Neshama’s Choices for August 15th

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The Violin Conspiracy  

How did Ray, an acclaimed Black musician, come by that Stradivarius? It was his great-great-grandfather’s fiddle, in the attic for years until he became obsessed by music in high school and drove himself to excellence. His mother is contemptuous and wants him to get a “real job,” but he perseveres, rises, and is slated to enter a famed international competition. The violin is stolen—what now? There are a number of suspects; insult to injury: the descendants of slave-owners claim it belongs to their family. A convoluted plot that kept me on tenterhooks, with a bittersweet denouement. What I especially appreciated: Slocumb’s passion for music and insight into rampant racism in the music industry.  

We Are Not Like Them  

Jen and Riley grew up together. Their friendship crashes when Jen’s husband Kevin, a cop, is involved in a tragedy all too familiar these days. Riley, Black, is a newscaster and must keep her distance from Jen literally and figuratively. Jen is pregnant (hard-won) and knows Kevin is a good guy; he was saddled with an unseasoned partner who shot a Black kid and he had to provide back up. Kevin could plea-bargain if he told what really happened but that would be ratting out the “blue brotherhood.” Told in chapters which alternate between Jen and Riley (and written respectively by the two authors) it’s an agonizing tale very well-framed. Philadelphia setting.  

Rainbow Rainbow  

Short stories which run the gamut of gender variations.  In Laramie, Wyoming (ironic setting, for sure) a transplanted NYC lesbian couple are considering having a baby until one realizes just before insemination she isn’t really on board. In New England a teenager is at the mercy of the mean girls she desperately wants to be accepted by. In Poland a nonbinary narrator awaiting top surgery cheats on her girlfriend back in SF, saying goodbye to her breasts as it were. Questions and complexities abound, like how will taking T (testosterone) affect personality, or slicing and dicing feminist theory. The writer is nonbinary and leads us into this tangled territory deftly. They also play with intrinsic absurdities, so there’s humor as well.  

Ma and Me

The tiger and the crocodile symbolize danger on land, danger in the water, and that’s what the author of this memoir experiences constantly, torn between Cambodian and American cultures.  

She arrives in central California as an infant after a harrowing journey and is expected to be a good daughter according to Cambodian standards which don’t fit her. For instance, she is supposed to get married, but she’s gay. Ma must keep any shame from blotching the family’s reputation, so Reang’s only option is to go far away. Ironically, back to Cambodia as a journalist, where she uncovers the traumatic history embedded in her parents whose marriage was strained from the beginning. When she finally marries the love of her life, the whole family comes to the wedding except her parents. Reang anatomizes those cultural and personal complexities with great insight and candor.