February 2012

Surviving Justice

Lola Vollen and Dave Eggers, eds., Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonereated (San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2008).

Eggers - Surviving Justice
This is another of the McSweeney’s “Voice of Witness” books. I think that reading them is a good way to understand a part of our culture that I might not otherwise think about. I guess that any person who is wrongfully convicted and given a sentence is a commentary on the failings of our human attempts at justice. The fact that the editors of the book had no trouble finding 13 persons, male and female, black, white and hispanic, from impoverished and privileged backgrounds is chilling. I found myself thinking that this could happen to anyone.

Wrongful conviction is not a random occurrence. It is caused by failures in the judicial system that can be addressed and corrected. Deceptive interrogation tactics, tricking suspects into waiving Miranda rights (often by claiming that they are not suspects), administering polygraphs when the person is extremely tired or stressed, forcing false confessions, harsh interview tactics, police torture, eyewitness misidentification, ineffective legal counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, perjured testimony (often in exchange for reduced sentences or cash from prosecutors), bad scientific evidence, loss (intentional or inadvertent) of DNA evidence, and lack of retrospective review all contribute to innocent people being convicted of crimes, sentenced to death or life imprisonment and more. In most cases, when innocence is finally proved irreparable damage has already occurred.

In addition to the injustice of wrongful conviction, each constitutes mis-managed or lost evidence that could have gone toward solving the crime. Each wrongful conviction is a failure to convict the real criminal. Each wrongfully convicted person means that there is at least one criminal who has escaped justice.

This is an important book. I hope it is starting a conversation within our society that will continue.

Voices from the Storm

Lola Vollen and Chris Ying, eds., Vocies from the Storm: The People of New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina and its Aftermath (San Francisco: McSweeneys, 2008)

Vollen - Voices from the Storm
Hurricane Katrina has been called the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. The devastation wrought by the hurricane and the failure of the city’s flood-control system stand out as a monument to the power of nature. However, far worse than the storm in the minds of many was the failure of timely, rational and humane response to the tragedy. All levels of government from the city to the federal failed to respond to the suffering. The stories of the survivors are compelling.

This book uses first person reports of the events of the storm and its aftermath. Expertly edited, thirteen men and women of New Orleans are enabled to report the triumph of the human spirit in spite of misconduct by police and other authorities, false arrest and illegal imprisonment, help that could not be found and help that increased rather than decreased suffering. On the one hand the book makes on sad at the abuses and injustices that were wrought. On the other, it celebrates the power of perseverance and faithfulness of average people swept up in a huge tragedy.

This book is part of a series of books called “Voice of Witness.” This is the second book of the series that I have read. It will not be the last.

It Chooses You

Miranda July, with photographs by Brigitte Sire, It Chooses You (San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2011)

July - It Chooses You
Fiction writers often believe that their craft is a method of communicating a truth that is deeper than can be told on the surface. As Elie Wiesel once wrote of his novel, Night, “Sometimes you have to tell a story to tell the truth.” This book is Miranda July’s nonfiction story of how she was able to finish a nonfiction project. She was procrastinating finishing a screenplay when she chanced upon the idea of interviewing the people who placed ads in The PennySaver, a booklet of free want ads and coupons that was delivered by junk mail to her home.

What she discovered in her interviews was a view of real people trying to make it in a real world that is vastly different from that of a screenwriter trying to find the right words for a script. The book contains verbatim reports of the interviews along with provocative and often humorous commentary about each. The result is the story of how connections have been made in unexpected ways and how real life can provide the energy to tell a story.

The result is a glimpse at a world that the readers would never have seen were it not for Miranda’s process of working through her procrastination.

The End of War

John Horgan, The End of War (San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2011)

Horgan - The End of War
I think that this is an important book. Perhaps the reason that I found the book so hopeful is that as a religious pacifist, I am predisposed to agree with some of Horgan’s arguments. But my reaction comes from something more. Horgan resists the urge to make simplistic arguments. As a science writer, he has made a thorough study of the existing literature and has taken the time to understand theories that are different from his own. After extensive study of the history of war and theorists about the nature of humans and war, Horman has come to the conclusion that war is not endemic to human nature or necessary to human survival. He realizes that his opinion is not that of the major and therefore makes his presentation carefully so those who disagree might be engaged in thinking differently.

In a world that seems to be plagued by perpetual violence and continual conflict, it is refreshing to read a book that proposes that nonviolence is frequently the best response and that humanity is moving down a course that leads away from war as a way of resolving disagreement.

I highly recommend the book. I’m going to find a group of colleagues to read it and provide me with additional discussion and feedback. As I said, I think it is important. Time will tell.

Unfamiliar Fishes

Sarah Vowell, Unfamiliar Fishes (New York: Riverhead, 2011)

Vowell - Unfamiliar Fishes
Once again Sarah Vowell has produced a book about our history that tells the story more honestly than our typical telling and at the same time gets us to laugh at ourselves. Like The Wordy Pilgrims, Unfamiliar Fishes tells a story in which our Congregational forebears played a prominent role and caused more than a small amount of suffering because of cultural ignorance and an insistence that others should have the life we had whether or not they wanted such a life.

Hawaii was the destination of he first overseas missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the predecessor body of our modern Common Global Ministries. The first missionaries arrived from New England in 1820 with the goal of bringing Christianity to Hawaii. What they didn’t realize was how much they had confused the culture of New England with the essence of Christianity.

Vowell’s style of reporting gets us to take a fresh and much-needed look at our history. The way we have been telling the story has often been one-sided. Vowell brings fresh and much-needed perspective.

And, like the smart aleck that she is, she gets us to laugh while she teaches us a lesson.

The Facts of Winter

Paul Poissel, Les Faits D’Hiver (The Facts of Winter) Translated with an afterward by Paul La Farge (San Francisco: McSweeney’s, 2011)

Poissel - Les Faits D'Hiver
In college, I minored in French. I never learned to speak the language, but I became relatively good at reading and writing. I was a philosophy major, so it made sense for me to read philosophy. I read 20th century philosophers such as Sartre and Camus, but I never mastered French literature. I didn’t read much poetry at all. Over the years since those days, my French vocabulary has faded, but I like to try to read a little from time to time. So, being on vacation, I thought it would be a good time to pick up a little French. This small volume from McSweeney’s seemed perfect. It is a collection of the descriptions of 45 dreams, most only a few paragraphs long. Each is printed in French on the left hand side and in English translation on the right hand side.

The experience was, to say the least, surrealistic. Reading the fictional dreams of fictional persons in a language I do not fully understand, left all sorts of images in my mind. I wasn’t always clear which were inherent in Poissel’s writing and which were the product of my limited understanding of the language.

La Farge’s afterward grants insight into the dreams and tells a bit of the story of Poissel. This is such a fun read that I know I will return to it again and again. So far, I can’t see any impact of the book on my dreams, but as soon as I start dreaming in French, I’ll check the book for clues.

The Rector and the Rogue

W. A. Swanberg, The Rector and the Rogue (San Francisco: Collins/McSweeneys, 2011).

Swanberg - The Rector and the Rogue
I don’t think I would normally have been attracted to a book that brings up a story that briefly made headlines in New York in the 1880’s and has been largely forgotten since. I’m not a huge fan of the mystery genre in the beginning and historical mystery can capture my attention for only short periods of time. But i found Swanberg’s book to be thoroughly fascinating.

Perhaps the attraction was in the simple fact that I identify with one of the principal characters in the story. Although there are plenty of big differences, Rev. Morgan Dix was a minister near the height of his career in his mid-fifties, who was used to having plenty of people who, for whatever reasons, attacked him and the institution he represented. The scheme perpetrated by the “Gentleman Joe” character is not, however, completely malicious. It is more like a giant piece of street theatre with thousands of characters.

This small volume is probably not one of the great books of our time, but it is an entertaining story worth picking up for a quick read.

Keep Going

Joseph M. Marshall III, Keep Going: The Art of Perseverance (New York: Sterling, 2006)

Marshall - Keep Going
I am finding Joseph Marshall’s book to be very instructive for this phase of my life. Marshall is probably the best interpreter of Lakota values and customs for a non-Lakota audience and I have read several of his books. This book is deeply personal. The use of the story to teach a deep lesson about life makes the concept of persistence accessible and meaningful for the reader.

I read a lot of devotional stories and books in my work. This book is deeply devotional to me, but it doesn’t follow the pattern or use the language that is common to many Christian devotional books. It is a reach for depth that connects humans of different religions. Instead of looking for practices that we hold in common, Marshall reaches to the deepest, core values and there discovers a common humanity that touches others deeply.

I plan to re-read this book at another point in my life, when I have become a grandfather of adults. I suspect that I will see an entirely different perspective and encounter new truths in the exercise.

I, Steve

Geroge Beahm, ed., I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words (Chicago: Agate Books, 2011)

Beahm - I, Steve
This is not a narrative. It is a collection of short quotes, mostly just a couple of sentences. Beahm has taken quotes from developers conferences, meetings, product introductions, letters, expos, addresses and more. He has organized them into categories. I read through the entire book in the order that the quotes were given, but I suspect that the best use of this book will be to find quotes to include in sermons, talks, and written documents.

I’m glad that I read this book after I had read Walter Isaacson’s biography. The quotes tend to present Steve at his best and give a sort of fractured, incomplete view of the man. The book is insufficient to enable readers to get to know the person. They are a guide to the high moments and best (and often rehearsed) times in his life. Nonetheless there are many true teachings in the book.

I know it is a book to which I will refer again and again.