History Shows Us What Happens When We Pander to the White Working Class (and It’s Not Good)

I wanted to share something really interesting I’ve learned from reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: there’s a distinct history of a) wealthy whites driving a wedge between poor whites and poor blacks to preserve class hierarchies that benefit those on the top and b) liberal/moderate politicians feeling pressured to pander to poor and working-class whites by giving in to right-wing racist policies that exploit their vulnerabilities and racial resentments.

As Alexander states:

“The most ardent proponents of racial hierarchy have consistently succeeded in implementing new racial caste systems by triggering a collapse of resistance across the political spectrum. This feat has been achieved largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American hierarchy.”

Here are some examples. Please note that everything I’m about to state in the numbered list here is paraphrased and summarized from The New Jim Crow and may include direct language that Alexander used in her book. I just want to make it very clear that I’m giving Alexander the full credit that she deserves. I also want to point out that I haven’t finished the book yet…I simply felt compelled to write this all down when it was freshest in my mind after reading these sections in the book. Following the numbered list I’ll include some additional commentary that is my own.

1. In the 1600s, white and black laborers revolted against the “planter elite,” condemning them for their oppression of the poor. In an effort to protect their status and economic position, the planters stopped relying so heavily on indentured servants and instead imported more black slaves—strategically, they had them shipped from Africa, knowing that they were less likely to be familiar with the European language and thus less likely to form alliances with poor whites. The planters then took an additional precautionary step by extending special privileges to poor whites to further drive the wedge between them and the black slaves. The status of poor whites hadn’t improved much, but—from their perspective—at least they weren’t slaves.

2. The late 1800s gave rise to the Populist Party, which sought to unite poor and working-class whites and blacks against the privileged classes conspiring to keep them in a subordinate political and economic position. It was a genuine multiracial, working-class movement against white elites. Threatened by the potential potency of this alliance, conservatives proposed segregation laws in part as a deliberate effort to encourage working-class whites to retain a sense of superiority over blacks. Ultimately, the Populist Party dissolved under this pressure and realigned with conservatives. This culminated in Jim Crow.

3. In the 1960s and 1970s, politicians (most notably, Nixon) worked to erode the belief among poor and working-class whites that the condition of the poor was the result of a faulty economic system that needed to be challenged. Instead, they deliberately pitted disadvantaged whites against disadvantaged blacks, feeding off of white resentment following recent racial reforms during the Civil Rights era.

4. In the 1990s, with the covertly racist War on Drugs in full swing thanks to Nixon and Reagan, liberal politicians felt pressure to show that they were just as tough on crime as their conservative opponents. The War on Drugs, which disproportionately targeted black men, was popular among poor and working-class whites who by that point had been convinced that black progress, civil rights enforcement and affirmative action were the root of their woes. In came Bill Clinton, who picked up right where his conservative predecessors had left off and developed policies that would result in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.

We now look back at all of these events in history and see them for what they are. Slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and the War on Drugs are widely regarded as racist and immoral. And now here we find ourselves at another similar point in history: we have a president who has exploited racial resentment and economic distress by scapegoating minorities. And then we have the mainstream liberals with their op-eds about the forgotten white working-class folks and the importance of catering their message to them.

But history shows us that when we pander to poor and working-class whites, it only deepens racial divides and gives rise to new racial caste systems.

That said, if we look even deeper, history also shows us something else—something that I believe is key to moving forward in a truly progressive and effective manner: there’s a distinct intersection between racism and classism in America that dates back to the 1600s. They’re so intertwined that we can’t really talk about one without talking about the other. We must acknowledge the deep history of wealthy and powerful whites driving a wedge between poor and working-class whites and blacks in order to preserve wealth and power. And we must find the strength to unite against that or risk history repeating itself…again and again and again.

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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2/5 Stars

Before I write this review I have to post a bit of a disclaimer: I haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird since high school. When I read it, I didn’t love it. I’ve never held it—or its central hero—on a high pedestal, so I don’t have a strong attachment to it and it’s possible that I’m misremembering certain aspects of it. 

Spoilers ahead.

Wow, what a ride this was. I had so many thoughts while reading this book. Let me just put this out there first: As a standalone novel, Go Set a Watchman isn’t very good. Nothing really happens. The childhood flashbacks are, for the most part, wholly unnecessary. It’s didactic as anything I’ve ever read, yet Harper Lee fails to flesh out her most interesting themes. What was most interesting for me was reconciling it with To Kill a Mockingbird—which, I’ll fully admit, is a much better work of literature. What I’m about to say and then expand upon in this “review” is a very unpopular opinion: I think the evolution of Atticus Finch is sort of brilliant—whether or not Lee intended the kind of analysis that’s about to follow (and I don’t think she did). For

If To Kill a Mockingbird is the cushy, comfortable novel about well-meaning white people within the context of the long, dark history of racism in America, Go Set a Watchman is its woke older sister. Well, in theory, at least, though not so much in Lee’s execution.

In TKAM, Atticus is that classic white person who just wants everyone to get along. He preaches love and understanding of anyone, no matter what—even Hitler! Even the white racist who just tried to lynch a black man. Or, to use a more timely example: Even Donald Trump. Even his racist supporters. He doesn’t really want to dig deep into the realities of racism or challenge himself or those around him. He’s comfortable with white supremacy. He wants to feel good about himself—like he’s a virtuous person doing the right thing, even though he’s unwilling to rock the boat in any truly meaningful way. But for all intents and purposes he’s generally regarded by white readers to be a hero. The epitome of morality and goodness. He is the ultimate White Savior.

Needless to say, the revelation in Go Set a Watchman that Atticus is PRETTY FUCKING RACIST pissed off a lot of people. It shattered that long-held conception of a literary hero. But here’s the thing: when you think about it, even in the context of TKAM, it’s really not all that shocking.

In GSAW, it’s no longer the 1930s. Now it’s the 1960s and black people are actively trying to disrupt the status quo of white supremacy and racism in pursuit of equal rights. And Atticus isn’t down with this. In fact, he’s a regular at his local Citizens’ Councils meetings (a group of white supremacists), he loathes the NAACP, he opposes integration and he thinks black people are “still in their childhood as a people.”

I know a lot of white readers felt very cheated by this development. Atticus Finch is a “Good Person.” He’s a “Hero.” He can’t be a “Racist.” And yet, I can’t help but feel like this evolution of Atticus Finch makes total sense. It’s actually pretty consistent with his character, and it isn’t really such a stark diversion. Atticus was fine when he got to be the Good White Man defending an innocent black man in the 1930s (see: white paternalism), but now that it’s the 1960s and white supremacy is being challenged and he’s feeling threatened by that, we’re given insight into his deep-seated prejudices and his true self. And that’s just the thing: both of these versions of him (TKAM and GSAW) are his true self; it’s just that a lot of readers don’t like having to acknowledge that.

But I think we need to stop deluding ourselves: Atticus Finch was never the beacon of virtue and morality that we wanted him to be. He was a white savior who upheld, rather than resisted, elements of systemic racism and white supremacy. And his defending Tom Robinson in the pursuit of justice doesn’t change that. By today’s standards, he might be the person who celebrates a white-washed, sanitized version of MLK and doesn’t believe himself to be racist, yet denounces Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization.

In GSAW, Atticus is the same person he has always been. And the collective outrage regarding the so-called tarnishing of a white savior whom so many regarded as a literary hero may actually be more of a reflection of the outraged readers and their own self-imposed blinders and comfort zones than anything else.

It’s not easy facing difficult truths about people we have come to love. Jean Louise grapples with this in GSAW when she learns about her father’s racism. And we, as readers, must also confront this reality about our former hero. This feels especially timely right now given our current political climate, wherein many folks are struggling to reconcile the love they have for their family members and friends with the shocking reality that these people voted for a racist, misogynistic demagogue and may possess these unsavory qualities themselves.

Atticus is a reminder to us all that racism isn’t always relegated to the dregs of society. You can be a good father…and still be racist. You can do good in your life…and still be racist.

Unfortunately, many of these important points that arise in Go Set A Watchman are ultimately addressed in an extremely disappointing way: Jean Louise’s uncle calls her a bigot for rejecting her father’s racist opinions (WHAT?!) and then she ultimately feels bad about the things she said to Atticus and concludes that maybe he’s not so bad after all. I hope that for those of us today who are confronting uncomfortable truths about the people in our lives, we don’t let them off the hook quite so easily.

In conclusion now that I’m at 1,000+ words here, as much as I found GSAW to be a mediocre standalone novel, I can’t help but love that it has made readers (myself included, of course) look back and re-evaluate a universally revered childhood book from a new—and yes, uncomfortable—perspective.

 

Recipe: Jacques Torres Chocolate Chip Cookies

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I’ve been meaning to try Jacques Torres’ famous cookie recipe for quite some time now, and decided to finally give it a go. It was kind of annoying having to buy cake flour, bread flour and chocolate disks when I typically have AP flour and regular chocolate chips on hand, but honestly, it was all worth it.

These cookies are amazing. My go-to chocolate chip cookie, for sure. Don’t cheat when you make these though. Let the dough sit in the fridge for at least 24 hours before baking. Seriously. Do it.

Makes about 18 cookies.

Ingredients 

  • 2 cups minus 2 tablespoons (8 1/2 ounces) cake flour
  • 1 ⅔ cups (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour
  • 1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons coarse salt
  • 2 ½ sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
  • 1 ¼ cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
  • 1 ¼ pounds bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content (Note: I substituted about 1/2 cup of chocolate disks for chopped walnuts) 
  •  Sea salt

Directions

  • Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.
  • Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.
  • When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.
  • Scoop 6 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.

 

Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

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4/5 Stars.

Look, it’s didactic and heavy-handed, okay? And Eggers is sort of unabashedly prone to proselytizing. His protagonist is frustratingly meek. And maybe not all of his ideas are completely fresh. But none of this changes the fact that The Circle is a hell of a fun read. A serious page-turner. I didn’t want to put it down. It’s like an episode of Black Mirror—most notably Nosedive or The Entire History of You. I don’t even care about all the obvious flaws because I enjoyed it so much.

The Circle is the world’s largest internet company, and 24-year-old Mae is lucky enough to land an entry-level job there. If you’ve ever worked at a hip startup or a tech company, you’ll grin knowingly at Eggers’ satirical portrait of company culture: the ever-expanding number of computer screens per employee; the insistence that it’s not all about work, it’s also about community, but curiously enough, being part of the community starts to feel like work, too.

Working at the Circle feels like a dream come true for Mae, and she’s desperate to impress her peers—even as the constant demand for in-person socialization and online participation in the Circle’s social network begins to take over her life. Soon enough, Mae is sleeping at the Circle’s on-site dorms and spending all of her time in this cult-like environment in an effort to raise her personal participation score and improve her rank at the company. As one of her old friends eventually points out, she’s creating the illusion of living an interesting life, but she’s not really living.

At the Circle, everything is tracked and ultimate transparency is the utopian ideal. What if you could know everything? Wouldn’t it be nice to eliminate uncertainty? If we were all being watched, would it not result in a more moral way of life?

As Mae is deeper ingrained in the Circle, she inadvertently becomes a necessary component of the company’s more nefarious ambitions until she’s in completely over her head. In this fascinating, visionary novel, Eggers explores the notions of technology, information, privacy, surveillance and transparency. What’s eeriest of all is that the dystopian nightmare he has imagined doesn’t seem very far off from our current world.

Book Review: Zone One by Colson Whitehead

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2.5/5 Stars.

As I learned from reading The Underground Railroad (one of my favorite books of 2016), Colson Whitehead is all about taking a genre that you think you know and turning it on its head. Zone One is a zombie novel, but it’s not what we’ve come to expect from this sub-genre: it’s a snarky satire that focuses its commentary more on modern society than innate humanity.

In Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic world, survival is re-branded by teams of overseers who recognized the importance of good marketing. Those who are still alive aren’t called survivors, they’re called “the American Phoenix.” The camps and safe zones have names like “Babbling Brooks” and “Happy Acres” that make them sound more like suburban condominiums.

Mark Spitz, the book’s protagonist, is a mediocre man who thrives in this new world where he notes that “intellect and ingenuity and talent [are] as equally meaningless as stubbornness, cowardice, and stupidity.” Here he has taken on the job of a “sweeper,” tasked with clearing the streets of Manhattan of zombies.

Even Whitehead’s zombies are interesting. There are two different categories: the skels are your typical modern zombies, making up 99% of the infected. But then there’s the remaining 1%, dubbed the stragglers, who become frozen in place repeating a mundane task until they’re put out of their misery.

There are so many cool ideas here, but unfortunately cool ideas don’t make for a compelling story. As much as I appreciated the cleverness of Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic world, I felt bored for the majority of this book. Not a lot happens. The tension is minimal. The prose is verbose.

Zone One would have made an excellent short story. Whitehead is great writer with an enviable imagination. But that wasn’t enough to carry this full-length novel.

2016 Literary Wrap-Up: Jessica’s Favorite Books of the Year

Well, 2016 is finally over. It may have been a shitty year, but hey, at least we’ll always have books, right? I find that fiction is a great method of escapism, while also enriching my empathy and understanding of the world and the humans who inhabit it.

This was a huge reading year for me. My biggest ever, actually. I set an initial goal of reading 50 books, surpassed that, upped it to 100, and then ultimately finished at 142 books. That’s 75 more than 2015. Whether or not I’ll keep up this pace in 2017 remains to be seen.

For this year’s wrap-up, I’m splitting my list into two categories, and picking a top 10 for each: Books Published in 2016 and Books Published Before 2016. The books featured in each category are listed in no particular order. Also, let me just clarify that I’m in no way saying that these were the definitive “Best Books of the Year.” They simply happen to be my personal favorites.

Anyway. Enough buildup. Onto the good stuff.

Books Published in 2016

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This is a deeply vital work of fiction that everyone should read. Through a series of connected vignettes about a family beginning in the 1700s and going right up through present day, Gyasi makes the legacy of slavery personal and intimate without succumbing to sentimentality. She shows how damage is passed down over generations and exposes the realities of institutional racism that have persisted and continue to persist even amid progress.

Read my full review.

Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard

I was blown away by this taut little domestic drama that’s as ominous and disquieting as any horror story or psychological thriller. A powerful novel about a couple grappling with isolation, paranoia, helplessness and dread as they embark on an ill-fated road trip. Brilliant.

Read my full review.

A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin

Characters so alive, you feel like you know them personally. This truly epic family saga explores the nature of genius, ambition, truth, doubt, failure, addiction, meaning, and love. Haunting and unforgettable. I read it in the beginning of the year and still think about it.

Read my full review.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

I didn’t want this one to end. A story about a new couple on a short road trip descends into creepy philosophical horror. So thought-provoking and brilliant. You’ll either love or hate the ending. I loved it, though I had to take some time to process it. One of those books that you want to re-read immediately after finishing.

Read my full review.

Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet

It’s best to go into this one knowing as little as possible and trying to piece it together as you go. Think Chuck Palahniuk if he were a better writer. This is psychological and existential horror at its absolute best: no monsters, no ghosts, no killers. In the end, the self is all we have — is there anything more terrifying than the prospect of losing that?

Read my full review.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

A heartbreaking, haunting, emotional gut punch of a novel. It takes a subject that on the surface is so vile and presents it with such nuance. A story as complex and tender as it is shocking and disturbing.

Read my full review.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

A powerful, moving, hilarious, devastating account of one family’s struggle with mental illness. Haslett may be one of the most talented and capable writers to tackle this heavy topic since David Foster Wallace.

Read my full review.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

If you’ve ever wondered how a post-modernist would approach the topic of slavery, The Underground Railroad is your answer. In Whitehead’s imagining, it’s literally an underground railroad, and there are unique horrors that await Cora at each stop. While it’s no secret that Whitehead has cleverly departed from historical accuracy, the lines are blurred just enough for discomfort: each state that Cora enters is a sort of alternate history designed to represent America’s actual racial history.

Read my full review.

The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

I loved this book about the modern male psyche. Compassionate and hilarious, filled with psychological insight that never feels overwrought. It’s the laugh-out-loud kind of humor and commentary designed to comfort those of us who are intimately familiar with pervasive melancholy, existential anxiety and consuming self-consciousness. I laughed with these 22 men throughout the duration of their beloved weekend, not at them.

Read my full review.

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan

This powerful, epic work of macro fiction has all the makings of a classic novel. It’s so much more than it appears to be: beneath the surface, it’s a sweeping examination of racism and classism in America. It’s dense and it’s demanding and it requires a significant investment—and yet it’s ceaselessly compelling. Morgan is smarter than most of us—and to the delight of a reader like myself who enjoys being challenged intellectually and emotionally, she isn’t afraid to show it.

Read my full review.

Books Published Before 2016

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White Noise by Don DeLillo

Ever read a book that makes you wonder what the hell you’ve been doing with your life that you’ve somehow overlooked it all this time? That was White Noise for me. This is a book that focuses relentlessly on the overriding issue that plagues me every day of my atheist life: a crushing fear of death. I’ve yet to find another work of fiction that confronts this fundamental existential dread so deliberately.

Read my full review.

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

Reading this as an adult was horrifying. I’m at a point in my life where I have an acute fear of mortality—my own and that of those I love. Pet Sematary exploits that fear. We all know what it’s like to lose a loved one. What if there was a way to bring them back, but you risked opening a door into the depths of darkness? This is a masterful story about death, love, grief and the hopelessness of trying to escape the will of the universe.

Read my full review.

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Anthony Marra weaves these interconnected stories together with the skill of a true master, slowly unraveling the haunting legacy of war and hardship while bringing each character arc full circle. By the time I reached the final sections, I was in awe of what he had managed to accomplish. Unresolved stories from earlier suddenly took on a whole new meaning, and the denoument left me aching in the wake of its beauty.

Read my full review.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

If you combined Margaret Atwood, Lord of the Flies, Leaves of Grass and Furiosa from Mad Max, you would get this book. It’s bleak. It’s dystopian. It’s achingly beautiful. It’s an allegorical rallying cry for feminists everywhere, with some of the best prose I’ve come across in recent memory.

Read my full review.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

With sharp, insightful prose, Shriver has created an essential work of fiction for our post-Columbine world that challenges us to analyze a culture in which acts of mass violence have increasingly become the norm. Dark, thought-provoking, and highly disturbing, it’s a slow burn psychological thriller as intellectually stimulating as it is harrowing. Truly brilliant.

Read my full review.

The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace

This book is a complete treasure for fans of DFW. He wrote it as an undergrad, and it’s a delight to see the beginnings of what he would become as a novelist. It’s clever, absurd, stimulating and hilarious. DFW makes you work for what you’re reading. He challenges you to remember all of his characters and the clever little details that he plants along the way. But the brilliant thing is that it doesn’t actually feel like work.

Read my full review.

Stoner by John Williams

This is the kind of novel whose poignancy slowly creeps up on you, until you come to see Stoner as the quintessential existential hero, and a sobering reminder that each person’s life is more than just the sum of its parts. Achingly beautiful in its simplicity.

Read my full review.

A Small Indiscretion by Jan Ellison

A profound story about the infallibility of memory, the choices we make, and the lies we tell — not only to ones we love, but to ourselves. So much more thoughtful and complex than I expected.

Read my full review.

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

While it’s not over-the-top terrifying, this is a smart, sad, creepy, fascinating psychological thriller that keeps you hooked until the end while delivering sharp commentary on reality TV culture, the myth of the traditional American family, misogyny and the fallibility of memory.

Read my full review.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Do you like relentlessly depressing books? Okay, cool, me too! This is a story about a tragically flawed couple in the 1950s who yearned for more than the “hopeless emptiness” of suburban life, and whose mutual dissatisfaction threatens to destroy them. It’s brutal, heavy and extremely powerful.

Read my full review.

What were you favorite books you read this year? Did any of these make your list?

 

 

 

Book Review: The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan

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This powerful, epic work of macro fiction has all the makings of a classic novel. I’ll be honest: at first I could barely muster the interest to start reading it. A 550-page book about horse racing? Nah, not for me. But The Sport of Kings is so much more than it appears to be: beneath the surface, it’s a sweeping examination of racism and classism in America.

At the center of this ambitious novel is the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. As a young boy in the middle of the 20th century, Henry Forge is taught by his father that “man is the measure of all things” and that “real knowledge begins with knowing your place in the world.” Much to his father’s chagrin, Henry is intent on altering his family’s legacy. He has greater ambitions than growing corn; instead, he becomes obsessed with breeding the next Secretariat, and years later he enlists his daughter, Henrietta, to help.

Henry and Henrietta are each given entire sections of the book—and they’re fascinating characters. But there’s another key person at the heart of their story: Allmon Shaughnessy, the biracial groom Henrietta hires (without consulting her father) to help them with their horses. While the Forges have a deep history of wealth and racism, Allmon carries with him the wounds of being a poor black man in a country that seems hellbent on tearing him down. Inevitably, they converge in a myriad of complex ways that build to a tragic denouement.

This isn’t a quick, easy read. It’s dense and it’s demanding and it requires a significant investment—and yet it’s ceaselessly compelling. Morgan is smarter than most of us—and to the delight of a reader like myself who enjoys being challenged intellectually and emotionally, she isn’t afraid to show it. She quotes Darwin and Protagoras. She doesn’t give us easy answers or tidy resolutions.

Although it takes place in modern times, we learn about the Forge’s history as slaveowners and the tragic story of Allmon’s great-great-great-grandfather, an escaped slave. And through all of this is a sense that the characters have fixed destinies—a fatalism from which they are each desperate to liberate themselves. Horse racing is about lineage, and so, too, is the story beneath the surface in The Sport of Kings. But people aren’t animals, and their lineage is more than just biology and genetics; it’s history and circumstance, both familial and sociological.

Book Review: Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

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4/5 Stars.

I’ve never read Eat, Pray, Love (and have no desire to), but I get the feeling this book is sort of the antithesis of it and other feel-good books about women finding themselves.

Without telling anyone, Elyria abruptly leaves her husband and her normal Manhattan life behind, traveling across the world to New Zealand to escape and isolate herself from the monotony and melancholy she has grown to resent, as well as her unresolved grief following her sister’s suicide.

In New Zealand, she engages in a series of reckless behaviors: hitchhiking with strangers, sleeping in abandoned sheds in the middle of nowhere, and ultimately landing herself under psychiatric evaluation.

Consumed by feelings of dread, anxiety and apathy, Elyria self-consciously exposes the darkness that lies deep inside of her, meditating on her own innate wildness. There’s this sense throughout that she wants to want the decent, normal life from which she has estranged herself, but knows ultimately the futility of this. Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all though is seeing her come to terms with the fact that no matter how far she slips away from her old life, she will never escape herself.

Told in first-person stream-of-consciousness prose, Nobody Is Ever Missing is a haunting, surreal portrait of a woman in the midst of a personal crisis. Lacey’s writing is lyrical and poetic; I found myself dog-earring multiple breathtaking passages and lingering on her stunning, powerful writing.

Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

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3/5 Stars.

The opening chapter of this (sort-of) memoir blew me away: Eggers’ mother is dying of cancer, and the way he describes it is messy and sad and, yes, funny. Both of his parents die within weeks of each other and it’s so tragic it’s almost unfathomable. I was into it, and then the rest of the book happened…and I just didn’t really care about anything that was happening anymore: Eggers, the legal guardian of his young brother, living life as a listless twenty-something in San Francisco in the 90s.

Full disclosure: I was worried going into this that my love for David Foster Wallace would taint my enjoyment of it. That Eggers would inevitably come across to me as the lesser of the two PoMo Daves. Maybe I would have appreciated it more otherwise, but so much of it felt derivative, and I kept thinking to myself that I wish I was reading DFW.

I actually really enjoyed Eggers’ postmodern gimmicks: the notes and acknowledgements at the beginning of the book, people breaking character in the middle of a conversation to provide meta literary analysis (via Eggers) of what’s currently happening. That sense of clever self-awareness is prevalent throughout, and it’s smart and it’s interesting: it provides a worthy commentary of memoirs as a literary art form, and is a bold achievement of brutally honest self-analysis. These were my favorite parts of the book aside from the first chapter.

The thing that’s lacking, though (and the thing that DFW really nailed) is sincerity. Eggers may be authentic, sure, but he maintains a comfortable distance from emotion and sincerity. In fact, he’s actually pretty insufferable and obnoxious. His own sense of self-importance and self-obsession is on full display. And look, I understand and appreciate that his solipsism is a method of coping with the close proximity he feels to death. I get that he thinks that if he shares his suffering, he may succeed in diluting it and proving to himself that he suffered for a reason. After all, this whole thing is, of course, his attempt at coping with the tragedy of his parents’ death.

The thing is…I don’t really believe any of it. I don’t believe him. And so AHWOSG never really transcended for me. It sort of just felt like an exercise in postmodernism for the sake of it, and it’s hard as a reader not to feel cheated by that.

And honestly, maybe this is what he was going for: maybe we should feel cheated by memoirs.

There’s a sense of mania throughout, and a strong undercurrent of anger. I appreciate that anger, I even appreciate the stoicism and flippancy. I get it. I just craved some sincerity. Ultimately there wasn’t enough here to justify all the time spend enduring his ego.

Book Review: Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss Jr.

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4/5 Stars.

This is a book about failed investments. Not just one couple’s doomed investment in a suburban California home, but the different ways that we become invested in the various aspects of our lives—whether it’s a marriage or a career—and the ease with which it can all fall apart.

Carousel Court is a scathing, brutal account of the modern American Dream. At its center is a couple who loathe each other to a truly vicious degree. It sort of has a Bret Easton Ellis vibe to it: in McGinniss’s world of contemporary suburban America, everyone is selfish and horrible, everyone lies and cheats, excess and depravity are rampant. It’s an extreme level of cynicism and nihilism that isn’t entirely realistic, but it works as a caricature of the most degenerate people and scenarios.

Everything about it is just downright nasty and vile, from the savage dialogue between Phoebe and Nick to the tiny details: juicy cicadas everywhere, always; dead animals; green sludge accumulating in the in-ground pool. The vibe is dark and ominous: nothing can possibly end well for these two.

Most of us have, at one point of another, experienced the letdown of failing to realize our ambitions, desires and expectations. And that’s what makes Carousel Court so uncomfortable: it reminds us that any of us could ostensibly become Phoebe and Nick, spiraling on a collision course into relentless despair.

Yeah. It’s not a happy book by any means. It’s raw and it’s vicious, save for a glimmer of hope for redemption. Like a trainwreck, you want to look away, but you can’t.