Making Gumbo

Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category

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
Thursday, June 01, 2017

What is the price of getting away from it all?





    “Time amid the silence of nature, in other words, makes you smarter.” (Michael Finkle)

     At some point in life, many say they just want to get away from it all; people and all that. But what would that really take?  What would that really mean?  What would that really benefit the person?  “The Stranger in the Woods: The extraordinary story of the last true hermit,” by Michael Finkel takes on those question.

     At one point in telling the story of Charles Knight, Finkel writes:

     “Language and hearing are seated in the cerebral cortex… When one experiences silence, absent even reading, the cerebral cortex typically rests. Meanwhile, deeper and more ancient brain structures seem to be activated—the subcortical zones. People who live busy, noisy lives are rarely granted access to these areas. Silence, it appears, is not the opposite of sound. It is another world altogether, literally offering a deeper level of thought, a journey to the bedrock of the self.”

     “The Stranger in the Woods,” the story, is a compelling, intelligent, moving, intellectual, report on the questions of solitude based on the experiences of a man who lived in the woods of Maine, away from it all, unseen, unheard, untouched, by another human being for twenty-five years.

    Finkel observes:

     “At the end of a serene weekend [on a Maine pond] you can’t help but envision quitting your job and remaining there for life. Everyone dreams of dropping out of the world once in a while. Then you get in your car and drive back home.

    Charles Knight stayed… He followed a very strange calling and held true to himself more fully than most of us ever dare to. He clearly had no desire to be a part of our world.”

      I highly recommend this quick, profound meditation on the strength it takes to be truly alone and the benefits and costs that come with achieving that goal.

posted by Rupert  |   12:49 PM  |   0 comments
Sunday, January 08, 2017

Underground Airlines: An American Horror Story

Underground Airlines is an American horror story.

 Imagine the horror of an America that still has slave-states in the age of the internet, cell phones and I-phones. What would that look like? 

 As Ben Winters imagines, that would be an America with the “Hard-Four.”  Four states of the “united” States where enslavement of black people is legal. In Mr. Winter’s imagination, to end the Civil War that would be an America that capitulated to the interests of slaveholding states.  And that capitulation would come in the form of a constitutional amendment protecting slaveholding in those states forever.

 What would that mean?  How would that work?  As Ben Winters imagines, that would be an America with hard borders between slave-holding and slavery-illegal states of the “United” States.

 How would that feel?  As Ben Winters imagines, that would be an America where enslaved human beings did not all accept their lot; some would be angry and always trying to escape to a non-slavery state.  Victor, a black man and a slave bounty hunter describes it this way:

 “When I looked up again at the people… going about their bustling midday business, shopping and eating and chatting, I did not see the white people, only the black: and as I watched I swore I could see fumes rising from [the black peoples} mouths—fumes rolling out of their mouths like exhaust, and I would see that every black person had the same small cloud of angry smoke coming out of his or her mouth and nose, a haze rolling off the street like exhaust, filling the air, the white people breathing all that and not knowing it.”

 Underground Airlines is a reminder of what as a nation we avoided by defeating an inhuman, inhumane impulse.  But it is also a novel that points to the unavoidable and real legacies of our nation’s history of having once enslaved human beings.  This well written, compelling, mystery novel, points to the real leftovers from slavery; an American psychology filled with racial stereotypes and irrational fear that continues to hibernate in our nation.

 Ben Winters main character, Victor, is a black man caught in the system, and used as a slave catcher.  At one point that character has a revelation about segregation.  He thinks to himself

“It took me some time but I know the secret now.  Freedman Town [a city ghetto] serves a good purpose—not for the people who live there, Lord knows; people stuck there by poverty, by prejudice, by laws that keep them from moving or working.  Freedman Town’s purpose is for the rest of the world.  The world that sits… with dark glasses on, staring from a distance, scared but safe. Create a pen like [Freedman Town], give people no choice but to live like animals, and then people get to point at them and say ‘Will you look at those animals? That’s what kind of people those people are. And that idea drifts up and out of Freedman Town like chimney smoke; black gets to mean poor and poor to mean dangerous and all the words get murked together and become one dark idea, a cloud of smoke, the smokestack fumes drifting like filthy air across the rest of the nation.”

 Appearing now, with all the racial, intergroup, neo-diversity, turmoil of our time, Ben Winters’ novel is a clarion call to all of us to pay attention.  Pay attention because there but for the moral thinking and actions of American heroes, there goes a horror-story-America with the “hard-four.”  Especially today, in the continuing struggle, pay attention, because right now too many in America are leaning toward accepting their-own psychological enslavement.


posted by Rupert  |   8:13 PM  |   0 comments