Tag: Jesmyn Ward

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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Men We Reaped

Cover image for Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Wardby Jesmyn Ward

ISBN 978-1-60819-765-1

“If Demond’s family history wasn’t so different from my own, did that mean we were living the same story over and over again, down the through the generations? That the young and the Black had always been dying until all that was left were children and the few old, as in war?”

Between October 2000 and June 2004, no less than five young, black men died in DeLisle, Mississippi, Jesmyn Ward’s hometown. Of course, there were more than five, but the loss of these particular young men, beginning with her brother Joshua, and ending with her friend Roger emotionally devastated Ward. The causes of death ranged from drug-induced heart attack to car accident to murder, but though they were unconnected on the surface, Ward lays bare the reality of life in the South, exposing the invisible threads of poverty and blackness that unite their untimely deaths. These deaths and a confusing homesickness called Ward home to the South again and again, even as she was trying to escape by attending college on the West coast, and then grad school in Michigan.

Men We Reaped is a series of obituaries, hung together by the context of life in the South, and a deep sense of foreboding about the next inevitable death. Ward begins with her family history, leading up to the marriage of her parents, then switches off to recount the life and death of the final victim, Roger Eric Daniels III. Returning to her own family, she shares her childhood and her parents’ troubled marriage, and continues to switch off biography and autobiography until the two timelines meet, and her story culminates with the first death, the loss of her younger brother, Joshua Adam Dedeaux. This unusual structure means that those who died first are ghosts in the stories of those who died later, but covering the deaths in reverse chronological order has the peculiar effect of bringing those ghosts back to life, only to relive their tragic deaths once more.

Though the litany of deaths make clear the extent of the problem, Ward writes most movingly about her own family’s history, and her relationship with her brother. There is no surprise or admonition when thirteen-year-old Joshua, three years her junior, reveals that he is selling drugs to help make ends meet in their father’s household. It is simply the inevitable stop-gap for most young men in the depressed Southern economy. Ward herself is sixteen at the time, and living with their mother, being slowly lifted away from her brother as she is educated at a private Christian school paid for by the white man whose house her mother cleans. The gulf between them continues to widen until Ward feels like the naïve and sheltered younger sibling in contrast to her hardened and street smart younger brother.

Writing this book is part of Ward’s struggle to make sense of make happened and come to terms with it, and the events are clearly still quite emotionally raw even a decade later. The list of tragedies is grim and unrelenting, “it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time,” Ward writes. The spectre of her own substance abuse—self-medication for grief and despair—hangs over the narrative, but is never completely addressed. But by setting the women of her family—two sisters, her mother, and grandmother—against the short and violent lives of the men in the community, Ward is able to draw an incisive portrait of the gendered consequences of racism and poverty in the American South.

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