October 8, 2020

What are you reading right now?

As someone who loves escaping into books, particularly books meant for tweens, I’ve found reading for pleasure during the pandemic to be tough. I can’t focus. I fall asleep. My mind wanders. Or, often, I just search for solace in plant Instagram. I’m missing the break that reading anything other than news and Twitter gives my brain.

But in the last few months, I’ve regained the escape of reading thanks to the work of local journalists.

Early this year, two books showed up in my work mailbox. I set them down on my desk, intending to take them home, and then didn’t go back to work until June to pick up a new laptop.

After remembering where my desk was, I grabbed both, and soon stayed up late most nights, unable to stop turning pages. I read one, then another, then logged onto Amazon and bought a third I’d heard about in a short chat with the author at a journalism conference last fall. Each book is set in a different place and each is by a local journalist no longer in the newsroom they were in during the book’s timeline.

And though each book came out just before the pandemic, for me, they offer something necessary right now — a reminder of the real change local journalism creates. It can be hard to see in inches or pixels. But bound together, it’s really clear.

Each book also offered something different that I didn’t know I needed — rekindled outrage, a reminder of how present the past is and a place to share grief, even if it’s not my own.

Here’s a bit about them:

Photo by Kristen Hare

“Death In Mud Lick” by Eric Eyre came out this March. Eyre won a Pulitzer Prize for the Charleson (West Virginia) Gazette-Mail in 2017 for his work uncovering the huge role Big Pharma played in creating the opioid epidemic. Eyre’s book weaves together the story of a beleaguered but determined newsroom, a reporter chipping away at the truth and lots of big powers working against both.

He includes this in the preface:

“…I wrote hundreds of stories about the devastation and misery that opioids had inflicted upon our state. I kept digging for answers, the smaller articles snowballing into the larger story of how it happened, how drug companies flooded small towns with millions of prescription opioids, and how they got caught. It all began with a seemingly unremarkable death in a place called Mud Lick.”

Eyre is now one of the three co-founders of a very new newsroom, Mountain State Spotlight. In a newsletter he sends out, he wrote this last week:

The story is far from over. (Looks as if I’ll be adding an epilogue to the epilogue by the time the paperback comes out next year.) A bellwether trial to hold giant companies accountable for the opioid crisis is scheduled to start Oct. 19 in Charleston. I’ll be covering the trial or potential settlement for Mountain State Spotlight, a new nonprofit investigative news outlet in WV. Here’s my latest story for MSS.”

Photo by Kristen Hare

“Race Against Time” by Jerry Mitchell came out this February. Mitchell was the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 2009 and worked for years for The (Jackson, Mississippi) Clarion-Ledger. Mitchell now has a reputation as a cold case reporter (he’s recently started poking around “The Tiger King.”) But this book shows how Mitchell’s day-to-day reporting years ago helped revive civil rights cold cases and put proud members of the KKK behind bars. The book deals with our country’s racist, murderous past, but also feels very relevant right now. This is from the editor’s note:

“For the past 30 yeast, Mitchell has devoted his career to reopening unsolved cold cases in from civil rights era. His work on multiple landmark cases — the assassination of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi Burning murders, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer — has helped put killers from the Ku Klux Klan behind bars for life, decades after they thought they had gotten away with murder.”

In 2018, Mitchell founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Photo by Kristen Hare

“Black Widow: A Sad-Funny Journey Through Grief for People Who Normally Avoid Books with Words Like ‘Journey’ in the Title” by Leslie Gray Streeter came out this March. Streeter, who was until recently a columnist for The Palm Beach (Florida) Post, tells a story that is somehow sad-funny about death, grief and love after her husband died. This isn’t a book about the news, like the other two, but about a journalist’s life, her communities and family during the awful and unexpected. (Also the chapter titles and Gen X pop culture references are themselves a work of art.)

This, from the jacket cover, holds up:

“Tender, true, and endearingly hilarious, ‘Black Widow’ is a story about the power of love, and how the only guidebook for recovery is the one you write yourself.”

What are you reading right now?

I asked last week and heard a few suggestions. Ross recommends “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson. Christine recommends “Standoff: Race, Policing and a Deadly Assault That Gripped a Nation,” by Jamie Thompson. I just read about “Why Didn’t We Riot: A Black Man in Trumpland,” by Issac J. Bailey. And several people have recommended “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska,” by Heather Lende. I do, too, it’s great, and it looks like she has a new book out: “Of Bears and Ballots.” 

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists. Kristen Hare covers the business and people of local news for Poynter.org and is the editor of Locally. You can subscribe to her weekly newsletter here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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