Saturday, October 12, 2013

Book Reviews-Pym, The Beauty of Trees

by Mat Johnson
Just. Get. This. Book. Now. Seriously. Temporarily stop reading this review and carry yourself over to Amazon or Barnes and Noble or your local library and arrange to have this book sent to you, downloaded to your reading device, or ready for you to pick up somewhere. This is the best book I've read so far this year. It's also FUNNIER than hell.

Although some of the humor in the book may be most deeply appreciated by those who are Edgar Allan Poe experts or academics (tenured or not) or scientists, or people suffering from unrequited love or those rare birds who are all of those things I truly believe that you will find this book hilarious no matter your race, ethnicity, work experience, age, gender, sexuality, blah, blah. It's freaking funny and that's it. It's UNIVERSALLY applicable to the human condition. I am very very very happy that I crossed this book off my "to read" list. I am definitely going to find more work by Mat Johnson to enjoy. I may start with his graphic novel Incognegro which I'm pretty sure I have laying around the home somewhere.  It was a gift from my brother who is a comic book fanatic. It's amazing that entire worlds lay at your fingertips. All you have to do is reach over and pick them up. Pym is so complex and so simple at the same time that after you finish you ask yourself why didn't I think of that?

This book is both parody and satire that touches on slavery, racism, American race relations, inter and intra-racial personal interactions, academia, art, and most especially Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It had been decades since I had read this work of Poe's. I remembered nothing about it. And according to both Mat Johnson and his in-universe stand-in I didn't miss much. Poe's work was a hastily written and poorly designed pulp novel about a mysterious journey to Antarctica, a racial mutiny, encounters with savages/pseudo-humans so black their teeth were black and a final meeting with a larger than life mysterious white figure. Having reread it after reading Pym, I can say that Poe's work was internally inconsistent and somewhat racist (though that was of the times). It did however inspire similar works by Jules Verne, H.P. Lovecraft's At The Mountains of Madness and most fortuitously Pym. So that's a good thing.

Much like Erasure, this book very much brings to mind such writers as Vonnegut, Heller and Twain. I've rarely read satire done so well and created from such seemingly disparate elements.
So what's it about you ask? Well Chris Jaynes, professor of African American literature has just been denied tenure and thus been effectively fired from his campus teaching position. He was the only black male professor at the university. He thought that if he were denied tenure he would shoot up the place or suicide bomb the faculty cafeteria but instead he mostly got drunk and cried. His department committee recommended tenure but the University President overrode that decision. At semester's end Chris decides to confront the President and " him how we do where I'm from, go straight Philly on him, and I knew all about that business because although I had never actually punched someone in the face before, as a child myself I had been on the receiving end of that act several times and was a quick study".

The meeting with the President doesn't go as Chris would like. In fact it goes bad from the start. Both Chris and the President are embarrassed when Chris barges in and catches his boss, a proud Jewish man, listening to Wagner. Chris is angered more when the President explains to him that Chris was hired only to teach black literature and be on the diversity committee and NOT to examine general American literature or expound on whiteness motifs in Poe's work. The President doesn't think Chris is smart or experienced enough to branch out and even if he were, that's not what the President wants. Chris doesn't think that just being on a "cover your a$$" and ultimately powerless diversity committee makes any sense. Later, in the bar running across his triumphant and dismissive black replacement, an angry hip hop theorist, Chris catches a beatdown. Even though it was in rhythm though it should not be confused with the downbeat. That is, as Chris explains, a completely different type of beating.

Fortunately however Chris has some good luck when he discovers a narrative by Dirk Peters, the "half-breed" companion of Pym in Poe's novel. Now believing that Poe's novel might have been based on truth, Chris decides to put together an all black Antarctic expedition to see if there really is a black nation out there that escaped colonialism or if some albino giants really do exist. To join him on this quest he brings along:
  • Booker Jaynes: Chris' much older cousin, a hardcore black nationalist, civil rights activist and deep sea/salvage diver. Having lost faith in most black people post 1967 or so Booker is bossy, bitter and quite paranoid. He remains "blacker than thou". He has a dog named White Folks. 
  • Jeffree and Carlton Carter: Sewage department workers and engineers, conspiracy theorists, web hosters, photographers, adventurers. They are also gay. Very openly so.
  • Angela and Nathaniel Lathan: Angela is Chris' former girlfriend and has remained the great lost love of his life. Upon hearing that she had divorced, Chris invited her on the journey with the hopes of the obvious. Angela said yes but neglected to mention that she had remarried. This causes some mixed emotions on Chris' part, to say the least, particularly when Angela expresses hope that Chris and her husband Nathaniel will be friends. Nathaniel is an attorney and far more financially successful than Chris.
  • Garth Frierson: Chris' childhood friend and someone who helped him move. Garth is an overweight unemployed everyman bus driver from Detroit with a passion for Little Debbie snack cakes and the artwork of Thomas Karvel (an obvious parody of Thomas Kinkade). Garth is convinced that Karvel lives in Antarctica. Garth does not appreciate everyone pointing out that his devotion to Karvel's work is a bit strange considering that Karvel never puts any black people or signifier of "blackness" in his art. He also doesn't appreciate anyone trying to steal his sugary snacks, of which he has prudently brought hundreds.
These people all reach Antarctica and discover that indeed some of Poe's novel was true. They also get enslaved. How they deal with this misfortune is the source of (pardon the pun) some of the book's blackest humor. Did I mention this book was funny? Virtually everything is skewered by Johnson's wit, whether it's black people claiming they're Native American while trying to push their naps underneath a do rag, or a white person seeing Chris, who could pass for white under certain conditions, and immediately assuming that he is white and thus obviously in charge of the group. At one point a half starving delirious member of the party launches into a longwinded doctoral dissertation on the evils of racism and the cannibalistic greediness at the heart of Eurocentric culture. His companion, who's in a very bad mood and had been silently ignoring the speaker for the past three days, punctures this heartfelt soliloquy by snidely asking "Are you saying hip-hop is any better?" When the person must answer in the negative, his companion sagely nods and goes back to ignoring him.

This book can be understood and enjoyed on multiple levels, from the satirical metafiction that it is to a simple rollicking good time. What I am trying to say is again, just read this book. It's written in first person, which normally I'm not fond of but that narrative device is perfect for this story. It combines humor with some very serious, even painful investigations into reality. 

The Beauty of Trees
by Michael Jordan
No it's not by THAT Michael Jordan. Have you ever read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion and other books by J.R.R. Tolkien? One thing that shines through very brightly is that the author had a love for flora, especially trees. In Tolkien's creations, the best people take trees very seriously. It's the reflowering of a long dead tree that signals the return of the rightful king while the destruction of trees in the Shire herald the end of innocence and the arrival of evil, industrialization and some hard adult moral choices. Tolkien was a romantic at heart so it's no surprise that trees held such a special place in his heart. I think this book would likely be Tolkien approved. I grew up with elms and apple trees around my home. Unfortunately back in the day we lost our elm tree to Dutch elm disease, that cursed plague. Detroit has a lot more greenery than you would imagine while Michigan in particular is well known for apple and cherry trees. If I ever had real money not only would I have a gothic/baroque/art deco home made of stone I would also make sure to locate it next to and around a variety of different trees. This book lists 100 of the world's best known trees and depicts them in all their magnificent full color glory. It gives their various Latin names and descriptions of their histories, quirks, range in which they are found and the role they've played in the environment or human history. Some of these trees have immense cultural significance. Unfortunately cultural significance can by definition be quite specific as we see in Zimbabwe where there is a movement to eliminate "foreign" trees, that is trees brought from Europe. Many trees which we've come to think of as native to one land actually were brought over from other places long ago.

When you think about it it's amazing that you can have a living organism that can survive for hundreds or even thousands of years. It's even more amazing that trees provide much of the air we breathe, food and shelter for animals and other plants we need, and prevent soil erosion. Yet we often seem hellbent on destroying as many trees as we can. Trees represent a bridge between past and future as some grow so slowly that the planter may never see the full growth in his or her lifetime. They are something for the benefit of the next generation and all those thereafter.

It's fall now and Michigan is undergoing its normal beautiful transformation. After buying and reading this book I find myself more curious about the trees I see in my own backyard or in the remnants of forests that still abut my subdivision. I'm right on the border between city and country and this book makes me more interested in the country. To be honest I didn't find all of these trees beautiful. I thought the baobab was just ugly and the southern live oak, while gorgeous, brings up for me too many unpleasant antebellum associations. Still, each of these trees is special in their own way. If you are at all interested in the natural world, this coffee table book with glossy photographs is something you will want to have.


Red Flowering Gum


Southern Live Oak


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