35 | Columbine by Dave Cullen

This is one of the most tragic books I have read, about how two teenagers took the lives of fellow students and teachers and branded Columbine as not only a location of a horrible scene, but also a point in time. I learned a lot from this book that I had no idea about– how much hysteria surrounded the event, how the instant arrival of news crews and cameras capitalize on heightened anxiety which shaped false narratives of what was actually transpiring, and just how many clues the perpetrators left behind before commiting the act. Columbine ruined so many lives, not just the lives of those who died. Those who witnessed or were present during the massacre, those who had loved ones who died, injured or survived, all suffered a great deal. Some committed suicide, other were in a paralysis-like state, unable to move beyond their fears and anxieties due to depression and survivor’s guilt. It’s crazy to think that Columbine took place in 1999, exactly 2o years ago yet so little policy and law wise has changed. So many shooting on school campuses have taken place since then, with little nod to the fact we should have learned our lessons with Columbine. Dave Cullen does an incredible job bringing to light just how the confluence of politics, realities, family pressures, social stigmas and the like make this story a true one.

32 | The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

Oh boy, where do I begin with this one… I found the subject matter fascinating yet the execution was just… really lacking. The Stranger in the Woods is supposed to be about Christopher Knight, a man who at 22, disappeared without a trace into the Maine forest where he lived for 27 years, through brutal winters and humid summers. He was apprehended in the mid-2000s, while on one of his breaks in into a summer camp where he was essentially freeloading and stockpiling food. For 27 years, his presence terrorized the local community as cabins and homes were mysteriously broken into, clothes, books, tools, and food taken. The question of “why” Knight chose to leave society behind and live in the forest is critical, but for me, the “how” is even more so.

Finkel’s book turned out the way it did (mostly him positing thoughts about how Knight could possibly be thinking this or that or maybe this) is solely because he only got access to Knight for a very short period of time. Finkel took advantage of Knight while Knight was at the county jail, writing to him and trying to build his trust to learn more. This is painfully clear as soon as all the “dramatic details” are over. It feels incredibly extractive and awkward as Finkel seems to be almost harassing Knight. Finkel is persistent, visiting Knight in jail weekly, pressing him to share what led him into the forest. We get it, Knight felt free and truly happy when he was living in the elements, focusing his energy on surviving. Finkel brings in the Dao de Jing, all kinds of other Chinese philosophies and compares Knight to numerous “famous” ascetics and gurus. Unfortunately, this does not work for me. Neither do the parts where Finkel posits Knight may have Asperger’s or some other type of diagnoses that would explain Knight. Almost glorifying a person who stole to survive did not sit well with me.

The weird thing is that Finkel’s ego almost levitated above the story which was supposed to be about Knight. Finkel wrote about visiting Knight and included so many of his own thoughts about the situation, I thought I learned more about the author than I did about the subject. While I could more than tolerate the first third of the book, I could hardly focus during the last third. If you’re truly interested in Knight, you’re better off reading a Wikipedia page than reading this book.

31 | An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

Gun violence is a tricky subject– highly politicized, I feel like I hardly understand what it is like to be caught in the crossfire when you’re from a community that it plagues. When I saw this book on my local library’s audiobook selection, I was excited. Published in 2019, Kotlowitz uses an ethnographic approach to examine what life is like for a handful of people in Chicago and how their lives are shaped by gun violence. He had clearly built rapport with the main cast featured in the book, sharing their deepest fears and anxieties about what lies ahead for them. With ethnographies that deal with sticky issues, I always worry the text may feel leech-like and inappropriate, but I really respect the way Kotlowitz was able to approach the topic in a depoliticized way, not pretending to know what the magic cure is to gun violence.

One of the stories that stayed with me after reading the book was that of a young woman who grew up in the inner city. She recalled having a best friend who was a boy and a crush on her best friend’s friend from another school. As she grew up and went to high school, the boys around her began getting into serious trouble, getting shot, going to jail, and some even getting killed. They hardened and became criminals, no longer innocent kids. Her childhood best friend ended up getting pregnant at 16 and he eventually went to prison for participating in a murder attempt. As soon as she could, she left Chicago, knowing in her heart she could not stay and that the street would catch up to her. She went to college, got a job, and tried to sever the emotional ties to Chicago, distancing herself emotionally and mentally. She catches word that her childhood crush is killed in a gang shooting and tries to reconcile her upbring and where she is in that moment, college-educated and out of the nightmarish city she grew up in. It is such a tragic vignette of her life, I don’t know how she is strong enough to pick herself up and continue on.

I highly recommend this book and note to my future self, would/should read this again. It’s highly relevant and most of us are in a privileged enough position to learn as much as we can on the topic. I did not feel like this ethnography was voyeuristic or problematic in anyway; though it is obviously very unsettling content, it is important to learn how others experience life, dictated by the fear of and also status quo of gun violence.

30 | Inheritance: A Member of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro

After taking a DNA test just for the hell of it, Dani Shapiro finds out that her deceased father is not her biological father. She’s 54– married, with a son who survived a hereditary illness, an established write– and her life is turned upside down. Even more so because her father was an Orthodox Jew, Shapiro grew up strictly Kosher, reciting passages in Hebrew and Yiddish, and very much so identifying with being Jewish. As she slowly comes to grips with the fact she is not “Jewish” by blood, Shapiro seems to be able to reconcile her appearance with her identity and at least reach the idea that her father, the one who raised her, will always be her father.

I can’t even begin to imagine how insane Shapiro’s life became since finding out her biological father was not the one who raised her. Through sleuthing and having an almost ridiculous number of contacts and well-connected friends, Shapiro is able to find out who her biological father is: a retired doctor from Portland, Oregon. Incredibly and delicately, they do meet face-to-face and establish a relationship as hearts are put to ease. Shapiro also discovers that her parents had struggled becoming pregnant and that they went to an IVF clinic in Philadelphia, where a doctor utilized a cutting-edge idea: what if the man could be responsible for a couple having issues getting pregnant? The doctor mixed different sperm from donors and the client alike and used IVF to impregnate the woman. Though Shapiro is not able to confirm if her father knew that she was not his daughter, or at least if he knew about the possibility, her mentors in faith encourage her to move on from this question and accept this possibility as a gift.

With regards to the book itself, it really is a peak into Shapiro’s mind and stream of consciousness. There are points where it’s extremely dull and repetitive, Shapiro asking the same questions over and over again: if my father isn’t my father, who is? In this situation, she is clearly overthinking, constantly contemplating, and replaying situations over and over again in her mind. She puts all those cyclical thoughts onto paper. I don’t think I could be friends with Shapiro in real life and talk through her thoughts with her as harsh as that sounds. The story is interesting but the delivery was lacking. After all, if this is her fourth memoir (which, wow), the execution should have been more on point.

29 | I Will Find You: Solving Killer Cases from My Life Fighting Crime by Detective Lt. Joe Kenda

I found this book while browsing my local library’s audiobook app and thought the blurb sounded interesting, I mean, how boring could a book be if he stars in his own TV show? Detective Lieutenant Joe Kenda narrates his own book in a very deadpan, matter-of-fact manner, sharing his own thoughts while at various crime scenes throughout this career. You can tell he is a very dedicated person who has hardened after years in law enforcement, investigating child abuse cases, murders, and all kinds of violence due to drugs, alcohol, and mental health issues. He is at the front lines, witnessing the devastation and chaos, the blood and the bodies, broken families and grieving ones. I admire and respect people in law enforcement– there is no way I could bear to see what they do and be strong enough to compartmentalize it in order to lead a somewhat normal life.

One thing that struck me with Kenda’s book is how little experience/education he has in trauma-informed language and looking into the systemic reasons for violence and abuse. Trauma is known to be transgenerational, meaning if someone was abused as a child, they are likely to abuse their own children. Kenda frequently says he wants to do to the abuser and the abuser has done to the victim, and while I understand that may be the gut reaction, it is critical to address why violence occurs in the first place. Are there mental health problems that run in the family? Is there high levels of toxic stress in the family? Are finances unstable? Do they have access to healthcare? Food? Stable housing? All of the instability in people’s lives contribute to drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence rates and crime in general. To merely arrest people and throw them in jail is not stopping the cycle of violence. It can actually be extremely traumatic for children to have incarcerated family members– it is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). Other ACEs include physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, and divorce. If Kenda had known about trauma-informed language and looked at violence from a public health perspective, he may have had a positive impact by helping to actually break the cycle of trauma. If he worked closer with social services and service providers, maybe things could have been different. Violence is preventable; by strengthening economic supports around parents and shifting the narrative away from “it’s a problem with the individual” to it’s a transgenerational problem, we can stop abuse before it happens.

28 | Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me is a letter Ta-Hehisi Coates is writing to his young son about what it means to be a black man in America. The prose was very evocative and powerful, but I felt like I couldn’t understand the magnitude of his words. As a POC, it is important for me to be an ally to the black community and listen to words spoken or written about race and one’s experience moving about this world, but I felt that his lament about the black struggle was only between the blacks and whites, and not acknowledging the interrelated-ness of racial relations. It is not his responsibility to make his words legible to those who are not black but by essentially saying there are “the Dreamers” (those who are white and who think they are white) and blacks, it isn’t a relatable world for me. Maybe I’ll revist this book in the future.

27 | Another Place at the Table by Kathy Harrison

Another Place at the Table is about Kathy Harrison’s experience of being a foster mother to over a hundred children in addition to raising a family of both biological and adopted children. She chronicles the struggles, tears, and absolute heartbreak that comes with being a foster parent, taking in abused and mentally ill children and watching them become victims of “the system” in 1990s Massachusetts. It’s a rough read– I found myself not wanting to believe some of the stories she was telling. However gut wrenching the story, I still feel that it takes a special person to commit themselves to fostering. To all those who critique her and her decisions, unless you’ve fostered children yourself, hold your tongue.

I can imagine what compelled Harrison and her husband, Bruce, to foster. Hearing the stories of what happens to children and almost worse, what lies ahead if they aren’t given the chance to enter a stable home brings me to tears. Children who suffer from Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, are significantly more likely to develop depression, suicidal thoughts, obesity, diabetes, alcoholism and drug abuse tendencies. An ACE can be something like a parental separation or divorce, having a family member incarcerated, or being sexually abused. The higher the number of ACEs, the worse the likely outcome. While poverty, as Harrison rightly points out is a big factor (leading to and perpetuating toxic stress) of the “why children end up in foster care” question, there’s more to the picture she doesn’t quite address, and I understand, that’s not the scope of her book.

What Harrison does know is that fostering takes up ones entire emotional threshold. The story of Shamika, a beautiful baby who had been horrifically burned (not by accident) is incredibly touching. Harrison and Bruce feel a kinship to her almost instantaneously and quickly become very attached and protective. When word gets out of Shamika’s recently released (from prison) father that his child (who he’s only met once) is in the hands of the Harrison’s and is willing to do whatever to get his daughter back, social services whisks Shamika away from the arms of the Harrisons in order to protect the baby. Harrison is left devastated, with little more than hope to guide her though recovering. I found this story to be even more so important to the book as Harrison opens up how she struggles to feel the same, unrelenting parental love for each of her children. There’s Karen, who the Harrisons adopt as a young child, who they have unfailing love for. But during the time of Karen’s adoption, other foster children in the home struggle with understanding why the Harrison’s didn’t adopt them. Were they not loved? Was Karen loved more? Of course the Harrison’s couldn’t adopt every children that came through their doors but it felt awful to read Harrison’s words, acknowledging that while they cared for every child, there were just some they felt connected to in a way that they did not with others.

24 | Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land

Maid tells the story of how Stephanie Land, a single mother living in Washington, could not make ends meet despite working as a maid and receiving supplemental social services. On top of incredible financial stress, her daughter’s father is abusive and demanding, her own parents selfish and absent, leaving her without a vital support system to help her stay afloat. While I certainly do not want to discredit Stephanie Land’s experiences, as this is her book and I haven’t written one let alone experienced poverty, there were numerous points throughout the book I felt Land had gotten herself stuck where she was due to poor decision making. She stayed with an abusive man, had a baby with him despite the fact he did not want one, received several small sums of money and spent them on frivolous items, just to name a few. All of these anecdotes were characterized in such a way that did not put the blame on herself, but rather some vague institutional force she felt was suppressing her potential.

Land’s life was extremely hard. She writes about her daughter learning to walk in a homeless shelter. The fact her daughter only had one small toy figurine to play with. She often drank coffee to quell her hunger. There is no doubt how desperate her situation was to not only care for herself, but to care for her daughter. She made sacrifice after sacrifice, only buying vegetables on clearance, always making sure Mia had healthy foods to eat, and bringing Mia to the doctor’s to receive care though she could not always afford the treatments. She talks about just how little support her employer gave, not reimbursing her for gas money or time when Land drove to a client’s house, only to be met by a locked door because the client had forgotten.

Yet I didn’t always feel sympathy or pity for her. She dedicates numerous chapters to the back-breaking work she does, and buried in the details of scrubbing toilets, picking up dirty tissues presumably with men’s semen in them, and cleaning up constantly after clients, she writes about how she goes through medicine cabinets, peaks into urns sitting on the mantle, and makes all kinds of judgmental remarks on her clients’ appearances, dispositions and family politics. This aspect of her personality really put me off, for if she actually did these things, she most certainly shouldn’t have written about these voyeuristic endeavors in her book and should have kept them to herself. Secondly, she often referenced different men she had met through dating websites, bringing them around her daughter, and on a number of occasions, receiving favors from them. One man, Travis, turned out to be a downright misogynistic douche who she and Mia lived with a year who verbally degraded Land, refused to compensate her for work she’s done around his parent’s farm and ordered her to hand over the money she made doing odd-jobs. Despite all these problems, Land is reluctant to leave him because she feels Travis is a good father figure to Mia. While I’m no psychologist, Land seems to be quite easily manipulated and to be dealing with insecurities that inhibit her sense of responsibility.

Though the book is no masterpiece, it is admirable how far Land has come from working as a cleaner to published a book that has been widely circulated and reviewed. I would most certain not compare it to Evicted by Matthew Desmond, in it’s own right it does communicate exactly what Land wants it to. That people don’t expect to find themselves in that type of desperate situation ever, but when they do, they realize just how difficult it is to get out.

23 | Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

I remember reading this book as a teenager, my copy gifted by a relative. This time around, I actually laughed out loud at the line about this is the perfect gift for random aunts that need to buy something for their niece but have no idea what they actually might want. So true. In high school I loved watching Mindy on television– she’s so fresh, a true POC pioneer and a welcome refresher from all the mainstream comedians who didn’t usually deal with culturally specific themes like familial relations, immigrant parents, you get the gist.

I listened to the audiobook on a long road trip home, like I did Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. It’s light enough to zone out for a few minutes but interesting enough to make a monotonous drive go by that much faster. I’ll always be a fan of Mindy as a person, as Mindy on The Mindy Project and any other role she plays. In my mind, she’s a boss, deciding she wants to have a child on her own, that she don’t need no man, defying not only larger societal norms but also cultural norms. Don’t read if you’re looking for a memoir, but read (or better yet, listen) if you like Mindy and want to listen to her stream of consciousness.

22 | Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

Now this is historical fiction! Before We Were Yours is a story crafted around a real criminal ringleader and her malicious business of kidnapping children from poor families in Tennessee and beyond and “adopting” them out to wealthy clients. Georgia Tann, the mastermind, never faced criminal charges, dying of cancer before she faced justice. Even more tragic, papers were only released to the public in the 1990s, long after the children were kidnapped illegally from their families during the Great Depression. Wingate does an incredible job of illuminating a period of American history most people have no idea existed, creating the world of Rill Foss and her siblings Camelia, Fern, Lark and baby Gabeon as Rill tries to keep them together in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.

Wingate employs a literary style where she alternates between the stories of the Foss siblings, told from eldest sister Rill’s perspective and the voice of young woman Avery Stafford, from the present day as she pieces together a dark family history. The Foss siblings were born to Queenie and Briny, living their lives on a shanty boat floating down the Mississippi River during the 1930s. Like many other poor families, river people went were the current carried them, docking on the shores for rest in cases of emergency. After Briny rushes Queenie to the hospital as she begins labor, the children are left for the night, expecting their parents to return to the boat once the baby is born. Hours turn into days and soon policemen converge onto the boat, forcibly taking all five children Georgia Tann. One by one they are separated, but not before enduring suffering at the hands of Tann and the other “caregivers” as they are cruelly disciplined. Meanwhile, Avery, the daughter of prominent senator, stumbles across a number of concerning clues about her grandmother’s past. Concerned there’s a possible scandal that could ruin her father’s political career and family name, she pursues leads relentlessly, trying to find out behind the backs of her family members and ailing grandmother what dealings the family had with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Wingate does a great job going back and forth from Rill’s to Avery’s stories, converging their lives at the end of the novel with great emotion.

While the ending confused me a bit (as it seems to have confused other readers), the rest of the narrative is craftily executed. My only regret is that I didn’t pick up this book sooner. The unassuming cover art didn’t compel me to prioritize this book but I guess the saying’s true: don’t judge a book by it’s… (uninteresting looking) cover.