Review: 'The Parable of the Sower' by Octavia Butler

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The plan was to leave the apartment by 10 a.m. and get at least four hours of research and writing done before making my way back home to take Lady on a long walk and swiftly jump on the 4 p.m. train to Little Five Points. But here I am, sitting in the sci-fi corner of Barnes & Noble. It’s a quarter past three and I’m just reeling from the end of Butler’s “The Parable of the Sower.

What was meant to be a short 30 minutes of reading while fueling with iced white tea and a slice of day-old spinach focaccia turned into a mindless fixation on Earthseed, a Darwinian religion developed by Butler’s “Parable” protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina set in a dystopian 2024 California.

Global warming is doing its deed. Drought, loss of drinkable water, displaced populations. The pharma industry still prospers, of course. A smart “pyro” drug makes watching fires burn feel even better than sex, resulting in pyromanic addicts chasing the high, leaving the world’s few existing walled communities up in flames as they fade to black.

Perhaps the most gripping aspect of the book is that our protagonist suffers from what she calls hyper-empathy. A “sharer” in Butler’s world, Lauren feels the pain and pleasure she causes. In no way does Lauren, through her character, make a good case for the value of this disease of empathy. She shows us the evils. Shoots and only jumps from the jolt, if she’s lucky and her victim is dead. She feels the pain of being raped and the pleasure of her rapist. And she exposes the way weak, colored men and women with the disease are used as obedient slaves by racist masters. Yes, racism, of course, makes a more concrete comeback.

Lauren’s primary motive to live, to survive is Earthseed. Earthseed, in essence, is a religion worshipping evolution and change as the only worthy deity. God, Lauren believes, is change.

“God is Change— Seed to tree, tree to forest; Rain to river, river to sea; Grubs to bees, bees to swarm. From one, many; from many, one; Forever uniting, growing, dissolving— forever Changing. The universe is God’s self-portrait.”

So what does it take to be part of Earthseed?

“The essentials,” Lauren says, “are to learn to shape God with forethought, care, and work; to educate and benefit their community, their families, and themselves; and to contribute to the fulfillment of the Destiny.”

Sound a little too simple? A little too…open to interpretation? A little…like every other religion in its origin? That’s fine. As long as it gives purpose, and keeps some believers alive, Lauren feels.

“Belief Initiates and guides action— Or it does nothing.” 

Butler, as The New Yorker wrote in 2017, birthed the Parable series from what she read in the news, “forecasting what kind of collapse might result if the forces of late-stage capitalism, climate change, mass incarceration, big pharma, gun violence, and the tech industry continued unhampered.”

Dispiriting, I know. But there’s something warm about Lauren’s perspective, told through her diary entries: her hope for better. “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you,” Butler writes. “I don’t know whether good times are coming back again. But I know that won’t matter if we don’t survive these times.” 

Butler wanted to write four more books after “Parable of the Talent,” but found the task “too depressing.”

The Parable series, she urged the public, was not about prophecy. No, “this was a cautionary tale,” she said.

“Your teachers
Are all around you.
All that you perceive,
All that you experience,
All that is given to you
or taken from you,
All that you love or hate,
need or fear
Will teach you--
If you will learn.
God is your first
and your last teacher.
God is your harshest teacher:
subtle,
demanding.
Learn or die.” 

Five stars.

Other reviews:

- Circe by Madeline Miller
- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
- The Overstory by Richard Powers
They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Review: 'Circe' by Madeline Miller

Photo: WBUR

Photo: WBUR

“When I was born, the word for what I was did not exist.”

Here’s what I’d learned about Circe in school and literature: She was the imperfect, lesser sorceress daughter of the Titan sun god Helios, famous for turning Odysseus’ men into wild pigs. Now she’s so much more. She’s the feminist enchantress who turned men into beasts — because they deserved it.

In “Circe,” Madeline Miller’s recasting of the goddess spans eternities, beginning with a lonely and isolated childhood, followed by her first mortal encounter, the self-discovery of her powers and subsequent banishment and, of course, the many meetings with men stumbling onto the private shores of Aiaia, where she lived in exile.

When Circe meets Odysseus, he arrives mourning for his dead men only to learn she has entrapped the rest and turned them into pigs. With the help of the god Hermes, Odysseus tricks Circe into begging for mercy… and falling in love with him.

"I was not surprised by the portrait of myself," Circe says, "the proud witch undone before the hero's sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime for poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep."

Circe and the wandering Odysseus eventually bear a child named Telegonus, which brings me to the most memorable part of the novel: the profound maternal love and pain Miller weaves into Circe’s character, a divine goddess inching closer and closer to understanding what it means to be mortal.

“When he finally slept … a love so sharp it seemed my flesh lay open. I made a list of all the things I would do for him. Scald off my skin. Tear out my eyes. Walk my feet to bones, if only he would be happy and well.” 

With a mystical prose seamlessly strung together and an overarching theme of female empowerment, Miller’s narrative is sure to delight any reader.

Five stars.

Other reviews:

- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
- The Overstory by Richard Powers
They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Review: 'All the Light We Cannot See' by Anthony Doerr

Photo: Barnes & Noble

Photo: Barnes & Noble

“Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.” 

It’s taken me some time to review this book by Pulitzer-winning author Anthony Doerr, who earned the coveted award for this fictional novel inspired by the nightmare of World War II.

The imaginative tale poetically parallels two compelling story lines, climaxing with the anticipated 1944 meeting of the lovely Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who escapes Nazi-occupied Paris and flees with her father to the citadel of Saint-Malo to live with her reclusive great-uncle — and the German orphan Werner, who finds himself as a young boy genius among the Hitler Youth with a mission to hunt down the resistance.

Though it’s set nearly seven decades ago, Doerr puts technology and its role in a changing society, largely how the government controls and uses it, front and center. A quiet reminder of our own realities.

The German army used radio, the primary connection one had to the outside world at the time.

During the war, the Germans banned them all. Werner, who grew up in an orphanage enchanted by the technology and had a knack for building and fixing the instruments, was quickly recruited to use his expertise to track down all who continued to illegally broadcast information to aid the resistance. Like Etienne, Marie-Laure’s uncle.

Many times while reading this fast-paced, haunting novel, I furrowed my heavy brows as if to display the perfect caricature of anguish. The pain is felt, and Doerr makes sure of it.

“The brain is locked in total darkness of course, children, says the voice. It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

Through Werner and his sister, Jutta, for example. Jutta, who embodies all that is right and good in the world, internally clashes with her brother’s role in Nazi Germany. She becomes “the moral constant against which Werner measures his own sins,” as Lit Charts points out. And while the pair remains close throughout the novel, their relationship waxes and wanes. What stung me most: The censored correspondence between the two, the delayed letters, the unsaid. To ache and hide your ache from the one person in the world you love most.

“Is it right,” Jutta says, “to do something only because everyone else is doing it?”

Another example: Marie-Laure’s relationship with her locksmith father, Daniel LeBlanc. The love is almost painstakingly beautiful. When she becomes blind, he creates scale models of the city for her to use in navigation, a symbol of their intimate connection. But Daniel’s presence is temporary. And his absence quickly strips away a part of Marie-Laure’s softness.

“You know the greatest lesson of history? It’s that history is whatever the victors say it is. That’s the lesson. Whoever wins, that’s who decides the history. We act in our own self-interest. Of course we do. Name me a person or a nation who does not. The trick is figuring out where your interests are.” 

My complaints:

While I connected with Doerr and his striking prose, I felt detached from or dissatisfied with Werner’s character. William T. Vollmann, who reviewed the book for the New York Times in 2014, said it well:

“Marie-Laure’s participation in the Resistance develops naturally out of who she is,” he wrote. “Werner’s life lacks context, at least during the important period when he has departed Schulpforta for the Eastern Front. As a child he was as appealingly drawn as Marie-Laure. But he now becomes somehow less knowable to us, less real.” I also struggle with Werner’s conscience compartmentalizing, despite his shadowing moral compass in Jutta. Perhaps it’s a testament to the power of Nazi propaganda.

I, like many, also wanted so much more for and from Jutta.

And then there’s the cursed Sea of Flames, at times a little too gimmicky for my taste. But at times the perfect symbol of tragedy, hope, and of what the war did to dreamers.

3.9/5 stars.

About the title:

"The title is a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant),” Doerr says. “It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility."

Other reviews:

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Review: 'The Overstory' by Richard Powers

Credit: WBUR

Credit: WBUR

"The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story."

I was only ten pages in when I began fantasizing about the kinds of words I'd choose to illustrate the lingering pangs of Powers' hypnotizing prose. 

Dreading its end, I found myself constricting my own reading time to 20 or so pages in one sitting.

"This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end."

"It's a book about trees, but like, a lot more than that," I'd tell friends, shaming myself as the words slipped off my tongue. I know, I know. What's more than trees?

I'm no climate crusader, and that's an understatement. In fact, when we first moved from the concrete jungle of New York City to Georgia, I relentlessly complained about the majestic, towering oaks overwhelming the state, the only grievance I could muster up after leaving behind the multicultural home I'd grown to love for the South and its cunningly charming facade, as it's often viewed from up above.

And I didn't grow up in a home of sustainability ethics, either. One part of me still believes it's a luxury to be able to prioritize the Earth before your own kin, your own now. Today, I'm at war with myself, aghast by an ignorance I was too ignorant to embrace.

"People see better what looks like them,” Patricia Westerford, one of nine characters at the center of this epic, says. True. So, she shows us trees as human as ever. She tells us how trees, too, talk to each other. They trade, they have sex, experience pain, remember. They're highly aware, intelligent. Like the apex species humans believe they are, but aren't.

The nine cast members — not to be mistaken with the true heroes of the novel: trees — are each introduced with equally compelling storylines:  A Vietnam War Air Force vet turned eco-activist after a banyan tree saves his life; an impulsive college student who electrocutes herself and comes back to life with a renewed vision; an Indian immigrant scientist confined to his wheelchair inspired by the death of one world to become the master of another digital sphere; an Irish-Norwegian artist from a long line of farmers who inherits spellbinding photographic portraits of a beloved chestnut tree and a Chinese engineer, daughter of immigrants, who falls in love with her father's Mulberry bush, loses it to homicide and, then, loses her father to suicide. Then there's the couple who seemed lost, stuck and hopeless until they found their forest, and the forest found them. A psychologist who studies how humans only understand things that speak to them. And lastly, the tree-lover academic from birth, who tries, fails and tries again to convince us all to open our ears to the green gods around us, aching the way a grandmother yearns for her distant grandchild: "Listen. There's something you need to hear."

“Buddha’s words: A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.”

Five stars.

Take a look around, when you get a minute to spare. Inhale the exhales of Georgia's buckeyes, magnolias, its presidential oaks and, my personal favorite, the underrated, dependable trident maple that's withstood more pain than most.

Other reviews:
They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
-
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Review: 'The Hate U Give' by Angie Thomas

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“Pac said Thug Life stood for The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. T-H-U-G-L-I-F-E. Meaning what society gives us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out. Get it?” - Angie Thomas, "The Hate U Give"

It was, unfortunately, relevance and timeliness that led me to this young adult novel by Angie Thomas, which tells the story of a 16-year-old girl grappling with police violence against black Americans.

I hadn't read a YA novel in years, and I'll admit, adjusting to the literary style was more challenging than I'd expected. But keeping the intended audience in mind (teens), I feel this is a masterpiece of a cultural novel, packed with raw realities, gut-punching one-liners, an overwhelming sense of grief and hopelessness — and glimmers of faith, silver linings you really, really have to want to see.

Like Chris. The perfect white ally. Or Maverick, who realizes his innate desire to protect his community may be putting his own children at risk. Or Maya, who could easily empathize with the experiences of a fellow person of color without living through them. Another silver lining: Young readers of this novel who may have never felt they could relate, will undoubtedly be pulled in through Starr's magnetic first-person perspective. It's impossible not to feel her ache, her strength, her anger and be completely inspired by her ability to continue to smile at the little things. The fight continues, and so must life.

Perhaps the most jarring element of this novel is its blatant reflection of reality. "I can't breathe." The ode to the too many young black men and women whose lives we only recently lost, names we used to shout in the streets, names that have now turned into whisper-chants. Names we can't afford to mute.

Four stars.

Other reviews:
- They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Review: 'They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us' by Hanif Abdurraqib

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I picked up this book on recommendation from a friend whose craft I've admired for years, and for years before that, whose perception I'd respected from a digital distance.

It spans nearly 300 pages of essays from poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib. The Village Voice's Greil Marcus says, "Not a day has sounded the same since I read him." And I must echo his sentiments, for Abdurraqib's perspective, at times both nuanced and familiar, adds electricity to ink. Power to prose. The sting lingers long after his final word.

I think of Carly Rae Jepson and want to fall in love, yet I can't name you any of her songs. I spin my only Nina Simone record and ache for American blackness. I pridefully smirk at the sound of Fleetwood Mac and the currency of heartbreak. I play "Hurt Me Soul" by Lupe Fiasco and breathe a burden of religion without feeling rightfully religious. I revel in the dominance of Serena Williams, "the woman who buried a sister with the same hands she uses to bury opponents." I commiserate with Pete Wentz and Patrick Stump and scream #FallOutBoyForever as I battle my own war with depression, examining myself from the inside, from the outside and from the inside again. I know what it means when "a place to belong" only fits on a sliding scale and how ingenuine public mourning can feel. I see that some are taught to run toward guns for survival, yet you and I have been taught to run from them. I think of the Paris attacks and feel a dagger through my chest, and trace over that permanent stamp on my forehead. My activism, too, is at its best when it takes time to laugh over FaceTime with a beloved friend the morning after a massacre, "because it allows me, even briefly, to imagine a world where that happiness can still freely and comfortably exist."

Some of the pages where Abdurraqib's "Fear in Two Winters" and "On Paris" are printed are now slightly crisped with teardrops. I had been waiting some hundred pages for the mention of Islam.

"There are few things like being feared simply due to having a body. There is no way to easily come to terms with this."

Excerpts from "Fear in Two Winters," "On Paris" and "They Will Speak Loudest of You After You've Gone":

"The distance between curiosity and fear is tragically short. They are, like sleep and death, within the same family, a quick nudge pushing one directly into the other. Because it has been so long, what people maybe don't remember about Muslims before September 11 is that there was always curiosity that felt like it could take a sharp turn into fear at any time."

"By the time I got to college, I had largely stopped practicing Islam...I was making the curious parts of myself invisible in the hopes that curiosity never turned to fear. When I look back now, I find it amazing that I didn't imagine the path that the September 11 attacks would set us down, and how that path would open up the door to global violences against Muslims. The greatest emotional impact on Americans toward American Muslims is that it took curiosity out of the timeline. There was now only fear, turning rapidly to anger."

"The U.S. ignored the Geneva Convention, raping, sodomizing, and torturing prisoners of war at their black site bases around the world. The military bombed wedding parties consisting mostly of women and children in Iraq at Mukaradeeb, and in Afghanistan at Wech Baghtu and Deh Bala. Here, we are saying that we will tear your country apart, we will give birth to the terror within, and then we will leave you to drown in it."

"I glimpsed, for a small moment, what it might be like to consider someone I didn't know as less valuable living. And the impossible weight of it all."

Four stars.

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza