as a long-winded way of examining an idea or making a point; instead the characters are the point, and no matter how inventive their settings, the stories are about the people, their lives and relationships. And to the extent they’re about larger issues, they are issues that matter in human society today, like race and religion.

But then there are stories that break the mold I would expect from a genre author. “Olimpia’s Ghost” is a work of epistolary historical fiction set in 19th century Europe, involving a relationship that may or may not have existed between two real people (I won’t say who since figuring it out myself was so much fun), while “Those” is an answer to Heart of Darkness, written in a similar vein but with the frame story narrated by a mixed-race character, which changes everything.

There are a lot of fantastic stories in this collection, and from perusing the reviews it looks like different readers have different favorites, which is a sign of strong writing. I’ll mention my favorites here:

“Selkie Stories Are For Losers” – A young woman in the contemporary U.S. builds her life in the shadow of a fairy tale. This could easily be a novel and I’d love to read it.

“Walkdog” – This is an epistolary story written with a certain amount of deliberate inelegance, since it’s meant to be by a typical high school girl. It’s an achingly sad story about love, bullying and social conformity, with a bit of mythology wrapped in. Unlike in a lot of YA, which seems to be a weird adult vision or fantasy of teenagers, I completely believed this one; no one would want to admit to making Yolanda’s choices, but they feel realistic.

“Honey Bear” – This is a lovely post-apocalyptic tale. In the tradition of my favorite short fiction, it’s a story you’ll want to read twice, because everything comes together at the end in a way that changes your entire view of the story, and so you re-read it with new eyes and understand all those references that didn’t quite make sense before. But despite the post-apocalyptic world, the story is closely focused on its main characters, and its heart and primary source of tension is a couple who react to changed circumstances in very different ways.

“How to Get Back to the Forest” – I’d classify this one as dystopian; it reminds me of Never Let Me Go, with young people raised in superficially pleasant institutions, slowly and imperfectly discovering how their world really works. The key difference is that here the characters resist, at least in small ways.

“Request for an Extension on the Clarity” – This is superficially science fiction, but it’s really about race and immigration and isolation; the protagonist finds refuge in the stars from a world where she doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. The collection includes several stories with similar themes, but this is the one that brought it all together for me.

“The Closest Thing to Animals” – Straight-up science fiction, set on a quarantined world, but about a character whose abandonment issues cause her to see rejection where it doesn’t exist and prevent her from seeing the ways in which others need her. The story is lovely and so are the weird images of its world.

“Fallow” – This is a novelette, by far the longest piece in the collection, set on a world inhabited by refugees from a self-destructing Earth. It’s a meditation on religion (eventually we’re given enough information to figure out what group is involved) and social pressure, hearkening back to the Puritans despite its otherworldly setting.

Of course, as with most collections, I didn’t love all the stories; some seemed opaque or didn’t quite land for me. In particular, there’s a stretch from “Tender” through “Meet Me in Iram,” of stories dealing with alienation and characters feeling out of place in their own skin – sometimes, though not always, related to immigration – that I bounced off of until I reached “Request for an Extension on the Clarity.” A few of the other contemporary or parable-like stories also didn’t strike any particular chord with me. But these are skillful stories that clearly landed for others, so I’ll chalk that up to my limitations as a reader rather than Samatar’s as a writer.

Overall, I loved this collection and would absolutely recommend it, probably even ahead of Samatar’s novels to those with any liking for short fiction. To my surprise, I especially loved Samatar’s science fiction and hope to see much more from her along these lines in the future.

Unfair by Adam Benforado

Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice - Adam Benforado

This is a thought-provoking critique of the American criminal justice system based on psychological research. It is more of an overview than a deep dive: in 286 pages of text (excluding the bibliography), the author discusses everything from snap judgments in investigations, to false confessions and erroneous eyewitness identifications, to the reasons some lawyers behave unethically, to misleading expert testimony, to judicial bias, to the workability of prisons. These are all important issues and the author, a law professor, has many interesting proposals to improve on the problems. Unfortunately, he undermines his message by failing to source his facts, leaving readers with no authority for his arguments; any lawyer should know better.

 

There is a lot of interesting material here: the studies showing how common interrogation techniques, such as offering leniency for a confession, induce students to falsely confess to cheating; the correlation between more stereotypically African features and longer sentences; the tendency of the public to view third parties as biased against their side (Republicans and Democrats both believe the Supreme Court leans to the other side, by approximately equal margins); the way the point-of-view of a camera can affect viewers’ opinion of events (when interrogations are taped, viewers are more likely to see them as coercive when the camera is above the suspect, and as non-coercive when it’s above the officer).

 

The author discusses a number of psychological shortcuts that can lead to ugly results in the justice system: for instance, “narrow bracketing,” in which if your experience is that, say, two-thirds of the claims of a particular type are valid, and you just granted two, you are more inclined to deny the next one to keep the numbers balanced. And there’s a good discussion of how people identify dishonesty: you really can’t tell through body language – at best you can tell someone is nervous, but in a high-pressure situation like a courtroom, this likely has more to do with the person’s comfort in that setting and ability to project confidence than their honesty.

 

The book also discusses the reasons for criminal behavior, which often have less to do with deliberate moral choice than one might imagine. There’s a fascinating story of a man who suddenly becomes obsessed with sex, collecting porn, molesting a young girl, and propositioning everyone – until a tumor is discovered on his brain and removed; then he’s fine until the tumor returns, at which point he starts up all over again. Brain damage may be a less isolated cause of criminality than one might imagine; apparently, while less than 9% of the general population has suffered a traumatic brain injury, around 60% of incarcerated people have. Less dramatically, physical environment also influences one’s actions: wearing a mask makes people more aggressive, while holding a gun biases people to perceive images as more threatening.

 

Rather than simply detailing problems, Benforado does have plenty of suggestions for change. Some of these are relatively small and seem like excellent ideas. For instance, officers should be trained in cognitive interviewing (asking few open-ended and non-suggestive questions) of witnesses of crime to avoid tainting their memories, while witnesses about to view a lineup should be told that the suspect may or may not be included (to prevent their simply choosing the one who looks most like the perpetrator). In fact, having lineups administered by a computer may be even better, to prevent officers’ unconsciously influencing a witness’s memory through their approval or body language.

 

Some of the suggestions are much more global, and I give Benforado credit for thinking big and outside the box. One intriguing idea is virtual trials: record the trial in advance and give jurors just the information, presented through avatars. This would eliminate biases based on physical appearance and performance, and allow a trial to be shown to multiple juries at little additional cost.

 

Meanwhile, the author shows discomfort with many aspects of the adversarial system, though his alternative proposal isn’t quite clear. He correctly points out that the procedural safeguards we build into the system in an attempt to prevent error often become ends in themselves, frustrating their original purpose. Take Miranda warnings for instance: if an officer fails to give them, a perpetrator’s confession can be excluded and therefore a criminal may go free, while on the other hand, judges rarely entertain the idea that a confession might be coerced once an officer has recited those lines – even if we’re talking about a highly suggestible suspect who was questioned for many hours, falsely told that the police had evidence against him, and promised leniency in exchange for a confession. And there’s simply not time, based on the many procedural safeguards built into our system of trials, for more than a tiny percentage of cases to be fully heard; the vast majority plead guilty, in a system the author sees as highly suspect. But what could we do instead? – it’s difficult to decipher Benforado’s ideas on this point, aside from idealistic notions of truth-seeking and vague references to Germany’s having a different system.

 

But the book does have its drawbacks. Rather than endnotes to which one can refer for specific facts and studies, the author simply includes a bibliography for each chapter, with no indication as to which of the dozens of works cited include which information. This shows off the author’s reading while offering no help to his readers. This is particularly unfortunate on the topics for which he provides only vague information: for instance, he tells us that solitary confinement alters the brain in observable ways, but not what part of the brain is affected, what this part does, and what changes are seen once prisoners are freed. Ultimately, the book leaves readers with the choice between taking the author’s word for his claims or doing their own research, starting more or less from scratch. This is an incredibly poor decision for someone who wants to profoundly change entrenched parts of officialdom.

 

Less damaging but also unfortunate is the fact that, while Benforado presents information in a clear and readable style, his storytelling is less than stellar. He begins each chapter with a few pages of introductory fluff, which is a great opportunity to tell compelling human-interest stories related to the topic at hand – but more often than not he squanders it. For instance, the chapter dealing with physiognomy begins with rambling about how people are fascinated by mugshots. Okay.

 

Finally, while the book’s portrayal of the justice system as almost medieval – snap decisions are based incomplete information and the gut feelings of those making them, without scientific basis and generally without oversight – is fairly accurate, in some ways the book does present an overly gloomy picture. I suspect some readers might be unduly horrified, not realizing that most criminal cases aren’t based on eyewitness identification by strangers or police pushing for a confession from whatever black or Hispanic man happened to be near the crime scene. Most people plead guilty because they are, and the evidence against them is good. This in no way excuses the miscarriages of justice that go on every day, but I hope readers don’t come away with the idea that courts and police produce utterly random results.

 

Overall, I’m glad I read this book: much of the information it contains is fascinating, and it’s presented in a clear and concise way. These are issues people should be thinking about. However, the lack of sourcing is a serious limitation; I can only hope it will be corrected in future editions.

Marcos Ramirez by Carlos Luis Fallas

Marcos Ramírez - Carlos Luis Fallas

This is an enjoyable tale of a boy growing up in Costa Rica in the 1910s and 1920s. It is mostly episodic, without an overarching plot, and Marcos spends most of his time misbehaving and causing trouble, so the Tom Sawyer comparison feels apt. The specific details of Marcos’s life feel real rather than drawn from fictional tropes, so I suspected the book was autobiographical even before learning from the brief autobiographical essay in the front that all the facts of Marcos’s life match Fallas’s.

 

It is a colorful and entertaining book, and it’s not your stereotypical Costa Rica: the boys, including Marcos, are quite violent, and at one point he runs off with the army when war with Panama is brewing. Marcos is a lively if sometimes exasperating character, though there’s little development of anyone else – we get to know his mother and uncle a bit, but the book’s autobiographical nature means his friends are represented by an ever-changing stream of boys who put in brief appearances, and few other characters register much. Toward the end we read more about Marcos’s schooling, which is interesting but not in the same way; there’s a lot of school politics and criticism of teachers for whom memorization is the highest form of learning. But the couple of episodes in which Marcos uses cruelty to animals to revenge himself on their owners were my least favorite.

 

Overall though, this is a fun book; Fallas seems to be one of those few authors who can write about childhood from the inside rather than imposing an adult viewpoint on the narrative. It’s a shame this book apparently has never been translated to English, as I suspect it could find a healthy readership.

Manic by Terri Cheney

Manic: A Memoir - Terri Cheney

This is an intense memoir by a lawyer with bipolar disorder. Terry Cheney is very smart and successful but also very ill, and this book throws the reader into some awful experiences from page one – where she’s manic, determined to kill herself, and momentarily thwarted in her suicide plan when she’s locked out of her apartment; she unintentionally flirts with the locksmith, who sexually assaults her and then saves her life. Not all events in the book are this extreme, of course, but it is a memoir of how Cheney’s illness shaped her adult life: her most out-of-control highs and suicidal lows, her many attempts at treatment (with varying success), her fraught relationships and struggles to maintain a normal façade at work.

It is a harrowing ride, but the most horrifying episodes are the ones in which the author winds up “in the system,” and in parts of the system with the least excuse for their failings. In one chapter, a traffic stop leads to an arrest and ultimately a beating by police; in another, she overdoses and is briefly committed to a facility where patients receive some of the most dehumanizing treatment imaginable (how this is meant to prevent suicide is unclear). The book doesn’t get into policy arguments, but if this is what happens to someone who carries most privileges that exist in American society (an educated, well-off, gender-conforming, attractive white woman), then somehow either most people in the author’s position must be treated even more abominably or we have conceived the notion that mental illness abrogates one’s humanity. Yikes.

At any rate, Cheney’s writing is clear, direct and compelling, pulling the reader right into her life, and the book is a quick read. The organization is deliberately jumbled, and for the most part this works, creating a sense of immediacy and disorientation. It does have a minor drawback, which is that each chapter needs an independent justification for its inclusion: in a few of them not too much happens, or we see something the author has already shown in a slightly different context. But it is a fairly short book and the chapters do fit together into a larger whole.

(Actually the oddest thing, to me, was that the relationships the author describes in her acknowledgements are so absent from the text. Most jarring was the glowing thanks to her mother, who appears nowhere in the book despite the many personal and family crises depicted. I’d concluded that either she was dead or they were estranged. Maybe this would make more sense if I'd read Cheney’s other book.)

Other readers have pointed out that Cheney is privileged and a snob. This is true and she acknowledges it, in some ways clinging to status symbols as a defense mechanism. But the book isn’t about issues of poverty or race, and I did not find these traits to permeate the writing or otherwise affect my experience of it in the way I expected after reading reviews.

Anyway, this book is well-written and intense and brutally honest; it both draws the reader directly into the author’s experiences and explains those experiences, all while telling a gripping story. I recommend it.

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This is a fascinating memoir from an impressive author. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia; just a generation before, her family were nomadic herders. She spent her early years in Somalia before her father’s political involvement forced the family to flee; she and her siblings spent their teenage years in Kenya, where the author briefly joined the Muslim Brotherhood while her mother longed for the “pure” Islam of Saudi Arabia. Her family was troubled to say the least, though she doesn’t quite seem to blame either of her parents. As the region became even less stable in the early 90s, her father decided to save her by arranging her an unwanted marriage, at age 22, to a Somali man in Canada seeking a traditional Somali wife. But the author managed to escape and claim asylum in Holland, where she worked, educated herself and went to college for political science. Her intellectual awakening distanced her from Islam, and she eventually became a member of Parliament, promoting rights for Muslim women and a greater integration of immigrants into Dutch society. Proving her point, this outspokenness provoked a violent response.

As a piece of literature, this is quite good. The author writes well; it’s a compelling story and written with the sort of physical and emotional detail that promotes a high level of engagement from the reader. At times it’s downright dramatic. Although the author is political, it never reads like a public relations piece; she’s no angel here, and there are no clear villains. She does portray herself as a victim rather often, but this rarely seems related to any political agenda; her mother is sometimes abusive, but the council of elders convened to determine the legitimacy of her leaving her husband respects her decision. There are some tough scenes in this book – the author and her sister undergo female genital mutilation early on, for instance – but life goes on and people can’t simply suffer all the time; my concern that the book would read as a catalogue of atrocity turned out to be unfounded. The author has a strong viewpoint, yes, but people are complicated and this book shows that, rather than attempting to reduce all of life to a political agenda. You could read this as fiction and come away satisfied.

Nevertheless, the author is a political figure, accounting for much of the polarized reaction to this book; I think much of the negativity comes from information outside its pages, and a brief perusal of her Twitter feed explains why. At the time period covered in this book – when the author is a student and a young politician – she’s wrestling with big questions and fighting for reforms that could make life better for Muslim immigrants in Holland: for instance, by ending funding for religious schools, as Muslim schools tend to focus on memorization and obedience rather than real learning. And she’s frustrated by the way Dutch values of toleration can prevent a response to abuse among Muslim immigrants. She calls for reform in Islam, so that people can question its tenets without being subject to violence.

But the threats she receives (not to mention the brutal murder of a filmmaker with whom she makes a short piece questioning Islam’s demands for submission) and the reluctance of non-Muslims to believe how bad things can get seem to push her toward hatred of Islam as a whole. We see a little of that in the book: her efforts to convince the public of social problems among Muslim immigrants sometimes seem more geared toward proving that Islam is a problem than finding practical solutions. Her public statements now seem even more slanted in that direction (though she is working in the U.S. to increase penalties for FGM, for instance). I respect her strength and dedication, and generally agree with her critiques of the Muslim world. But promoting divisiveness is a terrible idea, and I’m concerned that may be the primary effect of her advocacy. This isn’t a criticism of the book, necessarily; if anything, it shows how honestly the author comes by her opinions.

In summary, then: this is an excellent story, well worth reading. It is not, for the most part, a political book, and I don’t judge it Islamophobic, defining Islamophobia as prejudice toward individual Muslims or a crusade against Islam while knowing little about it. It made me think, and that’s a strength in any book.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie

This is a strong work of literary fiction that didn’t strike any special chord with me. I’d tried unsuccessfully to read it several times in the past, but made another attempt this year and can report that it gathers steam as it goes, though it took me a couple hundred pages to start really enjoying it.

Midnight’s Children is part family saga, part magic realism, and all historical fiction, tracing the history of India in the 20th century (from British rule through the 1970s) as told through the eyes of Saleem Sinai, born at the moment of India’s independence and endowed with special gifts. It is a sweeping, ambitious sort of novel, and Rushdie of course seems to have had great fun with the language. Saleem can be a frustrating narrator, telling a story full of digressions and with grandiose ideas of his own importance (I tended to write this off as a character who believes he’s dying struggling to give meaning to his life and suffering, but that’s certainly not the only way to read it). But in the end I was swept up in the story and was glad to have read it, and one encounters a lot of Indian history along the way.

Overall, this is worth reading even if you struggle with the beginning. But if you’re looking for a giant work of Indian literary historical fiction, I’d still recommend A Suitable Boy first.

The Sacred Willow by Duong Van Mai Elliott

The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family - Duong Van Mai Elliott

This book would make fantastic supplemental reading for a course on Vietnamese history. The author chronicles more than a hundred years of the country’s recent past, using her family’s experiences as a focal point. It begins in the mid 19th century, when several of her male ancestors served as mandarins in a society that revered educational attainments; moves on to French colonialism and Japanese occupation during WWII; then to the Viet Minh struggle for independence, which doesn’t seem to truly divide the family despite their winding up on all sides of the conflict – the author’s father serves as a high-ranking official under the French while her oldest sister and brother-in-law join the rebels in the mountains, and her uncle, a wealthy landowner, puts his resources at the Viet Minh’s disposal. Then it traces the American intervention and the dramatic days of the communists’ takeover of South Vietnam, before ending with Vietnam’s struggles as an independent country.

It’s a lot to pack into 475 pages, and the author balances the story of her family with a broader historical perspective. The history appears well-researched, and based on her bibliography, draws heavily on Vietnamese as well as English-language sources. It also seems balanced; at times, when family members’ paths during the war diverge sharply, we get separate chapters covering the same events from different perspectives, and the author doesn’t seem to be advocating for either one over the other. Though the author’s parents threw in their lot with the French and later South Vietnam, she – like many Vietnamese – seems to respect the communists’ commitment, and while the American intervention was a short-term boon for middle-class families like hers, she ultimately seems to conclude that the communist victory was both inevitable and not as awful as propaganda had led the South Vietnamese to expect.

The book’s biggest weakness is that it is rather dry, much more focused on facts than building a dramatic narrative. Though it is in part a memoir, we learn little about the author herself; she tends to relate the facts of a situation with perhaps a bald statement of her feelings, but without developing any of the emotional detail that might allow readers to experience the story along with her. There are exceptions, though; her account of the dramatic last days before the fall of Saigon (through the eyes of several family members) is downright gripping.

Overall, I’d recommend this book, but more for educational purposes than entertainment. It is a strong answer to the rest of English-language literature about Vietnam, which tends to be from an American perspective and focused exclusively on the war.

Nor Any Country by Garth St. Omer

Nor Any Country - Garth St Omer

This novella is only 96 pages long, plus a laudatory 20-page essay about the work by one Jeremy Poynting. (I was puzzled by how a work no one had a word to say about on Goodreads could have the sort of academic following implied by this essay, until a Google search revealed that Poynting is its publisher.) The book follows its protagonist, Peter, as he returns to his unnamed island home (presumed by the publisher to be St. Omer’s home country of St. Lucia) for a brief visit after many years of study abroad.

Unfortunately, where Mr. Poynting saw subtle brilliance, the novella seemed to me mostly a mundane catalogue of Peter’s wandering about the island conversing with various people; his role in the conversations consists largely of creating a sense of his own superiority by saying little and smiling often. While visiting, he must decide what to do about the wife with whom he had no communication during his years abroad, but the narrative does little to show us how he arrives at his choice. Mostly Peter, while traveling about the island, simply ruminates on his European ex-girlfriends. There’s precious little narrative momentum in any of this, and little to interest the reader in the protagonist. Some of the supporting characters seem more interesting, but have limited room to breathe in such a short work.

As for the writing itself, it is adequate but sometimes lacking in clarity; numerous times I had to re-read passages to figure out what the author was trying to say. Written in the 1960s, the book seems to assume cultural understanding that a modern, non-Caribbean reader is unlikely to have: while racial politics are quite important in this setting, readers are left to deduce the race of almost all of the characters on their own (and I’m still not sure about Daphne).

All that said, this is a very short book that will leave readers somewhat more informed about the issues facing a society in a particular time and place. While the lack of clarity sometimes slows down the reading, large amounts of dialogue should keep readers from getting too bogged down.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood - Marjane Satrapi, Mattias Ripa, Blake Ferris

A graphic-novel-style memoir about the author's childhood during the Iranian Revolution, this book seems written largely to educate Westerners about Iran. It is an episodic story focusing on how current events affected the author and her progressive family. This focus seems to have worked well for most of its readers, especially those who knew next to nothing about Iran beforehand. For some reason, though, I found it less gripping than others did, although all the right elements seem to be there: the stakes are high but the author keeps it personal, the characters are as well-defined as can be expected in a childhood memoir, the art is emotive. The plotting is a little off, with both individual chapter arcs and the novel as a whole either tapering off or ending abruptly. You should probably read it anyway though.