Editor's Picks: January 2020

The movie based on Bryan Stevenson's book Just Mercy is due out at the end of December. The cast includes Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. Here's one of the movie trailers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVQbeG5yW78 The film sounds inspiring. Bryan Stevenson is inspiring. Here is my review of Bryan Stevenson reading his book Just Mercy that appeared in SoundCommentary in January, 2015.

*Bryan Stevenson. Just Mercy. A Story of Justice and Redemption. Read by the author. 9 CDs. 11 hrs. Books on Tape. 2014. 978-0-553-55062-7.

When Bryan Stevenson started his work with death row prisoners in 1983 in Georgia as a 23 year old Harvard Law School Student, he was undecided about what he wanted to do professionally but his encounters there convinced him there was little mercy in the law and even less compassion for the innocent and he felt he must do what he could to change that. Just Mercy, part memoir, is primarily a brilliant examination of the absence of justice in the legal system in Alabama.

In 1989 Stevenson set up the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, which provides free legal services to the most vulnerable in prison in Alabama, one of the states with the least equal justice, especially for minorities and the poor. Alabama also has some of the cruelest, most punitive and dangerous prisons. As Stevenson and his colleagues began to research cases they found virulent racism and flagrant intimidation, outright corruption, violations of law and basic human rights, very little mercy, and even death threats on their lives as they examined cases of poor, minorities, children and women prisoners on death row. Many incompetent lawyers and medical examiners, prosecutors, courts, and even judges consistently failed to take into account basic legal procedures, horrendous extenuating circumstances, young age of defendants, massive deprivations and abuses in defendants' lives, historical horror and terrorism and injustice, even witnesses and evidence that should have resulted in dismissal of all charges in many cases. Many of the cases EJI pursued are ultimately overturned and prisoners exonerated; some are not.

Bryan Stevenson's reading is moving, well paced, beautifully done. He reads detailed human, not legal descriptions of many of the the horrifically absurd and cruel stories of the people in these cases, whom he knew and worked with. Stevenson also describes his own experiences - for example, being stopped and threatened by the police, in front of his own apartment in downtown Atlanta in the 1980s because he was returning home late at night. He filed a complaint with the Atlanta police department of "the completely illegal search of [his automobile] and the absence of probable cause." He also included in his complaint from the "Bureau of Justice statistics reporting that black men were eight times more likely to be killed by the police than whites." Stevenson wanted "an apology and suggested training to prevent similar incidents." Nothing was ever done to resolve Stevenson's unjust treatment. Just Mercy is a moving examination of Stevenson's experiences with all the "challenges posed by the presumption of guilt assigned to the poor and people of color" and his commitment to the "need to insist on accountability from law enforcement." He argues that "police could improve public safety without abusing people," outside as well as inside prisons. Current incidents in Ferguson, Mo and New York City, as well as many others, support Stevenson's experiences.

Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption is beautifully written, informative, moving, and very well researched. And Bryan Stevenson has made, and continues to make, a difference. Stevenson describes important triumphs as well as disastrous horror stories and his excellent, compassionate reading makes this a compelling must-listen. Highly recommended. Jean Palmer.

Bryan Stevenson is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and a professor of law at New York University Law School. He has won relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, argued five times before the Supreme Court, and won national acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and people of color. He has received numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant.

If you're fortunate you may find a copy of the audiobook of Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem in your library. Unfortunately the brilliant reader Frank Muller died in 2008, much too soon at the age of 57. Here's a movie trailer of the recent movie based on Lethem's book: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fru8IkuDp_k The movie stars Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Bruce Willis.

*Motherless Brooklyn. Jonathan Lethem. 1999/2001. 7 tapes. 10 hrs. Recorded Books, Inc. 0-7887-5183-2.

A very well-written, coming-of-age and mystery story of four orphan boys in Brooklyn who are befriended as young teens by minor mob criminal Frank Minna. The central character Lionel Essrog (fondly nicknamed the "Human Freakshow" by Minna) has Tourette's syndrome and thus annoys and alienates anyone around him with his uncontrollable outbursts of odd noises, obscenities, insults. Minna tolerates him, gives him a book about Tourette's and mentors all four boys (as they become "Minna Men") until he goes to jail. The boys cope until he returns years later and hires them all for his "cab" company (i.e. detective agency). When Minna is murdered Essrog is the detective who solves the crime. Muller's reading is nothing short of genius; he does all accents (lots of Brooklynese) plus Essrog's relentless Tourette's. Though Essrog is quick and intelligent, no matter what he does he cannot control his Tourette's. At turns poignant, coarse, graphic and screamingly funny (for which the listener will feel guilt) all listeners will learn enough about Tourette's disease (as Essrog/Muller graphically demonstrate) to feel incredible compassion. An unusual, quirky story that will grab teens immediately and will teach. Brilliant book; brilliant reading. Jean Palmer

Jonathan Lethem is the author of six novels, including the best sellers The Fortress of Solitude, which was a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice for one of the best books of 2003, and Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named novel of the year by Esquire, McSweeney's, Tin House, The New York Times, the Paris Review, and a variety of other periodicals and anthologies. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and in Maine.
Jean Palmer, Editor-in-Chief

Jean Palmer, a librarian, is the Editor of SoundCommentary. She worked in a medium sized public library and the largest private high school library in the U.S. until she discovered her love for audiobooks. Her book and audiobook reviews and other writings have been published in local and national magazines and newspapers. She is the editor of the KLIATT Audiobook Guide.

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