When the final scene of Red Pitch was over, I saw something that made my heart do tiny somersaults. After the adrenaline escaped their bodies once they had completed their final performance of this play, the three actors who were at the heart and soul of Red Pitch hugged one another, almost collapsing to the floor as they did so. The play’s director then sprinted onto the stage to join in the celebration, before the Bush Theatre’s artistic director, Lynette Lynton, joined in the celebratory hug as well.
It was clear to see that the adrenaline that had been powering everyone through Red Pitch’s run at the Bush Theatre in early 2022 had collectively left everyone’s body the moment the final performance came to an end. It was also clear to see that everyone involved in bringing this play to life was immensely proud of what they had achieved. Everyone had clearly had a great time acting in and working on this play, and bringing this to life was clearly a labour of love – one that perhaps made every aching muscle and sore throat feel that much more bearable. As I watched the standing ovation that continued well into the post-performance hug, I could not think of a better moment that could have summed up what this play had achieved. Watching Red Pitch was pure joy, and this post-performance embrace underlined this.
Much of the new play offerings which have been released following the summer of 2020 have predictably, and disappointing, focused on Black trauma in an attempt to educate white audiences about the trials and tribulations of being racialised as Black in a white supremacist world. The problem with this approach is that it leaves Black audiences worn, tired, and often forced to confront trauma that may have been buried deep for a long time. We have been subjected to many film and TV shows that seek to only show the bad things that happen to us, however, we rarely see Black people simply trying to live their lives in the world. We rarely see Black joy.
Red Pitch was a phenomenal play that focused on three young boys living on a council estate, all vying to be professional footballers, and also grappling with the trials and tribulations of being teenagers. Thankfully, there were no monologues about racism to plunge the majority Black audience into despair. Watching this play from start to finish felt like the sort of warm embrace that the cast and crew indulged in at the end of the play. Anyone who has grown up on an estate will instantly recognise these characters. They are our brothers, nephews, and cousins. They are the boys we see joking around on the high street after school has ended. They are the boys we hear blaring music from their phones at the back of the bus. They are bright-eyed and bushy tailed, innocent young boys who dream of playing professional football like their heroes. They live their lives in the bubble that is their estate, blissfully unaware of where somewhere like Kent is relative to where they live. They are hungry for success and to make something of themselves. And they are also the best of friends. They make fun of each other, they annoy each other. They laugh at each other and fight one another. They offer help to one another, but sometimes struggle to accept help because of their pride. They lend each other their designer accessories so they can make a good impression at parties before they dance joyously to Shake Body by Skales.
What Red Pitch shows us is the full range of adolescent Black male friendship in a beautifully wholesome story. Red Pitch is a love letter to young Black boys everywhere who are trying to make their way in this world, and who are trying to better understand the world as they get older and confront different challenges. Red Pitch shows us what Black people have always known to be true but have rarely, if at all, had the privilege of seeing on screen or on stage; that Black boys too have hopes, dreams, fears and complicated friendships, and that they struggle with these things while having to respond to challenges which are outside of their control. Red Pitch shows us what happens when you focus on depicting an accurate portrayal of Black boyhood that isn’t rooted solely in trauma, but in the full range of emotions and experiences that young Black boys can face at such a formative stage of their lives.
The audience laughed along with the young Black budding footballers, and sometimes cried when things got a little heavy. But we left the theatre feeling as happy as the cast were as they embraced each other at the end of the show. We left knowing that despite everything that they had been through, these kids would be alright.
After feeling completely immersed in the world that Brit Bennett created for her second novel, The Vanishing Half, I was keen to dive into her much lauded debut novel, The Mothers.
I had no expectations for what I thought this book was going to reveal to me. As the title suggests this book focuses on motherhood, but it does so from a range of angles that make you think long and hard about the choices that you make as a mother, and how these choices can have deep and long-lasting effects on the children of these mothers, as well as others.
It could be argued that first and foremost “the mothers” refers to the church mothers in the novel who are the narrators. Anyone familiar with the concept of church aunties will instantly recognise these women as the all-seeing and all-knowing, elderly Black women who dedicate their lives to the church. These church mothers are the first to know all the latest gossip concerning the congregation at the community church in Oceanside, California that is at the heart of this novel. Through reading this novel I felt as though “the mothers” were welcoming me into their domain as they felt so at ease divulging the deepest and darkest secrets of the congregation to me.
At its core, this story showcases how different people are deeply touched and affected by the lives of their mothers and how this in turn affects the next generation of mothers. It is also a story that focuses on how profoundly love and loss can be felt, and how neither of these emotions ever completely disappears after they have been felt so intensely. Bennett explores this through two of the central characters in the book – Nadia and Aubrey.
Nadia’s character arc was very interesting to me. Her mother’s suicide when she was seventeen had a profound impact on her. From that moment on she constantly reflects on and tries to dig deeper into her mother’s life and possibly her psyche. She constantly examines the choices her mother made – including her mother’s choice to have her at seventeen – and starts to view her own life as the reason her mother tried to kill herself. Many who experience the loss of a loved one will question what could have gone better in that person’s life, what could have possibly happened differently to them which might have meant that they would still be alive, and what they might have done differently that could have kept that person alive. These feelings of guilt, which are often undeserved, are a common side-effect of grieving a loved one.
After finding out that she is pregnant at seventeen Nadia decides to have an abortion. At this point she is still grieving the death of her mother and is compelled by a desire to venture on a different path to her mother. I found the scenes Bennett wrote which described Nadia having an abortion to be very thoughtful and detailed. The healthcare professionals that advised Nadia seemed caring and always informed her that they were asking her questions not to judge, but simply to do their jobs properly. There is also a very moving scene where Nadia is very clearly not going to be picked up by who she asks to collect her, and so an abortion clinic worker arranges for a student volunteer to drop her home. It was extremely comforting to read scenes where a woman was fully able to use her agency to choose to have an abortion without being judged or being treated with disdain by the very people who would be allowing her choice to be realised.
Nadia’s relationship with her mother is contrasted against Aubrey’s relationship with her own mother. We quickly learn that Aubrey had a troubled childhood and had experienced sexual assault and neglect because her mother consistently chose many troubled men over her own daughter. It is clear to see that Aubrey desperately wants a family that loves and appreciates her. Aubrey’s story was difficult to read. She comes across as a kind-hearted person who simply wants to experience the sort of wholesome love and affection that her mother could never give her.
It was incredibly moving to witness the decisions that these women made, and how these were inextricably linked to how they had been deeply affected and touched by their respective mothers’ lives and choices. Upon finishing The Mothers, I couldn’t help but think about how true it is that our relationship with our mothers leaves an indelible mark on our lives and the paths that we choose to take. Whether or not we have experienced the same things as Nadia and Aubrey, it is clear to see that this is the overarching message that Bennett wants to leave us with upon finishing this powerful debut.
What can I say about this book? At first, I found it difficult to dive into. The passages felt fragmented and disconnected. It was only after reading that Nelson intended this novel to have the feel of an album that I was able to truly understand how cleverly and lyrically it had been written. Nelson writes this novel in a very poetic way. Sentences are repeated throughout the book in the same way that a chorus would be repeated in a song. The repetition not only serves the lyrical flow of the novel, but it also serves to highlight certain motifs and thoughts that Nelson wants us to understand as readers. Even the narrative choice is very telling of the wider purpose of this book. It is written in the second person which makes the reader feel like the protagonist. We are referred to as “you” and I am certain that this is intended to enable us to really connect with the love, grief, and fear that our nameless protagonist experiences as he is simply trying to live his life in South London.
This narrative choice is very powerful and works incredibly well for this book, as it enables the reader to see how deeply moving the love that the protagonist experiences is. It also enables the reader to understand how frequently the protagonist experiences fear about his body being nothing more than an object that can break at any moment. All around him he sees other black men being attacked by the police and the world at large. Sightings of these incidents invoke anxiety in the protagonist such that when he is near the police, he instantly feels nervous. He almost senses when other black men are in danger, and this makes him feel even more anxious as it constantly reminds him of his own mortality in a world that frequently seeks to destroy the bodies of black people. This reminded me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay Between the World and Me, which is itself heavily influenced by James Baldwin’s essay, The Fire Next Time. Nelson brings the fear that black men feel about their impending death at the hands of the white supremacist world that we all live in into the heart of this novel. What makes it even more outstanding is that this book is not simply just about fear, grief, and trauma but also about love and joy. The protagonist reminds us that fear and love often go hand in hand and that neither emotion exists forever. Our protagonist oscillates between several emotions throughout the book and as readers we are bearing witness to this intense journey.
What I found most captivating about the book is the raw honesty with which the protagonist describes his emotions, particularly his fear, grief, and love. I have never come across a black male protagonist who feels so deeply, who is so vulnerable, and is so affected by his emotions. We witness him alone as he grapples with the death of his grandparents. We witness how tender he is with his nameless love as they move from a burgeoning friendship filled with joy to the beginnings of their intimate love story. We watch our protagonist struggle to grapple with his anger at the world’s fetish for brutally attacking black men, which leads him to push his love interest away. This is something I have seen a lot in other novels, and even television programmes, that feature a female protagonist. She either doesn’t think she is worthy of love or has so much self-loathing and sadness in her heart that all she feels she can do is push people away; I am particularly thinking of Rob in the television adaptation of High Fidelity when I say this. When we finally hear our protagonist explain what he wished he could say to his love interest before he pushed her away, we instantly feel sad at his need to keep this to himself. I kept thinking, why did he keep his feelings from her? As she rightfully said he had been very open and honest with her up until that point, why then could he not tell her the truth about his fears? What was he trying to prove? Was he afraid that speaking about this would mean that his time was up and that the countdown until his dying days would then begin? What his socialisation as a man preventing him from being open and honest about his feelings because he feared coming off as “weak”?
Make no mistake, this is not a romance novel. This is a story that explores how fragile being in love is, how tender it is, and how events that happen in the world around us can impact our ability to love freely and fully. This novel explores how we are shaped by the people we love as well as the harsh realities of the world that we live in. By doing this I feel that the book calls the reader to reflect on their relationship with the world and to think about how it impedes our ability to love, as well as what choices we make to either overcome or submit to these impediments.
I found the theme of water in the novel interesting. The two lovers were described as moving towards each other or away from each other in the open water at various parts of the book. Our protagonist was also described as struggling to get his head above water at different points. I wonder what Nelson’s thought process was here.
Music is another character in this novel. The songs referenced often speak about the struggles of being black in a world that wants to destroy black bodies, and other feelings that our protagonist experiences. Lots of great artists and albums are featured; Blonde by Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Dizzie Rascal, A Tribe Called Quest. Not only is the prose written like a song – with the repetition of different sentences reading like a chorus – but our protagonist really feels the music at different intervals in the book. He sounds out the opening beats of “Fix Up, Look Sharp” the seminal rap song from Dizzie Rascal. Having played this song on repeat for most of my teen years I was instantly transported back to 2003. The focus on music in this novel is further highlighted by the official playlist that Viking (an imprint of Penguin Random House UK) has created for it on Spotify. This is a fantastic accompaniment that really helps the reader to understand the messages that mentions of these songs and albums leave at various intervals in the book.
The use of music is very interesting, and it doesn’t feel gratuitous. The different songs mentioned accentuate different moments of joy, grief, pain, sadness and tell us more about the experiences of the protagonist, and of black men more broadly as they try to navigate life. I was left thinking about the protagonist, and what would happen to him, long after I put my copy of this novel down. Sometimes, even now, I still think about him.
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton was a book that I had absolutely no idea about before reading it, but absolutely could not put down once I started it.
The book is written in an interview format; I have since discovered that the technical term for this is an “oral history”. The premise is that a journalist for a music magazine wants to interview Opal and Nev, a punk rock duo comprised of a Black woman from Detroit and a white man with red hair from Birmingham, as well as all the people around them who were integral to their success and story as up and coming musicians throughout the 60s and 70s.
What Dawnie Walton has done so effortlessly in this novel is create characters who are entirely their own, whose actions perfectly match the distinct and vivid personalities that Walton has created for them, and yet who are all fundamentally trying to achieve the same end goal. Most of the main and supporting characters are trying to make a name for themselves, are trying to create something from nothing. In the case of Opal, this is becoming a musician who has finally risen from the ashes of the shame she felt about being labelled unattractive due to having alopecia from a young age. For Nev this is becoming the famous and celebrated musician that his mother had always wanted him to be, especially as her own creative dreams were never fully realised. For Bob Hize, it is discovering unique musicians who he can nurture into the next big names of the future. For Howie Kelly, it is making as much money as possible by any means necessary. And for Virgil LaFleur, it is becoming the renowned and celebrated designer that he has always wanted to become.
This novel pulls you straight into following the rise of these individuals, and being shocked and sometimes appalled by the choices that they have made to bring their dreams to life. Though Opal and Nev are fictional musicians, the interviews themselves, as well as the footnotes in the novel, set these characters firmly in the music scene of the 60s and 70s. The entire novel is also firmly planted in this period by virtue of references to real-life historical and popular culture events that took place at the time. We find out about the Detroit riots and Birmingham Church bombing of the 60s. The novel very astutely and subtly references how African Americans were disproportionately conscripted into military service during the Vietnam War. The novel plants Opal right in the middle of the famous “Battle of Versailles” fashion show. And before it briefly touches on life in the 80s under Reagan, we learn about the many musicians at the time who were contemporaries of Opal & Nev, as well as the musicians that they were vying to emulate and even overtake as burgeoning musicians. Walton does this extremely well throughout the book, which has the effect of making the characters seem very real. While reading this book I felt as though I was right in the middle of every scene and was intently following the journeys that these characters took over time.
Above all what this story revealed to me was how far grit, courage and determination can get you in life, how sometimes luck and happenstance influence this, and how privilege can have a profound impact on your ability to achieve what you set out to achieve. This is a story about shooting your shot, and how the people around us can either help or hinder our ability to live out our dreams. I finished this book thinking about how real all the characters felt, because what was driving them forward is what drives us all forward in this thing we call life.
There are some books that have a profound impact on the way you see life, and there are also books that make you think that the author must have spent about 10 years creating what is truly a masterful piece of literature. The amount of research that must have gone into completing this book is so immense that I would plant this book firmly in the category of the latter. This book is so good in so many ways: from the narrative perspective, to how meticulously well-crafted and vivid the characters were, to how historical events and popular culture from the 60s up until 2016 are expertly woven into the lives of the characters to truly bring them to life. I have never read a book like this before, and it was truly wonderful to have the privilege of going on a journey with them through these years in their lives.
After reading this novel you will be left feeling that your opinions of some characters have changed, you may feel more, or less, compassionate towards a few. You may be left feeling angry or sad about the choices that some characters have made, or about what they have and have not had to contend with. I certainly finished this book feeling a range of different emotions. But ultimately, I felt at peace and that’s rarely a feeling that the endings of most books give me. Seeing this on Barack Obama’s best books of 2021 has confirmed what I already knew from the moment I became consumed by this book – that it is truly a masterpiece.
After reading only three chapters of Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino, I must say that it took every fibre of my being to avoid putting it down altogether or ceremoniously throwing it into a pile of books to donate and never return to, ever again.
There are so many reasons why I dislike this book, but I am not entirely sure how to collect my thoughts, so I am writing them down here. I am hoping that this will enable me to make better sense of it. I want to caveat this by saying I am not attempting to “cancel” or “come for” Tolentino in any, way, shape or form so please put down your digital pitchforks. I really do not know her at all and have nothing against her. Sometimes, I will admit, I am trolling her. But this is based purely on my thoughts on the book and what I felt the book was revealing to me as I read it. And in trolling Tolentino I am attempting to use the same “playful” style that she has been praised for adopting.
I came across Jia Tolentino on an episode of Otegha Uwagba’s podcast, In Good Company. Rather ironically, I chose to buy her book because I was unable to make sense of what she was talking about in her interview. I understood some of what she was saying, but she seemed to be talking about a lot of different things and I did not really get what the central purpose of her thoughts and musings was. I wanted to read her book to make better sense of what she was saying, however, I have unfortunately suffered the same fate while reading her book, except this time I have lost £10 worth of book tokens in the process.
One reason why I dislike like this book is the writing style. A lot of people have lauded the writing style, but I find it particularly difficult to get behind. Tolentino seems to write each of her essays as though she is a precocious and eager to impress first-year university student completing a series of essays for a course entitled “The damaging effects and intersections of 21st century popular culture, capitalism, and white feminism”. Every paragraph seems jam-packed full of references to economists, philosophers and writers who seem to be part of Tolentino’s overenthusiastic bid to make sure that each of her points is backed up by a reference, so she does not fall foul of Turnitin detecting any plagiarism in her work. I was also not a fan of the gratuitous use of several overly long, complicated, and unnecessary words. These appeared to add nothing to the arguments that she was making and made her writing less accessible than it could have been. It reminded me of the desire every keen university student has in their first year to show off every complex sounding word they had learned or pulled out of a thesaurus.
The second reason why I disliked this book is that the essays seem to be better suited for a series of medium blogs where one’s imagination and fixation on the ills of 21st century popular culture and society can run rampant and be re-shared, retweeted and reaffirmed by an army of self-obsessed girl bosses who have entered rehab to be cured of their need for acceptance from an incredibly patriarchal and misogynistic society which always makes them feel as though they will never be enough as they are.
The chapters read like a slightly fragmented stream of consciousness that contemporary journalists have reframed as “radical” and “an enlightening, fresh voice”, when it mainly comes across as a flurry of thoughts that can’t really make their mind up about what purpose they serve or where they are ultimately going. I think, as this is a book, it would have been much more effective to have used more plain English, and to have used more narrative analysis and fewer popular culture examples, and only a few pertinent scholarly quotes. The power of writing a collection of essays lies in having a clearly defined purpose with which to engage readers. In Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde does not use examples from her life simply to talk about her life, but to talk about wider societal problems that black women face. I see that Tolentino is trying to do something similar, to some degree, but her laboured anecdotes about trivial pursuits such as buying food from an overpriced salad bar in New York, as well as overpriced workout classes which are based on internalised misogyny, make it seem like she is not trying to dismantle this way of life, but rather trying to shine a light on it for anyone who also lives a similar life, or who finds living this sort of life interesting.
Another thing that makes me feel as though these essays were made for the internet rather than for a detailed narrative non-fiction book, or a collection of non-fiction essays, is the fact that so many references to events and even phrases are not even briefly explained. To her credit Tolentino does explain a few. But there were several phrases and references to events, particularly in the first chapter, that were not explained. This meant that I spent an inordinate amount of time looking these up before returning to the book. This disrupted the flow of my reading and I found it very frustrating. It almost felt as if Tolentino did not feel the need to explain these things because she thought she was writing an op-ed where she could hyperlink these terms and events to articles that further explained these for the reader. I am not saying that I am unable to research something in more detail once I have initially come across a term or title, but I think the power of narrative non-fiction books lies in explaining historical events to some degree. I am always more than happy to delve deeper and do some further reading but having a brief introduction to the issues or events in question is something that I feel is important to have in narrative non-fiction books.
My other problem is the intention and self-reflection within the book, or lack thereof. In Sister Outsider, Lorde never seems to recount her own experiences in a self-serving or gratuitous way, and she always seems to be angry or tired about the negative experiences or reactions that she has had. Ultimately, she longs for barriers to be broken down and for black women to empower themselves. Tolentino just seems to be saying “there are a lot of deluded, superficial and vacuous women in this world and maybe I am one of them – that is all”. There seems to be no desire to smash these structures or ways of being on her part. This is probably indicative of her background as a journalist, a job which requires her to report what is happening in the world, but not necessarily to challenge it or advocate for changing it. Perhaps my comparison with Audre Lorde is cruel and redundant. Tolentino is not trying to be an activist or advocate for change as Audre Lords was. Not all essayists want to empower and change the world, and this is fine.
There is no need for all essayists to be activists. I think ultimately my problem with the format and style of this book, at times, is that there is too much emphasis on the memoir writing side and too little emphasis on the actual narrative non-fiction part. Akala strikes the balance between these two things perfectly in his book Natives, where he recounts an experience from his childhood briefly before explaining how this points to wider societal issues pertaining to race and class. I find that in dwelling too much on her own experiences, rather than setting these up only very briefly to set the scene for a wider societal problem that she wishes to elaborate on, the tone of the book veers all too often into the territory of a self-serving autobiography. This is a departure from essay collections that use autobiographical information to highlight and expand on wider issues within society.
Another problem that I have with this book is that I had no idea who the intended audience was before I bought the book. If I had known I could have spared myself the experience of reading it. I had thought this book was going to be an incisive examination of the pitfalls of 21st century life and the internet, as this is how it was marketed when I was looking into it, but it seems to be an examination of the sort of American women who read Glamour magazine and spend an inordinate amount of money on worldly possessions that Glamour tells them they should buy to make themselves feel better. It is not necessarily an indictment of this way of life, or a call to overthrow this way of thinking (this brings me back to my earlier point about the book not really serving a purpose and it not intending to provoke a response). I find the lack of a rallying cry particularly frustrating, mainly because it means that I am just reading a book about Tolentino’s superficial life pursuits, and the pursuits of other women who exist in the same space. She does attempt to provide some context for why women live like this, but in doing so she does not expose any radical or paradigm shifting ideas. The one thing I was surprised to find out and that I think I never understood, because I have tried to remove myself from the realm of women who care a lot about makeup for a long time, is that women wear make-up because they think it will make them more successful.
My follow up question was and is, how exactly and why does this make women more successful? Is the issue that men will not promote women in the workplace until they look “pretty” because they need to be surrounded by pretty women? Is it that women themselves only want to be surrounded by pretty women à la Mean Girls? Why does beauty equal success? And who dictates what beauty means? What happens if, even if you wear makeup, you do not neatly fit into Eurocentric beauty standards? This could have veered off into another conversation about how patriarchy, white supremacy, and misogyny have turned women into mere props, and this is a question that I personally desperately wanted an answer to. I am aware that a book cannot be all things for all people, but this was a point that I felt would have been interesting to expand on. I have seen a lot of articles that simply explain that women who wear makeup are more successful, but none of these articles have provided detailed explanations about why this is. At best they simply say, “women who wear make up look more attractive and likeable, and women who don’t wear makeup might look ill”. Such statements are shallow and repugnant in ways I cannot even bring myself to fully describe. Phrases like this beg the questions, why do women have to look a certain type of way to be successful at all, where did this norm come from and who does it truly serve? I just want to know why; this is what I am getting at. I do not just want to be told “it is what it is”.
I also thought it was very strange when Tolentino talked for one short paragraph about her time in the Peace Corps. This was a part of her life that I was interested in finding out more about. Was she there to be a white-adjacent (a phrase Tolentino uses to describe Asian Americans) saviour? Did she want to find herself? Was this part of some virtue signalling exercise? Why did she choose to go to Kyrgyzstan of all places? Everything that I had learned about her life up until this point seemed to be incongruent with someone who would join the Peace Corps, and that is exactly why I wanted to find out more.
One thing I will say is that I enjoyed that Tolentino was willing to be somewhat honest about the person she feels she is and was at various points in her life throughout this book. She shows that she has a few personality traits that a lot of other people would prefer to keep behind closed doors, especially in today’s Instagram-ready version of reality. Maybe this is linked to the aims of the book. Maybe her honesty is an attempt to expose what happens when you remove the veneer of social media prosperity, or when people dare to be somewhat authentic. Or maybe this is another trick, one that Tolentino herself has planted into the book as the final surprise. Or perhaps none of this is true and I am simply reading too much into it.
Only one of the next three chapters really stood out to me as pure journalistic excellence. It should also come to no surprise that this was the chapter (thus far) in which Tolentino seems to talk about herself the least. In “The story of a generation in seven scams” Tolentino astutely observes how several white men, white women and a few South Asian “entrepreneurs” have lied their way to the top before being pulled up for their fraud, after having already raised several millions of dollars in investment capital. Not only does she profile individuals who have done this (she finishes the chapter on a crescendo with the ultimate scammer of this generation – Donald Trump), she also explores institutions and companies that have made millions from scamming people, and who have made individual gains at the expense of the collective good and from underpaying legions of powerless people to make millions, and sometimes billions, for themselves. Tolentino still falls foul of her own self-confessed narcissism on a few occasions. She needlessly mentions that she attended Bacardi Triangle and was featured in the Hulu documentary about Fyre Festival. She also recounts her own experience with using Facebook – I didn’t feel this was necessary as I feel 90% of all Gen X-Gen Y people in the Western world at least have used Facebook – and how early users were familiar with its precursors, including MySpace. Tell us something we don’t know Jia.
Perhaps because I am not American, I was not as familiar with some of the scammers that she mentioned (i.e. Elizabeth Holmes) but I found it really interesting to read about all of these people. This chapter is also relatively free of gratuitous academic quotes (thank God). When Tolentino does use quotes, it does seem to be for the purpose of driving the narrative forward, rather than just for trying to show off how smart she is, which is what I felt she was trying to do in previous chapters. I really felt as though this was the best essay of the book thus far, shortly followed by chapter 1. I also felt this chapter was funny at times. I did think, however, that she missed a great opportunity to quote Audre Lorde (in a way that would serve the narrative of the chapter). While reading chapter 6 I kept thinking about how apt Lorde’s famous words “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” were when she spoke about how women and minorities simply seek to gain the power that white, cis, heterosexual men have always had, and how this very individualist pursuit never creates real and tangible change. I also thought that she could have quoted several feminists of colour when she contrasted Sheryl Sandberg’s individualistic white feminism with feminism that focuses on access to affordable or free healthcare, reproductive rights, affordable housing etc.
I was less impressed with chapters 4 and 5. The chapter on ecstasy just felt like pure self-indulgence and gratuitous narcissism that served no real purpose. Again, Tolentino could have told us about the connection between drinking cough syrup with sprite and religious mysticism without talking about herself. I don’t think I ever got the impression that she felt like she was on ecstasy when she was religious. I more so thought the innocence of youth may have made her feel that being in a Southern Baptist environment with lots of energetic praise and worship was somewhat akin to being on drugs. I say this because as someone who grew up attending Evangelical churches before the age of 16, I find this type of church-based euphoria very familiar. I also found her comparison of being on ecstasy to a religious experience quite cliché, and I found it uncomfortable to see her trying to make a connection between Black Hip Hop culture and non-Black middle-class teenagers’ desire to do drugs. This is yet another cliché that I dislike because it shines a light on how non-Black people never want to be Black or even engage with Black people, they only want to emulate the things that some Black entertainers do that the capitalist, white supremacist society that we live in has co-opted into the realm of “cool”.
Chapter 5 was slightly better, until it wasn’t. She started off strong. She only briefly talked about herself before discussing heroines in books and the seemingly predictable path that they all take throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Tolentino superbly and thoroughly analyses these heroines and the major plot points in their respective books. Many of these texts were American so a lot of the references would have been lost on me had she not elaborated on them slightly, which I appreciated. Through doing this she also usefully references Simone de Beauvoir’s work, The Second Sex, in a way which is not merely gratuitous. Tolentino herself notes the absence of characters of colour and in doing so explains that books by men are written for everyone, books by white women are expected to relate to all women, yet books by ethnic minority women are not expected to be relatable to anyone but the ethnic minority women that they are about. I felt that given how much Tolentino spoke at length about works by white women she could have done more than just briefly list a bunch of books that were written by African American authors at the end of the chapter. This felt almost insulting given how much airtime she had given white women writers earlier in the chapter. I wonder if she would have discovered a different narrative trend had she also read and elaborated on works by African American, African, South Asian, or East Asian women authors. But once again I feel that she does this deliberately to serve her chosen narrative. If this was the case, I feel it would have been better to have left the list of African American authors out entirely.
In chapter 7, Jia Tolentino delivers what I felt was a true journalism masterclass. “We come from old Virginia” exquisitely details the history of sexual assault, toxic masculinity, fraternity culture – and how these are all inextricably linked – with slavery, at the University of Virginia, Tolentino’s alma mater. As well as highlighting one journalist’s failed attempt to uncover the truth about one sexual assault victim, Tolentino relevantly weaves in some of her own experiences, and the experiences of some of her friends, at fraternity parties while a student at the University of Virginia. I had no idea how rampant and grotesque this history was. It made me think how pervasive sexual assault and sexual violence against women is at other universities in America, as well as other universities around the world. One cannot finish reading this chapter without feeling completely enraged at how often the men who are the perpetrators of these crimes are never made to answer for their crimes because they are perennially protected by the white supremacist and patriarchal world that we live in. This was the chapter that stayed with me the most and which enabled me to bear witness to the writing prowess that has enabled Tolentino to garner her reputation as one of the foremost millennial journalists of our time.
The last chapter that I will review in Trick Mirror is “I thee dread” and I simply want to explain why I felt as though Tolentino’s argument in this chapter did not hold up. The main argument that Tolentino seems to be making in this chapter is that couples spend several thousands of dollars on a wedding which lasts one day and after marriage women’s lives get significantly harder. However, when dissecting this further, it is clear to see that it isn’t necessarily marriage that makes women’s lives extremely difficult, but the advent of children. The advent of children causes women’s unpaid labour to increase exponentially. While reading it I thought that women often have children without getting married, and so it isn’t accurate to state that marriage makes women’s lives harder if the thing that makes women’s lives harder is something that can happen regardless of whether you are married or not. Obviously, this would undermine the point of this essay and so this was not illustrated, but while reading it I thought it was glaringly obvious that stating this point would essentially make the final essay of Tolentino’s collection redundant.
In sum, there were aspects of Tolentino’s essay collection that I enjoyed but I struggled with a lot of it. Tolentino is clearly a very gifted journalist, but I felt as though I struggled to get to grips with her approach to writing essays, particularly the way in which they never seemed to have a conclusion or summary, but instead felt like a compendium of lots of thoughts centred around nine different taglines which focused on an aspect of delusion that is particularly relevant to 21st century. As I have said before, I understand that I am not the intended audience of this book. This seems to be targeted to middle-class, white and white-adjacent millennials who enjoy the works of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Elena Ferrante. So, if you find yourself within this group you might be in for a treat.
I decided to pick up Eula Biss’ most recent book, Having and Being Had, because of the reviews I had seen of it I had seen online. I have recently become more interested in understanding more about homeownership and capitalism, two things I was assured by many of the reviews that I had seen online I would find out more about while reading this book.
I found Biss’ book to be incredibly accessible, well-thought out and refreshingly honest and candid about money. Biss does a great job of introducing the reader to the work and ideas that scholars and thinkers such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Karl Marx had during their lifetimes, without using unnecessary jargon. She also has chapters where she describes how Marx’s wife played an integral role in his success, and where she explains the relationship that women such as Virginia Wolf and Joan Didion have had with money and ownership. The chapters are short but each teaches the reader a different lesson about money, capitalism and ownership, in addition to how Biss and other historical figures have related to these things throughout their lives.
I don’t think I have ever read a book where the author was so open about how much they earned. In Having and Being Had, Biss is extremely honest about where the money that she has earned has come from, as well as the cost of different purchases that she makes. She explains how much her salaried university teaching job provides her, and how much more she makes than her husband. She explains how much her house cost to buy, and how much money she has received from various foundations and trusts. She also provides some information about her upbringing, particularly how even though she was the daughter of a doctor she was raised by a single mother who never had very much money and didn’t seem particularly bothered about having any. I think I find what Biss does here so bold because, in my reading experience, this is not information that many or any authors have freely offered up. In doing this I feel Biss is either knowingly or unknowingly taking steps to break down the taboo that surrounds talking about money.
One of my favourite things about Biss’ book was how she provides information about the way that capitalism works through the lens of her young son. Biss perfectly illustrates how, through various games that they play, children are encouraged to think about capitalism from a very young age. One of the best examples Biss gives of this is the stress that her son experiences when playing with Pokemon cards. Biss explains that nothing is more stressful than having something that holds a lot of power and weight, as well as needing to continuously monitor or maintain it. She describes how her son was in possession of a particular Pokemon card and how the value that this card had filled him with dread. The power that the card hard, and particularly the power and responsibility that came with being in possession of the card, was too great for her son. He felt most free when he ran into the bushes and handed the card over to another child. It was clear to see how this aligned with what Biss what saying with regards to having a house. Yes, having a house may bring many benefits but keeping hold of a house can be an incredibly worrying and at times debilitating responsibility. This I felt was a fantastic way of drawing a parallel between how children and adults experience the same pressure and responsibility, but in very different ways.
Biss also uses an example of playing Monopoly with her son to highlight how mercenary and individualistic capitalism is. As someone who hadn’t played Monopoly for several years until December 2019, I can tell you that playing it with my family made me feel disgusted. It was clear to me that the purpose of the game was to focus on pure individualistic gain at the expense of others. I often asked, why this was a children’s game as it seemed to be sending a very bad and capitalist-oriented message to very young and impressionable people. If “greed is good” was a game, it would be Monopoly. It was also enlightening to find out that Monopoly was originally credited with being invented by a white woman, but a white man ended up taking the credit. What was even more interesting was finding out that idea for such a game came from a native American woman. I found that this was a great example of the hierarchy of oppression that exists in the world. White women feel oppressed by white men, but the irony is that white women often oppress people of colour, especially women of colour. However, they never see that they do this, they only see themselves as victims of oppression rather than both victims and perpetrators of oppression.
I recently came across a review of Having and Being Had which I thought was rather simplistic in its analysis of what Eula Biss talks about regarding pensions. In the book, Eula Biss recounts going to see a financial adviser to discuss her university pension plan. Biss recounts feeling uncomfortable that gaining returns from her pension relies on her investing in the stock market, which in turn relies on the labour of other people and industries which can be very harmful for both the environment and wider society. Biss muses over being conflicted by this, but eventually ends up allowing her money to be invested in the stock market all the same. The reviewer appears to see this as virtue signalling. The reviewer says that if Biss really cared she would make an individual choice to not invest her money in the stock market. While I do agree that there were several times in Having and Being Had (including this one), where Biss seemed to ponder over a moral quandary, but finally decides to act in her own interests (and thereby comes off as a virtue signalling person), I think it is rather simplistic to state or imply that opting out of a pension to avoid causing harm to people or the environment should be an easy individual choice to make if you want to do the right thing.
Being able to choose from multiple options to stay afloat in old age is not a privilege that many, even in the West, have. And when the alternative to saying yes is saying no and being left without a post-retirement safety net that will mean you have to work longer and well into old age, can you really blame someone from buying into the powerhouse that is the pensions sector? The alternative is so undesirable that I feel that most people will opt in by virtue of wanting the more attractive-sounding option. Having access to such a system is an incredible privilege, but the alternative to opting out of this privileged system if you live in the Western world is having to work until you die just to stay afloat while your peers enjoy relaxing in old age because they bought into the system.
I fear that a small group of people opting out is not going to make a dent into a pensions system and structure that it is so powerful. I also feel that given other more pressing issues in the world, including white supremacy, Islamophobia, xenophobia and climate change, a movement to oppose this would not gain very much traction. If sustainable change was implemented by the systems currently in place, and if this change led to pension firms divesting from harmful businesses and industries, this would have the greatest impact. It would ensure that people have enough money to retire and rest in old age, and that they are able to invest in companies that avoid causing environmental and social harm while they are of working age. Investment and pension companies are starting to offer products which enable individuals to do this, which is a sign that change is upon us. There has been an incredible rise in the number of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) funds over the past few years, and many pension companies now provide pension holders with the option to switch to more sustainable ESG options. I believe that the only way to truly create change would be for pension companies to completely stop investing in harmful industries. But when there is still so much money to be made from these businesses, and when capitalism still rules much of the world, I understand that there will be little incentive for pension companies to do this. But I feel that this is a change that can only come from the systems and structures in power, not from a few individuals.
To sum up I really enjoyed reading Biss’ insightful and accessible musings on home ownership, ownership more generally and capitalism in Having and Being Had. If any of this sounds of interest to you then this book will be right up your street.
I recently picked up Exciting Times because I wanted a break from the plethora of novels I have waiting on my bookshelves, most of which touch on some aspect of racial trauma/black pain. Enter Exciting Times. This is a book that I had seen on a lot of “books to watch out for” lists last year, which is what originally piqued my interest in it. If I am completely honest, the biggest thing that drew me to this book was the incredibly colourful cover – a shallow but honest fact.
I absolutely loved this book. One of the things I loved most about it was the astute observations of vapid and affluent public and private school people, how they move through the world in their often self-obsessed and ignorant ways, and the contradictions between the privileged lives they lead and the ways in which they describe themselves (which is often, though not always, in a decidedly less-privileged way – a common thing to see if you have observed middle-class people as a relative outsider, but something that middle class people either refuse to see in themselves, or are woefully and wilfully ignorant of). I found the juxtaposition of Ava, the seemingly working-class raised “Marxist” protagonist against her two love interests – emotionally obtuse, Oxford-educated banker Julian, and matter of fact, astute and incredibly well put together Edith very interesting to observe as a reader.
Ava seems to operate as a sort of socialist-leaning outsider who reads the actions and thoughts of her fellow expat work colleagues, and friends of her well-to-do love interests (mainly Julian’s I should add), for filth. She makes some deft observations about people and life that I found incredibly honest and refreshing to read in a fiction novel. She notes that Julian and his ilk often are unhappy because they have no real purpose in life and therefore just pursue money and other worldly objects. The lesson here is that capitalism and the pursuit of capitalist ideals will always invariably make you unhappy.
I also appreciate the arc that Ava has throughout the book. In the beginning she reads as an ambling 22-year-old who seems to relish avoiding creating meaningful relationships – whether that is friendships with her flatmates and work colleagues, or a deep and meaningful romantic relationship. She distances herself from people, which is why we think she takes a particular liking to emotionally unavailable Julian – a man that she frequently stresses over in the first third of the book. She is never sure whether she truly likes him, and often thinks that he doesn’t like her. As she fixates on the latter, we begin to see their relationship as something that can never truly be more than a transactional and physical one. This anxiety that Ava seems to grapple with when it comes to relationships is where I first understood the comparisons being made with Normal People by Sally Rooney. However, I fear that such a comparison is a little simplistic and doesn’t fully consider how brilliant Exciting Times is as its own unique story.
It is also worth saying that Ava appears as an unlikeable protagonist in the beginning, but slowly she reveals more information about the inner workings of her mind and how multi-faceted, and sometimes hypocritical, she is. She seems to be ostensibly very anti-capitalist but is also happy for Julian to buy her lavish gifts that mean nothing to him and his banking salary. She often thinks about money, especially when thinking about her rent and the privileged upbringings of her love interests but she doesn’t seem to be as beholden to the pursuit of it as Julian. I get the feeling that she just wants a life where she doesn’t have to panic about her salary.
As we move through the book, we eventually discover that Ava has a hard time forming any sorts of relationships – whether these are friendships or romantic relationships – because she was bullied at school after being accused of being a lesbian by the same girls who would later call themselves LGBTQI+ allies. This part of the book enables the reader to empathise with Ava as we read about how heart-breaking and frustrating it is to see the people who made fun of you for simply being who you were suddenly pretending to be champions of equity, diversity, and inclusion several years later. This is the kind of virtue signally that truly grinds my gears. But I digress.
While reading Exciting Times I noticed that there were some very astute observations about race. One of my favourite sections of the book is when Edith, who is of Singaporean and Chinese heritage, tells Ava that if she tries to incite a sort of “oppression Olympics” when she talks about how oppressed the Irish were by the English, she will never win against her. Hearing Dolan speak on the Vintage Books podcast about how James Baldwin was a huge influence for her helped me look back on her observations on race and white privilege in Exciting Times as very Baldwin-esque. It’s not often that white writers make any meaningful or accurate comments about race in their fiction. I feel Dolan’s love of Baldwin has seeped through her writing and enabled her to overcome this very common hurdle.
It was clear that an exploration of what it might be like to be a financially precarious, bisexual Irish millennial woman living as an “expat” in Hong Kong were central themes of Exciting Times while reading it. Although Dolan’s prose was often littered with many advanced (for me anyway) polysyllabic words that I had to regularly stop reading to look up the meaning of on Dictionary.com, Exciting Times was in the main a very well-written, witty, and absorbing novel that had me hooked up until the last scene. That Dolan was able to so vividly describe the interior voice of Ava so that I, as the reader, was engrossed in her anxiety around relationships, her identity and her low self-esteem throughout the novel is a testament to how gifted a writer she is. I can’t wait to read her future work.