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.

A Hawaiian Life, Volume 2

When George Kahumoku Jr. was a keiki kane, Hawaii was not a state, the native language of his people was not taught in schools, and students were disciplined for practicing hula. In the ensuing decades, George (once you’ve met the man, it becomes impossible to call him Kahumoku) has been at the center of the state’s cultural renaissance. An accomplished slack-key guitar artist, George has won four Grammy awards for his compilations.

I’ve had the privilege of attending George’s concerts on Maui for nearly two decades, but I most recently saw him perform on the mainland in the blissful month before COVID-19 lockdowns. George always holds a raffle the end of each concert, and this time my name was drawn for A Hawaiian Life, Volume 2, a collection of autobiographical stories. I have the first volume kicking around in my office somewhere, and once I stumble across it I’ll be sure to review it as well.

In addition to being highly entertaining, each of George’s tales provides insight on Hawaiian culture. When a young George and his buddy capture a large tuna in ”Million Dollar Ahi,” parts of the fish are distributed among the neighborhood; George details the unique use of each family in his multicultural community.

Many years later in “A Flat Tire Changes My Life,” George aids an elderly man whose car breaks down along Oahu’s Old Pali Road, said to be haunted by ancient spirits who harass travelers for food. George recalls an earlier incident where his family’s car mysteriously stalled on Old Pali Road while traveling back from a luau, and how his father dismissed those spirits in a way that was “indigenous and very primal.”

His teaching at Lahainaluna High School on Maui is the setting for “Three Chickens, Four Lessons,” where George uses feral chickens he’s captured to teach students about drawing, biology, and cooking. The fourth lesson, about the replacement of Hawaiian traditions by mainland values, comes when George is later disciplined for having slaughtered the chickens on school grounds.

The conflict between native and mainland cultures is also the setting for “Taking Back the Beach.” In 1974, George fishes for spiny lobsters off an Oahu beach; like all of George’s fishing stories, the details are precise, lending authenticity to the tale. Yet on returning to shore he is arrested for having used a private hotel beach. With the help of two haole lawyers, George organizes native Hawaiians and wins public access to all Hawaiian beaches.

A personal favorite of mine, a story George often tells during his slack-key concerts about his family’s overly exuberant use of a hotel room, isn’t included in this volume. I’m hoping he’ll tell that story again the next time I see him on Maui… whenever that will be. We still have much to learn about the current pandemic, and non-essential air travel is one of many conveniences we can no longer take for granted. But should I have the privilege to see him again, I’ll be sure to thank George for pulling my name during that cold night raffle.

Fatherland

I’ve been fascinated lately with novels that explore alternative histories of the 1930s and 40s. I’ve read about America being overtaken by populist tyrant , electing a Nazi sympathizer, and losing the Second World War and being occupied by the German Reich. Robert Harris’ 1992 novel is the first I’ve read where America hasn’t been the focus, and it provides the most realistic vision of what could have happened in this turbulent era of world history.

For reasons that aren’t altogether clear, Germany is able to capture both Moscow and London in this world. This gives the Nazis control of most of Europe, which is where they stop their expansion. There is no change in the Pacific war, as America defeats Japan with atomic weapons. By 1964, the year in which the novel takes place, Germany and the United States have been in an extended Cold War, similar to what actually occurred between the USA and USSR in our reality.

While the scenario leaves a lot of obvious questions unanswered (how did the Nazis discover the British had deciphered their encoded messages? why did the Russian forces collapse?), this parallel world does seem authentic. Hitler’s ambitions were Euro-centric, and launching an attack across the Atlantic would have left him vulnerable at home. Had Britain fallen, America would have no base to launch an invasion of Europe, and would have focused attention to the war in the Pacific. An extended Nazi regime makes Europe a much different world in this era, while America remains relatively unchanged; not an ideal situation by any standard, but one that seems altogether plausible.

But Fatherland isn’t an alternative history text. It’s a detective story focused on two principal characters, a German police officer with no great love for National Socialism and an American diplomat. They team up to investigate the murder of a Nazi official, and as they dig deeper they discover that the unconfirmed rumors about the fate of Germany’s Jews turn out to be very much true. The pace is steady, the characters engaging, and its conclusion leaves you satisfied yet curious to know what happens next — a rare and pleasing feat.

Of all the alternative histories I’ve read so far, this has been the most satisfying. The audiobook performance by Michael Jayston wasn’t memorable, but didn’t detract from the writing, which is really all you want from a reading.

Red Lightning

Sometimes it pays to not give up on a book.

I won Laura Pritchett’s 2015 novel at a holiday book exchange, and began reading it towards the end of my recent vacation. Yet at nearly a quarter of the way through, I nearly decided to leave it behind for the next condo guest to enjoy. The story centers on a first-person narrator who returns to her sister’s home and the daughter she abandoned after a long absence. The narrator goes to great lengths explaining how difficult her life has been, how much she regrets the decisions she’s made, and how tragically unfair this world of ours is. Unfortunately, I found the narrator’s insights more annoying than engaging, and was never convinced she had the requisite insight for her metaphysical observations. I also didn’t appreciate the author’s numerous attempts to showcase her education and linguistic abilities. Sure, it’s kinda neat to create compound words like motherlove, but how muchcreativity does that really demonstrate? And when the author insists on using this technique oneveryfreakingpage, it soon becomes tiresome.

Yet somewhere around the one-third mark, the narrator finally revealed more information about why she’d returned to her family, I began to gain interest, and found the resolution quite satisfying.

For all its imperfections, I did find “Red Lightning” both enjoyable and insightful. I’m glad I didn’t abandon it to whoever is now staying where I had been, and just might make it my gift at the next holiday book exchange.

God Land

White Evangelical Christians voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election. Attempting to explain this odd political alignment has since become an obsession among American writers.

Lyz Lenz is uniquely qualified to comment on this topic. A life-long Christian, Lenz and her husband began attending Evangelical churches in the 1990s, and helped form an independent church in the early 2000s. This was also the time Lenz began voicing her uneasiness with the Evangelical movement’s attitudes towards women, race, and politics. Her husband didn’t approve of her positions, and in 2016 she voted for Clinton while he went in with Trump, a political split which prefigured their imminent divorce.

Lenz’ 2019 book is part investigative journalism, part memoir, with the latter being its strength. The author doesn’t reach many unique conclusions about Evangelicals — as stated earlier, the topic has been covered extensively over the past several years — but her personal journey is compelling. Perhaps the most riveting moment comes in an early chapter, when she and her husband confront a pastor about the conduct of another pastor. The pastor apologizes to Lenz’ husband, but when she insists the apology needs to be offered to her, the pastor replies “I did apologize to you when I apologized to your husband.” It’s one of several indignities documented by the author in her last ten years as an Evangelical.

Given her experience, it’s easy to see how the author would eventually abandon her faith. It’s during a Holy Saturday service towards the end of the book where Lenz finds her reason for remaining a believer:

I believe in church because whatever else, it’s an intentional community of people trying to do good in a world that could use more of it.

There are enough moments like this to make this a memorable work.