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 Madrick explains why current measures of poverty are woefully out of date and inaccurate.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: 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: 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.

Review: The Man They Wanted Me to Be

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Review for "The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and Forging Another Way for Men" by Jared Yates Sexton (2019)

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This book should be essential reading for all men, especially in today’s times.

In “The Man They Wanted Me to Be,” Jared Yates Sexton writes about his and his family’s experiences throughout a lifetime legacy of toxic masculinity. Much of the first section focuses on the personal experience of the author and the negative consequences of sexism and violence, which he witnessed through his abusive father. Jared, a sensitive child raised by a single mother in rural Indiana, eventually develops a tough emotional shell and becomes suicidal after years of abuse and bad role models due to his mother’s choices of men. He discusses the way in which the ‘ideal’ masculinity is essentially unattainable and not a real way of living but a lie. He also discusses the socialization of boys–the way in which parents and society train boys not to cry, to repress emotion, to hate all things ‘feminine’ and to express themselves through physicality and violence. The second section is about Jared’s relationship with his father and how they eventually reconcile after years of estrangement.

The third and the last section concerns itself with the ways in which toxic masculinity has given rise of the alt-right and the election of the current president. It is focused squarely on White men, who, let’s face it, need to do better. He discusses the toxic culture in this group that wraps itself in privilege and white supremacist ideas, in addition to sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic views against ‘them’ (namely minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals, and immigrants).

The only thing I wished this book would have touched on more is how sexism traps men of color as well as queer men. However, I realize that that discussion is a completely different animal. Although we’re still talking about bad masculinity, we know that there’s history, race, class, and other socioeconomic factors that change the flavor of the topic. I would like to read Sexton’s opinions on other aspects of this conversation, however.

Definitely do pick up this book. While I would not describe anything in here as particularly new or shocking, it is necessary reading to begin to undo much of the damage due to toxic masculinity.

Review: We Speak for Ourselves

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Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Review for "We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America" by D. Watkins (2019)

As with “The Cook Up” and “The Beast Side,” D. Watkins continues to share his account of growing up in an impoverished Black community in East Baltimore. The message behind his book is simple: in today’s age, poor Black people do not want or need to spoken for by White liberals or Black middle and upper class intellectuals. Watkins occupies a unique position in that he can easily maneuver among top thought leaders on CNN and the academic crowd, yet he’s hood at the core, never quite too far gone from the steps of his East Baltimore rowhouse. He writes about his days as a drug dealer with the same familiarity as the school to prison pipeline.

Here, he breaks down a lot of things that he wishes the world knew about Black culture: why poor people will always hate the cops, the reasons why education in urban areas will never be equal to the suburbs, etc. I gave this three stars because although it’s good writing and the message is clear for the audience he’s intending to reach, I found this book a bit too plain for me. Perhaps it’s because I’m not the intended audience–I’m pretty well versed in the issues he’s speaking of. Still, I don’t want to rate this too low because I like this book as well as the purpose behind it. I follow D. Watkins on social media and I’ll always support his efforts.

Review: Heroine

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Review for "Heroine" by Mindy McGiniss (2019)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book will crush your soul. I definitely recommend a trigger warning if you’re not in a good place emotionally or mentally. This book does contain scenes of drug use, particularly opioids.

Mickey Catalan is a star catcher on her high school softball team. After a devastating car accident leaves her with a hip injury, she is prescribed the painkiller Oxycontin. Not only do the pills take away the pain, they make her feel good. She begins to take them more and more often, until her supply dries up. She then finds an illegal source who sells her Oxy, and along with a group of friends who also use and offer her friendship and acceptance. As pressure for Mickey to stay in top athletic form continues, her dependence on Oxy spirals out of control. Her supply dries up and she eventually turns to shooting heroin.

Before I started this book, I was afraid it would fall into the all-too-common trap of romanticizing drug use. While the highs of opioids are described here, it’s equally balanced with scenes of the gut-wrenching lows of withdrawal. Mickey’s POV is first person, so we follow her as she spirals more and more into addiction. It’s really well written, there’s a devastating energy here that hits really hard and doesn’t stop until the end.

I only give this book 4 stars because it’s so raw I would never read it again.

Review: A Good Kind of Trouble

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“A Good Kind of Trouble” is about a young Black girl named Shayla navigating through typical middle school struggles: boys, school dances, friendships, teachers. Her older sister is an activist and involved with a local chapter of Black Lives Matter but Shayla steers clear, not wanting to risk getting in what she perceives as ‘trouble.’ However, when the police shoot an unarmed Black man near her neighborhood, Shayla decides to take a stand for what she believes and takes on more ‘trouble’ than she bargained for.

I liked this book. I would call it the younger sister of “The Hate U Give” with a similar theme and main characters, but aimed at younger readers. The major difference in the two is that this book expressly mentions Black Lives Matter by name, while THUG doesn’t (THUG’s connection to BLM is assumed, however). Therefore, the explicit naming of Black Lives Matter here is notable. The police violence stayed mostly in the background of the novel as an ongoing trial, and while it’s not the primary plot it’s pretty clear that this is the reason why Shayla speaks out. I would have liked a more direct connection to this plot point, but perhaps indirectly is the best way to expose this topic to younger readers without making this book TOO heavy.

I also appreciated how this book respected struggles that are distinct to youth of color, i.e., the pressure to conform to racialized norms. Shayla’s best friends in the book are Asian and Latinx, however, it’s only in the 7th grade that she begins to receive pushback from Black peers about “acting White.” I enjoy the way the book grapples with the idea of being Black beyond stereotypes and encourages kids of color to be themselves.

Great book about a complex and nuanced topic without being preachy or sad.