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.