In this new post-vaccination world, my days are filling up and speeding up. This is a good thing. We can see friends! We can go to museums! We can make, good heavens, plans! Of course, emergence from the pandemic brings its own special anxieties. And what that means, and why it’s relevant to this book journal, is that I continue to inhale books (thank you, anxiety), but I have less time to write about them.

So, before I forget everything I’ve read recently, here are comments on novels I’ve yet to fully clarify my own thoughts about, and that I may or may not get around to writing about.

Fantastic!

Deacon King Kong, by James McBride. I loved this book. Loved loved loved. In Deacon King Kong, McBride has created a fully-populated world (a fictional Brooklyn housing project in 1969), and he has written a story that is both absurd and painfully real, simultaneously hilarious and enraging and touching. The enormous cast of characters is anchored by the eponymous Deacon, also known as Sportcoat: “a wiry, laughing brown-skinned man who had coughed, wheezed, hacked, guffawed, and drank his way through the Cause Houses for a good part of his seventy-one years… a peaceful man beloved by all.” The plot is precipitated when Sportcoat shoots a notorious teenage drug dealer, setting in motion a long chain of dominoes that draws in neighbors, church leaders, mobsters, and cops. This novel is fabulous at every level—a page-turner of a plot, characters I’d love to meet in real life, prose that is sometimes shocking in the aptness of its imagery, depth of meaning and seriousness, and just pure entertainment.

Enjoyable, more or less

His Only Wife, by Peace Adzo Medie. This is a debut novel by Ghanaian author who, by day, is a scholar and researcher. (In the same year her novel was released, 2020, Medie also published a book with Oxford University Press called Global Norms and Local Action: The Campaigns to End Violence against Women in Africa.) The story of His Only Wife centers on Afi, a young woman in a small town, making a bare living as a seamstress, dependent on her less-than-kind uncle. Her life takes a turn when the wealthiest local family offers her marriage to their son, Elikem, a successful businessman in Accra. But this is not a romance novel. Elikem lives with a woman his family considers unsuitable, and marriage to Afi is his family’s tactic to weaken that relationship. For Afi, though, marriage might be a rope to a better life, and she barely hesitates. Once in Accra, Afi navigates the tensions between traditional and modern, switching old for new definitions of happiness. While it felt like Medie is still writing with training wheels (parts of the novel felt clumsy), I enjoyed it quite a bit anyway, particularly for its glimpse into a world so different from my own, as well as for Medie’s refusal to make Afi’s choices simple.

Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu. This book got lots of buzz last year, and it’s clever and entertaining. Written in the form of a screenplay, Interior Chinatown is the story of a Chinese-American man trying to make a living in Hollywood, banging his head against the reality that Asian actors in America have had limited options. If they are really really really successful, maybe they can aspire to be the nameless “Kung Fu Man” in action movies. Or the mysterious madame in an Asian brothel. (Is anything changing? Maybe. While one movie won’t change the world, the next Marvel movie will star an Asian superhero.) But while I enjoyed Interior Chinatown quite a bit, it didn’t quite make it onto my “loved” list. In the end, it felt a little one-note.

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner. Before last year, I’d never read Stegner. Last year, I read Angle of Repose, for which he won the Pulitzer in 1971. This year, I read Crossing to Safety, which he wrote in 1987, toward the end of his career, and which is also considered one of his finest novels. In Crossing to Safety, Stegner traces the friendship between two couples over the course of several decades. As the novel begins, in 1937, at the height of the Depression, Larry and Sally Morgan move to Madison, Wisconsin, where Larry has taken a temporary position as an instructor in creative writing. There, they meet Sid and Charity Lang. Sid is also an instructor in the English department; Charity comes from wealth. The two couples quickly become close, with their friendship ebbing and flowing through the years, tested by differences in means and differences in ambitions. It is a lovely novel, doing full justice to complex feelings and conflicted loyalties, but I have not fallen in love with Wallace Stegner. He leaves me a little cold, although I cannot explain why. So while I am very glad to have read both Crossing and Angle, I don’t feel compelled to read more Stegner.

The Nest, by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. This is a straight-up family drama about four grown siblings who are expecting their share of a family inheritance, held in trust. Suddenly, that inheritance disappears; their mother has used a legal loophole to spend nearly all the money to bail out the least responsible of the siblings when, high on cocaine, he crashes his car and disables a young woman for life. His siblings, of course, were counting on that money—to prop up their own teetering fortunes, to hide their own misdeeds, to fund their own dreams—and the money’s disappearance wreaks havoc with their plans. I liked this book. The plot was nicely tangled, the characters were well-drawn, and the ethical conundrums were real. Although I wouldn’t call The Nest a must-read, if this is how Sweeney writes, and if I ever start flying again, she’ll be in my mental category of good airplane authors.

Days of Distraction, by Alexandra Chang. This debut novel is a coming-of-age story. The narrator is a 20-something Chinese-American woman living in the Bay area, working in a dead-end job writing stories for a tech site. When her long-time (white) boyfriend gets into graduate school at Cornell, she quits her job and moves with him. Their cross-country drive from San Francisco, her unemployed and aimless life in Ithaca, and a visit to her father in China combine to create a crisis of identity for her, as she becomes ever more acutely aware of how she is carelessly stereotyped, as both female and Chinese, even as she feels less and less authentically Chinese. It’s a perfectly nice novel, which I found worth reading for the fresh perspective on what it’s like to be a 20-something Chinese-American woman in today’s world, but beyond that, it wasn’t deeply interesting. I’m guessing I’d have found more to like if I were thirty years younger.

Impressive, but not necessarily enjoyable

No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood. Reviews, which I clearly did not read carefully enough, suggested that this book was funny. It is. But it is also a really tough book, with grief and helplessness at its center. It is also a tough book stylistically: Lockwood writes in staccato paragraphs, each one capturing an independent thought, often written in poetic language, some of which is gorgeous, but some of which is opaque. The first time I read the book through (yes, I read it twice), I did not enjoy it. It felt long, slow to progress, difficult to follow, and horribly sad. But it nagged at me. So I picked it up again. The second time it still felt long and oh so sad, and the first half of the book (sharp and satiric) didn’t mesh with the second half (dripping with emotion), but I ended up falling in love with Lockwood’s writing. The ways she captures thought and feeling, as well as the bizarre world-unto-itself we call the Internet, is extraordinary. So I will read whatever she writes next.

Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar. The reviews get one thing right: This is a brilliant book, interesting and complex, with a memorable point of view. But for me, it wore its brilliance too obviously. Although Homeland Elegies is fiction (mainly—it flirts with autobiography), Akhtar reminds me of public intellectuals like Adam Gopnik or Jill Lepore: People who know more than I could ever hope to know and who have brains full of sophisticated, well-informed opinions about a head-smacking breadth of subjects. Sometimes I find this kind of erudition inspiring; in this case, I found it intimidating and, well, just not especially enjoyable. But if one of my book groups chose to read Homeland Elegies, I wouldn’t be opposed to reading it again. Akhtar has a lot to say about what it is like to be Muslim in America, much of which is provocative, and the book merits more thought than I had the patience for while reading it.

Home and Jack, by Marilynne Robinson. These are novels number two and four, respectively, of the four novels Robinson has written centered on the Iowa town of Gilead. The first, Gilead, I adored. The third, Lila, I also liked very much. But these two felt more challenging. What interests Robinson is her characters’ internal lives, and what characterizes Robinson’s writing is that she takes her time in exploring inner lives. I mean, really takes her time. But what felt beautifully contemplative in Gilead and Lila—slowing the world, creating space to savor subtleties and excavate meaning—felt more tortured in Home and Jack. To me, both novels felt too long and too slow, with even trivial details put under the microscope to be poked and examined in far too much detail. In short, both felt like novellas that were padded into novel-length, and in both cases, I felt bored before reaching their ends.

Nope, nope, nope

The Midnight Library, by Matthew Haig. Reviews bubbled over with enthusiasm, but I found this novel about second (and third and fourth) chances to be trite, obvious, and pedantic. Its style made me wonder if it were actually written for a young adult audience, and five seconds of Googling told me that I wasn’t the only reader who responded this way. On Goodreads, this question prompted a long chain of debate: Yes, it’s really YA. No, the themes (suicide) and the protagonist (30-something) are for adults. My favorite response, though, with which I entirely agreed, was this: “This is not suitable for teens because they deserve better literature than this predictable guff.”

kaddish.com, by Nathan Englander. This is an odd comic novel about a Jewish man who splits Talmudic hairs to justify paying an on-line service to say the daily Kaddish (the Jewish prayer of mourning) for his father. He comes to regret this decision and ends up in Jerusalem, trying to find the actual people behind the service. I didn’t like it. As a non-observant Jew, I didn’t find it funny, and I can’t imagine finding it funny as an observant Jew either. And if it’s only non-Jews who would find this funny, well, that’s a whole other issue.

(The full title is Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed.)

What is my bottom line? Often funny, sometimes interesting, but not for me. Fairly or unfairly, pop psychology raises my hackles.

Why did I read this? Lori Gottlieb, according to Lori Gottlieb, is a best-selling author, therapist, and speaker. She writes the “Dear Therapist” column for The Atlantic, co-hosts a podcast called, even more creatively, “Dear Therapists,” and is ubiquitous on YouTube. This is her third book, it made a lot of “best of” lists last year, and my book group is reading it.

What is it about? Maybe You Should Talk to Someone blends memoir with pop psychology. The memoir part of the book covers what happened to Gottlieb when her fiancé, without warning, broke off their relationship. The narrative starts with her initial fury and grief and blame, then takes us through her own therapy as she uncovered the roots of the relationship’s demise, arriving at a better understanding of herself, her purpose, and her own sources of happiness. The pop psychology part of the book shares stories of patients coping with their own crises and discovering their own better selves through therapy. Along the way, Gottlieb explains principles of both human psychology and therapeutic practice.

Would I recommend it? The online Cambridge Dictionary defines “pop psychology” as “theories and advice about people’s behavior that are easily understood and intended to help people improve their lives.” Dictionary.com defines it as “psychological or pseudopsychological counseling, interpretations, concepts, terminology, etc., often simplistic or superficial, popularized by certain personalities, magazine articles, television shows, advice columns, or the like, that influence the general public.” I like the second definition better.

And that’s a big piece of why I didn’t love this book.

I’m sure that all sorts of people find value in pop psychology, and that many have found a lot of value in Gottlieb’s specific approach and this specific book. Reading about other people’s problems and how they solved them can indeed illuminate one’s own life. It certainly does that for me. My own reading frequently triggers introspection. But if I want to learn about human psychology, I’d rather read something more scientific, something more complex. This book screamed simplistic to me; it screamed superficial. The answers were too pat. It felt like an infomercial for therapy. And like an infomercial for Gottlieb.

That said, there was a lot in this book I liked anyway. I liked, for starters, that Gottlieb is funny. She sees the humor in her own problems, and finds humor in her patients as well, without disrespecting them. (She is also much funnier in writing than on stage. I watched her Ted talk and a couple other videos where she repeated some things from the book almost verbatim. In the book, they were funny. On stage, they landed with a big thud.)

I also liked the fundamental hopefulness of the book. Both Gottlieb and her patients have genuine problems, sometimes quite serious ones, problems that constrain and diminish their lives, problems that keep them stuck in unhappy ruts. Yet all find a way out, a path forward, a happier place. Even a patient who was terminally ill, who would never have a happy outcome, found a way to face death with less fear and less despair. The message is that painful patterns can be disrupted. They can be shed. They can be left behind.

And I liked the humility of the book. Its other message is that no matter how self-aware you think you are, no matter how smart you think you are, you might not see yourself clearly. In fact, we are all pretty bad at seeing ourselves clearly. It’s the way our brains are wired. And even though I’d rather think about how this applies to myself through the lens of a book like Robert Sapolsky’s Behave than through a book like Gottlieb’s, it’s always useful to have the reminder.

(The full title is The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World.)

What is my bottom line? I wasn’t fascinated. Eels are not the most mysterious. But I learned some things.

Why did I read this? This was a book group choice, based on quite a few stellar reviews.

What it is about? Eels. Next question?

Would I recommend it? This book is a quickish read and I learned a fair amount, but, especially compared to The Soul of an Octopus (click here), I was disappointed. Svensson tells us quite a bit about the biology of eels. He tells us quite a bit about their place in fishing economies. He tells us quite a bit about the reasons their populations are declining. But he also leaves out a great deal. I was left with all sorts of questions. I was not, though, left with any sense of urgency to get my questions answered, because, at the end of the day, eels are not nearly as interesting as Svensson thinks they are. (And certainly they are nowhere near as interesting as octopuses! Octopuses rule!)

In fairness, however, there is another layer to The Book of Eels: Eels are a source of enduring interest to Svensson because fishing eels was a part of his childhood, something he did with his father. Thus, the book shifts between ecology and memoir and philosophical meditation. As Svensson ruminates on his father’s life, eels are his metaphorical reference point, underpinning his thoughts on the ways we are all swept along by currents we can’t control, on the phases of our lives, on what it means to go home. Reviewers often found the book moving, joining Svensson in the contemplation of larger questions of life and death.

Yawn.

Now, I don’t mean to pan the book. I’m not sorry I read it. In fact, I mostly found it pleasant and mildly interesting. But it didn’t dig into either my head or my heart, and, most telling, as I flip back through my notes and highlights, I don’t see anything else I feel compelled to capture in writing, which is my way of remembering a book. So in a few weeks, I will remember very little about this book, and that’s OK.

(The full title is Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis)

What’s my bottom line? Nicely-written and quite interesting, but not my favorite book of this genre (narrative history about unsung heroes of WWII).

Why did I read this? The reviews caught the attention of my book group.

What is it about? Paper Bullets is the story of two artists, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, childhood friends, stepsisters, and artistic and romantic partners. In the 1920s and 1930s, the pair were at the center of the avant-garde art scene in Paris, with friends including (among others) André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Jean Cocteau, and Gertrude Stein. Today, the two are better known as Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, the names they adopted for their Paris lives. Lucy was known as an activist, writer, and actress; Suzanne was an illustrator and designer; together, they produced photographs and theatrical work that challenged gender norms.

In 1937, they left Paris. The city was increasingly uncomfortable for them: far-right admirers of Hitler and Mussolini were becoming more vocal; intolerance for same sex relationships was growing. They also wanted quiet, particularly for Lucy, who battled a variety of chronic conditions. So they moved to Jersey, where they had vacationed, posing as sisters and buying a sprawling house on the water’s edge, next to a cemetery, across from a resort hotel. They lived quietly there, reassuming their birth names.

In 1940, the Nazis occupied Jersey. In response, Lucy and Suzanne embarked on a four-year campaign of secret resistance. Blending artistic imagination with Suzanne’s competence in German, they produced hundreds of tiny German-language leaflets—notes, drawings, poems, bits of dialogue, jokes about Hitler; some hand-drawn, some typewritten; often using cigarette paper or toilet paper. Quietly, avoiding notice, they tucked their “paper bullets” into the German magazines on newsstands, onto the windows of German officers’ cars, or into unsuspecting pockets. Anywhere a German might find them. These notes, many signed “The Soldier With No Name,” were designed to demoralize the occupiers, tricking them into believing that there was a rising tide of criticism, discontent, and distrust among German soldiers. In short, parallel to the increasingly sophisticated “psy ops” deployed by the Allies, Lucy and Suzanne waged their own psychological campaign against the Nazis on Jersey.

It is not a spoiler to reveal that Lucy and Suzanne were ultimately discovered and imprisoned. They were tried and sentenced to death, but were spared execution by VE Day, and the pair lived out their days on Jersey. Lucy, whose health had always been more precarious, died in 1954; Suzanne took her own life in 1972. While neither wrote memoirs, they did write down many of their experiences, and their reminiscences are scattered through their surviving papers. From these fragments, combined with archives and others’ memories, Jackson has pieced together a seamless narrative.

(Aside: Not only did Lucy and Suzanne receive their death sentence from a court and a judge; they were even given a defense lawyer. The conclusion was foregone, and their lawyer did not try very hard, but I am always astounded when I read about how often the semblance of law persisted under Nazi occupation. Here’s what Jackson had to say about that in an interview: “There is always the veneer of legality that has to be wrapped around this… [T]his is occupied territory, and they needed to keep the peace on this strategically important island. They needed the civilian population to work for them. And people on the island did go along with it. They needed to eat and continue a regular life. That’s the dance of occupation—each side needs the other. A legal system has to function even if it is rigged toward the occupier.”)

Would I recommend it? Yes, although if I had to recommend one narrative history on French resistance during World War II, Paper Bullets wouldn’t be my first choice. For truly jaw-dropping tales of bravery that are more broadly contextualized, with a wider lens on both French resistance and the politics of the War, I’d recommend Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance and Lynne Olson’s Madame Fourcade’s Secret War.

That said, Paper Bullets is well-written, and it is fascinating in its own way. For one thing, it shines a specific light on the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands, the five small islands tucked next to Normandy, controlled by Britain since William the Conqueror crossed the Channel. (The islands have a distinctive legal status: along with the Isle of Man, they are crown dependencies, which means they are self-governing regions owned by the Crown, and not, like Wales or Scotland, part of the United Kingdom.)

During the War, the British abandoned the Channel Islands to their fate, declining to provide any defense. That fate was occupation. Hitler viewed the Channel Islands as a critical defense bulwark, and for five years, from 1940 to 1945, the islands were controlled and ruled by the Germans. Once in charge, the Germans built labor camps to house thousands of “volunteers” conscripted from occupied countries to build German defenses. They also built a concentration camp to house political prisoners from the continent. Meanwhile, local residents—those who were not imprisoned, conscripted into forced labor, or deported to other concentration camps—experienced severe shortages of both food and fuel while living under both brutally restrictive laws, as well as the constant threat of being ratted out by neighbors incentivized to report any infraction.

At the center of Paper Bullets, of course, is the specific story of Lucy and Suzanne, and it is the nature of their partnership that nudges the book from the interesting to the gripping. Lucy was the passionate one, the dreamer, while Suzanne was more pragmatic as well as more sociable, with the ability to charm even her captors. Together, they were a force. Together, they were willing to die for what they believed, carrying suicide pills in case they were captured, and indeed taking those pills when that time came. (The dose, though, was miscalculated, and only made them sick.) They were also fiercely loyal to one another, each willing to sacrifice their own life for the other. Under interrogation, Lucy tried to make the Nazis believe that their campaign was her idea and hers alone. In prison, Suzanne took enormous risks to help the more physically fragile Lucy.

Seeing the world through the lens of their lives and partnership, it is hard not to be drawn in by their courage and determination. For four years, they took life-and-death risks every day, never knowing if their campaign to undercut German morale was having any impact, never knowing if the next knock on the door would be Nazi police. Then for eight months in prison, under a court’s death sentence, they lived with the possibility that each hour might be their last.

What motivated them? A firm commitment to free and open societies, no doubt deeply connected to their own outsider status, says Jackson. Also important was Lucy’s Jewish ancestry, which she may have been embracing when she adopted her grandmother’s name, Cahun, a French iteration of “Cohen,” for her artistic identity. Lucy’s experiences with anti-Semitism also matters, as Jackson described in an interview:

“Crucial to this story is the Dreyfus affair. Lucy grew up in the heat of this powerfully anti-Semitic moment [when Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French artillery, was tried and convicted on false charges of treason]. There were crowds outside their family home chanting, ‘Down with the Jews,’ because her father had known Dreyfus in school, and his newspaper was pro-Dreyfus. She saw the toll it took on her father. Her mother was already descending into mental illness. It was a stressful childhood. Suzanne mentions it under interrogation. Even though she was not Jewish, it helps frame their resistance. It gives them additional motivation. Fascism and anti-Semitism is not new to them when they see Mussolini and Hitler on the rise.”

Until not long ago, Lucy and Suzanne were largely forgotten, both as artists and as resisters. According to Jackson, they disappeared from WWII history partly because they didn’t fit the post-war British narrative about the Channel Islands, which preferred to forget British abandonment of the islands; partly because, since they were on British soil, they weren’t seen as part of the French resistance. Then, in the 1990s, Lucy was rediscovered by the art world, and she is now considered an important pioneer in expressing and questioning gender identity through art. (For a description of Lucy’s artistic influence, see the New York Times’ obituary in their “Overlooked” series.)

Jackson, though, has an additional mission. If his first mission was to restore Lucy and Suzanne to the history of resistance to the Nazis, his second mission is to elevate Suzanne as an artist, a full partner with Lucy. In his view, Lucy has gotten all the credit for their gender-bending photographic art because she is the one in the pictures. Modern critics have been quick to compare Lucy to Cindy Sherman, who both designs and poses in her photographs, while dismissing Suzanne as a conventional illustrator. In reconstructing their lives, Jackson came to a much different conclusion. In his view, Lucy and Suzanne collaborated on everything. He believes Suzanne when she wrote, “When it comes to people who have played and worked together from childhood, and made a habit of discussing everything together, it becomes quite impossible to trace back the origin of a particular idea to one of them rather than the other.” He believes that the art world cannot shake the myth of the “solo genius” as the best and only path to real art, while the truth is that art is often collaborative. (See his essay here for more about this.)

Heroism, too, is often collaborative. This, too, is a point Jackson wants to make, and it’s the part of Lucy and Suzanne’s story that continues to occupy my thoughts.

What’s my bottom line? Liked it but didn’t love it.

Why did I read this? Sue Miller has published eleven novels, most of them best-sellers, several of them critically acclaimed, and I’d never read a word she’s written. Monogamy is her most recent novel. It was positively reviewed, and it looked to be archetypal Miller, whose website touts her “elegant and sharply realistic accounts of the contemporary family.”

What is it about? Monogamy, of course. At the center of the novel is a marriage. Annie (serious and reserved) has been married to Graham (gregarious and ebullient) for a long time. Happily, she thinks. So does he. Mostly. Until he dies. Suddenly. In the midst of her grief, Annie discovers that Graham had been having an affair. She tumbles into anger, into uncertainty about everything she thought was true, and into a reassessment of their marriage.

This, though, is only one part of the book, and only one dimension of the idea of “monogamy,” which takes on other shades of meaning in the context of Graham’s still close relationship to his first wife, Frieda; in the context of Frieda and Annie’s own close friendship; and even in the context of their children’s divided loyalties. While Annie and Graham form the spine of the story, that spine is supported by many other relationships, particularly the relationships between parents and their children.

Would I recommend it? Yes, although it’s a lukewarm yes. What I liked best about Monogamy (and what may make Monogamy a good choice for book groups, particularly groups that enjoy dissecting the psychologies and relationships of fictional characters), was that none of the characters are simple. They cannot be described in binary terms, and their emotional landscapes are complex. The characters behave both well and badly. They see things clearly and they are blind. They are unable to forget old hurts while also misremembering the past. Annie’s grief, especially, is painted with an emotionally deft touch. Buried by anger as well as loss, she feels overwhelming pain one moment, startling numbness the next.

What kept my response to the book lukewarm? I think, perhaps, emotional plausibility notwithstanding, I simply didn’t find the central characters very interesting. Moreover, I didn’t find Annie and Graham’s marriage very interesting. I was irritated that Miller doesn’t let us very far into that marriage, offering only a few glimpses into their thirty years together, none of which suggested that Annie and Graham ever really talked to one another, confided in one other, or relied on one another for anything more than good sex, a nice home, and the kind of dinner parties you see splashed on the pages of food magazines. Perhaps Miller implied more emotional intimacy than I noticed, or perhaps such intimacy is not a requirement for a “good” marriage, but I found it difficult to care very much about a marriage that I perceived as having such shallow roots.

I was also puzzled by the almost complete absence of technology in the story. It’s almost as if neither the internet nor smartphones exist in the lives of Miller’s characters. Once I noticed this absence, I couldn’t un-notice it. And it made me a more skeptical reader than I might otherwise have been.

So all in all, Monogamy kept my attention, but it doesn’t linger in my imagination, and it doesn’t tempt me to put more of Sue Miller’s novels on my reading list.

(The full title is Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.)

What’s my bottom line? I have had a request from a friend. Please tell me your bottom line right at the start, she asked. So I will. And if anyone has other requests for the way I write these posts, I’m all ears. Anyway, onwards. Here’s my bottom line on Caste:

A must-read. Even though there is a LOT to criticize.

Now: Be forewarned. This post is a long one. Because there is indeed a lot to criticize, as well as a lot to summarize.

Why did I read this? When I read it, Caste had been on the New York Times’ non-fiction bestseller list for 40 weeks. It was named as one of the best books of 2020 by innumerable lists. It has been nominated for awards. Its blurbs are bedazzled with words like brilliant, magnificent, enthralling, magisterial, brave, illuminating, and transformative. Critics have called it “an instant classic,” as “urgent, essential reading for all,” and as a book that “should be required reading for generations to come.”

What is it about? In Caste, Wilkerson makes the case that “caste” is a more useful construct than “race” for understanding both the history and experience of race in America. Below, I’ve tried to capture the gist of her analysis, but no summary can capture the form and spirit of Wilkerson’s book. It is as much how Wilkerson writes as what she writes that makes Caste, for many, emotionally powerful as well as persuasive.

Wilkerson relies heavily on analogies to communicate, comparing caste systems to everything from subterranean toxins in Siberia to a crumbling old house to The Matrix. She relies heavily on anecdote, telling stories from her own life, the lives of friends, and the lives of others—past and present. She regularly interrupts the flow of her argument to offer these analogies and tell these stories, setting them apart from the main text through both style and typeface. And repeatedly, again and again, she spells out the realities of enslavement and caste-driven violence. Her descriptions are vivid, and horrifying, and painful to read—making it impossible to hide from the barbarous cruelty that was normalized in America for not just decades, but centuries.

All of this gives the book a different kind of heft—not the weight of heavily-footnoted logical exposition (although deeply researched, this book is not that), but the weight of a sermon perhaps, or the power of a well-crafted speech, with the persuasive skills of a rhetorician. Wilkinson’s style is off-putting for some. Repetitive. Flamboyant. Distracting. For others, it is gripping and immersive. I fall somewhere in the middle. But more on that below.

Now to her argument.

For Wilkerson, thinking of American society as a caste system explains a great deal that is not sufficiently explained by racial prejudice on its own. In fact, she says, “racism” is no longer a useful concept. “Over time,” she says, “racism has often been reduced to a feeling, a character flaw, conflated with prejudice, connected to whether one is a good person or not.” Yet systemic exclusion, inequity, and disrespect can persist without anyone admitting hatred. It can persist in a world of good and well-meaning people. In addition, while race is the visual signifier of caste in America, it is a much more mutable concept than caste. De facto, caste is more rigid. Wilkerson reminds us that race is an entirely social construct, that the dominant caste can adjust racial categories to maintain dominance, and that who has been considered “white” in America has, in fact, evolved over time. (And in one of history’s least subtle examples of racial recategorization, South Africa under apartheid identified Japanese people as “honorary Europeans.”)

So what exactly is “caste”? Wilkerson defines it more than once. It is, in one formulation, “the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy.” In another formulation, it is “the automatic, unconscious, reflexive response to expectations from a thousand imaging inputs and neurological societal downloads that affix people to certain roles based upon what they look like and what they historically have been assigned to or the characteristics and stereotypes by which they have been categorized.”

Difficult language to parse. One can see why she prefers analogies.

Central to the idea of caste is hierarchy, the ranking of categories of human beings on a scale from inferior to superior. Also central is the idea that the hierarchy is zero-sum: the lowest tier cannot be raised up without a higher tier being pushed down. Someone always needs to be at the bottom. It is this dynamic which makes efforts to achieve racial equality feel like a threat, particularly to those just above the bottom rung. This is why, for example, some of the strongest hostility toward Black Americans has come from less educated whites. This is what LBJ saw, expressed in his famous observation, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.” This, at least in part, explains Trump’s election.

Another central aspect of caste is how it guides individual behavior. Much of that behavior is unintentional. Explicit in Wilkerson’s definition of caste is that it often manifests as an “automatic, unconscious, reflexive response.” We internalize caste the way we internalize language, Wilkerson says, absorbing the rules until they become fundamental instincts, guiding our actions and assumptions in ways we may not notice. The results range from subtle (adjustments in body language that reflect assumptions about superiority and inferiority) to more overt (when a Black guest at a cocktail party is mistaken for a server) to systemically consequential (which kinds of crimes are the most harshly punished).

Caste systems also include much more intentional behaviors. “If there is anything that distinguishes caste,” Wilkerson says, “it is, first, the policing of rules expected of people based on what they look like, and, second, the monitoring of boundaries—the disregard for the boundaries of subordinate castes or the passionate construction of them by those in the dominant caste, to keep the hierarchy in place.” Jim Crow laws may exemplify the passionate construction of boundaries, but the defense of boundaries continues to be horribly visible in the current century, ranging from what Black people experience every day (suspicious looks by retail clerks) to the outrageous (calling police because a Black graduate student was dozing in a common room) to the murderous (the killing of Ahmaud Arbery).

Throughout the book, Wilkerson turns to India and Nazi Germany as reference points, searching for what caste systems—whether America’s racial divisions, India’s caste system, or the Germans’ subjugation and murder of European Jews—have in common. Through this comparative exploration, she lands on what she calls “the eight pillars of caste,” which capture in more detail the kinds of rules, beliefs, and norms that characterize caste systems.

What are the consequences of America’s caste systems? It does severe harm to those in the lowest caste, of course, but Wilkerson describes how caste explains larger aspects of history as well: why the U.S. has such a weak social safety net; why suicide and overall mortality rates among working-class whites, especially men, are so high; how an authoritarian narcissist like Trump could be elected. Wilkerson also mentions more than once how caste deprives the world of the lowest caste’s talent and creativity.

And what can be done? Wilkerson’s answer is two-fold. First, she believes the U.S. needs its own “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” because “you cannot solve anything that you do not admit exists.” Wilkerson believes that Americans have never honestly reckoned with our own history; that we cling to our rose-colored glasses when looking at the past; that we remain invested in myths of American greatness that allow no room for fault, for mistakes, for evil. It is part of the project of this book to shine a clearer light on the past, to make readers confront the reality that what we have called “plantations” were actually forced labor camps, that lynching was part of an ongoing reign of terror, that the walls created by segregation persist into the 21st century.

Second, says Wilkerson, what is critical to eroding the caste system is for more dominant-caste individuals to engage in what she calls “radical empathy,” doing the hard and continual work of examining their own assumptions, imagining what it is like to live as a Black person in America, and rejecting and exposing instances of caste-based biases, exclusion, and diminishment wherever they see them.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Because Caste is thought-provoking. Because it is filled with unfamiliar and unexpected facts and stories. Because it is also filled with reminders that cannot be heard too often about what Black Americans have experienced and why we are a long, long, long way from a post-racial world. Because it made me think differently, notwithstanding how much I’ve read about race and history before. Because looking at race through the lens of caste is indeed illuminating. Not that caste is a new idea, nor does Wilkerson claim it is. It is, though, a useful idea.

This does not mean that Caste is flawless. Quite the contrary. I found plenty in Caste that was disappointing and irritating, and I am not alone: much of the published criticism is pretty harsh.

First, say some critics, Wilkerson offers little that is new. Not only is the idea of caste well-worn ground, they say, but others have more thoroughly demonstrated how a zero-sum perception of racial hierarchies has seeped its way into the American fabric, staining our laws and our politics, with a straight-line to Trump’s election (as well as to the Republicans’ present preoccupation with preventing Black people from voting). Others have more thoroughly documented the boundaries, legal and extralegal, explicit and implicit, that have existed for Black Americans. And an entire industry has developed around trainings that purport to mitigate “unconscious bias.” For me, though, this criticism misses the point. Yes, Wilkerson is standing on the shoulders of others, but the power of her book has little to do with new discoveries, and everything to do with the way she brings all these ideas together into a single place, weaving them together, and doing so with fresh language.

Second, say others, the book reads as elitist. Wilkerson seems to worry more about the psychic toll of the American caste system on the comparatively privileged than on poorer people, spending time on her own experience as the sole Black woman in first-class on an airline, for example, and detailing how stress-related death is often higher for affluent and educated Black people than for poorer people. This is a fair criticism. While her intent was likely to make sure that her readers understand that class privileges protect no one from the burdens of caste, her reliance on personal experience sometimes seemed a bit tone deaf.

Third, say still others, Wilkerson vastly oversimplifies the Indian caste system, and she fails to acknowledge two fundamental differences between race in America and race in Nazi Germany—first, that the Nazis sought the complete eradication of the lowest caste, not just expropriation of their labor; second, that the Nazis attributed great power and intelligence to the lowest caste, believing them to be too much in charge. This, too, is a fair criticism, but not one that, to my mind, detracts from the overall power of the book. Wilkerson’s project is not a detailed analysis of either India or Nazi Germany; she seeks only to use them as points of reference, identifying broad-brush similarities, and, along the way, not letting us forget that the Nazis directly modeled the Nuremberg laws on Jim Crow laws.

Fourth, say another cluster of critics, the solutions she offers—a call for a Truth & Reconciliation-style commission and a call for greater “radical empathy”—are weak. Her solutions are focused on individual feelings and behavior, and she offers no recommendations for changes to laws or budgets that might disrupt, counter, or dismantle the structures that create and perpetuate persistent inequalities. Moreover, while “radical empathy” might seem like a good thing, it is no match for the angry, fearful backlash of those who see the world as zero-sum and who are unlikely to accept any perceived diminishment in status.

This critique most closely mirrors my own dissatisfaction with the book. I am with Wilkerson insofar as change requires a lot more white people to be as committed to racial justice as they are to any other issue, but neither a truth-finding effort nor greater empathy will be nearly enough to dismantle almost 350 years of exclusion and subjugation, let alone the deeply-rooted biases, both individual and systemic, that remain—particularly given how hard-wired humans are to fear the “other.” Thus, as I finished the book, I wished Wilkerson had at least noted what concrete government actions might be debated and discussed: Reparations? Reform of minimum wage laws to include more workers as well as to increase the wage? More investment in children to reduce child poverty and disparities in education? Changes in housing policy that more directly remedy the consequences of decades of redlining? No doubt the list of possibilities is long, and I felt the absence of any discussion that might hint at a policy agenda.

Finally, say some within my own circle of readers, Wilkerson is maddeningly repetitive, giving the whole book a disorganized and unwieldy feel, and therefore feeling entirely too long. I am torn on this one. As someone who tends to write in bullet points and who has little tolerance for the untidy, I often felt impatient with both the length and the structure of Caste. It looked tidy and organized, with those nicely bulleted eight pillars at the center of the book, but the overall reading experience was less like a straight-line tow-rope and more like being buffeted without an anchor. In the end, though, I forgave this. I decided that the repetition, the swirling of ideas, even the baffling digressions into topics that seemed only loosely relevant, was intentional. That Wilkerson was writing not as a scholar and logician, but as a storyteller and guide.

So I join the chorus of those calling Caste a must-read. Flaws and all. As Bryan Stevenson, who interviewed Wilkerson at Politics & Prose said, “She makes us see things we have to see.” Yet even as she makes us face the horrors of our history, Wilkerson somehow retains optimistic faith that the world can change. She has enormous faith in the power of human connections, which is why she believes so strongly in the importance of individual empathy. She has enormous faith that people can achieve amazing things—if only they had the space to be what they want to be, which is part of the reason she cares so much about the loss of talent when a whole category of people is denied that opportunity. By the conclusion of Caste, she switches the frame from the evil that was done to the good that is possible. She balances outrage with hope.

It’s that pivot, that rejection of either/or, that ability to simultaneously sustain outrage, because outrage is required for change, while also creating room for hope, that I expect will keep Caste in the must-read category for a long time to come.

Why did I read this? Tommy Orange’s review in the New York Times, titled “A Comic Coming-of-Age Novel Laced With Social Commentary,” along with a whole lot of enthusiastic buzz, prompted me to put this on my list.

What is it about? Everywhere You Don’t Belong begins in South Shore Chicago, part of Chicago’s South Side—a place burdened by the gangs and the violence that dominates the news, yes, but also the home of thousands of families just living their lives, going to work, going to school. The narrator of Everywhere is Claude, a child when we meet him, being raised by his grandmother. Claude is sort of an every-child; he doesn’t have any obvious or exceptional talents, nor is he particularly hard-working, or ambitious, or quick-thinking, or socially adept. His grandmother reassures him that he’s special, but she can’t say exactly how. Someday we’ll figure that out, she tells him. While Claude may be one of the sweetest protagonists in fiction, with buckets of kindness and empathy and loyalty, he’s mainly just an average kid—the “spectacular average,” as Bump calls him in an essay he wrote about the book.

We follow Claude as he grows from child to teen, keeping clear of the gangs, but not unscathed by violence. We follow him as he grows from teen to young adult, studying journalism at the University of Missouri, one of only two Black students working on the University newspaper, feeling pressure from faculty to be a crusader, pressure from the other Black student to reject pigeonholing. We follow him as he falls in love, first in grade-school, with his best friend Bubbly, a hilariously profane 9-year-old, and then again as a teen, with his best friend Janice, savvier than he is, dating a football player, struggling in her own way to figure out where she belongs.

Would I recommend it? I loved this book. I loved Bump’s way with dialogue—firecracker quick, often unexpected. I loved the book’s humor, which is wry, affectionate, and barbed, finding absurdity in even the worst situations. I was gripped by the way Bump put those worst situations on the page—and there are several of them, some laced with fear, some with sorrow. There is no way a privileged white woman can ever really know how it feels to be a Black man under the scrutiny of a police officer, just for carrying a duffel bag into a taco stand, let alone how it feels to be a Black man being screamed at by a half-dozen drunk white men with Confederate flags on their trucks, but Bump had me both terrified and enraged—and then, on the next page, he would make me laugh.

It’s impossible not to root for Claude, and Bump doesn’t deprive the reader of the satisfaction inherent in seeing an underdog win. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that after trying on for size many places he doesn’t belong, Claude ultimately lands exactly where he does belong. In the end, this is a book about love in its many forms, and I loved that, too.

Although Bump, like Claude, grew up on Euclid Avenue, although Bump, like Claude, studied journalism at the University of Missouri, this is not an autobiographical book. For one thing, Bump is clearly the kind of over-achiever that Claude is not. By the time Everywhere You Don’t Belong was published, he had already completed the first draft of his next book, which will be called The New Naturals, and is “about an underground group of black academics who start a utopian society in New England.” Another must-read, I’d be willing to bet now.

Why did I read this? Early in the pandemic, I began to read Yaa Gyasi’s much-lauded debut novel, Homegoing, but at that moment I couldn’t cope with the suffering of the characters. So I set it aside. I’ll go back to it at some point. This, her second novel, has also been widely praised (it appeared on many year-end “best of” lists), and was clearly very different than Homegoing: intimate, rather than epic; more cerebral than historical.

What is it about? Told in the first person, Transcendental Kingdom is the story of a young neuroscientist named Gifty, born to Ghanaian parents, raised in Alabama. As a child, Gifty was a devout Evangelical Christian, determined to simultaneously win God’s favor and prove racists wrong by being good, by being perfect, by being the best. When her beloved older brother died of a drug overdose and her mother fell into deep depression, Gifty—grieving, guilty, unmoored—was shipped off to live with her aunt in Ghana. Now, as an adult, cocooned in her Stanford lab, Gifty keeps human relationships at arm’s length, looking for answers in science, studying the neurological circuits related to addiction and depression.

Would I recommend it? This is a quietly gripping book, deeply personal in its voice, that explores thorny issues in a way that is both emotional and thoughtful. I expect to be thinking about for a long time. In Gifty, Gyasi has created a character who is deeply wounded, whose brains and talent are no protection against loss, and who bristles and retreats when threatened—whether the threat is intimacy, or thoughts she cannot control, or the renewal of grief. As a narrator, Gifty is simultaneously analytic and unreliable, determined to understand and control, yet unable to see herself clearly.

Loss is multidimensional and omnipresent in this novel. Most literally, Gifty loses her brother to addiction. She loses her mother to episodes of paralyzing depression. She loses her father, who moves back to Ghana when she is a toddler. She loses her own Ghanaian identity, forgetting her parents’ language, becoming much more American than Ghanaian. But perhaps most centrally, she loses her confidence in faith, turning to science. Thus, a central theme of the book, and one that is beautifully expressed, is the tension between faith and science, with neither offering the clear answers Gifty seeks:

“The fact that I can locate the part of the brain where memory is stored only answers questions of where and perhaps even how. It does little to answer the why. I was always, I am ever, unnerved… This is something I would never say in a lecture or a presentation or, God forbid, a paper, but, at a certain point, science fails. Questions become guesses become philosophical ideas about how something should probably, maybe, be.”

I loved the way Gyasi writes about this tension, pivoting between the poetic, mighty language of faith and the specific, technical language of science. Gifty is fluent in both languages, with her language of faith sometimes off-putting to her science-bound friends, and her language of science alien to her deeply religious mother. To write the book, Gyasi had to learn more of the language of science, and, indeed, the idea of the book took shape when she visited a close friend who is a neuroscientist at Stanford, spending time in her lab, trying to gain a better understanding of her work. Gyasi was already, though, fluent in the language of religion, with the book also taking shape in that context. Here is what she had to say in a New York Times interview:

“I grew up Pentecostal and left the church when I was a teenager because I realized that my predominantly white church in Alabama, part of the religious right, was itself a weapon formed against me and the people I loved and, not to put too fine a point on it, justice and truth. Leaving was such a profoundly lonely and confusing experience that I longed for literature that could help me grasp it, literature that took faith seriously, but there isn’t much literary fiction that deals with evangelicalism.”

This perspective permeates the book. Through Gifty’s voice, Gyasi captures both the joy and reassurance of deep faith as well as the way it can metastasize into intolerance and closed-mindedness:

“When Pastor John preached against the ways of the world, he was talking about drugs and alcohol and sex, yes, but he was also asking our church to protect itself against a kind of progressivism that for years now had been encroaching. I don’t mean progressive in a political sense, though that was certainly a part of it. I mean progress in the sense of the natural way in which learning something new requires getting rid of something old, like how discovering that the world is round means that you can no longer hang on to the idea that you might one day fall off the edge of the Earth. And now that you have learned that something you thought was true was never true at all, every idea that you hold firm comes into question. If the Earth is round, then is God real? Literalism is helpful in the fight against change.”

Another perspective that permeates the book, also drawn from Gyasi’s own life, is the dislocating experience of being an African in the American South, facing racism as much as any Black American would, but with an outsider’s eye. Gyasi’s description of Gifty’s father, an ebullient man well over six feet tall who tried to make himself invisible in America, may stick with me for a very long time. Race is not the central focus of Transcendent Kingdom, but it is part of the fabric of Gifty’s life, shaping who she is and how she responds to the world, contributing to her determination to succeed and excel at all costs. It is the unavoidable context, adding another layer of meaning and emotion to the story.

So back to the question I’ve been asking in these posts: Would I recommend Transcendental Kingdom? Yes, clearly I would, to anyone who looks to fiction to excavate complexity, to anyone interested in distinctive new literary voices. But with one caveat: I hated the ending of this book. To me, the way Gyasi chose to close the book was disappointingly anti-climactic. So if you read this book, I recommend tearing off the last chapter and sticking it a drawer, reading it only after you’ve made up your mind about the rest of this otherwise profound and moving novel.

(Full title: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness)

Why did I read this? A college-bound daughter of a friend plans to study marine biology, and I am so envious. If I could live my life over again, maybe I would have been another Jacques Cousteau, living my life on boats and in scuba gear, learning about all the fascinating critters that live in the oceans. Except for the fact that I’m not a great swimmer, and the fact that being underwater terrifies me, and the fact that I’m not wild about touching slimy things, it would have been great! On second thought, maybe visiting aquariums is the better choice for me. At any rate, a few weeks ago I watched the startling and beautiful film My Octopus Teacher, and it prompted to me to finally reach for this book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2016 and had been languishing on my someday-read list for quite a while.

What is it about? Sy Montgomery is a naturalist and writer who has made her living by immersing herself with specific animals or in specific environments and then writing about them. The Soul of an Octopus chronicles the time she spent observing the octopuses at the New England Aquarium in Boston, and learning to dive so she could observe octopuses in the wild. It blends natural history with a sentimental account of the creatures, human as well as tentacled, that she met along the way.

Would I recommend it? Octopuses (yes, that’s the plural) are astonishing creatures. They are intelligent, with the ability to solve puzzles, use tools, remember individual humans, and play. They have neurons distributed in their arms, which means their arms can perceive (smell, taste, feel) and make decisions on their own. They have skin that instantaneously changes color and texture to match their environment, giving them exceptional camouflage. They can fit into unbelievably tiny spaces, with the ability to flatten and compress everything except their beaks and eyes. They have three hearts, and their blood is blue.

This book, overflowing with Montgomery’s enthusiasm and wonder, provides not just an excuse to learn about octopuses, but an excuse to contemplate the extraordinary diversity of both sea life and human life. It is a warm-hearted hug of a book, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I think it probably was good for my health, bringing down my blood pressure each time I entered Montgomery’s world. If you like your science books to stick to the facts, if you sniff at anthropomorphizing animals, if you object to speculation about whether the octopus has a soul, you will not like this book. But if you stand at fish tanks wondering what the fish are thinking about, if you once yearned to meet Flipper, if you find spiritual sustenance in the natural world, you’ll enjoy this book.

Why did I read this? Was it (a) because I remember what a best-seller it was, and regretted not reading it when everyone was raving about it? Or was it (b) because I keep forgetting that best-selling status can be entirely manufactured by great marketing and has little to do with whether I’ll like a book? Or was it perhaps (c) because I’m a glutton for punishment? Or, (d) all of the above? (See also: Where the Crawdads Sing.)

What is it about? Baseball. College baseball. College baseball at a liberal arts college in the Midwest. The boys who play college baseball at a liberal arts college in the Midwest. The father and daughter who fall in love with the boys who play baseball at a liberal arts college in the Midwest.

Would I recommend it? Good grief, no. And not because it’s about baseball. I like baseball. And Harbach’s play-by-plays of the games in the book are as good as sports writing gets. What I don’t like are books that are waaaaay too long. The pace of The Art of Fielding is glacial, with Harbach spelling out in glorious detail every thought-process a character has, every room they enter. There is very good writing here, but it’s lost in an avalanche of every paragraph it crossed his mind to write. And this flood of writing is overstuffed with literary allusions and ersatz philosophy. A writer-friend once described to me her dislike of writers who are show-offy, who prioritize the brilliance of their own writing over the needs of the story. Harbach is five hundred pages of show-offy. Here is an example of the kind of descriptions that drag down the book, excerpted by one of the few negative reviews of the book (a review with which I entirely agree):

“The chair was sturdy and comfortable, suitably presidential … but sometimes Affenlight pined for a sleek modern one, with casters and a medial axis on which you could spin. Having shuffled the big chair to the window, he leaned his forehead against the glass, which felt cold despite the sunlight, and dragged his neatly trimmed nails across the exposed portion of the screen, producing a scratchy metallic sound. The word for what a chair should do had been escaping him: swivel. Melville had once called America a seat of snivelization; what Affenlight wanted was a seat of swivelization.”

Worse, though, is how, in 2021, the book reeks of thoughtless attitudes towards women, towards gay people, and towards imbalances of sexual power. Although it was published only a decade ago, in 2011, much of it feels archaic and toxic. There are women who are characterized mainly in terms of the greatness of their legs; there is catcalling experienced as amusing; there are offhand thoughts (meant to be funny?) such as “she’d never really been bulimic, but it was one of those things a girl just knew how to do.” Then there is a major character, a gay student named Owen Dunne, who, in the words of same lonely negative review, is a “caricature of gay archness.” Meanwhile, a friend participates in offensive banter, thinking (also meant to be funny?), “nothing like some casual homophobia to win over a crowd.”

And then, spoiler alert, a central part of the plot is a love affair between the 20-year-old Owen and the 60-year-old college president, Guert Affenlight, with Affenlight resentful that no one would think twice if he had an affair with a woman who was a student at the college, and that it’s only the same-sex nature of the relationship that requires secrecy.

Now, to be fair, the trustees of the college eventually do point out that sexual relationships between college faculty and students are a violation of the school’s code of ethics, but they confront Affenlight as if they’d discovered him parked illegally. The problem is that he violated the rules; no more. And no one else seems to be bothered. Had any of the characters struggled with the ethics, had the book created tension between that ethical reservations and believable mutual attraction, I might have felt differently. But why Owen is attracted to Affenlight is never clear. Meanwhile, Owen’s teammates take the affair in stride; they think Affenlight is a great guy. Affenlight’s daughter is mostly upset that she didn’t know her father was gay. And Affenlight himself worries much more about how he could possibly be attractive to a kid forty-years younger than whether it might be, oh, let’s say, WRONG to sleep with a student.

In browsing contemporaneous reviews of the book, they are consistently charmed by the Affenlight-Owen romance. Ten years ago, would I, too, have seen it as charming rather than troublesome? Ten years ago, would I have agreed with the New York Times’ critics that this was one of the ten best books of that year? Ten years ago seems like yesterday, but maybe my eyes weren’t nearly as open as I thought they were. But even a decade ago, I can’t imagine I would have enjoyed this over-written book, and I can’t imagine not being puzzled by the rave reviews.