Review: Binti Trilogy

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Binti: Home by Nnedi Okarafor
Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okarfor

Title:  Binti, Binti:  Home & Binti:  Night Masquerade
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Published: 2015, 2017 & 2017
ISBN-13: 9780765385253, 9780765393111, & 9780765393135
Publisher: Tor
Twitter:  @Nnedi
Publisher’s Blurb:  Binti is a story about a brilliant young woman, and the responsibilities she bears: to her society, her family, and to herself. While travelling through space for the first time in her life, Binti must survive and adapt to an encounter with fascinating and deadly aliens.

“We Himba don’t travel.  We stay put.  Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish.  We even cover our bodies with it.  Otijize is red land.”  (p. 13)

There’s no way anyone could prepare themselves for the times their self-identity bumps up against bigotry.  This is one of the things I admire most about Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti Trilogy.  In choosing the incidents which would populate Binti’s life, Okorafor chose to include the prejudices her traveler would encounter, both from outside and within herself.

It’s hard to write about this without cliches.  Pain of all types makes us stronger, we hate when people say that to us, but there it is.  The most incredible part of reading these books was the honesty with which Okorafor writes; of war, prejudice, outright hatred, ignorance, and fear.  And that she managed to wrap it all up in 462 pages, while flinging us through the stars and back again is amazing to me.

I think what I want to say is no one is safe from prejudice or bigotry.  It’s a part of the very fabric of being sentient (human). We are all different, we are all insecure about something and we all compare ourselves to others hoping to make ourselves feel better.  This comparing and contrasting can make us even harder on ourselves for not having the life we imagine someone else has.

Binti is brilliant, and as self-aware as she can be at the age of 16.  It’s frequently difficult to remember she is still a teenager, and lacks the maturity that only experience can proffer.

Along the way, she literally becomes a part of unlikely families.  Some, like the Meduse, are another species altogether.  Others, like the Desert People, turn out to have been family all along.  They all play a part in her evolution, taking her on a journey which is more than just a university education.  What she is taught along the way is she must be careful of her own prejudices, making sure they don’t keep her blind to the work she is destined for.

The story is almost magical, and nearly breathless, in some places.  Nnedi Okorafor’s tight writing tells a big story which deals with complex issues.  The character Binti studies the lessons we should all study.  Learn to accept yourself, and others, as they are.  Don’t force your set of rules onto someone else.  Hesitate before you say or do something you’ll regret.

Most importantly, I think, is the lesson to face our fears and look deeply into the hard truths we don’t want to know.  That way lies the harmony we all struggle to find.

This slender trilogy is a big story about an adolescent Himba girl who learns to stay grounded, fly among the rings of Saturn, fall in love, and forgive herself for the imagined pain she’s caused herself.  Okorafor’s writing is splendid, and I’m looking forward to exploring her other books.

 

 

Review: They

They: A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders by Janet Mason

Title: They:  A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders
Author: Janet Mason
Published: 2018
ISBN: 9780999516430
Publisher: Adelaide Books
Publisher’s Blurb: In this novel we met Tamar from the Hebrew Bible. Tamar lives as a hermit in the desert, is content with her life and is happily barren. She is attached to her pet camel. Her aversion to goat sacrifices becomes so strong that it prompts her to become a vegetarian. Tamar has a twin sister Tabitha who becomes pregnant after seducing a young muscular shepherd. Tamar plots with Tabitha to trick Judah (a patriarch from the Bible) into believing that the baby is his so that she can have status in society rather than being burnt at the stake. Tabitha gives birth to twins. Tamar becomes attached to the children (born intersex), who call her auntie, and follows their line of intersex twins.  

They has a promising premise, a long line of intersex twins come from the fictional twin sister of biblical Tamar.  Tweaking Judeo- Christian mores is one of my favorite topics, and the thought of secret genders in the Bible pleased me.

Janet Mason has a unique spin on many of the familiar Old and New Testament stories.  While fictional Tabitha is the one who has children with Judah by deceiving him, her twin sister Tamar is the character with the most interesting discussions about the “old tales.”

My favorite is Tamar telling her sister’s twins about Adam and Eve and the Snake in the Garden of Eden.  She asks questions I’ve always had.  Why spend centuries blaming Eve when Adam was the one who could have, but didn’t, say, “No.”  Which is the root of a lot of the sexist and misogynistic bullshit we experience today.

Then there’s the interesting, if difficult to take serious, story about Tamar reincarnating in Mary’s belly as Jesus’ twin, both of whom are born intersex.  And both whom have different fathers.

Structurally They has problems.  There’s a lot of telling, not showing.  The showdown between Tabitha and Judah is told to a gathering of women instead of shown.  The same goes for Joseph leaving the house every time David arrives to visit Mary.  Her trying to explain why the twins have different fathers and how she’s not going marry either of them would have been so much more interesting.

Another problem is chapters which end abruptly, the next picking up years later with little or no connective tissues.

For instance, Tamar and Judith  gossip about the news from Egypt where Joseph (Judah’s brother) has saved Pharaoh from starvation with his dream interpretations.  The baby they made and Judith gave birth to cries …. end of chapter.  The next chapter is set 20 years in the future and Tamar is dying.  No explanation for what’s happened in that time or how Tamar is dying.

The very last chapter uses the preferred pronouns for intersex people, ze, hir, zir.  At no time before in this book, have these been used.  The change is jolting and disruptive, drawing attention away from the journey Yeshua and his family take away from Jerusalem.

I wanted to love Tree, I really did.  There are many interesting twists and stories that give a different interpretation to the stories I grew up on.  Some parts of Tree nearly glow.  But the parts that don’t glow bring the entirety to a medium well done novel.

As far as I can tell, this was Mason’s first published book (she has since published another, which I have not read).  It is my hope that with practice and dedication her writing will become more consistent and structurally sound.  There’s a lot of good ideas in They, but the execution just isn’t strong enough to bear the weight.

 

 

New to the Stacks: Shadow Ops, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Other Goodness

They: A Biblical Tale of Secret Genders by Janet Mason

They by Janet Mason – Read
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner ~ #LitCrit
Darkness Visible by William Styron
The Annotated Alice – annotated by Martin Gardner
Shadow Ops: Breach Zone by Myke Cole
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
Darkness Visible by William Styron
Annotated Alice in Wonderland
Shadow Ops: Breach Zone by Myke Cole
We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: 1986
ISBN: 0395404258
Publisher: Houghton-Mifflin
Twitter: @MargaretAtwood
Publisher’s Blurb: The Handmaid’s Tale is a novel of such power that the reader will be unable to forget its image and its forecast. Set in the near future, it describes life in what was once the United States and is now called the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy that has reacted to social unrest and a sharply declining birthrate by reverting to, and going beyond, the repressive intolerance of the original Puritans. The Handmaid’s Tale is funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing. It is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and a tour de force.

“This is one of the most bizarre things that’s happened to me ever.”  (p. 144)

“Gilead society was Byzantine to the extreme …” (p. 311)

This is my second time reading The Handmaid’s Tale, and it’s more terrifying to read in 2018 when basic reproductive rights are threatened by government.  The juxtaposition of what is against what could be should send chills down every reader’s spines and give pause.

When democracies fail, totalitarianism fills the vacuum.  The Republic of Gilead is formed as a “Christian” society based on the Old Testament.  But, as in all things human, is hypocritical in this endeavor.

All citizens must convert to this warped government’s rule, or suffer the consequences.  Neither Baptist nor Quakers are considered Christian enough.  Jews are considered the “Sons of Jacob,” and allowed the choice to convert or move to Israel.

The most dangerous policy in Gilead is the treatment of women, especially those of child-bearing age who are used as proxies by the elite for childless married women.

The justification for this is quoted before the book even starts.  The epigraph quotes Genesis 30: 1-3, the story of barren Rachel who tells her husband, Jacob, to go to her handmaid, Bilhah, and get children on her.  This is the bedrock for the use of handmaids to repopulate Gilead.

In the Red Center, where handmaids are trained, Aunts are charged with indoctrination.  Concepts from the New Testament like “Blessed are the meek,” from the Beatitudes, women covering their hair, and “worthy vessel” are repeated as doctrine.

And here, we read the basic hypocrisy of Gilead, supposedly based on the Old Testament but free to pick from the New Testament as well.  Same as those in our world who cherry-pick the bible to prove their actions are sound.

And what of the misattributions?  If intoned properly with authority, those too can be made to sound biblical.  One of the Aunts tells the Handmaids, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”  This is the last line of Milton’s “Sonnet 19,”  a reflection on what Milton thinks God may want from him by making Milton blind.

And this from Karl Marx, “From each according to her ability, to each according to his needs.”  Scholars disagree over the origin of this phrase, some believing it has a basis in the Acts of Paul in the New Testament.   It’s my contention that the Marx version is the most well known, and therefore used to illustrate how policy is set by what’s most convenient to prove a point.

The darker motives of the elite can be found in Offred’s Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, obliquely suggesting there are other ways to get pregnant if the proscribed Ceremony isn’t working.  A wink and a nod to excusing a Commander’s lack of viability and still providing the Wife with a child.

The Commanders provide themselves with relief from the child-bearing proscriptions of government with visits to the illicit club Jezebel‘s.  Ironic because of the possessive, as if there was one Jezebel to whom the club belonged, not the elite men who make sure it operates.

Part Playboy Club, all underground brothel, Handmaids who don’t make the grade are given the choice to work at Jezebel’s or go to the Colonies where a painful death awaits them cleaning up toxic waste.  While not widely advertised among the patrons of the club, it’s a relatively safe space for lesbians.

There is no biblical justification for the presence of Jezebel’s, or Jezebels, in Gilead but it is winked off by Offred’s Commander who, in essence, says “boys will be boys.”  Only the elite men are allowed to blow off a little steam.  Women are not allowed such a diversion.  Neither are lower level men afforded this dispensation.  Not even the single men have a legal outlet for their frustrations.

All this to say, duplicity is the name of the game in such dictatorial societies.  It only matters when people get caught, as Offred does by the Commander’s Wife.  It is occasions like these when the Eyes are called upon to remove the offenders from sight.

The ever present spies, who depend on the citizenry to catch, and report, all transgressions.  Punishment to be doled out in such savage rituals as the Salvagings when the Handmaids and their pent up emotions are allowed to rage and put to death the wrong-doers.  Dictatorships don’t need a balanced justice system, just a lot of angry citizens who need an outlet.  Let the mob sort it out.

Rigidity leads to rebellion.  Gilead is no different.  A nascent underground moves women to some form of safety.  The “femaleground” can also be justified as scriptural in the Exodus story of Moses, who rescued Jewish slaves from the Egyptian pharaoh.  “Let my people go,” is a rallying cry for all who would work to see injustice righted.

For all who wince at the possibilities of Gilead becoming a reality, let it be a reminder that scripture, biblical or otherwise, can be twisted to justify everything under the sun.  Margaret Atwood says she doesn’t consider her book SF/F dystopian because everything in the book has already happened in human history.  That should terrify us all.

Review: Jazz

Jazz by Toni Morrison

Title: Jazz
Author: Toni Morrison
Published: 1992
ISBN: 1400076218
Publisher: Vintage Books International
Publisher’s Blurb:  In the winter of 1926, when everybody everywhere sees nothing but good things ahead, Joe Trace, middle-aged door-to-door salesman of Cleopatra beauty products, shoots his teenage lover to death. At the funeral, Joe’s wife, Violet, attacks the girl’s corpse. This passionate, profound story of love and obsession brings us back and forth in time, as a narrative is assembled from the emotions, hopes, fears, and deep realities of black urban life.

“… it’s hard to match the superstitious for great expectations.”  (p9)

I enjoy music and love books, but I don’t know how to put the two of them together.  It confused me when Jack Kerouac wrote about going to the clubs and listening to bebop, then using the beats in his writing.  I really wanted to approach Jazz from this perspective but I haven’t a clue.

Morrison explains how she approached Jazz in the Foreword, “Romantic love seemed to me one of the fingerprints of the twenties, and jazz its engine. (p. xviii)”  I understood that, but translating that into my words?  An incantation I can’t follow.

Also in the Foreword she writes, “I wanted the work to be a manifestation of the music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy, its history, its range, and its modernity.  (p. xix)”

All my life I’ve been surrounded by creative people.  And a lot of them talk about beats.  Theatre people, musicians, poets, writers.  I know the basics of music, I can find the beat, but that’s not what writers mean.

Morrison’s unidentified narrator uses phrases like, “clarinets and lovemaking,” and talks about the rhythm of the trains on their tracks, and the drums of the men who marched in silent protest to the massacre of East St. Louis in 1917.

I can imagine the drummers marching in line down the street filled with onlookers who show their anger in complete silence.  The solemn rhythm a heartbeat connecting all to bear witness to the pain and tragedy.

More, I can imagine the smoky jazz halls filled with the sounds of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Earl Hines while people danced to the rhythm.  I can even imagine the sounds of jazz coming from windows on a hot summer day through open windows.

But in the story of Violet and Joe Trace and his young girlfriend, Dorcas, I don’t hear it.  In this story, I feel the pain of trauma, the suffering from unfulfilled expectations and the nervous energy when Violet walks into Dorcas’ funeral and slashes the corpse’s face.

I feel the pain of those who don’t know who their parents are, or who were lied to about their parentage.  The anxiety of being squished into a few blocks by people who don’t know a thing about you and your community.

There is a rhythm to the laughter of women who gather for cards and shamelessly flirt with Joe Trace, the Cleopatra beauty products salesman who just happens to pop by.  So too is there rhythm to the teen-aged dance in someone’s apartment where liquor is surreptitiously served to boys and girls nervous about their bodies and their sexuality.  And then there’s the shock when Joe walks in and shoots Dorcas, and Dorcas telling her friends to just leave her alone.

Toni Morrison addresses big themes I could never identify with fully simply because I am white in a world that, no matter how misogynistic, will always privilege me over a woman who is not white.  Yet it is in reading Morrison both in Jazz and Beloved that i get a feeling of what it’s like to have suffered inhumanely from those who don’t see humanity, only skin color.

Maybe knowing more about the rhythms of jazz would have helped me get deeper beneath the surface.  Maybe.  What I know is the pain I felt for these characters and this sad, sad story so beautifully written.  What I know is how hard it is to look ugliness in the face and give it a name, to wrestle with demons no one can bear, and what it is to live with heartbreak and despair so many days of a life, one wonders if it’s even worth going on.

I know Toni Morrison writes so that people like me can begin to try to understand the suffering of people we would never have known otherwise.  She writes, I read, and then offer prayers of gratitude for her gorgeous words.