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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Watching You Without Me: From Under a Rock

I finished reading Lynn Coady’s Watching You Without Me a day before Ontario shut down the schools and all the grocery stores sold out of flour and pasta sauce. So to say that my memory of its plot and import is foggy is… accurate. Because how could I be expected to remember anything without pasta sauce. Really.

But I am not going to forget to tell you that I did read Lynn Coady and that Watching You Without Me was only sort of okay. It follows a middle aged woman in small town east coast Canada (I assume? I actually can’t recall if the setting is named) as she returns to her childhood home following her mother’s death to spend a few weeks with her sister before moving her sister into an assisted living facility. The sister, Kelly, has some kind of – again unnamed or forgotten – cognitive disability and our protagonist arrives imagining, as she always has, that Kelly will move in to this facility. Enter the super creepy man, named…. maybe Tyler? something with a T? anyway, what unfolds is the gradual revelation of Tyler as a Super Creep/stalker/abuser and we the reader are taken along for the ride that is meant, I think, to explain how someone could find themselves wrapped up with such a predator without ever intending to be.

I persisted in reading it because it was the book I had available at the time and because reading inertia. It wasn’t great. Certainly not something that in a pandemic I’d suggest you go buy because your library is closed. Our protagonist makes weird choices (by that I mean they don’t feel consistent with her character), the plot line with Tyler seems to drag, the fraught relationship with the dead mother that is meant to be the emotional heart of the novel is never fleshed out well enough to be anything other than the Reference Point for Pain in the past, rather than something the reader identifies with, and the secondary characters all similarly lack complete design so read as either flat or inconsistent.

The good news is that I have started reading again, and am finding a new kind of balance in this [insert overused adjective about unprecedented, challenging, strange new normal] world and so expect I will be a more reliable correspondent in the coming weeks. And because I know all of you live online now, you could do worse than to send me a message with a suggestion for what catastrophe read I should order (or try to trade for!).

 

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What to Read in a Pandemic: Book Recommendations for Long Days

I hope this finds you well.

I usually start emails with that line, or something like it. A perfunctory sentence to soften the blow of whatever thing I’m about to ask for, remind someone about, describe. Something to make an impersonal message approximate the personal. It never really works.

I mean it here: I hope this finds you well. I hope this finds you in a circumstance where the biggest challenge you have to think about today is what novel to read (don’t worry, I’ll eventually get to some recommendations).

Me? Like most of us: not so well, but then, so very fortunate that a catalogue of the things and ways that are Falling Apart is unjustified and selfish. If you asked me though, for that list of my privileged complaints, I’d certainly include the closure of the physical branches of the library. Because what am I, if not so fortunate as to bemoan a limitation on what I can read. Or what R. can read. But then I am also so lucky as to have secret access to the library through unnamed sources, and friends who read, and continued income for panic purchasing books (which I did!). So again: complaints that are of convenience rather than true hardship.

Here’s hoping you have access to books, too. Maybe ebooks are your thing. Or you can do as I’ve been doing and you can ask friends for book swaps (and quarantine those books in your garage for 72 hours as S. insists I do). Or you feel like now is the occasion for shoring up your local bookshop (folks: now is the occasion for shoring up your local bookshop) by buying books. Whatever the case, you may find yourself with time to read like you haven’t had time to read recently (or, you may find yourself like so many others, like me!, balancing a full-time job with full-time childcare and so reading just a few pages every night and that is also okay). And so I’ve combed through the annals of Literary Vice and compiled this list of novels to get you through the months ahead. Some are funny, all are beautiful, none have anything to do with pandemics or panic or pans. I hope you find one or some of them suitably distracting:

Black Swan Green: David Mitchell at his most accessible, this young adult protagonist reminds us of the base requirement to be kind to one another.

Love and Summer: William Trevor writes ridiculously beautiful sentences and tells a small, poignant story that shifts the focus from the Big and Global to the small and particular.

The Sisters Brothers: The first of two Patrick de Witt recommendations, because de Witt is hilarious AND a genius and so laugh amid truly tremendous writing. Here with historical fiction that is so far from the present you can almost forget.

French Exit: Number two for de Witt, this one is equally funny, shorter, and more contemporary. Slightly more macabre though, so you know, brace yourself for mention of Death.

Let the Great World Spin: Interlocking stories that demand you focus while you read: an excellent exercise in mindfulness. Also beautiful writing.

Adrian Mole: The classic Sue Townsend series is delightful both for its humour and for the sheer volume of available words: probably a dozen books in the series? All funny, all smart.

The Goldfinch: I’d read anything by Donna Tartt right now as the books are sweeping and absorbing and entirely distracting. This one has one of the more compelling protagonists of recent memory and a truly gripping plot.

Us Conductors: I went a bit bananas with how much I loved this one when it first came out, and I still do – a bit more darkness in this one, but still fabulous writing and easy to get lost in.

Americanah: Uhhh this one might not fully distance you from the reminder of inequality and outrage, but nevertheless suggesting it here because it’s also funny, smart, absorbing and so worth reading.

The Bone Clocks: I melted down with joy reading this epic David Mitchell book (event? masterpiece?). It’s long, it’s involved, it’s the best writing on this list, and I dare you not to lose a week of this mess in reading it.

A Little Life: Okay, so if I just said Bone Clocks was the best, I take it back, this one. This one! Except this one is Dark Dark Dark and so maybe not exactly how you want to spend your quarantine. But So So good. And long!

Infinite Jest: A bit of a joke here, but honestly, if you’re ever going to read Infinite Jest (a book that took me the better part of a summer to read) it’ll be now. Cross it off the bucket list.

Song of Achilles and Circe: Both of these distracting mythological retellings are tremendous: great writing, absorbing plots and endearing characters.

Fleishman is in Trouble: Another funny one, modern moment, middle-class take down.

 

And if you can’t resist reading books about the end of things because you find that soothing, you can check out:

Station Eleven: A now-classic novel about the aftermath of a pandemic and how art and civilization are remade.

The Fifth Season: N. K. Jemison’s fantasy series that is So Good and gripping and about the world after the end of things.

The Great Believers: Not dystopian unless you count reality as dystopia: the HIV epidemic and the criminal ways suffering and death were/are ignored unless the privileged are at risk.

Let me know what you’re reading; or just let me know how you’re doing. Sending my love to each of you. xo

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Harry Potter 1-7: The Emotional Labour of Hermione Granger (and why I cry at Quidditch matches)

So I only did a super fast search of Google Scholar, but I am stunned that no one has written a Master’s thesis on the emotional labour of Hermione Granger. It’s not that she’s constantly doing Harry and Ron’s homework, or cooking for them, or (often invisibly) smoothing their path by working fancy charms and spells to literally make their tasks easier – though of course she is doing all of those things), it’s that she is also and forever explaining Feelings to Harry and Ron. Throughout all seven books (and yes! I am done all seven!) Hermione is counted on to translate emotional reactions or to help Harry and Ron anticipate the way feelings will intersect with action because the two of them appear entirely incapable of navigating an emotional landscape more rugged than a freshly paved parking lot.  Continue reading

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