Beloved

I read a wide range of fiction, and occasionally like to challenge myself with a work that’s well outside my usual fare. Many times I rise to the challenge, and those experiences can be rewarding. Yet there are times when I find a work a little overwhelming; those experiences can be frustrating.

Unfortunately for me, Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction that year, falls into the latter category.

The elements of a great story are all there — a band of unforgettable characters, a tense setting with a tragic history, and a supernatural being sowing chaos. When I step back from the prose and consider the individual elements of the novel, I’m very impressed with its scope.

The prose, however, is very dense, and the timeline is anything but linear. The text moves effortlessly between past and present, but the shifts happen with a frequency that is dizzying.

This isn’t a novel to be read; it’s a novel to be studied.

However, I feel the fault in this case is more on me than the work itself. I may not be able to appreciate its artistry, but I can at least acknowledge it. Some works are to weighty for me to enjoy, and “Beloved” is one of those works that is just too big for me.

Parable of the Sower

Rarely do I regret not having read a book, but I’m kicking myself for not discovering Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 novel 20 years earlier.

The story begins on the 15th birthday of Lauren Oya Olamina, whose journal comprises the novel’s entirety. The year is 2024, and the world depicted in a little over three years from the time of this post seems disturbingly similar to the world we have now. Gated communities, disinterested and often criminal police forces, rampant drug use, violent gangs, disastrous climate changes, labor laws enabling employers to enslave workers… Dystopian novels set in the near future tend to not age well (I’m looking at you Mr. Blair), but Butler’s prophetic ability is as brilliant as it is unsettling.

Another problem with this genre is tone; once you read the fate of Winston Smith, Robert Neville, or Dwight Towers, you can’t help feeling hopeless. Dystopia is at its best when it offers a solution, a way to escape from mankind’s dark fate, whether it be from a belief that survival is insufficient or an unlikely military victory. In Butler’s novel, hope is seen in Earthseed, the “religion” founded by Lauren in her journal. Quotes are needed because Earthseed, while it borrows language and thought from multiple established religions, is unlike any belief system that came before it. Lauren views God as an independent being, but one that needs to be shaped by its followers:

God isn’t good or evil, doesn’t favor you or hate you, and yet God is better partnered than fought… ‘God is Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, Clay.’ We decide which aspect we embrace — and how to deal with the others.

Lauren, through her thoughts on Earthseed, also looks beyond this planet, and sees humanity’s potential being realized on worlds beyond our solar system. In other words, there isn’t much hope for Earth, but there is hope for its people when they reach the stars.

Butler wrote a sequel to this novel, but her plan to complete a trilogy died with her in 2006. I don’t know when I’ll get to the second book, but it will probably be right after reading another dystopian novel gets me feeling helpless.

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness

Austin Channing Brown wouldn’t have had much use for the Diversity Training workshops I attended during my corporate work years. Those sessions featured a lot of polite dialogue, along with plenty of numbers and dates demonstrating our company’s commitment to diversity. These were harmonious affairs, comforting and reassuring to anyone save an unrepentant bigot.

The author of this 2018 book writes about leading these sessions, during which she felt pressured by her employers to not offend the feelings of her white participants, to instead re-affirm their goodness. Dissatisfied with these experiences, Brown now advocates more honest talks, uncomfortable discussions about the continued dominance of white supremacist ideology in America, with a focus on actions rather than feelings.

Like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Brown’s book combines personal narrative and social analysis. Brown’s narrative style is more effective than Kendi’s, mostly because she chooses a thematic rather than chronological format. She doesn’t match the lyricism of Coates, but not many writers can.

Christianity plays an important role in Brown’s work, and this focus sets her apart from the other two authors. While acknowledging the church’s role as a champion oppressor, Brown believes in a Jesus who is a champion of the oppressed. Hers is a Black Jesus, and she cites the influence of James H. Cone’s liberation theology on her beliefs.

One of the most memorable portions of the book comes in the description of an interracial journey through the south during college. A visit to a museum which documented the history of lynching provoked righteous anger from black students, defensiveness from whites. Brown records only one statement from a white student: “Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.” It was a declaration focused more on action than on feeling, and could serve as a theme for the book. Like Kendi, Brown cares little about what people feel or believe; how they act, and how those actions support or attack the ideology of white supremacy, is far more significant.

Le Morte d’Arthur

After more than a day and a half of reading time spread out over almost three months, I can finally check off Thomas Malory’s 1485 Arthurian saga on my must-read list.

Having had success with listening to Shakespeare performances while reading the test, I employed the same tactic with Le Morte d’Arthur. A wise decision, as Malory is no poet; his prose is so didactic and sedate that I’d have had difficulty staying engaged all the way through. The audiobook from Audible weighs in at thirty-eight hours twenty-six minutes and twenty-five seconds, a figure that has to be spelled out to be appreciated. It’s a good thing I ride a stationary bike for an hour two times a week.

I was already familiar with many of the characters and stories, haven seen more than a few Arthurian films over the years. Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone… Merlin’s cryptic guidance… Guinevere and Lancelot… Gawain, Tristan, Galahad, and so many other knights of the Round Table. My primary interest was discovering lesser known characters, and I believe I’ve found one in Sir Palamedes, a pagan knight with Muslim origins. Palamedes is a rival of Tristan for Isolde, whom neither can have after she is married to the cowardly King Mark. Like most knights in the saga, Palamedes can be extremely chivalrous at some moments yet violently cruel at others, and his status as both a religious and cultural outsider who nevertheless joins the Round Table makes him fascinating.

I’ve always wondered why Malory was never assigned during my decades of academic literary study, and I now fully understand. It’s a historical chronicle with speculative elements, magicians and dwarves and holy artifacts thrown in mostly to make the protagonist’s conquests seem all the more astonishing. There’s little poetry to be found, hardly a passage worth remembering for the elegance of its prose. But within its numerous pages I did find the origin of almost every Arthurian legend I’ve encountered in other texts, and that ultimately is what makes “Le Morte d’Arthur” a valuable and necessary read. Malory collected tales in numerous languages spread out over many centuries, laying the foundation upon which so many great works of literature have been constructed.

The audiobook performance by Chris McDonnell was much like the prose of the text — steady but unspectacular. It did feel almost as if he read the entire book in one session, a complete impossibility but a testament to the reader’s dedication.

World War Z

Max Brooks’ 2006 novel was the third and final work I read for a recent reading workshop on “contagious fiction.” This lacked the philosophical insight of The Plague or the literary artistry of Station Eleven, but for all its emphasis on gore and action, it still has moments of insight.

The devastating plague in this work turns its victims into flesh-eating zombies, and the uninfected fight a desperate global war for survival. From a strictly literary perspective, zombies make difficult antagonists. They are easy to fear, but difficult to hate since they have no personality. And the fear they generate is purely imaginary; the reader can fear a killer virus or a nuclear conflict depicted in fiction because those are potential events, but being afraid of zombies is like being afraid of dragons.

Fortunately this book features some villainous humans, characters we can truly despise because they are so real. Breck Scott is a con man who makes a fortune pitching an ineffective “cure” for the zombie virus, one that sounded very much like the hydroxychloroquine craze over the COVID summer. Grover Carlson is a White House official who freely admits the government withheld the truth about the zombie threat, similar to how the United States government now admits it lied to its citizens about COVID back in February.

In other words, while “World War Z” might not compare well aesthetically to the two other works I read in my workshop, it did a much better job of foreshadowing the actual events we’ve experienced this year. There’s something to be said for that.

Station Eleven

Three years ago I downloaded an audiobook of a novel I’d heard good things about from people I respected. I enjoyed listening to it so much that I looked forward to car trips. I even volunteered to run errands until I’d reached the end. I posted a review at the time, and recently read the novel for a reading workshop on dystopian fiction.

What struck me in particular on this reading was the broad timeframe of the novel. It begins in current day as a killer virus breaks out, then jumps ten years in the future after 99% of humanity has been eliminated. This is followed by a scene taking place decades before the flu outbreak. Successive chapters jump between time periods in a way most writing instructors would advise against. Yet I never felt lost, never had to ask myself “When am I now?” In this second review, I’d like to explore why this structure was so effective.

The key to success lies in the first twenty percent of the novel. A few short chapters show the pandemic’s origin and introduces the novel’s main protagonists. After jumping forward a decade the novel remains there for an extended period, revealing more about a key protagonist while also introducing the story’s villain. The novel then goes back into the past, each time using the perspective of an established protagonist to guide the reader. The flashbacks are informative, also necessary, as they help explain why the protagonists do what they’ve done in the apocalyptic future.

As an aspiring fiction writer, I’m curious to know why certain writing strategies work more than others. I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting Emily St. John Mandel’s novel a few more times in the coming years because it is both highly entertaining and so well-crafted.

 

The Plague

Five years ago I read and reviewed Albert Camus’ 1947 novel about an outbreak of bubonic plague in the Algerian city of Oran. When a local literary society announced a reading workshop on pandemic fiction that included this and another novel I’ve enjoyed, I decided the novel was worth revisiting.

Comparing Camus’ fictional plague to COVID-19 is unavoidable; the Oran government’s manipulation of disease information seemed prescient. But the passage that stood out on my second reading came in the discussion of the city’s food supply crisis:

Profiteers were taking a hand and purveying at enormous prices essential foodstuffs not available in the shops. The result was that poor families were in great straits, while the rich went short of practically nothing. Thus, whereas plague by its impartial ministrations should have promoted equality among our townsfolk, it now had the opposite effect and, thanks to the habitual conflict of cupidities, exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men’s hearts.

That last phrase made me think of a concurrent phenomenon that has no easy answer.

A few months after the start of COVID lockdowns, protests erupted across America over racial injustice. Why these uprisings occurred is no mystery, but it’s the when that has many confused. If Black Americans have been killed by police for decades, and Trump has been in office three years. why didn’t these protests happen earlier? Why finally take to the streets in the middle of a pandemic?

Perhaps the passage quoted above contains part of the answer. Just as the citizens of Oran were more outspoken to injustice due to the plague, maybe the restrictions caused by COVID enraged Americans enough to make a stand against systemic racism. If true, it’s shamefully tragic that it took a deadly physical disease to get us working on a deadly social disease. But the fight has begun, and Camus’ novel may help us understand its timing.

How to Be an Antiracist

The beginning of June seems a lot further away than four months. My world has shrunk. I don’t go anywhere; most traditional holiday celebrations were cancelled; my social interactions are confined to narrow rectangles on my computer screen; my weeks follow a consistent schedule which is equally comforting and monotonous. With few events to mark the passing of the days, weeks, and months, time no longer seems to pass. The present seems eternal, the past a fable, the future an empty promise. I remember writing about the Black Lives Matter protests on a day that seemed like yesterday but feels like years ago.

One hundred and twenty one (and yes, spelling out the number as you’re supposed to at the beginning of a sentence makes the span seem longer than the numerals 121) days ago, I wrote about getting my head out of the sand and facing the reality of systemic racism. Reading Ibram X. Kendi’s 2019 book seemed like a good way to begin the education I’d been putting off.

The book is structured as two parallel narratives, one being the author’s personal journey from childhood to the present day and the other a historical and sociological analysis of racism. The former shows how Kendi’s views on racism have evolved over his life and makes for an engaging story. Unfortunately it doesn’t combine well for the academic, methodical, and often dry prose in his analysis. The idea was sound, but the execution was off, resulting in a book that feels like two separate texts, forced together in an arranged literary marriage.

Although the autobiographical portion was engaging, I was primarily interested in the analysis and the challenge it presented. Reading about racism invites an us-them mentality, where we can easily envisage a Klansman or slumlord, someone foreign to us, some Other rather than ourselves. But as Kendi writes, “being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” Seeing myself as part of the problem seems the only way to become part of the solution, so I critiqued myself as I read, looking for passages that identified my current or previous beliefs.

And there were a few, such as his observation that progressive Americans may have abandoned biological, ethnic, and cultural racism, but many still clung to behavioral racism — in a nutshell, the belief that a member of a racial group behaves in some way because “those people always act like that.” I don’t like to admit it, but I’ve fallen into this line of thinking too many times, and I needed someone like Kendi to refute it in simple terms: “Behavior is something humans do, not races do.”

I’ve also at times identified myself as “not racist,” “race neutral,” or “color-blind,” but Kendi is right to call each of these terms “a mask for racism.” A person may not be bigoted, but can still support policies that do harm to racial groups other than their own. Kendi cares far more about power than prejudice (I doubt he has any use for Facebook arguments), about what people do rather than what they believe. Antiracism is about fighting policies that perpetuate racial inequality, and supporting policies that promote racial equity.

There’s plenty of material here to offend the Fox News crowd, such as the assertion that capitalism is essentially racist. But Kendi’s emphasis on changing policy rather than hearts and minds will likely appeal to anyone who believes this country can do better.

Everything I Never Told You

Celeste Ng’s first novel may not be made into a Hulu series, but is nevertheless an engaging family drama.

James Lee is the son of Chinese immigrants who attends Harvard in the 1950s and meets Marilyn, a white woman with dreams of being a doctor. It’s an era when open xenophobia is acceptable, women aren’t expected to have professional careers, and interracial marriage is still illegal in many part of America. When they move to a small college town in Ohio to raise a family, they begin a comfortable but unsatisfying life. James never overcomes his disappointment at not earning a professorship at Harvard; Marilyn resents turning into her mother, who’s refused to see her since Marilyn’s wedding day; their children do well in school and make friends, but always feel separate from their peers.

There are many things I liked about this novel — the mystery introduced on the first page is solved in a manner that seems both literary and realistic — but perhaps its greatest accomplishment is the subtle but powerful depiction of the microaggressions faced by ethnic minorities in America. One passage in particular deserves a full quote:

You saw it in the sign at the Peking Express — a cartoon man with a coolie hat, slant eyes, buckteeth, and chopsticks. You aw it in the little boys on the playground, stretching their eyes to slits with their fingers — Chinese — Japanese — look at these — and in the older boys who muttered ching chong ching chong ching as they passed you on the street, just loud enough for you to hear. You saw it when waitresses and policemen and bus drivers spoke slowly to you, in simple words, as if you might not understand. You saw it in photos, yours the only black head of hair in the scene, as if you’d been cut out and pasted in. You thought: Wait, what’s she doing there? And then you remembered that she was you. You kept your head down and thought about school, or space, or the future, and tried to forget about it. And you did, until it happened again.

The prose isn’t as as polished as Little Fires Everywhere; narrative perspective jumps suddenly and often between characters, and while many of Ng’s metaphors are quite interesting some are forced, almost seeming perfunctory, the writer feeling a need to create a metaphor when one isn’t really needed. Yet Ng’s debut is still superior to the best efforts of most other novelists. I’m anxious to see where Ng leads her readers in the coming years.

The Horror Comic Never Dies

Michael Walton opened and operated a comic book shop in Virginia during the 1990s, and therefore bore direct witness to the impact these stores had on the comic book industry. While retail booksellers and magazine stands continued limiting their comic book sales to titles approved by the Comics Code Authority, the dedicated stores sold a wider range of comics, including those not bearing the CCA’s stamp of approval. Writers, artists, and publishers saw an opportunity to bypass the onerous content restrictions of the CCA and began producing more mature content. When sales of these titles began superseding the revenue from their Code-approved counterparts, the CCA’s influence began fading until it disbanded in 2011.

Anecdotes and insights from Walton’s shop-owner days appear throughout his 2019 history of horror comics, and my only significant disappointment with the book is that it does not contain enough of his personal stories. His history is certainly informative and well-researched, but if you’re looking to understand comic books there are better choices available. David Hadju’s The Ten-Cent Plague is a more extensive cultural history of the early 1950s hysteria over horror and crime comics, and Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation provides a better and more thoroughly researched analysis of the comic book medium. If you don’t know about William Gaines and EC Comics, or Dr. Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and the 1954 hearings of the Senate Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, then Walton’s book might be a good place to start; if you’re already familiar with this history, you won’t find much fresh insight here.

However, when Walton steps away from historical scholarship, his prose comes to life. His engaging sense of humor comes through in passages such as the following analysis of tie-in sales, a rumored but never proven practice of comic book distributors that supposedly compelled retailers to sell comics they found objectionable:

… if a newsstand owner decided they didn’t like the cover of this month’s Horrific comic book and kept it hidden away under the counter and not for sale, the distributor could punish the newsstand by no longer sending them more popular magazines like Time or TV Guide and thus hurting the retailer’s overall sales. Distributors were portrayed as some shadowy entity that was motivated strictly by profit. “So what if you don’t like those horror comic books,” the distributor would say, “We don’t care that they are corrupting our children. You MUST sell them or we’ll pull ALL of your inventory and then your children will starve,” and the distributor would break out in demonic laughter before vanishing in a puff of sulfur-smelling smoke.

I would have liked more of these passages, and also to know more about the actual interaction between distributors and retailers, on which Walton could have offered a unique perspective as a shop owner. The glimpses he provides of this industry are fascinating, but there are frustratingly too few of these views.

Perhaps the most valuable part of this book is Walton’s review of current and past horror comic titles. The opening sentence announces his “deep and abiding love for all things horror,” and his reading list is extensive and, based on his descriptions, often compelling; on my next visit to the comic store, I’m definitely purchasing Clean Room. Walton’s catalog of horror titles reminded me of how much I enjoyed the black-and-white magazines published by Warren in the 1970s. While not as lurid as the EC Comics of the early 1950s, they were definitely edgier than the Marvel comics I avidly consumed in my teens.

I can’t leave reviewing this book without noting some inattention to detail in its editing; Walton’s tendency to repeat phrases or ideas could have easily been rectified, and some outright errors, such as listing the birth year of Dr. Fredric Wertham as 1985 instead of 1895, should not have been overlooked. But these problems don’t significantly detract from the overall value. Anyone who’s curious about the horror comic genre will definitely appreciate Walton’s book.

***

I’m adding a personal note to this review. I met the author and purchased his book at my local library a few days before the start of my state’s COVID-19 lockdown. It now seems like his talk occurred in a different era, one which we may never revisit. I had no idea this could have been the last time I ever stepped in front of an author and had him or her sign a book I had purchased. It’s a small loss in the great scheme of things, but one that shouldn’t go unnoticed.