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: *****

Book Review: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien


Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Title: The Fellowship of the Ring
Publication Info: George Allen & Unwin, 1954
Summary/Review:

I read this book aloud (along with my wife) to my daughter for the first time.  It’s still a classic, imaginative adventure that I remember.  Although there are some slow and boring parts when reading to a 9-year-old.  You begin to notice how tedious the lists of names and places and the songs and poems are when you’re reading aloud.  Nevertheless, we had a good time reading it and are looking for to the more action-oriented The Two Towers next.

Rating: *****

Book Review: Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Thrawn: Treason
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2019) 
Summary/Review:

In the finale of this trilogy of books, Grand Admiral Thrawn finds himself in the middle of a conflict between Governor Tarkin (of the original Star Wars fame) and Director Orson Krennic (of Rogue One fame).  Even more pressing is an incursion by the war-like Grysks from the Unknown Regions into Imperial territory.

To fight this new threat, Thrawn must work with his own people, the Chiss, with Admiral Ar’alani leading a fleet in an uneasy alliance with Thrawn and the Empire. This book also marks the return of Eli Vanto, who has defected to the Chiss, and it is great to have him back.  Commodore Karyn Faro is established as another great character who becomes a great leader under Thrawn’s tutelage.

It’s interesting that Thrawn is associated with the evil Empire, because he’s an excellent example of leadership in the way he establishes Vanto and Faro as his proteges and then trusts their experience. It’s very different than the rest of the Empire where the “leaders” either step over one another or cower in fear. Brierly Ronan, Krennic’s deputy who is sent along to watch over Thrawn, is a slippery character who is more typical of the Empire we know, although his character also develops in interesting ways.

This book is excellent at building intrigue and gamesmanship.  The only flaw in my mind is that when the story finally builds to a climactic battle, it’s not all that interesting to read about, compared with how exciting it would be depicted in film.  There is more Thrawn to read, as Zahn is now publishing an Ascendancy trilogy about Thrawn’s experiences before he joined the Empire.  And this trilogy of novels I just completed also tie in with the animated series Star Wars: Rebels, so I’m going to have to catch up on that too!

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Golden Child by Claire Adam


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Trinidad and Tobago

Author: Claire Adam
Title: The Golden Child
Narrator: Obi Abili
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, 2019.
Summary/Review:

The Golden Child is a family drama set in rural Trinidad. The Deyalsingh family, Trinidadians of Indian heritage, are Clyde and Joy, and their twin 13-year-old sons Peter and Paul.  Peter is the “golden child” of the title, academically gifted, and Clyde saves all the family’s money for his future, despite his wife’s desire to move to the city or to improve the house they live in.

Despite the title, Paul is the main focus of the novel.  He is believed to be “slightly retarded” due to loss of oxygen to his brain at birth. But over the novel it is revealed that he is a kind child with many hidden talents, and most likely has learning disabilities, although this is never specifically stated.  The novel begins with Paul going missing, and then flashes back on the previous 13 years of the family from various points of view.  When we return to the present day timeline, Paul is facing a very real threat and Clyde is faced with difficult choice.

Adam does well at developing the characters and family dynamics, as well as showing everyday Trinidadian culture.  But this is also a grim and disheartening book, so don’t pick it up for light reading.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Flights by Olga Tokarczuk


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Poland

Author: Olga Tokarczuk
Title: Flights
Translator: Jennifer Croft
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2018
Summary/Review:

Flights is a collection of 116 vignettes, some of them exceedingly brief, while others are short stories.  They all focus on a theme of travel and are narrated by a nameless woman who practices an old Orthodox Christian belief of constant movement to avoid evil. There’s a lot of variety in the vignettes ranging from contemporary stories to historical fiction.  In addition to the theme of travel, with a focus on travel psychology, there is also a reoccurrence of the theme of anatomy and dissection.  This is a weird and wonderful book, although I did struggle mightily to keep up with the fragmentary narrative.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Thrawn: Alliances
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, [2018]
Summary/Review:

This second book of the new trilogy, after Star Wars: Thrawn, teams up Grand Admiral Thrawn with Darth Vader. In a parallel narrative, a younger Thrawn still with the Chiss Ascendency meets up with Anakin Skywalker during the Clone Wars. In both stories their mission brings them to the remote planet of Batuu, which just happens to also be the planet used for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney theme parks (if Disney’s going to Star Wars synergy like this, at least they did it very well!).

Thrawn and Vader make an interesting pair because they seem to be the only individuals who can trip one another up. There’s a lot of tension due to their mutual mistrust and competing goals.  While I didn’t think it was a good as the first book as it gets bogged down in plot details, it’s still a compelling novel.  I also felt Eli Vanto’s presence was missing from this book.  Still, I’m looking forward to book 3.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter by Kerri K. Greenidge


Author: Kerri K. Greenidge
Title: Black Radical: The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter
Publication Info: Liveright (2019) 
Summary/Review:

William Monroe Trotter is remembered in Boston in the name of a public elementary school but his life, work, and legacy are otherwise look.  Kerri Greenidge’s biography is a great introduction to the life of the Boston Civil Rights leader and activist who was most active during the 1890s to the 1920s.

Trotter was born into a prosperous family, the son of a decorated Civil War veteran, and held the position of Recorder of Deeds in the Grover Cleveland administration. Trotter grew up in the Hyde Park, then a predominately white suburb of Boston, and studied at Harvard University where he became the first Black man awarded with a Phi Beta Kappa key.  Despite his elite background, Trotter as an activist would stand up for poorer and darker-skinned Blacks who were overlooked by other prominent Black leaders of the time. Much of his career was defined in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist strategies and the influence of his Tuskegee Institute.

Trotter’s accomplishments include publishing The Guardian newspaper, which he set up to carry on the legacy of Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, which became one of the most influential Black newspapers in the early 20th century. Working with W.E.B. Dubois and others, Trotter participated in the Niagara Movement which lead to the establishment of the NAACP.  He did not think the NAACP was radical enough, though, and objected to the prominence of white people in the leadership, so instead ended up forming the National Equal Rights League (NERL) in 1908, which failed to gain the support and membership of its rival.

On political issues, Trotter was adamant that Black voters remain independent and not align themselves. In 1912, Woodrow Wilson won the Presidency with the help of Black voters who swung the vote of Massachusetts and other states. After inauguration, Wilson caved to Southern whites and segregated Federal offices.  Trotter lead protests against Wilson and had heated face-to-face meetings with the President which earned him a measure of fame in the Black community. Trotter also lead protests against the racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, which while they failed to stop the screenings of the movie, did energize the Boston Black activist community.

Trotter’s latter years saw him fall into a steep personal and financial decline.  Perhaps his fade from prominence contributed to why he was not well known after his death.  But Greenidge argues that Trotter was the link in radical Black activism for liberation between Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.  I’m glad we have this biography to learn about this overlooked Black radical in Boston and American history.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Entrepreneurs : the Boston business community, 1700-1850edited by Conrad Edick Wright and Katheryn P. Viens


Author: Conrad Edick Wright and Katheryn P. Viens, editors
Title: Entrepreneurs : the Boston business community, 1700-1850
Publication Info: Boston : Massachusetts Historical Society : Distributed by Northeastern University Press, 1997
Summary/Review:

This book is a collection of historical essays through the Massachusetts Historical Society about business in Boston in the 18th and 19th centuries.  I read this book with my co-workers as a way of understanding the people who created many of the materials held in our archival repository. The collection is hit or miss with some essays being really insightful and others being really boring.  Topics range from histories of women and Black people in business in Boston to the innovation of marine insurance, partnerships, and trusts in Boston.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Star Wars: Thrawn
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Del Rey Books, 2017
Summary/Review:

Grand Admiral Thrawn, the antagonist introduced into Star Wars literature in the now non-canonical Heir to the Empire, is reintroduced in this Disney canon novel. This story serves as something of an origin story, beginning with Thrawn being found by the Imperial Navy after apparently having been exiled his mysterious species of people, the Chiss Ascendancy.  The novel depicts his rapid rise through the ranks in the years after the end of the Clone Wars. Thrawn is known for his brilliant observational and strategic skills, and throughout the novel the reader gets  to see his internal monologue on how he unravels the words and mannerisms of others.

The novel is also told from the perspective of Eli Vanto, a young cadet from Wild Space who inadvertently becomes Thrawn’s translator and assistant. At first resentful of the interference in his own career path, Vanto grows to respect Thrawn and also rises in the hierarchy of the Imperial Navy.  They have Holmes and Watson kind of relationship.  In a parallel story, Arihnda Pryce rises to become governor of her homeworld Lothal through similar skills of cunning.

This novel is less war story or space opera and more a work of political intrigue.  Zahn does a great job at taking these putative villains – Thrawn, Vanto, and Pryce – and making them captivating and even sympathetic characters.  The audiobook has great production values and Thompson does great voicework, giving Thrawn the reserve of Anthony Hopkins and Vanto a Appalachian accent befitting his background in Wild Space. This is an excellent novel and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Rating: ****