Category: Memoir

Cork Dork

Cover image for Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker by Bianca Bosker

ISBN 978-0-14-312809-0

Bianca Bosker had a successful career as a technology journalist when she became fascinated with the world of wine, and blind taste testing in particular. How could expert tasters identify the grape, vintage, and even the vineyard of what they were drinking, without ever seeing the bottle? Cork Dork is the story of the eighteen months she spent following this obsession, quitting her job as a journalist in order to study to become a certified sommelier, while also interviewing vintners, sommeliers, chemists, and collectors.

Cork Dork is a fascinating look behind the scenes of the wine world, approached from the broad perspective of a reporter. Bosker looks at blind tasting, tasting notes, and sommelier certification, but also the history of how the current batch of terms for describing wine came into use, how science and chemistry are changing wine making, and the evolution of the sommelier profession. Much of the book takes place in restaurants, the setting we usually associate with sommeliers, but Bosker also ventures out to wine festivals, vineyards, and private tasting groups, providing a perspective that goes beyond the service we’ve come to expect with our meals.

Cork Dork is mostly a behind the scenes look at the wine world, but Bosker does spend some time unpacking the basic elements of wine tasting for beginners. If they’re not just doing it to be pretentious, then what are connoisseurs looking for when they swirl a glass of wine and watch it run down the inside of the glass? The size and speed of the drops that run down hint at the alcohol level of the wine. Ever get that puckery feeling in your mouth after sipping wine? Those are the tannins, which come from either the skin of the grape, or the barrels in which the wine is aged. Most of the book, however, is dedicated to letting civilians see the aspects of the wine world they might otherwise never have access to, rather than outright instruction.

The rubber really hits the road in Cork Dork when Bosker tries to make her way into the restaurant industry armed with her freshly polished but highly theoretical knowledge of wine and wine service. She starts out as a cellar rat, keeping inventory, and stocking bottles, and job shadows sommelier friends in high end Manhattan restaurants. A good deal of the humour of the book comes from the fact that Bosker is an outsider, with very little practical experience in the wine world. Even as she studies varieties and vintages, and memorizes vast wine trivia, she can barely decant a bottle, let alone smoothly execute proper service to a table of expectant diners. It is also here that she touches on the perils of being a woman in the wine world. Other women working as sommeliers warn her to always address the wife, lest she be accused of flirting, and to be especially demure and respectful when dealing with older people who may be skeptical of her knowledge.

With her journalism background, Bosker would be remiss if she did not address studies that have discredited wine expertise, including a study by Frederic Brochet which dyed white wine red, then asked oenology students to describe the flavour. They overwhelmingly used terms associated with red wine. This might indicate that even experts cannot tell red and white wine apart, or that even experts can be manipulated by environmental factors. Similar experiments have been performed by dyeing lemon Jello red, and asking tasters to identify the flavour, a test which regularly confounds people. By the end of the book, Bosker lies in an fMRI machine, and correctly identifies two wines given to her through a straw, sight unseen, with no bottles, labels, or prices to sway her judgement. She identifies both correctly, a task that utterly baffled her during her first forays into blind tasting groups at the beginning of the book.

Bosker also acknowledges the high degree of subjectivity and inconsistency among experts as to what constitutes a “good” wine. Experiments have shown that wine awards are no better than random, and that the same judge can vary wildly in their assessment of the same wine in a blind test. Bosker spends a lengthy section of the book trying to get to define “good” wine. With the refinements of science and modern technology, very few wines today are legitimately bad, that is to say, poorly made or gone off. An acceptable modern wine is narrowly separated from an excellent one compared to the range and uncertainty that once existed. Yet some bottles of wine cost as much as a latte, and others could consume your entire annual salary. Bosker ultimately decides on a highly subjective measure of quality suggested to her by a mentor—“one sip leads to another,” that is, you want to keep drinking it.

Cork Dork has a strong balance of history, humour, and reportage that provides a behind-the-scenes look at the world of sommeliers and wine connoisseurs. Even a reader skeptical about the science can be fascinated by the history of wine and the complex culture that has grown up around it, and Bosker makes for an excellent guide.

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March: Book Three

Cover image for March: Book Three by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin with art by Nate Powell by John Lewis and Andrew Ayden

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-402-3

“For so many months I’d kept my emotions bottled up to be strong for those counting on me to lead, but there I was alone in the dark with it all.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past three decades. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the March graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the third and final volume in the trilogy. Catch up with March: Book One and March: Book Two here.

March: Book Three opens where March: Book Two left off, with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. The third volume is by far the longest in the trilogy, and has the most ground to cover, not necessarily in terms of time, but in terms of significant events in the civil rights movement, when participation and media attention gained critical mass. This installment includes the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcom X, the Freedom Summer voter registration project, the Selma march, and the passage of the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act. The frame narrative that anchored the first volume has mostly slipped away, with only occasional references back to the inauguration of Barack Obama. It concludes on a meta note, with Lewis and Aydin discussing the idea of turning Lewis’ memoirs into a comic book.

Book three continues to chronicle the violence faced by peaceful protestors, particularly in Mississippi and Alabama as the civil rights movement gained steam. Scene after scene shows demonstrators beaten by police, or police standing by while they are attacked by white supremacists. Volunteers knew they might face violence when they signed up to register black voters in the South, but no one expected three volunteers to be intercepted and murdered before the Freedom Summer even began. Nate Powell’s black and white art chillingly depicts dredging the Mississippi swamps in search of the bodies of the three missing young men. Over and over, it shows the terrible price paid to bring in the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act.

In addition to teaching the history of the civil rights movement, Lewis also provides a behind the scenes perspective on the growing pains of a swelling movement, and the ideological differences that arose. He highlights disagreements about the role of white people in the movement, and the role of gender equality as more women began participating. Different organizations often had profoundly different ideas about how to approach their advocacy, which Lewis presents in a diplomatic fashion. We also see Lewis beginning to move in powerful circles, not just the leadership of the student movement, but also among other civil rights organizations, and even meeting the president. This might be a little inside baseball for some readers, but it does drive home the amount of behind the scenes work and debate involved in bringing about change.

Throughout March, Lewis emphasizes action over legislation, highlight the fact that while laws are important, they mean nothing without practical enforcement or compliance. Even as it concludes at a triumphal moment, with the inauguration of the United States’ first black president, there is a note of sadness and caution. One of the last scenes depicts Lewis listening to his voicemail. “I was thinking about the years of work, the bloodshed…the people who didn’t live to see this day,” Ted Kennedy says as Lewis listens in the dark, head in his hands. March is dedicated to “the past and future children of the movement.” And the next day, Congressman Lewis is back at his office, planning to educate those future children about what was lost, what was gained, and the work yet to be done.

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Canada Reads Along: The Right to Be Cold

Cover image for The Right to Be Cold by Sheila Watt-Cloutierby Sheila Watt-Cloutier

ISBN 978-0-14-318764-6

“Climate change is about people as much as it is about the earth, and the science, economics and politics of our changing environment must always have a human face.”

Born in Kuujuuaq in the Nunavik region of northern Quebec in 1953, Sheila Watt-Cloutier has borne witness to tremendous change in the Inuit way of life over the past six decades. Her diverse career has included work in the fields of health and education before she turned to climate activism in the 1990s. However, all of these pursuits have a unifying purpose; the protection of Inuit culture and the well-being of Inuit people. Part memoir and part call to action, The Right to Be Cold combines scientific evidence and Inuit traditional knowledge, putting a human face on the impact of climate change, which has been acutely felt in the Arctic region Watt-Cloutier calls home. Focusing on the interconnectedness of all things, Watt-Cloutier positions Inuit as sentinels, sounding the alarm about issues that have already devastated the Arctic, but must eventually impact the entire world.

Watt-Cloutier does a wonderful job of putting a human face on climate change, both by giving accounts of traditional Inuit practices, and chronicling how they have changed as the Arctic warms. She also writes very understandable explanations of the scientific processes that are involved in climate change, including explaining why the poles are experiencing the phenomenon at a more rapid rate than other parts of the planet. By describing her Inuit childhood, Watt-Cloutier is able to illustrate how much has changed in such a short period. For the first the first ten years of her life she traveled only by dog sled, until the government executed most of the sled dogs in the 1960s. Today, travel by sled or snow machine is difficult because the texture of the snow has changed due to rising temperatures. Travel over once-solid sea ice has also been made dangerous by the changes wrought by temperature and pollutants. The traditional knowledge of the elders that once kept hunters safe is rapidly becoming obsolete in a swiftly-changing environment.

While humanizing the issues is certainly one of Watt-Cloutier’s strengths, the book does get bogged down in the middle, in the chapters “POPs and the Inuit Journey,” and “The Right to Be Cold.” These chapters chronicle her international political advocacy as the president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, where she served for eleven years beginning in 1995. Her first major issue was Persistent Organic Pollutants which, due to weather systems, tend to gather in the Arctic and poison traditional Inuit food sources as they accumulate at the top of the food chain. After the Stockholm Convention, the organization turned its attention to climate change. Watt-Cloutier then advanced the argument that climate change is a human rights issue, because it directly impacts all of the other recognized human rights. Unfortunately, these chapters can be a little bit inside baseball, consisting of long lists of the many international players, which will not be relevant to the average reader. These chapters do serve to illustrate the immense difficulty and cooperation needed to orchestrate an agreement on an international issue, but this could have been accomplished with only a few of the telling anecdotes. For example, at a conference where the ICC was only an observer, the organization tried to get the Canadian delegation to mention the impacts on the Arctic in relation to climate change. When they dismissed the request, the ICC instead turned to the Samoan delegation, which agreed to mention that the flooding they were experiencing from rising sea levels was a direct result of the rapidly melting Arctic ice cap.

The Right to Be Cold was represented in this year’s Canada Reads competition by singer Chantal Kreviazuk, who had a couple of disadvantages representing this title. While all of the other panelists appeared live in the studio in Toronto, Kreviazuk appeared by video link from Los Angeles due to the fact that her son was in the hospital there. Kreviazuk did her best to try to turn this to the book’s advantage by pointing out that her son’s acute asthma attack was caused by increased pollen levels that are a direct result of a warmer climate. However, due to the slight lag in the video link, it was difficult for Kreviazuk to jump into the back and forth of the debate, although host Ali Hassan did a good job of ensuring that questions were addressed to her, and offering her opportunities to respond. Kreviazuk was also defending the only non-fiction title among this year’s selections, which has historically been a disadvantage. Since Canada Reads began in 2002, Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre has been the only non-fiction winner in 2012, although the 2015 winner Ru was heavily based on autobiographical elements of Kim Thuy’s life.

Despite these disadvantages, Kreviazuk mounted a strong case for The Right to Be Cold based on this year’s Canada Reads theme, “the one book Canada needs now.” Climate change is a compelling and time-sensitive issue that fits well with this topic. Kreviazuk also gained a vocal ally when Candy Palmater became a free agent after The Break was eliminated on day one. Although Palmater cast a strategic vote against The Right to Be Cold in an effort to save her own book on the first day, she subsequently fought strongly for the book she initially voted to eliminate. In addition to bringing forth some Indigenous perspectives on aspects of the book, Palmater also pointed out the apples to oranges comparison of pitting one non-fiction title against the two remaining novels.

Throughout the week, the main argument against The Right to Be Cold centered on the amount of information provided and its readability as a result. Kreviazuk felt the wealth of information was necessary to ensure that the book was not dismissed as “just an opinion.” Jody Mitic felt that there was too much information not about Sheila herself. Measha Breuggergosman acknowledged that the topic was essential, but argued that The Right to Be Cold was simply not as engaging as the other books on the table. Humble the Poet also repeatedly raised the question of readability. The tension centered on the disconnect some panelists felt between the undisputed significance of the issue, and the accessibility of the manner in which it was presented. When it came time to vote, Palmater and Kreviazuk voted against Company Town, while Humble the Poet, Brueggergosman, and Mitic all cast their ballots against The Right to Be Cold, making it the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2017.

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Need to get caught up with Canada Reads Along 2017? Start here with The Break by Katherena Vermette

Born a Crime

born-a-crimeby Trevor Noah

ISBN 978-0-385-68922-9

“The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.”

When Trevor Noah was born in South Africa in 1984, his existence was literally illegal, proof that his black, Xhosa mother and his white, Swiss-German father had violated the Immorality Act of 1927, one of the many laws defining the system known as apartheid. The crime carried a punishment of four to five years in prison, and mixed race children were often seized and placed in state-run orphanages. But Noah’s mother was determined and clever, and she managed to hold onto her son, refusing to flee her home country in order to raise him. But it made his childhood complicated, even after apartheid officially ended in 1994. Racial hierarchies and inequities persisted, and despite receiving a good education, his upbringing was anything but easy. In a series of essays, Born a Crime chronicles Noah’s experience growing up under apartheid and its aftermath.

Noah opens with an effective hook; when he was eight or nine years old, his mother threw him out of a moving vehicle. From there he relates his extremely religious upbringing, eventually circling back to the incident that led his mother to push him out of a moving minibus on their way home from church. By then the reader has a much better sense of the context, both political, and personal, that led to the event. In addition to an interesting life, Noah also has a good sense of pacing and narrative style that make his recollections particularly illuminating, as is clear from the first chapter.

Noah is observant, and able to clearly convey the absurdity of the system he was born under while also explaining its function for a North American audience that is probably not terribly familiar with the ins and outs of apartheid. Each section opens with some background history that helps contextualize the story from his life that he is about to tell. This means that the episodes themselves are not overly bogged down with explanation, and readers who are already familiar with South African history can skip much of the exposition. He also highlights important differences in the ways systemic racism has functioned in South Africa when compared to the United States. The most important point to note in terms of understanding his narrative is that the word ‘colored’ in South Africa refers to a mixed race person. Whereas the American “one drop” rule made anyone with any African blood black, mixed race people formed their own category in South Africa, separate from both black and white.

An aspect of the memoir that I found particularly interesting and revealing was Noah’s discussion of language and its power. South Africa has several official languages, including English and Afrikaans, as well as a variety of indigenous languages like Xhosa and Zulu. Noah grew up multi-lingual, criss-crossing language boundaries in the same way that he crossed racial ones. Describing the way language could make him into a chameleon, he writes “My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I answered in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.” For white or colored people, it was considered demeaning to learn African languages, but a black person speaking good English could be considered uppity in the wrong context. Rifts between different African groups could be crossed by speaking their language. Children in schools in the tribal homelands were taught only their native language, the better to divide them from other black tribes. This is an interesting contrast to the strategy employed against indigenous people in North America, who were stripped of their native languages in order to divide them from their culture and heritage, and assimilate them.

Trevor Noah is known as a comedian, successor to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show. But while there is an understated humour present in Born a Crime, for the most part it is memoir, not comedy. The humour comes mostly in the form of sly comments, such as when he describes his mother’s determination to attend church three times every Sunday: “The more time we spent at church, she reckoned, the more blessings we accrued, like a Starbucks Rewards Card.” However, there are some episodes that are laugh-out-loud funny, such as the time when Noah’s fear of using the outhouse while visiting his mother’s family in the Soweto Township led to his family becoming convinced that there was a demon in the house. For the most part, however, these are leavening incidents in an otherwise serious account of his childhood. This memoir highlights the insightfulness that, while essential to any good comedian, can also be put to other purposes.

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Audiobook Memoir Mini-Reviews

I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and I’ve written before about all the awesome ways they make my life better. However, I don’t usually write reviews, because driving, cleaning, cooking, or walking while I listen means that I don’t usually take any notes, which is a key part of my regular review writing process. But this year I’m trying out short reviews that will share my quick impressions of the books I’ve been listening too. These are admittedly not as in-depth or analytical as my usual reviews, but rather a quick record of what I thought about my latest listens.

Scrappy Little Nobody

Cover image for Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick Anna Kendrick

ISBN 9781501117206

This memoir features a series of funny essays about Kendrick’s rise to fame read by the actress herself. She is best known for Up in the Air and Pitch Perfect, and forgotten for, but financially supported by, her bit part in the Twilight franchise. Scrappy Little Nobody shares Kendrick’s stories about being a theatre nerd, the weirdness of appearing on red carpets in borrowed dresses that cost more than your rent—which you can barely pay—and yet having everyone assume that you are rich because you’re famous. I especially enjoyed the story about the first time she realized she was being followed by a paparazzo, and her strategy for avoiding stakeouts of her apartment (use your introvert super powers to stay inside, watch Netflix and eat take-out until they go away).  Kendrick was both funny and relatable and this audiobook made for enjoyable company while getting my chores done.

Being Jazz

Cover image for Being Jazz by Jazz JenningsJazz Jennings

ISBN 9780735207448

Being Jazz is a sweetly earnest memoir by a trans girl who realized her identity at a very young age, and was blessed with the rare support of her family despite the difficulty they faced in finding any information about raising a trans child. Jazz has now featured in several TV specials, a children’s book, and a reality series, in addition to her own memoir. Honestly, I felt like a bit of a creepy snoop for getting this intimate look into the life of a very young person, who will probably be embarrassed by some of these stories down the road. Apart from her advocacy work, Jennings’ life is pretty normal, and while that is important for people to see, it isn’t terribly interesting, especially if you’ve already been a teenage girl once yourself. Jennings also touches on her struggles with depression, and evinces a sex-positive attitude with little room for shame. Her straightforward message focuses on self-love and acceptance.

In Other Words

Cover image for In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri Jhumpa Lahiri

ISBN 9781101875551

After completing her 2012 novel, The Lowland, award-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri largely gave up reading and writing in English, and moved to Rome to pursue her passion for the Italian language. After studying it sporadically for more than twenty years, she wanted to immerse herself in it to become truly fluent, something that she felt was impossible in New York. In Other Words was written in Italian (In Altre Parole) and then translated back into English by Ann Goldstein. The audiobook is read by the author, first in English, and then again in Italian. I was absolutely fascinated by these layers of mediation, as well as the process of learning another language, and I listened to the entire English half of the audio book during the January 24 in 48 readathon. Lahiri explains why she felt she had to give up English, the reason she chose to have someone else translate her book into English, and meditates on the experience of trying to express herself in a language she has only just begun to grasp with any fluency. The collection includes two of the stories she wrote during her time in Rome. One is the first story she wrote in Italian, and the other is one that came later. She also reflects on how her three languages—Bengali, English, and Italian—relate to her identity as the child of immigrants. If you find languages or the writing process interesting, or are curious about the relationship between language and identity, you absolutely have to check out this memoir!

The World’s Strongest Librarian

Cover image for The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh Hanagarneby Josh Hanagarne

ISBN 978-1-592-40877-1

“I finally had verification of something I had long suspected—there was a daily intensity quota that had to be met. I had to expend a certain amount of energy on tics each day. It could be meted out over many small tics, or a few dozen huge ones.”

Librarians come in many stripes, and a 6’7” weight lifter with Tourette Syndrome is just one of them. Raised Mormon in Utah, Josh Hanagarne was a bookish kid who developed uncontrollable tics when he was in elementary school, though it would take him many years to get a proper diagnosis. The World’s Strongest Librarian chronicles the many ways that Tourette Syndrome interrupted his life. It cut short the mission he was expected to serve for his church, dragged out his university career so that it took him ten years to graduate, and kept him from holding down a job for very long.  But the book is also a paean to libraries, and an examination of family and faith, as Hanagarne finds his calling, gets married, and comes to question the church in which he was raised.

If you look at the Quotes section of Goodreads for this book, almost every passage is about the power and place of libraries in our society. And while that aspect of the book certainly resonated with me, the most illuminating part was Hanagarne’s attempt to help the reader understand what it feels like to have Tourette’s. He does a good job of articulating the experience of these unexpected outbursts, which for him include both physical and verbal tics. He describes them as building up like a sneeze until they need to be released. But instead of dissipating, the next “sneeze” begins to build up almost immediately. He also explains what it costs him to supress a tic, which he manages to do in church or on airplanes, for limited amounts of time. The cost is very loud and violent outbursts later, as if a certain amount of energy must be spent each day, either in small doses, or larger outpourings. This has a significant effect on tendons and joints, which have to bear the violent, repetitive motions. The condition is such a large force in his life that Hanagarne has personified it, nicknaming her Misty.

What seems to be more difficult for Hanagarne to articulate is the method by which he sought relief. Although weightlifting was part of it, he was lifting long before he met Adam T. Glass, the autistic former air-force sergeant who helped him get a handle on the tics. I can’t say the method entirely makes sense to me, but if I was Hanagarne, I know that I would do whatever helped in order to get relief. Glass’s theory seems to have something to do with listening to the body in order to feel how it wants to move, applying this to both weightlifting and breathing, but I can’t say I exactly understood the concept, and Hanagarne also seems to have trouble explaining it clearly.

Another interesting area of Hanagarne’s memoir is his examination of religion and faith. He hits the nail on the head when he writes about the immersive culture of Mormonism. It isn’t just a religion, it is a way of life, with built-in community and social activities than can become all-encompassing. Hanagarne spends a lot of time describing this culture, which may be insightful for those who know little about the religion, or tiresome for those who are well versed. But if you have ever wondered about what Mormon missionaries do when they’re not knocking on your door, Hanagarne gives a good account, up until he had to leave his mission early due to an increase in the severity of his Tourette’s symptoms, which included punching himself in the face. Hanagarne provides a considered look at what it means to detach from such an immersive faith tradition, especially when your family is still involved.

The World’s Strongest Librarian is an interesting and well-rounded memoir, with aspects that may appeal to a variety of readers, whether you are looking to read about a fellow book lover, or to understand Mormonism or Tourette Syndrome better. Hanagarne tackles all these subjects with humour and self-deprecation.

Lab Girl

Cover image for Lab Girl by Hope Jahrenby Hope Jahren

ISBN 9781101890202

“Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.” 

The daughter of a community college science professor, Hope Jahren always felt at home in the laboratory, playing there while her father worked. After obtaining her PhD from UC Berkeley, she would go on to become a geobiologist, founding multiple laboratories, and winning honours from the Fulbright to the Young Investigator Medal. Part memoir, and part science, Lab Girl shares Jahren’s experiences from graduate school to tenured professor, and all the bumps along the way, including funding cuts, bipolar disorder, and changing institutions.

Lab Girl began its life as a text book, but Jahren found herself unable to separate what she had learned from how she learned it. So it became a memoir, and Jahren’s chapters alternate between describing her life and work, and waxing poetic about trees, plants, and nature more generally. When she reveals, late in the book, that she also writes poetry, it comes as no surprise. With her descriptions, she is able to make processes like photosynthesis and flowering both beautiful and interesting. Through her words you can fully appreciate the stunning feat that is a plant’s ability to make sugar out of light, or that fact that a tree that is one of the few living things—flora or fauna—that can stand motionless through a cold winter, and not die. Using the metaphor of the struggle a seed undergoes to become a plant, Jahren chronicles her own struggle to grow into a scientist, in a profession where money is short, and women are not always welcome, and others don’t always see the significance of what you are doing.

Jahren’s relationship with her parents is distant and cool, even as she describes her father as the inspiration for her interest in science. After the chapters on her childhood, they are rarely mentioned again. She does eventually marry, but she meets her husband late in life, and even then he features little in the text. The primary relationship in Lab Girl, and one of the most interesting parts of the story, is the decades long friendship with her lab assistant Bill. The two met when Jahren was a PhD student and teaching assistant, and Bill was an undergraduate. He is an odd but compelling character, and a constant in Jahren’s life as she moves from Georgia Tech to Johns Hopkins to the University of Hawaii. After they completed their degrees at the same time, Bill followed her to Atlanta to work in her first lab, and has remained her right hand ever since.

Another clear theme that emerges in Lab Girl is the ongoing difficulty of funding scientific research, particularly research that does not have any immediately identifiable practical application. A huge part of Jahren’s job is not doing the science or teaching she was hired for, but writing grant applications to ensure the continued operation of her lab, and the salaries of Bill and their ever-changing cast of student assistants. Without money, there is no science, and though Jahren secured a salary for herself, universities do not generally pay for labs, beyond some start-up funding for new professors. Jahren even slips a line into the book apologetically soliciting patrons, adding that she would be “absolutely crazy” not to include it.

I listened to Lab Girl as an audiobook, which Jahren performs herself, reading in a soft voice with a few pleasant traces of her Minnesota childhood. Her voice is quiet and unassuming, until she comes to the more difficult parts of the text, such as describing her struggles with mental illness. Then her voice overflows with emotion, giving the audiobook a personal touch that would not have been possible if it was performed by a voice actor. It perfectly embodies the way Jahren blends the personal and the scientific.

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Just Mercy

Cover image for Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson by Bryan Stevenson

ISBN 978-0-8129-8496-5

“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”

As a young law student, Bryan Stevenson was somewhat adrift at Harvard Law School, unsure of his direction or his future. He wanted to do something that would help people, but he was having trouble connecting his theoretical education with meaningful action. Then, an internship at the Southern Prisoner’s Defence Committee led to work helping inmates on death row in the Deep South. Most of these prisoners were indigent, and could not afford legal counsel to help review or appeal their cases. The experience made a profound impression, and led him to found the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama in 1994. Stevenson would go on to appeal countless death sentences, and challenge the practice of sentencing minors to life without parole. Just Mercy recounts his experiences representing people who have been written off by society.

The main case threaded through Just Mercy is that of Walter McMillian, who was convicted in 1988 of the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison, and sentenced to death in Alabama. Stevenson’s association with the case began with a call from the original trial judge, who got wind that Stevenson had been looking into McMillian, and called to try to scare him off of representing him. Stevenson took the case anyway, and the result is an investigation that seems like something out of a television crime drama. The tenuousness of the evidence on which McMillian was convicted is scarcely believable, the racism poorly concealed, and the unwillingness to admit an error simply stunning.

Just Mercy draws interesting parallels to one of American’s most beloved classic novels, To Kill a Mockingbird. McMillian was from Monroeville, Alabama, home to author Harper Lee. The town continued to publicize and celebrate the work, even as a wrongful conviction took place in their midst. While To Kill a Mockingbird lionizes Atticus Finch for his defence of Tom Robinson, Stevenson encountered repeated obstruction from the community, and even received death and bomb threats for his defence of McMillian. The irony is not lost on Stevenson, who also notes the unhappy ending for the accused in Lee’s novel.

Walter McMillian in the main thread running through the book, appearing in every second chapter, but his is not the only story. In the chapters between, Stevenson highlights other types of abuses that lead him to do this work, such as life without parole sentences for children, the incarceration of the mentally ill, and the prosecution of women who have suffered still births. While this results in a book that is less focused on a particular case, it ultimately proves to be a strength. These chapters serve to show that Walter McMillian is not isolated or even a particularly extreme case, and give a better idea of the breadth of the problem. The alternating chapters even serve to provide some sense of suspense in McMillian’s case, despite the fact that the outcome was widely publicized and is therefore probably generally known to readers.

Beyond specific cases, Just Mercy also serves to highlight the how short legal services are for the poor, and the lack of re-entry programs for exonerated prisoners. Every time Stevenson took on a new case, other prisoners would hear about his work and seek his help, creating an impossible case load. Once, in a case where Stevenson was representing a veteran who suffered from PTSD, and injured two children by setting off a bomb, the victims’ families asked for Stevenson’s assistance seeking financial aid they had been promised but never received.  They sought his help even though he was representing the man who had caused the injuries in the first place.

Even when prisoners get help and are able to win their release, they face problems reintegrating into society. Someone who is convicted of murder and then later found to be innocent remains ineligible for services that exclude people who have been convicted of felonies. Originally setting out to provide legal help, Stevenson subsequently found himself also doing social work, providing assistance and support to those he had helped set free. Thus Stevenson paints a broad portrait of a problem that goes beyond any one wrongfully convicted prisoner, and serves to highlight a broken system in desperate need of reform.

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