Jared’s Totally Unsolicited And Completely Subjective Review Of: American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins!
Supposebly this is a controversial one, if you believe the internets. But I believe in the internets as much as I believe in the word “supposebly”.
I have no desire to wade into said supposable controversy.
So Imma write a few things (and apparently throw anything resembling proper spelling and grammar to the wind) before I get to the Dubious Subjectification of Art Via Stars.
I read primarily because I enjoy reading, not with the primary intent of evaluation (ironic though that may be, posting a “review”). And by now you know how I feel about “rating” art, but nonetheless until people stop wanting recommendations as a whole, here we are.
Yet returning to my main motive, I have three essential criteria when assessing whether or not I enjoyed a particular work. To explain the first, I’m going to defer to – you guessed it – my ol’ pal Steve King. In his memoir On Writing, he wrote the following:
[What is writing?]: “Telepathy, of course. […] Look – here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. […] On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8. […] Do we see the same thing? We’d have to get together and compare notes [YES I THINK THAT IS A SPLENDID IDEA STEPHEN GIMME A CALL] to make absolutely sure, but I think we do. There will be necessary variations, of course: some receivers will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet, while others may see still other shades. […] The most interesting thing here isn’t even the carrot-munching rabbit in the cage, but the number on its back. Not a six, not a four, not nineteen-point-five. It’s an eight. This is what we’re looking at, and we all see it. I didn’t tell you. You didn’t ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room… except we are together. We are close. We’re having a meeting of the minds. […] We’ve engaged in an act of telepathy. No mythy-mountain shit; real telepathy.”
So that’s the first criterion. Was the author able to make me see the Infinity Rabbit? When I end my day filled with whatever demands of life that took too much attention away from loved ones, true purpose, or imagination, did they transport me with their words?
If they did, top marks.
This goes beyond basic description, obviously. Did I enter the world they transmitted, and did I believe it as a receiver (to borrow Stevie’s words)? That’s all I’m really asking for in any read. Set the stage so I can believe, so I can be transported. So that I can’t wait – and this leads to the second criterion – to get back to the lives of (in this case) Lydia and Luca, to find out what happens to them next.
Story. Did the tale take me in? Or was I able to walk away a little too easily to thumb scroll to the next meme? Yes, I’m on my phone too much like most humans these days, so it’s become even more of a gift when the FOMO comes from somewhere else, particularly in an entire universe at my fingertips – a world that because of those variations Mr. King described above, belongs uniquely to me. If the author has done their job properly (in my estimation, anyway), that world and story has become so compelling that I can’t wait to return, and mourn when I need to leave or the story ends.
And finally, language. This is the last parameter for me, and not necessarily a pre-requisite. Yet as I’ve written before, words are my top love language, and if the author can seduce me with poetic prose and immersive imagery, they have my heart. I can still enjoy a book with average writing, because if they’ve captured me with telepathy and a need-to-know what-happens-next, that’s enough. But if they knocked on my heart along the way – if they wooed me with the words – well, let’s just say they had me at hello.
That’s what I’m looking for, in a work of fiction.
Let me say that again: FICTION.
As mentioned above, I wish to stay out of any controversy. But I will say this (you had to know something would word-vomit its way up):
I am all for reading “own voice” authors. But I actually don’t much care who wrote the novel (again, a word to connote characters and scenarios that are fictional), or what their background is, if the writer accomplishes the above. And I think it’s dangerous if we start insisting the authors of fiction may only write about a subject they have directly experienced. (And I’m not even going to get into all the comments I’ve seen about “I didn’t actually read American Dirt, but…”, or those who didn’t read the Author’s Note at the end.)
Think about that for a moment. Do we have any evidence J.K. Rowling has ever been a young boy with magical powers? Does George R.R. Martin have a time machine to the middle ages he’s keeping hidden from the rest of us? Did Andy Weir undergo a covert mission aided by Elon Musk or Richard Branson to visit Mars?
Perhaps the retort there is those are works of fantasy or science fiction, whereas American Dirt is contemporary, borrowed-from-current-events fiction (there’s that pesky word again). So are many thrillers. Do we start insisting that Peter Abrahams or Agatha Christie (were she still with us) or Mr. King himself must have witnessed a murder or committed adultery or partaken in organized crime in order to write about it?
Those are not rhetorical questions, however I’m not looking to debate them either. I have my own opinions on the matter, as you will yours.
I’m simply saying that when it comes to a made-up story that came from the universe of someone’s imagination, my measure of success is the three factors above. What supersedes that is the very first thing I mentioned: I read because I enjoy reading. And did the tome in my hands that I voluntarily gave hours of my life to add or detract from that enjoyment?
For the week of evenings I put my reading life and imagination in Jeanine Cummins hands, she delivered on all fronts. I mourned the loss of family. I felt the desperation in trying to keep a child safe. I experienced the terror of a dangerous past and an uncertain future. I consistently wondered what would happen next, and only stopped turning pages when the hour was too late and heavy eyelids betrayed me. I reveled in some of the most beautiful prose I’ve read in a long time. And finally, in what Stephen King calls “a writer’s favorite song”, I didn’t want it to end.
What more can we ask from our fiction than that?