The woman at the center of Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster must have been a formidable lady (and the author, her grandson, confesses to having be a little afraid of her growing up!). At a time when women and African Americans had very few professional opportunities, she went to college, went to law school, prosecuted the mob in New York City, and was active in many women and African American organizations. And apparently threw great parties to boot!
Alas, her contributions to the New York justice system did not allow her to rise to higher offices, perhaps because of her brother’s communist affiliations. And she seems to have pretty much abandoned her son to be raised by others (not that her husband did much to raise him either!) It’s an exceptional life, but told in what, to me, was excruciating detail.
The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives also tells a true story from Oakland, that of a very bad mistake from a teenager who lights on fire another’s dress, for a lark, really, on the bus of the title. The two come from two different worlds, one white and privileged, one black and struggling financially. The story unfolds both in the past and the present, showing the physical recovery of one and the harsh legal treatment of the other, despite remarkably generous interventions by the wounded teen’s parents. It’s a good illustration of why we should probably not treat teens as adults in the legal system.
Alcoholics have always been with us, but the author of Drunks: An American History reminds us that early America saw alcoholism as a moral failure, while we tend to classify it as a disease, one that’s similar to diabetes or hypertension both in its origin and its resistance to treatment. Along the way, we meet Native Americans early abstainers, physicians with doubtful and lucrative cures, prohibitionists, and of course AA. I found the history fascinating.
Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work is the clever title of a book that reviews famous sex-discrimination lawsuits that followed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which beside protecting the rights of minorities also contained provision (Title VII) to protect women against discrimination. We find mothers who are denied jobs because they have young children (when fathers would get said jobs, no questions asked, state troopers who must weigh more than most women, regardless of their ability to run, or fight, and would-be partners in consulting firms that are just not “lady-like enough” to become partners — along with a string of victims of more or less egregious sexual harassment. We’ve come a long way, painfully for all the plaintiffs who all waited years for justice, got very little money, and had moved to other careers, for the most part, by the time the final judgements came down.
(I found the detailed rendering of the legal maneuvers tedious, hence the two-star rating. Still think the book is worth reading, if you are comfortable flipping pages in the middle of each chapter.)
To close: the author notes that Title VII only applies to employers with less than 15 employees, which means that up to 20% of workers do not enjoy its protection. Maybe we should change that, right?
The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars offers a detailed, scholarly account of how the stars used the vast and remote land of Siberia to stash away anyone who did not agree with them (and many others who did not agree with their neighbors!) For me, Siberian exile meant the Soviet gulag, as described by Solzhenitsyn, but the hateful tradition is much older. So what did I learn in this book: that pre-Soviet exile was horrendously harsh and killed many prisoners before they even reached their destinations — on foot, half-starved, through the cold. That spouses and children of prisoners often went with them, and were exploited and mistreated and similar ways. That one could buy one’s way out of the worst treatments, as could be expected. The author compares the banishment in Siberia to deporting British convicts to Australia. I suppose the very different climates dictated the very different outcomes. In any case, 350 pages on the horror of labor camps seemed a bit much for me.
The Innocent Killer: A True Story of a Wrongful Conviction and its Astonishing Aftermath follows a man who was wrongfully convicted for a murder he did not commit and spent years in prison, only to commit an all-too-real murder when released. The best part of the book, by far, is the story of the exoneration, which is detailed, exhaustive (and very damming for the justice system). The investigation of the second murder is mysteriously vague and seems to have been written by a different author altogether.
Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck tells the story of a court case from the early 20th century that resulted in the forced sterilization of a woman who was likely raped by her employer and was certainly no imbecile, but rather poor, friendless, and, shockingly for the time, pregnant while unmarried. The book is mostly a procedural narrative of the legal proceedings, so I found it a little dull. Still, the discussions of the craze for eugenics in the US at that time (see Fatal Misconceptions) and the frightening power of the Supreme Court, based as it often is on personal biases of the justices, held my interest.