The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet LetterThe Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ugh. Why on earth this book was standard fare in high schools across the country for so long is beyond me. Seriously. If you want to put teenagers off reading and make them hate English class, then by all means, put this one on your syllabus. By the time I got into the high school classroom, this book had thankfully fallen by the way side, and I–hallelujah–was never assigned it. And while I’ve enjoyed the Hawthorne I’ve read before (most of the Twice-Told Tales and I’m pretty sure I found The Blithedale Romance fascinating in graduate school, but that very well could be because my professor was brilliant), this was a serious chore to slog through. So, yes, Hester Prynne is an awesome character and kudos to Hawthorne for writing a fabulous woman way back in 1850 (take note Hemingway). But from the just boring and monotonous Custom House introduction to the please-just-let-it-end-and-be-over-with epilogue and every single overwrought, overemphasized symbol in between, I just couldn’t get into it.

I always told my students that there is a reason classic lit is still read. Great books stick around for a reason and not-so-great ones fall by the wayside. Or as WH Auden put it, “Some books are undeservedly forgotten. None are undeservedly remembered” (thanks John Green for that tidbit and totally agree with you about Lord of the Flies too). This book does have important things to say about America’s Puritanical roots, about judgment and freedom, independence and individuality. Our Puritan past still haunts the American identity on so many levels, and Hawthorne expertly imagines and brings to life those anxieties. Hester in effect destroys two men for no other reason than being strong, capable, and independent. Revenge and jealousy distort Chillingworth into a farce of the man he was before, and Dimmesdale is so weak and incapable of action that he allows his guilt to literally kill him. All the while Hester thrives, even under the weight of the scarlet letter; in fact, she turns it into a symbol of rebellion.

It’s the story’s pacing and Hawthorne’s need to beat the symbol of the scarlet letter into the ground that killed the book for me. It’s frickin’ everywhere. Pearl in the red dress, in the stars, written in the sunsets, and burned by psychokinetic guilt into Arthur Dimmesdale’s flesh–on every page there’s another scarlet letter and each time it appears, the narrator insists on expounding on its presence and impressing upon us its importance. The dialogue plods and is totally unnatural and forced. I’m sorry but none of Jane Austen’s characters drop “thees” and “thous” and “methinks” at every turn and her novels were written 40 years prior to this one. It’s emblematic of Hawthorne’s definition of “Romance,” which for him privileged ideas and symbols over realism. He is just more concerned about the idea he is creating than the story he is telling.

So there you have it. Not a fan of The Scarlet Letter and now I look forward to watching Demi Moore utterly destroy Hawthorne’s vision in her campy and gawd-awful 1995 movie. Should be a hoot.

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KindredKindred by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read Octavia Butler in the late 90’s when I was writing my graduate school thesis. I had embarked on a rather exhaustive study of feminist science fiction and dystopia (yes, my degree is worthless…. moving on now), and for the better part of six months, I immersed myself in writers like Margaret Atwood, Joanna Russ, Suzy McGee Charnas, CJ Cherryh, Ursula LeGuin, Sherri Tepper, Marge Piercy, and of course the wonderful Octavia Butler. Twenty years ago, most of these writers were pretty niche and not at all mainstream, and there were definitely a few old-timey professors in my department who thought I should spend my time reading the established canon. Not that I didn’t respect and read the established canon–I definitely did (and still do). But I argued that meaningful and revolutionary writing was happening outside the established texts and we would be remiss to overlook those works. Well apparently things have changed. Now if you check out UCLA’s reading list for African-American literature, Kindred is there, and while it’s not yet required reading along sideĀ  modern greats like Toni Morison and Alice Walker, Butler’s great book has at least made the list of “for further reading.” And that is awesome because I can’t think of another novel (aside from Beloved) that so expertly communicates the absolute horrors of slavery from from a women’s point of view. The slave narrative is one of the main genres of American literature and Butler uses that genre and melds it with another American staple–science fiction–to brutal and far-reaching effect.

Kindred tells the story of Dana, a black woman living in California with her white husband Kevin. For reasons that Butler never explains, she is pulled from the present and dropped into the past, into antebellum Maryland. All we know is that extreme nausea precedes these episodes and that extreme fear sends her back home. The first time she’s pulled through time, she sees a boy drowning in a lake. She rushes in and saves him only to be attacked by his mother. She appears back in California just as suddenly. We learn as the novel progresses and Dana makes more trips to the past that the boy she saved, Rufus, will grow up to be the owner of a plantation. To complicate matters further, he is also her ancestor. Her grandmother three times removed is a slave on this very plantation, and in order to secure her own existence she is being pulled through time to not only keep him alive but to facilitate her great, great, great grandmother’s rape.

And this is why science fiction and fantasy are so important. What other genre could tell this story? Butler is making some truly hard arguments here about memory and history, about what slaves had to do to survive, and about how history has often derided and overlooked the unique stories of women who were often doubly burdened by forced labor and forced sex that turned them into breeders. It’s very easy for modern people to judge the past, to judge those that lived through it and had to do and endure horrible injustices in order to survive. Butler said that one of her inspirations for writing this was a conversation that she had with a guy who expressed such anger at what he perceived was the older generation of African-Americans holding the movement back: “I’d like to kill all these old people […] but I can’t because I’d have to start with my own parents.” Butler noted how he wasn’t able to acknowledge the sacrifices his parents had to make to give him a better life and how this conversation was the impetus for Kindred (Yaszek 1057).

But it’s not just the past that Kindred focuses on. Butler also explores how race still informs so much of our identities and interactions. In the present (which in this book is 1976) both Dana and Kevin’s parents ostracize them for their interracial marriage; obviously, not everyone has gotten past race. And when Kevin is pulled with her on one of her trips to the past, he has to pretend to be her owner in order for them to share a room. Butler also makes a point of describing Rufus and Kevin similarly: their eyes are the same, and sometimes their expressions are the same. Even though Kevin is horrified by the indignities that the woman he loves suffers, he is still able to remain somewhat removed from everything, and his skin color guarantees that his experience in the past will afford him safety and privilege.

The fact this book is now standard fare in African-American and women’s lit courses across the country is testament to how far sci fi and speculative fiction have come. I would now argue that this book should be included in American literature survey courses and that anyone who has an interest in literature that truly gets at the heart of the American experience should put it on their list.

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FledglingFledgling by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Octavia Butler… What can I say? She’s so awesome. When I learned that she passed away back in ’05, I was just devastated, especially when I read that she had put aside another book in the Parable of the Talents/Sower series due to some major writers block and now that book would obviously never be. I think that’s one of the reasons why it took me so long to read this one. I’m not a huge fan of vampire stories and I desperately wanted to know what happened to that human colony at the end of Talents. I should’ve known, however, that Butler wouldn’t disappoint me and would do what she’s always done: take a genre like SF/dystopia that’s often dominated by problematic assumptions about race, gender, and class and utterly subvert them.

Butler’s vampires aren’t your typical Ann Rice seducers (hot, white, men) nor do they sparkle and protect whiny, depressed teenagers a la Stephanie Meyers. Instead, her vampire is a young girl named Shori, a mixed race vampire/human hybrid engineered to be wholly unique. In fact, Butler’s vampires put a whole new spin on the entire mythology. Her vampires aren’t supernatural or magical; they are a species she calls the Ina who evolved alongside humans. They are not immortal, but can live for many centuries and do so in polyamorous families with their human symbionts. The relationship the Ina have with their human symbionts truly is fascinating. Butler establishes that the Ina’s venom has some sort of property that bestows both pleasure and extended life on the humans they bite, and these humans pretty much become willing participants in this new relationship. This venom is also addictive and the symbiont’s body becomes dependent on it, so whether or not the humans truly have agency in this relationship is rather murky.

Butler is definitely making some rather bold statements about race here. When we meet Shori, she is covered in burns, she’s been shot, and her head has been bashed in. She’s naked in a cave and has no memory of who or what she is. We learn that a group of Ina are less than thrilled that Shori’s family has been conducting genetic experiments that would merge human and Ina DNA, essentially allowing them to be in the sun and awake during daylight. It all comes down to melanin, and many of the elder Inas are none-too thrilled about having their species corrupted with not just human DNA, but black human DNA. (After all vampires are all pure and beautiful and pasty white like sparkly Edward of Twilight fame.) Shori is the future and some Ina are so terrified of this future that they murdered, burned, and decimated two communities where all of her family lived. Shori has to learn about herself and how to take care of the family she is creating (her human symbionts) in spite of the fact that her whole history, family, and community have been erased from her memory.

Most lit crit types seem to focus on the transgressive nature of the Ina/human relationships. Butler subverts dominant binaries of white/black, male/female, hetero/homosexual, mono/poly even adult/child since Shori looks ten or eleven, but is a fully powerful, sexual entity. (This last tidbit seems to be rather overlooked in most of the academic work I read surrounding this novel.) But what I found most fascinating is what Butler seems to be saying about cultural memory. When Shori learns that one of the elder Inas has ordered the death of one of her symbionts, Shori is beside herself with grief. Preston, the Ina she confides in says, “I wonder if that’s part of why your memory is gone, not just because you suffered blows to the head, but because of the emotional blows of the death of all your symbionts, your sisters, and your mothers–everyone. You must have seen it happen. Maybe that is what destroyed the person you were” (276). Shori knows that members of her own species wiped out her entire family and everyone she loved with total and unmerciful brutality. She also has no memory of this brutality, but it’s with her every day. She constantly has to learn to navigate a culture that she doesn’t understand all the while knowing that part of that very culture wants her annihilated. But at the same time, it’s impossible for her to grieve for what she has lost. As she ponders Preston’s statement, she thinks “I thought about that. I tried to let his words touch off some feeling some grief or pain, some memory. But those people were strangers. Right now there was only Theodora and the pain of just thinking her name” (267). Shori can only feel pain for the loss she knows, so the loss of a single symbiont she has known for less than a month is more real to her than the pain of losing her entire family. How does she grieve a loss that she can only understand intellectually? It’s an interesting and painful question, and I couldn’t help but draw parallels between today’s racial animus and the cultural legacy of slavery or how third generation Holocaust survivors process the inherited stories of their ancestors.

This book is classic Butler, and while I don’t love it as much as Kindred or The Xenogenisis Trilogy (if you’ve never read her, read those first), it is still marvelous. I mourn for all the books that she left unwritten, but she added her voice to a genre that often dismissed unconventional voices like hers. Butler wrote from a marginalized perspective in a marginalized genre. Unfortunately, SF/fantasy/dystopia is often ignored as pulpy and lowbrow, but Butler once again shows us how speculative fiction can truly help us imagine new ways of being and existing with each other and in the end how that imagining can be revolutionary.

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A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms: The Hemingway Library EditionA Farewell to Arms: The Hemingway Library Edition by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Aside from a cursory skim of his short story collection “In Our Time” while I was cramming for my grad school comprehensive exams, this is my first foray into Hemingway. Not a single one of my professors assigned him, and in my 20-plus years in the classroom, I’ve never taught him. So I tried to approach this novel with an open mind and a respect for its place in American literature, American war literature in particular. However, on the whole, Hemingway disappointed me. If it wasn’t for the brutal and understated three chapters that deal with the retreat of the Italian army, some stunning and heartbreaking insights into what is essentially man’s isolation, and that gut-kick of a final paragraph, this novel would be unmemorable. When Hemingway is writing about war, he’s amazing, but his depiction of the so-called great love affair with Catherine just didn’t work; it’s cliched, and written by someone who seriously couldn’t write a three dimensional female character if she fluttered down from above and landed in his lap. In the rain.

So let’s start with Catherine. When Catherine and Henry meet she’s mourning the loss of her fiance of eight years, a relationship that wasn’t consummated. This loss of her fiance haunts her and she obviously uses Frederic Henry as a stand-in for that one. She makes the choice to fall in love with Frederic. It’s a game, one that they both admit they are playing. He flat out says, “I knew I did not love Catherine Barkley nor had any idea of loving her,” and she says a page later, “You don’t have to pretend that you love me” (26-7). So this affair is a game to both of them. One could argue (and many have) that the brilliance of all this is that Frederic Henry joins the Italian army on a lark just because he is there, that he isn’t invested in the war and only has some vague idea of romantic heroism in mind at first. So he is playing at being a soldier, just like he is playing at being in love with Catherine. It’s only when the war totally disintegrates and with it all semblance of right, wrong, and heroism, that his relationship with Catherine becomes real.

And I could accept this reading if Hemingway didn’t depict Catherine as being so flat and saccharine. For instance, when she tells him she’s pregnant she says, “You mustn’t mind, darling, I’ll try and and not make trouble for you. I know I’ve made trouble now. But haven’t I been a good girl until now?” Her voice and vocabulary come across as so insipid and they just reek of male fantasy. Catherine really isn’t anything more than a romantic stand-in for Frederic. She’s compliant, she wants nothing more than to be him, to merge fully with him, or as she says when they’re living their idyllic life in Switzerland, “Oh darling, I want you so much, I want to be you too” (257). The sentiment itself isn’t unbelievable: the merging of bodies and beings into one is what love constantly strives for, and great writers are always trying to get at the heart of this paradox. However, Hemingway just paints it shallowly, and I can’t tell if it’s a product of the times (all those “darlings” feel like the heated cheek presses in old black and white romance films) or if it’s indicative of his general treatment of women throughout the novel. He couldn’t be more dismissive of the government funded prostitutes that are also being evacuated. Lt. Henry notes that two of them are crying, and Bonello callously quips that “I’d like to have a crack at them for nothing. They charge too much at that house anyway. The government gyps us” (164). And the two girls they pick up during the evacuation are obviously terrified of being raped by the soldiers and painfully cringe each time one of them grabs their knees. There just seems to be a general disregard for the women in this novel. They are nothing but blank, empty vessels.

But there’s a general disregard for life and loss in this novel, and that lies at the heart of the tragedy. As things fall apart and Lt. Henry’s truck is stuck in the mud, he casually and without a hint of remorse shoots one of the Italian soldiers for refusing to help dig it out. The senseless carnage continues as the defeated Italian army begins to turn on all the officers, blaming them for their defeat, shooting them without a thought. There truly is no honor or point to any of it. What sums all of this up is Lt. Henry’s thoughts as he’s listening to Gino spout off on his patriotic ideals: “I had seen nothing sacred and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it” (161). At least the dead animal carcasses feed people.

It’s this strain of nihilism that runs through the whole novel. None of it matters: “The world breaks every one and afterwards many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially” (216). And it killed Catherine and their baby and the untold millions of soldiers and civilians who didn’t start this war and to use Frederic’s words “had nothing to do with it.” Hemingway is at his best when he is dealing with these hard truths and his stark writing style highlights them painfully. The edition I read has many of his infamous thirty-nine versions of the ending, and I have to say that my favorite (aside from the one he chose) is what is referred to as “The Nada Ending.” I will leave it at that: “That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.”

Now who needs a drink?

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