Kendi’s How to be an AntiRacist is part memoir, part black studies, and part call-to-action book, and I read it far more quickly than I had anticipated. He personalizes the struggle that both our society and he have gone and are going through, and he ends by describing his vision for an antiracist world. That vision is a beautiful thing.
- I always think I’m pretty well-versed in the history of the United States, but I learned a couple of things.
- Harriet Tubman actually led a raid on South Carolina slave plantations – the raid was conducted by the 54th Massachusetts (yes, that 54th).
- William Tecumseh Sherman actually asked black leaders in Atlanta what they wanted to do – be assimilated or have their own land – and when they said have their own land he made that happen: 40 acres and a government mule.
- Among the many insights I took away from this book is that calling something racist in a pejorative fashion does not do what Kendi advocates for, which is treating it as disease caused by policies, not a character flaw in an individual. I’m very guilty of the latter, and I need to get better about it.
- Kendi also very carefully looks at the ways in which intersectionality plays into this conversation, looking at the usual suspects of class and gender as well. He devotes individual chapters to each, and adds biology and ethnicity as well.
- Many, many great quotes – here are a couple:
To be antiracist is to focus on ending the racism that shapes the mirages, not to ignore the mirages that shape people’s lives.
But before we can treat, we must believe. Believe all is not lost for you and me and our society. Believe in the possibility that we can strive to be antiracist from this day forward. Believe in the possibility that we can transform our societies to be antiracist from this day forward. Racist power is not godly. Racist policies are not indestructible. Racial inequities are not inevitable. Racist ideas are not natural to the human mind.
- As I said, those are just a couple.
- His approach is remarkably inclusive, even if it involves a lot of intentionality and hard work. The ways that he sees racism and all the other -isms being inflicted upon people shows that it affects all of us, except perhaps the very wealthy.
Kendi’s vision is a beautiful one, and perhaps more importantly offers us a way forward. This planet and its people are too beautiful to throw away, and Kendi offers us a way to salve some of biggest schisms that we have, heal our wounds, and move forward. As he notes, as humans we spent over 200,000 years noting color but not pinning it to specific characteristics in a pseudo-scientific fashion. Moving past the divisions caused by the false construct of race (which Kendi argues is actually a construct of power) is both doable and critical.
Laila Lalami’s The Other Americans might be the novel most dedicated to social realism that I’ve read in a while. It tells multiple stories from multiple perspectives of folks who grow up in inner California, the part of California that lots of people don’t really exists.
- The main narrative thread follows the Guerraoui family – dad, mom, two sisters – as they flee from oppressive Morocco to the US. We find in a flashback that dad feared that he would be arrested by the regime – at least one of his fellow student activists was – and so they fled without having much choice.
- We mostly closely follow Nora, the youngest sister, who is a composer and her dad’s favorite, as she tries to deal with both her grief and her guilt at dad leaving her a large life insurance policy that ignored mom and other daughter.
- Dad had all kinds of things going on – successful restaurant, businessperson despite his ambivalence towards capitalism – but he also had an affair that his daughter had to come to grips with.
- The white folks of the town had an ambiguous relationship with their Moroccan refugee neighbors, as we might imagine. For instance, one of them – who went to high school with Nora – falls in love with her, and has to reconcile that with the shit he had to do as a Marine in Iraq.
- The narrative energy comes from the investigation into the dad’s death – at first it seems accidental, but things arrive and someone gets convicted – but the story is never over-hyped. The investigation doesn’t tear the town apart or set neighbor against neighbor in any dramatic, Save the Titans fashion.
- Instead, it reveals the ways that racism is inherent in the American social fabric, and the constant struggles that individuals have in trying to understand their own places in the world.
Lalami’s novel is most effective in its breadth, I think. It doesn’t ask a lot of characters in some ways – they don’t have to reconcile or redeem themselves in any hyperactive way. The gradual realizations that they come to – the underpinnings of their own belief systems, interspersed with the cultural narratives and social norms that helped them formulate those systems, do more than enough work in concretizing barriers in how we get along.
I did not read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation when it first came out – I think that the experiences she was relating (I had read her pieces in the Texas Monthly when I lived in Dallas) felt too close to reality, even if it wasn’t my lived experience, and the fact that my generation of Xers had rejected the drugs of the Boomers only to become addicted to our own – ones that were produced by the pharmaceutical companies to boot – was too maddening.
I’m sorry I didn’t, and the fact that I picked this up after Wurtzel died probably lessens its impact on me. Still, I found it maddening and powerful, even if I’m not quite sure what to think about her mission in general.
- I admire Wurtzel’s desire to show the chaos that someone with depression can be very comfortable plunging themselves into. In a straightforward narrative that’s a difficult task, and she does this by being unsparing of herself in her prose.
- That unsparing quality is offset by her manic need to get this story told, an effort that keeps her writing I guess, in an effort to document.
- I’m guessing that my concerns about not understanding her mission don’t take into account something she talks about a lot – the critically desperate need she has to try to communicate just what it’s like to be in her head.
- I keep struggling with wanting to judge her. She asks – almost begs – for that judgment, from us as readers as well as those in her life. In fact, the way that she begins the memoir (she publishes this when she’s 27, and the first scene in the book happens when she’s 25) demonstrates her willingness to not let this fall into a pattern that we’re familiar with – the redemption story.
- She doesn’t let us believe that there’s a happy ending, although she pulls that punch a bit with her epilogue and afterwords in which she sounds like the calm, smart, well-read journalist she is in her other writing.
- Her desire to show just how unlikable someone suffering from major depression is confirms her sentiment, and she is amazed at the people who stay with her no matter what, even when she accuses them unfairly of doing horrible things to her.
- I was also fascinated by her traverses across class borders – she’s almost a tourist in the drug culture, all the while hanging out in one of the elite establishments in the country (Harvard) and fully utilizing what sound like amazing facilities. And yet she has to get her drugs from somewhere, and she ends up writing a lot about cultures that are far from the mainstream, and writing about them as a traveler not a tourist.
I realize that I keep falling into the same traps that I’m sure lots of us fall into – I want to extrapolate from her life and find ways to help those who are mentally ill in all manifestations. My guess is that this book directly contradicts my desire, and that the amount of impact we can have is limited, unless, of course, we want to take on the larger social and cultural issues that are driving people even more to madness. I’m thankful she wrote this, as gathering lived experience from those whose experience is far different than mine is critical to understanding our fellow humans.
Queen of the Dark Things is the second in the Dreams and Shadows series by C. Robert Cargill, and the series is an interesting mix of elements of urban fantasy, bildungsroman, and teenage-sorcerer. More (hopefully) coherent thoughts below:
- As in Dreams and Shadows, Cargill neatly expands the boundaries that us Westerners (and probably more specifically us citizens of the U.S.) think of when we think of sorcery and fantasy novels. In QOTDT, Cargill brings in aborgines from Australia, and he uses them in a compelling fashion, calling them Clever Men and portraying them as integral to the story.
- In this case, the djinn who raised Colby (Yashar), is about to sleep for a long time – I guess this is something that djinn do – and he has to hand him off. He asks a friend from the outback, a Clever Man, to take responsibility for Colby, and the Clever Man then raises Colby and another young girl who has been stranded wandering in dreamtime.
- Even the Clever Man can’t completely protect them, however, from little demons that have resulted from some pirates who committed atrocities and were hung. Their spirits haunt many places in the world (and serve as the fodder in the final battle in this book), and Cargill’s portrayal of them is fun because they are so dark.
- They are forced to kowtow to the girl, who becomes the Queen of the Dark Things, until she fights her way free with the help of Colby.
- They’re so terrifying that they even scare the 77 demons from Hell, a group with whom Colby bargains in order to face down the Queen of Dark Things, who has an interesting backstory of her own, and, thankfully, does not truly become the source of all evil.
- Colby’s trips with the demons to secure the items he needs for the final battle are fun as hell, and he even cites a real book on demonology, Pseudomonarchia Daemonum.
- The idea of demons clearly affects us nerds, as early coders named some of the more willful elements of their prose daemons, and the connections here are clear.
- A key theme in these texts is the impulsiveness – which can be read as arrogance – of youth. Many of the trials that Colby faces come about because of his own arrogance, a trait he admits.
- As far as bildungsromans go, that is a tried-and-true trope, and folks like Rowling use it as well.
- I am really curious about the theological hierarchy (and belief system) displayed in here, but my guess is that that explanation will take yet another book.
- The configurations of power, especially when thinking of magic, and of the existence of alternate worlds is pretty fascinating, and Cargill’s linkage of all supernatural regions is both fun and makes some sort of odd sense.
Sadly, it looks like there will be no more books in this series, since Cargill’s latest, Sea of Rust, takes place in a completely different world, and he is spending most of his time working on films – he’s supposedly working on the adaptation of Deus Ex, to which I say yes! I can only hope that we haven’t seen the last of Colby Stevens and Austin, Texas.
The Power that Preserves is the last novel in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever trilogy. Donaldson completes, sort of, Covenant’s travels in the Land, and allows him to rescue it, although not in the ways that fantasy novels ordinarily approve of.
Re-reading this trilogy after forty years makes me thankful for Donaldson. I’ve spoken of this in the reviews I did of the first two novels, but as a teenager I was so frustrated with Covenant – we know what fantasy heroes are supposed to do (hell, Joseph Campbell knew what they were supposed to do, as he chronicled in work he was doing while Tolkien is publishing the series that starts it all). Looking back on Donaldson’s trilogy makes me think that it is a necessary corrective, one that when viewed with Samuel R. Delaney’s Neveryon series starts to move fantasy away from its potentially fascist, northern European worlds to ones that reflect the world as it is.
Donaldson’s series is far different than Delaney’s, both less and more subtle, but the direction it moves fantasy is no less important I think. The reason adolescent me knows how Donaldson should act – the reluctant Gandalf who gathers allies to confront Sauron, or Aragorn not pronouncing himself king before the ruined gates of Minas Tirith until the people force him to – is because I had hungrily devoured those series multiple times, looking for some sort of understanding of the world that corresponded with my own. Donaldson forcibly refuses to let us indulge in this part of the fantasy, only letting Covenant act the hero after much destruction, some of which he is responsible for, and even in acting the hero he doesn’t, you know, act the hero.
- I’m still shocked about the rape, and I’m perhaps even more shocked that Donaldson never lets Covenant forget about it and even makes him pay in ways that are cruel – he actually gets to feel like a father for the daughter who is the product of the rape, only to see her die, and he chooses to travel with the woman he raped, much later, who as an old woman is obsessed with him and actually dies trying to protect him. This is not the behavior of an epic hero as we think of them.
- The Land is portrayed as this pristine agrarian, craft-oriented utopia – look, they’re like elves with the ways that they keep warm by magically heating rocks and live in trees without damaging wood. And yet Covenant never fully believes in it – even as he defeats Lord Foul at the end he finds power as much in his disbelief as in any of the emotions we agree are part of the generic conventions of fantasy.
- That lack of belief may come from his identity as a writer, but at the very least it never lets us as readers immerse ourselves completely in the world of the Land, no matter how brave and cool they are, how much we want to be like them.
- There’s much more to be said, but I’m pleased that the re-read was worth the time I invested. The series doesn’t necessarily feel modern or contemporary – instead, it feels inspirational, driving those who have pushed the genre even further – Martin, Erikson, Esslemont – to push these boundaries even further.
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.
This is my second time reading Lord Foul’s Bane – I read it as a much younger man, fairly soon after being introduced to fantasy through Tolkien. I remember being immensely frustrated with the novel at the time (not so much that I didn’t read the rest of them, however), and wondering with my mom how Thomas Covenant could be such a non-hero.
I picked it back up after reading the Malazan Book of the Fallen series a couple of times, mostly because Erikson talks about Donaldson’s influence on him. The re-read was interesting, and I thought I’d comment on it here…
- Part of my frustration the first time came because I wanted Covenant to be a hero – for Frodo’s sake, he was picked up and dropped into the middle of a Middle Earth of sorts, and he’s got magic powers…what fantasy fanboi wouldn’t have immediately picked up the mantle of hero and done great things?
- I’m guessing that’s partially Donaldson’s point – us fan boys cannot imagine our favorite genre as anything but a constant retelling of the hero cycle, the monomyth…and Donaldson toys with the idea that we would be heroes, dropping all of our current identity to play Aragorn or Frodo or Sam…in this novel, the shock of being transmitted is too great…
- In fact, *everyone* in this world is far more heroic than Covenant, including children and horses.
- Any heroic action he undertakes happens either because he’s forced to or because the action triggered an unexpectedly heroic consequence.
- The folks of the Land even *recognize* Covenant’s weaknesses – he is not looked upon as a potential savior but as someone who wears white gold (again, a wedding ring, picked out by his now ex-wife) and has no concept of the potential for destruction that lies in it.
- White gold is considered wild, uncontrollable magic in this world…and whatever Covenant does is not out of long study or intent but simply some immediate impulse.
- The Land is this insanely beautiful place threatened by those who can be legitimately be called evil – it’s set up as the ultimate insert-yourself-and-be-a-hero story, and Covenant can’t manage it.
- And I’m convinced that Donaldson is very intentional with all of this – when he brings Covenant back to the mundane world at the end, he has a doctor comment on how medieval leprosy is, and how rarely it’s seen – all Covenant gets from the fantasy infatuation with the middle ages is a wasting disease…
- There’s a lot more to do here, and I hope to pick this back up as I re-read the rest of the series…
Whitehead’s novel about his avatar Jonny Appleseed strikes me as a sorrow-filled yet full of resilience look at the issues of growing up gay on the reservation. More thoughts below…
- The heroes of this novel are the women. Men rarely provide support for Jonny, but the women in his life – ranging from his kokum to his mom – are there, even while they fight through their own issues.
- Whitehead’s use of the journey back to the reservation to attend a funeral provides another perspective on the path that Tommy Orange said he wanted to document in There There. Orange argues in There There that culturally in the US we prefer to imagine Native Americans on the reservation, away from those “polluting” influences of the big city, locking them in a nostalgic view of the American West that helps us atone for the sins of pursuing manifest destiny.
- Jonny Appleseed pretty straightforwardedly does the opposite of this, showing the narrator moving away from the reservation in order to find alliances as he struggles with the consequences of being gay in a society that hates gay people. He does not leave his ethnic identity behind – as the spoon boy in The Matrix says “that would be impossible” – but he finds some affirmation in the city (Winnipeg) that the men on the reservation cannot or will not give him.
- The narrator tells us through his grandmother of the concept of the second skin, which I guess is something that some Native American tribes acknowledge. There are issues with this, but my guess is that in some ways it makes members of the tribe who are LGBTQ+ feel less alien.
- I am gradually starting to become aware of just how many identification labels Native Americans have – in this book I was introduced to NDN and Nate. NDN makes a lot of sense, and my best guess about Nate is that is connected to Native Americans who live in the city.
- For a peak at the joyful space that is often found in Urban Dictionary, check out this entry for Nate.
- I love the buffalo on the cover – its red and white makes it look skinned, but it’s also embroidered, complicating a symbol that is often connected with masculinity (and hyper-masculinity1 at that).
- Finally, Whitehead’s appropriation of the Johnny Appleseed figure calls attention to just how problematic Appleseed is as a figure in US history, representing as he does a pastoral, uncomplicated, idealized version of the European settler, one goofy enough to wear an iron pot on his head and yet savvy enough to own property on the border.
I’ve stumbled onto Lucia Berlin’s fiction late, and I read these in the wrong order, but I’m glad I did. Evening in Paradise is a collection of short stories that made me go ‘whoa’ multiple times. Thoughts below:
- The title story is emblematic of Berlin’s prose, in my mind, as it describes a few years in a family headed by a long-suffering partner and a recovering addict. They live in a paradisaical fishing village off the coast of Mexico, one that feels both timeless and rooted in contemporaneity.
- When a former dealer finds them, the addict falls back into using, and even when the dealer ODs and the partner essentially buries him at sea the story ends with a sense that the devil is right around the corner.
- This sort of ending is typical of Berlin’s prose – at the end of several of these stories she leaves us feeling like, yay, everything will work out, and then with one huge narrative stroke she undermines what we think will be the ending.
- These stories are semi-auto-biographical, I guess, although Berlin has said that she is far more interested in them feeling real than being true. I understand that that’s a fairly common writerly caveat, but based on the craziness of Berlin’s life that stretch can go a lot farther, I’m guessing…
- I often struggle with how to characterize what I think Berlin fictionalizes incredibly well – the moment of what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” when you realize that your optimistic, perhaps naive view of the ways that you can overcome trauma fail you, and you have to figure out what to do, often returning to well-worn and not necessarily helpful behaviors. There as many responses as there are people of course – for me I always feel unable to focus visually when my views of the world collide – and I think these stories describe a huge chunk of them.
- They are so full of these moments that I often read while holding my breath, and even if the characters plow through marks are left.
- This novel is social realism at its finest, perhaps because so much of it coincides with the author’s lived experience.
I watched Altered Carbon before I even knew about the books, and I enjoyed the series (so much that I blogged about it here). The book was even more interesting, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.
- For me it was hard to read this without recalling Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, and at least the first book in the series compares favorably. The AI-hotel that defended itself and its clients was actually better done in the teevee show, but the concept is still pretty cool, and the generic expectations of cyberpunk are built upon neatly, without too much rehashing.
- In particular I thought that this novel caught the tone of exhaustion and desperation that permeates Gibson’s work. Kovacs (the detective who has been resleeved, and who might or might not be a war criminal and/or rebel) seems to be constantly on the verge of figuring out just what *this-all-means*, but if that knowledge is possible to attain he doesn’t get there, and the frustration is palpable.
- I thought the novel’s ending was far better than the way that the show ended, but its complexity would have been hard to capture in a visual medium.
- The most interesting idea of course is the immortality that the rich have gained. Morgan very clearly makes the case that the rich alone have the power to keep endless quantities of sleeves available, and they use that power to accumulate fabulous amounts of wealth.
- They also have to find increasingly exotic ways to become sexually excited, leading to the murders that drive the plot narrative.
- I hope that Morgan explores the identity issues more thoroughly as the series proceeds.
- On the one hand, Morgan’s comments on the results of immortality are fairly straightforward – people become increasingly horrible, and the accumulation of wealth by the 1 percent becomes increasingly striated.
- On the other hand, though, the identity questions become tangled, and Morgan doesn’t hesitate to bring God into all of this (there is a constant movement of Catholics against the resleeving of people throughout the novel). Making those questions of identity transparent leads beyond questions of good and evil, capitalist vs. communist.
- Instead, the implications of having these godlike powers become a meditation on the path to get there, given the many options that humans have already taken (and the environmental destruction that has led the rich to live on Mars, and leave Earth to those who can’t afford to leave).
- Kovacs himself has a relationship with some sort of cult movement, as he often remembers his home planet and its much stricter cultural mores. It’s also clearly the home of at best a founding father of sort, since it’s called Hansen’s World (or something like that).