Three Great Books #3

A fantastic book of essays and two great series.

Thick: And Other Essays, by Tressie McMillan Cottom. I’m still thinking about so many of the ideas in this collection of essays, which was a National Book Award Finalist in 2019. Here’s McMillan Cottom, who is a sociologist and MacArthur Fellow, on the concept of “smart” and why her very intelligent grandmother died poor: “Smart is only a construct of correspondence between one’s abilities, one’s environment, and one’s moment in history. I am smart in the right way, in the right time, on the right end of globalization.” Other topics include white standards of beauty, the false promise of LinkedIn, R. Kelly and black girlhood, the seeming paradox of electing Trump after Obama, and why her thoughts about the political economy of hair weaves are at least as deserving of op-ed space as some of David Brooks’s more cringeworthy musings. What she wants, she writes, is for “a black woman somewhere in this world to have the freedom to be banal as a matter of course for her job. I wanted her to be well compensated, protected, and free to fail.” I did a lot of nodding while reading, and her words made me rethink my own participation in the phenomena she describes.

Slough House (Slough House #7), by Mick Herron. This is the latest in a series about a motley crew of British domestic intelligence agents who have screwed up sufficiently to be exiled to a backwater office — the Slough House of the title. Their intended fate is to finish out their MI5 careers doing useless busywork under the supervision of the flatulent, profane, broken down valise of a boss Jackson Lamb (he’s being played by Gary Oldman in the upcoming TV show!). But in every book, the so-called Slow Horses find themselves embroiled in actual conspiracies and crises; in “Slough House”, their former compatriots start dying off and the team’s very existence has been erased from the agency’s official records. Meantime, in a ripped-from-the-headlines mashup, a floppy-haired, faux populist politician is conspiring with the master manipulator in charge of MI5 to punish Russia for using nerve agents on British soil. This is a particularly good installment in the series, and as in the others, no character, no matter how beloved, is safe. You should read them in order – start with the first, “Slow Horses.”

The Consequences of Fear (Maisie Dobbs #16), by Jacqueline Winspear. Another series! After bingeing the Maisie Dobbs historical mysteries a few years ago, I reread them all during the pandemic, then finished up with “The Consequences of Fear,” which came out in March. When the series begins (with “Maisie Dobbs”) Maisie is a psychologist and private investigator in post-WWI London, having grown up in the city’s East End, gone into domestic service at the age of 13, been noticed for her curiosity and intellect by her future mentor, and served as a nurse in France during the war. Over the years, the larger context for her investigations shifts from the traumatic aftermath of the Great War, to the looming threat of Hitler, and then the return to full-blown wartime life. In the latest book, Maisie investigates a messenger boy’s claim that he witnessed a murder while also pursuing her side hustle doing work in British intelligence and handling some potentially big changes to her personal life. I find such comfort in this series; maybe it’s because Maisie’s story shows that it’s possible to get through hard times and terrible loss, whether personal tragedy or global catastrophe, and emerge OK on the other end.

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