Review: Stakes is High by Mychal Denzel Smith

I read this book as part of my continuing efforts to be antiracist, and while I didn’t necessarily learn a lot of new information, Smith’s voice and personal insight were incredibly affecting.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads blurb:

The events of the past decade have forced us to reckon with who we are and who we want to be. We have been invested in a set of beliefs about our American identity: our exceptionalism, the inevitable rightness of our path, the promise that hard work and determination will carry us to freedom. But in Stakes Is High, Mychal Denzel Smith confronts the shortcomings of these stories — and with the American Dream itself — and calls on us to live up to the principles we profess but fail to realize.

In a series of incisive essays, Smith exposes the stark contradictions at the heart of American life, holding all of us, individually and as a nation, to account. We’ve gotten used to looking away, but the fissures and casual violence of institutional oppression are ever-present.

There is a future that is not as grim as our past. In this profound work, Smith helps us envision it with care, honesty, and imagination.

My thoughts

The six essays that comprise Stakes is High are insightful and thought-provoking. Smith takes a brutally honest look at the myth of the ‘American dream’ and how the Trump presidency is not an anomaly, but the end result of years of inequality and unjust policies.

Brilliantly written pieces with lots of history and diverse voices woven in. If you have liberal progressive politics—and if you have read widely about antiracism—it’s not likely that you will get a lot of new information from these essays, and it’s very likely that you will agree with much of Smith’s arguments and with his call to action. Still, everyone should read it for the powerful introspection and intelligent analysis of racism, sexism, poverty, and the lie of the American dream:

“Where America has fucked up is by telling the myth as history—pretending that who we want to be is who we have always been—then building a proud and belligerent national identity out of the myth. American myths obscure a shameful past and protect the powerful.”

You should read this book, and read it soon.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for my copy in exchange for this honest review.


Review: The Heiress: The Revelations of Anne de Bourgh

Last December, I read and loved Molly Greeley’s excellent continuation of Charlotte Collins’ life, The Clergyman’s Wife. This December, I had the pleasure of reading The Heiress, Greeley’s fantastic, life-giving Anne de Bourgh story. I don’t know if she has any more Austen retellings/continuations planned, but I am absolutely on board to read them if she does.

What it’s about

From the Goodreads description:

As a fussy baby, Anne de Bourgh’s doctor prescribed laudanum to quiet her, and now the young woman must take the opium-heavy tincture every day. Growing up sheltered and confined, removed from sunshine and fresh air, the pale and overly slender Anne grew up with few companions except her cousins, including Fitzwilliam Darcy. Throughout their childhoods, it was understood that Darcy and Anne would marry and combine their vast estates of Pemberley and Rosings. But Darcy does not love Anne or want her.

After her father dies unexpectedly, leaving her his vast fortune, Anne has a moment of clarity: what if her life of fragility and illness isn’t truly real? What if she could free herself from the medicine that clouds her sharp mind and leaves her body weak and lethargic? Might there be a better life without the medicine she has been told she cannot live without?

In a frenzy of desperation, Anne discards her laudanum and flees to the London home of her cousin, Colonel John Fitzwilliam, who helps her through her painful recovery. Yet once she returns to health, new challenges await. Shy and utterly inexperienced, the wealthy heiress must forge a new identity for herself, learning to navigate a “season” in society and the complexities of love and passion. The once wan, passive Anne gives way to a braver woman with a keen edge—leading to a powerful reckoning with the domineering mother determined to control Anne’s fortune . . . and her life.

My thoughts

This is the Anne de Bourgh backstory I didn’t realize I needed. Anne was always just a background character: sickly, meek, perhaps a little pitiable, but mainly something for Lizzie Bennet to smirk about in Pride & Prejudice. In discussing Austen’s work with others, I’ve seen speculation that Anne’s delicate health might have been due to inbreeding, but what if she was just a laudanum junkie since infancy because her controlling mother couldn’t handle a colicky baby and had a horribly enabling doctor at her disposable? Friends, if you didn’t think you could possibly dislike Lady Catherine more, prepare to be proven wrong.

The Heiress is beautifully written. Anne’s laudanum hazes are artistically plotted, all dreamy and blurred, as she floats through a large chunk of her life and we get passing glimpses of her father, young Darcy and Fitzwilliam, and lots and lots of Lady C. When Anne comes out of her years-long stupor, the whole feel of the book changes, and as a reader I felt the awakening that Anne did. Anne’s inner thoughts, confusion, and strengths are incredibly engaging, and I fell in love with her.

I enjoyed how Colonel Fitzwilliam is fleshed out in this book, first as Anne’s cousin and childhood friend, then as a supportive rock for her as an adult. Of course I fangirled over the little glimpses of Darcy and Lizzie, but I especially loved the way Greeley explored the later relationship between Anne and Darcy, not wed as had been intended, but forever linked just the same. Most of all, I admired Anne and how she took control of her life, fortune, and legacy.

I love the way Greeley has imagined a full, complicated life for Anne, and this book took me through every feeling possible before leaving me weepy and satisfied.

The Heiress is out January 5. I can’t recommend it enough, whether you’re a fan of Pride & Prejudice or not. Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for my copy in exchange for this honest review.