≡ Menu

There are lots of narratives that make us feel comfortable, that reinforce the way the world works or tell us that institutions work the way they’re designed to work. While there’s nothing wrong with reading those comfortable stories – in fiction or nonfiction – I also like finding books that challenge my worldview in important ways.

In this post I wanted to write about two books – one that pushes readers to acknowledge uncomfortable narratives, and another that relies on a comfortable story in service of an uncomfortable argument.

just mercy by bryan stevensonThe first book, one of the best I’m going to read this year, is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

As a young lawyer, Stevenson helped found the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization focused on providing legal support for those who need it most. Based in Monroeville, Alabama (hometown of Harper Lee, setting of To Kill a Mockingbird), many of EJI’s early cases focused on people wrongly placed on the death penalty. The book focuses strongly one of of those cases, a man named Walter McMillian wrongly accused of murder. As Stevenson shares the long, difficult journey to get Walter off of death row, he also writes movingly about cases that were not successful and about the biases and unfairness inherent in our criminal justice system.

Stevenson is a clear, persuasive, honest writer – this book really is a must read for anyone interested in issues of race, justice and the death penalty. There were several instances in this book where Stevenson moved me to tears with his stories. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that a system – and some of the people we task with making it fair and just – can protect people like me while truly hurting others who are not so fortunate. And the system is set up to make correcting those wrongs extremely difficult, if not impossible, without the help of organizations like EJI.

ghettoside by jill leovyThe second book I want to talk about is one that gave me more complicated feelings, Ghettoside by Jill Leovy.

The book opens with this fact: black men compose about 6 percent of our population, but are victims in almost 40 percent of homicides. In digging down to find the story behind that statistic, Leovy sets up a premise that seems contradictory to some of what Stevenson suggests. She argues that when “the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.”

In addition to being overly prosecuted for minor crimes, black men in Los Angeles are further punished by the system because the system doesn’t work hard enough to solve their murders and prosecute their killers. That’s an intriguing premise that, on the whole, I think Leovy successfully manages to support. And Ghettoside is a truly engaging read – the reporting that went into this book is incredible, and Leovy is a gifted storyteller.

But I also worry that the story is engaging because it centers on a narrative that’s comfortable – heroic detectives with above average talent who work harder than everyone else to solve cases. The case of the story is the murder of a young black man who also happens to be a police officer’s son. He’s unquestionably a good kid and, by virtue of his family, a person whose murder is going to be investigated to the full extent possible. Leovy uses the case to show what it takes to solve “ghettoside” murders that many consider unsolvable, but on the whole it’s a fairly traditional, comfortable, true crime narrative.

The uncomfortable narrative – the reasons other police officers don’t take ghettoside murders seriously and the biases they bring to policing neighborhoods – feels glossed over. Instead of interrogating deeply the reasons that policing as a whole isn’t done well, Leovy seems to give a lot of the officers and detectives a pass while holding up the work of a few. That’s not the full story, and not the story that is going to make readers think more deeply. I liked reading the book, but I didn’t feel challenged by where it ultimately went.

If you’re curious for more thoughts on Ghettoside, I highly encourage you to check out this post from Shannon at River City Reading. She looks Ghettoside in relation to another big book on race and justice, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, pulling out some similar problematic aspects of how the narrative is structured. The comments are particularly great as well, so make sure you head over there.

Whew, that post got long and was probably a little rambly. I’d love to hear your thoughts on comfortable versus uncomfortable narratives, and about books you’ve read that challenge ideas about race and justice.


june july reading wrap up

June was My Month of British Fiction. July was The Month I Didn’t Read or Blog. As a result, I never posted a June wrap up and my July wrap up was turning out to be pretty boring. So I’m going to just squeeze them together and go from there. Here’s what I read in June:

  • Yoon, Nicola: Everything, Everything (YA fiction — Sept. 1 from Delacorte Books)
  • Freeman, Anna: The Fair Fight (fiction)
  • Gawande, Atul: The Checklist Manifesto (nonfiction, audio book)
  • Cocks, Heather and Morgan, Jessica: The Royal We (fiction)
  • Ansari, Aziz: Modern Romance (nonfiction, audio book)
  • O’Malley, Daniel: The Rook (fiction)
  • Brennan, Sarah Rees: Unspoken (YA fiction)
  • Oates, Joyce Carol: The Lost Landscape (memoir)
  • Stevenson, Bryan: Just Mercy (nonfiction)

Nine books in June certainly isn’t anything to sneeze at, although I do wish I’d gotten to a little more nonfiction and a comic book or two as well. But c’est la vie, it is what it is.

And here’s what I read in July:

  • Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mockingbird (fiction)
  • Cline, Ernest: Armada (fiction, audio book)
  • Groff, Lauren: Fates and Furies (fiction – Sept. 15 from Riverhead)
  • Leovy, Jill: Ghettoside (nonfiction)

Only four books! That’s so weird. But July was also a crazy challenging month for me in some personal ways, so I can see why reading took a back seat.

My favorite fiction book over the last two months was probably Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon a wonderful young adult novel about a girl who isn’t allowed to leave her home as a result of severe allergies. When a boy moves in across the street, Maddie discovers that there’s value and even joy in taking risks. While the book isn’t obviously like Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Maddie and Olly’s story gave me the same kind of swoony feelings I felt for Cath and Levi. It was just delightful.

Fates and Furies was also pretty excellent, but in a different way. Groff is such a spectacular writer, and this portrait of a marriage is sharp and, in a lot of ways, unexpected. I won’t say more for fear of spoilers, but know that this is a book I can see myself picking up to reread when it comes out next month.

A Look to August

I have basically no reading plans for the month of August. Between getting ready to leave on a three week trip to London and Greece, then being on the trip, I just don’t know what I’ll be in the mood to read. I guess I do plan to pack Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel to read on the plane on the way over, but other than that I’ll probably bring whatever is grabbing my attention at the time. You can expect a “Books in My Carry On” post, and lots of Instagram photos of the bookstores of London, later this month.

What books are you most excited to read in August?


Currently | The Trip Countdown is On!

currnetly aug 2 2015.jpg

Briefly | I took a quick trip down to the Twin Cities with a friend so I could get a long list of London/Greece trip related items finished/purchased — 21 days to go! It was nice to just spend a day away, since now I still have , and still a full Sunday to catch up on chores and relax.

Reading | I finally finished a book! I got a bit of my reading mojo back last week and finished Ghettoside by Jill Leovy, a look at the high murder rate of black men, specifically in Los Angeles County, and what that means for the broader criminal justice system. She makes a compelling argument about how the criminal justice system devalues the lives of black men by not investing time and resources into investigating their murders. It’s a great companion read to another excellent book I read last month, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I’m also still working through 11/22/63 by Steven King — I expect that’ll be a common sentence over the next month!

Watching | Last week we went to see Inside Out (so lovely) and, I think, we’re going to see Ant Man later today. I’ve heard it’s pretty funny, so fingers crossed on that.

Listening | Last night I finished An Ember in the Ashes by Sabba Tahir, a young adult (maybe new adult?) fantasy about a slave and a soldier in an oppressive, military regime. There’s a hint of magic and some romance, but neither are central to the story. It ended in a pretty enormous cliffhanger, so I’m glad there’s going to be a sequel.

Cooking | I’ve got all the supplies to make a new slow cooker recipe, Mexican Black Beans and Pork. It’s pretty similar to this recipe. I better get started on it soon since it needs 8 to 9 hours.

Blogging | Last week I wrote about my new obsession, coloring and audio books and shared all the books I bought in July. This week I’m thinking about a June and July reading wrap up and a discussion of Just Mercy and Ghettoside. We’ll see what I get done today!

Buying | I dropped off three big bags of books at Half Price Books and came out with a small stack, a couple I’d read and four more I’m excited about. Wolf Hall is going to be my plane read for our trip, and I’m thinking about bringing along Beautiful Ruins for a beach read in Greece.

Loving | I bought a new planner, the Get to Work Book from Elisa Blaha Cripe. I’ve been using it exclusively at work and, so far, it’s exactly what I need — a place to focus on remembering and completing short and long-term tasks. I can share more about that in another post if people are interested?

Anticipating | My sister and I leave for London in 21 days! I’m actually thinking of it more in terms of newspapers — I have three editions to go, plus work to get done for the three weeks I’ll be gone. That makes it tangible. I suspect I’ll be anticipating this one for the rest of the month!

Happy Sunday, everyone! What are you reading today? 


audio books and coloring books

I have a new obsession: coloring books paired with audio books.

I place most of the blame on Andi (Estella’s Revenge) and Heather (Capricious Reader), who have been sharing beautiful photos of their coloring book adventures on Instagram (Andi is here, Heather is here). I’m definitely not as talented as they are, but seeing their beautiful work is inspiring.

When I was in the Twin Cities a couple of weekends ago, I went to Barnes and Noble and bought a couple of coloring books I’ve seen quite a few images from – Secret Garden by Johanna Basford and Splendid Cities by Rosie Goodwin and Alice Chadwick. I wasn’t really sure when or how I’d use them, but I do find that creative crafts – crocheting and cross stitch, mainly – are good ways for me to turn my brain off at the end of the day when I don’t feel like reading.

I stumbled across the nearly perfect marriage of audio books and coloring books when I got home that Sunday. The boyfriend and I had been listening to Armada by Ernest Cline in the car and I wanted to keep going, but the weather wasn’t conducive to walking and I was too worn out to think about chores, my two main audio book activities. After listening to the book while eating dinner, I grabbed Splendid Cities and my new box of Crayola colored pencils and decided to give it a try.


Perfection. I need some activity while I listen to an audio book, otherwise my mind wanders. But that activity needs to be nearly thoughtless – and absolutely cannot involve words – for me to follow the audio book. Coloring is just the right mix of movement and mindlessness I need to listen to an audio book at home. I think I ended up reading and coloring for a couple of hours that first night, not quite realizing where the evening had gone. It helped me relax without making me feel like a slug (hello, bingeing on Netflix), and led me right into reading a book before bed.

secret gardenI’m hoping that this little hobby will continue. If it does, I think I’ll eventually get another coloring book with some less detailed designs. As much as I like both Secret Garden and Splendid Cities, they make me feel a little cross-eyed after staring at them for too long. And while basic Crayolas are nice, I can see investing in some more high-quality colored pencils… if the hobby sticks.

For now, I’m in the middle of An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (a fantasy/dystopia – my audio catnip) while trying to finish up my first full spread in Secret Garden. It’s looking pretty awesome so far.

Have you hopped on the coloring bandwagon? Any recommendations for great coloring books or coloring supplies? Where do you get your coloring inspiration?


Books In My Shopping Bag: July 2015

Not reading all month has definitely not stopped me from buying books… you’re welcome, publishing industry. Here’s a little recap:

book purchases

I did a less than stellar job keeping my impulsive book buying to a minimum this month. But July is my birthday month, so I guess I get a pass? Eh, whatever, these all look awesome.

  • Factory Man by Beth Macy – The true story of a furniture maker who works to keep his business in America despite the economic pressures to do otherwise. Reviews have praised the reporting on this one, so I’m definitely in.
  • Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee – I preordered this one after finishing To Kill a Mockingbird and, to be honest, all of the buzz after the release has soured me on reading it. I’ll probably shelve it for awhile to come back with fresh eyes.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – This is the other big, buzzy book I got this month. I am hoping to jump into it soon.
  • The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert – This book has been on my “books to watch for” list for a long time. It was on the “Summer Reads” table at Barnes and Noble, so I grabbed it!
  • The Weather Experiment by Peter Moore – This book, about the first pioneers who first tried to understand the weather, was a total impulse buy. I can’t even remember where I heard about it!
  • The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henríquez – Another impulse buy, this time from Target where I was walking around and wasting time.
  • 11/22/63 by Stephen King – Sheila (Book Journey) highly recommended this one, so I bought it. I’m only like 25 pages into this chunkster (880 pages!), but so far it’s fun.

library book sale

Each July my local library holds its annual book sale. While this year’s sale was a little smaller than usual, and I was rushing through on my lunch break because I had to get back to work, but I still managed to snag quite a few interesting looking books.

  • The Other Side of the River by Alex Kotlowitz – I’ve been meaning to read Alex Kotlowitz forever. This book is about two towns in southern Michigan, one white and one black, and what these racial divisions mean to each community.
  • Henry VIII: The King and His Court by Alison Weir – Ever since I finished watching The Tudors, I’ve been on the lookout for books on the time of Henry VII. Although Wolf Hall is high on my list, I love finding some nonfiction too.
  • Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Katy Butler – I read this one awhile ago and gushed about it, but didn’t have my own copy. This was an excellent grab.
  • When Invisible Children Sing by Huang Tang – A random grab that seemed up my alley, a doctor writing about his work with homeless children in La Paz, Bolivia.
  • Economix: How Our Economy Works (and Doesn’t Work) by Michael Goodwin and Dan E. Burr – I’m totally in for an illustrated book about the economy.
  • The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama – Normally I’m not into political memoirs because I don’t care about politicians… but I actually like Obama and I’m curious about this one.

Yes, yes, I know I have a book buying problem. There’s got to be a word for this, right?

I’m in the middle of the Steven King book, but not sure which of these I should grab next. Maybe Ta-Nehisi Coates? The Alison Weir is calling me too. Or Elizabeth Gilbert. That one just sounds awesome. So many books, so little time!