Small Island

“But for me I had just one question – let me ask the Mother Country just one simple question: how come England did not know me?”

This is the question asked by the baffled Gilbert, one of the protagonists of Small Island, Andrea Levy’s award winning tale of the first wave of Jamaicans to come to England after World War II. Gilbert is confused, because while any young student in Jamaica can recite the canals of England, the roadways, the ports, the railways, the docks, while they memorize the Parliaments and the laws that were debated there, while they take great pride in their mother country, the English that they meet have no idea of where Jamaica is. Most people guess Africa, probably because Gilbert is black. Gilbert is shocked, because Jamaica is part of the mighty British Empire, and so he imagines that all of the countries in that Empire would be part of a large family.

Small Island is told in four alternating first-person narratives that switch between a “present-day” story set in 1948, and flashbacks that establish the narrators’ backgrounds. Gilbert and Hortense have come from Jamaica to London with high hopes of making it big in their fine and welcoming Mother Country. Queenie and Bernard are their English landlords.

Gilbert served in the Royal Air Force, with dreams of fighting for his country, dreams which are squelched by the brutal reality of racism in England. Nevertheless, he is frustrated by the slow life in Jamaica, and hopes to go to law school in England, and make his fortune there. Unfortunately, he does not have the money for passage over to England. Enter Hortence, a school teacher with dreams of her own. She wants to leave Jamaica as well, wants to experience the high style and sophistication of life in England. So, even though they don’t know each other very well, they marry. She gives him the money he needs to go to England, he goes, finds a job and rents a room, and then sends for her to join him. Her disappointment at the shabbiness of post-war London is quickly eclipsed by her disappointment at the racism she experiences.

Queenie grew up on a dairy farm, and marries Bernard in order to escape that life, even though she finds him extremely dull. When he goes off to war, she begins to take in boarders to their oversized house. She doesn’t see herself as being racist at all, though she does make comments like, “Don’t worry, I don’t mind being seen with you” when on a shopping expedition with Hortense. When Bernard returns from the war, he is horrified to find ‘Coloreds’ living in his house, and immediately begins plans to get them out.

Author Andrea Levy’s father was among this first wave of immigrants from Jamaica to England, and Gilbert and Hortense’s stories ring the most true. Their relationship is the most interesting, the most moving. Bernard seems more of a caricature, and a plot twist near the end of the book strains credibility. Nonetheless, this is a wonderful read, and I would recommend this book to anyone, especially those who have come from the Caribbean, as Gilbert’s voice is so true to the region.

Small Island is being made into a mini-series for the BBC. It has won the Orange Prize, was the Whitbread Book of the Year, and also won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

The Fifth Child

Happiness.  A happy family.  The Lovatts were a happy family.  It was what they had chosen and what they deserved.  Often, when David and Harriet lay face to face, it seemed that doors in their breasts flew open, and what poured out was an intensity of relief, of thankfulness, that still astonished them both: patience for what seemed now such a very long time had not been easy, after all.  It had been hard preserving their belief in themselves when the spirit of the times, the greedy and selfish sixties, had been so ready to condemn them, to isolate, to diminish their best selves.  And look, they had been right to insist on guarding that stubborn individuality of theirs, which had chosen, and so obstinately, the best – this.

That ‘stubborn individuality’ espoused by the happy Lovatts is their desire for a large family, at all costs. I say ‘at any cost’, because they cannot afford to support a large family on their own, and depend upon David’s rich father to pay their mortgage and help support them. They buy a huge, four story house, with a mammoth dining room and dining table that seats 20+, and start having kids right away.  Their family tries to talk some sense into them, tries to tell them that a family of 8 to 10 children is too big, will take a huge toll on them both financially and physically.  Things start out well. They have their first two children within one year, and their home becomes the gathering place for their families. There are plenty of guest rooms, plenty of room at the table, plenty of love and laughter, and who cares if it costs a fortune to entertain that many people for weeks on end, Dad’s rich, right? Harriet quickly has two more beautiful babies, and her mother moves in with them, becoming practically a servant to their ever growing needs. That it does not occur to either Harriet or David that as the family continues to grow, they will be less and less able to support their brood without the physical and financial help from their families, appears almost sinister and self-deluded.

Harriet’s sister, Sarah, and her husband William, are also the parents of four children, though they had them at a more reasonable rate, spreading them out over 10 years. Their marriage is an unhappy one, though, and their fourth child is born with Down Syndrome. Harriet feels that they have brought their troubles upon themselves.

Harriet said to David, privately, that she did not believe it was bad luck: Sarah and William’s unhappiness, their quarreling, had probably attracted the mongol child-yes, yes, of course she knew one shouldn’t call them mongol. But the little girl did look a bit like Genghis Khan, didn’t she?…David disliked this trait of Harriet’s, a fatalism that seemed so at odds with the rest of her. He said he thought this was silly hysterical thinking: Harriet sulked and they had to make up.

If the unhappiness and quarreling in Sarah and William’s marriage have brought them trouble in the form of their Down Syndrome child, then perhaps it is Harriet and David’s insistence on having more and more children, even though they are emotionally, financially, and physically exhausted, that brings them trouble in the form of their fifth child, Ben. Ben is a problem child from the moment of conception. He exhausts Harriet far more than her first four pregnancies. He beats and bruises her from the inside, heaving and seething within her, and she starts taking downers in order to get some rest in between his angry sessions. Things only get worse with his birth. Ben is an unlovable child. He is angry all of the time, demanding and fierce and non-responsive to attempts at affection. Harriet tries her best to support and love Ben, but she gets no support from David, from her pediatrician, or from society in general. All are afraid of Ben, horrified by him, and yet unwilling to admit out loud that he might be something beyond normal. Harriet feels he might be some sort of goblin, or genetic throwback to a pre-human time.

As Ben gets older, he starts to really frighten the rest of the family.  After he kills two family pets, they fear for the safety of the other kids, and so they lock him in his room most of the time, and at one point have him institutionalized. The family breathes a large sigh of relief with Ben locked away, and life starts to get back to normal. But while Harriet does not love Ben, she does not feel right about having him put away either, so she goes to visit him. What she finds there horrifies her, and she is confronted with the options of letting him die there, or bringing him home and destroying her family.  I found myself angry with Harriet, with everyone in the story, for their actions and inactions regarding Ben.  She brings him home from the institution, because she cannot bear to be the type of mother who would leave him there.  It’s not that she doesn’t wish him dead.  She’s wished him dead on many an occasion, starting before he was born.  But as she says several times in the book, they aren’t the type of people who would leave him there to die.  But they are the kind of people to loose a violent and unbalanced teen into the world, and who breathe a sigh of relief when he finally disappears from their lives, visiting his mayhem upon society at large in the forms of beatings, muggings, rape, and rioting.

The story of Harriet and David’s struggle with Ben appears at first glance to be a commentary on their own hubris, but upon deeper reflection, it turns out to be more than that.  It turns out ultimately to be a commentary on the unwillingness of society to confront its most brutal underbelly.

The Fifth Child is a quick read. I polished it off in one day home with a sick child. I would highly recommend it, though perhaps not a book to read while pregnant. Dorris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Fifth Child received the Grinzane Cavour Prize in Italy, and was nominated for the 1988 Los Angeles Times Book Award. I read it for the Book Awards Reading Challenge.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

“I shall spare you Brother Juniper’s generalizations.  They are always with us.  He thought he saw in the same accident the wicked visited by destruction and the good called early to Heaven.  He thought he saw pride and wealth confounded as an object lesson to the world, and he thought he saw humility crowned and rewarded for the edification of the city.  But Brother Juniper was not satisfied with his reasons.  It was just possible that the Marquesa de Montemayor was not a monster of avarice, and Uncle Pio of self-indulgence.”

An historic rope bridge collapses in Lima, Peru, in 1714, dashing 5 people to their death in the gulf below.  Brother Juniper happens to witness this tragedy, and tries to make sense of God’s selection of these particular 5 people to die.  He wants to prove the existence of God to the doubtful in his community by making sense of the senseless. He attempts to divine the histories and worth of the 5 who were killed, hoping to find justification for his cause. The Bridge of San Luis Rey then tells us the stories of those who were killed, so we can determine for ourselves whether theirs were lives well lived and pious, or not.

Thorton Wilder’s language is aloof and beautiful, and the style of the writing is as much the star of the book as the story, if not more so. The Bridge of San Luis Rey is well worth re-reading, as the depth and quality of the writing will reveal more on subsequent readings, I’m sure.

I read The Bridge of San Luis Rey for the Book Awards Reading Challenge.

The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book

Nobody “Bod” Owens is the protagonist of Neil Gaiman’s newest story, The Graveyard Book.  The book starts with the murder of Bod’s family, and his unknowing escape as an 18-month old toddler.  Bod climbs out of his crib and down the stairs, and, finding the front door open, takes the opportunity to explore, unaware that his parents and sister are being ruthlessly stabbed inside.  He ends up at a nearby graveyard, where he is taken in by the dead (and undead) residents.

His story is told in a series of episodes, some seeming more like short stories than part of a larger tale.  He grows from a toddler to a teen under the watchful eyes of his ghostly parents, the ghost of a witch, a werewolf, and a vampire.  The ‘man named Jack’ who murdered his family is still out to get Bod, and brings continuity to the main story of the book.  But mostly, this is the story of how a young human child makes his way in a world populated by those who are so very different than he, much like Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which Gaiman said was his inspiration.

The Graveyard Book is emotionally honest, and serves as a wonderful allegory of childhood.  Bod’s adventures into ancient burial chambers guarded by jealous spirits and the trip he takes into full on danger by entering a ghoul gate juxtapose nicely with his adventures amongst the living, dealing with middle school bullies and greedy antique dealers.

I enjoyed The Graveyard Book quite a bit, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Gaiman’s work.  This is primarily a children’s book, most appropriate for readers aged 9-12, but I suspect young teens might enjoy it as well.  The Graveyard Book was this years winner of the Newbery Medal.

Just In Case

Just In Case

If fate were trying to kill you, how would you escape its deathly grasp? If your solution were to change your name, disguise yourself by dressing and acting differently, and protecting yourself by obtaining an imaginary dog, a greyhound named Boy, then you might be David Case.

David is 15, and lives in a suburb of London with his parents and his baby brother, Charlie. One day he saves Charlie from jumping out of a window to his certain demise (Charlie was wanting to fly like the birds), and rather than feeling blessed and fortunate, he instead snaps and decides that Fate is out to get him, and his best bet is to hide. So he changes his name to Justin, buys a new wardrobe at a local thrift shop, takes up running as an after school sport, and falls in love with an eccentric older woman named Agnes. (She’s not much older, but maybe 20 or so.)

With Boy’s reappearance, Justin felt calmer, more connected to reality. That his reality encompassed an invisible dog and the occasional presence of the voice of doom seemed less significant than his ability to sleep at night, rise in the morning, and interact meaningfully with other human beings during the day.

I haven’t read Rosoff’s other book, “How I Live Now“, though I’ve heard wonderful things about it, and if it’s anywhere close to as good as “Just In Case“, it’s definitely worth a read, and I’ll take the time to check it out. What I loved about this book was it’s quirky voice, and how the characters interact with each other. For example…Justin fears that Fate is trying to kill him, and will do anything to escape. Well, Fate is trying to kill him, and has a voice of its own in the book. Justin’s imaginary dog, Boy, is incredibly important to Justin, gives him comfort and solace. And it appears that Boy isn’t entirely imaginary…a few other characters can see him as well. His little brother, Charlie, has grains of wisdom to bestow on those around him, but unfortunately, he can’t talk yet, so no one benefits.

I won’t tell you any more about this story, because I don’t want to ruin it for you. I loved it, and I’ll probably read it again. I would recommend it for any adults who enjoy young adult fiction, and any young adults who enjoy quirky stories as well.

Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is the story of a ten-year-old Irish boy in 1968.  The book is told in Paddy’s voice, and Roddy Doyle captures the confusion and attempts to make sense of the world that go along with being 10, suppositions and extrapolations that children make.  Paddy on death and religion:

When Indians died – Red ones –  they went to the happy hunting ground.  Vikings went to Valhalla when they died or they got killed.  We went to heaven, unless we went to hell.  You went to hell if you had a mortal sin on your soul when you died, even if you were on your way to confession when the lorry hit you.  Before you got into heaven you usually had to go to Purgatory for a bit, to get rid of the sins on your soul, usually for a few million years.  Purgatory was like hell but it didn’t go on forever.

It was about a million years for every venial sin, depending on the sin and if you’d done it before and promised that you wouldn’t do it again.  Telling lies to your parents, cursing, taking the Lord’s name in vain – they were all a million years.
-Jesus
-A million
-Jesus
-Two million
-Jesus
-Three million
-Jesus

Robbing stuff out of shops was worse: magazines were more serious than sweets.  Four million years for Football Monthly, two million for Goal and Football Weekly.  If you made a good confession right before you died you didn’t have to go to Purgatory at all; you went straight up to heaven.

Most of the book is little bits like this, short vignettes about Paddy’s adventures with his friends. Paddy’s perspective seems spot on to me, though I’ve never been a small boy.

Interspersed amongst Paddy’s adventures and fights is a more serious story line, that of the crumbling marriage of his parents. They fight, increasingly often, increasingly loudly. At the beginning of the book, Paddy’s little brother, Sinbad, is able to pretend that there’s nothing wrong, but by the end, there’s no pretending anymore. In my mind, the section of the book that is dedicated to this storyline was stronger than the somewhat rambling nature of the rest.

But it took two to tango. He must have had his reasons. Sometimes Da didn’t need reasons; he had his mood already. But not all the time. Usually he was fair, and he listened when we were in trouble. He listened to me more than Sinbad. There must have been a reason why he hated Ma. There must have been something wrong with her, at least one thing. I couldn’t see it. I wanted to. I wanted to understand. I wanted to be on both sides. He was my da.

The poignancy and sadness of this last section made the rest of the book worthwhile to me. Getting into Paddy’s head first did help to give weight and depth to the more serious part. But I will admit that I had some trouble getting through the majority of the book, because I kept waiting for something to happen beyond random tellings of steeplechases through the neighborhood and kids beating each other up.

Criss Cross

Criss Cross

“Wanna go to the movies?” he asked.

No one had ever asked Debbie this question before.  She had imagined, often, being asked this question, but not by Lenny.  He was the wrong person.  Wasn’t he?  She had never felt that way about him.

Had she?

His question caught her off guard, and she didn’t know what to do with it.  The part of her that was open to the universe was facing in another direction just then.  She felt disoriented and uncomfortable and there was Lenny, waiting for her to say something back.

“I think it’s better if we’re just friends,” she said.

To her relief Patty arrived with a lighting bug.  As she flicked it into the jar, Lenny said to her, “Do you wanna go to a movie?”

“Okay,” she said, “What movie?”

Debbie wasn’t sure what had just happened.  She didn’t know if she had gotten out of an awkward situation or invented one.  Or missed an opportunity.  She felt an impulse to say, “Can I go, too?”  Instead she handed Patty the jar and said, “Can you hold this for a while?  I’m going to go catch some.”

But when she had walked away into the darkness, she just stood there.

Criss Cross is Lynne Rae Perkins’ Newbery Award winning story of Debbie, a girl waiting for something good to happen in her life, and Hector, a boy who decides to take up the guitar.  Through the course of the story, both make decisions, some significant, some not, which decide the course that their lives will take.

I felt like the story started of fairly slowly…I wasn’t sure where it was going, or if it was going anywhere at all.  It was more of a slice of life type story, which is, of course, how life mostly feels, especially at 14.  Criss Cross seems to be the antithesis of the type of story where houses burn down, siblings and friends die from cancer, parents divorce or suffer from alcoholism.  This is more of an average story, more the kind of story things that happen in reality than so many young adult stories.  About half way through, I felt like the story really hit its stride…not that a lot more happened (though some things did), but just that the slices of life that sometimes intersect, sometimes miss, are more poignant in the second half.

I would recommend Criss Cross to teens and tweens, and to any adults who enjoy young adult fiction.  I very much enjoyed it.

Tamar

Tamar, by Mal Peet
“He was not what you’d call a lovable man, my grandad.  It wasn’t that he was cold, exactly.  It was more as though he had a huge distance inside himself.  There’s a game I used to play with my friends.  One of us had to think of someone we all knew, and the others had to work out who it was by asking questions like “If this person was a musical instrument, what would it be?”  I used to think that if Grandad were a place, it would be one of those great empty landscapes you sometimes see in American movies: flat, an endless road, tumbleweed blown by a moaning wind, a vast blank sky.  And after Dad disappeared, he withdrew even further into this remote space.”

Tamar is the name of a winding river in England, between Devon and Cornwall. It is also the code name of a resistance fighter in Nazi-occupied Holland during the Second World War. It is also the name given to this resistance fighter’s granddaughter. When her grandfather commits suicide, several years after the disappearance of her father, he leaves behind a box of clues for Tamar, a box that takes her on an adventure of discovery, where she learns the answers to questions she hadn’t even known to ask.

British Author Mal Peet takes you back and forth in time in this novel, between Tamar’s search for clues to her grandfather’s suicide, and his adventures 50 years earlier as a resistance fighter in the Netherlands.   Tamar the resistance fighter is a Dutch man, trained in England, sent to Holland to unite the many factions of rebels fighting the Nazis.  Dart is the code name of his colleague, the wireless operator posing as a doctor in a local insane asylum, popping amphetamines to stay awake for transmissions back and forth to England.  Marijke is the woman whose farm is the base for Tamar’s missions, and both men are deeply in love with her.  She is also the modern day Tamar’s grandmother.

Tamar, A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal, is a Carnegie Medal winning novel that will appeal to adults and young adults who enjoy stories of espionage, war, and historical fiction.  It was a very well written book, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.  I’m not generally much of an espionage fan (I always fear I’ll forget some vital clue), nor am I a fan of war stories.  But this story was told in such a way as to keep me interested, as Tamar discovered hidden realities about her grandfather and his past, and about herself as well.

I read Tamar for the Book Awards Reading Challenge.

Charming Billy

Billy Lynch, alcoholic, romantic, kind and loving man, has died.   His friends and family come together to comfort his widow, and to celebrate his life.   And Billy’s life seems to have two stories to it.  The sad story of his alcoholism, which his friends and family tried again and again to guide him away from, with no success.  And the sad story of his first love, an Irish girl whom he intended to marry, but who goes back to Ireland and dies.  At least, that’s what Billy is told.  The truth is, she took the money he sent her for her passage to America, bought a gas station in Ireland, married someone else, and built a life for herself there.  

This cruel twist comes pretty early on in the book, and the rest of the story is the meandering tale of his romance with the Irish girl, his grief at her ‘death’, his marriage to Maeve and their life together.  Her suffering through his alcoholism, her reliance on his cousin, Dennis, to help her when he comes home drunk at 3am, night after night after night.  

The story is told by Dennis’ daughter, sometimes as told to her by her father, sometimes as though she is telling the story to her husband.  I found the point-of-view narration a bit confusing, and somewhat irritating.  Sometimes the narration would change within a single paragraph from first to third person.  The language is often lovely, and the author captures the way that people talk, the honestly of their voices and grief, their delight in gossip, but desire to protect Maeve from that same gossip.  Mostly though, I just wanted to shake Billy and tell him to stop drinking so much, get over his youthful romance, and see if living for today, with the life he has made for himself, might actually be more rewarding than pining away for someone long gone, and trying to drink yourself into an early grave.  I wish I had enjoyed this book more than I did.  Has anyone else read this book?  Agree or disagree with me on my summation?  I’d love to hear from someone who loved it, and find out what you got out of it that I missed.

Charming Billy is a National Book Award winner.

The Gathering

Two years ago, I had a letter from Earnest.  He was writing to tell me that he was leaving the priesthood, though he had decided to stay with his little school in the high mountains….’I have no place left to live but in my own heart,’ he wrote, meaning he would conduct his life as before, but on privately different terms.

And I thought this was the stupidest stuff I had ever heard until, sitting on a stool in the Shelbourne bar, I wondered what might happen if I just carried on as usual, told  no one, changed nothing, and decided not to be married after all.

And I wondered how many people around me are living with and sleeping with and laughing with their spouses on just this basis, and I wondered how sad they were.  Not very, by the looks of it.  Not sad at all.

The Gathering, by Anne Enright, is the story of Veronica, and her coming to terms with the suicide of her favorite brother, Liam.   It is her unenviable task to travel from Ireland to England to recover his body, and bring it home for the funeral.

Veronica is falling apart following her brother’s death.  In addition to her grief, she harbors a secret, or at least, she thinks she does.  She is hazy on her memory of an incident during their childhood, and fears that perhaps it may have been the first step toward Liam’s eventual death.   Her struggle with this memory, with trying to remember what did and what did not happen, and to whom, unravels her happiness and further strains her marriage.  You get the feeling that she has never been a joyous person, she is too cold and critical for that, but she did have love and happiness, which are currently overwhelmed by her sadness and her memories.  She is a woman in the process of falling apart.

Veronica tells the story of her family, going back to the day her grandparents first met, coming forward to her mother’s passive life, and then to that of her many brothers and sisters.  She harbors both love and disdain for her mother, whose 17 pregnancies, resulting in 12 children and 5 painful miscarriages, Veronica sees as proof of her mother being unwilling to refuse her father’s carnal desires.  That her mother might have shared these desires never seems to cross her mind.

Already a cold person, Veronica shuts down emotionally in the period following her brother’s death.  She resents her husband for wanting sex so soon after the death, resents him trying to prove to her that she is still alive.  After that first encounter, she refuses to come to bed any more, instead staying awake all night, every night, drinking wine and waiting for him to get up for work before she herself collapses into bed.

The title of the book, The Gathering, made me think this was going to be the story of a family coming together, and of the joys and recriminations that might come to light at such a gathering.  But at least 3/4 of the book is told in her meandering way, as she travels through memories and stories, while on the way to and from England on her sad task.   Only at the end do we meet her siblings, and find ourselves at a surprisingly muted event.

If I were to read this review up until this point, I would think that The Gathering isn’t really worth reading, and that Veronica is a character that I would not like.   But Enright’s writing is so beautiful, and she is able to bring you into Veronica’s mind so well that you feel sympathy for her, for what she’s been through, for her upbringing.  You hope for her to find peace with her family again, and joy within her marriage.  The end is too ambiguous for that, and I walked away feeling someone dissatisfied.

I have seen The Gathering compared to The Dubliners, by James Joyce.  One big difference is that The Gathering is a novel, while The Dubliners is a book of short stories. I’ve only read the most famous in that book, The Dead, which is a story that touched me very deeply.  The Gathering is similar in its prose and imagery, and in that the book seems to meander along until finally you get to the end, and it turns out that the end is what you were waiting for all along.  In The Dead, however, that end is a beautiful respite, and a glimpse into love that is not jealous or unkind, despite the jealousy and unkind thoughts that were there moments before…a love that transcends this mortal world, however mortal the players.  The Gathering offers no such great reward.

I would recommend this book to people who love beautiful, evocative writing.  Enright is a gifted writer in this aspect.  I would not recommend this book for anyone seeking an easy, quick read, as the twists and turns and dark subject matter make this a somewhat difficult read.

~ DoSoEvAyMo

I have a lot that I’m hoping to accomplish for work.  We’ll see how that goes.    I’d like to make something yummy for dinner.  Turkey chili perhaps?

The Bluest Eye

Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.  We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that marigolds did not grow.  A little examination and much less melancholy would have proved to us that our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout; nobody’s did.  Not even the gardens fronting the lake showed marigolds that year.  But so deeply concerned were we with the health and safe delivery of Pecola’s baby we could think of nothing but our own magic: if we planted the seeds, and said the right words over them, they would blossom, and everything would be all right.

12-year-old Pecola Breedlove’s one desire is to be loved, to be accepted and shown affection by her family and friends.  She feels herself to be ugly, because she is black, and because her whole family believes themselves to be ugly, hopeless, and without control or ownership over their lives or circumstance.  This feeling of helplessness and muted outrage serves as a hostile setting in which to raise a child, and Pecola is doomed from the beginning of this emotional and physical tragedy.  We learn from the very beginning of the book that she will give birth to her father’s child, so the story isn’t about the ‘what’ that will happen, nor the ‘why’ (as that is difficult to handle, says narrator Claudia MacTeer), but instead is found in the ‘how’.

The Bluest Eye is told sometimes from the point of view of Claudia, a friend and neighbor of Pecola,  and sometimes from a third party narrator.  We learn of Claudia’s home life, which while not as loving and warm as she might wish, it is still a stable home in which the parents love their children, and want them to remain safe and healthy.

Pecola’s story is more complicated, and we learn enough background about her parents and their individual and combined pasts to start to understand a bit of how the tragedy will unfold.  They both feel bitterly the contempt and powerlessness afforded them by white society.  They take out their anger and rage on each other, often fighting violently and savagely.  Pecola’s brother often runs away to try to escape the violence of his home life.

Pecola’s father, Cholly, is often drunk, which pleases his wife, because it gives her a reason to hate him, to fight with him, and to feel superior to him.  He was humiliated by white hunters when a young boy, and he has never managed to overcome the shame.  His reaction to this humiliation is telling, and foreshadows his rape of Pecola.

Pecola’s mother, Pauline, has no love for her family, instead lavishing care and attention on the white family for whom she works.  While she keeps her employers’ house immaculate, and is very loving to their little girl, her own home is filthy and unkempt.  Her reaction when Pecola is raped is chilling.

Pecola, surrounded by visions of Shirley Temple and the little girl her mother works for, thinks that perhaps if she were beautiful, she might be loved rather than despised, and might live a happier life.  So she wishes, over and over again, to have blue eyes.  With blue eyes, she would be beautiful, acceptable, and the pain and sorrow would no longer define her life.  We as readers know that it will take a lot more than blue eyes to give a young black girl in the 40’s any power or control over her own destiny.  Knowing how she is destroyed, her sanity shattered, by the events of her young life is difficult indeed.

The Bluest Eye was a heartbreaking book to read, but very well told.  The voices of the narrator and Claudia are honest and straightforward, and their tenderness and warmth for Pecola make you wish that she had someone to give her that tenderness and warmth while it might make a difference in her life.

Possession: A Romance

Maud shivered, as she always shivered, on reading this document.  What had Christabel thought, when she read it?  Where had Christabel been, and why had she gone, and where had Randolph Ash been, between July 1859 and the summer of 1860?  There was no record, Roland said, of Ash not being at home.  He had published nothing during 1860 and had written few letters – those there were, were dated from Bloomsbury, as usual.  LaMotte scholars had never found any satisfactory explanation for Christabel’s apparent absence at the time of Blanche’s death, and had worked on the supposition of a quarrel between the two women.  This quarrel now looked quite different, Maude thought, without becoming clearer.

I finally finished reading Possession: A Romance, by A.S. Byatt.  I’m sorry to say that I never felt truly drawn into the story.  It reminded me of something my mom once said when I was working on my Masters Degree in Comparative Literature.  She said, “I’m not a huge fan of ‘capital L Literature’.  What I want to read is a good story.”  Not that the two are mutually exclusive, and I would argue that the best of ‘capital L Literature’ is great because of the story, not because of the genius of the author.  Reading Possession, I never got sucked in, I was always waiting for the story to have some passion, some caring for the characters, some real drama.  I found it had tenderness toward its characters, and there is real skill in the way that Byatt interweaves diaries, letters, and narrative to tell her story.  But again, I couldn’t make myself care about any of it.

The book starts with a young, frustrated academic, Roland Mitchell, doing some research on his subject, (fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Ash.  He comes across some unfinished letters in Ash’s handwriting, tucked amongst the pages of a book in the library.  Impulsively, he tucks the letters into his wallet, rather than alerting the librarian of their existence, or at least tucking them back where they belong.  The letters appear to be to a woman that Ash has just met, and feels a connection to.  He wants to see more of her.  But who is she?  Scholarship on Ash is that he was a faithful husband, happily married to the same woman for over 40 years.  Roland asks around, and ends up entering into a partnership with Maud Bailey, a scholar who studies the life and works of a contemporary of Ash, Christabel LaMotte, the woman for whom Ash’s letter was meant.

Roland and Maud go on a search for the truth, which they are hiding from their contemporaries in LaMotte and Ash studies, hoping to be the ones to break the story to the academic world, which would be a huge feather in their caps, and a great help in their careers as well.  The rest of the book travels between their story and that of LaMotte and Ash, which is told mainly through their letters to one another, through their respective poems, and through diaries written by Ash’s wife and LaMotte’s cousin.  It’s intriguing enough, with plenty of twists and turns and surprises to keep the reader interested.  Unfortunately, for me, Byatt kept her characters at an emotional distance, so while I was slightly interested in finding out what had happened between these Victorian poets 150 years ago, I sort of resented the amount of time and effort that I had to put into the discovery.

Possession won the Man Booker Prize in 1990, so I read it for my Man Booker reading challenge, as well as my Book Awards Challenge.

Book Awards Reading Challenge

I’m already a month late for this challenge, as it started August 1st.  Dang.  Last year, the rules were to read 12 award winning books in 12 months.  This year, the rules are to read 10 award winning books in 10 months.  Here are the rules, from the awards website:

  1. Read 10 award winners from August 1, 2008 through June 1, 2009.
  2. You must have at least FIVE different awards in your ten titles.
  3. Overlaps with other challenges are permitted.
  4. You don’t have to post your choices right away, and your list can change at any time.
  5. ‘Award winners’ is loosely defined; make the challenge fit your needs, keeping in mind Rule #2.
  6. SIGN UP using Mr. Linky below.
  7. Have fun reading!

The Awards Blog is helpful, with lists that you can select from, though rule 5 says that ‘Award winners’ is loosely defined, which I’m guessing would mean you can select from other lists than the ones stated, and that you can maybe go with shortlisted books as well.  I’m not sure.  Anyway, I’m thankful for rule number 3, that overlaps with other challenges are permitted.  I’m already a month into the contest, for one, and my TBR challenge still has quite a few books on it that I haven’t picked up yet.  So, I’m going to count whatever books are eligible from my other reading lists first, and then get into new ones after that.

1. Possession: A Romance, by A.S. Byatt – Winner of the Man Booker Prize.

I’m reading this for the Man Booker Challenge as well.  Here’s the  blurb written by one of the staff at Powells.com:

For years I talked about Holden Caulfield and Rob Fleming as the only two characters in literature I ever identified with, the only two I ever read about and thought, “That is my life.” Then I read Possession. Then I met Roland Michell.  As I read the book, I devoured every word, trying to decide if Byatt was a masterful author, an insightful literary critic, or a brilliant poet, and in the end deciding on all three. I flew through the book, knowing I would have to complete it before the movie was released, only to find myself absolutely compelled to turn every page. This is the first book of the year that kept drawing me back since Kavalier and Clay. Then I hit the last fifty pages.

What Roland goes through in the last fifty pages, the choices he is forced to make with his life, where to go, how to proceed, these were indeed the self-same choices I had been facing for the last two years. At that point it was no longer just a brilliant book; it was speaking to me in a way only Catcher in the Rye and High Fidelity had spoken to me before. Perhaps it will not speak to you as it spoke to me, but perhaps it will, for this is a powerful, masterfully written book, and believe me, it does speak.

2. The Gathering, by Anne Enright – Winner of the Man Booker Prize.

I’m also reading this for the Man Booker Challenge.

The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan are gathering in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother, Liam, drowned in the sea. His sister, Veronica, collects the body and keeps the dead man company, guarding the secret she shares with him — something that happened in their grandmother’s house in the winter of 1968.  As Enright traces the line of betrayal and redemption through three generations, she shows how memories warp and secrets fester.  The Gathering is a family epic, clarified through Anne Enright’s unblinking eye. This is a novel about love and disappointment, about how fate is written in the body, not in the stars.

3. Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott – Winner of the National Book Award

I’m reading Charming Billy for my TBR Challenge.  That’s the list with the most unread books still on it, so I’ll be glad to read this one.

Everyone loved him. If you knew Billy at all, then you loved him. The late Billy Lynch’s family and friends, a party of forty-seven, gather at a small bar and grill somewhere in the Bronx to remember better times in good company, and to redeem the pleasure of a drink or two from the miserable thing that a drink had become in Billy’s life. His widow, Maeve, is there and everyone admires the way she is holding up, just as they always admired the way she cared for Billy after the alcohol had ruined him. But one cannot think of Billy Lynch’s life, one’s own relentless affection for him, without saying at some point, “There was that girl. The Irish girl”. And one can’t help but think that the real story of his life lay there.

4. Just In Case, by Meg Rosoff – Winner of the Carnegie Medal

The next few books on my list are Young Adult books. I’ve always really enjoyed this genre, and have found myself getting away from it, partially due to just plain getting older, but also partially due to all of these challenges that I take on.  So the best solution is to combine the YA genre with a challenge, right?

After finding his younger brother teetering on the edge of his balcony, fifteen-year-old David Case realizes the fragility of life and senses impending doom. Without looking back, he changes his name to Justin and assumes a new identity, new clothing and new friends, and dares to fall in love with the seductive Agnes Day. With his imaginary dog Boy in tow, Justin struggles to fit into his new role and above all, to survive in a world where tragedy is around every corner. He’s got to be prepared, just in case.

5. Tamar: A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal, by Mal Peet – Winner of the Carnegie Medal

Another Young Adult book.

When her grandfather dies, Tamar inherits a box containing a series of clues and coded messages. Out of the past, another Tamar emerges, a man involved in the terrifying world of resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Holland half a century before. His story is one of passionate love, jealousy, and tragedy set against the daily fear and casual horror of the Second World War and unraveling it is about to transform Tamar’s life forever.

6. Criss Cross, by Lynne Rae Perkins – Winner of the Newbery Award

Yet another Young Adult book.

Debbie is wishing something would happen. Something good. To her. Soon. In the meantime, Debbie loses a necklace and finds a necklace (and boy does the necklace have a story to tell), she goes jeans shopping with her mother (an accomplishment in diplomacy), she learns to drive shift in a truck (illegally), she saves a life (directly connected to being able to drive, thus proving something), she takes a bus ride to another town (in order to understand what it feels like to be from “elsewhere”), she meets a boy (who truly is from “elsewhere”), but mostly she hangs out with her friends: Patty, Hector, Lenny, and Phil. Their paths cross. Their stories crisscross. And in Lynne Rae Perkins’s remarkable book, a girl and her wish grow up.

7. Small Island, by Andrea Levy – Winner of the Orange Prize, the Costa/Whitbread Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.  This one showed up on so many prize lists, I couldn’t resist.

Hortense Joseph arrives in London from Jamaica in 1948 with her life in her suitcase, her heart broken, her resolve intact. Her husband, Gilbert Joseph, returns from the war expecting to be received as a hero, but finds his status as a black man in Britain to be second class. His white landlady, Queenie, raised as a farmer’s daughter, befriends Gilbert, and later Hortense, with innocence and courage, until the unexpected arrival of her husband, Bernard, who returns from combat with issues of his own to resolve.

8. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder – Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  This book made it into the header graphic for the challenge blog, and as I really liked three of the other four books up there, I thought I should look into this one as well.

“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” With this celebrated sentence Thornton Wilder begins “The Bridge of San Luis Rey, one of the towering achievements in American fiction and a novel read throughout the world. By chance, a monk witnesses the tragedy. Brother Juniper then embarks on a quest to prove that it was divine intervention rather than chance that led to the deaths of those who perished in the tragedy. His search leads to his own death — and to the author’s timeless investigation into the nature of love and the meaning of the human condition.

9. Paddy Clark, Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle – Winner of the Booker Prize.  I read “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors“, by Doyle, a few years ago, and it freaked me out.  Really well done, but hard to read.  There’s a sequel to it, Paula Spencer, but I don’t know that I’m brave enough to spend more time with Paula.  But this book keeps popping up on a lot of lists, so I’ll give it a shot.

In this national bestseller and winner of the Booker Prize, Roddy Doyle, author of the “Barrytown Trilogy”, takes us to a new level of emotional richness with the story of ten-year-old Padraic Clarke. Witty and poignant–and adored by critics and readers alike–Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha charts the triumphs, indignities, and bewilderment of Paddy as he tries to make sense of his changing world.

10. The Fifth Child, by Doris Lessing – Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  The Nobel Prize is different than the others included for this challenge.  An author wins the Nobel Prize more for their whole body of work than for one specific book.  So I looked through Ms. Lessing’s catalog, and decided to read this one.

In the unconstrained atmosphere of England in the late 1960s, Harriet and David Lovatt, an upper-middle-class couple, face a frightening vicissitude. As the days’ events take a dark and ugly turn nearing apocalyptic intensity, the Lovatts’ guarded contentedness and view of the world as a benign place are forever shattered by the violent birth of their fifth child: Ben, monstrous in appearance, insatiably hungry, abnormally strong, demanding, brutal.

Middlesex

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (author of The Virgin Suicides), is first and foremost the story of Calliope, a young Greek girl growing up in the suburbs of Michigan, and how at puberty, she becomes Cal, a young Greek boy.

The story spans three generations, starting with Desdemona and Lefty, a brother and sister fleeing Greece during the war with Turkey in 1922. Unfortunately, Desdemona and Lefty are in love with each other, and the anonymity of fleeing their homeland for America gives them the opportunity to start over, as husband and wife. Their story is a sad one, because as Desdemona discovers the dangers of birth defects involved if they have children, she becomes a distant and frustrated wife.

Their son, Milton, is a successful entrepreneur who marries his second cousin, Tessie, sealing Calliope’s fate. Calliope is born with a birth defect, 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphordites, which means that though she appears to be a girl, she has both girl parts and boy parts, though the boy parts are more difficult to see if you’re not looking. It takes a bit of a stretch of the imagination to believe that her doctor wouldn’t notice, that her mother wouldn’t notice while changing her diaper, but since the story isn’t graphic in its detail of the physical abnormality, you can give them a pass. Genetically, though, he’s a boy, with XY chromosomes and a desire for women.

The story travels back and forth across time, as the narrator, 41 year old Cal, tells the story from the beginning, from his grandparents’ love affair and sad marriage, to the success of his father’s hot dog franchise and the race riots of 1967 Detroit, and on to Cal’s own coming of age, his fear of not knowing exactly what was wrong with him, but trying desperately to hide the fact that clearly, something was.

Did I love this book? No. I thought it could have been about 150 pages shorter (it weighed in at 529 pages). Some of the details went on too long for me, and I found myself a little bit bored. It took me quite awhile to read this book, though the second half sucked me in, and I read the last 300 pages in just the last few days, spurred on by today’s letter being “M”. I’m not sure I can recommend this book…like I said, it just didn’t suck me in enough. But anyone interested in trans-gender issues, or in the experience of three generations of a recent immigrant family, might enjoy the book more than I did.

American Born Chinese

Though I finished my Graphic Novels Reading Challenge, I’ve been sucked in enough by the genre that I decided I would try a few more. From other reviews I’ve read on the Challenge’s blog, I decided to try American Born Chinese. It is a tale of learning to accept oneself, ignoring the disparaging attitudes of those around us. Although American Born Chinese deals with the slings and arrows of racism, I would argue that the themes of acceptance and self-awareness translate well to all of us, and that anyone who has ever felt self-hatred in the face of society and its harsh criticisms can find something to identify with in this story.

The book is told in three tales. First, the ancient story of The Monkey King, who bears a strong resemblance to my personal favorite monkey, Mojo Jojo (minus the huge brain, of course). The monkey king works very hard to gain all of the attributes necessary to become a god, and attend the parties of the other gods. But he is turned away and humiliated, because underneath it all, he is fundamentally a monkey.

The second story is that of Jin Wang, an American Born Chinese boy growing up in the suburbs, attempting to distance himself from his Asian roots. He falls in love with a white girl, and wishes to be part of the popular Caucasian clique in school.

The third story is about Danny and his cousin Chin-Kee. Danny is blonde haired, blue eyed, and for some unknown reason has a Chinese cousin who comes to visit him once a year, humiliating him and making his life miserable by his hyper-stereotypical behavior, until Danny has to change schools, over and over again.

The three stories come together in an unsuspected way, and the lessons learned are lessons that are pretty much universal to the human condition.

(images all found here.)