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.

Run, by Ann Patchett

RunI’ve had Ann Patchett on my list of authors to get around to for some time now, so I’m very glad my book club chose this book and gave me that push to actually do so. But now I think I have to put her on my list of authors to give another shot, because this book? Didn’t really do it for me.

It’s a weird book to try to talk about (note to book clubs: does not make a great meeting), because while I read it eagerly over the course of four hours or so, I managed to come away with no strong feelings about it.

The plot is… weird. It centers on this wealthy political family in Boston with a dad and three sons, two of whom are adopted and black in an otherwise very white family. The dad dotes on the adopted sons; the biological son is kind of a screwup. Then the dad and the two adopted sons go to a Jesse Jackson event and afterward one of the sons is very nearly killed by a car except that he gets pushed out of the way at the last moment… by his biological mother.

Now, that sounds really cool, I think, but the book does not do the cool things with it that I would have wanted. The mother stays mostly unconscious in the hospital for the duration of the book, so we don’t get terribly much from her except for a strange interlude where she talks to her dead best friend. Instead we focus on the mother’s daughter, who knows that the brothers are her brothers and has apparently been keeping an eye on them with her mother all her life and is now being taken care of by this family that apparently didn’t have enough issues already.

The book does some interesting things. It opens with this fantastic story about a statue that I probably could have read an entire novel about. I can see it doing cool things with repetition and layered meanings. It talks about race, class, family dynamics, how our choices affect other people, all that good stuff. But for all the talking it does, I’m not sure what it’s trying to tell me.

In our book club meeting, my friend who picked the book mentioned that this book reads a lot like a fairy tale, with allegories and magical realism and things that just don’t make sense if you’re trying to read this as a straightforward novel. Unfortunately, the allegories of the book are largely political, calling to mind to my friends the Kennedys and other politicians and their various scandals, but my understanding of these references ended at knowing that Ted Kennedy was a person, so.

So onto the list of authors to try again Patchett goes. Maybe if I can read her awesome writing with some references that I understand, I’ll do a lot better!

Recommendation: For people who know politics, probably, and people interested in some weirdly twisty plot lines.

Rating: 6/10

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

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth SeasonAfter reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms at the beginning of the year, I knew I was going to end up reading more of this amazing author, but I also knew it would take a while because her books require some serious thinky thoughts, both for the content and the style. I had thought to just read her books in chronological order, catching up to her current book sometime in the next decade, but when I saw the advance copy of this one I just couldn’t help myself.

Let’s just say it’s a really good thing I’ve got almost the entirety of Jemisin’s backlist to go through, because otherwise I might die from the wait for the next book in this series. Give it! Give it now!

There is a LOT going on in this book, so if you’re like my coworker whose eyes glazed over after I got to, like, the third plot point, you may want to just skip this post and move on with your life. Also, a lot of the magic of this book is the fact that you know almost nothing at the beginning and then Jemisin parcels it out to you as necessary, so if you want that experience, skip this post and then go read the heck out of this book and then come back and talk to me about it.

For everyone else, I will do my best to explain.

The world: I guess it’s Earth, definitely a future Earth if so, where there’s one giant continent that everyone lives on that is full of seismic activity. The shakes caused by all this do the normal damage we’re used to from earthquakes, but also every once in a while a huge shake will cause a fifth season, during which the sky is covered in ash and the world is messed up for a good long while before things get back to normal. Also in this world are people who can sense and control seismic activity, and they’re called orogenes or, if you’re feeling offensive, roggas. Most non-orogenic people feel offensive.

The plot: The world is ending, due to one very disillusioned dude. A woman named Essun comes home to find her son murdered by her husband and her husband and daughter nowhere to be found. She sets off to find them. A girl named Damaya, who is an orogene, is given up by her parents and sent to the Fulcrum, a sort of military school for training up dangerous orogenes (read: all of them) to be useful members of society (read: slaves). A woman named Syenite, who is a member of said Fulcrum, is sent off on a dual mission with a much more powerful orogene — first, to clear out a harbor, and second, to get pregnant and make another powerful orogene for the Fulcrum’s use.

The deeper meaning: This book is, as you may guess, about systematic oppression. The dedication in my advance copy is “For all those who have to fight for the respect that everyone else is given without question.” It’s some heavy stuff. If you can’t sess the race metaphor inherent in the orogene’s lives, don’t worry, this world is also obsessed with literal race and looks, with much commentary on how people look and whether they conform to breeders’ specifications (no, really).

The writing: I love it. I love it so much. About a third of the book is written in the second person, and I was iffy about that in the beginning, but you (ha) get used to it pretty quickly. As I said before, Jemisin dishes out most of what I told you very slowly over the course of the whole novel, through the chapters from each of the three women and also through some interruptions from the narrator to explain a few things, although these bits explain nothing and just leave you with more questions. Which is awesome.

Can you be an author fangirl after only reading two of her six books? If not, no worries, I’ll just be over here reading everything this woman’s ever written.

Recommendation: For fans of Jemisin, high-concept fantasy, books that make you think all the thinks.

Rating: 10/10

Welcome to Braggsville, by T. Geronimo Johnson

Welcome to BraggsvilleSo. This book. It, um, it exists? And is weird. Super weird. The end. Recommendation: Weird.

Seriously, though. I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I got into this book. The jacket copy promised me four Berkeley (sorry, Cal) students staging a “performative intervention” at a Civil War reenactment in BFE Georgia, and it delivered. It promised me satire and skewering and weird, and ohhhh it delivered. But it did not tell me what I was getting into.

So, okay, here are the parts I can tell you without spoilers. The protagonist is a white kid called D’aron from BFE Georgia who gets into UC Berkeley and proceeds to become exactly the kind of pedantic, overzealous, idealistic nerd you’d expect a sheltered eighteen-year-old away from home for the first time to become. Read: sooooooo pedantic. Daron (who drops the apostrophe at college) quickly makes friends with a white chick from Iowa, a black dude from Chicago, and a politically incorrect Asian dude from San Francisco, and as one thing leads to another they end up planning the aforementioned intervention, which involved dressing up as slaveowners and a hanged slave and seeing what reactions they get out of the local Georgia folk.

That in itself would be a fascinating book. Over-educated kids do something pretty stupid, maybe teach rural folks a lesson but probably learn more of a lesson themselves about compassion for their fellow man or whatever.

But then, things go juuuuust a little bit wrong at the reenactment/intervention and suddenly Daron is forced to reevaluate pretty much everything that has ever happened to him, and things get super duper weird from there on out.

The book ends up being a really strange and interesting look into race relations and inbred prejudice and the way people value and validate the things they believe in and how what one group thinks is totally normal is absolutely unfathomable to another group, whether we’re talking Civil War reenactments or Instagram hashtags. And the author doesn’t focus on just black vs. white or urban vs. rural or college-educated vs. trade-educated or West Coast vs. The South or managers vs. wage-earners, but makes a case for every side in every war of stereotypes he could apparently fit into this book. It is an impressive feat.

But be warned — the narrative is just as overzealous and pedantic as D’aron himself, which makes a lot of sense and also makes it at times incredibly difficult to read. Think Ted Mosby in full “Uh, I believe it’s pronounced, ‘cham-uh-lee-un'” mode and then add ten. Or, for you literary types, it’s a lot like Colson Whitehead‘s quasi-stream-of-consciousness-with-lots-of-big-words style or really a lot like that one Jonathan Franzen essay I read where he rags on people who don’t want to read works that are hard. I mean, there’s literally a chapter written as a research paper. If you can get through the writing, there’s a great book inside it, but if you don’t want to deal with that kind of thing just go ahead and skip this one. Franzen will judge you; I won’t.

Recommendation: For super-nerds who cringe when they remember their college pedantry and people who need a not-so-subtle reminder that not everyone thinks like an academic.

Rating: 8/10