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Mumbo Jumbo
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89 of 91 people found the following review helpful
This book is getting a bad rap from editorial reviews on this page--all seemingly from the same college English class who were apparently required to write reviews whether they had anything to say or made an earnest attempt at reading. (Thanks for the sharing your tantrums with us, Teach.)
It's great. There's a story there, but it doesn't read like Aesop or Mother Goose. There are themes and messages aplenty, but not if you focus on your frustration with the look and feel of the book. As other reviews have indicated, there is a collage effect here. The juxtaposition of historical and fictional characters and situations is a tongue-in-cheek way of understanding how the dead white men of yore responded to the presence of an African cultural presence in the US despite myriad safeguards against it.
In Reed's nothing-short-of-brilliant book, the Wallflower Order (guess which of the two previously described groups they are) get all bent out of shape because there's this "mumbo jumbo" "voodoo" dancing breaking out even in society's most prudish circles. Where did it come from? It "Jes Grew". And so it becomes--an epidemic!
Anyone who has ever considered the question of "soul" will enjoy this book. Anyone who enjoys detective novels would really like this book as that is the basic style--but if you're coming straight from Agatha Christie, maybe do some decompression someplace before you dive in, 'cause it won't be as rigidly predetermined.
If you go to an airport bookshop and see plenty formulaic bestsellers you'd rather read, stick with your conscience and do that. If you're ready to read a book that invites you to take part in the construction of the plot, this book is for you. If you want to have a good time as an *active* reader of a somewhat living text (consider, for example, how different printings of this book change), and if you can recognize a few simple conventions to give you guidance when the next page doesn't drag you by the hand to the next paragraph, get this book.
Despite all the "postmodern" and "deconstruction" accolades for this book, one need not know what those words mean in order to thoroughly enjoy this book. The plot develops in a linear way, but rather than "this happened, then this happened," you get "this happened. This is happening. [a picture of something happening.] a headline: SOMETHING HAPPENED." There is still a chronological series of events, but you have to connect the dots as you go along--a skill apparently not best honed whenever the students who reviewed this book get around to their reading assignments.
Characters are likewise reliable as in other books one might read. It's like trying anything new, though: the style of this book will require of you that you have enough confidence and perseverance as a reader to see what is there--if you'd rather gripe about how you'd prefer not to be actively involved in the reading, get Bush's catarpillar book instead.
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2003
The hero is PaPa LaBas, a New Orleans "houngan" who is trying to discover the source (the Text) of a "psychic plague" called "Jes Grew" which is sweeping the nation in the 1920s (whether you interpret it to mean Ragtime or the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance). J.G.C.s, or its "carriers," are overcome by a passionate desire to dance and have a good time. Their militant wing, the "Mu'tafikah" (I love that name), are involved in activities like art-napping non-Western artifacts (African masks and sculpture, a giant Olmec head from Central America) from the Center of Art Detention (which not surprisingly, has the same address as the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and returning them to the places where they come from. They're opposed by the "Atonists" (the bluenoses, those dedicated to the glorification of Western culture, the Protestant work ethic, etc.) and its affiliated organization, the Wallflower Order (whose motto is "Lord, if I can't dance, no one will"). Reed's work always lampoons historical figures, fictional and literary characters, and especially religion. The character named "Hinckle Von Vampton" (a parody of Carl Van Vechten, the literary agent for many black writers in the 1920s) is a Wallflower member who infiltrates the Harlem community to manipulate its artists and destroy the movement. He plans to start a magazine featuring a Talking Android who will tell the J.G.C.s that Jes Grew is not ready for primetime and "owes a large debt to Irish Theater." Reed satirizes everyone and everything from Warren G. Harding's ancestry to Irene Castle, the dance instructor who was used by the Establishment to show Americans the "Castle Way," and denounce the so-called Animal Dances (many with Black origins, like the "Turkey Trot," the "Bunny Hug," the "Chicken Scratch, the "Possum Trot," etc) as "ugly," "ungraceful," and "out of fashion." You always learn something about American history and culture by reading an Ishmael Reed novel, although not always immediately. At the top of page 184 is a photo of what appears to be a black clergyman surrounded by three rows of mostly African-American men in formal wear, including W.E.B. Du Bois. The photo at the bottom of the page is of a diverse group, including the author, standing around a statue of Buddha with mountains in the background. Does it mean anything? I'm not sure, however, I think that during this period there was resistance to jazz music by some of the African-American elite, and although I'm not qualified to comment on Du Bois's views, the photo could be a kind of satirizing. I know that James Weldon Johnson (who is referred to in the novel, as are Harlem Renaissance figures Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, and the fictional Nathan Brown) praised Black music and co-wrote some famous music and lyrics. But I'm not even going to venture a guess about the intended target of Reed's satire in the character of Hubert "Safecracker" Gould, Von Vampton's colleague who delivers the hilarious epic poem, "Harlem Tom Toms" (for BJF) to a high-society audience.
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 2000
This novel is not going to appeal to those with a need for a clear and linear narrative. Much like the Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49, this books grabs the reader and drags him through a thousand years of history.
Make sure that you have done a refresher on the Crusades and the Harlem Renaissance so you can keep up with the some of the allusions. Make no mistake this is a dense little novel and requires close attention to all the characters and the different names they go buy.
Though difficult, the novel turns out to be one of the finest and most innovative in it depiction of the how race and culture have come to together and tranformed one another in America.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on February 11, 1999
I've read this novel three times and think it will become a twentieth-century classic, and one of the most enjoyable ones at that. Mumbo Jumbo suggests an explanation for why white culture and black culture in the US are so different (white culture into death and repression, black into earthiness and good living), mythically rooted in a split between the races at the time of the Osiris myth in Egypt. All this with great humor!
If you need a one sentence statement of its story, the novel is about how the white establishment tries to stamp out an epidemic of "jes grew," which is the need to dance, to express one's soul, embodied in jazz spreading from New Orleans to other cities, even (horrors!) to white youth. The novel uses postmodernist techniques (e.g. anomalies, pastiche, document quotation) and moves back and forth from its why whites can't dance and were alarmed at the "jungle music" of jazz and by the sensuality of the jitterbug, Black Muslim values (Reed doesn't like them), New Orleans voo doo,the Knights Templar, the Harlem Renaissance, and first world theft of other cultures' artifacts.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on September 25, 2000
Reed's Mumbo Jumbo is, in the words of the author himself, a "gumbo" of styles and content, and consequently it reads quite differently from a more conventional narrative guided by a single style and voice. In fact, in some of his earliest interviews Reed explains that his interest in this novel (as well as a couple previous ones) was to explore dadaistic-collage forms of writing, and in the opinion of this reviewer he succeeds beautifully in Mumbo Jumbo.
The use of literary collage immediately brings to mind W. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, the latter of whom Reed actually met in the mid-Sixties. It's likely that Gysin's views on extending collage techniques from the visual arts to the literary had at least an indirect influence on Reed's approach to Mumbo Jumbo.
Another novel (which even mentions Reed by name in its narrative on p. 588!) called Gravity's Rainbow shows similar use of collage as a means of subverting more normal narrative tendencies. So then, besides Gysin there's also a Pynchon connection.
And one last thing: Mumbo Jumbo has "changed" with time--that is, if you find a copy of the book from, say, 1978, and compare it to one from, say, 2000, you'll find that some of the photos in the old version have been replaced by different photos. The reader is never told this outright, and Reed never explains if there's a reason behind it, but . . . well, I guess it's just more of that random-factor dadaism rearing its subsersive head.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 1997
If you have read Mumbo Jumbo, then you would understand why I wrote "da bomb" in the title for this review. Ishmael Reed gives us a playful story full of slang and silliness. Yet the reader can easily strip away the outter layers to reveal a core that challenges us to rethink how we perceive history, religion and other very serious subjects.

Mumbo Jumbo is a novel that moved me so powerfully that I want to make grandiose statements like "one of the best American novels of the 20th century" and others like it. But I don't like those statements because they don't tell you much about the book. Personally, I feel that authors who can make the reader dance on a tight rope between complete and utter silliness while subconciously tackling some of the troubling issues of the novels time - well, authors like Ishmael Reed, for example - are rare and should be respected. Mumbo Jumbo is the crown jewel novel from such an author.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on October 7, 2002
this is the first book by ishmael reed i have read and it was great. a tour-de-force of language and sound, this book makes obvious the absurdity of the current and past state of race relations in this country. although the narrative structure is unorthodox, this is really not a difficult book to follow in terms of storyline, at least for anyone who has an open mind and isn't expecting to be spoon fed a plot. the basic battle here is between the new religions of sterile GOD and the old ones of animism, gods and demons, but really this is about holding on to that unmeasurable quality that we call SOUL. read this book with an open mind and i promise you will laugh or at least smirk to yourself on several occasions, and it may just make you want to thrust your hips and twist and shake your bootie in defiance of all those who wish to suppress that primal urge that lives within us all.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on January 24, 2005
after several references to Mumbo Jumbo in the anthology of African American speculative fiction "Dark Matter" edited by Sherree Thomas, i began seeking this book out. reading it seemed to be almost a literary corollary to listening to jazz's sonic dissonance. you either get it or you don't. there is basically no middle ground. if this was a movie it would have a soundtrack that would overpower the senses. imagine the soundtrack if you will. one scene would be filled with voodoo drums, the next Chicago Jazz, followed by P-funk, then Fela. at least a third of the flick would be a visual version of "Dancing in the Streets" by Martha and the Vandellas. if you get the picture then you probably liked the book.

i personally found it fascinating reading. in my opnion the 'collage' style of writing made it that much more interesting. what impressed me is the fact that Reed keeps the plot and storyline intact amidst all the 'Mumbo Jumbo'. it was really intriguing thinking to myself as I read the book "this is just an alternate reality". when I read this book I considered its literary style comparative to the musical style of Sun Ra (i'll build a world of abstract dreams...and wait for u). so in all fairness it is a bit hard to follow for the average reader. so mote it be.

at first, i was totally surprised to read reviews distressingly proclaiming Mumbo Jumbo a confusing read. then, after looking a little deeper and reading some of their other reviews it all became clear. it appears that the distressed few are quite comfortable with linear writing. they seem to be a younger group and probably haven't been exposed to this type of creative writing before. since Mumbo Jumbo is not written linearly, those who are unaccustomed to it might be turned off. also, it was interesting to read their satisfaction with "Ceremony" by Leslie Marmon Silko eventhough, it is merely a different take on a parallel theme, ie. the clash of cultures. Their different responses to Silko and Reed sparked the question, "Are they thinking like Atonists?"

i found the book a pleasant relief from the bizarro world we live in today. it reminded me of the Marvel Comics series "What If?" But then again, who's to say that this can't really happen? after all there WERE those who referred to jazz as "the devil's music". and wasn't legendary Blues musician Robert johnson supposed to have sold his soul to the devil (or Jes Grew). imagine conquering one's enemies by making them dance..."Dance! Dance! DANCE!", I said.

lastly, it seems that Reed creates quite a bit of grist for the mill of the conspiracy theorists out there with the Atonist monotheists trying to impose their one world monoculture on everybody else.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 2006
Relax. It's not as difficult to follow as some reviews make it out to be. I found it a real page-turner. Ishmael Reed always has a great sense of humor, and he always has something to say to piss somebody off (including YOU)...

His writing style will STILL be viewed as experimental, lo these 34 years after this book was published-- yet conservative literary critic Harold Bloom included this book in his 500 essential books of the Western Canon.

I'm waiting for the Tarantino big-screen adaptation...
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This review is for the ZBS Foundation full-cast audio adaptation of Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo.

A mix of race relations, conspiracy theory, native magic and Jazz Age New York, "Mumbo Jumbo" is an eclectic story to say the least. The very nature of the book, with its illustrations, innovative typographic style and imitations of a movie script do not make it an obvious candidate for adaptation to radio, but the ZBS Foundation has managed to take the core of the story and add their own flair.

In the story, the Harlem houngan named PaPa LaBas hunts for the source of the anti-plague Jes Grew, a viris-like infection that is making everyone boogie woogie and dance, to the extent that even plants are "shaking nasty." LaBas is opposed by Berbalang, a convert to Islam who believes that the blacks maintaining their African roots and folk-superstitions are being held back. An even deeper conspiracy, lead by The Wallflower Order, is attempting to exterminate the Jes Grew epidemic, which they feel is infecting white people with black culture. They are attempting to create what they call a "Talking Android," a black person who will expound the merits of European culture over African. Meanwhile, a third group, lead by black militant Abdul Sufi Hamid, is attempting to rob the museums of Egyptian artifacts in order to return "looted culture" back to its native soil.

Reed's story is difficult to follow, mixing real history, such as the characters Black Herman and the Black Star Line, with fictional elements like Jes Grew and The Wallflower Order conspiracy. This audio version simplifies the story, and actually makes it a bit easier to follow, without the mélange of visual input required. However, concentration is required, or maybe lack of concentration and just letting the story flow over you.

If you are a ZBS Foundation fan, you will immediately recognize Dave Adams (Mojo Sam from the Jack Flanders series) in the role of PaPa LaBas. The character is, of course, perfect for Adams who has spent much of his career playing such a magic man.

ZBS Foundation's production of "Mumbo Jumbo" is recorded in Kunstkopf binaural sound, which produces a 3-D landscape inside your head the likes of which you will not believe until you hear it. The recording technique uses a Ku81 head-shaped microphone which replicates the "sound shaping" of the inner and outer ear canals. You must used headphones to get the effect, but if you do then prepare to have your head exploded.

"Mumbo Jumbo" was produced as part of the "Cabinet of Dr. Fritz" series, which included adaptations of Carlos Fuentes' Aura, Karl Edward Wagner's "Sticks" and Stephen King's "The Mist." This was a more experimental time for the ZBS Foundation, and the productions are rawer and more hard-edged than later productions like the light-hearted adventure serials of Ruby: The Adventures of a Galactic Gumshoe and The Incredible Adventures of Jack Flanders.
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