Book Review: Parable of the Talents (Earthseed #2) by Octavia E. Butler

PARABLE OF THE TALENTS (Earthseed #2) by Octavia E. Butler
First published in November 2001

My Rating: ★★★★☆

Parable of the Talents is the second and final book in Butler’s Earthseed Trilogy, published eight years after Parable of the Sower. The story picks up five years after Sower, in the year 2032. Here, the protagonist Lauren has successfully founded a small community called Acorn, loosely organized around the religion of Earthseed. While their community is by no means a wealthy one, it’s still something of a micro-utopia: Each person and family has just enough to meet their basic needs; every individual is treated with respect and dignity, regardless of age, gender or race; and there is no crime or violence amongst the members. The community also makes time for creating and enjoying art, music, and religious rituals, despite the hard labor they do to ensure their survival.

But Lauren, being cautious and pragmatic, still keeps an eye on events happening outside of Acorn. She is particularly concerned about the rising popularity of Sen. Andrew Steele Jarrett, a white Christian presidential candidate who wants to “make America great again”. While he intends to do this by upholding Christianity and persecuting other religious groups, his resemblance to modern populist leaders is uncanny:

Andrew Steele Jarrett was able to scare, divide, and bully people, first into electing him as President, then into letting him fix the country for them. He didn’t get to do everything he wanted to do. He was capable of much greater fascism. So were his most avid followers.

True enough, Lauren’s fears materialize when an extremist group of his followers forcibly break into their community, separate the adults from the children, and make slaves of the adults, all in the name of “re-educating” their “cult”. For the rest of the book, we follow the Earthseed community as they struggle to break free from their captors, find their children, and establish new Earthseed communities.

I found Parable of the Talents much more difficult to read than Parable of the Sower. For one, Butler’s descriptions of the violence, rape, and humiliation that came with slavery was brutal to read about, and for another, the resemblance of their political situation to the present is so close it’s downright scary, so if you’ve been reading to take your mind off the mess of 2020, then this definitely isn’t the book to read!

On the other hand, the critique of religion that Butler hinted in Sower is becomes much more pointed in Talents. She makes it clear through the hypocritical actions of Jarrett’s fanatic followers that in its extremist form, Christianity can breed hatred and oppression. Interestingly, Butler also attempts to critique Lauren and Earthseed through the perspective of Lauren’s daughter, Asha, whose commentary prefaces a number of her mother’s journal entries. In the Prologue, Asha writes:

They’ll make a God of her.

I think that would please her, if she could know about it. In spite of all her protests and denials, she’s always needed devoted, obedient followers—disciples—who would listen to her and believe everything she told them. And she needed large events to manipulate. All gods seemed to need these things.

Unfortunately, this line of critique against all religion in general is never fully fleshed out in the novel. Plus, with her searing critique of religion in Talents, Butler seems to imply that religion is the only breeding ground for oppression, such as patriarchy and racism. While this is true in some cases, I also think that these systems of oppression have a way of taking root outside of religious contexts, which is not something that Talents addresses.

Overall, while I found Butler’s Parable of the Talents an engaging read, I felt like it fell short of its promise. I did find myself intrigued by Butler’s thought experiment, though (“What if we can create a more inclusive religion with an impersonal God?”), and I’d still be interested in reading more of her works in the future. I’ve been hearing great things about Kindred, so I might pick that one up next.

Once again, this was also a buddy read with Melanie @ Grab the Lapels. I enjoyed discussing this with you, Melanie! You can read her review of Talents here.

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from August 9-15, 2020

Book Review: Parable of the Sower (Earthseed #1) by Octavia E. Butler

Parable of the SowerPARABLE OF THE SOWER (Earthseed #1) by Octavia E. Butler
First published in October 1993
This edition published on November 8, 2016 by Seven Stories Press

My Rating: ★★★★☆

TW: Graphic depictions of violence, rape, slavery, mentions of cannibalism, romance with a large age gap

I’ve been hearing about Butler’s works for awhile, so I was finally glad to be able to buddy-read her Earthseed duology with Melanie @ Grab the Lapels. (Melanie’s reviews will also out this week, so head over to her blog to check them out!) One thing that struck us both about the Earthseed series was how 2020 it feels despite being published nearly two to three decades ago. While there’s no pandemic in the series, there is a general sense of anarchy, chaos, and suspicion that pervades the atmosphere of these two works, so that reading it feels eerily similar to watching the news headlines today.

The first book in the series, Parable of the Sower (1993), is set between the years 2024-2027. We follow the perspective of the 15-year-old protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina as she tells us her story in the form of journal entries. In the first half of the book, we watch Lauren and her family struggle to survive within their small walled community in L.A. In her world, basic necessities like water and food have become scarce; technology and education are luxuries that only the very rich can afford; crime is rampant; and the police cannot be trusted to enforce law and order. Every family is left to fend for themselves.

Perhaps a result of her environment, Lauren is practical and tough-skinned from a young age. While she does have a special condition called hyperempathy, which allows her to feel the pain and pleasure of other people, her condition ironically makes her more suspicious and wary rather than empathetic and trusting of others. She explains this is because sharers (those with hyperempathy) are typically looked down upon and exploited, so she does her best to hide her condition.

Just when things seem terrible enough, the story takes a turn for the worse towards the second half of the book: Drug addicts who get a sexual high from watching fire (yes, really) storm into Lauren’s community and raze it to the ground. During the panicked flight from the fire, Lauren is separated from her stepmother and her brothers, and she is forced to fend for herself. However, she journeys to find a safer community, she meets people along the way that she comes to trust and befriend. They eventually form their own community around Earthseed, the religion that Lauren creates (more on this later).

I’ll be honest here: I badly wanted to love this duology, especially since I admire and respect Butler’s work as a writer and activist. However, after finishing this book, I realized that I appreciated what Butler tried to attempt with this novel more than its execution.

I’ll start with what I liked about it. First, I appreciated Butler’s natural incorporation of BIPOC characters in the story without anyone feeling like the “token” minority. This was a rather eye-opening experience for me, since it revealed to me that I’m used to assuming a character is white unless otherwise stated. It was refreshing to finally be able to assume otherwise.

I also agreed with how Butler explored the themes of community, inclusivity, and human resilience. Butler’s imagined future is very much like our present in that misogyny and racism still exist, but in the community that Lauren creates, she clearly condemns those. Instead, she urges everyone to live as equals and to help each other according to their capacities. Butler’s vision of what an inclusive community can look like is also a vision I share.

However, Butler also imagines religion as necessary to hold such a community together, and this is where I diverge with her. As I’ve mentioned, Lauren creates the religion of Earthseed from scratch, initially done as a reaction to her father’s Baptist teachings, but eventually to capture what she thinks is “the truth” about the divine. Here are verses that form the backbone of Earthseed:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

Earthseed views God as neither male nor female—in fact, God is not human. To Lauren, God is the impersonal force of change that shapes circumstances and that can also be wielded to shape circumstances.

I can appreciate this as a critique of monotheistic religions, but I don’t believe that inclusive and supportive communities require a religion as a foundation. Once you accept something as irrevocably true, as Lauren does with her idea of “God is Change”, this can easily ossify into dogma, at which point it risks becoming just like the religions it was founded to critique in the first place.

Aside from that, I also had some minor issues with the world-building. For one, the mechanics of Lauren’s hyperempathy is never fully explained. Lauren can only feel physical pain and sexual pleasure, but not emotions like sadness, fear, or confusion. While we were talking, Melanie mentioned how much more interesting the story would have been had Butler explored this hyperempathy more fully, but as it is in Sower, it just felt like something tacked onto an otherwise near-invulnerable protagonist.

Finally, the plotting also seemed haphazard to me. Since the story is told through a series of journal entries, Lauren often prefaces each entry by explaining the main event before letting us know the lead-up to it, which really killed the suspense for me. There were also a number of coincidences in the novel that seemed like easy solutions to the characters’ problems, but this actually didn’t bother me much—they were all struggling so much already that it was nice to see something good happen to them for once.

In the end, while Parable of the Sower wasn’t as emotionally gut-wrenching as I thought it might be, I still cared deeply for the characters and was content to ‘follow along’ with them on their journey, coincidences and all. And while I wasn’t convinced of the “truth” of Earthseed, I truly admired Butler’s attempt to criticise extremist monotheistic religions and to envision an entirely new belief system that would be more compassionate and inclusive to people from all walks of life. Overall, Parable of the Sower is a gritty, thought-provoking, and ultimately hopeful work about the power of community and human resilience. I recommend it if you’re interested in dystopian fiction, particularly in dystopian fiction that can help us re-envision social justice.


Have you read any of Butler’s works? What did you think of them?

Find me on Goodreads! | Read from June 26 - August 8, 2020

Mini-Reviews: An American Marriage & The Mothers

For this post, I decided to review together two novels by Black women who wrote about the lives of Black, middle-class individuals: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, and The Mothers by Brit Bennett. Incidentally, both these novels also follow three main characters who happen to be involved in a love triangle. I’m not a fan of love triangles, but while these two novels did veer melodramatic, I also ended up enjoying them anyway. I’ll get right to it.


An American MarriageAN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones
First published by Algonquin Books on January 29, 2018
Winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2019)

My Rating: ★★★★☆

An American Marriage is a thought-provoking novel about what loyalty and fidelity mean in a marriage, especially after the unimaginable happens and all one’s plans for the future are destroyed. We follow three narrative voices: Roy and Celestial, the newleyweds, and Andre, Celestial’s childhood best friend. Roy and Celestial have been married for only a little over a year when Roy is falsely convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Initially, the couple is hopeful that the decision will be reversed, but the layers of bureaucracy and the deep-seated prejudice against black men in the criminal justice system makes this a long and drawn-out process. As a result, Roy and Celestial then find themselves reluctantly settling into their strange, new, and separate lives.

Continue reading “Mini-Reviews: An American Marriage & The Mothers”

Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly GorgeousON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong
Published by Penguin Press on June 4, 2019

My Rating: ★★★★

Everyone who’s read this book always remarks on the language first, and now I know why. Vuong’s command of language is simply astounding; I’ve never read anything like it before. Written in the form of a letter to his mother who can’t read, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous follows its narrator, known only as Little Dog, over three significant developmental periods in his life: his childhood, where he grapples with the aftermath of the Vietnam War on his family and his fraught relationship with his mother; his late teenage years, where he explores his sexuality with Trevor, the “redneck” son of the tobacco plantation owner; and his young adulthood, during which he comes into his own as a writer.

Continue reading “Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong”

Mysteries/Thrillers | Darling Rose Gold, The Keeper, & Force of Nature

Aside from romance, I also find myself reaching for the occasional crime novel or fast-paced thriller as my comfort reads. It sounds strange if I put it that way, but what I consider to be ‘comfort reads’ are books that can quickly transport or distract me, and thrillers can be very absorbing.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been very lucky with the genre lately. Here are my reviews of Stephanie Wrobel’s Darling Rose Gold (2020) and Jessica Moor’s The Keeper (2020), two of my most anticipated thrillers this year which turned out to be disappointments. Thankfully, I just finished Jane Harper’s Force of Nature (2017) this week, which turned out to be very satisfying.

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Enemies-to-Lovers Romances | The Worst Best Man & The Unhoneymooners

I just adore a good enemies-to-lovers romance. Everything about this trope gives me life—from the completely ridiculous reasons the characters hate each other, to the petty pranks, the wicked banter, the bristling sexual tension, and finally to the ANGST of surrendering to their “”worst enemy””… I could go on and on. I just love it. I love all of it. I lap all that up to fill the void in my soul.

But as much as I love the trope, I can also get very nitpicky about it in a way that I don’t get with other tropes, mainly because I want the elements to be done a certain way—i.e., The Hating Game (2016) way. I like a lot of banter, competitiveness, and sexual tension, plus a lot of steamy scenes and maybe a couple of pranks tossed in on the side.

While the books below aren’t quite The Hating Game, Mia Sosa’s The Worst Best Man is probably closer to how I like my enemies-to-lovers done. The Unhoneymooners was cute, but it wasn’t steamy enough for me. (My rule for a hate-to-love romance is that the strength of hatred should be proportional to the steaminess of the sex. While I have no way to quantify this, the proportion just felt off-kilter for this book.) Also, weirdly enough, I only started liking The Unhoneymooners during the “lovers” part, and was bored out of my mind during the “enemies” part.

Still, both were fun, breezy reads, a great way to pass the time during this quarantine.

Continue reading “Enemies-to-Lovers Romances | The Worst Best Man & The Unhoneymooners”

Book Review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

How We Disappeared v2

HOW WE DISAPPEARED by Jing-Jing Lee
Published by Hanover Square Press on May 7, 2019

My Rating: ★★★★

How We Disappeared tells the story of a young Singaporean girl’s experience as a ‘comfort woman’, a euphemism for women forced into sexual slavery to Japanese soldiers during World War II. I was initially cautious about this book because stories about sexual violence (and especially sexual violence during wartime) can slide into the realm of trauma porn, but thankfully this book doesn’t fall into that trap. While Lee does zoom in on her protagonist’s traumatic experiences, she also situates them in the larger context of healing from the trauma, which makes the novel ultimately hopeful in tone rather than oppressively bleak.

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Book Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

Djinn Patrol
DJINN PATROL ON THE PURPLE LINE by Deepa Anappara (Published by Random House in 2020)

My Rating: ★★★★

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line follows the point of view of nine-year-old Jai in the basti (slums) of India and his two best friends, Pari and Faiz, as they investigate the disappearances of their peers. They form a Golden Trio of sorts, with Jai as the instigator of their ‘adventures’, Pari as the whip-smart Hermione figure, and Faiz as the reluctant sidekick (though reluctant only because he has work). Inspired by crime shows like Police Patrol and Live Crime, they travel around their basti to list down suspects and interrogate the people who last saw the missing children.

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Book Review: Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Fleishman Is in Trouble
FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (Published by Random House in 2019)

My Rating: ★★★★

I feel so torn over Fleishman Is in Trouble. On one hand, I found the writing brilliant, but the sheer density of the prose also wore me down. I like how it explores the unequal and gendered division of labor in marriage, but the upper-class context makes me wonder about the universality of its insights (i.e., is it just a case of “rich people problems”?). All this made for an uneven reading experience. If we’re talking about enjoyment alone I would’ve given it 3 stars, but since it’s so much better than most of the longlisted books I’ve read so far (bar Girl, Woman, Other, of course), I’m going with 4 stars.

Continue reading “Book Review: Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner”

Book Review: Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Dominicana
DOMINICANA by Angie Cruz (Published by Flatiron Books in 2019)

My Rating: ★★

I always feel uncomfortable when I have to give a book a low rating, but I really can’t give this one any higher, so here we are. As other reviewers have mentioned, the biggest problem with Dominicana is that it’s a tired and overused story of the immigrant experience. It’s riddled with the melodrama of a soap opera, populated by one-dimensional characters, and narrated in a flat and detached manner. At the very least, I expected to learn something new about Dominicans and Dominican culture, but the details about that were so thin that they could have easily been any other marginalized racial group.

Continue reading “Book Review: Dominicana by Angie Cruz”