i have serious love for attica locke. i think she can do no wrong. i think she's basically perfect.
this is a genre/gender bending noir set in an encli have serious love for attica locke. i think she can do no wrong. i think she's basically perfect.
this is a genre/gender bending noir set in an enclave for well-to-do african americans originally set up in the 1940s in houston. the premise under which the city of plesantville was created is a bit iffy. there is nothing wrong of course and everything right for embattled jim-crow-era black people to want to have a safe haven for themselves. but then you have the pesky question of class, and you know that it's going to blow up in their faces at some point.
the bendingness comes from the fact that the story is seriously hard-bitten, with a male protagonist who gets attacked and beaten right left and center but still upholds the right and the good and doesn't give up. since i listened to this in audiobook and the voice artist is a dude, it was hard to remember that the book is written by a woman. also, not a whole lot of hard-bitten noir out there with black protagonists (Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, others?), yes?
the story is about a homicide, and the narrative is riveting and beautifully paced. but then the book turns out to be about the deterioration of civil rights and voting rights, and the role african americans themselves may have played in this deterioration. meaningfully, it is set during the last term of the clinton administration and at the eve of the first g. w. bush administration.
it's also about the erosion of american democracy and the tremendous lure of corporate power, to which people succumb at the expense of values they hold dear -- which certainly requires a certain amount of ethical pretzling. the picture of america that emerges is nothing to laugh about.
i liked so much that locke adopted this beleaguered-and-unwilling-male-detective tone; that she appropriated a very male genre and rendered it flawlessly (and why why why did the press decide that it was better to have the novel read by a male actor? why not stick with the bendingness and have a woman read it?).
i loved that jay, the protagonist, loves his family and his kids so fiercely, and i love his rapport with his teenage daughter, which has, as it should, central place in the book. i recently read Mat Johnson's Loving Day, at the center of which also lies a tender father-teenage-daughter relationship, and it's oh-so-nice to see black men portrayed as awesome fathers.
i loved that he owns a gun but the gun is never where he needs it when he needs it. well, except for once. but then no one dies.
i love this book so much. thank you thank you thank you.
this may well be the most beautiful coming-of-age novel i've ever read. it's so non-clichéi love this book so much. thank you thank you thank you.
this may well be the most beautiful coming-of-age novel i've ever read. it's so non-clichéd and, you know, the author, just like the protagonist, is a poet, so basically every page is a poem.
the most astounding feature of this slender book is the treatment of sex. adolescent queer desire; straight puppy sex that is not exactly puppy-esque; the secret sex of not-very-sexual middle-aged same-sex lovers; the sex that inevitably passes between a mother and a child, a father and a(n older) child; rape (yah); and then some more mature same-sex attraction. it's all done so intelligently and so daringly, and even when it feels transgressive and icky it's still intelligent, delicate and smart.
love is sex is desire is love is tenderness is dedication is freedom is sex is desire is love. love can be entrapping or it can be safe. you have to pick your love carefully. if you can. (heartbreak.)
this is a book written by a feminist author who has no desire to traumatize her reader, but means to enrich her at every turn with the power of beauty, feeling, strength, and language.
if you are feeling like the world is a heavy place, this may be the book for you. ...more
i need to say, first off, that poetry in english is really hard for me. i can do poetry in italian, but poetry in english, tough, man.
but a friend of mine agreed to read this with me, and the experience was intense. because saeed jones is nothing if not intense.
i'm writing this before reading any review at all, because i'm sure other people's reviews will intimidate me and push me to silence. here goes.
throat. the speaker's throat is all over the text. throats are oh so vulnerable. so easily punched in, smashed, stuffed. but they are also oh so powerful, the source of our voice, the receptacles of so many pleasures -- gustatory, sexual.
father. this is a long anguished dirge to a father who could have been but wasn't. and then was taken. before things could be set to right. i miss you dad. i hate you dad. i miss you dad. come back dad. look what a good boy i am now. look: i have published a book of poems. i am famous, dad. will you like me now?
invisible mother. barely there. where are women when abusive men massacre their kids? all too often they are being massacred themselves.
pain. dang. pain pain pain. you are so young saeed, and life has already given you so much bitterness.
gender fluctuation and prostitution and drugs: stop living so dangerously, saeed.
race. bitter fruit. katrina. the exxon valdez oil spill. james bird jr.. slavery. swamps. briar patches. running running running from the dogs.
fantastic animals, long dry grass, fire, water -- objects/sites of delight, objects/sites of agony and fear.
this is what i got. so many lines worth copying, but other have done it so go read their review. gorgeous language and this: simple, even common feelings/experiences described with astoundingly powerful one-liners. ...more
so look, this is kind of genius, the genius book that you really want to read again from the beginning so that you can get the million things you missso look, this is kind of genius, the genius book that you really want to read again from the beginning so that you can get the million things you missed. cuz laymon covers a whole lot of black culture and history in this book, and the richness of it, starting from the extremely cool and deft language, deserves a ton of accolades alone. so consider me blown away k?
1. i am not a fan of twainesque, fast-talking, smart-mouthed, boy-narrated literature. just not a fan. it doesn't rock my boat. heck, i didn't even finish The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, so you see, i'm really bad at this kind of literature.
2. the masculine stuff really puts me off. not a thing i can do about it. i realize that if you have a teenage boy narrating a book you will probably want to stick in some masturbation and quite a bit of talk about genitals, but me, it puts me off. (it's really not primary, as it probably is in Oscar Wao -- remember that i didn't finish it; didn't get past chapter one, if you want to know the truth -- so don't let this dissuade you from reading the book if you are not really, really put off by it)
3. most of all, i don't buy and don't understand all the mystical stuff. this comes near the end so i'll put it under spoiler tags. (view spoiler)[the whole back-and-forth between time periods, with consequent personal meaning for the arc of the narrator's life, is good ol' time-travel mind-fuckery, which is always quite fun. but at the end it gets folded into a whole new narrative of racial redemption or salvation, and, first, i find this very obscure, second, i find it over-reaching in a boring and annoying way. maybe it would be less annoying if it were clearer, but shrouded in mysticism as it is, well, it didn't work for me. (hide spoiler)]
so these are the reasons for my low rating, even though i stayed up until 4 fekkin AM to finish it!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
i would like to review this book here for you all but i can't, because GR is bullying everyone, taking away our right to be, and showing itself to bei would like to review this book here for you all but i can't, because GR is bullying everyone, taking away our right to be, and showing itself to be profoundly ungrateful to people who have provided content here for years for free, and my buddy octavia, may her lovely soul rest in peace, would most definitely be against bullying and ungraciousness. so i'll tell you a story instead.
the author of Donald Davidson, philosopher Simon Evnine, used to live in west l.a. and when he lived there he had this absolutely unreliably mustang. i knew nothing from nothing so i was duly impressed when he told me that a mustang was a really cool car to have, that mustangs were fast and powerful cars, that mustangs were prestigious cars. i was so impressed that i really didn't care that the car wouldn't go more than one block without stalling, bucking, sneezing, coughing, and being stubborn, which, on hindsight, and with a better knowledge of the english language, i see was an entirely appropriate behavior. the mustang also released really bad fumes, which, even in hindsight, i can't find any appropriateness for (unless you want to equate fumes=poop, and i'm not willing to go there). (reader beware: this is a gun that won't discharge.)
one day Donald Davidson's author and i took a trip to san francisco, in the mustang. it was thanksgiving and the california hills and valleys could not have been more beautiful.
unlike the california valley of The Grapes of Wrath, however, this valley was as dry as a bone. in fact, when i say that it could not have been more beautiful, it is my readjusted memory that's talking. at the time, i was so utterly confused by the mere existence of such a landscape, and so utterly bereft by the lack of proximity of real mountains (where real mountains=the alps), or, in other words, so fucking homesick, that my reaction to the landscape was one of incredulity and dismay. what was i doing here? what were these burnt hills with no vegetation except stubbly yellow grass and the occasional isolated tree? where were the lush green, the vineyards, the old curvy roads, the ancient dry rock farmhouses that in my mind designated life on the planet earth?
so, you see, i wasn't in the best of moods. one could even say that i was pretty despondent.
and then i saw that this earth, this yellow dry-as-a-bone moonlike earth had cracks. largish genuine cracks, like the heat and dryness were too much and, like unmosturized skin, the earth has simply cracked open. the cracks were big enough for maybe three people to stand comfortably inside them. at least that's what it looked like from the car. i had to stop the merry chat Donald Davidson's author and i were merrily conducting to ask, "simon, do you think there are snakes in the cracks?"
being a man who doesn't pronounce even tentatively on things he has no way of knowing, Donald Davidson's author responded, not unreasonably you might think, "i have no idea."
i, being a person whose belief system and speech is made up entirely of untested hypotheses and flights of fancy, asked again, "but what do you think?"
Donald Davidson's author couldn't understand the question. please do realize that he didn't know me well at all, and he had never in his entire life been pushed to give an opinion about something he knew nothing about.
an exchange ensued. i would call it an argument, even a very heated argument, but that would be airing dirty laundry in public so i'll just leave it at conversation. the gist of it was:
but you can guess!
but i don't have any basis on which to guess!
there was born the "are there snakes in the cracks?" trope of our micro-civilization. when Donald Davidson's author doesn't have any opinion at all about something but is pushed, by me, to pronounce, he remembers, "are there snakes in the cracks?" and assuredly says "yes" or "no," depending on his mood, on butterflies batting their wings in asia, the vicissitudes of el ninõ or some such (non) random phenomenon. me, i'm entirely satisfied.
a proper review of this book will be provided when i finish reading the third volume of the trilogy and it will be posted on Booklikes. i will provide a link, so come back!
THIS REVIEW IS CLEARLY IN VIOLATION OF ALL THAT IS SACRED IN THE WORLD, NOT TO MENTION THE GOODREADS' TOS. PLEASE FLAG IT FOR BEING ENTIRELY IRRELEVANT TO THE BOOK IN QUESTION, FOR ATTACKING A GR AUTHOR AND FOR ITS GENERAL CUSSEDNESS AND INAPPROPRIATENESS. THANK YOU.
for jakaem: this is the second installment. ...more
i'm going to review this classic without reading anyone else's review (i'll read them later), because the experience of reading it was so powerful fori'm going to review this classic without reading anyone else's review (i'll read them later), because the experience of reading it was so powerful for me, i want to try to convey it here intact. this is my fourth octavia butler, after Parable of the Sower, Fledgling and Wild Seed. butler is pretty consistent in her themes, but not until this time was i able to see precisely what she's doing.
this "precisely" indicates the level of power this book had for me, not the truth of what octavia butler is in fact doing. what i mean is, while reading this book i had a precise sense of what she was talking about. this precise sense is a merging of butler as a writer and me as a reader. it is unique. it doesn't speak of anyone else's experience, or at least of the experience of those readers who didn't come to this book with the same general set of issues and apprehensions and emotions with which i did.
it seems to me that all of butler's book are about love. in Sower the protagonist is an empath. she cannot helps feeling what others within a certain spatial range feel -- not their feelings, but their pain. feeling others' pain is love. wanting to alleviate this pain -- because it becomes our pain -- is love. in Fledgling the vampires love the humans they bond with absolutely. their love is so powerful that losing one of these humans devastates them. again, love brings enormous vulnerability. loving involves the possibility, maybe even the certainty, that sooner or later you will feel terrible pain. in both books, there is a salvific element. i'm using the christian word, maybe wrongly, but i can't think of another one. in Sower humanity truly positively needs to be saved from destruction.
in this book humanity has already managed to self-destruct though war and nuclear annihilation. the planet has been rendered uninhabitable. enter the oankali, an extraterrestrial species that plucks from earth the few survivors, puts them in hibernation to be able to study them, and in the meantime restores the earth to salubriousness. it also destroys all ruins, with the precise intention of giving humans a blank slate.
250 years later our protagonist, lillith, is awakened from her suspended animation and restored to normality. she's on the oankali's ship, prisoner. she is at first treated like a prisoner, too, and subject to interrogation by invisible and patiently stubborn interrogators. eventually she is told that she, along some of the humans who have also been saved (the ones most fit for such enterprise, and also the ones willing) will be sent back to earth to start from scratch, or almost (they won't have to redo stone age, obviously, and they will have some modern tools). but there is a catch. in order to survive as a species, the oankali need regularly (we are talking in terms of thousands of years, i imagine) to find another species with which to merge. the humans are incredibly attractive and stunning for them, a real find. they find them to be full of untapped potential, and really amazing from a number of points of view.
here starts the delicate and brutal love dance between lillith, presumably chosen for her specialness to be the first to do this, and the oankali who are specifically designated to deal with her as her family.
lillith resents the oankali because there are many aspects of her future (and her present) the oankali have decided for her and about which she doesn't have a choice. for one, she can't leave the ship and go to earth on her own, refusing the oankali's help and, above all, their intention to merge with her and the other humans. she is a prisoner. but it's also true that the oankali give her all sorts of freedoms and choices, including to refuse them (in which case she won't get to go to earth). also, and this is the other part of the equation, the oankali have saved her, continue to save her, and are incredibly kind to her. what i am saying is, if someone were that kind to me, spoke to me like that, used that kind of respect and treated me like i am the most precious things ever, i'd find it pretty damn seductive. who doesn't want to be loved like that? but there is a price, of course, and the price is a certain kind of freedom. she does have the freedom to say no, but she doesn't have the freedom to shape her life as if she were alone.
this is where the story and my own thoughts/emotions/beliefs converge. 'cause, do we ever have the freedom to shape our life as if we were alone? and if we do, which we don't, but if we manage to do it as much as possible, isn't there a price to pay? i am not saying that those who choose to live like this are doing something wrong. god no. i am saying that those who abandon the world and go live in a cabin in the mountains with dogs and pets but no other humans (which is the extreme case of going it alone) do pay a price, a price they may be very happy to pay but which most of us simply cannot pay. and then it goes without saying that they, too, rely on others in some respects, just because of the way societies and the world have evolved.
so, the way i read this book, when lillith struggles against the amazingly seductive, warm, loving, and respectful captivity of the oankali, she is fighting against giving in to love, salvation, maybe even a superior form of freedom. because the oankali to whom she's bound give her moments that are so special, it's hard for her to walk away from them, and to acknowledge that she's walking toward them of her own free will.
this is the gist of what i wanted to say. there are other things here, trademark butler themes: the leader is always a woman, a black woman, and she is formidable at the same time as she is also vulnerable. she does get hurt, but she is strong as all get out. she has vision. she understands others. she gets it.
sex is a fluid thing, a merging of bodies and minds and hearts that is sublime and special. the gender of the other person doesn't matter. the species of the other (humanoid -- no bestiality in butler) person doesn't matter. the appearance doesn't matter. the number doesn't matter. what matters is intense, unbelievable erotics mixed with something so deep and alluring, it makes you willing to give your life for it. i call it love. it is love.
this is what i mostly got from this book. lillith is being taught how to love in a way that makes her rebel but also give in. the struggle, as i see it, is a struggle that comes from the very same traits that have made humanity destroy itself, and that would make humanity destroy itself again if it weren't for the loving (and pained: the oankali love too, and therefore suffer) teachings of the oankali.
at some point, the oankali tell lillith that humans have one exceptionally good feature and one feature that dooms them. i don't remember the exceptionally good feature but i remember the dooming one -- a pernicious tendency to arrange themselves hierarchically. i had the duration of the book to mull this over and i think butler gets it exactly right.
ETA and now that i browsed the reviews i see that people think poorly of the oankali, who to me are adorable. what do you know. ...more
i am, doubtless, doing a grave injustice to this book, which will be probably rectified the moment i read reviews and secondary material on it. but ii am, doubtless, doing a grave injustice to this book, which will be probably rectified the moment i read reviews and secondary material on it. but i have a prejudice against alice walker. she seems to me, for an accumulation of reasons none of which sits discreetly in my mind, identifiable, a sloppy writer. say this book. the story is powerful and powerfully told. but then there's a whole lot of anthropology thrown in, and some etymology, and some sort of grand historical theory of patriarchy and the submission of women, and when you scratch the surface a tiny little bit you realize that it's made up. i didn't scratch the whole surface, so it's entirely possible that some of it -- the core of it? -- may not be made up. but when i scratched i found sloppiness or unabashed invention (some invention is openly acknowledged in the postscript) and, well, i am not sure i liked it.
i could be persuaded, but, right now, i don't see why alice walker needs to come up with an invented nomenclature (say) for stuff that truly exists. she doesn't offer any reason and i don't see a reason myself.
so this is what took the book south for me. the first part is beautiful, but then, well, i stopped being engaged, because i felt i was being taken for a ride, and i become unconvinced with everything. what is the relationship between adam and lisette all about? what is its narrative purpose? how do people (reviewers, etc.) know that tashi is treated by carl jung? are the clay figurines for real? do women really leave refugee camps because otherwise they'd be asked to work? what?
nice treatment of post-traumatic mental pain, and powerful, powerful indictment of genital mutilation. i thought i knew about it but i didn't know a thing. genital mutilation must stop. ...more
i admire the heck out of this series. it's a genre i don't read much at all -- basically never, really -- so i lack terms of comparison and, perhaps mi admire the heck out of this series. it's a genre i don't read much at all -- basically never, really -- so i lack terms of comparison and, perhaps more importantly, the language to talk about it. the way i see it, the way it talks to me, it's as a saga in which good and evil confront each other on the bodies and the minds of humans, pretty much like it happens in the real world, except, because this is literature and because it is the particular genre of these books, all taken up a vast number of notches through metaphor.
the metaphor is the blood, which may or may not be the blood of christ. when there is blood there are vampires, but there are not vampires proper here, though there are people who want the blood of other people.
the religious aspect, which is not heavy, could have bothered me, the way it bothers me in all the dreck connected to vatican conspiracy theories and possibly even umberto eco, though i read him a long time ago. but tananarive due uses it only tangentially and above all she uses it more intelligently than i can say. this is not about christianity, really, but about making choices. good choices. impossible choices. choices so important that whichever way you choose someone is going to get hurt and someone is going to get saved.
and yet the difficult, imperfect choices must be made, because even the highest characters of this book are not perfect, because what is good is not always clear, because even when it's clear there is no straight road to it.
i've said this before about other writers who write in this genre -- i think Octavia Butler and definitely Nnedi Okorafor -- whatever this genre is: i perceive in tananarive due the compulsion of the story. i imagine her writing in a sort of writerly trance. i feel as if the story told itself through her. it's just too complex, and the details occasionally leave me breathless. why this detail? what that detail? and yet they seem so necessary, so appropriate, so essential to the fullness of the story.
so i find butler, okorafor, and due not to be awesome stylists, but i find all of them to be incredibly compelling, inspired, deep, and super smart tellers of essential stories.
now: i tried to push this series onto a fellow reader who likes the genre and is a deeply discerning reader, and he couldn't get past book one. i don't understand it when that happens. i don't understand when masterpieces talk to someone but don't talk to someone else who is just as subtle and discerning as the people who are in love with them. my buddy found the books clunky. clunky???? he also finds octavia butler clunky. when he says it i cover my ears with my hands and say la la la. ...more
i have no idea how to rate this book. it's beautiful in so many ways, but it's not a book one likes. so terribly painful. maybe i'll write a review. ii have no idea how to rate this book. it's beautiful in so many ways, but it's not a book one likes. so terribly painful. maybe i'll write a review. i have to recover first.
there is only one way i can make myself like (not appreciate, not admire, not respect, because those i already do: like) this book, and it is if i imagine it representing the author's childhood. in the acknowledgments she writes: "To the Philadelphia School for Girls, for being a light in the darkest part of my life..."
that would be her childhood.
now, if i'm an author who wrote a book about the terrible suffering the befalls each of the nine children of a cold and distant mother and a drinking, absent father, and i went to great pains precisely to show how terribly fucked up each child of this couple is; and if in the acknowledgments i refer to my childhood as "the darkest past of my life:" well, it seems to me i'm inviting the reader to gather that i had a distant, emotionally disconnected mother and an absent father, and that this caused me unimaginable pain.
this goes hand in hand with the very forgiving portrayal of both mother and father, who, in spite of their glaring shortcomings, are devoted to their children and love them, albeit in terribly flawed and entirely inaccessible ways.
also, mother's and father's personal anguish is contextualized. they leave jim crow georgia and come to the north (as it happens, philadelphia) full of hope and optimism. hattie, 16, is pregnant and soon gives birth to twins she clearly adores. hattie and augustus (17) live in a rented home but have great hopes soon to buy a house. that the twins are a seal of this promise is imprinted in their names: philadelphia and jubilee. at 7 months the twins catch pneumonia and die. maybe they die because is 1925 and in 1925 babies died of pneumonia. maybe they die because they would have died in 2013 too. maybe they die because hattie prefers old wives' remedies to the medicines recommended by the doctor. who knows.
philadelphia is cold. philadelphia is humid. philadelphia is not georgia.
this death marks the end of everything: of augustus's ability to stand on his own two feet and keep on walking, or hattie's capacity to be emotionally available to her children, of a future, of middle-class living. the rest of hattie's children's life is spent in hunger, abject poverty, emotional starvation, and the distress of living with parents who are so embittered with each other, they can't even be in the same room (except, clearly, to have sex and make babies).
each child is marked by his or her own brand of misery. one is schizophrenic.
the background is a background of dislocation. in the south maybe hattie and augustus would have been happy. the north is cold and unforgiving. the north is lonely. yet the south is intolerable, unlivable. and the children, in their own ways, all die.
i can make myself like this book only if i think that ayana mathis described her childhood. otherwise i'll just have to settle for admiring it and hope that whatever demon haunted this young writer was exorcised in the writing of this book, and the next book will have the same expertise and artistry and none of the deadly bleakness. because this deadly bleakness (broken only, and with much welcome, by a tiny rain of sun right at the end) gives me nothing. ...more
i read this fast the first time around. maybe i was cranky. in fact, i was definitely cranky. it was summer and i was reading books quickly in order ti read this fast the first time around. maybe i was cranky. in fact, i was definitely cranky. it was summer and i was reading books quickly in order to select two or three for class. when i read this the first time i thought, nice, but it could use a strong editorial hand. that's what i thought, "a strong editorial hand." can you think of a more hackneyed, a more patronizing way to think about a book? gah.
apart from two or three typos, this book is perfect. and beautiful. and happy. and also sad. but mostly, it's a happy book about being alive with the entirety of one's mind and one's body engaged in and with the world -- loving, tasting, feeling, seeing, embracing, touching it.
so in many ways it's a lot about compassion, because how do you go about embracing the world, really taking in the world, if you can't forgive the world for all you want and are not getting? you need to forgive the world in order to be happy with what you get. not just happy: super happy, ecstatic, alive.
from which follows that this is a book about sex. omnipervasive sex. life-giving sex. sex that may or may not lead to bodies penetrating other bodies, but is still, and always, craving of intimacy and touch, the touch that makes humans open up and let another come in. sex, you see?
there's a whole lot in this book about race, especially the terrible burden of black masculinity -- the violence, the repression, the defeat and defeat and defeat.
but i had too much fun, drew too much joy from the life this book exudes to worry much about the bad stuff. i felt like acting on desire. i felt like putting my tongue into someone's mouth and breathing them in, the entirety of them, the whole succulent fulness of them. ...more
people will tell you this is like pelecanos and people will tell you this is like lahane. but this is like neither. this is unique and so its own workpeople will tell you this is like pelecanos and people will tell you this is like lahane. but this is like neither. this is unique and so its own work of art, you want to beg everyone everywhere to read it.
as i said in my updates, this book feels canonical to me, in the way in which Toni Morrison's Beloved is canonical, and Percival Everett's Erasure is canonical. also Edward P. Jones's The Known World. you can add your own books to this list. there are some works of literature that recast a frame, throw a collective imaginary experience into a new light. maybe Walter Mosley, too. in any case, this book seems to me to be tinkering with the representation of african americanness in a way that is utterly original and frankly mind-blowing.
the premise is a plantation that has survived, at least architecturally, since antebellum times. the owners, descendants of the plantation's overseer (the owners either were killed in the civil war or left), still own the fabulous mansion and have put quite a bit of effort into preserving the original buildings, including the slave quarter. since the mansion is such a gorgeous place, it is now used for tours and various functions, like weddings and receptions. it is fully staffed to this end and (and here things get interesting) part of the staff is a full-time cast of actors who put on several times a day a play written in the 1950s (or thereabout) by one of the owners' wife. the play, which means to represent plantation life, is not even remotely politically (or historically) correct, but the current owners seem to see some value in its historicality (it was after all written in the 1950s) and lineage, so this is the play everyone sees. the cast is of course split into white people (owners) and black people (slaves), the latter speaking in the drawling ridiculous caricature of slave speech we are all so familiar with.
you see the reflections and refractions and mirrorings, even as the cast maybe doesn't, or maybe does, unconsciously or consciously. because this is after all a vignette of the uneasy game of "working" (vs. tense) race relations that take place daily in this country, in which we all play our part with our eyes squinted as tight as we can make them without shutting them entirely.
caren gray, the novel's protagonist, is the daughter of the mansion's now defunct cook, who was a descendant of one of the slaves when the war set everyone free. this slave clearly did not go anywhere, and here is caren, who tried to leave but life misadventures and then katrina (nice interweaving here of a very racialized event) left her homeless, so what else could she do but go back to the place where she grew up? notice that at the time of caren's childhood the clancy family still lived in the mansion, so caren's mom, descendant of the slaves the clancies' ancestor oversaw, was their cook. caren of course grew up playing happily with the clancy kids, especially bobby, who was closer to her in age, until, well, until it was no longer possible. because those were "other times."
locke's novel is all about how there are not, and never there will be, "other times." caren is now manager of the location, whose name is belle vie, or good life. her job is not easy. the current cook, a black woman, used to work under caren's mother and saw caren grow up. caren is close to the clancies in the sense that they all grew up in the same house, but now she's both their employee and the boss of a bunch of black and white people whose job is to reproduce end-of-the-19th-century plantation life for tourists and school kids. imagine daily re-enactments of the holocaust in auschwitz. imagine that the actors who play the guards are german and the actors who play the inmates are jews from all over europe, slimmed out to the edge of excessive skinniness for maximum realism. imagine that the whole show is run by a child of a holocaust survivor on behalf of the child of a nazi leader.
since this is a mystery, it all starts with the murder of a young woman who worked in the sugar cane plantation, which is still in operation and, while owned by the clancies, is operated by a subcontractor. its workers are mostly undocumented seasonal immigrants.
it could be hokey but it isn't. locke lets the parallelisms sink in while she keeps well out of the way, sticking to mostly sparse prose and caren's daily activities and preoccupations. the novel is full of gestures: coffee preparation, a kid to pick up from school, walking the grounds, supervising the plays, dealing with the police.
the first half is breath-taking. we don't yet know what exactly happened to caren from the moment she left the mansion never -- in her mind -- to come back. there is clearly a lot of failure in her last few years, but we don't know what it is. from the moment she discovers the body and calls the police, she's a reticent witness, causing the cops' suspicion and frustration. you may get frustrated too. why isn't caren more forthright? why doesn't she cooperate more? what does she have to hide?
locke, wisely, skillfully, keeps out of the way, not offering explanations, but you soon realize that this is louisiana; that we are on plantation land; that caren is a black woman, a slave descendant; and that a murder was committed on the land owned by the super wealthy descendants of what was probably a not-wealthy-at-all overseer. from where has all this money come to the clancies?
there's no mystery here, only history. but this history weighs heavily on caren's mind and body and psyche, making her squirrely, reticent. the detectives, of course, are white men.
so the first half is steeped in a dread that is difficult to bear, or at least it was to me. it’s the dread of centuries of terrible relations between african americans and white people in power, relations that are steeped in blood, violence, humiliation, subjugation, and an unshakeable belief that some of us are better, from just about every point of view except maybe brutal strength, than some other of us.
the second half is where all the knots get untangled and maybe is not as magical, not as mind-blowing. it's not that it couldn't have been, but locke gets into mystery-writer mode and gives us what the conventions require. it's still beautifully written and super smart, but it's not the unbelievable novel of the first half.
but who cares? the connection between modern-day slavery and old-times slavery needs to be made over and over and over, because we are all complicit and barely aware of the wage wars being fought by immigrant activists over tomatoes and other produce. at the time of this writing, publix, the supermarket where i buy my groceries, is still not down with the basic principles of fair wage as stated by the redoubtable Coalition of Immokalee Workers. the fair food program involves startling demands like "a code of conduct outlawing debt bondage and requiring humane conditions of labor and a more livable wage." also "shade stations, toilets and drinking water." why won't publix agree to such basic demands? why do i keep shopping there? would i have been an abolitionist during slave times? i wonder.
but this is not on the surface of The Cutting Season. this is where The Cutting Season leads you. the book is written with great effectiveness and attentiveness and tries very hard to, and mostly succeeds at, not hitting you over the head with anything. at the end of the day, it’s still the story of a woman with a terrible past and very, very difficult present. ...more