The above picture is all out of reading order, in the name of visual proportion and harmony. To start in the middle of the stack, I picked up Tessa McWatt’s memoir Shame on Me, which had piqued my interest for her exploration of mixed-race identity. The front cover of my proof is garlanded with the arresting sentence “WHAT ARE YOU?”, which is a direct quote from McWatt’s primary school teacher (backtracking frantically after asking the class to define “Negro”, to which one child responded, “Tessa”). I think perhaps if I’d read this before I’d read, inter alia, Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother, Akala’s Natives, and others, it might have stood up a bit better; either that, or if McWatt had chosen to go down the path of straight-up literary memoir/personal reflection. As it is, she has produced a blend of cultural criticism, popular history, and memoir, which is becoming a more and more common hybrid genre—not a bad thing, but it means that any entry in the category needs to offer something new in some way, and the one novelty a writer can be fairly sure of is their own perspective on their own experiences. The criticism/essay and history sections, unfortunately, do constitute more of the whole than can be strictly justified, given that there’s very little in them I haven’t already encountered in other texts, from Saartje Baartman to skin-lightening creams to Bertha Mason as Jane Eyre’s dark double.
Real Easy by Marie Rutkoski next, and another unexpected genre delight to go with last week’s big winners in horror/thriller. Real Easy is a crime novel that takes place in the orbit of a strip club in suburban Illinois. Rutkoski worked as a stripper to pay for her education, and her experience gives her assurance that shows up in the details: in the way the women who work at the club talk to one another, in their concerns about money and their families, in the rules and customs that govern their working lives like celestial laws. There are many viewpoint characters, and although this is usually a bugbear of mine, I like that Rutkoski happily drops a POV that no longer serves her: she’ll introduce, let’s say, a club bouncer, three-quarters of the way through the novel, just to get a sense of the world through his eyes (and a sense of how utterly surrounded the strippers are by men who aren’t terrible people, on the whole, but who could become predatory and entitled with very little nudging), and then we’ll never spend time in his head again. The three women with whom we spend the most time are Ruby, a dancer who makes a crucial offer to drive another woman home from work when she turns up high, and ends up in a situation; Gigi, or Georgia, another dancer whose concern moves her to investigate independently; and Holly, a detective working the case who carries a burden of grief of her own. The queer rep is varied (there’s a delicate, lowkey lesbian love story and a character with a chromosomal disorder that marks her as intersex, though she seems to identify as a straight woman), and throughout the book runs a thread of interest in motherhood and daughterhood: what do those roles actually mean? How can they fit us, or fail us? How can women carve out new, untraditional ways of filling those roles? It’s a smart, better-than-solid read with a deeply satisfying ending. Rutkoski’s style isn’t like Tana French’s, but her interest in character and psychology absolutely is.
Next a library book: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman, which is set in an Ice Age tribe and follows Loon, a young man who has, more by accident than intention or luck, been tapped as the apprentice to the tribe’s current shaman, Thorn. (When I say young, I mean young: the first long chapter, his “wander” or wilderness rite of passage, concludes with the announcement that he is twelve years old. By this point we’ve already seen him kill and butcher animals, sustain a serious ankle injury, be attacked by other aggressive hominids, make clothes out of tree bark, and—not for the last time in the novel—masturbate furiously.) It’s a slow-paced book, which gives the reader a chance to appreciate the development of characters and the natural rhythms to which Loon and his people are tied. There’s certainly action, though; he marries a woman named Elga (“elk”) who is abducted by a northern tribe who claim she was previously theirs, and Loon is captured in an attempt to free her. They are both eventually rescued by Thorn and a Neanderthal man who has been healed by Thorn’s not-exactly-wife, the wise woman Heather (who is a spectacular character, permanently irritated and a keen experimentalist and observer; really, a proto-scientist). Their trek back from the north, and its consequences, constitute the book’s dramatic heart, but even that proceeds at a stately pace. Not a book for the plot-hungry, then, but extremely immersive and atmospheric.
Finally for the week, Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1953 novel Maud Martha. Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and only wrote this one novel, which came out in the same year as Invisible Man and Go Tell It on the Mountain. (Margo Jefferson suggests, in her introduction to this new Faber reprint edition, that that might account for its relative obscurity.) In a little more than two dozen vignettes of a few pages each, Brooks reveals the facets of Maud Martha Brown, a Black girl and then woman living on the South Side of Chicago in the 1940s. What startles me about Maud Martha is her pragmatism: her marriage is not particularly romantic or fulfilling, but it’s security, and it’s not too bad, and it provides her a foundation. Her artistic tendencies manifest less in creativity than in observation. She sees much, says little, makes her own judgments. She is not resigned to the daily threat of racism in places ranging from the beauty salon to a downtown theatre to the department store Santa Claus, but remains quietly furious. And yet never despairs: at the end of the novel, she sees the beauty of a spring day and thinks, “What, what am I going to do with all this life?” Maud Martha is a treasure: reminiscent of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and of Brown Girl, Brownstones, but with a hidden sparkle all its own.