The Writer's Life
Alissa Quart: The American Squeeze
Alissa Quart (
|photo: Ann Fox
Branded, The Republic of Outsiders), journalist, poet and executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, probes the crumbling foundation of the American Dream: an unstable middle class. In
Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America (Ecco, $27.99; reviewed below), Quart blends facts, interviews and analysis into a powerful, affecting portrait of a country--its tired, its poor... and its possibilities.
You use "Middle Precariat" to describe the status of many of the people whose stories you tell in Squeezed. Can you explain that term?
The word "precariat" was popularized seven or so years ago to describe a rapidly expanding working class with unstable, low-paid jobs. I coined the term "Middle Precariat" to describe those who should be comfortable or even bourgeois, but it hasn't worked out that way for them. These are nurses, librarians, professors, even lawyers who should be in the prime of their working lives, but some of whom can't afford to rent an apartment big enough for their families and are certainly priced out of buying their homes. They have less job security and they may not have reliable work hours. They certainly don't have pensions or adequate retirement funds. As I say in the book, the Silicon Valley-like calls for disruption may mean that even in later middle age, the Middle Precariat may have their positions "reimagined." That cruel euphemism means they are to be replaced by younger, cheaper workers and sometimes now--or eventually--by machines.
Talking to a mother who returned to school to pursue a new career, who blamed herself for her inability to provide opportunities for her daughter, you wrote: "It made me want to break my journalist role... to say, it's not just you." That thread runs throughout this book: it's not just you.
One of my impetuses for writing Squeezed was the wish to tell the people I was talking to that it was not their fault. That's real self-help, in my opinion--reassuring people (when it's true, that is) that they are suffering due to a system error rather than their own mistakes, bad choices or personal failings.
I'd sometimes share information with subjects, like data about schools, for instance, or simply remind them they are part of a broader societal failure: "It's not you--it's this country."
As you point out, "America seems not to care about care." You interview people who experienced their struggles in isolation even as they provided care for others, and often gender roles factored into that. How might we communicate better about gender roles with people unable to recognize the need for change?
The caregiving of mothers, babysitters and domestic workers and guardians is some of the worst paid and most professionally disdained work out there. Yet it is the most important. This is an outrage.
It's also very much the legacy of sexism and racism. It's the coda to a federal decision blocking domestic workers and farmworkers from labor law protections: the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 allowed private-sector employees to protest abusive working conditions or bargain collectively, but domestic workers were excluded, due to pressure from Southern lawmakers. The contempt and punishment of the emotional and physical labor of care is written into our very political code.
Still, how are we to understand the apparent contempt for care work and care workers in this country when we are also told that childhood is sanctified and romantic and motherhood is beautiful? I think we need to alter the way we position care work of any kind. One way is protecting female employees from a gender pay gap, as this discrepancy can have a lot to do with mothers taking a hit professionally after their children are born. But I also think fighting the stigma around care is a conceptual thing: we need to start to see care capacity as a moral and professional advantage rather than simply a vulnerability or a distraction from "real work." Easier said than done, of course.
You write about your own career beginnings, teaching in a community college, "hoping to start a 'career' in poetics, of all ridiculous ambitions." And now, you are indeed a poet. There's a line in your poem "Strong Copies" in Monetized--"Here's to reproduction: photography, Twitter, pregnancy."-- that ties deeply to themes in your reporting and in Squeezed. How do your different kinds of writing relate to each other?
I love this question because as a journalist, I've reported on, say, what happens to the people gentrified out of their cities or neighborhoods. I report on mothering, or social class or newspapers shutting down. And then these themes entered my poetry. Sometimes, I think of poetry as the afterbirth of my journalism.
My last poetry book, Monetized, has similar preoccupations as my nonfiction, like Squeezed or my first book, Branded: to monetize means to "convert into or express in the form of currency." It's a word everyone uses in the Silicon Valley when they speak of turning something into commodity. In journalism and, of course, in poetry, turning a labor of love or something in the name of the social good into something of monetary value can be hard or impossible. So Monetized is sort of an ironic title.
What books are on your nightstand?
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, George Orwell's Fighting in Spain, In a Day's Work by Bernice Yeung, the poetry collection Flow by Anne Carson, Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski... basically it ranges from political reporting to poetical novels and memoirs to rigorous poetry. And you'll notice it's almost all by women. I hope I don't sound like a separatist, but most of the books I read are by women!
What are you working on now?
I am working on a collection of poetry that's quite formalist and political--lots of breaking news in it about harassment
, etc.--called Thoughts and Prayers
What's your hamster's name and why?
Tabitha. My daughter tells me it was a name she found "cheery." I think it came to her from Beatrix Potter's book about Tabitha the cat, which is paradoxical, of course, as cats eat hamsters.
I think she wanted a cat.
How Hard Can It Be?
Kate Reddy is turning 50. You remember Kate. Oh, unless you, too, suffer from "Perry memory-pause." Allison Pearson introduced Kate in 2002's I Don't Know How She Does It, and readers cheered as she juggled a demanding job, two young kids and marriage. Now, she's wondering how hard can it be? when, after a seven-year hiatus, she has to go back to work.
Taking inventory of her life at 49, Kate ticks off the components: husband Richard loses his job and "tunes into his inner Dalai Lama"; kids enter "the twister of adolescence"; parents are aging precariously. "I worried I was losing my mind, but it was probably just hiding in the same place as the car keys and the reading glasses." With the recently purchased "charming period gem" of a house requiring a full-time handyman and Richard demanding two years of "retraining," Kate polishes her CV, confessing to no one that her résumé shaves seven years off her age. Landing a job at her old financial advisement firm (with a new, very young, staff), she restarts the balancing act of home and work. Kate keeps her sense of humor, with "Roy," her imaginary memory aide, on-call. ("Roy, number of calories in a flat white? Roy?")
Kate tackles sandwich generation issues with determination, and readers may wish they could help her. When daughter Emily is cyber-bullied, Kate seems too stressed to do the obvious and ask her more details. She's overly kind to Richard, missing signs of infidelity; yoga lessons aren't that
long. The first-person perspective lends immediacy to Kate's circumstances as readers cheer alongside her. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon
, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco
Discover: In this sequel to I Don't Know How She Does It, Kate Reddy goes back to work, providing another hilarious look at balancing home, job and life.
St. Martin's Press,
$27.99, hardcover, 384p., 9781250086082
Alan Querry, a 68-year-old divorced property developer from Northumberland, is preoccupied with contrasts. While visiting Vanessa, his Skidmore College philosophy professor daughter, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he doggedly compares American and English portion sizes, newspaper obituaries and so on. He also compares Vanessa, long prone to depression, with her younger sister, Helen, a vivacious Sony record company executive in London, who accompanies Alan on the anxious overseas visit.
Alan and Helen have been summoned to Saratoga Springs by Josh, Vanessa's live-in boyfriend, who e-mailed to say that Vanessa had been depressed since December and that right before Christmas she fell down the stairs and broke her arm. Although plot isn't among its chief concerns, Upstate offers a central mystery: Is Vanessa's broken arm the result of self-sabotage?
The second novel by New Yorker
book critic James Wood (The Book Against God
is put together with the author's customary dashing prose. (A character once typed a novel on an old Corona "for the beatnik hell of it.") While modest in length, the book has the heft of a grander undertaking. Upstate
is set in early 2007, on the cusp of wariness-making technological innovation; as Alan thinks at one point, "The screen had replaced the window." Points of view wander across pages, tied to characters who fear both the future and being left behind--technologically, geographically, mortally. Vanessa might do well to consider Alan's coping strategy, exclusive to neither Americans nor the English: "I 'go on,' I suppose, because I don't think about life too much." --Nell Beram
, author and freelance writer
Discover: In James Wood's fine-tuned second novel, an English businessman travels to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to visit his depressed daughter at her boyfriend's behest.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
$26, hardcover, 224p., 9780374279530
Mystery & Thriller
Invitation to a Bonfire
Adrienne Celt, novelist, cartoonist and delightfully self-described "friend to imaginary people and animals," proves an equally good friend to the living with Invitation to a Bonfire. An intimate character study and twisted psychological saga, Bonfire is wrapped in the distinctive atmosphere of 1930s Russia and the East Coast American upper class.
An opening note identifies the work as the project of an elite New Jersey all-girl boarding school, told through a compilation of documents posthumously donated by a benefactor--diary entries of a young Russian refugee and letters from an infamous Soviet author to his wife. The note cleverly teases the death and deception to follow as the paths of the two cross with fatal consequences.
Zoya is a war orphan smuggled into the United States and dropped at the Donne School with threadbare clothing and $10 to her name. Zoya's 1931 diary exquisitely recounts her difficulties fitting in while surrounded by cruel girls from wealthy families. Leo Orlov is steered to literary success by his calculating wife, Vera ("[s]harp as a tack... [c]old as a Frigidaire"), ultimately landing at Donne as a visiting professor and seducing Zoya. When Leo temporarily returns to Russia, his wife and mistress undertake a manipulative friendship, partially at his behest.
Celt (The Daughters
) writes in beautiful detail, particularly within Zoya's diaries, which exhibit a detached coolness that renders her captivatingly enigmatic. Leo's letters to Vera are adoring, yet cunning in their own right. Filled with characters of unreliable passion and motive, Bonfire
smolders with intrigue through the final reveal. --Lauren O'Brien
of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: A twisted love triangle involving a young Russian woman, her famous author lover and his calculating wife plays out to a tragic end in 1930s New Jersey.
$26, hardcover, 256p., 9781635571523
Taylor Zajonc's The Maw is a beach read in the best sense. It zips along at a thrilling pace, with a twist at the end of almost every chapter. A small team of cavers, funded by an enigmatic American billionaire, sets out to explore an uncharted super cave in Tanzania. Trapped inside by inclement weather and bad judgment, the team must go deeper into the darkness in order to make their way back. There are wrinkles (each caver has their own secrets, of course), and tilts toward sci-fi and horror, but Zajonc expertly mines his setting, a place so dark and vast that getting lost means death.
Milo Luttrell, a mild-mannered history professor, is ill-equipped for the journey, making him an easy cipher for Zajonc to explain the ins and outs of extreme caving. Brought along for his historical expertise, Milo quickly finds that little of what he knows from above ground comes to bear in the darkness.
Zajonc, a historian and adventurer in his own right, knows how to explain the sensation of caving. The sights and smells of the underworld come alive when reading The Maw
, making the isolation and claustrophobia he depicts all the more intense. While not the most graceful of prose stylists, he knows how to keep his narrative moving, never letting that tension ease. Easily digestible, The Maw
feels akin to watching a well-made thriller on Netflix. --Noah Cruickshank
, adult engagement manager, the Field Museum, Chicago, Ill.
Discover: Taylor Zajonc's The Maw is a fast-paced thriller set thousands of feet underground.
$24.99, hardcover, 320p., 9781510732407
Gentlemen Formerly Dressed
Rowland Sinclair, the artistic black sheep of the conservative and wealthy Sinclair family, is in London--as is his older brother, Wilfred. Wil is there as Australia's representative at the London Economic Conference of 1933. Rowland and his avant-garde collection of friends have fled Germany, after Brownshirts broke Rowly's arm and burned a swastika into his chest during adventures depicted in Paving the New Road.
Rowly and his friends--Clyde, a fellow painter, Milton, a poet, and Edna, a sculptress--are desperate to tell someone in English authority about the atrocities they witnessed in Germany, so Wil gets his brother an audience with Viscount Pierrepont, an important member of Britain's delegation to the economic conference. But when Rowland goes to meet Pierrepont, he finds him dead: wearing a women's nightgown, impaled on a massive sword and with his hysterical niece screaming over the body.
Wil wants Pierrepont's murder hushed up, because it could damage the conference. But Rowly and his entourage are alarmed by the plight of Pierrepont's niece--now a suspect--and so they begin to investigate.
With fast pacing, madcap characters and intriguing historical personages like H.G. Wells, Evelyn Waugh and Winston Churchill making appearances, Gentlemen Formerly Dressed
is historical mystery at its most fun. Sulari Gentill has managed to capture the odd decadence of the British upper classes, in stark contrast to the rising fascist factions in both Germany and England. Fascinating history, entertaining characters and a hint of romance make Gentlemen Formerly Dressed
irresistible. --Jessica Howard
, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.
Discover: A group of bohemian Australians try to solve the murder of Lord Pierrepont in 1933 London in this entertaining historical mystery.
Poisoned Pen Press,
$15.95, paperback, 9781464206955
Food & Wine
In the Restaurant: Society in Four Courses
, trans. by Jamie Lee Searle
For cultural historian Christoph Ribbat (Flickering Light: A History of Neon), restaurants transcend their gustatory function and instead reflect the microcosms of a larger society. Ribbat's academic but compulsively readable 250-year cultural history explores the restaurant in all its guises, from 18th-century Parisian establishments serving restorative bouillons to businesses focused on pleasing the customer, from street vendors and bars to fast food joints and upscale cafes where chefs pursue excellence and the coveted Michelin star.
As much as the people within--cooks, hosts, servers--control the image of a restaurant, so, too, does society from without. The adoration (or biting criticism) of legions of food writers, customers, student activists and sociologists has played just as prominent a role in shaping restaurants historically as those involved with its intimate day-to-day operations. A restaurant is "a place that generates new forms of creative innovation, and a site of exploitative labour."
Divided into four chapters, In the Restaurant describes how aspects of the restaurant shaped various individuals' life experiences. "In the restaurant as a narrowly limited space, people collide with people and ideas with ideas." It is "one place where both intimate pleasures and social ambitions can be explored."
People often go to restaurants to see and be seen, to participate in the experience of open exclusivity that would otherwise be denied to those outside its social circle. In so doing, Ribbat shows, the restaurant itself has come to reflect the cultural and sociological principles of the society in which it exists. --Nancy Powell
, freelance writer and technical consultant
Discover: Christoph Ribbat's fascinating cultural history of restaurants transcends gastronomy to trace how this 250-year institution developed and its place in society.
$24.95, hardcover, 224p., 9781782273080
Biography & Memoir
Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage
Pauli Murray (Proud Shoes
) was a civil rights activist, labor organizer and poet, the first African American to get a Doctor of Juridical Science from Yale. Her autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat
, was first published in 1987. Popular interest in her life and work has inspired this new edition, with an introduction by scholar Patricia Bell-Scott (The Firebrand and the First Lady
It might be tempting to see Murray's energy and vision as inexhaustible, if it weren't for the title she chose for this book. Born in 1910, she was raised in North Carolina by her supportive Aunt Pauline in an enterprising, book-loving extended family. She was "a thin, wiry, ravenous child, overly active and eager to please but strong-willed and irrepressible." As an adult, she was much the same. She worked from an early age, first at chores and paper routes, then in a series of starvation-wage service jobs while attending Hunter College in New York City, until she got her first good job, with the Works Progress Administration. A whim took her to try her fortune in California, but when she learned her aunt was sick, she hopped freight trains to get home.
She omits her love life--for that, and her struggles with gender identity, readers must look elsewhere. She was on the front lines of her times. She knew bright lights of the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement, had a long friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, served on the board of the new ACLU and helped found NOW. Readers can always appreciate another inspirational hero out of the past, and Pauli Murray's time may have finally arrived. --Sara Catterall
Discover: This is a new edition of the vivid and inspiring posthumous autobiography of visionary civil rights and labor activist Pauli Murray.
$22.95, paperback, 624p., 9781631494581
Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America
Journalist Alissa Quart (Branded
, Republic of Outsiders
), executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, details the evolution of the United States' once-comfortable middle class into an ever more at-risk "Middle Precariat" in Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America
Quart co-founded the EHRP's current incarnation with Barbara Ehrenreich, whose Nickel and Dimed legacy finds a powerful continuation in Squeezed. At its core is an argument against the notion that people can simply "work hard and succeed," let alone merely "do what they love." With globalization, the rise of corporations, growing automation and a gig economy, people increasingly find themselves having to do whatever they can, with even that often not being enough.
"Shouldn't we always first and foremost defend people and their labor?" Quart asks. It's an important question, and squarely in her sights are not just labor and progress, but how progress might be reframed in terms of caring about the welfare of those around us.
While she writes incisively, it's not just Quart's voice that makes Squeezed powerful; it's also the voices of those whose stories she shares: mothers, fathers, teachers, caregivers. From a little girl at a 24-hour daycare facility: "Why do children think parents are going to save them?"
Quart isn't in the business of sugar-coating hard truths. But she does posit solutions: a universal child allowance, reframing care and communicating more openly about social class. And for now, readers can at least take comfort in Quart's constant message: it's not just you
. --Katie Weed
, freelance writer and reviewer
Discover: In the vein of Nickel and Dimed, Alissa Quart indicts the forces making "the American dream" less and less attainable for more and more people.
$27.99, hardcover, 320p., 9780062412256
The Third Bank of the River: Power and Survival in the Twenty-First-Century Amazon
Chris Feliciano Arnold
The Amazon: the name brings to mind lush, uninhabited rain forests, dense with tropical plants, towering trees and wild animals. And yet there is so much more to this vast area, as investigative journalist Chris Arnold deftly explains in his vivid first book, The Third Bank of the River, a travel memoir and historical treatise on this region. Arnold couples his personal search for his Brazilian roots with the history that's unfolded along this massive river system from the time of the first Spaniards' invasions to the present day.
As he traverses the river on various watercrafts and covers the 2014 World Cup, he also investigates drug trafficking along the river as well as corruption in the police force, where men are officers of the law by day and brutal murderers by night. Arnold shares how aerial drones help track the movements of isolated indigenous people, groups who still live off the land as their ancestors did. Yet, these groups have been enslaved and brutally treated for centuries by rubber tree-tapping companies. They continue to die from imported diseases and now face new threats as logging operations encroach on their remote villages.
Arnold carefully weighs his thoughts and feelings about who and what he encounters against the difficult, violent situation that plagues Brazil as it strives to be a leader in this territory. As a result, The Third Bank of the River
is an enlightening narrative that will forever change your perception of the Amazon as an idyllic oasis. --Lee E. Cart
, freelance writer and book reviewer
Discover: An investigative journalist explores the deep interior of the Amazon, discovering violence and instability along the river banks.
$28, hardcover, 352p., 9781250098948
Essays & Criticism
Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing
Ursula K. Le Guin
, David Naimon
Ursula K. Le Guin is justly celebrated for her extensive work in multiple genres: her novels helped shape the landscape of modern science fiction, and her poetry, essays and literary criticism have proved both reflective and thought-provoking. Late in her career, Le Guin (who died in January 2018) met with writer and radio host David Naimon for three interviews broadcast by an Oregon public radio station. These interviews are collected in Conversations on Writing, a slim but powerful storehouse of insights on the craft, politics and philosophy of Le Guin's vocation.
In her introduction, Le Guin compares a good interview with a good badminton rally. The metaphor is apt: readers can delight in watching the repartee fly. The first interview, on fiction, begins with language at the level of sentence and sound: the gait and rhythm of a piece, the importance of cadence. The talk moves along to the systemic erasure of women writers, the politics of genre fiction, contemporary trends in style and tense. The interviews on poetry and nonfiction are similarly packed with insight and wit; Le Guin notes wryly that "dictators are always afraid of poets." She muses on the state of literature and publishing, the American fear of "dragons" (read: imagination) and the shameless delight she took in writing the memoirs of her cat, Pard. Fueled by Naimon's incisive questions and peppered with excerpts from Le Guin's books, these wide-ranging interviews are a treat for both longtime fans and newcomers to her work. --Katie Noah Gibson
, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: Ursula K. Le Guin shares her insights on the craft and politics of writing in three wide-ranging radio interviews.
$14.95, hardcover, 150p., 9781941040997
Children's & Young Adult
Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams
, illust. by James E. Ransome
Award-winning author/illustrator team Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome's (Before She Was Harriet
) newest nonfiction picture book pays tribute to two of the world's most impressive athletes: tennis stars and sisters Venus and Serena Williams.
"Venus and Serena Williams, two peas in a pod, best friends.... Whatever Venus did, Serena followed. So when their father took Venus to the tennis court to begin lessons, Serena begged to go along." People in their neighborhood laughed at Richard, "with tennis ambitions and a Compton address," but still he pushed his girls for excellence. "It wasn't long before their father's dreams became their own."
As the girls grew older, their dedication to tennis never wavered. They didn't have "expensive training equipment and professional coaches" so they made up their own drills, throwing footballs, dancing ballet and tossing racquets into the air. Playing on the public courts of Compton meant the girls were invisible to the tennis circuit. But "when Venus won every single one of her sixty-three junior tournaments by age ten... word of the Williams sisters spread." The girls won more and more and, within three years of Serena playing her first professional match, "both girls ranked in the top fifty."
The Ransomes' work follows the "[l]ong-legged, brown-skinned, beaded cornrowed sisters" through 2002, when Venus and Serena faced each other in the finals of the French Open. The illustrations glory in the sisters' brown skin and colorful clothing, making them prominent "in a sea of white tennis attire, white fans, and white opponents." Every page is splashed with vibrant color and eye-catching patterns, and the figures of the women themselves are full of energy, speed and tension. An afterword, selected bibliography and source notes round out this incredible tennis life story of "two of the most popular athletes in history." --Siân Gaetano
, children's and YA editor
Discover: Author/illustrator team Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome create another stunning nonfiction work about "two of the most popular athletes in history."
Paula Wiseman Books,
$17.99, hardcover, 48p., ages 4-8, 9781481476843
Learning to Breathe
Janice Lynn Mather
People call Indira "Doubles," insisting she's the double of her mother, a woman who "smells rotten" and who always has a new boyfriend. "I'm her Double," Indy thinks, fearing that she will, in fact, be "[t]he thing, the person, everyone expects [her] to become." Indy, who has always lived at her Grammy's small house in Mariner's Cay, is sent to Nassau Harbour to live with her Aunt Patrice to finish high school. Shortly after her arrival, Aunt Patrice's son, Gary, begins sneaking into the living room where she sleeps to rape her. Her heartbreaking abuse is even more devastating in light of her fear; Indy doesn't dare come forward about the rapes for fear of proving to others that she is her mother's double. When Indy realizes she's pregnant, there's only one place she can go for advice: a book Grammy gave her when she left. But it seems even Grammy believes Indy is her mother's double: "There's no picture on the cover, only its title: The Pregnancy Book." Indy can't hide this pregnancy forever, but if Grammy didn't even believe in her, how could anyone else?
Learning to Breathe, Janice Lynn Mather's debut, is a raw and unflinching look at coming of age while dealing with trauma and the expectations of others. Mather's delicate handling of the abuse is purposeful, and there are multiple emotionally painful scenes that some readers will find challenging. Intermittent scenes of Indy learning various yoga poses and becoming increasingly balanced, both physically and metaphorically, are hopeful, rounding out a story that is emotionally charged, thought provoking and unforgettable. --Kyla Paterno, former YA and children's book buyer
Discover: After being raped, a teenage girl struggles to conceal an unwanted pregnancy.
Simon & Schuster,
$18.99, hardcover, 336p., ages 14-up, 9781534406018