Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Isabelle Allende 
Daughter of Fortune

I am a big fan of Isabelle Allende and enjoyed this novel, though not as much as some of her other novels and stories I have read. The first half of Daughter of Fortune kept me interested with the well-developed characters and poetic descriptions of Chile. I enjoy historical novels and feel that Allende does a beautiful job of taking us to another era in time and can almost imaging being there. 

The characters of Mama Fresia and Miss Rose are very dynamic and should have been the main characters in the story. The characters of Eliza and Jouquin became a bit redundant and after awhile I found myself wondering
when this novel was going to get moving again. While as I said I do love novels that are descriptive that bring us clear vision of another time and place, if not interspersed with action and drama, it gets a wee bit boring. Fortunately, Allende is a great writer to make us want to plod though to the end and grasp what we can even out of one of her lesser interesting novels. 
Time Traveler's Wife
Audrey Niffenegger

I had to force myself to finish reading this one. I  did not appreciate the jumping around in time and found it to be quite confusing. The characters themselves are often confused and surprised by non-linear time. I wasn't bothered by the use of profanity, descriptions of sexuality, or the idea that an adult Henry maintains contact with Claire as a child. But it's just the nonchalance of this writing and the droning on and on over nothing important that is irritating. For instance, there is a whole paragraph describing a game of pool. No description of the interactions between characters during said pool game,just the interruption of a whole paragraph about the technicalities of the game of pool was boring and offered nothing to the story itself. 

I was also annoyed at the random dropping of names like who knows who that fleeting mention of a character is, and who cares? 


Too many unclear references to characters that are tossed into the story but have nothing to do with the story. It's like having someone tell you about all of the co-workers or their neighbors you have never met. Who cares? This novel went nowhere, and I had to force myself to finish it. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Joyce Carol Oates

This is a collection of sixteen stories by one of my favorite authors that explore how the power of violence, loss, and grief shape both the psyche and the soul. Many of the stories in "Sourland" revolve around the theme of women whose husbands have recently died, which is pretty dark and depressing and made me not really want to keep reading because this is a possibility it will happen ...and will happen one day given a 50-50 chance that I go first. Oates' writing draws on emotion and if recently widowed I would put off reading this one for awhile.
Jose Saramago's
The Cave

Very depressing story about an elderly potter who lives with his daughter Marta and her husband Marçal in a small village on the outskirts of The Center which is a huge complex of shops, apartments, and offices to which the old man delivers his pots and jugs every month in exchange for a small income. On one of these trips, he is told not to make any more deliveries. No explanations. But Cipriano is persistent and unwilling to give up his craft.   He tries his hand at making ceramic dolls which surprisingly The Center places an order for hundreds, and Cipriano and Marta set to work-until the order is cancelled and the three have to move from the village into The Center. When mysterious sounds of digging emerge from beneath their apartment, Cipriano and Marçal investigate, and what they find transforms the family's life. Filled with the depth, humor, and the extraordinary philosophical richness that marks each of Saramago's novels. I highly recommend this book as one of the best I have read in a long while.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lillian's Diaries: Whispers from Galena's Past
By Sheryl Trudgian Jones

A good friend of mine has edited the diaries of her ancestor, Lillian Trudgian. At age sixteen, Lillian started these diaries which are full of detailed description about the lives of her and her family and rural life in general.

Lillian not only recorded the chores and hardships of everyday life, but she also recorded births, deaths, marriage and all the important events in a family's history. I loved reading about the social events they attended, the visiting of friends and neighbors, the trips to do shopping in Galena.

My great-grandmother was born and raised in Cambridge, Illinois, and I am sure that if she had kept any type of journals the events would have been similar. Lillian's Diaries take us to another time and another in Illinois where life was simpler in so many ways, yet much more difficult in other ways. Killing of animals for food doesn't sound too appealing to me, but it was what Lillian and her family had to do to survive, like most people who lived in rural America in that era.

One thing that stood out to me about Lillian's diaries is that she did little, if any, complaining about all that she had to do, and she rejoiced in the little things.
by Stephen King

My husband I listened to this via audio CD in the car while on vacation last week. While it's not up to the same standards of Salem's Lot and It, Cell was the same gruesome King writing.

As usual, the story is an apocalyptic one that starts out in Boston and heads on up to Maine and other areas of northern New England. The chaos all starts when someone somewhere triggers "The Pulse," which was a signal sent out over the global cell phone network. Instantly, anyone who was using a cell phone at that moment turns into a mindless killer. Civilization predictably crumbles as the "phone crazies" attack each other and any unaltered people in view.

The hero, Clay is thrown together with middle-aged Tom McCourt and teenager Alice Maxwell and they attempt to make their way north, following the "flocks" of zombie-like humans while plotting along the way how they will try to stop them. Clay's other motives for moving north is to try to find his son who he hopes had not used his cell phone when "the Pulse" occurred.

In the end Clay does find his son, but I do not like how this story concludes and leaves the reader hanging. I have been disappointed in the ending of King's last few books. I don't know if I will bother reading any more of them since they haven't been bringing anything new.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein was always looking for something fresh and new and this experimentation with language will leave most confused and wondering what the heck does this all mean. In TENDER BUTTONS, Stein changes the meanings of words and uses them in sort of a linguistic art project.

While I still can't break the code, if there is one, it's still fun to read and to try to figure out. Objects, food and rooms come into a new perspective. With a sense of humor, Stein plays with her readers to help them partake in an imaginative experiment that requires us to leave behind what we know and create something new. (And don't try to take this book too seriously, which is what I did when I first read it at the university and hated it.)
Murder on the Orient Express
by Agatha Christie

I had seen the film adaptation of Agatha Christie's mystery novel, Murder on the Orient Express many years ago and had always meant to read the book but never got around to it until recently. Once again, as with most film adaptations, the book was far better than the movie.

Who-dun-its have always been a favorite genre of mine. I love to try to figure out the mystery by analyzing a large cast of interesting characters. The setting of this story is also intriguing -- an elite passenger train traveling through an exotic landscape. . . then gets stranded there while the story is told.

Hercule Poirot, a private detective and retired Belgian police officer, boards the Orient Express in Stamboul after he is summoned back to London. The train is unusually crowded for this time of year, and soon after the journey begins, it is discovered that someone has murdered nasty businessman, Richard Widmark. At the same time the train becomes stranded by an avalance which dumped snow on the tracks. Much to Poirot's puzzlement, everyone on the train seems to have a motive for the killing. I am not going to say anymore in case you haven't read it. I don't want to give anything away because it's just too enjoyable to try to figure out who the culprit really is, and a total surprise ending.

An oldie but a goodie.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Lisey's Story
by Stephen King

On the way to and from a recent road trip, my husband and I listened to this on audio CD in the car. Though it was slow starting out, after it got going it had us mesmerized.

Lisey is a widow in her 50s. She lost her husband two years ago due to a strange illness after 25 years of marriage. Lisey and Scott's marriage was quite bizarre at times. There was a special place that Scott knew how to get to in his mind he called Boo'ya Moon where his ills could be healed, or be eaten alive by dark creatures that lurked there in the shadows and came out hunting for flesh at night.

After Scott's death, it becomes Lisey's turn to face Scott's demons at Boo 'ya Moon. Scott was a very famous and well-known author and had many fans, and also a few enemies. His rivals make relentless phone calls to Lisey, wanting possession of Scott's papers. One of those enemies comes after Lisey to stalk, and torture in unimaginable ways. Lisey goes to Boo 'ya moon in an attempt to lead her stalker there.

It is Lisey's own visits to Boo'ya Moon that she learns the darkest secrets of her husband's violent and horrible childhood.

I highly recommend this book. King never fails to scare the pants off his readers.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Herman Melville's
Moby Dick

When I was a child I read the children's version of Moby Dick. I never read the complete version until recently and Melville, in my opinion is one of the greatest writers who ever lived.

Most of us know that Moby-Dick is the enormous white whale who torments Captain Ahab and Ahab is obsessed with finding and killing Moby-Dick as revenge for having lost a leg in a previous encounter with the whale. Ahab's crazed desire for revenge leads to his demise. At novel's end, Ahab finds and attacks Moby-Dick, but the terrible whale destoys Ahab, his ship Pequod, and all of its crew down to a watery grave with him, except for Ishmael, who is telling the story. Melville based his tale, in part, on the sinking of the real-life whaling ship Essex in 1820.

Several themes, motifs and symbols run throughout the story of Moby Dick such as limits of knowledge, the exploitative nature of whaling, whiteness, surfaces and depths, Queequeg's coffin, and even Moby Dick and the Pequod itself are symbols.

Though the captain and the crew of the Pequod use every bit of knowledge they can pool together, it isn't enough in the end. The men cannot see below the depths of the ocean, and certain things about the great whale are unknowable to humans, as certain things are unknowable about their god.

Thoughout the story, we are given the foreshadowing that the Pequod is doomed. I knew it was doomed because I have read the book before and had seen the film. But if I had not read it before, I would know that there was no hope for this fateful mission of a captain who is consumed with his quest for vengence.

The exploitative nature of whaling in those days is illustrated throughout the story, also. While the crew of the Pequod come from every part of the globe and all races, they seem to get along quite well together. At first Ishmael is uneasy when first meeting Queequeg (which is a quite amusing chapter of the book), but later he realizes it is better to have a sober cannibal on his side than a drunken Christian. The crew of the Pequod are paid quite well, but the exploitative nature of whaling is similar to buffalo hunts and unfair trade with indigenous people that characterize American and European territorial expansion. Non-white crew members are given the dirtiest and dangerous jobs.

The whiteness which permeates the story is symbolic of all things unnatural and threatening. The role of whiteness in Moby Dick is reversed from the usual symbolic meaning of purity and peacefulness.

The Pequod is a symbol of doom. It is painted black and covered in whale's teeth and bones, literally decorated with mementos of violent death. Decorated like a huge coffin, which the Pequod fatefully becomes.

Queequeg's coffin symbolizes both life and death. The coffin is built when Queequeg becomes deathly ill and the crew believes he is not going to pull through, but he does. Queequeg uses the adorned coffin to store his possessions in. In the end, the coffin provides a buoy to save Ishmael's life.

Moby Dick, the largest symbol of the book represents many things. To the crew he represents the dangers of their frightening job. To Ahab, Moby Dick is a manifestation of all that is wrong in the world and he feels it is his destiny that he eradicate this huge evil. Many critics say that Moby Dick represents an unknowable and mighty god. Moby Dick is also a profit commodity and represents the white expansion and exploitation of the nineteenth century, and also the destruction of the environment that is caused by such exploitation.

This book could be discussed in great detail for a whole semester of study. It's one of the greatest stories ever written.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Holidays on Ice
by David Sedaris

This is a great little short read, a collection of short stories by very funny David Sedaris. He never fails to entertain me. Even if it's not the holiday season, this is a collection of short little stories that are humorous and no sappy, unrealistic messages at the end. These stories are real life. The continuing life of David Sedaris.

In my opinion, the best story in this bunch is SantaLand Diaries. David recalls his experiences while working as an elf in the SantaLand section of a large department store. Just the idea of this iteself is amusing. Sedaris' recollections of overbearing parents posing their frustrated children on Santa's Lap so that Photo Elf can snap a picture of them are hilarious. We have all seen those people in the lines and some of us may have been those parents when our own children were little. I wasn't, though ;)

The elf training class cracked me up because I have worked some lame jobs in my life and know just how seriously they take this crap. There are rules and instructions that supervisors expect you to follow to a T. And those who work in these ridiculous jobs bend and break the rules, and then write about their experiences in books later in life. They provide for good material, because many people have been in the similar job situations.

The story Let It Snow brought back memories about how when I was little my siblings and I would pray for snow to keep coming down until we were buried in the stuff, immobilized and not able to ever go to school again (much to the angst of our housebound, kid-crazed parents who desparately needed us to go back).

Six to Eight Black Men brought up the subject of cultural differences at the holiday season and Season's Greetings could have been written about my own family. This book would make a great stocking stuffer that I may give to several family members next Christmas.

I highly recommend this little gem.
We need to talk about Kevin
by Lionel Shriver

This novel was a bit difficult to get started on. The first few chapters seem to drag on, but I persevered and was glad I did since it was simply setting up the story about Eva and her husband Franklin's life and their decision to have a child in the first place. I find Eva's reasons to be pretty lame since she was uncertain if she even wanted to be a mother at all.

I have always wondered what it must be like to be the parent of a child who goes on a killing rampage and harms others. I wonder how they can continue to live their lives, how they could ever possibly be happy at all for the rest of their entire time on this planet. I don't think I could be, not at all.

Eva who is the letter-writer and telling the story about her son, is constantly trying to figure it all out. What had she done, what had she not done, what could she have done to prevent such a thing? Why had she not been excited about Kevin's birth? Is she somehow responsible for the horrible events that went down because of her own child?

Usually kids who shoot up a bunch of their fellow classmates also kills themselves. But in this story, Kevin does not kill himself. He is in prison for life, and Eva, despite the abuse she receives from Kevin, keeps going to visit him at the correctional facility where he is. I feel as if she is almost punishing herself, and also trying to make sense of it all at the same time. Regardless, Kevin is quite nasty to his mother. And Eva keeps going back for more, and I think it is out of guilt, guilt about not loving Kevin as a mother should have. She feels guilty about the abuse, such as when she threw Kevin across the room which led to her having to take him to a hospital. All-in-all, I think that Eva should never have been a mother at all. It was a mistake to bring children into her self-centered world.

In an attempt to find "something about her soul" Eva decides to have another child even though Franklin doesn't want to, and she has a little girl, Celia. Celia is an angelic child and makes Eva glad to be a mother. Unlike Kevin, Celia is easy to live, easy to protect and care for. Unfortunately for Celia, however, is that Kevin now has an easy target to abuse. A defenseless and passive little sister. There are accidents involving Celia and bleach . . . Celia loses an eye in an accident when bleach gets into her face. Also a family pet dies involving a bleach accident. And Eva suspects Kevin. Why the mother did not do anything to protect her other child, and other children in Kevin's environments is beyond me. Maybe it's a denial, maybe she just didn't know what to do. But in Eva's place, I think that finding a good psychiatrist while the boy was young would have been a good idea. Hindsight is too often 20/20.

This book brings up many good points about family and children. People have children often for the wrong reasons, and when they have the children they don't know how to parent, or are in denial that anything might be wrong. They want to give the impression of a happy upper-middle class family, don't want the world to know that they have any flaws. They brush the bad stuff under the carpet but eventually there is just no room to hide anything anymore. It all blows up in the end sometimes.

Good book, but like I said...DEPRESSING AS HELL.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Magical Thinking
Augusten Burroughs

Another collection of stories based on his real life, Augusten Burroughs writes with his usual dark and brilliant humor. As he is the main character, he satirizes himself.

The collection begins with a story about his effort to achieve stardom at age seven when he was selected to be in a Tang commercial. He wants desperately to be chosen but isn't and is quite devastated about it.

In another segment he tells us about his studying to become a Barbizon model in his teens. It includes frank stories about his dysfunctional family of origin, alcoholism, dating woes, relations with Catholic priests, boredom and frustration as an advertising copywriter, and even his hygiene issues.

One of my favorites in the collection, is a New York story about Burroughs' battle of wills with a domineering cleaning lady. Hilarious.

In "The Rat/Thing" he takes the New York thing to extremes when he reveals what he will do to get rid of a rodent intruder.

He both revels in and criticizes American obsession with celebrity culture and aspirational advertising. The shallowness, especially in gay men, is both scorned and celebrated. The collection ends on a slightly more reassuring note with several stories about a promising sounding relationship with a man named Dennis.

Readers are waiting expectantly for the continuation of his life's saga.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Dawn Powell
The Diaries of Dawn Powell

Across the continent and around the world countless men and women have written diaries and journals. Their styles and contents are as varied as the writers themselves. The reasons for keeping diaries is also diverse. The diarists' insistence on asserting their own personal voices reflects a picture of their lives, hopes, fears, and disappointments. Diaries also show glimpses into the pastor history of the author and oftentimes provides readers with a written account of what was happening in the world at the time of the writings. The recent discoveries of The Diaries of Dawn Powell has given rebirth to her long-forgotten novels as well as many of her other written works. Since the publication of her diaries, public interest has also risen in Powell's personal, professional and social life. Tim Page, the compiler and editor of Powell's diaries says, "The hope is that their publication may spark greater interest in a neglected and misunderstood figure in American letters. They have extraordinary value as autobiography, literature, social history and psychological case study."

Powell had a difficult time selling her novels during her life because she refused to give in to the popular, fluffy story lines that people seemed to want during the Depression years. Powell had written several novels and numerous stories for the New Yorker magazine and other popular magazines. She had one novel, Dance Night, that sold fairly well, but she had a difficult time motivating herself to finish other works to be published. Throughout her diaries, Powell expresses knowledge of the causes of her lack of ambition. Page has discovered, through her diaries that she placed truth on paper for others to find after she was gone. He tells us "heavy drinking that was debilitating at times, recurrent and often mysterious health problems, and what might now be described as bi-polar personality disorder, contributed to this lack of ambition. However, it is amazing that she could still write as well as she did, considering the emotional and physical problems she had to deal with.

Powell's frustration with writing for popular public are reflected in her diaries again and again. After analyzing her beliefs about writing and how they contributed to her money problems, Powell finally decided to write what the public wanted. Se commits to her diary alone that she was not happy about it. "A sincere symphony from a serious composer is nothing -- but one from a celebrity is something else again. From now on, by God, I am determined to distort every thought into tawdry easy lines the world can applaud."

Giving the public what they want too often requires one to sell out on his or her own principles.

Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer is a South African writer, political activist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Her writing has long dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned. She has recently been active in HIV/AIDS causes.

The sixteen stories in this collection, like most of Gordimer’s work, take readers beneath the surface and cliches, beyond news reports, international maneuvering, and daily violence to the hearts of those who suffer from, fight against, tolerate, ignore, or promote the injustices of apartheid.

The title story, Jump is about rites of passage. A safe house holds a willing confessor (the public head of a rebel organization) to the atrocities of a regime planning to bring down, or destabilize, the legitimate black government. He has long since outlived his usefulness, as he's repeated his story again and again to the world's press, publicly explaining the questions about why he finance a brutal campaign that tried to overthrow the government, and why he supported a secret army that burned villages, killed indiscriminately. His answer, painfully related, is the horror story that is Jump. Heading up the rebel army, he saw the conflict for his country in terms of pins pushed forward on a map, in euphemisms that disguised the reality of the bloody and brutal conflict.

Gordimer accomplishes several things in this story. She draws a parallel between the rite of passage inherent in making a first jump in parachute school, and that of ending his life after unburdening a soul ravaged by the knowledge of what had been done to people in his name. The irony of his final jump would be that he would be jumping into the midst of a ghetto, filled with children made orphans, and men and women who bore the physical and mental scars of years of internal conflict, made possible by him.

The other
stories in this volume are about the various ways such as change, acceptance, avoidance in which individuals cope with the society they live in.

I strongly recommend this book. It is an excellent read and I can see why Gordimer is so deserving of the Nobel Prize.

Monday, December 24, 2007

JD Salinger's

JD Salinger is one of my favorite author's. My favorite book by him is Catcher in the Rye, which is in my list of favorite books I have read. I love Salinger's wry humor and his realistic description of the way people express themselves physically and verbally. His characters are genuine, intelligent and I find them very likable with all of their faults and problems.

Nine stories contains a collection of stories of loss and suppressed and unsuppressed rage, and the characters seem to all need psychological help on a variety of levels.

These stories include:

In the first story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," Seymour Glass floats his beach mate Sybil on a raft and tells her about these creatures' tragic flaw. Though they seem normal, if one swims into a hole filled with bananas, it will overeat until it's too fat to escape. Meanwhile, Seymour's wife, Muriel, is back at their Florida hotel, assuring her mother not to worry--Seymour hasn't lost control. Mention of a book he sent her from Germany and several references to his psychiatrist lead the reader to believe that World War II has undone him.

The greatest piece in this collection of stories may be "The Laughing Man," which starts out as a man's recollection of the pleasures of storytelling and ends with the intersection between adult need and childish innocence. The narrator remembers how, at nine, he and his fellow Comanches would be picked up each afternoon by the Chief--a Staten Island law student paid to keep them busy. At the end of each day, the Chief winds them down with the saga of a hideously deformed, gentle, world-class criminal. With his stalwart companions, which include "a glib timber wolf" and "a lovable dwarf," the Laughing Man regularly crosses the Paris-China border in order to avoid capture by "the internationally famous detective" Marcel Dufarge and his daughter, "an exquisite girl, though something of a transvestite." The masked hero's luck comes to an end on the same day that things go awry between the Chief and his girlfriend, hardly a coincidence. "A few minutes later, when I stepped out of the Chief's bus, the first thing I chanced to see was a piece of red tissue paper flapping in the wind against the base of a lamppost. It looked like someone's poppy-petal mask. I arrived home with my teeth chattering uncontrollably and was told to go straight to bed."

"Pretty Mouth and Green Eyes" relates a phone conversation between two lawyers. One of the lawyer's evening is being interrupted by a phone call from another lawyer friend who calls and drones on about the troubles he is having with his wife. I didn't understand why lawyer #1 just didn't just make up some excuse and hang up on lawyer #2. I am still trying to analyze the meaning of that story, unless it simply means some people just can't say goodbye...or lawyer #1 is actually not all that anxious to hang up the phone to get back to his own problems with his own wife?

"Dame Daumier-Smith's Blue Period" was quite difficult to concentrate on. I kept getting distracted because it's so tedious and boring, in my opinion. This story took me longer to read than the whole rest of the book combined.

This is a book to be re-read again and again because it keeps you trying to figure out the psychology of the characters. I could not bring myself to read, "Dame Daumier", however.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Possible Side Effects
Augusten Burroughs

I liked this book even more than Running with Scissors. Burroughs true stories about his life make me sometimes wonder if he is making it all up for the sake of selling books. Then I think about my life, and my experiences and the weird things that happen in my grown childrens' lives, and know he probably is telling the truth, because most of the time, as Mark Twain once said "truth is stranger than fiction." At the end of these two sets of essays, I crave more so went out today and bought "Magical Thinking" which I cannot wait to start.

Burroughs writes about his struggles with alcoholism, a very frightening and hateful grandmother that made him sad that he wasn't sad about her death, his battle with Nicorette gum addiction, compulsive web searching (which I can relate to), the suicide of a weird friend of his mother's. He can make you laugh, and cry . . . or both at the same time in the same paragraph.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Running with Scissors

Augusten Burroughs
Running with Scissors

I wanted to read this book before seeing the movie, so I haven't seen the film adaptation of this story yet. I found myself wondering off and on while reading Burroughs' memoirs of his bizarre life if it was indeed a memoir of how his life really was, or an exaggerated child's perception. I still don't know for certain even after reading the criticisms and analysis of this book which imply that this is Burroughs' actual memoirs.

Running with Scissors starts out when Augusten is only a young boy. His mother is a psychotic poet, and his father is an abusive alcoholic. The father disappears and he is left alone with his unstable mother who can hardly take care of herself, much less her son, so she gives Augusten up for adoption to her crazy psychiatrist. The doctor's family members are all insane in greater or lesser degrees. Some critics have called the family "eccentric", and while that may be true for the doctor's daughter, Natalie, I find that the doctor's other daughter, Hope, and his wife Agnes are downright looney.

Despite all of the hardships and emotional distress Augusten must deal with in his young life (along with the struggles with his own homosexuality and stormy affair with a much older man), he manages to still have dreams, and he manages to be the most sane of all of the people of his biological, as well as his adopted family.

The story is laugh-out-loud funny at times, and horrifying at other times. Overall, Burroughs has had quite a bizarre childhood, which makes for excellent storytelling material.

Now, I can safely go rent and watch the film. I will provide a post script and let you know how I liked it in comparison with the book.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Toni Morrison
( a paper I wrote while working on my Masters)

Cultural Haunting In Toni Morrison's Beloved

In Literature of all time periods, ghosts have been used by the writer to provide readers with crucial information in a story, setting in motions a plot of revenge or atonement. These stories have brought millions of fans of supernatural literature a source of thrill and excitement. On another level, ghosts have served to bring to light hidden aspects of characters or undlerlying meanings of a story. Kathleen Brogan, author of Cultural Haunting: Ghosts and Ethnicity in Recent American Literature explains that, "The ghosts in recent African American Literature, while sharing these familiar literary functions, also serve another: they signal an attempt to recover and make use of poorly documented, partially erased cultural history" (Brogan 2). In her novel, Beloved, Toni Morrison uses cultural haunting in the form of a ghost to externalize the protagonist's (Sethe's) state of mind, to reconstruct an erased history of slavery, and to bring reconciliation between Sethe's past and present consciousness so that she may be freed to look forward to the future.

Before examining Morrison's Beloved, the phrase "cultural haunting" must be defined. As I previously stated, cultural haunting is different from the more well-known ghost story which blossomed during the nineteenth century. Brogan states that this genre of short fiction leaves us with a "thrilling fireside tale of haunted houses, graveyard revenants and Christmases past" (Brogan 5). The ghost story that evolved early in the twentieth century introduced the subtle psychological studies of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Brogan goes on to explain, "these modern ghost stories recast supernaturalism as the hallucinatory projections of the self" (Brogan 5). Brogan clarifies the difference between these psychological hauntings of the self and cultural:

The story of cultural haunting ...brings to the foreground the communal nature of its ghosts. When the ghost of Beloved speaks of her life in the grave in terms appropriate to the slaveships, she clearly becomes more than an externilization of one character's longing and guilt; her return represents the return of all dead enslaved Africans. Stories of cultural haunting differ from other twentieth-century ghost stories in exploring the hidden passageways not only of the individual psyche but also of a people's historical consciousness. Through the agency of ghosts, group histories that have in some way been threatened, erased, or fragmented are reuperated and revised.

(Brogan 5)

Linda Krumbholz, in her essay, "The Ghosts of Slavery," interprets that Morrison "constructs a parallel between he individual process of psychological recovery and a historical or national process" (Krumbholdz, ...A Casebook 107). Sethe describes the relationship between the individual and historical unconscious, an unconscious that is evoked into consciousness by the ghost of her dead child. The following exerpt from Beloved is an example of this individual and historical parallelism:

If a house burns down, it's gone, but the place -- the picture of it -- stays , and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around our there outside my head, I mean, even if I don't think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.


Can other examples of individual and historical parallelism be found in the story?

For eighteen years from the tragic event of killing her own child, Sethe has repressed her past. Remembering only causes her more pain. Whether at home or at her work, she struggles to contain her memories: "Working dough, working, working dough. Nothing better than to start the days serious work of beating back the past" (73) Eventually, she can no longer contain he past and must confront it. With the return of Paul D and the arrival of Beloved in the flesh, all of Sethe's memories of the horrors of slavery materialize in human form. When Beloved returns from the grave, the past is also exhumed, to later be rebuired properly in the novel's " narrative tomb." (Brogan 27).

How does Beloved function as an alter ego for Sethe?

Beloved's ghost is introduced in the first two sentences of the novel, "124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby's venom" (3) The story begins with the baby ghost, nagging at Sethe's conscience in annoying ways. Sethe tries to ignore the fact that the baby ghost is making her a slave to the past, as well as affecting her family and community. The only characters living at 124 who are afraid of the ghost are Sethe's two sons, Bulgar and Howard, who survived their mother's attempt to kill them when she took the life of her "crawling already" baby. Eventually, they both run away from 124, in fear:

...the sons, Howard and Bulgar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old -- as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the sign for Bulgar); as soon as two tiny handprints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chick peas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line nest to the door-sill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods; the weeks, months even, when nothing was distrubed.


Why are they afraid and the others not? Why do they flee when Sethe, Denver and Baby Suggs remain? Is it the ghost they are aftaid of or something else? It is my opinion that Sethe's unstable mental condition is signified in the commotion of the ghost of her murderd baby. The inner turmoil that she is trying to suppress is exhibited physically in the actions of the ghost and in turn forces her two sons to flee 124.

Trudier Harris's essay, "Beloved: Woman Thy Name is Demon," raises certain questions concerning the demonic aspect of the haunting that Sethe is experiencing in the story. It is quite an emotional dilemma for the reader. "Does the guilt deserve the punishment of the demonic? Is infanticide so huge a crime that only other-world punishment is appropriate for it?" (Harris Memory and...134) In spite of what other opinions might be, Sethe comes to believe that she deserves punishment and allows herself to become Beloved's victim, relinquishing her own will to survive. Apparently, Morrison does not believe Sethe deserves such a fate as to be consumed by her own guilt and pain, personified in Beloved. Therefore, can we say this a punishment that Sethe inflicts upon herself for killing her child?

While looking at Sethe's individual experiences and history, we must consider the "Sixty million and more" to which Morrison dedicated her book. It is not only Sethe and her family who are haunted by the past, but an entire race of people who were taken from their homeland and enslaved. It is through Beloved's ressurection and reappearance in Sethe's life tht an erased past is brought into view for the characters, and for the reader as well. Re-creating a history that has been "ghosted" or erased by the selective amnesia of America's nation building is what Morrison does so well through the fictional narrative of Beloved; making the invisible history visible by incorporating elements of African folklore and culture. In the Autobiography of Leroi Jones, Amiri Baraka gives us his explanation as to why so much is missing from the slave history of the world: "In the US and the Western world generally, white supremacy can warp and muffle the full recognition of a black person of this history, especially an "intellectual" trained by a system of white supremacy"(Baraka 46). Can we say that is the only explanation? Does the responsibility of this missing history rest solely on the white race?

Through the characters of Beloved, Morrison brings to light a quashed history which exposes the shame, pain and powerlessness for the victims of slavery. Morrison expresses these feelings on an individual level as well as communal. Beloved, the ghost, initiates and "stimulates the formation of a family unit of love and support in which family members can provide for each other in ways that slavery has denied them" (Krumbholz 115). In addition to each individual characters' ghost and the fictional community's ghost, Beloved also becomes the reader's ghost, forcing us to face the historical past as a living and vindictive presence. Beloved arouses the repressed memories of slavery for both the characters in the story and the readers of the story. Beloved, the ghost, calls forth to Sethe's memories as the novel Beloved catalyzes reader's knowlegde of historical atrocities to be brought to the surface. Can we say that readers who wish to deny--or not fully understand the history and atrocities of slavery, have a more difficult time understanding this story as a neo-slave narrative?

In her essay, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken," Morrison uses the analogy of the reader being "snatched, yanked, thrown into an environment completely foreign...snatched just as the slaves were from one place to another, without preparation and without defense" (Morrison, Within the Circle 396) Through the ghost of Beloved, the reader is pulled into another time and place while being forced to confront the past evils of slavery along with Sethe. Beloved brings the reader back to the beginning of slavery through the character of Denver when she questions Beloved: "What was it like over there, where you were before Can you tell me?"(75) It is here that Beloved relates a long ago past that her spirit remembers: " I'm small in that place...Hot. Nothing to breathe down there and no room to move in...A lot of people is down there. Some is dead." Through Beloved's recollection, a history of a slaveship is related to provide a connection between past and present.

The paradox of Beloved is that in order for Sethe to obtain freedom from the ghost of her past, she must submit to it and accept it. "Beloved evolves into a ghost story of healing," says Gurleen Grewal, "because Sethe and the other charachters move from being possessed by the past to possessing the past and themselves" (Grewal 160). The more Sethe gives in to the ghost's desires, the more of herself is lost. Beloved devours Sethe's life and "swelled up with it." (250).

After Sethe gives all her substance to Beloved, she cannot satisfy the ghost. Beloved has an insatiable hunger and thirst. Appeasement of physical hunger is interchanged with the aural intake of story and song, oral forms of communication characteristic to African culture. "After the joy of discovering each other, Beloved's recriminations begin and Sethe cannot apologize enough," explains Grewal. (Grewal 160) There is no filling the void, and the damage done to Beloved is irreparable. The deep guilt that haunts Sethe cannot be obviated or consoled. It seems as if Sethe will succumb to her past and her guilt. She surrenders control, her job, and her sanity--"broke down, finally, from trying to take care of and make up for" (243). The demonic past threatens to engulf the haunted present. If Beloved is allowed to continue to exist, Sethe will be destroyed. The demon, the represented past, must be exorcised.

At the end of the story there is movement from possession to exorcism plotted by Morrison's novel. Brogan tells us, "Through ritual reeanactment, an individual or group may reconstruct the past in order to come to terms with their cultural identity and the history surrounding it" (Brogan 27). By taking possession of that past, it can be confronted and accepted, however, should never be forgotten. The "demon" of that past must be exorcised in order to obtain cultural renewal, but if forgotten, history will repeat itself.

As the story nears its denoument, a near reenactment of what happened at Beloved's death takes place. When Denver's white employer arrives in the midst of the exorcism ritual, Sethe, confused, believes him to be schoolteacher, coming to take her and her children back into slavery. She relives the horrible event all over again when she sees him "coming into her yard...coming for her best thing...she flies..." (262). The significant difference this time is that Sethe attacks the white man instead of her children. Another important consideration is that this time, thirty neighborhood women gather at 124 to provide the community support denied Sethe at the time of the murder. The community has taken responsibility for the act of neglecting one of their own, and come forward to rectify it. They accept Sethe back into the community that had expelled her. Their cries of "Yes yes, yes, oh yes" (258) reverse the "No. No. Nono, Nonono" that enters Sethe's mind just before the slaying of her infant daughter. (163) Krumbholz summarizes the exorcism of Beloved:

As a freed woman with a group of peers surrounding her, Sethe can act on her motherlove as she would have chosen to originally. Instead of turning on her children to save them from slavery, she turns on the white man who threatens them. The reconstruction of the scene of trama completes the psychological cleansing of the ritual, and exorcises Beloved from Sethe's life.

(Krumbholz 119)

Her directing the ice pick at Bodwin represents a symbolic "pointing the finger" that names white guilt for slavery. (Brogan 84) Sethe can finally " lay down the sword and shield" that she needed to keep her memories at bay. (86)

At the end of the story, we are uncertain as to what becomes of Beloved. We are left with the impression that her spirit could still be haunting the woods near the water as the following passage states:

Down by the stream in back of 124 her footprints come and go come and go. They are so familiar. Should a child, an adult place his feet in them, they will fit. Take them our and they disappear again as though nobody ever walked there.


What does this ending mean to you? Is there an ending at all?

Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri. "The Autobiography of Leroi Jones." Major Modern Black American Writers. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1995.

Brogan, Kathleen. Cultural Haunting: Ghosts and Ethnicity in Recent American Literature. Charlottsville: University of Virginia Press, 1998.

Grewall, Gurleen. "Memory and the Matrix of History." Memory and Cultural Politics. Eds., Amiritjit Singh, Robert E. Hogan, and Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996.

Harris, Trudier. "Beloved; Woman Thy Name is Demon." Memory and Cultural Politics. Eds., Amiritjit Singh, Robert E. Hogan, and Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996.

Krumbholz, Linda. "The Ghosts of Slavery." Toni Morrison's Beloved, A Casebook. Eds. William L. Andrews and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Penguin Group,

Thursday, June 07, 2007

August Wilson

Wilson' s play is about the escalating racial tensions in the U.S. beginning in 1957, between the Korean and Vietnam wars, and ends in 1965. The themes of the play centers around the pre-civil-rights-movement, pre-Vietnam-war-era influence.

The central focus of Fences is the Maxson family. The main character of Fences is former baseball player-turned Pittsburgh garbage man Troy Maxson who is used to illustrate the African-American struggle against racism. Racism is what has defied Troy Maxson at every turn in his life, and the color of his skin stood in the way of obtaining the American dream for him and his family. Racism creates the conflict, which causes Troy to feel that he has been "fenced" in by a society filled with discrimination and bigotry. These tensions cannot help but make their way into the Maxson home, and causes conflict between Troy and his wife, Rose, and Troy and his son Cory.

Though just a short read, Wilson's play says more than a thousand-page book. It's not a very "feel-good" story, but it is very powerful and provides an excellent depiction of African-American life and challenges they fought to overcome during a very difficult period of American history.

Dorothy Parker
What Fresh Hell is This?

A Biography by Marion Meade

If I could choose one person to go back in time to have a chat with, it would be Dorothy Parker. She was a woman of many writing talents and her works include screenplays, short stories, critical reviews and clever verse. The author's often one-liner wise-cracks about life and men were absolutely hilarious and even when one is in the darkest of moods, she could make you at least break out a wry smile.

Parker's life wasn't an easy one. She was divorced twice, had a string of painful affairs, a lifelong struggle with alcoholism, and several suicide attempts. Her "funniness" and sarcasm was merely a cover-up for the pain she was holding inside.

In this lively, absorbing biography, Marion Meade illuminates both the dark side of Parker and her days of wicked wittiness at the Algonquin Round Table with the likes of Robert Benchley, George Kaufman, and Harold Ross, and in Hollywood with S.J. Perelman, William Faulkner, and Lilian Hellman. At the dazzling center of it all, Meade gives us the flamboyant, self-destructive, and brilliant Dorothy Parker.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Voodoo Dreams
Jewell Parker Rhodes

This book combines fact and fiction. Before reading, it is helpful to read some of the biographical information about the main character, Marie Leveau.

Biographical Information by David Arbury.

Leveau is a complicated and fascinating figure in New Orleans history. Though she is famous even today as one of the most powerful Voodoo priestesses who ever lived, few hard facts are known about her life. Close scrutiny reveals many contradictions and fantastic legends about Marie Leveau, but even tales which a skeptic might find difficult to accept pale next to the proven facts of this remarkable and powerful woman's life.
Born in the 1790's, details of her exact parentage and origin are uncertain. She moved to New Orleans in her youth and was raised a devout Catholic - later becoming friends with Pere Antoine, the chaplain at St. Louis Cathedral. At the age of twenty-five, Marie joined a local freeman Jacques Paris in what was by all accounts a happy marriage. Later after his disappearance and presumed death, she lived with Cristophe Glapion. Between the two men, Marie bore fifteen children including her daughter Marie who bore a striking resemblance to her mother and eventually became a Voodoo priestess as well.
Marie Leveau's best documented exploit involved the murder trial of a young Creole gentleman, a trial which was almost certain to end in a guilty verdict for the young man. His powerful (and skeptical) father approached Marie and promised her anything if she could rescue his son. Marie agreed, asking for the man's New Orleans house in return. He agreed, and Marie secretly placed several charms throughout the courtroom. When his son was declared not guilty, the gentleman gave her his house as promised, and Marie Leveau gained the instant attention of the city's elite.
Later in life, in another well-documented event, Marie is known to have helped the wounded during the Battle of New Orleans and was so noted for her efforts that she was invited to the state funeral of General Jean Humbert, a hero from that battle.
It is certain that Marie Leveau was a feared and respected figure. Though apparantly adept with charms and potions of all kinds, Marie's real power came from her extensive network of spies and informants. The New Orleans elite had the habit of carelessly detailing their most confidential affairs to their slaves and servants who then reported to Marie out of respect and fear. As a result, Marie had an almost magical knowledge of the workings of political and social power in New Orleans. When her daughter, with her uncanny resemblance to Marie, became a priestess, legends of Marie Leveau's power only grew. Now she was ageless and could appear in more than one place at a time.
However, Marie was no charlatan deceiving her followers with tricks and intimidation. She clearly had a great passion and devotion for Voodoo. Her most famous religious mark was probably the rituals on the banks of Bayou St. John held every June 23, St. John's Eve. Voodoo rituals were also held occasionally on the shore of nearby Lake Pontchartrain at Marie's cottage, Maison Blanche. It was said that sometimes Marie Laveau herself would dance with her large snake, Zombi, wrapped around her. Voodoo worshipers believed that even the snake possessed great powers.
Marie's Voodoo was about power but it bore no resemblance to Voodoo as fictionalized by the films of Hollywood. To her, and many of her followers, Voodoo's beliefs were not incompatible with Catholicism and Christian charity. Indeed, Marie frequently visited the sick in New Orleans' prisons, and she was called upon by the city's elite to help combat the Yellow Fever epidemic of the 1850's. Finally late in life as her power began to wane, she stopped practicing Voodoo and once again became Catholic solely.
Marie Leveau is a figure shrouded in mystery. She was a Voodoo priestess and a devoted Catholic. She weaved spells and charms but wielded even more influence through her earthly network of spies and informants. She ruthlessly wielded her power yet went to great pains to help the injured, sick, and downtrodden. In the final analysis, we will never know her true character, but it seems a mistake to try to choose between these disparate sides of Marie Leveau: this fascinating and complex woman was all of these things and more.

This novel of historical fiction takes readers into the dark and mysterious life of Marie Laveau. The third in a line of Maries, she continues a legacy of spirituality and voodoo. Raised by her grandmother, Marie has no memory of her real mother and longs to find out what happened to her. But grandmother forbids it, and wants to protect her from the evils of the past. They move from their home in the bayou, and Marie meets a handsome sailor named Jacques who claims to fall in love with her. Her grandmother encourages the relationship, and the two marry. Despite her grandmother's efforts to protect her, Marie cannot escape her fate, and in an act of rebellion, Marie deserts both her new husband and her grandmother to fall into the arms of the charismatic, yet abusive and controlling John, who longs to help Marie fulfill her "destiny" as a Voodoo Queen. A self-proclaimed king in his African homeland, John is greedy, vicious and cruel. And in a surprising twist, Marie discovers that he was also her mother's lover! However, John appears to be mysteriously young. Gradually, Marie discovers within herself that voodoo does indeed live. She also recognizes John for what he really is -- jealous and insane, and a very dangerous person.