From Lawrence in Arabia to Patty Hearst, Summer Reading Recommendations
Our correspondent asks prominent readers what they’re taking to the beach.
By Brennan Center contributor Victoria Bassetti
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Labor Day weekend is fast approaching. And that means it’s time to stock up on reading material. I asked some friends and colleagues for suggestions. Here’s what they told me.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D): The freshman Senator from Connecticut captured national attention earlier this summer with his overnight filibuster demanding action on gun safety proposals in the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida.
Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson: A fascinating story of both T.E. Lawrence but also the making of the modern Middle East during the World War I period. A great starting point for those who want to understand how long Western hands have been at the center of screwing up the Middle East.
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy: This book helped reset my head on the epidemic of urban gun violence. Leovy makes a compelling case that the vast numbers of unsolved murders in our cities leave behind a wake of disbelief in the legal system and the replacement of it by an informal, off-the-books system of justice. She tells the story of one dogged and determined Los Angeles detective to make the case that it’s simply our choice to let so many crimes go unsolved.
Michael Waldman: Waldman is the President of the Brennan Center for Justice. His latest book, The Fight to Vote, came out earlier this year. His book The Second Amendment: A Biography is now out in paperback.
The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert Gordon: It’s a fascinating economic history that argues we are in for slower growth (and, by implication, nastier and more polarized politics). Dense for the beach, but you’ll learn a lot about the rise of electric toasters, etc.
Linda Greenhouse: The New York Times’ Supreme Court correspondent for more than 30 years, Greenhouse is now a columnist for the paper and teaches at Yale Law School. Her book, The Burger Court and the Rise of the Judicial Right, co-authored with Michael Graetz, came out earlier this summer.
Lulu in Babylon by Allison Silver: I am currently reading Lulu in Babylon, a hilarious newly-published roman á clef of the movie business by the former op ed editor of the Los Angeles Times who knows all the secrets.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande: Even though Atul Gawande’s fascinating Being Mortal has been on the best seller list for more than a year, I just got around to reading it. I found it extremely enlightening and have been recommending it to everyone.
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: I just started reading Purity as an audio book, and I’m finding it intriguing.
Dahlia Lithwick: Slate’s Senior Editor, Lithwick writes about the courts and law. She has won the National Magazine Award and is on the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit: This has been about the most depressing, immobilizing and terrifying summer I can recall. The choice seems to be between a steady diet of alt-right hate speech, threats of vote suppression, and a spiral of xenophobia, or tuning out under the bedclothes with the Hamilton soundtrack. The curative for me came with Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Originally published in 2004, and re-released this year, this is a slim jewel of a meditation on what political hope can do for us, or more urgently what we can do for hope. Hopelessness is a choice to do nothing.
Solnit reminds us that it is also a choice to believe in nothing: “It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”
This is a book about basic human goodness, human agency, social change, and a sharp renunciation of the “everything sucks so I will watch movies instead” mode so many of us have fallen into of late. She reminds us of the amazing political successes of the last decades, achieved by environmental, feminist, LGBTQ, and peace activists, and recalls us to the reality that the world is immeasurably better in so many ways because so many people had hope in the face of ugliness. Read this book by moonlight, dance a little, think about the goodness in your neighbors. And then get back to work
David Feige: Feige won the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. His film, Untouchable, deals with sex offender laws. One reviewer said it “presents a complicated issue in all its complexity…. It is urgent without becoming alarmist, and it points to a possible changing of hearts and minds without propagandizing.” Feige was the Trial Chief at Bronx Defenders and helped found the organization.
New Jack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Connover and Failure to Protect: America’s Sexual Predator Laws and the Rise of the Preventive State by Eric Janus. My criminal justice reading lately has been a mix of old and new. On the old side, it’s been New Jack, Ted Connover’s chronicle of life as a prison guard. It’s an interesting introduction to a perspective I’m not used to hearing about — that of the (very literate) prison guard. On the newer side is Eric Janus’s terrific book Failure to Protect, which chronicles many of the ways in which our current sex offender policies have failed to deliver on their promises, and in fact have been counterproductive. It’s an eye-opening look at a very hot button issue.
James Solomon: Solomon’s directorial debut, The Witness, explores the myth, memory and fact that surround Kitty Genovese’s sensationalized murder more than 50 years ago. Genovese’s brother grapples with his sister’s death and the media sensation that followed. “The movie is as gripping as true-crime procedurals ‘Serial’ and ‘Making a Murderer,’ but with more intimacy and heartache,” said the Washington Post. Solomon was the screenwriter for The Conspirator, the Robert Redford-directed feature about the Lincoln assassination.
Seven American Deaths and Disasters by Kenneth Goldsmith: For my birthday in August, my wife gifted me Seven American Deaths and Disasters by Kenneth Goldsmith. It might seem atypical birthday fare. But, as a filmmaker, I am drawn to stories we think we know from the Lincoln Assassination (“The Conspirator”) to George Steinbrenner’s Yankees (“The Bronx is Burning”) to the murder of Kitty Genovese (“The Witness”). Goldsmith’s compilation is history’s proverbial “first draft.” Employing TV and radio accounts, he chronicles seven seminal tragedies as they unfolded — from the JFK and RFK assassinations to the space shuttle Challenger disaster and the Columbine shooting. Normal programming is interrupted with a bulletin (or “breaking news”, depending on the era). Of particular interest is what was (or was not) known at the time — and, in some cases, how little we still know about these narratives.
Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference by Andrew Blauner: An August read that I can’t recommend highly enough is Andrew Blauner’s soulful anthology, Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference. Few have as indelible an impact on our lives as coaches. These evocations will inspire and resonate for any entrusted with another. In fact, as a coach and father, I am committed to re-reading it again next August.
Walter Shapiro: A Brennan Center fellow, Shapiro’s latest book Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Hustled Hitler tells the true life story of how his great-uncle — a vaudeville impresario and exuberant con man — managed to cheat Hitler’s agents in the run-up to World War II.
A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny: All of us have a mythical realm we wish were real. For me, it is Three Pines, the tiny Quebec village near the Vermont border that is home turf for the Louise Penny mysteries. Her latest Inspector Gamache saga, A Great Reckoning, will be published on August 30 — and consider me incommunicado until I finish it.
John Yoo: Yoo is the Emanuel S. Heller Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. In a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times he argued that Supreme Court appointments should not justify voting for Donald Trump.
The Complete Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant by Ulysses Grant: Grant’s memoirs, which only cover the Civil War and not Reconstruction or his presidency, are fascinating for their account of the Northern victory on the battlefield. But they are more than that. They are an outstanding example, perhaps the first of their kind, of a uniquely spare style of American writing.
I asked Yoo for a contemporary book. He replied: “Does Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End count as contemporary? I’m reading it as we recall the 100th anniversary of the events of World War I.”
As for me, I’ve got a few books written by our above contributors to read. And I’m also planning on taking Jeffrey Toobin’s American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst with me on vacation. I was a young child when Hearst was kidnapped but remember well the anxiety and fascination I felt about the events surrounding her abduction by the Symbionese Liberation Army and her eventual participation in their crime spree. I haven’t really thought about it in the intervening years and am looking forward to bouncing my hazy childhood memories off Toobin’s sure-to-be lucid prose.
(Photo: Victoria Bassetti)
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Victoria Bassetti is a Brennan Center contributor. She is the author of Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters, published by The New Press in 2012.