Book Notes: January 2022

Check out these new books and read about them below! By and of interest to members of the WCSA

Bridging the Divide: Working-Class Culture in a Middle-Class Society (Cornell U. Press), Jack Metzgar

Jack Metzgar, like many of us, grew up working class and became a middle-class professional – in his case, a teacher of working adults and in labor education.  In this book, he uses that experience, as well as sources from a wide range of disciplines, to interpret the differences between working-class and professional-middle-class cultures during the last eight decades in the US.  The publisher promises: “Bridging the Divide mixes personal stories and theoretical concepts to give us a compelling look inside the current complex position of the working-class in American culture and a view of what it could be in the future.”  Sherry Linkon praises the book for identifying “aspects of working-class culture that have either confused or have been entirely ignored, challenging the assumption that there is only one valid culture.”

Toward Camden (Duke U. Press), Mercy Romero

Part of a series titled “Black Outdoors: Innovations in the Poetics of Study,” Mercy Romero returns to the African American and Puerto Rican Cramer Hill neighborhood of Camden, New Jersey, where she grew up.  As she explores what has been lost, informed by her childhood memories, she meditates, reflects on, riffs, and informs in a style that moves easily between the prosaic and poetic.  One reviewer calls it “a profoundly moving and necessary meditation on . . . a city marked by abandonment, dispossession, and resistance.”   Another praises the book for how it “combines incisive political commentary, cultural criticism, and memoir” in a way that is “elegiac, yet hopeful.”

Hyena! Jackal! Dog! (Pamenar Press), Fran Lock

In an interview about her work, Fran Lock says: “I think it’s still true today that the white middle class patriarchy has been so effectively naturalised as the absolute model for all human experience that it cannot recognise or permit any other forms of meaning-making, or can only understand them as pathological, backward or otherwise aberrant . . . . . Magic is like rage; it is a fly in the ointment. Many kinds of folklore, magical thinking or witch belief crop up throughout the collection. I owe this to my radical feminist foremothers, but also to a rich familial and ancestral culture. Making space for these beliefs, these modes of thought, is a form of creative protest.”  In Hyena! Jackal! Dog! Lock pushes back against the forces of white middle class patriarchy with her poetry, itself often magical rage. Margaryta Golovchenko writes that “the hyena [of the title] is at once a symbol, a retainer of multifaceted meaning that ‘shifts between categories of species and of sex,’ as well as the character Hyena!, who is a similarly disruptive force working against the established hierarchies within society and even literature.”

Living on the Edge: When Hard Times Become a Way of Life (Polity), Celine-Marie Pascale

What Celine-Marie Pascale calls “the struggling class” includes the majority of Americans for whom “hard times have long been a way of life.” Set against the background of a larger social-economic and political analysis, Pascale details hard-living American lives in Oakland, California, and Appalachia as well as the Native American nations of Wind River in Wyoming and Standing Rock in the Dakotas.  Chase Iron Eyes of Lakota People’s Law Project praises the book as “both supremely accessible and thoroughly researched [in showing] how economic, racial, class, caste, geographical, environmental, and other factors converge to create systemic inequalities designed to hold down a diverse stratum of people , , , all while skillfully illustrat[ing] key connective tissues that demonstrate how, despite outward differences, we share in the same struggle.”

The Activist Spirit: Toward a Radical Solidarity (Hard Ball Press), Victor Narro

Victor Narro, a labor and immigrant rights activist, argues that there is a spiritual core within social justice activism, and he believes that making us more conscious of that spirit can strengthen it in our daily practice.  According to the publisher, the book “calls us to integrate that inner spiritual core into our work to make the struggle for justice more compassionate, caring, and sustainable.  To be an activist for justice is to love humanity and all of creation.”

Where Are the Workers? Labor’s Stories at Museums and Historic Sites (U. of Illinois Press), Robert Forrant and Mary Anne Trasciatti, eds.

This collection of essays explores efforts throughout the US to place the history of labor and working people into mainstream narratives of US history.  The first part focuses on “ways to collect and interpret worker-oriented history for public consumption,” while the second part ranges from historic sites and murals to written and visual representations of labor history.  According to the publisher: “Together, the essayists explore how place-based labor history initiatives promote understanding of past struggles, create awareness of present challenges, and support efforts to build power, expand democracy, and achieve justice for working people.”

Standing Up: Tales of Struggle (Hard Ball Press), Ellen Bravo and Larry Miller

The authors, who share 50 years of labor and social justice activism, present a novel about unseen and unsung working people who labor to hold their lives and families together as they also advocate for needed changes both large and small.  Gloria Steinem writes of the novel that “So much fiction is about escape and fantasy, but these powerful Tales of Struggle will enrich our real and daily lives.”

Class Interruptions: Inequality and Division in African Diasporic Women’s Fiction (U. of North Carolina Press), Robin Brooks

Though this book focuses on the literary productions of Black women writers from the US and the Caribbean, it is informed by a larger political economic analysis of how neoliberalism and racial capitalism “reframes structural inequalities as personal failures, thus obscuring how to improve unjust conditions.”  The writers are Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Dawn Turner, Olive Senior, Oonya Kempadoo, Merle Hodge, and Diana McCauley.  Through textual analysis and interviews with authors, Robin Brooks shows how the Black women’s literary tradition since the 1970s has repositioned the importance of class in understanding the African Diaspora. Carole Boyce Davies praises the book: “Robin Brooks confidently contributes . . . to advanc[ing] a new generation of literary scholarship in which class has as much analytical presence as does race or gender.”

African American Workers and the Appalachian Coal Industry (West Virginia U. Press), Joe William Trotter Jr.

This slender volume of four essays is meant to update both the realities and the scholarship around Black Appalachian miners since distinguished labor historian Joe Trotter published Coal, Class, and Color: Blacks in Southern West Virginia, 1915-32 three decades ago.  Trotter again focuses on the haunting paradox that despite the miserable conditions of industrial workers, including miners, the worst of which black workers endured, the proletarianization of blacks was a form of upward mobility from former slaves, sharecroppers, and service workers.  Blending comprehensive accounts of historiography and narratives of black industrial workers’ historical experience, these essays explore “the formation and growth of Black working-class communities, institutions, social and cultural networks, and political movements for reform and liberatory change over time,” according to Clarence Lang.

The Harlan Renaissance: Stories of Black Life in Appalachian Coal Towns (West Virginia U. Press), William Turner

William Turner grew up in a coal-mining family in Harlan County, Kentucky, in the post-World War II boom years when mining jobs were already beginning to disappear even as production increased.  As opportunities diminished in Harlan, Turner left home and eventually became a preeminent historian of Appalachia.  This book combines memoir with history to recount and evoke “large and vibrant Black communities, where families took the pulse of the nation through magazines like Jet and Ebony and through the news that traveled within Black churches, schools, and restaurants. Difficult choices for the future were made as parents considered the unpredictable nature of Appalachia’s economic realities alongside the unpredictable nature of a national movement toward civil rights.”

Aye ok (Speculative Books), Charles Lang

Sphinx: Poetry Pamphlet Reviews describes Lang’s poetry collection as “Sharp cameos of working-class life, snapshots on the streets,” written in “the cadences of lowland Scots.”   Genevieve Stevens, in Sabotage Reviews writes that “Lang’s poetics expose these tensions [between standard English and Lang’s Glaswegian dialect] by making frequent tears in the surface of the poem so that both languages (the spoken Glaswegian and English taught at schools) jar side by side, charging the poetry with political heat.”

On Dark and Bloody Ground: An Oral History of the West Virginia Mine Wars (West Virginia U. Press), Anne T. Lawrence

The Battle of Blair Mountain – when coal miners with rifles fought pitched battles in 1921 against a legion of sheriffs and deputies, state police, makeshift militias, and eventually a federal expeditionary force, including bomber squadrons – is but the most famous of Appalachian mine wars of the 1920s and ‘30s.  We might not know much about these tumultuous times, however, if the Miners for Democracy in 1972, in other tumultuous times, had not asked Anne Lawrence to come to West Virginia to collect oral histories from the survivors of those wars.  This volume presents key selections from those oral histories for a general audience, along with introductory material, maps, and photographs.  Lou Martin says the book is “long overdue,” “a pleasure to read,” and “it captures the voices of the coalfields in a way that is unlike any of the other accounts.”

A Union for Appalachian Healthcare Workers: The Radical Roots and Hard Fights of Local 1199 (West Virginia U. Press), John Hennen

The union of health care workers most recognized by its number – 1199 – was organized in New York City by a multiracial group of workers and organizers.  John Hennen’s book shows how that famous New York union organized unions in hospitals, nursing homes, and healthcare centers in West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and Appalachian Ohio.  The publisher promises: “Both a sophisticated account of an overlooked aspect of Appalachia’s labor history and a key piece of context for Americans’ current concern with the status of ‘essential workers,’ Hennen’s book is a timely contribution to the fields of history and Appalachian studies and to the study of social movements.”

Brown Girls (Penguin Random House), Daphne Palasi Andreades

Andreades’ debut novel focuses on a diverse circle of friends, young women of color, growing up in Queens, New York. The author writes: “If you really want to know, we are the color of 7-Eleven root beer. The color of sand at Rockaway Beach when it blisters the bottoms of our feet. Color of soil …” According to the publisher, it is the “story of immigrant mothers, American daughters, childhood, adulthood, and the people and places that make us who we are today.” Emma Straub, author of All Adults Here, writes that Andreades’ book is “An irresistible chorus of remembrances, a lyrical ode to brown girlhood. It is also an ode to Queens, and the multiethnic first-person plural sounds like the borough itself, rich and varied and glorious.”

Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Eyal Press

This new book by Eyal Press is not about coal miners or deep sewer cleaners – that kind of dirty work.  Rather it focuses on drone pilots who carry out targeted bombings, guards who patrol violent and abusive prisons, and undocumented immigrants on the kill floors of slaughterhouses – “stories of people who perform society’s most ethically troubling jobs” from which most of us are shielded because less privileged people perform those jobs in our name.  Press explores a different sort of occupational hazard as well: “psychological and emotional hardships such as stigma, shame, PTSD, and moral injury.”  Besides harrowing stories of people doing this work, Press examines the structures of power and complicity that shape their lives, as “these burdens fall disproportionately on low-income workers, undocumented immigrants, women, and people of color.”

Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone (Bold Type Books), Sarah Jaffe

Labor journalist Sarah Jaffe focuses here on the unpaid intern, the overworked teacher, the nonprofit worker, the freelance writer or researcher, and even the professional athlete – that group of workers who are expected to endure low wages, long hours, and/or precarity because they love the work they do.  Undermining the “love of labor” myth by telling the stories of a wide variety of workers, Jaffe argues that “all of us have been tricked into buying into a new tyranny of work,” but that “understanding the trap . . .  will empower us to work less and demand what our work is worth.”

Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream (Basic Books), Jamie McCallum

Sociologist Jamie McCallum systematically shows how “most Americans work too long and too hard, while others lack consistency in their hours and schedules,” and he explains how a century-long decline in work hours based on labor union struggles was reversed beginning in the 1970s.  While acknowledging overworked professionals, McCallum focuses on Amazon warehouses, California’s gig economy, and what is left of Rust Belt factories to demonstrate that “it’s the hours of low-wage workers that are the most volatile and precarious – and the most subject to crises.”  Eschewing individual solutions, McCallum “recounts the inspiring stories of those battling today’s capitalism to win back control of their time.” Jane McAlevey says “McCallum’s sharp and clarifying analysis links workers’ freedom to control work time — and thus their lives — to our ability to have a functioning, genuine democracy.”

Beautiful World, Where Are You (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), Sally Rooney

Rooney’s latest novel is at first glance the tale of two Irish women, Alice and Eileen, and follows their friendship from childhood through college (at elite universities) and early career. On the surface the book centers on their relationship as friends and their romantic lives as they navigate a series of relationships. Beneath the surface, however, as their paths diverge professionally and economically, complicated notions of social class become a powerful current in the narrative. Writing for In These Times, Sohale Andrus Mortazavi says that “Both women find their education insufficient for understanding and navigating class tension in their own lives. Those lives often say more about class as it is actually experienced by normal people than the critical theory they learned at university. They haven’t ever gone out on a picket line. Alice doesn’t even have a boss. Eileen isn’t about to unionize the little literary magazine offering her a respectable job, however little it pays. Their lived experience with class has less to do with struggling against an employer than with each other for employment and other opportunities.”

Intersectional Class Struggle: Theory and Practice (AK Press), Michael Beyea Reagan

Michael Reagan argues that “leading traditions of class analysis have missed major elements of what class is and how it operates.”  He explores a variety of working-class experiences, combining intersectional theory with materialism, to show how “culture, economics, ideology, and consciousness are all factors that go into making ‘class’.”  Reagan urges us to “recognize that our movements can be diverse and particularistic as well as have elements of the universal experience shared by all workers.”  Noam Chomsky calls it a “rich and vivid exploration of many forms of popular struggle” that reminds us that “liberation is infectious.”

Home Care Fault Lines: Understanding Tensions and Creating Alliances (Cornell U. Press), Cynthia Cranford

Home care workers are one of the fastest growing and lowest paid jobs in the US workforce.  Cynthia Cranford takes an intimate look at “how elderly and disabled people and the immigrant women workers who assist them in daily activities develop meaningful relationships even when their different ages, abilities, races, nationalities, and socioeconomic backgrounds generate tension.” Arguing for “deeply democratic alliances across multiple axes of inequality,” Cranford advocates for culturally sensitive labor market intermediaries run by workers and recipients that would help recipients find workers and workers find jobs.  She also argues for universal government funding and suggests ways to address everyday tensions in home workplaces.

The Routledge Companion to Literature and Class (Routledge), Gloria McMillan, ed.

This collection of essays about literature in many different countries around the world brings new methods to provide a fresh assessment of the impact of class in literature.  These new methods include interdisciplinary approaches and recent developments in both intersectional theory and class analysis.  The publisher promises: “This volume will provide students with an insight into the history of the intersections of class, theory of class and invisibility in literature, and new trends in exploring class in literature. These multidimensional approaches to literature will be a crucial resource for undergraduate and graduate students becoming familiar with class analysis, and will offer seasoned scholars the most significant critical approaches in class studies.”

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