Review: The Qualities of Wood

The Qualities of Wood
The Qualities of Wood by Mary Vensel White
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I got this thinking it was a literary novel. It tries to be, but it wants to be more a mystery novel. It doesn’t do so well on that either. The “secrets” that are hinted at don’t amount to much. There were some good secrets that could’ve been worth chasing: why doesn’t the town acknowledge its Indian heritage? What was up with the gun? Why, indeed, was Chanelle’s arms at her sides when she died? There were so many secrets and ‘mysteries’, but the it was as if the author was afraid to poke deeper at the many plot ideas she had, so she threw a whole bunch in together. It made for a book where we look at things from a distance, but not really getting to the meat of things.

Minute details bogged the story down to a crawl. The author had to describe every little action that had no bearing on the plot whatsover. I found myself flipping pages more than reading them.

The only time the book came alive was during Nowell and Lonnie’s arguments. In fact, probably the most fleshed out character was Lonnie, mainly because he was the main person to actually rile up the characters. Vivian through the plot in a clueless daze, or through dull flashbacks most of the time, and when she did do something proactive, usually when drunk, her actions made little sense. Katherine ‘clackety bracelet’ demeanor irritated me to the point I was skipping most of the scenes she was in. Nowell whined about his book and mainly hid a lot. Mr. Stokes was set up as a ‘mysterious stranger’, but even he felt distanced. Most of what we learn of him is through hearsay. Vivian’s interactions with him felt too timid.

I guess I was hoping the book would live up to its title, which I’m still trying to figure out why it’s named “The Qualities of Wood.” I wanted more, which I got through mundane detail, but not enough to satisfy or care about the resolving of secrets.

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Book Review: Dune

Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I first read Dune as a teenager. I could’ve sworn a lot more happened in the first book than I thought, like Duncan Idaho being cloned, a weird girl-woman running around, Paul turning into a gigantic worm; actually I’m not really sure about that last one. I think it was more of a book cover I saw than it happening in the story. But then again, I guess I read so many Dune books that they somewhat merged into one gigantic behemoth of a tale.

Rereading the book now in my 40s, I was glad to recognize most of what made Dune memorable: the Fremen culture. The worms. And lots of spice and sand, sand and spice. And now that I’m older, I was able to pick up on *why* there was so much intrigue over the spice. And I also saw that the whole plot was pretty much “Avatar”. Guy from privileged background enters lowers class world, where he is instantly deemed their prophesied Messiah, and what do you know, hey presto, he does become their Messiah. And once he does, he becomes…well…dull, because if you know everything and can do everything and can see everything, there’s really not much else you can do.

A couple of things disturbed me. The first was how we never see Paul’s son. Because his birth and death takes place offscreen, he is more of a concept. He doesn’t give any insight into Paul, and Paul doesn’t seem all that affected. The strongest time I connected to Paul was after he had learned his father was dead. We were tuned into his emotions, his shock, his fear as he and his mother ran for their lives. At that point, Paul felt real to me.

But towards the later part of the book, Paul does all this stuff, yada yada yada, and oh hey, he has a son. We don’t see Paul interacting with him. I don’t think we even learn his name. Paul has a son, and then he doesn’t. And he’s too far gone to grieve. But we never had a chance to connect with the kid, so we don’t grieve either. Maybe Herbert meant to do this to show how much of a god Paul was turning into, but to me, it made Paul less of a character, and I was disturbed at how we’re not allowed to get into Chani’s grief, because she was definitely affected.

And that’s the other thing. When Paul announces that he will marry Princess Irunlan, and Chani, who is deserving of someone far better than Paul, is reduced to a concubine. But Lady Jessica says, “No it’s okay. She has his name but you’ll have his heart.” And then, end scene. That was…surprisingly bleak.

You know…being a woman in Dune *sucks*.

Maybe that’s why I remember the other Dune books better than this one. There’s so much prophecy that there was no real tension in the book other than when Duke Leto dies. Paul is so busy fulfilling prophecy that towards the end, he’s more an idea than a person. So the character development is shifted to other characters: Lady Jessica, the Baron, Alia (who I found very, very intriguing). The other Bene Gesserits. Even Duncan Idaho stands out to me, and he’s dead for most of this book. But Paul? Sadly, he’s easily forgettable.

2 worms out of 5. And for some reason I’m thirsty. I’m going to get some water. Lots and lots of water.

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Book Review: The Female Man

The Female Man
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m still trying to decide if I liked this book.

Being a meta lover, I dug Russ’s writing style. It had this wonderful stream of consciousness that reminded me of Virginia Woolf, particularly during Jeannine’s parts. I also kind of liked the whole breaking the fourth wall aspect, though it made for difficult reading. I remember when it came to me like a jolt that all three characters were the same person. And I felt proud for recognizing that.

But aside from the writing style, I grew bored with the story real quick. I’m sure when it first came out, it was amazing and it rattled cages and whatnot. I also got a lot of the anger Russ was expressing. But I couldn’t identify with it. Part of it is the characters. There’s no real women or men in here, just cardboard cutouts. Aside from the “J”s, all the women are either asinine or male versions of women, and all the men are chauvinistic sexaholics. It got old real quick.

The whole “get married, then stay at home and be pretty” lifestyle Russ rants about just did not apply to the black women of my childhood. My grandma did laundry for a living, put herself through nursing school and had several kids through different men (she eventually married the last one). She didn’t have time to sit around looking pretty. There was this whole educated white woman privilege theme running through the story that grew wearying after a while. There were even a couple of scenes where Russ lapses into black slave “Massah” talk. I know she was trying to show how farcical it was for women to put on a show for men, but to try to compare that with how Black people were treated in that time was very ignorant and stupid on Russ’s part.

I really wanted to read more about Whileaway. Russ told us all these details, but the story never focused on it. It was more Janet playing commentator: “I’m a visitor here! Your world is weird!” Then she sort of faded into the background. At least Jeannie’s story grew on me, simply because it was the most complete and coherent. Joanna grew tiresome after a while with all her man hate. By the time Jael came along, I was skipping more pages than reading them. Laura, the only female character not a “J”, faded in and just as quickly faded out. What I wanted was a science fiction story. What I got instead was a long diatribe dressed up in science fiction clothes.

Was Russ’s anger justified? Yes, I think so. Did this book need to be written? Yes, absolutely. Is it relevant now? Is many of the ideas in it still relevant? As I write this, everyone is talking about Steubenville. It feels like nothing’s changed. And yet there are women and men alike challenging rape culture, calling out the media for their coverage. So people are at least more aware and crying out for justice and change.

But was this a good story? I don’t think so. I think I’m going to go read When it Changed, which I believe has what I want: a story set in Whileaway, and Russ’s good writing to boot.

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GoodReads Book Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okurafor

(Lately, I’ve been posting more and more of my book reviews on Bookreads. I like the site and the social network feel of it, and if I just want to post something short, or nothing at all, I can still rate the book. I’ll still post longer reviews here at the Café though, starting with the one I did of Nnedi Okurafor’s Who Fears Death.)

It’s been several days since I read this book and I’m still thinking about it. Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow…

"Who Fears Death" is amazing. Nnedi had me hooked from page one. It deals with some heavy issues from the get go–children born from brutal rapes, female circumcision, genocide, child soldiers–but it’s not graphic. Onyesonwu has to deal with all that and learn how to control her magic before her natural father kills her. But in spite of all those heavy issues, Onyesonwu keeps persisting for truth and calling attention to the injustice of her people.

I liked how Onye had to deal with consequences of magic, like coughing up feathers when she changed into a bird. I liked how Nnedi doesn’t provide easy answers: Onye is strongly against female circumsion, but her friend sees it as protection against her father sexually molesting her. I like how the characters are willing to change. One of the more powerful scenes is a person cursing Onye for something horrific she’s done–then the next night coming to her, talking to her, agreeing to listen why she did what she did, and ultimately forgiving her. Reconciliation is a strong theme in this book.

And I deeply love the relationship between Onye and her friends. They bicker. They make up. They avoid each other. They confront each other. They slap each other. They defend each other. They have sex with each other. Well, I take that back. Sex does play a role in this book, but while there’s plenty of sexual escapades among Onye’s friends, they respect the bond between Onye and her soulmate, another Ewu. But the lengths Onye’s friends go to in order for her to learn magic is amazing and humbling. In a way, Onye and her friends acted immature when it came to relationships; but the circumstances they were in helped balance it out and made them grow. The ending was devastating to me–but in a good way. It had me thinking about it for a long time.

I gave this book as a gift to my grandmother without reading it first. Now I wish I didn’t–I would’ve held on to it with both hands and feet. This book ranks 5 vultures out of 5, and leave it to Nnedi to have me not think of the vulture as a creepy bird anymore.