Editor's Choice

In ExtremisClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Lindsey Hilsum

Summary

When Marie Colvin was killed by an IED in Homs, Syria, in 2012, at age fifty-six, the world lost one of its most fearless, accomplished, and iconoclastic war correspondents, an eye-patch wearing, party-throwing, and risk-taking female combat reporter who covered the most significant and destructive global calamities of her lifetime. In Extremis: The Life and Death of War Reporter Marie Colvin, written by Colvin's friend and prizewinning fellow reporter Lindsey Hilsum, is a thrilling and powerful investigation into Colvin's epic life and tragic death.

After growing up in a middle-class Catholic family on Long Island, Colvin got her start working for The Sunday Times, where she was driven with reckless abandon to tell the stories of the victims of the major conflicts of our time. She lost an eye reporting in Sri Lanka at the end of their civil war, interviewed Gaddafi twice, and risked her life covering conflict in Chechnya, East Timor, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe. Unsurprisingly, her personal life was as unpredictable as her professional: bold, driven, and complex, she was married multiple times, had many lovers, drank heavily, suffered from PTSD, and refused to be bound by society's expectations for women.

With exclusive access to Colvin's intimate diaries from age thirteen to her death in 2012, interviews with people from every corner of Colvin's extraordinary life, and expert research worthy of Colvin herself, Lindsey Hilsum's In Extremis is a timely and propulsive biography of the foremost war correspondent of her generation.

BookBrowse Review

International journalist Marie Colvin pushed the limits in her work and her personal life. Widely acknowledged as one of her generation's top journalists, she reported from some of the toughest conflict zones on the planet. Colvin was killed in action reporting from Homs, Syria in 2012. As readers, we know that her story will end tragically, yet Marie Colvin's heroic journey from the beginning of her life still provides page-turning suspense. It's only fitting that another journalist, Lindsey Hilsum, honors Colvin with this fascinating, detailed, 400-page biography.

Marie ColvinHilsum writes with clarity and precise attention to details. She had access to Colvin's personal journals and interviewed Colvin's numerous friends, colleagues, editors, former husbands and lovers, and family members. Hilsum's narrative is punctuated with excerpts from Covin's dispatches while on assignment for The Sunday Times.

Born in 1956, Colvin grew up in New York, spent a year as a high school exchange student in Brazil, then became one of the first wave of women admitted to undergraduate studies at Yale. There, she made lifelong friends and published her first piece in a campus journal. Coming of age in the 1970s, Marie tuned into countercultural tendencies of the times. She carved her own identity with strong appetites for partying, drinking, sailing, and loving, which endured her entire lifetime.

In Extremis provides insight into the life of a remarkable woman against the backdrop of human history. By age 30, Colvin was Paris Bureau Chief for the wire service UPI. She later lived in Jerusalem but eventually made London her home base. She was known for using first-person eyewitness accounts and interviews with ordinary people behind the scenes of active wars, but she also summoned all the tricks of her trade and raw ambition to land interviews with Libya's notorious Muammar Gaddafi. Her first published interview with Gaddafi, in 1986, propelled her career. She soon left UPI and moved to The Sunday Times, where editorial demands for originality and long-form reporting suited Colvin's personal style.

Colvin cultivated friendships and contacts all over the globe. She befriended Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) and interviewed him many times between their first meeting in 1987, through the Palestine/Israel peace talks, upon his award of the Nobel Prize, and until his death in 2004. She covered Libya beginning in 1987, up through the rise of the Arab Spring, Libya's civil war, and the death of Ghaddafi in 2011. These were dangerous times for journalists – in Libya and in other places – reporters, photographers, and film crews often crossed borders undercover or by devious routes requiring tactical assistance from citizens or soldiers. Hilsum thoroughly recounts timelines of complex historical events, how they evolved, and why Marie Colvin was motivated to report. Hilsum reflects: "She was the champion of bearing witness so that even if no one stopped the wars, they could never say they had not known what was happening."

During her career, Colvin covered events in Lebanon, Kosovo, East Timor, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Libya, Tunisia (Arab Spring), and her final piece, reported in 2012 from a clandestine Baba Amr Media Center during the Syrian government's military siege of civilians in the city of Homs.

Personally, Colvin was known for parties and socializing, a rambunctious laugh, and a sense of fashion. She wore posh lingerie beneath an androgynous flak jacket and trousers while on assignment; and credited a designer-down-jacket with saving her life on a snow-encrusted mountain trek escaping from Chechnya. After losing an eye to shrapnel while reporting from Sri Lanka in April, 2001, she wore an eye patch, which added to her legendary image. Yet, after Sri Lanka, she began to doubt herself. "When I looked in the mirror I saw a different person…I'd lived a life where I stayed one step ahead of my nightmares. Now something had happened to me that was irrevocable." She suffered PTSD, which is a side effect not only for active combatants but also for civilians and journalists in violent situations.

Colvin's career advanced during an era of rapidly evolving media technology. She came of age dictating stories from a landline or typing them into a bulky telex machine. Before the early 2000s (when digital photography became the norm) photographers had relied on physical film, often smuggled from hot zones to be published. Colvin adapted to new media: laptop computers, internet, and cell phones. The field of journalism shifted from daily print and prime-time network news that dominated the 1980s into a 24/7 always-on flow delivered by internet, satellite, and the limitless possibilities of social media.

I'm thankful that a real book about the life and times of Marie Colvin is available, complete with photographs and a detailed index. This biography will appeal to those who love true adventure, contemporary journalism, female heroes, and behind-the-scenes dynamics of global history in the making.

Book reviewed by Karen Lewis

Beyond the Book:
Journalists on the Front Lines

Hundreds of journalists and photographers have been killed in the line of duty, including Marie Colvin whose life story is told in In Extremis. The international Committee to Protect Journalists has been tallying data since 1992. As of 2018, more than 1300 journalists have died while reporting on the job with more than 600 additional media workers killed (often near their homes or their offices) most likely as a result of their work. Sometimes motives for murder are murky, and the cases are never resolved. This is a global situation, where journalists working to develop their stories often encounter forces beyond their control. Here are a few who risked everything to bring stories to the world's attention. This is a small sample of so many including, most recently (October 2018), Saudi exile Jamal Khashoggi - who wrote for the Washington Post - who was killed under mysterious circumstances still under investigation.

Remi OchlikRémi Ochlik (1983-2012) was an award-winning French photojournalist known for his work covering Haiti in 2004, and Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt during the Arab Spring. Rémi was with Marie Colvin in Syria when their hiding place was hit by a rocket; both were killed. Other foreign journalists with them (Paul Conroy, Edith Bouvier, and William Daniels) were seriously injured but did not die.

Rami Al-SayedRami Al-Sayed (1985-2012) was one of the most prolific videographers covering the early years of the Syrian revolution. The civilian journalist was based at the Baba Amr Media Center, and broadcast internationally via YouTube relayed by outlets including BBC and CNN. He is credited with bringing the deteriorating situation in Syria, especially civilian stories, to the world's attention. He was hurt during a shelling of Baba Amr and died hours later.

David BlundyDavid Blundy (1945-1989) British war correspondent and journalist, was killed by a sniper while covering the war in El Salvador. Blundy mentored Marie Colvin early in her career. When he left London's The Sunday Times in 1986, he encouraged editors at The Sunday Times to hire Marie, where she became a superstar.

Anna PolitkovskayaAnna Politkovskaya (1958-2006) reported on the conflict in Chechnya, exposing atrocities done by the Russian military. She lived in Moscow; her career included coverage of Chechnya and human rights issues in the post-Soviet world. She endured numerous threats, detentions, and at least one attempted poisoning. She was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment building. The details are murky and the murder is considered unsolved, although several people have stood trial.

Daniel PearlDaniel Pearl (1963-2002) staff writer for The Wall Street Journal went to meet a source in Karachi, Pakistan and was kidnapped. He was later murdered by Al-Qadea in a widely-publicized decapitation. A humanitarian foundation bearing his name promotes tolerance through journalism and music. Pearl's life is also featured in the film A Mighty Heart (2007) based on a memoir by his widow, Mariane Pearl.

James FoleyJames Foley (1973-2014) was an American freelancer for several media outlets including Agence France-Pressee. He was abducted in Syria, held hostage for nearly two years, then killed by ISIL, which attempted to use his captivity and ransom demands to publicize their cause. The James Foley Legacy Foundation now advocates for the protection of independent journalists and encourages humanitarian efforts.

Kim HallKim Wall (1987-2017), a Swedish freelance journalist, covered stories worldwide including hot spots like North Korea and Uganda. At home in Copenhagen, she went alone to interview a high-profile inventor, Peter Madsen, on board his midget submarine one afternoon. She was never again seen alive; Madsen has been convicted of her sexual assault and murder.

Miroslava Breach VelduceaMiroslava Breach Velducea (1962-2017) covered human rights, corruption, cartels, Juarez's female homicides, and drug trafficking from Chihuahua, Mexico, where she lived with her children. She was gunned down in retaliation for her fearless and thorough reportage. Breach's death was only one among many in Mexico, which (along with Iraq and Syria) has one of the highest rates of journalist mortality in the 21st Century.


There's a sense of urgency about reporting from the front lines, bearing witness to humanity's extremes. While these journalists died too young, their work lives on in print, film, and foundations that carry forward their vision of a free press for a free world. Several nonprofits including Reporters Without Borders/Reporters sans Frontières, the aforementioned Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International are actively engaged to protect freedom of expression and reporting worldwide.

Remi Ochlik, courtesy of www.parismatch.com (Photo by Lucas Dolega)
Rami Al-Sayed, courtesy of www.channel4.com
David Blundy, courtesy of digitaljournalist.org
Anna Politkovskaya
Daniel Pearl
James Foley, courtesy of https://ignatiansolidarity.net
Kim Hall, courtesy of www.itv.com
Miroslava Breach Velducea, courtesy of www.dailykos.com

Vita NostraClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

Summary

Our life is brief ...

While vacationing at the beach with her mother, Sasha Samokhina meets the mysterious Farit Kozhennikov under the most peculiar circumstances. The teenage girl is powerless to refuse when this strange and unusual man with an air of the sinister directs her to perform a task with potentially scandalous consequences. He rewards her effort with a strange golden coin.

As the days progress, Sasha carries out other acts for which she receives more coins from Kozhennikov. As summer ends, her domineering mentor directs her to move to a remote village and use her gold to enter the Institute of Special Technologies. Though she does not want to go to this unknown town or school, she also feels it's the only place she should be. Against her mother's wishes, Sasha leaves behind all that is familiar and begins her education.

As she quickly discovers, the institute's "special technologies" are unlike anything she has ever encountered. The books are impossible to read, the lessons obscure to the point of maddening, and the work refuses memorization. Using terror and coercion to keep the students in line, the school does not punish them for their transgressions and failures; instead, their families pay a terrible price. Yet despite her fear, Sasha undergoes changes that defy the dictates of matter and time; experiences which are nothing she has ever dreamed of... and suddenly all she could ever want.

A complex blend of adventure, magic, science, and philosophy that probes the mysteries of existence, filtered through a distinct Russian sensibility, this astonishing work of speculative fiction - brilliantly translated by Julia Meitov Hersey - is reminiscent of modern classics such as Lev Grossman's The Magicians, Max Barry's Lexicon, and Katherine Arden's The Bear and the Nightingale, but will transport them to a place far beyond those fantastical worlds.

BookBrowse Review

Vita Nostra by Ukrainian authors Sergey and Marina Dyachenko is one of those novels that defies description. One might call it speculative fiction or magical realism, but those categories don't really capture the character of the book. Words that come to mind are more along the lines of surreal, fantastic and sinister. It was first published in Russian in 2007 and is the first in the authors' "Metamorphosis" cycle.

17-year-old Sasha is on a vacation with her mother when she encounters a mysterious stranger who makes bizarre demands of her. Although she refuses at first, she ultimately finds that her attempts to resist are useless. She meets the man again after she returns home, and with his reappearance come further commands, eventually culminating in the demand that after graduation she enroll at the "Institute of Special Technologies" – not the school she was intending to attend, nor one she's ever heard of. There, she discovers a talent she didn't know she possessed, becoming a star pupil but losing herself in the process.

The novel is extremely dark, and even frightening; Julia Meitov Hersey's stellar translation imbues the narrative with a sense of danger from the very start and never lets up. On the first day of school Sasha's class is told by a professor:

To everyone who puts their best effort into the process of learning and does his or her absolute best, I will guarantee: by the time the process is completed, these students will be alive and well. However, negligence and indifference bring students to a sorry end. An extremely sorry end. Understood?

It is compulsively readable and has a truly Russian feel to it; little details like sharing an apartment with strangers while on vacation or waiting in line to make a phone call immediately let the reader know the action likely isn't set in a Western country. Its stress on discipline and obedience further lend a foreign feel.

Comparisons with J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels are inevitable; a young person with exceptional but unexplored aptitude is sent to an unknown school where teachers see her gifts and teach her to use them; but this is definitely a book geared toward an older audience. Although Sasha is remarkable in many ways, she's also a typical college student away from home for the first time, and consequently the plot contains scenes that are likely too mature for young teen audiences. Also, I found much of the story disturbing in a way I haven't experienced since I first encountered Stephen King's writing decades ago, and can definitely imagine it inducing nightmares.

What exactly is expected of Sasha and her peers and what they will ultimately become is shrouded in mystery and metaphysics for much of the novel, and even as revelations are made, they are, to some extent, abstruse. In addition, the technology required to obtain the skills they learn is described in detail, and although these passages may make sense to the more mechanically minded reader, they may frustrate those who like to clearly understand every sentence of a book. I tried puzzling these out but quickly gave up, opting instead to just "go with the flow."

Vita Nostra most reminded me of Mikhail Bulgakov's masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, and those who enjoyed that book will very likely love this one. Frankenstein also came to mind as I read along. It will appeal most to those who enjoy Russian fiction and novels that contain fantastical elements.

Book reviewed by Kim Kovacs

Beyond the Book:
Gaudeamus Igitur (So Let Us Rejoice)

The title of the novel Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko comes from a verse in the Latin song popularly known as Gaudeamus Igitur ("So Let Us Rejoice"). The work's lyrics urge their audience to enjoy all the pleasure they can because all will end too soon, and they also praise the student lifestyle. Although most often considered jocular and sung with an air of joyful abandon, the lyrics can also be deemed fairly dark, a warning about the shortness of life.

Most Westerners would recognize the upbeat melody of this paean to academic life; it's been used in countless graduation ceremonies for decades, if not centuries. The tune has appeared as background music in many movies (such as the scene toward the end of the Wizard of Oz when the Wizard fulfills Dorothy's companions' desires – brain, heart, courage) and can be heard even in classical orchestral pieces such as the Berlioz Damnation of Faust and Brahms' Academic Festival Overture.

Some of the lyrics are very old; the second and third stanzas can be found in a Latin manuscript from 1287 CE and at the time were most likely the basis of a hymn of penitence. Around the 18th century it evolved into a student drinking song. The first known modern version was created by German composer Christian Wilhelm Kindleben (1748-1785) and appeared in his 1781 publication Studentlieder.

Many subsequent versions of Gaudeamus exist, with lyrics having been modified over time. In the United States, it is the first song in the earliest American college songbook – Songs of Yale, published in 1853. It was mentioned frequently in Yale publications, and it's thought that Yale's influence as an institution of higher learning led to the song's adoption by other schools. The Yale/Americanized rendering has two additional stanzas – numbers 8 and 9 – that don't appear in European versions.

And The Ocean Was Our SkyClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Patrick Ness

Summary

With harpoons strapped to their backs, the proud whales of Bathsheba's pod live for the hunt, fighting in the ongoing war against the world of men. When they attack a ship bobbing on the surface of the Abyss, they expect to find easy prey. Instead, they find the trail of a myth, a monster, perhaps the devil himself...

As their relentless Captain leads the chase, they embark on a final, vengeful hunt, one that will forever change the worlds of both whales and men.

With the lush, atmospheric art of Rovina Cai woven in throughout, this remarkable work by Patrick Ness turns the familiar tale of Moby Dick upside down and tells a story all its own with epic triumph and devastating fate.

BookBrowse Review

Patrick Ness has developed a reputation for experimental literature executed well, and his latest, And the Ocean Was Our Sky, is no exception. Once again breaking genre boundaries, Ness's allegorical novel toys with readers' perceptions while provoking their moral compasses with regards to themes of vengeance, good versus evil, and the destructive power of hatred. But most powerfully, the narrative asks us to consider what devils we build for ourselves through blind, inherited hatred of the other, and what then it takes to overcome them, what the costs of moving beyond diametric violence might be.

Illustration by Rovina CaiFramed by an epigraph from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick: "Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee"; and beginning with three words: "Call me Bathsheba," the text of Ness's novel harkens back to one of the most famous first lines in English literature – "Call me Ishmael." From that point forward, readers are alerted, at least partially, to the depths of narrative they are about to traverse. And I say traverse, not read, because And the Ocean Was Our Sky is, at its heart, a story about a journey – between species, into hells, and in pursuit of prophecy and destiny leading only to more questions.

Bathsheba's pod is adept at hunting men, fighting them as part of a long war waged between whales and humans. Using their harpoons to sink ships, they fend off these encroachers from their world, protecting their families from what they see as a dire threat to their advanced ways of existing. But some men are worse than others, and as Bathsheba's pod pursues their enemies, they one day find a devil of mythical proportions, Toby Wick. Bathsheba thinks she knows what her role in her pod is: to follow her Captain's orders in her quest to destroy the greatest evil the ocean has ever known. But when her Captain takes a young man named Demetrius captive, and Bathsheba realizes that she can communicate with him, she finds herself questioning more and more the purpose of her hunt, and the dichotomies her life fits into. As Bathsheba ponders, in retrospect, the space between what she is told by her captain and what she thinks for herself, the space between what she thought she might become and what she is expected to be, her world becomes subverted. Her journey to orient herself within the events of her past, to make sense of what happened, and, to stop it from happening again resonate in the present. The text closes with a plea for a new story, for a remembrance of what might be, and what is real. The final lines, set apart from the rest of the prose bring home the direct address of the narrator to the reader, a final subversion, breaking a fourth wall and surpassing the boundaries of the text and into the reader's direct consciousness.

Illustration by Rovina CaiMore powerful even than the text, perhaps, are Rovina Cai's stunning and textured illustrations. Whether viewed digitally or in the hard copy, Cai's illustrations, in fact, surpass the narrative capacity of the text while also better orienting the reader within it. Ness's story and setting subvert the reader, literally. Up is down, down is up. The sky is the Abyss, the depths of the oceans are the sublime heights to be achieved. Within this subversion – before the reader even encounters any text – the illustrations help to navigate this new world. The limited use of color, the reliance on shadow, and the very selective use of red embed another layer into the narrative, especially considering how and where the illustrations are spaced within the pages of the text. Ness's experimentation will not work for everyone, but Cai's illustrations might bridge a gap, bringing more people into the tale and carrying them through.

All in all, And the Ocean Was our Sky is a challenge that should be engaged with by all readers. Like its source material, it is sure to spark conversation and remain of its time and context while being endlessly transposable and interpretable, and only gain from multiple and multifarious readings.

Illustrations reproduced with the permission of Rovina Cai

Book reviewed by Michelle Anya Anjirbag

Beyond the Book:
The Hunt That Came First: Moby Dick

Illustration from Moby DickAnd the Ocean Was Our Sky is a re-imagining of Herman Melville's 1851 novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Ness's text is a very experimental adaptation of Melville's, and one need not know Melville's text to understand it. However, some background on this American classic – recognized widely as a Great American Novel – may well serve to add further depths and context to Ness's contemporary story.

Look at any meme, mug, poster, or listicle that purports to include the most famous opening lines in literature, and "Call me Ishmael" is sure to be on it. Ishmael narrates a tale about his time on a whaling ship, the Pequod, during Captain Ahab's quest to destroy Moby Dick – the whale who took his leg. Ahab's desperate pursuit of vengeance, despite the prophesy that anyone who pursued Moby Dick would be destroyed, descends into madness and quite literally destroys his crew: he kills three of his harpooners to baptize a new harpoon with which to kill the whale, sailors drown, the ship catches fire, madness spreads. Eventually, the Pequot is destroyed, and Ishmael escapes to tell the tale.

Knowing the synopsis brings home the parallels between Ishmael and the main character of Ness's novel, a whale named Bathsheba, and therefore makes more apparent how the two texts can be read in dialogue with each other. Symbolically, both texts play with concepts of surfaces and depths, of predestination and the power of prophecy, and, even, whiteness as absoluteness. Both texts allow multiple readings, on ego, Godliness and Godlessness, and to whom belongs the determination of a man's soul. By understanding Ahab's pursuit of the white whale and all it might signify, readers may better understand the complex dynamics embedded in Bathsheba's pod, and the fervor of her captain. For example, Bathsheba represents herself as somewhat separate from the crew she swims with – much like Ishmael is a dreamer, and not a "believer," Bathsheba cannot give herself over to absolute belief in a prophecy, unquestioning faith in the righteousness of her pursuit. The hunt, whether for Moby Dick the great white whale or Toby Wick the great white devil, ultimately symbolizes the struggle of the human condition. Where certain readings tie Ahab's reckless quest to a likewise reckless expansion of the American frontier, Bathsheba's own commentary on the potential foolhardiness of blind pursuit, and the refusal to believe new information because it does not fit with the prophecy, might pull forward Melville's themes in a changed world that is still grappling with many of the same existential questions.

Ultimately, Ness presents for modernity the same conflicts of selfhood that Melville's own meta-narrative, experimental novel presented to his respective contemporaries. The legacy of Moby Dick is self-evident through the existence of And the Ocean was Our Sky, and how Ness is able to play with the text to reinvent it for a new era, without losing the connection to or the power of the older text.

Illustration by Augustus Burnham Shute from an early edition of Moby Dick

Let It BangClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by RJ Young

Summary

The most RJ Young knew about guns was that they could get him killed. Until, recently married to a white woman and in desperate need of a way to relate to his gun-loving father-in-law, Young does the unimaginable: he accepts Charles's gift of a Glock.

Despite, or because of, the racial rage and fear he experiences among white gun owners ("Ain't you supposed to be shooting a basketball?"), Young determines to get good, really good, with a gun. 

Let It Bang is the compelling story of the author's unexpected obsession—he eventually becomes an NRA-certified pistol instructor—and of his deep dive into the heart of America's gun culture: what he sees as the domino effect of white fear, white violence, black fear, rinse, repeat. Young's original reporting on shadow industries like US Law Shield, which insures and defends people who report having shot someone in self-defense, and on the newly formed National African American Gun Association, gives powerful insight into the dynamic. Through indelible profiles, Young brings us up to the current rocketing rise in gun ownership among black Americans, most notably women.

Let It Bang is an utterly original look at American gun culture from the inside, and from the other side—and, most movingly, the story of a young black man's hard-won nonviolent path to self-protection.

BookBrowse Review

Every interracial love story is an exercise in complications. R.J. Young and Lizzie Stafford's love affair was anchored by the Second Amendment, and gun ownership, gun patriotism and racial triggers intersects at the perfect middle in Young's absorbing confessional, Let It Bang: A Young Black Man's Reluctant Odyssey With Guns. But as a history lesson, the memoir also normalizes an unconventional love.

Only 2% of Oklahoma marriages have black/white couplings. Young, a reflective and searingly honest writer who interprets the world around him with quiet ease, spends little time justifying or defending his interracial choice, almost as if it is a non-sequitur. Given the scope of his confession, it feels awkward that he spends little time on his marriage, particularly as he continually judges himself and the white community he is suddenly surrounded by. But the love story's moral arc is funneled through the man who would become R.J.'s father-in-law, Charles Stafford. Stafford's impact on Young is similar to a hero whose footsteps you wish you could match. The first time Charles and R.J. meet, Charles hands him a revolver. It is a quandry: what R.J. fears lining up a little too closely with what he desires.

I don't think he knew what it meant to hand me, a young black man, a revolver that Dirty Harry would be scared of. Once the feeling of fright dimmed, the absurdity of this hit me. To show me what a down brotha he was, the man wanted me to hold a pistol.

Writing about Lizzie as a fixture in his life and her father as his mentor skews slightly when Young explores his family of origin. His own father, so different from Charles, warned him about the police, to be afraid of them en masse. His grandmother was an activist in Mississippi, a cohort of the admired Fannie Lou Hamer and an executive secretary for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Emotionless, Young weaves the binary tale of blacks and murder. 2,911 African Americans were lynched between 1890 and 1965.

The way R.J. Young writes his own story, which is to say the way he sees himself from a distance, paints him as the acceptable man of color, the exception. He is smart and reflective and has humor. He speaks and behaves in a manner white men don't find offensive, no racialized or angry clichés or hidden meanings. But symptomatic of being black in America, R.J. is angry. It is an anger whose intensity he tries to hide within his newfound gun infatuation. He compartmentalizes his racial trauma while trying to appear conforming and friendly. He is constantly, putting on and then taking off a mask. R.J. is uncomfortable in majority white spaces. He feels like an outsider rather than a surrogate for gun rights. But when he holds the Glock in his hand something in him is redeemed. It's less about guns being an equalizer and more about their seductive power. The Glock has such an umbilical hold, he spends an inordinate amount of time trying to load the bullets. Intuitively, you can almost feel the sweat dripping down his face as he becomes frustrated trying to shoot, not sideways like the stereotypical gangbanger in the late night flick, but shooting straight and hitting the target. It becomes his obsession.

In order to learn how to shoot better, he takes private lessons. Like a faucet dripping water one milliliter at a time, R.J. becomes immersed in gun culture norms. He wants us to know the difference between squeezing the trigger and pulling the trigger. He defines marksmanship and separates it from defensive shooting. He gives a primer for the uninitiated. But, frankly, it still leaves a question as to the why of guns? Why? Almost in a vacuum, R.J. mingles with Oklahomans at gun shows and within the NRA and is sensitized to white fear, not as a vulnerability but as insecurity and a racial fugue. The rhetoric disturbs him in the same way the election of Donald Trump disturbs him, as if he is constantly being asked to explain his line in the sand, which of course, nullifies his own black existence. Whites are afraid of black violence. Blacks are afraid of black violence. But white fear is fetishized and black fear is patronized.

There is a heartbreaking story R.J. recounts of being in a movie theater with his new wife Lizzie and being racially profiled by a sheriff before being allowed to take his seat. It's not particularly grotesque in its aesthetics, just ordinary run of the mill police harassment. But so extraordinary was the humiliation after so much time being in the company of, and, being coveted by, white faces, R.J. couldn't even sit in the theater.

This was not the first time the world had treated me and Lizzie differently. Perhaps if it was just the outside world and not her family too, my marriage would not have ended.

Nearing the end of his intensely personal story, his marriage woes feel like a parable, almost a warning to others who cross racial boundaries and chant the trope that love sees no color. Look, he seems to say. Look at what love does to you. It is reductive, like water erasing rock.Similarly, his affection and then gradual disinterest in the Glock he once adored feels like a cautionary tale. Love slips away. You better catch it before it disappears.

What Young has penned will disappoint many. It is not a partisan story about his own comeuppance in a white world. It is not a book preaching to Democrats or castigating Republicans about their gun porn. It doesn't wave the banner of Black Lives Matter as a matter of conscience. It refuses to drown the 2nd Amendment in moral snobbery nor does it let the liberal gun haters have the last word. It doesn't say much about interracial marriage other than the fact that R.J. had one. Simply, his story is about a negotiation. He loved a woman whose family fetishized and cherished guns. He tried to love guns for her sake and his. For a short time, the love affair with guns and Lizzie took hold of his heart and rendered ecstasy. And then he had to look in the mirror. He was still a black man in America.

Book reviewed by Valerie Morales

Beyond the Book:
Liberals Love Guns Too

Liberal Gun Club LogoIn his memoir, Let It Bang: A Young Black Man's Reluctant Odyssey With Guns, R.J. Young takes readers into his obsession with guns, and in the process explores race, guns and self-protection in the U.S.

But who exactly owns guns? While gun ownership skews strongly to rural white men who most likely vote Republican, the American reality is that it is much more widespread.

According to Pew Research, over one-third of whites own a gun but so do almost a quarter of blacks and 15% of Latinos. Gun ownership is also not the sole province of men; while 48% of white men currently own a gun, so do almost a quarter of white women and 16% of nonwhite women.

When it comes to politics, 20% of Democrats and left-leaning independents own guns. While this is less than half the 46% of Republicans and right-leaning independents who do, it's still a lot of people. Despite this, liberal gun owners can feel like refugees in their own land, preferring to keep silent at the shooting range about their political beliefs and quiet about their love of guns when out with friends.

What are the reasons for a liberal-leaning person to own a gun?

An article in Politico explores some of them. Miriam O'Quinn owns one because she just likes shooting. Cole Smith-Crowley calls himself a "firearm geek". A transgender woman named Clara began going to shooting ranges after the election of Donald Trump. "Things are already escalating, and they will continue to do so," she says. She is now shopping for her own firearm.

And where do they go to find other like-minded people?

The Liberal Gun Club, formed in 2009, "sees itself as one of the many groups forming to fill a niche left by the NRA's hard-right and racist policies," according to club member Cole Smith-Crowley. It provides a safe space for gun owners within the liberal community - people such as Miriam O'Quinn who was visibly shaken at shooting ranges where mock-ups of Barack Obama were the targets. The non-profit club isn't a political organization by mission statement and they don't support candidates. They have seen their membership rise to more than 2,000 as of 2016 and have members in every state, and nearly 10,000 Facebook friends. They have 11 chapters across the United States. Some of their members are wary about interviews, not wanting to be used as a pawn in the gun wars, while other members want to talk about it and perhaps dispel stereotypes. They want to stand up for the right to love guns but many of them do not agree with the NRA's positions on guns and gun control. Navy man Jim Ridgeway is one of those people: "I don't feel like the NRA represents me at all."

Another gun supporter, Gwendolyn Patton of the Pink Pistols, a gun club for gay, lesbian and transgender owners, says, "There are people who profess to carry a gun now because Trump made them feel unsafe." And finally, 70-year-old Blythe Bonnie lost interest in the Democratic party after the conflict with Bernie Sanders. She began the Liberal Prepper Facebook group geared for survivalism if there is an economic collapse after Trump. Part of their preparation is stockpiling weapons. "We are not preparing for a battle with the federal government, but we are preparing for if we have local chaos," she says.

Some liberal gun owners work for justice and promote equality in the area of gun ownership. For example, Lara Smith, the national spokesperson for The Liberal Gun Club, believes marginalized communities have to deal with sentencing inequality when facing a firearm violation. Owning a gun doesn't make a liberal any less likely to support traditional left-leaning causes such as environmental protection, climate change action, mass incarceration overhauls and fair taxation. They just want the ability to also love guns.

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