Susan’s Best Reads of 2019

I don’t read as much as I wish I could; I just don’t have time at the moment. It doesn’t help that I wind up with sometimes 600 page books in my hands, and those take longer.  I never know what I’ll read next, and I read a bunch of good ones last year. Here are some of my favorites:

One of the two best books I read this year, I’ve already blogged about: Creativity, Inc, by Ed Catmull, was amazing. Not just a history of Pixar films, it’s also the best darned, most entertaining book on business and employee management you will read. Pixar is a 5-star company for a reason.

The second of my Best Reads this year is The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James.  From approximately 1898 to 1912, a serial killer traversed the US by train – coming through New Haven’s Union Station on the way – with an MO of bludgeoning his victims with the back of an axe. Because of communications at the time, few people were able to connect the murders. James painstakingly, with the utmost detail, traces the dozens of murders and examines them, deciding if they were likely by the same killer or not, and why. He traces the paths through the states and the seasons, chasing the trail to a man who was most likely the killer. By the time he’s done, you are convinced and amazed. I could not stop reading this book. I read it while waiting for the school bus. I read it while cooking. I would have read it in the shower if I could have. If you love a mystery, if you love history, if you love crime stories, this book is a must.

I’m only 30 years late in reading Neuromancer, the Hugo-winning cyberpunk novel by William Gibson. I can see why it is held as one of the greatest novels of our time. Gibson predicts and writes about today’s modern computers and internet and gaming – long before they existed. The scenarios he describes are both familiar and futuristic at the same time. While not only visionary, it’s written in  a flawless style and with realistic, interesting characters. If you loved Ready Player One or The Matrix (which has to have been influenced by this book), you will love Neuromancer.

If you’re aware of social and racial issues, I strongly recommend Survival Math, by Mitchell S. Jackson. A professor of writing, in achingly beautiful prose worthy of Martin Luther King Jr., with the voice of a preacher without being preachy, Johnson breaks down the issues faced in his own family, examining how he came to where he is, how racism played into it without even being visible, and how despite all the odds, it’s possible to thrive. He covers harsh topics without flinching. The book is brilliant, spellbinding, and a superb read from a voice that soars with truth.

Far more than I expected, I loved Total Recall, an older door-stop of a biography on Arnold Schwarzenegger. From his birth in a tiny town in Austria (which still has only 2500 people) to his divorce from Maria Shriver, Arnold is witty and candid and down to Earth. No matter what you think of his politics or his movies or his personal life, this book may be older, but it was highly entertaining. His best friend just died in September of this year.

Not my favorite, but worth mentioning because of its local importance, is Frog Hollow  by Susan Campbell. Campbell, a former reporter with the Hartford Courant, digs into the history of the notorious Frog Hollow section of Hartford, and through tireless research shows the former glory of the neighborhood as not only an important area in Colonial times, but once a major manufacturing center (in 1898, Pope automotive made half the cars in the US). I was hoping for a deep sociologic dissection of the issues, but instead Campbell gives us an upbeat view from street level about the good aspects of Hartford and the people who live there, not just the doom and gloom of ad-selling news clips.

Last but not least, I’ll throw in a kid’s series you probably missed; with 18 years between my last two kids, I certainly did, but my youngest is so hooked on the British easy reader series Urgency Emergency! by Dosh Archer, I wound up buying most of them. The series is so witty and enjoyable you don’t mind reading them over and over again. Doctor Glenda, Nurse Percy, and the Pengamedics, in predictable melodrama, assist the maladies of Humpty Dumpty, The Big Bad Wolf, the Itsy Bitsy Spider, and many more. They are a delight. The library has several of the stories; be sure to read them all!

Sorting White Trash

indexIt was a hard call, but I’d say White Trash by Nancy Isenberg was my Number 2 Must Read of 2016 (after Chasing the Scream), but oh, have I put off writing about it because it played so much into last year’s politics it seemed as if it were written for it – but it couldn’t, because it was written before last year’s one-of-a-kind election year.

“White Trash” is a term that began just before the Civil War and became entrenched afterward, a term for the poorest white people who were absolutely uneducated, dirty, poorer than slaves – and had no desire to change their ways. They considered themselves perfectly fine and above anyone else. Rich people were to be sneered at, since they considered themselves better. Educated people were sneered at, because they considered themselves better. Yet as a class they were so despised for their lack of morals and work ethic, even slaves considered themselves above Poor White Trash.

Isenberg feels the concept goes back further than that. Who did England send over to1400306193764-cached America to pad out their colonies? Who would not be missed from the overcrowded prisons and cities? Not the landed gentry, but those persons who for whatever reason did not fit into society and were unsuccessful at supporting themselves. The Virginia Colony had to go so far as to set a death sentence for people who did not work and did not attend church on Sundays. Starvation was so bad that people resorted to cannibalism. The people sent over refused to work, preferring to run off to unsettled land (which was “owned” by others) and fend for themselves. Getting people to do the hard labor of setting up a colony was quite difficult.

Further, Isenberg says that as the country expanded, the first to move west were… the folk who refused to work for others, could not function in a society, and would rather starve than work. Each time, the ones who pushed west first were the dregs, seeking escape from prisons, debt collectors, tax men, and others who “infringed” upon them. The wild west was wild because the people who colonized it couldn’t get along with anyone.

“White Trash” has many names, depending on geography – Crackers, Okies, Rednecks, Hillbillies, Trailer Trash, Mud Eaters – all people who shun government, distrust education, live in abject poverty, and have a very flexible moral code. I don’t mean “flexible” as a pejorative but as a term to describe a juxtaposition of ideals: your baby out of wedlock is a sin, but it’s okay for me. Never take charity, but taking free stuff from this agency over here isn’t charity, it’s just free stuff. They have quite the knack for making things acceptable for them but a sin for anyone else.

Isenberg digs into both politics and popularism, citing Andrew Jack110932-004-3f4811e2son (the first person running for President who lost despite getting the most popular votes the first time he ran) as an uneducated, crass boor who appealed to the lowest masses and yet was elected President, and how he loved to flaunt that boorishness, to the distress of the American Gentry. She cites the 1970’s as a time when White Trash became hip – from Smokey and the Bandit, to the Dukes of Hazzard, to Tammy Faye Bakker and the  whole Televangelist craze. Today’s exploitainment shows like Duck Dynasty, Honey Boo Boo, and 16 and Pregnant continue to flaunt poverty, lawlessness, and lack of education as something chic and desirable.

Of course race and politics play into it. Much of the divide still stems from the Civil War, with Southern States blaming Northern States for the outcomes, and the Northern States holding the South in utter contempt. Isenberg shows how that all translates into votes, and political forums, and how those in turn affect our elections – including the recent one.

indexIsenberg is not alone in her observations. Numerous authors have also written similar observations, making her research more plausible. One is Deer Hunting With Jesus, by Joe Bageant, in which he talks about going home to rural Virginia, and why such places are becoming  a permanent underclass.  Lee Smith touches on a little of it in her dreamy autobiography Dimestore, about growing up in rural Appalachia.  Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance does a fantastic job presenting the issues from the first-hand experience of growing up in 1980’s Kentucky.

No matter what your political leanings, White Trash815bv15ciol will open your eyes to why current politics are playing out the way they are and how people are being exploited in the process, why you can’t seem to educate people out of poverty, and how that poverty persists generation after generation – and no, it’s not due to Welfare. How do we change it? How do we shape it? Or should we allow an uneducated underclass to dictate policies it knows nothing about – and chooses not to learn?  There’s no easy answer to be had, but this book is a must read and will open your eyes to a lot of things you never learned in school.