Book Review: Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler


Author: Octavia E. Butler
Title: Parable of the Sower
Narrator: Lynne Thigpen
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, p2000. [Originally published in 1993]
Summary/Review:

Set in the near future (Butler published the book in the 1990s, but it’s set in the 2020s), Parable of the Sower is a dystopian science fiction novel about the societal collapse caused by climate change, peak oil, and corporate greed. Things are in a bad state already when the novel begins but conditions gradually deteriorate for the characters in the story much like they do for the mythical boiling frog.  Butler also makes it clear that the dystopian state affects some people far earlier, much like they do in our real world, with the homeless and addicted gathered in the edges of the community.

The narrative begins in a walled community in Southern California.  The novel is written as the journal of Lauren Oya Olamina, a teenage girl as the novel begins and the daughter of a minister.  Lauren has a condition called empathy which causes her to feel the pleasure and pain of people near to her, a condition that can be crippling.  She also develops a belief system called Earthseed based on the concept that God is change, and thinks that Earthseed could be a means to saving humanity.

As Lauren grows into young adulthood, she faces tragedies in both her family and greater community.  But she also shows great resilience and leadership as she pulls together a group of allies (or as she would call them, the first Earthseed congregation).  The novel is a grim depiction of a world that doesn’t seem as far removed from our own reality of the 2020s as I would like.  But it is also a novel that offers a lot of humanity and hope.

Favorite Passages:

“No. No, Donner’s just a kind of human banister.” “A what?” “I mean he’s like … like a symbol of the past for us to hold on to as we’re pushed into the future. He’s nothing. No substance. But having him there, the latest in a two-and-a-half-century-long line of American Presidents make people feel that the country, the culture that they grew up with is still here—that we’ll get through these bad times and back to normal.”

“That’s all anybody can do right now. Live. Hold out. Survive. I don’t know whether good times are coming back again. But I know that won’t matter if we don’t survive these times.”

Freedom is dangerous but it’s precious, too. You can’t just throw it away or let it slip away. You can’t sell it for bread and pottage.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Jazz by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Jazz
Publication Info: Knopf (1992)
Summary/Review:

Jazz is a novel I read a couple of times in college, and it remains one of my favorite books of all time.  The novel tells the story of a middle-aged couple, Violet and Joe Trace, in Harlem in the 1920s.  Joe has an affair with a younger woman, Dorcas, and then shoots her in a jealous rage. Violet interrupts Dorcas’ open-coffin funeral to disfigure her face with a knife. None of this is spoilers, as it’s all pretty much laid out in the opening pages.

What’s great about Jazz is that it’s the musical of novels, bringing to life the Jazz Age in Harlem through jazz-like riffs, improvisation, and repetition. The sounds of a silent march against lynching or women at the beauty shop gossiping become music.  The novel also fills in the stories of Violet and Joe and other community members including their early years in rural Virginia and arrival in the city. Best of all is the question of who is actually narrating this novel (SPOILER: I’m fully on board with the idea that the book is writing itself).

I’m going to end this review here because it’s hard to write well enough to justify the writing of this novel.  Let me just say that this is one of my all-time favorite books and you should read it.

Favorite Passages:

They were dancing. And like a million others, chests pounding, tracks controlling their feet, they stared out the windows for first sight of the City that danced with them, proving already how much it loved them. Like a million more they could hardly wait to get there and love it back.
Risky, I’d say, trying to figure out anybody’s state of mind. But worth the trouble if you’re like me—curious, inventive and well-informed.

“Where you pick up a wild woman?”

“In the woods. Where wild women grow.”

So from Lenox to St. Nicholas and across 135th Street, Lexington, from Convent to Eighth I could hear the men playing out their maple-sugar hearts, tapping it from four-hundred-year-old trees and letting it run down the trunk, wasting it because they didn’t have a bucket to hold it and didn’t want one either. They just wanted to let it run that day, slow if it wished, or fast, but a free run down trees bursting to give it up.

Rating: *****