Kindred, by Octavia Butler

KindredI thought this would be a pretty slam-dunk book for me. The internets love it, it’s got time travel (!), it’s got complex social issues, somebody loses an arm… I mean, these things are catnip to me. Maybe not the arm thing. A little bit the arm thing. Whatever.

And, I mean, I found this book interesting, and compelling, and fascinating, but I just can’t bring myself to say it was a good book.

The story, and this is definitely the best part, involves a black woman from 1970s California who finds herself randomly and inexplicably transported back to early-1800s Maryland, when and where slavery is alive and well and not terribly friendly to educated black women. At first she goes back for brief periods, to save the life of a young white man when he gets himself into various types of trouble, but her visits get longer and she finds herself actually living in the household of this white man, as not quite but essentially a slave. She soon realizes that this household, and this man, are part of her lineage, and she feels obligated to protect all of it to protect herself, but that’s incredibly difficult when she can’t actually, you know, protect herself. Throw in her white husband who hitches a ride with her during one of her trips back and ends up playacting as her master, and you’ve got yourself a crazy, twisty, complex story about race.

So that’s great, right? It is. It’s sobering and fascinating to see how easily the 1970s characters adapt to life in the 1800s, how easy it is to do something you know is absolutely wrong when you know that doing what is right will probably get you killed. It’s awful to watch a child grow into a slave owner, and to see slave families broken up. It’s frustrating to see parallels in the characters’ thoughts and actions with the thoughts and actions of seemingly reasonable human beings today. This is a super important book.

But. For as much as I appreciated the issues of the book, and the crazy plot that tied them together, I couldn’t ever really get into the characters outside of their assigned places in the story. I didn’t really care about Dana, our heroine, or everyone else whose names I’ve already forgotten; they were just pawns in the greater chess game of the book. This is possibly the fault of, or just in addition to, the fact that my reading brain has never really gotten into the writing style of books from the 1970s, which rely heavily on the telling and are generally quite unsubtle. This book had a little more subtlety going for it, but I never found the writing especially exciting.

And possibly that’s on purpose, of course, and perhaps the point is that, hey, this whole thing that’s being written about race relations is really important and pretty sentences and deep characters are going to take a backseat to that. But the heart wants what it wants, and it didn’t quite want the book it got here.

Recommendation: Even if it’s not up to my apparently exacting standards of “good”, it is a book that you should read and that you should make everyone you know read, too.

Weekend Shorts: Awesome Dudes For a Change (Plus One Lady)

I have been listening to a LOT of audiobooks lately, which is super awesome, except when I’m trying to catch up on a backlog of blog posts. So, please enjoy these very short takes on some pretty awesome audiobooks about pretty awesome people!

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah
As will be my caveat for, oh, all of these books I’m talking about today, I didn’t know anything about Trevor Noah going into this book except that he’s that dude what took over The Daily Show. But I got an audio copy of this book for free for some unremembered reason, and had some listening time to kill, and so… voila!

And wow, this is a seriously good audiobook. Noah is a great narrator, which makes sense with the TV show host thing, and he has some amazing stories to tell. He talks about growing up during apartheid, and goes into great details that I’ve sadly already forgotten about how his black mother and white father left him in a very weird limbo, both socially and legally speaking. He also talks about his abusive stepfather, who is not just a regular jerk but an attempted-murdering jerk, which is crazy and awful. But of course my favorite stories are the ones that are a little happier and/or weirder, including one about working as a young copyright-infringing entrepreneur in the suburbs and another one that can’t be true but also can’t not be true about a dance performance at a Jewish center starring solo dancer… Hitler.

Yeah, so, basically now you have to go listen to this. You’re welcome. (Seriously, listen to it. It’s awesome.)

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss, by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt
Here, again, my knowledge of the authors was “Anderson Cooper is that silver fox guy, right?” and also “Gloria Vanderbilt is… probably a Vanderbilt?” Yeah, I know, I’m shaking my head, too. This is a memoir that I would never have picked up except that my book club wanted to read it, and, well, it was so awesome that I did that thing where I make a second book club read the same book so I can talk about it all over again. So good, guys.

The premise of the book is that basically one day Cooper realized that his mother was old and that he didn’t know a lot about her life that wasn’t more or less public knowledge, so he started emailing her to ask her questions about her life before him, and a little bit about her life with him. Those emails became this book, and with the addition of the authors as narrators this book became an amazing audiobook. Seriously, try not to cry when Gloria Vanderbilt is crying in your ears.

If you’re like me, you will learn way more than you ever thought you even remotely needed to know about this Gloria Vanderbilt person, but you will also be totally okay with that because she’s endlessly fascinating. She was born into a branch of the Vanderbilt family but lost her Vanderbilt father almost immediately after her birth, and so she was raised by a very young socialite mother and also a nanny and her grandmother and there was a giant custody battle and the newspapers were involved and there was scandal and things were just crazy. Then, when all that was sorted out, Vanderbilt got herself into a bunch of really terrible relationships and marriages, plural, and was generally kind of a hot mess. Then she settled into being an adult, more or less, and became pretty well known for her designer jeans and made a point of working even though she could totally have lived on her inheritance and she made several babies including one Anderson Cooper. He tells some pretty good stories about himself as well, including how he came out as gay and how he basically tricked his way into a reporting career, which seems to have worked out pretty well for him.

Then it all comes together at the end with a discussion about, you know, life, the universe, and everything, including whether or not fate is a thing and if optimism is just fooling yourself, so, you know, I didn’t mention the crying earlier for nothing. If you haven’t had a good cathartic existential crisis lately, this book is probably good for one. But in a good way! If that’s a thing.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I am almost embarrassed to include this book in this post, because I remember so very little about it and I will do it absolutely no justice with my words. But I do want to include it, because even if I can’t remember the details, I can remember how good I thought it was while I was listening to it and how important it definitely is.

The book is written as a letter from Coates to his son in the aftermath of all the everything that’s been happening lately, race-wise. Coates writes about his own experiences as a black man in our world, and the uniting idea of the book is the idea that black people are seen and regarded and experienced as bodies moreso than people. This is a strange concept to think about, but Coates frames it in a way that makes a lot of sense and will leave you thinking all the thinky thoughts after you’re done with the book.

I might recommend this one in print, though, because while Coates is indeed an excellent narrator, listening to him read his book is more about the experience of hearing the way his words flow rather than the experience of receiving information. Not that that’s a bad thing. His words flow very nicely.

Weekend Shorts: Serious and Less Serious Business

Normally I like to at least try to theme my Shorts posts, but this week the offerings probably could not be more different. We’ve got one super-serious and fascinating look at race in America, and one relatively lighthearted fantasy crime story. Let’s start with the serious.

The Fire This Time, by Jesmyn Ward
The Fire This TimeI was pleasantly surprised by how good Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones was a few years back, so when I saw her name on a Brand New Thing I wanted it. When I saw that it was a collection of essays from different authors about the Black/African-American experience in America, I was even more intrigued.

This book is divided into three parts. The first part, Legacy, covers the past: the history of a person, of a people, of a family, of noted and obscure figures. The longest of these essays, “Lonely in America”, talks about how even in history-obsessed New England there is a giant slavery-shaped gap in the common knowledge. It also talks a lot about libraries (not always nicely), so you know I liked it best.

The second part, Reckoning, covers the present, from pop culture to civil unrest and often both in one essay. My favorite of these essays is “Black and Blue”, a look at one man’s love of walking in Kingston, Jamaica; New Orleans; and New York City. As you might guess, his experiences in each place are equally dangerous but for different reasons. As a person who loves to walk and who has walked in some pretty shady situations, this piece really resonated with me.

The third part, Jubilee, covers, of course, the future. Daniel José Older writes a letter to his future children, and Edwidge Danticat one to her daughters, using the facts of the present to create hope for the future.

Not all of these essays are especially polished or organized or straightforward, but all of them are true, and I definitely recommend this collection to anyone looking to make sense of the world today.

The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi
The DispatcherOkay, now that we’re done with the serious, let’s get to the brain candy. The Dispatcher came out on Audible on Tuesday, and it’s 100% free until the beginning of November, and it’s like two hours long so I don’t know why you haven’t already downloaded it. It’s an audio-first experiment, but if you like what I have to say about it and hate listening to things, there’ll be a print and ebook version out next year.

I downloaded it because free, of course, but also because Scalzi and because the description was intriguing. It’s a story set in a world where people who are intentionally killed come back to life, but those who die unintentionally don’t, so there are people called Dispatchers who are hired by insurance companies and the like to intentionally kill people who are dying in surgery or performing crazy stunts or whatever so they can come back to life and get a second try at whatever they were doing. In this story, Zachary Quinto plays our Dispatcher narrator, who gets recruited to play consultant for the… police? FBI? someone… when a Dispatcher acquaintance of his goes missing.

It’s along the lines of Lock In in that it’s a pretty basic crime story with a fantasy wrapper, but unlike Lock In, whose backstory came in a separate novella, it is a super quick story and the exposition ends up taking up the majority of the story’s time. And then the plot was basically put in the box from Redshirts to produce a nice, tidy, but kind of unsatisfying ending.

BUT it has the line “You have Resting Smug Face” in it, and is two hours of pure Scalzi goodness, so, I mean, it’s a win overall.

The premise is great, the writing is great, the story is fun, but the novella length is no good. I could easily have read a novel’s worth of this, and maybe I’ll get to if enough people find this story as perfectly acceptable as I did.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow

The Girl Who Fell from the SkyI saved this book to read with my book club because it seemed like the sort of book that would have a lot of thinky bits to talk about, but unfortunately I couldn’t make it to said book club meeting due to unexpected depressing vacation, so I didn’t really get a chance to refine all the thinky thoughts I wanted to about this book before committing them to the internet. Oh, well, it’s the internet, no one will notice!

But really, this is just the sort of book you need to unpack with a friend or two. It’s a fairly quiet book and for most of the book it doesn’t really seem like anything is happening, but by the time you get to the end you’ve learned a lot of things about the characters and about life in general and you’re like, huh.

A lot of details are parceled out piecemeal over the course of the book, so there are probably unintended spoilers ahead as I forget what we know at the beginning of the book and what we learn later. Fair warning!

Okay, so, this girl who fell from the sky is our protagonist, Rachel, who literally survived a fall off the top of an apartment building — a fall that killed the rest of her family and left her to be shipped off to Portland to live with her grandmother. After a childhood in Germany and an all-too-quick stint in Chicago, Rachel, daughter of a black American father and a white Danish mother and now living with her father’s mother, finds it difficult to navigate the racial complexities of middle and then high school. She also finds it difficult to properly remember her parents, who left her under very different circumstances, neither of which Rachel can understand.

Rachel’s story in the present is told in a pretty linear fashion, following her as she grows from a child to a teenager. Her story in the past, on the other hand, is largely told through other people’s eyes, specifically her mother’s, in the form of her mother’s diary of their life in Chicago, and those of a young boy who saw “the girl who fell from the sky” as a child and who becomes kind of obsessed with her in the mostly non-creepy way of a child. All of these points of view weave together a story that is incredibly sad and makes me want to hug all the people and pets and inanimate objects that I like a lot.

I’ll admit that that’s not quite what I was expecting when I picked the book — with a title like that I was ready for more action and intrigue than quiet reflection, but I quickly got over that and enjoyed the book quite a bit. I would still love to talk thinky thoughts with other people about some of the specifics, though, so if you read this book, share yours with me!

Recommendation: For thinky thought thinkers and those who enjoy a multiple-point-of-view story.

Weekend Shorts: Citizen and Memorial

I’ve got an interesting combination of nonfiction books this week — one current events and one historical (if 2005 is historical…), one that is short and important and one that is looooong and self-important. I think you might be able to guess which one I liked better.

Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
CitizenI had heard many good things about this book, including that it’s excellent on audio, so I waited patiently for an OverDrive copy only to find that I couldn’t get past the narrator’s flat affect. But I still wanted to read it, so I put myself on a long list for my local giant library system’s ONE copy (poor planning, that) and many weeks later finally got to read it.

Again I was surprised, this time by the weird, self-published quality of the book — waxy pages, simplistic formatting, oddly placed images. I’m pretty sure this was a purposeful decision, but I don’t know enough to know why anyone would make it. But, once I got past that and started reading the book, none of that mattered because the words are amazing.

The first half or so of the book is full of short vignettes about casual racism experienced by Rankine — people asking completely unnecessary questions or making very incorrect assumptions and presuming that Rankine (and probably everyone else) will just forgive or ignore them. The latter part has, I guess, stories written for various outlets on the topic of race and racism, and although I found these more difficult to understand in their sort of avant-garde style, they were still super interesting. I was intrigued especially by the one about Zidane and the 2006 World Cup, which has a really cool two-page style and well-placed graphics and is just a great total package.

This book is a quick and necessary read for anyone who lives in this world, so go make your library buy a copy.

Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink
Five Days at MemorialI found myself without an audiobook a couple of weeks before the recent 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, so when I saw this pop us as available I knew I had to listen to it. I’ve read stories about Katrina in the past and bemoaned my lack of knowledge of the whole event, having been focused on other things like my first semester of college at the time. I hoped this would help.

And… it sort of did? But it wasn’t quite the book I was expecting. You’d think a book with such a specific title would deliver as advertised, but only a few chapters of this book are about those five days. Those are the interesting chapters. It’s fascinating, listening with that distance of dramatic irony as the hospital staffers prepare for their hurricane weekend at the hospital, bringing their dogs and food and water or bringing barely anything depending on how bad they think this hurricane is going to be. It’s horrible, listening as the hospital’s triage system fails miserably in the face of a hurricane that is much worse than anyone expected. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching, listening as doctors make decisions that will not just affect, but most likely end, the lives of their patients. It is insane and I hope I never have to deal with any of that in my life.

If the book had ended there? A+++, five stars, would read again. But instead it keeps going, talking about the legal aftermath of hurricane, about the lawsuits and criminal charges brought against the staff members who may or may not have euthanized patients, about prosecutors and defenders trying to piece together a case with very limited information. This might also be a great book on its own, but it’s so wildly different in tone and subject that I just didn’t have the same interest in it. And by the epilogue, which I should never have listened to and which is full of admonishments and recommendations for hospitals in future tragedies, I had completely zoned out and the book was almost nothing but background noise.

But those chapters about the storm are excellent, and you should totally read them. I bet this book would be a lot better in print, where the rest of the chapters can be easily skimmed over.

Long Division, by Kiese Laymon

Long DivisionI am a big fan of weird books. Books where people used to be spaceships? Sure. Books where people can kill other people with words? Oh yeah. But this book is the kind of weird that I can’t condense into one nice phrase. “Books about people who read books sort of about themselves but sort of not and also kind of time travel” just doesn’t quite have the same ring.

But that’s what this is, and if you’re like me even that odd sentence construction has you intrigued. I mean, time travel!

Now, this is one of those books that’s sort of more about the structure and the storytelling than the plot, or at least, if you think about the plot too hard your head is going to explode. But let me see if I can sum up:

Basically, there’s a kid called City Coldson who has a spectacular moment at the state “can you use this word in a sentence” competition (which is a competition I totally want to see) that leads to his mother shipping him off to his grandmother’s house in the middle of nowhere, where he reads a book about a kid called City Coldson who is visiting that same nowhere town and who gets involved with a girl who has found a sort of time machine hole and who is trying to fix the future but also a little bit the past? Oh, and the second City is reading the same book, except in his world it’s a book about the first City.

Does that make sense? Probably not. It’s not even quite making sense to me right now. But since that’s how I felt the entire time I was reading Long Division, that seems somehow appropriate. It’s a very abstract-feeling book, with all sorts of stuff happening all over the place that connects in surprising ways and then doesn’t connect when you think it should, but, who knows, maybe it does connect and you’re just not looking at it the right way.

One strong through-line in the novel is racism, from overt to casual to well-intentioned and everything in between. I don’t want to spoil the spectacular moment mentioned above, but let’s just say it involves the word “niggardly” and some serious deck-stacking in our present-day culture, and also as book City (who is from the 80s) travels through time we get to see a lot of interesting thoughts and interactions between people with different societal norms.

This is the kind of book that I would love to re-read because I know it’s going to take two or three times through it to even contemplate comprehension, but also the kind of book that’s just so weird that I’m really only going to read it once. And I know if I tried to bring it to a book club I’d end up the only one at the meeting. Instead, I will hope that some of you guys read it and then come back here and talk to me about all the things!

Recommendation: For people who hate author hand-holding and people who like being completely baffled all the time.

Rating: 7/10

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl DreamingI had heard all the good things about this book, but I was hesitant to read it because I have an irrational mental block against both memoir and poetry. I know, I know. I’ve had some success lately with memoir on audio, though, so when I saw this was available on OverDrive, read by Woodson herself, and also very short, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a try.

It did not hurt. It was actually quite wonderful.

The audiobook definitely helped, as Woodson’s poetry is free verse and so the book sounds like a regular memoir most of the time. But the audio also makes the poetry part so much better because you can hear where Woodson breaks her lines and where she wants the emphasis and I’m looking at the print version right now and it’s just not the same. There are a few poems where the spacing and italics and the white space in the print version have their own sort of gorgeousness to them, but overall I am very glad I chose to listen to this.

Oh, what’s the book about, you ask? Right. Well, it’s a memoir, of course, of Woodson’s childhood growing up briefly in Ohio and then primarily in South Carolina and Brooklyn in the height of the civil rights era.

“I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
Columbus, Ohio,
USA—
a country caught

between Black and White.”

Those are the first lines of the first poem in the book, and they set the stage for what’s to come. Woodson and her siblings grow up with a Southern mother and Northern father and feel the strain of that geographical divide no matter where they’re living. In South Carolina they live with their mother’s family in their mother’s home, but even their mother is wary of their lives there. As a Northern transplant to a very Southern part of Florida, I was startled to hear these words coming out of my car speakers:

“Never ma’am—just yes, with eyes
meeting eyes enough to show respect.
Don’t ever ma’am anyone!
The word too painful
a memory for my mother
of not-so-long-ago
southern subservient days . . .”

That first part is absolute crazy talk in my neck of the woods, where a forgotten “ma’am” gets even grown adults in trouble. “Ma’am” and “sir” have become so ingrained in my vocabulary that it’s hard to imagine anyone purposely not saying them, but of course it makes perfect sense in the context of the time.

And that’s how most of the poems go — they’re mostly short, some very short, reflections on mostly normal events like moving and going to school and making and keeping friends, but they’re all imbued with history, whether the history of Jacqueline Woodson or her family or the South or the whole country.

It’s a beautiful book and if you are on the fence about it for any reason, please do give it a try, especially in audio. You probably won’t regret it.

Recommendation: For everyone, really.

Rating: 9/10