Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Women's History Month Review Round Up 2021: Brackett, Alexander, Moreno-Garcia, and Le Guin

March is Women's History Month, and like I did in 2019, I decided to celebrate by reading and reviewing works written by women this month. I'm reviewing the 1974 science fantasy novel Ginger Star by Leigh Brackett, the 2010 modern classic on mass incarceration The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, the 2020 creepy haunted house tale Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and--bookending the post with 70's SF--the 1975 strange little novella The New Atlantis by Ursula K. Le Guin.

I may try to keep up with my themed month reviews that I started in February for Black History Month. So stay tuned in May for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month!

Ginger Star by Leigh Brackett

My copy smells amazing

Ginger Star is something like a cross between Conan the Barbarian and Dune (or maybe Edgar Rice Burroughs). Plus, my old paperback (published in 1974) smells amazing as paperbacks of that age often do.

And the book is pretty good, too! It's pretty engaging, with some cool ideas. The plot sort of dragged a bit for me in the middle, but I love the creatures we meet at the end, and it sounds like they have a big part in the sequel.

Eric John Stark is a character from Brackett's stories going back to the 1940's, but she picked him up again in the 70's for this trilogy. I haven't read the old stories, but I imagine these are a bit more mature (for one thing, they don't take place on a very pulpy Golden Age Mars or Venus, but in another solar system). 

While Stark is a bit of a gruff hero, he cares deeply for his friend (the whole reason for his quest) and treats the women he meets with respect (another parallel with Conan, who has more depth in the Howard stories than you might think). It does seem that Brackett gave more depth to the women characters (especially the head priestess that Stark meets along the way) than many of her male counterparts in the field at the time.

This is still very much mid-20th century "science fantasy" (a genre you don't see much anymore), so it probably won't appeal to everyone, but it's a great specimen of that species.

See my Goodreads review.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

A modern classic.

Sometimes conservatives will claim that people on the left love to hate America, by which they mean something like dwelling on or reveling in the flaws of a great country.

But this misunderstands things. It's not like I wake up thinking of fun ways to hate America. I actually hate that I feel this way about my home country. I would love to have a rosier picture of the US and its history. But I can't ignore the evidence. And Alexander provides a lot of evidence and persuasive arguments here. I would like to believe she's wrong about all this. But I can't.

I'm sure there are criticisms one could make from a social science point of view or about other aspects of Alexander's arguments, but the basic shape of her argument seems undeniable. Mass incarceration is a serious problem for the US with an insidious history in hundreds of years of anti-Black racism.

I can't reproduce the subtlety and depth of Alexander's argument in this review, so I won't even try, but it's worth reading this just to connect the dots on some of the claims you'll sometimes hear people make casually about systems of control of Black people from slavery to Jim Crow to the drug war and mass incarceration. I was particularly interested/disturbed by the history of the drug war, which she demonstrates is even more cruel, far-reaching, and unnecessary than I thought before. 

As a white person who grew up in the 80's and 90's, Alexander's diagnosis of the insidious power of the drug war on attitudes and policies about race, "tough on crime" politics, criminality, policing, and the justice system made a lot of sense of things I've been observing my whole life (sometimes what I was observing were my own attitudes formed in this period). And her explanation of how "colorblind" policies could have racist effects is important, I think, especially for white Americans who are often enculturated with ideals of colorblindness via sanitized MLK quotes (Alexander gives plenty of less sanitized MLK quotes to counter this, too).

I also really appreciated the last chapter where Alexander carefully explains the force and limits of her comparisons with Jim Crow. 

This book is now over a decade old and has already shaped some of the discourse about mass incarceration. I predict it will continue to do so for at least another decade or more, perhaps more so in the last five years or so when many Americans come to understand that white America was never as colorblind as we pretended to be.

This is not an easy book to read. I often had to put it down for weeks at a time to read something else. But it's well worth reading. Love of one's country and its people should never come easy. Maybe acknowledging our current sicknesses is the first step to a healthier future for everyone.

See my Goodreads review.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Mexican Gothic had a fair amount of hype, and in my opinion about 2/3 of it lived up to the hype.

Our protagonist Noemí is a rich young socialite in Mexico City in the 1950's. She leaves the city and goes to a rural estate to check up on her cousin, who married into an old money English family and has been sending mysterious letters back home. Noemí arrives at a delightfully creepy gothic manor filled with a creepy family and their odd staff. And of course creepy, gothic things ensue.

The first third of the novel sets up the story and the house. Fans of gothic haunted house stories will appreciate this part, although set in Mexico instead of the typical England or, as in the case of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, New England. The tensions between the ethnically English family that settled in Mexico decades earlier and their Mexican employees makes for an interesting social commentary. This part of the novel sets up the board for what feels to be a spooky game.

But then in the second third of the novel ... not much happens. There are errands to town to mail letters and pick up medications. A few weird dreams. A rude maid and rude family members... at this point I wasn't sure if I was going to finish it to be honest.

However, the last third of the novel brings it all together. You get an explanation for what's going on in this creepy house with this weird family... and I don't want to spoil it, but I thought it was pretty cool. One of my favorite lines from the book: "... like a monstrous Virgin in a cathedral of mycelium" (p. 282).

Much to my epistemological delight, this novel creates a really fun (and scary) skeptical scenario. Instead of dreaming, the Matrix, etc., the protagonist starts to wonder if what she's experiencing is real or the result of the strange happenings of the house taking over her mind (again, no spoilers, but it's intriguing). But it's not just a regular hallucination, because it turns out dreams and hallucinations have real effects or can even be mutually experienced (as pointed out by the Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu, the Wachowskis, and many others). 

The way that Moreno-Garcia slips imperceptibly into the dream/hallucination scenes conjures the epistemic dizziness of this skeptical scenario for the reader (a bit, but not exactly, like the aforementioned Haunting of Hill House). I may have to use this particular skeptical scenario next time I teach external-world skepticism!

See my Goodreads review.

The New Atlantis by Ursula K. Le Guin

The cool Tor double novel of this one

The New Atlantis is a strange little novella that alternates between a relatively straightforward post-climate-apocalypse story and a dreamy story of something rising from beneath the waves. The more straightforward of the stories is as far as I know a bit unusual for Le Guin, but it does predict rising sea levels, which may have been more unusual when this was written in the 1970's. 

The other story is... well, I'm not sure exactly... I'm going to go with some sort of sea life learning to live in newly submerged human cities. Or something? Whatever it is, I enjoy the weirdness of it.

Fun bonus: I read this as part of a Tor double novel (the ones where you turn the book over for the other novel... SF fans who bought books in the 80s' and 90's might remember these or a similar series published earlier from Ace ... see above). The other novella is Kim Stanley Robinson's The Blind Geometer, which I'll read eventually. But I couldn't resist a double novel with two of my favorite authors.

See my Goodreads review.

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