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.

Zen in the Art of Writing

Ray Bradbury said he wrote 1000 words a day, and submitted stories on Saturday that he began drafting the preceding Monday. Judging by the sheer volume of his published work (27 novels, 600 stories, scores of plays and radio/television/movie scripts), I have no reason to doubt these claims.

While he is remembered as a master of the science fiction and horror genres, Bradbury resisted those labels during his career, as he found them dismissive and limiting. He is not known for his non-fiction, but his 1994 collection of essays on writing is a valuable read for any aspiring writer, regardless of genre.

Written over several decades, mostly as prefaces to his novels and short-story collections, the essays are more autobiographical than critical. You learn a lot about Bradbury’s career — formative childhood experiences in Waukegan (a mid-sized city in northern Illinois where, coincidentally, my wife and I owned our first house) and Los Angeles, early efforts and eventual successes at writing, investing $9.80 in typewriter rental fees while drafting the story that eventually became Fahrenheit 451 — and to the author’s credit, Bradbury’s prose rarely descends into solipsism or self-congratulation.

One of the more poignant moments in this collection comes in “Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle, ” where he recalls an experience of his nine-year-old self:

Buck Rogers arrived on scene that year, and it was instant love. I collected the daily strips, and was madness maddened by them. Friends criticized. Friends made fun. I tore up the Buck Rogers strips. For a month I walked through my fourth-grade classes, stunned and empty. One day I burst into tears, wondering what devastation had happened to me. The answer was: Buck Rogers. He was gone, and life simply wasn’t worth living. The next thought was: Those are not my friends, the ones who got me to tear the strips apart and so tear my own life down the middle; they are my enemies.

As he explains more fully in “How to Keep and Feed a Muse,” he would eventually move on from the Buck Rogers strips, but even as his aesthetic judgement matured, he saw a continuity from his early love of the comics — “The constant remains: the search, the finding, the admiration, the love, the honest response to materials at hand, no matter how shabby they one day seem, when looked back on.”

Other gems in this book include his observation in “On the Shoulders of Giants” that science fiction, routinely derided as escapist entertainment, is rather “an attempt to solve problems by pretending to look the other way.” The titular essay is an extended and well-crafted examination of the relationship between work and relaxation, both of which are essential to the writer. Bradbury claims writers must become partners, not slaves, to their work, and that only by doing something as insane as clacking out a thousand words, each day, can writers release their inner truth: “Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come.” Call it writing as metaphysics, a theory that probably wouldn’t hold up under close scrutiny, but is nonetheless inspiring.

I may never achieve Bradbury’s level of productivity, but I’m confident he would advise me not to worry about word count. His essays are about joy and discovery, and how writers, by following their passions, can realize their ambitions.

Saving Paradise

Mike Bond’s 2012 novel takes place in the Hawaiian islands, and moves at a fast pace from the first page, when a corpse drifts in to the Oahu surf. At times the pace seems a little too fast; the first-person narrator, a professional surfer and Special Forces veteran named Pono Hawkins, hops between islands with the ease of a superhero.

Hawkins is a passionate defender of Hawaii’s natural beauty, and expresses justifiable outrage over America’s treatment of the land and its people. There is a wholly appropriate disdain for the missionaries who “civilized” the Hawaiians that was sorely lacking in the James Michener and Sarah Vowell books about the state.

The plot revolves around an alternative energy project called Big Wind, which was also the name of an actual proposed project in Hawaii from the early years of this decade. Big Wind would have installed hundreds of windmills on the islands of Molokai and Lanai, and provided power to Oahu (the state’s most populous island, home to Honolulu and Pearl Harbor) through an underseas cable. This absurd idea was eventually abandoned after citizens rallied against it, and “Saving Paradise” adds sinister elements to its version of Big Wind, making it a viper’s nest of criminal business and political corruption.

And while it’s always dangerous to assign authorial intention to a work of fiction (back in my graduate student days this was called the “intentional fallacy”), there’s more than enough circumstantial evidence to suggest “Saving Paradise” is partly a personal diatribe against wind power. Enter Mike Bond windmills in a search engine, and one of the first links will be to the author’s blog, where he claims wind power actually increases fossil fuel usage, has devastating ecological impacts, and are only touted as “green” projects by politicians bought off by multinational corporations. Bond’s arguments rely more on invective and innuendo than on data — in the unlikely event of his reading this review, he’ll likely respond that my last statement shows how I’ve been brainwashed by the corporate media — and their appearance in in this novel represent an unfortunate and unnecessary distraction. Hawkins’ struggle against corruption and intimidation would have been just as poignant if the author had chosen to, quite literally, battle windmills.

Yet the novel’s positive qualities outweigh flaws such as its ending, which comes out of nowhere, as if the author was facing an inflexible word count limit. Pono Hawkins is an engaging guide to Hawaii, and his humanity and innate goodness make the reader hope for his success. His personal relationships are a mess, but he treats his male allies and his female love interests with equal respect. And the action is brisk, as stated previously, and the writing polished and highly descriptive. Overall, “Saving Paradise” is a good thriller which can be enjoyed by any fan of the genre, so long as that fan doesn’t take the author’s overt agenda against wind power too seriously.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Anyone reading a Raymond Carver story should be required to say “the end” at the conclusion. So little happens in his stories — plot summaries read like satires (the titular story of this collection could read, “four people talk around a dinner table while getting drunk on gin”) — and their climaxes so unspectacular, to give a listener a strong cue that the tale has ended. In addition to not featuring any exploding helicopters, Carver’s short fiction violates several established conventions. Many characters do not have names; hardly any backstory is revealed; very little is shown, and even less is told.

But partly because they are so sparse, Carver’s short stories are some of the most emotionally powerful I’ve ever read. I don’t intend to imitate his style, but it has inspired me to trust that, with words, sometimes less is more.

“Why Don’t You Dance?”, the first story in the volume, is a great example of his work. An unnamed man puts the entire contents of his house onto his driveway; some of the possessions had been on “her side” of the bedroom, although no information about “her” is provided. The man leaves to pick up food at a store, and a young couple, referred to as a boy and a girl (the boy does have a name, although you have to be paying attention to catch it), drive past the house and, believing a yard sale is in progress, stop to investigate. The man returns, and after agreeing to sell many items for bargain-basement prices, puts on a record (the setting is late 1970s) and invites the couple to dance. Weeks later, the girl grapples with understanding the man’s motivation. The End.

We simply can’t understand the man, because we are told so little about him. But when he puts on the record and asks the boy and girl to dance, we can sense this is somehow important to him, that’s he’s doing more than trying to offload the record player. Maybe the couple reminds him of the early days of his marriage, and he wants to draw out those memories; maybe the man wants the couple to connect in a way he wasn’t able with his wife; maybe he wants one last joyful moment before abandoning his home. It’s a poignant scene, memorable not for its details (since there are none) but for the way it shows a man searching for kindness as he struggles with some misfortune.

Since I’m overly fond of superhero movies, I have to mention Carver’s role in Birdman, the 2014 dark comedy that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Michael Keaton plays an actor made rich and famous for performing as the superhero Birdman on film. (Birdman does not exist as a character, but Keaton did appear as Batman in two films.) To demonstrate his legitimate acting talent, Keaton’s character produces a Broadway adaptation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It is the perfect contrast, the sizzle and excess of the superhero genre against Carver’s minimalism, and if that is the closest this master of the short story ever gets to appearing in a blockbuster, I’ll be fine with that.