A lawyer and journalist exposes flaws in the criminal justice system, with an emphasis on the untrammeled power of local prosecutors.
Because the United States contains several thousand prosecutor jurisdictions (mostly at the county level), identifying misconduct is often difficult. In this potent book, New York Times Magazine writer Bazelon (Yale Law School; Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, 2013) emphasizes prosecutors who care more about winning convictions rather than upholding their sworn duty of seeking justice. The author makes a convincing argument that if there were a larger number of justice-seeking prosecutors, we could reduce incarceration by a substantial percentage in a nation overwhelmed by prison costs. In addition, individual lives would no longer be derailed by criminal charges that are unnecessarily severe or even downright false. Bazelon aims her book at nonlawyer voters as well as defense attorneys, judges, police officers, social workers, prison wardens, and others in the criminal justice system. A clear message that resonates throughout the book: Never confuse the law with common sense. The author narrates her impressively researched book primarily through two defendants. One is Noura Jackson, a Memphis resident who was 18 when she was charged with the murder of her mother. Despite no physical evidence of guilt or eyewitness testimony, Jackson went to prison. Believing in Jackson’s innocence, Bazelon wrote about the case in August 2017. Based on the extensive evidence she gathered, the author rightly demonizes the Memphis district attorney, the trial judge, and other law enforcement personnel in the Jackson prosecution. The author also explores the plight of Kevin (a pseudonym), a teenager arrested on a gun charge in Brooklyn. As Bazelon makes abundantly clear through her cogent, credible arguments, a sensible, compassionate system never would have arrested or prosecuted Kevin. Throughout the two narratives, the author demonstrates occasional optimism due to the election of reform-minded prosecutors in a few cities. The appendix, “Twenty-One Principles for Twenty-First-Century Prosecutors,” is also helpful.
A vitally important new entry in the continued heated debates about criminal justice.
One man’s remarkable heroism in the face of Nazi terror.
Nothing about Auschwitz is pleasant reading. Thankfully, Fairweather (The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan, 2014), a former correspondent for the Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph, delivers a well-written, riveting work. The protagonist is Polish resistance fighter Witold Pilecki (1901-1948), part of Poland’s cavalry reserves, much of which was decimated by the blitzkrieg’s main panzer thrust. With Warsaw surrounded, most military leaders left the country, but Pilecki and another officer banded together and organized the remaining soldiers. During this time, Germany continued to pit ethnic groups against each other and, mostly, against the Jews. Nationalism was flourishing, and attacks on Jews escalated. When Pilecki tried to fuse their group with the mainstream underground, his partner asked him to form a new group—in Auschwitz, to fight from the inside. Once inside, a Polish work foreman got him a builder’s job, which allowed him to start developing resistance cells among prisoners. In addition to some brave locals, newly released prisoners passed on his reports to Warsaw and then to London. The camp doctor saved Pilecki’s life more than once, but in many of his messages, Pilecki begged to have the camp, arsenals, and railways bombed. Despite his messages, the Allies made excuses, claiming that winning the war was the only way to control the camps. Based on the reports from Pilecki, they certainly knew that Auschwitz had become a death camp. Using myriad sources to paint the pictures of the camp’s horrors, including the prime source, Pilecki’s memoir, which has only recently been translated, Fairweather shines a powerful spotlight on a courageous man and his impressive accomplishments in the face of unspeakable evil.
Wired contributor Ratliff (editor: Love and Ruin: Tales of Obsession, Danger, and Heartbreak from the Atavist Magazine, 2016), the co-founder of Atavist Magazine, digs deep into a story that seems utterly appropriate to the computerized, globalized, transnational age. The protagonist is Paul Le Roux, a Zimbabwe-born computer programmer. Having moved from South Africa to Australia and later to the Philippines, he discovered early on that cyberspace was a frontier in which to grow rich serving humankind’s lesser instincts: pornography, trolling, gambling, addictions of various kinds. Eventually, as the author foreshadows in an opening salvo of incidents, he founded a crime network with many nodes across the world, one with hired killers, corrupt doctors, software specialists, and countless other players. One branch began by selling painkillers under the flimsiest of medical screenings: A customer would type in a complaint that she had back pain, a doctor would sign off, and drugs would arrive in great quantities, with one small-town Wisconsin pharmacist alone filling 700,000 illegal prescriptions and being paid millions in return from a Hong Kong bank account. Killings followed as Le Roux stretched his hand to North Korean methamphetamine manufacturers, international mercenaries, Colombian cartels, and black-ops hackers. Writes Ratliff, each of these pieces “seemed like a kind of message from an adjacent reality that few of us experience directly”—a reality that ended in a massive counter-operation on the part of the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies, bringing down long prison sentences and massive fines. “In 2013,” writes the author, “UPS paid $40 million to resolve federal accusations of knowingly shipping drugs for illegal online pharmacies.” Sifting through detail after nefarious detail, Ratliff serves up a taut narrative that limns a portrait of a sociopath whose powers were most definitely used to evil ends.
A wholly engrossing story that joins the worlds of El Chapo and Edward Snowden; both disturbing and memorable.
During the Cold War, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, writers were warriors, literature a weapon.
Daily Telegraph book reviewer White (History and Literature/Harvard Univ.; Nabokov and His Books, 2017, etc.) returns with a massive, thoroughly researched history of the roles of writers and literature during the Cold War. His focus is not just on the United States and the Soviet Union; he also tells stories about Western Europe and Latin America (there is a chapter on Nicaragua, the Contras, and Ronald Reagan). Many celebrated writers glimmer in these pages, including George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Stephen Spender, Isaac Babel, Mary McCarthy, Graham Greene, John le Carré, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Ernest Hemingway. Names probably less familiar to general readers are the Soviet writers Anna Akhmatova and Andrei Sinyavsky. The narrative is mostly chronological, and White shifts focus, chapter by chapter, to various writers and the political realities that they had to face—and endure. He also shows how governments tried to influence (or silence) their own writers and how they tried to use literature both as a weapon and a shield. “The issue of complicity is at the center of this book,” he writes. “Every writer in these pages had to grapple with it in one form or another—such was the price to be paid for writing at a time when, to paraphrase historian Giles Scott-Smith, to be apolitical was itself a form of politics.” White delivers tales of astonishing courage—e.g., the Czech playwright Václav Havel emerging from persecution and prosecution to become his country’s president, Solzhenitsyn sticking firmly to his determination to tell his stories—and of duplicity and betrayal: The story of Kim Philby, the English traitor, is prominent. Many readers will be surprised by the connections among these writers, which White ably highlights: Orwell and Hemingway, Koestler and McCarthy, and so many others. The author also occasionally summarizes now-classic literary works (Animal Farm).
Both profound and profoundly important and as engaging as a gripping Cold War thriller.
A survivor of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre offers a searingly honest examination of the lives broken by that momentous event.
Poet Liao (For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet's Journey Through a Chinese Prison, 2013, etc.) presents a series of harrowing, unforgettable tales of hardship of Chinese who essentially forfeited their youth due to their revolutionary fervor during Beijing's Tiananmen demonstrations in June 1989, when the authorities cleared the square with tanks, killing or injuring thousands of protesters. Unlike the more privileged Beijing students, whose parents had connections and could spirit their children out of the country, the “June Fourth thugs,” as the Chinese authorities named them, took the brunt of the violence for their zealous actions, such as throwing eggs at a Mao Zedong portrait. Most received harsh prison sentences involving appalling conditions and slave labor. For reciting a poem about the massacre, “rebel poet” Liao was sentenced to jail, torture, and slave labor. When he got out, he endured “a living hell” in terms of emotional turmoil, a broken marriage, sexual dysfunction, unemployment, and constant police surveillance. Ultimately, the only solace he found was in his mission to seek out and interview fellow “thugs,” whose stories mirrored his in many ways: idealistic youth who were swept up in general democratic spring fever, against the wishes of their wary parents incubated in the Cultural Revolution. As these powerful profiles clearly demonstrate, they paid dearly for their activism, suffering the brutality of the Chinese prison system and “education through labor” (including exhausting days making latex gloves for the American market) followed by joblessness, homelessness, and shunning from family and friends. The details about Liao’s interviewees—e.g., “the performance artist,” “the idealist,” “the arsonists,” “the street fighter”—are excruciating and intimate. Had he not fled the country in 2011, they may never have emerged; after all, three decades later, “the regime that committed the massacre is still in power.”
An indispensable historical document capturing the plight of “people scarred by history and then worn down by money and power.”