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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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.

Musings of a First Grader

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In the fall of my first grade career, I was subjected to the cruel and unusual form of punishment commonly known as private school. I excelled in reading and writing, and my parents were advised to put me in first grade early. At 5 years old, I found myself strapped into the plushy seat of our brown van on the ride to school. Even the homey cinnamon smell of the van and my new Beauty and the Beast lunchbox and thermos were no comfort. My ugly red and blue plaid uniform itched. This was definitely the worst day of my life.

Despite my silent prayer, “Please, God! Make another flood like Noah’s to wash away the school!” the building was still there when we arrived. Although we had been going to church there for most of my life, I stared up at the familiar structure as though I’d never seen it before. It now appeared foreboding and disapproving. My sister yanked the sliding door open, yelled, “Bye, Mom!” and took off at a run. I understood. No self-respecting fifth grader would be caught dead dragging along a lowly first grader. I slid my clammy hand into my Mom’s hand and continued at a much slower pace.

It was mid-September; the day was gray and cloudy, and a chilly breeze sent dying leaves skittering across the sidewalk like skeletons. I pushed open the heavy metal doors as if they guarded the entrance to a dungeon. The hallway bustled and hummed with students. Shoes squeaked on the floor, giving me goosebumps. The fluorescent lights bounced off the gray floor and colorless walls, making the hallway seem endless. This is the end, I thought, clomping down the hallway in my ugly dress shoes, part of the offending uniform. I’m a terrible person for asking God to flood the school, and my punishment is that I have to walk this hall for the rest of my life in these disgusting shoes. By the time we reached my new classroom, I believe I would have preferred that fate. Everywhere was chaos. Kids were piling things into their lockers, chattering to their friends, and not a single other child had their mom with them. I was mortified. My previous lifeline now caused me to be labeled with the worst insult to a 1st grader: Kindergarten baby.

“I’m fine,” I tried to say, wishing my lips would stop quivering. I was, after all, 5-years-old, and way too grown up to cry. Mom blew me a kiss, temporarily lifting my spirits, but as soon as I turned away, my soul sank back into my heavy shoes.

My backpack would not fit into the locker with my prized coat. Red and puffy, the cuffs and hood were trimmed with silky black fur. I had always pretended to be Anastasia when I wore it, and had felt bad for girls who didn’t have Russian princess coats. Now it betrayed me. No matter how hard I pushed, I could not close the door. The kid next to me gave me a look of pure disgust before shutting his locker effortlessly and walking away, laughing. I made a face at his back and probably would have called him a weenie (almost as insulting as “kindergarten baby”) but then the bell rang, stopping my heart. I gave the locker a last hard kick before leaving it hanging half open and dashing into class.

Not even the smell of erasers and pencil shavings soothed me. I looked for an empty seat, and two friends from church waved me over. The kid who had mocked my predicament at the lockers slid into the last chair at our cube-like table, but I ignored him and surveyed the teacher. She had brown hair piled on her head in a way that reminded me of my aunt’s shih Tzu, and her face was white and fleshy—like a pierogi, I decided as she slid a piece of paper in front of each of us.

“Complete the assignment,” she sang out, “and then we’ll go to the library.”

I looked down, thrilled to be going to my favorite place. On the worksheet, there was a hippo whose massive midsection held long lines of letters, the first of which read XKQARLCATPOF. I had never seen a word search before. I blinked.

“Just circle all the words. Isn’t this fun? A game for homework!” she trilled. I quirked an eyebrow at that description. I liked games, and I liked reading, as long as they were real words and not nonsense. I shrugged and circled the entire first line, but she said briskly, “That’s not right,” before moving on.

I looked at my paper in surprise, contemplating what I’d done wrong. Maybe the words went up and down, not sideways. Anything was possible in this ridiculous game. I started to circle them vertically when a tap on the shoulder from Locker Boy interrupted me.

“You circled them wrong!” he hissed.

I frowned, hurt. My circles were even and flawless. What was the problem?

“How do you do it, then?” I whispered back, only to receive a curled up lip and a disbelieving, “You’ve never seen a word search before?”

I glared back at him and tossed my curls over my shoulder. Boys were a waste of time. In my desperation to understand the assignment, I’d forgotten that.

My haughtiness vanished as everyone began packing their papers into their backpack and I was left behind with a substitute while they traipsed to the library. I was astounded. I was denied library for not correctly circling these non-words. What next? I’d probably get fired from first grade. Tears stung my eyes, blurring the hippo, which now had the beginnings of a hole in his stomach from the erasing he’d had to endure. A light perfume scent wafted towards me, and I blinked to clear my vision. The substitute teacher was crouched next to my desk.

I sighed loudly before she could say anything. “You’re just gonna tell me to circle the words,” I said as a lone tear slipped down my cheek. “And I’ll tell you, I know how to read and this—” I jabbed a finger at the first line, not even attempting to sound out XKQARLCATPOF, “is not a real word.”

She bit back a smile. “There’s a little word hidden inside that mess,” she said. “It’s like a treasure hunt. Can you find it?”

I studied the paper and felt the answer dawn in my mind. Cat was in the middle of that line! All the other little words jumped out at me, and I zipped through the assignment in time to get to lunch. I found my friends and sat down, but suddenly, Locker Boy came over and tugged on my friend’s braid, singing her name. He has a crush on her, I realized, torn between disappointment over her low standards and disgust at the thought of how many cooties were probably crawling all over him.

She surprised me by immediately slapping his hand away and scowling, “Stop it! I told you, I don’t want to sit with you. Go away.”

I watched him slink away and turned back to my friend, pleased.

She rolled her eyes. “Ignore him,” she said firmly. “He thinks he’s so cool, but he’s nothing but a weenie. Christine says he’s cute but I think that’s gross.”

We shared a smile and I pulled out my Belle thermos, clinking it against hers. First grade might be terrible, but at least I wasn’t alone in my suffering.

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.

A Learning Experience

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Last summer I went out of my comfort zone—about 7500 miles out of my comfort zone, to be exact. I went to the Dominican Republic. It was my first time out of the country (Canada doesn’t count!) and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Armed and ready for several Instagram pictures of palm trees, I set out.

I had no idea how much it would change my life.

I ministered to love-starved orphans and formerly abused children now in foster care. I cried with women who had been victims of sex trafficking and other abuse. I talked in broken Spanish at different villages to a variety of people whose joy put me to shame. I held three crying babies at once and wished I had more arms. I close my eyes and it’s like I’m back there again; I hear the excited chattering that I can only partially understand because my Spanish is pathetic at best; I feel the desperate crowding as children fight to be one of the ones who receive a hug, or the one who gets to hold my hand and lead me through the village, proudly showing me the hut that is their home. I can feel the panicked arms tightening around my neck when it’s time for me to leave the orphanage. I see the dark eyes pleading for one more hug, one more caress, one more, “te amo, bonita.” And I open my wet eyes and realize just how much I miss them.

I absolutely love being in college. I’ve learned a lot in the four years I’ve been working towards my finishing my undergrad, but I don’t think learning happens strictly in a classroom listening to a lecture. (I’m a former homeschooler. It’s in our blood to feel that way.)

I like having experiences that teach me, and I like writing about those experiences. I like when I read a book that makes me think. I can’t stand fluff literature. I very much believe in constantly learning and growing, and I like when my literature, whether it’s what I’m reading or what I’m writing, helps me to do so. I’m always looking for life lessons in everything. (It can get pretty annoying of me, actually.) Still, my writing almost always has a significant meaning deeper than the surface level. The project I’m working on for my senior seminar class is no exception. I’m really excited about it. I’m writing about what I’ve learned from the ruthless teacher named Life and I’m looking forward to sharing it. I’m doing a lot of research and a lot of reading, but that’s not all that’s necessary to learn.

Learning doesn’t stop when you’re out of the classroom. Sometimes, in fact, that’s when it can begin.

Here’s to adventures!