guest review: The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, from Pops

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first novel is The Water Dancer, a victim of my high expectations I’m afraid; so this is an ambivalent, and very subjective, review. First, the challenges: an indirect narrative style that often confounds and obscures, with overworked symbolism and metaphor that just didn’t work for me. I appreciated the general sweep of the story and many key characters, and ultimately, the ‘message’ or ‘meaning’ I think it all carries. But ultimately the journey was not as satisfying as it may have been with a more comfortable form. Nevertheless, I match this with Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and films 12 Years a Slave and Harriet*, all providing healthy realistic images of slavery, and the human stories embedded in that history.

We follow first-person narrator Hiram Walker from a failing Virginia tobacco plantation (owned by his white father, who owns his slave mother), to a vibrant, diverse and urban Philadelphia before the Fugitive Slave Act, front-line base for the ‘Underground’; and then his return to the plantation. The story’s sweep is like the contrast of those places: from stifling oppression and decay, to liberating promise, and back again. That middle is also a high point in this work; it encompasses Coates’ version of important real characters and events at a time of social ferment wider than just abolition. Notably: William Still (a monumental historical figure whose book The Underground Railroad Records Coates credits in a brief Author Note); wonderful characterization of the vibrant city at a social moment in time that was creative and liberating; and Harriet Tubman, by that name a character in this story, including a slave-liberating foray into her native Maryland, based on fact. (It was uncanny and tremendously satisfying to see the wonderful film Harriet on opening weekend, just as her story was unfolding in my reading.) Sophie (focus of Hiram’s affection); episodic ally Corrine and her loyal aide Hawkins; the tragic Dr. Fields; and the whole White family in Philadephia – are all important and endearing supporting characters.

In his telling, Coates shows a sophisticated sense of history as he describes the workings of plantation economics, terribly destructive to human lives, rich naturally abundant soil and the values of a nation in the process of forming itself. The central idea that anchors Coates’ tale is one to embrace: nothing in this world is ‘pure’ – not simple, and not just one thing (except perhaps the evil institution of slavery, a touchstone never questioned by our protagonist and his cohort). It’s a lesson in dialectics, in nuance; life is messy and non-linear, throwing us unexpected curves, confusion and tragic irony. Individuals thought to be one thing, can surprise in their complexity. Bloodlines are all mixed up, connecting people in surprising ways, and not always predictive of their soul. Freedom is not a place one can entirely escape to; it is much more complicated than that. In all this, Coates offers useful space for observing both our history, and our human-centric world.

Given that I know Coates to be a thoughtful and helpful social observer, and a skilled writer, I suspect he wrote exactly the book he wanted to write. I also expect it will age well with me, and perhaps more perspective will emerge as Coates’ career matures.

Sounds like a careful and considered response, Pops, and thank you. This is why an unusual narrative structure is a risk. Metaphor can be overdone; and we all have different thresholds, of course. I appreciate you wondering how it will age with you, too, though.


*I want to acknowledge that the movie Harriet has seen some very mixed reactions. There have been some concerns (like about casting). There have also been some counterpoints; this source claims the white savior allegation is not factual. I thought Buzzfeed and Business Insider (of all places) did a decent job of trying to parse the controversies. (I haven’t seen the movie, so I’m just sampling a few other thinkers here.)

Galley Love of the Week: The Book of V. by Anna Solomon

Be among the first to read The Book of V. by Anna Solomon, a Shelf Awareness Galley Love of the Week. Presented on Mondays, GLOW selects books that have not yet been discovered by booksellers and librarians, identifying the ones that will be important hand-selling titles in a future season.

Anna Solomon (The Little Bride; Leaving Lucy Pear) offers a scalding, gripping story of three intertwined lives in The Book of V. The biblical Queen Esther, a 1970s Rhode Island senator’s wife and a former academic stay-at-home mom in 2000s Brooklyn have more in common than one might think. Holt editor-in-chief Serena Jones comments on “how similar–though they are actually separated by centuries–these characters’ stories feel, and how they converge and clash over the same themes. Agent Julie Barer observed how women’s lives have–and really more profoundly, have not–changed since biblical times.” Solomon’s storytelling is seamless and deeply engaging; readers will be living with Esther, Vee and Lily long after closing these pages.

Galley Love of the Week, or GLOW, is a feature from Shelf Awareness. View this edition here.

The Starlet and the Spy by Ji-Min Lee, trans. by Chi-Young Kim

In 1954 Seoul, a war-weary young Korean woman and Marilyn Monroe share a brief but crucial sojourn, and learn they have more in common than they thought.

“I go to work thinking of death. Hardly anyone in Seoul is happy during the morning commute, but I’m certain I’m one of the most miserable.”

At the opening of Ji-Min Lee’s The Starlet and the Spy, Alice J. Kim works as a translator for the American forces a year after the armistice and ceasefire. Her life and outlook are as dour as these introductory lines represent: the traumas of the war have left her hopeless and joyless, taking her day-to-day life as a series of tasks to be completed. When her boss tells her about an upcoming assignment, he expects she’ll feel excited and honored to serve as escort, interpreter and handler for Marilyn Monroe, on a tour to entertain American troops. Alice is unmoved–what does she care for an American movie star?

During the course of four days with the bombshell, however, Alice will be forced to broaden her perspective on her own life and options. Her two former lovers both reappear, shaking her understanding of what exactly happened during the war. There seems the hint of a chance that she will find someone she’s lost. As Alice struggles with her will to live, the American beauty surprises her. Stunning, sexy, charismatic, yes; but Monroe is also unexpectedly approachable. And she will make a small but essential difference in the life of the less famous woman.

Lee’s novel is rooted in historical fact and inspired by two photographs: one of Monroe performing for American troops, in a slinky dress, in the snow; the other of an unknown female Korean interpreter. It is the intersection of these two lives that interests her. Two women, one famous, the other a novelist’s blank slate. What if they had met?

The Starlet and the Spy is bleak but whimsical and, yes, hopeful. Seoul has been beaten down; food is scarce and orphanages overflow. Alice dyes her hair with beer and steals pornography from work to sell to her landlady. A former artist, she doesn’t draw anymore; being forced to create endless portraits of Stalin during the war has dulled her passion, another loss that it seems she will not recover from. But she may have more friends than she thinks she does. Chi-Young Kim’s translation is both spare and emotionally evocative, suiting a narrator who is simultaneously desolate and childishly yearning.

Born of a curiosity about human relationships in unusual times, The Starlet and the Spy asks the questions: What if we met across a divide? What if a despairing young Korean woman reached into Marilyn Monroe’s makeup bag for a lipstick, or a way out? In a decidedly optimistic turn, Lee leaves her ending open, and her reader free to wonder what might be next for Alice.


This review originally ran in the August 5, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 propaganda fliers.

movie: Matewan (1987)

Having recently visited the museum, I knew I had to track down this movie, which was not easy – thanks Barrett for your help!

Matewan is the retelling of the story of Bloody Mingo County and the Battle of Matewan, where the humble coal miners stood up to the bosses and lives were lost. It’s an iconic story in American labor rights history, and it’s movingly told here.

We begin with Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper, in his film debut) arriving in the town of Matewan, West Virginia as a union organizer sent to help the locals with their ongoing strike. (I was immediately reminded of the adage that there are only two stories in the world: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.) On the same train that brings Kenehan are a group of Black miners from Alabama who are being brought in as strike-breakers; the local miners attack these men before they even reach Matewan, presaging racism and violence that will plague organizing efforts. Kenehan exhorts the locals, however, telling them that it’s workers against bosses, not white against Black or anybody else (there is a recently arrived group of Italian miners in town, too).

It’s uphill work getting the white WV miners to let Blacks and Italians into the union, just as it’s uphill work getting the latter groups to strike, but Kenehan’s speeches, and the poor conditions and disrespect of the mine bosses, do achieve this. Everyone puts down their tools; the miners and their families construct a tent city on the edge of town (as their housing is all company-owned), and the workers bumpily navigate their union. Meanwhile, hired guns with the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency try repeatedly to do the work of intimidation: evictions, repossession of food and furnishings, and general pressure and violence. They are repeatedly thwarted by the town’s major and sheriff, and once by armed “hill people” from outside of town. For a time, it looks like the ragtag union bunch are well-positioned to win their fight, because of the tight local community. But hanging over this impression is knowledge that the company, and Baldwin-Felts, has only to bring in more and bigger guns, and eventually the town will be outnumbered.

The action of Matewan proceeds from Kenehan’s arrival through organizing and early conflicts and concludes just after the Battle of Matewan, the shootout where the mayor and Kenehan, and seven Baldwin-Felts guys, are killed. Voiceover by Danny from a later date (he is now a grown man, and still a coal miner) indicates that the union was eventually defeated in the West Virginia Mine Wars by the US military, and that conditions have more or less returned to their starting point.

Remarkable characters include the boarding-house proprietress who initially puts Kenehan up – a miner’s widow – and her teenage son Danny, a coal miner, budding Baptist preacher, and passionate union man; Few Clothes (delightfully played here by James Earl Jones), leader of the Black contingent; a flirtatious widow with a role to play; and two miners’ wives in the camp, one West Virginian and one Italian, who begin as antagonists but forge a friendship even without benefit of a common language. Several miners, union men and Baldwin-Felts thugs play individual roles, as well, but these are less developed personalities. While there is no question that this is a film with a message and that takes a side, these flawed human characters make it something more and better than propaganda.

While Few Clothes, the sheriff and mayor, and several union men and Baldwin-Felts guys were true historical characters, Kenehan and Danny are both inventions for the purpose of this film. On the one hand, I find they work very well as central characters to focus our sympathies and make the story come alive. On the other hand, I regret that it took fictional characters to do this work, and I wonder if the same emotional results could have been achieved using only true figures. I believe so; but I guess it would have been harder to focus it, with a larger cast and no one central hero like Kenehan. But isn’t that a beautiful fact of the union, that there is no one, single hero?

True events are also compressed, and sometimes conflated. I feel more forgiving of this move; this being not history, but a stylized version thereof, it’s okay with me that we made the storyline a little tighter and easier to follow, and more dramatic for its brevity. Inserting a fictional central hero feels less faithful to me that compressing a timeline. Maybe that’s just me? At any rate, if you’re learning the history of Matewan and West Virginia’s Mine Wars, do look further than this film, excellent though it is. (This should go without saying and applies to all historical fiction.)

Although a sad story and therefore hard to watch, I found this movie also beautiful and well done. I appreciated the cinematography, darkness and shadow moving, the feelings of tragedy and betrayal; it made me cry. I highly recommend it, if you can find it. Know your history, friends.


Rating: 7 rabbits.

The Darwin Affair by Tim Mason

Playwright Tim Mason’s first adult novel, a rousing mystery set in Victorian England, has it all: thrills, engrossing characters, taut pacing and historical interest.


Playwright Tim Mason’s first adult novel, The Darwin Affair, is a rousing mystery set in Victorian England. In 1859, the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species poses a menace to the powers that be, and some of society’s upper echelon want him squelched. Amid the conspiracy lurks a tall, shadowy man with deep-set eyes; death seems to follow wherever he goes. The dogged Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field is on the case, although his findings are not necessarily welcomed by all. Field tracks his suspect from meat market to tavern to the royal court, from England to Germany, and even to the high-profile Wilberforce-Huxley debate on evolution at Oxford. Scenes of crashing action and adventure include a racing carriage on a collision course with a speeding train. With cameos by Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and a variation on Typhoid Mary rounding out the peripheral cast, this is a wild tale that engulfs the reader from start to finish.

Satisfyingly plot-driven, then, The Darwin Affair also offers very engaging characters: approachable Albert, Prince Consort; Queen Victoria, haughty but not humorless; a comic Marx; and a gracious, gentle Darwin.

But Mason’s less famous hero definitely steals the show. Field has difficulties with authority that will be familiar to fans of contemporary fictional detectives like Harry Bosch and Dave Robicheaux. Mason’s playwriting skills are evident in realistic dialogue and well-constructed, easily envisioned scenes. Readers of historical fiction, murder mysteries, action/adventure and thrillers will be equally entertained and perhaps edified: beneath the excitement lie thought-provoking questions about class and order, the interplay of science and religion and intellectual curiosity. The Darwin Affair has it all: thrills, engrossing characters, taut pacing and historical interest.


This review originally ran in the June 21, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 monkeys.

The Crook Factory by Dan Simmons (audio)

Directly after Mrs. Hemingway, I began this one, only subconsciously recalling that its subject matter was similar: a novel about Hemingway’s life. Such is the level of my Hemingway obsession that I keep these things lying around and forget I have them at all…

The Crook Factory gave me rather more trouble than the last one, though. This is a spy thriller about Hemingway’s life during the early years of American involvement in WWII, when he lived in Cuba and took his boat, the Pilar, out hunting for German submarines in the Gulf. He was basically playing at spy, and my impression from various biographies is that his activities were a little silly. In his afterword, though, Dan Simmons informs his reader that much of the story he tells here is based in historical fact. He says that the documentation of Hemingway’s activities in the early 40s are still classified to this day, which I confess is suspicious: to my mind, why classified, if there were nothing serious going on? So that’s interesting. Maybe we are all guilty of not taking Hemingway seriously enough.

FBI Agent Joe Lucas narrates this novel, looking back after decades – after Hemingway’s 1961 suicide – to recall his brief acquaintance with “the writer” (often referred to as such) in 1942-43. This flashback is told in present tense. Lucas has been sent down to Havana by Director J. Edgar Hoover to keep an eye on Hemingway as he plays spy on his thirty-eight-foot fishing boat, hunting German subs and trying to intercept radio transmissions. Hem has put together a ragtag group he calls the “Crook Factory,” of amateurs including little boys, local bartenders and Spanish exiles – and Lucas, who figures he’s been put out to pasture on this ridiculous mission. Lucas is derisive in his dismissal of Hemingway’s silly games; but serious things keep happening, and he keeps wondering why these seem like important events when of course they could not be… and this incredulity lasts long enough to strain my own faith in Lucas’s character, as he’s supposed to be this great agent and simultaneously awfully slow to figure out that the Gulf action is real deal, man.

This book has a few things going for it: an incredibly unlikely, wild, action-filled story; Hemingway’s undeniable charisma; name-dropping Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper, Ian Fleming, John F. Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich, and more. Putting Hemingway in one’s own fiction is tricky, though. The man was so nearly a caricature of himself that it’s too easy to write him as one; but the man in real life forced people to take him seriously, too, so he walked a fine line between ridiculous and deadly serious, that many writers find difficult to properly evoke. I’ve read maybe a dozen fictionalizations of him, and I’d say half or so get it right. Simmons’s Hemingway does not ring true for me. The reader drives me a little crazy; he strikes the right note for the hard-boiled spy-thriller, I suppose, but I don’t think he does Hemingway well. The man comes out sounding kind of high and nasal-y, which doesn’t feel right at all. (There aren’t many recordings of Hem’s voice, but they do exist.) Part of this is the reader, but part of it too is Simmons’s writing of the man. It feels like he couldn’t decide whether he was satirizing Hem or taking him seriously. And Gellhorn here is a nagging shrew – this, more the author’s fault, although again I’m not crazy about the way she’s performed – which I don’t think is remotely fair. She was a strong woman – the most independent of his wives – and they certainly fought, but this screeching nag felt wrong.

I was frequently frustrated as well by the silliness of the plot, but again, with Simmons’s afterword I feel a little chastened – I don’t feel qualified to quibble with the line between fact and fiction here. I’ve read several Hemingway biographies, but it’s been years, and none of them focused especially on these years. Simmons certainly offers a wilder version of this episode than I’d read before. It felt like fiction, but fact is stranger than.

While on that topic, though, I want to note the dialog between the Hemingway character and that of the narrator Joe Lucas, an FBI man with no patience for fiction. Hem defends his novels and the truer-than-true nature of fiction, saying “that’s why I write fiction rather than fact.” Wait, what?? Is Simmons unaware of the nine full-length works of nonfiction published by Hemingway, including the canonical A Moveable Feast and Death in the Afternoon?! The man decidedly wrote both fact and fiction. For goodness sake, he got his start in journalism. Simmons lost a lot of credibility in that line.

The plot is strong, if a bit incredible. Characters are shaky; Lucas himself felt a bit overdrawn, as well as my concerns about Hem. And Simmons may be a bit too invested in detail: FBI dossiers, the finer points of codes and code-breaking… I think the story could have been exciting, and more engaging, at two-thirds this length, or less. I found myself involved enough to stick it out, which is no small thing with this audiobook of twenty-one hours. I repeatedly thought about quitting, but I stuck around, because I wanted to see what happened. So I guess that’s an endorsement of sorts. Certainly, my interest is piqued about the events in question.

Pretty mixed review on this one. For a Hemingway completist like myself, it’s worth a try. Simmons has many fans; maybe you’ll love him, too.


Rating: 6 five-letter sequences.

movies: When They See Us (2019) and The Central Park Five (2012)

I was keyed up for the release of When They See Us as a Netflix original miniseries at the beginning of June. (I’m treating it here as a movie, especially because “limited series” seems like such a downplay for a serious work of art and social commentary.) I viewed the four episodes in three evenings, rushing through, feeling both addicted and horrified, unable to look away. I thought I was prepared for the subject matter, but I was shocked beyond expectations.

The show handles events from 1989, when five boys (four Black, one Puerto Rican and Black) were arrested for the brutal rape and beating of a white woman jogging in Central Park. Their names are Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, and Korey Wise. Although there was no evidence linking them to the crime, and although their confessions were full of holes and inconsistencies and signs of police coercion, they were found guilty. The four younger boys, ages fourteen to fifteen, were sentenced to between five and ten years. Korey Wise was sixteen, and received ten to fifteen, entering adult prison directly. In 2002, another man in prison for a series of rapes, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime, and Korey (still incarcerated) was released, and all five men’s convictions were vacated.

It’s a terribly painful story to see unfold. On the April night in 1989, we see a large group of boys running through Central Park and acting out. They push at and harass bicyclists. They beat up a man. It’s easy to see how things escalate: boys roughhousing, and then some of them take it a step too far; imagine yourself one of those boys. You’re not responsible for the actions of those you’re with; you don’t even know all of them. It turns out that the jogger was raped in the same park on the same night, beaten within an inch of her life. Three of the boys who would become known as the Central Park Five were arrested that night. The next day, police came looking for Yusef Salaam. His friend Korey was with him when they take him in, and agreed to come along, just for moral support. In an ugly-ironic twist, Korey would serve the longest sentence for this crime in which none of the Five had any involvement.

It’s unsurprising that When They See Us knocks it out of the park with Ava DuVernay as creator, co-writer and director. Under her guidance, we see the boys running through Central Park. We see them picked up by police, and interrogated without parents present for hours and hours, without bathroom breaks or food; we see them pushed around, threatened, and coached through their false confessions. We see them in court and then in prison; we see them get out and hug their families and try to put their lives back together. We see Reyes confess to the rape. I am deeply impressed by the acting performances given by both the young actors (portraying the teenaged boys) and adults. I am horrified, over and over again.

I’m glad (well, that’s a weird word) to see the story of Korey Wise’s sister given air time, too: Marci was a trans woman murdered while he was incarcerated, who we meet only through flashbacks, as he weathers solitary confinement by living in a dream world largely starring this much-loved older sister. The story of a murdered Black trans woman is unfortunately common still today, and Marci deserved this coverage. She is beautifully played by Isis King.

I was also intrigued to meet the very sympathetic (in both senses) character of Roberts, a white prison guard who goes out of his way to be kind and generous to Korey, even holding him in an embrace when he finds out about Marci’s death. Roberts does not appear to come from real life (go figure). He was a sweet departure, but his totally fiction existence feels like a final driving-home of the horror of this true story.

I find the title interesting, too. I can think of several ways to follow this phrase, from ‘when they see us, they only see one thing/they think they know us,’ to ‘when they see us, then, finally, we’ll get justice,’ in the sense that we mean when we say it feels good to be seen. The story is so clearly about racism, about the way in which these boys, these children, were handled as proxy for everything that the world feared about Black men in 1980s New York. A white woman was raped, and they came for the Central Park Five just like they came for Emmett Till. And they were just babies: that’s one of the advantages of seeing and not just reading about this story, seeing the faces of these boys and realizing how very young they were.

I think this was everything it needed to be. As a crime drama, it’s gripping and moving. As social commentary, it’s thorough in its criticisms: the cops and prosecutors demonize themselves through their actions. I wept more than once. It’s also a visually impressive piece of art – this is where I’d normally call it visually pleasing, but of course that’s the wrong adjective – it’s full of expressive images, from the wide-angle view of boys in the park to the interrogation rooms and prison cells, and expansiveness of the outdoors to a man freed. I am still recovering emotionally from this story. Well done, DuVernay and full cast.

After feeling so affected by this show, I went looking for more, which led me to the documentary covering the same events from seven years earlier. The Central Park Five did much of the same job as the Netflix series, but with original footage and the perspectives of the men looking back from years later. Necessarily, it offered a less complete view of past events, because it stuck to the footage available; we don’t see police hit or threaten or coach the boys’ confessions, obviously, but we see the taped confessions, and we see the faces of the five boys and, later, men themselves. (Antron McCray allowed the use of his voice and not his image, as an adult.)

There was not much more of the story to be gained here, then, but an advantage in seeing it come from the people actually involved. I appreciated seeing what each character looked like, in comparison to the actor(s) who played them. I enjoyed seeing period footage of New York in general, too. I think it’s probably a good documentary, but it suffers some by comparison to When They See Us, which has the obvious advantage of being able to show more – whatever DuVernay wants to depict – and more dramatically. Having the two together feels like the right final call, of course, for the viewer wanting to explore this subject matter. I’m very impressed with both.

As a final remark, I want to say that I have a friend who has come into personal contact with Linda Fairstein, the evil, racist prosecutor in this story. This friend had her own horrible experience, which upholds what we learn about Fairstein here. Friend, I am sorry again for what happened to you. We’re decades late, but I’m glad everybody’s now talking about her and holding her responsible for some of her actions. Fairstein has enjoyed a career as a crime novelist until just recently: following a social media campaign, her publisher, Dutton, a Penguin Random House imprint, has ended the relationship. Small progress.


Rating: an average 8.5 years for these two fine films.
%d bloggers like this: