Ward’s Men We Reaped

Men We Reaped: A Memoir 
Jesmyn Ward

There may be other American writers working today who are as gifted as Ward, but I have a hard time believing there are any more gifted. From fiction to memoir, Ward consistently leaves me at the edge of tears at the raw emotion of what she is sharing, and the technical brilliance with which she does it.
This is a memoir. It is the story memorializing the dead men from her hometown in rural Louisiana. All the men here were young, all died unnatural deaths, and all were black. None of that should surprise you, young black men in our country die at shameful rates. How this comes about is what Ward is struggling to explore.

The story focuses on the untimely death of Ward’s brother, but it comes to his death last, as a sort of culmination of a series of events, all related in one way of another, that hit Ward’s community over the span of a few short years. The book is pitch perfect in balancing reportage with anguish, making us feel the loses Ward suffered, personally, with every death, while also not losing sight of the larger story here – that our society sends young black men to the grave with alarming regularity.

All of Ward’s books are worth reading. She is truly among the best living American authors, but this one feels the most necessary, the most urgent, of what she has done so far. If you’re going to start anywhere with Ward’s work, I suggest you start here. But keep going, she has much to share.


Book Review: Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

David Grann

This is a story of a mass murder.

The murdered were members of the Osage tribe of Native Americans, who, for a host of complex reasons tied to U.S.’s horrific treatment of Native Americans, ended up inexplicably wealthy owners of extremely valuable land rights. Their murderers were members of the white community around them, people who befriend them, even married them, and then systematically went about killing them to gain their wealth and land titles.

This book is also about the early days of the FBI, when Hoover was trying to turn a little known group of law men into a feared national surveillance and enforcement unit. They solved at least some of the Osage murders, but for their own reasons.

It all makes for some dark, sociopathic, racist, stuff. Its also deeply compelling, extremely well researched, and written in a style that keeps the pace of the story high, without descending into sensationalism.

This one will be on a lot of best of the year lists and for good reason. It’s a compelling, heartbreaking story, long overlooked and its excellently told.


Review: Goldstein’s Janesville: AN American Story

The story of what happens to a small town in the industrial Midwest when the primary employer (here, an auto plant) closes down. We all know the broad outline of how this goes down – the fight to keep the plant open eventually fails, and the town spirals down economically. But how the town changes, and how individual families cope with those changes, is not something I have seen covered as well, or with as much nuance and care, before. We learn here of the people who used the closing as a chance for reinvention, and those who couldn’t really recover. Those who would compensate by driving hundred of miles for work, and others tried to rebuild the town.

It’s a complicated story, made all the more so by the national ambitions of the town’s representative in the House, Paul Ryan, who, while never afraid to use his hometown as a political backdrop, couldn’t in the end do much to save it.  I found the reporting compelling, and the story full of revelations. I was moved by the tragedies some of these families endured, and fascinated to learn that many of the ex factory workers who took the opportunity to go back to school ended up worse than their peers who’d headed straight back out into the work force.

If you care about the end of industrial America, and it is an end, these jobs are not coming back, then this book is well worth the time.


Review: Desmond’s Evicted

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Matthew Desmond

An examination into how housing insecurity leads to general insecurity and upends lives. A brilliant book. It follows a number of different people in the Milwaukee area struggling with housing issues and uses their stories, and plenty of social science, to tell explain the way housing in this country keeps the poor, poor, and communities segregated by race and class.

Books like this, where a reporter/social scientist parachutes into a poor community and comes out with a heartbreaking story can often feel exploitative. To me, this one never did. Desmond lived amongst the people he chronicles here, and it shows. He treats their predicaments with a bit of distance, for sure, but also with a level of compassion and humanity I found admirable. In the notes at the end, Desmond explains that not only did he know these people, live in their neighborhoods, eat in the their homes, but he also at times lent them money and supported them. That might cross some social science rules, but I found it humanized the situation and, frankly, was the right thing to do.

We talk a lot about the housing crisis in this country, but never have I seen anyone examine exactly how it works, and how clearly we could create a world in which it didn’t leave people broken and desperate. I left this book convinced that the housing situation in this country is both horrific and preventable. We just need the national will to change things.


Review Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
Joshua Foer

I read a lot of these experiential journalism books. Some of these are call-in jobs that would have been better as a magazine article, but many, including this one (and Cork Dork), are entertaining edutainment in which a pretty smart person gets to do some pretty fun stuff and write about it for our enjoyment.

Here, the smart person is a Foer, but don’t let that stop you. It’s still an entertaining read. Foer learns to train his mind using centuries old memorization techniques to do things like remember long strings of numbers and packs of playing cards. Quickly, he gets very good, and soon enough is competing to have the best memory in the country. Along the way, he dives into the science of memory, the history of memorization, and the odd people who get obsessed with it.

Its fun.

I picked it up after Cal Newport mentioned it, and card memorization, in Deep Work and am inspired enough by the straight forwardness of the method to give it a try… when the kids are a little older and I’m sleeping a little more.

All in all, not a work of genius, but still, recommended for the experiential journalism enthusiast.

Review Kolhatkar’s Black Edge: nside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street

Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street
Sheelah Kolhatkar

High brow business tell all gossip about the rise and (kinda) fall of one of the most successful hedge managers of all time, Steve Cohen of SAC Capital.

Cohen, if you don’t know, ran the legendary SAC Capital where traders were relentlessly encouraged to find “edge” i.e. information that the market didn’t have, or didn’t understand, allowing Cohen to have an advantage. Many of these traders, and the analysts who supported their work began to engage in insider trading, which was, many believed, blessed and encouraged by Cohen. When it all started to come down, a number of SAC traders and analysts went to jail, but not Cohen. He closed SAC, but kept the billion-dollar art collection and multiple mansions. The reasons why are complex, but largely have to do with money. Specifically, the piles and piles of it Cohen had. All the details are here.

Written by a New Yorker staff writer, this has everything you need – incredible sourcing, both inside the government and the hedge fund world; clear explanations of the financial shenanigans going on here; completely fascinating characters you love to hate; and writing that, while at times a bit rushed, is largely top notch. Even though I don’t work in the world of finance, my world, and that one, overlap enough for me to be fascinated. I devoured this one. If you’ve an interest in how some financiers get very very rich and why its so hard for the government to prosecute them, this is well worth the read.


Recommended for the enthusiast.

Book Review: Levoy’s Ghettoside

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America
Jill Levoy

A captivating, depressing, challenging, frustrating, must read book about the state of modern policing in poor communities of color.  If you’ve read this one, I’d really like to talk about it.

Levoy spent a year covering every murder in Los Angeles for the LA Times. She then took one of those murders, of Bryant Tennelle, the teenage son of an LAPD cop, and turned it into the center piece of this book on the way black communities are policed and, justice sought, in Los Angeles. While toching on social science, many other murders, and the way race, class and geography function in Los Angeles, it focuses primarily on the search for Tennelle’s killers by a group of homicide detectives lead by the obsessive, deeply devoted, (and occasionally ethically dubious) John Skaggs.

The book is, above all, a portrait of Skaggs. He is meant to be seen as the hero, and there’s much to be admired about his commitment to the community he policies. He’s relentless in following up leads, is respectful of the families of the both the victim and the accused, and appears to believe, sincerely, that young black men murdered in the streets deserve as much attention as anyone else.

But while Skaggs takes his job protecting the community seriously, and operates apparently without racial animus, he’s also willing to go places that should make us all uncomfortable. One scene has stuck with me – the interrogation and eventual confession by one of Tennelle’s murderers wherein Detective Skaggs, a middle aged detective with years of experience in interrogations, boxes a teenage kid without a high school degree into confessing to the murder. It’s a masterful display of interrogation techniques and manipulation by Skaggs and chilling example of why you should never, ever, speak to a cop without a lawyer present. Ever.

In telling the story of Tennelle’s murder (and many more) the thesis which seems to emerge is that Black communities suffer not, as many on the left suggest, from over policing, but rather from an under policing of serious crimes. The murder of young black men are not taken seriously enough Levoy (and Skaggs) seem to be arguing. And if they were, then many fewer young black men would be killed.

I am not an expert on policing and crime and frankly, and I remain completely unsure about this theory. I will say as someone who believe less policing is usually better policing, I’m reflectively uncomfortable with the analysis. I’m also uncomfortable with Levoy’s canonization of Skagg’s and with some of the conclusions in the final section of the book on the possible reasons for the decline in murder rates in South Central (gentrification and video games among other reasons).  But these very real concerns aside, I found the book deeply compelling and thought provoking and wish everyone I knew had read it.

I want to work through these issues with smart friends, so if you’ve got someone to say, please do so below.