Tag: banned


31. Animal Farm by George Orwell

October 10th, 2013 — 10:12am

Animal Farm was published in 1945 by George Orwell. As previously discussed, Orwell loves himself a dystopia — in this case, the dystopia is exploring the world of Communism and the rise of Stalinist Russia under the guise of animals.

AnimalFarm_1stEd

On Manor Farm, everything is going along as farms generally do, though Farmer Jones is known to be a tad bit cruel — he sometimes gets drunk and forgets to feed the animals, so that’s not the best animal ownership. Old Major, an old boar, gathers all of the animals together and tells them that he had a dream that animals controlled their own fates, as humans are parasites on the animals — they don’t do any work yet get all of the gain from the animals’ work. He calls his ideas “Animalism,” and the farm animals all agree that would be a wonderful way to live. They end their meeting by signing a song taught to them by Old Major called “Beasts of England,” all about the animals’ greatness.

When Old Major dies, two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, take up Old Major’s cause, organizing the animals against Farmer Jones, who leaves the farm when the animals attack him and his workers. The animals renamed the farm Animal Farm. They adopt the Seven Commandments of Animalism:

1. Whatever goes on two legs is an enemy.

2. Whatever goes on four legs, or has wings, is a friend.

3. No animal shall wear clothes.

4. No animal shall sleep in a bed.

5. No animal shall drink alcohol.

6. No animal shall kill any other animal.

7. All animals are equal.

Everything goes well on Animal Farm — all of the animals work, though they begin to notice that the cows milk is disappearing. Snowball is educating all of the animals, while Napoleon takes the puppies born to the two dogs on the farm and teaches them in secret, to the point where the animals don’t remember their existence. Mollie, the pony who enjoyed the finer things in life and had ribbons in her hair, leaves the farm when she is made to work, while Boxer, the carthorse, takes up the slack, making “I will work harder” his personal motto.

A schism between Napoleon and Snowball emerges, especially over the building of a windmill to bring power and productivity to the farm — Snowball is for it, Napoleon is against it. During a debate in front of the animals, Napoleon gets up and whistles, and a pack of dogs come charging at Snowball, chasing him off the farm. The animals realize that Napoleon has been training the puppies into his personal security team. Another pig, Squealer, convinces the animals that Snowball has been against them the entire time and that Napoleon has been singlehandedly working for the success of Animal Farm.

Things get bleaker on the farm. The animals begin to notice that the commandments are changing, small adjustments made to them until they’re finally changed to one single commandment: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Boxer becomes hurt and Squeaker tells the animals that Napoleon has arranged for Boxer to be taken to an animal hospital, but Benjamin, the cynical donkey on the farm, reads the side of the truck that comes for Boxer and sees that Boxer has been sold to a knacker for slaughter, and the money is going to buy whiskey for the pigs.

Years pass, and the pigs begin to walk on two legs, wear clothes, and carry whips. Napoleon also begins doing business with local farmers and invites them all over to a dinner, where he tells them that he’s changing the name of the farm back to Manor Farm. The other animals, who look in the window at them, realize that they can no longer distinguish between the pigs and the men.

Animal Farm is a condemnation of Stalin and his regime, as Stalin was allied with Churchill and Roosevelt during World War II and was looked upon favorably by the British people, much to Orwell’s distaste. He wrote Animal Farm to show the brutality of the Communist Party, and parallels can be made to every character:

Old Major – both Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, the fathers of Communism.

Napoleon – Joseph Stalin, who led the Soviet Union from 1930 until his death in 1953.

Snowball – Leon Trotsky, a rival of Stalin exiled from Russian and assassinated on Stalin’s orders in Mexico in 1940.

Squealer – the Soviet press, which Stalin controlled throughout his rule.

Minimus – the takeover of art by propaganda in a totalitarian state that aims to control what its citizens think.

Boxer – the male working class and peasants of the Soviet Union.

Clover – the female working class and peasants of the Soviet Union.

Mollie – the selfish and materialistic middle-class.

Benjamin – those who were aware of Stalin’s unjust and oppressive policies but did nothing to try to stop them.

The Dogs – the Soviet secret police.

Moses – organized religion.

The Sheep – the duped citizens of a totalitarian state.

Mr. Jones – the Russian Tsar in the early 20th century.

Mr. Frederick – the Fascist Germans/Adolf Hitler.

Mr. Pilkington – the Allies before World War II, particularly the British.

Mr. Whymper – capitalists who got rich doing business with the USSR.

It’s the symbolism stuff that English teachers’ dreams are made of. Just think of the essay topics!

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Module 15: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

December 9th, 2012 — 6:18pm

To Kill a Mockingbird was published by Harper Lee in 1960. It is loosely based on Lee’s childhood and memories she has of her father and a case he defended when she was 10 years old. Since its publication, it has been frequently banned in public schools and libraries for offensive language, racism, and blunt discussion of rape, but it has also produced one of the most honorable and loved characters in fiction in Atticus Finch.

SUMMARY

The novel is narrated by Scout Finch, a young girl who lives in Alabama with her brother, Jem, and father, Atticus, along with their housekeeper, Calpurnia. It details several years in Scout’s childhood during the Great Depression and focuses on experiences related to two very different people in the town of Maycomb, Alabama — Boo Radley, who is a recluse and mysterious figure in the town, and Tom Robinson, who is a black man accused of raping a white woman.

Boo Radley is a legend in the town who is the subject of many rumors, the worst being that he is a prisoner in his own home after getting into trouble with local boys. He is rumored to have gone crazy — one story that Scout and Jem have heard is that one day Boo was sitting on the floor cutting papers with scissors when he calmly reached over and stabbed his father’s leg with the scissors. No one had seen Boo Radley since and it’s a game among the children to run past the house and avoid the pecans that fall out of the trees in the Radleys’ yard, sicne they’re poisoned. Atticus instructs Jem, Scout, and Dill (their friend who visits his aunt in Maycomb every summer) to leave Boo alone when he catches them daring each other to run up and touch the Radleys’ porch.

On their way to school one day, Scout notices something shining from the knothole in a tree in the Radleys’ yard and discovers that someone has left small presents, including chewing gum in foil, yarn, and dolls shaped like Jem and Scout. Scout thinks that Boo Radley has been watching them from his window, and thinks that maybe he isn’t so bad after all.

During this time. Atticus is appointed the lawyer for Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a white woman from a poor family. Atticus accepts the case and defends Tom as he’d defend any other client, much to the disbelief of the town. Scout finds herself getting into a few fights at school when other children taunt her and call Atticus a “nigger-lover”. Atticus maintains that defending Tom is the right thing to do, which Scout and Jem agree with.

Atticus does not want Scout, Jem, and Dill to watch the court proceedings, so they sneak into the colored balcony and watch with the black citizens of Maycomb. Atticus proves that Mayella and her father, Bob Ewell are lying — Mayella and Bob say that Tom hit her on the right side of her face and held her down as he raped her; the doctor also testifies that the right side of Mayella’s face had been beaten. However, Tom Robinson is physically incapable of having hit Mayella on the right side of her face, as his left side is paralyzed from an accident when he was a teenager and the muscles in his arm were ripped up when his arm got caught in a cotton thresher. Atticus proves that Tom was trying to help Mayella, whom he felt sorry for due to her economic circumstances and friendless nature, when Mayella made sexual advances on Tom; Bob Ewell came home to see her flirting with a black man and beat her.

Despite the proof in front of them, the jury convicts Tom and finds him guilty. As Atticus leaves the courtroom, the people in the colored balcony stand as he passes. Dill, overcome by how rude the prosecuting attorney is, runs out of the courtroom crying. Jem and Scout follow him and run into the town drunk, who reveals that the bottle he drinks out of is actually soda — it’s easier for people to accept how he lives (with his black wife and children) if the townspeople think he’s a drunk and therefore not responsible for his actions. This is one of the first occasions that Jem and Scout that people and situations aren’t always as they appear.

After Tom’s conviction, he is sent to jail, and despite Atticus’s promise and work on an appeal, Tom is shot and killed when he tries to escape. The editor of the paper compares the conviction and killing of Tom Robinson to the killing of a mockingbird, which is a metaphor that Scout is familiar with — when Atticus gives Jem a gun, he tells him that he can shoot anything except for a mockingbird, as mockingbirds are innocent songbirds and only exist to bring beauty to the world. Scout realizes that Tom, and perhaps Boo Radley, are like mockingbirds.

Even though Tom is convicted, Bob Ewell is humiliated and upset with Atticus for revealing all of his faults in court. He vows revenge and spits in Atticus’s face when they meet on the street. On the night of the school play, when Jem and Scout are walking home (Scout in a ham costume), they are attacked in the dark. Scout is shoved to the side and can’t escape her ham costume, so she can only hear noises, which include a lot of scuffling and then heavy breathing. When she manages to break free of the ham, she sees a man carrying an unconscious Jem to the Finch house.

When she gets to their house, Atticus is calling a doctor. The doctor arrives and gives Jem a sedative and sets his broken arm. The sheriff, Heck Tate, arrives and tells Atticus Finch that Bob Ewell has been found stabbed with his own knife. When the sheriff and Atticus ask Scout what happened, she notices the mysterious man standing in the corner of Jem’s room and realizes that it’s Boo Radley who saved them.

Atticus and the sheriff decide that it is in both Jem and Boo’s best interest to claim that Bob Ewell fell on his own knife in the struggle with Jem — they know that if the word gets out that Boo saved the Finch children, the women of the town will bring him casseroles and fawn over him, which would be torture for the reclusive Boo. Tom died for no reason and now the man who was responsible is dead, is how the sheriff sees it.

Scout walks Boo home and he disappears into his house. Scout reflects that she never sees him again after that. She considers what life must be like from Boo’s perspective. She’s sad that she and Jem never repaid Boo for the gifts he left for them in the tree. She stands and looks at the street from the Radley house and imagines the town how Boo saw it. When she gets back to their house, Atticus is sitting by Jem’s bed and is reading a book, so she asks him to read to her. As she is falling asleep, Scout mumbles about a character in the book to prove that she’d been listening, but it also juxtaposes her encounter with Boo Radley:

“An‘ they chased him ’n‘ never could catch him ’cause they didn’t know what he looked like, an‘ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things…Atticus, he was real nice…”

His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.

“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

IMPRESSIONS

I love this book. I really can’t talk enough about how much I love it and will be searching for the rest of my life for a man exactly like Atticus Finch and when I find him I will marry him.

The book paints a truthful picture of a Southern town and the racial injustice that exists. I’ve never understood why people, Southerners in particular, try to ban or become offended by portrayals of racism in America. It DID exist and people WERE ridiculously horrible to each other. It’s the same with the Holocaust deniers — why? It takes away from the picture of Southern hospitality, perhaps that’s it. However, this book showcases a spectrum of prejudices, as it details the prejudices of both whites against blacks and whites against whites of a lower economic and social classes.

To Kill a Mockingbird is on banned lists for offensive language and racism. The offensive language, I found, is nothing that would make one blush, other than the talk of “niggers” and “nigger-lovers” and the discussion of the rape of Mayella Ewell.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

In her first novel, Harper Lee writes with gentle affection, rich humor and deep understanding of small-town family life in Alabama. … It is an easy going but narrow minded community, whose foot-washing Baptists feel perfectly free to denounce Miss Maudie Atkinson, a passionate garden-lover (for whom the scent of mimosa is “angels’ breath”) because “anything that’s pleasure is a sin.” At the other extreme stand men like Atticus Finch, a high-esteemed lawyer and legislator and the embodiment of fearless integrity, magnanimity and common sense. … The dialogue of Miss Lee’s refreshingly varied characters is a constant delight in its authenticity and swift revelation of personality. … [but] The praise Miss Lee deserves must be qualified somewhat by noting that oftentimes Scout’s expository style has an processed, homogenized, impersonal flatness quite out of keeping with the narrator’s gay, impulsive approach to life in youth. Also, some of the scenes suggest that Miss Lee is cocking at least on eye toward Hollywood. Movie-going readers will be able to cast most of the roles very quickly, but it is no disparagement of Miss Lee’s winning book to say that if could be the basis of an excellent film.
New York Times

Two other novels have turned up which may be classified as respectable hammock reading, if anybody reads in hammocks anymore. Walk Egypt by Vinnie Williams is well-written soap opera, and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is sugar-water served with humor. . . .

To Kill A Mockingbird is a more successful piece of work. It is frankly and completely impossible, being told in the first person by a six-year-old girl with the prose style of a well-educated adult. Miss Lee has, to be sure, made an attempt to confine the information in the text to what Scout would actually know, but it is no more than a casual gesture toward plausibility.

The book’s setting is a small town in Alabama, and the action behind Scout’s tale is her father’s determination, as a lawyer, liberal, and honest man, to defend a Negro accused of raping a white girl. What happens is, naturally, never seen directly by the narrator. The surface of the story is an Alcottish filigree of games, mischief, squabbles with an older brother, troubles at school, and the like. None of it is painful, for Scout and Jem are happy children, brought up with angelic cleverness by their father and his old Negro housekeeper. Nothing fazes them much or long. Even the new first-grade teacher, a devotee of the “Dewey decimal system” who is outraged to discover that Scout can already read and write, proves endurable in the long run.

A variety of adults, mostly eccentric in Scout’s judgment, and a continual bubble of incident make To Kill A Mockingbird pleasant, undemanding reading.
The Atlantic

LIBRARY USES

I would force every patron of the library to read this book if I could. There are so many uses — book talks with teenagers, displays for banned book week, displays for summer reading, excerpts to introduce studying civil rights and Jim Crow in history classes.

REFERENCES

Adams, P. L. (1960, August). Review of to kill a mockingbird. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.cardinalstage.org/critical-responses-to-the-nove

Lee, H. (1960). To kill a mockingbird. New York, NY: J. B. Lippincott & Co.

Lyell, F. (1960, July 10). One taxi town. The New York Times.. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/learning/teachers/archival/19600710tkamreview.pdf

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Module 2: In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

September 9th, 2012 — 6:41pm

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak is a children’s book published in 1970. As in Sendak’s previous children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, the book follows a child through a dreamlike world and adventure. It won the Caldecott Honor medal in 1971.

SUMMARY

Mickey is a young child who is in bed and hears a commotion downstairs. When he stands on his bed to shout “quiet down there!” to the noisemakers, he falls out of bed, out of his clothes, past his sleeping parents, and into the night kitchen, where three chefs (who have Hitler mustaches) are baking a cake for the morning. Mickey falls into the cake batter, and the bakers pour the Mickey batter into the cake pan and put it in the oven. Mickey bursts out of the oven during the baking. He escapes the oven and falls into bread dough, which he forms into an airplane and flies to a giant bottle of milk for the bakers, who are freaking out about Mickey’s escape from the cake. Mickey pours out milk for the morning cake and the bakers are satisfied and continue to bake the cake. Mickey wakes up, “cakefree and dried,” in his bed and we learn “that’s why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning.”

IMPRESSIONS

The controversy of In the Night Kitchen lies in the appearance of Mickey’s naked body, which does not give him the Ken doll treatment at all, and the chefs appearing unconcerned about baking a young boy. In an interview with NPR in 1986, Sendak said about the nudity issue:

Well, we live in a very strange society. I mean, I was outraged when that book came out and there was a such a hullabaloo over his genitals.

I mean, I assumed everybody knew little boys had that and that this wasn’t a breakthrough. The fact that people considered that outrageous: incredible. I mean, you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you go to the Frick, you go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and there’s a Christ child with his penis. It’s accepted in fine art, but somehow in books for children there’s a taboo.

Well, the hell with that. I mean, I didn’t set out to cause a scandal. I set out to do a very particular work where he had to be naked in order to confront a particular dream he was in. You don’t go into a dream wearing Fruit of the Loom underwear or PJs. You go tutto. You go yourself, your being, and that’s why he was naked, and it was idiocy. It was incredible idiocy what went on over that book for many, many years about Mickey being naked.
Maurice Sendak, 1986

It was no coincidence that the chefs have Hitler-esque appearances. Sendak was Jewish and was deeply affected by the Holocaust; his parents were Polish immigrants and most of his extended family was killed in concentration camps. The oven and the bakers insistence in baking him are a reference to the Holocaust (Gross 2003).

The bakers of “In the Night Kitchen” baking a Mickey cake.

According to the American Library Association, In the Night Kitchen is one of the most frequently banned or challenged books due to Mickey’s nudity and the phallic suggestions of the milk bottle. Eyeroll.

At the end of the day, the book, like all of Sendak’s work, is full of vivid pictures and a fun story. Childhood can be scary and dangerous, but through Mickey’s ingenuity and leadership, he survives enough for cake in the morning. I really enjoyed the book and think that children would enjoy it as well. It’s fun!

And reading the book makes me want cake.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

This is Maurice Sendak’s comic strip apotheosis of the Thirties/ dusky dream of sensual bliss/ bim bam boom bombshell of a child-echoing picture book. Sometimes Mickey’s toss and turn from bed into the night kitchen and back keeps in time to internal rhyme, or sets up a rhythmic chant or a remembrance of things heard, or makes sport with words; while what’s doing in the kitchen is the concoction of a cake by three Oliver Hardy cooks who take Mickey for milk until “right in the middle of the steaming and the making and the smelling and the baking Mickey poked through and said I’M NOT THE MILK AND THE MILK’S NOT ME! I’M MICKEY!” But wait: in his bread dough plane with his milk-pitcher helmet, Mickey flies up and up and up “and over the top of the Milky Way,” then dives down into the bottle “singing ‘I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me. God Bless Milk and God Bless Me!'” God bless naked and naturally exposed, Mickey is pure joy. . . or as the cooks chorus “MILK IN THE BATTER! MILK IN THE BATTER! WE BAKE CAKE! AND NOTHING’S THE MATTER!” (Can it go without saying that the pictures are superb.)
Kirkus Reviews, 1970

In the Night Kitchen is perhaps the closest any children’s book has come to telling an authentic dream since the days of George MacDonald who, after all, lived in that pre-Freudian world where it was still possible that dreams were messages from Faerie. That Night Kitchen also works as a story is a measure of Sendak’s power and control. Sendak’s major concern is always the integrity and the individuality of a child, who will be neither civilized nor molded. Mickey creates the airplane of his escape from the dough that was to have molded him into shape. Max, in Wild Things, turns the wild things to his own will. Sendak’s heroes return home, but never entirely forsake the wild places of their journeys.
The New York Review of Books, 1970

LIBRARY USE

The most obvious use would be to use this book prominently in a Banned Books display. The fervor over Mickey’s nudity was overwhelming when the book was published, but upon Sendak’s death in May of 2012, libraries are re-examining the book to introduce in circulation. This book would be an easy way to discuss censorship with children.

REFERENCES

Gross, Terry. (Producer). 2003, October 30. “Interview with Maurice Sendak.” Fresh Air with Terry Gross. NPR, National Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=152248901

Hentoff, Margot. (1970). “Little private lives.” The New York Review of Books. Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1970/dec/17/little-private-lives/?pagination=false

Kirkus’ Reviews. (1970). “In the night kitchen.” Kirkus Book Reviews. Retrieved from https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/maurice-sendak/in-the-night-kitchen/#review

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18. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

May 4th, 2012 — 9:30am

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death by Kurt Vonnegut was published in 1969. The book details the WWII experiences, as well as the time traveling experiences, of Billy Pilgrim. Yes, I said time traveling. The book is also known by the longer version of the title, Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where the Flying Saucers Come From. Peace.

The time traveling doesn’t seem so out of place now, does it?

The novel is slightly autobiographical (and the narrator’s voice transforms from passive observer telling Billy’s story to Vonnegut himself): the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a chaplain’s assistant in World War II and is captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and was kept in a slaughterhouse in Dresden, Germany, like Vonnegut. They both survive the fire-bombing of Dresden because Slaughterhouse-Five, as it’s called, is located deep underground. Unlike Vonnegut, however, Billy becomes “unstuck” in time and experiences the events of the novel in a non-linear fashion.

Billy travels both backwards and forwards in time. This means he goes in the past, the future, and an alien planet named Tralfamadore, where he’s displayed in a zoo exhibit with Montana Wildhack, who they’ve paired together for them to mate. The Tralfamadorians have already seen every instant of their lives. They say they cannot choose to change anything about their fates, but can choose to concentrate upon any moment in their lives, and Billy becomes convinced of the veracity of their theories — hence the unsticking.

He relives several moments of his life, such as his time in the war, specifically Dresden. He is also able to “relive” his murder, which will happen in the future as of the publication of the book.

One of the major themes of the book is free will or the lack thereof. Billy isn’t able to choose what experiences he has, like reliving his death before it happens. The Tralfamadorians believe that everything simultaneously exists, therefore, everyone is always alive. They, too, have wars and suffer tragedies (they destroy the universe whilst testing spaceship fuels), but, when Billy asks what they do about wars, they reply that they simply ignore them. The Tralfamadorians counter Vonnegut’s true theme: life, as a human being, is only enjoyable with unknowns. Tralfamadorians do not make choices about what they do, but have power only over what they think.

Vonnegut expounds his position in chapter one, “that writing an anti-war book is like writing an anti-glacier book,” both being futile endeavours, since both phenomena are unstoppable. This is reiterated with the refrain “So it goes.” What happens happens and not much can be done about it.

One of the main things that was unsettling, for me at least, was that the book was written as if it was unstuck as well, almost like it was a Tralfamordian novel. The fact that it is written in “the author’s voice” and that Vonnegut experienced the bombing of Dresden adds to the seriousness of the themes of the novel, like human senselessness — the bombing, the death and destruction, and the murder of a petty thief illustrate the time that is taken for punishment.

Good book. It’s a weird book, for sure, and the unsticking takes some time to get acclimated to, but it’s a good book.

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96. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

May 10th, 2011 — 2:04pm

Spoiler alert: This is quite possibly the most depressing book imaginable. Oedipus Rex has more laughs than this book. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, then you should turn back now.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron was published in 1979. It is narrated by Stingo, a Southerner working in publishing in new York City, who befriends an extremely screwed up couple. It takes place in 1947.

The Sophie in question is Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish-Catholic survivor of Auschwitz. Throughout the book, she tells Stingo about her past — both of her parents were professors, and Sophie was married at a young age to a mathematics scholar. One day, the Germans came and took Sophie’s father and husband away to a concentration camp and shot them on New Year’s Day. Sophie was taken to Auschwitz when she smuggled ham to her dying mother. While at Auschwitz, she worked as the stenographer to Rudolf Höss and tried to convince him that her son, Jan, should be taken from the camp and put into the Lebensborn program and be raised as a German orphan because he has blonde hair and blue eyes and speaks fluent German, but Höss refuses.

Sophie (Meryl Streep) living with her Choice.

The final piece of Sophie’s story from Auschwitz is about when she and her two children first arrived at the camp. She has two children, her son Jan and her daughter Eva. On the night they arrived, a doctor makes her choose which of her children will be sent to the gas chamber that night and which one will live.When she is unable to choose, a Nazi officer said both would be sent to die so Sophie chooses Eva to die that night, because she figures that Jan would have a better chance of surviving the camp. However, after she and Jan are separated between the adult and children camps, Sophie never finds out what happened to her son; she gets a letter saying that he’s been moved from the Children’s Camp and she assumes that he was killed. She has been living with overwhelming guilt and mourning ever since the day she arrived at Auschwitz.

You can start crying now. It’s okay. I’ll wait.

Sophie moved to America immediately after the war and met Nathan, who took care of her when she was sick when she first arrived. Nathan is crazy (he’s an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic) and is abusive to Sophie when he has one of his outbreaks; it doesn’t help that he’s self-medicating with cocaine and prescription drugs that he gets from his job at Pfizer.

Unfortunately, Nathan sets his crazy on Stingo and Sophie, who he accuses of having an affair together and he attacks Sophie and tries to kill her. Stingo takes Sophie away to Virginia, where Sophie tells him the story of her children. Stingo tells her that he’s in love with her and Sophie takes Stingo’s virginity. The next morning, Stingo wakes up to find a note from Sophie; she has gone back to Nathan. Telling the story of her children has overwhelmed her with grief and she has gone back to commit suicide with Nathan, who is on his own suicidal crazy-train. Stingo returns to Brooklyn and discovers that Sophie and Nathan have poisoned themselves with cyanide.

DEPRESSING.

There are a lot of nuances to the book — the way that the narration is told in both third and first person, the jumps in time, the comparisons of the Holocaust to the American South, the focus of a Holocaust survivor who isn’t Jewish — but who cares? Not when you compare it to the heart-wrenching choice of knowing that you are responsible for the death of your child. I don’t have, much less want, children and I felt like my heart was being torn out of my chest. I didn’t think anyone could find a way to make the horrors of the Holocaust even worse, but congratulations, William Styron, you did it.

The apocryphal story of the film version of Sophie’s Choice has Meryl Streep as Sophie only being able to do one take of the “choice” scene, as she found it too emotionally draining and painful. Preach, Queen Meryl.

4 comments » | modern

10. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

March 30th, 2011 — 1:45pm

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck was published in 1939. Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and the Nobel Prize for Literature 1962. The title comes from a lyric from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which in turn refers to Revelation 14:19-20 that describes the justice doled out through the Apocalypse.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.


The novel takes place in the 1930s during the height of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the Midwest. It followed the Joad family on their attempt to survive both as individuals and as a family. The Grapes of Wrath was initially not very well-received due to the social and political views that Steinbeck espoused through the novel, mainly by detailing the plight of poor people and the hardships of the migrant workers in California — people labeled it was lies and Communist leaning. However, it has become one of the most widely read books in classrooms and colleges across America.

The novel begins with Tom Joad, the Joad’s second oldest son, getting out of prison after serving four years for manslaughter. He makes his way to his family’s Oklahoma farm and on the way he meets Jim Casy, who is a former preacher who has given up his day job in order to be with the people — he believes that sacredness consists simply in endeavoring to be an equal among the people (Jim Casy is based on/inspired by Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts). Tom and Jim get to the farm to find it completely deserted. A neighbor tells them that the people on the land have all been “tractored” off and that most people, including the Joads, are heading to California to find work. Tom and Jim head to Tom’s Uncle John’s house to find his family finishing packing up all of their belongings into a single car that is affectionately referred to as a “jalopy.” They travel down Route 66 from Oklahoma to California.

The Joads head down Route 66.

Grandpa Joad, who complains the loudest that he doesn’t want to leave his land, dies before they can cross the Oklahoma border. Grandma Joad dies before they reach the California state line and Noah, the oldest brother, and Connie, the husband of the Joad’s pregnant daughter, Rose of Sharon, abandon the family.

Once the family reaches California, they are met with resistance — the work pool is oversaturated by people trying to find work and newcomers, whom are isnultingly referred to as “Okies”, are not appreciated. The family sets up in a Hooverwille (affectionately named for Herbert Hoover, who was the unfortunate president during the onset of the Great Depression and has become a scapegoat for blame for the economic downtown). The Hoovervilles are overcrowded and no one gets enough food; work is difficult to come by and no one can afford a sufficient amount of food for their families.

How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him - he has known a fear beyond every other.

The corporate farm landowners fear a worker uprising, so they try to guarantee that the workers remain poor and dependent on them for survival. Tom and several men get into a heated argument with a deputy sheriff over whether workers should organize into a union. When the argument turns violent, Jim Casy knocks the sheriff unconscious and is arrested. Police officers arrive and announce their intention to burn the Hooverville to the ground.

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in the 1940 movie.

The Joads eventually find work picking peaches at an orchard, until they find out that they’ve been hired as strikebreakers. Tom meets up again with Jim, who has been released from jail and is now hard at work organizing the workers and getting them to understand their power. Police deputies, hired by the landowners who don’t appreciate Jim’s new calling, raid the strike and in the action, Jim is killed; Tom retaliates by killing the police officer who killed Jim and fleeing.

Given Tom’s new fugitive status, the Joads move from the peach orchard to a cotton farm under the hopes that no one will identify Tom. When Ruthie, the youngest Joad daughter, is overheard telling another girl on the farm about her brother the murderer, Ma Joad sends Tom away to hide; Tom takes the opportunity to pick up where Jim left off in organizing the workers. Tom assures his mother that wherever he goes, he will work to help people:

Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry n’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.

The end of the summer comes, which means the end of the growing season and the end of work. The family realizes that there will be no jobs for three months when the rainy season arrives and there are torrential downpours that turn into floods. Rose of Sharon goes into labor with her baby, and Ma Joad finds a dry barn for them to stay; unfortunately Rose of Sharon’s baby is stillborn. In the barn are another family, a boy and his father. The father is weak and dying from malnourishment because he’s been giving all of the food they find to his son — the irony is that he’s now too sick to eat solid food. The novel ends with Rose of Sharon taking the the dying man in her arms and breast feeding him.

The Grapes of Wrath, while not overtly Christian, has a lot of Christian themes and symbols. Jim Casy is a Christ-like figure all the way down to his “J.C.” initials. He is a man who lives his life for others and sacrifices himself for the cause of the unrepresented workers. The floods at the end of the novel, while damaging, bring forth a sense of renewal and hope with the beginning of spring. Rose of Sharon transforms from a rather self-centered girl to a Pieta figure — she is overcome by maternal instincts and is able to provide comfort and protection for others.

The story of the family is offset by chapters told from the point of view of inanimate objects and creatrues that symbolize different parts of the journey of the people during the Dust Bowl. There is a chapter that is about a turtle crossing the road and the dangers it encounters (an ant gets in its shell, a driver swerves to hit it and then swerves to misses it), several excerpts about the machinery that is taking over agriculture and making farmers obsolete and details about what happens to the land when the farmers leave, and there’s a chapter in the point of view of a used car salesman talking about how he cheats the customers that are obviously poor and desperate. It makes the novel more universal; rather than just following the Joads, the narration is ubiquitous, showcasing the suffering of what seems to be everyone in America.

One of the major themes of the novel is man’s inhumanity towards man and the dangers of forgetting the importance of altruism. Most of the hardships that the migrant workers, and the Joads specifically, face aren’t caused by the weather and the Dust Bowl but by people. Whether it’s from a social, economic, or racial hierarchy, the people in the novel keep themselves up by shoving others down. That’s what makes people consider this one of Steinbeck’s more socially conscious stories, the fact that he focuses so much on the plight of the migrant worker and the injustices suffered to them.

I first read The Grapes of Wrath in my AP English class my junior year of high school. And to be honest, all I remembered was Rose of Sharon breast feeding the dying man and that at one point someone pees in the dirt and makes a poultice for a cut out of the urine soaked mud. I also remember my teacher yelling at us about the machines being personified as monsters and being alive. It’s nice that the integrity of literature lives on in teenagers.

Steinbeck is one of the great American authors, and with good reason. The Grapes of Wrath manages to be a social commentary without seeming too preachy, in my opinion — however, it was banned and people held public burnings of the book because of what were seen as communist and socialist views. It’s nice to know that some things never change.

Comment » | classic books

4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

January 31st, 2011 — 12:31am

Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov was published in New York in 1958. It has been controversial and debated ever since.

The book is about a man, Humbert Humbert (a pseudonym he has chosen for himself), who is obsessed with nymphets, or sexually precocious girls. He blames this obsession on the death of his childhood sweetheart, Annabel Leigh. Because he was in love with her and she died at a young age, he subconciously searches for her to love again, and instead finds young girls who remind him of her. Humbert rents a house from Charlotte Haze, who just happens to have a 12 year old daughter named Dolores. Humbert immediately becomes infatuated with Dolores (who is also called also known as Dolly, Lolita, Lola, Lo, and L throughout the novel, try to keep up), and remains in the house to be near her.

Meanwhile, Charlotte, Lolita’s mother, begins to fall in love with Humbert. While Lolita is away at summer camp, she tells him that he has to either marry her or move out of the house. He agrees to marry Charlotte, even though he does not care for her and actually sort of pities her, so that he can remain close to Lolita. Charlotte remains unaware of Humbert’s creeper tendencies until she discovers his diary, in which he waxes poetic about his feelings for Lolita. Needless to say, she is horrified and makes plans to get her and her daughter as far away from Humbert as possible. Unfortunately, before she can do that or tell anyone what she’s discovered about Humbert, she’s hit by a car and killed.

Humbert picks up Lolita at camp; he tells the counselors that Charlotte is ill and is in the hospital. Once he has Lolita, he takes her to a hotel and attempts to give her sleeping pills in order to molest her more easily. The pills fail to work on her, but it’s okay! Because Lolita actually initiates sex with Humbert. It turns out that Lolita is already sexually active, as she had sex with a boy at her summer camp. And she’s still 12, by the way. Just saying.

Ignore the sunglasses and the lollipop. She is still 12.

Humbert finally tells Lolita that her mother is dead, and she realizes that there’s not really much else to do other than to accept her new life with her “stepfather” (EW). While at the hotel, they meet a strange man who seems to know them. Humbert is nervous about this, and decides that they need to take their show on the road.

Humbert and Lolita create a new life as nomads; they travel around from motel to motel with Humbert keeping Lolita disciplined by equally threatening to send her away to reform school and bribing her with sexual favors, even though he knows that she doesn’t love him like she does. Gee, I wonder why. They finally settle down in New England and Lolita is enrolled in school with Humbert assuming the role of the overbearing strict parent; Lolita is not allowed to participate in extracurriculars at school or associate with boys. The neighbors see his rules as the sign of a strict and loving parent. If only they knew how loving.

Lolita convinces Humbert to allow her to be in a school play by granting him more sexual favors. The play is by a man named Clare Quilty, who says that he saw Lolita’s acting and was inspired to write the play. However, on opening night, Humbert and Lolita have a fight and Lolita says that she wants to leave town again. When they leave, Humbert feels like someone is following them; he’s suspicious that Lolita is conspiring against him to leave him. She claims that she’s ill and is taken to a hospital while Humbert stays in a nearby hotel. When he goes to visit her, the hospital staff tells him that Lolita’s uncle has checked her out.

Uh oh.

Years pass, and one day Humbert receives a letter from the now 17 year old Lolita. She writes that she’s married, pregnant, and in desperate need of money. He meets with her, and she tells him that Clare Quilty was an acquaintance of Charlotte’s, and he checked her out of the hospital and attempted to make her star in one of his pornographic films; when she refused, he threw her out. She worked odd jobs before meeting and marrying her husband. She claims that her new husband knows nothing about her past and she intends to keep it that way.

Humbert, always the lecher, asks Lolita to leave her husband and return to him. He promises that it’ll be different this time! We’ll have a good life together! She refuses, because she has at least half a brain. Humbert leaves Lolita and finds and kills Quilty at his mansion. He then is arrested for driving on the wrong side of the road and swerving.

The narrative closes with Humbert’s final words to Lolita in which he wishes her well, and reveals the novel has been the memoirs of his life, only to be published after he and Lolita have both died.

Lolita gets a bad rap. If you can look past the pedophilia (which most people can’t), it is a very good book, at least in a literary sense. Nabokov was fond of wordplay and intricate details, and he uses many double entendres, puns, anagrams, and invents words throughout this book (nymphet is one example). He uses allusions to other authors, specifically Edgar Allan Poe (the name of Humbert’s childhood love, the use of doppleganger that occurs with Humbert and Clare Quilty). Many literary critics and scholars have found deeper meanings in the work, including interpretations that the book represents totalitarianism from Nabokov’s native Russia or the idea that the novel is about discovering your own identity when it has been taken over by someone else.

Nabokov was also a synesthete. That has nothing to do with the book, but it’s interesting anyway.

Comment » | modern

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

January 18th, 2011 — 2:27pm

How this book is not on the Modern Library list, I do not know.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first published in the United States in 1885. It was the first “American” novel: it was the first novel to be written using American regional dialect and vernacular. It is set in the South and is meant to take place in the period before the Civil War, around the 1840s. The book is a satire of the culture of the South and the attitudes of the citizens, particularly in regards to race.

The book tells the adventures of a boy named Huck Finn who escapes from the house of the women who have been caring for him, Widow Douglas and Miss Watson, when he overhears that she intends to “sivilize” him, and moves back in with his wayward father. Life with his father is equally unpleasant, so Huck fakes his own death and escapes on a raft down the Mississippi River, where he runs into Miss Watson’s slave, Jim, who has run away after overhearing that Miss Watson planned to sell him downriver, where conditions for slaves were even harsher, because he would bring a price of $800. The two travel along the river together; Jim is trying to make his way up the river into Ohio where he can be free, and Huck has several epiphanies regarding slavery, people, and life in general. The culmination of his change of opinion comes towards the end of the novel, when the two encounter a duo of grifters who attempt to sell Jim as their own and Huck helps Jim escape to freedom, declaring that if it is as wrong as everyone says it is, then he will do what he thinks is right and accept the consequences: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!”

The 1990s version of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn

The book has come back into public attention lately due to the fervor surrounding a publisher’s wish to remove all of the racially charged language, specifically by changing the word “nigger” to “slave”.

This makes me angry. I don’t like the idea of anyone changing literature without the approval of the author, and Mark Twain has been dead for a century. The publishers who want to change the words are saying that they only have the interest of the children at heart — because The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a book that is studied in high schools across the country, it is irresponsible to be teaching them “that word.”

Guess what, publisher — high school kids already know “that word.” It is in rap songs and movies, not to mention about 85% of the conversations that I’ve overheard my students have with one another. “That word” is part of the history of our country. Is it a proud moment in our national conscience? No. Will the hundreds of years that African Americans were regarded as property and treated as less than human suddenly be forgotten if we close our eyes and pretend that it didn’t happen? No.

Is it important that students read a book about a boy their age who has the opportunity to get to know someone and form his own opinions about what is inside a person and determine what he believes is right even though everyone else thinks something else? Is it important for students, in our post-9/11 society, with adults who talk about the fear of a mosque being constructed too near Ground Zero in NYC and talk about the Muslims trying to influence our children and take over the country, to read about a time in our history when a young person decided that discrimination is wrong because we are all the same inside?

Yes. And that is why this book is important.

2 comments » | classic books

Banned Books Week

September 23rd, 2010 — 11:08pm

Next week, September 25 — October 2, is Banned Books Week. Banned Books Week is a week to celebrate the importance of the First Amendment and to draw attention to the dangers of censorship.

A large majority of the books on the Modern Library’s list of 100 best books, as well as any other list of great books, contains banned books. The ALA has a list of frequently challenged classics. Wikipedia has another list of the most commonly challenged books in the US. If you have some spare time next week, pick up one of these books and enjoy the fact that you can read them. And know that when you read a banned book, you’re being rebellious and sticking it to the man. And that is sexy.

Comment » | musings

55. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

August 19th, 2010 — 10:04pm

This is my first week back to work after my two and a half month long summer vacation. I spent a majority of those months in the car, visiting friends and having local adventures, which is probably why I gravitated to this book for my next voyage into the book list.

On the Road is a pivotal book from the Beat Generation. There is an apocryphal story of Jack Kerouac’s coffee-and-amphetamine fueled conception of the book, in which he taped together several typewriter scrolls in order to write without the pesky interruption of having to stop to reload. The original scroll manuscript has gone on a tour of college libraries throughout the United States and Europe and was published as On the Road: The Original Scroll in 2007. The stream of consciousness style as employed by Kerouac was used to showcase his semi-autobiographical novel about the adventures that he and his friend, Neal Cassady, had on the road from 1947-1950.

The names of Kerouac’s characters have been analyzed by literary scholars since the book’s publication in 1957. Kerouac based the novel on actual events and subsequently had to change the names of his friends who appeared as characters.

Neal Cassady (left) and Jack Kerouac (right).

The novel begins with Sal Paradise (Kerouac) introducing the concept of Dean Moriarty (Cassady). Sal was obsessed with the idea of the human condition, which included his friends, the jazz scene, the United States outside of New York, and most importantly, women.

They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Dean arrives in New York and changes everything for Sal. When Dean first arrived, he met Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg), and they bond together and feed Sal’s fascination with eclectic and unique personalities.

In July of 1947, Sal decides that it is time for him to venture to the West Coast, and he hits the road with fifty dollars in his pocket. He travels to Chicago, San Fransisco, and Los Angeles, meeting women and different eccentric personalities along the way. Dean spends some time in prison for stealing cars, which cements his transition into an epic hero in Sal’s eyes.

“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
“Where we going, man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.”

As their sojourn around the country continues, Sal becomes more and more disillusioned with what he finds on the road. The people that he encounters are from the more poverty-stricken end of the spectrum, including elderly African-American men and Mexican prostitutes. The sense of Sal and Dean’s heroism begins to falter as their lives and experiences turns into a series of failures.

Sal’s final attempt at finding a solution from the road leads him to Mexico City with Dean; they embark on a marijuana-fueled adventure through bordellos with mambo music and prostitutes. But while in Mexico, Sal develops dysentery and becomes feverish and hallucinates. Dean leaves Sal while he’s ill, which gives Sal the realization that Dean is more pathetic than he let on, and that the attributes that Sal originally admired in him were actually symptoms of his insecurity and existential crises:

When I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes.

Sal returns home and ends the novel sitting on a pier facing west, reflecting on his friendship and adventures.

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

I love this book. I first read it when I was fresh out of high school and had a lot of grand notions of what my life was going to be and I was convinced that my best friend and I would be Kerouac and Cassady but with less drugs. The stream-of-consciousness style helps to convey the frenetic energy and the passion with which the characters, both fictional and their live counterparts, lived their lives. Reading On the Road or poetry from Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti makes me feel cooler than I actually am, which is what the Beat Generation authors were all about — experiencing their lives through means that allows them to become more than they are. The movement got its name from the religious theory of beatification as well as the slang term of being beaten down. The Beat Generation was beaten down, but they were looking up.

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