the fact of a body

The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich was hyped a lot recently, so I had to put it on hold through the library. I just finished listening to the audiobook a few days ago. Edited from Goodreads:

Before Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich begins a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working to help defend men accused of murder, she thinks her position is clear. The child of two lawyers, she is staunchly anti-death penalty. But the moment convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes―the moment she hears him speak of his crimes―she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case. Despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar.

I love non-fiction, true crime stories. I find them fascinating, thought-provoking, and great for discussion, and The Fact of a Body is no exception. Marzano-Lesnevich weaves her own experiences during her upbringing with the crimes Ricky Langley committed, and the result is a well-executed, compelling book that reads like a novel. While the murder itself is disturbing, I was also upset by the fact that Langley knew he was a risk to others and needed help, but was ignored left and right by social and prison systems alike.

Marzano-Lesnevich tells her story and how it relates to Langley’s without hyperbole, if read (by her) a little dryly on the audio version. While the writing is beautiful, one thing that didn’t work much for me is that Marzano-Lesnevich takes artistic liberties and goes into impossibly detailed descriptions in her narrative of others’ thoughts, what they were wearing, etc., but to her credit she does admit this and explain why in the notes section. I would have liked to hear how the experience of investigating Langley’s life and crime changed her feelings on the death penalty, and how meeting with him in person went (she mentions that she met him but doesn’t elaborate or describe it).

After reading The Fact of a Body, I thought a lot about memory, what would I do in certain situations, and what society expects regarding punishment, rehabilitation, and social safety nets. Marzano-Lesnevich strikes a wonderful balance between the factual and the emotional. She is analytical and empathetic, and examines how one’s past effects the present. It’s a deeply uncomfortable yet moving book, and it doesn’t sugarcoat dark, confusing, and unfair parts of life. People have secrets, nothing in life is so black-and-white.

Listened to audiobook in August 2017.

one of us

One of Us by Åsne Seierstad is one of the first books I read after moving to Singapore, and one of the best I read in 2016. Edited from Goodreads:

A harrowing and thorough account of the massacre that upended Norway, and the trial that helped put the country back together.

On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb outside government buildings in central Oslo, killing eight people. He then proceeded to a youth camp on the island of Utøya, where he killed sixty-nine more, most of them teenage members of Norway’s governing Labour Party. Journalist Åsne Seierstad tells the story of this terrible day and what led up to it. What made Breivik, a gifted child from an affluent neighborhood in Oslo, become a terrorist?

One of Us is mostly a deep dive into the life of Breivik, and an investigation of what in his past could have possibly shaped him into a terrorist. With intricate detail, Seierstad maps his transformation from smart yet socially awkward teen to radicalized, misogynistic bigot. It’s disquieting to examine the mind of a killer, especially when there’s no clear, black-or-white answer to the why of his evil deeds. I appreciate that Seierstad dutifully and respectfully recounts the lives of several of the teenage victims as well. By the time you reach the chapter on the island massacre, you feel like you really know all these people.

I’m unfamiliar with the Norwegian justice process, but I was shocked that Breivik received only 21 years, which is the maximum sentence allowed there. (It can be extended indefinitely.) He murdered 77 people in cold blood, injured hundreds more, and proudly proclaimed it in court. I admire Norway’s belief in and commitment to rehabilitation instead of permanent institutionalization, but it appears that Breivik won’t change for the better in prison. He’s recently popped up in the news claiming “inhumane conditions” and abuse by Norway while in prison, as well as for changing his name. In court appearances he shows zero remorse for his terrorist acts and murders, and frequently performs Nazi salutes.

I’m not sure how to recommend One of Us… I suppose in the same way you’d recommend Helter Skelter or The Executioner’s Song. It’s fascinating, upsetting, and doesn’t wrap up nicely in a necessarily just or fair way. The main takeaway from One of Us, I think, at least for me, is that sometimes you can’t make sense of the world. But for every one Breivik, there are countless good, decent, compassionate, and open-minded people. In the wake of all this brutally unfair sadness, this quote from the Norwegian prime minister’s response to the attack struck me as particularly inspiring:

We are a small country, but we are a proud people. We are still shaken by what has happened to us, but we will never relinquish our values. Our answer is more democracy, more openness and more humanity. But never naivety.

One of Us is a comprehensive journalistic achievement, bullet by sickening bullet, but reads like a novel. This is such a powerful, frightening, and important book. It’s difficult to get through some sections. I can only imagine the profound pain and anguish of the victims’ families. As an American, I’m furious and concerned about the lack of gun laws and regulations in my country, and how many lives are lost and destroyed by gun violence every day. It shouldn’t be this way, and it doesn’t have to be.

Read in August 2016.

league of denial

Last summer, I listened to the excellent audiobook version of League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. With football season upon us, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at this one. Edited from Goodreads:

“Professional football players do not sustain frequent repetitive blows to the brain on a regular basis.”

So concluded the National Football League in a December 2005 scientific paper on concussions in America’s most popular sport. That judgment, implausible even to a casual fan, also contradicted the opinion of a growing cadre of neuroscientists who worked in vain to convince the NFL that it was facing a deadly new scourge: a chronic brain disease that was driving an alarming number of players—including some of the all-time greats—to madness.

League of Denial reveals how the NFL, over a period of nearly two decades, sought to cover up and deny mounting evidence of the connection between football and brain damage.

If you read my little slice of the internet here, you know I’m a rabid Green Bay Packers fan. My mother grew up in De Pere, in a house just a mile from Vince Lombardi’s house. Lombardi frequented my grandparents’ church. My grandparents went on dates to games. We have coveted, hard-to-get season tickets. As a fan, as someone who cares and is curious, I decided to read League of Denial. I already knew there are health consequences to playing contact sports, but I had no idea just how disturbingly deep the CTE controversy goes in the NFL.

League of Denial exposes the fraud of “safety” in football, from the physically violent way the game is played to attempting to solve the CTE issue with advances in helmet construction and technology, from medical teams to owners to the highest levels of administration. It was just like how Big Tobacco convinced everyone for the longest time that smoking cigarettes was safe. There’s no helmet that can keep the brain from experiencing trauma and damage inside the skull when a player is hit, whether it’s football, baseball, boxing, or anything else.

The amount of research and countless interviews that went into League of Denial is staggering. I know Brett Favre is concerned and vocal about his own future health regarding CTE, and the distressing experiences of football greats like Troy Aikman and Dan Marino in this book really bring home CTE’s seriousness, as well as the NFL’s denial and inaction. The most disquieting story, though, is the life and tragic downward spiral of four-time Super Bowl champion Mike Webster. He was from Wisconsin, where he grew up on a farm, rooted for the Packers, and was a center for the Badgers in college at UW-Madison. It’s a very typical Wisconsin upbringing that hits close to home for me.

This is a compulsively readable book. The only downside of the audio is I’m sure I missed out on a photo section on paper. I haven’t been able to denounce and boycott the game, primarily because the Packers are such a huge part of my homestate’s culture and my family’s bond and history. But I’m paying closer attention for sure to this issue and how the NFL handles it going forward. As a sports fan, and particularly a football fan—one with a conscious—I’m glad I read this informative book. It serves as a warning for exactly how more and more rampant CTE will become each year, and makes the reader question why we as a society are so obsessed with a sport that mimics war and glorifies violence.

Listened to audiobook in July 2016.

reading recap: july 2017

I feel like July just flew by! Half of it I spent in Wisconsin, and half in Singapore. I was able to finish five books in July:

  • Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body … Roxane Gay
  • Al Franken, Giant of the Senate (audio) … Al Franken, read by author
  • Trainwreck (audio) … Sady Doyle, read by Alex McKenna
  • The Sound of Gravel (audio) … Ruth Wariner, read by author
  • The New Odyssey (audio) … Patrick Kingsley, read by Thomas Judd

I’m happy to report that I hit 60 books for the year so far this month! I raised my goal to 70 from 50 a while ago… maybe I should up it again. Or not. I’m happy to enjoy another month of passivity about it! After my trip this summer, I’m more resolved to continue catching up on my book posts here on the blog. If I can write two a week, that’ll be good enough for me (for now). I’m getting a little burned out on audiobooks at the moment… I think I might need a break for a while.

My favorite books for July were definitely Hunger and Al Franken, Giant of the Senate. These two memoirs were starkly different, but both made me reflect on the world, society, and my own experiences a lot. Trainwreck opened my eyes to how we as a society destroy women in the public eye, which was really thought-provoking and I’ve already recommended it to friends. The Sound of Gravel started as a bit of a guilty pleasure for me—I’m a little fascinated by cult religions and this memoir appeared in my Goodreads recommendations after finishing The Road to Jonestown (about Jim Jones) and Going Clear (about Scientology) a couple months ago. It’s another riveting memoir, if read a little dryly by the author on the audio version. Lastly, The New Odyssey hits hard as an exposé of the refugee and migrant crisis across Europe today. I wish it had gone a little more in depth on possible solutions, but still I found this book informative, powerful, and vital to understanding what’s going on in the world right now.

I’m still chugging my way through It, which I’m supplementing with the Steven Weber-read audio version (which is SO good!), as well as ZeroZeroZero by Roberto Saviano on audio (I read his Gomorrah a few years ago and loved it), and started A Colony in A Nation on paper. Otherwise, new books coming in the mail include Capone: The Man and The Era by Laurence Bergreen and Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden. I also just won a Goodreads giveaway for Marc Maron’s new book, Waiting for the Punch! I’m so excited, I haven’t won a giveaway in a long time and I love Marc Maron!
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