Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland review

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern IrelandSay Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I was raised Catholic, and for an embarrassingly long time I confused “Catholic” and “Christian”. So the idea of conflict between Catholics and Protestants outside of a Tom Lehrer song is very hard for me to relate to, and I remember doing a report in…high school? about the conflict in Northern Ireland and thinking that it seemed totally intractable.

And yet before I even finished high school the Good Friday Agreement was in place and the conflict seemed over. I saw this book recommended several different places, and the sample sat on my phone for a while, but once I got into it (and was also stuck inside because of a winter storm) I really enjoyed it!

The frame that Keefe uses for the book is the disappearance of Jean McConville in 1972, presumably done by the IRA, but it uses this sort of mystery to explore a lot about The Troubles and the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement. Keefe covers a lot of different people, but I didn’t have too much trouble keeping them all straight, although part of that might be because I read it so fast.

It feels weird to be worried about spoilers for a non-fiction book, but it is kind of a mystery, so…spoilers below!

The part about the Belfast Project really struck me. After the Good Friday Agreement membership in the IRA was still basically illegal, so very few people talked about what they had done during the Troubles. (this is unlike the Truth & Reconciliation Commission that South Africa had after apartheid, where people could admit what they had done in exchange for immunity from prosecution) So some people started a secret project where they would interview former IRA members (and people in loyalist paramilitary groups as well) and keep the tapes secret at Boston College while the interviewee was alive. As the penalty for informing on the IRA was generally death, the organizers of the project went to great lengths to convince people they wanted to interview that this was an ironclad promise.

This sounds like a great idea to me, but it was a disaster. Authorities in Northern Ireland learned about the project after a book was published based on one of the interviews after that interviewee passed away. Then they got subpoenas for some of the interviews, and because the project wasn’t officially journalism (and the organizers didn’t actually run things past the legal people at Boston College) the interviews were given up. At least one person was prosecuted based on the interview he had given.

I guess the lesson is that you really need a state-sponsored commission to do things like this.

Other interesting stuff:
– One of the oddities of the situation in Northern Ireland is that both Catholics and Protestants felt like a minority – Catholics were a minority in Northern Ireland itself, but Protestants were a minority on the island because of Ireland’s large Catholic population.
– Animosity between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland goes way back – Keefe talks about a march that happened in Derry every year to commemorate the young Protestants who kept the Catholic forces of King James out way back in 1688! Traditionally the march ended by standing on walls and throwing pennies at a Catholic area of town, which started the Battle of the Bogside in 1969. As an American it’s really hard for me to understand history that goes back well before my country was formed!
– Jean McConville and her family lived in a housing project that was heavily Catholic, and in the early 1970s it sounds like it was basically a warzone – there were frequent gun battles at night where the children would drag their mattresses on the floor and sleep together in the middle of the apartment to stay away from walls, etc.
– Keefe mentions that in the 1950s, when a Catholic kid walked past a certain neighbor’s house, the neighbor would spit and ask if he had blessed himself with the pope’s piss that morning. (???)
– In 1972 the IRA announced a cease-fire, and said anyone who violated it would be shot, which is pretty good unintentional comedy. (incidentally, the cease-fire lasted all of two weeks)
– Keefe talks about an escape attempt from Long Kesh, an internment camp used to hold IRA paramilitaries. At the time only two people had escaped – one by borrowing the black robes of a priest and walking right out the front door with a visiting delegation of priests. And the second, eighteen months later, escaped by doing the exact same thing!
– Hunger strikes were used for a while for IRA prisoners protesting their conditions – they wanted to be treated like prisoners of war instead of “regular” prisoners, and they were willing to starve to death to win public support for their cause. One such hunger striker was Bobby Sands – in the middle of his hunger strike he ran for Parliament and won! But that didn’t change the British government’s position, and a month after his election Sands died in prison.
– In 1984 the IRA detonated a bomb at a hotel where Margaret Thatcher was staying – five people died. (but obviously not Thatcher) The IRA issued a statement saying “Today we were unlucky, but remember, we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”
– Gerry Adams was in the IRA and then became the leader of Sinn Fein, the political party associated with the IRA that the British government hated. At one point the government banned the IRA and Sinn Fein from the airwaves. What that meant in practice is that when Adams was on TV, British broadcasters could not transmit the sound of his voice. But they could show him on TV, and the words he was saying were OK to use, so they simply had an actor dub his voice!
– There’s a story about Trevor Campbell, who was a police officer who handled informants inside the IRA. Once he was interviewing an IRA member who had been arrested multiple times, and by law Campbell was allowed to hold him for three days (without charging him), so he spent the time talking to him trying to convince him to flip. They ended up just talking for three days, neither person giving any real information about himself. Well, after three days, Campbell let him go, and went out to dinner with his wife, and Campbell saw the man he had been questioning at the bar! Campbell went up to talk to him to ask if there would be any trouble, and the man said to enjoy his meal and then get out of there.
– There’s some amazing testimony that a British intelligence officer gave that one in four IRA members were actually informants! It’s unclear if this is true or if this was just meant to sow suspicion in the IRA, but it does seem pretty clear that the one of the people involved in the IRA’s internal security unit (responsible for killing traitors) was a double agent!



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The Psychology of Money review

The Psychology of MoneyThe Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I bought this book on accident. (I meant to download a sample but foolishly clicked on a link to “log in and buy” it, for which I will accept 90% of the blame and pass 10% along to Barnes and Noble) But it’s a nice short book, summarizing a bunch of financial wisdom that I’ve read other places like luck is a bigger deal than you think, save money even if it’s not for something in particular to give yourself flexibility, don’t spend too much money, etc. It is presented pretty nicely, though, and has a few ways of thinking about things I haven’t seen before, so I’d recommend giving it a read if the topic interests you.

Honestly, the most interesting part was the postscript where Housel tries to reverse-engineer the American psyche when it comes to money. Why do Americans get into so much consumer debt? Well, his theory goes something like this:
– After World War II, there was a ton of pent up demand for stuff, and “hidden” productivity increases in the 1930s led to an economic boom.
– The economic gains from this boom were shared fairly equally across classes, and people’s lives seemed pretty equal
– Recession, etc. in the 1970s, and the economy started to boom again in the 1980s. But this time, the gains were not shared equally at all – for example between 1993 and 2012, the incomes of the top 1 percent grew 86%, but the bottom 99 percent’s incomes only grew 6.6%.
– So middle class people were used to looking at people around them and thinking they could afford that lifestyle, but this wasn’t true any more because the rich were so much richer (relatively speaking) than they used to be. And it takes a long time for expectations like this to change.
– People eventually realized things weren’t working for them, which led to some parts of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Brexit, and Trump. Obviously there are more things going on here than just economics, and I don’t feel qualified to really say much about Brexit, but this does ring true to me…


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A Promised Land review

A Promised LandA Promised Land by Barack Obama

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This 700 page book felt like only a 400 page book! Obama is, unsurprisingly, a good writer, and he gives a lot of insight into why he did what he did as president.

Honestly, I think this book would have been too depressing for me to read while Trump was president; the contrast between Obama’s thoughtfulness and genuine good nature is really striking.

It was a little depressing rereading the hopefulness of 2008 followed by the disappointment of…well, 2010 and such. (the book only goes through 2011) But, as he said at the time, Obama figured out pretty quickly how difficult it would be to get things done. And it is nice to reread about Obamacare getting passed. (can you believe the Democrats had 60 seats in the Senate in 2008?? Blows my mind every time I remember that…)

Anyway, the book really is a nice look at Obama’s rise to the presidency and the kinds of choices you have to make as president. I enjoyed it and am looking forward to Part 2, whenever that comes out!


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You’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism review

You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about RacismYou’ll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey: Crazy Stories about Racism by Amber Ruffin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Man. I preordered this book because Amber Ruffin is hilarious, and then kind of forgot what exactly it was about. And, as you can clearly tell from the title, it’s a bunch of stories about racist things people have done. But it is funny! And that makes it a bit easier to swallow, even as you read these terrible, terrible stories. So it all kind of balances out, and it’s an easier read than . (but boy, there are a lot of racist people out there 😦 )

My favorite story: Lacey was going to AfroComicCon (most of the stories take place in Omaha, where Lacey lives), and dressed up as the Little Mermaid – this was right after the news had broken that there was going to be a live-action remake with a Black girl playing Ariel. One little girl at the con came up to her, and when she heard who Lacey was dressed up as, said “You can’t be the Little Mermaid; the Little Mermaid is white!”. Lacey explained that that was the point; you can be whatever you want to be, and the girl came back with “Fine, but you’re still not the Little Mermaid.”

But! The girl’s mother heard this, gave her a talking-to, and made the girl come back and apologize. The girl said “My mom says we can all be whatever we want to be…And that I need to hang out with you more.” Hah! (this is one of the very very few stories with a happy ending)

Anyway, there’s a lot of funny, funny stuff in there that is also very depressing


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