WCSA Book Notes for December 2019

Please take a look at the following WCSA Book Notes for December 2019. You may also download a document with these book notes BkNtsDec2019.FINAL.

Amplified Advantage: Going to a “Good” College in an Era of Inequality (Lexington Books), Allison Hurst

By focusing on small liberal arts colleges – who goes there and what happens to them – Allison Hurst’s Amplified Advantages sheds light on how class works throughout higher education and in American society more generally.  Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of class, Hurst demonstrates “how inequalities are met, resisted, and ultimately reproduced across generations.”  According to the publisher, “the book lays out the many ways that class continues to play a role in the college experience, from choosing a major, to frequency of faculty interaction, to participation in the extra-curriculum. The last chapters demonstrate the differential burden of debt on graduates and the impact of varied parental support after graduation. Amplified Advantages adds to our understanding of how class works, the impact of parents and families on social reproduction, and the ways that colleges and universities can contribute to or reduce inequalities.”  Diane Reay recommends it: “Richly theorised, evocatively reflexive, and beautifully written, the book captures and sustains the reader’s interest through a rich synergy of qualitative and quantitative research that weaves together the lived experiences of young people in higher education.”


The Pears: Poems – Harmony Poetry Series (Bottom Dog Press), Larry Smith

“I’ve been reading Larry Smith’s work for over 20 years. That’s long enough to make his work seem like it’s always been there, and maybe that’s because the people Larry writes about are ones I recognize: mill workers and farmers, waitresses and librarians. He writes about family and everyday concerns. Sometimes those are scrambled eggs. Sometimes they are snow birds. He is a very tactile poet…These poems exist right outside of town in a peddler’s encampment where fairy tales and bad luck mingle with white bread and pennies. These are magical riddles made up of the real and the nearly so. Feast on them and dance.” ~ Mike James


We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America (Oxford U. Press), Jennifer Silva

Jennifer Silva’s new book is based on more than 100 interviews with black, white, and Latinx working-class residents of a declining coal town in eastern Pennsylvania, some of them recent immigrants from Philadelphia and New York City.  According to the publisher, Silva finds: “The routines and rhythms of traditional working-class life such as manual labor, unions, marriage, church, and social clubs have diminished. In their place, she argues, individualized strategies for coping with pain, and finding personal redemption, have themselves become sources of political stimulus and reaction among the working class.”  Historian Jefferson Cowie calls the book “a punch-in-the-gut examination of blue-collar America trying to navigate the unraveling of a secure economy and moral universe” and “an urgent, must-read book for understanding the landscape of American politics.”


Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility (Princeton U. Press), Jennifer Morton

For working-class, low-income, and immigrant college students, going to college is both an exciting and treacherous pathway to upward mobility.  Recently colleges and universities have recognized the difficulties these first-generation students face in succeeding.  Now Jennifer Morton’s new book explores “the ethical dilemmas of upward mobility—the broken ties with family and friends, the severed connections with former communities, and the loss of identity” as well as “the deep personal compromises such students have to make as they enter worlds vastly different from their own.”  A philosophy professor at City College of New York, Morton draws on personal stories, social science, and interviews to show how “student strivers” tend to give up essential relationships with family, friends, and community, and she argues that educators need to “empower students with a new narrative of upward mobility” that recognizes the ethical and personal costs common in education-based upward mobility.


Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers (Unbound), Edited by Kit de Waal

Working-class stories are not always tales of the underprivileged and dispossessed. Common People is a collection of essays, poems and memoir written in celebration, not apology: these are narratives rich in barbed humour, reflecting the depth and texture of working-class life, the joy and sorrow, the solidarity and the differences, the everyday wisdom and poetry of the woman at the bus stop, the waiter, the hairdresser. Here, Kit de Waal brings together thirty-three established and emerging writers who invite you to experience the world through their eyes, their voices loud and clear as they reclaim and redefine what it means to be working class. Original pieces include those by Damian Barr, Malorie Blackman, Lisa Blower, Jill Dawson, Louise Doughty, Stuart Maconie, Chris McCrudden, Lisa McInerney, Paul McVeigh, Daljit Nagra, Dave O’Brien, Cathy Rentzenbrink, Anita Sethi, Tony Walsh, Alex Wheatle.


Hustle and Gig: Struggling and Surviving in the Sharing Economy (U. of California Press), Alexandrea Ravenelle

Alexandrea Ravenelle won the Working-Class Studies Association’s Constance Coiner Dissertation Award, and Hustle and Gig is the book version of that dissertation.  Based on the personal stories of more than 70 predominately millennial workers at Airbnb, Uber, TaskRabbit, and Kitchensurfing, the book shows how “the autonomy these young workers expected has been usurped by the need to maintain algorithm-approved acceptance and response rates.”  Ravenelle also documents how the so-called “sharing economy” evades generations of workplace protections such as the right to unionize, workplace health and safety, and protections against discrimination and sexual harassment. Former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse says: “Hustle and Gig takes a smart, penetrating look at what’s happening in the platform economy—how it resembles an earlier industrial age when workers toiled long hours doing piecework for meager pay while lacking many basic protections.”


Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South (U. of Nebraska Press), M. Randal O’Wain

This memoir of growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, where the meandering of the Mississippi River defines neighborhoods and lives, is a reflection on how a working-class boy “came to fall in love with language, reading, writing, and the larger world outside the American South.”  The son of a carpenter described as “hardworking but wounded,” Randal O’Wain “examines what it means to value mental rather than physical labor and what this does to his relationship with his family, whose livelihood and sensibility are decidedly blue collar.”  O’Wain did some meandering himself, roaming from place to place, doing odd jobs, and touring with his band, but “ultimately discovers that his working-class upbringing is not so antithetical to the man he has become.”


Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor (Knopf), Steven Greenhouse

Former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse in this book does a number of different things.  He updates the situation of American workers today who face what his 2008 book called The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker.  He presents a highly selective but dramatic historical sketch of what unions achieved in the first two-thirds of the 20th century and a thoughtful summary of how and why unions have declined to their current state.  But he finishes with a hopeful round-up of recent and current worker struggles, including the Fight for $15 and teachers’ strikes, farmworkers and the Las Vegas’ culinary union, gig workers organizing and the renewal of the Los Angeles labor movement.  In doing so, Greenhouse argues that the current weakness of unions is “reflected in some of the most pressing problems facing our nation today, including income inequality, declining social mobility, the gender pay gap, and the concentration of political power in the hands of the wealthy,” and he rebuts the oft-stated mainstream view that labor unions are outmoded and no longer relevant.


The Yellow House (Grove), Sarah M. Broom

Broom’s stirring memoir, the winner of the 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction, is set in New Orleans East, a part of the city that tourists don’t visit. The yellow house of the title, Broom’s family home, is the pride, hope and prison of a black, working-class family. After it is destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, it also becomes a symbol of the issues confronting us today: pernicious racism, corporate greed, displacement and the improbable arithmetic of survival as a member of the working poor.


Labor in the Time of Trump (ILR Press), Jasmine Kerrissey, Eve Weinbaum, Clare Hammonds, Tom Juravich, and Dan Clawson, editors.

According to the publisher, “While President Trump’s election in 2016 may have been a wakeup call for labor and the Left, the underlying processes behind this shift to the right have been building for at least forty years.  The contributors [to this volume] show that only by analyzing the vulnerabilities in the right-wing strategy can the labor movement develop an effective response.”  The contributors include a wide range of academics from various disciplines and parts of the country and a few labor leaders as well.  The essays examine the conservative upsurge, explore key challenges the labor movement faces today, and draw lessons from recent activist successes.


Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics (Verso), Eric Blanc

The wave of successful teachers’ strikes that started in West Virginia, spread to Oklahoma and Arizona and now to similar actions gaining steam in Los Angeles, Oakland, Denver, Virginia, and elsewhere are, Eric Blanc argues, “winning the fight for the soul of public education.”  Blanc is a former high school teacher and longtime activist who was able to embed himself with the rank-and-file leaderships of the red-state walkouts.  He had access to internal organizing meetings and secret Facebook groups inaccessible to most reporters.  The publisher calls the result “one of the richest portraits of the labor movement to date, a story populated with the voices of school workers who are . . . redrawing the political map of the country at large” as they demand better pay for educators, more funding for students, and an end to years of austerity.


Only as the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems (W.W. Norton), Dorianne Laux

The publisher promises: “The wealth of her life experience finds expression in Laux’s earthy and lyrical depictions of working-class America, full of the dirt and mess of real life. From the opening poem, ‘Two Pictures of My Sister,’ to the last, ‘Letter to My Dead Mother,’ she writes, in her words, of ‘living gristle’ with a perceptive frankness that is luminous in its specificity and universal in its appeal. Exploring experiences of survival and healing, of sexual love and celebration, Only as the Day Is Long shows Laux at the height of her powers.”


Dust and Dignity: Domestic Employment in Contemporary Ecuador (ILR Press), Erynn Masi de Casanova

The publisher promises that Dust and Dignity “offers a new take on an old occupation,” one that “identifies patterns in domestic workers’ experience that will be helpful in understanding the situation of workers elsewhere . . . far beyond Ecuador.”  Erynn Masi de Casanova conducted her research by collaborating with Ecuador’s pioneer domestic workers organization, and she finds three reasons for persistent exploitation based on gender and class dynamics: “First, the tasks of social reproduction are devalued. Second, informal work arrangements escape regulation. And third, unequal class relations are built into this type of employment.” Casanova also offers possible solutions for promoting and ensuring domestic workers’ rights that may be relevant everywhere.


City of Workers, City of Struggle: How Labor Movements Changed New York (Columbia U. Press), Joshua Freeman, editor

Working-Class New York author Joshua Freeman edited this volume of essays that promises to be “the definitive account of the four-hundred-year history of efforts by New York workers to improve their lives and their communities.”  The book recounts how in many different circumstances, workers developed formal and informal organizations that not only advanced their own immediate interests, but also pursued “a vision of what the city should be like and whom it should be for.”  According to the publisher, “The book goes beyond the largely white, male wage workers in mainstream labor organizations who have dominated the history of labor movements to look at enslaved people, indentured servants, domestic workers, sex workers, day laborers, and others who have had to fight not only their masters and employers but also labor groups that often excluded them.”


Variations of Labor (Chin Music Press), Alex Gallo-Brown

Alex Gallo-Brown explores through poetry, essays, and fiction what it means to labor in modern-day America. Stories about semiprofessional poker players, line cooks in high-tech company cafeterias, and an activist trying to drum up support for a union paint a bleak picture of dead-end jobs and truncated hopes, but also depict the roiling just underneath the surface of all those who have been disrespected and written off.

Monument: Poems New and Selected (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Natasha Trethewey

The publisher writes: “Layering joy and urgent defiance—against physical and cultural erasure, against white supremacy whether intangible or graven in stone—Trethewey’s work gives pedestal and witness to unsung icons. Monument, Trethewey’s first retrospective, draws together verse that delineates the stories of working class African American women, a mixed-race prostitute, one of the first black Civil War regiments, mestizo and mulatto figures in Casta paintings, Gulf coast victims of Katrina. Through the collection, inlaid and inextricable, winds the poet’s own family history of trauma and loss, resilience and love.”


Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area (U. of Illinois Press), Peter Cole

Dockworkers have an unusual power to bring economies to a halt by withdrawing their labor.  Because they are at a strategic choke point in the supply chain on which we all depend, dockworkers can strike both to improve their own conditions and to gain attention for larger issues of social and economic justice.  Dockworker Power explores how that power has been used in Durban, South Africa, and the San Francisco Bay Area.  According to the publisher: “First, dockworkers in each city drew on longstanding radical traditions to promote racial equality. Second, they persevered when a new technology–container ships–sent a shockwave of layoffs through the industry. Finally, their commitment to black internationalism and leftist politics sparked transnational work stoppages to protest apartheid and authoritarianism.”  One reviewer calls it “a sweeping, panoramic narrative” that shows how “workers maintain power, even in our increasingly connected globalized world.”



The Long Deep Grudge: A Story of Big Capital, Radical Labor, and Class War in the American Heartland (Haymarket Books), Toni Gilpin

This book is about the class war between International Harvester and its workers, which stretched from the late 19th to the late 20th century.  The heart of the story is about how the McCormick family in Chicago, who long owned Harvester and ran it in an especially autocratic way, was eventually tamed in the 1930s when the workers organized the Farm Equipment Workers Union (“the FE”).  Both Harvester (now Navistar) and the FE (now part of the United Auto Workers union) are gone now, but in their time their battles affected many others.  The publisher promises: “This evocative account . . . reads like a novel. Biographical sketches of McCormick family members, union officials and rank-and-file workers are woven into the narrative, along with anarchists, jazz musicians, Wall Street financiers, civil rights crusaders, and mob lawyers. [It] provides alternative models from the past that can instruct and inspire those engaged in radical, working class struggles today.”


Where the Crawdads Sing (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), Delia Owens

For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens. Through Kya’s story, Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.


Remembering Lattimer: Labor, Migration, and Race in Pennsylvania Anthracite Country (U. of Illinois Press), Paul Shackel 

In 1897 in Lattimer, Pennsylvania, police shot into a crowd of 400 striking coal miners, killing 19 and wounding another 38.  This book gives a fresh retelling of that event and how it spurred membership in the United Mine Workers.  But it is primarily interested in how the Lattimer massacre has been remembered – and forgotten – up until today.  The publisher explains: “Now in positions of power, the descendants of the slain miners have themselves become rabidly anti-labor and anti-immigrant as Dominicans and other Latinos change the community. Shackel shows how the social, economic, and political circumstances surrounding historic Lattimer connect in profound ways to the riven communities of today.”


The New Politics of Transnational Labor: Why Some Alliances Succeed (ILR Press), Marissa Brookes

Based on six comparative case studies spanning four industries, five countries, and fifteen years, this book tries to determine why some transnational labor alliances succeed while others don’t.  In doing so Marissa Brookes finds that successful alliances depend “not only on effective coordination across borders and within workers’ local organizations,” which are necessary but not sufficient conditions for success.  Rather, she shows how success is determined by workers’ “ability to exploit vulnerabilities in global value chains, invoke national and international institutions, and mobilize networks of stakeholders in ways that threaten employers’ core, material interests.”


Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns (Chatto & Windus), Kerry Hudson

The publisher writes: “’When every day of your life you have been told you have nothing of value to offer, that you are worth nothing to society, can you ever escape that sense of being ‘lowborn’ no matter how far you’ve come?’ Kerry Hudson is proudly working class but she was never proudly poor. The poverty she grew up in was all-encompassing, grinding and often dehumanizing. Always on the move with her single mother, Kerry attended nine primary schools and five secondaries, living in B&Bs and council flats. She scores eight out of ten on the Adverse Childhood Experiences measure of childhood trauma. Twenty years later, Kerry’s life is unrecognizable. She’s a prizewinning novelist who has travelled the world. She has a secure home, a loving partner and access to art, music, film and books. But she often finds herself looking over her shoulder, caught somehow between two worlds. Lowborn is Kerry’s exploration of where she came from, revisiting the towns she grew up in to try to discover what being poor really means in Britain today and whether anything has changed. She also journeys into the hardest regions of her own childhood, because sometimes in order to move forwards we first have to look back.”


When Workers Shot Back: Class Conflict from 1877 to 1921 (Haymarket Books), Robert Ovetz

This book covers a period of extraordinary class conflict and violence from the rolling national railroad strike of 1877 through the series of massive strikes at the end of World War I.  Robert Ovetz uses his narrative to argue that “the escalation of working-class conflict drives rather than reacts to capital’s consolidation and reorganization.”  Immanuel Ness calls the book “a revelatory and illuminating account of the uses of political violence by workers in American history.”