Sign Up

Get the latest ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.

All , Coverage

All Social Science Coverage

Review by

For over a decade, health care journalist Shefali Luthra has been reporting on reproductive rights for Kaiser Health News and The 19th. In Undue Burden: Life and Death Decisions in Post-Roe America, she details the public and private chaos that commenced when the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade in its 2022 decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Immediately after the Supreme Court issued Dobbs, the right to a safe and legal abortion was no longer protected by federal laws. Even before then, however, many states had been chipping away at reproductive rights, making access to abortion care nearly impossible and Roe almost meaningless. After Dobbs, state legislatures began passing increasingly draconian statutes illegalizing abortion. With clarity and passion, Luthra describes how Dobbs put American lives, health and autonomy at risk.

Luthra does an excellent job explaining the complex legal and political history of the anti-abortion movement, and her analysis of the impact of Dobbs is meticulously documented. But at the heart of Undue Burden are the stories of dozens of patients who sought a safe abortion in a post-Dobbs world. She focuses particularly on four people to illustrate the major themes of her book: Tiff, a high school student whose inability to access a timely abortion in Texas changes her life indelibly; Angela, a single mom who knows that another baby will make it impossible to provide her young son with a stable future; Darlene, whose pregnancy threatens her life, but whose Texas doctors can not give her the care she needs; and Jasper, a trans man from Florida forced to make a crucial decision before the state’s 15-week deadline kicks in.

Luthra also gives voice to the providers whose stories are rarely heard. We meet nurses and doctors hopping on and off planes to provide safe abortions to pregnant people desperate for their help, and doctors whose colleagues have been harassed and even murdered. Their dedication to their patients is both remarkable and inspiring.

In her empathetic book, Luthra capably zooms in on private stories and zooms out on the laws that have irrevocably changed lives, proving the feminist adage: The personal is political. Undue Burden is a rigorous and compelling condemnation of the unnecessary pain and sorrow Dobbs left in its wake.

 

Shefali Luthra’s Undue Burden is a rigorous and compelling condemnation of the unnecessary pain and sorrow Dobbs left in its wake.

Acclaimed journalist Tracie McMillan’s muckraking, experiential methods have earned her prizes, acclaim and the special animosity of Rush Limbaugh, a sure sign of the power of her investigative work. With The White Bonus: Five Families and the Cash Value of Racism in America, McMillan offers a powerful and necessary exposé of the financial benefits of whiteness in the U.S.

In a style reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich, The White Bonus spotlights five working- and middle-class white families, including a very revealing and honest look at McMillan’s own. The book examines how zoning laws, discrimination in trade unions and the failure of school desegregation have rippled into the present, giving white families what McMillan calls the “white bonus,” a multigenerational “societal and familial security net unavailable to Black Americans.” In chapters focused on school, work, poverty and crime, McMillan develops case studies of how individuals and families benefit from whiteness even when they are accused of crimes or are scraping by on minimum wage. McMillan’s quantitative analysis starkly reveals how American institutions continue to benefit white people at the expense of Black Americans. 

Each case study is supported by extensive interviews and reporting, and presented with novelistic detail in a propulsive narrative. A chapter about the Becker family of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, illustrates “the steady reemergence of racially homogenous schools after a few decades of progress toward racial integration” that followed Brown v. Board of Education. The Beckers bucked the trend of white flight and sent their children to local public schools that had predominantly Black student bodies. While the oldest sibling benefitted from “gifted and talented” programs that primarily served white students in an otherwise diverse student population, the youngest sibling experienced a stark decline in educational quality at the same school after many of the white families left the district. 

McMillan’s own family story is told with admirable honesty, particularly regarding the impact of her father’s abuse after her mother’s death. These autobiographical chapters not only provide a detailed financial accounting of her own family’s white bonus, but also brilliantly shape a central insight that analogizes its dangers: The silence surrounding domestic violence is replicated in our society at large when we avoid addressing the impact of structural racism. Remaining silent about either is incompatible with morality.

Journalist Tracie McMillan’s latest investigates how five families—including her own—benefit from systemic white privilege.
Review by

When anthropologist and Stanford University professor Angela Garcia went to Mexico City to study a new urban development, she instead discovered families threatened by the violence of the drug war committing themselves or their family members to anexos, coercive drug rehab programs run out of private homes. There, staff members inflict beatings and emotional abuse unironically called “treatment.”

The chance that you’ve heard of an anexos is slim; a quick Google search elicits few results, the top result of which is an academic paper by Garcia herself. In her new book, The Way That Leads Among the Lost: Life, Death, and Hope in Mexico City’s Anexos, she studies these complicated places and the social forces that have created them. Based on direct observation and interviews with people living in several such run-down centers, Garcia shows the diverse experiences that brought them there: A trans woman named Sheila self-admitted and becomes a den mother to young teen residents; an introverted 14-year-old with the nickname Catorce was dropped off by his mother before she left town; and teenage Daniel was violently apprehended after his desperate mother called an anexos for help about his drug addiction.

The stories of anexados vary, but the essential reason the centers exist is the same: The violence inside the walls of an anexos is less frequent and severe than that outside. As Garcia observes life in these makeshift drug rehab centers, she reckons with her own past abandonments, familial addiction and homelessness. Garcia is careful not to run a straight line from the violence of these programs to the healing of their participants. More often than not, people either spend long periods of time living in the anexos, or they are in and out of them as they vacillate between safety and danger, flush and broke.

Yet anexos serve a purpose to many in the communities where they exist. Garcia reflects on the pain many parents feel sending their children to anexos, knowing they’ll suffer violence within, but otherwise unable to keep them from the threat posed by the drug war in their neighborhoods. The Way That Leads Among the Lost is both a heavy and enlightening history of how anexos came to be, and a compassionate look into the lives of those impacted.

Correction, April 23, 2024: This review previously misstated the name of author Angela Garcia.

The Way That Leads Among the Lost investigates the heavy yet enlightening history of anexos, clandestine Mexico City drug recovery centers.

MacArthur fellow and National Book Award finalist Hanif Abdurraqib is a prolific poet and author, writing across genres of poetry, essay and cultural criticism to great acclaim. Abdurraqib turns his sensitive lens towards basketball in his newest work, There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension. With carefully constructed and imaginative prose, he immerses us in the basketball culture of his native East Columbus, Ohio, telling stories of hoop dreams, both deferred and fully realized.

Abdurriqib pays tribute to myriad figures, both ballers and civilians, who were part of the richly portrayed social web of East Columbus and the larger Black Ohio that it is situated in. We learn about East Columbus players who dominated courts in high school and college, leaving indelible marks on their community even though they didn’t thrive on the biggest stages. We also get to intimately witness the ascension and cultural impact of LeBron James, a hooper from nearby Akron who became one of basketball’s most recognizable, successful and yet polarizing figures.

Abdurraqib’s examination of basketball culture is, in and of itself, captivating. However, the book transcends the particulars of the sport to become a powerful meditation on place and community. The author paints a complex but loving portrait of East Columbus as its members navigate moments of love, grief, hope, fellowship and conflict. He generously and seamlessly weaves in his own story, offering it up as a conduit for the reader’s self-reflection.

Abdurraqib’s writing on basketball is among the best of our time, and it centers the sport’s relevance in local communities, a grossly underexplored element. At the same time, There’s Always This Year offers beautiful reflections on personal and communal journeys that have the power to transform anyone willing to step on the court.

Read our interview with Hanif Abdurraqib, author of ‘There’s Always This Year.’

Hanif Abdurraqib’s captivating There’s Always This Year is a powerful meditation on place and community.
Review by

It’s hardly groundbreaking news that the world is increasingly confusing and isolating. Deaths by despair continue to rise, and America has long been in a mental health care crisis. Our screens feed our wildest conspiracy theories and our equally wild celebrity fantasies, while distancing us from friends and family. We put our faith in “manifesting” our reality, while ignoring the advice of experts. We have access to never-before-imagined amounts of information, but we are no wiser. We contrive conflicts with people online whom we have never met. Our anxiety culminates in a nagging question: “Is it them, or is it me?” Amanda Montell, author of The Age of Magical Overthinking: Notes on Modern Irrationality, would probably answer, “It’s all of us.”

A linguist, podcaster and writer, Montell explored the links between language and power in her books Cultish and Wordslut. In her new book, Montell takes on an even more ambitious project: explaining how our cognitive biases combine with our brain functions to skew our perceptions of reality.

This is heavy stuff, but Montell combines erudition with humor and self-deprecation to make it accessible. Her explanations of a dozen cultural biases are clear and backed by research, while her cautionary tales of their destructive impact are personal, often hilarious and frequently moving. So, for example, her commitment to an abusive relationship was the result of the sunk cost fallacy—the conviction that “spending resources you can’t get back . . . justifies spending more.” Her affection for a thoroughly mediocre seat cushion that she made from “the innards of a neglected dog toy” is a charming symptom of the IKEA effect—that “we like things better when we’ve had a hand in creating them.” And our fascination with the vlogs of young women dying from painful disease is an example of survivorship bias. There is no condemnation or exasperation in this book, but there is plenty of humor, compassion and reason.

Reading The Age of Magical Overthinking feels like listening to your smartest friend give excellent advice. Hopefully, we’ll take it.

Amanda Montell explores our cultural and cognitive biases and their perilous consequences in the funny, compassionate The Age of Magical Overthinking.
Review by

In his haunting debut, Death Row Welcomes You: Visiting Hours in the Shadow of the Execution Chamber, Tennessee journalist Steven Hale sheds light on a rarely seen part of American society: the places where more than 2,700 people await execution by the state.

Hale’s reporting began when, after a decade-long lull, Tennessee began executing the condemned at speed. He witnessed the first of seven executions that would take place over two years. Tennessee and other states have struggled to acquire the preferred lethal injection drug, pentobarbital, and a new three-drug protocol to be used instead was challenged in Tennessee court for amounting to cruel and unusual punishment—to no avail. 

A former staff writer for the alt-weekly Nashville Scene, Hale reports from Riverbend Maximum Security Institution through the lens of a group of regular visitors who provide condemned men with friendship and compassion in the years (sometimes decades) leading up to their death, including a Nashville reverend who has acted as an advocate and spiritual advisor for death row inmates since the 1970s. Hale writes vividly about the fear and boredom that marks daily life in a maximum-security prison, and how the visitors offer relief and fellowship. They bring friends and neighbors to their weekly meetings, including those who support capital punishment, thinking that the “best way to expose the inhumanity of the death penalty was to expose people to the humanity of the men condemned to it.” 

Death Row Welcomes You is an engrossing if sometimes harrowing read. Hale starkly recounts the crimes that led to death sentences, including gruesome murders, brutal sexual assaults and drug deals gone horribly wrong. Yet the book does not fixate on grisly details the way so many salacious podcasts and TV shows do. Hale delves into the childhoods of the men he profiles, many of whom experienced abject poverty, neglect and abuse, and presents these facts as important context in which to view the full scope of their crimes and subsequent state-sanctioned killing. These stories are balanced by moving accounts of the supportive relationships among the condemned men, like when a man chose to forgo his prison-provided last meal in favor of communing with his fellows over homemade pizzas, the ingredients plucked from their personal stashes. 

“The people, experiences and research that make up this book have changed my life,” Hale writes. “I hope that by preserving them here I can contribute in some small way to the idea that we are, all of us, capable of terrible and beautiful things.” Readers will reflect on this captivating, deeply reported story for years to come.  

Death Row Welcomes You is an enthralling, deeply reported story that captures the humanity of the condemned men on Tennessee’s death row.

At 40, Hanif Abdurraqib feels time’s passage. “Every hour that I live beyond what I anticipated my life to be feels like I’m just stealing time,” he says.

Abdurraqib has already left an indelible mark on America’s literary and cultural landscape. He is both prolific and diverse, successfully venturing into poetry, essay and music criticism. Whether he is writing about seminal hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest (Go Ahead in the Rain) or Black performance (National Book Award finalist A Little Devil in America), or such wide-ranging topics as the ’90s rom-com You’ve Got Mail, Bruce Springsteen and public displays of affection, the MacArthur fellow blends observation, analysis and memoir. His writing reveals our most fervent desires and heartbreaks, and at times, his own, such as the untimely deaths of his mother and some of his friends.

“I write in hopes that my larger world becomes a little less lonely,” the author says.

With There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension, Abdurraqib turns his singular pen toward asphalt courts in neighborhood parks and waxed hardwoods in 10,000-seat arenas. If you’re thinking, “Basketball isn’t my thing,” fear not. By exploring the cultural nuances of the sport, Abdurraqib uses it as a lens through which to grapple with grief and legacy, place and beauty, our struggles and our strivings.

“You grow a legacy and mythology through word of mouth, through storytelling.”

Like a basketball game, There’s Always This Year is structured in four quarters that count down from 12 minutes. Poetic intermissions and timeouts offer moments of pause, sometimes mid-sentence, and a pregame chapter serves as the book’s introduction. This ambitious approach could be a distraction in less gifted hands, but here, the form adds to the immersive nature of the book and the tension of a clock that will inevitably run out. But before it does, Abdurraqib shows us what it means to ascend, like a player who launches himself from the foul line, he writes, “his arm stretched straight up, heavenbound, the basketball, an offering to the sky, but only for a moment.”

There's Always This Year by Hanif Abdurraqib

“I wanted to reframe my relationship with the passage of time,” he says. “Ascension felt like a really great way to describe continually crawling towards and beyond these ages that I had not anticipated myself getting to.”

Abdurraqib homes in on the basketball culture of his native and predominantly Black East Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood. It features the stories of several local and regional basketball players, many of whom never made it to the NBA. He chronicles the careers of local stars like Kenny Gregory, who was welcomed home from games by a parade of kids who followed his car in praise; and Estaban Weaver, whose posters hung in the homes of Eastside Columbus kids “who idolized him then, who idolize him always.” People like Coach Bruce Howard, who led Abdurraqib’s high school’s team to its first title win and who “never forgot a face,” transcend time.

These are names you are unlikely to find in basketball history books, on an ESPN debate show or on basketball Twitter. In a world that only values those who reach mainstream-determined peaks, such figures get left out of the historical record. For Abdurraqib, this reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of basketball culture and the power of storytelling in Black communities.

“I think there is a real purpose in living a life where you build a mythology around yourself that carries through generations,” he says. “It passes through young people saying ‘I saw this thing that you would not believe. Can I tell you about this thing I saw that you would not believe?’ You grow a legacy and mythology through word of mouth, through storytelling.”

For Abdurraqib, the basketball culture of East Columbus was a convener that cut across social and economic lines to bring disparate players and fans into a shared space: “There was this real democratization of the space. Kenny Gregory and Michael Red were high-school All-Americans, but they are playing alongside a guy who’s like a second-string point guard for the high-school team. Everybody’s coming from somewhere different, but that’s the team.”

There’s Always This Year is also about the power of place and community. East Columbus figures heavily in the text—not just as the backdrop for activity, but as a living, breathing organism animated by intergenerational connections, shared worldviews and vital creative energy. “I’m grateful not only to be from the east side of Columbus, but to grow up at the time I grew up,” Abdurraqib says. “I grew up in a neighborhood that was definitely poor or working class. But it never felt that way from inside.”

Though concerned with ascension, this is also a story of rootedness. Abdurraqib’s examination of a local community eschews common narratives that suggest that success for Black people requires an escape from home. Staying, for those from East Columbus, means remaining connected to a culturally vibrant community. “I still live on the east side of Columbus,” Abdurraqib says. “I never wanted this feeling of exodus. I began to think really hard about what it is to not want to make it out and, through that not making it out, redefine staying as something beyond failure.”

Basketball icon LeBron James exemplifies this tension between home and ascension. Known as one of the GOATs of the sport, LeBron’s skilled physical and cerebral play has translated to several NBA championships, personal awards, incredible wealth and one of the most recognizable names in popular culture. Abdurraqib offers an intimate depiction of LeBron’s rise from nearby Akron, Ohio, to global stardom, one that reflects LeBron’s symbolic meaning for Black Ohioans. “I do have an unshakable affection for LeBron’s rise,” says the author. “There’s a miraculous nature to the way his shadow cast over the state that I love.”

Despite his cultural ascendancy, LeBron also stands out as one of the most polarizing figures in professional athletics. A significant body of fans either downplay his accomplishments or want to see him fail. “Not only are there people waiting for him to fail,” says Abdurraqib, “but people are waiting for him to fail in a very specific way that aligns with this kind of thirst for the downfall of the Black megastar. They want these tragic endings that serve as a kind of performance for white audiences who hunger for these kinds of failures.”

“I write in hopes that my larger world becomes a little less lonely.”

In the book, Abdurraqib effectively synthesizes stories that differ in nature, scale and time. He also carefully weaves in details from his own life, using it as a connecting force that affirms and complicates key themes. He shares private episodes of love and loss, his relationship with his father, his experience with the criminal justice system and a period of being unhoused. Through his very public vulnerability, Abdurraqib wants to disrupt our black-and-white moral sensibilities. “I think people enjoy a rehabilitative story of someone who did bad things once and now is in better and giving to the world,” he says. “I don’t think that, internally, I am a better person. I am a more resourced person than I was, but I don’t think I’m better. I wanted to write to upset this binary of bad person makes good. Instead, we should be asking, ‘What are we subjecting ‘good people’ to?’”

The clock does eventually run out. But in the end, There’s Always This Year transcends time. “We go on living,” Abdurraqib writes, “while a past version of ourselves remains locked, peacefully, in a euphoric dream.”

This book is a revelatory addition to Abdurraqib’s incredible body of work, which has touched many souls and reoriented worldviews over the past decade. His own ascendancy is remarkable. His creative drive and cultural impact are the products of a very personal and heartfelt intention. “I feel like my purpose for myself is to reframe this kind of world that a lot of people feel brutally isolated from, or a world that cannot translate people’s desire to be seen within it or be held within it or be loved or thought of within it,” he says.

“I just hope my work does other people kindness. I just hope it shrinks all of our aches and all of our absences and all of our hungers a bit more if it can.”

Read our starred review of ‘There’s Always This Year’ by Hanif Abdurraqib.

Hanif Abdurraqib author photo by Kendra Bryant.

The A Little Devil in America author turns his singular pen to basketball—and how the sport illustrates our struggles and strivings.
Review by

Inexperienced and often impulsive, teenagers can make dumb mistakes that they may spend the rest of their lives trying to rectify. Rene Quiñones was a San Francisco gang member who went to prison, then turned his life around as a violence prevention counselor and business owner. Sadly, his son Luis, nicknamed Sito, didn’t have the time to turn over a new leaf. Because of one poor decision, he was fatally shot in a revenge killing when he was 19 years old.

Author Laurence Ralph, a Princeton University professor who specializes in justice reform issues, is part of Sito’s extended family, and Rene turned to him for counsel after the slaying. Ralph’s moving, thoughtful third book, Sito: An American Teenager and the City That Failed Him, explores the tragedy from Ralph’s dual perspective as a grieving, frustrated relative and a juvenile justice scholar.

Sito’s road was rough from the start: His parents loved him but were so busy staying financially afloat and building new families that he felt abandoned. He turned his fear into acting out, “embracing machismo,” Ralph writes, and “putting himself at risk or pushing away the very people he loved and needed.” At 14 years old, he let an acquaintance talk him into straying onto rival gang turf. There, the acquaintance fatally stabbed another teenager.

Sito was arrested for this murder and incarcerated in a juvenile prison for three months before a private investigator found video footage showing that he was innocent—footage that the police and district attorney’s office had all along. Sito was released, but the victim’s family refused to believe he was innocent, and five years after the stabbing, the victim’s brother killed Sito in revenge.

Ralph blends his knowledge of Sito, his own memories of being a terrified boy from an immigrant family and his research into minority teens caught in an ineffectual justice system to create a harrowing account of Sito’s life. He witnesses the family’s tense interactions with police and prosecutors. He worries for his own children. And he shows how the rituals of the African diaspora religion Santeria helped to bring solace and spiritual understanding to Sito’s family.

Not long after Sito’s killing, Rene, still reeling from his loss, sat down with his son’s friends and persuaded them that retaliation was the wrong answer. Ralph, an advocate of restorative justice, dreams of true reconciliation that ends these cycles of violence. But the challenge remains formidable.

Sito is a harrowing, impactful account of a teenager caught in a cycle of violence and the juvenile justice system that failed him.
Review by

In Language City: The Fight to Preserve Endangered Mother Tongues in New York author Ross Perlin examines a duality of the world’s most linguistically diverse city. Home to over 700 languages, 21st-century New York City is a vital nexus where people from all over the world can find others speaking their mother tongue; but the ever-increasing imperative to speak a dominant language like English or Spanish makes this also the place where these languages go extinct. 

Perlin, who is both a linguist at Columbia University and a co-director and researcher at the Endangered Language Alliance (ELA), is committed to researching and preserving the linguistic diversity of the city. “At the heart of linguistics itself,” he writes, “is a radical premise: all languages are cognitively and communicatively equal.” This ethos is evident in his writing and reporting as he first unpacks the history of Indigenous and migrant peoples’ arrivals in (and departures from) what is now known as New York, and then as he collaborates with six contemporary New Yorkers of radically different backgrounds who are completing meaningful projects to share and preserve their endangered languages. Perlin spent years (sometimes over a decade) with each of his collaborators on these ELA projects, and his narrative balances biography and linguistic analysis, letting their lives act as windows into the communities making up the multilingual microcosms of other continents tucked unassumingly into New York. 

Perlin brings the subject of linguistics down from the ivory tower and into the subway car or the corner bodega. He opens up the world of endangered languages to monolingual mainstream Americans by bringing compelling and driven native speakers of those languages to the table, as well as taking care to provide historical and cultural detail. However, the volume of information in the book, including geographic specifics of both New York and the world, can occasionally feel dense despite an approachable tone and clear explanations of concepts.

Language City reinforces the value of endangered language preservation and asks salient questions: What do we lose when we facilitate a monolingual society in both practice and policy? And how can we instead allow diverse languages to create a society that is more equitable, livable and inclusive? 

Language City reveals the New Yorkers working to save their endangered mother tongues, and offers a new way of viewing language.

The Latino community doesn’t exist as a monolith. Latin Americans hail from over 20 countries, each with its own unique ethnicity and culture. African, Spanish and Indigenous influences vary wildly but are consistently present in most groups. Labels like Hispanic or Latino don’t snugly fit this growing population, and some people shrug them off entirely.

Lauded author and Washington Post columnist Marie Arana admits early on in LatinoLand: A Portrait of America’s Largest and Least Understood Minority that she is “working with a deficit” in her attempt to capture the diverse experience of American Latinos. Yet by embracing the variety of this diaspora—and its people’s conflicting views on race, religion and politics—she comes as close to success as one can get.

The book at first functions as a survey, with brief chapters on Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans and other Latino groups. While these historical accounts might not unearth anything unknown to Latin American scholars, Arana’s punchy writing style is engaging, informative and full of pleasant surprises, like her tale about the first Dominican to settle New York in the 1500s, centuries before a bodega opened in Washington Heights. 

Arana also tackles the plurality of Latino identities from other angles, including the morphing religious affiliations of Hispanic Americans and a thoughtful dismantling of the myth of the “Latino vote.” Short profiles contextualize the broader themes and history lessons; some of the stories related here are harrowing, some amusing, others mundane. The horrors of colonialism, segregation and genocide are everpresent.

LatinoLand features interviews with an impressive swath of Latinos, from undocumented custodians and emboldened activists to federal policymakers and religious leaders—though at times there does seem to be a reliance on higher-educated professionals. While Arana celebrates the diversity of American Latinos and doesn’t push for any kind of assimilation, she also appeals to traditional American values when making the case for Latino acceptance, pointing to their contributions to business, academia and the military. But her most salient argument is that Latinos have contributed so much more to this country than what’s acknowledged in the mainstream; by spotlighting unsung heroes like climate scientist Mario Molina and labor champion Dolores Huerta, she gives them their due. 

As Arana pieces together a vibrant collage of American Latino lives, she communicates her belief that solidarity is possible among this fractured cohort. Perhaps, one thinks, it can emerge from the shared experience of being underestimated and undervalued.

Reporter Marie Arana paints a thoughtful portrait of how Latinos have shaped—and been shaped by—the United States in this punchy cultural history.
Review by

Morgan Parker, acclaimed poet and winner of a 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award for her collection Magical Negro, marries memoir with cultural critique in an unsparing, intimate and provocative book of essays, You Get What You Pay For, which infuses the titular idiom with the perspective of her wronged race. “Becoming a person,” she writes in the first essay, “forming an identity, had been a sham assignment from the start—for an African American person, there is a multistep process of backtracking and reinterpreting hundreds of years of American history, peeling apart film from adhesive to hold under the light and make out a cloudy reflection.”

Parker was named after a minor character in “The Cosby Show,” who, in her single appearance, comically eats olives despite knowing she’s allergic to them. Parker writes: “I come from . . . self-destructive impulses, swallowing what I shouldn’t, becoming a punchline.” Later, writing for the feminist platform Lenny Letter, she attended Cosby’s trial for sexual assault. “I’m one of maybe three Black women in the room . . . wrestling with that familiar triple-consciousness chicken or egg. Am I Black today or a woman? Where do I pledge allegiance? Which injustices should I fight first?”

Parker tells of her depression, anxiety and self-hatred, which she describes as “something palpable, something ugly and inadequate and all wrong.” She interrogates the relationships between Black people and treatment for mental illness, citing her father’s assertion that “Black people don’t go to therapy.” Eventually, she did. When a white therapist admitted she knew nothing about the rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown’s death, Parker moved on. With time, she began to link her mental illness to that of her ancestors’ experience as slaves and the century-and-a-half of racism that has followed, “finally com[ing] to understand [self-hatred] as extension of the white supremacist ideologies permeating and governing the nation of which I am a citizen.”

The 22 essays in You Get What You Pay For cycle through Parker’s urgent concerns about white supremacy, police brutality, her often tenuous mental health and her ongoing search for love. She handles these heavy issues with incisive humor and a poet’s eye for detail. The “you” in that titular idiom becomes “we.”

Morgan Parker examines how racism and intergenerational trauma can affect mental health in her provocative, incisively humorous debut essay collection.
Review by

As many as 114,000 Americans who die each year are unclaimed by relatives. Their remains are buried without ceremony, often in mass graves, unwitnessed by anyone who knew them. What circumstances conspire for human beings to meet this end? And what do their deaths say about how we treat the living? Pamela Prickett and Stefan Timmermans unearth some of their stories, unpacking questions both existential and practical in their groundbreaking The Unclaimed: Abandonment and Hope in the City of Angels.

The authors spent eight years investigating the bureaucratic hurdles, legislative failings and social ruptures that contribute to 1,600 unclaimed people in Los Angeles each year. Los Angeles County law stipulates that only next-of-kin can claim remains, but 1 in 4 adult Americans report being estranged from close family members. When relatives can be located, the costs associated with claiming remains are often too steep for them to bear; other times, they have no interest in claiming at all. What’s more, “bureaucratic apathy” and a muddled system relies on three separate departments to investigate the unclaimed.

The Unclaimed follows the stories of four Angelenos who went unclaimed for very different reasons: a reclusive elderly woman whose few surviving family members refused to claim her; a middle-aged woman beloved by her church family who, by law, could not claim and bury her; a veteran who slipped through the cracks; and a quiet man whose assets granted him a funeral that no one attended. Prickett and Timmermans also portray the death investigators who try to locate relatives with varying degrees of success; these civil servants are frustrated and exhausted, their departments understaffed and under-resourced. And the portraits the authors paint of the two civil servants who inter the unclaimed at the Boyle Heights cemetery—the “potter’s field” of L.A.—are extremely moving. Relying on 231 interviews, direct observation of death investigations, extensive research into 600 deaths, attendance of dozens of funerals and cremations, and more, Prickett and Timmermans humanize the dead with aching specificity, granting these few the honor that so many others deserve.

“If you die and no one calls out for you, did your life have meaning?” the authors ask. As the subtitle of the book suggests, there is hope, because more and more people are answering that call. In 2017, a pastor began organizing a memorial service for the unclaimed that draws droves of witnesses; veterans congregate to send off their siblings in arms; a nonprofit buries unclaimed infants in a special cemetery. The writing in this last third of the book sometimes veers into sentimentality, naming conclusions that readers can recognize themselves. But on the whole, The Unclaimed is a gripping and compassionate account that leaves us with a feeling of social and personal responsibility for our kin, our community and ourselves.

Gripping and groundbreaking, The Unclaimed investigates the Americans who are abandoned in death and what they tell us about how we treat the living.
STARRED REVIEW

Top 10 books for February 2024

Beloved and buzzy authors such as Tia Williams, Francis Spufford and Katherine Arden took new and exciting directions in February!
Share this Article:

The author of the marvelous Winterlight trilogy makes her grand return to historical fantasy with this haunting tale set during World War I. Former nurse

Read More »
Book jacket image for A Love Song for Ricki Wilde by Tia Williams

Tia Williams broke out in a big way in 2021 with her emotional second-chance romance, Seven Days in June, and her follow-up novel sounds like

Read More »
Book jacket image for The Last Stand by Antwan Eady

Antwan Eady, author of the lovely Nigel and the Moon, unites with Jarrett and Jerome Pumphrey! The acclaimed sibling duo wrote and illustrated This Old

Read More »
Book jacket image for Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar

It’s a special gift when a favorite poet writes a novel. Martyr! is Kaveh Akbar’s fiction debut, after poetry collections Calling a Wolf a Wolf

Read More »

In 1911, 12 Black men were delivered to the forest in rural Maryland and began building their new residence, the State Hospital for the Negro

Read More »

Award-winning author Amber McBride teams up with acclaimed poets Taylor Byas and Erica Martin to curate an electric, extraordinary lineup of contemporary and classic Black

Read More »
Book jacket image for City of Laughter by Temim Fruchter

Temim Fruchter’s remarkable debut novel is a book full of belly laughs, intergenerational wonder, queer beauty, Jewish history and storytelling that reshapes worlds.

Read More »
Book jacket image for Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford

Visit an alternate America where European colonization never took place in this intricately plotted police procedural from Francis Spufford.

Read More »
Book jacket image for The Gardener of Lashkar Gah by Larisa Brown

Larisa Brown’s The Gardener of Lashkar Gah tells the harrowing story of the Afghan aid workers that NATO left to their fates when the Taliban

Read More »
Book jacket image for The Cancer Factory by Jim Morris

Jim Morris’ urgent, heartbreaking The Cancer Factory traces how a known toxic chemical destroyed the health, happiness and lives of Goodyear factory workers.

Read More »

Get BookPage in your inbox!

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres every Tuesday.

Recent Features

Recent Reviews

Beloved and buzzy authors such as Tia Williams, Francis Spufford and Katherine Arden took new and exciting directions in February!

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Recent Reviews

Author Interviews

Recent Features