Kunstlers in Paradise*****

4.5 stars, rounded upward. My thanks go to Net Galley, Henry Holt Publishers, and Macmillan Audio for the review copies. This magnificently quirky novel is for sale now.

Julian Kunstler is kind of a mess. He’s a twenty-something New Yorker whose girlfriend has just dumped him. He has no job, and he doesn’t want one; at least, not the low-paying, entry-level variety of jobs for which he is qualified. He takes himself home to his parents who have been paying his way, confident that they will understand his plight and increase his allowance. Instead, he hits a wall. What are your plans for the future, Julian? (None.) What do you plan to do for money? (Get it from you.) Just as a dramatic situation has begun to unfold, they hear from his 93 year old grandmother, Mamie, who lives in Los Angeles. She wants him to come to stay with her awhile; she needs assistance. He’s not so sure that he wants to go, but when his parents insist, he gets on that plane. Once there, the pandemic strikes, and he is trapped in lockdown with his grandmother and her elderly companion, Agatha.

Mamie has always been fond of Julian, and although she does need a driver for doctor appointments and the like, what she wants, more than anything, is to tell her life story. Most of it, anyway. It begins in Austria, as Jewish artists like her father, a successful composer, are being pushed out of public life by the Nazis. (Here, I emit a small moan; I am heartily sick of Holocaust stories. Happily, we don’t stay there long, and this story is worth it.) She goes on to describe the shock she experiences in suddenly being transplanted into a completely different climate, language, and culture, and much of Mamie’s story is droll. And Julian, who never would have sat still for these tales had they come from his parents, listens. At first, he listens impatiently, assisted by Mamie’s generous liquor collection. As time goes on, he begins to listen with greater patience and understanding. And by the end of a year’s time, he listens with genuine interest. His own exile from New York is pale, after all, in comparison to the exile his predecessors endured.

The most dynamic character is, of course, Julian, but through Mamie’s stories, we see how life has already changed her. Agatha is enigmatic until the book is nearly over, and I love what Cline does with her, too.

If I were to change one thing, I would edit down the material about the genius composer friend that emigrates from Austria and is close to the family. This reviewer was a music major once upon a time, and if this part of the narrative is a bit much for me, then probably many others will feel the same. Of course, if the reader comes to the book with a deep interest in Schoenberg, then it may prove quite satisfying.

I am fortunate to have access to both the digital print galley and the audio version, and reader Jesse Vilinsky is hands down the funniest, most skillful voice actor I have ever had the pleasure to hear. Cline’s book is very good, but in the hands of Vilinsky, it is infinitely better. Her interpretations of Mamie and Julian are spot on, hilarious at times, moving at others. The way she voices Agatha is absolute comic genius!

For those that love quirky humor and historical fiction, this book is highly recommended.

Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson*****

Isabel Wilkerson is the author of the groundbreaking, bestselling Pulitzer winner, The Warmth of Other Suns, and when I read it, I understood that from then forward, I would read anything Wilkerson published. Here it is, and you must read it. You may want to put on a pair of oven mitts when you do, because it is hot enough to scorch your fingertips; Wilkerson doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. It’s been perched in the top ten of every bestseller list since its August release, and you don’t want to miss out on it.

Wilkerson’s thesis is that Black people in the U.S. occupy, and have always occupied, the lowest position within our social and economic ranks; social class is changeable, but caste is fixed. She compares their positions to the Dalit, better known as the Untouchables, the lowest rung of the lowest caste in India, and to Jews during the Holocaust. If this seems like overkill to you, get this book and read it carefully. This writer is relentless when she seeks to prove a point. She documents, documents, and documents again. She turns all the stones, and nothing is left.

Her evidence is organized by eight key commonalities, which she refers to as “Pillars” of caste. These are aspects of society that are unchanging and that define the positions of those born into them. (She recognizes that there are other races in the US that suffer, but places Black people at the bottom of the order, and so this is where her focus is.) The more I read, the more convinced I am. This is not metaphor or hyperbole. These are literal truths, and by the time she is done, I am convinced that the US is guiltier than Germany, because Germany turned it around, whereas the US is still in denial.

The Warmth of Other Suns is absorbing and easy to read, its style near to narrative nonfiction. In contrast, Caste is brutally frank. Though Wilkerson salts her narrative with relatively minor personal vignettes, they don’t make it easier to read; if anything, they make it hurt worse. (The airline attendant that does his level best to send her to the back of the plane, even though she has a first class ticket; the plumber that assumes she is hired help rather than the homeowner; the man attending the conference at which she is to speak that asks her to freshen his drink…)

I find this material so painful that I realize I am avoiding my review copy in favor of gentler reads, and then I know I have to step it up. This is too important; there’s been too much rug-sweeping in this nation already, and we won’t change if we don’t recognize the reality in which we live. I resolve to read one chapter a day. One chapter, and then I can move to more congenial literature. By the time I reach the end notes, I feel as if I have witnessed a natural disaster, a typhoon perhaps, or an immense, life-ruining earthquake. I’ve never run from books about race in the United States, but having the truth condensed and presented as it is here has to change the way we think. African-American readers likely won’t be much surprised, and many may feel vindicated in the resentments that have built over the years. But I cannot imagine anyone reading this book and then forgetting what’s in it.

Black lives matter, my friends. They matter just as much as anyone else’s. If you are more concerned about broken windows than about generation after generation of Americans whose potential has been stunted and whose contributions have been minimized, then you need this book. If you know that what’s been happening to men and women of color in the USA is dead wrong but you have difficulty forming cogent arguments when you talk with others, you need this book. If you speak and read English and you have a pulse, you need this book. What more does it take?  Information is the root of social change. Here it is.