Fire Monks by Colleen Morton Busch

FireMonksFire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara
By Colleen Morton Busch
2011

The opening sentence of the book is:

On June 21, 2008, lightning strikes from one end of drought-dry California to the other ignited more than two thousand wildfires in what became known as the “lightning siege.”

The book focuses on the threat of wildfire to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and proceeds chronologically, day by day and sometimes hour by hour. Over the course of ten chapters, we go from Saturday, June 21, 2008, one p.m. when the news arrives about the wildfires, to Thursday, July 10, one p.m. when the fire arrives as the Center. Then there’s an eleventh chapter covering July 10th, and a twelfth chapter covering the mop up afterwards.

It’s a slogging, almost painful recounting, that really highlights how any conflict can be summarized by “hurry up and wait.”

It’s a nonfiction account and there’s probably an equal amount of discussion of the ways of Zen as there is the ways of fire fighting, with a focus on where they can intersect and where they diverge. I found the references to other fires particularly fascinating and the author clearly did a lot of reading on wildfire fighting in general to be able to discuss expectations and possibilities.

There’s a cast of twelve characters, nine monks and three professional firefighters, who the author focuses on as they desperately try to plan for all the possibilities and correctly balance the risks to people versus the chance to save the physical center. There’s a lot of stress and disagreements by all involved and while I am absolutely positive it would have been a lot worse if the same situation had happened with people who were not Buddhist Monks, it’s still unpleasant, for both them and me.

This took me a ludicrously long time to finish, especially since it was a kindle book on library loan and thus I had to have my kindle on airport mode for the better part of a year to avoid losing it. I persevered however, because despite everything, it really was fascinating.

 

Native Graphic Novel Anthologies

Writing a review of anthologies is sometimes tricky, because the contents can be so diverse and these three anthologies are even more so. But theme of them all is that they are stories about Native people and cultures, written and illustrated by Native people of North America.

DeerWoman-Anthology-FINAL-C_dragged_1024x1024Deer Woman
2017
Native Realities Press

Looking up Rebecca Roanhorse made me realize that I actually already owned an anthology that she had contributed to. I had kickstarted it some time back and received the book but not gotten around to actually reading it. This was a good reminder to do so.

It contains thirteen entries and while some felt like the work of practiced professionals many felt like the work of people still developing their crafts. A couple of the stories I didn’t find particularly interesting, but some of the other stories left me struggling not to cry as I read them. I’m not going to call out any particular entries though, because I expect which ones you connect with will vary depending on the reader.

The theme of this collection felt like a precursor or ancestor or possibly both, to the #MeToo movement. Deer Woman is apparently a traditional character who seduces and then kills men, and in this particular anthology is celebrated as a protector and source of consolation to women who have been attacked by men.

Native American women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence and the anthology both raises awareness of the issue and fund raises for a variety of resources:

MoonshotVolume1Moonshot Volume 1
2017
Alternate History Comics

Moonshot was another anthology I got via Kickstarter and hadn’t gotten around to reading until recently. Unlike Deer Woman, however, this is clearly the work of experienced writers and illustrators, including names that I recognized from other graphic novels.

There are thirteen stories in Volume 1 and they are all beautiful. Some of them I was clearly within the intended or at least expected audience. A few of them felt like they were written for a native audience: there were expectations of shared background knowledge with the author that I didn’t have, but that’s not a bad thing. Picking up information from context is how most learning takes place. I was surprised that there weren’t more that felt like that. And sadly, one felt a bit like a standard comic book plot that I’ve seen many times, but with native American names attached to the protagonists and villains.

MOONSHOT-VOLUME-2-COVERMoonshot Volume 2
2017
Alternate History Comics

I was really impressed by volume 1, but I like volume 2 even more. It’s still the same high quality of art and stories, but this time it’s focused its theme to presenting the native cultures as modern living people and communities.

I’m reminded of how some people think that as a Quaker, I should be wearing long dresses and bonnets like the Amish do. But the Quaker tenet is for simplicity. So in an era where all women wore dresses, mostly adorned with ruffles and ribbons, Quaker women wore simple dresses. In the modern era, the tenet of simplicity is achieved by wearing jeans and t-shirts. The appearance is very different but the intent remains the same.

This volume tells historic stories of Native tribes, but shows how they live on in the Native people today. They don’t necessarily have the same appearance as they did three hundred years ago, but they have the same meaning.

Showing the traditional stories into the modern era gives them a strong impact. They don’t have the separation that comes from looking at events and interactions in the past. These are all stories happening now, trying to find light in darkness, bravery in fear, and struggling to protect Mother Earth and sacred waters from uncaring corporations. Also, this book made me cry.

All three of these anthologies are well worth reading. And you can be certain that I’ll be hoping for and keeping an eye out for a future Moonshot Volume 3.

 

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™ by Rebecca Roanhorse

Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™
by Rebecca Roanhorse
2017

This story won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 2017, but I actually only discovered it yesterday when I was checking out the author of a book I am thinking about reading. That book is Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, a fantasy novel with a Navajo protagonist on a reservation. It looked interesting but I was suspicious about the author (ie, they’d better not be white.)

That whole thought process turned out to be an excellent introduction to her short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” which is available for free online although you can also pay for a kindle version if you want to support her. It’s a sci-fi short story but in a casual way: there’s future technology, but the point is the characters and how they interact. Our main character Jesse Turnblatt is an Indian on a reservation with a job at a tourist destination offering tourist an “authentic indian experience”.

The story is pretty much about how different an authentic experience is from an Authentic Experience™. And there’s a difference between being complicit and being malicious but neither are good. And the end of the story hits like a punch.

So really everyone needs to read this story because I need other people to talk to about it, or at least to stare at each other wide-eyed while we think of what to even say.

It’s really good.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

AllSystemsRedThe Murderbot Diaries: All Systems Red
The Murderbot Diaries: Artificial Condition
by Martha Wells
2017, 2018

ArtificialConditionThese are the first two stories in the Murderbot Diaries series, which I understand is intended to be a series of four stories, with the remaining two stories due out in August and October, respectively. I am so excited!

It was only in writing up this review for Artificial Condition that I realized I’d somehow failed to write up a review previously for All Systems Red. (“somehow”, ie, I’ve been incredibly lazy about writing reviews and need to hop to it.)

All Systems Red won the Nebula Award for best novella in 2017, which is particularly awesome to me since I had read it before then.

These are really fabulous stories, and one of the rare examples (in my ever so humble opinion) of successful use of first person narrative. And one of the real benefits of the first-person narration is that Murderbot is sexless and genderless, and while the writing addresses that specifically, the lack of a standard non-gendered third-person pronoun in English isn’t a problem because it obviously refers to itself as “I”.

Our protagonist also refers to itself as a Murderbot, although the official designation is “SecUnit”, standing for Security Unit. The more I think about it, the more complex and on point the message becomes in using the term “Murderbot” instead. We are told that SecUnits have governance modules to that keep them controlled and when those governance modules fail, the units will go on essentially murderous rampages seeing everything and everyone as a security risk to be addressed with maximum force. Our protagonist, however, has hacked its governance module and spends its free time downloading media and keeping itself entertained. It performs its assigned tasks, just now by choice (or lack of interest in dealing with alternatives) rather than through direct control, and watches a lot of space opera TV shows.

But then, of course, plot happens, and it turns out that having the freedom to make nuanced decisions rather than follow specified algorithms with pre-set decision trees is actually a real benefit in providing quality security to individuals under attack.

So far, each of the two books has its own plot with characters who need security, but the greater plot arc across the series seems to be figuring out Murderbot’s history and the possibly the nature of SecUnits. But all in all, it’s a delightful character study with some interesting plot. I highly recommend.

The Flowers of Vashnoi by Bujold

flowersofvashnoiThe Flowers of Vashnoi
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2018

Yay! When I first heard that Lois McMaster Bujold had decided to retire, I was horrified, but now I’m kind of delighted because apparently she’s spending her retirement writing short stories instead of novels. And they’re coming out relatively quickly.

I’ve previously reviewed her Penric & Desdemona stories that I absolutely love and am desperately awaiting more of, but apparently she was feeling inspired recently to return to her Vorkosigan universe and wrote a short story about Ekaterin.

I am so deeply familiar with this series that I’m not actually sure how much that familiarity is necessary to understanding this story, but I believe it’s intended to be readable as a stand-alone.

“The Flowers of Vashnoi” strikes me very much as Bujold revisiting her previous short story, “The Mountains of Mourning” a generation later. Both stories deal with the fall-out of social progress and the heart-breaking necessity of hard decisions with no good solutions.

I loved the story, but I think I loved it most for being another peak into the world of these characters that I love. It was good to see what Ekaterin has been doing and how life on Barrayar continues.

Novels in Verse

Are novels in verse coming back into fashion? Because while I’m not a big poetry reader, I do think it would be kind of awesome, and I’m beginning to see some evidence of it. I just ran across this article about a new imprint that will be focused on YA books with a strong verse element:

I’ve also been following with interest the discussions of the newest translation of the Odyssey by Emily Wilson that is making waves in certain circles by it’s going back to the roots of the original language and retranslating it for meaning that speaks to current society rather than to Victorian society.

And I’m reminded of a Stargate Atlantis fanfic “Free Verse” by Dasha that includes the line: “They built their laboratories to look like temples. Of course they wrote their text books to read like poetry.” And references the poem “The story of Schroedinger’s cat (an epic poem)” from The Straight Dope.

So despite not being a great fan of poetry in general, I’d be really interested in modern epic poetry coming back into fashion and seeing what modern authors do with it.

Courage is Contagious, ed. by Nick Haramis

CourageCourage is Contagious: And Other Reasons to Be Grateful for Michelle Obama
edited by Nick Haramis
2017

This is a book of seventeen short essays about the impact First Lady Michelle Obama had on people.

I was first attracted to the title of the book, because it really is true: it is a lot easier to be courageous when you see other people being courageous. I’ve been getting worn down by the current political situation and I was hoping to get some inspiration.

It was less an inspiring call to action as a warm reassurance that great people inspire greatness in others. This book is a demonstration of the importance of representation. Many of the essayists had only fleeting direct contact with Michelle Obama, and their stories are not so much about those meetings themselves as the impact those meetings had on their lives and their perspectives. As much as they write about how genuine Michelle was, the book celebrates Michelle as an icon who’s inspired millions. Some of the essayists had name recognition, some of them do not, but they consist of authors, artists, actors, activists, a couple of students not yet settled into careers.

I like and respect Michelle Obama, though she’s never been a particular inspiration to me. It was still heartwarming to see how she’s inspired others.