Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Home by Toni Morrison

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
145 pages

Morrison's tenth novel tells the story of a young man named Frank Money who is struggling to reclaim his sense of self when he returns to his country after the Korean War. In the beginning of the book he escapes from a mental hospital where he doesn't recall how he got in there and flees South to rescue his dying sister Cee.

In the beginning of each chapter Frank reveals an event from his past that played a significant role in his development--specifically things that haunt him. He talks about witnessing a group of white men bury a black person's body with his sister and about a little Korean girl that was killed while he was on watch during the war. Each of these anecdotes connect to the larger narrative about him facing his past.

He chooses to go back to Georgia where he grew up to save his sister's life after receiving a letter about her health. He left behind living in the security of his hard-working, but fed up girlfriend's apartment in Chicago and travel alone despite his fears about his psychological stability.

Cee also fled from Lotus to escape from her past. She was jilted by a smooth talker who married her to take her grandmother's car. Cee was too embarrassed to go back home and stayed in the city. She found a job working for a doctor who performed experiments on her and was responsible for her near-death condition.

By the end of the novel Frank and Cee reunite and begin their path of healing mentally and physically. Frank begins to see that Lotus isn't as bad as he thought it was and Cee gains strength and newfound self-worth. They find the bones of the person the white men buried and give him a proper grave site. The last scene of the book where they walk back home is touching and poignant. I nearly cried.

Home is a simple, quick read. It isn't as heavy and complex as Toni's other works, but it has a strong message that doesn't need a momentous plot to get the point across.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Other Side of the Sky by Farah Ahmedi

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
249 pages
The Other Side of the Sky is 2006 memoir written by Farah Ahmedi with Tamim Ansary that takes readers on a young girl’s journey from the war struck cities of Afghanistan to the frantic refugee camps of Pakistan and finally to the United States. Over a ten year period Farah goes through some of the most painful experiences imaginable, including losing her left leg after stepping on a land mine when she was seven years old to losing her father and her siblings after a bombing on her place of residence. She endured so much horror and confusion that it takes a lot of strength and courage for her to share her life’s story at just nineteen years old to offer inspiration and guidance.

Farah is initially reluctant to talk about her life, but a close friend of hers named Alyce assures her that even though she is still young, her story of survival is amazing and worth telling. Farah agrees to write this memoir and the results show that Alyce was right for encouraging her because Farah has a remarkable and unforgettably uplifting story to tell.

Farah opens her memoir with a prologue where she explains who she is in the present day and how she wonders about her past, and its effect on her. She then tells the readers she wants her story to show that she hasn’t lost her ability to love and dream despite everything she went through. Farah does an excellent job setting up the tales from her childhood by first describing a recent incident that causes her to have a shocking flashback, then moving through her life in chronological order to get to her current life in America.

The technique of moving from a recent episode that connects to her past life works brilliantly because readers get a sense of who Farah is as a person now, and then get an immediate opportunity to learn how she gets to where she is today. This strategy works well because Farah tells each chapter of her life with such precision that you never feel like something in the plot is out of place or unnecessary. In fact, Farah tells us nearly everything we need to know: what she is thinking, her reason for thinking the way she does, how she is coping with her problems, and how she feels about the things she witnesses and suffers through. She also gives vivid descriptions of the setting and time period to the best of her ability and admits what she doesn’t know and why she doesn’t know it. There is such a raw authenticity to her voice that at times you feel like you are having an actual conversation with her.
Throughout all the tragic events, particularly the land mine accident and her family’s deaths, Farah manages to keep a certain calm in the writing that can be unnerving at times, as if she is trying to block out the pain of the memories, and that is understandable. However, there is a sense that she is holding back in the chapter “Losing My Family” when she sees her house in ruins and the bodies of her father and sisters covered by sheets in the street. The reader disconnect occurs because Farrah’s descriptions seem to be told from an apathetic bystander’s perspective. On the other hand, it can be said that she is still feeling numbness towards the event even as she was writing about it.

This apparent apathy is removed completely in the most touching chapter of the book “Talking to God”, where Farah finally allows herself to feel pain and breaks down by asking God to help her and her mother to move on from their intolerable living conditions as servants in Pakistan. There is a poignant scene where Farrah silently cries and submits herself to her faith and then sees a shooting star that she takes as a positive sign from God. From that point forward her life and her mother’s transforms for the better in a miraculous manner. Farrah’s recounting of her trip from Pakistan to America provides startling proof of how believing and having hope made a huge difference in her current situation and her future. By the end of the memoir it is clear from Farrah’s attitude and her progress that she has achieved her aim of providing a great example of how overcoming hardships can lead you to becoming a better person. The story of this brave, young Afghan woman is a testament of the strength of the human spirit and is highly recommended for readers looking for a role model and inspiration.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
171 pages

The Bridges of Madison County is the ardently sensuous, heart-rending story of two star-crossed lovers named Francesca Johnson and Robert Kincaid. Francesca is a married farm wife living in Iowa. Robert is a traveling photographer for National Geographic. He pulls up to the front of her home one afternoon looking for directions to a bridge he has to take pictures of for an assignment. Francesca instantly feels an attraction to him and offers to ride with him to the bridge he needs to find. After that meeting, Robert and Francesca's lives are never the same again.

The novel begins with Francesca Johnson's children Michael and Carolyn contacting a writer in Iowa and requesting that he write the story of their mother and Robert Kincaid. The writer agrees to do the job and is amazed by the love story he researches and re-creates for a book. The story starts with Robert Kincaid's preparations to leave home in Washington and travel to Iowa to photograph the old covered bridges in Madison County, Iowa. He reflects on his life, including his failed marriage, his peculiar childhood and personality, and he even longs to have someone with him. When he arrives in Madison County he gets directions to the seven covered bridges from a local resident and finds six of them. After driving around and failing to find the seventh bridge, Roseman Bridge, Robert pulls his truck up to a mailbox labeled "Richard Johnson, RR2" to ask for directions and sees a woman sitting on the front porch. Francesca says to Robert that she'll show him if he wants, and is surprised because she normally wouldn't behave that way with a stranger. On the drive to Roseman Bridge Francesca starts to feel giddy and even smokes cigarettes that Robert gives her despite the fact that her husband Richard forced her to quit smoking a long time ago.

When they return to her house Francesca asks Robert if he would like an ice tea and offers to make him supper. He accepts. After he unloads his photography equipment from his truck to cool off, he enters the kitchen and settles in. While they are drinking and eating Robert asks Francesca how she likes Iowa. She reveals to him that it's a good place and the people are good, but it is not the life she imagined as a young girl. Robert tells her about his life and his profession. She tells Robert that her husband and children are away at the Illinois State Fair. Francesca feels drawn to Robert's poetic nature and his passion for his work. After supper they take a walk in the pasture and Francesca doesn't want the evening to end. When they return home she offers him a glass of brandy and they sit together drinking and smoking until Richard decides to leave. After they say goodbye Francesca drives her truck to Roseman Bridge and leaves a note there for Robert.

The next day Robert gets the note that says he can come over to have supper with Francesca after he finishes his photo shoot. He calls her and accepts the invitation. Then he invites her to come along with him while he's photographing one of the bridges. Francesca is worried that people in town will see her with him and gossip, but she tells him she'll meet him there in her pickup. They spend the day together at Cedar Bridge and Francesca is mesmerized by Robert's work and his presence. Robert goes home with her to wash off while she prepares their evening meal. After Francesca takes a bath and wears a brand new pink dress she bought that afternoon, Robert tells her that she looks absolutely stunning. Francesca falls in love with him at that moment. As the night goes on Robert and Francesca get closer and closer. When Robert asks Francesca to dance with him and she walks into his arms, they give in to their feelings and make love in her bedroom. Over the next four days Robert and Francesca are inseparable and passionately consume each other.

Robert declares  to Francesca on the morning after their first night together: "This is why I'm here on this planet, at this time, Francesca. Not to travel or make pictures, but to love you. I know that now. I have been falling from the rim of a great, high place, somewhere back in time, for many more years than I have lived this life. And in all of those years, I have been falling toward you." But they eventually have to face reality that Francesca's family is coming home soon. When Robert suggests that he'll have a talk with her husband, Francesca tells him that it's not a good idea. She explains to Robert that she feels a sense of responsibility to her family and that she won't leave them. She also tells him she fears that if they started a life together they wouldn't be able to sustain their love the way it is at this moment because she'd be overcome with guilt for abandoning her husband and kids. Robert respects her decision and they choose to enjoy their remaining time together talking and making love.

While they are struggling with their imminent separation Robert whispers to Francesca "I have one thing to say, one thing only; I'll never say it another time, to anyone, and I ask you to remember it: In a universe of ambiguity, this kind of certainty comes only once, and never again, no matter how many lifetimes you live." Francesca and Robert say goodbye to each other on a Thursday afternoon, both of them fighting to let each other go. As Robert drives his truck out of her driveway she weeps and Robert cries as he drives down the road. Francesca's husband and children come home that evening. She tries hard to keep her composure, but several days later she sees Robert's truck leaving town and cries in front of her husband. Richard doesn't know why his wife has been so emotional and distant since his return. Francesca battles within herself to stand by her decision to continue to live a responsible life with her family. Over the next twenty four years of her life she thinks about Robert every day. After her husband dies she tries to contact Robert, but she finds out that he no longer lives in Washington or works for National Geographic. Her fear that Robert might be dead prevents her from continuing her search for him.

On her sixty-seventh birthday, Francesca reflects on her love affair with Robert and takes mementos from her drawer to remember every detail. She has a letter that Robert wrote to her shortly after he left Iowa and a photograph that he took of her on the pasture of her home. She also looks at the letter his lawyers sent her about the contents of his will. The letter states that his ashes were scattered at Roseman Bridge and he left her a letter thirteen years after they met. In the last letter Robert wrote to her he states that he is giving her his photography equipment and his medallion that had her name engraved in it. He updates her on his life at the time, saying he has a dog named Highway and that he left National Geographic. He ends the letter professing "I love you, profoundly and completely. And I always will." Francesca then reads the short story he wrote about his love for her called "Falling from Dimension Z." The book ends with Michael and Carolyn reading a letter from their mother after her passing where she reveals her love for Robert and the time they spent together. Michael and Carolyn now understand why their mother chose to get her ashes scattered at Roseman Bridge. They decide to hire a writer as a tribute to their love story. In the epilogue of the novel the writer finds out about the final years of Robert's life, from an interview with his friend, a jazz musician. The jazz musician tells the writer that the story that Robert told him about a woman he loved deeply inspired him to compose a song that he played for Robert at his club until he passed. The song was named "Francesca."

Monday, November 7, 2011

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
128 pages

O Pioneers! is a spellbinding novel about a young woman named Alexandra who builds up a Midwestern farm from terrible conditions after her immigrant father passes away. She stays single for most of her life to make her land prosperous as she takes care of her young brother Emil and is in charge of her other brothers Lou and Oscar as well. She is an unofficial early twentieth century mogul.

Alexandra is an acute, persistent business woman who developed and managed her father's dream land in a manner that would have made him so proud he would've died with a smile on his face had he lived to see the results of her labor. But that's not all there is to the story. There is her childhood friend Carl, her crazy tenant Ivar, and her attractive neighbor Marie, who is married, but has an emotional attachment to Emil. The novel features poignant, vivid imagery.

The climax is in some ways predictable, but unexpected. It unfolds at a rapid and suspenseful pace that leaves a feeling of shock. Through Alexandra's point of view the novel explores common themes such as love, feminism, and isolation in a subtle and engaging manner.

An interesting fact about this book is that it is written by an American woman and takes place during a key time period in U.S. history that is often overlooked. O Pioneers! should be in American school canons because it is a deeply moving, beautifully-written treasure.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Jane Eyre is an intensely emotional masterpiece. The novel begins in Jane Eyre's childhood as an orphan living with her Aunt Reed and her cousins at Gateshead. She suffers from mistreatment and physical abuse by her aunt and her cousin George. After she begins to rebel against her aunt she is sent to an all-girl boarding school named Lowood.

At Lowood Jane gains an education and makes a close friend, but the school environment is rigid and oppressive. Jane stays at Lowood until she is a fully educated adult who speaks fluent French and is qualified to teach younger students. She is then sent to be the governess of a young pupil at a gentleman's estate.

When she reaches the place of her employment, Thornfield, readers begin to see different sides of Jane. Thus far the excitability of her character is limited to her rebuke of Aunt Reed and other minor scenes, but when she meets her employer Mr. Rochester, an in-depth state of her consciousness is displayed.

Mr. Rochester is the caretaker and probable father of the young French girl named Adele, whom Jane will tutor, though he denies paternity. He takes acute interest in Jane almost immediately and frequently invites her to have conversations with him after dinner. Jane notices that he broods often and his emotions change rapidly. She also notes that while he tells her his life story he tends not to take accountability for his actions and blames others for his misfortune.

Over time Jane begins to fall in love with Mr. Rochester though she is unsure of how to interpret it. Mr. Rochester is madly in love with Jane, but doesn't know if Jane feels the same and devises a scheme to learn how she feels about him. He uses the beautiful Blanche Ingram of a local aristocratic family to make Jane jealous. His plan is effective despite its sadism as Jane gets depressed and compares herself unfavorably to Blanche.

During an evening walk Jane is manipulated into admitting that she has feelings for Mr. Rochester after he pretends she is going to be sent far away after his "wedding" to Blanche. Mr. Rochester then reveals that he is in love with Jane and they agree to marry. A lightning strike splits a chestnut tree in their path in half foreshadowing the impending doom of their union.

On their wedding day the horrible fact is publicized that Mr. Rochester has a living wife in the attic at Thornfield and cancels Jane and Mr. Rochester's nuptials. A heartbroken Mr. Rochester begs Jane to stay with him and move abroad. Jane refuses on moral grounds and flees in the middle of the night to avoid temptation.

Jane travels aimlessly for days and nearly starves to death when she ends up at the front door of the Rivers family--consisting of two sisters, Diana and Mary, and their brother St. John. They take her in and care for her. She spends her time in town working while recovering from her heartbreak. One day St. John proposes that she accompany him on his missionary trips as his wife. Jane is reluctant to accept, noting that he is in love with a town member whom he deems unfit for his wife. As St. John continues to weaken her defenses, Jane mysteriously hears Mr. Rochester call her in the evening and chooses to return to Thornfield.

Before she leaves St. John discloses that Jane is the sole inheritor of her Uncle John Eyre's fortune. She also learns that Diana, Mary and St. John are her cousins because John Eyre is their uncle as well.

When Jane returns to Thornfield she finds that it is burned to the ground. She fears Mr. Rochester has perished, but finds out he is living at another property with an elderly couple, albeit maimed and blind from the fire. Jane and Mr. Rochester have a long conversation where Jane learns that Mr. Rochester's wife died the night of the fire. Jane tells Mr. Rochester that she is an heiress and that she will never leave him again. They marry and have children--and Jane remembers to look after her former pupil when Adele attends boarding school.

The novel features a spiritual aspect that is difficult to explicate, but worth noting. There are strong themes of feminism, classism, and morality. Many critics note that Jane Eyre is ahead of its time. Jane Eyre truly transcends time that makes the novel beloved over two hundred years later.