nonfiction

Gregory Boyle Brings Boundless Compassion In ‘Tattoos on the Heart’

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No daylight to separate us. Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.
― Gregory J. Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

Some books are not about the stuff of life, but about life itself. Being here on this planet for a brief moment in time, really seeing each other, and then disappearing. Some books are not about the stuff of life, but how to live it. Gregory J. Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion is one of those books.

Boyle, or simply G as he is called by those who know him best, is a Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries. Homeboy built itself up out of the Dolores Mission in a small area of Los Angeles considered the gang capital of the world. G and Ray Stark, a successful movie producer, bought an old bakery, found an old tortilla machine, and decided to bring rival gang members together in what would be called The Homeboy Bakery.

After a young man arrived with a tattoo of “Fuck the World” across his forehead, asking for assistance in finding a job, they realized they also needed to provide ex-gang members with tattoo removal services.

Homeboy Industries has grown into a thriving resource for ex-gang members seeking employment, tattoo removal, and huge amount of other resources. They offer ex-gang members employment through cafes, a printing company, a bakery, and other avenues.

Tattoos on the Heart is not only G’s story, but the story of the homies. G’s couldn’t tell his story without theirs, as they are totally intertwined. They call him in the middle of the night for a ride home from prison. They shoot up his neighborhood in the afternoon, and he chases them down. These are his kids, and every step of the way he loves them. They live, and they die, under his compassionate guidance.

It is hard to understand how a book can be so funny and so sad all at once. But this is a hilarious, heart-breaking book. It is religious, with G offering teachings from a variety of faiths and spiritual leaders, but never zealous. This is a book about God, but don’t let that scare you. It is also a book about boys with tattoos and baggy pants trying to learn how to be men in a world that has largely forgotten them. It is brief (just over 200 pages), moving, and powerful.

Tattoos on the Heart on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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Judy Batalion Takes On History, Hoarding, And Family In ‘White Walls’

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In White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between, Judy Batalion recounts growing up amidst stuff. Where normal kids cuddled on their mother’s bed for story time, mountains of detritus left no room for little Judy to snuggle up to mom. Tuna fish cans stacked like a great wall through her kitchen; newspapers, free magazines, and library books towered next to the sofa; records overflowed from shelves onto the floor.

Judy’s mother hoards as if fighting off the deprivation of her history, a woman born to Jewish Polish immigrants struggling for survival as they fled the Holocaust, fled the Nazis, leaving behind friends, neighbors, and their homeland. This isn’t inexplicable hoarding, but hoarding grown out of a time of having nothing, starving in camps, standing in breadlines. Judy finds herself, as a third-generation Jewish woman, separated from the Holocaust’s physical hardships but living amidst its emotional aftereffects.

All the dysfunction of Judy’s childhood–her over-anxious and self-absorbed mother, a house filled with so much stuff it had little room for love–bubbles to the surface when Judy, as a successful young woman, finds out she’s pregnant. Although she’s left her home behind, her mother’s mental health is in decline. How can she be there for a mother who has been largely absent? And will Judy, like her mother before her, continue to pass down the trauma she inherited from previous generations? Can she overcome the anxieties of a childhood drowning in unneeded junk, and of a mother (and now grandmother) unlike any other, to her own child?

Judy writes pretty prose, posing questions about her own experiences that she answers through relayed experience without extended navel-gazing. White Walls is funny, as Judy, also a comedian, has a crack-up sense of humor and a gift for one-liners. It is tragic at other times, as Judy, along with her brother and father, seek a court order to hospitalize her mother against her will.

I’ve read books about crazy moms (Chanel Bonfire, Oh The Glory of It All) and books about hoarding (Coming Clean, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things) but this one explores the heartbreak of mental illness, a struggle to overcome generational trauma, the shame of hoarding, and the anxieties of motherhood all in one free association, full disclosure, flash-back style relay between motherhood and childhood, between then and now.

White Walls on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Elizabeth Kolbert’s ‘The Sixth Extinction’ Is The Saddest Story In All The Land

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What if I told you that a nonfiction book, published in 2014, was the saddest story ever told? More tragic than Travis shooting Old Yeller, that faithful dog of childhood fiction? More gut-wrenching than Searchlight’s heart bursting within 100 yards of the finish line in the ever-traumatizing Stone Fox?

Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is that book. When I relayed its subject matter to friends, they wished I hadn’t. But it was just too much for me to bear alone–I couldn’t stop talking about. Its information is overwhelming, exhausting, and important.

The Sixth Extinction, as its title suggests, brings to the public the scientific concept of a sixth extinction. Scientists believe that we may be in the midst of a mass extinction event, an event so dramatic that it has only happened five previous times in five hundred million years, since the primordial ooze wiggled out of oceans and onto dry land.

To paraphrase Kolbert: extinction rates are soaring, and the texture of life is changing (2).

We are only learning now about the Big Five previous extinction events, and “the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize they are causing another one (2).” Kolbert weaves a narrative from the present, where amphibians are dying off in alarming numbers, to the past, as scientists and researchers study previous mass die-offs and hypothesize what to expect for this one.

How bleak is this book?

Kolbert enters a cave of bats so full of dead bat carcasses that it is impossible to not step on them, crushing them as she walks with other researchers.

She visits herpetologists in Panama, frantically building artificial environments for frogs once plentiful, but now extinct, in the wild. References to Noah, and the ark, are plentiful.

She recalls humanity’s total annihilation of the once abundant great auk.

She talks with scientists who hypothesize that coral reefs will become “ecologically extinct,” eroding as early as 2050 (130).

She visits Suci, a Sumatran rhino, and looks at our failed attempts to save the species (feeding them hay when they needed fresh greens, and killing them in our attempts to capture them for breeding purposes).

She looks back at Homo Sapiens possible part in destruction of Neanderthals.

The information is staggering. I haven’t even touched on everything she covers. The Sixth Extinction won the 2015 General Nonfiction Pulitzer, and it is easy to see why. Kolbert manages to take a huge subject, exploring past extinctions over a time period so vast it is almost impossible to comprehend, and makes it digestible. Comprehending a mass die-off of species in the numbers she is describing is difficult, but through striking visuals and comparisons, Kobert conveys the almost unbelievable facts. She includes pictures of her travels and discoveries. And amidst all this devastating information, she isn’t afraid to crack a joke here and there.

Although she does try to end the book on a lighter note (after visiting frozen zoos, where scientists are trying to preserve species in liquid nitrogen after their extinction), she doesn’t intend to soften the blows. In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert brings information scientists understand to the layperson. She makes their urgency and their concern real for the average suburbanite, who may be disconnected from frogs and bats and the great wilds of the earth. Prepare for tragedy, prepare to be heartbroken, and read this book.

The Sixth Extinction on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further reading:

Important Book of the Day – Jon Krakauer’s ‘Missoula’

missoulaJon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a Small Town uncovers the staggering mistreatment of University of Montana rape victims by the Missoula, Montana justice system. Stranger rape is an easy issue to talk about, as the lines between right and wrong are clear. Acquaintance rape, especially when a party is also too inebriated to give consent or consent seems unclear–this is where college rape culture lies, and this is where Jon Krakauer finds himself investigating. Men who can’t recall exactly what happened because they drank so much, women who awoke from a blackout with someone on top of them.

What shocked me most was the varying treatment Krakauer chronicles between victim and assailant by law enforcement. As women are immediately challenged about their claims, the men brought in for questioning are comforted. “You aren’t thinking of committing suicide, are you,” they are asked the men. At one point, a woman with clear bruises around her throat who was drugged with GHB is asked if she could have just fallen down the night before.

Krakauer notes throughout the book that despite the title of Jezebel’s article, ‘My Weekend In America’s So-Called ‘Rape Capital’ (the author is referring to a quote given by a student), Missoula’s seemingly high rape statistics are quite normal. They just aren’t commonly discussed, as rape isn’t commonly discussed.

I remember reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, his personal account of an Everest climb gone wrong, in a buzzy good-book-haze, totally unaware of some of the aspects of climbing the highest mountain of the world. I had the same feeling again when I read his Under the Banner of Heaven, a terrifying look at the fundamentalist LDS church. Krakauer never shies from providing riveting accounts on the toughest of topics, attitudes towards acquaintance rape in Missoula are as scary as any of the other material he’s covered.

Missoula on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further Reading:

The Significant, Sad Case Of Alice Mitchell, Told By Alexis Coe in Alice + Freda Forever

Rather than building the facts into a single story line for the reader, Coe takes the reader on a historical journey, examining the implications of race, sex, and class in 1892 Memphis. This works well as the artifacts from the case are plentiful, and love letters, news headlines, and trial excerpts intertwine with Coe’s telling of the story, which feels dedicated to telling the story without sacrificing truth.

Review – Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker

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The demand for commercial sex will never go away. Neither will the internet; they’re stuck with each other. It may no longer even matter anymore whether the sale of sex among consenting adults is wrong or right, immoral or empowering. What’s clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don’t exist. That, after all, is what the killer was counting on.
–Robert Kolker, Lost Girls

Lost Girls starts with a story straight out of a mystery novel, a trendy Scandinavian crime thriller: a panicked prostitute disrupts a sleepy and isolated beach community, usually peaceful behind its private gate, when she sprints from door to door, asking for help, hiding behind bushes and parked boats. A man in a black SUV chases the woman down as she sprints away from his headlights. The stunned community calls the police. Cops show up too late–forty-five minutes later, they arrive to no trace of the girl or the black SUV. In their search for the young woman months later, police start to discover bodies. Four of them, clustered together, at first.

This mysterious sequence of events, seemingly created in the dark mind of a mystery novelist, is pulled from recent history. Robert Kolker‘s Lost Girls documents the unsolved murders of four women (possibly more) on Oak Beach, a barrier island of Long Island. All four women were prostitutes; all four were using Craigslist to solicit johns. It seems the killer in this case realized what apparently many killers do: prostitutes are often not reported as missing, and their deaths are often dismissed as the price of their chosen vocation. Kolker eloquently describes this after one especially frustrating police ruling: “the police seemed to be saying that [the missing woman] had died because her soul had been rent asunder by a life in the streets.”

Lost Girls asks the traditional true crime questions–who is the murderer? Why haven’t they been caught? Why weren’t the bodies noticed? And what about the pathologically lying, limping doctor who lives on Oak Island? But there is an even greater mystery at hand which Lost Girls chooses to explore–how does someone end up on Craigslist, offering their body to strangers for cash? Kolker, in a fascinating, touching, and intimate way, tracks the story of each woman back by finding those who knew her best, from childhood forward. Illustrated by maps charting each woman’s ominous progression towards her final destination point of Oak Beach, NY, Lost Girls documents the four women’s lives. They all encounter hiccups, struggles, and tragedies along the way that lead them to prostitution and Craigslist; their stories all halt mid-frame as each young woman goes missing in the midst of a life they were planning to earn just a bit more from and then get the hell out of.

By making Lost Girls the story of the murdered women, much more than the investigation or the killer-at-large, Kolker manages to shine light on a glaring and uncomfortable point of the sex trade: police seem to dismiss reports of missing prostitutes. Or their friends, working girls themselves, are too fearful to report them missing. When the women are found murdered, and the police are forced to show more interest, they still seem to chalk murder up to a direct result of prostitution, placing the blame with the women and the women’s families. Kolker documents some unbearable victim-blaming by the police, and near the end of the book, it gets to be difficult to read: police describing the women as “greedy”, suggesting they can’t resist going with a serial killer john who offers them a lot of money to hop into a shady situation.

The only thing I did feel was missing, and it seemed to be achingly absent from the second half of the book, was documentation of some of the police work done on the case. I’m not sure if this is because the killer is still out there and the police didn’t want to reveal too much of their investigation, or if there was another reason for this, but Kolker doesn’t document the police investigation itself. It seems that Kolker has one brief interview with the Suffolk County police commissioner and his chief of detectives, both desperately needing a lesson in PR. I kept waiting for more detailed information on the police investigation that never came.

Mysteries without a clear solution are captivating, exhausting, frustrating. As noted in my review of The Hanging Judge a few weeks ago, there can often seem to be a moment when looking over all the evidence, in puzzles both real and created, where it is clear no single explanation can possibly explain past events. Kolker has managed to write clearly about a puzzling mess of facts, rumors, and biases which have built this unsolved case into something daunting and nonsensical. He writes about what happened in the only way we can understand, for now: by telling the stories of the victims, overlooked for so long, unable to speak for themselves. These women were, truly, lost girls. Kolker dared to try to find them. Sadly, he was too late.

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

Robert Kolker’s Author Page/selected articles written by Kolker for New York Magazine

Related Links:

Review – The Skies Belong to Us by Brendan I. Koerner, narrated by Rob Shapiro

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Brendan Koerner has tapped into a fascinating piece of US history – what he calls the “golden age of hijacking” on US planes.  Hundreds of planes were hijacked in America in the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s, and many planes were hijacked on the same day by coincidence.  Koerner paints the picture of a time totally opposite of flight today.  There was little security at airports, there were no bag checks, and passengers could pay for their flight after they boarded.  In our post-9/11 world, envisioning this former era is near impossible.

The story here focuses on Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, a pair of skyjackers who committed the longest hijacking in American history.  I felt the details of their specific story sometimes dragged here – Koerner spends a lot of time covering their pre- hijacking and post-hijacking lives.  I began to lose interest with all the meandering details – other than the fact that they hijacked a plane, I’m not sure if either of these people lived a life remarkable enough to write about.

Where The Skies Belong to Us shines in its portrayal of this Mad-Max-in-the-sky time period.  The sheer number of successful skyjackings from the 1960’s and 1970’s is astonishing.  The young flight industry’s attempts to deal with security on planes while also rushing to accommodate the demands of each plane hijacking are almost humorous.  The naivety here is remarkable – at one point, the head of the FAA discuss the impossibility of searching each passenger pre-flight.  I found the variety of skyjackers and their motives to be more interesting than the specific story of Holder and Kerkow.  There were a variety of reasons people skyjacked, and a huge spread of types of people involved, and many of the skyjacking plans were simple and poorly executed (yet often successful).  As with the best non-fiction today, this story is too bizarre to make up.

The Skies Belong to Us:  Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Skyjacking on Amazon.com

The Skies Belong to Us website