Book Review: Octavia’s Brood

Book Review: Octavia’s Brood edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha

One of the many uses of science fiction is to talk about current issues in a speculative setting.  One can posit a world in which current trends have become exaggerated to dystopian levels, or where a solution has been found to a current problem and what that would result in, or imagine how a change in the past would affect an issue…or even just go the allegory route by, say, having anti-Martian prejudice stand in for anti-immigrant prejudice of the current day.

Octavia's Shadow

This anthology is dedicated to science fiction stories on the theme of social justice issues.  It’s dedicated to the memory of Octavia Butler (1947-2006) a Hugo-winning author of works that touched on such themes as racism, alienation and the environment.  There are twenty stories and two essays by a variety of experienced and first-time authors.

The first story is “Revolution Shuffle” by Bao Phi.  Two Vietnamese-American young people in the middle of a zombie apocalypse are about to liberate an internment camp for Asian and Middle Eastern-descended people.  It seems that in this future, the zombie infestation was declared a terrorist attack, and the most likely suspects were locked up in special facilities to maintain zombie-attracting pistons “for their own protection.”  It reads like the first chapter of a YA dystopia novel.

The last fictional story is “children who fly” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.  It’s a future starring her daughter in a globally-warmed Oakland, trying to preserve what’s left of the community through group disassociation.  “Evidence” by Alexis Pauline Gumbs also uses heavy author insertion in foretelling a future where material goods are no longer important but personal growth is.

Several stories are clearly in the Afrofuturism mode, such as “Lalibela” by Gabriel Teodros, about a time-traveling Ethiopian king.

The most stylistically interesting piece is “Sanford and Sun” by Dawolu Jahari Anderson, which is a script format tale about junk dealer Fred G. Sanford encountering cosmic funk musician and philosopher Sun Ra.  It’s a neat concept, but the “jokes” reminded me of just how much Redd Foxx’s comedic delivery skills carried the Sanford and Son show.  Without specifically imagining him in the role at all times, the lines fall flat.

Some of the stories feel like incomplete fragments.  “Aftermath” by LeVar Burton (about an African-American scientist developing a cure for Parkinson’s Disease, only to be kidnapped by people who want to skin her alive) and “Fire on the Mountain” by Terry Bisson (an alternate history where the Civil War went very differently indeed) are open about this as they are previews of longer books.  Others come off as essays more than stories.

Of the stories in this volume, the one I liked best was “The Long Memory” by Morrigan Phillips.  It takes place in an archipelago where people known as Memorials can access the memories of the Memorials who have come before them, back to the beginning of their line.  These Memorials have become an important part of the society as the rulers must consult them and their knowledge of history before each important decision.

A wealthy and ambitious politician has become an enemy of the Memorials for reasons including the fact that they remember his ideas turn out badly.  He manages to get enough of the government on his side to imprison the Memorials.

The protagonist organizes a hunger strike in an effort to bring the politician to the negotiating table (and also to remind the people that the Memorials have been locked up.)  She naturally wants herself and her colleagues to be freed, but also comes to the realization that the people of the Archipelago have leaned on the Memorials for long-term memory so much that they’ve lost the capacity to remember history for themselves.

The essays are “Star Wars and the American Imagination” by Mumia Abu-Jamal, which is about pretty much what you’d think, and “The Only Lasting Truth”  by Tananarive Due, which is about Octavia Butler herself, her work, and her legacy.

There’s also a foreword, introduction and outro discussing the themes and importance of the works included, and a set of author bios.

This collection is “important” more than “good”; the quality of submissions is uneven, but they are nevertheless interesting to read and contemplate, and I look forward to seeing the future work of many of these authors.  If you have an interest in social justice themes or Afrofuturism, please consider picking this book up.

 

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz

Right up front, I have to say that the title is the most annoying thing about this book.   Did anyone ever use “rad” as an adjective unironically?  That said, “radical” is not an unfair term to apply to many of the women whose short biographies are written in this volume.  There are forty stories set around 30 “countries”, starting with Enheduanna of Mesopotamia, the first named author that we have records of, and wrapping around the globe to Emma Goldman, born in Russia, anarchist and advocate for worker’s rights.

Rad Women Worldwide

This is a sequel to Rad American Women A-Z by the same creators; the greater scope allows them to have more variety.  There are scientists, athletes and entertainers, politicians and even a princess!  The book is written for middle-grade girls, but some of the subject matter may be difficult for more sensitive readers.  (A couple of these biographies moved me to tears.)  Many of the women covered I had heard of before, but a few were new to me.

The papercut illustrations by Miriam Klein Stahl give the book a distinctive, rough-hewn look; it also ties the appearance of the volume together better than a mix of photographs and paintings might have, as there are both historical and contemporary women covered.

This book also wears its politics on its sleeve, obvious in the selection of women to write about.  Politically conservative parents might find it uncomfortable that Kasha Jacqueline Nagabasera (fights for gay rights in Uganda) and Buffy Sainte-Marie (anti-war activist) get full entries while such right-wing icons as Margaret Thatcher and Mother Teresa don’t even make the 250 honorable mentions in the back.  The poem about “the stateless”, refugees, exiles and others torn from their homelands includes the line “No human being is illegal.”

As is common in collections of short biographies, only the highlights of any given woman’s life are included, and edited according to the author’s intent.  Many of these women were controversial during their lifetimes, and some of them are still controversial now.  A reader who takes a particular interest in one of the subjects would be well advised to seek out more complete biographies.  I’ve previously reviewed biographies of King Hatshepsut http://www.skjam.com/2016/01/20/book-review-the-woman-who-would-be-king-hatshepsuts-rise-to-power-in-ancient-egypt/ and Queen Lili’uokalani http://www.skjam.com/2014/02/21/book-review-lost-kingdom-hawaiis-last-queen-the-sugar-kings-and-americas-first-imperial-adventure/ , for example.

I expect that this book will end up in  a lot of elementary school libraries.  I’d also recommend this volume to parents of middle-grade kids (yes, boys too, to go with their many books about famous men) with the caveat (or bonus!) that you might want to sit down with them to discuss some of the topics that will come up.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney

Hatshepsut lived about 1500 B.C.E. to circa 1458 B.C.E.  The daughter of Thutmose I, she was married to Thutmose II, her half-brother, when he ascended the throne of Egypt.  As the God’s Wife of Amen-Re (king of all the Egyptian gods) and King’s Great Wife (like many kings of the period, Thutmose II had several wives, of which she was the most important), Hatshepsut helped run the country.  But Thutmose II was sickly, and died young.  Hatshepsut had only produced a daughter, and Thutmose III, her nephew and the crown prince, was only a toddler.

The Woman Who Would Be King

Hatshepsut was made regent for the infant king, and seems to have done a good job.  But she realized it would be many years before he was ready to rule, even if he lived, and the Egyptians did not at that time have a word for “queen.”  To keep the country stable, Hatshepsut had to become king.  Even if that meant transforming her public identity to match the masculine image the job seemed to require.

Kara Cooney is an Egyptologist and associate professor at UCLA who has done extensive research on the subject of Hatshepsut, with the result being this book.  According to this volume, early Egyptologists took the destruction of many of Hatshepsut’s statues and the erasure of her name to indicate that she was an usurper who abused her power, fitting a narrative that women are unfit to rule.  But more recent research has shown that the erasure mostly took place a good quarter-century after her death, towards the end of Thutmose III’s reign.

Professor Cooney attempts to build a narrative of Hatshepsut’s life; this is difficult because the ancient Egyptians had a strong tendency not to mention anything personal or negative about their rulers; even regicide was only referred to obliquely.  Plus, of course, most of the records vanishing after a couple of thousand years.  What does seem to emerge from the available information is that Hatshepsut was a competent ruler, faithful to her gods, and adding to the prosperity of her kingdom with many building programs.

She seems to have tried as hard as possible to adapt to the role of king, rather than trying to make the role of king fit her, as seen by her statues slowly taking on more masculine attributes.

Mind, by modern standards, the conquering and enslaving of neighboring countries would be considered a negative character trait.

If there were any difficulties between her and Thutmose III, her co-king, they did not enter the records.  What seems to have prompted her later erasure was that Thutmose III wanted to ensure that the male line of succession was maintained, so rewrote history to make it seem that he had become king immediately after his father with no woman at the helm.

Her chief steward, Senemut, on the other hand, seems to have fallen from grace immediately after Hatshepsut’s death.  The remaining traces of him suggest that he was one of those people who boasts in public about how tight he is with the king, and once she was gone, his enemies made their displeasure known.

There’s a lot of “might” and “maybe” and “probably” in the text here, and the extensive footnotes cover alternative interpretations of the evidence.  This makes the narrative rather dry, and best suited to college-level readers.  There is a chronology of the Eighteenth through Twentieth Dynasties, an (incomplete) family tree of Hatshupset, a center section of black and white photos, a bibliography and index.

One interesting tidbit from the notes:  apparently, the word that would become “Pharaoh” came into use about this time to mean “the person in the palace” for those who didn’t want to use the male “king” for Hatshupset.

This book is recommended to scholars interested in ancient Egypt, and people who want to read about another woman who ruled Egypt besides Cleopatra.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of this review.  No other compensation is involved or requested.

Book Review: The Year of Three Kings 1483

Book Review: The Year of Three Kings 1483 by Giles St. Aubyn

This history of the eventful year 1483 (and surrounding events) in England was written for the five hundredth anniversary in 1983.  The three kings in question are Edward IV, Edward V and of course, Richard III, formerly the Duke of Gloucester.   1483 ushered in the final act of the War of the Roses, a series of succession crises about the throne of England.

The Year of Three Kings 1483

Richard is the most famous of these kings, his actions to take the crown being controversial even in his own time.  The public may be most familiar with his depiction in William Shakespeare’s play Richard the Third.   That play was heavily based on a negative portrayal by Sir Thomas More in his history of the period.  There have since been revisionist versions of Richard’s life, both negative and positive.

This book seeks to sort through the primary sources for the actual facts available, and examine what probably really happened.  It comes with a dramatis personae, numerous family tree diagrams, some black and white photographs, extensive end notes, a limited bibliography (only those works directly cited in the volume) and an index.

While the author attempts to be even-handed, he is not above editorial comment, showing disapproval of certain historical personages.  He also is somewhat dismissive of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (a novel in which a hospitalized detective applies himself to the historical mystery of whether Richard murdered his nephews) as part of a trend by “women” to favor unduly positive views of Richard.

There’s also 15th Century sexism on display in several of the direct quotes from the sources of the time.

The author’s conclusion seems to be that while Richard III was not the villain painted in the Tudor propaganda, he was no innocent either.  He did some very good things for the people, but only in the service of claiming and keeping the throne.  The disastrous circumstances caused by the murky succession and various dubious favoritism moments by kings before him made Richard’s power grab vital to his self-defense.  But he may not have planned to go so far as he did.

This is a good starting point for those interested in this period of history, but the serious student will want to supplement it with other scholarly biographies and histories of Richard and the other people involved.

Book Review: From the Cross to the Church

Book Review: From the Cross to the Church by A.C. Graziano

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I received is the first edition, which has a number of typos I am told were fixed in the second edition.

From the Cross to the Church

This book is a basic introduction to the subject of the creation of the canonical New Testament and the formation of the Roman Catholic church from the early community of Christian believers.  It covers what scholars now believe (although there are great differences in opinion among Biblical scholars as to details) as to when the books were written, by whom as far as can be determined, and where they might have been altered to match then-current concerns.

This is a fascinating subject for those interested in learning more about where the Scriptures came from.  It is likely to be less pleasing to one whose framework for interpreting the Bible requires it to be immutable, and by the writers tradition has assigned, directly inspired by God.

I found this volume poorly organized, with bullet points not always recapping the previous material, and inserted in non-intuitive places.  A chapter on documentary sources of Genesis is just sort of plopped down at the end.

The author does not claim any original research, describing himself instead as a “journalist.”  To that end, the list of sources at the end of the volume, ranked by importance and accessibility (but not by credibility, let the reader beware!) may be of more use to the interested scholar.

If you need a quick introduction to the concepts covered here, this book will do.  For better choices, consult your pastor or a Biblical scholar of your acquaintance

Movie Review: Santa Fe Trail

Movie Review: Santa Fe Trail

This 1940 production stars Errol Flynn as J.E.B. Stuart, Ronald Reagan as George Armstrong Custer, Raymond Massey as John Brown and Olivia de Havilland as Kit Carson Holliday.

Santa Fe Trail

Stuart and Custer, newly graduated from West Point, are assigned to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.  There they battle the rogue abolitionists under the command of Brown, while competing for the hand of Holliday.  After Brown’s forces are seemingly smashed, the soldiers are recalled to Washington, and subsequently are involved in the battle of Harper’s Ferry.

It’s actually a good movie given the obvious budget constraints it was under.  The actors perform well (especially Massey), and the team of Flynn and de Havilland continues to sell the romance angle as in their previous pictures.

On the other hand, the film is crammed to the brim with both historical inaccuracies and historical revisionism.  The trend at the time was to “whitewash” slavery and portray antebellum Southerners sympathetically so as to be able to show your movies in Dixie.  Gone With the Wind had come out just the year before.

So it’s the noble and heroic Southerner Stuart and his friends battling the evil abolitionists under the command of religious fanatic Brown (okay, John Brown was a religious fanatic.) The good guys tacitly acknowledge that slavery might possibly not be a good thing, but always follow this with a condemnation of John Brown’s tactics.  It’s implied that the Southern states would have given up slavery peacefully in their own good time had the abolitionists not stirred up hatred against them.

John Brown gets to state openly that slavery is wrong, but he’s crazy from years of trying to achieve peaceful change and getting nowhere.  And secondary villain Rader, a West Point dropout, seems more driven by class envy and greed than than actual concern for the slaves.  His complaint is that Southern gentlemen like Stuart have gotten rich off using slave labor (but doesn’t mention any of the other things that made slavery bad) and he joins Brown’s forces as a mercenary trainer.  Rader winds up betraying Brown when he doesn’t get paid.

The abolitionists are portrayed as murderous invaders of Kansas, and a station on the Underground Railroad is referred to as a “cancer” in the title cards.  Care is taken to avoid mentioning the atrocities perpetrated by pro-slavery forces in the territory.

The black people in the movie are depicted as childlike, innocent victims of John Brown’s crusade on their behalf.  They’re lured in by his promise of freedom, but he has to abandon them to fend for themselves when the cavalry comes, in order to carry on his crusade.  Meanwhile, it is Jeb Stuart (a slaveowner in real life) who saves the black family when danger threatens.  Two of the rescue-es explicitly reject freedom and decide to return to “safe” slavery, while none are heard to choose to live free.

Again, as a movie it’s pretty good.  But it is a product of another time, and those who really care about history and civil rights may find their blood boiling.  Also, there’s maybe ten minutes tops spent on the Santa Fe Trail itself.

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