Book Notes: Summer 2022

Check out new work by and of interest to members of the Working-Class Studies Association in this summer issue of Book Notes. Enjoy!

A People’s Guide to New York City (U. of California Press), Carolina Bank Munoz, Penny Lewis, Emily Tumpson

The latest in the University of California Press’ people’s guides, this new volume on New York City explores more than 150 sites, mostly in the outer boroughs, where immigrants, people of color, and working classes of all shades have made history and shaped landscapes, some of which are left today and others merely noted with plaques or simple monuments.  According to the publisher, “Delving into the histories of New York’s five boroughs, you will encounter enslaved Africans in revolt, women marching for equality, workers on strike, musicians and performers claiming streets for their art, and neighbors organizing against landfills and industrial toxins and in support of affordable housing and public schools. The streetscapes that emerge from these groups’ struggles bear the traces, and this book shows you where to look to find them.”  This volume, like others in the series, uses the tourist guidebook form to aid both tourists and locals to find significant parts of the people’s city.

A People’s Guide to Orange County (U. of California Press), Elaine Lewinnek, Gustavo Arellano, Thuy Vo Dang

Another new entry in the California Press’ series teases out the huge Orange County part of the Greater Los Angeles area.  The site of Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, the county attracts more than 40 million tourists a year and includes some of the richest oceanfront property on the planet.  But inland, Orange County is an agricultural and industrial landscape of current and historical significance, as are the neighborhoods peopled by workers in the tourist service economy, many of them immigrants.  The guidebook “documents sites of oppression, resistance, struggle, and transformation.”  Previous people’s guides California Press has produced are still available, exploring the San Francisco Bay Area, Greater Boston, and Los Angeles.

Hard Rain: Bob Dylan, Oral Cultures, and the Meaning of History (Columbia U. Press), Alessandro Portelli

The doyen of oral history in Italy and the US, Allessandro Portelli uses this slim volume to reflect on his lifetime of work with oral history, originally inspired by the folk music revival in the 1950s when Portelli was in high school.  Tracing the roots of Bob Dylan’s classic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” back not only to the traditional English ballad “Lord Randall,” but to an Italian version that translates as “The poisoned man’s testament,” Portelli talks with others in the US, UK, India, and Italy who were influenced by the bracing lyrics and “awful voice” of Minnesota’s Robert Zimmerman.  Portelli presents the book as “a multidisciplinary investigation on history and memory through the prism of the primary orality of folklore, the secondary orality of mass media, and the conversation between them.”  A multinational tribute to Dylan, Hard Rain presents folk music and oral history “as ways in which the popular classes give voice to their relationship to and presence in history.”

The Lockdown Diaries of the Working Class by The Working Class Collective. (Available in Kindle Edition through Amazon.)

The first project of The Working Class Collective is made up of lockdown diaries submitted by working-class people across the UK, gathered by Lisa McKenzie. The entries are supplemented by the work of six style-diverse working-class illustrators. Graham Scrambler, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University College London, writes: “What the Diaries did for me was transport me momentarily into the lives and circumstances of a variety of people who lacked the protection of so many, even all, of Bourdieu’s types of capital. In a way, the fact that the Diaries contained snippets of lives added force. Sometimes an intimate glimpse into a life, allowing the imagination a freer reign, carries more punch than the putative academic summary of a life course. Lisa McKenzie’s linking pieces are exquisitely judged.”

Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the Contingent Faculty Movement in Higher Education (Pluto Press), Joe Berry and Helena Worthen

Most of this book is a detailed analysis of how contingent faculty in the California State University (CSU) system organized across the system and won what the authors think is the best contingent faculty union contract in the country.  In that process, Joe Berry and Helena Worthen manage to develop an historical analysis of higher education in the US and a vision for the future while at the same time systematically exploring the various options CSU faculty organizers faced at different junctures and how and why they chose the options they did.  The result is a guidebook for contingent faculty organizing embedded in a series of narratives with dramatic decision points.  Berry has been a faculty organizer for decades and a leader of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) since its founding.  Worthen is a novelist and long-time labor educator.

Our Veterans: Winners, Losers, Friends, and Enemies on the New Terrain of Veteran Affairs (Duke U. Press), Suzanne Gordon, Steve Early, Jasper Craven

The American military, especially now as an all-volunteer force, is a working-class institution in the same way as any private firm or government agency.  Though even more hierarchical than other workplaces, its on-the-ground ethos is created by the workers who do the job of preparing for and fighting wars.  This new book by a trio of experienced scholars and journalists explores military workers both in service and, especially, after when they are entitled to a series of benefits as veterans.  The authors frame their comprehensive study within a long political tradition that uniformly praises and honors veterans, but then cheats on the benefits they have been promised.  Even “self-styled helpers of veterans have at times actually jeopardized their access to better healthcare, a decent education via the GI Bill, and later employment with good working conditions and opportunities for advancement.” They propose a new agenda for veterans that is more firmly anchored in broader social programs benefitting all Americans, while providing for veterans’ specific needs.

Young Mungo (Grove Press), Douglas Stuart

Stuart’s first novel won the Booker Prize. Young Mungo, his second, is based in Glasgow and tells the tale of James, a Protestant, and Mungo, a Catholic, as they grow up together and eventually fall in love in a world where potential brutality and violence loom large. Mungo’s older brother is the leader of a vicious local gang. The book explores themes of masculinity, queerness, and religion, and how all intersect with working-class life. Library Journal writes: “After the splendid Shuggie Bain, Stuart continues his examination of 1980s Glaswegian working-class life and a son’s attachment to an alcohol-ravaged mother, with results as good yet distinctly different . . . In language crisper and more direct than Shuggie Bain’s, Stuart heightens his exploration of the sibling bond and the inexplicable hatred between Glasgow’s Protestants and Catholics, while contrasting Mungo’s tenderly conveyed queer awakening with the awful counterpart of sexual violence.”

After the Gig: How the Sharing Economy Got Hijacked and How to Win It Back (U. of California Press), Juliet Schor

This latest effort from sociological economist Juliet Schor first traces how the initial promise of the gig economy – flexibility, autonomy, and decent incomes for workers, for example – has degenerated into “exploited Uber drivers, neighborhoods ruined by Airbnb, racial discrimination, and rising carbon emissions.”  But then she attempts to show how the basic model of “a peer-to-peer structure augmented by digital tech” still has the potential to fulfill its early promise.  To that end she puts forward a series of regulatory reforms to foster cooperative platforms owned and controlled by users that would lead to “an equitable and truly shared economy.”  One reviewer explains: “Schor’s case studies skillfully represent the full spectrum of optimism and disenchantment—those previously bullish on being their own boss, who have since been dragged to despair . . . .  The takeaway from this book is that a complete reimagining of city governance is required if the sharing economy is ever going to work for the people.”

Class Struggle Unionism (Haymarket Books), Joe Burns

In this historically informed manual for labor organizing in the 21st century, Joe Burns advances a form of class struggle unionism that places rank-and-file workplace militancy and fights within the larger fight between workers and the owning class, the one dialectically building on the other.  In doing so, he addresses a key set of questions faced by those who want to renew a fighting labor movement: “How to relate to the union establishment which often does not want to fight? Whether to work in the rank and file of unions or staff jobs? How much to prioritize broader class demands versus shop floor struggle? How to relate to foundation-funded worker centers and alternative union efforts? And most critically, how can we revive militancy and union power in the face of corporate power and a legal system set up against us?”

The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy in the Twenty-First Century (Cornell ILR Press), Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta

Erica Smiley is the current and Sarita Gupta a former director of national Jobs with Justice, and they bring their broad and deep experience in a variety of labor and community struggles across the country to this effort to chart a future for democratic and progressive forces.  Over the past several decades, Jobs with Justice (JwJ) has demonstrated how involving the broader public in labor struggles and labor in community struggles expands the effectiveness of both. Likewise, JwJ has especially focused on those fights where labor, women’s, black, brown, and immigrant interests can intersect in powerful ways. The book charts a course along those lines, with chapters titled “Beyond Workers,” “Organizing All People,” and “Building Long-Term Labor-Community Power”.  Thomas Kochan calls it a “really thoughtful and creative mix of labor history, analysis of current policies and institutions, and wonderful personal stories―including their own. . . . [and] a powerful statement about what we need to do, and can do, to shape a better future for all.”

Pest (Keylight Books), Elizabeth Foscue

Pest’s protagonist Hallie Mayhew is a working-class high school senior in Santa Barbara, who is balancing multiple part-time jobs while navigating divorced parents, getting into and paying for college, and getting away from her hometown where she feels trapped. She finds herself struggling with a classic working-class student dilemma: how to make ends meet and keep up her grades, while also trying to weave in the extra-curriculars that colleges and scholarship committees expect. The Washington Post says the book is “Laugh-out-loud funny,” and that “Cheering for this scrappy underdog will appeal to younger and older adults alike.”

Urban Legends: The South Bronx in Representation and Ruin (Harvard U. Press), Peter L’Official

Long an iconic stereotype for urban decay as an “inner-city hell hole,” the Bronx has a mythic place in our national imagination, only partly relieved by its cultural creativity as the hometown of hip-hop and a premier site of artistic graffiti.  Bronx native Peter L’Official aims to bust those stereotypes by showing the real complexity of a borough of nearly 1.5 million people.  Drawing on literature and the visual arts, L’Official focuses on the history, people, and place beyond its myths and legends, revealing a social and culture vitality that is far from its image of “a decades-long funeral pyre.”  Luc Sante calls it the “great Bronx book we have needed for decades. L’Official cuts through the foliage of lazy journalism, unexamined assumptions, and political rhetoric and brings together the voices of writers, rappers, social scientists, and people on the street. The result is a nuanced picture of the South Bronx, which for almost a century has been mostly neglected, scorned, and viewed as expendable―perhaps one of New York City’s biggest crimes.”

Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (NYU Press), Edvige Giunta and Mary Anne Trasciatti, editors.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911 killed 146 workers, most young immigrant women and girls, in 15 minutes.  But it was an event that has mobilized garment and other workers around the world for more than a century.  This collection of 19 essays reflects both on the tragedy itself and the impact it has had in the immediate aftermath of the fire and since.  The diverse voices of the essayists include writers, artists, and scholars from across the globe, as well as family members of Triangle workers.  The publisher promises “a story of contemporary global relevance [that] stands as an act of collective testimony: a written memorial to the Triangle victims.”

Mobile Girls Koottam: Working Women Speak (Zubaan Books), Madhumita Duhtta.

While doing doctoral work in Tamil Nadu in southern India, author Madhumita Dutta met several women working in a Nokia electronics factory—and over a course of regular meetings, a radio podcast was born. This book is taken from transcripts of the radio podcast, with the addition of illustrations by Madhushree Basu. It presents the women’s experiences of factory work, but also explores their larger lives and dreams. Writing in The Hindu, P.V. Srividya says, “It is striking how the secular migrant work space also makes [the women’s] camaraderie possible. The women show us how female bodies that work on the assembly line negotiate bodily pain, scheming ways of rest and forming quiet solidarities.”

Division Street (Dewi Lewis Publishing), Robert Gumpert

In 2016 San Francisco hosted the Super Bowl, and to clean up the city’s image, officials herded its homeless people and families into Division Street, where the extent of homelessness in the city would be out of sight and out of mind.  Photographer Robert Gumpert followed them to Division Street to document the ‘”division of communities, between the wealth of the few and the expendability of the many, in San Francisco, in the USA and across the World.”  This book is built around Gumpert’s photographs, but it adds first-person storytelling, messages left on the street, media headlines, and politician’s characterizations to make the book what the publisher calls “a collaboration between many communities.”

No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy: Memoirs of a Working-Class Reader (Canongate Books), Mark Hodkinson

Today Mark Hodkinson is an author, journalist, and publisher, but he grew up in a working-class household in Rochdale, UK (near Sheffield and Leeds) that had only one book.  He now lives in Rochdale again, surrounded by some 3,500 books.  This memoir is about his growing up working class and his life-long love of reading.  The publisher describes it thus: “It’s about schools (bad), music (good) and the people (some mad, a few sane), and pre-eminently and profoundly the books and authors (some bad, mostly good) that led the way, and shaped his life. It’s also about a family who just didn’t see the point of reading, and a troubled grandad who, in his own way, taught Mark the power of stories.”

Proper Etiquette in the Slaughterhouse Line (Gutter Snob Books), James Duncan

Duncan’s newest collection of poems focuses on office work and the grind of mundane cubicle culture in the beginning, but then spirals into an apocalyptic tale. Writer Frank Reardon: “These are poems in the vein of Carver, Bukowski, and James Wright. Workers, fighters, and people with little hope, trapped in a system they cannot beat, but sometimes can beat late at night during the exhausted hours. These poems take the everyday mundane existence we are force fed eight hours a day and show us there is hope, but only if we are willing to open the doors of the slaughterhouse.” Author John Crochalski says “Duncan does a superb job of showing us our humanity exactly as we are living it, the pain, the struggle, the sickness and all the manifestations of any joys we can find to keep ourselves grounded.”

Romantic Environmental Sensibility: Nature, Class and Empire (Edinburgh U. Press), Ve-Yin Tee, ed.

This collection of essays seeks to reveal how representations of the land and the plants, animals, and people who live on the land are shaped by “habits of thought that are profoundly class-based.”  With a focus on Romantic ideas of nature, one set of essays focus on how “Green Imperialism” shaped British perception and policy in India and elsewhere in Asia.  Other essays show how “current approaches to conservation and animal rights continue to be influenced by a class-bound Romantic environmental sensibility.”

The Return of Inequality: Social Change and the Weight of the Past (Harvard U. Press), Mike Savage

The facts of growing income and wealth inequality are clear, everywhere but especially in English-speaking countries like the US and UK.  Sociologist Mike Savage argues here that our increasing levels of inequality threaten much more than statistical gaps in wage and wealth levels.  “By fracturing social bonds and harnessing the democratic process to the strategies of a resurgent aristocracy of the wealthy, inequality revives political conditions we thought we had moved beyond: empires and dynastic elites, explosive ethnic division, and metropolitan dominance that consigns all but a few cities to irrelevance. . . . Westerners have been slow to appreciate that inequality undermines the very foundations of liberal democracy: faith in progress and trust in the political community’s concern for all its members.”

Police, Provocation, Politics: Counterinsurgency in Istanbul (Cornell U. Press)), Deniz Yonucu

In this book Deniz Yonucu shows how counterinsurgency strategies from the Cold War and the decolonization process continue to inform policing in Istanbul.  According to the publisher: “Situating Turkish policing within a global context and combining archival work and oral history narratives with ethnographic research . . . Yonucu presents a counterintuitive analysis of contemporary policing practices, focusing particular attention on the incitement of counterviolence, perpetual conflict, and ethnosectarian discord by the state security apparatus.”

Monetary Authorities: Capitalism and Decolonization in the American Colonial Philippines (Duke U. Press), Allan Lumba

By focusing on American colonization in the Philippines, Allan Lumba shows how “the United States used monetary policy and banking systems to justify racial and class hierarchies, enforce capitalist exploitation, and counter movements for decolonization” in other US imperial adventures.  According to the publisher: “By showing how imperial governance was entwined with the racialization and regulation of monetary systems . . .  Lumba illuminates a key mechanism through which the United States securitized the imperial world order.”

2 thoughts on “Book Notes: Summer 2022”

  1. In a word, marvelous! Thank you for this excellent selection of “heads-ups” for reading. I encountered a problem, though, regarding the graphic: it appeared as a long, surreal semi-blurred hodge-podge. (Sorry for my lack of esthetic appreciation if tha was intentional…)
    Very best, with thanks for all you do,

    Sam Coleman, PhD, MSW
    Asian & Asian American Studies
    California State University Long Beach
    Don’t ask, “Do you believe in catastrophic climate change?” Rather, “Do you understand the science?”

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