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BOOKS IN BRIEF

Uncovering hidden truths in nation’s problems with race, gender

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide

By Carol Anderson. Bloomsbury, 256 pp., $26

In the wake of protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the police slaying of an unarmed black teenager in the summer of 2014, Carol Anderson wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post offering a different way of looking at the crisis. “[T]he issue was framed in terms of black rage, which, it seemed to me, entirely missed the point,” she writes. “With so much attention focused on the flames, everyone had ignored the logs, the kindling” — a criminal justice system riddled with racism, persistently separate and unequal schools, jobs, and neighborhoods, an entire world built on the invisible edifice of white rage. “The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement,” she writes. Beginning with Reconstruction, Anderson argues, each time black Americans tried to improve their own lives, they faced white resistance, whether overtly violent or subtle and legalistic.

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Anderson, an Emory University history professor, writes with grace and precision, smoothly condensing two centuries into this compact but powerful book. From the growth of Jim Crow segregation to the massive resistance to the Brown v. Board school desegregation decision to the current attempt to impose new voting restrictions, Anderson convincingly rebuts the narrative of our complicated, often ugly history. Much of what she details is horrible, but she writes with hope, too, ending with a call to “take our country forward into the future, a better future.”

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story of Women and Economics

By Katrine Marçal. Translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel. Pegasus, 240 pp., $26.95

Adam Smith is the 18th-century English economist who gave us the memorable phrase “the invisible hand,” used these days to describe the power of markets to shape not only our financial lives but everything else as well. But neither Smith nor any of his intellectual descendants seemed to ask the question posed by Swedish journalist Katrine Marçal: Who did the domestic work that enabled Smith to study and write about economics? “Somebody has to prepare that steak so Adam Smith can say that their labour doesn’t matter,” she points out. It’s this invisible work — the domestic work historically and still shouldered mostly by women — that she wants us to consider. “However you look at the market,” she writes, “it is always built on another economy. An economy that we rarely discuss.”

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Economics is sometimes known as the dismal science. Yet Marçal’s romp through the development of the field and the work of Smith, Keynes, Freud, the Chicago School, and Lawrence Summers (among others) is as diverting as it is thoughtful, especially as she points out the gaping hole at its center: the places where self-interest and the market can’t quite reach. Crucially, Marçal dismantles the construction of what she calls “economic man,” a hypothetical creature who has “no context, no future, no connection.” In reality, of course, we are all exquisitely interconnected, not only with each other but with our past and future, and especially with those who cook and care for us. Midway through her book, Marçal writes about Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” — in its own way, this vivid, entertaining work is equally groundbreaking.

Sex Object: A Memoir

By Jessica Valenti. Dey St., 224 pp., $25.99

“Being a sex object is not special,” writes Jessica Valenti. In her new book, the feminist author (she founded the website Feministing and now writes for the Guardian) writes about her own life and personal experience with many of the themes that have featured in her journalism. Growing up in Queens, the daughter of striving parents, Valenti hated her face but had a complicated relationship with her breasts, which got attention she both liked and hated — it didn’t help, she writes, that “at fourteen years old I had the body that I would always have.” At one of the city’s elite exam schools, teachers and fellow students sexually harassed her. “It never occurred to me that school should be a sanctuary,” Valenti writes. “This was just what men were like. This was just what being a girl was.”

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From subway gropers to anonymous online trolls, Valenti details some of the daily indignities that girls and women endure; she also writes about her proud parents, loving husband, and beloved daughter. Not every section is equally illuminating (there’s not much to say about a seemingly endless series of rotten boyfriends), but at its best this memoir argues that every woman’s life is both uniquely her own and a case study in how much we need feminism. At the book’s end, Valenti quotes dozens of hostile, often violent e-mails she’s received in response to her writing. They raise unavoidable and unanswerable questions about how to navigate a world that so demonstrably objectifies women.


Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.