Archive for March, 2017

Review: The Sellout

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

I’ve been rolling The Sellout around in my head for a few days and I think Paul Beatty’s work may be that rarest of books, one that deserves to become a classic.

Like the underlying societal issues it addresses, Sellout is surprisingly complex. On its surface the story of the protagonist, a black urban farmer cum Supreme Court defendant charged with holding another black man in willing bondage, is – perhaps unexpectedly – pretty direct. If he’s walking a tightrope to avoid suspension of disbelief, Beatty does so with such panache that any crevasse, rope, or danger curls up invisibly.

In order to tell the tale, Beatty creates an exaggerated view of America and LA rife with magical elements.  The most comic and dynamic such elements – e.g.,  the protagonist’s weed with surprisingly specific effects and the acrobatic city bus his girlfriend drives – sharply define borders with the real world.  Other elements, e.g., the miraculous neighborhoods of LA being systemically removed from maps and consciousness by gentrifying forces, delineate hazier borders between magic and reality.  Different people will see the line different places and each may learn something by trying to work out the border together – “Wait; who changed the area’s name?  OK, I mean put up the signs…”  “Was it really that unusual a place?”  “How? You’re kidding, right?!”

Anyone who’s pulled on a thread that touches on race or gender and privilege in America with an informed, intimate interlocutor will recognize the process of enlightenment and discovery. Every plot point in The Sellout seems to me that it could launch that kind of discovery.  It could also be met with simple disbelief and hostility as well.  These are the dangers of the examined life and of literary contemplation.  What’s remarkable about The Sellout is how fertile a ground it is for both examination and contemplation.

Even if you have no interest in society, race, Los Angeles or any of the other issues I see reflected in the book, it’s well worth reading just to bask in Beatty’s beautiful and powerful expressions.  He displays the rhythm and rhyme of a poet – or a musical virtuoso – while simultaneously grabbing imagery and vocabulary that snares meaning without caging it.  I understand that makes no sense; I can’t write like Beatty, either.

A lot of the book feels uncomfortable. Beatty’s world lets the reader sneak into the difficult and unsettling hollows of our world, but their essence is to be difficult and unsettling. Herein lies the power of The Sellout.  Beatty takes his readers to the nexus of clarity and ambiguity of so many spots where society’s fabric binds that talking about it with anyone will lead somewhere unexpected.  And it’s too compelling to shut up about.

A must.

Review: A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

My admiration for Jimmy Carter’s accomplishments is nearly boundless.  He’s a former US president who has dedicated his career to promoting justice internationally.  His view of justice is informed by his strong religious beliefs, which is refreshing.  Even as he holds to his Baptist faith and remains active in that church, he calls the church leaders to task when they make unjust decisions.  I admire his drive, dedication, and pride.

A Call To Action brings those beliefs and experience to bear on the state of womens’ rights across the world.  He is, as ever, unflinching in his assessment and optimistic in his outlook.

I do wish he wrote more dynamically.  His analysis of the state of the world and underlying causes seems to be exhaustive and even-handed. He augments telling personal anecdotes with well-chosen and clearly presented statistics.  He never shies away from a conclusion informed by his sense of justice, even when there is significant dissent on the matter.  Even when that dissent is driven by personal friends or professional collaborators.

But, man, his text is dry.

The message is worth digging through it.


Review: Futureland

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

Walter Mosley always writes as Walter Mosley. I can imagine a reader picking up this book wondering how the mystery writer does in the SF world.  Such a reader will find that genre does not bound Mosley. His voice and expressive powers inhabit a speculative story as easily as contemporary fiction.

Structurally, Futureland is built of multiple short stories from different points of view.  Each lights up the world from a different point of view.  There’s an overarching plot and some interesting technical speculation, but Mosley’s always got society and race on his mind.  His SF world is tuned to amplify the ongoing economic exploitation in America without oversimplifying it.

But enough about the big picture.  The thing I love best about these stories is how each struts into the reader’s mind with direct and powerful writing.  Mosley’s always got the right word in the right place without ostentation or pretension.  Even when his characters are downtrodden, his prose swaggers.  The results feel muscular and powerful, even when they’re tender and wistful.

Strongly recommended.