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What to Read Next (No. 166): looking back a year + Nickel Boys + American Dirt
In the last week we hit a lot of one-year pandemic anniversaries. I re-read a few articles from a year ago, the most powerful, perhaps, being “Cancel Everything.” I teared up while reading that one, remembering when I first encountered it on the day it was published and realizing just how accurate it turned out to be. A year ago, it was an ominous piece, and yet there was a very naive part of me, part of all of us really, that hoped it was overblown. Obviously it was not.
A year ago in this newsletter, I wrote about books as objects of comfort. Part of that is worth re-sharing with you, as it applies perhaps even more strongly today:
Anxiety is high on all fronts. Will my elderly loved ones be okay? Can I (should I) still travel? What’s going to happen with the economy? What about the election? 2020 is shaping up to be a memorable year for perhaps all the wrong reasons.
And yet, we still have the books.
I don’t say that to be glib. Art can be a source of comfort in the midst of life’s difficulties. While the obvious response might be to turn to something that offers an escape (more on that in a sec), picking up a book of nearly any genre can be helpful. History tells us that our country and our planet have been through this before; biography explores the extraordinary difference that a single plucky person can make; how-to can offer a lesson in manual distraction and the practical building of skills (which can provide confidence, joy, entertainment, and even real-life value); religious and philosophical texts can of course offer comfort and guidance in a wholly different way.
Reading any book is healthier than gluing yourself to the overwhelming barrage of news stories and tweets. As someone who works on the internet for a living, it’s quite hard for me to look away, so I’m definitely working on taking my own advice.
. . . it’s okay to practice escapism sometimes. Life is hard, and it may only get more fraught in the next handful of weeks. If you need a break, pick up a graphic novel or a cheap thriller or anything else you consider your guilty pleasure—only don’t let yourself feel any guilt about it.
Did you catch that phrase “in the next handful of weeks”? . . . . . What innocence. My goodness. I have a hard time even reading that, frankly. What a year it’s been, folks.
As we look optimistically towards summer, books can still be a comfort along the way.
* * * * *
Okay, to the books for this week. Both of these titles took me out of my own experience and transported me into the shoes of people very much unlike me. That’s one of the true treasures and powers of literature: it allows you to walk in someone else’s shoes and to see life through the eyes of not you, which is one of the most important and most human things you can do. I learned a lot from these books and I think you will too if you choose to read them.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Published: 2019 | Pages: 210
Back in 2015, journalist Ben Montgomery wrote a stunning newspaper story about the Dozier School for Boys—a torturous (sometimes literally) reform school in Florida’s panhandle. A cemetery of unmarked graves had recently been unearthed and archaeologists were working to identify the remains. Colson Whitehead read that story and was inspired to write his short historical novel The Nickel Boys.
Going from present to past and back again, the story mostly follows Elwood and Turner as they navigate life in a fictional reform school that isn’t kind to anyone, let alone a pair of Black boys who don’t care for the status quo.
There’s a callous headmaster (who reminded me of Dolores Umbridge), an innocent shed in which unspeakable acts of cruelty are perpetrated (though not very graphically, FYI), and shortsighted attempts at making things better in a place that they never will be. It all ramps up to a truly unforgettable ending in which those two boys will come to understand friendship, loyalty, and America’s dark heart more than they ever bargained for.
This was our book club’s pick for Black History Month and our opinions were quite varied—much more than usual. (We’re a pretty homogenous group.) A few loved it, a few were pretty “meh” on it, and the audiobook listeners had a hard time tracking the narration and transitions between past and present.
For me, the conclusion is what finally tipped the scales of this book from good to very good (though not great). Colson’s writing—both the phrasing and structure—makes anything he writes enjoyable, but I wasn’t into the story nearly as much as Underground Railroad. (Read my review of that one here.)
The real strength of the novel, in fact, is that knock-your-socks-off ending. In our group discussion, the bulk of the conversation seemed to center on those last 20 pages or so. It’s worth reading, for sure, but didn’t live up to his previous work. One man’s humble opinion. Look for his new book, Harlem Shuffle, coming in September.
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American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Published: 2020 | Pages: 383
The release of American Dirt early last year brought with it a ton of controversy—less about the content than with the publishing machine behind it. This isn’t the space to go over that, but it’s worth reading about.
As a story, however, it’s hard to beat. The first 20 pages are as heart-wrenching a start to a novel as you’ll experience, but don’t let that keep you away. Not only is the story utterly gripping, but the moving portrayal of the lengths a parent will go to for their child are as memorable as anything I’ve read in the last few years.
Lydia Perez and her son, Luca, are on the run. They’re being chased, hunted really, by a dangerous cartel across hundreds of miles of unforgiving Mexican landscape.
They risk their lives to ride The Beast—La Bestia—to freedom. (Or at least a type of freedom, because Lord knows that once a refugee hits the border, they are decidedly not free.) The Beast is a very real, very scary mode of transportation for people on the run through Mexico. On a daily basis, refugees crowd to the tops of moving trains, with hundreds of others, in order to hitch a ride. Along the way are Mexican police (more often than not corrupt), shadowy cartel members, daily and desperate searches for food and water, and the always risky venture of choosing who can be trusted and who’s going to turn them in.
Along the way, the reader meets people from all walks of life who are on the run. Most Americans probably have a preconceived idea of the type of person who flees their old life to get to our country. Cummins shatters a lot of those ideas. Young and old, Mexican and Peruvian and Costa Rican (and many other nationalities), poor and less poor, and all of the variety of human experience.
It’s not a perfect novel, but it really opened my eyes to the migrant/refugee experience in a meaningful way. Combine that with a breathless plot that keeps you nervously on your toes the entire time, and you get a powerful novel. Despite the controversy, I have no hesitation in recommending American Dirt far and wide.
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Have a great weekend everyone!