Critical Race Theory: Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson
"America is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go to the basement after a storm, to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now."
Damn. Just....damn. I had to wait several months on the library waiting list to get a chance to read this one, and I'm glad I waited. If Jared Yates Sexton's American Rule is America: irredeemably shitty nation, then Caste is America: A dream that can be mended. Wilkerson doesn't coddle guilty white people, but she is a lot more gentle than Sexton. We didn't start the fire, but it's here and burning, and it falls to us to put it out.
Stop and look at what America collectively did, and remember that "Cancel culture" was and always will be a conservative dominant caste process. American slaves were canceled by being raped to death in front of their children, who were forced to watch and learn their place in the caste system. Americans 100 years later were canceled by being strung up in the town lynching tree and set on fire in front of their parents, who were forced to watch and learn their place. White families brought picnic lunches and had their children watch lynchings for pleasure, under the approving eye of the County Sheriff.
Wilkerson says their names. The descendants of their murderers are the people who are now violently invading school board meetings, pretending to be outraged that their children are taught that differences in skin color were ever significant in America.
Central to the book are comparisons between the various caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, which infamously studied the American South for lessons as to how to effectively create an untouchable caste for Germans to be programmed to hate. There were some things, such as the 'one drop" rule, which were too much for even the Nazis to stomach. Well played, Alabama!
Wilkerson sets forth eight pillars by which a caste system is supported and perpetrated. some pillars, such as justification by scripture and appeals to "natural law"; taboos on relations between the castes, and "impurity' of the lower castes (by which a swimming pool had to be drained and refilled after the 'dirty' caste had used it, before it was fit for the Brahmins or the white people)--are considered disgusting, idiotic superstitions today. Other pillars such as forced segregation and reigns of terror (as exemplified by unofficial police mandates to murder as many black people as possible, and by the Karens who give them the pretext they need by calling 911 on black people who appear in White people spaces) are still going strong today.
this book makes you see what you can't then unsee, so that you know what the problem is and can be motivated to do something about it and challenge the caste system. It makes you think the uncomfortable thoughts. after reading the book, I began to think about American gender roles in terms of an artificial dominant/untouchable caste, too. Very highest recommendations.
Women on Mars: The Foetid Sky, by Mary Robinette Kowal
"Do you remember where you were when mankind landed on Mars? I was on the bridge of the Nina, sitting in the copilot's seat with my pencil and paper, ready to plot. Parker sat in the seat next to me with nothing to do. we stared out the viewport and listened to the radio channels as the Terrazas entered the atmosphere of Mars."
This is the second in the Lady Astronauts set. It was not nominated for a Hugo, and so I thought The Relentless Moon was the second, and realized my mistake when I read it. I had to go back for TheFated Sky out of order. It's all good. The third book stood alone well enough, and the second was surprising enough even knowing what comes ahead.
I love this series, and voted for both the first and third volumes to get the Hugo. It has all the excitement of imagining first trips into space, had they been made necessary two decades earlier due to an extinction-threatening meteor event, and all the social commentary of the racial and gender issues that existed in the 40s through 60s and how they would play out in a seven member spaceship crew, with a respectful treatment of mental health issues as well. Very high recommendations.
Death by Virtue: Strait is the Gait, by Andre Gide
"I saw that strait gate through which we must strive to enter. I fancied it, in the dream into which I was plunged, as a sort of press into which I passed with effort and with an extremity of pain, but which had in it as well a foretaste of heavenly felicity. And again this gate became the door of Alissa's room."
Gide wrote that this was the opposite of his better known book The Immoralist, about a happy rogue. This is a morality tale about how the church makes good people miserable. Alissa loves narrator Jerome, but has resolved to remain virginal for life so as to be fit to pass through the strait gate to Paradise. Jerome loves Alissa too, and remains true to her for life, though she continually rebuffs him, and eventually wastes away to death rather than be fulfilled in his arms. A third character, Juliette, loves Jerome, but he isn't having any because he's obsessed with Alissa, and so Juliette settles on a loveless marriage to some other bro.
Church 3, humanity 0. Well played.
A Surfeit of Nonsense: Impressions of Africa, by Raymond Roussel
"Still armed with his long stick, Rhejed leaped forward and struck the bird sharply on the back of the head, so that it fell without a cry. But seeking to inspect his new victim at closer quarters, the child felt as though riveted to the ground by an invincible force. His right foot rested on a flat, heavy stone covered by the rodent's slobber. This substance, already half dry, formed an irresistibly powerful glue, and Rehjed was able to disengage his bare foot only by violent effort and at the cost of deep and painful sores."
For the first few pages, I thought it was going to be a nonfiction account of a post-WWI era Frenchman's tour of French-occupied Africa, maybe with Kipling-level racism, maybe with a call for reform, maybe an account of regional customs and life, with an emphasis on "My, how exotic", from the European point of view. I spent the previous decade reading western Great Books from Homer to TS Eliot, and outside of Egypt and the Mediterranean coast, there were few mentions of Africa at all. Ibn Battutah, Olaudah equiano’s Interesting Narrative, and Joseph Conrad in the Congo were about it. So—show me the African continent of a century ago!
Roussel did not. He might as well have shown me Oz.
Last year, I read Roussel's other main work, Locus Solus, a series of weird performances and experiments that take place in a weird millionaire's mansion. Impressions of Africa has a shipful of weird artists and scientists who go to some unnamed part of Africa not far inland from the mid west coast, and perform a series of weird vignettes. there is also a subplot about a prince whose throne is plotted against by his wicked brother in the kingdom next door.
I had to cheat and look it up, it made so little sense. I was told that the entire point of Roussel's vignettes involve puns and wordplay that make sense in the original French (like, three or four pages about a scientist melting down the various colored panes of glass from a stained glass window, painstakingly transforming the various colored glasses into vegetables, and making a salad of them, with the punchline being "window dressing").
I feel cheated.
Modern Fairy Tale: The Charwoman's Daughter, by James Stephens
"Bruises, unless they are desperate indeed, will heal at the last for no other reason than that they must. The inexorable compulsion of all things is toward health or destruction, life or death, and we hasten our joys or our woes to the logical extreme. It is urgent, therefore, that we be joyous if we wish to live. Our heads may be as solid as is possible, but our hearts and our heels shall be light or we are ruined. As for the golden mean, let us have nothing to do with that thing at all; it may be only gilded. It is very likely made of tin of a dull color and a lamentable sound, unworthy even of being stolen; and unless our treasures may be stolen, they are no use to us."
This short book by the author of the BRILLIANT tale "The Crock of Gold" is a work of beauty. It was written a few years after the Easter Rebellion and has nothing to do with the rebellion. It's Cinderella without the wicked step-family. The charwoman and her daughter live in a squalid garret in Dublin and don't have enough to eat, and the physical description of their poverty is starkly drawn. And yet, the tone of the book is cheerful. They have each other. Unspoken fellowship is communicated between them and the others of their class. The girl has St. Stephen's Green to wander in (I visited during the Dublin Worldcon and it is a beautiful park) and to strike an acquaintance with all of the pigeons to the point where she recognizes them individually.
Just read it. It will take you away from here for the hour or so it takes to read it, and you will be glad. High recommendations.