What it’s about: The disappearance of the middle class in America, or as the subtitle puts it: Why our families can’t afford America.
What made me pick it up: Because I saw the author was coming to our beloved book festival in a couple months. And also because I had to work for a decade after earning two degrees to even be considered mathematically middle class based on income and I know so many others struggling as much or worse than I am.
My favorite parts: The best parts are honestly the hardest to read about because affirmation of a bad situation doesn’t improve it. Wages have not really grown in 40 years for the working and middle classes of America, while wealth at the top has grown exponentially. That math is making just living untenable. College is more expensive, full time benefited work is harder to come by, and housing rates are simply unaffordable in many areas. Social safety nets are underfunded, or failing, and basic needs like universal child and healthcare and support of working parents are missing entirely. This book will spark some tough conversations about the way forward, but that will probably involve following the lead of our European neighbors and raising taxes to support our people.
Who it’s great for: Anyone working hard just to stay afloat and wondering why.
My favorite things: I learned so much about the inequalities in housing, the callousness of slum lords, and the huge impact an eviction can have on all areas of your life. Reading about how owning poor quality inner city apartment buildings is a cash cow whether your tenants stay or leave was disgusting. This book is told in stories, which makes it all the more accessible. Sure a treatise on unfair housing practices would’ve been informative, but it wouldn’t have been this visceral. You will react physically to some of the horrible living situations subjects find themselves in and with horror that we, as a society, do not help them find better. I liked all of the personal stories, even if they were heartbreaking. I appreciate the author’s ability to maintain objectivity, for the most part, but don’t think I have the stomach to do spend years watching these small personal tragedies unfold while only providing a small amount of assistance. Desmond makes a compelling argument, based on extensive research, that we could fund a voucher system that would alleviate this problem and put us on par with many other developed and even developing nations in providing a leg up to our poorest citizens if only we would reallocate some money. In short, BY NOT SPENDING ANYTHING MORE we could fix the horrible, demoralizing situations you will read about in this book. How can we do anything other?
Who it’s great for: Everyone. Especially those interested in poverty and its mysterious persistence in extremely wealthy America.
What it’s about: Being the working poor in America and the impossibilities of achieving the American dream that that presents.
What made me pick it up: I saw it recommended highly by one of my friends on Goodreads.
My favorite things: As someone who grew up relatively poor early on a lot of this was familiar and it was so nice to have someone vocalize it who wasn’t slumming for journalism or doctorate earning reasons. The profanity and giving of no fucks made me feel like I was around some individuals from my hometown in the best way. More than anything it will open eyes for how hardworking the poor are and how not enough is being done to assist them. Yes, assist them. We’re all humans. Let’s start acting like it.
Who it’s great for: Anyone living paycheck to (hopefully) paycheck who wants to feel understood and those who have the luxury not to be who want to understand.
My favorite things: While this doesn’t dip into the supernatural they way that Sing did, it still traces similar themes that I was hoping to find. Each character experiences specific manifestations of systemic racism unique to their era but undeniably tied to those of the other generations. The lines between each are clear, with the desperation escalating in younger characters. The people missing from each character’s life have almost as much of an impact on their stories as do those who are present.
Who it’s great for: Fans of family histories that trace multiple generations. Readers looking for writers telling complex stories of the African-American family; fans of Jesmyn Ward, Tayari Jones, and Angela Flournoy.
What it’s about: A modern southern gothic story set in a contemporary rural Mississippi Gulf Coast community chronicling a family’s struggles with poverty, addiction, incarceration, and the ghosts of past injustices.
What made me pick it up: I read Ward’s early novel Salvage the Bones last year and was excited to pick up her newest work.
My favorite things: Sing, Unburied, Sing is beautifully written and almost painful to read from the first page. The climax, however inevitable, left me stunned and heartbroken – but I’m here for it. The saddest parts of Ward’s stories don’t feel like cheap shots or emotional manipulation the way writing sometimes comes across. Instead, it feels honest and necessary. I love the way she seamlessly incorporates ghosts and spirits into the fabric of this family’s life.
Who it’s great for: Southern gothic readers; fans of Beloved.
What it’s about: Think Winter’s Bone meets a politician’s pre-campaign book release and that’s pretty much what you’ve got.
What made me pick it up: Let me start by saying that I’m not from Appalachia, but I grew up in a much more economically stable (read: college town) community nearby. Growing up I was acutely aware that there was a sharp economic and cultural divide between families associated with the university and those from working-class backgrounds that had been around for generations. That is to say that I am not from the community Vance is discussing, but I have lived most of my life in close proximity to another part of Appalachia and have been consistently disappointed with the way it is represented and talked down to by people who want to ‘save’ it. When I saw the rave reviews for Hillbilly Elegy I was excited to read a voice from within Appalachia speaking about it.
My favorite things: Okaaaay. I did not love this book. I probably should have read reviews a bit more closely, but I wasn’t prepared for this book to be quite so politically charged as it is. Maybe I read it this way because I am inclined to disagree with nearly all of his conclusions, but it seems to me that Vance has incredibly little compassion for the members of a community he professes to love. Vance spends the first chunk of the book singing the praises of his hillbilly Mamaw and Papaw and then subtly, and perhaps not intentionally, turns toward a much more critical discussion of the challenges faced by these communities. What I am struggling with the most is that this book is being read and celebrated as universally true for people from Appalachian communities when it is definitely not. Vance’s Appalachia is comprised of people who would rather talk about working hard than actually work hard, suffer addiction due to poor choices, and are – apparently – all white.
Abby recommends: Look, everybody seems to be reading this book right now and many are taking it as a universal truth for Appalachian life and poverty. So, definitely read this, but then read bell hooks’ poetry in Appalachian Elegy.