As of this review, I officially declare my dislike of books that blend stories and recipes. But, say you, you liked this one, didn’t you? Yes, I did, but what I liked in The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table was not so much the recipes, but rather the fascinating story of the author’s family, starting with his great grandfather, who had had to exile himself out of state because the law was after him — but returned to teach his daughter in law the basics of cooking. The author’s mother is a central character, as are her beliefs that sorting beans require a child-free kitchen, microwave ovens are the work of the devil, and onions need to be cooked with a light hand so as not to bruise them (I agree with this last one!).
Along the way we hear of cows mysteriously falling to their deaths (conveniently for people who need meat), more than one shooting, feeding train-riding hoboes from a version of stone soup, and incredible care lavished on food made from the simplest and cheapest ingredients. Of course, the cooking occurs without modern conveniences so that the first step is to chop the wood needed to heat the stove. We have it so easy.
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.
Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Motel is the result of an sociological study of the population of the residential motel, where we meet people down on their luck, addicts, people with mental illnesses, and many sex offenders who cannot find any place to live under laws that prevent them living close to any school or park. It uncovers all kinds of interesting group dynamics — but the way the book is organized makes it quite painful to read. For the first and larger half of the book, the author recounts anecdotes, which are quite clear, even vivid, but then finds the need to explain to us what they mean when we can easily figure it out for ourselves. And also he seems very surprised that the residents of the motel are quite capable of looking after themselves, helping others, and taking best advantage of their limited resources. Why not, indeed? The rest of the book is a list of recommendations, which seem impractical at best. (Yes, the residents could use a nutritionist, but it’s not clear that their problem is that they don’t know about junk food, more that most of them have no way to cook for themselves.) If you can get past the sociology approach and jargon, discovering the daily life at the motel is really interesting.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is written by a lawyer who grew up in a poor Scots-Irish family (he does not like to say Scotch-Irish), raised in great part by his grandmother when his addicted mother could not cope. His story has been seized upon to explain the malaise of white working class Americans, but I prefer to see it as a personal narrative of hope and also practical, if often severe ideas of how government programs often fail the very recipients they try to help.
The writing is rough around the edges, but the story will stay with you.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City follows a handful of poor families in Milwaukee, and their landlords, as they struggle to pay rent or collect rent. The tenants lead complicated lives. Many have addictions of various kinds, too many children, criminal records, abusive partners, disabilities of all kinds, little education and grim employment records and prospects. Evictions are just one more problem on top of the others, and although the author clearly demonstrates how unstable housing creates enormous problems for poor households, it’s not entirely clear how the fix he recommends, providing universal housing assistance, would solve the larger issues.
Despite the simplistic recommendation, the description what it takes to be a landlord in inner-city Milwaukee is enlightening.
Do you hate Bill Gates? Then you will love The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century, which often reads like a 300-page diatribe against him personally and his charitable foundation.
Why the author would choose this form of expression is unclear. Basically he hates everything about food programs. He hates the fact that the percentage of very poor people in the world has fallen (because the absolute number has increased — which is sad, but does not negate progress, right?) He hates that many people involved in antipoverty programs (including his nemesis, Bill Gates) are optimistic that the situation will continue improve. He thinks that we should all stop all optimism, right away. He knows, just knows that harvests will fail and we will all starve and he and Malthus predicted it: there are just too many humans on too small a planet. He hates that philanthropists choose to fund school before everyone knows that we should, instead, feed babies and toddlers (he has a point but perhaps it’s better to fund schools than say, wars). He can’t even start to consider the benefits of GMO crops because women in sub-Saharan Africa are still having too many babies (Should we pause all efforts while they decide that 2.2 is a good number? That would be insane.) He also deplores that the same antipoverty mavens noted above (and in particular the very bad Bill Gates, did I mention he hates him?) are able to applaud when countries headed by dictators make some progress fighting poverty.
It’s very tiring to read a book filled with such hate of everything. Too bad, since there are many valid points in the book, in particular the problem of doing good only when good can be publicly recognized and admired.
In an even tone, Kid Moses tells the story of Moses, a young child who lives in Tanzania, orphaned and homeless. He gets beaten up, gets a job, spends some time in a cushy orphanage, escapes with his best friend, and generally makes his own way through life.
It’s sad. And we know, hope, pray, that he will make it. Quite a feat of writing from a child’s point of view.