Read: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Mathew Desmond

Evicted is a book I have been talking about since the first day I began reading it and one that I am sure to continue to talk about for many years.  

Matthew Desmond follows the intertwined lives of eight families and a host of minor characters in an extraordinary ethnographic study of tenants in low-income housing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Among the main "characters" are Arleen Belle and Doreen Hinkston who are black mothers struggling to keep their broken families sheltered and off the streets; Crystal and Trisha who are fragile young black women whose upbringing was violent and chaotic; Lamar who is a caring black father of two boys who lost both of his legs to frostbite when he passed out on crack in an abandoned house, and Scott who is a white male nurse who lost his nursing licence when he began using opioids stolen from the analgesic patches of his dying patients.  I found it hard to keep up with the personal storylines because they are told in a disorderly style, but Desmond's ultimate message is perfectly clear.  Rent is the main condition dragging down a large population of individuals and families in America and there is an urgent need to sort out this major housing crisis.  

The standard measure is that your rent should be no more than 30% of your income, but for poor people it can be 70% or higher.  Tenants are continuously forced to make a choice about what to do with their meager paychecks- pay the rent, pay a bill to keep their water or heat on, or to put food on their table.  Rent often seems to be the only negotiable payment, so tenants find themselves paying their landlords only a portion of the rent and then remaining in chronic debt to them.  Debt of this type allows for landlords to evict their tenants whenever it is convenient such as when they ask for something to be necessarily repaired like a hole in the window or a non-working sink or toilet, or when police are called to the property for any reason (a domestic violence incident or if a child gets into trouble at school).  This fact was one of the most haunting ones that I learned from this book.  It most certainly should make us reconsider why women do not call the police when their partners are violent with them or their children...

Each year, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of renters are put out on the street and most of those who are evicted are women, black women more specifically.  Eviction is socially damaging to those involved.  It puts immense stress on families.  It prevents people from saving even small sums of money that would let them eventually stabilize their situation.  They are always starting over from scratch, losing their possessions in the chaos of forced removal, or putting them in storage and losing them when they can’t pay the excessive monthly fees.  An eviction on your record makes the next apartment harder to get.  Eviction damages children, who are always changing schools, giving up friends and toys and pets – and living with the exhaustion and depression of their parents.  Eviction makes it hard to keep up with the many appointments required by the courts and the welfare system: several characters have their benefits cut because notices are sent to the wrong (previous) address.  Eviction destroys communities: when people move frequently, they don’t form the social bonds and pride in a place that encourage them to care for their block and look out for their neighbors.  Rather than living collectively, people live alone and only have the energy to try to look out for themselves.

Desmond's work is heartbreaking.  He did a commendable service portraying the chaotic, frustrating, and bleak situation of housing in America.  It is a must read.

Read: Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Moonglow: A Novel
By Michael Chabon

Nearly everyone I know has read at least one and loved at least one of Michael Chabon's novels (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Wonder Boys, etc), but until Moonglow, somehow his work passed me by.  I found the story interesting, a "faux" memoir told in an unique way, and Chabon's writing beautiful albeit wordy and quite "writerly".  His writing is so unusually delicious that at times I found myself reading for his word choice and descriptions rather than the story line.

Moonglow is the memoir of Chabon's grandfather narrated to the author by his grandfather during the last week of life unhinged by pain medication--“I showed up to say goodbye...just as Dilaudid was bringing its soft hammer to bear on his habit of silence.”  The story is patchy, does not flow chronologically, and sometimes too elaborative on specifics about WWII or rocket building for my taste.  Yet, the jumps in the story from the war to his marriage to a stent in jail to his obsession with rockets reflect the randomness of life and the need of a dying man to make some sense of it all.  The story line of his marriage was of particular fascination to me.  Upon his return from war, grandfather meets a French refugee at a synagogue party and is immediately attracted to her magnetism.  She is already a mother of a young girl (the narrator's mom) and harrowingly haunted by visions of a “skinless horse” that hint at her Holocaust trauma.  Her mental illness will ultimately bring an end to their love story.

The book is dense, the writing amazing.  I struggled at times to get through certain scenes that I did not find particularly interesting, but overall I liked the book and found its description of life, love, and war powerful.  I will close with my favorite line which happened to be the last line of the novel, "He lay there with his eyes closed for a long time after that, sculling along the surface of the sea of pain a little nearer toward his story's end or maybe...toward the story on the opposite shore that was waiting to begin."

I will be reading more by Michael Chabon.

 

Read: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven
By Emily St. John Mandel

This is not the type of book that I typically go for.  Dystopian fiction, in general, is not really my thing.  I don’t love the hopelessness brought on by thoughts of the end-of-the-world, the fear of being one of a few survivors of an apocalyptic change, or, perhaps worse, the fear of not surviving it.

After so many recommendations and great reviews, however, I decided to read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and I am glad that I did.  The post-apocalyptic tale begins with a performance of King Lear in Toronto in which tragedy befalls the lead actor.  The actor's fate is quickly overshadowed by the rapid spread of a deadly flu that wipes out most of Earth's population within weeks.  The novel follows the lives of various characters, but most specifically a group of actors and musicians who travel in a pack performing symphonies and Shakespearian plays calling themselves the Traveling Symphony, as they attempt to survive in a post-apacolyptic world.  

Mandel is an excellent storyteller and she creates as much a mystery as a dystopian novel by cleverly interweaving her characters' lives and fates.  The flashbacks interspersed throughout the book tie the past (pre-flu era) to the present in a way that makes it impossible not to be intrigued.  She paints fascinatingly terrifying visions of what the post-pandemic world is like and describes them mostly from the perspective of Kirsten, one of the children in that production of King Lear in Toronto, who is now an adult player in the Traveling Symphony.  She forces her readers to confront the violence and rawness of human nature in the absence of security.  My favorite line from the book is "Hell is the absence of the people you long for."

I found this book so compelling, I had trouble putting it down.  For four days straight, I had trouble thinking of much other than what it would be like to live in a Station Eleven world.  Mandel did not convince me to continue reading dystopian literature, but I give this book high marks for its creative story and excellent character development.  It is well worth your time.