All posts tagged “nonfiction

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Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, Richard Grant (2015)

Grant’s an itinerant English writer who got beguiled by the memory, amnesia, beauty, and ugliness of the Mississippi Delta region and wound up buying a house and spending enough time there to develop some relationships with people and a better-than-facile understanding of the place, its culture, history, and inhabitants. I would hope any undergrad fresh from Anthropology 101 could shoot this book full of holes easy as shotgunning a speed limit sign outside Itta Bena. Grant is white, educated, urbane, and for God’s sake British; we can easily question both his capacity to understand and his right to speak. To his credit, he cops to all that, not in a self-flagellating way but with amiable candor. Some will surely say he is too quick to grant himself permission and authority. I found myself trusting him. No, that’s not quite true; I don’t trust him, but he’s resolutely well-intentioned and a seductive storyteller, so I was willing to bracket my resistance for a spell and enjoy his anecdotes. It helps that he’s resolutely in the mode of first person memoir with occasional gestures toward cultural analysis. The claims are less “here’s how things are” than “given my experience, this is what I think might be so.” (Geoff Dyer’s The Missing of the Somme, which my next post will be about, inverts this pattern.)

I’ve spent some time in the Delta as a tourist, and every time I go I feel a little more confused about why I’m there. Like other tourists, I went the first time because it’s where American music was born. I also wanted to see the cotton fields I’d only imagined, and to put my hand on the rails that carried the Great Migration from Greenwood to Memphis to Cairo to Chicago. Given its history, the Delta is arguably the most American place there is. But sadly, being the most American place there is also means it is a place of enduring inequality, injustice, poverty, and utter resistance to change. The Delta loves to “celebrate heritage” with museums, memorials, cultural centers, ersatz juke joints, roadside markers, and the like. In recent decades, some of these gestures — the Emmett Till Center in Glendora, for example — have done much to bring attention to the evil which runs through that heritage like arteries through a body. But I think many visitors, myself and Richard Grant included, are too easily tempted to turn from the evil and focus on the charm, or what appears to be charm. A simple thought experiment: If Grant were everything he is — British, educated, urbane, gregarious, etc. — and also black, how would his reception in the Delta been different?

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Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, Margaret Atwood (2008)

9780747598718More than a year since reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, my head’s still spinning trying to come to grips with the concept of debt, which once seemed very simple to me and now seems deeply nebulous. Just recently, I was trying to recommend that book to a friend and found myself unable even to explain what it was “about.”

Atwood’s book, which started as a series of lectures and reads very conversationally, might be a better place to start than Graeber. It’s not nearly as detailed or researched, and there’s a much lower ratio of mindblowers-per-page, but it’s also far more approachable and comprehensible.

Unsurprisingly, Atwood’s particularly good at exploring the ways debt appears in literature, with shrewd and lively analyses of Middlemarch, Faust, and — of course — Dickens, particularly A Christmas Carol.

Breezy, smart, recommended.

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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander (2010)

home_book_cvrI knew that the American “war on drugs” had led to extraordinary numbers of people being imprisoned for little reason; I knew that a highly profitable and job-creating prison industry depended upon a system which delivers torrents of new inmates to correctional facilities; I knew that sentences for inexpensive crack were absurdly and punitively higher than those for expensive cocaine; I knew that police organizations literally profit from being able to seize assets from drug arrests (or even drug suspicions), and that many law enforcement agencies depend upon these funds for their budgets; I knew that African Americans were far more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for drugs than whites. In short, I wasn’t totally uninformed. But this book still provided me with a lot of fresh information, and — more importantly — a framework by which to understand in sum a lot of phenomena I had known about but not really understood. Alexander’s thesis is that America’s mass incarceration of African Americans represents the third great wave of racial control in this country, the first two having been slavery and Jim Crow. The genius of this system is that it professes not to be race-based at all. It’s not African Americans who are being put under state control and surveillance; it’s criminals. Everyone knows that we are not supposed to discriminate on the basis of race any more, but everyone also knows that we are universally free to despise criminals. So if you can see to it that vast numbers of African Americans are branded as criminals, you can achieve a system of de facto racial control and discrimination while at the same time professing that your laws and processes are colorblind. There are some line-level problems with Alexander’s reasoning here and there, but on the whole she presents a devastatingly effective and well-documented argument, one which has fundamentally altered how I think about our legal system and the state of racial discrimination in this country. I highly recommend the book, and if you lack the time for that, urge you to see Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In; the film explores many of the same issues, and also features interviews with Alexander.