“Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond

I don’t usually read much nonfiction, but I was interested in Evicted because a few of the people I follow on LibraryThing wrote rave reviews of it on their threads. When it popped up on LibraryThing Early Reviewers, I requested it, and I was surprised to actually end up winning a copy. Also, in the time between reading it and writing a review, apparently it has won the Pulitzer prize for general nonfiction this year.

Evicted follows eight families and their landlords in Milwaukee as they go through the eviction process. The families and the reasons they end up evicted are quite different, but we get a clear picture of their lives and how they ended up where they are. We feel their anxiety and hopelessness, and it’s very hard not to sympathize with them, even when they make impulsive decisions that seem like they’re going to make things worse.

I would say that this is the best nonfiction book I’ve read in a long time, perhaps all time. Most non-fiction books annoy me because they seem to have an idea that they’re pushing and pull in only the relevant facts, but Desmond presents events as they happen without too much commentary (he actually lived in two different low-income neighbourhoods for a year and most of the conversations recounted in the book are transcribed verbatim from audio recordings.) By focusing on the lives of both tenants and landlords, the book paints a balanced picture without moral judgment.

Desmond doesn’t just tell us individual stories, he also connects it to larger patterns and weaves in general research based on surveying over a thousand poor families. He makes a convincing case that evictions disrupt people’s lives extensively, making it much harder for them to escape poverty. He also shows how existing fair housing laws don’t always work as designed – for instance, landlords can evict tenants for causing a “nuisance”, which means calling the police too often. This means that in practice, women suffering domestic abuse often risk eviction by seeking help.

The book doesn’t spend a lot of time on solutions – there is a single chapter advocating a potential solution, but the main purpose is just to highlight the problem. I’m not sure what the answers are either,  but I think more people need to read this book so we can have a conversation about it. I’m also looking for recommendations for similar books (in style and tone), so please comment if you know of any!

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
Crown, 2016 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson

I was looking for a good book to buy for one of my friends who likes reading about history and medicine, and I remembered The Ghost Map, a book that many of the people I follow on LibraryThing read and loved. One of my pet peeves is buying someone a book that I don’t own myself, so I also bought myself a copy and read it when I was looking for a break from speculative fiction.

The Ghost Map is about the terrible Broad Street cholera epidemic in London in 1854. The epidemic claimed over six hundred lives, but also sparked an investigation that led to the foundations of the science of epidemiology and underscored the importance of proper sanitation and public health. We follow two investigators – local doctor John Snow, who had been looking for more data on cholera for a long time, and young assistant curate Henry Whitehead, who was increasingly concerned about his parishioners being decimated. Whitehead’s local knowledge and Snow’s methodical nature and medical skills combined helped prove that cholera was spread via contaminated water, rather than the ineffable “miasma” that was the prevailing theory of the time.

This book was well-written and well-researched, but I was far more compelled by the first half of the book. The author plops you down in the sights, smells, and sounds of Victorian London as he sets the stage for the start of the epidemic, and it’s pretty amazing. You really get a sense of what it was like for the residents of Broad Street, much of it is familiar, and the unfamiliar parts are explained with full context. However, once the investigation gets underway, it felt like there wasn’t a full book length of material there, and the author was trying to stretch it in creative ways. He talks up the opposing viewpoints of Whitehead and Snow, but there’s no drama there – Snow had the evidence, and Whitehead was convinced by it. Some of the later material also seemed a little repetitive. And occasionally the author goes on tangents where he draws conclusions that didn’t really matter to the narrative, but worse, didn’t seem backed up by anything (I checked the citations) – one example being alcoholism as an evolutionary predilection for some races of people.

The conclusion of the book was also somewhat weak, there was a bunch of tangential stuff about the various things maps are useful for, and the connection to the cholera outbreak map was extremely tenuous. The author also takes the opportunity to advocate strongly for his belief that humans should be striving for urbanization, which also didn’t seem connected to the rest of the book other than the fact that London is a city.

Overall, I’d recommend this book for its engaging portrayal of what it was like to live in 1854 London and to learn more about how humanity started making meaningful progress into investigating and managing epidemics. It’s definitely a popular non-fiction book though, and prioritizes shock value over thoroughness.

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books, 2005 | Buy the book

“Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War” by Nathaniel Philbrick

I’m continuing on my quest to read more about world history this year, since I enjoyed India After Gandhi and A World At Arms so much last year. I bought a couple of books about American history – since I didn’t grow up here, I don’t know a lot of basic history that people learn about in school. I decided to start with Mayflower because the Pilgrims and their story are so embedded in the cultural consciousness of America, but I really don’t know much about what actually happened.

Mayflower is well-written and well-researched, but it isn’t the definitive history of the Mayflower voyage that I was hoping it would be. The first third of the book talks about the Pilgrims and their preparations for the voyage, the voyage itself, and the first year of their life in the colonies. This was the most fascinating part of the book. It covers things like why the Pilgrims chose to settle at the site of Plymouth, how their first contact with the Native Americans went (not well), what they did to survive (steal corn, for example), what they planned and how their plans went awry, how they finally established good relationships with the Native Americans, and things like that. Unfortunately this level of detail stops right after the “First Thanksgiving”, and the book skips ahead about fifty years to the story of how Native-British relations soured and led to King Philip’s War.

The rest of the book is a history of King Philip’s War, which was interesting as well since I didn’t know anything about that time period, but I find socio-political and economic histories much more interesting than histories of war, so I was a little let down. The author mentions that in the intervening time, New England was settled much more extensively and infrastructure developed (for example, a judicial system), but doesn’t go into any of the interesting details – how the governments were formed, how the settlers spread outside Plymoth, what kind of political relationships they had with the new settlers, how they managed to become self-sufficient and developed trade relationships – none of that is explored.

Instead, Philbrick goes into a thorough history of the war – the various battles, the actions of the Native American leaders (with special attention paid to the infamous King Philip), and the troop movements of the British settlers. There are some interesting tidbits in there (I found the formation of Rhode Island interesting, for example), but the focus is definitely on war. I was a little bored by all the details. Philbrick compares the devastation of the war to the Civil War and World War II in terms of the percentage of population killed, but the fact remains that most of the battles involved a dozen to a hundred men. There were a few bigger battles, and it’s clear that the impact on the Native American population was significant, but with most of the sources available to reconstruct what happened being on the British side, it makes the telling very one-sided.

I think this is a book still worth reading, but I wish it had been called King Philip’s War instead of Mayflower – but the lack of name recognition means it probably wouldn’t have done so well.

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick
Viking Adult, 2006 | Buy the book

“A World at Arms” by Gerhard Weinberg

a-world-at-armsAfter reading India After Gandhi, I was looking forward to learning about more contemporary history and I decided that World War II was the next topic on my agenda. World War II is prevalent enough in public consciousness that I knew a lot of random facts about it, but I wanted an overview of the war and how all the pieces fit together. I wasn’t sure where to start, but I found that the Ask Historians subreddit (which is pretty amazing) has a book recommendation list, which is where I found A World at Arms.

The recommendation entry for A World at Arms describes the book as “one of the best histories of the Second World War from a global perspective”, and although I haven’t read any other World War II histories, I would agree with that. Weinberg covers a vast scope – every theater and front, including the “home fronts” of all countries involved in the war, sociopolitical changes, international relations, economic changes, strategy, and so on. The book seemed meticulously researched, the references are extensive, and Weinberg often mentions which sources he used or did not have access to when proposing a theory for why something happened a certain way.

The writing style is somewhat dry, but there’s so much information packed into every paragraph that I didn’t mind at all. Even on days when I was only able to read 20 pages or so, I still felt like I was learning rapidly. Also, didn’t notice any huge biases by the author, which I found refreshing when compared to a lot of other non-fiction I’ve read. I guess it makes sense from such an academic book, though.

Because of the scope of the book, most of the detail in it is about high level strategy and machinations; there isn’t much of a perspective from the trenches. I happened to be watching the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers (which follows the American “Easy Company” attached to the 101st Airborne Division) at the same time that I was reading this book, though, and I found that to be a nice “on the ground” complement to the global view that A World at Arms offered.

A World at Arms by Gerhard Weinberg
Cambridge University Press, 1994 | Buy the book

“India After Gandhi” by Ramachandra Guha

India-After-GandhiI’ve been wanting to learn more about history for a long time now, and I’ve finally decided to take the plunge and start reading more history books. I started off with a book I’ve owned for about eight years now, but never got around to reading. I think I’ve been avoiding non-fiction because it takes me much longer to read and comprehend it, but I guess I should stop judging my reading by total number of books read.

India After Gandhi is a post-independence history of India; a subject I didn’t know a lot about, despite spending the first seventeen years of my life there. In school, our history books pretty much stopped at independence. It starts off with the Partition and the formation of the Indian government, and goes until 2007 (when the book was written), although the final two decades are not covered with the same level of historical detail (due to the events being too contemporary.)

The book is extremely comprehensive, Guha clearly did a lot of research – the bibliography is humongous. It covered the process of transitioning from British rule (highlighting administrative problems like integrating over 550 kingdoms into India, setting up free and fair elections for a largely illiterate electorate, and settling millions of refugees from Partition), subsequent politics, economic policy, social movements, and there’s even a chapter on popular entertainments. I learned a lot, I’m certainly a long way away from knowing all that I want to know about Indian history, but I feel like I have a solid foundation on which to build on, and I wouldn’t have thought one book would have been able to do that. It also gave me the historical context to understand several things I’d been confused about when I lived in India (like the history of the political parties and how they came to have the positions they did, and how the Indian states came to be organized in their current configuration.)

Guha does an admirable job of approaching things from a historian’s point of view, you can see that he has his own opinions as an Indian citizen, but he makes it pretty obvious that they are his own opinions when they crop up. I’m sure there are biases in what he chose to talk about and how he presented it, but those are unavoidable. My only complaint on that front was that Guha chooses to emphasize India’s successes, but doesn’t spend as much time talking about India’s failures. It’s not like he doesn’t acknowledge them, but because he doesn’t give them as much detail, they come across as relatively unimportant. For example, at one point he mentions that an election would be the first “free and fair” election in Kashmir, but all the talk of previous elections in the book so far had been about the heroic efforts of India’s Election Commission to set up elections that actually worked, so how did the Kashmir elections end up unfair?

Overall, I thought that this was a great book, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking to learn more about India. It did make me very sad, though – seeing India start out with such well-intentioned and smart leaders and devolve into the mess that it is now.

India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha
Picador, 2007 | Buy the book

“The Black Count” by Tom Reiss

The-Black-Count-by-Tom-ReissI’m trying to read more diversely this year, and I finally read some non-fiction. I won an ARC of this book way back in 2012 but never got around to reading it, and I was intrigued to find out that it won the Pulitzer and a host of other awards in that time.

The Black Count is a biography of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the father of the famous novelist Alexandre Dumas and the inspiration for many of his stories, particularly The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas was the son of a French nobleman and an African slave. He was also a martial hero, rising from a lowly private to general-in-chief of an army in only a few years – the highest ranking person of color in the Western world until the 1970s. His story rivals the ones in his son’s books – a shipwreck, suspected poisoning, foreign dungeons, and finally being ostracised because of changes in France’s political climate and Napoleon’s personal ire.

I really enjoyed this book – Tom Reiss is a great writer working with a great subject. I couldn’t wait to see where Dumas’ life took him, but I also never felt like Reiss took any liberties with the truth – everything was meticulously cited. I learned a lot about France’s colonial history as well, which I didn’t know much about. I can’t believe that someone who broke as many barriers as Thomas-Alexandre Dumas isn’t more well known, but thanks to Reiss’ efforts, that will hopefully now change.

I’m also hoping that Thomas-Alexandre Dumas shows up in the recently announced Assassin’s Creed game set during the French Revolution.

The Black Count by Tom Reiss
Crown, 2012 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“The United States of Arugula” by David Kamp

United States of Arugula coverI needed a break from fantasy, so today’s review is non-fiction: The United States of Arugula: The Sun Dried, Cold Pressed, Dark Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution. I really love both food and history (see my reviews of Curry and Fannie’s Last Supper), so this book was a natural choice for me.

In the last 40 years, the predominant food culture in America has become “gourmet”. Salsa and sushi have gone from unknown to ubiquitous, and local ingredients,  specialty cooking tools and celebrity chefs have become routine. The United States of Arugula attempts to tell the story of how this happened.

This book is a fairly fun read, although it meanders quite a bit. We start with the Big Three that popularised inventive cooking and dining – James Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne, and go all the way to Emeril Lagasse’s restaurant empire. Kamp has certainly done his research, and the text is packed with all kinds of little asides and tidbits that make the events in the book come to life.

Any revolution always begins with a few people, and it is always interesting to read about those people’s motivations and understand the movement itself in context. Kamp takes this a little too far, though and the book comes off as overly gossipy. Beard and Claiborne’s (among others) sexual preferences are exhumed in detail, and there’s a lot of focus on who did and didn’t get along. For instance, Graham Kerr, a contemporary of Julia Child who also had a popular cooking show, is introduced as “Everyone in the food world agreed on one person they could hate”, even though their hate of him had no bearing on any significant events. I wish that Kamp had instead devoted that space to the events he mentions omitting in his introduction.

Another problem with this book is that it was really hard to follow. I usually read epic fantasy and have no trouble keeping hundreds of characters straight in my head, but Kamp introduces so many names that it detracts from the flow of the book. Many of the people mentioned by name are only mentioned once, which adds to the confusion (is this a person I’m supposed to know?) Adding to this is Kamp’s love of tangents, he does not stick to one person or one chronological period or even one story. Chapter 2 starts off with an introduction of Pierre Franey entering the US, but jumps quickly to Jacques Pépin’s childhood, and then to French cooks’ propensity for local foods, to an explanation of “classic French cooking”, to a biography of Antonin Carême and so on… and when the book got back to Franey’s story after he gets off the boat, I had a hard time remembering who he was.

Aside from those two issues, the book was a great primer on recent food history in the United States.

The United States of Arugula by David Kamp
Broadway Books, 2007 | Buy the book

“King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild

King Leopold's Ghost coverMy grasp on world history is somewhat lacking, and I’m always looking for good books so that I can fix that – Wikipedia tends to be too dry for me. I’d vaguely heard of King Leopold and his atrocities in the Congo, and I thought it was something I needed to know more about, so I was excited to find King Leopold’s Ghost a few months ago in the clearance section at Half Price Books.

If you’ve heard of King Leopold II of Belgium, I don’t need to tell you what this book is about. If you haven’t, he was the second monarch of Belgium, and at one point, the sole owner of the Congo (currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo.)

How did that happen? Belgium was surrounded by countries that held vast colonies in the Americas, Asia and Africa, and Leopold badly wanted a colony of his own. However, all around Europe, monarchs were losing power to parliament, and colonialism was losing favour. After looking all over the world and attempting to buy colonies from every major power, he set his sights on the unexplored parts of Africa, and shrewdly declared his interest as purely humanitarian and scientific. For more details, you’ll have to read this book (or some other account.)

This is a very well-written and readable book – Hochschild did an admirable job of sketching out the characters of the major players involved in the story of the Belgian Congo. I really felt like I got to know every one of them – I despised King Leopold for his avarice and ostentation, I admired Casement’s sheer passion and Morel’s determination, I rooted for Sheppard. Even though the things that happened were unspeakably horrific, it was never forceful or melodramatic. Hochschild states the facts and quotes accounts and lets you draw your own conclusions.

Hochschild clearly does have a few biases – his tone is sometimes a bit too moralistic for my taste. For instance, although King Leopold seems like an intensely loathsome person, I think his part was a result of apathy rather than an actively evil personality.

I wish I’d read this before I read The Poisonwood Bible – it would’ve given me some much needed context. Highly recommended.

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild
Houghton Mifflin, 1998 | Buy the book

“Uncle Tungsten” by Oliver Sacks

Uncle Tungsten coverUncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood was one of this books I just picked up on a whim, having never really heard of the book or the author. I’ve since found out that Oliver Sacks is a famous neurologist and kind-of-a-big-deal.

This book is absolutely fascinating. It’s about Oliver Sacks’ fascination with chemistry when he was a boy, but it also incorporates an extensive history of chemistry (as seen through the eyes of a young Sacks.) It is also part memoir, more interesting than most because of Sacks’ family – 18 scientist aunts and uncles, each specialising in their own fields, not to mention his parents, who encouraged him to have his own lab and experiment with deadly substances freely, and his siblings, who joined him in many of his scientific endeavours. And all this is set during World War II England, in an affluent Jewish neighbourhood.

Sacks’ passion for chemistry really shines through, and the process of discovering each new fact and deducing new ideas was beautifully demonstrated. His characterisations of his family really brought them to life – each of them seemed to have encyclopaedic knowledge of the field they worked in, but also ardently followed the latest scientific progress, as well as the history of it. I have never been jealous of someone else’s family before, but there’s a first time for everything!

The history sections can get a bit boring, but I’m not sure how much of that was because I already knew a lot of it. I also wished the book’s memoir portion was more chronological – Sacks jumps back and forth a lot. Some things were left unresolved – for example, Sacks describes his brother being mentally disturbed by their stay at a country school during the war, but never follows up on how that ends up turning out.

Despite those flaws, I think the book was well worth it!

This is book 22 of 25 of my Dec 11, 2011 book challenge.

Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks
Knopf, 2001 | Buy the book

“Yes, Chef” by Marcus Samuelsson

Yes, Chef coverI’ve seen Marcus Samuelsson on a lot of TV shows and liked him a lot, so I was pretty stoked when I won Yes, Chef on LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers programme.

Samuelsson has certainly had a very interesting life, and it was fascinating to read his perspective as an Ethiopian adopted by a Swedish family, transplanted to the US. I learned a lot about Sweden, the restaurant industry, Ethiopian spices, and a lot more, so I would recommend the book for that reason.

The negatives: this book is clearly ghost-written – even though it’s written in the first person, there’s a peculiar detachment to it which I found slightly off-putting. Also, Samuelsson is not always the most likeable of people, especially when he abandons his daughter and tries to justify it “without sounding like a jerk.”

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson
Random House, 2012 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.