The Working Poor: Invisible In America by David K. Shipler (Vintage). As author David Shipler says,"Nobody who works hard should be poor in America." Nonetheless, around 35 million Americans have jobs and still remain below the poverty level. This should shock us to our core, but somehow these days, it doesn't; it's just another depressing soundbite lost in the daily whirlwind of information. In the early 60s, when Michael Harrington published The Other America, that book's revelation that many Americans weren't sharing in the nation's post-war economic boom woke the national conscience. For the next 10 or 15 years, the fact that the wealthiest nation in history included millions of poor people, in poor health, living in poor housing, was considered a matter of national shame. When the ensuing federal programs designed to end poverty showed only sporadic progress, national compassion slowly dried up until by the Reagan era attempts to address poverty in the US were subject to ridicule. If there's any justice left — and that remains to be seen — Shipler's book could reignite our national concern.
The Working Poor delivers the cold hard facts but humanizes them with a variety of well-told personal stories of people who struggle desperately despite having jobs. Together, these create an all-too-real portrait of the vicious cycles of social and economic injustice that trap millions of American workers. Shipler explains one cycle this way: "Poverty leads to health and housing problems. Poor health and housing lead to cognitive deficiencies and school problems. Educational failure leads to poverty."
Shipler provides complex, practical suggestions for changes in public policy that don't place him anywhere familiar along the left-right political spectrum. This is by no means a liberal cri de coeur. Poverty, says Shipler, isn't just the result of an unjust society, or simply the end product of personal flaws; it's usually both. Shipler reports, "Liberals don't want to see the dysfunctional family, and conservatives want to see nothing else."
Hopefully, enough people will be paying attention. As the author points out, the working poor are too busy and do not "have the luxury of rage." (John Grooms)
Out by Natsuo Kirino (Vintage). This novel was a national sensation when first published in Japan, and has been turned into a movie there. Four women making boxed lunches during the nightshift at a Tokyo factory have their lives turned upside down when the youngest of them strangles her faithless husband and turns to the other three for help. As they all bond while cutting up the murdered hubby, stories from each woman's domestic history are revealed. The tension and the bizarre, gritty atmosphere intensify throughout the book and at times had this reviewer almost literally breathless. The usual cultural dislocation of most contemporary Japanese lit is implied throughout this unsentimental noir novel, but it's the view into the lives of these women, working in the dark underbelly of a frenetic consumer culture, that I won't soon forget. (Dana Renaldi)
Rolling Thunder Logbook by Sam Shepard (Da Capo). In 1975, Bob Dylan organized the Rolling Thunder Revue, ostensibly an alternative to your standard rock tour. He teamed up with Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin' Jack Elliot and others to play 22 shows in a loose, relatively free-form format Dylan termed a traveling gypsy circus. Tagging along was award-winning playwright Sam Shepard, originally picked to write a movie script for the group — a project that never happened. Instead, Shepard kept a diary of sorts and this is it. Less of a linear documentary than an impressionistic take on the participants' moods and interactions, Rolling Thunder Logbook is entertaining as well as a fascinating look at a particular cultural moment. The text is complemented by 40 candid photographs. (John Grooms)
The News From Paraguay by Lily Tuck (Perennial/Harper Collins). Based on a true story, this amazing, National Book Award-winning novel introduces the reader to a young Irish woman, Ella Lynch. She meets Francisco Lopez, the future dictator of Paraguay, in Paris in the mid-19th century, and sails back with him when he returns to South America. She becomes his mistress, as well as a celebrity, bears him several sons, is embroiled in controversies, and watches as her husband's warring foreign policy completely devastates the country. Tuck, working in short, episodic bursts, provides a remarkable and subtle portrait of a very complicated society, at all economic levels, in a time of crisis, while also showing the myriad ways people react and adjust to tragedies. (Dana Renaldi)
Sunset and Sawdust by Joe R. Lansdale (Vintage Crime). Longtime cult favorite Lansdale, who I thought was surely stuck in the world of small presses due to his outlandish crudeness and hyperviolence, was finally snagged by a prestigious publisher, Knopf. This Depression-era novel, set in a small East Texas sawmill community during the Depression, begins with a marital-rape-in-progress during which red-haired knockout Sunset Jones shoots her husband in the head, killing him, just as a tornado rips their house out from around them. And it picks up steam from there. Soon, she's the sheriff and all hell breaks loose. As usual, Lansdale blurs the edges of several genres including detective noir, historical fiction and horror, spawning a highly unsettling tale with a surprisingly big heart. (John Grooms)