Race in England, an atmospheric gangster tale, and “jellyfish journalism”
By Jordan Bascom, Elizabeth Callen, Jenean Gilmer, Emma Gordon, Annie Harvieux, Ann Mayhew, and Yana Makuwa
Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook by Alice Waters
In Coming to my Senses, renowned chef Waters recounts the people, places, and ideas that inspired her to open acclaimed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse when she was just 26. The book has less food or industry intel than one might expect; Chez Panisse’s opening night doesn’t occur until the memoir’s final chapter. Waters animates her writing with a deep sense of place: Readers will long for the refined elegance of Paris at the same time that they crave the grit and idealism of Berkeley in the 1960s. But for a book to which radical ideology is so central, Waters’ prose is mild. Though she discusses her involvement in anti-Vietnam War and free speech protests, she chooses to focus on who she met through the movements rather than the evolution of her own beliefs. These are the interactions that inspired Waters to create her restaurant as a meeting ground for artistic and political visionaries.
Early on in the book, Waters declares that she has never before given much thought to her reason for opening Chez Panisse, and the occasional extraneousness of the included material, particularly about her childhood, indicates that Waters may still be working out exactly how she should answer this question. Nonetheless, for fans of Waters or the farm-to-table movement she helped foment, Coming to my Senses will be easy to digest.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
At a reading on the day of Manhattan Beach’s release, Egan explained that the novel took shape out of an obsession with atmosphere. She wanted to capture Manhattan in the midst of World War II, and in that Egan’s newest novel is a resounding success. The book is filled with vibrant images (that I won’t hope to approximate here) of fog over private beaches, afternoons in bustling industrial navy yards, and nights in jazzy, smoke-filled clubs. Egan imbues all these places with the feelings of fear and possibility that must have characterized a time so full of danger and change. Readers experience this tumult through the eyes of Anna Kerrigan, whose work at the naval yard leads to her obsession with deep sea diving, her absentee and presumed dead father Eddie, and his one-time boss the high-ranking gangster Dexter Styles. Bringing all of this to life is an immediacy that historical fiction is often accused of lacking; the story takes place three quarters of a century ago, but the book feels urgent and relevant.
Even if the hand crafting these images is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Egan—who can undoubtedly write a masterful sentence—they alone are not enough to sustain a 400-page novel like Manhattan Beach. What drives the book is its incendiary gangster tale, and a profound heart that motivates its central and secondary characters. The hero Anna is full of gumption and strength, but she’s also driven by a need to be distant and adaptable—it’s her fear of vulnerability that gives her depth. The balance of adventure and interiority that makes Anna a compelling character is the same balance that makes this book such a joy to read.
Real American by Julie Lythcott-Haims
Henry Holt and Co.
In her memoir Real American, Lythcott-Haims does the hard work of reconciling the ways that she has been shaped by social and familial structures. In a series of brief chapters—rarely more than two pages each—Lythcott-Haims pulls the reader through a compelling narrative in which she confronts the ways that growing up Black, the child of a British white woman and an African-American man, in mostly white, small Midwestern towns, formed her notions of race and self. She chronicles her struggles with a ferocious honesty and bares her faults bravely. The shortness of these prose pieces allows readers to take these hard truths bit by bit, but the strength of Lythcott-Haims’ writing makes it difficult not to swallow in one sitting.
Real American reads a bit like an adventure novel in which the narrator is at risk and you can’t put it down for fear of finding out whether they will live or die, sink or swim. Of course, in the United States the lives of Black people are at risk daily. Lythcott-Haims writes compellingly about the young Black men who have been shot and killed in the U.S. in recent memory and how this informs the way she parents her own children, in particular her son. Real American is a memoir that brooks no interference, that challenges and rewards careful readers with powerful insights.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
Little, Brown and Company
The Power treads the line between dystopia and exposé as it details a world that feels very contemporary but finds young women developing electric shock powers. The United States government deals with these powers by sending the girls to special camps that help them channel this newfound ability into combat skills. Now armed with the upper hand, women suddenly find themselves rising to positions of top power in government, military, religious groups, heterosexual relationship dynamics, and crime syndicates.
The novel rotates four third-person-omniscient perspectives so as to zoom in on different angles of the socioeconomic, personal, and spiritual results of the Power worldwide: there’s the daughter of a British crime boss; an ambitious US politician whose daughter is navigating life with the Power; the founder of a world-famous female-centric splinter of Christianity; and a male assault survivor who becomes a journalist reporting on the gender shift in different nations under a female name. Portions of the story are very violent—sometimes gratuitously gory—including a truly horrifying rape scene in a refugee camp. The Power’s bitter underlying message is distinctly reminiscent of Animal Farm: the assumed inevitability of our world endlessly shifting from one corrupt, abusive regime to another simply under different branding. Though this cautionary tale has social relevance, its cynicism about minorities’ shifting consciences when taking power makes this book a bitter pill to swallow.
Black Tudors: The Untold Story by Miranda Kaufmann
In Black Tudors, Kaufmann challenges contemporary assumptions of Tudor England and the history of Africans in England by introducing readers to a number of documented free Africans living there during this time.
Drawing on meticulous research, Kaufmann tells the story of men and women like Reasonable Blackman, an independent silk weaver; Edward Swarthye, a porter who whipped a white Englishman on behalf of his employer; Dederi Jaquoah, an African prince who spent time learning about British life; and Anne Cobbie, a high-class prostitute. Much of the research comes from records that clearly demonstrate these people’s freedom, such as baptisms, employment records and wages, and wills. Kaufmann also challenges modern-day misconceptions, such that Elizabeth I expelled all Africans out of England, and that British-African (or even all Western-African) relations were slaveholder-enslaved.
Kaufmann further demonstrates the ways these people were accepted into Tudor society despite their race. Black Tudors is a challenging book for those who seek to recognize the many forms of racism throughout history and society; a clear goal of the book is to change modern understandings of racism during this time period—to insist that it was at most minimal. Kaufmann asks the reader to reflect on questions such as whether a Black Tudor’s baptism was (as many would view it today) pressured assimilation and effacement of culture, or whether it was a sign of love and acceptance into the Tudor community, considering the highly Christian nature of its society.
Black Tudors demonstrates the way understanding of history is constantly changing based on changing contemporary values and perspectives. For someone dedicated to an awareness of oppression throughout history, Black Tudors is an important but difficult read, inspiring a desire for more information.
Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone by Juli Berwald
Common associations around jellyfish often relate to their effect on people (namely, their stinging powers). In her debut, Berwald upends these conceptions and establishes jellyfish as an animal worthy of both awe and further scientific study. Part “jellyfish journalism,” part memoir, Spineless is an engrossing look at one of the ocean’s most majestic and enigmatic creatures.
The book’s sections are cleverly titled after the life phases of jellyfish, signaling Berwald’s growing immersion in the depths of jellyfish science. A marine biologist turned freelance writer, Berwald was feeling professionally unfulfilled and nostalgic for the careers she might have had. Her interest in jellyfish is piqued when she reads of them thriving under changing climate conditions, and when her preliminary research complicates this matter, Berwald is convinced that jellyfish have a story to tell. The resulting narrative mixes traditional reporting and historical context with her personal jellyfish encounters (she tries eating them and adopting them as pets), and the book provides a comprehensive account of a blooming field of scientific inquiry.
Disappointingly, Spineless falters when it veers into memoir. Whether remembering a traumatic plane experience or ruminating on career paths not chosen, Berwald describes her personal life with a relatable wit, but often gives these dilemmas facile resolutions that leave the reader wanting. That said, Berwald’s prose is lucid and her research is thorough and well organized, making this an enjoyable and enlightening introduction to one of our world’s lesser-understood creatures.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
The title of Eddo-Lodge’s first book is perhaps misleading. Rather than an exploration of the psychology and relationships that arise when people on opposite sides of the equation talk about racism, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is more of a collection of all those conversations Eddo-Lodge has declared she could no longer have. It begins with an overview of the racial history of the United Kingdom, focusing its attention on events in Mother England rather than the more obviously bigoted track record of the British Empire. Eddo-Lodge goes on to describe systemic racism, white privilege, and the intersections of race and class that still prevail in the country today. This focus on breadth instead of depth, coupled with the limited synthesis applied to the statistics and reporting that make up the bulk of the text, implies that this book is in fact Eddo-Lodge’s way of talking to white people about race in one fell swoop.
Whether or not that is the case, this book can certainly be an enlightening read for Americans interested in or affected by race (read: any of us). The clear breakdown of the machinery of prejudice and privilege in the U.K. provides a different yet relevant perspective on the structures at work here in the U.S. Not only does it remind us that we are not the only nation in the world facing stubborn and inherent racism, it also allows us to look with a critical eye at situations in which we both are and are not directly implicated.
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
Set in a dystopian near-future, Future Home of the Living God is a sharp break from Erdrich’s previous work, but the compelling plot, precise prose, and deft storytelling that have defined her writing are still in full force. With questions of reproductive rights, religious extremism, and governmental abuse of power at its center, it will surely draw comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. However, despite such parallels, Erdrich’s new novel remains wholly original and hauntingly relevant to the present.
The novel is structured as a series of letters from Cedar Hawk Songmaker, an adopted young Ojibwe woman raised by white liberals in Minneapolis, to her unborn baby. At four months pregnant, Cedar visits her birth parents to learn about her heritage, but environmental and political chaos make her trip a dangerous one. Evolution is inexplicably moving backwards, causing newborns to resemble prehistoric creatures. As Christian extremists take power and begin capturing pregnant women, Cedar goes into hiding, discovering secrets about her family history as she fights for her life and that of her child.
Despite its bleakness, Future Home of the Living God still maintains a sense of hope. It isn’t saccharine optimism but instead a sincere belief in women’s agency and resiliency that ensures this work of speculative fiction is both powerful and prophetic.