After I graduated from college, I stopped reading books. I still read constantly — the Internet is great at inundating us with writing — but it was always piecemeal. I’d take in a few hundred words from breaking news reports or beloved blogs, or a few thousand from think pieces. For a while, that felt like it worked.
Then the Trump administration happened. For the past two years, reading the news has felt like inviting the worst parts of humanity to practice punching me in the solar plexus. What’s worse, on days that felt comparatively slow — when we weren’t on the brink of war or gutting our health care or bulldozing our immigration law — I got anxious. I was starting to depend on the Trump administration to provide me with something to which I could react.
That mode of thinking is exhausting. Even worse, it’s limiting. Instead of focusing on what society has the potential to be, I was focused only on the depths to which I hoped we wouldn’t sink.
It turns out that books can be a helpful remedy to this problem. They provide room for writers to explore, to indulge nuance, to push on boundaries, and provide readers the time to reflect on what’s been written. And, unlike Twitter, they don’t shine a bright electronic light in my eyes when I’m trying to go to bed.
This the first in a regular series rounding up books the TalkPoverty staff loves. We’re kicking it off with new releases that are all relevant to today’s most pressing issues, but excel in delving into the shades of gray that are often missing from breaking news coverage and Twitter threads.
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling
In some ways, The Golden State is a classic road novel: It follows its main character, Daphne, as she flees San Francisco and sets out for the high desert of California. She’s looking, like so many travelers before her, for freedom, adventure, and a break from bureaucracy. The catch is that unencumbered freedom isn’t a real option: Every point in Daphne’s journey is marked by her caretaking of her 16-month-old daughter, Honey.
Daphne’s relationship with her daughter, and with motherhood, has a fullness and honesty I’ve only seen once before (in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts). She loves her daughter desperately, but her exhaustion and frustration with Honey’s needs and tantrums slowly build into something like dread and rage. The result is a novel that’s both beautiful and challenging, probing ideas around domesticity and freedom of movement that, in worse books, are treated as if they are opposites.
For you if: You’re interested in experimental stream-of-consciousness works, or themes around immigration, parenting, and domesticity.
The Caregiver by Samuel Park
Park’s last novel, completed shortly before his death, is another, completely different, mother-daughter tale. It alternates between 1980s Brazil and 1990s Los Angeles while the main character, Mara, cares for a woman dying of stomach cancer who dredges up memories of Mara’s complicated relationship with her mother. It’s a story about the way Mara survived in both countries — as an undocumented caretaker in the United States and as a poor child in Brazil — that’s engaging, if slightly soapy.
The book alternates between being thrilling and introspective, vacillations that are almost certainly due to Park imbuing the women for whom Mara was caring with the same illness that was killing him.
For you if: You want to a novel with compelling characters that’s heavy on plot, or themes around being undocumented or providing health care.
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Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World by Annie Lowrey
Universal Basic Incomes are officially mainstream, but advocates of the policy — from Silicon Valley tech bros to libertarians to Black Lives Matter activists — are strange bedfellows with very different explanations for why we should give everyone a monthly cash sum.
Lowrey’s book walks through each group’s justification for backing the policy. She’s thorough and respectful of subjects throughout, but clear about whose arguments she is — and isn’t — buying.
For you if: You want an accessible long read on a newly-trendy economic policy.
What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte
This pocket-sized rebuttal to the oft-cited Hillbilly Elegy re-situates Appalachia as part of the United States, instead of the far-thrown Trump Country that has been the subject of media fascination.
Catte, a historian from East Tennessee, walks readers through the region’s history with industry and race, and current residents’ organizing efforts around land and labor. While the book doesn’t transform the region into a liberal paragon, Catte does portray it with the kind of nuance you would expect from a real place: one with serious problems, a complicated history, and a lot of very different people trying to figure out what to do next.
For you if: You’re still talking about Linda Tirado’s drunk reading of Hillbilly Elegy.
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh
Sarah Smarsh has been treated as a sort of spokeswoman for the working class since her viral essay, “Poor Teeth,” captured her family’s experience with a blend of honesty, compassion, and humor that only comes with real experience. Her memoir, Heartland, is written from the very same place as the essay that made her famous: One that has the audacity to love and respect a poor family.
The book tells stories that are equal parts joyful and horrifying, and situates her family’s life in the policies that made it impossible for them to afford health insurance or compete with agribusiness. It’s not quite perfect — the framing device featuring a non-existent daughter doesn’t quite land for me — but it’s an extremely powerful and pointed meditation on class in America.
For you if: You’re a sucker for a beautiful memoir.
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
Before Rebecca Traister published her much-anticipated Good and Mad, Brittney Cooper had written an entire treatise on the power in black women’s anger, and the contempt the country has for it.
Eloquent Rage focuses on the web of sexism, racism, and class, grounding Cooper’s understanding of all three in her own coming of age. And, most importantly, it takes on the current feminist movement — one often grounded in whiteness — and forces readers to recognize how that “fucks shit up for everybody.”
For you if: You prefer your life lessons delivered by someone else’s grandma.