Thursday, September 30, 2021

BOOKS! (Transcendent Kingdom + While We Were Dating)

August was a busy month and anxiety/indecisiveness kept me from reading much, but as is my end-of-the-month custom, I'm back with a new book review for September! Today's selections are the most recent releases from Black women authors whose work I've come to profoundly appreciate since discovering them within the past four years. First up is a novel about a Ghanaian-American neuroscience PhD student who houses her mentally-ill mother, while researching solutions to the drug addiction and depression that nearly destroyed her family. Second is a romance novel about a Black advertising exec and a famous Black plus-sized actress who "pretend" to date in order to secure the actress's dream role.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing (Yaa Gyasi's debut novel) astounded me and remains one of my favorite books ever, but if I'm being honest, I put off reading Gyasi's next novel when I heard about it coming out last year. From the preliminary information I'd seen about it, I knew Transcendent Kingdom would be a completely different story from Homegoing, and I didn't want to be disappointed. But then I was in Target last month running an errand when I spotted paperbacks of Transcendent Kingdom on sale, and since that day was also a pretty pivotal personal anniversary for me, I decided to buy myself a copy as a gift. I didn't intend to read it right away, but the longer it sat on my desk (a.k.a. the kitchen table), the more I felt it calling me to read it now. So that's what I did. 

Gifty is a neuroscience PhD student at Stanford University (Gyasi's alma mater) who was raised by Ghanaian parents in Huntsville, Alabama (just like Gyasi was). The closest thing to a community that her family had was the all-white First Assemblies of God Church that her religious mother joined not long after settling in Huntsville, but the racism inherent in its members' worldview showed Gifty as a pre-teen that her folks would always be outsiders. At first her family consisted of her parents, her brother Nana (six years her senior), and herself. But then, when Gifty was four years old, her father left the family and returned to Ghana when being treated like a dangerous Black man and struggling to find a sense of belonging became too much for him. And then, when Gifty was 11, her basketball star brother died of a heroin overdose after years of addiction. Nana's passing thrusted their mother into a depression that left her bedridden, and Gifty was sent to stay with relatives in Ghana while their mother recovered. Recover she did, and she remained stable until 17 years later, in the present, when she lapses back into a deep depression and is sent by her pastor to stay with Gifty in Palo Alto. Now, on top of researching exactly what parts of the brain control reward-seeking behavior in her lab at Stanford, Gifty must figure out how to get her 68-year-old mother to to eat again, speak again, and generally return to the land of the living. The book's title refers to a passage about the boundless mysteries of the human brain, "Homo sapiens, the most complex animal, the only animal who believed he had transcended his Kingdom... That belief, that transcendence, was held within this organ itself. Infinite, unknowable, soulful, perhaps even magical. I had traded the Pentecostalism of my childhood for this new religion, this new quest, knowing that I would never fully know" (21).

I saw so many parallels between Transcendent Kingdom's characters and characters of other works that I've enjoyed in recent years. Let's start with the male figures in Gifty's family. Her father reminded me of Kweku from Ghana Must Go (Taiye Selasi), a fellow Ghanaian immigrant and head of household who, hurt and homesick, also abandons his family and flees to Ghana when life in America turns sour. Big brother Nana reminded me so much of Tyler from the 2019 film Waves, another Black teenager and star athlete who becomes increasingly unstable and violent toward his family due to drug addiction, and who eventually loses out on the glowing future everyone assumed he would have. Unlike for Tyler, the sports injury that triggers Nana's addiction isn't career-ending, but an OxyContin prescription coupled with the enduring pain and anger he harbors about his dad's abandonment, along with his uncertainty about college choices, is all the window of opportunity needed for a three-year addiction to form. And when the Oxy runs out, it's implied that a fellow teenaged boy from the church is the one who introduces Nana to heroin.
Gifty herself reminded me of several fictional and non-fictional people (myself included), but I'll just share the most notable few. I couldn't help but think of Casey from Free Food for Millionaires (Min Jin Lee), a fellow twenty-something who is no longer a believer but still, sometimes in spite of herself, finds value and insight in remnants of her intense Christian upbringing. As a woman pursuing a science PhD, to me Gifty also recalled the unnamed narrator of Weike Wang's Chemistry, who also deals with grad student struggles while confronting childhood trauma that centers around her mom. My close friend Irene is currently a PhD student at Stanford in real life, specializing in medical research (I've visited her lab and everything!), so of course I thought of her often as I made my way through this novel as well. Yaa Gyasi even name-drops some local Palo Alto establishments and real-life labs at Stanford in the book, so I was frequently messaging Irene questions like, "Have you been to a restaurant in Palo Alto called Tofu House?", "Also, have you ever been to Philz Coffee?", "Are you familiar with the Ting Lab or Deisseroth Lab at Stanford?". As sobering and heartbreaking as reading Transcendent Kingdom often was, it was fun to have Irene confirm that yes, those are all real places and yes, she's familiar with them all.*

Perhaps I risk sounding hyperbolic when I write about how much I see myself in the books I read (Leah Vernon's Unashamed and Tayari Jones's Silver Sparrow come to mind as recent examples), but I can't help it if it's true! Gifty and I are both 28-year-old Black women; we were both raised in Christian households (although hers was much more stringent than mine); we both came up in educational environments where Black people should've been more prevalent; we both tried to use overachievement to cover our insecurities and solve our problems; we've both struggled with shame, body issues, intimacy, trust, and asking for help due to childhood trauma that was beyond our years; and we've both felt conflicted between "wanting to feel good" and "wanting to be good" (194). Considering the epilogue of this book, I do wonder if Gyasi is pulling a Parasite-esque pipe dream ending, showing readers the healed, fully-loved, and no longer codependent future that Gifty deserves but is unlikely to attain due to the dire nature of her and her mom's circumstances. Or I don't know, maybe after wading through all of Gifty's trauma, Gyasi decided to give Gifty and readers a break by truly granting her a hopeful ending where she's at greater peace.

To sum everything up, here's a message I sent to Irene after finishing Transcendent Kingdom: "The main character is a neuroscience PhD at Stanford, studying restraint and reward-seeking in an effort to understand the addiction that killed her brother and the depression that has severely hampered her mom. Lots of talk about Christianity and science, where they intersect/diverge, the questions that neither of them can answer (main character is also a former Christian, raised by Ghanaian parents in Alabama). It's kind of heartbreaking, but it's written really well. I enjoyed it. Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed in the least! A little bummed out by the contents (much of it hit too close to home) but not at all disappointed!" If you're interested in African immigrant experiences in the South, recovery from religious indoctrination, Black women in STEM, familial loss, diary entries, contemplations of faith and science, the nuances of addiction and depression, sexual exploration for late bloomers, or you're someone who struggles asking for help, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:

"We don't even know the questions we need to ask in order to find out, but when we learn one tiny little thing, a dim light comes on in a dark hallway, and suddenly a new question appears. We spend decades, centuries, millennia, trying to answer that one question so that another dim light will come on. That's science, but that's also everything else, isn't it? Try. Experiment. Ask a ton of questions" (33).

"What I'm saying is I didn't grow up with a language for, a way to explain, to parse out, my self-loathing. I grew up only with my part, my little throbbing stone of self-hate that I carried around with me to church, to school, to all those places in my life that worked, it seem to me then, to affirm the idea that I was irreparably, fatally, wrong. I was a child who liked to be right" (184).

"Suddenly, I felt embarrassed by my revelation, but Katherine didn't seem even the least bit fazed... I'd lost some of my timidity around the subject of sex, but not all of it. For years I hadn't been able to reconcile wanting to feel good with wanting to be good, two thing that often seemed at odds during sex, especially sex the way I liked it" (194).
"Her smile was radiant, assured, proud... holding me as my own mother so rarely did, smiling brightly as my mother rarely smiled, I knew that the woman I had spent the summer with reflected the woman my mother could have been. My mother deserved to be this happy, this at ease in her body and in the world" (235).

While We Were Dating by Jasmine Guillory

Conversely to Transcendent Kingdom, I'd been looking forward to reading While We Were Dating ever since I first heard about its July 2021 publication date. Reading The Wedding Party in 2019 not only familiarized me with Jasmine Guillory's writing, but it also set me off on the "Stop Being a Snob and Seek Out All the Romance Novels You Can Find That You Think You'll Enjoy and Just Friggin' Enjoy Them!" journey that I'm still on now. That one irresistibly-delightful book opened me up to a whole new world (that world being romance), so it's kind of a big deal to me personally. Hence, when I found out that While We Were Dating would be directly connected to The Wedding Party—male lead Theo unexpectedly found the love of his life in TWP, so WWWD would be his younger brother Ben's turn—and that Ben's love interest would be a Black woman, I was already sold! I didn't need to know anything else! ("Black love" is not something I dwell on a lot in real life but for some reason it's become a priority for the romance I read, go figure.) And then more details filtered in, namely that Ben's love interest would be a plus-sized actress named Anna who is revered for her beauty and sex appeal, and then WWWD shot all the way to the top of my reading list! Back in June, it was one of four books that I ordered from Harriett's Bookshop in Philly (thanks to a Christmas gift card from my good friend Marlee!), and once I cracked it open late this month I finished it in a week and a half. Which is a record, considering how slowly I've been reading this year! I kid you not, there was one particular sitting where I read all night until 8:45am the next morning without even realizing it!

Ben Stephens is based in San Francisco and Anna Rose (stage name Anna Gardiner) is based in Los Angeles. They initially meet in a pitch meeting in the Bay for a smartphone ad campaign that Ben's advertising agency is vying for. His superiors are stuck in traffic, and so Ben has a chance to shine by doing the pitch all by himself. Anna (the lead actress of the campaign who also has veto power over which agency gets the gig) is impressed by Ben's acumen and attention to detail, and they're mutually drawn to each other right away. So when she selects Ben's agency under the condition that Ben be in charge of the entire two-week campaign shoot, the pair develop a working relationship that's immediately friendly and almost-strictly professional (they're both natural flirts). That is, until Anna's dad has a health emergency and Ben takes it upon himself to drive her seven hours south to the Palm Springs hospital that her dad is staying at. The couple grow closer on the drive down, and by the time they arrive back in the Bay the next day, they've already done the do three times and Anna has poured her heart out to Ben all about how anxiety derailed her life and career a year prior. In fact, Ben is the first man to ever so much as see her naked since her mental health crisis. 
After Ben and Anna try and fail to maintain their distance for the remainder of the campaign shoot, and with the surefire Oscar-worthy film role of a lifetime almost within Anna's grasp, Anna's manager devises a plan. He convinces her to make Ben her fake boyfriend just until her upcoming superhero movie premiere is over, so that she can generate enough media buzz to convince studio execs that her name is huge enough to warrant her dream role. She's meant to fool Ben into complying, but her conscience forces her to let Ben in on the whole scheme... and Ben is surprisingly receptive. He keeps all of his romantic relationships casual anyway, so what's a month-long, highly-publicized fling with the gorgeous, emotionally-intelligent actress he's already been having sex with anyway? However, as Ben spends time in L.A. with Anna attending events, doing publicity stunts for paparazzi, and chilling at Anna's house, they reveal more of their emotional selves to each other in the process, and Ben is the first to fall in love. Will Anna love him back? Can this casual fling, turned fake dating arrangement, actually become something real? Can Ben work through his conflict-avoidance and express the full range of his feelings to Anna, as well as inform his brother Theo about the half-sister who's recently reached out to Ben claiming to be their father's daughter? (Spoiler: the answer to all these questions is yes!)

This is my first time intentionally consuming a fake dating story in recent memory besides the first To All the Boys I've Loved Before movie, and I'd assumed that the default setting for this trope was a platonic pair pretending to be romantically involved, until the pretense causes them to fall in love for real. Which is why the way WWWD uses the trope was a little confusing to me at first, because it's a fake dating story where the lead couple pretend to date after already getting physically and emotionally involved (although not technically being together). The lines between Anna and Ben are blurred from the beginning, which complicates their relationship but also makes their conflict resolution that much sweeter in the end. So I understand how Guillory spins the trope in this novel. I guess I'm just not sure if the nature of Anna and Ben's relationship was meant to be that undefined, or if it was just me. I'm completely inexperienced when it comes to that sort of thing, so it could just be me. I also noticed that the conditions that Anna and Ben agree to are very similar to those that Theo and Maddie attempted to uphold in The Wedding Party: having a casual relationship for a clearly-defined period of time, until a certain goal is met, after which both people will go their separate ways and continue on with their lives. For Theo and Maddie the goal was making their mutual best friend's wedding a success, and for Anna and Ben the goal is catapulting her career even higher than it was before her anxiety came into play. But of course, as happens in both books, by the time the goal is achieved the two lovebirds are already "besotted" with each other. They're both slow to realize that they're in love, but once they do, being without each other is no longer bearable.
I was so impressed by the way Guillory has Anna address her body image issues as a plus-sized woman in the entertainment industry, issues Anna has largely overcome at this stage in her career. I hadn't expected Guillory to go there, but seeing as how she's also a plus-sized Black woman in a creative industry (in other words, Guillory knows what it's like), I probably shouldn't have been surprised. Anna doesn't hate herself or her body anymore, and though she's fully aware of how industry people might feel emboldened to give her less respect and fewer opportunities than she deserves because of her appearance, she keeps pursuing her career anyway because she is passionate about acting and enjoys how much fun her life in Hollywood is. Speaking of Hollywood, the intricacies of Anna's media strategy and how expertly she and Ben put on for the cameras (even scheduling their activities around when photographers will be at certain locations) are making me rethink every photo I've ever seen of a celebrity couple. Are the famous people we see really dating or just performing publicly to keep their names in people's mouths for strategic reasons? Is any celebrity image or interaction we see truly impromptu or organic? As vain or vapid as Hollywood is perceived to be, for me it was fascinating to read about how much strategy goes into celebrity appearances, and how such strategy is in many ways necessary for actors to have successful careers.
While The Wedding Party and While We Were Dating both consumed me in their own ways, I still love The Wedding Party slightly more. Maybe it just has the advantage of being my "first" romance novel as an adult, but hey. Some of the phrasing and word usage in WWWD gets a little repetitive (take a shot every time you see "licked and sucked", "God/Oh God/My God", "laugh out loud", "smile", etc.), and somehow what's at stake, even at Hollywood proportions, doesn't feel quite as intense as it did in TWP. WWWD is definitely the breezier read between the two, which isn't a bad thing at all, just a difference. It's an undeniably special story in its own right, and the commentary on Anna's career as a plus-sized actor, as well as on both her and Ben's mental health (Anna's anxiety is explored heavily, and readers get to sit in on Ben's therapy sessions), make the novel well worth the read. I almost thought I was disappointed by its conclusion, since Anna and Ben don't officially get together until the very end, meaning that we only get five pages with them as a fully-fledged, not-pretend couple, and how they'll sustain their long-distance relationship remains to be seen. But then I thought, what more fitting way to end a book that's been written during this pandemic? Looking toward the future together, not planning everything out or having all the solutions, yet hoping for the best. That works for me. 

If you're interested in what rich and famous people are like behind the scenes, plus-sized artists claiming space, clever banter, surprise half-siblings, how people can discuss mental illness together in open and supportive ways, or you're someone like me who reads romance for the explicit sex scenes, the emotional growth, and the Black representation, then read this book!

Favorite quotes:
"I wanted to be an actress when I was a kid, of course... but I forgot about that dream after a while. Probably because I saw how hard it was for people who looked like me to get anywhere... I suppose I saw how hard it was for people who looked like me—women who looked like me—anywhere, not just in Hollywood. I'd been working as an agent, so I saw how shitty Hollywood was, but my friends were all over corporate America, and it wasn't any better there. So after a while, when I saw a role I wanted, I just said fuck it and decided to go for it" (39).  

"You are the worst fucking tease in all of California!" (102).

"That never works. Get your hopes up all you want—life is more fun that way" (294).
"He kept thinking one day he'd wake up and not care about Anna anymore... like she hadn't become wedged into his life. It hadn't happened yet. He thought about her every night as he fell asleep, her name was on his lips every morning as he woke up. One night he dreamt she was there with him; waking up that morning had been awful" (319).
[*Update 11/10/21: I've since learned that Irene actually knows (in passing) Christina Kim, the scientist whom Gifty was partially based off of! How cool is that? Apparently Kim "seems very cool and kind of intimidating," and rock climbs a lot. Irene also sent me this Lab Notes Podcast episode (transcription included) by the Allen Institute, in which both Yaa Gyasi and Christina Kim were interviewed about their friendship, Transcendent Kingdom, and their respective careers.]

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