It has become the biggest fear of every parent whose children are in school: one day, someone armed with a gun will walk into my child’s school and change everything I thought I knew. In Only Child, Rhiannon Navin takes readers into the moment when first-grader Zach is inside a closet with his teacher. He remembers her breath: “It was hot and smelled like coffee.” And then he stays as silent as he can while he and his teacher listen to the gunshots in the school’s hallway. For Zach’s parents, the school shooting changes everything going forward, and Navin writes passages that impress themselves on readers. For those who are looking for the kind of art that can arise from terrible tragedy, Only Child will break your heart and then, over the course of its narrative, show you how to find the cracked places where the light comes in.
What You Have Heard Is True
President Trump recently declared a “national emergency” due to the numbers of people who are at the American border, those hoping to be granted refugee status and to escape the violence they face in their own countries. But the troubled situations that exist in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador did not arise in a vacuum. Back in the 1980s, under the administration of Ronald Reagan, America pursued an anti-communist policy in Central American countries that contributed to the deaths of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans at the hands of “death squads.” In her memoir of that time, Carolyn Forché recounts her meeting a man who convinces her to come with him to El Salvador to interview those who have been affected by the war. Her story is a must-read for anyone who has ever wondered why people are willing to walk thousands of miles to come to the American border.
Jennifer L. Eberhardt, PhD
People who were watching the Michael Cohen hearings before the House Oversight Committee were treated to the bizarre moment when the hearing came to a halt as Representative Mark Meadows, a white Republican from North Carolina, had to be calmed down after he took offense at the possibility that he had been called a racist. It was evidence that many of the conversations that we ought to be having in this country about racism and bias can get derailed when hurt feelings are granted precedence over finishing difficult conversations. In Biased, Dr. Eberhardt explains in forthright terms how one can have biases despite someone’s best intentions. She provides information on how unconscious biases work, and how without realizing it, all of us are capable of making choices based on prejudices. Eberhardt shows readers how solving one’s biases is not impossible, and that as a human problem, it has a human solution. Ultimately a hopeful book about the ways that humans interact, Dr. Eberhardt is at the cutting edge of the new field that studies this aspect of human thought.
Europe's Fault Lines
For those following the news from Europe, recent events have been troubling. Whether it is the the desecration of Jewish graves , the targeted violence against Muslim women , or the attacks on migrants, evidence suggests that right-wing populists are gaining power and attracting followers. But why? On a continent that was nearly destroyed by the Second World War, which was fought to keep fascists from taking over democratically elected governments, and where between 70 and 85 million people were killed worldwide, why would people once again embrace fascist and other far right political groups? Liz Fekete provides chilling information that she analyzes in ways that allow readers to gain an understanding of the European ideological struggles.
A More Beautiful and Terrible History
Americans have become accustomed to hearing modern presidents laud the activists of the Civil Rights movement, who pushed white America to change in the 1950s and 1960s after centuries of a system where people of color were second class citizens. Americans today, however, carry with them myths about how many people at the time recognized the rightness of the movement, believing that civil rights were natural rights guaranteed to everyone, regardless of race. Americans have also ingested other myths, which tell them, for example, that Rosa Parks was simply a tired worker who didn’t want to have give up her bus seat to a white man. Theoharis sets the record straight on many of these commonly held beliefs, and analyzes why it has been easier to accept the mythology rather than wrestle with the truth. The true stories are fascinating, and the light that Theoharis sheds on previously unknown events will increase readers’ sense that those who fought for civil rights had justice on their side.
Confessions of an Innocent Man
David R. Dow
Dow has worked for years as an attorney in the state of Texas, where he frequently takes on death penalty appeals from prisoners who do not have the funds to hire their own attorneys. In previous work, Dow has shone a harsh light on the unfairness of the death penalty being more likely to be ordered for black men, and his horror at the inadequate representation provided to those who cannot afford to hire an attorney. In Confessions of an Innocent Man, Dow has written a crime novel that will keep readers up until the wee hours of the morning, unable to put down this thrilling story. Readers will also be exposed to the everyday workings of the criminal justice system and the ways that “innocent until proven guilty” sounds like a worthy principle, but one that may not apply in far too many circumstances.
Lost Children Archive
In January, 2019, a report issued by the Department of Health and Human Services stated that “thousands” more children than was first been reported had been detained at the United States-Mexico border. Over 100 children had been detained after the official end to the child separation policy, despite claims that the policy was no longer being enforced. In Lost Children Archive, an American family opt to take a road trip, beginning in Boston and heading to the Desert Southwest. The father is interested in making recordings for his research in the area where the Apache had lived, and his wife wants to find the two missing children of a friend. The children in the back of the car listen to the radio reports about the children at the border, while the parents argue over their obligations to assist migrants in any way they can. Luiselli has written a new kind of Great American Novel, one in which documents, letters, and other found objects create texts that are incorporated into the novel. And when the children decide to take matters into their own hands, all of the parents’ discussions are shown to be inadequate for a new crisis.
It is difficult to measure Shane Bauer’s courage when considering how the research for this book was initially gathered. Bauer took a job at a private prison in Louisiana to work as an entry-level guard for $9 per hour. The term “private prison” may be unfamiliar to those who have not followed the ways that some state governments have rid themselves of using state moneys to incarcerate people. In Florida, ten percent of all incarcerated persons are held in private, for-profit prisons. The Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in Mississippi was shut down by a federal judge who wrote in a 2012 settlement order that it “paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.” In Louisiana, what Bauer saw while working led him to document a national disgrace.
Each day, as more information is released by government investigators or by officials at Facebook, Americans learn of the extent to which Facebook became an effective tool for those looking to influence the 2016 election. While many think of Facebook as the place where older people post photos of their grandchildren or vacation, or young adults show off new tattoos and vacation spots, Facebook has left a Sasquatch-sized footprint on social media. It uses the private information that people upload every day onto the platform and transforms it into data that companies—for a price—can use to target their ads at specific Facebook user. Roger McNamee knows Facebook; he was a mentor of Mark Zuckerberg and as a tech venture capitalist, he invested in the company and helped it to grow. But as he watched the results pour in on November 8, 2016, he recognized that Facebook had played a part in the election, and that it had done so by making it easy for “bad actors” to gain access to the millions of people who make Facebook part of their daily routines. McNamee’s inside-baseball account of how Mark Zuckerberg failed to put the brakes on the runaway train for which he was supposed to be the engineer is an enthralling read. Anyone who uses Facebook should read this to understand the role it plays in our evolving culture.
Notes on a Shipwreck
Davide Enia writes from the small island of Lampedusa, off the southern coast of Italy. There he encounters the many men, women, and children who have made the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean Sea in boats that range from fishing trawlers to rubber rafts. The journey across the sea is just the last leg of journeys that they trekked, many of these people, after thousands of miles across deserts and other challenging lands. But those who make it to Lampedusa are met by residents who come to the landing points determined to help these migrants as they arrive. Enia reports on what he observes, and also on the relationship he has with his father, a recently retired doctor who has agreed to meet his son at Lampedusa in order to see what must be done. Enia helps to put human faces on those who are willing to risk everything to arrive on this island.
The Invisible Killer
Childhood asthma now affects one out of every twelve children in the USA. Women are experiencing higher rates of breast cancer. Nearly seven million people worldwide have their lives cut short. The culprit in these and other health issues? The air we breathe and the levels of pollution we breathe every day. Gary Fuller is an air pollution scientist at London’s prestigious King’s College. In reader-friendly prose, Fuller presents a history of air pollution in which even in the seventeenth century, scientists expressed concern over the effects they observed in humans exposed to certain types of noxious air. Armed with the information Dr. Fuller provides will enable readers to assess their own exposures to the various toxins contained in air, and can formulate a strategy for reducing those numbers and protecting their health.
The Nickel Boys
The Nickel Boys is Pulitzer-Prize winner Colson Whitehead’s novel about seventeen-year old Elwood, who is arrested by Florida police and sent to the Nickel Academy. But as I read deeper in his riveting prose, I kept thinking about the fact that Whitehead’s book was based on a history that seems worse than any horror story I had ever read. Elwood is growing up in segregated Florida, a state where Martin Luther King, Jr. would be thrown in jail in 1965 for trying to check into a “whites-only” motel. The Nickel Academy is based on the real-life Arthur G. Dozier School, where for over a century, boys were tortured and killed under the guise of providing them with a moral education that would make them into good citizens. Whitehead has produced a work to rival The Underground Railroad, and has once again created a piece of literature that serves as a mirror to reflect back to Americans a troubling reflection.
Our History Is the Future
As people worldwide become more cognizant of the deleterious effects that global climate change is having on the places where they live, they have organized locally to oppose new developments that would increase climate change rather than ameliorate it. In 2016 and beyond, the world’s attention was focused on Standing Rock and the Native American protesters who were joined by allies in their refusal to allow the Keystone Pipeline to be built across their lands. Now, Nick Estes provides a history of the “Water Protectors.” Estes shows how during the ten-month standoff, women played a leading role in the organization of the movement. Estes elucidates the long tradition of indigenous resistance to colonizers who seek to seize Native land. This is a fascinating chronicle of the events surrounding the decision and subsequent actions of those who said no to the oil companies.
Preet Bharara has written a memoir that gives readers the perspective of the prosecution in the practice of American law. He served as a federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, and over the years collected dozens of anecdotes that show the real-life workings of the justice system. In addition to his memoir of his own involvement in the law, Bharara also provides readers with a primer of the operations of our system of justice. The book is divided into four parts: Inquiry, Accusation, Judgment, and Punishment. Readers will learn why each part of this process is absolutely necessary in the pursuit of justice, and are challenged to think about how this system operates in their own lives. There are a number of excellent works that detail the problems in the legal arena. Here, Bharara makes a case for everything that goes right and works as it should in the exercise of justice.
Consider this survey of headlines from various newspapers during the second week of March, 2019:
“Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says he’ll reorient the company towards encryption and privacy.”
“Report finds widespread contamination at coal ash sites.”
“Border patrol agents detain migrants near U.S.–Mexico border: Border Children. Immigrant families in crisis”
“Ship carrying migrants sinks off Algerian coast.”
“Texas executes Billie Coble: the oldest man put to death in the state during modern era of execution.”
“Torture Survivors: UK court ruling raises hope of asylum.”
“Revealed: The rise and rise of populist rhetoric.”
“Washington teen gets 22 years for school shooting plot.”
Facebook. Pollution. Immigration. Refugees. Capital Punishment. Torture. The rise of fascism. School Shootings.
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It can feel like a near-impossible task to keep up with the quotidian events in the United States and around the world. And yet, those of us who want to be informed citizens may feel an obligation to have some knowledge of the issues that confront our neighbors, the people of our country, and earth’s inhabitants. After all, most of the problems that are having an impact on us are issues created by other humans. And before any situation can be changed, it must first be understood.
For those who want to know more about certain news items, plenty of options exist. As readers, however, we at Read It Forward think that reading a book is a great way to expand our thinking. The information in books can change your mind or affirm what you already believe. Either way, it provides concrete facts and analysis that can help make these issues a little less intimidating. Books don’t make the issues smaller, but they do increase our capacity to understand what is at stake and what the future options might be. And, in the case of novels that address the subjects that are likely to make headlines, our capacity to understand an issue is supplemented by the ways in which novels cause us to feel greater empathy for those who are coping with the direct impact of news-making matters.
Here is a selection of brand-new and forthcoming books that will take you behind the headlines.