Book Update – September/October 2020

Pew by Catherine Lacey

Pew is our narrator’s name, who gets the moniker when they are found sleeping on a church pew Sunday morning. This person is genderless, racially ambiguous, and never speaks out loud cause growing consternation in the traditionally conservative community they end up in. Pew seems to be a person outside the boundaries of time and space, an eternal being unsure of their own purpose. They become jostled from one location to the next as a charitable family because fed up with the inability to categorize Pew based on cultural norms, and they end up with the local pastor, elderly relatives, and a black family on the other side of town.

Author Catherine Lacey has penned a parable about modern American society, using the outsider Pew to make observations on our culture’s endless contradictions. Laws and morality are fluid yet spoken about as if written in stone. The characters around Pew cannot see beyond the surface level, so Pew’s ambiguity frightens and angers them. The story never devolves into dark violence; Lacey is more creative than that. She trails us along and delivers a powerful but enigmatic conclusion that leaves us pondering what it all meant.

Pew is the perfect character for this story; their silence is like a dagger in the endlessly chatting, yet never saying anything small-town residents. Through silence, these people are forced to face truths about themselves they would rather ignore. There’s no privacy for Pew, though, always watched as everyone is, judged just like everyone else. The growing mob begins to start deciding what is true about Pew and what isn’t without any evidence because they need to fit things inboxes. It’s a very potent fable that rings true and likely will be true fifty years from now.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

In 1950s Mexico, Noemi Taboada receives a telegram from her newlywed cousin speaking about some growing evil and ranting about ghosts. Noemi sets off to High Place, a manor in the mountains of the Mexican countryside, built by English coal barons who set up shop in this foreign land. Noemi doesn’t know her cousin’s groom very well and quickly meets him and his macabre family. 

Noemi is an interesting character to choose for a protagonist because she is so unlikely: a young debutante who uses up boys and tosses them away while partying the night away in Mexico City. However, she is also a university student who knows quite a bit about the sciences and is fiercely determined to protect her cousin. She has a formidable match in her cousin’s husband, who mocks and teases Noemi’s demands about access to her ailing relative. Then when the dreams begin, things start to take a strange turn indeed.

Author Silvia Moreno-Garcia doesn’t have any pretentious post-modern tricks up her sleeve. She just delivers an excellent classic Gothic horror story. The only twist would be that instead of being drenched in Europe’s culture, the story is very much centered on Mexican culture and history. The labor relations between the owners and workers of the coal mine plays a big part in how the tale unfolds. The clash between “civilized” English medicine and the traditional folkloric methods of health provide another point of contention. There’s a moment about ⅔ of the way into the book when everything goes off the rails in a good way, and it gets quite insane. If you are looking for a solid, spooky read this fall, Mexican Gothic nails it.

The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem

I first read Jonathan Lethem when I was in college and devoured many of his early novels. Girl in Landscape and As She Climbed Across the Table stand out most to me. He took a bit of a shift in his aesthetic with Motherless Brooklyn, which I enjoyed but wasn’t as much about magical realism as his earlier works. The Arrest feels like a healthy compromise between these two points, a play on the post-apocalyptic genre that doesn’t believe society has to collapse and devour itself.

The titular Arrest was a moment when almost every mechanical creation of mankind stopped working. Everything from computers to cars to guns and airplanes just didn’t function anymore, degraded and fell apart. 

The novel is centered on Journeyman, a former screenwriter who was going to hit it big in Hollywood with his partner Peter Todbaum. Todbaum turned out to be a more malicious person than Journeyman realized, and after a falling out, Journeyman sought solace on the East coast at his sister’s farming commune in Maine. That was when the Arrest happened, and it left Journeyman stranded there. New communities formed, but so did alliances and mutual aid networks. People took up jobs they never had before because it was a necessity in this strange new world. Everything changes a tunnel-digger powered by a nuclear reactor comes rumbling into their isolated region; driving this behemoth is Todbaum.

This is not really a book centered around a plot so much as it is about characters and tempestuous relationships. Lethem jumps back and forth between Journeyman dealing with Todbaum’s imposition in the present to their glory days in Los Angeles and how everything went wrong. Todbaum is a svengali who finds his niche in this new world as a seductive storyteller. The “super-car,” as it is called, becomes the talk of the valley, and various parties have very different ideas about what they want to do with it. If you are looking for a straightforward science fiction story, this is not for you; it’s much more “literary” rather than interested in genre tropes. If it sounds like your sort of thing, I think you would get immense joy out of the read.

Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo

This seems to be a time of reflection on the horrid legacy of racism in the United States. I know my personal disgust with the white patriarchy has grown immensely in the last few years, and I find people who refuse to acknowledge their privilege to be some of the most intolerable. I’m a white man, and I know I’ve had so many do-overs because I’m white; I don’t feel guilt or shame, rather that everyone should have that same courtesy extended to them, not just white guys. 

I think author Ijeoma Oluo delivers an entirely comprehensive overview of how white patriarchy rears its head in every avenue of life. Each chapter focuses on one area from politics to sport to media to politics and education, on and on. There’s just enough depth that you’re going to learn something you didn’t before, but it’s still a book intended to be consumed by the average person on the street. I have been slowly reading through Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and I see it as a next step if you wanted to go further than the ideas presented in mediocre, taking a historical route. 

Oluo weaves in personal stories of race from her & friends/family’s lives with lots of historical information and data. She begins one chapter by relating an anecdote about a seemingly “progressive” comedian her friend group knew and praised. One day he becomes embroiled in a sexual assault scandal and quickly reinvents himself into an anti-PC, misogynist persona. Oluo emphasizes that this kind of fairweather allyship is incredibly toxic; I would even argue worse than someone who is a straight-up racist from day one. At least with the dyed in the wool racist, you don’t have to second guess motives.

I was a bit personally annoyed with the politics chapter. She delivers one section talking about the legislative legacy of Joe Biden and his constant support of anti-Black policies. Oluo cites his pride about working across the aisle with Republicans, albeit on bills against integration through busing and the 1994 Crime Bill. This is followed by a section about Bernie Sanders that feels much less coherent as the Biden one. Also mentions the toxic aggressivity of “Bernie Bros” but doesn’t acknowledge the broad non-white, non-male coalition Sanders formed in the recent primary. Her criticism of Bernie honestly feels forced, and I wonder if this chapter was a publisher/editor suggestion so that her scathing piece on Biden wasn’t read as “biased”? I definitely don’t think Bernie is an infallible deity, but he wouldn’t be someone I would jump to as an example of “white mediocrity.”

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