Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Education of an Idealist: The Fascinating Life of Samantha Power

Samantha Power is a pretty impressive human. She's an immigrant, a journalist, a Pulitzer-winning writer for a book on genocide, and a diplomat who reached the pinnacle of her profession as President Obama's ambassador to the United Nations. It's not a surprise, then, that a life this fascinating translates to an equally fascinating memoir. The Education of An Idealist is Power's chronicle of her life (so far...she's only 49 years old!), and it's as inspiring as it is engaging.

Power, born in Ireland, emigrated to the US when she was nine, partly to escape her alcoholic father. But this wasn't an Angela's Ashes-like story — her father was never abusive, and in fact, she has fond memories of being plopped down in the pub to read for hours while her father drank and held court. But her mother, had had enough, began a relationship with another man, and went with him to Pittsburgh.

Power worked hard, went to Yale, and began working for an NGO after college. Horrified by the atrocities of the wars in the former Yugoslavia republic, she forged a letter from a magazine editor to gain press credentials, and went to Bosnia to cover the genocide occurring there.

She came back, went to Harvard Law school, and began writing a book, A Problem From Hell, about the history of genocide, which won the Pulitzer in 2003. In 2005, she met then-Senator Barack Obama, and joined his staff as a foreign policy advisor. But she was immediately turned off by the "politics of politics" — that even in a progressive senator's office, there was still largely an "old boy's club" atmosphere, and she still suffered people talking behind her back, diminishing her contributions and expertise because of her gender.

Still, when Obama won the presidency in 2008, she joins his administration, first working in the national security council, then as the UN Ambassador. She deals with crises as wide-ranging and potentially devastating as Ebola to the Syrian leader using chemical weapons on his own people.

One thing that really struck me and has stuck with about this terrific memoir is learning how deliberative monumental decisions really are. When Obama was trying to determine whether to order airstrikes agains Assad, Power and the rest of his team, often with vastly differing views, and often with heated arguments, took painstaking measure to consider every angle — legal, humanitarian, political, etc. — of the impacts of this decision. That level of consideration and mental effort (and acuity) into decisions certainly doesn't seem to be the case anymore, and that's tragic.

The story ends, as all these Obama administration memoirs do, on an impossibly sad note. Power and her colleagues must leave government and make way for the new administration, knowing full well these people are about to undo all the progress they'd made. But reading Power's story is truly inspiring. As you'd expect from a Pulitzer-winner, she's a gifted writer, and this alternately reads like a thriller, a detailed policy paper, and a "how the sausage is made" look at government. It's a long book — one of the longer memoirs I've ever read, at over 500 pages — but worth every word. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

American Dirt: The Plight of the Migrant

A roiling, contentious debate is swirling around Jeanine Cummins' new novel, American Dirt, about a group of migrants struggling to make it to the U.S.

On one hand, a majority of readers, me included, have loved it. It's a spectacular read — as pulse-pounding, affecting, devastating, and simply unputdownable as anything I've read in awhile. At least two readers I've talked to have said, pausing to point out they're not exaggerating, that it's one of the best books they've ever read. It has a preposterously high rating on Goodreads, and it is certainly poised to be a huge bestseller. So yes, the consensus so far is that this is a fantastic novel.

On the other hand, a small but growing cadre of readers, led mainly by critics and other writers, are denouncing it, often ferociously and scathingly, for two main reasons.

The first and most important reason is that the book is inauthentic, and therefore fatally flawed, say these critics. They claim that Cummins, who is white, has mis-rendered Mexican and migrant culture. They have called the novel everything from "non-mexican crap" to accusing it of cultural appropriation. One writer even said the intent of the novel is "to make white people feel good for having read it."

Regarding the charge of inaccuracy in how it portrays Mexican culture and language, I'm certainly not qualified to comment. Lauren Groff also makes this point in her review of the novel. But it's massively important to understand that if Mexican and Latinx people feel they've been rendered wrongly, they absolutely deserve to have their voices heard and considered when readers are determining whether to read this novel.

Regarding the intent of the novel making white people feel good, well, that and sentiments like it, are just obviously not true. I know what this writer meant, approximately, and I'm sure she is exaggerating a bit out of frustration, but comments like that aren't helpful to the discussion. While I  enjoyed reading the novel, I certainly didn't "feel good" for having read it. I felt awful. Embarrassed. Despaired. How is it possible that I live in a country that treats people this way? What can I do to help? (On her website, Cummins includes a list of charities and organizations to which you can donate to help migrants, if you so choose. Please do, if you can.)

Cummins actually makes clear her intent in an author note at the end. She says her goal is to give voice to migrants, to remind us that "these people are people" rather than a "helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass." The psychology theory of the "identifiable victim effect" tells us that when we view individual people and their trauma, we're more likely to be willing to help, than if we just hear about nameless, faceless "masses" in news stories. I think this book does give migrants a face, even if the identifiable victims here are fictional. So shouldn't there be value in that? Shouldn't we allow the good in place of the perfect?

The second and probably less important reason the novel is drawing some ire is that it's just not a well-written book, and therefore doesn't deserve it's soon-to-be popularity. This was essentially the argument in this review by critic Parul Sehgal in the NY Times. Speaking of intentions, Sehgal contends the novel has good ones ("the motives may be unimpeachable"), but that doesn't save it from Cummins' poor execution. "The real failures of the book, however, have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist." Ouch! Reasonable minds can disagree here, but this charge is again coming mostly from critics and other writers. You know how people often call an author "a writer's writer" as a way of complimenting her/him for, I don't know, doing things with prose we plebeian readers couldn't possibly understand? Cummins is accused here of the opposite. This happened when The Goldfinch blew up, too — there was a vocal minority who claimed it was complete crap. Personally, I was enjoying American Dirt way too much to stop and parse the effectiveness and beauty of every metaphor.

But so, that's a very long introduction to the novel itself. What actually is this book? American Dirt is about the journey of a Mexican woman named Lydia, and her 8-year-old son, Luca, from Acapulco to el norte. In the heart-stopping opening scene, Lydia and Luca flee their home after 16 members of their family are murdered by a drug cartel during a quinceaƱera party. They escape by hiding in the bathtub and then going on the lam, first to Mexico City and then, when they realize they have no other options that don't put them in danger, as migrants. Along the way, they meet a cast of characters, some become friends and companions, like the teenage sisters Soledad and Rebeca, who are escaping their own hell in Honduras. But some are pure evil. Lydia never knows who'll help — and some people do at their own risk, allowing her to hide in their sheds or giving her money and food — and who'll try to kidnap or kill them, or worse.

American Dirt is a thriller with the heart of literary fiction...or maybe vice versa. It's a mesmerizing, propulsive read from which I simply couldn't look away. Cummins is a master here at building and releasing tension. Even Sehgal begrudgingly admits the novel is pretty good as a thriller, even as she can't resist another quick shot at Cummins: "The tortured sentences aside, 'American Dirt' is enviably easy to read." She's right, I flew through this, and maybe that's why I didn't notice her so-called tortured sentences. I was riveted, horrified, saddened, but I couldn't stop reading. I loved it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Such A Fun Age: Class, Race, and Privilege

Novels about class and race shouldn't be allowed to be as cool and readable as Kiley Reid's debut, Such A Fun Age. But wow, this one sure is! It will certainly be the first big hit of 2020. This is truly a novel of our times, and the way it handles the subtlety and nuance of the conversations around race and privilege is really fantastic.

Just to start: Imagine being presumptuous enough to think nothing of calling your part-time day babysitter at 10:45 pm on a Saturday to come pick up your three-year-old kid so you can deal with a very minor crisis. That's how Alix Chamberlain, an early 30s wealthy white Philadelphian kicks off the novel. Her call is to Emira Tucker, a mid-20s black woman who is at a birthday party, but answers the summons because she needs the money.

But then things get even worse. Emira takes three-year-old Briar to a grocery store down the street to kill time. A woman at this upscale store thinks something is awry — why would a black woman in party attire be at this store on a Saturday night with a young white girl? So she gets security involved, you know, just to make sure everything's on the level. This is a pretty familiar scene in this day and age of BBQ Becky and Permit Patty and other white women calling the cops on black people simply for committing the offense of "living while black."

So that's the setup for what happens over the course of the next 300 pages. Alix, whose actual name is Alex, but changed the spelling to seem more sophisticated but also maybe to help hide herself from an embarrassing incident from her past, is your typical "Karen" — a vastly self-centered, though sometimes well-meaning, early 30s rich woman who doesn't really understand the world beyond her nose. An avowed do-gooder who has developed a sort of (possibly BS) women's empowerment blog and brand, Alix is mortified about what happened to Emira. Somehow Alix sees it as her own fault, and attempts to atone for this by insinuating herself into Emira's life with an unearned over-familiarity that makes Emira uncomfortable.

Then, Emira begin dating a man who was there the night of the grocery story incident. This fella has a connection to Alix's past. And when we learn the full details, Alix begins a slow unraveling. And it's a fascinating train wreck to watch, though Emira become the collateral damage.

The differences between Alix and Emira are what make this novel powerful and fascinating. One huge example of this is Alix's entitlement and absolute certainty of her place in the world vs. Emira's struggle to find her way. Another is the way Reid portrays Alix's and Emira's groups of friends. Both lean on their friends for advice and support, but often in vastly different ways and with hugely different results.

You really would expect a novel about such heavy topics to itself be heavy. But that is absolutely not the case. This reads quickly and smoothly, and really is a lot of fun. Very highly recommended!