Saturday, January 21, 2012

Book 25- Invisible Man (38th Book)

Wow! I was not expecting that! I didn't know much about this book but I knew it was a book about the African American experience. I was thinking it would be an interesting story but something that didn't really apply to my life beyond an interesting history lesson. Boy, was I wrong. The book Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is a poetical work of existential questioning. I found myself listening raptly to the story and struggling with my identity right along with the nameless narrator. That is the sign of a good book!
This book, first off, has a great opening and closing line. It starts with "I am invisible" and ends with "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies I speak for you?"

The book follows a nameless narrator through his life as he experiences the various possibilities open to an African American young person shortly after the civil rights movement. He wins a scholarship to an African American school and sells himself out to the vision of it, only to discover, after accidentally showing one of the white donors the underbelly of the poor community, that his beloved leader Bledsoe was a fraud who was selling out his students to further himself in a white world. Expelled from the school he is sent to New York to make his way in the North where a Black man is supposedly more free. As he navigates a factory job, Harlem and the communist group called, "The Brotherhood". He realized, as he states in the opening line, that he is invisible, simply a nameless cog in the great American wheel worthy of nothing but to be spit out and tossed away by his own Black brethern and White people alike. It isn't until the Prologue that the story finally reconciles itself through a beautifully spun  descriptoin of  human nature and what it is like to be a member of society and yet still an individual.

The book uses African American folk culture to show what it is like to be a minority in America. Some of the African spirtuals clearly show the nature of a repressed culture in their focus on death and irony.

One of the snippets of song that comes to the nameless narrator at a particularly difficult moment was "Well they picked poor Robin clean". Through his difficult experience he finally realized that the song was talking about how it was a reflection of the African American experience of constantly being torn down. One of the most poignant experiences in the novel for me was a trivial incident where the narrator runs into a cart selling yams. The smell tempts the narrator but reminds him of his "backward ways" back home.  He eventually caves and buys a few filled with memories of home but also shame. The silly line he creates to reconcile his two selves has biblical overtones to it, " I yam, what I yam".  One of the lines that shows me clearly what it must be like for a minority living in a dominant culture is this:

"You could cause us the greatest humiliation simply by confronting us what something we liked"

How horrible to hate yourself because you liked something different from everyone else. This is a truth that can span so many minority issues including race, sexual preference, religious differences etc, etc, etc.

The book also focuses on the competing pulls on man in general. The pull to be part of a whole, and also the pull to be an individual set apart from everyone else. There was one quote in particular that made me realize that minorities frequently only have identity as a member of a group. I suppose as a member of the "majority" the thought had never crossed my mind:

"Our task is making ourselves individuals. the conscience of race is a gift of its individuals who see, evaluate, record"

"I saw not a crowd , but the set faces of individual men and women." It was finally after the funeral of one of his collegues in the "Brotherhood" that the narrator could finally see his brothers and sisters in Harlem as individuals and not as a collective that behaved in  a certain way.

The book is series of brilliant existential questions about "Who am I? what am I? how did I come to be? What do I make of the life around me" ~ Ellison quoted in The Novel 100. I love most existential thoughts and have always been okay with the fact that I don't have the answers to all of them. The anxiety we all face in facing the unknown nature of these questions thrills me rather than causing me anxiety. The narrator ends the novel recognizing that though he is invisible he still has a responsibility to come out of hibernation and play a role in existing amongst others. Here are some great quotes in that vein:

"You ache with the need to convince yoruslef that you do exist in the real world, that you're part of the all the sound and anguish"

"step outside teh narrow borders of what men call reality and you step into chaos...or imagination"

"live is to be lived, not controlled"

"None of us seems to know who he is or where he is going"

"I have been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself"

"Once you get used to it, reality is as irresistable as a club"

"I was my experiences and my experiences were me"

Lastly, the book also hints at sin (both communal and personal), but also talks about the true meaning of life being that of Love. I loved that about the book.

"The fact is that you carry part of your sickness within you, at least I do as an invisible man"

"I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of it all I find that I love."

This project has been good for me to expand my horizons and read books that I never would have picked up in my life. Some lead for pleasant suprises and some lead to a new perspective. The next book on the list is Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. I am excited to read it since I enjoyed Ulysses

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Nine Tailors (37th Book)

Oops!  I forgot to review this book on my blog although I did a super quick review on Goodreads. This is a classic british murder mystery. My favorite! This one was just as good as any of the others I have read though I am not sure that it is any better although it is on the list of 1001 books to read before you die. Keeps you guessing until the end which I always like. The predictable ones although fun and fluffy aren't as much fun. This book is set in the Fenlands in Eastern England and have some definite biblical flood references in it.  There are two mysteries to solve in this novel, one being the theft of some jewels many decades ago and the other being a more modern murder tied in with the jewel theft. The novel is a stuffy British Lord and his manservant who get trapped in the small town of Fenchurch St. Peter during a snowstorm. He stays in touch with the church rector and comes back to solve the murder when it happens.   The Nine Tailors is a reference to the church bells that are always present in the novel. They toll out significant events in the town and you get to learn a lot about bell ringing and the importance of what they are used for. I had no idea that there was so much to it. I would love to actually hear church bells run by an actual human being. I don't think it is something I have ever heard before and it sounds complicated, fascinating and beautiful. Anyways, I think that is about all I have to say about this novel. I was excited to read something by  Dorothy L. Sayers who is one of the founders of the modern mystery.

Book 24-Vanity Fair

It took me forever to finish Book 24 which is Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray but in the end the feat was accomplished and I actually enjoyed the process. I didn't doubt that I would, because although I didn't know much about the content of the book, by the title it seemed like my kind of sctick!

The book dubs itself  "A Novel without a Hero" and in a sense it is true. All the characters have the fatal flaw or "hubris" that Shakespeare so often potrays in his novels. Though each characters flaw is different in the end you see that they all made mistakes or lived selfishly at the expense of others.

For most of the novel I was convinced the dear old Dobbin, a devoted puppy dog following around Amelia, one of the novels two main characters, was a hero since he loved selflessly. I had to laugh after reading Daniel S. Burt's view on the book and also after coming to the end of the novel because I took a good hard look at myself. Of COURSE I would love Dobbin, because I too have been guilty of being someone who blindly follows people about who have no idea I exist. Amelia who Dobbin loved was also guilty of blind love as well, since she loved her unfaithful husband beyond reason. I think this quote best describes the flaw in their natures and mine: "The crime she had long ago been guilty-the crime of loving wrongly, too violently against reason"

And another: "And the business of her life, was to watch the corpse of Love"

The novel really focused on how Amelia did not see her husband for who he actually was, but for the exalted image of him she had created. When she witnesses him in unfaithfulness she stuffs the knowledge down inside of herself to avoid seeing it. I thought this extremely long quote showed the fate of a lot of women and men:

"Did she own to herself how different the real man was from that superb young hero she worshipped? It requires many, many years and a man must be very bad indeed before a woman's pride and vanity will let her own to such a confession"

You don't hear about idol worship in the church very often anymore, but I once had a professor at the Christian university I went to stop class to speak at great length about two troubled types of relationships one being Relational Idolatry and the other soemthing along the lines of Relational narcissism. I will always remember reacting violently to that message and seeing myself in it so clearly. If there is anything that people put on a pedastal and worship in this world it is often the idea of Love and sometimes another person.

It isn't until the end of the novel that Dobbin cracks and admits that his Idol has fallen off of her pedastal: " I knew all along that the prize I had set my life on was not worth the winning"

What is so great about literature is that when our flaws, or values are seen outside of ourselves in literary form you can really see them clearly for what they are and their end results. It is much easier to digest them first as fiction and then apply them to our lives, then it is to see them clearly in ourselves.

I love how this novel starts as a walk through the Vanity Fair and that it really plays up the idea of life as a trip to a fair.

"Yes, this is Vanity Fair; not a moral place certainly, nor a merry one, though very noisy"

"The world is a looking-glass and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face"

"Are not there little chapters in everybody's life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history?"

I absolutely adore the idea that our lives our a story with chapters, climaxes, villians, heros, etc. Perhaps that is why I love fairytales so much.

The novels lighthearted nature allows for very hard things to be said. Apparently Thackeray turned to the use of the novel as a teacher after facing much  hardship in life.  Daniel S. Burt talks about the fact that this novel was written "informed by  his sense of the world  made up of fellow sufferer's and sinners".

There are so many other quotes that I loved, but the last thing I will end with is one German concept the book talks about that I super excited about. I nearly died when I googled what it meant since I thought the concept was spot on!

The term was, "Sehnsuch nach der Liebe" which loosely translated means "yearning or longing for love". The book describes it this way, "yearning after the Ideal, and simply means that women are commonly not satisfied until they have husbands and children on whom they may centre their affections, which are spent elsewhere, as it were in small change"

Although the book uses the concept to talk wittily about how women have the closest bosom friends until they marry and turn their backs on all but their husbands and children after,  I actually think the term applies to so much more. So many of our addictions, obsessions, delusions and attempts at self soothing are all pale reflections of what we are really longing for which is to intimately know and be known by God. I have a magnet I picked up in Portobello Market, London which also talks about this too. It states, "We are all prostitutes and junkies". I love it because that statement basically means that we all sell our selves for something and all chase after other things as well". Kind of a harsh way to live life, but I actually find it makes me more compassionate towards others when I realize I am just as flawed as everyone else.

The next book is Book 25-Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, I am not so patiently waiting its arrival through the library system. Methinks I will not LOVE this book, but I am determined to read through the list and expose myself to new ideas.