Archive by Author

Jubilee

22 Feb

By Margaret Walker

Why I Chose This Book
Jubilee was our book club selection for the month. Whitney had gone with a theme of “banned books” and it was my second choice (Farewell to Arms was my first choice, Jubilee my second, and Catcher in the Rye third), but I was not at all disappointed when it won the group’s vote. Honestly, I’d forgotten that I hadn’t voted for it. Frankly, I can’t really remember why I voted for the Hemingway in the first place. He’s, well, not my favorite.

Why I Chose Right Now to Review This Book
I finished the book a good ten days ago, but I’ve been dithering about reviewing it because I’d gotten onto this train of thought about American slavery, and the Holocaust, and if I’d personally be a fighter or a resigner (probably a resigner), and it was just too overwhelming to focus on. Then after we met for Book Club I had all of everyone else’s thoughts stuck in my head and had to wait a day or so for those to filter out. Then I wasted the whole weekend watching Season 1 of Fringe. But today I actually had my act together enough to clean pots and pans and prepping materials while I was cooking dinner, and thus had almost no dishes to do after dinner, and talked myself out of folding laundry, and then decided that yes, indeed, it was cold enough in the house to crawl under a laptop (it has a tendency to overheat the legs), and here I am!

Nutshell Review of the Book
This was an absolutely riveting fictionalized biography of the author’s great-grandmother, who had been born into slavery and lived through Reconstruction as an adult. It was a page-turner ’til the very end, and if the last few chapters lapsed into a lot of uplifting social message-delivering, one just remember that it is a product of the 1960s. The speechifying is perfectly consistent with the civil rights speeches of the day.

Detailed Review of the Book, With Minor Spoilers

This will be tricky. I really, really don’t want to accidentally write 3,000 words about the themes of this book, particularly off the topic of my head with a glass of wine* interfering with my memory of all those slave narratives I’ve read that are far too inconveniently placed in the garage to actually reference, and I don’t want to summarize. I also have almost nothing negative to say about the book at all, so I’ll try to hit a few pretentious thwarted literary scholar points and be on my way. I’ll even number the list for fun and convenience.

1. So what if there are a few sections that are just pages and pages of uplifting sermonizing about the future from a slave preacher in an oratory style, punctuated by multiple repetitions of spirituals? This book was written in the 1950s and published in the 1960s–I’m going to guess that these sentiments and lyrics were new to the mainstream audience the book was published for. Spirituals had probably not yet trickled down into the junior high school English class curriculum yet. I could make a similar point about the two or three chapters at the end that are almost entirely characters talking to each other about civil rights, but that was obviously a deliberate strategy by the author to connect the oppression of slavery and the blatant racism afterward to the current day.

HINT: Just skip those parts.

2. Here’s an interesting quote from page 308 (in the 1999 edition, pictured above): “I reckon all her things she left in Oglethorpe are gone, just like everything else, on the wind.”

I don’t really care if the phrase “gone on the wind” or “gone with the wind” is a common colloquialism that people have used in the south for centuries–this is not a coincidence. I am certain–with the certainty of a person who is making up a theory all by herself without once consulting any scholarly research about Margaret Walker or the writing of this book–that the author purposely used this phrase to evoke Gone with the Wind and force the reader to make comparisons. The film of GWTW had a theatrical re-release in 1961, and it would have been very fresh in readers’ minds (if the book’s popularity weren’t widespread enough that people would know the story). There are many of the same character types in both books (I like to think of Walker’s Lucy as a realistic version of Mitchell’s Prissy), including an encounter with General Sherman and a Southern Belle left to fend for herself and her family. Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone is a more scathing (and direct) critique of Mitchell’s novel, but if Walker is “taking on” GWTW (and I don’t think she is, really), it’s a secondary goal. This is a story first about her ancestor and second about slavery, and undermining the GWTW stuff is a bonus.

3. I wish there weren’t so many holes in my knowledge of 20th Century American literature, so that I could talk about Jubilee in the context of what else was being written, but I can’t. There are lots and lots of places to give a feminist reading of the book, too, but I won’t (too much recap required, not enough wine available). Vyry (the main character) definitely fits into the American tradition of protagonists who use their wiles and recognize opportunities and seize their chances and are self-reliant and natural leaders. So in that sense, she’s an American Hero doing all those American Things that appear in all those books from American Literature. But before she gets lost in the universality of it all, the author makes sure to remind readers frequently that Vyry was a real person who withstood real trials, and Walker peppers the book with excerpts of historical documents that relate to or even name the real-life counterparts of the characters. So even though Vyry is just one person, her story brings to life the story of so many other people who were slaves and who did not have granddaughters with the resources to research and document their lives.

You can see a picture of her here.

Fun Fact: Jubilee was published ten years ahead of Roots. I read Roots ages and ages ago (maybe while I was in high school), and–don’t get me wrong–it leaves an impression. But the scope of Roots is much broader, and readers meet in that book so many generations of Haley ancestors that you (and by you, I mean me) end up observing them rather than identifying with them. You may not learn as much about the politics and history of a region from Vyry as you do from Kunta Kinte or Chicken George, but I don’t think you identify as closely with Haley’s characters as you do with Walker’s. At least, as you do with Vyry–none of the other characters in the book seem quite so vividly drawn as she is. (And just now, after checking on a character name from Roots, I find out from Wikipedia that Walker accused Haley of plagiarism. I’m kinda surprised, and am mildly interested in learning more about that, but that case was dismissed from court.)

4. Does that Randall Ware know how and when to make an entrance or what? His presence in the book as a free black man working in Georgia, and his decisions about whether to stay or go after the Civil War could fill a book of their own.

5. And speaking of Roots, I did not know that LeVar Burton played Kunta Kinte in the miniseries until just now. He was just featured prominently in the February 17th episode of Community, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking.” I don’t recall any references to this role. It was all Reading Rainbow this and Star Trek that. He was frikkin hilarious, but I would have been happy with just a picture. You can’t be disappointed by a picture.

*Gewurtztraminer, and it’s my second glass. Plus I’m hungry and want a second dinner of ramen.**
**It is not a healthful practice to go make a second dinner of ramen at 11:00 PM.***
***I never did eat my pudding for dessert, though.****
****Chocolate, with a Girl Scout Samoa cookie on top.

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Child of a Rainless Year

11 Feb

By Jane Lindskold

If the reviews of this book on Amazon are to be trusted, mine is a minority opinion. But it’s a minority opinion I’ve lived with for a few days, so I’m pretty sure it’s an honest one and not some first impulse overreaction.

Why I Chose This Book

I was at the library with two kids who were getting restless/excited about the Magic School bus and I couldn’t stray too far away from the children’s section. That put me in front of the rotating wire baskets of sci-fi paperbacks. I grabbed a fat one with a pretty cover and an interesting title, and an intriguing back-cover description.

Why I Chose Right Now to Review This Book

We were purportedly about to watch Archer, for which I’d snuggled myself into the comfy chair in front of the TV, but then Certain People decided they needed about fifteen minutes to go into the garage with my camera and film a golf swing. Because Certain People do not tell time,* and all my knitting is out of arm’s reach from the comfy chair (but for some reason the laptop never is), I figured that writing a book review was as close to being productive I could be.

Nutshell Review of the Book

Pretty cover, interesting title, intriguing premise. Poor pacing, lots of info dumping, and a second half that completely fizzles.

Detailed Review of the Book, With Minor Spoilers

Here are some words I never want to see in a book again:

liminal space

mandala

scrying

false-bottomed drawer

teleidoscope

Not a Dildo

This book had a lot going for it. There is a (sadly too rare) middle aged female protagonist in a book that is not a love story, a beautiful New Mexico setting, two main characters who are working artists, a household full of ghost servants, a mysterious family legacy, and an unsolved, decades-old disappearance. For a long time, all these things hold together, and a huge portion of the middle of the book is very much a page-turner–thanks to the plot. There’s this house in New Mexico, you see, that Mira Fenn (the protagonist) lived in as a child but has not been back to for forty years. The house is amazing, and probably the most well-developed character of the few who really get, well, screen time. Mira is described more than once as an artist, but you never really believe it. Domingo Navidad is a far more believable artist and actually a realistically drawn character, but he’s really just filling the role of Mystical Negro (although he is Mexican-American). Aunt May we interact with mostly when Mira is reading Aunt May’s journals, and she’s clearly the the voice of the author. I tend not to mind journals as a plot device to provide the protagonist with information that is otherwise unavailable, but these journals did not feel like journals, and they were full of too many little asides about how unfair and sexist life is in the 1960s. Mikey Hart** is just a walking Scooby-Doo Ending–he shows up, explains everything, and ta da! Story’s over.

It takes an inordinately long amount of time to get to good part of the story (it starts when Mira is a small child, and kills time until she’s nine and the disappearance happens, and then kills more time until she’s 21 and inherits some property that she forgets about, and then kills more time until she’s 50, and then kills more time until she decides to go to the house in New Mexico, and THEN you’re hooked). There are some parts where you just flip through pages two at a time (a particularly long example is when Domingo and Mira are on a hike and he is explaining all the mystical history of every single local attraction via lecture; it’s supposed to be foreshadowing but whatever), but there are also some parts where you get to chat with the fabulous Pablita Angel, and so the book really builds in tension and you really, really can’t wait to find out. Then, after Mira marinates some chicken and makes a pasta salad with vegetables from the garden that Domingo has been tending for all these years and invites Mikey Hart to dinner so he can spend the rest of the book jamming information down the reader’s throat. And there’s a lot of rest of the book left.

I almost didn’t finish, but I flipped through until I learned what happened. It was a really cool resolution to the story. The whole plot was really cool. It was a great premise through and through. Despite my ramblings to the contrary, I didn’t hate the book. Plus, lots of people love it. If pressed to give an actual rating, I’d probably put it on the low side of three out of five stars. Chances are very high that I’d look for another book by this author. But holy crap the main character better have a different wardrobe. Even ankle-length denim skirts would be an improvement.

*Do you really think I typed all this in fifteen minutes?
**This might not be his name. Comfy chair > too far from book > don’t even care that much to cross-check it anyway.

Chasm City

8 Feb

By Alastair Reynolds

One of these things is not like the other

One of these things just doesn’t belong

Can you guess which thing is not like the other

Before I finish this blog?

Why I Chose This Book

Last year I read a book by Alastair Reynolds called Pushing Ice. I picked up that book because it was 1) a big fat paperback to take on a long car ride and 2) it was about a moon of Saturn, and I really, really like planets. The book had me at the proverbial hello, and when I found myself with a need to pick out another book in a hurry, I went to the same author.

Why I Chose Right Now to Review This Book

For a variety of reasons, there were more dishes in the sink than would fit in the dishwasher, so I’m sitting here waiting for the dishwasher cycle to finish so I can empty it and reload it. The upshot is that I’ve already rinsed the dishes waiting to go in, and I turned on the heat function, so the emptying and reloading should be a breeze.*

My Reason for Using So Many Subheaders

To avoid a tl;dr situation. You’re reading a blog; you’re a Cool Kid of the Internet. Go look it up.

Nutshell Review of the Book

Chasm City is an entertaining, fairly predictable novel with a cartoony villain that takes an oddly sunny turn at the very, very end. The critical praise blurb posted on the front calls it a “space opera,” and yep–no quarrel there. Plus I’d totally watch this book on TV. But it’s not as good as Pushing Ice.

Detailed Review of the Book, With Minor Spoilers

Chasm City was a book that took a while for me to warm up to. There was a lot to like in what I was reading, and the world that it created was fleshed out with lots of detail, but there were three different story lines–all equally engaging–that for some reason didn’t mesh together well at the beginning. It wasn’t a chore to read, exactly, but I was skeptical about the book for a while because of these different threads. And then I hit that part in the book where I knew exactly how the three threads were going to connect, and that made the book much more appealing even if the flaws in the book were consistent throughout. I’m not a fan of first-person, either, but because this book wasn’t trying to be meaningful or artistic and the main character wasn’t angsty or excessively introspective, it was easy to acclimate to and ignore.

Tanner Mirabel Present was the primary narrative, and I liked the universe he moved through and how he interacted with the people he met. I liked the Mendicants, I liked the Canopy, I liked Dominika and Zebra and Chanterelle and the Pig People, and because the setting was so detailed and because the mystery was doled out at a good pace, his was a story I hated to leave and was always happy to get back to. Fortunately, his story took up the largest part of the book.

Tanner Mirabel Present spent a lot of time flipping back to Tanner Mirabel Past, who was far less interesting–faithful bodyguard to a charismatic warlord type with a jungle compound, loving from afar the loyal wife to warlord, and a lot of guerrilla fighting in territory that was too much part Hyperion/part something Orson Scott Card for my liking. Cahuella, the warlord, was even a big game hunter with a secret museum. This narrative was dragged out and frankly sort of dull, and although it’s obvious at the end of the book why so much time was spent in this setting with these people, it was the weakest part of the story. Furthermore, Gitta, the beautiful, loving, and wise wife who had nothing to do but reassure the audience that Cahuella wasn’t totally a bad man, was in the story just to be killed just to give Tanner something to do, and that’s a trope that I’m tired of (and Gitta wasn’t even the only Disposable Woman in the book!). But that’s a rant for another time. Long story short: Tanner Mirabel Past got a lot of page-flipping from me. I really don’t think I missed anything important.

Storyline three was about Sky Hausmann, and it was very interesting for a very long while, before it decided to be cartoon villainy with a giant space maggot at the climax of the action. I’m not the kind of person that is uncomfortable with non-humanoid aliens, but a giant space maggot talking to a cartoon villain sort of undermines the drama. It was really good drama too–three generations of people had been born and died on a ship intent on colonizing another star system, carrying frozen passengers who hoped to help settle new worlds, only to find when they’d arrived that while they were spending 150 years traveling the technology on Earth advanced so far as to basically make their heroic, multigenerational effort quaintly charming but pointless. You could make a whole book about just this, except in the middle of this is cartoon villain and a giant maggot, and you get all giggly.** Add a psychotic space dolphin borg and a torture chamber, and you’re doing some page flipping through here, too.

And now it sounds like I’m down on the book, and I’m not–I really did like the parts of it I liked, and even the Sky Hausmann set-up captured my imagination if the character himself was too goofy to be believed. What I wish I’d known before starting is that Chasm City is the second book of four or five in Reynolds’s “Revelation Space” series. That I didn’t notice is a good sign–it’s a good standalone book–but research here and there tells me that the Melding Plague that has caused so many problems for the characters of this book was established in the first book, Revelation Space. That explains the presence of some scenes and some adventures about Dream Fuel in Chasm City, I suppose, and the sad, sad tale that Giant Space Maggot tells to Cartoon Villain probably has backstory in the events in Revelation Space, but eh. I’m not sure I’m going to seek it out. This universe was perfectly coherent, although I’m kinda annoyed that I read a book in a series without checking first to see if it was the first installment. I’m usually more careful. Of course, you can usually tell on the first page if you are missing something. I’m not going to be too hard on myself.

Currently Reading:

Jubilee by Margaret Walker

The Age of Zeus by James Lovegrove

Child of a Rainless Year by Jame Lindskold

*Uh-huh. Like I’m going to empty and reload a dishwasher at this hour.
**Tee hee! Giant space maggot!