Friday, December 26, 2014

best non-fiction books 2014

Time to wrap up the year. Only two categories this year, fiction and non-fiction, with comics and poetry absent. In no particular order.

Sibilant Fricative, by Adam Roberts
Mass Incarceration on Trial, by Jonathan Simon
Violins of Hope, by James Grymes
My Salinger Year, by Joanna Rakoff
The Getaway Car, by Donald Westlake

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander
The New Jim Crow

The New Press, 2012

Every once in a while comes a book that says some things obvious to everyone out loud. Sometimes even obvious things should be said out loud. But the thing with this books is that everything written inside it is not obvious and said out loud these things will open someone’s eyes.

Indeed, The New Jim Crow starts with the premise that sounds more like a conspiracy theory than a solid social theory written by a legal scholar and civil rights lawyer. Inside America exists caste system, where an undercaste is black and brown people of America. Instead of slavery and racial segregation, Americans now have a caste system, that is quite legal. Instead of Jim Crow, America now has New Jim Crow.

Living outside of US, I can only judge the American social system by that information US media supplies us. Imagery presented by media mostly shows a safe and comfortable life for whites and not so rosy life for blacks. But, as media hastens to explain, it is only so because blacks themselves chose this life, chose criminal path. Til this day we read and watch “horror stories” about black men, their drug usage and their violence.

Yet this image has no similarities with the image of America presented in this book. If even for Americans it will be a shock to learn about the real state of things, then what about us, on the other side of the pond? It seems like everything starts with the image. No matter how things stand, the only that matters is how they are presented. Michelle Alexander, step by step, paints a bleak picture. After the WWII African Americans, it seemed, received their freedom and civil rights, finally. Yet it was only a start, a beginning of the end. In the new era where an image dominates it was very important to create needed image. After that, this image will start working without additional efforts. People holding power in a matter of decades created that image, of a black man who is a threat, who is an animal, who is a merely life form, not a proper human being. With racism successfully remained in the past (or so they said), it was only with the new image government could control the masses and win the minds of those who were in doubt.

And the image has been sold, successfully. African Americans remained the same, yet he was labeled a criminal. Not only labeled, first he (as the author focuses on males on her book) was made a criminal, then labeled, as an animal, and then excluded from society.

Alexander explains on all the levels how the government succeeded. First the courts, then public image, then war on drugs, then mass incarceration, then ghettos, then total exclusion from American society, discarded as trash. The author makes strong arguments, especially on war on drugs and legal system, and it is difficult to imagine one who would not be persuaded by these arguments. It is always easier to control a large layer of people when this group of people are rounded up and sent to ghettos or, worse, to prisons.

When a large part of African Americans is in prisons or in ghettos stripped of basic rights and privileges, how could we say that USA is a democratic society? When governments makes its own citizens mere life forms, how can we say that it is a democracy? Democracy is based on equality for all, not for those chosen selectively.

The New Jim Crow is a truly eye-opening book. It changes your views on today’s America and African Americans.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mass Incarceration on Trial

Jonathan Simon
Mass Incarceration on Trial

The New Press, 2014

America worries about its citizens. America wants to reduce crime, separating those who have comitted crime from those who are victims or can become victims. The method of the separation the US have chosen is imprisonment everyone who poses even a slightest threat to society.

Mass incarceration has become panacea for all crime related illnesses in America. Prisons lose their rehabilitation status, turning into human warehouses storing people as objects that have lost all their value for the government.

Jonathan Simon in his study of mass incarceration writes that the society and then government views on crime and crime prevention toward incapacitation changed their views on prisons significantly only recently. On an example of California, Simon shows how a state with moderately small amount of prisons during only two decades had made a big step forward to a prison state, where “more than twenty new prisons [were built] during 1980s and 1990s”. The state abandoned all rehabilitation programs for prisoners, adapted new harsh sentensing laws, made parole impossible, with the only solution in mind – incarceration. The newly builded prisons couldn’t catch up with the number of newly convicted, who received long sentences even for smaller crimes. It had led to overcrowding in prisons, that itself had become the source of another issue for prison inmates. The conditions of their imprisonment worsened. While the official theory was that prisons are safe for those who are unsafe to society, in real life prisoners suffered from absence of elemental medical treatment. The prisons became places of torture tucked away from our eyes.

Examining new trial cases, regarding mass incarceration and prisons conditions unfeat for any human, especially those who suffer from mental and chronic illnesses, Simon find the reasons as to why California and the rest of America found this brutal and most unhuman way to treat persons who were found guilty of comitting a crime. I avoided in the previous sentence the notion that state found a new way to prevent crime by building new prisons. In this book Simon (and he’s not the first) argues that it’s been established already that there is no direct relevance between crime rate and incarceration rate.

Thus we should regard the reasons that caused and started mass incarceration across USA. In one of the strongest arguments Simon explains how society viewed an ordinary criminal, the two most common types being black violent revolutioner and white serial killer hunting in suburbs. It seemed there were no other way to be saved from crime, other than to place every person who committed any crime possible in prison for the longest term possible. Simon convincingly argues that it is the government itself who sold the society this idea about incorrigable criminals, and then after society in fear changed its views toward the need of a harsher punishment, the government simply used society’s approval of mass incarceration.

Building prisons is the simplest way out, also being not the cheapest one. Mass incarceration requires minimum brain work, as prisoners are treated as things that are needed to be placed inside cells, and then forget about them, for life if possible. Rehabilitation, working with people, treating human beings with dignity they’re entitled to, this is a hard work. Government “treat(s) members of the human race as nonhumans, as objects to be toyed with and discarded”. For a few decades government was focused on the materialistic side of the problem, being interested in contruction, safety inside of prisons for prison officials, supermax blocks and whole prisons.

Simon slightly touches one, as it seems for me, important point: the new prisons were considered as safe places for work of prison officials in the first place, and only in the second as a safe place for prisoners. Prison officials viewed prisoners as dangerous species, animals who deserved to be treated as such. Therefore all in prisons was made so that prison officials could feel and work safely inside prison walls.

While completely forgotten and deprived of decent medical treatment and opportunities for education, communication and rehabilitation, prisoners struggled all these years. The prison population grew, the average age of prisoners raised, the suicide rate among prisoners high as ever, and only recent litigation cases drew attention of media and social scientists to the issue of total incapacitation.

Simon delves into three most important cases, where whole population of several Califotnia prisons demanded the right to medical treatment and human conditions in prisons. During these cases, it was found that mass incarceration leads to a violation of Eighth Amendment. The Brown vs. Plaza court’s recommendations on reducing prison population is only a start. The three cases examined in this book initiated the end of mass incarceration. The government still fights this decision, yet there were some progress already made.

Mass Incarceration on Trial is a superb study of American penal system, its issues and the possible ways to solve them. It a book for prison freaks and for those who studies law.


Nick Harkaway

William Heinemann, 2014

“ON THE STEPS of the old mission house, the Sergeant sat with the boy who called himself Robin, and watched a pigeon being swallowed by a pelican.”

The Sergeant himself is on his way to become a local Batman, who as one would have guessed from the title, will be called Tigerman. The boy will remain the boy, though the Sergeant will find a name for him closer to the end of the novel. As a pair, the Sergeant and the boy fight evil of a undefined type, since the source of evil is often uncleared, as it often is if it’s a matter of global politics where good and evil not easily recognizable. As just local people, and on the island of Mancreu everyone is local and alien from somewhere else, the Sergeant and the boy are hardly in need of names. They remain symbols, of a wanderer, wounded and faithful to the Crown, being an army vet, semi-retired, and of a child in need of a proper parent, or so it seems.

The heroes are introduced at the beginning, and the place also plays a significant role in the book. Mancreu has no proper government, being a former colony in post-colonial time when it already doesn’t matter who governs whom. “In theory, of course, the British presence here had been withdrawn three years ago, claims of sovereignty having been yielded to the NATO and Allied Protection Force on Mancreu, NatProMan.” The Sergeant serves here a role of an observer, and there is nothing really to observe, except to keep your routine, eat, talk with the boy. The Sergeant is in position when he just needs to do nothing until the island is liquidated, and the rumors going from the start of the novel have it that the island will be eventually destroyed. There will come Leaving time, and one just ups and goes home.

The official reason for destroying Mancreu is its dangerousness to the rest of the world. The island has mutant bacteria somewhere around it, and it needs being stopped from potential future spreading. While the island is still functioning (and no one asks locals whether they want their home demolished), it remains a strange and lawless place, where shady deals are going. And soon the Sergeant finds himself first in the role of a country detective, and then of Tigerman.

It can seem that the fantastic element of Tigerman masks behind not so fantastic theory about dangerous island. This element is obscured by the rest not so fantastic stuff. In fact, Tigerman reads like a work of fantastic genre. Superhero fights and mysterious women, known only by name legendary villain are all part of the atmosphere, and this unforgettable atmosphere makes it read like an adventerous novel with fantastic elements inside. It is enormously entertaining, remaining thoughtful and heartbreaking. Bat(Tiger)man on an aboriginal island saves the world, with a touch of international intrigue, what else do you need?

It is not all BANG and BING, though. Harkaway is pretty realistic in depicting so called Third World problems. And the tension between a grown man imagining himself as a father and a boy in need to be fathered and their shyness about their thoughts and emotions on that create careful examinations of human feelings. The novel asks, are adult and child equal in their bond, or is it always unbalanced relationship? Who manipulates whom?

Prepare yourself for a wild ride. It’s one of the most poignant SF books I’ve read in years.