The Color Purple

book by Alice Walker

Annotation by Ramona Gonzales

Language is what stands out the most to me. Coming from CNF(Creative Non-fiction), all these different techniques that create voices, characters, images stand out so much more. I think there’s a press to focus on that which can be related as “real” or Truth with a capital T. Fiction isn’t so much worried about that, so an author uses different kinds of devices. This project period, I’ve been fortunate enough to read books with different American dialects, which the specific writers have been able to do with dignity and respect for their characters and the culture they come from.

Strong female characters and exploration of “homosocial” relationships between women: Someone brought this term – homosocial – up in a book conference, and I really liked the simplicity and inclusiveness of the term (strangely enough). To put a socio-scientific term to the experience of having a matriarchal society was both validating and absurdly amusing. But that is exactly what Walker creates in this book – a matriarchal society that springs out of, and in response to, a domineering and abusive patriarchal society.

Faith, hope and destiny – the idea of a divine presence (or lack thereof) : As a writer, one of the aspects that appealed to me about TCP was that Walker states from the beginning that this book was an exercise/exploration of faith. That Walker, who underwent a crisis of faith herself, could create a character who finds faith after having been through wretched circumstances is inspiring at the very least and energizing at best. It could have been easy (and is) to eschew a “happy ending” in favor of “reality”, but “reality” is not always dour and depressing. That Walker found a happy ending in herself to give to the masses was miraculous and divine.

Shug Avery as a protagonist who appeared to suffer the least: she was the one who least adhered to society’s expectations of what she should be, or was able to manage/ move within the threads of society without incurring the same kind of fallout that Sofia did.

Male characters as villains or products/victims of society and upbringing as much as their female counterparts.

As a writer I am continually fascinated with dialogue and how it appears in fiction. Language – “alternative” modes of English, if you will – in written form is so subversive and magical to me. Phonetic speech, incorporated with colloquial words encased in a literary format is completely validating and has encouraged a belief that writing is truly a creative enterprise, much like painting or drawing.

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To Kill a Mockingbird

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I had the rare privilege of being completely immersed in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird for three months, coaching an eighth grader for the Academic Decathlon.  I actually wasn’t looking forward to it, I had sixteen year old’s impression of a hysterical Fifties white woman pointing her finger at the Wrong Man and screaming.   I envisioned steamy sixties melodrama and some cuteness on the part of Scout.

But by the end of Chapter One, I was sucked in and, having to read the book two more times for detail, I felt privy to some brilliant writing.  I was asking myself both, “How did she do that?” and “Why did she stop?” the age-old question about why this is Harper Lee’s only novel.  Lots of rumors around the latter question, but this probably isn’t the place for them.

Lee is the master of hyperbole, character and satire.  Every single line had something in it, from Dill’s preposterous and hilarious monologues to Scout’s adept observations, “Talking to Francis gave me the sensation of settling slowly to the bottom of the ocean.  He was the most boring child I ever met.”

With one line she could deliver oceans of social commentary, such as when Scout tells her black maid, Calpurnia, “Cal,” I asked, “why do you talk n**ger talk to your folks when you know it’s not right?”  We already know Scout has the unsullied view of a child and that she gets what racism is, but it is so deeply ingrained in her culture that she asks this question as if it were the most natural thing to do.  But it is more clever that Calpurnia answers her as openly as she was asked.

It was hilarious reading this as a parent.  When I told my eighth grade decathlete that the story was much funnier than I remembered it, she stared at me, blinking.  Here she was trying to process everything from lynching to the KKK (had never heard of the organization) and the Holocaust and I was giggling at Dill and at Atticus’s pithy observations.  But this only goes to prove a point I think a lot of writers don’t get: humor is human.  I think that more humor with which a character deals with his or her awful life, the more effective the awfulness is.  This book had me weeping at the end, when Scout recounts the year as it was probably seen from Boo’s house.  I would not have been so affected if I hadn’t been fully on board with Scout and her temper, her wide-eyed look at the world, but, most importantly, her straightforward and humorous take on life.  Atticus’ levity was best projected through his humor as well.  Thoroughly stressed out from having almost been overrun by a lynch mob, and having found Dill, runaway from home hiding in his children’s bedroom, he says, “From rape to riot to runaways,” we heard him chuckle, ” I wonder what the next two hours will bring.”  Lee could have written a dull but straightforward drama, with much hand-wringing, but through these characters and their humor and the children’s innocent view on life, she has painted a hair-raising portrait of the South in the 1930s, while quietly commenting on the South in which she dwelled in the late 1950s when things had not much changed. I don’t think the hand-wringing doleful version would still be on the shelves now.

Scout’s voice gave Lee freedom with simile and metaphor and she came up with some beauts that only a child could coin, but that ring true for any reader: from her teacher looking “like a peppermint drop” to Mayella Ewell on the stand, “like a steady-eyed cat with a twitchy tail.”  Only Jem could talk about Maycomb being like a caterpillar in a cocoon, from an adult’s mouth it would sound corny, but a child just realizing that the furry warmth he lived in is an illusion, it is a more effective metaphor.

The most heart-breaking passage I know of in the book is when, after the trial is lost, so horribly, Dill proclaims he will be a circus clown when he grows up,  “I’m gonna be a new kind of clown. I’m gonna stand in the middle of the ring and laugh at the folks.” This tiny odd and hilarious boy has worked his way into our hearts with humor.  He is the only one who really gets that Tom Robinson’s being railroaded on the stand was something godawful.  He has a weeping fit and has to leave the courtroom; hundreds of people around and this little boy is the only one with a visible conscience.  And this is his brave, very childlike, but beautiful solution.

Lee is so good at atmosphere.  Chapter 28 should be taught in writing classes in a lesson in tension.  She gives us an unseasonably warm night, no moon, which limits our scope of vision and takes us on a carefully described walk to the school. The children have a fake scare from a school friend. There is attention paid to an oak tree, the coolness beneath it being the only evidence of its presence and some reflection on how illicit activities (fights and dice) took place there because no one but the Radleys could see it.  Every part of this walk on the way is echoed in our terrifying return journey. We then enter the warmth and the humor of the school hall where the whole town has turned out for fun and games, and the contrast stays with us.  Lee carefully sets up Scout’s embarrassment over the pageant to give a reason for their staying behind and the moment we get back outside, the heat, the darkness and the fear are oppressive.  To this Lee adds the limited vision and hearing of Scout’s costume.  The attack by Ewell is terrifying and yet while the reader is frightened, Lee gives us Scout’s fear in childlike increments.  Only when she sees the damage to the costume, hears of Bob Ewell’s death and sees her brother’s arm does she truly realize how much danger she was in.  This was a section of the book totally relevant to what I am writing now and reading it three times allowed me to articulate what it was that made things work: that was most helpful.

The ladies’ tea was almost as tense as the climactic scene of the attack.  Lee is so good at defining all of the characters present and Mrs. Merriweather’s shockingly racist carryings on made this Yankee want to punch someone.  But, like every scene in this book, there isn’t only one thing going on here.  Scout is bored at a tea, but upon listening she realizes that social warfare is being waged.  Everything each lady is saying is a parrying thrust and it is only at the end of this scene that Scout realizes how brave Miss Maudie has been to hold her own views, and how braver still Aunt Alexandra is to exist in this den of snakes.  Aunt Alexandra had seemed so out of touch with the trial and Tom Robinson’s troubles, but when she hears of his death, Scout sees it has all been just an act, she has been profoundly affected by everything that has happened: she has just been trying to keep things normal for the kids.  Suddenly, this scold–this petty enemy of Scout’s who had been foiling her at every turn– grows in Scout’s eyes.  It is a huge growing up moment for our girl when she sees her Aunt and Miss Maudie go back into the party while they know Atticus and Calpurnia are on their way to tell Tom’s wife that he has been shot, trying to escape wrongful imprisonment.  Here Scout says, “After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I.”

What to do with any of this is hard to process even still.  But it will make me mindful that characters can be built in quiet moments in a way that, when the world finally does crumble around them, we can be more affected by it.  Obviously I’m not going to create a Scout, or adopt a colorful Southern way of having my characters talk, this is not my point of reference.  But Harper Lee caught a moment in history so beautifully, and supposedly mined a good deal of her own life to create it and make it real.  I wished she’d kept writing, but she left herself a hard act to follow.  This book is simply a reminder to pay attention: a lot is going on around us and it is in the subtleties of character that larger stories can come to life.

Gilead

book by Marilynne Robinson

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Gilead is a novel about fathers and sons on many levels: God and Jesus, God and Ames, and Ames and the nearly seven year old son for whom he pens these ‘begats.’  Robinson echoes the clerical tradition of epistolary narration to complement Ames position as a minister.  Biblically, Gilead means ‘witness’ or ‘mound of testimony’ and was a place of healing, birthplace of the prophet Elijah, and in the New Testament, the source of large crowds who followed Jesus.  This Gilead is Ames’ testimony of his life and the name of the town where he grew up and had his ministry.

Robinson begins with the recounting of a conversation between Ames and his son, the end of which states his intention for this long letter to his son. (3)  Ames then delineates who he is, “I grew up in parsonages,” (4) and his medical condition, “angina pectoris” (4) which provides both the context and tension for the rest of his letter to his son.  This section concludes with foreshadowing “There’s a lot under the surface of life…. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.” (6) Ames maintains a confessional mode throughout most of the narration, initially confessing that what he has not learned “was to control his temper.” (6)

His first person meanderings turn poignant as it becomes clear that he is jealous of the son of his best friend, a far closer match in age to Ames’ young wife.  In this case, the first person narrative is more distant than intimate.  As a reader, I felt too removed from the others in his life, even though it was an intimate look inside his thoughts and opinions of not only those around him, but also his relationship to God and the larger questions of life.  Robinson uses this first person diary point of view to good effect in that Ames concern about his namesake reveals as much about himself as the younger man whom he finds by turns threatening and irritating.

There were a few points when the narrator seems inauthentic, his voice more the modern author than the characters (42), particularly for a character well versed in Greek and Hebrew, but these lapses were brief and rare.  Gilead is a meditative and beautifully written novel and gave me something to consider as far as a subtler revelation of the protagonist’s thoughts using the first person point of view.

The narrator states he has a ‘reputation for piety and probity’ (65), but the reader sees the darker thoughts and struggles throughout the letter of envy for his best friend who has not lost a wife and child (65) and his jealousy of his best friend, Boughton’s son (119) who is named for the narrator.  The quiet tragedy of Gilead is the his best friend’s son comes to him for counsel even as his writes a long letter of counsel to his own son, he is loathe to do it for Jack Boughton.  He finds the younger Boughton difficult and repeatedly admonishes himself for his attitude toward the younger man, “I am trying to be a little more cordial to him than I have been.” (123)  He keeps returning to the point, “I found that extremely irritating” (184)  The narrator makes the big assumption that the younger Boughton is hanging around because he fancies the narrator’s life and works himself up into a state where he can imagine the younger man stepping into his place or do his wife and child harm “How should I deal with these fears I have, that Jack Boughton will do you and your mother harm, just because he can, just for the sly, unanswerable meanness of it?” (190)

Toward the end of the book, the narrator doles out advice more freely, having recounted most of what he knew about their family history.  He advises his son, “…don’t look for proofs.  Don’t bother with them at all” (179) because, paraphrasing Coleridge, “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine” (179).  Despite this, the narrator still struggles with his negative feelings toward Jack until the revelation that Jack has a wife and child (217).

There is some lovely writing, nice construction with uncomfortable family secrets mirroring the narrator’s discomfort with Jack Boughton, but ultimately I found it unsatisfying for a myriad of small things that added up over the course of the book (and perhaps that is my primary takeaway for my own work). For example, it seemed odd that a preacher would conclude a letter that “hope deferred is still hope” (247) when the biblical passage he would know well is Proverbs 13:12: hope deferred makes the heart sick. At that point, perhaps it is supposed to tell us something of his character that he would still characterize heartsick as hope, but I was no longer engaged. The tone of the book is slow and prayerful and Ames concludes with a series of prayers for his son and the last act he chronicles is “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.” (247)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being


book by Milan Kundera

annotation by Ramona Gonzales

This book was rich with layers. There was a narrative with 3rd person omniscient analysis woven in. In this way, the book in its very construction fell into the motif of light (narrative) and heavy (analysis). The division of the chapters was set up like a palindrome or cycle with misunderstanding stuck right in the middle. There were so many beautiful abstract observations – metaphors are dangerous, readers are “special” for lack of a better word – and so on. As a nonfiction writer who finds it difficult to get “personal” and often gets caught up in concept, I particularly enjoyed this book almost solely on the basis of craft. It didn’t bother me that the narrator sat in a higher place and occasionally judged his creations as they were created solely for the purpose of literally fleshing out Kundera’s theories.

Alternately, the concepts of lightness and heaviness were a little difficult to grasp at times which I assume may have to do with a difference in experience, culture, and sociology. However, I did not get hung up on trying to reconcile the theorizing and the narrative on a first read. Both the right and left brain threads of the novel – the light and the heavy/dark, the yin and yang – were written with a great deal of passion and dedication and truth that each were easy to follow individually. Both pieces were connected and well matched because of that passion as well.

As a writer, what I take away from this novel is the confidence to speak in one’s own voice. Kundera was able to access both parts of his brain, to tap into his masculine and feminine natures in creating his characters, all of which he very much respected. It takes a great deal of time to mine both aspects of one’s psyche. It takes time, focus and dedication, not to mention assurance and faith that someone or a bunch of someones will understand it.