Book Review: EXIT WEST and relatable worlds

Exit West has been in my Audible library for at least over a year — when Audible used to make their Originals content available as part of a monthly selection.

I picked it up and sort of forgot about it, buried at the bottom of my Not Started list. I finally decided to give it a shot.

I ended up enjoying Exit West much more than I had anticipated when I first started. Mohsin Hamid’s narrative starts off slowly, the first couple chapters introducing the protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, in terms of their relationships, families, and how they were raised in a predominantly conservative Muslim society.

What’s interesting is that Hamid never names the country in which Saeed and Nadia live, and the particulars of the political conflict that upends their lives is inconsequential. Hamid chooses to focus on how it impacts them to tell a story that could apply to any two people, from any society, at any time in human history.

This is reinforced in the structure of the story. Hamid uses a methodical narrative style to capture vignettes of the lives of his characters. He then extends this to nameless characters we meet only once, snapshots of people’s lives who on the surface have no relation to the protagonists but whose shared experiences enliven the story.

Hamid presents a fictional future that likely already exists in some countries and will be more widespread over the coming decades. As the political conflict quickly turns to civil war around them, Saeed and Nadia are forced to hide out in their own homes before making the heart-wrenching decision to escape through one of the many doors that transports people from one life to another.

This is a world in which human societies are more divided but also more interconnected, where large groups of migrants have to eke out their existence in new places, fundamentally reshaping the identity of the places they come to inhabit, as well as themselves.

Saeed and Nadia try to hold their fraying relationship together among this emotional tumult, and their bond becomes the strongest force holding the narrative itself together.

Speaking of the audiobook version, Hamid’s narration is steady, and emotional notes come not in his inflection, but in the meaning and rhythm of his words.

I’m pleased to find two other stories by Hamid available on Audible, and regret not listening to him sooner.

Steve D

May Write Day: Is it Summer Yet?

April went by pretty quickly, but there has been movement in various streams of my life. I’ve gotten both doses of my COVID-19 vaccine, and we’ve started making real preparations for the new baby. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that yet. Baby #2 is due in late July, and we now have two cribs in one room. Sure hope the toddler doesn’t mind sharing!

I’m also quickly getting into my summer groove of not wearing socks and actively trying to get out of my house more. This will be an exciting summer.

Anyway, onto the goals.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 6,000 words.
  2. Finish 3 books.
  3. Relax more, preferably outside.

Write 6,000 words?

I wrote 4,500 words in April, which is better than in March, but still not good enough. Towards the end of the month I started taking 20-30 minutes after I logged out of work to write a few hundred words, the idea being that I could probably be more productive by writing while my brain is still in work mode. It largely worked. This strategy helped me write about 2,000 words in the last week of April, but I started doing it too late in the month to catch up.

The first chapter of The Herb Witch Tales #1 is already several hundred words longer than in my previous draft. I’m also brainstorming a pretty big change to the middle of the story, diverting the characters from a particular locale and plot thread that was problematic to begin with. It could help me streamline the narrative a bit, but it also means writing more from scratch than I had originally planned on for part 1.

In any case, I want to accelerate my writing. The goal is to have these two stories complete by the time I go to my next convention. That may still be 12 months away (at least), but that’s not a whole lot of time in the publishing realm.

Finish 3 books?

Yes! I finished The Fellowship of the Ring, read a comic volume, and listened to Super Black on Audible, which I recommend to anyone interested in comics, history, or American culture.

I’m a quarter of the way through The Two Towers and nearly finished with another Audible short fiction. I’m already eyeing my next audiobook, but May is looking like a strong month for reading.

Relax more?

I think so. We had a couple weekends hanging with family, which is always nice. The toddler has a push bicycle — one without training wheels or pedals that he just pushes with his feet — but he discovered wheelbarrow rides at his grandparents’ house last weekend. Guess which one he preferred?

The last couple weeks have been more relaxing, mostly because I completed a big work project that was taking up a ton of my headspace. But like I said at the top, I’m quickly settling into summer, which means a lot of lounging, walking, or wandering outside.

Goals for May

  1. Write 7,500 words. 6,000 plus the 1,500 I missed in April. I really want to make some better progress on these stories.
  2. Work out at least every other day again. I’ve fallen off this a bit, so I want to do more yoga and resistance training together. I feel like I need more aerobic exercise, too. I could always go running, but I find that very boring. I’m open to ideas.
  3. Read 3 books. I’m well on my way already, but I’m also not trying to rush through Tolkien.

Steve D

Book Review: SUPER BLACK and the cultural imprint of black superheroes

I picked up Super Black: American Pop CUlture and Black Superheroes by Adilifu Nama on Audible recently, and really enjoyed the information and lessons Nama presented.

Nama’s central theme is that black superheroes are more than tokenism brought to the comics page, which is how they are often talked about or analyzed. Instead, Nama explores how black superheroes have engaged in or even shaped the narrative of race and racial identity in American culture.

I was immediately impressed with Nama’s academic approach to this effort. He spends the first chapter laying out his thesis, his methodology, and refuting the arguments of previous analyses. He also is shy in criticisms of specific comics or stories for their over-reliance on stereotypes and insincere storytelling. It is not difficult to tell that he is a fan of comics, and he even mentions the effect that comics had on him as a boy, but he also wants to provide a considered analysis, and he does.

Nama looks at each of the most prominent black superheroes, as well as a few who made a particular mark on the discussion of racial issues.

He takes this a step further by examining other genres of media to discuss how black superheroes, at their best, have presented an encouraging image of Afro-Futurism, and often led the way in bringing those themes to the sci-fi and fantasy genres.

Even for someone without a deep knowledge of comics lore or history, this book is an engaging review of the most prominent Black superheroes and their depictions over the decades. Analyses of Black Panther, John Stewart’s Green Lantern, Power Man / Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Brother Voodoo, the Falcon, and Storm jumped out to me. Nama also discusses a run of Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern and the Green Arrow, which managed to touch on social justice issues in America in the 70s, not long before John Stewart debuted as the Green Lantern.

Nama then spends some time examining the superhero status that Barack Obama attained in the American psyche in the run-up to his election in 2008.

I really enjoyed this book and will definitely be looking for some of the comic arcs that Nama discusses to better understand these stories.

Looking Forward

Super Black was originally published in 2011, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just getting started — really before “MCU” became a widely understood pop culture term. I am curious how Nama would examine the growing on-screen prevalence of black superheroes since then.

Black Panther became one of the MCU’s most iconic characters almost overnight when that movie debuted in 2018. Before that, both Don Cheadle and Anthony Mackie had supporting character roles in various films, as War Machine and the Falcon, respectively.

And now Marvel presents us with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a limited series that earnestly shines a light on racial injustice in America and wrestles with the notion of a man being both black and Captain America in 21st-century America.

I think it’s easy to be cynical about a huge corporation owned by an even huger corporation trying to convince viewers that they care about social justice, but the fact is that Black Panther (and it’s upcoming sequel) and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier are stories about black superheroes with strong themes of Afro-Futurism (especially in Black Panther) told by black directors and writers. That’s not nothing, at least in my view.

I’d still like to hear what Nama thinks about those stories of significant black superhero figures though.

Steve D

Story Lessons from THE LORD OF THE RINGS, part 2

Creativity Sessions writing process. Evening Satellite Publishing.

After some lackluster reading recently, I am embarking on an epic quest: to reread The Lord of the Rings! I will not be reviewing these stories in a critical sense, because how could I? Instead, I will share some storytelling insights I pick up as I go along.

This will be primarily focused on the books, but I will also reference the films by Peter Jackson to compare the stories as they are told between these two media. See part 1 here.

I finished reading The Fellowship of the Ring over the weekend, and I was eager to jump right into The Two Towers. Instead, I decided to take a couple days and absorb The Fellowship in its own right. So this post is just a collection of thoughts through the rest of that novel.

Description

This one may seem kind of obvious to anyone who has read or heard anything about Tolkien’s world. If nothing else, he is known for world-building. His intricate description of the land through which his characters travel provides a vivid image in the reader’s mind and sets the scene for every interaction with the characters.

Has this imagery been informed in my mind by the stunning New Zealand landscapes used in the filming of The Lord of the Rings? Definitely. But Tolkien’s descriptions also serve the story.

In Book II, Chapters 3 and 6 — “The Ring Goes South” and “Lothlorien”, respectively — the Company first try to pass over the mountain of Caradhras, and then manage to pass under it. As they approach the mountain from the west, hope to traverse its high pass, the peak glares at them red-stained in the morning sunlight, a warning of the peril they are about to face. The mountain defeats them with a mighty snowstorm and rockslide that only seems to occur on the narrowest spot of the pass as they try to cross.

Three chapters later when the Company emerges from Moria on the east side of the mountain. As they continue southward towards Lothlorien, they give one last look to the mountain that caused them so much suffering, both at its height and in its very depths. Now, Caradhras glows with golden sunlight, as if mocking them with its serenity.

I don’t need an illustration to picture the foreboding peak of Caradhras in my mind, and the colors that evoke so much emotion to the characters in a single glance.

Story Lessons

  1. Description of the environment can evoke scale. Although only a matter of days passes between the two images of Caradhras, that book-end demonstrates how much the Company has been through in that time. It also shows how far the Company has to travel just to get to the other side of the mountain, thus scaling out the world and making the journey ahead seem all the more arduous.
  2. Description of the environment can reflect the characters’ emotions. As in the example above, the mirrored descriptions of Caradhras also mirror how the Company feels about it: first as a symbol of foreboding, and then as a symbol of mockery, even shame for what they lost by passing under the mountain, rather than over it.

Presence

I think it can be too easy sometimes to get caught up in the action or the drama of a story and keep the plot surging forward. This up-tempo pace can be enthralling for a reader, but sometimes it’s just as important to let the characters, and the reader, breathe.

One of the most effecting sections of The Fellowship for me came during such a moment, when Aragorn speaks to Frodo about Lothlorien:

‘Here is the heart of Elvendom on earth,’ he said, ‘and here my heart dwells ever, unless there be a light beyond the dark roads that we still must tread, you and I. Come with me!’ And taking Frodo’s hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as living man.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring, Ballantine Books, 1965, pp. 456.

This quote does two things. First, it gives both Aragorn and Frodo a sense of presence within the story. After several chapters of danger and suspense, they come at last to place where they can rest. It’s thus natural that the characters would want to pause and marvel at their ethereal surroundings. Secondly, the end of this section implies a dark road for Aragorn and forces the reader to ask: why does he never return? Where does his journey take him that he can never see Cerin Amroth again?

Story Lesson

  1. Use a characters’ present moments to punctuate their arc. To put the above another way, I think it’s often in quiet moments that a character feels their sense of place within a story, within their world. It also allows the reader to step back, briefly, from the immediate plot and see their characters as more than just actors in a particular scene; here especially, Aragorn feels like a living soul whose present and future are wrapped into this singular moment of wonder and awe. He has a life to lead, and we are catching only a glimpse of his journey.

This post is (slightly) shorter than part 1, and this definitely does not represent everything I am taking from The Fellowship of the Ring. I just wanted to share some things that really jumped out to me.

Onto The Two Towers!

Steve D