Monday, July 28, 2014

No Choirboy

No Choirboy: Murder, Violence, and Teenagers on Death Row by Susan Kuklin (2008)

In 2005 the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute people who were under 18 when their crimes were committed. Susan Kuklin went into prisons and spoke to inmates who were sent to death row as teenagers. In one case, she spoke to the family of a man executed for a crime committed when he was 17. Giving voice to a population usually hidden from the rest of us, Kuklin shares, in their own words, their lives behind bars, their regrets, and their aspirations.

I gave this book 4 stars on Goodreads, but I kind of feel like my opinion is clouded just because of how strong I feel about these issues. Don't get me wrong - I think it's a good book! But it's the content, the stories of these young men, that I found so powerful and heartbreaking. Kuklin clearly writes from an anti-death penalty standpoint and presents evidence making clear just how tenuous some of the convictions were. I don't think it's a surprise to many of us that the justice system is flawed, yet I continue to be shocked and horrified every time I hear another story about an unfairly tried case.

Around the time I began reading this, I also listened to an episode of On Point about juvenile prisons, and heard stories of teenagers given sentences that seemed to greatly outweigh their crimes. This record then followed them around for years, thwarting opportunities because of mistakes they made as kids. Furthermore, one of the guests also emphasized how doing time in a juvenile prison increases the likelihood of returning to the system later.

In the case of Kuklin's book the crimes are all more serious, although it's not always clear that the convicted were actually guilty. In some cases, the trials were blatantly unfair. One inmate received a death sentence because another guy at the scene testified against him to ensure he didn't get the death penalty. In another situation, an African-American was tried by a jury in which two of the jurors were known to be racist. Another potential juror, involved with the NAACP, was not picked. A jury of one's peers, indeed!

Even when someone is guilty of murder...I just have a hard time with this. I have always, always opposed the death penalty for a whole lot of reasons. The family of a victim was interviewed for this book and told about how they opposed the death penalty in the murder case of their family member because if this guy was killed it still wouldn't bring the victim back. The victim's father explained how devastated he was by his son's death and said he didn't want to put another parent through that, regardless of what their kid had done.

Kuklin really gets to the crux of the matter when she asks if we should all be reduced to the single worst thing we've ever done. We all screw up and when we hurt someone there should certainly be consequences. But I don't believe that every murderer is beyond redemption, especially when they committed their crime so young. Should one horrible mistake destroy a person's life forever? What good does that do anyhow?

You can make the same argument for life imprisonment. It's just so completely unproductive. Who does it help? It won't bring back the victim or undo the crime, and it sure as hell won't put the offender back on the straight and narrow path. It obviously doesn't work as a deterrent either, judging from how full our prisons are. (According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 1 out of every 108 residents of the United States is incarcerated.)

As you can tell, I have a lot of opinions about this. I'm very glad this was chosen for my Not-So-Young Adult book group at the library because I think we'll have a really great discussion. I just flew through this book and I kind of want more. I've become rather fascinated with prison conditions, mandatory sentencing, and the loopholes that result in wrongful convictions. Do you have any suggestions for further reading on this? I'd love suggestions for books, articles, documentaries, or anything else you could recommend.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday Knitting

Having finished my Fountain Pen Shawl and baby sweater and hat, I'm down to one project. As any knitter knows, that is not nearly enough. I've been trying to decide what to make next, perusing my Ravelry queue and cross-checking patterns with the yarn in my stash. And you know, I couldn't help but notice it was much less stressful than when I look through my To Read list on Goodreads.

My list of books I want to read weighs heavily on me, as I have mentioned before. My knitting queue though, is not stressful at all. When I see patterns I like, I put them in the queue so that when it's time to start a project I go to my queue as a starting point and look through everything I have found appealing. It's not stuff I have to make and, in fact, I know I won't ever make most of it. It's just a way to whittle down the possibilities so I have a manageable list to choose from. In fact, it's exactly what I want my To Read list to be. The thing is, I can tell I like a garment by looking at it, but in a lot of cases I have no idea if I'll like a book until I actually read it. My To Read list is a great big list of uncertainty.

Anyhow, back to the matter at hand. Despite my stress-free experience with my knitting queue, I'm a bit paralyzed by indecision right now.

© Marnie MacLean
Yes to knitting hot pants.
One project I'm thinking about is Assets of Evo, a pair of shorts inspired by the work of Charles Darwin. This project seems impractical at best, but still I'm strangely drawn to it. I keep wanting to knit something kind of wacky, just for the fun of it, and while this isn't nearly as wacky as I was thinking, it might be a start.

I also have a lot of blue Classic Elite Wool Bam Boo yarn that I bought when Windsor Button was closing down, and would really like to finally make it into something. I've looked at many patterns that require DK weight yarn and nothing seems exactly right, but I think the Vodka Lemonade cardigan (which I keep thinking of as Vodka Tonic in my head) comes quite close. I'm not in love with the neckline, but overall I think it's pretty adorable. And vodka is always a good choice, isn't it?

© 2012 Caro Sheridan
Because vodka.
I've also been considering some entrelac socks, a cozy hoodie, and a drapey sleeveless top. I'm getting to a point where I've knit so many things that my sock drawer is bursting and I don't have enough space to store all my sweaters, so I need to choose projects carefully.

Another complicating factor is that I just started going to a new knitting group (Monday nights in Assembly Square if any of you are local and interested). I suddenly remember that when going to a knitting group, having a project is not enough: I need to have a project that is portable, and uncomplicated. Right now my one project is the Feathernest Raglan, which is neither very portable nor simple enough to knit while chatting without screwing it up. So at my first meeting of this group I brought a dishcloth I was making out of some kitchen cotton and felt compelled to explain that it's not my real project.

All this to say that I'm rather stalled in knitting right now, and I probably just need to pick something and go with it. My plan is to do that sometime today. Wish me luck.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Twenty classics I want to read

I'm currently participating in the TBR Pile Challenge, which is enough for one year, especially given my three book groups. Last weekend, though, I came across this post from Behold the Stars in which she announced the completion of her Classics Club list. I thought, "I want to read more classics." I thought, "I could totally join Classics Club." I read the requirements, and was delighted and relieved that you can count re-reads, and you can change your list at any point. Immediately, I spent a weekend making a list of 50 classics to read in the next 5 years. I came up with 20 easily. Then I added another 8 that I've been wanting to re-read.

I actually have three classics checked out of the library right now - one as a potential community read, one for the TBR Pile Challenge, and a third just because - and this made the timing seem even more urgent. I want these three books to count.

So then I was at 28 and had to come up with 22 more. Since they can be changed I thought I'd just go through some lists of classics and pick out more things that I should totally read at some point in my life. I read the Classics Club list of classics, and then moved on to Goodreads, where I went through a few different lists, adding anything that wasn't an obvious and immediate turnoff.

Then I began to come to my senses.

I am in three (3) book groups. I am on the community read committee at my library. I am doing the TBR Pile Challenge. This all equals a lot of books and I have been trying so hard to whittle down my To Read list on Goodreads, trying to delete books I think I might not read so I will stop feeling that pressure.

This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to post my list of classics that I actually want to read here. I will maybe attempt to read them sometime in the foreseeable future (i.e. between now and retirement.) I will not hold myself to any promises.

Here's my list:

  1. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  2. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  4. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
  5. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  6. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  7. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  8. War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy
  9. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne duMaurier
  10. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  11. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  12. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
  13. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  14. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  15. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  16. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  17. Babbit by Sinclair Lewis
  18. The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
  19. Complete Poems by Dorothy Parker
  20. Complete Stories by Dorothy Parker

So there. I haven't read any of these. (Ok, I might have read Mrs. Dalloway but I can't quite remember so that doesn't count. And I read "The Lottery" in school, but not any other of Jackson's stories.) I would also like to read something by Faulkner, maybe, but I'm not sure what. And maybe something by John Updike? I don't know. It doesn't matter. But if you have suggestions I'll take them.

A few of these are chunky. I don't know how I'll get through War and Peace or Moby-Dick or Middlemarch. I'd like to be taking a class on them because that helped a lot in college, and I really think you get more out of a book if you're discussing it. Occasionally the Cambridge Center for Adult Education will hold a class on a particularly long book (in fact they are doing War and Peace this fall, which may work out for me!) There are also read-alongs online that I will look for as well.

I just came perilously close to doing something ridiculous, and I'm so glad I caught myself before actually signing up. But I'm also glad to be thinking about reading more classics.

What are your favorites? Are there any you have been wanting to read and just haven't managed to get to? What's the best Faulkner novel to start with, or should I just skip him altogether? Please share your thoughts and opinions below!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Burn Journals

The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon (2004)

When he was 14, Brent Runyon tried to commit suicide by setting himself on fire. Although he very quickly changed his mind, he was left with third degree burns over 85% of his body. In this memoir, he recounts the year that he spent recovering, from just before it happened until he went back to school.

Mostly it covers what was going on medically, what it was like to be in the hospital, his relationship with the nurses, and that sort of thing. He shares the details of burn care, a painful process that he remembers all too vividly, along with high points such as meeting Magic Johnson and Dennis Miller. Occasionally, Runyon wishes he could go back and make it not happen or he ruminates on whether or not he'll ever have sex, or if anyone will ever love him. But generally, it's not as introspective as if an adult had written it, and I think it is this focus on the more day-to-day aspects of his recovery that makes it so easy to read.

Runyon began writing about his experiences in his 20s, but the memoir is from the perspective of his 14-year-old self and I thought he did a great job of looking back and channeling that voice. He could be judgmental of other kids around him, especially when he was taking the short bus, and called them names just like a 14-year-old would. He could have changed these parts of the story but he didn't, and that helped retain the truth of the story and of who he was. The narrative voice is really what makes the book as good at it is. He sounds honest and real, and comes across as a decent person with a great sense of humor who is dealing with the horrible consequences of a bad mistake that will change his life forever.

Maybe he wasn't the most introspective kid - and who at 14 is? He was forced to see psychologists and hated most of them, and didn't want to talk about his suicide attempt. He says he didn't really understand why he did it and remained focused on getting better and going back to his regular life. The suicide attempt was presented as a poor decision that was an overreaction to things going on in his life rather than the beginning of a lifelong struggle, and I hope that's actually the case.

I visited Runyon's website, which includes a gallery of photos from before and after he set himself on fire, and I was sort of shocked at how young he looks in those hospital photos. His voice doesn't sound like a child, and I definitely remember feeling distinctly un-childlike at that age, but boy he sure looks like a child. I'm sure it's not easy to share so much of oneself with the world, but I really appreciated that I was able to see photos of events that I read about. They made the story all the more real.

I sped through this book in just over a day. I couldn't put it down. Not everything was resolved or tied up neatly (such as his distant relationship with his brother), but of course that's because it's real. I'd love a follow-up to this story because this is a person I would like to know better and, even more, I want to know that he's still doing ok.

Monday, July 21, 2014


Landline by Rainbow Rowell (2014), narrated by Rebecca Lowman

In Rainbow Rowell's highly-anticipated new novel for adults, a woman mysteriously makes contact with a younger version of her husband through the old yellow telephone at her mother's house. Georgie McCool is supposed to be leaving for Omaha with her husband and kids to stay with his family for Christmas. But something has come up at work and she decides not to go at the last minute. She is a tv writer, so her schedule isn't a shock to Neal, but this seems like the last straw and he packs up the kids and goes without her. Later at her mother's house, her cell phone dead, Georgie uses the old phone in her room to try to call her husband, but instead reaches the 22-year-old version of him. It was another significant time in their relationship and Georgie wonders if she has been handed this strange opportunity for a reason: is she meant to fix their marriage? Or prevent it from ever happening?

The premise is strange and remains unexplained, but if you can just suspend your disbelief it actually works quite well. This isn't a story of action - it's mostly about Georgie and Neal's relationship from its earliest days. Not until late in the book is there any real action. It felt sort of like time stopped so that Georgie could figure everything out. It didn't actually stop, of course. Her coworker and best friend Seth tried to get her to come to work as she languished around her mother's house depressively in Neal's old Metallica t-shirt. She just resisted everything that was happening around her, continuing to wear her dirty clothing - or her mother's clothing - in her refusal to go back to her empty house.

Some major elements of the story were predictable, one thing in particular that I figured out really early on, and I am not the most astute of readers. I just waited for Georgie to also figure it out, which she did eventually. This didn't bother me. Landline isn't a suspense novel, after all; it's a novel about relationships, and they are often predictable.

As always, the best part of a Rainbow Rowell book is her language. George refers to Neal's lips as "a testament to cell division." When her younger sister Heather asks about whether she had fallen in love before Neal, she says "Maybe I came really close to falling in love, cumulatively, over two or three relationships." I also love the nostalgia she invokes with her references to Crayola Caddies and Mork.

I pre-ordered the audiobook when I learned that Rebecca Lowman would be narrating. Rainbow Rowell and Rebecca Lowman are becoming inextricably linked in my head, which is sort of a problem and the reason I haven't yet listened to Attachments. I guess I could read the print version, but that's not how I experience Rainbow Rowell. You can see my dilemma.

It's tough to compare to Rowell's other books that I've read because it's for adults and, therefore, inherently a bit different. I still love Eleanor & Park more, and maybe even Fangirl, but's Rainbow Rowell and she has a magical way with words that just captivates me every time. I feel like she could write about the most boring non-fiction topic out there (the history of adhesives? how to clean upholstery? ocean bottom sediment?) and it would be a pleasure to read because she would say such unique things about it in a way that we could all relate to. Yes! I'd say. That is exactly what ocean bottom sediment is like, when you really think about it. Rainbow Rowell is magic, like a landline that connects you to fifteen years ago.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Welsh Girl

The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies (2007)

I am forever saying that I'm done with WWII fiction, only to go on and read something else that is very firmly set in that period. In this case I'm finally getting around to something that I've wanted to read since I came across it by chance on a library shelf soon after it came out in 2007.

A young German surrenders and is brought to a POW camp in the Welsh countryside. Nearby, a young woman named Esther lives with her father and a young evacuee named Jim. The novel alternates between their two stories, which eventually cross when they meet.

Some decisive events take place early on - Karsten is captured, Esther is raped - but then it all moves rather slowly for quite a while until late in the novel when the two finally meet. In these later pages the pace quickens as the action picks up. Not to say that it's boring until then: the story may be slow, but it's filled with lush descriptions and profound insights into both major characters.

Esther must deal with the aftermath of her rape, which she hesitates to even name as such. The man was a soldier who she thought cared for her, and she decides it was more of a misunderstanding. "He meant one thing, she meant another." Considering the idea of being forced, she wonders how this was different from any other experience in her confining life. Still, there are consequences, and Esther is not able to leave it behind her. I was often surprised by Esther, which made her all the more intriguing. She is much more than a simple country girl.

Karsten, meanwhile, is unable to escape the fact of his surrender. The other prisoners won't let him forget it, and he does not know what to write to his mother, how to explain his present circumstances. Some of the most vivid and atmospheric descriptions were part of Karsten's story, such as this detail early on: "The sand, when he touches it, still holds the silken warmth of the long summer day, but when he pushes his fingers below the surface, the grains are chill and coarse." I grew up near a beach and know that feeling very well, but had forgotten it until reading this passage.

There's a third important character as well, an interrogator named Rotheram who is investigating Rudolf Hess, a politician close to Adolf Hitler who is being held prisoner in Wales. I wasn't as drawn into his story as the rest, likely because I got so little of it - just a few chapters in the whole novel - and because it was more political than personal. But it served as a pretty strong reminder about what was going on at the time, far away from this rural countryside, and strengthened the connection between the other parts of the story.

I expected to be let down by this novel, not just because I've waited so long, but because it was compared to The English Patient, which I found tedious and only slogged about halfway through before giving up. But I'm very glad I finally gave this one a chance. It's a bit more literary than what I've been reading, and I think it would be great for a book group. There's a lot going on (I know I probably missed some things) and certain parts of the story were left open, inviting speculation. Luckily, a coworker happened to be reading it at the same time, so we did get to discuss it a bit together. All in all, The Welsh Girl was surprisingly satisfying.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Stepford Wives

The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin (1972)

The Stepford Wives has become so ingrained in our cultural psyche, it really needs no introduction. Everybody knows that a Stepford wife is a perfect, bland example of a homemaker: keeping an immaculate house, smiling pleasantly, and having no real thoughts or opinions of her own. There's more to the story of course - it follows a particular couple, Joanna and Walter, who move to Stepford with their kids. Joanna notices something strange about the women and their lack of interest in socializing, much less in women's liberation issues. She becomes suspicious of the Men's Organization, and confides in her one "normal" friend, Bobbie. As the story progresses, Joanna begins to wonder if she's on to something, or if she's just crazy.

This subtlety is what makes the story so sinister. It's horror of a sort - you can't really read it without a sinking feeling of dread - but there are no monsters, no blood, no crazed killer chasing after the heroine. It's just a neighborhood that looks perfectly normal from the outside, but where something is very much not right.

It is significant that The Stepford Wives was published in 1972. The height of the women's liberation movement, and the inevitable backlash, are the perfect backdrop and in fact I don't think the novel would exist without them. Joanna's desire to start a NOW chapter in Stepford is almost quaint, but I couldn't help but admire her outspokenness. (And I miss this sort of pure, unadulterated feminism. It's just not like it used to be.)

Not having read The Stepford Wives since the 1980s, I had forgotten just how creepy it is. It's also very short, more of a novella than a novel, and I relished every bit of it this time through. Though it may seem a little dated, the quest for female perfection is still alive and well. It's not really about being a housewife anymore, of course, it's about being a career woman and housewife and mother and having additional fulfilling hobbies and interests. Instead of focusing entirely on keeping a perfect house, we talk about achieving "balance" which seems to be code for managing to do ALL THE THINGS. Elizabeth Gilbert posted a beautiful essay about balance here, and I strongly suggest you read it, especially if you feel like you are failing at achieving this balance everyone keeps talking about. Then go read The Stepford Wives. It will make you feel better about slacking on housework, I promise.