In ‘Intimations,’ Zadie Smith Reflects Back To Us The Early Days Of Now

by Ericka Taylor

If narrative and storytelling are among our most essential tools for making meaning of the world — and I believe they are — then periods of upheaval can be especially fertile for writers.

Zadie Smith makes that much clear in the foreword to her newest essay collection, Intimations, noting: “There will be many books written about the year 2020: historical, analytical, political, as well as comprehensive accounts.” Intimations isn’t one of those books. Drafted soon after “the global humbling began” and completed in the days after George Floyd’s murder, the book is “above all personal essays” that capture the author’s reflections during a time outside of time.

Smith burst onto the literary scene 20 years ago with her stunning debut novel, White Teeth. Since then her prodigious output has included four additional novels, a novella, and a short story collection. Intimations is the third and slimmest of her essay collections, at 100 pages, but its psychic heft is substantial.

In six essays that feel as intimate as a long walk with an old friend, Smith takes on some of the most pressing issues of our time, including police brutality and economic injustice. The book is grounded in inquiry far more often than in certainty, however, and the collection is one that probes, exploring everything from the relationship between privilege and suffering to the nature of isolation and what it means to be confined with the people we love.

The opening essay, “Peonies,” questions the concept of writing as a “creative” endeavor. “Planting tulips,” she notes, “is creative. Writing is control. The part of the university in which I teach should properly be called the Controlling Experience Department.” Of course, part of the nature of crises is that they tend to undermine our sense of control, leaving us all to wrestle with, and perhaps ultimately accept, “the complex and ambivalent nature of ‘submission’.”

Even though Smith has long split her time between New York and London and has taught in the U.S. for over a decade, she retains an outsider’s capacity to observe the country from a afar. This perspective is perhaps most evident in “The American Exception.” In it, Smith quotes the president’s yearning for the good old days when “we [Americans] didn’t have death.” She doesn’t mark that statement as an obvious falsehood, however, drawing a distinction between the dead and death. “We had dead people,” she notes, “We had casualties and we had victims. But, in America, all of these involved some culpability on the part of the dead.” Not so with “the kind of death that comes to us all, irrespective of position.”

Smith’s initial assumptions about “the democratic nature of plague” are ultimately, she decides, inaccurate. She concludes the essay recognizing that the pandemic would not, in fact, be the great equalizer, coming to rich and poor alike. In the end, “American hierarchies, hundreds of years in the making, are not so easily overturned. Black and Latino people are now dying at twice the rate of white and Asian people. More poor people are dying than rich. The virus map of the New York boroughs turn redder along precisely the same lines as it would if the relative shade of crimson counted not infection and death but income brackets and middle-school ratings.”

In “Something to Do,” Smith takes on time in the age of the coronavirus, when “there are essential workers — who do not need to seek out something to do; whose task is vital and unrelenting — and the rest of us, all with a certain amount of time on our hands.” Never one for self-importance, she takes some comfort in a now broadly shared “manic desire to make or grow or do ‘something,'” while noting that “the people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art.”

If Intimations opens with an inquiry into the nature of the new plague upon us, it ends with a searing indictment of the plague that has haunted this land since colonization. (Technically the final entry is “Intimations,” a listing of those Smith owes debts to and has learned from.) Screengrabs is a series of seven scenes that ends with “Postscript: Contempt as a Virus.”

There is no gentle questioning here, but instead a direct assault on the centuries of injustice in this country. In it, Smith takes on contempt, “less flashy than hate,” but far more harmful because “in the eyes of contempt, you don’t even rise to the level of a hated object — that would involve a full recognition of your existence.” It was contempt then, not hate, at work in the murder of George Floyd. Smith writes, “You’d have to hate a man a lot to kneel on his neck until he dies in plain view of a crowd and a camera, knowing the consequences this would likely have upon your own life. But this was something darker — deadlier. It was the virus in its most lethal manifestation.”

Smith lists inequity upon inequity, noting how hard virus carriers work “even now, in the bluest states of America to ensure their children do not go to school with the children of these people whose lives supposedly matter.” She emphasizes the economic nature of this virus, accepting that fearing “the contagion of poverty is reasonable. To keep voting for policies that ensure the permanent existence of an underclass is what is meant by ‘structural racism.'”

Easily the most powerful segment of the collection, it is not an optimistic one. After all, this plague goes back centuries, when “patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave ship four hundred years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck and reverse-engineered an emotion — contempt — from a situation that he, the patient himself, had created.”

The success of the essay, just like the success of those that precede it in the collection, is in its clarity and honesty. Smith has taken a mirror and reflected us back to ourselves during the earliest moments of this crisis. It is up to us to change if we don’t like what we see.

Ericka Taylor is the popular education manager for Take on Wall Street and a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bloom, The Millions, and Willow Springs.

Take A Dangerous Ride Through ‘Blacktop Wasteland’

by Gabino Iglesias

Blacktop Wasteland, by S.A. Cosby

The most surprising thing about S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland, which is marketed as a crime novel, is that crime is the least important element in the book. If it weren’t for the time it takes to write, edit, and sell a novel — and the months it takes to finally see it in print when dealing with a large press — you’d think Cosby plucked every crucial racial topic the past month’s headlines and used them to build a novel. But he did no such thing. Instead, this book is a cry about race that starts somewhere in Appalachia and echoes across the country. There are guns here, sure, but the strongest hits come from melancholy and the constant ache for a better life.

Beauregard “Bug” Montage is a loving father, faithful husband, and honest mechanic, but he has a criminal past and those in the underworld know him as one of the best drivers in the business. He’s been leading a straight life, but everything is crumbling around him. The stack of bills and final notices is huge. His daughter needs money for college. His mother is about to be kicked out of her retirement home. Bug tries to work his way through it, but the shiny new car shop in town has cut his clients in half. That’s why he can’t say no when a former associate offers him a job robbing a jewelry store. Eighty grand for a day’s work. But nothing is ever as easy as it seems, and someone might know who did it, and it’s not the cops.

Cosby understands the psychology of crime, the way that money can turn someone into a criminal. He knows that good people often do bad things for all the right reasons. Bug is a multilayered character who’s haunted by the ghost of his father, who was also a criminal and a driver, and the mix of guilt and pleasure he feels when flying away from the scene of a crime in a souped-up car. Despite that pleasure, he’s done time, so he knows what’s at stake, and the only reason he gets back into the life is because financial pressures push him to it. Crime means keeping his business running, his children fed, his mother safe, and giving his daughter a chance to be better than him by going to college. Prison is scary, but the temptation of giving your children a chance at upward social mobility silences that fear:

He would tell himself later that he had slept on it. That he had mulled over the pros and cons and finally decided the benefits outweighed the risks. All that was true. However, in his heart he knew that when Ariel told him about skipping college, that was the moment he decided to take the job with Ronnie Sessions and hit the jewelry story.

Racial tension is at the core of Blacktop Wasteland. Cosby, a Black man from southeastern Virginia, knows racism well. He understands what it means to be Black in places where things like the use of the Confederate flag (which comes up in the novel) are still being debated today. This knowledge, and the heartfelt way in which Cosby writes about being the other now as well as historically, make Blacktop Wasteland the kind of book that should be part of every conversation about why we need diverse books. When Bug remembers a conversation about race with his father, more than a flashback, what we get is the author talking to us, letting the world know where he stands:

Listen, when you’re black in America you live with the weight of people’s low expectations on your back every day. They can crush you right down to the goddamn ground. Think about it like it’s a race. Everybody else has a head start and you dragging those low expectations behind you. Choices give you freedom from those expectations. Allows you to cut ’em loose. Because that’s what freedom is. Being able to let things go. And nothing is more important than freedom.

This is a gritty, violent story, which makes it a good crime tale, but what matters most here, what pushes Blacktop Wasteland into the realm of important novels, is the way it uses a fictional story to deliver truths and discuss history. This is about stealing diamonds and driving away, but it’s also about family, risking everything for others, and trying to be the father you wish your father had been. Publishing sometimes gets the timing of a book right, and this is the perfect novel to read as we witness the Black Lives Matter movement bring forth important changes. Call shotgun, buckle up, and take a dangerous ride with Cosby, but keep the radio down because he has something to tell you.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

If You Got A ‘Do-Over,’ Would You Like Your New Life?

By Alethea Kontis

Have you ever wanted to go back in time and fix your past? Even just one tiny little thing you regret? It’s certainly a tempting proposition. But how might that one tiny thing change everything else in the landscape of your life? In Jennifer Honeybourn’s The Do-Over, that’s exactly what Emelia O’Malley is about to find out. And fair warning: Make sure you’re paying attention on page one, because this story moves FAST!

The book opens at a party. Emelia has wrangled a rare invite to hang with the in-crowd — Ben Griffin, specifically — and she’s brought her two best friends and gaming buddies Marisol and Alastair along. There is alcohol and kissing. Ben invites Emelia to winter formal. Don’t blink, because before you know it, Alistair is pouring out his heart to Emelia and asking her to the winter formal as well.

And then we skip ahead to six months later.

Emelia barely sees her old friends anymore. She’s not having a great time with Ben, but worries that if she breaks up with him, she’ll be left with no friends at all. Emelia’s mom is learning Italian for their upcoming vacation, despite her dad losing his job and becoming severely depressed.

Emelia is drawn to a crystal in a palm reader’s tent at a night market in town, sort of like a year-round fair. The palm reader tells her to put the crystal under her pillow and think about the event in her past she wishes she could change. But if she makes that change, she has to understand that a lot of other butterfly effects will come with it. Willing to accept the consequences, she does exactly as directed.

And then Emelia wakes up in a different life.

Her room looks completely different, her hair is shorter, and her family is no longer going to Italy. The six months from that fateful night of the party has still passed, but it’s a different six months she doesn’t exactly remember. Amnesiac Emelia must piece the mystery of this new puzzling life together. At the same time she’s figuring out what happened, she needs to figure out what exactly it was that she changed.

Emelia’s dad is now happy and making pancakes. Emelia works at Castle Hardware alongside her friends Alastair and Violet (who wasn’t that close a friend before), and she’s remodeling the bathroom with her father. And she knows how to drive. Surprise! Also, her mom is away in Palm Springs — and her parents are selling the house because they’re getting divorced.

Worse, not only is Emelia not with Ben, she’s not with Alastair either. In this new reality, he’s with Marisol. Because, as it turns out, Emelia never went to that party or hooked up with Ben — so Alastair’s jealous reaction and heartbreaking admission never happened.

Of course, Emelia blames herself for everything. Which is not totally unjustified, as everything in this new timeline is directly a result of something she changed … or is it?

‘The Do-Over’ is a fantastic mash-up: ‘Pretty in Pink’ meets ‘Big’ meets ‘Sliding Doors’.

As she navigates this new life, Emelia frantically tries to hunt down the palm reader and find another crystal so she can undo the crazy magic that changed her world. And as her every attempt is thwarted, Emelia begins to realize how much of these new developments she’ll lose if she goes through with her plan. Because not everything in this new timeline is completely terrible. Life is not just black and white.

Emelia’s story is a lesson on how the most seemingly insignificant things you do can affect others. But it’s also asks a great philosophical question: Exactly how much of your life would you have to undo in order to properly do it over?

The Do-Over is a fantastic mash-up: Pretty in Pink meets Big meets Sliding Doors. It contains a myriad of great dramatic tropes, but not in the order you’d expect them to happen, and the breakneck pacing pulls you along too quickly to dwell on them much anyway. There are twists as events unfold, some expected, some not. The Do-Over will definitely keep you on your toes and keep you guessing as you barrel your way to the end. If you’re anything like me, you will not be able to put it down until you slide, breathless, into the last chapter.

Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.

Saddled With Student Loans, Bestselling Author Worries, ‘I Don’t Want To Die Poor’

by Terry Gross

Michael Arceneaux’s previous book, I Can’t Date Jesus, centered on his experiences growing up black, gay and Catholic in Texas.

Writer Michael Arceneaux has a tongue-in-cheek message for young people right now: “Please don’t be as much of a mess as I was.”

Arceneaux graduated from Howard University with a degree in broadcast journalism in 2007, just as the Great Recession was kicking in. He faced a dwindling media landscape — and more than $100,000 of private student loans.

Arceneaux writes about how student loan debt has affected every aspect of his life in the essay collection, I Don’t Want to Die Poor. His previous memoirI Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé, was a New York Times bestseller that helped put him on the path toward paying off his college loans. Even so, he says he still doesn’t feel financially secure — especially amid the economic downturn that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m still [as] worried about my earning potential as anyone else is right now,” he says. “Everything is so fragile and it’s just really scary. It makes me really sad for other people, who I know don’t have it as fortunate as the both of us talking to each other right now.”

Despite the stress of his college loans, Arceneaux doesn’t regret the risk he took — instead he questions why working-class students are put in the position to assume overwhelming debts for an education.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Would you go back and do anything differently?’ No! That’s the wrong question,” he says. “The question more people should be asking is: Why [do] so many people in this country have to go through that? Why should I have to take out a six-figure loan just to have the same access as a lot of other people?”

Interview Highlights

On continuing to struggle financially, despite experiencing success in his career

I became a New York Times bestselling author the same week I lost my health insurance. … I do have a foot in both worlds, because I just really know how difficult it is to attain social mobility. And I say this with respect, but I don’t think most people in media and entertainment recognize that even being able to exist within these industries — which are really designed for people who can afford sacrifice — that most people can’t afford those sacrifices. … I think oftentimes what’s missing is the working-class perspective, because while the book is … about chasing a dream, it’s also about real economic anxiety, which I heard is a topic people love to talk about — and yet don’t really hear [about] from people [with] my background’s perspective.

On being worried about both his physical and financial health right now

I just turned 36 on Easter. I’m black. I’m in Harlem. I was actually planning to go to Texas and spend more time there. But it’s not the best place to go either. So it’s not lost on me that of the people [who] are dying, they are basically my [race and class]. So I am worried about my health. In terms of my finances, much of the book … I talk about student loans, but also write about the fact that we can’t always control our fate, as evidenced by the fact that I graduated during the first Great Recession and now, on the heels of me finally feeling like I have some security in my life — which for a lot of people my age was really their first time to feel it — now we’re in the wave of a pandemic. So it’s very scary.

On his mom’s reluctance to co-sign for his student loans 

It wasn’t out of spite. It wasn’t jealousy. It was out of a real, genuine concern for her child, knowing how difficult this country makes it for people like us. … She apologized for that, really not long after it happened, and has supported me along the way. It’s my guilt and my shame that I carry, because to me, my struggles with that debt — which impacts her credit — I don’t want to be another black man letting my mama down. That’s what that is. But even my mom, to her credit, is like, “Boy, stop worrying about that. I’m not worried about that. You’re doing the best you can. You’re gonna pay it off.”

On missing a payment for his student loans and getting relentless calls from collection agencies

They will hound you. Some people are nicer than others. Sometimes I’ve gotten calls as early as 7 or 8 a.m. … They call you whenever. They don’t care. Some people are nice. But the thing is, they’ll call me and say, “You owe such and such and such.” But if I don’t have $3,000 to give you that day, or even $1800, I don’t have it. And then they say, “Maybe I’ll have some options”… But the reality is you don’t really have any options — either pay or your credit is going to go to hell.

The people that are mean sometimes, which is really interesting, they are like, “Well, why don’t you have it?” And then start giving you career advice. And what annoys me about that is like, “OK. With all due respect, you’re working at a call center. So you are speaking down to me based on the presumption that because I can’t pay my bills, I’m broke or poor, and so by virtue, I should be treated less than?”

On how his life might have been different if he had come out as gay sooner

I would have gotten scholarship money, because there were organizations that provided scholarships for [queer] students, particularly those in need, who might have wanted to get away. But I wasn’t ready to face the truth about myself. … I helped one of my friends with her essay that got glowing reviews and won some money. I think if I accepted myself sooner, I’d probably just have an easier life all around. But, you know, you are who you are until you aren’t. Everybody works at their own pace. I would have liked less debt, but it would have been actually not probably the safest way for me all around to come out then. I’m not saying my parents would’ve hurt me, but I just don’t think it would’ve been the best environment for me, scholarship money or not.

Murderbot Makes A Triumphant (And Cranky) Return In ‘Network Effect’

By Steve Mullis

Murderbot. Murderbot. Murderbot.

The name just rolls off the tongue, like a mascot for a sadistic intergalactic sports team. And if you’ve been reading author Martha Wells’ award-winning Murderbot Diaries novellas, you have been cheering on the titular Murderbot from the sidelines for four, bite-sized adventures so far.

Wells’ latest, Network Effect, is the first full-sized novel featuring our favorite cranky, cynical, sentient, artificially intelligent robot. For those unfamiliar, I’ll give you a few minutes to catch up on the first four books. Done? OK, well that might not be long enough for a simple human, but for Murderbot, it would have been plenty of time to read the previous four volumes, watch an episode of future soap opera The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon and break into a security system to complete a mission.

Murderbot is a rogue Security Unit robot (SecUnit for short) that hacked itself to become free. It’s Johnny 5 from Short Circuit but without the lightning strike; a Terminator without the time travel; and little bit of Star Trek‘s Lt. Commander Data, without the need — or even want — to become more human. In fact Murderbot (which named itself, following a bloody incident in its past) already has a lot of human qualities — as well as some organic parts — but it doesn’t really like most humans all that much. It’d much rather be left alone to watch its favorite TV shows in peace and silence. (A relatable trait if there ever was one.)

The first four novellas cover a lot of this ground: Murderbot takes its first free steps, saves some people, discovers things about its past and its place in the world. And if the first books were episodes in a four-part TV miniseries, then Network Effect is the feature-length movie with the bigger budget and scope, and it is no less enjoyable.

… if the first books were episodes in a four-part TV miniseries, then ‘Network Effect’ is the feature-length movie with the bigger budget and scope, and it is no less enjoyable.

Like the series-to-full-length movie format it follows, everything is a bit wider and a bit heavier, but all the hallmarks of the series are there. We get a return of some beloved characters, more dodgy corporate interlopers, more robots-on A.I.-on-robot (and augmented human) action, and a bigger mystery. But now, with a little more room to breathe, Wells draws out all of those elements in a way that extends the enjoyable experience of the novellas, yet doesn’t drag. Network Effect is more than twice the size of All Systems Red, but you’ll come to the final pages and hardly notice.

So what’s actually happening? Without spoiling too much: Murderbot and some of its current friends are quite suddenly captured and whisked across space. Figuring out who and why forms the meat of the plot, but the sudden realization that an old acquaintance might be responsible complicates things for Murderbot and the humans it is sworn to protect. That all seems pretty basic, but what makes it all stand out is the way Wells writes Murderbot’s engagements with the world and the humans that inhabit it. It feels legitimately the way I imagine a sentient computer system that is smarter than all of us — but also watches a lot of trash TV — would view the world.

One of the consistent strengths and joys of the series is Murderbot’s internal dialogue. It catalogues the world with files and backups and keyword tagging that are both technical and humorous. It also has a childlike way of narrating through problems, of chiding itself for its failures and cheering on its own successes in a way that is hard not to find endearing. Here’s Murderbot having a conversation with some hostile targets — while also hacking their targeting drones:

The good thing about being a construct is that I can have a dramatic emotional breakdown while still running my background search to find the drone key commands. I’d had a hit and a responding ping from the targetDrones right when Target One had called me boring. (Irony is great.) I sent the order to power down and they dropped to the deck with two loud thunks.

Target Two’s gray face went surprised, then furious. It was kind of funny. This was a point where if I was a human (ick) I might have laughed. I decided to go with my first inclination and kill the s*** out of some ass-faced hostiles.

Wells is also adept at taking action that occurs in seconds, or even fractions of seconds because that is the speed of a computer, and slowing it all down for us simple humans to understand. And when Murderbot needs to live up to the name and get its hands dirty, Wells can also ratchet things up to John Wick-ian levels of visceral action.

The other strength of the series is a bit more subtle; it lies in the way Murderbot approaches gender. SecUnits like Murderbot are genderless, of course — they’re just robots built to blast things. But even as Murderbot removes its shackles and starts developing a personality, it doesn’t really take on a gender in any traditional sense. It has likes and dislikes, and personality traits that some might see masculine or feminine, but Murderbot doesn’t think of them that way. Murderbot is just Murderbot, and gender here is a human construct.

This approach continues in Network Effect, with what appears to be the beginnings of a non-traditional romantic relationship that has been bubbling since early in the series, and that I hope Wells will give us more of. And that’s the hallmark of any good series — it leaves you wanting more. Murderbot and the world it inhabits constantly leave you wanting more, in the best possible way.

Network Effect is a wonderful continuation of the series, and I highly recommend it if you enjoyed the first books. But if you haven’t read those yet, you really should before trying this on for size. It’s OK, we’ve got time. Not done yet? Sigh … humans.

A Little Girl Didn’t Like Her ‘Bedtime Bonnet,’ So Mom Wrote A Book To Help

By Samantha Balaban

When Nancy Redd’s daughter was three years old, she started wearing a bonnet to bed. It’s a “ubiquitous black experience that I grew up with, my mom grew up with, all my friends grew up with,” Redd says — and yet it’s one that she felt ashamed of as a kid.

“If the doorbell rang, I would immediately take it off — I didn’t want anybody to know it existed,” she recalls. “I didn’t want my daughter growing up with that same shame.”

But Redd couldn’t find a book that celebrated black nighttime hair routines, so she wrote it herself.

In Bedtime Bonnet, a little girl enlists her whole family to help her find her lost bonnet before she goes to sleep. As the girl explains: “In my family, when the sun goes down, our hair goes up!”

Nneka Myers illustrated the story — and remembers that she didn’t love her bonnet much either, when she was little. “I had a hard time really accepting I had to wear a bonnet compared to all my friends,” she says.

Myers paid extra attention to the texture of her paintings — she had to illustrate the little girl’s tight curls, the dad’s waves, the brother’s twists.

“One of the problems I have seen in children’s books that express diversity in the past is how everyone looks the same …” Redd says. “If you look at families, we’re not all the same color. … Families don’t all match.”

Myers used a wide range of colors and brushstrokes — she says it helped that she had a reference point “right in my living room.”

The little girl in the story isn’t named because Redd wanted her experience to feel universal. She says, “looking at these pictures feels like I’m looking at a photo album.”

The routines and traditions of black culture get hidden, Myers says, so she was glad to help celebrate them in print.

An illustration from Bedtime Bonnet shows members of a family doing their hair in the morning.

Nneka Myers/Random House Books for Young Readers

“For the longest time we were expected to fit in: To not express our blackness …” Redd says. “No matter how much joy we get from it in our private lives, our public life is entirely separate.”

She hopes her daughter’s generation will be able to be their true selves, in public and in private.

“Blackness is a 360-degree experience,” says Redd. “And for my daughter, I wanted her to be able to enjoy and celebrate it and not feel any shame about any part.”

Redd’s daughter used to say “only old people wear bonnets,” but she’s now embraced the nighttime ritual as her own. And if that’s all that comes of the publication of Bedtime Bonnet, Redd says she will consider that a success.

“My initial goal, which is to make my daughter comfortable with her black heritage and her need to wear a bedtime bonnet has been accomplished,” she says.

An illustration from Bedtime Bonnet shows a mother and father tucking their daughter in for bed.

‘The Downstairs Girl’ Faces Difficult History With Joy And Style

By Caitlyn Paxson

In her previous works of historical fiction, Stacey Lee offered readers a Chinese-American perspective on the Old West and turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Now, with The Downstairs Girl, she turns to the post-Reconstruction era South.

As a Chinese girl living in late 19th century Atlanta, Ga., Jo Kuan constantly struggles to remain invisible. She was born in America but can’t be a citizen or even rent a proper apartment, so she lives in a former abolitionist’s hidden tunnels, secreted away underneath a newspaper office. Her job is in the back room of a hat shop where everyone wants her beautiful decorative knotwork — but not the comments of the opinionated girl who makes it. And when she loses that job, she must go work for the Payne family as a maid for their snotty daughter, who does everything she can to make Jo miserable.

But one night, Jo overhears her upstairs neighbors bemoaning low subscription numbers and wondering if the newspaper will make it. Afraid of what new neighbors might mean for her living situation, Jo begins writing an advice column, “Dear Miss Sweetie,” and submits it anonymously to the paper. Suddenly, all the opinions that she’s struggled to keep under wraps come pouring out, and her column burns with radical thoughts on everything from gender equality to segregation. It’s just what the newspaper needed, and soon, her writing is the talk of Atlanta. But not all the talk is good, and even as she yearns for acknowledgement, invisibility becomes more important than ever.

When the discovery of a hidden letter sheds light on the mystery of her parentage, Jo goes looking for answers — because while it isn’t possible for Atlanta to know the true identity of Miss Sweetie, Jo can’t see any good reason why she shouldn’t know herself. Her search attracts the attention of one of Atlanta’s most disreputable crime bosses, and soon she finds herself tangled in a scandal full of race horses, racism, and forbidden love.

Jo’s life is bitter in many ways, and The Downstairs Girl doesn’t shy away from the discrimination and unfairness that she faces at every turn because of her race and gender. It also manages to be intersectional, as the story is populated with diverse characters of color and it takes the time to acknowledge the many permutations of injustice that all of them face. Even as we admire the tenacity of suffragists working to gain the vote for women, we are asked to balance their struggle with their treatment of the black women they dismiss for wanting the same rights.

Clever and multi-talented in a world that sees her as inferior, Jo is constantly forced to hide her light under a bushel and accept less. That’s why it’s so incredibly satisfying when she finds a conduit for her voice in her advice column and a literal way to win against the worst kind of odds. And even though The Downstairs Girl asks us to face difficult and nuanced history, it never loses sight of the things that make this era fun to visit in fiction, like amazing hats, high-stakes horseback riding, and budding romance!

If I must find something here to complain about, I suppose it would be that at times, Jo’s voice and the general tone of the narrative feel very modern, and it lacks the slightly more formal and languid language that one sees in books that were written during the era The Downstairs Girl portrays. But honestly, every era had its radicals, and I see no reason why we can’t simply consider Jo to be a saucebox ahead of her time — and Lee certainly makes the most of period slang, to delightful effect.

I honestly didn’t know it was possible for a work of historical fiction to seriously take on the racism and sexism of the 19th century South while still being such a joyful read. I almost want to dare readers to not be delighted by its newspaper office shenanigans, clandestine assignations in cemeteries, and bicycle-riding adventures, but there’s honestly no point. The Downstairs Girl, for all its serious and timely content, is a jolly good time.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books andQuill & Quire.

‘Into The Planet’ Captures Cave Diving’s Mortal Risks — And All lts Glory

By Gabino Iglesias

Jill Heinerth’s Into the Planet starts with the world-renowned cave diver almost dying while being one of the first humans to search for caves inside the B-15 iceberg, the largest moving object on earth.

“How does a dying person know when it’s over? They say your life flashes before your eyes, but that isn’t happening to me now. All I can think about is escaping from the water that I love more than anything else. I’ve spent my life immersed in a relationship with this element that nourishes and destroys, buoys and drowns — that has both freed me and taken the lives of my friends. Now, I have come to my moment of reckoning. My life began in water, and I refuse to accept that it may end here.”

The opening pages are full of tension, adventure, and survival. They set the tone perfectly for what is a superb, honest, incredibly engaging book about Heinerth’s life as a one of the world’s top cave divers.

Heinerth’s resume as a cave diver includes important exploratory dives around the globe, work on expeditions for National Geographic, PBS, and the BBC, and consulting for movies for director James Cameron, among others. And she also has a knack for storytelling.

The writing in Into the Planet is immersive — Heinerth walks a fine line between chronicling the stunning beauty of some of the most exotic locales in the world and the somber realities of her work — like the incredible amount of training and effort that goes into it. She is also honest about the dangers of her chosen profession, which is something she establishes in the book’s opening line: “If I die, it will be in the most glorious place nobody has ever seen.”

While Into the Planet is a book about cave diving full of adventure and danger, it is a biography at the core. Heinerth takes readers along on an amazing journey that starts in an unlikely place: with her working in an office and taking a few diving classes as a hobby. From there, the narrative follows her as she becomes one of the most recognized names in her field. The journey isn’t easy, but the author does a fantastic job of relating everything with ease and using a clear, straightforward prose that makes the book feel more like a conversation with a friend than a biography.

Patriarchy is everywhere, and cave diving is no different. While female explorers are not new, women have been historically underrepresented in exploration. This book shows how wrong that is. Heinerth never preaches against sexism in cave diving, but her writing makes it clear that she was aware of what her gender meant in the context of such a physical, hazardous sport from the start. Instead of letting that be an obstacle, she used it to feed the fire in her belly:

“As the day wore on, though, my pack seemed to grow heavier, and by the time we reached the canyon floor, my toenails had paid the price of jamming up against the ends of my too-snug boots. They were bruised and falling out, and within the next few days, most of them would be gone. It was excruciatingly painful, but I couldn’t appear weak to my expedition mates, so I masked the pain, determined to carry on, unflappable. I wanted my new friends to know they could count of me. If I became a burden to the group, unable to pull my own weight, this would be the last I would be invited on a project. Perhaps I felt additional self-imposed pressure as a woman. In the past I had been held back from opportunities because I was a girl.”

Into the Planet offers a very complete, nuanced look at cave diving and everything it entails. Heinerth weaves together her own stories and adventures with details about preparation, travelling, mosquitoes and dangerous fauna, making sure there is food and water during expeditions, equipment failures, and sudden disasters. She also talks about the emotional aspects of cave diving and discusses everything from “post-expedition blues” and floating aimlessly through life after achieving a goal, to the loss of her mentor while diving — and even coming close to death herself while suffering from the bends, feeling she was “a shaken pop bottle waiting to see if the cap was going to get ripped off.”

There is something captivating about humans pushing their physical and psychological limits to explore places no one has been to before in the name of science and knowledge. Into the Planet is a hybrid book that gives readers a lot of that while also being a captivating biography and a love letter to a sport where any small mistake can result in death — and any perfect dive can mean an amazing discovery.