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.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Can a man who's warm understand one who's freezing?

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is just that. 24 hours with a man whose life is not his own. Ivan Denisovich, known for most of the book simply as Shukhov, is serving a sentence at a hard labor camp in the Soviet Union. His crime was ambiguous at best, a farcical excuse for a harsh regime to dramatically shift the course of his life. We spend the day with Shukhov at this labor camp in Siberia and see the world through his eyes. We freeze with him in the bitter temperatures, we starve with him as he lays bricks in brutal conditions on scraps of food, we dream with him of getting warm, and we feel the bitter absurdity of his condition. What happens in the plot of the book itself is not insignificant, but rather, ancillary. It feeds the larger picture of Shukhov's world, and it paints a vivid fictional portrait of a very real phenomenon, but you don't walk away from the book thinking about which character did what; you walk away from the book with the labor camp's frosty imprint still on you, the hunger and anger and confinement still in you, wondering how humans could ever have done this to each other.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Dear readers, 

I have been absent for quite some time, and I really should apologize, since I finished this book several weeks ago, but between the holidays and strep throat and a national conference in Miami, my mind was elsewhere. Now that I have a little more leisure time to myself again, here are my thoughts.

This book was... striking. When I initially chose works for this second set of books, I added 'politically repressed authors' almost as an afterthought, which I realize now is a mark of the privilege of living and creating and breathing in a country that doesn't suppress speech or dissent. And while there are so MANY things wrong in this country right now, that is one right thing that we have had since we started out, and that is a true treasure. 

"One Day..." had a fascinating and tumultuous journey to publication. I don't usually read about context for a book, so I made myself wait to read about it until after I'd experienced the novel. Here's what I learned:
  • Solzhenitsyn wrote "One Day..." in 1957 after being released from exile that followed his imprisonment at a gulag (labor camp) from 1945 to 1953. The camp in the book is one Solzhenitsyn spent some time at, which was located in Karaganda in northern Kazakhstan.
  • He was imprisoned for "writing derogatory comments in letters to friends about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin". So basically, he had an opinion, like everyone does in America today, and he spent 8 years imprisoned in a labor camp. 
  • In 1962, Solzhenitsyn sent his manuscript to 'Novy Mir', a Russian literary magazine. The editor submitted the manuscript to the Communist Party Central Committee for approval to publish it (given that until this time, Soviet writers had not even been allowed to REFER to the camps' existence). It was passed on to Khrushchev, who ultimately authorized its publication (STILL WITH SOME CENSORSHIP). 
So not only did Solzhenitsyn take the time to write a brilliant novel, but he also twiddled his thumbs (or, more likely, wrote more brilliant stuff) while his ass-backwards country got their act together enough to allow him to publish said novel which also basically and fundamentally just wanted to TELL THE TRUTH. Pretty awesome, if you ask me. 

The rest of my thoughts, in no real order:
  • A good book can be about miserable things and still be captivating. I wrote this down in the margins soon after I started. I kept not wanting to read 'Out of Africa' not because it wasn't describing nice and often beautiful things, but because I never felt compelled to continue. A good book should compel you to keep reading it.  Not in a Dan Brown, 'page-turner and then forget everything you read' kind of way. More like a J.K. Rowling, 'sticks-with-you and makes you shift your worldview a little" kind of way. There was no MYSTERY here. The book is called "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". So you knew immediately he was in a labor camp, and you knew pretty much from jump that he wasn't going anywhere. And yet, the book was stunning. It was captivating not because it was about sadness or adventure, but because it so thoughtfully and articulately and intimately shared the excruciating and nonsensical and never-ending pain brought about by politicians and despots. 
  • The feel of a Russian novel, even in translation. By my count, I've now read 8 novels by Russians, and while there's certainly a marked difference between Kafka and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, there was something about this book that felt very distinctly Russian. Given that so much of this work was colloquialized, and almost slangy in nature, I think this is a huge credit to the translator for capturing this feeling.
Climate-dependent misery
I thought a lot of about what this would look like if it were happening in America today, and I couldn't quite grasp it, in part because we just don't have a place that's quite that cold! How convenient for the Soviet Union that it was so large, and that so much of it was so unspeakably cold. A few lines on the temperature:
  • If it showed forty-one below, they weren't supposed to be marched out to work. OH OK. Yes, we draw the line at forty-one below. I mean, that's just unReasonable, amirite?
  • It's warmed up a bit. Eighteen below, no more. Good weather for bricklaying. This is a line from Shukhov, and he's NOT joking. He legit thinks this is pretty good weather for bricklaying. 
Labor camp manners
"Most men eat with their caps on, but they take their time, angling for gluey scraps of rotten little fish under the leaves of frost-blackened cabbage, and spitting the bones onto the table .When there's a mountain of them, somebody will sweep them off before the next gang sits down, and they will be crunched to powder underfoot.
  Spitting bones out on the floor is considered bad manners." I laughed super hard at this line and spat out some of my coffee on the airplane. It's so delightfully hilarious and desperate and grotesque all at once. It reminded me of Gollum spitting out his stolen fish in the cave. 

Camp rules are different than the outside world
"It was the sort of thing that happens only in camp: Stepan Grigorich had advised Vdovushkin to call himself a medical orderly and had given him the job. Vdovushkin was now practicing intravenous injections on ignorant prisoners and meek Lithuanians and Estonians, to whom it would never occur that a medical orderly could be nothing of the kind, but a former student of literature, arrested in his second year of university." This was a fascinating flipside view -- certainly, not helpful for the prisoners that the medical orderly had no qualifications, but an interesting reminder that in times of war or desperation or imprisonment, often opportunities arise in mysterious ways. 

Empathy/experience/re-framing the world
I wrote this note at the back of my book, and I've thought about it a lot since I finished the book. If you're a consistent reader of my blob, you'll know that I'm a big believer in the research indicating that reading increases a person's ability to experience empathy. This book was a searing reminder; when I got sick, when I felt stressed about work, when I got depressed about my seemingly never-ending debt, I saw Shukhov waiting to be searched in the frozen tundra, unable to feel his toes. When I sipped my coffee on the airplane, it became not a mediocre excuse for a beloved beverage, but an unimagined delight in a world replete with fish soup and inadequate portions. Even now as I write this blog, I feel the distinct pleasure in being warm, a feeling which, at least in my world, is so generally expected and taken for granted. 

This, friends, is the magic of books.

Here are a few examples that struck me:
  • "In the year just beginning - 1951 - Shukhov was entitled to write two letters." We so rarely even take the TIME to write letters today, and Shukhov had a limited allowance? What joy and luck we have in being able to write to anyone at any time, free from censorship or restraint.
  • "Since he'd been in the camps Shukhov had thought many a time of the food they used to eat in the village - whole frying pans full of potatoes, porridge by the caldron, and, in the days before the kohkhoz, great hefty lumps of meat. Milk they used to lap up till their bellies were bursting." All the men in the camp were somewhere else beforehand. And I think just about categorically, life was better beforehand. I don't know how you adjust to this new normal, or how you return to what you once had on the off chance that you survive a camp. What would you miss most if it was taken from you?
  • "Apart from sleep, an old lag can call his life his own only for ten minutes at breakfast time, five at lunchtime, and five more at suppertime." This reminded me very much of the line in "Beloved" about slaves having only Sunday mornings to themselves on the plantation at Sweet Home. 
  • "No zek [prisoner] ever lays eyes on a clock or a watch. What good would it do him, anyway? All a zek needs to know is - how soon is reveille? How long till work parade? Till dinnertime? Till lights-out?" Can you imagine how you would feel if time was taken away from you? I think I would find it simultaneously freeing and unsettling. 
How can we possibly have anything in common?
Sometimes I pick up a book and think, this will be interesting, but I don't expect to have anything in common with this narrator. After all, I'm not currently imprisoned in a labor camp, I'm not Russian, I'm not a man, I'm not living in the 1940s in a politically repressed country. And then something like this line happens:
  • "'Long time since we had a blizzard! Not a single one all winter. What sort of winter is that?The gang all sighed for the blizzards they hadn't had." And just like that, Shukhov and I are of one mind, longing for a solid blizzard. 
A little new vocabulary I learned:
taiga - the sometimes swampy coniferous forest of high northern latitudes, especially that between the tundra and steppes of Siberia and North America (you know, like that nice frozen part of Kazakhstan where this labor camp was held)

kolkhoz - a collective farm in the former Soviet Union

patronymic - a name derived from the name of a father or ancestor, typically by the addition of a prefix or suffix (i.e., Johnson, O'Brien, Ivanovich)

Referents and reverberations (A section where I place this book on a timeline of other books it reminded me of, coming both before and after it in history, and share quotes that resonate)

The Trial (1925)
"Oh, I see," said the inspector. "You've misunderstood me; you're under arrest, certainly, but that's not meant to keep you from carrying on your profession. Nor are you to be hindered in the course of your ordinary life." Kakfa captures this absurd but crazy and very real political world, and I was reminded of it often in reading "One Day..."

All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
"What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; -it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?" I thought a lot about what it must have been like for Solzhenitsyn to re-enter the world after an experience like this. I wonder how many thousands of men had to learn how to be after this insanity.

A Farewell to Arms (1929)
"Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates." In today's world, communism and labor camps are just words we pause briefly on before we transition to more 'current' ideas or topics. This book injects a face and a humanity that permanizes these words and 'isms' into a very real lived experience.

Catch-22 (1961)
“History did not demand Yossarian's premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; WHICH men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war.  Just about all he could find in its favor was that it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents.” In case you hadn't realized it, war is a fairly constant theme here, which is interesting given that this book isn't explicitly about one war or conflict. I think what resonated with me so deeply was the idea that generations of men were permanently altered; trajectories of lives shifted starkly, and little, if any, choice in the matter was to be had.

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)

A Clockwork Orange (1962)
"The night belonged to me and my droogs and all the rest of the nadsats, and the starry bourgeois lurked indoors drinking in the gloopy worldcasts, but the day was for the starry ones, and there always seemed to be more rozzes or millicents about during the day, too." If you've read my blob you know that I didn't LOVE this book, but I did have to admit that the 'zeks' reminded me in a pleasant way of Burgess and his lingo.

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
"So it goes." This book had a quality that seemed to say, 'and so what?' Sort of like, this awful thing happened, and it was arbitrary and brutal and unfair and deeply disconcerting and also kind of life-ruining, but then also, doesn't life keep happening in the background and before and after? 

Beloved (1987)
"For years they saw each other in full daylight only on Sundays. The rest of the time they spoke or touched or ate in darkness. Predawn darkness and the afterlight of sunset. So looking at each other intently was a Sunday-morning pleasure and Halle examined her as though storing up what he saw in sunlight for the shadow he saw the rest of the week." Not the same for a host of reasons, but this book showed a kind of enslavement that was harrowing in its own way.

Title possibilities
I often keep a running list of sentences that I think encapsulate the work and would make a good title. Here are the others I considered for this post:
  • What would you expect to find on a zek in the morning?
  • A convict's thoughts are no freer than he is: they come back to the same place, worry over the same thing continually. 
  • What kept body and soul together in these men was a mystery.
  • You can turn a man upside down, inside out, any way you like. 
  • Who is the convict's worst enemy? Another convict.
  • He no longer knew whether he wanted to be free or not. 
I hope you haven't found this post too depressing, and that you've been able to experience the sense of gratitude and empathy I found after sharing Shukhov's world for a day. I'll leave you with one of my favorite lines from the book (albeit a bit of a heartbreaker).

Shukhov, on not letting his family send him care packages:
"He knew what those parcels cost, and you couldn't go on milking your family for ten years on end. Better to do without.
  That's what he'd decided, but whenever anybody in the gang or the hut got a parcel (somebody did almost every day) he felt a pang - why isn't it for me? And although he had strictly forbidden his wife to send anything even at Easter, and never went to look at the list on the post - except for some some rich workmate - he sometimes found himself expecting somebody to come running and say:
 'Why don't you go and get it, Shukhov? There's a parcel for you.'
 Nobody came running."

 Shukhov, Solzhenitsyn, I have a package for you. It's been decades now since you were stuck in that inhumane, absurd hellhole, and almost a decade since you left this world, but I'll send you a package filled with baked treats, and sweet meats, and everything that reminds you of home. Go and get it, Shukhov. I promise this time there's a parcel for you, friend.

Keep each other safe.
Keep faith. 
Good night.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

They have not got nine in Swaheli.

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Out of Africa is a story wherein a Danish woman owns a coffee farm in Kenya and runs it for awhile, and then she doesn't anymore. There are lots of other people on the farm, some who just live there, some who work for her, and some who are her friends. The farm is pretty, but hard to maintain, and eventually the lady is forced to sell it. She must return home to Denmark, but feels like she has left her home in Africa.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Hi blobbists!

If that felt like a pretty short plot summary, it's because (a) I didn't like this book very much, and (b) not very much happened in it. Not kidding. Even when things did happen, it was sort of somehow not very interesting. Sorry, Isak, it's the truth.

I read the one page description of the author's life after I finished the book, and immediately thought, 'her life was WAY more interesting than this book!' Which I feel like means she did something wrong there. Missed opportunity. Ah well!

Here are my thoughts, some pleasant, some less so:

My book was full of notes, which got progressively angrier and more annoyed as I read further in the book. Mostly, there's a lot of "UGH" and "UNACCEPTABLE" and "THAT'S RELATIVE", but here's my favorite, a little running list I made in the back:

- Hunter - she hunts and goes on safari, and kills a bunch of lions, and I just was Not here for it. 
- Conqueror - I chose this book because so few 'classics' by women make it out there, but she is a conqueror through and through, and I couldn't forgive her for it.
- Fake single woman - her husband is MYSTERIOUSLY mentioned on page 274 and then never again. According to her bio, they split up (btws he was her second cousin and he gave her SYPHILIS - #somehusband), and then she started a love affair. But to be clear, there was no love obviously expressed in this book. I didn't know they were a romantic item until after I read that bit in the bio.
- Needed an editor - Certainly, there are so many other people I could yell at for this (JOYCE, TOLSTOY, need I go on?) and I'm glad that at least a woman was allowed the same rambling that white men were, but how about we just None of us ramble, and we 'be brief, say what's core', as we say in BT. 
- Does she have a name? - Apparently, when you google the protagonist of Out of Africa, the internet proudly proclaims that it is the Baroness Tania von Blixen, which would, I suppose, make sense as her married name, since her husband was Baron Blixen, but we would only know as much because on EXACTLY ONE PAGE we see the name "Tania". OK, young boy narrator-Proust-wannabe.
-Super un'woke' - I know it's not really fair to compare attitudes across periods of time, but even for someone who was sort of 'woke' for her time, she was SO SO SO un'woke', and it was just excruciating to read after reading A Lesson Before Dying. 
- Doesn't bother to learn much Swahili or Masai - She doesn't spend much time learning the languages of the area, which I found to be very condescending, imperialistic, and entitled. 
- Cares more about African animals than African people - She expresses concern at times for the people around her who are native to Kenya, but she seems to respect and admire the animals she hunts more than she respects the people of Kenya, which I found deeply disturbing.

Let's make some SWEEPING generalizations - All frogs love CHEESE!
She falls into the classic 'making generalizations about whole groups of people' habit quite a lot. Here are just a few examples:
  • The Somali women themselves had dignified, gentle ways, and were hospitable and gay, with a laughter like silver bells.
  • All Africans are the same in these rites. oh sure, ALL Somalis. ALL Africans. 
What does a book mean to you?
There were a few moments when I felt a kinship with Tania, or whatever her name was. These lines about reading books abroad reminded me of Lexie reading books in the Peace Corps houses, and how pleasant it was when a good one came around:
  • In Africa, when you pick up a book worth reading, out of the deadly consignments which good ships are being made to carry out all the way from Europe, you read it as an author would like his book to be read, praying to God that he ay have it in him to go on as beautifully as he has begun.
NO peelers for me, please, knives will do just fine!
While I will not make sweeping generalizations about ALL Africans, I will say that there were a few moments that put me in mind of my brother-in-law, Lune, from Sénégal, and moments, particularly in the kitchen, we've shared. He often just peeled vegetables with a knife, and seemed to think peelers were somehow wasting the best parts of the vegetable. He also once asked us when he was trying to cut open a coconut if we had a machete, and when we said no, he just threw the coconut on the bricks really hard and was like, "no problem! No need!" 

There's a similar story about her teaching a boy to cook that I loved:
  • He scorned all complicated tools, as if impatient of too much independence in them, and when I gave him a machine for beating eggs he set it aside to rust, and beat whites of egg with a weeding knife that I had had to weed the lawn with, and his whites of eggs towered up like light clouds."
A darkness falls upon you
I almost resentfully felt a kinship with the main character when she was getting ready to leave Africa, and she described some moments of terror and near madness, mostly because they reminded me of how I've felt at certain points in my life, and especially in France at the end of my time there:
  • fell upon me like a darkness, and in a way I was frightened of it, as of a sort of derangement. On this Thursday in Nairobi, the nightmare unexpectedly stole upon me, and grew so strong that I wondered if I were beginning to go mad." It's possible she was depressed, or suffered from mental illness, as her father commit suicide (according to her bio) but in any case, I rarely see people describing the way I experience life, even in fleeting moments, so it was nice to feel like I wasn't alone for once.
In case you haven't heard of the term, here's a quick definition:

intersectionality - the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

Reading this book was a great reminder that while I chose many authors on my second list because they were underrepresented or repressed or oppressed in some facet of their being, they may also be the oppressor in another piece of their identity, as was the case here. Just good food for thought.

The Masai
While in general, I did not like to trust her descriptions of Kenyans or their traditions because I felt like she was trying to tell the story of their lives FOR them, instead of write a book about them, I did enjoy hearing about the Masai:
  • A Masai warrior is a fine sight. Those young men have, to the utmost extent, that particular form of intelligence which we call chic; -daring, and wildly fantastical as they seem, they are still unswervingly true to their own nature, and to an immanent ideal. Their style is not an assumed manner, nor an imitation of a foreign perfection; it has grown from the inside, and is an expression of the race and its history, and their weapons and finery are as much part of their being as are a stag's antlers.
Shh! The little Swedish Censor is sweeping!
While this book was not what I would call a laugh riot, there were a few moments that I found very amusing, like this one, on her letters being censored during the war:
  • He can never have found anything the least suspicious in them, but he came, I believe, within a monotonous life, to take an interest in the people on whom they turned, and to read my letters as you read a serial in a magazine. I used to add in my own letters a few threats against our Censor, to be carried out after the end of the war, for him to read.
1, 2, 3, 5, 11, 18, 35, 36
This was my favorite exchange. She recounts trying to learn some Swahili (FINALLY) from a Swede (god forbid she learn from a Native speaker) but apparently the word 'nine' has a 'dubious ring to it' in Swedish, so this happened:

'They have not got nine in Swaheli."
   'You mean,' I said, 'that they can only count as far as eight?'
'Oh, no', he said quickly. 'They have got ten, eleven, twelve, and so on. But they have not got nine.'
   'Does that work?' I asked, wondering. 'What do they do when they come to nineteen?'
'They have not got nineteen either', he said, blushing, but very firm, 'nor ninety, nor nine hundred' - for these words in Swaheli are constructed out of the number nine, -'But apart from that they have got all our numbers.'
   'The idea of this system for a long time gave me much to think of, and for some reason a great pleasure. Here, I thought, was a people who have got originality of mind, and courage to break with the pedantry of the numeral series." lollllllz. 

Yes, they have fireflies in Africa, folks, in case you weren't sure.
I loved the universality of this moment, because it reminded me of driving on Mine Road in the summertime at night, and my parents turning off the headlights for a moment so we could swim in the sea of fireflies.
  • Here in the highlands, when the long rains are over, and in the first week of June nights begin to be cold, we get the fireflies in the woods. On an evening you will see two or three of them, adventurous lonely stars floating in the clear air, rising and lowering, as if upon waves, or as if curtseying. For some reason they keep within a certain height, four or five feet, above the ground. It is impossible then not to imagine that a whole crowd of children of six or seven years, are running through the dark forest carrying candles, little sticks dipped in a magic fire, joyously jumping up and down, and gambolling as they run, and swinging their small pale torches merrily.
New words for me
Eland - a spiral-horned African antelope that lives in open woodland and grassland. It is the largest of the antelopes.

marmiton - a chef's assistant, or a kitchen-boy. Actually a French word, I think.
Everyone's favorite troglodyte

troglodyte - (especially in prehistoric times) a person who lived in a cave; a hermit; a person who is regarded as being deliberately ignorant or old-fashioned. 

risibility - the tendency to laugh often and easily

Lines I liked
  • They had real courage: the unadulterated liking of danger, -the true answer of creation to the announcement of their lot, -the echo from the earth when heaven had spoken.
  • The air in the forest was cool like water, and filled with the scent of plants, and in the beginning of the long rains when the creepers flowered, you rode through sphere after sphere of fragrance.
  • But the real performers, the indefatigable young dancers, brought the glory and luxury of the festivity with them, they were immune to foreign influence, and concentrated upon the sweetness and fire within themselves. One thing only did they demand from the outside world: a space of level ground to dance on."
I'm off to Russia, to see Mr. Denisovitch, but I'll leave you with one final line, and you can guess what it reminded me of:

"In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be."

Anyone? A little Sylvia, from The Bell Jar...

"I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am."

Love to you all, and happy reading! 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Daniel-ay's Blob-Along to 'A Lesson Before Dying'

Dear friends, 

I know I have been absent here of late. Many projects, both personal and professional, are competing for my time and attention, but I want to continue to make time for reading and for sharing my reading experiences with you all. 

I hope that the onset of fall is treating you all well, and that you have the chance to read something pleasurable in the coming days as the leaves fall and the wind picks up a chill. 

Here's a much-belated blob-along from my good friend Dan, who read A Lesson Before Dying with me, and then shared his thoughts.

A Lesson Before Dying…
I write these first thoughts upon concluding the book this afternoon. They’re quick and hasty, so please forgive any hasty construction or hasty development of my thoughts and words…

What is this “Lesson”? We spend so much time asking others for comfort, when we can’t learn to embrace the discomfort ourselves. And yet, in the end, the very end, we stand, more comforted, when we know that we should face the discomfort head on.
  • "I was not there, yet I was there."
The beginning line of the book. Grant Wiggins begins by recounting Jefferson’s trial. These words immediately reminded me so much of another line from another book “It was and it was not so … it happened and it never did” aka “Once upon a time.” … (Thanks to Wikipedia for the following)
- In Arabic: كان يا ما كان،في قديم الزمان، وسالف العصر والأوان  There was, oh what there was (or there wasn't) in the oldest of days and ages and times...
- In Chinese: 很久很久以前... A very very long time ago…
- In Filipino: Noong unang panahon… At the beginning of time...
- In Polish: Za siedmioma górami, za siedmioma rzekami… Beyond seven mountains, beyond seven rivers… 
- In Italian: C’era una volta… There was a time…  

And always seemingly implying, But not here, not now.

The things (lies?) we tell ourselves. And although the stories aren’t “true”, they are so very very true.

We live a contradiction, we (white) americans, we colonizers, we slavers. We see the past and pretend that stuff being in the past does not make it so now: “It was, and it IS NOT so.” But not here, not now, we tell ourselves.

These following cruel, painful, gross, disgusting words in the novel come from Jefferson’s own lawyer, and they sound like they could come from today. And they set in motion the whole purpose for the book:
  • Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand - look deeply into those eyes. Do you see a modicum of intelligence?
  • To plan, gentlemen of the jury? No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command. A thing to… [etc. etc. etc.]
  • Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.
As heart-wrenching as this book was, and as it was to read your analysis, Meredeeeece, I was pleased to see how we both chose to highlight a couple of the same passages, a couple of the same feelings, and yet had found different moments that moved us as well. There’s such deep contradiction as a theme in this book, and I have a feeling of such inadequacy even commenting on it. But onward! I hope I can learn from these inadequacies, and so, towards the end of this post, I leave most of it in the author’s words. This book was supposed to be on the syllabus for my freshman English class when I was in high school. And we didn’t get to it. And I so deeply regret that the teacher didn’t get these words in front of our student eyes of privilege. We need more words by people of color in this country to be read and heard and appreciated and valued and celebrated.

A testimony to the brilliance of Ernest J. Gaines's writing were these delicate moments in the novel that were interwoven with humor, yet also dark humor. Laughter even among the pain. These often came between Grant and his love, Vivian. Hope among the darkness.
  • “When was the last time I told you I loved you?” “A second ago.” “I should say it more often,” I said.
  • “How much have you had to drink, Grant?” “A whole fucking barrel of commitment,” I said, and raised my glass.
  • Vivian smiled without opening her mouth. I kissed her on the tip of her nose. “Uh-uh,” she said. “Not in public. I have too much quality for that.”
And then there were moments where you see the daily pain and cruel psychological, institutional influence of racism. Where the white man Henri asserts his covert attempt to control the psyche of his staff:
  • But Henri Pichot had not thought it was necessary to tell him. At his age, he was still only a messenger to run errands. To learn anything, he had to attain it by stealth or through an innate sense of things around him. He nodded to me, knowing that I knew he knew why Henri Pichot wanted to see me, and he walked away, head down.
And where Henri not-so-covertly tries to degrade Grant:
  • … it seemed that he and the sheriff were doing everything they could to humiliate me even more by making me wait on them. Well, I had to put up with that because of those in the quarter, but I damned sure would not add hurt to injury by eating at his kitchen table.
And still there were moments throughout the book where you could feel the tension of race pushed on the reader by the author himself… Moments when the character Grant would point out to the reader that he intentionally spoke “correctly” or “incorrectly” (n.b. from a white person’s perspective), in accordance with how Grant wanted to convey something to the white recipient, as if the author was also calling out to the white reader, “See! See! Look how you presume! Look how you also don’t know how to feel! Feel the tension within yourself!”

Here, a former teacher talks to Grant about the futility of teaching…but also of life?...of white people?:
  • “...You’ll see that it’ll take more than five and a half months to wipe away – peel – scrape away the blanket of ignorance that has been plastered and replastered over those brains in the past three hundred years.”
  • “Any advice?” I asked him. “It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “Just do the best you can. But it won’t matter.”
Here, words that still ring true, and should call upon our society with shame:
  • Twelve white men say a black man must die, and another white man sets the date and time without consulting one black person. Justice?
  • … with no proof that you had anything at all to do with the crime other than being there when it happened. Yet six months later they come and unlock your cage and tell you, We, us, white folks all, have decided it’s time for you to die, because this is the convenient date and time.
Meredeeece, you highlighted these passages, and I too was struck by these wounding words:
  • It was the kind of “here” that asked the question, When will all this end? When will a man not have to struggle to have money to get what he needs “here”? When will a man be able to live without having to kill another man “here”?
And the myth:
  • The last thing they ever want is to see a black man stand, and think, and show that common humanity that is in us all. It would destroy their myth. They would no longer have justification for having made us slaves and keeping us in the condition we are in. As long as none of us stand, they’re safe.
Meredeece, your commentary on the afterlife/hereafter/God also resonated with me. These moments from the book jumped off the page to me….Here, the devastating, emotional spill from the minister:
  • That’s why you you look down on me, because you know I lie. At wakes, at funerals, at weddings – yes, I lie. I lie at wakes and funerals to relieve pain. ’Cause reading, writing, and ’rithmatic is not enough. You think that’s all they sent you to school for? They sent you to school to relieve pain, to relieve hurt – and if you have to lie to do it, then you lie. You lie and you lie and you lie.
And here, Grant’s own emotional challenges:
  • Don’t tell me to believe. Don’t tell me to believe in the same God or laws that men believe in who commit these murders. Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers. Who among his peers judged him? Was I there? Was the minister there? Was Harry Williams there? Was Farrell Jarreau? Was my aunt? Was Vivian? No, his peers did not judge him – and I will not believe.
  • Yet they must believe. They must believe, if only to free the mind, if not the body. Only when the mind is free has the body a chance to be free. Yes, they must believe, they must believe. Because I know what it means to be a slave. I am a slave.
To end:
“... And he walked straight, Grant Wiggins. Straight he walked. I’m a witness. Straight he walked.”

In thinking on today's America, on taking a knee, the NFL, friends drowning in whiteness, all of Ernest's words and Dan's reflectionson those words are worth revisiting, if only so we can see that we are not there yet. We are here, but we are not there, the place where we want to be, the America that I want to live in and be proud of. To get there, we have much work to do, and I hope you will do the work with me, blobbists. Love and leaves to all of you!