That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us by Erin Moore

Disclosure: I read an advanced reader’s copy of this book. (It was published in 2015 but I am just now getting to it. Sorry!)


Well, this was an interesting one. Maybe it’s a good time to post a quick reminder about the reviews that post here at the blog. These days they come in two types: reposts from Shelf Awareness, and blog originals. The former are written (in theory) objectively, with comments on what might be appealing about a given book, perhaps for a given audience or perhaps generally. The latter, the blog originals, are subjective and personal. This is one of the latter.

I struggled with this book from almost the first page. The subject matter is of interest to me; but the narrator’s tone and personality grated. I was motivated to keep reading because I appreciated the content, but I found myself often taking issue or silently arguing or feeling a little wrinkled. How much of this is about me and how much about the book? Generally a little of both. I found Moore’s narrative voice a little cute, trying for a humor that didn’t suit me personally, and sometimes too quick to make a jab that I didn’t feel was warranted. This may play more pleasingly to other ears, so as always, feel free to judge for yourself.

Part of my problem definitely came from the ease with which Moore feels comfortable making broad statements. “Many Americans consider peanut butter a perfectly reasonable breakfast food” – what?? “Surprisingly, the concept of the all-you-can-drink brunch was not invented by the English” – funny, I’m not the least bit surprised. It feels like a very American concept to me. “Americans often speak of exercise in terms that other cultures reserve for their spiritual practices,” including ‘guru’ for personal trainers, being ‘religious’ about exercise, and classes or instructors having ‘cultlike’ followings. I’d say all three of these terms get used for many nonreligious walks of life, including but by no means especially exercise. Americans avoid outdoor exercise because of our “extreme weather”? First of all, this is a HUGE country; generalizing about weather seems a losing battle. Secondly, what is the UK’s (stereotyped) weather famous for? Not pleasant to be outside in, right? So it must be something different – like the English attitude toward weather. (To be fair, Moore gets there. But that statement about “extreme weather” still made me squawk.) “You might struggle to find an American who hasn’t eaten pie for breakfast” surprised me as much as the peanut butter thing. Unless I’m forgetting, you’ve found one. I guess breakfast is a personal issue.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that I am not ‘Americans’ but one American, and you can’t please us all. Moore acknowledges in her introduction that it is difficult to generalize about a place as large and diverse as the United States or the United Kingdom. I might be a reader especially sensitive to this challenge, as I’ve spent so much of my own headspace and writing on just this issue: that a place like Houston or even a little town like Buckhannon, West Virginia is too diverse to sum up in a phrase. It’s sort of a tenet of my personal religion that you can’t generalize place. Again, Moore acknowledges this. But then she goes on to do it anyway – which, to be fair, you’d have to attempt to write a book about “Britishisms, Americanisms, and what English says about us.” I do think it might be more smoothly pulled off with different phrasing (perhaps people from the American South “tend to” assume rather than saying they just do), or with a little more recognition of exceptions. But these strategies would interfere with Moore’s jokey tone.

I am interested to note that this book feels surprisingly dated despite being published in early 2015 (written in 2014 – still refers to some late 2014 events as being in the future). But then, it’s been a momentous few years in the U.S. For one thing, Moore’s jokes about Donald Trump, he of The Apprentice and the Miss USA pageant? Not funny today. Certain remarks about the general financial wellbeing of the average American feel a little off now* (but that’s the trouble with “the average American”!). And Moore’s observation that ‘bespoke’ is not a commercial term on this side of the Atlantic I’m going to say is just no longer true, if indeed it was in 2014. I see advertisements for bespoke everything.

I’m curious as to when Moore – an American now living in England – made her move overseas. I feel like it matters, how long she’s been there. Her confusion about the way ‘partner’ is used over there – for romantic life partners of all genders, not just same-sex ones, and for married and nonmarried couples alike – is familiar to me (as someone who’s only lived in the U.S.), but I figured that one out in… late high school? in Texas, so I wonder if that was an issue of simple timing.

Approaching another personal pet peeve: Moore relies on the (U.S.) red states/blue states binary which I feel is misleading and outdated and unnecessarily divisive, when an urban/nonurban binary would make a little more sense, but in fact (did I mention) every place includes a little bit of everybody. In the 2016 presidential election, Texas’s electoral votes went for Trump. We showed up as a red state. But to throw the entire state under that bus is to disregard the 3,877,868 popular votes that were cast for Clinton in Texas (not to mention the other non-Trump ones – he won 52% of our popular vote). I’m a bit prickly on the red state/blue state myth, myself – it only works in the electoral college.

But here’s my favorite gripe of the whole book. Discussing sweet vs. unsweet tea (another U.S. regionalism),

a Southerner will find, to her horror, that Dixie Crystals do not melt in tea that is already cold, but sink forlornly to the bottom of the glass. For some Southerners, this is the extent of their science education.

As my friend Liz points out, the first statement is actually untrue; a spoon and a little stirring will melt that sugar for you. But that second sentence? Is a cheap shot, and pretty unfair; plays on unflattering stereotypes; shows the narrator to be rather mean-spirited; and serves as a fine example of the kind of humor that hopes to carry this book.

Even with all these critiques, I kept reading, and I appreciated learning a few things (particularly about food, knightings and whatnot, and a few terms – I had never heard ‘Crimbo’). Note that my complaints are about how Americans are portrayed – I don’t think of myself as a prideful nationalist by any stretch, but I bristle at any large group being pigeonholed, and I know Americans much better (being one myself) than I know the Brits or the English. I’m curious to know if a Brit would find themself equally prickled. I’ve sent the book on to a British friend, so here’s hoping he comes through with his own reactions – and we’ll see if I’ve been unreasonable by comparison! (I hope he’s not reading this so he keeps a fresh outlook.)

I wound up feeling like the work of That’s Not English was as much as about making sense of (drawing conclusions about) the differences between American and British cultures as it was about language. Language (and other habits) was used as an entry point (and as chapter headings), but the generalizations made were often much broader than which phrase we all use and what we mean by ‘quite.’ For example, the chapter ‘Fortnight’ recognizes that the Brits use that term and the Americans don’t. That’s the sum of its linguistic observation; the rest is about how differently we vacation. (Danger! Generalizing a nation’s vacation behaviors would seem to lump all socioeconomic classes together…) Perhaps that’s at the heart of my problem with the book. I can’t help but think of the excellent Talk on the Wild Side as a counterexample. That book’s scope was admittedly different, but I felt it was a lot more responsible in the conclusions it drew. I also remember fondly Eats, Shoots & Leaves, whose author wrote a foreword for this book. But I read that one quite a while ago and can’t write intelligently about it now.

There is definitely some good content here, and possibly a different reader (more lighthearted; happier with stereotype as humor) will love it. I seem to be taking things too seriously, although I’m not sure I should apologize for that. I’d be curious to hear an alternate opinion.


Rating: 5 misunderstandings.

*Final note to say that at least in my pre-pub copy, this book contains no footnotes, endnotes, or other record of sources used. There is a Selected Bibliography for further reading, but no citation for where Moore gets this or that fact. As I often questioned hers (and as I am that kind of reader – sorry), I regretted this omission. Maybe there were notes in the final copy, but they’re not mentioned here as TK.

The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels

Disclosure: Carter Sickels (ed., Untangling the Knot) has taught at my MFA program in the past and we have some mutual friends. He was not there during my studies and we’ve never met.


A gorgeous, transcendent book, this novel just captured and held me. I read it in a single sitting; I couldn’t look away. I was drawn in. It was often painful, but often beautiful, and magnetic throughout. I am so grateful to have read two books in a row that received a rare rating of 10 here at my little blog.

The Prettiest Star is set in 1986. Brian is 24 years old when he decides to leave New York City, where he has lived for six years, and return home to small-town Chester, Ohio, in the Appalachian foothills. He is dying of AIDS; his partner has died, along with so many friends and loved ones, and he can no longer stand the city, filled with its reminders of the past. “Home” in Chester is not exactly a friendly place to return to. His father can scarcely acknowledge him, and will certainly not acknowledge that he is gay, let alone his HIV status. His mother feels only a small measure more tenderness, and responsibility, to her son. His sister Jess, now 14, was just eight when he left. No one has bothered to tell her anything about her brother, who she once worshiped but who is now a stranger. The extended family and the larger community don’t offer any better hope of tolerance, let alone support, with one exception: his paternal grandmother, Lettie.

The story is riveting, the characters beautifully nuanced and believable. I think it’s a victory for a novelist to write a character like Brian’s mother, Sharon: we recoil from her intolerance of her son, but we can also sympathize with her misunderstandings of the world. I don’t mean to be an apologist for bigotry. But Sickels is artist enough to show us that it’s not that black and white. (Also, 1986 was a different world.) I have a harder time feeling compassion for the father, Travis – but take note: Brian, Sharon, and Jess all get alternating chapters giving their points of view. Travis gets only one, at the very end of the book. The author’s choice not to let me into his head absolutely contributes to his being more enigmatic and less sympathetic.

Jess is a perfect teenager, conflicted about her body, boys, other girls, her place in the world; crazy (and very smart) about marine biology; rightfully (I feel) upset that the family doesn’t trust her enough to share certain facts about her brother. Each character felt perfectly wrought. I really responded to Brian’s struggles with memory and memorializing, with his own mortality (unimaginable), with his unasked for role(s) as gay and HIV-positive in a community’s gaze. He’s a regular guy, and an artist, and I enjoyed getting to know him.

Sickels’s choice to alternate chapters from the first-person perspectives of Brian, Sharon and Jess was a good one, I think; it let me triangulate a view of the household and get to know several very well-written characters, and feel empathies in tension with each other, which is life. Another layer to this storytelling method: Brian’s sections are the transcripts of the video he shoots, on cassette tapes, with a camcorder (because 1986). He’s documenting his life (and therefore his death). So where we get Sharon’s and Jess’s POVs in the usual novelistic style, as if we were sort of in their heads, we get Brian’s voice more intentionally: he knows he has an audience, although he’s not quite sure who that audience is. (He occasionally addresses his dear, fierce friend Annie, who comes to Ohio to enter the story at a few points.) He’s consciously recording his life, what he sees and thinks and feels, which makes for a different narrative voice than Sharon’s or Jess’s.

Now here I am. Alive, in Ohio, where we do not speak of the dead. Let us pretend. Where are all my beautiful men?

I love it – it contributes to a tone of elegy, of speaking from a beyond, of looking back in time, all of which feels appropriate to this story because of its subject matter, and because it was published in 2020 about 1986.

Let’s talk about that time for a minute. I saw Sickels read from this book and discuss it at a pandemic-distanced event alongside Paul Lisicky promoting Later. (I had planned to attend this event in person, but here we are.) That event prompted me to preorder the book. Sickels took a question about whether this novel is historical fiction, which I found interesting. I was taught in library school that historical fiction is defined as being set in a time period before the author‘s lifetime – meaning, it’s not about the timing of the reader’s experience of the book, but about whether the author mines a lived timeline or one that is historical to him. Without Googling Sickels’s age, I’d venture that he was alive, but young, in the 80s (like me). We are at an interesting distance from this time period: it was less than 40 years ago, easily in living memory of many of us who are alive now, but it also feels remote in a few ways. For one, technology is almost unrecognizably changed, and was a defining feature of that decade. There are lots of satisfying period details to this novel – clothing, food, music, technology. I think the (clunky, heavy) camcorder that Brian uses to document his life is a neat choice as an eye on this story, because it sets some of the stage props (if you will). Another defining element of the 80s is the AIDS crisis as epidemic and as a failure of social and political systems to support disenfranchised populations, like the gay community. In too many ways, we’re not doing beautifully at the same sorts of issues today, but we’ve come a long way too. To look back at the 80s feels like looking a long way back, although it’s not actually that far away, either. That weird contradiction feels important to me.

Bowie fans will recognize the book’s title, and the titles of chapters. Disclosure: I don’t know Bowie well, so I don’t know how deep the references go. (I have recommended this read to my buddy Dave, #1 fan.) For someone like me, it served as a little background flavor. Possibly the whole thing is filled with references I missed. At any rate, the smell of the 80s is here. The video documentary is an inspired choice, I think, as narrative device as well as for staging. The alternating chapters work beautifully. The characters are expertly done, and the plot moves at an irresistible pace and with such momentum – so feeling, powerful, important to me – that (again) I was never able to stop reading. I think it’s a near-perfect work of fiction.

The subject matter is well handled, I think. It’s important that we keep telling and hearing these stories. I thought Brian’s life was treated sensitively and not as a type, or a cause, or anything like that. Obviously I very highly recommend this book, but I know that some readers will find this material especially painful, even triggering – I guess I haven’t said it outright, but there’s plenty of nasty homophobia in the story. It’s hard stuff; I cried for at least 50 pages. But it’s also really beautiful, and I found it all worthwhile.

I’m so glad I read The Prettiest Star and it’s one of the best of the year for sure.


Rating: 10 photographs.

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

What a glorious book. N.K. Jemisin is a wonder.

I loved the fantasy/sci fi version of our world presented in The City We Became. When cities have achieved something like a critical mass of culture or soul, they sort of come to life in the form of a human avatar, a preexisting person who best possesses or encapsulates the qualities of that city. It takes a long time, a lot of history and life, for a city to become. There have only been a few in the Americas to get this far. New Orleans and Port-au-Prince were stillborn. Sao Paolo, as the newest city in the worldwide community, is on hand to help with the next birth to take place: that of New York.

New York is unique in that it has multiple souls, one for each of the boroughs as well as one for the city as a whole. Like London; except that something went wrong in London. So New York’s becoming is unprecedented and fraught. The novel opens with the perspective of the unnamed man who will, hopefully, be New York: “too slim, too young, and entirely too vulnerable,” Black, talented, homeless. His voice blew me away in these first pages, before I had any idea what was going on. (It also reminded me of the voice of a friend of mine, a talented young writer. You’re in good company, B.) Here’s the thing: in the birth moment of every city, the Enemy is near at hand, threatening. This is why some cities don’t come to life at all. It’s why some are killed: Pompeii, Tenochtitlán, Atlantis. Oh, yes: it’s not that Atlantis wasn’t real. It just isn’t real anymore.

Something is different about New York: the city’s main avatar may be precocious, but the Enemy (“squamous eldritch bullshit”) is much stronger here, too. The risk seems greater than ever. Luckily, New York (and his helper, Paolo) has the boroughs to rely on. Or does he? Manhattan has never set foot in the city before. He can’t remember his name–the name from before–or what he did, but he thinks it wasn’t good. Brooklyn grumbles that she is “too goddamn old to fight transdimensional rap battles in the middle of the night,” but she’ll do it anyway. The Bronx is always ready to rumble; her people have been here since before there was a New York. Queens would rather return to her studies (she hates financial engineering, “which of course is why she’s getting a master’s degree in it”). Staten Island is a real mess, downright antagonistic to her fellows. And what is Jersey City doing here?

As you may have realized, the idea of a place being personified in an individual is right up my alley; I bought into this concept immediately and whole-heartedly. I love the challenges it presents the author. To choose an individual means choosing a gender, a race, personality traits. It means committing: Brooklyn to be contained within one woman? If she’s a rapper, or a city councilwoman, that’s a commitment to one way of expressing all of Brooklyn: it sounds like a losing proposition from the start, but Jemisin knows her stuff. Here’s where I say that I know little of New York and the personalities of its boroughs; but I know how tricky it is to try and sum up a place, and I respect the complexities of The City We Became. (Also, I can attest that this story works even for the reader unfamiliar with New York.)

This book introduces a rich panoply of fascinating characters, with backstories, histories, cultural and ethnic heritages, professions, personalities, sexualities and gender expressions, to represent a richly varied New York. It is completely absorbing. The science and fantasy of the world in which cities become struck the right balance, for me, between sufficient explanation and satisfying mystery. (I don’t show up to sci fi for the science.) The whole thing is fully-fleshed, compelling, the kind of story to lose yourself in, both clearly related to the one I live in and weird enough to take me out of this one. Jemisin gives each character their own compelling voice, and plenty of sensory lushness to her settings–which are, pretty literally here, characters unto themselves. They are all, in their own ways, so smart. “There’s a lot to consider: particle-wave theory, meson decay processes, the ethics of quantum colonialism, and more.” Lovecraft is often present, “equal-opportunity hater” though he was. I had a fabulous time. And this is just the first in a trilogy! I’m so excited.

Unqualified recommendation: if you appreciate imagination, or a person’s connection to place, or cities, or cultures, or fine writing, get to know The City We Became.


Rating: 10 brigadeiro.

The Happily Ever After: A Memoir of an Unlikely Romance Novelist by Avi Steinberg

A romantically challenged writer treats the romance novel as career aspiration and life coach, with endearing and revealing results.

Following a divorce, Avi Steinberg (Running the Books; The Lost Book of Mormon) enters the realm of the romance novel, hoping to learn how to write a few commercially successful books and, perhaps more importantly, to solve his own real-life romantic challenges. In his quest, Steinberg hangs out with readers, authors, publishers and cover model CJ Hollenbach (so much more than “Ohio’s Response to Fabio”), attends conferences, joins a writing group and eventually lands a multibook contract under the pen name Dana Becker. These adventures he documents in The Happily Ever After: A Memoir of an Unlikely Romance Novelist.

Part personal memoir, part travelogue and part social and literary criticism, The Happily Ever After questions the societal tendency to look down on romance novels (and to apologize for reading them), examines romance’s domination of the commercial book market, reconsiders classics and the author’s own life through a romance lens, and explores the numerous subgenres of this much-loved and much-reviled field. Steinberg makes observations about gender roles and identities not only within romance novels but throughout American society. “The sentimental tropes of romance are so deeply embedded in our culture, we take them for granted,” making his comments relevant for everyone.

Entering as a romance newbie, Steinberg learns (and outlines for readers) the rules of the genre, including the necessity for “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending,” or Happily Ever After (HEA, in Romancelandia parlance). He concludes that “romance is America’s national literature: not because it is universally read or admired but because it is universally obsessed over,” and that Scheherazade was a romance author–bound to the whims of her audience, delivering rapidly and on demand.

Appropriately, Steinberg’s memoir has a generally upbeat cast, even during low points and through the narrator’s struggles with sincere emotions (“you go for a laugh when you could say something real,” one of his writing groupmates tells him; he calls himself “a depressed person who is an optimist at heart”). Also appropriately, the book concludes with the author’s own romance and bona fide HEA.

By no means is this memoir just for fans of the romance genre, although those readers will of course be tickled by his appreciative study. Steinberg’s personal story will suit any reader curious about the book industry, or who simply appreciates quirky personalities. Aspiring writers may find tips and tricks of special interest, but this is no how-to; rather, it’s an endearingly candid exploration of books, subculture and love itself.


This review originally ran in the July 24, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 aliases.

Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke (audio)

Housekeeping note: I expect this will be my last Wednesday post of the season, if not the year. I am heading into a fall semester that I expect will be especially stressful, so I’ll return to a twice-weekly format, posting on Mondays and Fridays. Thanks for reading, friends!


This is just the third in the Dave Robicheaux series, dating back to 1989. I’ve been following Burke’s Robicheaux for decades (perhaps not back to 1989, when I was 7 years old). While this one showed some of the qualities I love about the series, I’m not sure it’s aged well in some ways. Or (as usual) maybe that’s me, the reader, needing something different at this time. It’d be interested to check in with a more recent book in the series – there are now 23 – and see how I react.

Dave Robicheaux runs a bait shop in New Iberia, Louisiana. He’s retired from both the New Orleans Police Department and from New Iberia’s; his wife Molly is recently dead, murdered in their bed; his adopted daughter Alafair (a refugee orphan from El Salvador) is a new member of the household. His old college roommate Dixie Lee turns up, mostly drunk and high and talking about overheard conversations about hiding bodies. Dave is haunted by Molly’s ghost and his father’s, and his own sobriety, held carefully at bay by AA meetings. But he can’t resist looking into Dixie Lee’s accusations, which overlap with Dave’s own past entanglements with a certain oil company. Facing murder charges thanks to a frame, Dave takes Alafair and travels up to Montana to track this mystery, getting involved with both the Mafia and the Blackfeet tribe, and plenty of unsavory characters. (Including Clete Purcell, who I’m always glad to see.)

Among the things I appreciate about the Robicheaux books is Burke’s evocative descriptions of the natural landscapes, showcased by landscapes like New Iberia and Montana (the two classic Burke settings). I’ve always found these books to lie at the literary end of the mystery genre’s spectrum; pacing is often sedate, in favor of evocation and atmosphere, and you might say, at the expense of a snappy plot. Dave’s wrestling with his demons (plenty of them internal, without considering his external enemies) treads a fine line between noir moodiness, and tiresome wallowing. He’s a certain kind of classic detective protagonist, like Connelly’s Harry Bosch: self-destructive, deeply antagonistic toward authority, violent, introspective, iconoclastic. Perhaps I am beginning to turn away from this type, as a reader, especially when they have physically satisfying but emotionally problematic sex with younger women.

The mystery plot of this book took far too long to resolve, for me. It was more enjoyable as lovely writing and studies on character and setting. Possibly the audio format was the wrong choice here, because it tends to take me longer than reading. I’m not sure how much of my trouble with this book was about me the reader, and I’m reluctant to criticize Burke, who I have long appreciated, but all I can report on is my own experience. Again, I wonder if this read better in 1989. I did catch one statement about race that I found problematic (to be fair, expressed by the character Robicheaux rather than the author Burke, but still to be considered). Next time I return to this series, I’ll look for a recent installment for comparison.

This audio performance by Mark Hammer is notable for its variety of accents, a different voice for each character. But I feel it contributed to the stately pace, too.

One thing that has not changed: there is no messing with Burke’s sentence-level writing about place. Here’s one sample from each setting.

The sun was above the oaks on Bayou Teche now, but in the deep, early morning shadows the mist still hung like clouds of smoke among the cattails and damp tree trunks. It was only March, but spring was roaring into southern Louisiana, as it always does after the long gray rains of February. Along East Main in New Iberia the yards were filled with blooming azalea, roses, and yellow and red hibiscus, and the trellises and gazebos were covered with trumpet vine and clumps of purple wisteria.

In the Jocko Valley I watched a rain shower move out from between two tall white peaks in the Mission Mountains, then spread across the sky, darken the sun, and march across the meadows, the clumped herds of Angus, the red barns and log ranch houses and clapboard cottages, the poplar windbreaks, the willow-lined river itself, and finally the smooth green hills that rose into another mountain range on the opposite side of the valley. Splinters of lightning danced on the ridges, and the sky above the timberline roiled with torn black clouds. Then I drove over the tip of the valley and out of the rain and into the sunshine on the Clark Fork as though I had slipped from one piece of geographical climate into another.

As for the rest, your mileage may vary, as always.


Rating: 6 ice cream cones.

The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey

A single discovery touches three siblings’ lives in surprising ways in this poignant, gleaming story.

The Boy in the Field is a stunning novel of tenderness, interconnectedness, cause and effect by Margot Livesey (The Flight of Gemma Hardy; Mercury). Matthew, Zoe and Duncan are walking home from school one day when they find him, in a field with cows, swallows, bluebottles: a beautiful young man, really just a boy, bloodied and unconscious. He speaks one word: “Cowrie,” Zoe reports to the police. “Cowslip,” says Duncan. “Coward,” says Matthew. With their discovery, they save his life.

The teenaged siblings are close, loving and very different from one another. Matthew, the eldest, is thoughtful. He hopes to become a detective one day, and becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of who hurt the boy in the field, and why. He puzzles over motivations. Zoe has “a gift for finding things: birds’ nests, their mother’s calculator, a missing book, a secret.” She worries over her parents’ relationship and explores her own first sexual experiences; she is drawn to the ways in which people come together and apart. Duncan, the youngest, is observant, almost preternaturally sensitive and a gifted painter. Finding the boy will start him toward a discovery about his own life that might be destructive.

The novel unfolds through alternating chapters from the perspectives of Matthew, Zoe and Duncan. Their parents, Betsy and Hal, are compelling characters as well, less known than the children but multi-faceted, imperfect and endearing. Livesey’s deceptively simple prose renders each sibling as both sweet and complicated. Their shared experience, finding the injured young man, begins for each of them a different kind of acceleration: into adulthood, out of innocence, into reconfigured connections. Matthew gets to know the police detective assigned to the case; his relationships with his girlfriend and his best friends irrevocably change; he notices for the first time that he’s drawing away from his younger siblings. Zoe has out-of-body experiences, breaks up with her boyfriend and meets a young philosopher, and it is Zoe who discovers the chink in their parents’ marriage. Duncan sinks into the paintings of Morandi, gets a new dog and launches an investigation of his own. By book’s end, the three will grow both closer and apart through this shared experience.

The Boy in the Field is a coming-of-age story, a mystery, a sharp-eyed examination of individual lives and relationships. Despite the violent crime related to its title and the insecurities that arise for various characters along the way, this brilliant novel offers a sense of beauty and safety in its quiet ruminations.


This review originally ran in the July 21, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 brushstrokes.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Race, sex, shifting social rules, art, inspiration and digestive troubles plague the compelling protagonist of this debut novel.

Raven Leilani’s first novel, Luster, is a rocket-paced, sensual fever dream of sex, trauma, relationships and conflicting perceptions.

Edie is in her 20s and struggling, with her crappy shared Bushwick apartment, her low-level position in children’s publishing, her uninspired sexual choices and her irritable bowel syndrome. Her parents are dead, but the psychic wounds they inflicted are not. Her painting is not going well, and she is a Black woman in New York City. “Racism is often so mundane it leaves your head spinning, the hand of the ordinary in your slow, psychic death so sly and absurd you begin to distrust your own eyes.” Early on, her affair with Eric seems different, refreshing, in spite of, or because of, the 23-year age gap. Then Edie gets fired and evicted, and she spirals, landing, weirdly, in the middle of someone else’s marriage. She knew from the start that Eric was in an open marriage–his wife set a lot of rules for his relationship with Edie. But suddenly she finds herself taken in, literally, by Rebecca, living in their guest room in New Jersey, asked to mentor this white couple’s adopted Black daughter, Akila. Surreality seems to be Edie’s default, but now the funhouse mirror tilts again.

Edie’s first-person narration is nearly stream-of-consciousness, long sentences overflowing with imaginative visual impressions and self-deprecation: “as the car is pulling away he is standing there on the porch in a floral silk robe that is clearly his wife’s, looking like he has not so much had an orgasm as experienced an arduous exorcism, and a cat is sitting at his feet, utterly bemused by the white clapboard and verdant lawn, which makes me hate this cat as the city rises around me in a bouquet of dust, industrial soot, and overripe squash, insisting upon its own enormity like some big-dick postmodernist fiction and still beautiful despite its knowledge of itself, even as the last merciless days of July leave large swaths of the city wilted and blank.” Edie’s particular blend of despair, panic and self-destruction is spellbinding. As she hesitatingly helps Akila with her hair and accompanies Rebecca to work (conducting autopsies at the VA) and to a midnight mosh pit, Edie begins to paint again. She is inspired by the minutiae of this family home: lightbulb, dinner plate, Rebecca’s body.

Luster is intoxicating and surprising, never letting readers settle into recognizable patterns. Leilani has crafted an unforgettable novel about a young woman making her own way.


This review originally ran in the July 20, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 Captain Planet mugs.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

In this meticulously researched and beautifully crafted book, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson argues that the U.S. has a race-based caste system.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns) offers a singular and vital perspective on American society with Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. This examination of caste and its consequences on every aspect of culture is unusual, eye-opening and of life-or-death importance. As in her previous work, which she continues and deepens here, Wilkerson lives up to the scope and significance of her subject matter, delivering a book that is deeply researched, clearly structured, well-written and moving.

The root of so many social ills in the United States, Wilkerson argues, is not precisely racism but casteism, which is closely linked to the concepts of race invented and reinforced since before the country’s founding. “Caste and race are neither synonymous nor mutually exclusive,” she writes, and then explicates and defines her terms precisely, with the support of exhaustive research. “Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”

Wilkerson interrogates and defines caste systems by comparing and contrasting three: those of Nazi Germany, India and the United States. The job of analyzing more than 400 years of American history, social structures on three continents and the complexities of sociology, psychology, history, anthropology, philosophy and more is an enormous one, but Wilkerson is more than capable. She lays out eight pillars of caste, including divine will, heritability, occupational hierarchy, and terror as enforcement. She puts to work a number of convincing metaphors to illustrate her points: infectious disease, the challenges of owning an old house, actors (mis)cast for a theater production, rungs on a ladder, the biblical concept of the scapegoat. She uses a new vocabulary to recast old problems, usually referring not to terms of race or class but of caste, and discusses recent electoral politics with descriptions rather than names, defamiliarizing the familiar and thereby offering her reader a fresh perspective.

Wilkerson’s understanding of caste proposes a nuanced take on the Trump election: many working-class white voters did not in fact vote against their interests, but rather prioritized one interest–upholding the caste system–over others, including access to health care, financial stability and clean air and water. She effectively argues that while “caste does not explain everything in American life… no aspect of American life can be fully understood without considering caste and embedded hierarchy,” and shows how it causes psychological and physical health damage to everyone living within this system.

Caste is a thorough, brilliant, incisive investigation of the often invisible workings of American society. Original, authoritative and exquisitely written, its significance cannot be overstated.


This review originally ran in the July 6, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 owners of old houses.

The Secret Music at Tordesillas by Marjorie Sandor

Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book by the author in exchange for my honest review.


Marjorie Sandor (author of the lovely essay “Rhapsody in Green“) shines a light on the Spanish Inquisition through the voice and music of one man with her historical novel The Secret Music at Tordesillas. It is 1555, and the Spanish Queen Juana I of Castile, also known as Juana (or Joan) the Mad, has just died at Tordesillas following forty-seven years of gentile captivity. One of the handful of musicians employed for her entertainment is the elderly Juan de Granada, who chose not to leave the palace when the rest of Juana’s retinue did; instead, he remains to be questioned by inquisitors, firstly over the fact that he is not at church. The novel is told in his first-person perspective as he recounts his life for a very specific audience, the commissioner and scribe sent to investigate rumors of a secret Jew at Tordesillas. This choice of narrative voice and audience is the first interesting move by Sandor to bring her subject to light. The ways in which Juan aims to ingratiate himself serve to characterize and set the tone; we are always clear on who holds the power in this transaction.

Juan’s story begins by cycling back to 1492, when the Jewish quarter of Granada was conquered and cleared out, and ten-year-old Juan was baptized. He relates how his family and neighborhood were torn apart and forced to assimilate, how he escaped, and how he came to be a part of Infanta Juana’s household as a small boy. Clutching his father’s oud (“that antiquated ‘lute’ of the Moors”) and already well trained in music, he is lucky to continue his musical education and play for royalty. He travels with Juana to Flanders for her wedding to Archduke Philippe, and then back to Spain; he is rarely away from her, in fact, in all his years. And therefore he is frequently with Inés de Castro as well, one of Juana’s most trusted ladies, and a central figure in Juan’s long life.

The old man sits for hours spinning his story for the commissioner and the scribe; there is a hint of Arabian nights in the way he holds his audience, both those two in the book and us, the readers. Between the times he brings us back to his immediate situation – under threat of the suspicion of his inquisitors – we get lost in the story, the present tense of young boy and then young man and then maturity. Juan and Inés, and others, walk a fine line between dangerous secret Jewish traditions and outward propriety. Numerous cultural, musical, and culinary details mark this tightrope.

I confess I was often confused. Better familiarity with this period in history and Spanish and Jewish cultures would have made me a much better reader for this novel. Perhaps I’m unusually ignorant of this material; if you’re like me in that regard, be prepared to keep close track of the details, and perhaps to do a little research as you go.

One of the first things I notice about Sandor’s writing is its lyricism, which is fitting since this is a novel about music and the appreciation of music. I was unfamiliar as well with the implications of musical instruments and styles, but didn’t feel troubled about that; the way Juan talks about his family background and the significance of music was effective and affecting. It was often a lovely story to get lost in, even if I sometimes missed a cue. It is also, of course, a disturbing story. “You know how vigilant the pious are. It is their duty to keep an eye on us all.”

It has been a theme for a few reviews now that I’ve gotten a bit bogged down in the middle of a book. Especially after a few such experiences in a row, I guess this is likely to be at least as much about me as about the books in question. This story is both lovely and absorbing; I don’t know what to say about my small struggles. Perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with the historical period, I was not the perfect audience. There is always so much more to learn!


Rating: 7 lemons.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain (audio)

From the author of The Paris Wife, about Hemingway’s first wife Hadley, comes this novel about his third, Martha Gellhorn. Each novel focuses on the woman first, with Hemingway in a supporting role. This one is told from Gellhorn’s first-person point of view, with very few, brief glimpses into Hemingway’s own perspective – I enjoyed these but I think it was wise to limit them. We follow Gellhorn from young womanhood, early in her writing career, into meeting Hemingway in her 20s – he’s married to Pauline – and into the Spanish Civil War, where Gellhorn finds the talent she will be best known for: she becomes one of the most important war correspondents of the 20th century. The arc of their relationship defines the novel’s timeline, but it is as much the story of the woman. Such a fiery relationship with such a larger-than-life figure as Hemingway does threaten to dominate, but one of the things I love about Gellhorn is that there was so much more to her than this, and I think McLain communicates that.

A little like with The Trespasser, I felt a slowdown in the middle of this book. I’m not sure it’s a criticism of McLain, or simply the fact that Hemingway is a difficult character: mythic, swaggering, enormous, and perhaps difficult to write without becoming a sort of cardboard cut-out who makes dramatic (not to say predictable) pronouncements. I even considered the possibility that I’m a bit sick of him; maybe I’ve read too many fictional treatments of the man. I definitely rolled my eyes at Gellhorn’s hand-wringing and devotion over her selfish, cruel, immature lover, but I had to remind myself that this nonsense is likely perfectly realistic. Which doesn’t make it any easier to sit in.

Whatever that was about, McLain pulled me back. It’s definitely a good strategy, I think, to keep Gellhorn front and center. Along with Hadley, she’s my favorite of Hemingway’s wives; she didn’t entirely take his shit, and had a formidable career of her own. She refused to sublimate, which is why their marriage failed, but it’s why she got to keep herself, too. In the end, I was left feeling really good about this read, although it hadn’t always been easy to take in. Kirkus writes, “Martha comes across as one tough cookie, Ernest as a great writer but a small man,” and well, yes. Welcome to Hemingway.

It’s been a long time since I read The Paris Wife – almost ten years – which I remember loving without reservation. But I suspect I’m a more critical reader now, so I’m not certain at this distance that the first was a better book. Certainly I recommend Love and Ruin for the Hemingway completist, and I think it’s a good overview of the Gellhorn story. Kirkus further writes that “it basically rehashes information and sentiments already available in [Gellhorn’s] own memoir and published letters,” but I don’t know why that has to be such a criticism. Having that information presented in a stylish fictionalization seems like a service, and I found it an enjoyable read.


Rating: 7 rabbits.
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