I admit, I chose this book to read because I was looking for details of the affair between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. For someoneI admit, I chose this book to read because I was looking for details of the affair between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. For someone who is interested in learning more about Thomas Jefferson, there are a lot of award-winning biographies to peruse. Interestingly, all of these books turn out to be written by white males who treat Sally Hemings as a footnote in Jefferson's life and discount the idea that she could have had a relationship with Jefferson or conceived his children. The one historian willing to assert that this relationship likely did exist, Annette Gordon-Reed, made her claims in the 1997 book, "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," and a year later DNA results seemed to corroborate her claim. In her new book, "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family," Gordon-Reed attacks Jefferson’s biographers who "had the power to write the ‘official’ record of [Jefferson’s:] family life, and [...:] essentially wrote the Hemings out of it." In Gordon-Reed’s book, the Hemingses are not side characters, but in fact they are the story. While I initially started this book hoping to learn more about the affair between Jefferson and Hemings, a much more interesting story emerged not just about Sally, but about her entire family and the fate they suffered as slaves in America.
At its heart, this book is about the Hemings family – how they are introduced to America, how they come to be the property of their own relative, and how they are unceremoniously auctioned off following Jefferson’s death. And at the core of the book is the key question in Sally Hemings’ life: why she gave up her freedom in order to be with Thomas Jefferson. Following the death of her half-sister, Jefferson’s wife Martha, the twelve-year-old Sally Hemings followed Thomas Jefferson to Paris to help care for his daughters. In Paris, with its "Freedom Principle," Sally Hemings was no longer a slave, and she and her brother, James, who was Jefferson’s chef, could have, at any time, appealed to the government and won their freedom from Jefferson. However, neither Hemings sibling applied for freedom, and, in fact, when it was time for Jefferson to return to Virginia, both Hemingses willingly gave up their freedom to return with him as his slaves. Sally Hemings, at this time, was thought to be pregnant, and she initially refused to go back to Virginia but ultimately agreed when Jefferson promised that her children – their children together – would be freed from slavery when they turned twenty-one. But why would she trust Jefferson and his promise of a faraway freedom and return to Virginia where she would be forced to live under slavery?
That is the key question of "The Hemingses of Monticello," and ultimately it is never answered. Sally Hemings left no record of her thoughts, and so there is no way to determine what she was thinking. In fact, according to Gordon-Reed, the veiled nature of Sally Hemings' existence is the "most important theme in her life." While there is, unfortunately, no historical record to answer some of the key questions about the Hemingses, the most important thing is that Gordon-Reed, unlike the preponderance of Jefferson’s biographers, actually asks these questions in the first place. The Hemingses are not invisible to her; in fact, her book is told from their point of view, not Jefferson’s. And while Gordon-Reed cannot answer some of these key questions, she provides invaluable insights, not through speculation, as other reviewers have suggested, but rather by providing context. For example, in trying to explain how the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings may have started, Gordon-Reed uses the historical record we do have – of Jefferson’s relationship with his manservant/slave, Burwell Colbert, and how Jefferson went to great lengths to win his affection, to explain how Jefferson might also have used similar tactics with Sally Hemings. By explaining the world of Monticello, and the institution of slavery which pervaded it, even without specific information on Sally Hemings, Gordon-Reed is able to tell her story.
While Gordon-Reed may not be able to tell us specifically what Sally Heming’s private life was like – what her thoughts or goals may have been – she is able to tell us what the life of a slave was like in the 18th and 19th centuries: what it was like to be entirely dependent on the whims of an owner, to be separated from family, to be treated as a piece of property recorded in a “Farm Book,” to be a half-sibling with the very person who owns you, to fight for your freedom, and to be treated as an invisible or side character in the lives of white people. The reviewers who say this book spends too much time talking about slavery don’t seem to understand that the institution of slavery is, in fact, what the heart of this book is about. The beauty of this book is that it transforms James Hemings from a "personal servant" to Jefferson to a professional chef and world traveler and Sally Hemings from a passive concubine to someone able to negotiate her children's freedom. They were not nameless slaves, footnotes to the larger story of Thomas Jefferson, but in fact they were important historical figures in their own right. In the end, readers looking for details on the love story between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson will be disappointed, but those with an open mind will appreciate the far more compelling story being told of an American family living through the ordeal of slavery. ...more
Racism is not a problem unique to South Africa. Here in America, we have been dealing with it since our country was first formed, fought a civil war oRacism is not a problem unique to South Africa. Here in America, we have been dealing with it since our country was first formed, fought a civil war over slavery, and in some respects are more segregated now than we have ever been. As minorities become the new majority in our country, and whites become outnumbered as projected in the next couple of decades, we may or may not see a power shift. Or with the election of Barack Obama, we may already be seeing this shift. "Disgrace," by J.M. Coetzee, addresses this idea of a power shift, following the life of a communications professor, David Lurie, as he tries to deal his new status in post-apartheid South Africa. As he confronts his new lowered status in the country and falls into a state of disgrace, he is forced to ask himself, for the first time, "Do I have to change?" Unfortunately, the change we see in David occurs only at a symbolic level; at a practical level, in his day-to-day dealings with blacks, David maintains a racist attitude.
The power shift from whites to blacks in post-apartheid South Africa is mostly seen symbolically through the use of dogs. After David loses his job as a professor, following an "affair" with (or, more accurately, the rape of) one of his students, he decides to stay with his daughter Lucy in the country. After she takes him on a visit to a local animal center owned by Bev Shaw, Lucy argues with her father over the importance of treating the animals humanely, saying "I don’t want to come back in another existence as a dog or pig and have to live as dogs or pigs live under us." David disagrees with her view. He does not believe we are judged by how we have treated others and says the treatment of animals is understandable because "[w:]e are of a different order of creation from the animals," drawing an obvious analogy of how whites have treated blacks in South Africa throughout history. When David meets Petrus, a black man who helps Lucy around the farm, Petrus introduces himself as a "dog-man" because he cares for Lucy’s dogs. However, a symbolic power shift occurs when Lucy’s dogs are killed by three local black kids, and, by the end of the story, Petrus and David have switched places. Volunteering at the animal center owned by Bev Shaw, David at first mocks Bev for her "New Age mumbo jumbo," because she treats the animals like human beings and shows them concern and provides them comfort as she prepares them for death. Eventually, though, David also grows to feel compassion for the dogs, at one point pulling over to the side of the road and sobbing uncontrollably on his way home. As he goes out of his way to ensure a dignified death for the dogs, he realizes, "now he has become a dog-man." At first, he had thought of the dogs as part of a different order and refused them his compassion, but by the end of the book, he actually is able to set aside his own feelings. While selfishly he wishes to keep a dying dog for an additional week for his own companionship, he instead decides to put the dog’s needs ahead of his own and gives it up to Bev to be euthanized. Symbolically, we see, David is capable of providing compassion for those on a lower, or different, order than himself, to relinquish his power for the greater good.
However, on a practical level, the view presented in "Disgrace" is clearly racist. The brother of Petrus’ wife, along with two other black men, brutally rapes Lucy, kills her dogs, and leaves Lucy pregnant. When Lucy tells her dad how personal the rape felt, that the men hated her and hunted her down "like a pack of dogs," David responds, "It was history speaking through them. A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t. It came down from the ancestors." According to this nonsensical answer, blacks are portrayed as animals who are not agents over their own individual behavior, but rather one big angry mass to be feared by all whites. When David appeals to Petrus to find the men so they can be imprisoned, Petrus refuses and even allows his wife’s brother to move in with them, so Lucy is forced to deal with her rapist on a daily basis. Neither Petrus nor his family is ever given a point of view or perspective to explain this bizarre behavior or justify their actions, unlike David, who is also a rapist but is afforded a point of view and therefore a quasi-explanation for why he raped his student. According to South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, in "Disgrace," "there is not one black person who is a real human being," and she adds that it is difficult to believe that a black family would protect the rapist just because he’s one of them. While David is able to develop a symbolic sense of compassion for dogs, he never affords this same compassion for Petrus or his family. As Lucy is forced to give up her land to Petrus and start over with nothing, "like a dog," David goes into a rage at the thought that Petrus’ brother-in-law "has been allowed to tangle his roots with Lucy and Lucy’s existence." Just seeing the boy sends David, who usually feels nothing and cares about nothing, into an "elemental rage": "So this is what it is like, he thinks! This is what it is like to be a savage!" While we have seen David’s ability to change, both in his relationship with his daughter and his newfound compassion for animals, as far as Petrus’ family goes, David is "too old to heed, too old to change." As a result, David’s racial attitudes never evolve throughout the book, with his hatred toward blacks, or "savages" actually deepening, as the blacks terrorize him and his family without cause or explanation.
While "Disgrace" symbolically deals with the power shift between races by showing David develop compassion for dogs, this compassion is never shown for the black characters in the book, as instead a very racist attitude is conveyed. Whether this attitude is meant to be just David’s, or whether it is shared by Coetzee, is unclear, but the image of black savages ruining the lives of "civilized" whites seems meant to instill fear in readers. But even worse than the racism which permeates the book is the hopelessness shared by almost all of the characters. In America, our hope is represented in our new President. In his memoir, he describes the "audacity of hope" – the determination, self-reliance, and relentless optimism of the American people in the face of hardship. Having the audacity to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that we can come together as a community and take responsibility over our own fate is what Obama says joins us as one people, and joins our own individual stories to that of the larger American story. In other words, having hope is what makes us human, and joins us all together as one people. In America, we have renewed this hope by electing Obama. But in "Disgrace," hope is missing. Fittingly, the last image we are left with is of David giving up; in "Disgrace," there is no hope, no humanity, nothing to link David Lurie’s story to that of the story of South Africa or America, or to other human beings. Hope is what redeems us as humans, and by painting such a bleak dismal picture of the world, without hope of a better future, "Disgrace" becomes just the story of one hopeless man instead of a human story that can teach us all a lesson about ourselves. ...more
If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound or not? This famous question is closely examined in "The*WARNING FOR SPOILERS*
If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound or not? This famous question is closely examined in "The Book of Illusions," by author Paul Auster, as he tells the story of literature professor David Zimmer, who copes with the death of his wife and two sons by shutting out the real world so that he can inhabit the "silent world of Hector Mann," an obscure actor from the 1920s. After leaving a dozen movies behind that nobody seems to know about, Hector disappeared in 1929, presumed dead. However, it turns out he is actually alive in New Mexico, paying penance for the role he played in the accidental death of his girlfriend – vowing never to make another movie and eventually only agreeing to make movies if they will be destroyed immediately upon his death and never be seen by an audience. According to Hector’s rationale, if he makes a movie and nobody sees it, then his movie does not exist. But is this true? Does an idea have to be shared – and experienced by others – to exist and take on meaning? Although he provides confusing answers throughout the work, first suggesting that Hector’s greatness can be achieved on his own, ultimately Auster seems to conclude that Hector’s works only become important when they are shared and experienced by others.
At first, Auster suggests Hector can attain greatness on his own, even without an audience. When Hector Mann disappears, his film career is pretty much over due to the invention of sound in movies and his heavy accent. His last major film, "Mr. Nobody," is a response to the frustration he feels about his career, as, in the film, his character takes a magic potion that makes him invisible. Eventually, he is reborn as a new person, and, facing himself in the mirror, he confronts the fact of his own annihilation with an exuberant smile – the last image of Hector Mann that will be seen by audiences, seemingly content with the idea he is "no longer the Hector Mann who has amused us and entertained us." Similarly, in his own life, Hector is forced to disappear after his girlfriend is killed, and, to disguise himself, he loses his trademark mustache, so that he is "the spitting image of Mr. Nothing himself." In his new life, Hector no longer makes movies, but instead works odd jobs and focuses on reading, writing, learning English, and planting trees. In his journals, Hector writes, "I talk only to the dead now. They are the only ones I trust, the only ones who understand me." Hector no longer shares himself with an audience – Hector Mann has been annihilated – but, according to his biographer and friend Alma, he is closer to greatness than ever before: "[T]he further he traveled from his point of origin, she said, the closer he came to achieving greatness. [. . . ]Even now, he still talks about the trees as his greatest accomplishment. Better than his films, she says, better than anything else he’s ever done." In this reading of Hector’s life, based on the interpretation of "Mr. Nobody," Hector is the only voice that matters; even without an audience, he can still attain greatness.
However, a later film, "The Inner Life of Martin Frost," questions this notion that artists can attain greatness without sharing their work with others. In this movie, which Hector made after his disappearance with the promise it would never be released to an audience, is different from his earlier work: it is serious, not a comedy, and Hector does not act in it. In the movie, Martin Frost, a writer, must destroy his work to save the life of his girlfriend Claire. After she is brought back to life and realizes what has happened, she erupts in tears, asking Martin if he realizes what’s he done and desperately wondering what they are going to do now. The movie ends ambiguously with her questions and no answers from Martin. Similarly, after Hector’s death, his wife Frieda destroys everything – his movies, his journals, and even the manuscript of a biography his friend Alma had been working on for seven years – in a "precise reenactment of the final scene of Martin Frost." Pondering Frieda’s actions, David thinks about Hector’s sacrifice of "the one thing that would have given his work meaning – the pleasure of sharing it with others," but then realizes that, in Frieda’s mind, "It was about making something in order to destroy it. That was the work, and until all evidence of the work had been destroyed, the work would not exist. It would come into being only at the moment of its annihilation." In Frieda’s interpretation, work was not created for others; in fact, sharing Hector’s work with others would cause it to lose its meaning.
However, ultimately, both of Auster’s protagonists – David Zimmer and Hector Mann – seem to repudiate Frieda and believe that Hector’s work does not lose meaning if it is shared with others. When Alma had first told David about her biography of Hector, he was initially skeptical: "It’s one thing to unburden himself to you, but a book is for the world, and as soon as he tells his story to the world, his life becomes meaningless." In other words, a book exists not for the author or subject but for readers, and by sharing himself with them, Hector could lose himself. He would exist as they saw him, and not as he really was – their illusions of him would become reality. When David questions Hector about why he would want to give himself away like that, Hector answers, "Why should it bother me to turn myself into an example for others? [. . . .] You laughed, Zimmer. Perhaps others will begin to laugh with you." These words – the last Hector speaks in the book – show his realization of the positive impact his work can have on others, as he comes to the conclusion that his earlier films, if they made David laugh, were "perhaps the greatest good" he had done. David ultimately seems to embrace Hector’s viewpoint, hoping that others will laugh with him, as he takes pleasure when Hector’s silent comedies are put out on video and becomes an honorary member of a fan club, the International Brotherhood of Hector Manniacs. Most of all, he hopes that someday the lost films of Hector Mann – the ones that Frieda destroyed – will be found somehow so others can enjoy them like he did, "and the story will start all over again. I live with that hope." In order to have meaning, Hector’s films must be shared with others. Unlike Frieda, David believes that Hector’s films should be shared with the world.
Although he provides confusing answers throughout "The Book of Illusions," first suggesting that Hector’s greatness can be achieved on his own, ultimately Auster seems to conclude that Hector’s works only become important when they are shared and experienced by others. Like the confusing answers to the question of the movie that nobody sees, "The Book of Illusions" is full of other confusing themes and contradictions. For example, one major theme of the book is the effect of chance and how small circumstances can have a significant impact on our lives. However, while there are some small circumstances which impact the action in the book, for the most part, the major events are more like contrived and implausible plot devices – an ex-girlfriend killed by a current girlfriend, a wife and two sons lost in a plane crash, David held at gunpoint so that he will watch a movie, a tough fall resulting in another death, a suicide, a possible murder. Are these really "small circumstances" of chance? Moreover, while this issue of fate is explored in depth like the meaning of one’s work, the two themes are never tied together. In Auster’s telling, both Hector and David cope with loss by turning to art but they are not reborn again except through accidents of fate, so that the one seemingly resolved idea in the book – the issue of the movie nobody hears – becomes irrelevant compared to the greater themes of fate and rebirth. The interplay between the various themes is never explored, and it is easy to get confused as all of these ideas are presented, but are often contradicted and never fully resolved, leading a reader to ponder the 2001 Atlantic Monthly article’s criticism of Paul Auster: "[He] knows the prime rule of pseudo-intellectual writing: the harder it is to be pinned down on any idea, the easier it is to conceal that one has no ideas at all." In light of the questions asked in "The Book of Illusions," it is easy to wonder: if an author throws out a lot of different ideas but never resolves them, so that readers can’t understand what those ideas are, do the ideas actually exist?
"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," by author Mark Haddon, is the story of Christopher John Francis Boone, a fifteen-year-old boy who"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," by author Mark Haddon, is the story of Christopher John Francis Boone, a fifteen-year-old boy who discovers his neighbor's dog dead and sets about to solve the mystery of who killed it, making many other discoveries along the way. In this book, readers are treated to a unique voice, not only in literature, but in life, as Christopher is developmentally disabled. He doesn't like other people and he doesn't like being touched; as a result, when confused or angry, he often screams, groans, or physically attacks others. In giving Christopher a voice, Haddon succeeds in making us identify with his protagonist for his similiarities, but not for his differences, and ultimately fails to recognize what makes Christopher special.
By allowing Christopher to tell his own story, Haddon shows us that Christopher isn't really all that different from the rest of us, despite his disability. While outsiders deride Christopher as "special needs" and an "elf," because we are allowed inside Christopher's mind, we can see that he is not a freak. In describing one of his episodes where he loses control, Christopher says, "I felt giddy. It was like the room was swinging from side to side, as if it was at the top of a really tall building and the building was swinging backward and forward in a strong wind . . . I rolled onto the bed and curled up in a ball." Hearing about Christopher's outbursts in his own voice, we feel compassion for his experience instead of fear. While obviously he is different from us - he can multiply 251 by 864 in his head, he counts prime numbers when he is upset, and he lacks imagination - he is also similar. Like us, Christopher feels happiness and sadness. He is happy when he can pretend he is the only person in the whole world and sad when he finds the dead dog. Also, Christopher, like the rest of us, has dreams: he is going to pass his A-levels, take more A-levels, go to the university, and become an astronaut. In fact, by the end of the book, after he has passed his A-levels, made plans to take further A-levels, and finished his book about who has killed his neighbor's dog, he knows he "can do anything." Like the rest of us, Christopher has dreams, and his determination to make his dreams come true makes him a character that we cannot only identify with but also root for.
Unfortunately, though, in highlighting Christopher's similarities, Haddon never recognizes Christopher for his differences. When he acts out, his mom and dad both hit him, and when he is mocked by his father's friend, his father - his primary caregiver, the one who cooks his meals, cleans his clothes, and looks after him - doesn't even defend his own son: "I don't like it when Rhodri laughs at me. Rhodri laughs at me a lot. Father says it is being friendly." In fact, at one point, his own father mocks him, asking him, "How stupid are you?" Even worse, though, is the treatment of other students at Christopher's school. While we are supposed to object when Christopher is mocked as "special needs" and a freak, Christopher treats his own schoolmates with similar contempt, particularly Joseph Fleming, who "eats everything," including "one of the little blocks of blue disinfectant which hang inside the toilets," "a 50 pound note from his mother's wallet," "string and rubber bands and tissues and writing paper and paints and plastic forks," and also "bangs his chin and screams a lot." Just as Christopher is shunned when he is out in public, Christopher himself shuns Joseph. Christopher sets himself as different not only from this boy but his entire school, as he says, "All the other children at my school are stupid." He is not like them, he is not stupid, because he is going to pass his A-levels, which in fact he succeeds at doing. Christopher becomes acceptable, then, because he is not a Joseph Fleming; he is more like "one of us," so we can find him tolerable. He can communicate with us and he is not stupid. We admire him in spite of his differences, not because of them, and in the process we fail to recognize Christopher for what makes him truly special.
In giving Christopher a voice, Haddon succeeds in making us identify with his protagonist for his similiarities, but not for his differences, and ultimately fails to recognize what makes Christopher special. Because we are able to get inside Christopher's head, he does not seem so different from us; he is someone who can, to some extent, communicate with us, and someone we can learn from. But what about other mentally disabled people whose voices we don't have access to, like Joseph Fleming's? Is it ok for us to shun them? In the classic book, "Flowers for Algernon," we come to like the disabled protagonist, Charley Gordon, not because he is similar to us, but because he is different. His differences are what make him special, and when he loses these differences, his character becomes almost unlikeable. In the "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," however, we come to identify with Christopher because we can see that he shares some of our qualities - he is good at math, or he likes dogs, or his parents are having problems - and we choose to ignore his differences. In truth, though, we probably shouldn't like Christopher for how he is one of us, but for his differences. In the end, a book like "Flowers for Algernon" makes a stronger point: we should not, as "Curious Incident" suggests, find the developmentally disabled tolerable because somewhere, somehow, they are like us, but instead we should recognize them for their differences, because that is what makes them special.
In "Never Let Me Go," a fictional story focusing on three classmates from a unique boarding school, author Kazuo Ishiguro deals with questions of lossIn "Never Let Me Go," a fictional story focusing on three classmates from a unique boarding school, author Kazuo Ishiguro deals with questions of loss and mortality that each of must eventually confront. As we get older, as we lose our friends and family, as the environment around us changes and things once familiar to us disappear or become unfamiliar, as we cling to our memories of how things used to be, how do we come to accept the fact that our lives are finite and attach some meaning to our limited existence? These are questions that the narrator of "Never Let Me Go," Kathy H. copes with as she recounts the disjointed memories that comprise her life. Sorting through these memories, she finds comfort in her friends and her career, eventually coming to terms with the meaning of her life and her ultimate fate.
Reflecting upon her life, Kathy devotes most of her time to thinking about her friends from Hailsham, a secluded boarding school where she grew up. Because contact with outsiders at Hailsham is limited, one of the school’s big events is the quarterly Exchange, where students are given tokens they can use to buy other students’ artwork. As this is the students’ only way of accumulating material possessions, they grow dependent on each other for their "personal treasures" and learn to value others’ work, forging unique bonds with one another. Kathy’s two best friends are Ruth, an extroverted leader at the school, and Tommy, a shy introvert who gets bullied due to his lack of creativity and inability to produce substantial work. While they depend on each other throughout their time at Hailsham, like a lot of friends they drift apart after leaving the school. Looking back at the petty argument that led to the group’s break, Kathy comments, "It never occurred to me that our lives, until then so closely interwoven, could unravel and separate over a thing like that." Kathy regrets the loss of her friends, but doesn’t do anything about it until she hears that Hailsham is closing: "[I]t started to dawn on me, I suppose, that a lot of things I’d always assumed I’d plenty of time to get around to doing, I might now have to act on pretty soon or else let them go forever." Realizing that her time is limited, Kathy decides what is important to her – what she doesn’t want to let go of – and reconnects with her old friends, Ruth and Tommy.
In addition to her friends, Kathy’s career has a special meaning in her life. Kathy begins the book by identifying herself as a "carer." Although a lot of carers "are just going through the motions waiting for the day they’re told to stop," Kathy enjoys her work, the long drives and the solitude, and she knows she is good at what she does. As a carer, she helps look after patients, assisting as they recover from "donations" and keeping them calm. She knows that she is a good carer, which is important to her: "[I]t means a lot to me, being able to do my work well." However, when she becomes Tommy’s carer, he questions the meaning of her work, asking her if she really considers her job to be important since all of her patients are going to "complete," or die, anyway. Kathy responds, "Of course, it’s important. A good carer makes a big difference." When reflecting upon her life, Kathy decides not only that her friends are important to her, but she also considers her job important, believing she makes a difference by helping others.
However, as the book begins, Kathy only has eight months left as a carer, and then she will begin the last phase of her life. Initially, Kathy does not accept this fate, hoping to get a "deferral." When the headmaster of Hailsham tells her a deferral is not possible – Kathy cannot escape her ultimate fate any more than the rest of us can – Kathy wonders what the purpose of her life has been: "Why did we do all of that work in the first place? Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that? If we’re just going to give donations anyway, then die, why all those lessons? Why all those books and discussions?" In fact, one of the Hailsham teachers, Miss Lucy, had made this same argument when they were children, believing it was more important that they know their ultimate fate than worry about creating artwork and developing their sense of culture: "If you’re to have decent lives, you have to know who you are and what lies ahead of you." But this is not true, the Hailsham headmaster counters, addressing Kathy and Tommy: "Look at you both now! I’m so proud to see you both. You built your lives on what we gave you. You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you." Ultimately, Kathy comes to agree with the Hailsham approach. When she meets a patient who did not go to Hailsham, but wants to hear all about her time there so that he can replace his own memories with Kathy’s, Kathy realizes "just how lucky we’d been." Without being warned what lay ahead – as Miss Lucy had wanted – Kathy had been free to live her own life; even if it was messy, it was hers. As the novel concludes, Kathy drives to Norfolk, where she had shared her happiest memories with Tommy: "I imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was standing in front of it." Instead of hanging on to those things and people she has lost, Kathy realizes that this is as far as her fantasy can go: "I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, and drove off to wherever it was I was supposed to be." Like most of us, Kathy knows her life is limited, and the best we can do is go about our everyday lives, doing what we are supposed to do. She will never let go of her memories of what she has lost, but she has accepted her fate.
Though her life hasn’t been perfect, Kathy, reflecting upon her memories, finds that her life has been meaningful – having had close friends, an important job, and an idyllic childhood, she considers herself "lucky." But has she, in fact, led a decent life? Has her life been purposeful and meaningful? These are universal questions we may all ask of ourselves – how to accept our own mortality and assign purpose to the limited life we have been given. However, these big questions of how to deal with loss and mortality also become a source of frustration and disappointment for readers because, while "Never Let Me Go" builds these questions up, it never seems to fully resolve or answer them. Fortunately, though, it does provide some clues. One of the recurring items of the book relates to a song Kathy plays as a child called "Never Let Me Go." What makes the song special for Kathy is that she assigns her own meaning to the lyrics; instead of listening to the actual words, she imagines her own version of the song: "Even at the time, I realized this couldn’t be right, that this interpretation didn’t fit with the rest of the lyrics. But that wasn’t an issue with me. The song was about what I said." At one point, when Kathy is dancing to the song in her mind, Madame, a Hailsham leader, catches her and starts sobbing. Later Madame confesses that, when she saw Kathy that day, she imagined Kathy was holding onto the old world, a "kind world," which was being replaced by a "harsh, cruel world," but now Madame realizes her interpretation was wrong: "It wasn’t really you, what you were doing." Soon after Madame catches her playing the tape, the tape is lost, her friend Ruth tries to replace it, and later, with Tommy’s help, Kathy finds another copy of the tape. The symbolic implications are clear: just as she assigns her own meaning to the song, Kathy assigns her own meaning to life. Sometimes she may be lost, sometimes others like Tommy may help her, and sometimes others like Madame may assign a different meaning to her life than she does, but Kathy is the final author of her life. While others may deem her life meaningless, she herself is content, if not happy. "Never Let Me Go" may not provide a universal answer for some of the big questions it poses about loss and mortality, but the ultimate message seems to be one of hope: as the authors of our own lives, it is up to each of us to take what we are given and make the most of it. ...more
"The Glass Castle" is a memoir written by gossip columnist Jeanette Walls, which details her unconventional childhood growing up with an alcoholic fat"The Glass Castle" is a memoir written by gossip columnist Jeanette Walls, which details her unconventional childhood growing up with an alcoholic father and a mother who seems to be mentally ill. Walls begins the book by explaining what has prompted her to write about her family: after she has "made it" and become a successful writer living in New York, she comes across her mother picking trash out of a dumpster and, in shame, slinks down in her taxi seat and pretends not to see or know her. Later, Walls confronts her mother, asking what she is supposed to tell people about her parents, and her mother replies, "Just tell the truth. That’s simple enough."
Of course, "The Glass Castle" is anything but simple, as Walls attempts to come to terms with her upbringing. The first third of the memoir deals with her young childhood on the west coast, as her parents live as nomads, moving frequently between desert towns, always seeking the next adventure. Walls' mother is the key figure we meet here: an artist and a writer, she seems to live in her own world and doesn't express much concern in the practical realities of raising her children. In a key passage, Walls' mother takes the kids with her to give them art lessons, as she paints and studies the Joshua tree. Walls tells her mother of her plan to dig up the tree, replant it, and protect it so it can go straight. Walls' mother admonishes her, "You'd be destroying what makes it special. It's the Joshua tree's struggle that gives its beauty." This appears to be Walls' mother's philosophy of life – looking for the next struggle – as the family willingly gives up its nice residence in Phoenix that Walls' mother had inherited from her family to move to the father's home town – a depressed coal town in West Virginia.
The family's time in West Virginia makes up the next third of the story and depicts a depressed life in a depressed town. It is in West Virginia where the family seems to drift apart, particularly Walls' father, who up to this point, had been worshipped and revered by his daughter. Like Walls' mom, her dad has a lot of imagination; while he takes odd jobs that never last long, his real dream is to strike it rich with one of his inventions. He promises, once he has found his gold, that he is going to build a "glass castle" – his most special project – a great big house for the family to live in. Once in West Virginia, Walls and her brother figure they will make the best of the situation, and they spend a month digging a hole in the ground to serve as the foundation for the glass castle. But because the family can't pay for trash collection, their father instructs them instead to use the hole for the family's garbage. Although she has always been her father's defender, Walls grows disillusioned with her father, eventually telling him he will never build the glass castle.
Determined not to end up like her parents, Walls moves to New York, where the last third of the book transpires. It is here that Walls "makes it," graduating from college, gaining employment as a writer, marrying a rich husband, and settling into a Park Avenue apartment. Interestingly, while Walls has rejected her parents' lifestyle, it is now their turn to reject hers. Her father refuses to visit the Park Avenue apartment, while her mother, after visiting the apartment, asks Walls, "Where are the values I raised you with?" At this point, it is a mystery what values Walls actually possesses. By crafting the memoir around stories of her childhood, we as readers are often troubled, not just because of the content of the stories but because the stories don't provide much in the way of reflection or introspection. It is, in fact, unclear what Walls actually does value – will she continue to identify success with the material trappings of her "normal" life in New York, or will she ultimately reject the conventional life, as her parents did? Without more reflection from Walls, particularly in this concluding section of the book, readers are left to their own interpretation of "the truth" about her parents – are they just a drunk father and a lazy mother, or is there something more to it?
The "Glass Castle" is an addicting page-turner that should captivate any reader. However, without this reflection and introspection from Walls about her childhood, the book misses an opportunity to make a more lasting impact on readers and ultimately fails to reach the level of a work like "Angela’s Ashes." In the end, it is up to readers to make up their own minds about "the truth" of Walls' parents and her upbringing and what it all means. I chose to discount some of her parents' flaws and instead read this book as an homage to her parents. To me, the key passage in the book is when Walls visits a classmate's home in West Virginia and sees the empty walls in the house (in stark contrast to her own home, which is cluttered with paintings and books and decorations) and rejects the notion that her classmate's father, passed out on the couch, bares any resemblance to her own father. After Walls recounts the story to her family, her mother replies that she should show compassion for her classmate because not everybody has "all the advantages you kids do." Although the statement is ironic on its face, as the family fights over the crumbs of a chocolate bar, the distinction is clear: Walls' family may not provide her with much in the way of tangible goods, but they give her things that are more lasting – a belief in herself, a passion for reading and writing, an appreciation for things a lot of us take for granted, and most of all love. In the end, it was not important whether her parents actually built her a glass castle. It was that they gave her the idea of a glass castle. By overcoming her shame for her parents and writing this memoir, Walls seems to recognize this truth about her parents – that, like the Joshua tree, there was beauty in their struggle.
For many of us, watching the events following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina unfold on our TV screens in August of 2005 was an eye-opening experieFor many of us, watching the events following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina unfold on our TV screens in August of 2005 was an eye-opening experience. The lasting images of Katrina victims on our TVs telling us of their misery and suffering, while the government seemingly did nothing to intervene, sparked national outrage. In all, Katrina left 1,100 people dead, damaged thousands of residences, crashed the city’s water and sewerage infrastructure, took out electricity and mail service for months, and left four-fifths of the city of New Orleans – seven times the size of Manhattan – underwater. A tragedy on this scale hadn’t struck the United Stance since the San Francisco earthquake, and the victims we watched on the news – stranded at the Superdome or Convention Center or the highway out of town – represented a small fraction of the estimated 250,000 New Orleans residents left homeless by Katrina. In "Breach of Faith," author Jed Horne, a reporter for the local New Orleans paper who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his contribution to the paper’s coverage of Katrina, helps explain why this tragedy occurred and what it says about us as a country. Through a series of stories – stories, he says, of heroes, rogues, dreamers, and doers – Horne promises to “provide a lesson for America about itself.”
In fact, these stories are the heart of "Breach of Faith." There is the story of the social service worker watching as chaos descends at the Superdome. There is the story of the New Orleans resident who returns to his family’s home after Katrina to find an X, code for dead, marking the family house, and the story of his struggle for months fighting FEMA bureaucracy to recover the remains of his father for a proper burial. There is the particularly affecting story of the doctor at the city hospital, serving the poorest of New Orleans residents, as the hospital waits for a week to be evacuated, all the while hearing the sound of helicopters rescuing patients from New Orleans’ other, richer hospitals. There is the story of the former levee board president, boating across the drowned city and finding his biggest surprise to be the city’s utter silence – no police, no firemen, no one. And then there is the story of the local paper’s photographer, who also notes the utter lack of help, the utter lack of government presence whatsoever. A fellow photographer takes the famous picture of the woman who will become a Katrina icon as she slumps to her knees, wrings her hands, and begs, "Help Us."
"Breach of Faith" isn’t just the story of Katrina victims, but also of this silence, this utter lack of help for the city of New Orleans. It is the story of the FEMA director who is more concerned with finding a dogsitter and making dinner plans than the suffering on the ground in New Orleans. It is the story of the Homeland Security chief who tells the American people that Katrina was unprecedented and couldn’t have been anticipated when, in fact, the whole scenario had not only been anticipated but simulated in a disaster drill just a year earlier. It is the story of insurance companies not honoring Katrina victims' policies but instead leaving coverage up to the federal government, prompting a lawsuit joined by staunch conservative Senator Trent Lott. It is the story of the Army Corps of Engineers who did such a poor job of constructing levees to protect the city from floodwaters that one scientist compared it to "putting bricks on Jello-O." And it is the story of President Bush, strumming on his guitar in San Diego as all this misery is taking place. Three days after Katrina hits, during his plane trip back to Washington, DC, Air Force One flies over New Orleans, leaving a lasting image of Bush in the clouds, peering out the windows to steal a glance at one of the worst disasters in American history from far above.
Through these stories, Horne puts the reader in New Orleans and provides us with a deeper understanding of this man-made disaster, dispelling media myths and explaining the complex series of events that contributed to cause this disaster. Although structuring his book through these stories is somewhat flawed – it is difficult to keep track of the characters and the second half of the book loses steam in focusing on the technical rather than the personal stories of Katrina – Horne succeeds in showing that Katrina is not just a New Orleans story, but rather it is an American story. These are stories of people anyone can relate to – people like us, in situations that could happen to any of us.
But ultimately the lesson about America Horne promised readers is unclear. "Breach of Faith" begins and ends with the story of Patrina Peters. At the beginning of the book, the 43-year-old mother living in the Lower Ninth clings to a mattress with her daughter, certain that they will both be killed by the floodwaters. Fortunately, they are saved, then dropped off at the Superdome and eventually displaced to a bland upriver town. At the end of the book, Peters decides she misses New Orleans and her church too much and must return – her faith has not been breached. Like Patrina Peters’ story, though, the story behind "Breach of Faith" is unfinished, for we as readers are left to wonder, is Peters' faith justified? Will she make it in New Orleans? According to an article in The New York Times, it is up to us as Americans to determine the fate of New Orleans: will be contribute the funding and vision necessary to rebuild this great city, or will we let it die? This part of the story -- the true lesson about America -- has yet to be written. ...more
Seemingly hundreds of books have been written about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Books about Franklin, written from his point of view, can be critiSeemingly hundreds of books have been written about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Books about Franklin, written from his point of view, can be critical of Eleanor – her tendency to nag, her seriousness, her lack of personality. Similarly, books about Eleanor, written from her point of view, can be critical of Franklin – his deceptions, arrogance, and self-centeredness. "No Ordinary Time, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II," written by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, provides a unique perspective in telling the stories of both Franklin and Eleanor, incorporating each point of view into the story, describing them both as individual people and as part of a troubled yet fascinating partnership. Written in narrative form, "No Ordinary Time" chronicles the war years on the home front, beginning in May of 1940 and ending in December of 1945, combining the story of the Roosevelts with that of regular Americans to demonstrate the unique relationship that was created between government and the people, making this truly "no ordinary time" in American history.
In "No Ordinary Time," Franklin Roosevelt is fleshed out as a charming and charismatic figure who comes to inspire the nation through his "ebullient energy" and unlimited confidence, not only in himself, but in the country. Although he came from a wealthy, aristocratic family, Roosevelt was able to empathize with the poor and underprivileged after a bout with polio left him crippled. Although he never allowed himself to be seen in his wheelchair, and most Americans did not realize the extent of his disability, Goodwin describes one poignant scene when the president went to visit troops in Oahu and specifically asked to be wheeled around the hospital ward slowly – to, in effect, put himself, his disability, and his vulnerability on full display, so that troops who had lost arms or legs could see "living proof of what the human spirit could do."
His unique ability to transmit his own perpetual cheerfulness and optimism to others was what defined his leadership. According to Goodwin, more than any previous president, Roosevelt studied public opinion (reading newspapers, analyzing polls, securing different points of view), allowing him to understand the national temperament. Even more than that, he wanted to connect to the American people. Prior to one of his fireside (radio) chats, he asked Americans to buy a map to have before them as they listened to his speech. Americans rushed to buy maps, and eighty percent of the audience was listening to the radio as Roosevelt explained to them the situation in each part of the world, bringing the war to life, so Americans could better understand the challenges they were facing and be more prepared for a new kind of war being fought on every continent. Not only did these fireside chats allow Americans to connect with their president, they allowed Americans to connect them with each other. Describing the scene on the Chicago Midway during a fireside chat, novelist Saul Bellow explained how all the taxi drivers were pulled over by the side of the road with their radios on, so that he didn’t miss a word of the speech as he walked by their cars: "You felt joined to these unknown drivers, [. . . .] not so much considering the President’s words as affirming the rightness of his tone and finding assurance from it." Through his leadership, Roosevelt inspired a country that had just been through an economic depression and that was woefully underprepared for a global war to come together and re-establish itself as the world’s preeminent superpower.
Like her husband, Eleanor Roosevelt also forged a unique relationship with the American people. Although she too had grown up in a wealthy, aristocratic family, unlike her husband she suffered through an unhappy childhood, leading to a lack of confidence and various bouts with depression. She lived a conventional subservient life as Franklin’s wife up until she discovered his affair with Lucy Mercer. At that point, she decided she would no longer depend on another person for fulfillment and happiness and embarked on her own independent life devoted to her own interests, including teaching, writing, and participating in various political causes. She was not a conventional first lady but rather "challenged the traditional sense of what was possible": she was the first wife of a president to hold a government job, testify before a congressional committee, hold press conferences, write a syndicated column, and earn money as a lecturer. She didn’t limit her role to staying at the White House and hosting social events, believing, if she did, she "would lose touch with the rest of the world." Instead, she traveled the country, observing poverty in Appalachia and sweatshops in Puerto Rico firsthand, reporting back to her husband when she found workers making less than minimum wage in one town. She witnessed the devastation of the war herself, also, as she traveled to Britain and to the Pacific. After seeing "the mangled bodies, the stomachs ripped by shells, the amputated limbs, the crushed spirits," she fell into a depression, trying to come to terms with her "emotionally disturbing" trip. Like her husband, she empathized with the American people and, even more than him, was determined to raise the consciousness of our country, fighting against Japanese internment and for women’s rights in the workplace, an increased role for African Americans in the workplace, and less restrictive rules to allow refugees into the United States.
Characterizing Eleanor as the agitator and Franklin as the politician, Eleanor as the one who thought about what should be done while Franklin thought only of what could be done, and contrasting Eleanor’s shyness and insecurity with Franklin’s confidence and sociability, Goodwin makes it clear just how different Eleanor and Franklin were. Realizing their inability to fulfill each other’s needs, they established largely independent lives where they turned to others for comfort – Franklin to his "real wife" Missy LeHand, his gossipy cousins, and his aide Harry Hopkins, and Eleanor to her young political activist friend Joseph Lash and a circle of feminist friends, including newspaper reporter Lorena Hickok. Even after Franklin grew lonely as Missy and Hopkins drifted away and turned to Eleanor in the hopes they could re-establish a more traditional marriage, she refused, later writing to Lash that she felt there was "no fundamental love to draw on, just respect and affection." Yet, Goodwin makes it clear that there was a bond between them that could not be broken. In one particularly affecting passage, Goodwin quotes from Eleanor’s son, who describes the aftermath of his uncle Hall’s death: "'Hall has died,' Eleanor told Franklin simply. Father struggled to her side and put his arms around her. 'Sit down,' he said, so tenderly I can still hear it. And he sank down beside her and hugged her and kissed her and held her head on his chest. . . . . For all they were apart both physically and spiritually much of their married life, there remained between them a bond that others could not break." This bond was not just from nearly forty years of marriage, but from the common cause they were joined in – to better the lives of Americans. In order to advance this cause, they drew strength from each other, together creating a far different America than the one that existed when Franklin Roosevelt first took office.
While it is clear that Goodwin has deep admiration for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, she also establishes them as fully-fleshed characters – visionary, courageous, and brave, but also deeply flawed. In fleshing out their characters, she also succeeds in creating a third character, that of the American people. When Franklin Roosevelt began his second term, one-third of Americans had no running water or indoor plumbing, more than half had no central heating, and only one-fourth had even graduated from high school. America was a "pyramidal society," with a few fortunate on the top and a great mass of people at the bottom. During the war, though, Americans moved from the farm to the factory, from the south to the north, from the east to the west, as war production led to the emergence of the middle class and created the "most profound transition in American history." Most importantly, through innovations like the minimum wage, labor protection, social security, and market regulation, a new relationship between the American people and their government was formed. Franklin Roosevelt’s importance is felt most at the end of the book, as Goodwin poignantly describes the public’s reaction to his death – "everybody is crying" – and the long railroad trip as his body is carried from Georgia to Washington, with Eleanor looking out the window of the train and seeing hundreds of thousands of people whose lives he had touched gathered along the way to pay their tribute. In recounting the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and their impact on America, Goodwin shows readers why this was "no ordinary time," creating a vivid portrait of what American life on the home front was like during the second world war and bringing this incredible time in American history alive. ...more
For many Americans, Eleanor Roosevelt is more a myth than an actual person. In the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. there is a whole floFor many Americans, Eleanor Roosevelt is more a myth than an actual person. In the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. there is a whole floor devoted to American presidents, but just a small wing devoted to our First Ladies, or more specifically their inaugural gowns. While visiting the museum, I picked up a poster of Eleanor Roosevelt, with a nice quote that reads something like, "Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent." Other than my poster, the only thing I knew about Eleanor Roosevelt was what my grandmother, who grew up during the Depression and Roosevelt years, had told me: "She sure was ugly." When Eleanor Roosevelt’s letters to Lorena Hickok were revealed to the public in 1978, and questions about the true nature of their relationship arose, author Blanche Wiesen Cook, a historian and women’s studies professor, was intrigued to answer the challenge of determining who Eleanor Roosevelt really was. In her book, "Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume One, 1884-1933," Cook promises to give readers a fuller view of Eleanor Roosevelt – not just the mythic character, but the actual story behind the woman, an independent power in her own right.
"Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume One, 1884-1933" is, in essence, a feminist reading of the life and times of Eleanor Roosevelt, telling her story chronologically up to 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt becomes President of the United States. Eleanor Roosevelt’s childhood, as would be expected, is crucial to understanding her identity. Although she grows up in a privileged family in New York – her uncle Theodore is President of the United States – her childhood is "filled with disappointment, alcoholism, and betrayal." Eleanor Roosevelt’s mother casts Eleanor aside as ugly and too serious. Although her father is an alcoholic, Eleanor adores him, as he encourages her to be courageous and bold and wants her to be self-reliant and self-fulfilled. Both of her parents die before she turns 11, leaving Eleanor to be raised by relatives who mostly conform to the ideals in place during the 1890s. It is not until she is sent to Marie Souvestre’s school in Europe that she is first "given permission to be herself." Marie Souvestre is an unconventional feminist and her school is unusual in that it encourages girls to be independent at a time when education is considered to be dangerous to a woman’s mental health. Marie Souvestre’s role in Eleanor’s life is second only to her father's, as Marie Souvestre appreciates Eleanor’s talents and encourages her to discover and develop her capabilities.
Upon graduation, though, Eleanor Roosevelt faces the realities of her time, as she is torn between the new self-sufficient world she has discovered through her schooling in Europe and the traditions of her mothers and relatives in New York. Ultimately, Eleanor Roosevelt accepts her prescribed role as a woman, goes courting, and secretly becomes engaged to her cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to the chagrin of his possessive mother Sara. Eleanor becomes increasingly dependent on Franklin, feeling "absolutely lost" when he is away. After they are married, Eleanor is forced to move in to his family home with his mother; as a result, she is never able to have her own home and instead relies on her mother-in-law for everything, as she essentially runs their lives and is the loudest voice in raising their children, leaving Eleanor without a role in her own family and without "self-confidence and ability to look after [herself:]." Whereas, to be loved by Marie Souvestre had "meant to display an independent spirit with individual flavor, and a playful imagination," to be loved by Sara "meant to become fully like Sara." It is here that Eleanor loses her identity, mimicking Sara’s views, including "flip, class-bound arrogance and egregious racism."
It is not until 1918, when the "bottom drops out" of Eleanor Roosevelt’s world, that she reflects on her life and determines what she wants of it. While previously Eleanor has had a romantic view of her marriage, upon discovering Franklin’s letters from his mistress, Lucy Mercer, Eleanor Roosevelt becomes dejected and depressed and develops what the author characterizes as anorexia. After a period of reflection and introspection, ultimately she resolves to design herself an "independent life" that serves to meet her own needs and reclaim her separate identity. After 1923, Eleanor and Franklin live essentially separate lives, as Eleanor accepts Missy LeHand’s role as his "second wife" and develops her own separate circle of friends separate from his. While Franklin works toward rehabilitating his legs after developing polio, Eleanor works on her own career and becomes a national figure in her own right, including an important role as an educator, owning and teaching at a progressive school called Todhouse, and encouraging a new generation of female students just as she had been encouraged by Marie Souvestre. Finally, Eleanor seems to complete her personal journey as a woman through her romantic relationships with Earl Miller, her bodyguard, and Lorena Hickok, an esteemed reporter from the Associated Press, who both champion Eleanor Roosevelt and promote her best interests, giving her personal fulfillment. Through these relationships, she is no longer alone, but has the support system she will need to face her next big challenge – the White House.
In telling the arc of Eleanor Roosevelt’s journey to becoming an independent woman, "Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol. 1" is what it claims to be – a life and times of Eleanor Roosevelt through 1933. Although the writing style is dry and the book starts off slowly, it ultimately succeeds in explaining who Eleanor Roosevelt was – her struggles to find her own identify and to put herself in a position of power where she doesn’t need her husband to define her own self-worth. But because the book ends at 1933, we learn more about who Eleanor Roosevelt is and less about why she is such an important historical figure. Also, because this book is necessarily about Eleanor as an independent person, she emerges as a fully-fleshed three-dimensional figure, while Franklin comes off as a flat, ordinary, two-dimensional character. As a result, the book sparks even more questions than it answers. Why did Eleanor marry Franklin? What was the true nature of their partnership? What were her greatest accomplishments? And why should we care about Eleanor Roosevelt? While I had not originally planned to, I now intend to read "Eleanor Roosevelt: The Defining Years, Volume 2" by the same author, as well as "F.D.R." by Jean Edward Smith and "No Ordinary Time" by Doris Kearns Goodwin to help answer these additional questions and learn not just about who Eleanor Roosevelt was, but why she mattered. ...more