When the culture wars returned a couple of weeks ago, I was in the middle of Sheri S. Tepper’s 1998 novel Six Moon Dance. My brain blew a fuse. It was one of those serendipitous moments when what you’re reading informs the news of the day—and vice versa.
Whether you believe the current culture war is about women’s health and access to contraception, or about religious freedom, or both, there’s no denying that reproductive and sexual politics have come into play. Just turn on any cable news station.
When it comes to literary commentary on gender issues, Tepper is a master in the science fiction/fantasy genre. Her novel The Gate to Women’s Country is a landmark in feminist sci-fi. (And a darn good read, too!)
In this Tepper novel, the author turns gender stereotypes on their head. On the human-colonized planet Newholme, a matriarchal society has evolved. A virus that attaches itself to the double-x chromosome means fewer births of live females. Women become treasured, and the families of young men pay dowries to the families of young women to forge families. As in pre-modern times, the marriage arrangements are not romantic but economic. Once a woman has given birth to children—done her “duty”—she can buy the services of a consort, a man who has been trained in the art of pleasuring women.
This is where protagonist Mouche comes in. He is the son of parents who have been unable to produce daughters. These families are unable to pay dowries for their sons because they have been unable to collect dowries for daughters. Their options are few. One option is for the family to sell a son to a Madame who grooms young men to become consorts. And so Mouche finds himself in the house of Madame Genevois, the most prestigious consort house on the planet.
In this house, Mouche will rediscover the “Timmys”—another life form on the planet to which human children are intimately connected. But as children grow older, they are told the Timmys are illusions and must be ignored. But Mouche can’t ignore them. And increasingly, it appears the other residents of Newholme can’t ignore them either. For the Timmys once held the key to protecting this volcanically-active planet, an activity that reaches dire proportions when Newholme’s six moons align.
The above description of Six Moon Dance doesn’t even begin to touch upon this almost-epic work. Suffice it to say there are many more characters, many secrets, and a million-year-old back story that only adds richness and intrigue to Tepper’s commentary on gender, sex and mysogyny. And once the big questions are answered, and you feel you have just finished a great book, there is the most delightful of payoffs.
There are a number of interviews with Tepper out on the web, but this is my favorite one!
The late Octavia Butler’s speculative fiction explored race, religion, sexuality, family, community, and “the other.” Like the best speculative/sci-fi/fantasy fiction, her work is a reflection of modern day issues.
I read Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy a couple of decades ago, when the trilogy was published under the title Xenogenesis. The trilogy’s theme of forced human/alien interbreeding is wildly disturbing, but the work is ultimately life affirming as it confronts the reader with what is really means to be family.
I’ve always wanted to read more of her, and finding a 25th anniversary edition of Kindred on a Phoenix bookstore’s sale table last summer was just the impetus I needed.
Kindred is the story of Dana Franklin, a twentieth century black woman who finds herself transported back to the pre-Civil War South to save a white ancestor and slave owner named Rufus. Over the course of a few days of twentieth century time—and two decades of nineteenth century time—Dana will find herself transported back on six different occasions to save Rufus’s life. Her first visit lasts only minutes, but some visits stretch into months, where Dana must suffer the cruel consequences of being black in a slave society.
The reward of the story is not in finding out how this time travel is happening. (We never know how Rufus’s life-threatening situations summon Dana to the past.) The reward is following a modern woman as she is thrust back into a barbaric chapter of American history—seeing the horror through her eyes.
Butler has thrust her protagonist into the role of a slave:
• Dana’s involuntary transportation and disorientation reflects the abduction and disorientation of Africans who were captured and loaded onto slave ships.
• Her affection for Rufus, who is a child during Dana’s first two visits, is slowly replaced by fear as he becomes an adult who is all-to-ready to wield his power.
• Her role as a house slave puts her in conflict with field slaves, and her education and command of English makes her suspect among both slave and slave-owner.
• She is beaten and whipped at the whim of a master, and threatened with death.
• Choice is taken from her: even as Rufus grows more cruel, Dana cannot let him die; for until a certain child is born, this would mean the “deaths” of herself and all of her ancestors who would never be born.
Reading about the past is one thing. Living it is transformative for the protagonist. There is a touching scene, where Dana considers attitudes about certain slave “classes.” She is observing the resourceful and respected (among slaves) cook Sarah, a woman who has suffered the loss of all but one of her children as they were placed on the auction block:
She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. The house-nigger, the handkerchief-head, the female Uncle Tom—the frightened powerless woman who had already lost all she could stand to lose, and who knew as little about the freedom of the North as she knew about the hereafter.”
Butler allows Dana an act of retribution toward the end of the book, but it is bittersweet at best. It is an act that condemns the horrors of the past, even as it is performed with a familial sadness.
Kindred is terrifying as an adventure, masterful as social commentary, and heartbreaking as family history. There’s a reason this book is a classic.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s tribute to the ground-breaking Butler following her death in 2006.
An Interview with Octavia Butler, from 2003′s “If all of Rochester Read the Same Book” program.
Here’s my loot from the book sale! I always use my luggage with wheels so I don’t have to carry heavy boxes through the checkout process. It seemed like there were less people this year at the Friends evening, but still very crowded. And people seemed to be choosier than usual. I don’t get the “list” people, I can’t think of a list when I’m trying to grab up as many books as I can and get them into my bag first.
I’m almost through with a Pamela Morsi I bought, Doing Good. This novel falls under what I think of as Contempory Romance or Women’s Fiction. Strong women characters, trying to work their way out of one dilemna or another. Doing Good is about socialite Jane Lofton finding another meaning to her life after almost being killed in an automobile accident. Her daughter, Brynn is an absolute mess and really nasty to her Mom. Her husband is all about golf and his new girlfriend. The story is how our selfish, dare I say self-centered, ambitious, social climbing character turns herself and her life around as she meets and responds to people as a result of her “near death” promise of “doing good”. Doing Good is not as easy as it seems.
It’s a quick read, and I would read more Morsi after reading this one. The back cover says Morsi is a librarian, so I’m throwing my support to one of my colleagues. Nice first pick out of my truck of booksale booty.
Here’s what’s on my nightstand:
• Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable by Bruce Hood (Beyond culture and the handing down of beliefs, Hood thinks there is something inherent in our nature that makes us believe the unbelievable.)
• The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (An adventure in an alternate world, where people really–I mean, *really*–value literature. What kind of drugs is this author taking?)
• The Great Fables Crossover by Bill Willingham. (Latest installment of maybe the best comic/graphic novel series ever!)
(If you’ve been following this blog, you may be interested to know that Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is no longer on the nightstand!)
And what has been taking up Miss Kitty’s time?
• No Going Back by Lyndon Stacey (An ex-cop and his retired police dog solve a crime.)
• Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything by Geneen Roth (It’s about our relationship with food.)
• The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (A modern-day woman discovers she has a connection to the Salem Witch Trials.)
Plus, Kitty says she’s so fed up with this weather she’s getting ready to read a Christmas romance: Scrooge and the Single Girl by Oklahoma’s own Christine Rimmer.
OK, now it’s your turn. What have you been reading this hot, hot season?
Hmmm… with all these titles, I wonder how many categories I should tag? Let’s see…
If you read this blog from time to time, you know how much I love science fiction. There’s a dirty little secret I’ve been keeping that I’m ready to reveal: I’ve never read perhaps the most famous science fiction novel ever written: Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
I’ve owned it for some time, but it wasn’t until I was discussing great works of science fiction with a friend that I was really moved to pick it up and crack the cover.
So now I’ve started the book (the original uncut version depicted at left) and I’m on page 231, and I’m… absolutely appalled!
It’s not the Sci-Fi or suspense elements that upset me. The story elements dealing with a human raised by Martians, the glimpse into the Martian world, the unbelievable powers of young Valentine Michael Smith, and the political intrigue surrounding the foundling, are all fascinating. No, it’s the fact that this is one of the most sexist books I have ever had the displeasure of discovering.
Now, I know this was published in 1961 (you just have to watch Mad Men to discover, or remind yourself in my case, what it was like back then), and I expect a book to be a reflection of its time, but take a look at this quote from the novel:
He knew that such twisting of the tiger’s tail was dangerous, for he understood the psychopathology of great power as thoroughly as Jill Boardman lacked knowledge of it…”
“He” is news reporter Ben Claxton. Jill is his love interest, and she’s a nurse. So… a news reporter knows more about psychopathology blah blah blah than a nurse who probably had a course that covered psychopathology blah blah blah. The reason Ben knows more, and the reason all of the male characters are written as superior to the female characters is because of ONE BIG REASON: Men are better than women. Sorry, but this misogynistic attitude seems to soak every page of this so-called classic.
Surely, there’s a reason for this. Surely, the author must be setting us up for some kind of stunning social commentary. Is there a point to the fact that Martian-born Valentine Smith is the only character who does not look down on women? Will he reveal that men and women are of the same species, shocking the Earthlings? Is there a point to any of this? Have I wasted my time?
HELP! Should Young Bill Young keep reading this book?
Young Bill Young here.
Love makes the world go around. No one knows that better than the authors and readers of Romance, one of the most popular genres of fiction. In fact, Romance is the king of the publishing world right now, outstripping sales of most other categories of books in this uncertain economy.
Many Oklahoma writers are riding this wave of success in the Romance field, and librarians and readers enjoyed a chance to meet nine of these authors at Romance in the Stacks last Thursday at Hardesty Regional Library. The event was sponsored by the Oklahoma Center for the Book.
Tulsa authors participating were Laura Marie Altom, Margaret Daley, Peggy Fielding, Jackie King, Vickie McDonough and Susan Shay. Jaci Burton of Claremore, and Jordan Dane and Malena Lott of Edmond were also on hand.
These are just a handful of the many Romance writers who call Oklahoma home. We’re lucky to have so many talented Romance scribes in the state, and Oklahoma and the rest of the nation is also blessed to have so many Romance readers. According to a New York Times article: Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks retail sales, says Romance sales were up seven percent in 2008, while most of adult fiction remained flat. Barnes and Noble, the country’s largest book chain, expects book sales to fall between four to six percent this year, but Romance sales are up.
InfoTrends, Inc. reports that 74.8 million people read at least one Romance novel in 2008, and that there is a core market of 29 million regular readers of the genre. In addition, the percent of Americans who read Romance has increased from 21.8 percent in 2005 to 24.6 percent in 2008.
The continuing and growing popularity of Romance plays out everyday in libraries according to Hardesty Regional Manager Louix Escobar-Matute. “I would estimate that one out of every three fiction books checked out at this library is a Romance novel,” Escobar-Matute said.
The fact that there are so many writers, and so many different types of Romance stories, means there are always plenty of titles to recommend to people who like a particular style or setting, Escobar-Matute said. That keeps readers coming back for more.
The genre ranges from inspirational Christian Romance, to steamy tomes, and everything in between. Settings range from the Wild West, to modern day suburbia, to historical scenes, to science fiction and fantasy worlds.
But the cental element of all of these books is the universal story of romantic love. Afterall, who doesn’t love a happy ending?
The Lace Reader is definitely not a laundry day book, now I have a dryer full of wrinkled clothes and the washing machine needs to do another rinse cycle. It is definitely very good. Pick up a copy and when I’m done we can talk. Here’s the website, http://www.lacereader.com/ (I’m not much for book websites with whirligigs and flash players run wild, but the book is worth checking out.)