One of the best parts of putting together this day-by-day guide to some of my favorite books this year is that I can suddenly remember, between posts, a great book I’d forgotten all about. That happened to me yesterday. I’ll write about that book soon, but not just yet, because today’s selection seems so important to me. I’m glad it’s made a couple of lists so far. It should be on more, in my opinion.
There’s been a lot of discussion about diverse books this year, pioneered by this smart woman and her #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag. Once my Calendar is complete, you’ll see that it includes titles by writers of many different genders, races, ethnicities, and faiths. That’s not because I set a purposeful course to read with diversity in mind, either–although it’s not a bad idea to do so. I prefer to think of it as resulting from a world in which we more and more have opportunities to hear many voices. There still aren’t enough of those opportunities. We need more, and we shouldn’t lag in seeking them out, either.
Today’s selection is all about the search for authenticity, and the price we pay in that search.
Perhaps you haven’t watched the wonderful new comedy “Transparent” yet, which features Jeffrey Tambor in one of the best performances of his career as a divorced husband and father of three named Mort who is transitioning to a new life as Moira. Tambor’s acting as Mort/Moira is gentle, nuanced, and brave, a 180-degree turn from his “Arrested Development” role as George Bluth, Senior. At one point, dressed, coiffed, and groomed as Moira (but still pre-op), the character speaks with his daughter, who says “How long have you been dressing up as a woman?” Without a pause, Mort/Moira takes her hand and says “Oh honey, I’ve been dressing up as a man my whole life. This is me.”
Many of us, fortunate to be born in bodies that match our minds and souls, struggle to comprehend the transgender path. It isn’t always easy to watch someone reject one identity and put on another–especially if that person’s first identity was one we adored or counted on for our own. But what if you were born in a body that didn’t match your mind or soul because that body was the wrong race?
This is the galvanic idea behind Jess Row’s novel Your Face in Mine. A man walks down the street, a little soft in the middle and in the middle of a life that’s too hard: His wife and child have been killed in a car crash. To continue the Paul Simon paraphrase, Kelly Thorndike needs a shot at redemption. He’s recently moved home to Baltimore in order to steer an ailing public-radio station out of its doldrums, although only he and upper management know that beyond the doldrums lies a shut down. As he ambles along, a stranger calls out to him, an African-American man. As he draws closer, Kelly realizes the man is one of his oldest friends, Martin–who used to be white and Jewish.
Martin reveals that he’s undergone a radical new procedure called “racial reassignment surgery,” having his skin, hair, features–every aspect of his physiognomy–altered so that he doesn’t just pass as a black man, but is a black man. He has a new life that includes a beautiful, accomplished African-American wife and children (adopted; he’s sold his wife on the idea that he’s sterile, because the one thing that couldn’t be altered were his genes). Martin lives, works, and socializes in the city’s black community, and he doesn’t want to change a thing. However, he tells Kelly, he does want to share his story, at last. His old pal convinces Kelly to act as his journalistic mouthpiece. Soon Kelly has gone down a rabbit hole of research and manipulation, the latter showing up as Martin reveals his true colors–neither black nor white, but green (as in dollars) all the way.
Had Row stopped there and made this book a plot-driven one in which Kelly has to outwit a greedy Martin, it might be OK, and even entertaining. He goes further, however, and brings Kelly Thorndike to the brink of a personal impasse. I don’t want to provide any spoilers at all, so I’ve even glossed over a couple of details here. Row asks some huge questions in this novel, and they go beyond the shade of someone’s skin or the arrangement of skin and cartilage beneath their clothes. What do we need from the people we love the most? How do we belong when we’ve been left behind, by an accident of birth or a catastrophe? Does a community consist of beliefs and deeds, or are we tied together by appearances and transactions?
I quite liked Adam Plunkett’s piece about the contemporary novel of ideas that came out earlier this year; in it, he discussed books by Nigerian-born novelists Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Teju Cole. It’s ironic–or maybe it’s not ironic–that another terrific novel of ideas this year is by Row, a Caucasian who now practices Zen Buddhism. Like Adichie’s and Cole’s books, Row’s will make you think. We need more diverse books–and we need more diversity of thought. Jess Row provides that.