Monthly Archives: November 2016

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

All the Single Ladies

2016. Simon & Schuster. ebook. 352 pages.

As a life-long single woman (as in, have had dates but never a dating relationship), I had perked up when Kate Bolick’s book Spinster came out last year. Like, hey, there may be something relatable in there for me. Before I got around to reading it though, reviews came out that revealed that Bolick’s book wasn’t really about single women. All of the women she profiled were married at some point, and Bolick’s autobiographical sections – framed as a metaphorical spinsterhood – apparently still involved a fair amount of dating. I contented myself with Briallen Hopper’s excellent essay on spinsters instead.

Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies is closer to the real deal. Her book looks at single women from a variety of angles: social history, economic factors, the role of urban life, the value of female friendships, and cultural views of single women, sex and parenthood.

The chapter on the history of single women was one of my favorites. Traister finds some great source material revealing how single women have been discussed throughout the ages. Traister refers to a 1904 article called “Why I Do Not Marry” written by a “Bachelor Maid” that I wish I could find in its entirety. The bits that I have found online reveal a young woman snarkily rejecting the cultural norms of her day and it’s quite cheering.

But even more than the history and the cultural review, what I loved about Traister’s book was reading about single women like me talk about being single as a way of life, not a waiting period. Whether it’s in fiction or in nonfiction, single life is rarely addressed without regarding it as some precursor to another stage. But I’m certainly not living my life like it’s a precursor to anything. From the book: “After all, unmarried life is not a practice round or a staging ground or a suspension of real life.”

And here I’m going to divert into personal story for a bit:

I remember when I was 22 or 23 and in graduate school. I participated in a Christian campus group and there was a slightly older guy who seemed to be giving signs of interest. We went to a museum together once. I think that was only the second time in my life that I’d gone on something resembling a date. There was an engaged couple in the campus group as well, and the girl unexpectedly invited me to lunch one day. I knew instinctively that she had deputized herself to talk to me about this guy and I was right. I remember that she clumsily tried to relate to my singleness by saying that she understood how it was to be single, as she had been single in high school. She said that the guy, being older, was probably looking only for serious relationships. I expressed that I didn’t have any particular plans at this point. She said something to the effect that at our age, it was time to move beyond casual dating. It was completely ridiculous and fortunately, I took none of it to heart.

As Traister’s book underscores repeatedly, there is no universal life-script that we should all be following. Anita Hill was interviewed for this book and is quoted as saying: “And I want everyone to understand that you can have a good life, despite what convention says, and be single. That doesn’t mean you have to be against marriage. It just means that there are choices that society should not impose on you.”

I identify strongly with the single women in this book who expressed ambivalence about dating. First, from Traister’s own life (this story ends with her finding a relationship, but I include the quote because the rest echoed my own feelings so well):

I felt smothered by suitors who called too often, claustrophobic around those who wanted to see me too frequently, and bugged by the ones who didn’t want to try the bars or restaurants I liked to go to, or who pressured me to cut out of work earlier than I wanted to cut out. I got used to doing things my way; I liked doing things my way. These men just mucked it all up. I knew how I sounded, even in my own head: picky, petty, and narcissistic. I worried about the monster of self-interest that I had become.

In retrospect, however, I see the fierce protection of my space, schedule, and solitude served as a prophylactic against relationships I didn’t really want to be in. Maybe I was too hard on those guys, but I am also certain that I wasn’t very interested in them. I am certain of that because when, after six years without a relationship that lasted beyond three dates, I met a man I was interested in and didn’t think twice about Saturday mornings, about breaking my weirdo routines or leaving work early; I was happy every single time he called.

More simply put, from one of Traister’s interview subjects (Elliott, from D.C.):

Mostly, I didn’t pursue people I wasn’t crazy about because I was busy doing other things that I enjoyed more than I enjoyed being with men I wasn’t crazy about.

Amen.

In conclusion, this is a book well worth reading. I know so many single ladies – not just never-marrieds like myself, but also divorced and widowed – and the tyranny of the romantic narrative has meant these other life narratives have been regarded as not worth much coverage in fiction or non-fiction. Traister has done some good work in filling in that gap. May there be even more books to come on the subject.

Here’s excerpts to others’ reviews:

The 3R’s Blog – “I give Traister credit for getting beyond her own demographic and including the voices of single mothers, college students. seniors, and women from a broader range of economic and cultural backgrounds–she really has made the effort to consider all the single ladies.”

Running N Reading – “For those of you who may think, “well, I’m not single, and I don’t want to be single, so I’m not sure how interesting this will be,” let me assure you that you can lay those worries to rest; this is a remarkably accessible account of women’s history in our nation.”

Shelf Love (Teresa) – “This is as comprehensive a book on single womanhood in America today as you’re likely to find, especially if you want to something that’s just 350 pages and written for a general audience.”

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Mini-Reviews: Crime and Intrigue

I’m feeling that end-of-year compulsion to tie up loose ends and catch up on my book reviews for this year. This post gathers up all the private eyes, cops, and amateur sleuths I encountered in 2016.

The Body in the Library (Miss Marple #3) – Agatha Christie

I listened to this one while driving from Maine to Virginia back in January of this year. My sister and brother-in-law were along for the ride too and I remember discussing our whodunit theories over fast food dinner somewhere in Pennsylvania. We didn’t figure it out – Christie kept us guessing. This one stands out for having quite the cold-blooded murder plan.

Devil in a Blue Dress (Easy Rawlins #1) – Walter Mosley

Recommendation from: Beth Fish Reads

This mystery set in 1940’s Los Angeles features a black man named Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins who is hired by white men to look for a missing blonde who was known to frequent black establishments. Rawlins takes the gig as he needs the money to keep his house. It is not a fancy house, but home-ownership means independence and freedom for him and he does not want to give that up. The symbolism of Rawlins’ house is what I remember most from this book. The investigation and mystery in the rest of the book were fine. I’m not sure if I’ll read more in the series. I’m generally terrible at continuing on with mystery series even if I’ve enjoyed the first entry.

Still Life (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #1) – Louise Penny

I read a good chunk of this book one morning in Seattle. I had flown to Seattle for a conference and the time difference meant I woke up super early. While waiting to meet a friend for breakfast, I found a seat in Pike Place Market overlooking Elliott Bay and read and read. Still Life was an engaging mystery. A couple of the characters were a bit hard to believe in their terribleness. However, like other readers, I found the character Chief Inspector Gamache a refreshingly stable presence in a genre that seems to favor troubled,  lonely souls as the leads. (Not that those are bad books, but it’s nice to have a change.)

Lush Life – Richard Price

A young white man is shot and killed while resisting an attempted mugging in the Lower East Side, his memorable last words being, “Not tonight, my man.” Price’s novel follows a wide cast of characters who are all connected to the fatal shooting: the shooter, the detectives on the case, the main witness, the family, and the people of the neighborhood.

Although the book dragged on too long in the end, Price is terrific at characterization, dialogue and scene-setting. The young man’s memorial service is one of the high points in this regard. Most memorable however are the early scenes where detectives psychologically break-down a witness who they believe is the murderer. When I read Adam Benforado’s Unfair earlier this month where it talked about American police interrogations, my mind immediately recalled these scenes from the novel.

The Deep End (The Country Club Murders #1) – Julie Mulhern

Recommendation from: Lakeside Musing

On the more frothy end of the mystery spectrum, we have Mulhern’s series which is set in mid-1970’s Kansas City, Missouri. I say frothy in terms of tone – it does have a fairly high body count. Ellison Russell is our amateur sleuth who discovers the body of her husband’s mistress in the country club pool. Her husband is missing, she’s a suspect, her teenage daughter is upset and there are a lot of dirty secrets she’s about to uncover. Ellison has a reputation among her set as a bit of an ice queen, but manages to collect a couple of potential love interests over the course of the novel all the same. (The philandering husband having left that field open.) I was a little disappointed that Mulhern didn’t lean more into the setting. It’s not every time you read a book set in Kansas City, much less in the 1970s, so I was hoping for more historic and local specificity than was delivered. Perhaps later books in the series do better on that score. Overall, it was a quick, page-turning read that hit the spot at the time I read it.

No One Lives Twice (Lexi Carmichael Mystery #1) – Julie Moffett

Another light mystery: Lexi Carmichael is a low-level tech for the National Security Agency who is suddenly thrown into high-intrigue mystery when her best friend mails her a puzzling document and then disappears. Suddenly, Lexi is being threatened on the street of her parents’ house, her apartment is being burgled, and several sexy men of undetermined trustworthiness have swooped in with offers to help. Lexi’s obliviousness strains credulity at times, but I liked the attention to detail when it came to the plot. In particular, the villains’ plans – when all is revealed – were satisfyingly interesting and complex. (The title does acquire some additional meaning by the end. It’s not just there for Bond connotation.) I know the author, so that’s why I wanted to check out the book. Overall, I found the book to be a fun bit of escapist reading.

A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine

Recommendation from: Teresa of Shelf Love (in the comments of the linked review)

All the books above have had at least partial focus on the investigator. In A Fatal Inversion, the main characters are complicit in the murder, and they fear discovery now that the body has been found many years later. The novel follows them in their present-day panic. It also follows them into their flashbacks as they remember being young and irresponsible, living it up in a country house, heading toward a tragedy of their own making. I was telling Teresa while I was midway through the book that A Fatal Inversion was like Tartt’s The Secret History featuring the young hippies from Joan Didion’s essay “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”.

Despite knowing who is responsible for the murder, A Fatal Inversion has a lot of unexpected revelations in store for the reader. In addition to this fine plotting, Vine’s characterization is also terrific. (Or rather I should say Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine was her pen name). This was my first foray into Rendell/Vine. I’m not sure what would be next among her prolific backlist. I think I’ve had Rottweiler on my to-read list for a while, but I’m open to suggestions.

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Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado

unfair-benforado

2015. Broadway Books. Paperback. 391 pages (290 pages of main content with 100 pages for bibliography, index and reader’s guide)

Review:

Adam Benforado is a law professor whose courses include a seminar called “Law and Mind Sciences”. Reading Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice feels like taking a survey course on the topic. Each chapter focuses on a particular stage of the American justice system and examines that stage in light of psychological and cognitive science research. The chapters have titles such as “The Labels We Live By – The Victim” and “In the Eye of the Beholder – The Jury”.

Benforado’s main argument is that our justice system rests on incorrect assumptions, even dogmas, of how people think, respond, act and make decisions. These assumptions contribute to the miscarriage of justice, including the conviction of innocent people. We should rigorously review police and court practices to make sure these practices are in line with empirical evidence of what works to actually achieve justice for all.

I would like to highlight two of the chapters that really stood out to me. Chapter 2 “Dangerous Confessions – The Detective” focuses on the fallibility of police techniques for interrogating suspects, especially the commonly used Reid approach. This approach encourages aggressive, lengthy interrogations, and allow for police to lie about the evidence in their possession. Subject to hours of beration and isolation, people will sometimes falsely confess just to escape the abuse. In the moment, people may have cognitive myopia and find it hard to remember long-term consequences when there is an opportunity for short-term relief. Unfortunately, in the justice system, once a confession is extracted, the investigation becomes biased and may ignore details of the confession that don’t align with the evidence. At the end of the book, Benforado describes how the UK has changed its interviewing techniques where the goal is to get as much information as possible from suspect, rather than trying for a confession. “The reforms have not only reduced the likelihood of a suspect admitting to a crime he didn’t commit, they’ve actually increased the amount of useful information that guilty suspects reveal.”

Chapter 6 “The Corruption of Memory – The Eyewitness” argues that eyewitness testimony is frequently mishandled in our current justice system. Eyewitness memory is treated in the justice system like it can be played back exactly the way it happened. But over time, we lose specifics and additionally, all memory is filtered “through the lens of our motivations, expectations and experiences”. Benforado offers many research studies to support the fact that our memory is very malleable after the fact. Primary investigators who have a theory of how the crime happened may inadvertently direct the witness’ memory. Lawyers who mean well can alter an eyewitness testimony through witness prep. As Benforado writes, “A memory of a perpetrator’s face is just as susceptible to adulteration and misuse as a hair sample or partial fingerprint taken from a crime scene, but we don’t treat it that way.”

In the second-to-last chapter about the challenges of reform, Benforado points out that many procedural rules give the appearance of eliminating discrimination in the legal process but actually fail to do so. For example, the Supreme Court banned lawyers from removing people from jury selection on the basis of race alone, but discrimination still happens. Benforado included this astonishing anecdote about jury selection process: “Between 2005 and 2009, prosecutors in Houston County, Alabama, struck approximately four out of five blacks in capital-case jury panels. About half of the resulting juries were all white, and the other half had only a single black juror.”

The final chapter of the book “What We Can Do – The Future” is an exciting conclusion to the book as Benforado describes multiple paradigm-shifting possibilities for reform. One of the most intriguing reforms that he mentioned was the idea of the virtual courtroom. This would mean that victims wouldn’t have to be in the same room as their attackers. This would mean less reliance jury’s overconfident conclusions drawn from the appearance and demeanor of witnesses and defendants. (We are not as good at detecting innocence and guilt as we think we are.)

Benforado also questions whether our current adversarial approach really serves justice. He frames the common practice of plea bargaining in a way that I had never considered before:

…the adversarial system has played an important role in the shift from quick and relatively straightforward proceedings to trials that are long and extremely complicated. And with lawyers constantly wrangling over procedural rules, it’s no longer possible to provide regular trials to everyone charged with a crime. We just don’t have the resources, which has led us to rely heavily on the plea bargain. In nine out of ten cases today, as we’ve seen, the accused waives his right to trial in exchange for a lighter punishment . . . Constitutional protections do not apply in plea negotiations. And this is particularly consequential because, in plea bargaining, the prosecutor enjoys a tremendous amount of discretion, taking on all the key roles: accuser, investigator, adjudicator, and sentencer. This concentration of authority inevitably leads to unequal treatment and unfairness.

I’m not 100% sure I’m on board with all of the reform ideas in the last chapter – I’m still mulling over the ideas about prison reform – but I appreciate the challenge to my assumptions of what justice looks like. In fact, I can say that about the entire book. I wasn’t unaware of judicial problems before reading this book, thanks to books like Krakauer’s Missoula and the life-saving work of The Innocence Project. However, Benforado’s thorough, systemic approach attacks foundational assumptions that I hadn’t previously examined.

I received a copy of this book for review via Blogging for Books.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Advice Unasked – “The final chapter of suggestions for reform is a scant 29 pages, and very thin. Problems without solutions make many readers uncomfortable, and any courtroom case wraps up with an argument for action, but I wish, nonetheless, for a different conclusion. That chapter could easily be another book, and perhaps it should be.”

Shaina Reads – “I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a deeper understanding of how the brain functions and why humans as a whole are ill-suited to passing objective social judgments.”

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Social Justice Book Club: Men We Reaped – Wrap-up Discussion

The readalong for Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is hosted by Entomology of a Bookworm, who provided these discussion questions.

1) Men We Reaped is described as a memoir. While it draws on Ward’s personal experiences, it also explores themes much larger than one woman’s life. Do you agree with this genre classification?

Absolutely, I feel like memoir is a fairly flexible category. (In contrast, I would say that the word autobiography brings more narrow expectations.) Half of the book is about Ward’s life and her family. The stories about the five men profiled in Men We Reaped are still framed around Ward’s personal interactions with them.

2) In what ways do you think Ward’s personal approach to this subject makes Men We Reaped stand out from other books that address similar issues? Did this make the book appeal to you more or less, or were you indifferent?

Ward’s book does well in evoking the struggle and depression that hounds communities that are poor and Black. Her personal stories illustrate ideas such as double-consciousness (Ward’s childhood memory of talking academics with her mother’s employer while her mother cleans the house).

Ward made the narrative choice to connect the twists and turns of each man’s life and death to the larger forces of systemic racism and injustice. I felt this narrative choice worked best in Demond Cook’s story (the man who was murdered outside his house, possibly for his agreement to testify in court). At other points, however, it felt strained and perhaps too speculative and abstract.

I was having a hard time figuring out why I was slightly disappointed in Ward’s book. Then I read author Roxane Gay’s Goodreads review of Men We Reaped which explained it well and which I’ll quote in part below:

The prose is bursting with pain and beauty and truth. This is a book everyone should read. Where it falls short is that it doesn’t do enough to rise above the grief. Ward only briefly addresses the issues of race and poverty and how they indelibly shape too many lives, particularly in the rural South. Instead, that the culprits of these men’s demise is inextricably bound to race is treated as assumption when it needs to be far more fully realized and plainly articulated.

3) In more than one instance throughout the text, Ward writes about feeling silenced and voiceless in the face of overwhelming systems of inequality. Do you think Men We Reaped changes that position by giving her a voice?

I hope she feels that way, but her book also points out that this feeling of voicelessness is endemic in her community. I hope that her book empowers the voices of others in her hometown, especially since it’s from one of their own.

4) Though Men We Reaped is about the loss of young black male life, it is also, in many ways, about the black women left to stand witness to the lives and deaths of those in their community. How does this gendered perspective change the story of the high mortality rate among young men of color?

Ward’s book certainly details the obstacles in her own life and that of her mother’s and sisters’ lives. Their roads are not easy. But the women in Ward’s life soldier on despite their wounds. It is the men who seem more fragile and endangered.

[Edited to add: I don’t have a good answer for this question.]

5) If you could ask Jesmyn Ward any one question about this book and/or the experiences she recounts within it, what would it be?

I’m curious about the reactions to her book from people in her region of Mississippi, so I would ask about that.


In my answer to the second question, I admitted that I had been a little disappointed in the book, as I would have liked to see the ideas more fully fleshed out. I still really liked reading it though. As a memoir, evoking a family, a community, a place, it is definitely worthwhile. Mississippi is the poorest state in the country. I live in the third-richest county in the country, and while poverty and racism definitely still have a presence, it is still a place of greater opportunity. So reading Men We Reaped helps inform my perspective, keeps it from being too cloistered.

 

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