#BookReview: What Set Me Free by Brian Banks

Powerful. Particularly in the age of #MeToo, Banks’ story stands out as remarkable – and his grace and restraint even moreso. While the cynic in me wants to look at most of these types of memoirs as little more than PR, the endless optimist desperately hopes that the Banks portrayed in this book is the real deal. His final recommendations seem warranted, particularly in light of how his own case has turned out. Possibly the one narrative change I would have made would have been to end it at what Joe Public would generally see as the climax of his story – the moment he stormed the field as an NFL player and knelt in prayer at the 50 yard line. But Banks himself sees that as just one moment among many, and does a remarkable job of showing his public priorities of the several years now since that moment. Truly a remarkable book, and absolutely one anyone interested in the US criminal justice system in particular should read.

Because the publisher wants it, I’ll note here that I am writing this review on June 22, 2019 – 10 days before publication of this book. Meaning that it is in fact an Advance Review Copy. As is my own standard for *all* of my reviews, ARC or not, my review is my honest reflection of my experience with the book.

This review of What Set Me Free by Brian Banks was originally published on June 22, 2019.

#BookReview: On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger

Intriguing Premise Hurt By Lack of Evidence. This is one of those books that has an intriguing premise and brings some often overlooked aspects to the table and is thus worthy of and even needed in the national conversation, but that is ultimately tainted by the author’s own biases and lack of empirical evidence and lack of extensive bibliography. The author does a phenomenal job of showing what it is like to work in the environments she chose to work in – an Amazon Fulfillment Center, a call center, and a franchise McDonald’s – and the people who work there. But as she admits repeatedly, she could always leave at any time she wanted – while she rarely if ever mentions what her husband does for work, she does mention during one ordeal at the call center that her father in law is a doctor – and the entire point of getting these jobs was to “test the waters” to see what people who worked them were really like and what their concerns really were. Very well written, just with significant flaws in reasoning due to her own biases, particularly in her ultimate conclusions. Could have been far stronger, but still a recommended read.

This review of On the Clock by Emily Guendelsberger was originally published on June 9, 2019.

#BookReview: Healthcare Is Killing Us by Aaron Fausz and W. Terry Howell

A Solid Plan. In this book, Fausz and Howell dare to imagine what *can* be re: healthcare in the US. They open it up with a chapter called “Imagine” where they detail their ideal vision for what healthcare can be, and the following chapters are tightly structured around different groupings of the ideals they lay out in the opening chapter. One of the best jobs I’ve ever seen of the old school X-N-X structure of essays that was once taught in American schools (back in ye olden times 30 yrs ago when I was in school anyway), the authors explain the general problem of a chapter, refer back to the subset of the “Imagine” objectives, discuss where we currently are and how the objectives can be obtained, and conclude each chapter with a “key takeaways” that refers back to the “Imagine” objective. In one chapter, they discuss the pharmaceuticals issue and largely discuss (much more generally) the same things Robin Feldmann goes into much more detail on in her recent book Drugs, Money, and Secret Handshakes.

How you think of their ideals and proposed solutions is probably going to be tainted by your own personal politics, but they seem to have an even head on their shoulders. They are upfront and repeated in their claim to be driven by free market capitalism, and they show how this very system – so often derided as impossible in healthcare – can in fact be used to achieve the best results for the most people, both in ideals and in actual implementations that are already existing in the real world.

Overall a very well done book that allows and encourages the reader to follow up with their own thinking on the issue and looking into the various technologies and companies discussed throughout. Very much recommended.

This review of Healthcare Is Killing Us by Aaron Fausz and W. Terry Howell was originally published on June 8, 2019.

#BookReview: The Nonsense Factory by Bruce Cannon Gibney

Alarming and Yet Also Hilarious. Even as someone who was once a political activist with some fairly high level (if State, rather than Federal) access to the halls of legislative deliberation, this book was pretty shocking in revealing just how much of a mess the American legal system truly is. While the author himself is clearly in favor of some form of ideal government that works, this book just as easily makes the case that anarchy would at least be preferable to the current system. Yet throughout, the author’s acerbic wit is what makes the book such an enjoyable read – even as the critiques it makes show just how depressingly dreadful the current US legal system really is. Very much recommended reading. Just maybe try to do it in a place where plentiful alcohol is readily available. 😉

This review of The Nonsense Factory by Bruce Cannon Gibney was originally published on April 23, 2019.

#BookReview: One Nation Under God by Kevin Kruse

Intriguing But Incomplete. The central premise of this book is that “Under God” and “In God We Trust” were created by a cabal of corporate and religious interests opposed to the New Deal in the 1930s, and indeed the roughly 30 year period from the mid 1930s through the mid 1960s is where the bulk of the text concentrates. For example, the 30 year period from 1980 – 2010 is encompassed only in the epilogue, the 2nd shortest of the chapters of this book, and the period before the mid 1930s is barely mentioned at all. And therein lies where the book is incomplete. It should have built the case that pre-New Deal, religious references were scant in American politics. I believe that case can be made, based on my own knowledge of the history, but I’d like to see the efforts of a more trained historian on the matter. Instead, Kruse zeroes in on the New Deal opponents. But within the framework that he creates, he actually does do a solid job of showing how their efforts led to the increased religiosity of the Eisenhower Administration and from there directly to the Culture Wars as we know them now – though Kruse never uses the term “Culture Wars”. Even with my own better than average knowledge of the relevant events, I learned quite a bit here and had at least a few attitudes shifted. Highly recommended reading for anyone actually interested in the subject from any side of the issue.

This review of One Nation Under God by Kevin Kruse was originally published on October 14, 2018.

#BookReview: The Signal and The Noise by Nate Silver

Solid Application of Statistics. I’m a math geek who has casually followed Silver’s work since he came on the national radar after the 2008 Presidential election. In this book, he uses his own mathematical background and many interviews to show how probabilistic statistics (vs more deterministic statistics) gives us great insight into a wide range of issues, from the mundane yet popular topics of poker and baseball – things he has personal experience with using statistics on – to the seemingly more substantial issues including weather forecasting, political polling, climate change and even terrorism. And overall, he is very careful to stick to his central point: follow the numbers, no matter where they lead – which he calls the “signal”. Very highly recommended for anyone trying to have a genuine discussion on really almost any topic.

This review of The Signal and The Noise by Nate Silver was originally published on September 26, 2018.

#BookReview: The Sky Is Falling by Peter Biskind

Left-Central Elite Doesn’t Get Movies. I wanted to like this one, I *really* did. The title and description sounded *awesome*. Unfortunately, the book itself was a gold mine – the single *worst* description of a book I’ve ever used. Meaning you have to sift through a LOT of detritus to find even a single good flake, and an actual nugget worth of goodness is even more rare. Biskind looks at movies as old as WWII and as recent as Black Panther, all in service of a central premise that is so fatally flawed as to be laughable. This subject could have been handled very differently and a compelling case could have been made, but Biskind failed to really even make an attempt to make it. That said, his publisher has their stated goal of “sparking conversations”, and in *that* regard, this book may be at least somewhat successful… though maybe in the “any press is better than no press” kind of way.

This review of The Sky Is Falling by Peter Biskind was originally published on September 11, 2018.

#BookReview: Our Enemies In Blue by Kristian Williams

Very Thorough Research. This book both predates and succeeds (and even cites) Radley Balko’s stronger work RISE OF THE WARRIOR COP: THE MILITARIZATION OF AMERICA’S POLICE FORCES. While it cites *volumes* more incidents than Balko’s work, and is thus very illuminating because of it, this book has a fatal flaw that is lacking in Balko’s work – namely, that it constantly comes at the issue of police brutality as a form of racial and/ or class warfare/ oppression. Its discussions of Anarchism and the optimal state of having no police force whatsoever is great (and lacking in Balko’s work), but that strength isn’t enough to overcome the flaw of being so hyper-biased throughout. Still, like Michelle Alexander’s THE NEW JIM CROW (which this book also cites), this book – initially written roughly 8 yrs before Balko’s, and updated 3 yrs after Balko’s – is a GREAT read for any who seek the truth that in America, police truly are the enemy of us all.

This review of Our Enemies In Blue by Kristian Williams was originally published on May 13, 2018.

#BookReview: Executing Grace by Shane Claiborne

Great Premise, Fatally Flawed Execution. This is the hardest review I’ve had to write this year, because I completely concur with the premise of this book, and on an emotional level the case presented is appealing. But I have no doubt that this book will only appeal to those who are either already in favor of abolishing the death penalty or are at minimum leaning over the fence. Anyone who is on the fence leaning the other direction will be a tough sell with the arguments presented here, and these arguments stand no chance against someone ardently in favor of capital punishment – an environment both Claiborne and I grew up in and know very well. (Note: I have no connection to the author at all, simply grew up around the same time around the same general region of the globe.)

The Fatal Flaws: First, as I said, this is a book grounded on emotional appeal and indeed the author even outright says in later chapters that he himself was convinced not by the facts, but by the emotional appeals of talking to the people involved on every side of this issue. Secondly, on page 71 Claiborne specifically decries “proof texting”, or citing a Bible verse out of context to support one’s arguments. Yet he does this very thing repeatedly, even as soon as just a couple of pages away from decrying the practice! He even goes so far as to use a version of the Bible other than the one he uses predominantly throughout the book when he wants to use a particular verse which in some translations allows inferences which Claiborne is clearly uncomfortable with. (It is never clear which is Claiborne’s predominant translation in this book.) Thirdly, Claiborne routinely cites “societal” violence, particularly in the chapter dealing with the Early Church, even though the very quotes he cites are more often predominantly concerned with opposing the entire Government, not just its capital punishment systems. It becomes quite clear that Claiborne finds State violence outside of the explicit capital punishment system to be perfectly acceptable, particularly since he never once mentions “street executions”, where cops administer capital punishment without so much as a trial or in many cases even a warrant.

There are exactly two redeeming factors about this book that warrant a 1 star rating (rather than noting that I wish I could give it zero stars): First, that the book is conversationally written in a manner that is very easy to read. You’re not sitting through dry academic prose here, and that at least helps make the read enjoyable. Second, at the end of the book he lists quite a few suggested readings and organizations that are active in this cause, and the organizations in particular are good to at least be aware of.

So while the initial premise of the book is amazing, the book is simply too flawed to recommend to anyone who doesn’t already agree with the premise, unfortunately.

This review of Executing Grace by Shane Claiborne was originally published on March 6, 2018.

#BookReview: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Fundamentally Flawed, But With Some Good Points And Multitudinous Evidence. Overall, Alexander’s work has some good points – mostly when it concerns examining the United States’ mass incarceration system as a whole. Its fundamental fatal flaw however its its central tenet- that this mass incarceration system is a system of *racial*, rather than class, control. But at least Alexander documents her case well, even when only citing evidence from a particular strain of thought that happens to agree with her own. Worth reading – highly recommended even – for the examination of the mass incarceration system and its effects as a whole , but severely hampered in its attempts to portray the system as “just another way to keep the black man down”. In that central tenet, it does its greatest disservice to showing the full monstrosity that is the US mass incarceration system.

This review of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander was originally published on February 18, 2018.