Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is like nothing I have ever read. It is not (even though I spent the first half of my reading experience trying to make it so) about the immigrant experience, the migrant experience, or even the African experience (directly anyway) – its narrators immerse themselves in the entire body and soul of a young woman who was sexually abused and beaten as a child, and who has evolved an elaborate set of defense mechanisms to cope.
- My quick overview limits – in an almost generic sense – the ways in which this novel might be perceived. It does not read like the haunted memories of a woman trying to keep her sanity. Instead, with only two exceptions chapters are told from the point of view of the gods and goddesses who ride her, and who enable her to survive, and they are living, breathing characters (often to their chagrin, as they sometimes endlessly lament)…
- Emezi in the essay at the end of the novel describes it as “metaphysical,” so they (their preferred pronouns are they, their, theirs) are asking us to treat these big questions from a religious and spiritual standpoint, in addition to the psychological one.
- The borders – between body and soul, between religious identities, between genders – that we usually imagine are solid (if not rigid) do not exist in this novel, and Emezi clearly wants to examine them. They describe their work as existing in a liminal space, and those types of spaces are rife with conflicts, power, and energy.
- The use of many different embodiments of human personas in the form of a pantheon of all kinds of gods had me engaged (and possibly even immersed). There are no hints until about two-thirds of the way through the novel just what these various forms are, but there is lots of conversation of how they mean to both protect and annihilate Ada, the main (human) character.
- And the two extremes are not that far apart…
- As Ada deals with her own trauma, and jousts with the spirits inhabiting her, I never wondered about what parts of her were human. I am curious about that now – why did I so easily buy that these were gods inhabiting her body, mostly Nigerian or Yoruban? Was I imagining this novel was simply one of possession? Admittedly, that alone would be pretty cool…
- Finally, Emezi’s willingness to experiment is frightening in its precocity. This could have gone very wrong, and the fact that they also work in video and other art forms, according to the Internet goddesses at Wikipedia made me wonder if Emezi was simply too full of ideas to execute any of them.
- Answer – nope. They’re definitely talented enough to pull this off – it is one of the rare novels that I couldn’t wait to finish but which also didn’t find me rushing through and having to re-read because I had become impatient.
Big Mouth is an animated series about teens that is definitely not to be seen by them. It’s a hilarious, sex-positive, sensitive look at what it means to be a teenager and be nearly crushed by the chemical madness in your body. My wife and I enjoyed it, laughing so much that we often missed lines.
- I’ve not been a fan of Kroll, but this series made me rethink that. His pre-teen self is witty and yet really small physically, something of a nerd. His friend, Goldberg, is physically more mature but emotionally sort of a wreck. Throughout, their friendship waxes and wanes as they sort through the craziness of being a teenage boy.
- And Kroll voices a ton of characters, in and of itself a huge accomplishment.
- There are episodes discussing all sorts of perspectives – girls liking sex, kids respecting each other’s limits, masturbation, identifying LGBTQ – and much to my surprise no one is put down or disrespected. Even characters who are not the nicest people are given motives and reasons for acting as they do, except for the episode on toxic masculinity, which was still brilliant.
- Perhaps the most brilliant creations (as in all good sit-coms) are the side characters. Coach Steve is this innocent guy who somehow manages to go along day-by-day without either learning too much about the world or betraying his own general good-heartedness, and all the sets of parents are very fun and very odd.
- The best, though, are the hormone monsters, voiced by Maya Rudolph and Kroll. They are animated, furry critters (they are featured prominently in the trailer below) who make all of our hormone-driven-decisions-gone-bad real, and usually incredibly funny.
- Finally, I knew this series was good when I heard students talking about it. Lots of them watch it, and while that alone doesn’t speak for the series it doesn’t hurt.
The Mountain surprised me. We saw it recently at @nightlightakron, and on the surface I expected it to be an expose of the horrors of psychiatry in the 1940s and 50s, a worthy enough subject but one that has been done (and enables us to pretend that we are so much more civilized now). Instead, it was a bunch of films in one. I’ll try to characterize them here…
- Its color scheme invoked camouflage – characters tried to fit into horribly unnatural settings, hiding as much as possible despite the insane brightness of the often all-white interior.
- Spoiler alert – hiding is not possible, even for a once-renowned lobotomist who has now been proven to be a quack.
- The film abruptly transitions from interior to exterior spaces (and back), with almost no focus on the liminal space crossed. We see an inordinate number of doors opening and closing, but the transition happens with no muss or fuss.
- My guess is that the film argues that these spaces are really one and the same, and that the distinctions that we make are useless (until they’re not, when the young lovers see the mountain).
- The inability to communicate dominates. Tye Sheridan is almost mute, and Jeff Goldblum’s doctor is best when he’s drunk.
- Inarticulation is a theme – the one long rant we get is from a drunk Frenchman (who seems to make a living as a hypnotist, and we know that he knows that what he does is bullshit and his clients are morons) – and the rant is almost incoherent, as he tries to make a spit-flecked, alcohol-fueled argument for the uselessness of love.
- Typical of the film, after suffering through this rant Sheridan’s character then does the only act in the film that shows evidence of love, as he essentially gets himself diagnosed as needing a lobotomy – and gets one – in order to be one with the only person he has made a connection with (who gets lobotomized at the instance of her father, the drunk Frenchman).
- The fact that we are given a character to sympathize with, even if he doesn’t make sympathizing with him easy, works against our common notions of film viewership, and even, perhaps, what makes us sympathetic to each other.
- I kept hoping that he’s going to punch someone (anyone), but unfortunately he does not.
- It’s not an easy film in any sense of the word – but it has stuck with me for a long time…
Omar El Akkad’s American War might be one of the most relentlessly depressing (fiction) books I have ever read. That doesn’t make it untrue…
- El Akkad uses his experience as a war correspondent to imagine a future in the US in which the South secedes (over a fossil fuel ban fer crissakes), a southerner assassinates the American president, soldiers at an army base open fire on southerners protesting, and five years of war (followed after brief cease-fires by another long period of fighting) result.
- Hopes of peace are destroyed multiple times by hot heads on both sides. I’m both frightened this would happen and sure that it accurately recreates our ability to be dumb asses.
- The story is told by the nephew of a southern war hero, one who kills a northern general and who unleashes a plague at the reunification ceremony that kills tens of millions, on both sides. He recreates what happens by using his aunt’s diary as a source material, and he intersperses those entries with what are essentially news flashes, all from the northern side.
- Climate change has eliminated eastern cities, all of Florida and New Orleans, and much of the Gulf Coast. The fossil fuel ban was a late, futile response to the loss of land.
- The heat has driven people from much of the south, and rumors of other changes – the formation of Cascadia, the inability to grow oranges because of their high water requirements, the takeover of southern California and most of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas by Mexico – make clear that these seem to have happened.
- His depictions of the volatility and unprofessionalism of militias was particularly profound. A northern militia attacks a refugee camp run by the Red Crescent, for instance, and the southern militias are essentially boys who like to play with guns and who do “raids” that a) rarely net anything of military use or have any military value and b) that up the intensity of the war at moments when it might have calmed down.
- In particular this feature of the story felt like it captured the hopelessness and surrealism of the Afghanistan and Syrian conflicts. Battle lines seemed to be elastic, and civilians got caught in the fighting all the time. The plasticity of the front lines is always – from what I gather – far more real than the very clear lines drawn on maps or in historical descriptions of battles, but in this novel they seem both frighteningly real (to civilians caught as they change or come into conflict, or when hidden snipers are rumored to shoot anyone who approaches the northern end of the refugee camp) and nearly non-existent.
- I was particularly struck by just how messed-up both sides are. The story is not told as a yay-go-team from either side, as both commit atrocities and kindnesses, and neither can lift itself out of the hell they have created and the destruction they have reaped upon the USA.
- Finally, I’m a little surprised by how much of a page-turner I found this to be. I had to intentionally slow down multiple times.
I recently read Newitz’s Autonomy, and I wondered how she could so accurately describe the paths that our technological development might follow. Having read Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans will Survive a Mass Extinction, I now understand, because as a science writer and editor of io9, she has been in this conversation for a long time and knows a lot about scientific trends. She extrapolated some fascinating ideas based on that knowledge…
More thoughts below:
- Newitz’s approach is far different from most who write about our future destruction – she thinks humans, as agile, problem-solving, incredibly smart creatures, should survive. She does not ignore the problems we cause – she links us to cyanobacteria as the only organisms to negatively impact the planet enough to bring about a mass extinction – but she thinks that ultimately we are worthy of moving onto the next step in our development.
- As if any of this is linear, of course…
- In the book she charts both mass extinctions from the planet’s geological history *and* stories of how humans have scattered, adapted, and remembered, and thus survived.
- Her description of the ways that Jews have survived is particularly interesting, as she talks about the importance of culture, narrative, and story.
- Her view is remarkably non-anthropocentric – by positing humans in what she argues (with help from a bunch of scientists) is the beginning of the next large mass extinction, she identifies our place in the universe as a little smaller and more fitting than how we ordinarily think of ourselves.
- The last section of the book is probably too short, but it was fascinating as she discussed how humans will probably adapt (breathe methane, have skin that can survive acid rains on other planets, and so on) and the immediate technological developments we will pursue (algae-derived energy, space elevators, and so on).
- She doesn’t simply talk about all this from her own “research” as that is defined now – glorified Google searches. Instead, she shows us what powerful science writing is by incorporating interviews (that she’s done) and research from the scientific communities involved in this discussion – disaster preparation as well as well energy derivation and space exploration.
- As someone who occasionally thinks that maybe a meteor strike wouldn’t be a bad idea, I appreciate her rational, pragmatic, and organized look at ways that we might actually survive (and heavens forbid learn from) the coming destruction we are doing to the planet…
Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others was not an easy read. These stories made me work, albeit not in the ways I work when reading the Malazan or Song of Ice and Fire series (so. many. characters). Chiang’s stories (and they’re more like novellas) are dense with ideas and science and math, in ways that made me think about both the genre of science fiction and the ideas themselves…
More thoughts below:
- I thought that the first story – “Tower of Babylon” – sounded familiar, and I’m guessing that I read it in the late, lamented Omni many many years ago. I find it interesting that it still sounded fresh…
- His stories break generic expectations neatly – very little violence, not much in terms of space opera, and way more discussion of God than ever appears in science fiction.
- I will read some interviews to confirm, but I’m guessing this approach is intentional. In particular, the alien story is perfect – we never find out why they’re here, and they leave suddenly, without either offering us new technology or destroying our civilization. It’s not Independence Day.
- The fascination with math is pretty cool – his stories don’t speak down to us about the ways in which math is both foundational and dynamic. He has a character in his ubermensch story (“Understand”) rework our mathematical understandings of how the body works to make himself hyper-efficient, for instance, and fer crissakes this collection even features a story entitled “Division by Zero” in which a mathematician drives herself sort of crazy by working out permutations to prove almost anything through math.
- Heh – I just wish I was better at math…
- His emphasis on questions of identity in the future is fascinating as well. The last story in this collection – “Liking What You See: A Documentary” posits the creation of a type of gene therapy that invokes a form of the inability to recognize faces – prosopagnosia, for those keeping score at home – in children so that they grow up less concerned with physical beauty. The story takes the form of a documentary transcript, and it features all different kinds of viewpoints as folks try to understand the ramifications of doing this.
- Spoiler alert – I think Chiang himself comes out on the side of trying to make us less beauty-conscious.
- Finally, the idea of there being one god is omnipresent in this collection as well. The story that deals most directly with our religious connection to a supreme being is called “Hell is the Absence of God,” and it features angels as natural disasters who appear on earth for not-very-clear reasons and by doing so create fissures and storms and all kinds of destructive events.
- The story is particularly fascinating in that it never shows hell as being a bad place *except* for the absence of a supreme being – at one point we are told that you can look down into and see people just existing down there, with no fire or brimstone. As the title suggests, hell is simply a lack, and the implication is that heaven is a cipher, a construct of an imagined type of human happiness that actually may be just that, a creation of the cultural mind…
- The dilemmas the characters face then are all centered on what to do with this knowledge, exacerbated by the fact that the few people who have actually seen heaven’s light while on earth instantly went blind, and can now only talk about how transcendent that experience was.
- And living a devout life does not guarantee you getting into heaven…so there’s that…
- I’m glad I revisited these stories, and I look forward to reading his next collection.
Tommy Orange’s There There feels drenched in the violence that Native Americans have experienced since the arrival of Europeans, and that immersion feels icky to someone like me who has benefited from white privilege.
That’s how it should be.
More thoughts below:
- This novel feels related in a familial way to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, in both the brutality of the narrative and its multiple-perspective form. One of the key differences is that Orange does not try to recreate language patterns like James does, and he can pull this off since his narrators are not often first-person.
- Another key difference is the mini-essay that Orange begins There There with, a meditation of sorts on the Indian head from US-issued coins. I’m assuming that the essay is as close to Orange’s voice as we will get, and it is apologetic (to the reader at least) for the material that it covers while also setting out clearly what the novel hopes to accomplish. The directness of this felt refreshing, especially since Orange argues that the best way to communicate the disruption and violence that the Indian community is subjected to is through a disrupted narrative, and yet he wants readers to not be discouraged from reading it by his approach.
- The storyline kept me reading as much as did the narrative approach. It clearly builds to a climax that is both tragic and seemingly inevitable. It also points to the smallness of the circle that is the Native American community after generations of degradation at the hands of white America, as at the powwow this convergence leads to long-separated family members suddenly recognizing each other, often in uncomfortable ways.
- Orange makes transparent his desire to broaden the perspective of what we think of as the Indian experience, introducing his audience to both the “Urban Indian” and the Native American who looks white. In this sense passing becomes a strange phenomenon – a couple of his characters are enrolled members of tribes, and yet they look white enough to find trouble in being accepted into the native community. Passing as white is not something that they desire.
- The references in this are polyglot in all the best ways. The novel’s title comes from a Gertrude Stein diss of Oakland – “there is no there there,” but it also could be a way that we try to comfort children through language. The novel itself references Plath and Stein, and also Erdrich and Alexie, but Orange is comfortable enough with pop culture to include films and music, including Native American rap…
- Orange’s interest in sound is clearly portrayed in this novel, both in the rhythm of his dialogues and the power in the powwow as well.
- As with many of these novels, it feels most clearly the absence or lack – Orange early on describes cities as doubly-fraught-with-tragedy spaces for Native Americans, since they both represent a place that is difficult to survive in and a landscape that used to be far different before whites arrived. The lack is a powerful metaphor, and one that dovetails jarringly with the fascination that canonical Western texts have with wide open spaces as lacking civilization (and thus better proving grounds for masculinity or for reclaiming some lost utopian primitive space).
- Read it. The novel makes the occasional difficulty in identifying which character is which well worth the trouble.