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LeVar Burton

LeVar Burton Reads: Season Two

Ever since I discovered LeVar Burton Reads, which is an outstanding podcast showcasing short stories of all types of genres, I have listened to LeVar’s melodious voice on an almost weekly basis, and kept track of the stories through my Goodreads account. Now that I have finished season two plus his live broadcasts, I am ready to share!

Repairing the World by John Chu

Lila and Bridger are two linguists who are tasked with repairing holes in their world from other dimensions. Typically you might think of linguists as being a cerebral job, but this job is very physical, as aliens must be understood and subdued before being killed or sent back where they are from. This sci-fi short story juxtaposed futuristic inter-planetary travel with Lila and Bridger’s world being discriminatory to those who are LGBTQ+. When Lila sees how Bridger’s life is in peril for loving a man, she thinks, “If she was going to prevent other worlds from intruding, this world ought to be one worth preserving”. This ends the story on a hopeful note, for you hope that she and others will fight for change in their world, just as readers should be doing the same in our real world.

The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar

Schoolage Anisa is an immigrant from Lebanon whose family now lives in Glasgow, who is fascinated by owls. She processes her anxiety about her father who still travels to his family’s war-torn region and the memories she has of home by studying predatory owls. While she briefly rejects her family’s background and Arabic language, by the end she is starting to accept her heritage, and becomes more comfortable with herself. This was an engaging short story about embracing your culture.

Unassigned Territory by Stephanie Powell Watts

Stephanie is an eighteen year old Jehovah’s Witness, who is at a crossroads in her life. She travels the rural backroads of North Carolina with a partner hoping to bring new believers into her faith, but at times she faces skepticism and discrimination, as she is black in a typically white congregation. While a believer, she doesn’t have the same fervor for proselytizing as her friend and wonders if she should go to college or marry young to someone from her church. An unknown future awaits this witty young woman, and you will wonder what choice she will end up making.

Mrs. Perez by Oscar Casares

This short story is about Lola Perez, a 68 year old widow who lives in Brownsville, Texas near the Mexican border. Mrs. Perez put her husband and daughters first for many years, and it is only now that she is widowed that she has developed a passion for bowling. She is quite good at it and takes pride in the trophies she has won, so she takes it hard when her prized bowling bowl is stolen from her home. The quote “she wore the nervous smile of a young woman who realizes she has just boarded the wrong train” about a memory Lola has while looking at a picture of her honeymoon, was beautifully descriptive in this slice-of-life story. What Mrs. Perez does at the end of the story when she sees the thief, shows that you shouldn’t underestimate quiet women.

The Baboon War by Nnedi Okorafor

The Baboon War was my first story that I have read by Nnedi Okorafor, although I recognize her name from the YA series Akata Witch and for for penning the graphic novels Black Panther and Shuri. Known for her magical realism stories, I’m glad I was able to listen to the short story that appears in her collection Kabu Kabu. In this story, a group of three girls find a shortcut through the forest on their morning walk to school. But they are attacked by a group of dangerous baboons who steal their lunches from them. These three plucky schoolgirls refuse to give up this shortcut they find, and for ten days keep using the path while thinking up different ways to outsmart the baboons and put up with strange rain storms that only seem to occur in the forest. On the last day the girls carry no food but the baboons still attack them as they run to school. This earns them the respect of the monkey troop, and there is a strange supernatural aspect at the end of the tale between the girls and baboons.

Furry Night by Joan Aiken

Borrowing liberally from folk tales and fairy tales, this story is about a werewolf who meets his match. Sir Murdoch, a lycanthropist and famous theatre actor, plans to retire to his English estate. He employs a personal valet to combat his well-known anger which turns him into a werewolf. This young man is to inject Murdoch with wolf’s bane to turn him back into human form, but even with this precaution, there is worry that Murdoch will wolf-out as he is upset that an annual village race will infringe on his land. A young woman with a connection to Murdoch’s past gets involved with the men, and the ending was rather predictable. This story had a 70’s vibe, which is hard to explain, but I recognize the type of writing right off. While not my sort of story, I think readers who enjoy British fantasy type stories will like it.

Different Kinds of Darkness by David Langford

Different Kinds of Darkness is a perfect example of a compact but powerful story. This dystopian tale is set in a world in which some mathematical formulas have become so developed that viewing an image of it can kill you instantly. Terrorists use these images on posters and once on television to kill thousands. Parents have taken to extreme measures to keep their children safe by implanting a biochip into their optic nerves. Not fully understanding the situation, some students rebel and form the Shudder Club, in which they expose themselves to a dangerous image for longer amounts of time, which basically inoculates themselves against other images. Their motto “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger” becomes prophetic when something happens at their school. The children prove to the adults another path can be followed to combat the dangerous world they live in, but the author David Langford still expertly avoids the trope of children knowing more than adults.

The Great Wide World Over There by Ray Bradbury

A melancholy tale that really makes you wonder if it is better to have had something that is later taken away or never know what you are missing. In this short story we are introduced to Cora who is a middle aged illiterate farm woman. Her nephew comes to visit the farm for a month and helps her write letters that bring the world to her doorstep. She displays kindness to a neighbor who pretends to receive mail, by truly sending her a letter, but the summer ends on a bittersweet note when Benjy heads home and Cora realizes she never learned how to read and write herself. This is not a happy story by any means, but it will make you ponder choices made and the resulting consequences of those actions.

My Dear You by Rachel Khong

This story left me disquieted as I listened to a young woman navigate Heaven after her untimely death in an accident while on her honeymoon. This subjective view of the afterlife was surreal as her memories of her family and husband faded as the years wore on. A meeting with her husband years later felt hazy and unfinished, and my thoughts were that these lost memories of hers could be like what Alzheimer’s might feel to someone – the memories are no longer there, but the feelings of love and belonging remain.

The 5:22 by George Harrar

With a bit of a Twilight Zone vibe- Walter, a staid man who craves routine, has his train commute schedule upended to his dismay and doesn’t know what to make of it. While plausible explanations are given, the reader needs to decide was the story edging into magical realism, or was it simply odd coincidences that led Walter down a different (and possibly better) path?

A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets by Kevin Brockmeier

When the story began first began I thought the premise was too similar to Chivalry by Neil Gaiman, but this story took the idea of a mortal finding a holy item in a better direction. In this case, a man finds an overcoat of God’s in a thrift shop and discovers that prayers from nearby people appear as slips of paper in his coat pockets. Often he can do nothing about the prayers, but on occasion he is able to intervene and help certain individuals. This fable makes you realize that we never can help everybody, but we can always help somebody, and this help could make a huge difference in someone’s life. So if everybody helps somebody, we might just be answering someone’s prayers!

Childfinder by Octavia Butler

I was impressed with how Butler combines science fiction into a larger narrative about racism and being true to yourself. In this story a black telepath who has the unique ability to discover children with untapped psi abilities is threatened by a white woman from an unnamed society that controls and harnesses telepaths and is upset that she left the organization to work only with black children. This telepath mentor is able to shield her young protégés, but at a cost to herself. Butler makes a brilliant connection early in the story with Harriet Tubman, that parallels what happens later in the story.

The Winds of Harmattan by Nnedi Okorafor

A melancholy tale, this story is set in Africa during the slave trade with a woman who is born a magical Windseeker, and despite advice she marries a man who seems to accept her power at first. After a few years of marriage and having two boys, she still goes into the forest to levitate, which leads the villagers to accuse her of witchcraft. The ending brought me to tears as the male patriarchy won- there was no redemption for her, and even her beloved boys forgot her. But unfortunately this magical realism tale was true to life, as sometimes there are no happy endings no matter how hard you want it to end otherwise.

As Good as New by Charlie Jane Anders

As Good as New was a clever short story that combined the unlikely elements of an apocalyptic disaster, a genie-in-a-bottle and playwrights into one story. Marisol is a pre-med student who cleans houses for extra money to get through school when a devastating earthquake occurs and she is lucky enough to be in a mansion that has a fully stocked safe room. Two years go by and she leaves the room to find the world ravaged by a fungus and improbably discovers a genie who used to be a theatre critic. Granted the typical three wishes, Marisol realizes she needs to plan the wishes carefully and a talky battle of wits occurs. The narrative was very meta in how the story played out, in relation to the criticisms that the genie mentioned in how he critiqued plays in the past and it all tied together in a pleasing way.

Money Tree by Nalo Hopkinson

In this particular story a brother and sister listen to Caribbean folklore about their family’s connection to the water with a mamadjo/mermaid mother and a tale of lost pirated gold. This allegorical tale makes connections between greed and familial relations, and incorporates the transformative value of water with the sister in healing from her grief.

Black Betty by Nisi Shawl

This short story was about racism through the perspective of a dog who is given a voice modifier and can “talk” to humans. At first I thought this story of Betty the dog was going to be like Black Beauty and follow the travails of a dog through many families, but it took an interesting turn, and went deeper than that to touch on prejudice and belonging. There was a touch of humor when Betty meets a cat who can talk, then there was a worrisome interlude, before ending on a hopeful note. While the story was a bit uneven, I listened to the last half again so I could pick up on some details I missed the first time around, and enjoyed it more the second time.

The Fliers of Gy by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Fliers of Gy began as a science fiction narrative, describing the humanoid but feathered inhabitants of the planet Gy, but turned into a fascinating allegory about different types of personalities and how they shape us. Despite having feathers, the inhabitants of Gy typically do not fly. Only about 1 in 1000 of them develop true wings after puberty, but it is an excruciating experience and afterwards they are pitied for this new development. While you might think the ability to fly would be envied, and many of the flyers embrace their new ability, the wings are prone to catastrophic failure which makes every flight a risk. The last lines of the story with a flyer who chose to remain grounded so he could raise a family was beautifully melancholy: “Do you ever dream of flying? Lawyerlike, he was slow to answer. He looked away, out the window. Doesn’t everyone? he said.” This story brought into focus for me the difference between those who are ordinary and responsible and those who are artistic and bold. I have always been a person who can be counted on and is practical to a fault, yet I do have some tendencies towards creativity. I currently am balancing motherhood, work and sick parents and feel very overloaded, so the yearning for freedom is something that I very much related to. This was a lovely story that I will think on for awhile.

Season Two had some excellent entries with Different Kinds of Darkness and The Fliers of Gy being my favorites. If for some strange reason you haven’t discovered LeVar’s podcast, you must tune in,  “but you don’t have to take my word for it.”

-Nancy

Check out my reviews for Season One!

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LeVar Burton Reads: Season One

Ever since I discovered LeVar Burton Reads, which is an outstanding podcast showcasing short stories, I have listened to LeVar’s melodious voice on a weekly basis, and kept track of the stories through my Goodreads account. Now that I have finished season one, I am ready to share!

Kin by Bruce McAllister

Kin is a short story that builds momentum as you suddenly see how the title relates to the relationship between an Earth boy and an assassin alien. Young Kim contacts an Antalou alien and convinces him to prevent the forced abortion of his yet-to-be-born sister. At first you will wonder why this alien follows through on the boy’s request, but this quietly menacing story will show you how the mercenary alien recognizes that the two share a kinship of character. Evil can put on an innocent face and the alien knows Kim’s true nature will soon reveal itself.

The Lighthouse Keeper by Daisy Johnson

This magical realism short story tells of a solitary woman who is a lighthouse keeper. One night while swimming in the ocean she comes across a unique fish and becomes entranced with it. Worried that the local fisherman will catch it, she tries to protect it, although many townspeople think her actions strange. While the tale was poetic and filled with symbolism, I did not connect with the woman or the narrative in a larger sense.

Empty Places by Richard Parks

Empty Places, a high fantasy short story about a wizard and a rogue, started slow but ended quite satisfactorily. The wizard employs a thief to put an unknown package in the nursery of the newborn prince. The thief, having some morals, asks if the package will hurt the child and the two have a battle of wits as they journey towards the castle. While you might assume the wizard is up to no good, there was a surprising and poignant ending.

What It Means When a Man Falls From The Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Author Lesley Nneka Arimah quickly world builds and establishes believable characters in this short story. This story is an interesting mix of magical realism, sci-fi and even folk lore with the idea that “grief counselors” can use advanced math equations to take away people’s grief. But as the story advances we learn that taking on other’s people sadness is too heavy a burden and there are repercussions. This tale is layered and you will think of the metaphors in the story long after you finished it.

Graham Greene by Percival Everett

The short story Graham Greene is refreshing, not only in how it’s told but that it is set on a Wyoming Arapaho reservation. The story subverts your expectations and details a story about Roberta, an 102 year old woman, who is looking for her son before her death. She claims she has not seen him in decades and entreats Jack, who had worked on a water project on the reservation years ago, to find him. Given a picture, but few additional details, Jack goes out into the community to search for him. Not only does Jack make some assumptions about the son, but so do people who see the picture he has (hence the name of the story). The ending is bittersweet and you will think back to Roberta’s motivation for the favor and why she specifically asked Jack to do it.

Chivalry by Neil Gaiman

This short story was sweet- no more, no less. A British matron finds an interesting chalice in a local thrift sale only to discover it is the mythical Holy Grail when Sir Galaad comes to her door in search of it. Mrs. Whitaker lives a quiet peaceful life, so her reaction to a knight requesting this holy relic is surprisingly subdued. She puts him off as she is fond of the chalice on her mantle piece- not because she is hoping for some great power for owning it. Sir Galaad persists and offers her several rewards, but she ends up giving it to him more out of kindness than any desire for what he is offering her in return. She is content in simple pleasures while he wants a grand adventure, but ultimately both are chivalrous to one another and both are happy with the end result.

The Second Bakery Attack by Haruki Murakami

The Second Bakery Attack is a short story that details an unusual robbery by newlyweds. This odd tale has a husband and wife wake up in the middle of the night ravenously hungry, and while they search their apartment fruitlessly for food, the husband shares that he once robbed a bakery store with a friend back in his college days. The wife believes they must rob another bakery store to break the curse of their hunger, but they end up robbing a Tokyo McDonalds of 30 hamburgers instead. Mysteriously the wife has a sawed-off shotgun that her husband knew nothing about, so you begin to wonder how well this married couple truly know one another.

1,000 Year Old Ghosts by Laura Chow Reeve

A bittersweet short story about how a family tried repressing memories to avoid pain, but the practice has long term consequences for the women. The story is told from the granddaughter’s perspective, and she recounts how her grandmother taught her how to remove her bad memories and pickle them in jars. The Chinese grandmother and granddaughter share a kinship, while the mother disapproved of the practice, and soon you see why. By removing the bad memories, gaps are left and the entire memory becomes corrupted. The good memories left become hazy, with no corresponding bad memories to balance them. A coping mechanism started in one generation ends up affecting future generations, and you hope that the granddaughter will stop this practice and appreciate and cope with the life she is living now.

Navigators by Mike Meginnis

This short story grew on me, as you start to realize how the title of the story ties in with the narrative. Joshua is a young boy living with his newly divorced father who bond over the RPG Legend of Silence they play together every day. The twist in the game is not to level up, but for the heroine to lose her power by the end of the game. This parallels their lives, as father and son are living in diminished circumstances, with unpaid bills and food rationing. You hurt for this little family, for as they pour their attention into navigating the game, they are not navigating real life well. Joshua’s mother is not in the story, yet her presence is felt, and you hope that once they reach the conclusion of the game, the father will find some stability for them both.

The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu

Bi-racial Jack is a young boy who is comforted by his Chinese mother one night after a nightmare as she folds him an origami collection of paper animals. She breathes life into them and the small menagerie become Jack’s favorite play toys. But as Jack grows up, he becomes embarrassed by his mother in his American neighborhood, and tries to fit in with his peers by rejecting her language and customs. His mother becomes silent, stung by his exclusion, and his origami animals are forgotten. During his college years, Jack’s mother is dying of cancer, and only after her death does he receive a letter from her in one of the origami animals that explains how she came to be a mail-order bride to Jack’s white father. The tale of her youth was heartbreaking and explained so much, but it was too late for Jack to rectify their relationship. The excellent story about identity brought into sharp focus how some mistakes can not be fixed, and how becoming Americanized can sadly lead to rejection of one’s culture and heritage.

No Man’s Guns by Elmore Leonard

Author Elmore Leonard is known for his Western tales and crime/thrillers, some of which have been adapted to screen- Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Hombre, 3:10 to Yuma and Jackie Brown. In one of his earlier Western short stories, No Man’s Gun, a newly-discharged soldier runs into trouble on his journey home, and he must fight for his innocence in a case of mistaken identity. He has to convince a group that he is not an outlaw as to avoid a lynching. He narrowly avoids the quick frontier justice by out smarting someone who was trying to double-cross him, and there is a hint he will ride off into the sunset with a woman he recently met on the trail. If you are a fan of westerns, this short tale will interest you.

Goat by James McBride

When a 12 year old boy shows a talent for running, which could lead to scholarships and further schooling opportunities, a well-meaning teacher tracks down the family of her student, nicknamed Goat. She finds out the family has more needs than she ever envisioned, but she is determined to do right by the family, and helps them with paperwork that will help Goat at school and for an older brother to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War. The story seems to be going in one direction, when the birth certificate twist at the conclusion of the story changes everything and puts a pall on the entire story.  That ending…no, just no.

These twelve episodes were a varied lot- different genres included magical realism, western, sci-fi, fantasy and realistic fiction. I will absolutely be listening to further episodes, as LeVar sucks you into the story no matter if you think you’ll like the story or not. Check out the podcast LeVar Burton Reads yourself, “but you don’t have to take my word for it.”

-Nancy

LeVar Burton Reads

LeVar Burton + short stories on podcast = Reading Rainbow for adults!

As I detailed in an earlier post about choosing my perfect Star Trek crew, LeVar is the celebrity I most want to meet- from his portrayal of Kunte Kinte in Roots, to his love of literacy in Reading Rainbow, and then his Star Trek TNG role- I kinda love him. He has rightly been associated with reading for decades and there is a whole generation who would recognize his melodic voice anywhere. Thus, there are adults like myself who went from listening to him reading storybooks in Reading Rainbow to having their own children watch the show, and who now listen to his podcast.

LeVar selects short stories from many different genres and at the end puts the story in context and explains why he choose it. While some well known authors such as Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler have been chosen, lesser known authors are also showcased. He voices the stories expertly, and brings them to life for the listener. He ends each podcast with his catch phrase “I’ll see you next time, but you don’t have to take my word for it.”

The LeVar Burton Reads podcast is not to be missed, and I want you to take my word for it, and check it out if you haven’t already!

-Nancy

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