Tag: death


Module 11: Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

November 14th, 2012 — 10:48am

Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow is an informative book by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. In it, she has researched the Hitler Youth and details the lives of several teenagers growing up in Nazi Germany.

SUMMARY

The book follows the timeline of the formation of the Hitler Youth, starting with Hitler’s appointment as chancellor and ending with the aftermath of World War II and the unification of East and West Germany as a democratic state in 1990. Within the information, the author uses the examples of several members of the Hitler Youth. Membership in the Hitler Youth (called Hitlerjugend for boys and Bund Deutscher Madel for girls) was compulsory for the young people of Germany. Many of the youth believed that what they were doing was for the betterment of Germany because that was what they had been taught and told for years. However, some teenagers disagreed with what was required of them and what Hitler was doing and put up active resistance, printing and distributing pamphlets telling about Hitler’s lies and the true work of the Nazis and the concentration camps. The author used both diaries and personal interviews to share the experiences of the variety of young people in Germany in the 1940s.

The book focuses solely on the events of WWII as it pertains to the Hitler Youth. It paints a grisly portrait of youth taken advantage of by their government and their leader. Hitler said about his Youth, “I begin with the young…We older ones are used up…But my magnificent youngsters! Are there finer ones anywhere in the world? Look at all these men and boys! What material! With them I can make a new world.”

IMPRESSIONS

The Hitler Youth was a topic that I’d never explored; I’m pretty sure I only knew they existed from watching Swing Kids. But this book was fascinating. I saw parallels between then and now — I’ve often wondered how young people in our society can be closed-minded and prejudiced, and this book showed that children are especially susceptible to propaganda and the direction and influence of adults. I say adults and not their parents because in a few instances, the youth were so entranced with Hitler that they turned in their parents to the Nazis for saying “unpatriotic” or disparaging things about Hitler or the Nazi Party. It was very 1984, where adults feared their children.

The inclusion of the interviews and personal anecdotes made the book read more like a narration and less like a textbook. It was very well put together, though at times I lost track of the timeline of the events and what was happening elsewhere in the world. The chronology was loose in the book, but it didn’t keep the information from being effective. There was also a plethora of pictures — pretty much one or two on every page — which also distracted from the chronology of the story.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

Hitler’s plans for the future of Germany relied significantly on its young people, and this excellent history shows how he attempted to carry out his mission with the establishment of the Hitler Youth, or Hitlerjugend, in 1926. With a focus on the years between 1933 and the end of the war in 1945, Bartoletti explains the roles that millions of boys and girls unwittingly played in the horrors of the Third Reich. The book is structured around 12 young individuals and their experiences, which clearly demonstrate how they were victims of leaders who took advantage of their innocence and enthusiasm for evil means. Their stories evolve from patriotic devotion to Hitler and zeal to join, to doubt, confusion, and disillusion. (An epilogue adds a powerful what-became-of-them relevance.) The large period photographs are a primary component and they include Nazi propaganda showing happy and healthy teens as well as the reality of concentration camps and young people with large guns. The final chapter superbly summarizes the weighty significance of this part of the 20th century and challenges young readers to prevent history from repeating itself. Bartoletti lets many of the subjects’ words, emotions, and deeds speak for themselves, bringing them together clearly to tell this story unlike anyone else has.
School Library Journal

What was it like to be a teenager in Germany under Hitler? Bartoletti draws on oral histories, diaries, letters, and her own extensive interviews with Holocaust survivors, Hitler Youth, resisters, and bystanders to tell the history from the viewpoints of people who were there. Most of the accounts and photos bring close the experiences of those who followed Hitler and fought for the Nazis, revealing why they joined, how Hitler used them, what it was like. Henry Mentelmann, for example, talks about Kristallnacht, when Hitler Youth and Storm Troopers wrecked Jewish homes and stores, and remembers thinking that the victims deserved what they got. The stirring photos tell more of the story. One particularly moving picture shows young Germans undergoing de-Nazification by watching images of people in the camps. The handsome book design, with black-and-white historical photos on every double-page spread, will draw in readers and help spark deep discussion, which will extend beyond the Holocaust curriculum. The extensive back matter is a part of the gripping narrative.
Booklist

LIBRARY USES

This, like Between Shades of Gray, would be well used for Holcoaust Memorial Day. It would also be a good booktalk for middle school students. In a school library setting, this would be a good companion piece to a class reading The Diary of Anne Frank; reading excerpts from this book and showing the pictures would help pique interest in the era.

REFERENCES

Bartoletti, S. C. (2005). Hitler youth: Growing up in hitler’s shadow. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Medlar, A. (2005, May 30). Book of the week: Hitler youth by susan campbell bartoletti. School Library Journal, 176. Retrieved from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA604629.html

Rochman, H. (2005, April 15). Hitler youth: Growing up in hitler’s shadow. Booklist. Retrieved from http://www.booklistonline.com/ProductInfo.aspx?pid=1180952&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1

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Module 10: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

November 14th, 2012 — 8:15am

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys is historical fiction about Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of the Baltic region during World War II. It is narrated by Lina, a 15 year old Lithuanian girl, as she and her family are deported to Siberia.

SUMMARY

The novel opens with men from the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, taking Lina, her mother, and her brother, Jonas, from their homes on June 14, 1941. Her father, provost at the university, has already been taken. They’re loaded on a truck with some of their neighbors and a few people they don’t recognize. They’re horrified that the next stop is at the hospital, as one of the people they are scheduled to take is a woman who is at that moment giving birth; they load her and her newborn baby into the truck as she’s bleeding onto her hospital gown.

Lina’s father, Kostas Vilkas, helped his brother and his family escape Lithuania to Germany, which put him on the black list as an accessory. Lina’s mother, Elena, speaks fluent Russian, which allows her to communicate with the NKVD. He is taken to a different camp from the rest of the family. They are stuffed into a train with even more prisoners, including the Andrius Arvydas and his mother, the son and wife of an officer in the Lithuanian army. The conditions in the train are horrible and they’re travelling through Europe for three weeks without stopping. On the train, the young woman’s baby dies and she is shot by an officer when she’s overcome by grief.

The train finally stops in Siberia, at a camp where they are assigned to live in shacks and work as beet and potato farmers. They stay there for a while, and Lina finds solace in her art. She has always been an artist and she’s particularly drawn to the work of Edward Munch. She decides to draw pictures of people and events so that she can send them to her father in hopes that he will find them.

While they’re at the camp, Andrius and his mother live in the officers house, where they are fed and treated better than the others. Lina is upset with this special treatment, but when she confronts Andrius about it, he reveals that his mother is prostituting herself to the officers to keep the officers from killing him. She’s horrified by this and distraught with his anger, which makes her realize that she’s falling in love with Andrius; when they reconcile, it’s shown that Andrius has similar feelings. He gives her a special stone to bring her luck and to remind her of him.

The NKVD tries to force the prisoners to sign papers saying that they are criminals and acknowledging that they’re being sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor and that they will pay a war tax of two hundred rubles per person, which most of them refuse to sign. Jonas becomes sick with scurvy from the lack of vegetables in his diet and almost dies until Andrius steals a can of tomatoes from the officers house. Soon after he heals, the prisoners hear that some of them will be transported to a different location. Some people are fools enough to think they’re being transported to America, but Lina knows better.

The prisoners, which now include prisoners from other camps, are taken farther north in Siberia. The NKVD take them to an empty field and tell them that they will have to build their own shelter, and quickly, as the arctic chill begins in September. They suffer through the cold temperatures and hypothermia. It is here that Lina discovers why they’ve been deported and that she is being punished because her beloved cousin and best friend, Joana, was able to escape — she is dying to allow Joana to live. It also here that a guard reveals to them that Lina’s father has been killed in prison. Lina’s mother takes sick and she dies in the shack.

Lina and Jonas are able to hide her body from the officers so they can bury her properly. The other prisoners help them, as a testament to how much they have become a family within themselves — they need each other to survive and Lina’s mother in particular was a unifying force due to her calm demeanor and peaceful spirit. Lina paints a map to her mother’s grave so that she will never forget where it is. Lina is determined to survive the camp and now cares for Jonas.

The other prisoners all take their turns with illness — scurvy, dysentery, typhus, hypothermia. They’re dying more and more every day. Jonas becomes very ill and just when Lina is afraid that he won’t be able to survive the night, an inspection officer, a doctor, appears at the shack. Dr. Samodurov is to inspect all of the prisons to report that everything is fine and the prisoners are being treated fairly, but he tells Lina that is not going to submit false reports. He spends ten days at the prison; he helps the prisoners store fish for the upcoming storms and plot a burial yard for the dead. The doctor tells her that it’s possible that her father hasn’t died; the guards have told prisoners before that people have died, only to be found living somewhere.

Lina is determined to live to reunite with Andrius. When they left each other, they promised that they would meet again, and when Lina closes her eyes, she can imagine that they are together as she holds the stone.

The novel ends with an epilogue from 1995 in Lithuania. A construction crew has discovered a wooden box int he ground that contains a glass jar full of papers. The papers contain drawings and a letter:

Dear Friend,

The writings and drawings you hold in your hands were buried in the year 1954, after returning from Siberia with my brother, where we were imprisoned for twelve years. There are many thousands of us, nearly all dead. Those alive cannot speak. Though we committed no offense, we are viewed as criminals. Even now, speaking of the terrors we have experienced would result in our death. So we put our trust in you, the person who discovers this capsule of memories somewhere in the future. We trust you with truth, for contained herein is exactly that — the truth.

My husband, Andrius, says that evil will rule until good men or women choose to act. I believe him. This testimony was written to create an absolute record, to speak in a world where our voices have been extinguished. These writings may shock or horrify you, but that is not my intention. It is my greatest hope that the pages in this jar stir your deepest well of human compassion. I hope they prompt you to do something, to tell someone. Only then can we ensure that this kind of evil is never allowed to repeat itself.

Sincerely,
Mrs. Lina Arvydas
9th day of July, 1954 — Kaunas

IMPRESSIONS

This book was incredibly moving. This was a side of the Holocaust that I wasn’t very familiar with, but it was equally as horrifying — in fact, one of the characters in the book points out the similarities between Stalin and Hitler. The horrors that people can commit to others, blindly, without cause or reason, is stunning. I’ll never fail to be amazed by the deplorable ways that people treat others.

That being said, the story was effective for several reasons. Lina’s story is told through flashbacks to events in her family, adding a dimension to the story of her relationships and her life before they were taken. I enjoyed Andrius’s character because he had his own experience that added to the plot; it didn’t feel like he was added solely for a romantic element. There were so many descriptions of Lina drawing that I began to wish that there had been reproductions of drawings to add just one more realistic element to the story. The epilogue was great, because I was a little disappointed in the ending that left Lina in the camp, so knowing that they survived and she and Andrius married was cathartic.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

Sepetys’ first novel offers a harrowing and horrifying account of the forcible relocation of countless Lithuanians in the wake of the Russian invasion of their country in 1939. In the case of 16-year-old Lina, her mother, and her younger brother, this means deportation to a forced-labor camp in Siberia, where conditions are all too painfully similar to those of Nazi concentration camps. Lina’s great hope is that somehow her father, who has already been arrested by the Soviet secret police, might find and rescue them. A gifted artist, she begins secretly creating pictures that can–she hopes–be surreptitiously sent to him in his own prison camp. Whether or not this will be possible, it is her art that will be her salvation, helping her to retain her identity, her dignity, and her increasingly tenuous hold on hope for the future. Many others are not so fortunate. Sepetys, the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, estimates that the Baltic States lost more than one-third of their populations during the Russian genocide. Though many continue to deny this happened, Sepetys’ beautifully written and deeply felt novel proves the reality is otherwise. Hers is an important book that deserves the widest possible readership.
Booklist

This bitterly sad, fluidly written historical novel tackles a topic woefully underdiscussed in English-language children’s fiction: Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror. On June 14th, 1941, Soviet officers arrest 15-year-old Lina, her younger brother and her mother and deport them from Lithuania to Siberia. Their crammed-full boxcar is labeled, ludicrously, “Thieves and Prostitutes.” They work at a frigid gulag for eight months-hungry, filthy and brutalized by Soviet officers–before being taken to the Siberian Arctic and left without shelter. Lina doesn’t know the breadth of Stalin’s mass deportations of Baltic citizens, but she hears scraps of discussion about politics and World War II. Cold, starvation, exhaustion and disease (scurvy, dysentery, typhus) claim countless victims. Lina sketches urgently, passing her drawings along to other deportees, hoping they’ll reach Papa in a Soviet prison. Brief flashbacks, seamlessly interwoven, illuminate Lina’s sweet old life in Kaunas like flashes of light, eventually helping to reveal why the repressive, deadly regime targeted this family. Sepetys’ flowing prose gently carries readers through the crushing tragedy of this tale that needs telling.
Kirkus Reviews

LIBRARY USES

This book would be an excellent vehicle for a book talk. I would also recommend it be used in a display for Holocaust Memorial Day on May 8; it is important that the story of the genocide in the Soviet Union be told as well as the atrocities committed by Hitler.

REFERENCES

Between shades of gray. (2011). Kirkus Reviews, 79(2), 138.

Cart, M. (2011). Between shades of gray. Booklist, 107(11), 68. Retrieved from http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/58626231/between-shades-gray

Sepetys, R. (2011). Between shades of gray. New York, NY: Philomel Books.

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Module 7: Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

October 28th, 2012 — 7:46pm

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson is a book of realistic fiction. Published in 2009, it details the horrifying world of eating disorders.

SUMMARY

Lia Overbrook is an eighteen year old senior in high school. The opening of the novel is a breakfast scene, where she avoids eating while being told by her stepmother that her best friend has been found dead in a motel. Lia lives with her father, stepmother, and stepsister. Lia has also been suffering with anorexia since she was in eighth grade.

The story is told through flashbacks and current day. The flashbacks detail how she and Cassie made a New Years Resolution/pact with each other to be the thinnest girls in the school — Lia accomplishes this by anorexia, Cassie by bulimia. They are best friends until one day their junior year, when Lia is driving them in a car and she passes out because her blood sugar is low. Lia is subsequently hospitalized for her eating disorder and she she is released, Cassie blames Lia for encouraging her own eating disorder, and they become estranged.

Lia attempts to figure out the details of Cassie’s last few days. Her body was found in a motel and she had called Lia thirty-three times on her cell phone the night she died, but Lia didn’t answer. When Lia went to the motel, an employee named Elijah asked her if she knew anyone named Lia, because Cassie had left a message for her. Lia begins to see Cassie’s ghost, who becomes more and more angry as she encounters it.

Lia has to be weighed every day by her stepmother, Jennifer, but Lia has rigged the scale and wears a robe that has weight sewed into the pockets. Her weight drops from 101 to 93. Lia’s mother, Dr. Marrigan, sees her at Cassie’s funeral and is concerned by her appearance. Lia has become estranged from her mother due to what she sees as her mother trying to control her. However, when Lia’s young stepsister, Emma, walks in on Lia cutting herself on her chest and sees Lia covered in blood, Lia’s parents agree that it would be for the best for Lia to stay with her mother for a while.

While staying with her, Lia’s mother makes a deal with her — she’ll tell Lia details of Cassie’s death if Lia eats. Cassie’s autopsy revealed that she died from Boerhaave syndrome — a rupturing of the esophagus due to repeated vomiting. She had gotten the motel room after a fight with her parents, drank a copious amount of vodka, and died when her esophagus ruptured.

Lia tells her therapist that she has been haunted by Cassie’s ghost, and her therapist tells her that this, along with her weight loss, makes her need to be hospitalized in the psychiatric institution again. Lia goes to Elijah, who she’s become friends with, and tells him she wants to run away with him when he leaves town. He tells her that she can go as long as she tells her family first — when she refuses, he tells her how lucky she is to have a family that cares and tells her that it seems like her family is trying to help her. She falls asleep and when she wakes up, Elijah and her money are gone; he’s left her a note that tells her she needs to stay and get help.

Lia is alone in the motel and is near death. Cassie’s ghost appears to her again and Cassie tells her how excited she is that she’ll be joining her soon; they also talk about the good parts of being alive. Lia manages to harness her energy to make it to a phone and calls her mother and tells her to come get her.

The last chapter opens with Lia in the hospital again. The difference this time is that Lia wants to be healed and is working toward recovery both on herself and with her relationships with her parents. The novel ends with a message of hope for Lia’s recovery and the message that help is always there for you if you can accept it.

IMPRESSIONS

This is a very powerful book. I’ve had friends struggle with eating disorders and it was heartbreaking to think that this resembled their struggles.

This is Lia’s explanation for her eating disorder:

Why? You want to know why?

Step into a tanning booth and fry yourself for two or three days. After your skin bubbles and peels off, roll in coarse salt, then pull on long underwear woven from spun glass and razor wire. Over that goes your regular clothes, as long as they are tight.

Smoke gunpowder and go to school to jump through hoops, sit up and beg, and roll over on command. Listen to the whispers that curl into your head at night, calling you ugly and fat and stupid and bitch and whore and worst of all “a disappointment.” Puke and starve and cut and drink because you don’t want to feel any of this. Puke and starve and cut and drink because you need an anesthetic and it works. For a while. But then the anesthetic turns into poison and by then it’s too late because you are mainlining it now, straight into your soul. It is rotting you and you can’t stop.

Look in a mirror and find a ghost. Hear every heartbeat scream that everysinglething is wrong with you.

“Why?” is the wrong question.

Ask “Why not?” (Anderson 2009)

I don’t know a single person who doesn’t struggle with image issues. Every person, men or women, has something about their appearance that bugs them. I am no stranger to an image issue and a certain amount of obsession with my weight.

However, the book ending on a hopeful and positive note was refreshing. Though Cassie died, Lia was able to survive, though there is an admittedly difficult road ahead. Another aspect of the book that I enjoyed was that her family was there, whether Lia wanted them or not, the entire time. The relationship with the mother was also very real. What teenaged girl doesn’t think their mother is trying to control their lives? As well they should, because I’m around teenagers all day long at school and they are like naked moles. Hormonal, emotional, naked moles.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

At times Lia’s narrow, repetitive mind-set makes her a frustrating narrator. Certainly her obsessional behaviors (counting calories, ritually berating herself) are central to the illness, but at such times Lia can feel more like a concatenation of symptoms than a distinct person.

This very quality, however, may make Lia recognizable to many teenagers. One issue the author must have confronted is the potential of “Wintergirls” to be a “trigger” for anorexia, as psychologists term it. Can a novel convey, however inadvertently, an allure to anorexic behavior? While to my mind there is nothing in “Wintergirls” that glamorizes the illness, for some the mere mention of symptoms is problematic. “It’s about competition,” an anorexia sufferer once explained to me. “Sometimes all it takes to get triggered is to read about someone who weighs less than you do.”

We recognize Lia, but it’s sometimes hard to relate to her. Withdrawing, she sees life as if it were a series of meals to be gotten through (“I bit the days off in rows. . . . Bite. Chew. Swallow”). Parts of her story are hurried, telescoped, and this can make it hard for the reader to feel much about what is occurring.

Yet the book deepens. Where Lia had been hiding the extent of her illness before Cassie died, pretending to eat, playing the part of the “good girl,” increasingly, as her self-destruction gathers force, the truth emerges; the surface placidity of her life begins to crack.
Feinberg 2009

The intensity of emotion and vivid language here are more reminiscent of Anderson’s Speak (Farrar, 1999) than any of her other works. Lia and Cassie had been best friends since elementary school, and each developed her own style of eating disorder that leads to disaster. Now 18, they are no longer friends. Despite their estrangement, Cassie calls Lia 33 times on the night of her death, and Lia never answers. As events play out, Lia’s guilt, her need to be thin, and her fight for acceptance unravel in an almost poetic stream of consciousness in this startlingly crisp and pitch-perfect first-person narrative. The text is rich with words still legible but crossed out, the judicious use of italics, and tiny font-size refrains reflecting her distorted internal logic. All of the usual answers of specialized treatment centers, therapy, and monitoring of weight and food fail to prevail while Lia’s cleverness holds sway. What happens to her in the end is much less the point than traveling with her on her agonizing journey of inexplicable pain and her attempt to make some sense of her life.
Edwards 2009

LIBRARY USES

I would anticipate this book to be used in a booktalk with a teenaged audience, but I think that it’s very important to introduce this book for parents to use to have discussions with their teenagers. This book would be a good conversation starter for parents.

REFERENCES

Anderson, L. H. (2009). Wintergirls. New York: Viking.

Edwards, C. (2009, January 14). Wintergirls by laurie halse anderson. School Library Journal. Retrieved from http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6628521.html

Feinberg, B. (2009, May 8). Skin and bone. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/10/books/review/Feinberg-t.html?_r=0

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Module 7: If I Stay by Gayle Forman

October 21st, 2012 — 11:27pm

If I Stay by Gayle Forman is realistic fiction about a girl, Mia, who is in a horrific car crash with her parents, who die on the scene, and her younger brother, who dies in the hospital. The story is told through flashbacks as well as the present, where she is witnessing the events from outside of her body and deciding whether she wants to stay alive or die with the rest of her family.

SUMMARY

Mia is 17 and a senior in high school; she is also a star cellist, who has auditioned for and is awaiting acceptance to Julliard. She has super cool punk rock musician parents, an adorable younger brother named Teddy, and a rock musician boyfriend, Adam. All is going swimmingly in Mia’s life until her family decides to drive to visit their family friends, Henry and Willow and their new baby, and are hit by a four-ton pickup truck. Mia is amazed to see herself standing on the side of the road, witnessing the devastation of the car and the carnage — pieces of her father’s brain are on the asphalt, her mother died of internal bleeding that has caused her eyes to turn red, and she’s horrified to see the hand of what she thinks is Teddy but soon realizes is her own hand. She’s in a coma and is having an out of body experience.

She’s taken to the hospital and operated on, and she watches the nurses and surgeons interact. She watches her grandparents arrive at the hospital, which is when she realizes that Teddy has died as well. She watches as her best friend, Kim, arrives with her mother, and finally, who she’s been waiting for, Adam arrives. He tries to get to her room but one of the nurses stops him. He and Kim come up with a plan to cause a distraction with the lead singer of the famous band that Adam’s band is opening for on their concert tour, but nothing works until Willow, her family friend that works for the hospital, gets them to allow Adam to visit Mia.

All of this is interspersed with flashbacks detailing Mia’s childhood, her relationship with her parents, her relationship with Kim, playing the cello and excelling, auditioning for Julliard, her relationship with Adam, the difficulties of falling in love as a teenager and having life take you in separate directions.

One of the nurses tell Mia’s grandparents that they need to give Mia reasons to want to stay here, that it is all up to her, so her family and friends come to talk to her. It is finally Adam who plays cello music in her room and speaks to her:

“If you stay, I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll quit the band, go with you to New York. But if you need me to go away, I’ll do that, too. I was talking to Liz and she said maybe coming back to your old life would just be too painful, that maybe it’d be easier for you to erase us. And that would suck, but I’d do it. I can lose you like that if I don’t lose you today. I’ll let you go. If you stay.”

Then it is Adam who lets go. His sobs burst like fists pounding against tender flesh.

Mia finally makes her decision and feels all of the physical and emotional pain of her body as she wakes up. The novel ends with Mia squeezing Adam’s hand and Adam saying, “Mia?”

IMPRESSIONS

I enjoyed this book, but it wasn’t the best thing I’d ever read. My students would enjoy this book, however. Mia’s life seemed just a bit too perfect for me: she has the coolest parents, her boyfriend is a rock star, she’s a musical prodigy on the cello, she and her boyfriend are so in love, blah blah blah. The writing was good, and I appreciated all of the musical terms that were included in different aspects of the book — the car doesn’t just crash, there’s “a symphony of grinding, a chorus of popping, an aria of exploding, and finally, the sad clapping of hard metal cutting into soft trees.”

The book raised some very interesting questions, most importantly, “what do you live for?” I can’t imagine losing my entire immediate family at once. However, I was glad that Mia decided to stay, because she and I were going to have some strong words if I read the entire book and she decided to die. Strong words.

PROFESSIONAL REVIEWS

Forman creates a cast of captivating characters and pulls readers into a compelling story that will cause them to laugh, cry, and question the boundaries of family and love. While out on a drive with her family, 17-year-old Mia is suddenly separated from her body and forced to watch the aftermath of the accident that kills her parents and gravely injures her and her younger brother. Far from supernatural, this shift in perspective will be readily accepted by readers as Mia reminisces about significant events and people in her life while her body lies in a coma. Alternating between the past and the present, she reveals the details and complexities of her relationships with family and friends, including the unlikely romance with her punk-rock boyfriend, Adam. An accomplished musician herself, Mia is torn between pursuing her love for music at Julliard and a future with Adam in Oregon. However, she must first choose between fighting to survive and giving in to the resulting sadness and despair over all she has lost. Readers will find themselves engrossed in Mia’s struggles and will race to the satisfying yet realistic conclusion. Teens will identify with Mia’s honest discussion of her own insecurities and doubts. Both brutal and beautiful, this thought-provoking story will stay with readers long after the last page is turned.
School Library Journal

When snow cancels school, Mia and her family pile into their beat-up station wagon for a drive. Unlike most 17-year-olds, Mia is secretly enjoying hanging out with her quirky family until an oncoming driver shatters their lives, leaving the gravely injured Mia with the ultimate decision: Should she stay or go? As a spirit-like observer, Mia narrates the next 24 hours, describing how her medical team, friends, boyfriend and extended family care for her each in their own way. Woven into her real-time observations are powerful memories that organically introduce Mia’s passion for classical music, her relationship with her boyfriend and her bond with her parents and brother. These memories reinforce the magnitude of Mia’s decision and provide weight to both sides of her dilemma. Forman excels at inserting tiny but powerful details throughout, including the realistic sounds, smells and vocabulary of a hospital, which will draw readers into this masterful text and undoubtedly tug at even the toughest of heartstrings.
Kirkus Reviews

LIBRARY USES

This book would be good for a book talk with teenagers; it would also serve as a good display for warnings against drunk driving or safety while driving.

REFERENCES

Forman, G. (2009). If i stay. New York, NY: Dutton Books.

IF I STAY. (2009). Kirkus Reviews, 77(7), 382.

Rashid, L. (2009). If i stay. School Library Journal, 55(5), 106. Retrieved from http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/39142151/if-stay

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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.

1 comment » | classic books

20. Native Son by Richard Wright

January 22nd, 2012 — 7:25pm

Native Son by Richard Wright was published in 1940. The novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an African-American who is living in poverty in Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s, and is reportedly based on the case of Robert Nixon. The novel is split into three separate books: Fear, Flight, and Fate.

FEAR
Bigger Thomas is twenty years old at the beginning of the novel. He lives with his mother, brother, and sister in a ghetto of Chicago. In the opening scene, Bigger wakes up in the dark in the small apartment that he and his family shares. A rat appears in the room and Bigger chases it and kills it with an iron skillet; he then terrorizes his sister, Vera, with the dead rat until Vera faints. Bigger’s mother scolds him, while Bigger’s internal monologue reveals that he hates his family because they’re suffering and he can’t do anything about it — he feels that he’ll only ever be able to have low wage, menial work and feels an overwhelming sense of powerlessness that he masks with ferocity and violence. Because that’s healthy and normal.

Bigger’s mom wants him to get a job with a white man named Mr. Dalton (who happens to be the Thomas family’s landlord), but instead Bigger meets with some of his friends at a local poolhall. They start talking and Bigger reveals that every time he encounters a white person he feels that something bad is going to happen to him. He and his friends, Gus, G.H., and Jack, plan a robbery of a white man’s store; they are all afraid of what will happen if they’re caught robbing and hurting a white man, but none of them admit it. They’ve burgled many black-owned businesses before, but robbing from whites is new territory. Bigger is so intimidated by white people that he no longer sees them as individuals, instead picturing them as an all-encompassing pressure of “whiteness” that is smothering him like a blanket. When they meet back at the poolhall to head out for the robbery, Bigger brutally attacks Gus in order to sabotage the night. This makes him realize that he needs to listen to his mother and seek out a job with Mr. Dalton.

He gets a job as Mr. Dalton’s chauffeur. Mr. Dalton, in owning the majority shares of several building in the South Side ghetto, has been exploiting black families for years; however, he sees himself as a philanthropist because he donates money to black schools and gives jobs to black boys like Bigger.

On Bigger’s first day of work, he shows up to the Daltons’ house and is immediately ill at ease; the house is large, Dalton and his wife, who is blind, use large words that Bigger doesn’t understand, and the Dalton’s daughter, Mary, comes home and asks Bigger why he isn’t in a union, which makes Bigger dislike her and fear that she will cost him his job. That night, Mary has Bigger drive her and her boyfriend Jan, who is a Communist. Mary and Jan are eager to show off their progressive ideals and racial tolerance. They force Bigger to take them to a restaurant on the South Side and sit with them at the table. They order a bottle of rum and take it with them for the rest of the night. Bigger drives Jan and Mary around while they get completely trashed and grope each other in the back seat of the car while Bigger drives them around the park.

When they return to the Dalton’s house, Mary is too drunk to get out of the car, much less maneuver the stairs, so Bigger carries her to her room. He is a little drunk as well, and intoxicated by being so close to a white girl, and when they get to Mary’s room, Bigger kisses her.

Just as Bigger is putting Mary in her bed, Mrs. Dalton appears in the doorway. He knows that, because she’s blind, she can’t see him but he is still terrified that she will realize that he’s in her precious innocent daughter’s room and have him fired, if not worse. He’s also afraid that drunk Mary will say or do something that will make Mrs. Dalton further enter the room, so he puts a pillow over her face to muffle her; when Mrs. Dalton leaves, Bigger realizes that he has smothered her to death. Very Shakespearean.

Bigger realizes that the punishment for murder will be a lot less than an accusation of sexual assault. He decides to frame Jan, hoping that the Daltons will think poorly of Jan and his Communist leanings and assume that he’s dangerous and has kidnapped Mary. He takes Mary’s body down to the furnace to burn it; when he has trouble pushing her body into the small opening, he takes a hatchet and cuts off her head to make it fit. After he gets her body in the fire, he adds extra coal to the furnace and goes home. What.

FLIGHT

Though he had killed by accident, not once did he feel the need to tell himself that it had been an accident. He was black and he had been alone in the room where a white girl had been killed: therefore he had killed her. That was what everyone would say, anyhow, no matter what he said.

Having commited murder and seemingly gotten away with it has given Bigger a sense of power that he has previously never known. When he goes back to the Daltons’ for work the next day, Mrs. Dalton has noticed Mary’s disappearance and asks Bigger about the happenings of the previous night. He makes an effort to point the finger at Jan. Mrs. Dalton sends him home for the day and Bigger goes to visit his girlfriend, Bessie. Bessie is a stereotypical woman, nagging that he doesn’t love her and Bigger gives her money to shut her up. Bigger tells Bessie that Mary Dalton has disappeared and she begins to talk about different disappearances, including one where people murdered a child and asked for ransom money later. Bigger gets a cartoon lightbulb over his head and decides to do just that. He tells Bessie that he knows a little about what happened to Mary and is going to blackmail the Daltons; unfortunately, Bessie’s responses to him make him realize that she’s started to suspect that he’s had something to do with Mary’s disappearance.

When he returns to the Daltons’ house for work, they have hired a private investigator, Mr. Britten, to try to track down Mary. Mr. Britten talks to Bigger; Bigger senses that Britten is a little bit racist and accuses Jan based on his religion (Jewish), politics (Communist), and his attitude toward black people (friendly). In talking to Britten, Bigger takes on the role of the simple-minded black boy, which is almost as chilling as his role of violence; he is intuitive enough to know when to play into the stereotypes that are expected of him. He manages to fool Mr. Dalton, who thinks that he’s not a bad boy, but not Britten, who states that “a nigger’s a nigger” and that they’re all bad in some sense. Britten and Mr. Dalton bring in Jan and grill him about the night before, but of course his story is different than Bigger’s. When Mr. Dalton offers to pay Jan for information about Mary, Jan leaves.

Bigger checks on the furnace and then heads to Bessie. Jan confronts him in the street, but Bigger pulls a gun on him. Needless to say, they don’t have a very long chat. When Bigger gets to Bessie’s, he composes a ransom note and signs it “Red,” to further add suspicion to the pinko Communist Jan. In the letter, he demands $10,000 and adds a drawing of a hammer and sickle. Bessie has begun to have second thoughts about the whole thing and accuses Bigger of killing Mary. Bigger admits it, but says that it’s okay:

“If you killed her you’ll kill me,” she said. “I ain’t in this…. You told me you never was going to kill.”
“All right. They white folks. They done killed plenty of us.”

Bessie begs to be left out, but Bigger doesn’t want her to turn him in, so she has to stay involved. He delivers the ransom note by slipping it under the Daltons’ door when he reports for work.

Reporters have now caught wind of the story and descend upon the Dalton house. Bigger is told to clean out the furnace; he sifts some of the ashes into the lower bin and adds more coal, hoping that he will not have to take the ashes out until the reporters leave. However, the ashes still block the airflow, causing thick smoke to fill the basement. At this point, some of the reporters have come down to the furnace and one of them grabs a shovel and offers to help clear the ashes.

When the smoke dissipates, several pieces of bone and an earring are visible on the floor. As Bigger looks at these remnants of his gruesome killing, all of his old feelings return: he is black and he has done wrong. He once again longs for a weapon so he can strike out at someone. While the reporters marvel over the glowing hatchet head in the furnace, Bigger sneaks up to his room and jumps out the window. He runs to Bessie’s house to stop her from going to collect the ransom money. When Bigger explains that he accidentally killed Mary, Bessie tells him the authorities will think he has raped Mary and has murdered her to cover up the evidence. Bigger thinks back to the shame, anger, and hatred he felt that night. He thinks that he has committed rape, but to him, “rape” means feeling as if his back is against a wall and being forced to strike out to protect himself, whether he wants to or not. Bigger thinks that he commits a form of “rape” every time he looks at a white face.

Bigger and Bessie go to an abandoned building to hide out, and Bessie takes this time to tell Bigger just how much she hates him for ruining her life. Maybe not such a good idea to insult and anger the man with a streak of murderous violence. Bigger rapes Bessie on a pile of blankets that they brought with them and, after realizing that he can’t take her with him but he can’t leave her behind to turn him in, he hits her several times on the head with a brick that is lying nearby and throws her body down an airshaft.

Bigger goes through the city finding vacated apartments and alleys to sleep and eat, as all of the money he had was in Bessie’s pocket and is now at the bottom of an airshaft. He finds a newspaper and realizes that his time is probably running out — the press reports that Bigger probably sexually assaulted Mary before killing her, and the authorities have a warrant to search any and every building on the South Side, including private homes. Not believing that a black man could have formulated such a complex plan, they are also searching for a communist (read: white) accomplice. White anger is turning on blacks and there are reports of smashed windows and beatings throughout the city.

It begins to snow in the city and Bigger is forced inside. In one of the vacated apartments, Bigger thinks about life in the city and what it has become for blacks. From a window, Bigger marvels at the dilapidated buildings where black tenants live. He thinks back on his own life as he sees three naked black children watching their parents have sex in a bed nearby. He remembers how his family was once driven out of an apartment just two days before the building collapsed. Next door, Bigger hears two people debating his situation. One man declares that he would turn Bigger in to the police and he blames people like Bigger for bringing white wrath down on the whole black community, while the other argues that Bigger may not be guilty, since whites automatically view all black men with suspicion when a white girl is killed. Bigger decides that when he is captured, he will not say that the crime was an accident.

The police arrive to search the building where Bigger is hiding. Bigger escapes to the roof just as they burst into the building. A dramatic shoot-out ensues and the authorities finally capture Bigger, who is half-frozen from the cold and snow. The men carry Bigger down as a crowd of furious whites demands that they kill “that black ape.”

FATE

In jail, Bigger lives in a world with no day, no night, and no fear or hatred, as such emotions are useless to him now. He feels gripped by a deep resolution to react to nothing, and he says and eats nothing. He longs for death, but as a black man he does not want to die “unequal, and despised.” Bigger wonders if perhaps the whites are right that being black is the same as being an animal of some sort. Nonetheless, the hope that another way of life exists, one in which he would be able to forget his racial differences, keeps coming back to him.

The authorities drag Bigger to an inquest at the morgue. He senses from the white people around him that they plan not only to put him to death, but also to make him a symbol to terrorize and control the black community. A feeling of rebellion rises in him and he begins to come out of his stupor. In the morgue, Bigger sees Jan and the Daltons. As he gradually begins to snap out of his psychological stupor, he faints, overcome by hunger and exhaustion. When Bigger awakens in his cell, he believes he has “come out into the world again” in order to save his pride and keep the authorities from “making sport of him.”

Bigger asks to see a newspaper. The headline reads, “Negro Rapist Faints at Inquest.” The story compares Bigger to a “jungle beast” who lacks the harmless charm of the “grinning southern darky.” Edward Robertson, editor of the Jackson Daily Star, advises total segregation and a curtailment of the education of the black population, which he claims will prevent men like Bigger from developing. Bigger contemplates returning to his protective stupor, but is not sure if he is still able to do so.

Jan comes to visit Bigger in jail. He says that he is not angry for Bigger trying to blame him and that he wants to help Bigger. Jan says he was foolish to assume that Bigger could have related to him in a different way than he relates to other white men. Jan says that he loved Mary, but he also realizes that black families loved all the black men who have been sold into slavery or lynched by whites. Jan introduces Bigger to Boris A. Max, a lawyer for the Labor Defenders. Max wants to defend Bigger free of charge.

Buckley, the State’s Attorney, suddenly enters Bigger’s cell. Though Max argues that white power is responsible for Bigger’s actions, Bigger feels his burgeoning friendship with Max and Jan quickly evaporate when he sees the self-assured Buckley. Mr. and Mrs. Dalton enter the cell and ask that Bigger cooperate with Buckley and reveal the name of his accomplice. In response, Max asks that they not sentence Bigger to death. Dalton says that despite the crime he is not angry with all black Americans. He announces that he has even sent some Ping-Pong tables to the South Side Boys’ Club earlier in the day. Doubtful, Max questions whether Ping-Pong will prevent murder.

All the visitors leave the cell except Buckley, who warns Bigger not to gamble with his life by trusting Max and Jan. Buckley shows Bigger the mob gathered outside, which is screaming for his blood and urging him to sign a confession that also implicates Jan. Adding that the authorities know Bigger raped and killed Bessie too, Buckley pressures him to confess to other unsolved rapes and murders. Bigger realizes he could never explain why he killed Mary and Bessie because it would mean explaining his whole life. Bigger confesses to the murders but writes nothing to explain them. He signs his confession, feeling that there is no alternative. As soon as Bigger signs, Buckley starts to brag about how easy it was to extract a confession from a “scared colored boy from Mississippi.” After Buckley leaves, Bigger, feeling empty and beaten, falls to the floor and sobs.

At the inquest in the courtroom, Mr. Dalton takes the stand and Max is permitted to question him. As Max knows that Mr. Dalton owns a controlling share in the company that manages the building where Bigger’s family lives, he asks Dalton why black tenants pay higher rents than whites for the same kinds of apartments. Dalton replies that there is a housing shortage on the South Side. Max retorts that there are areas of the city without housing shortages, and Dalton replies that he thought black tenants preferred living together on the South Side. Max then succeeds in making Dalton admit that he refuses to rent to black tenants in other neighborhoods. He accuses Dalton of giving some of the real estate profits to black schools merely to alleviate his guilty conscience. Before dismissing Mr. Dalton, Max asks him if the living conditions of Bigger’s family might have contributed to the death of his daughter. Dalton cannot comprehend the question.

The coroner exhibits Bessie’s body to the jurors. Bigger knows that the authorities are using Bessie only to ensure that he will get the death penalty for killing Mary. Bigger becomes angry that they are using Bessie in death just as Bessie’s white employer used her while she was alive. He feels that the whites are using both him and Bessie as if they were mere property.

Bigger is indicted for rape and murder. Bigger asks to see a newspaper, which reports that he is certain to receive the death penalty. Max visits Bigger in his cell. Hopeless, Bigger tells Max that none of his efforts will be of use. Bigger feels destined to die to appease the public, and, therefore, has no possibly of winning the trial. Max tries to get Bigger to trust him. Despite his best efforts to avoid opening up and trusting anyone, Bigger does end up trusting Max, but still believes Max’s efforts will prove futile. Max then asks Bigger why he killed Mary. Excited at the prospect of finally feeling understood, Bigger tells Max that he did not rape Mary and hints that he killed her by accident. When Max presses him further about his feelings, Bigger states that Mary’s unorthodox behavior frightened and shamed him. When Max points out that Bigger could have avoided the murder by trying to explain himself to Mrs. Dalton, Bigger explains that he could not help himself and that it was as if someone else had stepped inside him and acted for him.

Bigger explains to Max that there has always been a line drawn in the world separating him from the people on the other side of the line, who do not care about his poverty and shame. He says that whites do not let black people do what they want, and admits that he himself does not even know what he wants. Bigger simply feels that he is forbidden from anything he might actually want. All his life, he has felt that whites were after him. Thus, even his feelings were not wholly his own, as he could only feel what whites were doing to him. Bigger once wanted to be an aviator, but he knew that black men were not allowed to go to aviation schools. He wanted to join the army, but it proved to be segregated and based upon racist laws. He saw the white boys from his school go on to college or the military when he could not. Having lost hope, he began living from day to day. Bigger says that after he killed Mary and Bessie, he ceased to be afraid for a brief while.

“Mr. Max, a guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything. . . . You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing. You just keep moving all the time, doing what other folks say. You ain’t a man no more. You just work say in and day out so the world can roll on and other people can live. You know, Mr. Max, I always think of white folks. . .”

He paused. Max leaned forward and touched him. “Go on, Bigger.”

“Well, they own everything. They choke you off the face of the earth. They like God. . . .” he swallowed, closed his eyes and sighed. “They don’t even let you feel what you want to feel. They after you so hot and hard you can only feel what they doing to you. They kill you before you die.”

Bigger knows that he faces the death penalty, and therefore believes that it is too late to learn the meaning of his existence. He wishes he could retreat back into his mental stupor. He has a newfound feeling of hope for a new world and a new way of viewing himself in relation to other people, but this hope is tantalizing and torments him with uncertainty. Bigger wonders if perhaps his blind hatred is the better option anyway, since hope anguishes him more than it comforts him. The voice of hatred he has read in the newspapers seems so much louder and stronger than the voice of understanding he has heard in Max and Jan. Bigger despairs that this hatred will endure long after he is dead.

In the courtroom, Max presents his case. He argues that Bigger is a “test symbol” who embodies and exposes the ills of American society. Max explains that his intent is not to argue whether an injustice has been committed, but to make the court understand Bigger and the conditions that have created him. Max points out that the authorities have deliberately inflamed public opinion against Bigger, using his case as an excuse to terrorize the black community, labor groups, and the Communist Party into submission.

Max goes on to say that the rage directed at Bigger stems from a mix of guilt and fear. Those who clamor for Bigger’s swift execution secretly know that their own privileges have been gained through historical wrongs committed against people like Bigger, and that their wealth has been accumulated through the oppression of others. Bigger’s options have been so limited, and his life so controlled, that he has been unable to do anything but hate those who have profited from his misery. Stunted and deformed by this oppression, Bigger was unable to view Mary and Jan as human beings. Max argues that the Daltons, despite their philanthropy, are blind to the world that has created Bigger and have themselves created the conditions that led to their daughter’s murder.

Max warns that killing Bigger quickly will not restrain others like him. Rather, these other blacks will only become angrier that the powerful, rich, white majority limits their opportunities. Popular culture dangles happiness and wealth before the oppressed, but such goals are always kept out of reach in reality. Max argues that this smoldering anger born out of restricted opportunities—though now tempered by the effects of religion, alcohol, and sex—will eventually burst forth and destroy all law and order in American society. By limiting the education of blacks, segregating them, and oppressing them, white society itself is implicated in Mary’s murder. Max claims that white society “planned the murder of Mary Dalton” but now denies it. He says that his job is to show how foolish it is to try to seek revenge on Bigger.

Max argues that Bigger murdered Mary accidentally, without a plan, but that he accepted his crime, which gave him the opportunities of choice and action, and the sense that his actions finally meant something. Bigger’s killing was thus not an act against an individual, but a defense against the world in which Bigger has lived. Mary died because she did not understand that she alone could not undo hundreds of years of oppression. Max points to the gallery, where blacks and whites are seated in separate sections. Blacks, he says, live in a separate “captive” nation within America, unable to determine the course of their own lives. He argues that such a lack of self-realization is just as smothering and stunting as physical starvation. Bigger sought a new life, Max says, and found it accidentally when he murdered Mary. Max argues that Bigger had no motive for the crimes and that the murders were “as instinctive and inevitable as breathing or blinking one’s eyes.” The hate and fear society has bred into Bigger are an inextricable part of his personality, and essentially his only way of living.

Max says that there are millions more like Bigger and that, if change does not come, these conditions could lead to another civil war. He says he knows the court does not have the power to rectify hundreds of years of wrongs in one day, but that it can at least show that it recognizes that there is a problem. Prison, he says, would be a step up for Bigger. Though Bigger would be known only as a number in prison, he would at least have an identity there. Finally, Max argues that the court cannot kill Bigger because it has never actually recognized that he exists. He urges the court to give Bigger life. Bigger does not entirely understand Max’s speech, but is proud that Max has worked so hard to save him.

After Max’s arguments, Buckley declares that Bigger does in fact have a motive for Mary’s murder. Buckley claims that since Bigger and Jack masturbated while watching a newsreel about Mary the same day she was killed, Bigger must have been sexually interested in her. Buckley tells the courtroom that Bigger was a “maddened ape” who raped Mary, killed her, and burned her body to hide the evidence. Buckley concludes his argument by saying that Bigger was sullen and resentful from the start, not even grateful when he was referred to Mr. Dalton for a job. Buckley calls Bigger a “demented savage” who deserves to die, and whose execution will prove that “jungle law” does not prevail in Chicago. The court adjourns. After a brief deliberation, the judge returns and sentences Bigger to death.

Max visits Bigger again and tries to comfort Bigger, but Bigger wants understanding, not pity. He continues, saying that sometimes he wishes Max had not asked the questions, because they have made him think and this thinking has scared him. The questions have made Bigger consider himself and other people in a new way, and have caused him to realize that his motivation for hurting people was simply that they were always crowding him. He did not mean to hurt others, but it just happened. When Bigger committed the murders, he was not trying to kill anyone, but rather to make his life mean something that he could claim for himself. Bigger asks Max if this sense of meaning is the same reason that the authorities want to kill him. Max urges his client to die free, believing in himself. He tells Bigger that only his own mind stands in the way of believing in himself. The rich majority dehumanizes people like Bigger for the same reason Bigger could not see the majority as human—they each just want to justify their own lives.

Bigger tells Max he does believe in himself. He did not want to kill, but there was something in him that has made him kill and that something must be good. He tells Max that he feels all right when he looks at it this way. Max is horrified at Bigger’s words, but Bigger assures him that he is all right.

Richard Wright has been criticized for using the character of Max to promote his Communist ideology — while Wright has said that Max is promoting a world in which there is no black or white, there is no evidence in the book that the future will lead us to that world. If anything, the world is almost even more fractured after the trial. Wright was a member of the Communist party when he writing the book, which is why the heroes of his book were Communists, as well.

I first read this book in college and it scared the crap out of me. The thing that is the most unsettling is the anger. Bigger Thomas is one of the most angry characters in literature. Reading it in the 21st century was disturbing, and I don’t live with that sort of racial tension. I can only imagine what reading it in the 1940s was like. I know that there still is racism in America, but I have never experienced that intense hate and violence. Native Son is a very important book, if only for the sole purpose of scaring the crap out of white people and making people realize how the other side lives.

Comment » | classic books

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

41. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

April 13th, 2011 — 2:53pm

Nothing scares me more than evil children. Any movie that is advertised as featuring a possessed child, or a creepy child, or a murderous child will not be getting my popcorn and jujubee money. So just the summary of Lord of the Flies gives me the creeps: “British schoolchildren survive a plane crash on a desert island and have to form their own society, but their island utopia soon turns to chaos.” No good can come of British schoolchildren being stranded on a deserted island. No good.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding was published in 1954, in the midst of the Cold War. The beginning of the novel explains that the plane is evacuating the students from Britain; there is a subtle nod to a nuclear-esque war going on and the plane has been shot down by a nameless enemy. Two of the children (who range in age from about 6 to 14) are the first characters on the beach — Ralph and the unfortunately named Piggy, who is chubby and has asthma and glasses. Poor Piggy doesn’t stand a chance on the playground, much less on a deserted island.

Ralph and Piggy find a conch shell on the beach and blow it to alert any other survivors to their whereabouts. Kids start coming towards them from all directions, including a large group of kids in identical choir robes. The head of the choirboys, Jack, makes himself known pretty quickly and he and Ralph discuss the need for an organized plan. Jack makes the argument for himself in possibly one of my favorite election speeches ever:

“I ought to be chief,” said Jack with simple arrogance, “because I’m chapter chorister and head boy. I can sing C sharp.”

Somehow the boys are unconvinced that the ability to sing C sharp is a valuable life skill for getting rescued off an island, and they vote Ralph to be the leader. Ralph, in order to keep the choir boys from performing a mutiny, suggests that Jack and the Choir Boys work as an army and hunt for the group — maybe not the best idea, in hindsight.

Ralph, Jack, and a boy named Simon walk around and determine that they’re on an island and that there are no discernible signs of human civilization; they find tracks in the sand, but they’re animal tracks, there is no village smoke or boats on the shore. They find a piglet that they catch and Jack attempts to kill it with a knife; however, once he raises his arm in the air to stab it, he hesitates over the enormity of the act of killing a living creature and the pig gets away. In typical boy fashion, Jack promises that the next time there will be no mercy on whatever animal is under his knife.

When they get back to the others, they make their rules of the island — have fun and try to be rescued. They start a fire using Piggy’s glasses and maintaining the fire becomes the number one priority. They also establish a rule that when they are meeting together, whoever is holding the conch shell is the one who gets to talk. The conch comes to represent the attempts at civilization and order.

As the novel goes on, the Big Three of Ralph, Jack, and Simon begin to take over different roles of leadership; Jack takes the choir boys and becomes in charge of hunting the pigs on the island for meat, and Simon takes control of building shelters, as well as defending and protecting the younger boys. Piggy becomes an outcast; the older boys don’t take him seriously, even though (and probably because) he is a voice a reason, and the younger kids follow suit and make fun of him.

Several things happen to the boys that threatens their fragile civilization. The initial fire that they build by focusing sunlight through Piggy’s glasses is ignored while the kids play on the beach, and the fire gets out of control and burns all of their firewood. After the fire, one of the “littluns” disappears after the fire and is never seen again, presumably burned to death from the fire. On another occasion, Jack and the Choir Boys go off to hunt when they’re supposed to be watching the signal fire. Ralph and Piggy are on the beach, and they see a ship pass by, but when they get back to the fire to make a smoke signal, the fire has died out. Ralph accuses Jack, who has just returned triumphantly with a killed pig whose throat he slit, of letting the fire die. Jack and the Choir Boys, with face paint on their faces and blood still on the knife, are too preoccupied with the excitement and adrenaline rush of their first kill, and they put on a frenzied, crazed recreation of the hunt. Piggy tells Jack that he shouldn’t have left the fire and Jack punches Piggy in the stomach and then slaps him in the face hard enough to make Piggy’s glasses fly off and break one of the lenses.

Ralph calls an assembly to try to get their heads in the game and focus on their main goal: keeping the fire up so they can be rescued. At the meeting, the littluns start talking about their fear of a beast living on the island. Jack, with his usual sensitive nature, states that there is no beast, and he should know, as he’d covered every inch of the island during their hunts. Piggy brings up the point that there is no beast on the island and no reason to fear anything other than people (enter ominous music here). The littluns insist that there’s a beast; some say that it comes out of the sea, some say that it lurks in the caves, and they all agree that it comes out at night. Jack, in a moment that brings chaos to the meeting, speaks without holding the conch and declares that if there’s a beast, he and his boys will hunt it down. At this, the meeting splinters, with boys running away in all directions, leaving Ralph, Piggy, and Simon watching after them fearfully, discussing what “the grownups would think” if they could see how quick to violence and chaos the boys all are.

That night, there is an air battle over them, and a parachutist falls to the ground while the boys are all asleep. Two of the boys, twins who are interchangeable and are therefore known collectively as “SamnEric”, wake up and see the parachute fluttering; they panic, convinced that the beast has come in from the air. Ralph, Jack, and some of the hunters agree to go and look for the beast. On the search, they come across a wild boar and they try to catch it. When it gets away, they make a pretend hunting circle, enclosing on one of the boys, Robert, and pretend that they’re hunting him. They engage in their hunting ritual, which includes a chant:

“Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in!”

Creepy kids. Not okay.

The hunters from the 1990 movie. Aka, the best form of birth control available. Do not want these evil children.

Ralph and Jack go up the mountain and see what looks like “a great ape” asleep in one of the trees. They run back to the other boys and report back that they found the beast. While they’re discussing what to do, Jack declares that he’s no longer going to follow Ralph; Ralph is too preoccupied with his precious little fire and he’s a coward, so he’s going to take his hunters and kill the beast. When the other boys don’t elect to remove Ralph’s power, Jack calls his hunters and they run off to the beach. Ralph gets the other boys to help him rebuild the fire, but by the time they’ve finished, most of the boys have defected and joined Jack’s tribe. Ralph notices that Simon is gone as well, to which Piggy replies, “He’s cracked.”

Simon has gone off on his own to look for the beast. He finds a gift for the beast that Jack and the Choir Boys made, which is the head of one of the pigs killed by Jack that they impaled on a stick; it is covered in flies, and Simon thinks of it as “Lord of the Flies.” He has indeed cracked. The Lord of the Flies begins to talk to him and it is the creepiest thing yet:

“You are a silly little boy,” said the Lord of the Flies, “just an ignorant, silly little boy.”

Simon moved his swollen tongue but said nothing.

“Don’t you agree?” said the Lord of the Flies. “Aren’t you just a silly little boy?”

Simon answered him in the same silent voice.

“Well then,” said the Lord of the Flies,” you’d better run off and play with the others. They think you’re batty. You don’t want Ralph to think you’re batty, do you? You like Ralph a lot, don’t you? And Piggy, and Jack?”

Simon’s head was tilted slightly up. His eyes could not break away and the Lord of the Flies hung in space before him.

“What are you doing out here all alone? Aren’t you afraid of me?”

Simon shook.

“There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast.”

Simon’s mouth labored, brought forth audible words.

“Pig’s head on a stick.”

“Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew, didn’t you?” said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?”

And then Simon faints. Thank god. I don’t know how much more of that conversation I could take.

When he wakes up, he sees that the flies have moved to a different spot. He sees that it’s the body of the parachutist that became tangled in the tree and realizes that the dead body is what Ralph and Jack thought was the beast. He rushes back to the other boys to tell them that it’s harmless and that they’re mistaken.

Meanwhile, Ralph and Piggy have gone to find Jack and the others, seeing as how there are no boys left in Ralph’s tribe. They find them on the beach, painted with face paint and looking dirty and wild. And crazy. When it starts to rain, they form a circle and do their weird little hunting game, pretending that the boy Roger is a pig. Ralph and Piggy find themselves unable to resist the game and join in. The boys start chanting:

“Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!”

Simon bursts through the woods, shouting to them about the man in the trees, and the boys, in their bloodlust and mob mentality, mistake him for the beast. They form a new circle around “the beast.” Simon stumbles on the beach, and they attack and kill him with their bare hands and teeth. Then the mob breaks up and the boys all wander away, leaving Simon’s body bleeding and dead in the rain. As it rains, the tide rises and washes Simon’s body off the beach and into the ocean.

Ralph and Piggy, now that the spell of the mob has broken, are horrified that they took part in the murder of Simon. Jack, on the other hand, is not so upset. He and his tribe have taken solace in a place they call Castle Rock, where he is holding court like a dictator. Jack has decided that his tribe deserves a fire, so they are going to sneak to Ralph and Piggy’s camp and steal Piggy’s glasses. All that is left of Ralph’s tribe is Ralph, Piggy, and the twins Sam and Eric, so the security on the place is rather subpar. The boys pretend to be the beast and attack them, stealing the glasses in the chaos. Once the glasses are stolen, Ralph plans to steal them back.

Ralph, Piggy, Sam, and Eric go to Jack’s tribe and Ralph accuses Jack of being a thief. Apparently even on a deserted island this is a disrespect that will not be tolerated, as Jack calls for Sam and Eric to be tied up in order to show Ralph that he can basically do whatever he wants; his “painted savages” are completely loyal to him. One of the boys, Roger, was up on the rock and was dropping stones on them. Piggy, frustrated with all of this foolishness, grabs the conch and appeals to the boys:

“I got this to say. You’re acting like a crowd of kids.”

The booing rose and died again as Piggy lifted the white, magic shell.

“Which is better — to be a pack of painted Indians like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is?”

A great clamor rose among the savages. Piggy shouted again.

“Which is better — to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?”

The boys decided that yeah, hunting is better than law, as they cornered Ralph and Piggy and readied themselves for an attack. Roger intensified his rock throwing and caused a boulder to fall down on top of them.

Ralph heard the great rock long before he saw it. He was aware of a jolt in the earth that came to him through the soles of his feet, and the breaking sound of stones at the top of the cliff. Then the monstrous red thing bounded across the neck and he flung himself flat while the tribe shrieked.

The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time for even a grunt, travelled through the air sideways from the rock, turning over as he went. The rock bounded twice and was lost in the forest. Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across that square, red rock in the sea. His head opened and stuff came out and turned red. Piggy’s arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig’s after it has been killed. Then the sea breathed again in a long, slow sigh, the water boiled white and pink over the rock; and when it went, sucking back again, the body of Piggy was gone.

This time the silence was complete. Ralph’s lips formed a word but no sound came.

With the shattering of the conch and Piggy’s death comes the total loss of any shred of humanity that Jack and the boys might have still had. Ralph barely escapes as they hurl spears at him. The boys, namely Roger, torture Sam and Eric for not joining their tribe in the first place. Ralph hides all night and day while the boys hunt him like an animal. He runs into Sam and Eric on the beach, and they tell him that the boys forced them to join the tribe and for Ralph to get away while he can. Apparently Roger has sharpened a stick at both ends and it has Ralph’s name on it. Ralph hides in the forest and Jack decides to smoke him out; he has the boys set the trees on fire. Ralph is driven to the beach by screaming savages with spears. He falls to the sand and covers himself with his arms to try to protect himself.

When he gets to his feet, a British naval officer is standing on the beach, staring at Ralph with a “what the hell is going on here?” look. They saw the smoke from the burning forest and came to the island to investigate. A group of the tribe, “their bodies streaked with colored clay, sharp sticks in their hands,” emerged from the forest, and the officer asks if they’ve been having “fun and games.” When Ralph tells him that two of the boys have been killed, the officer replies that he would have thought better of a pack of British boys.

Ralph looked at him dumbly. For a moment he had a fleeting picture of the strange glamour that had once invested the beaches. But the island was scorched up like dead wood — Simon was dead — and Jack had…

The tears began to flow and sobs shook him. He gave himself up to them now for the first time on the island; great, shuddering spasms of grief that seemed to wrench his whole body. His voice rose under the black smoke before the burning wreckage of the island; and infected by that emotion, the other little boys began to shake and sob too. And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.

The officer, surrounded by these noises, was moved and a little embarrassed. He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance.

This book is an interesting argument for society — how long does it take civilization to fall apart, what does power or the lack of power do to a person, how does mob mentality influence people to do horrible things, where does the line between emotional and rational responses break down.

Ralph has good intentions for the group and is described as having natural leadership, even if his ideas aren’t always implemented well. He is nonviolent in contrast to Jack’s violence. He takes the leadership role very seriously and tries to set rules and procedures in order; the use of the conch shell during their assemblies, for example.

Piggy is the scientific mind of the group, very logical and rational. He is also the most set on having a civilization; he takes the conch shell with them on the raid of Jack’s tribe and insists on using it to speak to the savage boys. He acts as Ralph’s adviser, as he is the one with the ideas but no sense of leadership and none of the boys take him seriously. He demands order and has an adult sense of reason; he finds it hard to believe that the savage boys of Jack’s tribe would rather hunt and kill rather than be rescued and have order. His death signifies the final spiral into chaos.

Jack is the epitome of human nature when exposed to anarchy and chaos. Though he rather begrudgingly agrees to Ralph as the leader, he slowly takes over more and more power as the leader of the hunting choir boys. He also primal and masculine qualities that aren’t apparent in the other boys, which might be due to his being one of the older boys — when he is unable to kill the first pig they find, due to the potential trauma of ending a life, he feels shame and compensates by vowing to hunt until he kills something, even going so far as to abandoning the fire in order to hunt. His blood lust gets more intense and irrational. He and the hunters begin to paint themselves with body paint, shedding their humanity as they shed their clothes. As more of the boys give over to their primal natures, they leave Ralph’s tribe and join Jack.

Simon represents peace and humanity (see: Jesus figure). Simon takes care and calms the younger children when they’re having their nightmares and he keeps the older kids from teasing them. He is in tune with nature and the ocean, and that is why he has such an adverse reaction to seeing the pig’s head and hallucinates the Lord of the Flies (which happens to be the English translation of “Beelzebub,” a demon synonymous with Satan). His hallucination reveals the truth of the beast to him, and when he tries to explain it to the others, he’s savagely murdered, bringing about the loss of the truth and the boys’ innocence.

The arrival of the naval officer represents the adult authoritative influence on children: what was once a savage hunt and murder is reduced to “fun and games.” As the boys are crying, the officer looks away from the boys and towards his own battleship, juxtaposing the brutality of the children’s experiences on the island with the brutality of the adults’ experiences in war.

Whenever people talk about possibly lowering the drinking age or giving kids more responsibility, Lord of the Flies is immediately what I think of. Kids are not to be trusted with anything other than stuffed animals and need to have good solid role models that will teach them to not to try to kill each other with sharp sticks. I’m looking at you, Kid Nation.

All in all, this book is a study in why I will never have children. The possibility of the kids mutinying and chasing after me with sticks and face paint? No thank you.

4 comments » | modern

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.

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2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

June 22nd, 2010 — 7:53pm

As one of my students told me, “This book goes hard.” Whatever that means.

The Great Gatsby was first published in 1925 and has been read in basically every high school and university English class ever. I personally have read it for five different classes. However, it wasn’t until a reprinting of the book in the 1940s and 1950s that it gained the monsterous popularity that it has today. It’s taught as a parable of the “American dream” and what happens when it’s acheived.


Nick Carraway is the passive narrator to the story of Jay Gatsby, Nick’s neighbor, and Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom. Nick has moved to New York from the Midwest to “learn the bond business” (spoiler alert: stay home from work in October 1929) and moves to West Egg, a community on Long Island Sound. Daisy, who is Nick’s second cousin, invites Nick to dinner with her and Tom and their friend, Jordan Baker. Tom and Daisy live a pampered lifestyle. Daisy is said to have been partially inspired by Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda; the statement Daisy makes about hoping that her daughter is a “beautiful fool” because that is all a girl can hope to be is an anecdote that is attributed to Zelda on the birth of her daughter. During the dinner, Jordan reveals to Nick that Tom has a mistress in New York City. Tom has been making frequent trips to New York where he meets up with Myrtle Wilson, who’s husband, George, is an oblivious garage mechanic.

Gatsby is a mystery to Nick for the first few chapters, until he receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s notorious parties. While at the party, Nick hears all sorts of rumors about Gatsby (that he is the nephew to Kaiser Wilhelm, that he’s killed a man just to watch him die, etc) and is underwhelmed when he finds out that a stranger he has been talking to is actually Gatsby. Nick and Gatsby form a friendship of sorts, and Gatsby tells Nick about his life as a war hero who is from a wealthy family, all the while calling Nick “old sport” more times than he uses his name.

Jordan informs Nick of Gatsby’s real story — in 1917, Gatsby was an Army lieutenant stationed in Louisville where he met and fell in love with Daisy. When Gatsby left Louisville to make enough money to support and marry Daisy, Daisy married Tom in Gatsby’s absence. Gatsby then made his fortune and bought a mansion close to Tom and Daisy, hoping that Daisy would somehow make it to one of his lavish parties.

Pause.

This is where the characters begin to infuriate me. Daisy is shallow. If she wasn’t willing to wait for Gatsby, why on earth would he think that stalking her and hanging around her neighborhood like a creeper would help win her over? And if it DOES win her over, now that he has his huge house and fancy clothes, why would any self respecting guy want to be with her knowing that the only reason she is with him is because of his money? To quote the immortal Kanye West, now I ain’t sayin’ she a gold digger, but she ain’t messin’ with no broke, broke. Get down girl, go ‘head, get down.

Anyway.

Gatsby wants Nick to arrange a meeting between him and Daisy, so Nick invites Daisy over for lunch. At first, the meeting is awkward, but once Gatsby takes Daisy and Nick to his house and Daisy has a Scrooge McDuck moment with some of his shirts:

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”

Now that Daisy is aware of Gatsby’s wealth and prestige, they become involved in an affair. Everything goes along fine until Daisy has the wonderful idea to invite Nick and Gatsby out with Tom. Tom becomes aware that Gatsby loves Daisy. Tom insists that he and Gatsby switch cars before they drive up to New York for the day, and when he stops for gas, he flaunts Gatsby’s car to George Wilson.

When they get to New York, Tom suddenly becomes a loving attentive husband to Daisy and confronts Gatsby about the affair. Gatsby acknowledges it and informs Tom that Daisy never loved him, as she had always been in love with Gatsby. The scene turns into a bit of a soap opera.

Gatsby walked over and stood beside her.

“Daisy, that’s all over now,” he said earnestly. “It doesn’t matter any more. Just tell him the truth — that you never loved him — and it’s all wiped out forever.”

She looked at him blindly. “Why — how could I love him — possibly?”

“You never loved him.”

She hesitated. Her eyes fell on Jordan and me with a sort of appeal, as though she realized at last what she was doing — and as though she had never, all along, intended doing anything at all. But it was done now. It was too late.

“I never loved him,” she said, with perceptible reluctance.

“Not at Kapiolani?” demanded Tom suddenly.

“No.”

From the ballroom beneath, muffled and suffocating chords were drifting up on hot waves of air.

“Not that day I carried you down from the Punch Bowl to keep your shoes dry?” There was a husky tenderness in his tone. . . . “Daisy?”

“Please don’t.” Her voice was cold, but the rancor was gone from it. She looked at Gatsby. “There, Jay,” she said — but her hand as she tried to light a cigarette was trembling. Suddenly she threw the cigarette and the burning match on the carpet.

“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now — isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once — but I loved you too.”

Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed.

“You loved me TOO?” he repeated.

Ohhh dear.

When they leave the hotel, Daisy insists on driving Gatsby’s car, to calm her nerves. Tom, Nick, and Jordan follow a bit later and as they’re driving, they notice a commotion at George Wilson’s garage. It appears that Myrtle has been struck and killed by a car — when she saw Gatsby’s car, she assumed that it was Tom’s, as he’d been driving it earlier that day, and ran out to meet it. Daisy, who was driving, accidentally hit her.

When Gatsby tells Nick this the next day, Nick urges Gatsby to leave. Gatsby is depressed and is waiting for a phone call from Daisy. Nick tells him that “they’re a rotten crowd” and that Gatsby is “worth the whole damn bunch put together!”

Later that day, however, George Wilson has found out who owned the car that killed Myrtle, and shoots and kills Gatsby before committing suicide. Only Nick, Gatsby’s father, and one other person attend Gatsby’s funeral.

At the end of the book, Nick has decided to return to the Midwest and reflects on the cyclical nature of past:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The Great Gatsby is often taught in school as a parable of the American dream, that someone can rise from nothing to achieve greatness. But it’s also a bit of a warning and a critique of the decadence of the time; what you want may not necessarily be what you need. Fitzgerald himself is a testament to that: after living a life of excessive through the Jazz Age, the remainder of his life was spent in financial strife until his premature death of a heart attack at age 44. His wife Zelda, was in and out of psychiatric clinics until her death in 1948. Perhaps Fitzgerald should have written a better ending.

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