Book Club: September 2023 by Hana Zittel

Book Club
By Hana Zittel
Published Issue 117, September 2023

Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (2023)

“I’m not dying here,” Thurwar repeated, the words summoning themselves. She continued to circle Bishop, backing farther away, gathering space to charge. Bishop followed her in a smooth pivot. “Then swing through, not at. And shave your fucking head. And make them love a version of you. That’s the important part, whatever you do. Love, then get out.”

Produced by Criminal Action Penal Entertainment (CAPE), Chain-Gang All-Stars BattleGrounds and its companion show LinkLyfe have quickly ingrained themselves into the lives of Americans as the next logical escalation of the private prison system and action sports entertainment. In horrifyingly gory matches resembling gladiator bouts, the incarcerated battle to the death on live TV for a chance at achieving “high freedom,” released from incarceration, if they can survive three years on the circuit. Regularly subject to one-on-one matches, melee or paired battles, competitors earn Blood Points to purchase weaponry, armor or food to improve their chances of survival, a clear escalation of the prison commissary. Brands clamor to mark the bodies and clothing of favored competitors with logos, each match littered with the symbols of capitalism sinking to new, disgusting depths. When not actively battling, the incarcerated are perpetually followed by drones, filming their every move for the reality TV show, LinkLyfe. Few survive, succumbing to the fate of “low freedom,” yet new participants are pumped into the games at a vicious rate through the machine of mass incarceration.

At the center of this season’s matches are Loretta Thurwar and Humara Stacker, known in the arena as Hurricane Staxx. Loretta is nearing the end of her three years on the circuit and has been named Grand Colossal. Living in the same Link, Loretta and Humara are lovers, facing daily extinction and an impending separation when impacts of the outside world, changes in their Link, and corporate greed escalate the threats on their already tenuous futures.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut novel is a fierce satire vibrating with violence and exposing the depravity of the American prison system. His skill in writing the dark realities of mass incarceration and America’s ability to buy into the sickest of entertainment makes the world he creates feel like a depressingly likely future. Underneath the gore and horror, Adjei-Brenyah illuminates the stories of those subject to the brutality of incarceration and shines light on a broken system in this riveting debut.

Wild Girls: How The Outdoors Shaped the Women Who Changed a Nation by Tiya Miles (2023)

Tiya Miles, 2021 National Book Award winner for her All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, returns with her newest book examining the impact of the outdoors on women throughout history. She begins with Harriet Tubman and how her knowledge of the environment around her — initiated from forced labor outdoors — grew to become an intimate knowledge of the plants, climate and skills of survival helping her achieve the liberation of so many enslaved people. Miles quotes astronomer Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, writing, “Only with extensive technical skills, including familiarity with the land, and an incredible level of persistence could Tubman have had this kind of success rate.”

Miles covers the impact of the wilderness on writers like Louisa May Alcott and activists Grace Lee Boggs and Dolores Huerta. In the section Game Changers, Miles dives into the story of Genevieve Healy of the Aaniiih (Gros Ventre) people, raised at first on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and sent to the Fort Shaw federal boarding school. Despite the military style and attempted erasure of Indigenous culture, one tiny light emerged during Healy’s time at Fort Shaw when teacher and physical culture instructor Josephine Langley introduced the new sport of basketball, changing the course of the lives for the girls at the school in complex ways.

Wild Girls covers an immense amount of history in a deceptively small book and Miles’ excellent storytelling provides interesting new perspectives of the impact and importance of the natural world on well-known figures, while illuminating lesser known women in history.  

Hana Zittel is a librarian at the Denver Public Library in addition to being a librarian at the Denver Zine Librarian. She grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and pretty much just likes being outside with her pup when she has some free time, and reading, that might have been assumed though.

Check out Hana’s August Book Club in case you missed it, or head to our Explore section to see more of her past reviews.

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