Beloved

Beloved is so beautifully written, full of colors, and actual spoken language. Toni Morrison writes so that we can see everything. This can make it a little harder to read for some, but this was my second time reading it and the style and word choice became familiar and easier as I went through.

Beloved tells the story of the occupants of 124 Bluestone Road, a group of runaway and freed slaves connected by a man whose whereabouts couldn’t be confirmed. Within this home, Morrison shows the complexity of slaves’ lives and how it affects them well beyond the borders of the plantation. Sweet Home, the name of the plantation, was a ideal slaves home, but even with education and respect the slaves at Sweet Home realized how separate and poor their lives were and that this was neither their home, nor sweet. When a new overseer arrives, the slaves are treated worse than ever and a pregnant Selme escapes with her 3 children, but leaves her husband behind.

The story of Sweet Home is what connects Selme to her mother-in-law Baby Suggs, whose son, Halle, was able to work for her freedom. Selme and the other slaves at Sweet Home endured more that anyone should and Morrison doesn’t shy away from horrible acts of violence and the dehumanization of the men and women.

At 124 Bluestone Road, the occupants are haunted by the ghost of Selme’s little girl who died shortly after arriving at freedom. Her death and the relationship that Selme has with the surrounding free blacks is complicated and Morrison uses this to talk about the sin of pride and how easily joy can be construed as boastfulness. Its interesting that how the neighbors don’t warn Selme of the encroaching white men, and Baby Suggs believes that it was the punishment that comes from too much pride.

There’s so much in this book to enjoy and learn from. Theres a lot more to be horrified at and learn from. I read this book when I was younger, and again 20 years later. This is something that we need to remember. When you take away someone’s freedom, no matter what else you provide them with, they’ve lost too much.

Important and valuable novel.

Read August 2015

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of Francie Nolan, born at the turn of the 20th century into a life of poverty. With a mother who works hard to support the family and a fun alcoholic dad who cannot be relied on for steady work, Francie and her younger brother Neeley have to help out by selling odd scraps along with the other poor children. Francie is a dreamer and her mother, with whom she has a mixed relationship, is not. But Katie learned from her own mother that the way to a better life is through education. So Katie gets ahold of a Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare to teach her children to read and hopes that this will help them succeed more in life. This beginning gives Francie something she needs and doesn’t realize that she has her mother to thank for this. It gives her an escape from the poverty by getting books from the local library, she’s able to read and go to other worlds.

While her mother feeds her love of education by reading nightly, when Francie wants to transfer to another school, where perhaps she won’t be treated like a leper of the public school system, her mother does nothing to help. Johnny steps into his parenting role and gets Francie into the school by lying about their address. Francie takes on the additional responsibility of having to walk back and forth to school twice a day, since her mother refuses to provide her a sack lunch.

The mother-daughter relationship is full of turmoil, with Katie admitting to the reader that she prefers Neeley over Francie. Francie was the harder baby to rear, but Katie never notices or acknowledges that as the children grow, she relies on Francie unfairly while giving extras to Neeley. Francie is the one to work, while Neeley goes to high school because Katie knows that Francie will get educated somehow, while Neeley is a slacker. While understandable, it reeks of favoritism and unfairness.

Smith’s characters are rich with contradiction and love for each other. She deals with life’s harshness but never lets the characters give up hope that something will get better. The characters are like the tree that grows in Brooklyn from the title, popping up in little cracks in the sidewalk, wanting life no matter the cost and environment. And the environment that Smith describes is harsh and unforgiving, but Francie will survive.

This was a fantastic book to read and to discuss in book club. I’m not giving the book justice by this documentation and may come back when I’m less tired to add more. This book is so rich in topics to discuss: poverty, sexism, racism, alcoholism, and more isms. Not only does this book capture a time period and place, it captures so much that is true about human nature and relationships.

Beautifully moving story.

Read November 2014

Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein went through multiple editions and changes, and the version I read is mostly based on the third edition from 1831 and some text from 1818. I learned that this story originated when Mary Shelley was holed up in a vacation home and the group decided to have a contest to see who could write the scariest story. Shelley was inspired to begin the Frankenstein story on that vacation and work at it through her life.

The novel itself was difficult for me to start due to the slow beginning and archaic language, but once we meet Frankenstein the story is fascinating. Shelley skips a lot of the details on how he created the monster just as Frankenstein skips over his responsibility in the creation. The monster, while feared at first, becomes an intelligent being who just wants what most of us want in life: companionship, love, family. The problem being that he’s a hideous creature from whom everyone runs. He wants to be good. He tries to be good. But the nature of man to fear him, changes him and turns him into the monster that everyone already thinks he is.

Its a very interesting story about how science brings man too close to being God-like, and man cannot handle the responsibility of creating life. Frankenstein immediately runs from his creation, beginning the downward spiral of his life. Shelley allows the reader to feel empathy and compassion to the monster, which Frankenstein cannot, by telling his story of what happened once abandoned by his creator.

This novel has survived for so long due to its originality and also because Shelley is questioning man’s role in the world. Should man strive to be God-life, or should he remain ignorant to protect himself. Its an interesting story told during a time of great scientific and medical breakthroughs, but its still relevant today in the discussion of GMOs. When should man stop interfering with the natural order.

Although difficult to read, I chose to read this since its one of the first horror novels written by a woman. This novel may have been heavily helped by her poet husband, Percy Shelley, but the idea and originality came from Mary Shelley. This book took me much longer to read than most others, but it was worth it.

Read October 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird

There is a reason that To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of the most recognizable titles and characters in modern literary culture. I read this when I was in high school and I didn’t remember much about it other than Boo Radley as the neighborhood ghost story. I think that I might have been too young or inexperienced with the world to understand the innate racism that pervades our country and how well Harper Lee captures it. Generation after generation were raised, especially in the south, to think of the black man as somehow separate from humanity. They were treated like chattel and it takes more than a law to change how someone feels and what they believe to be true.

Harper Lee’s choice to have the main protagonist as a young girl allowed her to explore the role of race as well as gender in a changing world. Scout’s tomboyishness is a reflection of the value she witnessed in the sexes. Its not until the end that Scout is exposed to how powerful and smart women are in their private world, so of course she would mimic the gender of the powerful.

While Scout’s struggles in her small world dominate the book, all of the characters’ struggle to understand human equality versus the racism they are witnessing are spelled out. Jem, on the verge of manhood, almost cannot bear to learn what the trial of Tom Robinson does to his small townsfolk. Atticus reached his children through his patience and his honesty. I don’t know if there will ever be a more honorable man than Atticus Finch and without his thorough teachings, I don’t think any of the children would be able to understand the significance of the events surrounding them.

Its not just Harper Lee’s grasp of the societal norms of a small southern town that makes this a great novel, its all the characters. Harper Lee created such memorable characters and her use of the southern vernacular brings the reader into this tiny world where there’s a reclusive hero down the street and a drunk stealing sips of coca cola from a bottle in a paper bag.

Beautiful, powerful story told by a great story teller. Most highly recommend this for everyone to read.

Read May 2014

1984

George Orwell’s 1984 is a classic, terrifying novel about what would happen when the everyday person starts giving up more and more freedoms for the unknown threat of war. This novel could have been written today and called 2084, so timely is the topic when the NSA is accused of spying on other country’s prime ministers and people are having text and phone calls recorded without a warrant. All for the greater good.

The most brilliant part is that Orwell uses language as a type of mind control. How the slow elimination of words limits how one can think of any given circumstance. If there’s no word “bad”, the only way to describe the feeling is “ungood” which changes the sentiment. Even the different ministries whose role is the opposite of what we understand the meaning of the words: Ministry of Peace deals with war, Ministry of Truth deals with lying, the Ministry of Love which tortures the citizens, and the Ministry of Plenty whose role seems to be to limit goods so everyone is on the brink of starvation at most times.

War is the common enemy of the people and no one must notice that the enemy keeps changing yet the circumstances never do. Hate is cultivated by having daily sessions of group hatings. People don’t disappear, they miraculously never existed. All this can be accomplished when the mind is controlled. When the individual stops the ability to think and just regurgitates.

Orwell’s character Winston is doomed because he cannot forget. He doesn’t have the ability to doublethink and he has a fondness for truth and accuracy that he is unable to change. Through Winston’s eyes we see how destructive a society like this it. How the younger generation innately knows that something is wrong, but they follow the motions because they know nothing else. When there’s no one to trust, what happens? When there’s no history to learn from, how can there be a rebellion?

Great novel! I was surprised that it was such an easy read for something written 50+ years ago and how relevant it is to our complex world today. Even with the futuristic technologies from Orwell’s mind weren’t outdated. It felt like a contemporary piece written on the current world’s situation.

Read November 2013

Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon is a remarkable story about taking a below average man and turning him into a genius within weeks. Charlie Gordon is a “mental retard”, using the vernacular of the time, who is able to maintain his own apartment and job with the assistance of his uncle’s long time friend. Charlie agrees to participate in an experiment where his intelligence should increase by at least 3x, which is what has happened to the only living participant to have undergone the treatment, a white mouse named Algernon. Even before the operation, Keyes makes clear that Charlie wants to be smart and he’s willing to work really hard at it. In testing, Charlie gets very frustrated that a mouse is smarter than him and hopes with the experiment that he will be able to beat the mouse. He has no greater understanding of potential complications or the societal impacts from the surgery. He has a simple understanding of his world and very little to no understanding of what the experiment might do to him.

The format of this novel are the diary entries that Charlie Gordon writes from the beginning of the experiment until the end. We witness the spelling and grammar changes as well as the comprehension and knowledge gains as time goes on. As Charlie’s intelligence increases he is able to recall scenes from his childhood and understand them from an outside and new perspective as to where his family is and how he ended up at a bakery working for his uncle’s friend. As his intelligence increases he slowly loses the life he had and gains new friends from the experiment. But as his intelligence surpasses those around him, Charlie becomes bitter and alone as he tries to unravel his past and use his new intelligence to protect his future.

This is a very modern look at the complications behind intelligence and for most of the novel I felt like this could have been written about today. Today we very rarely lock people in institutions, but when we look at someone who is mentally slow, do we see the person behind the blank stare? Or are they still treated like secondary citizens not worthy of our time and attention? Maybe we’re a little better than Charlie’s bakery friends and we don’t taunt and tease, but are we treating them humanely?

Very compelling story and made me question how I treat those who are not on the same level of intelligence. Just as Charlie treated the doctors when he was had a high IQ so he was treated when he had his low IQ. We should always look behind the eyes and see the person behind them and treat everyone with more empathy. Great novel and very thought provoking.

Read October 2013