Evicted

evictedby Matthew Desmond
First sentence: “Jori and his cousin were cutting up, tossing snowballs at passing cars.”
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Content: It’s a work of non-fiction and Desmond doesn’t hold any punches. There is talk of drug use, swearing, and some violence. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

I’ve been meaning to read this one since it came out a few years ago, but let other things get in the way until we picked it for my in-person book group. And, just like I thought, I found it to be difficult to read and yet incredibly important at the same time.

Desmond, a professor of Social Science, moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for a year to study the effects of poverty in the inner city, particularly through the process of evictions. And what he found is sobering. He goes into a lot of detail, following both black and white renters as well as landlords over the course of the year (though I think it may be longer), but it boils down to two things: capitalism isn’t good for everyone, and it’s important to have a stable home in order to succeed in life. The first one is this: there are lot of people getting rich off the backs of poor people. Not just the landlords, who buy the property for practically nothing and then raise the rent so it’s almost more than the renters can pay. There’s also the “business” of evictions: moving companies, storage places, and so on. Not to mention the city process: there is a whole court system to deal with this (I didn’t know that). It’s insane, and a product of our ethos here in America that believes if you can’t make it on your own, then it’s your own fault.

The second part may be obvious: constant moving is hard on children and adults. It’s hard to start over when you have to move once a year (as we did when my oldest was young), but moving two, three, four times in a school year makes it impossible for kids to keep up. And it goes for adults too. Many of the people Desmond was writing about were drug addicts (their own choice, sure), but he followed a couple of them as they tried to get out, and once they had a stable home, a secure environment, in a neighborhood that supported them, they were able to turn their lives around. I found that interesting that a home — someplace a person could come to that was secure and not falling apart, where there was heat and electricity — could mean that much. I guess, since it’s always something I’ve had, I took it for granted.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book was the author’s note, where he talked about his methodology. He doesn’t have many answers, except that poor people are paying too much of their income in rent (more than 2/3 of their income! Which is why they get behind!) and that we (the government? non-profits? private corporations?) should invest in some stable housing for poor people. In our book group discussion, we talked about how Utah has dealt with the problem of homlessness. Maybe more cities/states can take note and move in that direction. Because, honestly, more good, stable housing for our poorest people is good for everyone.

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Audio book: Heartland

heartandby Sarah Smarsh
Read by the author.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some frank talk about abuse and drinking as well as a lot of swearing (including multiple f-bombs). It’s in the biography section of the bookstore, but I think a teenager might be interested in this.

This has been a big deal around the store, mostly because Smarsh grew up just outside of Wichita (and rumor has it she’s moved back here), and the places and people in it are pretty much staples in this community. But her story — the child of a teenage mom, growing up in a rural community on a family farm — belongs to much more than those of us here in Wichita. In fact, as I listened to her story — which sometimes got political, but mostly she kept personal — I heard echos of my own mother’s and grandmother’s story — married young, growing up in a small rural community, working hard their entire lives for just barely enough. It’s the story of many, many Americans.

Even so, Smarsh has one thing going for her that many poor do not: she is white. Sometimes, she acknowledges that fact, and tries to be more inclusive in her conclusions. But often, I felt like she was saying “look at me, look how poor we were, look how much I suffered, look at those scars” and I wanted to roll my eyes. Very few of us escape our childhoods without scars. And just because she grew up poor in Wichita and Kingman, doesn’t make her story exceptional.

Except she told it (and read it) well. So I have to give her that.

Moonrise

by Sarah Crossan
First sentence: “The green phone on the wall in the hall hardly ever rang.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some off-screen sex. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Ten years ago, Joe’s older brother, Ed, was imprisoned and sentenced for killing a cop. He says he didn’t do it, but that hasn’t made any difference, since they can’t really afford a good lawyer. Or one at all, really. And now Ed’s time is up, and an execution date has been set. And he wants Joe, who’s 17, to come to Texas and be with him as he faces his execution. Since Joe (and their older sister) is really all Ed’s got.

This is heartbreaking. Seriously. It’s easy to forget with Black Lives Matter (which is important!) that the problem with the U.S. justice system isn’t just race, it’s also money. Crossan picks a poor white family as her characters, one that scrapes by barely making ends meet. A mom who is plagued by drugs and alcohol, kids who aren’t the brightest in school. And it didn’t take much for the cops to intimidate and bully Ed into a “confession” which held up in a jury. It’s heartbreaking.  And the take away? If you’re poor, you’re going to end up in prison.

That said, this isn’t a book about the justice system, though that’s a part of it. It’s about forgiveness and family and decisions and choices. And it’s packs a punch. Written in verse, it’s spare but that spareness works to Crossan’s advantage in the book. There’s nothing extra in here that needs to be cut out; it’s straightforward, but told with a lot of heart.

Excellent.

(As an aside: I met her at Children’s Institute, and she’s hilarious. She also has the Irish storytelling genes, keeping us all spellbound with her stories.)

Shine

by Lauren Myracle
First sentence: “Patrick’s house was a ghost.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: This one has drug use and drinking by teenagers and a pretty graphic rape scene. It would be in the Teen (grades 9+) section of the bookstore if we had it.

Cat’s former best friend, Patrick, has been found at the local convenience mart beaten and tied up to a gas pump, left for dead. The local sheriff is calling it a hate crime, since Patrick is gay, and that it was probably some out of towners who did it. He was right about the hate crime part, but Cat’s convinced it’s someone in the small, southern town of Black Creek, North Carolina. So, she sets out to find out who, which means facing her brother’s friends and her past.

Oh, this was a hard book. It’s a mystery — sort of — but more, it’s a portrayal of what poverty and toxic masculinity can do to people. It turns them to meth, makes them suspicious of each other, makes them feel like they can just take things without any sort of consequences. There’s rape in this — and that was SUCH a difficult scene to get through — and just plain hopelessness. I think Myracle gave it a happy-ish ending in order to alleviate a lot of the general bleak feel of the novel (I certainly was expecting a different ending). I did figure out who committed the crime a little more than halfway through, and I even figured out why, but I kept reading because I wanted to see how it all would play out. Myracle did an excellent job with Cat’s character development — she went from a hurt, scared girl into a more confident one, facing down the boy who raped her and her brother’s friends for their various “boys will be boys” infractions.

It’s just a very hard read, emotionally.