- The Fall of Wisconsin by Dan Kaufman: On Election Day in 2016, pundits were confident that Wisconsin would be a “blue wall” that would lead Hillary Clinton to victory. The next day, however, revealed a different story. Instead of showing Clinton the same support they had given Obama in the previous two presidential elections, Wisconsin went for Trump by 22,748 votes. Political commentators were flummoxed. How could Wisconsin, historically the most progressive state in the Union, have turned overnight to the right? After all, Wisconsin had served as the legislative laboratory for the rest of the country, passing reform laws that later inspired the New Deal. Furthermore, Wisconsin’s unions could be reliably counted on to turn out the vote for Democrats. What had caused such a sudden shift? According to journalist Dan Kaufman, the answer is that the shift did not occur overnight. A native Wisconsinite now based in New York, Kaufman argues that Wisconsin’s swing to Trump is the product of a decades-long effort by conservative think tanks, PACs and donors to dismantle Wisconsin’s progressive ethos and replace it with a right-to-work, anti-regulatory government. The result, according to Kaufman, is a gerrymandered state with weakened environmental laws, poor educational results and increased poverty. Democrats do not get off lightly, either. Kaufman claims that the Democratic Party’s neglect of the industrial workers who made up the bulk of their union support had a significant impact on the outcome of the 2016 election. He also observes that job losses from NAFTA and the recession made union workers particularly susceptible to Governor Scott Walker’s divide-and-conquer tactics. Democrats, he argues, took Wisconsin for granted, and gave the unions little or no support in devastating political battles. Weakened, they had neither the ability nor the desire to turn out the vote for Clinton. Kaufman weaves recent political events, Wisconsin history and the stories of real people caught in the political whirlpool–union leaders, Native Americans, grassroots organizers–into a meticulous and compelling exploration of a consequential political metamorphosis. It is essential reading to understand how we arrived where we are today.
- Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin: In Cindy Baldwin’s big-hearted debut novel, Where the Watermelons Grow, everything seems to be going wrong for 12-year-old Della Kelly. There’s currently a summer drought in her town of Maryville, North Carolina, which is bad news for the Kelly family farm–even their beloved watermelons are dying on the vine. But what worries Della the most is the fact that her mother’s schizophrenia is flaring up for the first time in four years, leaving her unable to function, much less care for Della’s 16-month-old sister, Mylie. Della can’t help feeling that her mother’s illness is her fault, since her symptoms appeared soon after Della was born. Feeling that it’s up to her to not only help, but cure, her mother, she seeks out Tabitha Quigley, a local beekeeper whose family’s honey seems to hold magical cures. But Miss Tabitha doesn’t offer the cure that Della yearns for, leaving her feeling more isolated and helpless than ever. Baldwin’s portrait of a strong, loving family facing a mental health crisis is nuanced, sensitive and believable. Although Della can’t bear to confide her worries in her best friend, both she and her father slowly realize they can’t keep their problems to themselves. One of the great strengths of this book is that Baldwin offers plenty of hope but no easy fixes. Della learns invaluable lessons and realizes she has strengths she never imagined along with supportive family and friends who are ready to help. And most of all she learns that “No sickness in the world could make my mama’s love for us less real.” Where the Watermelons Grow is a spot-on, insightful novel about a preteen learning to live with and accept a parent’s mental illness.
- Clock Dance by Anne Tyler: Deceptively simple prose is like a child with an adorable smile: They can both get away with a lot. In a career that began with 1964’s If Morning Ever Comes, Anne Tyler has created one deceptively simple novel after another. Her specialty is the depiction of quiet lives that may seem ordinary at first glance. Upon closer inspection, each book is a subtle analysis of American married life, its joys as well as its darker elements. Tyler offers yet another astute portrait in Clock Dance. In 1967 Pennsylvania, 11-year-old Willa is the elder daughter of a mild-mannered father and a mother prone to disappearances and bursts of violence. The action then shifts to 1977, when college junior Willa flies home so that her boyfriend, Derek, can meet her parents. After a section set in 1997, in which Derek, now her husband, dies in a car accident, the second half of the book shifts to 2017. Willa is living in Arizona and married to retired lawyer Peter. One day, she gets a call from a stranger in Baltimore, who tells her that Denise, a former girlfriend of her elder son, has been shot in the leg. The woman, Denise’s neighbor, asks Willa to fly out to care for the victim’s 9-year-old daughter, Cheryl, whom the neighbor mistakenly thinks is Willa’s granddaughter. Tyler fans won’t be surprised to learn that kind-hearted Willa agrees to the request. Her experiences with Denise and Cheryl make up much of the book’s drama. If the concluding pages are more circuitous than necessary, Tyler’s touch is as light and sure as ever. Clock Dance is a tender portrait of everyday people dealing with loss and regret, the need to feel useful and the desire for independence.
- Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce: Emmeline Lake has big dreams. She’s already doing what she can to support the war effort as a volunteer telephone operator for the Auxiliary Fire Service. She writes frequent letters to keep her boyfriend up to date and in high spirits while he’s fighting Hitler and the Nazis. But she wants to do even more: Emmy dreams of becoming a war correspondent. She’s so busy dreaming, in fact, that she doesn’t pay attention during her interview for a job she spotted in The London Evening Chronicle. Emmy daydreams of seeing her byline under important reports from the front. Instead, she’s hired as a typist for another publication: Woman’s Friend. Emmy will spend her days typing up tough-love advice from Mrs. Henrietta Bird, author of the column “Henrietta Helps.” The problem? Emmy actually wants to help. Mrs. Bird sends any letter containing “unpleasantness” to the rubbish bin. But as Emmy sorts through the mail, she sets aside such letters. Those readers deserve a response, she reasons, and it should be more thoughtful than the harsh advice Mrs. Bird doles out. So Emmy writes them back. And signs her boss’s name. It seems like a small offense in the context of World War II. London has so much more to worry about. But as Emmy continues to sort through her boss’s mailbag, she finds that she can provide some hope in the midst of the world’s darkest time. In Dear Mrs. Bird, debut novelist AJ Pearce draws inspiration from women’s magazine advice columnists of the era. The result is a charming story full of as much pluck and grit as its protagonist.
- The Poisoned City by Anna Clark: Make no mistake: The water crisis that has plagued the people of Flint, Michigan, is not the result of a single decision. Rather, it is the disastrous culmination of state government dysfunction, decades of enforced housing segregation and the meteoric rise and fall of the American automobile industry. In April of 2014, Flint residents discovered that the water pouring from their faucets was not only undrinkable but also downright toxic. Due to a recent switch in the city’s water supply, Flint’s lead pipes corroded. Initial reports from horrified Flint citizens were largely ignored. By the time the state of Michigan admitted to its mistake, 12 people had died and Flint’s children had been exposed to irrevocable harm. Anna Clark, a journalist and regular contributor to the Detroit Free Press, recounts the tangled series of events that eventually led to the city’s poisoned water supply in The Poisoned City. Clark avoids sanctimonious judgments, but she isn’t afraid to painstakingly show how racism and state-sanctioned white supremacy shaped the socioeconomic policies of Flint. Flint’s water crisis extends beyond an environmental disaster; it’s a public health and civil rights issue. In a way, it was by design that Flint’s communities of color were hit hardest. Unfortunately, the narrative surrounding Flint’s poisoned water is not an anomaly. For Clark, it’s a reflection of America’s tradition of inequality–the nation’s foundations are structured at the expense of the vulnerable and marginalized. Ultimately, the story of Flint’s water crisis echoes throughout countless American cities.