Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dreams from the Monster Factory by Sunny Schwartz with David Boodell

Free review copy provided by the Amazon Vine Program

The description of this book on the flyleaf is a little misleading. It would have you believe that it is all about the RSVP (Resolve to Stop Violence Program) and ideas for reforming our abominable criminal justice system. (That last bit about the "abominable system" are my words and not part of the description.) It becomes that, eventually, but not until about 70+ pages of a 200-page book. Until then it is a memoir--haven't we had enough of those yet--told in the typical memoir style of infusing an otherwise fairly normal childhood with painful Freudian significance and centering on the memoirist as though Sunny Schwartz, alone, could see the failings of the criminal justice system she worked in. Even more irritating for me was the snarky style that nearly caused me to toss it in the trash more than a few times.

I'm glad I didn't, because it eventually became the story of the development, implementation, and relative success rate of RSVP, which represents a holistic approach to violent crime that includes bringing perps and victims together and getting violent criminals to accept responsibility for their actions. The second half of the book--over which I am guessing Sunny Schwartz had more control than her co-author--is totally different, told in a calmer, more mature voice and giving credit where credit is due, to all he people who helped develop the program, get it off the ground and keep it running. Still some of the most important points are lost, such as that the program is only running in two places in the country, funding is a constant struggle, and it isn't getting nearly the recognition it deserves.

I have enough writer friends trying to get books published that I won't blame Ms. Schwartz for these problems. I can just imagine her agent/editor telling her how no one wants a book about prison reform, but memoirs are selling like hot cakes, and then assigning a co-author to turn the book into this unfortunate hybrid. In fact, I can think of lots of people interested in a book about the RSVP program such as the 100 or so people with whom I volunteer teaching decision-making skills to inmates, as well as judges, lawyers, law enforcement and corrections officers, and anyone else connected with the criminal justice system. However, not only is it asking a lot of busy people to weed through all the extraneous preliminaries, it would be awkward for a professional to suggest this to staff when it includes far more about things like the author's love life than most readers would need or want to know.

Still, if you have a professional or human interest in our criminal justice system; if you, like me, feel it is failing and badly in need of innovative ideas; and if you are willing to pay full price for what amounts to half a book (or, better yet can get it from your library), then you will benefit from Dreams from the Monster Factory.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Accountable: Making America as Good as Its Promise

Provided free from Amazon Vine.

This book is apparently the third in a series. The first two, Covenant with Black America and The Covenant in Action were aimed at the African-American community (of which I am not a member). This third--and final?--in the series is aimed at a larger audience, I'm assuming because we now have an African-American president who is accountable to all of us. The book tells real-life stories in areas of concern like health care, education, the economy, etc.; sets out various possible solutions; then provides a checklist for how each player--including we individuals--can be held accountable.

I chose this book because I have enjoyed Tavis Smiley's work on NPR, I do believe in citizen involvement and have my own ideas how each of these situations needs to be handled, and because I had my doubts as to whether candidate Obama's rhetoric on change would translate to President Obama's action plan.

I was disappointed, but to be fair, it had a lot to do with the timing of my reading. First, in the midst of this severe economic downturn, tragic tales like people losing their medical insurance elicited not my usual empathy, but a panicking fear about my own situation. Second, I didn't see any of the authors' solutions being particularly workable. Third, I wasn't sure I saw the point in listing the ways that, say, insurance companies should be held accountable when I'm betting their CEOs aren't even reading the book, and fourth, the list of things individuals could do were pretty much the same as they've always been--call your Congressman, vote, get involved. Nice when you are talking about saving the park down the street from development, but paltry in light of the issues we face today. Also, as of now I'm pretty pleased with Obama's action plan and his no BS style of putting it forward. The man's feet haven't been removed from the fire once since election day, and I think it's time to stop questioning his every move.

As recently as last year, with more hope in the economy and less hope in our elected officials than I now have, I might have found this book motivating and uplifting. Reading it now, I actually found it somewhat depressing.