Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is a disquieting, haunting coming-of-age novel that delves into issues of race, but digs far deeper for truths into the hearts of its characters.

Told from multiple points of view, the story is primarily Rachel’s, the daughter of a black G.I. and a Danish woman, who is the lone survivor in her family after a tragic fall from a rooftop. Sent to live with her grandmother in Portland after her father is unable to care for her, Rachel grows up in a binary world where her light-skin and blue eyes are a contradiction to black identity. Undergirding Rachel’s struggles with her identity in this new world are the relationships she forms with her grandmother and aunt, her aunt’s boyfriend and his daughter, various boyfriends and girls at her school, and Brick, a young man who bore witness to Rachel’s tragedy. As Rachel grows up into a young woman, she is forced to reconcile her mother’s desperate act with her own search for identity as a biracial woman.

Winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, Heidi W. Durrow’s debut novel, is alive and bristling with a story that avoids easy clich├ęs and stereotypes. Her characters live and breathe with an honesty rarely seen in fiction. Sad and moving, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is ultimately a hopeful novel of reconciliation.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

At the heart of Andrea Levy’s 2010 novel The Long Song is the matter of who has the right to tell one’s history. Historians have always wrested that responsibility for themselves and often in the service of telling stories that glorify wars and national and industrial leaders. What is often not told are the stories that embarrass us, shame us, stories that dig behind the myths and platitudes for the uglier truths. The Long Song digs deep and insists, if not demands, that those whose history is often forgotten and ignored must tell those stories themselves, even at the cost of their own psyche.

Written in the confident voice of July, a young slave who grows up on a Jamaican sugar plantation, The Long Song covers the spectrum of English slavery in the Caribbean, the brutality many of the slaves faced under the hands of their masters and the arduous work itself and the resources they used in order to survive.

Born to a field slave named Kitty, July grows up to become a pretty and charming child who is taken away from her mother by the recently transplanted English widow, Caroline Mortimer. Renamed Marguerite, July grows up to be a resourceful and cunning young woman under the Amity household where she is Mortimer’s personal maid, enduring her mistress’s vain and flighty whims, while seeking her own self-pride and desires. Caught under the winds of change, first with the Baptist War, in which a slave rebellion breaks out in Jamaica, and eventually the end of slavery, July struggles to maintain her sense of equilibrium in a world that devalues her as a black woman. When a new overseer, Robert Goodwin, arrives in Amity, July’s life takes an unexpected turn and is forever marred by this encounter.

While July is certainly victimized as so many of her fellow enslaved workers, she herself is not a victim, but a deeply flawed woman struggling to survive. Her attitudes toward race and skin color are no doubt shaped by the racist system under which she lives, compromising the choices she is forced to make, whether it is to leave her newborn son with a recently murdered freeman on the doorstep of Baptist missionaries or to begin a disastrous love affair with the new overseer. And yet Levy clearly reveals how slavery brutalizes those who are caught under its yoke. July, despite her flaws, is a remarkably indomitable spirit, whose unique voice empowers this tale.

Levy, whose novel Small Island won the Orange Prize for Fiction, uses the conceit of the slave narratives that were used by abolitionists to argue against slavery. Told as autobiography, The Long Song fully captures the voice of an island woman and creates an intimacy between storyteller and reader that immediately pulled me in. Throughout the story, which July tells as an old woman, she is urged by her son Thomas Kinsman, to tell it as honestly as possible, even when July herself wishes to sweeten her tale. Here Levy asks the question: if we are to tell our own stories what obligation do we have to be honest, even at all costs? Levy doesn’t fully answer this question for even she allows her narrator the dignity to mask some of the more painful events of her life. Yet one thing is certain, as Levy reveals throughout the novel, that if left in the hands of others, our stories will either be ignored or bastardized.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Happy Birthday Toni and Mom

Today is Toni Morrison's 80th birthday. It also happens to be my Mom's birthday too. So Happy Birthday to both Ms. Morrison and Mom!

And speaking of Ms. Morrison, she has had a tremendous effect on me as both a reader and writer. I had read her first novel The Bluest Eye over twenty years ago, and was struck by the exactitude of her prose. She was able to deal with issues like self-hatred and incest without cloying sentimentality or the usual uplifting self-help bromides that sink such heavy topics. I must have read The Bluest Eye a dozen times, unwittingly absorbing her style and language. Since then I've read practically everything she's published. While I don't think everything she's written has always been successful (I wasn't too crazy about her last novel), she nonetheless continues to challenge not only her readers but the literary form as well.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

New Digital Publishing House, Atavist, Takes a Leap into Publishing Opportunities

The New York Times Business section has an article on Atavist, a digital publishing house that is selling non-fiction articles directly to smartphones, e-readers, and computer tablets. The article delves much more into businesses such as Amazon which are developing shorter works, short stories or long articles, for sell to these new digital media. What I find fascinating is that actual publishing houses are being created to serve this market. What could this possibly mean for say short story writers or poets who have even smaller opportunities to reach readers? Could it be possible that this technology can create a new business model for selling and promoting poetry or short stories? And what will this new technology mean in terms of creating new literary styles? A lot remains to be seen. The article itself reminds readers of such techno-inspired literary hype like hypertext fiction (remember that?) and how that has fallen far short of its promises as a dominant literary form. Still new technology is opening up ways in which people can relate to reading, ways that as a new generation raised on the Internet, text messaging, smartphones, and the like, will find much easier to navigate.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Reading Pleasure

I came across this interesting essay called “Narcissus Regards a Book” and thought I’d bring it over here. I don’t know if I entirely agree with his argument, but he brings up some salient points. How do we define the worth of great literature when popular culture constantly tells us that the value of art is merely to flatter and entertain?

I disagree with his points that the value of reading should extend beyond simple pleasures however. Reading a well-written novel or short story can be deeply pleasurable, whether on the most simplistic level or the most challenging. Being a writer, of course, I fell in love with words and the sound of words and reading them, whether aloud or in my head, can be as wonderful as listening to music.

People are turned off to challenging books because academia insists that there be a rigid consensus on what should be applied to the canon, a fact the author delves into in his essay. Yet this problem begins much earlier in high school, quite frankly. During the whole Mark Twain n-word flap a few weeks ago, I noticed among the number of Tweeter feeds and within the comments section on blogs that there were quite a few young people who expressed their dislike for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, noting that their hatred for this book goes back to when they had to read it in high school. I can go into the various ways in which literature is taught in grade schools, when young minds are at their most impressionable, that do more to turn these readers off from books, but the most important point is that high school has a tendency to treat all of its subjects like a chore students have to get through in order to graduate, while ignoring the real pleasures of learning period. High school students should have the freedom to not like something on the canon and freely express why. After all, that is what critical thinking is designed to do: engage readers on a level that enables them to actually think about how a work actually achieves or fails to achieve its objectives beyond using “I like it” or “I hate it.” Now I can blame No Child Left Behind for this, but this phenomenon has been going on long before that.

Perhaps what’s needed more isn’t a condemnation of popular culture but a re-examination of the way we teach literature in K-12 grades so that young readers can embrace the value of reading material that is both pleasurable and challenging.