Before you get too excited, $500 probably no longer buys a house in Detroit, gentrification making headway even in a city that is a shell of its former self, and $500 buys you not so much a house, but a shell, gutted of all its valuable parts and in need of massive amounts of rehab work. The author of A $500 House in Detroit: Rebuilding an Abandoned Home and an American City tells his amazing adventure trying (and eventually succeeding) in rebuilding a beautiful house, which among other feats required him to spend a winter there with no heat (and a Halloween night with a gun, ready to defend the house against violent pranksters in a city where police may take an hour to arrive).
The story includes the interactions with his neighbors, who initially view this young white man with suspicion but turn out to be incredibly helpful. It also includes commentary about the reasons for urban blight, which is the least successful part of the book. (And I could not help but notice that he is not exactly helping the city coffers by not pulling any permits for his building work.) But the overall adventure is well told and full of hope for a rebirth of Detroit and other similar cities.
Written by an anthropologist, Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen tells the story of the people of the Kalahari, which many of us will think we know from a single movie, The Gods Must be Crazy, but of course the reality is infinitely more nuanced (although we do meet the star of the movie in this account). The book is surprisingly meandering and unstructured, which grated on me somewhat, but does a magnificent job of presenting real people and the essential quality of a culture so unlike the Western one: where life is lived day by day with no fretting or preparing for the future, and the idea of appearing superior to others is just impossible. The past and present exploitation of the Bushmen is clearly told, but the focus is on how they are making the transition to a new, still not completely defined way of life.
The Secrets She Keeps portrays two very pregnant women from different social classes, one aspiring to have the other’s life, which seems so perfect. The outcome will be complicated and tragic. The back stories seem needlessly over-full of drama, but the intrigue is captivating and clever and the characters are complex, down to the (wonderful) police psychologist.
The Spanish flu epidemic has always been important in my family because one of my great-grandmothers died of it leaving her son, my grandfather, bereft. It killed over 50 million people, much more than WWI, so my great-grandmother was not alone, sadly,
Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World presents the epidemic in its historical context, showing how it changed social mores, medicine, business — and geopolitics. The author also sprinkles stories of famous victims of the flu, and there are many to choose from. I loved the fact that she includes not just European and North American countries in her story, but also China, Brazil, and South Africa.
Well worth reading, whether or not you have an ancestor who was a victim of the epidemic.
It’s too bad that beach weather is past us, because How To Party With An Infant may, barely, pass muster as a beach read. It tries to be a satire of rich mothers of San Francisco, obsessed with getting their darlings into the right (very expensive and organic) preschool and taking the right barre class, but only succeeded in making me wonder how the heroine, instead of comfortably sponging off her parents, cannot just get a job and stop whining about not owning a Hermes belt. I think we can all live without Hermes belts. Or organic preschools with 40K annual tuitions.
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America faithfully delivers the promise of its subtitle, starting with the idea that the problem of the so-called “waste people” of Britain could be solved by shipping them to a new country where they would thrive. The author highlights when and how various derogatory epithets came to be — and I was surprised to see that trash, sadly, had such a long history. She also spends a lot of time analyzing various novels and movies about poor people, perhaps too much since, after all, fiction is fiction. And she exposes how political decisions have reinforced the status quo (the establishment of the suburbs through zoning laws being a prime example). She wisely stays away from specific recommendations, although they are quite clearly visible from the narrative.
Careers for Women starts well, in the typing pool of the PR department of the New York Port Authority, the heroine a young woman who dreams of a career and is inspired by her female boss. But the story is really about another coworker, a single mother with a secret and a grudge, and a dark end. The descriptions of the 50s work environment are so good I would have liked more of it, and less of the sadly familiar single-mom struggles. And the fictional setting did not have to focus on the beginnings of the World Trade Center either, I think. Surely New York has many more stories that those around this tragic icon.