Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

 

Bryan Stevenson is a graduate of Harvard Law School who, after graduating, went down South to work to establish the Equal Justice Initiative, which began as a legal nonprofit defending those who found themselves unjustifiably on death row, but expanded to defending others who were also victims of our imbalanced justice system here in the U.S. The primary thread that runs through the book is the story of Walter McMillan, an African American framed for the murder of a white woman in a laundromat in Alabama.  And while Walter’s story is compelling and tragic in and of itself, the many others that Stevenson shares with us along the way similarly intrigue and horrify in their revelation of the truth of how racially biased our criminal justice system is and has been for decades.

I honestly feel like this book should be required reading for every American.  Whatever we think we know about racism and bias – it’s just not enough.  Racism is ugly, and painful and insidious and pervasive and it infects our law enforcement, our criminal justice system, and our politics and even our day-to-day interactions with others.  This book reveals the magnitude of the problem. Thousands of individuals have had outrageous sentences for smaller crimes and so many children – 13 and 14 years old! — have been given extremely harsh, long sentences really just because they were of color.  Most of these “criminals” were victims themselves, whether of their circumstances, of trauma they’d experienced, or of their poverty that prevented them from obtaining suitable defense.

I think that Bryan Stevenson is one of the true heroes of our time.  He has stood up for the impoverished and for those who have had no voice and given them a voice.  He has bravely fought for those who would have been killed because of inhumane death penalty laws (one could argue – as I have, that all death penalty laws are inhumane).

I have not seen the movie, but I believe the movie could not possibly have all the details that this book provides and I always believe the details are crucial.  Especially in an important book such as this one.

This is absolutely a MUST READ!

P.S.  It’s been awhile since a book has made me cry the way this one has.  There is one particular vignette that really threw me, for its beauty and its power.  If you read this book and come upon a story about a chocolate milkshake, you’ll know when it was that I cried the hardest…!

 

 

The Body is Not An Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor

body not apology

In this book, borne of her movement and website of the same name, Sonya Renee Taylor, an activist and poet, propels the argument that our society has constructed systems which have forced most of us to apologize for the bodies that we live in.  Because we may not live in the body of the selected ideal of our time – whether because of our weight, our skin color, our ability, our gender identity, or any other identity – we are often made to feel less-than by the world around us, perpetuated by our own voices inside.  And for this we feel shame, we shrink away, we deny ourselves experiences that might actually give us joy.  In this book, Taylor seeks to provide the reader with tools to combat the external and internal pressures that we feel, in order to achieve “radical self-love,” that innocent, basic love for our bodies that we were all born with.

I think this is an important book to read, for anyone who has ever experienced discomfort in their body.  And honestly – who hasn’t???  It is delivered honestly, compellingly, and with a sensitivity to anyone of any identity who might be reading the book.  There is some sprinkling of her own journey, but she also derived quite a bit from others as well, which I appreciate.

I was particularly intrigued by the section on the “Body Shame Profit Complex” (LOVE this name) and actually wish there had been more on this.  This refers to the advertising industry which has allied with all the other companies that make billions of dollars on our attempts to improve the defects we perceive in our bodies – everything from make up to anti-aging creams to the diet industry.  Think about it – how much do you spend on these types of items each year?  I know I contribute to this complex on a regular basis.

I think this book differs from others in that it is not trying to teach new behaviors, nor self-acceptance, but rather self-love — which is different.  It hits deeper and is more sustainable if done properly and consistently and it also requires forgiveness and “grace” for the moments when you slip.

One soft criticism of the book that I have is that I believe it needed more vignettes, more stories about people to illustrate the concepts.  There are so many important ideas that are proposed here, and I think they are easy to read through quickly and potentially gloss over.  Occasionally, Taylor does provide examples of what she means to say with the use of  narratives, such as that of a young girl who is taunted for the bald spots on her head.  This is such a vivid image and becomes so starkly etched in the mind of the reader.  I wish she’d done this more often, so that more arguments would be similarly strengthened.

I think it will take awhile for me to fully digest all of the ideas proposed here.

I’d love to hear from others who have read it!

At Risk by Alice Hoffman

at risk

Polly and Ivan are concerned about their daughter, Amanda.  She’s a gymnast and has an unusual diarrheal illness for the past couple of weeks.  Their pediatrician, who knows them well, can deduce that this is not a good sign and from her low white blood cell count he is extremely worried about the possibility of cancer.  But not in a million years is he expecting that she’d be positive for AIDS, having contracted it from a blood transfusion after a complicated surgery for appendicitis 5 years prior, before blood was screened for the virus.  The paranoia and alienation that the whole family experiences is unexpected and devastating, possibly even worse than the actual diagnosis.

This book, published in 1988, reminds us of the experience that so many went through when HIV first appeared in the 1980’s.  With ads on TV for HIV medications so commonplace and ordinary today, it’s hard to remember that not so long ago, there was mass victimization of those who were infected with the virus.  Children infected via intrauterine transmission or from blood transfusions were sometimes not allowed in school because of fears of casual contact transmitting the virus to others, even when there was early evidence that this was not possible.  Millions of infected adults suffered not only from the disease but from the indignities of being ostracized from a society who rejected them because of their disease.  And we have still not cured it.  [The reason for this has probably more to do with financial incentive than the science – it is more beneficial for pharmaceutical companies to produce medications that sustain patients with the disease than to cure it.  Just as with cancer. But I digress…]

As for the book, I found the story compelling, but the writing a bit awkward.  It is told in the present tense, which I often dislike.  More importantly, though, the narration also shifts from one character to another almost as if they are passing a hot potato from one to another, to another.   This shift occurs so frequently and over so many characters that it dilutes and distracts from the actual plot and it is harder to become attached to the truly important players.   We just can’t feel that sorry for everyone.  So while the story is tragic, it does not cut quite as deeply as it might.

Nevertheless, At Risk is a timepiece and tells a part of the story of our bitter history of the HIV epidemic that is important to remember.  We think of HIV as a disease of adults only, but there were thousands of children affected by the disease as well.  And still are today.

Health Justice Now by Timothy Faust

In this book, Timothy Faust surgically cuts through the complicated mess of the American health care system, gives his diagnosis and prescription for a solution:  a single payer system.  In an acerbically articulate and well-researched argument, he outlines the defects in our current systems, which are many.  The ways in which the insurance companies overcharge and deny their customers, the ways in which hospitals and pharmaceutical companies play the system to reap enormous profits at the expense of patients and patient care, and the ways in which even public insurance programs are fallible are all explained in full. And Faust also broadens the definition of health care to include those factors that contribute to one’s health, such as housing, food, poverty, environmental safety, etc. that are often systemically limited by race, gender, class, and ability.  HIs answer?  The single payer.  A single payer system pays for all, regardless of race, gender, class or ability and pays for all needs.  In this scenario, primary care is accessible to all, so that health care is accessed early, when disease may be either preventable or caught early enough to be inexpensive or less expensive to treat.  It makes sense.  And while those who profit from the insurance fraud game and the pharmaceutical industry sham will fight tooth and nail and lobby with every dollar you spend on your medications, it really would bring health care to all and make it the right it should be and not the privilege it has become in our country.

I think this is a timely and crucial reading for us all at this moment in our country, when we are about to embark on the next presidential election, when many of the democratic candidates are supporting a singe payer system.  I think it is incumbent upon us all to learn why this might be a good thing for our country and how this actually might be the only equitable way to provide health care.  I think we have to move away from seeing health care as a commodity and see it as our obligation as humans to care for one another, to allow for the dignity of others, no matter what their medical (or financial!!) situation is.

That said, I do think the tone of the writing might be a bit too angry.  While I agree with all that he’s written here, and I’m probably as angry as he is, I worry that his tone might be too polarizing – a problem that has plagued dialogue in this country on both sides.  If we are to speak to each other, we need to temper ourselves just a bit, in order to open up and let others in.  There are many solid arguments in this text and I worry that someone might not appreciate them because they’ve been alienated by the outright hostility toward the establishment.  Again, I agree with the author in his opinion, but if I didn’t, I might be put off.

I think this is an essential text in this political moment.  it’s dense, it’s not a fun read, but it’s our obligation as American citizens to open our minds and our hearts to learning how we might provide health care to everyone in this country.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Careyou

bad blood

This is the fascinating tale of one of the most outrageous scams in Silicon Valley – and the most outrageous part is that it is true!  It is the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her startup, Theranos.  Elizabeth Holmes started out at Stamford, as an engineering student, but impatient to get started earning her first millions, she  quickly decided to drop out and start her own company.  She had in mind that because she had a fear of needles, she would develop a laboratory testing device that could run multiple tests on a small drop of blood from a finger stick specimen, taken by a device that would be relatively painless.  However, what began as a good idea, ballooned into a project that because of blind arrogance, deaf ears to any guidance or advice, paranoia, and pure irrational greed, broke laws and broke lives and caused irreparable harm to so many.  And it appears that, like most narcissists,  Elizabeth Holmes was completely unrepentant, seeing herself as the victim.

What is wonderful about this story is that it is told by the investigative reporter who broke the story for the Wall Street Journal, which gives both credibility and an insider’s perspective.  Careyou writes with vivid detail, laying out the gradual development of the background on Elizabeth Holmes, how she came to start the company, and how she ruled it, along with her henchman (and apparent lover) Sunny Balwani, with an iron fist, firing immediately anyone who disagreed with anything she said or did (even if they were looking out for her benefit and the welfare of the company).  He tracks her ascent to stardom, and it was nothing short of that.  People worshipped her – just as she worshipped Steve Jobs and took on much of his persona, even adopting his notorious black turtlenecks and deeper voice.  And because she had their attention, she was able to convince so many to invest in her dream.  Unfortunately, that is all it was.  She could not make it a reality, and because she could not face this, she faked it and lied to the world that it was.

This is a tragic story of how greed and ego took precedence over peoples’ health and welfare, and lawyers, Silicon Valley giants, politicians, and others bought right into it, swindled by a young, polished liar.  And, as Careyou acknowledges, the true heroes of the story are those who stood up to her and her pit bull lawyers and despite being tormented and hounded, told the public the truth. It is because of these brave people that these crackpot lab testing facilities were not expanded and put into more locations throughout the country and led to hurt even more individuals than they already did.

The details will just astound you!

 

 

 

Becoming by Michelle Obama

becoming

When Michelle Obama was quite young, she began to learn to play the piano, taught by her very strict aunt who lived downstairs.  The piano on which she studied and practiced had chips and imperfections that enabled her always to find the middle C, sort of grounding her and guiding her.  When she had her first formal recital, she suddenly found herself seated at a perfect, symmetric and distinctly un-chipped piano, and had to pause and figure out what to do to find her way.  With the help of her teacher/aunt, she managed to steady herself and to play her piece with great success.  This became a sort of metaphor for her life.  Michelle Obama has always worked hard, relied on important mentors to guide her, and whenever she encountered obstacles, she leaned on those she loved and who loved her to help her regain her center of gravity and succeed in a dramatic fashion.

Mrs. Obama’s story is a rags to riches story in some ways, but in many ways it is not.  It is true that she was raised in a poor neighborhood in Chicago and she may not have had much in the way of what money could buy.  On the other hand, however, she was rich in the ways that really mattered.  She had a loving family with mother, father and brother and many extended family members who were quite close and affectionate.  Her mother strongly advocated for her so that she was able to access an excellent education, which enabled her to attend Princeton and Harvard Law School, where she was able to raise her financial standing, in spite of where she came from.  She acquired an incredibly strong work ethic and was generous about helping others come along with her, rather than stepping on others to get ahead.  Her constant mission was to find mentors to assist her with moving forward, but also to then pay it forward and mentor others in return.  And each position that she held after her first job out of law school helped her to dive deeper and deeper into fields in which she could do good for others, which seemed to always be her driving force.

The discouraging part for me, of course, is the contrast between what was then and what is now.  The Obama’s were devoted to their country, both working so very hard to try to make things better for the people they were serving, both working to expand human rights, to give access to health care, to create jobs and improve the environment and to promote peace.  Barack Obama surrounded himself with wise advisers and listened to the advice of others and was thoughtful and respectful to others and read incessantly to learn as much as he could about an issue so that he could make the most informed decision.

Sadly, this is not what is happening in our White House now.

So while this book was inspiring, it was also quite sad, as it reminded me of what we’ve lost since 2016.

The Obamas were smart, dedicated to our country and to humanity, and were a class act.   I hope we find our way back to this again.

 

Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow

rising out of hatred

Derek Black has been nurtured from the time he was born until the time he went off to college to be the great white hope for the future of the white nationalist movement.  His father, Don, established Stormfront.com, the earliest and largest promoter of racist propaganda on the internet, and David Duke, his godfather, is the well-known KKK/Nazi politician.  Everyone in this underworld knows Derek and believes he will take over for Don and Duke, as Derek has already begun to co-host their radio show, assist with the website, and even help organize their annual conference.  But as Derek enters college, he decides to keep this part of his identity secret, interacting with the diverse students in his classes and activities, even while he maintains his connection with his radio show daily.  However, what happens very gradually, when Derek is later exposed, ostracized and then quietly invited to the regular Shabbat dinner of an Orthodox Jewish friend of his, begins the process of challenging his deepest convictions — and is absolutely stunning.

This true story has been featured on various podcasts (The Daily is one) and has been written about in various newspapers, so you may know the basic story.  Derek himself has written opinion pieces for the New York Times.  But in this moment of unleashing of hatred and bigotry, this story is a crucial one – and the details matter.  It is crucial because it shows how hatred has been simmering underground for so long among those who are living their very insular lives, among those who think only like they do.  And it is crucial because it demonstrates, most importantly, that if we look at those who think differently from ourselves as human beings, only then can we start to have a civil and respectful enough discourse to come together on ideas.

I am in awe of the courage of the students who showed friendship to Derek even after he was “outed” as the co-host of the morning show on Stormfront.  They stuck by him, braving the derision of most of their peers, showing steadfast friendship to the the hero of the dark side, even as he degraded their racial groups on his radio show, even as they questioned their own wisdom in doing so.

And I am in awe of Derek himself, who has truly shown courage in the thought and heart that he has put into his own journey.  It is so much easier to go along with what your family and community preaches and to stick to your original beliefs.  It is so much harder to go against your family wishes, to turn around what you’ve been taught is right, to go against your indoctrination and open up your heart to other ideas.

But I am also not sorry he has accepted his responsibility to go public with his journey, because he has to share with others that those narrow-minded, absurd ideas about white supremacy are just wrong – and that the harm they do to others can not, under any circumstances, be justified.

In this moment, this book is absolutely a MUST-READ!