Two Summer Reads: “A Burning” and “American Dirt”

Thank God for summer books.  They are a distraction from the events of 2020.

I am proud to recommend two of the most hyped new novels of the year, Jeanine Cummins’s controversial American Dirt and Megha Majumda’s critically-acclaimed A Burning.  Both deal with politics, class, and minority commuinites, and both are page-turners. But despite the fact that both have been book club picks, their reception has been very different.   

For those of us on the literary fiction side, A Burning is the first pick.  It is the darling of the American critics, compared by James Wood to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying  and early V. S. Naipaul; and it is also a “Today Book Club Read with Jenna” pick.   American Dirt, a heart-rending pop novel about a  migrant journey to the U.S. by a mother and son escaping from a cartel in Mexico, was an Oprah Book Club pick.  It became controversial when a group of Latinos  condemned it for “cultural appropriation,” i.e., a white woman wrote it.

In my post on Dirt last winter before the controversy,  I admitted I had reservations about Cummins’s too-emotional style, but it  educated me about the issues of Mexican migrants.  I dubbed American Dirt “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of migrant-journey fiction,” which is a compliment: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic  was a seminal 19th-century best-seller that changed American attitudes toward race and slavery. 

Let us turn to the equally absorbing political novel  A Burning.  Megha Majumda, born and raised in India, need fear no retribution for the success of A Burning, set in India.  This political novel hinges on the arrest of Jivan, a Muslim girl, for a terrorist bombing she did not commit. We’re all aware of racism and classism these days, and it is only too believable that the police would arrest Jivan  because of a comment she left on Facebook. The right-wing politicians also want to pin the crime on her; and, ironically, they pay her former gym teacher to testify against her.  Jivan’s trans friend, Lovely, an aspiring actress, testifies on Jivan’s behalf, which ironically catapults her to stardom.

Is Majumda in the class of Faulkner or Naipaul?  Well, I noticed no resemblance, but Majumda writes spare, elegant sentences, and if you like lean prose, this is for you.  The book goes at warp speed, so I paid little attention to the style, but I would call her a minimalist.  And I do see this smart novel as a potential prize-winner.  

Although American Dirt is pop fiction, and A Burning more  literary, really both are pop:  you can tell by the marketing.  Both have  been  Barnes and Noble Discover picks, and A Burning now dominates the tables at Barnes and Noble, just as  American Dirt did a few months ago.

But who cares about the classification?  Both are good summer reads.

4 thoughts on “Two Summer Reads: “A Burning” and “American Dirt””

  1. Even though it’s been hot here for awhile now, I’m only just now starting to think about summer reading. I mean think about it, I haven’t even gotten to the list-making and pile-creating stage, literally just thinking. Other than rereading a few faves from childhood (something I do every summer). Even then, I’m still t-h-i-n-k-i-n-g about which ones.

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      1. True! Haha Have you decided whether to embark on some voluminous classic for this particular summer? Another reader and I are about to read Cortazar’s Hopscotch, but it’s an accident that it’s summer, simply a book that each of us has mean to read for a long time and neither of is inundated with library books in this moment.

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