I got behind on writing while I was enumerating the United States Census in a pandemic, but I kept on reading! These are some of the books I enjoyed in the past few months. I also reread several old favorites . . . and I know that I read this Ruth Rendell mystery that’s in my “books to be reviewed” stack, but I find I can’t remember it well enough to write a review, so I’ll have to read it again someday!
Small Animals by Kim Brooks
Like Food Fix, this nonfiction book written for adults also interested my six-year-old Lydia. This is a very different book with the same general theme: “American adults are trapped in a system that’s following stupid rules.” Lydia wanted me to read aloud, repeatedly, the story of how Kim Brooks happened to leave her four-year-old sitting alone in a locked minivan in a quiet suburban parking lot in moderate weather while she purchased one item in Target, how she had to go to court over this, and how the experience led her to question the role of fear in 21st-century American parenting. I edited a bit of language and a few of the most disturbing ideas. This is Lydia’s favorite passage, about an argument between the author and her husband:
It was a familiar dynamic between the two of us . . . : my caring about a thing, an issue, an obligation or need of our shared family life–my caring what other people thought about us as a family–and his caring less, then my caring about his lack of caring, and then his frustration at my agitation about this discrepancy in our caring because really, why did we have to care so much about every small detail?
My caring about his lack of caring sounds hilarious, but really–Lydia agreed after she stopped laughing–it is familiar to anyone who’s ever felt bewildered at how something that’s important to you could seem unimportant to someone close to you. She loved this passage so much that she memorized it and learned the meanings of agitation and discrepancy, thus becoming a smarter kid as a result of my selfishly reading aloud what I wanted to read instead of a children’s book. So there.
Small Animals is really three narratives woven together: The story of what happened that day and as a result of it, the story of the author’s learning about what American parenting has become, and details of the author’s individual experience and psyche. Lydia was interested only in the first two and asked me to skip ahead when we got to sections of the third type. I read those to myself, though, and found them equally interesting; knowing about the author’s relationship with her own mother and her struggles with anxiety helped me understand some of her responses to the other parts of the story. She is like me in some ways and very different in others. It made me very glad that I was aware of the distorted application of fear in restricting children’s freedom long before I became a parent so that I could base my parenting decisions in both facts and a realistic expectation of how the general public might react to those decisions. Here’s an article I wrote pre-parenthood and one I wrote when my son was 12 about fear and freedom.
Don’t worry–I do read children’s books to my child, too, and they can be equally thought-provoking!
The Marvelous Land of Oz by L. Frank Baum
The sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is an equally fantastic journey with a group of diverse characters through a magical world filled with startling discoveries. This volume does not involve any characters from Kansas; it’s all Oz, and it is a marvelous land indeed.
Aside from the weird creatures and quirky problem-solving that characterize Oz at its best, the most interesting thing about this book is its exploration of gender roles. The Scarecrow, who was crowned ruler of Oz after the debunking of the Wizard in the first book, is overthrown by the sudden invasion of an army of girls, who are successful primarily because men don’t take them seriously–and also, knitting needles. The girls’ government flips the roles of all adults in the Emerald City, so that the men have to cook and tend babies, which is treated as something of a joke. Lydia puzzled over the idea that these tasks would be done entirely by people of one sex–“That’s not how it is in our land!”–and was frustrated that, in the end, the people went back to the status quo instead of agreeing to share the work between men and women.
This children’s book published in 1904 features a transgender character, sort of. I don’t want to give away who it is–but basically, a male character finds out that he was enchanted at birth to conceal his identity, and he’s really a female as well as a more important person than he knew. His first reaction is defiant and defensive. But his friends (all male) assure him that girls are just as nice and just as intelligent as boys, and he can still be their friend and have adventures! After being restored to the correct body, she feels that she is still just the same person, only different. This is a pretty good non-sexist message: Who you are is more about who you are than what’s in your pants or what pronouns you use. From a 21st-century perspective, I guess you’d say this person was “assigned male at birth” and transitioned to her true female form, so let’s adjust the name and pronouns we use while remembering that this is still the same person we knew and loved all along.
Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson
Tracy is a shopping-center security guard who accidentally wound up taking custody of a little girl who was being abused by a woman. Jackson is a private detective who accidentally wound up taking custody of a dog who was being abused by a man. Tilly is an actress who’s losing her memory. They’re all connected, sort of, to a murder and the adoption of a little girl who seemed to appear from nowhere 30 years ago.
Various stuff happens, enough to keep me reading and guessing. Unfortunately, most of the mysteries raised in this story go unsolved, and too many of the characters don’t really make sense, and it just ends up being not worthwhile. I certainly wouldn’t read it again.
The Trespasser by Tana French
This is another one that pulled me along but that I wouldn’t read again. Detective Antoinette Conway is just not a relatable character: She’s so “tough” that she’s excessively nasty to just about everyone, in her mind (narration) if not verbally, and especially astonishingly hostile to the person who finally shows up to give her the opportunity to answer some of the long-neglected desperate questions that could help her understand herself!
But the mystery was good! Pretty young Aislinn Murray is found dead in her lovely home, with the table set for a romantic dinner. There are all kinds of questions about the exact timing of her boyfriend’s arrival, her plans for a date with a mystery man, and reports of someone lurking in the area. Antoinette and her partner Steve are pressured by others in their department to arrest the boyfriend and prove his guilt, but there are just enough contrary clues to make them doubt–and Antoinette is sure she’s seen Aislinn somewhere before. Meanwhile, they’re picking up clues to corruption and collusion among older detectives in their department; is it just about persecuting Antoinette as the only female detective, or are they hiding someone’s involvement in the case?
But in order to get through the mystery, you have to get through 448 pages of Antoinette’s rage at how everyone hates her and how much she hates the dead girl for being pathetic yet oddly similar to herself, plus a excess of incoherent Irish slang. Ultimately, it winds up with some of the plot lines left frustratingly unresolved.
Kind of Kin by Rilla Askew
This novel is amazingly good at seeing through the eyes of many different characters: an ordinary white small-town Oklahoma woman, her ten-year-old nephew, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, a woman so ambitious she moved to Oklahoma just for an easy power grab, and more. Each character’s viewpoint doesn’t just tell you what he/she is thinking; it shows you, and shows you why, and to some extent does that with very skillful differences in wording. You’re reading Luis’s thoughts in English, yet you can tell he thinks in Spanish. Oklahoma in winter is so vividly evoked you can see and feel every moment.
Sweet Kirkendall is just trying to get through life with a son who’s a bully, a workaholic husband who bosses her around, an elderly relative requiring her care–and now her nephew Dustin coming to stay with her because his parents never were any use so her father was raising the boy, but now he’s landed in jail for harboring Mexicans, of all things! Sweet struggles to keep up with everything that’s expected of her as drama unfolds in all directions, gradually realizing that she’ll have to defy her husband to do what’s right. Meanwhile, Dustin and Luis set out on a harrowing road trip, and Sweet ends up running around in the dark in an ice storm with Dustin’s half-sister and her husband and toddler, and a mob of angry white people lays siege to the Baptist church as the preacher decides what it really means to be a Christian. There are some truly funny moments amid the drama.