Safe to say, there’s nothing like the feeling of the fresh cut. You feel so extra visible with a fresh new cut, and this book built from that experience translates it in a way never before brought to the children’s bookshelf.
Basquiat-inspired king insignias and a bit of Kehinde Wiley flair shape portraits of all the various ways men (and women too!) come into the black barbershop to restore their cool, leaving the chair with high self-esteem, self-pride, and confidence—if only for as long as their hairlines remain crisp. It’s sacred. The all-important line and the diverse styles take center stage here. The Big Daddy Kane–homage flat-top. The part. The light shape-up surrounded by cornrows and locs. The taper. The classic wavy dark Caesar. Barnes’ imaginative prose mirrors the hyperbole and swagger of the barbershop. No cut is just good. It will have you looking “presidential,” “majestic.” Like you own “a couple of acres of land on Saturn.” The swagger is on a million. The sauce is drippin’. James’ oil-based portraiture will send many readers reminiscing. This book oozes black cool and timely, much-needed black joy, using the unique and expansive experience of the barbershop to remind young boys that their inner lives have always mattered there.
One of the best reads for young black boys in years, it should be in every library, media center, and, yes, barbershop.
(Picture book. 5-12)
For those heartsick at Trumpism, essayist and Harper’s contributing editor Solnit (The Mother of All Questions, 2017, etc.) offers context and support. Optimism? You’re on your own.
As the author argues in this fiery clutch of essays, optimism isn’t a particularly helpful attitude anyway. Optimism—and its obverse, pessimism—are “false certainties” that “let us stay home and do nothing” in response to hard-line, bigoted conservatism. It is better, she argues, to cultivate hope, “an informed, astute open-mindedness.” That’s a thesis Solnit has explored often, particularly in her 2009 book on Hurricane Katrina and other tragedies, A Paradise Built in Hell, and she’s persuasive at marshaling a case for the long view while being cleareyed about the degradations of the moment. The 1916 Irish rebellion against the British, for instance, paved the way to independence two decades later, and years of steady pressure led to the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans in 2017. So don’t despair: “We don’t know what will happen next and have to live on principles, hunches, and lessons from history.” Which is why the author doesn’t mind the criticism that liberal pundits like her are preaching to the choir by reasserting principles and history lessons: The choir represents the “deeply committed” who need encouragement. Stoking that support in part demands attacking doublespeak that enables bigotry and unethical behavior from governments. She explores this most effectively in “Death by Gentrification,” an investigation of the shooting of a San Francisco man by police and the rhetorical pretzels police used to blame the victim. Telling the story wrong, with the wrong words and framing, threatens democracy, she exhorts journalism school graduates in one essay. Her own work is a model of doing it right.
Solnit is careful with her words (she always is) but never so much that she mutes the infuriated spirit that drives these essays.
It’s 2011, if not quite the 2011 you remember. Candace Chen is a millennial living in Manhattan. She doesn’t love her job as a production assistant—she helps publishers make specialty Bibles—but it’s a steady paycheck. Her boyfriend wants to leave the city and his own mindless job. She doesn’t go with him, so she’s in the city when Shen Fever strikes. Victims don’t die immediately. Instead, they slide into a mechanical existence in which they repeat the same mundane actions over and over. These zombies aren’t out hunting humans; instead, they perform a single habit from life until their bodies fall apart. Retail workers fold and refold T-shirts. Women set the table for dinner over and over again. A handful of people seem to be immune, though, and Candace joins a group of survivors. The connection between existence before the End and during the time that comes after is not hard to see. The fevered aren’t all that different from the factory workers who produce Bibles for Candace’s company. Indeed, one of the projects she works on almost falls apart because it proves hard to source cheap semiprecious stones; Candace is only able to complete the contract because she finds a Chinese company that doesn’t mind too much if its workers die from lung disease. This is a biting indictment of late-stage capitalism and a chilling vision of what comes after, but that doesn’t mean it’s a Marxist screed or a dry Hobbesian thought experiment. This is Ma’s first novel, but her fiction has appeared in distinguished journals, and she won a prize for a chapter of this book. She knows her craft, and it shows. Candace is great, a wonderful mix of vulnerability, wry humor, and steely strength. She’s sufficiently self-aware to see the parallels between her life before the End and the pathology of Shen Fever. Ma also offers lovely meditations on memory and the immigrant experience.