Book Reviews | Winter 2020

Graphic by Jessica BrilliGraphic by Jessica Brilli
By Pat Harrison

The Resisters: A Novel

by Gish Jen ’77, BI ’87, RI ’02 
Alfred A. Knopf, 301 pp. 

In Gish Jen’s new novel, AutoAmerica is peopled by the Netted, who are “angelfair,” have jobs, and live on solid ground, and the Surplus, who are “coppertoned,” unemployed, and live on houseboats in swampland or on water. It’s an exaggerated future world (after Ship’EmBack has gone into effect, and most immigrants have been expelled) and a dramatic warning, offered with Jen’s signature humor and great affection for her characters.

The narrator of this speculative tale is a former professor named Grant, whose mother had him with the service WhoNeedsThemMen. Grant’s Surplus family and the other residents of AutoAmerica are watched by Aunt Nettie (think “internet”) and live in AutoHouses that listen, talk, and constantly remind them: It’s your choice. You always have a choice. But they don’t. 

Grant’s wife, Eleanor, is the lead attorney for the Surplus Fields case, in which four families of children with painful Exolimbs have sought her help. She and Grant are astonished when their only child, Gwen, develops a mad love for baseball. Although the game has been outlawed, and all the famous stadiums torn down, Eleanor organizes the Underground Baseball League, and Gwen pitches for the Lookouts.  

After Net U recruits Gwen for her baseball skills, her Netted roommates treat her like a Surplus specimen. The roommates, Pink and Sylvie, reveal that they too grew up in AutoHouses, but that they had control switches for everything. “It’s to personalize our services, not to control us,” Pink tells Gwen. Sylvie says that there have been problems with control, “like when Facebook became a utility and gave all that data to Aunt Nettie. . . . That’s where all those DelectableElectables came from. Those perfect candidates they learned to design.”

When Gwen is offered an opportunity to Cross Over and join the Netted, she declines, preferring to return to the Surplus, who welcome her back with great enthusiasm. Eleanor has won the Surplus Fields case, and the Surplus teams are now playing the Netted. Gwen and others form a new league, dedicated to fighting the tyranny of Aunt Nettie: the Resisters.

Eleanor’s legal victory has put her at risk, however, from Aunt Nettie, causing Enforcers to show up and cart her off to prison—though not for long. In the novel’s final section, in which Gwen pitches in the Olympics for AutoAmerica against the ChinRussians, Eleanor reappears and makes herself a hero.

The Dutch House: A Novel

by Ann Patchett BI ’94
HarperCollins, 337 pp.

Master storyteller Ann Patchett is back with another beguiling novel, this time with a house at its center. The Dutch House, located in a suburb of Philadelphia, is a vividly rendered mansion in which siblings Danny and Maeve are raised by a series of caretakers. With their mother, Elna, having moved to India to help the poor, their father marries Andrea, an evil stepmother whose primary interest is the house. Maeve has graduated from Barnard, and Danny is 15, when their father dies from a heart attack. Andrea expels her two stepchildren from the premises, declaring that the Dutch House is hers. 

A stepmother herself, Patchett told the New York Times that she wrote about the person she was afraid of becoming. Andrea is indeed terrible, and Danny and Maeve must stick together—Maeve nurturing Danny—to survive. At Maeve’s insistence, Danny attends medical school but then, like his father, becomes a real estate developer. After a stellar academic career at Barnard, Maeve moves back home and labors away as a bookkeeper. 

Elna returns from her travels to India, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Mississippi. “The poor, she discovered, were everywhere,” Danny muses.

The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir

by Samantha Power JD ’99, RI ’18
Dey St. (an imprint of William Morrow), 580 pp. 

This is a story of passion and persistence. Whether she was forging press credentials or trying to find a publisher for A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (Basic Books, 2002)—which would win a Pulitzer Prize—Power did not give up.  

During an internship after she graduated from Yale, Power read dispatches from Balkan war correspondents and made plans to travel to the region. Knowing she’d need press credentials, she lifted a sheet of stationery from the office of Foreign Policy, just down the hall, and wrote the necessary document. At age 23, she traveled to Slovenia and pitched a story to U.S. News & World Report, which published it. Thus was born a war correspondent. 

Power sent a copy of A Problem from Hell to US Senator Barack Obama, who recruited her to advise him on foreign policy. When Obama was elected president, he appointed Power as US ambassador to the United Nations. 

Now a professor at the Kennedy School and at Harvard Law School, Power worked on this book during her 2017–2018 fellowship at Radcliffe. It’s an inspiring story that readers will not soon forget. 

Grand Union: Stories

by Zadie Smith RI ’03
Penguin Press, 245 pp.

In her first collection of short fiction—following five novels, a novella, and two essay collections—Zadie Smith gives us 19 stories of such variety that it’s hard to believe they were written by the same person. The collection brings together new stories with several that originally appeared in the New Yorker and other magazines. Memorable characters abound, including the drag queen in “Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets,” who can be heard musing, “Especially sick of these kids, these ‘Millennials’ or whatever they were calling themselves. Always ‘on.’ No backstage to any of them—only front of house.”

My favorite is “Escape from New York,” in which Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlon Brando flee the city after 9/11. It’s a dire situation that somehow seems funny, as Jackson drives a Toyota Camry (the only car available), while Taylor, bedecked in jewels, rides shotgun, and Brando sprawls in the backseat, eating Twinkies. When Taylor and Brando muse that they wish they could turn back the clock, Jackson says there’s nowhere else he’d rather be. To which Brando responds, “Hate to break it to you, buddy, but you don’t have much choice about it either way.”

Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age

by Lizabeth Cohen RI ’02
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 547 pp.

What better way to learn about urban renewal than through the life of one of its most prominent practitioners? In her new book, Lizabeth Cohen—dean of the Radcliffe Institute from 2011 to 2018 and the Howard Mumford Jones Professor of American Studies in Harvard’s history department—follows Edward J. Logue (1921–2000) as he fights to save several American communities, including New Haven, Boston, and Roosevelt Island in Manhattan.

Logue partnered with the mayor of New Haven to redevelop the Connecticut city in  the 1950s and 1960s. The work  included a social aspect—Community Progress Inc., recognized as a precursor to programs in LBJ’s War on Poverty. 

In Boston, Logue oversaw the building of Government Center and the development of Faneuil Hall. Today Government Center is reviled for its barren hardscape, but it helped to foster greater prosperity for downtown, Cohen writes. Logue was intensely proud of his work on Roosevelt Island, where he oversaw the building of low- and moderate-income housing: “one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading

by Leah Price ’91, RI ’07
Basic Books, 214 pp.

Leah Price has thought long and hard about books—their physical properties, their history and future, the differences between print and digital, and what reading can do to our bodies. After teaching in Harvard’s English department for almost two decades, she moved in 2019 to Rutgers, where she is now the Henry Rutgers Distinguished Professor of English and the founding director of the Rutgers Initiative for the Book. 

Price laces her study with lively material. In a section titled “Interleaf: Please Lay Flat,” in which the lines of text run across two pages instead of one, she describes the back problems she experienced from carrying loads of books in her backpack and hunching over her laptop. Reading was such a burden that she had to stop. She then learned to place books on higher and lower perches and to read while standing or lying flat.

It’s refreshing that Price doesn’t worry about the digital/print divide in books. “Our own era continues, rather than breaks with, a tradition of innovation that has seen new formats emerge over and over again for half a millennium,” she writes.


Pat Harrison is the former editor of Radcliffe Magazine

 

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