Alan Gratz: Prisoner B-3087

image_about_loraxBased on a true story of Jack Gruener, Prisoner B-3087 tells the story of a Holocaust survivor, Yanek Gruener.

He is 10 years old when the Nazi’s gradual extermination of European Jews begins. Yanek’s dad is confident that the West will protect them and that the war will not last long. Yanek takes these words as fact and goes about life as though everything were normal.

However, when Poland is annexed, it’s clear that he cannot resume normalcy; Jewish children were prohibited from attending schools, Jews were banned from working, going to the movies, etc. Worst of all, they were branded with the Star of David. Explicitly marked as despicable Jews. 

By the time Yanek is 12, a solid wall is built around his neighborhood, now officially a Jewish ghetto. Now he had to share his home with 14 other people. Although his dad continue to assure them that everything will end quickly, Yanek is no longer sure. Within a year, Yanek’s entire family and relatives are deported. He remains alone in his old neighborhood until he too is taken away to a labor camp. Thus begins nearly 4 years of being transported from one camp to a worse camp where death, starvation, torture, and endless labor become the new normal.

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William Landay: Defending Jacob

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Imagine this: You are first assistant DA and you just found out that there was a murder in your own community. A 14 year old boy, Ben Rifkin, was stabbed on his way to school in the park you jog through every morning.  You decide to head the case and quickly discover that Ben attended the same school as your own son, Jacob. While investigating what appears to be a hopeless case, you find reason to suspect that your son may be guilty. What would you do?

The story begins one year after the murder of Ben Rifkin. Andrew Barber, former assistant DA, has been summoned by prosecutor Neal Logiudice who questions the way Andy handled the murder case. The book goes back and forth between the current trial and the devastation that hit Newton county in 2007.

When Andy first began his investigation, none of the students at Ben’s middle school would talk, there was barely any substantial evidence, and no real suspects either. But Andy gets an anonymous email inviting him to a Facebook group made in honor of Ben. He decides to check it out and reads through the comments until he freezes at one made by his son’s best friends Derek Yoo. Derek basically calls Jacob out, accusing Jacob of possessing a knife and having used it against Ben.

Initially, Andy hesitates to make much of the comment. I mean, what parent would want to believe it were even a possibility right? That is, until, he actually finds a knife in Jacob’s drawer. However, he never once doubts his son, or at least that’s what he tells himself for the duration of Jacob’s trial. Yet, instead of turning the knife in as possible evidence, Andy reprimands his son and gets rid of it. Then, when Derek’s comment is discovered by investigators, Andy is kicked off the case and Logiudice, who relentlessly insists Jacob is guilty, takes over.

Through this book, I was definitely able to get see high-profile cases from a different light. I think when it comes to crimes like murder, we never really think about the impact the case will have on the people involved. Rather, we just want to know, “who dun it?” But as you will read in this book, trials like this can severely damage the life of people involved, both directly and indirectly. Indeed, Jacob’s family may never be the same again after this. Furthermore, we also want to know the “truth!” Yet, as the book point out, the verdict of a trial is not necessarily “the truth,” it’s just closure. Indeed, “not guilty” does not mean “innocent” and “guilty” does not necessarily mean the defendant was actually guilty.

Janet Malcolm: The Journalist and the Murderer

contributor_janetmalcolmphoto_p233_cropHere’s a quick tip: When life gets too busy and you find yourself too short on time to read a great book, grab one that’s short and sweet!

In The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm explores the issue of ethics in journalism as well as the relationship between a journalist/author and his/her subject. It tells the true story of how author Joe McGinniss pursues the story of a convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald. Essentially, McDonald insists that he is innocent and makes a deal with McGinniss, who wants to write a book about the case. However, McDonald was naively believed that McDonald was on his side, that he too believed the conviction was unjust. He naively trusts an author who already had preconceptions about the case, but nonetheless led McGinniss to believe otherwise so that he could gather information for his new book: Fatal Vision. 

Through this book, I was able to get a glimpse of the type of dilemma journalists face, especially investigative journalists. How do you get the “truth” or the bottom of the story without misleading the subject , at least a little? For instance, if you’re writing a piece on a case of molestation, how do you get the perpetrator and even the victim to talk? Also, it raises the issue of subjectivity in everything we read. Indeed, no matter how “objective” writers try to be, they cannot escape bias.

Alex Grecian: The Yard

alexgrecianIn late nineteenth century London, it was commonly believed that crimes were committed out of habit or need, not passion. Indeed, the existence of serial killers was unheard until the killings of Jack the Ripper. Likewise, criminology, forensics, fingerprint identification were also radical. It was also the first time a detective is brutally murdered in this Victorian society.

Although Inspector Walter Day has little confidence in himself, he is chosen to replace retired Edwards as the newest member of Scotland Yard. Despite his lack of experience, he is now responsible for catching the man, or woman, who stabbed Detective Christian Little multiple times and sewed his mouth shut.

With the help of self-appointed forensic examiner Dr. Kingsley, Hammersmith, and Blackleg, Day discovers new clues that seem to be leading him closer to the killer. Not too long after a dancing homeless man, Henry, discovers the murder weapon, a young girl discovers another trunk… Another officer killed.

The second death only increases anxiety for the detectives who are already swamped with hundreds of crimes, most of which go unsolved. The fact that there are more crimes than detectives in the city only means that detectives must work overtime, are often unmarried, and have little time to wash or change their clothes. Thus, I would say that this book sheds light on the life of detectives, which Hollywood tends to glorify.

Ultimately it was a good read. Each murderer is gradually revealed to the reader, but at a much faster pace than they are revealed to the detectives. It is a thrilling book with such detailed descriptions that I had to skip over a few lines to keep myself from picturing the words in my head.

Joyce Carol Oates: Black Dahlia & White Rose

Joyce Carol Oate’s Black Dahlia & White Rose is a collection of 11 short stories, which starts off with Black Dahlia & White Rose. Based on a true unsolved murder mystery, Black Dahlia relays a first-person account of two young girls, Elizabeth Short and Marilyn Monroe (yes, Marilyn Monroe), aspiring to stardom. It answers questions such as how one became the unfortunate victim of brutal murder, while the other rose to fame.

Despite raving reviews, I didn’t find all of the stories in the collection interesting to read. But, in addition the cover story, I did enjoy reading I.D. and Deceit. I.D. revolves around the experience of a middle school student in New Jersey who is asked to identify the body of a woman who may possibly be her blackjack dealing mother. Similarly Deceit also centers around a parent-child relationship. It presents the case of how a mother finds out that her daughter has been physically abused.

Piper Kerman: Orange Is The New Black

If you’re looking for jaw-dropping drama of prison life, unexpected turns, bumps in the road, or anything close to real experiences of hardships, this book may not be for you. Instead, what you’ll find is an account of the prison experience of an “atypical” female inmate, Piper Kerman. Unlike most of her fellow inmates, she’s a white, blonde, blue-eyed, middle class career women with a boyfriend/fiance, Larry, who seems completely understanding of her past. Also, unlike most other inmates whose criminal behavior was related to a need to survive, Kerman’s involvement in a decade old drug crime was the result of youthful curiosity and desire for adventure. Her experience in prison also seems atypical in that her race and educational background allots her several privileges that enable her to escape grueling experiences others may have. At least that’s the way she makes it seem.

Despite being completely void of drama or tension, I did find myself returning to the book multiple times a day. What I found most intriguing is the insight this book provides into the social norms of the particular prison she was at for nearly 2 years. Women who look after each other, special movie nights and dishes prepared in the microwave, the norms of greeting new inmates with gifts and the specific questions asked, etc. It sheds light on the fact that in any situation, where there is more than 1 person, there will be norms of some sort. And when those norms are broken, there are consequences. The book also provides insight into the fact that many female inmates are not adequately prepared to face the outside world. For instance, women in prison are not really taught how to find legitimate employment other than being advised to use the Internet. The problem, however, lies in the fact that most of these women either don’t know how to use computers or don’t own them. It’s no surprise, therefore, that inmates often return to prison shortly after release. Overall, it’s not the most action-packed book, but much can still be gained.