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In the Books 

Look at some of the writing that caught our attention in 2017.

click to enlarge Joy Harris

Joy Harris

The past three years, I said I'd finish "War and Peace" during the year. Looks like it'll be my 2018 resolution, too. Bygones!

So, that introduction is to say that I haven't read everything I intended to this year. But here are the books that stuck with me in 2017.

The most important book I read this year was Virginia Commonwealth University sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom's "Lower Ed: the Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy." Like many Americans, I was aware there were problems with the industry. Trump University was sued three times — actions settled by the president-elect for $25 million after the election. News stories in the past decade explained how veterans sank into debt after being targeted by for-profit colleges that inflated graduation rates, job security and graduates' earnings, promising amazing careers in the private sector.

Cottom's book goes beyond these earlier stories into great personal and statistical detail about how students of color — particularly poor black women — are at considerable risk of choosing for-profit universities because of the same promises. They, too, sustain significant debt in many cases, even when they graduate and find jobs. That's the best-case scenario, Cottom points out. Many others are forced to drop out because of poor health, unreliable child care or job insecurity.

"The more insecure people feel, the more they are willing to spend money for an insurance policy against low wages, unemployment and downward mobility," Cottom writes. "Those least likely to have an insurance policy that our labor market values are people for whom higher education has always been a long shot: poor people, single parents, the socially isolated, African Americans, the working class."

With a doctorate from Atlanta's Emory University, a tenure-track position and a well-regarded debut book, Cottom has succeeded in academia by most measures, but what gives "Lower Ed" much of its power is the fact that Cottom worked in admissions at two for-profit institutions while on a break from earning her bachelor's degree in North Carolina. She knows firsthand how they sell prospective students on enrolling. And it really is a sales job, not that far removed from the door-to-door salesman and timeshare schemes. This book made me see the brick-and-glass universities in the suburbs and the omnipresent commercials for online degrees in an entirely different light.

Joy Harris' "Singing Ain't Enough," her biography of grandmother Maggie Ingram, illuminated a life that I didn't know much about, despite my love of her legendary gospel group, the Ingramettes. The singer, who died in 2015, not only succeeded in an industry that remains hard on women, but she also took significant risks in the name of civil rights. It's a great book for both young and old people, a lively tribute to a woman who was born in Coffee County, Georgia, to a family that picked cotton. She survived abusive relationships and pervasive racism and sexism, all while singing praises to God throughout her career.

click to enlarge Roben Farzad - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Roben Farzad

Changing gears. When you want to read about a monkey wearing a Rolex, Richmond journalist Roben Farzad's "Hotel Scarface: Where Cocaine Cowboys Partied and Plotted to Control Miami" is your best bet. But speaking as a reporter and editor, I marvel at how Farzad was able to dig up the details about the Mutiny Hotel, its cocaine kingpin guests and their illegal deeds and confirm them decades later, despite fuzzy memories, elderly sources and very few photographic records. It's a journalistic achievement and also an entertaining read. The good news is that TV and film rights were picked up by Stone Village Television in November, so we may get to see "Hotel Scarface" on television or a streaming service before long.

I also read books by non-Richmonders this year, including Mark Frost's "The Secret Life of Twin Peaks," a highlight of my year. It's an epistolary novel that, like the television series, is surprising, spooky and utterly confounding at points. Presented as a top-secret dossier, the novel goes back to the days of Lewis and Clark, dips into the 1947 Roswell, New Mexico, UFO crash legend, and brings us to the days of Agent Cooper and Laura Palmer. This paragraph will make no sense to you if you're not already a "Twin Peaks" fan, but it provided exciting nights of reading for me and the Log Lady.

In 2018, I have a few books on my list to read: "War and Peace," naturally, but also Jon Kukla's "Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty," Dale Brumfield's "Virginia State Penitentiary: a Notorious History" and Bronwen Dickey's "Pit Bull: the Battle Over an American Icon." Leo Tolstoy's gonna have to wait his turn. S

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