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 2, 2016

It has always been my belief that I, too, will die by violence. I have done all that I can to be prepared.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley)

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the real story of a misremembered man who changed the face of history. It chronicles the life of Malcolm Little, later Malcolm X and then el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, from his birth in 1925 to his untimely death in 1965. Malcolm's early life begins in Michigan, where his parents face barriers to keeping the family economically stable and physically together. Due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances, Mrs. Little is institutionalized and Malcolm is sent first to a foster family, then a detention home. After he is released from detention, he travels to Harlem to live with his sister Ella.

Malcolm spends his adolescent life in Harlem, becoming enamored with the 'hip crowd' and the crazes of the day. He conks his hair, buys zoot suits, and becomes increasingly involved with a variety of unsavory activities, including drug dealing, gambling, pimping, and robbery. He feels that this is all that the white world has to offer him, and falls deeper and deeper into iniquity.

After completing a series of burglaries with a crew, Malcolm is arrested and sent to prison. During his six years in prison, he becomes acquainted with the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Upon his release, he visits Elijah Muhammad and begins to play a significant role in the Nation of Islam, leading and opening temples across the United States.

In 1958, Malcolm marries Betty X, later Betty Shabazz, another follower of the Nation of Islam, and over the course of their marriage they have six daughters. Malcolm continues to serve the Nation of Islam, traveling across the country for speaking engagements, press conferences, and the like. Due to a series of events relating to Elijah Muhammad and to dissension within the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X publicly breaks ties with Muhammad's Nation of Islam in 1964.

After Malcolm's rift with the Nation of Islam, he starts several of his own organizations dedicated to Afro-American unity. He is invited to and travels to Mecca for a pilgrimage, and comes back with a richer global understanding of religion and race. He also has the opportunity to travel to Africa and several European countries where he meets with a variety of key officials.

Throughout 1964 and 1965, Malcolm X experiences a stream of threats on his life, largely from within the Nation of Islam. On February 21, 1965, Malcolm is gunned down in Manhattan's Audubon Ballroom as he is preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I had a lot of complicated feelings reading this book. For once, I'm glad that I broke my standard 'read-only-the-text-of-the-novel' rule and read the epilogue and the foreword. Alex Haley wrote a substantial epilogue to the novel, which addresses the public aftermath of Malcolm's death and provides extensive context to the creation process for the novel. The foreword was added much later and was written by Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm's eldest daughter. I felt that both of these pieces rounded out my understanding of Malcolm X the man, and they gave me a sense of closure that the text of the novel was unable to provide, ending, by necessity, just as Malcolm was killed.

Have you read this book, blob enthusiasts? I know it doesn't really count as a novel, since it's an author's account of true events, but it's pretty stunning. Here's my stipulation if you decide to read it: you must read the whole thing. You can decide if you want to read the epilogue and the foreword, but you must read all of Malcolm's life, not just some of it. If I had stopped mid-read, I would have misunderstood Malcolm, I think, and after reading this I respect Malcolm so deeply that I believe he deserves your thorough attention. Or, as Malcolm puts it, Why am I as I am? To understand that of any person, his whole life, from birth, must be reviewed. All of our experiences fuse into our personality. Everything that ever happened to us is an ingredient.

Without further ado, here are my thoughts on this book.

-- What do you remember about Malcolm X?
Seriously. What do you know? All I knew (or thought I knew) before I read this book was that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the 'non-violent' civil rights leader, and Malcolm X was the 'violent' one. Wrong. Capital W wrong. I'm not saying that there isn't some layer of truth to the distinction, but it's a dramatically oversimplistic generalization of two brilliant and influential men. Malcolm has a line about learning his history - "I remember the textbook section on Negro history. It was exactly one paragraph long." I went to school almost a century after Malcolm, and I can unfortunately say that my AA history was maybe a chapter long? A little Harriet Tubman, maybe a quick Frederick Douglass, and then moving on to later wars. Where is their story? Where is the priority to tell it? For a fascinating read on the new African-American history museum (which has finalllllllllly gotten its deserved place at the National Mall, click here.

When I am dead - I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form - I want you to just watch and see if I'm not right in what I say: that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with "hate". 
  He will make use of me dead, as he has made use of me alive, as a convenient symbol of 'hatred' - and that will help him to escape facing the truth that all I have been doing is holding up a mirror to reflect, to show, the history of unspeakable crimes that his race has committed against my race. Pretty prescient if you ask me.

-- When Malcolm is told to aim low
Malcolm has a great deal of promise as a young man, and he's super smart, but his favorite teacher tells him to reset his expectations after Malcolm says he wants to be a lawyer. As an educator, this scene broke my heart and filled me with rage:

You've got to be realistic about being a n*. A lawyer - that's no realistic goal for a n*. You need to think about something you can be. You're good with your hands - making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work. Why don't you plan on carpentry?

And later, here's Malcolm's reflection on why he quits school:

It was a surprising thing that I had never thought of it that way before, but I realized that whatever I wasn't, I was smarter than nearly all of those white kids. But apparently I was still not intelligent enough, in their eyes, to become whatever I wanted to be. 

I want every student in America to be supported and stimulated on the path to whatever they want to be. Are we there yet? I think we have a long way to go, but I like to think there's been some progress.

-- Conks and Locks, Afros and Twists
I have a few close friends who have talked to me at length and educated me in various ways about the battle for natural black hair to be socially acceptable and 'professional' in the eyes of a predominantly white world. Most of these discussions have been about women, so it was new territory for me to read about Malcolm's experience 'conking' his hair as part of the jazz era. If you're not familiar with it, they actually used lye to force the hair straight, and it was common practice, despite the dangerous and painful nature of the process. Here's Malcolm later on, about that time in his life. (The photo to the right is of Malcolm with his hair conked.)

How ridiculous I was! Stupid enough to stand there simply lost in admiration of my hair now looking 'white', reflected in the mirror in Shorty's room... This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning my flesh to have it look like a white man's hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are "inferior" and white people "superior" - that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look "pretty" by white standards. 

-- Malcolm - kind of a jerk about women
OK. So I have gained a great deal of respect for Malcolm X after reading this book, but partially as a product of his time and chosen religion, and perhaps a little bit just based on him and his sense of the world, Malcolm is supremely unevolved about women. It reminded me of the term 'intersectionality' and the idea that it's not just race or sexual orientation or religion or gender that make up our identity, but rather a blended mélange of all of these things, and the interactions between them. I had a hard time swallowing the brilliance of Malcolm's insights on race when they were coupled with sexist misogyny, but I like to think that maybe if he'd been born fifty years later, he'd have been more of a feminist, too.
  • All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak: they are attracted to the male in whom they see strength. Oh yes, so fragile and weak. Just weak ole' Meredith needs a nice strong man.
  • Always, every now and then, I had given her a hard time, just to keep her in line. Every once in a while a woman seems to need, in fact wants this, too. But now, I would feel evil and slap her around worse than ever. Great, sanctioned physical abuse. Awesome sauce.
  • What would happen if I just should happen, sometime, to think about getting married to somebody? For instance Sister Betty X - although it could be any sister in any temple, but Sister Betty X, for instance, would just happen to be the right height for somebody my height, and also the right age. (Mr. Elijah Muhammad taught that a wife's ideal age was half the man's age plus seven.) I love this. Malcolm is unabashedly unromantic about marriage, and about choosing Betty. He proposes over the phone, and the whole thing is very perfunctory. I guess it's not so different from an arranged marriage, which I know works for a lot of cultures, but it felt a little blasé to me - man seeking woman of proper height and age for lifetime commitment.
-- Why I would make a terrible member of the Nation of Islam:
As you may or may not know from this blob, I consider myself to be an agnostic/atheist/mystic/spiritual sort of believer, and I'm heartily not into organized religion. That being said, I was amused when I thought about whether I would make a good convert to the Nation of Islam, at least as it existed back in Malcolm's day. Here are the no-no's:

Forbidden 'muslim' activities (quotes to designate NOI):
  • fornication (no comment)
  • eating pork or unhealthful foods (hm... I do love my bacon. This could be an issue)
  • tobacco (non-smoker, check!)
  • alcohol (not even the occasional porter, or Jack's cider, or a midnight margarita?)
  • narcotics (check!)
  • dancing (well, I'm not what we would call a good dancer, but I do like the occasional dance)
  • gambling (check!)
  • dating (just because I don't do it much doesn't mean I don't want to)
  • going to the movies (FAIL. I love the movies. Everything about the movies.)
  • sports (does going to the gym count?)
  • taking long vacations (But I love long vacations! Who doesn't? Greece, anyone?)
  • oversleeping (Oh I am SO out. I slept until 11 today.)
  • domestic quarreling (does sibling quarreling count? because I think that's a fail, then)
  • lying (check-ish?)
  • stealing (check!)
  • insubordination to civil authority (only when warranted!)
SO, I scored like a 4.5 out of 16 on my 'would the NOI accept me' quiz. How do you fare? 

-- Prison (aka, when I started to really like Malcolm)
I first started to really like Malcolm and feel a kinship with him when he goes to prison. Here are a few of my favorite snippets:

Between Mr. Muhammad's teachings, my correspondence, my visitors - usually Ella and Reginald - and my reading of books, months passed without my even thinking about being imprisoned. In fact, up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life.

When I had progressed to really serious reading, every night at about ten P.M. I would be outraged with the 'lights out'. It always seemed to catch me right in the middle of something engrossing. This is adorable. I love the image of Malcolm in his bunk in prison getting infuriated by the 'lights out' and wanting to keep reading.

I don't think anybody every got more out of going to prison than I did. Where else but in a prison could I have attacked my ignorance by being able to study intensely sometimes as much as fifteen hours a day? Talk about getting the most out of prison time.

It was right there in prison that I made up my mind to devote the rest of my life to telling the white man about himself - or die.

And a little after prison...

During this time I received from Chicago my "X". The Muslim's "X" symbolized the true African family name that he could never know. For me, my "X" replaced the white slavemaster name of "Little" which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears. I never knew why he was called Malcolm X, but I love the poetry of this, albeit tinged with deep sadness.

-- The white man is the devil
You may not have picked up on this yet, but Malcolm was an incendiary character, and he didn't mince words. One of his main taglines from the first half of the book is 'the white man is the devil', which is understandably hard to read as a white woman. Here are a few of my favorite lines that provide some context to this phrase:

The problem here in America is that we meet such a small minority of individual so-called 'good', or 'brotherly' white people. Here in the United States, notwithstanding those few 'good' white people, it is the collective 150 million white people whom the collective 22 million black people have to deal with!

The white man is not inherently evil, but America's racist society influences him to act evilly. The society has produced and nourishes a psychology which brings out the lowest, most base part of human beings.

And later, Alex Haley: "I saw Malcolm X too many times exhilarated in after-lecture give-and-take with predominantly white student bodies at colleges and universities to ever believe that he nurtured at his core any blanket white-hatred. "The young whites, and blacks, too, are the only hope that America has. The rest of us have always been living in a lie."

It was important to me that Malcolm allow a place for white people to help reverse the pain and move beyond the oppression of our forebears. It was really hard to read most of the novel knowing that I had no place in Malcolm's solution to the race problem in America. I will say that his opinion on this changed pretty significantly with time, which I appreciated.

-- Race relations
Malcolm was not interested in integration. And before you go asking questions like, 'what's the alternative', or 'what's so bad about integration', or 'aren't we just a big melting pot', check this out:

on segregation vs. integration
Your slavemaster, he brought you over here, and of your past everything was destroyed. Today, you do not know your true language. What tribe are you from? You would not recognize your tribe's name if you heard it. You don't know nothing about your true culture. You don't even know your family's real name. You are wearing a white man's name! The white slavemaster, who hates you!...You are the planet Earth's only group of people ignorant of yourself, ignorant of your own kind, of your true history, ignorant of your enemy! You know nothing at all but what your white slavemaster has chosen to tell you.
   Do we show the plain common sense, like every other people on this planet Earth, to unite among ourselves? No! We are humbling ourselves, sitting-in, and begging-in, trying to unite with the slavemaster! I don't seem able to imagine any more ridiculous sight. A thousand ways every day, the white man is telling you "You can't live here, you can't enter here, you can't eat here, drink here, walk here, work here, you can't ride here, you can't play here, you can't study here.' Haven't we yet seen enough to see that he has no plan to unite with you? Granted, this is symptomatic of the time in which he was preaching and speaking, which was dramatically different from today's society. But there's some compelling stuff in his argument.

Here's one of my favorite lines from Malcolm: Coffee is the only thing I like integrated. Now, I think we have a long way to go if we're looking for true integration and equal access, but I love his sassiness. ;)

I can't turn around without hearing about some 'civil right's advance'! White people seem to think the black man ought to be shouting 'hallelujah'! Four hundred years the white man has had his foot-long knife in the black man's back - and now the white man starts to wiggle the knife out, maybe six inches! The black man's supposed to be grateful? Why, if the white man jerked the knife out, it's still going to leave a scar! This blew me away. Such a powerful line.

The government has departments to deal with the special-interest groups that make themselves heard and felt. A Department of Agriculture cares for the farmers' needs. There is a Department of Health, Education and Welfare. There is a Department of the Interior - in which the Indians are included. Is the farmer, the doctor, the Indian, the greatest problem in America today? No - it is the black man! There ought to be a Pentagon-sized Washington department dealing with every segment of the black man's problems. Where is the government department to deal with the repercussions and ramifications of slavery? Where are the dedicated think tanks to tackle the racial challenges we face as a society? I know that black people are one of many groups that suffer from unequal access, stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, etc., but there is something epically different about a group of people upon whose backs and bodies and souls we built our country.

Ossie Davis - "He would make you angry as hell, but he would also make you proud. It was impossible to remain defensive and apologetic about being a Negro in his presence. He wouldn't let you. And you always left his presence with the sneaky suspicion that maybe, after all, you were a man! Ossie Davis has a little endnote to the novel, and I love this line. I hate that anyone has to feel reminded that they are a person, because oppressors and racism and screwed up societies take that away from them, but I love the line.

-- Malcolm X and violence
I think it's important to address Malcolm's stated opinions on violence, since he has been much maligned on this front. Here are a few lines that I think succinctly articulate his arguments:

Mr. Malcolm X, why is your Fruit of Islam being trained in judo and karate?' An image of black men learning anything suggesting self-defense seemed to terrify the white man. I'd turn their question around: 'Why does judo or karate suddenly get so ominous because black men study it? Across America, the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, even the YWCA, the CYP, PAL - they all teach judo! It's all right, it's fine - until black men teach it! Even little grammar school classes, little girls, are taught to defend themselves.

New York white youth were killing victims; that was a 'sociological' problem. But when black youth killed somebody, the power structure was looking to hang somebody. When black men had been lynched or otherwise murdered in cold blood, it was always said, "Things will get better.' When whites had rifles in their homes, the Constitution gave them the right to protect their home and themselves. But when black people even spoke of having rifles in their homes, that was 'ominous.'

On race riots: It takes no one to stir up the sociological dynamite that stems from the unemployment, bad housing, and inferior education already in the ghettoes. This explosively criminal condition has existed for so long, it needs no fuse; it fuses itself; it spontaneously combusts from within itself...

I believe it's a crime for anyone who is being brutalized to continue to accept that brutality without doing something to defend himself. I think there's a natural fear of people taking up arms against us, from any angle, but can you deny the honesty of this line?

When the white man came into this country, he certainly wasn't demonstrating any 'non-violence'. Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it. Our children are still taught to respect the violence which reduced a red-skinned people of an earlier culture into a few fragmented groups herded into impoverished reservations. This line was so poignant, and so on the nose. I think about the Washington Redskins refusing to change their names, or the "Indian Corn" candy sold for Halloween, or the hundreds of movies where the 'noble cowboys' battle 'savage indians', and I think, do we ever have a long way to go.

One of my favorite lines in the whole book, when someone asks Malcolm about his power to create race riots - "I don't know if I could start one. I don't know if I'd want to stop one."

Let's just pause for a moment and sit with that. Are you hanging in there with me? I know this post is a bit lengthy, but boy is it deserved. This is definitely one of those books I'd put into my 'life-changing' category. Thanks for letting me borrow it, Dave Weinstein, via the Kensington Library. ;)

-- On Mr. Muhammad
Part of what confused me about the beginning of this book was that Malcolm was never the leader of the Nation of Islam. This guy, Elijah Muhammad, was in charge, and Malcolm becomes his sort of #2. What confused me is that I have never heard of Elijah Muhammad, and everyone I know has heard the name Malcolm X. It's doubly confusing when you read that from Malcolm's perspective, he tries very hard not to eclipse Elijah Muhammad, despite his rising popularity and press coverage. I guess I mention it just to say that I think history remembered the right man, imho.

-- On traveling to Mecca/abroad
It's after Malcolm travels to Mecca and then in various countries across the globe that his opinions are really widened about race relations and their connection to religion and America.

That morning was when I first began to reappraise the 'white man'. It was when I first began to perceive that 'white man', as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it described attitudes and actions. In America, 'white man' meant specific attitudes and actions toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men. But in the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been. 

Since I learned the truth in Mecca, my dearest friends have come to include all kinds - some Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, and even atheists! I have friends who are called capitalists, Socialists, and Communists! Some of my friends are moderates, conservatives, extremists - some are even Uncle Toms! My friends today are black, brown, red, yellow, and white! This is when I started to get really sad that I knew Malcolm was going to die soon. Not only was he this brilliant mind, packed to the brim with ideas and dialogue and debate, but he was also continuing to grow and evolve and round out his sense of the world. He was, in a way, just truly coming into his own when he was brutally slaughtered. I can't help but think what an impact he would have had with another three or four decades.

-- Atonement
This is such a thorny question for many white people. How does their privilege, their 21st century whiteness, fit into the complex and brutal history of our nation? It's true that we were not the slave owners, and we were not the vicious buyers and sellers of humans, and we were not the masters on slave ships. But we are a product of our present society. We are Americans, and I believe that we own both our history's proudest moments and our darkest demons. I don't think that white people alone bear this burden, but I do think there's an important understanding of whiteness that's lacking in our current world. Here's Malcolm:

Is white America really sorry for her crimes against the black people? Does white America have the capacity to repent - and to atone? Does the capacity to repent, to atone, exist in a majority, in one-half, in even one-third of American white society?
  Many black men, the victims - in fact most black men - would like to be able to forgive, to forget, the crimes.
  But most American white people seem not to have it in them to make any serious atonement - to do justice to the black man.
  Indeed, how can white society atone for enslaving, for raping, for unmanning, for otherwise brutalizing millions of human beings, for centuries? What atonement would the God of Justice demand for the robbery of the black people's labor, their lives, their true identities, their culture, their history - and even their human dignity?
  A desegregated cup of coffee, a theater, public toilets - the whole range of hypocritical 'integration' - these are not atonement. How can we atone? How can the victims of these crimes forgive?

Here are some of my favorite "Malcolmisms":
  • I've never been one for inaction. Everything I've ever felt strongly about, I've done something about. 
  • If I was not reading in the library, I was reading on my bunk. You couldn't have gotten me out of books with a wedge.
  • Any person who claims to have deep feeling for other human beings should think a long, long time before he votes to have other men kept behind bars - caged. I am not saying there shouldn't be prisons, but there shouldn't be bars. Behind bars, a man never reforms. He will never forget.
  • I'm telling it like it is! You never have to worry about me biting my tongue if something I know as truth is on my mind. Raw, naked truth exchanged between the black man and the white man is what a whole lot more of is needed in this country - to clear the air of the racial mirages, clichés, and lies that this country's very atmosphere has been filled with for four hundred years. Boy, is that ever still true today. 
Well if you've stuck with me, thanks for coming along on this ride with me. I know it can be a heavy one to experience, but I believe that makes it all the richer. I'll leave you with a few of my favorite nuggets:

I was in my car driving along the freeway when at a red light another car pulled alongside. A white woman was driving and on the passenger's side, next to me, was a white man. 'Malcolm X!' he called out - and when I looked, he stuck his hand out of his car, across at me, grinning. 'Do you mind shaking hands with a white man?' 'Imagine that! Just as the traffic light turned green, I told him, 'I don't mind shaking hands with human beings. Are you one?

I said that on the American racial level, we had to approach the black man's struggle against the white man's racism as a human problem, that we had to forget hypocritical politics and propaganda. I said that both races, as human beings, had the obligation, the responsibility, of helping to correct America's human problem. The well-meaning white people, I said, had to combat, actively and directly, the racism in other white people. And the black people had to build within themselves much greater awareness that along with equal rights there had to be the bearing of equal responsibilities.

I believe that this is how we atone. I believe this is how we begin to forgive. We recognize the humanity in each other, and we speak openly and honestly about where the scars and gaping inequalities still live. We shake hands and make friends with and marry and love fellow human beings, and we learn to share their experience of this America.

And of course, because as much as I enjoy talking and thinking and exploring issues related to race, there's something I love more, I'll leave you with this line from Malcolm about my one true love:

I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive.

May you atone, may you forgive, may you seek to understand, and may you read to remind yourself that you are mentally alive. Listen to the brag of your ruby-meated hearts (you are, you are, you are). I'm off to Oliver Twist!

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! ;)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Bel Canto is the story of a Japanese businessman's ill-fated birthday party. Mr. Katsumi Hosokawa agrees to attend a party thrown in his honor in an unnamed South American country, but only after he is promised that his favorite opera singer, Roxane Coss, will perform. The country is hoping Mr. Hosokawa's very wealthy company will build a factory there, though Mr. Hosokawa has no such plans, and simply wants to hear Ms. Coss sing. At the end of Ms. Coss's performance, the Vice Presential mansion (where the fancy party is taking place) is overrun with revolutionary rebel terrorists. (I know, PLOT TWIST much?) The rebels (I'm going to use rebels from here forward, since terrorists seems like an inapt term for this particular crew) were hoping to take el Presidente hostage, but malheureusement, il n'est pas là! (Sorry. I've been practicing my French for an upcoming trip to Montréal. He. Wasn't. There!) It turns out the President was watching his favorite soap opera (obviously, like Presidents do) and did not attend the party. This flummoxes the rebels, who proceed to try to take everyone at the party hostage, rather ineptly. When this becomes untenable (how to feed so many people? where to put them all?) and Roxane Coss's accompanist rather valiantly dies (accidentally - it turns out he is diabetic but in all the language confusion it came out too late) the rebels release all the women (except Ms. Coss) and most of the working folk (remember, they're rebelling for the common man). A strange sort of détente ensues, wherein the rebels keep trying to negotiate for things they can't actually get, and the outside world keeps sending in a Red Cross negotiatior to keep them at bay and avoid any violence. A hostage crisis that should have ended in a few hours lasts days, and then weeks, and then months, and the house turns into a kind of suspended animation land. We gradually learn more about not only the multicultural band of hostages, but also their captors, and come to find a deep-seated affection for everyone trapped in the purgatorial (vice)presidential mansion. Friendships blossom, love (both unrequited and requited) is expressed, and, oddly enough, many songs are sung. Just as you start to think that perhaps this alternate reality could, in fact, resemble a kind of happiness, and you find yourself crossing your fingers that maybe hostage situations could turn into amicably blended families of captives and captors, the outside world bursts in, the rebels are slaughtered, and the captives are "freed" from their captivity. In the end, you're left wondering how to define freedom, where to draw the line between oppressor and oppressed, and how to find ways to bring more music into your life on a daily basis (well, that might be me editorializing at the end. ;))
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Here is the first note I wrote myself about this book: My feelings about Bel Canto are very complicated, but parts of it are extremely well written.

In terms of a reading experience, coming to Bel Canto after Mambo Kings felt very much like reading Fahrenheit-451 after finishing Clockwork Orange. It was a breath of fresh air, a rekindling of my fondness for reading. It left me fulfilled in all the ways Mambo had left me empty.

That said, I had some concerns here and there (which I'll address below) and I'm not sure it's necessarily earned its spot in the forever classics. Here are my thoughts [and OH - heads up! this post isn't going to be Proust-long, but it might be Ayn Rand-long, so feel free to put your legs up, find a comfy reading spot, and grab a coffee or a cocktail or a cuppa.]

- Ah-ah-ah-ah-AhAhAhAhAhAhAhAh-ah, ah-ah-ah-ah-AhAhAhAhAhAhAhAhah, ah-ah-ah-ah-Ah-Ah-Ah-ah-Ah-Ah-Ah-ah-Ah-ah-ah-ah-HA-ah-Ha-ah-Ha-ah-ah-ah-Ha-ah-Ha-ah-ah (scan to minute 1:10 or so in the video and see if you can find it!)
I knew this book was off to a good start when the opening quote was from Die Zauberflöte (oh I'm sorry is your German rusty, TOO? must work on your language skills, my bloggists! That's German for Magic Flute!). 

Speaker: Stranger, what do you seek or ask from us?
Tamino: Friendship and love.
Speaker: And are you prepared even if it costs you your life?
Tamino: I am.

I was trying to put my finger on when my sisters and my Mom and I first started singing the crazy high notes bit from the Queen of the Night (I mean, we were classic lovers, but that's intense even for us!) and I realized it was when we listened to the "Mozart's Magic Fantasy" tape. We had these cassette tapes that blended stories with famous works of music (like ALL COOL PEOPLE DO), and in addition to the Mozart one, we had 'Beethoven Lives Upstairs' and 'Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery'. I think it's these kinds of things that led to 6th grade Meredith proudly proclaiming her favorite song when prompted as "Ooh ooh ooh! I would have to say Vivaldi's Four Seasons, but most Particularly SPRING!" #thatclassicalnerdlife #lolz #ipromiseihadfriendsthatwerentbooks

I think one of my favorite things about reading this book was that it put me back in touch with classical music. I'm not separated from it, per se, but I used to be playing chamber music 24/7 and breathing Brahms and dreaming Dvorak, and other than playing in the pit for Phantom, my life has been music-less for awhile. I would download pieces of music when Patchett referenced them, and my heart sung in reading just the titles of some of my former favorites from the opera class I took at Haverford - Lucia di Lammermoor, Orfeo ed Euridice. It was so pleasant to be reacquainted with not just one love of mine, but two (reading, music). 

- Write what you know.
OK, so I know this is contentious within the writing community, and people come down strongly on one side or the other. I have to say, if you haven't already picked this up from my blob, I am a big fan of the writing what you know. This can be extrapolated! I'm not saying, oh, OK, so you're 23, a trombonist, and you like cats, you can only write about Those Three Things. But what I am saying is that it's important to be wary of speaking for others. We have a norm at Breakthrough - "Speak from the I perspective." It sounds silly, but you'd be amazed how many people you can offend when you inadvertently speak for them. "I think we can all agree that weasels are brilliant." Can we, though? This gets most sticky when we're dealing with an oppressor/oppressed vibe - how often are the oppressors speaking on behalf of the oppressed? Are we leaving someone voiceless? This leads me to the second note I wrote in my copy:
  • Concerns about a white omniscient American narrator speaking on behalf of foreigners, terrorist and hostage alike; feels like she's exploiting their situation to make art
When policy researchers use the term 'exploit', it's generally not viewed negatively. For instance, they might say, we 'exploited the 1965 desegregation reforms to study differentiated educational outcomes'. I thought this was very weird, and it took me a while to get used to it, since it seemed like researchers would gleefully seek out something to 'exploit' in this fashion in order to study a social phenomenon. This double-meaning of exploit came to mind when I was thinking about the note I wrote. I don't feel like Patchett takes advantage of the characters and players represented in her story, and I think she writes them well, but I do feel like she's not speaking from the "I" perspective. So here when I say exploit I almost do mean it in that social science sense. Because when I think about it, a large part of what makes the novel work, in my mind, is precisely the construct of the hostage situation. But on the flipside, I think what keeps it from being a work of true brilliance is the very fact that it's not her story to tell. How's that for a Friday paradox?

Do you need a break? Look away from the screen - make eye contact with a porcupine. Use the facilities. High five the nearest cat. 

Now Come on Down to the Hostage Situation is Right!
Ok. Maybe that was in poor taste. But here are some of the lines that I thought captured the situation most poignantly:
  • "If what a person wants is his life, he tends to be quiet about wanting anything else. Once the life begins to seem secure, one feels the freedom to complain." At first, the hostages are demure, and extremely obedient. But as time goes on, the General in charge starts thinking of them as needy children. First they want to use the restroom (fine), then they want food (fine), then they want Sheet Music for practicing Arias (SRSLY?)
  • "Ice?' Ruben offered himself, as suddenly his mind was filled with the pleasures of ice, of the snow on the tops of the Andes, of those sweet Olympic skaters on television, young girls wearing handkerchiefs of diaphanous gauze around their doll-like waists. He was burning alive now and the silver blades of their skates shot up arches of blue-white chips. He wanted to be buried in ice." Ruben is the VP, who later becomes the sort of hostage host. He gets a blow to the eye (which is the first and last real moment of violence from the rebels) and then starts fantasizing about how marvelous just a little ice on his face would be.
  • General Benjamin - "He wanted the priest and the accompanist to have left when they were told to leave. People shouldn't be allowed to decide that they wished to remain a hostage." hagh. Two people stolidly refuse to be un-hostaged, and the General finds this highly annoying. The priest is secretly deLighted because (a) he loves to be of use and (b) he has a superfancrush on Roxane Coss. :)
  • Ruben Iglesias -- "'Are you comfortable?' he would say to his guests as he swept some tender crumbs into the palm of his hand. 'Are you holding up all right?' He wanted to nose their shoes under the sofa. He wanted to drag the blue silk chair down to the other end of the room where it belonged, but decorum prohibited that." Adorably, Ruben tries to 'keep the party going' at his home. He knows that as the VP he's a sort of placeholder government official that no one has any real interest in, and quickly devolves into a man trying to keep his palatial home a pleasant living space for everyone.
  • "With a dishtowel knotted around his waist, he took on the qualities of a charming hotel concierge. He would ask, would you like some tea? He would ask, would it be too much of an imposition to vacuum beneath the chair in which you were sitting? Everyone was very fond of Ruben. Everyone had completely forgotten that he was the Vice President of the country." :0)
  • Shopping list for hostages -- "Certain things had to come in before the excess of hostages could go out: pillows (58), blankets (58), toothbrushes (58), fruit (mangoes, bananas), cigarettes (20 cartons filtered, 20 cartons unfiltered), bags of candy (all types, excluding licorice), bars of chocolate, sticks of butter, newspapers, a heating pad..." The idea of a shopping list for hostages was amusing in its oddity. I suppose most hostage situations don't drag on very long, but surely some negotiators have had to run out and get crazy violent people random things (like all candy but NOT LICORICE)
  • Mr. Hosokawa - "When had he last written something down? His thoughts were entered, recorded, transmitted. It was in this simple repetition, the rediscovery of his own penmanship, that Mr. Hosokawa found solace." Many of the hostages rediscover something simple or different about life after being taken, and Mr. Hosokawa's small moment of happiness in taking little notes reminded me of a scene from the West Wing - President Bartlet has gone AWOL and they eventually find him aimlessly dawdling through a grocery store. He points out he hasn't gotten to buy his own groceries in years, and it stood out to me as such a strange thought. I wonder - when was the last time President Obama or Michelle went out to buy a gallon of milk? Will it be weird for them when they go back to grocery shopping after the White House? Will it feel refreshing, or mundane?
  • Mr. Hosokawa - "He believed his daughters were not old enough to date and yet clearly by the standards of this country they were old enough to be members of a terrorist organization." OK, so like I said, still have concerns about speaking for others, but the fact that most of the rebels/terrorists were teenagers under the control of a few Generals who were older men definitely added a layer of complexity and nuance to the situation. 
How are you doing? Would you like some tea? Some ice, perhaps? Maybe some candy but absolutely no licorice

- Italy, England, and America, 2001
There's a line near the beginning of the book when the hostages have first been taken, and Roxane Coss tells herself she's only going to take singing jobs in Italy, England, and America, to protect herself from any future such attacks. This gave me pause, as I realized that when Patchett wrote this, 9/11 had not occurred, the Boston Marathon had not been bombed, and the London subway had not been terrorized. I found it frustrating (and arrogant) that her character blamed terror on foreign lands, but it made me sick to my stomach to realize the now vastly expanded reach of such monstrous violence.

- Who will believe that I did not do this on purpose?
This tender line from Mr. Hosokawa, after the accompanist dies:

"What if I am responsible for this death?' he said.
'How could that be possible?'
'It was my birthday. They came here for me.'"

reminded me of the horse Boxer, when he thinks he's accidentally killed a man in Animal Farm. Mr. Hosokawa didn't intend to build a factory in the land, and he knows he led people on, but he is a very sweet man at heart, and he just wanted to hear Roxane sing.

- Polyglot Gen Watanabe reporting for duty
He didn't get mentioned in my plot summary, but Gen Watanabe, Mr. Hosokawa's translator, plays a key role in the novel. The generals and the mediator use him as a translator, and the various hostages require near constant translation to be able to communicate. Here were some of my favorite lines about Gen:
  • on his Swedish being limited to lines from Bergman films in college: "In Swedish, he could only converse on the darkest of subjects."
  • "He would scatter books on the floor and pick them up at random. He read Czeslaw Milosz in Polish, Flaubert in French, Chekhov in Russian, Nabokov in English, Mann in German, then he switched them around: Milosz in French, Flaubert in Russian, Mann in English." #SUPERJELJEL I can barely read Proust in the one other language I do speak!
Here's the next note I wrote to myself in the margins: Patchett writes about music with such reverence, intimacy, intensity, intentionality

I think Patchett might rank right up there with Proust in terms of the way she writes about music. A lot of writers write spectacularly about reading and about writing, and occasionally about art, but not many in my experience write as abundantly and as reverently about music. Here are some of my favorite snippets:
  • After the accompanist has died and the room has been anxiously polled for any secret piano-players to accompany the great Ms. Coss, Kato, a Japanese businessman, sneaks to the piano and pops out a Chopin nocturne - "Now the people in the living room of the vice-presidential mansion listened to Kato with hunger and nothing in their lives had ever fed them so well."
Roxane - "Have you heard the good news?"
Messner, the mediator - "There's good news now?"
Roxane - "Mr. Kato plays the piano."  :-)
  • The General, trying to put his foot down when Ms. Coss gets sheet music delivered from a local priest so that she can practice more - "Nothing belongs to Señorita Coss! She is a prisoner like the rest of you. This is not her home. There is no special mail service that applies only to her. She does not receive packages." ahaghaghaghag. At this point, the house has become pretty pleasant, and the hostage situation is basically for show, but the General is Not pleased that things have gotten so lax. 
How are you now? I told you this post would be a doozy! You can't say I didn't warn you. Why don't you reach your arms high and touch the sky? Then come right back. I'll wrap up soon, I promise! ;)

- WSOD [my widely accepted shorthand for Willing Suspension Of Disbelief]
That brings me to my next note: improbability/impossibility of the situation going on so long (a little magical realist, almost)

I was not surprised to read in the after-book notes that Patchett is a fan of Marquez - there's a definite magical realist quality to the suspended animation hostage situation, and the strangely warm affection it produces. Here are some illustrations of this:
  • when the Generals make Gen type increasingly wild demands on the typewriter they find upstairs in the middle of the night: "What they wanted seemed to Gen to be unformed...Late at night, in deliriums of power and generosity, they demanded that everyone be set free."
  • Carmen, a young female rebel, after she has fallen in love with Gen: "Yes, the Generals wanted something better for the people, but weren't they the people? Would it be the worst thing in the world if nothing happened at all, if they all stayed together in this generous house?"
  • "Who knew that life could be so unexpected? I thought we would be dead by now, or if not dead then regularly begging for our lives, but instead I sit and I consider opera." This reminded me of one of my favorite Virginia Woolf lines: "Was there no safety? No learning by heart the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air? Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life? -startling, unexpected, unknown?"
  • "Wouldn't you say the chances of finding oneself trapped in a house with true genius are remarkably small?" There are several geniuses I would volunteer to be a hostage with. Yo-Yo Ma, Proust, Einstein, Shostakovich, Virginia Woolf. What genius wouldn't you mind being trapped in a house with? (I know, I ended TWO sentences with a preposition, but I didn't feel like fussily rearranging them to avoid it. #getoverit)
A little hostaging, a little chess, maybe later some lawn games!
The General starts playing chess regularly with Mr. Hosokawa, which I found highly amusing and rather endearing. These scenes reminded me of Offred and her 'sinful Scrabbling' with the The Commander (quick, eat those words!)
  • General Benjamin, to Gen:"Please ask Mr. Hosokawa if he would come at his convenience. There would be no need for translation. Here, write down the words for check and checkmate in Japanese. I could trouble myself to learn that much if he would come for a game."
  • "Where before there had been endless hours of work, negotiations and compromises, there were now chess games with a terrorist for whom he felt an accountable fondness."
  • "Because they were both equally talented and equally slow, neither man ever became impatient with the other. Once, Mr. Hosokawa had gone to the small sofa and closed his eyes while he waited for his turn, and when he woke up, General Benjamin was still moving his rook forward and then back across the same three squares, careful to never take his fingers off the horse's head."
  • When one of the youngest rebels wants to join in the reindeer games but doesn't know if he can: "Ishmael stayed because eventually he wanted to play chess with General Benjamin and Mr. Hosokawa, only he wasn't sure if such a thing was actually allowed."
His love was inoperable
In this novel, many men are in love with Ms. Ross. This is not surprising - she is (a) the only adult woman in the house and (2) beautiful and (d) a marvelously talented opera singer. That said, not all of their love is requited. Here's one of my favorite moments, when one of the Russians, Fyodorov, simply Has to express his love but needs Gen to translate:

"Ledbed and Berezovsky were sympathetic, but then they were Russians. They understood the pain of Fyodorov's love."
Gen, to Fyodorov, when he looks ill at the proclamation:"She wants to know what's wrong with you.
'Tell her it's love.
and later, when Roxane has to respond to the offering: "As for the love...
Fyodorov: There is nothing to say. It is a gift. There. Something to give to you. If I had the necklace or a book of paintings I would give you that instead. I would give you that in addition to my love.
Roxane: Then you are too generous with gifts.
Fyodorov: Why should I carry this love with me to the other world? Why not give to you what is yours? so tender! So sweet!

Still there? Where did you get that licorice you're nibbling on? I said NO licorice! Please hand me a chocolate frog and a mug of butterbeer so we can toast and then I can finish this off with a flourish.

Here's the last note I wrote: a kind of strangely pleasant limbo where everyone can be of use
As the captivity continues, we find needs and uses for more and more members of the group, à la a Lost or Survivor-type situation. It reminded me of Montag and the Book of Ecclesiastes. What would you bring to the hostage table? Stand-up comedy? Mad kitchen skills? A killer baritone?

Ruben, on asking Ms. Coss about cooking:
Roxane: "Is there something you would like me to sing?"
Ruben: "That I would never presume to know. Whatever song you choose is the song I have been wanting to hear. I need some advice in the kitchen. Some help."
Roxane, to Gen: "Why would he think I know how to cook? This is some sort of Latin thing, don't you think? I can't even really be offended. It's important to bear the cultural differences in mind. Tell him his scar is looking so much better. I want to say something nice. Thank God that girl of his was still around when it happened. Otherwise he might have asked me to sew his face up for him, too."
Gen, to Roxane: "Should I tell him you don't sew?"
Roxane: "Better he hears it now." The soprano smiled again and waved good-bye to the Vice President. aghaghaghahgahgahgahgahghahag I LOVED this scene. Ruben was like, HALLO LADY! Help me with these chickens? and she was like, Oh No no no sweetie, I'm a DIVA.

Gen, on trying to get access to utensils to prepare said chickens:
General Benjamin: "No knives."
Gen: "Unfortunately, that's a problem. I know very little about cooking myself but I understand that knives are imperative for the preparation of food."
General Benjamin: "No knives."
Gen: "Perhaps then if the knives came with people."

Simon Thibeault, the Frenchman, who it turns out Does know his way around the kitchen, to the rebel teenagers who have been assigned to 'come with the knives':
"We are most grateful,' Simon Thibault said. 'We know nothing about the operation of knives. If entrusted with something as dangerous as knives there would be a bloodbath here in a matter of minutes. Not that we would be killers, mind you. We'd cut off our own fingers, bleed to death right here on the floor."
'Stop it,' Ishmael said, and giggled."
and later, after Ishmael threatens to shoot Simon over slicing an eggplant: "May I inquire as to the state of the onions or will you threaten to shoot me?" OK, so late spoiler alert: Ishmael is one of the first rebels shot at the end of the novel, and I swear, for an instant, my heart stopped.

Here is a list of the things that the hostages bring to the situation:
Simon Thibeault - cooking
Gen - translation, knowledge
Roxane, Kato - music
Lothar Falken - running
Hosokawa - chess
Ruben - hosting
Father Arguedas - confession

It has been such a pleasure spending this time with you, dear bloggists (even if you Did eat the licorice that I clearly told you Not to) and I will leave you with these parting thoughts. What happens when you realize you don't want to be rescued?

Happiness in captivity
  • Father Arguedas - "He did not pray to be rescued at all."
  • Gen, to himself: "The woman you love is a girl who dresses as a boy and she lives in a village in a jungle, the name of which you are not allowed to know, not that knowing the name would be particularly helpful in trying to find it. The woman you love puts her gun beside a blue gravy boat at night so that you can teach her to read. She came into your life through an air-conditioner vent and how she will leave is the question that keeps you awake in the few free moments you have to sleep."
  • Carmen - "Ask yourself, would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?"
  • "Ignacio, Guadalupe, and Humberto were at the breakfast table cleaning guns, a puzzle of disconnected metal spreading out on newspapers before them as they rubbed oil into each part. Thibault sat at the table with them, reading cookbooks."
  • Messner - "More than any other negotiation Messner had ever been involved with, he found that he didn't really care who won this one. He had never felt sorry for the captors before."
  • Gen - But all of them could not possibly include Carmen. It could not include Beatriz or Ishmael or Cesar. When Gen scanned the list he couldn’t think of one he would be willing to give up, even the bullies and the fools. How had he come to want to save all of them? The people who followed him around with loaded guns. How had he fallen in love with so many people?
Patchett plays with that incongruity; the idea that it is perhaps only after we are captured and imprisoned that we can truly feel free. And yet that freedom is insecure, imperfect, and of necessity, ephemeral. But think just for a moment -- isn't it true that we are all of us sometimes wishing we could be held hostage with the things and people we love or could come to love?

Here are a final few stunning sentences for you to savor before I leave you:
  • Maybe music could be transferred, devoured, owned.
  • Hosokawa - "He believed that life, true life, was something that was stored in music."
  • Through the open windows came the raucous sawing of insect life. makes me think of the Peepers! They're BAAAAACK, folks! And the peepers keep on Peeping! Showing no signs that they were SLEEPInG!
  • She was reckless and brave, so great was her joy.
  • Instructions were given, those lying down were to remain quiet and still, those standing up should check those lying down for weapons and for secretly being the president. not quite zeugma (my all-time favorite literary device) but CLOSe! any secret presidents among you, bloggists? perhaps a sly Zemblan king or two?
I wish you all a wonderful weekend, replete with sunshine, warmth, gaiety, and relaxation. May you all be reckless and brave, so great is your joy. 

Onwards to Travels with Charley. Or maybe it's Ludrigger. Or Smolliver. Something like that!