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Review: The White Darkness

The White Darkness by David Grann My rating: 4 of 5 stars Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley You might not recognize Henry Wo...

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Review: The White Darkness

The White Darkness The White Darkness by David Grann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

You might not recognize Henry Worsley’s name, but you mostly likely have heard the story. At the end of 2015-the beginning of 2016, he attempted to cross Antarctica alone, but sicken, was airlifted, and, sadly, died while doctors while trying to save his life. His quest, done in part as a fundraiser, was followed by the media and classrooms. He received support from the royal family. If you are like me, you were impressed by the drive and the attempt, but also wondering why.

David Grann’s White Darkness does a good job at answering a question whose best answer till now has been “because it’s there”.

Grann is perhaps the best teller of true stories working right now. This short book showcases his shorter work (the story appeared in The New Yorker), and proves that his short profiles can be just as riveting.

As Grann notes, Worsley was obsessed with Shackleton an artic explorer who is better know for his failures where people didn’t starve to death than anything else. Unlike Amundsen who made it or Scott who died the stiff upper lip way, Shackleton got his people home. Worsley’s obsession seems in part because of a family connection (his ancestor Frank worked with Shackleton). In fact, prior to his solo attempt, Worsley had done a three-person hike with Will Gow (a descendent of Shackleton) and Henry Adams (a grandson of Jameson Boyd). Worsley’s obsession too does seem to be a case of hero-worship, he makes on interesting pilgrimage to Shackleton’s grave.

Grann presents a quick overview of Worsley’s life, giving the reader a sense of who was lost, and not just a vague or abstract tragedy. While Grann never says, this is why, he does a great job of allowing the reader to get a sense of the drive and determination that fueled Worsley’s quest, but also to see the family that supported him.

The long essay is supplemented by photos, and the tone itself is one of remembrance, but more peaceful or comprehensive than an obituary.

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Friday, July 20, 2018

Review: Nirliit

Nirliit Nirliit by Juliana Léveillé-Trudel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In Montreal, near McGill University there is a wonderful store called Paragraphe. Every time I am in Montreal, I make sure I stop by and I usually drop around 70 bucks. I’m careful. I make sure I pick up either autographed books or books that are not easily available in the US. This book was one of the ones I picked up this year.

Nirliit was originally written in French (the author lives in Montreal), and it should be noted that the translator is Anita Anand. She deserves praise as way for the book is lyrical. For instance, in describing the town that the she is going to, the unnamed speaker says, “Purvinituq is a plain girl with magnificent eyes that you only discover if you are paying attention.” (16). And in describing the Inuit language, the phrase “rugged poetry” is used”.

The author’s bio at the back of the book tells the reader that Léveillé-Trudel not only works in the performing arts but also taught in the Nunavil region; therefore, it is hard not to see this novel as drawing from life experience and, considering it is two monologues, as something that could be easily adapted to a show along the lines of Anna Deverne Smith.

The speaker is addressing a friend who is missing, who is gone in the first monologue and an unnamed listener in the second. There is an intervening few years between the two monologues, but the settings and characters are the same.

On one hand, the story hits all the issues that people associate with native/first nations/indigenous communities – drinking, violence, spousal abuse. There is a bleakness to the story. You will cry when reading this.

And yet.

And yet, the story is more than that. It is more than the bleakness.

Part of the book examines solutions, mostly those proposed by the government, and the impact that those so-called solutions have those they effect. There is also the examination of the impact of white people and other societies on Native culture and life, as well as how whites view them, why there is such resentment. It is an examination of what happens long after the culture clash and outrages committed one culture by another.

Because the story is told from an outsider’s point of view, of a woman trapped, to a degree, between the culture she is and the culture she serves. Our narrator is charmed and repealed and confused. Caught between two worlds and even two political philosophies, and I’m not talking about her views on caribou meat. But the book is also about common humanity because while the source of the problems is different, there is also an under lying humanity between peoples that should be noted and embraced.

I cannot do this book justice in any review. I just can’t. The speaker of the book says, “Beauty in the form of a punch to the gut: only the tundra has this, an immense shattering landscape, so lonely with almost no one to appreciate it”. In many ways, those words are an accurate description of this book. This lovely, heart-breaking book.

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Friday, July 6, 2018

Review: The Goblin Companion: A Field Guide to Goblins

The Goblin Companion: A Field Guide to Goblins The Goblin Companion: A Field Guide to Goblins by Brian Froud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Listen! Do you hear that? It's coming from above. It sounds like something squawking, "Damm you gravity!"

Quick! Duck! Hit the decks!

The Amom Pherriginus didn't hit you, did it? Good. It's a type of bird that doesn't have feathers, so it glues feathers on. Sometimes, though, its wings get stuck together. You know how it is with Crazy Glue.

It's really heavy. See that hole?

Froud and Jones' guide to goblins is a very handy resource. You learn a great many thing about goblins. A list, by no means complete or even accurate:

1. Tallow Goblins do mean things to thier grannies.

2. Never, ever try to steal a Tallow Goblins purse.

3. Loch Ness does exist.

4. Ladies, watch out for detachable members (yes, those types of members! There was even a picture. You would think it would hurt.)

5. Never hear the story of Luerk.

6. Knitting can be fatal.

7. Twark's are good kissers, though why you would want to kiss one is beyond me.

8. You can tame worms.

9. Beware of Agnes.

10. The Sacred Bone of Whence

11. Goblins have a law aganist sex:
(a) They don't follow it

(b) They smell during the act. I mean really smell.

As well as many other useful facts that I forgot because I was laughing too hard.

The only drawback to the book, if drawback it be, is that you find yourself humming David Bowie music inbetween laugh riots. (Make sure you go the WC before reading. Consider yourself warned!)

You remind of the babe.
What babe?
The babe with the power.
What power?
The power of voodoo.
Who do?
You do.
Do what?
Remind me of the babe.

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Sunday, July 1, 2018

Review: Trail of Lightning

Trail of Lightning Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One cannot emphasize how important this book is in terms of representation in dystopian/urban fantasy literature. It is one the few UF novels set in America I’ve read where all the characters are poc. L. A. Banks’ work is the only other work that springs readily to mind. It is the only one I’ve read where the characters are all Native American/Indigenous/First Peoples.

I am quite well aware that my perspective is limited, that there are books I am either forgetting or don’t know about. Please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments. Also note, I am taking about characters, not authors. This book also had a big PR push as well.

What is more, Roanhorse’s characters are Diné in all the authentic ways. Language and terms are used in ways that a native speaker would use them. Don’t worry, meaning is revealed but it is down in a way that feels natural as opposed to an info dump. There are references to water deliveries as well as the classism(?) that exists between city and non-city dwellers (urban vs. rez). What is more important is that race is not used as a shortcut for a tragic past or romantic trauma (i.e. Anita Blake who really only brings up being half Hispanic when explaining why a boyfriend’s mother didn’t like her, and then that’s it). There is dealing with racism and stereotypes.

This also means that this book carries quite a bit on its metaphorical shoulders, fairly or unfairly.

Thankfully, it carries the unfair load quite well.

It’s true and fair to say that Maggie, the heroine, suffers from the problems that exist in all too many UF and dystopian novels of late. She has a tragic past, she doesn’t trust people (but mostly men), she is shut off, she isn’t “girly”, and she is special in terms of power. She also doesn’t think that she is good looking (though to be fair, not every man in the book lusts after her, so this doesn’t annoy me at all in this book). She also is the only woman of name for over 150 pages of the book. She is the only woman of power until the last quarter of book, and the other women or girls are either victims, non-fighters, or get hurt. There is a slight shift in this at the end that I loved (and the book does technically pass the Bechdel test), but overall, outside of race, Maggie is very much like every other UF heroine you can think of.

This doesn’t mean that she is a bad character or unbelievable. Roanhorse is not the only author who makes such a standard character work either (think Armstrong’s Elena or Vaughn’s Kitty) and like those other UF/dystopia series that stand out, Roanhorse expands on the standard.

It is also possible that we are to see the woman victims as symbolical of the cold hard fact that Native American women are most at risk for rape, sexual assault, and murder (domestic violence is 10 times higher, 1 in 3 Native American women are raped, Native American women are murder at least 10 times the national average in some places. Check out Indianlaw.org among other websites). I think this symbolical view is especially true with the opening sequence of the book, considering the lack of response from society and government to that fact.

The book works for a few seemingly simple reasons. The first is that the world building is absolutely wonderfully down. Not only does Roanhorse create a believable world, references are made to today’s events (such as Trump’s wall). Roanhorse’s writing carries you there. The use of Native American belief and folklore is well done. The book is not overcrowded with an overpopulation of magical creatures and various vampires and weres (honesty, I really want a book about a were slug. I swear that is the only were we haven’t seen yet). There are no vampire politics (thank god). The use of clan powers is wonderful and brilliant. What I particularly enjoyed was Maggie’s relationship to her own powers. The descriptions are vivid and the characters, in particular Maggie and Kai, totally believable.

More importantly, as other reviewers have pointed out, this is one of the few fantasy novels where a tragic heroine actually heals. In part, this is because of Kai, a medicine man (and something a bit more that isn’t that big of a reveal. I have theories about book 2 as well), but also because Maggie herself wants to heal. That’s why you root for her. She doesn’t want to be the biggest bad ass. She wants to be the best Maggie, or at least a whole Maggie or better Maggie that she can be (Maggie’s views and relationship to her clan powers is also a factor here. Nicely done too). Very few authors in UF have their heroines actually heal or learn. There might be lip service to the idea in some UF fiction, but you never really see it. Again, Armstrong’s Elena and Vaughn’s Kitty are two characters who break this trend, and we see them healing. I enjoy and love both Women of the Otherworld and the Kitty Books, but Roanhorse does the emotional and mentally healing much better. She truly does. We know that Maggie has healed not simply by how she opens herself up to Kai, but also though little descriptive touches. It is these touches that make it more realistic.

Kai also gets a mention for not being the abusive douche bag that we are suppose to find romantic. He is as just a real character as Maggie, with his own wants, needs, fears, and problems. The relationship that develops between the two does not feel forced and rings true. He also is a balance for the view of “girly” that Maggie has. To often in books, the central heroine is seen as better than the other women because she does not like hair and make-up. Maggie doesn’t like a certain hairstyle it is true, but her objection has to do with the practicality of the style. Kai and a few other characters not only balance Maggie’s dismissal of looks and presentation but challenge her view. Additionally, even though Maggie is the heroine, she needs the other characters to succeed. This isn’t super woman saves everyone type of heroine.

It’s true it is not a perfect book. But it is a damn fine debut. Can’t wait for the second installment.

Highly recommended.

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Thursday, June 28, 2018

Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I start to write this review, the literary internet is blowing up somewhat because the Association for Library Service to Children has changed the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. The change is only to the name of the award (the ALA or ALSC is not banning the books) largely because of the comments about Native Americans in the books, including people saying things like “a good Indian is a dead Indian”. While some people are upset at the eradicating on Wilder’s legacy (not sure how a name change is eradicating, though a civil discussion online included a person pointing out that some people can see the name removal as a disrespect to a legacy), there are equally enough people (myself included) who are fine with it. Wilder’s books are a product of her time (and her daughter to some degree). And if I was a poc, I would be very uncomfortable with an award for children’s literature named after an author who does have racism in her books, especially when there is a focused effort to make children’s books more diverse.

What all this did was contribute to how I think about the literary canon.

The canon should be, at the very least, ever growing. Now, don’t get me wrong. There is a host of reasons why we don’t have very many good English Renaissance Woman poets, and those reasons have nothing to do with the size of woman’s brains or talent. That said, the canon is still largely male and white. For instance, and more to the point of this review, while we should read Frederick Douglass, why shouldn’t we also read Harriet Jacobs?

Jaocbs’ book is truth but with the names changed. In the book, she is Linda, her children have different, and one presumes that the names of the slave owners are different too. This makes sense for why Jacobs court abduction and harm by would using her own name, or harm those who aided her in her escape.

Jacobs’ work chronicles Linda’s birth into slavery, and injustice as her family was kidnapped back into slavery after being returned their freedom. The bulk of the book is focuses on Linda’s struggles to gain her freedom. This starts as a result of attempts to avoid being raped by her legal owner’s father. Her legal owner is a five-year-old girl at the start of the book. Whereas Douglass could not write about a woman’s experience under slave, Jacobs’ can. Not only does she explore the greater obstacles that an enslaved woman had to overcome, but she also illustrates why it is the male slave narrative that tend to greater play. It is difficult, extremely difficult, to escape and leave your children behind as well as cover land while pregnant or nursing.

The interesting thing is that the story shows us a case of a master relationship with his slave that isn’t a physical attack of rape. Now, Linda’s master does want to rape her. He has the power, she really cannot say no. But it is important to note that he does not physically attack her. He keeps “offering” her nice things and then threatening her with punishment. The attacks are mental and not physical, undoubtedly to make the slave owner justify himself. It’s an important aspect to know about. As is Linda’s solution to the problem is to take as much control of her own destiny as she can in her very limited opportunities. It also raises the question of freedom and sexual freedom.

Jacobs is also more aware of the contrast between the public face of slaver owners and the private face of slave owners. She notes the hidden lives of Congressman as well as the hypocrisy of a preacher getting a black enslave woman pregnant and the society not caring but watch out if it is a white woman who is not his wife he gets pregnant.

This is a book that should be read and included more often in composition courses.

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Monday, June 25, 2018

Handmaid's Tale Season 1-Season 2.10

The Handmaid’s Tale is the reason I started a Hulu subscription.  The novel had long been a favorite, and a book that I had taught more than once.  It’s fair to say that I enjoy watching the series, though enjoy is a strange word to use. 

                Perhaps the weakest area is the question of race that the tv series at times seems to gloss over.  More than one critical review has pointed out that many of the Handmaid’s stories seem to be taken from slaver narratives.  In the first season, Moira seems to be little more at times than June’s black best friend in the most magical black woman cliché way possible while still being a real character.  This changes in the second season, thankfully.  In the second season, the viewers are introduced to Luke’s first wife, Annie, a black woman, who when confronting June about the affair with Luke strangely doesn’t mention race.  Now, it’s true that in some areas – say like in the Colonies with the Unwoman who were in an interracial relationship, it would have been strange to stop for a racist react scene.  But the confrontation with June and Luke’s first wife feels off because race is not mentioned at all, and considering the racial issues the lie between white women and black women, in other words white women selling and selling out black women, the lack of race in the Annie/June confrontation feels wrong.  How others view June's relationship with Luke and Hannah isn't entirely disregarded, for we do have a scene where June is questioned about whether she is truly Hannah’s mother, and that is a reference to white woman with the darker skin daughter.

                The point about slave narrative is complex.  This is because there is much truth to the charge.  Yet, it is also hard to see how the handmaids could be made believable without the use of stories that have historical precedent.  Additionally, it would be also fair to say that African women were not the only enslaved women and that there were women in other cultures who might have committed the same actions (and enslaved women were not the only women to lose their children.  There are Indian schools were Native American children were taken from their parents).  Yet, watching it in a religious America, with mostly white handmaids acting out the stories is a bit discomfiting in terms of racial politics to put it mildly.  Would Janine's scene where she tried to commit suicide with her baby been different and raised other questions if Janine had been played by a women of color?  Yes, and those conversations are ones that we need to have.  America  and her people do not like confronting the ugly history of slavery, reconstruction, and lynching.  We do not.  And this might be a reason for how that scene feels while watching it.  It might have been too racially charged with a poc in the role Janine.  But I find it impossible to say that it being so would be a bad thing.  

                Yet, I wonder if that the feeling of disquiet, of racial issues being there but not in your face is the point.  In the second season, episode ten, there is a scene where Offred/June is briefly reunited with her daughter.  This is done as a favor to June by her commander, Fred Waterford.  Hannah has been placed with another couple and is brought to the reunion by a Martha, who is a black woman, and a driver.  The scene is poignant because June and her daughter are saying good bye.  It is impossible to watch such a scene and, as an American versed in the nation’s history, not think of similar cases, actually real cases, where slave mothers said farewell, if they were lucky, to their children.  This is highlighted and brought to the fore by the inclusion of the black Martha.  I wonder if the inversion of roles isn’t an attempt to show the privilege of white skin, the, limited, protection that skin color has brought white women in modern society (and Western society) for many years.  This would also tie into Annie and the lack of mention of June’s whiteness.  We are getting the story via June’s memory, is race something that she would allow herself to think about?  Would she be woke enough to notice?   In the book, the point is not being woke or aware of what is going on, of sleeping while your freedom is taken from you.  Perhaps June's memory of the confrontation is a reference to this.

                The same episode also hints at something possiblely occurring later.  A black commander notes that his wife is pregnant.  In Atwood’s novel, the low birth rate is seen primarily among whites.  Is the inclusion of this commander a hint that the series will be addressing race more openly?

                The strongest area is actually more firmly on display in the second season of the show.  That is the way the women are stopped from forming alliances.  This is most drastically highlighted in the episode were Serena Joy and June have formed a strange alliance while Fred Waterford recovers from wounds gained when a Handmaid set off a grenade during an opening of Rachel and Leah center.  When Fred returns to the house, at first everything is fine.  But then he goes to June’s room and discovers a flower and a music box that Serena Joy gave June as a thank you for helping.  It is after this discovery that Fred punishes Serena Joy, by beating her, in front of June.  It isn’t that Serena Joy took over his work, though that might be part of it, it is that the women did it together.  The women are working together, and that is not something Fred can have.  In fact, over the course of much of the first and second seasons, part of what Fred has done is put Serena Joy and June/Offred at odds, making a jealous woman more jealous, and giving June things he does not give his wife.  It’s true he gets quite a bit for having June for himself, but part of it is geared toward division.  This also extends to the Martha, Rita, as well, and the love/hate relationships that seem to exist between the commanders’ wives might also come back to this as well as professional jealously.

                The show illustrates this division at all levels.  We see it when Aunt Lydia is told that Janine cannot attend a dinner because of her missing eye.  Aunt Lydia is given this order by Serena Joy, and Aunt Lydia is not happy.  She too has already divided the Handmaid’s to a degree, with favorites and such, and in the second season we see this in greater detail when June is the only Handmaid to avoid punishment.  Aunt Lydia may have to obey but once June is pregnant, she gets to control Serena Joy to a degree as well. The whole Gilead rests on the idea of keeping the women at each’s throats so they don’t have each other’s backs.  The show captures this amazingly well.  It also shows how and why women succumb to it.  Serena Joy breaks it for a bit, just a bit, but she can’t break totally away.  And she really wants that child.

 It is not surprising that two episodes after her beating that Serena Joy aids her husband in the rape of June.  What is surprising is how many people have objected to the rape.  Since day one of the series, June has been raped.  What is violent and disturbing about the rape in episode ten is the extent to which Serena Joy takes part.  Before, she did not view June as a woman but as a womb she had to tolerate to get what she wanted.  When she works with June and thanks her, Serena Joy sees her handmaid as human.  Yet after her beating, after her rejection of an escape to Hawaii, she has recommitted to the power structure.  She is even more complicit.

June’s reaction is not much different.  She cannot keep her alliance with Serena Joy if the wife does not seem to want it.  June goes back to the handmaids as her only allies, and the handmaids are relatively powerless.  June also reaches out to both Rita and Aunt Lydia as de facto godmothers for her soon to be born child.  What is important is why they agree – it is to protect the child.  Not for June, but for the child.  June is unimportant.  June is as unimportant as Luke’s first wife was to her [June’s] worldview.

In many ways, what the tv series show is what happens when we stop seeing other women as women as the other.  Not even female, but simply a thing, a rival, a non-human.  It is something that we do today, that June did before, and something we should be very warily of.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Review: The War on Neighborhoods: Policing, Prison, and Punishment in a Divided City

The War on Neighborhoods: Policing, Prison, and Punishment in a Divided City The War on Neighborhoods: Policing, Prison, and Punishment in a Divided City by Ryan Lugalia-Hollon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the common fallacies you see when the topic of police shootings of unarmed African-Americans is someone saying, “well, no one ever talks about black on black shootings”. There are more than a few things wrong with such a statement. Let’s mention two. The first is that no one talks about white on white crime or, to be more exact, as many critics have pointed out, no one talks about crime rates among whites that way. The second is that such a statement doesn’t really negate the question of institutionalism racism.

I have read this book after reading Stamped from the Beginning and the Color of Law, two books that deal with racism and how laws were used to legally allow for racism. Lugalia-Hollon and Cooper look at the current effects of such policies. In other words, they tie everything together – the racism of the justice system, the effect of racist housing policies, the rise of the suburbs, and the defunding of the schools as well as community safe havens.

War on Neighborhoods focuses on one city, Chicago, and one section of that city, Austin; yet the authors do not hesitate to make larger connections to governmental policies as well as to mention how other cities in the US face similar problems.

The thesis of the book is that the problems that certain areas have (i.e. the inner city, poorer areas) are a result of policies designed to stop crime as well as politicians who not so much don’t care but don’t try anything new. It isn’t simply ending a drug epidemic, it is ending a cycle that is built on racism and classism. It is about empowering communities as opposed to governments.

The book is divided into chapters, many of which take an aspect of the problem and dissect it. I saw most because there is a conclusion and an introduction. Of particular interest is how inner-city areas, like Austin in Chicago, can be a source of revenue for outlaying towns by “providing” inmates for the prisons in those towns. One must wonder if racism in pre-dominantly white town a product of the prison is also. The authors show us that what effects one small area can have a huge ripple effect.

If you are interested in the saving of cities, in the war on drugs, and violence in neighborhoods, then you need to read this book before we have a conversation. It should be required reading for anyone getting involved in community outreach or politics.

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