Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Dhalgren

Dahlgren by Samuel Delany

Title: Dhalgren
Author: Samuel R. Delany
Published: 2010
ISBN-13: 9780375706684
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publishers’ BlurbBellona is a city at the dead center of the United States. Something has happened there … The population has fled. Madmen and criminals wander the streets. Strange portents appear in the cloud-covered sky. Into this disaster zone comes a young man—poet, lover, and adventurer—known only as the Kid.

Tackling questions of race, gender, and sexuality, Dhalgren is a literary marvel and groundbreaking work of American magical realism.

Dhalgren is supposed to be one of Delany’s classics. He got praise for being post-(something). 400 pages in, I gave up because the sex is just too much. The section I was reading was nothing but graphic sex for almost 40 pages.

I knew going in I wouldn’t understand a lot of what was happening because it was experimental, and I think reading Kerouac prepared me for that.

So yeah, I hit the DNF wall. I don’t want to wade through all that just to see what’s on the other side.

Review: The Fire Next Time

The Fire Next Time

Title: The Fire Next Time
Author: James Baldwin
Published: 1963
ISBN-13: 9780679744726
Publisher: Vintage Internationall
Twitter: @penguinrandom

Publisher’s Blurb:  With clarity, conviction, and passion, James Baldwin delivers a dire warning of the effects of racism that remains urgent nearly sixty years after its original publication. 

In the first of two essays, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” Baldwin offers kind and unflinching counsel on what it means to be Black in the United States and explains the twisted logic of American racism. 

In “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” Baldwin recounts his spiritual journey into the church after a religious crisis at the age of fourteen, and then back out of it again, as well as his meeting with Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Throughout, Baldwin urges us to confront the oppressive institutions of race, religion, and nationhood itself, and insists that shared resilience among both Black and white people is the only way forward. As much as it is a reckoning with America’s racist past, The Fire Next Time is also a clarion call to care, courage, and love, and a candle to light the way.

“You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger.”

In the cover photo of James Baldwin on my edition of The Fire Next Time, he looks concerned.  Worried even.  Almost hopeless.  I wouldn’t blame him, being a black man in America is horrible.  Both Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates taught me that.  Their words paint a picture of near hopelessness for racial issues in America.

Recently, a friend asked what I got out of reading fiction.  It was an intellectual meeting of the minds.  He reads predominately science, I read mostly SF/F.  And while what I have read by Baldwin and Coates (Between the World and Me) are personal essays, my answer applies.  The stories I read show me what it’s like to be someone different from who I am.  Coates, Toni Morrison (Beloved, Jazz, Sula), and now Baldwin, show a glimpse of what it’s like to be black in America.  They help me try to understand.

Those are stories I could never hear by asking someone to tell me. I’m a white woman with white privilege.  How do I get to know someone well enough they trust me with their story?  How do I learn to relate to it?  Reading provides access to an otherwise closed world..

The book The Fire Next Time is comprised of two essays.  “My Dungeon Shook,” a letter to his nephew about being a black man in America and “Down at the Cross,” about Baldwin’s experience with organized religion and where it led him..

Baldwin’s letter to his nephew pulls no punches.  It cannot be overstated, this country was founded on racism, works like these are important for understanding what that means.  (Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of America tells the real history of America’s racist and sexist founding.  It is a hard read to get through.)

My notes are littered with quotes from “The Fire Next Time,” each brutal and deeply honest.  It’s hard to write without just letting Baldwin hold the floor.  While he reminds his nephew, James, “… most of mankind is not all of mankind,”  he also says, “You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being.” Is there a more merciless way to make sure someone (a family member, no less) understands what it is like to be a black male in America?

As it was in 1963 when this essay was published, 100 years after Emancipation, so it is now nearly 60 years later.  “The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you.”  Everyone’s life is dictated by what white men say, this cuts across all forms of prejudice.  But being black and male in America is its own special hell-dimension.  Imagine having to warn your children about how to behave while around white people.  Imagine having to prep them to go to school, the grocery store, and learn how to drive.  Because the people they meet cannot be trusted to behave in a sane and safe way.  Further, imagine having to warn your children that you’ve done nothing wrong but be born with a darker skin tone.  It’s completely unfathomable to me.

Whoever debases others is debasing himself.”

“Down at the Cross” continues this theme but turns to a more tightly focused story about Baldwin’s experience with organized religion, both as an adolescent preacher and his adulthood meeting with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam.  The conclusions Baldwin reaches are the same millions have reached, religion is filled with hypocrisy and offers little hope for a truly better life on this plane.  No one knows about any other rewards elsewhere.

“…but I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be ‘accepted’ by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, that blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet.”  How many times have I read about people going along just to get along?  Keeping our heads low and not drawing attention to ourselves is how we hope to avoid bullying.  Anyone ever bullied knows anything is fodder for today’s smack down.  Nothing we do will ever appease our bullies.  Nothing an African-American can do will appease the racists around them.  There is no “passing.”  Their skin color is a reminder of the shame white supremacists feel and refuse to deal with.

Two quotes about Baldwin’s adolescent relationship with his father stand out.  (1) “The fear that I heard in my father’s voice, for example, when he realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it was not all like the fear I heard when one of us was ill or had fallen down the stairs or strayed too far from the house.” and (2) “My father slammed across the face with his great palm, and in the moment everything flooded back – all the hatred and all the fear, and the depth of a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill me – and I knew that all those sermons and tears and all that repentance and rejoicing had changed nothing.”

Baldwin’s need to outdo his father is the motivation for staying and thriving in the church.  Adolescence is a complex time to begin with, and Baldwin’s adolescence as a black teenager in Harlem is especially fraught.  His parents hold him to strict Christian standards but he is surrounded by evidence that God is for white people.  He learned all the tricks of the ministerial trade and was popular among Harlem congregations.

After a visit from a Jewish schoolmate, which brought into focus the hypocrisies of Christianity, in all its forms.  His father asks, “Is he Christian?” and Baldwin’s response “No, he’s Jewish … and a better Christian than you” leads to physical abuse.  It is at this point Baldwin realizes, “And the blood of the Lamb had not cleansed me in any way whatever.  I was just as black as I had been the day that I was born.”  Being other than white and male is transgressive and while religion teaches about the rewards in heaven, their God is a heavy taskmaster.  Shortly afterward, he left his popular ministry.

Years later, Baldwin is invited to have dinner with Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam in Chicago.  The richness of the home Baldwin is invited to, and the private car which later drops him off in another part of the city are well commented on.  Riches for those who oppress others in the name of “love.”

Here the comparison of the Nation’s version of Islam with the Christianity Baldwin knows so well points out the same hypocrisies.  It is not the tenets of the Middle Eastern prophet, the Jesus figure, who professed love and turning the other cheek,  The man to whom the Beatitudes are attributed, who was murdered by his own people to satisfy a vague promise of “justice.”  Neither of these religions are about love, but about power over others in order to bring order that can only be satisfied if non-members are oppressed.  Elijah Muhammed preached that all white people were the devil, and that Black Christians hadn’t yet found their way to his tenets of Islam (not the tenets of Muhammad, the Prophet who brought Allah into being.)

“People always seem to band together in accordance to a principle that has nothing to do with love, a principle that releases them from personal responsibility.”

Baldwin’s eloquence and passion are framed in the all-consuming topic of being black – that is to say, descended from slavery.  How else can a black writer think and write about what affects his attitudes most?

“I am called Baldwin because I was either sold by my African tribe or kidnapped out of into the hands of a white Christian named Baldwin, who forced me to kneel at the foot of the cross.  I am, then, both visibly and legally the descendant of slave in a white Protestant country, and this is what it means to be an American Negro, this is who he is – a kidnapped pagan, who was sold like and animal and treated like one, who was once defined by the American Constitution as ‘three-fifths’ of a man, and who, according to the Dred Scott decision, had no rights that white man was bound to respect.”

It has been 400 years since the first slave ship landed in what would become the United States of America.  At the time of The Fire Next Time’s publication, a mere hundred years had passed since Emancipation.  At no time has there ever been a respite for black Americans.  In 2021, race is still a big issue.  Historians will no doubt write about this period, pointing out that politics made it easier and acceptable for what once could only be muttered behind white hoods now to be expressed in the open.  Implicit bias has become a hot topic at work places.  George Floyd’s killer got 22.5 years,  a white cop has been held accountable for his murderous actions.

I read these authors and these books so I can learn to be better, and try to overcome the biases I have unwittingly taken on.  Further, I read so I can understand better what bigotry has wrought on society.  I search for the ability to love as Baldwin himself wrote, “I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

To Do List: The Nickel Boys

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Title: The Nickel Boys
Author: Colson Whitehead
Twitter: @ColsonWhtiehead
Published: 2020
ISBN-13: 9780345804341
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Twitter: @penguinrandom

Publisher’s Blurb: In this Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times bestselling follow-up to The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys unjustly sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

When Elwood Curtis, a black boy growing up in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, he finds himself trapped in a grotesque chamber of horrors. Elwood’s only salvation is his friendship with fellow “delinquent” Turner, which deepens despite Turner’s conviction that Elwood is hopelessly naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. As life at the Academy becomes ever more perilous, the tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades.

Based on the real story of a reform school that operated for 111 years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative.

Oh lordy, this book is searing, devastating and enthralling at all once.  Whitehead’s powerful writing tells the story of two boys in a hell hole of a juvenile detention home in Florida.  No one could possibly believe in a “post-racist” society while events like this happen.

Full review to come.

To Do List: The Rush’s Edge

The Rush’s Edge by Ginger Smith

Title: The Rush’s Edge
Author: Ginger Smith
Twitter:  @GSmithauthor
Published: 2020
ISBN-13: 9780857668646
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Twitter:  @angryrobotbooks

Publisher’s Blurb:   Halvor Cullen was built to be a hero. But he’s never felt like one.

As a gene-spliced, tech-enhanced ‘VAT’ super soldier, Hal was made to fight hard and burn out young, then spend the short remainder of his life forever chasing an elusive adrenaline rush. Thankfully his best friend and former commander is determined to prevent that from happening by keeping Hal busy salvaging crashed spaceships along the Spiral’s Edge.

But when a new member joins their crew, and a mysterious sphere they bring aboard the ship unleashes an alien presence, Hal’s desires and malfunctions threaten to bring them all to the point of destruction…

The Rush’s Edge is a great SF quest/opera/family/romance novel.  Debut author Ginger Smith gifts readers with an adventure story which delves into the meanings of humanity and morality.

Full review to come.

To Do List: The Shore of Women

The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargeant

Title: The Shore of Women
Author: Pamela Sargent
Published: 2014 (originally published 1986)
ISBN-13: 9781480497382
Publisher: Open Road Media

Publisher’s Blurb: A dystopian tale of a power struggle between the sexes in the post-nuclear future, perfect for readers of Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin.

After a nuclear holocaust, women rule the world. Using advanced technology, they’ve expelled men from their vast walled cities to roam the countryside in primitive bands, bringing them back only for the purpose of loveless reproduction under the guise of powerful goddesses.

When one young woman, Birana, questions her society’s deception, she finds herself exiled among the very men she has been taught to scorn. She crosses paths with a hunter, Arvil, and the two grow close as they evade the ever-threatening female forces and the savage wilderness men. Their love just might mend their fractured world—if they manage to survive.

Hailed as “one of the genre’s best writers” by the Washington Post Book World, Pamela Sargent is the author of numerous novels, including Earthseed and Venus of Dreams. The winner of the Nebula and Locus awards, she has also coauthored several Star Trek novels with George Zebrowski.

A dear friend knowing my proclivity for all things feminist in SF/F took some of his hard got by money and bought the ebook for me.

Things in 1986, when it was written, were much different than 2020, when I read it.  But I’m still appalled The Shore of Women would be considered feminist.  My review is part of a larger project I have in mind considering the treatment of women in books I’ve recently read, both in LitFic and SF/F.

To Do List: Book of Revelation

The Book of Revelation by Timothy Beal

Title: The Book of Revelation
Author: Timothy Beal
Twitter: Timothy Beal
Published: 2015
ISBN-13:  9780691145839
Publisher: Princeton University Press

Publisher’s Blurb:   Few biblical books have been as revered and reviled as Revelation. Many hail it as the pinnacle of prophetic vision, the cornerstone of the biblical canon, and, for those with eyes to see, the key to understanding the past, present, and future. Others denounce it as the work of a disturbed individual whose horrific dreams of inhumane violence should never have been allowed into the Bible. Timothy Beal provides a concise cultural history of Revelation and the apocalyptic imaginations it has fueled.

Taking readers from the book’s composition amid the Christian persecutions of first-century Rome to its enduring influence today in popular culture, media, and visual art, Beal explores the often wildly contradictory lives of this sometimes horrifying, sometimes inspiring biblical vision. He shows how such figures as Augustine and Hildegard of Bingen made Revelation central to their own mystical worldviews, and how, thanks to the vivid works of art it inspired, the book remained popular even as it was denounced by later church leaders such as Martin Luther. Attributed to a mysterious prophet identified only as John, Revelation speaks with a voice unlike any other in the Bible. Beal demonstrates how the book is a multimedia constellation of stories and images that mutate and evolve as they take hold in new contexts, and how Revelation is reinvented in the hearts and minds of each new generation.

This succinct book traces how Revelation continues to inspire new diagrams of history, new fantasies of rapture, and new nightmares of being left behind.

Utterly fascinating, Timothy Beal traces the history and cultural impact of the biblical book Revelation (no s please).  In my continuing self-education about ancient religions, The Book of Revelation proved to be, well, revelatory.

Full review to come.

Review: Shakespeare’s Library

Shakespeare's Library
Shakespeare’s Library by Stuart Kells

Title: Shakespeare’s Library
Author: Stuart Kells
Published: 2019
ISBN-13: 978-1-64009-183-2
Publisher: Counterpoint Press

Publisher’s Blurb:   Millions of words of scholarship have been expended on the world’s most famous author and his work. And yet a critical part of the puzzle, Shakespeare’s library, is a mystery. For four centuries people have searched for it: in mansions, palaces and libraries; in riverbeds, sheep pens and partridge coops; and in the corridors of the mind. Yet no trace of the bard’s manuscripts, books or letters has ever been found.

The search for Shakespeare’s library is much more than a treasure hunt. Knowing what the Bard read informs our reading of his work, and it offers insight into the mythos of Shakespeare and the debate around authorship. The library’s fate has profound implications for literature, for national and cultural identity, and for the global Shakespeare industry. It bears on fundamental principles of art, identity, history, meaning and truth.

Unfolding the search like the mystery story that it is, acclaimed author Stuart Kells follows the trail of the hunters, taking us through different conceptions of the library and of the man himself. Entertaining and enlightening, Shakespeare’s Library is a captivating exploration of one of literature’s most enduring enigmas.

Oh, silly me.  I thought I might learn something of a writer’s inspiration and the books he turned to time and again while writing Elizabethan era plays which have, in turn, inspired many writers across 400 years.

I was not captivated by Stuart Kells’ book, even as I realized it was about the many theories of where and what Shakespeare’s library might be.  Uninterested in the stories of charlatans and crackpot academic theories, I didn’t learn anything interesting.  Only that there’s a mystery surrounding Shakespeare’s non-existent library and people will go to great lengths to prove their pet theory or feed their greed with forged papers and books.

Stuart Kells deserves plaudits for his research and his love for this mystery.   He approaches the entire subject with a great deal of humor and large grains of salt.  And kudos to him for listening to people who have clearly gone off the rails over this mystery.

For people looking to learn something really interesting about Shakespeare and his time, I highly recommend Globe:  Life in Shakespeare’s London by Catharine Arnold.

To Do List: What Makes This Book so Great

What Makes This Book So Great
What Makes This Book so Great by Jo Walton

Title: What Makes This Book so Great
Author: Jo Walton
Published: 2015
ISBN-13: 9780765331946
Publisher: Tor Books (Macmillan)

Publisher’s Blurb:   As any reader of Jo Walton’s Among Others might guess, Walton is both an inveterate reader of SF and fantasy, and a chronic re-reader of books. In 2008, then-new science-fiction mega-site Tor.com asked Walton to blog regularly about her re-reading about all kinds of older fantasy and SF, ranging from acknowledged classics, to guilty pleasures, to forgotten oddities and gems. These posts have consistently been among the most popular features of Tor.com. Now this volumes presents a selection of the best of them, ranging from short essays to long reassessments of some of the field’s most ambitious series.

Among Walton’s many subjects here are the Zones of Thought novels of Vernor Vinge; the question of what genre readers mean by “mainstream”; the underappreciated SF adventures of C. J. Cherryh; the field’s many approaches to time travel; the masterful science fiction of Samuel R. Delany; Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children; the early Hainish novels of Ursula K. Le Guin; and a Robert A. Heinlein novel you have most certainly never read.

Over 130 essays in all, What Makes This Book So Great is an immensely readable, engaging collection of provocative, opinionated thoughts about past and present-day fantasy and science fiction, from one of our best writers.

I’ve not read most of the books Walton reviews in the collection, and that didn’t stop me from enjoying what she had to say.  Where we differ is about reviewing vs. literary criticism.  While Walton is correct, one does not need academic training to review a book.  But, there is a place for a more formal, rigorous critical look at SF/F.

More to come, but I must return to my notes first.

To Do List: Who Cooked the Last Supper?

Who Cooked the Last Supper by Rosalind Miles

Title: Who Cooked the Last Supper?
Author: Rosalind Miles
Published: 2001
ISBN-13: 9780609806951
Publisher: Penguin Random House

Publisher’s Blurb:
Who Cooked the Last Supper? overturns the phallusy of history and gives voice to the untold history of the world: the contributions of millions of unsung women.

Men dominate history because men write history. There have been many heroes, but no heroines. Here, in Who Cooked the Last Supper?, is the history you never learned–but should have!

Without politics or polemics, this brilliant and witty book overturns centuries of preconceptions to restore women to their rightful place at the center of culture, revolution, empire, war, and peace. Spiced with tales of individual women who have shaped civilization, celebrating the work and lives of women around the world, and distinguished by a wealth of research, Who Cooked the Last Supper? redefines our concept of historical reality.

Ugh, I really hate the play on words using phallusy in this blurb.  Let’s not make light of the topic at hand.

Rosalind Miles’ Who Cooked the Last Supper? is dense to read at times.  It is well-researched, which does not mean it’s an easy read.  A review will come when I’ve had more time to mull over what she has to say.

To Do List: Feminisms and Womanisms

Feminisms and Womanisms edited by Susan Silva-Wayne and Althea Prince

Title: Feminisms and Womanisms
Author: Althea Prince and Susan Silva-Wayne
Published: 2003
ISBN-13: 978-0889614116
Publisher: Women’s Press

Publisher’s Blurb:  This collection of feminist writings has theory and praxis as its focus. The theoretical underpinnings of feminism, as well as the social action that it fuelled, are given full attention. Feminisms and Womanisms includes writings about First, Second and Third Wave Feminism, the voices of First Nations feminists, and those of feminists of colour. The reader includes chapters by feminist theorists such as Bell Hooks, Linda Briskin, Christine Bruckert, Angela Davis, Patricia Hill-Collins, Tammy Landau, Audre Ldrde, Inga Muscio, Viviane Namaste, Makeda Silvera, Dorothy Smith, Alice Walker, and Naomi Wolfe.

True story.  In the pre-plague times when we were still required to work at the office, I’d befriended a lunch-time buddy because I thought he was a fellow reader.  Turns out his actions showed him to be the sort of man who thinks himself a staunch feminist but really isn’t.  He loved to tell me how I should do things and what I was allowed to talk about.  One day, I’d had enough and told a fib.

“I have deadlines so I can’t eat with you anymore.”  The next day, I sat at a different table reading Feminisms and Womanisms, taking notes.  As he walked past, lunch buddy said, “I hope that pays off for you some day.”  I let all sarcastic comments stay in my head.

Feminisms and Womanisms is a heady collection of excerpts from seminal feminist texts.  It helped me on my journey to my own feminism, and gave me much to think about.

A fuller review will appear here.