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.

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the BonesPer our book club discussion last week, this falls into the “finally having an excuse to read a great book” category. I actually had this book in my hands right after it was published, because it sounded so interesting when I was cataloging it, but I never got around to reading it (as it goes with so many books I check out!) and then it won the National Book Award and there was no getting it back from the library for a while and so I kind of totally forgot about it. And then, book club! Yay, book club!

I guess part of the reason this one fell off my reading list is because as I heard more about it I found out it was one of those literary novels that is more about people and places and Social Truths than about, like, a story. So luckily I was prepared for that going in, because many of my fellow readers were disappointed by the lack of plot.

It was still really interesting to me, though, partially because it takes place right before Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Gulf Coast and I still am not so knowledgeable about that particular disaster and partially because it’s about a poor black family living on said Gulf Coast and that is a topic I am basically unknowledgeable about. So it was a learning experience!

The novel opens with the birth of a litter of pit bull puppies and, soon after, the revelation that our protagonist, Esch, is totes a pregnant teenager, but not in the fun Juno way. Esch spends the rest of the novel, which is just a few days in story time, dealing with this fact on all the levels from “omg there is a thing inside me” to “omg this thing is going to become a baby in nine months” to “omg what is the father going to think about this?” Meanwhile, her brother Skeetah is raising his own babies — the aforementioned puppies — and worrying himself over whether they’ll survive and whether he can sell them for good money for his family and whether his beloved dog will still be able to fight (yes, dog fighting, I’m sorry) after all this puppy-rearing is over.

And that’s… basically it. There’s a little bit about the impending hurricane but it’s not nearly as important as the family relationships or Esch’s relationship with her tiny fetus and its father. And boy, do those relationships resonate. I felt my heart breaking more than once for Esch as she dealt with lame “friends” and stubborn family, for Skeetah as he did his best for his two families (human and canine), and for a few other characters unwillingly caught up in Esch and Skeetah’s dramas.

On the down side, there are also many references to Medea and Jason of Greek mythology that I have to admit that I didn’t understand even though it seemed like Ward was almost over-explaining them. Also dog fighting. Also sometimes Ward was a bit unclear with things like dialogue and chronology and my brain was not pleased at having to do this work itself.

All things considered, though, I thought this was a great look into a little piece of a life that is not mine and, as another book club goer said, an excellent answer to the question of why people like Esch and her family did not evacuate before the giant scary hurricane, which presumes a lot of things about wealth and privilege. It’s a thinking book, but one well worth thinking about.

Recommendation: For those like me who need more diversity in their reading and actual lives, or in general those who don’t mind a book without a story.

Rating: 7/10