Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson, an attorney, heads the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit seeking to help just mercypeople who are serving unjust sentences.  One priority is assisting innocent people who are on death row.  Another major initiative is assisting juvenile offenders sent to adult prisons.  Stevenson successfully argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that put an end to sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A major part of the book involves Walter McMillan, a black Alabama resident who was on death row, awaiting execution for murder.  Stevenson, believing that Walter was innocent, decided that EJI would try to save Walter.  This is the most detailed of the compelling stories of injustice and of EJI’s success in helping many of these accused people.

The New York Times Book Review included these words, “Just Mercy will make you upset and it will make you hopeful.”  Every American would profit from a fuller understanding of criminal justice issues, and this fascinating book is a good start.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)


The Unsettlers : in search of the good life in today’s America by Mark Sundeen

UnsettlersWe’ve all heard about eating organically, as “organic” foods and products proliferate in most grocery stores nowadays.  But, is eating organically eating ethically?  Particularly if certain organic products are shipped here from Chile and other parts beyond, then how is consuming them an ethical act, considering the fossil fuels required to get them to our tables?

The Unsettlers raises the questions of food ethics as it focuses on three couples who have made it their collective callings to not only grow their own food and sell the surplus, but to live without much of the big box store “conveniences” that modern living entails, even if they have access to such conveniences.

The first couple has created an intentional community in northeastern Missouri.  Their way of life is perhaps the most extreme covered in the book.  Ethan and Sarah completely reject use of automobiles and electricity; those wishing to visit or intern at their farm find out about it via word of mouth rather than electronic media.

Olivia and Greg are an interracial couple; both grew up in the Detroit area but from completely contrasting backgrounds.  They came together sharing a love for gardening and a strong determination to create a future for their crumbling crime-ridden city – a future that includes better food options for inner-city residents and a stronger sense of community.

Steve and Luci are the oldest couple; they have done the “back to the land” lifestyle longer than most.  They have weathered the changes of perception towards natural and organically grown foods, for better and worse – better in that more people are eating said foods, and worse, as organic products become just that – products of huge corporations that are anathema to what these folks have believed in and worked for, for over thirty years.

The couples highlighted in The Unsettlers have their preachy moments, but much of what they expound upon makes sense.  The collective beliefs – eating locally, investing in the immediate community, and using less or no fossil fuels – make much more sense than continuing to support the conglomerates labeling everything “organic” in an attempt to get rich off the feel-good moment, while polluting the world to get it into our grocery stores.

The book will definitely have you considering what you eat, and how you acquire it.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Nine of Us: Growing Up Kennedy by Jean Kennedy Smith

If John Kennedy were still alive, he would now be a hundred years old.  This milestonenine of us led me to think about reading a book about him, but I wasn’t in the mood for a serious volume about his presidency or a sad description of his assassination.  This book about the childhood of the nine Kennedy children, Joe, John, Rosemary, Kathleen (nicknamed Kick), Eunice, Pat, Bobby, Jean, and Ted, takes us back to a happy, innocent time in their lives.

This was a family oriented household, with no adult dinner parties – dinner was a special time for the parents and children to gather for conversation, including discussions of political issues.  At their summer home in Hyannis Port, the brothers and sisters enjoyed swimming, sailing, touch football, biking, and other sports.  Their parents, Joseph and Rose Kennedy, made time to be with each child individually and encouraged each child to develop individual interests and talents, which might involve taking classes or teaching skills to one another.

Despite the Kennedy family’s great wealth, Joseph and Rose told their children that their ancestors had struggled financially and that they must never take anything for granted.  Each child helped with household chores, and some had summer jobs or did volunteer work.  Gifts – not extravagant ones, either – were only for birthdays and Christmas. Clothes and toys were, if possible, mended rather than replaced.  Long distance telephone calls were expensive and were, therefore, brief.

Reading about the lives of these children made great summer reading!

Jean Kennedy Smith is the eighth of the nine children.  She served as U.S. Ambassador to Ireland and also founded VSA, an international organization providing arts and education for people with disabilities.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Love of Country : A Journey through the Hebrides by Madeleine Bunting

love of countryIn Love of Country, the author addresses the natural worlds of the Hebrides, the islands off the western coast of Scotland, and the tragic history of their inhabitants.  The Hebrides are largely the last bastion of native Scots-Gaelic speakers, whose numbers have dwindled due to forced immigration, lack of jobs, and the harshness of life on the islands; those that remain are marginalized from mainstream British life.  Indeed, the islands and their inhabitants have been perceived as outlandish curiosities in their own country for centuries.

Bunting reflects on the natural environment of the Hebrides and how it has influenced the human factor.  The native islanders learned eons ago how to live with the unyielding winds and coaxed a living from the spare earth of their homes.  Unfortunately, their very existence depended on who owned the land – often absentee landlords trying to turn a profit from ill-conceived enterprises that were usually detrimental to the residents.

There are hundreds of islands in the Hebrides; the author chooses to focus on a small group of them, populated or not.  Each island she visits has its own personality, determined by the terrain and animal life that dominate.  For some we find birder’s paradises (St. Kilda and the Flannan Islands come to mind), others, the preponderance of land animals (Jura’s red deer population vastly outnumbers human beings there).

Love of Country is a meditative book.  Some parts of it reminded me of Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places, but with more historical context.  I wouldn’t call it a quick read, but for those who find far-flung areas appealing and can appreciate the poetic beauty of the untamed, please give this one a look.

I started reading about the Hebrides around the age of thirteen, starting with National Geographic articles.  Nearly fifteen years ago, I had the experience to briefly visit two of these islands (Mull and Iona).  The two words I’d use to describe them (beautiful and bleak) are inadequate.  Endlessly fascinating might be a more apt description – and immensely sad.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



The Opposite of Fate; A Book of Musings by Amy Tan

opposite of fateMany readers know Amy Tan as the author of novels exploring life in China and the lives of Chinese immigrants to the United States.  These are based in part on her own family history.  In The Opposite of Fate, she has collected her autobiographical writings and her essays about her writing.  Much of what people have written about her life is incorrect, and she gives us the real story.

Tan’s life has had tragic elements: the death of her father, the murder of a close friend, and her struggle with Lyme’s Disease.  Her relationship with her mother, an immigrant from China, has sometimes been difficult.  However, her life is not, by any means, entirely sad.  In addition to her great success as an author, she’s enjoyed playing in a rock band made up of authors, including Dave Barry and Stephen King, and had a very happy experience when she played a major part in script-writing and decision-making during the filming of her first blockbuster novel, The Joy Luck Club.  I read many portions of this book out loud to my husband, and he remarked many times, “Amy Tan is funny!”

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

stranger in the woodsIn 1986, Christopher Knight drove his Subaru deep into the Maine woods, left it to rust, and disappeared for nearly thirty years.  He maintained his solitude until 2013, when the joint efforts of a game warden and the Maine State Police led to his arrest during a break in at a nearby summer camp.

During his long sojourn in the woods, Knight ceased to exist to his family and the outside world, but his existence was all too real for residents nearby.

Even though Knight kept to himself almost entirely, he did not live off wild game and foraging.  Rather, he developed a routine of breaking into local lake houses for food and necessities.

To his credit, Knight did little if any damage.  What was unnerving wasn’t what he stole (usually canned goods and batteries, but occasionally items of intrinsic value to their owners) but how he consistently bypassed the notice of alarm systems and residents.  Some owners were fairly blasé about his burglaries; others were livid and frightened by the repeated break ins.

Until his arrest, Knight was a local legend.  After his arrest, he was a lost soul, with no inkling of how to live in modern society.

The Stranger in the Woods explores the psychology of Christopher Knight – his motivations, his lack of need for human contact, and his sense of ethics when living his hermit-like existence.  Throughout the book, the author compares Knight’s time in the woods with other hermits in history and analyzes what a “true” hermit is.

After reading this book, I remembered at least two other titles about individuals who were at odds with society and largely embraced the solitary life.  Try The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen or Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer for alternative reads.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman

genius of birdsMost of us don’t consider the term “bird brain” to be a compliment!  However, scientists who study the intelligence of birds, using experiments, collections of anecdotes about bird behavior, and brain imaging, find them far from stupid.  Many species have rather large brains, considering their size, and even those with small brains may have amazing abilities.

In addition to describing various scientific studies, The Genius of Birds includes many wonderful anecdotes about birds.  A New Caledonian crow worked an eight-step puzzle in two and a half minutes.  Observers in the jungle have heard parrots cursing, apparently having learned these words from escaped pets.  Chickadees use a sophisticated “language” to warn other birds about the size and actions of predators.  Sparrows in New Zealand have figured out how to open and close automatic glass doors.  Some birds make and use simple tools to retrieve food.  A crow held a sharp stick in his beak and, armed with this weapon, flew in hot pursuit of a jay.  Some birds hide as many as 33,000 seeds, scattered across dozens of square miles, and can remember, months later, where to find them.  A mockingbird can learn as many as two hundred different songs, including those of other birds and those sung by humans, by practicing them over and over.  Bowerbirds carefully assemble and decorate artistic bowers, which they use to attract their mates.  Although scientists cannot completely explain how birds find their way during their long migrations, they have determined many possibilities, including birds’ orienting themselves by the North Star, their detailed memory of landscapes, and their awareness of smells, sounds, and the magnetic field.  Birds can reorient themselves when blown off-course by a hurricane or taken miles out of their way by researchers.

Since most of us sometimes forget where we put our car keys and may get lost easily without a GPS, these stories may be humbling!

This well-researched, easy-to-understand book is a wonderful read for bird-lovers.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)