I keep saying I won’t do this to myself, but I keep doing it, and I can’t seem to stop.

It’s still May, technically, so it’s not too out of date to talk about March and April, right? Dude, whatever, it’s my blog, and if you’re still reading, it must be because I can do no wrong in your sight. (I don’t actually think that’s why you’re reading.)

Highbrow

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (translated by Jamie Bulloch)
This book caught my eye because I’d seen the film based on it streaming on Netflix. Not the whole film, just some of it. My husband is fond of playing random things on Netflix when it’s late at night and one really ought to go to bed, but is this actually a comedy about Hitler? How can you not check that out? Yes, it’s a comedy about Hitler. Well, it’s a satire, technically (albeit a funny one). The setup is that Hitler didn’t really die in his bunker, but that’s the last thing he remembers, being in the bunker, but somehow he’s woken up and it’s present-day Germany. He is very confused, not to mention disappointed to learn what has become of his beloved Deutschland. On the other hand, he’s very impressed with the new technology, and particularly with the new media. A new career in showbiz falls into his lap when people assume he’s an actor doing some high-concept comedy routine with his insistence that he really is Der Führer. A spot on TV leads to an internet sensation. People are outraged and appalled; a few think he makes a great deal of sense. Everyone is paying attention, though, which is precisely what Hitler wants. Did I enable Hitler by enjoying this book? That’s what I wonder. 4/5 stars

The Round House by Louise Erdrich
This coming of age novel centers on thirteen-year-old Joe, a Native American boy living on a reservation in South Dakota. After his mother is raped, she is so traumatized that she won’t speak of what happened or tell who the guilty party is, not even to her husband, a tribal court judge. Joe determines to find the rapist himself, with some help from his three friends, so he can be brought to justice. The story is not about finding out who committed the crime but how his mother’s trauma affects his family and how Joe’s quest to protect his mother changes him forever. Like most novels about reservation life, it’s depressing AF. Just kidding. Actually, for a sad story (sorry, SPOILER ALERT), it is not as depressing as it should be. It makes for a good book club discussion. 4/5 stars

The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington
I actually don’t know if this book counts as “highbrow” or not. It’s a love story, and for all I know, it’s a pretentious woman’s Nicholas Sparks novel, but it’s about religion as much as it’s about love. Rebecca has just let her mother-in-law apartment (downstairs) to Michael, who has just left the priesthood after spending 20 years in a monastery. Michael has had a crisis of faith but is still a believer. Rebecca is (naturally) a lapsed Catholic. You might say they are both bitter about God, but that would be oversimplifying the case; you might say their respective relationships with the divine are complicated. Anyway, they become friends, and then they fall in love, and then things get really complicated for everyone. I quite enjoyed this book, and I understand there’s a sequel, but I’m undecided as to whether or not I want to read it. I kind of liked the ending as it was. 4.5/5 stars

Non-fiction

First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies by Katie Andersen Brower
The subtitle sort of says it all. I applaud the author’s decision to organize the book thematically rather than chronologically, which can be so tedious. It covers the various first ladies’ relationships to their husbands, to their children, to the press, to the nation, etc. Very interesting and humanizing, no political axes to grind; I liked all of the First Ladies better after reading this. Includes an afterword speculating on what type of First Lady Melania Trump might be, which only made me think, “Poor Hillary.” 4/5 stars

Divided We Stand: The Battle over Women’s Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics by Marjorie J. Spruill
I have mixed feelings about this meticulously researched book. It is exhaustive; in fact, I can’t imagine the author could have left anything out. It’s not my cup of tea, style-wise; it managed to be interesting and tedious, often at the same time. It covers mostly the period between 1972-1980. The final chapter gives a broad overview of the last 30+ years and comes off more partisan, but by then I was so glad to be almost done that I couldn’t be bothered to care. I did think it was worth reading, as it explains how the ERA-era (ha, see what I did there) women’s movement spurred the culture wars that changed both major political parties and led to the current polarization. Lessons learned: Phyllis Schlafly was an impressive woman and also a real piece of work. Betty Friedan was a little less impressive, but equally a real piece of work. I think it would have been a fantastic long article; full-length book wore out its welcome (for me). Your mileage may vary, depending on your tolerance for minutiae.

TL;DR version: The ERA started out as a mainstream, bipartisan issue; it was this close to passing until feminists got together in a big conference and started championing more controversial issues, such as abortion rights, lesbian rights, and government-funded childcare. In their quest to represent the interests of all women, they inadvertently prompted a backlash from conservative women, who feared a loss of American culture’s traditional religious values as well as the loss of traditional protections for women. (See, even the TL;DR version is long.) 3.5/5 stars

Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration–And How to Achieve Real Reform by John Pfaff
As some of you may know, criminal justice reform is an issue close to my heart. Why? I don’t know. Probably because I’m an anti-government wackjob. This is one of the books I would make everyone in America read if I could make everyone in America read five books. (I’m afraid I can’t pick just one.) This goes double if you’ve read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which was an important book in terms of bringing people’s attention to the racial disparities in sentencing (and prosecution), but which side-stepped the issue of violent crime in favor of what Pfaff calls “The Standard Story,” which is that the dramatic increase in incarceration was a direct result of the War on Drugs. The War on Drugs led directly to an increase in federal prisoners, but federal prisoners are a small percentage of the overall prison population, which is composed primarily of people who have been convicted of violent crimes.

Pfaff’s alternative to The Standard Story is that mass incarceration coincided with a massive increase in prosecutions, which coincided not with the substantial increase in violent crime of the ’60s and ’70s but actually took off just as the violent crime rate was decreasing. Prosecutors enjoy almost unlimited discretion with very little oversight or transparency; until this changes, meaningful reform will be impossible. Also, Americans need to decide what trade-offs they are willing to make for marginal decreases in crime. This is a very readable book (not as much math as Mark A.R. Kleinman’s When Brute Force Fails , another great book on this subject) and mostly non-partisan (which makes sense because putting too many people in jail is a bipartisan pastime).  5/5 stars

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