August Books 24) Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston
Strongly recommended to me by sashajwolf, and very much worth reading. Hurston combines the research instincts of the anthropologist with the communication skills of a born story-teller, and looks in detail at local cult practices, especially regarding the undead, in Jamaica and especially in Haiti. It was especially interesting to reread this the week that Doonesbury reran the plot sequence where Duke becomes a zombie in the service of Baby Doc Duvalier, written fifty years later. Whether or not Gary Trudeau was aware of Hurston's research, she has fundamentally informed the English speaking world's take on zombies. Quite apart from that, it is a fantastic book, perhaps a little optimistic in the description of the status of American women, but otherwise very much taking Jamaica and Haiti on their own terms and in their own words. There are about twenty pages of musical transcriptions of traditional Haitian chants to the various deities.
Really it's worth remembering that the supposedly well-ordered pantheons of European and Asian theologies all were in practice probably a lot more like the chaotic deities of Haiti which Hurston chronicles so well. What strengthens people's belief isn't really the intellectual coherence of their religious practice, it is how well it works to channel communal and social experiences which are difficult to deal with otherwise, and to give a sense of reassurance that the grottiness of this world may not be all that there is. Hurston conveys the Haitian experience of religion and belief very well.
I have to again complain about the presentation of the P.S. edition. The table of contents promises a foreword; there is none. There is an afterword by Henry Louis Gates, and then an after-afterword by Ishmael Reed which I suspect is the foreword misplaced. But the publishers really ought to have ensured that the contents page actually coincided with what is in the book.