I read Isabel Wilkerson’s THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS years ago and was impressed by both its scholarship and accessibility—and surprised and appalled that I knew virtually nothing about the migration of six million blacks within our country. In CASTE, she brings together three caste systems—India, Nazi Germany, and the US—to illuminate the similarities in their underpinnings (eight “pillars of caste”), justifications, and effects. This isn’t an arbitrary yoking together—she makes the telling points that these caste systems are linked historically: both India and the US, fertile and coveted, were at one point both protected by oceans and ruled for a time by the British; and the Nazis based their Final Solution on two books about race and miscegenation written by white, Ivy-League-educated American men—The Menace of the Under-man (1922) by Lothrop Stoddard and The Passing of the Great Race (1916) by Madison Grant. Drawing upon primary sources including slave narratives and secondary scholarly sources, she presents the nuanced idea that in the US, race is a "frontman" for caste. Wilkerson’s 400-page book is well-researched and compelling, and I read it in 3 days, scribbling in the margins as I went. (The theoretical underpinning is solid and accessible; it seems to me Wilkerson leans on theories of discourse and repeated performative acts, such as are described by Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, although she does not credit them.) My one gripe with the book that she employs a wide range of metaphors for caste and its effects: the anthrax released during a heat wave in Siberia, earthquakes, an old house and its mudsill, grammar, the usher in a movie theater, the cast of play (characters, roles, stage), DNA, mineral springs, a ladder, and the sci-fi movie The Matrix. But this is in an effort to bring her points home, and while I found it somewhat distracting, I applaud any strategy that helps convey her important message. I was more affected by her personal stories, as a black woman experiencing caste, which I found appalling and (admittedly) somewhat discouraging. Highly recommend.
Wednesday, December 30, 2020
Sunday, December 6, 2020
Steph Cha, YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY
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Wednesday, December 2, 2020
Brit Bennett, THE VANISHING HALF
A compelling novel about twins, young black women who are "light enough" to "pass." In the 1950s, at age 16 and faced with having to quit school to clean houses, they flee their small Deep South town of Mallard (where all the blacks are "light") for New Orleans. There, Stella passes for white, takes a job as a secretary, and marries her white boss. Desiree marries a dark-skinned man and has a dark-skinned daughter named Jude. When the marriage turns abusive, Desiree returns to Mallard with Jude, who is scorned by the light-skinned blacks and who eventually escapes to UCLA by being a track star. If this sounds like a set of double and even triple standards (who's scorning whom), it is. What elevated this to 5 stars for me was that Jude's lover Reese is transsexual, in transition from woman to man. I loved the way this subplot worked delicately to both echo and complicate the theme that identity--whether based in race or gender or any category that is ostensibly "fixed" and (usually) binary--is fluid. These categories are not "natural" in the sense that they have no meaning except for what we've given them; they're cultural constructs put in position to assuage some of the more primitive parts of our psychology--including our fear of the other. Definitely worth the read.
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Monday, November 30, 2020
Jeanine Cummins, AMERICAN DIRT
I just spent half an hour reading many of the comments on Goodreads. Clearly this book struck many nerves, and I hear the concerns on both sides. As an author, I believe that if I do my research, humbly and with an open heart, I can come close to inhabiting the subjectivity of--for example--a young, disenfranchised woman in 1870s London whose brother has just been murdered. But inhabiting the consciousness of someone in the present day--particularly someone of a different race or culture, when people are very much living that experience--is a much more challenging endeavor, requiring the most delicate of sensibilities. The conflict I see is that this book is not set up in a way to permit a nuanced exploration of the situation in which Lydia finds herself (being a bookseller in Acapulco, whose husband has written a tell-all on the new drug jefe and has been murdered for it) because fundamentally, this book is one long chase scene. This structure of escalating threats makes it a successful "page-turner"--and indeed, I felt the tension mounting throughout and stayed up much too late reading--but I think that tension comes at the expense of nuance. Still, the fact that the book can stir up such feeling in so many people, and has caused people to generate lists of books I now want to read, tells me it's a productive book. I'm glad I read it, if only to see what everyone's talking about.
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Sunday, November 22, 2020
Elizabeth Strout, OLIVE AGAIN
As with the first book of this pair, OLIVE KITTERIDGE, the format is not a typical novel. It's a series of vignettes, all told in third person, centered upon different people in the small town of Crosby, Maine. The outspoken, complex Olive figures in many but not all stories, and perhaps because this form is the same as the first book, I didn't find this book as fresh and original. However, there are elements in Strout's writing that I particularly admire and love. The first is the way she places us in a scene and in a character's subjectivity with extraordinary economy. Here's the first line (which caused me writer envy): "In the early afternoon on a Saturday in June, Jack Kennison put on his sunglasses, got into his sports car with the top down, strapped the seatbelt across his large stomach, and drove to Portland--almost an hour away--to buy a gallon of whiskey rather than bump into Olive Kitteridge at the grocery store here in Crosby, Maine." One sentence and we have place, two people, an intense emotion (wanting to avoid), some insight into Jack's circumstances, and a sense that we are in the hands of an observant, wry, humorous narrator. The second thing I love is that Strout shows us the disparity between two people's interpretations of the same event; that's part of the point of the book, I think, and is enabled by this structure. For example, Jack can't remember the name of a woman he met in the grocery store; Olive saw them together and felt jealous. Third, she doesn't shy away from some of our deepest feelings--shame, love, fear of death, a longing for connection. She homes in on these small moments of belated understanding--when, for example, a character realizes that he had, as a child, accepted the derogatory name "Frenchie" without much thought, but in fact it probably hurt him even then, at some level. And--again, economically--she shows characters at particular pivotal moments, laying bare the uncertainty as they face a new truth. Here's Jack: "What frightened him was how much of his life he had lived without knowing who he was or what he was doing. It caused him to feel an inner trembling, and he could not find the worlds ... there had been a large blindspot directly in front of his eyes. it meant that he did not understand ... how others had perceived him. And it meant that he did not know how to perceive himself." An enjoyable read, full of humor, compassion, and humanity.
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Sunday, November 15, 2020
Philip Roth, NEMESIS
One of Roth's shorter novels, this one is powerful partly because it is timely. In his usual spare, clear prose, Roth explores the uncertainty, fear, anger, and blame that results from a polio epidemic striking Brooklyn in 1944, with all the uncertainty and fear of WWII as a dark echo and backdrop. The novel is focalized primarily through earnest, twenty-three-year-old Cantor, who, even after it's all over, cannot clearly assess his role in it and who bleakly ponders the unanswerable question: how can a benevolent god allow such things to happen? My favorite Roth novel (of those I've read) is THE HUMAN STAIN, but this one felt pertinent and raw.
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Sunday, November 8, 2020
Petina Gappah, OUT OF DARKNESS, SHINING LIGHT
This is what I think of as a warp/weft novel, reframing a story we think we know. Other examples include Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, which offers the story of Bertha Mason, the madwoman whose story is reduced to Rochester's contemptuous narrative in Jane Eyre; Michael Cunningham's The Hours, which illuminates aspects of Woolf as she wrote Mrs. Dalloway; and Peter Carey's Jack Maggs, which imagines the backstory of Magwitch in Great Expectations. Gappah's novel reframes the Scotsman David Livingstone's explorations of Africa, which is traditionally refracted through the English/American Henry Morton Stanley's account of finding Livingstone at Ujiji.
Set in 1870s Africa, this book imagines the perspectives of the native Africans who buried Livingstone's heart in the jungle and brought his dried bones to Bagamoyo on the east coast. The first section is told by Halima the shrewd and sharp-tongued cook, and the second by Jacob Wainwright, one of the "Nassick boys" who were seized from slave ships and educated by the British in a school in Bombay. She is voluble and wryly humorous; he is self-righteous and naive, and their comments about each other add spice and humor. (To be honest, I found Halima's section more engaging.) There is a full complement of secondary characters, including Stanley, the various villagers, thieves, porters, chiefs, and children.
The novel is immersive, thoughtful, and profoundly aware of how our experience is deeply subjective, and the stories we tell ourselves shape our lives. I think fans of Geraldine Brooks's YEAR OF WONDERS will enjoy this book. Recommend to fans of historical fiction. (Also ... for those who like their historical fiction to hew close to the truth, I found that it did. I read this novel because I'm writing a book in which a London journalist returns from Africa in 1872, having witnessed the horrors of the ivory/slave trade, so I have been researching the topic.)
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Saturday, October 17, 2020
Jennifer Weiner, BIG SUMMER
This book had more heart and heft than I expected it would, honestly, but it's an odd novel ... and after reading a few other reviews, I realize I'm not the only one who thought so. The first half is fairly standard chick-lit--a young woman protagonist overcomes her personal challenges to become a successful plus-size instagram influencer and begins to reconcile with her troubled, former mean-girl/BFF from high school. Then, at the half-way point, there's a death, and the book suddenly becomes a whodunnit mystery. The characters transform into intuitively capable amateur detectives, the pace picks up, and we're sped along to a conclusion. It didn't quite work for me, partly because many of the insights about our fat-shaming, diet-obsessive culture (while enlightened) didn't feel fresh or original to me, as I think Weiner intended; bestselling author Geneen Roth was writing about these issues, in very similar language to what Weiner uses, back in the 1990s. The message seems to be that our bad deeds come back to haunt us, and parental love makes the difference ... maybe a bit too pat? However, it was a quick, easy read, one day for me.
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Friday, October 16, 2020
Top Ten Tuesday: Some of my fave books with LONG TITLES
First off, I'm sending a hi and hug to Jana, who is one of my fave book bloggers, and who gave my book love way back when. And here is my TOP TEN TUESDAY, three days late because ... um, that is where I am these days.The True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by David Eggers
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Mountains beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, the Man who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder
How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents by Julia Alvarez
(NOTE: Some books not pictured because I think my daughter ran off with them!)
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Monday, September 21, 2020
James Alexander Thom: ONCE UPON A TIME IT WAS NOW, THE ART AND CRAFT OF WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION
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Robert Dugoni, THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF SAM HILL
I read this compelling, engaging book in one day. Born with ocular albinism, resulting in him having red eyes, young Sam Hill is bullied and tormented as a child but, with the support of his two friends and his extraordinary parents, he grows up to be a generous, evolved ophthalmologist who travels the world helping others. This would be a 5-star read for me except that I felt the ending was just a tad too tidy and picture-perfect. Also, the line from the bully's cruelty to his monstrous parents (and Sam's "big heart" and his loving parents) is drawn a little too sharply for subtlety. Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the read.
I was surprised that Dugoni is actually better known for his bestselling mystery novels. I read around that genre pretty widely; how the heck have I missed those? I'll be looking for them next because he is a wonderful storyteller. I recommend.
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Richard Powers, THE OVERSTORY
This Pulitzer-prize winning novel is part epic and part fable, though it begins with what I'd characterize as a series of short stories about different families in which a tree has some significance. It's about trees, yes; but it's also about how humans have mistakenly come to see ourselves as the central figures in our narrative. Trees have lives and ways of communicating among each other that we are only beginning to understand ... because we're not looking and listening properly. So much has already been written about this book that I'm not going to try to explain it. But it's a bighearted, ambitious book, very well-written, and it shifted the way I look at the world. I'd recommend to anyone.
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Thursday, September 17, 2020
Judith L. Pearson, THE WOLVES AT THE DOOR
This compelling story was completely new to me, for I'd never heard of Virginia Hall, an American woman who served as a spy in WWII. Generally I appreciate books that recover women's history, as so many stories about WWII focus on men's heroics. And Hall was extraordinarily brave, putting herself back in France to work with the Resistance when she knew her portrait was circulating among those who'd capture and torture her. I thought Pearson did well exploring Virginia's youth and the accident that she refused to let limit her; I felt outraged for Virginia as the Foreign Office rejected her applications, largely based on her sex. Pearson explores the politics of the different intelligence agencies (section D of the Foreign Office vs. Special Operations Executive) and sustains the historical context without going into detail about WWII history that most of us know (the invasion of Austria ... Poland ... etc.). The section on Vichy France is very well done and, as it falls within Virginia's purview, contains more specifics--I learned a great deal (again, I was outraged by much of it!). Pearson also shares some of the details of Virginia's training for going undercover in France--for example, how when startled from their beds, they were taught to jump up and scream "Nom de Dieu" instead of "Bloody hell!" At times her synopses left me wishing for more detail ("Virginia was now working almost nonstop. There were agents in need of money, contacts, or a shoulder to lean on. There were RAF pilots, anxious to return to the fighting, who needed safe transport back to England...."). But overall a quick, engaging read that provides a window into a world. Readers who like Susan Elia MacNeal's (fictional) Maggie Hope books and Elizabeth Wein's CODE NAME VERITY, will probably find this book provides an interesting viewpoint.
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Thursday, September 3, 2020
Patti Callahan, BECOMING MRS. LEWIS
As a child I had read Lewis's Narnia books; and as an adult, I had seen the movie *Shadowlands* and read a portion of C.S. Lewis's *A Grief Observed,* his meditations after the death of his wife Joy from cancer. So I knew the basic story of their love affair, which is heartbreaking and--in both those works--told with restraint, eloquence, and deep feeling. This book, BECOMING MRS. LEWIS, aims at following in the tradition of recent books about women who are married to famous men--e.g. The Aviator's Wife (Lindbergh), The Paris Wife (Hemingway) and Lady Clementine (Churchill)--but whose stories have been elided by history. I love that sort of feminist recovery project, but to succeed that sort of book needs to provide fresh and meaningful insight into the events or into the woman's subjectivity. It pains me to write a poor review, but although many other readers loved this book, it disappointed me, in nearly every way.Being written in first person, from Joy's perspective, the book sets up the expectation that we will be privy to Joy's intimate thoughts, but the events of her first marriage and divorce are presented in sometimes tedious detail and with shallow psychological insight (as when she asks her friend, "How did we both fall in love with and marry alcoholics? ... Was it something in our childhood?"). Further, at the top of each chapter is a couplet from one of (the real) Joy Davidson's sonnets that she wrote while falling in love with Lewis (whom she called Jack). These couplets are lovely, evocative tidbits that stand in contrast to the uneven prose and dialog within the chapters. Callahan has Joy speak in trite metaphors such as: "This river ... It's very much like life." And their love affair feels predicated on the craving for admiration and the sort of push/pull characteristic of immature romance; Joy says, "I imagined a few opening lines for the moment I saw Jack." She says to her son, "Look at the moon and know that I'll be looking at it too. We will be under the same stars and the same sky." I must admit, that passage felt to me a little too close to the song "Somewhere Out there" from the animated classic *An American Tail*. ("Somewhere out there beneath the pale moonlight/Someone's thinking of me and loving me tonight ... And even though I know how very far apart we are/It helps to think we might be wishin' on the same bright star...")
The book I think Callahan could have written more successfully is the one that begins to emerge in her epilogue--her discovery and research into Joy and Jack's love affair. That is, I'd have relished reading *why* she was so fascinated by their relationship and how it related to, or informed her own life. Perhaps it could be a twinned narrative, like *Julie and Julia*, for example, moving back and forth between the two stories. I think that could have been a compelling, intimate book.
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Sunday, August 16, 2020
Georgette Heyer, DEATH IN THE STOCKS
A thoroughly enjoyable read, with witty, flippant characters, unexpected twists, plenty of suspects, and a romance. Read it on a lazy Sunday afternoon. For those readers who love Heyer (and this cozy historical mystery genre, set in England), try Dianne Freeman's books, beginning with *A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Murder.*
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Saturday, August 15, 2020
Sarah M Broom, THE YELLOW HOUSE
Early on, Broom explains, "On a detailed city map once given to me by Avis Rent a Car, the French Quarter has been shaded in light turquoise, magnified in a box at the bottom of the page. New Orleans East [where Broom grew up] is cut off, a point beyond, a blank space on someone's mental map. ... New Orleans East is fifty times the size of the French Quarter, one-fourth of the city's developed surface. Properly mapped, it might swallow the page whole." This map, of course, is a metaphor for the ways NOEast has been marginalized and neglected, both in the popular imagination, and materially, in the lack of good sewage systems and drainage, street lights, funding, concern for neighborhoods when throwing up a highway, and concern for the people after Hurricanes Betsy (1965) and Katrina.
But following this beginning, I found it difficult to engage with this book for the next few chapters. Broom presents her extended family tree, from her great-grandparents forward, and I found my mind wandering as if I were reading that section of the Bible: "So-and-so begat so-and-so..." Next comes what felt like a history of New Orleans/NO East, and while it was interesting, it didn't feel much like a personal memoir. Then, at last, we return to Sarah/Monique (her family name) and her story. From her trip to college, and grad school at Berkeley, and her jobs at O (Oprah's magazine) and in Burundi to help Alexis Sinduhije, "the Nelson Mandela of East Africa," and as a speechwriter back in New Orleans, and her life in Harlem, and then back to the French Quarter to embark on becoming a full-time writer, we follow her as she pursues her peripatetic life, reflecting on her family and the Yellow House, and learning as she goes. That part of the book was a pleasure.
As with many other memoirs that are rooted in place (the South, Africa, etc.), I appreciate discovering how aspects of that place shape the author's sense of identity and purpose. My one gripe is that I found the language somewhat uneven. At times, it feels poetic and spare and perfect: "Remembering is a chair that is hard to sit on." But other times, I felt it seemed flat to me, most often when I found a series of five or six sentences in a row constructed around "was." Still, this is an ambitious, original memoir, with a view into a world I knew very little about. I'd recommend.
Posted by Karen at 9:46 PM No comments:
Wednesday, August 12, 2020
Austin Channing Brown, I'M STILL HERE: BLACK DIGNITY IN A WORLD MADE FOR WHITENESS
A sensitive, smart, sometimes even wryly humorous collection of memoir-essays about the author's experiences over the years of interacting with white people, from the outright racists to the well-meaning but obtuse "nice" ones. Her first line: "White people can be exhausting." She tackles assumptions, defenses, excuses, and fears, for both Blacks and whites. Well worth the read.
Posted by Karen at 3:44 PM No comments:
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