Claudia Rankine is still talking to white people about race. In her new book, Just Us (Allen Lane, Penguin Random House UK), the Jamaica-born American poet, nonfiction author and Yale professor presents a critical record of her conversations with friends and strangers on the topic. This innovative work assembles poetry, prose and an array of social and historical documents – including replies from the people written about – into a thoughtful examination of how conversations might be possible across America’s race divide. “What rises up within, between us?” Rankine asks. “What comes up because we are the history within us?” Hers is an important American book.
Communication problems also lie at the heart of Memorial (Riverhead Books), the debut novel from Houston-based literary wunderkind Bryan Washington. Here, Washington takes on the rocky relationship between Ben and Mike, an African-American daycare teacher and a Japanese-American cook. Together – and apart – they must deal with their families, homophobia and racism, plus the usual challenges of love. Washington broke through as a short story writer. Memorial makes fine use of his genius for dialog and his impeccable timing. The novel is tough, uncensored, and darkly funny. But beneath its rough-and-tumble banter lies real love for its characters – and occasionally between them. A masterwork.
Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom (Viking, Penguin Random House UK) offers another perspective on race and migration in contemporary America. The Ghanaian-American hit the big-time with her 2016 historical novel Homegoing. Her second book, released after four years – including a stint in Berlin – bears no hint of sophomore slump. It features Gifty, a brilliant Ghanaian-American neuroscientist whose lab-mice experiments are interrupted by a visit from her evangelical mother. The narration skilfully inter- weaves Gifty’s research with her personal backstory, which rises dramatically to the surface.
The result is a charming and empathetic novel, one that probes at metaphysical questions – science and religion, family and identity – without ever losing sight of its human dimension. And to the History shelf. In The Hitler Conspiracies (Allen Lane), historian Richard J. Evans sinks his learned pen into a series of Nazi-related conspiracy theories and misconceptions, from the Reichstag fire to Hitler’s alleged escape to Argentina. Evans writes well and argues compellingly. Besides a few grumbles about social media, the book spends little time asking what encourages conspiracy thinking, in the past or today: but there is plenty on that elsewhere. Read The Hitler Conspiracies to learn about the Third Reich and its misrepresentations – and to enjoy an impassioned defence of history in the face of sensationalists, relativists, opportunists and downright loonies.