Entries in booknotes (7)


Book Notes: Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Parable of the Sower

by Octavia Butler

Finished 8/6/2019


A shockingly prescient novel about the survivors of the end of the world, and the necessary costs of survival.

Lauren Olamina is 17 and lives in a walled community near Los Angeles, sometime in the 2020s. The world in which she lives has been ravaged by climate catastrophe, wealth and political inequality, and widespread violence. In her journals (which form the text of the novel), she documents her life, and her growing belief in a philosophy/religion that she develops called Earthseed, that sees change as the most powerful force in the Universe. Due to her mother's drug addiction, she is hyperempathic, which means that she feels the intense sensations (pain or pleasure) of other people in her proximity. Eventually, her community is overrun by invaders and she is forced to flee and build a new community with the other refugees she meets, and using some of her Earthseed insights as a guide.

Reading this book today, in our world, was really hard, but perhaps that's because its so easy to look away from the overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable overlapping catastrophes we face. The fact that Butler wrote this book in 1993 reveals both her genius and foresight and our collective lack thereof.

But this is an Octavia Butler book, which means it is masterfully paced, and the characters she creates are both lived in and real, and also serve as thoughtful interlocuters of the complicated philosophical and ethical issues she lays out. One of the most salient of these is how to cope with change, a visceral and frightful question given the world she has laid out. And yet her ultimate answer is that we must survive however we can, and with as much kindness as possible to those around us, even if that kindness requires violence or danger. Such survival requires a recognition of the power of diversity in the communities that it births, and that we should welcome difference as a means of adapting to new challenges. This ethic permeates the entirety of Lauren's journey.

My reading life is limited to a few minutes before collapsing into sleep each night, which meant that I spent a lot of time moving slowly through the frightening and horrific world that Butler prophecied. But ultimately, the book was hopeful, in its insistence that we can survive with kindness, and that this will create and re-create a community around us. This puts it at odds with other seemingly emancipatory dystopian fiction that either assumes a savior/hero, or sees a communities of resistence as a kind of autonomic response to oppression, without saying much about how such communities will cohere and evolve. The Subprimes, which I read earlier this year is funny and smart, but suffers from both of these problems.

I am in awe of Octavia Butler, as an author, a philosopher, and a social analyzer. Onward!



Book Notes: Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Oluale Kossola

"Barracoon" by Zora Neale Hurston

Finished 6/29/2019


Zora Neale Hurston has followed me through the entirety of my adult life. I was assigned to read "Their Eyes Were Watching God" in high school and was entranced by the astonishing poetry of her language

Reflecting back, it's possible that this was the first book by an African-American that I read cover to cover. My High School English teacher gave us some historical context on the Harlem Renaissance and her prominent place therein. Beyond that, like most White Americans, I was pathetically ignorant about the rich Blackness that undergirds American Culture. This book was part of the start of my education.

When I got to graduate school, I was delighted and surprised to discover that she played an integral role in the history of American Anthropology. She studied with Franz Boas and conducted prominent fieldwork in the rural south and Jamaica, collecting folklore, stories, and other aspects of what we might now call Expressive Culture. or even autoethnography. She wrote two books on the subject:  "Mules and Men" and "Tell My Horse."  Though not highly regarded in her lifetime, her folklore and ethnographic work is seeing a critical resurgence for its intellectual reach and deep humanism.

A few years ago, I had heard that an unpublished manuscript of hers, which involved an interview with Cudjo Lewis, the last African kidnapped in the Transatlantic Slave Trade was going to finally receive publication. I finished it a few days ago, and have a few scattered thoughts. The take-away is that it was riveting and wonderful.

  1. Kossula Oluale (also known as Cudjo Lewis) was clearly an astonishing storyteller--Deborah Plant, who edits the book, locates Kossula in the Griot tradition. The narrative is peppered with small details that make it more than just a recounting of memory. I was particularly struck by his evocative descriptions of his first arrival at Dahomey after being taken prisoner, and his horror at the use of ornamental skulls to display the power and violence of the Dahomean dynasties. But he also recounted the early days of Africatown, the community he and others founded after emancipation, telling amazing and dramatic stories about the lives and deaths of his family members and the ways in which they tried to survive in a land to which they were brought in chains. There is also an appendix in which Kossula recounts various fables he knew from his youth which are fantastical and delightful. Africa and the American Flag, by FOOTE (1854)
  2. Hurston's decision to write the book preserving Kossula's dialect was both a way to honor his cadence and storytelling, as well as a rhetorical masterstroke. Many times, I found myself saying sentences aloud to try and divine their meaning, and the delight that I got in evoking Kossula's words made for a richer reading of the text.
  3. I don't have a lot of experience reading the genre of Slave narratives, but found it interesting that Kossula talks very little about his experiences being forced to work on the plantation of James Meaher--a few paragraphs at most. The majority of the book details his shockingly rich memory of his first twenty years in West Africa and his later life in Africatown. His time enslaved takes up maybe two paragraphs. Whether this is from his lack of interest in discussing this horrific period, or Hurston's lack of interest in asking questions about, or just it not being particularly memorable beyond the drudgery and suffering of incessant menial work, I don't know.
  4. The accompanying historical and contextual essays by  Deborah G. Plant are really rich and insightful, describing both the problems that Thurston had in getting the book published, and the controversies which have emerged around it. There is some fairly clear evidence that she plagiarized some of the initial writing she did about Cudjo Lewis from a local Alabama historian named Emma Langdon Roche. But what is also clear is that Hurston's insistence on writing the manuscript in dialect, along with the uncomfortable history of Africans selling Africans made the book seem unpalatable to publishers in the 1930s and 40s. 

So for me, this book is a rich and insightful bookend to a much longer engagement with Zora Neale Hurston, a fascinating and unique piece of historiography, and a gripping tale of a survivor of the violence and horror of American Slavery.


Book Notes: The Subprimes by Karl Taro Greenfield

The Subprimes by Karl Taro Greenfield

A dystopian satire, written a few years ago, whose closeness to (as well as divergence from) the world we are currently in makes it even more unsettling.

The Subprimes of the title are people whose credit scores are sub-prime (and folks with not that long memories will recall the use of this term in the finance market to describe the volatile loans that led us to the 2008 crash). In 21st century America, they are social pariahs, as every aspect of citizenship and daily life are governed by credit scores (housing, employment, education). Those whose scores are too low are forced into vagrancy, setting up temporary camps called Ryanvilles (named after former House Speaker, weightlifting enthusiast, and champion of government deregulation Paul Ryan). The book intertwines a number of storylines, including several Subprime families, a washed-up reporter whose son is enrolled in an increasingly regimented and privatized school system, the wife of a energy stock trader under inditement for securities fraud, and a mysterious woman of color who tries to build political and social alternatives to all of this.

Along the way there are hard-right evangelical megachurch pastor/politicians, ultra-wealthy energy families manipulating politics towards their own ends, environmental castastrophe (the book opens with Whales beaching themselves en masse, and periodically references unending prairie wildfires), double-speak regressive politics (e.g. "the Clear Skies Act" which mandates environmental deregulation), economic exploitation of marginalized people, and the militarization of everyday life.

The Subprimes highlights the danger and disorientation of our world with both incisive humor and abject terror. The book opens with a depressing depiction of a Ryanville that is later destroyed by a police raid, in a passage both horrifying and enraging. There are also some wonderful puns and wordplay to be found throughout--the wealthy sisters who own most of America's energy concerns are named the "Peppers", presumably in references to the Koch (Coke) brothers.

This is a satire, which means its about ideas and abstractions, not characters and emotions. Most of the characters are pretty one-dimensional--the philandering stock-trader husband is astonishingly simple-minded for someone who scammed hundreds of people. Likewise, the mysterious revolutionary Sargham is almost literally divine, and the ending of the book casts a miraculous shadow over her political beliefs and hard organizing work. There were passages and sections that I found to be pretty abyssmally written, and that let go of subtlety in favor of a rhetorical beating.

And the end of the book is somewhat upbeat, but in a way that felt literally miraculous and belies the complicated ecological, economic, and political problems that it outlined. It initially feels good to see powerless people stand up to the powerful, but offered little beyond that good feeling as to whether such a stand would be ultimately succesful in any other narrative or historical moment.

All together, this was a harrowing read, given our current circumstances. It was definitely entertaining, especially in the "spot the pseudonym" sort of way, and it tells a story of triumph over evil. But I'm not sure that I actually enjoyed it, given how woodenly it was written, and given that the problems it sketches are all around us, frighteningly visible and visceral, I found its magical ending even more despairing.


Book Notes: The Hike by Drew Magary

Notes on: The Hike by Drew Magary


The story of a short journey that turns into a long journey, by turns funny, strange, sweet, and exciting.

Ben is on a business trip to the Poconos. He's away from his wife and kids, and his hotel is boring, so he decides to go for a quick hike in the forest behind it. He ends up going someplace far stranger and unimaginable, and for far longer than he thought he would be hiking.

Like all journey-stories, this book is about fate and how our relationships with others and our world form the choices we make. Ben meets all manner of strange creatures (including giants, demons, ghosts, dog-faced killers, huge insects) and bizarre people (a 16th century conquistador, stranded out of time, and an irascible talking crab, among others) and these collisions change the choices that he makes while on the Path. And along the way, his memories of his wife and children are the distant light that keep him moving.

Lest I leave the impression that this is some dour, weighty book--Drew Magary is a really funny writer. If you know him, you know his hilarious contributions to Deadspin, and especially his LOL column "Why your team sucks." And while the book isn't exactly humorous, it is very funny in places, whether it's the repartee between Ben and the cannibal giant who captures him, or his maddeningly funny/frustrating experiences early in the novel trying to get his iphone to work. Even when the book is more serious, Magary's prose is fast and rich and his world-building and imaginative set-pieces are really striking.


Book Notes: The Obama Inheritance

Notes on The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories of Conspiracy Noir, edited by Gary Phillips

Date finished: 3/25/19

A wild ride with a really clever premise, and featuring some amazing tales.

It's kind of all there in the title--this is a book in which writers of mystery, suspense, science fiction, and thrillers take, as a given, all of the conspiracies that were drummed up about President Obama, and turn them into a narrative. Given how feverish and bizarre many of these ideas were, it's a rich mine to plumb. The pulp tradition looms large here, with spy thrillers, space-monsters, and action heroes making regular appearances.

As with all anthologies, the results are variable. Some of these stories were thrill-rides, others reveled in the horrific implications of their inspiration, and others used the opportunity to contemplate America as an idea and a lived experience, particularly around issues of race (perhaps not surprisingly, as most of the contributors are people of color). The stories that I liked the best took the feverish, almost psychedelic weirdness of the far-right's swamp of Obama-hate and ran with it. Eric Beetner's "True Skin" and L. Scott Jose's "Give me Your Free, Your Brave, Your Proud Masses Yearning to Conquer" take on the idea of Obama as a lizard-person, with equal parts funny and disgusting results. Nisi Shawl's "Evens" plays with the idea of clones and their implications for succession and term limits.  Other stories draw on other mythologies and fold them into our current political situation--Star Trek for Adam Lance Garcia's "The continuing Mission" and The Scarlet Pimpernel in Gary Phillips "Thus Strikes the Black Pimpernel". Still others are action-filled thrillers like "Michelle in Hot Water" by Kate Flora and "Forked Tongue" by Lise McLendon.

My favorite story is perhaps the strangest--"The Psalm of Bo" by Christopher Chambers, framed as a gospel according to the Obama's beloved water Spaniel, and recounting the story of how dogs inherit the Earth. It's almost quiet and meditative, even as the story it depicts is absolutely bonkers and delightful.

It's hard to escape the world we're in, dangerous and spiteful as it is. But this anthology does the great work of confronting that world head-on. Maybe that's the best approach--certainly it made for an entertaining read.