Book Review: Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari

29 January 2015

This review originally ran in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission.

British journalist Johann Hari spent three years traveling around the world to understand the war on drugs, culminating in Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. His book spans the start of the war in the U.S. nearly a century ago in the small office of Harry Anslinger, an assistant prohibition commissioner and, later, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, to the more recent beginnings of its end in Canada, Colorado, Portugal and Sweden. Hari lays out heartbreaking, often gruesome and unbelievable stories of prohibition and legalization to illustrate how historical battles to eliminate drugs have succeeded and failed, how they have shaped--and been shaped by--race and racial tensions in the United States and beyond and how they have influenced so much of our contemporary cultural thinking.

In 2011, Hari was the subject of a journalistic scandal involving, among other things, sourcing and citing quotations. This experience seems to have made the research in Chasing the Scream all the more thorough; each chapter is introduced with an explanation of how and why Hari came to interview people on a given topic. This approach results in book that is more than the sum of its parts; Hari does not just present information for readers to interpret, but invites readers along on his process of discovery. Though not all readers will agree with Hari's conclusions, it's likely that Chasing the Scream will invite a careful reevaluation of what we thought we knew about drugs and why we fight so hard against them.


Chasing the Scream | Johann Hari | Bloomsbury USA | Hardcover | January 2015 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Checking in on Challenges

28 January 2015

It's the last week of January already (how did that happen, exactly!?) and those of us on the East Coast are desperately longing for beaches and warm weather (well I am, at any rate). As the month draws to a close, both Clean Your Reader and Jazz Age January will be wrapping up:

Clean Your Reader

I had hoped to read 5+ ebooks from my collected, accumulated ebooks, but I'm only at 3 so far. I may squeeze one more (short one!) in this week to round out at four, but that depends on workloads and the like. How are the rest of you doing? Any last-minute pushes for a few more ebooks? (I'll be posting a final link-up at the end of the month.)

Jazz Age January

Like Clean Your Reader, I had better intentions for this challenge, but I'm not entirely disappointed with what I've read so far. The time-period focus finally got me to pick up Eve in Hollywood, though I realized after I started it that it was really set in the 30s, not the 20s (it's the thought that counts, though, right?). I read an ARC of Dorothy Parker Drank Here, a story set in modern times using the premise that Dorothy Parker's very real ghost still haunts the Algonquin Hotel. And the short e-book I may still try to squeeze in this week is The Great Gatsby (which I own in multiple formats, e-book included, and tend to re-read every year or two anyway).


Despite the fact that both the TBR 2015 Challenge and the Read Harder Challenge last all year, not just the month of January, I've actually made a few dents there as well:

2015 TBR Challenge

Completed Getting Things Done, picking up Daring Greatly next (not all my picks are self-help/business books, but they seemed fitting for the start of a new year...)

Read Harder Challenge

Books completed:

  • Find Me, by Laura Van Den Berg (book published this year)
  • Getting Things Done, by David Allen (self-help)
  • In the Woods, by Tana French (book that someone recommended to you)
  • (currently reading) Trigger Warning, by Neil Gaiman (short story collection)


Are you participating in any challenges this year? If so, how's it going?

This Week in Reading: Monday, January 26th

26 January 2015

2015 started off with a bang: my husband and I closed on a house the last week of December and spent the first two weeks of January packing and painting and planning our move. As of last week, we're officially residents of a new town, in a new county, about an hour west of where we used to live. We're loving it so far: great restaurants, incredibly nice people, and an awesome independent bookstore. Added bonus: most everything we could need is in walking distance, so we're trying things out as a one-car household for a while, to see if we can make that work.

This is all to say that while January's been a great month so far in a lot of ways, it hasn't included a lot of reading time. But as we start to wave goodbye to the last of the boxes (I think? I hope), and with only a few rooms left to paint (I am seriously so very sick of painting...) I'm looking forward to some more time curled up in front of the fire with a good book:

The Bullet, by Mary Louise Kelly: This is one of those read-in-one-sitting kinds of reads. I barely looked up once I started this story of a 37-year-old woman who has an x-ray only to discover she has a bullet lodged in her neck--and no memory of how it got there. Full review and author interview to come in Shelf Awareness in March.

Teach a Woman to Fish: Overcoming Poverty Around the Globe, by Ritu Sharma: The aforementioned indie bookstore has a book club centered on women and their extraordinary series, and this is their pick for January; it's also right up my alley in terms of what I do for a living, so I can't wait to dive in.

Trigger Warning, by Neil Gaiman: New Gaiman! I'm trying to savor the stories in this collection with limited success--they are just as strange and whimsical as anyone could want them to be, coming from Gaiman. Read Harder Challenge (Collection of Short Stories)

Book Review: Information Doesn't Want to Be Free by Cory Doctorow

21 January 2015

At first glance, it may be tempting to dismiss Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age as a dry, dull account of copyright law as it relates to the Internet. But Cory Doctorow (Little Brother; Makers), coeditor of Boing Boing, is anything but boring, and this is a McSweeney's publication. Doctorow's short little book presents a fascinating and thought-provoking account of the laws, the Web and how the two struggle to coexist. 

Doctorow structures his argument around three basic rules for understanding--and engaging with--copyright law online. The first rule addresses digital locks, including digital rights management (DRM), while the second moves on to the importance of distribution for achieving fame, and vice versa. The third, which gives the book its title, explores regulations, human rights and censorship. Taken together, Doctorow's rules present a multifaceted approach to understanding these potentially confusing laws, from what motivated governments to pass some of the first copyright regulations to more recent U.S. legislation, such as SOPA, PIPA and net neutrality. 

Lest the theory behind these laws become too esoteric, Doctorow peppers his work with real-life examples of regulations in action online; lest it become too detailed to be easily understood, he offers analogies that bring the legalese back down to earth. Introductions from Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer make an incredible work even more impressive. Information Doesn't Want to Be Free is the most entertaining and informational book on copyright law you'll ever read.

Information Doesn't Want to Be Free | Cory Doctorow, introd. Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer | McSweeney's | November 2014 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Time Behind Bars: A Prison-Based Reading List

16 January 2015

This post originally ran in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission.

orange is the new black, the enchanted, alphabet, running the books

After making its debut on Netflix last year, Orange Is the New Black this year was nominated for 12 Emmys (it won three) and renewed for two more seasons. It's safe to say we're hooked on this captivating glimpse of life in prison, and after binge-watching the first season, many viewers picked up Piper Kerman's memoir, on which the series is based.

There's no reason to stop with Kerman, though. Avi Steinberg never expected to work in the penal system, but when the need for health insurance sent him job hunting, he found himself working in a prison in Boston. His memoir, Running the Books, catalogues his time at the prison's library counter, detailing the inmates with whom he worked and the myriad ways they used the library to learn, connect with the outside world and even break the rules.

Rene Denfeld works as a death-row investigator, a professional experience that shapes her stunning, imaginative novel, The Enchanted (review). The book tells the story of a group of death-row inmates by focusing on the prison as a whole, rather than on their individual crimes. With just a touch of the fantastical, Denfeld masterfully brings to light the despair that lurks in one of the darkest places in our society.

Kathy Page's novel Alphabet (review) centers on one inmate, Simon Austen, in prison for murdering his girlfriend. Austen wears his history quite literally on his skin, as he tattoos onto his body all the names and words he has been called: "dumb," "waste of space," "threat to women." As Alphabet tracks his incarceration over many years, what emerges from beneath his crude exterior is not the cold-blooded killer one might expect, but a surprisingly sympathetic character caught in a web of startlingly cruel prison politics.

Orange is the New Black | Piper Kiernan | Spiegel & Grau | Trade Paperback | March 2011 | 352 pages | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

The Enchanted | Rene Denfeld | HarperTorch | Hardcover | March 2014 | 237 pages | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Running the Books | Avi Steinberg | Nan A. Talese | Hardcover | October 2010 | 416 pages | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

Alphabet | Kathy Page | Biblioasis | Trade Paper | October 2014 | 304 pages | Buy from an independent bookstore near you

One Little Word 2015: Light

14 January 2015

Year after year after year, I make resolutions. And year after year after year, I break resolutions. Except more than break them, I just... forget they were resolutions. I sometimes manage to do what I resolved to do, but that is generally haphazard and almost accidental; the fact that I ate more vegetables in 2013, for example, had very little to do with the fact that I resolved to do so in January, and very much to do with the fact that I discovered how much I like roasted Brussels sprouts.

In 2014, I tried something different: I made resolutions that were more like un-resolutions: sleep, eat more chocolate, run in new places. I hoped to make them fun, so I would stick to them. I did some of them, forgot about others, and never looked at the list once between the day I wrote it and the day I looked it up to link to in this post.

So when I saw Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness posting about her One Little World project for 2015 (from Ali Edwards), I was intrigued. This, I thought, seemed like a better route for me than resolutions. This seemed like something I could do, something I could use to center my year and bring myself the focus that I've felt I've lacked recently.

In that vein, I considered selecting FOCUS as my word for 2015, but it felt too strict and too burdensome; too much like work. Which is actually what ultimately led to the the word I did choose:

I kept debating whether or not this word was right for me, at this time, in part because it carries two significant meanings: 1) the opposite of dark; and 2) the opposite of heavy. But I kept coming back to it, again and again, because ultimately, both of those meanings are want I want to center on this year: focusing on the positive, on the illuminated, on the opposite of dark, while also reducing the burdens I place on myself, allow others to place on me, and the feeling of crumbling under the weight of it all, from to-do lists to just plain ol' stuff. While I'm at it, I even want to stop wearing so much black and grey.

I want to feel light.

It was hard to find a quote that captured this duality: most of the quotes about light focus solely on light versus dark, or, less often, light versus heavy. Perhaps because so much of my own desire for lightness stems from a need to shed the idea of perfection--and because my rejection of resolutions this year comes from the same place--these lines from Leonard Cohen stood out to me:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Anyone else doing One Little Word? Yes or no, what are you focusing on this year?

Book Review: God'll Cut You Down, by John Safran

13 January 2015

This review originally ran in Shelf Awareness for Readers. Reprinted here with permission.

John Safran--a young, white, Jewish Australian who makes comedy films--seems an unlikely candidate to write a true-crime book, but that's what he's done with God'll Cut You Down: The Tangled Tale of a White Supremacist, a Black Hustler, a Murder, and How I Lost a Year in Mississippi. It explores the murder of Richard Barrett, a white supremacist, by Vince McGee, his black neighbor. Safran heads to Mississippi expecting a case tinged with the embedded racism of the South. What he finds instead is a complicated crime with no clear motive--race or otherwise. 

The account of the author's yearlong investigation can be hard to follow: short sections with strange titles track Safran's moves through time, from one interview to the next, which presents the story in the order Safran uncovered it rather than the order in which the events happened. His journalistic approach can be brusque and perhaps misguided at times, as when he can't pay the convicted murderer for an interview outright, but gets around that law by giving McGee prepaid charge cards from Walmart. But his candid, informal style is endearing, revealing that God'll Cut You Down is as much the story of how Safran learned to write about crime as it is the story of why Barrett was murdered. Despite Safran's best noodling and puzzling and nagging of the police, lawyers, witnesses, family and friends of both the convicted murderer and the victim, the story of that murder is never made entirely clear; the entertainment comes from reading about Safran's experiences as an outsider snooping around an insular community.

God'll Cut You Down | John Safran | Riverhead | Hardcover | 368 pages | Buy from an independent bookstore near you