Friday, May 27, 2011


As I write this post I realize that I have only blogged about one female African American author, and I don't think that's sufficient.  I want to consciously review diverse and interesting literature just as I want to read a variety of work.  And please, don't hesitate to recommend authors of backgrounds and nationalities that I have so far overlooked.  So today I want to talk a little bit about Passing by Nella Larsen.

In my opinion, Passing is one of the somewhat hidden gems of the Harlem Renaissance.  The protagonist of this story is a fair skinned, African American woman named Irene.  Her foil is the equally important Clare, who also has light skin.  Both of these women have discovered that because of their light skin tone, they can actually "pass" as white.  Irene takes advantage of this from time to time, but Clare has made a decision to permanently present herself this way, even marrying a racist white man and hiding the truth completely.  When these women reunite at a chance encounter, their lives are torn in the comparisons they make.  Irene is swept up in Clare's glamor, and Clare discovers an intense longing to reconnect with her people.

Irene is precisely the kind of character who fascinates me in fiction.  I have followed a number of characters who struggle with their identities, but Irene's internal division is so powerful that it is represented externally as well.  She can literally choose how she wants to present herself - as a black woman or a white woman - and it shapes the way others interact with her.  The presence of Clare brings an enormous amount of insecurity to Irene, as she questions her own physical and emotional value.  With time, Irene's life revolves almost completely around the various pretending she does, which is not limited to pretending to be white in restaurants.  Instead, she must constantly pretend that she likes Clare as a friend and that her marriage is healthy and stable.  Her marriage is likewise a source of great stress and pain, as it crumbles into a detached coldness.  Unable to reconcile the various definitions of herself, Irene is likewise unable to connect to her husband, and the emotional distance between them becomes increasingly great.

In the second half of the novel, things spin rapidly out of control.  By the end, Irene is so frazzled that she falls into great, self-destructive tragedy.  When I first finished reading this, I explored the idea that perhaps Irene had developed Delusional Disorder, as the division she created in her life tore so deeply that it penetrated her mind.  I theorized that the things she believed were happening might actually have a logical explanation from someone else's perspective.  This is cerainly not a view that scholars have yet adopted, but I found it to be an intersting interpretation.  Regardless of the validity of this idea, the key themes of the story are issues concerning one's foundation of self as an African American and as a woman.

I read some bloggers who felt that some of the poignancy of the story has faded since people don't try to pass as white anymore.  As a white woman myself, I am certainly not the best person to make a statement about this, but I do want to share some of my thoughhts.  I have heard some African American friends be accused of "acting white" because they are invested in academics or participate in certain social activities.  It bothers me that academic and similar success is still often equated with whiteness.  I think it's important to cherish unique aspects of indvidual culture, but it becomes a problem if it creates significant obstacles for a person striving to live his or her best life.  I guess I just want to encourage people to stay conscious of the barriers we still put up among races, even though they are taking different forms.  Ok, I'll step off my soap box now, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts about any of this if you would like to share.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Oblomov, another Russian

Since my last post was about the fun and popular Great Gatsby, I am allowing myself to talk about an obscure Russian book again.  Please forgive me if this is starting to drive you crazy, but I do believe that some of you may find these books genuinely interesting and worth your time.  I really am not trying to sound pretentious and academic; I just happen to have acquired an affinity for Russian literature.  This time, I want to talk about Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov.  It's actually fairly difficult to find a good review of this book online, but maybe I can offer a decent one for you.

Although many native English-speakers are unfamiliar with this novel, it is quite embedded in Russian culture.  For example, it inspired the word "oblomovshchina," which means something along the lines of "lazy, lethargic, and listless."  It was a very popular book in Russia in its day, which was around the 1860s, a booming literary era in Russian history with extraordinary contemporaries like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

In so many ways, I think that Oblomov embodies everything about the quintessential Russian style.  First of all, the story is written from the perspective of a narrator who does not exist in the story and yet nevertheless breaks in to offer his opinions now and then.  I love this style because the narrator can "objectively" retell the story, but his scattered commentary is humorous and adds to the content.  Similarly, much of the interaction between Oblomov and his servant Zakhar is funny and ironic.

If there were ever a character who displayed the potentially existential depression of listlessness, the "superfluous man" if you will, he is Ilya Ilyitch Oblomov.  His story, very simply, is that of a man who cannot seem to get off the couch.  It is not that he is physically restricted to the couch, but that he lacks the desire and motivation to get up and take action in his life.  From the very beginning, we learn that there is noticeably an "absence of any definite idea" as well as a "total lack of concentration" in his countenance.  Throughout the story, Oblomov frequently decides that he ought to get up, but somehow he never seems to be able to do it.

Despite the restriction to the couch, Goncharov is able to keep the story moving.  Part of this comes from a number of visitors who stop by and talk to Oblomov.  We also learn a lot about Oblomov's past, which helps us understand how he got in this situation.  An interesting dynamic of the novel is his relationship with the two prominent women in his life - Olga, his former flame, and Agafya, the landlady he marries.  They represent the two natures within him, as well as the one which conquers.

I don't want to talk about the plot much more because I think it is the language that makes the novel so wonderful.  It's not so much about what happens but about how the story is told.  There are a number of interesting themes to consider, to be sure, and anyone who is intrigued by the superfluous man would enjoy this character.  But I particularly love the book for the narration itself.

Because Oblomov reviews are somewhat hard to find, I want to include an excellent link that provides much more information about the book if you wish:

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Great Gatsby

I am eager to get back to blogging, and I figured there would be no better way to restart than with F. Scott Fitzgerald's beloved classic, The Great Gatsby.  There are few people who are not familiar with this text, and I think people commonly enjoy it.  It's very different than some of the more serious books I've discussed, but I think variety is important on any great book list, and I don't want to neglect Gatsby just because it's fun.

As it's been quite a long time since I actually read the book, the main aspect of it that stands out in my memory is, of course, the lavish "Roaring 20s" parties.  I remember talking about this on one of the blog hops, and a lot of people shared my desire to crash one of those fabulous Gatsby parties.  However, I think this is probably a somewhat unfair memory because of all the devastation at the end of the story.  Somehow, I sincerely doubt that Fitzgerald was hoping his readers would walk away from the book with feelings of envy.

I think it's interesting that Fitzgerald included destruction and depression in this portrait of the 1920s.  I have a feeling that people living in the 1940s, and even today, might have a tendency to idealize the "Roaring 20s" after living through the Great Depression and World World II.  Yet Fitzgerald was able to recognize the superficialities and problems of the 1920s even while he was living in them.  Although the characters were blessed with decadence and celebration, they lacked fully formed identities and stumbled through the plot in various ways to gain superficial confidence.  Despite his outwardly suave appearance, Gatsby is desperate for Daisy's affirmation.  Deep down, he's just an insecure, lovesick boy who builds an idealistic dream.  When he is forced to confront the reality of his dream, he is left feeling lost and confused.  Likewise, Tom cannot imagine an existence in which his wife doesn't adore him, even though he has acted out in a number of affairs.  Daisy is a difficult character to admire, for we see her as shallow and insincere.  She doesn't live up to be a great literary heroine, with moving emotions and admirable actions.  We are never shown a deeper, more intimate side of her, and we struggle to believe that she deserves the devout admiration of both Gatsby and Tom.  

Nick is our most stable character, who is able to see the grim truth behind the opulence he encounters.  He leaves his hometown to seek out a more desirable life but in the end decides to return contentedly to the Midwest.  I think Fitzgerald uses him as a guide for readers who might be inclined to wish for extravagance to instead appreciate their practical lifestyles.  Even though he doesn't accomplish some herculean task or save the day with an impressive insight, he is our hero for successfully avoiding the muck of extravagance.

There are also a number of symbols in the book, along with some intriguing characters like the "owl-eyed" man.  I know that I really enjoyed reading the book, and I think it was written very well.  I like that Fitzgerald gives us an Oz-like "view behind the curtain" of the marvelous 20s, and I think it can confidently rest among the shelves of other great literature.  But I'm curious to hear from any of you what it is that you like (or don't like) about the book.  What are some of the meaningful messages you think Fitzgerald presents?  Or, perhaps, do you think the book is overrated?