Book Review: Kindred by Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler is my inspiration. The first black woman to write science fiction. I really like how she broke the mold of most black writers, but man, whenever I read her books, most of the time, I wind up scratching my head and going “Huh?” Although the writing was wonderful, most of her science fiction made no sense to me.

Then I read Kindred. And it terrified me.Kindred

This was the first book that really drew me in, despite the feelings of fear it brought up. On the cover, they spell “Kindred” rather oddly: “KiNdre d”. It brings to mind “Kin Dread”, which sums up this book perfectly. This isn’t so much science fiction, but a horror story, because in many ways, the monsters were real–at least, they existed along with slavery back then.

Dana is a black woman who is, inexplicably suddenly tugged back in time to save a white boy, Rufus from drowning. This boy, she soon learns, has the power to call her from 1976 to the early 1800s whenever he’s in danger of dying because he is actually Dana’s ancestor; he has a child through Alice, who’s a slave. But there is no love in this relationship. And that is what permeates this book with horror.

What do you do if you go back in time to meet your ancestors, but how they came about wasn’t through love, but through rape and abuse? And the only way you can insure your own survival was to send your ancestor back to her abuser? That is a really, really hard premise. And as Dana finds herself spending long stretches of time in the past, she grapples with the moral and ethical implications of trying to keep Rufus from becoming a brutal slave-owner and convincing Alice to go to him as a lover. She learns what it is like to be black during slave times, where she is antagonized by Rufus’s father, who sees her very presence as an intelligent, free woman as a threat, where she finds few friends among the slaves because they see her as a ‘house-nigger’ who even talks white. Dana goes through so much hardship, so much agony, both mentally and physically–as when she is whipped for teaching a slave’s son how to read.

Butler really did an excellent job with this book in that Dana’s experiences are painful to read, but you have to read on to see what happens to her. She even does a very interesting thing in that Dana’s husband, Kevin, is white, and at one point in the book, he is dragged into the past with her and becomes stranded there without her for several years. His struggle to maintain his own sense of self in regards to Dana was very interesting to read in that even he emerges with scars, though his aren’t as physical as Dana’s. It could have been torn their relationship apart, but I like how it emerges stronger despite it. I wondered what would’ve happened if Kevin was black instead of white. If he had gone back in time, he could have easily become a slave or killed. Being a black woman married to a white man myself, Kevin and Dana’s experiences added a layer of depth to the story for me.

But what impressed me the most about Kindred was that Butler manages to make Rufus a person to be pitied. Through Dana’s eyes, we see him grow from a bewildered child to a hardened young man who confuses control for love. Dana tries her best to keep him from becoming like his father, but when the father doesn’t spare the whip from even his own son, you can see Rufus’s unhappiness and self-hatred beginning to overwhelm him to the point where he’s passively trying to kill himself. There’s a scene when Dana is pulled to his side after he catches malaria from passing out drunk in the rain. As she nurses him back to health, she wonders aloud to herself why he keeps trying to kill himself, and Rufus unexpectedly answers “Most of the time, living just isn’t worth the trouble.” And there is your tragedy. What Kevin has with Dana, Rufus will never have with Alice, not in his lifetime. And he knows it.

The ending did seem a bit off to me at first. I couldn’t see how if Kevin was able to travel with Dana into the past, why Rufus couldn’t come with her into the future. Someone in my book group then mentioned the possibility that the past probably can’t go forward. I guess in thinking that over, it makes more sense–the past is set, it already happened. The future is fluid; anything can happen. It was still a very bizarre way for the story to end, though. I wondered what would’ve happened if Rufus was pulled into the 20th century, providing that the ending didn’t happen the way it did. Would he be locked in a mental institution? Would he live, finally free to live without the pain and torture of running a plantation? Would he find a way to make amends? Or would he try to force himself on Dana anyway, and then they would have a body on their hands and a whole lot of explaining to do? Maybe the ending is fine the way it is.

Reading this truly made me appreciate all the hard work my ancestors went through, from those who were slaves to my grandmother and all the hard work she did in getting her children and grandchildren to the level of comfort where they are now. Dana had it right when she said that she doesn’t have the strength to endure like her ancestors. I don’t think I would be able to survive if such a thing happened to me.

What a way to learn about your history! Still, I’m very glad to read this book, even if it is to appreciate what my relatives and ancestors went through to make me the person I am today. This book gets 4-1/2 time travels out of 5. And maybe I’ll rent Martin Lawrence’s Black Knight; if blacks do ever get to time travel, maybe they should find a safe place…like the Middle Ages. Then again, if Martin Lawrence is involved, maybe staying in your own time is a whole lot safer.


I love spring

Yeah. It’s a sappy title, I know. I can’t think of anything better.

But I really love spring. It’s my favorite season of all, particularly late spring, when the leaves on the trees emerge, and the days start hitting 80, 85 degrees. This week, I’ll have to go through our clothes and pack the sweaters and the turtlenecks away. Bring on the shorts! Bring on the tank tops! My hubby really seems to like it, for some reason…

Outside, there’s a tree that spans across the three windows in our bedroom. When the wind blows, the leaves rustle and rush. It’s akin to the sound of waves crashing on a seashore; it turns our bedroom into an inland (h)arbor. I don’t need to use the sound machine to lull me to sleep at night anymore.

My son is downstairs talking to his grandfather. Soon, he (the grandfather) will be flying off again, heading to a new life in the Philippines. His wife has gone back to their home to sell their house, then return to ours for a couple more weeks before going out to join him. They plan to use our house as base camp whenever they return to the states. I like the thought of it, our house as a standing stone, a haven to return to after being out in the field. Now, if only I can keep it clean enough so that it is the ideal meeting place.

But I’m a writer, which means when the bug bites, laundry sits piled in my bedroom. Toys are scattered in the living room. Dishes pile in the sink. My son runs around, naked.

Well, okay, he does that anyway, regardless if I’m writing or not. But today is a treat. I’m letting him wear underpants instead of diapers.

I can hear the birds chirping outside. The wind billows through my curtains, making them puff out. Downstairs, PopPop goes, “You gotta go potty? Go potty!” Daniel runs upstairs and plops his little hiney on the potty. With the underpants on, of course.

The air is warm with a hint of green. By the door, my laundry glares at me from their baskets.

When it rains, it pours…right on my head…

The month of May has been FUN for us.

In-law visits, a new roof being put in, Daniel’s birthday, Mother’s Day. Things have been pretty busy around here. So much so that I realized that I may need to curtail my writing activities. I didn’t feel completely bad about it. I knew I wanted to take a little time off from the blog, and as I mentioned in a lot of April posts, my writing for Willow had slowed. My characters had just arrived in what’s considered a plains area, so I figured they do a lot of wandering about. Nothing to get excited about. So I planned that I would work on Willow for shorter periods of time and not worry so much about it. Call it writer’s block, call it burnout, call it whatever you will. I was willing to give Willow a bit of a rest while I enjoyed time with the in-laws (and for all you cynics, yes, I do love my in-laws, thank you very much).

But then, I started the chapter off, and one of my characters realized that he was falling in love with someone. Something that wasn’t supposed to happen until the next book.


And then, before I realized it, my characters had been captured, and the love of his life carted off, and a little old lady who wasn’t supposed to show up until the next chapter chose to make her appearance right there instead.


And suddenly, I found myself writing an action scene. A powerful, spine tingling action scene, which included running, fleeing, and magic poofing everywhere, and without warning, my characters, who had been in a pleasant lull at the beginning of the chapter, were now scrambling to escape with their lives, and my main character suddenly becomes a man on me when he decides, no, he’s going to get the love of his life first…

And then I had to stop writing because it’s time to go out for dinner…

It’s actually funny in a way. What is it about writing that it stalls when you have plenty of free time to do it, like when I was up in Michigan, but when I can only writing for 15 minute periods a day, all the ideas come flying, and my fingers are itching to come to the keyboard so I can get it out before I lose it? What is up with that?

No, I shouldn’t question it. I should take advantage of it. I am nearing the end of the book, after all. In fact, now that my confidence has been restored, I’m considering dedicating June to just focusing on Willow, like what I did for NaNoWriMo in November. If I could finish this book in June, I will be incredibly happy. So let’s set a date for that. Think I can complete the book in June? I sure am gonna try.

The Cafe is Closed for Vacation

Actually, my in-laws are in town. Since they bring a whirlwind of activity whenever they come, I probably won’t be able to do any blogging until at least next Tuesday. But feel free to check out the archives. Play around with the Tag Cloud that’s in the sidebar. Or check out some of the other blogs listed.

Or…why even stay hooked to the computer. Go outside. It’s a nice day. Hear that? Those are birds chirping. The sky is blue, the air is warm…unless you’re in the Antarctic…in that case, well…you’re outta luck, pal…

Happy Mother’s Day!

For all you Electric Company nostalgics out there…Happy Mother’s Day!

 Now go tell your mother you love her very, very much.

Happy Birthday, Kiddo…

Three years. That’s how long my son’s been on this planet now. Three full years.

Actually, I don’t know if there’s anything I can write here without it coming across as trite. I can gush and say how much of a sweetie he is, or I can wax poetic on how I carried him for eight months (that’s right, I said eight).

Three. He’s not a baby anymore, nor is he a full-blown kid yet. He’s somewhat stuck in between. I got me a threeager. Out of the blue, he doesn’t want to wear diapers anymore. He wants underpants. but he doesn’t understand the mechanics yet of the potty, so usually the underpants get full of pee (of course, I’m copping out by using Pull-ups instead of true underpants). He rages with the full force of his lungs now. At night, he has discovered that the use of “Mommy!” shrieked as loud as he could gets Mommy storming in…as opposed to when he was simply content to lie in his crib, quietly playing.

He’s going through another word explosion again, testing out phrases like “No, thank you,” and “That’s a F1-Bomber!” I fear the Word of the Day/Month will soon perish, because he speaks so clearly now. The other day, he bent down with his head on the floor and said, “Look Mommy! I’m upside down!” No more ‘uppy-down’, huh?

Ah well. I knew this will happen. Insert “Ah! my baby’s growing up!” comments here. But you know what? I don’t have time to sit here, feeling nostalgic, wishing for the days when he just laid in my arms and cooed. The sun is out, the sky is blue, it’s pretty warm outside. I think I’m gonna treat my boy to a couple of hours at the park. Watch him run, arms and legs pumping, big fat grin spread across his face. Maybe put him on the big kid’s swing. Yeah, he’s old enough for that now.

Book Review: imagine–a vision for Christians in the arts by Steve Turner

When I went up to Michigan in April, I took along with me Turner’s book, just to have something to glance at. Turns out, seeing that I had a lot of writer’s block up there, I wound up reading it a lot. It’s a slim book, about 128 pages, but the material inside was so thought-provoking, I had to read a bit, then digest it, then read a bit more.

imagineSteve Turner is a British music critic who’s a Christian. He’s written a lot on bands like the Beatles, U2, Van Morrison, etc. He’s done some poetry and children’s books, too, but this book is mainly what you find if you visit any InterVarsity function and wander to the back book table (and IV folks and alums will know what I mean).

Reading this book is a challenge. I don’t mean it’s hard to read–Turner’s style is concise and casual–no hard theological terms to look up in an concordance here. Turner challenges Christian artists to define what exactly is their art for: for within the church or for witnessing to the world. And if it is witnessing to the world, he challenges artists to stop using safe, tame church language, which the world will not understand, to stop being milksops, and to be bold and true in our creativity. Turner is a music critic, so of course his examples stem mainly from the musical world, but he also incorporates writers, painters, dancers, all artists in general who have a need to create.

This is not a book on how to do art the “Christian” way, however. In fact, Turner seem to have a beef against those who wants Christian artists who only produce Christian art. He doesn’t believe that “every artist who is a Christian should produce art that is a paraphrased sermon”. Some artists are called to different levels of art. He also rails against Christian ‘art’ that is tame, with no bite, that is meant to be “positive”, “family-friendly”, but is dull and uninspiring (and family-friendly shouldn’t be synonymous with bland. It just shouldn’t. So why is it now the norm?) Those who are looking for a way to do art the “Christian” way will find this book infuriating, because Turner invites us to step outside of the confines of the church, not just to write Christian propaganda, but to be true to our gift.

But Turner doesn’t let us off that easy in letting us do whatever we want to do. One of the best lines in this book is “The modern temptation is to make art with the intention that it becomes idolized.” Turner also talks about the fine line that Christian artists must walk, to portray what’s true while remaining in the Truth. How we need the church to bolster us, how we need the Word to protect us so that we don’t get pulled into the world.

What I really liked about this book is that it addressed many questions I had when I started my writing life. Turner touches on passages like the “Whatsoever is pure” verses, writing about sex (he quotes Bono: “Why should we allow the pornographers a monopoly on sexuality?”) or other sins. I also really liked how He illustrates the type of art Christians can do to five concentric circles, the outermost being art that’s mainly normal slices of life, or outside a particular worldview, or even just nonsense. Each level goes deeper and deeper until the innermost layer deals with the cross. He does a much better job describing it than I–but he did make me want to draw the circles out on paper and hang it up by my desk to show me where some of my works stand: either as fun, playful writings or dark, meaningful drama, or deep worship to God. Throughout all the book, he uses scripture to back up his arguments, that had me nodding my head and saying, “Yeah! That’s right!”

I think this book really confirms what I felt when I chose to write the way I do, but I did have a little beef with him whaling on Christian music as he did, although paradoxically, I agreed with him on it, too. Turner made it sound like all Christian music had gone pretty much sterile and bland. The only exception for him was U2, which he gets into towards the last chapters. Granted, whenever I hear a U2 song on the radio nowadays, I listen to it with far more appreciation than usual (and it seems that the church is finally giving them their due, with all the ‘Gospels according to U2’ worship services springing up everywhere). Still, I’m surprised that Turner didn’t mention any Christian musical artists that are still breaking down barriers and blowing people away. I mean, hello? Phil Keaggy? Didn’t even get mentioned once! Course, this was also written before Sufjan Stevens hit the scene…

I want to read this book again, and take it slower this time. I devoured it within three days, and while I did a lot of thinking, I want to go back and take it bit by by, do some journaling, do some praying. If you’re an artist who’s a Christian but a lot of people yell at you because what you do isn’t ‘noticeably’ Christian, then this book is for you. I rank this book 4-1/2 artists out of 5. And the best way to read this book is sitting on a large rock next to Lake Huron listening to the waves break on the shore. Really. You should try it.

Writing Burnout (Just one more word…Please?)

April has been a bad month for Willow. Birthdays, trips to Michigan, snotty noses, other stories suddenly becoming priority. I think throughout the entire month of April, I only worked did three chapters, when normally I do 6. And most of that was rewrites.

It’s something I grew very concerned about because I had just done a pivotal scene that leads into the last part of the book. After that scene, it should have been easy coasting. All I had to do is get my characters to the magical paradise, have things blow up there, and that will be it. Should have been simple, right?

But I can’t get my characters to get going. I can’t get them to move, because I can’t move. The words won’t come. It’s worse than writer’s block, because I could easily work on other stuff with no problems at all. It’s just that when I sat down to work on Willow, I would write a sentence. Stop. Think. Write another sentence. Stop. Suddenly become interested in my nails. Stop. Write a sentence. Stop. Play Nethack. Stop. Write another sentence. And so on…

At first, I thought that I was burned out after writing that very pivotal scene. It took a lot out of me as well as my characters, who only wanted to sleep and didn’t want me to push them up and nudge them on their way. Then I thought it was because I needed to perfect the pivotal scene itself. I hadn’t been pleased how it came out, so while I was in Michigan, I honed it down until I got it to a place that I was satisfied, at least for now. But I still had trouble starting the next chapter.

It got to the point where I began to dread working on Willow, something that scared me, because this is my novel here. I should be excited to work on Willow. How did my novel get out of control? What went wrong? Has I lost my love for Willow? Has it grown far too large for me to handle? Will it be doomed to sit on my hard drive, untouched? What should I do? I was supposed to be done with this by the end of April!

Well, it didn’t happen. And that’s when I realized that I needed to step back and take a breather. If I wasn’t progressing in Willow, I needed to find out why. I needed to put the fun back in Willow. So I stopped trying to eke out the chapter and started doing freewrites, basically letting my fingers move while I mentally worked on the outline to Willow.

Freewrites are fun. You can write anything in freewrites. You can have conversations with your characters, write long journal entries, write utter nonsense, and you don’t have to hold it accountable to any story whatsoever. Oh, stories can come out of freewrites, but so can inspiration.

In freewriting, I was able to figure out the main theme of Willow. It was something I always had on the back of my mind, but putting it in words enabled me to go back over the chapters and see where it worked in the theme and where it didn’t. The major theme of Weeping of the Willows is strifeful family ties: son against father, brother against brother, parent against children. It is also about deep families ties as well, the bond between sisters, siblings, couples, etc. With that realization, I was able to see how the next chapter would play out. (It also lead to an unintentional splitting up of a family–something that surprised me, but after freewriting, I saw that this splitting up was necessary; and it would make the betrayal later in the book all the more harsher).

I also came to the conclusion that one of my supporting characters had gotten way too much page time and that I really needed to whittle her involvement down. It bums me, because her story had grown very interesting–but it also grown very, very long. As much as I hate to do it, I’ll have to cut out major portions of her story to make it more manageable. I think the storyline will become sleeker because of it.

I did freewriting all last week. Yesterday, I sat down and rewrote the chapter I was stuck on. I wrote a word. Then two. Then ten. Then fifteen. Got stuck for a moment. Wrote some more. Then more…

Ahh…things are finally moving again. My characters are now preparing for their harshest trip ever, I’m now back on track. Willow’s moving forward again. Whew!

Ironically, right after I finished writing, I was checking my blogs and this post from The Writer’s Block came up. Basically detailed everything I went through in April. You mean other writers experience this burnout too?! I thought it was just me!

All of a sudden, I feel a whole lot better.