Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were
Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston

So, this is another gushing post where I tell you just to go out and get a copy of this book, now, and read it, now.

The book starts with Janie, our protagonist  returning home after some time away. The townspeople watch her walk to her house, gossiping, wondering where she’s been, what she’s been up to. Of course, it’s only her best friend Pheoby who actually goes to the house to welcome Janie back home. She’s as curious as anyone about Janie. She feeds Janie, and in return is told her story.

Pheoby’s hungry listening helped Janie to tell her story. So she went on thinking back to her young years and explaining them to her friend in soft, easy phrases while all around the house, the night time put on flesh and blackness. 

There are quotable passages on nearly every page. Beautiful, lush, evocative, language everywhere. This book is known for Hurston’s use of dialect, and it is noticeable and distinct. She contrasts the colloquial with the ethereal in a way that has to be experienced for yourself. 

I read this book in high school, and I just couldn’t get it through my thick skull. Back then, I had no real understanding about systemic, institutionalized racism or sexism. My English teacher tried to introduce us to literature that would expose us to these ideas, but without the solid historical background, and maturity to critically think about them, they were hopelessly lost on 16 year old me. The most I gleaned was that it was a local story – the title comes from Janie’s experience living through a hurricane. Though the book doesn’t explicitly mention it, it is based on the devastating 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane. This storm was the second deadliest in United States history, and 75% of those who died were poor migrant farm workers, mostly African Americans.

Here are a couple pictures I took several years ago as I happened across the mass grave site used to bury the people of color who perished during the storm:

   Site finally receives a marker.
Wide view of the site. 

While the storm and its aftermath are an integral park of the book, it is not the whole story. This is Janie’s story, through and through. She is a remarkable woman, who tries to follow society’s rules and still find her happiness, until she realizes that just isn’t going to work for her. Through her tale, you can see the limits placed on women like her, and how far we’ve come – but how far we yet have to go.

Want more like this? Try:  

  • “The Wrong They Could Not Bury”, Dave Scheiber. It’s not a book, but read this short article that talks more about the efforts of the African American community to have the mass grave site properly marked and recognized.
  • Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston. Ms. Hurston’s autobiography, which includes portions about writing Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Sister CarrieTheodore Dreiser. Another great book with a strong, unconventional female lead.
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A Palace in the Old Village

A Palace in the Old Village

A Palace in the Old Village
Tahar Ben Jelloun

Mohammad, a Moroccan man living in France with his family, suddenly realizes that he is facing imminent retirement. He is forced to stop working at the auto factory where he’s been employed for the last 40 years, ever since he emigrated from his beloved hometown in Morocco.

He considers retirement a form of death, Indeed, he worries over the fate of others who, seemingly healthy and full of life, quickly passed on when it was time for them to retire. He wonders – what will fill his days now that the factory has no more use for him? What is his purpose? Surely his children will look after him?

Mohammad will not live out his years aimlessly. He returns to his village to fulfill the ideals he was brought up believing in with all his heart. He will build a great house, give glory to his God, and live surrounded by his children. Yes, even his daughter who married that Italian Christian.

Unfortunately, his children are “Frenchies” through and through. Their adopted homeland has laid its claim on them.

Despite the very specific setting, the themes in The Palace in the Old Village are resoundingly universal. Generation gaps, family clashes, fear of outliving your usefulness. For such a slim little novel, there’s quite a bit to work with.

Quick Thoughts: Books You Need to Read

All three of these books earned 5 star ratings from this picky reader.

Alias Grace
Margaret Atwood

Let’s start with the one I read back in January (eep!): Alias Grace. Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite living writers, fictionalizes the tale of Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant to Canada who is convicted of murdering her employer. I love Grace, the unreliable narrator, the “alienist” doctor intent on finding out the truth about her crime, and the Canadian frontier setting.

I wish I’d written my thoughts when the book was fresher in my mind, but it was not to be 😉 It was very good, that I clearly remember!

Anne Of Green Gables
Lucy Maud Montgomery


I absolutely loved the Anne series when I was growing up. That Anne girl, with her endless, exhausting supply of energy, her determination to make the best of whatever life threw at her, her fiery red hair, worked her way into my heart. I’d been wanting to re-read Anne of Green Gables for some time, hoping it would provide a much-needed comfort read. Happily, it did not disappoint. Anne and the other characters were just as charming as they were fifteen years ago when I first met them. Montgomery’s descriptions of Prince Edward Island have lodged themselves deep in my imagination, making me ever hopeful that I’ll one day get to see the White Way of Delight for myself.


Brother, I’m Dying 
Edwidge Danticat

This is Danticat’s story of her two fathers, who were also two brothers. As perhaps you would expect from a writer, there is a theme focusing on the importance of words running throughout this memoir. Her uncle depends on his words as an orator and preacher, then loses them completely when surgery removes his voicebox. He relies on compulsively jotted notes to detail the activities around him. Danticat listens to the stories of the elder women in the family and is taught about life, and about death. She struggles to find the words to communicate with her parents, who have left her and her brother in Haiti as they try to prepare a place in New York.

The end, of course, is heartbreaking. What else would you expect with a title like Brother, I’m Dying? There is hope though, and life, and beauty.

Okay, which one are you going to read first? 

Quick Thoughts

Lamb

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal
Christopher Moore

Supposedly a comedic re-imagining of the gospels, but I’d argue that there’s really not that much actually re-imagined. I was going to write a long ranting review of this book, but I just cannot muster the energy. Just for starters, there is an incredibly infuriating rape scene. Plus, your typical rank misogyny and racism. I am so over comedy that seeks to uphold and reinforce existing systems of privilege rather than help dismantle them.

The Good Muslim
Tahmima Anam

The Good Muslim

Covers the rise of radical Islam in Bangladesh as experienced by one family.

There was nothing really terrible about this book, and I know a lot of people have really liked it, but it just wasn’t for me. I couldn’t connect with any of the characters, and there wasn’t really much going on plot-wise, until the rushed-feeling climax. It kind of reminded me of Thrity Umrigar – lots of internal dialogue, focus on female characters, South Asian setting. Unfortunately, I’m not really much of a fan of hers, either – but if you are, maybe this book is for you. I didn’t realize that it is actually the second in a series, so perhaps reading A Golden Age before this one would have at least helped me appreciate the characters a bit more.

(On a side not, when Zaid goes to the madrasa, it reminded me of clients who think their driving on a suspended license charge is no big deal, until they get sent to jail. It’s like, wow, this is NOT GOOD.)

The Sense of an Ending*
Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending

I have the feeling that if I’d sat down and read this in one sitting I would have had a completely different reaction to it. I loved the first portion that I read. I was completely wrapped up in this remembering of the past. I put it down, went to bed, and when I picked it up next the magic was just gone. The more I read the less I liked it. The concept is good – what is memory? who am I? who are these people I once knew? – but not particularly original. So basically – meh.

*Sent to me by the publisher

Have you read any of these? Think I’ve got it all wrong about your favorite book? Feel free to tell me about it 🙂

The Hanging of Angelique

The Hanging of Angelique

The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal
Afua Cooper

“Slavery is Canada’s best-kept secret, locked within the national closet. And because it is a secret it is written out of official history. But slavery was an institutionalized practice for over two hundred years. …Canada may not have been a slave society – that is, a society whose economy was based on slaves – but it was a society with slaves.”

Canadian slavery was certainly something I knew nothing about prior to reading this book. I was always taught that Canada was the promised land for slaves in the US, especially after the Fugitive Slave Act. Afua Cooper’s groundbreaking book dispels that myth.

She focuses her narrative on one young enslaved woman, christened Marie-Joseph Angelique, who was accused of setting her mistress’s house on fire and, as a result, burning down much of Old Montreal. Cooper is sure to put Angelique’s story in context, explaining how slavery was an integral part of Canada’s foundations.

Cooper does not shy away from placing blame on Angelique. In fact, the idea that this was a purposeful act, borne of the frustrations and chafing of the slave system, is central to her thesis.

“Did Angelique set the fire? Your guess is as good as mine. No one saw her light the spark that started the blaze. All the evidence was circumstantial. But I believe she did set it.”

When Angelique set the blaze, she acted willfully, deliberately. She was not a woman to sit idly by and quietly bear the harsh hand she was dealt. Throughout her life she rebelled, through acts large and small. Her final act of rebellion ended up even bigger than she had probably anticipated.

Want more like this? Try:

  • Sojourner Truth, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth. Another slave narrative from a woman with Dutch ties.
  • Assata Shakur, Assata. A 1987 autobiography from another resistor that clearly shows the struggle continues.
  • Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace. The fictional retelling of a famous Canadian murder case. In this case, the accused is servant girl Grace Marks.

Some Quick Thoughts

Every Last One
Anna Quindlen

At work, we have a book exchange box. I pulled this one out of it awhile ago, as I’ve been wanting to give Anna Quindlen another try. I read Blessings several years ago, and thought it was okay, but nothing special. However, I’ve read some short nonfiction from her and really like it a lot.

Well, I think I’ll stick to her nonfiction. Every Last One was… fine. Tragic, which certainly appeals to me. But there was a distance between the reader and the Mary Beth, the narrator, a buffer, that meant that I never really felt a true connection with her. She has trouble connecting with the other people in her life, too.

There is a lovely piece near the beginning where Mary Beth describes the breathing patterns of each of her children. Their sounds while sleeping mirror their personalities while awake. I am fascinated by idea of what makes a person uniquely “them,” even as they sleep.

So, not a bad book, but just not worth raving about.

Miral
Rula Jebreal

This is a book that could have been really good. Hind, a young, Arab woman in Jerusalem finds 55 orphaned or abandoned children, victims of the violence erupting in the city. She changes the course of her life to serve this children and the many more like them that are sure to appear. She leverages her considerable connections to keep them housed, fed, and as safe as possible.

The book is divided into parts, each part focusing on one of the female characters. Miral, of course, is one of them, a girl sent to Hind’s orphanage and school after her mother dies. Her father is at a loss as to what do do with Miral and her younger sister. He trusts Hind to look after them and educate them, and he does his best to see them as often as possible.

Unfortunately, the tone never seemed to change, so all of the women just blended together for me. Further, just like in Every Last One, there was a distance between the characters and the reader. In fact, in the first chapter, I thought perhaps I was reading a journalist telling of an event that was going to set up the “real” action of the book. Nope. And then I realized the book was written by a journalist. I have  not had much luck with journalists who write novels.

Here’s a thing I like about blogging: it forces me to think about why  a book didn’t speak to me. Here are two decent books, ones I’m sure many people would like, but they weren’t for me. And in writing about them, I realize that despite the vastly different settings, time period, etc, the problem I had with both of them was that I could not connect with the main characters. I don’t have to like the main characters of the books I read, but I do have to get them.

What is a must for you when you read? Characters? Plot? Writing? Something else? Share in the comments.

Ceremony

Ceremony

Ceremony
Leslie Marmon Silko

Ceremony, roughly, is the story of Tayo, a former WWII soldier of mixed white and Laguna ancestry, trying to readjust to civilian life. Like many of the other former soldiers, he turns to alcohol to drown his troubles. Compounding the stresses of returning from war is the fact that he’s never fully fit in at home to begin with. His mother is the black sheep of the family, having produced living evidence of sleeping with a white man.

His grandmother feels a native healer may be able to save Tayo, but some in the family think Tayo is unworthy to receive such help because of his mixed bloodlines. Eventually, Tayo does meet up with Betonie, a healer, also of mixed ancestry. Betonie leads Tayo through a series of ceremonies intended to cure his depression and lift the effects of the war.

This is not the easiest book to read. Past and present blend, reality and imaginings blend together in ways that reflect Tayo’s fractured thinking. As he pushes forward, attempting to find relief, you begin to see life itself as a ceremony, to be improvised and adapted as needed. Ceremony rewards you with remarkably beautiful, vivid passages such as this:

He found flowers that had no bees, and gathered yellow pollen gently with a small blue feather from Josiah’s pouch; he imitated the gentleness of the bees as they brushed their sticky-haired feet and bellies softly against the flowers.

I am so glad that I finally read this book. I’ve heard about it as one of the classics of Native American writing, and it certainly deserves that recognition.

Want more like this? Try:

  • Toni Morrison, Sula. A black soldier returns from World War I to his small hometown in Ohio. His method of coping is alternatively spooky, humorous, and tragic.
  • Heinrich Böll, Billiards at Half-Past Nine. A German family deals with their role in World War II.
  • Ernest Hemingway, Across the River and into the Trees. Most Hemingway books deal with war or its aftermath in some way, but this one is memorable for Colonel Cantwell’s intense struggle to reclaim life and happiness even as he knows he is facing imminent death.

Continuing with Aya

Aya, staged for
the mini-challenge

Aya of Yop City
By Marguerite Abouet
Illustrated by Clément Oubrerie

Aya of Yop City is the second in a series of graphic novels by Ivorian born writer Marguerite Abouet. There are six novels published in French, but only three have been released so far in English. The fourth is set to come out this summer (if anyone knows of a way to get a review copy to this blogger, she’d be eternally grateful, *hint, hint*). I read the first one, Aya, last year and loved it.

I was happy to find that my library had the second book. It picks up right where Aya left off, and it was fun to fall right back in with the delightful cast of characters populating 1970s Ivory Coast. Aya and her friends all have their own worries, but they are there to lend a hand when one of them needs something, be it babysitting or boyfriend advice.

This time around, it’s not just Bintou who needs help. The girls’ parents are in for some big surprises, too. Unfortunately, the book ends rather abruptly, on a big reveal that is sure to have major consequences in the third volume, Aya: The Secrets Come Out.

I read this during the April edition of Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon. I also used it as inspiration for a book-staging mini challenge hosted by Midnight Book Girl. I chose to surround the book with a bold patterned scarf, since the women in the book are find of them, stick a picture of my cute nephew in to represent the baby, and add a bright lipgloss for the town beauty contest.

Feminists, Read this, FOR REAL

Feminism FOR REAL

Feminism FOR REAL
Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism
Edited by Jessica Yee

This book is SO GOOD. SO GOOD.

The only thing that kept me from giving it five stars was that, as with pretty much any anthology or short story collection, some of the pieces in Feminism for Real are stronger than others. (Maybe I should have given it five stars, but my ratings are typically a gut reaction and once I make them I don’t really like to go back and change them). There were no real duds, just some selections that didn’t speak to me so much, but overall the collection did what it said towards “deconstructing the academic industrial complex of feminism.” This book is what I was hoping for from bell hooks’ “Feminism for Everybody.” The writers are a diverse group of people, mainly Indigenous and/or Canadian. They talk about how ivory tower feminism has failed them, and how they work anti-oppression principles into their everyday lives and activism.

Editor Jessica Yee’s interview with anna Saini on sex work and feminism was one of the best pieces in the collection. Admittedly, it contained many ideas that I’d read elsewhere, but they bear repeating, especially since Saini’s perspective is not one that gets much mainstream coverage. Here’s an excerpt:

i agree that the missionary slant that feminist “saviors” of sex workers adopt is a modern form of colonialism. Sex workers are the contemporary Venus Hottentot for all the fascination that white feminists have with fetishizing our work…. If they really wanted to help, they would work to correct the racist, capitalistic, abelist and patriarchal power structures that force too many women into sex work, but because they have a stake in these structures they are willfully ignorant to this perspective. 

And I love this:

i don’t think anyone is defined by what work they do for pay. In an ideal world, “job” is synonymous with “passion”. i can envision this world in my art and the work in those in my communities, but in the mean time we need to respect the rights of people to identify with what they love rather than how they survive financially. We need to see beyond the confines that white, capitalist, patriarchy place on our humanity.

This is so, so, spot on. Identifying people with the work they do is inherently a classist paradigm that erases the reality of so many people. It also places a premium on a person’s ability to work at all. So many people cannot enter the workforce, despite wanting and/or needing to, because they are physically or mentally disabled in some way. Is someone who can’t work less than fully human? Surely not.

Okay, I could go on and on and on about all the pieces I really liked, but this review is already being posted so much later than I wanted, so this is what you get. But read it. Seriously. Maybe I’ll post a review “part II” at a later point.

Want more like this? Try:

I finally learn How the García Girls Lost Their Accents

Abstract, brightly colored outdoor scene on book cover, titled How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, written by Julia Alvarez
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents

How the García Girls Lost Their Accents
Julia Alvarez

Much like Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, this book chronicles the lives of four sisters and their extended family. The Garcías – Dr. Carlos, wife Laura, daughters Carla, Sandra, Yolanda, and Sophie, have fled from the Dominican Republic to New York after Dr. Carlos’s role in a coup attempt is discovered.

The book opens in the late 1980s when with Yolanda being welcomed back to the family compound in the DR. She’s relieved to be there, even though her lacking Spanish skills reveal that she’s been gone a long time. I wondered what exactly, led her back, and how she’d fare.

Only one of those questions is even partly answered. This book really is an explanation of how the sisters lost their accents. It’s told in reverse chronological order, with the reader slowly learning, through interconnected short stories, just how and why the family ended up in New York, and the growing pains they face trying to fit into a new culture.

There are plenty of growing pains. The girls are taken from a highly supervised Catholic environment to a much more permissive and secular one. Their parents try to maintain the same discipline that that did in the DR, but it’s impossible without the extended family to help with enforcement. The girls struggle with boys, bullies, the language, and more. All exert a tremendous toll of their mental and emotional health.

I do love a book with these themes – family, growing up, adjusting to a new culture. However, I had a problem connecting to this one. I think it was due to the reverse chronology. The structure does make it clear that the girls end up much more “Americanized” than they started – and much more than their parents would have liked. I don’t know if that would have been as clear in a traditionally sequential novel.