Goooood morning and happy Monday! Ok the most moronic of oxymorons but I am nothing if not an eternal Pollyanna so let's try to start this week off on the right foot, shall we?
Did y'all watch The Big Game last night? What a sporting event! I thought I was just going to binge on dip and then go to bed early, but found myself totally sucked into the game. That upset! I wanted the Falcons to win, mostly because Tom Brady seems like a giant douche and I really love Donald Glover, and his TV show Atlanta, so I guess I'm like, sort of sad in this moment, but I guarantee you I will forget this game ever happened by Wednesday afternoon at the very latest.
So don't cry for me, Argentina, I'll be fine.
But I'm getting distracted. I didn't come here to talk about sports, I came to talk about books, duh. We're on month into 2017 and thus, one month into my grand Nonfiction Reading Challenge. And what a MONTH! I am so excited to share my first book pick with you - a truly unforgettable, brilliant read - along with a few other recent faves to help you stock up for those six more weeks of winter that Ol' Punxutawney Phil has bestowed upon us.
Also, I dragged my colleague away from her desk on Friday afternoon and made her me my personal pan Annie Liebovitz in an attempt to get a super cute photo of me with my books andddd this is the best I could muster:
Karlie Kloss, you're on notice.
Ok, let's gooo!
I'll ramble endlessly in just a mo, but if you don't have the time for that, here's the takeaway: this book is outstanding, urgent, harrowing, illuminating, compelling, insert more positive adjectives here, and I urge everyone to read it.
Evicted falls into a genre officially called ethnography, but I like to call it "documentary nonfiction." You know when you're watching a phenomenal documentary and it's so good, you forget it's real life? I guess the simpler way to express this would be to say the book reads like a novel, but that feels like it negates the writing, somehow, so I spice it up.
Just get to the point, Liz!
To write Evicted, MacArthur Genius and Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond embedded himself in two of Milwaukee's poorest neighborhoods for two years, in 2008-09, at the peak of the financial crisis to study first-hand the rising eviction rates incurred by the renting poor. He divvied his time between the predominantly black, "inner-city" North Side and a predomimnantly white trailer park community on the city's South Side.
His story follows an array of tenants - a single mom, a former nurse consumed by a debilitating heroin addiction, a man with no legs trying to keep his two sons (and the rest of the neighborhood boys) out of trouble, a family of eight crammed into a tiny one bedroom apartment - and two landlords, Sharenna, a self-made inner-city entrepreneur and Tobin, who manages the mobile park. Though wildly diverse in their personal struggles, all of the tenants share the same debilitating poverty, hanging on by a thread. Across America, rents are arbitrarily decided upon by private landlords and are not priced proportionally to income, so the renting poor, many unemployed or at most, underemployed, are forced to pay 60-80% of their wages to rent, leaving very little for things like clothes, food, even basic utilities. Falling behind on rent can lead to eviction, pulling apart families, sending families into a cycle of homelessness and instability that is difficult to break.
Desmond argues that housing insecurity is the linchpin of this cycle. When a person does not have stable housing, everything else is affected - their ability to hold down a job, to send their kids to a good school, to feed themselves, to build self worth. Desmond does offer some ideas on how we might address this issue via housing vouchers, income-based rents, and other initiatives, but admits it is not an easy solve and he doesn't have all the answers. Instead, he hopes these stories will bring this issue out of the shadows and encourage everyone to make housing stability a national priority.
It feels funny to say that I enjoyed reading this book - can one really enjoy reading true stories of other people struggling so viscerally - and yet, I loved this book. Desmond's writing is brilliant, portraying these people with such nuance in all of their flawed, broken, striving, beautiful truth. Their stories lingered with me each time I closed the pages, it was one of those books I'd read while walking down the sidewalk, immediately upon walking in the door, late into the evening. I still can't get it out of my head. I've begun to study NYC rental and eviction regulations (it's all so over MY head, and I have a college education and endless free time, and access to the internet and other resources to get help, I can't even imagine how confusing it must be for people who don't have the same privileges I've been so luckily granted in life) and am going to begin volunteering with a local organization here in Brooklyn that helps with eviction prevention, alongside a number of other really outstanding initiatives.
And this is only book one of (at least) twelve in my 2017 social justice nonfiction challenge! If I keep up at this rate, I'll be like, Mother Teresa by December. Again, it sounds kind of funny to say, but I am so excited to keep going in this challenge, I feel like I've already learned so much.
Recommended for: Everyone. I truly can't recommend this book strongly enough.
Editor's Note: For bookkeeping purposes (like, literally and organizationally), I've started a landing page under the HottReads tab for the 2017 Reading Challenge here, where I'll be building my list and updating with reviews each month. I'd LOVE for you to join me in any / all of the books!
Next up: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. I'd initially had The New Jim Crow planned for February, but decided I wanted to swap in this one, which looks at the great migration of Black Americans from the south to northern cities in the early to mid-20th century. I thought this would give an enlightening historical context to some of the other titles on my list - including Evicted and New Jim Crow - so figured I'd move it up on the list.
Now movin' it and shakin' it to a few other favorite recent reads.
YOU GUYS. As we all know, I read basically every buzzy psychological thriller that enters the marketplace and though I usually enjoy the reading experience, when it comes to the thrills and chills, I'm often let down. Especially when the marketing materials (ugh, publishing people, am I right, folks?) promise a big twist. "You will be shocked!" blares a cover blurb. "A twist of epic proportions!"
I gotta say, I'm rarely shocked. I'm often kind of surprised, like "huh, I didn't suspect him to be the bad guy" or creeped out or maybe breathlessly racing to find out what's what, so I'm not saying I don't enjoy these other reads, because clearly I do, but it is a raaaare book that has me gasping in disbelief. I think the last one was probably Gone Girl and if my math is correct I've read close to 760 thrillers since then, give or take. Well Clare Mackintosh ya done gone and did it, girl. I was instantly pulled into to this story which follows several lives unraveled after a young boy is killed in a hit and run and true to the press materials, there was an actual twist so shocking I yelled "OH MY GOD!" and Brian came running from the other room to see what was the matter.
I don't want to spoil anything so I'm going to zip it here, if you are a thriller fan, grab this one posthaste and email me the second you're done so we can talk about it - email@example.com. KEWL.
Recommended for: Fans of twisty thrillers like Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, Woman in Cabin 10, thriller aficionados who swear they can not be tricked, anyone looking for a fun and absorbing read to devour over a weekend or travel.
Oh look, another thriller by a British lady writer! What a fresh idea. I feel confident recommending both of these to you in the same post, as I feel equally enthusiastic and they're just different enough. Where I Let You Go is twisty and shocking, Under the Harrow is spare, tense, unnerving in its brilliant portrayal of a woman on the edge.
Nora travels from London to a small country town a few hours north, to visit her sister, Rachel, and instead finds her brutally murdered in her home. In shock, Nora is unable to return to her old life and finds herself haunting the small town Rachel lived in, slowly unraveling as she obsessively tries to solve the crime, all the while haunted herself by a violent crime that happened to Rachel years in the past. What she uncovers reveals she may not have known her sister as well as she thought - or that we might not know Nora as much as initially let on. As she falls deeper into the investigation, her motives become blurred, her sanity hazy. This again falls into that broad unreliable narrator genre but to me is one of the smartest and darkest I've read in a while. Nora's descent into obsession is chilling, I found myself at once fearing for her and just fearing her.
Bonus: this book is a slim one, at just 24 pages. The story is suspenseful enough to keep you moving no matter what, but amid piles of door stoppers it can be a real treat to read a book that tells just what it needs to and not a page more.
Recommended for: fans of smart literary suspense who are as intrigued by the inner workings of the human psyche as they are about solving a whodunit, people with sisters or close best friends who think they know everything their is to know about that other person, readers with excellent nightlights because you will not be able to put this one down.
So when I first sat down to draft this I put little one sentence descriptors of each book and the one for When Breath Becomes Air = "Dis Book So Sad."
I mean, that baaaaiscally sums it up!
But, of course, it's so much more.
Dr. Paul Kalanithi was a rising neurosurgical star in his 30's when he was diagnosed with a rare, terminal cancer. Facing the inevitable end of his young life, he began to write, telling a story that is as much a memoir of a brilliant medical life cut short, as it is a literary, lyrical meditation on mortality and morality. Paul lost his battle to cancer before finishing the book, so his widow Lucy wraps it up with a heartbreaking and intimate epilogue, reflecting on the life of her partner, and sharing the deep, raw grief she now experiences.
I had read a lot about this book when it came out last January, including this stunning essay by Lucy in the New York Times, but finding myself unable to read so much as a review without sobbing, I knew I needed to save to read until I was ready. Finally, cozied up over the holidays, I pulled from the shelf, grabbed my tissues, and dug in. And I'm so glad I did.
I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone, even if you don't consider yourself a fan of medical writing or spiritual meditations. Neither of those genres are my usual jam, but perhaps they should be, this pushed me beyond my comfort zone, both in considering ideological concepts of mortality, belief, and ambition, and in grappling with the devastating reality that his story could happen to any of us. It was hard not to think of Brian when reading Lucy's reflections on Paul.
Recommended for: uh, see above, anyone! Just be sure you have a hanky or twelve nearby.
And that'll be that, folks. What are you reading lately? Wishing you a beautiful week to come and happy reading!
xoxo Liz Hott