Book Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

url“A Story of Justice and Redemption.” I don’t think Mr. Stevenson could have said it better.

Just Mercy details the harsh beginnings of the Equal Justice Initiative, the premiere nonprofit organization providing post-conviction relief to many — women, children, men; those condemned to serve their lifetimes, to face execution — throughout the country. As a member of the criminal justice community, many told me I should read this book. Roaming the aisles of the Strand in New York, the cover caught my eye. A Story of Justice and Redemption. 

Just Mercy reviews some of the first cases and biggest cases that Bryan Stevenson worked on throughout his career. Interwoven throughout many stories, Mr. Stevenson features the story of Walter McMillian, a man who wrongfully spent six years on death row for a homicide he did not commit. Walter’s story portrays the corruption, racism, and depravity of the criminal justice system in the South (other cases demonstrate that these problems rage on throughout the country). You can the New York times coverage of Walter’s release here.

Initially, I was a little hesitant to read this book. Not because of the subject-matter, but because I am a fiction reader and writer. I like stories that flow well, have a natural arch to them, resolve and leave you satisfied, both with good and bad endings (so to speak). A retelling of a man’s incredible career, while inspiring, didn’t seem to fill that need for me on the surface. But alas, as the saying goes – do not just a book by its cover.

Bryan Stevenson’s prose is incredible; there is really no other way to put it. His life’s work, while entirely non-fiction, reads like an insightful and beautiful piece of fiction. And maybe that’s the sad reality of criminal justice in this country. There are just so many harsh and heartbreaking features to it that it almost seems unreal.

Just Mercy is also informative. Mr. Stevenson sheds light on so many of the cases that I have heard about in school or seen in the news. Some may read this book with a cynical eye – he’s trying to “explain” away these people’s pasts or some may view that the book is self-congratulatory. Sometimes I do feel like Mr. Stevenson is explaining things an an elementary fashion, and as a lawyer, I found myself saying “that’s a little simplistic” or “that’s kind of pieced together.” But I also recognize that Mr. Stevenson is writing a book not just for those of us who are interested in these issues and do this kind of work. He’s trying to share it with everyone who will read – share about the horrors and heartbreak of death row, just like Walter McMillian wanted. There is nothing simple or pieced together about that.

This morning, on my morning commute, I finished reading Just Mercy. All day I have been left with this deep emotional attachment – something I haven’t felt after reading a book in a very long time. Ironically, the last time I felt this way was when I closed the cover on Lee Harper’s To Kill A Mockingbird, a subtle image that played throughout Mr. Stevenson’s Just Mercy. In concluding this review (which for those of you keeping score at home, an A- read), I’d like to leave you with this passage that I will forever remember:

“All of the sudden, I felt stronger. I began thinking about what would happen if we all just acknowledged our brokenness, if we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears . . .

When I was a college student, I had a job working as a musician in point in a black church in a poor section of West Philadelphia. At a certain point in the service I would play the organ before the choir began to sing. The minister would stand, spread his arms wide, and say, “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.” I never fully appreciated what he was saying until the night Jimmy Dill was executed.”

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TBR Pile Challenge: The Thin Man

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

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Loved this so much. Nick and Nora Charles are a fantastic duo.

The Thin Man is at once a murder mystery and a comedy of manners set in 1930s New York. It is just a classic detective story. There’s plenty of drinking, speakeasies, and murder. Nick Charles is a hard-drinking retired detective visiting New York his wife Nora, and (of course) there’s a murder and Nick gets pulled into helping to solve it. Nick and Nora are wonderful — their relationship is one of booze, excitement in the face of danger, and witty banter. An example:

Nora: “How do you feel?”
Nick: “Terrible. I must’ve gone to bed sober.”

And another:

“How about a drop of something to cut the phlegm?
Why don’t you stay sober today?
We didn’t come to New York to stay sober.”

Like I said, alcohol and wit. I’m a fan of the detective noir story with a little bit of humor (à la Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem, one of my favorite books), and The Thin Man delivers. Even though it’s not quite as famous as The Maltese Falcon, I’m glad I picked up The Thin Man as my introduction to Hammett — it was a quick read, fun, and helped drag me out of a bit of a reading slump. The writing is sparse and economical but witty and comic. I will definitely be picking up The Maltese Falcon and more of Hammett’s books.

The problem with putting two and two together is that sometimes you get four, and sometimes you get twenty-two.

TBR Pile Challenge: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

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Joan Didion is my spirit animal. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: she is an incredible writer. One of my favorite lines of all time, from any book, is the first line of The White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I absolutely adored Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and I truly think it captures something intangible but essential about what it means to be in one’s twenties, and what it means to be a Californian.

Many of the essays in this collection are short–a few pages long–but incredibly insightful, in a way that makes them stick with you for far longer than it takes to read them. “On Self-Respect” is one of those for me, about what it means to truly respect oneself and the dangers of lacking it. Didion uses Death Valley as a way to look at morality in “On Morality” in a way that is surprising and yet makes perfect sense.

Didion’s more journalistic essays are fascinating, and she has a keen eye for telling stories with a dash of irony and insight that makes them a pleasure to read. The title essay is a slightly dated but still interesting look at the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the heyday of the Sixties; even better, however, was “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” an essay that looks at the alien-ness of the San Bernardino Valley through the lens of suburban boredom, death, and a murder trial.

Where I think Didion’s writing is perfection, however, is in her more personal essays. There are several in this collection, including an essay about growing up in Sacramento, that really stood out, but the final essay–“Goodbye to All That”– really hit home for me. It’s an essay about being a transplant from the West and living in New York City in one’s twenties, about the dreaminess and abstraction of a life in New York and the confusion and simultaneous sense of wonder it instills. As a recent NY transplant from California, I felt like Didion was peering into my own mind with every word, and I know that it is but one of the essays that I will come back to again and again.

There’s a reason Joan Didion’s writing is beloved by many, and why she is considered one of our best writers and essayists. The reason can be found in this book.

2015 TBR Pile Challenge

So last year’s TBR Challenge did not go so well. Oops. But I’m bound and determined to try again this year, and I think I may actually accomplish my goal this time. See, one of my other goals for the year is to read almost exclusively from my own bookshelves. I’ve allowed myself a little leeway for a small number of library books since I try to read the Tournament of Books shortlist every year and since there are a few new releases that I’m dying to read. But for the most part, to my own bookshelves I go! I’m also going to overlap my list with some of my other reading goals from my personal fill in the gaps type project.

So I’m going to try again. Here’s my list for this year:

1. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
2. The Trial by Franz Kafka
3. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
4. My Antonia by Willa Cather
5. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
6. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
7. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
8. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
9. The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
10. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
11. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
12. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Two alternates:
1. Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood
2. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

If you want to join in, the info can be found on Roof Beam Reader, the blog hosting the challenge. But signups end tonight, so be quick! I’ll be reading and reviewing the books on my list as I go, and my main challenge page is posted here.

Happy reading!

Staff Picks: Fall 2014 Releases

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It’s time for another (long overdue) Staff Picks post, and this one is all about the recent releases. Fall 2014 has been a spectacular season for new books — several big celebrity memoirs, some fantastic nonfiction, and some of the biggest fiction of the year. Here are a few of my favorite fall 2014 releases.

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The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

I really enjoyed Jill Lepore’s latest book and found it to a fantastic read. I’ve become a big fan of comic books lately so when I saw that Jill Lepore was writing a history of Wonder Woman, I knew I just had to read it. But this book is about so much more than comic books. Wonder Woman was created by a fascinating man named William Moulton Marston, a lawyer and psychologist who invented the lie detector test. (For the law nerds out there, Marston’s attempts to get his lie detector test used in criminal cases is the reason for the Frye standard in evidence law.) He had an unconventional and very secretive family life, living with his wife and another woman, who was not merely a mistress but an integral part of their family and a companion for many decades, and his kids with both women. His wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston worked outside the home and was a psychologist herself, and their companion Olive Byrne raised their kids. Marston created Wonder Woman as a symbol of feminism and Olive Byrne was Margaret Sanger’s niece — feminism runs in Wonder Woman’s blood. But there is so much more to the story of this feminist icon and Jill Lepore does a great job of covering so many interesting parts of that history.

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Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

I adore Neil Patrick Harris, and I adored this book. I listened to the audiobook, which kind of cancels out the Choose Your Own Adventure aspect (since there is no choosing involved) but I thought the way the audiobook handled the structure was great. NPH narrates a touching and in-depth look at his life, from his childhood and Doogie Howser days through the birth of his kids and his run on Broadway in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It’s funny and sincere in a way that just worked really well, and I think this was one of the better celebrity memoirs I’ve listened to/read.

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The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber

Contemplative and beautiful. The Book of Strange New Things is sort of a literary take on science fiction, but it is also much more. It’s the story of Peter, a Christian minister who journeys to the Oasis settlement in a new universe to preach to its inhabitants, leaving his wife behind in England. The first half of the book went a little slowly for me, but I devoured the second half within a day and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I put it down. I don’t want to say a lot about it because I think it’s better to go into the book without knowing everything, and just let it unfold. I will definitely be delving into Faber’s backlist and reading his other books.

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Jackaby by William Ritter

 Jackaby was a fun read. It’s been described as Doctor Who meets Sherlock, and while I haven’t watched more than an episode or two of Doctor Who yet (I know! I ‘m working on it)… I’d say that characterization seems about right. Abigail Rook, having run away from her family, arrives in New England and finds herself in the employ of R.F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with an eye for the supernatural. Abigail becomes Jackaby’s assistant and finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation. Abigail is a spunky character and Jackaby seems like the twin of Sherlock who just so happens to see ghosts and banshees and other supernatural creatures. The mystery was interesting and kept me guessing, and the tongue-in-cheek humor was fun.

The Best of 2014, J-Mart Style

Alex kicked things off for our end-of-the-year roundup, and now it’s my turn to share a few of my favorite things of 2014. These are the things that rocked my world, wound up on repeat, and made a mark this year.

BOOKS

The Martian by Andy Weir: I LOVED this book. I didn’t expect to love it quite as much as I did, but The Martian just rocked my world. It’s a story about a guy named Mark Watney, who gets left behind on Mars when his astronaut team thinks he’s been killed during a storm, and how he tries to survive. Mark is a fantastic narrator, and just a great character; he is reason enough to read this book. Also, there’s going to be a movie with Matt Damon as Mark Watney, and it’s going to be awesome.

The White Album by Joan Didion: Read my first Joan Didion collection this year, and holy crap. Joan Didion is my spirit animal. Her writing is incredible, and this is absolutely one of the best essay collections I’ve ever read.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: I might not have picked this book up if it hadn’t been on this year’s Tournament of Books list, but I am incredibly glad that I did. Ruth Ozeki’s writing is stunning but, more importantly, the characters she created wormed their way under my skin and stuck with me. I still find myself thinking about this book, months and months after reading it.

COMICS

The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie: Every 90 years, 12 gods incarnate as humans. In two years, they will be dead. Intrigued, yet? This one is a little bit rock ‘n’ roll — the gods incarnate this time around as rock stars. It’s a beautiful comic, and one of the ones that got me into comic books this year.

Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky: Girl meets boy. Girl sleeps with boy. Things get a little unusual . . . Suzie’s just a girl, with a quirk — when she has sex, time stops. One day she meets Jon and lo and behold, he has the same cool trick. So what should a couple do when they can stop time? Rob banks, obviously.

Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe: The Rat Queens are a bad-ass group of lady mercenaries. Cross Lord of the Rings with bad-ass women and lots of sass, alcohol, sorcery, and major girl power and you have the Rat Queens.

Moral of the story? Image Comics is rocking the shit out of the comic book world right now. All three of these are Image Comics. And don’t even get me started on Saga and the other amazing comics coming out of Image right now. So hard to pick just a few favorites!

MUSIC

Lazaretto by Jack White: I’m obsessed with Jack White. Men with guitars are my favorite. Not much more to say than that. I’m going to see Jack White at Madison Square Garden in January, and I AM. SO. EXCITED.

MOVIES

The Grand Budapest Hotel: I am a major Wes Anderson fangirl. Saw this one on my birthday this year with two girlfriends, and have already watched and re-watched it a million times since. Absolutely my favorite movie of the year.

Mockingjay: Hunger Games, part 3. No question, an amazing movie. I may have shed a few tears at Philip Seymour Hoffman being on screen.

TV

Bob’s Burgers: If you haven’t watched Bob’s Burgers, you are missing out in a major way. Reminiscent of Family Guy and The Simpsons, this show is my absolute favorite of the moment. I adore Tina and Louise in particular, but the Belcher family as a whole is incredibly charming and lovable. Also, the puns! The humor in Bob’s Burgers is so clever, and I love the punny-ness of the Burger of the Day and everything else in this show.

The Affair: I am a few episodes behind on this show still, but I adore every moment that I’ve seen. The Affair unfolds in dual story lines, with the viewer seeing each part of the story from the perspectives of Noah and Alison, showing the ways in which two different people can experience the same things in very different ways. Plus, there’s a mystery to solve! Watch it. It’s good. Ruth Wilson and Dominic West rock the shit out of this show.

True Detective: There is basically nothing I could say at this point about True Detective that hasn’t already been said this year. It deserves the hype.

#LONGREADS

The Last Amazon: Wonder Woman Returns

The Man with the Golden Blood

MEME

#FeministHackerBarbie

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YOUTUBE CHANNEL

Thug Notes: Gangsta literary analysis.

 

MEDIA ADDICTIONS

John Oliver: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has evolved to be even better than The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, both shows I adore. Yep, I said it. Gauntlet thrown down.

Serial: Most. addicting. podcast. ever.

APPS

IMG_7383Rdio: Spotify ain’t got nothing on Rdio.IMG_7384

Oyster: Netflix for ebooks. Obviously up my alley. Also a beautifully-designed app.

 

 

SHOW

Hedwig & the Angry Inch: I saw Andrew Rannells during his run as Hedwig in this Broadway show, and HOLY SHIT. Such an incredible show! I would’ve loved to have seen Neil Patrick Harris during his run (and Michael C. Hall has taken over the show now), but the show was just amazing. It takes some serious star power to rock the stage as Hedwig.

VIDEOS

Word Crimes

Bitch in Business

Ballad of a Wi-Fi Hero

LIFE MOMENTS

Finding out I passed the bar exam. ‘Nuff said.

The Best of 2014: Introductory Thoughts filled with AP Rambles.

Most of our themed blog posts start with a text. Just imagine the little speech bubbles and those agonizing populated dots, ticking away as the other person types. And here, AC (Ali) pops up with her adorable picture saved in my phone and says, “Let’s do a roundup of our favorite things for 2014, literary and not.” Now here comes the JM (Jessica) bubble, adorable picture in place, with the “Yay, that’s great!” followed by the AL (me) bubble with a picture of my chubby pit bull, “Schwing! It’s on.”

And thus, this blog post was born.

Our mission: Review 2014. Each of us bring a unique flavor of professions, interests, and sarcasm levels to make each roundup different from the other. Throughout the month of December, all three of us will be posting our roundups. We hope that we can spark a conversation from this — what was 2014 for you? Was it a great book, a terrible moment, or a triumph professionally or personally?

Fellow bloggers and commenters, join us! Post your favorites of 2014, add to our lists and expand on our thoughts. While these entries are just fun, I think  they are also important. The end of the year is a time when our brains naturally switch gears and look towards the new year approaching. We look towards another year of achieving goals and perfecting the dream life we set out for ourselves. All of that is fine, but I think we are missing out on an important part of our lives — remembering. If you cannot take a moment to remember what amazing, immense, and difficult things happened to you in the last year, how are you expected to remember that years down the road? As my grandmother would say, “Remember it kiddo, because I swear to God, it’s real easy to forget.”

So, it may be silly, but its something simple that I hope you all will enjoy/partake in…

Ramblings & Reviews: AP in 2014

  1. Book: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach (you can read my love letter of a book review here).

Characters that I loved, resented, and empathized with, all surrounding America’s favorite pastime; a web of relationships, ambitions, and reality. One of the greatest books I have ever read.

 

  1. News Article/Long Read: “Yale, Harvard, Yale, Harvard, Yale, Harvard, Harvard, Harvard, Columbia: The Thing that Scares me the Most about the Supreme Court” by Dalia Lithwick (see article here).

You don’t have to be a legal junkie or a self-professed constitutional law groupie to appreciate the gravity of Lithwick’s arguments. Nine people – seemingly out of touch with reality – make decisions that impact your life tremendously. Does that seem fair to you?

 

  1. Viral Video: John Oliver, Dogs Reenacting the Supreme Court.

Again, you don’t have to be a constitutional law/legal junkie to laugh as hard as I did. Just watch it to see how hard John Oliver laughs – that’s a classic.

 

  1. Musician/Band/Album: Matt McAndrew (@MattMcAndrew) (Season 7 of the Voice).

Queue up your TiVo and catch up on this man’s run on the Voice. Still competing, still blowing my mind; did I mention his version of “Take me To Church” had me weak at the knees?

  1. Food Fad: Chia Seeds.

Chia seed pudding, chia seed smoothies, chia seed power drinks. I’m drinking that Cool-Aide hard.

  1. App: Venmo

I can pay my friends instantaneously and use emojis in the memo line? Schwing!

  1. Movie: This one is extremely difficult. From what I have seen, I’d like to call a tie for 1st for the following: The Mocking Jay Pt. I, Maleficent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and The Fault in Our Stars.

I laughed, I cried, and felt compelled to start a revolution on the part of Panem. And then I cried really hard, you know, on the bridge in Amsterdam (all John Green fans know that reference).

 

  1. Documentary: Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Even if you don’t like sushi, this documentary is just beautiful. Courtesy of Netflix, I have watched about 20 times and I fall in love with Jiro every. single. time.

 

  1. Podcast: Serial.

Me and the rest of the world, I know. Lawyers and non-lawyers alike – you can’t avoid getting hooked on the weekly update to Sarah Koenig’s inquiry into a decade old murder that just doesn’t seem to add up.

 

  1. Person/Celebrity/Public Figure: This isn’t news to people who know me – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In a legal climate that has been hostile towards women’s rights, (rights that Justice Ginsburg fought for before the idea of contraception was even tolerable in the general public) Justice Ginsburg (#NotoriousRBG ) continues to stand up for us with every beautifully penned, scathing dissent she publishes. Did I mention she’s an adorable legal lioness?

 

  1. Twitter Handle: @AnnaKendrick47

I’ve been a big fan of her since Up in the Air (and okay, girl crush real hard in Pitch Perfect). Her twitter account is witty, smart, and extremely funny. I cried with laughter when she live “hate tweeted” Peter Pan Live! If that doesn’t make you laugh, well then, you just don’t deserve her on your twitter feed.

 

  1. Vacation/Place Visited: the day after I took the Bar Exam, my sister took me to Harry Potter world in Orlando, FL.

It was worth every penny spent and that night I spent throwing up all the Bertie Bott’s and beer that I inhaled in one afternoon (probably didn’t help that I rode those insane roller coasters approximately 5 times a piece).

 

  1. Purchase: BP Ankle Trolley Boots

Adorable, Comfortable, and go with everything. I wear them pretty much every day and am hoping Santa got the message that I’d like a pair in black this year!

 

  1. New Thing(s) I learned: “Secondment,” “Hoisted on his own Petard,” “Jack booted thug,” and “Bully for you!”

My officemate never ceases to teach me new phrases to use in everyday conversation. These are just a few of the gems I have learned in the last couple of months.

 

  1. Value I learned: Forgiveness.

This isn’t something tangible or really with the theme of this post, but I felt compelled to include it anyway. This year I have been slowly learning about the true power of forgiveness – both giving and receiving it. There are moments in life where we stumble, tripping over some decisions that maybe weren’t the best, and with forgiveness, you know someone is on the other side to grab you right before you hit the floor. Forgiveness is something I will do well to remember and never forget.