Nicholas E. Barron

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Why the Evicted Book is an Incredibly Important Book You Must Read

The Evicted book by Matthew Desmond may be the most important nonfiction book written in years. And it’s the book I didn’t want to read.

After all, there’s no shortage of sources documenting how bad things are for many people. Image of a quote from the Evicted book reading, "Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart."I didn’t want to read a book about how housing costs have made it nearly impossible for poor people to live.

But then my job pushed me into a corner.

Since it was first published, one of my employer’s executives talked about “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” to anyone who would listen. Never was in a meeting or on a call with this executive when he didn’t mention the book.

Then this executive organized a conference for several hundred housing industry leaders. Desmond was the keynote speaker. As a member of our company’s communications team, I would cover the conference and Desmond’s talk.

The sands of my procrastination hourglass ran out. I had to read the Evicted book. Thank God I did.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond may be the most important book published in years. It’s no wonder Desmond has a Pulitzer for his work on the book. This is a terrific piece of journalism.

This page contains affiliate links. This means I earn a small amount of money if you make a purchase using these links. Visit my Disclosures page for more info.

About the Evicted Book

Intensely researched and exquisitely put together, the Evicted book throws light onto the impact of affordable housing in America.Image of a quote from the Evicted book reading, "Today, over 1 in 5 of all renting families in the country spends half of its income on housing."

The book focuses on the impact of foreclosures in Milwaukee in the wake of the 2008 economic crash. But Desmond provides information supporting his contention that the plight of Milwaukee’s poor is no different than it is in other American cities.

Desmond was a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison while researching for what would become Evicted. Not satisfied with academic research, he lived as a tenant in Milwaukee’s low-income neighborhoods.

It’s this investigative journalism that allows Desmond to bring America’s housing affordability crisis to life.

We meet people with names like Arleen, Scott, and Lamar. These are people with families and stories. These are people barely surviving.

Many of the people in the Evicted book have made mistakes. Their mistakes, though, are not too dissimilar from yours or mine. But for family, friends, money, race, education, or any other number of factors, you and I could be one of the people in Evicted.

Because that’s what I found most surprising in Evicted. I realized how close I’d been to becoming someone who could have been in Evicted.

It took me eight years to graduate college. I filled those eight years between high school and earning my degree with repeated poor personal decisions. I did everything I could to ruin my life financially.

But I had a buffer protecting me from myself: My parents. Mom and dad had just enough money to keep me from falling into financial obscurity.

I never quite appreciated this part of my past until reading the Evicted book. In many ways, the only difference between the people in Evicted and myself are my parents.Image of a quote from the Evicted book reading, "We need a robust sociology of housing that reaches beyond a narrow focus on policy and public housing."

Highlights from the Evicted Book

The Evicted book contains jaw-dropping stats and numbers. Below are just a few examples of the incredible information you’ll find in “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City”.

  • “Today, over 1 in 5 of all renting families in the country spends half of its income on housing.”
  • “Since 2000, the cost of fuels and utilities had risen by more than 50 percent, thanks to increasing global demand and the expiration of price caps. In a typical year, almost 1 in 5 poor renting families nationwide missed payments and received a disconnection notice from their utility company.”
  • “In the vast majority of cases (83 percent), landlords who received a nuisance citation for domestic violence responded by either evicting the tenants or by threatening to evict them for future police calls.”
  • “Since 1997, welfare stipends in Milwaukee and almost everywhere else have not budged, even as housing costs have soared.”
  • “Between 2007 and 2010, the average white family experienced an 11 percent reduction in wealth, but the average black family lost 31 percent of its wealth. The average Hispanic family lost 44 percent.”
  • “In many housing courts around the country, 90 percent of landlords are represented by attorneys, and 90 percent of tenants are not.”
  • “In 2008…federal expenditures for direct housing assistance totaled less than $40.2 billion, but homeowner tax benefits exceeded $171 billion. That number, $171 billion, was equivalent to the 2008 budgets for the Department of Education, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Agriculture combined.”

Image of a quote from the Evicted book, sized for Twitter, reading, "Today, over 1 in 5 of all renting families in the country spends half of its income on housing."

Evicted Book Cover Evicted
Matthew Desmond

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER - FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FOR NONFICTION - FINALIST FOR THE PEN/JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH AWARD FOR NONFICTION - NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR by The New York Times Book Review - The Boston Globe - The Washington Post - NPR - Entertainment Weekly - The New Yorker - Bloomberg - Esquire - Buzzfeed - Fortune - San Francisco Chronicle - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - St. Louis Post-Dispatch - Politico - The Week - Bookpage - Kirkus Reviews - Amazon - Barnes and Noble Review - Apple - Library Journal - Chicago Public Library - Publishers Weekly - Booklist - Shelf Awareness From Harvard sociologist and MacArthur "Genius" Matthew Desmond, a landmark work of scholarship and reportage that will forever change the way we look at poverty in America In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind. The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, "Love don't pay the bills." She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas. Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America's vast inequality--and to people's determination and intelligence in the face of hardship. Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.

“Fatima’s Room” Uses Story to Raise Awareness of Women’s Issues

“Fatima’s Room,” by Charlotte S. Gray, is about a Sudanese girl’s fight for her life.

Set in Sudan, the book opens with Fatima being accused of killing her father. She’s held in a room inside her favorite uncle’s house while her family decides her fate.

Enter to win a copy of “Fatima’s Room” by publishing the tweet below. See giveaway details.

I've entered to win #newbook 'Fatima's Room' in the #FatimasRoomGiveaway. Click To Tweet

The story takes place in the 1990s before there were two Sudans. Fatima lives in Sudan’s north, in Khartoum, where Sharia law is practiced. Her fate rests largely in how her uncles decide to implement punishment based on Sharia law. Death is certainly a possibility for Fatima.

What will happen to Fatima is one question dominating “Fatima’s Room.” Another question is how this seemingly kind and gentle girl came to be accused of patricide. Did she really kill her father?Cover of "Fatima's Room" by Charlotte S. Gray.

Answering the latter question is one part of Fatima’s past that Gray uses to tell this story.

Indeed, much of the book’s action occurs in the time before Fatima became imprisoned in her uncle’s home. After all, this is a story set inside one room featuring one main character. And Gray does a wonderful job flipping between past and present to bring us up to speed while advancing the story.

“Fatima’s Room” is an insightful book by Gray, someone who lived and worked for years with girls in Sudan. The book successfully bridges the gap between Sudan and Western readers, helping us understand the challenges faced by individuals caught in one of the world’s most challenging struggles, that of Sudan.

Gray’s writing is efficient yet compelling. She adeptly puts you inside Fatima’s room and inside Fatima’s mind.

The Parallels of “Fatima’s Room”

Something else Gray does well is to draw a parallel between Fatima’s confinement by place and confinement by culture.

“Fatima’s Room” is the story of a girl being held captive, accused of killing her father. But it’s also the story of a girl being held captive by a culture that oppresses women.

The book begins as a story about a girl confined to a room. Before you realize it, though, you’re reading a story about a girl oppressed her culture.

Gray most visibly exemplifies this oppression with female circumcision. Fatima frequently reflects back to when she and others in her family were subjected to this barbaric act.

And Fatima frequently considers the broader question of how her culture treats women.

The Sudan of Fatima’s time is one in regression. The optimism of moving past colonialism has faded, a time in her country’s history Fatima is aware of through her grandmother’s experiences: “This was something Fatima’s grandmother always complained about: times had changed for the worse with all this religion and Sharia laws.”

How girls like Fatima are treated in Sudan is almost as oppressive as possible, but the book raises larger questions about the treatment of women in more modern societies.

Yes, readers of “Fatima’s Room” are asked to feel something for the women in countries like Sudan. But we’re also asked to consider how women are treated in societies with more modern views than those of Fatima’s Sudan.

Through “Fatima’s Room” we see the immensity of impact a culture can have on one girl’s life. After all, “Fatima’s Room” is the story of a girl caught in the swirling rapids of her country’s culture.

And that’s a story of universal impact, a story that’s replicated with varying details across the globe.

“Fatima’s Room” is available for purchase here or on Amazon.

“Fatima’s Room” Giveaway

I’m giving away three copies of Charlotte S. Gray’s “Fatima’s Room”. Here’s how you can enter for your chance to win a copy of the book:

1) Publish a tweet or Facebook post. Your tweet must contain a link to this blog post and the hashtag #FatimasRoomGiveaway. Your Facebook post must contain a link to this blog post, the hashtag #FatimasRoomGiveaway, and tag my Facebook page (@writerbarron).

Each tweet and Facebook post you publish that follows these rules counts as an entry into the giveaway. For example, if you publish three tweets that link to this blog post and contain the hashtag #FatimasRoomGiveaway, you’ll have three entries to win. In other words, the more you tweet and post, the more you increase your chances to win.

An easy way to enter the giveaway is to click and publish the tweet below. The deadline to enter the drawing is 11:59 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, Friday, June 16.

I've entered to win #newbook 'Fatima's Room' in the #FatimasRoomGiveaway. Click To Tweet

2) Subscribe to my newsletter. All subscribers to my newsletter by 11:59 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Friday, June 16, 2017, will be entered into a drawing to win a copy of “Fatima’s Room”. This is part of my monthly book giveaway.

3) Check back next week. I’ll announce the third giveaway for a copy of “Fatima’s Room” on this blog next week.


  • You must be in the United States in order to participate in the giveaway. (And, if you win, you must have a valid U.S. mailing address at which you can receive a copy of the book.)
  • You can only win one copy of the book. That means three different people will win a copy of “Fatima’s Room”.
  • If your name is drawn to win a copy of the book, you will be contacted in the platform by which you entered the giveaway. For example, if you win the Twitter giveaway, I will contact you through Twitter.
  • You must respond within 48 hours of receiving my notification that you’ve won the giveaway in order to receive your copy of the book. Failure to respond within 48 hours will result in your win being nullified and another winner being selected at random.
  • Winners will be selected at random using The drawing will take place on Saturday, June 17, 2017.
  • Winners will receive one paperback copy of “Fatima’s Room” by Charlotte Gray by the United States Postal Service mail.

Best of luck!

Fatima's Room Book Cover Fatima's Room
Charlotte S. Gray
Arc Light Books
June 4, 2017

"Fatima's Room" is a novel set in Khartoum. Fatima is a young woman accused of an unimaginable crime. She is confined to her room while her uncles will decide her fate. Fatima fills the hot and worrisome days of waiting, by writing in her journal. She remembers the time before her imprisonment, and imagines what the future might be. All the while family members come and go, interrupting her reflection with various schemes: to reconcile--or escape.

Stephen Ambrose’s “Upton and the Army” is a Matter-of-Fact Good Read

Upton and the Army by Stephen E. Ambrose came to us before we met the Band of Brothers or learned about Undaunted Courage.Quote from "Upton and the Army" that reads, "Men, your friends at home and your country expect every man to do his duty on this occasion. Some of us have got to die, but remember you are going to heaven."

Ambrose’s first book, Upton and the Army was published in 1963. This was before Watergate and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, assassination. And it was before the country knew it had in Ambrose one of its most talented historian-storytellers.

The book is about U.S. Army General Emory Upton’s impact on the U.S. military. An officer during the Civil War, Upton’s war experience led him to two conclusions that shaped the rest of his career.

First, he saw the role politics played in military promotions and decisions in the U.S. in the mid-19th century. Secondly, he realized the military tactics used were outdated and overmatched by advances in weaponry.

After the war, Upton focused on overhauling the U.S. military. He recommended changes that were implemented for how the military fought battles and conducted parades. But it was in the area of politics, military organization, and leadership that Upton set his sights on most.

For example, Upton advocated for a large, standing army trained to defend the United States. At the time, most of the nation’s defense fell to voluntary state militias.

Also, Upton believed professional officers make military decisions, as opposed to the Secretary of War. Upton was convinced the Civil War lasted four bloody years in large part due to the leadership of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Stanton was a lawyer who had never served in the military. As was custom for the Secretary of War at the time, Stanton frequently made strategic military decisions throughout the war.

This page contains affiliate links. This means I earn a small amount of money if you make a purchase using these links. Visit my Disclosures page for more info.

After surviving and succeeding in the Civil War, you might think changing military policy would be easier. But Upton found it to be anything but simple. The general learned how difficult changing bureaucracy can be.

It’s in his struggle to modernize the American military that Ambrose tells the story of Upton and the Army.

Upton and the Army Book Review

Some authors’ first books immediately announce their talent (i.e., Stephen King’s Carrie or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus).

This is not the case with Ambrose’s Upton and the Army. It is a book that achieves its objective, to educate the reader about General Emory Upton. But readers of Ambrose’s later and more popular works will wonder where the commanding storytelling is in Upton and the Army.

The book reads more matter-of-fact than as a fact-based story. It’s more of an academic paper written by the history professor Ambrose than it is a page turning non-fiction book.

Still, Upton and the Army is illuminating. Through the book, we learn a great deal about military history, especially changes that set the U.S. up for successes in World War I and World War II.

And Ambrose is superb in his grasp of military history. In some ways, Upton and the Army’s greatest weakness, its lack of emotion, is also its greatest asset. The book lays out in digestible and compelling fashion military tactics and history.

You may not feel a grasp for any character outside of Upton, but you won’t walk away from the book without having learned.

Upton and the Army is recommended most for those interested in military history, including battlefield tactics. But even broader students of history will find the book informative and worthy of reading.

Upton and the Army Book Cover Upton and the Army
Stephen E. Ambrose
LSU Press
August 1, 1993

Why Blood Meridian is the Masterpiece of a Genius Artist

Not long into reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy you realize there’s something stuck in your teeth: grit. Yes, the grit and sand covering the land and characters of Blood Meridian are all over you, too. It’s on your tongue, in your pores, and coating your clothes.

You don’t read Blood Meridian. You experience it, every dirty, bloody, nasty bit of the book.

A talented novelist makes you believe their fictional world is real. McCarthy does this in Blood Meridian as well as any writer.

It doesn’t matter if McCarthy didn’t live in 1849 when the book is set. Or that Hollywood Westerns could have been some of his source material for the book. What matters is that you believe the place and people in Blood Meridian are real.

You believe this so much that you feel every paragraph of desperation and fear and violence that echoes like a gunshot in a canyon throughout McCarthy’s book.

This is probably one reason why authors such as Stephen King and Rachel Kushner cite the book as one of their favorites. A writer reading Blood Meridian is an apostle in the presence of their savior.

Another reason practitioners of writing often laud Blood Meridian could be McCarthy’s manipulation of the English language.

It’s as if McCarthy is the boy with the spoon in “The Matrix”. The boy bends a spoon by looking at it. He explains, “Only try to realize the truth…There is no spoon.”Image of the quote from Blood Meridian, "If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?".

McCarthy doesn’t adhere to standards of grammar, punctuation, or definitions. He instead uses words however he needs to tell his story. He is able to bend the language because to him it isn’t a language. It’s a vehicle to his story.

Take this passage, for example: “All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear.”

This is a sentence. It contains English, words you understand. But they’re adeptly sewn together in ways unimaginable to most of us. Pieced together phrases such as this make Blood Meridian a masterful work of art. The book is a classic.

Overview of Blood Meridian

Setting: Blood Meridian mostly takes place in Texas, Mexico, and the American Southwest in 1849-1850.

Main Characters:

  • The kid – Protagonist; A runaway teenager from Tennessee, The kid makes it to Texas. He eventually falls in with a gang led by Glanton. The kid is an antihero. He’s no saint, but he does show small amounts of compassion and decency throughout the book.
  • The Judge – Antagonist; He’s a psychopath that comes across as nearly supernatural. He has no conscience and shows no remorse. He seems omnipotent and unstoppable.
  • Glanton – Leader of the gang, he’s nearly as mean and violent as The Judge. But he’s not quite as smart. If The Judge is Satan, Glanton would be his right-hand demon. The character is loosely based on the real-life John Joel Glanton.
  • Toadvine – A character The kid meets that puts him on the path to joining The Judge and Glanton’s group.
  • Tobin – An ex-priest, is a paradox. He maintains some religious beliefs while killing and committing crimes alongside the rest of the gang.
  • David Brown – He wears a necklace made of human ears. That gives you an accurate picture of this character’s makeup.

Plot: The kid runs away from home and ends up in Texas. He meets Toadvine, a relationship that leads both to join Glanton’s gang. The gang is hired by Mexican authorities to hunt Apaches. The gang journeys north and west across Mexico, killing and plundering as they go. They work their way to present-day California and Arizona. The gang takes over a ferry crossing on the Colorado River, a move that ends disastrously for most of the gang.

Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West Book Cover Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West
Cormac McCarthy

Based on incidents that took place in the southwestern United States and Mexico around 1850, this novel chronicles the crimes of a band of desperados, with a particular focus on one, "the kid," a boy of fourteen

Here’s Why Americanah is the Book We Should All Read

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah is an immigrant story. But it may not be the immigrant story you expect. Image of a quote from Americanah reading "In America, tribalism is alive and well. There are four kinds—class, ideology, region, and race."

You could say immigrants are having a bit of a moment right now. Seemingly a week cannot pass without the President of the United States saying something about immigrants. And then there’s that whole wall thing.

Of course, Adichie wrote Americanah before the current debate about immigration. The book published in 2013.

And the story is about immigrants from Nigeria, not Mexico or Central America. The story focuses on Ifemelu and Obinze. They began dating in high school. While in college, both try to come to the U.S.

One succeeds, moving to the U.S. This eventually ends Obinze’s and Ifemelu’s relationship. Much of the book is about what did, and what will happen between the two of them.

But as most good books go, there’s more to Americanah than the surface-level story.

The Real Story of Americanah

Americanah is an immigration story. Through Adichie’s sharp, descriptive storytelling we experience what it’s like immigrating to the United States and England.

It’s fascinating, if not infuriating, how citizens of the characters new countries treat the immigrants.

Upon first meeting one of the characters, an American says: “’What a beautiful name…Does it mean anything? I love multicultural names because they have such wonderful meanings, from wonderful rich cultures.'”

You read this and see the rudeness, the ignorance of the American’s words. But then you realize you’ve probably said something similar. Many of us do. We say things like this often out of good intent. We want the recipient of our words to know we’re accepting, open to different cultures.

But when we view our actions from the immigrant’s side, we see how even our best intentions fall short.

Which is why Americanah is a book we all should read. We need to see through an immigrant’s eyes. And not just any immigrant, but an immigrant offering observations on race in America.Image of a quote from Americanah reading "her relationship with him was like being content in a house but always sitting by the window and looking out."

These observations, scattered throughout the book and often expressed through blog posts Ifemelu publishes, help the book excel.

Americanah’s Resurgence

Americanah was a recent addition to my books to read in 2017 list. I added it after spending a snowy President’s Day Weekend with a friend who was reading the book every chance she got.

This friend is someone whose book recommendations I trust. We have similar book taste profiles. She reads books that matter, so when she spoke highly of Americanah, I knew I had to read it.

This happened shortly after the book was selected for the One Book, One New York program. Out of five books that were nominated, Americanah was the majority’s choice.

The program makes available a free audiobook of Americanah and numerous events are planned in New York City through May. A culminating, celebratory event will take place June 1. Here’s a list of One Book, One New York events.

It’s clear the book is having a resurgence. And for good reason. We should all read Americanah.

Americanah Book Cover Americanah
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
May 14, 2013

One of The New York Times's Ten Best Books of the Year Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction An NPR "Great Reads" Book, a Chicago Tribune Best Book, a Washington Post Notable Book, a Seattle Times Best Book, an Entertainment Weekly Top Fiction Book, a Newsday Top 10 Book, and a Goodreads Best of the Year pick. A powerful, tender story of race and identity by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun. Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland. From the Trade Paperback edition.

Here are the Real Stars of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich is a book for people who enjoy a fuse’s slow burn without needing the explosion.Book cover of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich.

Sure, there’s a murder. It’s a heart-wrenching murder. And there’s a mystery. But “Idaho: A Novel” is not a murder mystery, at least not in a traditional sense. In fact, we find out early in the book who committed murder.

The mystery of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich is not in who killed whom. The mystery is in why. And answering “why” is the plot of “Idaho: A Novel.”

This page contains affiliate links. This means I earn a small amount of money if you make a purchase using these links. Visit my Disclosures page for more info.

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich Overview

Five main characters comprise Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. Four of these characters (Jenny, Wade, June, and May) form a family. A fifth character, Ann, forms a family with Wade, but only after Jenny, June, and May exit Wade’s life.

By the way, you could win Idaho by Emily Ruskovich in my April book giveaway. Subscribe to my newsletter by 11:59 p.m. EST Thursday, April 6, 2017 to be eligible to win.

The story unfolds across the present and the past. Chapters, often short and broken into blog post-sized sections, rotate between what’s happening now and what happened then.

Check out this #bookreview of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. Click To Tweet

These glimpses into the past help color between the lines so we can understand the present. Ruskovich handles the flipping between timelines well. There’s not much confusion about what’s happening to whom and when.

It’s this constant tossing between flashback and present day that leads to “Idaho: A Novel’s,” slow-burn storytelling. Little realizations occur throughout the book. And you don’t have to invest much time into reading “Idaho” before you start to be rewarded with these revelations. An image of mountains behind a quote from Idaho by Emily Ruskovich reading "The revelation of kindness hurts worse than cruelty. There is no way to equal it."

But the incessant drizzle of discovery comes at a cost. Readers expecting the big reveal of a whodunit will likely be disappointed.

The breadth of “Idaho’s” story follows Jenny and Ann on disparate timelines, two women who love the same man (Wade). How did they arrive at where we discover them when the book begins? And where do they go from there?

True Stars of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

There are two stars in “Idaho,” women and the book’s namesake state.

Nearly all of the characters in the novel are female, and the male characters are diminished or diminishing. It’s not a leap to see this as an allegory of man’s declining role in Western society.

Here's why women are the real stars in Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. Click To Tweet

The women in “Idaho” are responsible for providing the solutions they seek. The men they encounter throughout the book, however well intentioned, range from unhelpful to oblivious.

Still, the women are not freed of men. They turn to male characters for aid or answers, but they are consistently disappointed by what the men have to offer. And the women are impacted, often negatively, by the dominant actions of men. Photo of mountains behind a quote from Idaho by Emily Ruskovich reading "Maybe she thinks that what she did all those years ago is a point in time that only a straight line can someday render too far in the distance to see clearly."

It wouldn’t be fair, however, to categorize “Idaho” as anti-male or a feminist mantra. Ruskovich doesn’t appear hell-bent on entering the novel into gender debates.

Instead, the author seems content to suggest men may not be the bee’s knees and yet they still maintain control over many women’s lives.

The other star of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich is, of course, Idaho. The state’s geography and weather play key roles in the novel’s story.

There’s a mountain on which Jenny and Wade live, followed by Ann and Wade. There often is snow on the mountain, and when there isn’t snow the mountain’s residents make preparations for when the snow will come. Indeed, it’s these preparations that serve as a central plot point for the story.

So important is its setting to “Idaho” it calls to mind Norman MacLean’s “A River Runs Through It.” As you cannot separate McLean’s novella from Montana, you cannot cleave “Idaho: A Novel” from Idaho the state.

The prose of “Idaho” may not sing quite as well as MacLean’s, but the former is still a well-written book. It’s a story that will keep you reading, even if it lacks a big explosion.

Photo of pine trees behind a quote from Idaho by Emily Ruskovich reading "The revelation of kindness hurts worse than cruelty. There is no way to equal it."


Idaho Book Cover Idaho
Emily Ruskovich
Random House
January 3, 2017

A stunning debut novel about love and forgiveness, about the violence of memory and the equal violence of its loss--from O. Henry Prize-winning author Emily Ruskovich Ann and Wade have carved out a life for themselves from a rugged landscape in northern Idaho, where they are bound together by more than love. With her husband's memory fading, Ann attempts to piece together the truth of what happened to Wade's first wife, Jenny, and to their daughters. In a story written in exquisite prose and told from multiple perspectives--including Ann, Wade, and Jenny, now in prison--we gradually learn of the mysterious and shocking act that fractured Wade and Jenny's lives, of the love and compassion that brought Ann and Wade together, and of the memories that reverberate through the lives of every character in Idaho. In a wild emotional and physical landscape, Wade's past becomes the center of Ann's imagination, as Ann becomes determined to understand the family she never knew--and to take responsibility for them, reassembling their lives, and her own. Advance praise for Idaho "Idaho is both a place and an emotional dimension. Haunted, haunting, Ruskovich's novel winds through time, braiding events and their consequences in the most unexpected and moving ways."--Andrea Barrett "Emily Ruskovich's Idaho is a novel written like music. Striking arpeggios, haunting refrains, and then you come to a bridge, and Ruskovich leads you up into the mountains, introducing a chorus of rich and beautiful voices woven deep in the Idaho woods, each trying to come to their own understanding of a terrible tragedy. This book is full of extraordinary women and men overcoming extraordinary loss through love and forgiveness. Ruskovich digs deeply into everyday moments, and shows that it is there, in our quietest thoughts and experiences, where we find and create our true selves."--Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief "It's been six years since I first read Emily Ruskovich's breathtaking prose, felt the force of her unsparing imagination, and knew I was in the presence of a singular talent. I've been waiting for the novel she would write ever since, and now it's here: Idaho begins with a rusted truck and ends up places you couldn't imagine. Its language is an enchantment, its vision brutal and sublime. This book is interested in what can't be repaired and every kind of grace we find in the face of that futility. It caught and held me absolutely."--Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams "Emily Ruskovich has written a poem in prose, a beautiful and intricate homage to place, and a celebration of the defeats and triumphs of love. Beautifully crafted, emotionally evocative, and psychologically astute, Idaho is one of the best books I have read in a long time."--Chinelo Okparanta, author of Under the Udala Trees "Emily Ruskovich has intricately entwined a terrifying human story with an austere and impervious setting. The result--something bigger than either--is beautiful, brutal, and incandescent."--Deirdre McNamer, author of Red Rover

Why We Should Make Sinclair Lewis’s ‘Main Street’ Great Again

What’s surprising about Sinclair Lewis’s “Main Street” is how little has changed in the 97 years since the book was published.Book cover of Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street."

We’ve fought wars, made our phones into computers, and still, the struggles of America in the 1910s and America in the 2010s are fairly similar.

Yes, “Main Street” is a small town story, but it’s a book reflective of societal challenges. That the setting is a rural America most Americans today won’t recognize doesn’t matter. The issues Lewis raises are all too recognizable to contemporary Americans.

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Main Street Book Cover Main Street
Sinclair Lewis

Features the story of a college graduate from St. Paul who leaves to marry a doctor in a small, middle-class town, only to find her efforts to bring culture and beauty to the town thwarted by its residents, testing her idealism.

Here’s the Joy of Discovering Harry Potter as an Adult

I hadn’t been asleep long when it happened. A noise, like skin slapping wood, jolted me awake.

“Nick awoke with a fright,” my internal monolog said.

Quickly I realized the noise was innocuous. Then I returned to the sentence that ran through my mind as I was roused: “Nick awoke with a fright.”The book cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

Where did that come from? This is when I realized the impact Harry Potter was having in my life.

Much is made of the downsides of aging, but here’s at least one benefit to getting older. You unearth something delightful that was there all along, waiting for you to discover it at the time that’s right for you.

A recent example of this for me is the Harry Potter series.

The first Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was published in 1997. I was a junior in high school at the time.

This is to say I was a closeted gay teenager in rural America hoping religion would save my soul. I had no friends and little hope my life would ever be more than a daily struggle against sinful homosexuality.The book cover of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

In hindsight, I was depressed.

Stories for some people, reading and writing them offer an escape. This was not the case for me. I was too obsessed with fighting my gayness, and too depressed about the hopelessness of it, to read anything other than Sports Illustrated or the Bible.

This means I was unaware of the Harry Potter books that quickly dominated young readers around the world starting in the late 1990s. In hindsight, I could have been part of the first wave of Potter fandom, but instead, I was focused on avoiding hell for being a homosexual.

Over time I accepted my gayness and emerged from the depressive, closeted state of my teenage years. By then, Harry Potter was too big to ignore, but I was an adult now and saw little reason to read a children’s series.

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The book cover of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Then I read Stephen King’s On Writing. King lists as the end of the book other books he read the year prior to On Writing being published. Three Harry Potter books made the list.

I realized if the master of storytelling Stephen King is reading Harry Potter, maybe I should, too. And that’s how I came to reading Harry Potter for the first time at age thirty-six.

Harry became my constant companion for fifty-seven days. I tore through the books, immediately understanding why so many made such a fuss over Harry Potter. So obsessed was I while reading the Potter books that my inner monolog took on the series’ narrative voice. Hence my waking from a dream thinking the sentence, “Nick awoke with a fright.”The book cover of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

It wasn’t until after finishing the final Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that I began to think about some similarities between myself and Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and I are the same age. Harry’s birthday is July 31, 1980. That’s within two weeks of mine.As a boy, Harry faced down dark magic that sought to destroy him. So did I. While Harry was fighting Lord Voldemort in England, I was fighting the destructive belief that being born gay is wrong.The book cover of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

As a boy, Harry faced down dark magic that sought to destroy him. So did I. While Harry was fighting Lord Voldemort in England, I was fighting the destructive belief that being born gay is wrong.

Harry eventually defeated Voldemort. I defeated being a closet case.

Of course, seeing my fight against evil as similar to Harry’s is what makes still today Harry Potter such a draw for kids and adults. It’s a story onto which we all can project our personal struggles.

After finishing the Potter series, I wondered if I regretted not having discovered them when I was a teenager. Could reading Potter have helped me deal with my homosexuality earlier, avoiding years of missteps and pain?The book cover of Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince.

I doubt it. My existence was too bleak back then to be open to the fantastical world of Harry Potter. I would not have been receptive to his story, and certainly in no position to see myself in his shoes.

Besides, the tumult of the years in which I slowly came to accept my gay self provided for me experiences that today make me a better writer.

There were the interesting jobs, such as working in a mental hospital. And jobs, like being a newspaper reporter, that taught me useful skills. There was living in different states, meeting numerous people with varied backgrounds.

There were the experiences, like passing a herd of antelope grazing in a Wyoming ghost town at midnight. Or standing alone in an Oregon rain forest listening to raindrops patter onto the leaves of enormous, green ferns.The book cover of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

And had I read Harry Potter earlier in life, I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading his story through adult eyes and understanding. The world is full of treasures awaiting our discovery, and sometimes they stay hidden until we’re ready for them.

Finally, at age thirty-six, I was ready to read Harry Potter.

How old were you when you first read a Harry Potter book?

What Toni Morrison’s Beloved Can Teach Us About Privilege

What would happen if every American read Toni Morrison’s Beloved?

Maybe we’d be a little more understanding. Maybe we’d be a little more appreciative. Understanding and appreciative of what?Book cover of Toni Morrison's Beloved.

How about understanding of slavery’s residual impacts. Perhaps appreciate of the benefits we, those of us not belonging to a race that was enslaved, enjoy through our skin color.

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“Privilege” has become a testy word in America. Many of us white folks are told we are privileged. Some of us are instructed to “check our privilege.”

Many of us white people hear this while our kids can’t find work, our bills are unpaid, and our neighbors overdose. Many white Americans live in dire circumstances. It doesn’t feel privileged when you’re scraping together loose change to buy gas.

Privilege denotes an access, a wealth, a power many white Americans feel they don’t have. How can it be that a poor white American is anymore privileged than a black American?

Read Beloved.

There’s a chance some of my ancestors were once slaves in some Northern European outpost of the Roman Empire. Outside of during the antiquities, though, it can be assumed none of my ancestors were another person’s property. In fact, more recently in my familial history we were the masters, not the slaves. Photo of a gray sea under a cloudy sky with the words "'Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.' - 'Beloved,' Toni Morrison."

Now I’m no more to blame for what my ancestors did than I am if you sneezed right now. (Bless you.) But I probably enjoy some benefit from being a few generations removed from owning another person.

No, not direct monetary benefits. I assure you, any money the slave-owning branch of my family once had is long gone. My parents were country kids who got married young and struggled to make ends meet. My brother and I grew up somewhere between poor and lower middle-class, on the same rural Missouri road on which my parents were raised.

And still I enjoy the benefits of my familial history. Still I enjoy the privilege of belong to a race that was never enslaved. How?

Read Beloved.

Beloved begins where American slavery ends. It’s a story about slaves turned negros before they were called African-Americans. It’s a story about how these former slaves attempted to build a life.

Of course, how do you build a life when you don’t know how to count money? And when you can’t read? When you’ve spent your entire life on a single plantation? Or when you’re used to all twenty-four hours of all your days being controlled by another person?

How do you make a family when you’ve been bred like livestock, your children sold off to the highest bidder? Or when you were never allowed to marry? When your only relationship role model was the married couple who owned you?

Suddenly, the chains come off and you are free to go wherever you want. For the first time in your life, you can receive money in exchange for your labor. Marry? Yes, you can do that. Raise children? Sure. Buy groceries? Move to another state? Yes and yes.

Yet no one is going to teach you how to do it. No one is going to counsel you, mentor you and, in most cases, many are going to do their best to hinder your progress. You have to figure out how to be a citizen in a country that largely resents your existence.

This is the story of Beloved.

It’s a story that in Morrison’s masterful hands helps you understand on a base, human level what happened when slavery ended. And how what happened then reverberates still today.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a recommended read for anyone considering race and America.

Have you read Toni Morrison’s Beloved? If so, what did you think of the book?

Beloved Book Cover Beloved
Toni Morrison
Vintage Books

Sethe, an escaped slave living in post-Civil War Ohio with her daughter and mother-in-law, is haunted persistently by the ghost of the dead baby girl whom she sacrificed, in a new edition of the Nobel Laureate's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Reader's Guide available. Reprint. 60,000 first printing.

How “Hero of the Empire” Is a History Book for Today

Reading Hero of the Empire triggers this question: How is writing impacted by how we today consume information?

Surely, there’s an impact. Prevailing advice for writers is to be readers. This implies reading affects writing. If true, then how we read must impact writing as well.

So what can we expect of writers in the world of shortening attention spans, hyperlinks, and social media?

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Hero of the Empire Book Cover Hero of the Empire
Candice Millard
Random House Large Print Publishing
September 20, 2016

From "New York Times" bestselling author of "Destiny of the Republic" and "The River of Doubt," a thrilling narrative of Winston Churchill's extraordinary and little-known exploits during the Boer War At age twenty-four, Winston Churchill was utterly convinced it was his destiny to become prime minister of England one day, despite the fact he had just lost his first election campaign for Parliament. He believed that to achieve his goal he must do something spectacular on the battlefield. Despite deliberately putting himself in extreme danger as a British Army officer in colonial wars in India and Sudan, and as a journalistcovering a Cuban uprising against the Spanish, glory and fame had eluded him. Churchill arrived in South Africa in 1899, valet and crates of vintage wine in tow, there to cover the brutal colonial war the British were fighting with Boer rebels. But just two weeks after his arrival, the soldiers he was accompanying on an armored train were ambushed, and Churchill was taken prisoner. Remarkably, he pulled off a daring escape--but then had to traverse hundreds of miles of enemy territory, alone, with nothing but a crumpled wad of cash, four slabs of chocolate, and his wits to guide him. The story of his escape is incredible enough, but then Churchill enlisted, returned to South Africa, fought in several battles, and ultimately liberated the men with whom he had been imprisoned. Churchill would later remark that this period, "could I have seen my future, was to lay the foundations of my later life." Millard spins an epic story of bravery, savagery, and chance encounters with a cast of historical characters including Rudyard Kipling, Lord Kitchener, and Mohandas Gandhi with whom he would later share the world stage. But "Hero of the Empire" is more than an adventure story, for the lessons Churchill took from the Boer War would profoundly affect 20th century history. "From the Hardcover edition.""