nonfiction

Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland- Jonathan M. Metzl

Anything about politics these days, I have to wait until I’m mentally strong enough to handle it. Self-care and all that; there’s only so much negativity I can take at one time. I had placed Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan M. Metzl (Basic Books, 2019) on my TBR on the recommendation of a friend, and on a recent trip to the library, I took out my updated list and grabbed this book.

The title sums the book up nicely. Across many red states, white Americans are voting for policies that directly harm them, from gun laws that up their own death rates, to healthcare policies (or the rescinding of policies) that lead to increased suffering and deaths, to education cutbacks and policies that mean their own children’s schools are worse off- sometimes much worse off. And they’re doing this out of a misplaced sense of cultural pride, that lifting those whom they have ‘othered’ up means they’ll have no one to look down on, and so in order to maintain this false sense of superiority, they continually put their own lives on the line by voting for policies that bring harm upon themselves. To them, this tradeoff is worth it.

Dying of Whiteness is necessarily heavy on the statistics in order to prove its hypothesis, but Mr. Metzl has managed to wrangle what could have been a dry recounting into a sobering narrative of his research findings as he traveled through multiple states that went red in the 2016 election. The first section on how looser gun laws in Missouri led to a 25% increase in firearm homicides and a 47% higher homicide rate than the national average between 2008-2014 shocked me, as did the massive increase (the percentage which I somehow neglected to write down) in suicide-by-gun among white males. Prevention is key, but thanks to the Dickey Amendment, researchers haven’t been able to research what would be effective prevention for suicide carried out by a gun (as government contributes the most funding to research, since government funds cannot be used for funding research into gun deaths, the only thing to takeaway here is that the ability to own a gun is more important than saving lives, according to our government). Imagine if the flu, or the polio epidemic were treated like this, and where we would be as a nation if no research were allowed to be conducted on death or suffering caused by those. Yet here we are… It’s not exactly an uplifting book, but it’s not meant to be.

The healthcare section is similarly packed with statistics and numbers, with men on Medicaid, tethered to oxygen tanks and barely able to wheeze out answers complaining about immigrants and people of color and saying they’d rather die than have certain groups of people also able to access healthcare. It’s really that bad.

Same goes for the educational system, but at least Mr. Metzl is able to find plenty of citizens who seem to understand how the affects of austerity measures in Kansas harmed their own children (though they still voted en masse for people who promised to enact these same policies nationwide…), but only after their children’s schools went massively down the tubes.

‘You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him,’ Booker T. Washington famously said, and Mr. Metzl does a fine job of exposing the Americans who are content to stay down with those they’re deadset on oppressing. It’s a gloomy look at the reality of America today. My sole complaint lies with what Mr. Metzl seemingly overlooks: while these people have no trouble living in reduced circumstances in order to maintain their place in this invisible hierarchy, even going so far as to give up their own lives for this misguided ideal (something at which he seems more than a little awed at, in a horrified way), what he doesn’t mention is that it’s not just themselves these people are sacrificing. It’s their children. It’s their neighbors. It’s people who desperately want change, who DON’T want to sacrifice themselves, who don’t want to watch their children or their parent die due to lack of decent medical care, or who need to know how to prevent gun suicides, or who want their kids to have technology classes and AP classes and college preparation in school. People who are literally dying for their allegiance to their own whiteness are also sentencing the rest of us to die alongside them, and I would have liked to have seen more written to that particularly terrifying reality.

Dying of Whiteness is daunting and more than a little disheartening, but it’s well-written, statistically sound, and an important read, if you can handle it. It’s also a call to action for white people. Free your mind. Get over whatever racial biases and prejudices you have. Do the work to ditch your racism, because your life, and the life of those you love, literally depends on it.

Visit Jonathan Metzl’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction

Red, White & Royal Blue- Casey McQuiston

On occasion, I hit up the library without a list for something to read- anything to read, save me from the dreaded reading slump!- and on really cool occasions, a book that I’ve seen all over the book blogs appears before my eyes on the shelves. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2019) is one of those books. It was everywhere on the book blogs this summer and I see Casey McQuiston on Twitter almost every day, even though I hadn’t followed her until now (but y’all do, so well done there!). I hadn’t added this to my TBR, but it was kind of on my mental TBR, like, “I’m not going to specifically request it, but if I run into it, I’ll grab it.”

I ran into it.

I grabbed it.

I LOVED IT.

Alex Claremont-Diaz is the politically ambitious, college-age son of the first female American President. He’s driven, mischievous, and a little lonely- and he cannot STAND Henry, the British prince with whom he’s been crossing paths long before his mother took office. Henry is stiff, proper, everything you’d expect a royal to be, and his very presence drives Alex up the wall. After a disastrous moment between the two of them during the royal wedding reception, their respective PR teams force them into a very public faux-friendship in order to mend fences between the countries…and when Alex gets to see the Henry behind the royal façade, the real Henry, Alex discovers he actually likes the guy. Really likes him.

And that’s when, to Alex’s major surprise, their friendship deepens into romance.

Suddenly, Alex finds himself in a cross-country intrigue, pretending his growing love for the handsome young British royal is nothing more than an international bromance, but the two are in deep. If knowledge of this gets out, it could spell disaster for both the royal family and for Alex’s mother’s upcoming re-election. But how can they hide something that feels so perfect?

(This is possibly the worst summary I’ve ever written, so please don’t let that deter you from reading the book. It’s amazing and sweet and fun and adorable and really, one of the most joyful books I’ve read in ages.)

I don’t read a lot of stuff that gets super-hyped, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I dove into this book, but I absolutely wasn’t expecting to find one of the sweetest, most adorable love stories I’ve ever read. I loved every last thing about this- Alex’s status as first son, his surprise love interest being a British prince, Alex’s sister and friend group, the White House staff, his divorced parents’ relationship, the political intrigue, the heartfelt optimism of all of this, it all added up to a deeply enjoyable reading experience.

Alex and Henry together are an entire swoonfest, and Ms. McQuiston has penned an entire masterclass on witty banter between the two of them. They’re sharp, snarky, and clever together, making one of the most perfect, well-matched couples I’ve ever read in my entire reading life. Her dialogue flows so naturally that every conversation in this book felt like I was stashed away in the corner, eagerly listening in on something actually happening in front of me. This is one of those amazing books that absolutely transports the reader, and with its heartfelt optimism, it’s the perfect escapist read when real-life politics and international scandals become too much.

Alex’s sister and friends (and Henry’s friend as well) are fabulously well-written characters, but I have to say, my favorite character here was Zahra Bankston, the President’s deputy chief of staff, who (barely) kept Alex in line and swears like a sailor in the most creative manner. I so appreciated her snark and her barely-contained irritation with Alex. I’d hate to be in her crosshairs, but she’s absolutely someone I’d want on my side.

Goodreads says that Ms. McQuiston is currently working on another rom-com featuring two girls and possible time travel and I’m already dying a thousand deaths; I adored Red, White & Royal Blue so very much and I loved Ms. McQuiston’s style, so I’m ready to fast-forward to the point where this new book is in my hands and I have some quiet time to sit and devour it whole. Three cheers for finding a new author that I absolutely love!

Red, White & Royal Blue has been optioned; whether it’s fully developed and winds up on the big screen remains to be seen. I’d absolutely go see it, but I’m not sure any adaptation could do full justice to the wonderful novel Casey McQuiston has gifted to us all.

Visit Casey McQuiston’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men- Caroline Criado-Pérez

There have been so many great books on feminism and women’s issues that have come out in the past few years and I’ve wanted to read them all. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado-Pérez (Harry N. Abrams, 2019) caught my eye when a friend read a copy, although the subect scared me a little as well (and with good reason, as it turns out). Nevertheless, onto the TBR it went, and it took me a bit to finish, as I’m in the midst of a nasty pain flare thanks to (I’m hoping) the wild temperature swings we’ve been having lately.

Every woman understands women-centric problems in a deeply personal way- women’s pants pockets, AMIRITE???? But it turns out all those other annoyances we experience daily- some of them deadly- is because of the absence of our gender, or the absence of consideration for the ways women differ from men, as these products or methods are being researched and developed. Ever watched a man text one-handed and then you have to use both hands? Cell phones are designed for men’s hands. Ditto for standard piano keyboards, for those of you out there who have struggled to span certain octaves while playing. Seatbelt not fitting correctly across your breasts or pregnant belly? That’s because they’re designed for men’s flat chests; getting belts to accommodate women’s breasts would be “too difficult” (and thus, since car seats are designed based on men’s bodies- you guessed it, women are less safe and die at higher rates even in minor accidents). And don’t go expecting medication to work as the package states it will- even though we KNOW women metabolize medication differently, almost all medication (even medication for conditions primarily suffered by women!) is designed for and tested exclusively on men. These are problems that are quite literally killing women, yet the general consensus is, “Women are just too complicated, so we won’t bother.”

One of the most egregious examples Ms. Criado-Pérez highlighted was the lack of women on the teams helping to rebuild after a tsunami that devastated southeast Asia (forgive me, I can’t remember if it was Indonesia or Sri Lanka; I neglected to write it down. If you have a copy of the book or remember the specifics and have the time to correct me in the comments, I’m happy to amend this post!); this resulted in the teams of men building houses without kitchens. And lest you think this was a fluke, the same thing happened several years later after earthquakes devastated India- men rebuilt houses which lacked kitchens. And why not? They weren’t doing the cooking- food just magically appears for them- so houses having kitchens wasn’t in their frame of reference.

THIS is why the female perspective is vital, and Invisible Women presents the reader with example after infuriating example. No one is immune from the effects of women being left out- if it’s not you receiving ineffective medication or surgical procedures that do more harm than good, it might be your wife, your daughter, your mother- or it might be you sitting in a car when a woman flies through a windshield and then crashes through yours. Or maybe you’ll be waiting uncomfortably in an ER while the doctors work on that woman. Maybe it’ll be a woman whose finances you share who repeatedly drops her cell phone and needs a replacement because that phone is too big for her hands. In some way, this affects every person on the planet, and thus every last one of us should be putting up a major fuss.

Invisible Women is eye-opening and infuriating and should be read by every member of society. It’s opened my eyes to things I realized were problems but didn’t realize WHY (seatbelts, phone sizes, apps that require that we have our phones on our bodies but WHERE DO I PUT THIS THING WHEN I’M WEARING A DRESS OR IT DOESN’T FIT IN MY POCKET???). Ms. Criado-Pérez is more optimistic about these problems being solved than I am; there are far too many people out there willing to roll their eyes any time half the population even opens their mouths, so I don’t look for any of these problems to be solved, possibly ever. If your take is different, I’d love to hear it. I’m feeling pretty cynical about a LOT of stuff these days…

Visit Caroline Criado-Pérez’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger- Rebecca Traister

Women’s anger- whether it be about inequality in its multitudinous forms, sexual assault, or our current rocky political landscape- has been making headlines for quite a while now, and for good reason. Most of the women I know are pretty angry about a lot of things these days, and I’m right there with them, so when I heard about Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger by Rebecca Traister (Simon & Schuster, 2018), I knew I had to read it. One of the reasons I read so much is so that I’m always learning, always checking myself and my biases, always looking for ways to improve myself. Maybe reading this would help me feel so not alone in the anger and disgust that has become a constant companion these days.

Women’s anger has never been fully accepted in western society, and in the US, it’s mostly been brushed off, ignored, laughed at, and silenced, but throughout history, despite being denied equal pay, equal rights, the right to vote, the right to control her own fertility, even the right to obtain her own credit card or own property, women’s anger has been effective at initiating social change time and time again (and STILL we’re not taken seriously, wtf). Ms. Traister covers some of these incidents, but the bigger focus of the book remains on more modern issues.

Good and Mad focuses a lot on the outcome and aftermath of the 2016 elections and all the many, many issues raised because of them, and also the positive things that have come out of this anger. One of the benefits of our collective anger is that so many more women have become more politically activee and have run and are running for government office in unprecedented numbers (it’s about time!!!), and her portrayals of all the women who have found an outlet for their anger in political work is empowering.

Women’s anger has made clear, too, that we have a long, long way to go on racial equality in this country, and Ms. Traister gives space at the table to women of color who are fed up with not being heard by white women, especially those white women who benefit from the patriarchy and by doing so are happy to let women of color suffer (and I was very glad to see it; more intersectionality in all things, please!). I’ve seen this far too often online; we all need to do a better job of listening to each other, and especially listening and learning from women of color. When they say something is harmful to them, believe them and work to change your ways. It’s easy to get defensive and claim you didn’t mean anything by what you said, but it’s better to apologize, learn why what you said or did was wrong, and work to change your behavior. It’s the only way we’ll evolve as human beings, and it’s so, so necessary.

What I learned, and appreciated learning, most from Good and Mad is that our anger, women’s anger, isn’t unhealthy. It’s a valid emotion; it’s the system that insists we must oppress it for someone else’s benefit and comfort, and while I enjoy making life pleasant for those I love, I don’t need to make the world pleasant for those who don’t see me as an equal. Ms. Traister’s work has definitely inspired me to keep my anger burning in a productive way.

(And, just as a side note- check out the Goodreads reviews for this. Women AND men are reviewing it positively! In my review of All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers & the Myth of Equal Partnership by Darcy Lockman, I noted how a friend had pointed out that only women were reviewing the book. When I scrolled down through the reviews of Good and Mad, my eyes nearly popped out to see the first handful of reviews were by men! Amazing!)

Visit Rebecca Traister’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Janesville: An American Story- Amy Goldstein

What happens when the majority of the jobs in your community are provided by or based around one company…and that company pulls out? This is the question Amy Goldstein answers in Janesville: An American Story, my pick for Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge: a business book. The answers aren’t pretty.

During the Great Recession, the worst of the worst came to Janesville, Wisconsin: the General Motors plant, around which the majority of the town’s economy had long been based, announced it was shutting down. The job losses began immediately and continued until the building was entirely empty, and, like a terrible line of dominoes, other companies in the area that worked alongside or supplied General Motors closed their doors as well. Thousands of people, many whom had never worked for another company, were suddenly left without an income.

Janesville is the story of the city and county’s struggle to rebuild after their community is economically devastated. This isn’t a happy, optimistic, everyone-bands-together-and-sings-happy-songs kind of story (although there are those in the book who would have you think that). This is a book about choosing the least terrible option out of solely terrible options; of teenagers working three jobs while still attending high school; of people going without medical care for pneumonia because there’s literally no other choice; of families being turned away from the food pantry because the pantry can’t keep up with the community’s need. There’s a trigger warning for suicide in this book; there are no graphic details, but one of the people profiled by Ms. Goldstein, one who had what seemed like a fairly promising future after losing her job, ends her own life, so keep that in mind if that’s not a subject you’re comfortable reading about.

I’m going to get a little real here. A lot of this book made me angry, for many different reasons, and when the book opened with a profile of former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, I nearly put it down right then, because I don’t have much good to say about him (Janesville is his hometown, so it’s right that his reaction to this crisis is covered in this book, but he still turns my stomach). When industry shut down in Janesville, the town split into two factions, those who lost their jobs and the wealthier people who still had jobs and had little contact with those who didn’t. The wealthier people (including Paul Ryan) did a fantastic job of burying their heads in the sand and making up their own version of Janesville’s current reality, constantly talking about how all everyone needed was to be optimistic, that Janesville was recovering nicely and was a fantastic place to live. They completely ignored the suffering of families going hungry because the food pantry could only serve the first forty people there (and only if they hadn’t been there in a month), of the growing population of homeless children (some accompanied by parents, some not. Adult shelters wouldn’t accept unaccompanied teenagers; the county’s foster care system wouldn’t accept a child over 15), of the free medical clinic’s budget being cut and being able to see fewer and fewer people when the need was only increasing. Paul Ryan, at one point, waxes poetic about how Janesville doesn’t need to rely on outside sources for help, they take care of their own, and it’s unclear whether he’s willfully ignorant or entirely unaware and robustly tone deaf in regards the families who are suffering in silence because there’s no help available for them.

After the massive job losses began causing so much pain, hatred toward teachers (who, incidentally, were on the front line dealing with hungry, homeless students and struggling to find resources to help them) began to grow, to the point where some educators began avoiding public places like grocery stores until late at night, because they were being confronted by angry people accusing them of leeching off the system. Their main crime was having a steady job (and not an easy one at that), but in marched Scott Walker as Wisconsin governor, slashing the education budget, and Janesville experienced their first teacher layoff. Nothing says “We value education and are looking forward to having an educated population to care for us when we’re older!” like cutting AP classes and increasing class sizes, amirite? (And speaking of education, the people who went back to school and retrained in a different field actually ended up worse off than the people who didn’t, so scratch that myth off the list.)

I knew some of what Wisconsin went through under Scott Walker, but I wasn’t aware of all that Janesville had suffered (and is still suffering), despite it being only a short drive away for me (although I wasn’t in the area when all this was happening; the recession affected us as well and we spent five years living and working out of state, away from family). This is a frustrating, tragic story to read, but it shines a lot of light on the America of the past ten years, including the dwindling wages (a large amount of jobs that came back to Janesville only paid $15/16 per hour, and we wonder why so many Americans can’t afford a home…), the economy that still continues to struggle, and the stark divide between the haves and the trying-desperately-to-have-anything.

This probably isn’t a book I would have picked up on my own, but I’m glad I did, despite the frustration I felt in reading it. If it’s that frustrating for me to just read about, the stress of being a teenager and working three jobs to help support your family and still attending high school, or working a four-hour drive away from home and only seeing your children on weekends because that’s the only job you can get (and your family is still struggling financially) is beyond measure, and their stories deserve to be heard. The struggling families of Janesville and all around the country (and world!) deserve far better than we’ve given them. We’re all in this together, but we’ve failed these people who are struggling through no fault of their own.

I dislike saying that a work of nonfiction reads like a novel, because I think that often discounts the ability of nonfiction to be engaging in its own right, but so much of this book is as gripping as any fictional story. Unfortunately, every last word of it is painfully true. Janesville will forever change how I think and feel when I hear of major corporations closing their doors, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to listen to such a story on the news without reflecting on the hardship it will cause the families and communities affected.

Visit Amy Goldstein’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.