The House on the Cerulean Sea is a lovely little fantasy novel about Linus, an inspector for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY). His job is to go visit orphanages to make sure that the children who turn out to be magical are being treated well and are learning. (There is a separate department for magical adults and it’s important to note that the magical folks are the subject of these agencies without being employed by these agencies. Linus is not magical.)
One day, he is assigned to go visit a particular group of very magical children – not just kids who’ve exhibited the ability to levitate objects, but children who might be classified as magical creatures (not people) in the Harry Potter world. I don’t know who once said that all stories begin with “you go on a journey” or “a stranger comes to town.” This is definitely the former.
There was an educational movement in the 1980s and early 1990s to create a space for everyone to thrive. The goal – many teachers were self-identified hippies – was to make a space for the weirdos, the people who weren’t your stereotypical jocks and cheerleaders to fully be themselves. (This attitude oddly extended into my first adult job, during the 1990s tech boom.) It’s gone by the wayside in favor of measurable achievement now; but then, the idea was that every person could thrive, you just had to figure out under what circumstances, and to give people the space they needed to be who they were.
The House on the Cerulean Sea is that space. DICOMY is part of the conformist world that would have everyone fit into a particular – white, patriarchal – mode. Linus’ emotional journey is predictable: he starts out as a conformist and ends up otherwise. The story is in the journey, the how.
Reading this, I remembered being in that space, thinking everyone would find their own way and thrive. That we could all get along if everyone could just give everyone else their space; if we could all just leave each other be. I miss that optimism. It was nice to visit it.
A Little Devil in America is about Black performances, mostly in America, but there are a few stories of Americans overseas. It covers things like Soul Train, Whitney Houston, Don Shirley, spades, funerals, Merry Clayton on the Rolling Stone’s “Gimme Shelter”, and so much more. Quite frankly, this book is beautiful and you should read it.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, and every word in this book is carefully chosen and strung together especially well. From the page this book happens to be open to right now: “The backup singers, man. They get to be memorable for a few minutes at a time and forgotten all the minutes in between. I want to know if Mick saw every wretched tooth in the mouth of the world’s most wretched beasts trembling and falling to the ground. There is some awful reckoning to be had in a song like that. Some awful things to be lived with.”
The other thing is that there is so much love in A Little Devil in America. Love for Black people, who so often don’t get it. You can tell he loves being Black and being a part of Black culture. “I do remember playing spades until the clouds brightened with the promise of a coming sun. I do remember someone I love falling asleep with their face on the table, among the pile of scattered cards. And I do remember the moment when they woke, there was a single card stuck to the edge of their forehead. I never looked to see, but told myself whatever card it was, it had to be the lucky one.”
A Little Devil in America was wonderful. I’m going to go read the rest of his books now.
The Last Watchman of Old Cairo is a story told in three parts about a synagogue in Cairo and the Muslim family bound to protect it. The first storyline is that of the first young man in the family who became bound to protect the synagogue; the second is in current times – his descendant is the son of a Muslim man and a Jewish woman and is studying literature at Berkeley when he gets a package from his just-deceased father that he feels compelled to investigate; the third is a story of two sisters from Victorian England who are interested in Egyptian history and have come to the synagogue to study/rescue its documents.
I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the book, to be quite honest. It read like three interspersed short stories and they didn’t add meaning to each other. They were all fine – they’re not actively bad and the book was an enjoyable read – but there wasn’t a greater meaning to the three of them together.
The point the book is trying to make, if there is a point at all, is that the work must go on. You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it. In the book, it refers to the documents from the synagogue, in your life it could apply to your to-do list or keeping the house or any of a number of things. All you need to do is to keep it going. Whatever it is.
Mediocre was not what I expected. What did I expect? A lot of the ways that white men have screwed up: specifically pointing out their flaws and the things they’ve made worse in the world. Instead, it’s a book chronicling all the ways white men keep women and people of color out of the places of power and undermine the work they do, including, but not limited to:
- The SAT being created by a literal eugenicist to give universities an excuse to stay white and male;
- The language (that is being corrected, slowly) about how the American continent was “empty” before Europeans arrived;
- The early (think Susan B Anthony era) male feminists who decided they should support women’s rights so that men wouldn’t have to support them and they could be layabouts who could sleep with whoever they wanted;
- How women were forced out of the workforce after WWII because the men needed their jobs back; and
- The entire history of the NFL.
It can be a depressing and hard-to-read book at times. However, it did give me a yearning to read a Shirley Chisholm biography – her awesomeness was a highlight. I would recommend Mediocre, especially as a way to educate yourself more about how America works and was built.
I almost chose to not write about Women, Work, and the Art of Savoir Faire. Why? Because, quite frankly, yet another the-French-do-it-better-than-us book is overkill in American society, but also her other books perpetuate ideas about how a person is only worthy if they’re thin and traditionally acceptable to Western Society. This book has some of that bias too. There is a section on presentability.
But here’s the thing: somehow, sometimes, you need to be reminded in the right way that the point of work is getting things done, and you need to both believe in what you are doing and it has to match your skill set. This book worked as a good reminder for me about that.
I still skipped a fair bit of this – I never want to manage other people again, so that chapter wasn’t relevant – but it did give me some motivation I was lacking, and that’s not a bad thing.