Category Archives: books

Luster, a novel – mini review

A twenty-something gets fired from her job in NYC at around the same time she’s taken up with a much older married man.

Sound like something you’ve read before?

I don’t think so! SPOILERS FOLLOW

Our protagonist, Evie, first of all, is full of sharp and sometimes funny observations — especially about the people around her.

For example, at some point she realizes that the sole allure of an older man is that he’s survived long enough to pay a mortgage and an electric bill over a period of years.

After losing her job, our down-on-her-luck character gets evicted and ends up staying at her boyfriend’s house, arriving there while he is away to the surprise of his wife and then to his shock and dismay.

Huh?

An adopted Black teen-aged daughter plays into what follows.

Can’t say I particularly like or admire Evie, but since when is that required?

When I riffed about Hannah Tennant-Moore’s novel, Wreck and Order, HERE, I talked about how I’d rather read a female writer’s descriptions of sex that I cannot relate to (say, S&M) than be exposed for the umpteenth time to the predictable male fantasy version of sex. Well, that holds here.

When the boyfriend punches Evie, for instance, she asks him to do it again. She snoops around the couple’s house when it’s empty and acts the voyeur to the marriage, at least once to their lovemaking, which she secretly photographs. Evie is both exiled and episodically desired. Further, at times her tenancy, at least for the wife, seems predicated on Evie serving as a stand-in “Black person” for advice about the daughter.

It’s head-wagging, for sure.

But don’t let that stop you from reading this gem. The descriptions of how Evie saves the day with the Black daughter’s hair, alone, makes this story worth the ride. And it came as a surprise to me how fully rendered the wife, Rebecca, was. She eventually became interesting in her own right.

Zadie Smith called the novel, “exacting, hilarious, and deadly.”

Brit Bennett wrote, “darkly funny, hilariously moving … a beautiful big-hearted story about intimacy and art that will astound and wound you.”

Did I mention Evie is a painter? I found the descriptions about her process less than convincing, but it fit well with her trying to get her life in focus and with being an observer to a family.

The last thing I’ll say is (and this might sound like a negative critique and I’m not sure it is): this reads like an MFA novel. Maybe someone else can tell me what I mean by that.

Am I stupider than before?

During a class that I took with Anne Lamott recently, she quoted Shirley Jackson, who famously said, “a confused reader is an antagonistic reader.”

Generally, when I can’t follow a novel, my first assumptions center around me: I’m too tired when reading, or I’m reading in short intervals that do the book a disservice, or I’m just stupider than I used to be.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik won all kinds of awards and I can see why. I bought it for my sister, once upon a time, because she really loved this kind of fiction and she’d sort of given up reading toward the end. I knew it might be the last book she ever read, so I did my research. Read reviews.

I generally can take or leave fantasy and horror, but this was good. There are interesting ideas about power, honor, gender, building alliances, and societal exclusions (in this case, the Jewish members of a town), set in a unique and well-realized world. Lots of magic.

But here’s my little gripe!

a confused reader is an antagonistic reader.

The author changed the point of view frequently and between multiple characters. The only demarcation of a shift in the POV was an abstract symbol and extra space between paragraphs.

Sometimes it took a couple of paragraphs to land in the scene.

It’s a longish novel, which gave me time to get annoyed. Why make the reader wade through even that small amount of text to figure out who’s talking when a simple heading would’ve pointed the way?

In any case. Point taken, Shirley Jackson!

Books, read and unread

“Wilkerson’s book is about how brutal misperceptions about race have disfigured the American experiment.”

NY Times, review

“She observes that caste ‘is about respect, authority and assumptions of competence — who is accorded these and who is not.‘”

And:

“A caste system, she writes, is ‘an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning.‘”

In an interview with Teri Gross, Wilkerson called caste the bones and race the skin. Class is the clothing and accessories.

Racism cannot completely capture all that is wrong in our society, she says.

She uses Nazism and the caste system in India to explore the American version.

In the interview, I learned how much the Aryans relied on early American studies in eugenics to develop their theories on race. Here in the States, the “one drop rule” was adopted in order to keep mixed race offspring enslaved. Interestingly, such a construct was deemed too extreme by the Germans.

The book doesn’t cover South Africa but in the interview Wilkerson briefly discusses how the fact that Blacks were in the majority in South Africa led to the creation of a third category ofcoloreds.” This was designed to keep Black Africans out of power. I wondered about that when reading Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime, Stories from a South African Childhood, which is by the way, a compelling and intimate look at the last days of apartheid.

I am still reading three important books on race, but Caste will be up next. I ordered it from an independent bookseller in the Bronx: The Lit. Bar. If you can afford the postage, I recommend that you do too. They raise money for other independent book stores.

Part of why I haven’t finished the non-fiction books on my night stand is because of my preference for fiction.

This novel looks at the issue of colorism through the lens of identical twins who are light enough to pass for white. One makes the decision to do so and vanishes from her twin’s life while the other makes an opposite decision by having a child with a very dark Black man. The idea of erasure and transformation is further explored through a transgender character.

Desiree and Stella Vignes were once inseparable, fleeing their small southern town to build a life together in New Orleans. But when Stella makes the decision to pass as white—disappearing from her sister’s life in order to pursue the “American Dream” of whiteness—the twins’ paths diverge, determining not just their own futures, but the futures of their daughters and their relationship to Black womanhood. As the sisters mature into mothers and their daughters into adulthood, each woman must confront her own relationship to her past, to family duty, and to her own autonomy.

From Taylor Crumpton’s Book of the Month review.

Lest you find me too serious, let me admit in closing that my new guilty pleasure is a reality show called, Blown Away. It’s a glass blowing competition that fills the void left by The Great British Baking Show.

Up before dawn

Downstairs by four. Reading. An old Mary Stewart romance: The Moonspinners.

I have a new mental touchstone. Not quite a mantra, but close. At odd times during the day I remind myself that I am having a day that my mother did not get. She did not live to be 63 1/2. A day she did not get.

The next week, at least, will be very busy. The editor and I spoke for close to an hour yesterday. At last! We got into the weeds: chapter heading formatting, the improper use of single quotes, when to italicize.

Also addressed some content: Why Saffron has no African name when the other characters who made the Middle Passage do. Where to cut in chapters of secondary characters (Eliza’s father, Melody’s first owner). And voice. That’s a biggie. An author’s note at front was recommended to address the fact that none of the enslaved characters would have had the English vocabulary I’ve given them.

Historic fiction selection

1) One novel does not belong, for at least three fairly obvious reasons

2) Two feature Frederick Douglass as a character

3) One makes Harriet Tubman a prominent character

4) Two books follow John Brown

5) Two take place during the Civil War

6) One makes Walt Whitman a primary character

7) One features larger-than-life slave catchers and takes place around the Chesapeake Bay

8) One novel goes to the Arctic and features balloon travel

9) One has a character who gives birth to her enslaver’s baby

10) Another has a main character who is his enslaver’s child

11) Two former enslaved characters travel to England

12) One freed slave sleeps with her female “employer” and becomes addicted to opium and is accused of murder

13) One story includes the beheading of Thomas Moore and stays close to the thoughts of Thomas Cromwell

14) One tracks a fugitive slave from South Carolina who escapes north and serves as scribe for the British during the Revolutionary War, earning her freedom