Tag: Eli Sanders

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2016

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2016. Click the title for a link to the full review. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Being Mortal 

ISBN 978-0-8050-9515-9

Cover image for Being Mortal by Atul GawandeIn Being Mortal, Dr. Atul Gawande examines how society and the medical system can improve the treatment and care of elderly and terminally ill patients. He balances the personal and the professional, using stories from his own family–his wife’s grandmother, and then his own father–as well as case studies from his practice. The book provides an overview of different end of life care options, showcasing their benefits and short-comings. Particularly key to Gawande’s criticism is our failure to provide the sick and the elderly with as much control as possible over their own lives, even when the final outcome is beyond their control. Gawande demonstrates the price patients pay in quality of life when we over-emphasize safety. I truly want to make everyone read this book. Younger readers will be better prepared to navigate conversations about aging with their parents. And of course, anyone of any age can find themselves faced with an unexpected illness that catapults them into facing their own mortality sooner than they might have wished or planned.

Categories: Medicine

The Fire This Time

ISBN 978-1-5011-2634-5

Cover image for The Fire This Time, Edited by Jesamyn WardFollowing the death of Trayvon Martin, Jesmyn Ward turned to Twitter to raise her voice against the injustice. But while she found the medium powerful in the heat of the moment, its ephemerality left her wanting more. So she turned to the work of James Baldwin, and from there reached out to gather the voices of a new generation of writers on race in America today. The result is a collection of seventeen diverse pieces, largely essays, but with a poem or other more stylized piece opening each of the three sections. Many of the essays resurrect events that have long since slipped out of the news cycle, memorializing the victims, and decrying the injustice that cost them their lives. The tone ranges from humourous to angry to hopeful as the writers probe their experiences, and draw connections to America’s broader history and legacy. Each reader will undoubtedly have their own favourite pieces in this collection that speaks powerfully about continued racial tension in America today.

Categories: Essays

Just Mercy 

ISBN 978-0-8129-8496-5

Cover image for Just Mercy by Bryan StevensonAs a young law student at Harvard, Bryan Stevenson was unsure about his calling, but a summer internship at the Southern Prisoner’s Defence Committee led him to found the Equal Justice Initiative in 1994, defending indigent prisoners on Death Row in the South. The main thread of Just Mercy is Stevenson’s investigation into the conviction of Walter McMillian in the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison, which is 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. 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.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.

Categories: African-American, Memoir, True Crime

Milk and Honey

ISBN 978-1-4494-7425-6

Cover image for Milk and Honey by Rupi KaurThis simple and stunning collection is the first book of poems by Canadian writer Rupi Kaur. The book is divided into four sections, entitled “the hurting,” “the loving,” “the breaking,” and “the healing.” Kaur describes it as “the blood sweat tears/ of twenty-one years,” and it does indeed feel like she has put her heart in your hands in paper form. Kaur’s style is short and to the point, but she can punch you in the gut with only a few words, as she explores first love and heart break, family dynamics, and sexual abuse. Her writing has a stripped-down feel, denuded of capital letters and most punctuation, relying on rhythm and visual formatting to do some of that work. The pieces are accompanied by simple black and white line drawings, many of which are really quite elegant, all clean lines and positive and negative space working together. I read this collection at least three times this year, and also listened to the audiobook performed by the author.

Categories: Canadian, Poetry

While the City Slept 

ISBN 978-0-6700-1571-9

Cover image for While the City SleptIn the early hours of July 19, 2009, a man entered the home of Teresa Butz, and her partner Jennifer Hopper in Seattle’s South Park neighbourhood. He raped both women, and slashed and stabbed them with a knife. Eventually they were able to escape screaming into the street, where neighbours came to their aid, and the police were called. Eli Sanders—who received the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his coverage of the South Park attacks in Seattle’s weekly newspaper, The Stranger—begins at this crucial moment, and then circles back to Jennifer and Teresa’s childhoods, and chronicles how they eventually met and fell in love. Sanders then turns to Isaiah Kalebu, the man accused of raping them and murdering Teresa. His story is an education in the results of deinstitutionalization, the conditions for involuntary commitment, and mental competency to stand trial. It is the story of one missed opportunity after another, of a young man who slipped repeatedly through the cracks in the system, despite his family’s best efforts to get him the help he so desperately needed. While the City Slept is a love story, a tragedy, and a gruesome murder mystery. But it is harrowing not merely because of the violence it recounts, but because of the way it methodically exposes the flaws and failures of both the mental health and criminal justice systems in Washington State.

Categories: LGBT+, True Crime

2016 was honestly a pretty great non-fiction year, thanks in part to my resolution to read more of it. There were a lot of great runners up that are worth checking out, too, including The Boys in the Boat, Hidden Figures, Lab Girl, Not Just Jane, and Where Am I Now.

What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2016?

 

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While the City Slept

Cover image for While the City Slept by Eli Sanders

ISBN 9780670015719

“They had feared him, and it was fear of a certain kind. Not the primal, salable fear of violence, not fright of the unexpected arriving with sudden brutality from an unknowable beyond. Theirs was fear of a known man and an outcome not yet known but likely to be grim. Fear of a person who, regrettably, had lived and delivered pain already, a man intelligent enough to impress yet with seemingly no handle on where his disjointed thoughts, speech, and actions might be headed.”

In the early hours of July 19, 2009, a man entered the home of Teresa Butz, and her partner Jennifer Hopper in Seattle’s South Park neighbourhood. He raped both women, and slashed and stabbed them with a knife. Eventually they were able to escape screaming into the street, where neighbours came to their aid, and the police were called. Their assailant fled into the night while Teresa Butz lay dying on the pavement of South Rose Street, and her fiancée was transported to Harborview Medical Center. A four day man hunt led to the arrest of Isaiah Kalebu, a mentally ill man who had been living on the streets since his family became too afraid to continue to care for him. While the City Slept recounts Jennifer and Teresa’s love story, Isaiah Kalebu’s descent into madness, and the terrible violence with which their paths crossed.

Eli Sanders—who received the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his coverage of the South Park attacks in Seattle’s weekly newspaper, The Stranger—begins by characterizing the South Park neighbourhood in which Jennifer and Teresa lived. It was blue collar and ethnically diverse, as well as friendly and supportive. When glass was heard breaking, and there were screams in the street, several neighbours rushed to their aid, and still more called for emergency services. From this crucial moment, Sanders circles back to examine the childhoods of the two women, as well as how they met and fell in love.

Jennifer and Teresa were only two months from their wedding day when Teresa was killed. Though same sex marriage would not be legal in Washington State for another three years, the two women were determined to seize their happy ending with a commitment ceremony. Teresa came from a large and loving, but religious family, which had struggled with her sexual orientation. At the time of the attacks, Teresa was not sure if her parents would be coming to her wedding. Jennifer’s single mother became addicted to prescription drugs for her back pain, and as result Jennifer was largely raised by her grandmother, who did not accept that she was a lesbian. Friends and family on both sides, as well as Jennifer herself, cooperated with Sanders for this book.

After carefully chronicling Jennifer and Teresa’s lives, meeting, and romance, Sanders turns to Isaiah Kalebu, the man accused of raping them and murdering Teresa. His story is an education in the results of deinstitutionalization, the conditions for involuntary commitment, and mental competency to stand trial. Kalebu was raised in an abusive home, where his parents were constantly fighting with one another. When he was a teenager, they would go through a messy and prolonged divorce. Although his teachers often noted his behavioural problems, his parents refused to accept these observations, or chose to ignore them. Because he was smart and made good grades, they were satisfied that he was doing well at school. By the time of the attacks, Kalebu would be living on the streets because he had alienated his relatives. His aunt and her partner died in a fire he was suspected of setting, and his mother and sister took out restraining orders against him because they were frightening by his extreme reactions to their efforts to have him committed. It is the story of one missed opportunity after another, of a young man who slipped repeatedly through the cracks in the system, despite his family’s best efforts to get him the help he so desperately needed. His family agreed to cooperate with Sanders for this book, but after a few initial emails, Kalebu himself ceased communicating.

Sanders does not recount the attack itself until it comes to Jennifer’s testimony at trial. There, he gives enough of her account to illustrate exactly how brutal and terrifying the events were, but not so much as to be prurient or salacious, though it is a delicate balance. What shines through is Jennifer’s grace and courage under pressure, as well as her path towards forgiveness and healing. One lawyer would describe her time on the stand as the best witness testimony he had ever seen. After only two days of deliberation, the jury would convict Kalebu of Butz’s murder, the attempted murder of Jennifer Hopper, as well as rape and burglary. The sentence was life without parole.

While the City Slept is a love story, a tragedy, and a gruesome murder mystery. But it is harrowing not merely because of the violence it recounts, but because of the way it methodically exposes the flaws and failures of both the mental health and criminal justice systems in Washington State.

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