In which you should read this: CONJURE WOMEN, by Afia Atakora

Something you may not know about me: despite my fairly high degree of confidence in my own intellect in many domains, I actually don’t think I read very well. Which may sound really. strange, coming from someone who regularly reads well over a hundred books a year. The thing is, my greatest weakness as a reader is that I’m a very surface-level guy. While I can handle complex narratives, I have to be in the right mood for them, and the fact that I read so fast can really hurt my comprehension if I’m not deliberately paying careful attention to what I read. This means that I tend to stay away from anything that, broadly classed, might be literature, which I nearly spelled litratcher in order to convey a sort of condescension toward the entire concept. If a novel feels the need to tell me it’s a novel on the cover, that’s a sign that it may not be for me. You know what never says “a novel” on the cover? A book with a dragon or a space ship in it. Not once. Not never. The closest to an exception I can come up with is John Scalzi’s Redshirts, which some editions of declare to be “a novel with three codas,” and which I think Scalzi put on the cover more as a lark than anything else.

In short, whenever I read literature, I always feel like I’m missing something; that there is some theme or some Hidden Meaning or some Deeper Symbolism that I’m not seeing, either because I’m being sloppy or the book is just smarter than I am. Is it there? No idea. But I’m convinced it’s there and I just can’t see it. This may be a sign that I’ve been poorly served by my English teachers; I have a copy of A Tale of Two Cities from high school that has a big chunk of the first page circled and the word “foreshadowing” written next to it, and as someone who has read that book as an adult I have no idea what I thought the foreshadowing was or what it might have foreshadowed. I still can’t handle Jane Austen.

Afia Atakora’s Conjure Women needs to become part of The Canon, because it belongs next to books by Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. That’s it. That’s the review. The book is magnificent. You should read it. I took my time with this one, because I wanted to savor it; normally it’s a good sign if I read a book in a day, and this one took several because I didn’t want it to be over with too quickly. It’s set in and around the Civil War, on a plantation, and the two main characters are mother and daughter, so the book alternates between the two of them, jumping back and forth between just before the war to just after it. A third significant character is Varina, the daughter of the former landowner, who has a bond with Rue, the daughter of the pair, and her story weaves in and out through theirs in a way that isn’t really typical of– here’s that word again– literature set in this time and place. Both Rue and her mother are … well, the title Conjure Women does the job to some extent; they are healers and midwives, and while Rue in particular is generally at some pains to think of her work as entirely natural and (though she doesn’t use this word) scientific, those around them generally don’t, and the book does have just a tinge of the supernatural around it to keep genre-obsessed dopes like me interested. Everything’s just a little better with a little hoodoo sprinkled on it, as my mom never once said in her life.

Every so often someone will ask me, generally not in especially good faith, why I do things like decide I think I’ll read 52 books by women of color this year, when I could … not, I guess. Well, this is part of it; I might not have looked at this book were I not focusing on a certain kind of author, and I’ll freely admit that had Afia Atakora been Ahmad Atakora I probably wouldn’t have bought it. (That said … a man couldn’t have written this book, but that’s not quite the point I’m making.).

In other words, the reason I work on diversifying my reading is that when you go looking for new and/or different reading experiences, you get them, and this book all by itself kind of pays off the whole experiment. Go read it.

#REVIEW: THE BOOK OF M, by Peng Shepherd

I think I’ll start with the tl;dr on this book: much like a book called The Luminous Dead that I read last year, which ended up on my best-of-year list at the end of the year despite having a fair number of flaws, my ultimate feelings about Peng Shepherd’s debut novel The Book of M are going to depend on how well the book continues to live in my head now that I’ve finished it. I read the book in a day, which is always a good sign– anything I’m reluctant to put down is usually going to be something I’m going to recommend to people– but … there are some issues here, y’all, and it remains to be seen whether three months from now I remember the cool stuff or I remember the issues.

Also, it might not have been the greatest decision I’ve ever made to read a book about the end of the world while I’m literally stuck in my house during a pandemic. I’ve made better choices, is what I’m saying. And depending on your own situation right now even if you do decide to read this you might reasonably decide to hold off for a little bit. It’s OK, the book will still be there.

Anyway.

(Takes a moment to cough himself into near-unconsciousness)

Right.

So the premise of this book: human beings, through means never particularly dwelled upon or explored, have begun losing their shadows. In and of itself, losing one’s shadow is disconcerting but not especially threatening; however, it turns out that losing your shadow is also a precursor to losing your memory, which is a bit more of a problem. Furthermore, it turns out that occasionally as people’s memories disappear and they begin misremembering things, every so often the entire world just sorta reshapes itself to fit what they think they remember instead of the way things used to be, leading to all sorts of crazy havoc, from houses suddenly losing their doors and windows to entire population centers disappearing overnight. The book follows four main characters: a married couple, one of whose shadows disappears at the beginning of the book, an Iranian Olympic-level archer (roll with it,) and a man who suffers a traumatic brain injury just before the events of the book get rolling and suffers from amnesia, but not the same way everyone else does.

There’s a lot going on.

Here’s the good stuff: Peng Shepherd does good words. The writing is compelling throughout and there’s a palpable sense of dread and horror that permeates the entire book; it genuinely was difficult to put down, and again: it’s nearly 500 pages long and I finished the thing in a day. And, like, okay, I just dealt with “the good stuff” in two sentences, but this isn’t nothing, right? It’s a compelling-ass read. I barely stopped reading it once I stopped. That’s worth a recommend. Oh, and there’s a thing at the end that will knock you out of your seat if you’re not prepared for it. I had an inkling, but the book ends well.

That said, uh, there are some issues with … let’s say worldbuilding and narrative consistency, and the occasional real-world logic problem? And I’ll admit part of this may be me missing stuff here and there, as Shepherd can tend toward the elliptical every once in a while. But there are a fair number of places where there don’t seem to be any rules about how or why this whole memory-loss thing is happening other than pure narrative convenience, and the “sometimes folks misremember things and they become real” bit sounds cool but in practice it literally leads to the Statue of Liberty quietly coming to life and then, less quietly, knocking over skyscrapers with that book she’s holding. And that’s not even a main plot point. It’s literally noted that it’s happening and then the characters move on from it. It’s never quite clear what ultimately happens to the shadowless; sometimes they’re presented as basically becoming so nonfunctional that they forget to eat or breathe and then they die, and other times there are huge bands of them just sort of swarming around out there causing trouble, which sort of presumes some persistence of memory somehow.

Also, there are a whole lot of times where people are able to instantly identify others as shadowed or shadowless, at distance, and I’m pretty sure at least once at night. I could lose my shadow right now and I don’t know that I would notice right away; I don’t know how you figure out that someone fifty feet away has theirs or not. A character is able to fly from Tehran to some airport near Boston after all the shit happens, and explains that the plane is able to land because everyone in the (not Boston, but nearby) place it landed was gone.

And … uh. That’s not how planes work, I don’t think? Or at least that’s not how commercial air flight works?

There’s a bit where one guy gets serious third-degree burns to both his hands, necessitating one of his fingers being amputated later, and then I’m pretty sure that Shepherd herself just forgot about it. This is one of those bits where it’s possible that I missed something, I suppose; maybe the magic ex machina fixed him somewhere, but I don’t think so. His hands are burned to shit and then they … aren’t.

So: two sentences of “good stuff” and then several paragraphs of complaining, but I still enjoyed the book and I can still very much imagine a world where I’m still thinking about it at the end of the year. I’m definitely keeping an eye on Shepherd in the future; I don’t know if there’s a sequel to this in the cards (I don’t think it needs one, but it’s not unimaginable) but one way or another I’m definitely buying her next book. If you think your suspension of disbelief can handle a bit of a workout, I’d think about giving this a read.