Classics Spin, Take 3

The Classics ClubThe first time I participated in the Classics Club Spin, I read Orlando, right on time, wrote my review, and loved it. The second time…not so much. I thought about making myself finish The Golden Bowl and calling it my book for Spin #3, but I thought that would be unfair. So I’m going to spin again, AND I’m going to finish that darn Henry James. So there!

I’m slightly tweaking my list from Spin #2 to come up with the following:

1. Metamorphoses
2. The Color Purple
3. Song of Solomon
4. Wuthering Heights
5. Silent Spring
6. The Iliad
7. Up From Slavery
8. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases
9. An American Tragedy
10. The Souls of Black Folk
11. Memories of My Melancholy Whores
12. Belinda
13. Pale Fire
14. The Garden of Eden
15. Uncle Tom’s Cabin
16. The Master and Margarita
17. Cranford
18. Beloved
19. The Scarlet Pimpernel
20. Palace of Desire

Here’s my entire list, with links to my reviews so far. I’ve read 18 books, which puts me on track for my 50 in 5 years. I wasn’t quite as ambitious as some people!

Are you a Classics Club member? If so, how are you coming along with your list? If you’re not, it’s not too late to join!

Classics Club Question of the Month

Book cover for Maya Angelou's I Kniw Why the Caged Bird SingsThis month, The Classics Club asks its members

What classic book has changed your view on life, social mores, political views, or religion?

I’ve read a lot of books, and many of them have changed the way I think about things. That said, when I looked back at some of the classics I’ve read, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings jumped out at me. This is the first of Angelou’s memoirs, where she talks about growing up and all the struggles she faced. There is a lot that this book showed me. The item that really struck me, though, was not directly about Angelou. It was about her brother, Bailey. I think it was because this was so much a book about Maya as a young girl, and the problems and abuse she faced, but she was still able to see when things were done wrong to others, that was what made it so powerful.

Angelou writes about how black boys were allowed to be successful, but only in very limited ways. If her brother wanted to grow up and be a football star – fine. If he wanted to be a pharmacist or a lawyer or an optician – no way.

I can imagine in my head someone looking like a chubby Dwight Eisenhower a middle aged white man, bald headed, with a big grin on his face, dressed in a seersucker suit, up on stage in front of a black high school graduation, feeding the young people and their families this line of garbage. And expecting them to be grateful.

To think that there are still people today that see other groups as less-than, that truly believes they are not capable of being as perfectly flawed as anyone else, that they should be happy with inching towards tolerance by the majority, still makes me ill.

This book is one piece of my history that made me into the person I am today.


The Narrative of Sojourner Truth

Book cover for The Narrative of Sojourner TruthThe Narrative of Sojourner Truth
Olive Gilbert & Sojourner Truth

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth is a slave narrative that I’ve been wanting to read for quite awhile. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

Sojourner Truth is known for being a powerful speaker, a committed activist advocating for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. Her famed 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman” speech is an early example of intersectional thought.

However, her Narrative doesn’t talk about any of this. It gives her background, tells of how she was born into slavery, ran away, and then was “offically”  freed when New York abolished slavery. The book talks about her travelling around as a preacher, sharing her version of Christianity, which was aquired through her own thoughts on the gospel. She is made out to be quite an original thinker, and very intelligent. I just was very surprised that there was no discussion about her speeches besides the religious ones.

If I think about the purpose of this book, perhaps it makes some sense. Gilbert was trying to raise money from the publication to support Truth in her later years. She had worked and travelled for years, putting nothing aside, taking the bare minimum in pay, trusting that God would provide for her. (I, personally, would think that people offering to pay for her services was God providing, but then, that’s just me.) In any case, perhaps Gilbert was trying to avoid Truth’s more controversial views to appeal to a wider audience. I don’t know.

I also wish there had been more from Truth and less from Gilbert. Sojourner Truth is famous for her activism but also for her oration. Did Gilbert feel that she had to put a buffer between Truth and her readers? I don’t know the thinking behind the decisions; all I know is they left me feeling a bit cold.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t read the book. It’s pretty short and simple, and it is  still helpful to get a more fuller picture of who Sojourner Truth was.

Want more like this? Try:

  • Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Incredibly powerful slave narrative. (my review)
  • Frederick Douglass, Narrative Life of Frederick Dougalss, an American Slave. Probably the most fanmous slave narrative written. (my review)
  • Briton Hammon, Narrative of the Uncommon Suffering and Surprising Deliverance of Briton Hammon. Generally considered the first slave narrative. I haven’t read this one yet. Read it and let me know what you think!

Classics Quickies

Book cover for Midnight's Children by Salman RushdieMidnight’s Children
Salman Rushdie

This book. Ugh, this book. Briefly, the main character and a bunch of other “midnight’s children” are born at the same time that the modern country of India comes into existence. Those both in that magical hour are endowed with special gifts,  designated for, if not greatness, at least notice.

I really don’t know why it took me literally forever* to finish this novel. It’s the kind of magical, sprawling, historic narrative that I want to love, and sometimes do. One Hundred Years of Solitude comes to mind as a somewhat similar book that I did in fact love. Now that I think about it, though, I really struggled with Solitude for quite awhile before it hooked me in and refused to let me go. Maybe I was just never able to immerse myself for the requisite stretch necessary to appreciate Midnight’s Children.

Is there another of Rushdie’s books that you might think I’d get along with any better?

Book cover for The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye
Toni Morrison

This book is brutal. Not that Toni Morrison typically writes happy, feel good books or anything. But seriously, rape, child abuse, rape as child abuse, self hatred, racism, unattainable beauty standards – all that and more are in this slim little novel.

Still, Morrison manages to resist simple narratives even about the most despicable of her characters. That is something I really appreciate as much as it frustrates me. It’s not accurate to say that she makes a character sympathetic, but she can imagine how a young boy might grow up to commit heinous acts and can show that it is still a person, not a monster, that commits them.

It’s Morrison’s first novel, and it’s not as impressive as some of her later work, but still, it’s Toni Morrison. She can write circles around pretty much anyone else, as far as I’m concerned.

Book cover of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier

It’s a mystery in the sense that we know that the title character is dead, but not what happened to her. There’s Maxim de Winter, lord of picture-perfect Manderley

The ending was..troublesome, to say the least. I’d love to sit around and have a good feminist-influenced chat about this book. There are some very obvious WTF red flags about the treatment of women, the unreliable narrator, the fact that this unreliable narrator is unknown to us except as “Mrs. de Winter.” I still can’t figure out exactly how I feel about it, but I’m glad the Classics Club pushed me to read it.

*Yes, I’m using literally figuratively. Deal with it.

Classics Spin, Take 2

The Classics ClubI had fun with the Classics Club Spin the first go ’round, so am joining up again. It’s simple, really. Make a list of twenty books selected from your Classics Club list. Wait for the Club to pick a number. Read the corresponding book on your list.

I’m hoping my pick this time is as good as Orlando was during round one!

My Spin List:

1. Metamorphoses
2. Uncle Tom’s Cabin
3. The Color Purple
4. Palace of Desire
5. Silent Spring
6. The Golden Bowl
7. Up From Slavery
8. Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases
9. An American Tragedy
10. Pale Fire
11. Memories of My Melancholy Whores
12. Belinda
13. Wuthering Heights
14. Narrative of Sojourner Truth
15. Song of Solomon
16. The Master and Margarita
17. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
18. Beloved
19. The Scarlet Pimpernel
20. The Souls of Black Folk

The spin # was 6, so I’ll be reading The Golden Bowl by Henry James. Yay!

Diary of a Young Girl

Book cover for The Diary of a Young GirlThe Diary of a Young Girl
Anne Frank

There’s not too many people who don’t know the broad outlines of this book. Anne Frank, a young girl in Holland, hides in a secret annex with her family during the Second World War. There’s no happy ending here, as the entire family save the father, Otto, perishes in the Holocaust.

I never had to read this book when I was in school, so I was a bit worried that I’d missed the window when you “should” read this. Fortunately, that was not the case.

Anne is remarkably frank (ha) about her thoughts and feelings in this book. She is living through terrible times, but concentrates on honing her writing skills in a way that wonderfully captures her world.

The writing is surprisingly good. I was worried the book was noteworthy primarily for its subject matter and not as a piece of literature. I don’t mean to discount the subject in any way, of course. First hand accounts of historical events, especially a tragedy like the Holocaust, are invaluable. To find one that is also a quality piece of writing is truly remarkable.

If you haven’t read this, do. It’s worth it.

I return to Hemingway

Book Cover for The Old Man and the SeaThe Old Man and the Sea
Ernest Hemingway

I am a feminist. And I am a Hemingway fan. A huge, gushing, lover of that man’s writing, ever since 11th grade AP English and A Farewell to Arms. But in the last couple years, as I came to grips with my identity as a feminist, I realized that his work has some pretty problematic elements. Since I started blogging, I was hesitant to read anything by him, as I’d have to actually engage with the more problematic aspects of his writing. That made me nervous.

Fortunately, The Old Man and the Sea lacks the overtly misogynistic elements that can be found in some of his other works. Instead, there’s merely (harumph) the complete absence of women. Honestly, it’s not all that aggravating, as there are pretty much only two characters in the book. There’s the old man and the young boy. Other people exist somewhere offstage, but don’t play a central role.

My favorite thing about Hemingway’s writing is that there is just the perfect sentence, that says exactly what it says, but so much more at the same time:

The line went out and out and out but it was slowing now and he was making the fish earn each inch of it.

Here’s an old man, by himself, way, way out in the open sea, attached to a hugely muscled fish by some rope and a metal hook. He’s not had a real meal in recent memory, and hasn’t caught a fish in eighty-four days. If he can’t bring a fish into the market soon, his situation is going to become even more desperate than it already is. Clearly, from the quote above, he catches a fish. But then what?

The Old Man and the Sea is not my favorite Hemingway. It’s pretty simplistic. I think that Hemingway’s fable-like works are better when they’re shorter. I don’t think that this book could have been much shorter to convey the same effect, but at the same time, it feels too long to be rather one-note.


Book cover for Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Woman in white dress lays on back on a bedwith dress and sheets spread out around her. Orlando: A Biography
Virginia Woolf

Basically, Orlando is this young nobledude in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, well known for his awesome legs, and his way with a water bowl. Yes, seriously. He loves the ladies, and ice skating, and hanging out in the great outdoors, especially under his gigantic oak tree. Then his heart is broken and he runs off to Constantinople to act as England’s ambassador. A pretty pedestrian plot (written gorgeously, of course) until, after a night of civil unrest, violence, and looting of the ambassador’s residence, where Orlando sleeps through the mayhem, he then wakes up as a she.

Woolf’s subsequent musings on gender and sexuality are pretty awesome. Yes, this is a book of it’s time, but also, since it covers 300 plus years of Orlando’s life, it is a book of many times. Orlando’s legs are still the stuff of legend, but now instead of securing him an ambassador’s post they must be covered completely lest the glimpse of a calf send a sailor tumbling from the mast to his death.

One of the things I really liked was how Orlando still is attracted to woman after he becomes a woman. It’s pretty radical to realize that Woolf was separating out gender identity from sexual orientation back in the 1920s. It seems to be a concept people today still struggle with.

On a side note, I’m reading The Island at the Center of the World, about Manhattan when it was a Dutch colony. It contained a copy of this painting of James, Duke of York, that made me think of Orlando and hir legs:

Painting James, Duke of York

Great legs, yes?

This is one of my favorite Classics Club reads to date. I’m glad the Classics Spin and Modern March pushed me to reading it now rather than later.

Have you read Orlando, or anything else by Woolf? What did you think?

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Black Boy

black boyBlack Boy
Richard Wright

Black Boy is Richard Wright’s memoir about growing up black in America. Born in 1908 near Roxie, Mississippi, his early life was marked by frequent moves, his mother’s illness, and his strict, extremely religious grandmother.

He lacked supervision for much of his early years, which may well have contributed to his inability to conform his behavior to what society at large expected from a black boy. He did not have institutions and authority figures over him from the start. When he and his mother moved into his grandmother’s house, he frequently clashed with her and other family members over his inability and unwillingness to play the submissive.

The clashes with his family aren’t the only ones Wright experiences. Violence and the threat of violence are constant companions to him and those he knows. You can sense the fear that his fellow black Americans feel as they so desperately try to get Wright to conform. They are acting at least partly out of real concern for his safety.

After years of work and struggle in the south, he makes the move to Chicago. Along the way, he discovers that there are actually white people that care about the way blacks are treated. I had to grimly smile a bit to myself, as the dominant cultural narrative of today sometimes feels more like this:

"The Help" movie poster, renamed "White People Solve Racism" with the tagline "you're welcome, black people."

Did I mention I wasn’t a big fan of The Help?

In Chicago, Wright learns about Communism, and eventually joins the party. He’s impressed by their views and actions on race, but comes to realize that eliminating racism will not eliminate all the world’s ills. The conclusions he reaches and they way he presents them at the end of the book are just heart-wrenching.

I’ll end with this passage:

I was building up in me a dream in which the entire educational system of the South had been rigged to stifle. I was feeling the very thing that the state of Mississippi had spent millions of dollars to make sure that I would never feel; I was becoming aware of the thing that the Jim Crow laws had been drafted and passed to keep out of my consciousness  I was acting on impulses that southern senators in the nation’s capital had striven to keep out of Negro life; I was beginning to dream the dreams that the state had said were wrong, that the schools had said were taboo.

Want more like this? Try:

  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley. Another prominent black leader, this time from the North. One thing that really impressed me with this book was the ability of Malcolm X to revisit his head space and recreate the way he felt at different times in his life. So often as a reader, you get the sense that the author is who zie is at the time of writing the book, and zie is telling their life story only from that vantage point.
  • How Racism is Bad for Our Bodies, Jason Silverstein. A recent article in The Atlantic that discusses what the constant strain of living with the threat of racist action can do to your health.
  • Lessons on What it Must Be, Not What it Could: Growing Up Black and Boy in America, Hashkin Pipkin. I was taking a break from writing this review when I (completely coincidentally) stumbled across this post in my feed reader. Apt, no?

The Remains of the Day

Book cover for The Remains of the Day. Background is a butler, standing facing a window. His head is invisible. There are white text block overlays with the title. The Remains of the Day
Kazuo Ishiguro

Bummed the Downton Abbey crew won’t be back with anything new until, oh, forever from now? Take a motoring trip through the English countryside with Mr. Carson – erg, I mean Mr. Stevens.

Mr. Stevens’ father was a butler, and he has spent his life as a butler in a great house. However, the times they are a-changing. It is after the Second World War, and many of the large British estates have been broken apart. An upstart American, Mr. Farraday, has purchased the estate of Lord Darlington, Stevens’ former master. The staff has been reduced dramatically, and many of the rooms remain sheeted. Somehow, though, Stevens believes he might be able to reemploy Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper.

Mr. Farraday is to be absent from the estate for a time, and he gives Stevens permission to use his car for a trip to the countryside. Stevens is a bit unsure about this holiday, but decides that it is for the good of the estate that Miss Kenton come back to work. Mind you, he really doesn’t know if she is even interested. And she’s actually Mrs. Benn, and has been for quite some time. And it’s been twenty years since she worked at Darlington Hall. No matter.

Obvs, there’s something else going on here. All these repressed !feelings! Musings on how all-important dignity! trumps human connections. A scandal lurking about the good ol’ Lord Darlington.

I like how the book was written diary style, as Stevens made his way to Little Compton and Miss Kenton. I imagine that driving through the countryside for several days, with no one to take care of but yourself, would be the most time a butler like Stevens would have to be alone with his thoughts. So he ponders a lot about life – what his has been, and not been. It’s clear by the end that he has regrets, but he has put off having to think much about them. Now, towards the end of his days, when there is more time for reflection, they begin to weigh heavily on his mind. How will he process and move forward? Can he return to Darlington Hall the dignified butler that he has always been? Ishiguro leaves the reader to ponder these questions.

All in all, a beautifully written book.