Monthly book roundup – 2016 March

Books finished in March:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (2015) by Alice Goffman. Chronicle of black, poor, and mostly criminal lives in Philadelphia in the 2000’s. I knew that On the Run had met with some criticism, however, the book had also received glowing reviews, some of which from the unlikely discipline of economics (Tyler Cowen), which has a reputation for seeing all other social science as inherently inferior. Chris Blattman’s recommendation in particular drove me to read it anyway. And it is an engaging and gripping book, telling about the tough life of a community of poor, black people living on “6th Street,” squeezed between crime and gang violence on the one hand, and ruthless, immoral, and illegal police on the other. After finishing it, I looked up the criticism in more detail. It is pretty damning. Faced with charges of inconsistencies, and even data fabrication, she appears to have had very little to say. (Paul Campos 1, 2, 3). Apparently, this is a book about how things may be and what Goffman has heard or imagined. Based on true stories, but not documentably true. Alper quotes the telling description of the research project Goffman is currently working on, which ends with “The ideas come out of field notes, but most of the examples in the text come from novels and non-fiction.”

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (2013) by Oliver Burkeman. Tired of the self-helg genre’s focus on positivity in all ways, Burkeman writes a self-helt book about the power of negative thinking. Already a reality-oriented sceptic, I guess I never needed persuasion. It is nice to hear about Eipcurus, stocicism, and serious forms of mindfulness, but overall the book was not extraordinary to me. Ok.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2015) by Bryan Stevenson. Powerful account of the work of Bryan Stevenson to provide legal assistance to people wrongfully convicted, or convicted on the wrong basis. The case of Walter McMillian runs as a red thread through the book. McMillian spent six years on death row on the basis of made-up charges by the police, before he was cleared in 1993, thanks to the work of Stevenson. Everyone in the book is not innocent like McMillian, but they are all poor and unresourceful in the court system. Sentencing children as adults, prison abuse, racial bias are important themes. Recommended.

Ratings and old books are in the library.

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