Thursday, January 19, 2017

Evicted: A Heartbreaking, Rage-Inducing Study on Poverty and Profit in the American City

Sociologist Matthew Desmond's New York Times Top 10 of 2016 book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, is an extremely important, vital book in these troubled times. That's because the problem of frequent evictions among the poor, a problem not often discussed, is, as Desmond argues here, a foundational problem to a lot of others in America — including crime, education, and the lack of possibilities for upward mobility for many people.

Desmond's assertion here, made through a combination of meticulous research and the stories of eight Milwaukee families, is that, like health care and voting, housing should be a guaranteed American right.  However, as the book makes starkly clear, the availability of adequate housing for all is far from the current state of things. And what's especially troubling is that a single eviction (sometimes the tenant's fault, just as often not) can send a person and his or her family into a downward spiral from which it's nearly impossible to recover.

For instance, the first person we meet in the prologue of this book is a single mother with a teenage and a middle grade son. She is evicted when her bored elder son, just goofing off, throws a snowball at a motorist, and the motorist stops his car, and kicks in their front door. The landlord thinks they're trouble, so he boots them, as his is right. They find another house, but soon have to leave because the house is condemned by the city for being unlivable. And then, for the rest of the book, this woman and her kids struggle to find any stability in their housing situation — this affects her sons' attendance at school and basic faith in the system. At one point, after an eviction, this woman has to beg the new tenant at an apartment from which she's been evicted to let them stay for a few weeks until they can find somewhere else to live. It's just heartbreaking.

The strength of this book is these personal stories that connect the cold data to real people. Desmond did nearly a year of fieldwork for this book — living both in a predominately white trailer park on the South Side of Milwaukee, and then in a small room in the city's mostly African American North Side. He tells the stories of the people he met and followed for this year — both tenants and landlords, people deserving of our sympathy and those deserving of our anger (neither is often who you think, or fit neatly into often preconceived notions). 

There are few winners and tons of losers in this book. And there's plenty of blame to go around for this broken system, in terms of tenants, landlords, policy makers, law enforcement, etc.

This is such an essential book — I'm really glad it landed on the NY Times list. I may not have read it otherwise. It's not a difficult read at all — its narrative non-fiction structure and Desmond's talent as a writer make this a smooth and easy read. It doesn't feel academic at all.

To me, the lack of empathy and often willful ignorance of others' situations is also a foundational problem to many other problems right now. And reading this book can be a small step toward working on both. Extremely highly recommended.

(And if you'd like to help right away, please consider a donation to Matthew Desmond's charity, Just Shelter.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk: Quick-Witted Wins The Race

It's November 1931, and Lillian Boxfish, the eponymous protagonist of Kathleen Rooney's terrific new novel, out today, Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, is in a downtown Manhattan office meeting with her poetry editor. Lillian has already established herself as the "highest paid woman in advertising" for her witty, humorous copy for R.H. Macy's. But her side hustle is poetry, and her first collection is about to be published. Her editor tells her though that one "fairly minor thing" must yet be sorted out: the title, he and his sales department don't like it. Lillian's response: "The title? How embarrassing...after all these years, and so many verses written, to learn that I have been misusing the word minor." Lillian asserts herself, gets her way, and the title remains in tact, as she preferred it.

I read this little exchange/scene three times, and laughed a little harder each time — Lillian's sarcastic response is perfectly emblematic of her character. She's quick-witted, whip-smart, and doesn't suffer fools gladly. And so after reading that, though I'd been skeptical about how much I'd like a book ostensibly about an old lady who walks around New York City, I knew I'd love this. And I did. A lot!

Yes, it is about 84 (or 85)-year-old Lillian Boxfish, taking a walk around Manhattan on New Year's Eve 1984, but it's also about her entire life, as a copy writer, a mother, briefly a depressed person, and ultimately simply an incredible woman. The novel alternates chapters between her late-night walk in the present (1984) and episodes from Lillian's life. But even her walk is fascinating, as she meets crime-ridden and dangerous (though Lillian is never afraid) Manhattan's diverse crowd of characters — a family who invites her to join them for a steak dinner, a limo driver, an Asian bodega proprietor, some artists and gay bohemians, and a group of African American toughs (which, though near the end, results in my favorite scene in the novel, a laugh-out-loud funny exchange, but an importantly profound one as well). Manhattan is Lillian's town, she owns it, and she will do it her way.

Kathleen Rooney is a fellow Chicagoan, and I loved her novel O, Democracy! (about the absurdity of politics, so yeah, fairly relevant these days!), so I was excited to read this novel, despite it being a bit outside my wheelhouse. I always think the mark of a good writer is to convert you from something you're skeptical about or not sure you'll care about to something you really love and want to highly recommend. Rooney's done that here! Like her protagonist, she's a clever, funny, and really smart writer.  

Monday, January 9, 2017

Half Wild: Elegant Stories About Vermont

At Book Expo America (BEA) last May, I had just finished fawning over getting my book signed by Richard Russo when a publicist sort of grabbed me and asked if I was interested in a slim volume of short stories titled Half Wild by a debut writer named Robin MacArthur. Sure, why not? It was one of those heart-wrenching parts of BEA where a super-talented (as I'd soon learn), but little-known author sat at her table by herself, while all the tables around her (Russo's was directly adjacent) had long lines.

When I got home (MacArthur, by the way, couldn't have been nicer!) I looked over the stories' descriptions and MacArthur's terrific inscription on my book — "For Greg, Enjoy these wild woods, back roads" — and made a mental note that I wouldn't just set this galleys aside so it'd be lost in a pile forever, but to keep it as a TBR priority. It took seven months, but I finally got to it. Super glad I did!

I realize that was a long walk to illustrate an instance of book serendipity, but I think the way I came to these stories actually enhanced how much I liked them. And like them, I did. They're really fantastic! MacArthur explores, in precise but not-precious prose, various characters' connections to their roots in rural Vermont.

"Love Birds" is about ex-hippies who have been married 47 years, live off the grid, can't see themselves anywhere else, and love their simple life (this story is one of my favorites).

"The Heart of The Woods" is a terrific a story about a woman who marries a rich man who flips distressed residential property to commercial real estate. Her father, a logger, is greatly disappointed with her life choices.

And the last story, my favorite in the collection, "The Women Where I'm From" ties a thematic bow on the book, as it follows a young woman named Hannah who lives in Seattle, but returns to Vermont to care for her cancer-stricken mother. Hannah is surprised by the pull her childhood home has over her and tries to decide whether to stay.

These elegant stories really resonated with me. I've actually never been to Vermont, but I do have a bit of a complicated relationship with the place I grew up. And that relationship to your roots is the real theme here. The setting of the Vermont woods is sort of just a bonus - atmospheric and, to me, a bit exotic even.

If you've followed this blog for any amount of time, you'll recognize it's rare that I post about short story collections. But I loved this collection — and I think most readers will too. Very highly recommended!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Moonglow: Chabon's Glowing Tribute To His Family

Would that we could all memorialize our grandparents as well as Michael Chabon does in his new novel, Moonglow — a blend of fact, fiction, memories, and research. It's an innovative form for fiction Chabon writes here — not exactly a memoir, not exactly a novel, but with elements of both. The end result, though, is a funny, messy, heartfelt tribute to his family, and it's a terrific reading experience.

The story is based on some deathbed conversations Chabon had with his grandfather as his grandfather died of cancer in 1989. It took until recently for Chabon to develop the format he needed to tell this story — as well as one recent massive discovery (which would be a spoiler to reveal) about his grandmother that surely pulled this all together for him.

The novel includes about five main strands of the story of his grandfather's life, but like memory itself, they're not arranged chronologically (despite, amusingly, his grandfather's insistence that Chabon do so if he wrote this). These stories flit in and out of themselves in the way memories do as well — they launch from a single thought or an object, or a taste or smell. Chabon also includes his own memories of his grandfather telling him these stories — the time he wanted beer with his pills or about how he got angry when Chabon continued a particular line of questioning.

But Chabon's grandfather is the star of this show — the man led an unquestionably fascinating life. He was a World War II special agent who spent time behind enemy lines trying to track down the German V-2 rocket and its inventor, Wernher von Braun. Post-war, he married a beautiful but mentally unstable woman who had endured her own horrific hardships during the war (she's French and immigrated to the US after the war, barely surviving with her daughter — Chabon's mother). And he spent time in jail in the late 1950s for strangling his boss with a phone cord (this is the anecdote that leads off the novel, so right from the opening pages, we're on board with this guy to find out what he'll do next). Throughout his life, he was fascinated with rocketry and going to the moon — even building a model moon colony, a sort of symbol of escape from his troubled life specifically, but troubled life in general here on this planet.

Though Chabon loses a little momentum in the last 75 pages or so, and at times, his structure does make it a little hard to keep track of where we are in time and what's already happened, on the whole, this is a fulfilling and enjoyable read. Chabon is a fantastically talented writer, as I'm sure you know — and this is as good as any of his best work.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The New Dork Review 10 Best Books of 2016

Well, we've made it (almost!) through 2016, and while it was a troubling year in many respects, it was another great year in books. Here are my 10 favorites (plus a few under-the-radar hits, as well.)


10. Everybody's Fool, by Richard Russo — What a treat — indeed an absolute gift from Russo to his fans — to be able to return to North Bath and visit our friend Sully a few years after the events of Russo's fantastic 1993 novel Nobody's Fool. But this great story is really about the goofy, troubled small town cop Raymer, and his many problems. Sully's still around quite a bit, though, and this is a must-read for Russo fans (of which I am one of the biggest). 

9. Dark Matter, Blake Crouch — I liked this well enough when I finished it in September, but I sure didn't think then it'd end up on this list. But I still constantly think about how original and fun to read it was, so here it is! A trippy, time-traveling, mind-messing thriller — just a really fun, cool book. 

8. Nutshell, Ian McEwan — What a bizarre little novel! It's a retelling of Hamlet, only told from the point-of-view of a fetus. And strangely — and I know it's a leap of faith to believe me on this — it works! This is easily McEwan's best novel since Atonement

7. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead — This year's National Book Award winner is every bit as harrowing, shocking, inventive, and incredibly well-written as you've heard. If you only read one book on this list, given the current state of things, make it this one. Essential.

6. Behold The Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue — This tale of immigrant hardship really messes with your emotions. Just when you think you know who you're supposed to be rooting for in this novel, Mbue turns all expectations on their heads. But what's really great about this novel is how it shows that maybe the American Dream has become corrupted by a corrupt system, and may actually not be available to everyone anymore. A sobering conclusion, to be sure — but presented in a terrific, profound story.

5. Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett — 2016 is the year Ann Patchett moved into my top tier of favorite writers, and this book is one of the main reasons why. About how complicated family relationships can be, it's Patchett's most personal novel, and certainly among her best. This novel also includes the best first sentence and best first chapter of anything I read this year. (Tip: You don't have to do this to enjoy Commonwealth, but I'd suggest you read her fantastic, personal essay collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage before you read Commonwealth — the collection sheds a ton of light on the story she's telling in Commonwealth.)

4. Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi — Probably the most common book on everyone's "best of..." lists this year, I can't not include it. For the writing, for the commentary on race and privilege, for how it all comes together in a beautiful ending, I really loved this book.

3. A Gentleman In Moscow, by Amor Towles — This is one of the more purely pleasurable reading experiences I've had in a long time. Towles's protagonist — a Russian count sentenced to house arrest in a fancy Mosow hotel — is one for the ages. Towles' sentences and dialogue crackle with wit and humor, and there's plenty of plot to keep this story moving quickly. 

2. The Nix, by Nathan Hill — Another safe choice, yes, but this debut novel is incredible. It really is. Covering everything from politics to geeky internet gaming to entitled millennials, every sentence in this novel (including the one that spans 12 pages) is carefully crafted and nearly perfect.

1. Version Control, by Dexter Palmer — MORE PEOPLE NEED TO READ THIS NOVEL. It's such an original, fiercely smart piece of fiction — but not the least bit difficult or inaccessible. At its core, it's the story of a family in crisis. I won't say more — you just have to read this, and be surprised at all its twists and turns.


Here are a few under-the-radar novels I really loved this year, too: 

Problems, by Jade Sharma — Not for the faint of heart, this short, graphic and explicit, subtly hilarious debut novel tells the story of a hot-mess, drug-addicted woman in NYC who can't seem to get out of her own way. But amidst the mess, there are these little pieces of self-awareness and profundity that lead us to believe all may not be lost for this character.

The Infinite, by Nicholas Mainieri — A violent, gritty, atmospheric, action-packed novel, this takes place in post-Katrina New Orleans, as two teenagers — Jonah and Luz — try to make their flagging relationship work. Luz, pregnant, is sent by her undocumented immigrant father back to Mexico to live with her grandmother. Jonah decides to go "rescue" her. Along the way, both run afoul of violent Mexican drug lords. When Mainieri isn't writing pulse-pounding action scenes, he's astounding you with his description and sense of place. It's an amazingly accomplished debut novel!

Heat & Light, by Jennifer Haigh — A precise, smart, contemporary tale of a small quiet town in Pennsylvania in which loyalties begin to fray because of a big loud energy company that invades the town to sign its residents up for fracking leases. If you've seen the movie Promised Land, this is a better take on the idea presented in that movie — that greed and environmental destruction team up nicely to destroy values, neighborliness, and good manners. The best part of this novel, though, is Haigh's command of character — these are real people you feel like you know.