Archive for the '2017 Books' Category

IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE by Sinclair Lewis

Monday, March 6th, 2017

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis has too may excellent quotes for me to leave it to Goodreads and Facebook, which is where most of what I used to post here on the blog goes, nowadays. But sometimes I want a little more space, and so, here I am.

It Can’t Happen Here, about a Vermont newspaperman who is moved to political action for the first time in his life, is both terrific, and not so great. Terrific, because it’s timely after the 2016 election, and the election of a charismatic but ethically weak man who is a puppet for a more militaristic and grim advisor. Buzz Windrip is not exactly Donald Trump, but Lee Sarason is scarily like Steve Bannon.

One of the things that’s interesting about the book is that it predicted the rise of a popular leader like Trump based on Huey Long, who was assassinated, and didn’t rise to power. So Lewis’ era missed out, but here we are, 80 or so years later with so very much of this book that could be ripped from the headlines. And while it’s satire, it’s often not funny, because right now, it’s too close, too soon.

For example, his description of how many voters

“had turned to Windrip & Co., not as perfect, but as the most probable saviors of the country from, on the one hand, domination by Moscow, and, on the other hand, the slack indolence, the lack of decent pride of half the American youth whose world (these idealists asserted) was composed of shiftless distaste for work and refusal to learn anything thoroughly, of blatting dance music on the radio, maniac automobiles, slobbering sexuality…(350)

The paragraph is ironic given the current regime’s entanglement with Russia, and with how the description of youth could be taken from any piece on Millennials in the past several years.

I had to laugh at the following, about a group of states who later try to take things into their own control:

There were bubbles from an almost boiling rebellion in the Middle West and Northwest, especially in Minnesota and the Dakotas, where agitators, some of them formerly of political influence, were demanding that their states secede from the [Union] and form a cooperative (indeed almost socialistic) commonwealth of their own. (346)

Forming a co-op is SO Minnesotan.

The book is quite uneven. It’s long, it drags in the middle, some of the characters are flat or caricatures, and yet, I am glad I read it, and I recommend it, because otherwise I wouldn’t have read this, which rings deep and true for me:

More and more, as I think about history,…I am convinced that everything that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever. (359)

It’s an imperfect novel, but it’s a nearly perfect political snapshot. Now if only it was been less descriptive of the problem, and more prescriptive of what we might do about it. I guess we’ll find out, since it did in fact happen here.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys Part 3

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

The idea of this read was to read Wide Sargasso Sea before Jane Eyre to put it in the proper perspective, and to strip away the layers of romance that Bronte drapes over Rochester, revealing him as a bitter, controlling, vengeful man.

Why, why does he take Antoinette back to England? Why not just abandon her, and pretend as if she hadn’t existed? Some of that is out of guilt, to punish himself for making bad decisions, but it also punishes her, who is not nearly as culpable as he would like to make her out to be.

In this third section, what I love is that Rhys not only continues her construction of poor, mad, imprisoned Antoinette, but also Grace Poole, one of the more maligned characters in Jane Eyre. No longer is Grace simply a mean, crude drunk, but instead is a woman who has endured hardship in the world and at the hands of men. She recognizes that same damage in Antoinette, the anger that has resulted, and respects it.

The third section is the most intertextual, weaving in and out of Bronte’s Jane Eyre and drawing attention to the absurdity of Rochester inviting a slew of people to his house when he has a prisoner in the attic.

The color red, of Antoinette’s dress, of the fire, in her memories of home, is throughout this section. It is the dress she wore with Sandi when she said goodbye to him: Sandi often came to see me when that man was away.

Does this mean that she was having an affair with Sandi before her marriage fell apart, or did that happen between sections two and three.

The section ends with a dream, Antoinette’s third of the book. Intriguingly and skillfully, Rhys has her dream of escape:

And the sky so red. Someone screamed and I thought, Why did I scream? I called Tia! and jumped and woke.

Out of the dream, then, she proceeds out of her prison with the candle to guide her.

It is a mercy, I think, that Rhys allowed her this freedom, at the end. She is not jumping to her death, but into wakefulness.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, part 2

Monday, January 16th, 2017

Part One of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea ended with Antoinette having a dream she was in hell, and being comforted with hot chocolate, which reminded her of the tragic life and death of her mother.

Part Two is the famous “narrated by Mr. Rochester” section, yet Mr. R is never mentioned by name.

The section begins with him under a tree in the rain, already questioning his marriage to Antoinette, and expressing doubt and fear of his surroundings. He describes the girl Amelie, the one he will later in the section bed as revenge against Antoinette:

A lovely little creature but sly, spiteful, malignant perhaps, like much else in this place.

Over the course of the section Rochester notes how he was disliked and disregarded by his father and older brother, and had been shipped off to get married to an heiress as a way to get off their hands. He notes how he learned how to cut off his emotions when he was a child, and dislikes Antoinette for not being able to do so, though in comparison, her childhood was at least as brutal and damaging as his. As he attempts to exert his control he begins to call her Bertha, his mother’s name, a name she rejects.

There is a part in the middle of section 2 in which Antoinette’s narration resumes, or disrupts, his. She seeks out Christophine’s help, asking for obeah cures to make her husband love her again. Christophine warns her again and again, and gives her good advice to run away, which she ignores.

While Antoinette is getting this “medicine” Mr. R finally sees Daniel Cosway, who has been trying to tell him the “truth” about Antoinette and her family. With this in his mind, Mr. R is drugged by Antoinette, sleeps with her, wakes disoriented, wanders the island, then comes back to sleep with Amelie, as revenge for being taken advantage of, and deliberately cruelly, knowing that Antoinette can hear. She deteriorates mentally, while he seems to rush the process along with his hate and cruelty, rushing to get off the island, and for some reasons taking her with him, punishment for believing that she duped him, perhaps.

There is plenty here to despise, but also, plenty here to show how things lead inevitably to the action of section three. Rhys showed how Rochester’s own upbringing was cold and distant, and gives insight into why he acts the way he does.

There is also plenty to show how Antoinette makes her own bad decisions, and is treated as an object by the men in her life, but disregards the sage advice of Christophine, the only woman in the book who seems to have figured out how to buck the patriarchy. But even she flinches from the threat of English law when Mr. R threatens her with it.

What do you think?

WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys: Part One

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

Hello, hello, is anyone out there? I’ve let this blog lie fallow for some time, and I miss it terribly. If you read this, let me know you’re out there.

What with Facebook and Goodreads, it feels as if some of the purpose of the blog has become obsolete or at least redundant, since I do brief, timely posts elsewhere. But some things cry out for a longer form, and right now that’s my reading of Jean Rhys’ postcolonial classic revisioning of Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic, Wide Sargasso Sea.

I last read Wide Sargasso Sea for the first time in 2008, and again in November 2013. The first time I read itin 2008, I was baffled. I didn’t understand the Jamaican dialect, such as the opening, or the many details, which Rhys drops like tantalizing breadcrumbs through the short novel, often explaining things later, like family relations.

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks. The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, ‘because she pretty like pretty self’ Christophine said.

She was my father’s second wife, far too young for him they thought, and worse still, a Martinique girl. When I asked her why so few people came to see us, she told me that the road from Spanish Town to Coulibri Estate where we lived was very bad, and that road repairing was now a thing of the past. (My father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed–all belonged to the past.)

WSS has grown on me with each reading. I found the Norton edition with its footnotes and critical material helpful to understand the details so I could focus on the beauty of the prose and the power of the story, however short. I’m not sure I’d feel right about re-reading Jane without also re-reading Antoinette’s story.

Antoinette is one of the many authorial choices Rhys made as she crafted the book over a period of 20 years. In Bronte’s book, she is called Bertha Antoinetta Mason. Rhys changes this to Antoinette (more properly French), after her mother Annette. Bertha, we learn, is what the Mr. Rochester character (though he is never named) calls her, after his own mother, who is not mentioned in WSS otherwise. Rhys also changed the time period of her novel, placing it just after the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies, which took place in 1834 so that slavery, race, and class more firmly underlie the story. Jane Eyre was published in 1847, and the story was set earlier in the century.

Additionally, Rhys adds a layer of family beyond what Bronte invented. Antoinette is the daughter of Mr. Cosway. Mason is the man who marries Annette after Cosway has died. He is the father of Richard, the man who claims to be “Bertha’s” brother in Jane Eyre. I don’t know if their is significance in the names: a causeway is a raised road over low or wet ground where a mason is a worker. I wonder if this is mean to signify a fall in status.

In Part One, narrated by Antoinette, we see the unrest in the aftermath of emancipation, and the family’s precarious situation, tolerated only out of pity because they were poor. When Mason marries Annette and begins to repair Coulibri, there is a revolt, and a group sets fire to the house. The family is driven out, Antoinette’s younger brother dies, her mother goes mad and refuses to see Mr. Mason, and Antoinette languishes in a coma after being struck with a rock thrown by a former playmate. When she finally wakes, she finds her mother refuses to see her, and is sent to a convent by Mr. Mason, who visits periodically, and tells her about some English friends he wants her to meet. The section ends with a dream:

Again I have left the house at Coulibri. It is still night and I am walking towards the forest. I am wearing a long dress and thin slippers, so I walk with difficulty, following the man who is with me and holding up the skirt of my dress. It is white and beautiful and I don’t wish to get it soiled. I follow him, sick with fear but I make no effort to save myself; if anyone were to try to save me, I would refuse. This must happen. Now we have reached the forest. We are under the tall dark trees and there is no wind. “Here?” He turns and looks at me, his face black with hatred, and when I see this I begin to cry. He smiles slyly. “Not here, not yet,” he says, and I follow him, weeping. Now I do not try to hold up my dress, it trails in the dirt, my beautiful dress. We are no longer in the forest but in an enclosed garden surrounded by a stone wall and the trees are different trees. I do not know them. There are steps leading upwards. It is too dark to see the wall or the steps, but I know they are there and I think, “It will be when I go up these steps. At the top.” I stumble over my dress and cannot get up. I touch a tree and my arms hold on to it. ‘Here, here.’ But I think I will not go any further. The tree sways and jerks as if it is trying to throw me off. Still I cling and the seconds pass and each one is a thousand years. “Here, in here,” a strange voice said, and the tree stopped swaying and jerking.

For Antoinette, fire is associated with rebellion, anger, and the loss of her mother. She, like Jane Eyre, is effectively orphaned at a young age, narrates her story from girlhood, is sent to a boarding school, put at the mercy of distant relatives, and has a a family servant who is kind to her. Like Jane, she is a poor outsider.

The next section jumps ahead in time and is narrated, but for one short part, by the man Antoinette marries.

What did you think of Part One?