Book Review: Semiosis, Sue Burke

Book Review: Semiosis, Sue Burke

Semiosis, Sue Burke

Science Fiction: Semiosis, Sue Burke

Semiosis is a beautifully written, deeply thoughtful book tracking several generations of humans colonizing a new planet. Sue Burke has created a richly imagined world full of intriguing characters trying to figure out how to live together with each other and with the dominant sentient species native to the planet. I truly loved this novel!

 

Burke’s story follows the Pax settlement for more than 100 years, from the early days of Earth-humans scrabbling for purchase on a planet they were not evolved to inhabit to their descendants coming to terms with the other two sentient species there. One of those species is native to the planet. It is a plant, capable of intentionally manipulating animals to meet its needs. The humans do not immediately recognize the intelligence of the plant, and when they do, they fear it. After all, a plant that can choose to give nourishing food in exchange for water and fertilizer could also choose to withhold that food to manipulate or control. Were that to happen, would humans be any better than a domesticated animal? And if the choices were dying from starvation and an inability to survive the rigors of the planet or acquiescing to the demands of a self-interested and sometimes manipulative plant, which would be the better and more ethical choice?

 

Fundamentally, humans would always be at the mercy of the plant once they started. It’s root network effectively meant that the plant was immortal. Memories could be preserved in special areas, protected from harm. Fruit could be modified to medicate the humans, rewarding positive behavior and punishing or modifying negative behavior. Shoots and leaves could sprout overnight in new locations, seeing and hearing anything the humans were doing. The plant might choose to act ethically, to embrace mutualism and equality with the humans. Or the plant might choose to act only in its own interests, treating the humans as animals that were “pests” or propagators. If the plant did act solely for itself, humans would be essentially helpless to resist once they became dependant on the fruit it provided for food, medicine, etc.

 

I love the way Burke develops the burgeoning relationship between the humans and the plant. Each has things they can learn from the other. Each has things they disapprove of in the other. Each has things they can provide to the other. Obviously we cannot know (yet) how a sentient plant might think, but Burke presents some very thoughtful ideas of how it might process information, how it might differ from the way animals (humans) process that information, and what strengths and weaknesses each might possess. When they, humans and plant, are presented with a crisis that challenges both, those strengths and weaknesses come to bear as they work together (and sometimes work at cross purposes) to meet that challenge. Misunderstandings abound. Cooperation is tested. Is the relationship parasitic or symbiotic? And how would adding a third species to the equation change things?

 

Burke has been playing with these ideas for a long time. The original concept for the story was published as a short story by her almost 20 years before Semiosis came out (in 2018). This novel feels like it was slow-cooked, in a very positive, delicious, amazing aroma filling the house kind of way. Each chapter has elements in them that make you think, “Ooh, that’s different.” Clearly the author has not only done her research, she has allowed the images and the possibilities and the thoughts to mature within her mind and heart. The result is a thoughtful, well-paced, deep novel. I highly recommend it.

Semiosis, Sue Burke

Book Review: Semiosis, Sue Burke

Book Review: Heart Berries, Terese Marie Mailhot

Book Review: Heart BerriesTerese Marie Mailhot

Memoir: Heart BerriesTerese Marie Mailhot

Terese Marie Mailhot is many things. A writer. A member of a First Nation who grew up on a reservation. A survivor of sexual abuse. A single parent. A foster child. Someone who has lived with mental illness, including hospitalization, pharmacological treatments, and therapy. MFA graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts. All of these things and more are told in sometimes harsh, grim, painful, honest, and raw detail in her memoir Heart Berries. This is not a memoir of triumph and conquest, “How I Overcame My Issues (And You Can, Too!).” This is a memoir of survival, a story of endurance, bereft of hope beyond making it through today.

 

Much of the book is written as a series of letters to “Casey.” Casey is revealed through these letters to be her lover, boyfriend, and father of her third child. During the course of these letters we learn about the author’s childhood, including reflections on being Indian, revelations of sexual abuse by her father, and later fleeing into a teenage marriage that produced two children and a world of heartache. The letters start when she is in the hospital for mental illness, struggling with the nature of her relationship to Casey, to the son who still lives with her, to the son who lives with his father, to her own parents, and to the world as a Native American woman.

 

As Tolstoy said in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I think he may be selling both types of families short, but there is a measure of truth in the observation. Mailhot’s unhappiness stems from so many sources. Like many of us broken people, there is a degree of longing to be fixed: through medicine, through therapy, through relationships, through motherhood, through forgiveness. She recognizes, though, that some things cannot be fixed. You cannot fix sexual abuse. You cannot fix betrayal. You cannot fix failures with future successes. Time inexorably continues, and there’s no reversing course to undo the violence done to us or done by us.

 

What can be done, and what Mailhot seems to be doing, is choose to proceed. You cannot fix abuse. You can decide not to be defined by it. You cannot fix betrayal. You can decide whether or not to stay. You can decide whether or not to move forward. You cannot fix failure. You can decide to succeed in your academic pursuits, to publish groundbreaking work, to insist that your voice is worth hearing and speak your truth–however painful–into a world that too often ignores female and Native voices.

 

Heart Berries is not a book to read for comfort or solutions. There are none to be found here. This is a book, though, for honesty, for endurance, for anyone who has suffered. You’re not alone, your pain is real. Heart Berries does not offer a cheap grace or an easy victory. Instead it screams into the void, “I’m here and I matter!” The power of her voice eloquently testifies that Terese Marie Mailhot indeed is here, and matters.

Book Review: Heart BerriesTerese Marie Mailhot

Book Review: Past Tense: A Jack Reacher Novel, Lee Child

Book Review: Past Tense: A Jack Reacher Novel, Lee Child

Thriller: Past Tense: A Jack Reacher Novel, Lee Child

Jack Reacher is 6’5” and looks nothing like Tom Cruise. That has not stopped Cruise from playing the character in two movies, and I really can’t blame author Lee Child. Honestly, if I wrote a book and Tom Cruise wanted to make a movie from it, I am sure I would say yes. Assuming I could say much of anything at all. Then again, Lee Child has written more than twenty Jack Reacher novels, with 13 of them becoming #1 bestsellers, so he probably handled the situation with much more aplomb than many of us could have. His latest, Past Tense, takes Reacher on an unexpected side trip to Laconia, New Hampshire, the childhood home of his father.

 

Reacher being Reacher, this does not become just another stop along the road. Parallel to his own visit to Laconia, a young couple stops at a hotel deep in the woods near the town. They begin to realize that although their arrival was random and unpredictable, the owners of the hotel have been looking for a couple just like them for their own purposes. It might be New Hampshire, but the checkout procedure came from The Eagles rock group song, “Hotel California.” Checking out is not an option.

 

Meanwhile, Reacher is discovering some things himself. First, finding information on his late father is much harder than it should be. And second, rescuing a young woman being assaulted in the street is one of those good deeds that does not go unpunished. Before long, Reacher is being asked to leave town by the police, is being chased by gangsters from Boston, and is being attacked by local hoodlums for their own reasons.

 

And don’t forget the hotel.

 

I recently listened to an interview with Lee Child. One thing that struck me was how committed he feels toward his fans. Apparently he is often asked why he does not write other non Jack Reacher books. Does he never tire of writing the same character? Child’s response was humble and compelling. People love the character of Jack Reacher, and their support has given Child a life he could never have imagined. He feels indebted to those fans, and works hard to keep them happy. (He even almost apologized for Tom Cruise playing the role. Can you really say no to Tom Cruise, though?) I have never felt like an author “owed” me anything. Lee Child disagrees, and works hard to pay back those fans who have been faithful to him. The result here is a book that is fun to read and lives up to expectations. We learn a bit more about the character’s family. Reacher discovers a shadowy past his father never revealed. But we don’t learn much more about Jack Reacher himself. The character and the principles he lives by became evident in the first book of the series, and this book is no different. If there is a wrong being done, he will seek to right it. If there is a mystery to be solved, he will seek to uncover it. And if you mess with him, you will regret it.

 

At the end, you have another satisfying entry into the Jack Reacher canon, one which should leave fans of Lee Child quite content that he has once again successfully met their expectations.

Book Review: Past Tense: A Jack Reacher Novel, Lee Child

Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction, Britt Wray

Book Review: Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction, Britt Wray

Rise of the Necrofauna

Science: Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction, Britt Wray

Several months prior to starting Scintilla.Info, I encountered a brilliant book exploring the possibilities of restoring extinct species. When my wife proposed and began Scintilla, I immediately knew that I wanted to share this book with other readers. It has taken me a few months to get back to it, but having reread Rise of the Necrofauna I am impressed again at the depth and insight Britt Wray brings to the subject.

 

There may be two immediate reactions to the thought of restoring extinct species. The first one is, “We’ve seen this movie five times now, and it always ends badly.” Jurassic Park and its sequels is the stuff of science fiction and does not reflect the actual scientific progress undergirding the possibility of restoring more recently extinct species, but the cautionary lessons in the movies may give some people pause at the entire idea. The other immediate reaction is, “Cool! I want my own pet wooly mammoth!” Which opens up the entire question of ethics and responsibility to the process.

 

Wray’s book is quite thorough. She examines the science, and indeed the technology is getting closer to creating something that is potentially like de-extinction. Wray makes the point repeatedly that regardless of the name we may give it, we can never simply recreate extinct species. The wooly mammoth is a good example of this. Partial DNA has been recovered from frozen carcasses found in the arctic. That DNA has been degraded and corrupted, though, so any replicated DNA would necessarily require augmentation and hybridization with existing animals, most likely Indian elephants. Passenger pigeon DNA could be similarly recreated using living pigeons. But in both cases scientists are not restoring the extinct species. They are (potentially) creating new species that are very similar to the old species but not identical.

 

The other aspect to this is that a species is more than simply its DNA. Elephants are highly intelligent, with culture and behaviors passed from mother to child. Would an elephant mother reject a mammoth calf? Could a sub-tropical elephant teach a mammoth calf the behaviors needed to survive in the forests of Canada or Siberia? If not, who would?

 

Passenger pigeons used to flock in the millions, even the billions, across North America. WIthin a few years, the population collapsed and the species disappeared. There is some evidence that the passenger pigeons required a huge population to flourish, and once the population fell below that critical mass (due largely to overhunting) then the remaining birds could not longer function effectively to feed, breed, migrate, or even survive. Restoring a passenger pigeon doppelganger cannot be done in the millions; any new version of the bird would have to be able to survive with a much smaller population. Recreations might look like passenger pigeons, but they cannot fundamentally act like passenger pigeons or they would be susceptible to the same population collapse that destroyed their predecessors.

 

Numerous ethical, legal, and logistical questions would accompany any restoration. Laws differ from country to country; an animal protected as endangered in one country might be considered an illegal GMO creation in a neighboring country. What happens if that animal crosses the border? Animals shape their environment. Once they go extinct, the ecosystem adapts to the new reality. Can the new environment support the old organism? When people are involved, other questions arise. If wooly mammoths were reintroduced, for example, who would pay when they knocked over a fence? Or a truck?

 

Wray seems to have a generally skeptical view of the likelihood of de-extinction. She has serious reservations about the wisdom and morality of the effort. But she also has some very positive suggestions on ways that the technologies can be used to help save animals that are on the brink of extinction, possibly by adding diversity to small populations using DNA from preserved samples of stored carcasses, or by adding disease resistant genes to vulnerable populations. And she allows that in an age of anthropogenic mass extinction, a strong case can be made that humans have a moral obligation to try to undo some of the harm we have done.

 

Rise of the Necrofauna is not the impending arrival of Jurassic Park. Britt Wray makes it clear that there are significant limitations to what science can do, and maybe what it should do. But it might not be all bad to see thylacines roaming Tasmania again, or possibly a return of great auks to the North Atlantic.

Rise of the Necrofauna

Book Review: Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics, and Risks of De-Extinction, Britt Wray

Booklist: Black History Month February 2019

Celebrate Black History Month February 2019

African American and other black authors on Scintilla from April, 2018-February, 2019

 

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts, Rivers Solomon

 

Book Series Review: Binti, Nnedi Okorafor

0765385252  0765393115  0765393131

 

Book Review: Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse

 

Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse

(NOTE: Rebecca Roanhorse primarily identifies as Native American, but she does have African American ancestry as well.)

 

Book Review: The SelloutPaul Beatty

The Sellout, Paul Beatty

 

 

Book Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward

 

 

Book Review: Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith

Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith

 

 

Book Review: No One Is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts

No One Is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts

 

 

Book Review: Orleans, Sherri L. Smith

 

Book Review: Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith

 

Book Review: Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

 

Book Review: The Changeling, Victor LaValle

The Changeling, Victor LaValle

 

Book Review: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Invisible, Stephen L. Carter

 

Book Review: Washington Black, Esi Edugyan

Washington Black, Esi Edugyan

 

Book Review: Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

 

Book Review: Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

 

Book Review: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

 

Book Review: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Book Review: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Story Collection: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads of the Colored People is a powerful collection of short stories exploring concepts of identity, class, race, body-image, and love among African Americans. Sometimes funny, sometimes gut-wrenching, always provocative, Nafissa Thompson-Spires uses powerful and piercing language to look frankly at issues that most authors would hesitate to address.

 

Thompson-Spires introduces us to characters who are very different than the typical characters we meet in books and stories. All of them are black, but their “blackness” is uniquely their own. Two characters who appear in multiple stories are the only African American girls in their high school. We first meet their mothers, engaged in a very pointed exchange of letters that is equally amusing and cringe-worthy. The girls themselves wrestle with their own identities: should they be friends because they are both black in a white world? Are they rivals? Are they enemies? One of the girls is large, the other is thin, and their body image also factors into their relationship.

 

Other characters wrestle with interracial relationships, with being disabled (or with stalking the disabled), with anger and lust and religion, with participating in atypical pursuits like cosplay. Most of the stories are set in southern California, which seems to add its own unique dimension to the characters’ identities. One of the characters specifically contrasts California racial identity to that experienced by people in the south, calling out his friend for his attitude toward those from the south.

 

All of these stories are fascinating and reflect a world very different from my own. What stands out to me is how different the worlds of the characters are from each other as well. Although there are certainly commonalities that transcend various differences, to say there is one “black experience” is unfair and dismissive. Some of the characters in this book have a lot superficially in common–and they don’t relate to each other at all. Two black girls in the same majority white private school can still have very different experiences based on their own physical size, their own experiences dating, their relationships with the larger African-American community, their own personalities and their attitudes toward each other and toward others. A young man who enjoys cosplaying as Japanese anime characters can feel alienated from others of his own race and not feel fully embraced by those of other races even when they share that common passion. A young woman can objectify someone based on disability just as much as another might objectify that same person based on race.

 

All of the characters have an uneasy and tortured relationship with the world around them. They struggle with their families. They struggle with their communities. They inflict wounds on themselves and on others. Not all of them survive their own stories. Thompson-Spires gives us troubled characters who are unique and individual, struggling to find out who they are. Are they identified by their skin color? Are they identified by their physical body type? Are they identified by their social or economic class? Are they identified by their choices? Are they identified by their families? The answers are always yes and no and somewhat and I don’t know…which is probably the dilemma most of us feel trying to find our way through life.

 

I do not want to pretend that I can fully relate to any of these characters. In America, my skin color comes with privileges that Thompson-Spires’ characters do not share. But although her stories are about black people, they are profoundly and deeply about people, people with loves and hurts and desires and needs and struggles, lusts and longings and confusion and mental disorder. And in many of their hopes and dreams and fears, I could see myself as well. Heads of Colored People is a powerful collection of stories, one that challenges and delights and provokes.

Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Book Review: Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Book Review: Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

Book Review: Akata WitchNnedi Okorafor

Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

Fantasy: Akata WitchNnedi Okorafor

 

“My name is Sunny Nwazue and I confuse people.”

 

That may be one of the best lines I’ll ever read introducing a character. Sunny is many things. An American girl growing up in Nigeria, the daughter of two Igbo parents. An albino. And as she discovers early in the book, a Leopard Person–also known as a witch. Akata Witch is Sunny’s story, how she learned she had magical abilities, how she was embraced by a world she never knew existed, and how she found her place in that world with the help of some friends.

 

I am reminded of the Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife,” when the Doctor tries to explain that they have entered a place that is not in their universe but it is like a soap bubble on the edge of a larger bubble except it is nothing like that but if it helps you to think of it like that then it is exactly like that.

 

My fear in writing my introduction is that it may sound like Akata Witch is similar to another series of books about a young magic worker who did not know about his abilities and was embraced by a world he never knew about and how he found his place in that world with the help of some friends. I suppose if HP were an albino American-Igbo girl who continued to attend school with ordinary students then it would be exactly like that…which is to say that it is extremely unfair to compare the two and I really don’t want to do that. Nnedi Okorafor has made some magic with Akata Witch, and it stands on its own quite well. She has won the Locus, Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards for her fiction, and the sequel to this novel won this year’s award for Best Young Adult Book which was presented at the Hugo ceremony.

 

Akata Witch could not have been written by someone unfamiliar with Nigeria. Whether the descriptions are of the feel of the air on skin, the sound of insects, the taste of the food, the smell of dust and smoke, Okorafor engages all of the reader’s senses in her book. Sunny’s albino skin is described by her school bullies as being the color of sour milk. The book simply delights on multiple levels.

 

Okorafor is one of the leading voices of Africanfuturism, a growing genre of stories that features African voices telling African stories set in the future. This genre is long overdue. Africa gave birth to us all, and now is giving birth to some exciting literature that demands attention. Okorafor has a voice that is both African and American, born in Cincinnati and teaching in Chicago, but spending a lot of time in Nigeria as well. The blend of cultures, mixed with her intelligence and experience and scholarship, helps her create unique books which put extraordinary characters into extravagantly described worlds.

 

Akata Witch features a young woman finding herself. African and American, “black” and albino, magical but living in an ordinary home and attending an ordinary school, Sunny Nwazue is a special protagonist. I loved this book, and I am excited to read the sequel.

 

Akata Witch, Nnedi Okorafor

Book Review: Akata WitchNnedi Okorafor

Book Review: Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Book Review: Children of Blood and BoneTomi Adeyemi

 

Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Fantasy: Children of Blood and BoneTomi Adeyemi

Zelie’s mother was killed because she had magic. Many people were killed during The Raid, when magic disappeared from the world and those who once had used it were targeted by the king. Since that fateful night all those years ago, the magic was gone. Zelie had the white hair that indicated magical potential, but no magic could be found in the world. Then, a princess touches her with a mysterious scroll, and Zelie begins to find the power in herself that her mother once employed. The magic may be gone from Zelie’s world, but that is only because Tomi Adeyemi has put it into her amazing novel Children of Blood and Bone and has thus brought it into ours.

 

It’s easy sometimes to reduce stories to tropes. Hero’s journey? Check. Love story? Check. Misunderstood princess? Check. Young and untrained people discovering how to use magic? Check. And, sure, fine, those familiar themes are present in this novel. What sets a novel apart, though, is when it makes familiar ground new and exciting and different.

 

Here again, the easy and cheap thing to do is grab the obvious differences: Africa, not Europe or America. But this book is not different only because it is set in a part of the world that is underrepresented in published fantasy literature. This book is different because it is really, really good. The world building is amazing. The characters are real and flawed and heroic and common and everything you want in a character. Some of the scenes take your breath away. There is magic in this book, and it is not from the spells or the mystical powers or the artifacts. The magic is in the writing and the creativity and the depth of the story. The book may hide on the YA shelves of your local library, but it is a very mature story that should appeal to all ages. I could not put it down.

 

Two of the three main characters are female, but this is not a “girl’s” book (or a “boy’s” book–if there are such things). This is a good book. Will girls and women be thrilled to see the heroics come from a “her”? I hope so, but boys (and men) will also love to see the strength of these characters. As a reader, I also loved watching the growth and change in the characters through the course of the book. None of the three main characters is perfect, all are flawed, and all of them are different by the end than they were in the beginning. And although the next novel is perfectly set up, I have no idea what direction the characters will take in the next part of the story. I just know I am very eager to find out.

 

Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Book Review: Children of Blood and BoneTomi Adeyemi

Book Review: Invisible,  Stephen L. Carter

Book Review: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Invisible, Stephen L. Carter

Nonfiction History/Biography: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Stephen L. Carter is a novelist and a law professor at Yale. That is quite impressive all by itself. But he comes from a family with multiple luminaries, perhaps none that shone brighter than his grandmother, Eunice Hunton Carter. In his biography of his grandmother, Invisible, Carter tells the story of a woman who should never be forgotten.

 

Eunice Hunton was born to remarkable parents. Her father was revered for his work with the YMCA, loved so deeply that upon his passing young men across the country lit candles and met together to mourn his loss. Her mother traveled through Klan areas in the south to organize black women. It is little wonder that Eunice grew up with a strong sense of purpose and confidence.

 

She grew up in a time, though, when opportunities for African Americans were scarce and for women were even scarcer. Still, she earned her law degree and began working for Thomas Dewey in the NYC District Attorney’s office during the 1930s. Dewey had 20 assistants working with him to take down infamous mob leader “Lucky Luciano.” Nineteen of them were white males. The other was Eunice Hunton Carter.

 

Luciano was the chief mob boss in NYC after the murder of Dutch Schultz, a murder that quite probably was ordered by Luciano himself. Almost any organized crime in the city tied back to him one way or another. Eunice Carter realized that this included prostitution. Years before, prostitution was not organized. Then, some people began “booking” the prostitutes. This helped keep the “girls” out of jail by moving them around from place to place, and because these “bookers” were responsible for more women they could spend more to buy lawyers and pay bribes to police and judges. Eunice had become aware of this growing trend during her work with the Women’s Court prior to joining the DA’s office, and she requested permission from Dewey to look further into it to determine whether the Combination (as the prostitution conspiracy ring was known) reached all the way to Luciano. Dewey was skeptical and reluctant at first, but Carter was persistent. He finally agreed, and Carter began to make the case. At first she was alone in her work. She soon found enough evidence that a second attorney joined her. Eventually, almost the entire team was working the Combination angle, and eventually Luciano was brought up on prostitution related charges. He was found guilty.

 

The most powerful mobster in America was brought to trial and convicted because of the persistence and acute legal mind of one person. An African-American woman. In the 1930s.

 

Carter continued working in the DA’s office for many more years, and also became active in Republican politics. She campaigned vigorously for her mentor, Dewey, in his rise within New York and the US political scene. She held multiple leadership positions in both US and international groups advocating for expanded rights for women and for people of color. She was friends with leaders in politics, entertainment, sports, and advocacy, especially those in the “darker” America (Stephen Carter’s term). She was also a leader of Harlem’s “sassiety,” wealthy (and according to the author, snobbish) African American women who were among the elite of New York’s black cultural and business life.

 

Carter’s biography is powerful, affectionate, but also open-eyed. He does not shy away from his grandmother’s faults. She apparently was an indifferent mother, she could be insensitive to others, her marriage suffered, she held grudges, and she was extremely driven. These very human failings, though, do not obscure the fact that she did extraordinary things during a time when blacks, and especially black women, were dismissed, demeaned, ignored, and forgotten.

 

Carter is also clear about why she was forgotten by history. There are obvious answers: she was a black woman whose heyday came in the 1930s and 1940s. Black women today still struggle to get appropriate recognition for their accomplishments, especially when those accomplishments come in areas considered the purview of white men, such as law. But there were less obvious reasons as well, which Carter gives appropriate consideration to. Eunice Hunton Carter’s brother, Alphaeus, was a known communist. It is highly possible that his communist sympathies derailed his sister’s ambitions for political advancement or a judgeship. (He was arrested and served some time in jail, and eventually fled the US and lived the rest of his life in Africa.) Eunice’s personality also led to her falling out with some other leaders, whether because of competing ambitions or simply arrogance, and those interpersonal conflicts kept her from achieving some leadership positions she had sought.

 

None of that changes what she did accomplish. She set herself against the most powerful mobster in America. And she won. Eunice Hunton Carter deserves to be remembered, and hopefully this biography by her grandson, novelist and law professor Stephen L. Carter, means that she will no longer be Invisible.

Invisible, Stephen L. Carter

Book Review: Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,  Stephen L. Carter

Book Review: Washington Black, Esi Edugyan

Book Review: Washington BlackEsi Edugyan

Washington Black, Esi Edugyan

Historical Fiction: Washington BlackEsi Edugyan

Some characters deserve to walk out of their books and live in your heart. Washington Black transcends the pages of his own novel. Esi Edugyan made the shortlist for the Man Booker prize (and several others) with this story of a young man who was born in slavery but finally comes to own his own story. If this novel doesn’t touch your heart, you are already dead.

 

Washington Black is a young man born into the brutal slavery of a Caribbean sugar plantation. Raised by a slave woman, Big Kit, he is owned by a violent master who kills slaves often. One night he is summoned to help serve dinner by the master, who is accompanied by a guest. We discover that the guest, known as “Titch,” is the master’s brother. Titch decides that Washington is the right size for his scientific experiments, and “borrows” him to help. Titch is building a lighter-than-air craft, and he needs an assistant. So, because he is the right size, Washington is chosen.

 

Soon, though, Titch learns that Washington is not just the right size physically. He may have been born into slavery, but Washington has a keen mind and an amazing artistic talent. Titch quickly begins to rely more and more upon him, looking on him more as an apprentice than as just a laborer. When calamity strikes the family and Washington’s life is in danger, Titch does not hesitate to take him and set off in his aircraft to escape.

 

What follows is a perilous trip, first to Virginia and then to Canada, fearing that bounty hunters were barely a step behind. As the years pass (and the two men separate), Washington lives on his own in Canada, then moves on to England. Yet questions abound in Washington’s mind. Why did Titch choose him? Why did Titch leave him behind? Why was he freed when Big Kit and the other slaves were not? Fundamentally, Washington wants to know who he really is, why he really is here–and also wants to deal with a large helping of survivor’s guilt. And to do this, he chases the shadows left by Titch in England and Amsterdam until finally confronting his rescuer in Morocco. And we, as readers, follow Titch in this quest, caught up with him in the maelstrom of life and emotions that make this book so compelling.

 

Edugyan reminds us that slavery in the Caribbean was brutal and violent. Slaves are routinely beaten and killed. Washington is branded, along with the other slaves on the plantation. His first crush, Emilie, becomes pregnant at age 11, most likely from being raped by their master. When she disappears, he doesn’t bother asking about her. When people leave the plantation, they are just gone. They are never seen again, and there is no point asking. Washington does not know who his mother or father are; Big Kit raises him, but never tells him who his parents are (we learn a little more later in the book, but I won’t spoil it for you). Her love is a tough love–at one point she hits him so hard that she breaks his ribs. But her fear is that he will cross a line that will get him killed–or worse–by the master or his thugs. If he attracts the wrong sort of attention, broken ribs would be the least of his problems.

 

Washington Black deserves a place in your heart and on your shelf. It is a beautiful, compelling story with one of the most powerful characters you will encounter on the page. I am glad I read it.

Washington Black, Esi Edugyan

Book Review: Washington BlackEsi Edugyan