I’m sure Reese’s List serves an important purpose for some readers, but for this reader, I’m done. I tried Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age because it promised to be light and distracting and a good read. It was none of those things. I wouldn’t swear off a celebrity endorsement list for Just One Book, but reviewing the selections to date, the only one I’ve read and liked is Little Fires Everywhere and everything else has been Suspect.
Following an African-American babysitter (note not a nanny) as she works for a rich white family, the narrative explores the misplaced ‘good’ intentions of white people and white spaces and the ways race and inequality play out in caregiving. While this is an interesting premise, the book falls short in a few critical ways: Emira, our protagonist, has motivations and character development that are opaque and explored at a surface level, the novel does little to expand its themes beyond the particular example of This Family, and white readers are invited to distance themselves from the shenanigans of Alix, our white mom in a way that allows Alix to be an object of scorn, rather than one of meaningful self-reflection. We get to shake our heads in dismay at the plentiful ways Alix gaffs, makes appalling assumptions, oversteps and displays her ignorance – all while allowing ourselves to see Alix as distant. It could be I’m not doing enough work to self-reflect, I mean, I am a white mom who employs babysitters and nannies, and even while trying to see myself in Alix I just found her too ridiculous to be an empathetic point of connection.
So yeah. Not worth buying in a moment when libraries are closed, and when they open, not one I’d suggest you go and get. That said… if you are in the greater Guelph area, too bad, I’ve already lent it out.
Hari Kunzru’s White Tears starts out as a conventional realist novel. Uber rich Carter and scholarship kid Seth meet up in college and bond over a love of music and sound. Together they make music, buy records and come of age. Seth, our narrator, loves Carter both for the person he is and for the world he invites him in to: one where making and accessing music is possible because budget doesn’t (seem) to matter. At this point the reader thinks the book is about male friendship, income inequality and coming of age as Gen Z. A lot of spoilers follow. Continue reading
Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage is great. It follows Celestial and Roy and the dissolution of their marriage after Roy is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. They’ve been married for a year at the point, and the book explores what the obligations are for each individual in marriage/committed relationships when the circumstances of the initial arrangement change. To what do we owe one another in perpetuity? When do we get to change our minds? What must we sacrifice for the institution, or for the other person, and when do we get to privilege our own happiness? What rights do we have (to be selfish) (to expect steadfast commitment)?
Celestial and Roy’s marriage is constrasted with that of their respective parents. Each set of parents offering up a different vision of the same questions of commitment. I was moved by the scene of Roy’s father (name escapes me) burying his mother and wondered at that kind of grief.
As much as it is a book about the institution of marriage, it is also about manhood. If both (marriage and manhood) are imagined in our current moment to be under threat, or flailing, or failing, this book harkens back to a vision of each that is, if not idealized, than at least coherent. Roy puts forward visions and versions of what it means to be a man, as if to test the hypothesis or to have them rejected. In so doing the reader can also examine whether there is any value to be had in a constellations of qualities we might call ‘manhood,’ or whether this institution, too, has served its function and can be dispensed with like so many fast divorces.
It’s also a book about race and the state. Much of Celestial’s concern about how to respond to Roy’s experience of incarceration is to know that he is a black man in America and that his experience of the criminal justice system is visited upon him and his family in ways that are at once extrordinary in their injustice and perfectly ordinary in their frequency. Celestial must weigh whether she has particular obligations, in addition to those of being a wife, because she is the wife of a black man falsely accused and imprisoned.
Taken together the book explores resonant questions and does so with beautiful, captivating writing. It’s well worth a read before the end of the summer.
I like to walk around the big chain bookstore, with its carefully crafted display tables and candles and blankets, and not buy books (or anything). Instead I have my library app open and as I see a book that looks interesting I order it up. A few weeks or months later the book arrives at the library and I feel this smug satisfaction of *free books* and the delight of having forgotten I’d ordered it in the first place, so it’s like a double present. Continue reading