Hannah Pittard is a novelist, a successful writer, and a teacher at the University of Kentucky. She also knows, firsthand, hardship and heartbreak. Her marriage dissolved when her husband had an affair with the woman Pittard thought was her best friend. It was a double betrayal of epic proportions.
How does one make sense of the dissolution of a marriage? How can we take the all too common problems of a couple and render it into something special? Pittard takes that task to heart in We Are Too Many: A Memoir [Kind Of]. It is her story and also the stories of her ex-husband and ex-friend. Yet is it not non-fiction and it does not attempt to tell universal truths. The book works to imagine the friendships, the relationships, and the actions and the betrayals from multiple perspectives. She imagines her friend and ex, she questions her own narrative and understanding – and she does it in a pseudo-factual manner. The prose is akin to reporting. The result is an intrusive, somewhat uncomfortable look at lies, love, and relationships – friendships and marriage.
One observation, too, that rings true from Pittard’s closely watched observations. If her semi-reporting is close to what happened and what was said, then the novel makes a strong case for reminding all to think through the things that we do and say after drinking too much. The scenes at bars and restaurants, the times when the characters have tippled, have a painful awkwardness to them that hurts while ringing true.
It is also clear – at least from my perspective – that as painful as the experience may have been, Pittard is going to be OK. She is no romantic heroine, destined for weeping and isolation. A strong and insightful woman, she is processing and working things through. I admire her for putting this book together.
We Are Too Many is an intriguing read. I laughed, at times, but more often there was a sense of inevitability to it. We know – from the start – how things do not work out. That is not tragedy, but instead something more real, more everyday, and certain something familiar. Relationships can be painful and messy things.
Non-fiction that makes you think is rare. Rarer still is a work non-fiction with legs that makes you think, decades after it was written. Marc Reisner’s 1986 environmental classic, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water is one of those exceptional works. Updated in 1993 and recently re-issued, it’s a massive tome, chock-filled with history, passion and a powerfully unique perspective on American history and development. Reisner writes with rage and urgency. While some things are very different in 2023 than they were in 1986, many of the same issues remain, shaped by the same history and forces. It remains an important and relevant book.
Reisner’s big picture approach starts with a fundamental fact that many Americans have ignored for decades: much of the western half of the United States has little rainfall and water. “Desert, semidesert, call it what you will,” Reisner stresses, the vast majority of the American west will never be changed simply because of limited water. Where there has been development – in Los Angeles, in Las Vegas, in the Imperial Valley – it has happened because of massive human effort. Each of these initiatives, many implemented by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, came with tremendous costs – and not just dollars. In fact, that is one of Cadillac Deserts big takeaways: the distribution of water in the American west has been about money and power, not conservation, common sense, or sound engineering. The book may be about the environment, but it’s even more about politics. He quite carefully chose the title of Chapter One: “A Country of Illusion.”
Some of the chapters in Cadillac Desert talk with each other, reinforcing a larger story. Others, though, stand on their own. These are set pieces, history framed with an angle. Reisner writes beautifully throughout, well-researched but miles away from pedantic. The chapter on the creation (or theft, depending upon your point of view) of Los Angeles’s water supply is a gem. Reisner highlights the deals, the contingencies and the ambition (naked and clothed) necessary to develop the city’s infrastructure. The book’s larger thread, a critical look at the Bureau of Reclamation, emerges in Chapter Three and again later. I had no idea of the tremendous push to build dams. It was extraordinary. The complicated history of the Colorado River is the backbone of one chapter, but it is a history that emerges again and again. The power and influence of the Army Corps on Engineers emerges in the work’s latter half. Founded during the Revolutionary War, the Army Corps’ impact on the west truly took off after World War II. They all wanted to build dams – for power, for irrigation, and for political capital. The eventual impact reshaped economics in the west, heavily subsidizing larger entities and reshaping politics. Larger than life characters drive the action. Floyd Dominy, for example, headed the Bureau of Reclamation, was a notorious womanizer and power broker. His leadership was essential in the decision to construct the Glen Canyon Dam and its progeny, Lake Powell, one of the largest man-made reservoirs on the planet when there’s consistent precipitation.
Digesting all of Cadillac Desert took time to process and think through. More than once, while going through a chapter, I reached for the laptop to gain a broader context on the issue at hand. Reisner’s history is far from dry. He has arguments to make, and while they sharpen the prose, they also raise questions and heighten curiosity. This is a book that will make you reconsider traditional history of American expansion and development in the west.
Most Americans are concerned about changes to the climate. The percentage of folks paying attention has been steadily climbing over the decades, in sync with rises in temperatures and episodes of extreme weather. So we now know more. But what can one individual do? Is it possible to be an informed “green” consumer, to live an ethical life that does not unduly contribute to climate change?
It’s an extraordinarily difficult question to answer as I learned in Tatiana Schlossberg‘s engaging book, Inconspicuous Consumption: The Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have. Schlossberg is a science journalist who writes for the mainstream press and did a stint as an environmental reporter for the New York Times. Her first book, Inconspicuous Consumption is a rambling effort that nevertheless finds a way to strike home. It won awards and for good reasons. Schlossberg loves details and her cheerful curiosity that loves to dig deeper renders her a complete guide to gaining an appreciation of the complexity of modern life and its impact on the environment. She aims to inform and to do so in a way that does not overwhelm – all the while making sure that the reader appreciates the absence of easy solutions. That is a difficult and impressive line to walk.
The book is organized into four sections: Technology and the Internet; Food; Fashion, and Fuel. For each, Schlossberg writes in the first person, sometimes intimately, about her questions and the difficulty in untangling environmental issues from those of economics, culture, politics, business, history, and much more. The internet, as an example, can be an extraordinarily inefficient consumer of energy. Schlossberg provides some history (power lines following telegraph lines, which in turn were strung to follow the railroads) as well as laws, policies and economics that create our current state of affairs. That’s just the internet as a physical thing. Schlossberg moves beyond direct costs to explore internet consumption and delivery. This relative new way of shopping has led to all manner of changes – in business, in supply, in patterns of consumption. The number and cost of consumers returning goods has soared. Consumption extends to viewing, too, and I learned that Netflix accounts for 15% of all internet bandwidth.
Schlossberg researches “common sense” rules as well. For example, when it comes to food, buying local does not necessarily reduce the carbon footprint. Some foods are more “green” when they are single source and shipped large distances. Polyester and cotton are both made with significant back end energy costs. Pick the subject and Schlossberg effectively problematizes it, highlighting the deep interconnectedness and complexity of the modern economy.
While all that may feel overwhelming, a difficulty Schlossberg acknowledges up front, she also works to humanize her quest for better understanding. This is a book with many asides and direct appeals, from writer to reader. If she is stumped, she tells us – just as she lets us know when facts depress or intrigue her. There’s a cheerfulness to her account that is sometimes in conflict with the information she imparts. More than anything else, Schlossberg wants us to comprehend that climate change is about everything we do as humans. If we grasp this, we will be much farther along in talking about it, appreciate it, and be willing to look for answers about how to lead a more just life.
Call me an optimist, a sucker for hope, advancement, and seeing people succeed. I find stories about a person’s growth and development to be inherently satisfying and consistently interesting. What’s more, when done well they offer insights and lessons.
Christopher Zara‘s book Uneducated has a telling subtitle: A Memoir of Flunking Out, Falling Apart, and Finding My Worth. It is a fascinating account of a man’s troubled childhood and difficulty journey to a professional career – all without a college degree.
Zara was born into a working class family in central New Jersey. His parents were neither particularly supportive nor attentive, and mental health issues compounded the author’s difficulties. Acting out in his teens, Zara was angry and confused. Kicked out of school, he was briefly institutionalized before moving into an un-moored decade of personal drift. Zara’s description of himself, the toxic environments he was drawn to (picture shaved heads and Doc Marten boots), and the underlying lack of direction speak to difficulties many face. Zara is far from unique in his rejection of school. He wanted something and did not know what. While help with addiction was an essential step in Zara’s journey, he was able to earn a high school equivalency, progress, and health came slowly. Overcoming drug addiction and, eventually, his addiction to heroin were further challenges he had to confront. Fortunately, Zara managed to beat his addiction, relocated several times in the hope of improving his situation, and began to discover himself and his passions with the assistance of rehabilitation centers. If you’re looking for guidance for your fast recovery, you can click here for more information about rehabilitation centers. For additional information, you can also find CBD anxiety relief. Moving to New York City and utilizing his language skills reshaped his life.
The key turning point, Zara writes, was an unpaid internship for a struggling show business publication with an abusive owner/boss. Eliding his lack of a college degree, Zara talks his way into the position and proves himself as a competent and dedicated employee. He struggles with impostor syndrome. Zara perseveres, gains more contacts, new positions and begins to write a book. There’s an “aw, shucks, I didn’t know ——-” throughout the book as a challenge/opportunity is identified and then overcome. It takes decades, tremendous discipline and an occasional break, but it happens. Zara writes a very successful book, becomes a well-known journalist, marries and finds stability and himself. Uneducated is his coming out, so to speak, about that journey.
Zara’s fears of not getting the interview, not making it past HR without a college degree are well founded. We don’t seem to have a good reasons for it as a society, but it persists nonetheless. Zara’s op ed piece in the NY Times concisely spells out the consequences of bias against those without a college degree. What he does not examine fully, though, is that a degree alone does not necessarily open doors. What institution, what major, what degree are other important parts of the equation. Community college graduates more often than not only list their baccalaureate institution. Public institution degree holders often feel inadequate around Ivy League alumni. Organizations and rules to determine and allocate status is a big part of how societies and cultures operate. Status drives assumptions, opportunities, and much more of our lives that we are comfortable admitting.
What I found most interesting about the memoir was Zara’s terrific smarts – he’s a wildly clever and creative man – and his avoidance of the distinction between learning and credentials. He did not attend college but in no way does that mean he is uneducated. What he lacks formal education and a credential. These are very different things. Most of us in education are well aware of the difference. Had I had a chance to talk about the book with Zara, I would have suggested “Uncredentialed” as a more appropriate title. The man has experienced quite the education indeed.
Most of us follow the rules. For those that don’t, the results usually are not all that good. It’s the rare person who makes their own rules, lives life as they want to, and leaves a meaningful legacy. Douglas Tompkins was one of those special individuals. Jonathan Franklin‘s biography, A Wild Idea, provides an fascinating account of this complicated and larger than life figure. Tompkins impact was across sectors, and culture, and remains important today.
Tompkins was born on the east coast during World War II in an upper middle class family. Athletically gifted and a trouble maker, he was tossed out of prep school for misbehavior. Tompkins followed his interests: skiing and climbing. He was exceptionally gifted at both and without an injury, might have been a member of the US national ski team. Tompkins focused on climbing and he excelled. His explorations and outdoor feats were taking place, too, when these passions were not celebrated in everyday American life. Sure there were families that camped – but extreme rock climbing? It was Tompkins’ life. He traveled the world, uninterested in material gain, and constantly tinkered with his climbing equipment.
Along the way, hitching a ride to Tahoe, a casino worked named Susie Russell gave him a lift. They hit it off, got married, and came up with the idea of putting together a store in San Francisco to sell outdoor equipment, especially to rock climbers. It seemed like a timely idea. All manner of San Francisco and cultural figures were part of their circle. For example, the Grateful Dead performed at the store. It’s name, by the way, was The North Face, a reference to the harder way to scale a mountain. It’s a multi-billion dollar global brand today.
The North Face’s success allowed Tompkins and Russell to sell their shares in the business. Their next moves were far from retirement. Tompkins pushed himself with ever greater outdoor challenges. Joined with several friends equally committed to exploration and endurance, he embarked on a six-month journey to South America. Amid many challenges and adventures, the focal point of the expedition was an extremely risky ascent of Mount Fitzroy in Patagonia.
Franklin’s telling of the trips and ascent is gripping. A fellow traveler made a movie of it all. It’s important to stress, too, that this was no solo effort. Among Tompkins travelers were Yvon Chouinard, the future founder of Patagonia, the global brand, and Dick Dorworth, one of America’s most famous ski racers and a noted author. The South American adventure sealed deep connections among all the participants and redirected Tompkins life. Extraordinary connections and friendships was simply part of Tompkins’ life. He had tremendous charisma and seemed to draw successful people to him. A Wild Idea is dotted with references to this celebrity, that political figure, that scientist or that activist.
Tompkins could also be extremely self-absorbed. He left his wife Susie to tend for herself and their new baby daughter when he went to Patagonia. This pattern, dropping all connections and responsibilities when he felt the urge to do something, was another part of this complicated man’s life. When Tompkins wanted to do something for himself, he did it. Amid the charm, he caused great harm and hurt for his family and friends. It is a short-coming that Franklin raises in the book but never fully addresses.
Susie, a very impressive woman in her own right, did not waste the opportunity while Tompkins was away. She started a clothing brand, Plane Jane, with a friend. They started selling clothes from a VW van and quickly found a market and a growing following. When Tompkins returned they became partners, along with Jane Tise, and changed the name of this company to Esprit. Its growth was extraordinary and by the 1980s, Esprit was worth billions. Much of its success stems from Tompkins role as chief designer, his obsessions and drive. He and his two partners crafted an extraordinary company. Franklin’s book goes deep into Esprit’s operating culture, unusual for its day but now recognizable from successful IT start ups. The company had an outsize impact on business theory as well as global fashion and design.
Tompkins, though, was neither happy nor satisfied. He sold his share and began to cast about for a new direction in his life. He divorced Susie – monogamy was not part of Tompkins’ lifestyle – and increasingly directed his life towards environmental efforts. More and more of his time was spent in Chile and Argentina, as Tompkins became a gifted bush pilot and sharpened his kayaking skills. He created The Foundation for Deep Ecology and a trust that later became the Tompkins Conservation. For the next decades of his life Tompkins aggressively pushed a conservation agenda, battled with all manner of politicos in South America, and built an extraordinary legacy as an environmentalist. South American politics and global political concerns were his for these years. It paid off. Because of Tompkins’ efforts, millions upon millions of acres in Chile and Argentina are now national parks, protected from development. His land purchases, strategy, commitment and foresight place him as one of the world’s most important figures in environmental protection.
While kayaking with friends in 2015 in a Chilean lake, a violent storm took Tompkins and his team by surprised. Tompkins fell into cold water and died from hypothermia.
Franklin’s respect and admiration for Tompkins shines from every page of this book. The author, it should be noted, is an American journalist and writer who moved to South America. His writing is often about courage under duress. Tompkins in many ways fits the bill, a man who consistently pushed himself to extremes. In other ways, Tompkins stands out as unusual character. He was a deep thinker, clearly extremely smart. His brilliance emerged through action. Tompkins was also many different things to many different people: boss, entrepreneur, dare devil, adventurer, environmentalist, and designer. Franklin does an outstanding job recounting what Tompkins did and his legacy. It is fascinating, though, that through it all there’s much of Tompkins that remains elusive. Franklin is challenged in explaining exactly, just who Tompkins was, or why he did what he did. It made me wonder if Tompkins really understood himself, either. He was quite an unusual man.
All told, A Wild Idea is a page-turning biography of a truly one of a kind person, Douglas Tompkins.
Jones is a prolific and successful writer who has published a great deal, from experimental fiction to comic books. A member of the Blackfeet Nation, Jones has garnered many awards. He’s also an accomplished academic, with a PhD in English from Florida State University. Jones holds the Ivena Baldwin chair of English and the University of Colorado Boulder.
The Only Good Indians is a character study, an exploration of tradition and non-tradition, and a tale of violence and revenge. There’s quite a bit of gore, and some of it is staged in ways that are indelible. Jones, though, writes about more than horror and it’s clear that he has more on his mind than scaring the reader.
At the book’s core is a tale of four men, Blackfeet, who hunt elk on land that was prohibited. The four kill a pregnant elk, compounding their crime, and the costs of that hunt haunt the four. Over time, something else – an Elk Woman spirit – actually does haunt the men and their families. Like a fairy tale, when there is a transgression, consequences are inevitable.
Jones’ mixture of the spiritual and fantastic with the day-to-day specifics of everyday life is outstanding. He brings authentic voice to the task. No native American copy of Stephen King, the book plays with narration, with language and perspective. It’s darkly funny, too. The characters are distinct, carefully drawn, and complex. There’s a sense of place and culture throughout that rings as true.
A difficult novel to put down, The Only Good Indians is an outstanding read, one that will stay with you for a long time.
Who doesn’t love a good art forgery story? It’s an intriguing mixture of high-end culture and old-time deception. Do we root for the forger? The artist? The police and investigators, charged with insuring the integrity of what must be an extremely messy business?
These and other questions came to mind in reading Tony Tetro’s memoir, Con/Artist: The Life and Crimes of the World’s Greatest Art Forger. Was Tetro the world’s greatest? There’s absolutely no way to tell. But the boast is totally in character for Tetro. It is also what one would expect from someone who makes a living forging works of art. It is not a lifestyle for the shy or retiring, most certainly not how Tetro has lived.
Tetro is a self-taught master, a careful student of art. He showed aptitude for drawing at a very early age. Growing up in a working class family in rural New York State, his interest in art was personal – not vocational. He married at an early age after an unexpected pregnancy. He and his wife had little education or professional plans. Tetro scraped by selling furniture and trying to make ends meet. He did, though, have aspirations for something better. His first forgeries came out of financial desperation and happenstance. Tetro was surprised: he truly enjoyed the process. As forgery led to money and more forgery, Tetro put more and more effort into the dishonest work. He learned tricks and that the more time and effort he invested in his dishonest craft, the better his art work copies would become.
Sales led to more sales and soon Tetro was living the fast life: expensive cars, lots of girlfriends, gambling in Las Vegas, and doing quite a bit of partying. He made a name for himself and he spent money as fast as it came in. Halfhearted cautionary admonitions are sprinkled in the book. My reading, though, is that these are not what it’s about. Tetro loved the money, the women, and the lifestyle. Tetro does caution against drug use, which caused health concerns and damaged the quality of his work. But the rest of his excesses? Tetro is a relatively unrepentant criminal.
Tetro eventually was caught. He made the obvious mistake of copying a living artist who might see the fakes. Unsurprisingly, the artist was enraged to find forgeries. The net around Tetro was closing. Much of Con/Artist is a Goodfellows-like account of Tetro scrambling for money, trying to keep his life together, and committing crimes while doing it. The jail time turned out to be a blessing. Tetro got his life in order . He needed to slow down. Now, Tetro makes copies on spec.
Con/Artist is not insightful literature. It is, though, immediate and unvarnished. Tetro is a charming scoundrel, a man blessed with great artistic talent who found a most lucrative way to enjoy it. All that said, I most certainly would be very careful purchasing a work of art from him.
We have multiple accounts of Europeans traveling the Americas in the 1400s and 1500s. Cross Atlantic journeys, though, were not unidirectional. Indigenous peoples of the Americas also went to Europe. Caroline Dodds Pennock, Britain’s foremost historian of the Aztecs, examines the histories of those who went to Europe in an extraordinarily interesting book: On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe. It is a provocative look at colonialism through a different lens. Many of the trips to Europe were forced, with indigenous people captured, coerced or enticed to Europe. However, indigenous people also demonstrated agency, diplomacy and a power in these exchanges. More than a corrective, Pennock’s study recasts early modern history in new light.
As stated here at: https://www.archaeologist-near-me.co.uk/survey/, History is not a simple account of what has transpired in the past. It is about making sense, crafting meaning, and telling stories that give us knowledge about what has happened, what is important, and what matters. The eurocentric “discovery” of the Americas has long been recognized as incomplete, racist, and politicized to an unacceptable degree. Real understanding demands broader and thoughtful inclusion. Pennock’s book, grounded in meticulous primary source research, gives the reader much more of that broad perspective. The author keeps us wondering – what was this like for the Totonacs, the Inuits, the Taino, and the many others who came to Europe? There were thousands and their voices have not been systematically heard.
The records are limited. Pennock, accordingly, focuses attention on the margins and the contexts, pulling meaning from scant sources. Most of the people she studies hailed from central America. She reminds us that translations were often done by the indigenous peoples, that their words are often hidden in colonial accounts. Indigenous people drew maps, wrote, argued in courts, and often had more agency and influence than the western writers and colonialists would ever admit.
The cross-cultural exchanges in On Savage Shores are especially fascinating. For example, Albrecht Durer, perhaps the most important artists of the Germanic renaissance, was captivated by the Aztec-Mexica artifacts displayed by King Charles V in Brussels in 1520. The world was significantly smaller and more known than we might recognize.
Some knowledge of European history and laws helps the reader untangle this complex history. For example, while slavery was common in the 1500s, Spanish law carefully assigned differing degrees of rights to different types of people. Cannibals, for example, could be treated much more harshly than other peoples defeated in war. Is it any wonder that so many early accounts of indigenous peoples stressed cannibalism? Slavery and other forms forced labor were extremely profitable. Women had few rights and were often victims. Pennock shares horrific accounts of sexual abuse and exploitation.
On Savage Shores is very good, very eye-opening history. The writing is clear, engaging, and accessible. It’s the kind of history that leaves one with a greater sense of understanding and also hungering for more information. Most importantly, Pennock’s book raises very important questions about who was and was not savage, questions that remain with me.
Librarians in my local public library branch are fond of calling attention to their favorite reads. One of their recent recommendations, Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, is a gripping memoir that I had heard about but had never explored. A big thanks to Chicago Public librarians – you know your books!
Walls is an award-winning journalist and writer. The Glass Castle is a first person account of her harrowing childhood. Told in a matter of fact manner with scary good cheer, it’s a gripping account of children’s resilience and the tremendous damage parents can cause. The book, which came out in 2005, was on best-seller lists for years. In 2017 it became a film. Walls’ story remains relevant today, perhaps even more so, and the candor of her writing deserves extra attention and appreciation.
Walls’ first memory is of being badly burned while living in a trailer park in Arizona. She was three at the time. The accident – she was cooking herself hot dogs – is terrifying. Walls narrative, from her perspective as a toddler, is all the more frightening because she is not aware of just how serious her situation is. That pattern of forced optimism in the face of real concern is repeated throughout her childhood.
Severely injured, Walls is taken to a hospital for treatment. Her father, Rex, steals her away before she is released or a payment is due. This is another pattern of behavior – skipping town, the “skedaddle” – that the family does repeatedly. There is very little stability at home, or precisely, at homes. Walls’ mother, Rose, is a fantasist, an artist, and poorly equipped to care for a family with children. Rex is a charming high-functioning alcoholic given to violence. He makes do on scams and luck, and is far from a stable provider. Walls loves her parents and knows, too, that they are dangerous to her well-being. When the family finally settles in abject poverty in West Virginia, close to Rex’s parents, the naive positivism of the younger Jeannette gives way to awareness of the severity of their situation. The kids are bullied, abused, neglected and often hungry. It is truly horrific. Eventually the oldest sister escapes to New York City and Jeannette follows. If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, particularly with substances like cocaine, seeking support from specialized facilities such as cocaine rehab UK could be crucial in the journey to recovery. If you want to know the symptoms of an alcoholic, you can read this article for more helpful tips.
Living apart from their parents was essential for the children to have some semblance of a healthy life. Things with their parents were that bad. Escape, though, proves difficult. Rex and Rose follow their children to New York City. As the children struggle to find employment, housing and stability, their parents battle mental health issues, addictions, and become homeless. The Wells children’s mutual cooperation and coping skills are outstanding. Jeannette works her way through Barnard. Her elder sister becomes a successful artist. There are some good moments. Rex gifts Jeannette with poker winnings to pay tuition. It is the kind of grand gesture, an act of generosity, that makes a reliably positive relationship with Rex so impossible. An inveterate dreamer, he promised that he would one day build a glass castle for Jeannette and the family. Along with the promises, there were many darker moments. Jeannette’s shame at seeing her parents scrounge through garbage, trying to scrape by, is an indelible moment.
Walls’ memoir is a testament to her strength, her resilience, her courage. She is direct about all manner of problems, whether it is fending for herself or fending away predators. There were many, too. Jeannette and her siblings are survivors and heroes. One one level, The Glass Castle is inspirational and speaks, I am sure, to many who have struggled with toxic home life. It offers a message of hope.
Ironically, The Glass Castle has been regularly banned by schools and libraries. Some have complained that the language, the descriptions of violence and sexual abuse are inappropriate for young adults. They are inappropriate. In fact, they are deeply wrong and troubling. Sadly, though, they took place. It is exactly Walls’ candor that makes this book important for so many people of all ages. We do not choose our parents and have little control over the first years of our lives. Walls’ harrowing journey to adulthood, like that of sadly many other children, is a powerful reminder that it is possible to find happiness, with or without a healthy and supportive family. That is an extremely powerful message.
Dahlia Lithwick is one of the nation’s most influential law commentators. Active across many publications and platforms, Lithwick is probably best known for her ongoing attention to the Supreme Court. She writes, presents, comments, and teaches with rigor and passion.
In 2022, Lithwick wrote Lady Justice: Women, The Law, and the Battle to Save America. Through a series of sharp biographical studies, Lithwick’s best-selling book examines the massive changes in women’s rights from the latter part of the Obama presidency through the Trump administration. It’s a story of rights being curtailed, denied, changed and re-evaluated – and the immense effort to push back and secure those rights by women lawyers. The book is a reminder of just how contentious the last six years have been. Lithwick zeroes in on a number of battles – at airports, in courtrooms, in the media and in demonstrations – and the tremendous trauma and costs. Many of these incidents are familiar, if only through the headlines at the time. Lithwick’s book gives context, broader legal understanding, and highlights the women attorneys who throughout found strength, strategy and alliances to fight for women’s rights. The book is encouraging and cautionary.
The women who emerge in Lithwick’s study are described with care and consideration. While we may have first heard about them through the media in times of drama, when they were often reduced to stereotypes and sound bites, in Lady Justice they emerge as complete human beings. Lithwick stresses that these women came from different backgrounds, with different agendas and ways of describing the law. What they share is a belief that law could provide structure. Its very rules would permit agency, a meaningful career, and the potential to make a difference.
Lithwick’s attorneys include Sally Yates, who was the US Attorney General at the end of the Obama administration and who was fired by President Trump when refused to implement the Trump administration’s executive order barring Muslims from entering the US. Yates, who is very much a believer in institutional stability, as Lithwick emphasizes, refused to act on an order she believed was unconstitutional. Becca Heller, who fought the Muslim ban as an attorney, has less faith in the system. Nevertheless, she played an instrumental role in organizing grass roots legal defense of immigrants at airports throughout the nation when the Trump Executive Order was implemented. The organization she founded, the International Refugee Assistance Project, continues to have an impact today. Although it took time, Yates and Heller’s legal arguments eventually were endorsed by the courts.
The courts also vindicated attorney Robbie Kaplan, who went after the Charlottesville, VA, white supremacists on behalf of the people they harmed. Kaplan had earlier played a leading role in securing the rights of homosexuals to marry. Brigitte Amiri, who has been fighting for women’s reproductive rights for decades with the ACLU, worked tirelessly on behalf of a pregnant teenager held at the border during the Trump administration. The young woman sought an abortion and the US government prevented it until Amiri’s arguments prevailed. Lithwick also looks at Vanita Gupta, who has a career advocating for civil rights, and Stacey Abrams, who has made the expansion of voting rights a priority.
Lithwick also talks about her own experiences with Judge Alex Kozinski, who sat on the US Court of Appeals. An influential jurist whose clerks often became judges, Kozinski was well-known in legal circles for his abuse and sexist behavior. When enough women and complaints came forward to seem to force accountability, Kozinski retired. One of his clerks, Brett Kavanaugh, claimed ignorance of his behavior during his confirmation to the Supreme Court. In these sections, Lithwick’s pain and anger at misogyny and blatant unfairness in top legal circles comes through loud and clear.
Despite that anger, Lithwick’s message is still ultimately about the importance of faith in process. She has belief in the law as a place for order and orderly change. Better arguments, over time, will win. The histories in the book reinforce the law’s slow and irregular move towards inclusivity and justice. It may be political, but it is not partisan. Tempering Lithwick’s optimism though, is that the legal system can be unduly influenced by partisan politics. Without process and care, the law can become a tool of repression. What I found most inspirational in Lady Justice was the immense heroism of these attorneys, their willingness to go above and beyond in pursuit of their clients and justice. Though perhaps not household names today, their efforts are what makes our democracy function. We are a national of laws. These attorneys, and Lithwick’s book, are most deserving of our time and appreciation.