Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (New York: Broadway Books), 2016
Matthew Desmond did some serious scholarship preparing this book. He lived in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods of Milwaukee to study how families fall off the edge of renting into homelessness. He tells the stories of real people who are living on almost nothing, with rent consuming such a large portion of their income that everything seems to be a nearly impossible challenge. He examines how the most run-down properties produce the highest incomes for landlords, how eviction is a tool used by mobile home parks to keep profits high and avoid making necessary repairs. And he tells the stories of people.
Unfortunately the stories he tells are occurring all across this country as national safety nets fall short and people are caught in impossible situations because housing simply is not a high enough national priority for us to solve the problem. He also tells the story of determination, resourcefulness and amazing intelligence in the face of hardship.
Desmond is a serious scholar, a MacArthur "Genius" grant recipient and it isn't hard to understand how his book earned the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. This is a must-read for anyone who is serious about learning about homelessness and poverty in the United States.
Much as it seems that this book would be one of despair, the book in fact is quite hopeful. Desmond introduces us to people whose circumstances may be desperate, but whose resilience is incredible. Developing more understanding of the problem gives us insight into possible solutions and ways in which changes in public policy can light the way to a brighter future for all.
Jane Maufe, the Frozen Frontier: Polar Bound through the Northwest Passage (London: Adlard Coles Nautical), 2017
David Scott Cowper had fully proven himself as an intrepid sailor before he invited Jane Maufe to join him on the adventure of bringing his expedition vessel, Polar Bound through the Northwest Passage, traversing from west to east. Cowper had already made transits of five of the seven routes through the Northwest Passage. This book chronicles the sixth route. Sailors in private boats do not often tackle such arduous and technically challenging routes. Maufe served as a crew member for the passage and they saw some extreme and adventurous sailing.
Maufe also gives good biographical insights into Cowper, showing his steely determination, humility and his resourcefulness when facing a challenge. She also reports on the fascinating relationship between her and Cowper, who had clearly defined roles during the passage and in their relationship.
Two very adventurous and ambitious people become dedicated to the ship, to each other, and to the journey. It is a truly fascinating account and well worth the read for anyone who is interested in exploration, adventure and sailing.
Mari Fujimoto, Ikigai & Other Japanese Words to Live By (London: Modern Books), 2019
After our visit to Japan last year and the remarkable circumstances that mean we will return to Japan again this year, it makes sense that since we are unable to gain a command of the language in the time that we have, at least we should learn a few words and a few concepts that give us an insight into the culture and the people.
This small book can best be described as a series of meditations on important Japanese philosophical concepts. Stunning black and white photographs by Michael Kenna are combined with artwork and calligraphy by David Buchler and haiku by Motsuo Basho and intertwined with interpretive text by Mari Fujimoto. The result is a series of reflections that invite the reader to pause on each page. It is the kind of book to which one will return again and again.
Now that I use a tablet computer for most of my reading, it seems elegant and even a bit indulgent to hold a real paper book in my hands. It seems even more indulgent to pack such a volume into my luggage when I am traveling light. However, I suspect that this small book will be tucked into my backpack when I head to Japan this summer.
N. K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth Book 2) (London: Orbit Books), 2016N. K. Jemisin, The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth Book 3) (London: Orbit Books), 2017
Once I had read The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin, it seemed natural to pursue the other two books in the trilogy. They were remarkably engaging. The basic themes of The Fifth Season continued - the fear that some people had when encountering those who are different, the challenges of working with others, the pain of intimate relationships, a fractured family, and the quest for some sense of peace and security in a frightening and uncertain world. Of course all of these are exaggerated in the characters in the book because they have supernatural powers that make them more different and more dangerous than the kind of folks who currently inhabit our planet. Jemisin plays with the concepts in bold strokes in part because she has created a world that at once is kind of like our world - that has some geological principles that are similar to those in our world - while at the same time being very different from the world that we know.
The trilogy makes a remarkable package and represents something much more than would be the case were it presented as a single volume. I don't know how well the second and third volumes stand alone, having read them in quick succession following the initial book, but it seems to me that each is a complete story in and of itself. While the experience of having read the previous volumes helps, I'm not sure that it would be completely required in order to get a taste of Jemisin's remarkable story. What wouldn't work, in my opinion, would be to read the books in reverse order.
Jemisin has created a remarkable and memorable trilogy - one that I'm grateful to have discovered. Jemisin has been remarkably prolific. Her genre isn't my favorite, but I may find myself looking up more of her books as time goes by. She explores such a wide variety of themes and provides some important insights on cultural conflict and oppression. The awards she has received for her work are well placed.
N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth Book 1) (London: Orbit Books), 2015
I'm not a big fan of science fiction, but when this book was selected as the Science Friday book club selection, I decided to read it so I could follow along with the radio discussion. I guess one might call it science fiction in the mode of "Journey to the Center of the Earth," but mostly it is a fiction/fantasy novel that employs a bit of scientifically accurate information about geology, plate tectonics, volcanoes and earthquakes. It was interesting how much discussion about the specifics of the geology reflected in the book was discussed on the radio given the simple fact that one would not need to know the science behind the story in order to make it an enjoyable book to read.
The story, however, is compelling and well-told and it is easy to get into the characters. I didn't make all of the connections between the story lines at first, but soon I understood that there were multiple story lines from different points in the life of the same character. The story is tantalizingly complex and just challenging enough to keep one interested while still being a quick and easy read.
The book was enjoyable enough that I decided to read the other books in the trilogy. I wasn't disappointed.