Category Archives: Books & Authors

Linked by Scars: Beloved‘s Sethe and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao‘s Beli

On the surface, any similarities between the novels Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz seem very superficial.  Both are novels about Black families in America, but that’s about where the similarities seemingly end.  Beloved, published in 1987, tells the story of a group of ex-slaves living in post-civil war Ohio; Oscar Wao, published in 2007, tells the story of a nerdy Dominican teen’s search for love.  And the main character of Beloved, Sethe, who would do anything for those around her, seems to have little in common with Beli, Oscar’s mother, who is most often seen screaming and cursing at her kids.

However, the more you dig beneath the obvious plotlines, you notice the two novels actually do have a lot in common.  Both books reach deep into the family histories: Beloved into Sethe’s experience in and escape from slavery and Oscar Wao into Beli’s experience in and escape from the Dominican Republic under the dictatorial Trujillo regime.  Both explore how those pasts influence the women’s relationships with their children.  In fact, mother/child relationships are a very large theme in both books– both Sethe and Beli were nurtured by mother figures who were not their biological mothers, and the novels explore those relationships, too.  Both Sethe and Beli lose children that they very much loved and are left to mourn afterwards.

The thing that leapt out at me, though, that made me really link these two characters in my head is that both Sethe and Beli bear physical scars from their past on their backs– expansive, knotted scars, Sethe’s from being whipped as punishment for telling her owner how she had been abused by the overseers and Beli’s from getting hot oil thrown on her as punishment when she told her cruel foster family that she was going to go to school instead of work.  In both cases, the scars serve as a physical reminder of extremely painful pasts.


Sethe and Beli are complicated figures.  Sethe seems less complicated, at least at first– she is a bit of an outcast in her town, but she seems steadfast and giving and caring.  Then, we find out why she’s an outcast: she killed her own 2-year-old daughter by cutting her throat when they were found by slave catchers.  Sethe explains to another character that she was trying to kill her children “to put them somewhere safe” before they could be taken back to slavery.

Beli, as an adult and as a mother, never seems steadfast, giving, or caring.  She has a contentious relationship with her daughter and a manipulative one with her son, and has no problem yelling or cursing at them.  It’s obvious that she’s a terrible mother.  Even when she is dying of cancer, it’s hard to sympathize with her.

These characters’ pasts, exemplified by their scars, open a door to understanding them.  It is incredibly hard to move past the knowledge that a character has murdered her own daughter, but we are also invited back into her history to maybe understand why before we pass total judgment– to relive the horrors of slavery that Sethe endured, things so terrible that even death seems like a more humane option for her children.  With Beli, reliving her past lets us see her transformation from sweet and slightly sassy child and teenager into someone who is thrown around relentlessly, heartbroken and physically assaulted repeatedly by people and things entirely outside of her control, even as her adoptive mother tries desperately to protect her.  We learn that life under a dictatorship involves very little self-determination.  Is it any wonder that someone who was beaten down so thoroughly, time and time again, grows into a callous person?  Although Oscar is the main character, it was Beli’s story that I was most interested in and invested in as I read.

There is probably an entire school of literary criticism devoted to analyzing scars as physical manifestations of characters’ emotional wounds, but it’s been awhile since I’ve been in school and I can’t remember any others off the top of my head.  However, one thing that struck me as I considered these two characters: Sethe’s scar is described time and time again as a chokecherry tree, and Beli’s as an inconsolable sea.  Both images give the impression of something beautiful, something wild but quiet that exists almost separate of the women that carry them; something that you might stumble upon while out for a misty morning nature walk.  Do these women wear their scars, or do their scars wear them?  It’s obvious that they’ve been shaped by their experiences, and it’s obvious that, given the systems and circumstances they were born into, there was no other way for it to happen.  For all of Sethe’s caring generosity, for all of Beli’s seeming cruel lack of maternal instinct, it’s that sad sense of inevitability draws these two women together.



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Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

If I had to sum up the experience of reading Gilead in one sentence, it would be this: I didn’t notice that there are no chapters in the book until I was on page 132.

That says nothing whatsoever about what the book is about, but it does exemplify just how quickly and totally you get sucked in, where you just read and read and don’t notice anything else– like the lack of chapters– because you’re so engrossed with the words on the page.

Gilead is the second novel by Marilynne Robinson (and published 24 years after her first one) and it is the first-person story of Reverend John Ames as his health declines in old age, written as one long letter to his son.  He knows he will be dead soon, and since he married his second wife late in life (after being widowed at a young age) and his son is still very young and he won’t be around to guide him as he grows up, he wants to leave him something to both know who is father was and hopefully know something about life too.  John Ames talks directly to his son in this letter, giving him advice and also going deep into their family history.

The plot of the book– and therefore the letter– is interrupted a bit halfway through when an unexpected character from the past shows up, the literal prodigal son of a good family friend with a shady past, and begins spending a lot of time with his wife and son.  John Ames, as a Congregationalist pastor in a long line of Congregationalist pastors, has made it a personal and professional goal of his to see the good and holiness in everyone, and he finds himself struggling with this particular thing as he watches a man he does not trust insert himself more and more into his family’s life.

Devouring Gilead at the beach this summer.

Devouring Gilead at the beach this summer.

*Gilead* utterly surprised me with its sheer, quiet beauty.  Friends had been recommending it to me for years and it won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, so I was expecting it to be good, but it was not at all what I expected in terms of content.  Knowing that it was about a pastor in a small town, I expected it to be full of controversy and corruption and oppression, the way most books about small town churches are (think: *The Scarlet Letter*, et al).  Even with the mysterious character who shows up midway through the book, the protagonist takes such a measured approach to it, going so far as to recognize when he is being unfair, that it never veers into the territory of the melodramatic.  The Reverend John Ames is much more of a scholarly man of faith than he is a dogmatic one.

The book is poignant– talking about serious issues such as slavery and war and segregation, all put into the context of John Ames’ father being a Christian pacifist and his grandfather being a radical abolitionist actively involved in violent acts before and during the Civil War– and philosophical, exploring various Christian theological questions as well as whether or not atheism can serve a purpose to those of faith.  Although there is plenty of action and plot, these theological questions and how John Ames explores them creates both the heart and the backbone of the novel.  One of the best things about the book, in my opinion, is that you do not have to be Protestant, or even Christian or religious, I don’t think, in order to appreciate and gain something from reading it.  Although it’s talking about theology, it is just as much an exploration of the infinite beauty of life.

This is perhaps exemplified nowhere more clearly than in one of my favorite passages.  John Ames is reflecting back on a trip he took to Kansas with his father as a boy, searching for his grandfather’s grave.  This was before Kansas was really settled and they were traveling on foot through desolate landscapes, very little to eat or drink, a physically exhausting and emotionally difficult journey.  They find the grave, and his father (who is also a reverend) starts to pray.  Young John Ames looks up to the sky and realizes that a full moon is rising just as the sun is setting, and that both are hanging in balance in the sky.  It moves him so much that he interrupts his father’s prayer by kissing his hand and they watched the sun and the moon float in the sky together.  After standing there quietly for a long time, his father says, “I would never have thought this place could be beautiful.  I’m glad to know that.” (p. 15)

That, to me, is really what makes this book worth reading– it forces the reader to look around, question everything, and notice the beauty of the mundane.  And if that’s not worth your time, what is?

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Review: God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

Perhaps the thing I love most about Toni Morrison’s writing is that she doesn’t coddle the reader, in any way.  Her characters and their lives are nuanced to the point of defying any neat explanation or analysis, and she doesn’t go out of her way to make sure readers get a comfortable grasp on what they’re supposed to be thinking as they read– she just tells the story and lets readers figure out their own thoughts and emotions as they go.

This is true in her newest book as well: God Help the Child, published this year and her first book that takes place in current-day America rather than looking back at history, is unyielding when it comes to making the readers face the experiences of the characters.  The story starts with a light-skinned black mother talking about how appalled she was when her daughter was born very dark, “midnight black, Sudanese black.”  The baby is so black that her husband– also light-skinned– accuses her of infidelity and leaves.  She instructs her daughter to call her Sweetness instead of Mother or Mom or Mommy, hides her when she visits the landlord, and withholds love and affection.  From there, the book jumps ahead to when the daughter, who calls herself Bride (shortened from her full name of Lula Ann Bridewell), is in her twenties.  She has grown up to embrace her blackness as beauty and has built a successful career; however, the story picks up at a time of turmoil in her life, as Booker, her boyfriend, just left her without discernible reason (simply stating “You not the woman I want”) and Sofia Huxley, a teacher she helped put in prison for child molestation, is being released after fifteen years.  The novel’s plot really kicks off when Bride decides to help Sofia reintegrated into society and goes off looking for Booker to demand an explanation.  Neither journey goes as planned.

On a personal note, I read God Help the Child right on the heels of Nella Larsen’s Passing, a 1929 novel about the politics of skin tone within the black community and about “passing” for white.  In Passing, there is a lengthy discussion between three light-skinned black women– one of whom is living as a black woman, with a black partner; one of whom is living as a white woman with a white partner, but whose husband knows she’s black; and one of whom is living as a white woman with a white partner, whose husband doesn’t know she’s black and is virulently racist– about the anxiety surrounding the possibility of giving birth to children whose skin is darker than your own.  As one of the characters put it, “No one wants a dark child.”

Those words jumped back to me as I read the first pages of God Help the Child.  The idea of “passing” and certain skin colors being more valuable than others even within the black community is something that has featured in Morrison’s work before, including being a major part of the plot in Song of Solomon, but it is discussed right away in her new novel– Sweetness, in the opening paragraph, talks about how confused she was by Bride’s dark skin because her whole family was “high yellow” and could have “passed” if they wanted to, with her grandmother even making the decision to do so.  (Passing usually required leaving your community and family and cutting off all contact, lest your true identity be discovered.)  Although the idea of not loving your child because of what they look like might be difficult to grasp for readers in 2015, as Nella Larsen’s novel shows (as well as a whole host of literature and scholarship on the subject), Sweetness’ reaction is firmly situated within historical and cultural reality, born of the necessity of survival– the whiter you can appear, the more opportunities are open to you, and having a very dark-skinned child prevents you from appearing white.

The author

As many other reviewers have said, God Help the Child is primarily a book about childhood trauma, and about the ways we carry that trauma into adulthood.  It’s about the decisions that children make to get their parents to love them when love is withheld, and the consequences of those decisions; it’s about child molestation, about losing family members, about being unable to see past your own experience when your experience was blinding, about overcoming, forgiving, making peace, letting others overcome and forgive and make peace with you.

The novel has a lot of Morrison’s usual stylistic choices: there are many different threads that sometimes wind together and sometimes drift off on their own, that eventually create a picture of the whole story, and there are many shifting POVs, including ones that show up for only a chapter or two.  There is a slight element of magical realism that the reader is unsure whether it’s literal or not, when Bride finds herself physically transforming back into a little girl as she has to confront her past.  There are characters that we have seen before, but that somehow still seem fresh and relevant– the traumatized youth that is forced down a difficult path as an adult to grow (two, in this case), the incredibly imperfect mother, the wise old aunt figure, the occasional, often odd white characters that show up and connect with the main characters in surprising ways, and rollicking settings that reflect the mood and the purpose of various plot twists.  And, as always, the language is stunningly beautiful.

God Help the Child is sparse– less than 200 pages long– but sharp, emotionally heavy, fast-paced, and at times disconcerting.  As a longtime Morrison fan, part of me misses the sprawling stories of her earlier novels, but at the same time I can’t help but admire what she is able to do in so few pages, and I spent days afterwards digesting what I’d read; I didn’t feel cheated by the brevity of the story.  As long as Toni Morrison keeps writing, I will keep reading.

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6 Love Letters By Famous Writers (And One Painter)

With Valentine’s Day approaching, I thought I would make a compilation of the best love letters by famous authors that I’ve come across.  Some of these have been excerpted for the sake of space, but there are links provided to either the full letters or the books where you can find them.  Enjoy!

Oscar Wilde

To Lord Alfred Douglas; these love letters were used in a libel trial against Wilde.  (Source, with other letters, here.)

My own Darling Boy,
I got your telegram half an hour ago, and just send a line to say that I feel that my only hope of again doing beautiful work in art is being with you. It was not so in the old days, but now it is different, and you can really recreate in me that energy and sense of joyous power on which art depends.
Everyone is furious with me for going back to you, but they don’t understand us. I feel that it is only with you that I can do anything at all. Do remake my ruined life for me, and then our friendship and love will have a different meaning to the world.
I wish that when we met at Rouen we had not parted at all. There are such wide abysses now of space and land between us. But we love each other.
Goodnight, dear. Ever yours,

Pablo Neruda

Neruda, known for his love poems, even dedicated his book 100 Love Sonnets to his wife Matilde with a love letter.  (Book here.)

My beloved wife, I suffered while I was writing these misnamed “sonnets”; they hurt me and caused me grief, but the happiness I feel in offering them to you is vast as a savanna. When I set this task for myself, I knew very well that down the right sides of sonnets, with elegant discriminating taste, poets of all times have arranged rhymes that sound like silver or crystal or cannonfire. But—with great humility—I made these sonnets out of wood; I gave them the sound of that opaque pure substance, and that is how they should reach your ears. Walking in forests or on beaches, along hidden lakes, in latitudes sprinkled with ashes, you and I have picked up pieces of pure bark; pieces of wood subject to the comings and goings of water and the weather. Out of such softened relics, then with hatchet and machete and pocketknife, I built little houses, so that your eyes, which I adore and sing to, might live in them. Now that I have declared the foundations of my love, I surrender this century to you: wooden sonnets that rise only because you gave them life.

Neruda y Matilde.jpg

Pablo and Matilde

Edith Wharton

To W. Morton Fullerton, a young journalist that the writer had an affair with when she was 45; this letter comes after the end of the affair, reflecting back on their love and passion and the excruciatingly painful ending as Wharton experienced it.  (Excerpt; full letter here.)

I re-read your letters the other day, & I will not believe that the man who wrote them did not feel them, & did not know enough of the woman to whom they were written to trust to her love & courage, rather than leave her to this aching uncertainty.

What has brought about such a change? Oh, no matter what it is—only tell me!

I could take my life up again courageously if I only understood; for whatever those months were to you, to me they were a great gift, a wonderful enrichment; & still I rejoice & give thanks for them! You woke me from a long lethargy, a dull acquiescence in conventional restrictions, a needless self-effacement. If I was awkward & inarticulate it was because, literally, all one side of me was asleep.

I remember, that night we went to the “Figlia di Iorio,” that in the scene in the cave, where the Figlia sends him back to his mother (I forget all their names), & as he goes he turns & kisses her, & then she can’t let him go—I remember you turned to me & said laughing: “That’s something you don’t know anything about.”

Well! I did know, soon afterward; & if I still remained inexpressive, unwilling, “always drawing away,” as you said, it was because I discovered in myself such possibilities of feeling on that side that I feared, if I let you love me too much, I might lose courage when the time came to go away!—Surely you saw this, & understood how I dreaded to be to you, even for an instant, the “donna non più giovane” who clings & encumbers—how, situated as I was, I thought I could best show my love by refraining—& abstaining? You saw it was all because I loved you?

Ernest Hemingway

I’ve written before about how Hemingway’s larger-than-life machismo wasn’t immune to sentimental feelings towards those he loved, and this letter, written in his characteristic sparse style to his fourth wife, is one such example.  (“Pickle”?!) (Book of letters available here.)

Dearest Pickle:
I love you always and always will.  Now go to get our life started.  Don’t let anything bother you.  I’m sorry to be so sticky getting off.  Will be wonderful when I see you and will be truly faithful to you every minute I am away.  In my heart in my head and in my body.
Your loving husband

John Steinbeck

Not really a love letter as much as a letter about love, written to his son when his son told him he was newly smitten.  (Full letter here.)

Second—There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind.

The other is an outpouring of everything good in you—of kindness and consideration and respect—not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable.

The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

Frida Kahlo

When Frida Kahlo’s love letters to painter Diego Rivera came out a year or two ago, I jumped all over them.  For someone who made her living with the paintbrush rather than the pen, her love letters are more lyrical and contain more raw passion than most I’ve seen from writers.  They are all good, but this one is my favorite.  (Source, with handwritten letters in Spanish, here.)

My Diego:

Mirror of the night

Your eyes green swords inside my flesh. waves between our hands.

All of you in a space full of sounds — in the shade and in the light. You were called AUXOCHROME the one who captures color. I CHROMOPHORE — the one who gives color.

You are all the combinations of numbers. life. My wish is to understand lines form shades movement. You fulfill and I receive. Your word travels the entirety of space and reaches my cells which are my stars then goes to yours which are my light.

Frida and Diego

Frida and Diego

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all.

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Book Review: J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

I recently asked for book recommendations from friends, specifying that I wanted something that was well-written but not overly literary, and that wouldn’t take up too much of my brain power (I was in the mood for a good story, period), and one of them recommended I check out J.K. Rowling’s new novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy.  Being completely out of the loop on everything ever, I wasn’t even aware that she had written a new book, much less branched into new territory.  I love the Harry Potter series and was both intrigued and trepid at the thought of a for-adults novel by the same author– the last time a writer I liked made the switch, the results were horrifying.  (Ann Brashares, author of the actually-pretty-good YA Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, wrote a for-adults novel called The Last Summer (of You and Me), and it was one of the worst piles of festering crap I’ve ever read.  The title probably should have tipped me off, but her writing itself, which I’d always enjoyed before, was awful too.)

Pictured above: Not wizards.

I went online to see what it was about, and was pretty surprised that its ratings were so low.  I figured that she probably made the same mistake Brashares did– namely, bringing her adolescent POVs into a novel meant for adults while also trying too hard with the writing to sound sophisticated– but as I scanned through the user reviews, I started to see some trends (click to enlarge):

After discounting all the bad reviews that can be summed up as “WTF, there’s no wizards in this one” and “She drops the F-bomb and talks about unpleasant things, oh my” (since I’m okay with a little grit and we all know how I feel about depressing subject matter), the rest of the reviews giving it low ratings mostly said that it was boring and there were too many characters.  Since I love Rowling’s writing style and characterization so much, I decided to give it a try anyway.

Without giving too much away, the basic plot line is that a man dies in the first chapter and leaves a “casual vacancy” on the town council in a small English village that is in the midst of a heated local political dispute.  The book then follows how his death, and the suddenly empty council seat, affect various residents of said small town.  There are a lot of open and not-so-open resentments, tangled webs, and ulterior motives; pretty soon into it all, the drama starts flying.

Rowling jumps between POVs every chapter, and sometimes within chapters and scenes, and yes, there are a lot of central characters (about ten adults and five teenagers).  The book does take some initial effort to keep track of them all.  However, once things started gaining momentum, I got completely sucked in and finished it in a few days, which says something, considering it’s 500 pages long and I read enough for my job that I rarely feel like reading much in the evenings.  At first I was just curious and enjoying the ride, but the closer I got to the end, the more I genuinely wanted to know what would happen to the characters.  Her writing style is as fluid and identifiable as in the HP books, and while the characterization is stronger with some than others, there was enough there that I became invested in them.  (Probably the character to whom I found myself most attached was a sixteen-year-old boy, actually; Rowling does seem to have a talent for writing adolescent perspectives, and she does it in a way that I still found it relevant and interesting, unlike Brashares.)

The “vulgar” parts of the book aren’t all that bad, for the record.  Yes, the plot is pretty depressing, and yes, there is adult language and themes, but it really wasn’t overly explicit and none of it seemed superfluous or forced.  It felt pretty true-to-life; as much as some people don’t want to admit it, teenagers do swear, drugs do exist, sometimes kids grow up in bad homes, and most people find themselves either thinking about or having sex at some points in their lives.  (Shocking, I know!)  Do you want to give this to your 12-year-old niece for Christmas?  Probably not.  Are you old enough to get into R-rated movies at the theater?  You’ll probably be fine, unless you stubbornly adhere to a worldview where nothing unsavory ever happens.  The mature themes are on par with what millions of other writers have written about without anyone fainting or denouncing them, and they’re practically PG compared to what some well-respected writers publish.  Actually, as I was reading, the subject matter– both the common thread of a personal-interest political issue and the grittier look at lives that don’t always make the people living them proud, as well as the way Rowling tells the story from multiple POVs– reminded me a lot of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which was met with fantastic reviews from critics and readers alike.

The difference?  Franzen had a completely different fan base.  As much as the reviewers on Amazon were claiming that they knew it would be different from HP, they carried the preconceived notion of what Rowling is allowed to write in with them– even if they let her get away with writing about humans instead of magical beings, they struggled with the fact that she made them a little too human for their liking.  It’s true that The Casual Vacancy has none of the fun, escapist qualities of the Harry Potter books, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good story or isn’t well-written.  Part of me almost thinks that Rowling should have written it under a pen name, but then of course, it’s possible that it wouldn’t have gotten any attention at all.  There has been discussion about whether or not Rowling wrote it just to distance herself from her reputation, which I think is a valid question; however, the feeling I got as I read is that this was a pet project for her, and a story she very much wanted to tell.

Either way, The Casual Vacancy ended up being exactly what I was looking for.  Well-developed plot, well-developed characters, and delightfully whimsical prose (yes, even with the dark subject matter).  It wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read but it was solid and enjoyable.  Whether Rowling keeps writing novels for adults or goes back to YA fantasy, I will keep reading.

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5 Things You May Not Know About Hemingway

People tend to either love or hate Hemingway.  Even while he was alive, an entire mythos rose around him:  A journalist-turned-fiction-writer known for his sparse prose, he served on the Italian front during WWI, published his first book (a collection of short stories called In Our Time) at the age of 26 and his first novel (The Sun Also Rises) at 27; he published steadily throughout his life and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954 before committing suicide in 1961.  He lived as an American ex-pat in Paris in his twenties, developed a penchant for big game hunting in Africa in his thirties, and later moved to Cuba, where he was a big supporter of Castro.  He was an alcoholic who was married several times and his hobbies included gambling at the racetracks and hating almost everyone.  He became this big, brawny, larger-than-life badass who, in a cage match against Teddy Roosevelt or Chuck Norris, would still get my bet.  Dude was tough and everyone knew it.


He fell out of favor with academics in the 80s on charges of being a misogynist; the general argument went something along the lines of, “Why should we respect someone who obviously didn’t respect women?”  Lately, within the past few years, he’s experienced a resurgence in popularity among the literati but people still seem to be solidly on one side of the fence or the other; there’s no middle ground.  Get a group of literary-minded grad students together and put a few drinks in them, this debate will come up, and people will be yelling and slamming their fists on the table within minutes.

I happen to be on the side that loves Hemingway, to the point that I would say he’s one of my favorite writers, if not my favorite.  I haven’t read everything he’s written but I’ve read a lot of it, and I pick up his books to re-read more than anyone else’s.  Simply put, I think he’s a brilliant writer, regardless of whatever character flaws he may have had as a person.  I would also argue that he’s more generally misanthropic than specifically misogynistic, and I think there’s a certain vulnerability in his characters from his earlier works (which I tend to like more) that disappears in his later books.  The main character/narrator in The Sun Also Rises, for instance, is a heartbroken WWI vet who was wounded during the war and ended up impotent, and thus can’t be with the woman he loves.  That doesn’t match up very well with the tough-guy Everything That Is Man image that Hemingway has come to be associated with.  His writing gets decidedly less sympathetic the older he got.

One of his books that I’ve read over and over is A Moveable Feast, his memoir/essays about living in Paris in his twenties.  It was published posthumously in 1964 by his… third? (fourth? fifth? I’ve lost track) wife, Mary.  The stories are interesting and the writing is downright beautiful in places.  Since it was written in his later years, the lack of sympathy comes through, but there are moments where it’s surprisingly soft and the insider’s peak into Hemingway as a young man, and what his life was like in Paris, is intriguing.

The following five things are aspects of the book that surprised and/or delighted me.  If you’ve ever studied Hemingway in depth, you probably already know some or all of these things, but if your only experience with him was being forced to read The Old Man and the Sea in high school you might learn something new.

1. Hemingway on Child-Rearing

A Moveable Feast depicts Hemingway when he was with his first wife, Hadley.  He was still trying to “make it” as a writer and barely scraping by financially.  They had a young son named Jack, referenced throughout the book as Bumby.  Hemingway spent most of his days drinking in cafes and writing; who the hell knows what Hadley spent her days doing.  However did they juggle their busy lives with taking care of a baby?

“It was wrong to take a baby to a cafe in the winter though; even a baby that never cried and watched everything that happened and was never bored.  There were no baby-sitters then and Bumby would stay happy in his tall cage bed with his big, wonderful cat named F. Puss.  There were people who said that it was dangerous to leave a cat with a baby.  The most ignorant and prejudiced said that a cat would suck a baby’s breath and kill him.  Others said that a cat would lie on a baby and the cat’s weight would smother him.  F. Puss lay beside Bumby in the tall cafe bed and watched the door with his big yellow eyes, and would let no one come near him when we were out… There was no need for baby-sitters.  F. Puss was the baby-sitter.” (113)

Yes, you read that right.  Hemingway had their cat baby-sit their not-yet-mobile kid.  Every time someone reads that paragraph, a helicopter parent somewhere has a heart attack and isn’t quite sure why.

This was another favorite pastime of the young Hemingways. F. Puss objected to the snow, though, so they were forced to carry Bumby down the slopes and hope for the best.

2. The Term “The Lost Generation” Came from a Conversation with Gertrude Stein and was Coined by Hemingway

Hemingway wasn’t the only artist ex-pat living in Paris in the 1920s.  Gertrude Stein was there, and so were F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Evan Shipman, Piccaso, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and John Dos Passos, among others.  There were enough of them that the artist community in that time, in that place became legendary in its own right (most recently, it can be seen in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris).  Collectively, the young writers in this group, most of whom had served in WWI, came to be known as The Lost Generation.

The term came from a conversation Hemingway had with Gertrude Stein in which she referred to them as “une generation perdue,” claiming that she had heard a mechanic shout that at one of his young workers when he messed up.  Hemingway took a liking to the term and ran with it, including the Stein quote as an epigraph at the beginning of The Sun Also Rises alongside a quote from Ecclesiastes.  It’s stood the test of time and turned from a colloquial moniker into an academic one throughout the years.

The thing that strikes me most about this series of events is that Hemingway self-branded himself and his cohort at the time when it was all just starting.  It was intentional.  This name didn’t come into being after the fact, when people looked back on the ex-pats and thought about what to call them; it wasn’t prescribed by an outsider.  Hemingway decided that he would define himself and every writer sharing his experience and by god, he did.

3. Hemingway on Literary Influences

I had absolutely no idea until reading A Moveable Feast that Hemingway loved Russian authors, to the point where almost everything else paled in comparison.  Everyone knows that writers are also avid readers, and we have a tendency to absorb what we read and love and spit it out into our own writing.  During those young years of writing, Hemingway had a borrowing system set up with Sylvia Beach at the now-famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris, and his books of choice were Russians, Russians, all the time.

“From the day I had found Sylvia Beach’s library I had read all of Turgenev, what had been published in English of Gogol, the Constance Garnett translations of Tolstoi and the English translations of Chekov.  In Toronto, before we had ever come to Paris, I had been told Katherine Mansfield was a good short-story writer, even a great short-story writer, but trying to read her after Chekov was like hearing the carefully articulated tales of a young old-maid compared to those of an articulate and knowing physician who was a good and simple writer.  Mansfield was like near-beer.  It was better to drink water.  But Chekov was not water except for the clarity.” (101)

Leave it to Hemingway to make a beer comparison, but seriously, as someone who has barely dipped a toe into the Russian canon, I feel a sudden urge to read all the Tolsoy.  See you kids next summer.

As a side note, Sylvia Beach was a huge supporter of the young writers in Paris at the time.  She ran a bookstore but let Hemingway and others borrow books when they didn’t have money to pay for them, and often gave them either food or money to buy food when they couldn’t afford it.  Several of these writers went on to be defining voices in the Modernist movement.  She was instrumental in helping them get published and even published Ulysses— considered one of the most important books of the twentieth century– herself when James Joyce couldn’t find anyone else who was willing to publish it in its entirety.

Sylvia Beach and James Joyce hanging out at Shakespeare and Company, like you do. Dear Ms. Beach: You are awesome.

4. Hemingway Respected F. Scott Fitzgerald as a Writer, But Not as a Person (Most of the Time)

Since A Moveable Feast is all about artists living in Paris at the time, several famous names show up in its pages.  Some of the characterizations are kinder than others; Hemingway’s depiction of Gertrude Stein is notoriously acerbic, he refers to Ford Madox Ford as the devil’s disciple, and he describes poet Wyndham Lewis’s eyes as “those of an unsuccessful rapist.” (Ouch!)  One of my absolute favorite chapters in the book, however, is a story about a disastrous weekend trip Hemingway and Fitzgerald took from Paris to Lyon not long after they.

Hemingway has openly admitted that The Great Gatsby is a brilliant novel, and this is what he had to say about Fitzgerald as a writer:

“His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings.  At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred.  Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think.  He was flying again and I was lucky to meet him just after a good time in his writing if not a good time in his life.” (124)

As a person, however, Hemingway had little patience for Fitzgerald.  He paints him as a clueless, privileged, class obsessed, sexually insecure, hypochondriac pretty-boy who couldn’t hold his liquor.  Fitzgerald hunted Hemingway down at a cafe to introduce himself when they were both still starting out, they talked writing, and then for whatever reason they decided to take a trip to Lyon to pick up a car. Hilarity ensues.

The chapter is much too long and entertaining to do it justice here, but perhaps my favorite line comes after Fitzgerald, who had their train tickets, flaked out on showing up at the station on time.  Hemingway went on to Lyon without him and tells the reader, “While I had been angry I had demoted him from Scott to Fitzgerald” (133).  For some reason, that just struck me as hilarious, perhaps because it’s so typically Hemingway, an understated, calm insult that still gets the job done and smacks of disrespect.  However, in Fitzgerald’s defense, Hemingway derides him later in the chapter for not being able to hold his drink when they share “a few bottles” (!!) of wine during lunch, so perhaps his standards were a little ridiculous.

Despite the comedy of errors that weekend turned into, the two writers remained friends on and off for decades, although they went through periods where they were bad-mouthing each other to the press before Hemingway finally cut off the relationship.  During that time, Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda once insulted his manhood, and Fitzy dropped trou and asked Hemingway if everything looked, uh, up to par.  To Hemingway’s credit he assured him it did.  Now that’s friendship.

Yep, nothing weird going on between these two.

5.  … But He Loved the Crap Out of Ezra Pound

Not everyone is given the typical scathing Hemingway treatment in the book, however; there are certain people about whom Hemingway talks with soft, gooey sentiment.  Although we see their marriage starting to fall apart towards the end, Hemingway writes about those years with Hadley with tenderness and love.  What probably jumped out at me as most utterly surprising is just how devoted Hemingway was towards Ezra Pound.  Pound seemed to be the butt of every joke in the ex-pat community (there’s a particularly amusing anecdote where Gertrude Stein invites him to sit in a small, broken chair and then yells at him when he “breaks” it; he’s also reamed for his bad bassoon playing), but Hemingway talks about him incessantly as a good, honest, giving person who always saw the best in people.  We see Ezra Pound go out of his way to take care of his friends (not bad for someone who later turned into a Mussolini fanboy and wrote [really bad] Fascist poetry in Italian to show that support), and Hemingway respected him for this.

In one chapter, “Ezra Pound and his Bel Esprit”, this respect comes through in the first paragraph:

“Ezra Pound was the most generous writer I have ever known and the most disinterested.  He was always doing something practical for poets, painters, sculptors, and prose writers that he believed in and he would help anyone, whether he believed in them or not, if they were in trouble.  He worried about everyone and in the time when I first knew him he was most worried about T.S. Eliot who, Ezra told me, had to work in a bank in London and so had insufficient time and bad hours to function as a poet.” (178)

To help Eliot, Pound set up a campaign called Bel Esprit which collected money from other artists so that Eliot could quit his job at the bank and concentrate on his poetry.  The result?  The Waste Land was published and won The Dial Award and Eliot never had to work in a bank again.  BOOM.  (The brochure for the Bel Esprit fund featured a picture of a small Greek temple on the front, and Hemingway talks about how he had hoped Eliot would live there– it was in a garden in Paris– and thought that maybe he and Ezra could bike there and put crowns of laurel on Eliot’s head whenever he was feeling lonely, but alas, it was not to be.)

In another chapter, Hemingway talks about how Pound, after he moved away from Paris, tasked him with the job of keeping the opium-addicted poet Ralph Cheever Dunning from killing himself and how it resulted in Dunning throwing milk bottles at his head.  He writes, “Perhaps Dunning took me for an agent of evil or the police.  I only know that Ezra tried to be kind to Dunning as he was kind to so many people and I always hoped Dunning was as fine a poet as Ezra believed him to be.” (112)  In that same chapter, Hemingway tells another writer about Pound, “I miss him every day.”  (110)

Hemingway’s devotion to Pound is downright touching.  It appears that the infamous misanthrope may have had a heart after all.

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Book Review: Everything is Illuminated

One of the books I’m using in my AP class next year is Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.  It was published in 2002 (when he was 25– not that I’m jealous or anything…) and was a NYT bestseller.  When it came out, critics went all fanboy and were stumbling over each other in an attempt to scream the loudest about just how brilliant it was (the literary equivalent of girls swooning and throwing their panties on stage at an 80s rock concert); then, a year or two later, there was a backlash where it suddenly went from “brilliant” to “insufferably pretentious.”  So it goes in book critic circles.

The author. If it helps, you can imagine him in leather pants, ripped neon t-shirt, and teased blond hair.

I decided to include it on the AP list not because it’s the best, most engrossing book I’ve ever read, but because there’s just so much going on stylistically that I think it will be really useful in getting my students to apply close readings and really parse apart how things like voice, tone, and structure affect a story.  That, and I do think the story itself is pretty good, at least half of it.

I’d read this book twice before: Once when I was 19 (which I remember specifically because I got to a certain intense scene towards the end of the book while riding a bus in Rome and started crying; the same thing happened when I read Amy Hempel’s “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” on the subway one morning in Boston– I really have to stop reading heartrending works of literature on public transportation, crying women tend to really freak other passengers out) and again when I was 21.  I was a lit major in college, and I still had a hard time figuring out some things that were going on as I read.

There are three different threads in the book.  Part of it is a first-person narrative told in the voice of a young Ukrainian translator who is helping a young Jewish man (who JSF named after himself; part of the later accusations of pretentiousness, I’m sure) from America find the woman who helped save his grandfather from the Nazis when they came to their shtetl.  This makes up the current present action, linear plot and is written as this Ukrainian translator writing a book of the events soon after the fact.  Another thread is a slip-stream-y, magical realist history of the shtetl, going from 1791-1940s, when the character Jonathan Safran Foer’s ancestors entered the picture, and is written as the character JSF writing a novel.  The third thread is letters from the translator to the character JSF discussing these two pieces of writing, which adds a meta element.  (The metafictional element did not bother me at all– in fact, I found it helped me understand some of what was going on– but again, “meta” has become synonymous with “pretentious” nowadays; strike number two, Mr. Foer.)

The first-person narrative is extremely well done.  It’s humorous, touching, and overall a good story.  The characterization is great.  There are three main characters– the translator, his grandfather, and the character JSF– and each starts off strong and unfolds in a very human way.  If the other two elements of the book had been taken out, this narrative would have stood well on its own.

The magical realist history of the shtetl tripped me up the first two times I read it.  I thought I knew what was going on, but there were things I was confused by, or couldn’t figure out why they were in there, although much of it is entertaining even when it’s confusing.  I knew I liked the book– again, good story, and I found the non-linear-storytelling refreshing; I had never read anything like it– but I still felt like I was missing something.

I just finished reading it for the third time and picked up on something that completely evaded me the first two times around, and which threw everything into a more, well, illuminated light.  This is where knowing the elements of style come in handy (which apparently I never bothered paying attention to in my college lit classes; sorry, professors!): The shtetl history is written as a religious document.  It’s never stated as such– which was why I didn’t pick up on it in my less-trained years– but when I started reading it this time around, the tone and language hit me over the head as, “Oh, holy crap, this is kind of the shtetl’s Bible.”  Old Testament all the way, baby.  There is a mystical (although not virgin… at least they don’t think, but none of the characters know for sure) birth at the beginning, there are not-quite-grounded-in-reality stories about larger-than-life characters, cabalistic minor characters (such as the Wisps of Ardisht, a fictional clan of smokers who have been banned to the rooftops and must take shifts of smoking so there is always at least one cigarette lit, since they ran out of matches), there are “commandments” and general guidelines, etc etc, and it’s all done in very biblical language and almost fairy-tale-ish tone (with the character JSF occasionally making his author-presence known by dropping in scattered sentences in the first person).

After realizing this, it made understanding the book much, much easier, because I stopped trying to force things into configurations that made logical sense and just accepted it for what it is.  Really, when have religious writings ever made much sense?  So much of this book has to do with history and remembering.  This history of the shtetl– it’s not there to tell us what actually happened in the village as an accurate historical account, but it’s there to tell us how the character JSF is trying to re-create and understand where he came from.  The shtetl where his family from– where his grandfather escaped from to come to America– was completely obliterated by the Nazis, by shootings and fire and bombs and tanks, to the point where nothing is left by the time he finds it fifty years later except a field and a small stone marking the massacre.  Religious writings– the stories and creeds that are passed along by a certain group of people throughout the centuries and millennia– tell us a lot about a culture.  There are entire academic fields that study the importance of the Bible not as a doctrine but as cultural artifact.  Almost every culture has religious writings of some sort; why do we create them, pass them down, and what do they mean?

It was also made into a movie. Everything is Elijah Wood being poignantly awkward on screen for 106 minutes.  Also, the translator is played by the lead singer of Gogol Bordello.  YES.

I can see where the cries of pretentiousness came from; JSF (the author) completely ignored conventional structure and did his own  crazy thing, and people tend to like to point fingers at experimentation, especially if the non-conventional thing is difficult to understand.  (“God, all they’re doing is trying to show how smart they are, ugh.”)  But I’m not sure if it’s any different than what Faulkner did, or Morrison, or dozens of other authors.  Experimentation can fall flat but in this case, I think it pays off– maybe not for every reader, but certain types of readers can get a lot out of this book, and I think it’s worth reading.  I guess only time will tell which side of the literary fence Everything is Illuminated will end up on down the road.  In the meantime, I’m looking forward to watching my students’ heads explode as they read it, and then hopefully collect their brains off the floor and be able to waltz into their college lit classes and analyze like rockstars because I forced them to do this.  Isn’t that what education is all about anyway, suffering and torture?  Sure it is.

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Review: Matters of Record

Megan Roberts is a young, prolific North Carolina writer who has that one quality that all writers covet: she is able to genre-hop between fiction and poetry effortlessly.  While her MFA is in fiction writing, her poems have appeared in several literary journals and won awards.  She has a novel in the works and most recently published a chapbook, Matters of Record, which contains poems about women murderers who were executed for their crimes.

The chapbook will officially be released in July but Megan was nice enough to let me read an advanced copy, since I had heard her talk about the project and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.  I was intrigued by the subject matter.  Women murderers?  Executed?  There are so many different ways a writer could approach such a topic; each way would influence the stories being told, and I wondered how Megan would handle it.  Would she judge the murderers, have sympathy for them, give them voices, give their victims voices, or merely report the facts?

It turns out she did all of the above.  The women in the poems range from those executed within the last decade all the way back to Mary Surrat, who was executed as a co-conspirator in the Lincoln assassination.  There are times when she gets inside the women’s heads and tells the stories in their voices; other times, the poems are from the perspective of complete strangers who are only tangentially involved with the crimes or executions; other times there is a completely omniscient, detached narrator.  Some of the poems concentrate on the crimes themselves, the motivations (or mental illness) behind them or the aftereffects, such as in “Wishing Well,” where a community pitches in to buy a– you guessed it– wishing well, and one of Betty Lou Beet’s (executed in 2000 in Texas) husbands ends up under it, or in the first-person poem “The Divorce,” which describes how Mary Mabel Rogers (executed in 1905 in Vermont) took her husband into the woods to poison him.  Other poems, like the first one in the chapbook, “Peach,” about Karla Faye Tucker’s (executed in 1998 in Texas) last meal, draw further away from the crimes.  The last stanza of that poem is squirm-inducing:

Later, as the hollow needle
was pulled from her arm,
a cockroach entered Karla’s old cell.
Engorged itself
within that leftover peach
head stuck inside,
legs running on air,
body struggling to go deeper.

Probably the one that haunted me the most, however, was “Margie and Me,” a poem about Velma Marge Barfield (executed in North Carolina, 1984, for killing a boyfriend, her husband, and her mother), and I think because it’s the only poem where the author explicitly allows herself to become part of the story.  This is the first stanza:

At ten, Margie stole coins from her father–
a poor girl and at school
Margie wanted to buy lunch.
That heavy thud against her thigh,
silver jingle in her little pocket.

My father left his dresser drawer full
of change like scattered temptations
along with a single heavy gun.
Satisfying thud as I slammed
the old drawer shut, thunk
inside my birdcage breast.

The fact that the author was making connections between herself and a killer made me stop and think; I didn’t for one second think that Megan approved of Velma’s actions or was trying to excuse them, but it did let me see the story in another light, one that was uncomfortable at first and then became more human as I considered it.  That’s what these poems do: they make you uncomfortable and squirmy, stop and consider, ask yourself questions about these women.  Each poem stayed with me long after I finished reading it.

After finishing the book, I assaulted Megan with a bunch of questions about the project and the process– I think the poems made me even more curious than I was before I read the book:

How did you decide to write a book of poetry about women sentenced to death for murder?  What started the project?

I can tell you that this is not the type of topic I usually write about. I normally focus on Southern families and places, small town tensions. So this topic was a big leap for me. It really started small, with a conversation with Luke Whisnant, a professor at ECU. He told me a little about Velma Marge Barfield’s story,  and then I was off and running. One woman led to another. I wrote about Velma early on, and I also wrote the title poem “Matters of Record” fairly early in the process when I began to explore racism and women in connection to the death penalty.

What kind of research did you do for the poems, and how much is fact and how much is fiction?

The basics of their crimes are true, but I’ve taken full creative license with the details. I’ve also used experimental points of view and small moments to allow room for fiction. Through adding my own “facts,” I began to find a deeper understanding in their stories.
I used websites, newspaper articles, and books for my research, but I am far from an expert on these women and their crimes. I researched enough to find something to be inspired by and then I put the books down. If I went too far into the research, I found that I couldn’t write a poem. My mind was overwhelmed and closed off to creativity.

The stories in these poems are told from varying, and extremely diverse, viewpoints, ranging from a bystander in a parking lot to the murderers themselves to an anonymous woman on an online message board.  How did you decide which viewpoints to use in the poems?

At first, I was only writing in first person as the women (persona) or third person with the women as subjects. After several poems, this began to weigh on me. I switched to unexpected view points out of necessity. I was bored, and the book was going to be much too dark if every poem took you inside a jail cell or to the electric chair. I began to ask questions like, What does a jury really think about? What about their children? What about witnesses? I soon realized the new viewpoints told a fuller story.
The online message board poem came from reading so much about these women online. There are a lot of other people who are obsessed with these stories, and they usually become obsessed with one woman in particular. I was always questioning why I was interested and why others, strangers to these women, were interested as well. I think it comes down to the connection we feel with them. Even if we find their crimes heinous and grotesque, there is something in all of these women that we can relate to. I think people dissect these women’s lives, childhoods, motives, because they are trying to understand humans and themselves. Most of these stories boil down to issues of power and powerlessness. What woman can’t relate to that?

Emotionally, how did you handle spending so much time and energy on the lives of murderers?  Did you become attached to the women?  Judgment is almost totally left out of your poems; personally, were you able to maintain that distance?

This collection was a side project. I couldn’t focus totally on it for any length of time. While writing fiction during my MFA, I would only spend a day, here or there, on these poems. If I spent much longer than a day or two at a time, my creative brain would shut down and my thinker brain would try to take over. I couldn’t let that happen because I really wanted this to be a creative project, not a political or judgmental one.  For example, Judy Buenoano, the Black Widow, is a woman I researched and studied;  she still haunts me, but I couldn’t write anything worth putting in a collection because I had begun to judge her. I hated her, and the writing was awful because of that.
I tried to keep my distance in the poems, but I probably show some sympathy or at least a connection to Velma Barfield and Helen Fowler. Especially in the poem about Helen Fowler, you can hear me lamenting her death. I slowly decided to bring the reader a little closer to my emotions throughout the course of writing. My main goal was to bring their stories to life; readers should draw their own conclusions.

I have no idea how chapbooks come into being– can you tell us a little about the process?

Me either! I became obsessed with a certain topic and just wouldn’t stop. At some point, fairly late in the process, I realized I might have a collection. I think it took a mentor or professor saying, Hey, you’re working on a book here. Then I began what was a really fun part of the process: what poems to include, exclude, and which poems to put side-by-side. I think that process was very organic for me. They seemed to fall into place within the book, but I really liked thinking about the poems “talking” to each other in relation to where they were placed within the chapbook. Then I found Finishing Line Press and they seemed like a good match for my subject matter.
I don’t know if I could write an entire collection (40-50 poems) on this subject because it is so draining on me. Although I am still obsessed by their stories, so they may begin to appear in my short stories now.

If you love poetry, find the subject matter interesting, or just want to support young writers and the local writing community, you can buy  Matters of Record for $12 (and I strongly, strongly recommend you do– the writing is fantastic, seriously).  To pre-order a copy from Finishing Line Press, click here.

To read a blog post by Megan about how she first became interested in Velma Marge Barfield and how it started the project, click here.

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