Homeland Elegies, this year’s novel by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Ayad Akhtar, is a stunning book about what it means to be Muslim – in America and in the author’s father’s home country of Pakistan. It is so autobiographical it’s easy to forget that it is fiction. The thread among the stories is the relationship between an American-born playwright and his immigrant father. The father, a famous cardiologist who treated Donald Trump, admired him to the point of infatuation and even deluded himself to think of “Donald” as his friend. He emulates Trump’s style, making shaky real estate investments, leading to devastating consequences. Success to the father is money, lots of it. He comes to look down on immigrants and embraces other aspects of Trump’s America. The son, by contrast, is a successful playwright, regards himself as an American, struggles to relate to his father and, through his own painful experiences, conveys a troubling sense of how America treats Muslims and other people of color.
Akhtar insists it is “not the role of the artist to be an advocate for a community.” Obviously, the community is not monolithic. But through these real experiences of fictional characters, we discover some uncomfortable truths. Akhtar also exposes the economic havoc wreaked by globalization when industries move abroad, spawning a hateful us-versus-them mentality. This translates into the “Either you’re with us or you’re with them” attitude fostered by Donald Trump. This novel is not a screed but a complex set of stories tied together by the evolving father/son relationship ……….a must read.
Daughters of Erietown, a first novel by Connie Schultz, was recommended by a reader of this blog. The book follows three generations of working-class families in northeast Ohio, well known to the author from her days as a syndicated columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The book has a clear timeline, and the narrative is a distraction from the politics of today. The family dysfunction is like watching a car crash. You expect the outcome but feel compelled to watch it anyway. The young couple with bright future (both poised to be the first in the family to go to college) get pregnant and have to give up their hopes – sports scholarship for him, nursing school for her. Their marriage is dogged by disillusion, infidelity, but ultimately redeemed by self-knowledge and growth. Women survive through friendships with women, from church, the PTA, the canasta club. Among the generations, we see suffocated women, enraged men, alcoholism, grinding financial pressures, struggles to discover and assert one’s individuality. These are mostly hardworking people condemned to bleak lives. Erietown is fictional but has been taken for Ashtabula, Ohio. It could be hardscrabble town, Anywhere USA. Daughters of Erietown is slightly reminiscent of Anne Tyler, though Schultz’s writing never achieves the elegance of Tyler’s, when Tyler is at her best. Schultz’s characters are likable enough, and the book ends up being a good read, if not the most exalted literature.
Schultz, by the way, is the wife of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, who has made the plight of the working poor and the problems of job loss a centerpiece of his agenda in the United States Senate.
The Weekend by Charlotte Wood is a well written book about women’s friendship and the aging process. The former is complex, important and not easy. The latter is raw, ugly and depressing. Three seventy-somethings, longtime friends, come to clean out the beach house of a fourth friend, Sylvie, who has recently died. Sylvie was the glue that held them together. All had had successful careers, but now were left with the memories of their accomplishments and a growing sense of their disappointments, including failed relationships and betrayals. They often seem not to like each other very much, yet each, in her own way, is loyal. In addition to financial insecurity, their bodies are also failing them, and it isn’t very pretty. The central theme of aging is driven home by Wendy’s ragged old 17-year-old dog, deaf, blind, incontinent, wracked by anxiety, and needy. If you need beauty in your fiction or escape, this is not the book for you. But, if you want well-drawn characters from a writer who presents hard truths and a clear-eyed confrontation with the inevitable, The Weekend offers much.
Caste- The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Warmth of Other Suns, looks at the American racial divide as a manifestation of a caste system no less unfair and despicable than the Brahmin-to-Untouchable societal ranking of India. As if that weren’t troubling enough, she documents how Adolph Hitler, in the 1930’s, used American slavery and its aftermath as a study model of how to purify Germany and the rest of Europe for domination by people of Aryan descent. (We recognize this unholy marriage in the conjoining of the Southern Confederacy with neo-Nazism in Charlottesville, Virginia.) With 99.9 percent of genetic properties common to all human beings, race is a made-up social construct, with physical differences determined by region of origin. Caste is shaped, using race as one of many elements, to confer status in a hierarchical way, preserving dominance for those at the top and making sure that the bottom rung of the ladder remains in place.
As times become more insecure for whites, economically and demographically, the tensions are exacerbated. When right-wing leaders use those tensions to consolidate power, the situation becomes highly flammable, in the United States as in Germany in the ‘30’s, and that’s where we are today. Wilkerson posits that the more that people of color gain in education, affluence and other achievements (think President of the United States), the more intensely will whites lash out at them.
Wilkerson’s historical research is very deep. Her illustrative anecdotes, from others’ lives and from her own, add power to her theoretical analysis. Her previous book (The Warmth of Other Suns) about the Great Migration (of “Negroes” from the South to the North) was more driven by personal stories than research and may have been an easier read. Wilkerson sees everything through the prism of caste, uses that filter to analyze history and current politics, and gives short shrift to political and economic gains by many African-Americans. But one thing is clear: there is a reservoir of problems we face from deeply embedded often sub-conscious attitudes, and we can’t meet those challenges unless we face painful historical realities and their widespread impacts on today’s grotesque inequities. This too is a must read.
How to Make a Slave and other Essays by Emerson College professor Jerald Walker takes its title from Frederick Douglas famous line, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.” Themes of the essays include racism in the suburbs, inner city tensions, fatherhood, biased attitudes in academia, political correctness in college populations, black treatment in the medical system. The topics are familiar, but Walker tries to avoid stereotypes, works at not being the sterotypical “angry black man,” and endeavors to present an upbeat world view. He does this not just by focusing on oppression but on courage and accomplishments, lacing the essays with humor. Walker has fun at the expense of liberals who insist on focusing on African-American victim-hood. His goal is to delve into the core of humanity rather than just polemics. Humor, he notes, has always been an African-American tradition, finding funny and ironic in the tragic. Humor makes the serious issues more palatable. Walker’s optimism about humankind doesn’t carry over to his hopes for politicians doing right in legislation. If you want to hear from Jerald Walker, check out his recent conversation with Greater Boston’s Jim Braude, whose interview tipped me off to this very special book.
When it comes to books close to hearth and home, you can’t expect me to leave out James H. Barron‘s stellar The Greek Connection: the Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate. “A stunningly cinematic rendering of an impactful life.” A controversial journalist relentlessly battles for democracy, honor and survival against abusive Greek and American governments trying to destroy him. And, yes, this critically acclaimed book is by my husband, but that shouldn’t disqualify this non-fiction political thrilled for inclusion on this list. If you doubt me, check out the book’s website, which includes lots of interesting material, including video interviews and acclaim by folks like Doris Kearns Goodwin, George Stephanopoulos, Sy Hersh, Michael Dukakis, Mitch Zuckoff, Steve Kinzer and more. They agree that this, too, is a must read.