With the tools of a trained ethnographer, the skills of a literary writer, and a deep-seated compassion, Matthew Desmond follows the lives of eight Milwaukee families as they struggled between 2008 and 2009 to turn grinding poverty into stable poverty. He also recounts the activities of their landlords, making Evicted (Crown, $28) a compelling and troubling story of “two freedoms at odds… the freedom to profit from rents and the freedom to live in a safe and affordable home.” Desmond puts these narratives into perspective with statistics, noting that in 2008 tax benefits to homeowners amounted to $171 billion nationally, while direct assistance to the poor for housing was $40.2 billion. In Milwaukee, the nation’s fourth poorest city, rent often consumes 88% of a monthly welfare check, and even the cheapest, barely habitable apartments—clogged drains, no stove, no hot water—may cost just $270 less than a decent place. Eviction, rare even in the Depression, is now a daily occurrence. Meanwhile, though “it took a certain skill to make a living off the city’s poorest trailer park,” it is indeed possible, as it is for an inner-city landlord renting to tenants on or below the poverty line to amass a net worth of $2 million. Desmond explores these disparities in detail and links the crisis of affordable housing to unemployment, crime, racism, poor health, and other socio-economic ills. But what’s most impressive here are the stories. One woman calls some ninety prospective apartments, her standards getting lower as her desperation rises. A seventh-grader attends five different schools in one academic year. Children “sleep” in chairs in overcrowded rooms. Evictions are cheaper for landlords than maintenance, and people can be evicted for nearly anything—or nothing; a call to the police about domestic abuse, for instance, can get a family kicked out as a “nuisance,” and every eviction on someone’s record makes the next apartment harder to come by.
In 2011, when the Pulitzer committee awarded Siddhartha Mukherjee the non-fiction prize, it praised The Emperor of All Maladies as “an elegant inquiry, at once clinical and personal.” Well, he’s done it again in The Gene: An Intimate History (Scribner, $32), which tells the story of the development of genetics by weaving science and social history with some of Mukherjee’s personal narrative about his own relatives. As Mukherjee recalls in the acknowledgments, he was actually so physically and mentally exhausted after Emperor that he hadn’t expected to write another book. But The Gene turns out to be a natural pairing with Emperor—a sort of prequel in that it focuses on biological normalcy before things get distorted into the malignancy of cancer. If you’ve ever wondered how much of our lives is determined by genes or by external environmental factors, read this book. But don’t expect a simple answer!
Like a plant’s, the life of a research scientist is subject to conditions she can’t fully control: funding, adequate equipment, successful experiments. But while a tree has to stay put, a geobotanist like Hope Jahren is mobile. As long as she has a lab of her own, whether in California, Georgia, or Hawaii, she can set down roots and thrive. A woman in a notoriously male-dominated field, Jahren, aka Lab Girl (Knopf, $26.95) often feels insecure, but she’s a dedicated scientist, and always has been. “I grew up in my father’s laboratory,” she says. Now an award-winning Fulbright scholar and tenured professor, Jahren has had her share of failures. She tells lively stories of exploding glass tubes, of field trips ending in ditches, and anxiety severe enough to be clinical. But her warm and engaging memoir, interspersed with telling mini-essays on germination, soil, pollen, and roots is more than disasters, long hours, and meticulous measurements of leaf growth. Her lab partner and best friend is an endearing character somewhere on the genius end of the Asperger spectrum. He and Jahren share jokes and junk food in addition to a passion for plants, and their continual banter—and Jahren’s spirited prose—make this a compelling and funny story about friendship and adventures that belies the image of scientists as pale and asocial creatures in need of a life.