Book Notes: Summer 2023

Book Notes is a compilation of new work by and of interest to WCSA members. Check-out the Summer 2023 edition!

Featured image: Tabling books at a WCSA conference, WCSA media archive.


Black Folk: The Roots of the Black Working Class (Liveright), Blair LM Kelley

This sweeping epic history of the Black working class in the US moves across 200 years from slavery to Covid’s “essential workers,” from Georgia to Philadelphia, Florida to Chicago, Texas to Oakland.  The Black working class is presented as laborers, members of a class, and activists, but also “as people whose daily experiences mattered – to themselves, to their communities, and to a nation that denied that very fact.”  According to the publisher, “Taking jobs white people didn’t want and confined to segregated neighborhoods, Black workers found community in intimate spaces, from stoops on city streets to the backyards of washerwomen, where multiple generations labored from dawn to dusk, talking and laughing in a space free of white supervision and largely beyond white knowledge.  As millions of Black people left the violence of the American South for the promise of a better life in the North and West, these networks of resistance and joy sustained early arrivals and newcomers alike and laid the groundwork for organizing for better jobs, better pay, and equal rights.”  Robin D.G. Kelley endorses: “In lyrical prose, Blair LM Kelley draws on her own family history to tell the story of how Black laborers built, fed, repaired, served, cleaned, cared for, enriched, and worked to democratize this country.”

Poverty, by America (Crown), Matthew Desmond

This book’s strange title – not “poverty in America,” but “poverty, by America” – indicates that the extent of poverty in the richest nation the world has ever known is a matter of choice, of policy and practice.  And the choice is not simply made by policymakers and politicians, but by all of us as citizens.  Sociologist Matthew Desmond, the Pulitizer Prize-winning author of Evicted, “draws on history, research, and original reporting to show how affluent Americans knowingly and unknowingly keep poor people poor. Those of us who are financially secure exploit the poor, driving down their wages while forcing them to overpay for housing and access to cash and credit.”  The book has been called a “jeremiad” and a “manifesto,” but it also proposes practical solutions that would end poverty in the US.  According to the publisher, “He calls on us all to become poverty abolitionists, engaged in a politics of collective belonging to usher in a new age of shared prosperity and, at last, true freedom.”

Human Engine at Dawn: Poems (Wolfson Press), Jim Daniels

The latest collection from Jim Daniels explores the poet’s family experience and growing up in working-class Detroit. George Bilgere, author of Central Air, writes of the collection: “These poems are deep dives into Daniels’ past, and a past Detroit. The portraits of his mother and father are unforgettable, both for their blunt, unsentimental honesty and their tenderness. Again and again Daniels manages to unearth bright shards of beauty in the bleak alleyways and poverty-haunted streets of the city. And there’s an ode here to his father’s bowling ball that will knock you down, that will roll you right back to the smoky, beer-soaked heart of the last century.”

Freedom’s Dominion: A Saga of White Resistance to Federal Power (Basic Books), Jefferson Cowie

Focused on one county in Alabama, Freedom’s Dominion weaves an epic tale of white supremacy across two centuries, in the process revealing how resistance to federal government authority was and is still often rallied in support of “white Americans’ freedom to oppress others,” especially those of darker skin tones.  As the publisher says: “In a land shaped by settler colonialism and chattel slavery, white people weaponized freedom to seize Native lands, champion secession, overthrow Reconstruction, question the New Deal, and fight against the civil rights movement.  A riveting history of the long-running clash between white people and federal authority, this book radically shifts our understanding of what freedom means in America.“ The New York Times reviewer calls it “important, deeply affecting – and regrettably relevant . . . essential reading for anyone who hopes to understand the unholy union, more than 200 years strong, between racism and the rabid loathing of government.”

Working Class Queers: Time, Place and Politics (Pluto), Yvette Taylor

Surveying working-class queer life in Britain in bad times and good, Yvette Taylor makes a case that queers are not marginal to the study of class, and the working-class is not marginal to queer studies.  According to the publisher, “Drawing on growing academic, radical activism in queer studies and feminism, she critiques the policy, theory and practice that have maintained queer middle-class privilege at the expense of working-class queers.”  Matt Brim endorses the book: “‘Building on more than two decades of engaged research with LGBT+ communities, Working-Class Queers makes a major contribution to queer feminist methods.”

Queer Career: Sexuality and Work in Modern America (Princeton), Margot Canaday

This book teaches as much about the evolution of the workplace in the US as it does about how sexual minorities worked within various systems of oppression since World War II.  According to the publisher, “Rather than finding that many midcentury employers tried to root out gay employees, Canaday sees an early version of “don’t ask / don’t tell”: in all kinds of work, as long as queer workers were discreet, they were valued for the lower wages they could be paid, their contingency, their perceived lack of familial ties, and the ease with which they could be pulled in and pushed out of the labor market. Across the socioeconomic spectrum, they were harbingers of post-Fordist employment regimes we now associate with precarity.”

The Happiness of the British Working Class (Stanford), Jamie Bronstein

Drawing on recent studies of the history of emotions and the social-scientific literature on happiness, Jamie Bronstein analyzes more than 350 autobiographies by working-class British writers born before 1870.  This in an effort to understand the various ways “working people thought about the good life as seen through their experiences with family and friends, rewarding work, interaction with the natural world, science and creativity, political causes and religious commitments, and physical and economic struggles.”  The result is a view of the variety of working-class life and thought from the inside, along with some class similarities across England, Scotland, and Ireland in the industrial 19th century.

The Man Who Changed Colors (Hardball Press), Bill Fletcher, Jr.

The newest novel by Bill Fletcher follows journalist David Gomes as he investigates the case of a Cape Cod dockworker who falls to his death under suspicious circumstances. The book wrestles with the power differentials and relationships between various racial and ethnic groups, gangs, and workers and management in the world of the shipyard.  Bestselling author Tavis Smiley writes: “Bill Fletcher is a truth seeker and a truth teller – even when he’s writing fiction. Not unlike Bill, his character David Gomes is willing to put his life and career in peril to expose the truth. A thrilling read!”

Still Broke: Walmart’s Remarkable Transformation and the Limits of Socially Conscious Capitalism (Public Affairs), Rick Wartzman

The basic theme of this book is simple: The various activist attempts, including by labor unions, to shame Walmart more than a decade ago were successful in causing the giant company to revise some of its worst practices, including by raising wages and improving working conditions for its “associates.”  But this “remarkable transformation,” Rick Wartzman shows, is not enough to lead a path out of a low-wage, meager-benefits economy of which Walmart is a hallmark.  Though the theme is simple, the book gets deep into the internal mechanics of how significant change was achieved and then where that leaves Walmart workers, suppliers, customers, and business competitors.  The publisher promises: “Still Broke does more than document a remarkable business makeover. It interrogates the role of business in American life, and asks what the future of our economy and country can be—and whose job it is to make it.”

Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land (Catapult), Noe Alvarez

The son of working-class Mexican immigrants in Yakima, Washington, Noe Alvarez worked at an apple-packing plant with his mother as a teenager, but he excelled in high school and won a college scholarship and a way out of a life of hard toil.  Though he loved learning, he did not fit in at college, dropping out to become part of a Native American/First Nations movement called Peace and Dignity Journeys (PDJ).  A coalition of 10 Native-American peoples, including Apaches and Mayans, PDJ organized epic marathons meant to renew cultural connections across North America.  Spirit Run is Alvarez’s account on his four-month run from Canada to Guatemala and of his fellow marathoners. The New York Times Book Review called it a “stunning memoir that moves to the rhythm of feet, labor, and the many landscapes of the Americas.”

Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City (Tin House Books), Jane Wong

Jane Wong’s third book is a memoir of Asian-American working class experience. Her family struggles to stay afloat in Atlantic City as her father’s gambling addiction ultimately leads to the loss of the restaurant that sustains them.  Writer Victoria Change says, “To borrow Jane Wong’s own words, there are sparks coming off Wong’s blade of language. The spunky voice in this memoir shines through. I’m so grateful to Wong for telling her unique story in only the way she can, and in the process, expanding the possibilities of Asian American stories. There’s so much heart in these stories that explore race, class, and family history, that we can’t help but root for the protagonist. This is a big-hearted coming-of-age book that simultaneously asks hard questions.”

On the Line: A Story of Class Solidarity and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union (Algonquin), Daisy Pitkin

The two women of this book’s subtitle are Daisy Pitkin, a young labor organizer, and Alma Gomez Garcia, a second-shift immigrant worker at an industrial laundry plant in Phoenix.  The book is both a detailed account of how together they helped organize a union at the plant and a narrative of their cross-class deep friendship, but eventual division.  “[W]hen political strife divides the union, and her friendship with Alma along with it, Daisy must reflect on her own position of privilege and the complicated nature of union hierarchies and top-down organizing.”  Francisco Cantu endorses: “Rendered with lyric, incandescent prose, On the Line is both deeply personal and profoundly political, with an acute sense for the ebb and flow of history. . . Pitkin has given us a riveting and intimate meditation on power, class consciousness, and the true meaning of solidarity.”

Thick Skin: Field Notes from a Sister in the Brotherhood (Anvil Press), Hilary Peach

Hilary Peach is currently a government boiler inspector in Canada and the author of several works of poetry.  Thick Skin is a memoir of her twenty years as a travelling welder and a member of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers.  Working across Canada from British Columbia to the Ontario rust belt and into the US’s eastern seaboard, Peach was often the only woman in workplaces where she was also “outside the local.”  Kate Braid, author of Hammer & Nail: Notes of a Journeywoman, praises: “This is a wonderful book – not just funny but a rare, insider’s look at the life of a travelling welder – the good, the bad, the ugly, and always, the fascinating. A collection of hilarious stories by a master (mistress?) of repartee, it is also an homage to the trade she loved.”

Lookout (A Strange Object), Christine Byl

Christine Byl’s latest book is the story of the Kinzlers, a working-class but non-traditional family in Montana—a place that often puts a premium on tradition. Parents Josiah and Margaret have an unusual living arrangement; siblings/sisters Cody and Louisa pursue different paths than their parents, wrestling with a history rooted to the land in the “old west” while forging something new. It is the tale of an “old” rural family making its way in the change of the “new” world/”new” west. Carlene Bauer, author of Girls They Write Songs About, says: “In Lookout, Christine Byl traces family heartbreak crack by crack with exceptional and steely grace. It’s incredibly hard for a writer to evoke the tenderness that passes between parents and children, and the affection that passes between sisters who could be rivals but choose to be friends, without straying into the sentimental, but Byl does just that . . . . . Each gorgeously written, deeply felt sentence radiates what Raymond Carver once called a small, good thing, and these characters, and the wild Montana landscape they love, are indelible because of it.”

Working Class: Making the Trades Cool Again (iUniverse), Nick Kasik

Nick Kasik hosts a TV show called “Working Class,” and this book is an offshoot of that show.  Both are public relations ventures to attract more young people into considering the building trades as a career.  They may be undermining that by putting only a middle-aged white man on the book’s cover.  But there also may be some wisdom in the publisher’s appeal: “We need to be exposing the damage society has brought to an entire generation of retail workers, baristas, fast food employees, unemployed and under employed college graduates with lifelong debt and no jobs. We must stop churning out college graduates in fields that have no jobs, low pay, and crushing debt, all to enrich the educational institutions.”

Mr. Block: The Subversive Comics and Writings of Ernest Riebe (PM Press), Paul Buhle and Iain McIntyre, eds.

Mr. Block is the comic creation of early 20th century labor activist and Wobbly Ernest Riebe.  This collection of Riebe’s graphic art and writings is, according to the publisher, “a treasure trove of radical 20th-century art [for] comics lovers, historians, and labor activists alike.”  Produced by The Graphic History Collective, the volume promises: “As income inequality skyrockets and the collective power of the working class is undermined, the lessons from Mr. Block’s misadventures and misbeliefs are as relevant today as ever. Building the new world from the ashes of the old demands many tools—and laughter will always be one of them.”

Labor’s End: How the Promise of Automation Degraded Work (Illinois), Jason Resnikoff

This book is a history of automation ideology and rhetoric from its origins in the factory to the wonders of artificial intelligence.  Behind the supposed abolition of manual labor, magnificent machinery, and “starry-eyed faith in technological revolution,” Jacob Resnikoff finds the “intensification of human work, labor’s loss of power, [and] a belief that the idea of freedom was incompatible with the activity of work.”  Joshua Freeman endorses the book’s “forceful and coherent argument” and its revealing of “a huge chasm between the grandiose claims made about any automated future and the lived reality of workers.”

Trailer Park Shakes (Brick Books), Justene Dion-Glowa

From the poem “Shakes”:

I don’t remember feeling poor

But I remember my dad working 3 jobs

And I remember the day I realized that even though I thought all it

took was hard work to get ahead in life

it actually takes a garbage bag of weed and a lot of clients

and after 20 years

you’ll still be in the shit.

Justene Dion-Glowa is a queer Métis creative, beadworker, and poet born in Win-Nipi (Winnipeg) and has been residing in Secwepemcú’lecw since 2014.  This is their first full-length poetry collection. The publisher writes that the poems in Trailer Park Shakes are “direct and vernacular, rooted in community — a working-class Métis voice rarely heard from.”

Reality TV’s Real Men of the Recession: White Masculinity in Crisis and the Rise of Trumpism (Lexington), Shannon O’Sullivan

This is a study of what Shannon O’Sullivan calls “blue-collar frontier shows,” reality TV showcasing white, working-class men performing hazardous occupations in remote, wilderness settings – shows like Deadliest Catch, Ax Men, Ice Road Truckers, Gold Rush, and Duck Dynasty.  According to the publisher: “O’Sullivan argues that the proliferation of these programs represents a subtle yet potent reactionary veneration of white, rural, working-class men as “real Americans” amid the Great Recession and social movements challenging white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism, nearly a decade before Donald Trump kicked off his presidential campaign.”

Troublemaker: Saying No to Power (Emspak), Frank Emspak

The last chapter of Frank Emspak’s autobiography is titled “IT WAS WORTH IT.”  That’s significant because his life as a social justice activist, union worker, and labor educator was full of frustrating defeats and a string of only partial victories – not the least of which was Emspak’s heroic establishment of Workers Independent News, a radio news service designed to compete with right-wing radio that died for lack of support from most of official labor.  Frank was one of those “red diaper babies” who became an anti-war radical as a college student in the 1960s (in his case, at the University of Wisconsin) and then “joined the working class,” as he says, by taking various factory jobs and advancing in local union leadership.  He ended his working life as a labor educator at Wisconsin’s School for Workers and developed a consulting practice for unions who wanted to participate in the democratic management of their workplaces.  Paul Buhle praises the book as being about “a unique figure within the US left” whose life journey “connects the Old Left with the New Left, unions in the industrial era and beyond, and the struggle to communicate to a wide public with all the modern means available.”

Journal of A Black Queer Nurse (Common Notions), Britney Daniels

As the publisher’s website explains, Britney Daniels’ memoir recounts the experience of years in the emergency room setting as a “Black, masculine-presenting, tattooed lesbian from a working-class background,” which she began as a way of coping with the day-in and day-out trauma of healthcare work. In advance praise for the work, Dr Sharon L Moore writes: “There is no doubt that Journal of A Black Queer Nurse is timely on at least two fronts: reflecting on the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic on the healthcare profession, while illuminating the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality on a healthcare professional. However, this book is not only of import to nurses or to queer people because it so wonderfully explores a most universal story of what it is to be human in unprecedented times.”

Working Musicians: Labor and Creativity in Film and Television Production (Duke), Timothy Taylor

Musicians are workers too, and Timothy Taylor focuses on music workers in the movie, television, and video game industries in and around Hollywood.  Digital technologies have sped up production timelines and changed how content is delivered, while new pay schemes and eroded working conditions have made the work of these cultural laborers increasingly more precarious.  Based on scores of interviews, Taylor shows how “the composers, musicians, music editors, engineers, and others whose soundtracks excite, inspire, and touch millions face the same structural economic challenges that have transformed American society, concentrating wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands.”

On Work: An Anthology  Unleash Creatives.

This is a multi-genre, multi-perspective anthology of creative exploring work. The poetry, fiction, and non-fiction included provide sharp, empathetic glimpses into varied work scenarios, including retail, road work, food service, sales work, and the commuter life.  Among the many poets and writers is John Beck, a long-time Working-Class Studies stalwart.

A Democracy That Works (Routledge), Stephen Amberg

In this book Stephen Amberg argues that the neoliberal conservative ascendancy in US politics over the last 40 years is not simply based on corporate donations, gerrymandering, and media manipulation.  Rather, more fundamentally Democrats and Republicans in the late 20th century changed the rules that had empowered liberal democracy for 50 years, thereby “organizing working-class people out of American politics.”  The publisher promises: “[Amberg] draws on multidisciplinary studies to argue that when employees are organized to participate at work, they are also organized to participate in politics to press for accountable government. In doing so, the book opens up analytical space to understand the unprecedented threat to liberal democracy in the U.S.”

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