Lythcott-Haims examines her racial identity in ‘Real American’

  • Kirkus Reviews
Oct 28, 2017
‘Real American,’ Julie Lythcott-Haims

In a text that resembles a memoir, a prose poem, and an album of verbal snapshots, a writer from a mixed racial background chronicles her journey — and battle — to understand her racial identity.

Julie Lythcott-Haims (“How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success,” 2015), who holds a variety of academic degrees (including Harvard Law), writes about her girlhood and youth as the daughter of a black father and a white mother in “Real American.” Her father was a very successful man, a doctor who served as an assistant surgeon general, and her mother would earn a doctorate, as well. The author grew up in mostly white neighborhoods, an experience that delayed her determination to define and identify herself as a black woman. In a series of numbered sections whose lengths vary from a few pages to a few words, Lythcott-Haims tells not only the story of her life and considerable accomplishments, but also about current — and relatively current — issues, from the elections of Presidents Obama and Trump to the spate of police shootings of young black men. Her son is now a teen, and she, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, to whom she refers several times, worries deeply about his safety. Occasionally, the author offers lines of poetry, especially at the conclusion of a section, and her verse is blunt and stark: “We continue to try to forgive. / To live.” The author also poignantly describes the assorted indignities she has endured, from attending an event at a child’s school where she saw characters in blackface to resisting a Stanford colleague, a woman who fondled her hair in a meeting. She also writes affectionately about her white husband of many years — though she wonders at times what it would have been like to be married to a black man.

“Real American” offers many potent and painful reminders that we have a long, long way to go regarding race and identity.

(Lythcott-Haims will speak and sign copies of her book starting at 7 p.m. Nov. 1 at BookPeople. Free to attend; only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com.)

An eerie delight

Horrormeister Joe Hill (“The Fireman,” 2016) offers a four-pack of mayhem in “Strange Weather,” a sparkling collection of short novels.

Think climate change is bad now? Just wait until those obsidian-sharp blades of rain cut you to pieces come the next storm. Hill, son of Stephen King, has his father’s eye for those climacteric moments when the ordinary turns into the extraordinary — and the sinister to boot. In Rain, a warm Colorado day turns nasty when silver and gold needles begin to pour down. Hill’s narrator, ever the helpful neighbor, watches as they rip a woman to shreds: “Her crinkly silver gown was jerked this way and that on her body, as if invisible dogs were fighting over it.” Memorable but icky, that. In such circumstances, you can bet that the ordinary norms don’t hold; give humans an emergency dire enough, and civil society collapses, presto! So it is in Loaded when a Florida shopping mall becomes the playground of a shooter unusual in more ways than one; what gives the story, which is altogether too probable, creepy luster is the dancing cyclonic firestorm that’s heading toward the mall, which may have been what prompted the security-guard protagonist of the tale to add to the death count without the intercession of any apparent conscience. Hill squeezes in some nice pop-culture references along the way, including one to a namesake: “Finally the kid who looked like Jonah Hill had entered the shop, and the shooter, with her dying breath, had put a bullet in his fat, foolish face.” Icky again — as it should be for a horror honcho. In homage to “The Illustrated Man,” perhaps, in Snapshot Hill imagines an ancient mariner sort of psychopath whose Phoenician-script tats invite onlookers to run away but instead lure them in, the easier for him to tinker with their memories, while Aloft is a pitch-perfect fable that blends Ted Chiang and Aristophanes into an eerie delight.

“Strange Weather” is worth waiting in line for, if you’re a Hill fan. If you’re not, this is the book to turn you into one.