Thursday, March 22, 2007

Books and a Book Group

Kindred by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler rises to the top, along with Ursula LeGuin, as one of my favorite authors. Like Ursula, she wrote in the genre of science fiction, but what she wrote is also good literature. For some reason this book slipped by me when I read many of Octavia's books years ago, and now I read it for my library's book group. This was her first novel, and I could see a little of the writer's exercise in it, and see a little more of the author's life. Octavia worked in industrial jobs by day, and wrote during her breaks and burned the midnight oil, similar to her main character in this story. The author did not call this scifi, but more of a "grim fantasy". Time travel is often a vehicle to explore bits of history and how they might be altered, or simply better understood. I was surprised that some people in the book group did not like it, mostly because they couldn't "buy it". There was no logical reason for the time travel and they couldn't get past that to the heart of the story.

To me, the interesting heart of the story happens because of the time travel. Whereas those readers would have liked an actual person's experience in the slavery of the 1800s, I liked the tension of a middle class 20th century black woman's experience as she was repeatedly pulled to the past to save the life of an average middle class slave-owner. To me, scifi, or in this case, historical fantasy, provides a structure for an experiment of the mind. When we explore these "what ifs" we have a chance to expose truths of human nature, glorious potentials and stark darknesses alike. One of the book group ladies was on the same bus as I was, and we talked some more about the difference in tastes.

She would have liked a more honest, straightforward portrayal of the times, not this contrivance of a woman traveling back in time. I realized then that I felt this is more honest. All writers of fiction ask us to suspend disbelief. If it is a novel set in the past, they ask us to believe they know something of what it felt like to live then. More often, they write as if the characters have the same mindset as now, but they set it in the past. The historical setting is a prop for the entertainment needs of the current day reader. For it to be readable, the writer keeps some modern thinking in that past setting. To me, it seemed more honest for this writer to keep her main voice a modern one visiting the past, as that is exactly what she was doing as an author. She could reveal the strangeness of the time, and the disturbing parallels to this time, but keep the modern mentality as a contrast to the slave society's mentality.

There were others in the group that loved the book, simply devoured it in a couple days time. I didn't read it like that (I was instead devouring the first season of Veronica Mars) but I did love it. I think the writing did not flow with the ease of some of Butler's later novels, but it has as much or more depth. One woman was inspired to seek out some of the other novels, even though she does not usually read scifi. I told her about my favorites. Parable of the Sower is set in the indefinite future, a society broken and ruled by crime, with working-class and professional neighborhoods gated and guarded, subsistence fortified with protected gardens and acorn flour. A teenage girl has a vision for the future, and her parable becomes a guidebook for a new way. I wanted to be inducted into that new religion.

I also told her about Adulthood Rites, but what I was really thinking of was the whole Xenogenesis series. Aliens mine humans for their genetic traits, enslaving them for their and the humans future survival. One of the topics we enjoyed exploring about Kindred was the paradoxical complexity of the mutual needs of the master and slave, how well-deserved hatred can co-exist with genuine caring, how the one who uses can love but still not understand how to respect as an equal the one he uses. If I remember correctly, these same themes get explored in this series, but between aliens and humans rather than masters and slaves.

This woman and I often like the same books for similar reasons. We both like to dig into the spiritual and psychological implications. One of the fun things about attending a book group, we will read books we wouldn't otherwise read. Now perhaps she will start reading some scifi when she didn't before. I've discovered an author I now love, Margaret Atwood, who happens to be the favorite author of a co-worker who also comes to the book group. (We read Blind Assassin, which has a book within a book within a book.)

Another thing I like about a book group is the creation of community. As this is a library-sponsored book group, we aren't already self-selected. We aren't a group of friends who decided to get together about books. We aren't a political or a church group. We aren't alumni from the same college. (I've been too busy to attend my college alumni group lately.) We do tend to come from the same neighborhood, but not necessarily. We begin to understand each other through our takes on the books we read. We can't help but bring in our opinions on world events. We can't help but divulge our deep spiritual convictions. Some books demand you engage these themes.

There is one older woman whose purpose in attending at first seemed to be a need to bring God to others. This was and is her entire filter through which she views the world. I could sympathize, I do that somewhat with Buddhism. Sometimes she would say she couldn't understand why anyone would want to read such a book because it didn't bring one closer to God. (I paraphrase.) I've noticed she hasn't said that kind of thing lately. There have been some moments in the past where the discussion became quite awkward. Now maybe she either filters the filter, or she's able to see through it to the valid views of other readers. Through this book group, we don't become friends necessarily, but we see inside each other a little, where we might not cross paths otherwise. In my case, the spiritual digging that I do is very different than the digging that she does, and normally we just would not do that together. But here, we have, and maybe she could begin to see that my embrace of ambiguity does not leave me without standards, and maybe I can see that her embrace of a strong religious duality does not leave her without compassion for human weaknesses.

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