Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Lacuna, The 5th Inning and Fledgling

Book 90: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

"Who be ye?" asks a voice at the conclusion of Barbara Kingsolver's novel, The Lacuna.

"People . . . might want to look back on those who labored and birthed the times they have inherited. But maybe that's wrong, and already we'll be a graveyard of weeds they won't want to visit. You, I mean to say. The times you have inherited. I wonder that: Who be ye?”

The voice belongs to Violet Brown, the conscience of The Lacuna and the stenographer of Harrison Shepherd, whose life story is at the heart of this sweeping novel.

Violet's question is posed to those men responsible for the Red Scare, the destruction of Shepherd's reputation and livelihood and, ultimately, his death through an apparent suicide. But Kingsolver is working on more than one level and Mrs. Brown's question is also aimed at those of us who inhabit today's fractious political landscape. A landscape marred by stridency and polarization and where half-truths and fabrications are presented by intelligent men and women as truths in order to gain political advantage.

The politics of fear reign today just as they did in the time period in which Kingsolver's novel is set.

Shepherd's life story, told largely through his dairies, which Mrs. Brown has saved from destruction, is all the more compelling because of the parallels with today. Shepherd is tainted by affiliations -- the painter Diego Rivera and Russian revolutionary Lev Trotsky -- that for him are about love and loyalty, rather than ideology.

It makes no difference. None of those guilty of Shepherd's destruction care about his guilt or innocence or his motives. He is an all to easy means to advance their shabby political ambitions. No more.

And today? People would do well to take Kingsolver's question to heart. Who be ye?

Book 91: The 5th Inning by E. Ethelbert Miller

The 5th Inning by E. Ethelbert Miller is a surprisingly powerful memoir for such a slender work. A few quiet hours on a Sunday afternoon is all is takes to dispatch this book. Yet, Miller's wisdom and insight linger longer.

The 5th Inning takes its title, and much of its essence, from baseball's fifth inning. After five, the game becomes official. Miller is saying his life is now in the books. It could end now. Or run the full nine innings. Or -- although Miller doesn't believe so -- go into extra innings.

Whatever the outcome, Miller, a D.C.-based poet, seems content with the outcome. Whether it's a game shortened by the vicissitudes of life or allowed to run its full course, Miller has played it well and is satisfied with the final score.

He writes about fatherhood, his lovers and wives. He is aware of how difficult it is simply to be a good father, a good husband, a good man. In a few brief pages, we read of a man, and poet, coming to terms with his life, and death.

What's rare about this book is that Miller approaches his mortality with satisfaction and a sense that he has does his best and can go to his rest with contentment and a measure of satisfaction.

Book 92: Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

One of the authors that Miller mentions in passing in The Fifth Inning is Butler, who, like Miller, is African American.

Fledgling is Butler's final book. She died, in a fall, soon after this novel was completed. Fledgling was clearly intended to be the first in a series of novels. It is just as clearly the work of an author at the top of her game.

It is an exquisite novel -- well-told and provocative. Butler has always skillfully used the science fiction genre to probe the human condition. Here she elevates the vampire novel to a level that is profound, yet filled with horror and mystery, too.

Shori, the young vampire of the novel's title, is a compelling, complex and sympathetic character who carries the novel with extraordinary vigor.

Butler's untimely death is sad, not only because we have lost an engaging and thoughtful presence, but because we have also lost her stories and the insights they provoked.

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