published in the Herald-Sun, July 18,2015
“This is a must-read,” declared one of my well-read students after attending a Flyleaf book group that discussed Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Listening to the audio narrated by Karen Chilton (book from New Press, audio from Recorded Books, 11 CDs, 13.25 hours), I quickly agreed.
Not that it’s an easy listen. The author herself begins the preface, “this book is not for everyone.” Ten years ago, civil attorney Alexander was like the audience she writes for, those “ who care deeply about racial justice but who, for any number of reasons, do not appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as the result of mass incarceration.”
Alexander “reluctantly” came to these conclusions as she began to connect the dots. She does the same for listeners, telling the truths of the many black men who have been labeled felons and, like those living since the time America’s formation, are legally barred from voting and face “legalized discrimination in housing, employment, education, public benefits and jury service.” Alexander reviews history, states startling statistics (90 percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses are black or Latino) and relates individual stories of those effected by the legislative realities of President Ronald Reagan’s 1982 War on Drugs, a harsh policy that has trickled down to police enforcement, courts systems, and even civil rights leaders who are reluctant to speak up.
Karen Chilton’s reading is often neutral as she relates facts that jar. Other times her narration is ironic and impassioned as she voices to Alexander’s moving writing.
I went from that difficult listen to Tosha Silver’s reassuring Change Me Prayers: The Hidden Power of Spiritual Surrender (book from Atria Books, audio from Tantor Media, 4 hours, 38 minutes). This book, like Alexander’s may not be for everyone, but I have found comfort in distressing situations by offering up prayers to be changed. Many books by spiritual leaders are heavy-handed, but Silver, who graduated in English Literature from Yale, knows how to mix irreverence, playful imagery, humor, and anecdotes about work, love, self-belief, and money. Silver believes that giving things over to the “Divine Beloved,” shows you that there is no randomness in life, but miracles waiting for discovery. Silver’s reads can be a bit monotonous, but is relieved by lilting laughs that more truly express her.
Erika Swyler’s mix of fantasy and reality may not be for everyone, but her Book of Speculation (book from St. Martin’s Press, audio from Macmillan Audio,11.5 hours, 9 CDs) captured me. Fluid writing and with strong imagery describe the life of librarian Simon Watson. His decrepit family home is ready to fall into Long Island Sound and he is filled with memories — his mother’s goodbye before her suicide, “hard thoughts held in small words,” his father’s withdrawl, and caretaking his sister who finally escaped to tell tarot in carnivals. Simon, now unemployed, receives a mysterious volume from an antiquarian book dealer unknown to him.
Simon realizes this tells his ancestors’ story and explores a past that may save his sister’s life. His present alternates with views from a secondary story that begins in the 1780s and imagines intriguing characters including a silent boy, fortune tellers, and professional mermaids.
Ari Fliakos’ narration distinguishes both time periods and makes smooth transitions between the real and fantastical, amplifying the drama of all. His portrayals suspended my disbelief so that I was immersed in a reality of coincidences and curses as the author and narrator weave history, mystery, social commentary, family, romance, magic and a harsh reality.