A historian reconsiders America’s most notorious prison riot.
In September 1971, after a tense four-day standoff, the Attica Correctional Facility in western New York was finally back under state control, the remaining hostages freed, and officials, particularly those in Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s office, felt relieved. When it soon came apparent, however, that tales of hostage abuse—castrations, slit throats—were false, that the gunfire could have come only from corrections officers and troopers during the assault, the state began almost immediately to cover up what had happened. Thompson (History/Univ. of Michigan; Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City, 2001, etc.) devotes the first half of her narrative to describing in compelling detail the appalling conditions at the prison, the incident that sparked the uprising, the prisoners’ grievances and demands, and the subsequent, tense negotiations overseen by a hastily formed committee of observers, culminating in the facility’s extraordinarily violent retaking. It’s the book’s second half, however, that offers the real eye-opener for readers whose interest in Attica and knowledge of what happened ended when the headlines receded. Thompson carefully tracks the uprising’s dismal aftermath, a bewildering, decadeslong series of commissions, investigations, lawsuits (civil and criminal), and settlement talks. At almost every juncture, she reveals state officials—prison guards, troopers, prosecutors, judges, politicians—acting in bad faith, either criminally or through gross negligence. Her report, not entirely unjustly, will be attacked as too “pro-prisoner,” but her critics will be obliged to account for her sensitive treatment of the state’s callous handling of the surviving hostages and their families and her not infrequent criticisms of the actors who glommed on to the Attica story for their own political purposes. Moreover, detractors will be forced to match the evidence she musters, 10 years’ worth of research—many files remain sealed to this day—her discovery of records long hidden, her numerous firsthand interviews, and her archival deep-dive. Meanwhile, conditions at Attica remain worse than they were in 1971.
Impressively authoritative and thoughtfully composed.
In this heart-rending, beautifully crafted book, Guardian editor at large Younge (The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream, 2013, etc.) explores the least-known but most common form of American gun violence involving children and teenagers—not mass school shootings but single, isolated killings, an average of seven daily, in neighborhoods across the country. For 18 months, he investigated the lives of victims between the ages of 9 and 19 who were shot dead on an arbitrarily selected date (Nov. 23, 2013) in varying circumstances: while opening a door, from a passing car, while walking home at 1 a.m. from a McDonald’s, while playing with a gun with a friend. The victims are all poor, working-class males (seven black, two Hispanic, one white) who made poor decisions in “a brutalizing, unforgiving environment.” In Younge’s empathetic telling, they are seen as vulnerable children, some innocent, some not so, all loved by their families. The victims include Tyshon Anderson, 18, a Chicago gang member; Samuel Brightmon, 16, a trusting black kid caught in random gunfire in Dallas; Edwin Rajo, 16, an impulsive Honduran whose girlfriend did not realize there was a bullet in the gun’s chamber; and Tyler Dunn, 11, slain accidentally during rural Michigan’s hunting season. The author discusses such factors as the availability of guns, the challenges of parenting in poor neighborhoods, and the development of adolescent brains. “When it comes to protecting children around guns, parents are flawed and laws are clearly inadequate,” he writes. Younge says fear of gun violence in impoverished areas is such that one mother was happy her 14-year-old son was locked up—“it was safer for him to be incarcerated than to live in the neighborhood.”
Important, deeply affecting, and certain to alarm readers who care about the lives of children in a gun-ridden society.
Former Human Rights Watch researcher Rawlence (Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa's Deadliest War, 2012) tells the distressing story of Kenya’s vast Dadaab refugee camp, where nearly 500,000 people fleeing civil war in nearby Somalia live in a “teeming ramshackle metropolis” the size of Atlanta.
Drawing on hundreds of interviews conducted during a series of extended visits to Dadaab since 2010, the author plunges readers into this hellish city of “mud, tents and thorns,” where three generations of displaced persons have lived amid malnourishment and disease. With remarkable intimacy, Rawlence recounts the stories of nine individuals, including Guled, a former child soldier, and his wife, Maryam; Nisho, who finds work as a porter; and Muna, a beautiful, independent woman who was one of the first Somalis to arrive in the camp. As he weaves this complex, densely detailed narrative, Rawlence reveals the humanity of these people in crisis who must struggle to survive in the overcrowded camp—run by the Kenyan government with United Nations funding—where bribery, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and cultural clashes are commonplace. While Kenyan leaders demonize the refugees and want them out, local politicians, military, and police all benefit from exploiting the refugees in Dadaab and in Somalia. For their part, those living in the camp remain mired in “a culture centered on leaving”; they long to resettle in Canada, the United States—any country that will take them. “There was a crime here on an industrial scale,” writes the author, who intersperses his story to cover outbursts of international concern, evinced by visiting celebrities and TV reporters and meetings of international and humanitarian-aid leaders striving to understand the “refugee crisis.” The disjuncture between the harsh realities of life in the camps and the view from the boardrooms of world power centers is extraordinary and damning.
A significant, timely, and gloomy tale that reveals the human costs of a growing world crisis.
Newsweek Middle East editor di Giovanni (Ghosts by Daylight: A Modern-Day War Correspondent's Memoir of Love, Loss, and Redemption, 2013) dives headfirst into the nightmarish shadow world of modern Syria.
At the beginning, the author relates how a diplomat friend told her “not to start working in Syria. He said it would engulf me as Bosnia had done, and he suggested gently that this was probably not a good thing emotionally. Even so, I went.” Throughout the story, di Giovanni’s quest seems almost suicidal, but the fruits of her labor are astonishing. She profiles ordinary Syrians struggling to survive while also chronicling her own death-defying journey. Locals guided her through ruined churches, bomb-addled tenements, and dubious border crossings. Even as Western readers have gradually begun to understand the complexities of the Syrian conflict, di Giovanni brings daily life into focus. “What does war sound like?” she asks. “The whistling sound of the bombs falling can only be heard seconds before impact—enough time to know that you are about to die, but not enough time to flee. What does the war in Aleppo smell of? It smells of carbine, of wood smoke, of unwashed bodies, or rubbish rotting, of the heady smell of fear.” In her gutsy and sensitive narrative, the author offers the surreal imagery of a place without reason. During her first drive to Damascus, she stopped at a roadside Dunkin’ Donuts serving only cheese sandwiches. Later, a physician took a break from his dying patients to play a lonely game of foosball on the hospital roof. Di Giovanni interweaves biblical references and anecdotes about her own motherhood into the story, which may strike some readers as forced or even melodramatic. But the author is a master of war reporting, especially its civilian side. Thanks to her bitter sacrifice, Western readers may begin to appreciate the chaos that Syrian refugees continue to flee.
This brilliant, necessary book will hopefully do for Syria what Herr’s Dispatches (1977) did for Vietnam.
A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.
Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”
A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.
An accomplished history of racist thought and practice in the United States from the Puritans to the present.
Anyone who thought that the 2008 election of President Barack Obama marked the emergence of post-racial America has been sorely disillusioned in the subsequent years with seemingly daily reminders of the schism wrought by racism and white supremacy. And yet anyone with even a cursory understanding of this country’s tortured history with race should have known better. In this tour de force, Kendi (African-American History/Univ. of Florida; The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972, 2012) explores the history of racist ideas—and their connection with racist practices—across American history. The author uses five main individuals as “tour guides” to investigate the development of racist ideas throughout the history of the U.S.: the preacher and intellectual Cotton Mather, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, ardent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, and activist Angela Davis. Kendi also poses three broad schools of thought regarding racial matters throughout American history: segregationist, assimilationist, and anti-racist. Although this trio can be reductionist, it provides a solid framework for understanding the interplay between racist ideas, anti-racism, and the attempts to synthesize them—“assimilationism,” which the author ultimately identifies as simply another form of racism, even when advocated by African-Americans. The subtitle of the book promises a “definitive history,” but despite the book’s more than 500 pages of text, its structure and its viewing of racial ideas through the lens of five individuals means that it is almost necessarily episodic. Although it is a fine history, the narrative may best be read as an extended, sophisticated, and sometimes (justifiably) angry essay.
Racism is the enduring scar on the American consciousness. In this ambitious, magisterial book, Kendi reveals just how deep that scar cuts and why it endures, its barely subcutaneous pain still able to flare.
A consummate chronicler of the American South spotlights the extraordinary history of two kidnapped African-American brothers enslaved as a circus sideshow act.
Expanding on her 2001 co-authored article series in the Roanoke Times, journalist Macy (Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town, 2014) reconstructs the folkloric yet true story of brothers George and Willie Muse, who, in 1899, at ages 9 and 6, toiled on a sweltering tobacco farm in Virginia. As black albinos bearing golden dreadlocks, the boys were considered “genetic anomalies” yet visually ideal when spied by Candy Shelton, a white bounty hunter scouring the area for “freaks” to enslave in circus sideshow acts. As circus entertainment crested in popularity at the turn of the 20th century, Macy writes, much money was to be made by sideshow managers eager to exploit those with physical abnormalities. Despite being falsely told that their mother had died, the Muse brothers went on to become “among the top tier of sideshow headline grabbers,” internationally known to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey audiences as “Eko and Iko, the Ecuadorian Savages.” Macy vividly illustrates circus life during the 1920s, and she movingly depicts how the brothers’ protective, determined mother, Harriett, eventually discovered and rescued them almost a decade and a half later. She sued the circus only to have George and Willie (along with little brother Tom) inexplicably return to the big top under Shelton’s management with decidedly mixed results. The story draws on years of diligent, investigative research and personal investment on the author’s behalf, and it features numerous interviews with immediate family, neighbors, distant relatives, Truevine townsfolk, and associated friends, most notably Nancy Saunders, Willie’s fiercely outspoken primary caregiver. Macy absorbed their own individual (and often conflicting) interpretations of the Muse kidnappings, condensing and skillfully braiding them into a sturdy, passionate, and penetrating narrative.
This first-rate journey into human trafficking, slavery, and familial bonding is an engrossing example of spirited, determined reportage.
A groundbreaking work on the central role of housing in the lives of the poor.
Based on two years (2008-2009) spent embedded with eight poor families in Milwaukee, Desmond (Sociology and Social Science/Harvard Univ.; On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters, 2007, etc.) delivers a gripping, novelistic narrative exploring the ceaseless cycle of “making rent, delaying eviction, or finding another place to live when homeless” as experienced by adults and children, both black and white, surviving in trailer parks and ghettos. “We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty,” writes the author. Once rare, eviction is now commonplace for millions of Americans each year, most often as a result of insufficient government support, rising rent and utility costs, and stagnant incomes. Having gained unusual access to these families, Desmond immerses us in the lives of Sherrena Tarver, a teacher-turned-landlord who rents inner-city units to the black poor; Tobin Charney, who nets more than $400,000 yearly on 131 poorly maintained trailers rented (at $550 a month) to poor whites; and disparate tenants who struggle to make rent for cramped, decrepit units plagued by poor plumbing, lack of heat, and code violations. The latter include Crystal, 18, raised in more than two dozen foster homes, who moved in with three garbage bags of clothes, and Arleen, a single mother, who contacted more than 80 apartment owners in her search for a new home. Their frantic experiences—they spend an astonishing 70 to 80 percent of their incomes on rent—make for harrowing reading, interspersed with moving moments revealing their resilience and humanity. “All this suffering is shameful and unnecessary,” writes Desmond, who bolsters his stories with important new survey findings. He argues that universal housing vouchers and publicly funded legal services for the evicted (90 percent lack attorneys in housing courts) would help alleviate this growing, often overlooked housing crisis.
This stunning, remarkable book—a scholar’s 21st-century How the Other Half Lives—demands a wide audience.
A lively, deeply moving cacophony of Russian voices for whom the Soviet era was as essential as their nature.
Nobel Prize–winning (2015) Russian writer Alexievich (Voices from Chernobyl, 2005, etc.) presents a rich kaleidoscope of voices from all regions of the former Soviet Union who reveal through long tortuous monologues what living under communism really was like. For a new generation of Russians born after World War II, the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, perestroika and glasnost, the attempted putsch of the government, collapse of the Soviet Union, and subsequent economic crises of the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin heralded a sense of freedom and new possibility, yet many Russians were left disillusioned and angry. What was socialism now supposed to mean for the former Homo sovieticus, now derogatively called a sovok ("dustbin")? Indeed, how to reconcile 70-plus years of official lies, murder, misery, and oppression? In segments she calls "Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations," Alexievich transcribes these (apparently) recorded monologues and conversations in sinuous stream-of-consciousness prose. People of all ages delineate events with bewilderment and fury—e.g., those who had taken to the barricades during the putsch of 1991 hoping for another utopia ("They buried Sovietdom to the music of Tchaikovsky") and ending up with a scary new world where capitalism was suddenly good and "money became synonymous with freedom." The older generation had lived through the era of Stalin, the KGB and arbitrary arrests, betrayal by neighbors and friends, imprisonment, torture, and the gulag, and these remembrances are particularly haunting to read. One horrifying example is an older neighbor and friend of a man who burned himself alive in his vegetable patch because he had nothing left to live for. The suicides Alexievich emphasizes are heart-wrenching, as is the reiterated sense of the people's "naivete" in the face of ceaseless official deception, the endurance of anti-Semitism, war in the former Soviet republics, famine, and the most appalling living conditions. The author captures these voices in a priceless time capsule.
A gripping indictment of society’s treatment of “losers.”
In 1966, a pilot program at the Abilene State School in Texas moved six developmentally disabled men to a ranch run by T.H. Johnson, who agreed to teach the “boys,” as he called them, basic agricultural skills. They would be paid a pittance and board at the ranch, saving the state money and providing Johnson with a source of very cheap labor. Award-winning New York Times writer and columnist Barry (Bottom of the 33rd: Hope and Redemption in Baseball’s Longest Game, 2012, etc.) rivetingly chronicles the lives of these men and 26 more who worked for the irascible Johnson at his turkey processing plant in Texas and, later, in Atalissa, Iowa. From 1974 until 2009, Johnson’s workers, living in filthy, decrepit housing, were paid far below minimum wage, from which room and board were deducted; were denied medical and dental care; and were violently abused by their overseers. Every day, they caught, killed, and gutted turkeys, work, Barry writes, that was “hard…and repetitive, a bloody, filthy, feathery mess.” Along the way, a social worker discovered the “slave-labor camp” and reported the “human-rights horror” to the Iowa Department of Social Services only to be told that the company’s operation—a “for-profit business model with a paternalistic overlay of limited freedoms and routine discipline”—seemed legitimate. The townspeople of Atalissa liked the “boys,” who sometimes came to town, marched in parades, and bought candy with their small allowances, and the men were proud to be workers; they didn’t openly complain. But one man’s sister, desperate over her brother’s plight, caught the attention of a tenacious investigative reporter, whose exposé shocked the nation. Finally, social services sprang to action, and the men were extricated, cared for, and embraced by those who had long ignored them.
Gently, empathetically, and indelibly, Barry conveys a tale of unthinkable brutality.