Category Archives: america

Educated by Tara Westover

educatedThis memoir had an effect on me and I want to recommend it to everyone. Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir about family obligations, systems of control, and the power of education. It was a hard, but good read. 

Westover grew up in a strict, Mormon household in rural middle America with parents who had their own interpretation of Mormonism that they proselytized to their children and used to condemn others’ interpretations of divine faith, including other Mormons. The parents did not trust the government, which extended to not birthing most of their children in hospitals because they were part of the evil “medical establishment”,  not legally recording most of their children’s births until many years later, not immunizing their children or permitting them to visit doctors for care in favor of homeopathy, and not enrolling their children in schools for fear the schools would brainwash their children with nonsense. The denial of all of these things to their children, particularly access to an education as the children weren’t really schooled at home either, was a way to indoctrinate the children into the parents’ belief system, bound the children to their parents’ sphere of control so that the children may never leave, and limit the children from access to other ways of thinking that would allow the children to be able to question their family’s way of life. 

Westover’s tale highlights how important access to an education is as she details the life circumstances of her siblings — those who managed to be admitted to college, after secretly studying for standardized testing, went on to receive doctorates, whereas the others never received high school diplomas or GEDs and subsequently had limited job options and continued to be employees of their parents’ businesses as they had been since they were children. The memoir is broken into three parts, beginning with Westover’s childhood, transitioning into Westover’s teen years when she enrolls in an undergraduate program, and the last pieces include her venturing to another part of the world for education purposes and having her worldview expanded even more than her undergraduate experiences initially opened. While education definitely plays a central role in this memoir, a large part of Westover’s story involves controlling family dynamics, the emotional abuse that often rains down from the controlling heads of household, unfettered physical abuse that family members conveniently ignore or outright deny because acknowledgement of its actuality could challenge their pleasant forms of reality, and outright misogyny about a women’s place in the family and in the world that is shielded from question by religious morales. 

While Westover’s education granted her access to many things, it also created many conflicts with her family and led to estrangements from certain members. Becoming “educated” isn’t always cost-free and Westover’s story illuminates some of the challenges that can be associated with advancing oneself, whilst one’s family tries to hold them back. This was a book that I needed to read and I hope that it is enlightening for others. 

Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Random House via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Random House or NetGalley.

 

Publication Date: 20 Feburary 2018 by Random HouseFormat: ARC e-book.

Author: Tara Westover web/facebook/@twitter

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Evicted by Matthew Desmond

evictedEvicted by Matthew Desmond is 100% a must read and hands down one of my favorite books of the year. Don’t just take my word for it though — the book won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction this year which is no small feat!

Sociologist Matthew Desmond spent years immersing himself in the lower end of Milwaukee’s housing market, observing and interviewing those living in poverty and mostly terrible conditions perpetuated by landlords, the local government, and more. He often lived alongside his subjects, experiencing the daily occurrences that happened typically in a trailer park and later in the “ghetto” of Milwaukee. Throughout his work, Desmond mostly follows a small cast of characters, though he interviewed an incredible number of people, to give the reader a very in depth look at the cyclical suffering that many people with unstable and unreliable housing have been forced to accept and expect. 

While this is a necessary read to help people understand how those in control of housing perpetually disadvantage those in poverty, this is also just generally worthwhile reading for anyone who has ever been a tenant (aka someone who has ever rented their housing). While living in New York City, several of my friend’s and my housing frequently had issues that were unacceptable, dangerous, and repeatedly ignored by landlords despite multiple requests for maintenance or assistance. This is an important read to understand what your rights are as a tenant, the systems that make it essentially impossible for tenants to challenge their landlord’s actions, the typical issues that occur for those who are tenants within very in demand housing (either because of limited housing for the number of people in a city or because there is limited housing that will allow you to reside somewhere because of the nature of evictions, etc.), and to try to understand why landlords will choose to repeatedly ignore a problem that impedes a tenant’s standard of living and quality of life. 

From a research perspective, I really enjoyed that Desmond spent time detailing how he gathered his qualitative data and his rumination on the challenges of conducting this type of research. Despite this book being written by an academic, this book is incredibly accessible and is written to be enjoyed by a wide array of readers. 

And here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“For many landlords, it was cheaper to deal with the expense of eviction than to maintain their properties; it was possible to skimp on maintenance if tenants were perpetually behind; and many poor tenants would be perpetually behind because their rent was too high.” (p. 75)

“The techniques landlords used to ‘keep illegal and destructive activity out of rental property’ kept poverty as well.” (p. 89)

On why defending yourself in eviction court is difficult, “but also [she] would have to defend herself against someone who was more educated, more familiar with the law, and more comfortable in court.” (p. 99)

“When we try to understand ourselves, we often begin by considering the kind of home in which we were raised.” (p. 293)

If you want another taste of the topic before committing to the whole book, you can read the excerpts that were published in The New Yorker. Don’t let the page number dissuade you from picking up this book! 100+ pages of this book are notes pertaining to the quotes and observations that Desmond incorporates and are not necessary to reference to understand the story unless you want to dig in deeper to his data. You can read more information about the book from the publisher by clicking here.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a physical copy of this book for free from Broadway Books via Blogging for Books. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Broadway Books or Blogging for Books

We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

eightyearsinpowerI was thrilled when I received an Advance Reader’s Copy of We Were Eight Years in Power from Random House because I love LOVE loved Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and even included it in my list of 5 favorite reads from 2016! Coates has a wonderful style of writing that will leave you breathless (intentionally so as the author mentions in one part of this collection) and I will continue to gobble down his pieces.

We Were Eight Years in Power is a collection of 9 pieces that Coates has written for The Atlantic in the past 9 years, thus if you’ve been following Coates’s online articles, you’ve likely read some or all of these pieces before (they’re all still available online too). Before each piece begins, Coates ties each of the pieces to where he was personally, blending in some of the memoir style exemplified in Between the World and Me, and where America was socially, culturally, economically, and politically. This means that he often connects his pieces to the Obama administration (pre- and post-) and mentions how it influenced his articles, even if not explicitly stated in the features.  I often found the justifications and positioning of when the pieces were written to be more interesting than the earlier pieces in the collection, probably because I found myself more interested in Coates and his reflections than Bill Cosby’s weird and harmful conservatism regarding the black community (something I hadn’t read about before now). It would have been nice if the dates that the pieces were originally published had been included next to their titles, in order to help the reader position when it occurred; this would also help this book stand 20 years from now if something happened that wasn’t common or accepted knowledge at the time of first publication (such as the widespread depths of Cosby’s transgressions, which Coates does acknowledge in the introduction for that piece, but would be missing for things uncovered in the future).

The collection includes pieces about (1) Bill Cosby, (2) Michelle Obama, (3) The Civil War, (4) Malcolm X, (5) Fear of a Black President, which is commentary on how Obama talked about race during his first presidential term, (6) The Case for Reparations, a viral piece that’s widely assigned on my college campus according to my undergrads, (7) Mass Incarceration, (8) My President was Black, a feature on Obama and reflections on his presidency, and (9) White Supremacy and Trump, a piece that serves as the epilogue and also recently went viral under the title The First White President.

The pieces become progressively longer as the reader progresses through the collection, presumably aligning with the growth of Coates’s readership and The Atlantic assuming that their digital readers would stay along for the ride and full length of the pieces. In my opinion, Coates’s writing strengthens throughout the collection, building upon his years of writing experience. In the introductions, Coates also corrects some errors that were in the previous publications of pieces or properly acknowledges sources that were neglected in the original publications.

At times, We Were Eight Years in Power could feel like reading an accessible textbook, but a textbook nevertheless. The readings are dense and cannot be pored over in one sitting. I really liked the collection, but if someone were completely unfamiliar with Coates, this would not be the first piece of his I recommended. Instead, I would thrust Between the World and Me into their hands and emphatically encourage them to read it immediately. It’s a bit more accessible and shorter and, within this collection, Coates perfectly sums up Between the World and Me with this description of his mindset at the time of writing, “I imagined of crafting a singular essay, in the same fashion (as James Baldwin), meant to be read in a few hours but to haunt for years.”

I recommend We Were Eight Years in Power to people already familiar with Coates and who haven’t read each of these pieces online yet. If you’re not familiar with Coates, make Between the World and Me the next book that you read.

We Were Eight Years in Power will be released at physical and digital U.S. bookstores on October 3, 2017! 
Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Random House Publishing Group – Random House One World via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Random House or NetGalley.

 

Chuck Klosterman X by Chuck Klosterman

xI haven’t read any of Chuck Klosterman’s collections before, despite them hanging on my TBR list for years. When I received an email indicating I could review his soon to be released work, I thought it would be the perfect time to explore Klosterman’s writings. Aside from a GQ profile here and there, I didn’t know much about Klosterman’s favorite topic areas or style. Before reading this, I had no idea that he was also a prolific sports writer or a general culture critic since I had only read his music pieces. This collection is a mix of all of those flavors and because of that, I didn’t feel compelled to read each and every piece, but I did read most – even those that I wouldn’t have initially if I had known the topic area without context.

But the contextualizations work and drew me into reading about things that I would have dismissed otherwise. For most of the essays, Klosterman introduced them and describes the time, place, and subject that is captured in the essay. I read each of these introductions and used them to help me determine if I wanted to read a piece even if I thought I wouldn’t have (like the first chapter on an obscure and mostly forgotten junior college basketball game, the piece on Noel Gallagher, the profile of Jonathan Franzen, or an article about attending both Creed and Nickleback concerts in a single evening). Not every piece has this introduction though, which caused me to skip out of the essay if I wasn’t ensnared by the first paragraph.

My favorite standalone piece was “Everybody’s Happy When The Wizards Walk By (Or Maybe Not? Maybe They Hate It? Hard To Say, Really,” which is about actively choosing to not engage with a piece of media that is dominating culture (Harry Potter) and the ramifications this may cause, especially for a culture writer. It was also hilarious to read someone discussing Harry Potter, and what they believe the franchise to be, without having read the novels since Harry Potter was a big piece of my life (and my body – shout out to my predictable Harry Potter tattoo).

One of my favorite lines in the whole collection was, “Here’s something I wrote in Europe in 2008, when I was pretend depressed” and I can’t even remember which essay that introduced now. The collection closes with a piece on collective mourning over celebrity deaths (specifically the loss of David Bowie and Prince in 2016) and ends with the line “I could not psychologically compete. I could not compete with the collective unreal, so I decided to think about something else.” This seems like a profound statement to end a collection of cultural commentary – like maybe Klosterman is finding himself more disengaged with popular culture than he used to be and feels like it’s time to transition to a new topic, just as he moved from covering death to culture. Because I haven’t read most of his work, I’m not sure if this is on point or not, but it seemed very intentional. We’ll see what’s to come from his future works and you can count me in as a regular reader.

Chapters I Skipped:
1) The Light Who Has Lighted the World (Tim Tebow), 2) Liquid Food (Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin), 3) C’mon Dave, Gimme a Break (Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen), 4) The (Unenthusiastic) Return of the Thin White Duke (Stephen Malkmus of Pavement), 5) User Your Illusion (But Don’t Bench Ginóbli), 6) The Drugs Don’t Work (Actually, They Work Great, 7) Brown Would Be the Color (If I Had a Heart) (Cleveland Browns), 8) Democracy Now! (Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy album), 9) Metal Machine “Music” (Lou Reed-Metallica Lulu album), 10) Advertising Worked on Me (KISS).

Disclaimer: I was provided with an Advance Reader Copy of this book for free from the Penguin First to Read program. All opinions expressed in the following review are my own and have not been influenced by Penguin.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

hillbillyelegyI began reading this book for fun and then found that it was relevant to some of the work I’m doing so yay — a very pleasant surprise! A lot of people have chosen to read this book to understand the “hidden right” post-election cycle. I chose to read it to see how the author’s experience lined up with my own background. Despite not growing up in Appalachia, many of the situations that the author described were extremely familiar to me. I grew up in a working-class family and spent 5 years of my childhood in a rural town, population: 800. While the author categorizes his experiences as being particular to Appalachia, I would say they also extend to rural southern living conditions, including my area of Northeast Texas.

I related a lot to Vance’s description of trying to learn how to portray himself as being of a different social class than the one he was born into — like Vance, I was the first in my immediate family to go to college, becoming upwardly mobile, and I found myself struggling to fit in when ‘everything from your old life becomes unfashionable at best or unhealthy at worst.’ (p. 207)

He also spends time detailing Christianity in Appalachia and how he (at one point) and many of the churchgoing people have (either at one time or persistently) felt like persecuted minorities by ‘elite liberals’ who some believe are making the world a scary and foreign place. His commentary on Christianity and many of the contradictions present in Appalachia were revealing in that many of the residents don’t belong to a church, but vastly report high church attendance because of perceived social pressures. His own experience emphasized that the persecuted minority feelings are salient in the churches, but less so in how individuals believe and practice faith in their own homes.

Chapters 14 (particularly) and 15 were most relevant to the work that I do, but the links from the previous chapters are needed to feel the full heft of the messages in those later chapters. These chapters discuss the traumas that working-class children regularly experience because of a myriad of factors: unreliable income, inconsistent parental support, violence in the home, etc. and the massive effect they have on child outcomes and development of mental and physical health conditions later in life. I also found the writer’s description of his limited relationship with his parents for survival purposes particularly refreshing — it’s something I have also adopted for my own self-preservation purposes, but haven’t read detailed in another work so precisely.

I’ve read many similar books that attempt to describe the plight and lives of America’s working-class through studies and home observation vignettes, but I found this memoir to be the most revealing and authentic… perhaps because it was written by someone who experienced this lifestyle rather than being written by a researcher looking in and trying to understand class and lifestyle differences. While the author doesn’t push for specific policy changes, he does admit that we collectively need to strive to make things better, particularly for working-class youth while their worlds and expectations for themselves are still malleable.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

betweentheworldandmeThis is a book that I instantly wish I owned multiple versions of because I feel like I need to consume it in different ways for the weight of its words to fully sink into my consciousness. I finished the audiobook version of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates a couple of weeks ago and it was MARVELOUS! The book is part memoir, part current American history and is written as a letter directly to the author’s son. Because I knew that the book followed this format, I opted to purchase the audiobook from Downpour (if you like audiobooks and you aren’t a subscriber to Downpour, you need to get on board!!) as the author was the narrator and I wanted to hear the author’s intonations and emotions as he spoke his words.

Coates is both a powerful speaker and writer. While he detailed the lessons that he was forced to learn as a black man growing up in America and contrasted them from the lessons his father had to learn and the lessons his son has already learned or will have to learn was incredibly poignant. The world has shifted significantly since his father was a child, but there is still so much room for the world and America’s culture to grow and improve. While his son currently leads a privileged life because of his father’s wealth and their family’s residence in Paris, France (all privileges Coates acknowledges), this doesn’t eliminate the ways that his son must prepare for how he will doubtlessly be seen as a young black man when he is in America. Regardless of any of his own characteristics or intentions, people will cast stereotypes upon his body and his mind and he will have to know how to evade or protect himself from them; hence, why Coates has chosen to write his son a series of lessons he has learned in his own life.

As a white woman, Between the World and Me truly illuminated the world that black parents must build and teach to their children — something that I never had to be taught by my own family. When I was a child, my innocence and piety were often assumed by strangers, but this isn’t the case for many black children who are often undeservedly assumed to be devious or guilty. One of the vignettes that stuck with me most clearly was when a white adult was extremely rude to Coates’s young son and Coates struggled to contain his anger in the face of assumptions and rights incorrectly projected onto his child. To hear this told from a parent’s perspective was heartbreaking and I admire Coates’s ability to so poignantly and clearly discuss how this affects him and his family on a micro-level, while simultaneously situating his personal experiences within historical and societal contexts. 

Between the World and Me is very of the moment (because of the renewed, necessary spotlight on racial tension and inequality in America) and also of America’s history. I believe this book will be a touchstone that people reference decades from now when trying to convey the state of race in America in the early 2000s and Coates has done a remarkable job creating a piece that will last. 

While I loved listening to this audiobook, I wish I also owned a physical version of this book so that I could highlight and come back to the most touching/provoking pieces with ease. I greatly valued hearing the author beautifully speak his story, something that most authors who aren’t trained entertainers struggle to do well. The audiobook was also quite a quick listening experience and clocked in at about 3.5 hours. My recommendation is to consume this in whatever way that it comes into your life and then consume it again and again. I’ll likely be purchasing a physical copy when I get the chance and will re-read it again in the coming years. Clearly, I profusely recommend. 

Publication date: 14 July 2015 by Spiegel & Grau. Format: Audiobook from Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group.

Author/Narrator: Ta-Nehisi Coates @twitter/articles

Tap, Click, Read by Lisa Guernsey and Michael H. Levine

9781119091899.pdfI purchased Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens because it was relevant to my work as an educational media researcher. When I know I’m going to have a lot of travel in my future, I always try to scoop up a work-relevant read to indulge in during spurts of travel. This allows me to feel productive for work things when I’m not able to be online and respond to emails quickly.

This book satisfied my itch to productively read for work! Soon, I’ll be beginning a project that examines how educational programming (including television, apps, websites, and digital games) influences literacy skills so this book was a perfect primer for helping me frame my thinking around literacy and digital screens. In fact, I’ve recommend this book to all of my coworkers who will be embarking upon this project with me.

Tap, Click, Read serves as a great overview of many current research studies which examine the intersection of literacy and emerging technologies. Since I wasn’t familiar with many of the existing literacy studies, the book was immensely helpful in furthering my knowledge base. The book would also be a great read for anyone who works with mediating media or books for young children, educators, librarians, caregivers, and family members so that they can learn ways to encourage positive reading habits and intellectual curiosity within the young children in their lives. While I was highlighting portions of the book that I found particularly interesting, I found half of my highlights to be work-related and the other half to be reading tips that I wanted to relay to my brother, who is the new father of a 3 month old. As far as being a book centered around research, I found it to be very accessible and not daunting or full of academic jargon. 

Though as a researcher, I unfortunately had some pet peeves when it came to reading the print version of this book. I make that distinction because I think the digital version had more features (such as the ability to click on notes in the book and watch videos that tied into certain sections). Instead of traditional footnotes or endnotes to link to citations or clarifications, the book features “Notes” at the end of each chapter that are organized by chunks of words that appear in the chapter. As someone who was very interested in seeing any citations and clarifications, I found this extremely annoying because it would have forced me to constantly toggle between the text and Notes to see if anything was included. This made it extremely difficult for me to be able to follow up independently on any specific studies that were mentioned in order to make my own opinion about their findings, which may have been an intentional choice by the authors or the editor.

I also noted a small error in the description of one of the studies included, which mentioned that Ice Age was a film from Disney: it’s not, it’s from Blue Sky Studios, 20th Century Fox, HIT Entertainment, and 20th Century Fox Animation. While this is a very simple mistake, it made me wonder if other bigger and less obvious mistakes existed within the book that would be difficult to find because of the annoying Notes style.

Despite my pet peeves, I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in thinking about how literacy is evolving for young children due to the emergence of new technologies and how we can continue to continue to prioritize literacy in the home, classroom, community, and digital sphere.

Publication Date: 21 September 2015 by Jossey-Bass. Format: Paperback.

Authors: Lisa Guernsey web/twitter and Michael H. Levine twitter