$2.00 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (Edin and Shaefer)

Staggering. The number of people who have to live on $2/day or less for a long period of time or, perhaps still worse, for a while, then not, then again. The remarkable resilience of these families, the astonishing bureaucracy and blame, the generational poverty. . . People have on-call jobs. You have to be ready to work, but aren’t guaranteed a shift, and are not paid for being on call. That’s crazy. And, apparently, real.

This is an eye-opening books, kaleidoscoping between families and policy and the families are clearly losing. And every step they take, even the ones that reflect the best intentions, tend to put them more and more in harms way.

Our nation’s shame.

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The Feminine Mystique (Friedan)

For as long as I’ve been wondering what’s inside this book, I’ve been postponing the actual reading of it. I’m not sure why. Perhaps some certainly that I simply wouldn’t get it. Or some fear that it would just be a screed. Perhaps it is current events that prompted me to finally find out for myself.

It turns out that I was as wrong about my reaction to the book as I was about my assumptions about the title. (I thought the ‘mystique’ would have to be a good thing.) As I read, I was absolutely stunned by the way society (read: males and, as tends to happen in cases like this, some females) developed and reinforced the malicious and self-serving myth of female inferiority. Because it’s my field, I was particularly appalled by the kinds of college classes that were once offered, developed, in part, because of a slavish subservience to Freud.

It seems as obvious as it is true to say that much of the mechanism Friedan describes is still in place today. That Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination is progress. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is progress. The fact that two female students of mine were excited about the prospect of being able to form a student club. They were busy putting together their proposal. Finally, they were ready to bring it to me for a signature. The name of their club: Fashion & Beauty. Now, there’s nothing wrong with such a club, but it’s not progress.

Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary (Jackson)

What a remarkably layered biography of a man who comes across as incredibly complex and perhaps not ever very or truly knowable. I’ve had a copy of Black Elk Speaks on my shelf for a while, but I’ve never really thought I was ready to approach it. I think I am now. Black Elk’s collaboration with John Niehardt by no means dominates this book; instead, it adds still more layers. After all of the steps of translation and editing, whose story is it?

Black Elk’s life intersected with so much history, both American and First American – even European, he definitely merited an excellent biography and this is definitely it. Jackson’s prose is well-paced and his research drives the narrative, but never overwhelms it.

And the reader adds another layer here. What, I wondered, do I believe about all of this? Then again, what do I really know about it? Jackson definitely seems to admire Black Elk, and I land in that same place too. Whether he was using others or being used, whether he was a success or failure, his persistence, his passion for trying to negotiate a world (for himself and for his tribe) that was changing so rapidly deserves a great deal of respect. Jackson definitely gives him that. And he definitely gave me a lot to consider.

Democratizing Cleveland: The Rise and Fall of Community Organizing in Cleveland, Ohio 1975-1985 (Cunningham)

I was struck first by the time period covered here. Everyone writes about the 60s; here was something new. Mari A. Schaefer’s cover photo is magnificent – a woman with a rapturous look on her face holding a bullhorn. That, to borrow a phrase, used to be us, so sayeth Mr. Cunningham. There was a window of time, a decade in the same way we (wrongly) speak of the 60s as a decade, in which an alphabet soup of local organizations flourished in Cleveland with religious and financial institutional support. Then, as things do, it all fell apart. The diagnoses are many, but one thought kept coming to me – the practice of putting profits before people again and again and again. As Cunningham points out, the organizers and their patrons were no saints; nor were their methods flawless. Too much dependence on outside funding, too much in-fighting, too much dependence on individual personalities. Still, there seems to have been a remarkable passion for a time, a belief that showing up mattered. Cunningham lands heavily on the Reagan era as the beginning of the end, the triumph of the private individual over the common good. The real missed opportunity seems to have been the Kucinich administration. The timing that had previous efforts possible and, at times, successful, was already showing signs of strain, and the Kucinich administration which could have been a catalyst for this kind of work was undermined by its own members and from those on the outside who smelled blood in the water. There’s a lot to learn here.

Ballots and Bullets: Black Power Politics and Urban Guerrilla Warfare in 1968 Cleveland (Robenalt)

Perhaps I just don’t understand what an historian is supposed to do. Robenalt tells a story here, but there’s no particular narrative drive. Despite apparent access to a remarkable range of sources, Robenalt adds little by way of analysis or even a framework to the events he recounts here. For long stretches, the book reads like the kind of summary (extended quotations with few contributions from the author) that we are taught to avoid in high school. Sporadically, Robenalt’s diction makes his bias clear, but that diction comes off more as name calling than insightful.

The man has clearly done his homework. If you’re reading for information, this book will serve you pretty well. If you’re reading for analysis or insight or perspective, well, not so much.

Tunnel to Hell (MacGregor and Dumm)

This graphic account of the 1916 Lake Erie tunnel disasters is a compelling way to tell an important and all-too-familiar story. Politicians, pressed for time and money, prey on the desperate circumstances of non-white populations (which at this time not only meant African-Americans, but also Irish, etc.) to undertake a dangerous job that reflects the kind of short-term thinking that made the dangerous job necessary in the first place. It is a prime environmental example of kicking the proverbial can down the road that we’re paying for today. Rather than cleaning up the polluted water on the surface, a decision is made to use lives viewed as expendable (i.e., largely immigrants) to dig tunnels under Lake Erie to provide water for Cleveland’s growing population. Thanks to the greed and selfishness of some (which is not just limited to politicians), the effort ends in 20 deaths. A hero does emerge – Garret Morgan. He pushes past racism and uses one of his inventions, a gas mask, to find the remaining survivors and to retrieve the casualties. As is often the case – and I appreciated that MacGregor and Dumm included this element, and not just as a superficial epilogue – the battle then became one about whose version of the story would get told, both in court and in public. MacGregor and Dumm both do solid work here, but when the disaster starts to unfold, the words and images together make this an incredibly gripping story which is impressive when the reader already knows the ending. I wasn’t sure how the topic would align with a graphic novel approach, but the two creators weave together so many strands of the plot, so many characters, and so many political issues in such a tight and complementary manner that any doubts I had about the format choice quickly evaporated. This is a story of that time and a story of our time, one we need to read and see because we still haven’t learned from it.

American Hunger (Wright)

I didn’t know until recently that there was a sequel, or continuation, of Black Boy. It mainly focuses on his conflicts with the Communist Party, which is interesting when you consider the presentation of communism in Native Son. It seems like he was working on it around this time. Wright is commenting on his life more than living it, so this one lacks the unique power that makes Black Boy so compelling. I didn’t find much insight here. His comments about his interactions with the Communist Party are predictable. The limited day-to-day stuff, especially about his experience working in life insurance, is more compelling. It’s only 135 pages, so it seems like Wright may not have had much enthusiasm for the project. I think it’s necessary to read, though not necessarily enlightening.