Jan 29, 2017

Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins

There is a certain type of writer who makes you want to write - their words are bold yet understated and flow with an ease belying the massive amount of work put into them. The facility with which they are read implies they are easy to write, and makes one think, "yes, I could totally do this." Kathleen Collins is, was, one of those writers. The copy I have is a galley, and is missing the promised forward by Elizabeth Alexander, which is a shame as I'd love to know more about this woman's life and work. Her short bio on the back of the book reads, "Kathleen Collins was a pioneer African American playwright, filmmaker, civil rights activist, film editor, and educator. Her groundbreaking film, Losing Ground, is one of the first feature films made by a black woman in America..." She sounds like a hell of a woman, and left this earth too soon at 46.

This slim collection of short stories features an array of mostly women, mostly African Americans, mostly intellectuals. How rare was it then, and how rare it is now, to be put inside the head of an educated black woman; this is proof of America's "post-racial" falsehood. Despite my wide-ranging reading, despite my good intentions, and even despite a consistent effort to seek out marginalized and rarely heard voices, the educated black woman is not a voice I can recall having heard before. Ever. In any medium. What a tragedy for us, as readers and as a society, to miss out on such work as this.

The tension of the civil rights movement finds a new light in these stories, as the inner struggle of "bourgeois black" women to understand and help fight against the plight of the poor, southern blacks, to understand their own histories as part of that struggle despite their parents' best efforts to shield them from it. And so we meet the young "Negro" college graduate whose father has a stroke upon seeing her with browned skin, short hair, heading down south to help with voter registration. We meet the two black intellectuals, so perfect for each other and yet...and yet, she cannot feel at home among his mid-Victorian pillows or upon his four-poster bed. While each story is much about the constant compromise of relationships, it's the thread of race that binds them all together. And her writing, such beautiful, powerful, quiet writing. Collins laments the awkward condition of the intellectual black woman, feet in two or three worlds, and I wonder if we can say that this condition has changed much since her death in 1988. What a perfect time to bring her work into the light and into readers' hands.

Jan 28, 2017

Shrill, by Lindy West

It's difficult to understate the importance of voices like Lindy West's, not just for fat women, but for all women, all bodies, all humans. By being incontrovertibly who she is - fat, funny, loud, smart - West opens the door for other marginalized voices and bravely challenges the status quo for assuming its in the right just because it's the status quo. Hers is a fight against privilege, and it could not come at a more decisive time.

West's humor is what makes her commentary so accessible. She is very, VERY funny. I giggled. I chuckled. I laughed. I guffawed. She is proof, too, that humor doesn't have to be at the expense of someone else to be funny. Sure, some of it is. Satire is pretty much only that. But there's truth to the notion that shock value for its own sake isn't inherently funny, and when it comes in the form of marginalizing already marginalized voices, it's okay to speak up and say it's not right. West's milieu is the comedy scene, which is notorious for misogyny and blatant sexism ("women aren't funny"). But when anyone, particularly a woman, stands up to say that no, some things just aren't funny, the trolliest trolls of the InterWebs come for her en masse, and in the most horrific ways possible. For West, that moment came because of rape jokes. Her argument: millions of women are raped and sexually assaulted each year. It is one of the most vile, demeaning, violating, soul-sucking acts that can happen to a person (man or woman). Telling a rape joke in front of an audience in which most certainly sits at least one woman who has been raped is a violent act of victimization and cannot, in any way, be construed as funny. If you got mugged at gunpoint, your friends wouldn't greet you with a toy gun in your back, because that's not funny, it's cruel. Picking out the one thing that is a person's weakest psychological link and using it for a few cheap laughs is not just harmless kidding around.

"But self-selection/free speech/thin skin blah blah blah whine whine whine!" Sure, there's some nuance. There's nuance to every situation. But when Daniel Tosh says to a woman at his show, "Wouldn't it be funny if five guys just got up and raped you right here?", that's beyond the pale. You're punching down, as West would say, victimizing the already less powerful for your own glee. And that's fucked up.

West's other battle is against fat-shaming, and her writing was an integral early voice towards the body positive movement of today. Even in the most accepting, loving households, girls in America internalize the notion that any body that isn't thin, tall, long or lean is bad. And not just ugly, morally bad. Fat people MUST be unhealthy so they're causing our high insurance premiums, they MUST be smelly and unclean because obviously they don't care about their appearance, they MUST be incapable of self-control because fat people just eat whatever they want all the time. Nevermind the fact that there are plenty of fat people out there who are perfectly healthy, or who's weight gain was caused by a physical or mental illness. Some people are just fat, and that means nothing about their moral state of being. I mean, seriously, like we think Paris Hilton and Charlie Sheen are masters of self-control and practitioners of the highest form of morality? Please.

All this makes it seem like a super serious book, but I promise you, it's completely hilarious. Lindy West is the kind of person we need more of: smart, brave, funny, thoughtful. I want to be her friend, but since that's probably not going to happen (call me, Lindy?), I'll settle for supporting her work and making as many people read her book as possible.

Jan 23, 2017

Viking Economics, by George Lakey

While my mind was certainly open to the ideas George Lakey puts forth in this fantastic book, his message has completely changed the way I view the American economy. By nearly every absolute standard, we're doing almost everything wrong. Lakey's evidence and argument for the Scandinavian model of economics, explained simply and conversationally, is powerfully persuasive. Whether those who aren't as open-minded would be convinced (or even pick up the book) is quite another issue.

Lakey takes us through the growth of Scandinavian economics chronologically at first: we start all the way back with the Vikings (important for understanding the general Scandinavian mien) and travel through the politically tumultuous 19th and early 20th Centuries, to the incredible growth of socialism (real socialism, not psuedo-fascist, lip-service "socialism"). The thread running through Scandinavian history is one of self-determination - whenever oligarchy threatened to overtake democracy, workers used every nonviolent means at their disposal to bring the government back to working for the people, rather than for the rich. When the recession hit in 2008, the International Monetary Fund tried to force its theoretically modeled policies onto the affected countries; Nordic nations, Iceland especially, fought back. Depending on real data rather than models, they increased spending on health care and education, raised taxes and offered more government services; their economies bounced back within a couple of years, while nearly a decade later, the U.S., Spain, and Greece are still mired in the aftereffects of the recession.

The ideal behind the Scandinavian economic model is what drives every decision: investment is made in the individual, who is considered a resource for economic growth. Where in the U.S. it's assumed that business owners and the wealthy are job creators, in the Nordic countries it's acknowledged that workers drive the economy. People in debt, working 80 hours a week with horrible health that they can only afford to deal with at the emergency room cost the economy real dollars. Entrepreneurship is something the U.S. prides itself on, yet "rates of start-up creation in Norway are among the highest in the developed world, and Norway has more entrepreneurs per capita than the U.S." Think about it: most students in the U.S. graduate with a mountain of debt. Those new workers are too worried about that pile of money they owe to take risks, and risk is what stimulates the economy. Not to mention, it undermines the American ideal of freedom; too much debt means you're stuck in a job you hate in a city you despise because you can't realistically change jobs or move until you're financially stable. This means people with skills that would be put to better use elsewhere can't do so, perhaps don't even know they have those talents. We're too worried about education, retirement, and medical expenses to make work more meaningful for us. And people who like their work are more productive.

So the Scandinavians have free health care, free education (including university), free job training if you lose the job you're in, free elder care, free public transportation; how is all this paid for? That four-letter word Americans seem to hate so much: TAXES. But here's the thing: according to Lakey, polls clearly indicate that most Americans think their taxes should actually be higher in order to increase government services. After all, you get what you pay for, right? In the Nordic countries, so many institutions are publicly funded so their transparency is very high. Plus since they're all run under the same system, the bureaucracy, which you'd think would be ridiculous, is actually much smaller! Multiple systems mean an obscene amount of paperwork and are very inefficient; Norway pays a little more than half for health care what the U.S. pays. And it's better care! Everyone gets taken care of no matter what job they have, allowing people to work in fields they actually enjoy, which, as we've already seen, increases productivity and entrepreneurship.

Aside from all the basic economic arguments, there's also the social goods that the Scandinavian model creates: these countries have much lower child, relative, and absolute poverty; they have longer life expectancy and much better overall health; they have already cut their carbon emissions immensely and seek to get rid of them entirely within this century; their birthrates are high and their children perform very well by international educational standards. Sure, they're not perfect - right-wing, racist anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise, not to mention the winter weather leaves something to be desired. But when all is said and done, their people are taken care of (immigrants included), their land is being preserved for future generations, and their economies just keep growing and growing.

Come on, America, you can do so much better...the Vikings prove it.

Jan 17, 2017

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu (Translated by Ken Liu)

At the forefront of the burgeoning translated Chinese science fiction scene is this Hugo Award-winning novel about Earth's first extraterrestrial contact. Long story short: it doesn't go so well. Rooted firmly in the incredibly difficult years of the Cultural Revolution, Liu's characters take a particularly dim view of human nature. Our main character, Ye, is forced to watch her mother denounce her father then her father murdered simply for the crime of being an academic; even carefully hiding her own intelligence isn't enough to keep from being noticed by a certain group of people, and political pressures see her giving up any hope of future freedom to work at a research base with a heavily-cloaked purpose. These scenes are interspersed with the present time and our second protagonist, a scientist working with nanotechnology named Wang, and his journey through an immersive video game called Three Body.

That's the most I'll give away about the plot, which is best left for the reader to unfold herself. While I am supremely impressed with Liu's story - the physics, the fully realized alien culture, the philosophical implications of humanity's long-noted self-destructive tendencies - the writing itself left me a little cold. As with all translated works, it's impossible to know whether this is an accurate reflection of Liu's writing or the translator's own interpretation, a frustration I often encounter when reading in translation. Though Ye's struggles are horrific, the story is told so plainly that I found it difficult to connect with her. The only character with any real life to him is Shi Qiang, a veteran police officer with a serious attitude problem, and apparently the only person in all of China (and perhaps the world) with a sense of humor. My disappointment with the writing doesn't diminish, however, the importance of this novel, both for its overarching, epic sensibility, characteristic of the most interesting science fiction, and for the role it has played in bringing Chinese science fiction into the mainstream. Ken Liu is an author in his own right, and I have his short story collection sitting on my shelf. I look forward to dipping into it.

Jan 8, 2017

The Siege Winter, by Ariana Franklin & Samantha Norman

There was a time when I read historical fiction almost exclusively, I believe in my early teens, before I discovered science fiction. Since then, I've tended to stay away from the genre due to its tendency to be formulaic. A formula, however, doesn't stop something from being entertaining, as this medieval English romance/mystery/war story proves. We follow a few main characters: Emma, a young girl from the fen who is abused horribly; Gwil, the middle aged mercenary who finds her, nurses her back to health, and raises her as his own; and Maud of Kenniford, a young noblewoman made a pawn in the war of succession between Empress Matilda and King Stephen. No one gets off easy. Sorry, that's an understatement: rapine, murder, torture, and betrayal abound. It's a bit much for a reader like me, to be honest. I can't abide reading about horrible things happening to good people, and as fetchingly plucky as Emma and Maud are, it's not enough for me to overlook the horrific violence against women.

While the writing itself is good, I'm not a fan of the narrative device used to move the story along. The story is broken up between the present day and the past, the latter being the story itself and the former being an old abbot telling the story to a young scribe. It's really unnecessary, inserted only to introduce a twist at the end that is painfully obvious, plus now that I think about it, the twist wouldn't even be necessary if that part of the novel didn't exist. It's extraneous, serving only to take away from the actual story. So while generally enjoyable this book was, I'll not be picking up many more historical fiction novels in the future.

Jan 2, 2017

Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters

It's interesting that 2016 saw two powerful novels written about the same subject with an alternate history twist to each. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead replaces the figurative railroad with actual railways. Underground Airlines is a bit more sinister: the Civil War did not end with the emancipation of the slaves, but rather with permanent amendments protecting slavery in any state that wishes to retain it. The novel takes place in the present day, with four Southern states still participating in that most despicable of practices. Built into the Constitution are protections for those states, including a branch of the U.S. Marshal Service that hunts down runaway slaves and returns them to their owners. The other states represent varying degrees of collusion; most states have passed laws preventing businesses from dealing directly with slave-holding companies, and some have made it illegal to force a black police officer to participate in the search for and detainment of runaway slaves. Despite these well-meaning efforts, racism - both overt and subtle - is still very much at work in these free states, and whites who fight against the situation are invariably taken in by the Mockingbird mentality: oppressed black, white savior. Sound familiar?

While Winters was writing this novel, much of the racial tension I just described had been simmering under the surface of American culture and politics for years. With the election, and the wave of hate crimes that immediately followed it, the fallacy of a post-racial America has been brought painfully to the surface. The world Winters built is not so surreal anymore, as it has become clear that race does indeed still play a large role in 21st Century America. The government that turns a blind eye to racial violence and the people who perpetrate that violence are just as much a part of our world as they are a part of our anti-hero's. It's chilling.

Now onto the writing. The novel feels more to me like two books than one - the first is about finding Jackdaw, the second is about finding the package. Winters has written series in the past, so I'm curious why he jammed so much into one book. It was a bit exhausting, to be honest. Our anti-hero, known through most of the book as Victor, is a black agent of the U.S. Marshal Service who tracks down runaway slaves. He's very good at his job, and something about this newest case just seems off to him. He pulls back layer after layer until finally reaching a sordid secret. I don't want to reveal anymore about the plot because this is definitely worth picking up, I just wish it were a little less busy. The story could have easily be split into two books, and I would have readily picked up the second if it had been cut off just after the finding of Victor's prey. As it stands, the book stuffs a very eventful week into just over 300 pages. I think two 250-page books would have been a more enjoyable read.

Once we get into that second half, the writing also becomes a little frenetic and disjointed. Victor is experiencing emotional upheaval, which in Winters' writing is expressed with lots of repetition of phrases and substantially more emotion-coded words than the first half. Perhaps this is another reason why I felt splitting the story into two books would have been smart. The second half is practically a different novel anyways, as Victor is a very different person and the writing reflects that. Instead of being pulled into his emotional state, I felt put off by it due to the sudden switch in writing style.

Despite these flaws, this is an important addition to contemporary American fiction on race. It throws into high relief the absurdity of claiming race does not play a role in America, or that racism does not exist. We may no longer have race-based slavery, but there are huge swathes of our population who seem to look back upon that dark time as their glory days. The growing voice of the racist, misogynist groups that seek to relabel themselves as the "alt-right" show that Winters' alternate reality is not so very different from our own. Read, be made uncomfortable, then go do something about it.