Post-AP Test Reflection

Having walked out of the AP Literature and Composition merely minutes ago, the test is fresh in my mind. I gotta say it was difficult, but that’s entirely beside the point. I’ve learned so many things this year in class and the test underscored all of those things. You can’t quantify my passion. Sitting there writing those essays, I was seriously trying to think of a single good reason that I was taking the test. As I looked left and right, at least a quarter of the students in each row were napping rather than testing.  From my poetry post, you already know that a loss of an English class period is a grievous wrong. The test stole my English today and substituted it for a frigid, emotionless test.

I think the worse part of the whole test situation is that it’s the epitome of what I hate: just do it for the grade. If your college doesn’t accept the credit, you shouldn’t have to take the test. If you’re passionate about English but don’t give a damn about the credit, you shouldn’t have to take the test. Don’t get me wrong: I love English and I would never even think of changing my choice to take AP Lit because of the stupid test. That test doesn’t reflect my knowledge–even a 5 would undercut what I’ve learned. My AP is and forever will be all passion.

There’s Something About Mary…

There is no real process to how I go about writing these posts. I sit down and what I write, I write. It’s a pretty simple method. Sometimes, however, I fall down the rabbit hole of research and then what is normally a two-hour affair becomes a multi-hour distraction. What can I say? Critical essays are my weakness. This post is the latter situation. Going into writing this, it was clear to me that I wanted to expound on what I touched on in my last musing: the women in The Invisible Man. I guess I should’ve known from the title that the prognosis for them isn’t good.

In chapter twelve, we are introduced to, whom I count as the sixth woman in the novel, Miss Mary Rambo. Coming off the quasi-birth scene–complete with “a distinct wail of female pain” (235) and after a “sheet enfolded [him]” post birth (239)–that leaves T.I.M. wondering, “Mother, who was my mother? Mother, the one who screams when you suffer — but who,” it seems that he finds a mother in Mary (240). Aside from the obvious light bulbs that go off in my mind, with Mary being arguably the most famous mother figure there is, the actions of the Ellison’s Mary make it easy to see her as a mother figure. When she finds T.I.M. stumbling in the street she refuses to let him go back to the Men’s House saying, “that ain’t no place for nobody in your condition what’s weak and needs a woman to keep an eye on you awhile” (252). She tucks him into bed and feeds him to his fill like any good mother would do.

Mary only plays into the other representations of Ellison’s conception–or possible critique–of a woman’s role. As I previously touched on, the novel only shows women in the context of their relationship to men, as daughters, mothers, wives, sexual objects, or a combination of a few of these things; Mary reinforces this idea. She’s only there to provide for T.I.M. and to give him guidance. She tells him that he should do something “that’s a credit to the race,” to “move us all up a little higher” (255). Yet, later she’s boiled down to nothing, “more or less like the old couple that was evicted” (308).

In my research, I discovered this essay that studies Mary not only under a feminist lens but also in the context of her as a black woman–which I failed to realize the implications of. The writer states, ¨by excluding any substantial, well-developed female characters, Ellison perpetuates the two main issues he is trying to criticize; inequality and invisibility.¨ In my investigation of the female characters that we’ve encountered, I think that I was too distracted by the lack of powerful, complex depictions of women, that I was blind to the fact that maybe that in itself was the point. Later in this essay, the author mentions that there was originally another chapter in The Invisible Man that featured a Mary that “represented strength, spunk, self-reliance in a character that was a healer and worked at Liberty Paints hospital.” While Mary nurses T.I.M. back to full health in the published version of the novel, it’s without the power or status of the Mary in the unpublished chapter. Then the author argues the Mary suffers from “double invisibility, the double jeopardy that results from being both black and female.” I didn’t notice this at first; it wasn’t until I read this article that I realized how, despite white women also suffering from a sort of ‘invisibility,’ it’s not nearly as terrible as the ‘invisibility’ that plagues black women like Mary.

I searched–quite extensively may I add–for the lost chapter which was published as a short story titled “Out of the Hospital and Under the Bar” in a collection called Soon, One Morning, yet, my efforts remain fruitless. It is lucky, however, that ETHS has such an amazing library because it turns out we have two copies of the aforementioned collection; I’ll have to check it out at some point. Until then, I’m content with the rabbit hole of criticism that I’ve stumbled into. That’s all a girl really needs, a few critical essays to tie her over.

The First (of Many) Invisible Man Musings

My reading speed seems to have slowed considerably as of late. Being only eight chapters into Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man I feel like I haven’t even really broken the surface, but I’m trying not to be too hard on myself; maybe this book is just meant to be savored. Despite not finished the book yet–like I  normally would have–I’m still really enjoying it and my enjoyment has only grown as I’ve gone up in page number. One thing that I just can resist when it comes to literature are meticulous, intricate details and it seems to me that just that is Ellison’s forte.

In the first chapter of The Invisible Man, not only are we introduced to the invisible man himself (T.I.M) but also we’re indirectly introduced to his grandfather who imparts in him some eerie advice about how to deal with whites. He tells T.I.M to “keep up the good fight” and to “overcome ‘em with yeses” (16).  T.I.M’s grandfather is suggesting that through total complicity, he’s actually rebelling. This advice haunts him; it makes it so his grandfather “had not died at all” (16).  Yet, T.I.M lives in the shadow of the advice “even in spite of [him]self” (16). He openly shares that this advice was perplexing to him; it was also perplexing to me and it gets even more puzzling. After the mishap with Mr. Norton and when T.I.M is talking to Dr. Bledsoe, he acquires some more advice–he’s always getting advice from someone. Dr. Bledsoe tells him, “ the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie.” (139). Here T.I.M. is left with two pieces of at least partially conflicting advice and, arguably, it’s his grandfather’s advice that got him in trouble in the first place. I believe that Ellison, in having this advice continually pop up, is emphasizing how T.I.M.’s orientation is changing as the book goes on. It’s my contention that he will have to learn for himself what constitutes the ‘right way’ to live and in order to do so, he first has to realize his own invisibility.

T.I.M.’s growth is particularly noticeable, in the context of his thoughts about Dr. Bledsoe. At first, he hails Dr. Bledsoe as if he were a god. Dr. Bledsoe epitomizes all that T.I.M. hopes to be: “Influential with wealthy men all over the country; consulted in matters concerning the race; a leader of his people; the possessor of not one, but two Cadillacs, a good salary and a soft, good-looking and creamy-complexioned wife.” (101). To me, it seems that his goals are more than a little superficial. Money, power, and status do not equal happiness, but, as a junior in college, that’s all T.I.M. hopes for.

After his and Dr. Bledsoe’s discussion, however, T.I.M. starts to realize that this man isn’t suited for the pedestal that he’s put him on. Bledsoe reveals his true colors–in disregarding Mr. Norton and showing his thirst for power– which causes T.I.M. to become physically ill; he says, “my stomach was knotted and my kidneys ached. My legs were rubbery.” (144).  His realization about who Dr. Bledsoe is, and who he is is, a lot for him to take. He “floundered upon Dr. Bledsoe’s decision” because it wasn’t consistent with T.I.M.’s prior conception of him as a principled person. Yet, this flourishes into a beautiful thing; He acknowledges his ignorance saying “I knew of no other way of living, nor other forms of success available to such as me.” (147). I think that this is crucially important because it’s foreshadowing his eventual complete revelation which is somehow tied to realization of his invisibility. At this point, he “still believing [him]self innocent,” yet, this line is half hinting at the fact that maybe he isn’t–at least not entirely. I’m willing to bet that in order to see the truth, he will have to face “the world of Trueblood and the Golden Day;” precisely what powerful, successful blacks like Dr. Bledsoe are trying to ignore and hide.

As I have said, I am enjoying The Invisible Man but as a woman, it’s impossible for me to not notice the shortage of female characters so far. It would also be impossible for me to ignore that the ones that we are already  acquainted with are terrible representations of women. The first woman mentioned in the novel is the blonde, naked dancer in chapter one. T.I.M. describes her as having “fine skin texture and beads of pearly perspiration glistening like dew around the pink and erected buds of her nipples,” making it clear that her only significance to him is that of a sexual object (19). He expresses the desire “to feel the soft thighs, to caress her and destroy her, to love her and murder her, to hide from her, and yet to stroke where below the small American flag tattooed upon her belly her thighs formed a capital V.”  (19). He boils her down to just “soft breasts” and “a capital V” (19).

This objectifying of women continues through the text. The next women introduced in the text are the Trueblood women, both of which are pregnant due to some unbearably gruesome circumstances. The father’s increasing awareness of his daughter’s womanhood plays some role is the mishap; he acknowledges this saying, “I’m realizin’ that she’s a woman now,…She said somethin’ I couldn’t understand, like a woman says when she wants to tease and please a man. I knowed then she was grown and I wondered how many times it’d done happened and was it that doggone boy”(56). That’s the only light we see his daughter in, in her relationship to the men around her.

Then there are the women of the Golden Day, all of which are prostitutes that are dressed in  “short, tight-fitting, stiffly starched gingham aprons”(74); again, they’re only seen objects of desire. The last woman we see is one that T.I.M. runs into on campus who asks him to deliver a message to her boyfriend. He criticizes her saying that if he delivers her message, “they’d meet and she’d be sent home pregnant” (105)–because, of course, there’s no way that she could be motivated by anything other than sex. All these encounters with women are summed up by the doc, on T.I.M.’s bus ride to New York, when he states “what will be…any man’s most easily accessible symbol of freedom? Why, a woman, of course. In twenty minutes he can inflate that symbol with all the freedom which he’ll be too busy working to enjoy the rest of the time.” (153). Women are valuable to men because men are free to do with they want with them. The naked dancing blonde, Trueblood’s daughter, and the prostitutes from the Golden Day all serve as examples of this. Whenever women are mentioned in The Invisible Man it’s only ever in the context of sex, the only thing women have to offer men. Ellison is clearly making a conjecture about the treatment of women; I don’t know if he’s critiquing it, reaffirming it, or a combination of the two.

I’m confident that as I continue to read, the story will only build on the things I’ve touched on. Despite my slow start, I think I’ll fly through the rest of the book. These short one-pagers (that I do a hell of a good job making much too long) motivate me to read–sometimes because they make me realize what a text has to offer and sometimes just because of the joy I get in writing about reading. While writing this, I noticed some of the subtleties woven through Ellison’s work that I would’ve otherwise missed; I also realized that I derive a lot of my happiness from writing–and what’s particularly profound about my writing-related happiness is that it’s a conscious happiness. It’s something I can cling to when I feel like I’m in a  “shoreless sea of toil.”

Beginning My Poetry Obsession with “The Endless Unbegun”

I’ve never really thought of myself as a poetry person. There’s some quality to it that made it seem arduous and pretentious, showy and unnecessary, and generally a disagreeable pastime. Whenever poetry week rolls around, it’s accompanied by the same eye roll, reluctant sigh, and dejected mood that is necessary to mourn the loss of even one English class for the terrible cause of poetry. This year, however, it was different. Day one of poetry week followed the same progression as previous years, yet, on day two I was pleasantly surprised; for once, I was intrigued by poetry rather than being put off by it.

The woman who was leading the workshop on day two was Rachel Jamison Webster, a teacher at Northwestern and a poet. I really enjoyed the workshop–and may have even gotten a poem of my own out of it–but what I enjoyed more was her book The Endless Unbegun. Her work taught me that poetry is capable of telling a story. Being a strange, but beautiful melange of poetry and prose, it also showed me the lengths that both media can go to. I never thought it would be possible to mix the two, but she makes an argument for their seamless coexistence.

The story starts with Jon and Marisol. A seed of their possible love is planted, but there’s another much more disorienting idea introduced: outside of them there’s a wish–some sort of disembodied hopefulness about their future. This story really made me think. At times, I found myself trying to determine who’s speaking and when I wasn’t doing that I was trying to decode the true subject. Despite my trials, it wasn’t frustrating. It’s my contention that any book that pushes me to think about things you otherwise wouldn’t is a good book.

The larger part of the story doesn’t follow Jon and Marisol, but Fortunatus and Radegunde who are the subjects of Marisol’s writing. Yet, the even deeper subject of her writing lies in the middle distance, which to me was a majorly confounding prospect. Webster defines the middle distance as “that space between performance and communication, between my imagined characters and real characters with life in them, between the small rehearsal of love into Love, .” (17). While this idea is presented in prose it’s built upon in a poem called “We Plod on in Darkness, We Plod on in Light,” where the act of traversing the middle passage is described. Once through the passage, the speaker says, “life was taking shape/on the horizon, in a faint bolt of blue” (86); the journey is a journey into life which reaches its crescendo when “the head breaks through/blood, hair and sinew to crown” (104). This idea of the middle distance, while confusing at times, kept the book interesting and even makes me want to re-read it just to better understand the concept.

As I read any book, I dog-ear the pages that have a particularly profound impact on me. I expected the bulk of the marked pages in The Endless Unbegun to be prose pieces, but that wasn’t the case; the poetry that struck me more often. A few ideas presented by Webster resonated deeply with me, the first of which being time. In “Life is Just One Long Forgetting, I Said,” the speaker describes life saying, “you called life a recollection/of the light that composed us to matter./Forgetting, remembering,/we have only the space between” (60). What I like about this definition is that it makes life seem much simpler than it is, which is reassuring when you’re an over-thinker like me. It’s also a pleasing idea that we are composed of light; how can you think that and not be hopeful. The ideas in this poem sort of remind me of this quote by J.R.R Tolkien which I like enough to hang on my wall.

The next few lines that stuck out to me are from a poem called “Lord” which calls into question the fluidity of time. The speaker describes, “My present was my past/and my future was coming at me/ in dreams” (40). The idea of the present being the past is mind-boggling, but it’s exactly what I love about this line. I guess that’s the thing about poetry: it makes sense without making sense. I also like the prospect of our future coming to us in dreams; it’s intriguing and scary at the same time–especially with some of the dreams I’ve had.

The last quote that struck me coincides with a piece of advice that Webster shared during her session with us. She said, “The deepest things are in the answers, not in the wonder; we all wonder.” I think it’s easy for poetry to pose questions, but as a reader, I find that unhelpful–unless I’m just looking for reassurance that someone else has the same qualms I do. In her poem, that is titled with a question, “Why Did We So Love the World?” Webster gives an answer: ” We loved it/ because we loved each other./ Because our love of the world/ was finally at last proportional/ to our love of one another” (95). To many people, love is a scary thing. If you love something or someone, you open yourself up to the possibility of being hurt, of losing them. Yet, this quote argues for loving one another unabashedly, for in doing so love has the ability to spread. This is a concept that I have not fully grasped, but this line reinforces the idea that love is powerful, and that is an idea I can get behind.

Poetry is one area of literature I never thought I could like. But like a lot of things this year, I’ve given it a chance–because of my English class–and learned that poetry is more powerful than I once thought. I’ve even integrated a little poetry into my mile-long reading list (Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, and Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems). Our daily, in-class poem only makes me more passionate about an genre I thought I’d always avoid. I’m a changed woman. Bye, bye Chemical Engineering. Hello, English.

Diving into Mrs. Dalloway

This blog post is the first of which I’ve composed in my father’s office. It’s a pretty dull place where the most frequently uttered words are only ones that an accountant is fluent in. Not a fan. My spring break has been a tedious balance of college-related horrors and idle-distractions like my temporary secretarial position (which I’m slacking on as I write this post. What can I say? I have my priorities in order). After two days, I’m finally beginning to understand all the nuances the position demands–like the subtle difference between the tone of the doorbell and the phone. The dull ebb and flow of printing emails and filing papers, answering the phones and opening the door is getting to me.

My other distraction, a much more enjoyable one, was that of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. As with many a book I dive into, as Mrs. Dalloway made her acquaintances I was mildly confused. It took me a few pages to realize that the story is interspersed with flashbacks to Mrs. Dalloway’s youth and despite taking place over the course of one day, the stories told by Woolf span decades. Clarissa Dalloway is a strong woman with her own set of opinions; Clarissa believes that “in marriage a little license, a little independence” is necessary (111). Yet, at the same time, she’s a pretty typical housewife, going out getting flowers, mending her dress, doing all the things necessary for one of her parties.

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An interesting aspect of the book, and what makes Woolf’s novel what it is, is the style of narration. To be entirely honest, I’m not one who pays much mind to shifts in tenses or spends hours determining exactly what point of view that the narrator is speaking from. Whenever some English-teacher-type points it out, I’m pretty amazed; that’s the kind of close reading I strive for but rarely achieve. Woolf’s novel is a strange melange of first person narration and third person narration; at times, the novel is all stream of consciousness then a line like this will be thrown in: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” (129). In making Mrs. Dalloway and the narrator essentially one entity, Woolf more completely reveals the nature of Clarissa, giving the reader a fuller view of the main character. Personally, I liked the way this text was written because it allowed me to get into Clarissa’s head, which is really where most of the story takes place.

Clarissa lives in her mind almost to the point of isolation. Her inner thoughts come to an apotheosis when she returns to her room after running around all morning trying to get ready for the impending party, in what seems to me one of the most important scenes in the book. Clarissa is lying on her bed, pondering love, when she says

There was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room…The sheets were clean, tight stretched in a broad white band from side to side. Narrower and narrower would her bed be…the room was an attic; the bed narrow; and lying there reading, for she slept badly, she could not dispel a virginity preserved through childbirth which clung to her like a sheet…She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together. For THAT she could dimly perceive. She resented it…she did undoubtedly then feel what men felt. Only for a moment; but it was enough. (147)

Clarissa’s relationship with Sally was the high point of her life and now that she sleeps alone in her bed, since recovering from her illness, she feels as if she is still a virgin–either due to the distance or lack of passion she has for her husband. Her husband keeps his distance, and to some degree tries to understand Clarissa. For a book so entrenched with the idea of what it means to be a woman, it’s intriguing that Mrs. Dalloway is contemplating what it means to be a man in this quote. And if it’s an aversion to men that keeps her from truly loving her husband then why does she still seem to love Peter Walsh?

The idea at the heart of the matter is love. Clarissa is wondering why love for a woman was any different than love for a man. The “emptiness” at “the heart of life” is passion, which explains why her bed is so “narrow”.  In her quest for the truth about the nature of love, she questions the validity of her love of Sally, one of her close friends from her youth. Yet, she realizes the power of her love for Sally reminiscing, “‘if it were now to die ’twere now to be most happy.’ That was her feeling — Othello’s feeling, and she felt it, she was convinced, as strongly as Shakespeare meant Othello to feel it.” (148). Having read Othello earlier this year, and it having planted quite a few questions in my own head about love (most of which I had the pleasure of writing through) I appreciated Woolf’s allusion. In likening herself to Othello, I believe she is expressing some regret in her life choices, especially in the context of love. Othello chooses passion. Clarissa doesn’t. She leaves her passion for Sally and Peter behind, but it seems to haunt her in her thoughts. She marries her husband, Richard, because he provides her with comfort and security; it looks like comfort and security, albeit an easier path, isn’t the most rewarding.

It is in her brief brushes with love where her and Septimus, the book’s other main character, are incredibly similar; both Septimus and Clarissa have intimate relationships with people of the same sex. It was only after reading some criticism that I realized the parallel between Clarissa and Septimus–which sort of reminds me of Hightower and Christmas, in Faulkner’s Light in August, and how they’re two sides of the same coinI’m glad that I took the opportunity to dive into some criticism because, without it, I would’ve missed this connection altogether. I suppose that’s the reason I love literary criticism so much: it acts as an English teacher in the moment you’re without one. Criticism also allows for discussion without any verbal back and forth, which makes it especially valuable to me when I’m reading a book outside of class.

When it comes down to it, I didn’t love Mrs. Dalloway. There were some quotable quotes that were pleasant to read but other than that, the story seemed mildly superficial. I even tried to watch the movie and believe me, it was no better. I think this might be the first book I’ve blogged about that I wouldn’t recommend. Read The Good Soldier instead. It’s twice as profound and half as whiny as Mrs. Dalloway. That’s a book I would read again, this one not so much.

Assata

“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Over spring break, the future, my future was bearing heavily down on me, and normally when I’m in such a predicament I find refuge in writing. Yet, it being spring break, I didn’t have anything to write about…except I did, I just didn’t know it yet. I went on an internet hunt to find my muse. I just didn’t know where to begin so I figured that there was no one better to get writing advice from than the masters. Reading through the list of 117 pieces of ‘timeless advice on writing’, I stumbled on the beauty above: a line that sums up how I go about my writing. Mostly I write for myself, but there’s always an exception to that rule. This post is one of those exceptions.

This post is unique in another way because it’s not being written immediately following reading the book. Despite the time that’s passed since I read it, Assata still has a firm hold on me and I believe it will continue to, maybe for the rest of my life. In my reading, I started out wary, questioning ‘how am I suppose to trust her account of what happened the night she was stopped by police in the turnpike?’ But as I continued reading, I realized why would she lie. There’s a part of me that still thinks parts of her story is fabricated, but that’s the same part of me that thinks injustice doesn’t exist. That’s the part of me that wanted to shut her eyes when we watched Hearts and Minds in class. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. I learned from Assata that only confrontation has that power.

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When her story begins, Assata Shakur is twenty-six. She, like me, is a young woman living in America. All of her struggles I couldn’t relate to, but the struggles concerning womanhood felt familiar to me. I think it’s hard for all women to talk about what it means to grow into themselves, so anytime I read about a woman recalling her life–fiction or non-fiction–I’m normally passionate about it. While Shakur’s prose isn’t as flowery and bee-ridden as Their Eyes Were Watching God, the two strike a similar chord by chronicling what it feels like to be a woman. Assata recounts one story in particular–how when she ran away as a teenager, she worked at a bar and “was convinced [she] was in love” with the bass player–that I found particularly charming (112). She also recounts viscerally being sexually assaulted as a girl–one of the moments where she realized how cruel the world can be–concluding, “Everybody was always saying what a dog-eat-dog world it was. There were all kinds of people in the world and most of them seemed unhappy. Everybody seemed to be in their own bag and few seemed to care about anybody else. I had read this play by Sartre. The play ended with the conclusion that hell is other people, and, for awhile, I agreed.” (115). Shakur aptly puts into words the progression that everyone goes through when they begin to see that the world isn’t all candy canes and lollipops, but luckily for most people, it isn’t prompted by such a gruesome experience. It’s natural to feel repulsed by the world–I know I have, perhaps even after finishing her book–and that’s what she’s describing here.

Something that also captivated me about this book is when Assata talks about how books were integral to her education in becoming a revolutionary. Man, I love books, but a book that talks about books, that’s almost as good as it gets. She goes on a book-related tangent saying, “Those books were like food to me. Fiction and poetry were my favorites, although i liked history and psychology, too.” (135). Her quest for knowledge soon became insatiable, but it was only after someone made her “feel like a bona fide clown” that she realized the necessity of reading (151). She reflects on her ignorance, saying, “Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who the enemy is.” and that “when you don’t know what’s going on in the world you’re at a definite disadvantage” (152).  The first author she dives into, to combat her lack-of-knowing, is James Baldwin and finds that “his fiction is more real that [her] reality” (155). Some of my favorite chapters in this book are when she talks about reading and learning. Her brief experience attending Manhattan Community College was interesting to read about. She talks about how the discussions she had with her peers were meaningful and how they prompt her to grow as an individual. She isn’t at some top university, but that doesn’t define how meaningful her experience there is. For me, this part is particularly reassuring as my future seems to be moving ever-closer to the present, that future being college.

In the beginning of the book–I have to be entirely honest–I found myself trying to make excuses for the white people treating Assata so terribly. I would think to myself, “They must’ve had some cause; they wouldn’t have treated her like that for no reason.” Thinking back now, I can’t believe how ignorant I was. Yes, People do terrible. Worse: they do terrible things consciously. I was horrified when Shakur discussed the prospect of an internal search, but even more horrified by the consequence refusing to do one, “they lock you in the hole and they don’t let you out until you consent” (83). But that isn’t even the half of it. After becoming pregnant, Assata is assigned a doctor that tells her “I can’t force you to do anything, but my advice is to have an abortion. It will be better for you and for everybody else.” (126). Woah, woah, woah. Excuse me. The fact that this male doctor thinks that he has any say in her choice to keep the baby is entirely laughable. The fact that she had to fight tooth and nail to get a doctor that would respect her is outrageous. This is a prime example dehumanization of the prison system; at the end of the day, in jail or out of jail, Assata is a woman, a person and she deserved a reliable doctor.

This book was incredibly eye-opening, yet, I don’t think it was the ideas that were new to me that were so captivating, but rather it was the ones that felt familiar kept me reading. Throughout Assata, Shakur does a wonderful job explicating her uncertainties growing up. She also documents her growth, showing when and why she changes her mind along her way. The future is daunting for everyone, but it reassuring to hear that even Assata struggled to find her place in the world. She sums this up in saying “The world for me then was a big question mark, and the biggest question of all was where i fit in.” (74). She essentially encapsulates all of human existence in this one line. Isn’t this the question that everyone is trying to answer: where do I fit? It seems to me that there is no definitive answer, but the question in itself is profound.

I could go on and on about all the different topics that Shakur touches on in the book, but I’ll end with this one: the school system in amerika. Before I start discussing her observations, I believe it relevant to talk about my own school experience. For me, school has always been an area that I have excelled in; I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve really struggled with school, which is why it was so intriguing to see the issue from a different perspective. Assata stands up for all the kids who struggle in school and deflects some of the blame to the system itself–where it belongs–saying “When i think of how racist, how Eurocentric our so-called education in amerika is, it staggers my mind. And when i think back to some of those students who were labeled “troublemakers…” i realize that many of them were unsung heroes” (136). I have to say, she’s spitting some truth there. Her thoughts on the education system deepened further when she became a student-teacher. She had a whole new definition of what worked in the classroom and what didn’t. She realized that it was tough; she “was studying as hard as the kids” (187). She was passionate about teaching, yet it left her “with little time for anything else” (188). While there may have been a time where I wanted to be a teacher, Assata is just one of myriad people who advise against it. Her conclusion on the system is this: “As long as we expect amerika’s schools to educate us, we will remain ignorant.” (181). This is a powerful statement. Sometimes we have to seek out information ourselves to find the whole truth. I know I’ve learned that.

Now after I’ve spent far-too-many words telling you my opinion of Assata, I feel it necessary to say that I don’t deserve one…which is why this book didn’t initially have a companion post until now. I have never had to endure even a tenth of a percent of the horror Assata endured in her life. I will never have to. I can’t say that what she feels is invalid because I don’t know what it feels like to grow up as a black woman in amerika. Therefore, my opinion on the story should be non-existent. Assata is a powerful read. I think that everyone should have to read it. It’s not a book I would’ve normally picked up and I’m pretty sure my parents thought I was going to turn into a revolutionary after I did. It is my belief that certain books find us for a reason. Assata taught me more than a few necessary lessons.

There’s one last piece of truth that I must close with (and if you made it though seventeen-hundred words you deserve it); despite what I have said in my introduction, there are very few pieces that I write entirely for myself. Writing these blog posts has brought me a lot of joy and has taught me that I should be proud and open about my passions. That being said, if nobody were to read them, the joy I feel in writing them would greatly diminish. Yet, to write is to be vulnerable and I’m not so great at that. I hide behind the “I write for me” spiel because it allows me to shield myself from criticism. But to hell with Vonnegut, I’m going to open the window and write for as many (or as few) people as I want.

 

Growing into My Self

Okay, fine I’ll admit it. I haven’t been reading as much as I should be. I blame my Faulkner-related PTSD. Yet I can’t stop picking up what the man is putting down. We have a love-hate relationship. To be fair, I have read eight books this quarter despite only blogging about six. I also feel like I’ve been really diving deep into the books I have been read. Faster isn’t always better; in toning down my reading speed, I’ve realized that I gain more from the text.

At my slower pace, I’ve been able to indulge in more criticism and boy I’m really into it. While on my trip to California I had the pleasure of visiting two bookstores (of the used variety of course–is there really any other way to buy books? I, myself, am partial to books that have seen a little bit of life). The first is called The Last Bookstore and is in Downtown LA. It’s in a really old building and has a sort of 1920s, Great-Gatsby-esque glamour to it.  Not only did it have a huge selection of my favorite category of books–you’ll never guess–none other than classics, but it also has a section of just criticism. I had to physically restrain myself. I presume that most people aren’t as jazzed about criticism as I am because Barnes and Noble just doesn’t stock it.

The other bookstore that I had the pleasure of visiting was The Iliad Bookshop in West Hollywood. While it may not seem as visually appealing or organized as the first store I visited, it has its own mystique; it’s a (used)booklover’s paradise. As I looked through the endless shelves of criticism, my cousin asked warily, “So are these books for school or something?” to which I explained that they are for me, for fun, not for school. I ended up acquiring a dozen books on my trip, two plays, four novels, four books of criticism, and two books on reading/writing.

Short anecdote long, criticism doesn’t appeal to many people, many bookstores don’t even stock it, but it’s so so important; if there’s one thing I discovered in this quarter it’s that. Every book that I’ve read this quarter I’ve read some criticism on (bar The Good Soldier).  If you think that criticism isn’t for you, I urge you to try it because it adds depth to any novel and it also helps build a more fundamental understanding of literature. You don’t have to agree with the critic, in my opinion it’s often better when you don’t; then you have an opportunity to decide what you think and figure out how to support your position with textual evidence.

I’ve read so many great books that it’s hard for me to decide what to focus in on. I love Flannery O’Connor–how can you not. Yet, Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier was also a very enjoyable read and how can I not mention Beloved, which in my opinion is a true work of Art. Of the three I’d have to pick Flannery as my favorite, probably because I like to think we have some things in common. I read a dozen or so of her stories and cannot wait to crack open The Violent Bear it Away. Her stories all have a familiar feeling to them, yet they still are all distinctly different. Perhaps that’s what I enjoy about her. Or perhaps it’s the fact that she trumps my former-favorite author, O’Henry, with the twists and turns woven through her work.

With each book I read, I learned a little bit about life and about me. I think that a fool-proof way to truly get to know someone is by seeing what passages, in a given novel, stick out to her. It is through reading that I have learned just enough about life to realize I know next to nothing (don’t tell my parents that though). Rather than being my revelation being discouraging, it’s refreshing. It keeps me reading. It keeps me searching for knowledge, for answers to questions I didn’t know I had.

This quarter, this year, reading has caused me to contemplate myriad things. If you asked me on day one of senior year what I had planned for the rest of my existence–okay maybe just for the next four years of college–I have a feeling my answer would be markedly different to the one I’d give now. Books have always been a passion of mine, a sort of side passion that wasn’t given the sun, space, sustenance, or (most importantly) encouragement needed to grow. In the last couple of months, it has been given all of those things. Now I’m committed to finding a way to become the most well-versed, well-read, passionate Chemical Engineer around. No matter what box each of us fit into–or if you’re like me a couple of different boxes–we all need a little library magic in our lives.

Beloved, Be Loved…Be Love.

In writing this post, about an in-class book, I’m breaking one of my rules. But, then I remembered that this is my blog so I can write about anything I damn well please. Lately, class–and the books we’re reading in it–has been great. With Othello, I learned to love Shakespeare and with all of the assignments we had, I was given an opportunity to really dive into the text, to engage with it on a level that I seldom do. This week I devoured Beloved in just two sittings. I feel as if this book must be likened to art because of how masterfully it is pieced together by Toni Morrison. With a passion for the novel and without any writing assignments to channel my passion into, I knew that this post was necessary and unavoidable.

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As captivating a read Beloved is, it’s horrific. I feel like, for the first seventeen or so years of my life, I’ve been told so many half-truths. In reading books like Beloved–where slavery, rape, sorrow, terrible things are so commonplace–my eyes are opened a little wider. While it is undeniably true that Sethe experiences terrible things, like her milk being stolen and being whipped, she’s generally not the one in control in these situations. Even when she (literally) takes things into her own hands, in killing Beloved, her past is what is really what’s in control of her. She tries so hard to free her and her children from it, yet, she unconsciously reinforces the past when Sethe, like her mother, leaves her child. The situations are a little different, with Sethe’s mother dying whereas Beloved is killed, but they both result in a mother abandoning her child. The past has a tight grip on Sethe throughout the story, and it isn’t until at the end when the townswomen march to 124 and the future and the past meet, when its grip loosens.

Sethe’s past, her experience as a slave, has destroyed her and warped her sense of what love is. To her, love is pain. Love is her mother slapping her in the face after showing her mark, being left with no milk as a baby because the white babies were fed first. Love is her husband, Halle, watching her being raped and doing nothing. Love is killing Beloved. To her, Love is toxic. To me, it seemed that one of her biggest flaws is loving too much, but can you blame her for that? Paul D can see this, he even says “Your love is too thick” to which Sethe replies “Too thick?…Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all” (93). I know what you’re thinking, because I surmise it is what I am too thinking; what is Morrison getting at. I sense that what she’s revealing in Beloved is that love and ownership are knotted together so tightly, especially in the case of former slaves, that the two are impossible to untangle. For Sethe, the results of her unhealthy, poisonous devotion to loving her children are seen when she kills Beloved. Her “too thick” loving even seeps into her romantic relationships like with Paul D.

The jury is still out on if love is what caused Sethe to kill Beloved, if love has the capacity to go that wrong, to be that destructive. It’s clear to me that love–of any variety–is difficult and Morrison has shown in Beloved, that it is even more so for former slaves. There’s a weird relationship between ownership, love, and self-love. Sethe struggles to love her Self, which is understandable considering her past. It compels Paul D to tell her, “You your best thing, Sethe. You are” (155). I think Paul D’s advice to Sethe is something that we all could benefit from. Love seems like a pretty rough business, especially for Sethe, but that shouldn’t scare us away from it or cause us to “love just a little bit” (like Paul D) in an attempt to save ourselves from being hurt. I think it will seem easier if we concede to the fact that love just is.

 

Unearthing the Truth in “The Good Soldier”

I’ve read a boatload of books since I started this blog a little over three months ago–can you believe it’s been that long? I can’t. The books I’ve read I have not only mentally acquired, in a sort of virtual bookshelf in my head that I draw from constantly, but unfortunately also physically. My books only add the mess that is my room. The Good Soldier is presently sitting at the top of my mountain of books. This novel is not one of the many books I’ve sought out, rather it sort of found me. I’m glad it did, because even now, after some time has passed since reading it, I feel comfortable saying it has been my one of my favorite books that I’ve read this year. The Good Soldier is a mess of confusion, but there’s so much to love about it.the-good-soldier-ford-maddox-ford.png

The Good Soldier follows two wealthy couples, the Ashburnham’s and the Dowell’s, at the turn of the century. The novel is recollected entirely out of order, in a sort of almost Faulkner-esque manner, but the confusion functions organically and seems natural to the story–whereas Faulkner’s confusion, profound and Nobel-prize-worthy as it may, is distorting and bewildering to the point of inducing the reader to tears. Ford Madox Ford is upfront with his readers. His narrator, known simply as Dowell, blatantly states that he doesn’t know whether to “to try and tell the story from the beginning, as if it were a story; or whether to tell it from the distance of time” (14). He finally settles on telling the story as if he were sitting “at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite” (15). I’m glad he did because it made me feel as if someone was actually dictating to me a story.

This story presents an interesting conundrum: because of the narrator’s relaxed nature, much of what he says is contradictory. I quickly discovered in my reading that I was dealing with an unreliable narrator, but I must say I quite like his unreliability; it adds depth to the story. There’s something sort of realistic and poetic about people and their tendencies to contradict themselves. It is in their contradictions that we can find the real truth, the whole truth. Maybe part of Dowell’s aversion to stating things plainly–to avoid any confusion–is that he’s not entirely certain how he feels or even what’s going on. For instance, Dowell claims that “I loved Leonora always and, today, I would very cheerfully lay down my life, what is left of it, in her service. But I am sure I never had the beginnings of a trace of what is called the sex instinct towards her” (18). Yet, as the novel progresses, and Lenora finds a man who makes her happy and Dowell is left alone, he changes his tune. He says, “Leonora rather dislikes me, because she has got it into her head that I disapprove of her marriage with Rodney Bayham. Well, I disapprove of her marriage. Possibly I am jealous. Yes, no doubt I am jealous” (137). Perplexing, right? If Dowell really wasn’t interested in Leonora and if he loved her, why wouldn’t he want to see her happy? This situation is only one of many where I felt like there was more going on than what Dowell–or Ford–was telling me.

Pairing nicely with his use of confusion and contradiction, Ford also uses a whole lot of irony in The Good Soldier. For starters, Leonora, a ‘devout’ Catholic, goes to a priest for all of her marital advice. For a woman struggling with intimacy, it’s funny that she’d a priest for answers. She’s wholly unhappy with Edward. Maybe that’s a little bit of an overstatement, Dowell flips back and forth when describing Leonora’s opinion of Edward so it’s hard to determine what she really feels. Though he seems to perfectly sum up Leonora’s feelings when he writes, “Leonora loved Edward with a passion that was yet like an agony of hatred” (78). Love isn’t supposed to be agonizing, is it?

The irony doesn’t end there. For me, one of the most intriguing ironies of the book lies in the Nancy Rufford affair. For context, Nancy is the child of Leonora’s best friend; Leonora and Edward took her in at the age of thirteen and are her guardians. Edward Ashburnham and Nancy are close. Nancy admires him and appreciates his company. As Nancy ages, their relationship is seen as less and less appropriate. Leonora allows Edward to have multiple affairs, but oddly this is where she draws the line. Then Leonora suggests to Dowell, after the death of his wife, that he should marry Nancy. I find it odd that Leonora approves of Dowell marrying Nancy, yet, any sort of companionship between her husband and the girl is out of the question. Ford forces his readers to contemplate right and wrong by presenting them with ironic situations like this one.

The Good Soldier is called “the finest French novel in the English language” by John Rodker and for good reason. Ford’s prose is enigmatic and exact all at the same time. Take a look at my favorite passage from the book.

       “I have come to be very much of a cynic in these matters; I mean that it is impossible to believe in the permanence of man’s or woman’s love. Or, at any rate, it is impossible to believe in the permanence of any early passion. As I see it, at least, with regard to man, a love affair, a love for any definite woman–is something in the nature of a widening of the experience. With each new woman that a man is attracted to there appears to come a broadening of the outlook, or, if you like, an acquiring of new territory. A turn of the eyebrow, a tone of the voice, a queer characteristic gesture–all these things, and it is these things that cause to arise the passion of love–all these things are like so many objects on the horizon of the landscape that tempt a man to walk beyond the horizon, to explore. He wants to get, as it were, behind those eyebrows with the peculiar turn, as if he desired to see the world with the eyes that they overshadow. He wants to hear that voice applying itself to every possible proposition, to every possible topic; he wants to see those characteristic gestures against every possible background. Of the question of the sex-instinct I know very little and I do not think that it counts for very much in a really great passion. It can be aroused by such nothings–by an untied shoelace, by a glance of the eye in passing– that I think it might be left out of the calculation. I don’t mean to say that any great passion can exist without a desire for consummation. That seems to me to be a commonplace and to be therefore a matter needing no comment at all. It is a thing, with all its accidents, that must be taken for granted, as, in a novel, or a biography, you take it for granted that the characters have their meals with some regularity. But the real fierceness of desire, the real heat of a passion long continued and withering up the soul of a man is the craving for identity with the woman that he loves. He desires to see with the same eyes, to touch with the same sense of touch, to hear with the same ears, to lose his identity, to be enveloped, to be supported. For, whatever may be said of the relation of the sexes, there is no man who loves a woman that does not desire to come to her for the renewal of his courage, for the cutting asunder of his difficulties. And that will be the mainspring of his desire for her. We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.” (127)

I would call myself a guarded romantic and I suppose it is in my romanticism lies the reason I like this passage so much. The first idea presented by Ford, about it being impossible for love to be permanent and absolute, is mildly disheartening, but he saves it in the second half–in the last sentence to be exact–when he says, “We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.” This statement that is eternally true; across all of the books I’ve read, I’ve seen proof of it. From August Wilson’s Fences to Shakespeare’s Othello and even my latest read, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it can be seen clearly that as humans all we really, truly, and deeply long for is love. While I’ve had many realizations this year–more than I’ve had in my entire life–I think that realizing the importance of love and loving has been the biggest one.

Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier is a must read–at the very least it’s a must watch. It contains some interesting insights about life, some ironic observations that force us to think. Recently I’ve thought a little bit on why I read. Life doesn’t have an instruction manual; I read to figure life out. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t. Instead of being a How-To manual, The Good Soldier acts as a How-Not-To manual. Yet, in the process of reading it, I learned a little about life, love, and people. What else can you ask for in a novel?

Who can refuse “A Room with a View”?

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E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View is a classic…isn’t it? The title is described as “the most popular of his early works…a delightfully satiric comedy of manners and an immensely satisfying love story.” I have to disagree. I found the love story immensely unsatisfying actually. Just as you can’t judge a book by a cover, you can’t judge an author by only one of their books; so I’m not going to denounce Forster because of one dud title. To be fair, I did watch the 1985 version of the movie prior to reading it, so I knew what I was getting myself into. I had hope that the book would be better than the movie, yet, it isn’t so.

The first half of the book wasn’t terrible. The book opens with the main character, Lucy Honeychurch, and her aunt on vacation in Florence, Italy. Once arriving at their accommodations, Lucy and her aunt are very displeased with their rooms–of course, they each want a room with a view. After voicing their displeasure at dinner, the Emersons (a father-son duo) offer up their rooms to please Miss Honeychurch and her aunt. The rest of the book revolves around Lucy’s search for a metaphorical room with a view. Despite the Emerson’s kindness, they’re outsiders who are socially inferior to Lucy and her aunt and therefore are off-limits. But you know us women, we love any man who is deemed unacceptable and denounced by our families. Lucy falls for George and the rest is history–cliché, unimaginative history at that.

The reason I picked up A Room with a View was for the love story, but the only reason that I stuck with it was for the coming-of-age tale. Lucy clearly struggles with differentiating what she wants for herself, with what the rest of her family want for her. She’s used to other people telling her what to think, so much so that she even asks Mr. Beebe, “old Emerson, is he nice or not nice? I do so want to know.” She’s incapable, at the beginning of the novel, of determining anything for herself. Forster even writes, “she was accustomed to having her thoughts confirmed by others…it was too dreadful not to know whether she was thinking right or wrong.” As the novel progresses, Lucy becomes more resolute in herself and her decisions, but it’s frustrating to watch her before she has her transformation. Yet, I can relate. I’ve found that the minute I stop trying to think the ‘right’ way and just think about what I believe, my own opinions become much clearer to me. Lucy is slow to this conclusion, but when she finally chooses George in the end, I think she gets it.

To illustrate Lucy’s coming of age and growth, Forster uses Spring as a sort of metaphor. It is Spring when Lucy first arrives in Florence. The signs of Spring are all around, but Forster focuses in on them particularly when Lucy and George’s relationship starts to flourish. I mean they kiss in a meadow of violets–how much more Spring-y can you get. On the trek up to the meadow, the conversation is filled with myriad references to the season. During the ride, this question is posed: “Do you suppose there’s a difference between Spring in nature and Spring in man? But there we go, praising one and condemning the other.” This quote reinforces the parallel of Spring as both a season in nature and a season in one’s life. Lucy, I daresay, is in the spring of her life. After kissing George, she finds herself thinking that “In the company of this uncommon man the world was beautiful and direct. For the first time, she felt the influence of Spring.” She opens herself up to love like a flower blossoms in Spring.

As I’ve said, I didn’t love reading A Room with a View. My advice is that, if you pick it up, just know what you’re getting yourself into. My personal opinion is, that instead of reading it, just watch a romantic movie (my personal favorites are Anna Karenina or Jane Eyre, for something classic, and Remember Me or 10 Things I Hate About You, if you’re in the mood for something more modern. Oh, and I can’t possibly leave out  Sixteen Candles). All of these movies are far better alternatives to enduring Forster’s novel. However, I haven’t given up on the man entirely. I’ve already acquired A Passage to India, although it might be awhile before I can commit to it. I’ll have to forget about the treachery of A Room with a View first.