Sting Like a Bee, by Leigh Montville**

stinglikeabee“’It takes a lot of nerve for somebody, mainly a white, to ask me do I hate. I haven’t lynched nobody and hid in the bushes.’”

I received an advance copy free from Net Galley and Doubleday in exchange for this honest review. The book is now available for purchase.

Muhammad Ali died of Parkinson’s disease one year ago. By the time of his passing, he had earned the respect and recognition he craved. In this popular biography, Montville gives an overview of his rise to fame, but focuses primarily on Ali’s legal challenge to the US government, which strove to draft him to fight in Vietnam despite his professed status as a conscientious objector.

During the 1960s and 1970s, almost all of Caucasian America and a goodly number of African-Americans regarded Ali’s public statements either with derision or fear. Born Cassius Clay, he joined the Nation of Islam as a young adult and changed his name in the same way Malcolm X had before him. He did it in order to shuck the slave name given him at birth and adopt a new religion that taught him that Black men were not only equal to white folks, but better. Malcolm X had advocated Black pride and scared a lot of people, but he had done it from the point of view of a political activist. Ali was the first Black athlete to stand up tall and tell all of America that he was the greatest. The descendants of slave owners that willingly or not bore the guilt of the oppressors were absolutely terrified. This was the fear they seldom made themselves face, the notion that the descendants of those so grievously wronged might rise up belatedly and give back some of what their ancestors had been dealt. I was there; I remember.

Ali personified the white man’s fear of the jungle. Dude, here he comes; he’s strong, he’s angry, and he’s free!

Montville recognizes up front that when Ali died, he was an icon, both as an athlete and as a civil rights advocate. But the tone of his prose shifts from a more or less neutral journalistic tone, to a wry one—because Ali did say some outrageous things by anyone’s standard—and then, again and again, to a derisive one. The first time I saw it, I told myself I was tired and grumpy, and that I was probably being overly sensitive. My own family is racially mixed; I have raised a Black son. Sometimes I get touchy when I read things written by white authors about Black people. I should put the book down and examine it tomorrow with fresh eyes.

When I picked it up the next time I was immediately taken with the writer’s skill. His pacing is impeccable. Some of the quotes he chose are really delicious ones, although with Ali, it’s also kind of hard to go wrong. And at this point I considered that since we were on a roll, I should take the next step and examine the end notes and documentation.

Huh. Apart from a list of sources, most of which are biographies written by other people, there’s nothing. There are the in-text references a popular biographer uses, telling us, for example, that a direct quote comes from the magazine Sports Illustrated, without telling us what issue or who wrote it. And to be fair, that’s how a popular biography is written. It’s there for the masses that love boxing and aren’t going to check your footnotes. Everything within my academic heart recoils at this kind of biography, but it sells. I may not like it much, but people will buy it and they’ll read it.

But to write about a legal challenge of this magnitude and not provide specific documentation?
I could mention this within a review—as I have—and say that given this particular caveat, the biography is a four star read, and I thought that I might do that. But when I continued reading, there it was again. The author makes fun of the guy. And so just before the halfway mark, I started making careful notes of my own, because I wanted to see for myself how it is possible for a writer to appear to be neutral much of the time and yet also mock his subject. What I came away with is that the more straight-forward, respectful material is buried in the middle of each section, but the briefer sneering, snide material is usually right at the end of the section in one sentence, set apart from everything that came before it.

Writers do this for emphasis.

Fans of Ali will have to swallow hard to make it through this biography. Fans of boxing will find that it’s mostly about the legal challenge, and although Ali’s boxing matches are included, you’ll find a lot more about those in any one of the numerous other Ali biographies published earlier. And those interested in his legal fight may want to hold out for a more scholarly treatment.

When all is said and done, Ali was the greatest, but this biography is not.

Coming Up

Celebrations here in the family domicile have momentarily distracted me, but that all ends tomorrow. Before I commence partying with family tonight, I thought I’d show you the books you can expect to see reviewed here over the weekend. Some are memorable and others not-so-much, but I am surprised by which are which. Wait for it:

Wishful Seeing, by Janet Kellough****

wishfulseeingThaddeus Lewis, the traveling preacher sleuth, is back on the road again. He’s headed to speak at a gathering of Methodist Episcopalians when he finds himself involved, once more, in a murder case. This cozy mystery is my second in an endearing series by Janet Kellough. I snapped up the DRC when I saw that Dundurn had made it available on Net Galley, so I read it free in exchange for an honest review. This title will be available to the public this Saturday, July 30.

A body has been found in Rice Lake, and there are witnesses that saw Major Howell and his wife Ellen, the woman in the blue dress, near the scene of the crime “in the right place at more or less the right time”.  In the Canada that existed back then, that was enough to put Mrs. Howell in jail; her husband would be there too, but he is nowhere to be found.

Lewis finds himself drawn toward her case. Is it because he saw bruises on her arm that suggested her spouse may have handled her ungently? Is it because she is lovely, and he wishes she were with him instead? Or is it because Lewis just can’t scratch that legal-eagle itch enough times to be rid of the urge?  Likely it’s some of each.

The main draw card here is setting. Kellough has done a good deal of research in laying out both the area around Toronto during its frontier period. The result is a historical mystery with a travelogue feel to it. Kellough takes us to a time and place nobody can visit anymore except through literature, and she does a great job of it. She includes a lot of interesting details about the history of the Canadian legal system that drew my attention, because it was very different from what those of us raised in the US have come to expect. I found this aspect of it fascinating.

I also really enjoyed the part played by the little dog, Digger. I wouldn’t care to see him start solving crimes, but I hope we see him again in a future installment.

The only weak part is—perhaps unfortunately—at the beginning. There is so much of Thaddeus’s inner narrative, so much soul searching and comparison of beliefs among the various Protestant denominations that if I had not read Kellough’s work before, I would have wondered if I had inadvertently stumbled across Christian fiction. In fact, my notes show that at one part I wondered anyway.

Yet in another way, if there has to be a slow part, let it be at the beginning. And it’s clear that Kellough is not attempting to put together a thriller that grabs the reader by the throat, but rather is treating us to a relaxing story that one may take to the hammock and flop down with.

Nevertheless, by the time all the groundwork has been laid, it is a hard book to put down.

So this is your beach read. Take it to the shore, to the mountains, to the river, or even your own back yard, but don’t cheat yourself by passing it by. You can have it this weekend, and those that enjoy both historical fiction and mystery wrapped up at once are in for a treat.

The Butler’s Child: An Autobiography, by Lewis M. Steel****

thebutlerschildLewis M. Steel has a long, noteworthy career as a civil rights attorney.  He was an observer during the Attica Prison riots; worked for the NAACP during the Civil Rights movement, and later defended boxer Hurricane Carter against a frame-up charge of murder. And I was permitted to read this story free and in advance, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press in exchange for this honest review. I rate it 3.5 stars and round upwards; it is now available to the public.

When I first approached this title I expected to see what the life of a butler’s son was like. In fact, Steel’s social class is at the other end of the spectrum. An heir to the Warner Brothers fortune, he spent much of his time in the company of the family butler, and he was deeply affected by the emotional distance that this family servant, whom he had innocently regarded as a father figure, began to demonstrate as Steel grew older. Later, as an adult, he realized that this faithful retainer, an African-American man, surely had a family and life of his own that he went to visit on his two half-days off work, and he began to wonder what he might do to tear down the wall between the worlds of Caucasian families and Black folk. Ultimately he decided to become a civil rights attorney, and he credits the man that helped raise him as a key reason.

The NAACP of the Civil Rights era—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People– was deeply immersed in litigation as a means to end segregation. Again and again, racist judges sat in court, north and south alike, and they told the NAACP to go to hell even when their evidence and research was baldly, plainly in the plaintiff’s favor. The NAACP continued to push litigation over mass action because of a strong conviction that if they could get a case heard by the Supreme Court, relatively liberal in many regards and headed by Chief Justice Warren, then surely justice would be done.

It didn’t shake out that way. Outraged over the way the nation’s highest court failed to provide equal protection to its Black citizens, Steel wrote an article for Time Magazine titled “Nine Men in Black Who Think White”, and was summarily fired from the NAACP, who still wanted to curry favor with that court. Many of his colleagues walked out of the NAACP offices in protest.

A common question among Caucasians that want to fight for the rights of people of color in the USA is what can we do?  How can one use this white privilege that exists whether it should or not, to change US laws and society for the better? And this question is raised exponentially when one is an heir, a ruling class scion that can do a tremendous amount for the cause in which he believes.

This reviewer has a friend that found himself in this situation. The distant but only heir of a corset magnate’s fortune, he decided that the best way to seek justice was to walk his talk. Reserving a small percentage of the fortune for himself—which is still a tasty enough chunk to own a middle class home in Seattle, take a vacation abroad annually, and eat in restaurants instead of his own kitchen—he donated the vast majority of his personal wealth to the organization he thought best. He doesn’t live in an all white neighborhood; doesn’t have a household staff; and he does blue collar work on the railroad so that he can talk politics with other working people. Because to help people the most, one needs to be among them and facing similar circumstances to those they face. So he gets up at crazy o’clock in the morning, goes out and gets greasy and banged up with everybody else, and then he goes home and cleans his own house and mows his own grass. He gets that more people listen when you put your life where your mouth is, and he believes the future of the world lies with the working class.

So when Steel commences his hand wringing over how wealthy, how privileged he is and how bad he feels about it, I want to say, Cry me a river. Steel freely admits that he enjoys his lovely home that looks down on Central Park and allows him a lovely view of the Macy’s Parade every Thanksgiving. He enjoys the servants, and his neighborhood is all white. He sent his children to all white private schools even as he fought to integrate the public schools that he wouldn’t let his own children attend in any case.

At one point, Steel mentions that his therapist told him to stop whining, and I wanted that doctor here in the room so I could offer him a high five.

Now that I have addressed the elephant in the room, I have to say that Steel’s memoir, despite the wealthy liberal whining, is worth a read for those interested in Civil Rights history and in particular the part of it that has played out in the courtrooms. You don’t have to like the author to benefit from the treasure trove of information in the pages of this memoir. Steel has been involved in some landmark cases, and he is at his best when he talks about the cases he has taken and how they shook out.

Black lives DO matter, and those of  us that think so need all the information available to fight that fight, and there are many worthwhile lessons that still apply right here, this book is worth your time and money regardless of whose memoir it is.

This book was released earlier this month, and is available for sale now.

The Center, by Stewart Alsop**

thecenterAlsop’s book is a collection of essays describing Washington, DC as it was in the 1960’s. Everything here was written then, so it’s a chance to jump back in time and see what the media—and this reporter in particular– thought was appropriate for mainstream Americans reading the news of the day.  I was invited to read and review this book thanks to Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. I always hate to pan a book when I’ve been invited; it sounds as if I am insulting the host after eating at his table. However, the truth is the truth, and I see this title as fitting a narrow niche audience, but not so much the general public.

Alsop takes us back to the time that the USSR was a country and looked as if it was going to stay that way. He refers to Latvia and Estonia as former countries. Journalists that are female are referred to as “lady reporters”, and sodomy was still a crime on which the journalist frowned and assumed we would, also. He refers to justices of the Supreme Court and elsewhere as men, and with the assumption that this also is according to nature and will never change.

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this collection is the chummy way he refers to the Miranda case, in which it was determined that those about to be charged with a crime had to be told that they had the right not to speak against themselves and to have an attorney. He explains that most of the court’s decision making was done in restaurants and over the phone long before they ever met, and so this case was “almost certainly” decided before the justices ever met in chambers.

This reviewer’s father-in-law is a retired judge that served many ethical decades for the State of Oregon, ending his career on the State Court of Appeals. Talk like Alsop’s would make his blood run cold—or maybe extra hot, actually. His ethics were so firm and fair that he would not tell his own family, when we dined in the privacy of our home or his, who he planned to vote for in the upcoming election…because judges are supposed to be above partisan politics. He did not discuss his cases with family, and I would stake the deed to my house on his not having entered into any chummy agreements over the phone when serving at any level on the bench.

So for those interested in the journalism of the 1960s, here’s a trip down the rabbit hole that will take you there, or at least to one version of it. Those interested in the sociology of that time period might also find this useful.

Those interested in building a better world may be encouraged to see how far society has come since this dark time. If you think things are bad now, check out what they were like 50 years ago. But don’t pay full jacket price unless it’s important to you.

You can have this book now if you want it.

Florence “Flo” Kennedy: the Life of a Black Feminist Radical, by Sherie M. Randolph***

Florynce Flo KennedyFlo Kennedy was a force to be reckoned with, dismissed by a portion of mainstream Caucasian America as a kook, yet far too clever, too cagey, and too damn smart to be wished away by those that wanted to defend the racist, sexist status quo. When I saw that a memoir of her life was up for grabs at Net Galley I requested a copy immediately, and then took a long time to finish reading it. Part of my tardiness is a stubborn dislike for the PDF format, and so I apologize to University of North Carolina Press and my readers for being so slow; yet a small part of it was the surprisingly dry quality of the memoir. Given the subject, I had expected this biography to set my hair on fire.

Though she was new to Randolph, according to the introduction, Kennedy was no stranger to those of us in the Boomer generation. Her audacity, her wit, and her raw courage that at times bordered on recklessness made for great theater and fascinating press coverage. Raised by parents that taught her not “to take any shit” long before the Black Power movement or even the end of Jim Crow, Kennedy pushed the margins. She studied, worked, and fought her way into Columbia Law; she defended famous individuals like Billie Holliday and Stokely Carmichael, and she did it with style.

By far the most significant part of her legacy was the leadership she demonstrated in bringing together the women’s movement of the late 1960’s and 1970’s with the Black Power movement. As a young woman sending out my own tendrils into the larger world apart from high school and my parents’ home, some of the most influential feminist speeches given were by Kennedy and Gloria Steinem, and sometimes they appeared together. I never got to see them in person, but it didn’t matter that much, because I knew what they had written and what they had said, and soon I was attending meetings of NOW, the National Organization for Women, which was the leading women’s rights organization in the US before their split over women in the military later in the 20th century. Because of women like Kennedy and Steinem, I fundraised my fare to national marches on the Capitol for women’s right to choose whether to reproduce, and to fight for the Equal Rights Amendment.

So I owe Kennedy a great deal.

Kennedy’s confidence and controlled rage positively crackled; she made headlines and was often seen on the evening news. Once when I told a classmate that I wanted to support a female candidate for president of the US, he told me that if I was going to vote for a protest candidate, I should shoot for the moon and vote for Flo Kennedy.

He had a point.

I don’t agree with everything Kennedy said or did, particularly her suggestion that rather than expending great effort to end the US war against the Vietnamese people, Americans should focus their energy toward supporting Black owned businesses. Say what? But nearly everything else she did was so vastly ahead of her time that it made me gasp in awe.

I understand that a memoir produced by a university press is generally going to be scholarly in nature, and that’s one reason I request works like this that are associated with such reputable sources. But a scholarly treatment doesn’t have to drone. By arranging a few of Kennedy’s livelier quotes up front and at chapter beginnings and endings, she might receive the treatment she deserves, instead of being consigned to the dustbin of history a mere decade, give or take a year, after she wore a tee shirt reading “I had an abortion” during her most senior years.

So although I know Randolph is new to Kennedy and probably also has some academic parameters within which she has to work, I still feel that Flo’s memoir should reflect her verve and character to a greater degree.

Nevertheless reader, if you care about women’s rights and the rights of African-Americans, if women’s history and African-American history hold meaning and importance for you, I think you should read this memoir anyway, because as of this writing, it’s really the only memoir of Kennedy that’s available. You can find some of her speeches in feminist collections, but no one else has tackled this woman’s life, and so until and unless something better comes along, you should get this and read it. Because a dry, somewhat conservative treatment of Kennedy is better than nothing.

Chancers: Addiction, Prison, Recovery, Love: One Couple’s Memoir, by Susan Stellin and Graham Macindoe****

ChancersI decided to read and review this title because I anticipated that it would be, by and large, a depiction and critique of the American prison system and Homeland Security. As it happens, that is really only a small part of this memoir, which focuses more on the couple’s relationship and the way that addiction warps and undermines trust and affection. Nevertheless, I found it really compelling, and so thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the opportunity to read and review free and ahead of the public in exchange for this honest review. The memoir will be available to the public June 7, 2016.
Susan met Graham at a beach getaway where they were two of the people sharing a large house over the course of a vacation. Later, when she needed an author photo done for a book she had written, she remembered that he was a photographer that had worked for the Guardian, and she called him to see if he was interested.
That’s when everything began.
The memoir was originally going to be Susan’s alone, but eventually it occurred to her that Graham could contribute a lot in sharing his experiences with addiction and the point of view from which he saw the world when he was in that condition.
Imagine using heroin because it is easier to hide than alcoholism. From the frying pan into the fire! And hide it he did through the first stages of their relationship. He did romance like nobody’s business and she tried to remain objective, but there’s nothing all that objective about falling in love. And so although he made some highly questionable decisions, it took her awhile to find out about the heroin, which he had told her was behind him. But the heroin wasn’t behind him, and neither was the crack. And before she knows it, she is drawn partially down his rabbit hole while keeping one foot in that of mainstream journalism. It’s a strange place to be.
This reviewer has never minced words about my dislike for cops in general and the punitive, demoralizing, racist, class-based system that is the so-called American Justice System; yet Macindoe didn’t earn much sympathy from me. His narrative is in turns puling, angry with no justification, whiny and full of self pity, up until the end when he has finally shucked the monkey from his back as he reaches his golden years.
Macindoe had climbed from his early impoverished years as a child of a Scottish miner to the middle class world of photo-journalism. He was in the USA by preference and because his son from an earlier marriage was here; thus it was hard to feel the kind of solidarity with him that automatically comes to me regarding Third World citizens that are in the US as the only means by which they can feed their families. He owned a brownstone in New York City and had published photos internationally, garnering praise and a certain level of renown. And so…seriously? Heroin?
It was Stellin that kept me turning the pages. Every time she decided to step back from the relationship I wanted to yank her into the nearest lady’s room and tell her one woman to another to lose this guy entirely. Even her former husband, now in a gay relationship, advised her to “cut bait”. And every time she decided she could offer him some assistance even though they were no longer romantically involved, every time she wondered what their relationship could be like if only he were off the smack, I wanted to howl. After all, the relationship might be interesting if one of them grew a second head or a third eye in the middle of the forehead, but what were the chances?
“Chancers” turns out to be a Scottish expression, and I will leave the reader to find out what it means.
I found this story had an addictive quality of its own, a romantic drama not unlike the soap operas that were the only adult voices I heard most days when I was a stay-at-home mother in the 1980’s. Graham was full of shit, I figured, but I still had to know what happened next.
In the course of hearing Susan and Graham’s story, I did learn a number of things about Homeland Security that I had not known before. Imagine feeling nostalgic for Riker’s Island because it was so much more compassionate than the one for potential deportees!
And so I have to say this is a good read, an ideal book to take on vacation and flop on the beach with; just don’t get so absorbed that you scorch your tender skin, because it’s mighty distracting regardless of what is happening around you.
Fascinating and recommended to those that like compelling memoirs or are interested in addiction issues and the US penal system.

The Nazi Hunters, by Andrew Nagorski*****

thenazihuntersI had promised myself not to read any more Holocaust memoirs. What is to be gained? But when I saw this title available as a review copy on Net Galley, I thought that there is actually something to cheer the spirit in recounting how some of these monsters were tracked down and brought to justice. To date this is the most comprehensive telling of that achievement that I have read. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and also to Net Galley for the DRC. This book is available for purchase May 17.

Were it not for the efforts of Jewish survivors and the state of Israel, very few of the top-ranking Nazi officers would ever have gone to trial. Following World War II, Allied forces divided small, relatively helpless nations of Europe like a pack of robbers piecing out the spoils after a bank job. Once that was done, there was little energy or funding put into hunting down Nazis. To be sure, there was no logistical way to try and punish everyone in Germany or its neighboring states that had belonged to the Nazi party or its offshoots. There were millions. Some of them joined because it was easier to join than to not join; some did it for job security; and a surprising number did it because they loved Hitler and the Third Reich. No matter how terribly they have behaved, you can’t jail millions of people that did the wrong thing, even when their participation and complicity have resulted in the deaths of innocent millions. And so an agreement was reached that just the top guys would be hunted down and tried in an international court.

By the time the war ended, however, the USA had begun the Cold War with Russia and its satellite states, incorporated at the time as the USSR. Congress was much more interested in funding ways to combat Stalin’s version of Communism than it was in locating war criminals. And this is where Israel became such an important player.

There are passages within this meaty tome that necessarily detail the kinds of horrors visited by one or another Nazi officer in order to illustrate the level of evil the individual in question represented. It is not good bedtime material. But there is far more of the courage, cleverness, and above all teamwork involved in finding these people, documenting their crimes, and bringing them to justice, and that’s what I wanted to see.

Philosophical questions that were examined when I was a kid in school are raised once more. At what point can a person no longer defend himself by saying he was just following orders? At what point does trying to follow the law of the land—even Fascist law—no longer let a person off the hook? Many of those that stood trial were people that had initiated one or another terrible innovation in the torture or murder of other human beings. Others went to trial for their monstrous brutality. Concentration camp survivors bore witness against them. I loved reading about those that had been stripped of everything, horribly tortured and humiliated right down to the nubs of their souls in a position of some power against their oppressors. It felt right.

Addressed here also is the tremendously controversial kidnapping of the butcher Adolph Eichmann. Eichmann lived in a Latin American nation that did not extradite war criminals; Israeli forces ferreted him out, forced him onto an airplane and took him to stand trial in Israel. Those that objected to this illegal behavior ultimately had little recourse. I felt like it was one of those times when a rule is rightfully broken. (See Six Million Accusers: Catching Adolph Eichmann, also reviewed on this blog.)

For researchers and students of history, as well as those with a strong interest in this area, this book is highly recommended.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond*****

EvictedI was cruising for something new to read, something that wasn’t yet another mystery or thriller. I ran across this title and requested it from Net Galley, then asked myself what I had been thinking! Who wants to read an entire book about eviction? What a grim prospect. I was even more surprised, then, when I opened it and couldn’t put it down. Desmond approaches his subject in a way that makes it not only readable but compelling. Thanks go to the people at Crown Publishing and Penguin Random House for approving my request for a DRC. This book is available to the public March 1.

Desmond undertook his study as part of his study of sociology while attending the University of Wisconsin, and continued it into his graduate studies at Harvard. The whole book is based on rentals among high-poverty families living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Desmond explains why this location is a good case study as regards the rest of Midwestern urban America.

Most of the text is told as narrative nonfiction, with the author shadowing eight families, some African-American, some Caucasian, through trailer parks and ghetto apartments in Milwaukee. There is a great deal of dialogue, all of which was captured with permission via digital recorder, so the text flows like good fiction. One Black landlord and one Caucasian landlord are also shadowed, and although I came away feeling that both landlords—one of whom, to my horror, was a former fourth grade teacher—were lower than pond scum, Desmond is careful to also demonstrate the ambiguities, the times when one or the other let things slide when an eviction could have been forced; brought over some groceries for a new tenant and did not ask for repayment; gave tenants opportunities to work off back rent to avoid eviction.

At the same time, we see how ultimately, almost all of what appear to be landlords’ small kindnesses are actually adding to their profit margins.

The text is nicely organized. The beginning and ending are expository in style, as a newspaper or magazine article would be, with the statistics that demonstrate how much more of a renter’s income is eaten by housing than was true in previous years; how a bad credit history can lead a low-income family into an apartment that is substandard and costs as much or more than a nice apartment of the same size in a calmer neighborhood that might be rented by someone with a good credit history; and the terrible dance that must be done to keep both heat and rent paid sufficiently to avoid being cut off with winter on the way, or evicted. It also points out that there are people living in low income apartments that should not even be living independently due to mental health issues or extremely low IQ; Desmond recognizes the times—though they are a tiny minority—in which someone takes that welfare check and does something tremendously stupid with it, not using it for housing, utilities, food, or even clothing for the kids.

He clues us in to the fact that while huge numbers of Black men are getting locked up, huge numbers of Black women, particularly mothers, are getting locked out.

Desmond discusses the various ways landlords manage to avoid fixing even the most desperate plumbing and structural issues in rental housing. He discusses the inevitability of eviction for a renter that calls police—or for whom someone else calls police—due to domestic violence. The problem is considered a “nuisance” by the city; three visits by cops in a month mean huge fines for the landlord unless an eviction is ordered, in which case fines are waived.

It’s enough to make you sick.

Particularly appalling is the situation in which Lamar (all names are changed ) is diligently scrambling to paint apartments and clean out a basement to avoid eviction. The man has no legs, but he can’t collection SSI, because theoretically, he could do a desk job. He crawls around on his stumps to paint the areas his elementary-aged neighbor kids have missed, climbs through filth and muck in a half basement, and is cursed at by his landlord, who says he is trying to disrespect her by doing such a terrible job.

He is evicted anyway, and the landlord becomes unavailable to do repairs for other tenants soon, because she and her co-owner spouse are off to Jamaica.

There are some people that would fit so cleanly into Dante’s seventh circle.

It is the individual stories of the eight families, the various fascinating rationalizations of the two terrible landlords, which keep this from simply becoming a dark place the reader would never want to go. Some of the cultural nuances were really interesting to me, and I have lived in some hard neighborhoods back in the day, and taught many high poverty students. I’ve been to some of their homes. Yet Desmond taught me a great deal.

For those interested in America’s housing crisis; for anyone that has ever been evicted; for those interested in sociology and culture, this book is a must-read.