An acclaimed liberal sociologist examines “the increasingly hostile split” between America’s two major political parties and “how life feels to people on the right—that is…the emotion that underlies politics.”
Five years before Donald Trump’s presidential bid caught fire, Hochschild (So How's the Family?: And Other Essays, 2013, etc.) decided she wanted to better understand the political and cultural divides in the United States by immersing herself in the anti-government tea party culture so foreign to her own beliefs. Traveling regularly from her Berkeley, California, home to Lake Charles, Louisiana, the author arranged to spend large amounts of time with tea party members and additional self-identified conservatives to figure out how they came to their beliefs. Hochschild felt especially puzzled by the paradox of Louisiana residents residing in dangerously polluted areas yet opposing environmental regulations proposed by both the state and federal governments. Though upset by seemingly racist, sexist, ageist, and economic class hatreds among the men and women she came to know, Hochschild says her determination to observe empathetically rarely flagged. She quickly realized that many of the stated views held of the tea party members were often not fact-based but rather grounded in what life feels like to them—e.g., government feels intrusive, liberals feel condescending, members of racial and ethnic minorities feel lazy and threatening. Trying to imagine herself as the Lake Charles residents viewed themselves, Hochschild vowed to immerse herself thoroughly enough to comprehend what she terms their "deep stories,” and she felt grateful that the tea party members who found her views offensive nonetheless shared their time and thoughts generously. At times, Hochschild flirts with overgeneralizing and stereotyping, but for the most part, she conducts herself as a personable, nonjudgmental researcher.
A well-told chronicle of an ambitious sociological project of significant current importance.
In post–Civil War Texas, a 10-year-old girl makes an odyssey back to her aunt and uncle’s home after living with the Kiowa warriors who had killed her parents four years earlier.
Johanna Leonberger remembers almost nothing of her first 6 years, when she lived with her parents. Instead, her memory extends only as far as her Kiowa family—she speaks no English and by white standards is uncivilized. Tired of being harassed by the cavalry, the Kiowa sell her back to an Indian agent for "fifteen Hudson’s Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware." Enter Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a 70-year-old veteran of two wars and, in 1870, when the novel takes place, a professional reader—he travels through Texas giving public readings from newspapers to an audience hungry for events of the world. At first reluctant to take her the 400 miles to the town near San Antonio where her aunt and uncle live, he soon realizes his itinerant life makes him the most plausible person for the job—and he also knows it’s the right thing to do. He buys a wagon, and they start their journey, much to the reluctance and outrage of the undomesticated Johanna; but a relationship soon begins to develop between the two. Jiles makes the narrative compelling by unsentimentally constructing a bond based at least in part on a mutual need for survival, but slowly and delicately, Johanna and Kidd begin to respect as well as need one another. What cements their alliance is facing many obstacles along the way, including an unmerciful landscape; a lack of weapons; and a vicious cowboy and his companions, who want to kill Kidd and use the girl for their own foul purposes. As one might expect, Kidd and Johanna eventually develop a deep and affectionate relationship; when they arrive at the Leonbergers, the captain must make a difficult choice about whether to leave the girl there or hold onto her himself.
Lyrical and affecting, the novel succeeds in skirting clichés through its empathy and through the depth of its major characters.
A consummate chronicler of the American South spotlights the extraordinary history of two kidnapped African-American brothers enslaved as a circus sideshow act.
Expanding on her 2001 co-authored article series in the Roanoke Times, journalist Macy (Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town, 2014) reconstructs the folkloric yet true story of brothers George and Willie Muse, who, in 1899, at ages 9 and 6, toiled on a sweltering tobacco farm in Virginia. As black albinos bearing golden dreadlocks, the boys were considered “genetic anomalies” yet visually ideal when spied by Candy Shelton, a white bounty hunter scouring the area for “freaks” to enslave in circus sideshow acts. As circus entertainment crested in popularity at the turn of the 20th century, Macy writes, much money was to be made by sideshow managers eager to exploit those with physical abnormalities. Despite being falsely told that their mother had died, the Muse brothers went on to become “among the top tier of sideshow headline grabbers,” internationally known to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey audiences as “Eko and Iko, the Ecuadorian Savages.” Macy vividly illustrates circus life during the 1920s, and she movingly depicts how the brothers’ protective, determined mother, Harriett, eventually discovered and rescued them almost a decade and a half later. She sued the circus only to have George and Willie (along with little brother Tom) inexplicably return to the big top under Shelton’s management with decidedly mixed results. The story draws on years of diligent, investigative research and personal investment on the author’s behalf, and it features numerous interviews with immediate family, neighbors, distant relatives, Truevine townsfolk, and associated friends, most notably Nancy Saunders, Willie’s fiercely outspoken primary caregiver. Macy absorbed their own individual (and often conflicting) interpretations of the Muse kidnappings, condensing and skillfully braiding them into a sturdy, passionate, and penetrating narrative.
This first-rate journey into human trafficking, slavery, and familial bonding is an engrossing example of spirited, determined reportage.
Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.
Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.
A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).
A historian reconsiders America’s most notorious prison riot.
In September 1971, after a tense four-day standoff, the Attica Correctional Facility in western New York was finally back under state control, the remaining hostages freed, and officials, particularly those in Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s office, felt relieved. When it soon came apparent, however, that tales of hostage abuse—castrations, slit throats—were false, that the gunfire could have come only from corrections officers and troopers during the assault, the state began almost immediately to cover up what had happened. Thompson (History/Univ. of Michigan; Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City, 2001, etc.) devotes the first half of her narrative to describing in compelling detail the appalling conditions at the prison, the incident that sparked the uprising, the prisoners’ grievances and demands, and the subsequent, tense negotiations overseen by a hastily formed committee of observers, culminating in the facility’s extraordinarily violent retaking. It’s the book’s second half, however, that offers the real eye-opener for readers whose interest in Attica and knowledge of what happened ended when the headlines receded. Thompson carefully tracks the uprising’s dismal aftermath, a bewildering, decadeslong series of commissions, investigations, lawsuits (civil and criminal), and settlement talks. At almost every juncture, she reveals state officials—prison guards, troopers, prosecutors, judges, politicians—acting in bad faith, either criminally or through gross negligence. Her report, not entirely unjustly, will be attacked as too “pro-prisoner,” but her critics will be obliged to account for her sensitive treatment of the state’s callous handling of the surviving hostages and their families and her not infrequent criticisms of the actors who glommed on to the Attica story for their own political purposes. Moreover, detractors will be forced to match the evidence she musters, 10 years’ worth of research—many files remain sealed to this day—her discovery of records long hidden, her numerous firsthand interviews, and her archival deep-dive. Meanwhile, conditions at Attica remain worse than they were in 1971.
Impressively authoritative and thoughtfully composed.
How ill-conceived algorithms now micromanage America’s economy, from advertising to prisons.
“Welcome to the dark side of Big Data,” writes math guru O’Neil (Doing Data Science: Straight Talk from the Frontline, 2013, etc.), a blogger (mathbabe.org) and former quantitative analyst at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw. In this simultaneously illuminating and disturbing account, she describes the many ways in which widely used mathematic models—based on “prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias”—tend to punish the poor and reward the rich. The most harmful such models, which she calls “Weapons of Math Destruction,” often have devastating effects on people when they are going to college, borrowing money, getting sentenced to prison, or finding and holding a job. For example: credit scores are used to evaluate potential hires (assuming bad scores correlate with bad job performance, which is often not true); for-profit colleges use data to target and prey on vulnerable strivers, often plunging them into debt; auto insurance companies judge applicants by their consumer patterns rather than their driving records; crime predictive software often leads police to focus on nuisance crimes in impoverished neighborhoods. As the author notes, the harmful effects are apparent “when a poor minority teenager gets stopped, roughed up, and put on warning by the local police, or when a gas station attendant who lives in a poor zip code gets hit with a higher insurance bill.” She notes the same mathematical models “place the comfortable classes of society in their own marketing silos,” jetting them off to vacations in Aruba, wait-listing them at Wharton, and generally making their lives “smarter and easier.” The author writes with passion—a few years ago she became disillusioned over her hedge fund modeling and joined the Occupy movement—but with the authority of a former Barnard professor who is outraged at the increasingly wrongheaded use of mathematics. She convincingly argues for both more responsible modeling and federal regulation.
An unusually lucid and readable look at the daunting algorithms that govern so many aspects of our lives.
In her first adult novel in 20 years, National Book Award–winning children’s author Woodson (Brown Girl Dreaming, 2014, etc.) crafts a haunting coming-of-age story of four best friends in Brooklyn, New York.
“The year my mother started hearing voices from her dead brother Clyde, my father moved my own brother and me from our SweetGrove land in Tennessee to Brooklyn,” says August. It was 1973. August was 8 years old; her younger brother was 4. Mourning the loss of their mother, it was hard for the children to be alone and friendless in a new city. But, gradually, August found friends: “Sylvia, Angela and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves.” With such nuanced moments of metaphor as these, Woodson conveys the sweet beauty that lies within the melancholy of August's childhood memories. Now, 20 years later, August has returned to Brooklyn to help her brother bury their father. In lyrical bursts of imagistic prose, Woodson gives us the story of lives lived, cutting back and forth between past and present. As August's older self reckons with her formative childhood experiences and struggles to heal in the present, haunting secrets and past trauma come to light. Back then, August and her friends, burdened with mothers who were dead or absent, had to navigate the terrifying world of male attention and sexual assault by themselves. “At eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, we knew we were being watched,” August says, achingly articulating the experience of a young girl coming of age and overwhelmed by the casual, commonplace, predatory violence of men. There's the pastor who presses his penis against Gigi’s back when she sings in the choir; the ex-soldier in the laundry room who rapes Gigi when she's 12. There's August’s first boyfriend and her first betrayal. To escape all this, August focuses on school and flees Brooklyn for college out of state and, eventually, work overseas. Here is an exploration of family—both the ones we are born into and the ones we make for ourselves—and all the many ways we try to care for these people we love so much, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.
A stunning achievement from one of the quietly great masters of our time.
A Cuban-American girl comes of age in Flushing, Queens, in 1977, against the backdrop of the Son of Sam murder spree.
It’s the summer after graduation, and Nora López and her family struggle to make ends meet. She works part time at a local deli, but her mom has her hours cut at the local factory where she works. Her ne’er-do-well brother, Hector, has stopped going to school and instead spends his time doped up selling drugs on the street. Readers can sense the danger growing around him with every menacing flick of his Zippo. Things change, however, when Pablo, a new guy in town, shows up at the deli where Nora works. Their romance makes the summer even hotter even as a serial killer stalks the neighborhoods of Queens, picking off teen girls and their dates in the middle of the night. Rooted firmly in historical events, Medina’s latest offers up a uniquely authentic slice-of-life experience set against a hazy, hot, and dangerous NYC backdrop. Rocky and Donna Summer and the thumping beats of disco, as well as other references from the time, capture the era, while break-ins, fires, shootings, and the infamous blackout bring a harrowing sense of danger and intensity. The story arc is simple, however: a teen girl, her family, her best friend, and her new boyfriend live through a summer of danger.
An important story of one of New York City’s most dangerous times
. (Historical fiction. 13-18)
A woman born in rural Mississippi with a life-altering birth defect must learn to live on her own terms.
Western writer Watson (The Heaven of Mercury, 2002, etc.) composes a lyrical portrait of a woman based on his great-aunt, who was the subject of plenty of rumors in her own life. His fictional subject is Jane Chisolm, an otherwise normal child born with vaginal agenesis, a condition in which her sexual anatomy fails to develop. Because this is in the early years of the 20th century amid the poverty of rural Mississippi, there’s little to be done to improve the child’s condition. Her father is a drunk and her mother emotionally absent, so Jane is largely left in the care of her tomboy sister, Grace. Because her condition causes incontinence, Jane is isolated for much of her childhood. The only person who comes to truly care about her is her doctor, Eldred Thompson, who believes that Miss Jane Chisolm is special indeed. “Just as the way you are denies you some things, it also gives you license that others may not have,” he tells her. “In my opinion you live on a higher moral ground. I mean to say you are a good person.” Watson’s writing is dry as kindling, but in reducing his aunt’s story to its most primary elements, the author also captures the simple things that bring his character joy—the delight she experiences at a community dance or a picnic with the kindly doctor are all tiny moments of tenderness in a life largely marked by isolation. If the novel has a flaw, it’s a lack of traditional drama. Jane approaches life with quiet determination, so her acceptance of her own limitations ultimately becomes a strength and not a weakness.
A well-written portrait of a person whose rich inner life outstrips the limits of her body.
A young couple’s plan to flip a house in Southern California goes awry and old wounds in their marriage reopen in this dark novel of unrelenting tension.
Nick and Phoebe are living in Boston when they notice other “young married professionals buying and selling houses for six-figure profits.” But it’s clear from the word “underwater” on the opening page that their dream is foundering. McGinniss (The Delivery Man, 2008) presents a smooth combination of present-time narrative and extensive flashbacks to reveal two lives wracked by more than just mortgage woes. Their marriage has been haunted by an affair Phoebe had with her mentor, JW, while on the fast track at a financial-services firm in Boston and an accident she had while “high on Klonopin” with their toddler in the car. Moving to California doesn’t improve matters. Nick learns on the eve of heading west that his new job there has evaporated. In their LA suburb, housing prices quickly go south after the couple takes out a heavy mortgage and plows all their money into renovations. Nick finds work as a kind of repo man with other underwater homes. Phoebe is a rep for a drug firm while maintaining a steady high with Klonopin and wine. Then JW resurfaces and Phoebe hopes to use him to get back on the fast track and somehow fix the family. Doomed and doughty, she’s a lexicon of contradictions, a kind of update on Maria Wyeth of Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays. McGinnis also recalls Nathanael West’s Day of the Locusts in depicting their road, Carousel Court, as a catalog of strangeness and dangers: from coyotes and marauding home invaders to weird neighbors and crying, screaming cicadas.
McGinniss covers familiar territory in the marketplace and marriage but injects it with an urgency, a sense of constant, inescapable threat that all adds up to a taut page-turner.