Who Fears Death
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I mentioned a little while ago that I was making a conscious effort to read work from a more diverse sampling of authors. Particularly I noted that my personal literary canon over the past couple of years has been rather lily white. The thing about that kind of sampling is that the cultural underpinnings that inform North American/European white authors gets reflected in their settings and characters as a default. For example, most fantasy novels authored by white writers are set in some riff on medieval Europe, presumably because that’s where the fairy tales and other genre standards originated, but also I think because that period gets a lot of attention in white-majority primary schools.

So when you read a novel like Nnedi Okorafor‘s Who Fears Death, the cultural sameness of a lot of white-authored books becomes very plain. This is a book set in a sort of post-apocalyptic, magical realism Africa. Even though it’s probably not all that divergent from modern Africa (in the sense, for example, that The Road is not that divergent from modern America), just that fact alone makes it feel like this very remote, fascinating place to someone, like me, with limited literary horizons. Ms Okorafor crafts this world with a tender but unflinching hand. The world building is deft, typifying the novel as a whole being, by turns, lush and raw and gorgeous and devastating and ugly and remarkable.

This is not an easy book. There are no light, fluffy sections, no gentle fades to black when the ghastly truths of the setting come about. It follows the tale of Onyesonwu, a child born from the rape of her mother. Her mother’s attackers are Nuru; she is Okeke; the results of such violent couplings are distinctive, lighter of skin, freckled, and many superstitions surround those like her. But Onyesonwu is a survivor. She has strange abilities and she longs to find a sense of purpose for those talents such as shapeshifting and healing powers, as much as she longs to find a place in the world that does not accept her.

The fact that Onyesonwu is an outcast both from her parentage and her abilities, the violent assault on her mother, the local coming-of-age custom that involves female circumcision, the oppressive brutality of the setting and the antagonist, even the darkness inside Onyesonwu herself, these things make for grim reading. But what really worked about Who Fears Death is that Ms Okorafor never quite lets it feel bleak. Onyesonwu is fiery, sharp, stubborn. She is rarely self-pitying or whiny, despite having to deal with a great deal of angst. The supporting cast are wonderful foils for the protagonist, the pacing of the action is perfectly pitched to give Onyesonwu and the Okeke the right amount of triumphs amid the setbacks and tragedies to make the ending a genuine question. In most fantasy or hero’s quest tales the victoriousness of the ending is basically pre-ordained. But because the world in Who Fears Death is so grim and unsentimental, there is a genuine tension regarding the outcome.

There are so many little details about this book that made it gripping for me to read. The relationships, the fascinating blend of science fiction and fantasy, the characterizations, the breadth of the plot without having to resort to being “epic” (in the pejorative sense), the raw humanity on display at all times; it was all just so tightly woven. The book exhausted me somewhat, emotionally. I don’t know that I finished it thinking, “I’d love a sequel to this.” But I did finish it wanting to know more about the world Ms Okorafor had created, even if it meant having to make the harrowing trip back.

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A few things converged recently to get me thinking about physical spaces, in particular the spaces that we spend the most time in. The first is that I read Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up“, in which a Japanese tidying consultant suggests her method for getting rid of clutter in one’s home. The second was that I purchased a new eReader, and the third was that I had a series of home storage-based issues crop up during an extended period where I was away from work.
Bookshelf

David Orban via Creative Commons

The core of Kondo’s approach is to get rid of everything you own that you don’t absolutely love. She has some specific ideas about how one should go about this, but the idea is to drastically decrease one’s possessions so that what remains are things that are, in a manner of speaking, indispensable. Her criteria is that only those things that “spark joy” should be kept. I kind of like this idea, although as some critics have pointed out, it’s pretty tough to describe the feeling one gets for, say, a spatula as anything even in the neighborhood of joy. And yet, throwing out every spatula in the house might not be prudent no matter how much space it might save.
But I get the sentiment at the heart of Kondo’s regimen: all that stuff everyone has “just in case” or because it was a gift or because “what if…” is just crowding the things that are actually valued in our surroundings. The picture she paints of having a sparsely decorated and ornamented living space full of only things that facilitate simple joys is, to me anyway, very compelling.

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Princeton Groups, Diversity_2352

co Nyanda via Creative Commons

A couple of articles have cropped up in the last week or so, mostly stemming from this one about a person who didn’t read anything from white authors for a year. You can see similar themes being addressed with, for example, the #weneeddiversebooks campaign. K.T. Bradford issued a straight-up challenge to skip out on books by straight, white, male authors for twelve months. She even offers a reading list to get people started.

Then I see things like this misguided Business Insider article which tries to suggest seventeen SF books “every real sci-fi fan should read” and can’t even come up with one book by a female author. Plus, it includes Asimov twice.

I decided to do some datamining to understand how insular my own reading world may be. The results were perhaps predictable (in part because I read a lot of “mainstream” books), but disheartening. Of the 66 books I checked—and note that I omitted graphic novels and anthologies because of their multi-creator aspects—I came up with these numbers:

Orientation Cultural Background Gender
Straight: 39 White: 60 Male: 42
LGBT: 2 Non-White: 5 Female: 24
Unknown: 25 Unknown: 1 Unknown: 0

Now there is some margin of error there. I didn’t research very much so this was largely based on my existing knowledge of the authors. But I think the takeaway is pretty clear: there’s not a lot of diversity happening here. Particularly problematic is the extreme whiteness of the authors represented here, which is exactly the sort of thing #weneeddiversebooks and others are talking about.

So now that I know, I’ll be making a much more concerted effort to diversify my literature. I think for the remainder of the year I will eschew a book if it doesn’t fit into at least one of the non-white, non-straight, non-male categories above. It’s a small step, but it’s a start.

d-221 books

az via Creative Commons

It took me over nine and a half months to get through a single novel this year. To put that in perspective, I read 59 books last year, and 44 the year before.

To be fair, I did spend the first four months of the year unemployed and looking for work. Just as I began to zero in on a job prospect, my wife gave birth to our second daughter. So for a lot of the year I’ve been busy and somewhat sleep-deprived. And then there is the fact that I’ve been reading a ton of short fiction. Some has been for research purposes as I comb through samples of various magazines and sites that accept unsolicited submissions; some has just been because most of what I’m writing these days is short fiction and it feels worth it to study the form. And I recently became aware of a big gap in my literary headcanon as I have little to no exposure to poetry, so I’ve read a bunch of that lately, too.

But none of this quite explains my sudden decline in reading books.

I think a big part of it has been that I’m very routine-oriented when it comes to some things. Over the past few years I did a lot of commuting on public transportation, and it became a reading haven for me. Once I no longer had that job, reading needed to be carved out of different time periods. Other activities like writing, exercising, chores, they all competed with reading. It isn’t easy for me to adjust activities from one niche in my day to another, especially when a previous slot seemed to really work. Ask me how good I’ve done at exercising since I stopped being able to squeeze it in alongside my lunch break at work.

Another part of it may be that I tried to tackle two large novels right around the time my regular reading time disappeared. One was Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which I picked up because I wanted to read a romance novel to expand my horizons and I thought some of the speculative elements I’d heard about in the series might make it easier to digest. And I was enjoying it, but it didn’t have that stay-up-all-night-reading hook to it. I gave it too long before dropping it. Then the other was the fourth book in the Song Of Ice And Fire saga, George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series. The first three books, despite being rather hefty in size, took me a month or so each. But this book is a slog. It’s not bad, necessarily, but it’s kind of a series reboot and it ignores a lot of my favorite characters from previous books and adds a bunch of new ones I have a harder time caring about. So it’s been tough to get into the groove with it, and I still haven’t quite given up on it, mostly because it’s hard enough to keep all the characters in my head when I read a chapter a week. I’m afraid if I tried to come back to it, I’d never finish.

And really that is the thing that has kept me from finishing books, and it’s a lesson I had learned a few years ago. The more aggressive I am at putting books down that don’t hold my interest, the more I read.

The book I finally finished was John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which I listened to on audiobook while I did chores around the house. It’s a neat trick, but it turns out it only works for a certain kind of breezily-paced book. I’ve been trying to do the same with Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier and Clay” and while I’m very much enjoying the book (and the narration!), its literary style and fairly somber tone and pacing makes it less effective at helping me simply pass the time.

Hopefully I’ve broken the seal, though. A couple weeks after finishing Redshirts I tore through Octavia Butler’s Dawn and decided to give A Feast For Crows one more push and I actually made pretty significant progress. Maybe I’ll finish it and somehow this year won’t be a huge reading disappointment after all.

I received the following challenge from a writer pal of mine:

But Twitter is a terrible medium for such an undertaking, so I thought I’d post my response here. Note that I’m interpreting “moved” here to be any book that caused a strong emotional response from me, excepting a strong dislike for the book or a particular part of it. I could probably fill another list with books that have annoyed or frustrated me in some grand fashion, but that’s not what I’m discussing right here.

almost crying

Paula Silva via Creative Commons

  1. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
    Yeah, okay, it’s maybe a little hokey for a thirty-something person to be crying over a book about teenage cancer patients. But I blame the remarkable talent of Kate Rudd, who read the audiobook version I listened to. Her vocal characterizations of Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters brought those characters to life. By the inevitable tragedy toward the end of the book I realized I had handed each and every one of my heartstrings to Ms Rudd, who then let Mr Green’s words yank on all of them with both hands. I regret nothing and I feel no shame.
  2. Where The Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
    Granted, I read this book in fifth grade and haven’t gone near it since, so saying it’s the only other book (aside from TFiOS) that actually caused me to cry is maybe over-selling Red Fern a bit. But this book did a stealth move on me because it was an assigned reading book that I expected to hate, found myself wrapped up in, and did not see the end coming until it was too late. Whatever it was, it worked on me at the time.
  3. The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes
    This slim novel covers so much ground and draws such a gripping portrait of adulthood versus childhood in the context of just a few remarkably well realized characters, I spent days after finishing it trying to get others to read it so I’d have someone to talk to about it. This book stayed with me, and continues to inform the way I think about memory, truth, the effect of my actions and decisions on others, and the craft of a story. The process of reading the book felt very emotional, but not in an obvious wiping-away-the-tears fashion. I finished the book with a sense of awe and thoughtfulness, both for Mr Barnes’s talent and the ideas that frame the remarkable story inside.
  4. Beloved by Toni Morrison
    This book was moving to me because it was the first experience I ever had that brought a level of humanity to the abstract horror of slavery. And I mean that in the downward direction, in the way it highlighted the necessary self-deception and surrender to a base and selfish cruelty for a person to treat another human like an animal or a non-entity. Beloved is a profound and powerful book that pulls absolutely zero punches. The rewards are like hard-learned lessons. This isn’t candy-coated emoting, it’s abrasive and scarring. But it’s also beautiful in a sickening manner, and impossible to forget.
  5. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
    A non-fiction book that explores food and the food industry from a journalistic and historical perspective. The way this book affected me was less on an emotional level (although a lot of the discussion of the treatment of animals on corporate-run farms was upsetting and disturbing) than on an intellectual one. It prompted me to try vegetarianism, made me shop differently, and altered my perspective on how food is thought about and discussed in this country.
  6. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
    Wise, uplifting, funny, and incredibly touching with such a pitch-perfect finale, this transcribed lecture is even better on video, but the messages are clear and the point Pausch makes about time being the only thing we really need to be concerned with is sobering.
  7. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
    It’s not really a novel full of a lot of heavy emotion, but I’m being a bit literal here when I say this book transported me into its setting. I live relatively close to Monterey, and it’s one of my favorite places to visit. My wife and I have spent quite a few of our anniversaries in Monterey. So maybe I was predisposed to liking this book, but I fell in love with the characters, the low poetry of Steinbeck’s prose, and the titular place he brings to life in these pages. It’s a short, easy read, but one I never wanted to end.
  8. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson
    I laughed myself to the point of tears so many times while reading this book. Unfortunately, I did a lot of reading of it on public transportation, so a bunch of strangers got to watch me struggle to retain my composure while Lawson riffs on her eccentric family and assorted tales from her life, all told with her switchblade wit.
  9. Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
    If you can consider being pulled to the last centimeter of your seat’s edge “being moved,” then this book has to be on the list. Sanderson’s metals-based magic system is clever and cool by turns, and his action, pacing, and sense of conflict are hitting on every cylinder in this book. However, it’s the strength of the characters he draws that makes this heist-novel-in-a-fantasy-world book really work. It’s certainly escapism, but it’s the kind that makes you care to the point where you’re practically cheering the victories and shouting warnings to the pages when things get grim.
  10. The Shining by Stephen King
    I like other books in King’s catalog better, and there are specific parts of several other books (not all by King) that scared me more, but The Shining managed to drown me in its atmosphere of paranoia and mystery better than any other book so that I was constantly on edge the whole time I was reading this. Now, some of it may be that I was in eighth grade when I read it, but it’s still the book I think back on and remember trying to read it late at night and deciding, “you know what, I better just put this down and try again when it’s light outside.”

llibreria - bookstore - Amsterdam - HDR

MorBCN via Creative Commons

My attention was brought to the following article in which it is suggested that perhaps eReaders are not heralding the end of printed books after all. As an exercise for yourself you can work out how much stock to put in an informal telephone survey which doesn’t even control for ownership of an eReader device. But another incident had me thinking of ebooks at roughly the same point in time, which was that I went to purchase an ebook copy of Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business for a book club only to find it isn’t available in that format. I ordered the print version and started wondering why my first inclination was to buy the ebook.

I have a perhaps unhealthy fondness for printed books. I’m the kind of guy who stares longingly at pictures of crowded secondhand bookstores, wishing I could be there to absorb the smell. I believe the most beautiful decor you can give a room is wall-to-wall bookshelves. And yet, I’m a technologist by trade. The fact that I can have a dozen audiobooks on my phone as well as access to a small library of digital titles is why I love living in the future. The built-in dictionary feature on my Kindle is my favorite feature of anything ever. The challenge, for book lovers, is how to reconcile these things.

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sinister

thetrial via Creative Commons

book podcast I listen to recently held a conversation stemming from Claire Messud’s recent statement in a Publisher’s Weekly interview:

If you’re reading to find friends [in fictional characters], you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?'”

The question boils down to likable characters, which brought to mind a mini-debate I had with a friend on Twitter some months ago wherein it was declared that there are enough books containing likable protagonists that there is no cause for reading about unlikable ones.

I think the problem I had with the podcast debate and even some of the online debate around the Claire Messud quote has been confusing character with protagonist and character flaws with character construct. I think most people would be hard pressed to say they don’t want to read a book that contains any unlikable characters: antagonists, for example are regularly despicable. As far as I know, this isn’t controversial in the least.

The other thing is people seem to be conflating the idea of flawed characters and unpleasant characters with unlikable. Any character worth their salt will have flaws. Certainly some of these are more palatable than others, but without flaws characters are flat and uninteresting (moreover, unbelievable; see Mary Sue). The term “flawed character” is misleading then in the context of this discussion. What I think Ms. Messud and Publisher’s Weekly interviewer Annasue McCleave Wilson are talking about are unpleasant characters, or those whose flaws are sufficient to hold them at arm’s length from the reader.

Even the term “unlikable” is somewhat misleading because, and I think this strikes to the heart of Ms. Messud’s point, there are characters who hold reader’s affection at bay but remain fascinating who often get a pass even by those in the “I don’t read books about unlikable characters” camp. I, too, have decried books for containing unlikable characters but for me this is shorthand (and one I ought to rethink for clarity) for “characters who begin, end or remain throughout dull; lacking in fascination.” In this case the critique is that the characters are not written well, rather than somehow failing to conform to a subjective qualification based around what kind of real life person I would enjoy spending time with. So long as a character and the challenges they face continue to be intriguing, how relatable or pleasant they seem becomes a moot point.

The core of this is that I worry about readers who discard or avoid books because their protagonists aren’t entirely pleasant. This is especially true when principal characters start off prickly or detestable. The axis of a good story is change and growth, so I wonder what kinds of stories these readers limit themselves to if they discard a book based on the main character’s origin point? What challenges can books possibly offer readers if every point of view comes from some variant of Andy Taylor? As Ms. Massoud says, where in this is the life?