Vinegar Girl, Bright April, Tell the Machine Goodnight [book reviews]

As we wrap up the second decade of the twenty-first century, I’ve been reading and thinking about things like the effects of immigration policy on science and marriage, how the struggle against racism has changed over time, and what weird new technologies may emerge in the 2020s.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

The cover emphasizes that this is a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, and the protagonist is named Kate, so you know what to expect from the overall plot arc–but after refreshing my memory of the plot of The Taming of the Shrew, I have to say this story is really very different:  Anne Tyler’s Kate is less shrewish than Shakespeare’s and does as much taming as she accepts!

This 21st-century Kate is the default homemaker in a family that also includes her scatterbrained scientist father and turbulent teenage sister.  Kate teaches in a preschool, but that’s not really her calling, and her honestly-expressed opinions aren’t always welcomed by the administration and parents.  At home, she cooks up the weekly meal her father has designed to meet the family’s nutritional needs, tries to keep tabs on her sister’s “studying” with the older guy next door, and spends all her spare time working on her garden.

Suddenly Kate’s father learns that his research assistant, Pyotr, is going to be deported, just when they’re working on an important breakthrough!  He embarks on a campaign to get Kate and Pyotr to marry.  Each of the three of them has different ideas about what this means and how it should (or shouldn’t!) be done.

While not as interesting as many of Anne Tyler’s books, this is a reasonably entertaining novel, with some humor and tension and a missing-mice mystery.  It wrapped up too neatly in the end, but I liked the character development and the progress of Kate and Pyotr’s relationship.

Bright April by Marguerite de Angeli

My five-year-old Lydia’s grandmother suggested that I read this book from her childhood before deciding whether to read it to Lydia.  That was a good idea.  This is a sweet novel of girlhood that raises a sensitive topic in a way that was very progressive in 1946 but kind of cringeworthy from an adult perspective in 2019–and Lydia might just find it baffling!  I think she will enjoy the story overall, so perhaps the best thing to do is to set it aside for a couple of years and then use it to spark discussion.

April Bright is a nine-year-old African-American girl living in the mostly-white Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia.  On the very first page, a younger child on a trolley says, “You’re brown!” in an accusing tone, and April’s mother encourages her to see herself as simultaneously dark-skinned and “bright” like her last name.  As April goes on through her daily life of school, Brownies, cleaning up the sidewalks during a sanitation workers’ strike, and hearing about the workplace experiences of her father and older siblings, she keeps noticing instances of racism.  But no words for race are ever used, either by characters or in the narration–only descriptions of color and a teacher’s mention of historical figures among “your people” that gets April and a certain classmate to smile at one another with shared pride.

Twice, a white peer begins to make a racist comment and is stopped by an adult clapping a hand over the white child’s mouth; one of those is led away for a talking-to not revealed to the reader, but the other only hears the same lecture delivered to April and the other Brownies about their career aspirations: “. . . Don’t think you are too good to do any kind of work that seems necessary.  You are respected for the way you do your work, any work.  Remember, many people cannot do the things they want to do.”  Wow.  That’s glaringly at odds with the empowerment-focused Girl Scout program of today–and yet, isn’t it important to remind white people that we aren’t “too good” for some of the tasks that are necessary to “serve God and my country and help people at all times”?  Isn’t it important to expect (and, therefore, give) respect for a job well done, regardless of what the job is?

Similar discomfort about what’s really the right attitude came to me as adults repeatedly advised April and her siblings to resist racism (and, in some cases, sexism) by, basically, working twice as hard in order to be thought half as good.  For example, “The crosser she is, the nicer you must be.  Finally she will be ashamed to treat you less well than you treat her.  You’ll see.”  Well, what’s wrong with that?  Shouldn’t we always strive to be the better person? . . . But the problem is that it doesn’t end up working that way, too much of the time!  It’s easy for me to see how people who read this book as children and diligently followed this advice for 20 years then rioted against racism because they couldn’t stand it anymore, because being neat and clean and well-behaved was not getting them equal treatment!  This book that was a message of hope in 1946 looks very different when you know that people of color are still facing down the exact same microaggressions more than 70 years later.

The author’s lovely watercolor illustrations nicely depict Germantown (a familiar neighborhood to me, right next to where my partner’s parents live), but the book jacket is quite right in saying, “again has Marguerite de Angeli made the life of a specific cultural group as real and warm as a next-door neighbor’s”: The people she lovingly depicts look like white people, shaded in; April has straight hair in glossy braids and a tiny pert nose exactly like any 1940s girl next-door.  This well-intentioned white author depicted black people as exactly like “us”, except for color, and really emphasized that nice black people keep their bodies, homes, and neighborhoods scrupulously clean.  As a child of the 1970s, I kind of flinch from that.  Books and television showed me that children with various hair textures and facial features, as well as skin colors, are sometimes very clean and sometimes love to splash in the mud and everything in between!

Lydia is growing up among kids from many ethnic backgrounds, so she doesn’t need media to tell her that people of color are people too!  Her first comment on race was when she was three, chattering about a classmate, and mentioned, “Aubrie usually wears a brown skin.”  I said, “Usually?  Does she have another skin to change into?!” and we laughed about that idea and agreed that Aubrie’s brown skin fits her every day just as Lydia’s skin fits her–but isn’t it funny that we don’t have a really accurate color name for the color of our skins?  That’s how I introduced the idea that we are called “white” people even though we aren’t literally white.  Here’s some more about discussing ethnic differences with Lydia.

Tell the Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams

In the near future, Pearl is a contentment technician for Apricity Corporation. She collects a cheek swab from a client and places it in the Apricity machine, which recommends three actions the client could choose to take to become happier. Meanwhile, Pearl is dealing with her anorexic teenage son; her ex-husband, a performance artist who is sometimes callous and sometimes needy; his new wife, who has a terrible secret; and a guy who found Pearl through a dating app but is not what he seems to be.

I liked the idea of this book but ultimately found it very unsatisfying. Pearl seems to be the main character, but for a long time in the middle of the book, she isn’t. Other people’s stories are given to the reader in great detail (without Pearl knowing them) but then left unresolved. These stories are so disturbing that I feel an author ought to justify subjecting me to them by making them important explanations of the plot.

One detail I did appreciate is that, in this story set a few decades from now, most of the adult characters have names that are popular for little children right now.

Check out my review of The Healthy Mind Cookbook at Kitchen Stewardship!

Read other writers’ book reviews at Quick Lit and Show Us Your Books and Booknificent Thursday!

8 thoughts on “Vinegar Girl, Bright April, Tell the Machine Goodnight [book reviews]

  1. I really like that you talk about discussing cultural sensitivity with your kids. It’s tough- I agree that we shouldn’t shelter them from reading these older works that raise various issues, and I think reading these things can help spark conversation that we might not otherwise as frequently have.

    • Yes, it can be difficult to discuss these things, and I think that’s why some white parents even now take the “Close your mouth! We don’t talk about that!” approach–hoping that if we don’t acknowledge that we’ve noticed that black women never get to be the store manager, then we’ll stop noticing it and so it will stop being true because people in the future “won’t see color” and thus won’t think there’s any reason not to promote the black woman to manager. But it doesn’t work that way. Kids have a strong sense of fairness, and it’s important to let them notice disparities and talk about them and brainstorm how we might make life more fair for everyone.

      One of my most interesting conversations with my older child (who’s now almost 15) began with his asking what is “the polite word” for a certain kind of people “who look like each other in a way that they don’t look like their families; they have kind of squinty eyes and thick mouths? And they talk in kind of a thick way and, uh, maybe they’re not as smart as some people? But some grown-up ones have jobs like putting the food on the shelf in the store?” He was so relieved to know the term Down Syndrome and to know what causes it–that it’s not his imagination that some people are different in this particular way, and that there’s an okay way to talk about it! And then he wanted to know if Asian people ever have Down Syndrome, because he had only seen it in white and black people. Well, that question had never occurred to me, so we looked it up later (the answer is yes), but my initial speculation touched on the issue of Asian-Americans not being a representative sample of all Asians, which got us talking about all kinds of interesting issues in immigration policy and history….

  2. Vinegar Girl sounds like the best of the bunch to me 🙂 Goodnight Machine sounds like an intriguing concept – thanks for the heads-up on the actual delivery. I read to escape and like the whole story, not loose ends.

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