23353789The definition of gumbo is almost as slippery as that of Creole. Just as gumbo can contain pretty much any kind of meat or seafood, Creole is a vague and inclusive term for native New Orleanians,  (note: I would say ‘Louisiana natives’)who may be black or white, depending on whom you’re asking. – Jay McInerney

I’m Creole, and I’m down to earth. – Boozoo Chavis

Technology. . . is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and stabs you in the back with the other. – Carrie Snow

Alice Augustine lives the life she has always wanted. The owner of a rare book store willed to her by the elderly couple, the Perraults, who offered her peace after the death of her family, Alice is happy. Well, as happy as you can be when your bookstore runs in the red every month, and your boyfriend is a self-centred ass. But still, she is proud of her shop, proud of her Creole culture, and just as proud of the fact that she lives her life with as little technology as possible. Let’s face it – in this day and age, the art of conversation is dead, the paper book is a rarity, and nobody pays attention to anyone else – everyone runs around with their noses in their iPhones instead.

Everything is good, though, in historical old town Natchitoches, Louisiana. Alice is on the board, so nobody can damage the culture of the city, right? Well. Not so much. For something terrible has happened – without going through any proper channels whatsoever, the Mayor and his cronies have allowed the building of a ScreenStop right in the middle of Historical Old Town – a glass and steel monstrosity that fits in the neighborhood like mud on the Mona Lisa. ScreenStop is everything that Alice abhors about modern life. A haven for people who live their lives in front of screens, fighting orcs and monsters instead of visiting with friends, having conversations, and generally being real live human beings. Oh, and reading books.

The billionaire wizard of ScreenStop, Paul Olivier is the penultimate “Creole boy makes good” story. Raised by a single mother in a shack on the wrong side of the tracks in Natchitoches, he is determined to rub the town’s nose in his success. He lives in his world of game design, public appearances and growing his gaming empire. Nevertheless, there is something different about him. For Paul Olivier has a second identity – an identity which draws him to Alice, a persona of poetry and books, kindness and charity, that could help both of them – or destroy everything.

The Pepper In The Gumbo honestly tore me apart. Don’t get me wrong – I loved the book. The writing, the characters, the French Creole history that is so important to Alice. Alice isn’t perfect by any means, but she is real and likable, even if you want to smack her and tell her to wake up a few times. That is what makes her character honest and interesting. And Paul is an enigma that I enjoyed deciphering. He pissed me off just as often as he made me appreciate his more positive qualities. All things that make him interesting.

There were some things that weren’t logically presented in the book – like why Alice didn’t explain to Paul that his building’s paperwork wasn’t legal, even though his lawyers told him there was no problem, even though the building definitely didn’t follow codes. Be that as it may, what drove me nuts about the book is exactly what makes it a wonderful piece, in its own way, for a contemporary audience. The effects of technology upon humanity – upon what makes us humans. In Alice’s eyes, Paul and his kind are, “luring a whole generation into willful ignorance. She felt like the world was in love with Paul Oliver and she was the only sane person left.

In a lot of ways, I have to agree with Alice. Humanity is so busy running around with their noses in the aforementioned iPads, they no longer raise their heads long enough to say “hello” much less have a conversation. The idea of what constitutes “achievement” is dropped to the level of winning another level in a game, something that means her young friend Charlie, who helps out in the bookshop, “was wasting her life on false achievements that meant nothing in real life.”

Mary Jane Hathaway has done a good job of pointing out the good and the bad on both sides of the story. The loss of intellect brought on by a life consumed by video games, a world where players have been known to die from sitting so long in play mode that they literally die in their chairs, to the other side of the coin, where Bix, Alice’s nearly blind friend can make the type on an e-reader large enough that he can actually read his beloved books he hasn’t been able to read in years.

As Max Frisch said, “Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” But then again, the very technology that has turned us into a nation of mindless screen-gazers, where Nobody ever talks to each other anymore. Has also given us access to the classic words of those authors and poets who are no longer grist for the publishing mill. I just downloaded of the books mentioned in the story, The Seraphim, and Other Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (original publication date January 1, 1838) off of the Google project. I hope you read The Pepper In The Gumbo. And I would love to hear what you think about it. As I said, parts of me rant about the loss of civilization (and good book stores!) to technology. Another feels guilty because, yep, I read everything on e-reader these days – can’t help it when I suffer a bit of what Bix suffers – I just can’t read as long in paper as I can on an e-reader screen where I can make the type larger, change the background colour, and raise and lower the brightness. Sigh. So, Pot/Kettle much?

I downloaded The Pepper In The Gumbo though my Kindle Unlimited account. When KU first came out I didn’t think it would be worth the monthly fee. Boy, was I ever wrong!

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