Book Review: The Cadaver King by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

In the early 1990s, two young girls were taken from their Mississippi homes, raped, and murdered. Two men, Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, were separately arrested, tried, and convicted for the crimes (Levon Brooks for the rape and murder of Courtney Smith in 1990, and Brewer for the rape and murder of Christine Jackson in 1992). Their convictions were won largely on the back of forensic testimony from coroner Dr. Stephen Hayne and self-styled bitemark expert Dr. Michael West. The problem? Both men were using extremely flawed (and some would say fraudulent) methods in their analyses. Michael West’s reputation as a huckster is so bad that he was featured in John Oliver’s exposé on the flaws of forensic testimony. Rather than striving for truth and justice, both doctors gained a reputation for helping to put away the person the police decided was guilty, no matter the flimsiness of the case.

Both men were eventually exonerated, but not before they had spent a combined 30 years in prison. Cadaver King (the authors are associated with The Innocence Project, which was instrumental in freeing Brooks and Brewer) examines the highly flawed coroner system in Mississippi, the faith placed by judges and juries on forensic methods which have not been scientifically evaluated, and a justice system which is reluctant to address and rectify its mistakes, even at the cost of keeping innocent men imprisoned.

This book examines the historical and racial roots that formed the justice system in Mississippi into what it would become. The book runs through the Reconstruction and Civil Rights eras–when the coroner system was used to enable and hide racial violence–to the turn of the twenty-first century, when lack of training, funding, and oversight allowed old habits to merge with modern science.

This book is horrifying and thought provoking. Faith in our justice system is one of tenets of our society. We should strive for the ideal that ojustice in this cointry rises above petty prejudices, that it demands accountability and accuracy from expert witnesses. That any person walking into a courtroom will leave with the verdict they deserve. While I’m certainly not naive enough to think that our system is infallible, seeing just how far we are from that heady ideal is devastating. This book serves as a reminder that the system is a creature of habit, and change will come more quickly if we begin to sit up and take notice.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin J. Hayes

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George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin J. Hayes

So here you are, reading a book review about a book about the history of George Washington’s books. It’s hard to get more meta than that. In all seriousness, though, this was an interesting angle for a history/biography about the first president of the United States.

Working roughly in chronological order, Hayes takes us through the library at Mount Vernon. We start with Washington’s earliest books (collections of devotions by famous preachers), and move from there to travel guides, reference books, abolitionist tracts (though he regrettably never used his considerable political influence to address the injustice of slavery, in his personal dealings Washington was an abolitionist), popular fiction, and military books.

Hayes introduces us to a man born in the American colonies, and denied a “proper” English education. In order to compensate for an education he perceived as lacking, Washington would embark on a lifetime quest of self-improvement. He actively sought out books to deepen his understanding of the physical, spiritual, and literary worlds. His passion for books and for reading would remain undiminished throughout his life.

George Washington has deservedly been the subject of countless biographies. Approaching his life from the direction of his library is both refreshing and educational. While some of the conclusions the author draws based on the content of the Mount Vernon library shelves seems a bit reaching, on the whole this is a fascinating look at one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport

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Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge by Helen Rappaport

Caught in the Revolution is a meticulously researched account of the months surrounding the 1917 Russian Revolution. The book focuses on the experiences of foreign nationals in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) who were caught up in the violence of the revolution. Rappaport carries the reader from the first conflict of February 1917, through to the final revolutionary spasm in October of 1917.

Rappaport has delved into the diaries and correspondence of ambassadors, nurses, reporters, bankers, anarchists, and expats. Her long fascination with the topic shines through in the breadth of detail she brings to bear. Rappaport also provides a detailed history of the Revolution itself, so even those who have never studied the October Revolution will be able to follow the book. Coming out for the centennial anniversary of the event, and considering the state of current affairs, the release of this book is exquisitely well-timed.

The book is intended more for the serious history reader/scholar. My major complaint with the book is that Rappaport has provided almost too much information. The book would have made a wonderful narrative (in the vein of Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts) if she had chosen to focus on the experiences of a few key players. As it stands, we are able to learn a little bit about quite a number of foreign expats, to the point where it is hard to remember who everyone is. The lack of background for the same people also makes it difficult to connect with them as real people, rather than just words in a diary.

In all though, Russian scholars and lovers of history will likely find this book informative and intriguing. And, with everything else that is going on in the world right now, the more casual reader might be interested in picking up this book for a valuable perspective on revolution.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Caught in the Revolution will be available for purchase on February 7th, 2017.