Monthly Archives: July 2010

Review: Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea

Girls of Riyadh was released in Lebanon in Arabic in September 2005. The novel, recounting details about the private lives of four young women from Saudi Arabia’s upper classes, immediately became a sensation all over the Arab world. Hundreds of articles were written about it, politicians and pundits debated it publicly, online chat rooms were crowded with people hotly discussing it, and it sold more than a hundred thousand copies in the first several months – not including countless black-market editions…. In this bold debut, Rajaa Alsanea reveals the social, romantic, and sexual tribulations of four young women from the elite classes of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Every week after Friday prayers, an anonymous female narrator sends emails to the subscribers of her online list-serv. In fifty such emails, spanning more than a year, the Scheherazade-like narrator unfolds little by little the comic-tragic reality of a small group of girlfriends…as they negotiate their love lives, their professional successes, and their rebellions, large and small, against their cultural traditions.

When I saw the cover of this book and read the jacket, I added it, without a second thought, to my library book bag. I am fascinated with women’s issues and thought this would definitely be a must read for me. How had I not heard of it before? Once I flipped to the actual story, though, I understood. Much like Gossip Girl, some show with a horrible actress all my students love, the narrator of Girls of Riyadh is in the business of gossip. The gossip does not appear to be mean-spirited, but she does divulge all the secrets of four girls: Gamrah, Michelle, Sadeem, and Lamees. Each girl is privileged, coming from money and the upper tier of Riyadh. In a world of arranged marriages, where divorce is shameful, and women are chattel, the reader may think wealth can abate these problems. The girls certainly do have fun but although the girls and their antics could be entertaining, what follows is not great literature. BUT.

(And that’s a big “but.”)

I have thought quite a lot about this book. You’ve probably noticed from my 2010 reads, I don’t review everything I read. Some, to me, just don’t seem to be worth the time. Others, I need a little distance from in order to write a better review. Some just have to sit awhile. The thing about this book is, it affected me. It took me a couple of days to read, and after an afternoon of sitting with it, I ran to the grocery store. When I got home and walked toward the home that I own, as a single woman, having just stepped out of a car I bought without any help, I thought: I’m so lucky. These women cannot make a step without a. permission and b. judgment. They aren’t allowed to happily or foolishly fall in love without rules. Even when a couple of the girls broke out from their cookie-cutter roles, they were either punished, shunned, or made to feel guilty.

I know a lot of people just thought of this as a young girl’s (she was 24 when she wrote it) spoiled rant about not getting her way. And, yes, there certainly are spaces in the book where I thought the same. But it’s different. These girls may have wealth and beauty and status. The point is not that we should feel sorry for them. The fact is, in spite of their wealth and beauty, these women face obstacles to freedom. Big, huge, ugly ones. Give me all the wealth in the world, but if I cannot be in the presence of men, say, at a coffee shop or mall, without a chaperone or covering, I don’t want it.

Also, the book was full of small tidbits of Saudi culture. Having taught two Saudi students in my first summer session, I was eager to attain additional knowledge. My two male students had really opened my eyes to life in Saudi Arabia. Alsanea furthered that education. At one point, the four girls are going out to celebrate. The women arrive at a cafe in a car with tinted windows. In the late 90s, this was apparently standard for men who did not want their wives and daughters exposed to the eyes of men. Attracted to the car and what it holds,

[the men] jumped in their cars and surrounded the SUV on both sides. After the girls got the drinks they wanted from the drive-through, the entire parade started to move toward the big shopping mall in Al-Olayya Street, which was the girls’ second stop. Meanwhile, the girls were taking down as many phone numbers as they could. They did not have to work very hard, because these numbers were generously showered upon them by the guys. The girls could memorize those with catchy sequences and repeated digits as the guys stuck out their heads through their cars’ windows while driving and kept repeating them for the girls to write down. The girls also copied from placards the guys had hung on the windows of their cars so that girls in neighboring cars could see the numbers clearly. The truly bold knights among them held out personal business cards, passing them through the windows to be snatched up by the girls, who were every bit as brave as the aspiring Romeos. At the mall entrance the girls got out. Behind them appeared a rush of young men, but they all came to a stop uncertainly in front of the security guard. It was his job to keep all unmarried men from entering the mall after the call to Isha prayer that ushered in nightfall.

This sounds so utterly fantastical. Had I not learned so much from my Saudi students, I might have thought this an exaggeration. However, both told me it is common for people to meet this way. The traffic can be so bad, drivers can reach out and touch the person in the next car. One of my students said clandestine dates are often planned during traffic jams.

Overall, I would hold to my conviction about this book. It’s not great. The writing is poor; it is a translation. It reads much like a young girl’s diary. What elevated this book for me was the author’s bravery in publication and her desire to amplify the issues affecting young women in Saudi Arabia as well as the informative look at a culture so different from my own.


The Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry

 

  “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” ~ Herman Melville

Thus begins Brunonia Barry’s latest novel, The Map of True Places, a novel of secrets, family, and the untruths that manage to hold them all together. Hepzibah “Zee” is a therapist who seems a bit lost. In her job, she feels she has crossed the lines of professionalism with one patient, Lilly Braedon. Lilly is manic depressive, and Zee is desperate to help her. Zee’s own mother, also manic depressive, killed herself when Zee was a child, after realizing that neither her dreams nor reality could bring her the one big love of her life. Lilly’s story is so similar that Zee begins to be haunted by her memories of her fragmented childhood and her inability to save her mother. When Lilly commits suicide, Zee’s life is shifted off its axis, as she thinks she should have seen it coming. She is plunged back into her childhood and hometown of Salem – a means of comfort and escape – only to realize that although her mother is gone, her father is here – and not for long. Finch has hidden his advanced Parkinson’s disease from his daughter and has kicked out his long-time partner and caretaker, Melville. Finch will not divulge why Melville is no longer allowed in the house. Melville, Finch’s partner, a younger man, is devastated. He loves Finch, and as the disease progresses, he must choose to force his memories on Finch or to simply have the pleasure to be in his company as a virtual stranger. Once a Hawthorne researcher, Finch has become delusional, and Zee must confront her anger, resentment, hurt, and sadness before determining how to best care for her father.

I am of two minds on this novel. On one hand, the story was gripping. With manic depression, suicide, and Parkinson’s disease, it certainly sounds like a downer, and Zee’s flashbacks to her mother’s episodes could be disturbing. The treatment of mental illness, though, was on the whole, sensitive and true. Maureen, Zee’s mother, followed as much a pattern as any untreated manic depressive can. Her story unfolds through the eyes of Zee’s childhood – the obsession with a Salem legend, the trips to a psychic, even the jealousy of mother toward child and the pits of despair and depression when fantasy turned to the reality of her daily life.

Zee, too, was worth following. When the novel opens, she is engaged to Michael but thoroughly uninterested in her wedding. She is indecisive and increasingly unsure of herself and her place in the world. She works for a famous psychotherapist, Mattei, but doubts herself and her skills as well as the drive she needs to succeed. The adulthood and responsibility that were thrust on Zee at an early age also stunted any true growth in her, but faced with the illness of her father, Zee must navigate the depths of her own psyche in order to finally be at peace and come into her own.

Unfortunately, as readable and enjoyable as I found The Map of True Places, ultimately, the novel fell flat in the last third. Plot elements seemed contrived; some plot lines dangled while others were much too neatly finished. The interference of the life and trappings of the dead patient, Lilly, was too frequent and coincidental, and in my opinion, did nothing to further the story. Barry had all she needed, and she took it too far. The legend with which Maureen was obsessed resurfaces; Zee’s lover conveniently resembles one of the players in that story. A bottle of strychnine, the poison responsible for Maureen’s death, reappears. Lilly’s abusive ex-boyfriend stalks Zee. A book of poetry and a suicide note never before seen by Zee reveal a long-held secret… You see where I’m going with this. It’s not pretty.

All in all, this promising novel relinquished its hold on me. I wish there were do-overs in literature. This would be one for which I would demand a rewritten ending. Lest you think me naive, I don’t have to like every ending to a novel. I don’t expect to. I do, though, expect a satisfying conclusion that fits the level of writing of the first portion of the novel. Regrettably, Ms. Barry, similarly to her main character, seems to have lost her way.

Other reviews:

Too Fond of Books


Library Haul

Just got back from the ‘brary. Oh wait – you don’t call it that? Ok, guess I won’t either. I had some great recommendations from Pop Culture Nerd, but I also just like to wander through the aisles. I usually have some author’s names in mind, and wandering is half the fun.

What I got:

The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall

Despair by Vladimir Nabokov

How Right You Are, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Split Image by Robert B. Parker

The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes (I really liked the cover of this and just realized who she is. This may be a no go.)

I also got a couple of audiobooks, one Jane Green and one Elizabeth George. I tend to like lighter books for my commute as I can’t really focus that well. The library also has a pretty decent movie selection, and season three of Mad Men just happened to be on the shelf. Don Draper, here I come. This series is excellent, but I don’t have cable and cannot watch it. I’m always just a little behind the curve on current TV, but I honestly don’t mind.

All in all, I’d say that was a successful trip to the ‘brary. (Hey -it’s better than liberry, as I’ve heard some pronounce it.) At the moment, I am finishing up The Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea but should finish that this evening. Now the only problem is which book to begin. Hmmm…


Where are the editors, or Why all the damn similes?

Note: I do not use red pen on student papers as I have found red ink makes them feel they did worse than they actually did. Like employees given pink slips, students are immediately on the defensive.

Pop Culture Nerd and I had a brief exchange on Twitter last night wherein we discussed our picky astute observations regarding grammar-ly matters. (Yes, I totally made up “grammar-ly” so as not to sound incredibly high-handed). I was bemoaning the overuse of similes, she, adverbs, i.e. he demanded forcefully. You see, when you read as much as I do (and as much as most book bloggers do), certain trends begin to stand out. PCN has a great post up about the tics that bug her the most.

Today, I want to go into a full-fledged rant on the simile. Similes are great. “A comparison using ‘like’ or ‘as.'” Excellent. Fourth graders often employ similes in poetry. Adults, however, tend to have a greater grasp of the English language and should not need to rely as heavily on them for description. Notice, I use the word should in that last sentence. Unfortunately, everything I read lately seems to have an overabundance of the darn things. The one that stands out the most: They folded into the booth “like two spoons in cake batter.” Ugh. I get it; they were tired or comfortable or whatever. I really didn’t need the foodie image. Really. Now I’ll tell you, this came from Adriana Trigiani’s book Rococco, but I’m not picking on her alone. This afternoon, while teaching a class, we were discussing paragraph organization, and here’s a quote directly from the textbook: “… the line of thought in paragraph B swerves about like a car without a steering wheel.” I honestly had to pause to let that one take effect. Like moths to a flame, writers seem to be drawn to similes, and if even the textbook uses these (in my opinion) ridiculous analogies, who am I to complain?

My academic background is in English and technical writing and editing, so these choices get my back up. Once or twice, I guess they’re ok. Any more than that, and the writing is lazy. The opening to Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is one of my favorite, so let’s look at it in all of its simile-free glory:

Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy …. Barrabas arrived on a Holy Thursday. He was in a despicable cage, caked with his own excrement and urine, and had the lost look of a hapless, utterly defenseless prisoner; but the regal carriage of his head and the size of his frame bespoke the legendary giant he would become.

How different would that phrase ring if we changed it:

Barrabas came to us be sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy like filigreed gold …. Barrabas arrived on a Holy Thursday. He was in a despicable cage, caked with his own excrement and urine, and had the lost look of a hapless, utterly defenseless prisoner like the image of Jesus walking to Golgotha. Like a king, the regal carriage of his head and the size of his frame bespoke the legendary giant he would become.

Like a fly in the ointment, Allende’s lovely passage is, well, less lovely. The imagery and the symbolism in the real excerpt are certainly there (interpret as you wish), but if you make it explicit, the words lose their impact. No more interpretation. Less beauty.

So why are authors still doing it? In PCN’s post comments, many blame the writer, and yes, the writer should be held accountable. However, as an editor (in name only, not career), I cringe to think that a professional editor lets manuscripts slide from her desk with these sorts of stylistic choices. The job of an editor is to take what the author created and make it better – grammatically and stylistically. One of my categories on this blog is “where are the editors,” and I’ve started using the tag whenever appropriate. I mean, I get it: Writers tend to use similar words and word phrases and may not always pick up on them. Editors should.

Stay tuned for more “Where are the editors?” posts…


Faithful Place by Tana French

Finding a new, great author is something I can only describe as akin to the best parts of Christmas morning, the first onset of fall, and the first long evenings of summer (before the humidity and mosquitos, of course). It fills a reader with such anticipation, gratefulness, and awe. I have certainly felt that. Anticipation tinged with sorrow once the new book is read, knowing the next could be years in the making. I read a post the other day (but now cannot remember whose – if it’s yours, message me) that the author didn’t really matter; the book’s the thing. That is true to a certain extent, but there’s so much more to that simple statement. Without the author, the talent, the simple touches that make the characters memorable, the ability to set a scene without describing it… none of it would be there.

A few years ago, when I first picked up In the Woods by Tana French, I knew I had found something special. I’m not a genre snob. A quick glance through my posts reveals a healthy mix of just about anything although my go-to book would be a good mystery. Though as Jenna Schnuer of the blog American Way says, In the Woods is “anchored by crime, therefore earning [its] “mystery” billing… [it] could also live quite comfortably on literary-fiction shelves.”

Tana French is just a damn good writer. I knew that from the first pages of In the Woods when I had to re-read a passage several times because it was so darn good. The Likeness followed, picking up on Cassie from the first book as she goes undercover. Her boss, Frank Mackey, is the central figure in Faithful Place, and although this book wasn’t my favorite of the three, my opinion of French hasn’t changed one bit. The book is gritty and ugly, and as I read, I knew it would only get uglier.

At 19, Frank, sick of his deadbeat drunk dad and loud, violent family, decides to hoof it to England with his girl, Rosie Daly, leaving his nagging Ma, drunk Da and gaggle of brothers and sisters behind. But as he waits in the darkness, he tells us “the night faded to a thin sad gray and round the corner a milk cart clattered over cobblestones towards the dairy, and I was still waiting for Rosie Daly at the top of Faithful Place.”

Twenty-two  years later, Frank believes Rosie ditched him because of his embarrassing family and is now living in Dublin, the head of Undercover, divorced from his ex-wife Olivia, and picking up his daughter Holly for the weekend. When they get home, set to order pizza and watch a movie, Frank gets a call from his sister Jackie – his only link to the family he hasn’t spoken to in 22 years. Jackie tells him that the buildings up at Faithful Place are being gutted, and Rosie’s suitcase was found stuffed up the chimney. The hurt, doubt, and dread flood Frank, and he begrudgingly goes back to Faithful Place, his family, and everything he still resents.

As Frank says about Undercover, “you create illusions for long enough, you start thinking you’re in control. It’s easy to slide into believing you’re the hypnotist here, the mirage master, the smart cookie who knows what’s real and how all the tricks are done. The fact is you’re still just another slack-jawed mark in the audience. No matter how good you are, this world is always going to be better at this game.”

And that sums up the book. All the things Frank thought he left behind in Faithful Place roil up to meet him, and he’s sucked back into this sad place that doesn’t relinquish its occupants happily. Frank hates, truly hates, his father and Faithful Place. He got out early, but it has left an indelible mark on him and has touched every person who remains. The language, the dialect, and the trashiness of Faithful Place bring Francis Mackey back to boyhood, back to a time when the rules were different and squealing was a heck of a lot worse crime than stealing. Tana French doesn’t hide any of it, and she shows Frank’s dirty struggle between the life he knew and the life he knows now. Faithful Place has a healthy dose of reality and shows that there are some people willing to take the life they believe they deserve, while others will bitterly take the hand dealt with brutal consequences. The desperation of these characters is palpable, and I could almost almost understand the motivations to just get the hell out, no matter how.

Three days after the release of this novel, I sit here, feeling like a kid after the hoopla of opening presents and exploring the depths of my stocking, the reality that the day is almost over beginning to strike. I’m ready for next Christmas.


Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

Image from The Fire Wire

Is the cover of this book not amazing? I’m always inspired by Frances at Nonsuch Book; she posts the most intriguing books and book design. When I started blogging, I knew I would have to feature this book’s art first and foremost. The photos above really do not do it justice. This is one of the most intricate, beautiful books I’ve ever owned. If you’re lucky enough to land one somewhere, hang on to it. Jordan Crane did the cover art, and it truly is art. [Maps and Legends is a collection of essays published by Michael Chabon in 2008.]

Ah, the essay. I think about essays constantly. I teach essay writing. I write essays. I enjoy reading essays. However, over the last few years, I have noticed that essay writers can be the most pretentious, self-important writers out there. A well-crafted essay is probably one of the most difficult things to write. The writer must be succinct but engaging. Very often, the essay topic is interesting to only a small subset of the population. Most importantly, there is just enough space to diverge from the main topic to explore other tangents, but the writer must once again come back to his or her main point.

My most recent brush with Michael Chabon was in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The experience was mixed as I really liked the story and some of the characters but felt Chabon’s voice was very present in the text, distractingly so. Of course, in this book of his essays, Chabon’s voice is ever present. While there were many points on which we agreed, that pretentious voice still irked the hell out of me. Overall, though, the essays did everything I require – they were entertaining, well written (although a bit wordy), and varied.

I almost wholly agree with his essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story,” wherein he explores genre, saying:

And so as with our idea of entertainment, our idea of genre …. is of a thing fundamentally, perhaps inherently debased, infantile, commercialized, unworthy of the serious person’s attention. The undoubted satisfactions that come from reading science fiction or mystery stories are to be enjoyed only in childhood or youth, or by the adult reader only as “guilty pleasures” (a phrase I loathe). A genre implies a set of conventions – a formula – and conventions imply limitations (the argument goes), and therefore no genre work can ever rise to the masterful heights of true literature, free (it is to be supposed) of all formulas and templates.

Bang on, Chabon. I’m right there with you, but wait…

Like most people who worry about whether it’s better to be wrong or pretentious when pronouncing the word “genre,” I’m always on the lookout for a chance to drop the name of Walter Benjamin. I had planned to do so here. I intended to refer to Benjamin’s bottomless essay “The Storyteller,” and to try to employ the famous distinction he makes…

Yeah – see, I did not even have to call him pretentious; he knows he is. And, he goes on to talk about Walter Benjamin… namedropper. Of course, before you think me moronic and incapable of reading his sardonic voice, let me skip to another section of the same essay:

I’d like to believe that, because I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations. I could uncork some stuff about reader response theory, or the Lacanian parole. I could go on about the storytelling impulse and the need to make sense of experience through story. A spritz of Jung might scent the air. I could adduce Kafka’s formula…

Aaand, we’re back to pompous ass. His voice, particularly in this passage, reminds me of oh-so-many insecure graduate students, just learning theory. No longer is a story a story. Suddenly, it takes on so many theoretical contexts that not even they are capable of finding their way out of the rabbit hole.

This is not to say that each essay is unfulfilling. The first, already referenced essay regarding the short story is wonderful. There are also several essays devoted to the writing process and Chabon’s first and second novels.He discusses Sherlock Holmes, Cormac McCarthy, and Will Eisner, while also exploring his fascination with Golems in an essay entitled, “Golems I Have Known, or Why My Elder Son’s Middle Name is Napoleon.” The Eisner essay is short but fantastic, and Chabon’s love of anything comic book related definitely comes through.

One of my favorite passages discusses a popular topic, the inevitability of lies in fiction.

There is a contract between the writer of fiction and the readers he or she lies to, as there is between a magician and the audience he hoodwinks; they are in it together. They are helping each other to bring a story to apparent life or an edible orange to grow from the branch of a clockwork tree.

And, in “The Recipe for Life,” he expands on this idea:

Literature, like magic, has always been about the handling of secrets, about the pain, the destruction, and the marvelous liberation that can result when they are revealed…. If a writer doesn’t give away secrets, his own or those of the people he loves…if the writer submits his work to an internal censor … the result is pallid, inanimate, a lump of earth….[T]he writer shapes his story, flecked like river clay with the grit of experience and rank with the smell of human life, heedless of the danger to himself, eager to show his powers, to celebrate his mastery, to bring into being a little world that, like God’s is at once terribly imperfect and filled with astonishing life.

I know there are many readers out there who steer clear of essay collections. However, I have enjoyed them for years. Similar to a collection of short stories, you can pick the book up for one essay before bed or on a lunch break, without losing the flow of the story, as in a novel. This book has been on my bedside table for weeks, and I have picked through it, skimming the ones that I couldn’t relate to (I’ve never read The Golden Compass, so his essay about it was not for me) and relishing the ones that piqued my interest. This particular collection was coherent and enjoyable, and I am curious if anyone else out there has read it. If so, what were your thoughts?


Picky Boy: The Kids Are All Right

When I sat down to watch The Kids Are All Right, my mind was on other things. The pizza I’d just eaten (it was alright)…the Cole Haan shoes I want to buy (I can’t afford them)…the A/C unit we desperately need in our living room (wouldn’t it be nice?).

I simply wasn’t prepared.

Here I sit, two days later, and I cannot stop thinking about this movie. Just a quick synopsis for those of you residing in places where this film probably won’t be released: The Kids Are All Right, written by Lisa Cholodenko, centers around two lesbians, Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore), whose two teenage children have decided to exercise their age-determined right to contact the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) their moms used to conceive them.

That’s what you could say if someone asks what the film is about. But you’d be underselling it by a long shot.

First things first: The acting is phenomenal.

Though she is wonderful in The Hours and Far from Heaven, it’s so nice to see Julianne Moore successfully tackle a current woman again. Her portrayal of Jules is unnervingly honest and I was reminded of the gritty ‘Moore of yore’ in Magnolia and Boogie Nights …and as to why I regard her as a truly great actress.

Once again, I was charmed by Mark Ruffalo who stole my affection years ago as the bumbling, loveable druggie inYou Can Count on Me.

And Annette Bening is perfection as the uptight, breadwinning and wine-loving matriarch, Nic. Bening, prone to roles in which she gets to stretch her overdramatic muscles (a la American Beauty and Being Julia), unwaveringly steamboats her way through this film, unafraid to knock anyone from her path in quick, concise judo chops of wit & severe candor.

 

 

 

The Kids Are All Right

It would be sophomoric to claim that this movie is a statement about gay couples with children. There are so many currents pulsing through The Kids Are All Right, it is difficult to classify the film. It’s hysterical without pause to beg for laughter and it’s heart-wrenching without device-motivated melodramatic outbursts.

I guess it suffices to say the movie is true. It’s a glimpse into a home, not just a family unit. They have fun together, smother each other, support each other, say hurtful things and do even more hurtful things to each other. They laugh, cry, yell and curse. The parents have sex (gasp, it’s two women!).  The kids holler and stomp up the stairs, screaming (You just don’t understand!). The film boldly and unapologetically explores the complexity of relationships and illuminates what can happen if we become complacent and stop seeing the ones we love when they’re right in front of us.

In one pivotal scene, Jules interrupts her family watching a television program to apologize. Through tears, she explains that “marriage is hard. It’s fucking hard.” And all of a sudden, as a viewer, I was struck with the clamor of the film’s voice. The sexuality and gender of this couple…it’s irrelevant. No one is exempt from making mistakes or above hurting the ones we love (especially the ones we love). Even those who have fought for the right to be with the person they love or to be able to adopt/have children. No matter the partnership, be it a straight or gay couple, committing your life to another person is a process. And it’s hard. Year after year, the game changes. You grow, you learn—about yourself and your partner. Life is in constant flux and the world changes around you. For you to somehow change as a unit…how can one not make mistakes along the way? It’s how we approach the resolution, that’s the key. Is it worth fighting for? Has too much time passed? Were we looking for an out anyway? Can we mend this? There are so many questions when trust is broken. It’s refreshing to see a film approach these issues in a mature, realistic manner.

I strongly recommend seeing The Kids Are All Right, alright? It’s a beautiful film with a lot to say, so listen up. Picky boy out!


The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.

Only Toni Morrison can so beautifully weave her words together in such a way as to make the reader appreciate the loveliness but still comprehend the stark meaning of all those linked words. In her first novel, The Bluest Eye, Morrison writes of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who knows the power of beauty and who prays every day for blue eyes, for the chance to be seen as pretty. Her story is told mainly through the eyes of Claudia MacTeer, whose family takes Pecola in after Pecola’s father tries to burn down her house. The girls drink milk from a Shirley Temple glass, and Pecola sneaks extra milk simply to have the privilege to see Shirley’s sweet white face and dainty curls. This is a community that, although filled with blacks, sees no value in the skin of their own and willingly betrays that flesh time and again.

Claudia’s voice alternates with an omniscient narrator, and the narrative voice is fragmented, a ploy which Morrison will use later in several of her works. Particularly for a first novel, The Bluest Eye is a wonderful study in literary portraiture, as throughout, each character is dissected and explained in vivid detail, making the reader’s judgment of the character’s actions more difficult. This is what the story hinges on as it is full of rape, incest, demoralization, shame, arousal, joy, superstition, and pain.

Within this framework, we watch the characters in a sort of vacuum. There is no outward show of racism, i.e. white community v. black community; however, the seemingly innocuous presence of the Shirley Temple glass is enough to get the point across: black isn’t beautiful in small-town Ohio. Shirley Temple is the impossible goal, and the inner shame and defeat felt by the young girls in the book is evident through the schoolhouse taunting by white girls, white boys, black boys, and lighter-skinned black girls. Maureen Peel, light-skinned and immune to teasing, briefly befriends Claudia, her sister Frieda, and Pecola Breedlove, only to shun them and scream that they are ugly when Claudia stands up to Maureen for teasing Pecola. Maureen teases Pecola about seeing her father naked, knowing that Pecola has been raped by her father.

There is good and there is bad, right and wrong, yet the girls don’t always know what falls into which category. When Pecola first menstruates, Claudia and Frieda help her, hiding the shame of her womanhood from their mother. However, a young girl hiding in the bushes yells for Ms. MacTeer that the girls are being “nasty,” and Frieda gets a beating for being such. Once Ms. MacTeer recognizes the truth, she is implicit in the shame and brings the girls into the fold.

However, it is not only women and young girls who are shamed in the book. Cholly Breedlove, Pecola’s father, is raised by Aunt Jimmy after his father abandons his mother and his mother runs away. At Aunt Jimmy’s funeral, Cholly sneaks off into the woods with a girl. The two begin kissing and touching one another when two white hunters come upon them. Cholly and the girl are frightened and readjust their clothing, but the two men hold the gun to them and force them to touch one another while yelling and egging them on, treating them as animals. Cholly carries that shame with him throughout his life and only relieves it when he meets his sweet wife, Pecola’s mother, Pauline. However, his shame returns, and his innocent daughter becomes his redemption and curse.

Thanks to Devourer of Books and her Audiobook Week (in June) celebrating audiobooks, I picked up The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. It was narrated by Ruby Dee and Toni Morrison herself. I used to listen to audiobooks fairly regularly, but it has been awhile. However, I recently started teaching at a college that requires a bit of a commute. I picked up The Bluest Eye after looking through the shelves and seeing audiobooks that ran 15-30 hours. This particular one ran three hours, which I guessed would take about a week to get through. Well, I guess I’m in the car more than I thought because it only took two days to get through. Two days, a couple of missed exits, and some detours to listen a bit longer, I finished the book.

Some readers are reluctant to pick up Toni Morrison after having read or watched Beloved. If so, I believe you are missing so much. Toni Morrison is a rich, complex, layered writer, and her stories have always resonated with me. My particular favorites are Sula and Song of Solomon.


Rainy Days and Mondays are Dissipated by a Trip to the Library

It has been raining in my little corner of Texas for weeks. I am not complaining. Rain makes excellent nap/reading weather. Plus, I don’t have to haul out the muddy hose to water the flower beds, AND the 90 degree heat is a bit more bearable. However, the gray skies and abundance of mosquitos are somewhat tiresome. I am completing one summer session today and getting ready for the next. Monday the library was closed for the July 4th holiday, so Tuesday I made my way over and checked out 5 books, 2 audiobooks, and two seasons of Boston Legal. I’m on a television episode streak. Last month it was Arrested Development. This month, it’s James Spader and William Shatner. Funny stuff.

So, what books did I get? All the ones above, plus a dog-training book by Cesar Millan. (My Yorkie is extremely well behaved but has separation issues. She totally flips out when I come home.) I’ve already finished The Catnappers by Wodehouse and The Map of True Places by Barry. I’ll post reviews in the next few days. Both were excellent for totally different reasons. Next on my list is Blue-Eyed Devil by Robert Parker, who died a couple of months ago. Aside from his mysteries, which are sometimes a bit too stereotypical, he wrote a series of Western novels featuring Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. “Westerns?” you may say, with an upturned nose. I know. I’m no Louis L’amour fan, but Parker’s characters are enjoyable, and the relationship between them is really interesting. They have worked together so long, they can intuit the other’s meanings and intentions without speaking, and Parker really portrays this well. I saw this book on the New Arrivals shelf and was shocked as I wasn’t aware of it. It was published posthumously, and it was this series I was most sad of losing. I really don’t want to start it because I don’t want to finish it. Ah, the endless reader’s conundrum.

The Gabaldon is pretty darn hefty, but as I’ve read all the other books and her new book is coming out this fall, I figured I should delve into it. I thought about getting the audiobook version as I grabbed two other audiobooks, but the run time on it is 30 hours. THIRTY HOURS. I don’t think so. I hope it doesn’t take me 30 hours to read it.  Have any of you ever had an audiobook with an insane run time? I guess maybe for really long road trips? What say you?


Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

I strike the ground with the soles of my feet and life rises up my legs, spreads up my skeleton, takes possession of me, drives away distress and sweetens my memory. The world trembles. Rhythm is born on the island beneath the sea; it shakes the earth, it cuts through me like a lightning bolt and rises toward the sky…”Dance, dance Zarite, the slave who dances is free…while he is dancing”…I have always danced.

Switching between a slave narrative and an omniscient narrator, Island Beneath the Sea spans 40 years and two countries and also tracks the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (later Haiti*) that would result in the island’s independence from the British, French, and Spanish and the mass immigration to New Orleans. It follows Toulouse Valmorain, who comes to Saint-Domingue in 1770 from Paris, the pampered son of a sugarcane plantation owner. However, upon his arrival for a quick visit, he finds his father dying and sees the condition of the land, and “the tour was sufficient for him to understand that the slaves were starving and the plantation had been saved from ruin only because the world was consuming sugar with increasing voraciousness.” He works hard to improve the conditions, although he does not see himself as a plantation owner, much less the owner of slaves. Valmorain, instead, sees himself as “a man of letters” and has difficulty punishing slaves or allowing his overseer Prosper Cambray to mete out discipline.

Throughout his early years in Saint-Domingue, he encounters Violette Boisier, a cocotte or courtesan, with whom he keeps company. Violette, even though of mixed blood, is a sign of civility and elegance, so different from the harsh life on the island. She is a smart, independent woman who, with her slave Loula, amasses a small fortune through enterprising businesses. When Toulouse Valmorain decides to marry a Spanish woman, Eugenia de Solar, it is Violette’s advice he seeks as to house and home. Violette outfits the home  and chooses a personal maid for Eugenia, the young Zarite, also known as Tete.

Tete is nine when she is bought from the home of a minister’s widow and leaves her only family, Honore, an old man who cares for her like a grandfather and maman. It is through him that she learns of the loas, or spirits of voodoo. She is taught to serve and cares for Eugenia Valmorain, the weak wife of the master who, as he says, “spends the night tormented by nightmares and the day tormented by reality.” Eugenia was raised in a convent and is not at all prepared for the heat, insects, and cruelty on Saint-Domingue. As Eugenia’s health deteriorates, Valmorain begins raping Tete, and in doing so, ties Tete to himself in more ways than he would like.

Island Beneath the Sea, beautifully translated from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, is certainly no love story in the traditional sense, for in this day and age, love is withheld or allowed based on wealth, class, skin color, and religion. But this was a time when blood was measured by percentage, and Allende tells us:

Among the free mulattoes, the affranchis, there were more than sixty classifications set by percentage of white blood, and that determined their social level. In spite of subtleties of color, the mulattoes were united by their shared aspiration to pass for whites and their visceral scorn for Negroes. The slaves, whose number was ten times greater than that of the whites and affranchis combined, counted for nothing, neither in the census of the population nor in the colonists’ consciousness.

In such a place, humanity is always relative; thus, the slave revolt is courageous but bloody while Valmorain’s own discovery of slaves as people is both typical but appalling. Violence is traded for violence; hatred for hatred. During one period, all the slaveholders are being killed by the rebels, and this included domestic slaves because they were treated better than field slaves. In essence, the rebels began imposing their own systems of prejudice upon the slaves. In the historical context, Island Beneath the Sea is truly fascinating while Allende’s cast of characters, including Sancho, Valmorain’s pleasure-seeking brother-in-law; Dr. Parmentier, a noble man with a secret; and Tante Rose, a slave, healer, and mambo, struck me as more real than any I’ve read in quite some time.

From Saint-Domingue to the streets and slave markets of New Orleans, the novel is impressive and much more worthy of what I’ve come to expect from Isabel Allende**. Although not a romance as some others have claimed, the characters are in love with freedom, but the question remains: what can be gained from freedom and what will it cost?

*The novel is very timely, but Allende began researching and writing the novel four years before the 2010 earthquake.

**Her novel, Daughter of Fortune was somewhat disappointing. You can read my review here.