White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

Hardcover, 480 pages
Published June 21st 2016 by Viking

“If this book accomplishes anything it will be to have exposed a number of myths about the American dream, to have disabused readers of the notion that upward mobility is a function of the founders’ ingenious plan…”

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America is a kamikaze of research and hard-hitting assessments of our country’s attitude toward the “poor” and “shiftless” masses. It delves into the historical inaccuracies and missteps of a nation, our nation, and is a read to be savored and thoughtfully digested.

Isenberg commences from the stance that she is addressing the fallacious and glossed-over condition of class relations in the U.S., because many Americans (truly, the world) genuinely believe in America as a classless society of un-threatened upward mobility potential. Firstly, if there is, in fact, someone—anyone—out there who honestly believes that class relations don’t exist front and center in America then 1) you need to run and grab this book (and 10 more just like it immediately, now, on your lunch break even!) and 2) might I ask, “What rock have you been hiding under?”

Nancy Isenberg’s survey of American culture from Plymouth Rock to Sarah Palin offers something for everyone. Here she unravels history and popularized tales of John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, the “cracker” president, and even Pocahontas has her Disney-romanticized “diva” status stripped away and re-examined. Isenberg methodically tackles the rise and fall of the Confederacy, the eugenics craze that swept America for decades (still seen today in the form of modern-day dating websites such as eHarmony and Match.com), “The New Deal,” LBJ’s “Great Society” policies, desegregation and shifts in American culture that led to the rise of modern-day “white trash reality TV.” And while I did feel a bit leaden down with the dozens of pages of historical facts on these former presidents in Part I, when I was more interested in the meat of the argument, the task of setting the foundation for her argument was achieved and Part II onward flowed seamlessly. Historical documentation, photographs and illustrations also helped to set the scene and illustrate her assertions in a way that was easily digestible.

With White Trash, Isenberg demands us to ask ourselves, “What really is the American dream? Does it really exist? And if not, what truly stands in its stead?” These are the questions that you will explore, sometimes overtly and sometimes not. She offers some truly eye-opening observations and threads together the fabric of our American history into a full picture for readers to take a step back from and justly scrutinize. Within these pages, you’ll find humor and biting wit, punchlines that sink deeply into your psyche and assertions that are backed by meticulous research.

Isenberg takes a clear and definitive stance in White Trash, writing specifically from a poor-white-centric lens, and honestly, that really appealed to me. Thankfully, she strips away the politically correct, granola pedagogy that we Americans like to think of as good manners and gets straight to the point of her argument: that the idea of American classlessness is a fanciful notion that never truly existed, and that poor whites have always been a significant force at the center of the debate. From the annihilation of Native Americans to the freeing of slaves, poor whites have always factored in, in some way, to the persistent class struggle at hand.

For both those who feel securely aware of the condition of the world around us and for those not as confident in their versing of the historical foundation of the very American soil that we stand on, take a trip down this historical rabbit hole, because here you will find a detailed chronicle to expand upon your current understanding and opinions. You’ll find an analysis that is as ripe with raw insights as it is well-researched. Isenberg takes a blunt stance, a no-nonsense stance, and that always wins the day with me as long as the claims are buoyed in verity. She did that here, and her White Trash gained a strong 4 stars in the process. ****

*Thanks again to Viking for reaching out to me and sending me a hardcover copy of this book!

Patches of Grey by Roy L. Pickering, Jr.

Published January 8th 2010 by M.U.D. House Books (first published January 8th 2009)

 

       “They all believed back then that love lasted forever. By now they surely knew…that forever was a treacherous myth, though probably a necessary one.”

This novel was given to me by the author in exchange for an honest review.

       Patches of Grey by Roy Pickering is the emotional story of the Johnsons, a family from a Bronx tenement pre “rise of Obama.” If you love Sister Souljah, Sapphire and old-school Omar Tyree, this will be a great read for you. Tony, the eldest son and main character, yearns for more than his poor upbringing can provide for him and knows that he is smart enough to use his grades to get out. He is constantly ridiculed by his father, Lionel, a drunk and abusive man, and his younger brother, C.J., who is proud to have been just initiated into a local gang. Tony’s dreams of getting away, not to mention his once-coveted, now-won Caucasian girlfriend, put him at constant odds with his father and brother, while his mother and sister deal with their own emotional and physical turmoil dealt to them by the men in their lives. Over the course of a year, their lives are changed, tragedy strikes and Tony’s dreams of collegiate life and affluence thereafter may never be realized after all.

There were some truly lovely patches (no pun intended) of narrative prose in this one, but they were often overshadowed by the sheer amount of purple prose surrounding them. At times, it disoriented me, some of the sentences were so overwrought with it. There were too many metaphors and too much hyperbole, so the essence of these oft-lovely lines was often lost in the sheer quantity of them, as if the author wanted to slap on more and more lights, more and more decoration, when the tree itself would’ve sung beautifully. Enveloped within the metaphor-flooded prose was vernacular that sometimes hit the mark and sometimes did not. The transitions from narration to dialogue were often choppy and forced, trying to straddle two worlds unsuccessfully. There were moments when the author’s hand showed through glaringly, usually displayed as soap-box-worthy soliloquys on social injustice. There were also some editing issues here.

All in all, I found Patches of Grey to be an emotional narrative with a flawed message. There was a deep story here, one that often grabbed me and sometimes moved me, but in the end, I didn’t respect the characters. It’s not that the storyline was not wholly believable—it was—but I didn’t feel satisfied with the read because it yielded to the stereotypes, allowing them to win after all. If this was meant to be a cautionary tale, it didn’t go far enough with presenting its moral; it seemed to just concede defeat. There were hints towards the end that maybe things could be different in the future, but that wasn’t enough for me; I’m sorry to say that the hastily offered explanation in the final paragraphs felt like a cop-out to actually writing out a fully developed end to this story that would leave the characters well-rounded and, perhaps, whole. I can literally point out the moment that this novel lost me and my respect. Trust me, I hoped that it would be a plot twist that would right itself, a curve in the bend that the characters would bounce back from—or, at least, be educated on—but that never happened:

“It was not the decision to leave his gang which had doomed C.J., or even the choice to join in the first place. His fate had been determined the moment he was born a black male into a white world.”

While I was ecstatic to find that Pickering didn’t stoop to using easy bow-tie, happily-ever-after endings, the above quote does adequately summarize the faulty message of this story right up to the end: that in no way, shape or fashion were their circumstances any fault of their own doing, because of their own choices, not even a little. This novel allowed the characters to wallow, to not fight harder. Instead they surrendered, conceding defeat to society in a way that made them bitter, in a way that they could never recover from. The mother, Caren, believes, “…love is never granted free of charge. Once one’s heart was surrendered, it became subject to the whims of its captor. She complained little of its mistreatment because it had been her choice to give it away,” a beautiful line that really grabbed me, but simultaneously annoyed me because she, like some of the other characters, assumed that she had little choice in what happened in her own life. The moments that were supposed to function as absolution, as moments of strength and clarity for the characters, were too hastily done to stand up to the ravages of what the aforementioned phrases had done to them, and the reader.  There could’ve been so much more here. This was a surprising stance for a novel that seemed to shoot out of the gate with a purpose, a mission, a true message. Did we need happily ever afters? No. But is anything offered to the world by perpetuating stereotypes, by not adding anything to the diaspora dialogue? No.

In that way, this novel felt like regression. I gave this one 3 stars, keeping in mind what else is out there in this genre. ***

Death Unmasked by Rick Sulik

Paperback, 2nd, 264 pages
Published December 1st 2015 by Christopher Matthews Publishing

I was given this book by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Firstly, let me state that Death Unmasked has a thrilling premise: What if we really could continue on in another life, meeting and interacting with the same people but in different forms and circumstances? Fun idea, the premise of which alone could make for an exhilarating read! I didn’t mind the idea and playing out of reincarnation here at all as others may have. But it didn’t necessarily deliver on the promise thrill that it offered on the back cover, so to speak.
This novel jumped into the story right out of the gate; no piddling around here. By the end of page two or three the action had begun. This novel is broken into three sections: the first of which depicts the Holocaustal genocide where Laura and Emil perish. This section, in itself, would have been a wonderful novella if it had been filled out more. Honestly, it could have stood alone as a brilliant work in itself had it had the fleshing out that it deserved. The second section follows these characters reincarnated, Emil being a police detective, and it all culminates in section three, where the star-crossed lovers are reunited.
However, I wasn’t sure of what exactly I was reading at the start; the setting wasn’t set properly at all. Why were they running? Who were they running from? Even, what year is it and where is this set? The term “ethnic cleansing” was used to explain why the village people had been rounded up, but never elaborated on. Was this fantasy—an imaginative ethnic cleansing in a faraway world—or an apocalyptic event? I had no idea, because the feeling of setting and locale was not properly built out, unfortunately. There was the violence of rape, beatings and genocide to start this one off, which didn’t bother me at all. I felt that that aspect of the novel actually made it more real, more 3-D, and that 3-dimensionalizing made the read far more real.
However, the dialogue did Death Unmasked no favors at all. For me, it definitely felt stilted, unnatural and forced. It didn’t flow well at all from the very beginning. And the littering of italicized thoughts didn’t help either because the thoughts weren’t realistic, particularly not under the circumstances that the characters were in. One wouldn’t—I don’t believe—rail on and on about the hate in the soldiers’ hearts and the injustices around them (in short, prophesizing and intellectualizing) while there is literally mass murder, the shooting of babies and raping of innocent women going on before one’s very eyes! No, you’d be looking for an exit, ready to fight, terrified, shocked! I found myself literally pulling back from the pages and thinking, “Who talks like that?!”
Do keep in mind that this one presented poetry and did so in a lovely way. The incorporation of poetry throughout—and the theme of dark poetry itself—gave Sulik’s work another layer for the reader to appreciate and tie the story together. The poems were dark and faintly macabre in a way that offered just enough theatrics and made the novel a stronger read. But, the author’s hand definitely showed throughout this one. The oft-italicized philosophical rants definitely should’ve been either cut down or better incorporated. And while the middle section was jam-packed with good information and thorough details that only an experienced cop—an author who was obviously of that world before becoming an author—would be able to accurately offer, there was little finesse to it, and it came out like info vomit that pulled me as a reader away from the story line at hand to wade through piles of information that were often stoically presented. The ending wasn’t my cup of tea, but I could see where he was going with it. The idea of star-crossed lovers is one that’s been done to death, so I wasn’t particularly impressed with the way that this one ended (me hating bow ties and all), and I wished that it had been done in a new way. Though, I will admit, the novel itself did attempt a new mold with a fresh and exciting premise.
Reincarnation, big-city detective work, crimes of past and present and karma all played a role in this one and, believe me, the idea of all of that could make for quite the thrilling read! But it needed a more steady and experienced hand to flesh it all out—this one could have easily stood up to another 200 pages and been fine if done well, making it more of an “epic” sort of read—and a different editor, one who knew how to better play the game of Red Light, Green Light. Stop the prophesizing word vomit here; go with more setting there, ect. So, while the idea and the plot line were wonderfully realized, that can never carry a read all the way on its own. In this novel, inexperience peeped around the edges at times and was glaringly obvious and annoying at others. If this wasn’t inexperience at play but the author’s true writing style on display, it needed to be more evident; it needed the deliberateness of a sure hand backed by a read that was complete (enter setting, better characterization, ect.). I give this one two stars. **

Beautiful by Anita Waller

Kindle Edition, 316 pages
Published August 31st 2015 by Bloodhound Books

This novel was given to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

This was a novel for the gentle of spirit and of mind. Waller managed to craft a solid idea but the writing did not read as either fluid or gripping. It read in a jolty, staccato sort of manner that did not enhance the novel but irritated me with its knack for telling instead of showing and jumping from scene to scene without properly filling out for the reader what had even happened. Without spoiling it, the end was exactly this, which made for quite the anticlimactic read as a whole. To come through over 400 pages to be rushed through the end (the end scene was literally comprised of one page of text, the epilogue only a sentence or two)? I found that to be quite the annoyance.

At the start, Beautiful was neither innovatively written nor particularly insightful. I struggled with each turn of a page because there was no meat of substance. Sure, there were twists to the plot within those pages, but they were so swiftly presented with no “meat on the bone,” no climax of suspense, that it was as if I were reading the author’s outline of events, not the intended finished outcome. Amy’s mental and emotional hang-ups are completely realistic in theory, but were not eloquently portrayed so as to elicit the intended reaction out of me as a reader. In all honesty, I had difficulty even finishing this one. I was spurred on by the plot line fundamentally, not by the writing or the execution of said plot line.

In addition, a big show was made of the era in which this novel was set, with the years of the setting at the start of each chapter. Yet, there were almost no references to the era whatsoever. No mention of what these characters may’ve worn, what they would have driven; there was no setting at all really aside from a few scattered cameo mentions and television or disk that may have alerted one to what decade it was. There was no world to be immersed in.

What Beautiful did have was good intentions. I could see where the author was trying to go but never felt that I’d actually arrived. I never read the other reviews for a work before I write my own, but this one made me curious because I felt that surely I’d missed something that others must have seen. However, what I found was that for those who seemed to rate the novel highly, they all commented on how “shocking or difficult” the subject matter was, which makes me believe that this is a wonderful read for those who have never experienced hardship or malice of any sort in life themselves, hence the opening line here.

What I felt was lacking was depth of character and emotion. The presence of the subject matter alone cannot carry the story for those readers who are not easily shocked and who expect more. For those of us in this category, this one merely scratched the surface, softly. Oh, there were wonderful elements to this story that could have really soared if properly filled out, but they instead were one-note and one-dimensional. Here you can find sexual abuse and the emotional trauma that comes along with it, love, murder, sex—the makings of a thrilling work. However, the volume was turned down so low here that it was nearly mute in impact, assuming that the mere presence of the subject matter would carry the novel. For some, that may work as a great read—and it seems that it did; for others, more is needed to make such a work stand out on the shelves, to make it worthy of digging into your pocket and spending your hard-earned money. I, myself, would not have gone into my wallet for this one. Two stars for the plot of this one. 2 stars **

 

The Quiet Ones by Betsy Reavley

Kindle Edition, 215 pages
Published February 18th 2016 by Bloodhound Books

In my partnership with Bloodhound Books, I was given this book in exchange for an honest review.

This one started off a bit wobbly out of the gate, but turned out to be worth a closer look by the end of it. The prologue turned me off a bit, which is never a good start; the voice was so affected and juvenile that I wasn’t sure I hadn’t picked up a teen thriller. Many of the chapters were slow and little tedious, particularly at the start. At times, this method can be exhilarating, especially in thrillers—that slow build that the reader can feel without yet knowing where they’ll find the quick bend around the corner. Yet, the quick bend here didn’t arrive until roughly two-thirds of the way through the novel, so this build ended up being more of a slightly laborious read, filling in the everyday life of Josie and her husband right down to the color of her nails and the way she takes her breakfast. Such an intimate look at characters can be rewarding, but the way that it was presented in The Quiet Ones did not have the immediate payoff that I’d hoped for; the author wasn’t able to make me care (or give me anything to care about) throughout the first half.

Yes, there is the theme of abuse here, but the way that it was presented has been done before (countless times), so it came off as cliché—a prop for the main character’s issues and situations that was never really filled out and wasn’t helped by the flaccid dialogue surrounding the topic either. In fact, many of the themes and circumstances here weren’t properly filled out the way that we’ve come to expect today—they were just sort of placed there in the novel and then rushed through. Soph and her beau are great examples of this. She was painted as the stereotypical Perfect Patty, and that feeling that Josie had about the new boyfriend, this being a psychological thriller and all, never really panned out and felt limply handled once I realized that his last scene had passed me by and no deeper look at him had been presented. Was he a good guy? Did he have a secret? Was he after her money or did he truly love Josie’s friend? This was never explored.

The shift in voice was off-putting and sudden, again something that could have worked if executed better. I made a note at the start that the voice sounded just like the narrator’s just with a splattering of apostrophes and a few filthy words. I thought that this might play out later, but it seems that it was just the author’s attempt at displaying two voices in one work that fell flat.

Then there’s the glaring appendage of a loose end. I’ll leave that one at that.

All in all, this novel had a wonderful premise—honestly, the plotline of it had the makings of a really top-notch psychological roller coaster. But the execution fell short for me, probably because this one could have easily stood up to another 100 pages or so. That extra filling out of the characters and situations—not additional exposition about the peculiars of Josie’s day-to-day that did nothing to move the novel forward, mind you—would have been an immense help here. Don’t get me wrong—the last 45 pages or so had bite, but it could have been much sharper if done in a different way.

This one forgot that television exists. By that I mean it didn’t cater to the reader who’s “been there, done that;” it didn’t quicken the heartrate or pull me in the way that thrillers these days are designed to do. That can be a plus for some. If you’re looking for a slower read that attempts a cozier approach than other psych thrillers, one that carries your read more gently around the bend of suspense than many of the more fast-paced thrillers on the shelf at your local bookstore or on the NYT, this one may be a great one for you. Two stars. **