March 26th, 2013

Book with cat 2

Book #11 of 2013: Kindred

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler.

This is a hard book to review. Before I start, let me state that I am not racist in any way. Any negative comments I make are about the book, the writing, or the characters' actions, not on slavery or real people of color. (Probably an unnecessary warning, but just in case.)

Kindred tells the story of a "modern day" black woman. (She's from the late 70s, but the book was written in the 70s, so.) For no reason she understands, she gets pulled back in time and ends up on a plantation down south in the time of slavery in the US. Through the book, she gets sent back to her own time and back into the past repeatedly.

The story itself was good. It could have been amazing if written differently. (Remember that this book was written in the 70s though, I tried to cut it some slack because writing styles and such were different then.)

My issues with it:

- Butler rarely described any character, and when she did it wasn't with more than a sentence. For a few chapters I only knew the main character was black because of the picture on the cover.

- Related to that: The author was amazingly heavy handed and preachy. It felt like the book was more of an excuse to teach people how wrong and evil slavery was, how badly people of color have been treated, etc. I am in no way disagreeing with those facts, but I did not need to be repeatedly hit over the head with them in a fiction book.

For example: The main character and her husband were in their apartment, talking and unpacking, for a few chapters. We never got a single line of description about the husband other than he had light-colored eyes. The woman was telling the husband about the history of slavery and why it was bad, etc. The husband kept asking such stereotypically "stupid white person" questions about it. I said to myself "I bet he's white" based on nothing other than the questions he was asking... and in the next chapter we finally got mention of his skin color and it was indeed white.

- The author tended towards page after page of dialogue with no tags:

"We could take a break."
"Do you want to go get coffee?"
"Sure. You?"
"I could go for a drink."
"Me too."

Some writers can pull that off, but in my opinion, not this one. (My opinion on that changed as I read the book. It annoyed me in the first half, by the second half I was okay with it.) And worse was this:

"It's kind of warm out today." "Yes, we should have left our coats at home." "Yeah, I don't want to carry mine."

Putting dialogue from multiple people into one paragraph.

- It's interesting how you can tell who has read fanfic and who hasn't. Someone reviewed this book in 50bookchallenge and everyone said how it's so dark that it's hard to get through, how it's the darkest thing ever written, that the rapes were so realistic, etc. I've read so many fanfics that were much darker, much more realistic, and much better written. Nothing in this book disturbed me*. The rapes were all off-screen, just mentioned. While a master raping slaves is a horrible thing, with nothing more than mentioning it happened, how is that dark or challenging to read? I've read fanfics that go into detail on that sort of thing; this book felt like it barely brushed the surface. (*The idea of RL slavery and RL rapes of course disturbs me, but as written in the book, the rapes did not disturb me.)

- The main character annoyed me so much. I'll give you that someone born in that time period wouldn't be an expert on what not to do if you're time traveling, but how much do you need to know to now not to bring a history book back with you? She brought a book describing how slavery ended and all the important people who helped end it. Did she not once think what slave owners would do with such a book? Did she not think that someone who supported slavery might kill off the people listed in the book so slavery wouldn't end? (The slave owner of the plantation she always arrived on knew that she was from the future.)

And even more basic issues than that. She brought a hunting knife back with her, kept it strapped to her calf at all times. One night when she was being chased through the woods by white men, she picked up a dried stick as a weapon instead of using her knife...

Even with all those issues, the story was interesting enough to hold me. The preachiness got less as the book went on, which was a darned good thing (it was so very heavy handed in the beginning). I felt like I learned something from the book, which is always a nice bonus (not the stuff she was preaching to the readers about, but how slaves lived and their various roles and how a plantation worked). I'd go so far as recommending it, with mention of the issues I had with it.