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, January 30, 2019

What is freedom to a nation, but freedom to the individuals in it?

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Uncle Tom's Cabin is a novel that centers around two slaves: Tom and Eliza. One finds her way to Canada and freedom, one, to put it simply, does not. When we pick up the story, Tom and Eliza both work on a plantation in Kentucky, where they are (as far as being enslaved goes) happy. Their own, Mr. Shelby, has been a little loose with his money, though, and so he's forced to sell some of his slaves to cover his debt. Tom is selected for both his hardiness and his gentle demeanor, and Eliza's young son, Harry, also catches the eye of the trader. Eliza gets word of the plan to sell her son and makes an escape the night before he is to be taken, and after many death-defying moments, they eventually get reunited with her husband, George, who was a slave on a nearby (not great) plantation and also ran. They all go to Canada (and then Liberia) and things are generally less awful for them. Tom is sold progressively farther and farther south, and the plantations shift in sentiment from decent to devilish. Tom's family (both his actual family and his master's family) do search for him, but are only able to locate him after he has fallen victim to the brutality of Simon Legree, who is to be his last master.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

This was an interesting read. I had read it once before, in college, for a course called Portraits in Black. Many of my reactions were similar (and I was amused to see that I wrote in my books as long ago as 15 years back) and I read a good portion of the book with my mouth curled into a disgusted sneer. There are caricatures of a great variety of people, both white and POC, and not all are positive, to say the least. That being said, I finished the book feeling quite moved, only to read some vituperative comments in an essay by James Baldwin. I'm not unaware of the negative stereotypes that spiraled from this work, but I was deeply affronted when he said it was awful, and on par with other awful books like Little Women. 

I respect you deeply, Mr. Baldwin, but we will have to Agree to Disagree. I know that your identity as an author, a POC writer, a queer writer, all the above and more, likely informed your reading (and/or reading for filth) of Uncle Tom's Cabin, but I would be remiss if I didn't say that I felt pretty impressed at the intensity of Stowe's work and the fact that she captured the public attention as a woman in that day and time. If you know me, you also know that I'm generally very big on connecting (or not connecting) with the work directly, and criticism isn't really my jam. So anyway, that's my two cents! I do still think the book is worth a read, if for no other reason than to form your own opinion. It was, after all, the best-selling novel of the 19th century. 

Run, Eliza, Run from Simon; Run Eliza Run!
I remember reading about the "feedback loop" in a book recently, and how echoes of characters and reflections in various media can, in turn, change or color our perception of the original (ex: Harry Potter now looks like Daniel Radcliffe in our heads). It took me most of the book to remember where I was remembering "Run, Eliza, Run! Run, Eliza, Run!" from, and it finally hit me after I finished that it's from the play-within-a-play (I think it's actually a ballet-within-a-play, if we're being picky) in The King and I. Since the internet has everything, I immediately found a version of the ballet and watched all of it. (NOTE: The ballet changes quite a bit of the plot. OK, mostly all of it. Don't rely on it for a book report ;)

I promise I'm getting back to the point about the feedback loop. What I wanted to say was that, because of that ballet, I, (a) thought that Eliza was Simon's slave, which she is not, and (b) thought Simon Legree looked something like this picture. 

Simon Legree
Simon Legree is a great name for a villain, and he definitely fits the bill. One of my favorite lines is from Sam, a fellow slave who helps Eliza evade capture, after she has just launched herself (and her son) across a mostly frozen river by bounding from ice berg to ice berg. 
"Wal, now," said Sam, scratching his head, "I hope Mas'r'll 'scuse us tryin' dat ar road. Don't think I feel spry enough for dat ar, no way!"
I'm not sure why, but the scene where Eliza and George and Harry hide in a cave next to a chasm and then end up pushing one of the slave catchers into the deep reminded me very much of Gandalf and the Balrog. Maybe it was the whole chasm thing. ;) Here's my favorite line from a friend of the Quakers, as he sends Tom Loker down into the chasm:
'Friend', said Phineas, suddenly stepping to the front, and meeting him with a push from his long arms, "thee isn't wanted here."
Speaking for others/Writing across difference
Certainly, no one can tell a story of the slave experience better than a slave themself. That being said, I did think there were some great lines that Stowe gave to her characters.
  • "My master! and who made him my master? That's what I think of - what right has he to me?"
  • "My country! What country have I, but the grave, -and I wish to God that I was laid there... No! If it comes to that, I can earn myself at least six feet of free soil, -the first and last I shall ever own in Kentucky!"
  • (paraphrased) "If heaven is for white people, I'd rather go to hell."
I can see why the book was so meaningful to the nation, and particularly to white folks. What I really loved about this book, though, was that the characters who really shone brightly, in a moral sense and in an all-around-awesomeness sense, were women, and in a few cases, children. Here are a few portraits.

Mrs. Shelby, wife of Mr. Shelby and original mistress to Eliza and Tom, among others
  • on slavery - I was a fool to think I could make anything good out of such a deadly evil.
  • When her husband says he'll go to town when Tom and Harry find out they have been sold, so he can avoid a scene, and she says she will go and tell them directly - They shall see, at any rate, that their mistress can feel for and with them.
Mrs. Bird, a Senator's wife, who eventually shelters Eliza and Harry for a night
  • on the Fugitive Slave Law - "It's a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I'll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance; and I hope I shall have a chance, I do!"
Eva St. Clare, young daughter of Tom's second master, Augustine St. Clare
  • when horrible things happen to slaves and she is accused of having a 'nervous' disposition when they upset her - "I'm not nervous, but these things sink into my heart."
George Shelby, the young son of Mr. and Mrs. Shelby, who eventually comes for Tom
"I should think you'd be ashamed to spend all your life buying men and women, and chaining them, like cattle! I should think you'd feel mean!"

I also thought that this book was pretty hilarious in quite a few places. It was originally serialized, so it has a kind of dark Dickensian wit that I really enjoyed. Here are a few moments: 
  • Augustine, to his wife, who constantly complains of her nonexistent ailments - "If it's particularly agreeable to you to have heart disease, why, I'll try and maintain you have it," said St. Clare; "I didn't know it was." lololololzzzz
Dinah, the St. Clare's cook
  • to Aunt Vermont, who keeps trying to organize Dinah's kitchen - "I wish Missis wouldn't touch dem ar. I likes to keep my things where I knows whar to go to 'em," said Dinah, rather decidedly." This reminded me of when my grandma would come to town and we'd spend weeks finding things in the wrong places afterwards. ;)
Reality made real
Stowe writes a lot like a speechwriter, making lots of direct appeals to the reader and to pathos and ethos. Here are two examples that struck me: 
  • on the Senator meeting a 'fugitive' IRL - "His idea of a fugitive was only an idea of the letters that spell the word, - or, at the most, the image of a little newspaper picture of a man with a stick and a bundle..."
  • If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, to-morrow morning, -if you had seen the man, and heard that the papers were signed and delivered, and you had only from twelve o'clock till morning to make good your escape, -how fast could you walk?
Problematical parts
As mentioned before, this book is by no means perfect. Feel free to examine the existing body of work out there (it's substantial) if you're curious to read more. A few things that bugged me...

- "The African Race" is like ____________. This is a sentence that comes up a lot. Race is a construct. There is no such thing as "the African race" and there aren't overall characteristics we can ascribe to them. 

- Christianity equated with Americanism - The big selling point for Stowe is that slavery is unChristian. As an agnostic/borderline atheist, I think it's really important that we recognize that slavery was inhumane, immoral, evil, and just all around unconscionable. I don't think we need to be Christian to own that. 

- Everyone leaves and goes to Liberia? There's a little bit of a 'back to Africa' thing that happens at the end, where all the slaves who make it out go to Liberia, which felt a convenient. Like, don't make these people your slaves, but let them go have their own land far away from us. I don't think that's her whole argument, since she talks about the role and responsibility of white people in helping to undo the ramifications of slavery, but it did feel a little off to me.

Lines in the running for blog title
  • I must go onward. I dare not stop.
  • In real life we do not die when all that makes life bright dies to us.
  • What does he want of liberty? It's no favor to set them free.
  • What use will freedom be to me? Can it give me back my children, or make me what I used to be?
South vs North
Stowe spends a pretty significant amount of time exploring the Northern sentiment vs. the Southern sentiment, and I think she does a good job of calling out certain subgroups for being problematic contributors to a greater evil. Here are two snippets. 
Augustine, to his sister, on the way Northerners treat black people - You loathe them as you would a snake or a toad, yet you are indignant at their wrongs. You would not have them abused; but you don't want to have anything to do with them yourselves.
On why there's no such thing as a 'good' slave master - In my opinion, it is you considerate, humane men, that are responsible for all the brutality and outrage wrought by these wretches; because, if it were not for your sanction and influence, the whole system could not keep foot-hold for an hour. If there were no planters except such as that one, the whole thing would go down like a mill-stone. It is your respectability and humanity that licenses and protects his brutality.
Wondrously New Words for Me
eldrich - strange or unnatural, especially in a way that inspires fear : weird, eerie

inkhorn - a small portable container for ink; alt., denoting pedantic words or expressions used only in academic writing

obstreperous - noisy and difficult to control

pellucid - translucently clear; lucid in style or meaning; easily understood; (of music or other sound) clear and pure in tone.

I'll leave you with a few parting thoughts on this snow squall of a day. Stay warm, wherever you are! I hear it's colder in Des Moines than Antarctica today!

The Quakers, on why they intervene to help slaves escape:
"If we would not meet trouble for a good cause, we were not worthy of our name."

On how good people are still generally the minority: 
"Are the honorable, the just, the high-minded and compassionate, the majority anywhere in this world?"

Stowe's recommendation to all: 
"What can any one individual do? They can see to it that they feel right."

So, dear blobbists, be honorable, be just, be high-minded and compassionate. Let's make it a majority in this dark world of ours, and let's make sure that when we lay our heads on our pillows to sleep at night, we do it knowing that, in our hearts, we feel right. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Did the wind-up bird forget to wind your spring?

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary

Here is my summary, which is somewhat deliberately confusing.

Cat (Noboru Wataya) goes missing.
    Kumiko (Toru's wife) leaves.
          May Kasahara becomes Toru's friend, dubs him 'Mr. Wind-Up Bird'.
               Toru meets Creta and Malta Kano, mystical sisters.
                  Toru goes to the well; almost gets stuck there.
                         Creta Kano comes by and saves him.
                              Toru meets Nutmeg, Cinnamon, starts working with them.
                                  Toru makes money and buys the well.
                                       Cat comes back (renamed Mackerel).
                                 Ushi comes on Wataya's behalf (brother-in-law, not cat).
                              Toru won't negotiate, demands to speak with Kumiko.
                          May goes to work in a wig factory far away.
                       Cinnamon and Nutmeg disappear without warning.
                    Toru returns to well, finds/rescues Kumiko on a separate plane.
                 Kumiko shares her plans to kill her brother (Noboru Wataya).
              Toru visits May at the wig factory, tells her the whole story.
            Kumiko on trial for murder, but confident she did the world a favor.
         Toru will wait for Kumiko.
      With their cat.

Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Here's a line that captures how I felt after reading this book: 
The one thing I understood for sure was that I didn't understand a thing.
I won't say that I hated the reading experience; it's more that I felt unsatisfied at the end of all the mystical twists and turns. I thought we were going to come into some kind of epic understanding when it all came together, and instead, when I finished, I just thought, hunh. That's all? 

I definitely appreciated the 'dreamlike' quality of Murakami, and would be curious to read more. That said, I'd most recommend if you're looking for a mystical, existential, wandering journey.

Theater of the Absurd
That's what this book reminded me of the most, in the same way as The Master and Margarita. Not so much magical realism, as things happening that just feel almost nonsensical, yet absolutely meant to happen. I'm not sure I'm correctly capturing the Theater of the Absurd, but whatever. That's what it felt like to me

Missing cats
As I mentioned in the plot synopsis, the missing cat is a fairly central theme in this novel. It does eventually return, but after reading too much Murakami on my holiday break, I became nearly convinced that Susan was at death's door. This is partly my fault, but I also blame it partly on the depth of the cat's loss in the novel. In case you were worried, Susan is alive and well. 

Trigger warnings
I don't believe in banning books, or censoring them, but I will say that if you're looking to read this one, I'd offer a few potential trigger warnings for readers like myself. Including but not limited to...
  • Sexual references (not the romantic pleasant kind)
  • Graphic violence (think human beings getting skinned alive)
  • Dark existentialism (like, really dark.)
  • Exploration of death (and the meaning (or lack thereof) of life)
  • Rape/defilement (physical and mystical. yes. you read that right.)
This book in a nutshell
I loved the theme of the wind-up bird, though I'm sure I missed the greater meaning it played throughout the book. Here's a line that captures it nicely, I think. 
It was a narrow world, a world that was standing still. But the narrower it became, and the more it betook of stillness, the more this world that enveloped me seemed to overflow with things and people that could only be called strange. They had been there all the while, it seemed, waiting in the shadows for me to stop moving. And every time the wind-up bird came to my yard to wind its spring, the world descended more deeply into chaos.
Love is a many-splendoured thing
I enjoy reading about various depictions of love, and perhaps my interest is heightened by never having been in love myself. In any case, I enjoyed this particular version of it, and thought to myself, now that isn't so flashy, but that sounds downright delightful.
Kumiko and I felt something for each other from the beginning. It was not one of those strong, impulsive feelings that can hit two people like an electric shock when they first meet, but something quieter and gentler, like two tiny lights traveling in tandem through a vast darkness and drawing imperceptibly closer to each other as they go. As our meetings grew more frequent, I felt not so much that I had met someone new as that I had chanced upon a dear old friend."
Referents and Reverberations
- The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

- Inception (film) - reading this book definitely made me want to re-watch Inception. 

- A Separate Peace by John Knowles
While I didn't totally understand the thread of WWII flashbacks that peppered the novel, it was interesting to hear such similar sentiments expressed on the Japanese generation to what I just read about in A Separate Peace. 
  • We were just ordinary young men, the same as you. I never once thought I wanted to be a soldier.
  • It was, of course, a make-believe peace.
It seems that everywhere the world was full of would-be soldiers who just wanted to be men. 

Title possibilities
Here are a few lines that were in the running. I think they give a nice image of the story. 
  • Malta Kano - No one ever calls me. I am the one who makes the calls. 
  • The point is, not to resist the flow.
  • In the distance, I heard the wind-up bird cry.
  • I felt as if I had become part of a badly written novel, that someone was taking me to task for being utterly unreal.
  • Some kind of memory was trying to find its way out.
  • Staying very still in the darkness, I became less and less convinced of the fact that I actually existed.
  • The way it stands now, your life is probably just going to get weirder and weirder.
New words
shoji paper - In traditional Japanese architecture, a shōji is a door, window or room divider consisting of translucent paper over a frame of wood which holds together a lattice of wood or bamboo.

I'll leave you with this line that I enjoyed, in reference to the wind-up bird - Every day it would come to the stand of trees in our neighborhood and wind the spring of our quiet little world.

Here's hoping there's something winding the spring of your quiet world, and that you haven't spent too much time at the bottom of deep dark wells lately (literally or metaphorically). Onwards to Uncle Tom's Cabin.