Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson

We live in a great country, founded on freedom and equality and justice for all.  I believe that, and I believe those principles form the core of our justice system.  But, as Bryan Stevenson demonstrates all too clearly in Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption our system, like every human system is far from perfect.  Not only is it not perfect, there are elements of evil lurking within it.

Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has dedicated his legal career to defending "the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned."  He became convinced that "the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."  EJI defends innocent people who have been condemned to death, minors and disabled individuals who have received unjust sentences, and others who have been overlooked or mistreated by the courts.  His clients are largely poor and minority, because of "our system's disturbing indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of unfair prosecutions and convictions." 

Stevenson tells many of his clients' stories in Just Mercy, but the one narrative that drives the book is Walter McMillian's conviction and death sentence for a murder he didn't commit.  The entire groundless accusation, botched investigation, and joke of a trial boggle the mind.  If ever there was someone who was put on death row for no reason, McMillian was.  Stevenson was finally able to get him freed after many years, but the damage to McMillian's business, family, and mental and physical health had been done.

I tend to have a positive view of law enforcement and the justice system.  I want to believe that cases like McMillian's are few and far between.  But to hear Stevenson tell the story, his case load is beyond what he and the EJI lawyers can handle; the prisons are full of people placed there by a corrupt, racist, biased system.  I wish he would spend a little time talking about people who are in prison for life because they deserve to be there.  I appreciate his sentiment that we should not "reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them."  People can and do change, and the justice system should have a strong element of reform.  But if someone rapes and murders, terrorizes their neighborhood, and completely disregards human life, long prison sentences are in order.

As hard on crime as I want to be (as if my opinion makes any difference) I will still stand with Stevenson's objection to the death penalty.  Some may argue that if we wrongfully execute one innocent person for every hundred executions, the deterrent effect is worth that price.  But to me that price is to high.  (Not to mention the deterrent effect of the death penalty is questionable at best.)  Just Mercy will definitely get the reader thinking about our justice system, and make us a little less eager to believe in someone's guilt when we hear about their crimes in the news.  I am thankful for Stevenson and other lawyers like him who sound the trumpet for justice and mercy for the poor and marginalized. If I were a younger man, this book would inspire me to go to law school and follow in Stevenson's footsteps.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Rush of Heaven, by Ema McKinley

I believe in miracles, and believe that God still heals today.  But every now and then I'll hear a story that takes me from a theoretical belief to "Wow!  We worship a mighty God!"  Ema McKinley's story is one of those.  In Rush of Heaven: One Woman's Miraculous Encounter with Jesus, McKinley tells her story of her injury due to a freak accident at work, her two decades of debilitating pain, and her miraculous healing experience.

While crawling around among the rafters in the stock room at work, McKinley fell and hung upside-down, unconscious, for hours before someone found her and got her down.  As a result of her injuries, she developed reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), which caused her immense constant pain and forced her to use a wheelchair and need constant medical care.  Then after nearly 20 years of suffering with RSD and a host of related medical issues, she fell off her wheelchair.  She was home alone and helpless.  After several hours, Jesus appeared to her, straightened her distorted joints, and helped her to her feet.  She walked for the first time in years.

A story like this is bound to raise questions from doubters.  McKinley, perhaps anticipating objections, provides copious medical reports from throughout her illness, along with doctors' evaluations after her healing.  There is no question that what happened to her was nothing short of an incredible, miraculous healing.

While the story of McKinley's encounter with Jesus and miraculous healing give her story a bigger audience, perhaps the real story is her trust in Jesus through all the pain.  Her faith and trust in Jesus and his word are, to me, miraculous.  She relied on scripture, her "tasty bread and butter."  "Chronic pain had . . . wound its way into every fabric of my being. . . . My pain definitely forces me to turn to God." "The pain was constant in inescapable.  It stalked me wherever I went.  Even the smallest things could set it off." Yet she constantly turned to the Bible and prayer for comfort.  It makes the little things that irritate me seem petty and insignificant.  What an inspiring spirit!

There were times when reading about McKinley's pain and suffering that the book seemed to slog on and on.  But she went through it for years and years!  When the healing finally comes, the reader gets sense of sharing with her in her joy, after she has shared her suffering.  She doesn't dwell on questions like, Why aren't other people healed of chronic illness?  Why couldn't Jesus have come along around year two or three rather than year eighteen?  What is the meaning of it all?  She simply found a way to rejoice in her suffering, and was fortunate enough Jesus chose to take away some of her suffering in this life.  Christians everywhere can learn from her example and find hope in the "rush of heaven" that we can look forward to, whether in this life or the next.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hello, Devilfish! by Ron Dakron

What a premise: the story of a giant stingray's attack on Tokyo, told from the perspective of the stingray!  Great props for the effort.  Ron Dakron's Hello Devilfish! stretches the boundaries of story telling, with his stream-of-consciousness sort-of narrative.  It's flat-out crazy, sometimes funny, frequently profane, and was particularly difficult to enjoy.  I know this is more of a taste issue.  Some people don't appreciate the art and craft of a good Japanese monster movie (I like them).  And some people won't appreciate what Dakron is doing in Hello Devilfish! (I didn't like it that much.)

His literate monster (who consumed shipping containers full of novels) can be amusingly descriptive: ". . . shredding car lots and freight trains into aluminum salad.  And after torching another freeway into smack-up soufflĂ© I reached my radiant goal.  Meaning this classic snack midway riddled with disco prepubes and gawking rubes." But it became tiresome.  Over the top.  Too clever by (at least) half.

Don't take my word for it.  Read the sample pages at and you will see exactly what I'm talking about.  You'll love it or you'll hate it.  A plot does develop after the frenetic first pages, and the "punch line" is pretty funny (I won't give it away), but overall it was sort of like a reading equivalent of listening to music I don't like, way too loud.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Shape of Sh-- to Come, by Alan McArthur and Steve Lowe

You only have to read the title of Alan McArthur and Steve Lowe's book to get a sense of their tone.  The Shape of Sh-- to Come takes a look at the future of culture and technology with the attitude of a stand-up comic.  TSOSTC is chock full of science tidbits and genuine forecasting.  There's plenty of crazy stuff being developed even now, as well as stuff that would have sounded absolutely crazy not that long ago, but now is far along in development.

This isn't a boring book.  It made me laugh a lot.  Talking about tech entrepreneurs, who ride their Segways around the office.  "We will leave our fate in the hans of adults who ride scooters indoors.  They ride around on scooters indoors, but hold in their hands the power to change human nature itself."  Funny.  True.  Sometimes their attitude is just common sense.  For instance, on the subject of genetics: "Mastering nature to breed a race of supermen; isn't this just a teeny bit Nazi?  It does sound a bit Nazi.  It's probably the words 'master,' 'race,' 'breed,' and 'supermen.'"  Or quoting 'biogerentologist' Aubrey de Grey: "'There is a tendency to think there is some sort of inevitability about ageing,' he says, correctly."

Besides laughter, McArthur and Lowe do bring some good sense to the developments and trends they examine.  There are limits to the uses and applications of science.  Not that they always come down easily on either side of an argument: "It sounds wrong--putting the heart of a pig into a man.  But is it wrong?  Clearly it is.  But is it?  It's the heart of a pig.  But they're putting it into a man.  Is that wrong?"

TSOSTC has a broad scope, and more depth than you might think.  It's not an academic journal, but the authors have at least a good lay understanding of the science they talk about.  I mentioned the stand-up comic tone--by that I mean the late-night HBO standup comics.  There's plenty of R-rated language herein, just so you know.  All-in-all, it's funny and thoughful (in that order) and makes me wonder about what else is yet to come.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

You Lie! by Bill Cashill

Syllogism:  Politicians lie.  Barack Obama is a politician.  Therefore, Barack Obama lies.  QED.

Bill Cashill may or may not agree with the first premise, but he sure can attest to the conclusion.  In his new book You Lie! The Evasions, Omissions, Fabrications, Frauds, and Outright Falsehoods of Barack Obama, Cahill categorizes, describes and details the many ways in which Obama has lied and misled the American public.  Following the example of congressman Joe Wilson, who called out to Obama "You lie!" from the floor during a joint session of congress, Cashill describes "the very essence of [Obama]: Sinatra sings, Astaire dances, Obama lies."

This book is much like others of its genre.  If you already can't stand Obama, You Lie! will fuel your contempt for him and cause you wish for a quick end to his term.  If you love Obama, You Lie! will drive you nuts.  You will hate it, and wish for a way to come to his defense.  If there's a theme or a pattern in You Lie! I would say it is this: Whether talking about his past or making promises for the future, Obama is exceedingly self-serving and shapes the narrative to whatever he feels sounds best, truth or not.  The second, indispensable part of that theme is that the press is so infatuated with him that they don't bother with fact checking or calling him out when he lies.  The result is a president who "would transform America from a country whose White House respected the trust to one whose White House played with it."

Obviously, Cashill is no fan of Obama.  But that doesn't mean he throws around unfounded accusations or unsubstantiated facts.  Rather, all of his claims are thoroughly sourced and cross referenced.  I will say this, not really as a criticism, but as an observation.  Many of the examples of Obama's lies in You Lie! are flat out lies, like the "Selma is a part of me"story.  But others are politics.  The biggest and most consequential is the "If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor" lie.  Obama may have believed it when he said it, so it's not technically a lie.  But his problem is that he talks big like that, and when he can't deliver, he tries to turn it around like he didn't really mean it.  It's his arrogance, mixed with his inexperience, that has made his presidency such a disaster.  Oh yeah, and his lies.

I cynically began this review by pointing out that all politicians lie.  That's not strictly true, of course.  But Obama takes the stereotypical and all-too-common practice of political lying to an extreme level.  Cashill has done a great service by compiling these all in one place.  Obama lovers will never read it, nor would they believe what they read.  But the rest of us know the truth.  More specifically, the rest of us, unlike Obama, know what truth is.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Fall, Diogo Mainardi

I love it when a talented writer expresses common feelings and experiences in ways that those of us who are less articulate can relate to and empathize with.  Brazilian novelist Diogo Mainardi's first child was born in Venice.  Due to a rather flagrant misjudgment by the delivering physician, he had difficulties in delivery and ended up with cerebral palsy.  The Fall: A Father's Memoir in 424 Steps chronicles Mainardi's walking with Tito.  It is a architectural tour of Venice, a literary and musical tour, and includes stories of other well-known writers with cerebral palsy.  Mostly, and most importantly, it is a revelation of Mainardi's heart and his love for Tito.

Like any parent of a child with a disability, Mainardi looks for a reason or somewhere to place the blame.  In Tito's case, the blame was clear.  "A medical mistake cause his cerebral palsy. . . .  The system, with its rules, regulations and procedures, failed--failed repeatedly--during Tito's birth."  But reviewing the history of the hospital, the city, his own family, and tiny choices made by various individuals along the way, it's more complicated than that: "I blame Tito's cerebral palsy on Pietro Lombardo, John Ruskin, Napoleon Bonaparte, an amnihook, and lastly, on the bigne allo spurmone di zabaione made by the patisserie Rosa Salva."  (The Mainardi family did eventually win a large suit against the doctor and the hospital.  I presume the Napoleon and the patisserie were not named in the suit.)

Much of The Fall is about Tito's efforts to walk.  He and Mainardi would set out to walk, counting steps until Tito falls, then start again.  Mainardi writes, "The greatest obstacle to a child with cerebral palsy is the impossibility of discovering the world around him."  Mainardi's efforts to remove that obstacle are admirable.  Tito loved to walk on the beach in Rio, where they moved after a doctor recommended a warmer climate for Tito, and on the ramps and sidewalks of Venice.  Mainardi writes that, especially for Tito, the city council left in place ramps on the bridges that were installed for the Venice Marathon.

The Fall tells a story that every parent can relate to, especially parents of children with disabilities.  Mainardi quotes Francesca Martinez, a comedian who has cerebral palsy, who said, "That's the huge secret about disability--anyone with experience of it knows that a disabled person is just a person they love."  As Mainardi celebrates and adores his son, even celebrating every fall, marking it down as progress to take more steps, I was reminded to celebrate and adore my own children, disabled or not.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hello, Airplane! by Bill Cotter

Bill Cotter's Hello, Airplane! is a perfect book to introduce your little one to air travel!  From boarding the airplane (on the old-fashioned portable stairs--do they still use those?), to leaving the ground, flying over people, mountains, trees, and birds, and saying hello to the ground again, the airplane journeys through the night.  Cotter's drawings are simple and warm, and will encourage safe, happy, friendly feelings about air travel.  I enjoyed his use of perspective.  Some drawings are from below, looking up, others from above, looking down, some as if looking out of the plane, some as if watching the plane from the ground.  The text is sparse, as you would expect, for the pre-reading and very early reading audience.  This would be a cute book to take along for a toddler's first airplane journey.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!