Shop Notes

What we're reading: Books and more

Posted: Sept. 14, 2017 | Tags: journalism

Small illustration of a closed book.

Illustration by Sydney Ling, IRW


What we're reading this month: longer books, six-chapter investigative series and essays. Highly recommended from our new interns:

How Does a 10-Year-Old Boy End Up Hanging to Death?

by Julia Prodis Sulek for San Jose Mercury News

A 10-year-old boy found dead in a San Martin, California, barn bedevils his family. A sheriff's department reopens the case 25 years later. In six chapters, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Julia Prodis Sulek reveals the trauma, psychology and misinformation surrounding the 1989 hanging of Joshua Sean Klaver. 

Sulek's writing, wed with podcast segments, film work and photography, is mountain-stream clear. She deftly navigates readers through grisly subjects while showing the treads she walked to find the truth.

— Zane Anthony

"The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women"

by Kate Moore

This new book tells the story of the "radium girls" who worked in factories in the U.S. in the mid-20th century. These factory workers painted watch dials with radium paint, licking the brushes for accuracy, as they were taught, and almost all of them ended up dying extremely painful deaths from radium poisoning. Moore's investigation yields a 500-page book that reads like a novel, with every page descriptive of the horrors of death by phosphorus ingestion.

Moore’s research for this book was extensive and meticulous, and it shows in the accuracy of how she portrays characters and events. Like any good piece of journalism, she showcases as many sides as possible using historical documents. However, her passion for the girls is also evident, and, at times, overwhelming.

While it can get hard to read at times, given the graphic descriptions of the girls’ medical ailments leading to their gruesome deaths, it is well-written and it powerfully illustrates an important part of American history. 

— Sarah Gibson

“The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates; The Atlantic 

Since Toni Morrison called Ta-Nehisi Coates the “New James Baldwin,” he has lived up to the hype, filling an “intellectual void” persistent in American culture. Like Baldwin, Coates lives in a time of uncertainty. Racism and whiteness were, for the first time in a long time, hyper-visible in the forefront of the 2016 election. And these themes continue to take in the political spotlight. 

In his essay, Coates explores the resistance of political pundits to examine this undeniable fact: Trump won the White House because a majority of white Americans, in every single demographic, voted for him. 

— Erin Logan

Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women.”

by Renee Engeln

Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches” captured America’s attention in 2013 when the film showed how women underestimate their own beauty. Dove showed these women get teary-eyed comparing self-descriptions to more accurate and beautiful sketches drawn by strangers. 

But Dove missed the point. Beauty shouldn’t even be a defining characteristic for women. At least that’s a prime argument in Renee Engeln’s “Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women.”

The book’s thesis: Women are being held back because of the time, money and head space they put into looking pretty. 

Journalists should look to Engeln, a Northwestern University psychology professor, for how to conduct a good interview. She pulls out honest stories on difficult subjects like eating disorders and seemingly lighter ones, such as not feeling comfortable going outside without makeup. She then skillfully pairs these anecdotes with scientific studies. 

“Beauty Sick” will make you think twice before you comment “so pretty” on your friend’s next Facebook profile picture.

— Angela Swartz

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