Thursday, December 15, 2005

Mari Sandoz
Cheyenne Autumn

After reading Mari Sandoz’s book, Cheyenne Autumn, I was left with many thoughts and feelings for a long time afterwards. As I read each chapter, I felt as though I was with the Cheyenne people in their incredible quest to return to their homelands. Sandoz expresses the anger and the anquish of these brave people that is not patronizing, but in an honest and believable way.

The characters in the story are also believable and very human–not at all “savage” as the white people of those days considered them to be. Sandoz shows that the Cheyenne people were loving and loyal to their families and to their community as well as very spiritual in their beliefs. Sadly, yet understandably, many of the Cheyenne were made bitter by the horrific treatment that they received from the white soldiers and the U.S. government. The emotional and psychological changes that occurred in these people are not surprising considering all that they were forced to endure.

The Cheyenne were finally provided with land for a reservation, but this does not make for a happy ending. I have been on a few Indian reservations (Navajo in New Mexico, Blackfoot in Montana, Apache in Arizona and “Cherokee” in Oklahoma) and the lands they were given seem to be no prize (except for the ones who struck oil in Oklahoma...the U.S. tried to reclaim the land when that was found!) Cheyenne Autumn is a sad story–sad in the fact that supposedly “civilized” human beings could treat other people in such an inhumane manner. Since reading this novel, I am looking forward to reading more of Mari Sandoz’s works.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

BLINDNESS by Jose Saramago

Imagine if the entire world went blind at one time. What would happen to us all? Imagine the chaos, the horrors of not being able to see . . .of not knowing where you are . . .not able to find your way home. Not being able to find food, or even a place to go to the toilet. Jose Saramago brings these terrifying consequences to life in his disturbing novel,

An epidemic of "white blindness" takes over and spares all but one person. The first victims of this unexplainable nightmare are forcibly taken away to an abandoned mental hospital where they are quarantined from the rest of the population to prevent the spreading of the "illness," however, nothing seems to prevent the blindness from spreading and soon everyone is stricken and forced to try and survive the best way they can. Humans find themselves reverting to primitive and animalistic behaviors in order to live. Modern technology and medicine are useless. The entire world comes to a standstill except for the accumulating garbage and human excrement in the streets and even inide places where people take shelter.

Despite horrific scenes of carnage and unthinkable violence, I HAD to keep reading. I had to find out what would happen to the main characters. Would this group of seven survive? Would they get their sight back? What was going to happen to their world?

Saramago's writing style fits perfectly with this novel. He uses few paragraphs, very little punctuation, and no quotation marks to indicate dialogue, however, I had no problem with knowing who was talking and to who. As one critic pointed out, the chaotic way in which the story is written fits well with the chaos that is happening in the story itself.

Saramago portrays human's at their very worst, as well as our will to survive the worst imaginable things that may happen to us in life. If I say more, it will ruin the story for you. It must be experienced totally for yourself.
On a 1-5 scale, I give this novel a 5+ and thinking I should raise the numbers on the scale so I can give it a much higher rating than that. I can understand why Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Doris Lessing's Mara and Dann :
An Adventure

Doris Lessing's fiction is commonly divided into three distinct phases, The Communist theme: 1944-1956 when she was writing radically on social issues, The psychological theme 1956-1969 and after that The Sufi theme which was explored in the Canopus series. In recent years, Lessing has worked in all three areas. Her 1998 novel, Mara and Dann combines all three of these areas, as well as her experiences on the African veld, into one gripping, page-turning story.

Born Doris May Taylor on October 22, 1919 in Kermanshah, Persia, Lessing's family moved to the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (modern Zibabwe) in 1925. It was her father's idea to farm maize which never worked out to his expectations. Unfortunately, the thousand acres of bush failed to yield wealth, thwarting her mother's desire to live the life of a Victorian in "savage lands". Life on the veld wasn't nearly as exotic or romantic as she had imagined. Despite a difficult and unhappy childhood, Lessing's writings about life in British Africa are filled with a compassion for both the sterile lives of the British colonists and the plight of the indigenous inhabitants. Her African stories are some of her finest work and provide the reader with first hand description of what it was like to live in such a rough and dangerous land, while at the same time shows the great beauty of the African veld and its indigenous people.

Many of Lessing's childhood experiences in Zimbabwe influence her story of Mara and Dann. Even though it is set thousands of years in the future, the brother and sister live in much the same surroundings as Lessing did in her childhood. Drought, large insects, deadly ants, wild beasts, famine challenge these two children on their quest to find the icy North where it is rumoured there is water and enough to eat.

The story of Mara and Dann begins with a power struggle in the land of Ifrik (Africa) and when Mara and Dann are very young. Their parents are killed by the opposition, and the children are taken away and protected, a reason for which we don't find out until the very end of the book. Lawlessness and social disintigration prevail all across Ifrik, and danger awaits the two young people at every turn. Mara takes on a sort of caretaker role for her younger brother, and he is a handful. He often runs off on his own, leaving Mara to worry about him as she herself is trying to survive. But the two find each other again and again and each time they come together their brother-sister bond grows stronger.

The children's journey to the north is filled with danger. Many of these dangers that Lessing creates appear to be exaggerations of the dangers she, herself experienced in the African bush. Whenever there is a sudden and rare flood in the story it is reminicent of the heavy rains on the veld, when animals of all variety come to drink and fight at the watering holes. In Lessing's African stories she often writes of the ants that can consume a body of a deer in a matter of minutes, eating it alive. Ants appear in Mara and Dann as "earth insects" and horned beetles become "water stingers'. There are also oversized scorpions, giant lizards and other creatures who eventually kill off the "milk beasts" (cows) and all sorts of other mutant creatures lurk behind rocks, inside empty cisterns, and any variety of hiding places. But the greatest dangers were the various races of people, who instead of working together to find solutions to the problems they all face, they war against each other, not wanting to help and wanting whatever little resources are left for themselves.

Not only is this an adventure story of survival against all odds, it is also a coming of age story for two young children who grow into strong and steadfast adults. The siblings encounter crime, power struggles, and corruption and learn much about human nature and how societies function. Lessing provides us with a vision of the human condition through this story of imagination mixed with realism. This is a fascinating read. The underlying message is universal. It is a message of hope for a better world.

I wrote my graduate thesis on Doris Lessing and Mara and Dann and I give this novel a rating of 5+ stars. Excellent!

Friday, December 02, 2005

by Dai Sijie

The Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong changed Chinese history in the 60's and 70's Hundreds of thousands of Chinese intellectuals were forced to leave their homes and families and sent to work farms for "re-education." This short novella is the story of two boys who were sent to a small Chinese village for their "re-education." One the son of a doctor, the other a son of a dentist must haul buckets of excrement up the mountainside and mine coal. The boys endure this nightmarish existence until the villagers discover the boys' talents for storytelling. The villagers give Luo and the unnamed narrator a reprive from their disgusting duties in order to go on monthly treks to town to watch movies and then coming back and relating the details of what they have seen when they return. It is in the town where they meet the little seamstress from the novel's title, and Luo falls instantly in love with her.

The plot gets even more interesting when the two boys find a suitcase of forbidden books hiding in the floor under the bed of a friend. Knowing that the friend would be afraid to report the theft to authorities, the two steal the books for themselves. Enchanted by the prose of a host of European writers, they dare to tell the story of The Count of Monte Cristo to the village tailor and to read Balzac to his shy and beautiful young daughter. Luo dreams of transforming the little seamstress from a simple country girl into a sophisticated lover with his foreign tales. He manages to captivate the young girl, however, things don't work out as he had hoped.

Dai Sijie movingly captures Maoism's attempts to imprison the minds, hearts and even bodies of the people of his country, while at the same time he tells the story with humor and emotion. The sheer delight that books offer a downtrodden spirit is a reminder that though one may be imprisoned physically, the mind can go wherever you want. One's thoughts are always one's own.

This is an EXCELLENT book. I give it a rating of 5 stars.