Archive for December, 2017

Pride And Prejudice / Jane Austen

Somehow, I avoided Jane Austen as assigned reading back in my school days. To make up for that literary gap, this year I purchased a book that collects her five novels. Several months ago, I read her debut novel, Sense and Sensibility. While I found it mildly engaging, I also felt it was a by-the-numbers romance and lacked heft. Austen’s followup to it was Pride and Prejudice. The plot lines in both stories are broadly similar. However, I was pleased to find Pride and Prejudice to be a more complex, satisfying read.

The story focuses on the civilized sparring that takes place between the proud Mr. Darcy and the independent Elizabeth Bennet. What begins as a strong dislike on the part of Elizabeth, the book’s protagonist, slowly ripens into a romance in a series of drawing room encounters. The plot includes the intrigues surrounding her own family. While her father has ownership of their Longhorn estate, the property is entitled, which means none of his four daughters can inherit it. Austen delights in poking fun at the mother, Mrs. Bennet, a silly woman whose only interest is finding a rich suitor for each of her children. Another comic foil is the youngest daughter, Lydia, who foolishly gets involved with a ne’er-do-well. And then there is Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the overbearing aunt of Mr. Darcy. All three provide welcome humor as Elizabeth wrestles with matters of her own heart.

Pride and Prejudice is one of the most popular novels of all time. That it remains a best seller today is amazing. After all, it was first published in 1813. Among its themes is the importance of environment and upbringing in developing a young person’s later character. But just as in her first novel, Austen’s main topics are marriage, wealth, and class. But what gives her novels such lasting appeal boils down to just one thing: strong female protagonists who are able to stand on equal footing with their male suitors. In that, Austen was clearly well ahead of her time.

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All The Light We Cannot See / Anthony Doerr

This delightfully complex novel is set mostly in occupied France during World War II. Its main character is Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a French girl who, in 1934 at age six, goes blind due to juvenile cataracts. Her father, a master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, creates a wooden scale model of their neighborhood for to memorize by touch. And for each of her birthdays, he crafts an intricate puzzle box for his daughter with a gift hidden inside. These creations play a big role in the unfolding plot.

Running side by side with Marie-Laure’s story is a separate one featuring Werner Pfennig, an orphan boy growing up with his younger sister in a mining town in Germany. One day they discover a broken radio that Werner takes apart and rebuilds, teaching himself, as he does so, how the circuitry works. He soon becomes the “go to” expert at repairing radios throughout the community. When it becomes obvious to the authorities that Werner is scientifically gifted, he is granted entrance into a brutal academy for the Hitler Youth.

While these two characters occupy center stage, what provides this novel with a pleasing depth is its supporting cast. Be it Marie-Laure’s father, great-uncle, the creepy Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, or Werner’s sister, all could easily stand alone as a lead. It is the radio that ultimately draws Marie-Laure and Werner’s paths to cross at the French coastal town of Saint-Malo shortly before it is liberated by Allied forces. Even though they only spend a short time together, it is a moment that resonates with a number of other characters throughout the rest of their lives.

The plot centers around an exquisite blue diamond of immeasurable wealth, the “Sea of Flames.” A Nazi gemologist (von Rumpel) believes that Marie-Laure’s father might have been entrusted with this jewel by the Museum of Natural History for safe keeping shortly before the Germans entered the city. However, like the puzzle boxes Marie-Laure has been given, the full plot of this book is far too complex to summarize in a short review. Doerr possesses a poet’s soul and has the keen curiosity of a scientist. His detailed descriptions of technology, the natural world, and the human heart dazzles and captivates.

Transformation

Yesterday, the world
seemed to be fluid and transmutable.
Clouds splattering
buckets full of sludge, mittens shaping
flakes into sculptures,
puddles deepening, snowballs moist
enough to drink.

But a bitter wind
today has solidified a sky’s deep hue.
The only clouds are
from breath, vehicles, our daydreams;
and despite its
glittery promise, the sun cannot coax
an icicle’s drip.

When night arrives,
daylight departs without even a blush.
A blue-black ceiling
has crystallized instantaneously into
the cold sparkle
of far-flung constellations, no closer
to us than spring.

The Blood Of Emmitt Till / Timothy B. Tyson

In the summer of 1955, Emmitt Till, a fourteen year old African American, traveled from Chicago to visit family members in Mississippi. After an encounter with a White woman storekeeper where he supposedly made inappropriate remarks and whistled at her, he was kidnapped and lynched by the woman’s male relatives. Over the course of several hours they severely beat and mutilated the boy before shooting him in the head and sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River. Such lynchings were common at the the time in the Mississippi Delta. However, what followed this particular killing was not. The publicity surrounding it shocked the nation and his death served as a catalyst of the Civil Rights movement.

A year before Emmett Till’s lynching, the Supreme Court had declared that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. This led to a wave of terrorism by Whites in the South intended to prevent integration of schools and to keep the Black population from voting. Unfortunately for Emmett Till, he arrived in Mississippi at a time when this angry backlash was gathering steam. While The Blood of Emmett Till outlines the background leading to the lynching, it focuses primarily on what occurred following Till’s death.

The key figure who ensured that the death of Emmett Till would not be forgotten was his mother, Mamie Till. When her son’s body was brought back to Chicago, she made the decision to organize a media campaign that made the death of her son front page news. This included a decision to have an open casket at Emmett’s funeral, allowing mourners to see for themselves how badly he had been beaten. Photographs of his mangled body were featured in newspapers across the country. And for years following his funeral, Mamie spoke at massive rallies to keep his name front and center in America’s consciousness.

Tyson goes into great detail to describe the trial of the men who killed Emmett Till. While everyone in the community knew these men were guilty of the crime, it was clear from the start that they would not be convicted. A corrupt, racist sheriff in charge of the case did his best to intimidate witnesses and disregard evidence. However, despite threats to their own lives, a good many people in the Black community and a few Whites did dare to testify against the defendants. Most of the Blacks who appeared in court had to leave the South after the trial to escape the death threats made against them. The courage it took for these people to testify left me humbled. I could not help but wonder if I could have done the the same in their shoes.

The Blood of Emmett Till is less a story of the real fourteen year old boy than a description of his legend and enduring memory. His name is still chanted in Black Lives Matter marches today. By focusing on this single incident, Tyson is able to encapsulate what life was like for Blacks in the Deep South during the 1950s. Only weeks after Till’s lynching, angry over the boy’s senseless death, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama. As Tyson shows in this book, Emmitt Till’s death was indeed the spark that ignited the American Civil Rights movement.

Invocation

No doubt, Death has
the strength to take my life.
Is it asking too much
for him to have the gentle
hands of my father?
If he did, I could not resist
when lifted, legless
with fatigue, to be carried
safely inside on this
journey’s dark conclusion.
Why cannot Death’s
bed soothe like a father’s
sturdy shoulder?
Ensconced in such security,
I’d never wake
when tucked into earth’s
enduring bones.
If his embrace is everlasting,
may Death’s touch
convey paternal concern.
Lord, grant me this.

March Snow

How messy
last night’s laundered whites
now seem,
although pristine when first
draped on
wires and boughs for drying.

Today, that
laundry resembles a jersey
worn through
a rugby match, embossed
with stains
and the traffic of footprints.

For what was
immaculate and dazzling,
in sunshine
became tonight’s load of
muddy clothes
after meeting bare ground.