Welcome to Shelf Care where I review three books related by a theme.  These aren’t necessarily the latest releases (although somehow two of the three this month are) but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

“Send lawyers, guns, and money. The s**t has hit the fan.”

-Warren Zevon, “Lawers, Guns and Money”

This column’s theme: Lawyers, guns and money. True-life stories that involve all three, and as such deal with topics that don’t make for pleasant bedtime reading.  If you are strongly not a fan of true crime, you may want to give these books a pass based on the subject matter, which is absolutely disturbing at points.

So, if you like:

  • Reporters that get the story
  • Scumbags
  • #metoo
  • Women’s rights

You might like

She Said, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

Overview

After decades of somehow never showing up on To Catch A Predator, Harvey Weinstein is finally dragged into the daylight, because two New York Times reporters kept digging and persuaded his victims to stand up.

Sample passage

In 2013, Jodi had started investigating women’s experiences at corporations and other institutions. The gender debate in the United States already seemed saturated with feeling: opinion columns, memoirs, expressions of outrage or sisterhood on social media. It needed more exposure of hidden facts. Especially about the workplace. Workers, from the most elite to the lowliest, were often afraid to question their employers. Reporters were not. In doing those stories, Jodi had found that gender was not just a topic, but a kind of investigative entry point. Because women were still outsiders at many organizations, documenting what they experienced meant seeing how power functioned.

She wrote back to Rose McGowan, calling on those experiences:

Here’s my own track record on these issues: Amazon, Starbucks, and Harvard Business School have all changed their policies in response to gender-related problems I exposed. When I wrote about the class gap in breastfeeding—white-collar women can pump on the job, lower paid women cannot—readers responded by creating the first-ever mobile lactation suites, now available in 200+ locations across the country.

If you’d rather not speak, I understand, and best of luck with your book publication.

Thank you, Jodi

McGowan wrote back within a few hours. She could talk any time before Wednesday.

Takeaway

It’s depressing what it takes to hold the rich to account, and I guess the silver lining there is that it can be done, even if it’s way harder than it should be. Since the Weinstein story hit the news, my question was: why now? This guy has been a successful predator for decades. What’s changed that he’s finally being held to account?  And there’s no neat answer to that. It’s a combination of things that wouldn’t have come to light without these reporters talking to people and checking their facts and building up overwhelming evidence that couldn’t be silenced. She Said was a compelling enough read that I finished it in one day, partially helped by not being able to wait for the part where this unbelievable bastard’s world came crashing down on him, but also because it is a story well and clearly told.  Also, don’t let the size of the book intimidate you – the back third of it is all references and annotations, in case there was any possible doubt about the rigor with which these women approached their job.

Or if you like:

  • True crime
  • Naval gazing
  • The worst people being their worst
  • Legal loopholes

You might like

The Outlaw Ocean: Journeys Across the Last Untamed Frontier, by Ian Urbina

Overview

This book is a collection of New York Times investigative reporter Ian Urbina’s work digging into the lawless zones of international waters, where a lack of jurisdiction, plausible deniability, and enforcement allows all sorts of behavior.

Sample passage

There’s little mystery as to why unscrupulous ship owners poach at sea: the illicit seafood trade is a thriving global business that generates an estimated $160 billion in annual sales. The trade in illegal fish has grown over the past decade as improved technology—stronger radar, bigger nets, faster ships—has enabled fishing vessels to plunder the oceans with remarkable efficiency.

The Thunder was among the best at this trade and, in the eyes of conservationists, the worst of the Bandit 6.

In December 2013, Interpol issued an all-points bulletin for police worldwide to arrest the Thunder. This Purple Notice hardly mattered, though, if the Thunder was able to avoid notice. Finding a single ship in the millions of square miles of open sea was hard enough. Scofflaw ships like the Thunder deftly used the tangled skein of confusing, conflicting maritime laws, difficult-to-enforce treaties, and deliberately lax national regulations to evade the law and shed their identities. With a couple of phone calls, payoffs of a few thousand dollars, and a can of paint, the ship could, as it had in the past, take a new name and register with a new flag as it steamed to its next fishing grounds.

The Thunder’s name and port registry were not painted on its hull. Instead, they were painted on a metal sign hung from its stern, to be swapped out quickly if needed. Sailors called these signs “James Bond license plates.”

Takeaway

This is an interesting read, but it is definitely not a feel-good book, so probably a better read for fans of true crime than anyone looking for good news. The reader will appreciate Urbina’s clear and concise writing style, along with his effort and integrity in trying to bring a wide variety of ocean related crimes to light, but it does feature the worst examples of human and environmental exploitation one can imagine. If there’s a profit to be made from breaking the law, well someone is out there doing exactly that on a boat right now.  Bright spots include the people fighting against trafficking and bringing various crimes to light, but The Outlaw Ocean shines a spotlight on a subject a lot of people have a vested interest in keeping in the dark.

Or if you like:

  • Medical drama
  • Biographies
  • A human face on tragedy
  • People doing their best in the worst of conditions

You might like

War Doctor: Surgery on the Front Line, by David Nott

Overview

British surgeon David Nott recalls why he wanted to be a surgeon working under the worst possible conditions, and what he had to do to get there.

Sample passage

Probing gently with my finger, it didn’t appear to be the usual jagged piece of metal or fragment but a smooth, cylindrical object. Very carefully I grabbed it with my fingers and pulled it out. I held it up to examine it, and the Syrian helper who was with me took one look and went pale. He obviously knew what I was holding, and blurted out, ‘Mufajir!’ before turning tail and leaving the room.

The anaesthetist and I looked at each other. Was I holding some sort of bomb? In that instant, I froze as I wondered what on earth I should do next.  The anaesthetist shuffled away, moving across to the corner of the room behind one of the cupboards. By now my hands were shaking, I was in danger of dropping whatever it was, and I realized I had to do something. I decided to take a deep breath and walk out of the operating theatre as carefully and slowly as I could. I needed the anaesthetist to open the door for me and jerked my head in its direction to show him what I wanted, hardly daring to speak. He said to wait, as he was sure somebody was going to come very shortly – thankfully he was right, and as I deliberated for a few more seconds the door opened and in came the Syrian helper with a bucket of water. He put the bucket on the floor next to me and he and the anaesthetist ran to the safety of the next room. With my heart pounding, I carefully put the object into the bottom of the bucket, feeling the cold water seeping into the sleeve of my green scrubs, and very gingerly took it outside.

Mufajir means ‘detonator’. It was hard to tell if it was live or not. I was told later that it probably would not have killed me, but it would most likely have blown off my hand – not the end of my life, maybe, but certainly the end of my career, and at the time the two were much the same thing.

Takeaway

Nott’s stories put an uncomfortable human face on the tragedies most can dismiss by just changing the channel. His work in Bosnia, Africa, and, especially, Syria does not shy away from the horrors and difficult decisions occurring there on a daily basis.  What keeps the book from being totally depressing is seeing his work with various aid organizations and the good people who are there to mitigate what damage they can.  Apart from theaters he finds himself in (both operating and combat) it’s really interesting to see his perspective on how he approaches his craft, and how he’s able to acquire skills he’d never need in everyday practice, but are literally the difference between life and death in a war zone. To that end (spoiler alert?) he’s set up a charity to train surgeons to work under these conditions, which can be found here: https://davidnottfoundation.com/

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column, where the theme will be: Fallen Angels.

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