Dune by Frank Herbert

The release of a new movie adaptation of Dune by Frank Herbert in October of 2021 had a lot of people dusting off their old copies of the book and waxing nostalgic about this epic work of science fiction that many had lost themselves in reading years ago. And apparently many others were inspired to read it for the first time, because copies with the newer cover were hard to come by at the library and available in all kinds of special formats on Amazon — from single paperbacks, to deluxe hardcovers, to full sets of books 1-6 and beyond.

Our group tackled it with some trepidation, and in the end, those who liked science fiction and remembered reading it way-back-when still loved it for its elaborate world-building. Those who were not already into the genre seemed to struggle with it, although I think we were all glad to have given it a try. We in the BBB pride ourselves on not shying away from a reading challenge, and Dune was certainly that!

Enough people love this book that its legacy has not only endured but flourished since its original publication in 1956, hence the new adaptation in 2021 starring the VERY popular Timotheé Chalamet. This article from The New Yorker explains some of that unique appeal among its millions of fans: “Dune” Endures

Julie Feirer

How the Word is Passed, by Clint Smith

This is a remarkable book unlike any other than I have read as I have explored over the past two years books on racism, anti-racism, caste, mass incarceration, the realities of slavery. This book is in many ways a travelogue. But a very specific travelogue, exploring sites all over the US – and one in Africa – that illuminate our history with enslavement and its aftermath. Smith visits and talks to other visitors and guides at:

  • Jefferson’s home at Monticello, Virginia, where he takes a tour that not many others take, seeing the realities of Jefferson as a slave-owner and as the father of enslaved children;
  • Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, which is the only plantation devoted to looking at life from the perspective of the enslaved;
  • Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest and one of the most brutal prisons in the United States, built on the site of a former plantation, where African-Americans represent 76% of the incarcerated population;
  • Blandford Cemetery in Virginia, the resting place of over 30,000 Confederate soldiers, where he attends a Sons of Confederate  Veterans (SCV) commemoration celebration;
  • Galveston Island, Texas, where the last enslaved people were finally informed of their freedom after the end of the Civil War and where the Juneteenth celebration was born;
  • the Wall Street area of lower Manhattan in New York City, most of which was built by enslaved persons and which housed a thriving slave auction site until 1762; and
  • Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, where 33,000 people were chained and passed through the House of Slaves and the Door of No Return to be loaded into the holds of ships for the “Middle Passage” cross-Atlantic trip to permanent enslavement in the colonies and the emerging United State; this is a place where today the local population grapples with how to teach their history to their children.

What is remarkable about this book to me is Smith’s gentle courage. He manages to talk directly, but without accusation, with those who do not see life through the same lens. We hear from organizers of the SCV celebration, the tour guides and gift shop proprietor at the prison in Angola, along with many others. He hears their stories and then gently asks them to see things from the Black American point of view.

In a beautiful epilogue, Smith talks with his grandparents. They tell of stories received from their grandparents who were enslaved. They remember their own stories of the Jim Crow south.

Smith’s prose evokes clear images of the places he visits and the people with whom he talks. This is a beautiful book. If you’re interested in dipping your toe into some of the recently published books on “our original sin” and its aftermath, this is an excellent place to begin.

— by Jeanie Smith

The Magician’s Assistant

In The Magician’s Assistant, Ann Patchett tells a wonderful story of real life. She shows us love, cruelty, joy, grief, reinvention, and revelation. The narrative is a delightful mashup of the dead and the living; the past and the present; Los Angeles and a tiny Nebraska town where the Walmart is a wonderland. As always, Patchett’s characters are notable in their particularity, and her settings (especially that rice paddy in Vietnam ☺) feel viscerally real. 

The book was published in 1997 and takes place in the nineties—a time when aids was a deadly scourge, homosexuals were often hated and feared, and the country was still dealing with fallout from the Vietnam war. Sabine, the main character, is paralyzed with grief because her beloved Parsifal (who married her only so she could be his widow) has died of an aneurysm in the footsteps of his Vietnamese lover, Phan, who died of AIDS. The Magician’s Assistant is a novel about grief. It also takes on homicide, domestic abuse, and family dysfunction. And by allusion, the holocaust and the Vietnam war. 

And yet. And yet, it is a remarkably loving story told with lots of glam, glitter, and hyperbole. 

The characters are kind to each other, with the notable exceptions of Guy’s father and Kitty’s husband, who become catalysts for transformation. The horrors of domestic violence motivate Guy to transform himself into Parsifal the magician. Howard’s meanness drive Kitty into Sabine’s bed. And Sabine and Kitty (we assume) will eventually find true love with one another. 

The story is realistically told, but with just enough razzle dazzle to make it feel like it’s about . . . well . . . magic. The opulence of Sabine’s house in Los Angeles; the incredibly fine detail of her architectural models, the huge, beautiful, pricey rugs. All those teeny beads Phan sews on Sabine’s wedding gown. The unsettling similarity in appearance of Parsifal and Kitty. The gorgeous androgyny of tall, thin Sabine wandering around in Phan’s silk pajamas. Plump, placid, omnipresent Rabbit. All a bit over the top, but so compelling—especially the dreams that feel more like travel in the afterlife. 

And then there’s Sabine’s card trick at the wedding. The morning before the wedding, “she found she could give the deck four extremely careless taps under any circumstance of noise with an utter lack of concentration and the aces still raced to the top of the deck like horses to the barn. That very morning, she had leaned out of the shower and tapped the deck four times with a soapy hand. Bingo. 

When she, in an act of faith that a magic trick with no trickery will actually work, performs this at Bertie and Haas’s wedding reception, the guests are underwhelmed. They would have preferred something flashier with baby chicks instead of a quiet card trick. But the bride intuits something special has happened. Perhaps the “trick” that is not a trick is a quiet but profound sign to Sabine. The Parsifal she adored for so many years—never suspecting how little she knew him, what a total trickster he was—has led her to his sister. He has made a miracle for her and Kitty. 

The Magician’s Assistant is the human condition revealed with pizzazz and affection. 

— Sharelle Moranville