Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Evicted : Poverty And Profit In The American City / Matthew Desmond

Matthew Desmond convincingly argues in Evicted that policy makers have overlooked a major cause of poverty in this country – the high cost of rental housing in cities across America. In this ethnographic study, he follows eight families/individuals in Milwaukee, showing how they struggle (and often fail) to keep a roof above their heads. Desmond interweaves the narratives of individuals living in a trailer park on the fringes of the city’s south side with those of tenants on the poverty-ridden north side. Both have become areas where the economically disadvantaged are usually restricted to when seeking housing.

As he shows, this is not because the rental properties in these areas are more affordable; it turns out to be just the opposite. Housing is typically expensive, and yet, worse still, barely habitable. So why do the people Desmond follows in this study live where they do? It is because they have no other choice. Due to poor credit history, being branded with past evictions, and landlords’s racial bias, they are turned away from affordable and more desirable rentals in better parts of the city.

This means that those living below or near the poverty line end up spending at least half of their income on rent alone. To put this into context, the average American is encouraged to set aside 30% of their income to cover housing costs. For the individuals in this study, it is an expense they cannot hope to cover. Any kind of emergency, such as job loss or illness, results in falling behind on their rent as they try to keep the heat on and their families fed. This leads to eviction notices from landlords, which sends these individuals, many with young children, into a mad scramble to find another place to live. Most are forced to move deeper into the ghetto to find a place to live, even if it means accepting a place that lacks a stove, proper plumbing, or is cockroach infested.

The people portrayed here are often their own worst enemies. Desmond does not try to put makeup on them. They often foolishly spend what money they have, are single parents with numerous children, and a good many abuse drugs or are engaged in prostitution to make ends meet. Yet Desmond’s descriptions of their lives also highlight their dignity and generosity. Most of them give money they cannot afford to lose to help friends and family in desperate straits. Although Evicted portrays flawed individuals, by showing their struggles, along with their hopes and dreams, Desmond is nonjudgmental and wins the reader’s sympathy for their plight.

This study, clearly presented and supported by documented facts, goes a long way in outlining the need for affordable housing in this country. In his epilogue, Desmond does offer some workable solutions to the problem. All are common sense and worthy of consideration. But what Evicted does best is to present the cause and effect of this housing issue, putting a human face on a topic most of us would rather ignore or simply place the blame on the poor themselves. The author’s masterful research and writing elevates the issue into one of a basic right. Along with adequate health care for all, affordable and fair housing ranks as a major issue our country must soon address if we are to overcome the poverty problem in America. No matter where one falls on the political spectrum, this is a book that persuades that our country needs to step back and reconsider the issue with fresh eyes.

Valiant Ambition : George Washington, Benedict Arnold And The Fate Of The American Revolution / Nathaniel Philbrick

As a child in school, I learned in history class of the treasonous acts of Benedict Arnold during the American Revolution. He was presented as the blackest of villains who betrayed both friends and country. What those school history books failed to supply was the backstory that explained the events that led Arnold to commit treason. In this engaging read, Philbrick presents “the rest of the story.”

In the early days of the war, Arnold was a devoted patriot, someone who rose quickly through the ranks of the Continental Army to become a general who could lay claim to saving the young country from ruin. In several key battles, it was his leadership that led to the British being turned back when they attempted to invade New York from Canada. In the second battle, Arnold was severely wounded and nearly lost a leg. While an inspiring leader, he was often “prickly and hotheaded” in his dealings with authority figures, leading him to run afoul of the Continental Congress. Even though he had lost his family fortune and good health in the cause of freedom, it refused him reimbursement or further career advancement.

While Arnold experienced early successes as a general, George Washington in the first years of the war made a number of mistakes that almost led to the British crushing the rebellion. His saving grace was his ability to learn from his mistakes. Unlike Arnold, prone to recklessness, Washington realized the importance of outlasting the British rather than risking everything in one roll of the dice. Yet despite their differences in how to conduct the war, Washington held Arnold in high regard and did all in his power to assist him to win promotions and recompense.

As Philbrick shows, the British Army and the Loyalists were not the only stumbling blocks facing Washington’s ragged army. The “radical Constitutionalists” in the Continental Congress also did their best to derail the war efforts. They proved unable to find a way to adequately fund the military campaign. More interested in protecting their own state interests than the fate of the nation as a whole, members bickered about states’ rights rather than loosening the purse strings. Even though there was a clear need to raise taxes to insure an American victory, they were loath to do so. (Sound familiar? Some things never change in this country.)

Several things led to Arnold’s decision to betray the American cause. Money was a major problem for him. Having married the daughter of a rich businessman, he needed funds to bestow a settlement on her and find a means to support their upper class lifestyle. At the same time, as the military governor of Philadelphia, he was being hounded by the president of Pennsylvania’s Executive Council who was determined to bring him to trial for corruption. While Arnold’s greed and self-interest played a part in his betrayal, persecution by supposed allies led him to believe that he was the one who had first been betrayed by his country.

In 1780, George Washington put Arnold in charge of West Point, an American fort on the Hudson River in New York. Arnold had lobbied for the position, already determined to hand it over to the British for the promise of money and a high rank in the British army. And he nearly succeeded, as the final chapters of this book show. Ironically, once it was revealed, his treasonous act served to supply Washington with the funds his army so desperately needed. Benedict Arnold became the “despised villain” who helped to unite a divided country and caused the radical Constitutionalists to lose control of the Continental Congress.

For those who want to have a better understanding of this period in American history, Valiant Ambition will entertain even as it educates by telling “the rest of the story.”

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao / Junot Diaz

While Oscar De León, an overweight young Dominican man growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, might dominate this novel’s spotlight, he is not the story’s primary character. The author, Junot Diaz, uses Oscar and the history of his ill-fated family to show what life was like in the Dominican Republic under the long, brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo.

Oscar De León, nicknamed Oscar Wao (a bastardization of Oscar Wilde), is the ultimate nerd. Obsessed with science fiction, comic books, and writing fantasy stories, his childhood is a lonely one. As he grows older, he falls in love with a number of women, but for the most part he is too shy to approach any of them. His greatest fear is that he will die a virgin. Surprisingly, Oscar makes the perfect vehicle for the author to tell the greater story of the Dominican Republic’s sad story. Through flashbacks that introduce his grandparents, mother, and other members of the family, the reader is provided with details surrounding the cruel reign of Trujillo (nicknamed El Jefe), the country’s ruler from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Oscar’s forebears dared to defy Trujillo and suffered serious consequences – his family was branded with a fuku, essentially a curse, for generations to come.

The story’s narrator for most of the book is Yunior, a friend of Oscar’s and someone who is in love with his sister Lola. Yunior’s narration swings back and forth from Caribbean vernacular, often profane, to a more academic tone, complete with footnotes. Sprinkled throughout are references to Lord Of The Rings, which creatively compare Trujillo’s rule to the Dark Lord Sauron. Yunior’s interesting asides provide the historical details that show the true horrors that Trujillo and his band of thugs inflicted on the country.

When this novel was first published in 2007, despite receiving glowing reviews, I decided to give it a pass. I thought it fell into the genre of magical realism, a type of fiction that I’ve not been particularly drawn to. I found that, while it does include elements of magical realism, it is better described as a tragicomedy. It is the rare novel that succeeds in telling a personal story which illustrates the history of an entire country. Without a doubt, The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao will be on my favorite reads list for 2017.

Middlemarch / George Eliot

Middlemarch, published in 1871, is considered by many to be among the top English novels of all time. Set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch, the novel covers the events taking place during the time period of 1829 to 1832. It features a large cast of characters, enough so that it is advised to have a list on hand to keep track of them all. The primary issue that Eliot addresses in this novel is the status of women in society, and the relationship between husbands and wives. But numerous topics are also touched upon, including the political concerns of the time, religion, and the insular aspects of provincial life.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading Middlemarch, she referred to it as a forerunner of Peyton Place. And indeed, it does delve into the intrigues of small town life and the scandals that can often sweep through the community’s gossip network. Three couples serve as the book’s centerpiece. There is Dorothea Brooke, an intelligent and wealthy widow, and her growing relationship with Will Ladislaw, a younger relative of her deceased husband. Tertius Lydgate, an idealist physician, marries Rosamond Vincy, a beautiful but vain young woman intent on keeping her status in Middlemarch’s high society despite her husband’s growing debt. And there is Fred Vincy, Rosamond’s brother, who is struggling to find a suitable career, and Mary Garth, a woman from a lower class who has captured his heart. Plain and practical, she and her family rescue him from the excesses of his privileged life and help to set him on a path to a better life.

Diving into Middlemarch, at first I found the book’s density of detail to be overwhelming. It is not a story one can race through. And its length is daunting as well. I found that all I could read in one sitting was ten pages before reaching overload. Eliot’s description of life in a small town seems to leave no stone unturned, as a parade of characters pass in and out of the story. Patience is required on the part of the reader as the plot unfolds. The reward for wading through such thoroughness is to get a full understanding of the place and time she is describing.

I am not sure I myself would rank this novel as one of the top English novels of all time, but Eliot has certainly written a book that stands a good chance of being read for many generations still to come. Thanks to her writing skills, Middlemarch becomes a living entity to the “fly on the wall” reader. While the story’s wrap-up has a “happily ever after” feel, it remains a frank account of the difficulties of married life, small town life, and how dreams often come true in unexpected ways.

The Blazing World / Siri Hustvedt

The Blazing World is an ingeniously constructed piece of fiction. It is presented as a posthumous sampler featuring excerpts from the diaries of Harriet (“Harry”) Burden, an artist who created dazzling (and often frightening) multimedia installations from the 1970s to her death in 2004. The sampler also features critical reviews of her work and interviews with her family, friends, and collaborators.

Harriet is an amazing character, a flawed protagonist filled with rage, an intense creative energy, and a neediness to have her artistic endeavors acknowledged and acclaimed. In her fifties, she comes to believe that the reason that her work has been dropped from galleries is because of her sex and age. To prove her hypothesis, she decides to produce a series of installations for which she enlists men to present as their own work.

Over the course of five years, from 1998 to 2003, Harriet then creates three pieces (“The History of Western Art,” “The Suffocation Rooms,” and “Beneath”), each of which she attributes to a different male artist. The first two installations do garner critical approval, but it is the third that proves to be a huge success, both commercially and critically. The piece’s advertised creator is a 24-year-old artist, a hunk who looks great and thrives in the public eye. When Harriet, using an alias (presenting herself as a male reviewer), “outs” herself as the true author of the work, angry reviewers and gallery owners refuse to believe her… and the young male artist dismisses her claim as well.

Harriet Burden is a woman who is often loud, who lectures and can come across as too aggressive. But she also has a big heart, over the years sheltering a number of street people in her own home. At 6-foot-2, she is a towering presence, prone to explosive rage when it comes to the critical indifference to her art. It is only after subordinating her own ambitions as the “perfect” daughter, wife, and mother that Harriet begins to truly turn into “Harry”. She even claims that her works take on a different quality when she creates the piece impersonating a man.

In this novel Harriet Burden wears many masks, and the glimpses into her diaries reveal a complex personality, obviously creative and intellectual, but also often crippled by self-doubt despite her aggressive public persona. The Blazing World is a dazzling read, one that touches upon numerous subjects, including art history, philosophy, and even neurobiology. It is a novel that engages both the mind and the heart. The book’s title is well-chosen, for this story does blaze with the energy that creativity generates.

Did You Ever Have A Family / Bill Clegg

On the morning of her daughter’s wedding, June Reid’s life disappears in a sudden flash. A gas explosion in her home takes the lives of her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé, June’s ex-husband, and Luke, her much younger boyfriend. June survives only because she happens to be outside when the explosion takes place. Unable to face the smoldering ruins of this tragedy, she flees her small Connecticut town to a roadside motel on the Pacific, where she withdraws into the room’s shell, cut off from almost all human contact.

While the gas explosion is never actually described, the events leading up to it and the ripple effect it causes are fully explored. June herself only appears in a handful of the book’s chapters. Instead of making her the story’s focus, Clegg broadens the canvas to show how this tragedy changed the lives of people who knew and loved those killed on that wedding day. This includes the parents of the fiancé, friends and neighbors, and the mother of Luke, June’s boyfriend. For me, Lydia Morey, Luke’s mother, proves to be this novel’s most interesting character. She is also the thread that unites the separate lives presented, and ultimately she becomes the knot of the story’s conclusion.

This is by no means a great novel. Clegg’s writing style is plain and direct. He lets his characters speak in their own vernacular, stripped of all poetic embellishment. Nonetheless, he succeeds in creating a community that rings true on the page by fully providing his characters’ complicated pasts. Detailing a small town’s secrets and whispers, he sympathetically weaves a tale of tragedy into one that concludes with hope and forgiveness rising like a phoenix from the ashes. In doing so, Did You Ever Have A Family proves to be a book difficult to set down.

Crucible Of War : The Seven Years’ War And The Fate Of Empire In British North America, 1754-1766

Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War is an exhaustive (and at times exhausting) account of the British and French battles in North America during the Seven Years’ War, which lasted from 1756 to 1763. This international war is better known here in America as the French and Indian War. Anderson’s purpose in this book is to show that the war played a major part in planting the seed and informing the American Revolution a decade later. Not only did it alter the relationship between the French, the English, and the Native American allies of those two warring parties, but more importantly, it caused a rift between the colonists and their mother country that would quickly widen in the years following England’s expulsion of the French from North America.

Before the Seven Years’ War, the British government had maintained a hands-off approach to the American Colonies, allowing them largely to run themselves. However, with the outbreak of war with France, the British leadership decided to focus on militarily defeating the French in North America. As Anderson ably proves, they succeeded only when, after a rocky start, they began to treat the American colonists as allies rather than subjects. Almost all of the Colonies were able to raise large armies that were crucial in aiding the British military. So too were the various Native Indian tribes who switched their allegiances to fight against the French.

While Britain emerged as an imperial power following the Seven Years’ War, the government was heavily in debt, having also helped to subsidize the armies of Frederick the Great of Prussia to engage the French on the Continent during the long years of war. In need of cash, the king and Parliament thought it only fair that the colonists should help to foot the expense of the war. The Americans thought otherwise. While the taxes were not particularly burdensome, the Colonies rose up in violent protest against their implementation. When it became clear to the British government that they could not enforce the legislation, the measures were quickly repealed. Despite this, their efforts at tougher governance had already caused the rise of new political parties in the Colonies, all intent on maintaining their right to control local affairs.

Also addressed in the book are the Indian Wars that erupted in the Ohio Valley region between the Native Americans and the colonists following the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War. Settlers were rapidly beginning to encroach upon land granted to the tribes in treaties. The British government tried to stop the rampant land speculation, but only succeeded in causing the colonists to become more defiant and unruly. The frontier was just too tempting a morsel for those Americans (including George Washington) who saw the area as a get-rich scheme by stealing fertile Indian land to sell to settlers desperate for acreage. The war proved a bloody one, and while atrocities occurred on both sides, the colonists were clearly the invading force. Sadly, our forefathers had no qualms in ignoring treaties and the rights of the Native Indians.

The Seven Years’ War is often overlooked in the annals of American history and certainly unappreciated for the part it played in the American Revolution. Crucible of War masterfully recreates the time period and demonstrates the War’s importance in helping to steer the Colonies toward unity and independence from Great Britain. It is not an easy read, but certainly a rewarding one for anyone seeking a better understanding of this pivotal moment in our country’s history.

As a side note, this book reveals that the current politically conservative opposition against taxation has long roots going all the way back to the Colonial period. At times when reading Crucible of War, seeing how greedy the colonists could be, I could not help but feel some sympathy for the British government’s perspective back in the 1760s, trying to keep such a rowdy, ungrateful lot in line.