The best of what’s new

It was easy for Newt Gingrich to watch Boys Town and declare orphanages a viable alternative to welfare. The War on the Poor: A Defense Manual (New York: The New Press, 1996), on the other hand, presents the truth about social assistance programs. Using statistics compiled by Randy Albelda, Nancy Folbre, and the Center for Popular Economics, and with contributions from Theda Skocpol and William Julius Wilson, it unravels the myths that riddle welfare discussions, provides useful history lessons, and — most importantly — offers solutions that don’t rely on quick fixes.

Stone walls make a prisoner, as Wordsworth sagely pointed out, and they also alter the view. The literary organization PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists) celebrates its 75th anniversary with This Prison Where I Live: The PEN Anthology of Imprisoned Writers (New York: Cassell, 1996). The book explores how perceptions change behind bars: Nien Cheng is absorbed with a spider’s web in her cell; Wole Soyinka’s claustrophobia engenders a beautiful prose poem. Edited by Siobhan Dowd, the collection presents outstanding writing from the ’20s through the ’90s, as well as a chilling outline of human rights abuses around the world.

Emmett Miller’s versatile songs from the 1920s prove troublesome today. Though Miller had a unique country-blues sound that inspired Hank Williams and other music greats, it’s hard to separate Miller’s songs from the fact that he often performed them in blackface. The Minstrel Man From Georgia (Legacy/Columbia, 1996) doesn’t shy away from this; it includes Miller’s skits, complete with overaffected accents. The album is a compelling and disconcerting piece of Americana.