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New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy
by Earl Shorris
NY: WW Norton, 1997
432 pages

review by Janet Welt

Book Cover: New American Blues Renowned sociologist and author Earl Shorris has written a compelling call to action and understanding in New American Blues: A Journey Through Poverty to Democracy.

Shorris, who is a contributing author at Harpers Magazine and author of books about Latinos and Native Americans, takes us through an overview and ultimately a redefinition of poverty in America, via anecdotal accounts of the "surround of force" that plagues the poor in this country. He theorizes that the poor are not political in the sense that there is little connection to "public life" because of the pressures that keep people in a life of reaction with little time for reflection.

Shorris proposes to conquer poverty by "teaching the moral life of downtown," that is, educating people in the liberal arts as a means to politicize them. From educational models that he set up for the book, Shorris ended up creating the ongoing Bard Clemente college course for the poor (profiled in last month's Real Change).

Part theory, part research and statistical report, New American Blues also includes heart-moving tales of courage and wisdom. While it's all easy to digest, the stories in particular capture the profound transformation that occurs when people who have had no exposure to the humanities are given an education in them. Suddenly, these students have their public lives and activities enhanced by the concepts that form the origins of democracy.

Reading this book is an unforgettable experience, one that can serve to effect true political change and offer hope to those who feel most hopeless about their future in society.

Poor Magazine
Volume 3 (1998 issue): "Work"

review by Bob Redmond

Magazine Cover: Poor, 1998 POOR magazine was created two years ago by a previously homeless, at-risk, mother/ daughter team in San Francisco. While the first two issues focused on "Homefulness" and "Hellthcare," issue #3 attempts to explore and redefine the idea of "work," with interviews and stories by panhandlers, aluminum can collectors, street artists, migrant workers, welfare recipients, and women who started a neighborhood kitchen.

At 82 pages fat, POOR magazine is like a year's worth of Real Change all in one. Most of the stories are based in San Francisco, but coverage runs down through California to LA and also touches on New York and Haiti.

Like Real Change, the organization focuses on creative efforts to overcome poverty, provide dignity, and empower marginalized people; and the issue includes poetry, original art, and a resource page.

Most stories include not only a "how you can help" tag but also "What you can do" information, should you find yourself in the same circumstances. It avoids polemic by rooting its stories in real-life experience. Rather than social theory, we hear the voices of POOR people. Instead of wondering whether there's hope, we see the positive effects of organizing. It's an inspirational and informative read no matter where you live.

We found POOR Magazine at Mag Daddy at Second and Bell in Seattle. They can also be reached at 1326 Larkin St., SF, CA 94109 or

The Sofa Surfing Handbook: A Guide for Modern Nomads
Edited by Juliette Torrez
San Francisco: Manic D Press
160 pages

review by Bob Redmond

Book Cover: The Sofa Surfing Handbook Like a Martha Stewart for the sub-culture, editor Juliette Torrez has compiled a resource book to satisfy the growing number of people who find themselves on one side or the other of the crashpad doorstep.

The book could be subtitled, "How To Be Homeless and Stay Cool," as it also takes hints from Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book and other counter-cultural manuals. With cartoons and chapters by some of the country's best-known graphic artists and most-famous slackers, Sofa Surfing is not only a helpful guide, but an entertaining read.

Sections include "When Disaster Strikes," "Sofa Surfing with HIV," and numerous "Don't Do This!" warnings. There are anecdotes about cockroaches and rapists, and tidbits on everything from finding a shower to what to take when you're living on your feet (rule #1: not more than you can carry!).

If you have a car, park overnight in a church lot. If you need to convince your host to let you stick around for another week, use one of the recipes in the "Sugaring Your Visit" chapter. There's even a relaxation exercise, fashion advice, and cheap travel resources. The book also includes destination ideas: hey, if you're homeless on the road, you might as well have some fun at the Albuquerque balloon festival, the Indy 500, or another of the nation's great public events. You might even get a job!

Since being homeless can also mess with your self-esteem and interpersonal relationships, there's also plenty of insight into human nature and dealing with the throes of crisis.

Most of all, Sofa Surfing tells you "you're not crazy" for ending up living out of a suitcase or backpack. In fact, given the day and age, it's almost inevitable. And when you go, you'll want to keep yourself as comfortable as possible, even in style.

"Sofa surfing is not only a lifestyle but an art form," writes Torrez. "You never know what's going to happen when you don't have a place to live. That's the tricky part, getting through it, keeping positive and not becoming a burden to your friends."

Martha Stewart would be proud.

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