Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred Octavia ButlerKindred
by Octavia E. Butler
Pub Date: June 1, 1979

This is a book that has been in my TBR pile for YEARS. To the point of embarrassment, even. I’ve been intrigued by this book since shelving it as a bookseller and my co-workers pointing out how much they loved it. This was the first science fiction novel written by a black woman, and that deserves some respect right there. I’m generally only mildly interested in sci-fi, so that’s probably what put me off reading this for so long. But while it gets classified as sci-fi because of the time traveling element in it, it’s much more a historical fiction slave narrative than anything else. And that right there is what makes this book stand out.

Dana and Kevin move into a new house in California. They’ve been married for four years, and are both writers. One day Dana, a black woman, gets dizzy and disappears from her home, and appears in early 19th century Maryland, and saves a little white boy from drowning. The little boy’s father thinks she’s going to hurt the boy, but before either can act, Dana disappears again and reappears back home with her husband. Thus, over a short period of time in 1976 California, but over the course of many years in early 19th century Maryland, Dana returns at different times when that little white boy, whose name is Rufus, finds himself in mortal danger of one kind or another. Why is she getting sent back? What is the purpose?

I will warn you – Butler wrote a very real depiction of slave life in this story. Some of the details are more gory than some people care to read about, but there was nothing gratuitous about it. Dana, with her 20th century upbringing, experiences the brunt of what it was to be a slave in the Old South. As one Goodreads reviewer put it, “Butler wastes no time in demonizing what was demonic.” Butler demonstrates the twisted thinking that white slaveowners held with regards to their “property.” She depicts the punishments they unleashed. She gives voice to the slaves themselves, and what they did to merely survive. It made this book difficult to read at times, but the story drew me in so much I couldn’t help but follow Dana as she struggles to figure out her purpose in being sent in time and in her own survival.

Certainly give this book a read if you’re into time travel stories or historical fiction about early 19th century America. The story and the characters will engage you and could bring up excellent discussion questions in a book group addressing the history of slavery in this country, women’s rights, racial tension, and of course the whole “what if?” factor of “what if this happened to me?” You might even finish this book and feel the urge to get back on the family history horse and see if similar skeletons lie in your closet.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, by Chris Taylor

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe Chris TaylorHow Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise
by Chris Taylor
Pub Date: September 30, 2014

Back in 1997, I won my school spelling bee and moved up to the next level. I lost on the word “potentate” (you never forget the word you lost in a spelling bee). Leaving the D.C. hotel where that round of the spelling bee was held, my mom told me and my two younger siblings that as a treat for me winning the school spelling bee, we were all going to see Star Wars that weekend. I remember being intrigued, but at that young age I wasn’t terribly fond of science fiction, so my reaction was a little underwhelmed. Whoo boy. Little did I know that I was about to watch a movie that would come to define a part of my life.

Star Wars is one of those things. It is so enveloped in our cultural makeup it’s practically inescapable. Even if you haven’t seen the movies (and I still know a few who haven’t!), you know references. You know the characters. You know the Empire Strikes Back plot twist. You cringe at the mention of Jar-Jar Binks. Star Wars is as American as apple pie (meaning it may have become famous in the US, but it came from other places and is enjoyed in other places). This book is written by one of those die-hard fans, and tells the story of exactly what the title is: how it conquered the universe.

We start by learning the early life of “the Creator” George Lucas, and the cultural influences that he enjoyed as a kid that were added to the melting pot of his imagination that developed Star Wars. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, The Princess of Mars, drag racing… it’s amazing all the little pieces that sparked something that ended up in Star Wars. In between chapters on how Lucas wrote the story and how each of the episodes came into being, and how the movie studio didn’t support it and then did, and quite a bit of behind-the-scenes drama with actors and special effects people, you get chapters on what the fans have done with the franchise. There’s a chapter on a guy who teaches lightsaber lessons. There’s a chapter on the 501st Legion (all those stormtroopers you see at various events). There’s a chapter on the line warriors who waited outside a movie theater for weeks to watch Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (yeah, I’m one of those people who can’t help but say the full name). There’s a chapter that starts the book on when the first film was dubbed into the Navajo language of DinĂ©, because that’s how awesome the movies are.

I was not born when the original trilogy was released, so for me it was SO MUCH FUN to read about those early reactions to it, and then how it faded a little into the background after Return of the Jedi, and then came back with a vengeance with the prequel trilogy. Chris Taylor is an engaging writer, and met and interviewed plenty of people directly involved with the franchise, or eccentric enough of a fan to be enjoyable to read about. This was an absolutely delightful book to read, and split up into plenty of chapters that make it easy to pick up and put down if you’re a busy person with not a lot of downtime to read.

The paperback edition is revised and updated with more information about The Force Awakens, opening this week. Reading about the hype around the new Disney-helmed movie got me pretty pumped to see it. Even though that portion of the book will be mostly outdated in just a few days (and maybe we’ll get another update later on?), it’s still a wonderful read for anyone with some interest in Star Wars. (I choked up just *reading* about the part in the trailer when you see Han Solo say, “Chewie, we’re home.”) I HIGHLY recommend this as a Christmas gift for any Star Wars fan on your list.