Sunday Books & Culture

This week’s reviews include Huck Finn retold from Jim’s perspective and revelations from Alua Arthur, a ‘death doula,’ in “Briefly Perfectly Human.”


by Percival Everett

Published by Doubleday (March 19, 2024)

Hardcover $18.41
Audiobook $14.99

By Drew Gallagher

We interrupt this review of James by Percival Everett for a public service announcement.

As a reader of books and book reviews, it is likely that you are already familiar with the Academy Award-nominated film American Fiction. If you are not, however, then you should make immediate plans to rent or watch it, because it’s well worth your time, and it’s based upon a book by Percival Everett who is a magical writer. 

Do not pass Go and do not collect $200. Be forewarned, the movie is a little darker than the trailer might imply, but it’s as prescient and funny as it was when the book was released 23 years ago.

Now, onto the genius that is James, which is a retelling of the Huck Finn story through the narration of the slave Jim. Like Erasure before it (the book that begat “American Fiction”), language and the perception of language plays an instrumental role.

There have been a number of retellings of Huck Finn’s story, but this is certainly among the best.

Everett puts forth that Jim and the other slaves are not ignorant and only feign such around whites and the slaveholders. They have mastered the art of slave speak to appear unthreatening and compliant when the reality is that they are better spoken than most of the whites they encounter, and they can read and write. They guard these abilities with their lives because they know that, if discovered, it might cost them their lives in the deep south. (With regard to the title—Jim is his slave name, but James is the name that truly denotes his standing in his mind and in the world. He is most certainly not the Jim on the Wanted posters.)

The opening of James is familiar as Everett lays the groundwork for James and Huck running away from their small town, camping at Jackson Island, before undertaking their voyage down the Mississippi in an effort to get Huck away from his abusive father and James away from being sold away from his family to a slave owner in New Orleans. 

Their adventures are like old memories plucked from childhood or from whenever a reader first encountered Huck and Jim, but in the hands of Everett, they have a new glow. James’ perspective, hovering between slave talk and reading Voltaire by candle light, makes all the characters and their exploits seem different. It is a testament to Everett’s talents that a book deemed to be one of the greatest works of American fiction can be, perhaps, improved?

James has revelations of its own, and it would be a disservice to reveal those secrets within this review. Everett is not simply visiting old ground with a story sometimes told in the Queen’s English. The author’s ability to find a new vein in an old tome with language that Twain would admire is a literary event not to be missed. James is not the same man as Jim except in his humanity and his love for good people in a wretched world.

Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He is the second-most-prolific book reviewer and first video book reviewer in the 137-year history of the Free Lance-Star Newspaper. He aspires to be the second-most-prolific book reviewer in the history of FXBG Advance and is also a founding member of Dads for Puppies.  


By Alua Arthur

Published by Mariner Books (April 16, 2024)

Hardcover $22.30
Audiobook $14.99

By Ashley Riggleson

Mortality is a fact of life, and no one knows that better than Alua Arthur, death doula and author of the extraordinary new memoir, Briefly Perfectly Human: Making an Authentic Life by Getting Real About the End. 

Perfect for fans of Lori Gotlieb’s, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Arthur’s book tells two types of stories in tandem. One is the story of Arthur’s life during a period of crisis. She also balances this thread by telling the stories of some of the people she has supported through the dying process. 

As the memoir opens, readers meet Arthur when she is traveling, and soon the first seedlings of her future as a death doula take root. Before all that though, we find her at a very unhappy time in her life. She is a lawyer, but it does not fulfill her or satisfy her innate curiosity. She travels whenever she can, hoping to find a cure for her severe depression. As time passes, though, she finds that this way of living provides only temporary solace, and there are much bigger parts of herself that she must confront. 

Arthur also seamlessly weaves in stories about her clients confronting their own mortality. As a death doula, she supports them in a variety of ways from offering companionship and healing to helping with the administrative tasks that accompany a death.  And it soon becomes clear that, though these people are different individuals who come from different backgrounds and live different lives, they are more alike than different. She does take the time to point out that systemic issues such as race, gender, and sexuality impact death work, but all her clients are, in short, human. This fact means that although we as readers may not always like the clients Arthur profiles, their inherent wants and needs at the end of their lives will certainly strike a chord with readers, reminding us, perhaps uncomfortably, of our own mortality. 

While the description of Briefly Perfectly Human might strike readers as sad or anxiety-inducing, Arthur’s book is, instead, uplifting and full of wisdom about how to manage our fears about the end. And yet, there are no empty platitudes here. Rather, Arthur invites us to consider our lives as they are and asks us to ponder what we need to live a life we would be satisfied to leave. 

In brief conversation with the publicist about this memoir, she said “Alua is a total star!” and I could not agree more. Her compassionate and deeply wise voice pulled me in quickly, and I read Briefly Perfectly Human slowly, reluctant to leave a book with which I had formed such a deep and personal connection. Briefly Perfectly Human is my favorite book of the year so far, and this life-affirming memoir should truly be required reading for all. 

Ashley Riggleson is a free-lance book reviewer from Rappahannock County. When she is not reading or writing book reviews, she can usually be found playing with her pets, listening to podcasts, or watching television with friends and family.