Category Archives: american literature

(Almost) back to regularly-scheduled programming…

Merry Christmas! I feel awful for not posting in so long and hope you haven’t abandoned me. However, I have been doing a whole lot of this:

And not a whole lot of this:

But I do have reviews and exciting news right around the corner. So stay tuned, dear blog readers, I will return.

In the meantime, what the heck have YOU been reading that I should add to my TBR (To Be Read) list?


Thanksgiving, or how we used Squanto to survive..

Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends. For those in other places, I am most thankful for your blogs, your comments, and this community. In teaching American Literature, early American writings are, by far, the most painful. I am certainly glad we have them for historical purposes, but boy – talking about “how many people have died of that awful disease because we have displeased God” is kind of a downer.

But – the Thanksgiving story fascinates me, or rather, the holiday we have come to know as Thanksgiving and its origins fascinate me. A few lines in journals and memoirs created what is now one of America’s most dearly-loved holidays.

Basically, in 1621, the Pilgrims (or Separatists, as they were also known) were so dang happy everyone had stopped dropping like flies. Half their party had died within three months of landing. Squanto, who could communicate with them because he learned English as a captive, taught them how to best use the land, and Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag, befriended them. So the Pilgrims had actually learned how to navigate this New World, and it was time to party Pilgrim style – with thanks to God, hunting, and boasting to friends and family back in England (even then we were a bunch of disrespectful upstarts).

So here it is folks: a couple of the passages behind your ovens full of turkey and sweet potatoes, stoves with bubbling pots of vegetables, televisions blaring football and parades, and of course, houses packed with family. It’s truly an American holiday, and I love it, even though it marks the beginning of the end for Native Americans and the tenuous friendship we once shared.

From William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation:

Thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity. They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

And Edward Winslow, in Mourt’s Relation:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.


I am invisible … because people refuse to see me.

Teaching is a funny profession. Teaching well is insanely difficult. At this point in the semester, I am usually battling an upper respiratory infection. I don’t want to grade another essay. Students asking for their averages in the middle of class elicit blank stares and a speech balloon above my head that looks like this: $&@*! In other words, I am ready for a break.

However, the end of the semester for my American Literature class is also the point in the semester during which I get to teach and discuss one of my favorite novels – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I believe it is a vastly underappreciated novel. Also, don’t make the mistake one of my students did and download THE Invisible Man.


Invisible Man is a novel of race and identity, but it’s also a bildungsroman, the story of a faceless, nameless narrator and his realization that everyone around him only uses him for his or her own purposes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Epilogue of this novel begins:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Pie; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.

The narrator is living in a basement in Harlem, a good bit after the Harlem Renaissance, surrounding himself with light bulbs, leeching electricity from the city, desperate to see himself. The proceeding novel is the story of why he can’t see himself. Told in episodic fashion, the novel begins when the narrator is young – school age, in fact. He is intelligent and knows he is intelligent, winning a scholarship to an all-black school, Tuskegee Institute. He is invited to speak before his town’s leading white citizens, which culminates in one of the most anthologized chapters of this or any other book, “The Battle Royale.” The scene, in which other young black males are blindfolded, stripped down to their underwear and told to fight, is brutal and horrifying. The men are taunted by a blonde white woman dressed provocatively, and the fear and scent of that fear is palpable. The men are then tossed coins as payment, but the coins (fake) are tossed onto an electrified rug, and the older white gentlemen see sport in this.

During this humiliation, though, our narrator can only think about his speech. He is proud, and he is focused. My students, when we began discussing the novel last week, were confused by the scene as it is rather chaotic, but even more so because, thankfully, they also saw how disgusting this behavior was and is and couldn’t believe anything like this could or would happen. We also discussed the subtext of the erotic here, and the danger for these men in this scene, particularly as our narrator then goes on to give his speech, slipping up and saying “social equality” instead of “social responsibility” and the tense moments after before he is basically told to “know his place.” Even as we only discussed half of the book last week, they were already beginning to pick up on one of the key themes of this book – blindness.

The narrator feels invisible, says he is invisible, yet he, too, struggles to see throughout the novel. In the scene depicted above he feels “a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness.” Once he arrives at Tuskegee, again he is blind, but in a different way, believing his intelligence will be his champion; unfortunately, at every turn, he is thwarted. He leaves Tuskegee and the South for New York, a place where he can eat yams if he wants, wide out in the open, and he “no longer ha[s] to worry about who [sees him] or about what was proper.” However, the narrator never fully realizes that even the North has its own racial code, and there are consequences for every action, no matter how you gloss it over.

One day he watches as an old couple is evicted from their walk-up, seeing their possessions dumped into the street, and as he watches the crowd becomes more and more expectant of violence, until he steps up shouting at the people to remain “law abiding” in one of my favorite moments in the book:

Did you hear [the old man]? He’s eighty-seven. Eighty-seven and look at all he’s accumulated in eighty-seven years, strewn in the snow like chicken guts, and we’re a law-abiding, slow-to-anger bunch of folks turning the other cheek every day in the week. What are we going to do? What would you, what would I, what would he have done? What is to be done? I propose we do the wise thing, the law-abiding thing. Just look at this junk….Look at that old woman, somebody’s mother, somebody’s grandmother, maybe….Eighty-seven years, and poof! like a snort in a wind storm. Look at them, they look like my mama and my papa and my grandma and grandpa, and I look like you and you look like me. Look at them but remember that we’re a wise, law-abiding group of people. And remember it when you look up there in the doorway at that law standing there with the forty-five.

I can in no way do justice to the brilliant journey this spontaneous moment will begin for the narrator or its accompanying symbols of darkness and light, blindness and vision, invisible and visible. Suffice it to say, whether our narrator is working in a paint plant watching “the right white” paint made whiter by a dark black tint or standing on the porch to a small walkup shouting “Dispossessed!” after the old couple is forced out of their home, Invisible Man is an intricate, enthralling read that forces me to think about the ways in which we choose not to see certain people in our society or the ways in which we simply ask (or require) they take on our own comfortable idea of personhood in order to be recognized and seen.

Hm.. this one would also make a great readalong. I’d love to get some discussion going in comments if you have read it. I haven’t heard many bloggers mention it, so I’m wondering – has anyone out there read it? Or am I alone in my love of this book?


A festival of books? It’s a festivus for the rest of us!

Friday afternoon, I ditched the office, the pup, and Beaumont, Texas to go with my parents to the Texas Book Festival in Austin, Texas. We went last year and had such a great time, we decided it had to be an annual event.

I had plans, people, big plans: I had my panels mapped out. I booked a hotel close to the site with breakfast included so we wouldn’t have to run around hunting for a Starbucks. My dad, on the other hand, had no clue. Yet somehow he made it to seven panels, while I only made it to four. Ah, beginner’s luck.

The four panels I did make it to? Incredible. Plus, I got to meet up with some other Texas book bloggers and end the moratorium on book buying. Throw in a little honky-tonkin, and you’re looking at one exhausted, but pleased picky girl.

Saturday:

Julia Glass

Luckily, I was close to finishing her newest book The Widower’s Tale. In fact, I brought my library book into the Capitol with me to read before the panel started. (Review coming later this week.) Ms. Glass was not all that inventive a speaker, and I was a bit disappointed. The moderator was excellent, though, and asked a couple questions I certainly had about the book. For example, the novel is told from the perspective of four men. Was that a conscious decision, and was it difficult to write from the male perspective? Ms. Glass answered it was most certainly intentional; she apparently feels very comfortable writing in the male voice, though she did admit the 20-year-old perspective was difficult to write (a complaint I had about the dialogue in the book). Here’s the panel and a pic of my mom and I before it got started:

Scott Westerfeld

Fantastic. Funny. Charming. Scott Westerfeld rocked – plain and simple. He really gave the sort of lecture I strive to give to my students – informative, humorous, practical, and interesting. He talked a bit about his series Uglies, but as I cannot speak to those books, I’ll focus on what I was there for – Leviathan and Behemoth. Westerfeld spoke about where the idea for the books came from. He has a blog, and his fans post art inspired by his books. When he found the Japanese version of his first series had drawings, he was a bit taken aback; his fans were jealous. As he said (and I paraphrase), there’s nothing like an oppressed teenager….

Westerfeld pondered why we, as Americans, avoid illustrations in adult books. Why do we reserve illustrations for the young and then take them away at a certain point? Why do we assume illustrations narrow the imagination instead of expanding it? So with Leviathan, he found illustrator Keith Thompson, and they collaborated quite nicely. He says the illustrations “allow for alternate story lines” and that if you look closely, the illustrator works these in carefully. The challenge, though, is making the story active enough – “with illustrations, characters have to move around, so the drawings can change.” Otherwise, the scenes become repetitive. He also had to think differently in terms of setting the stage. Keith would send him sketches, lacking a couple characters Westerfeld had in the scene. When asked about this decision, Keith would tell him it looked too crowded. So Westerfeld revised.

Westerfeld ended the talk with questions, and my personal favorite was when he was asked if he would venture into graphic novels. The answer? An enticing ‘yes.’

In between Saturday’s panels, I met up with some great Texas book bloggers, including Iliana at bookgirl’s nightstand who encouraged me to get into book blogging. It was really great to put faces to the names although since I only knew what Amanda looked like, I was a bit nervous. Thankfully, I spotted the group pretty quickly, and I had a great time chatting with Iliana, Carin, Karen, Trish, Debbie, and Amanda. Jason, Amanda’s husband, was gracious enough to take our photos (please notice how antisocial we are; we are standing like a foot away from each other). ūüėČ All in all, it was great to meet everyone, and I can’t wait for next year to do it again.

From left to right: Carin, me, Trish, Amanda, Debbie

 

From top left to bottom right: Iliana, Karen, Carin, and Amanda

Of course, I couldn’t wait to get to the tents to buy my copy of Behemoth, and I also picked up these little gems from one of my favorite artists (don’t worry – I’ve got a whole post lined up to give you a peek at the inside):

 

Stay tuned for a wrap-up of Sunday’s awesome panels!!!

Until then, happy reading,

jenn

aka picky girl


It’s almost here… the Texas Book Festival!

Some people live for concerts. I myself like a nice concert at a small venue. Other people travel according to their culinary interests. Bravo for them. What am I thrilled about? The Texas Book Festival. I dreamed of it for years: the lines of book-holding patrons; the authors milling about; the tents full of books. Last year, I made that dream a reality. My parents (both booklovers) and I loaded up and made the trip to Austin, thrilled to be able to take part in such an awesome bookish event (I believe this book festival is the 2nd largest nationwide). There are lectures, book signings, stalls of books from publishers large and small, and all sorts of cool events for kids.

Last year, I was a newbie and didn’t have a planned schedule except for seeing Margaret Atwood, who was brilliant. I also saw Lance Letscher (whose artwork is at the top of this blog). There is nothing more stimulating to me than being in such an atmosphere. I am not all that into signed books; I’d much rather listen to what authors have to say than have them sign my book. That said, the TBF people have the nuts and bolts of the event down pat. The entire festival is a well-oiled machine, with lectures and panel discussions held in the Capitol itself along with nearby theaters and museums. My one regret last year (other than seeing David Wroblewski, who wasn’t all that impressive) was missing out on Jonathan Safron Foer’s lecture. He was late in the day on Sunday, and I needed to get back home.

The 2010 full author list was just posted today. The schedule will not be posted until a little closer to the actual festival, October 16-17. I am so excited. Some of the big names this year are Abraham Verghese, Scott Westerfield, Karl Marlantes, Jennifer Egan, Justin Cronin, Michael Cunningham, Julia Glass, and Meg Cabot. I would also like to hear Lance Letscher again as I find his art really stirring. DJ Stout is a book designer for the University of Texas Press, and I would love to sit in on his lecture. If I could draw, I would love to design books.

I plan on heading to the library this afternoon to pick up books from several of these authors I have not yet read. I had such a fantastic time last year, and one of my favorite moments was walking from the Capitol toward the street through this wide expanse of green lawn and coming across this:

There really are books everywhere. I don’t know if a friendly soul left this for another to read, or if the book was just patiently waiting for its owner to return. Either way, it was a nice little vignette to end our trip.

Is anyone else out there plan on going this year? If so, let me know for sure. Also, if you can’t go, who would your “definitely do not miss” authors be?


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?


Blah Blah Blog

Wow. I am sure you are tired of reading this, but I have been so so busy. Teaching ESL and developmental writing has worn me out, especially at the pace of a summer session (19 class days), and I have mostly been watching Arrested Development (absolutely hilarious) and finishing up a Ruth Rendell novel, End in Tears. It was my first venture into the world of Inspector Wexford, and I must say, it wasn’t the most enjoyable jaunt. The story seemed to drag; I didn’t really care who the murderer was. Plus, the writing was really awkward. There were many times when I had to re-read a sentence to ascertain the meaning.

That said, I read two phenomenal books last week and continue thinking about them this week. I haven’t reviewed Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, although the post is begun. I am not sure if it was the audio format or the material itself, but I am having a difficult time completing my review.

Tomorrow, my developmental writing students have to take a timed essay test (college policy, not mine), so I will be bringing one of my library books along for company. I hope it is not the sort of test where I am expected to watch them the entire time. A. They are adults. B. I am an adult. and C. I WILL GO INSANE. I cannot stand having absolutely nothing to do. Yet, the first sentence I wrote in this post seems to be complaining of the very opposite. Oh well. You were warned I am picky.

Now I’m off to choose a library book. I’ll keep you posted…


Push by Sapphire

Book to movie production is a double-edged sword. For instance, when I first saw Milk, I was appalled that it was the first I had ever heard of Harvey Milk, the man and politician in the 70s in San Francisco who made gay activism what it is today. However, I am so happy that his story was brought to me, even though I hated that Hollywood was the one that informed me. In the last year, it has almost become a joke: Precious, based on the book Push by Sapphire. Each time it won something, I would hear those words. I knew, based on reviews of the movie and the attention it was getting on several feminist websites I encountered that it would not be an easy viewing. ¬†I also knew that, regardless, I would read/watch it. When I went to the library Monday night, I picked it up. I didn’t realize the book was actually published in 1991, which is why I love/hate that Hollywood once again beat me to the punch.

It’s a slim volume, and if you’ve been under a rock the past year, here’s the premise. Clarieece Precious Jones is 16, pregnant with her second child by her father, miserable at school, and desperate for a different life, a life for which she will always have to push. Her mother beats her because the father leaves when he realizes Precious is pregnant (he comes back). The mother has also apparently been molesting Precious. Precious is illiterate, and the book opens when she is suspended for being pregnant a second time, saying, “I ain’ did nothin’!”

The book is written as Precious’ journal and is thus full of misspellings and colloquialisms as well as foul language. ‘Miz Rain,’ her teacher at Each One Teach One (an alternative school) encourages her students to write their stories in journals; Precious takes to her journal, and it becomes therapeutic for her. The book is not easy to read, but I tire of hearing people say they don’t think they could handle it. I mean, I get it. If it were gratuitous, that’d be one thing. But it’s life. This book may be fiction, but the story is rife with truths. Life is and can be ugly.

More than anything, this book impacted me in a major way. I am also listening to the audiobook version of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (review up tomorrow), and both are stories of African-American women and incest. Although totally different, these two stories have really made great companions. Whereas Morrison’s story is, as always, so beautifully descriptive of something so vile, Sapphire’s story is in your face. It knocked me out and drug me down when I finished it at midnight last night. It made me angry; no – it infuriated me.

Precious is fat. The scale stops at 200, and she knows she’s heavier. She smells bad at times; she used to urinate on herself at school because she wouldn’t get up. She has been abused by everyone and everything in her life. Her first child at 12 was born with Down’s syndrome or “down sinder” as she calls it and is named Little Mongo. Her grandmother is absent although she cares for Little Mongo. Her father rapes her repeatedly, and her mother beats her and molests her. All of this rent my heart in two, but as a white woman – a privileged white woman – what absolutely killed me were lines like these:

Why can’t I see myself, feel where I end and begin. I sometimes look in the pink people in suits eyes, the men from bizness, and they look way above me, put me out of their eyes. My fahver don’t see me really. If he did he would know I was like a white girl, a real person, inside.

She ain’ come in here and say, Carl Kenwood Jones – thas wrong! Git off Precious like that! Can’t you see Precious is a beautiful chile like white chile in magazines or on toilet paper wrappers. Precious is a blue-eye skinny chile whose hair is long braids, long long braids.

Passages like these actually nauseated me. Feeling ugly at times is one thing; I feel that way with no makeup or when I haven’t fixed myself up. But to feel like I could only be pretty if I were another race? To feel that maybe if I were lighter skinned or white that I would not have been raped, that my mother would have loved me, that I may be able to read?

How, how we have failed children like these! I know and acknowledge that incest, rape, child abuse, and illiteracy affect white children, Hispanic children, Russian children, yellow and brown, light-skinned and dark-skinned, diabetic, fat, skinny, gay, straight, innocent and not-so-innocent boys and girls. I can understand why there are those out there who didn’t want this book to become popular or who didn’t want the film to be made because it then becomes an African-American issue and not a capital “I” Issue. What I love about this book? That it moved me to want to take action.

Toni Morrison has a gift for beautifully telling horrible stories – stories for which the word ‘horrible’ is not even emphatic enough – but she never moves me to want to leave the realm of the story and do something about it. There was a moment in reading Push when the teacher Blue Rain is working with the students that I thought, I want to do that. It scared me. I know that people like Blue Rain (the non-fiction people) are out there doing this work and breaking their own hearts every day and working for little money, but oh, the rewards. For now, I want to find a literacy program and help support it. I’m not sure how yet to do that effectively, but on this site, in the future, I won’t do giveaways. I will promote whatever literacy program I research and decide would best use your money and my money. You and I, dear reader, are blessed. We have books aplenty, but more than that, we have the ability to open the pages of those books and allow them to take us away or to inform us or to better our minds. There are those out there who don’t have that option for more than just monetary reasons.

I promise you, and I promise myself that I will become an advocate for literacy. I promise to push.


Blurbs and a Trip to the Library – or vice verse

I returned my last week’s library stash this afternoon, having read all six and a couple around the house. I walked in and deposited my books on the counter and the librarian was the same who checked me out last week. She said, “Wow. That was fast.” I thought to myself: You have no idea. Get ready to enter a reader/librarian relationship like you’ve never had before.

So I browsed, and as I did so I thought quite a bit. Having not been a library patron over the last 15 years, I usually know exactly what I want to read and pick it up. I was irritated when I got into the stacks that I had not written down book titles from other great bloggers. I did this for a while but have stopped. When I read a review and want to read the book, it’s as if I think my brain will retain not only the title but the author as well. It ain’t happenin. I was a bit frustrated, but the beauty of the library is that I can wander around, as long as I want, and find books I’ve forgotten or never knew I wanted to read.

However, the blurbs do not help. I read some truly awful blurbs this afternoon. One of the worst was for a Michael Cunningham book; it basically listed the characters and talked about how their personalities brought on the climax of the book. Sheesh. Really? The characters brought on the climax of the book? I figured it would be Harry Potter rushing in to save the day. I mean, come on. I put the book down, don’t remember the title, and was a bit annoyed at the laziness of it. There was nothing more enticing about that book? Ok, so maybe I’m a bit harsh, but I always check the blurb and the first paragraph. If they don’t hook me, I don’t pick it up.

So… what did you end up with, you may ask:

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (I’ve wanted to read this for years.)

The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors by Michele Young-Stone

Remember Me? by Sophie Kinsella

Bandbox by Thomas Mallon

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

Black Hills by Dan Simmons

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

Yea! and Happy Monday!


The Known World by Edward P. Jones

“The boy filled up the whole piece of wood and at the end of the last line he put a period. His father’s grave would remain, but the wooden marker would not last out ¬†the year. The boy knew better than to put a period at the end of such a sentence. Something that was not even a true and proper sentence, with subject aplenty, but ¬†no verb to pull it all together. A sentence, Matthew’s teacher back in Virginia had tried to drum into his thick Kinsey head, could live without a subject, but it could ¬†not live without a verb.”

Edward P. Jones novel The Known World is about legacy. Just as quilts made by African Americans during the time of slavery visually document the happenings of ¬†their lives, Jones follows the town of Manchester in Virginia and the people living there in the years leading up to the Civil War. Augustus and Mildred Townsend are slaves on William Robbins’ ¬†plantation. Augustus is a talented woodworker and carpenter and is allowed to do work off the plantation with a commission to Robbins. In so doing, he is able to ¬†buy his own freedom, later his wife’s, and then much later his son’s freedom. Henry Townsend, their son, grows to be a favorite of Mr. Robbins, Robbins thinking ¬†of him almost as a favorite son. Henry is smart and hardworking, so Robbins continually ups the price Henry’s parents owe to free him. Left with his mother’s ¬†friend, Rita, Henry seems to sometimes be resentful of the parents who love him and are working for him. Once freed, Augustus asks him how he feels, and Henry ¬†answers that he feels no different. Augustus tells him: “You don’t have to ask anybody how to feel. You can just go on and do whatever it is you want to feel. Feel ¬†sad, go on and feel sad. Feel happy, you go on and feel happy…. this freedom situation. It’s big and little, yes and no, up and down, all at the same time.”

Henry grows up, making shoes and boots and making a nice living on his own and then proceeds to … buy a slave. As the census worker tells the reader, “in 1855 in Manchester County, Virginia, there were thirty-four free black families, with a mother and father and one child or more, and eight of those free families owned slaves, and all eight knew one another’s business.” Henry tells his parents, and Mildred “went through her memory for the time, for the day, she and her husband told him all about what he should and should not do….Pick the blueberries close to the ground, son. Them the sweetest, I find. If a white man say the trees can talk, can dance, you just say yes right along, that you done seen em do it plenty of times. Don’t look them people in the eye. You see a white woman ridin toward you, get way off the road and go stand behind a tree. The uglier the white woman, the farther you go and the broader the tree. But where, in all she taught her son, was it about thou shall own no one, havin been owned once your own self. Don’t go back to Egypt after God done took you outa there.”

Aside from a former slave owning slaves, the other fascinating aspect of this narrative is that the narrative voice is constantly introducing characters and telling the reader of that character’s future and demise, then leaving the character and continuing with the main story – furthering each character’s legacy as the reader waits to get back to hear how the character arrives at his or her end. The tangible fear and anxiety Jones creates in Manchester County and its inhabitants makes the reader constantly aware of what that time and place must have been like. Jones reinforces the concept that we are only as free as someone above us thinks we are and how dangerous and thin a line there is between freedom and bondage.

Weaving the lives of men and women, free, slave, passing, white, black, good and evil, Jones creates an effecting novel of legacy and heritage and memory, much like one character describes a work of art:

…people were viewing an enormous wall hanging, a grand piece of art that is part tapestry, part painting, and part clay structure – all in one exquisite Creation, hanging silent and yet songful on the Eastern wall. It is … a kind of map of life of the County of Manchester, Virginia. But a “map” is such a poor word for such a wondrous thing. It is a map of life made with every kind of art man has ever thought to represent himself. Yes, clay. Yes, paint. Yes, cloth. There are no people on this “map,” just all the houses and barns and roads and cemeteries and wells in our Manchester…There are matters in my memory that I did not know were there until I saw them on that wall….[and] I sank to my knees.

**Thanks to Kinna Reads for reviewing Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City, which is how I found this book in the library.