Baldwin, James, Literary Fiction

Review of Giovanni’s Room

Image result for giovanni's roomWhat was it about?

Giovanni’s Room is told from the perspective of David who recalls the time he was in Paris, away from his fiancée Hella and in a relationship with a barman named Giovanni. At the beginning of the story, we learn that Giovanni has been executed though we do not know his crime. The rest of the book is told in flashback and anecdotally. Hella is in Spain while David has an affair with Giovanni whom he met at a gay bar. David is torn between desire and guilt, not sure whether to continue his relationship with Hella, return to the U.S., or stay with Giovanni. In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, David struggles to accept his sexuality, make major life decisions, and relate to his father.

What did I think of it?

James Baldwin wrote Giovanni’s Room in 1956, long before gay rights received any serious consideration in the United States. But although the work deals primarily with sexuality, it also touches on family, the woman’s place in society, moral responsibility, and national identity.

This work really reminded me of Sartre’s Nausee and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In all three works the narrators are pretty unpleasant characters with similar personalities, but their relationships and existential crises are so beautifully and hauntingly described. While the story of Giovanni’s Room is not very eventful, the prose is absolutely gorgeous. Giovanni is a very lovable character despite the crime he commits. I look forward to reading more works by James Baldwin.

Favorite Quote

[Giovanni] laughed. “Well, isn’t it true? You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back.”

Hurston, Zora Neale, Literary Fiction

Review of Their Eyes Were Watching God

What was it about?

In Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford sets out in search of love and freedom. A black girl growing up in a plantation shack on Logan Killick’s farm, Janie spends her childhood in the shadow of her grandmother’s dreams. Her grandmother wants her granddaughter to have the life she never had, so she makes Janie marry Logan even though Janie doesn’t love him. Logan has land. But Janie expects more of life. Over the course of three marriages, Janie learns about herself and her desires. She comes face-to-face with the joys and sorrows of life, developing into one of the most compelling protagonists in all of literature.

What did I think of it?

I admit that it is hard to put into words my reaction to this book. I know that Janie is not a character that I will soon forget. She is a strong Black woman, overcoming hardships foisted on her race through slavery and sustained by the Jim Crow laws of pre-Civil Rights America. Hurston’s prose is lyrical, and all the characters (even the most minor ones) have their own distinct personalities. The story about a man’s mule is at once a humorous episode and a commentary on the systematic oppression of Black people. I look forward to reading more of Hurston’s works. Much has already been written about the value of reading diversely. I know that I have neglected works written by and about people of color for far too long on this blog. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is certainly a great place to begin as it is part of the “Black Canon”.

Favorite Quote

“To start off wid, people like dem wastes up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothin’ about. Now they got to look into me loving Tea Cake and see whether it was done right or not! They don’t know if life is a mess of corn-meal dumplings, and if love is a bed-quilt!”

Literary Fiction, Memoir, Saint-Exupery, Antoine de

Review of Terre des Hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars)


What was it about?

Terre des Hommes is a memoir by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry about his career working as a pilot for the airmail carrier Aéropostale. The longest story in the memoir recounts his 1935 plane crash in the Sahara. Antoine and his navigator André Prévot survived for days in the desert without food and water. Terre des Hommes is dedicated to the author’s friend Henri Guillaumet, whose plane crash in the Andes mountains of Argentina is also recounted in the book. Like Courrier Sud (Southern Mail)Terre des Hommes describes the beautiful but often melancholic and dangerous life of a pilot in the early years of flight.

What did I think of it?

As you may know, my favorite book of all time is Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), so naturally I begin all of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s other works with very high expectations. Nevertheless, I have never been disappointed by anything written by this author. His prose is ridiculously gorgeous and his philosophy on life is much-needed today. Since reading Terre des Hommes, I have started noticing the connection between details in the author’s personal life and events in Le Petit Prince. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry loved being a pilot, but he suffered a lot. He was stranded without food and water in the desert, lost friends to flight, suffered from alcoholism and depression, and finally died in the Mediterranean sea during a reconnaissance mission in 1944. Parts of his plane were finally discovered in 2000. Terre des Hommes only tells us a part of his story, but in just over two hundred pages Antoine de Saint-Exupéry captures the magic of flight and reveals the desires of the human heart.

Favorite Quote

“Être homme, c’est précisément être responsable. C’est connaître la honte en face d’une misère qui ne semblait pas dépendre de soi. C’est être fier d’une victoire que les camarades ont remportée. C’est sentir, en posant sa pierre, que l’on contribue à bâtir le monde.”

[To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to feel shame at the sight of what seems to be unmerited misery. It is to take pride in a victory won by one’s comrades. It is to feel, when setting one’s stone, that one is contributing to the building of the world.]

 

Bernanos, Georges, Literary Fiction, Religious

Review of Diary of a Country Priest

What was it about?

An unnamed curé [country priest] of Ambricourt keeps a journal to track his spiritual and pastoral progress. The curé’s responsibilities include teaching catechism classes, administering the sacraments, and paying visits to a wealthy family in the region. Unfortunately, the Great War shattered many people’s spiritual worldviews. The curé finds himself in a hostile parish community. Gossipers accuse him of being a drunk and a womanizer, and the curé has a knack for saying the wrong things at the wrong time. His friend and spiritual director, the curé of Norenfontes, tries to shatter our country priest’s naiveté. He tells him that injustice and poverty will always exist. The priest of today should have more modest expectations. He should fulfill his pastoral duties but not overwork himself. The curé of Norenfontes seems to take a flippant attitude to our country priest’s troubles. The curé of Ambricourt suffers from loneliness, poverty, and crippling stomach pains. Journal d’un Curé de Campagne [Diary of a Country Priest] by Georges Bernanos is about the joys and tribulations of an unnamed country priest living between the two world wars.

What did I think of it?

The curé of Ambricourt encounters one hardship after the other. He would like to do something wonderful for God, but he often feels like a failure. Paradoxically, the beauty and power of this work is found not in the curé’s successes but in his seeming failures. He is not a hero. Despite being a priest, he faces the same hardships as others. He experiences spiritual dryness to the point of agnosticism. Often in literature, priests are depicted as heroes or villains, but in Journal d’un Curé de Campagne, the curé of Ambricourt is an ordinary man. I have a journal filled with poignant passages from the book, but not all of them come from the curé. He doesn’t have all of the answers.

Georges Bernanos in Journal d’un Curé de Campagne challenges popular perceptions of sanctity. The curé doesn’t run a thriving parish. He is not always what Kierkegaard would call a “knight of faith”, but he is nonetheless a good priest. Though we would all like to be the authors of our own lives, Bernanos shows how so much of what happens in our lives is out of our hands. Sometimes what is planned is the most negligible while the unplanned ends up being the most significant because of events we could not foresee. I highly recommend Journal d’un Curé de Campagne both for its elegant prose and its quiet message. If you enjoyed Gilead by Marilynne Robinson or Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather you will most definitely enjoy the Diary of a Country Priest. If you can read French, I recommend reading the book in its original language because there is much in the French language that just cannot be translated.

Favorite Quotes

“A nous entendre on croirait trop souvent que nous prêchons le Dieu des spiritualistes, l’Etre suprême, je ne sais quoi, rien qui ressemble, en tout cas, à ce Seigneur que nous avons appris à connaître comme un merveilleux ami vivant, qui souffre de nos peines, s’émeut de nos joies, partagera notre agonie, nous recevra dans ses bras, sur son cœur.”

[My translation]: To hear us one would think that we preach the God of the spiritualists, a supreme Being or something, nothing that resembles in any case the Lord that we have learned to know as a marvelous living friend who suffers from our hurts, is touched by our joys, [who] will share our misery, will receive us in his arms, [and] in his heart.

“O merveille, qu’on puisse ainsi faire présent de ce qu’on ne possède pas soi- même, ô doux miracle de nos mains vides !”

[My translation]: What wonder that one can in this way make present what one does not possess oneself, o the sweet miracle of our empty hands!

Dickens, Charles, Literary Fiction

Review of Great Expectations

What was it about?

Philip Pirrip (a.k.a. Pip) is an orphan boy raised by his hot-tempered sister Georgiana Maria (referred to in the story as Mrs. Joe ) and her blacksmith husband Joe Gargery. Pip often spends his afternoons in the cemetery where his parents and other siblings are buried. One day he meets an escaped convict who asks him for a file and some food. Pip steals the items for the convict, but the latter is shortly thereafter arrested and deported to New South Wales. Pip’s family faces another tragedy when Mrs. Joe is attacked from behind by someone with a hammer; she becomes paralyzed and has to be cared for by her husband and a young girl named Biddy.

Nearby, there lives at Satis House a wealthy spinster named Miss Havisham. She always wears a wedding gown and one shoe, and has a ward named Estella. Miss Havisham invites Pip to visit Satis House. He visits frequently, but feels slighted by Estella. Finally, Miss Havisham arranges for him to become apprenticed to Joe Gargery. Pip does not receive this news with joy. He notices that Estella looks down on him for being poor and illiterate. He wants to be more than a blacksmith. One day, Pip is told by a lawyer named Mr. Jaggers that he has great expectations; he has been given a fortune from an anonymous donor. Pip abandons his family and moves in with Matthew Pocket, Miss Havisham’s cousin, to enjoy his wealth among a more sophisticated crowd.

What did I think of it?

The Christmas season is a great time to read Dickens. His stories are always mysterious and creepy. Miss Havisham is one of the creepiest characters Dickens ever wrote. She has a secret that affects the way she interacts with Pip and Estella. Great Expectations is one of my favorite stories by Dickens. Each character, including the narrator (Pip), is complex. Admittedly, there are parts that drag but even though Dickens says a lot, there are no wasted scenes or characters. Every character and small detail plays an important role in the drama. It was definitely a satisfying read, and one of my favorite books of 2015.

Favorite Quotes

“Joe laid his hand upon my shoulder with the touch of a woman. I have often thought him since, like the steam hammer that can crush a man or pat an eggshell, in his combination of strength with gentleness.”

[To Pip about Estella]: “‘Because if it is to spite her,” Biddy pursued, ‘I should think – but you know best – that might be better and more independently done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her over, I should think – but you know best – she is not worth gaining over.’ “

Literary Fiction, Modern Detour, Robinson, Marilynne

Review of Gilead

Gileadcover.jpgWhat was it about?

Rev. John Ames is an elderly congregationalist minister in Gilead, Iowa writing to his 7-year-old son about his ancestry and his relationship with Jack Boughton, the troubled son of a close friend. Rev. Ames’ father and grandfather were also ministers and were heavily involved in the abolitionist movement in the region. Throughout the epistolary novel, Rev. Ames’ influences include the reformed theologian Karl Barth and the atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. He sees God’s hand everywhere but never thinks he’s somehow set apart from the rest of humanity. He recognizes his flaws and his doubts, disagrees with his father’s pro-war beliefs, and wishes he could have had a better relationship with Jack. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson shows how Rev. Ames’ story and life experiences shaped his faith and the sermons he preached on Sunday.

What did I think of it?

I am not the first person to compare Robinson’s prose to Willa Cather’s. The narrative of Gilead is as lyrical and character-driven as Death Comes for the Archbishop. Like Cather’s works, Gilead is not a conventional novel with a beginning, middle, and end. Rather, it is a series of anecdotes about the lives of one or two individuals. Because I prefer character-driven, philosophical works to fast-paced thrillers I really enjoyed Gilead. Rev. Ames has a very holistic view of life; he clearly recognizes how everything is interconnected. Robinson is a self-professed Calvinist, so there are themes from the reformed tradition strewn throughout the work. I was surprised by how ecumenical Rev. Ames was; he attends a Quaker service and appreciates the Methodist presence in Gilead. It is amazing how many sermons Rev. Ames has written throughout his long career as a minister. He has boxes filled with sermons in the attic, but never has the courage to reread his old sermons. After a lifetime of pondering existence and salvation, Rev. Ames is still overwhelmed by the most basic mysteries of life. Gilead certainly deserved the Pulitzer it won in 2005.

Favorite Quotes

“Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined. I’m about to put on imperishability. In an instant, in a twinkling of an eye.”

“It has been my experience that guilt can burst through the smallest breach and cover the landscape, and abide in it in pools and darknesses, just as native as water.”

“I pity [Jack]. I regret absolutely that I cannot speak with him in a way becoming a pastor, knowing as I do what an uneasy spirit he is. That is disgraceful.”

“At that point I began to suspect, as I have from time to time, that grace has a grand laughter in it.”

Cather, Willa, Literary Fiction

Review of My Antonia

What was it about?

After losing both his parents, ten year old James (Jim) Burden relocates to Black Hawk, Nebraska to live with his grandparents. There, he meets families from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia who have come to the American frontiers in search of a future. The Shimerdas are one such family. They are Bohemian immigrants who try to eke out a living in the harsh and unforgiving Nebraska Prairie. My Antonia by Willa Cather is the coming-of-age story of Antonia Shimerda. Her friendship as well as her personal trials and triumphs put Jim’s life into perspective.

What did I think of it?

It is difficult to give an introduction to My Antonia because the book is basically a series of anecdotes from Jim and Antonia’s lives. It is lyrically beautiful but brutally realistic about the immigrant experience on the American frontier. Cather’s work reminds me of the 1857 oil painting by Jean Francois Millet called The Gleaners. The harshness of peasant life takes center stage in an otherwise picturesque landscape. But unlike the peasants in The Gleaners painting, Antonia, her family, and friends are not static, archetypal figures. They all start in the same place, but they do not all end up occupying the same positions in life. Chance and perseverance shape the sort of people that they become. Jim learns to see the frontier through the eyes of an immigrant. As in all of Willa Cather’s novels, the characters are fully fleshed-out people; not one is a throwaway. If you have never read anything by Cather, I definitely suggest you start with My Antonia (or Death Comes for the Archbishop, which I reviewed last year).

Favorite Quote

[At the grave of Mr. Shimerda (Antonia’s father who committed suicide)]:

“Years afterward, when the open-grazing days were over, and the red grass had been ploughed under and under until it had almost disappeared from the prairie; when all the fields were under fence, and the roads no longer ran about like wild things, but followed the surveyed section-lines, Mr. Shimerda’s grave was still there, with a sagging wire fence around it, and an unpainted wooden cross. As grandfather had predicted, Mrs. Shimerda never saw the roads going over his head. The road from the north curved a little to the east just there, and the road from the west swung out a little to the south; so that the grave, with its tall red grass that was never mowed, was like a little island; and at twilight, under a new moon or the clear evening star, the dusty roads used to look like soft gray rivers flowing past it. I never came upon the place without emotion, and in all that country it was the spot most dear to me. I loved the dim superstition, the propitiatory intent, that had put the grave there; and still more I loved the spirit that could not carry out the sentence—the error from the surveyed lines, the clemency of the soft earth roads along which the home-coming wagons rattled after sunset. Never a tired driver passed the wooden cross, I am sure, without wishing well to the sleeper.”