Annie Harvieux

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Poverty, by America, the new book from Pulitzer Prize-winning Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond (Evicted), focuses on the root causes of Americans’ economic suffering. Mixing statistics and tales from real people’s lives, Desmond makes a convincing argument that poverty is a sinkhole too powerful for anyone to pull themselves out by their bootstraps alone. 

Early in the book, Desmond establishes that poverty is about not just money but “a relentless piling on of problems,” with housing insecurity, eviction and the instability of low-wage gig and temp work at its core. The rising cost of living in American cities and the decline of career work with benefits are also contributing factors, as are our country’s aggressive carceral and criminal justice systems. In a chapter on welfare, Desmond points out that while the amount of aid available to poor people has increased since the 1980s, many of the people who qualify never take advantage of it. This, coupled with the astronomical costs of healthcare, wreaks havoc on every demographic, but immigrants and single or unmarried parents are often hit the hardest. Desmond debunks the logic used to blame these groups for relying on public assistance. 

One of Desmond’s fundamental assertions is that America has little incentive to reduce its level of poverty because those in power profit from the labor and rent money of those living more precariously. For example, employers’ gradual victory over unions is a major reason employees are now unable to escape workplace exploitation, from low wages and no benefits to noncompete clauses and workplace surveillance. Payday loans, overdraft fees and racially discriminatory interest rates are other ways American institutions financially benefit from civilians’ poverty. This all combines with the costly privatization of more and more public goods and services, like when California’s Proposition 13 capped property taxes for homeowners and consequently gutted funding for public education in the state.

Desmond devotes a fair section of this slim volume to proposed solutions, repeatedly stating that those living well will need to sacrifice some affluence to alleviate others’ suffering. However, he balks at the phrase “redistribution of wealth,” saying it “distracts and triggers.” Instead, his practical solutions seem tailored to those who are willing to sacrifice in moderation—for example, by supporting businesses with unions, paying their full taxes and pressuring upper classes to do the same. Few of his solutions seem likely to form the political pressure cooker needed to regulate predatory banking, end exclusionary zoning and pry tax dollars from executives’ claws.

While Poverty, by America may not be a how-to for the revolution that many fed-up Americans are calling for, it’s a solid primer for those living in relative comfort about how the suffocating tendrils of poverty work, and who they benefit.

Pulitzer Prize winner Matthew Desmond’s Poverty, by America is a solid primer about how the suffocating tendrils of poverty work, and who they benefit.
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In Ronan and the Endless Sea of Stars, author Rick Louis tells the story of losing his baby son to a rare neurological illness in 2013. “This is not a story about grief,” Louis writes. “It is just the story of a little boy who was only here for a short while and what he meant to us.”

It spoils nothing to tell readers that Ronan dies; this is revealed at the book’s beginning by showing present-day Louis next to a baby-size vacant space, populated by twinkling stars. The book then moves backward in time, starting with the day Ronan was born and the joy Louis and his wife, Emily, took in him. (Emily published a bestselling memoir about Ronan in 2013 called The Still Point of the Turning World.) However, Ronan’s parents soon began to notice some health concerns, such as Ronan’s difficulty focusing his eyes, and sought medical attention. An ophthalmologist revealed that Ronan had signs of Tay-Sachs disease, a lethal condition that prevents the breakdown of lipids in the brain and nerves. When the diagnosis was confirmed, Louis and Emily had to confront their child’s mortality as they did everything in their power to enrich his life. As Ronan’s health deteriorated due to seizures and breathing difficulties, the uncertainty and strain also deteriorated his parents’ relationship.

Louis imbues this mostly tragic narrative with earnestness, quirk and even humor, paired neatly with (often silly) illustrations of what’s going on in characters’ minds. All the while, Louis holds true to telling the story of his time with Ronan with profound sincerity, reverence and honesty. Never does Louis speculate about what Ronan may have been thinking or feeling, nor does he graft personalization onto Ronan’s suffering. Instead, Louis simply recounts the horror of watching his child suffer while also expressing the pure joy of being a parent to a beautiful and unique person.

This is the first book for both Louis and illustrator Lara Antal, and they make good use of the graphic memoir form by pairing a cinematic, moving tale of family and loss with expressively drawn faces. Viewing the pain in Louis’ and Emily’s faces as they contemplate their child’s death is almost as haunting as watching the life drain from Ronan’s eyes as his disease progresses. Recurring abstract images, such as gently coiling swirls of black and sheets of ombre static, populate backgrounds, faces and even trees. These convey emotional heft in a way that is more gut-centered than paragraphs of prose about a character’s feeling.

In a culture where grief is treated as something to avoid at all costs and dispose of quickly, this book provides a valuable counterpoint. Carrying an eternal love for someone who has died is, for Louis, as vital as it is excruciating. For those who have known profound grief, or those willing to expand their understanding of its nuances, Ronan and the Endless Sea of Stars will be a valuable read.

In his debut graphic memoir, Rick Louis tells the story of his son Ronan, who died of Tay-Sachs disease, with profound sincerity, reverence and honesty.

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