Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Good Lord Bird (by James McBride)

This had been on my "to-read" list for a long time, since it won the 2014 Tournament of Books! I sometimes have to gear myself up to read something that tackles the subject of oppression, though -- even in a satirical way, as this one does.

This is the story of a boy named Henry Shakelford, who is freed from slavery (somewhat accidentally) by John Brown, who thinks he is a girl and nicknames him Onion and brings him along on his adventures. And I have to say that it was something I had to push myself to read all the way through -- not because it is grim in any way, but because it's a little discursive and does not always have a clear forward momentum. It's kind of biding time for 2/3 of it leading up to the raid on Harpers Ferry. We even lose track of John Brown for like 100 pages.

But again, it's not grim! The tone of it is humorous and relatively light, considering that it's about -- you know -- slavery. Historical characters and events are woven in but in a less-than reverential way. And in many places it's funny as hell:

"'Tell me. Which books in the Bible do you favor?'
'Oh, I favors 'em all,' Pa said. 'But I mostly like Hezekiel, Ahab, Trotter, and Pontiff the Emperor.'
The Old Man frowned. 'I don't recollect I have read those.'" 

"She wore a flowered blue dress of the type whores naturally favored, and that thing was so tight that when she moved, the daisies got all mixed up with the azaleas."

"I joined a choir in a Pentecostal church after taking a liking to a minister’s wife who slept around to save the wear and tear on her holy husband. I runned behind her several weeks till one morning the pastor gived a rousing sermon ’bout how the truth will set you free, and a feller stood up in the congregation and blurted out, 'Pastor! I got Jesus in my heart! I’m confessing! Three of us in here has porked your wife!'”

So it's funny and entertaining. But then McBride pulls a masterful bait and switch as the book nears its climax, the famous raid on Harpers Ferry. You aren't necessarily expecting it to pack such an emotional punch, and although Onion's narration doesn't lose its satirical tone, the emotion hits you anyway as the tragedy and import of the event starts to hit him, and us at the same time. McBride sticks the landing wonderfully.

The portrayal of John Brown in this novel reminded me forcefully of Don Quixote, and in fact the structure of the book reminded me of Don Quixote as well. It's about a religious lunatic on a crusade that's doomed to fail. He is skinny and looks older than his years, he wanders the desert, he inspires half-hearted adulation, he makes promises he can't keep, he barely eats. I mean, he's Don Quixote!  And at the end, you realize hat for all his insanity and all his failures, his raid on Harpers Ferry did ultimately kick off the civil war and John Brown did, ultimately, end slavery. The figure of amusement becomes a tragic hero.

“Some things in this world just ain't mean to be, not in the times we want 'em to, and the heart has to hold it in this world as a remembrance, a promise for the world that's to come. There's a prize at the end of all of it, but still, that's a heavy load to bear.”

Also, the title is a reference to a bird that makes you say "Good Lord!," the now-most-likely-extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I loved that theme too.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Men Explain Things To Me (by Rebecca Solnit)

This is a book of essays about contemporary feminism by Rebecca Solnit, and it's wonderful. It talks about the ways in which feminism is currently evolving, in part by putting names to things like mansplaining and rape culture.  (The story from the title is a classic -- Solnit brings up the topic of a book she has recently written, only to have someone condescendingly "mansplain" an important book that just came out on that same topic. Of course, the important book is hers, the guy hasn't even read it, and she can't get a word in edgewise to tell him it's her book.)

It's ultimately very hopeful -- it's easy to get caught up in the shittiness of the patriarchy with things like Leslie Jones being driven off of Twitter or the Stanford rape case. But Solnit talks about how revolutions -- even those that don't necessarily "succeed" in obvious or immediate ways -- can still effect change:

"[Susan Sontag] was making the case that we should resist on principle, even though it might be futile. I had just begun trying to make the case for hope in writing, and I argued that you don’t know if your actions are futile; that you don’t have the memory of the future; that the future is indeed dark, which is the best thing it could be; and that, in the end, we always act in the dark. The effects of your actions may unfold in ways you cannot foresee or even imagine. They may unfold long after your death."

And speaking of writers and thinkers who have had an impact long after their death, there is a whole chapter about Virginia Woolf that is just amazing and introduced me to "Professions for Women" which is a piece of writing you must read immediately.

At any rate, I loved this -- highly recommended for anyone who is interested in present-day feminism.

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The Last Policeman (by Ben H. Winters)

The Last Policeman trilogy is a series I've seen recommended in many an Ask Metafilter thread. With the current state of politics, I decided to take a bit of a break from obsessively reading Facebook and Daily Kos and Hillary HQ and 538, and dive into some apocalyptic detective fiction.

The premise of the series is that humanity has just found out an asteroid is going to collide with earth in six months, wiping out most life on earth and ushering in a period of ash in the air and food chain extinction for the survivors. In terms of the apocalypse, it's basically a prequel to The Road.  

In the meantime, we have conscientious cop Henry Palace, who believes there is still value in methodically investigating a murder even when he's not certain it actually is a murder, and everyone on earth is doomed anyway.

The two most enjoyable elements of this very enjoyable book are the character of Henry Palace and the slow worldbuilding of this pre-apocalyptic New England (the novel is set in Massachusetts).  I love how society slowly disintegrates in the background as the investigation continues, and I love Henry's narration and his slightly naive, forthright way of dealing with the world.

Luckily, there are two more books in the trilogy for me to get through. Maybe by that time, the real-life apocalypse will have been averted.

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Monday, July 18, 2016

Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life (by Emily Nagoski)

This was my "science" selection for the Read Harder Challenge this year. It's a well-reviewed book about the science of women's sexuality.

The science is interesting and I definitely got a lot of knowledge out of this book. But the tone is so not my style at all.  The only word for it is condescending. It starts off with every other page waxing rhapsodic about how our genitals are all perfect and normal and beautiful and did I mention beautiful? (Actual quote: "not just normal, but amazing and beautiful and captivating and delicious and enticing, on down the alphabet, all the way to zesty.") Sure, that's a good message, but at one point I was like, "lady, if you tell me how beautiful my vulva is one more time..." 

The science is also, quite frankly, dumbed down. Another choice quote: "I want to warn you ahead of time: This is the nerdiest, scienciest chapter in the book. Dust off your thinking cap." [Some extremely intelligible science.] "Did you make it? Phew! That was the hard part." There are also a whole lot of irritating metaphors. Our sexuality is a garden, a sleepy hedgehog, the One Ring from Lord of the Rings, we have Feels.... oh my god stop. Please stop.

This book has almost five stars on Amazon and clearly it is landing with its intended audience. I'm glad it's accessible, I'm glad people find it useful, and again -- the science is worth reading about! But I could not handle the sleepy hedgehog and zesty vulva business.  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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