Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “racism”

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #65: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s first novel, and it is a masterpiece. It is a poem, it is a cry of outrage, it is a lament. It is an authentic telling of growing up black in postwar America. The Bluest Eye focuses on a year in the lives of a group of children in the American Midwest (the author’s origin), and uses their young eyes to penetrate the veil of hatred/self-hatred that has afflicted and been inflicted upon black people in this country, starting in their childhood and perpetuating itself from generation to generation. Morrison is writing for and to her people, but if white readers draw a lesson, so much the better.

Sisters Claudia and Frieda—clearly representing the voice of the author herself—bitterly relate the story of the dark-skinned 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove, who has a bitter shell of a mother whose identity lies entirely with the white family she serves and a burned-out drunk of a father who rapes and impregnates his daughter. Morrison switches to the third-person viewpoint to reveal the earlier tragedies that shaped Pecola’s parents, so that the reader can comprehend the cycle of violence, desperation, loneliness, and self-loathing that is perpetuated against the innocent Pecola.

Pecola comes to live with Claudia and Frieda’s family for a short while, and we see crystalized in their experience the ugly color wars that are fought among and between lighter- and darker-skinned members of their race, based on the blonde and blue-eyed American myth of what constitutes “beauty.” Indeed, all the emotionally-ravaged Pecola yearns for are Hollywood blue eyes. When she loses her baby and then her mind, Pecola gets what she wishes for and the heartbreak comes full circle.

Author Morrison tells us Pecola’s fate in the first pages of her book, but writes her novel to try to explain the “why.” She brilliantly uses as her introduction and chapter headings excerpts from the elementary-school reader many American children at the time grew up with, the “Dick-and-Jane” primer which tells us that the only proper family is the happy white mother and father, the blonde and blue-eyed siblings, the dog, cat, car, house and picket fence. The contrast to real life in Morrison’s experience–and that of her characters–could not be more stunning.

As I’ve found with all of Morrison’s books, reading The Bluest Eye is not a “pleasant” experience. One comes away in tears and intense heartache for all the brown-eyed brown-skinned children who never got to see their beauty reflected in the eyes of those around them. It is a must-read.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#22: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Carson McCuller’s first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, was published in 1940 when the author was 23. Set in 1939, on eve of war and during the Great Depression, the story centers around John Singer, a deaf mute in a small southern town. The action follows the course of a year when the lives of the several characters intersect through Singer. This is the story of individuals on the fringe, searching for a variety of things but mostly wishing to be understood by someone, to find a soul mate.

Singer works as engraver for a jeweler. At the beginning of the novel, he lives with his friend  Antonapoulos , another deaf mute whose family institutionalizes him, leaving Singer friendless and isolated. He moves out of their apartment into the Kelly’s boarding house so as not to be painfully reminded of the loss of his friend. After moving and changing his lifestyle, he encounters several people who are drawn to him and who visit him frequently.

Mick Kelly is a 12 year old girl. Her family takes in boarders because her father had accident and is unable to work as carpenter. Her three older siblings work to help supplement the family income, while Mick is responsible for little brothers Bubber and Ralph. Mick is a dreamer and often wanders around at night, restless, imagining travel abroad and composing great music. She wants a piano and to learn to play, but her family’s poverty is a huge obstacle to realizing her dreams. She practically stalks Singer when he is out, following him down the street, watching where he goes, and she seems to have a schoolgirl crush on him. Singer has a fondness for Mick and even buys a radio for her to listen to when he is out. Mick talks to Singer of music and her hopes, assuming that the deaf mute understands and identifies with her aspirations.

Jake Blount is a drifter/labor organizer and alcoholic who argues and gets into violent fights on a regular basis. His attempts at teaching the working and unemployed poor of the town about the inequity of capitalism and the need for organization to change the system fail, further infuriating him and contributing to his drinking problem. He often turns to Singer in his anger and rage, going on and on about his ideas. Singer has a calming influence on him and Blount assumes that Singer understands and agrees with him.

Dr. Copeland is an African American physician in the town and father to four grown children — Portia (the Kelly’s cook), William, Hamilton and Karl Marx. Dr. Copeland is a man of intelligence, impeccable manners and quick anger. He alienated his wife and his children when they were still young with his dark moods, violence and his mission to make his children leaders like himself. Restless for change for African Americans and angry about oppression, Dr. Copeland sees Singer as the one white man who understands, who is righteous and decent. Copeland also thinks Singer is a Jew, and therefore more sensitive to the plight of African Americans.

Biff Branson owns a cafe that stays open late into the night. Singer, Blunt and Mick frequently appear there at odd hours. Biff has compassion for people, especially Blount and Mick. He tries to figure them out  and lend a helping hand where he can, but Blount and Mick don’t show much recognition or appreciation for what he offers. Biff is also a mothering sort of person, wishing sometimes that Mick and his niece Baby were his own children and that he could take care of them. Like all the others, Biff is looking for something, but he isn’t sure what. Biff is unhappily married to Alice but when she dies, he feels a sort of nostalgia and sadness, not so much for the loss of her but for the lost opportunities for a real love. Biff seeks out Singer, but unlike the others, he doesn’t have something important to say, no grand idea to expound upon. Biff has questions and one that he asks himself is “…why did everyone persist in thinking the mute was exactly as they wanted him to be — when most likely it was all a very queer mistake?”

Biff, as the most observant in the group, hits very close to the truth with that reflection. Everyone thinks that because Singer pays attention and communicates little to them (they don’t ask a lot about him) that he is what they are looking for, that he understands, and that he is just like them. Singer is like them, but not in the way they think. Singer, like the others, is lonely and searching, too, looking for understanding and a true friend or soul mate. He reads lips but often does not understand what others are telling him, and he longs for his old friend Antonapoulos. To console himself, he writes long letters to his friend which he never sends because Antonapoulos can’t read. Even when Singer visits him at the institution (a long trip that he can only afford to take every 6 months), it seems that Singer’s joy is greater than his friend’s at their reunion and that Antonapolos takes very little interest in his life.

I won’t reveal what happens to Singer at the end of the novel, but Mick, Blount and Copeland suffer major setbacks in realizing their dreams. Given the poverty in which they live and the increasing violence in the world around them (racial violence locally and Hitler on the rise abroad), one might expect the setbacks to finally crush these people, but each shows a resilience, a refusal to give up, a reason to keep going. The final scene is Biff at his restaurant, alone, reflecting on the other characters, and this revelation: “…in a swift radiance of illumination he saw a glimpse of human struggle and valor. Of the endless fluid passage of humanity through endless time. And of those who labor and those who — one word — love. His soul expanded.” And then Biff feels terror, that “…he was suspended between radiance and darkness. Between bitter irony and faith.” He is momentarily paralyzed, then turns to face the sunrise and another day.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a depressing novel but it is honest in showing the crushing poverty and racism in the South in 1939, and at revealing the complexity of the innermost thoughts of its characters. The end shows resilience in the face of adversity, which is always a welcome message, and one that would have been especially needed in 1940.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #16: A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane

This was the first in a succession of powerful thrillers to come from the pen of Dennis Lehane, and I can honestly say it holds its own with his most polished later works like Gone Baby Gone and Moonlight Mile. Published in 1994, this novel launched the careers of Lehane’s streetwise pair of private eyes Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, and delves into the world of dirty politics, child abuse, drug and weapons running, murder, racial tension, and gang warfare, themes that are recurrent in the only slightly fictionalized dark side of Boston where most of Lehane’s stories take place.

Patrick and Angie are contracted by Senators Sterling Mulkern and Brian Paulson, two of Boston’s top politicians, to recover some ‘documents’ allegedly stolen by a cleaning maid from Paulson’s office at the State Senate building. Simple, right? Except the documents turn out to be incriminating 6-year-old photographs showing Paulson raping a little boy in an act brokered by Marion Socia, a top drug dealer, gang leader, stone-cold killer, pimp … and would-be blackmailer. The cleaning maid, we soon learn, is Socia’s estranged wife and the boy is their son Raymond, now grown and the dead-eyed leader of a rival gang dedicated to the extermination of Socia and the takeover of his criminal kingdom.

Kenzie and Gennaro, hard-boiled themselves in the white working-class tenements of Dorchester, bring to Lehane’s story a compelling mixture of tough and tender, as she struggles with an abusive husband and he carries around the perpetual nightmare of his own childhood abuse by his father “The Hero.” Partly as a result of the personal crosses they bear and partly because of their own moral compass, our heroes commit to exposing the bad guys on both sides of their contract . This puts Kenzie and Gennaro in the crosshairs of a seemingly unending army of killers, but they survive to make a comeback in my next review, Darkness Take My Hand.

What makes A Drink Before the War more than just a crackling good (if sometimes a bit melodramatic) story is that most of his protagonists are real flesh-and-blood characters, human beings each and every one of whom has been warped—a little or a lot—by the circumstances of their upbringing, their jobs, and the world around them. So there’s the decent cop who drinks to drown out the hopelessness of his job, the bad gangster whose soul was ripped out of him as a child, the black journalist guilt-ridden over his own success, and Kenzie, who shocks himself with the racism that bubbles deep down inside. In fact, throughout this novel, Lehane tackles some very prickly questions about racial identity in America, forcing his readers to do some soul-searching along with his characters.

TheFatling’s #CBR4 Review #3: March by Geraldine Brooks

I probably should have written this review right after I finished the book.  It might have squeaked by with two stars, but the longer I thought about Geraldine Brooks’ March, the angrier I got.

More!  Some PG language!

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