Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Color Purple by Alice Walker (18 of 166)

One Sentence Summary: Celie, an impoverished black woman living an agonizing cycle of abuse and oppression, comes to find her inner light enabled and bolstered through the course of her life by the people and events that come through it.

“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.” 
I actually can't believe it took me this long to read this book. It's another major school reading list champion and I guess I always avoided those- I was going to be forced to read them eventually, so why go out of my way? That was probably the thinking. Foolish, of course. Most of the books on those reading lists are on there for a reason.

From a writing perspective, Alice Walker is unreal. Her ability to write dialect and ignorance and perspective is so inspiring, it makes me want to write my butt off. I love how, with this particular craft, simply reading is perhaps the best way to learn from the masters. I feel as if my life is overflowing with the power of the two incredible women I have only just now been exposed to- Toni Morrison and Ms. Walker. They are separate entities, with strong individual identities, but their joy for life is so completely unbridled and seeping through the cracks of their work, that I will think of them together always. I cannot relate to many things in their books, particularly the American black experience, not directly, anyway, but I am learning learning learning. Even struggling to comprehend that element, I feel as if I am leaning on their formidable shoulders. 

When it comes The Color Purple specifically, I am just in awe of Celie. The characters are so believable and vivid- but all come to being beneath Celie's forgiving and increasingly wise gaze. Growing with her is a privilege. You find yourself wanting to weep tears of joy as she comes into her own and grasps life and takes a hold of her future and discovers the unquenchable thirst of her spirit. At first I thought that I was meant to love Shug for bringing the wrecking ball into Celie's constructs of self-defense mechanisms, but then I realized it was Celie gently teaching everyone, even as she learned. There is so much pain in this book; the first few chapters are even a little exhausting in the scope of their abuse and hardship, but it sets the stage for a story about hope that must be among the greatest ever written.

 Life is hard, chickens, but the light is just a few steps further, always.  You can take that away, no matter what your race or history, because everyone has felt pain, been betrayed, and stood alone in the darkness sometime. Their tales remind me of how our lives do not run parallel to those of others- how instead, we wind and weave through the narratives of friends, families, and enemies alike. In that way, the tapestry becomes strong- wind and weave, wind and weave.

Shelf Status: Moving Along and someday buying a copy with the binding attached
If You Liked The Color Purple you may like: Beloved , The Invisible Man, All Over but the Shoutin', The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Monday, April 21, 2014

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (17 of 166)

One Sentence Summary: The suspicious death of a local fisherman becomes a murder trial informed by the prejudices and agendas of residents of a post-war island community off the coast of Puget Sound. 


“To deny that there was this dark side of life would be like pretending that the cold of winter was somehow only a temporary illusion, a way station on the way to the higher "reality" of long, warm, pleasant summers. But summer, it turned out, was no more real than the snow that melted in wintertime.”
My love and I went to see a reading of David Mamet's play Race not too long ago and were blown away by the narratives of inherent racism and prejudice. We sat in the dark as the actors sparred for the salvation of our culture's very soul, it seemed. It frankly addressed the things that we skirt around when the conversation of prejudice comes up in real life: "I know it's a problem, but not mine." , guilt and shame, and the necessity of acknowledging that being a non-racist, for lack of a better word, is learned behavior- a painstaking process of unlearning. 

I was brought back there when reading Snow Falling on Cedars. As a reader, it is clear enough to see where old prejudices and anxieties come into play, even when the characters do not. The white population of the island comes across as long-suffering. They resent the presence of their Japanese neighbors even now, fifteen years after the conclusion of the war. For some, it is the echoes of their assailants from the Pacific theater, for some it is the deeply rooted sense of prevailing "otherness" that pervades their perspective on other races, and for some it is guilt- that they stood aside and did nothing as people they knew to be good and honest were torn from their homes and transported to internment camps. As the court case unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that what the Japanese defendant projects as dignity, is perceived as defiance and with every psychological stroke against Kabuo and his family, your heart breaks with the injustice of it. Sadly, there may be more modernity to the commentary than one wishes to believe.

I was not loving Snow Falling on Cedars when I started it. I read Guterson's A Country Ahead of Us, A Country Behind last year and didn't really love it. There were a couple of stand-out moments in the short story anthology, but overall, it missed the mark for me. His moments of sparsity came across as pushing through to a part he would rather be writing, sometimes those moments were he chose to dwell on description, went on a couple of beats too long. Where there was balance, it was beautiful- but you shouldn't have to seek those moments out as a reader. I'm always wary of books with intersecting storylines where I favor one arc to the exclusion of the others. We've all been there, flipping ahead to see where the chapter ends so that we can sink back into the part of the story that matters, dammit. Snow Falling on Cedars fell into that trap, with one additional faux pas- the details meant to lend it a sense of the crime-novel procedural, instead served to bog it down. Usually those details are there to heighten your awareness. Any little piece could matter! Not so with this book- if something is going to matter, Guterson will let you know, so you can let your guard slip for all of those finnicky stacking paragraphs of info-dump.

Still, it's not fair to judge Snow Falling on Cedars as a glowing example of a mystery- I don't believe it's really written to be one. The crimes in this book run deeper than the murder of Carl Heine. The tragic incident is merely a backdrop for Guterson's more sweeping statements regarding the lingering mental state of the island-folk. He does a beautiful job bringing out the humanity of the majority of the characters and utilizes tropes to enhance his story, without letting his awareness slip and surrendering to the siren call of writing stereotypes for their simplicity, not their irony.  His real skill lies in developing characters as ultimately unknowable as real human kind and in bringing you to island of San Piedro. It unfolds, a deeply beautiful and treacherous landscape of sea, rock, lofty cedars, and tumbling strawberry fields, with a personality and a purpose. By the end of the book, you've walked the pathways and streets into familiarity. Guterson's passion for the locale is so clear and convincing that you cannot help but feel the melancholy of missing homeland during reading. For a moment in time, you belong to San Piedro and it is all too far away.  I understand why this book is considered a contemporary classic- why it's on so many high-school reading lists. The message is clear and unwavering, the themes are timeless. Where Guterson's momentum failed him, his conviction kept the story alive. It is certainly worth reading, if only to feel that you have traveled and seen a person for who they really are. After all, how often can we know a person's heart so intimately outside of the realm of literature?

Shelf Status: Moving Along

If You Liked Snow Falling on Cedars, you may enjoy: Cold Mountain, Amsterdam, Mystic River

Monday, April 14, 2014

Beloved by Toni Morrison (16 of 166)

One Sentence Summary: The dark presence that pursues an ex-slave woman and her family creates a maelstrom of heartache and memory in its vengeful wake.

“There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship's, smooths and contains the rocker. It's an inside kind--wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.” 
This is a long overdue read. I paid it little mind when it appeared on reading lists in high school as an option- I was far more concerned with reading fat classics with intimidating reputations than this slender volume and its unapproachable subject. A copy found its way into my hands, and that copy into a dark corner of my closet, and there it sat and waited and waited, as so many books have done all of these years. Well, today I finally sat down with it and I read... and read... and read. I read for hours. My heart is sore. My eyes are tired. I feel a little shaky and out of sorts, because I have spent so much time, a small lifetime, on this couch, having this book move through my insides and take up roost in my heart and soul. I could not turn away from the agony and memory of these characters, now so much a part of my life, and the real world seems foggy in that special unreality that comes only from surfacing from the deep waters of a text with no bottom.

Toni Morrison writes about heartache and evil and simple goodness and pain and jealousy and need and want in ways that I have never encountered. She speaks straight to the heart of all that is fragile and secret in the heart of a person, but particularly of a woman. The reader feels keenly the shame of Sethe's life, of living in a world that can do such things, strike such fear of living, into a human being. The story comes out, a long red thread, ducking and weaving through the non-linear telling, and it is a dark flower blooming slowly. Morrison's work is switchblade poetry, deceptively beautiful and raw. Lulled by the language, you are all of a sudden locked in the simmering microcosm of 124 with its unfortunate denizens- flawed, desperate Denver, regal and shattered Sethe, blessed Paul D, Baby Suggs, holy, and Beloved- the gentle to heavy pressure of Beloved, always, haunting the house. Once again, I am reminded that the great ghost of the sins of this world bears the face of a child. 

Learning about slavery in school, there is and always will be a certain amount of separation. A detailing of the atrocities may make you pause for a day, but this book is the photograph that takes up residence behind your eyes. I once saw a black and white picture of a box of wedding rings removed from the hands of Holocaust victims. That box was so deep and wide and full and it is part of the catalog of my finite experience that informs my world view. Here we see straight into the aftershocks of humans treated as animals, denied themselves, and it is so painful and so necessary because this work of fiction, like most, walks the well-beaten paths of reality. Beloved demonstrates the power of literature simply by being- this is what a book can be: a sword and a trigger.

I will never forget these characters and what they represent. Beloved comes into your house and unless you will yourself to forget her, she never really leaves.

Shelf Status: Keeping
You May Enjoy Beloved if you enjoy: The Invisible Man, East of Eden, Night

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (15 of 166)

One Sentence Summary: Balram Halwai, hailing from one of many (any) villages in the great swath of neglected rural India, becomes the first driver to the son of a coal magnate and, desperate for real opportunity, murders him.

“Go to Old Delhi,and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundred of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them.They know they are next, yet they cannot rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with humans in this country.” 
I spent six months in India last year and am still processing the experience. The White Tiger is disturbing, but even more disturbing when you know how frank and completely possible it is. Spending time in the head of Balram Halwai, you could be in the head of any number of individuals whose lives are placed in the careful boxes of caste and class. The more you think about it, the less solid any ground becomes. While this book is most definitely a tale that seeks to pull back the veil from modern India specifically, it also makes simple, human observations that extend to the infrastructure of any nation where class designation makes us see each other as less or "more than".  Being in Balram's head made me a bit queasy because, while he is certainly corrupt and ultimately wicked, you can see how he became that way and it is very hard to blame him completely. You sympathize with him and you don't want to, but you must.

Adiga's narrative is sharp and quick and I would have been disappointed had it not been, as it did bring home the Man Booker Prize in 2008. Because of this fluid and accessible writing style, the whole book gives off the feeling of a car crash that you are watching take place, complete with the little building scream at the back of your head. The author's choice to let us in on Halwai's trespass right at the beginning of the story sets up the entire story for a feeling of momentum so intense that you almost want to jump and roll off the train. He pulls no punches in confronting the reader with a harsh underworld that is chaotic and of a darkness that feels well-like, but seems to avoid blatant exaggeration. That being said, I read one review that said that The White Tiger was not a work of literature, but a collection of facts. That puts words to what I was trying to articulate throughout reading. While I do not completely agree with the claim that it is not literature, I also sometimes spotted the profusion of information, it betrayed itself by becoming significant to the point of being noticeable- still, I think it a small price to pay for the level of immersion that Adiga creates. You get all the way to say, the seventh circle of Delhi. Certainly, sometimes this book can come across a bit of a crash course- but I stick to my guns when I say that it ultimately avoids the dreaded feeling of "information dump".

This is one that I would like to abstain from "rating", per se. How would I go about rating it? Did I enjoy it. No, not really. I was glad to finish it, but also glad for having read it. Did I think it was significant and important and worth reading? Oh yes, definitely. On a more personal level, I may never completely understand the unrest that still comes upon my soul when I think of India, but reading brings me closer and I think that this book tapped into that need for me. Still, it is heavy and if you are seeking a happy-go-lucky guru road trip tale, this is not going to be it.

I am now off to go read more heavy literature because I said so in my last post. I think that after Beloved, The Color Purple, and Snow Falling on Cedars, I will be ready for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix- really, really ready.

Thanks, Hannah South, for the recommendation!

Shelf Status: Off to a book tarp in Connaught Place
You May Enjoy The White Tiger if you enjoy: The Invisible Man (Ellison, not Wells), Interpreter of Maladies

Thursday, April 10, 2014

In Which I Take a Buzzfeed Quiz and Hit the Library Book Sale

I took a Buzzfeed Quiz and I'm not ashamed because it was on one of my favorite subjects: banned books! You should take it, too, and then we can compare geeky notes.


I've read 47 of 93 of the banned books on their list, which means two things:

1. I have a moderately scandalous bookish history- more easily compared to the track record of Zelda Fitzgerald than that of Tallulah Bankhead.

"Scott does worry so over
 my troublesome spells..."
If I smoked one cigarette for each of the scandals of the day,
Hollywood would have a cigarette shortage.

 2. I have to step up my game!

There were several books on the list that I have been intending to read and three of them were even on my list for The Great Book Liberation Project (explained at the end of the link rainbow)!
1. Beloved by Toni Morrison
2. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
3. Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
I am going to pick up a cheapo copy of 1984 tomorrow so that I can add it to my project. It may shock you, as it certainly shocks me, that I haven't read it- but when I first tried there was sex and I got a little fit of the vapors because that was my knee jerk reaction to any mention of sex for a very long time while growing up. So let's say,
4. 1984 by George Orwell
Those four books will be my next four reads in the project, methinks. I am currently reading White Tiger.

I also purchased four books at the library book sale and one book while I was out tonight. Please don't look at me.

This project is never going to end, is it?

In other news, I heard peepers as I drove home this evening and finished my route with an absurd grin on my face. Spring is officially here and not going anywhere. 
If you don't have peepers in your life, I am so sorry. Here is an explanation of what they are.
Here are 10 continuous hours of what you're missing out on.

Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling (14 of 159)

Book covers of this type always make me wonder
 if they were painting from wooden models
One-Sentence Summary: The insufferably spoiled Harvey Cheyne topples off of his cruise-liner and into the lives of his rough fishermen saviors, only to be transformed by the manly virtue of their craft.

“It was the forty-fathom slumber that clears the soul and eye and heart, and sends you to breakfast ravening. They emptied a big tin dish of juicy fragments of fish- the blood-ends the cook had collected overnight. They cleaned up the plates and pans of the elder mess, who were out fishing, sliced pork for the midday meal, swabbed down the foc'sle, filled the lamps, drew coal and water for the cook, an investigated the fore-hold, where the boat's stores were stacked. It was another perfect day - soft, mild and clear; and Harvey breathed to the very bottom of his lungs.” 

Teddy Roosevelt was probably all over this book. It was definitely designed to be read by people like this:
Ten bucks says that backdrop is painted.
Not that this was an uncommon audience. Kipling wrote in a time when men were men and boys beat each other up over damaging repressed emotions and daddy issues (but valiantly). I'm not saying there is anything wrong with the turn of the century's boy adventure story genre. One has to be sensitive to the times in which they were written- but Captains Courageous is a whole 'nother story. Robert Louis Stevenson was a contemporary of Kipling's, and while I would have loved to put them in one room to have it out over the treatment of island natives, let's focus on a comparison of their literary work. Where I find that Treasure Island reads as a pure adventure story, Captains Courageous can come across as a bit heavy-handed. Harvey begins the story by being characterized as effeminate and spoiled, a spiney little mother's boy who generally drives others mad with his demanding behavior. He ends it as the ideal son- quiet, composed, just in ways both economical and moral, and smelling ripely of cod. It's a little too clear cut of a moral taleI was glad to say that Harvey was not impervious to weakness- Kipling may have seen Harvey going the way of the flawless convert and so throws in a fainting spell for good measure. Good work, Rudyard. Crisis averted. More than anything, this is just a reminder to take moral character tales of the time with a grain of salt. Or, you know, a whole ocean of it.

I don't want you to think that I didn't enjoy Captains Courageous. I am a huge geek for good naval yarns and history. I like to stand waste-deep in boat jargon and sit down to cramped dinners with swarthy mixed bags of callused crew. As a matter of a fact, reading this instilled in me the strong desire to re-read Moby Dick and In the Heart of the Sea, simultaneously. Good thing Melville's White Jacket is on my shelf, just waiting for its turn in The Great Book Liberation Project. I'm an ocean girl and I always have been. There may be a bit of the selkie in me yet. Kipling captured my favorite elements of the sea story with passion and precision- the fresh air, the colors of the Atlantic, the sense of unbridled curiosity for a secretive and ancient force. I actually stayed up until 12:30, totally immersed in the very satisfying conclusion of the little story. I don't know if Captain's Courageous is as deep as its main subject, but it is still fun and full of little jewels of description and character. 

Shelf Status: Being released to the great and bounding main
You May Enjoy Captains Courageous If You Enjoyed: Moby Dick, Treasure Island, In the Heart of the Sea

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury (13 of 159)

One Sentence Summary: A collection of Ray Bradbury's short stories spanning topics as curious and varied as time travel, life on Mars, and the summer lives of growing boys.

'Mr. Douglas,' says the night watchman, 'did you ever read that story about the man who traveled to the future and found everyone there insane? Everyone. But since they were all insane they didn't know they were insane. They  all acted alike and so they thought themselves normal. And since our hero was the only sane one among them, he was abnormal; therefore, he was the insane one. To them, at least. Yes, Mr. Douglas, insanity is relative. It depends on who has who locked in what cage.'
-from The Meadow
I know that Ray Bradbury is considered classic, but even so I think that's not enough praise. In my opinion, he attains that level of storyteller that taps into one of the most important fields of potential for the craft- prophecy. Bradbury's ability to observe human behavior and see where it could possibly lead is almost unnerving. The Murderer is all well and good as a warning against over-socialization and the dangers of social media and constant interaction and bears startling similarities to the modern age, but when you consider that it was written in 1953, it gains a new dimension. Huxley, Orwell, and Bradbury- damn, but they knew what was up before we (my generation) were even born.

I started reading Bradbury with Something Wicked This Way Comes. For years, I would try and fail to read that book because its tone really did something to my head. It was frightening and unsettling in a way that no other book I had ever read was and every October I would take it out from the library and try again. I could not put a finger on why it struck a chord with me where other spooky tales failed, but now I understand it was Bradbury's mastery of atmosphere. When I was finally mature enough to absorb and process it, it became (and remains) one of my favorite books.

Bradbury's descriptions fill in the blank spaces in the world- his imagery taps into a minute internal seed where instinct and truth meet. The way he describes a summer's day or sculpts an entire short story around the complex and deeply stored emotion of loneliness is incredible. It may sound strange, but something within the reader responds to something in the writing. I cannot help but think that the monster in The Foghorn is perhaps the most accurate metaphor for how it feels- an old sort of thinking pulls itself up from your very core and cries, cries, back at the resounding promises in this work. Bradbury reconnects me with my sense of wonder, my desire to set out into the universe and uncover its secrets, and that is why I simply can't stop reading him. His stories are almost infallibly exciting and I always feel exhilarated when I come away from them.  His words on writing and reading remain a constant guide and are perhaps the most accurate words for describing how I feel about my life in words:

“You must write every single day of your life... You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads... may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”

Again, I almost always encourage reading anthologies as a full unit, but the pieces that most got to me from The Golden Apples of the Sun were:

The Fog Horn
The Murderer
The Meadow
R is for Rocket
The Great Fire
A Sound of Thunder
The Long Rain
The Dragon

Hmmm, I meant for that to be a shorter list. I guess I couldn't help myself.

Shelf Status: Keeping Forever
I Recommend For: Sci-Fi Buffs, folks feeling out of touch with joy and wonder, writers
I Do Not Recommend For: People who don't do lengthy description

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Happy April!

Happy April, home! I am incredibly grateful for this blue sky and warm sun. I've thrown open the windows of my bedroom, as tradition dictates, and even spent a luxurious half hour dozing and emptying my mind on the back porch, its corners still adorned with persistent thaw. Jets are once again leaving their distinct white tracks across infinite, perfect sky and I am once again following them to their curious destinations. It's incredible how the soul awakens with the world around it and begins airing out its dusty corners without even being prompted. As I become increasingly aware of this process, I find myself drifting back to a train of thought that I have been increasingly caught up with in the past couple of years. We live so far from the earth these days, but its tides still run deep and calm below our self-prescribed chaotic existence.

The book I am reading right now (and part of The Great Book Liberation Project) is Ray Bradbury's The Golden Apples of the Sun. He's undoubtedly a master of the craft but his short story work stands particularly high above the fray. Here's the entire second tale in the book and a wonderful introduction to the season- to be read at your leisure:

The April Witch by Ray Bradbury

I'm off to do some herb research for our herb garden, seeding this week, and listening to Andrew Bird's "Break it Yourself", as I go. Have a lovely first real day of the season!