Monday, July 3, 2017

Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted

Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted 

by Laura Caldwell

Well, that was completely terrifying. A collection of stories about people who were minding their own business when suddenly they are being tried and convicted of crimes they didn't commit. Spending years upon years in prison, having their entire life controlled down to the minuscule details and knowing the entire time that they shouldn't even be there. Yelling their innocence to the world with no one interested in listening. And let's be real, most of these tales are from young black males just going about their lives when they are all of a sudden picked out of a lineup. They don't really touch on this specific issue, but it's there in between the lines.

Caldwell has put together this collection of true stories of exonerees as interpreted by various authors. As a result there are various styles of storytelling, and that was the one glaring thing I didn't appreciate about the book. I believe she was going for gut-punches over actual explanations of the atrocities committed against these individuals which has it's own merits. For myself, I would have preferred more detailed, factual deep-dives but I know that's not what they were trying to do here. That being said, there were stories that had more depth in the post-chapter notes than in the story itself. The last one in particular does this, which was frustrating as a reader.

These stories are timely, horrifying, and a topic that everyone needs to be knowledgeable on. We all have a chance to sit on a jury that can decide the fates of similar people and truly understanding the impact of your decisions on that bench is important. However, this collection was only successful up to a point and I think more substance was needed in order to really drive their message home.

Copy courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company/Liveright via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge

Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge

Helen Rappaport

It took me months to finish this book, but it was mostly my fault. I've been in a bit of a reading slump, and anything about Russia probably wasn't going to get me out of it. That being said, this was quite a unique subject and an interesting read.

Rappaport has put together the stories of some of the foreign nationals who lived in Russia right at the tail end of WWI, around the time of their communist revolution a la Lenin. There aren't a lot of first-hand accounts available from this very specific time period and from this specific group of people, but the author manages to put what she found together in a compelling narrative. The people she is referencing are from America, the UK, France, etc so their point of view varies from seeing the revolutions as a waste of life and resources by a confused people, to highly idealistic and hopeful philosophical musings. I found the accounts of the reporters the most compelling since they were always getting right into the middle of things, witnessing the bloody reality of the revolutions.

The only thing I found lacking was a deeper understanding of the revolution, what was happening and why. Although I think that might have more to do with the chaotic nature of the beast, since there didn't seem to be much rhyme or reason for how things played out in general. The books hops from event to event but I never felt the cohesiveness of relating it all together.

Overall this was a very interesting read, but I'm sure it would have even more meaning if you knew more about the background of the events.

Copy courtesy of St. Martin's Press via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Forgotten Alabama

Forgotten Alabama

by Glenn Wills

I don't know if other parts of the country are like this, but in the south (specifically Alabama) you will just be riding down a country road and suddenly, through the kudzu, you'll spy a tin roof. If you take more time to look you will see the house attached to it that is slowly succumbing to neglect and nature. There are stories in that house that you can never know, and may be completely forgotten now by those once connected with it. You may go down that road a year later, and the house will have completely fallen down. It may just be a blank forest now, or a plowed field, or a shopping center, and you'll know something has been lost.

Since I was a child these places have fascinated me. I have very vivid memories of making the drive from Lafayette to Opelika with my mother and wondering about these places that no one was tending to anymore. Willis has gone into so many communities I have never even heard of before (there was a lot of googling happening while experiencing this book), the ones that are slowly being lost to time and technology. The "forgotten" places. I came across one image from Fort Deposit that was as moving as it was sad in how neglected their main street has become. 

There are images of vacated factories and farm equipment that has been abandoned and you can only imagine that whoever left it there has forgotten they even did it. Having recently also read Historic Rural Churches of Georgia I was especially touched by the images of neglected churches that once meant so much to rural communities in the south. Especially those of the African American tradition knowing how important they were to that community. 

My only complaint about this book are the missing timestamps for the pictures. I know they were taken over a long period of time, but I really wanted to be able to date them so I could see if some of these places are still there anymore. Of course, knowing the south and how slowly we move here, most of them are probably still going strong.

The type of photography that Glenn Willis exhibits in this collection is beautiful, simple, and moving. It's a little sad, it's deeply poignant, and it's completely Alabama. I adore this collection and will probably annoy people for years by making them look through it when they come over to my house. It's just too beautiful not to share.

A History of Courtship: 800 Years of Seduction

A History of Courtship: 800 Years of Seduction

by Tania O'Donnell

The title of this book seems really promising. I was hoping this was an in-depth look at courtship over the centuries with some solid research and interesting concepts I didn't know before. 

Instead what I got was a surface level look at the courting practices of the super rich in England. Specifically Regency era London. It really felt like an overview of things I've picked up on from years of reading regency romances. At a few points the vox populi are mentioned but not very often and not to tell me anything I didn't already know (like the practice of hand-fasting).

There was also an annoying tenancy of the author to insert too-long descriptions of events from Pride and Prejudice. Pretty sure the author is a fan, which is fine because, hell, I am too. But it just made the whole book feel like a fangirl wrote a book after reading a Wikipedia article on regency London. 

That might be a bit harsh, but it's how I felt so I'm sticking to it. If you want a surface level look at (mostly) Regency courting rules and don't already know a lot of it this could be an ok read. For me, it was a bit of a failure.

Copy courtesy of Pen & Sword History, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing

The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing

by Damion Searls

I'll admit it. The most contact I have had with the Rorschach test was thanks to The Watchmen. I vaguely understood that it was a psychoanalytical test from the same time period as Freud and Jung, and always kind of figured it was like their theories; right on the edge of reaching too far.  I don't know that my views have changed much after reading this book, but it was fascinating none-the-less.

The Inkblots consists of two parts: a biography of Hermann Rorschach and a historical exploration of the test itself, most specifically in America. The biographical section relies heavily on Rorschach's letters where he expresses his ever-evolving feelings towards this thing he creates. This wasn't just a personality test for him, it was a diagnostic tool for mental illnesses. His thought processes that created the images themselves, as well as the hours of testing and retesting prove how convinced he was of the tests veracity. His death was sudden, and occurred well before his book was first published so he wasn't able to see how the test changed when put into the hands of others.

He created a tool that is so subjective that there have been fights for decades over how you are actually supposed to even score the results. What is the difference between someone saying an image looks like a bird or a spider? Or someone who goes into detail versus someone who is brief? One of the most interesting case studies was of the Nuremberg detainees, and how normal their test results were. The most compelling evidence given to support the test being effective are the "blind test" results, as well as a few anecdotal stories showing the Rorschach as the only test that was about to crack a particular case.

Overall, I don't know that I have a much better understanding of why the test is used so widely, or even why it works at all. However, I do have a firm sense of how it can be used incorrectly simply because it is so subjective and the intense level of bureaucracy that is involved in psychological testing. I'm glad I read this book, but I'm not sure I'm coming out the other side understanding the test itself much more than I did before.

Copy courtesy of Crown Publishing, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Ain't There No More: Louisiana's Disappearing Coastal Plain

Ain't There No More:
Louisiana's Disappearing Coastal Plain

by By Carl A. Brasseaux and Donald W. Davis

I recall hearing a story years ago on NPR regarding LA's disappearing coast. What stuck with me was the idea that the "boot" we are all familiar with from maps isn't as "boot-like" as it once was. Just for an idea of what I'm talking about, here is an image from the USGS publication Louisiana Coastal Wetlands: A Resource At Risk.

Crazy right? This book is the first in a series to be published by the University of Mississippi about the disappearing coastal mashes of Louisiana. Their intent is to influence the bureaucratic machine that is currently making major decisions affecting the coast without understanding what they are doing. This first installment gives a primer on coastal erosion and the manmade systems in place, as well as the history of industrialization and agriculture in the state.

Being honest, I'm not sure that I understand much more about the problem than I did before. The chapter on the history of LA's mashes and waterways went above my head in several places and wasn't especially easy for me to understand. The chapters on industrialization and agriculture were very interesting and they gave a general idea of how each industry affected coastal erosion. The last chapter was the most impactful since it mainly concerned the damage that storms and levy systems have wrought upon the coast. At the end the authors even list over 20 coastal communities that don't even exist anymore because they are underwater.

Under. Water. Ya'll. 

And maybe it's just my fear of the ocean, but that is scary in a real way. Places that just don't even exist anymore because the ocean is slowly encroaching and we have systematically destroyed the natural systems that kept this from happening for centuries.

I'm looking forward to the rest of this series being published because I feel like the authors have a lot more to say. A lot of the photos and documents shown throughout are from the authors private collection so they clearly are passionate about stopping LA's coastal erosion. Definitely worth a read if you are even remotely interested in the topic.

Copy courtesy of University Press of Mississippi/America's Third Coast Series, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

In Bed with the Georgians: Sex, Scandal and Satire in the 18th Century

In Bed with the Georgians: Sex, Scandal and Satire in the 18th Century