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Book Notes: Fall 2023

Book Notes is out! Read about new work by WCSA members and of interest. There are twenty books in this edition: Deeren, Zweig, Chin, Schennum, Daniels, McBride, Entin, Hormel, Taylor, Clayton, Skocpol, Letford, Marquez, O’Toole, Hennigan, Rabess, Quart, Simmons, McGahey, Magee, and Newman. Time to celebrate!

Class, Race, and Gender: Challenging the Injuries and Divisions of Capitalism (PM Press), Michael Zweig 

WCSA founder Michael Zweig, author of the Working-Class Majority, seeks in this book to understand the underlying connections among today’s social justice movements as they struggle within present-day capitalism.  Drawing on a wide range of historical and current sources as well as his own experience as a political economist, activist, and organizer, Zweig shows the common origins of inequalities of income, wealth, and power; environmental devastation; racism and patriarchy; periodic economic crises; and the cultural conflicts that are tearing at US life.  Bill Fletcher endorses the book, calling it “an important educational resource for young labor, racial justice, and environmental activists by providing a clearly written, well documented account of the economic, political, and historical forces driving social events. His explanation of the interrelationships of class and race is especially welcome.”

Enough to Lose (Wayne State U. Press), RS Deeren

The subjects of Deeren’s short story collection reside in rural Michigan, in “the thumb.” The trajectory of stories covers the Great Flood of 1986 through the chaos of the 2016 election, presenting this era with an intense focus on local character and setting. The diverse set of protagonists all struggle against the challenges of working-class life in an often-isolated place that feels far-removed from the larger world.  Bonnie Jo Campbell praises “its dead-on depictions of rural life, both beautiful and heart-wrenching. With its floods, guns, car wrecks, dangerous bridges, bars that ‘stay open out of habit,’ there’s a lot at stake here. Deeren is a keen observer of what age, poverty, and bad luck can do to a body. Some of his characters live so close to the edge that the failure of a freezer might mean going hungry, while others move closer to the edge to feel alive or to grieve fully. If you say these characters are stubbornly behind the times, it’s because they are not buying what America is offering them—they are holding out for something better and more meaningful.”

As Goes Bethlehem: Steelworkers and the Restructuring of an Industrial Working Class (Vanderbilt U. Press), Jill Schennum

Over multiple decades Jill Schennum has interviewed and befriended dozens of steelworkers at the former Bethlehem Steel’s headquarters plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and her resulting book reflects both the agonizingly long process of plant closure there and the joys and sorrows of shopfloor life when the mill was working. According to the publisher, “She uses workers’ narratives and voices to show the importance of work space, time, and social relations, rejecting dominant interpretations of blue-collar workers as alienated from their work but well-paid and co-opted by a middle-class standard of living.” Jack Metzgar endorses the book for telling “a larger story of capitalist restructuring and the degradation of work life in the past four decades” and calls it “a tour de force of richly balanced analytic rigor and empathetic heart.”

Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant (Little, Brown, and Co., New York), Curtis Chin

WCSA member Curtis Chin has published a memoir about coming of age in the 1980s as Detroit was experiencing its first brutal round of deindustrialization.  The book recalls how Chin’s family restaurant was a haven not only for him but for a wildly diverse set of customers from all parts of a divided city.  Chin is a television and movie writer, producer, and director, and what he learned was “to embrace his identity as a gay ABC, or American-born Chinese” and “just how much he had to offer to the world, to his beloved family, and to himself.”  The book has a helpful discussion guide for book groups. See Chin’s website for links to several early reviews and a schedule of book events around the US.

The Luck of the Fall (Michigan State U. Press), Jim Ray Daniels

The Luck of the Fall is Daniels’ seventh work of fiction, a short story collection focused on working-class Detroiters dealing with a variety of significant challenges, including COVID, addiction, divorce, unwanted pregnancy, and mental illness. According to the publisher: “Among the looming hulks of abandoned factories, near-nihilistic lives struggle in the absence of the comforting shadows those factories provided. They take consolation in their lack of prizes, in the clarity of their failures, while approaching the future with gallows humor and faith in cynicism. In The Luck of the Fall, the logic of the heart wins out, even as the characters are picking up the pieces of their broken lives, looking for something shiny called hope.” 

Living Labor: Fiction, Film, and Precarious Work (U. of Michigan Press), Joseph Entin

This book focuses on novelists and filmmakers who have not only chronicled the demise of the industrial proletariat, but also “the tentative and unfinished emergence of a new, much more diverse and perilously positioned working class.”  Authors include Russell Banks, Helena Víramontes, Karen Tei Yamashita, Francisco Goldman, David Riker, Ramin Bahrani, Clint Eastwood, Courtney Hunt, and Ryan Coogler.  Sherry Linkon praises the book as “clear, persuasive, informative, and thought-provoking” in discussing the “complex and contested realities of the current era, in which class itself has become increasingly contingent.” 

Trailer Park America: Reimagining Working-Class Communities (Rutgers U. Press), Leontina Hormel

When the water system at a trailer park in northern Idaho was contaminated for three months, residents were forced to relocate or face homelessness.  Leontina Hormel followed their struggles as they dealt with regulatory agencies, threats of closure, and class-based social stigma in simply trying to survive.  Here’s what Hormel found: “what was seen as a dysfunctional, ‘disorderly’ community by outsiders was instead a refuge where veterans, women heads of households, and people with disabilities or substance use disorders were supported and understood.” They organized politically and eventually brought a class-action suit “to defend the rights and dignity of residents.”  The book is praised for its “deeply-engaged, collaborative research with impacted communities in one of our nation’s most overlooked, and most important, sources of affordable housing” – trailer parks. 

Scablands and Other Stories (Salt Publishing), Jonathan Taylor

Scablands is a short story collection focused on the post-industrial ‘scablands,’ stories (according to the publisher) of “austerity, poverty, masochism and migration.” Ruth F. Hunt of the Morning Star writes of the collection: “Although each of these compelling stories stands alone, there are at least two possible links between them all: first, the political nature (with a lower-case “p”); and second, the desperate need these characters have for connection in this isolating world. Such themes unite them as a collection. This is a short story collection that I strongly recommend.”

Vagabonds, Tramps, and Hobos: The Literature and Culture of U.S. Transiency 1890-1940 (Cambridge U. Press), Owen Clayton

The 1890s to 1940s are seen as a “Golden Age of Tramping” in the US, during which the hobo was an American cultural icon signifying freedom from restraint and rebellion against the established order. Owen Clayton’s study shows how this “pioneer hobo” image is a misrepresentation.  Exploring works created by transient artists and thinkers, including travel literature, fiction, memoir, early feminist writing, poetry, sociology, political journalism, satire, and music, Clayton shows the diversity of both hobo life and its representation. The publisher promises “new ways for scholars to think about the activity and representation of US transiency.” 

Rust Belt Blues: Why Working-Class Voters Are Turning Away from the Democratic Party (Columbia U. Press), Lainey Newman and Theda Skocpol

This book explores labor unions as social, not just economic, institutions in manufacturing communities and the way union membership embedded working people and their families in networks and worldviews often overlapping with the Democratic Party. Focused on Western Pennsylvania as a former union stronghold, Newman and Skocpol argue that union members’ loyalty to Democratic candidates was as much a product of the group identity that unions fostered as it was a response to the Democratic Party’s economic policies. As the social world around organized labor dissipated, conservative institutions like gun clubs, megachurches, and other Republican-leaning groups took its place.”  Marshall Gans praises: “For once, the authors enable us to hear the voices of human beings―not data points, utility functions, ideological categories, or labels. This work challenges us to focus on what a real constituency is―not a ‘base’ to be managed, but people who learn to stand together, work together, decide together, and act together.” 

From Our Own Fire (Carcanet Press), William Letford

Letford’s book is a prose/poetry combination that tells the story of a working-class family navigating the world after AI has taken over. From the publisher: “William Letford blends prose and his inimitable poetry: sci-fi and hunter-gatherer are merged into a coherent story in the pages of a stonemason’s journal.” Kate Kellaway of The Guardian writes that “Letford’s book is perfectly timed: gripping, entertaining and desperate.”

Making the Latino South: A History of Racial Formation (U. of North Carolina Press), Cecilia Marquez

In the 1940s US, while Jim Crow enforced African-American segregation in the South, non-Black Latinos were considered white.  They attended white schools, lived in white neighborhoods, and married white southerners.  By the early 2000s, however, Latinos in the South became people of color “routinely cast as ‘illegal aliens’ and targeted by some of the harshest anti-immigrant legislation in the country.”  Cecilia Marquez explains how this happened and in doing so, shows how contingent and arbitrary “racial formation” can be.  The publisher promises that the book “defies easy narratives of progressive change and promises to reshape the broader American histories of Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, immigration, work, and culture.”

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland (Liveright), Fintan O’Toole

Fintan O’Toole was born into a working-class family in suburban Dublin in 1958, which he calls “the year of the revolution” because it was when the Irish government broke with its traditionalist past and opened the country to foreign investment and popular culture.  In this memoir-cum-history, O’Toole “weaves his own experiences into Irish social, cultural, and economic change, showing how Ireland, in just one lifetime, has gone from a reactionary ‘backwater’ to an almost totally open society―perhaps the most astonishing national transformation in modern history.”  In doing so, he shows the special role US popular culture and economic imperialism played in the island’s transformation and in his own life.  The New York Times effuses: “Charting six decades of Irish history against his own life, O’Toole manages to both deftly illustrate a country in drastic flux, and include a sly, self-deprecating biography that infuses his sociology with humor and pathos.”

Ghost Signs: Poverty and the Pandemic (Bluemoose Books), Stu Hennigan

In Leeds, like many other industrial cities, working-class families suffered through the Covid pandemic after decades of economic declines and government austerity.  Stu Hennigan delivered emergency food and medicine to those living in poverty in Leeds during Covid, and this is his eyewitness account of the impact of the pandemic there.  The publisher calls it “a blistering exposition of what happened to a community in one of the richest countries in the world.” 

Everything’s Fine (Simon & Schuster), Cecilia Rabess

The protagonist of Rabess’ debut novel, Jess, begins work at Goldman Sachs, the sole black woman on the floor, during the growing political unrest and division of 2016. She finds herself on the same work team as (and embroiled in a blossoming romance with) a former college classmate. She questions whether, as a black woman who is decidedly not a conservative, how much compromise is too much—in love, at work, and in the larger world. Jennifer Close, author of bestselling Girls in White Dresses, writes that “This book is both entertaining and wise, a page-turner that explores race, class, sex, and ambition and how love and compromise work (or don’t) in our current political climate.”

Bootstrapped: Liberating Ouselves from the American Dream (Ecco), Alissa Quart 

Alissa Quart attacks what she calls a foundational American myth of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” – the emphasis on individual determination, self-sufficiency, and personal accomplishment.  Showing how this cultural mandate harms our physical and mental health, Quart looks at a variety of delusions and half solutions – from paeans to grit to the Horatio Alger story to the rise of GoFundMe – and offers “a plan for how we can free ourselves from these self-defeating narratives.”  Arlie Hochschild praises the book for taking on “the most powerful idea in America, exploring the mythology that we become rich through solitary hard work. She also offers more fulfilling community-based ideas that can help us actually achieve a good life.”

Education, Work and Social Change in Britain’s Former Coalfield Communities: The Ghost of Coal (Palgrave Macmillan), Robin Simmons and Kat Simpson, eds.

They no longer mine coal in Great Britain, an industry that once employed more than a million men and shaped the industrial history of the nation and world.  This edited volume, including essays by Tim Strangleman and Diane Reay, explores the past, present, and future of coalfield communities as they struggle to transform a way of life rooted in this centuries-long industry.  Various essays look at work, leisure, family relations, and other dimensions of social life in the coalfields, as well as indigenous institutions like trade unions, working-men’s clubs, and mutual aid groups.

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Story: A Novel (Riverhead Books), James McBride

McBride’s best-selling novel is set in the Chicken Hill neighborhood of Pottstown, Pennsylvania in the 1970s, where a skeleton is found at the bottom of a well.  The narrative centers on the diverse residents of the neighborhood as they work to uncover the story behind the skeleton and pull together to survive life on the margins of white, Christian America. From the New York Times Book Review: “With this story, McBride brilliantly captures a rapidly changing country, as seen through the eyes of the recently arrived and the formerly enslaved. . . . And through this evocation, McBride offers us a thorough reminder: Against seemingly impossible odds, even in the midst of humanity’s most wicked designs, love, community and action can save us.”

Unequal Cities: Overcoming Anti-Urban Bias to Reduce Inequality in the United States (Columbia U. Press), Richard McGahey

Economist Richard McGahey explains the “deeply entrenched anti-urban policies” that undermine growth and equity in cities, increasing poverty and marring the quality of life for everybody – including “structural racism, suburban subsidies, regional government fragmentation, the hostility of state legislatures, and federal policy” shaped by rural states overrepresented in the US Senate.  With detailed case studies of New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles, McGahey “identifies key lessons about the political coalitions that can overcome anti-urban biases, arguing that alliances among unions, environmentalists, and communities of color can help cities thrive.”

Close to Home: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Michael Magee

Close to Home, Magee’s debut novel, is described by Publisher’s Weekly as “A consummate and searching bildungsroman of a young Belfast man trying to square his future with a painful heritage . . . Magee demonstrates profound psychological acuity and a keen sense of place, showing how Belfast has shaped his characters and how the past is etched into the streets.”  Set in Ireland in the shadow of The Troubles, the novel tells the story of Sean, a working-class man who, after doing all the things he’s been taught one must do to succeed, still finds all the important doors closed in his face. His desperation and frustration result in an act of violence, setting off the spiral of this narrative.

Moving the Needle: What Tight Labor Markets Do for the Poor (U. of California Press), Katherine Newman and Elisabeth Jacobs

This is a book that argues for the value of tight labor markets – times like the present when workers are more scarce than jobs, times when wages are likely to rise, benefits to improve, job ladders to be built, and the unemployed and “unemployable” pulled into a growing job market.  Based on more than 70 years of quantitative date, supplemented by interviews with employers, jobseekers, and longtime residents of poor communities, Newman and Jacobs also explore the inflationary risks of overheated economies and suggest how those risks can be managed.  The publisher calls it “an urgent and original call to implement policies that will maintain the current momentum and prepare for potential slowdowns that may lie ahead.”

*Featured image, Freddie Marriage, Unsplash.

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