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The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality
By Walter Benn Michaels
Metropolitan, 256 pp., $23

The trouble with diversity, in this intriguing argument, is that it's a false issue distracting people from the real problem of American life, which is economic inequality. The left and the right like to think that what divides people are differences among those who are black or white or Latino or Asian, but it is actually the difference between those who have money and those who don't. America has made vigorous attempts to address the issue of diversity as a way of ignoring economic inequality. There has been a huge increase in economic inequality in this country, while "there are more black people than poor people in elite universities." People have poured their energies and resources into fighting racism rather than poverty, fighting discrimination rather than exploitation. They have decided it is enough to respect the poor instead of paying them. Politics has become etiquette. Respect for difference has become the highest value. To be a snob is to be un-American.

Michaels makes excellent distinctions between apologies (to Black slaves, Native Americans, European Jews) and restitution. The first are easy and irrelevant, the second difficult and potentially costly. He separates religious differences from cultural ones. Believers by definition do not respect the validity of other beliefs, whereas cultural differences must be respected. Michaels concludes his truly provocative book with this: "When it comes to economic inequality, we should stop finding ways to ignore it, we should concentrate not on respecting the illusions of cultural difference but on reducing the reality of economic difference."

In My Skin: A Memoir
By Kate Holden
Arcade, 304 pp., $25

Being in Kate Holden's skin is not a comfortable place. From age 22 to 30, she was a heroin addict and prostitute. Raised in a middle-class Australian family, she slid slowly into addiction, into turning tricks on the street, into working at upscale brothels. She makes the drop all sound effortless and easy. It just seemed to happen. Once it happened, she found a multitude of ways to explain it to herself.

While she is utterly in the thrall of the drug, she finds ways to assert her control over the men. She sees herself as a bestower of kindness. It is her mission to be good to men. All the while, ailing, hungry, cold, alone, she is terrible to herself. Her incredibly tolerant family never turns her away, rarely judges or berates her, and helps to send her to rehab, over and over again. What makes her story memorable is not her fall into darkness or her rise back into health, but her changing, self-serving, probably self-saving ways of thinking about herself as she stays in the same horrible place. She finds ways to interest herself in the other women, giggling with them about clients, swapping clothes, sharing horror stories, feeling camaraderie, inventing a sense of family. These attempts poignantly reveal a need for purpose and connection, which she never acknowledges, but which a reader must.

French Women for All Seasons: A Year of Secrets, Recipes, & Pleasures
By Mireille Guiliano
Knopf, 304 pp., $24.95

In her best-selling first book "French Women Don't Get Fat," Guiliano made you feel she was generously sharing the beauty tips of French femmes. Here she makes you feel she is condescending to give advice to the hopelessly overweight, impolite, tasteless, and generally clueless women of America. She heaps scorn on our diet, our dress, our habits of entertaining. French women have inborn good sense, elegant taste, a clever sense of economy, and a cunning use of their personal and natural resources. They know how to plan a menu around leeks and quail, how to tie a scarf, how to accessorize, how to exercise, how to drink wine, how to give themselves well-deserved little treats, how to be comfortable in their own skins.

Her highest praise goes to a hostess in Nashville who served a fabulous brunch. "Are you sure you're not French?" asks Guiliano, expressing her supreme approval and evident surprise. Guiliano may find that, while American women are eager for advice, they are not gluttons for punishment.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

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