Fall Check-In

The thing about book blogging is that you can’t do it if you aren’t reading, and I’ve been struggling this fall. I read a grand total of three books in September (four if you count the romance novel manuscript I read for someone–and I do, because I enjoyed it a lot, but I can’t blog about it).

I know I’m not the only one who is often distracted by the news (or “news,” because how much of it is really worth attention?) these days. I was better at focus over the summer, but I’ve been drawn back to the firehose of Twitter recently, maybe because the looming US election has increased the intensity of its blast. It’s a distraction I’m always working to reduce.

But I’ve also had my perennial fall troubles with reading: until I adjust to back-to-school busyness, I’m often too tired to read much at the end of the day, and I have student work to read again, which can sap my attention for reading other things. Now that I’m adjusting to the work routine, those problems are easing. I have read two books so far in October, which isn’t great but may put me on track to do a little better than September. What have I been reading?

Evicted, by Matthew Desmond This book earned all the praise it got. Desmond is a sociologist who has done a lot of research on eviction and related issues in Milwaukee, and this book is based on years he spent observing and interviewing landlords and tenants (there’s a long section at the end of the book explaining his methodology). But there’s nothing dry about Evicted, which focuses on a handful of people and their stories, which Desmond narrates with vivid detail. These stories make clear how eviction and lack of stable, safe housing is part of a cycle poor people are trapped in: if you’re constantly moving because of evictions, cycling in and out of shelters, it’s hard to keep your children in school or keep your job, for instance. Money that’s needed for food and other basic necessities has to go on security deposits and moving expenses. Rent eats up 70% or more of people’s income.

I felt I understood and had sympathy for all the people Desmond writes about, even those whose choices I was tempted to condemn–people who are often dehumanized and examined as abstract problems. It’s a real gift to do public scholarship of this nature, I think–to make what could be presented as a dry policy issue into a riveting story.  Evicted ends with policy prescriptions that demonstrate how very possible, and relatively affordable, it would be for the US to provide affordable housing for everyone, and what a difference that could make in attacking poverty. I hope enough people read this book and respond to it in some way that it becomes a small part of making change.

Unseen Hand, by Adam Zagajewski, translated by Clare Cavanagh I fell in love with Zagajewski’s poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World” when I heard it on a New Yorker poetry podcast. There was nothing I loved as much in this collection, but I did enjoy it. Themes that stood out for me were nostalgia and memory, especially as linked to urban spaces–city squares, streets, and rivers. Several of the poems reflect on his father’s dementia. The world he evokes is full of loss, but also of beauty. Some favorite lines:

If I were Tomaž Šalamun,
I’d ride wild on an invisible bicycle,
like a metaphor sprung from a poem’s cage,
still not certain of its freedom,
but making do with movement, wind, and sun.

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett I had this on my shelves, and need to read a book made into a movie I had already seen for the Pop Sugar challenge, which I am hoping to finish this year (10 categories and 2.5 months left…). I don’t love noir at the best of times, and this wasn’t the best of times to read this. Who needed a dose of misogyny and a vision of a cynical and corrupt world just now? I was most interested in the choices that Sam Spade made at the end, about which I will be vague in case someone hasn’t read this/seen the movie. He chooses not to be corrupt, at some personal cost. Not necessarily because he believes in the values he’s upholding, but . . . because he believes they should be upheld? I wasn’t really sure. This is always the most interesting thing about the hard-boiled detective for me, I guess. He isn’t really a noble or heroic figure, and the value of doing the “right” thing isn’t necessarily clear to him–or he lives in a world that doesn’t value it–but he does it all the same.

Hmm. . . . It seems that a theme of my September reading was depressing books that nevertheless had moments of hope, or at least endurance. And perhaps this is just the right time for such reading.

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3 Responses to Fall Check-In

  1. Sunita says:

    That kind of reading (depressing with moments of hope or at least endurance) has been a big part of my reading diet for the last two years now. Everyone has their own way of dealing with this terrible period, so I’m certainly not giving advice. I hope you find a path that works for you, because I don’t think it’s ending any time soon.

    I read the journal article that encapsulates Desmond’s research, so I didn’t read the book, but I’m glad that it’s getting such a large readership. It certainly deserves it.

    And I agree with putting “news” in quotes. Most of the major news outlets (print, TV, online-only, you name it) are putting actual reported news and opinion/analysis pieces next to each other without identifying which is which in the front matter (and the NYT got rid of bylines!) so it’s really easy to read non-news, i.e., stories that are not factual and adhering to journalism standards of news reporting, and not realize until you’re halfway through that this is just someone’s opinion or think-piece. Again. And the latter far outnumber the former, because they get so many more clicks.

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