Category Archives: American literature

American Dirt: When You’re Not Sewing a Face Mask

So I’m interrupting my afternoon project of sewing some face masks – because that is where we are at, friends – to bring you this report on Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. Believe it or not, at one point this novel occupied something of a spotlight in news and culture circles (this in the time before all of our thoughts were cannibalized by The Plague), as readers, reviewers and cultural critics wrung hands about cultural appropriation (and to a lesser extent, good writing).

The basics of the hoopla are covered here, with parts of it owing to the selection of the book by Oprah and Reese for their bookclubs and the rhapsody of their reviews pointing to how the book ‘opened their eyes’ to the plight of Mexican and Central American migrants/refugees and the extreme journey required to make it to the safety of America (which, sidebar, not to judge, but to judge, is a little surprising that it took this novel to raise to awareness this catastrophe of violence). When proper readers got ahold of the book there were questions about the authority of Cummins to write the story – could she take on the voice of a Mexican migrant without being one herself? Other reviewers simply wondered at the quality of the writing – why such praise for a book that was, at best, mediocre in its writing? A final pocket of complaint focused on the way the novel drains history and politics from the plot: we witness mother and son flee a murderous drug cartel for the safety of the U.S. with all but the flimsiest consideration of the roots of violence both within Mexico, the incredibly fraught space of the border and then America itself.

It was this last piece – the missing American plot – that bothered me the most. Sure I was irritated by the one-dimensional characters, the insubstantial emotional depth offered to any of them (like surely I should have some empathy mustered for an eight-year old who has his entire family of 16 murdered in front of him, and yet the book sort of declares this as Traumatic, but doesn’t do any of the literary work to bring the reader into this space, and so we are left forever having to accept on the surface the event as traumatic, without seeing or witnessing or being inside the character’s experience of this loss and rupture), and the plot points that read as clumsily assembled scripted markers from a paint-by-number novel planner. But my biggest irritation was that, for some reason, I expected that the novel would include the arrival in America, and the realization that the vision of safety, security and opportunity that they held up as beacons throughout their journey was… complicated. Sure there is some mention of ICE, and a very shrouded reference to changing experiences at the border with changing politics, but for the duration of the novel America stands as an absolute haven. And I am in no position to question the relative safety of America, or to cast doubt on the difference in fear between fear for your life and fear of deportation, I just found it a frustrating absence – or perhaps rewriting – to see nothing of their lives in America and instead to have the US once against stand in as saviour.

So yes. If you’re about to order a book for curbside/delivery from your local bookstore, please do not choose American Dirt. Wait until your library reopens and order it there, and then you probably should read it so that you can disagree with me, or join a book club and talk about it, or write a pointed letter to Oprah, whatever.

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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Fiction, Reader Request

The Haunting of Hill House: Spooky

Shirley Jackson writes good creepy. We read The Haunting of Hill House for book club and all (who read it, at least) agreed that it was unsettling in the most delightful ways.

We follow a group of four as they plan to spend the summer at a haunted house observing the phenomenon and the effects on the group. Quickly things take a turn, as Eleanor, our mostly protagonist gets weirder and stranger. By the end of the book its an open question about whether she is a ghost herself, where the entire book has been a haunting vision for her, whether the people around her are real or imagined, or a combination of the above. The freedom to interpret and re-interpret makes the book a delight, and the unsettling moments (never truly ‘scary,’ don’t worry) wriggle away in the imagination for days after.

Save it for next October, maybe, or enjoy now, but worth reading if you missed it in…. 1959.

Oh and apparently there are few great adaptations for TV. Not that you watch TV, but just in case.

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Mystery

The Underground Railroad: Twice More

It took me two times to read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. On my first effort I made it about a hundred pages in and decided it wasn’t for me. I was distracted when reading, I guess, or missed what was certainly in front of me: a tremendously good novel of (historical) fiction.

Set in the 19th century we follow Cora on her escapes from a slave plantation in Georgia. If you know anything about this book you know that it features a literal underground railroad: think boxcars and steam engines moving along metal tracks. And Cora does take that physical railroad with many stops along the way. The function of the railroad as a mode of transportation is one also to transport us to different scenes of racial inequality, white supremacy, brutality and horror – demonstrating the ways racism manifests in physical chains and in refusals of opportunity. That is the novel unravels what is ‘structural’ about racism, even while making structured the metaphorical railroad of history.

The novel explores these scenes and the complicated ways white characters live, exercise and wield their privilege with nuance. The efforts of sympathetic abolitionists are complicated by their own fears for their lives or standing in the community; the abhorrent beliefs of slave catchers are revealed as explanatory by the circulating ideas and belief structures of their time. Individuals are culpable, though their actions are positioned in relation to, or explained through, the wider structures that surround them in ways that offer if not empathy or absolution, than a profound recognition of the ways in which the readers’ present beliefs and actions must similarly be filtered through imperfect and unjust structures that are both bigger than and constituted by individuals.

Cora herself is great because she comes in to the narrative as a woman relying on no one, willing and able to exert power in the limited ways she has available to her, and sensitive to the dependencies and needs of those around her without being defined by them.

So yes, if you haven’t read this one yet (you probably have!), go! make haste! And if the first 100 pages don’t grip you… keep on.

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

The Great Gatsby: I’m sorry, high school English teachers. I was so wrong.

I was Such. A. Shit. in high school. Not really. Like not throwing chairs through windows  or skipping class or smoking. I was still me, aka: super keen and over-achieving. I just mean that is it’s own kind of shit. Because I must have been *so irritating with my relentless opinions and ideas and dispositional contrarian-ness.

To whit: Grade 11 or 12 English, we read The Great Gatsby. I didn’t like it.  Rather than keep this view to myself, I wrote a missive to my teacher explaining that subjective truth meant that because I didn’t like it, the book couldn’t be a good book. And she was like ‘you’re ridiculous. this is an objectively a great book’ and I got more and more combative and more invested in proving my brilliance and proving that I was right and the book was terrible. And on I went until she was like “fine!”

And then, blush. Twenty odd years later, book club picks it as part of our ‘classics’ series and *spoiler* 16-year-old Erin was an idiot. This book is objectively great.

[Aside. A. just came in and he’s teaching the book to high school students right now, and I shared how irritating I was in high school, and then a random stranger burst in to tell us How Great the movie version is, and I was instinctively like ‘The movie is terrible because movie adaptations are always terrible. So… I’ve learned nothing.]

There’s nothing worth summarizing here about the novel that hasn’t been written about a hundred different ways, so I’ll just say that this time when reading it I couldn’t better/differently appreciate the nostalgia and longing in Gatsby for the past he can’t have again, the striving he feels to prove to himself and others his worthiness (and oh man, if we could just get high schoolers to see what a futile process this is it could spare them twenty years of therapy and sadness), the impossibility of self-determination when Plot (car accidents) and Character (Tom) will always intervene in our best laid plans. And the narration through Nick that lets us keep  one remove so we can say ‘that isn’t me’ while all the while realizing that yearning and sadness is in all  of us… just… ‘great’, indeed.

So, old sport, heart-felt apologies to the past. If Gatsby’s taught me anything, I can’t go back there anyway, so best not to feel too much guilt and regret. Forward. Ever onward.

 

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Filed under American literature, Fiction