Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

The Plot: Things Fall Apart is a novel set in Nigera in the late nineteeth or early twentieth century. The main protagonist is a man named Okonkwo. The book chronicles his life in his small village, Umuofia, starting with rememberances of his father and the avoidance of war with another village. By sidestepping war, Okonkwo receives into his family a hostage from the offending town. The pivotal plot lines are Okonkwo and his sons and the arrival or Christian missionaries to their village.

The Characters: Okonkwo is an intriguing character. After finishing the book, I still can’t decide if I like him or not. He’s a strong man, who grew up despising everything his father was: sensitive, gentle, friendly. But also: weak, lazy, and very unsuccessful. Okonkwo from a very young age was deathly afraid of turning out like his father and was determined to make a great life for himself. However, he despises any expression of love or tenderness as weakness and his wives and children suffer for it. He does love, but is unwilling to show it. To the people under him, Okonkwo is a harsh master, expecting the best and not allowing for weaknesses. But to his peers and elder kinsmen he’s generous and respectful. He’s an amazingly subtle character.

There are few other characters with any real substance with the exceptions being Okonkwo’s son Nwoye, his daughter Ezinma, and the hostage boy Ikemefuna.

Storytelling: What ever may be lacking in the absence of a multitude of well developed, diverse, characters Achebe makes up for in storytelling! He shows this culture that is so beautiful and different from my own. He also has a great command of the English language for not being a native speaker!

The beginning was a bit difficult due to the foreignness of the names. It took me a while to figure out who was who due to my inability to pronounce the names. The minor characters are still kind of a blur but as you progress through the novel you do start to figure the names out. The other main comprehension problem I had was some of the Nigerian words Achebe uses. Thankfully there is a short dictionary at the back of the book to reference. Unfortunately I didn’t realize this until after I’d finished so I spent a lot of time flipping back through the book trying to understand.

A large part of their culture is the use of proverbs: i.e. “when the moon is shining the cripple becomes hungry for a walk.” The book’s just littered with these little nuggets of wisdom!

Overall: I enjoyed this book! It was really short, very to the point, immensely easy to follow. I remain fascinated by Okonkwo! I still can’t really figure out if I like him or not.

I was saddened by the portrayal of the “Christian” missionaries. I’m sure it was an accurate picture but still it breaks your heart to see how they use God as a means to gain power. The first missionary in charge didn’t seem that bad, he wasn’t dead set on converting everyone, but he eventually gets replaced by one who is much worse. Then when the laws of Umuofia are invoked and carried out, the Christians arrest the village elders. It’s infuriating how meddlesome they are! They just assume their way is better when this village has been thriving for ages before they came in an started interfering. It makes you realize, me very sadly, that sometimes the bad reputation Christians have is very well deserved.

I would highly recommend this book!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Native Son by Richard Wright

The Plot: Native Son was published in 1940, but is set in the '30s. It takes place in Chicago and centers around a young black man named Bigger Thomas. Bigger is mildly educated and poor but gets a break by Henry Dalton, a wealthy white man who needs a chauffeur. Particularly one who was "handicapped by poverty, lack of education, misfortune, or bodily injury." Dalton hoped to give Bigger a chance to support his mother and brother and sister, and maybe even go to school. Bigger, though torn for a few days, does decided to take the job offered by Dalton and starts at once. His first driving assignment it to take young Mary Dalton to her class at the university.

Mary, a Communist Party/Black rights sympathizer, treats Bigger different than any white person ever has, and it confuses him and makes him very uneasy. Instead of driving her to class, Mary has him take her to a friend's house where they pick up her Communist boyfriend: Jan Erlone. Jan, also a black rights activist, makes Bigger eat dinner with them and all three get a little drunk. Bigger drops Jan off and heads back to the Dalton residence with Mary who is quite a bit more intoxicated than the men. Bigger ends up carrying her to her room. Before he can leave, Mary's blind mother comes in to see if Mary is awake. Bigger panics. He knows that if he is discovered in a white woman's room at three am he's a goner. He doesn't want Mary crying out and alerting Mrs. Dalton to his presence so he tries to muffle her mumblings with a pillow. Mrs. Dalton, smelling the alcohol on her daughter, leaves, and Bigger realizes he's suffocated Mary. This sets off a series of panicked decisions and quickly spirals out of control.

Writing Style: The novel was difficult for me to read. The language isn't anything too complicated, but the emotions described were quite hard for me to understand. Wright writes in third person limited through Bigger's eyes. However, Bigger is a very confused angry young man so his thinking throughout most of the novel is hard to relate to. As events progress and he understands more of his life and the society he lives in, his thoughts get clearer. There is a lengthy section containing a speech made by a lawyer which really helped me understand a lot of the book. Boris Max, said lawyer, understands the world much better than Bigger and Wright is able to clarify quite a few things through this erudite character. Wright also expertly demonstrates the prejudices and injustice of the time through another lawyer, one who regards blacks and Communists as less than human.
Theme: Wow! Not long into the novel, Wright describes an election poster Bigger sees with a white face and the words: "YOU CAN'T WIN!" This struck me right off the bat as significant. To me it seems a very apt description of life as a black person in this novel. They couldn't win. No matter how much they tried they could never get ahead. Hell, they couldn't even live outside the "Black Belt," a section of the city where white men rented flats to poor black families at twice the cost for half the living space. Where old bread cost more than fresh bread outside the Belt and countless more tiny injustices every day. That seemed to me to be the biggest point Wright was trying to convey, just how bad African-Americans had it back then. Prejudice against anything unfamiliar seemed to be another one, and how unfair and ridiculous it is. When the law gets involved, they can't seem to decide what would be better: pinning Mary's murder on a black boy or a communist.

Another major portion of the books seemed to be dedicated to the meaning of life. Bigger didn't really think about what his life meant until he goes to court for Mary's murder. He thinks he's going to die and starts to reevaluate things. His lawyer comes and questions Bigger about how he feels and what he thinks and what's influenced him and for the first time Bigger sits and ponders these major questions. He starts to think that everyone just wants to be happy. That everyone is after something in life and that sometimes it's hard to get it. He realizes why he hates white people so much and how living with that hate caused him to behave in ways he regrets. He thinks everyone feels the same things he does, that he's not alone, we're all human and essentially the same. And for the first time in his life he feels connected to these people, and it gives him hope: something he's never experienced before. However, the angry white mob still hates him and just about crushes his newly discovered connection. He starts to see what life is all about just as his is going to end.

Overall: I thought this book was really good! I'm sure I didn't get as much out of just reading it that I would have in a lit class but I enjoyed what I did get. An interesting tidbit I learned about myself while reading this book is how little faith I have in the justice system. When Bigger goes to court I knew he'd be convicted. I never thought for a minute that a jury of white men in the '30s would let a black boy off. I knew it was doomed from the start. I loved Bigger's realization that we all feel the same emotions and as a result are able to relate to each other, that we aren't so different regardless of skin color or political affiliations. And you want so badly for him to live, so that he can get a more solid grasp on the budding hopeful feelings. I loved Boris Max's speech to the court room about who Bigger was and why he felt cornered and why senseless violence is going to continue between white and blacks until something changes. Max says "You cannot kill this man, Your Honor, for we have made it plain that we do not recognize that he lives!" I think that's a great statement of how life was for them.

Though I couldn't fully relate to every idea pit forward in this book, I understood what Wright was trying to say, and I think he did a great job with it. I think it's a must read for Americans so that we see how wrong persecution is, and so that we don't repeat the mistake with a different demographic.

I would highly recommend this book!!

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath


I’d forgotten just how twitchy this book makes me. The first time I read it, unwisely I think now, was my freshman year in high school. Who lets a fifteen year old girl read this? Granted I probably didn’t understand as much of it then as I do now but still. I don’t think I should have read this book at fifteen. Dregs up too many of my own psychological quirks. As I read through it this time, I got worried with how well I understood the emotions Plath describes.

The Plot: Esther Greenwood is a nineteen year old girl who has recently won a contest. The prize is a month in New York getting some on the job experience at a fashion magazine. Esther is a straight-A English major but one who doesn’t know what she wants to do with the rest of her life. She’s faced with so many choices but can’t seem to summon enough effort to get interested in anything. This culminates in a severe time of depression when she returns home to Boston after her stay in New York. She can’t sleep, can’t read, and can’t write so she goes to see a psychiatrist whose only attempt at help is to suggest shock treatments, which was still a popular form of therapy in the ‘50s when the book is set. There follows the tale of her life in and out of asylums.

The Characters: Esther is really the only character with any real depth. She seems very real to me, which I attribute to her close relation to Silvia Plath. One writes best what one knows; and confusion and suicide attempts are something Plath was intimately familiar with. Due to her experiences with the events in the novel she is able to add so much more depth than if a completely mentally healthy person had attempted the same. Esther’s character is not very invested in any one else, almost as if they aren’t wholly real to her. The result is that none of the other characters seem as real to the reader as Esther does.

Storytelling: This novel is told wonderfully! It’s in first person through Esther Greenwood eyes. Plath excels at defining the indefinable. She takes the hurricane of Esther’s thoughts and feelings and if not calms them at least makes them understandable.

I love how the novel every now and then will break off and focus on the most random event. For instance, the Ladies’ Day banquet, where Esther sits and wonders if she’ll be able to make sure the caviar bowl closest to her stays untouched by anyone but her. The random tangents she goes off on and the offbeat descriptions that seem to fit perfectly captivate me. “On every side of me the red and blue and white jacketed skiers tore away down the blinding slope like fugitive bits of an American flag.”

Theme: Esther’s an expert at avoiding things that make her uncomfortable. One of her tangents is the tale of how she managed to get out of learning chemistry. When she’s faced with a limitless future she gets, understandably, very uncomfortable. The future though is a hard thing to avoid. She’s unable to sidestep the looming unpleasantness which is a major factor in her downward spiral. The book ends with her walking into a room of her own volition for an interview to see if she’s ready to leave the asylum she’s been living in and face the real world once again. I think near the end of the book she’s finally learned that there are some things that you just can’t run from.

Overall: This book is a literary piece of art! The last few books I’ve read seemed more for entertainment than for getting a message across. Though I don’t think Plath was necessarily after getting a message across either. I wonder what she got out of writing it. When I write, I see things clearer, I’m more rational, and I walk away feeling better than I had. But writing about her feelings and what she went through obviously didn’t help her in the end. Esther escaped the book relatively unscathed but sadly Plath didn’t and successfully committed suicide a month after the novels first publication. I don’t know if I could go so far as to assume what she was going for in writing The Bell Jar, I’m just glad she did.

I would GREATLY RECOMMEND this book!!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

A tragic tale of a beautiful woman and a terrible curse…

Hello, my name is Valentine and this is the story of how I came to be here.

I was born many miles away, across the enticing, wild sea, to as ordinary a family as could me. My father was an apothecary and very serious about his work. My mother was a very beautiful maiden who was sent away to work at her uncle’s dairy after her parents died. My father loved her the very first moment he spied her bringing milk, cheese, and butter to the market when she was but a lass of sixteen.

Now, she had always been plagued by suitors, due to her beauty, but could never find a man she respected. My father could sense that she was not a woman to be won with flattery and flowers and set about patiently and persistently proving his love for her. He visited her in the evenings when he would lend her books and they’d discuss them when she finished. He took her on walks and taught her the medicines of the forest and she taught him the art of turning those medicines into a wholesome meal. My mother once told me that she never once thought of my father as the man of her future life until he asked her to marry him and her heart answered yes before her brain could even understand the question. It was then, that she realized that she’d been in love with my father for many months.

Nine children followed, and when my mother and father decided they had too much happiness for one lifetime and felt it would be bad luck to tempt fate by having another child and adding that much more joy to their lives, she discovered she was once again pregnant. The idea that nine children was enough was rapidly replaced with the excitement a tenth would bring. All foreboding was forgotten. So I was born, amidst a family full of love, where I never wanted for anything and grew to be the spitting image of my beautiful mother.

I was picking wild herbs for my father the day before my twentieth birthday when I met a man in the woods. Our eyes met and he called me by the secret name of my heart, as I called him by his, and we knew everything there was to know about each other in the instant out eyes met. But in the next instant his face darkened, and I knew we had to run, for his mother, a witch, had promised him to another witch’s daughter in return for great power. She had no love for her son, only for what she could get in trading him. He was dazzlingly handsome and had the witch’s daughter and an old crone fighting to outbid one another for him. His mother would never let him marry me, since she would gain nothing from the arrangement.

We hurried to my house and packed my things while he stood watch for any of my, by this time, quite numerous family. My life fit into one small knapsack, I wrote a letter explaining, and we were on our way. Our plan was to sail across the sea to somewhere his mother couldn’t reach us. We booked passage on a boat without even knowing it’s destination and we were sailing the next day.

Alas, our flight was discovered. The witch’s daughter had out bid the crone and was to marry my love only to find he’d vanished. My love’s bride to be immediately sought out her mother who turned out to be a Sea Witch. The Sea Witch used her not inconsequential powers to seek him out and return him to her daughter.

A fortnight into our journey there arose a mighty unnatural storm roused by the Sea Witch with help from my own love’s mother, a Wind Witch. We held onto each other fearing this was the end and with one last kiss, our boat and everyone aboard was sucked under the waves. I lost my grip and he was gone. The cry that was ripped from me echoed from me to every reef, every cave in the ocean. A nearby pod of dolphins came immediately to my rescue, since I had ceased trying to save myself. They carried me to the surface and I was lost to consciousness.

I woke up here. A beautiful tiny island paradise with nothing but water around me as far as the eye can see. There is no shore, only sharp underwater cliffs with just the top most part of my island sticking up. There is a shallow river completely through it with a smooth pool in the exact center where I now spend my days. For a terrible curse was set upon me when it was discovered I had stolen the Air Witch’s son. I was to have my heart broken and turned into the heart of a fish, where I could spend the rest of my days contemplating the ruin of my vessel to freedom and of my dreams. But the dolphins, who took pity on me after hearing my anguished cry, took half the curse into their hearts so only half of me turned into a fish.

My love, legs, and life gone, I despaired of ever having the energy to carry on. But the dolphins bring me bottles, with books in them, from who I know not, but they come with instructions for me to read them and tell the sender what I thought. It is all now that sustains me, and I remember how my parents fell in love over books and knowledge, and hope it’s my love reaching me beyond all hope.

I read, I write, and I wait. Until the seas calm and my love is returned to me.