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Book Review: The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr

I’m one of those weird people who actually enjoys grocery shopping. Of course, the pandemic has changed that a little bit; these days, it’s mostly get-in-and-get-out-as-quickly-as-possible-without-breathing-near-people, but in normal times, I enjoy seeing what’s on the shelves, what products I’ve haven’t tried, what’s on sale. I live by some great grocery stores, so this is always an adventure. It’s because of all this that The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket by Benjamin Lorr (Avery Publishing Group, 2020) ended up on my TBR. I requested it at my library even before it hit the shelf, and there were several people ahead of me! I love knowing I live in a town with such enthusiastic readers.

Think of the grocery stores you shop at- a chain? A big box store? A specialty store like Trader Joe’s, a co-op, maybe a store with lots of organic products like Whole Foods? Maybe you’re one of the few people who still have a local store. Regardless of where you purchase your food, there are rules as to what food ends up on the shelf. The supply chain, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, is a machine with many parts, but each part is far more precarious than the average American might expect.

From the studied beginnings and growth of Trader Joe’s to the exploitation of American truckers, from the numbers-and-hustle game of getting a product on store shelves to the exploitation of Thai shrimp workers, Benjamin Lorr covers the profits-over-all system of food shopping in the US and how we as consumers participate in this system simply by our need to eat. Were you aware that a large portion of shrimp in the US is produced via slave labor? Did you know that around 90% of new products end up failing each year, and that the producers of each product must pay to get their products on the shelf? How much do you know about how exploitative the trucking industry is, and how the men and women who deliver everything you consume and use might not be making any money at all, but might instead be paying to work? Almost every part of the machine that works together in order to fill our grocery stores has a dark story that we don’t necessarily see or think about, and it’s all laid out here on the pages of this book.

I went into this book expecting to learn solely about grocery stores, but I came out of it better informed about the horrors of the supply chain that makes American grocery stores possible. Absolutely every cog in this machine runs on exploitation, from the lowest paid shelf stocker to the one-handed Thai slave who works 20 hours a day on a shrimp boat, to the person who has developed a great new product and who has run themselves ragged and put their life savings into trying to get that product into stores. Other than the high-up CEOs and high paid businesspeople at big box stores and mega corporations, American grocery is built on the suffering of people around the world, including Americans.

This is one heck of an exposé, and it’s a pretty depressing read- it’s a necessary one that will change the way you look at grocery stores and the products on the shelves, but it’s a book that will have you questioning your participation in such a terrible system. (I didn’t plan it this way, but the book I picked up immediately after finishing this discusses ways to extricate oneself from this system to the extent possible, since we’re all bound to it in some part.) I did wonder how the pandemic’s affect on the supply chain would have affected the book (toilet paper, anyone?); an additional chapter in future editions would definitely make a great addition, but that might actually be its very own book.

The Secret Life of Groceries will force you to examine the ways you participate in a system that harms so many, and it’ll have you pondering exactly how these stores and corporations are manipulating you through their marketing strategies. Ethical consumption is the responsibility of everyone who can financially manage it, but the modern grocery store has made that a massive, massive challenge, and Mr. Lorr has proved that in this book.

Visit Benjamin Lorr’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

Book Review: An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

What do you know about Chicago? The Sears Tower (it’ll never be the Willis Tower, dammit!), the Magnificent Mile, Lake Shore Drive, our sports teams, corrupt politicians…and violence. Maybe Chicago’s violence was the first thing to come to your mind. But whatever you think you know, the story most likely goes deeper, and one of the very best people out there telling the story of the devastation suffered by Chicago’s Black and brown communities is journalist and author Alex Kotlowitz. He’s probably best know for There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (if you haven’t read that, I highly recommend it). I’ve admired him for years, and I was excited to read his latest, An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago (Nan A. Talese, 2019). There aren’t a whole lot of people out there writing books about Chicago, but Alex Kotlowitz’s masterful writing and storytelling is the equivalent of a thousand lesser authors.

An American Summer begins with Pharoah (not a misspelling), one of the boys profiled in There Are No Children Here, giving an update on his tumultuous life. Mr. Kotlowitz then delves deeply into Chicago’s most violent communities, expanding upon the stories that make headlines, the ones people blow off because they read ‘gang member’ and immediately dismiss the victim/s as unworthy of sympathy. The story, as always, goes far deeper than that. These are real people, loved by their family, friends, and community; they’re parents, friends, employees, students. They’re people who have spent the vast majority of their lives being traumatized over and over again by the violent deaths of their loved ones and community members, and being dismissed by the world around them as not worth caring about. The phrase ‘hurt people hurt people’ comes to mind often when reading their stories, and while it’s difficult to grasp this level of violence, this book illuminates what daily life looks like for the people who live it.

Alex Kotlowitz paints pictures of bleak, isolated neighborhoods full of run-down homes, often abandoned, full of bullet holes and grieving families. These communities aren’t without hope, though it’s occasionally difficult to find. There are high schoolers who have witnessed multiple deaths by gunshot- of friends, of family members, of strangers, often right in front of them. These are entire neighborhoods of people with the worst forms of PTSD and no hope for treatment, because unemployment- and thus lack of health insurance and an income high enough to pay for regular therapy and medicine- is so high that comprehensive treatment is often out of reach.

An American Summer is nonfiction that reads like a heartbreaking novel, but this is all tragically real. I could get into my car and be in some of these neighborhoods in less than half an hour. The massive difference between their lives, their neighborhoods, and mine is unfathomable, and it should never, ever have become like this. These people deserve so much better than what racist America has afforded them. They need jobs, fully funded education, healthcare (including comprehensive medical care)- the same thing the rest of America needs, but the situation is desperate here, and no one makes this clearer than Alex Kotlowitz.

If you think you know Chicago, read Alex Kotlowitz’s work. He’ll show you another side, the people behind the headlines, the trauma lived there every day. It’ll break your heart in a thousand different ways.

Visit Alex Kotlowitz’s website here.

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Book Review: Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth

Ever since reading Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation by Joseph T. Hallinan in my early 20’s, I’ve been fascinated by prison and have read about it often. And with prisons being the largest supplier of mental health care in the United States, I knew I needed to read Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness by Alisa Roth (Basic Books, 2018) when I learned about it- partly because of this fascination, and partly for semi-personal reasons.

In Insane, Ms. Roth details the challenges the prison system faces being the provider of mental healthcare for its millions of prisoners. Funding is short, so providers- whom it’s difficult to hire for various reasons, including safety and lower-than-civilian-jobs salaries- are constantly lacking. Therapy is challenging when it can only be given out in the open, with no privacy. Fewer providers mean services don’t get rendered in time; meds don’t get handed out in time; diagnoses don’t get made for months, sometimes years. Officers get little-to-no training in how to deal with severely mentally ill prisoners. Overcrowding exacerbates symptoms and strains already strained resources. If you’re unaware of just how overburdened the prison system is in regards to mental healthcare, you’ll have a pretty good idea after reading this book.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t places trying, and Ms. Roth points that out throughout the book. It’s just that this is a monumental task, and the country does almost next to nothing in order to keep these mentally ill patients treated so that they don’t end up in prison in the first place. (Our garbage healthcare system, tied to employment, shares a lot of this blame, as does the lack of therapists and psychiatrists- and I’d say the problem of affordable higher education is also an issue there.)

This is a deeply distressing, heavy book, full of information that I wish everyone knew and cared about. We’re all just one slightly different brain chemical away from ending up as a patient on the wrong side of the law- and that’s if we’re lucky, because far too often in the US, mentally ill people end up being shot by the police. A dear friend of mine had a son who suffered from schizophrenia and one of her greatest fears was always that he would end up being shot by the police during an episode. I learn so much about mental illness from her, and I think of her son and her continued fight to improve mental health care in this country every time I read a book like this. The two of them are a continued reason why I pick up these kinds of books; what Ms. Roth is doing, shining a light on the conditions faced by inmates who are often incarcerated due to the affects of their illnesses, is so necessary, and it’s such a service to the mental health community.

Insane isn’t an easy read. It’s a tough subject matter, and a lot of what she talks about will probably scare you or make you uncomfortable. It should. But you should use this information to become better informed and a better advocate for the mentally ill. Because stigma is bullshit and mental illness is illness- like cancer, or heart disease, diabetes, or epilepsy. It deserves research, resources, treatment options- treatment BEFORE tragedy, as my friend Laura says. And mentally ill people deserve dignity and respect, which Ms. Roth definitely affords them all throughout this remarkable book.

Visit Alisa Roth’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Stamped from the Beginning: A Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

Slightly different kind of book review today. Not as much of a review as a recommendation, and a plea.

I’ve had Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (Bold Type Books, 2016) on my kindle for a while, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Which made it a perfect choice for my parenting group’s reading challenge pick for a book that’s been sitting around on our shelves (or digital shelves) for a while. I’m glad my copy was digital; had I been able to flip through a paper copy, I would have been intimated both by the size (592 pages!) and the academic writing style. Instead, I clicked on the icon on my kindle and dove in.

This is a history of racism and racist ideas in the United States from the beginning of the country up until the present (or at least until the book was published in 2016). Whatever you think you know about racism in this country, it’s worse, and this book pulls no punches. That historical figure you always admired? Racist, and disgustingly so. That president you considered a decent guy? Yeah, he said some horrible things and signed off on policies that mirrored those things. History looks a little different than the stars-and-stripes-waving rhetoric that American grade school textbooks push, and if you haven’t really looked into history beyond that, you need to. This book is a good place to start.

This book is extremely comparable in tone and depth to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, so don’t go in expecting an easy, relaxing read; this is a book you work for. There were sentences and paragraphs I needed to reread to make sure I was understanding them fully. There were times when I paused and looked things up online to get some extra information. And on nearly every page, there’s a story that made me want to hurl the book across the room in a total rage. How are people like this? Why? How are they still like this? This book doesn’t answer those questions, but it does provide a fuller picture of the suffering that people who look like me have caused to Black people, and it provides impetus for doing better NOW.

I know over the summer this was free as an audiobook on Spotify; I don’t know about now, but most libraries should have it available. I don’t normally make the suggestion of audiobooks, since I myself don’t listen to them (not enough quiet time here, plus at least for fiction, my brain tends to wander), but if those are your jam, I highly, highly recommend this on audiobook as an easier way of making it through the book, because this is an information-packed, intense read, and I so want everyone to read this book. It’s 2020, people. We should have been beyond racism a loooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnng time ago, and instead, we’re still…here. We have to do better. And we can.

Start here. Start with this book. And then go out and do better and be better.

Visit Ibram X. Kendi’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

I had Nomandland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (W.W. Norton Company, 2018) on my Goodreads TBR, but when I requested it from the library as an ebook, it was for a reading challenge. I ended up reading something different for that prompt, because this took about four months to come in, but my goodness, was it worth the wait. If you haven’t read this book and you’re American, put it on your TBR right this very second, because this is required reading for every single American. (And if you’re not American, well, it may be eye-opening about what we’re driving our elderly population towards.)

Jessica Bruder follows a group of Americans, mostly at or nearing retirement age, who no longer reside in homes or apartments. They live in cars, vans, campers, refurbished buses, because they can no longer afford a stable life. They live off of disability, Social Security, jobs that pay minimum wage or barely above it, working through illness, pain, chronic medical conditions with little-to-no treatment. They sleep in sleeping bags, covered in multiple blankets, in temperatures that dip down into the teens at night or remain in the 90’s, while snow and ice pile up around their tires, or the occupants in each vehicle swelter. They eat whatever they can cook in their mobile housing, over campfires, sourced from food pantries, given to them by friends. They do their best to survive and keep an optimistic attitude, but their lives are nothing to envy.

These seniors (or close to it) work managing park campsites and harvesting sugar beets and fulfilling orders at Amazon in punishing twelve-to-fifteen hour shifts and sometimes more, in jobs that hand out painkillers for free because their workforce isn’t able to keep up without them. They travel from job to job around the country, sleeping in store parking lots, moving on from campsites after their time has expired, doing whatever they can to stay alive. It’s not always enough.

God. This book is depressing, but it’s important. Take a good look around you the next time you see an RV or a large van or a car that seems a little overly full of stuff. There’s a good chance that there’s someone living in there full-time. (We’ve got one of these at our local library. It breaks my heart every time I see their vehicle parked there. It gets *cold* here in the winter…) And while some families hit the road full-time by choice, these people are forced into it. It seems like one of the main causes is divorce, which turn many people’s stable financial situation into something untenable, but job loss and medical bills are also a major culprit into forcing people into these nomadic situations. If you think you’re immune, you’re wrong. Plenty of the people in this book had worked at the same job for decades, only to be downsized and then discover that it’s impossible to get a new job that pays a livable wage at 59 years old.

Jessica Bruder shines a light on a community that lives in the shadows in the US. Its members don’t like to think of themselves as homeless- they prefer to think of themselves as free from the trappings of life that tie them down- but homeless is absolutely what they are, and at a time in their lives when they should be able to relax, spend time with their family and friends and gradchildren, and take care of their health problems. Instead, they’re shivering through cold nights, trading tips about how to cook on hotplates in a van, and working with broken limbs that they can’t afford to get treated. What on earth are we doing as a country? How is it that we’re so quick to dispose of people???

Nomadland is a shocking, eye-opening, terrifying exposé. It’s one that shows that no matter how safe we think we are, we’re one illness, one spouse’s affair, one job loss away from living in our car. Ms. Bruder must have some serious strength of character to follow the people she profiled in the story for so long; I’m not sure I could have held up emotionally through the end. This book is a page-turner; it’s one of the scariest books I’ve read in a very, very long time, and despite that, I can’t recommend it highly enough. We all need to be aware of what life is like for those who fall through the cracks, because it could be just about any one of us. (If you’re white, that is, and Ms. Bruder does go into explanations for the reasons why there aren’t that many people of color living like this. That doesn’t mean that life for people of color of these ages are necessarily any better or easier, just that living full-time vehicles hasn’t shown to be a solution for these groups in any large number.)

If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts; if you haven’t yet read Nomadland, put it on your TBR and come back after you’ve read it, because your thoughts matter to me as well. Everyone should read this book.

Visit Jessica Bruder’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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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.

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Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture & Identity- Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi

At the end of last month, I started veering into reading slump territory. Nothing too bad, just…nothing sounded good. I browsed my own shelves, poked through my TBR, checked out a few book blogs…

Nothing. My brain just wasn’t having it.

So I decided to hit up the library in hopes of stumbling upon something that spoke to me, and on the New Books shelf, a hefty, bright yellow tome jumped out: Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture & Identity by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi (Tarcherperigee, 2019). At first, I wondered if I were up to the task, but once I flipped through the book and noted its bright photographs and short interviews with people from all walks of life, I knew I had to read this.

High school friends Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi came to the realization while still in high school that they’d never been taught anything about race by their school. Understandably disturbed by this, they set out together to not only educate themselves, via mentors and a diverse reading list, but to educate others. They gave TED talks, they wrote a textbook, they founded the CHOOSE Org, and they set out during their gap year between high school and college to travel through all fifty states, interviewing people of all races and ages, about their experience with race- their own and others’- racial education, racism, and more.

Each section has a loose theme, beginning with a piece of writing from Guo and Vulchi, who are both inquisitive and wise beyond their years. They’re not afraid to admit when they don’t know or understand something; instead, they search boldly for answers in a way that gives me such hope for the future if these are the women who will one day take the reins of our country. In their travels, they interview people of all races and mixed races, straight people, gay people, transgender people, people from various religions and ethnic groups. Each interview is rife with information on racial literacy, defining terms the reader may not be familiar with in an effort to better educate their audience. If, like so many of us (myself included), you didn’t receive much or any education in racial matters when you were growing up, Tell Me Who You Are is an amazing place to start.

What a deeply fascinating book. I grew up in a very white town, settled mainly by Scandinavians and Germans, and far enough from the city and boring enough that it stayed that way until very recently, so I received very, very little education in the way of race when I was young. It’s because of books like this, and diverse fiction, and making friends with different racial and religious backgrounds, and following people of color online that I’ve been able to broaden my understanding when it comes to racial literacy. Guo and Vulchi’s interviews bring to light the many facets of race and racism; it’s a deeply educational book that still manages to entertain by presenting each interview in a conversational style, almost as though the reader is listening to a trusted friend divulge their deepest thoughts. What can so often be a heavy topic to read about is really brought to life here in a creative and thoughtful way. As I turned the pages, moving from an interview with a Native American man to a native Hawaiian to a Mexican woman to a white man to a black woman, I marveled over the beauty of our world and mourned that in 2019, we still struggle so hard to open our minds and understand each other. Tell Me Who You Are is a strong, bold step towards that better understanding.

At my library, Tell Me Who You Are is shelved in the Adult Nonfiction section, but I hope a copy makes its way to the teen nonfiction shelves as well. This is brilliant writing and a brilliant project undertaken by teenagers and should be readily available to teens in the space they most frequent. It introduced me to new concepts of racial literacy (I still feel like I don’t *quite* understand positionality), a deeper understanding of what counts as cultural appropriation, the struggles of the disabled to get around in New York City (you’d think that with a city that big and that diverse, they’d do a better job, and you would be wrong; 80% of subway stops are inaccessible to people with a disability), and the concept of secondary (or vicarious) trauma. I really appreciated their attention to Native people; I’m aware that my reading lacks indigenous voices and that’s something I’d like to focus on a little more in the future.

Tell Me Who You Are is a cornucopia of experiences by a gorgeous mosaic of people and voices, one that serves to expand the mind of the reader if you’re willing to shut up, silence your own voice for a moment, and let it. This would be an impressive and captivating book by any author, but the fact that it was put together by two young women just out of high school also puts it in the category of an incredible accomplishment and a work of art. The world definitely needs more young leaders like Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi, and I’d be thrilled if my daughter grew up with their intelligence, their curiosity, their drive, and their commitment to making the world a more racially literate and understanding place.

As a brief aside, there are a few negative reviews for this book on Goodreads that illustrate the deep need for this book’s existence. Don’t let those reviews color your opinion; instead, think of those opinions as what marginalized people are up against, and use Tell Me Who You Are to educate yourself in such a way that you’ll never sound like the people who wrote those reviews. (Criticism of the book is perfectly acceptable; whining, “WHAT ABOUT THE WHITE MEN???” in regards to a book on racial literacy is ludicrous. There are nine bazillion other books about white men published and readily available on store and library shelves every year; not everything is about white men, nor does it need to be.)

Visit Choose Org’s website here.