Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review: Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body - Audiobook – Unabridged

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body - Audiobook – Unabridged Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body - Audiobook – Unabridged by Roxane Gay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s always a treat to listen to a memoir narrated well by its author. It makes the book feel intimate. Until recently I had only listened to happier memoirs – the kind written by TV comedians about their careers and artistic lives. Roxane Gay’s Hunger is certainly a change of pace, then, but it was a welcome one for me. To hear a woman talk about the difficult moments in her life, big and small, was poignant and powerful. As she remarks, it’s easy to forget to think about the different ways in which people move through this world. She talks specifically about bodies and their shapes and abilities, but it’s true more generally. Her voice is gentle and cozy. It sounds like she is reaching back through time to tell her younger self that it’s okay to hurt and that eventually, even if she has not fully accepted herself, things will be a semblance of okay. It was both challenging and comforting to listen to (especially as I listened to it on a flight, and I’m an anxious flyer). She does not shy away from discussing the traumatic gang rape that led her to re-shape her body into a “fortress” that would be safe from men or the psychological fallout of that event that still affects her today, but she is also unafraid to set firm limits on how much she will tell and how much is hers to keep. Some of the most moving passages for me were about more mundane things - hiding her secrets from her parents, moving to various academic positions in the middle of nowhere. This is the epitome of memoir: her life has been shaped by forces that many will never understand, and yet there are moments that will resonate with every reader’s life.

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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Review: The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am obsessed with The Fifth Season. It was all I could talk about for weeks after reading it and its sequel, The Obelisk Gate. It’s wholly original while still echoing the best of the genre - it has the scope and feel of Game of Thrones paired with completely reinvented genre trappings. The plot is the kind you can’t put down, the characters are achingly real, and the story is so neatly, tightly structured that it feels like a beautiful machine. Plus, it’s rare that an audiobook is so excellent that it elevates the source material when the source material is so good in itself. I was especially impressed because I was slightly underwhelmed by Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I’m so thankful I gave her another try!

But Jemisin’s work is powerful above and beyond her technical skill and a good story. This is a powerful narrative about racism and institutionalized slavery. The echoes of America’s history are clearly visible, here, but she did not simply lift the same dynamics and social structures from that history and place them in a new world. Instead, this is a story that feels very much like it organically grew out of its theme, which is the tension between the perception and the reality of black Americans’ role in American society. She took that tension, specifically, and used it as a seed of a new story planted in the soil of a fictional world and this is the story that grew. Just as the Confederate South insisted that black slaves were less than human and fully disposable yet went to war so they could keep those slaves because their way of life could not survive without them, the orogens are despised and reviled but literally necessary to keep the Stillness from falling apart. Even the oxymoronic name Stillness echoes back to early America - the United States were no such thing (and still are not today). And just as black Americans still could hold so much more power in the country if institutional blocks on their power were removed, the orogens must be carefully monitored by an institution that breaks the most powerful of them and forces them to be part of the system. The orogens who survive must keep deciding that the Stillness is worth saving so the institution has to teach them to believe that they are inhuman and worthless. The parallels are deeply woven into the story and fairly visible from my vantage point now, having finished the first two books, but I also didn’t feel at any point that Jemisin was preaching or writing some kind of morality play. I think that’s partly due to the complexity of the role of the orogens in their society and how the impact of the institutional oppression on the individual characters is unpacked steadily throughout the story, not all at once. Of course, the rest of the work is done by Jemisin’s masterful writing.

The icing on the cake, for me, is the recurring theme of Father Earth. In a world where the very ground threatens the survival of the species, the earth cannot be seen as something nurturing, and I think Jemisin is doing something deeply clever by re-gendering the Earth. I audibly gasped when the narrator pointed out ‘there is something absent from the story - notice that people do not look up at the sky.’ (A paraphrase, not a quote! The actual line is about a thousand times better.)

I keep saying that “oh but the BEST thing about this book is…’ because as each piece of the book pops back into my mind I’m continually surprised and pleased by how well they work. The magic system (which I suspect might actually end up being science) is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s power over kinetic energy, heat, the movement of molecules and earth. The smallest and the biggest power. I think it’s appropriate for an allegory for black Americans, too - it’s a power that is largely unseeable despite its massive force. It’s also linked intimately with re-shaping the very world.

Overall, this is one of the best pieces of fiction I have read in a long time and I am oh so eager to get my hands on the third volume. Read this! It earned both its Hugos!

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