Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In turns brilliant, bloody, and bold, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates should be mandatory reading for all high school and college students. The book, written in the form of a letter from Coates to his adolescent son, touches upon a variety of topics, both subtle and not-so-subtle: racism, police brutality, racial profiling, historical inequity, and a variety of other sociological phenomenon. Is this an easy read? No, not by any means. Is it vitally important for understanding racism and race relations in modern America? The answer is a resounding YES.
With obvious similarities to other revelatory books like Isabel Wilkerson's Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents and the Jason Reynolds/Ibram X. Kendi collaboration, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You , Between the World and Me is an eye-opening examination of what it means to be black in modern America. Ta-Nehisi Coates is a bold, eloquent storyteller, relating his own personal experiences as a Gen-X American and tying those life events into the broader tapestry of American history. As comes with the territory, the subject matter is heavy and heartbreaking. Coates is not concerned with sugarcoating trauma for the Fox News crowd: his observations are blunt and brutally honest. In fact, the book begins with Coates relating an experience being interviewed by "the host of a popular news show" whose cynical perspective on race inspires Coates to write that "no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak." That division - between races, between perspectives, between worlds - is a recurring theme in the book: an intellectual, psychological, and emotional gap that Coates describes as nearly insurmountable. It might seem bleak or nihilistic, but Coates refuses to embrace the fallacy of a post-racial "happily ever after." Alas, the real world is not a fairy tale.
Much of Between the World and Me focuses on "black bodies" - that is, to say, the physical and physiological suffering of black Americans. Frequently, his book returns to this theme, examining the ways in which the African-American community has suffered at the hands of "the Dreamers" (a.k.a. "those who would call themselves white"). Periodically, his prose incorporates corporeal metaphors and symbolism. As he writes, “racism is a visceral experience... it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” Additionally, Coates rejects the tenets of religious institutions, presenting himself as an atheist: “I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.” This existential view of the world disavows the promise of a postmortem paradise, and reminds the reader that "Our moment is too brief. Our bodies are too precious." All we have is here and now, Coates explains, which means we can't wait for others to save us from the perils of a cruel world.
Coates is undoubtedly an eloquent, artful writer, capable of conjuring timeless truths with his poetic prose. There are far too many "golden lines" in this book to include in one simple review; suffice to say, Coates is an incredibly talented writer with thought-provoking reflections embedded in every single page. Selfishly, I loved his perspective on libraries: “I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free.” At another point, Coates writes, “I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago—the craft of writing as the art of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth—loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.” Although it's impossible to extricate his subject matter from his writing style, Coates is a poet whose words are more potent than any superhero's secret powers.
Racism is always a challenging, maddening, and overwhelming subject to discuss with your children. Still, though, Coates desires a better world for his son. As he writes at one point, “You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable.” Regardless of how far America has come in the last 100 years, we still have lifetimes of growth ahead of us. It's fitting that Coates uses a personal metaphor to discuss the interlocking concepts of race and racial disparity: "race is the child of racism, not the father." As a father himself, Ta-Nehisi Coates understand the importance of loving guidance. Let's hope that our own childrearing produces a new, wiser generation that fights against the evils of racism and prejudice. Only then can we break down the barriers between the world and its children.
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Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was definitely a cynic when I first heard about Shelby Van Pelt's novel, Remarkably Bright Creatures . A talking octopus and the little old lady who befriends this hyper-intelligent sea creature?
"What is this?" I wondered aloud. "the literary version of Finding Dory?"
Fortunately for me, Remarkably Bright Creatures is a refreshing, heartfelt entry into the modern "literary fiction" canon. Although I was initially skeptical about reading Shelby Van Pelt's debut novel, the book grew on me as I worked my way through its 368 pages. I couldn't help but think about Anxious People during my reading of Remarkably Bright Creatures. In many ways, Remarkably Bright Creatures feels like a lost Fredrik Backman book: Backman's hallmark blend of humor, tragedy, and bizarre circumstances are equally encapsulated in Van Pelt's novel. As with Backman's style, the use of intertwining narratives and alternating perspectives helps foster some wonderful dramatic irony and facilitates clever plot points. However, whereas Backman tends to use an omniscient third-person narrator with a misanthropic perspective, Van Pelt reserves a similarly cynical bent for one very unique character: Marcellus the Octopus. Yes, ladies and gents and non-binary folks, the inner monologue of a hyper-intelligent cephalopod is threaded throughout this novel. Needless to say, this is not your mother's dramedy.
Despite its slow start, Remarkably Bright Creatures picks up steam about 1/3 of the way in. Van Pelt alternates chapters with a few intertwining stories: Tova Sullivan, a widowed woman whose son vanished the summer after his high school graduation (and who serves as the cleaning crew at the Sowell Bay Aquarium in Washington); Cameron Cassmore, a thirty-year-old underachiever with a photographic memory and underutilized intelligence; Ethan Mack, a transplanted Scotsman with a fondness for classic rock (and a deeper fondness for Tova Sullivan); Avery, a single mother who runs her own business; and, of course, the aforementioned octopus, Marcellus.
Who is the most memorable, insightful, and endearing character in this terrific tomb? Undoubtedly, that award goes to Marcellus the Octopus.
As the various stories intertwine and weave their way towards a somewhat-predictable moment of serendipitous reunion, the reader is privy to a flurry of witticisms from Marcellus and a bountiful bevy of grief from the human characters. Every mammal in Van Pelt's novel is deeply flawed and scarred from traumatic life experiences; however, the depth of that pain is redeemed (or at least alleviated) in the end by the bonds of the novel's characters. Like suction cups on a tentacle, these various plotlines are all interconnected in (occasionally) surprising ways, making for a cohesive novel with a relatively tidy conclusion.
The audiobook version of the novel (which I utilized back-and-forth while reading the print version) utilizes two voice actors: Marin Ireland and Michael Urie. While Ireland is in fine form (as always), it's Urie's tongue-in-cheek portrayal of Marcellus that really steals the show. Marin capably utilizes a variety of voices, tones, and accents during her portions of the novel, but Urie's spin on our favorite cephalopod elevates the audiobook to grander aspirations. Once again, Marcellus the Octopus wins the hearts of Van Pelt's readers - in print and audio incarnations.
Whether or not you're a fan of aquatic lifeforms, you'll find something powerful and enjoyable in the pages of Remarkably Bright Creatures. And, if you're a misanthropic grump who spies on the world with a critical lens, Marcellus the Octopus might be your new favorite character.
P.S. - Shelby Van Pelt scores some major coolness points (in my eyes, at least) for including some choice references to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. Deadheads of the literary world, rejoice!
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The Waste Lands by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Book three of Stephen King's Dark Tower series is where the King of Horror embraces his inner Tolkien nerd and creates the darkest fantasy world this side of Mordor. In The Waste Lands , King's boundless imagination is on full display: we encounter warring tribes, subterranean societies, monstrous mutants, a sentient monorail train, and a full Stephen King multiverse (decades before the Marvel Cinematic Universe made the concept ubiquitous). If you cross The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly with Stranger Things and Westworld you might end up in the general proximity of The Waste Lands. It's a wild ride.
The Waste Lands begins shortly after The Drawing of the Three , with Roland, Eddie, and Susannah (formerly Detta/Odetta) journeying through the wilderness. In short order, our trio enters a sci-fi electronic way station, helps deliver the inter-dimensional "birth" of a tween-ager from a parallel universe, and even crosses paths with a cyborg bear. Did I just write "cyborg bear" in a book review? Yes, I did. The new film Cocaine Bear has got nothing on Stephen King.
As in "Right Hand Man" from Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton," our peerless protagonists are "Outgunned / Outmanned / Outnumbered, outplanned / We gotta make an all out stand / Ayo, I'm gonna need a right-hand man." In The Dark Tower, however, Roland ends up with more than just one "right hand man" - he has a trio of humans and a canine/rodent/raccoon hybrid creature (a "billybumbler") by his side. While these makeshift gunslingers are, indeed, outgunned and outmanned, they have their wits and courage to carry them through the arduous journey ahead. And, since Stephen King is playing the "Dungeon Master" for this story, you know it's going to be a horrific, heartfelt, and humorous adventure.
I find it fascinating how The Dark Tower series evolved so quickly after its first installment. The gritty, grim tone of The Gunslinger made way for humorous observations, absurd "fish out of water" scenarios, and comical monstrosities (or lobstrosities, as it were). As much as the author is best know as the "King of Horror," he's also the "King of Quips and One-Liners." Much of King's humorous side is delivered through the mouthpiece of Eddie Dean, a crafty New Yorker with a tongue as sharp and piercing as any blade. Although the figure of Eddie felt obnoxious when he was introduced as a struggling addict with a twisted worldview in The Drawing of the Three, King redeems this character with a nobler, conflicted, three-dimensional depiction in the sequel. Likewise, Susannah's evolution from her initial portrayal as a disabled woman with Dissociative Identity Disorder to a more nuanced representation reflects King's growth as a writer and wordsmith from 1982 to 1991. As for Jake... Well, it feels at times like Jake's story is one of the most convoluted RETCONs in literary history (paradox and pondering and parallel universes, oh my!); however, his resurrection from The Gunslinger offers Roland a much-needed redemption and victory that he - and the reader - desperately crave. I'll just have to see how Jake plays into the remaining novels in the series.
The Waste Lands is - for lack of a better term - batshit crazy... but in the best way possible. King is clearly indebted to J.R.R. Tolkien: here we have a ragtag group of misfit underdogs inexplicably drawn to a mysterious destination to save the world(s). However, whereas Frodo and company cross from the Shire into Rivendell and beyond, King's Ka-Tet (group of banded travelers) crosses into parallel universes through mysterious portals. That being said, I don't remember Gandalf the Gray or Bilbo Baggins ever engaging in an *ahem* intimate *ahem* encounter a succubus demon. Regardless of R-rated components, it's still an engaging experience to read about a ragtag group of adventurers who have been tasked with an impossible task.
On to Wizard and Glass I go! Wish me luck, fellow "Constant Readers" - I have a feeling I might need it...
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Mild-mannered librarian by day… and a mild-mannered rock & roller by night.