Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America (Leovy)

I’ve been thinking it for a while, but this book  compels me to go ahead and say it. Right now, I think there are more examples of strong non-fiction writing than fiction. The structure and pacing of Leovy’s work is remarkable. Her sense of detail is precise and her focus is impeccable. Unlike others I’ve encountered who move from newspaper or magazine-length pieces to books, she made the transition successfully. That the book is tightly written helps it land its powerful punch.

In my experience, some of the reaction to the recent and highly publicized violence between police and black Americans emerged in a couple of ways. One strand was that whites were being killed by police too. Another was that blacks were killing whites in equally brutal if less publicized ways. And still others said that black-on-black crime was of greater concern than anything involving the police.

The last is what Leovy takes on here. She says it is “a problem of human suffering caused by the absence of a state monopoly on violence” (307). Put more simply, for a variety of reasons (racial, economic, historical), the clearance rate (a statistic that is, itself, disputed) for homicides committed by blacks against blacks is very low, particularly in the part of Los Angeles Leovy studies here. (Why no maps?) People, victims of both de jure and de facto segregation, hemmed in by geography and the lack of economic opportunities, who do not receive adequate attention from the police seek to police themselves. And they do it badly. Black men die and we are all “less than we might have been”(309).

There are strong characters here (the word ‘character’ here is meant both ways), but as much as they help navigate the case that is the focus of the book, they also reveal the problems of relying on the individual to address this issue. No number of outstanding detectives working unlimited overtime can combat what is a systemic problem. People ho can’t rely on or fight those in power, look to their left and right instead; the violence becomes horizontal. And more black men die.

George Steinbrenner’s Pipe Dream: The ABL Champion Cleveland Pipers (Livingston)

I did not know Steinbrenner was from Cleveland. This is an entertaining and disjointed story. Livingston seems to have only limited abilities when it comes to developing and maintaining any kind of narrative drive. Even more problematic, though, is his very purple prose when he describes basketball games.

Still, the story lurches along. If you blink, you’ll miss the moment when the Pipers actually win the championship. Certain ‘characters’ emerge – like Abe Saperstein, the erratic commissioner of the league. There is much made of Jerry Lucas and John McLendon.

It’s an entertaining book – for a basketball fan and someone interested in Cleveland. It is amazing how far professional basketball has come.

Transgender Explained: For Those Who Are Not (Herman)

I have a memory that, like memories often do, makes me wince. I was sitting with a high school friend and talking about the prospect of pursuing our love for theatre in college and beyond. And I said – it’s hard to even type this: “I’m not always comfortable around gay people.”

I know I didn’t know then. I’m not sure he did. But he is very definitely out on social media and we are that kind of ‘friends.’

It’s only recently that I’ve learned about confronting my own biases in order to be what? I’d like to think “a better person.” I definitely think doing so has made me a better teacher. (I didn’t go into theatre after all – for other reasons – mostly because I don’t have a great deal of talent.)

I wish I could remember the name of the conference I attended in Minneapolis. I was only able to attend for one day and if I learned a lot in the sessions I attended, I think I learned still more in between sessions and in the public spaces of the hotel that hosted it. There were some people, no, less people than, it wasn’t even behavior, okay, I think it was clothing that made me uncomfortable. But I stayed at the table. And when I learned of comments made by people at the hotel not attending the conference to those who were attending it, my discomfort paled in the face of my fury – an emotion I have to work on controlling. Fortunately, there were people there at the conference much more experienced and much more equipped to respond.

When news of Bruce Jenner’s transition became impossible to ignore, my main reaction was that I just didn’t care. Talk of taking away his (then) / her (now) medals was stupid and luckily short-lived. I don’t care to pay attention to anything that it is at all tangentially related to the Kardashian family. I haven’t seen Transamerica ( and this book made me curious about it.

Oh yeah, the book. I’m grateful for it. It helped me understand issues both systemic (why does gender matter so much?) and day-to-day (example: I have the privilege of not having to think about issues of gender on a daily basis. I’m not even sure that I interact with anyone who does. But this book definitely taught me that I need to pay more attention and what I need to pay attention to. For example, what does my employee handbook say about workplace discrimination?

My one quibble with the book is one that Herman doesn’t hide. Her chapters were originally articles for, so there’s some overlap. So when she revises this for the next edition, I hope some of them can be removed. I also hope to hear her comments on Bruce / Kaitlyn Jenner.

Use the bathroom or locker room that you want to use. Dress however you want. I would say that it’s none of my business and in a way that’s true. But it is my business. I want to live in a world where such things can be taken for granted by everyone.

The Road to Character (Brooks)

It’s hard to know where to begin with this book. I am inherently suspicious of books that claim to teach character in the same way that I’m immediately suspicious of character education programs. But the questions are valid: where does a person’s character come from?  What is its natural state? How, if at all, can it be shaped?

I’m vaguely aware that there’s an issue of biography here. When William Bennett came out with a book about character, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere near it. I know that Brooks has some sort of public persona; I just don’t know what it is. I read this because I want to attend  a book club discussion about it. I know from the picture on the book jacket that he’s a white male, and I know he writes newspaper articles. That’s it.

Oddly, it’s the newspaper experience that got my attention first. I sometimes find that writers who are accustomed to newspaper or even magazine-length pieces (see Barbara Ehrenreich) have trouble when they try to write books. Their ideas start to feel stretched thin. I look at my annotations in the book and see that 90+% come in the first 60 pages. After that, the book was more of a chore than anything else.

The biggest reminder I got was how reading biographies can be a way into discussing , a point Brooks belatedly acknowledges. I’m not sure why Brooks chose the metaphor of a road when he wrote the book like a race track loop (without the speed that implies). After a strong intro, we read one biography after another. It becomes clear that Brooks has the vocabulary for a theory – phrases like “moral ecology” and “agency moment” pop up with some regularity. But instead of structuring the book around his theory, he circles back to the beginning with the start of each chapter.

The worst thing is that I turned out to be right. He does have a carefully outlined theory which he only shares, along with an overdue discussion of historical context, in the final chapter of the book. What would have happened if he’d organized the book around the 15 points he makes in that last chapter?

Finally,there is the question of who he chose to profile. This was, I’m sure he knew from the beginning, a no-win situation. There is an attempt at balance – black / white, male / female, and even rich / poor. Still, that he chose no one living gives this book its (for me) fatal taint of stodgy nostalgia. People were, with a token disclaimer or two, clearly better in the old days.

Then there’s the question of focusing on individuals. So some character development issues are discussed in relation to leadership, how is the road to character different for some groups than others? There is some discussion of what it means to be an individual in a society, but there are many missed opportunities to discuss what it means to be part of a group in society – not a group, as in the case of, say, George Eliot, that holds you back – but one that you embrace. What about a profile of a group?

So read the first 60 pages and the last chapter. And about anyone who interests you. Then go read a biography.



A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Smith)

For some reason, I never got around to this one until know. Prompted by a report that there were, once again, efforts to get the book removed from a reading list (, I moved it up my list. If it’s a bit too long at times, it is also a wonderfully evocative and memorable coming-of-age autobiographical novel. Anna Quindlen’s intro is gushing and on target. There’s not a lot of plot here. But that’s okay. Smith does am amazing job of making small details meaningful and all of the characters well-rounded. But Quindlen undersells Smith’s writing. Though descriptions and especially dialogue are occasionally mawkish, the power of larger scene (and ‘scene’ is the right word here – there is definitely a cinematic quality to Smith’s writing) more than balances things out. She is especially nimble when it comes to point of view and taking time to have characters express thoughts that are often very different from their spoken words.

As for the scene that is almost certainly at the center of the controversy, I can’t believe that it would prevent anyone from reading or teaching the novel. Any concerns about that moment are overwrought. Smith handles it well, in a manner that makes the situation both realistic and appropriate for Francie’s perspective on the situation. I’d be just fine with this book for ages 12 and up. If someone younger wanted to read it, I’d have a hard time saying no. I’d be impressed with their perseverance.

And there’s a movie version. Has anyone seen it?

Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (Reiss)

This biography (according the the New York Times blurb on the front it’s a “richly imaginative biography” – what does that even mean?) of the the father of the author of The Count of Monte Cristo is compelling. Reiss uses Dumas (the father) as a kind of emblematic symbol of France’s remarkable changes during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Bankrupted by their support of the American Revolution, France begins an at times reckless exploration of various forms of government and revolution that mark Dumas’ rise and ultimate fall during Napoleon’s second act.

In order to sustain his narrative, Reiss has to provide a fair amount of supporting context, including, for example, France’s abolitionist spirit, the Haitian Revolution, and Napoleon’s machinations. Some of these diversions are more interesting than others, but the narrative in variably suffers when the noble Dumas is not at center stage.

Reiss clearly admires his subject a great deal and laments, in the end, that there is no statue of him currently in France. He seems to have been a remarkable soldier, an ethical man (in a time when the wind was constantly changing) and, to the best of his abilities, a strong family man. Aside from a bit of a temper, Reiss finds no flaws with Dumas, a black man who flourished at a time that was transformative (in both good and bad ways) in the history of France. And his race does matter. It is symbolic of the changing winds in France that he, deeply devoted to his country, succeeded because of his aptitude and courage in his military career and then was finally diminished because of his race.

It’s always funny with biographies. Just as reading Baldwin’s biography prompted me to think about reading more of his work, this one has me thinking about The Three Musketeers. But it’s too soon, I think.

This is a good book. Pulitizer Prize worthy? I’m not so sure.