Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Here with the child in the trees, all things seemed possible and true.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Snow Child is a story about love, loss, enchantment, and communing with the wilderness. It follows Mabel and Jack, an older couple who have recently relocated to rural Alaska after losing a child back in the Northeast. Our time period is the 1920s, and the book begins rather bleakly with Mabel feeling lost and disconnected from the world. Things slowly begin to pick up for the couple, and one night, they recapture their romance and have a youthful snowball fight. They decide to construct a child out of snow, and much to everyone's (and no one's - HELLO, title?) surprise, the child becomes a Real girl. We spend the next several hundred pages trying to discern if this child (Faina - Fah-EE-nuh) is, in fact, a magical winter sprite, or if she is actually just a lost little girl who has no family and Happens to be able to survive the Alaskan frontier all by her lonesome. Jack and Mabel firmly occupy each end of the spectrum (Mabel - magic, Jack - real) for various reasons, and the only neighbors in the area are convinced that Mabel is just losing her mind from cabin fever. The couple has some more ups and downs over the years, but eventually prove they can hack the Alaska life, with some help from the neighbor family's son, Garrett. In a somewhat odd (and, in my opinion, unwelcome) plot twist, Garrett falls in love with Faina, who is continuing to mature. Then, in another surprising (and definitely unwelcome) plot twist, Faina gets preggo-my-eggo. Jack gets all 'what are you doing with my snow/real/idk daughter', and Mabel is all, wow, Faina, you're a Wommman now, and Garrett is all, YAY, a happy Alaskan family! Faina seems very lost, and not at all interested in anyone's thoughts, or the child-to-be. The child eventually appears (a boy) and not too long after, little miss snow-person just up and Disappears. Like, melts maybe? It's all rather confusing. Jack and Mabel and Garrett take care of the little dude (who I guess is a Real boy? supes unclear) and then at the end it snows and Mabel gets all teary-eyed.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Well, if it wasn't clear from my plot summary, I had pretty mixed feelings about this book. I liked the concept, and had a really amazing moment when I realized that the story she was extrapolating from was one that my mom had read me and my sisters as kids (Lex and Di, see the picture? Do you remember?) I also really enjoyed reading about Alaska in the middle of July and August, the hottest and my absolute least favorite months of the year. But I felt like the story dragged a little and she tried to take on too much with the plot line. I really wanted to like it, as my bosom buddy Mar gave it to me a little while back; I'll take this opportunity to share the bits I did like (and you can tell me whether you liked making those bits).

A magpie - imagine it's dancing!
-- Alaska as a character
When Mar and I were chatting about this book, she had a great line about Alaska serving as a main character. I think the novel's real triumph is its portrait of Alaska - both its natural beauty and its harsh realities. Here are some of my favorite lines:

"Wherever the work stopped, the wilderness was there, older, fiercer, stronger than any man could ever hope to be... Alaska gave up nothing easily. It was lean and wild and indifferent to a man's struggle."

hoarfrost - isn't it a great word?!
a fat-footed lynx!
"Everything was sparkled and sharp, as if the world were new, hatched that very morning from an icy egg. Willow branches were cloaked in hoarfrost, waterfalls encased in ice, and the snowy land speckled with the tracks of a hundred wild animals: red-backed voles, coyotes and fox, fat-footed lynx, moose and dancing magpies." Fun facts: (1) I recently saw my first three moose on a moose-spotting adventure with my good friend Dan in Maine and NH. We think they were cow moose (ladies) and I still really want to see a bull moose (dude - think antlers) but they were super cool! (2) One of our colleges this summer at Breakthrough was Lesley University, whose mascot is a lynx. I definitely thought it was some sort of weasel-like creature; I had no idea it was this super cool and bizarre looking cat-creature! Look at its funky ear tufts! And its tiny tail!

--Mabel's desperation
OK, so this will out me yet again as a depressed person, but often I identify most with a character when she is struggling to find her way or feeling lost. The book opens with Mabel in a dark place, contemplating (and actually attempting) suicide. To be fair, she's been living in darkness for a long time, since the loss of her child, and Alaska's brutal beauty hasn't quite lifted her up yet. I thought there was such poetry and poignancy in this opening passage.

Mabel intentionally and literally walking on thin ice near their cabin:
 "She slid her boot soles onto the surface and nearly laughed at her own absurdity - to be careful not to slip even as she prayed to fall through." It's fascinating that our survival instinct is so strong; even when we act out of desperation, our brains are hardwired to protect us.

"It was unexpected, to look forward to each day." This is a line from Mabel after they've connected with Faina, and after she's filled a void in their lives. I feel this way quite often. I mean, certainly I'm coming out of a time where I felt a lot of darkness for a variety of reasons, and job searching doesn't often inspire one with confidence and joy, but I do hope that some day I will reach a point where each day is a happy surprise, a present to be unwrapped. I envy this sentiment in others.

--The pies were to represent her
One of the things I liked best about Mabel is that she's a baker, and proud of it. When the neighbors come for the holidays, she puts a lot of thought into what to bake, and I loved her process:
"Early Thanksgiving morning she rose, well before Jack, put more wood in the stove, and began rolling out the dough. She would make a walnut pie with her mother's recipe, and also a dried-apple pie. Was it enough, two pies? She had watched the boys eat, swallowing great mouthfuls and cleaning plates effortlessly. Maybe she should make three. What if the crusts were tough, or they didn't like walnuts or apples? She shouldn't care what the Bensons thought, and yet the pies were to represent her. She might be curt and ungrateful, but by God she could bake." So often I have put my baked goods out to others to represent me - to share my feelings, my love, my apologies, celebration, experimentation - and it's always nerve-wracking, hoping that they will do me proud!

--Mabel and Jack make a snow child
I love the scene when Mabel and Jack have the snowball fight and end up constructing the snow child. It felt delightfully innocent, and whimsical in a world where survival came at such a high price. I was also reminded of when we would make snow people in our front yard. Diana's and mine were generally functional, but Lexie always had a knack for bringing artistry to the wintry white powder. When I imagined Faina, I imagined Lexie's snow lady from one of our childhood blizzards.

-- Faina
I thought this name was a little pretentious. I mean, I think she was trying to go for magical, a bit ethereal, but it just felt forced, especially when she told us as readers how to pronounce it. Here are my favorite back of the book notes on the Faina sitch:

Jack is firmly convinced Faina is real.
Mabel believes Faina is magical.
Why must it be either/or?

I was struck by this contradiction, and perhaps that's what Ms. Ivey wanted us to grapple with. Can something or someone be both real and unreal? Could magic be a part of our world, yet not an entirely separate thing? I've always thought of magic as either a world of its own or nonexistent, but perhaps that's too limiting a view. I like the idea of the snow child having a foot in both worlds.

Faina and Garrett, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G
OK, so I know I said I wasn't into the whole Garrett + Faina relationship, but I did like this line about their wilderness courtship. It reminded me of Tea Cake and Janie's intimate first dates:

"They studied the mud in the trails, pointed to tracks and named them. Garrett tried to teach her how to call like a love-sick bull moose. Faina tried to teach him the songs of wild birds. Then they would laugh and chase each other through the trees until they found one with wide boughs and a bed of spruce needles beneath it. There they would huddle together and taste each other's lips and eyes and hearts."

After finishing the book, I decided to compile a pro/con list re: living in 1920s frontier Alaska:

Things I would LIKE about living in this fictional Alaska:
  • Snow - snow is my favorite. If you know me at all, you know how much I like snow. And Alaska is swimming in the powdery goodness. (Do you realize the street value of this Mountain?) 
  • Opportunities to cook hearty food - the only thing I like better than snow is crisp weather. Crisp weather means plenty of chances to cook warm, hearty fare, hobbit-style!
  • Canning, jams, pies - um, Hello - my 18th century woman skills would be SO useful here! Need I say more?
  • Farming - Mabel has a great line in a letter to her sister back home - "It is a wonderful feeling to do work that really feels like work." She's talking about their farm, and digging potatoes, which I actually just got to do with my mom! Granted, we only found about 5, as it was a volunteer potato plant, but still! So fun to dig in the earth and find... TATERS! Sooprize!
  • Opportunities to knit, crochet, sew, quilt - hello, Form AND Function? Perfection.
  • Plenty of time for reading - Mabel has a great book collection and she often lends them to Garrett. I love the idea of a limited supply of novels and the intimacy of sharing them.
  • Beautiful nature - amazing wildlife, wicked natural beauty, the list goes on and on!
  • Time for snuggling under blankets and by the fire - these are a few of my Favorite Things!
Things I would NOT LIKE about living in this fictional Alaska:
  • Eating moose meat - this is not a known fact from experience, but rather surmised from my dislike of venison, which my mother used to claim tastes 'just like beef'. Not true, mom. So not true.
  • 24 hours of daylight - feel free to google 'midnight sun'; OR
  • 24 hours of darkness - will the sun Never Shine Again?
  • Only having one neighbor - I mean, I like the idea of a rural lifestyle, but one neighbor many miles away is a leeetle remote. Where will I borrow my cup of sugar?
  • Having to hunt or kill our own animals - I'm not a vegetarian, but I don't love the idea of having to slaughter my own chickens, or go out a-hunting moose with my hubby. 
Here are some new words I learned:
catawampus - askew, awry; out of alignment (as in, Meredith is feeling all catawampus in this job search holding pattern she's stuck in.)

ptarmigan - a northern grouse of mountainous and Arctic regions, with feathered legs and feet and plumage that typically changes to white in winter (see picture on left - I love its fluffy feet!)

johnnycake - a flat cornmeal cake typically baked or fried on a griddle (possibly coming from 'journey' cake or 'Shawnee' cake) (like I said, Hearty Fare!)

burbot - an elongated bottom-dwelling fish that is the only member of the cod family that lives in fresh water (aka, Craybags-looking fish. See right.)

I'll leave you with one of my favorite lines -

"Moonlight fell in the hollows."

and this exchange:

Mabel: "What if we lose her? What if she never comes back to us?"

Esther: "'Dear, sweet Mabel. We never know what is going to happen, do we? Life is always throwing us this way and that. That's where the adventure is. Not knowing where you'll end up or how you'll fare. It's all a mystery, and when we say any different, we're just lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?'

As Esther says, life is one big adventurous mystery. It will all work out (we don't know how - it's a mystery!) but until then, I'm back to my sickbed and my job hunt. Wish me luck!

Off to the world of Mr. Malcolm X.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Put me down easy, Janie, Ah'm a cracked plate.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This is the story of the mighty Janie Starks and her path to adulthood, womanhood, and personhood. Janie is raised by her grandmother in Florida with predominantly white peers after Janie's mother disappears. Her lineage is poisoned by toxic white rapes, from generations in slavery to the post-slavery-but-not-post-oppression era. Janie's grandmother, Nanny, wants a better life for Janie. With this hope in mind, Nanny marries Janie off to Logan Killicks, a financially stable (if boring, old, and lifeless - I mean, are we being too picky?) black landowner. Janie is sixteen years old.

After Janie realizes that her marriage to Logan does not include or require the presence of love, she leaves him for Joe (Jody) Starks, a peripatetic man with big dreams. Jody promises to take Janie to Eatonville, famous for being a 'colored-only' town and the first of its kind. Jody becomes mayor of Eatonville, and greatly enhances its prosperity, but his investment in Eatonville negatively affects his relationship with Janie. At first seen as a partner, Janie soon becomes a punching bag, both literally and metaphorically. Jody eventually falls sick and dies while he and Janie are at odds (namely because she had the audacity to call him on his behavior - how dare she!) and Janie becomes a prosperous widow.

Janie has a hot minute to enjoy being a wealthy, unattached woman, but the moment soon ends as eligible men in the area attempt to win her favor. Janie is uninterested in any of these suitors, but is smitten with the dapper, suave, and deeply lovable Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods when he rolls into town. She and Tea Cake have a dalliance which quickly evolves into a more serious affection. Tea Cake is a bit unpredictable, but he and Janie fall hard for each other and they tie the knot. They head to the Everglades (or 'the muck', as Hurston calls it) and work as fieldhands there and live quite happily for some time. Their happiness is violently interrupted by a hurricane and ensuing flood. They emerge from the flood intact, but Tea Cake's battle with a rabid dog (he was protecting Janie from the dog in the flood - also, no one realized the dog was rabid - whoops!) eventually turns him mad. Janie frantically tries to get Tea Cake the medicine he needs, but it is too late, and, out of his mind and in a delusional rage, Tea Cake takes aim at Janie with their pistol. When it becomes clear Tea Cake means to kill her, Janie shoots him with a rifle out of self-defense.  An uncomfortable trial ensues, replete with an all-white jury and a congregation of distrustful friends from the muck who think Janie is lying because they adored Tea Cake. After being cleared by the jury, Janie returns to Eatonville to recount her tale to her friend and start the next chapter of her life.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Sometimes I read a book on this list quickly. Like a stroke of lightning, I zoom from start to finish and itch to start my blog. With a few books, I've lumbered along at a snail's pace because the content is either terribly erudite or rich and layered, too pleasant to race. But there's a third category of reading - books that are so intense, so powerful, and so crucial to the core of who we are as humans, that I have to read them slowly, often in stops and starts, and over the course of what can be weeks or months.

This is one of those books.

If you haven't read Their Eyes Were Watching God, stop reading, put the kibosh on your plans for the day, go to the library or bookstore, and get this book.

Half of what arrested me was the beauty and heft of this work; half was the state of our world.

Trayvon Martin (Sanford, Florida)
Eric Garner (New York City)
Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri)
Tamir Rice (Cleveland, Ohio)
Freddie Gray (Baltimore, Maryland)
Alton Sterling (Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
Philando Castile (Falcon Heights, Minnesota)
Dallas (Texas)

Do you know these names? Do you know their stories?

Where do we put these feelings? What should the victims' families do with their rage and their grief? How do we, as a nation built on the backs and bodies of black slaves, own the repercussions? How do we initiate new cycles of anti-racism and anti-oppression? How do we, how can we heal?

I don't know the answer.

Initially, I grappled with this book and savored its immensity because I was also watching Lemonade over and over, Beyoncé's visual album/film. If you are still reading this blog because you've already read Their Eyes Were Watching God (or because you've chosen to ignore my advice and will read it later, PINKY Swear), allow me to politely dictate that you watch Lemonade after you finish reading. It is a stunning work of cinematography, poetry, lyricism, musical brilliance, emotional rawness, and the racial and gendered underpinnings of being a black woman in today's United States.

Without further ado, I will share my thoughts on this spectacular novel. In case you hadn't already realized, this post will be substantial, so kick back, grab some coffee or tea and snacks, and dig in.

How did you learn what color you are?
Janie explains how she came to know she was black (and therefore different):
"Ah was wid dem white chillun so much till Ah didn’t know Ah wuzn’t white till Ah was round six years old...When we looked at de picture and everybody got pointed out there wasn’t nobody left except a real dark little girl with long hair standing by Eleanor. Dat’s where Ah wuz s’posed to be, but Ah couldn’t recognize dat dark chile as me. So Ah ast, ‘where is me? Ah don’t see me.’
    Everybody laughed, even Mr. Washburn. Miss Nellie, de Mama of de chillun who come back home after her husband dead, she pointed to de dark one and said, ‘Dat’s you, Alphabet, don’t you know yo’ ownself?’
   Dey all useter call me Alphabet ’cause so many people had done named me different names. Ah looked at de picture a long time and seen it was mah dress and mah hair so Ah said:
“‘Aw, aw! Ah’m colored!’
Den dey all laughed real hard.
   But before Ah seen de picture Ah thought Ah wuz just like de rest." Her race is so visible to others, but invisible to her as a child. She doesn't stand out to herself, but society ostracizes her as soon as she can realize her blackness. I was blown away by this moment.

In a world of Barack Obamas, Donald Trumps, and Mike Pences...
Nanny, explaining to Janie her thoughts on being a 'colored' woman:
"Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de n* man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De n* woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see." This line speaks to a major theme in the book - the idea that not only has the black man been oppressed by whites, but black women have in turn been oppressed (loved also, but oppressed) by black men. There's a powerful line in Lemonade from Malcolm X - "The most disrespected person in America is the black woman."

"Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do. Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothing can’t stop you from wishin’. You can’t beat nobody down so low till you can rob ’em of they will...Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me." I think this novel is Zora's great sermon, and I will make sure her pulpit is pristine and prepared for many years to come.

A Brief History of Janie's Husbands:

(1) The Logan Dillicks Era:
-- "The house was absent of flavor. But anyhow Janie went on inside to wait for love to begin." I love this line. Janie is hopeful that maybe love will just appear or grow, and that this marriage doesn't have to be without affection. Optimistic little teenage Janie!

-- Janie, to Nanny, after a few months of marriage: ’Cause you told me Ah mus gointer love him, and, and Ah don’t. Maybe if somebody was to tell me how, Ah could do it.”
     “You come heah wid yo’ mouf full uh foolishness on uh busy day. Heah you got uh prop tuh lean on all yo’ bawn days, and big protection, and everybody got tuh tip dey hat tuh you and call you Mis’ Killicks, and you come worryin’ me ’bout love.”      
“But Nanny, Ah wants to want him sometimes. Ah don’t want him to do all de wantin’. Have you ever felt that love was a privilege that didn't belong to you? I was struck by the intergenerational conflict - for Nanny, love was never even on the table; for Janie, she has garnered enough personhood and womanhood to want to strive for it. 

-- On waiting out the marriage: "So Janie waited a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time. But when the pollen again gilded the sun and sifted down on the world she began to stand around the gate and expect things." I love the magic of this line.

-- "She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie's first dream was dead, so she became a woman." What a way to mature.

(2) The Jody Starks era:
-- "He was a cityfied, stylish dressed man with his hat set at an angle that didn't belong in these parts. He whistled, mopped his face, and walked like he knew where he was going. He spoke for change and chance." Janie is attracted to how different Jody is from Logan, and the fact that he behaves with a confidence generally foreign to black men at the time.

-- Things start to sour when Jody puffs himself up and stuffs Janie down:
"And now we'll listen tuh uh few words uh encouragement from Mrs. Mayor Starks."
 Jody - "Thank yuh fuh yo' compliments, but mah wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech-makin'. Ah never married her for nothin' lak dat. She's uh woman and her place is in de home.'
 Jane made her face laugh after a short pause, but it wasn't too easy. She had never thought of making a speech, and didn't know if she cared to make one at all. It must have been the way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another that took the bloom off of things." I think Janie would have made a LOVELY speech. Thanks for SQUASHING her, Jody.

-- Janie, on Jody making her tie her hair up: "This business of the head-rag irked her endlessly. But Jody was set on it. Her hair was NOT going to show in the store. It didn't seem sensible at all. That was because Joe never told Janie how jealous he was. He never told her how often he had seen the other men figuratively wallowing in it as she went about things in the store. She was in the store for him to look at, not those others." The idea of possession, and its tie to oppression, of the black man over the black woman, was something I really struggled with. As a woman, I don't appreciate the way that women are treated, and while I understand that some of it is a mark of the time, and still-evolving gender equality, it still made me ragey. That being said, I also grappled with the idea of being a black man in a generation just after slavery. You're essentially second-lowest on the totem pole (black women being the lowest) and as a man, you want to assert not only your manhood, but your personhood. How does this manifest? It's no excuse, but it gave me pause. 

-- On the first time Jody hits Janie: "She wasn’t petal-open anymore with him. She was twenty-four and seven years married when she knew. She found that out one day when he slapped her face in the kitchen. It happened over one of those dinners that chasten all women sometimes. They plan and they fix and they do, and then some kitchen-dwelling fiend slips a scorchy, soggy, tasteless mess into their pots and pans. Janie was a good cook, and Joe had looked forward to his dinner as a refuge from other things. So when the bread didn’t rise, and the fish wasn’t quite done at the bone, and the rice was scorched, he slapped Janie until she had a ringing sound in her ears and told her about her brains before he stalked on back to the store." Ooh, this made me so mad.

-- Hurston's imagery is unparalleled. Here's her depiction of Janie's response to Jody hitting her: 
"Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further. She had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be." 

-- Janie, when she finally tells Jody how she feels about their marriage: "Listen, Jody, you ain’t de Jody ah run off down de road wid. You’se whut’s left after he died. Ah run off tuh keep house wid you in uh wonderful way. But you wasn’t satisfied wid me de way Ah was. Naw! Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours in me.”
"All dis bowin' down, all dis obedience under yo' voice - dat ain't whut Ah rushed off down de road tuh find out about you." I love this. How many times have you felt crowded out? Did you speak up?

(2.5) The time after Jody's death and between men:
-- "Before she slept that night she burnt up every one of her head rags and went about the house next morning with her hair in one thick braid swinging well below her waist." Yassss, kweeeeeen.

-- "Janie found out very soon that her widowhood and property was a great challenge in South Florida."

-- “Uh woman by herself is uh pitiful thing, God never meant ’em tuh try tuh stand by theirselves."

-- "She was just basking in freedom for the most part without the need for thought."

This section reminded me of the early parts of Lemonade, where Beyoncé asserts her beautiful and glorious independence, and the fact that she doesn't require a man to be magnificent.

(3) The Tea Cake era:
"Good evenin', Mis' Starks', he said with a sly grin as if they had a good joke together. She was in favor of the story that was making him laugh before she even heard it." I love the way Tea Cake enters the story. He has such a specific warmth about him. 

Checkers -- after marrying two men who place her sturdily in the home and refuse to lift her up by teaching her things, Tea Cake comes around:
Tea Cake, to Janie: 'How about playin' you some checkers? You looks hard tuh beat.'
Janie: 'Ah is, ' cause Ah can't play uh lick.'
Tea Cake: 'You don't cherish de game, then?'
Janie: 'Yes, Ah do, and then agin Ah don't know whether Ah do or not, 'cause nobody ain't never showed me how.'
Tea Cake: 'Dis is de last day for dat excuse.'
He set it up and began to show her and she found herself glowing inside. Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play. That was even nice." Janie playing checkers with Tea Cake was one of my favorite moments in the book. It's not a skill to lord over her, it's a joy to be shared!

Tea Cake, on being so named:
Janie: “Now ain’t you somethin’! Mr. er—er—You never did tell me whut yo’ name wuz.'
Tea Cake: 'Ah sho didn’t. Wuzn’t expectin’ fuh it to be needed. De name mah mama gimme is Vergible Woods. Dey calls me Tea Cake for short.'
Janie: 'Tea Cake! So you sweet as all dat?' She laughed and he gave her a little cut-eye look to get her meaning.
Tea Cake: 'Ah may be guilty. You better try me and see.'  Adorbsable. I love how playful Janie is with Tea Cake, even though he's significantly younger and at this point she's expected to be a sort of regal widow. Who do you know that's sweet as all that? ;)

Pound cake, lemonade, night fishing 
Janie and Tea Cake have these lovely, intimate, mystical first dates:
"It was so crazy digging worms by lamp light and setting out for Lake Sabelia after midnight that she felt like a child breaking rules. That’s what made Janie like it. They caught two or three and got home just before day. Then she had to smuggle Tea Cake out by the back gate and that made it seem like some great secret she was keeping from the town."

“Ah’ll clean ’em, you fry ’em and let’s eat,” he said with the assurance of not being refused. They went out into the kitchen and fixed up the hot fish and corn muffins and ate. Then Tea Cake went to the piano without so much as asking and began playing blues and singing, and throwing grins over his shoulder. The sounds lulled Janie to soft slumber and she woke up with Tea Cake combing her hair and scratching the dandruff from her scalp. It made her more comfortable and drowsy.

I love these moments, and they reminded me of when the Master and Margarita eat potatoes in the rain: "During the Maytime storms, when streams of water gushed noisily past the blurred windows, threatening to flood their last refuge, the lovers would light the stove and bake potatoes. The potatoes steamed, and their charred skins blackened their fingers. There was laughter in the basement, and in the garden the trees would shed broken twigs and white clusters of flowers after the rain." I would like someone to go nightfishing with, and to eat fried fish and charred potatoes and scratch my head. Do you have that someone? Should we look together?

Tea Cake lifting Janie up:
I love that Tea Cake celebrates Janie, and teaches her to celebrate herself again;
Tea Cake: “Umph! umph! umph! Ah betcha you don’t never go tuh de lookin’ glass and enjoy yo’ eyes yo’self. You lets other folks git all de enjoyment out of ’em ’thout takin’ in any of it yo’self.” Go take a gander in the looking glass and enjoy yourself. Do it right this minute. I insist!

He also teaches her awesome skills (like nunchuck skills, bowhunting skills, JK). He teaches her to shoot hawks, how to drive, and even how to hunt alligators! After he works for a time and she keeps house, he misses her too much, so they work together, and then they share the cooking and cleaning.

Tea Cake, to Janie - "You'se something tuh make uh man forgit tuh git old and forgit tuh die." I love this line.

A few Janie-isms packed with truth:
"Dey gointuh make 'miration 'cause mah love didn't work lak they love, if dey ever had any. Then you must tell 'em dat love ain't somethin' lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore.'

"It's uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo' papa and yo' mama and nobody else can't tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves."

Great lines:
  • Time makes everything old so the kissing, young darkness became a monstropolous old thing while Janie talked. I love this word of Zora's - monstropolous. 
  • There are years that ask questions and years that answer. Which kind of year has this been for you? An asking or an answering one?
  • The women got together the sweets and the men looked after the meats. I know this is outdated in terms of gender equality and all, but I loved the rhythm of the line.
  • She sent her face to Joe’s funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world. I'm not sure if there's a literary term for this, but it feels a little like zeugma. ;)
  • On the hurricane - "The monstropolous beast had left its bed."
    "Havoc was there with her mouth wide open."
  • From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. Doesn't that sound simply delightful?
Here are a few lines that were in the running for the title:
-- "It's bad bein' strange n*s wid white folks. Everybody is aginst yuh." To be clear, this was published in 1937. Is it any more safe to be a strange black person among white folks today?

-- Who was it didn't know about the love between Tea Cake and Janie? I think Tea Cake and Janie are on my list of all-time favorite literary couples.

--  Have some sympathy fuh me. Put me down easy, Janie, Ah’m a cracked plate.” Clearly this one was the winner. It's a line Nanny says to Janie, referencing the hardships she's faced in her life.

I want to leave you with two lines that stood out to me. 

"There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought. Nanny entered this infinity of conscious pain." I think we as a nation are in this infinity of conscious pain. I believe we have the power (and the responsibility) to find a way to walk through it to a new national future. How might be uncertain, but onwards we must go.

And this one:
"But Ah’m uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it." I will never know what is like to be a person of color in America, or, more specifically, to be a woman of color. That being said, I look to my dear Bryn Mawr alumna friends, and my sister's bicycle-riding fish, and I know that every day I celebrate my womanhood, and what it means to my identity.

I wish for you all a Sunday filled with reflection, but also joy, and moments of healing love. Onwards to Snow Child I go.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Take care of thyself, gentle Yahoo!

Gulliver's Travels by Taylor Jonathan Swift

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This is the story of a man (Lemuel Gulliver) recounted by another man (Richard Sympson) and OH, the places he Went. (Do you find my Geisel diverting?) Mr. Gulliver is a sea surgeon by trade, and a wanderer at heart. He has a wife and some kiddos (I couldn't tell you quite precisely how many, or of what ilk, as they are so thoroughly unCentral to this tome, cough Cough) back in Grand Ole' England, but spends most of his time either at sea, shipwrecked on unknown islands, or making frenemies with the local natives he encounters. He finds unhappy immortals and floating island-dwellers obsessed with mathematics, the most honorable horses and the meanest of mortals, and peoples Great and Tall, Teeny and Small. He waxes poetic and philosophic, he starts and stops wars, he speaks to the dead, and he loses faith in his own kind. Gulliver seems happiest away from home, not because he dislikes his country (at least not at first) but more so because he enjoys the accidental immersion in foreign cultures hitherto unseen. He truly embodies the Tolkien-ism, "Not all who wander are lost".
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Greetings, dear blobbists! Blobulation? Blobbership? Which do you prefer? Do tell. 

My feelings on Gulliver were mixed. I feel like it's one of those works that one is 'supposed' to read, which is why I put it on this list. That said, it reads more like an extended children's book for esoteric adults than a novel, imho. The various adventures give it a sort of serialized feel, and made it hard for me to gain forward reading momentum. That being said, the cultures Gulliver encounters and the theories and emotions he wrestles with are complex, nuanced, and in some cases, quite beautiful. Gulliver the protagonist is, in a way, a foil for Swift to comment on the dystopic and utopic aspects of British life at the time; which, when you think about it, is really pretty brilliant and badass.

Since the novel centers on several discrete explorations of new lands and cultures, I thought it would be most fitting to give you a snapshot of each place, so you could feel privy to Gulliver's adventures. Hold on to your crayons - we're off!

Lands encountered by Gulliver: (in alphabetical, not chronological, order. Complaints, please see Charles Kinbote)
Blefuscu (they are small, Gulliver is large - rivals of Lilliput [see below])

Godblessyou! oh I'm Sorry, I thought you sneezed. I found several of the names that Swift selected to be a bit hard to pronounce (perhaps on purpose?) and kept calling this one Blufuskew, or Blefosco. Boscov's. Not much fascinating to report here, though amusingly Gulliver does steal their entire fleet of ships with his bare hands (not his vicious rhetoric) and drag it back to Lilliput, much to the Lilliputians delight (and the Blocruspans' chagrin). 

Brobdingnag (they are large, Gulliver is small - role reversal much?)
In case you thought that this would be a good name for a country populated by honorable horses, you'd be... WRONG. Meep! Sorry. Let's move on to colors that end in 'urple', shall we? 

Here are some of my favorite snippets from B-g (let's shorten it, shall we?):
-- When Gulliver wants to read books here, he walks across them. Just strolls across from the top of the page to the bottom, moving left to right (and whistling as he goes! ok. I editorialized that bit). Can you imagine how long it would take me to read all these blob books in such a fashion? At least I'd get a good workout!
-- A scawy cat is described as being 3x larger than an ox (basically, Suzy.)
-- The queen wants Gully (a good nickname, no? it's of my design, not the queen's) to be able to get some exercise, so she builds him a tiny ocean and a boat and he rows around in it while they watch with great amusement. That is, until a large Frog accidentally finds its way into the artificial sea and Gully nearly Drownds himself. 
-- The B-gs are sad that Gully can't make more Teeny Tiny people like him, and the King expresses that he "is strongly bent to get [Gulliver] a woman of [his] own size". aghaghaghagh. A teeny gal for a teeny guy! I'm just an infinitesimal boy, standing in front of an infinitesimal girl, asking her to love him. ;)

Glubbdubbdrib (they have magicians who can conjure spirits of the dead)
oh YES, you did read that right. Gully decides to speak with the Good Old Boys: Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Caesar, Pompey, Brutus, etc. In his words, "I chiefly fed mine eyes with beholding the destroyers of tyrants and usurpers, and the restorers of liberty to oppressed and injured nations." Sure, Sure, that's what I think we'd most probsably all do, Gully. He also chats with Homer and Aristotle (a LITTLE more interesting to me) but that's pretty much it. Oh, and I don't think he brings back a single lady (and I don't mean a Beyoncé-style singlelady I mean nary a one). SO #thanksfornuffin, Gully. It does raise a good question, though - who would you bring back from the dead to talk to? You can converse, as fas I can tell, nothing more. And they can't stay. I think I'd go simple, and leave the warriors and generals to Gully; I'll take my Uncle Chris and my Grandma Rose. Oh, and my Grandfather Gail - I never got to meet him.

Houyhnhnm (they resemble horses and use 'Yahoos' (scary-but-humanesque creatures) as servants)
If you thought Blofasckeu was hard to pronounce, try Hulahoop! It's a doozy, but I think I got it. The horses were very pleasant, and Gully fell for them hard. They weren't into lying, or trickery, and even though they thought Gully was a Scary-but-less-Hairy yahoo at first, they came to love him and respect him. They really make Gully re-examine his country's ways, and it makes it hard for him to transition back to England (and his FORGOTTEN wife and children, again, editorializing) in the end. Here's one of my favorite lines, from when Gulliver tries to explain why countries go to war: 
"Sometimes a war is entered upon because the enemy is too strong; and sometimes because he is too weak. Sometimes our neighbours want the things which we have, or have the things which we want; and we both fight, till they take ours, or give us theirs."
It's sad, but true. There are eight million reasons we find to war with one another, and very few seem like worthwhile reasons after the dust settles and the carnage comes to an end. 

Laputa (they like mathematics and live on a floating island)

OK, so the island pictured on the right isn't exactly what I imagined based on the book's description, but when you google 'floating island', all KINDS of cool things come up! Who knew? The Laputans were a funky bunch:
"Their heads were all reclined, either to the right, or the left; one of their eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the zenith. Their outward garments were adorned with the figures of suns, moons, and stars; interwoven with those of fiddles, flutes, harps, trumpets, guitars, harpsichords, and many other instruments of music, unknown to us in Europe."
Groovy, right? Gully isn't all that into this clan, most especially because they aren't all that into him. (And he kind of thinks he's awesome.) They also spend most of their time worrying about the end of the world:
"When they meet an acquaintance in the morning, the first question is about the sun’s health, how he looked at his setting and rising, and what hopes they have to avoid the stroke of the approaching comet."
I mean, why waste time talking about other things when you can focus on the impending apocalypse? #amirite?

Lilliput (they are small, Gulliver is large - just like in good ole' Blofarscue)

You've probably heard of the Lilliputians. They're Kinda Famous these days. My favorite parts:
-- Sometimes Gully lets a few select Lilliputians dance in his hand. Adorbsable. 
-- Sometimes they play hide and seek in his hair. 
-- One time, Gully tries to put out a palatial fire by peeing on it. He thinks he's been resourceful, and then they threaten to blind him and he has to run off to Blarphesctue. Whoopsies!
-- When they first encounter Gully, they take an inventory of what they find on him. I loved this because it reminded me of the scene from The Hobbit where Bilbo asks Gollum what he has in his pocket and Gollum frantically guesses as follows: "Handses!" When that's wrong, he thinks of what he keeps in his own pockets -- "fish-bones, goblins' teeth, wet shells, a bit of bat-wing, a sharp stone to sharpen his fangs on." ahgahgahgah ROTFL. 

Inventory by the Lilliputians (who thankfully did NOT find any bat wings in Gully's pockets): 
"in the right coat pocket of the great man-mountain (haghaghahg) we found...
-- coarse cloth
-- silver chest full of dust
-- enormous letters
-- an engine wherewith we assume the man-mountain combs his head
-- two razors (he claims one is for his beard, the other is for his meat)
-- half silver globe that made an incessant noise like that of a water mill (it is either some unknown animal or the god that he worships) [ahgahgahgahg yes that or a WATCH. one of the three.]

Luggnagg (an island which contains immortals)
oh, did you get Excited? Immortals? What fun! OH NO NO NO. Gully gives us a little lesson here in desiring immortality. Please see exhibit A on the right - the STRULDBRUG. (it's the scary old thing, not the weirdly hyper-asian racist drawing on the left). Not everyone is immortal on Luggnagg, just the good old Durmstrangs. I mean Struldbrugs. Here's a snapshot of these lovely creatures:

-- peevish, covetous, morose; incapable of friendship; dead to all natural affection; unreliable memories
-- @ 80 years old, dead to the law
-- @ 90 years old, lose their teeth and hair, memory too poor to read
-- the language changes over time, so one generation of struldbrugs can't converse with another, leaving them as foreigners in their own country

Oh but here's my favorite: "If a struldbrug happen to marry one of his own kind, the marriage is dissolved, of course, by the courtesy of the kingdom, as soon as the younger of the two comes to be fourscore. For the law thinks it a reasonable indulgence, that those who are condemned, without any fault of their own, to a perpetual continuance in the world, should not have their misery doubled by the load of a wife." Ha. HA. HA. NOT FUNNY. satire, Shmatire, Swifty - Joke not accepted. 

Gully sums up the false desire for immortality thusly: "No tyrant could invent a death into which I would not run with pleasure from such a life." So how about that immortality now, blobbists? Under what conditions might you still want to evade death? How much would you be willing to bear? How much would you give up?

Words I learned [It always makes me feel Really optimistic about the future of humankind when I learn new words from a 300-year-old book. I mean, I get that language morphs, but some of these are still in use, at least in places like the NYTimes! I should know them!]

buff jerkin - a man's short close-fitting jacket, made usually of light-colored leather, and often without sleeves, worn over the doublet in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries SUUUUpes cool. What Gully wears for basically all of his titular travels. I'mma get me one.

calenture - feverish delirium supposedly caused by the heat in the tropics - No thank you! No tropics, no calenture, no summer! I shall take none of the above!

concupiscence - strong sexual desire; lust - hm. I just plain hadn't heard of this one. It sounds sort of like it should be an animal. Or maybe it's making me think of concubine. Similar root, Mommykins?

demesne - land attached to a manor and retained for the owner's own use. not to be confused with RenESMe, the vampiric spawn of Bella and Edward in Twilight.

encomium - a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly

panegyric - I'm pretty sure both encomium and panegyric were GRE words. Ohhhhh the GRE. What a useless test. Doesn't it sound like it should be a cool new dance or something? NOPE. a public speech or published text in praise of someone or something. Oh wait that sounds SO MUCH LIKE encomium. Maybe we don't need both in this century. Blobulation, want to cast your vote?

sloop - SLOOP, there it is. SLOOP, there it is. Wait, that's not right, is it? a one-masted sailboat with a fore-and-aft mainsail and a jib

spinnet - a smaller type of harpsichord or other keyboard instrument, such as a piano or organ

I'll leave you with a few lingering questions I came up with during this reading:
Probing questions:
- Do you know how a gun works? I don't. Gully explains it to some of the various peoples, many of whom are horrified. I know there are Lots of kinds of guns and many different mechanisms, but I can't explain even one. I'm not sure that's a bad thing, but it is a fascinating (and dark) machine.

- How would you structure a government if you had your own society? Lots of these explorations are excuses for Gully to examine his own country and pontificate on its pleasures and its ills. Makes you think about how you might make your own land from scratch... I'm thinking LOTS Of cats. And cocoa. Cocoa and coffee and cats. #meforthewin

- Who would you bring back from the dead to speak to? OK. I already asked you this one. But admit it - you're still thinking about it, aren't you?

I'm off to Their Ears were Hearing Buddha. (#nailedit!) Follow me if you care! ;)