A sometimes-sad, sometimes-humorous look at ballads that have preserved a part of America’s crazed, violent history.

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CrimeSong

TRUE CRIME STORIES FROM SOUTHERN MURDER BALLADS

A law professor explores the real-life events behind old American murder ballads.

Underwood (co-author: Kentucky Evidence Courtroom Manual, 2016, etc.) delves into court records, newspaper accounts, and other primary sources to find the facts underlying popular songs about grisly murders and crimes in the South in the 1800s and early 1900s. Most readers will be unfamiliar with many of these ballads, although a few, such as “Frankie and Johnnie” and “Tom Dula” (aka “Tom Dooley”), are still well-known due to having inspired later musicians such as Bob Dylan and the Kingston Trio. Underwood explores several genres, including the “ ‘murdered girl’ ballad”—often about a man drowning his female lover—as well as songs in which women kill men for revenge, whole families are slaughtered, or bystanders lose their lives. In addition to tracing the history behind each song, Underwood comments on the actual cases’ legal aspects, such as hearsay, circumstantial evidence, or the “ ‘SODI’ defense”—short for “some other dude did it.” In all, he draws a macabre historical portrait of America, its sensationalist press, and its frequent miscarriages of justice, suggesting that things haven’t changed all that much in the modern era. The book includes each of the songs’ original lyrics along with a rich lode of grainy images and references to further readings and recordings. Overall, Underwood has written a delightful book about a gruesome subject. Even when he delves into the cases and their legal issues, he employs a light touch, sprinkling his accounts with humor: “Oh hell, don’t bother with him; he ain’t nothing but a lawyer,” one defendant advises. Besides providing a revealing look at the quirky history of U.S. criminal law, the book also serves as a testament to the sheer weirdness of American culture; in one ballad, for instance, the murder of a family in Missouri is set to the sweet, sentimental tune of “Home Sweet Home.” Underwood does have an unfortunate tendency to assert that certain topics are “interesting”—a judgment best left to readers—but such lapses are rare.

A sometimes-sad, sometimes-humorous look at ballads that have preserved a part of America’s crazed, violent history.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Shadelandhouse Modern Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2016

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST

Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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Doyle offers another lucid, inspiring chronicle of female empowerment and the rewards of self-awareness and renewal.

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UNTAMED

More life reflections from the bestselling author on themes of societal captivity and the catharsis of personal freedom.

In her third book, Doyle (Love Warrior, 2016, etc.) begins with a life-changing event. “Four years ago,” she writes, “married to the father of my three children, I fell in love with a woman.” That woman, Abby Wambach, would become her wife. Emblematically arranged into three sections—“Caged,” “Keys,” “Freedom”—the narrative offers, among other elements, vignettes about the soulful author’s girlhood, when she was bulimic and felt like a zoo animal, a “caged girl made for wide-open skies.” She followed the path that seemed right and appropriate based on her Catholic upbringing and adolescent conditioning. After a downward spiral into “drinking, drugging, and purging,” Doyle found sobriety and the authentic self she’d been suppressing. Still, there was trouble: Straining an already troubled marriage was her husband’s infidelity, which eventually led to life-altering choices and the discovery of a love she’d never experienced before. Throughout the book, Doyle remains open and candid, whether she’s admitting to rigging a high school homecoming court election or denouncing the doting perfectionism of “cream cheese parenting,” which is about “giving your children the best of everything.” The author’s fears and concerns are often mirrored by real-world issues: gender roles and bias, white privilege, racism, and religion-fueled homophobia and hypocrisy. Some stories merely skim the surface of larger issues, but Doyle revisits them in later sections and digs deeper, using friends and familial references to personify their impact on her life, both past and present. Shorter pieces, some only a page in length, manage to effectively translate an emotional gut punch, as when Doyle’s therapist called her blooming extramarital lesbian love a “dangerous distraction.” Ultimately, the narrative is an in-depth look at a courageous woman eager to share the wealth of her experiences by embracing vulnerability and reclaiming her inner strength and resiliency.

Doyle offers another lucid, inspiring chronicle of female empowerment and the rewards of self-awareness and renewal.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-0125-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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