#WeekendReads: Night Beast by Ruth Joffre

The past two weeks have been a bit weird. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Lexi and out in my garden. My anxiety is high right now for a number of reasons, so I’ve also been making time to sit on my porch and read in the evenings. All of this helps, but it’s still a process. It will always be a process.

Thankfully, there are books. Reading centers me, grounds me, makes me feel connected to my innermost self (the self that I can only really express through writing fiction). Recently, I was lucky enough to receive a digital ARC (advanced reading copy) of Ruth Joffre’s debut short story collection, Night Beast and Other Stories.”

cover of Night Beast

I blew through this collection. I inhaled it as if it were air. It is so, so good. You can read my full review on the Ploughshares Blog, but here’s a snippet:

Reading this collection feels like looking at the world through water—the angles don’t quite match what you expect and the light is diffuse, except when a ripple catches it and momentarily robs you of vision. Joffre’s characters are wispy and insubstantial in the way ghosts of past selves feel when we look back through the haze of time. If you turn your head or look away, they will shift into something else, something new. Something dangerous.

Joffre is one of those writers who makes me go “I WANT TO WRITE LIKE THAT!!” I read this collection once for the journey it took me on, but I will definitely read it again for the craft lessons hiding in its pages (some of which I do address in my review).

If you like strange, queer, unnerving, mysterious fiction with a bite, you absolutely have to read Night Beast and Other Stories. That is a non-negotiable fact.

#FridayReads: Shirtless Bear-Fighter

I was over at a friend’s house to watch hockey, and on my way out after the game I saw a copy of a comic called Shirtless Bear-Fighter. The cover depicts a shirtless man in raggedy pants with exaggerated masculine features (seriously, his feet are huge). I paged through it and saw that this was, yes indeed, a comic about a man who fights bears while decidedly not wearing any clothes (his junk is pixelated so it remains PG-13, sort of). Curious reader that I am, I checked out Shirtless Bear-Fighter from the library via Hoopla and read it in under an hour.

Cover for the first issue of Shirtless Bear Fighter

I have several takeaways:

  1. WHAT IS THIS COMIC I DON’T EVEN KNOW
  2. BUT IT’S REALLY FUCKING FUNNY
  3. “Bear” is not limited to the large omnivorous mammal
  4. There are a lot of toilet paper and poop jokes (WHICH ARE HILARIOUS)
  5. The whole thing can be read as a fable about environmentalism and toxic masculinity
  6. ALSO IT’S REALLY FUCKING FUNNY
  7. Magic bacon.

First, if you find crude humor beneath you, don’t bother with this book. Second, if you can’t tell the difference between straight tropes and the skewering of said tropes, also probably don’t bother with this book. Still with me? GREAT.

Shirtless Bear-Fighter tells the story of a man named Shirtless, who was raised by bears in a lush mountain forest. The bears betrayed him when they killed his lover, and after that he vowed to fight every bear. Now, enraged bears are attacking major cities across the US, and the FBI calls in Shirtless to handle the problem. In the process he discovers that past events weren’t what they seemed and uncovers a plot by a greedy toilet-paper-company logger to turn the whole forest into TP. On the way Shirtless has to deal with multiple betrayals, bears high on magic bacon, and the fact that he probably definitely has a thing for Silva, the female FBI agent.

The creative team (Jody Leheup, Sebastian GirnerNil Vendrell, and Mike Spicer) do not take anything seriously. Shirtless is a hyperbole of our culture’s idea of what men should be, and that’s exactly what gets him into trouble. The issue of Shirtless’s dead lover reveals the cavalier way men treat women and highlights exactly why that is terrible and we should maybe stop doing that right now. Silva is not hyper sexualized and proves herself to be smart and resourceful–without her, Shirtless would fail his mission to save the forest.

So, here’s a comic that takes the most exaggerated masculine tropes and handles them in a subtle, brilliant, hilarious way. I’m definitely on board for a second volume (though it seems the creators are working on other projects right now, but a girl can hope).

#FridayReads: Kindred by Octavia Butler

 

cover for Kindred, showing a Black woman with short hair

If you read science fiction but aren’t acquainted with the fantastic work of Octavia Butler, please take yourself to a library RIGHT NOW and check out a few of her books. Hell, even if you don’t normally read sci-fi, read Octavia Butler.

Kindred tells the story of a modern Black woman, Dana, who is pulled back in time to the South by one of her ancestors. There, Dana has to confront the reality of slavery.  Dana serves as a sort of translator-avatar for the reader—neither she nor any of us have ever experienced slavery first hand. She quickly realizes that if she behaves as a Black woman from the 1970s normally behaves, she’ll get herself killed. Her only real safety net in this strange world is her ancestor, Rufus, the son of a slaveholder and the reason she keeps traveling through time.

Rufus calls Dana to the past—not consciously or purposefully—every time his life is in danger. Dana saves him over and over again, knowing that if she does not, she may never be born. On her second trip, she meets the Black woman Rufus impregnates with her direct ancestor, and knows instinctively that the union between Rufus and Alice can’t by its nature be consensual. As she watches Rufus grow into a cruel man who shows occasional flashes of kindness, Dana contemplates letting him die, but knows that if she does, she may never exist. Even when her worst fears are confirmed and Rufus rapes Alice, she saves his life the next time he’s in danger.

While Kindred is somewhat of a time-travel thriller, its real genius lies in Butler’s characterizations and excellent world building. No character is simply evil or simply good. Even Rufus, who begins life as a kind boy scared of his father and grows into someone just as cruel as the man he once feared, has sympathetic moments. Despite his flaws, Dana cares for him the way a mother might care for a troubled child. He is a product of his time, but Butler doesn’t use that as an excuse to let him off the hook from consequences (and boy, are there consequences).

The way Butler characterizes the slaves Dana meets on Rufus’s plantation is equally important, if not more so. She shows us heartbreaking moments, such as Black children playing “slave trader,” runaways being mauled by dogs, vicious beatings, and families being torn apart when spouses or children are sold. Because Dana has gotten to know these families and these individuals, we mourn with her when tragedy strikes. It’s not all depressing, though. Butler also shows us moments of tenderness and love, and the many many ways slaves resisted their circumstances and found dignity and purpose in their lives outside of their owners’ desires.

Dana goes into the past thinking she could never be a slave, only to learn that she will do what it takes to survive, even if that means swallowing her pride and sacrificing some of her dignity. As she gets to know the slaves, she sees how strong they are. She realizes that they, too, are a product of their time, though their time doesn’t define who they are as individuals. Through Dana’s eyes, the reader is able to see the complex social dynamics and entrenched patriarchal and racist values and structure involved in slavery. As Dana experiences what it’s like to be a slave, so too does the reader—and therein is Kindred’s real power.

It’s impossible to read Kindred and not recognize the echoes of slavery that we, in the year 2018, live with today: entrenched racism that’s built into the very structure of our society. The book begins with a scene of Dana in the hospital, having lost her arm after her last trip to the past. The lost arm is the physical embodiment of the mental and emotional losses Dana has suffered throughout her journey. And like Dana, the reader will come away from the book having lost any illusion of what they may or may not have done during slavery. The loss of that illusion, hopefully, will shed light on the work that still needs to be done in dismantling racism here in the present.