Book Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

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I have a love/hate relationship with Sherman Alexie. I adore him because of the talent he possesses. I cringe when I pick up any of his writings because I know I’m about to get punched in the gut. The Long Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is no exception.

Sherman Alexie has a way of storytelling that makes the reader feel as though he/she is in the midst of the situation. He uses matter-of-fact language when describing circumstances that are based on his real life experiences. The tone he sets in his various stories does a good job at conveying the lot of American Indians.

This is especially seen in “That is what it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” Victor does not have the money for a plane ticket to Arizona. He is travelling there because his deceased father has a savings account to be claimed. His former friend, Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, offers to lend him the money if Victor will take him along. They arrive to find the trailer, reeking from having contained his father’s dead body for over a week in the Arizona sun. Alexie describes the situation in an almost detached narrative voice that, surprisingly, actually lends more emotion to the story.

Alexie is also proficient at telling sad stories from his community with the absence of a whiny voice. Readers especially notice this when reading, “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore.” Alexie sets the stage as he does so frequently and skillfully and the reader is swept up in the story of Julius, a young boy playing basketball on the reservation. Through the voice of Victor, Alexie recounts Julius and his eventual downfall after he gets involved with alcohol. This is a particular strength of Alexie’s; he is able to use his pieces of literature to send the message about the destructive properties of alcohol without appearing preachy or judgmental. Alexie refers to Julius as being a figure of hope for the people on the reservation; Julius was a talented basketball player and wanted to go to college. People thought he could make it, but then he got involved with drinking. He describes it as a huge hurt and disappointment to everyone on the reservation, but no one is surprised because that is what they expect to happen.

That is perhaps the saddest aspect of Alexie and his writings: there is a cycle of helplessness in which the characters find themselves. In “Every Little Hurricane,” Victor recounts how his father was spit on at a bus stop, his mother was forcibly sterilized after he was born, and how his uncles had stashed crackers in their bedroom as children so they could have something to eat. He remembers his father crying on Christmas Eve because there wasn’t any money for presents. He frequently mentions how people on the reservation are stuck in a cycle of drinking and poverty and while some are apathetic about changing, others simply don’t know how. It is all they and the generations before them have known.

One thing to note about many of Alexie’s short stories is that he likes to have his characters regularly employ colorful language. Call me old fashioned, but this bothers me. While it can be argued that explicit language can be appropriate and useful depending on the character or situation, Alexie’s heavy and frequent use of extremely offensive words is a bit over the top. So many instances of vulgar language take away from the other language Alexie uses that is incredibly descriptive and actually cheapens his stories. It distracts from the message he is trying to send in telling them. His stories could be just as (if not more) powerful if the frequency of those words was reduced.

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Book Review: Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

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Maxine Hong Kingston recalls stories from her past and recounts them in her work of creative non-fiction Woman Warrior. Her stories reflect the situations of women within the Chinese culture, as well as Chinese Americans living in the United States during the Chinese Revolution. She discusses explosive topics (particularly when they are paired with women) such as education, fighting, sexism, and family life. She tells stories from her mother’s past and effortlessly blends her autobiography with Chinese folktales in such a way that the reader could misunderstand and believe that it is purely an autobiographical story.

Maxine Hong Kingston opens Women Warrior with a story of her mother telling Kingston as a child to never talk about her aunt. Kingston’s aunt becomes pregnant while her husband is away at war, and Kingston’s mother recounts the story of what happened to her; the village is enraged and ransacks her house. She retreats and gives birth alone, after which she takes the child and jumps into the family well, committing suicide. Kingston ponders this story of the “No Name Woman”; she wonders if her aunt had loved the man, or perhaps if she was forced into the sexual relationship and had no choice in the matter. Kingston frequently talks about women and the gross injustice of the oppression they are required to face.

Kingston goes on to tell the story of the warrior Fa Mu Lan, essentially morphing into the character herself. She describes the training she endures, as well as the skills and intelligence that are needed to withstand the experiences that she does. It is interesting to note that Kingston chooses to tell this story in relation to the story of her aunt; the two women (Fa Mu Lan and her aunt) are so starkly different. While Kingston’s aunt (whose name we never learn because the family is trying to wipe out her memory) gives up rather easily and does not fight, Fa Mu Lan is a committed warrior who does not let her circumstances affect her or her attitude. Fa Mu Lan is brave, strong, and unhindered.

Kingston also highlights racism in her collection of stories. She is disappointed in herself because she cannot stand up to her racist boss, who frequently makes horrifying comments to Kingston. She wishes that she could be like Fa Mu Lan and bravely stand up to her boss, but she is not bold. She expresses her discomfort in whispers and squeaks, after which she is fired. Kingston is very bitter and angry about the racism she faces, and that reflects strongly in the way she describes and refers to Americans and the United States in general.

Kingston’s writings also have a very spiritual nature to them. She frequently refers to stories involving ghosts, spirits, and other paranormal activity. Kingston tells a particularly striking story involving her mother’s educational life, in which she faces and overcomes one of the ghosts that lurk in the halls. It is known as “The Sitting Ghost,” and Kingston’s mother lights buckets of alcohol and oil on fire in order to scare it away. Although it is not an explicitly Christian story, spiritual matters heavily influence Kingston while she is writing Woman Warrior.

Beloved: A Book Review

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Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved covers many different themes; she writes about revenge, racism, death/loss, self worth, relationships, and the importance of community. Her story tackles disturbing situations such as sexual assault, infanticide, slavery, and the mistreatment of human beings that borders on being torturous. She even touches on the supernatural with the aspect of the house being haunted by a ghost, which everyone believes to be the spirit of Sethe’s daughter. Perhaps the most significant theme Morrison touches on, however, is that of identity.

Many characters struggle in the story with the concept of their identity, taken away from because of the horrors of slavery. Baby Suggs, for instance, is confused when her former master is driving her to freedom. Her son has worked overtime on Saturdays, Sundays, and nights to be able to buy her freedom. Mr. Garner refers to her as Jenny Whitlow a few times, and she doesn’t understand why. He finally reveals that Jenny is her real name, not Baby Suggs, which she goes by because her husband was Suggs, and he called her baby. Mr. Garner tells her to go back to Jenny Whitlow when she is in the North because he tells her Baby Suggs is not a “real” name. It has become her identity and is what she had been called by her loved ones, however, and she continues to introduce herself as such even when she is a free woman in the North.

Stamp Paid, too, deals with identity. He renames himself after he has paid off all of his old debts because he feels as though his new name will more accurately reflect his character. He was originally born under the name of “Joshua,” but changes it because he wants a name that is solely his own. Unlike Baby Suggs, he does not have emotional ties to his name, but wishes to be completely freed from his past. His new name not only reveals what he believes to be his identity, but also helps him view himself as an entirely different person.

Paul D and his brothers represent the idea of identity, as well. Their situation deals more with the negative aspects of slavery; they are all named Paul, but are distinguished by the initial that follows: Paul D, Paul A, and Paul F. The fact that the three brothers all have the same name signifies how slavery swallows up an individual’s character to the point that the only difference between the three men is one letter. Readers learn more about Paul D and his character, but names are a significant part of one’s identity; Paul D and his brothers are denied that basic right.

Sethe is arguably the character in which the theme of identity can be seen the most strongly. When Beloved “returns,” Sethe’s identity becomes completely swallowed up in her, to the point that she has no distinctive character outside of her daughter. She is completely obsessed with Beloved, to the point that she is completely dumbfounded and disbelieving when Paul D tells her that she is her best thing, not her daughter. All of the brutalities she faces chip away at her until she is no longer Sethe; perhaps she does not even remember who Sethe is.

Toni Morrison tells a moving story and uses many different themes that broadly cover all of the atrocities that fall under slavery. Her writing shows how the dehumanization of humans leads to cruelty, rape, and the break up of families, and, in some situations, death. Many of the slaves also display a loss of individuality and defining characteristics, as well. Morrison rightly believes the loss of identity is just as much of a tragedy as these horrors, and her writing reflects that with many characters.

Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Book Review

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Zora Neale Hurston covers many themes in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. She writes about the concept of God, searching for love, marriage, and other relationships. Perhaps her most significant theme, however, is that of independence. Throughout the course of the novel, Janie is always searching for her own character and identity, which she believes she will find through a man’s love, but her value is actually inside of her own soul.

Janie is 17 when she first marries Logan Killicks; she is starry-eyed and dreams of affection and romance. She quickly realizes that Logan will not satisfy her expectations; he is older than she is and has no use for romantic love. When the marriage proves to be less than she expected, she begins to dream of and search for another way to fulfill the void in her heart. Joe Starks comes along, and she believes she will find love and fulfillment in him. She leaves Logan and runs off to “marry” Joe.

Her relationship with Joe also proves to be less than desirable, however. In the beginning before they run away together, Joe is full of promises, bright ambitions, and charisma. These aspects rapidly change after he becomes mayor; he controls and oppresses her, to the point that she is never allowed to wear her down. He always wants her to have it wrapped up in a handkerchief. After he dies of kidney failure, Janie lets her hair fall freely and begins to obtain a little bit of independence and identity. She sees herself as a grown woman and runs the store successfully on her own. She continues in this way until Tea Cake comes along, and her life changes drastically again because of her desire to have a man’s love and attention.

Unlike her first two husbands, Tea Cake is flirty, charming, and pays Janie the attention she has craved since she first allowed Johnny Taylor to kiss her at the gate when she was a child. Even he, however, does not represent the perfect love that she has been searching for. They have a nice relationship in the beginning; he is flattering and adventurous and makes her feel excited, but he also proves to have major faults. He beats Janie, despite the fact that he admits she has done nothing wrong or to anger him. He says he beats her because he wants to prove that he is in control. He also leaves her and spends the $200 that she had earned and hidden when she ran away with him, spending it on throwing a party so that he can know what it feels like to be rich. When he goes mad from the bite he received from a rabid dog, Janie is forced to either kill him or lose her own life. Tea Cake’s death, at the hand of Janie, is symbolic; she is now free to live her own life, and she made the decision to do so, even though it is heartbreaking.

Janie does not feel bound in any way to her first two husbands, as evidenced by the fact that she left Logan and did not really mourn after Joe’s death. On the other hand, she desperately loves Tea Cake and the lavish attention he pours out on her. She does not realize that theirs is not a healthy relationship either, however. Hurston begins the story with Janie returning home and reveals the rest of the story in a flashback because it is symbolic; the end of Tea Cake and Janie’s relationship is actually the beginning of Janie’s new life, in which she can become her own person and realize that her identity is not found in being Logan and Joe’s wife, or even the center of Tea Cake’s affection. Janie realizes this at the end of the story after she tells Pheoby what happened. She looks forward to discovering what it means to live her own life in a world that she alone can discover for herself. Her worth is found not in a man loving her, but in in the strength of her character, and in all of the hardships she has overcome throughout the course of her life.

The House On Mango Street: A Book Review

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Sandra Cisneros writes about many different aspects in her coming-of-age story The House on Mango Street. In a series of charming vignettes, Cisneros writes about the life, thoughts, and escapades of Esperenza Cordero, a little girl growing up in Chicago. She is able to write so in a way that draws the reader in and makes the characters and tales memorable, even though the book is split up into small chunks of stories. Some of the sections deal with deeper issues than merely a young girl’s whims, however. Cisneros frequently writes about people in her culture who are marginalized, particularly women through the voice of her character Esperenza.

Very early on in the beginning of the book, Esperenza tells the story of her great-grandmother and great-grandfather’s marriage. She was named after her great-grandmother, but she does not want to live the same life as she was forced to live. Her great-grandmother was wild and did not want to get married, so Esperenza’s great-grandfather kidnapped her and forced her into the marriage. Esperenza does not want to live forever looking out the window sadly, as her great-grandmother (and so many other women in The House on Mango Street) is forced to do. Esperenza goes on to tell the story of a woman named Marin, who says she is going to move to Puerto Rico to marry her boyfriend. While in Chicago, however, her life consists of trying to attract the attention of all the boys so that she can have a fairytale romance, which will change her life. She also talks about Alicia, who is struggling after the death of her mother to care for her younger siblings, attend college, and live with her abusive father. Perhaps one of the most tragic stories of all, however, is that of Rafaela, who gets locked in her apartment whenever her husband leaves because he is afraid she will run away. Esperenza and her friends buy her juice when she sends a dollar down to them. Sally, a beautiful girl and friend of Esperenza’s is beaten by her father. Esperenza tells of women who are not valued.

Another significant theme in Cisnero’s writings is that of sadness and how to cope with it. Many of the women in the story feel trapped and helpless, but they are not the only ones who are affected negatively by the up’s and down’s of life. Esperenza remembers a night when her Papa came home to say that his father is dead, and she is upset and unsure what to do when he cries about it. Esperenza also remembers a story about listening to her mother remember how smart she used to be, but she dropped out of school because of vanity; she did not have nice clothes. She regrets this decision, but cannot do anything about it because so much time has passed and she is busy raising a family now.

Although many (if not most) of Cisnero’s stories have a sad tone or message behind them, Esperenza (whose very name means hope) does not give up. She continues to hope, dream and look forward to having a home and a place to call her own. She sees past the racism, marginalization, and abuse that people (especially women) in her culture experience. She imagines a bright future in which she can be her own person and live her life as she wants it to be lived.

Funny in Farsi: A Book Review

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I have always had a heart for for people who are marginalized, mistreated, and abused. My own writing frequently reflects this. I also love reading about different cultures and religions. These are a few of of the (many) reasons I appreciate Firoozeh Dumas and her book Funny in Farsi.

 

Funny in Farsi

Funny in Farsi

 

Firoozeh Dumas’s memoir Funny in Farsi is enjoyable to read for multiple reasons. She is able to convey her frustrations and the unfair treatment she received as a new immigrant to the United States while using humor, without seeming bitter or hostile. She is very balanced in her storytelling, particularly when she is careful to include and show empathy for other cultures that are frequently marginalized, particularly the Mexican community, which she lived near growing up. Dumas also has a very open minded attitude, which shines through when she is telling stories of her slightly eccentric, but very loving and supportive family.

Dumas expresses the racial profiling and stereotyping, as well as just pure ignorance, that she had to face in America growing up when she tells her stories, particularly in the essays “Bernice” and “The F Word.”  In “Bernice,” she talks about people not knowing what country she was even from, as well as how her French husband is admired while she faces hostility when Americans were taken hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran. She is able to express her thoughts on the subject gracefully and tactfully, without racially profiling the Americans, but still able to clearly convey her position. She uses humor in “The F Word” in the way she writes the barrage of questions that she would frequently receive about her name. Her choice of writing the questions in a run-on sentence was a very effective way of showing how she would be ambushed. She is brutally honest and transparent, however, in expressing the vulnerability she felt when going by both an American name and her Iranian name. She is very skilled at expressing honesty through comedy.

Perhaps one of Dumas’s most touching essay is “I-raynians Need Not Apply.” Although her characteristically dry humor is still present, it has more of a sad tone that some of her other essays. In it, she expresses the struggle her family endures when they first move to America a few weeks before the American hostage situation in Tehran. Her father loses his job and struggles to find one again until the hostages are released. She uses her normal comic wit when relaying her father’s disgust towards her view of politics, but the most striking feature of this essay is the way it ends. All of Dumas’s other compositions end with an amusing quip or humorous quote from her family; “I-raynians Need Not Apply,” ends on a serious note as Dumas quotes her father’s view on how tragic it is for people to hate.

In “The Wedding,” Dumas portrays her family realistically; they are very involved, slightly controlling, and want to run her entire wedding. An interesting thing to note, however, is that even though she describes her family with a mixture of love and exasperation, her relatives are by far the more preferable choice when compared to those of her husband. Her mother-in-law refuses to accept both Dumas and her family, simply because they are Iranian. The traditional Muslim ceremony she had with her family members seems more meaningful and heartwarming than the ceremony she has with his family in a church. Dumas is very careful, however, not to bash her husband’s side of the family, even though they did not approve of her marrying their son and made no secret of that fact.

In all of her essays comprising the book as a whole, Dumas is very open and honest but avoids being bitter. This a mark of a talented writer, and perhaps her greatest strength.

Book Review: Interpreter of Maladies

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved reading. When I was little, my Mom set up library trips for me and my sister every Thursday.  I would check out an enormous stack of books, devour them in a few days, and wait impatiently for the week to roll by so that I could check out more. I have high standards both for what I write and what I read. (It sounds nicer to say it that way than, “I’m picky.”)

So when I say I’ve discovered one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read in my life, it’s high praise.

Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies

If you’re a writer, you need to read this book. If you’re a reader, you need to read this book. If you’ve never read a book before in your life, you need to read this book.

In her arrangement of creative fiction essays collected as a series of works in Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri writes about Indian culture and life, but her overall themes are very broad. She is able to write very specifically about various aspects of her own culture, but she also conveys world truths. This is especially seen in the fact that she frequently talks about relationship in her writings, especially marriage.

Marriage relationships are seen instantly in her first short story in the collection, entitled “A Temporary Matter.” Shoba and Shukumar are struggling after the still birth of their first child, a boy. Neither truly know how to cope with the situation; they retreat rather than attempting to comfort each other and attempt to grieve. As the story progresses, however, they begin to bond and rediscover their relationship. They start sharing secrets about themselves, and Shukumar especially begins to look forward to it every night, where before he had dreaded being alone with Shoba. After their electricity is repaired and they are no longer required to eat their dinner in the dark, Shoba confesses to Shukumar that she has found an apartment and is leaving him. The story ends (as so many of Lahiri’s do) with little resolution; they are simply weeping in each other’s arms. Although the story is distinctively Indian, conveyed by their names, the foods they eat, and the rice ceremony Shoba had been planning for their baby, the loss of a child is a universal pain, as is a struggling and then failed marriage.

The second story in which marriages are discussed is the title story in the collection, “Interpreter of Maladies.” Mr. Kapasi, a tour guide, becomes infatuated with Mrs. Das, does not have a healthy relationship with her husband or children. As he dwells more and more on Mrs. Das, he becomes discontent with the thought of his own wife. Towards the end of the story, Mrs. Das confesses to Mr. Kapasi that her son Bobby is not Mr. Das’s biological son. She tells him because she hopes that he, as a translator for a doctor, can help “cure” her, as well. He is unable to, she becomes angry with him, and the infatuation is over almost as quickly as it began. Unhappy marriages, as well as infidelity, are conveyed strongly in this story, more universal themes.

A third story involving relationships is “Sexy.” Miranda meets Dev, a married man, in a department store, and the two begin an affair. Miranda knows from the beginning that he is married, but chooses to pursue and continue the relationship, anyway. Dev is also not bothered by the fact that he is being unfaithful to his wife. This story is woven in the midst of another story; Miranda’s coworker Laxmi is attempting to counsel her cousin after her husband has been unfaithful. The story ends in disillusionment after Miranda learns the truth of what she is doing from Rohin, the little boy of Laxmi’s cousin. Affairs are again expressed in this story, a (tragically) common occurrence not only in the Indian culture, but also in the world as a whole.

Another story that conveys universal truths is the last in the collection: “The Third and Final Continent.” This story is flavored more heavily with Indian culture and references; the narrator (who is interestingly never named!) moves from India to Boston to begin his new job after an arranged marriage to a woman named Mala. He expresses neither unhappiness nor pleasure over his marriage; it is just his duty. The two have an awkward relationship, especially when she finally arrives in America. As the story progresses, however, things begin to change. For the first six days of their marriage, Mala would cry all through the night about missing her parents. This changes as the two of them become accustomed to each other, and eventually the shyness they feel is replaced by genuine care and love. Perhaps Lahiri makes an intentional choice in ending her collection of stories that ended with unhappy or unresolved marriages with one that is successful and wonderful.

Lahiri is able to express many different features of her culture, conveying important aspects and showing her pride for her heritage. She also writes on the universality of humanity as a whole, however. This enables people to be able to relate to the deeper truths behind the stories she writes, no matter their ethnicity. She is very skilled at having a successful balance between the two.

I was absolutely inspired. I’ll be returning for more, Ms. Lahiri.