Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

9780525563242Washington Black by Esi Edugyan is a nicely written adventure novel of ideas about how to understand the history of slavery, the human stain, through examining the lives of particular people involved in the peculiar institution. Some horrific descriptions, and then a nice tour through the mid 1800s…. A great novel for a young adult interested in history. A little bit of magical realism, but not much: the cover art actually suggests more than is there. Here is a nice review from The New Yorker. The prose is fine. Not as impressively original as Hilary Mantel but the consistency in maintaining the style Edugyan adopted is quite good.

Posted in Book and film reviews

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue is a fine “American” novel in that it is: (1) set in New York around the time of financial collapse, (2) the theme is basically about characters finding meaning in a consumerist culture without being terribly well-equipped either intellectually or artistically, and (3) the authorial or narrative stance is one of presenting the characters with empathy and good prose, but not aiming for much more.If you like that kind of novel this is for you.

I guess I am contrasting this kind of typical “American” novel with a variety of other kinds that I tend to prefer:

  • Carefully crafted tragedy (Chinua Achebe, Elechi Amadi)
  • Impressing with technique (Muriel Spark, Alan Garner)
  • Theme is a “significant idea” (I think of good sci-fi this way)
  • Fully immersive in character and language with interesting social structures (Rohan Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Vikram Seth A Suitable Boy, Tommy Orange, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Beppe Fenoglio, Jane Austen, Ursula LeGuin)
  • Pure entertainment (the “world building” that sci-fi fanfasy readers like, and I am partial to intellectual time-travel novels)
  • “Educational” (good historical fiction)
  • The sharp sudden twist, reveal, insight (classic of the short story)
Posted in Book and film reviews

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear

812eeYQMIpLAncestral Night by Elizabeth Bear is billed as a “space opera” and indeed it seems written with adaptation to Netflix in mind. Hard to explain otherwise the gratuitous “sexy space pirate” character (yes, that is what she is called in the novel, more than once to remind us… I was surprised when author didn’t have a character say, “Sort of like old Earth star Kristen Stewart with a short haircut who I saw once on the ‘vidartifact'” etc.  I mean, they read novels in space 50,000 years from now but they don’t watch reruns of The Office? I get it, I’m a big reader too so a writer wants her heroes to also be readers… but….

Anyway, the novel is fine for beach or airplane or night reading. The writing could have benefited from good editing… several times I found myself saying, “Oh, didn’t I read that exact same exposition about 20 pages ago?” And the political economy and “who am I” sections are very lengthy and tedious and possibly only interesting if you are 16… which may be the intended audience. And Arlo Guthrie fans.

Posted in Book and film reviews

Semiosis by Sue Burke

220px-SueBurke_SemiosisSemiosis by Sue Burke is a decent sci-fi novel of ideas: Earth colonists land on an Earth-like planet where there is little animal life but some plants have evolved sentience and have domesticated some animals….Writing is clear, story moves along well. The need for “adventure” and “conflict” generates some story lines that feel artificial. But easy enough to skim those parts…. Burke nicely captures just how quickly a small group of humans (and also another alien group) loses technology and has to go back to basic farming and subsistence.

Posted in Book and film reviews

Tom Sweterlitsch, “The Gone World”

c708319f3be0a4618cc6720c6527e818e7b16e4eThe blurb on this novel by Tom Sweterlitsch, The Gone World, “Inception meets True Detective” says it all. You can almost feel the writing hurrying to meet some Netflix deadline for an original series. It’s a mess. Lots of great visuals, though the writing is only serviceable. But a good team of screenwriters can make it fairly reasonable as an 8 episode series. I’d certainly offer to help. There were so many places where it could have been improved. (I liked one Goodreads reviewer: “But there were just too many flaws:
~How did she never run into herself?” She jumps to alternate time lines a bunch of times and meets all kinds of characters from her other time lines but never even googles herself?

Posted in Book and film reviews

Robert Reed, “Down the Bright Way”

100329This book Down the Bright Way appeared in 1990. Reed’s Greatship series is one of my favorites, but I was disappointed in this book (which is not a Greatship story). The writing almost seems juvenile, rather than his more mature writing that privileges complexity of emotions, and characters grappling with gradual wisdom and empathy.

Posted in Book and film reviews

I get it and I don’t get it…. mocking earnestness and mocking people are not the same thing


“How many genders are there?” Mr. Witt asked before turning and staring deadpan at the camera. Some people laughed and walked away. Most, knowing the camera was rolling, engaged.“As many as you want?” a recent Ph.D. student responded, a little confused to be confronted with this question.

So I really wonder what his reaction would be if you replied to Will Witt:

“Well, here in the U.S. most people take on one of two gender identities, but as you surely know there are small minorities that share gender identities that have historically been subject to violence, and have been marginalized and discriminated against. It is a blessing that our society is increasingly open rather than intolerant regarding these gender identities. Also, I am sure Will you know that many other societies around the world also have minority gendered subgroups that sometimes are quite different from ours. Will, you may also know that what you probably proudly label “the western tradition” is filled with prominent people who were uncomfortable with extreme binary gender representations and were comfortable with fluidity. Lastly, Will, as you know, for almost 150 years one of the mainstream gender identities of the U.S. was deemed, by members of the other gender identity, as being unworthy of the basic right that was supposedly one of the founding principles of the country, the right to vote. So when you ask your question, Will, maybe you should seek some truth, rather than a mocking laugh?”

Posted in United States

Excession, by Iain Banks

5b1d75b5046bf80027061190First of my Christmas sci-fi books to be finished was Excession, by Iain Banks. Enjoyable but unlike others I found the exchanges between ship-minds to not be very interesting. They seem modeled entirely on message board banter of computer programmers. What is so interesting about that? Several plot lines seemed to never be tied up, several characters really had little to contribute. The Affront paradox never really gets resolved: can an author pose a major philosophical problem like that and then just pretend that it goes away? So the novel raises lots of interesting questions and has many great scenes and some good characters and complications. But for sci-fi fans only, I suppose.

Posted in Book and film reviews

I listened. The Republicans are not saying much. Rep. Sensenbrenner (R,WI) offers an oped in the New York Times

I posted this on Twitter and though I would have as coherent paragraph. A quick response to  Rep. Sensenbrenner (R,WI) oped.

Sensenbrenner purports to explain why he voted against the articles of impeachment. I wanted to carefully review his argument. He starts by saying that Kenneth Starr, independent counsel in Clinton case, conducted a very lengthy and nonpartisan investigation. Sensebrenner does not mention the Mueller report, nor applaud Mueller’s circumspection in leaving to Congress to determine whether there were impeachable offenses. He says “grand jury perjury was an impeachable offense” in Clinton case, but does not say whether he thinks secretly soliciting aid from a foreign government in investigating a rival is also, in his view, an impeachable offense. He then goes into several irrelevant paragraphs. (1) Many Democrats said they wanted to impeach Trump. OK… maybe they said that because President Trump pre-election repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of President Obama saying he was not born in the U.S.? So that is just rhetoric. Irrelevant para (2) – he says Trump “robbed of due process”…. pretty clear to any citizen that Pres. Trump remains perfectly free to go to court if his “rights” were violated. This is a “broad and flimsy” charge (see next…) Irrelevant para (3) – in his view articles are broad and flimsy, esp. article II because Democrats failed to let a court decide executive privilege… just like Sensebrenner rushed to declare “due process” violations before a court decided? Irrelevant para (4) “none of the articles allege that the president committed a crime.” Sensenbrenner could but does not tell us whether he thinks the primary charge of secretly soliciting aid from a foreign government in investigating a rival and using his office to further that aim is an impeachable offense against the oath of office Irrelevant para (5) Back at the ‘Democrats are bad.” And everyone should just wait until next Nov election.

So basically, he says nothing about the actual charges. Sorry, Republicans, you will have to do better than that. Please address the evidence directly.

Posted in Burkina Faso, United States

Greatest song ever recorded, for its voice, and lilting but complex melody: Myan Myan by Coupé Cloué

One of the comments: “J’en ai les larmes qui coulent, je pense à mes parents, notamment à mon tendre et cher papa, toute mon enfance se résume dans ses chansons.”

“Jean Gesner Henry (May 10, 1925 – January 29, 1998), popularly known as Coupé Cloué, was a Haïtian singer, guitarist, and bandleader. He was known for defining a style of Haïtian compas music he called kompa mamba, and for the sometimes bawdy innuendo used in his songs. During his career, he was one of Haïti’s most prominent musicians, and found much success in West Africa as well.”

Posted in Burkina Faso, Music

“Sevastopol” by Emilio Fraia in The New Yorker

A very intellectual meta short story about the nature of stories. Some Borges, some Tolstoy, some Rayuela. I read it with intellectual interest, but at the end there was (for me) no emotional resonance. So what does one do with that? The very lyrical ending was wonderful. Fraia is a writer of talent and the translation by Zoe Perry seems excellent, Worth re-reading, esp. in light of LeClezio’s Nobel address The Forest of Paradoxes.  See more at Mookse blog.

Posted in Book and film reviews

Recent reading

Elnathan John, Born on a Tuesday. I wrote this on Twitter, which seems enough: Finished Elnathan John’s novel Born on a Tuesday yesterday. Very powerful, great straightforward prose, keen insights. A tiny bit derivative of Allah n’est pas obligé but let’s call it sampling… Really worth reading. Guardian review here.

John LeCarre, A Legacy of Spies. Opened well, gripped me, until started to get maudlin and unintelligible towards the end. When the great “love of your life” is someone you only meet once, and pass an “enchanted” night with her, you know you are in the hands of some British dude-guy whose idea of men and women and their relationships was shaped by some Anglican cleric who was never in a relationship.

F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, Babylon Revisited. A couple of drunks from Charlie’s past ruin his plan to take back his daughter. I’m happy for the daughter, who will grow up idolizing “Dads” and hating “Aunt,” and thus be able to write interesting short stories when she majors in English at Barnard. That isn’t fair to “Scottie” but there it is.

A&P by John Updike. I had read this before, several times. But it captures something essential about white middle American life in the mid 1960s….

Posted in Book and film reviews

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Very long. For the first 300 pages I was really enjoying it. My kind of novel: some science fiction (AI surveilled society), some time travel (to ancient times), some style (I had just finished Chandler, and as first Harkaway channeled some of that), lots of wordplay, and very intellectual. But… it went on and on, and after awhile I was jumping chunks of 3-4 pages, nope, nope, nope…. So where Jorge Luis Borges could have crafted the same story into 40 pages, Gnomon is about 670. I don’t regret spending a couple weeks on it. But you might.

Posted in Book and film reviews

Remembering the hope of 2011 in Sudan and South Sudan

Posted in Sudan

“God’s Caravan” by Tiphanie Yanique in The New Yorker

“God’s Caravan” by Tiphanie Yanique  November 4, 2019 The New Yorker.

I really enjoyed the story (I listened to Yanique reading it on the podcast). It starts slow, and slowly builds, adding layers of complexity as you move along. With small details you get quick deepening of the characters, Brent with the Rubik’s cube, the Dodge van, Earl’s memories, the marbles in his pocket, Pop and the cane. She does a lot with that. The themes are wonderful: finding identity and self, navigating family, living at the margins, prophetic tradition and its place in the world… The more I listened the more “literary” I kept thinking the story might be, in the sense that I could feel myself making a lot of connections to other works of literature. I guess all this is the poetry background coming through?

Posted in Book and film reviews

Blistering critique of MPP and President Roch Kaboré by opposition in #Burkina

Non content de réchauffer les projets de Blaise COMPAORE pour se les réattribuer, le Président KABORE se lance maintenant dans les inaugurations de morceaux de routes. Là où un Haut-commissaire ou un Gouverneur étaient suffisamment compétents pour inaugurer ces mini-infrastructures, c’est le Président du Faso himself qui y va, avec escorte, fanfares et gardes. Cela s’explique : il n’y a rien à montrer aux Burkinabè comme bilan, à part ces courtes routes.

Source: Chef de file de l’opposition politique : « Le président Roch Kaboré se lance maintenant dans les inaugurations de morceaux de routes » – leFaso.net, l’actualité au Burkina Faso

Posted in Burkina Faso

The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio … context so important for appreciating the song

Posted in Music

Recent short stories in The New Yorker

“The Bunty Club” by Tessa Hadley from the October 28, 2019 issue of The New Yorker.  Hadley has several stories with fugue states embedded in them, where the narrator and reader are no longer sure that the continuation of the story is really the same story or a fairy tale or a dream. Here she does it with the line, “Then Pippa became absorbed…” and she falls asleep and when the doorbell rings she (by the description of the hallway) is now in a castle, with emeralds, topaz, rubies and a heron, kingfisher, and swan. And a handsome peasant at the door. There is no other way to read her description of Sean! So the three princesses …. and later, “Her question couldn’t be answered without invoking the whole fabric of everything.” And the ending, back to the fugue state. The Bunty Club is there standing in for our wonderful capacity as humans to make our own realities? The three women in recalling the Club are making it anew, but Gillian doesn’t want to or can’t until, alone with the call for the hospital, she recreates a quite different Bunty Club, very solitary, with just her in it. I love how Hadley seems to generously invite the reader to fill in so many holes in the lives of these three women (and Sean too!).

“Are You Experienced?” by David Means from the October 21, 2019 issue of The New Yorker. Rather a slight story, presumably part of a novel. A roam through recent times, the 1960s, an era that surprisingly does not show up much in short stories (is my impression). Almost like the mind-bending and sitting around doing nothing is too challenging for fiction. And there is certainly a lot of talking here and commenting and thinking about talking, and the one thing that is done (the theft) is not described and has no consequences, in the story. At the end of the story, I wondered about “the initial opening question” that Means refers to. There does not seem to be an initial question, but there is an “initial waiting,” as Meg waits for the “Keep On Truckin’” character to start moving!

“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Joyce Carol Oates from the October 14, 2019 issue of The New Yorker.  I think the “incantations” of the illnesses and procedures is perhaps meant to remind the reader of the distance between the mystical, emotional appreciation of death of the pre-modern era, the “death and and the maiden” era where metaphor and tone were how we humans communicated and shared these powerful occasions of loss, and the modern, medicalized, prosaic era. And, yet, isn’t the theme of the story to remind us that the named illnesses are just a different version of the parent shushing the child: “Have no fear, that is just the fog, the birch, the dappled sunlight, and not the Erlking….” We lullaby ourselves to the ultimate sleep, with new songs. A rakish, mocking, masked Andrew appears at the end. Luce is digging. Black-eyed Susans in the miasma. The second to last paragraph, the tarantella? Is it really Andrew? Or…

Posted in Book and film reviews

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C.A. Fletcher

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World, by C.A. Fletcher. Enthralling dystopia set in a future England with very few humans left. More for the young adult audience. The ending a little too pat for my taste, but that is the generic problem of dystopias, unless you are going to stay true to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and its unremitting grimness.

Posted in Book and film reviews

Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler

Farewell, My Lovely, by Raymond Chandler. Definitely second-rate Chandler. The Big Sleep was much better. Amusing for the historical snippets, not amusing for the casual bigotry, and the writing is sloppier than The Big Sleep. Plot also more convoluted: let’s make it an eleven,

Posted in Book and film reviews