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