Review: Invisible Americans

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Review for "Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Poverty" by Jeff Madrick (2020)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Throughout this book, Jeff Madrick, an economist, proposes that the solution to the very complex problem of child poverty is to give children and their families cash. While I am not going to go into why I completely disagree that we cannot simply throw a monthly cash allowance at a problem that is very much rooted in the history of racism, discrimination, and just plain bad government policy, I will critique the book itself.

Many of the arguments presented in this book are very compelling. Madrick explains why current measures of poverty are woefully out of date and inaccurate. He discusses the flawed political underpinnings of the notion of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, as well as an extensive attack of the idea of the “culture of poverty” which often position Black and Latinx communities as hopeless victims instead of people who desire to lift their circumstances.

Despite all of these “right on target” themes, I must admit that this book is very dense and not very accessible to the masses. There are lots of statistics, heavy handed explanations, and acronyms that are intended more for policymakers than the typical curious reader who may stumble onto this book. While Madrick does present a compelling case for why child poverty is a moral failing and its devastating consequences, I would have liked to see this book’s language a lot more readable for the masses.

Review: Year of the Monkey

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Review for "Year of the Monkey" by Patti Smith (2019)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Ahh, first review for 2020. Happy New Year!

I hate to start the decade with a bad review, but you know I gotta be honest and say that nah, I didn’t like this one. I love Patti Smith and I loved her other memoir, “Just Kids,” about her and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s coming of age as artists in NYC in the 70’s and 80’s. This book, however, is different. “Year of the Monkey” really is a book about nothing much at all.

Lemme back up for a moment. It’s perfectly fine for a book to be about nothing at all. The one author off the top of my head who’s perfected this technique is Haruki Murakami–if you pick up any one of his books you’ll find pages and pages of character observations and thoughts that seemingly go nowhere, but it somehow manages to keep me reading. Smith is not Murakami, however. I wanted to like this book but it wasn’t what I imagined it would be. Here, Patti Smith recounts 2016 through a series of photographs, dreams, travels, meals in dingy diners, etc. There’s also a lot of really vague references to other writers, musicians, and history events I have no previous knowledge of which left me out in the lurch. The events of this book are more like a fever dream and it’s obvious that Smith is trying to weave together dreams and reality into a narrative but for me what was real and what wasn’t was just too confusing.

I am thankful that this book was short. Although I will read Patti Smith again, I would not read this book again.

Review: The Witches Are Coming

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Review for "The Witches Are Coming" by Lindy West (2019)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

First of all, lemme say that I like Lindy West. She’s one of the few women writers that seems to get “it”–and when I say “it,” I am talking about the interconnectedness of the systems of oppression that encapsulate gender, race, class, and body type. I thought her first book was alright, though at times her tone completely put me at a distance. Why did Shrill feel like I was reading a series of long, continuous blog posts by a bitchy teenager? There’s nothing wrong with humor with a fair dose of snark, but I found West’s constant attempts at a punchline really off-putting.

“The Witches Are Coming” is slightly better than “Shrill,” but not by much. It’s not so much the snark here (though there’s much less in this book), but the content itself. And while I did agree with what she’s saying, I just found a lot of the subject matter kinda boring. By that I mean that there were definitely some essays I liked more than others, like why Adam Sandler is so popular (his movies have never really been all that funny to me either). The Goop one is also quite hilarious because it’s so ridiculous (yoni eggs and aura baths–yay!).

But the boring ones were just not my style–at all. I skipped over the ones about the Fyre Festival (there’s been 2 documentaries on this already and we don’t care anymore), Joan Rivers (never been into her style of humor; don’t care), and Ted Bundy (there’s a Netflix series on this; who cares?). I also found myself skipping a few others because they weren’t very interesting. Overall, this book was very uneven and just ok for me.

3.5 stars. Blah.

Review: Dignity

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Review for "Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America" by Chris Arnade (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Several years ago, physicist and Wall Street trader Chris Arnade decides to leave his cushy life and visit the working class neighborhood of Hunts Point, deep in the NYC borough of the Bronx. He builds up a relationship with the residents there, listening to their stories and taking pictures of them living, working, doing and selling drugs, and engaging in sex work. Arnade eventually develops a relationship with the people of Hunts Point, and after documenting their stories, decided that he wanted to know more about similar communities across America and the people living in them, areas with no jobs and mostly forgotten by public policies.

“Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America” is one man’s journey into poor, working class life in America. He visits large cities and smaller towns: Bakersfield, California; Portsmouth, Kentucky; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cairo, Illinois; Gary, Indiana. Arnade shares what he learns in photographs and in themed essays about topics such as racism, drugs, religion, coping.

On one hand I admire the author’s attempt at honest investigation, as well as his decision as a member of America’s “front row” to try to understand “back row” poor people. But on the other hand I’m not so sure about this book or its approach. For one, he seems to lack the knowledge to help him fully understand what he sees. While I appreciate that the author never judges or condemns the people he writes about (many of which use drugs, engage in sex work, and other criminal behaviors), this book worked best when he let the photos talk and he didn’t try to explain or analyze their lives.

This necessary ‘silence,’ of course, doesn’t happen here. All over this book are the author’s explanations and suggested reasonings for why and what he’s encountering in the lives of the people he meets. He offers no sociological or psychological support for his analyses or larger discussion into the the failure of ‘trickle-down’ economics, there’s no study or graphs to support any of his viewpoints. And while I’m not criticizing him for injecting his bias into a book such as this, I am criticizing the lack of evidence to back it up.

This isn’t a bad book, however. I definitely encourage people to read it, if for nothing else then to remind those in the “front row” of those who live completely parallel lives.

Review: Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly

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Review for "Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly" by Jim DeRogatis (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ok so I read this. It isn’t a happy read, nor is it something that I would recommend by shouting to all while standing at the corner of two streets during rush hour. However, this book is necessary reading, particularly if you know anything about Robert Kelly, a.k.a R. Kelly, the notorious R&B star with a string of music hits from the 90’s and early 2000’s who has been in the news and in court for sexually abusing women, mostly his young Black female fans.

This book starts at the beginning, with R Kelly’s childhood, his high school years, and his subsequent appearance on the R&B scene as the front man of the group The Public Announcement. It details his marriage to a 15-year-old singer Aaliyah (he was 27 at the time) and how it was downplayed by pretty much everyone (the record company, her family, his reps, etc). The book continues with interviews from many of R Kelly’s victims detailing his physical and sexual abuse, his continued fame, and yes, the infamous video. There is also detailed analysis of his first trial in 2001 over the contents of that videotape, in which Kelly filmed himself raping an underaged girl. Last, there’s details of what has been labeled as his “sex cult,” a group of young women who currently live and travel with him and he supposedly refuses to let contact their families. After over 20 years and 200 pages, you notice a pattern: many blinded eyes, an abundance of willful ignorance, and epic fails at every level. It’s sickening.

I found this book to be well written and researched. Jim DeRogatis, a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, has been following R. Kelly’s case as it has unfolded for the last 20 years. He was the one who received the infamous tape at his news desk. He was also the one who first interviewed several of R Kelly’s victims, years before anyone took any of the abuse allegations seriously. Information on the case was up-to-date, timely, and relevant, with the latest information on R Kelly’s case as of spring 2019.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone, especially R Kelly’s fans. Despite the OVERWHELMING evidence of his guilt, I imagine that even 100 books on this subject could not convince them otherwise. But to those who believe his victims and want to see justice for them, this book is all you need

Review: No Visible Bruises

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Review for "No Visible Bruises: What We Don't Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us" by Rachel Louise Snyder

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

There’s not many books that do a decent job of discussing a very complex social issue. This book does an excellent job of not only breaking down the many facets of domestic violence, but providing ways that society could be doing a better job to combat it.

The statistics on domestic violence are staggering. I won’t repeat them here, other than to say that domestic violence (i.e., intimate partner violence, intimate terrorism, etc) truly touches every race, class, income level, gender, sexual orientation, and age group. It also impacts other social issues–homelessness, income inequality, mass incarceration, substance abuse, immigration, mental health. Snyder talks about how domestic violence is often linked to many of the mass shootings in today’s news. What do the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting and the Orlando nightclub attack have in common? Both began first in the homes of the offenders as domestic violence.

“No Visible Bruises” also talks about how many of the responses that society has for domestic violence are woefully inadequate. People still look upon the victims of domestic violence and blame them for their victimization, asking why they didn’t leave first. Police are no better, looking for ‘visible’ bruises when they respond to a DM call, when many forms of violence may or may not leave physical marks. Battered women’s shelters do offer a temporary solution to the problem, but often leave a woman and her children homeless in the long run, which may ultimately lead them back to an abuser.

There is also a lengthy chapter in this book dedicated to a program that attempts to change men’s abusive behavior. One of the hallmarks of domestic violence apologists is that abusers cannot be reformed. Snyder shows that with the right therapy and support, they can. And they do.

I cannot recommend this book enough. Please read it to gain insight into a very complex problem.

Review: The Love Prison Made and Unmade

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Review for "The Love Prison Made and Unmade" by Ebony Roberts (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Curiosity drove me to this book, particularly after reading the author’s former partner, Shaka Senghor’s book “Writing My Wrongs.” From Senghor, we learn the story of a troubled young Black man growing up in inner city Detroit in the 1980’s, eventually becoming a drug dealer to earn a living. At barely 19 years old, he turns to violence and ends up on the criminal end of a murder case. For his crime, Senghor earns himself a lengthy prison sentence. While on the inside, he begins to correspond with a brilliant young scholar by the name of Ebony. They fall in love through letters and visits, and continue their relationship for several years after Senghor is released.

“The Love that Prison Made” is Ebony’s side of the story, beginning from her childhood. After witnessing domestic abuse in her childhood, she tells her narrative of meeting Senghor behind bars and falling in love with him. The narrative continues after he is released, when all doesn’t go as planned and the couple is confronted with cold realities and real problems.

I really liked this. There is a lot of focus on the couple’s courtship through letters, which makes up most of this book. Although Senghor is not released until about 75% in, you immediately know early on that this pair is not going to make it. Although she is careful not to generalize about the fate of all prison relationships, I appreciate Ms. Roberts’ choice to be transparent about why her prison romance failed. All too often we hear about the ‘happily ever after’ and the happy couple life of inmates and persons on the outside. What about the people who do the same and it doesn’t work out perfectly? Hmm.

This story is also important from a social justice perspective. Due to the mass incarceration rates of Black people, the question becomes one of how to interact with these men and women. Large numbers of the prison population will eventually get out one day, and not only will they need employment and support, they will seek emotional attachments as well. What is to be expected? What is inevitable? These are questions to consider.

Four solid stars.