Saturday, January 30, 2016

Book Reviews: Birth of a Nation, The Sillymarillion, The Ceremonies

Birth of a Nation
by Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin
This is an older satirical graphic novel that asks what if questions about the 2000 election. My cousin let me borrow it. I am grateful to her. As you may remember there were irregularities in that election which even before the Supreme Court decision came down, helped to make the election much closer than it otherwise would have been. A number of people who should have been able to vote were prevented from voting. Certain companies tasked with providing voting machines or records of votes turned out to have partisan connections to Republicans. US and world history would have been very different if George Bush had not been selected President in 2000. McGruder and Hudlin imagine a world in which the response to that election was very different indeed. Make no mistake though, although the election is the catalyst to the events in this book, McGruder and Hudlin turn their gleeful and irreverent viewpoints on a wide variety of topics including but not limited to black (dis)unity and identity, hip-hop, international capitalism, climate change, religion, race, racism, gender, the military and politics. The book is helped immensely by the fact that Hudlin grew up in East St. Louis, the setting for most of the story. As Hudlin explains in the introduction, some events depicted (city residents putting their garbage on roofs to prevent dogs and wildlife from getting at it during a sanitation strike) really did take place. The title obviously refers back to the racist D.W. Griffith film of the same name. Given the book's events it's another play on words/inside joke. The deeper question which this book examines in both a very humorous and not so humorous way is what does it mean to be a black citizen of the United States of America. What does integration mean and is it something that is truly desirable or even possible? Is it better to strive for inclusion or are Blacks better off building their own institutions--including nations. McGruder and Hudlin don't have the answers. I don't think anyone really does. Those are questions which have been asked in different manners for generations. But don't be afraid to read this book. It's hardly sober and didactic. Much the opposite. You will be laughing out loud more than you might think.

Fred Fredericks is the young dashing Mayor of East St. Louis. Despite living in what even residents describe as a segregated dump, Mayor Fredericks is an inveterate optimist. He's a can do type of guy who is full of energy. Mayor Fredericks is the sort of man who says "If it is to be it's up to me" ten times before he brushes his teeth. He picks up constituents' garbage in his own vehicle to take it to the waste dump. The mayor and the citizens of East St. Louis head to the polls to vote for the (presumably Democratic) vice-President only to find that they've all been mysteriously purged from the voting rolls. When they refuse to leave state police attack. By the time they're released from jail the election is over. Their guy lost. Their missing votes would have made the difference. The new President is a Texan of incurious nature with a talent for mangled syntax. Still believing in America, the telegenic Mayor files suit which ultimately reaches the Supreme Court. And he loses. It looks like things are over until Fredericks, who is nothing if not an idealist, decides that if the United States will not recognize the people of East St. Louis as citizens of equal standing, then East St. Louis will secede from the United States. The (Bush) Administration doesn't really take this seriously at first. The Administration, with the notable exception of a choleric Cheney caricature, decides that to respond immediately with violence would be a serious pr mistake. They decide instead to just pull all federal/state funding and services. The Administration looks forward to enjoying the spectacle of the new nation of "Blackland" coming crawling back to beg for readmission to the United States. This doesn't happen both because of Fredericks' stubbornness and the financial assistance of Fredericks'  occasionally reliable friend, the black billionaire John Roberts. Roberts has plans to make East St. Louis a hub of international banking. Of course Roberts is less motivated by outrage over the stolen election and more by the opportunity to make more money. He's not sharing all his plans with Fredericks or anyone. As the novel progresses the Administration starts to realize that it might have to take more drastic steps..

Did I mention this book was hilarious?  Hudlin and McGruder send up everyone and everything. The new nation has a picture of a white Jesus on its flag because older black churchgoers are the only people who bother to attend committee meetings on flag designs. The national anthem is sung to the Good Times theme. The local gangsters, led by a shady fellow named Roscoe, look for ways to enrich themselves. A group of young would be Afrocentric revolutionaries plot for ways to help save the new nation, that is when they aren't eating cookies supplied by their host's supportive white mother. Paranoid hackers, CIA spooks and loons of all kinds make their way to Blackland. Fredericks will have his hands full trying to maintain independence and his optimistic nature. The book slows down a little in the end as things really become serious. I think Hudlin and McGruder might have started to run out of ideas but this story is sanguine to the end.

The Sillymarillion
by D.R. Lloyd
As you might suss out from the title this book is a parody (a short one) of J.R.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, reviewed here. Whereas The Silmarillion is majestic and full of pain, joy, epic love and hate, The Sillymarillion is all about pure fun and mockery. It is VERY funny. Literally every single page is full of all sorts of jokes, puns, tricks, satire and wordplay. It is not necessary to have read the The Silmarillion to enjoy this parody. It helps but so much of the humor is so broad and over the top that even people who wouldn't read Tolkien on a dare will be able to enjoy this book. Reading this is like reading a combination of the works of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Mark Twain and Piers Anthony. Silliness abides. Tolkien's The Sillmarillion clocks in at just under 400 pages. Tolkien's work is light on dialogue and is ponderous reading if you're not in the mood for that sort of thing. This parody is about 160 pages. It is written in a much more inviting style with plenty of dialogue. Like most over the top parodies this will not appeal to people whose sense of humor is only vestigial or who feel that making fun of the source material is blasphemy worthy of death. An example of the prose found within is "Finger would have perished then had not his sons arrived with great numbers to chase off the enemy and rescue their father. As they bore him back to the camp at Minimum he bade them stop for a while to light a small campfire and rest by it, for his wounds grieved him. And his sons asked him if his insurance policy was paid up, and he said "Of course it is! Why do you ask?" When Finger's sons returned alone to the camp at Minimum, no one questioned the story that their father had succumbed to his wounds and that the evide--er ahem--his body had spontaneously combusted upon his death." 

If you like this sort of humor then you will enjoy this book. Elven kings insult dwarvish smiths before belatedly realizing that they forgot to bring along their bodyguards. When he's unable to convince his fellow elves to go after the big bad Mostgoth because of the theft of the Siliputi, Finger tells everyone that his enemy has weapons of mass destruction. That does the trick. Squabbling TV reporters inadvertently reveal the plans and positions of the elvish and human armies to the enemy. One elvish stronghold survives only because the orc Irk troops are overtaken by laughter watching the one handed elvish warlord trying to shoot a bow. And so on.

The Ceremonies
by T.E.D. Klein
Recently George R.R. Martin both caused some consternation and received some support when he announced that he would not have the next book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series finished before the sixth season of HBO's Game of Thrones commences in April. Martin won't say and claims he actually can't say when the next book will be done. He said he's never responded well to deadlines. Every writer is reacting to different stimuli in his or her life. Some writers (Stephen King) are able to produce high quality prose at a regular rate over long periods of time. Others like Martin, take their own sweet time getting things done. One writer who makes Martin look prolific and speedy is T.E.D. Klein, who if memory serves correctly, has written about two novels and a handful of short stories in a career spanning about forty years or so. Well ultimately I guess it doesn't matter though. I think quality is more important than quantity. And The Ceremonies, written way back in 1984 and built off an extension of the Klein short story "The Events at Poroth Farm", is a quality horror story. I read The Ceremonies much earlier and only recently read "The Events at Poroth Farm". That short story was in a collection of Lovecraft inspired short stories. I was then inspired to go back and reread The Ceremonies. Whereas a lot of modern horror is only an excuse for the author to immediately go for the grossout either in terms of violence or outre sexual desires, The Ceremonies is a slow burn of a Gothic novel which is hugely influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen (who himself influenced H.P Lovecraft), Bram Stoker and Clark Ashton Smith among others. This book is probably a little too languid at times but as I mentioned, Klein is not a man who likes to rush anything. The 500 page book is padded out significantly from the short story. The horror is very subtle throughout most of the book. Unfortunately I think the book suffered a bit by giving us the point of view of the bad guy but no one is perfect. Judging by the available scientific evidence it appears that modern humans emerged somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. But our planet is believed to be 4.5 billion years old. Civilizations thrive and die. Our institutional memory doesn't really last that long. Recorded history only goes back 5-6000 years or so. So there's a lot that happened in the past that today's humans just don't know about. What if thousands of years ago a meteor bearing some sort of alien life form inimical to humanity struck the place we call Delaware. This thing is dying. But it holds on to a half-life waiting for the right time and the right human it needs to complete the first part of its mission. When it finds this human, a European settler boy, it kills him, raises him from the dead, dies and is itself somehow partially resurrected within this no longer human child. This child, who will grow up to become known as The Old One (but you can call him Rosie), has plans for humanity. Not good plans.

Jeremy Freirs is a wimpy English lecturer who needs to get away from NYC for the summer and work on his thesis and his studies. He's going to be reading and reviewing a number of fantastic gothic tales. In a strange coincidence he finds that the Poroth couple, Deborah and Sarr, who work and live on a New Jersey farm, are looking for a summer lodger. The thing is though that the Poroths are highly religious people (members of the Brethren of the Redemeer-think Amish/Mennonites) who eschew electricity and telephones and glory in hard physical labor. It's not a given that the slightly pudgy Jeremy will be a good fit into the Poroth's home or the community of the Brethren. It doesn't help matters that the massively muscled Sarr is also a college graduate who is ALWAYS on the look out for any hint of condescension from Jeremy or that Jeremy finds himself attracted to Deborah. The first time Jeremy sees curvy Deborah he thinks about what she'd look like with her hair down and in the right clothes. Of course Sarr notices this and doesn't like it. Like any couple, Deborah and Sarr have their own marital issues, which become more apparent to Jeremy over time. Sarr is the more religiously devoted of the couple but Deborah wonders if Sarr is overcompensating because of his hidden doubts. With Deborah obviously unavailable Jeremy takes up with a young shy inexperienced grad student named Carol Conklin who is vacationing in the area. What almost no one realizes is that none of these meetings are coincidences. That is, almost no one except Sarr's mother, who is in the same line of descent as the being known as The Old One and has the sight. And she doesn't like what the omens are telling her about The Old One and his plans. This book very slowly builds a sense of dread and unease. You know that The Old One is up to something but you don't know what. Things gradually go wrong as the summer progresses. And you feel for all of the characters within. There are rituals which must be followed before The Old One's master plan can be completed. Ironically, most of these rituals are found within the books Jeremy is studying. I liked that not everything is explained in this book. It is interesting that humans have many of the same myths and ceremonies that crop up in different cultures and religions across time. You may look at those things a little differently after this book. I liked how the author captured both the beauty and the creepiness of the outdoors. And cats. Creepy cats.
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