Book Reviews: Racism, Scandals, and Cults, oh my!

Black History Month isn’t the only time to read about African-American experiences, but these first two books really enhanced my February.  And then I read a couple of other books from the bountiful array I got for Christmas. . . .

The Color of Water by James McBride

The subtitle, A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, speaks volumes about racial attitudes in America: A person who genetically is “half white” usually gets treated as Black based on appearance–Barack Obama, for example–and people don’t consider the influence of the other half of his heritage.  But this book is not just about race.

James McBride tells a unique American story of a woman, her opinions, her experiences, and her family.  Alternating chapters are written from McBride’s point of view and from his mother’s stories explaining her life to him–when he finally got her to talk about it.  Ruchel Zylska was born in Poland to an Orthodox Jewish rabbi.  Her family immigrated to the United States and ended up running a store in small-town Virginia.  Her first (very secret) boyfriend was Black.  As a teenager, she fled her abusive father and moved to New York City, where she married a Black Baptist preacher in 1942 and helped him start a church in a Brooklyn public-housing project.  She was pregnant with their eighth child, James, when her husband died.  She later married another Black man and had four more children with him, although he stayed in his own home and only got together with the family on weekends.  Renamed Ruth Jordan, she raised twelve children in poverty and got them all through college, while she worked nights in a bank.

This book weaves together many great stories mixing idiosyncratic wisdom with eternal truths and empathy.  What part of race or religion or social class is inborn, and what part can we choose?  Why would a person born with the privilege of white skin choose to live among poor Black people?  What strategies can disadvantaged parents use to help their children succeed?  It’s also an affectionate portrayal of one American family, with all its unique quirks and experiences of twentieth-century history and pop culture, and the relationships between siblings and between the author and his stepfather.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

I kind of wish I’d gotten a copy of this book that didn’t have the author’s photo on the dust jacket so that I wouldn’t have known whether she’s Black or white–the characters of both races are so realistically and sympathetically written!  It’s a very interesting story of how race and affluence affect our own perceptions and others’ perceptions of us, about how women can help or hurt each other or both at the same time, and about how childless twentysomethings see thirtysomething parents vs. the other way around.

Emira has two regularly scheduled part-time jobs, one of which is babysitting for Mrs. Chamberlain (who thinks of herself as Alix), a motivational speaker and blogger who is all about encouraging women to ask for what they want.  The book begins with Alix asking Emira to come over right away, even though it’s late evening and Emira is partying in celebration of a friend’s birthday, to take three-year-old Briar to the nearby ritzy grocery store while her parents clean up a broken window.  Something is weird here, but Emira jumps at the chance to earn an extra $32 plus cab-fare reimbursement.  What happens at the grocery store ultimately leads to all kinds of complications between Emira and Alix and Kelley, a guy from Alix’s past who becomes entangled in Emira’s present.  Months later, the video is leaked to the media–who betrayed Emira’s trust?

The situations and characters in this book are so believable they feel familiar, so realistically complicated without excessive trauma and drama!  Alix and Kelley are both wrong, but also they’re both right about some things.  Emira’s bond with little Briar is sweet, but it’s only one part of her life; she’s also a recent college grad struggling to get by on her own and having fun with her friends.  Alix is so into her woman-empowering career and her adorable baby that she barely notices how she’s brushing Briar aside; meanwhile, Alix is fascinated by Emira yet clueless about the realities of Emira’s life and priorities.  Even the ending is perfect, blending wistfulness and acceptance right up to a zinging final sentence.

Reputation by Sara Shepard

If you want to read a thrilling soap-opera plot in which literally everyone has a guilty secret, involving murders and incest and drugs and kinky sex and medical tragedies and paternity revelations and domestic violence and pretty much every kind of drama except amnesia, this might do nicely.  All the suspense and clue-finding certainly kept my attention, and some of the plot twists surprised me.  Briefly, this is the story of a university thrown into chaos by a computer hack that posts everyone’s email on a public website, revealing multiple scandals, leading to the murder of a prominent physician who’s married to the university president’s daughter who also works in the fundraising department.  It’s told in first-person, present-tense narration by five of the women tangled up in the mess, and it was interesting to realize who we weren’t hearing from and what that might mean.

If you want to read a story in which all men are either evil or misguided martyrs, and all women deserve to get away with various crimes because they’ve been oh so very exploited, you will really like this one.  I was only mildly uncomfortable with this aspect of the story until I got to the 27-page epilogue that really rubbed in my face just how thoroughly even the relentlessly-evil woman totally got away with everything she did and saw no reason to stop!

If you want to read a novel set in Pittsburgh and/or a mystery with meticulous attention to detail, throw this one behind the bookcase and run far, far away!  The author currently lives in Pittsburgh but lived other places much of her life, and this book gives the impression that she’s ridden around some of Pittsburgh with somebody else driving and has otherwise stayed home churning out gossipy novels.  She set Reputation on a fictional university campus and made most of the characters live in a fictional neighborhood or suburb (she’s inconsistent about whether or not Blue Hill is within the city)–which is understandable given the scandalous plot, but she didn’t settle on a geographic location for Aldrich University or Blue Hill relative to any part of the city or to each other!  The distance/travel time between the museum gala and the murder scene is crucial to multiple alibis, so get it straight!!  Where real geographic details are name-dropped, put the bridge over the correct river–use a map!!!  Jeez.

Another neglected detail that really bothered me: The university president’s daughter, Kit Manning-Strasser, has two daughters with her first husband Martin, whose last name is never mentioned.  Manning is Kit’s father’s and sister’s last name; Strasser is Kit’s second husband’s name.  Why is her daughters’ last name Manning rather than their father’s last name???  It isn’t typical for the children of married and basically conventional American parents to have their mother’s last name–especially if their mother is the type to hyphenate when she remarries rather than keep her birth name all her life–so I feel this should have been explained.  Maybe Martin Snotflinger decided to change his last name to Manning upon marrying, or there’s some other completely understandable reason that could have been explained in one sentence.

But that doesn’t happen in a world where, “Come with me to my parents’ place next Tuesday.  They live just a few miles to the north,” is understood as an invitation to a weekend trip, or where the author can’t keep track of whether we’re in Kit’s house or her father’s house or how the rooms are connected or any of that stuff that makes fiction feel real.

And if you’ve carefully set your novel in 2017 so you can tie it to #MeToo with blatant lashings of consciousness, you really ought to know better than to write a rape survivor overwhelmed by PTSD thinking, “The memories pound me, wet and hot.”

Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther

This memoir of growing up in a Christian doomsday cult and escaping into Catholicism is not as surprising as the similarly-titled memoir of another cult leader’s granddaughter, Girl on a Wire [reviewed here], but that’s only because The Assembly was not as weird as the Westboro Baptist Church.  It did have some quirks differentiating it from other fundamentalist Christian sects, most notably “training homes” in which young single people were immersed in the ways of The Assembly by older, long-term members.  Elizabeth Esther was raised in a women’s training home run by her father, a son of The Assembly’s founder, and her mother, who joined The Assembly as a college student.

Their faith was all about being ready for the Rapture, ready to die for Jesus and save as many souls as possible in the process.  Salvation was based mostly on obedience to men, sexual chastity, evangelism, beating children to enforce obedience, and many many hours per week of church services and Bible study.  Elizabeth had physical symptoms of anxiety disorder from an early age–but so did other kids in the cult’s school, where her mother was principal, so maybe that was just normal?

Elizabeth met Matt through The Assembly, had an approved courtship and marriage, and started having babies.  But when her daughter’s first birthday party involved Elizabeth’s grandmother instructing her to set up a tempting situation and then slap the baby for disobedience, Elizabeth agonized over whether she could raise her children the way she’d been raised.

The most interesting thing about this story is that Elizabeth and Matt’s marriage survived their break with the cult: They agreed that they needed to speak truth to power, they did it together, and when they weren’t heard they followed through on their plan to move to another city and leave The Assembly.  After some time without church and time in a “fun megachurch,” Elizabeth felt drawn to Catholicism, and eventually Matt understood and agreed.  I really like the way she explains her transition from groveling for God’s mercy to thinking, Love me, God.  I dare You.

Read other writers’ book reviews at Quick Lit and Show Us Your Books!  See what’s keeping writers sane as this difficult time drags on, at Hearth & Soul!

5 thoughts on “Book Reviews: Racism, Scandals, and Cults, oh my!

  1. Pingback: Reading My Way into 2021 | The Earthling's Handbook

    • Exactly—if you want to read a “juicy scandal” book with a side of “feminism, if you don’t think too much,” and you’re not familiar with Pittsburgh, it could be okay. She did do a really good job of maintaining suspense and remembering who knew what.

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