Sunday, March 02, 2008

Gregory Banks' Phoenix Tales -- Writers of Color Blog tour

Phoenix Tales
By Gregory Banks
WheelMan Press

Rating: Very Good

African-American speculative writer, Gregory Banks, has added four new stories to his collection of stories, Phoenix Tales: Stories of Death & Life, Second Edition. Once again, the short story collection has been highly acclaimed and compared to authors such as Roger Zelazny and Harlan Ellison.

I haven't read the new edition but since I reviewed the stories in the first edition several years ago, I'm sure the new stories can only be as good or better. Few speculative authors have explored the many aspects of death as Gregory Banks has.

It is also about relationships, power, hope, death and rebirth. On earth or beyond it, in time or outside of it, death is a constant. In this collection of seventeen stories written by Gregory Banks, death is constant – death of individuals, cultures, worlds– and always there is mystery. The mystery of what lies beyond death is present, of course. And the narrators of these stories usually have a positive optimistic view of death -- a faith either spiritual, cosmic or magical, that all things are working together. But there is mystery in these stories. Often the puzzle or conundrum surrounds the actual cause or generative force that causes the death. There is also the long wait that accompanies dying. Whether the person waiting is a dying man who is continually revived, a faithful best friend beside a respirator, a long-dead son awaiting a spiritual reunion with his now-dead father, or a dying person who doesn’t quite understand that death has occurred or is in fact taking place.

“Terminal Velocity,” the lead story, is a story about death locked away and hard to get at. The main character, Jory Myles is surrounded by good people, attendants at a Nursing home who are deeply committed to keeping him alive. The problem is that Jory doesn’t want to be alive. He doesn’t want to be “vived” yet again. The distance between his wishes and the nursing facility’s is wide to say the least. Powerlessness is powerlessness even when one is in the hands of those who mean well. He escapes of course. And of course death is a relief for him as it is for most of the characters in this book. But the mystery remains: just why is that pendant so important to him?

This distance between Randy and his father in Homegoing is bridged at a funeral – called Homegoing, in the African-American community. This is a story full of regret which gives hope of a reconciliation when all truth will be understood. Funerals, especially those which bring a person back home, bring healing to the narrator not only because of words he hears spoken, but because he is once again forced to confront a community he felt he had to leave if he had to grow. Love and parental acceptance is finally achieved after the funeral. But again, the mystery – for me, anyway– the main character discovers certain truths, not when he himself dies, but when another person dies and something is mentioned at a funeral. So, is the author saying that even after death, human agency is sometimes needed for spiritual healing and eternal reconciliation.

In the gently-innocent “An Old friend,” the main character stands faithfully and innocently near the respirator of her dying friend. She is waiting for her friend to be released to become an angel, an angel who uses nail polish. Such childlike faith and loyalty – humans after all flee death– is written in a very naturalistic way and is not maudlin at all. However, again the mystery: where are the dying child’s parents? Why aren’t they mentioned in the story?

In “The Soul Man” Death – minus his scythe– comes to take a little girl away from abuse. For me to say that a story in which a little girl dies of abuse is a sweet story shows how Greg Banks twists the idea of death upside down. Seen from the standpoint of eternity, Death is better for this little girl. She will be freed from this life and move on to heaven. But this slice of lie story will leave some with the nagging question: Just why did this little girl die, at this time? Perhaps the reader doesn’t really know. Banks seems more interested in seeing the world from outside the box of mortal eyes.

Death and the promise of birth figure in some of the stories also. “A Time to Rest” in which mentally-retarded main character Mona is probably dying and is probably caring for a dead child while she waits for her husband. The reader finds herself hoping that her husband hasn’t died in the nuclear blast in town, and desperately wishes that if he has died Mona will die soon and be reunited with him. The thought of her sitting around waiting for a husband who will probably never return is too much. Death is her only release. Am not sure if it’s fair of the author to destroy a city and only keep one mentally-retarded mother alive. It’s possible that such a thing could happen but it seems like a cruel kind of existentialist joke. And existentialist jokes may happen in stories but they rarely do in real life, unless a writer wants to make a point about the cruelties of life. I liked the story but considered this one a bit unfair in its drastic scenario.

Both “The Last Living Thing”and “An Elysian Dream” imply that the death of worlds brings a new beginning. Unlike most of the stories in this book of speculative fiction, these two have fantastical mythic elements with female birth symbols. Some may like the fantasy element less than others. I found “An Elysian Dream” complicated in its world-building and was not entirely ready for it after reading stories which only had small dashes of speculative elements.

Many of the stories touch on healing of some kind, healing created by a group, healing for a group, unwanted healing. The characters are normal everyday folks —most probably African-American but their races generally do not matter. They face something common to all people: death and dying when racial identification, wealth and politics take a back seat to finality. Race, wealth, and politics aren’t dismissed, mind you, – the “viving” people at the nursing home are definitely powerful figures backed by a powerful government. But for the most part, in these slice of life supernaturally-tinged stories, death is a lonesome valley that these characters usually travel alone.

A collection of stories about death could be troubling and haunting to some. But it is the most common of human journeys. And Greg Banks has written about it with hope, faith, love and joy. I highly recommend this book. Especially for those spiritual and psychological types who ponder the importance and meaning of death and the journey of the dying.

Other reviews can be found at these sites:

FeBlueberry 2005 newsletter
"...For an experience in description and emotion, this is good." - Piers Anthony, Author the Xanth series.

Jennifer Murray,, May 3, 2005
"...(Has) the same ironic, bittersweet twist (of) The Twilight Zone mixed with the acidic musings attribute(d) to Harlan Ellison."

Kalaani, The RAWSISTAZ™ Reviewers, June 19, 2005
PHOENIX TALES by Gregory Bernard Banks is a one of a kind book anyone would enjoy reading.

Joe Murphy, reviewer
"(When) I read Living with Mrs. Klase...I wept...Any book that can do that deserves the highest marks."

The following blogs are also touring Greg's new book:

Dark Parables

Nicole Kurtz
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