Squeezed – Alissa Quart

Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America (9780062412256) by Alissa Quart. Ecco. $27.99 hardcover. 

  • ARC: February 2018
  • On Sale: June 26, 2018

This is social issues nonfiction that reads like a long magazine article—and I mean that in the best possible way. It’s filled with well-drawn, compelling stories that pull the reader along as Quart builds a case about American middle class families struggling to keep their heads above water.

Chapter by chapter she lays out the increasing pressures that drive families to the edge of poverty: college debt, daycare, housing, wage stagnation, underemployment, automation. And behind it all is American breadwinners’ collective feeling that they themselves are to blame for “bad choices.”

Long on compelling stories, this absorbing read felt sketchy when it came to solutions. In that way it reminded me of the uber text of this sort of social issues narrative: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed (and indeed Ehrenreich blurbs this book). That book was similarly frustrating on a policy and action level. But at the end of the day, the picture Ehrenreich drew of the systemic plight of the working class woke up America. Quart’s stories of everyday Americans struggling and looking for solutions is likewise bracingly vivid—and hopefully as eye-opening as Ehrenreich almost two decades ago.

Book of the Week: everybody Lies – Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It’s hard to escape the term “big data” these days and this book is one explanation why.

Everybody Lies looks at how data researchers are crunching the unimaginably large amounts of information people feed into the web in an effort to understand our true beliefs and behaviors. It is by turns both entertaining (our obsession with sex) and alarming (how pervasive racism remains).

It’s an important book about how marketers and researchers are diving beneath what we say and to explore our innermost thoughts and attitudes. To me it feels as groundbreaking as 2005’s Freakonomics–perhaps a version 2.0 of what behavioral economics can tell us in the age of big data.

In his foreword Stephen Pinker writes, “This book is about a whole new way of studying the mind…an unprecedented peek into people’s psyches….Time and again my preconceptions about my country and my species were turned upside-down by Stephens-Davidowitz’s discoveries.”

The author is a former Google data scientist trained as both an economist and philosopher. The book has already been chosen as one of Fortune Magazine’s Best Business Books for Spring. Wired, Slate and Salon will run excerpts. The NYT will run an op-ed by the author about our Facebook lives vs. our Google lives, and additional op-eds will appear in Glamour and Fast Company. Reviews start with the Economist and New York magazine. Stephens-Davidowitz will appear on NPR an CBS This Morning.

[A] tour of the many things that big data can tell us about ourselves….[often yielding] uncomfortable results, revealing hidden reservoirs of racism, sexual insecurity, hypocrisy, and outright dishonesty. For instance, he writes, so-called undecided voters usually aren’t undecided at all…[The] data that Stephens-Davidowitz sifts through reveal a strongly racially motivated vote on the part of whites, speaking to ‘a nasty, scary and widespread rage that was waiting for a candidate to give voice to it,’ even though those same people would profess publicly to being beyond issues of race and indeed ‘postracial’…. [Stephens-Davidowitz looks]… at the correlation of education and financial success, the keywords of lying, and other big-picture questions. Statistics wonks will find much of interest in this survey.”
Kirkus

“In example after highly quotable example, he illustrates the observational power of massive data sets … While the book is brimming with intriguing anecdotes and counterintuitive facts, Stephens-Davidowitz does his level best to help usher in a new age of human understanding, one digital data point at a time.”
Fortune

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are (9780062390851) by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. $27.99 hardcover. 5/9/17 on sale.

New Nonfiction: Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance

In this debut the author uses his personal story to look at the very thorny issue of why a large swatch of working class America seems to be shut out of and, he argues, is shutting themselves out of the American Dream.

Vance paints a vivid personal portrait of white, working class Appalachian America. And the picture he paints is dispiriting—an America that has been slowly disintegrating over the last forty years and is uniquely pessimistic about the future. It will be a familiar story to those of us who love that part of the country and whose own roots are in Appalachia.

Vance draws on his own experience and on social theorists to make large claims about how poverty, joblessness, lack of education, addiction and erosion of family ties have led to despair and a turning away from faith in the American Dream. Perhaps controversially, he makes the case that hillbilly culture is as much to blame for the situation as the governmental and social forces that continue to tear apart the fabric of their culture.

Media on both sides of the political divide are interested in this book with initial reviews to come in the Washington Post and National Review. And to an election year marked by the spectacular rise of an outsider candidate brought to power by mostly older, mostly white Americans who are angrily voicing their sense disenfranchisement, Vance brings an interesting perspective.

[An] understated, engaging debut…An unusually timely and deeply affecting view of a social class whose health and economic problems are making headlines in this election year.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Both heartbreaking and heartwarming, this memoir is akin to investigative journalism. … A quick and engaging read, this book is well suited to anyone interested in a study of modern America, as Vance’s assertions about Appalachia are far more reaching.”
   — Library Journal

Vance compellingly describes the terrible toll that alcoholism, drug abuse, and an unrelenting code of honor took on his family, neither excusing the behavior nor condemning it…The portrait that emerges is a complex one…Unerringly forthright, remarkably insightful, and refreshingly focused, Hillbilly Elegy is the cry of a community in crisis.
— Booklist

 Hillbilly Elegy is a sad and beautiful kind of reckoning. J.D. Vance is coming to terms with his own up-bringing, highlighting both working-class and poverty-stricken whites in Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and much of the nation. By his estimation, these are troubling times. Vance uses his own family as a microcosm to highlight the culture, the politics, and economic status of a specific group living on the margins. He covers topics ranging from education, familial bonds, addiction, and health that all seem incredibly timely to the current political landscape. But where Vance really shines is telling the story of his family – a harrowing tale to be sure, but one that is told with grace, honesty, and insight. While I don’t necessarily agree with his politics, or his proposed solutions to the problems presented, I found the book deeply moving and important in understanding America today. A timely and necessary book. A must read.”
— Hilary Gustafson, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (9780062300546) by J.D. Vance. $27.99 hardcover. 6/28/16 on sale.

Nonfiction Short Take: Grace Without God -Katherine Ozment

Journalist Ozment uses her own family’s story as the jumping off point for an engaging and well-researched look at secular humanism and the ways the nonreligious fill their need for belonging, moral guidance and meaning. With 20% of all adults (and over 30% of millennials) identifying as religiously unaffiliated, it’s increasingly useful to consider how a large swatch of America approaches ethics, culture, community, and ritual.

“In this wide-ranging book, Ozment, a journalist and former senior editor at National Geographic, skillfully weaves together interviews with cutting-edge academic experts, her personal story, helpful statistics, and her experiences attending gatherings across the U.S. where she talked with many others on the same quest. Detailing the sense of loss she and others have felt without the benefits of traditional religion—‘identity and belonging, rituals, shared stories, moral authority, and belief in God and the afterlife’—Ozment then delves into the many ways secular Americans are trying to build community and shared meaning, with a keen eye for the paradoxes and hazards of those efforts. Her focus throughout is finding ways to raise honest, kind, and compassionate children outside of a religious framework. …his well-crafted, accessible exploration of a pressing topic, full of hard questions and astute observations, can serve as a springboard for discussion by parents—and others—who wonder whether people ‘need God to be good.’”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age (9780062305114) by Katherine Ozment. $25.99 hardcover. 6/21/16 on sale.

Nonfiction Short Take: The World According to Star Wars – Cass Sunstein

Yes, that Cass Sunstein…advisor to presidents, Harvard professor and bestselling author of books on behavioral economics and political science. Why? Walter Isaacson explains:

Star Wars is the ultimate mythological tale of our age, a hero’s journey that is a tribute to the beauty of human freedom as well as an exploration of its dark complexities. In this gem of a book, the brilliant Cass Sunstein uses the series to explore profound questions about being a parent, a child, and a human. It will change the way you think about your own journey, and it might even make you pick up the phone and call your dad.”

Take that tip from Mr. Isaacson and put this on Father’s Day and Graduation tables. Good coverage is starting now: The New Republic, NYT, Washington Post, Morning Joe, Charlie Rose, Atlantic.com, Parade.com, GQ.com, AVClub.com, FastCompany.com, Slate.com and Bloomberg.com.

“Sunstein’s analytical prowess combines with what is clearly a deep love of Star Wars…He takes battles long fought in college dorms and Reddit threads and elevates them to a higher level…The ultimate primer for guiding a Star Wars padawan to the level of Jedi Knight.”
— Time

The World According to Star Wars (9780062484222) Cass R. Sunstein. $21.99 hardcover. 5/31/16 on sale.

Book of the Week: Sex Object – Jessica Valenti

Valenti is a Guardian columnist and co-founder of the blog Feministing which Columbia Journalism Review called “head and shoulders above almost any writing on women’s issues in mainstream media.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Nation, and Ms. She is the author of several previous books, including the national bestseller Full Frontal Feminism. So it is perhaps not surprising that the Washington Post calls her “one of the most visible and successful feminists of her generation.”

In this new book she uses memoir as a launching pad to explore what it means to live as a woman today. It’s a funny, occasionally touching, frequently disturbing and often feeling revelatory read. Bust magazine says, “There is an awakening that happens as a woman reading this book.” Hopefully men, too.

The review line-up so far gives me the same feeling we had when we published Bad Feminist: This could be big. Salon, Time, O Magazine, NPR’s On Point, an NPR interview, PBS, a NYT interview, a serial excerpt in the Guardian as well as a review and photo essay. And I’m sure much more to come.

‘Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?’ asks Valenti, founder of the website Feministing, in the introduction to her new memoir. In a confident and compelling volume…Valenti has a knack for making the mundane moments in her life startling and the shocking ones routine, which is exactly what is needed in a book that seeks to force its readers to reevaluate the norms of sexism and sexual violence that have become our wallpaper….Valenti is at her best when she combines memoir and feminist analysis in a way that feels enlightening and unforced….[It] is enough that it tells one woman’s story, and in its unwavering bravery, it is powerful enough to stand alone.”
Publishers Weekly (boxed review by Laura Bates)

“From discovering she was an object of male desire to being ejaculated on while riding the subway to receiving shocking hate mail as her writing became popular (those vitriolic e-mails and Twitter and Facebook posts appear in the appendix), Valenti describes her experiences with candor and seriocomic humor while offering continually entertaining quips, such as, ‘ignoring men—whether romantically or rhetorically—is existential violence to them.’ Her memoir changes pace when Valenti discusses her near-death experience while delivering her daughter…adding much more than pithy insight to this radical feminist’s life story. An entertaining and shocking memoir from a leading feminist writer.”
Booklist

 “Valenti uses the personal to shed light on a universally female political problem. — Bust

Sex Object is Valenti in full force; sharply unapologetic and jagged edges exposed. Her conversation with the reader is neither tentative nor gentle, but rather a legitimizing of the pain, guilt, grief, and rage that have become an indelible piece of women’s lives.”
— Tara Bagnola, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI

Sex Object: A Memoir (9780062435088) by Jessica Valenti. $25.99 hardcover. 6/7/16 on sale.

New Nonfiction: Devoured – Sophie Egan

This read goes a long way towards explaining why Americans are so weird about food. Sophie Egan is well-suited to the task—she is both a food writer and a director of the Culinary Institute of America. The result is a book that reads like the literary love child of Michael Pollan and Freakonomics. Drawing on psychology, anthropology, food science, and behavioral economics, it’s an insightful, funny (and more than occasionally appalling) look at how we got to now.

I particularly enjoyed how it is organized, not around food but around what Egan sees as four core American values: Work, freedom, progress and America as the melting pot. Michael Moss, the author of the bestselling Salt Sugar Fat calls it “[a] wild and witty romp through the zaniness that infuses today’s American culture of food.”

[In] this engrossing study [Egan] shows how the sturdy American values of work, freedom, and progress have negatively influenced the industrial food system. She explains that the quest for convenience has created a ‘muddle of the modern meal’; delves into the phenomenon of desktop dining, now the norm for 40% of American office workers; and chronicles the marketing of low-fat, natural, and gluten-free foods (the ‘selling of absence’), which may not always be the healthiest way to eat. A disturbing chapter on ‘stunt foods’ illustrates how social media has contributed to such products as Burger King’s bacon sundae and what these freakish amalgamations say about Americans….Her book is well written, her tone is upbeat, and she offers sound solutions to the tangled problems she discusses, but this is not an appetizing picture of America.”
— Publishers Weekly

“Entertaining… Humorous… An informative look at what Americans eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and all those snack times in between and how our eating habits are changing who we are.”
— Kirkus Reviews

Devoured: From Chicken Wings to Kale Smoothies–How What We Eat Defines Who We Are (9780062390981) by Sophie Egan. $28.99 hardcover. 5/3/16 on sale.