podcast: the “Seeing White” series from Scene on Radio

“Seeing White” is a 2017 series on the podcast Scene on Radio, from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (in a very podcast-rich part of the country, it seems to me). Host John Biewen (a white guy) is upset by racial injustice in the United States, and curious about the invisible forces that go beyond simple, mean, interpersonal racism and account for the systemic, institutional forms that do still more damage and are less easily identified. Noting that our discussions about race tend to manifest as discussions of people or communities of color, he wants to “turn the lens” back on whiteness. What the heck is that?

My father recommended this podcast series to me, pretty forcefully, and my first reaction was to say, 2017? His recommendation came in the height of this summer, the summer of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and a new energy behind BLM protests, and it felt a little weird to look back three years for an angle on these events. Three years is kind of a short time, but also rather a long time, in the evolution of our (national-level) thinking on race. Well, I was wrong about the timeliness concern. While the most recent event markers have changed – Charlottesville being the landmark event when this podcast was released – the conversations we need have not. I’m adding my voice to my dad’s: this podcast presents ideas, facts, and history to help along that conversation, one that I found thought-provoking and useful, and that I absolutely still think is useful – nay, imperative – in 2020.

John Biewen and Chenjerai Kumanyika

Biewen examines whiteness via conversations with experts and scholars, including historians, researchers, and educators. On each episode (save one, I think), he then consults and reviews his new content with Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika, professor of critical cultural media studies, cultural industries, “and things like that” at Clemson University and then Rutgers. Kumanyika (a Black man) serves as a sounding board and a gut-check for Biewen, there to offer both a personal and an expert perspective and make sure Biewen doesn’t head off in any funky directions; he’s the Black friend, which is a concept that should give us some pause. (I hope he got paid for his role here.) But the two are friends in the real world, and Kumanyika signs on for this project eyes-open. The two do share a joke about his role: “You’re not asking me to speak for all people of color, are you?” “Yes! of course!” “Well good. Because that’s what I do…”

Big, complicated topics here; writing this review/response is intimidating, but here’s my best effort.

I thank my parents and my upbringing for the fact that I’m not new to concerns about race and racism. But it’s clear to me, too, that nobody (and most particularly no white person) can sit back contented, thinking that she’s got it all worked out. To be a good anti-racist means being constantly ready to keep learning and finding out where I’ve been wrong. One of the greatest offerings of “Seeing White,” for me, was its help in wrestling with a certain concept. 1) I see and understand that race is a social construct in our society, rather than a biological fact; that makes sense to me. 2) And yet race is also a reality in our society and culture: it affects people’s experiences in education, law enforcement, finance, real estate, health care, and so much more; we have a (wildly imperfect) system of identifying people by race just by looking at them. So 3) How can race be both made up and a reality at the same time? …I don’t think I would have articulated this philosophical puzzle before listening to the podcast, but it’s definitely been a puzzle for me for some time. After listening, I feel like I have a better handle on it. Race is indeed both a reality within our culture, and something we made up. We’ve manifested it. Suzanne Plihcik of the Racial Equity Institute, episode 2:

We know, for example, since the human genome project, that we are 99.9% genetically the same. There is more genetic variation in a flock of penguins than there is in the human race. There is more genetic variation within groups that have come to be called races than there is across groups that have come to be called races.

However, after more than 400 years of entrenched racism, discrimination, and enforced segregation on this continent, we have built in differences that weren’t there. Health disparities are not a result of racial difference, but a result of different treatment over lifetimes and generations.

From episode 8, Dorothy Roberts, professor of law, Africana Studies and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and leading scholar on racial science:

The sickle cell example is the resort of people who know that there’s a mountain of evidence showing that race is an invented category, and so they grasp at sickle cell all the time… Peoples who live in areas where there’s malaria have developed this mutation, or have a higher prevalence of this mutation, because it protects against malaria. But it’s not confined to Africa, it’s not present in all of Africa, and so it simply is not a ‘Black’ disease. It just says nothing about race whatsoever. It’s linked to groups that developed in areas where there’s a lot of malaria, that’s all.

This was a lightbulb moment for me: sickle cell has nothing to do with race! It’s about where the mosquitoes are!

So yes, 1) race is a social construct and simultaneously 2) race is a reality in our culture because 3) we have made it one, over centuries of social construction. Which means that 4) we have to consciously, purposefully, effortfully, and over years, decades, possibly more centuries, deconstruct it. Race and racism will not go away because we wish them to, and they certainly won’t go away because we turn our gazes in another direction and claim to not see color. We made this, and it’s now on us to unmake it, at personal and collective cost.

There is much to be gained and learned here, no matter how openminded you think you are.

I think perhaps the best single episode to catch might be the penultimate, episode 13: “White Affirmative Action.” This episode spells out in hard facts and figures and a thorough study of history how white people have gotten ahead, methodically, throughout American history, how we’ve been given advantages at the expense of other groups. It offers some good answers to those who would say “How could I owe reparations? I was born in 19–. My people didn’t even own slaves. My people only came over in (whatever year).” Etc. Answer: if you’ve been white in this country for more than a few minutes, you’ve benefitted from institutional racism, period. Even if you’re well meaning. Even if you didn’t want to. Even if you’re not, personally, racist. Even if you grew up poor! (I’ve linked to it before, but still good: “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.”) To become better versed in explaining this concept, I highly recommend episode 13. (For the record, I am absolutely in favor of paying reparations to Black Americans.)

I’m barely scratching the surface of what’s available in these 14 podcast episodes, of course. I am not particularly qualified to teach this content to you, but what I can do is offer my review: this is deep and rich and complicated content, excellently explained and articulated and discussed, in fairly manageable chunks. Spend some time with it. Improve yourself and try and improve the world.

Good tip, Pops. Thanks.


Rating: 9 questions to sit with.

Saint Monkey by Jacinda Townsend

Disclosure: Jacinda is a friend and I love her.


Saint Monkey is a rich novel full of detail, color, sound, and texture. In the 1950s, two girls, Audrey and Caroline, grow up as neighbors and (mostly) friends on the “colored” side of the small community of Mt. Sterling, Kentucky. For all that happens to both of them as they grow into womanhood, it is the rocky relationship between them that’s the heart of this book. Audrey is bookish and quiet (Caroline, in her head, calls her Poindexter), while Caroline is a bit more out in the world; the latter dreams of making it to Hollywood, but it is passive Audrey who gets out. Each girl loses a parent in childhood, and halfway loses the other as well: Audrey’s father is killed fighting in Korea, her mother then descending into the bottle; Caroline’s father brutally murders her mother and is then incarcerated (although not for long). These tragedies do not serve to bring them together. Often halfheartedly, but with enormous talent, Audrey plays the piano, and it is this that gets her spotted by a talent scout and packed onto a train for New York City. There she plays in the house band at the Apollo and gets romanced by a man the reader recognizes at once is not worth it. Meanwhile, back home, Caroline samples the young men in town and chooses not to respond to Audrey’s letters.

The novel alternates between the first-person perspectives of the two girls, so that we get Audrey’s close observations of her beloved friend, her earnest hopes and fears, her tentativeness, then Caroline’s brash, prickly, brave face and the vulnerability underneath. Their voices are distinct, and Caroline’s humor and vernacular is one of the highlights of the book, for me. From both angles, this is a world fine-grained and full of sensory details – rich, lush, dense with them – such that I had to slow down to take it all in. Saint Monkey‘s pace is unhurried; we’re here to look around and think and feel, not rush through lives that are hard enough in the first place. There is plenty of hardship: poverty, various forms of abuse, and the persistent low hum of abuse that is being both Black and female.

Audrey loves her grandfather. She loves living in Harlem and playing at the Apollo, loves the scene and even the music, for all that she approached it lackadaisically at first; she loves the man who becomes her husband, although I don’t. But she loves Caroline most of all. Caroline in turn relates to everything and everyone with a simmering rage, including her childhood friend, Poindexter; but the preoccupation is mutual. For all that this book is wide-ranging and handles well so many subjects – segregation, local culture, settings, music, families, frustration, and Caroline’s exquisite voice – I think it’s most about that intersection between two women who can neither come together nor separate. It’s fairly rare that a book insists that I slow down the way this one did. (I think the last was Giovanni’s Room, which is referenced in this one, of course.) I look forward to reading more like this: vibrant voices and the true emotions of human relationships. Look out for Townsend’s second novel to come from Graywolf in 2022.


Rating: 8 cases of cosmetics.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Ominous events throw two families together and off-balance in this captivating, thought-provoking novel.

Rumaan Alam (Rich and Pretty; That Kind of Mother) thrills and unsettles with Leave the World Behind, a novel about family and other relationships, getting what’s desired and reactions in the face of crisis.

The story begins mid-road trip, a white family of four on their way from the city to their vacation rental. Amanda is an account director in advertising, Clay an English professor; Archie is 15, Rose 13. They have an apartment in Brooklyn (“really Cobble Hill”) and a mid-range sedan somewhere between luxurious and bohemian. “The life they had was perfect,” Amanda frequently reflects, and yet they are jealous of their well-appointed Airbnb, its idealized decor and the imagined lives of its owners. The four of them enjoy the house, the pool, the beach. Their vacation is perfect if a little boring, like the family. Alam’s narrative and descriptions are gorgeously detailed and impeccably paced, so that this is a story for readers to sink into, effortless and comfortable, even sumptuous. Until a knock comes at the door.

Ruth and G.H. are the owners of the vacation home, and the arrival of the older couple in the middle of the night is disturbing enough, but their story is stranger: a blackout in New York City, fear driving them out into the country, invading the family’s perfect getaway. Amanda is suspicious. Unexpectedly, Ruth and G.H. are Black. Amanda wonders if it wouldn’t make more sense for them to clean this beautiful house, rather than own it.

The almost entirely undefined external situation–the reported blackout, loss of cell and Internet services, televisions reduced to blank blue screens–forces the four adults and two teenagers together and holds them there, a delicious narrative device that leaves them simmering. The resulting tension touches on generational differences, gender dynamics, class and race–Clay and Amanda are self-conscious of their faux-benign racism, and the story serves subtly as a criticism of social norms. There is a note of the locked-room mystery and heaps of foreboding. Readers gets meticulous details of Amanda’s grocery shopping and the vacation home’s furnishings, but the extent and nature of the outside threat is delivered in mere hints. “Some people got sick, because that was their constitution. Others listened and realized how little they understood about the world.”

Leave the World Behind is pitch-perfect in atmosphere, easy to read and deceptive in the high polish of its setting. Alam has crafted a deeply bewitching and disquieting masterpiece.


This review originally ran in the September 4, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 green porcelain lamps.

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

Extra long review today.

I have owned this book for years and years. I have no idea why it’s taken me this long to read it. I have many times referenced a quotation on page 92: “perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” (My copy of the book falls open naturally to page 92 and the line is highlighted. It’s pretty weird to have this relationship with a book I’d never read before.)

The novel’s narrator is a young man named David, an American who has been living in Paris. The book opens: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.” He takes much of the book, however, to reveal what is so terrible about the morning to come. One of Baldwin’s interesting artistic choices here is a disjointed chronology; the story is told from this night-before-the-terrible-morning, in flashbacks, which sometimes jump backward and forward in time, and then we return to the night and the terrible morning. David had been in Paris with a woman named Hella. When he proposed, she left to go travel in Spain; she needed time and space to think things through. She’s an independent woman. In her absence, David accompanies a sort of frenemy, Jacques, to a gay bar, where he strikes up a conversation with the bartender. (Jacques had intended to hit on him, but got distracted.) This is Giovanni, a young Italian man, with whom David finds interesting conversation, mutual attraction, and a very complicated set of feelings: push/pull, desire/revulsion, love/hate. They go back to Giovanni’s room, and they live together there until Hella’s return some months later, when David leaves (saying nothing to Giovanni) to return to her. She has decided she wants to be married, and David is too bound up and self-loathing to stay with the man he loves. Giovanni is distraught. I will not spoil the plot item that is the “most terrible morning of [David’s] life.”

The story is told in David’s first-person perspective, and it is full of angst and disquiet. I don’t think he’s supposed to be remotely likeable. He’s disappointed in his relationship with his father, in his relations with women (including but not especially Hella), in his feelings for men (before Giovanni, there was a boy in his boyhood as well, though he has repressed this memory), in his view of his own masculinity. He struggles with the ideas of home and belonging, both in terms of geography and identity. He is a miserable partner to Giovanni, and we are left with the impression at the book’s end that David will walk away from these events angsty as ever but materially fine, while Giovanni most certainly does not.

Giovanni’s Room has a handful of themes and angles for interpretation, but there are a few that especially interest me.

For one thing, I think the novel is very much about power structures. Jacques, the friend who takes David to the bar, is older and richer; David doesn’t actually like or respect him but wants to borrow (or “borrow”) money. Giovanni’s (also older) boss at the bar holds an analogous power over his employee: as an immigrant, Giovanni’s work prospects are few, and Guillaume is an egregious sexual harasser. David and Giovanni have a twisted codependency, and the power dynamics within their relationship are complicated. Giovanni works while David keeps house (some basic cleaning duties, but he is clearly anxious about the housewifeliness of it all). David comes from a far more secure background, economically, although he’s effectively broke on the ground in Paris because his father won’t send him any money. By contrast, Giovanni is in real danger of homelessness and starvation if anything goes wrong in his life. David withholds emotional intimacy; Giovanni is always chasing after something he can’t get from his partner. As discussed with my friend Vince, though, I think there’s an argument that each is obsessed with the other, in different ways. Then there is Hella, the strong woman who fled a marriage proposal to travel alone: she returns changed, suddenly dedicated to a life in which she explicitly wishes to be beholden to a man. She’s decided it is women’s only option, only way to truly live. (Vomit: but this is the 1950s.) I think in the end, David’s anxieties about manhood and masculinity, and his distress at his homosexuality (bisexuality?), are in some ways about power structures, too.

On a related subject: the elephant in the room here is that Baldwin’s protagonist is a blonde-haired white man. I felt surprise when I discovered this (as do many readers), which bears examination. Who do we expect to write about whom? Clearly I expected Baldwin, a Black man, to write Black characters. (To be fair, he has done so in all the other works of his I’ve read, but that’s not the root of my assumptions.) Baldwin was also a gay man, and an American who lived in Paris: he gave his protagonist these characteristics of his own, but not race. What does it mean, for one thing. And, this is too big a subject to be properly handled within this review, but it’s also part of the ongoing question about representation in fiction: what identities are represented, by what authors (of what identities), who gets to be the “default,” and on from there. Elsewhere Baldwin has written his frustration that, as a Black man, he’s expected to write about “the Negro problem,” and never allowed out from under that bell jar. Here he just turned his back on the topic entirely (or did he?), and if I felt surprise, or even if I felt a bit cheated, this is a good time to be reminded that he doesn’t owe his readers any content in particular. He is quoted in The New Yorker: “I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’ The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it.”

There is an argument that racial tension does appear in Giovanni’s Room. Giovanni is Italian in France, and there is no question that this is a) racial and b) a disadvantage for Giovanni. Baldwin does not go Heart of Darkness with darkness imagery, not in terms of skin tone: when we meet Giovanni, he is “insolent and dark and leonine,” but that is the only mention I found. There is however a lot of darkness imagery in the story: mainly related to spaces being dark, which can be related to their boding ill, to privacy, to queerness, to the shame David feels about this and other liaisons. Based on the above quotation from Baldwin, it sounds like he either did not intend commentary on race, or he didn’t want to acknowledge it; it’s entirely possible that any such commentary was subconscious, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I think there’s an undeniable power imbalance between the blonde David and the Italian Giovanni, which is most explicitly about class, rather than race – but since when have class and race ever been extricable? And let’s keep in mind that Italian immigrants to the United States (where both Baldwin and David grew up) were historically considered very much not white, although that would change shortly after this book was published.

Physical spaces, and a sense of home and the belonging that it entails, make up another theme that fascinates me here. (Recall that line marked in my copy.) As I keep reminding my students: pay attention to titles; they are trying to tell us something. This novel is not titled for the story of David, or of Giovanni, or for love, or death; it is titled for the room. Giovanni’s room is the place where he and David live and love together, a life and love which David feels are dirty, and sinful. It is rather obsessively described and recalled, always in negative terms. Small, claustrophobic, dirty, untidy, in a state of change (“Giovanni had had great plans for remodeling the room and there was a time, when he had actually begun to do this, when we lived with plaster all over everything and bricks piled on the floor”), cluttered, garbage-filled, dark. It is like living underwater. Other spaces where David does sinful things are also dark and dirty, as are corridors, alleys, and the spaces under bridges where men tryst, and the bars where they meet. David leaves Giovanni’s room to go to Hella’s. He never has a space of his own. The book opens and closes in the “great house” in the south of France which he must clean before he leaves it. He is embarrassed for the landlady to see the state he’s kept these rooms in. All of this accrues to anxiety about place and about spaces, and the connection between spaces and the activities they contain. None of which even begins to address the American-expat-in-Paris problem, which is a whole genre of novels unto itself (see also Stein, Hemingway, Henry James). Whew.

[I was reminded of Hemingway often. The American expat in Paris; certain aspects of character, like detachment and resistance to intimacy (others have cited Jake from The Sun Also Rises); a writing style that lends itself both to brevity as well as syntactic complexity; an insecure obsession with masculinity. I wonder if I project my own reading history. But no, Baldwin has named Hem as an influence. It shows.]

In addition to home as irrevocable condition, consider this Schrodinger’s cat between Giovanni and David.

‘…you will go home and then you will find that home is not home anymore. Then you will really be in trouble. As long as you stay here, you can always think: One day I will go home.’…

‘Beautiful logic,’ I said. ‘You mean I have a home to go to as long as I don’t go there?’

He laughed. ‘Well, isn’t it true? You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.’

‘I seem,’ I said, ‘to have heard this song before.’

I’ve heard it before, too: the version I like comes via Maya Angelou in a 1987 interview. “You can never go home again,” is the famously quoted version. The completion of her fuller line is instructive. “You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.” Okay, I’m revealing my own obsessions now, but I think it’s safe to say that Baldwin shares them (and David, too).

This review has gotten awfully long, and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to interpret and interrogate about this novel, brief at under 200 pages and yet deep and rich. What can I say about Baldwin? Go read him yourself.


Rating: 8 glasses.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I picked this book up blind, not knowing what was inside, and it was a roller coaster. Often painful and uncomfortable, but often delightful and hilarious. I love the protagonist and her fierce best friend; I struggled with the difficult subject matter. I think it’s a very fine work of fiction, with the added appeal of social issues we need to be thinking about. I encourage you to stop reading now and go buy this book. If you need more convincing, keep reading.

Emira is a 25-year-old Black woman in Philadelphia. She’s part of a foursome of friends who take care of each other, and this is where the book opens, at Shaunie’s birthday party. Emira is also getting a little nervous about that big question of what she’s going to do with herself; with her life; for money. Soon she’ll get dropped by her parents’ health insurance, and she has a college degree but nothing that really calls to her in a professional career sort of way. (I am deeply empathetic. This was me at 25, and in some ways it’s me now.) She works part-time as a transcriptionist and part-time as a babysitter for a wealthy white family. She is completely crazy about the three-year-old daughter she cares for there, and she’s really good at her job.

The opening ‘inciting incident’ is this: Emira is pulled away from Shaunie’s birthday party when her employer, Mrs. Chamberlain, calls and asks her for help. It’s not exactly a babysitting time of night, but the cops are about to show up to the Chamberlains’ house (just a little disturbance), and they’d like the three-year-old, Briar, not to be there. Emira takes the child to a nearby grocery store to browse. She’s getting paid double, and Mrs. Chamberlain doesn’t mind at all that Emira’s not dressed for childcare. Well, can you guess? The store security questions why this young Black woman has a little white girl with her. They harass and eventually hold her until Mr. Chamberlain arrives. It’s a scene. Somebody films it, although Emira begs him not to share the video.

The evening ends with Emira walking away, ostensibly unharmed. “This was a video about racism that you could watch without seeing any blood or ruining the rest of your day.” But of course it has lasting repercussions for Emira, and for a few people in her circle.

I’ve only given away the first few pages of the novel. The rest of it shifts between the POVs of Emira and Mrs. Chamberlain, and Emira continues as Briar’s babysitter. Her distress over her place in the world – financially, professionally – grows. She gets a boyfriend, a situation that is both pleasing and a source of further angst (as boyfriends are). Her friends are awesome, but as they get promotions and better apartments, there’s a certain distance. Emira is still crazy about Briar, who is a frantic talker, a little nervous, not particularly girly or ladylike, and who adores Mira in turn. Mrs. Chamberlain is… a lot. It’s unflattering to describe her: hung up on appearances, insecure, adrift in a new place (recently moved to Philly from NYC, and she clearly feels that Philadelphia is NOT cool). She has a business and a brand, but she’s losing her grip on it. She’s not a likeable person; but she is a realistic one. I can’t like her, but I can sympathize, here and there. And then there’s a character from Mrs. Chamberlain’s past who complicates things considerably.

This is a story, on one level, about race. Emira’s just trying to live her life, and leave the night at the grocery store behind, but the world throws a lot of barriers at a young Black woman. A handful of ‘white saviors’ get in her way with their ostensibly well-meaning but thoroughly obnoxious interferences. It’s also about ‘the anxiety of affluence,’ and the intersections of race with class, and societal expectations. (A certain Black character plays a passable version of white savior, herself.) This is why I say the story is often painful and uncomfortable: these forces in our world are uncomfortable, and that’s why this book is important. But as a novel, make no mistake: this is not an earnest, humorless political take. It tackles serious subjects, but it also knows how to have a good time. I smiled as often as I squirmed.

Kiley Reid is a hell of a writer; the writing, as I sometimes say, disappears; I was right there with Mrs. Chamberlain and Emira in turn. Dialog is snappy. The nastiness and self-deception is too real. Mrs. Chamberlain (Alix) commits various microaggressions (as well as some regular macroaggressions), but to encounter them told through her own POV is extra creepy.

[Mrs. Chamberlain] knew Emira had gone to college. She knew Emira had majored in English. But sometimes… Alix was filled with feelings that went from confused and highly impressed to low and guilty in response to the first reaction. There was no reason for Emira to be unfamiliar with this word. And there was no reason for Alix to be impressed. Alix completely knew these things, but only when she reminded herself to stop thinking them in the first place.

A powerful, realistic story, and one we should be paying attention to, also crafted as a masterful work of fiction: this book is highly recommended and Kiley Reid is one to watch. I agree with the back-of-book blurb that calls Such a Fun Age “written so confidently it’s hard to believe it’s a first novel.”


Rating: 9 bags of groceries.

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, illustrated by Fumi Nakamura

World of Wonders is a lovely, thoughtful series of meditations, charmingly illustrated, with love and awe on every page but never shying away from the prickliness of life.

Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Oceanic) stuns with her nonfiction debut, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, delightfully illustrated by Fumi Nakamura. These essays explore the natural world and the human experience, finding parallels, meaning and beauty in the intersections.

“A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun,” Nezhukumatathil begins. This is an apt and representative line: place-specific, beautifully phrased, with reference to some of the identities these essays will explore. They are mostly titled for the plants and creatures they center–peacock, comb jelly, narwhal, dancing frog–with a few exceptions, such as the expressively named “Questions While Searching for Birds with My Half-White Sons, Aged Six and Nine, National Audubon Bird Count Day in Oxford, MS.” The red-spotted newt and dragon fruit that title their respective essays receive Nezhukumatathil’s attentive study and yes, wonder, but the author’s own experience is always a second thread. She brings a poet’s ear for language and an eye for commonality and metaphor, both reverent of the natural world and specific in her personal story.

Fireflies, touch-me-nots and flamingoes offer her a way to talk about being a brown girl in a white man’s world, growing up in the era of Stranger Danger and feeling disjointed between continents. A young Aimee is asked to draw an animal for a class assignment in Phoenix, Ariz. She responds with a resplendent peacock, India’s national bird, but is chastised and asked for an American bird. Her bald eagle wins a prize but causes her shame. Fumi Nakamura’s accompanying illustrations are whimsical and warm–who doesn’t love an axolotl’s smile?–and sweetly complement Nezhukumatathil’s prose.

World of Wonders offers a series of brief naturalist lessons, but is perhaps at its best in drawing connections, as between the axolotl’s smile and what to do “if a white girl tries to tell you what your brown skin can and cannot wear for makeup.” When it goes boom, “the cassowary is still trying to tell us something.” “And just like the potoo, who is rewarded for her stillness by having her lunch practically fly right to her mouth–perhaps you could try a little tranquility, find a little tenderness in your quiet. Who knows what feathered gifts await?” Wisdom, wonder and beauty make this slim collection one to treasure.


This review originally ran in the August 11, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 pale berries growing in spite of the dark.

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

On South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation, local enforcer Virgil Wounded Horse is faced with a challenging and personal case.


David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s first novel, Winter Counts, is a gripping story of crime investigation set on the Lakota Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Virgil Wounded Horse is cynical. He can’t imagine not living on the rez, but he’s more than skeptical of Indian spirituality and ritual, and doesn’t feel very connected to his people; his memories of being bullied in school are too fresh. Now that both his parents and his sister are dead, he doesn’t have much family to feel loyal to–but he is devoted to his orphaned nephew, Nathan, now a teenager who shares his home.

Virgil makes his living as a private enforcer. Tribal police have very limited powers, and the feds don’t bother with much on the reservation short of murder, so the Lakota often resort to hiring someone like Virgil to deliver vigilante justice. Now he gets to beat up his former bullies, and earn a few bucks doing so. It’s not necessarily work to take pride in, though, especially in the eyes of his ex-girlfriend’s politically powerful family. So Virgil is surprised when her father, a tribal council member, asks for his help. And he’s even more surprised when the case brings Marie back into his life.

It seems a local small-time pot dealer might be moving up into dealing heroin on the reservation. And when Nathan accidentally overdoses, it all becomes very real, with high stakes. Virgil will end up traveling all over the rez and down to Denver to try to track this latest crime wave. The scope of the case quickly grows beyond this private enforcer’s comfort zone, and he has a renewed romance to manage, while trying to keep Nathan safe at the same time. Out-of-town gangs, heavy hitters and hard drugs challenge Virgil’s skills. To keep all these threads together, he may need to reconnect with his Native roots, after all.

While Weiden’s prose is serviceable, his sympathetic characters and gripping plot keep readers engaged. Action and suspense are special strengths, and Weiden, himself a member of the Lakota nation, brings valuable perspective to the lives and experiences of his characters. The setting of Winter Counts offers an important and overlooked glimpse at the particular challenges faced by Native Americans, especially concerning crime and justice. But make no mistake: at the heart of this crime novel is a fight for the future of Rosebud Reservation and the lives of Virgil, Nathan, Marie and many more for whom this place is home. Tightly paced, compelling, realistic and deeply felt, Winter Counts offers a fresh take on the crime thriller.


This review originally ran in the July 30, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 glasses of Shasta.

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.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Recommended by Liz to help break my reading slump. I picked up Pachinko as an e-book from my local library, and saw the descriptors ‘multigenerational epic,’ among others, go by as I opened it. Now, normally ‘multigenerational’ and ‘epic’ are both turnoffs for me, but I trust Liz entirely. And it’s a great book – maybe I should consider more multigenerational epics.

The cultural backdrop was fascinating to me, and almost entirely new. Pachinko is set in Korea and Japan, following a family of Koreans who become Korean Japanese, across most of the twentieth century. The cultural implications – the perceptions of Koreans in Japan – were a big part of the appeal, and the point, of this novel. I learned a lot. And as far as that (potential) ‘multigenerational epic’ problem, any hesitations I might have felt were well taken care of by Min Jin Lee’s excellent handling of a large cast of characters over time. I didn’t have any trouble keeping track of them, because each was well-developed and clearly delineated. I lived so thoroughly with these people that I still feel myself a little bit with them, even now it’s been a few days since I finished reading.

The first line of the book reads: “History has failed us, but no matter.” In 1910, in a little Korean fishing village, an old fisherman and his wife have a single son, Hoonie. Given his cleft palate and club foot, he considers himself lucky to marry at all. With his wife Yangjin he has a single surviving daughter, Sunja. She becomes pregnant as a young woman by an older, wealthy, married man. Therefore she also considers herself lucky to marry Izak, a young minister who considers it a charitable act to give her child legitimacy. Izak and Sunja go to live in Osaka, in Japan, with Izak’s brother and sister-in-law. Sunja’s first son is Noa; her second, with Izak, is Mozasu.

Sunja is surprised to find how poorly Koreans are treated in Japan. Back home her family was poor; here they are poor and abused. Circumstances are harder still during World War II, until Sunja’s first lover Hansu – Noa’s biological father – resurfaces to help the family. It turns out he’s been helping behind the scenes all along, which is not equally appreciated by all. When Noa learns the truth, he cuts all ties, and establishes a new life for himself in another city, where he represents himself as full Japanese. Both brothers wind up working in pachinko parlors, in different parts of the country and in different contexts.

Sunja and her dearly loved sister-in-law support the household, now including elderly Yangjin as well. Mozasu’s wife dies young. They have one son, Solomo, who attends college in New York, then returns to Japan with his Korean-American girlfriend. But even in 1989, Korean Japanese occupy a special sort of cultural no-man’s-land, unable to return to a national home that no longer exists (Korea in its pre-war form), and not accepted in Japan despite having been there, in many cases, for four and five generations.

The book’s central themes include cultural dislocation and (the myth of) racial difference; home, identity, and belonging; gender (there is a refrain that “a woman’s lot is to suffer”), class, and the stereotypes about pachinko (a totally legal, highly profitable and enormously powerful industry, but with continuing perceptions of criminality). It is a gorgeously rendered novel, rich with details and with food (which I love), and with wonderfully wrought characters: complex, complete, sympathetic but flawed. I loved the, yes, epic sense of time and scope, everything that Hoonie’s generation and Solomon’s do and do not have in common. I noted that when Sunja got pregnant out of wedlock, her mother did not shame her; she seemed sorry that her daughter would have a hard road to walk, but she never called her any names. Yoseb and Kyunghee take her in and ignore the elephant in the room. It is only when Hansu returns to their lives that there is a sense of shame. “A woman’s lot is to suffer”: if she has a baby out of wedlock, certainly; if her brother-in-law won’t let her work for a living; if her son finds out she’d been pregnant out of wedlock; because she must work long and hard from childhood until old age ends her life; because she must bow to the wishes of the men in her life. But also, a Korean’s lot in Japan is to suffer; and they will remain “Korean” even when it’s been several generations since anyone in the family saw Korean soil. That sense of cultural homelessness touched me deeply.

My ebook came with an interview with the author. Lee indicates that it was indeed the cultural situation of Korean Japanese that she wanted to explore with this novel. “Although the history of kings and rulers is unequivocally fascinating, I think that we are also hungry for the narrative history of ordinary people, who lack connections and material resources,” Lee says, and I couldn’t agree more: the narrative history of ordinary people is endlessly appealing to me, and beautifully accomplished here.

This is an absorbing novel of a world quite far from the one I know, but with people I easily recognized and related to. I could spend more time lost in Lee’s remarkable writing and characters. Definitely recommended.


Rating: 8 cups of kimchi.
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