STAFF PICK: American Prison by Shane Bauer

Title: American Prison
Author: Shane Bauer
Narrator: Shane Bauer and James Fouhey

Curious about what the inside of a prison is really like? So was award-winning investigative journalist Shane Bauer, who was hired for just $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard at a private prison in Winnfield, Louisiana. He used his real name. There was no significant background check. He lasted four months.

American Prison combines Shane’s firsthand experience as a prison guard with the history of for-profit prisons in America, from their origins in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Shane describes how private prisons became entrenched in the southern United States as part of a systemic effort to continue African-American labor force in the aftermath of slavery, and how the smoke of these origins still lingers today.

What I found most fascinating about American Prison was Shane’s recognition that he was becoming crueler and more aggressive towards the inmates the longer he worked in the prison. In a town where the average family income is $25,000 a year, the prison sees a high turnover rate for staff who often leave to pursue less stressful jobs that pay similar wages. In Winnfield, it isn’t unusual to see a former prison guard working at a fast food restaurant or greeting you as you walk into Walmart.

Guards are trained not to intervene when inmates fight each other, sometimes with handmade weapons, sometimes ending in violent death.

I volunteered at a not-for-profit women’s prison for a couple of years, and this audiobook still shocked me. My relationship with the officers and the inmates was neutral, and despite the occasional complaint from inmates regarding what they considered petty rules and officers not feeling respected by particular inmates, the environment inside the prison did not reflect the animosity, anxiety, and danger that runs rampant in for-profit prisons across the United States.

Shane’s investigation of a broken system is disturbing, gripping, and most importantly, long overdue. The stories of the inmates will stay with you long after finishing the audiobook, and Shane’s own experience of being imprisoned for two years in Iran makes him the perfect person to expose the reality of corporate-run prisons.

 

American Prison.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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STAFF PICK: Heartland by Sarah Smarsh

Title: Heartland
Author: Sarah Smarsh
Narrator: Sarah Smarsh

Born a fifth generation Kansas wheat farmer on her paternal side and the product of generations of teen moms on her maternal side, Sarah Smarsh has joined the ranks of the brilliant authors behind Educated, Hillbilly ElegyThe Glass CastleEvicted, and Nickle and Dimed, who have successfully portrayed America’s working-class poverty.

During her childhood in the 1980s and 1990s, Sarah was on a free-lunch program in school and moved between trailer homes and farms in rural Kansas. Sarah was determined to break her family’s cycle of poverty and teen parenthood. Weaving in the larger dynamics of American capitalism that began with the Reagan government and continuing into modern day, Heartland reveals what it’s like to grow up poor in one of the richest countries in the world.

Heartland challenges readers to look more closely at the class divide in the United States and examines the myths about people who are considered less because they earn less, and Sarah’s narration makes the audiobook even richer. I listened to much of the audiobook with my eyes closed and envisioned the Kansas soil beneath my feet and stalks of wheat grazing my hands that reminded me of what it was like to grow up in a rural town.

America is known for its excess. Big box stores, excess waistlines, and long list of “world’s largest _____” prevail, and yet so much of its population lacks access to more of what citizens truly need — health care, education, and opportunity.

Blending experience, research, and stunning storytelling, Sarah’s powerful analysis of what it means to be poor is as raw as it is remarkable. Her ability to contextualize the reality of working six or seven days a week with no vacation and stretching a dollar as far as possible to barely cover the bills will pull readers into an issue no one can afford to ignore.

 

Heartland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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STAFF PICK: Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win by Jo Piazza

Title: Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win
Author: Jo Piazza
Narrator: Tavia Gilbert

In Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win, the hotly anticipated new novel from bestselling author Jo Piazza, Charlotte Walsh is dedicated, ambitious, and, you guessed it – likes to succeed in her endeavours.

She’s been applying her skills as a high-powered executive in Silicon Valley (Charlotte is positioned as a Sheryl Sandberg type), and happily raising her three young daughters alongside her equally hardworking husband. But when the opportunity to run for political office comes her way, her contentedness gives way to new ambition.

Charlotte runs for Senate, but not in California: the opportunity is in Pennsylvania, and requires relocating the family to her tired hometown, which until recently, she was all-too-happy to leave behind. That’s where her troubled brother (and her ray-of-sunshine sister-in-law) live, and serve as a microcosm for the kind of class politics and economic issues that Pennsylvania faces – and that Charlotte has vowed to fix.

Charlotte’s opponent, aging Republican incumbent Ted Slaughter, is as archetypal a villain as his surname suggests: he’s old-school sexist, shamelessly bigoted, and more than ready to run a vicious counter-campaign. Joining in the cast of characters are her wunderkind campaign manager, her endearing long-time assistant, her savvy social media manager, and her supportive family… Sort of.

Charlotte’s marriage makes for much of the emotional drama. With their relocation, her husband Max has moved into the stay at home dad role, but hasn’t taken to it. Gender politics, in which the personal is very much political, play out here in interesting ways. I found myself liking and disliking these complicated characters in equal measure as the story built to its fraught climax.

Narrator Tavia Gilbert does an expert job with the novel’s many personalities. She effectively conveys the pressure Charlotte is under, the exhaustion she feels, and the ominous sense of how high-stakes the election is – for the country, for the state, and for the personal lives of the people most involved.

Part homecoming narrative, part behind-the-scenes thrill-ride, part domestic drama and part political farce, Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win is a uniquely compelling story that could not be more timely. I highly recommend.

Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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