The Poisonwood Bible

Steve said the other day that I am voracious reader. That is both true and not true. I think I do read every day, but it takes me a very long time to read. He explained that he meant I always have a book going; I may not read two or three books at once, as he does, but I’m always reading something. If that is voracious, then I agree. However, if a voracious reader greedily devours books, then I can’t agree. I savor them. I like to roll their words around on my tongue and taste them.

I have just finished The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I cannot tell you how long I’ve been reading it. It seems like months. But this is not a book that you can read casually. You need to devote what time you have to it. Finally, you need to devote time you don’t have to it. I asked Steve if he could remember reading a book and thinking it was destined to be a Classic. By that, I mean we will be studying it in schools. It will survive the ages as an important work of literature. It will be To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby-Dick, or, perhaps most appropriately, Heart of Darkness, for it is to that last which it owes the most. I must admit that I don’t often reach the conclusion while I’m reading a contemporary novel that it will reach the status of the great novels of the past and become a part of the fabric of our culture. I know this novel will. It is deep and rich. It is complex. I think every American should read it. Since it was published in 1998, it may take some time before the educational establishment recognizes this book for what it is, but mark my words: this book will be required reading for your children, if it isn’t for you.

The back-of-the-book jacket blurb is not such a bad place to start:

The Poisonwood Bible is a story told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. They carry with them everything they believe they will need from home, but soon find out that all of it — from garden seeds to Scripture — is calamitously transformed on African soil. What follows is a suspenseful epic of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa. The novel is set against one of the most dramatic political chronicles of the twentieth century: the Congo’s fight for independence from Belgium, the murder of its first elected prime minister, the CIA coup to install his replacement, and the insidious progress of a world economic order that robs the fledgling African nation of its autonomy. Taking its place alongside the classic words of postcolonial literature, this ambitious novel establishes Kingsolver as one of the most thoughtful and daring of modern writers.

Kingsolver has posted an excerpt on her website. It will give you a flavor for the rich poetry of her prose. So many sentences in this book I read several times in order to truly taste them, let them roll over my tongue. The descriptions are lavish: I had no trouble picturing the settings, from the village of Kilanga, to Kinshasa; from the Equatorial Hotel in the French Congo to Sanderling Island, Georgia.

Nathan leads his family from Bethlehem, Georgia (which I had NO trouble picturing since I used to live maybe five miles from Bethlehem in Winder) to the Belgian Congo, which became Zaire from 1971-1997. If I had one problem with the book, it was the simple reference to Bethlehem High School. It bothered me for a time until I realized why Kingsolver invented the school. As far as I know, such a school never existed. I student-taught at the only high school in Barrow County at the time, Winder-Barrow High School, in 1996-1997. Since that time, another high school has been built. I did some research, and I cannot determine if there was a Bethlehem High School in the late 1950s. There doesn’t seem to be any information to indicate that there was. However, I understand why Kingsolver invented one. Not to invent Bethlehem High School would have distracted her readers unfamiliar with Barrow County, Georgia. I am sure it isn’t that she didn’t do her research — that she plainly does. I think she is judicious about which details are important, and explaining that the girls went to Winder-Barrow High School and why instead of a fictional Bethlehem High School would have taken up space on a trifle.

Of the novel, Kingsolver said:

England has a strong tradition of postcolonial literature but here in the U.S., we can hardly even say the word “postcolonial.” We like to think we’re the good guys. So we persist in our denial, and live with a legacy of exploitation and racial arrogance that continues to tear people apart, in a million large and small ways.

This story, Kingsolver maintains, is an allegory. I need to file that away for the next time my students ask me if writers mean to use symbolism or we’re just inventing stuff the writer didn’t intend. Nathan Price and his daughters each represent different responses to America’s role in raping the Congo. Kingsolver says that Nathan represents the “historical attitude”:

The Prices carry into Africa a whole collection of beliefs about religion, technology, health, politics, and agriculture, just as industrialized nations have often carried these beliefs into the developing world in an extremely arrogant way, very certain of being right (even to the point of destroying local ideas, religion and leadership), even when it turns out-as it does in this novel-that those attitudes are useless, offensive or inapplicable. I knew most of my readers would feel unsympathetic to that arrogance. We didn’t make the awful decisions our government imposed on Africa. We didn’t call for the assassination of Lumumba; we hardly even knew about it. We just inherited these decisions, and now have to reconcile them with our sense of who we are. We’re the captive witnesses, just like the wife and daughters of Nathan Price. Male or female, we are not like him. That is what I wanted to write about. We got pulled into this mess but we don’t identify with that arrogant voice. It’s not his story. It’s ours.

Each of the female characters that tell the story represent different reactions or responses to America’s involvement in the Congo’s struggles for independence:

The four sisters and Orleanna represent five separate philosophical positions, not just in their family but also in my political examination of the world. This novel is asking, basically, “What did we do to Africa, and how do we feel about it?” It’s a huge question. I’d be insulting my readers to offer only one answer. There are a hundred different answers along a continuum, with absolute paralyzing guilt on the one end and “What, me worry? I didn’t do it!” on the other end. Orleanna is the paralyzed one here, and Rachel is “What, me worry?” Leah, Adah, and Ruth May take other positions in between, having to do with social activism, empirical analysis, and spirituality, respectively.

It is in the climactic moment when Price blood is shed that each character takes her role. Rachel is maddening in her refusal to be changed by all that she has seen, but she still has some keen insights to offer. Her name means “ewe,” and like so many of the sheep in America, she denies we are complicit in any wrongdoing. Leah is outraged upon awakening to the injustices of the world and wants to change them. Adah is the scientist, examining the evidence with an empirical eye, if not an entirely cold eye. Orleanna begs forgiveness — before she was paralyzed to stop — to question Nathan or simply to leave him, ensuring her children’s safety. She is unable to act until it is “too late.” Ruth May is unwavering in her faith in her father and his religion: “Whither thou goest, I will go” — just like the biblical Ruth for which she is named.

Just like Orleanna, I dreaded the climactic death that would set the Prices’ feet in motion upon their particular paths. It was as inevitable as the political events it paralleled. Now, like Orleanna, I find myself wanting forgiveness.

The Bean Trees, the last book by Kingsolver which I read and reviewed, was also political. Kingsolver wants us to think and challenge ourselves and our government.

This story came from passion, culpability, anger and a long-term fascination with Africa, and my belief that what happened to the Congo is one of the most important political parables of our century. I’ve been thinking about this story for as long as I’ve had eyes and a heart. I live in a countery [sic] that has done awful things, all over the world, in my name. You can’t miss that. I didn’t make those decisions, but I have benefited from them materially. I live in a society that grew prosperous from exploiting others.

Kingsolver said she hoped the book would make her readers laugh a little at times, cry at others. I did this and more. It really made me think. This novel is so dense I cannot possibly compress it for you. You just need to read it.

Note: Kingsolver quotes were all taken from her website.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

I have just finished Tracy Chevalier’s book Girl with a Pearl Earring, inspired by the mysterious muse of Johannes Vermeer’s painting of the same name (click thumbnail for a larger image):

Before I read Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Girl with a Pearl Earring, I knew nothing about the Dutch painter Vermeer. I can’t claim I know any more of him now, except that I like his painting technique. Enjoyment of these books has led me to seek out images of his paintings on the Internet. I will direct you to this site, as I think it has very good scans. The colors are vibrant. The scans at Web Museum are so dark — it’s hard to see some of the detail. Of all of the paintings I saw, however, this one, Girl with a Pearl Earring, is my favorite. I like the way the light hits the girl’s face — the way her eyes shine, the moist sheen on her lips, the way the pearl glistens. It’s been compared to Mona Lisa.

Actually, in my search, I discovered that after Girl with a Pearl Earring, this painting is probably the one I like the best (click thumbnail for a larger image):

I don’t know why. It just speaks to me. The simplicity of the scene, celebrated. The colors. The details. I looked at the painting at Web Museum, where the article pointed out that the painting has the smallest details that most people wouldn’t even notice: the shadow of the naked nail in the wall above the maid’s head.

The book? Well, I think technically it was better than The Virgin Blue, which I reviewed here, but it didn’t speak to me in the same way that The Virgin Blue did. Don’t get me wrong — I loved the book. I think it is part of a fascinating genre of literature that seems to be really hitting its stride right now — art-inspired literature, something I previously wrote about here. I think the only thing that really troubled me about the book is the same thing that art historians have complained about — the negative portrayal of Vermeer and his wife Catharina. Susan Vreeland portrayed them, especially Catharina, very differently in Girl in Hyacinth Blue. For one thing, Vreeland emphasized their poverty. When Vermeer died, the family was deeply in debt. One story that seems veriafiably accurate is that his family’s debt with their baker was settled because the baker was willing to take Vermeer’s artwork in trade. I wondered how they could afford a maid, let alone two maids, as they had in the book. However, Chevalier pointed out that a maid, Tanneke, was mentioned in Vermeer’s will. I have to be fair and say that Chevalier never described the Vermeers as wealthy, and she emphasized that they fell into debt after the departure of Griet, the novel’s protagonist. I guess I just feel, in my modern mindset, that a maid is a luxury only wealthy people can afford. I don’t know a thing about it, so I can’t say exactly when Vermeer became poor, or whether he was always poor. He was portrayed as someone who used people for what they could bring to his artwork. There is this sense that he and Catharina do not get along, when they had 15 children together (11 of whom survived). You have to like each other a bit more than the novel portrays to have so many children, I’d think.

All that said, it was a great story. It’s sort of a story you almost want to believe. I have to say I felt the same way about Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and the painting described in that novel was completely fictional. I liked Griet a great deal. I had sympathy for her as a peasant woman living in a time when her lot in life was to serve, first the Vermeers as her masters, then her husband. I haven’t seen the movie, but the pictures I have seen make me want to — it seems the world of 17th century Delft is captured beautifully, and Scarlett Johansson is the very image of the mysterious girl in the painting. In an interesting aside, Chevalier chose the name Griet sort of on a whim. It was on a list of 17th century Dutch names she was pondering. I recognized right away that the name must be short for Margriet, or Margaret, a name that seems to have its counterpart in almost every Western language. You’d think as the mother of a Margaret, I’d have remembered that the name means “pearl.” Chevalier was happy to discover that little tidbit after the fact. One of those really fascinating moments of serendipity of a sort.

In many ways, the novel was a subtle as a Vermeer painting. I could perfectly see the settings. They were not described in so much detail that they overshadowed the story, but the imagery was still very strong. The characters thought and felt much that went unsaid. There were layers to every action — motivations both explicit and implicit. In the end, you wonder — what did Vermeer really feel for the girl? The sexual tension was rendered in such an artistic fashion. I was so glad that Chevalier didn’t ruin that by having the characters consummate their implied attraction. Chevalier said that this is a quiet book. That’s a great way to describe it. Quiet.

I will say that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as Girl in Hyacinth Blue, but it is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it. If you find yourself wanting to learn about the painting, then I direct you to Girl with a Pearl Earring: An In-Depth Study. It’s extremely informative and very thorough.

The Bean Trees

I have been so fortunate to be on such a “good book” run right now. Truth be told, much of it is due to the fact that I’m going to be teaching some books I ought to have read already (shame on me). But like Nanci said, you just can’t be sorry you haven’t read all the good books, because there are just too many.

Of course, there are two other reasons why I’ve been reading so much and choosing such good material. Did you ever have an English teacher you wanted to impress with your choice for a book report? Mrs. Patzel was my 11th grade teacher. Right before I moved to Georgia, I went up to her and asked her to give me a list of books she’d recommend I read — you know, so I could get ready for college. After she picked her jaw off the floor, she said she’d definitely get me a list. I didn’t understand until I became a teacher just why Mrs. Patzel was so obviously pleased and taken aback by my request. Or why, instead of a list, she actually gave me a box of books, most of them classics. But now that I’m a teacher, I know the joy of having a student who truly loves to read in my English class. And kids like the one I used to be are pretty rare. I wouldn’t be afraid to say Mrs. Patzel still remembers the big-eyed, dark-haired girl who tucked that box of books under her arm and left the classroom. Who am I trying to impress now? Well, there’s All Consuming and BookCrossing. Okay, so I have some questionable reading material on my bookshelf alongside some better selections. Ignore that for a moment. I have been reading more this year than I have in… I can’t remember when. And it has been so enjoyable.

The last book I finished was The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. I picked it up this morning and finished it by 11:00 P.M. I do not read fast. In fact, I’m a pretty slow reader. I think I learned to read slowly because I tend to savor the words. I can read more quickly, if I have to, but I prefer to take it at about the same speed as if I were reading it aloud, if that gives you an idea. So finishing a book all in one day doesn’t happen often for me. In fact, this was only the fourth time. The other three books I read like that were Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody, The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds, and Home is Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts. I have decided that what it comes down to is I love character-driven novels with a Southern flavor. With the exception of Not Without My Daughter, which is just extremely suspenseful, the others all fit that category.

I absolutely loved the characters in this book. Taylor Greer is smart-mouthed and tough. I would like to be like her. She kind of reminds me of Anne. I’d like to say it’s deeper than the fact that both Anne and Taylor are Native American. Well, Anne is. Taylor’s Cherokee pedigree is that negligible 1/8 that so many people claim. But I think it’s because they’re both so sassy and strong. I really get the impression that Anne could do just about anything, and Taylor made me think of that quality of hers. Taylor eschews glamor in favor of down-to-earth practicality, and Anne kind of seems like that to me. Then there’s Turtle, who is so smart. Had I not had a Maggie running around, I wouldn’t have thought a three-year-old as smart as Turtle could have existed. I just ached for her — she was so tough. I also loved Lou Ann. She was a bit like me. She worries constantly. I’m thinking Barbara Kingsolver nailed a typical OCDer. I wonder if she realized that? I wanted to see what would happen to everyone. I had to keep on reading. I think one of my litmus tests is does a character seem real enough and likable enough that I start feeling like he/she is a friend and I want to follow him/her to see what happens? If the answer is yes, the book always winds up a favorite.

The “accidental” ways the characters seemed to meet each other just when they needed to meet someone special to fulfill their needs reminded me very much of Where the Heart Is. Some people might say that’s contrived. I don’t. I think God hands us sychronicity just like those instances in these books.

Besides the well drawn characters, the writing was so fresh and funny. How can you fail to appreciate this:

She got off at the Roosevelt Park stop, which was a half block from the park itself. Sprawled over the large corner lot was a place called Jesus Is Lord Used Tires. You couldn’t make a mistake about the name — it was painted in big, cramped blue letters over the door, with periods inserted between the words: JESUS.IS.LORD.USED.TIRES. On the side of the pleated tin building there was a large picture of Jesus with outstretched hands and yellow streamers of light emanating from His head. There was also a whitewall tire, perhaps added to the mural as an afterthought and probably meant to have no direct connection with the Lord, but it hung in the air below His left hand very much like a large yoyo. Jesus appeared to be on the verge of performing Around the World or some other fancy trick.

Top-heavy, chin-high stacks of Firestones and Michelins at the edge of the paved lot formed a wall between Jesus Is Lord and a combination night club and pornography shop next door called Fanny Heaven. There was no mistaking this place either. The front windows were whitewashed, and large signs painted over them declared GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS on one side of the door and TOTAL NUDITY on the other. On the front door of Fanny Heaven was a life-size likeness of a woman with long red hair and a leopard-skin bikini. Public art of various types was popular on this block.

I mean. Come on. How can you not love that? I laughed out loud. I must have read it three times before I could move on. I had to read it to Steve.

Another favorite passage ties in the theme and title of the book. Turtle is something of a savant with plants. She’s fascinated by them. Lou Ann points out some dead looking vines in Roosevelt Park and declares that they are wisteria. Taylor is doubtful, but sure enough, they bloom. Probably looking something like this:

Later, the flowers turn into beans:

When Taylor and Turtle are in the library, they find a horticulture encyclopedia. Turtle recognizes a black-and-white picture of wisteria — bean trees. Taylor reads the article about wisteria to Turtle.

But this is the most interesting part: wisteria vines, like other legumes, often thrive in poor soil, the book said. Their secret is something called rhizobia. These are microscopic bugs that live underground in little knots on the roots. They suck nitrogen gas right out of the soil and turn it into fertilizer for the plant.

The rhizobia are not actually part of the plant, they are separate creatures, but they always live with legumes: a kind of underground railroad moving secretly up and down the roots.

“It’s like this,” I told Turtle. “There’s a whole invisible system for helping out the plant that you’d never guess was there.” I loved the idea. “It’s just the same with people. The way Edna has Virgie, and Virgie has Edna, and Sandi has Kid Central Station, and everybody has Mattie. And on and on.”

The wisteria vines on their own would just barely get by, is how I explained it to Turtle, but put them together with rhizobia and they make miracles.

There’s nothing I can really add to that. The people in this novel are all bean trees. And they’re all rhizobia, too. I really loved the symbolism of that image. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s now on my favorites shelf. I am excited to teach it.

The Bluest Eye

I have finished The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I have had it on my bookshelf for some time — one of those things I just hadn’t got around to reading. I finally read it because it is one of our novel choices for ninth graders. If you have read this book, I think that revelation might just astonish you. Nanci was not kidding when she said that the school is liberal. There is no way in hell I would even be able to consider teaching this book at any other school where I have previously taught. To be quite honest, I think it is a very good thing that this sort of freedom exists. I despise book banning, but the school system/library system of the county where I most recently worked is rather notorious for it. I think it will be refreshing not to have so many restrictions on what books I can or can’t teach. I can’t recall if I told you or not, but at an interview with another public school system, I expressed astonishment when another teacher mentioned teaching The Catcher in the Rye. It isn’t that I don’t approve — I wholeheartedly do approve of teaching that novel in high school. However, I have never lived nor taught anywhere that didn’t feel it necessary to shelter students from books with the tiniest bit of controversy. So while teachers could enthusiastically recommend that I could read those dangerous books, and I could do the same with my students, I could not ask that a class read the book. I shouldn’t completely misrepresent the public school system. I did teach such books as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is arguably one of the most banned books in history (and this was something I always discussed with my students). However, I cannot imagine a public school setting that would allow me to teach The Bluest Eye. With all of that said, I don’t think I can teach this book.

This is an ugly book. It exposes the ugliest parts of humanity. The predominant theme of the book is that whiteness is beauty, and beauty makes you lovable. Most of the black female characters learn “racial self-loathing;” they learn to equate their dark skin with ugliness. I cannot claim to experience what it is like to live as a black woman in a society that prizes white beauty (still, even 30 years after the publication of this book). Even black stars our society acknowledges as “beautiful” have “whiter” features of some sort: Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, Denzel Washington. Everyone talks about how our narrow standards of beauty damage people who do not fit them, but no one does anything about it. Once, one of my black students wrote an essay about what her life would be like as she grew older. Part of her happiness in the future was predicated on the fact that her skin became lighter with the passage of time. I cried for her when I read it, but I felt utterly helpless. I could tell her I thought she was wrong, but the entire society she lives in would argue with me. How can you fight that kind of power?

I felt pity for the characters as they each, in their way, discovered and either accepted or rejected their “ugliness” in our society. I think Cholly sees it as a legacy of his parents: they were “no account,” so he is too. I think Polly sees it as inevitable. Her foot broke when she was two. After her tooth fell out, there was no hope for being beautiful again, so why bother with hair and makeup? She rejected her own husband and children in favor of keeping house for a white family. She rejected her life in order to be a part of theirs. Little Claudia seems to be the only character who questions these notions. She alone is able to imagine Pecola’s baby is beautiful in its blackness. She hopes it will live, when everyone else hopes it will die. Pecola’s child, after all, is the result of incest and rape.

Morrison told this story in a very disjointed way. She says in her Afterword that she broke “the narrative into parts that had to be reassembled by the reader.” She says that this approach does not “satisy [her] now,” adding that “many readers remain touched but not moved.” I have to say that I fall into that category. I didn’t ever become anything more than a dispassionate observer of the events in the novel. I was repulsed and horrified. I didn’t internalize, or “love” any of the characters. I pitied them. When Pecola believes she has achieved the blue eyes she desired, she has actually achieved madness. Most of the time, with books, the writer somehow enables you to care for the characters so that when terrible things happen to them, you cry. I couldn’t cry over these characters, and it seemed that nothing but terrible things happened to them. This book was utterly depressing. I think it is important that we examine our standards and beliefs about beauty. I think it is important that abuse is exposed. Maybe I’m selling them short, but my experience with 9th graders is that this isn’t the kind of reading they are developmentally ready for. I do not feel comfortable with discussing much of the book with a class. Maybe that will change someday.

Nanci was kind enough to say that we should not teach something we’re not passionate about. I may not be able to find a book that explores the same theme, but I certainly think I’ll be able to find something that doesn’t make me queasy.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

I have just completed Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. If you haven’t read the book and plan to, I warn you that there are some spoilers here.

Alice Walker, a great admirer of Hurston’s (and responsible for the revival of interest in Hurston since the 1975 publication of her article “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms. magazine, which can be read in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose) said of this novel: “There is no book more important to me than this one.”

I did enjoy the book a great deal, but I cannot say it was impossible to put down. It made me laugh out loud, and it made me tear up, but it did not resonate with me as it did Walker.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said that “Hurston became a metaphor for the black woman writer’s search for tradition.” I can see the influence of Hurston strongly in Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use.” Hurston was a student of anthropology, and she brings that to bear in her fiction as well. It really gives the novel a particularly genuine feeling.

Janie is the main character. The novel begins as she returns to town. The old gossips watching her on the porch wonder why she’s back, and did that no-account Tea Cake she ran off with take all her money, leaving her no option but to return to town in shame? Her friend Pheoby (spelled as Hurston did) comes over to talk to Janie and find out what happened. What enfolds is the entire story of Janie’s self-discovery. It begins like this:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Janie was abandoned by her parents and raised by her grandmother, who wanted her to choose a secure man to marry. Her grandmother didn’t listen to what Janie wanted. She silenced her dreams.

She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage!

This was, I think, what Janie would have liked to have had from marriage. She did as her grandmother asked, but felt empty. When Jody Starks wandered down the road, he looked like adventure. He took her to Eatonville, one of the all-black towns established in the early part of the 1900s, and so asserted himself among the townsfolk that he was quickly elected mayor. Once this happened, he silenced Janie with intimidation, verbal abuse, and physical abuse. She grows to despise him for suppressing her:

“Ah knowed you wasn’t gointuh lissen tuh me. You changes everything but nothin’ don’t change you — not even death. But Ah ain’t goin’ outa here and Ah ain’t gointuh hush. Naw, you gointuh listen tuh me one time befo’ you die. Have yo’ way all yo’ life, trample and mash down and then die ruther than tuh let yo’self heah ’bout it. Listen, Jody, you ain’t de Jody Ah run off down de road wid. You’se whut’s left after he died. Ah run off tuh keep house wid you in uh wonderful way. But you wasn’t satisfied wid me de way Ah was. Naw! Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours in me.”

After Jody’s death, she relished her new freedom for a while when along came Tea Cake Woods, whose deadly eyes captivated Janie despite the fact that he was much younger than she. She found herself falling in love, but Tea Cake was different from her grandmother, her first husband, and Jody: he treated her as an equal (most of the time) and valued her voice. He encouraged her to be herself, because he loved the real Janie. With the exception of $200 he spent when they first married, he never appropriated any of her money — and he always referred to it as her money. He was extremely likable and charming. He respects Janie as a person and an individual.

After Janie finds her voice, she learns how to use it. According to Mary Helen Washington, at the 1979 MLA convention, Robert Stepto of Yale “raised the issue that has become one of the most highly controversial and hotly contested aspects of the novel: whether or not Janie is able to achieve her voice in Their Eyes.” Stepto brought up the courtroom scene near the end of the book, which is told through the narrator. Janie is “curiously silent in this scene.” It’s a pivotal scene in her life. She must prove to the jury, in her mind, that she had honestly loved Tea Cake:

It was not death she feared. It was misunderstanding. If they made a verdict that she didn’t want Tea Cake and wanted him dead, then that was a real sin and a shame. It was worse than murder.

The narrator (and Janie) are silent, too, after Tea Cake beats Janie for the one and only time. Stepto put forth the idea that “the frame story in which Janie speaks to Pheoby only creates the illusion that Janie has found her voice, that Hurston’s insistence on telling Janie’s story in the third person undercuts her power as speaker.” Alice Walker, at that same conference, countered that this was not so. Janie had not only found her voice, but she had also learned, as Walker put it “that women did not have to speak when men thought they should, that they would choose when and where they wish to speak because while many women had found their own voices, they also knew when it was better not to use it.” Mary Helen Washington calls Walker’s defense the “earliest feminist reading of voice in Their Eyes.” In this way, Janie’s speech and silence become a means of learning who she is and becoming empowered as a person after having been suppressed for most of her life.

I was troubled that Hurston chose to put such an emphasis on romantic love as a means of personal realization. After all, I thought, if Janie is “finding her voice,” why does she need Tea Cake to show it to her? Actually, after thinking about it, one realizes that for most people, relationships are a necessary component of fulfillment. And sometimes, someone believing in you and encouraging you is what it takes. I believe that Janie’s dream of marriage (the bee and the flowers) was achieved with Tea Cake. When Janie is alone at the end, while you know she misses Tea Cake, she also seems at peace with being alone. By the end of the novel, she isn’t worried about those old gossips on the porch:

“Now, Pheoby, don’t feel too mean wid de rest of ’em ’cause dey’s parched up from not knowin’ things. Dem meatskins is got tuh rattle tuh make out they’s alive. Let ’em consolate theyselves wid talk. ‘Course, talkin’ don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh can’t do nothin’ else. And listenin’ tuh dat kind uh talk is jus’ lak openin’ yo’ mouth and lettin’ de moon shine down yo’ throat. It’s uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”

Can you tell yet that I am teaching this book next year?

Anyway, I won’t delve into the symbolism, etc. I am trying to figure out why this novel didn’t speak to me as it did Walker. I asked myself if it was because I’m not black. While that’s possible, one also has to consider the fact that racism is not really a theme of the novel. Of course Janie encounters it, but it’s not the focus. This isn’t a story about a “black quest” so much as “human quest.” I really did enjoy it, but it didn’t affect me the way I expected it to. Still, I have to recommend it highly. I very much enjoyed the contrast between the literary prose of the narrator and the dialect of the characters. It was very well written that way.

The Lady and the Unicorn

I have completed The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier. I did not like it as much as I liked The Virgin Blue, but I still found it enjoyable.

It was interesting to learn how tapestries were made. I have never given thought to the months or even years of work involved. On her website, Chevalier has included images of the tapestries that inspired the novel. They are beautiful. I think I have seen a reproduction of at least one of them before.

This novel is different from The Virgin Blue in that it is set entirely in the past — the late Middle Ages (1490-1492). The Virgin Blue is set in two times: the present and 400 years in the past. I will say that I think Chevalier does her research well. She carefully renders her setting so you know you are in the past without letting it overwhelm the plot. That’s not easy to do — I allowed myself to get carried away describing the setting in my own book. It’s hard, because on the one hand, you want to prove that the characters are really in the past, so you show the reader — look, see this detail? On the other, all the reader really needs is a feeling and his/her imagination can do the rest.

I absolutely detested one of the main characters, Nicolas des Innocents. I thought him a lecherous rake who cared nothing for anyone but himself. He was a preening peacock of a man. I couldn’t feel badly for him at all when he suffered disappointments. In fact, I found myself feeling glad and thinking it served him right. Actually, I didn’t like many of the characters. The weaving family in Brussels were probably my favorite characters. I liked Aliénor, but that was because she was strong and intelligent without being snotty. I think that Claude was snotty, and I honestly didn’t feel sorry for her when she was disappointed either. Regina Marler’s Amazon review makes it sound like the reader might actually root for Nicolas and Claude: “Their passion is impossible for their world — so forbidden, given their class differences, that its only avenue of expression turns out to be those magnificent tapestries.” In truth, I couldn’t see that there was much passion between them — at least not any more than Nicolas showed toward every other female who crossed his path. If it had been requited, Nicolas would have discovered, I think, that he didn’t care any more for Claude than he did the multitude of other women he had sex with. Ultimately, the main characters in this story are the tapestries themselves. I found myself wanting to read on to see how they fared. The weavers worked at a frenzied pace to finish on time. I didn’t feel Jean Le Viste appreciated the work that went into them at all. If anyone did, I think it might have been Léon Le Vieux, who worked with Jean Le Viste on the commission, even though he never outwardly expressed appreciation for them. I don’t know why, but that’s the feeling I get.

I would read another book by Chevalier. Her writing is very good. Very well researched. I don’t know why she doesn’t make her characters more sympathetic. It is a good writer who gives her characters flaws to make them human and accessible. But I think she takes it a little too far. Her characters have too many warts to make me love them. I didn’t feel this way about most of the characters in The Virgin Blue. I’m willing to give Girl with a Pearl Earring a try.

Addendum (7:35 P.M.): I have just realized where I’ve seen the tapestries in this book before. They decorate the Gryffindor Common Room in the Harry Potter movies. I’m kicking myself for not picking that out right away. Oh well.

The Virgin Blue

I ordered Tracy Chevalier’s book The Lady and the Unicorn from Amazon after traveling down a winding path of searches for historical research/detective fiction similar to The Da Vinci Code or The Rule of Four, but better because all the pieces of great writing would be tied in together. I still haven’t read The Lady and the Unicorn, but it is my next project.

Where am I going with this? I was at Kroger the other day, and a book display caught my eye. I saw a book by Tracy Chevalier that caught my eye. I thought to myself, didn’t she write that book I ordered? This book was called The Virgin Blue. I picked it up and looked at the synopsis on the back cover:

Meet Ella Turner and Isabelle du Moulin — two women born centuries apart, yet tied together by a haunting family legacy. When Ella and her husband move to a small town in France, Ella hopes to brush up on her French, qualify to practice as a midwife, and start working on a family of her own. Village life turns out to be less idyllic than she expected, however, and a strange series of events propels her on a quest to uncover her family’s French ancestry. As the novel unfolds — alternating between Ella’s story and that of Isabelle du Moulin four hundred years earlier — a common thread emerges that pulls the lives of the two women together in a most mysterious way.

Okay, that sounded like something I’d like. And it was on sale for several dollars off the suggested retail price. So I put it in my cart and went in search of the milk. I didn’t know it then, but I think that might have been a key moment in my life — my decision to buy that book. After absorbing myself in the book for a few days, looking at the author’s website, and thinking about the ways stories come to us, I realize that I really do want to write more. I do have more stories in me. I just need to sit down, think, and make time to get them out.

The Virgin Blue is Chevalier’s first book. After the success of Girl with a Pearl Earring, I think it was republished in the UK and published for the first time in America. I keep thinking of the threads that tie families together. It has to be more than sharing a similar hair color or nose shape. I think memories are passed down, too. I think I have some of them. I think that might be why some people believe in reincarnation. They don’t know how to explain these flashes of memories or visions about life in another time that seem so clear that it might be confused with their own memories.

The characters in this movie were well-drawn. I liked them all, except for the ones Chevalier didn’t mean for us to like (Etienne Tournier, the awful husband of Isabelle du Moulin). I really liked the storyline, too. Despite shifting between time periods, it was never hard to follow or jerky, and there were often parallels in the two stories. Some people who reviewed Chevalier’s books don’t like the coincidences. I do. I think it speaks to the serendipity of our lives. The twists and turns that take us in unexpected directions. You can play this what-if game. Each person we meet and place we go is like a tapestry we weave into our lives. Pull out a thread and it falls apart. If the color was different, our lives would look totally different. That, to me, is what this book is about. The way we construct ourselves, built on the foundation of our family history. As Faulkner so astutely noted, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

The Rule of Four

At the end of the Author’s Note, Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason state that they are “deeply indebted to those two [Italian Renaissance and Princeton] settings of the the mind.” In the end, I think this book was more about its setting at Princeton than anything else. The setting overwhelmed the plot.

I think The Rule of Four suffers from its frequent comparisons to The Da Vinci Code. The latter is part of a relatively new genre. I’m not sure what you’d call it — historical research thriller? The Rule of Four is less about a centuries-old mystery surrounding a Renaissance book than it is about Princeton and four guys who became friends there.

In The Da Vinci Code, you see characters working on puzzles and watch as they figure out the answers in real time. The biggest mistake the authors of The Rule of Four make is they don’t do that. In this book, a character will solve a riddle offstage and share it with another character later. That made me feel cheated because I didn’t see it happen. The authors also frequently jump back and forth between time. It wasn’t difficult to follow, but it stopped the forward momentum of the plot. As I mentioned earlier, though, the real star of the book in the authors’ minds is the setting. The setting is lovingly, painstakingly rendered in this book to the point that it overwhelms the plot. The writing was good if you’re looking for description, but aside from that, it was mainly allusory (and for the dummies reading the book, the characters describe where the allusions came from).

I almost laughed out loud at the poor narrator at the end. I don’t think it would be giving too much away to say that a 26-year-old man waxing retrospective about events that happened only four years ago and attempting to sound as wizened and reflective as if it happened 40 years ago just didn’t work for me. That, to me, was the youth of the authors showing. I suspect they’ll cringe when they read that chapter in say 20 years or so.

I think the novel is being done a real disservice when it’s compared to The Da Vinci Code. As a coming-of-age novel, it works fine. It wasn’t a real page-turner, per se. I had trouble really caring about the characters. They’re much more realistic and less wooden than Dan Brown’s cardboard cutout stand-ins for plot advancement, but there was still something lacking. Even when I learned Paul is an orphan or Tom nearly died in the car accident that killed his father, I didn’t really feel affected by that. Later on, during the novel’s climax, several bad things happen all at once, and I just didn’t care.

I’m not really sure why this book is the darling of the critics right now. I don’t want to send the message that this book was awful. It wasn’t, or I wouldn’t have finished it. I think I’ve only ever forced myself to finish one awful book (if you follow that link and know me from my former screen name, you’ll see my review). At the same time, the book shows a lack of maturity on the part of the writers. They must not be long out of college, and it shows, because they are still mired in that love-affair with academia. They don’t know about poopy diapers or bills, and it shows. There is little that resembles real life for the over-30 set, but I imagine younger twentysomethings will find much to love in this book. Had I read it at that age, I might have enjoyed it more. It did make me wax nostalgic for college, I admit. But as Thomas Wolfe noted, you can’t go home again. Even if places don’t change (though they often do), we do, and our perspective makes it difficult for us to see things the same way as we once did. Maybe that’s my problem with this book. I’m too far removed from 22 to appreciate it. If I do decide to release this book, I will have to do it on a college campus to be sure it reaches its intended audience.

The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

I finished Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells this evening. It was a good read, if not a fantastic one. I felt that the narrative had some holes in it. Threads were taken up, dropped, and not mentioned again. The writer hinted, but not strongly enough, that Connor looked like Jack Whitman. I suppose by extension that means that Sidda will have the life-long love her mother missed? I wasn’t always happy with the poetic way the characters thought. It didn’t seem natural to me. An example: “Okay,” Vivi said, and sank down into the massage table. This table, she told herself, is held up by the floor, which is held up by the building, which is sunk deep into the earth, which is my home” (Chapter 22, p. 242). Maybe I’m too prosaic, but I don’t think like that. Sure, use poetry in description, but in the way characters think? It struck me as false. This seemed to be Wells’ favorite way of ending a chapter, by the way. I didn’t feel fulfilled by the ending, and I can’t put my finger on why.

I loved the Ya-Yas. After reading the book, I wished desperately for friends like that. I don’t have any close friends. I did as a child, but I moved. Moving makes you lose friends, I think. It’s just too hard to keep up, especially when the other party won’t work at it, too. I’ve been on both sides of that fence. My moving around so much cost me a great deal. My life would be so different. But then, who is to say that would mean it would be better?

I can remember having girlfriends. I can remember sleeping in Rebecca’s bed, so high off the floor that I had to climb into it. I can remember looking up into the eyes of James Dean on the wall behind her bed. Then she dropped me right before my wedding, and I had to scramble to find a bridesmaid at the last minute who could wear the dress my grandmother made to fit Rebecca.

Darcy and I were sisters. We stayed at each other’s houses. We shared things. I thought we’d always be best friends. I have not had another friendship like the one I shared with her. We loved each other. I moved, and she wrote me back only a handful of times over the 18 years that has passed since then.

Cheryl and I were friends my senior year in high school. We just decided we’d be best friends, and that was that. We rode around in cars with other friends, like Stephanie and Mary Jo, and we laughed.

Jenni has perhaps been the best correspondent of all of my friends. We have become closer in our absence from each other than we were when we lived in the same neighborhood and went to school together. Jenni is my anchor to my home.

But I don’t have friends like the Ya-Yas. And it makes me sad to realize, truthfully, that I never will. Maybe most people don’t, which is why this book resonates with people so strongly. It was one of the things that people liked about Friends, I think. There is this group of people, and they all love each other and would do anything for each other. They’re like family. But they’re not blood relations. They’re just friends. Reading this book and watching the Friends finale repeat last night (I didn’t catch it last week) made me realize I have friend-shaped holes in my heart. You can live with friend-shaped holes. You can even be happy. But the holes are still there, and you aren’t quite complete.

I will be releasing this book, but I am trying to see if anyone who has it on their BookCrossing Wish List wants my copy before I just cut it loose in the wild.

The Da Vinci Code

Wow. Phenomenal read. I could scarcely put this down. I won’t say the characters were especially well-drawn or memorable, with the exception of Sir Leigh Teabing. What I mean by that, is any characters might have been chucked into this story, and it would have moved as well. Maybe that device allows the reader to feel like a character? It was much more plot-driven. And what a plot. I had heard all this before, but to see it put together the way Dan Brown has done… it really made me think. I’m still thinking.

SPOILER! Read no further if you have plans to read the book…
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