Making Gumbo

Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Only The Women Are Burning

It is not a COVID-19 pandemic novel. Yet, “Only The Women Are Burning” sometimes makes you think of the pandemic.


“Spontaneous human combustion.” Imagine that over one week, five women burst into flames and only leave behind the clothes they had been wearing. Now people are wary about an unseen force at work. Children are worried about their mothers; husbands are worried about their wives; siblings are worried about their siblings; neighbors are worried about their neighbors. And women are worried about themselves because “…only women are burning.”

Worry about an unseen force feels so familiar right now. It echoes through this novel, where at a certain point in the story the author writes:

“[That woman] was probably anxious because she was outside and just wanted to get safely to wherever she was going. I could feel it, a few minutes later, as others crossed the parking lot to the Y, walking fast, heads down, or furtively searching nearby for anything or anyone who could hurt them. Fear and more fear.”

Here we have a story that deftly blends science fiction and domestic life to tell a story about living false, unfulfilling lives. At various points you begin to think this is some kind of bizarre psychological phenomena in which women who are desperately for a real life flee by bursting into flames. Even our main character, Cassandra, has a relationship problem with a husband who is so distant it hurts you to read about their “life together.”  Is she just going to burst into flames too?

Instead, she reignites her intellectual self and her academic background that she had set aside, to investigate what is really going on. When Cassandra does that, the way she feels about herself and her life changes. She muses:

“All my recent feelings of having been trapped into a life as a role instead of as a person began to ebb.”

Her use of her academic abilities leads to a discovery of a physical, scientific explanation that is surprising, very compelling and convincing.  At times meditative, “Only The Women Are Burning, is a gripping story, thoughtful and well told. Highly recommended.

posted by Rupert  |   4:36 PM  |   1 comments
Saturday, August 04, 2018

My most surprising read of the summer; DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland.


War Between the States is ended because of the sudden appearance of Zombies; Shamblers.

I was skeptical. Sounded a bit gimmicky. But I was drawn to it by the book cover.  A young black woman dressed, literally to kill; carrying a sickle.

Blacks, you see, “negroes,” are put in schools to be trained to fight, to protect whites from these shamblers. So that young woman on the cover must be the hero of the story.

I was intrigued, but still skeptical when I bought it, and put it on my bookshelf.  Then one day, I picked it up, looked at the cover, opened to the first page, read the first line and two days later was done.

Zombies in the time of confederacy yes, but used as a way to show the psychology of slavery and the bravery and genius of resistance.

A novel that is surprising because it is so subversive. Catching you off guard because it could be a frivolous zombie-novel but isn’t with its insistence in making the reader think about the problems of slaveholding yes, but also the problems created by the whole psychological-walls that a society must build to make it work, and the psychology it leaves lingering in its aftermath.

Subversive by making the reader think about the inner decay of the whole social structure by simply hinting, mentioning, all the groups that get put into the category of “other” to support white supremacy.

Subversive by making the reader think about how unsustainable the “othering” is because humans will always strive for freedom.

Subversive in showing that ever persistent striving for freedom by using small but powerful bits of the language of the modern civil rights struggle: “Survival… by any means necessary.”

Subversive by making the heroine a young, educated, biracial, mocha-skinned African American girl.

All that in an entertaining, exciting, scary, fast-moving story.

Whether you are a reader of young-adult fiction or not, I highly recommend my most surprising read of the summer, the novel DREAD NATION

posted by Rupert  |   1:42 PM  |   0 comments
Tuesday, June 26, 2018

MEM by Bethany C. Morrow

What if you could have a traumatic memory extracted from your memory bank?

What if after having that memory extracted you went on with life as if whatever you had experienced you no longer knew anything about?

Would that be a good thing?  Those are the questions asked and answered in a stunning new novel of speculative fiction by Bethany C. Morrow.

The answers are not easy especially when the memory extracted actually takes on your physical form at the time of the experience. And that physical form of you, that MEM, exists, and must be housed somewhere, for some time, as is the case with our heroine Delores Extract 1.

That idea just adds to the questions about the meaning, power and importance of a memory.

In my teaching about relationships, I show my students that trying to forget a relationship is not the way to go because each relationship experience teaches us something and can make us stronger. Hard as it can be to remember, I believe that.  I know it hard, but I know too that there are always lessons that can strengthen us. The author of MEM believes it too.  At one point she says:

“The extraction [of the memory] abandoned her to be just as she had been before, unprepared to cope with subsequent traumas.”

Insightful and surprising, this is a short (178 page) novel that is piercing; with beautiful writing, a meditative and emotional story, unforgettable (so to speak).

posted by Rupert  |   8:52 PM  |   0 comments
Monday, December 04, 2017

Essential Readings of The Apocalypse

Apocalyptic fiction; novels of the end-of-days are very popular right now. But I have read only two that I would call essential.



“Station Eleven” is one.  All of the action of the story is set off by a viral pandemic that kills millions and millions of people.  But what makes this novel essential is that through this story we are shown how very interdependent are our everyday lives.

There is one paragraph in the novel that is startling with the truth it reveals of our day to day interdependence with each other. What would make daily life fall apart so quickly as portrayed in all apocalyptic fiction?  Well, in an airborne pandemic that sickens and kills people in twenty-four hours, death would quickly spread to workers who keep everything going; people who go to work to keep the power going, to keep the water running (and sanitary), to keep food produced and being delivered to stores, to keep planes, trains and automobiles running.

That would be the human apocalypse.  With that collapse of our human infrastructure, what would prevent the slow demise of the human spirit too?  Station-Eleven ask that too.  Station-Eleven answers with its focus on human spiritual survival through the art of a traveling band of actors who act out Shakespeare, even at the end of days, uplifting the human spirit.

I read Station-Eleven two years ago (March, 2015) and that still sticks with me.

December 2-3, 2017, a weekend, to begin my recovery from the end of the semester push, I picked up “When the English Fall.” That novel is the second story of the apocalypse that I say is essential.

Always, novels of the apocalypse focus on mainstream, every day existence and the collapse of technological infrastructure. But when that part of human life is given attention, we seem to have forgotten that not all we humans, even in America, live lives dependent on technology.  What about the Amish?  What about the plain-folk, religious folk who have chosen to and have been living as survivalists, without store-bought stuff, without technology, even electricity for hundreds of years? When our electrical infrastructure dies, do their lives change at all?

“When the English Fall” ask that question.  More important, the novel takes us through a spiritual meditation on modern human life and the way we are all interdependent with technology and ourselves. Telling the story and speaking to us through an Amish man’s diary that is found after the end of days, the narrator, that Amish man writes:

“Because we know, now, that as the world of the English fails around us, we [Amish] are not separate. Yes, we have the Order, and yes, we have our way, but the time when that meant we stood free from the world has passed. I am not sure, as I think about it now, that has ever been true. We are never really apart, as much as we choose to set ourselves different from the world that surrounds us. The English are like the Earth, or the air. And if the rain falls, it falls on all alike the Bible says.”

I read “When the English Falls” in the quiet of my home; away from the hustle and bustle, the hard work, of the end of the semester.  Reading it was a balm to my spirit; a retreat that my soul needs, every now and then.

“Station-Eleven” and “When the English Fall” are not just stories of the end-of-days collapse of the modern.  Both novels are about what we must always do to hold on to the gift of our human spirit, no matter the troubling circumstances of the day. That is why I say, if you want to read apocalyptic fiction, these two novels are essential reads.


posted by Rupert  |   4:12 PM  |   0 comments
Monday, July 03, 2017

American Eclipse and America’s Long Struggles With Bigotry






No part of our history is untouched by the one-time American enslavement of African peoples.

 That thought flashed into my mind as I began to read “American Eclipse” by David Baron.

 From my summer book stack I picked up American Eclipse to break away (for a little while) from my summer reading of fiction.

 American Eclipse is a non-fiction book about early American astronomers and their attempt to observe and measure the effects of the total eclipse of the sun in 1898. Within two pages of reading, in setting the context for the lives of astronomers at that time, the author talks about the civil war ending and that end motivating scientists to get to work.

 Nothing in the psychology of American enterprise is uninfluenced by the one-time enslavement of African peoples, was the second flash of thought I had.

 To see, observe and measure the effects of the eclipse of 1898, meant heading to the then still somewhat untamed West where people yet remembered George Armstrong Custer’s attempt to eradicate Indians and people still talked about “Indian savages.” 

 No part of our history is untouched by the unfair, genocidal treatment of American Indians. Yep, that flashed through my mind as I read.

 I went on, learning the history of American astronomy, enjoying the writing, enjoying the well-written story that includes the inventor Thomas Edison, among other inventors and scientists interested in the eclipse.  That included a name I didn’t know because, well because this person was a “woman scientist”: Maria Mitchell

Another flash: Nothing in the psychology of the American enterprise is uninfluenced by the too long resistance to acknowledging the powerful intellect of women.

 If you are at all interested in early American scientific endeavors of astronomy (and a bit about early meteorology), “American Eclipse,” is a fun, five-star read. Stories of the real lives and motivations of a bunch of eclipse obsessed scientists; their technological challenges and human adventures leading up to their chance to observe the 1898 total eclipse that could be observed from America.

 You see, “American eclipse” is not about any of my flashes; not the enslavement of Africans, not the stealing of land and life from American Indians, not demeaning views of women. But those are part of the context of America even in a book about early American astronomy.

 In American Eclipse, there are statements people made in 1898 that are the same statements people make today about blacks, American Indians and women. That is why it is more than fair to say that nothing in the psychology of our 21st century is uninfluenced by our histories of intergroup bigotries.

Yet, know this too: Nothing in our American psychology has been so profound, and important, as discounted peoples pushing through, and defeating, America’s too many intergroup bigotries.

posted by Rupert  |   8:01 PM  |   0 comments
Friday, June 30, 2017

The Fireman





Joe Hill’s “The Fireman” is a good read.

This time by fire the apocalypse has come; a bacterial contagion that causes humans to burst into flames. A human conflagration that becomes a story of the horror of the breakdown of human society through a rise of human fear of other humans, abandonment of kindness, hard survival of some who have learned to control the flame of self-fear.

In the story telling, there were lovely bits of literary genuflections in the writing of Joe Hill (son of Stephen King); genuflections to popular music, to ‘The Lord of the Rings,” to “Harry Potter” and genuflections even to poetry. 

 Characters, people who struggling to survive are talking and not always understanding each other.

 “I really don’t understand,” Harper said. “What Allie just said… it has poetry in it, but it doesn’t make a lick of sense.”

 “That’s what poetic speech is for—for the things that are true but don’t make sense. For the rough beast and the widening gyre,’ Renee said.”

 Reading lets my soul rest in the fiery poetry of life imagined.


posted by Rupert  |   7:43 PM  |   0 comments
Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Jam on the Vine






We are not the first generation of Americans to be fighting to claim the rights of full citizenship.

Yet, I know that right now some are struggling with the question of “how” to work for change against what may sometimes feel like insurmountable odds. I know that is a struggle because young people ask me for guidance; what can I do Dr. Nacoste?

 I just finished reading an important novel; “Jam on the Vine,” by LaShonda K. Barnett. A story of “colored people” in Jim-Crow East Texas, that begins in 1897.  Our heroine, Ivoe, is a curious, intelligent child.

 “After May-Belle, Papa and them, Ivoe loved books best. Books were a friend to anyone who opened them.”

 Her eargerness to read, her intelligence noticed and encouraged by a teacher, and through the help of people in her community Ivoe gets and takes a chance on education beyond high school. Narrow though that education was for a black woman, Ivoe learned all she could.  Later, beyond that education, strong willed and focused Ivoe eventually founded one of the early newspapers of the black press (really only a newsletter at first

But this is no fairy-tale. For Ivoe, even finding romantic love was a risky long shot. But Ivoe does find it with another woman, Ona, who became Ivoe’s hope, challenger, friend, co-worker, companion and lover. About Ivoe’s ambitions to make a difference, Ona has the insight that “…a dream without love is the most dangerous weapon in the world.”

 Ivoe ‘s family was her first emotional foundation. Her parents were firm, loving and imperfect. Lemon, her mother, a Muslim-African who early on cleans houses for a white family, but ends up developing her own business cooking tomato and fig jams. Ennis, Ivoe’s father, is a big, dark-skinned man who works as an iron-smith, dotes on his children (Ivoe, Timbo her borther, Irabelle her sister). Ennis, though, grows weary of Jim-Crow and leaves the family in the hope (futile in that time) of finding a better place for them in America

You see, Ivoe’s world is disheartening, vulgar, with vicious racial hate around every corner. Ivoe has to live through and see too much inequality and hot, violent, racial-hate aimed at black people. As she begins her work, Ivoe herself is accosted and beaten by police for what she writes in her newspaper.

 Yet with her education and focus, through it all, Ivoe finds a role; she finds a way to be of some use; she finds her voice.  That is what makes the novel more than a novel. Lyrical in the writing, strong, vivid, heart wrenching and compelling in the storytelling, profound it the racial history of America it reviews, this book becomes a call to us all.

Find your way to make a difference in our difficult days. And no, we should not all be doing the same things at the same time. As was true in Ivoe’s time, many different hands are needed to make the work effective, to change the story we are living.

 In that way, Ivoe’s story can be a motivator. Ivoe’s story, you see, is an example. Yes, this is a fiction, but a fiction crafted from our American history in which strong and determined persons found ways to make a positive difference.

 Ivoe’s story shows that even in the darkest hours of America’s racial nightmare, there was something that could be done. Many different people found large and small roles to participate in working for social justice

 We are still in the fight. There is still much work to do. For a little motivation read “Jam on the Vine.”

posted by Rupert  |   5:56 PM  |   0 comments