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[personal profile] coffeeandink
X-posted from my journal.

Although this novella makes an interesting attempt to engage with the social constraints of the time in a more realistic manner than many Victorian-set romances, it founders on inconsistent characterization and on a gender subtext greatly at odds with its surface. Despite some genuinely moving aspects -- particularly the heroine's delayed emotional reaction to traumatic events in her past and the hero's painful relationship with his frail and increasingly senile father -- the story fails for me due to disquieting elements in the central romance.

Cut for length and spoilers; trigger warning for statutory rape )
[identity profile] ms-mmelissa.livejournal.com
Angelou continues to astound in The Heart of a Woman, the fourth volume in her series of six autobiographies. Skipping forward eagerly in time, Heart is set over the course of roughly five years and picks up a few years after its predecessor Singin' and Swingin' and Getting' Merry Like Christmas.

As with the other books in the series there is only the loosest sense of a plot. However what gives the novel coherence is Angelou's observations on motherhood and her continual struggle to take care of her son, Guy, even as he develops into a strong, independent young man. Angelou notes that in the world at large she, as a black woman in the sixties, has little authority and worries that her son will absorb that message and gradually lose respect for her. As part of her effort to reclaim some authority she finds herself becoming involved in the civil rights movement, working for Martin Luther King jr's organization, the SCLC, and marrying a South African freedom fighter who is enamoured of her passion for activism and yet wants to turn her into a subservient wife. 

While this book finds Angelou mostly abandoning the theatrical world for the political one, there is still no end to the charming anecdotes of stars and other notable personalities that Angelou encountered throughout her life. Billie Holiday, James Earl Jones, Ruby Dee and Martin Luther King jr are a few names mentioned, along with Pulitzer prize winner John Oliver Killens who is the first to encourage Angelou to write. With Killens as her mentor, Angelou joined the now legendary Harlem Writers Guild and in The Heart of a Woman records her first weak attempts at writing and her joy at her first publication in a no-name journal in Cuba. At last, four volumes in, we are able to witness Angelou's first steps on a road that will take her to literary stardom. 
[identity profile] ms-mmelissa.livejournal.com
The Lifecycle of Software Objects may be a novella, but its story stretches out over years, with Chiang providing a compelling narrative which leads us through the early years in the life of several digients, i.e. computer software avatars imbued with artificial intelligence. The story begins with their creation and development as overseen by two people who work at Blue Gamma, the company that creates them: Ana and Derek. Both are impressed with the technology and quickly become attached to the childish avatars. While the digients are a success, their popularity is short-lived. Being first generation digients they quickly become unpopular and out-moded. While most are quick to abandon their digients, Ana and Derek adopt some and develop a child-parent bond with these cyber creatures, eventually proving they will do almost anything to ensure their safety even as the online world limits their choices.

There is a curious lack of sensory detail in the book. This has been a frustrating feature of Chiang's previous work, but the absence is particularly felt here, when the differences between the flatness of the online world and the richness of the real world is made so apparent. In Chiang's world the digients are able to transcend the online world by downloading their software into a robot body which allows them to interact with their trainers in a new way. Ana, training her future digient adoptee, is hugged by him in his robot form, an obviously emotional moment. Later the narrator notes that Not surprisingly, the sensor pads in the robot's fingers are the first thing that needs replacement. In the world of the novella, the avatars become enchanted by the real world, craving time in the robot suit so that they can feel. Unfortunately, Chiang's world is devoid of any richness in detail which leaves an uncomfortable void running through the novella. There are also some truly terrible transitions. The story flips through the years at a brisk pace, but Chiang often chooses to convey this with the phrase A year passed which seems clumsy the first time it is used and downright annoying by the sixth or seventh time. 

What Chiang does excellently though is track the decline and fall of the digients. There is an undercurrent of sweetness and nostalgia running through the book. The more time and energy their care-givers give to the digients and the more self-aware and intelligent they become, the better they are able to realize that software incompatibilities mean that their world is rapidly shrinking. The ugly choices that Ana and Derek consider in order to give them a full "life" are devastating and would have seemed even more so if only Chiang had spent a little more time on the emotional and a little less of the scientific.
[identity profile] ms-mmelissa.livejournal.com
Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas is a compulsively good read. Like Angelou's previous two biographies it's not very long, but the enthusiasm with which Angelou relates her experiences makes it seem even shorter. While her other biographies deal with childhood and her early steps towards independence, Angelou emerges here as a full-fledged adult become more confident with herself and the world around her.

The book covers two major themes, the first being Angelou's beginnings in show business. After her first marriage fails (the courtship, marriage and its dissolution are covered in a brisk few pages) Angelou takes a job as a dancer in a strip club. Her dances catch the attention of some white night club singers who help her begin a career as a nightclub singer which becomes a launching pad for her career as an actress and dancer. At last the Marguerite Johnson of the two previous memoirs transforms into Maya Angelou. A role in the renowned opera Porgy and Bess opens the world up to Angelou literally as well as metaphorically as the opera's tour allows her to visit Europe and parts of North Africa.

Wound inseparably into the narrative is Angelou's observations about what it is like to operate as a strong-minded independent black woman in America in the fifties. Segregation meant that her previous experiences with white people had been infrequent and hostile, but as she begins to travel in different circles her experiences with white people become more frequent and complex. Her family reacts badly when she marries a white man. Her white friends still have the power to unexpectedly wound her with a thoughtless comment and Angelou feels that power imbalance keenly. Her tour across Europe is also incredibly revealing to Angelou as she and the members of her company are often the first black people that people have seen in real life. The questions and stares give way to both painful moments and beautiful ones all of which Angelou recollects with grace and good humour.
[identity profile] ms-mmelissa.livejournal.com
Maya Angelou is best known for her first autobiography, the groundbreaking I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which chronicles her early childhood before breaking off abruptly when she's seventeen. Gather Together in My Name picks up a short while after her last book broke off and chronicles Maya's early forays into adulthood. 

I enjoyed Gather Together in My Name a great deal more than its predecessor. The work has received criticism for its looser structure; Marguerite stumbles in and out of jobs with regularity and falls in and out of love with men at the drop of the hat. This doesn't provide for a great, over-arching narrative, but then life seldom does, and this chaotic period of Maya Angelou's life (from about 17 to 19) seems to demand a less formal structure. 

Angelou was purportedly hesitant to write about this period in her life and after reading the book it's easy to see why. Already a young mother at this point in her life, Angelou also spent this time period making forays into prostitution, both as prostitute and pimp, while remaining stunningly naive about the world around her and her own actions. Some of the most powerful moments of the book can be found in these passages; Angelou is at her best when she is speaking from the voice of teenage Marguerite, outlining her own beliefs and showing the reader how a headstrong girl who believed she was jaded and world-weary was repeatedly fooled by her own naiveté. However, Angelou was writing this at a point in her life where she was no longer a naive spirited girl, but a savvy woman and the voice of that woman occasionally emerges, to the book's detriment. In an early scene Marguerite goes to the home of a lesbian couple simply to show how laissez-faire and grown up she is. As the two begin to kiss in front of her Marguerite is overcome with revulsion and disgust, which Angelou promptly excuses as the bias and hatred of an ignorant girl repeating the prejudices of the world around her. The authorial intrusion is a rare mis-step in a work that is fearless in its refusal to apologize for its narrator. 
[identity profile] ms-mmelissa.livejournal.com
Stories of Your Life & Others boasts an incredible pedigree and came to me highly recommended from a wide variety of individuals. Virtually every story in the book has been previously published by a big name literary magazine (Asimov's, Omni, etc) and have won awards. I came to the book with high expectations and was left  disappointed. 

The problem with Stories of Your Life is one that is often levelled at sci-fi writers by its detractors; the ideas are good, the writing is flat. In fact, in this case, their often isn't much of a story there at all. In Understand a man becomes hyper intelligent as a result of a clinical drug study. The story is about 40 pages long and a good 35 of those is spent simply describing the man's new found intelligence. Some conflict does eventually arise (a great conflict in fact), but is quickly dealt with in the last few pages of the story. This is pretty much the problem with the rest of the stories in the book. Chiang may be great at coming up with new worlds and interesting concepts, but he is flat out terrible at building a story. 

There are a few stories in the collection that manage to escape this tendency of Chiang's to get lost in the science of things. Tower of Babylon, based on the bible story of the Tower of Babel, is interesting and gripping and comes together in a great way. Story of Your Life is messy, but the execution is interesting, even if it's not perfect. 

One thing I did appreciate about the book is that there is a section of notes in the back where Chiang talks a little bit about the inspiration behind each story. They're never more than a few paragraphs long, but I thought they were a great addition to the book.

Nat Turner

Apr. 30th, 2011 06:26 pm
[identity profile] atdelphi.livejournal.com
1. Nat Turner by Kyle Baker (New York: Abrams, 2008)

On August 21, 1831, Nat Turner led more than seventy rebels in what would become the largest slave uprising in U.S. history. He was subsequently captured, tried and hanged, but his conversations with his lawyer became the basis for a document titled "The Confessions of Nat Turner," which artist and author Kyle Baker has used as the background script for a graphic novel about Turner's life and rebellion.

Nat Turner is nearly wordless, but Baker's art ably carries both the scope and the subtleties of Turner's story. He's capable of both beauty and the grotesque, with some very interesting artistic choices implemented as the rebellion progresses, and his skill at portraying action kept me hurtling through what is ultimately a deeply unpleasant, ugly and upsetting story.

This was a harrowing read; no punches are pulled. There are no heroes in this story, only very desperate people living in an intrinsically violent and dehumanizing situation. I read this along with Chester Brown's Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (ineligible for this challenge), and it's an example of the versatility of the graphic novel format to see how two author/artists could adapt similar stories about religiously charismatic men who led armed rebellions against their oppressors into wildly different end products.

While the story of Louis Riel is nearer to my heart, I think Nat Turner is by far the superior work, and I fully recommend it.

(tags: au.nationality:united.states, au.race:black, genre:non.fiction, slavery, )
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
13. Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East

I love travel books, and this is a fantastic one. Iyer visits several Asian countries (including India, China, Tibet, Burma, the Philippines, Bali, Thailand, Hong Kong, and probably a few more I'm forgetting) with the goal of seeing how they've been affected by Western pop culture and tourism. Iyer is quite good at describing places, and seems to have really made the effort to get to know local people and include their viewpoints.

This book is a bit out-of-date now (it was written in the early 80s), but to me that just added to the appeal. This is a China and Tibet newly opened to Westerners, a Hong Kong which is still a colony, Burma before it was Myanmar. So many of the places he visits no longer exist- at least, not as they did at the time- that it makes for an intriguing historical snapshot.

Iyer uses the 'Modern, Masculine West meets Traditional, Feminine East! However Will They Understand One Another?' trope a bit too much for my tastes, but you could easily skim those parts and focus on the descriptions of places and people, which are quite well-written. Recommended, and I'd love recs for other travel books, if you have a favorite!
rydra_wong: Lee Miller photo showing two women wearing metal fire masks in England during WWII. (still IBARW)
[personal profile] rydra_wong
There are books you can't put down, and then there are books you put down a third of the way through so that you can run to the computer and start ordering more books by the same author. The Intuitionist is that good.

I don't know whether this should be counted as sf/f, slipstream, magical realism, or something else altogether: its very own genre of lucid-dreaming surreal noir, a vision of a city that might be New York riven by the conflict between rival schools of elevator inspectors, the Empiricists with their faith in dutiful physical inspection and the Intuitionists who aspire to sense defects by tuning into the the soul of the machine itself.

Lila Mae Watson is the first "colored" woman (the book is set in what feels like the '40s or '50s) to become an elevator inspector - and she's an Intuitionist. When an elevator she inspected inexplicably goes into freefall, she finds herself at the centre of a web of political intrigue, where race, class, secrecy and mysticism intersect in the hunt for the "black box": the design for a perfect elevator.

Lila Mae is a fantastic protagonist: dour, self-contained, and, like the novel, utterly herself. But what makes the novel absolutely compelling is the narrative voice. Something like Don DeLillo, something like Walter Mosley (who contributed a well-deserved blurb), and a lot that's all Whitehead's own. This doesn't read like the first novel it is; it's unhesitatingly confident and polished in its idiosyncrasies:

Anyway, slept. In the biggest bed she has ever slept in, swimmable, Lila Mae buoyant despite her negligible body fat (a skinny one, she is). The bed possesses an undertow conducive to dreaming, but she doesn't remember her dreams when she wakes. On waking, her half-dreaming consciousness segues into a recollection of her visit to the Fanny Briggs building. It was simple: that's what Lila Mae is thinking about in her room at 117 Second Avenue.
sanguinity: woodcut by M.C. Escher, "Snakes" (Default)
[personal profile] sanguinity
1. Mildred D. Taylor, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.

I haven't read Roll of Thunder since I was a kid, and honestly, didn't remember much of what goes on in it. Reading it now, I can't help but contrast it with To Kill a Mockingbird -- the two novels are very similar in themes, plot, and setting. Both take place in rural, Depression-era South; both plots center around the racial injustices of the place and time; both are narrated by young girls who are only just becoming aware of the racial politics that around them; both narrators are relatively sheltered and prosperous, as compared to their peers; both narrators idolize their fathers and alternately look up to and chafe under the influence of their older brothers.

I've read Mockingbird umpteen times in my life, and for the first half or so of Taylor's book, Roll of Thunder felt to me like I had rotated the Mockingbird world in my hands and was looking in at it through another window, seeing many bits of the story that had been hidden from Scout. And then the world twisted on me. In this story, Atticus isn't a hero.

Mr. Jamison, the fair-minded white lawyer who is respectful to the black families and willing to incur personal risk while advocating in their interest, is... well, pathetically ineffectual. He is portrayed as a good man and an ally, but he isn't trusted, either. He is very alien, very removed from their lives, and no one can forget that he acts solely from his own sense of morality and may buckle under social pressure at any time. And, as I said, despite all his efforts, he can't do all that much to help anyone. During the book's climax, OMG SPOILERS! ) This is a very, very different portrait than the self-composed Atticus reading below Tom Robinson's cell window while they wait for the lynch mob.

And, yanno, notwithstanding all these lines I just spent on Mr. Jamison? He's a minor character. He's hardly mentioned in the book at all. I just finished reading the novel this morning, yet I had to go look up Mr. Jamison's name so that I could write this post. However grand and heroic Atticus is in Mockingbird, his alter-ego barely exists in the Logans' world.

The ending of Roll of Thunder is... abrupt. More of a highly-emphasized break between acts than a true end of a novel. But I hear that Taylor wrote bunch more about the Logans...
[identity profile] into-desire.livejournal.com
Hi! I read a lot. I started keeping a list at the beginning of 2007, just out of curiosity, and I think the record-keeping made me read more. It's a vicious cycle, really.

I started off the year reading books by women of color. I read five in a row, then got distracted. Counting back now, it turns out that of the 133 books I've read so far, only 13 of them are by African-American or African authors. I've read another 12 by Japanese and Chinese authors, but 10 of those are the Petshop of Horrors manga series. So this community has a good goal for me.

Here's what I've read in 2007 by authors of color (apart from manga):

(1-4) Octavia E. Butler: Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, Kindred, and Fledgling. Her world-building, that takes into consideration race, class, age and gender, is really refreshing after the sort of good-old-boy scifi where the (young, sexy, white) women mainly lounge around in spandex and/or armored bras. Fledgling is a really interesting take on vampires.

(5) Ayaan Hirsi Ali: The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam. A passionate, important, and highly experienced voice on a pressing issue.

(6) Sapphire: Push: A Novel. Sapphire is mainly a poet but I found her first novel gripping and thought-provoking. It draws on The Color Purple quite a lot so I wish I'd read that first.

(7) Alice Walker: The Color Purple. I felt very ... friendly to everyone in this novel by the time I'd finished it. And deeply impressed by the range of emotions Walker expresses. It's one of my favorite novels ever.

(8) Mark Mathabane: Kaffir Boy: An Autobiography--The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa. Had to read this for a class. It's the true story of how Mathabane managed to survive (barely) and eventually escape the incredibly brutal and dehumanizing life of an African in urban South Africa.

(9-10) bell hooks: Where We Stand: Class Matters and All About Love: New Visions. bell hooks is one of the most important authors to me. The first book of hers I read, Teaching to Transgress, almost singlehandedly made me a feminist. Neither of these is among my favorite works of hers, but everything she writes has a lot of wisdom in it.

(11-13) Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, and Beloved. I'll be reading a lot more Morrison this fall as I am taking a course about her. So far I have come to the realization that she is the greatest living English writer, and that Beloved is the greatest novel I have read thus far (out of hundreds). I would have read all her books by now if I'd known that earlier, but when we did Beloved in high school I wasn't mature enough to appreciate it. Playing in the Dark is a short monograph I recommend to anyone remotely interested in American literature.

(14) Liang Heng (and Judith Shapiro): Son of the Revolution. Memoir of the Chinese Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao.

(15) Ji-Li Jiang: Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution. Memoir for a young-adult audience, possibly middle-school aged.

[PS. I'm on LibraryThing!]
helens78: A man in a leather jacket, seated on the ground, looks up hopefully. (Default)
[personal profile] helens78
Hello! I'm Helens. )

I discovered Octavia Butler in college, in a comparative lit class about science-fiction books. We read "Dawn", and though it would turn out not to be my favorite of Butler's books, I was inspired enough to go out and get more of them. I finished off the Xenogenesis series and then went for the Pattern cycle.

Patternmaster is the first book Butler published, but in series chronology, it's the last of the Pattern cycle. It opens on a world so unfamiliar that a first-time reader won't necessarily know what they're looking at, which I think is a pretty cool artistic decision. At only 202 pages, it has a narrowed focus, telling the story of the protagonist (Teray) and his struggle to come to adulthood in a hurry and find his place within the Pattern that connects all the Patternists in this world, but Butler's tight, clear writing style gives us a fantastic view of the world she's invented and never leaves us feeling confused. (This is a big deal for me; I often feel confused when writers invent worlds but don't ground me sufficiently enough in them for me to understand what's going on and what the "rules" are.)

I rated it 4.5 stars on LibraryThing, but only because the second (publication date) book in the series is one of my favorite books of all time (Mind of My Mind), possibly my favorite book, if I were held at gunpoint and asked to pick one. I've read MoMM several times in single sittings; it's that good. So there has to be room to go up from here, but not much! Patternmaster remains an excellent book with an engaging world and outstandingly smart, powerful, tough and brave protagonists. (And for those of you who aren't familiar with Butler's work, her protagonists are almost always Black or multiracial characters; many of her books have tall, Black, female protagonists; see the Xenogenesis series and the Parable series.)
ext_6334: (Zora Neale Hurston)
[identity profile] carenejeans.livejournal.com
Note: This book figures large in my bookish past, and I started writing this essay for an (unfinished) post for IBARW. Not all of my posts will be this personal.


I first read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye more than thirty years ago. I haven't read it very often since (about three times, once for a class in college) but it has stayed with me, lodged firmly on my memory's bookshelf. It's one of my "foundational" books -- those books that you find just when you need them (even if you didn't know you needed it) and which fit into your brain like a puzzle piece from the Big Picture of, you know, life, the universe, and How Things Really Work.
Read more... )

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