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The Shadow Speaker

August 14, 2017

The Shadow Speaker, by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, is set in a 2070 version of Nigeria, after the Great Change” when “Peace Bombs” unleashed magic from other worlds on Earth. Among other effects, this created “metahumans” like Ejii Ugabe, who is a “shadow speaker,” one who can communicate in mysterious ways with people, animals, and plants.

I read this novel because of Jenny’s recommendation—she found it inventive, which it is, but I found the way the story is told to be clumsy and dependent on stereotypes, culminating in an ending that felt like a slap in the face.

The Shadow Speaker, Ejii, is fourteen, and her story begins with a long and detailed description of her life in a Nigerian village with her mother, her half-siblings, and her friends, fellow shadow speakers Sammy and Arif. After the first 85 pages, however, Ejii leaves the village and meets a new metahuman friend named Dikeogu. Their adventures are exciting, so we soon forget about the people in the village and enjoy seeing Ejii calm a sentient sandstorm and Dikeogu intrigue a powerful being who calls himself the “Desert Magician.”

They are on their way to a meeting called “The Golden Dawn” which is “a gathering of wise people from all five of the worlds.” Ejii compares it to the United Nations, so young readers will know what kind of organization it is. Ejii and Dikeogu are supposed to be attending as observers, but Ejii knows that she is there to prevent a war, because the “shadows” have told her so.

In the process of learning to use her powers, Ejii dies and brings herself back to life. (This should have been my first warning against continuing to read this novel, but I didn’t heed it.) When her traveling companion tells her “you died, Ejii….You’ve been gone for a half hour” she says
“I know. She knew so much now. She had passed the shadow speaker’s greatest test, she now understood. Did all shadow speakers have to die when they embarked on their travels?”
This question is never answered.

Ejii and Dikeogu cross over from Earth into Ginen, another world where everything is made of living plants. The descriptions of the plants and their uses are wonderful, although there is one unnecessary detour, a long, overnight journey to see a field of plants that start to “glow a hot-red orange” every twenty-five years and the “singing wasps” that hatch out of them and then return as food for the bushes.

We are told that the history of conflict between Earth and Ginen dates back to the intrusion of Earth trucks into Ginen: “the vehicles spewed smoke and fumes, poison to this land.” Again, in order to make sure that a young reader will know how to react, we’re told that “Ejii was reminded of something she’d read about the Native Americans in the United States. How they had no tolerance for alcohol, so when the Europeans brought it to them, it wreaked terrible havoc on their bodies.”

At the end, Ejii’s purpose in coming to Ginen is revealed when she saves the life of an evil chief, a person who “was the kind of fat that only came from eating more than a camel ate in a day. Ejii’s mother would have been disgusted. His body broadcasted excess and greed.” Even though Ejii “reads” him without his permission, finding out the reason why he ate so much and got fat, she has no sympathy for him: “though Ette’s childhood was sad and he was full of resentment and insecurity, she still despised him. He was the type of man who had to bring others down to lift himself up, and he was a lot to lift.”

So although it was interesting to see a version of the future from a Nigerian point of view with some inventive world-building details, the clumsy handling of comparisons to how things work on the Earth we know and the stereotyping of the villain at the end turned me off. And to top it all off, there’s the casual necromancy which is unnecessary and unexplained, just another awkwardness in the story-telling.



August 12, 2017

My friend Claudia sent me Roxane Gay’s new memoir, Hunger, because she knew I’d like the subject matter, especially since Gay is also a very tall woman. And I did. Pretty much the only thing I didn’t like about the book is that she assigns the blame for her hunger on an assault that happened when she was twelve. I would have liked to see more of her thinking about the kind of hunger for which it’s harder to pinpoint a single cause. But it’s her memoir.

55185244Of course she describes hunger well:
“I reveled in the steam of biting into a salty French fry and the slick hot ooze of melted cheese on a hot slice of pizza and the thick cold sweetness of a frappe.”
Is there anyone who can read a description like that and not get hungry?

Gay also talks about writing, and how she learned to write. Like most writers, she had a particular teacher who gave her the same compliment/advice we all got and now give:
“He told me I was a writer and he told me to write every day. I realize, now, that being told to write every day is writing advice many teachers give.”

Her observations, it seems to me, are spot-on:
“Rare does a day go by, particularly in the United States, without some new article discussing the obesity epidemic, the crisis. These articles are often harsh, alarmist, and filled with false concern for people afflicted by this epidemic and a profoundly genuine concern for life as we know it. Oh, the burdens on the health-care system, these articles lament. Obesity, these articles ultimately say, is killing us all and costing us an unacceptable fortune.
There is, certainly, a very small grain of truth in these articles, in this frenzied panic. And also, there is fear, because no one wants to be infected by obesity, largely because people know how they see and treat and think about fat people and don’t want such a fate to befall them.”

Like all fat women, she has periodically lost some of the weight, and I found her observations about what that feels like to be familiar and well-expressed:
“I taste the idea of having more choices when I go clothes shopping. I taste the idea of fitting into seats at restaurants, movie theaters, waiting rooms. I taste the idea of walking into a crowded room or through a mall without being stared at and pointed at and talked about. I taste the idea of grocery shopping without strangers taking food they disapprove of out of my cart or offering me unsolicited nutrition advice….Inevitably I stumble and then I fall, and then I lose the taste of…hope….I am left feeling ravenously hungry and then I try to satisfy that hunger so I might undo all the progress I’ve made. And then I hunger even more.”

In this memoir, Gay puts into words experiences that I’ve never seen anyone else brave enough to discuss before, like how children gape at fat people:
“I am terrified of other people. I am terrified of the way they are likely to look at me, stare, talk about me or say cruel things to me. I am terrified of children, their guilelessness and brutal honesty and willingness to gawk at me, to talk loudly about me, to ask their parents or, sometimes, even me, ‘Why are you so big?’”
This kind of thing happens to fat women. The last time it happened to me was when I was across the street, spending an hour with two little boys who had just become siblings to twins because their mother needed some help, alone with the four of them. One of the little boys, careful to wait until his mother was out of the room, asked me why I was so big. It was not the first time I’d had to try to explain my body to a child and probably won’t be the last.

Some of the things Gay says make me want to be more like her. For instance, I’ve never been so detached in this kind of situation:
“Shame is a difficult thing. People certainly try to shame me for being fat. When I am walking down the street, men lean out of their car windows and shout vulgar things at me about my body, how they see it, and how it upsets them that I am not catering to their gaze and their preferences and desires. I try not to take these men seriously because what they are really saying is ‘I am not attracted to you. I do not want to fuck you, and this confuses my understanding of my masculinity, entitlement, and place in this world.’ It is not my job to please them with my body.”

The part of this book that I like the best is the part about what it’s like for large women to try to go out into the world: “there are very few spaces where bodies like mine fit….Anytime I enter a room where I might be expected to sit, I am overcome by anxiety. What kind of chairs will I find? Will they have arms? Will they be sturdy? How long will I have to sit in them? If I do manage to wedge myself between a chair’s narrow arms, will I be able to pull myself out? If the chair is too low, will I be able to stand up on my own?”
I’m wondering this right now about the chairs in the classroom where I am scheduled to begin teaching on August 24.

One of the things I have discovered about theaters is that there are often row-by-row differences in how wide the seats are. I would buy more theater tickets–in places like New York, London, Stratford, and Niagara-on-the-lake–if the seating chart or a person in the box office would simply tell me which are the slightly wider seats. Once, when we had tickets for a play in a historic London theater with very narrow seats (the Aldwych), the person who was helping me get my mother in and out of the theater in a wheelchair let us sit in an unused box with two chairs in it, so we didn’t have to squeeze ourselves in and out of the aisles and the armrests.

Going out into the world is even more fraught when it’s a visit to the doctor, and Gay describes this well:
“Because doctors know the challenges the obese body can contend with, they are surprised to learn I am not diabetic. They are surprised to learn I am not on a hundred medications….As a result, I don’t go to the doctor unless it’s absolutely necessary….Doctors are supposed to first do no harm, but when it comes to fat bodies, most doctors seem fundamentally incapable of heeding their oath.”
Just a couple of weeks ago when I was in the hospital after my knee replacement, a doctor I’d never met before came in and asked me how long it had been since I’d tried to lose weight. As I stared at him, trying to figure out who he was and why he would come in to ask me such a question, he retreated, backing out of the door. I guess it had seemed to him like a good opportunity for fat-lady-baiting but since I wasn’t easy prey, he went to find someone else.

I appreciate the wry tone in which Gay says that sometimes people don’t notice her “because they don’t expect the writer who will be speaking at their event to look like me. They don’t know how to hide their shock when they realize that a reasonably successful writer is this overweight. These reactions hurt, for so many reasons. They illustrate how little people think of fat people, how they assume we are neither smart nor capable if we have such unruly bodies.”
Clearly she is smart, capable, and brave.

Thanks to Roxane Gay for writing such a book, and to Claudia for sending it to me.

Shoebox Funeral

August 11, 2017

Recently I got an email from Animal Media Group, the publishers of a book entitled Shoebox Funeral: Stories from Wolf Creek, by Elisabeth Voltz. They offered to send me a copy and I agreed, since I am interested in all kinds of stories about animals. When the book arrived I was charmed, as it’s a lovely little volume, hardback, with color illustrations at the beginning of each chapter and an attached ribbon bookmark.

The writing did not charm me as much, however. There’s a lot of telling without showing:
“Despite my fears, I found the farm magical, a sanctuary, a place no one else could fully comprehend and that outsiders rarely entered. Butterflies surrounded us, drunk off my mother’s acres of beautiful flowers. Every night lightning bugs floated gracefully through the fields like fairies. Matching black-and-white-spotted bunnies and mice littered the landscape, as though the line between domesticated pets and woodland creatures had blurred. Cities of birds communed at the feeders, their songs thankful and like music.”
We’re told that the flowers were “beautiful” but not what kind of flowers they might have been or what color(s) they were. We don’t know how graceful this author believes fairies to be. We have no idea what sounds “thankful” to the author. In order to make the reader feel the “magic” she wants to convey, the author needs to describe the elements that give her that feeling of magic rather than just mentioning them or summing them up.

I think there are people for whom this kind of general description could work—an older person, perhaps, whose memories of childhood farming days could be sparked by Voltz’s reminiscences. Like this memory, slightly more specific in its detail: “I knew it was a good day when I was really dirty. Dust from the hayloft, clay and mud from the creek, soil from the gardens. Grease from bikes and machinery. Green-stained feet from the grass, and rough hands from the dirt, and of course sweat from hard work and play.”

Young Elisabeth cared for many cats and kittens during her time at Wolf Creek because people would abandon them nearby. She says that “many of the drop-offs that reported to our front door were left there because they had health problems. Blind, deaf, diseased, pregnant—all won a ticket to the farm.” I wish that wasn’t still true, but it does continue to happen in the more rural areas around here.

At the end of the book, there are color photos of the farm, the author’s family, and a few of the many animals she cared for and describes. It really is a beautifully presented little volume.

Do you know someone who would enjoy taking a trip down memory lane by reading about how animals were cared for on a farm in the olden days? If so, I’d love to send you this book. Let me know you’d like to have it in the comments (if more than one person would like it, I’ll do a random drawing by comment number).


What She Ate

August 9, 2017

I won a copy of What She Ate, by Laura Shapiro, from Jasmine at How Useful It Is, and really enjoyed it. It arrived at my house just about the time my appetite was coming back after surgery, so I’d read a chapter and then be ready for one of the delicious meals that Ron, Eleanor, and my friend Brian were cooking. The most memorable were Brian’s pasta salad with the olive oil we brought back from Spain, Eleanor’s chicken with turmeric rice, and Ron’s pico de gallo, made with tomatoes and peppers from the farmer’s market.

What She Ate focuses on what we know about the eating habits of six women—Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym, and Helen Gurley Brown. Like me, you may not have heard of Rosa Lewis before, but she is important in the context of this look at feminism and food. Shapiro uses first-hand accounts of what these women cooked, ate, and enjoyed to show the kind of role food played in their lives, whether acknowledged or unconscious.

Dorothy Wordsworth, the subject of the first chapter, wrote about the details of her life with William in Dove Cottage in the Grasmere Journal. Shapiro points out that
“cooking…was wifely. Far more than a chore, in Dorothy’s world it was an aspect of identity. Even if a married woman didn’t do the cooking herself, she was judged on her ability to manage the food of the household. Dorothy was no amateur: she had kneaded and chopped and stirred in many kitchens before she began preparing meals in Dove Cottage. But only now did she seem intent on keeping a written record of how she fed William and their guests, as if to shore up her right to a role she wouldn’t dream of claiming openly.”
Less well-known is that towards the end of her life, Dorothy
“entered a realm of greed without guilt, insisting on more heat than anyone else could bear, more attention than her weary caregivers could muster, more gestures of love than she had ever received before. And, incessantly, more food. In all the any pages of her diaries and letters over the years, she rarely mentioned an instance of feeling hungry. Now she was never satisfied.”

The chapter on Rose Lewis shows that she turned her talent for cooking into a way to climb the social ladder, during a time when “only the cognoscenti could hope to make their way through a fashionable meal flawlessly. When Rose chose high-class cookery as her future, she was gaining access not only to a cuisine, but to all the social behaviors associated with it. She was learning the secret handshake.”

Shapiro delineates how Eleanor Roosevelt’s and Eva Braun’s lack of interest in food demonstrated their lack of control over aspects of their lives.

The chapter on Barbara Pym is less about her own relationship with food than about how she characterized others by how they confronted a meal. Her “favorite place to watch human behavior was a restaurant” and “it’s no wonder that Excellent Women, her best-loved novel and the one fans and critics inevitably conjure when they’re trying to describe the world of Barbara Pym, took shape in her mind around images of food.”

The final chapter, on Helen Gurley Brown, a famous dieter, shows the extreme relationship she had with food. “A reporter who treated her to a champagne cocktail one afternoon described what it was like for Helen to confront an article of food that threatened to make her fat. ‘She carefully fished out the calorie-laden brandy-soaked sugar lump, took a couple of polite sips, praised it extravagantly as the most delicious thing she’d ever had, and went back to Perrier water.’”

There’s a brief afterword, in which Shapiro discusses her own relationship with food. The book is well-researched, readable, and makes some good points about how revealing it is to examine what a woman says about what she eats, what nourishes her, and what she will let herself be seen or described eating.

What will you let yourself been seen eating? I often make chili and cornbread for guests, sometimes accompanied by raw vegetables and dip and followed by chocolate brownies. Do you have a favorite “company” meal?


August 7, 2017

Marilynne Robinson’s novels seem to be the sort that a person has to be in just the right mood to read and enjoy. I never found that mood with Gilead (I think the religious trappings put me off), but I did find it with Lila. So when Care said she’d really enjoyed Home and I found an audiobook of it at the library, I checked it out.

This was last spring. I was driving around listening to this story about adult children who had returned to live with their father in their childhood home, and was by turns horrified by how old and frail the father seemed to those children and swept with waves of longing for my own adult children to come home. Which they did, coming in after Walker’s college graduation, Walker for only a couple of weeks, with his girlfriend, and Eleanor for a couple of months, working part-time at the local college, getting a respite from her cockroach-infested rental house, and staying to help me through the worst parts of my knee replacement before she returned last week to move into a new apartment.

Today marks four weeks that I’ve been confined to home. Right now some of my most sentimental attachments have dimmed, in light of the fact that I’m really tired of seeing these same four walls.

In honor of getting to leave home tomorrow (for a 35th-wedding-anniversary lunch and a follow-up appointment with my orthopedist), I was leafing through a copy of Home to remember how well Robinson captures the feelings of parents and children, like the part where the father exclaims “’such times you had!’…as if the present slight desolation were confetti and candy wrappers left after the passing of some glorious parade.” I feel that way often, especially in the garage, noticing the birthday party decoration I used to bring out each August or the pogo stick still standing in one corner.

Walker says he is coming back to stay with us for a couple of weeks at the beginning of September, and I am looking forward to it as much as the father in Home looked forward to his son Jack’s visit, stocking the pantry with “everything he thought he remembered Jack’s having a liking for.”

We are all aware of the mixed feelings that an adult child has when he returns home, however. When Glory, the adult daughter, is thinking about her return home she wonders “did she choose to be there, in that house, in Gilead? No, she certainly did not. Her father needed looking after, and she had to be somewhere, like every other human being on earth. What an embarrassment that was, being somewhere because there was nowhere else for you to be. All those years of work and nothing to show for it.” That seems a very American attitude to me, to be embarrassed because you don’t have a clear answer to the question “what do you DO?” (for a living).

The plot of Home, centering on the return of Jack, the prodigal son, is set in the past (early 1960’s), and so extremely predictable. I guessed the reason for Jack’s unhappy love affair with the first or second letter he got, as I imagine most readers will.

The feelings about home and family, however, are so nicely delineated that the plot doesn’t matter all that much. I particularly identify with what the father says after he’s spoken a truth out loud in front of his adult children: “I wish I could take it all back, everything I’ve just said. But I supposed you did know it already. Still, it’s different when you say things like that out loud. It already seems like I didn’t mean it. Now I know I’m going to just lie on my bed and worry about it, and wish I’d held my peace. I did that for so long.”

And I will always hope to do what Glory does when my adult children come home:
“How to announce the return of comfort and well-being except by cooking something fragrant. That is what her mother always did. After every calamity of any significance she would fill the atmosphere of the house with the smell of cinnamon rolls or brownies, or with chicken and dumplings, and it would mean, This house has a soul that loves us all, no matter what. It would mean peace if they had fought and amnesty if they had been in trouble. It had meant, You can come down to dinner now, and no one will say a thing to bother you.”
Eleanor stayed to cook for me, but Walker has the faith and, perhaps, detachment to not worry about how I’ve been getting along, planning to return only when I’m able to get around in the kitchen again.

At the end of these weeks of being home-bound, when I’m depending on Ron and other friends to keep me from climbing the walls and drive me back and forth to physical therapy appointments, I feel the hard truth of the kind of joke the father shares with his oldest friend:
“The joke seemed to be that once they were very young and now they were very old, and that they had been the same day after day and were somehow at the end of it all so utterly changed.”
Maybe one of the secrets of living at home in a way that makes adult children want to return is to keep sharing the things that are the same day after day, even while everything else keeps changing—horizons, girlfriends, knees, furniture, pets, trees…

The Changeling

August 5, 2017

Victor Lavalle’s new novel The Changeling is another of the books I was sent to help me while away my convalescence, and it began by adding a dark flavor to my narcotic-painkiller-laced dreams.

For the first hundred pages or so, this is a gritty, realistic novel about people who live in New York City (yawn, I get tired of books about NYC). We get perspectives from the main character, a seemingly ordinary guy named Apollo, about parenthood, PTSD, and pals: “People tell little lies to get by. That goes for marriage and friendships, too. But now Apollo couldn’t brush off these untruths as benign. If our relationships are made of many small lies, they become something larger, a prison of falsehoods.” But then the story begins to take some turns towards the weird.

Apollo sets out on a quest to find out what has happened to his wife and child and he ends up visiting an enclave of women and children on an island very near NYC where they talk about how the story of Rapunzel raises the question of how we can protect our children:
“The enchantress hides the girl away in a tower. She won’t let the child do anything in the world without her. She’s a helicopter parent….But the prince still finds a way inside, doesn’t he? No matter what we do, the world finds its way in. So then how do we protect our children? Hundreds of years ago German peasants were asking one another this question. But rather than frame it as a question they turned it into a story that embodied the concern. How do we protect our children? It’s 2015, and we’re still trying to find an answer.”

Later, faced with the task of digging up his dead baby’s grave, Apollo thinks about stories again:
“In those old stories…the heroes did what they did but you never knew why. In the stories, at least, they had no interior life. Their job was simply to act. Gods and gorgons allied against them, and still they bore the spear and shield. Still they walked into the deep, dark forests. But did those heroes ever feel like Apollo did now? The real people, not the characters they became. They were human beings too, after all. They must’ve shivered in the shadow of the world’s great horrors. They must have wondered how they would ever see the quest through. And somehow they persevered. Maybe that was the point of telling these stories again and again, one generation to the next.
If they could be brave, then we might be, too.”

What Apollo finds in the baby’s grave is not metaphorically a changeling. At this point, the plot turns literal. He sees that what he took for a baby was “pounds and pounds of hair—fur?—looped and twined so tightly, it looked like barbed wire.”

Eventually, Apollo has to go fight the actual troll that someone’s great-great-great grandfather brought over from Europe. Sacrificing a child to the troll ensured their safe passage across the ocean:
“they all have him to thank for making a safe crossing to America even if none of those pious sorts ever would. People can choose ignorance, can’t they? Life is easier in blinders….Even if you choose to ignore the truth, the truth still changes you.”

At this point in the novel, the reason for telling these particular tales at this particular moment in history emerges:
“In folktales a vampire couldn’t enter your home unless you invited him in. Without your consent the beast could never cross your threshold. Well, what do you think your computer is? Your phone? You live inside those devices so those devices are your homes. But at least a home, a physical building, has a door you can shut, windows you can latch. Technology has no locked doors.
People share everything now….They share which playgrounds they visit with their children and at what times. They share when they’ve hired a babysitter. They share photos of the schools their children attend. They’re so proud of their children. They can’t help themselves. They want to share it all. But who are they sharing it with? Do they really know what they’ve invited into their homes? I promise they don’t.”

And after that, the reason for the overly long, realistic windup to this novel emerges, too. The story of Apollo’s father has been told so that he will realize that he was trying “to be the kind of father he’d never had. What lengths will people stretch to believe they’re still good?”

The metaphorical significance of each event is set up, milked dry, and then explicitly stated for maximum didactic effect. The story ended up being less scary and exciting than it might have been, like a children’s picture book that features “the moral” right on the cover.

Essay: On Love

August 2, 2017

I love to swim. It’s my favorite part of summer. This summer I decided it was time to go ahead with the knee replacement because I couldn’t get into the ocean or the lake or even most pools with the knee I had, and what’s the point of summer if you can’t get into the water?

Lately it seems like all my friends are posting pictures of the ocean. They’re on vacation, and I’m feeling like I want to be the woman in the blanket in this poem by Ed Falco (except there’s no way that even six of my friends could ever lift me).

Essay: On Love

We were crossing a wide beach toward a blacktop parking lot.
I forget now who I was with or where we were going the year
The details of that particular beach vacation that summer break.
Morning not long after sunrise the day already hot.

In the parking lot six women wrestled a package of sorts
Emerged from the side door of an SUV onto the beach carrying
A small weight in a blanket like a sling or a makeshift stretcher.
Six women one at each corner of the blanket two at the middle.

I couldn’t see what was in the blanket when they passed.
No one looked at us their expressions solemn touched by grief.
They stopped at the water’s edge and a skeletal head rose up
Out of the blanket to look over the ocean as legs like sea straw

Fell gently to the gentle surf which washed over them.
To see the ocean one last time surrounded by friends.
August the Georgia coast sand dunes trees permanently twisted
Their crowns like long hair in a brisk endless wind blown back.

How many mornings have I walked barefoot along the beach?
Not enough. Never enough. Summer and the heat and the ocean.
Dolphins threading waves terns pelicans gulls squawking

The salt smell of ocean and the shore stretching for miles
All the way back to the beginning and before as if the blue
Pool swelling out to the horizon licking wet at our feet is one
Body and the waves repeat a heartbeat that won’t cease

Unlike our own which will. Dying woman at the water’s edge
Carried by friends to be close one more time to the ocean
To sand under bare feet to the seashore on a summer morning.

Isn’t that lovely? The poem came to me by way of my friend Jenny’s gift of a subscription to The Southern Review, a metaphorical lift in a blanket.

Actually I think I’ll be luckier than the woman in the blanket; I hope to get at least a decade of use out of the new, bionic knee. I have already rented a beach house in South Carolina for next June; there’s no better incentive for doing knee exercises than thinking about being able to walk into the waves, at the “seashore on a summer morning.”

While it’s still summer, if you’re able, get yourself into some water! What are you waiting for?

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