Monday, April 20, 2015

Audiobook Review: Ghettoside

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America (2015)
Written by Jill Leovy
Narrated by Rebecca Lowman
Publisher: Random House Audio/Spiegel & Grau
Run Time: 13 hours 28 minutes

This past weekend, thousands descended onto the University of Southern California campus for the 20th Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. This was my first time attending and it was a blast! Had fun perusing the many booths, scored a good-size book haul and I'm already anticipating next year's event and the panels that go with it. If this year was a toe dip into the proverbial water, next year is the full-on plunge.

A book that was prominently featured in sellers' booths was Ghettoside, written by the Times' own Jill Leovy. The USC campus is south of downtown, but it is a vastly different world than the one Leovy describes a few miles away as part of the 77th Street Division of the LAPD. The division covers 12 square miles of South Los Angeles and neighboring Watts. Many of the homicides are gang-related and black-on-black.

The book follows the murder of Bryant Tennelle, the son of a police detective, and John Skaggs, the man assigned to find the responsible killer. Skaggs is an immediately respectable, if not likable, detective with a low BS-tolerance who genuinely cares about finding justice. His care disarms skeptical residents wary of the LAPD for its past sins, a remarkable feat considering he is white and most of the residents are black.

The entire case, from a gripping interrogation by Skaggs to the courthouse conclusion, is gut-wrenching in its unflinching look at the reality of life in South LA. The sheer number of murders and why they happen caused my jaw to drop.

In an interview with the New York Times Book Review, Leovy referred to residents here feeling "walled in" and sadly, she is right. Commuters from more affluent parts of town like the South Bay will drive by on their way to work downtown via the 110 Freeway, but most wouldn't dare to drive through the actual neighborhoods, even to fill up their gas tank. Leovy also makes the point that many officers of the LAPD do not live in the city itself, but in outlying suburbs like Santa Clarita (my hometown), Orange County and Simi Valley. Tennelle's father lived in the area he policed, so he had a high investment in the safety of his community, making him admirable and sympathetic even before the tragic loss of his son.

Rebecca Lowman delivers solid narration for the audiobook, refraining from dramatic voicing or unnecessary frills when the book so starkly lays out the crime epidemic. A minor gripe I had with the book is that Leovy addresses some solutions to the problem of black-on-black violence at the book's conclusion, but they felt rushed. I wouldn't have minded seeing more details on those ideas and how they would have helped the people of South LA.

Grade: 4/5 stars. In a year of outstanding nonfiction so far, Leovy's journalistic narrative stands out as a testament to the current state of crime in America. As a newspaper reporter myself, there are stories I've covered that were horrific, but needed to be told. Likewise, Leovy has done that with Ghettoside.

Below is a portion of an interview between LA-based PBS host Tavis Smiley and Leovy about the book...

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