Here’s the latest World Wide Work update.
Milked by Ruth Conniff (The New Press). Midwestern dairy farmers depend on workers from Mexico, many of whom are undocumented, at the same time that large agribusinesses are driving many small family dairies out of business. Over two decades, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit called Bridges/Puentes has taken dozens of U.S. farmers to Mexico to get to know the families and communities of the people who work for them. The former editor of The Progressive magazine observed some of these exchanges and gives voice to the farmers, the Mexican families, and activist groups organizing for solutions that would benefit both.
The Man Who Changed Colors by Bill Fletcher Jr. (Hardball). In this complex crime novel, a reporter risks his life to investigate the death of a Massachusetts shipyard worker, with the legacy of African colonies’ struggles for independence from Portugal as the backdrop.
Fire Scars by John B. Wright (University of Nevada). A series of fires fueled by climate change have broken out in Montana in this timely whodunit novel, destroying hundreds of houses, many of them belonging to recent wealthy transplants from California. While some are caused by lightning, it becomes clear that the most damaging are the result of arson, and there are many suspects with potential motivation.
Quick Fixes by Benjamin Y. Fong (Verso). The U.S. appears to be unique in human history in the prevalence of drug sales, the incarceration of people on drug-related charges, and the high rate of mental illness. Americans are about 4% of the world’s population but consume about 80% of its opioids and are more than six times more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression than people in the rest of the world. This creative and informative history of drugs in the U.S., including coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, opioids, cocaine, marijuana, psychedelics, and more, finds that drug sales often are related to stressful work, feelings of powerlessness and isolation, corporate profiteering, and racism, classism, and sexism.
Unbroken by Angela Sterritt (Greystone). Sterritt weaves together two powerful stories. One follows her own life, from survival on the streets as a homeless indigenous teenager to her current work as a journalist for the Canadian Broadcasting Company. The other is the investigative reporting she has done on the disappearance and murders of at least 1,500 indigenous women and girls in Canada.
The Jackson County Rebellion by Jeffrey Max LaLande (Oregon State University). Scapegoating of Black people, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants has a long history in southern Oregon, including Ku Klux Klan organizing and a sometimes violent movement in the 1930s that, among other things, refused to accept local election results. Demagogues who led these movements exploited rural residents’ economic insecurity and resentment of wealthy elites.
Embroidery by Sigrun Palsdottir (Open Letter). A young girl’s aspirations for a better life, and the simple twists of fate that can upset anyone’s best laid plans, are at the heart of this short novel that takes place in Iceland and New York in the 1890s at a time when industrialization in the U.S. was creating a growing class of aristocratic capitalists.
Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv by Andrey Kurkov (MacLehose). Characters in this whimsical novel set in western Ukraine’s largest city before the current war include a man who makes his living driving Polish men over cobblestone streets to jar loose their kidney stones; a woman who works in a currency exchange but has a skin allergy to paper money; an ex-KGB officer who is a fan of Jimi Hendrix, and more.
It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism by Bernie Sanders (Crown). The senator takes on questions such as why so little changes for working people no matter which party is in power, why many Americans expressed their anger by voting for Trump, and what concrete reforms could be adopted to counter the power of billionaires and improve life for the rest of us.
When the Hood Comes Off by Rob Eschmann (University of California). Racism in online communication takes many forms, from overt to subtle. A researcher combines data and interviews to show online racism’s impact on in-person interactions and to give examples of resistance by anti-racism activists.
Secret Life of the City by Hanna Bjorgaas (Greystone). A biologist provides interesting facts about creatures typically seen by urban residents, including how certain birds incorporate city sounds into their songs, why bats like churches, how crows remember and distinguish between specific humans, what can be learned about soil health by burying cotton underwear for a few months, and much more.
Like, Literally, Dude by Valerie Fridland (Viking). In entertaining style, a linguist educates readers on how changes in American English emerge, what functions they serve, and how class, gender, race, region, and other factors play into ideas about what expressions and speech patterns are “correct.”
Labor Power and Strategy by John Womack Jr., edited by Peter Olney and Glenn Perusek (PM Press). Some labor strategists argue that unions should concentrate organizing resources on choke points in the economy – shipping or information technology, for example -- to force corporations and politicians to allow workers to organize. Others emphasize the importance of supporting workers who have demonstrated active interest in organizing – Starbucks workers, for example – even if they don’t have the power to create a significant economic crisis. A university researcher and ten organizers debate this question.
The Work by Zachary Sklar (Olive). A journalist and screenwriter recounts memories in this collection of nonfiction essays, from growing up as a child of blacklisted parents to collaborating on the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for the movie JFK to editing books exposing the CIA to time spent as a young white man in a Black community on a South Carolina Sea Island and in war-torn Nicaragua.
Open Up to Me. A touching and nuanced Finnish feature film follows a trans woman as she searches for love, faces job discrimination, and reaches out to her teenaged daughter despite opposition from her bitter ex-wife.
Discount. A group of low-wage supermarket workers are told that the company plans to introduce self-checkout with no provision for saving their jobs. With the support of their working-poor community, they come up with a risky plan of resistance in this fast-paced feature film from France.
Crystal Swan. A young woman in Belarus who scrapes by as a music DJ dreams of emigrating to Chicago where she imagines she will find fortune in that city’s music scene. She makes a mistake on her visa application, though, and correcting it turns out to be complicated.
Critical Thinking. A feature film based on the true story of the first inner-city team to win the national high school chess championship features outstanding acting and an honest portrayal of the obstacles the students and their teacher faced.
On the Fringe. Penelope Cruz leads an all-star cast In this Spanish film about a variety of characters impacted by evictions, exploitation of immigrants, and profiteering by banks and utilities. The supermarket worker played by Cruz becomes part of a community group that tries to block evictions and provide mutual aid in other ways.
This poem and bobcat photo were published April 3, 2023 by Piker Press.
By Matt Witt
of yourself or others
is the kind of cat
that shows up when it’s ready
and not when you call it.
If you feed it
and give it a
warm place to sleep
it will mostly stick around.
But now and then
it will disappear for a while,
and only come back
when and if it feels like it.
Here’s the latest World Wide Work update.
Chemical Valley by David Huebert (Biblioasis). These 11 short stories are unusual both in the choice of characters and in the use of language. They include workers who depend on the local petrochemical industry even as it ruins their future, a long-term care nurse, a dishwasher, a hockey team brawler, high school students overwhelmed by climate change and looking for hope, and parents dealing with the stresses of raising little ones and sustaining their marriages.
The Reindeer Hunters by Lars Mytting (Overlook). This is the engrossing sequel to the spectacular novel “The Bell in the Lake” which should be read first before this one. Both follow families and communities in a remote part of Norway more than a hundred years ago.
Brooklyn Supreme by Robert Reuland (Overlook). This controversial crime novel was written by a white lawyer who worked as a prosecutor early in his career and now is a defense attorney for people wrongly accused of serious offenses. The main character is a white police union staffer whose job is to represent officers accused of wrongdoing. When a Black female officer shoots and kills a Black robbery suspect, the union staffer grapples with questions about truth and justice.
Funeral Train by Laurie Loewenstein (Akashic). In a small Dust Bowl town in Oklahoma in the 1930s, a train derails, killing 15 passengers, and the next night a local resident is strangled to death. Against a backdrop of Depression-era desperation, the sheriff investigates a long list of suspects who have something to hide.
Daughters of Smoke and Fire by Ava Homa (Overlook). Through the story of one family this novel is an introduction to obstacles and injustices faced by Kurds in Iran (and by Kurdish women even more so). There are about 40 million Kurds whose home region was divided after World War I among Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, leaving a legacy of conflict that continues today.
Your Kingdom by Eleni Sikelianos (Coffee House). An unusually inventive poetry collection explores the close biological relationship humans share with other living beings.
The Holy Vote by Sarah Diefendorf (University of California). A sociologist spent two years immersed in a mostly white evangelical mega-church in a relatively well-off suburb of Seattle, studying how the church as an institution and its individual members are dealing with an ongoing dilemma. She found that they want to attract wayward young people who associate the church with racism, sexism, and homophobia, but they also want to continue to identify the traditional white family as the norm and avoid action on inequality of wealth and power. One device they use is the concept that they “hate the sin” (including gayness, for example) but “love the sinner” (meaning they are open to everyone else learning to be like them). To avoid looking at structural inequality, Diefendorf says, they teach that if you aren’t succeeding, it’s because of your own personal failings. They stress each individual’s personal relationship with Jesus, she says, in contrast to an emphasis on the well being of the whole community and larger society that is the focus of many Black churches and other kinds of religious institutions.
Our Lives in Their Portfolios by Brett Christophers (Verso). The fate of housing, transportation, water, food, energy, health care, education, and other essential components of society increasingly is decided by asset manager speculators like Blackstone and BlackRock that are concerned only with short-term profiteering and not with social outcomes. At least 40 percent of global wealth is now controlled by these firms that look to temporarily buy housing or other assets at low prices, drain away whatever they can, and sell at a profit. These speculators now have far more influence on our future than public officials do.
Waiting for an Echo by Christine Montross (Penguin). A psychiatrist who works with incarcerated people with mental illness describes how the U.S. prison system actually makes many inmates less likely to be able to function outside. She also takes a detailed look at Norway’s system that achieves far better results by emphasizing rehabilitation and treatment rather than retribution.
After Black Lives Matter by Cedric Johnson (Verso). A professor of Black Studies argues that Black Lives Matter protests would make more progress by putting more emphasis on the underlying problem of social and economic inequality. Police are deployed to address the symptoms of that inequality, he says, and therefore focusing only on police behavior will not lead to necessary change.
Our Team by Luke Epplin (FlatIron). In 1936, the best Black baseball pitcher, Satchell Paige, and a team of Black players faced off in the first of many exhibition games against one of the best white pitchers, Bob Feller, and an all-white team. Twelve years later, Paige and Feller would be teammates on the first American League team to hire a Black player. This account of baseball’s very reluctant and slow process of integration is centered on those two, another groundbreaking Black player named Larry Doby, and an eccentric white team owner named Bill Veeck.
Elderflora by Jared Farmer (Basic Books). An environmental historian looks at modern civilization through the lens of how ancient trees have been treated. His writing is Thoreau-like in the way it goes far afield to make edifying connections.
Birds and Us by Tim Birkhead (Princeton). With help from interesting illustrations, a biologist looks at humans’ changing relationship with birds from the days of cave dwellers to today, including periods when birds have been worshipped, hunted, driven to extinction, and now (sometimes) protected.
The Peanut Butter Falcon. In this feel-good feature film, a young man with Down Syndrome (played by Zack Gottsagen, who himself has Down Syndrome) escapes from an institution where he is housed and by chance connects with two people (played by Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson) who appreciate his strengths and are searching for a new life themselves.
The Last Suit. An 88-year-old Argentinian man defies his grown daughters and travels to Poland to search for the man who saved him from the Holocaust.
Australian Rules. A white Australian teenager whose best friend and soccer teammate is aboriginal has to decide where his loyalties lie when racism in his family and his community rears its ugly head.
Utama. As climate-fueled drought makes their isolated community unlivable, an old Bolivian couple who herd llamas have to decide whether to cling to the only home they have ever known.
Nudo Mixteco. Ways that women are impacted by poverty, homophobia, and out-migration to the U.S. are the focus of this feature film in which three women return to their remote Mixtec village in Oaxaca.
Workin’ on a World by Iris Dement. In her first album of original songs in many years, Dement holds nothing back as she searches for hope:
I don't have all the answers
to the troubles of the day
but neither did all our ancestors
and they persevered anyway
When I see a little baby
reaching out its arms to me
I remember why I'm workin' on a world
I may never see
Love and Rage by Carsie Blanton. Blanton’s cutesy voice makes a surprising combination with her straight talk about the state of the world.
Boomerang Town by Jaimee Harris. Harris has a way with words that make her music and lyrics fresh, whether she is mining familiar themes like “Love is Gonna Come Again” or more challenging subjects related to addiction, suicide, or rejection of “others” by supposed Christians:
“Are you free, or are you hiding. from the things you don’t agree with or believe in?
Skim the text, find the lines that feed your purpose,
It’s so easy to love your brother on the surface”
My syndicated newspaper column talks about the human impact in my town and others as working people and farmers essentially have given heirs to the Walmart fortune and the chair of Starbucks a $4.6 billion "grant" to buy the Denver Broncos football team. What can we do about the fact that a few people have more wealth than they could ever use at the expense of so many people who are struggling without affordable housing, health care, education, child care or other basics?
"They Say the War Is Over" by Matt Witt is a nonfiction short story published in the literary and arts journal Cirque, Edition #24, Summer 2022. This "timely and dramatic personal account about race, class, and war" can be read free in PDF form at this link, or on pages 46-50 free in Cirque online.
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