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December Book of the Month: How to Become a Federal Criminal

how-to-become-a-federal-criminalHow to Become a Federal Criminal: An Illustrated Handbook for the Aspiring Offender
Written and Illustrated by Mike Chase
Reviewed by Courtney Nguyen, Reference Librarian


The road to hell may very well be paved with federal statutes and regulations, as demonstrated by our December Book of the Month, How to Become a Federal Criminal: An Illustrated Handbook for the Aspiring Offender by Mike Chase. As the title promises, this book enumerates (with pictures!) the seemingly endless ways anyone can descend into a life of crime, even by accident. Chase writes with his tongue firmly in cheek, but even without the rude humor the actual statutes, regulations, and congressional hearings are outrageous and absurd enough to amuse and shock everyone. Here you will find lurid accounts of the depraved Yellowstone Off-Leash Cat Walker, and those wayward souls who dress like postal workers—when they aren’t even postal workers. Divided into eight sections based on type of offenses, this book barely scratches the surface of the innumerable crimes proliferated by Congress and various federal agencies.

Chase, an attorney who also runs the popular Twitter account @CrimeADay, clearly revels in the madness of it all, writing with a mix of juvenile glee and genuine befuddlement over how ridiculous these crimes can be. But he includes more than just illustrations on how to mail a mongoose; it’s clear that he has put extensive time and research into his work. This “handbook” also serves as a simple and easy to understand primer on the basics of the criminal justice system and how to read a federal statute, useful for aspiring offenders and law-abiding folk alike. He explores how there came to be so many federal crimes—more than it’s conceivably possible to count—tracing the labyrinthine path from the three listed crimes in the Constitution to the thousands upon thousands of criminal statutes and rules carrying criminal penalties we have today. There are also brief summaries of some of the stranger cases that went to court (some involving margarine).

This book not only gives you endless facts to share at cocktail parties, but also leaves you with some important takeaways. Such as, don’t bother trying to modify the weather with your weather laser unless you’ve filled out the right forms first. Or how the only thing standing between you and a cell might be how properly you label that box of dead bees you want to mail. And don’t even think about leaving the country with a pocketful of nickels.

Find How to Become a Federal Criminal (along with our other criminal law materials) at the library today!


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November Book of the Month: Separate

SeparateSeparate: The Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation
By Steve Luxenberg

Reviewed by Aaron Parsons, Reference Librarian


In Separate, author Steve Luxenberg examines the social and historical upheaval that encompassed the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction-era United States and that culminated in the ignominious 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation. Luxenberg begins by tracing the history of the separate but equal doctrine from the northern railroads where Jim Crow laws took hold before the Civil War—dispelling the myth that they originated in the post-war south. He goes on to recount the lives of several of the era’s important figures, including plaintiff Homer Plessy, Justice John Marshall Harlan (the lone dissenter in Plessy), Henry Billings Brown (the opinion’s author), Albion W. Tourgée (Plessy’s lawyer), and Frederick Douglass, leading to their fateful intersection in the Plessy case. The abomination of the Jim Crow laws persisted unabated until 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, though they were continually challenged by abolitionists such as Tourgée and the wider Civil Rights movement. Separate helps the reader understand the lives and motivations that shaped both sides of the racial and equality struggles during a dark chapter of our nation’s history—struggles that continue to shape our striving “to form a more perfect union.”


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September Book of the Month: The President’s House

President's HouseThe President’s House
By William Seale

Reviewed by Tony Pelczynski, Reference Assistant


The President’s House, by independent historian William Seale, is an engaging—if initially imposing—two-volume history of the White House. Running chronologically through America’s Presidential line, from George Washington (who commissioned the construction of the White House, but never actually lived in it) to George H.W. Bush, the book covers the gamut of White House history in entertaining detail. Housed in a sturdy and handsome slipcase, and running to just over 1200 pages, Seale has written an enlightening history of what just might be the most recognizable residence in the world.

Seale, editor of the journal White House History, is eminently qualified to take on the topic: in addition to researching and writing about historic buildings, he restores them. Seale is clearly interested in the White House from (quite literally) the ground up. And while the subject matter and length of the book may seem off-putting to those outside the presumably limited circle of hardcore White House history buffs, Seale’s lively prose and storytelling keep the reader absorbed. While the focus is on the structure itself, the book’s scope necessarily expands beyond (or, more to the point, into) the White House’s walls, taking into account the lives of the men and women who have lived and worked under the White House’s roof: the Presidents and their families, of course, but also the gardeners, cooks, maintenance workers, and others who have historically kept the place running, day-to-day.

As both residence and locus of Presidential power, the White House has always stood alone, symbolically: while the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court building may arguably be equally recognizable structures, they both represent collective democratic institutions. The White House is, uniquely, the home of a single (albeit enormously important) individual and his family. Seale’s expansive history continually reminds the reader that the White House is, first and foremost, just that: an actual American home, filled with the messiness and unpredictability of human life that term implies. Over the years, the building has hosted births, deaths, weddings, funerals, and any number of other milestones of human happiness and suffering, to say nothing of the physical upheavals that the structure itself has endured over the years.

At the same time, the White House has always functioned as something of a national museum and political stage. Even those who have never set foot inside the building can conjure a mental image of the Oval Office, or (as is more likely) one of its many cinematic or television iterations. Perhaps because of the White House’s fixity in the American imagination, various presidents and their spouses have, to varying degrees, attempted to stamp the abode with their own personalities and identities, frequently to less than unanimous critical acclaim (recall here Melania Trump’s much-derided minimalist Christmas displays). Seale does a fine job of surveying the various changes the White House and its décor have undergone over the years, none more extensive than President Truman’s “down to the studs” renovations.

Seale ends The President’s House at the George H.W. Bush administration, although he does include a too-brief epilogue touching on the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush years. At 80 years old, Seale may be done writing on the topic, but his book leaves the reader hoping for at least one more update covering the last two Presidential administrations. While its current occupant has reportedly proclaimed the White House to be “a real dump,” given the care and attention to detail that Seale has so clearly poured into his book, one gets the impression that the author feels very, very differently on the subject. Update or no, The President’s House will likely remain the definitive history of this most symbolic of American residences for years to come.


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Coming to a Theater Near You: 2 Supreme Court Justice Biopics

SFLL FilmsComing attractions! If you are lucky, you will soon be buying a ticket for or watching on your home streaming service two new, exciting, and very different Supreme Court dramas. The films are about the paths of courage, imagination, and drive for equality pursued by Thurgood Marshall and by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in their early careers as lawyers—preludes to each of their years of service as Justices on the Court itself.

The first—with an anticipated release date of October 13, 2017—is Marshall. Called a thriller by Variety, Marshall tells the story of the bold defense by Thurgood Marshall, then a young lawyer of 32, of Joseph Spell, a black chauffeur accused by his Connecticut employer of rape and attempted murder. These lurid charges became infamous in the tabloids at the time. Co-starring Chadwick Boseman as Thurgood Marshall, and Josh Gad, as Samuel Friedman, a lawyer with no trial experience who offered to join with Marshall for the defense, the cast also includes Keesha Sharpe as Marshall’s wife, and Kate Hudson as the socialite accuser. For a spine-tingling advance peek of a drama of bigotry and truth in a dark time—with books as an ally—try the trailer.

My Own WordsThen, slated for 2018 is the Ruth Bader Ginsburg 1970s-set movie, On the Basis of Sex. This film highlights her championship of equal rights, focusing on her successful appeal of a landmark tax-gender-discrimination case, Moritz v. Commission of Internal Revenue, which stated that dependent care deductions allowed to single women and divorcées could not constitutionally be denied to single men. First announced to be played by Natalie Portman, the role of RBG will now be carried by Felicity Jones, with Armie Hammer cast as her husband and co-counsel, Martin Ginsburg. A narrative on the Moritz case, and their work together, by Martin Ginsburg, (including contentions as to who had the bigger room at home to work in), is also part of Justice RBG’s new book, My Own Words, found in our own San Francisco Law Library collection.

Stay tuned for the sflawlibraryblog film reviews, and if you see these films before we do, please do give us your own comments, reviews, or your own favorite Supreme Court movies from the past.