Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Literary Theory: A Complete Introduction

Literary Theory: A Complete Introduction by Sara Upstone

Title: Literary Theory:  A Complete Introduction
Author: Sara Upstone
Published: 2017
ISBN: 9781473611924
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Twitter: @SaraUpstone
Publisher’s Blurb:  Literary theory has now become integral to how we produce literary criticism. When critics write about a text, they no longer think just about the biographical or historical contexts of the work, but also about the different approaches that literary theory offers. By making use of these, they create new interpretations of the text that would not otherwise be possible. In your own reading and writing, literary theory fosters new avenues into the text. It allows you to make informed comments about the language and form of literature, but also about the core themes – concepts such as gender, sexuality, the self, race, and class – which a text might explore.

“… criticism, then, is where we find the interpretation of literature.  Theory, in contrast, is where we find the tools to facilitate that interpretation.”  (p. xii)

This little book is packed with literary theory goodness.  In 260 pages, Sara Upstone covers 19 different schools of theory.  And while I don’t always agree with her assessments, or placement of movements within theories, Upstone’s overview is a great place for anyone to start learning about Literary Theory.

Having this at my fingertips has helped me figure out how Modernism and/or Post Modernism might apply to N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, an exercise assigned by my mentor.  If Modernism is trying to make sense of the chaotic changes in a book, then The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate offer a lot to be interpreted through that lens.  People of the Stillness must make sense of their new world as the rift and the coming of a Fifth Season wreak havoc.

Further, if Post Modernism is the questioning of reality itself, The Broken Earth Trilogy again offers an opportunity for that interpretation.  Is Alabaster turning into a Stone Eater a reality?  How it it possible he was taken into the middle of the planet by a Stone Eater and lived to come out the other side?

Mind you, these are just notions I’m playing with as I explore what both Modernism and Post Modernism mean to a critical reviewer and whatever book she happens to be reading.

My biggest quibbles with Literary Theory:  A Complete Guide have to do with the dates used to place each school in a context.  I will grant that cultural anchors must exist in order for events to have a context within the greater stories.  However, as a person with a background in history, I also know that dates aren’t hard and fast.  World War I may be marked as beginning the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, but that’s not really what started it all.

I mention this only because I want to caution readers not to get stuck on the dates Upstone uses as absolutes.  Surrealism, sequestered in the Modernism school of theory, had its precursors in authors like Arthur Rimbaud and André Breton.

And while I’m at it, if anything, Surrealism belongs with Post Modernism if we are to take the definition of Post Modernism at face value.

But, those are of little import when it comes to the actual information contained within this small volume.  It’s best to consider the essence of the overviews of each school of theory.  And by all means, we should give consideration to our own thoughts about what we’re reading.

Sara Upstone’s Literary Theory:  A Complete Introduction has earned itself a permanent place on my reference shelf.  If, that is, I can ever get it to leave my desk.

Review: Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier

Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier by Myke Cole

Title: Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier
Author: Myke Cole
Published: 2013
ISBN-13: 9780425256367
Publisher: Ace (now Penguin Random House)
Twitter: @MykeCole
Publisher’s Blurb: Colonel Alan Bookbinder is an army bureaucrat whose worst war wound is a paper-cut. But after he develops magical powers, he is torn from everything he knows and thrown onto the front-lines.

Drafted into the Supernatural Operations Corps in a new and dangerous world, Bookbinder finds himself in command of Forward Operating Base Frontier—cut off, surrounded by monsters, and on the brink of being overrun.

Shadow Ops:  Fortress Frontier is 2/3 in the Shadow Ops series.
Shadow Ops: Control Point Review

Myke Cole’s second book in the Shadow Ops series is just as jam-packed as the first, Control Point, was.  And it can be just as confusing.

I’ll be honest, I dug into Fortress Frontier for the simplest reason ever.  I wanted to know what happened to Oscar Britton, last seen trying to make things right after he selfishly released Scylla who immediately laid waste to the SOC, opening it to invasion from the enemy indigents.

The things I had problems with in Control Point, bigotry and pick a frickin’ side would ya (Oscar Britton) are still present in Fortress Frontier.  But I may have a clearer view of the larger picture being written in this series.  Only book 3 Breach Zone will tell me if I’m close.

The heart of the Shadow Ops series is learning to cope with the changes brought about by unexpectable magical power manifestations.  Rumors abound, and people are scared.  Which leads to governmental manipulations and other ugliness well-known in this sort of fantasy world.

What Myke Cole brings to this is an inside look at what that chaos is like when the military and the governments try to handle change this massive.  Cole’s writing keeps things tense, and moving along.  The story he’s telling is one of great forces at play.

One of the big themes is how do you know what’s really the right thing to do, especially in the face of conflicting evidence and your own strong desires?  Shadow Ops has a very strong X-Men vibe to it.  People who manifest powers are subject to government control.  Fear is a strong motivator.

In Frontier Force, Alan Bookbinder is a rule-following Pentagon bureaucrat who manifests an unusual power.  Unlike Oscar Britton in Control Force, Bookbinder turns himself in and is subsequently sent to SOC in the Source.

Bookbinder and Britton have one thing in common, loyalty to the armed services, and to the government.  The difference is Bookbinder maintains that loyalty even when his very life is threatened.  Through this, Bookbinder becomes a leader people trust and follow into harrowing events.

Britton reappears in Fortress Frontier, but is pretty much as ineffective as he was in Control Force.  He has agency, but every step of the way, bad decision making dogs him.  The harder he tries to make up for his sloppiness, the worse it gets.  It’s difficult to like or understand what Britton is about.  His motivations are still selfish.

Bookbinder, on the other hand, takes the problem of being cut off from home and leads his troops through it.  And part of Colonel Bookbinder’s journey is across the Source to the Indian/Hindu version of FOB.  There he meets the Naga, snake like creatures who offer help but aren’t particularly forthcoming.

I wanted so much to like this book, and I did.  I liked it much more than Control Point.  But that doesn’t mean I can wholeheartedly recommend the series.

Still, Cole has earned enough of my readerly trust with his story-telling ability in The Armored Saint and The Queen of Crows that I’m willing to finish the trilogy with Shadow Ops:  Breach Zone.  Stay tuned.

 

Review: Hugo Award Winner The Obelisk Gate

The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

Title: The Obelisk Gate
Author:  N. K. Jemisin
Published: 2016
ISBN-13: 9780316229285
Publisher: Orbit Books
Twitter: @nkjemisin
Publisher’s Blurb: The season of endings grows darker as civilization fades into the long cold night. Alabaster Tenring – madman, world-crusher, savior – has returned with a mission: to train his successor, Essun, and thus seal the fate of the Stillness forever.

As I read The Obelisk Gate, it became deeply personal, often driving tears to well up as I felt the searing pain of bullies, including parents whose lives can only be understood in retrospect.  Nassun’s search for identity and her confusing relationship with her father reminded me of my own confusing relationships. What matter the details, save that Nassun’s search for the warm glow of love she’d once felt transferred to another father figure?  Nassun finds herself the smartest, most talented in her small class, and one mistake nearly undoes the entire sense of community she’s found. It is a lifetime hard task to come to terms with one’s self and the way others react. And it can be brutal, as it proves to be for Nassun.  She, at least, has the orogene power within her to make it stop. Karma’s a bitch baby.

The Obelisk Gate is a coming together.  Factions find each other, comms welcome new citizens, old friends are reunited.  And yet, The Obelisk Gate is about division.  Factions find each other but begin plotting their war against other factions, the new citizens in comms cause disruption and new lines are drawn.

At its core The Obelisk Gate is about politics.  Political identity of the orogenes, who are welcomed with open arms in Castrima.  Family identity as Essun’s daughter, Nassun, wrestles with who her parents are and what that means to an eleven-year-old girl.  “Good” Guardian vs. “Not so Good” Guardian, but who determines good? Stone Eaters trying to set agendas. And a narrator who, it is revealed, plays an all too godly hand in Essun’s part in powering the obelisk gate, and catching the moon.

Nowhere is safe, everyone is struggling to dig in and survive the Season which, thanks to Alabaster’s creation of the Rift in The Fifth Season, will be the longest in history, lasting thousands of years.

We follow Nassun on the road with her father, Jija, going to a place he is convinced will cure her of her orogeny and return his little girl to him.  His resentful anger gets in the way of their relationship, his narcissism does not allow him to see Nassun is right in front of him and doesn’t want to be cured.  Her power is big, and she’s dedicated to learning everything she can about using it. Even after giving him a warning, showing him just how strong her power is and what she can do with it, Jija is still determined to make her into his ideal daughter.  Things don’t go well for Jija, and Nassun has no regrets

In Castrima, Essun gets pulled into the politics of the comm.  Seeking consensus and advice, Ykka is trying to keep human prejudices from becoming deathly problems.  Suspicion builds as Essun’s self-control frays around the edges. Alabaster holds the key knowledge Essun needs to reshape the world and give everyone a chance to survive.

And a very changed Schaffa is at the comm, Found Moon, where Nassun ends up.  His role with Essun, when she was Daya, is mirrored in his relationship with Nassun.  Only now, he expresses regret for the many horrible things did in the name of the Fulcrum.  In his work with the orogenes at Found Moon, and most especially with Nassun, he sets about making amends.

The Obelisk Gate is big and complex, dark and intense.  Just as The Fifth Season was filled with bigotry and violence, so too is The Obelisk Gate.  Orogeny stands as the proxy for all the ‘ism’s we face in our lives; sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, all of them.  And under the stress of the Season, fractures become breaks.

At the equator, Nassun, Schaffa, and their group which includes at least one stone eater.  In the south, Essun and her group introduced to us in The Fifth Season.  Thousands of years of history come into play, new elements are introduced, and identity politics rise to a fevered pitch.  One comm wants to absorb every resource it can while on raids. Castrima will have none of it. Stone eaters circle each other, and Nassun and Essun.

Alabaster’s final words for Essun are, “First a network, then the Gate.  Don’t rust it up, Essun. Inno and I didn’t love you for nothing.” While saving Castrima, she understands what he means, and as Castrima packs up to move northward into a now vacant comm which will support them for years, Essun knows how to do what she needs to do.

It is Nassun who has the last word.  “Tell me how to bring the moon home.”  In The Stone Sky, it will be up to mother and daughter to catch the moon, settle the rivalries, and stop the Seasons.  It will be an epic battle. Just as deep and intense as the preceding books. Just as complicated, and as simple as catching the moon.

Review: How Fiction Works

How Fiction Works by James Wood

Title:  How Fiction Works
Author:  James Wood
Published: 2018
ISBN: 9781250183927
Publisher: Farrar Strouss Giroux (now MacMillan)
Publisher’s Blurb:  James Wood ranges widely, from Homer to Make Way for Ducklings, from the Bible to John le Carré, and his book is both a study of the techniques of fiction-making and an alternative history of the novel. Playful and profound, How Fiction Works will be enlightening to writers, readers, and anyone else interested in what happens on the page.

Being a reviewer is writing, “This female character isn’t very nice which means she’s not a very good person and that makes it hard to read.”  Being a critical reviewer is writing, “this hard to like character takes everything we know about the anti-hero trope and turns it upside down, to the purpose of saving the Queen from near certain death.”  Knowing how craft works is the difference.

In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes, “… reading for significance is always a negotiation between our excited discovery of the work and our comprehension of the work after the excitements of discover have faded a bit.”  We could have read Goon Squad for the sheer brilliance of the story itself, and left it at that.  A lot of readers have. But because we look for significance in what we read, we cogitated and poked around.

Knowing about the craft of writing allows me to ask the questions which allow me to get beneath the surface of a work.  In working through Goon Squad three times, I found questions I didn’t know to ask, and ways to answer those questions.  Because I am working my way away from Reader Response, and learning to be think critically about a work, I need to know about craft.

When I look for reviews about a product, I look for the ones which tell me what the craftsmanship is like.  “This insta-pot is put together well. The display is easy to read, the settings are easy to set, the lid closes tightly, and the removable pot makes it easy to clean up.”  As opposed to, “I love this insta-pot and would buy again.” I’m not buying an appliance based on the last review, unless I know the person making the recommendation well.

Thinking critically about a book is recognizing how the book was written, the choices an author made to tell the story, and being able to write a more informed review.  As to credentials, people will trust reviewers who know about the craft of writing more than the one who only wants to recap and express fondness, or dislike, for the author and the genre.

When I review a book critically, I want to make it clear that I know something about the writer’s craft, and that I have some understanding of how craft serves the story.  I want my own writing to reflect that I know something about using craft and strive for thoughtful, well-crafted reviews. Having this knowledge leads to being included in conversations which go deeply, and being taken seriously enough to be invited again.

Instead of saying to myself, “Oh I know I can do better than that,” when I read reviews, I now look for reviews which go deeper and encourage myself to strive for that level of writing.  For me, it’s the difference between saying “I loved this book and if you love zombies you will too,” and, “Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series gives us a look at how her protagonist gains agency and self-esteem through being turned into a zombie and finding a power structure which supports her in her growth.”

“124 was spiteful,” is one of the best opening lines of a book ever.  Reader response would figure out that 124 was an address and the house at that address was haunted, and they might leave it at that.  Critical review will delve deeper, “Why is the ghost at 124 spiteful? What is it doing to tell us, the reader, why it’s behaving in such a way?  Why did Toni Morrison use the word spiteful instead of something like angry?” Even further a critical reviewer would be able to point to other examples of this deliberate type of disorientation in storytelling.  Once we learn about the craft, we can find the patterns in other stories and discuss why disorientation is good craft. We also learn when it’s been applied well and when it doesn’t work. This also gives us credence as reviewers, and provides evidence we speak from authority when writing a critical review.

Knowing about craft elevates the discussion and makes the experience of reading, and writing, richer.  How Fiction Works provided me with more tools with which to think about reading.  Plus it gave me the phrase “flaneurial realism.” to cherish.

Review: Shadow Ops: Control Point

Shadow Ops: Control Point by Myke Cole

Title: Shadow Ops:  Control Point
Author: Myke Cole
Published: 2012
ISBN-13: 9781937007249
Publisher: Ace (now Penguin Random House)
Twitter: @MykeCole
Publisher’s Blurb: Lieutenant Oscar Britton of the Supernatural Operations Corps has been trained to hunt down and take out people possessing magical powers. But when he starts manifesting powers of his own, the SOC revokes Oscar’s government agent status to declare him public enemy number one.

Shadow Ops:  Control Point is 1/3 in the Shadow Ops series.

“They want me to kill a child,” is the opening line in Shadow Ops:  Control Point, which just sucked me in.  That is a “wait, WTF is going on here” first line if I’ve ever read one.

And it just spins out of control, fast and furious from there.  Control Point blazes hot, and scorches anyone in its path.  It’s hard to keep track of what’s going on, and who’s doing what.  Oh, and who’s the bad guy … no wait … good … no wait …

Oscar Britton has the rug yanked out from beneath him too many times, and after a while it gets tiresome.  I feel sorry for the guy, he has to cope with so much immediate change it fucks with his decision making process at every turn.  Everything he thought he knew and a life time of training are called into question the second he manifests a magical power he doesn’t understand and is forbidden by the government.

All the flip-flopping isn’t necessarily Britton’s fault, he’s just written that way.  Honestly, it’s hard to have much faith in Britton, the government (contractor or otherwise), anyone who says they know how to help or fix things (except maybe for the token good guy Goblin called Marty).

At every turn, Britton is put in situations which cause him to question everything all at once, again.  It gets to be a bit much.  Maybe having a bomb implanted in his heart just causes Britton to make extremely bad decisions which lead to even more death and destruction until almost everything he’s come to depend on is gone, or dead.

And we, the readers, are left hanging in an unfinished story about a man in search of his own redemption.  Shadow Ops:  Fortress Frontier, here I come.

 

 

Review: The Sprawl Trilogy

Neuromancer by William Gibson
Count Zero by William Gibson
Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson

Title: The Sprawl Trilogy

Neuromancer
Author: William Gibson
Published: 1984
ISBN: 0441569595
Publisher: Ace
Publisher’s Blurb:  Before the Internet was commonplace, William Gibson showed us the Matrix—a world within the world, the representation of every byte of data in cyberspace. Henry Dorsett Case was the sharpest data-thief in the Matrix, until an ex-employer crippled his nervous system. Now a new employer has recruited him for a last-chance run against an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence. With a mirror-eyed girl street-samurai riding shotgun, he’s ready for the silicon-quick, bleakly prophetic adventure that upped the ante on an entire genre of fiction.

Count Zero
Author: William Gibson
Published: 1986
ISBN: 0441117732
Publisher: Ace
Publisher’s Blurb:  A corporate mercenary wakes in a reconstructed body, a beautiful woman by his side. Then Hosaka Corporation reactivates him, for a mission more dangerous than the one he’s recovering from: to get a defecting chief of R&D—and the biochip he’s perfected—out intact. But this proves to be of supreme interest to certain other parties—some of whom aren’t remotely human…

Mona Lisa Overdrive
Author: William Gibson
Published: 1986
ISBN: 0553281747
Publisher: Bantam
Publisher’s Blurb:   Enter Gibson’s unique world—lyric and mechanical, sensual and violent, sobering and exciting—where multinational corporations and high tech outlaws vie for power, traveling into the computer-generated universe known as cyberspace.  Into this world comes Mona, a young girl with a murky past and an uncertain future whose life is on a collision course with internationally famous Sense/Net star Angie Mitchell.  Since childhood, Angie has been able to tap into cyberspace without a computer.  Now, from inside cyberspace, a kidnapping plot is masterminded by a phantom entity who has plans for Mona, Angie, and all humanity, plans that cannot be controlled . . . or even known.  And behind the intrigue lurks the shadowy Yazuka, the powerful Japanese underworld, whose leaders ruthlessly manipulate people and events to suit their own purposes . . . or so they think.

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts. … A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.” (Neuromancer, p. 51)

This from a man who sat down at a typewriter and wrote what’s considered the seminal work of cyberpunk. On a typewriter. Gibson didn’t own a computer at the time, but he had this idea, which he almost gave up on after seeing Blade Runner.

Even in 2019, when cyberspace is a part of everyday vocabulary, and most have a general idea of what it means, none of us knows what it looks like.  Gibson got there first, hypothesizing what cyberspace would look, and feel, like and how humans might interact with it.

“[Case] jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.” (Neuromancer, p. 6) Emotionally, it was “bodiless exultation,” (ibid, p. 7). “Nonspace of the matrix, the interior of a given data construct possessed unlimited subjective dimension.” (ibid, p. 63)

Disembodied, nonspace, grey, blob, or blotch.  All descriptors for that which cannot be described.  The books in this trilogy are filled with non-descriptive descriptions of what cyberspace looks like, and feels like. A “cowboy” jacks in by plugging a cable from the computer into a jack/port in their neck.  It made complete sense to me while I was reading.  Trying to describe it in my own words is difficult and stultifying.  How do you describe a banana to someone who’s never seen one?

Gibson’s writing is dense and often difficult to follow, which makes sense if you’re trying to describe something undescribable.  He only succeeds because he has a larger canvas to work with.

In Neuromancer,  AIs in search of their other half involve complex human machinations and architectural wonders which only work in space.  The AI Wintermute sets things in motion, leading Case and Molly on a merry search for its other half, the AI Neuromancer.  Wintermute is manipulative, pushing humans to do its bidding.  The reader’s mind isn’t the only one blown.

Two years later, in Count Zero, Gibson still grapples with describing the indescribable.  We bump against a more terrestrial landscape to set the stage, but are no closer to understanding what cyberspace is.

Vodou gods appear in cyberspace so as to interface with the humans inside the matrix.   It’s rumored the superconsciousness is losing bits, explaining the multiple gods encountered.  Or maybe it’s another AI shoving its non-existent weight around.

Again, Gibson uses vague notions to describe what it’s like, “…a flickering, nonlinear flood of fact and sensory data, a kind of narrative conveyed in surreal jump cuts and juxtapositions. … [changing direction randomly] with each pulse of nothingness. The data had never been intended for human input.” (Count Zero, pp.23-24)

And yet, humans keep trying to be a part of the landscape.  Building better and bigger tools to get inside, navigate, and stay inside.   Bobby Newman, aka Count Zero from Count Zero is comatose and jacked into an infinitely large cyberdrive called an aleph, a mathematical concept I cannot even begin to wrap my brain around.  It’s not infinity, it’s something else.  Theoretically, the aleph has uploaded the Count’s personality leaving enough room to evolve with access to all data in the known universe.

Gibson’s idea of cyberspace involves direction (up and downs), grids, and definitively shaped objects. More than that though, he uses nothingness, everythingness, all-at-once-ness.

So how does one explain the unexplainable, the invisible, the not physically there presence?  Gibson’s struggle continues to be technology’s struggle.  VR and AI are upon us, and engineers have to develop vocabularies to go along with it.  When all else fails, we fall upon what has gone before.

William Gibson wrote the framework, extrapolating to an existence which has yet to come.  Twenty years ago, the Wachowski siblings gave us The Matrix trilogy which carried the idea of machine overlords enslaving humanity in virtual reality as an energy supply.

Here too, there’s a struggle with vocabulary, although visual media has the ability to present a form of cyberspace which can be seen and, therefore, believed.  The Wachowskis and their matrix came 15 years after Neuromancer.  Gibson was at the forefront, and is given credit for coining the term and pushing us to think about a computer network’s relationship with humans.  The Wachowskis gave us one version of what that relationship might be.  There are many other versions, and we can’t possibly know which one is “right,” or “wrong,” because we’re still trying to describe the invisible undescribable space between bits of data.

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.

 

 

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.