Contemporary French Horror

“The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds.”

From that ice cold and clinical horrific opening, Leila Slimani‘s The Perfect Nanny draws us in, enrages us, engages us, disgusts us and toys with us. The best-selling novel of France in 2016 under the title “Chanson Douce” (Lullaby), the book was translated into English and re-titled with something more appropriate for the American reader. It is a difficult and unforgettable read, even though the text moves quickly with pacing akin to a potboiler. Rarely have I wanted to turn the page – and dreaded turning the page – with the same intensity. I finished it in one sitting. A few days later, went back to re-read certain sections.

The story is about the murder of two children by their nanny. Inspired by a New York City case, Slimani stated, the novel is its own creation, a study of Parisian life and work. This is not non-fiction dressed up. It is an invention, a creative endeavor, with most of the trappings of fact. There’s a precision to it. Slimani spins out her tale with journalistic precision. She has worked as a reporter and it shows.

In The Perfect Nanny there are no surprises, no hidden secrets. It opens with the murder, goes back in time, and finishes with the children’s death. Slimani avoids moralizing and speculation. She handles her characters with care and attention. We see the why and how of the relationships between children and nanny, children and parents, parents and nanny, and between the father and mother. Each of the characters are drawn as complex, imperfect people. They feel real.

The absence of a larger sense-making is dark. On the other hand, it is often authentic. Why or how could something like the murder of two children happen? There can be no reasons, no explanation.

Slimani writes very well but very good writing is no guarantee of a best-seller. True crime and crime in general are also popular, but they, too, do not automatically generate sales. What makes The Perfect Nanny so effective is the mix of topic and style. Slimani tapped into a primal fear, one that can grab every parent by the heart and not let go. There are few important novels about motherhood, and fewer still that map out a horror like this. It is both extraordinary and, in Slimani’s hand, all too possible. The parents at the heart of the film make reasonable choices. Far from perfect, they are also far from indifferent. Their everyday qualities, like that of their children, bring the horror home. They are two professionals, working to make better lives for themselves and their family, dependent upon others.

The Perfect Nanny is a horror story well-suited the twenty-first century, a crime of violence without meaning or catharsis.

David Potash

Sports and Sentimentality, Courtesy of Jerry Izenberg

Growing up in northern New Jersey, back in the 1970s, I was always the first one in the family to get up. My routine during the school week was rock solid. I’d head downstairs, take the dog out, pick up a copy of the newspaper – we got the Newark Star-Ledger, bring the dog in and feed her, start to brew a pot of coffee for my parents, and then, at long last, dig into the sports section of the paper. Sports always came first – even as so many New York teams in the 70s were awful. A hurrah for Joe Pisarcik.

The Ledger’s sport section was always comprehensive. They printed late night scores from the west coast, covered all the sports, and several times a week, a column by Jerry Izenberg would grace the pages. Izenberg wrote the way that I imagined old school sports writers did, with rich language, lots of adjectives, and stories of heroism, triumph and catastrophe. I pictured him in a fedora with a cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth like a character from The Front Page, hammering away at manual typewriter. His columns were interesting and engaging, offering a different take on sports. They were like to the older guys who spent time at the breakfast diner in the center of town.

Recently I was given a copy of his 1989 book, The Jerry Izenberg Collection. Truth in advertising: it is exactly as billed, a collection of Izenberg’s columns. Reading it reminded me of those morning and the consistent tone and perspective of his work. Izenberg is still at it – he’s 90 – and recently published a novel.

The collection is a testimonial to Izenberg’s interest in people and his preternatural sentimentality. He specializes in a particular kind of traditional male ethos that jumps headfirst into emotions. In the hands of a different writer, in the context of other topics, it would ring as false and maudlin. But when writing about boxers, jockeys, gamblers and football players it seems all the more appropriate. Damon Runyon, perhaps?

Izenberg’s gift is to write about intimate issues in a way that male sport fans can relate. And I hope others, too. It’s his secret power – and I cannot think of many other sportswriters able to do it as effectively.

So if you find a copy, curl up with a beer and some Kleenex – it’s a Jerry Izenberg special.

David Potash

Worthy of Re-Reading, Again and Again: Kendi on Antiracism

Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist is one of the most important books on racism written in the last few years. Kendi, a brilliant and prolific scholar, writer and pubic intellectual, was named by Time Magazine as one of 2020’s most influential people. If you have not read this book, I urge you to find a copy and spend some time with it. And if you did pick it up over the past year, I recommend finding time to re-read it. It contains much to consider and reconsider.

Kendi’s book is both autobiographical and scholarly. He uses his own journey, his successes and failures, his strengths and his weaknesses, to guide us through the myriad of ways that race and racism intertwine and affect how we see the world and interact with each other. Kendi avoids the phrase “systemic racism” – and makes us understand how “systemic” is redundant. He explains how omnipresent racist thought is; it is in the air that we grown accustomed to breathing. To choose to become antiracist is a radical act – and demands a new consciousness. Lifting from DuBois and expanding on his work, Kendi recasts dual consciousness into dueling consciousness. He moves at a high level through twentieth century American history. He locates his own story within that larger history, giving his own development as much of a critique as that of society. There is great power in his vulnerability.

Kendi systematically observes, unpacks and challenges us throughout the book. His take on the half-steps and quarter-steps taken to address racism is especially insightful. He disdains the term “microagression” and instead calls it what it is: racist abuse. He calls biological racists what the are: segregationists. He shares how ethnic labeling can fuel racist thought. He employs facts and science to debunk racist claims. For example, if you want to find high crime rates, unemployment and poverty are significantly greater contributors than race. And he notes the influence of behavioral racism in our thinking, practice and culture.

As the book progresses, building a more comprehensive understanding of how racism operates, Kendi zeroes in what is at stake – power. He shows how power – both in the political realm, which is traditional and well-publicized, as well in the sociological sense of cultural capital – has an intimate relationship with racism. He picks apart the threads of capitalism, especially how it can exploit others, to strengthen the argument. The organization of this line of thinking is reinforced through chapter titles, too: Space, Class, Gender, for example.

The key take away for me is that Kendi draws a clear distinction between all that it racist and all that is antiracist. He denies the existence of a middle ground. Reading the book is like taking the red pill in the Matrix. After reading it, if you reflect, you can’t unsee the racism all around us – and the choice is clear. We have to be antiracists.

David Potash

White Fragility – White Racism

Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, was published in 2018. After the murder of George Floyd, sales of the book jumped. Many of us, hunkering down in the pandemic, read widely to gain a better understanding of our racist history and the country’s deeply embedded racist practices. What could we learn and do to bring about greater justice? White Fragility was one of the volumes that seemed to be everywhere, and DiAngelo, a former tenured professor of multicultural education who now does diversity training, was prominent in the media.

DiAngelo is a sharp writer. Her message, that racism is woven deeply into structures, practices and our lives, is not radical. However, decades of work on racial issues gives her a comfort and skill set to write about it ways that others may not. The book’s underlying premises, that most white people have a very hard time when it comes to talking about, or even thinking about, race and the consequences of racism, is a truism. The tendency is to shut down, to defend, defer, point the other way – anything that can refute white complicity in systemic racism. DiAngelo takes this apart, showing how responses and actions can paper over issues or even make racist problems and practices more intractable. The term “white fragility” was crafted by her in a 2011 paper DiAngelo wrote for the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy. It describes a rigidity, based on power and defensiveness, that takes place when a white person’s racism is questioned. What hovers over this book, and the larger enterprise of DiAngelo’s approach, is the question of how productive and honest it is to examine and work against racism through the lens of white fragility.

Reviews and summaries of White Fragility are ubiquitous. I wonder if the book has reached a stage where it is almost a trope – a volume regularly referenced and rarely read. If so, those that know the material well and do read it will most likely will find the book frustrating. It offers little new or different to explain how things have transpired, why we are in a society that is racist, or even how to advance policies that might lead to social justice and make for meaningful change. It is is far from a definitive account of racism, as DiAngelo readily acknowledges.

The strength of White Fragility rests on its extensive knowledge of how white liberals often react when challenged about race: denial, tears, and more denial. That’s a personal dynamic that DiAngelo witnesses and fights through regularly as a diversity coach. In and of itself, this point of resistance is very much worth examining. The phenomena offers a useful viewpoint as to why we have not made more progress towards social justice, even with people who voice inclusive sentiments, and why change at an individual level can prove to be very difficult.

That said, there is much more to think through here. Economic, political and societal power structures, centuries of exploitation, how certain kinds of capitalism and economic structures can reinforce racism – the evil tentacles of racism are systemic, pervasive, and complicated. DiAngelo knows this, too; she regularly references other authors and other works throughout White Fragility. It’s a strategy that makes sense to me and one that I recommend. Ongoing study is essential. Read widely, investigate thoroughly, and don’t rely on one author – especially one whose strength is diversity training – to explain racism.

David Potash

Racism & Tragedy, Still Unaddressed

In May of 1991, nearly thirty years ago – let that linger for a moment – the body of a 17-year old Black male was pulled from the St. Joseph river, adjacent to Lake Michigan. Eric McGinnis was a goofy prankster, a normal kid with a taste for fashion who hailed from the Black and poor Michigan town on the north side of the river, Benton Harbor. The south side of the river is home to St. Joseph, a wealthier white community. Following an investigation of questionable professionalism and frustrating ambiguity, the case was closed – without a cause, reason, or official explanation for McGinnis’s death.

Alex Kotlowitz, an award-winning journalist, author and writer on issues of race and justice, because obsessed with the case. He spent five years researching it, taking it apart and putting it back together. Kotlowitz assiduously dug deep into the racial make-up and history of the two towns. He found example after example of racism and a consistent lack of justice. He found gaps in communication, in empathy, and in understanding. He interviewed scores upon scores, trying to make sense of the tragedy. The resulting book, The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, A Dean, and America’s Dilemma, recounts Eric’s story and Kotlowitz’s research.

Nothing would be more gratifying than to recount that there is justice, a resolution, and closure. There is not. Eric’s death, like the death of so many others of color, remains an injustice, a tragedy that lingers and haunts. Kotlowitz’s research hammers home the impossibility of closure, too, when there is no case, no evidence, and limited attention. He lets us see the perceptions from both sides of the river, making certain that we appreciate how lives, meaning and any real shared sense of values is undermined by the racism woven through the towns’ histories. It is enraging and all too common. And that there was this level of reporting and attention all those years ago – without any meaningful action – renders the racist injustices of recent time all the more gutting.

Listening, documenting and telling the story is vital. Kotlowitz has continued to write, to make films, and to report. This is necessary. But if the last thirty years have taught us anything, it is that telling the story alone is insufficient. The pursuit of justice – meaningful justice – requires structure, commitment and action.

David Potash

A Dark Road, Indeed

Ma Jian’s 2014 novel, The Dark Road, is a haunting literary indictment of China’s one-child policy as described through the lives of one family. A painter turned award-winning writer, Jian is a creative and vocal critic of the Chinese state. He has such a compelling voice, in fact, that cannot live in the country safely. The the Chinese government has confiscated and destroyed his works. Now in London, Jian and his partner have a family of four children.

China’s one-child policy was enacted in the late 1970s after decades of a two-child rule. Designed to rein in population growth, the policy was about more than family planning. Formally it permitted families one child and should they have a second pregnancy, mandatory contraception, fines, forced abortions and sterilization. In practice, those with money and political connections were often able to by-pass the strictures. For those with less agency, like the family in The Dark Road, the lived experience was horrific and more encompassing.

Jian’s research for the novel took him to the countryside, where he posed as a reporter and asked everyday people how they coped with the government, the changing economy, and the impact of the one-child rule. The consequences were devastating. They collectively fold themselves into an omnipresent state that grinds the hope and humanity out of its citizens. Beyond the horrors of forced contraception, abortions, sterilizations and the systemic eradication of people’s interior life, the book offers a window on the caustic transactional society costs. If you cannot own your own body, what rights and hope are possible? Jiang gets this, and is able to describe it with a sense of immediacy – often with the dark humor that gives people the strength to shoulder on in the face of impossible conditions.

The hero of the novel is Meilin, a young and intelligent peasant woman without an education who marries Kongzi, a school teacher. They have a daughter, Nannan. Kongzi wants a male heir, though, and the resulting pregnancy leads the family to seek an alternative life on the Yangtze River. Jobs and family lost, the family struggles, with misfortune, some joys, and everyday life proving ever more difficult.

At the heart of the book is Meilin’s sense of agency, and her ownership – and lack, thereof – of her body and womb. She suffers mightily through the book. It reminded me of Zola, in naturalistic style, spelling out the contrast between what lives inside a person and what society allows. It is a terrible thing to contemplate, yet Jian’s storytelling skills carry us along to what we know will cannot be resolved positively.

David Potash

Great House – Reflected, Refracted, Refined

Nicole Krauss is an immensely talented novelist, a writer with a passion for language and exceptional skill. She does not so narrate so much as paint with words; the flow of her language is poetic. Yet her narrative is not unduly performative. Krauss writes stories that have a relationship with their audience.

In 2010, she published Great House, her third novel. The book received critical acclaim, awards, and cemented Krauss’s reputation as a top-tier author. It is a carefully crafted work, a jewel box of five different narratives and primary characters that, over time, come into focus, offering high-level understanding and meaning. The threads running through are historical (the violence of government against its people), philosophical, emotional, and interpersonal. There are recurring questions of identity, of remembering (and forgetting), and the presence of a much-traveled desk. Each of the key characters are struggling with loss. That may sound complicated, but it’s not unduly complex in Krauss’s hands. I was aware, while reading it, of her direction, structure and choice. There’s nothing sloppy or untethered in the book.

All of that is on the positive side of the ledger and good reason for the novel’s critical successes. And yet – and I’ve been wrestling with the “and yet” – I cannot assert that the novel moved me emotionally. I admire it and find much to praise – and I yet can’t state that it has stayed with me.

It might be because Krauss does not strike me as fully invested with her characters in this effort. I’m not sure, though; there are more than a few novelists whose work moves and whose relationship with their characters is at arm’s lengthy. George Elliott is a fine example, a brilliant novelist whose characters are sometimes less than fully realized.

My emotional distance from The Great House also might be that characters’ traits and internal dialogue are often seem to drive the novel more than plotting or action. It is a book of thoughts and feelings in different cities and over time. However, there are again many outstanding novels that are light on action. Then again, I was wondering if my coldness might be the absence, save the horrors of a Pinochet or Holocaust, of every day life’s concerns in the book. The characters, sketched in particular situations, sometimes struck me as transcendent or any one time or place.

Or it simply might be the wrong novel at the wrong time for me.

That thought – the right piece of literature for the right reader and the right time – has been bouncing around in my head for months. Reading in the pandemic is not, for me, like reading was two years ago. Reading in late 2020 has a different sense of urgency to it, a charged sense of relevance. One must choose to read and engage in a text, and when we can’t go outside, when the daily news brings new stresses and horrors, simply reading a novel is a weighted act of choice. It is consequential. That does not mean that everything that I read now has to be “important.” Goodness knows I crave escape fiction, too. Great House is not a diverting fluff. It it is serious and reflective. All that said, it was not substantial to me in a way that resonated.

Maybe – after covid, after the sheltering, when it’s possible to read a book in public or while traveling, I’ll have a different reception to Great House. For now – you’re welcome to borrow my copy.

David Potash

Arthur Fletcher and Republicanism

Simple history puts people and ideas in boxes, creating tidy narratives. Thoughtful history, based on close research, reveals complexities and contradictions. That kind of history is not necessarily flashy. Nor does it always receive due attention, either. It is more like a close reading of a text, revealing itself through concentration, study and time.

I was thinking about this while reading David Hamilton Golland’s biography of Arthur Fletcher, A Terrible Thing to Waste: Arthur Fletcher and the Conundrum of the Black Republican. It is a sturdily crafted traditional biography of a somewhat minor political figure. It is also an interesting study of the intersection of personal and national history, sketched out amid broader complex trends, that defies conventional expectations. Fletcher, a Black leader who led an extraordinary full life, is aptly described by Golland as “the most important civil rights leader you’ve (probably) never heard of.” Tracking the contours of Fletcher’s life makes for a valuable read, for it highlights the opportunities and constraints that smart, ambitious and talented Black men faced and still face as they navigate the evils of racism. Golland has done good work here, for it is a biography and more.

Born in 1924 to a hard-working single mother, Fletcher spent much of his early childhood in Los Angeles. In 1938 he changed his last name, reflecting new family stability. His mother married Andrew Fletcher, a master farrier in the Army. The family settled in Kansas for Fletcher’s high school, where he stood out as a stellar athlete and as a leader for Black students. He married his high school sweetheart, became a father, and was drafted into the Army by 1943. Fletcher tried to get into an officer program – choices were limited for Blacks – and by 1944 was in Europe. In March of 1945, Fletcher was shot and after five surgeries, was discharged. With a second child and more on the way, Fletcher balanced straight forward jobs – delivering ice and working as a doorman – with pursuing his academics and football aspirations.

Fletcher stood out as star for Washburn University’s football team, was scouted and recruited, and became the first Black player for the Baltimore Colts. His football career never fully materialized, though, and by 1953 he was teaching in Kansas and starting a lifelong connection with the GOP. The Republicans in Kansas at the time were the party most committed to providing jobs, protection and rights to Black Americans. Politics greatly appealed to Fletcher, a charismatic speaker, and so started a lengthy career.

Overcoming personal tragedy – his first wife committed suicide and employment opportunities were often elusive – Fletcher maintained optimism and an admirable entrepreneurial spirit. Moving to Washington, he started a community program and was elected to the Pasco City Council. Fletcher tried his hand at running for Lieutenant Governor of Washington, the first Black to head a state-wide campaign in the West. His visibility appealed to President Nixon, who tapped him as Assistant Secretary of Labor. Under President Nixon, Fletcher advanced affirmative action in hiring and contracts. His advancement, a testament to his skills and ambition, is truly impressive. With the White House role and accomplishment under his belt, the remainder of Fletcher’s professional life was in and about Republican political leadership. He ran for mayor Washington, DC, losing to Marion Berry. He headed chaired the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Close to George Bush, Fletcher was a frequent public speaker, a lobbyist, and a national Black spokesperson on issues of race and labor.

Fletcher’s patience with improving race relations in the US, always in conflict with the strictures of his party, were sorely tested with Lee Atwater’s campaign leadership and the Rodney King beatings and trial. He did not, though, abandon his fellow Republicans. Golland notes that Fletcher, never a conservative in the vein of so many of his colleagues, was trapped by his success. Fletcher died in 2005.

In the last chapter of the book, Golland tackles the conundrum of Arthur Fletcher and his career. Like some other Black Republicans, Fletcher found the party’s commitment to individualism, to labor and work, in alignment with his personal philosophy. Yet the broad message of the party shifted, becoming less concerned with the opportunities of Blacks and other minorities, leaving Fletcher and others without traction. Nor was moving to the Democratic party a viable option, at least in Fletcher’s mind. As the party abandoned his values, he was stranded – and distressed, too, for the more white-focused strategies of the Republican party garnered success at the ballot box.

Golland’s biography is a well-written, well-researched account of an American political leader well worth our time and consideration.

David Potash

Rage, Dread and Love

Miriam Toews‘ novel, Women Talking, engaged me instantly, from the very first page. It stayed with me, leading to research on the web and a second reading. Days later, it is still with me, ready to summon a powerful mixture of feelings and sentiments. It is an intense work.

Women Talking is based on a horrific history: the serial raping of women in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. For years, women in the community would awake bleeding, disheveled and bruised, the victims of sexual attacks. Their complaints were ignored in their isolated, insular and extremely patriarchal world. Men called them imaginary “ghost rapes” or the work of devils. When women finally captured one of the rapists, they learned that they were being drugged by a spray and assaulted. Eventually, through years of investigation and trial, nine men were convicted of rapes. The trail cites 135 victims, from ages 3 to 65, but unofficially there were probably many more.

The sect’s misogyny enabled the crimes and compounded the harm. Most of the women had lives of limited opportunity, illiterate and in secondary status. The religion limited access and understanding of basic sexual health. A closed culture of shame made things worse, and the community’s faith and power structure bound the women further. The women were denied basic civil and human rights, like so many others in the world. But that does not mean that the women lack agency or have nothing to say.

From this horror Toews, herself a lapsed Mennonite, gives us a novel of women in this community talking. It is a novel of conversations. The women talk of options, of revenge, of harm, of their children, their families, and of love. Toews lets us listen to the women as individuals with strengths, weaknesses, ideas and fears – not as objectified victims – and that “reality” makes the evil they endured all the more terrible. It’s an extremely well-crafted work of intimacy and care, told in a situation of almost unimaginable evil. But the evil isn’t unimaginable – it happened. And that makes it all the more awful.

Women Talking is a powerful indictment of patriarchy. It gives voice to those that we might not hear. It is an extremely good novel.

David Potash

Wild, Wild, Westside Chicago

Mike McHugh, a long-time Chicago native, recently penned a book recounting his father’s stories. The elder McHugh, a building inspector and man about town, was “connected.” He knew police and crooks, mobsters and molls, union officials and politicos. He had all manner of yarns to spin to Mike, his brother Jerry, and I’m sure many others. The resulting volume, Chicago Westside Irish, reads like an adult story hour, best told at a bar and not your local library. McHugh’s approach is non-judgmental; it is simple reporting.

The book’s tone is conversational. Without sources or context, it is relatively easy to get lost amid the exploits, the names and the nicknames. On the other hand, with some selective web searching, it’s easy to put the pieces together. From what I’ve researched, McHugh’s stories are based in fact – no matter how fantastic they might read.

There were bootleggers in the family. Famed criminals, like Al Capone, move in and out of the tales, with a drink here, a funeral there. It’s a telling reminder of just how small a town the enormous city of Chicago can be.

Chicago Westside Irish is also a reminder of Chicago’s rich history – especially when it comes to crime, politics and criminal justice. Just as today, there were significant problems in the 1920s and 1930s, too. Chicago, for some, can very much be the wild, wild west.

David Potash