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An excellent Maisie Dobbs novel from Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie Dobbs: Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline WinspearElegy for Eddie (Maisie Dobbs #9), by Jacqueline Winspear

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Throughout his life, Eddie Pettit was considered “slow.” Naive and trusting to a fault, he was indeed slow to understand much of what was said to him. But Eddie had two great gifts. He possessed a prodigious memory, not just for numbers and circumstances but for images (eidetic memory) as well. Today, he might be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. But Eddie’s second gift made him truly exceptional. Literally born in a stable, he had a lifelong affinity for horses, and they for him. Eddie Pettit could calm even the most excitable horse and was widely known for his talent.

But now Eddie Pettit is dead, victim of what was purportedly an accident at a paper factory where he was visiting friends. Five of his mates from the old neighborhood in Lambeth have come to visit Maisie Dobbs in hopes she will uncover the truth about Eddie’s death. Like all of them, Maisie had been born into poverty in Lambeth. Now, however, she is Cambridge-educated, well-established as an “investigator and psychologist,” and a wealthy woman as the heir of her late mentor. Without hesitation, Maisie takes on the assignment, declines payment, and launches an investigation with the help of her two assistants, Billy and Sandra.

The search for the truth about Eddie’s death brings Maisie and her small staff face to face with anti-union organizing, a string of mysterious murders, a police cover-up, and a conspiracy to prepare Britain for war with Nazi Germany. It’s 1933, and Adolf Hitler has just seized power as German Chancellor. Winston Churchill is agitating for the country to rearm, but few are listening. This is a story set in a particular time and place, and it all fits.

All the novels in this series portray Maisie as contemplative, but none more than Elegy for Eddie. All the while the investigation unfolds, Maisie struggles with her relationship with the aristocratic James Compton. They live together on and off as husband and wife and attend social events together. Increasingly, though, Maisie doubts whether she can marry James. (“They had ventured out with their hearts towards honesty, but had scurried back to protect their feelings.”) She is also struggling with what today we might call liberal guilt. The large fortune she inherited from her mentor, Dr. Maurice Blanche, weighs heavily on her—and it provides her with the means to solve other people’s problems, which she does all too frequently. She resists criticism from friends who point out that intervening in other people’s lives can lead to resentment. Overall, Maisie puzzles who she is and where her life is going: “What did she want her life to be considered well-lived? How could she honor both her past and at the same time take on a future that offered so many more opportunities than she might ever have imagined?”

Elegy for Eddie is the ninth book in the growing Maisie Hobbs series, now thirteen in number. Author Jacqueline Winspear, born and educated in Great Britain, emigrated to the United States in 1990. She now lives in Marin County, California.

My review of Maisie Dobbs, the first novel in the series, is at A female detective like no other. The second, Birds of a Feather, is here: The cost of war hangs over the action like a shroud, and the third, Pardonable Lives, is here:  Maisie Dobbs: living the legacy of World War I. I reviewed #4, Messenger of Truth, at Class resentment in Depression-era England, and #5, An Incomplete Revenge, is at The pleasures of reading Maisie Dobbs. My review of the sixth in the series, Among the Mad, is Shell shock, madness, the Great Depression. The seventh, The Mapping of Love and Death, is Another great detective novel from Jacqueline Winspear, and the eighth, A Lesson in Secrets, is Nazis, pacifists, and spies in 1930s Britain. You might also be interested in my list of 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

Crimes against humanity in Scott Turow’s latest legal thriller

legal thrillerTestimony by Scott Turow

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

In an interview on May 23, 2017, Scott Turow explained how he came to write a novel about a case at the International Criminal Court involving the massacre of 400 Roma (“Gypsies”). “‘In 2000, I was at a reception in The Hague and found myself in a circle of lawyers who said you have to write about this—it’s an amazing case,’ he recalls. ‘Usually when people say they have an amazing case it’s about their divorce, but this actually did sound fascinating.’”

The story the lawyers told triggered his memory of a brief exposure to Roma culture 40 years earlier, when Turow had observed a large group of Roma stealing ashtrays from a hospital. The incident puzzled him. He couldn’t understand why they would antagonize people they might have to deal with in the future. “‘What I later learned when researching for this book is that there’s no tense but the present in the Roma language and no written or oral tradition for passing down information. Their history goes only as far back as the oldest Roma alive. So that’s a big cultural difference from us.’” And that difference emerges dramatically in Turow’s mesmerizing latest legal thriller, Testimony.

Most of Turow’s earlier novels involve attorneys in fictional Kindle County, Illinois, and are courtroom dramas. Testimony somewhat departs from the pattern. Bill ten Boom is a successful Dutch-American lawyer—from Kindle County, like the others—who moves to the Hague in the throes of a mid-life crisis to accept a job as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Ten Boom, who goes by the name “Boom,” works with a Belgian forensic anthropologist in search of evidence about a crime against humanity that may have been committed by a now-fugitive Bosnian war criminal—or by American soldiers at a base near the site of the atrocity. Evidence emerges pointing in either direction. Boom’s investigation is complicated when he becomes involved in a torrid affair with the woman who brought the case to the court, an advocate for the Roma. Esma Czarni, beautiful, charming, and possibly brilliant, is also thoroughly untrustworthy.

But Czarni is not the only confounding character in the tale. You’ll also meet Laza Kajevic, the former president of Bosnia who has been on the run from war-crimes investigators for a decade. “Kajevic was in a category of his own, a political leader whose charisma and rage had been enough to lead an entire nation into a realm beyond conscience.” Equally fascinating are General Layton Merrill, the former top NATO commander hounded from the military in disgrace over adultery, and his former master sergeant, who describes herself as a “bull dyke cross-dressing half-breed.” She is a genius at logistics.

Though the story opens at a pre-trial hearing in an ICC courtroom, the action that follows is set elsewhere, mostly in Bosnia. Turow’s description of the poverty-stricken villages, the tragic history of the land, and Roma culture is unfailingly moving. He’s clearly a dogged researcher—and a talented wordsmith.

Boom’s perspective on his work is firmly grounded. “I know this much,” he tells the investigator assigned to him. “Justice is good. I accept the value of testimony, of letting the victims be heard. But consequences are essential. People can’t believe in civilization without being certain that a society will organize itself to do what it can to make things right.”

In his acknowledgements at the back of the novel, Turow writes, “I share with Boom the belief that, given the enduring reality of wartime atrocities, the ICC is indispensable in making the world more just. I hope that in time the United States lends its moral authority to the Court by ratifying the treaty we signed . . . I regard US fears of the Court, while far from fanciful, as misplaced and at odds with the US’s long-term interest in supporting the rule of law around the world.”

About the author

Over the past 30 years, Chicago attorney and novelist Scott Turow has written 11 works of fiction. Included are some of the legal thrillers most familiar to readers—and moviegoers, as several have been adapted to film. Among those you might recognize are Presumed Innocent, The Burden of Proof, and Reversible Errors. All three were bestsellers and made their way into theaters. Turow has also written three nonfiction books. His work has been translated into 40 languages and has sold a total of more than 30 million copies.

You might also enjoy my post 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.

August 30, 2016

An intimate look at drug trafficking in Brazil

drug traffickingA review of Nemesis: One Man and the Battle for Rio, by Misha Glenny

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Journalist Misha Glenny’s exploration of criminal gangs and drug trafficking in Rio de Janeiro focuses on one favela (slum) and one drug lord. It’s a fascinating and surprising tale that pokes under the covers of the broad generalizations that dominate news coverage both of poverty in Brazil and of the drug trade.

Drug trafficking, the arms trade, and Brazilian politics

Glenny’s subject is Antonio Francisco Bonfim Lopes, “Nem of Rosinha.” (Glenny translates Nem as “Babe.”) Conducting interviews with Nem in prison, he reviews the rocky political history of the country during the military dictatorship (1964-85) and the tumultuous democratic period that followed. Though he keeps returning his attention to Nem throughout the book, Glenny describes the man’s trigger-happy predecessors and competitors and veers off into broader issues. Nem comes off as extremely intelligent and a brilliant manager, and he resorts to violence much less frequently than his rivals (or, apparently, the police, for that matter). Unlike other Rio drug lords, Nem dealt almost exclusively in cocaine, shunning the arms trade and extortion that were common in other slums. Like the others, he meddled in the corrupt politics of the region.

“The most wanted man in Brazil”

Nem ruled the favela of Rosinha in the south of Rio de Janeiro for four years (2007-11). Glenny describes the favela as the largest of Rio’s many slums. But Nem’s influence extended far beyond the borders of his community. When arrested by police in 2011, he was estimated to be responsible for more than 60% of the cocaine consumed in Rio and have a net worth of $60 million. The Brazilian government labeled him Public Enemy #1. A pitched gun-battle inadvertently triggered by some of his henchmen brought unwelcome attention and soon led to his capture.

Ironically, Nem presided over nearly four years of peace and stability in Rosinha. He vigorously enforced rules against extortion and murder within the favela. The neighborhood descended into chaos following his arrest and imprisonment.

About the book

Nemesis is not an easy read. Glenny lurches from past to present and back again with annoying regularity, sometimes on a single page. It’s dizzying. And, despite his reputation as a top-flight journalist, he is careless with facts from time to time. For example, in one place Glenny refers to one of Nem’s rivals as running a region that consisted of “dozens of favelas,” implying that this constituted a large swath of the city. Later, he states that there are “more than 1,000” favelas in Rio. Later still, he asserts there are “some 900.”

About the author

Misha Glenny is a British journalist who specializes in southeastern Europe, cybersecurity, and global organized crime. Nemesis is the only one of his six books to deal with Brazil.

August 23, 2016

Hillbilly? Redneck? White trash?

hillbillyA review of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Two recent books set out to paint a picture of working-class culture. One is White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg. I found the book to be too densely written and couldn’t finish reading it. The other is far more accessible. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance, is the haunting story of one man who escaped the bounds of his class and now sometimes finds himself adrift. The book also paints a vivid picture of America’s hardening class divisions. It’s a riveting illustration of widening economic inequality.

An intimate portrait of hillbilly poverty

The outlines of Vance’s story are easily described. Born and raised in a Rust Belt town in Southwestern Ohio, Vance was abandoned by his father at an early age. His mother, a nurse, descended into drug addiction. From the age of sixteen, Vance was raised by his mother’s parents (Mamaw and Papaw). Though she packs pistols, swears like a sailor, and intimidates nearly everyone, Mamaw brought long-needed stability and encouragement to the boy’s life.

After a four-year stint in the Marines, Vance attended Ohio State University. He graduated summa cum laude after one year and eleven months! (This man is clearly no slouch.) Yale Law School followed. At the age of thirty-one, married and settled into a job as an attorney, he looks back on his life and his family with brutal honesty and a tender touch. Some might call his family and their neighbors “white trash” or “rednecks.” Vance finds the term “hillbilly” more precise and uses it throughout the book.

It’s the culture that handicaps Vance as he transitions from life in a hillbilly community to Yale and then a New York law firm. He clearly has the necessary intelligence. But he doesn’t possess the social capital to fit smoothly into his new environment. The problem isn’t that he doesn’t know which fork to use at a banquet (though that’s also true): worse, the social cues and sometimes the vocabulary seem to throw him. Some might call this culture shock.

Vance’s portrait of working-class poverty is at times alarming. It’s disturbing throughout, with its portrayal of unstable families, substance abuse, domestic violence, willful ignorance, indolence, and occasional welfare fraud. Vance writes skillfully, and his story is suspenseful to the end. The biggest surprise is how beautifully he survives a childhood that seems impossible to bear.

About the author

J. D. Vance was born and raised in the working-class community of Middletown, Ohio. His “people” come from the coal-studded region of Eastern Kentucky, where poverty is as severe as anywhere else in the United States.


August 9, 2016

Do property rights explain why capitalism works in the West but not in the rest?

property rightsA review of The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, by Hernando de Soto

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One of the world’s enduring mysteries is why there is such a wide gap in prosperity between the developed nations and those so often referred to as “developing.” Two centuries ago, China was the world’s wealthiest nation, and many of today’s developed countries were still poor by the day’s standards. Including the USA. There exists a plethora of explanations for this discrepancy, which has emerged over the last 200 years. Included are neocolonialism and the ascendancy of the multinational corporation in world affairs. Neither is especially convincing. But one of the most satisfying explanations comes from a noted Peruvian economist named Hernando de Soto. He spells it out in detail in The Mystery of Capital, the second of his books describing his life’s work.

Property rights lie at the core of the problem

The gist of de Soto’s argument is straightforward. Developed nations have over time adopted a system of property rights that enables those who possess them to unlock their potential as capital through such means as mortgages. Developing countries lack the infrastructure to enforce the property rights of the billions of people who have crowded into shantytowns in major cities or work the land they occupy in rural areas without acceptable documentation. As a result, they do not “own” their land or the improvements they have built on it and cannot capitalize on them. Thus, trillions of dollars in capital remain locked up in the homes of many of the world’s poorest people. Unlock that potential, and economic growth will soar, he contends.

De Soto’s solution to this quandary is to put such a system of property rights into place. The premise of his argument is undeniable. Anyone who has worked in any one of the scores of developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the former Soviet satellites should be well aware of the problem. Unfortunately, de Soto’s proposed solution poses several problems.

(1) In most of the world, respect for the rule of law is lacking.

Simply putting a new legal regime in place is unlikely to clear this hurdle. Many if not most developing nations have admirably crafted laws which are routinely ignored. De Soto claims that he and his team have demonstrated the feasibility of his approach in Peru and several other nations. In fact, there is evidence that they have succeeded in Peru, at least to a degree. Peru is now one of the world’s fastest-growing nations; perhaps at least some of the credit belongs to de Sot0. And the heads of state in many other countries have hired him to consult on the reforms he proposes.

However, I’m unaware that any of de Soto’s efforts have been effective nationwide anywhere in the world, with the possible exception of Peru. I can easily imagine countries like Estonia, Uruguay, or Tunisia adopting such an approach; perhaps they already have. But it strikes me as unthinkable that Zimbabwe, Somalia, South Sudan, or Haiti, much less North Korea or Cuba, would ever consider such reforms anytime in the foreseeable future. Surely the world’s failed states or those that are nominally Communist will not do so without enormous changes in governance. Even India seems unlikely to me; one-third of the world’s people who live on $2 a day or less live there. Economic reforms in India require years of negotiations and often fail, even with a pro-business Prime Minister on the scene.

(2) Dominant elites find it to their benefit to sustain the status quo.

De Soto argues that conferring property rights on the poor would, in fact, benefit everyone, because it would dramatically lift the level of a nation’s economic activity. He asserts that elites can be educated and will come to understand the benefit, and he claims he has succeeded in doing this in Peru. Apparently, that is true to at least some degree. However, my observations above about other countries are applicable here, too.

(3) Entrenched bureaucrats benefit from the existing system by holding scarce jobs and securing bribes. 

De Soto and his team have studied four countries most closely: Peru, Egypt, Haiti, and the Philippines. He makes abundantly clear that in every one of them it can take years — as many as nineteen in one case — for poor people to complete the innumerable forms and secure the permissions needed to establish title to their land and homes. Simply put, property rights are entirely out of reach for huge numbers of the world’s people. Surely, dozens of bureaucrats are involved in some fashion in the application process. How likely is it that those office-holders will give up their jobs? Consider India as just one important example: many if not all government jobs are awarded on a quota system to permit the members of oppressed castes to gain access to the secure salaries and prestige represented by jobs in government.

(4) Discriminatory caste and class systems persist in many underdeveloped nations.

Nearly 70 years after independence, India’s caste system remains powerful, seemingly impervious to significant change. In most other poor countries, similarly discriminatory caste or class systems prevent people at the bottom of the pyramid to advance economically. In many, tribal origins or religious differences get in the way. Since such divisions have often persisted for many centuries, it strikes me as unreasonable to expect that they can be quickly overcome. Even higher education often fails to erase such differences.

(5) The biggest problem of all: the fallacy of growth.

Advocates of accelerated economic growth such as de Soto (or the leadership of China) fail to recognize the limits on the earth’s carrying capacity or the environmental damage that results from the rush to big cities and building ever more factories. India will soon surpass China (with one-fifth of the world’s people) in population. Should India ever manage to match the living standard in the Global North, that will represent the equivalent of adding five new USAs, doubling the world’s demand for goods and services. The consequences of such a development are unthinkable. Unrestrained economic growth is not just unsustainable — it’s suicidal.

A flawed but fully engaging book

In most respects, The Mystery of Capital is well written. The exception lies in the author’s tendency to repeat himself. The book reads as though it was adapted from a series of lectures strung together in sequence, with the repetition that is so common in such compilations. A number of de Soto’s key points are repeated several times.

About the author

Though Peruvian, Hernando de Soto was educated in Switzerland. He had left Peru at the age of seven and didn’t return until he was 38. (He’s now 75.) An economist, he specializes in studying the informal economy and property rights. He is considered to be a neo-liberal. The major influence in his professional life was the work of Milton Friedman.



A satisfying thriller set in Zimbabwe

zimbabweA review of The Death of Rex Nhongo: A Novel, by C. B. George

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

The Death of Rex Nhongo is framed as a thriller, but its primary value (at least to me) is the intimate portrait it paints of Zimbabwe today.

The setting: Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare

Zimbabwe, as you are probably well aware, is a large nation that lies along the northern border of South Africa. It’s also one of the most poverty-stricken countries on earth despite its abundant natural resources. For decades, the country has been ruled by Robert Mugabe, who led its independence movement from the UK. Now 92 years old, Mugabe is rumored to remain as president only to camouflage the corruption and brutality of his colleagues. Many observers consider the regime a “thugocracy.” And that is the picture that emerges in high relief in this novel.

The plot: complex and full of surprises

A complex plot lies at the heart of The Death of Rex Nhongo. The complement of principal characters includes two expatriate families, one British, the other American, as well as an extended Zimbabwean family and a thug who works for the Central Intelligence Organization that terrifies the populace. The author skillfully draws together their numerous individual stories in a series of intersections that climax in a satisfying conclusion. The action takes place after the death noted in the book’s title, though the story manages to come full circle in the end. Naturally, the plot is contrived, but it’s a satisfying read.

However, there is one really annoying element in this novel. The author imagines the internal dialogue of the eight-year-old daughter of a highly educated African-American family in what once was called “ebonics.” Extended passages in italics are worded ungrammatically and full of spelling errors. It’s absurd.

The author: unknown

The background in this engaging novel is clearly based on fact, though the story itself is entirely fictitious. The author, C. B. George, is the pen name of someone who “has spent many years working throughout Southern Africa.” He is British and now lives in London.

Does the profit motive cause homelessness?

Homelessness explained in Evicted by Matthew Desmond Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

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Between May 2008 and December 2009, a doctoral candidate in sociology named Matthew Desmond at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, lived in the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee in an effort to reach an understanding of poverty. He persuaded two landlords with property in the communities to allow him to shadow them and study a number of their tenant families. Most days, he recorded virtually every conversation that ensued and took notes as well, producing five thousand single-spaced pages of text over the course of a year and a half. He also took thousands of photos, conducted one hundred interviews with people who were not his primary subjects, read the existing literature, and reached out to welfare officials and others in government to gain a broader view of the linkage between poverty and housing. The result of his work is an extraordinarily powerful book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. If this book is used to inform the making of housing policy at every level — federal, state, and local — our society would be much the better for it.

“The fourth poorest city in America”

Though Milwaukee is poorer than most large cities, Desmond’s study of poverty and housing there could have been conducted in Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, St. Louis, or many other Northeastern or Midwestern cities. There are lessons to be learned for cities elsewhere in America as well, large and small. As the author points out, “Every year in this country, people are evicted from their homes not by the tens of thousands or even the hundreds of thousands but by the millions.” By no means is the phenomenon limited to the Rust Belt.

In Evicted, Desmond follows the lives of several Milwaukee families, both black and white, before, during, and after their experience with eviction. Simultaneously, he tracks the work of two landlords, an African-American woman named Sherrena Tarver and her husband with thirty-six badly maintained units in ghetto properties and a Caucasian man named Tobin Charney who owns a rundown mobile home park containing 131 deteriorating trailers. As the author takes pains to point out, Milwaukee is heavily segregated. Apparently, only African-Americans live in the ghetto, and only whites live in the trailers. (Previously an increasing influx of Latinos began edging into white territory where blacks were made unwelcome.)

However, other than the often blatant racism that greets any black person who seeks to rent outside the ghetto, the lived experience of all these families is very similar. Again and again, they face a choice between paying rent or settling medical, electric, or gas bills. (For most of the tenants included in this study, rent absorbs upwards of 70 percent of their income, a common situation nationwide among poor people.) Their lives are roiled by drug addiction, incarceration, mental illness, or debilitating accidents or diseases — yet, as Desmond makes clear, the greatest disruption in their lives is their eviction from one short-term rental to another, sometimes punctuated by episodes of living in shelters or on the streets. Moving involuntarily, often with little or no notice, means that government checks and notices about appointments with government agencies go astray at old addresses. Compounding the problem, their furniture and other household goods are relegated to storage units — and then often lost for nonpayment because they’re struggling to save enough for rent. Every one of Desmond’s subjects suffers from a litany of troubles. Nothing is simple or sure in their lives.

Poverty, homelessness, and the profit motive

Desmond concludes from his study that “[e]viction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.” Not once does he suggest that the practice of repeatedly evicting tenants be criminalized, though I would: repetition means the landlord, not just the tenant, is doing something wrong.

However, if there is any overarching theme in Evicted, it is that poverty is a big money-maker for those like Sherrena and Tobin with the capital and the thick skins necessary to deal with their endlessly needy tenants. Desmond spells out two principal paths to profit for what I would call (though Desmond doesn’t) slumlords:

  • Like groceries and other necessities, rents in poor neighborhoods tend to be higher for comparable properties than in more affluent areas. This is particularly true for the relatively few poor tenants who manage to snag highly coveted Section 8 housing vouchers, which limit their rental cost to 30 percent of their income and guarantee regular payment to landlords.
  • Buying already dilapidated properties and allowing them to deteriorate further saves the large sums that should be devoted to maintenance. Both Sherrena and Tobin routinely refuse to pay for essential repairs for sinks, tubs, toilets, broken windows, and other problems. This is not careless neglect but a conscious strategy to maximize profits.

Though Desmond doesn’t mention it, condo conversion can also mean huge profits for landlords.

Tobin has grown wealthy from his run-down trailer park. He nets half a million dollars annually. Though Sherrena claimed a net worth of $2 million in speaking with Desmond, she was later reported to have gone bankrupt.

What is to be done?

Desmond views this tragic situation as calling for radical change in national policy. “We have affirmed provision in old age, twelve years of education, and basic nutrition to be the right of every citizen,” he writes, “because we have recognized that human dignity depends on the fulfillment of these fundamental human needs. And it is hard to argue that housing is not a fundamental human need.” A change of this magnitude might seem overwhelming, but Desmond finds hope in the promise of a much smaller and simpler change: “Low-income families on the edge of eviction have no right to counsel. But when tenants have lawyers, their chances of keeping their homes increase dramatically. Establishing publicly funded legal services for low-income families in housing court would be a cost-effective measure that would prevent homelessness, decrease eviction, and give poor families a fair shake.” Yes, and bring a measure of stability to the notoriously volatile poor neighborhoods in our cities.

About the author

Matthew Desmond received his Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin and is now a Harvard faculty member and a MacArthur Fellow. Evicted is his fourth book.

This book is included in my list of The 10 best books of 2016. You might also be interested in reading my list of 18 nonfiction books that helped me understand the world.


Wondering why nearly all my book reviews are favorable?

booksIf you’ve read more than a few of my book reviews, you’ve probably noticed that I rate every book on a five-@ system, and that I usually award books a rating of @@@@@, @@@@, or at least @@@. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve described a book as less than @@@ more than a couple of times since I began posting to this blog in January 2010.

This is no accident, and it’s not because I’ve never met a book I didn’t like. There are hundreds of thousands of new books published in English every year, not to mention the millions of older books that have been republished and are still in print. Well, not to put a fine edge on it, most of these books are crap.

Once upon a time, an educated person could actually read every book in print. Those were the days long before the United States had yet to be born. Most books available to Westerners were published in Latin, and every book was a rare book. That was a very long time ago. What we today call the information glut began no later than the nineteenth century. So, any conscientious reader has long had to be selective. Very selective. Which is the most important factor in explaining the question I posed in the title to this post.

My ratings run very high because:

  • I choose only books I really want to read — because I follow the author or am interested in the theme or setting or genre. For instance, I read a lot of history, current affairs, science, business, science fiction, thrillers, and historical fiction, but never romance, poetry, self-help, cookbooks, or books about sports, gardening, fashion, or art. I’m deeply interested in China, India, and Africa, and in World War II, espionage, poverty, and politics. (You get the point.) Fiction or nonfiction, it almost doesn’t matter.
  • If I find when I’ve read partway into a book that I don’t think it’s worth reading after all, I simply stop reading and turn to another book. And I only review books I’ve finished. Cover to cover. (Well, except for the notes.) This is not a rare occurrence. In other words, I’m a very picky reader.
  • Though authors now sometimes send me their books to read, I rarely accept one for review. It has to meet my standard criteria, or I won’t read it.

So, there you have it.

A searing look at America’s broken criminal justice system

criminal justiceJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

No one who is even marginally aware of the world we live in could possibly fail to understand that America’s criminal justice system is broken. Just how badly broken it is comes into sharp focus in a remarkable new book by Bryan Stevenson, who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (“genius grant”) at an early age for his work defending prisoners victimized by the system — work he has continued for two decades since then.

Stevenson’s perspective on the issue is clear: “we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.” Amen to that! And if you don’t agree with that statement, you’ll be sure to reach the same conclusion if you read Just Mercy with an open mind.

Just Mercy revolves around the relationship between the author and Walter McMillian, an African-American businessman in Alabama who was wrongly imprisoned on death row for six years. McMillian had been convicted on the strength of absurdly contrived evidence in a criminal justice system that could most charitably be called unmerciful. Interspersed among the chapters detailing Stevenson’s long and arduous campaign that led to McMillian’s release are less detailed stories of dozens of other victims of a system that is based on the premise that “capital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment.'”

Stevenson is a law professor at NYU as well as the director of the Equal Justice Institute, a nonprofit law firm he founded in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1989. Though Just Mercy is built around the tragic story of Walter McMillian, Stevenson weaves into the story an abundance of relevant information about a host of issues related to capital punishment: mass incarceration, racism, overspending on jails and prisons, the rise of private prisons, and the incarceration of the mentally ill (“over fifty percent of prison and jail inmates in the United States have a diagnosed mental illness”). Each of these developments is a factor in the flagrant injustice of the system. In a more general sense, the problem can be seen as the failure of the legal profession to rise to the defense of the people who need their help the most.

As Stevenson concludes, “My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice . . . The true measure of our [national] character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” By that measure, our character is sorely lacking.

Zimbabwe through the eyes of a single mother

zimbabweA review of The Hairdresser of Harare, by Tendai Huchu

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

You can read a dozen nonfiction books about Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe’s kleptocracy and fail to get a more vivid sense of what life is really like there than from this recent novel by Tendai Huchu. In one short work of fiction, Huchu conjures up the sad reality of day-to-day existence in that beleaguered country: the 90 percent unemployment, the ubiquitous corruption, the hyperinflation, the ever-present shortages, the barely functional electricity service, the vicious eviction of white Africans from their farms and businesses, the rabid homophobia. The people of resource-rich Zimbabwe are among the world’s most poverty-stricken, and average life expectancy in their country is thirty-seven, but what does that really mean for the way they live their lives, day after day? The Hairdresser of Harare opens up a window on that steadily unfolding tragedy.

Here is Huchu summing up this reality: “I felt an atmosphere of friendliness, violence, innovation, poverty, joy, but the only thing that hung over everything else was despair; an air of hopelessness as if everyone was in a pit that they could not climb out of.”

Set in the capital city, Harare, and revolving around the hairdressers who eke out a living from a beauty salon, The Hairdresser is the first-person account of a talented beautician named Sisi Vimbai. As a teenager, Vimbai was impregnated by her Sugar Daddy, a wealthy businessman who quickly grew distant soon after she gave birth to a daughter. Now nearly twenty-six, with a ten-year-old to support, Vimbai is on the verge of desperation when a new threat arises: a handsome young man of twenty-two named Dumi has displaced her as the salon’s most sought-after hairdresser. The novel spins out the tale of Vimbai and Dumi’s growing relationship.

Since writing The Hairdresser of Harare, which appeared in 2010, Huchu has published a second novel, The Maestro, the Magistrate, and the Mathematician. A native of Zimbabwe, he now lives in Scotland and is employed as a podiatrist.

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