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[personal profile] yatima
This deservedly acclaimed masterpiece is a coolly intelligent book, all the more devastating for the precision and detachment with which it describes its horrors. Frederick Douglass was probably his master's son. His white brothers and sister inherited property: Douglass was property. Between the facts of biology and basic human decency, everyone involved in the slave trade must have been in a constant state of extreme cognitive dissonance. The descriptions of the floggings and murders are terrible, but the descriptions of the psychological consequences of slavery upon both slave and master are more terrible still.

...slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite common to others. They think their own better than that of others. Many, under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better than the masters of other slaves; and this, too, in some cases, when the very reverse is true. Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others. At the very same time, they mutually execrate their masters when viewed separately.

The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.

The coldest part of the book is Douglass's care to list the exact names of each perpetrator of an atrocity, and the date of the atrocity as closely as he can calculate it. He wanted his account to be unimpeachable. He succeeded. Historians have verified his facts. When speaking truth to power, bring receipts.
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[personal profile] brainwane
I read The Underground Railroad in 2016. I thought it was engaging, moving, and accessible,* and I nominated it for a Hugo Award (Best Novel).

Na'amen Gobert Tilahun reviewed Underground Airlines as well as The Underground Railroad in Strange Horizons and discussed several aspects of both books. That review mentions speculative elements in Whitehead's book beyond the railroad mentioned in the title, in case you are wary of spoilers.

I have read John Henry Days, The Intuitionist, and I think at least one other Whitehead book, and am trying to reflect on how Whitehead approaches and uses the railroad, because I think it's different than the way a lot of speculative fiction authors do, and has more in common with how other mimetic fiction authors tend to use speculative premises. I want to compare The Underground Railroad to Never Let Me Go, where the story doesn't concentrate on (or, sometimes, even mention) the origin story of the big plot premise, and instead the story is entirely about the lives of people living or resisting -- just for themselves, to survive or thrive -- within that system.

* I think Whitehead deliberately works to make the book accessible to people who have not previously read slave narratives, fictional or nonfiction -- I think he spells out subtext more often than he would if he assumed the reader had more of a grounding in antebellum history or the history of anti-black racism in the US.

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, )
pauraque: bird flying (Default)
[personal profile] pauraque
Content warning: The book depicts rape, beatings, and female genital cutting, but they're not discussed in this post.

This is the story of Mende Nazer, who was abducted from her home in Sudan in 1993 and sold into slavery. Throughout her teenage years she was forced to do domestic work for a wealthy family, before being sent to work for her "master"'s sister, the wife of a Sudanese diplomat living in London. While in London she was finally able to make her escape and successfully seek political asylum. This was a big news story a few years back, some of you may remember hearing about it. Since the book's publication, she has become a British citizen.

The book is well-written and engaging, and tells a story the world needs to hear, a story that is not extraordinary, but rather all too common. The only extraordinary thing about it is that Nazer escaped, whereas most people in her situation never do.

But here's my problem: The co-author, Damien Lewis, who is white. At the time of writing, Nazer had only been studying English for a year, maybe less. She spoke two other languages fluently, but instead of using a translator, Lewis had her talk to him in English, and he interpreted and wrote down what she said in his own style. That it is his own style is obvious from reading his afterword that explains the writing process -- it's the same voice. He says it was done this way because her story was far too "personal" for a translator to come between them. He, and only he, could achieve the "closeness" with her to help her express her thoughts. Hmm. This is my skeptical face.

But it's okay, because Lewis is an "expert" on Sudan, according to his bio blurb. I notice it doesn't mention his age, while Nazer's bio eagerly and irrelevantly informs us yet again (it's mentioned multiple times in the text) that her tribe -- gasp! -- doesn't record exact birthdates. How exotic! It is obvious why she needed this White Expert to render HER story into HIS own words.

Okay, sarcasm off. Sorry. To be fair, several years have passed and Nazer speaks good English now (yay Youtube) and has not, to my knowledge, disowned the book or Lewis. It's up to her how her story is put forth. I just have to be honest about my personal reaction to reading it, which is that I really wanted Mende Nazer's voice, and was frustrated by the feeling of having to dig through layers of Damien Lewis's voice to get to it.

[eta: Note that author Damien Lewis is not the same person as actor Damian Lewis, as Wikipedia believes. Someone oughta fix that.]

tags: a: Nazer Mende, w-a: Lewis Damien, African (Sudanese), Muslim, genre: memoir, subject: slavery, setting: Sudan
[identity profile] seekingferret.livejournal.com
38.The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

Really, it's a chilly, well-crafted book about progress. It's a book that is practically a single, unmixed metaphor about progress. Is progress good or bad? Does progress move forward or backward? Is progress about technology or is it about people? But Whitehead never says the word 'progress'. He uses the phrase "black box", a triumphant insight on his part because it communicates two simultaneous ideas: one, that progress is about moving toward a future point that is presently unknowable and two, that at present any rational definition of American progress is going to have to focus on improving the lives of black Americans.

Our protagonist, Lila, is the first "colored" (edit: colored female, rather) elevator inspector in city history. Whitehead plays with the surface level significance of that, with her struggles for recognition in the department, with the hidden suffering of the previous "colored" inspectors, with the almost circumstantial torment of watching her colleagues put on a minstrel show. Underneath, he shows her questing for the "black box", the perfect elevator that only her Intuitionist beliefs can lead her to. But Intuitionism is a joke, a stupid fiction (It's significant, I think, that Intuitionism is validated Empirically by the fact that its inspectors are more accurate. Intuitionism is about secretly rebelling against being captive to a broken system). And progress is both its own means and ends. Lila, like Fulton before her, can push the elevator inspectors forward, but whether or not they'll resist is not up to her, but to bigger forces beyond her control.

Which is a scary, big idea. The Intuitionist is good at making scary, big ideas seem small and manageable.

39.The Conjure Woman by Charles W. Chesnutt

Now that I have a Nook, I'm looking to read more ebooks. This has led me to Project Gutenberg and its African-American Authors bookshelf, which is where I found this story collection. It comes highly recommended.

A collection of late 19th century short stories by Chesnutt, they are narrated by an Ohio carpetbagger who has bought a North Carolina vineyard and describe the folk tales that the carpetbagger's ex-slave coachmen tells about plantation witchcraft. Cannily written, you have to look twice to see that these aren't the gentle, humorous folktales they initially look like but rather grim stories about the horrors of slave life. Littered among the colorful conjurers, people turned into animals, and other fantastical details are stories of families broken up because an owner loses a slave in a bet, women forced to marry men they don't want to, slaves unreasonably punished for minor offenses, disease, and pain.

The coachman, and consequently the majority of the stories, speaks in "plantation dialect". This is, needless to say, problematic. It certainly has the potential to reinforce stereotypes. On the other hand, since the stories function as critique of the more uncritical Uncle Remus stories, the use of dialect serves as coded signal about the genre the stories are situating themselves within. These are stories, in short, that demand a critically engaged reader.

The frames are often relatively thin, but they're not pointless. Chesnutt uses his framing story to offer commentary and context to the folk tales, as well as to develop all of the characters in the frame. His frames often point out problems with his folk tales, or suggest that the narrator's perspective is compromised.

tags: a:chesnutt charles w., a: whitehead colson
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
3. Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Wench

Whew, this is a depressing book. But well worth reading; the characters are all very believable and engaging, and the situation is compelling. It's a novel, but one based on a real-life situation: Tawawa House, a popular summer resort in the early and middle 1800s, located in Ohio but frequented by rich men from southern states. The story focuses on four black women, all slaves, and all brought by their owners to Tawawa House over repeated summers. Because, see, Tawawa House has a particular reason for being popular: it's a place where slave-owners can bring their black mistresses, leaving their wives behind.

This is a hard book to describe, because there's not much of a plot; most of what changes over the course of the novel is the slow shifts in Lizzy's (the main character) attitude toward her life and the other people in it. Wench is excellent at describing the tangled situation she and the other women find themselves in, their feelings about each other, other people back home on their plantations, and finding themselves in Ohio- a free state- while still being a slave. Each of the four women has differing attitudes towards their men, ranging from Lizzy (the main character), who really believes her owner loves her and her children, to Mawu, who would kill her owner given the chance. Lizzy's efforts to make a better life for her children shape her character and result in some of the most heart-breaking scenes in the book, while her time in Ohio tempts her to leave them behind and make an escape attempt.

Not a fun book, but an excellent one. I recommend it.
[identity profile] livii.livejournal.com
These two articles are available for free online here at Project Gutenberg. They are "My Escape From Slavery" and "Reconstruction".

Douglass is a fantastic essayist. His story of his escape from slavery is riveting: it's tense, dramatic, and passionate. His experience of life in the free North afterward is also briefly detailed, and again well-chronicled. He is honest and not romantic about the shortcomings of life there, yet has an optimism and drive for life that was very inspiring to read. His recollection of his feelings upon earning his first coins as a free man was a highlight.

"Reconstruction" is about states' rights vs. federal rights and emancipation. It's a pretty interesting look into political affairs after the US Civil War, and much of it still feels very relevant today (sometimes, sadly).

I plan to read his memoirs shortly, but wonder if anyone has etexts of any other articles/essays. When I downloaded this one, I was disappointed to find it was only two articles, rather than a true collection. Thanks!
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[personal profile] zeborah
This is a young adult novel, fiction set in the real town of Buxton, Canada, a settlement of runaway slaves. Elijah is the first child born into freedom in Buxton. The book starts with him telling about his ordinary life of school, chores, fishing, and getting in trouble with his friends. As the story progresses it keeps its sense of humour but shows us more and longer glimpses of the scars that slavery has left and is still leaving on his family and neighbours.

I can't really talk sensibly about it more than to recommend it, along with a box of tissues if you're what his mother would call "fragile". :-)

SchoolWAX TV has a Meet the Author interview with Christopher Paul Curtis.
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
39. Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, Black London: Life Before Emancipation

This was a great book, but not quite as great as I wanted it to be. An academic work as readable as any pop non-fiction book, Black London deals with the historical presence of black people in London throughout history, although the focus is on the 1700s. The author says that she decided to write this book when, while doing research, a bookseller told her, "Madam, there were no black people in England before 1945".

I loved how this book didn't just give generalities about black life in the 1700s, but used the historical record to find real individuals and tell their stories: slaves, escaped slaves, servants, husbands and wives (it appears to have been quite common for black men to marry white women during this time), shop-owners, writers, the children of African elites come to Europe to study, the mixed-race children of Caribbean planters, actors, beggars, and on and on. I found it really fascinating and wished the whole book had been about these stories of people. Alas, about half the book is actually taken up with recounting the stories of two legal changes (and the mostly white lawyers, judges, plaintiffs, defendants, reporters, etc, etc, involved): the James Somersett lawsuit of 1771, which outlawed slavery in England itself, and the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the slave trade. While these parts of the book were interesting, they weren't as incredibly awesome as the first part. Still, I enjoyed this book, and am excited to see she has another about black people during the Victorian period.
[identity profile] ms-erupt.livejournal.com
06. How Far We Slaves Have Come! by Nelson Mandela; Fidel Castro
Pages: 83
Genre: Non-fiction; World Politics; Diplomacy and International Relations; South Africa; Latin America
Rating: 5/10; May or May Not Recommend

Short review and possibly spoilery review. )

Comments may contain spoilers.
[identity profile] chipmunk-planet.livejournal.com
This is an autobiography by the first president of Tuskegee University (called then Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute), Booker T. Washington. Born to a slave woman in Alabama and an unknown white man, he was emancipated at the end of the Civil War along with the rest of the slaves there, taking the last name of Washington the first time he went to school, when he was about ten or so. The book chronicles his journey from dirt poor to a man known internationally for his work.

There are a few things that strike me about this book: foremost, how 19th century Washington's writing style is. He thinks and speaks as a man of his day, which makes sense, but it's a bit jarring to hear him compare the "barbarous" red man to the black man who "chose life and civilization to extinction". (he actually used this analogy many times in his speeches to prove that blacks were better suited to be part of Reconstruction, joining forces with whites to rebuild the South)

The other thing that you can't fail to miss is the man's humble and cheerful attitude. He has very little in the way of negative to say about anyone, although at the end of the book he does mention times where people ignored him then later contributed to his work as the school grew. Washington's core belief seems to be that his hardships built character, and that through hard work and perseverance anyone could succeed.

He insisted that every one of his students, no matter how well-off, work at the school. The students built the school; they provided their own food, clothing, equipment, and many returned after graduation to teach as well. He himself spent most of his waking time working at the school, making speeches to raise money for the school, writing letters in support of black civil rights (even in other states, and on his vacation!), and networking with prominent white leaders. He visited several Presidents and William McKinley came to visit Tuskegee, the first time a sitting President had visited a black university. Washington also received an honorary degree from Harvard, another first.

Later in his life, he clashed with some of the other black leaders, particularly the religious leaders (and the influential W.E.B. DuBois), for his tell-it-like-it-is assessment of the condition of black America. Washington's view was that only by blacks being prosperous and useful to the country would racial tension be resolved, and that forcing social and political equality prematurely would only lead to a backlash from the majority white populace. He felt that help to blacks should come in the form of promoting both industrial and liberal arts education, because he felt everyone should know how to work with his or her hands (the university took men and women from its inception), and that it was more costly not to educate someone than to do so, both black and white.

He died in 1915 (I've seen several possible causes listed, but he had extreme high blood pressure and possibly a heart condition, and refused to stop working), outliving two wives and being survived by a third, along with many children and grandchildren.

I found this book very interesting and would highly recommend it.
[identity profile] whereweather.livejournal.com
A Small Place, Jamaica Kincaid
1988.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I am a fan of Jamaica Kincaid.  In the last year or so I have read her books At the Bottom of the River, Annie John, and Lucy, and got a lot out of each of them.  I was looking forward to reading A Small Place because I was looking forward to learning more about Antigua, the Caribbean island she comes from.  (Both Annie John and At the Bottom of the River are set on Antigua, but since they are pretty much in the mind of a first-person narrator, who is usually a child, there is not the kind of distance that you'd need to be _told about_ Antigua -- the kind of political, historical, or sociological things about it that might be interesting to a grown-up North American reader.)

I am disappointed in A Small Place, partly because... I'm not sure what the book wants to be.  I've seen it described as a "travelogue," and also as a "jeremiad."  The first section, or chapter (like many of Kincaid's books, it is very short: 80 pages of large, clear print), starts off in second-person: it is telling "you," the traveller, what to expect when you arrive in Antigua.  The next two sections are in first person, with many recollections of Kincaid's early life in Antigua, which move out and away to analysis of what the problems of the island are (the second section considers mostly colonialism and slavery, the third the island's desperate political corruption.)  There is also a very short fourth section, which feels sort of tacked on for closure. 

I guess I feel as if the book is not very tight or well-held together, in spite of its size -- and a small book needs that even more, doesn't it?  Although her fiction is also full of digressions, I feel as if they work and shape to a larger whole.  A Small Place is strangely imbalanced, though: analysis, personal recollection, anger carrying the writer away.. Part of the issue, maybe, is that she seems to sort of be writing around or even trying to get at certain ideas and concepts which have, I think, been formulated more concisely and forcefully by various other post-colonialist theorists and writers.   But Kincaid does not want to seem to avail herself of any of that language or intellectual discourse, and so it feels as if she is lurching at things and coming up short.  (It feels odd and audacious to level this criticism at Jamaica Kincaid, whose intellect is profound and formidable and whose writing sometimes borders on genius.  But nonetheless, that is how the book made me feel.)

Despite that, there were entire passages I want to copy out to think about and remember. )
[identity profile] whereweather.livejournal.com
#10.  Kindred, Octavia Butler.

Okay, I am about the fiftieth person to read this book in this community, and the sixth or seventh to post about it TODAY.  Which makes me feel as if an in-depth review would be... unnecessary?  Redundant?  I will, nonetheless, try to write briefly about what I myself took away from it. 

A brief summary: Dana, who is black, is a feminist and a writer.  It is 1976, and she has just moved with her husband of not-very-long, Kevin (who is white), to a their first house together in Los Angeles.  By mechanisms unknown to her, she finds herself unwillingly pulled back into the past, for the presumable purpose --  she quickly figures out -- of saving Rufus, a young white boy who will become the master of his father's Maryland plantation, and keeping him alive long enough to father the child who will become Dana's ancestor.  But that means Dana has to live -- and  try to keep her body, integrity, and sense of self intact, in a society in which blacks are property, women are treated like children, and she has no legal or personal rights at all.

Butler calls this book a "grim fantasy," which seems correct, in that it's certainly not science fiction.  The mechanism of time travel is not really important here; what matters are its consequences.  I find Butler's writing very immediate, and although she is not a particularly lyrical or elegant stylist, her calm, tough, clear prose works very well to keep the story moving, to illuminate character and to draw the reader into the questions she is most interested in addressing: those of assumptions; of ambiguous ethical questions; of painful choices which genuinely -- unlike in most fiction -- have no obvious right answer.

A couple of interesting, and illuminating, quotes from the book's Wikipedia page:

"I was trying to get people to feel slavery," Butler said in a 2004 interview. "I was trying to get across the kind of emotional and psychological stones that slavery threw at people." In another interview, she said, "I think people really need to think what it's like to have all of society arrayed against you."

The book is set on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Butler said she chose the setting "because I wanted my character to have a legitimate hope of escape," and because two famous African-Americans, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, had been enslaved there.

[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
15. Alice Randall, The Wind Done Gone

This book is, in a way, fanfiction of Gone with the Wind. I remember the huge controversy when it first came out (long story short: the copyright holders of Gone with the Wind sued to prevent publication of this book), but I hadn't read it until now.

It's an absolutely gorgeous book. The language is really lovely, poetic and often dream-like. The story is about Cynara, the mixed-race daughter of Mammy and the half-sister of Scarlett O'Hara. There's a great deal of intersection with and reinterpreting of the events and characters of Gone with the Wind (I haven't read that book, though I've seen the movie a few times, and didn't have a problem following along). The narration skips around in time a great deal, mainly following Cynara's life in Atlanta and Washington D.C. after Rhett Butler leaves Scarlett at the end of Gone with the Wind, but with large portions dealing with memories of events from her childhood or young adult life. It can be depressing and bitter, but the book ultimately ends on an optimistic note, due to the politics and changes of the Reconstruction Period that Cynara participates in.

I thought the best part of the book was its depiction of the emotional and psychology effects of slavery. Cynara, as the daughter of a plantation owner, is relatively sheltered from many of the physical effects of slavery (she is not whipped, she does not work in the fields, her father makes a bit of an attempt to protect her from sexual abuse), but it is still absolutely clear what devastating consequences it has had on her life. In particular, the four-way relationship between Cynara, Mammy, Scarlett, and Scarlett's mother is complicated, heart-breaking, and (I thought) insightful.
sanguinity: woodcut by M.C. Escher, "Snakes" (Default)
[personal profile] sanguinity
49. Kyle Baker, How to Draw Stupid.

I've got strong and mixed feelings about this book. However, even regarding the stuff I disagree with Baker about, I've gotta give props to a book that makes it possible for me to put my finger on what bothers me about cartooning-in-general, and my wtf moments when reading Baker's other work.

(For reference, I'm using "cartooning" to refer to the popular gag-based style, regardless as to whether any particular cartoon is single-panel or not. Don't come quoting Scott McCloud at me.)

First, this a "how to be a professional cartoonist" book, and there's a lot of good advice in here: you have to actually make cartoons to be a cartoonist; you should spend some time learning to draw, then spend some time unlearning to draw; never underestimate the value of exaggeration, streamlining, etc. I'm particularly taken with his notion of leading with the artwork -- design the art before you write the words. I shall have to experiment with that. There's also good stuff in here about storytelling structure and making sure your characters have body language. (Although I vehemently disagree with Baker as to what a "dynamic" fight looks like, and his comments make me understand why I have always flipped through D.C./Marvel fight scenes, utterly bored out of my mind: Sifu would have had my head if I had ever tried to throw a punch like that, and that's assuming that my opponent didn't beat him to it.) Plus there's what Baker quite rightly calls "the hand of death."

However, there are significant places where we split ways: the thing about stereotypes, f'rex, and his ideas about what is funny. Both of those could be better categorized as "my problem with cartooning" rather than "my problem with Baker-in-particular," but these items do explain my occasional wtf moment when reading a Baker graphic novel, and why I've been so wary of picking up The Bakers.

Stereotypes are true; hitting stupid people is funny. )

As a book, I found How to Draw Stupid useful. For me, its usefulness flip-flopped between "how to draw cartoons/comics" and "concise explanation of what it is about cartooning and some of Baker's work that bothers me." Other readers are quite likely to have different reactions to it.

50. Kyle Baker, Nat Turner.

I read How to Draw Stupid when I was midway through Nat Turner -- Nat Turner is intense, and I could only read it in short doses -- and I really wish I hadn't. Because the stuff that made me grind my teeth in Draw Stupid is in no way present in Nat Turner, and it was distracting to have my Draw Stupid feelings about Baker fresh in my head while I was making my way through Nat Turner.

This graphic novel is... brutal. And terrible. And powerful. I find myself at a loss as to verbalize much of anything about it. If you can find the stomach to look this one in the eye -- it is not a pretty story, and Baker did not in any way nice'n it up for easy consumption -- I do recommend it.
sanguinity: woodcut by M.C. Escher, "Snakes" (Default)
[personal profile] sanguinity
48. Steven Barnes, Lion's Blood.

It is the 1860's (Gregorian calendar), and North America is being colonized by Egypt, Ethiopia, Vikings, and China; the Azteca rule Mesoamerica. Our story follows the ever-permutating relationship between Kai, the son of an Ethiopian official in New Djibouti (near what we know as Galveston, Texas), and Aidan, his Irish slave and footboy.

People who were frustrated with Blonde Roots and Naughts and Crosses might well enjoy this one -- the historical timeline and resultant world makes sense.1 Barnes doesn't get around to actually presenting this world's history to us until a hundred pages in, but I rather liked that -- the whole first part of the book is Aidan's abduction into slavery, and our unfamiliarity of the world makes his disorientation more convincing.

In feel, Lion's Blood is a lot like those sprawling historical epics, the sort of thing they used to make TV miniseries out of. Every once in a while, Barnes seemed to hit a note a little too hard -- there's a pseudo-St. Crispin's Day speech, f'rex, that I would have enjoyed better had I no familiarity with Henry V -- but I find that true of historical epics in general. Slavery is a prominent feature of this book, and there is violence commensurate with that, but something about the book's feel makes those scenes easier to read than pretty much every other book "about" slavery that I've read for this comm.2 (Also, much in keeping with this kind of sprawling epic: Kai and Aidan are eminently shippable.)

All in all, this was a perfect bit of long-holiday reading. Nice and thick, very readable, very easy to immerse myself in. I'm looking forward to the second in the series.


1 Mostly. There's a half-page about a Jewish merchant ship that confuses me.

2 I can't decide if I believe that to be a problem or not.
[identity profile] wordsofastory.livejournal.com
I was away from the internet for most of the beginning of this year, and so I've written some short reviews for the books I read during that time. At the link are my reviews of:

1. Natsuo Kirino, Grotesque
2. Alexandre Dumas, Twenty Years After
3. Shereen Ratnagar, Trading Encounters: From the Euphrates to the Indus in the Bronze Age
4. Dalai Lama, How to Practice
5. Lalita Tademy, Cane River
6. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, The Palace of Illusions
7. Wendy Lee, Happy Family
8. Randa Abdel-Fattah, Does My Head Look Big In This?

All reviews here!

I enjoyed all of them, but the short summary is: if you only read one, I recommend Does My Head Look Big In This?
sanguinity: woodcut by M.C. Escher, "Snakes" (Default)
[personal profile] sanguinity
41. Bernardine Evaristo, Blonde Roots.

Oh, this was awesome. :-D

For some reason, I had been expecting a straight-up specfic-nal alternate history. It's not, however: it's satire all the way. (Or put this way: it's as much a coherent alternate universe as Pratchett's Discworld is -- i.e., it makes no sense unless you're conversant in the dominant explanatory narratives of our world, and it only makes "sense" as a commentary on those narratives.) The very first sentence of Blonde Roots tipped me off to that -- here is a a world where Aphrikans are the imperial powers and whytes are slaves, but in which the beverage "rum and coke" -- Coca-Cola Corporation? really? -- exists. This can't be an alternate history. Even so, it still took me a chapter or so to stop fighting the implausibilities of the world (implausibilities which had been never meant to be plausible!) and slip mental gears into satire-through-AU.

(I'd still advise to skip the map in the forepages, though. That thing, with its Italy on a Polar ocean, like to broke my brain. The only thing you need to know about the map is that the British nation-state has been separated from the ethnic identities of England, Scotland, and Wales. The island of Great Britain is now the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa and is positioned off the Aphrikan coast; the ethnic English, Scottish, and Welsh peoples are still a part of Europa. That's an impressively sweet little bit of footwork on Evaristo's part: she can keep the British Empire on the satirical hook for its colonial outrages by having it be part of the Aphrikan power structure, even while she uses our expectations of how English culture "ought" to be spoken of to show us how screwily African cultures are spoken of. Too many "imagine the roles were reversed" narratives can devolve into allowing white people look away from things their cultures actually did, while helping them fantasize about having been themselves oppressed; Evaristo sidesteps that nicely here.)

(Also, using satire instead of a straight-up AU also effectively sidesteps the we-too-could-have-been-oppressed fantasy. When Doris Scagglethorpe (hee!) fantasizes about cabbages, cabbages, vermin in the thatch, and cabbages, it's so obviously tongue-in-cheek that a white reader can't descend into a help-I'm-being-oppressed fantasy. Others on this comm have long expressed fangirl-squee for Evaristo: on the basis of this single novel, I concur.)

There are essentially three interlinked satirical worlds here: a whyte house-slave in an imperial city (which, for whatever it's worth, could about as easily be set in the American South); the "I worked for everything I have; we're doing them a favor by enslaving them" worldview of the Aphrikan slaveowners; and a hybridized whyte/Aphrikan Caribbean slave culture. There's not a lot of plot here (of which I was glad -- the book was slowest where it got most plot-like). Instead, the book spends the bulk of its time exploring its satirical worlds, using both humor and horror to navigate them. (Purely technical aside: how does she do that? How does she keep the humorous satirical stuff from cheapening the horror she wove in?)

Anyway, the book makes me wish I was far better-read, because I know I'm not nearly getting all the references, but what I do get makes me grin. Some of the satire is "just" obvious role-inversion -- pointing out how ridiculously ethnocentric our beauty standards are by reversing them -- but other things are jabs at genre conventions or current social trends. (Like that thing in nineteenth century novels where no matter where you went in the world, you run into the same six people! And "field wiggers," f'rex, is a clear jab at the "everything but the burden" white culture vultures -- if you want to be a 'wigger,' then be a wigger and take the historical burden, too! Oh, wait -- you can't!) And then there's the Gaiman-esque moments of making verbal imagery literal: I too remember being confused as a child about how few Underground Railroad books seemed to mention either the railroad part or the underground part.

Let me share one of my favorite moments: a passage mocking the faux-oppression of the privileged. Near the end of the book, Doris, who has gone through incredible physical and emotional pain -- violently separated from her family as a child; her own children sold away from her; beaten savagely; working long, brutal hours in the cane fields; and all throughout having had to pretend unfettered adoration the masters that she hates and despises -- is in the master's house and spies a locked cupboard with the key still in:
...I opened it, and found myself on a trip into Nonso's mind.

Self-help books were stacked on shelves, loads of them:
They F**k You Up--How to Survive Family Life
Healing Your Inner Child
How to Start a Conversation & Make Friends
Dealing with People You Can't Stand
How to Motivate Your Workforce
Hidden away at the bottom, spines turned inward: Inheritance Tax for Dummies and Curing VD the Natural Way.

Not a single book had a creased spine.

I had to laugh.
I had to laugh, too.
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[identity profile] kyuuketsukirui.livejournal.com
Bernardine Evaristo "Blonde Roots" - 2/5

Doris Scagglethorpe, the daughter of a cabbage farmer, was ten years old when she's captured by slavers. Now twenty years later, she's trying to escape.

This is an interesting premise. Blacks (or blaks, as they are inexplicably called in the book (more on that later)) are the dominant race and whites (whytes) are the ones enslaved. It's not an alternate history, nor is it a fantasy set in another world. I'm not really sure what it is, or what it wants to be, and that was the problem for me.

Cut for length, not for spoilers )

Ken Mochizuki "Beacon Hill Boys" - 2/5

It's 1972 and Dan Inagaki is a pretty average kid, decent grades, but a bit of a slacker. Compared to his older brother, Brad, though, who's perfect at everything, Dan is a total loser, especially in the eyes of his family. They also don't like the way he stands up for himself and for Asian Americans in general, demanding Asian American history be taught in school and books about Asian Americans be added to the library. Better to keep your head down and avoid pissing people off.

Cut for length, not for spoilers )

Also, for those who might be interested, I have reviews of The Taqwacores and The Story of a Marriage on my journal, both of which are about PoC, but by white authors. Both were really well-done, IMO.
[identity profile] vegablack62.livejournal.com
The Underground Railroad: First-Person Narratives of Escapes to Freedom in the North. Edited by Charles L. Blockson.

Blockson, an acknowledged expert on the Underground Railroad, grew up listening to his great-grandfather describe his own pre-civil war escape from slavery. The narratives are taken from first hand accounts given by the slaves themselves, published in the 19th century and draws heavily from the work of a 19th century black historian, William Still whose book Underground Railroad Records was published in 1872. The escape narratives are organized by state and are prefaced by a description of the history of the abolitionist movement in that region.

The editor is the curator of the Afro-American Collection of Temple University.  He amassed the collection of rare books, photos, manuscripts and ephemera of the African Diaspora in the new world and donated it to the University. 


He edited another work of interest to members: A Commented Bibliography of One Hundred and One Influential Books by and about People of African Descent, 1556-1982, A. Gerits and Songs (Amsterdam), 1989.


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