Books to Watch | February 23, 2021
February 23, 2021
This week, our choices are:
Confident Women: Swindlers, Grifters, and Shapeshifters of the Feminine Persuasion by Tori Telfer, Harper Perennial
I don't like true crime podcasts, horror movies, or roller coasters. But I do like Tori Telfer's new book, Confident Women. It's filled with vivid portraits of female con artists from the 18th to the 21st centuries. I started the book with the idea that tales of "con artists" were much lower on the horror meter than "serial killer" ones, but as the stories unfold, I quickly realize that tricking my sister into doing extra chores was nothing compared to the domino effect of deceit achieved by the largely-untold-until-now stories of The Anastasias, Tania Head, Lauretta J. Williams, and all the other names, aliases, accomplices, and victims folded into Confident Women.
Telfer's in-depth research transforms our understanding of these and other con artists: They aren't just crazy, one-of-a-kind characters that pop in and out of history, making a little mess but ultimately being found out. Some of these women are long-term liars, brandishing the covert weapons of emotional manipulation, taking advantage of the trauma of tragedy, digitally building false lives for themselves, faking pregnancies, and more. And sometimes, even for the con artist, the truths and the lies blur.
The con woman's likability is the single most important tool she has, sharp as a chef's knife and fake as a theater mask. […] If you like her—and you will like her—then her work will be so much easier. It'll all be over quickly. You'll hardly feel a thing.
In a way, I think Telfer is a con artist herself, drawing me into the people and stories I'd normally rather avoid.
Though it's clear we shouldn't revere any of these con artists for the crimes they've committed, it's at least a little cool to see women since the 1700s break out of the submissive, quiet, soft, and agreeable role designated by their sex. As Lauretta J. Williams is quoted: "Women have the reputation of being bad secret-keepers. […] Well, that depends on circumstances. I have always succeeded in keeping mine." (GMC)
Flex: Reinventing Work for a Smarter, Happier Life by Annie Auerbach, HarperOne
One of my favorite books of the last five years was Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family. It was about what systemic changes we need to make in the workplace to realize not only women’s liberation, but all of ours in the process. But those systemic changes, like most, are slow in coming. Individual workers and employers, however, can start implementing some of them in their own lives and organizations right away, even if they aren’t interested in the more analytical, policy-centered approaches. Sometimes, we need to just break away from the system rather than fight against it from the inside, or to pick up a book with a more conversational tone on the matter. And that is what Annie Auerbach offers in Flex. As she writes:
More and more businesses in different sectors are recognizing the fundamental importance of creativity in their employees, whatever their role, yet we seem to be funneling ourselves into tighter and more restrictive routines and thinking patterns. When we prioritize the wrong things—like long working hours over friendships, exams over mental agility, climbing the established career ladder over cutting our own paths—we diminish and inhibit ourselves and our possibilities.
As we wait for business practices to catch up, many will have to work flexibility into their work lives on their own. That can be a fraught proposition in a world with fewer safety nets, but there are ways to make it work as the business and public policy worlds (hopefully) do their work to bring changes about that support it for more workers. In the meantime, we have entertaining and insightful manifestos like Aurbach’s to help us carve out a more flexible work arrangement on our own and make it work for ourselves and our families. (DJJS)
Own the Arena: Getting Ahead, Making a Difference, and Succeeding as the Only One by Katrina M. Adams, Amistad
Katrina Adams was the first person in the 135-year history of the United States Tennis Association to serve two consecutive terms as its chair and president. She was also the first African American to hold the position. Her new book, Own the Arena, explains how both of those historic developments came to pass, but it begins with the story of how her term ended: at the 2018 US Open—specifically with the story of the women’s final between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. It is a gut-wrenching story of controversial (though she believes ultimately correct) calls from the umpire, a rare time when the greatest of all time, Serena Williams, lost her cool, and of a crowd rooting so hard for her that they lost sight of brilliant performance turned in by Osaka. As the match came to an end, rather than cheer for a brilliant young pro reaching the pinnacle of her sport, they rained down boos on the proceedings.
For Adams, it is also the story of a misinterpreted ad-lib moment during her trophy presentation that caused a social media firestorm. It is all gut-wrenching, because it is not the ending that either Osaka or Adams deserved. But it is even more gut-wrenching because of Adams’ impeccable writing about it, and her ability to take you inside the moment, walking you from the suite where she started down to courtside (highlighting all the little details and machinations along the way that add color to the story, as she once did for tennis matches as a commentator) where she realized, hearing the boos, that something had gone horribly wrong, quipping.
There is no booing in tennis. This is a sport that has the word love in the score.
The opening story ends well where it most needs to, with Williams a picture of grace and support for Osaka at the Open, Adams making sure those who mattered most knew the full intention behind her misconstrued words, and them all moving forward in support of each other and furthering the sport itself. A new story begins. In this case, it is how Adams came to be standing on that stage. The most important thing about any book is the quality of its writing, and Own the Arena is spectacular on that front. From a childhood on Chicago’s West Side to the most exclusive and important suites overseeing tennis’s biggest stage, Adams tells us not only how she made it in a world where she was always the first, or one of only a few, that looked like her in the spaces she inhabited, and the strengths she leaned on to get to, stay in, and rise in those places. In doing so, she imparts those lessons to the reader, and implores them to help those who follow—as she has done. (DJJS)
Raceless: In Search of Family, Identity, and the Truth About Where I Belong by Georgina Lawton, Harper Perennial
Asserting one's identity is a tricky and possibly lifelong task. For some, it begins in grade school, picking out your own clothes or trying different hairstyles, exhibiting both assertion and doubt on a daily basis. This journey was complicated for Georgina Lawton who was denied access to her own heritage, literally since birth. She was the odd-one-out in her English hometown, the dark skinned, curly haired baby of a British man and an Irish woman. The escape route from what would have been a difficult discussion was that Georgina's appearance was due to a "throwback gene" from the mixing between Spanish and Portuguese in the same area of Ireland her mother was from.
Not speaking of something doesn't make it go away. That is why today's "cancel culture" is so unproductive. That is why there have been uprisings and riots over racial inequality since the 18th century. That is even why you eat food when you're hungry. Ignoring these issues doesn't lessen their impact on your life. It mostly just makes it worse.
Georgina is unsettled by the "throwback gene" story for twenty years of unanswerable questions about her race. She was raised not to think of race to give her parents an easy-way-out of the difficult conversation of her roots, but their daughter pays the price:
[I]t was extremely destabilizing and lonely enduring these regular rituals of othering outside the home, while trying to understand where I belonged, and how my genetic makeup was at odds with that of my parents.
Lawton explores the meaning of mixed-race, both socially and personally, as she relates her experiences living in Black communities in the US, the UK, Nicaragua, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, South Africa, and Morocco. Raceless highlights the importance of cultural socialization, grief, friendship, trust, and truth within communities. Whether it be among your family, your friends, or your neighbors, the quality of communication defines everyone's experiences together and apart. And even with big missteps, with a lot of love and a lot of work, we can work towards reconciliation. (GMC)