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 be...morei 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. (less)
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 for...morei'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. (less)
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 i...morei 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. (less)
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. i...morei 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. (less)
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 work...morepeople 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. (less)
the writing is competent and the issues seem intriguing, but the lesbian interaction is dealt with quite clumsily, in my opinion. a shame, because int...morethe writing is competent and the issues seem intriguing, but the lesbian interaction is dealt with quite clumsily, in my opinion. a shame, because intersections of race and sexuality are always fascinating.
UPDATE. mistinguettes made me pick this up again. almost done!
okay. so, i learned a bit about homosexuality in black communities by reading this book, reading e. lynn harrisInvisible Life and watching Pariah. of course i realize these are three texts, but i've got to start somewhere. next, i'm going to read this book and MAYBE by the end of it all i'll be a tiny little bit smarter.
problem with this book is, you are never given a way to understand why protagonist angela should a) fall in love and b) stay with entirely unlikable white gf cait, who is given to impulsive sex with no foreplay (which, by the way, would be nice for the reader too) from day one, and, once the two move in together, becomes a very self-absorbed companion. also, angela seems really sensitive and sophisticated, while cait is quite simply a tank.
so either author villarosa doesn't know how to portray white characters (all the black character, i.e. all the other characters, are more tri-dimensional than cait), or she is hell-bent on stretching our willingness to believe in this romance. (less)
this starts off quite simply. a 30-something african american woman is a marine scientist at woods hall, which is a pretty groovy place in which to be...morethis starts off quite simply. a 30-something african american woman is a marine scientist at woods hall, which is a pretty groovy place in which to be a marine scientist. at first the novel focuses on this über-unusual fact, an african american woman, still young, as a senior scientist at a prestigious institution. so blah blah about her always being the only black person in the room, and sometimes even the only woman and in the room, and blah blah about how much she loves water and her job and the fishies* and blah blah about how once she was mistaken for a cleaning person at a conference at which she was the presenter, yougetthepicture.
but then the scene changes entirely and she's back in cleveland, where she was born, to get her brother out of rehab and settled in their mother's basement. this brother, whom she loved terribly when they were kids, didn't grow up to be an educated man. he worked as a trainer for an NBA team (lebron's team!) till alcohol and drugs got the best of him and he had to drag his ass into rehab.
while working with his team (i don't remember the name, but everyone reading this is guaranteed to know the name of the cleveland basketball team, right?) tick (brother's nickname; josie doesn't have a nickname, only an abbreviation) has slid into "black" talk and now, as they drive home from rehab, this educated boy who didn't speak ghetto one day in his life growing up is all cool and groovy and vernacular.
so on the one hand you have the black girl that got away entirely, and on the other hand you have the family that stayed. and the gulf between the former and the latter is way deeper than ghetto talk or job choice or no longer living in declining cleveland. josie is profoundly distant from her family, and this distance seems pretty much insurmountable. something inside her has frozen and died and burned and withered and the way back seem irreparably compromised.
so josie discards her duty of seeing her brother settled and goes back to her academic life and her white husband.
this happens in the first third of the novel or less. the rest is a multi-voiced narrative that tries to give a history to the family disaster that pushed josie away and tick to addiction. and the beauty of this book is that it never, as far as i can see, pinpoints this disaster with clarity and precision. sure, josie's and tick's father turns out to have been an alcoholic for most of their lives at home. now, i must say that i don't know what it's like to live with an alcoholic, but the stereotypes -- violence, mostly -- are not there. ray comes home very late at night and when he's home he sits in front of the tv guzzling beer. on the day of his birthday, he disappoints everyone by getting drunk and not showing up for his party. so, above all, he is totally and irredeemably absent. and then his wife kicks him out, and his children cut off all ties with him, and it's over.
and to me, to this person who never had any experience with alcoholism, this doesn't sound too terrible, you know. so all through the book i experienced josie's profound distance (not only from her family but also from her husband and from herself), her refusal to talk about her childhood, her inability to relate to her family, as a bit of a mystery. and this mystery kept me entirely hooked, because it seems to me that families are made of feathers, and a little hit of breeze can easily upset delicate balances that remain upset for life. and this upset doesn't stay just like it was when the breeze broke, but it grows and grows and becomes its own thing and brings with it unforeseen miseries. and i was happy that martha southgate was able to represent this, the train wreck that sometimes results from breezes and feathers.
i want to add two things: one, that i haven't even begun to give away the plot. this is a dense and engaging story and i have said nothing of what happens. two, that i wish southgate had chosen to end the book differently. but it's okay. this book reminded me a lot of louise erdrich's superb Shadow Tag, a book that depicts a family that turns into a train wreck with breezes and feathers, too, and both books impress me greatly.
* dear martha southgate, scuba divers don't use oxygen tanks (those are for sick people), they use air tanks. you did that twice! tsk tsk. also, i don't think a marine biologist who studies marine mammals would talk so much of fish, but i'm going to leave that to the experts. (less)
when i finished the book, i realized that the hurricane's presence in it had been much stronger than i had realized at first. even though katrina occu...morewhen i finished the book, i realized that the hurricane's presence in it had been much stronger than i had realized at first. even though katrina occupies only two chapters, it seems as if the prose breathes hurricane weather in and out in every chapter -- through water, heat, stifling humidity, the stillness of the air and then the non-stillness of the air as the trees sway in a wind that gives no relief, hunger, dirt, restless sleep. you know it if you've been in a hurricane, but i think having followed one on tv may be enough. the tv, though, doesn't give much of a sense of the tremendous heat. the heat and the humidity are enormous.
so this book is pretty amazing -- brave, really, because it tells, it seems to me, a rather unconventional story using the weather as the thing the book is about, the atmosphere the book's events are wrapped in, and a metaphor for various elements of the narrative. this is a book that is rife with metaphors, but they didn't seem heavy to me; also, i don't mind heavy.
the story is unconventional because these are people who are truly at the margins of representation. poor, rural black people appear in movies and books only as color. if they play any role at all other than that, it is to be bit characters in genre fiction. there are just not a lot of places where you get to see rural black folks in their communities as fully developed characters with rich, interesting and complex lives. my personal experience proves nothing, of course, but i think i've encountered these people only in slave literature -- and then they were not these people at all (i'm mentioning them only because they were black, rural, and poor)!
so really this is interesting and beautiful because it opens up a space for other people to be met, seen, and known. it enlarges the scope of representation. it enriches the cultural village. there is a huge blank space in representation and this book helps fill it.
and these lives are interesting. they are fascinating. they are rich with love, desire, family, courage, survival, communication, growing up, trying to be good, trying to do good. they are not alien lives. they are intense and nuanced lives minus air conditioning, square meals, and working televisions. this should not need to be said and maybe my saying it is offensive, but i think many of us just don't realize it because we never see it. poor rural black people are just about as othered as people get in our society. i think i feel more connected to poor black folks in other countries than to poor black folks in the united states. if our culture does anything about poor rural (and urban) black communities, it teaches us to be afraid of them. this book kicks this fear in the teeth.
i think, by the way, that jesmyn ward did the exact right thing in not trying to represent accents and regionalisms in the writing, because that would have reproposed the othering.
there is so much more than can be said about this book -- in fact, i have spoken not at all about what happens in it. but we are discussing this in january 2012 over at Literary Fiction by People of Color so there will be plenty of time to get into the intricacies of the story when the discussion gets started (link to come). what i wanted to say here was mostly that this is a beautiful and brave novel, and that everyone should read it, and then maybe a movie should be made of it, and that people should start getting to know each other beyond the heinous stereotypes hammered into us by the stupid news.
this book is so ridiculously good, i had to check and check again that this author has in fact written only one novel, and no fiction at all (at least...morethis book is so ridiculously good, i had to check and check again that this author has in fact written only one novel, and no fiction at all (at least in book form) since 1993. NINETEENNINETYTHREE???? what are you doing, randall kenan? can you pleasepleaseplease write us another novel?
what flows in the arteries of this magnificent mixture of narrative, hallucination/visitation, snippets of playwrightery, first-and-third-person chapters, old stories and present stories -- what keeps it alive and beautiful and luscious and irresistible -- is preternaturally beautiful language and a vision of african-americanness and religion and family and life's torments that only language this beautiful can convey properly. i found this book very painful. a friend of mine tells me it's about comics. to me it was about pain, weariness, endurance, exhaustion, sickness, and the consolation of death. maybe comics are about all of these things too (i'm sure my friend would say they are).
at the center of the novel is the predicament of horace, a high school gay boy who is tortured to the bone by his homosexuality. his grandfather is chief deacon and this means a lot in the small baptist community where he lives. religion and the sinfulness of his desire chase him everywhere he goes. because he has nothing else to turn to, he turns to magic; except it's home-made magic, list-ditch-effort magic. what results is a visitation of spirits or a visitation of inner demons, depending how you choose to read it.
intermingled with horace's hallucinatory/supernatural trip are various multi-vocal narratives, most notably a sunday trip by three of horace's family members (his grandfather, his cousin and his great-aunt -- if i have that right) to visit sick relatives. the trip's banality and pettiness acts as a counterpoint to horace's torments, but also speaks of family, of people's taking care of each other, of long-held secrets, or intergenerational miscommunication, of growing old, of loss, of aloneness, and, to some extent, of love.
and yet, painful as it is, this is not a bitter book. i at least didn't find it bitter. i found it gorgeous. there is an quasi-epic quasi-biblical passage toward the end that links all of horace's pain -- and by extension all the discomfort and defeat of the three in the car on their errand of mercy -- to slavery. the passage drips sadness and despair, but then it's also so incredibly beautiful, how can this beauty not contain seeds and seeds of hope? (less)
i found this book exceptional. do you remember when jhumpa lahiri debuted with Interpreter of Maladies and everyone went WHOA? Before You Suffocate Yo...morei found this book exceptional. do you remember when jhumpa lahiri debuted with Interpreter of Maladies and everyone went WHOA? Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is that good, though i'll be surprised if everyone goes WHOA, because, let's face it, the readership for young African American female writers is different from the readership for young Asian American female writers. and by different i don't only mean different, but i mean smaller, something i invite all readers of this teensy ickle review to remedy immediately.
beside being WHOA-worthy, these two books have this in common: they pack a punch. danielle evans is less gentle about the punch than jhumpa lahiri. i read this book in a daze because i was tired, independently, and i hope to read it again sometime soon. but i was also dazed by how much these stories contain. young men and women navigating the cusp of adulthood (a process that may and often does take many more years than the designated number), with few and inadequate tools to do so, in a world they have a dated code to understand, and so so alone.
yet, aren't we all? who are the guides of our transition from childhood into adulthood? and the guides of our transition from, say, being 20 to being 40? and who are the guides of our transition from being 40 to being 70? you'd figure that, this process being, literally, a matter of life and death, we would have built a system of chaperoning, mentoring, holding, advising -- also a system in which there is room for people to rest, take long breaks, check out for a bit, find their 20s feet or their 40s feet or their 70s feets.
instead, all we have as guides, most often, is tv shows. really. that's it. tv shows. we are not only alone but lied to, everyday.
but i'm getting sidetracked. danielle evans doesn't mention (that i remember) tv shows, but she does bring up, over and over and with stunningly insight and subtlety, how woefully unprepared we all are to face the world.
this book is significantly devoid of parents. i don't think evans means to say that most parents are bad parents, but i do think she means to tell us that, often, they just don't or can't keep up (cuz no one can).
finally, a comment on the title. unlike the vast majority of short story collections, the title here does not come from any of the short stories, but from a poem by danna kate rushin, a black feminist poet. the poem is called "The Bridge Poem" and if you read it in its entirely (and i hope you will) you will see that it's about translating -- people to people, cultures to cultures -- and being really, really tired of doing so. this is not a recent poem (i'm going to guess it was written in the 80s). following a small section of it in the epigram page there are two lines by audre lorde, another feminist black poet, that go: "I do not believe our wants/have made all our lies holy."
at first, since i didn't remember who rushin is, i read the excerpt from her poem as the tired lamentation of a woman who has to deal with clueless men. but no, this is the tired lamentation of a woman who has to deal with clueless everyone. maybe the mysterious lines from the lorde poem are also about excuses for not being willing to engage in the hard work of interpreting and understanding life.
and this is how, finally, i read both epigrams together. as if evans, this young black feminist who writes with equal compassion about men and women, were picking up the slack and giving these old (i'm not talking about age) and valiant warriors a break and a spell. i hear her saying, "hey guys, you can get a spot of rest now. let me pick up the battle. i'm young and the world has changed. hey, it has not changed much for the better, but maybe it has changed enough that y'all can rest and let me carry on your work. i feel fresh and i feel equipped. plus, quite honestly, i'm a heck of a writer."
if you discount jane austen's Pride and Prejudice this is my first ever romantic novel. actually, i read a couple of queer YA ones, which makes this i...moreif you discount jane austen's Pride and Prejudice this is my first ever romantic novel. actually, i read a couple of queer YA ones, which makes this is my first adult heterosexual romantic novel after P&P (does Emma count as a romantic novel?). i am point this out for the double reason that 1. i am clearly no expert in the genre so my opinion of the book must be read with this in mind and 2. i want to bring to people's attention the fact that i read it and finished it. in fact, i read it fast. and with relish. this will offset, i hope, my middling score.
now, i've read other people's reviews of this novel here on GR and i am forming the general idea that people find truly disparate things in romantic novels. some of the reviews are delighted with the quick-paced quirkiness of this book. some are outraged by protagonist/narrator davie's nastiness. some find the story implausible. maybe, when it comes to our fantasies of love, we get somewhat rigid, want our formulae to be upheld and preserved.
leaving aside the accusation of implausibility (of course it's implausible! it's a romantic novel! love doesn't happen like that! never!), i find this book ingenious and smart in its conscious reprise and subverting of the romantic trope (incarnated in the brat pack movies, especially Sixteen Candles). for one, all the characters are black. if you are a white reader who mostly reads books by white authors (like i am), you tend to forget this while reading 32 Candles. crazy how we simply assume that everyone in the world is white. EC is an astute writer and plays on this with subtlety and intelligence.
if all your characters are black and you set your book in L.A. (where i lived for some years), you are necessarily drawing attention to the ways in which L.A. has both moved toward de-segregation and remains profoundly segregated. rich black people live (mostly) in the same parts of town where rich white people live, but they hang out with each other. same as white people do. this multicultural city retains its caste system.
but then it's not caste, is it, because the heroes of this book, the Farrells, sit on a large financial empire. at the same time, this tremendous financial empire is built on hair care products for black people.
EC explores the fault-lines of black life in america with a truly light touch and a great deal of humor. this novel if funny! this white reader, me, found EC's light touch truly effective. in fact, on quite a few occasions i found it positively brilliant (like, for instance, when davie refers to the high school one town over as "The White People," even though it's not an all-white school, and just because it's a better school).
as for nastiness, nastiness is all over this book. there is a lot of hurt, and hurt people can be, and often are, nasty. also, people are people, and they will fuck each other over. then there are good people who can also, occasionally, be nasty, because goodness doesn't need to be all-encompassing to be real. nicky, for instance, is both good and nasty. that's how life is.
considering what she's been through, davie seems to me a model of sanity. again, EC traces the fault-lines of her brokenness with great delicacy, subtlety, and humor (did i mention that this novel is funny?). davie is smart, good and, yes, occasionally nasty.
so maybe i was more interested in race, trauma, and the reorganizing of the romantic plotline than in the romantic adventures of davie and james. but if you like romantic stories you will like this, because it's brilliantly written and very very sweet. (less)