Friday, March 11, 2016

What Did the Book Club Think of "Just Mercy"?

If you've been paying attention to the bestseller lists, you've probably spotted Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, firmly settled among the nonfiction paperback titles. Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and professor of law at New York University, has dedicated his life to helping prisoners on death row and those sentenced to death in prison, which is a very smart flipping of the traditional life in prison without parole.

Just because someone has a great story, it doesn't mean they have a great book. But Just Mercy is a triumph in that regard as well. Stevenson does triple duty in his book. The overarching story chronicles the case of Walter McMillan, on death row for murdering a woman, convicted with very flimsy evidence. But in between telling that tale he covers a different subject, perhaps judges' authority to override juries in several states, perhaps the rise in convicting pregnant women. And much about the rise in trying juveniles as adults. I call it The Good Wife structure, though How to Get Away with Murder is another good example - you tell one long story counterpointed with self-contained shorter stories. It apparently works well both for television and books.

And I should note that while there is a strong racial and ethnic component to this problem - black and Latinos are imprisoned in much higher percentage than whites - there is also class involved. Wealthy people do not generally wind up on death row.

And then of course we have another story, that of Stevenson's life, or at least that of the Equal Justice Initiative's growth. You can't really call this a memoir, even though it's first person, as Stevenson really tries to step back from the story and focus on the folks profiled. The only time Steveson is in the spotlight is when he recounts being targeted by the Atlanta police for being a Black man in a neighborhood that had a reported robbery and the policeman suggests he not move...or else. The actual quote from Stevenson is quite a bit worse than that. He is aggressively searched and explanations are not allowed. If you think this is acceptable, under the circumstances, how would you feel if it happened to you?

A bystander tells the police to ask Stevenson about her missing cat, among other things. The police eventually realize that they've made a mistake. There are no apologies. It's a comic line in a tragic scenario.

So what did the book club think? I don't think there was anyone who didn't like the book.

One attendee thought it was a great book to read in tandem with Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me. Both were edited by Chris Jackson, and Coates has actually been talking up Just Mercy.

We talked a lot about the cases with children in particular. We noted the difference in the adolescent brain, and I spoke about Kent Kiel's book, The Psychopath Whisperer, confirming through scans that teenagers brains can and do change, but that prison does not have the hoped-for consequence of reforming criminals.

We also discussed the plight of folks with mental illness. Prisons were used to contain those with mental illness until reform created hospitals. And now we've swung in the other direction, defunding care facilities, and that's led to more folks with mental illness back in prisons.

There was some conversation of the tide turning on our incarceration numbers, even with Republicans, but we also noted how quickly the argument can be reversed, seen most recently with immigration reform and free trade policy. And the truth is that even though crime in general is down, the perception among the general public is that it is actually up.

Our resident alien was probably the most horrified by the story, though certainly she wasn't surprised. As an Australian, she is amused by various American foibles.

We had a solid hour of animated discussion, with just about everyone having something to add to the conversation.

If you're looking for additional reading, Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow is probably another book to add to your to-be-read list.

And now for our upcoming book selections - we're lightening it up a little by discussing Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove on Monday, April 4, 7 pm. Please note that Backman is visiting Boswell on May 14, 2 pm.

In May, we'll be discussing Angela Flournoy's The Turner House. That discussion is Monday, May 2, 7 pm. This novel about a Detroit family was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Our in-store lit group discussions are held in the magazine area. There is no pre-registration required.

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