My Bondage and My Freedom- Frederick Douglass

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The remark is not unfrequently made, that slaves are the most contented and happy labourers in the world. They dance and sing, and make all manner of joyful noises—so they do; but it is a great mistake to suppose them happy because they sing. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows, rather than the joys, of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. – Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom

I’ve never read such a detailed and insightful autobiography about slavery.  Douglass helped me understand in more detail the horrors of slavery, especially the psychological. I can imagine it must have been really difficult for him to write this, to relive all his pain, but he was the perfect person to do so, being as intelligent and observant as he was.

In the beginning of the book, the discussions of family within slavery is very pertinent because it speaks to how the evil of slavery affects the very foundations of society. When Douglass as a child lives with his grandmother and siblings for the first time, this is what he says:

We were brothers and sisters, but what of that? Why should they be attached to me, or  to them? Brothers and sisters we were by blood; but slavery had made us strangers. I heard the words brothers and sisters, and knew they must mean something; but slavery had robbed these terms of their true meaning.

It’s even sadder when he discusses his mother:

“My poor mother, like many other slave-women, had  many children, but NO FAMILY!”

You could hear the injustice in his words once he looked back in retrospect when looking back in retrospect; a child  who had little recollection of his mother. When she died, Douglass wrote, “I was not allowed to visit her during any part of her long illness; nor did I see her for a long time before she was taken ill and died. The heartless and ghastly form of slavery rises between mother and child, even at the bed of death.”

Douglass uses his memories from his childhood and early adulthood to describe the hypocrisy and evils he encountered and observed as a slave, showing us that not a single part of life was untouched by slavery. His autobiography goes into detail of how he came to learn what it meant to be a slave, especially a bright slave, whose environment clearly did not nourish, and how he strategically tried to better himself and those around him, and eventually escape.

As a child Douglass asked himself the following “Why am I a slave? Why are some people slaves, and others masters? Was there ever a time when this was not so? How did the relationship commence?” I’ve said this before, but despite the number of books on slavery I have read I always learn more and I am always freshly shocked. Clearly there is no bottom to this evil practice, no shortage of cruel ways to keep people subjugated:

But, there is this difference in the two extremes; viz: that in the case of the slave, the miseries and hardships of his lot are imposed by others, and in the master’s case, they are imposed by himself. The slave is a subject, subjected by others; the slaveholder is a subject, but he is the author of his own subjection.

 

 

 

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My Ántonia- Willa Cather

“There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”– Willa Cather, My Ántonia

For someone who grew up watching “Little House on the Prairie”, this was an interesting and nostalgic look at my childhood fancies and romanticized images of frontier life. Making a new life, taming the land, and creating something out of very little all sounded so romantic and magical to me at the time but there was so much that I hadn’t considered, couldn’t have known, with my limited worldly experience. I guess that’s one of the many reasons that literature is so powerful: giving a voice to experiences.

This is a story of the early settlers in Nebraska; a story of hardships, successes, community, change… The story is narrated by an orphaned boy who goes to live with his grandparents after his parents pass away. The narration was very detailed and observant.

The story focuses quite a bit on Ántonia Shimerda, and her Bohemian family.I thought the character of Ántonia was exceptionally well-written; I think she’s one of those unforgettable literary characters, and that’s definitely due to Cather’s amazing writing and depiction of her. Cather manages to show the language development Ántonia goes through,and also the development of her character from being an ordinary little girl playing with her sister and friends, to working “like a mans” in order to support her family:

“The older girls, who helped to break up the wild sod, learned so much from life, from poverty, from their mothers and grandmothers; they had all, like Antonia, been early awakened and made observant by coming at a tender age from an old country to a new.”

Having moved around a bit I really enjoyed the descriptions of the landscapes because at least to me, apart from food, that’s what I miss the most about leaving a place: the familiarity in scenery, flora, and fauna. The small differences in landscape are an unavoidable sign that you are in a new place:

“There was none of the signs of spring for which I used to watch in Virginia, no budding woods or blooming gardens. There was only–spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind—rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted.”

There was interesting discussion about the European immigrants to the USA. What shouldn’t have surprised me but did anyway, was the fact that even among the European immigrants there was plenty of discrimination and also an unofficial hierarchy. What was universal though was the sense of loss from all the characters who had migrated to that area, despite their origins and loss.

I’m fully convinced of Cather’s writing style. Cather brought the frontier to life for me, the Bohemians, Ántonia, everyone and everything. I loved that she brought to the fore the stories of the people of the New World, especially the women.

 

The Future Eve- Villiers de L’Isle-Adam

 

Well, I never knew the word “android” was in existence in the 19th Century! This may be the oldest sci-fi novel I’ve read and one of the most fascinating. It starts off with us being introduced to a fictionalized Thomas Edison, a kind of mad scientist, and his interesting thoughts on how things would have been different had the human race had the means to record sound earlier on in its history.

“Even among the noises of the past, how many mysterious sounds were known to our predecessors, which for lack of a convenient machine to record them have now fallen forever into the abyss? Dead voices, lost voices, forgotten noises, vibrations lockstepping into the abyss, and now too distant ever to be recaptured!”

Edison also laments the fact that we don’t have photographs of Cleopatra, Rachel, Queen of Sheba, Helen of Troy, etc.

“Isn’t it exasperating to think of all the pictures, portraits, scenes, and landscapes that it [photography] could have recorded once, and which are now lost to us?”

The Deluge, The Seven Plagues of Egypt, The Furies, the Head of Medusa are examples of subjects Edison would have liked to see photographed. There’s no distinction between myth and reality in his mind, obviously!

After his musings, things get interesting when his friend Lord Ewald falls in love with a plain and vapid girl, whom he recognizes is “a sphinx without an enigma”, and has decided to end his life. Edison decides to make an android version of his fiancée for him, an ideal woman, using as the prototype, Hadaly, a similarly plain woman who caused his friend to kill himself. What follows is a deep philosophical journey into the role of God in creation, the parts of a woman, and the soul.

The book lost a point for its blatant misogyny, there is lots of it:

“Yes, that’s what these women are: trifling playthings for the passing gadabout, but deadly to men of more depth, whom they blind, befoul, and bind into slavery through the slow hysteria that distills from them.”

But all in all, a very well-written book, one that made the think.

Travels With My Aunt- Graham Greene

 

“One’s life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings: it is out of books one learns about love and pain at second hand. Even if we have the happy chance to fall in love, it is because we have been conditioned by what we have read…”- Graham Greene, Travels With my Aunt

Having only read one other Graham Greene book previously (Brighton Rock) I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in this book. It turned out to be a very entertaining story about Henry Pulling, a very unimaginative, conservative retired English bachelor in his 50s who meets his eccentric Aunt Augusta for the first time in decades on the day of his mother’s funeral. Aunt Augusta is one of the most unforgettable characters I’ve ever come across in fiction;  she’s selfish, unapologetic, and has had quite the unconventional life, especially if you consider that she’s in her mid-70s and this story takes place in the late 1960s.  She takes Henry out of his boring humdrum life of tending  dahlias, and they end up travelling around the world , breaking laws and meeting a motley crowd.

There was a lot of dry humour in this book which seems to have stood the test of time. While in Turkey Aunt Augusta says, “Politics in Turkey are taken more seriously than they are at home. It was only quite recently that they executed a Prime Minister. We dream of it, but they act.”

The mildly infuriating Aunt Augusta is definitely a people person and loves to tell stories. How true they are, Henry still isn’t quite sure. Yet, as he later muses:

“What does the truth matter? All characters once dead, if they continue to exist in memory at all, tend to become fictions. Hamlet is no less real now than Winston Churchill, and Joe Pulling no less historical than Don Quixote.”

In between all the shenanigans, Greene leaves some food for thought:

“Human communication, it sometimes seems to me, involves an exaggerated amount of time. How briefly and to the point people always seem to speak on the stage or on the screen, while in real life we stumble from phrase to phrase with endless repetition.”

There’s still some things I haven’t figured out about this book yet. I feel Greene packed a lot more social commentary in here than my bookclub and I had time to discuss. Firstly, I felt he was poking fun at the postcolonial, post-War era, but I don’t know enough about England at this time to confirm this.  But maybe I wasn’t meant to take the novel as seriously as I did at times.

 

Spoiler!!!!!– Why on earth did Greene have Henry engaged to  a 14 year old South American girl (they will marry as soon as she turns 16) right on the last page? What is this? I found that deeply disturbing.

The Scarlet Pimpernel- Baroness Emmuska Orczy

 

 

“A surging, seething murmuring crowd, of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.”– The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy

It’s been too long since I last enjoyed a classic novel and I was beginning to fear that I was falling out of love with my favourite genre. Well, I found the remedy with “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” What a lot of fun!

The French Revolution is one of my favourite periods of history to learn about despite the morbidity and the violence and cruelty. It’s shocking to be reminded of the fact that even children were guillotined. It makes you wonder why on earth people felt the need to be so barbaric and unforgiving.

Baroness Orczy also introduces us to one of the most interesting characters in literature, in my opinion, Sir Percival Blakeney, Bart., aka The Scarlet Pimpernel. His character is an example of what I’d call the Columbo effect, a dopey demeanour that puts people at ease and disguises sheer brilliance. Sir Percy is a fop who is obsessed with fashion and making inane comments that amuse those around him. Surely he can’t be the Scarlet Pimpernel???

Off-topic: I love the 1982 movie with Jane Seymour as Marguerite St. Juste, Anthony Anderson as Sir Percy, and Sir Ian McKellan as Chauvelin. I’ve watched it countless times. A few people recommended the 1934 version and I did enjoy it but in my opinion the Seymour version was superior. Neither of the movies follow the book’s chronology though the earlier one is more true to it. Jane Seymour plays a more convincing Marguerite.

And this quote from IMDB made me admire Anthony Anderson even more: What upsets me most is miscarriages in the legal system and seeing people suffering. When I was filming in Russia at the end of the Gorbachev era I saw peasants doff their caps to film company limos because they thought that there were government officials inside. The same thing happened in Mexico. Any regime that does that to its people upsets me. – 15 April 2003, Times Online

All Passion Spent- Vita Sackville-West

 

She wondered which wounds went deeper: the jagged wounds of reality, or the profound invisible bruises of the imagination?”– Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent

I loved this book, one of the best novels I’ve read so far this year. Former Vicereine, Lady Deborah Slane, is not your typical protagonist. She is 88 years old and is recently widowed after a marriage of 70 years. Lady Slane decides to live the independent life she had always dreamed of, much to the chagrin of her snobby children. She moves to a small cottage far from her children and thinks back on her youth, marriage, life as a political hostess, and motherhood.

Despite all the wealth and opulence in her life, her children and her dutiful husband, Lady Slane’s life hadn’t truly been happy. Her musings show that the things society often says are good for women may not actually be so in reality, and that many women often have to hide their true desires, and have had their youthful desires dashed or pushed to the side:

Youth is full of hopes reaching out, youth will burn the river and set all the belfries of the world ringing; there is not only love to be considered, there are also such things as fame and achievement and genius—which might be in one’s heart, knocking against one’s ribs, who knows?

The language in this book was so beautiful and philosophical. I probably have very little in common with Lady Slane, being from a different ethnicity, era, and class;  yet I was able to put myself in her shoes. It was quite the experience.

It was a contemplative novel and there was a lot of wisdom in the pages:

 “Nothing earns respect so quickly as letting your fellows see that you are a match for them. Other methods may earn you respect in the long run, but fir a short-cut there is nothing like setting a high valuation on yourself and forcing others to accept it. Modesty, moderation, consideration, nicety—no good; they don’t pay.

This was a good book to read on International Women’s Day. Because of its content, it made me dwell on what it must feel like for a woman having to sacrifice her dreams for a husband and motherhood. Perhaps not so common in the West nowadays, but in many other parts of the world this is still the case. Women getting forced into a certain role when perhaps they aren’t ready, or they are interested in pursuing a different path is tragic.

Recommended to fans of Elizabeth Von Armin.

Things Fall Apart- Chinua Achebe

 

 

“The drums were still beating, persistent and unchanging. Their sound was no longer a separate thing from the living village. It was like the pulsation of its heart. It throbbed in the air, in the sunshine, and even in the trees, and filled the village with excitement.”– Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

This is a book of many contrasts; colonialism and traditional culture, animism and Christianity, the masculine and the feminine, and the ignorant and the aware (although who is who depends on who’s speaking).

Okonkwo is one of the most intriguing characters in African fiction. He epitomizes so much I dislike; he’s abusive, misogynist, has very little patience or tolerance for the weak, and is perhaps he’s even over-ambitious. Despite all his faults, it’s impossible not to pity him a little because, after all, the life he knows, the life of his ancestors, is being taken from him quite cruelly by the British settlers.

This book really takes the reader into the Igbo culture. Achebe shows the traditional culture very well, a culture which is rife with superstition but rich in context. I loved the inclusion of the African proverbs and  folk tales, and  the details of the Igbo clan system. Achebe also shows how  tightknit precolonial African culture was and how, despite not having the so-called civilized institutions, things went pretty smoothly because of the community spirit and also the societal rules. The importance of ancestors in society is a part of this:

“The land of the living was not far removed from the domain of the ancestors. There was coming and going between them.”

 Achebe managed to inject some humour into such bleak subject matter, although I think this feat is quite common among African writers:

” You grew your ears for decoration, not for hearing.”

What I found difficult to come to terms with, as an African Christian myself, is the horrific way Christianity was introduced to the African continent.  However, despite the lack of respect the colonialists showed to the people, it’s hard to deny that there were some aspects of African tradition that were outdated and people had the option of leaving such tradition behind, especially if it was harmful. For example, in this book the outcasts and the parents of twin babies (who had to kill their babies to prevent evil from entering the village) obviously found it easier to abandon tradition.

I think this book was the first one that made me realize the terrible impact of colonialism. I’ve always been curious about how Chinese women with bound feet must have felt after that fashion was seen as barbaric and unfashionable, and in the same vein I’ve also wondered about how those in African cultures who had lots of power and were accorded lots of respect might have felt when new values undermined everything they had worked towards.

This book reminds me a lot of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s “The River Between” which focuses on similar subject matter, albeit on the other side of the continent (Kenya). I would highly recommend both of them.

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Side note:  As I’m currently taking a class on intercultural competence, I have been dwelling on the importance of understanding and respect.The chief in “Things Fall Apart” sums things up pretty well when he says, regarding the white man’s understanding of the land, “How can he (understand) when he does not even speak our tongue? But he says that our customs are bad, and our own brothers who have taken up his religion also say that our customs are bad.”

How different would my life have been had I grown up in that precolonial era of Africa, following the animist faith of my ancestors? I know I definitely wouldn’t have had this much freedom. It makes me realize how clinging to tradition isn’t always helpful and can impede growth.

 I learned last year that Achebe borrowed the title of his book from W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming.”

The Second Coming- W.B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?