Sunday, November 27, 2016

Non-Fiction November: Missoula - Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer (Review) (Repost from 2016)

Release date: April 21, 2015
Author links: Goodreads - Website
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 367

Description (from Goodreads):

Missoula, Montana is a typical college town, home to a highly regarded state university whose beloved football team inspires a passionately loyal fan base. Between January 2008 and May 2012, hundreds of students reported sexual assaults to the local police. Few of the cases were properly handled by either the university or local authorities. In this, Missoula is also typical.

In these pages, acclaimed journalist Jon Krakauer investigates a spate of campus rapes that occurred in Missoula over a four-year period. Taking the town as a case study for a crime that is sadly prevalent throughout the nation, Krakauer documents the experiences of five victims: their fear and self-doubt in the aftermath; the skepticism directed at them by police, prosecutors, and the public; their bravery in pushing forward and what it cost them. These stories cut through abstract ideological debate about acquaintance rape to demonstrate that it does not happen because women are sending mixed signals or seeking attention. They are victims of a terrible crime, deserving of fairness from our justice system. Rigorously researched, rendered in incisive prose, Missoula stands as an essential call to action.  

Once in a while, I take the time to share these more serious reviews with you. The last time that happened with Dave Cullen's Columbine about the school shootings in Columbine high school, and now I will do it with Jon Krakauer's Missoula about campus rape cases in Missoula, Montana. 

Before I get to the things that I "liked" about this book, I want to acknowledge that I am aware that it is not flawless. It lacks the voices of the accused and Krakauer himself has admitted confirmation bias. It also relies heavily on court proceedings, which might not be for everyone. BUT... it also gives a voice for the victims and brings up an extremely important topic of which general public still seems to have a very flawed image of. So yes, there are flaws, but for me, this book was an extremely interesting, scary, harrowing and heartbreaking read about the situations way too many young women -women of my age and situation (students) - are put into.

To say that I "liked" this book seems slightly wrong, because though I found it very difficult to put it down, I cannot say I "liked" what I read. The way these women account their stories and the ways they are treated by the police and the people around them made me so angry. We live in a culture heavy with victim shaming. If a girl drinks, or if she dresses up in a certain way, "she probably was asking for it". If her friend, a popular football player rapes her, she is probably just "making too much of it", because why would a popular guy who could have any girl he wants need to rape someone? [Edit: unfortunately it seems like victim shaming is getting more and more common and it makes me so freaking angry and frustrated!]

I am a massive sports fan, and though my sport of choice is ice hockey, there are a lot of things in this book that made me think about the treatment of athletes and those who might have been mistreated by them. Just earlier this year, a very famous hockey player, a Stanley Cup winner Patrick Kane, was accused of rape. The case seems to be over now, and Kane was declared not guilty, but the way the case was discussed in the media reminds me a lot of the ways the cases were discussed in this book. I am not a Patrick Kane fan, and I probably never will be, and when someone accuses someone of rape, I take the side of the accuser until the moment enough evidence has been gathered to reach some sort of conclusions. I think there is nothing worse than victim shaming, but unfortunately, that is what happened with Kane's case. Comments all over the Internet were shaming the victim, calling her names and stating that she is "yelling rape" just to get money. Kane was praised and the arguments were much on the line of "why would he rape because everyone would sleep with him anyway?". New York Post actually brilliantly discussed the actions of fans in this situation, stating 

"But the morally agnostic fans don’t care about justice, nor particularly much for a horrified young woman or a permanently impugned young man. Only that Kane is on the ice come Oct. 7, for the season opener against the Rangers."

The question that came into my mind while reading this book, and while reading about Kane's case, was how I would react if someone blamed one of my favorite players of rape. I love hockey to no end, and I am very protective of my favorite players, but at the same time, I WANT TO BELIEVE THAT NO WOMAN WOULD EVER VOLUNTARILY GO THROUGH VICTIM SHAMING AND BLAME AND EVERYTHING ELSE, just to get money. I know situations can be desperate, but I would like to think they are never that desperate. I am aware of the fact that there are cases out there in which the woman has lied and the accused has been convicted wrongfully, the case of Brian Banks. But as Krakauer proves through statistics, the percentage of wrongful accusations is EXTREMELY SMALL.

Krakauer's book focuses on what is called acquaintance rape, meaning a rape committed by a person known to the victim. He argues several times, through academic research, that rape is still very much thought as something done by spooky, scary strangers that attack women in the dark, where in fact it seems most of the rape cases, at least of those done in college towns like Missoula, are acquaintance rapes, committed by classmates, friends and potential romantic interests of the young female victims. With acquaintance rape, the criminal process is described as problematic, because despite rape kit evidence, the question of consent becomes very problematic. I would like to think that "no" means "no", but this book very quickly proved to me that in this kind of situations "no" might not mean "no" after all, at least not according to those accused and those defending them. Maybe she was drunk and said "no" even when she really wanted it. Maybe the way she was dressed said "yes". Maybe some previous interest can be read as a sign of consent... There are so many sick, twisted ways the judicial system places blame on these girls, as a result of which more that 90% of rapists get to walk free.

To finish up with this review, I will present here some direct quotations from the book. There are so many ways I could have approached this review, but I think this is the best way to do it, to give Krakauer's voice a chance to present what his book is all about. Missoula: Rape and Justice System in a College Town is an extremely difficult book to read, but it is an extremely important book, one that will definitely make you think, one that will probably make you very angry and upset. It gives the victims of this horrible crime a voice and allows them to present their side to the story. I haven't read anything by Krakauer before, but his style of presenting facts really worked for me, and I will definitely check out his other books as soon as possible.

"Using data gathered in 2011, the CDC study estimated that across all age groups, 19.3 percent of American women "have been raped in their lifetimes" and that 1.6 percent of American women - nearly two and a half million individuals - "reported that they were raped in the 12 months preceding the survey.""

"Women don't get raped because they were drinking or took drugs. Women do not get raped because they weren't careful enough. Women get raped because someone raped them."
(From The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti)

"They said you were moaning, so you couldn't have been passed out. We needed one more person to take your side and back up your story, and there wasn't one. I'm sorry, but there is nothing we can do."
(Police to a girl gang raped by a group of football players)

"Well, sometimes girls cheat on their boyfriends, and regret it, and then claim they were raped."
(Police officer to a victim of alleged rape)

"Why do your detectives seem more concerned about the defendant than the victim?"

"When cops and prosecutors fail to aggressively pursue sexual-assault cases... it sends a message to sexual predators that women are fair game and can be raped with impunity."


Friday, November 18, 2016

Non-Fiction November: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (Review)

Release date: June 28th, 2016
Author links: Goodreads - Twitter - Website
Publisher: Harper
Pages: 272

Description (from Goodreads):

From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Vance’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love.” They got married and moved north from Kentucky to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (the author) graduated from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving upward mobility for their family. But Vance cautions that is only the short version. The slightly longer version is that his grandparents, aunt, uncle, and mother struggled to varying degrees with the demands of their new middle class life and they, and Vance himself, still carry around the demons of their chaotic family history.

Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.

At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.

Before reading this book, the word "hillbilly" instantly brought into my mind a few things, mainly the image of Billy Ray Cyrus. Yes, you read that right. I used to really like Hannah Montana back in the day, and I think I always kind of associated Billy Ray Cyrus as being a hillbilly (I think he even wrote a book or something called Hillbilly Heart.) J.D. Vance's book is definitely not about Billy Ray Cyrus, and it definitely managed to give me a more well-rounded definition of what a hillbilly really is (though obviously Vance's description is not the definite truth, but rather his own interpretation.)

I saw this book making rounds as a book that would explain why Trump has gotten so popular in US. That prospect made me both intrigued and scared -- would Vance offer a view that is non-partial, or would he provide the reader with pro-Trump trash? Neither is really true when it comes to what Hillbilly Elegy really is. While it might give some ideas about the society in which some people are willing to give attention to Trump, it does not really comment on Trump himself in any way. 

Hillbilly Elegy is essentially Vance's account of his own life and how growing up in a Hillbilly family was both a blessing and a curse. He recounts his childhood filled with grandparents, aunts, cousins, his mom, and a multiple father candidates that never end up sticking around. He acknowledges that people like him rarely "get away" and manage to create lives for themselves that differ from those their parents had. Vance's mother is addicted to multiple substances, and his father is only partilly part of his life, which are things that did not seem very promising to him growing up. But with the help of other adults, mainly his grandmother, Vance was able to rise up on the social ladder, and now he is probably among the 1%, the wealthy American upper class. 

The role of Vance's grandmother (or mamaw) is one of the most interesting aspects of Vance's book. The influence of mamaw, a strong personality who might not have been liked by all, but who was able to keep Vance on the right road, shows that sometimes, when our parents fail us, the only way to keep going might be the careciving of someone who is not "supposed" to take care of you. Vance acknowledges how lucky he was to have someone like mamaw on his corner, and that now everyone is as lucky as him.

While the first 70% of this book were extremely interesting, I feel like the moment Vance starts to recount his tales from Yale, I partially lost my interest. Vance has been incredibly lucky, and he does take that into account, but I couldn't help to feel that at points he was just using this book to tell everyone how fricking awesome he is. Yes, he might be awesome, I don't know about that, but when he does it comparing himself to those who were not as fortunate as he was feels kind of douchey. 

Vance argues that in order for the Hillbillies to prosper, they need to take control of their lives and in a way, be someone like him who is not ready to let the obstacles of social class stop them. He recounts tales of how he used to work in manual labour and how his co-workers were often late and dropped out of work because they did not feel like working. He writes about "wellfare queens" and people who blame their problems on the government without actually doing anything to make things better. While both of these things can, and probably do, happen, I think Vance occasionally generalizes things a bit too much and gives a very arrogant image of himself. Experiences in the Hillbilly community, like in any other community out there, are subjective, and while Vance might have been surrounded with a "people like him" growing up, he cannot have intimate knowledge of the backgrounds of those people he deemed too lazy or too uninterested to make things better for themselves.

I also couldn't help feeling like this blue collar work world Vance writes about is probably not as hellish as he lets his reader believe it is. It feels like for Vance, blue collar workers are lazy time wasters who cannot take care of their families. Once again, Vance fails to see that people are different, and relies on generalisations about a huge group of people. Not everyone can graduate from Yale, and not everyone even wants to. And that is completely fine. He continually seems to make this distinction between people like him (educated, experienced) and people like he used to be (uneducated) and seems to believe that people like him are needed to tell the people like he used to be how to better their lives. 

The last few paragraphs might make it sound like I did not really like this book, but don't get me wrong, there were things here that I really did enjoy, which resulted in me giving it three stars. The stories from Vance's childhood were occasionally heartbreaking, but there was a lot of hope out there as well -- he had good relations with his sister, his grandparents, and other family members. There is also surprisingly quite a bit of humor in here, and while I think I would have first been quite terrified by mamaw, I believe I would have liked her at the end of the day.

Vance writes quite well, and especially the beginning of the book made me feel like I did not want to put my iPad down. I must admit that going into this believing it would maybe open my eyes more as to why certain groups of people are turning to Trump as a sort of savior, and noticing it did not really do that was kind of disappointing. But at the same time, I do think Hillbilly Elegy offers an interesting story of ONE PARTICULAR person with a hillbilly background. For a broader look into the Hillbilly lifestyle/culture, I think Nancy Isenberg's White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America could be the book to go with (I will definitely check it out as soon as possible!)

"The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future -- that if they're lucky, they'll manage to avoid welfare; and if they're unlucky, they'll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small hometown just last year."

"In Middletown, 20 percent of the public high school's entering freshmen won't make it to graduation. Most won't graduate from college. Virtually no one will go to college out of state. Students don't expect much from themselves, because the people around them don't do very much."

"There was, and still is, a sense that those who make it are of two varieties. The first are lucky: They come from wealthy families with connections, and their lives were set from the moment they were born. The second are the meritocratic: They were born with brains and couldn't fall if they tried. Because very few in Middletown fall into the former category, people assume that everyone who makes it is just really smart. To the average Middletonian, hard work doesn't matter as much as raw talent."

"How much of your lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom's life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?"


Thursday, November 10, 2016

Non-Fiction November: Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (Review)

Release date: May 20th, 2014
Author links: Goodreads - Website
Publisher: Haymarket Books
Pages: 130

Description (from Goodreads):

In her comic, scathing essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t, about why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works, airing some of her own hilariously awful encounters.

She ends on a serious note— because the ultimate problem is the silencing of women who have something to say, including those saying things like, “He’s trying to kill me!”

This book features that now-classic essay with six perfect complements, including an examination of the great feminist writer Virginia Woolf ’s embrace of mystery, of not knowing, of doubt and ambiguity, a highly original inquiry into marriage equality, and a terrifying survey of the scope of contemporary violence against women.

I came across this fairly short collection of essays a while ago while looking for feminist content to read. Rebecca Solnit's name was familiar to me before, but I had never read anything from her before picking up Men Explain Things to Me. If Rebecca Solnit is a new author to you like she was to me, I think Men Explain Things to Me is a good starting point -- it definitely made me want to read more by her in the future.

Solnit's essay titled Men Explain Things to Me, which you can read from here, was originally published in 2012 and it is the piece of writing this short essay collection has been built around to. This very essay has been connected to the popularization of the term "mansplaining", and overall, it made such rounds online that Solnit decided to produce a whole set of essays, which were released together in this collection in 2014.

Since most (if not all) of the essays featured in this collection were published beforehand, you don't necessarily have to buy this collection to get an access to them (you can find them online!). But I do think having a collection like this can be an interesting addition to personal libraries, and I definitely do not regret purchasing it. 

I do want to point out though that maybe reading the essays back to back is not the best idea. I did that and noticed quite quickly that Solnit uses some of the same examples/arguments in a number of essays. This is not a problem if you consider the fact that the release of these pieces was originally more sporadic. But reading about the same examples back to back in a book format can get kind of repetitive and take something away from the reading enjoyment/experience.

Men Explain Things to Me is only a bit over 100 pages in length, but it definitely managed to make me think. The essays range from hilarious to tragic, and Solnit manages to cover a lot of ground and make a lot of arguments within a fairly short page count. Solnit's writing style is interesting and engaging, and definitely, something I want to familiarize myself more with at some point.

If you are interested in feminism, in the treatment of women in the society, and so on, I definitely recommend checking this one out. As said, you can write a lot of these essays online if you're not interested in purchasing the whole collection.

"But explaining men still assume I am, in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor, an empty vessel to be filled with their wisdom and knowledge. A Freudian would claim to know what they have and I lack, but intelligence is not situated in the crotch -- even if you can write one of Virginia Woolf's long mellifluous musical sentences about the subtle subjugation of women in the snow with your willie."

"Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being."

"We have an abundance to rape and violence against women in this country and on this Earth, though it's almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern. Violence doesn't have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender."

"Increasingly men are becoming good allies -- and there always have been some. Kindness and gentleness never had a gender, and neither did empathy."

"His name was His, and he presumed everything was his, including her, and he thought he could take her without asking and without consequences."

"His name was privilege, but hers was possibility. His was the same old story, but hers was a new one about the possibility of changing a story that remains unfinished, that includes all of us, that matters so much, that we will watch but also make and tell in the weeks, years, decades to come."


Monday, November 7, 2016

Non-Fiction November: A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold (Review)

Release date: February 15th, 2016
Author links: Goodreads - Website
Publisher: Crown
Pages: 336

Description (from Goodreads):

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Over the course of minutes, they would kill twelve students and a teacher and wound twenty-four others before taking their own lives. 
For the last sixteen years, Sue Klebold, Dylan s mother, has lived with the indescribable grief and shame of that day. How could her child, the promising young man she had loved and raised, be responsible for such horror? And how, as his mother, had she not known something was wrong? Were there subtle signs she had missed? What, if anything, could she have done differently? 

These are questions that Klebold has grappled with every day since the Columbine tragedy. In"A Mother s Reckoning," she chronicles with unflinching honesty her journey as a mother trying to come to terms with the incomprehensible. In the hope that the insights and understanding she has gained may help other families recognize when a child is in distress, she tells her story in full, drawing upon her personal journals, the videos and writings that Dylan left behind, and on countless interviews with mental health experts. 

Filled with hard-won wisdom and compassion, "A Mother s Reckoning"is a powerful and haunting book that sheds light on one of the most pressing issues of our time. And with fresh wounds from the recent Newtown and Charleston shootings, never has the need for understanding been more urgent. 
"All author profits from the book will be donated to research and to charitable organizations focusing on mental health issues."

Dave Cullen's Columbine is one of the most impressive non-fiction books I have read -- the scope of research, the analysis of the events and their impact, and so on, astounded me and made me interested in other perspectives into the tragedy. Sue Klebold's perspective in A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of a Tragedy definitely offers a much more personal perspective, one that places more attention on the people, namely her son Dylan, one of the shooters, rather than the actual events themselves.

It has taken an incredible amount of bravery for Sue Klebold to write this book. Ever since April 20, 1999, she has been judged publicly -- she must have been a bad parent because she did not know what her son was planning. The aim for Klebold's books become evident quite quickly -- to clear her own name (in some sense) and to prove that she had provided a happy and healthy family for Dylan (and that she missed the signs that there was something wrong with him), and to state that Dylan's principal motive was suicide. She does not try to gloss over the horror and grief Dylan caused, but focuses heavily on the suicidal signs that she missed and argues, that if she could have seen them (if she would have known how to identify them), the horrors at Columbine might not have happened, at least not to the extent that they did.

Klebold writes quite a lot about suicide survivors/survivors of suicide -- the friends and family of someone who has committed a suicide. Few years after Columbine she, in a way, finds her place in the post-Columbine world, and become active in Suicide awareness activism, identifying herself as a survivor of murder-suicide. I didn't expect the book to focus on the suicide aspect quite so much and believe that if I would have known, I probably wouldn't have picked this book up. I am a survivor of a suicide of 13 years now, and often find research on suicide difficult to read, because I start to battle in my mind with questions of what I could have done differently. I guess Klebold struggles with those same questions, just in a very different kind of context.

"These other survivors of murder-suicide believed, as I did, that suicide had been a driving factor behind their loss, and yet the public persisted in seeing these acts exclusively as murders."

Klebold is passionate about showing the world that Dylan used to be a normal, happy boy. Yes, he was shy and quiet and liked to keep to himself from time to time, but he never showed the kind of rage that he must have shown when going to the school with guns. While Klebold probably does not do it entirely on purpose, she definitely presents Dylan as the most "innocent" one in comparison to Eric Harris -- she writes about the people Dylan did not shoot while focusing on the details of Eric's brutality. She is not the first person to do so -- in many accounts, Dylan is portrayed as someone who just went along with Eric's diabolical plans.

I suspect believing in something like this, creating this certain image of Dylan in her mind, has been a process Sue Klebold has had to take in order to save her own sanity. It has been something she has had to do in order to somehow keep going. It would be interesting to read an account from the side of the Harris family to determine how they see the dynamic between Dylan and Eric. Eric undoubtedly was the more troubled on, but there must have been something in Dylan too that made him willing to participate in such a plan. Something more than just a willingness to kill himself.

It is difficult to judge a situation like this and to contest Sue Klebold's thinking, from a position that is so unlike anything that she must have been going through. I do share the sorrow that comes from losing to someone to suicide with her, but that is where it ends. I am not a mother, and never want to be one, and I believe that if I were one, this book most likely would have hit me harder, because of more than anything, it is a mother's reflection on her own parenting, a questioning narrative about her own role in the tragedy. 

Klebold writes well, and the observations she makes are often interesting and eloquently put together. I know some readers have criticized Sue Klebold for not giving more thought to the victims of Dylan and Eric, but I think she has consciously made the decision to focus on Dylan. Also, maybe she wanted to include the victims there, but their families did not want to have them included. The excerpts from Sue's diary from the days after Columbine add an extra harrowing element to the book, giving the reader a glimpse of the horror of a mother just days after her life has completely been obliterated. 

As someone looking in from the outside (from a place very distanced from what Sue's going through), I highly appreciated this book and Sue's bravery to write it. Someone, who lost a family member in Columbine, or who has lost someone in a situation similar to Columbine, might feel differently about Klebold's words. More than anything, A Mother's Reckoning: A Living in The Aftermath of Tragedy is a very personal account of what happened on April 20, 1999, and during its aftermath. If you are looking for a more objective, analytical account, I recommend picking up the aforementioned Columbine by Dave Cullen. 

All of the profits from A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy are donated to research and to charitable organizations focusing on mental health issues!

"I know it would have been better for the world if Dylan had never been born. But I believe it would not have been better for me."

"Much has been written in the years since about the media coverage of the event -- in particular about how quickly early misinformation about the boys solidified into received truth." (Dave Cullen's book looks more into this!)

"I know telling these stories here exposes me to further criticism. The though fills me with fear, although there's no criticism of my parenting I have not already heard over the last sixteen years. I've heard that Tom and I were too lenient with Dylan, and that we were too restrictive. I've been told that our family's position on gun control caused Columbine; perhaps if Dylan had been habituated to guns, they would not have had the same mystique for him. People have asked me if we abused Dylan, if we permitted someone else to abuse him, if we ever hugged him, if we ever told him that he was loved."

"Survivors often comment about how remote suicide seemed to them before they lost a loved one to it; the real question is why we persist in believing it's rare, when it is really anything but."


Saturday, November 5, 2016

Non-Fiction November: Columbine by Dave Cullen (Review) (Repost from 2014)

Release date: March 1st, 2009
Author links: Goodreads - Twitter - Website
Publisher: Twelve
Pages: 417

Description (from Goodreads):

Ten years in the making and a masterpiece of reportage, "Columbine" is an award-winning journalist's definitive account of one of the most shocking massacres in American history.

It is driven by two questions: what drove these killers, and what did they do to this town?


"On April 20, 1999, two boys left an indelible stamp on the American psyche. Their goal was simple: to blow up their school, Oklahoma City-style, and to leave a lasting impression on the world. Their bombs failed, but the ensuing shooting defined a new era of school violence--irrevocably branding every subsequent shooting 'another Columbine.

"When we think of Columbine, we think of the Trench Coat Mafia; we think of Cassie Bernall, the girl we thought professed her faith before she was shot; and we think of the boy pulling himself out of a school window--the whole world was watching him. Now, in a riveting piece of journalism nearly ten years in the making, comes the story none of us knew. In this revelatory book, Dave Cullen has delivered a profile of teenage killers that goes to the heart of psychopathology. He lays bare the callous brutality of mastermind Eric Harris and the quavering, suicidal Dylan Klebold, who went to the prom three days earlier and obsessed about love in his journal.

"The result is an astonishing account of two good students with lots of friends, who were secretly stockpiling a basement cache of weapons, recording their raging hatred, and manipulating every adult who got in their way. They left signs everywhere, described by Cullen with a keen investigative eye and psychological acumen. Drawing on hundreds of interviews, thousands of pages of police files, FBI psychologists, and the boys' tapes and diaries, he gives the best complete account of the Columbine tragedy.

After suffering from a reading slump for an extended period of time, I knew that the next book I would decide to read would have to be one that would immediately grab my attention in order to keep me interested and pull me away from the dreadful slump caused by university tasks and readings. Knowing myself and my reading habits, I knew that I would need something that would make me think - unlike some people who want to read something fluffy and maybe even silly to balance their studies, I usually try to find something that will keep my mind active, something preferably even a little related to my studies at the moment, if possible. Don't get me wrong - I do love fluff (romance etc.) and read it a lot, but not usually while I am intensively studying at the same time. 

Well, since I am doing a course this semester called media events and since I have to do a presentation for that course about a particular media event, I decided to finally pick out Dave Cullen's Columbine, an account of the school shootings of 1999. [2016 edit: I ended up using Cullen's book as a source for a presentation about a 2014 school shooting in Seattle that never gained the kind of attention Columbine did, but that I happened to be able to follow in "real time" from online news.]

Dave Cullen was able to pull me into the book right away. I had some previous knowledge of the case and while reading the book I realized that most of that knowledge was based on the myths that Cullen attempts to break with this book - the Cassie Bernall "martyr" myth, the Trench Coat Mafia, the possible links to Neo-Nazism etc. I had also seen Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine before, which I absolutely loved (Moore is one of my favorite documentary filmmakers) and I found it extremely interesting to familiarize myself with someone else's account on the happenings. 

The more I read, the more interested I got. The detail in Cullen's book is astonishing (no wonder he worked on this for ten years), factual and well presented. While reading some of the reviews for the book on Goodreads, I noticed some people criticizing that Cullen's writing style lacks humanity due to its very factual explanation of the events. I do agree with that, but I personally did not mind it - I actually quite enjoyed it. Cullen's style is very academic and rationalistic - he states the facts as they are, relying on FBI statements, statements of psychologists and other experts, as well as the statements based on his own process of evidence gathering. There are segments in this book that are absolutely horrifying and miserable, as were the things that happened on April 20, 1999. Cullen does not gloss over the corpses, the blood, and the horror - he explains the events as they took place. Saying that Cullen's writing lacks humanity is not completely right, though - there are segments here and there that give a voice to the victims, their parents and those who were in any way touched by the events that took place.

What I admired about Cullen's writing is the way he approaches the killers. He wants to understand them - he treats them as human beings and tries to open up to the reader their histories and the possible causes for what made them do what they did. Through analysis of their journals, their friendships and the videos they recorded, Cullen builds up profiles of the killers. I understand why some writers have approached the shooters in a very different way, but I personally found this approach interesting, because it didn't directly go to judgment but tried to achieve understanding. 

I found Cullen's book to be interesting, thoughtful, thorough and extremely well-written. It is sad, violent and gruesome, but deep down, there's some hopefulness found from the stories of the people who survived it all - the people who kept going and tried to see past the tragedy. Columbine definitely isn't the easiest book out there to read, but it is completely worth it - I recommend this to everyone who likes non-fiction/true crime books and especially to those who have been interested in venturing into non-fiction, but haven't found the title that could grasp their interest.


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Non-Fiction November: Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge (Review)

Release date: September 27th, 2016
Author links: Goodreads - Twitter
Publisher: Guardian Faber Publishing
Pages: 320

Description (from Goodreads):

On Saturday 23 November 2013 ten children were shot dead. The youngest was nine; the oldest was nineteen. They fell in suburbs, hamlets and ghettos. None made the national news. It was just another day in the death of America, where on average seven children and teens are killed by guns daily.
Younge picked this day at random, searched for their families and tells their stories. What emerges is a sobering, searing, portrait of youth and guns in contemporary America.

With the US election making headlines daily, even here in Finland, I have found myself increasingly gravitating towards content focused on the US society. Ever since living in the US, and even before that really, I have found the demographics of the country extremely interesting -- it really is a melting pot of different religions, cultures, customs, races, etc. -- a place much bigger and much more varied that my home country. After reading the description of Gary Younge's Another Day in the Death of America, I was instantly interested. The US gun control laws have for years been something I have been curious about, mostly because the kind of guy violence that goes on in there, fortunately, feels very distant to my place of residence.I have watched a number of documentaries on the topic, but the kind of personal touch the synopsis for Younge's book promises was something I had not come across before.
On average, seven children and teens are killed by guns daily in the United States. SEVEN. That means an average of 210 children/teens in a month. An average of 2555 children/teens in a year. And this statistic does not even include suicides. I know comparing the United States with my home country Finland is probably not the best way to go, but I will do it anyway. Finland is on the fourth place in the list that details the owning of firearms per capita, with about 1.6 million registered firearms in a country of about 5.4 million people. The most recent statistic about gun deaths I was able to find comes from 2013 which states that 177 people died in gun-related deaths that year. What has to be noted though is that over half of this group consists of gun-related suicides. 

While the statistics from Finland might seem small compared to the numbers from the United States, it has been argued that guns are becoming a problem in Finnish society as well, mainly due to the high suicide rates in the country. Police need to use guns rarely, and the kind of statistics Younge represents about the fatality of guns in relation to children feel very distant to me (we have had a few mass shootings in the past 10 years, but the idea of losing an average of 7 children/teens daily is not something I can really even fully understand). 

The stories Younge introduced in this book are the stories of Jaiden Dixon (9), Kenneth Mills-Tucker (19), Stanley Taylor (17), Pedro Cortez (18), Tyler Dunn (11), Edwin Rajo (16), Samuel Brightmon (16), Tyshon Anderson (18), Gary Anderson (18) and Gustin Hinnant (18). These ten boys/young men were all killed by guns on Saturday 23 November 2013. Some were killed on the streets, some in their homes. What they all share is the fact that their lives ended way too soon.

Younge states in the introduction of his book that he is not writing about race or gun laws, per se, but rather attempts to present a book that is "about America and its kids viewed through a particular lens in a particular moment." It is a book about those whose deaths are often merely looked over as a statistic, deaths that were never really discussed in the media or written about to newspapers. 

In the introduction, Younge references New York Times journalist Joe Nocera who has said that "individual deaths don't have the same impact and ability to galvanize people because mass shootings are public spectacles. [Mass shootings] create a community of grief." The community of grief Younge references back to time and time again is Newtown and the horrid events that took place there, and how those events increased the discussions about gun legislation in America. While Younge in no way belittles the events in Newtown, he brings up an important point by arguing that because these deaths that this book covers happened often in bad neighborhoods, 9/10 times to children of Black or Latino origin, they didn't manage to gain the kind of attention Newtown did. While Newtown was something sudden, something horrible and completely unexpected, the deaths of these children in these poor neighborhoods seem to be something "expected", something that never manages to form these communities of grief.

There have recently been cases where the attention of the media has turned into the killing of especially black young men, but those cases have often involved law enforcement officers using guns to kill people in situations that have been beyond questionable. Videos and pictures have made their rounds in social media and those deaths have become the focus of activist movements like Black Lives Matter. Younge's book does not include deaths by law enforcement officers, but the role of law enforcement is brought up in the way the deaths were handled. It is not at all surprising to note that the death of Tyler Dunn, the only white child out of the 10, seemed have gotten the most attention. I am not saying Tyler Dunn's death was any less tragic than the other deaths. I am just agreeing with Younge by saying that race definitely plays a role in situations like this. Younge states "America is racist. Not all Americans. But America -- its judiciary, economy, and social fabric". This can be seen for example from the fact that African Americans are six times more likely to be incarcerated, twice as likely to be unemployed, and almost three times more likely to live in poverty than white Americans. 

Due to a combination of all of these things - unemployment, poverty, as well as other aspects - African Americans, like this book shows, are often driven into certain areas of cities and towns. According to Younge, these are often the places "where children and teens are expected to get shot -- areas where the deaths of young people by gunfire do not contradict a city's general understanding of how the world should work, but rather confirm it. To raise children there, whether they are involved in criminal activity or not, is to incorporate those odds into your daily life." While for some these places might seem like the hellish ghettos Donald Trump keeps talking about in his speeches, I appreciated the fact that Younge emphasized that despite the things that go on in these places, these areas are the home for tight communities, families that love and care for each other. 

In order to account the deaths of these 10 individuals Younge has relied on a fairly small amount of newspaper report, law enforcement files, and most importantly, the interviews he has conducted with those who were closely touched by these losses. While some of the families have been more open and willing to tell their stories to Younge, others have wanted to remain silent. The way these families recount their grief shows concretely that we all deal with grief differently. The thoughts the parents share about their children are heart-shattering, and the way especially the parents from neighborhoods were the deaths of their children were instantly categorized as "gang related crimes" speaks a lot about the way law enforcement tends to deal with gun deaths that take place in these "bad" parts of towns. The inclusion of the stories of the parents and friends make this book so much more than a collection of statistics -- it is a collection of stories about lives that ended way too soon and about futures that never were allowed to reach fruition.

Towards the end of the book Younge states: 
"Americans are no more inherently violent than anybody else. What makes its society more deadly is the widespread availability of firearms. Every country has its problems, unique to its own history and culture. But in no other Western society would this book be possible."
While Younge is not directly writing about gun laws, it becomes very clear from his book that he sees the amount of guns and the easy access to them as a problem. He also comments on the Second Amendment by saying:
"To base an argument on ancient texts is effectively to abdicate your responsibility to understand the present by offloading it onto those who are now dead. It denies not only the possibility of new interpretations and solutions but the necessity for them."
Younge interestingly points out that none of the families he spoke to brought up the Second Amendment directly and that while they believed that guns were too readily available, they also thought that there was nothing that could really be done by it.  Guns seem to be so deeply embedded into the American society that completely getting rid of them seems very unlikely indeed. But as the deaths of about 2500 young people yearly prove, something has to be done.

It is important to note that if Younge would have picked any other day of the year, he would have had completely different stories to tell. Younge concludes by describing this phenomenon as "a war that is generally acknowledged in the abstract but rarely specifically addressed in the concrete...[a war that is] happening to America. Every day."