Frère d’âme

I added David Diop’s Frère d’âme to my TBR by way of a review in the Karavan literary magazine, and to be honest I was a bit leery of it going in. The review was positive, but it gave the impression that the book was a gritty, grim, hyper-realistic portrayal of war, which is not a thing I’m usually into. I approached the book the same way I might approach eating a strange new vegetable: accepting that it might not be an enjoyable experience, but that it would at least be good for my (reading) health.

Frère d’âme is a wartime bildungsroman centered on the young Alfa Ndiaye, a Senegalese soldier in the French trenches of WWI. The book opens with the gruesome death of his best friend, adoptive brother, and “plus que frère” Modemba Diop in the battlefield, and from there on we follow Ndiaye through grief, trauma and regret.

That’s an incredibly pretentious way to describe the story but it’s the best I can do, I suppose.

Let’s get the content warning stuff out of the way first: there is plenty of frank description of gruesome wartime (and otherwise) acts. People are disemboweled, heads are blown off, and as a narrator Ndiaye doesn’t hesitate to describe all of this in detail, often repeating or lingering on the images.

But somehow the book is more dreamlike (if sometimes nightmarish) than gritty realism. The first-person narration keeps the reader in Ndiaye’s head rather than out in the action, and Ndiaye himself is so apparently unbothered by it that his descriptions of violence and gore become more surreal than anything else. Ndiaye’s language is also highly repetitive, not in a way to suggest that he lacks ideas or words but rather in a way that creates rhythm, like all of those iterations of “rosy-fingered Dawn” in The Odyssey. That rhythm also made it easy for me and my mediocre French to immediately get lost in Diop’s writing. There’s a certain musicality to it that draws you in. I bet the audiobook is a work of art.

I say “apparently” unbothered because the subtext is of course that Ndiaye is deeply traumatized by the death of his friend and by the brutality of war in general. The conversant tone in his language, along with the repetition and verbal tics (“je sais, j’ai compris” and variations thereof; “par la vérité de Dieu”), create speech patterns you might expect from someone talking to themselves; the deliberate attempt to shift the mind’s focus away from something painful.

I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that I’m of two minds about it. I’m not thrilled with the choice Diop made for the actual events, but I deeply appreciate the ambiguity he allows the reader for interpreting them. Are we watching Ndiaye have a mental breakdown, or is he genuinely possessed by the spirit of his dead friend? Why can’t it be both?

As with most of the French books I read, once I finished Frère d’âme I immediately picked up the Swedish translation (Om natten är allt blod svart). So far I’ve been pretty well satisfied with them, but this time around less so. Om natten isn’t a hatchet job on par with Stick or anything, but the rhythm is still…different. Here are the first three sentences:

“…je sais, j’ai compris, je n’aurais pas dû. Moi, Alfa Ndiaye, fils du très vieil homme, j’ai compris, je n’aurais pas dû. Par la vérité de Dieu, maintenant je sais.”

“…jag vet, jag förstår att jag inte borde ha gjort det. Jag, Alfa Ndiaye, son till den gamle, gamle mannen, förstår att jag inte borde ha gjort det. Vid Guds sanning vet jag det nu.”

I have my own opinions about how I would translate the French into Swedish, but I’m not about to pop off here and potentially make a fool of myself. I couldn’t grab a hold of the English translation before sitting down to write this post, so I have no idea how that fared, either (except to note that it won the International Booker Prize). Hopefully at some point an ebook version will appear in one of my US library apps.

Overall, Frère d’âme is a great example of why I think the checklist approach of my reading goals is at least a good start. It’s not a book I would have encountered if I weren’t making a deliberate effort to seek out different things, and my bookish life is that much richer for having read it.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I mentioned elsewhere on the Internet that unless you make a concerted effort to review your to-read list, it really becomes just a graveyard of aspirations. On this particular blog I used the graveyard metaphor in my review of The Jakarta Method, but originally I used it in a post elsewhere about Farewell to Manzanar, which I read over two years ago now: September 4, 2021, if Storygraph has it right. Farewell had been on my to-read list since probably around 2010 or so.

And yet I don’t have a post here about Farewell to Manzanar. I might have been too overwhelmed or too lazy or too whatever at the time, but I think another part of it was easily: what is there to say about a book like this one? There’s nothing I could say about this book that wouldn’t just be superfluous and trite, so why bother, in the end it would just come across as glib.

The same feeling prevails for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings but I want to at least push through that wall to say: here is a book I read. Not for the sake of getting anyone else to read the book, because it doesn’t exactly need more hype, but because I want as complete a record of my reading as possible. So, to that end: story time!

My sambo’s discovery of mid-century pulp magazines a couple of years ago led to him occasionally reading spooky poetry from publications like Weird Tales etc. on his Twitch stream. This, in turn, has led to occasional suggestions for other poems from viewers and regulars, which is how earlier this year he ended up asking me if I’d ever heard of Maya Angelou. I thought for a second that he was joking, since he’s usually extremely clued in to American (popular) culture, but no, the question was in earnest.

“Of course. She’s probably one of the premiere American poets of the twentieth century. National treasure.”

“Someone requested a poem by her today and it was almost impossible for me to get through it without crying.”

“Mm-hm. Like I said, national treasure.”

And yet I didn’t get around to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings until now. I’m glad that I read it but embarrassed it took this long.

Ixelles

Another book club book, this time for the local book club whose April meeting I may or may not have the schedule and mental fortitude to attend. (Not because of the club. Everyone is lovely. Rather, because work is busy.) I don’t keep too much track of assorted literary prizes, but I knew enough to know that De kommer att drunkna i sina mödrars tårar won the August Prize a couple of years ago, so when Johannes Anyuru’s Ixelles was tapped as our next pick I decided to read it. The premise was interesting, and I always prioritize book club picks that are Swedish originals instead of the English best-sellers I already hear too much about.

I still can’t decide if the problem was with the book or with me.

The problem could have been with me because I already spend most of my waking life* reading, writing, dealing with language, processing Swedish; there comes a point where, when I’m reading Swedish fiction, my brain doesn’t know what to do with words anymore. At that point the language triggers a near-synesthetic experience where my nose detects the faintest whiff of brackish water and I feel a salty taste at the back of my tongue, and it’s not anything fun or embodied or anything like being immersed in the language. It’s rather that point in the meal where you’ve had too much and the food no longer tastes good because your body is smashing all kinds of physiological buttons to get you to stop eating.

*I say “waking life” because despite everything, I still dream exclusively in English.

I had those moments a lot during Ixelles. In the book’s defense (since this is a me problem), I don’t think I would have had them if I had been reading the book during the off season. I also don’t think I would have had them if I had slowed down, taken my time, instead of trying to bulldozer my way through the library copy to get it returned in a timely manner.

But maybe the problem was with the book. I skimmed or even skipped substantial portions without losing the thread of the story, which I consider a flaw rather than a strength in a novel. The summary alludes to a tight, dramatic thriller (maybe that’s how we have to market books here in the birthplace of Nordic noir?) but what you end up with is a lot of plodding around: waxing poetic (hah) about the reality of voices, of fictional characters, and a lot of dialogue that doesn’t sound like how people actually talk but like scrapped lines from mildly interesting poetry. Occasionally some plot happens.

Ruth is a single teen mom. Or she was originally a teen mom, but now she’s well into adulthood. Her son, Em, is huge into a tabletop roleplaying game that I assume is Dungeons & Dragons but hey, we could pretend it’s Pathfinder since Anyuru never actually names it. (Would Wizards of the Coast raise a stink all the way in the US? Actually, knowing Wizards of the Coast, I wouldn’t be surprised.) Em’s father, Mio, was murdered before Em was born.

Ruth has a mysterious and cynical PR style job that is essentially a troll and astroturf factory on steroids. The first assignment we see her take, for example, is from an understated luxury men’s fashion line that has unwittingly become associated with a Belgian gang. This is obviously not the branding they’re looking for and so Ruth manages to create an artificial online brouhaha accusing the brand of being racist, which neatly solves the gang association.

The story really gets started when Ruth takes a job on behalf of the local government: her old neighborhood, the projects where she grew up and met Em’s father, is slated to be demolished so a highway can be put in. Residents are obviously not happy about this decision and Ruth has been contracted to kneecap the burgeoning protest. The job brings her back to her old neighborhood and she gets tangled up in a minor bit of intrigue, as the rumor mill informs her that Mio isn’t really dead. Rummaging through the contents of an unconscious boy’s backpack she finds a CD with a recording of someone claiming to be Mio, talking about his life in “the nothing department.” The CDs (because there are several, dozens, hundreds maybe, turning up in backpacks and lockers everywhere) have become something of an underground hit here in the projects and all of the youths are talking about them.

Of course none of this has to play out straightforward and so we get a lot of flashbacks that don’t do anything; the characters are all pretty bland, like even Anyuru himself doesn’t care for them, so the departures from the main story seem pointless. Even Ruth has a distant, uninteresting quality to her that perhaps comes from Anyuru’s decision, as a man in his 40s, to make the protagonist a single mom in her 20s. He has no inner lived experience of that kind and so is unable to imbue her with anything concrete and grounding in that regard.

On the other hand, we get a lot about Ruth at work on her troll job, which seems like it could potentially be pretty interesting. The conceit is like something out of a William Gibson novel (a bit like the inverse of Cayce Pollard out of Pattern Recognition), but in execution it’s not nearly as snappy. She’s decided to create a writer “character” for this assignment and so (sometimes) writes, but mostly banters with her boss about what kind of person this character should be in dialogue that I think Anyuru finds very witty and on the nose but that I thought was just self-indulgent and insufferable. All in all, Ruth’s job is a bit of a snooze fest that keeps us away from the one point of intrigue in the story: the mysterious CDs.

The one notable overlap between author and protagonist is poetry. Ruth is a gifted poet, or supposed to be, and her poetry gets her noticed by the mysterious agency that now employs her. Yet somehow the whole thing feels like a combination of bizarre metaphor (artistry of some kind being a form of acceptance and success for marginalized people in mainstream society) and wishful thinking/self aggrandizing (poetry is such a gift, it points to something unbelievably special about a person, and here is a universe where it is given its proper due). A lot of hay is made about how Ruth’s gift for language and creating characters is what makes her good at her job, which is a funny thing to read in a novel where the characters are all dull and bland.

To get back to the story: the mystery of Mio’s death (and the proliferation of CDs purporting to be recorded by him) is solved for the reader, so to the extent that it’s a murder mystery or thriller, Ixelles delivers on that front. You find out whodunnit and why. I won’t spoil that part of the story here, since it’s a bit of a spoiler-y plot twist, but I will say that I found the resolution banal and deflating.

I think there’s just something with novels by poets that makes me lose my patience. An ear for language is important in a novel, yes, but so is understanding characterization, pacing, and plot, and you don’t get good at those just from writing poetry. The book progresses through weird pointless interludes of excerpts from the mysterious CDs, Em and Ruth playing Dungeons & Dragons (or Pathfinder!), flashbacks with Ruth that don’t establish anything we couldn’t already infer (she was in love with Mio? you don’t say!) or dream sequences from secondary characters. One thread of the flashbacks is with Mio, and that’s the only thread that actually contributes to the story itself.

I also don’t understand the appeal of setting novels in completely foreign countries, which wow when I phrase it like that sounds narrow and small-minded. To be more specific: characters traveling to places, or living as expats or outsiders in foreign places, is a literary well that will never run dry. That’s not what I mean by setting a story in a foreign country.

Anyuru is Swedish and is writing in Swedish; all of the characters in Ixelles are Belgian, whether immigrant or first generation or otherwise. I don’t know that there was anything in the story being better served by being set in Belgium than in Sweden, and a cursory Google search does not indicate that Anyuru has any particular history with or connection to Brussels specifically or Belgium generally. If he was trying to make a sly point about EU politics (Brussels as a stand-in for Europe as a whole, EU parliament, etc.), then it was lost on me. I have a tiny brain. A tiny brain that is overwhelmed by unfamiliar Flemish names.

The comparison that came up for me while I read was Samlade Verk, and on reflection it’s not surprising as both books kind of have a lot in common. The August Prize is perhaps the most obvious and banal of those commonalities, followed by their relative long length. But both books feature single parents with legendary disappeared partners; the authors even cross age and gender lines to write their complete opposite (Sandgren writing an older father and Anyuru writing a younger mother). There are plenty of offhand cultural references, and the stories both hinge on fictional writers (Sandgren creates one for her protagonist to be obsessed with; Ruth creates one as part of her astroturfing assignment in the projects). Both books cast sidelong glances at colonialism (the disappeared mother in Samlade Verk wrote her thesis on the topic; several of the African diaspora characters voice opinions on the topic in Ixelles). Both books jump around in chronology and rely heavily on flashback, or at least a jumbled timeline.

So why did I love Samlade Verk but turn up my nose at Ixelles?

Sandgren got a lot of guff from the neighborhood book club members for being young—or rather, trying too hard (in their opinion) to establish sections of the book as being The Eighties to compensate for not actually having experienced The Eighties. I can’t know how that part of the book hits for readers who remember the 80s, since I’m only a year older than Sandgren myself. But I absolutely recognized a lot of the characters she was putting on page because I’d either been them or I’d gone to school with them. Sandgren writes about the frustrations of studying philosophy in the way only a fellow philosophy student can really manage, which gave her characters depth and had me invested in the story, even when they were flawed and crappy people.

Not so in Ixelles, and here again the problem might be with me because I didn’t grow up in the projects of Brussels (or Araby in Växjö, for that matter). I didn’t have a wealth of experience I could use to project on to characters and fill in the blanks, which I’m sure I did with Samlade Verk. But I’d argue that in Ixelles there is still a lack of interiority based in lived experience; the best we get is other people telling us how we should feel about characters or what their primary traits are. Ruth’s boss explains to us that Ruth a gifted poet and that’s why he offered her a job. A stranger on the bus tells Em that Mio bought everyone on the block PlayStations for Christmas one year. Mio tells us—through Ruth’s recollections—that Ruth’s best friend Harsha is a busybody but also the beloved neighborhood big sister. But Ruth herself never agonizes over her writing, Mio’s generosity stays off the page even in flashbacks, and in all of her interactions with Ruth, Harsha is kind of cold and distant and awkward.

Despite its heft, Samlade Verk had a red thread running through it, a sharp focus and with clearly delineated branches: the mother who just left, and the husband and children she left behind. The fact that it runs for 600? 700? pages speaks more to the depth that Sandgren explores in her characters rather than the breadth of topics, and a lot of that is due to exactly that interiority. Ixelles, on the other hand, eschews character depth for a breadth of “I think this is an important topic” or “I think this is a cool idea.” Instead of being one cohesive book, Ixelles becomes two or three or five, all glued together into a clunky whole that is a disservice to all of the potential books it could have been.

The Space Between Worlds

I normally don’t discuss covers much, but this time I will.

The anglophone books available to me are more often than not UK editions.  Sometimes there’s no difference from the US covers, sometimes there’s a huge difference, but never before have I encountered such a mood whiplash between the two.

US edition of The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
US cover, courtesy Crown

Going strictly by the cover, I would assume that we were looking at a fluffy romantic comedy in a sci-fi setting. Either that or a parallel lives kind of story, similar to My Real Children but more light-hearted. Compare that with the UK edition:

UK edition of The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
UK cover, courtesy Hodder & Stoughton

The latter more accurately encapsulates the mood of the book for me. I’m not sure what the thinking was behind the US cover, but I have a feeling that it’s probably led to a lot of disappointed readers. Is there fluffy romantic comedy hijinks? Not really! Is there a lot of grappling with the unknown and with morally repellent choices? Yes!

Is there a fair chunk of domestic violence? Also yes.

There is a lot going on in this multiverse story and my brain isn’t really built to handle those kinds of ins and outs. I’ve seen The Big Lebowski I don’t know how many times at this point, and I still can’t string together the chain of events surrounding Bunny’s disappearance, the ransom note, and her reappearance without sitting down and drawing a lot of diagrams and timelines. And that’s a story where the intrigue is just the background plot for brilliantly executed scenes and snippets of dialogue—in The Space Between Worlds the intrigue is basically the entire story.

Guess I need to adhere to a stricter drug regimen to keep my mind even more limber.

Getting back to The Space Between Worlds, all of this is potentially a Me problem and not a Book problem. In addition to my troubled relationship with intrigue, I also took a break from the book for almost a whole week, which couldn’t have helped. Keeping track of the different multiverse versions of characters wasn’t necessarily the hard part, but keeping track of all the different Earths and their politics was a lost cause for my addled brain. Earth 0 is the prime, principal Earth on which the bulk of the intrigue plays out, but events on Earths 22 and 175 are also important. Not to mention I think there’s a third Earth that our traverser protagonist Cara visits, but I don’t think it had much to do with the actual plot.

Likewise there are some world-building elements that were not really laid out cleanly for my addled brain, or that were introduced way too late in the story, or that maybe I just happened to skim over. Unfortunately those elements are kind of plot-essential, so from a technical standpoint I wish they had been made clearer earlier on in the story. (Assuming that I just didn’t miss them, which I totally might have!)

But I was able to overlook all of that because I could see that the point for Johnson wasn’t “wow multiverses sure are cool.” Instead, it was more “how would multiverse traveling get integrated into the world as we experience today” and “how can the idea of parallel lives and parallel selves be used as a metaphor for Real Life Stuff,” and I was along for that ride. It seems, judging by other reviews, that some people weren’t along for that ride. And that’s okay! But since one of my own paradigms for years has been the idea of alternate universe versions of myself, Johnson’s take on the multiverse was a lot of fun for me.

Caged

I didn’t intentionally set about to read Caged for Black History Month, but I suppose that’s kind of what happened.

Cover of the play Caged by the New Jersey Prison Theater Cooperative
Image courtesy Haymarket Books

I read it in two sittings over the course of a single weekend. The play is distilled from scenes and dialogue written by 28 members of a literature course at a maximum-security prison in Newark, New Jersey. They then sifted through that material and refined it, working together to bring to the fore the story and struggles of protagonist Omar Moore, trying to protect his little brother Quan and provide for his son Zaire, until he gets put away for 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

The thing that comes to mind while organizing my thoughts about this was the small dust-up eight years ago over Cuts Through Bone, an award-winning new detective novel that caused a minor dust-up over the fact that the author, Alaric Hunt, was incarcerated, serving a life sentence for murder—in a bid to distract the police from a jewelry robbery, he set a fire that took the life of a young grad student.

Another thing that comes to mind is Annie Dookhan, the lab tech who falsified untold mountains of evidence in drug cases. The astonishing thing in all of that is the sheer volume of her fraud—how many lives have gone down a similar track as the New Jersey Prison Collective, or Omar, or any of the other characters in Caged, because of her actions?

And the final thing that comes to mind is the absolutely worthless hew and cry being raised over the ludicrous idea that people want to censor Joe Rogan. Here’s the thing: Joe Rogan gets to be a media figure and have a show and be a “voice” in “the conversation.” Even if Spotify took him off their platform he’d turn up somewhere else, like a bad fucking penny, and we’d still be stuck talking about him. He’d get to live his life as a free man (how much weed has he smoked in his life that was up until very recently not legally obtained?) and, I don’t know, write a book or go on speaking tours or whatever else. None of that is censorship.

Contrast that with how we (in the US, anyway) treat and talk about the incarcerated. I’m not trying to imply that there is a conspiracy to keep their voices out of the conversation; my point, rather, is that cultural norms mean there doesn’t have to be a conspiracy. It happens of its own accord. Because most of us operate under a “just world” fallacy and because the lives of middle-class suburban Americans aren’t usually touched by the kinds of crimes, life circumstances, or bad luck that send someone to prison (and when they are, they do their best to hide it), the unexamined belief we carry for most of our lives is “people who commit crimes obviously choose to commit them, so prison is what they deserve, and as a whole they’re a subset of the population that’s not worth thinking about and that doesn’t have anything worth saying.” That’s the most powerful censorship of all—not banning someone’s ideas or burning their books, but structuring society so that everyone else forgets that some 2.2 million Americans even exist.

We’ve always been at war with Oceania.

Caged was a good play. I would love to see it performed because I would love to see the set direction as it’s described in the text. But I think the most important thing about it is how it has found a way around that internalized censor and put the voices of the incarcerated out there for public consumption, to speak directly about their experiences and life in a system that has tried to erase them.

 

The Best Books of 2021, According to GoodReads

I could have sworn that I did one of these posts for 2019 and 2020, but apparently not? I usually enjoy looking at the “My Year in Books” feature on GoodReads, but they seem to have revamped it and made it uglier so I won’t even bother including it here.

During the fiery hellscape that was 2021, I read 59 books. The most popular book I read was The Art of War and the least popular was a re-read of a Swedish civics textbook that I can assure you is very rough going.  The five-star books of the year were:

I’m excluding from the list books in an extremely selective niche that are of huge personal importance to me and are not a “public” or “objectively” 5-star book the way that these are. (Would everyone benefit from reading The Human Condition? Yes. Would everyone benefit from reading a collection of ghost stories from my hometown? Probably not, no.) I’ve included links to blog posts for books that I wrote about during the year and will provide brief nutshell reviews of the remaining six books here.

Literature

The Deep

This was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick. I didn’t care for my first tango with Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts, but The Deep was as polished and needle sharp as Unkindness should have been. Genre fiction doesn’t have to use fantastical conventions as a way to externalize complex psychological elements of our lives to justify its existence as a genre qua genre, but it certainly is uniquely equipped for doing so.

Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)

This one’s a bit of an easy title to knock out. It’s not really purely text, or available in any kind of dead tree form—my encounter with it was in a 15? 25? minute YouTube clip, captured footage of the original program being run in an emulator. At the end of the year (or the beginning of the next one), I don’t know that I can remember any concrete lines or images from Gibson’s poetry (I do recall the rather fuzzy, janky sound effect of a single gunshot), but I remember the overall effect and I appreciate the novel approach with form and media. It all felt inherently tied to the content rather than just a cheap gimmick.

A Memory Called Empire

Another Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick, this time a more traditional galactic empire intrigues and high-tech tale. I think this one would pair really well with Ancillary Justice as two examinations of empire: one from relatively deep within the beating heart of empire and one from the outside.

Philosophy and Current Issues

Människans villkor

Who am I to review a Hannah Arendt book? Who is anyone to review a Hannah Arendt book? All I can say is: as the years go by, I get angrier and angrier over the fact that we never covered any of her work in my philosophy undergrad career.

Project Censored’s State of the Free Press

This collection is a nice round-up of important but overlooked journalism, sourced from university journalism programs and advised, filtered and vetted by a board of professional journalists. I consider this collection an essential part of my yearly reading.

Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?

Another collection, this time of essays on policing and police violence. Sitting here doing my annual write up, I can remember that it was a compelling read full of new information but none of that new information specifically. This is not criticism of the collection, but rather a reflection of the fact that 1) I read it on Kindle, which doesn’t seem to ever stick in my memory, 2) much of it was (probably) grimmer information that I realized so I think my brain is kind of choosing to forget, and 3) 2021 was, as mentioned, a fiery hellscape, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I was experiencing some kind of stress-induced brain fog.

Vacation Reading

Happy spooky season, everyone! I kicked things off by renting a cabin in Falun for two weeks, where I did a lot of walking (in cemeteries, no less), a lot of reading, and a lot of sweating it out in my own private sauna. I don’t have all of my photos of the walking uploaded and cleaned up yet, and there’s not much to be said about the sauna, but I can go ahead and talk about the reading. Some of these books might be worth their own post, but for now I’ll just stick to bite-sized thoughts.

Parable of the Sower

I watched Sarah Zed’s underwhelming video on YA dystopias a week before I left, so the whole trend of YA dystopias was on my mind as I read this one. Parable of the Sower was published in 1993, several years before our current glut of YA, but by industry genre standards it would be slotted as a YA dystopia if it were published today. And yet, it’s clearly a very different (and much better) beast than The Hunger Games or Divergent or whatever else tried to ride that wave. Is it fair to put Parable of the Sower in the same category as them? From a quality and content standpoint, I would say of course not. But from a book-selling standpoint, there is no difference. Consumerism is a cancer.

The History of White People

Extremely illuminating reading. My father’s side of the family came to the US around the turn of the twentieth century from villages that are in the south of current-day Poland, but there is absolutely no family lore about what it was like moving here, or about life or family back in The Old Country, or anything like that. (Making sense of the immigration documents is also a trip, just because territory was a bit up in the air at that point in time.) Painter’s research obviously can’t fill in the gaps of my own  family’s history, but it gave me a broad sense of the historical context of their arrival in America, and a rough idea of what kind of prejudice and problems they might have run up against—something I’d never really reflected on before.

Beyond my own personal takeaways from the book, the examination of the construction of “white” as a middle class signifier and its gradual expansion over the years is a valuable piece of scholarship for understanding American society as a whole.  The only downside is that The History of White People is over a decade old now, and reading a discussion of race and whiteness in 2021 that ends in a discussion of Barack Obama’s presidency rather than Donald Trump’s feels a bit…unresolved. GoodReads indicates that Painter’s most recent book is from 2018, but it’s a memoir rather than any kind of scholarly work. Hopefully she’ll put out an updated edition of The History of White People at some point.

Shards of Honor

This was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick. I don’t think anyone really enjoyed it all that much? For me, at least, there was too much romance and not enough sci-fi. Internet rumor mill pegs it as Star Trek fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off, and I believe it.

Becoming Beauvoir

An absolutely outstanding new biography of Simone de Beauvoir drawing on previously unavailable or untranslated material.

The Cyberiad

One of my philosophy professors taught a popular and engaging philosophy of the mind course, or maybe a couple variations on the idea, and one of the texts for it was The Mind’s I, an anthology that included a story from The Cyberiad. My particular iteration of the class didn’t use that book, but I browsed through a friend’s copy out of curiosity. Long story short, one of the selections I always thought was part of The Cyberiad wasn’t actually, so my introduction to Stanislaw Lem was actually Solaris.

So now I’ve finally read The Cyberiad for real. The English edition is an incredible feat of translation; it struck me as I read one of the first stories in it that one of the textbooks or more scholarly anthologies I’d read over the years had highlighted exactly this story so now I’ll have to try to do a little detective work to see what, exactly, they had to say about it.

Un hiver à Majorque

Still the same book as it was the other two times I read it this year. Unlike my previous attempt with the original French, this time I looked up every (or almost every) word I didn’t know and couldn’t figure out from context.

Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Black Tudors is another random find from Stadsbiblioteket’s “recommended” shelf in the study room. Except it’s not that random, because I’d read reviews of Black Tudors elsewhere and had actually put it on my “to read” list last year. Why not pick it up when I had the chance, right?

UK edition of Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann
Image courtesy ONEworld publications

Author: Miranda Kaufmann

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.79 stars

Language scaling: B2, though Kaufmann quotes heavily from original sources that are more like C2

Summary: Through the lens of the reconstructed lives of ten free black men and women in Tudor England, Kaufmann provides an important overview of England’s interactions and trade with with different peoples on the African continent.

Recommended audience: People interested in African studies or English history; British citizens

In-depth thoughts:  Despite the title of the book, much of Black Tudors focuses on the life and history surrounding these people rather than, as the name would suggest, their actual lives. Tragically, this means that in a book called Black Tudors, the most ink is spilled over white people. But the records for common merchants and the peasantry are scanty, as you’d expect; I know that there’s not much for Kaufmann to go on and she does a remarkable job with the little material that’s available. Even if their personal struggles and triumphs and simply daily minutiae are lost to history, the ordinary lives of these people—a salvage diver, a trumpeter at the King’s court, a silk weaver, among others—are a great chance to explore what England’s foreign policy and trade actually looked like during the Tudor period, and what kind of engagement they had with the world beyond Europe.

What Kaufmann does exceptionally well is juggling the many names, dates, and events surrounding, say, a piracy expedition or evolving trade relations so that a reader with no previous knowledge can follow the broad strokes of the events and keep up with the story. The different lives then are a sort of framing device or focus for discussing a wide range of Tudor-era laws and customs, making what would otherwise be a disparate collection of facts and anecdotes easy to track.

Review: Freshwater

Continuing in my streak of NetGalley books taking precedence over books I read earlier in the year, I really want to talk about Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater while it’s still, erm, fresh in my mind.

Author: Akwaeke Emezi

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.41 stars

Language scaling: C1+

Plot summary: We follow Ada, a young Nigerian woman who is also a human vessel for an ogbanje (or several of them?), through her childhood, university in the American south, and then adult life afterwards, as she tries to figure out who she is and to navigate through her relationships with the other supernatural beings who reside inside her psyche.

Content warning: There are moments of self-injury, sexual assault and abuse, a suicide attempt, and somewhat gory descriptions of a car accident and surgery.

Recommended audience: Readers looking for #ownvoices works; readers interested in literary fiction

In-depth thoughts: My NetGalley copy is an ebook, but it’s times like these I wish I was eligible for receiving dead tree versions because I want to press this book into people’s hands and say YOU NEED TO READ THIS RIGHT NOW. You can’t do that with an .epub file.

I was especially glad for Freshwater, I think, because right before I read it I had finished Ancient, Ancient, a collection of ostensibly Afro-futurism short stories that had way too much blurb hype on the covers for what it actually was. But Freshwater tapped into that vein of timeless urges (sex, death, blood, deities, demons) that Ancient, Ancient claimed to tackle and delivered a coherent, shining python egg of a novel.

The voice and language in Freshwater are captivating and distinctive, experimental without being alienating. This is the first book in a long time where I felt compelled to read more: after reading on the subway, I’d keep reading on the walk back to the apartment and even after I got home, standing in the doorway, coat and hat still on.

As the story deals with a lot of abstract concepts and Igbo mythology in lyrical, image-heavy language, it’s not an ideal novel for English learners to tackle unless they’re already at a reasonably high level of fluency. But if you are, oh man, Freshwater is so, so worth it. I can’t wait to read more from Ezemi.

Book Review: Passing

Nella Larsen’s Passing was a selection for my online book club. The two women who run it have a knack for finding classics that, despite my academic background, I seemed to have skipped over. Passing is one of those classics.

Author: Nessa Larsen

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.8 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Recommended audience: Thriller fans; readers interested in Harlem Renaissance literature

Cover of Nella Larsen's novel "Passing"
Image courtesy Penguin Publishers

Plot summary: Irene Redfield and her high school classmate Clare Kendry are both mixed race; Irene is “out” (if I can borrow the term) as a woman of color, living a life in Harlem with a black husband and black children, while Clare is currently “passing” (as in, passing for white) within white society—a big deal in 1927. A chance encounter brings Clare back into Irene’s life after years apart, throwing both of their lives into disarray. One thing leads to another, until events reach their tragic, if inevitable, conclusion.

In-depth thoughts: Much of the tension is built on concepts of race and passing that I don’t think would be quite as relevant today. Not to say that racism is no longer a problem; just that society’s definition of “white” has broadened. Someone fitting Clare Kendry’s description—pale, blonde, and brown-eyed—would be overwhelmingly accepted and read as white today, outside of maybe a few fringe neo-Nazi groups. But in the book, the old “one drop” rule is still in effect, and Clare’s worry that her “true identity” as a woman of color might be revealed to her white husband is constantly hanging over her head. Such a discrepancy in norms says a lot about an America still in living memory.

Of course, other elements of tension in the story are more timeless: secret pasts, secrets and trust within relationships, motherhood, the lot of women in society, the limits of what we can know about others. Passing is a thriller but it’s also a character study. While some of the specific worries about race may belong to another time, the suspense and the breakneck speed feel very modern.