An incisive look at the many issues surrounding the right to vote.
Berman (Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, 2010), a contributing writer for the Nation and investigative journalism fellow at the Nation Institute, tracks the struggle to gain the vote, from Reconstruction, the backlash of Jim Crow, and the 1960s, when it all seemed to come together. The 1965 march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge was a tipping point. Before then, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson felt voting changes would endanger the president’s Great Society project. The horror and brutality of that day changed everything, and the most liberal Congress since the New Deal passed the Voting Rights Act. After Johnson signed the act in August 1965, he said that the South was lost to the Democratic Party for the next generation. He was absolutely right. What he didn’t foresee was the opening of the floodgates to deny and disenfranchise voters across the South and well beyond. The author recounts how the act enabled the Department of Justice to gain ground through three generations of cases. They outlawed literacy tests and poll taxes, dismantled gerrymandered districts and at large elections, and fought for a fair share of political power. This emotional book runs the gamut from great joy at the quest accomplished in 1965 to pride at the success of the judicial system in upholding voting rights to disbelief as the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush courts shattered 50 years of work. Voter ID laws, shortened early polling days, and voter roll purges are just the latest tactics in a fight that continues.
Not just a compelling history, but a cry for help in the recurring struggle to gain what is supposed to be an inalienable right.
Los Angeles Times reporter and editor Leovy looks at the thinly veiled racist origins of violence in South Central LA.
In her debut, the author journeys where most fear to tread: the perennially mean streets of South Central LA, where she uses the senseless murder of a policeman’s progeny as a jumping-off point to investigate broader issues of why, even as violent crime as a whole in America continues to drop, that urban area sees so many of its people dying by tragically violent means. Leovy’s big-picture thesis is that whether you’re talking about the “rough justice” of vigilante revenge killings in Ghana, Northern Ireland or South Central LA, the one underlying cause is the same: a vacuum left by a legal system that fails to serve everyone equally. Leovy posits that the gang violence in LA is the result of the local police simply not doing their jobs. On a microcosmic level, the author follows the lives of two LAPD officers, John Skaggs and Wally Tennelle, the former investigating the murder of the latter’s son. Tennelle’s decision to buck the trend among LA cops and live within the city limits furthered his career as a police officer but had deadly consequences for his son. Intertwined with Leovy’s swiftly paced true-crime narrative involving Skaggs’ methodical tracking down of Tennelle’s killer is some probing sociological research into how blacks in LA got the short end of the socioeconomic straw: Hispanics may have been treated unfairly in the jobs they worked, but as Leovy points out, African-Americans were, even as far back as the 1920s, often excluded from even the lowest-skilled jobs in the city. Unfortunately, however deftly the author interweaves the more personal angle of officers Skaggs and Tennelle with broader sociological “root cause” investigations, there is little to suggest that real change will arrive soon in South Central LA.
A sobering and informative look at the realities of criminality in the inner city.
An eye-opening survey of the different living arrangements Americans have come to embrace.
As a proponent of living alone, DePaulo admits, “I don’t want to live with any other humans of any age.” Yet she finds high levels of satisfaction among those whose living arrangements deviate from what was once considered the social norm. That norm might be an aberration at a time when people are marrying later (if at all), living longer and healthier, and trying to strike a balance between privacy and community. “Americans are living the new happily ever after,” she writes. “They are living with people they care about, sharing meals, indulging in the comforting ritual of how-was-your-day exchanges and spending holidays together. The ‘new’ part is that the people with whom they are sharing homes and lives may not be just spouses and romantic partners.” They may be single parents who have come together through “CoAbode, an online matching service for single mothers looking to share a home with other single mothers.” They may span multiple generations of the same family. They may be older people, widowed or divorced, who seek community and perhaps even romance but without marriage. They may be communities that share common areas—dining, lawns—but have individual living spaces and finances that distinguish them from the communes of old. The author admits that her book is “biased” toward those who have found happiness and that those who seek out such arrangements are a self-selected lot to begin with. But if those who have found tension or trouble in sharing space with former strangers are given short shrift, the book nevertheless builds a compelling case that “in twenty-first century America, individuals are freer than they have ever been before. They are no longer tied to predetermined courses in which marrying, having kids, and staying married are obligatory.”
An informative and inspirational guide to the myriad ways of making a home.
An incisive examination of American policing, using a tumultuous two decades in Los Angeles as a lens.
Journalist Domanick (Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in America's Golden State, 2004, etc.), associate director of John Jay College’s Center on Media, Crime, and Justice, argues that the philosophical conflicts within the LAPD convey the “larger saga of big-city American policing.” He weaves this complex narrative around several key figures—officers, administrators, civilian commissioners, and gangbangers-turned-interventionists—and events, starting in 1992 with the ugly flash point of the Rodney King beating and the subsequent riots. The LAPD was unprepared for a conflagration stoked by its reliance on paramilitary tactics in minority neighborhoods. Domanick considers this the key feature of the LAPD since the reign of martinet chief William Parker in the 1950s and ’60s. Parker’s protégé, Daryl Gates, was unapologetically provocative, promoting hyperaggressive policing during the violent crack era of the 1980s. In the post-King political wreckage, Gates was succeeded by two African-American chiefs, outsider Willie Williams and admired local cop Bernard Parks. Both failed to address the LAPD’s baroque leadership structure and aggressive tactics, and they were plagued by the flawed investigation of O.J. Simpson and the “Ramparts CRASH” corruption scandal. The city finally turned to William Bratton, the driven, ambitious proponent of statistically oriented policing who claimed credit for New York’s historic crime reductions. Bratton saw his LA appointment as an opportunity to “remake [police] culture into a community-policing model without undoing his broken-windows strategy.” Domanick paints on a broad canvas, often pausing to look at other cities’ parallel struggles with policing and crime. He adeptly balances a complex discussion, addressing both the necessity of proactive law enforcement in neighborhoods plagued by gang violence and the fundamental injustice of the “Drug War” model as applied to low-income communities. While the focus on multiple biographies can become tedious, this is a well-executed, large-scale urban narrative.
Sprawling, engrossing, and highly relevant to the ongoing controversies about policing post-Ferguson, which Domanick addresses in an epilogue.
An exploration of the spreading terror of the self-proclaimed new caliphate.
Senior BBC reporter Hosken, who has covered 9/11 and the Arab Spring, among other major world events, has been tracking the rise of the Islamic State since 2003, as it took root with the United States–led invasion of Iraq. There are enormously complicated yet logical steps to the terrorist organization’s horrifying rise, and the author does a thorough job of building the chronology. The first Jordanian leader of IS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was radicalized in prison by Islamist extremism and the idea of eradicating apostasy, in the form of anyone not subscribing to the narrow Salafist ideology—e.g., Shia Muslims, Yazidis, Christians, and many others. From 1996 to 2003, followers adhered to a specific blueprint and embraced a bloodthirsty campaign of purging Shia enemies (the majority in Iraq) and employing widespread terrorism, culminating in the declaration of a caliphate by 2014—embodied with the capture of Mosul. The U.S.’s disastrous decision to dissolve the Ba’ath Party led many embittered generals to join the insurgency. After al-Zarqawi’s death in June 2006, the next leader and future caliph of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, followed the terror strategy laid out in a manual called The Management of Savagery: suicide bombs, massacres, beheadings, abduction and rapes of women and children, terrorizing the population of Anbar province. Al-Baghdadi made the crucial decision to enter the Syrian civil war in 2011, which gave the group deadly new impetus leading to the declaration of a caliphate. Hosken does an excellent job of sorting out the American reaction, the failure of the Iraqi leadership in the form of Nouri al-Maliki and others, and how IS has becomes the richest terrorist group in the world.
A tremendously useful, insightful study of the frightening spread of a culture of death.
The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.
Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”
This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”
A British neurosurgeon delivers fascinating, often harrowing stories of several dozen cases intermixed with compelling digressions into his travels, personal life, and philosophy.
In 25 chapters, each built around a neurosurgical operation (infections and strokes but mostly tumors), the author provides vivid accounts of patients before and after surgery as well as encounters with Britain’s National Health Service, which is far skimpier than America’s system (even hospital beds are in short supply). The quality of medicine, however, is first-class. American neurosurgical trainees serve in his hospital, and Marsh admires but does not share the gung-ho optimism of America’s “death is optional” surgeons. While happy to recount dramatic cures, he admits that these are not routine in a neurosurgeon’s practice and that aggressive surgery often leaves patients with catastrophic brain damage. Few American surgeons, worried about being sued (a legitimate concern), would dare write, “I am more experienced than in the past and more realistic about the limitations of surgery….I have become more willing to accept that it can be better to let someone die rather than operate when there is only a very small chance of the person returning to an independent life.” Far more than the average doctor-memoirist, Marsh does not conceal his feelings, whether dealing with patients, colleagues, assistants, or superiors, and he spares no one when matters turn out badly. Readers will share his emotions, including contempt for a penny-pinching, meddling government. Unlike American doctor/government haters, there is no sour right-wing ideology or any impression that he is defending an obscenely high income. Nor does he trumpet his compassion; that is never in doubt.
Beautifully written and deeply moving—one of the best physician memoirs in recent memory.
Leaving her Dublin home and dysfunctional family at 14, Moran became homeless before she turned to prostitution to survive. Her stirring memoir chronicles her seven-year journey on the streets and in the brothels and examines the costs to society and her soul.
The author’s experience convinced her of several things. First, she realized that prostitution is a collective experience among the women caught in this tragic lifestyle, and second, the job is never glamorous. On the second page, Moran clearly states the goal of her book: “exposing prostitution for what it really is…the illumination that comes from shining a light in dark places.” Writing down her story took the author 10 years. The first section of the memoir details Moran’s dismal childhood, complete with social exclusion, economic hardships, parental mental illness, and lack of social advantages. These conditions helped to create the foundation for her entry into prostitution. In the second section, the author skillfully debunks the myths perpetrated by society and the media about prostitution—e.g., the high-class hooker or the control prostitutes supposedly wield or pleasure they experience. The final section recounts Moran’s struggle to escape the lifestyle and re-enter larger society. The author’s writing style is restrained yet piercingly clear and forceful. In each section, she dissects the harmful effects of prostitution to herself and the women and girls she came to know. Though the physical abuse she encountered was significant and terrifying, the severe emotional turmoil has been even more difficult to bear. Today, the author still struggles with overcoming the denial of “the reality of her own experience.” If at times somewhat repetitive, this minor quibble takes nothing away from the author’s discussion of a subject that needs more attention.
Moran’s thoughtful, highly readable, and provocative treatise shines a necessary light on a dark and underdiscussed topic.
A political scientist calls attention to the widening class-based opportunity gap among young people in the United States.
Putnam (Public Policy/Harvard Univ.; co-author: American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, 2010, etc.) author of the best-selling Bowling Alone (2000), argues that the American dream has faded for poor children in the past five decades. Beginning with the stories of individuals, he compares the opportunities for upward mobility in his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, when he was in high school (he graduated in 1959) with the situation today, and he finds tremendous differences. For getting ahead in the world, social class mattered relatively little then, but now it is paramount, and the institutions, both public and private, that helped young people of all backgrounds are no longer serving the disadvantaged well. Putnam expands his view from his hometown to a number of towns across the U.S., looking at how young people in different social classes fare. Using personal stories, statistics and studies, and focusing in turn on families, parenting, schooling and community, the author demonstrates that the class gap in America has been growing. Although there is a fair amount of repetition, occasional sociological jargon and perhaps too much use of illustrative personal stories, Putnam’s prose is highly readable, and the figures and tables that dot the text are generally simple and clear. In the final chapter, Putnam discusses what this disparity in opportunity means for the future of our country economically and politically, as well as what it says about our ideals and values. He then tackles the question of what to do about it, offering a number of specific ideas and citing approaches that have had positive results. The best hope is a strong economy that benefits less-educated, low-paid workers.
An insightful book that paints a disturbing picture of the collapse of the working class and the growth of an upper class that seems to be largely unaware of the other’s precarious existence.
Former New York Times reporter Rivlin (Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc.—How the Working Poor Became Big Business, 2010, etc.) delivers a magnificently reported account of life in a broken, waterlogged city.
During Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, the levees of New Orleans broke, causing $135 billion in damages, killing over 1,800 people, and leaving 80 percent of the city flooded. Most devastated were the lowest-lying (poor, black) neighborhoods. News coverage and a plethora of books have burnished the images of those days in the American psyche—the rubble and wrecked cars, the FEMA trailers, the 25,000 people stranded in the fetid Superdome, and the seeming inability of officials to act decisively to rescue black residents who could not afford to flee. Rivlin arrived early on to cover the tragedy and stayed with the story for 10 years, conducting hundreds of interviews, exploring every imaginable aspect of the “botched rescue” and recovery, and delving sympathetically into the lives of countless people, black and white, who stayed, left, or returned. Throughout the book, the author provides intimate portraits—e.g., black banker Alden McDonald, who worked tirelessly on behalf of black residents; white suburbanite Joe Canizaro, head of the official recovery commission; former Black Panther Malik Rahim, who led rebuilding efforts in the 9th Ward. This is a nightmarish story of variously powerless, incompetent, and politicking figures, from the George Bush administration, hampered by “incompetence” and “ideology,” to the “ineffectual” Mayor Ray Nagin, now imprisoned for public corruption, and, most disturbing, white blue bloods who looked forward to a city without blacks. Rivlin’s exquisitely detailed narrative captures the anger, fatigue, and ambiguity of life during the recovery, the centrality of race at every step along the way, and the generosity of many from elsewhere in the country. Although federal monies eventually helped give the city a “massive makeover,” widespread poverty remains, with only a third of houses now occupied in the lower 9th.
Deeply engrossing, well-written, and packed with revealing stories.
New York Times national security reporter Shane compares and contrasts the trajectories of President Barack Obama and Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen residing in Yemen whom Obama ordered to be killed by a drone.
Al-Awlaki grew up in an educated Yemeni family. When his parents obtained their educations in the United States, he was born a citizen. He grew up in Yemen and returned to the United States at age 19. Obama was also born in the United States to a foreign father who was a secular-minded Muslim. Then Obama resided in Indonesia, returning to the United States at age 10. Due to 9/11, the superficial similarities between Obama and al-Awlaki became more meaningful. One would react by becoming an elected politician, the other by becoming a Muslim holy man who initially spoke for the moderate wing of his religion. But by the time Obama reached the presidency in 2008, al-Awlaki had unexpectedly become a militant calling for the death of the “infidel” Americans. Obama began to explore whether he had the authority as commander in chief of the military to send a drone into Yemen to kill al-Awlaki, even though the cleric had not been charged with a crime. By the time the book ends, al-Awlaki is dead, as is his teenage son. Shane became obsessed about learning how Obama, a former constitutional law professor, justified the drone strikes, especially given his opposition to the conduct of the war on terror created by his predecessor, George W. Bush. The author was equally intrigued by the change in philosophy adopted by al-Awlaki, which required a return to Yemen, as something of a fugitive, despite a privileged life in the U.S. In addition to following his two principals, the author examines the drone technology that gave Obama the remarkable ability to target someone thousands of miles away.
Shane's reporting is superb, and the way he frames the public policy debate makes the narrative compelling from start to finish.
Think Afghanistan is bad now? Just wait until American forces leave entirely and the dragon rises again.
The dragon trope is foreign correspondent Smith’s, borrowing from the old cartographer’s notation that dragons lurk in unmapped corners of the Earth. “The thing about modern civilization,” says one battle-hardened GI, “is that we can’t stand those empty spots. The dragons fly out and bite you in the ass.” So they do, and by Smith’s account, the dragons are multiplying. Eloquent and sometimes-hallucinatory, reminiscent at turns of Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Smith’s narrative takes us from bad to worse. In one set piece, a coalition soldier lets loose a rocket with the remark, “There goes a Porsche,” precisely because the rocket costs as much as a sports car. Meanwhile, the enemy makes lethal weapons out of scraps, odd bits of fertilizer, plastic buckets and rusty tools. The result is devastating, and Smith does not shy from decidedly not-for-workplace descriptions: “Charred pieces of human flesh stuck to the armour. A television reporter wrinkled her nose at the sight, and I asked her: ‘Can you believe they were trying to sell me a story about how things have gotten better in Panjwai?’ ” Smith is a master of the battlefield description, but he’s even better at slyly noting the ironies and complexities of the war: for instance, destroying a farmer’s opium crop, while falling under the rubric of the war on drugs, would likely turn the farmer against the United States. Solution? Hire mercenaries to “slip into areas secured by NATO troops and raze the fields, without telling anybody they were sent by the foreigners.” Worse, in the author’s formulation, is now that we’re mired, we’re stuck, no matter how we pretend otherwise: “At best, we are leaving behind an ongoing war. At worst, it’s a looming disaster.”
A dragon awaits, in other words. Cheerless and even nightmarish, one of the best books yet about the war in Central Asia.