With the tools of a trained ethnographer, the skills of a literary writer, and a deep-seated compassion, Matthew Desmond follows the lives of eight Milwaukee families as they struggled between 2008 and 2009 to turn grinding poverty into stable poverty. He also recounts the activities of their landlords, making Evicted (Crown, $28) a compelling and troubling story of “two freedoms at odds… the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.” Desmond puts these narratives into perspective with statistics, noting that in 2008 tax benefits to homeowners amounted to $171 billion nationally, while direct assistance to the poor for housing was $40.2 billion. In Milwaukee, the nation’s fourth poorest city, rent often consumes 88% of a monthly welfare check, and even the cheapest, barely habitable apartments—clogged drains, no stove, no hot water—may cost just $270 less than a decent place. Eviction, rare even in the Depression, is now a daily occurrence. Meanwhile, though “it took a certain skill to make a living off the city’s poorest trailer park,” it is indeed possible, as it is for an inner-city landlord renting to tenants on or below the poverty line to amass a net worth of $2 million. Desmond explores these disparities in detail and links the crisis of affordable housing to unemployment, crime, racism, poor health, and other socio-economic ills. But what’s most impressive here are the stories. One woman calls some ninety prospective apartments, her standards getting lower as her desperation rises. A seventh-grader attends five different schools in one academic year. Children “sleep” in chairs in overcrowded rooms. Evictions are cheaper for landlords than maintenance, and people can be evicted for nearly anything—or nothing; a call to the police about domestic abuse, for instance, can get a family kicked out as a “nuisance,” and every eviction on someone’s record makes the next apartment harder to come by.
In her first book, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear . . . and Why (Melville House, $25.99), the immensely talented young feminist writer, Sady Doyle, explores the phenomenon of women celebrities who rise to fame only to be derailed by a public “trainwreck.” Doyle, a staff writer at In These Times who founded the blog “Tiger Beatdown,” suggests that this is the predictable outcome for women who dare to deviate from conventional rules of female behavior. While her focus is on contemporary figures such as Whitney Houston, Miley Cyrus, and most of all Britney Spears, she traces the historical lineage of the trainwreck phenomenon back to Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Brontë, Sylvia Plath, and Billie Holiday. The explosion of new media has only exacerbated the problem in recent times, making it easier to humiliate women public figures and harder for them to regain their footing. Political trainwrecks get brief attention from Doyle, but her ideas certainly reverberate in the aftermath of the 2016 campaign.
Rebecca Traister’s new book was one of the most anticipated works of non-fiction in 2016, and for good reason. Described by writer Anne Lamott as “the most brilliant voice on feminism in this country,” Traister had already produced a searing examination of sexism and gender stereotyping in the 2008 presidential campaign (Big Girls Don’t Cry) before turning her attention to the experience of unmarried women throughout American history. All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation (Simon & Schuster, $27; paper, $17) is a masterful exploration of how unmarried women are redefining notions of love, attachment, and marriage, and in the process are gaining unprecedented political, social, and economic power. Traister intersperses her own personal (and often very funny) experiences into the larger historical context, making for a fascinating book that has serious implications for American politics now and in the future.