Review: Black Boy by Richard Wright


Richard Wright grew up in the woods of Mississippi, with poverty, hunger, fear, and hatred. He lied, stole, and raged at those around him; at six he was a “drunkard,” hanging about taverns. Surly, brutal, cold, suspicious, and self-pitying, he was surrounded on one side by whites who were either indifferent to him, pitying, or cruel, and on the other by blacks who resented anyone trying to rise above the common lot.

Black Boy is Richard Wright’s powerful account of his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. It is at once an unashamed confession and a profound indictment—a poignant and disturbing record of social injustice and human suffering.


Black Boy is a deeply horrifying and intelligent memoir from Richard Wright, a Mississippi black boy who became so much more than black boys were supposed to become. His earliest memories on a Southern plantation and the tough streets of Memphis become fantastic stories that he, unfortunately, had to live.

Richard is different, who knows why, but he’s different. All the black families living on his street are hungry, but Richard wonders why he’s hungry. Why can’t his mother, a cook at a restaurant serving heaping plates to white customers, give him enough to eat? He’s too young to understand, but this inquisitive behavior will follow him through various tragedies.

At the age of twelve, before I had one full year of formal schooling, I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.

At its core, the memoir is a book about a boy becoming a man. But Richard is a black boy who becomes a black man, and so instead of your basic coming-of-age story, you have a story about a boy coming of age in a society that hates him. And because Richard is so smart, he tries to learn why it hates him. This line of questioning is extraordinary given that the conditions of black people in Jim Crow South are almost like those of people living in pre-agricultural societies: they are so consumed with fulfilling basic human needs (the only constant through Richard’s numerous moves across the South is an everlasting hunger), that no time remains for them to develop things of worth and permanence.

Richard discovers the complicity of black people in their own subjugation. Indeed, this book is rarely about the oppressors, about the white people pushing the heads of black people into the ground. It’s about a culture where a white man doesn’t even have to push a black man down: he’s already lying there, starved and beaten. For the beginning of his life, white people are a hazy specter in Richard’s world. The racism of Richard’s time is so devastating and so complete because another race barely even needs to exist to perpetuate it. Almost every one of Richard’s friends refuses to shake the status quo, indeed sometimes doesn’t realize there’s a status quo to be shook.

But really what I learned from Richard’s wonderful evolution from a poor Mississippi boy with no schooling to a published Chicagoan author is the importance of compassion for others whose lives we cannot imagine. In the North Richard works as a dishwasher in a restaurant with a bunch of young white girls waitressing. They are not ill intentioned, but still they will never understand him, will never even seek to understand him, and will thus simply add to a culture that denies him basic personhood. This is bad. Imagining others is important. And that’s why Black Boy was so thrilling to me. Here is a man with a life story that I will literally never be able to fathom. And yet, he’s trying. He’s trying to make me fathom it, with every brilliant thought and sentence he’s got.

I fail. I cannot imagine living as a black boy in Mississippi in the 1910s. But gosh did this book get me close. And getting closer is what the world needs.

4 out of 5 stars


Review: Deathless by Catherynne Valente


Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.


The question is always who is to take and who is to give. I took first, that’s all. You will take last.

Everyone knows that the greatest stories are told in threes. Goldilocks eats the porridge of three bears, not two, not four. The Big Bad Wolf tries to blow down the houses of three little pigs, no less, no more. And in Deathless, a madcap retelling of bits of Russian folklore, the tradition does not waver. It pivots on the tragic interactions between three characters: Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life, who is so desperate to keep the world alive that he’s surrounded by death; Marya Morevna, his stolen bride, whose every heartbeat pushes her towards death, away from the magical domain of her deathless husband; and Ivan the Fool, the human soldier who pitifully falls in love with Marya, a woman spotted with scars from loving and warring with another man more incredible than Ivan will ever be.

These three characters will bite, kick, chase after, flee from, kiss, maim, heal, hate, blame, love, and forgive each other all across Russia, both the “real” Russia and the fantastic Russia found in storybooks. There are two wars going on, one with Germany, another with the Tsar of Death. And yet communism, Stalin, and the Siege of Leningrad all fade beside the twisted fates of Koschei, Marya, and Ivan.

In writing that is clever, feminist, complex, and downright lush, Catherynne Valente asks: Can love be equal? Is it only true power when it’s given, not taken? Should colorful monsters be caged in the name of progress? Is life an end or a beginning?

I received no answers, but opaque maybes, grey sortas, honest but frustrating it-depends-on-the-situation. Deathless is wild, dark, and sexy. Even as people are dying all around, even as hope disappears, from now on only to exist in the lands of the Tsar of Death, Koschei, Ivan, and Marya push forward, together and apart; their deformed and pure love for each other deathless even as Death hunts them down.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon


The sheltered son of a Jewish mobster, Art Bechstein leaps into his first summer as a college graduate as cluelessly as he capered through his school years. But new friends and lovers are eager to guide him through these sultry days of last-ditch youthful alienation and sexual confusion–in a blue-collar city where the mundane can sometimes appear almost magical.


Take a dull boy in a dull city during a dull, liminal summer. Not an adult but soon-to-be, not really anything yet but certain he will be. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh begins at this doorway and records Art Bechstein’s quest for a summer of whimsy and profundity that will change him for the better.

June finds Art making fantastic new friends who all seem to know how to live better than he does. Inspired, Art sits atop a hill in Pittsburgh and thinks this:

I smoked and looked down at the bottom of Pittsburgh for a little while, watching the kids playing tiny baseball, the distant figures of dogs snatching at a little passing car, a miniature housewife on her back porch shaking out a snippet of red rug, and I made a sudden, frightened vow never to become that small, and to devote myself to getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

June leads to July and then August, sultry months that will find Art in various predicaments that are recounted nostalgically even as they are happening for the first time, and throughout Art will interrogate himself: How does one become “big”? But to answer how, it is necessary to answer what. What does it mean to be “big”?

Each character approaches bigness differently, and Art finds something to envy with every one. Big, mean Cleveland steps onto the page straight from a Hollywood action sequence. He is undoubtedly the biggest character in the novel. But you don’t even have to squint to notice how small he is inside. He resorts to showing off to hide his emptiness, and yet everyone around him idolizes him, fears him, historicizes him even though he’s a 20-something who has barely started living.

The other two principals in Art’s motley crew are Phlox, the girlfriend described as a movie star beauty but who is terribly mundane beneath it all, and Arthur, the cultivated gay man who feigns coming from a palace but actually grew up in a 2-bedroom ranch. Every character starts out big but pops at some point, floating downwards towards the blue-collar streets of Pittsburgh. Maybe down there they aren’t big, but there they can stop and think for a while. And maybe there, like Art, they’ll learn that bigness doesn’t come with living; it comes with remembering. Philosophizing, exaggerating, daydreaming—whatever you want to call it. People are big when they give you something to think about.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke


The year is 2001, and cosmonauts uncover a mysterious monolith that has been buried on the Moon for at least three million years. To their astonishment, the monolith releases an equally mysterious pulse—a kind of signal—in the direction of Saturn after it is unearthed. Whether alarm or communication, the human race must know what the signal is—and who it was intended for.

The Discovery and its crew, assisted by the highly advanced HAL 9000 computer system, sets out to investigate. But as the crew draws closer to their rendezvous with a mysterious and ancient alien civilization, they realize that the greatest dangers they face come from within the spacecraft itself. HAL proves a dangerous traveling companion, and the crew must outwit him to survive.


I haven’t read much science fiction, but I’m continuously awed by how incredibly devoted it is to instruction. Most fiction seeks to entertain or to describe or to prod, either intellectually or emotionally. Science fiction, on the other hand, wants to educate. Its readers are learners, its authors teachers. And the class syllabus is vast: it covers subjects like the functioning of planetary orbits or astronaut behavior in zero gravity, yet I’m tempted to label this area of instruction as pedestrian next to the genre’s equal fascination in the most profound questions of our species. Here we’re mostly concerned with answering this one: Are we alone in this vast universe? Thankfully, Clarke quickly dismisses this possibility as ridiculously impossible. That way we focus on the more interesting question: if we’re not alone, what does this mean for our future?

In 2001, the prospect of celestial neighbors does not only have significance on our future, it affects our past. One of the most terrifying theories proposed by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is the Zoo Hypothesis, the idea that intelligent life is out there, but it’s so advanced that our planet is nothing more to them than a cage of lions at the zoo is for us humans. Clarke’s novel plays on this idea, though not as sinisterly as he could have.

The most sinister part of the novel is HAL, the onboard space shuttle computer who controls the management of the entire vessel with his extrahuman artificial intelligence. The midbook sequence where he takes a prime role in the future of humanity and its role among the stars is the most rollicking and also the most educational part of the novel. The main intrigue of 2001 is that some advanced extraterrestrial species had a hand in speeding up the evolution of humans millions of years ago, setting us on course, essentially, to one day meet them elsewhere in the universe. Eerie parallels emerge when you consider the idea of supersmart computers like HAL. Has our species reached a point where we are now advanced enough to not only influence other forms of life, but to create other forms of life? Wisely, this is one of the points in the novel where Clarke seeks to educate but not by providing us any semblance of an answer.

Where this novel fails is its journey from science (fiction, of course, but still science) to a psychedelic, almost pious ending scenario. It’s a common ending found in other scifi works (Sagan’s Cosmos comes to mind) in which humanity leaps into the heart of the universe and finds something so wonderful and so mysterious that it’s inevitably cast with a godlike hue. I agree: the universe is wonderful and mysterious, but I wonder why science fiction authors have to depict our profound, long-awaited discoveries of its secrets in the same way an ancient monk once wrote “Let there be light!” as the first sentence in the Bible.

The universe is amazing, and Clarke’s 2001 shows us a fictional example of why that’s so. Shouldn’t that be enough?

4 out of 5 stars