The ambiguities of race resonate in ‘Passing’

I wanted to read a classic of African-American literature during February and the solution was found when the New York Times Style Magazine’s T Book Club chose Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen as its monthly selection. The slim novel — really more of a novella — is set in the 1920s and explores the practical and emotional ramifications when a pair of black women meet by chance after many years and one discovers that the other has been passing as white ever since she disappeared from the neighborhood where they grew up.

a17ba507f2637395967557178414345412f5945_v5For Irene, who narrates the story, her childhood friend Clare’s choice to pretend to be white raises complicated feelings within her. On the one hand, she herself has been known to occasionally present as white in situations where she would not be welcome as a black woman — certain restaurants or businesses, for example. On the other hand, she is proud to be black, and having married a black doctor and living a comfortable life in the Harlem Renaissance community in New York City, spends much of her time working to raise money to help disadvantaged fellow black Americans. She can’t help viewing Clare’s passing as a repudiation of the pride ‘Rene feels about being black.

Despite Irene’s disapproval of Clare’s life (and the fact that Clare’s husband is an unrepentant racist who has no idea his wife is not white) she can’t help feeling a begrudging admiration and liking for Clare. There are hints that there may even be some sexual tension between them, although this 1929 book does not explore the topic beyond slight hints and suggestions that may be my 21st century brain imposing current cultural norms on the past.

The briefness of the book was a source of some frustration to me. It felt that we never got to the real heart of how and why Clare chose to live her life the way she did. That feeling was compounded by the ambiguous and somewhat abrupt-seeming ending, which I am still unsure of even now. None of that should deter a reader who is interested in exploring the realities of race in 1920s America, though. Short as it is, Passing packs a punch and is well worth spending time with, however brief.

Mina Baites plays a bittersweet tune in ‘The Silver Music Box’

Johann Blumenthal is a German silversmith, a talented silversmith who counts both Gentiles and his fellow Jews among his regular customers in The Silver Music Box (2017) by Mina Baites. Filled with love for a homeland that doesn’t always love him back, he enlists in the German Army to fight in World War I. Before he leaves, he crafts an exquisite silver music box for his young son, Paul, to remember him by.  When Johann doesn’t return from the front, Paul and his mother, Lotte, are left to pick up the pieces with the help of Uncle Max, also a talented jeweler. 

a88fee53ca69b69596d345675774345412f5945_v5Fast-forward to the 1930s. Paul, now a young adult, is still captivated by his father’s music box. He’s also captivated by Clara, a doctor’s daughter who longs to be teacher, an occupation closed to those of her religion. So she determines to convert to Christianity in order to fulfill her dreams. Paul does the same in order to be with the love of his life, and for a while all is well. Of course, we know that things don’t stay that way. As life in Germany gets increasingly more difficult and dangerous for Jews, the Blumenthals looks for ways to protect themselves from the coming storm. Each of them — Lotte, Uncle Max, Aunt Martha, and Paul and Clara — seek different paths to safety.

I wasn’t in the best head space to read historical fiction about the run-up to the Holocaust, to be honest, but I was invested enough in the characters and story to keep reading, and I’m glad I did. The narrative takes a big leap in time from 1939 to 1963, content to fill in the tragic details in the form of a later descendant of the family searching for her roots. This lightened the tension, which I appreciated. 

It’s a good story, perhaps a bit simplistically told, but captures well the growing fear of the German Jewish community as the Nazis grow in strength and power during the lead up to World War II.

Andy Weir’s Madcap Misadventures and Math on Mars

The Martian (2012) is the story of an astronaut on a manned mission to Mars who gets left for dead when his crewmates evacuate in a crisis. It has a lot of the elements that made me think I didn’t like science fiction for so long. Primarily, it has techno-babble. Lots and lots of techno-babble. And chemistry. And math (“I’ll spare you the math,” narrator Mark Watney says at one point, after having already devoted three long paragraphs to math, and just before devoting the rest of the chapter to … you guessed it, math ). And acronyms galore, from MDV and MAV to EVA and AREC.

f6182b0a5f02e09596a496469514345412f5945_v5So of course I hated it, right? Wrong! The Martian is one of the best books I’ve read this year, with a protagonist who is witty and smart and arctic chill under pressure. And he gets lots of practice being cool and unflappable, as crisis after crisis threaten to end his Mars castaway gig quicker than a barefoot jackrabbit on a hot greasy griddle in August. Even after Watney is able to make contact with NASA to let them know he isn’t dead yet, he faces a real puzzle: how can he survive four years until the rescue mission can reach him, with food that will only last for about a year?

How Watney and NASA tackle that problem, and the other half-dozen that threaten to fulfill Watney’s missed destiny as the late great Martian, kept me turning pages right to the end. Andy Weir tells the story with breezy blasts of profane humor that will almost have you believing that being stranded on Mars wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Currently Reading, 8 March 2021

I generally stick to reading one book at a time, but this week I’ve got a couple on the go.

60f3392ac585e1d5974485a76674345412f5945_v5One of them, Long Bright River by Liz Moore, is a 2020 novel exploring the ravages of addiction in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood, from the perspective of female police officer Michaela Fitzpatrick. Mickey, as she is usually called, is consumed with trying to find her younger sister Kacey, who has struggled with addiction since her early teen years and recently dropped out of sight entirely.

And for filling in the gaps during periods when I only have a short amount of time to read, I’ve been dipping into Wright Thompson’s The Cost of These Dreams: Sports Stories and Other Serious Business (2019). I was familiar with Thompson’s work from ESPN The Magazine, in particular an in-depth portrait of college and Olympic wrestling legend Dan Gable, who coached my alma mater to nine straight NCAA Championships in the 1980s and 15 overall. That profile is included in c7e72ebed55d87859676f7178414345412f5945_v5The Weight of These Dreams, as is his equally incisive look at Michael Jordan as he turned 50 a few years ago. But it’s the articles I hadn’t already read that have been hitting the hardest, including an examination of the ways football and segregation fed each other at the University of Mississippi in 1962, as the team was fighting for a national al championship and James Meredith was fighting to be allowed to enroll as the first African-American student at Ole Miss. Compelling stuff.

The Three Investigators get their start in this children’s classic

With a reluctant helping hand from film director Alfred Hitchcock, no less

The Secret of Terror Castle is the first case for the Three Investigators — aka Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews, teenage boys living in Southern California circa 1964. Mastermind Jupiter has recently won a contest that earned him 30 days of access to a Rolls Royce and chauffeur, convenient since none of the boys are old enough to drive yet.

Somehow Jupiter finagles Alfred Hitchcock into hiring them to find a haunted house for him where he can film his next picture. Even more conveniently, there’s a likely location nearby, the former home of a silent film star whose career was ruined when talking movies revealed he spoke in a high-pitched lisp. No one has been able to stay for more than an hour inside the house since the disgraced movie star’s mysterious disappearance, as spooky sounds of a phantom organ and uncontrollable feelings of terror cause them to flee. The boys need to make sure it’s really haunted and plan their own visit to the “Terror Castle.” Is it really haunted, and if so by what — or whom?

I loved these books growing up, ranking them just below Trixie Belden and ahead of Nancy Drew. This debut was first published in 1964, so the series and I were born at the same time (no need to speculate on who has aged better, thank you very much). Reading it as an adult, there is nothing scary or spooky about the story, but I still loved the Three Investigators’ Rube Goldberg-esque “office” arrangements in the junkyard of Jupiter’s Uncle Titus. There are lots of those little details that really spoke to children growing up in an era without CGI or fancy special effects to create realistic paranormal atmospheres. We did it with our own brains, kids!

I probably gave this one a half-star extra just for nostalgia, as the ending was easy to figure out at my advanced age. But now that I’ve located a source for the whole series, I will keep reading and hope the magic never dims so much that they are no longer appealing.

They Said It: Cherie Dimaline

The stars began to rip through the hard skin of dark like the sharp points of silver needles through velvet. I watched them appear and wink and fade, and I smiled. This wasn’t going to be so bad. Maybe the end is just a dream. That made me feel sorry for a minute for the others, the dreamless ones. What happened when they died? I imagined them just shutting off like factory machines at the end of a shift: functioning, purposeful, and then just out.

The Marrow Thieves

Classic ‘Mother Night’ resonates all these years later

Vonnegut could not have known how his homegrown Nazi theme would play out in the 21st century

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Howard W. Campbell Jr., the narrator of Vonnegut’s brilliant 1966 novel Mother Night, is pretending to be a Nazi — or as he puts it at the outset of his so-called confessions, “I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.” In Campbell’s version of his life story, he became a writer and broadcaster of Nazi propaganda out of expediency — his father-in-law was the chief of police in Berlin; Campbell and his German wife wanted to remain in Germany even after the war began in 1939; joining the Nazi cause was the easiest way to do that. His broadcasts were notoriously vile, filled with hatred and venom toward Jewish people and anyone else who did not conform to the Aryan ideal.

And that for me was the most upsetting thing about this story — that someone could spew such hatred, knowing it would have the most terrible consequences for its targets, without actually feeling strongly one way or the other about the truth of what he said and wrote. The hateful propaganda was a writing exercise, a way for Campbell to keep his creative juices flowing for when the war would end and he could resume his playwriting career. To freely disperse such hate without believing in it — is that not more horrific than the mad ravings of the true believer?

I’ve seen a number of references to this book recently as a sort of foretelling of the current political situation in the United States. As I began reading I expected to find that Campbell represented the people who stormed the US Capitol and tried to overthrow the government, but after reading it I’ve changed my mind. Campbell is the spitting image of every politician, from the very top down to state and local levels, who cynically perpetuated lies and conspiracy theories that they knew to be false, in order to rile up that mob and incite the insurrection. In the end, which is worse?

That’s the question that’s going to keep me up nights.

I had hoped, as a (propaganda) broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate.

Currently Reading, 1 March 2021

My current read is a book recommended by my friend Ana, which just happened to be available at the library when I checked their online catalog. It’s The Marrow Thieves by Canadian author Cherie Dimaline (2017). 921890811545925596d793178414345412f5945_v5The library blurb is enticing: “In a future world ravaged by global warming, people have lost the ability to dream, and the dreamlessness has led to widespread madness. The only people still able to dream are North America’s indigenous population – and it is their marrow that holds the cure for the rest of the world. But getting the marrow – and dreams – means death for the unwilling donors. Driven to flight, a 15-year-old and his companions struggle for survival, attempt to reunite with loved ones, and take refuge from the “recruiters” who seek them out to bring them to the marrow-stealing ‘factories.”

The book has won a slew of awards in Canada, including the Kirkus Prize for Young People’s Fiction, the Governor General’s Literary Award (Young People’s Literature category), and the Burt Award for First Nations, Métis and Inuit Literature. As you can see from that list, the book is classified as Young Adult but I have to say the writing shows a level of maturity that makes it an engaging read even for an old lady like me. I’ll post a full review when I’ve finished it, but so far, so good.

Miss Silver dives in at the deep end in ‘The Silent Pool’

Who wants to kill Adriana Ford? And how many will die before the villain is found?

The first question to be answered in any Golden Age mystery featuring Miss Silver is simple: How will the retired governess-cum-detective acquire her client? Up to now in the series she has been hired by total strangers on trains, via word-of-mouth from satisfied clients, been called in by the police, and more or less stumbled into situations. In The Silent Pool (first published 1953), it’s much more straightforward — the client calls Miss Silver for an appointment. How quaint! But that’s where the humdrum aspects end.

For one thing, the retired stage actress visits Miss Silver in disguise (seen right through by our sharp-eyed sleuth, of course). Adriana Ford thinks someone in her ragtag extended family may be trying to kill her for her money — there’s been a fall on the stairs, a possibly poisoned soup, and a suspicious medicine tablet. After spilling all this to Miss Silver, the actress decides she’s being overly dramatic and declines Miss Silver’s help. But after the first body shows up, she puts in a call to our Maudie to come sort things out.

Throughout this series (we’re on Book 25 here) I’d gotten used to Miss Silver not showing up until perhaps the middle of a book or even later, so it was a surprise to see her right there in the first sentence this time. That fact, combined with a rather lengthy bit of exposition in the first chapter that brings readers up to speed on Miss Silver’s backstory, makes me think this book was seen as a chance to hook some new readers into the Tribe of Maudie. If you’re one of those people who don’t feel the need to start a series at the beginning, this could be a good one to begin with. But surely you wouldn’t do that, would you?

Anyway, the story is a good one. There’s a satisfying surfeit of suspects (though some clearly preposterous red herrings) and some pleasant characters to root for although not, interestingly enough, the client. In other books Miss Silver forms a bit of an attachment to her client that goes beyond a business relationship, but that’s not the case here. The rest of the cast confirms my theory that Wentworth had much more fun writing terrible people than she did nice ones. Her villains are always just so delightfully villainous.

I’m feeling a little melancholy as we approach the end of the series (just seven more left), but I’m pleased that each outing remains remarkably strong even this far along in the series.

Rogue cops face off against rural Idaho town in ‘Blue Heaven’

can anyone save annie and william?

I have read the first couple of books in author Box’s Joe Pickett series, but Blue Heaven (St. Martin’s Press, 2008) is a standalone suspense/thriller about some rogue L.A. cops who retire to Idaho with their ill-begotten gains and proceed to wreak havoc on the rural community. (The title is apparently a real thing, referring to an area of the northwest state where a lot of California police officers move when they retire from the force.) The story starts with a bang, as two young children witness a murder in the woods and are chased by the bad guys. They escape, barely, but then find themselves in danger again and again as they try to make their way home to their mom.

Mom has her own problems, with the not-quite-live-in boyfriend whose conflicts with her young daughter Annie initiated the current mess she and brother William are in, and the local police and town volunteers who are supposed to be searching for her missing kids. But are they all playing for the same team? The reader finds out the answer quickly, but it takes an excruciatingly long time for anyone in the book to see the light. The only person in this small town who seems to have a clue is Jess, a struggling rancher who has his own personal problems with an ex-wife and an adult son struggling with addiction and mental health issues. Into this small-town morass stumbles a retired L.A. cop on the trail of a gang who pulled off a million-dollar heist at a California racetrack and got away with both the money and the murder of an armed guard.

So much of the book is spent following various characters as they stumble around in the dark (both literally and figuratively) that it’s a surprise when the ending comes together fast and furious and confusing. I’m still not exactly sure what happened at the end, to be honest, but I didn’t care enough to go back and try to figure it out. Maybe I’ve gone soft in my old age, but I no longer especially enjoy books that put kids in jeopardy, especially from the opening pages through to the end of the book. There’s no neatly wrapped up happy ending for everyone here, but that’s actually a point in its favor for me. Less so were the almost cartoonish bad guys and the somewhat predictable plot trajectory. I’d rate this one “just OK.”